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“Are you sure you don’t want to come home, dear?”
It’s a simple question, but I don’t think a child can grow up without hearing these words. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them before. How strange. I guess my parents never needed to. I was under their care and protection since the day I was born. Now, though, their worry certainly isn’t unfounded.
My mom is waiting patiently, earnestly expecting some sort of reply. When was the last time she looked as sad as she does now? I don’t even remember. I remember, with a bit of a glisten in my eye, every time I’ve ever been sick. From the dark, humid evenings to the early hours of the morning, she would stay by my bedside. The crops would fail, machinery would break down, and the cost of fixing it all would rise. We’d often had to depend on others just to get through the winter.
And yet, she was always smiling.
I guess she didn’t have a reason to be sad. Her beautiful daughter was always nearby, ready to brighten her spirits. I was enough for her. As long as she had her family, she couldn’t complain. Problems look insignificant when compared to the depth of her love.
She hadn’t smiled when I told her I wanted to join the Sith military. No, definitely not. She was heartbroken. She actually started crying—I had never seen her cry before. Ever. In seasons of hardship and times of trial, she endured it all with a smile on her face. But this? She just couldn’t understand why her dearest, sweet Nohli would even think of such a thing. Had I gone mad? She asked if I wanted to die, to leave her all alone with father, to die mirthless and lonely.
I started crying too. My eyes burn now, and I’m only just remembering it. I probably would have stayed there, back on the farm with my mother, until she smiled again. As long as she kept smiling. My eyes timidly travel from the floor back to the faint blue image of my mother. Staring at me through the holographic display, her figure shimmers in and out of view. My entire body shakes—I can’t meet her gaze for long.
How old she looks now. All of the vibrancy, all of the liveliness in her face is gone; her smile has faded and four wrinkles line her face for every year I’ve been gone. Her hair, once flowing and rich, is now cut short and a dull color. Has time accelerated more quickly for her since I last saw her? Or was there something else making her seem so old? I realize—with a bit of a smile—that even sadness and old age can’t take away the life in mom’s hair.
“No,” I manage to say. “I’ll be all right.”
That was a bit of a lie. I feel bad at first, but she doesn’t look entirely convinced. Parents seem to know their children better than they do themselves. I don’t—I won’t—admit to anything. Admit that, maybe, I’m not all right. She knows I’m lying. But she doesn’t say anything. I don’t think she’s willing to press the issue. Or maybe she’s just scared to death. Scared that, someday, she may not be able to see her baby girl anymore.
When was the last time I saw her? It must have been when I left. I haven’t returned home since. I left for the Sith naval base on Althir what seems like forever ago now, I hardly remember what it looks like. It’s rather deep in the Sith Empire, but not even close to our home. We live in the outskirts. We are the citizens of the empire that the other citizens don’t want to acknowledge. My mom must have known that I was going so far from home, and maybe that is why she cried the entire time, clutching my father like she would die without him. I could hear her stifled cries and gasps for breath over the cruiser pilot’s final boarding call.
Father, as if to juxtapose my mother in all her worry, stood perfectly still. He didn’t say a word. He handed me my bags, and he nodded. That was it. His round face, stern and unyielding as always, could have stared down a behemoth. I just wished that he had said something… or I had the courage to actually verbalize my goodbye. He probably didn’t think his little girl would grow up and dream of combat. Dream of fighting alongside soldiers, and dream of flying through the cosmos. That’s fine. He’s never happy. He’d only be happy if I settled down with a rugged man and tended to his farm, elsewhere on Jaguada. That way, he could care for his daughter even after she married. A farmer’s daughter is another farmer’s wife, or so he always says.
Above all else, I know he’s worried about me. He just wants to hold his little girl again. He just won’t admit it. I won’t admit that I miss him and mom, either. If he yields, he may never see me again. If I yield, I’d go back to the farm.
“If any of those Sith give you any trouble, you tell me.” He crosses his arms, deathly serious. “With one word, those thugs will think twice before they so much as try to insult you.”
Overprotective. I think that’s the word I could best use to describe my parents. Even so, my father’s too old to actually do anything to protect me now. He’s turning sixty-six next month, and his youthful strength has long since left him. Life on our farm has kept him from falling apart entirely, but overused and pained joints have all but crippled him. Before I left, my mother begged him to consider hiring farmhands for assistance. But he’s proud. Proud and stubborn. No matter how old he gets, how frail he becomes, or how far away he is, my dad insists that he will be ready to protect his daughter. The thought makes me smile.
“It’s okay, Dad. Everyone here is really nice to me. Honest.” I’m lying again.
The holographic image of my parents, standing side-by-side, suddenly becomes mired in static. Hyperspace travel interferes with holo-messages somehow; I don’t know the specifics. My father’s response, gruff and laconic, is hardly audible. My mother says something about not being able to see me very well, but the static distorts the sound. Frowning, I stand back and wait for the hologram to clear. It doesn’t. I try to adjust the signal based on what the comm specialists told me, but I don’t have any luck.
“Mom, Dad, I’m really sorry. We’re having some trouble with the connection. I’m going to have to leave.”
“That’s fine, dear.” Mom forces a smile. “We should probably be getting home anyway. It’s late here, and Veson needs to sleep.”
I smile as my mind races back to Jaguada, spending long afternoons with Veson, a local trader and technician, who owned the only long-range comlink my family knew of. “Goodnight,” I say with a smile.
“Nal.” Dad is awfully proud of his nicknames. “You know we owe the Sith our lives. They saved us from the Mandalorians, after all. But if we lose you…”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” I say, hinting at confidence I don’t have. “I’m a big girl now. I know how to take care of myself, and the Sith are here. They’ll protect me.”
“I know, but we’ve started hearing stories. The Sith Empire is in disarray, Nal. If something—anything—looks strange to you, we want you to leave. Immediately.”
“Leave? I’m not going to abandon these people, Dad. They’re my friends!”
“Nal, something is wrong. Tax collectors aren’t coming anymore. Soldiers are disappearing. Spacers are telling us that a republic has defeated the Sith Empire. Veson says it’s all over the HoloNet. We don’t know; they could be rumors-”
“Our captain hasn’t said anything,” I add.
“Just be careful. That’s all we’re asking. Please.”
I’m going to repay the Sith. We owe them our lives. If they hadn’t saved us, the Mandalorians would have destroyed us for sure. “I’ll be careful.”
“… And if there’s anything suspicious, I’ll return home.”
“Thank you.” Father looks relieved, if only for a moment. “Good bye, dear.”
“Be sure to contact us as soon as you can,” Mom adds.
“I will. I’ll see you soon.” I hesitate for a second, looking at my parents one last time, and then I switch the holographic display off.
It’s hard standing there, talking to my parents, and telling them how great this place is. I tell them how nice everyone is, how much fun I’m having, and all these beautiful new worlds I’ve seen. They listen to my stories intently, and it’s almost as if they know I’m just making it up as I go along.
I am a good storyteller.
I feel nauseous for lying to them. They can’t even see me, and it’s as though they know I’m suffering here. After all, why else would they ask me if I’m ready to come home. Not just now, but every time I contact them? I thought the Sith would honor my commitment. I thought they would be pleased that I’m doing my duty. I wanted to find other like-minded officers: those young-bloods looking to explore the galaxy, escape their parents, and fight for justice.
As far as I know, I’m the only one.
No one seems to be on the Phantom Rising because they want to be. Every officer, soldier, and technician I’ve met seems to think that they were forcibly transferred here. After all, this ship was launched just two years ago, on some sort of confusing expedition. I think it started on Alderaan. Since then, it’s picked up sentients from across the empire. No one seems happy here.
Ever since I was assigned to the Phantom Rising, I’ve endured insults. A shift doesn’t go by without a patronizing remark. It’s hard—I didn’t know how cruel people could be when they try. I even tried to argue at first. After all, it’s not my fault my homeworld is in the farthest reaches of the Sith Empire. I can’t hide it even if I wanted to. My accent is thick enough to make my Basic sound alien.
They think like my dad. They think I would be better off on some farm somewhere. But I’m not going back. A few tears won’t dissuade me. I’m not going to give up. Time on the farm has given me some experience fixing tech when it goes down, and I’ve been proving myself as a starfighter mechanic. I’m not going to give up. Not now. I’ve come too far for that. I admit, it’s hard to make it through the day when no one has anything nice to say. But I don’t care. There’s always a brighter side. You just have to find it. My mom did it, and so can I.
An alarm blares in the hall. My break ends in three minutes. Sitting alone in the comm room, I eye the fancy pieces of technology lining the walls that I can’t possibly understand. I’m lucky I’m even able to understand starfighters, considering my background. I sure do owe Veson quite a bit for teaching me the basics. I’ll have to see him, and my parents, when I return home. I should schedule a temporary leave of absence.
I methodically button my form-fitting gray military uniform that’s just barely hanging over my angular shoulders, covering up the white shirt underneath. Technically, it’s illegal for anyone to be out of uniform on duty, even on our short breaks. But I haven’t seen anyone around since I started my shift, so I should be fine. I let out a sigh as I finish tying my brown hair into a bun. Regulations, rules, and dress code here are strict—too strict for my taste.
The Phantom Rising is certainly not the newest ship in the Sith fleet. A Derriphan-class battleship, its design was apparently a relic from a war thousands of years ago. I don’t think ships can stay in service that long. The structural integrity of the hull would certainly be compromised, and the technology would fail as well. Then again, my knowledge of spacefaring is limited. I think the other officers were teasing me when they told me about the ship. They’d think that some country bumpkin like me would honestly believe that an ancient monarch used these vessels in his own conquests thousands of years ago. Ridiculous.
That’s not the stupidest story I’ve heard, though. Some engine technicians tell us starfighter mechanics that the entire ship is haunted. They say that the damned rise up from the depths of the ship and haunt it during our sleep cycles. After all, this ship was—purportedly—a vessel that failed in battle before we used it, and its dead crew was never properly laid to rest. I don’t believe it. Nonsense. Everyone knows there is no such thing as ghosts. I may be uncultured, but I’m not stupid.
The other officers can poke fun at me if they want. I don’t mind anymore. In fact, some of the others have gotten tired of it as well. Luckily for me, making fun of the same person day-after-day grows thin after a while. The lead technician in the hangar, Olan, is pretty friendly. He’s almost old enough to be my father, but he acts like he’s a young man around the other officers. He’s funny. I’m glad that he doesn’t act like the others. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.
The hall I walk through echoes with each footfall. I didn’t even notice before, but it’s quiet. The lighting overhead is subdued, tinged with red, so it looks like emergency lighting has activated. Of course, that really only happens during battle, and there would be a shipwide alert if something happened to our lights. I don’t encounter any other crewers on my way through the lower halls. There is really nothing odd about that—the ship is so large I hardly run into anyone when not at my post—but the ghost stories always gnaw at the back of my mind. The engines groan beneath my feet and the bulkheads creak overhead, occasionally shattering the silence and giving me pause.
Why am I so on edge? I think I’m just nervous. My parents’ words about the empire’s collapse confused me. And thinking about the ship being haunted probably didn’t set my mind at ease either. The ship isn’t haunted; there’s no reason to worry. I let out a weak laugh. This is silly. What in space am I getting so worked up about? Taking a few deep breaths, I slow my breathing and calm myself. It takes me a minute because a hiss of the engine coolants further off causes me to jump. I’m going to laugh this off with Olan when I get to my post.
The hangar’s control room is less than six meters away now. I get there in no time. No ghosts, either. Rapping the door with my fist, I wait to be let in. I could just hit the wall panel, but I’d rather they open it. One of the guards yelled at me the last time I permitted myself. I’m not keen on people yelling at me; it stresses me out. In my current riled state, that wouldn’t help at all. There’s no answer. I knock again.
“Hey, Olan!” My voice is light and mirthful, concealing my worry as best as I can. “Open the door, please.”
After a minute of slamming on the door with my fist, it’s clear that no one inside is going to let me in. Some childish prank. I didn’t think Olan would play along with something like this. I thought he was better than them. Shaking my head in dismay, I hit the green button on the wall next to the door. The door slides open with a pained squeal, allowing me to enter at long last.
The room isn’t lit. How surprising. They’re probably all hiding somewhere, trying to scare me. I call out to them, trying to get them to end this silly game. No response. I take a few steps inside, careful not to crash into anything. It’s nearly impossible to see anything. The lightly illuminated buttons on the various terminals and the hangar—visible through a large viewport—provide me with some light, but not enough. I go for the power module near the door, but it doesn’t work. Surely they would not go so far just for one prank…?
I stepped on something squishy on my way in. Did they spill something? They shouldn’t be on break; it’s too early for that.
“Olan!” I call out to the head technician again, my voice cracking. “Come out, you guys. This is not funny.”
I step through puddles of… something. It’s almost gelatinous. I have no idea what it is. Smells like home, back on the farm, when my father used to cook over an open fire. It’s a strong smell, and my head starts to spin. Using the wall to guide me, I step from the entrance all the way to the door to the maintenance closet on the left side of the room. If they won’t turn the lights on, I will.
My feet wobble under me, hardly keeping me standing. Something’s come over me. I feel weak, and my head is hazy and aches painfully. I shake my head, but I don’t feel any better. What is that smell?
“Hey! If you guys are in here, this is not funny!”
No response. What is going on? Feeling my way to the back of the room, I open the maintenance closet and step inside, carefully avoiding the crates against the wall as I do so. My hands feel their way along the wall, groping in the darkness and trying to stand-in for my lack of sight. My hands run over something wet. I recoil instinctively, but nothing happens. I eventually find the generator. Flipping it on, the glowpanels in the room turn on, momentarily blinding me in a burst of radiance.
When my sight returned, I wish it hadn’t.
Blood! There’s blood everywhere. Caking the walls in sticky tendrils, creeping down from the wall to the floor, even underneath my feet. It covers the ceiling, the crates, and all the machinery. I stare at my hand and realize that it’s been dyed a deep red from running my hand along the walls. I feel my heart slamming against my ribs. What is going on? What is this?
There are blackened stumps on the floor. I don’t know what they are. Not yet. Bits of bone are sprinkled in the pools of blood around the floor. The carnage makes me sick, and I can hardly breathe in the midst of this disgusting sight. Shaking violently, I try to make my way out of the room, but I am stumbling over myself. I recognize the smell now. My mind links the blackened stumps to the smell, and I realize that it reeks of burnt flesh. Charred limbs are strewn around the floor, some finding their way onto the control panels and behind the storage lockers. I see Olan’s body, eviscerated, in the center of the room. I’m shaking again. I think I stepped near him in the darkness—or stepped on him. I’m muttering incessantly, hardly audible and clearly delirious. What the hell is going on here?
My mind’s racing. I scream. Again and again. What am I doing here? What is going on? This is some sort of nightmarish trick, I know it. My mind is fooling me. I’m just sleeping. Nothing’s wrong. Last night’s rations didn’t agree with me, and now my mind’s getting back at me for it. I vomit on the floor, adding the contents of my stomach to the disgusting image before me.
My mind is convinced that Olan and the others aren’t actually dead. I crawl over to what I think is Olan’s body, and as soon as I recognize his facial features, charred as they are, I just start crying. My body’s trying to defend me; it’s keeping me from seeing the gory scene before my eyes, blurring my vision with tears. I’m shaking so fiercely I can’t even stand. I can’t feel my hands. My teeth are chattering away, all the heat in my body stolen from me. Time seemed trivial as I stood there, staring at corpses with crying eyes. I was hardly aware of my surroundings because I was so stunned—scared to death—by the blood and gore.
He had come during my confusion. Or, at least, I think he did. He may have been there the entire time. He has a cloak with a hood over his head. The robes underneath are a lighter shade of brown than his cloak, kempt and clean. Each step he takes seems sure, bold, and… calm. Is he even alarmed at the scene? It’s hard to tell; I can’t see his face. As he approaches me, his hand reaches for a cylindrical device at his waist.
A blue light springs from the device. It is both subtly beautiful and hauntingly eerie. He holds the handle in one hand, keeping it steady as he warily approaches me. Stepping over puddles of gelatinous, dried blood, he stands at my side, saying nothing. He does nothing for the longest time. I don’t even notice him. In fact, I thought he was a figment of my imagination. Perhaps I too, was dead, and simply imagining things as I faded from life into the realm beyond—if there is anything beyond.
My eyes flutter open. I’m alive! But what is this bright light…?
The first thing I feel—and hear—is my breath, rising up into my throat. A few gasps escape my lips. My eyes adjust in an instant, and the glowpanel light becomes a dim red. Bearable. Feeling returns to my fingers and toes. Lying on the metal floor of the ship’s halls, I don’t quite know what’s going on—or how I left the hangar control room. Glancing around, I don’t see anyone…
“Are you all right, Ensign?”
I feel what must be my heart leap into my throat. Between the strange man I had seen seconds before losing consciousness and the gruesome fate of my companions, I could have fainted—again. My mind’s playing tricks on me, fooling me into thinking that someone else is alive. That voice is only in my head.
But then he repeated himself. Jaeln Benax stood nearby, watching over me as I recovered my strength. He was not the man with the blue blade. His robes are black like ash, lined with purple trim. His flowing coat reaches the floor, and I just barely make out the red on his robes’ sleeves. Jaeln Benax’s wavy brown hair is parted down the middle, and his crystal-colored eyes glitter in the light, staring at me with a silent curiosity that makes me blush.
Childish as it sounds, I have a crush on Lord Benax. The young man—probably only a few years older than me—was assigned to the Phantom Rising when it initially departed, and he is one of the members of the original crew. When I joined the crew sometime later, I remember seeing him and… and, well, I fell for him immediately. He was quite kind to me, and he has never seemed to care about my peculiarity. He doesn’t wander the halls very often, but when he does, he tends to seek me out and greet me warmly.
Now, lying there, I realize that there is a good chance that he rescued me from whatever it was that was in the hangar control room. The thought of being saved by Lord Benax makes me redden all over again, and I can’t even look him in the face. He looks so much like Olan, yet he’s younger. They can’t be related,—Lord Benax told me once he had no siblings—but the resemblance is uncanny.
“Lord Benax?” I ask, not sure what else to say.
He smiles cordially, and my nerves are eased. “Ah, you remember my name. Ensign Nohli Crescen?”
“Y-yes. That’s my name.”
“Are you all right?” he repeats for a third time.
I try to stammer a response, but nothing coherent comes to mind. I stare at my hands. There’s still blood on them. Am I all right? What I’ve seen… I don’t even know if my stomach has settled; I’m still feeling sick. There was blood everywhere, and the image of those corpses, scattered around the room, is still fresh on my mind.
I’m alive. Frightened, but alive. My eyes drift up to meet his, slowly. “Is… is there anyone else left, Lord Benax?”
“I’m afraid not, Ensign.” His tongue races across his teeth. “We are the only ones left.”
My eyes widen. No way. Lord Benax and I can’t be the only ones left. How could they all be gone? Every single officer, pilot, and soldier stationed aboard the ship can’t be-can’t be dead! There were nearly a thousand people on the Phantom Rising. They’re all dead? How did we—how did I survive?
“There’s someone else,” I manage to say.
Lord Benax looks surprised. “Oh? How do you know that, Ensign?”
“He was in hangar control-” I pause for a moment. It was Jaeln’s voice I heard before I passed out. “Weren’t you in there, sir? Didn’t you… didn’t you save me?”
Lord Benax turns from me for a moment, and I can see the end of a vibrosword concealed by his cloak. “I didn’t know you knew. I’m sorry.”
“For what, Lord Benax?”
There is a moment of hesitation. “I saved you, yes. But I wasn’t going to tell you about the intruder until I was sure you recovered.”
So Lord Benax really did save me. I feel faint again, and the thought causes butterflies to rise up in my chest. It is only after a moment that my mind drifts elsewhere. “Intruder, sir?”
“There is a Jedi aboard. He arrived three days ago, and he’s been slaughtering the crew slowly but efficiently. I didn’t… I didn’t find out until it was too late.”
Lord Benax has always been cheerful and eager to chat, even if neither of us had anything important to say. Now he looks so different than before. I can’t even remember the last time I spoke to him, but it’s like I haven’t seen him in ages. His face looks worn and tired, like someone who has experienced so much pain. He sounds so solemn. So guilty. The death of all the men and women under his command must be weighing heavily on him.
“Lord Benax… I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be, Ensign.” His eyes wander back to mine, and I quickly avoid his gaze. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”
I feel the blood race up to my face, and I’m sure Lord Benax can tell how embarrassed I am. In an attempt to change the conversation, I quickly blurt out: “What’s a Jedi?”
He eyes me quizzically, not quite sure he heard me correctly. “Pardon?”
Now I’m embarrassed for sounding like an idiot, as well as looking like one. I just can’t win. “What’s a Jedi?” I repeat.
“A Jedi is a warrior who becomes enslaved to a power known as the Force. He is weakened through his need to kill, and he eventually loses himself entirely; he becomes a husk of his former self, unable to recognize friend or foe, family or enemy. He is aggression and bloodlust personified.”
That didn’t really help me. His answer only creates more questions in my mind. What is the Force? Why would anybody willingly seek this power, just to die? Was it greed, arrogance, or something more sinister?
“Lord Benax, I’m frightened.”
He places his hands on my shoulders, and gives me the most assured stare I’ve ever seen. “Stay with me, Ensign. I’ll protect you. I promise.”
My knees practically buckle beneath me. I nod quickly. Even if he isn’t entirely sure, I trust him. He may doubt his own ability to keep me safe, but if he doesn’t, he doesn’t show it. I trust him. He is so powerful, and he seems to radiate confidence even in times of turmoil like these.
He drifts away from me, eyeing both ends of the hall. I find that my legs are strengthened once he separates himself from me, but I make my way to the nearest wall for support anyway.
“What about you, sir?” I mutter.
“Me?” He seems alarmed by the question. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not on edge, are you, Lord Benax?”
“I’ll survive,” he mutters dismissively. “I’m more concerned about you.”
“I’m grateful for your intervention,” I reply. “If you hadn’t arrived, I… I probably would have-”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Are you sure, Lord Benax?”
“Ensign, you can dispense with the rank and protocol.” He gives me a kind smile. “It’s just the two of us, and I think we know each other well enough to be somewhat personal.”
“Are you positive, sir?”
“Yes, Nohli. Please call me Jaeln.”
“Yes, si… Jaeln.”
Jaeln seems satisfied. “Are you able to walk?”
“I think so.”
He nods. “I think the Jedi is still hunkered down on the bridge. He tried to lock down the door, but I kept him out of the computer system. I do not know why he wants to remain there, when escape is also an option. However, he’ll find some way to seal the door, and we must stop him before he does.”
“If we let him wander around, we have no way of keeping an eye on him. It’s best for us to kill him now we know where he is. If he can hide again, it will be easier for him to pick us off.”
“Are you… are you requesting my help, sir?”
“I’d feel more comfortable if you were with me, Nohli.” He holds out a hand, and I take it gratefully.
“Thank you. But you should know I’m not the best shot. Even back on the farm, my father didn’t trust me with a firearm. Blasters are not my strong suit.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Jaeln’s gaze dropped. “If I was the best duelist, would all this have happened?”
So he does blame himself. If he was a better fighter, he might have prevented this. And yet, he was strong enough to rescue me. Affection, pity, and embarrassment swell up within me. The Jedi left the two weakest members of the Phantom Rising crew alive. Our enemy is quite crafty, it seems. Whether or not he aimed to insult us or defeat us slowly and surely, I don’t know.
“Don’t say that, Lord Benax. Together-”
“We’ll succeed.” He finishes with a smile.
Jaeln passes me, heading toward the bridge. At first, I think his stride is sure, emboldened by the presence of another member of the crew. His confidence and trust in me strengthens my own spirits, and I hurriedly fall in behind him, becoming his second shadow. However, the more I walk with him, the more I realize that his stride is not as confident as I first considered. No, there is some worry in his motions. Does he doubt himself? Doubt me? I would hardly blame him either way, but I would also hate for me to be the reason that his plan fails. Lord Benax is stronger than he realizes, and I can only hope I will be strong enough when the time comes.
I do not know how effective my blaster will be against the Jedi and his weapons, but that’s hardly my first concern. Has he noticed me? I mean, has he noticed how much I admire him—how much I desire his affections? Surely, he is not so blind. I think… I think he’s noticed my embarrassment, my uneasiness. Is that enough? Does he feel the same way? I’m too scared to ask, but I also do not want to let it go unsaid.
The more we walk, the more nervous I feel. What exactly is causing my unease? Is it just my crush? I do not think so. Jaeln purposely keeps me away from the rooms and hallways where he knows gore will be, trying to keep my mind and his conscience at ease. He must have wandered through this calamity, searching for survivors, memorizing every cabin and each deck where the dead inhabit. He’s too good to me. Even so, I do not think it is the carnage that unnerves me, either. As we ascend stairs or pass through long, empty halls, I think I hear the patter of footsteps behind us and whispers in the distance. Those couldn’t be… ghosts, could they? I stay closer to Jaeln, just in case, but I cannot shake the feeling that someone is watching and following us.
“Umm… Jaeln?” I ask, trying to break the silence.
“What is it?”
“Why is the Jedi trying to kill us?”
“I already told you. He lives to fight. He revels in murder and death. That’s the only way he’ll become stronger.”
“No, I know that. But… why us?” I immediately specify. “Why did he choose to attack our ship—instead of the millions of other targets?”
Jaeln stops for a moment, and I nearly crash into him. “I brought this upon us. The Jedi seeks the highest ranking members of the Sith Empire in his hunt, and he will go to great lengths to find and kill them. This is all my fault.”
I do not say anything because I do not believe him. Jaeln Benax has only ever protected us, and I refuse to believe that it was his arrival that brought about this destruction.
He adds: “Do you understand now?”
“Yes, Lord Benax.” Even though I don’t.
Seeing me satisfied, Jaeln continues his trek. The opponent Jaeln described sounds like he gets stronger with every battle. Is he killing because he needs to become stronger? Does he need to surpass something—or someone? If that’s the case, then would he not be incredibly powerful now that he killed nearly a thousand sentients? What can Jaeln and I hope to accomplish against a creature of that strength? Jaeln calls out to me, forcing me to abandon my introspection and keep up.
Passing through endless hallways that are stained with the blood of crewmembers and awash with the light from glowpanels above, I am comforted to know that Jaeln will not leave me. If anything, I would have cried myself into a comatose state back in hangar control without him. I am grateful for his strength, even though he is silent. The voices of the dead and their creeping throughout the ship are not nearly so frightful as long as I stay near him.
“Lord Benax, do you believe in ghosts?” I find myself wondering aloud.
“No,” he whispers. “I have no time to worry about the dead when there are living things far more dangerous.”
“The crew used to say this place is haunted,” I note. “I never believed them before now, but…”
“We are alone here. Let your mind be at ease. Neither ghosts nor Jedi will harm you today.”
His words encourage me. The sound of stalking enemies vanishes, and I am left to the somewhat more reassuring sound of my own footsteps and breathing. We’re at the bridge before we know it. Standing in front of its massive door, Jaeln’s gaze drifts, becoming distant. He seems to be looking for something—or at something. But he can’t see anything. The door before us is solid, and he certainly isn’t admiring its finer, minute qualities. It’s almost as though he’s looking behind the door, on the bridge itself. It sounds impossible, but I can’t explain it otherwise.
He doesn’t even notice my presence anymore. As if I received a nonverbal cue, I move to the other side of the door, kneeling somewhat. My hand reaches for my blaster, but I find myself shaking. I turn to Jaeln for support, but he is effectively removed from this place, oblivious to surroundings. It almost seems like he is communicating with someone. Is something wrong?
“Are you ready, Ensign?” he asks suddenly. He’s impersonal now, and his tone is a tad harsh, as though I had asked some terrible question. “Behind this door… there’s no turning back. Are you ready?”
He looks pained. Staring at me, his fingers race through his hair. “Whatever happens from now on, watch your back. We don’t know if… if he has friends.”
“Lord Benax, please don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want to turn back?”
“I’m not going to abandon you now.”
“Then we should begin.”
The door opens on its own. I jump, startled by its sudden opening, and the Jedi is waiting there for us. He looks no different than before, wearing robes and wielding a blue blade. He has no face, at least, not one I can see, and he is a mysterious foe, one I cannot hope to comprehend or oppose. He doesn’t make any sudden movements, as though he had been expecting us this entire time. Jaeln is undaunted. He reveals his own shining red blade, not unlike the Jedi’s weapon. It’s no less eerie than the Jedi’s blade, but it has the same allure. Jaeln leaps into action immediately, not held back by the terror that has gripped me, and the battle begins in earnest.
Their blades clash against each other, exploding with light as they collide. Sparks fly here and there, sometimes landing on the various control panels, and then falling on the metal floor. I have never fought with any type of sword, nor have I seen anyone fight with them before now. Their movements—their battle—can only be described as beautiful. It’s almost as though they are dancing, a beautifully choreographed spectacle as they skirt around their weapons’ reach while aiming for a killing blow. Jaeln is as sure and composed in battle as he was talking to me. His attacks are strong and fluid, each blow connecting after the last with the greatest precision. His opponent seems more audacious, eager to land a killing blow as quickly as he can. Neither of them are poor combatants; they seem to be masterful duelists.
And there I am, standing at the entrance to the bridge. I haven’t even moved from my spot. My feet are planted into the ground, keeping me from running forward or fleeing. I’ve never been in an actual battle in my life. Sure, there were training drills and target practices, sparring matches and emergency exercises, but those are all harmless. What am I supposed to do? If I don’t help Jaeln, he might die, and then I’ll be alone and heartbroken. If I try to get involved, my end might come faster than I anticipated. Am I willing to risk being alone? As if to remind me of my dilemma, I hear footsteps behind me. Those specters again?
Jaeln seems to ignore me, wholly focused on his foe. However, the Jedi keeps shifting his gaze to meet my own. He seems worried that I might move in, interfering with their duel. When I don’t move, he realizes I have no intention of leaving and that I can’t quite attack. Positioning himself between Jaeln and me, he separates us and focuses himself on Jaeln. His back is now turned to me, and he does not turn back. Does he think I’m not a threat? That angers me. He thinks he can just kill Jaeln and finish me off later? No way.
Their blades continue to clash. Now that he’s not watching me, I raise my blaster to shoulder height. I aim at the Jedi’s exposed back. I’ve never hit a live target before. I’ve only hit training dummies and targets at the naval base. Even so, I think I can do this. The Jedi doesn’t seem ready to block my attack, at any length. In fact, he seems to have forgotten about me at all. That should be his undoing. If nothing else, I know not to turn my back on an enemy. I pull the trigger—twice, because I’m nervous.
The Jedi ducks under the line of fire. Impossible! He hadn’t even seen me, and yet he knew I was going to shoot him! Had he heard me pull the trigger? My eyes widen when I realize the blaster shots passed by him and soar toward Jaeln. I scream, thinking I’m going to kill him accidentally. To my surprise, he shifts his red blade and blocks my shots entirely. They fly almost perpendicular, hitting the wall to his right. I breathe a sigh of relief, happy that I didn’t accidentally kill Jaeln.
“What are you doing?” the Jedi shouts. “Don’t interfere! Run!”
“Ensign, stay where you are!” Jaeln counters. “If you run, he’ll cut you down.”
Puzzled, I get ready to shoot again. The footsteps are getting louder now, and I can hear the whispers all around me. The Jedi maneuvers around Jaeln and is now paying attention to my movements. He can see me in the corner of his eye. He doesn’t seem as focused on Jaeln now, and Lord Benax quickly exploits the Jedi’s weakened stance. Pressing his attack, Jaeln begins driving the Jedi toward the wall. I shoot again. The Jedi moves to block my shots with his own weapon, but as soon as he does, Jaeln moves in.
The Jedi’s right hand hits the floor. The blue blade’s handle goes with it. He cries out, gripping the cauterized stump left behind. It reminds me of the charred limbs I saw earlier, and I relish our revenge against him. A burst of electrical energy flies from Jaeln’s hand. My eyes widen. I don’t even know what I’m seeing. Some sort of sorcery? The energy propels the Jedi backwards, and the electrified body slams into the floor mere steps from me.
The Jedi’s remaining hand stretches out toward me, trying to grasp at me with all of his strength. I back away, and the slightest hint of relief creeps onto his face. When I stop moving, it disappears entirely.
“You! Girl! I’m s-so sorry. I tried-”
Still not ready to approach him, I watch from a distance as his neck gives way. His hooded face hits the floorpanels. He’s dead. And yet, even in his last moments, he sounded less… frightening than Jaeln described. In fact, it seemed as though he was trying to tell me something. He regretted something. It sounded like he was trying to give me a warning. I gain the courage to approach his body, and I check for a pulse. He’s dead.
Jaeln deactivates his weapon after a moment, putting it back on his sash. He hardly seems surprised by the duel’s outcome, but he is certainly content. The battle’s over. Just like that. I had expected some sort of violent, galaxy-shattering contest of wills. After all, Lord Benax is strong, but this Jedi gained power as he killed others. If he had become so incredibly powerful, Jaeln should have struggled—if only a little. But all it took was one distraction, and then the Jedi fell.
I’m still staring at the Jedi’s body while Jaeln approaches. “Jaeln…”
“What is it?”
“He tried to tell me something.”
“Be wary of him. Jedi tend to deceive, even in death.”
“You don’t think…” I don’t know what to say. I almost feel sorry for the dead Jedi. He was hardly a threat, despite the evidence I have seen thus far. A question drifts to the forefront of my mind. “You were stronger than him.”
“No, he was distracted by you. It’s only thanks to you I managed to defeat him.”
“Lord Jaeln, I don’t think-”
“That’s quite enough of that,” a third voice says.
Spinning around, I realize that we have a guest. A man several years older than Jaeln approaches us, clothed in simple trousers and a plain brown shirt. His brow is etched with signs of age, and his dark hair is unkempt and knotted. An elaborate brand stretches from his right wrist to his bicep, and his hand rests on the pommel of a sheathed blade. With him, the eerie footsteps end but the whispers rise until they become a cacophony in my ears.
I raise my blaster to shoot again if I have to, suddenly ready to protect Jaeln from harm. “Jaeln! Is this one of the Jedi’s friends?”
Our guest laughs haughtily. “My lady, I am no friend of the Jedi.”
“Nafyan!” Jaeln shouts. “I told you to let me handle this.”
“I wanted to make sure you got the job done, Jaeln.” Nafyan’s gaze locks with mine. “I thought I told you no survivors.”
Jaeln hesitates for a moment. “I… I…”
“Don’t tell me you’re not prepared for this? Have you forgotten already? You are Sith.”
“No. I know.”
I reposition my blaster to get a clean shot at the man known as Nafyan. “Jaeln, I think he’s-”
I don’t finish. The still hum of a vibrosword fills my ear. My eyes drift toward my chest, and I gasp lightly. A metal blade protrudes from my chest, shaking ever so slightly as it breaks bone and tears flesh. A bitter chill washes over me, and the strength in my lower body vanishes. Bright red blood streams from the hole in my gray uniform, staining my clothes and the blade itself.
The man called Nafyan is grinning smugly. I thought—for only a moment—that he was responsible for my wound. But it wasn’t him. I was stabbed from behind. It was… Jaeln…
The ringing in my ear is no longer the sound of a vibrosword. I taste the bitter coolness of blood, fresh on my lips. It’s so hard to breathe. So hard to see. I start crying. I thought… I thought I could trust Jaeln…
“Mom… Dad… I want to go hom…”
She was dead. Ensign Nohli Crescen was the last one. Jaeln had heard what the others said about her. How she wasn’t familiar with the Sith, the Republic, or anything beyond her homeworld. She had to die… he knew that. She hadn’t suspected him, and from her thoughts, he knew that she was infatuated with him. There was something in him that admired her, as well. It was not an infatuation, but something about her innocence made him hesitate. He knew she had to die, but he wanted her to live as well. In the end, he used her own feelings and ignorance against her.
Regret ebbed within the strength of his devotion to the dark side. He had been the killer all along. He started slowly, creeping into the mess hall or the cabins during sleep cycles, picking off soldiers and officers. After the initial killings, brushed aside by the crew as the work of ghosts or other such nonsense, he had worked quickly. No one stood a chance against him. Fighting from the shadows, he crippled the strongest ones with the Force and then moved in for the kill. Dozens fell against his vibrosword. No one suspected him. He butchered them all.
He had disabled the security cameras around the ship first, then the ship’s logs, and finally the outbound communications. There was no escape for the last few survivors. Then, when he had nearly completed his mission, the Jedi arrived. No doubt sensing the slaughter from lightyears away, the drifting warrior tried to save the hapless subordinates from the betrayal that awaited them. However, his mysterious arrival, coupled with Jaeln’s effective charade as an ineffective leader, helpless to stop the killings, worked in Jaeln’s favor. He convinced the few surviving crewmembers that the Jedi was actually the murderer. They were all the more willing to believe a familiar face than an armed stranger, and that proved to be their undoing.
The Jedi wanted to help at least one member of the crew survive. Then, perhaps, he could convince himself that his actions had not been in vain. When there were less than ten members of the crew left, the Jedi found Ensign Crescen separated from the others and hid her in the Force. Projecting his own power into her and keeping her safe from detection, the Jedi helped keep Jaeln at bay for several hours. Nafyan assisted Jaeln by tracking outbound comms, forcing the Jedi—and in turn, the ensign—out of hiding.
And now, side-by-side, they were dead. The helpless romantic and her mysterious bodyguard. The last of his targets. Nafyan was pleased, no doubt, even if Jaeln was not. Of course, he knew why this had to happen; for the same reasons Jaeln told Nohli, albeit worded slightly differently. Everything he told her was a half-truth; a perversion of what was actually his mission. As a Sith, Jaeln had been taught how to gain limitless power through an ancient technique. For each life he took, the dark side grew within his body and strengthened his connection to it. Force-sensitives gave him more power, but even he could not deny that the deaths of the Phantom Rising’s crew made him far stronger than he had ever been on Alderaan.
Jaeln would never have suspected Nafyan to be a learned scholar and trainer for the Sith. He had been his father’s servant on Alderaan, and now he was Preux’s messenger, despite the fact that Lord Preux was dead. It was almost too convenient.
“Master Jaeln, you have done well. Your father would be proud,” Nafyan noted.
Raystin Benax had died nearly two years ago. Killed by Republic soldiers and meddling Jedi. Jaeln lost his mother and his father that day, and he hadn’t even been on Alderaan to save them. Even worse, he had lost his brother to the Jedi. He hadn’t even heard from Raen Benax after he fled from Alderaan. The Sith were no more, Malak and Preux killed before they could begin any sort of invasion of the Core Worlds. Jaeln was the last one.
Nafyan himself had been the only survivor from the Benax household and the Sith on Alderaan. He ordered Jaeln to kill his entire crew. All of this was his doing, but that did not absolve Jaeln of any guilt. After all, the two of them were fulfilling the destiny that all Sith had to accomplish: a venture toward absolute power.
“Thank you, Nafyan.” Jaeln said coolly.
“Are you ready? You seem troubled.”
“No. It’s nothing-”
Nafyan held up his hand to silence Jaeln. “It’s that girl, isn’t it?”
“Put her out of your mind. She was worthless; without the Force, she was less than sentient. A creature worthy of your contempt.”
“I know that!” Jaeln growled. “But… she trusted me.”
“Attachment is a weakness; only true passion will give you the strength to proceed. Not the biological urge to latch onto members of the other gender, but a lust for ideals.”
“I know.” Jaeln threw his blade to the ground. “I just need a moment.”
“I didn’t want to do this, Jaeln, but it is clear that you are not ready.”
“Ready for what?” Jaeln pressed. “Are we not working together, Nafyan? Should I not know what my father desired from me? Why the secrets?”
“I’m afraid I must accelerate the process. Without a new Sith Lord, our cause is doomed,” Nafyan admitted.
Nafyan withdrew a small knife from the side of his boot. “I’m afraid Jaeln Benax, son of Raystin, will have to die on this ship—alongside his crew. Jaeln is not a Sith. I have no use of him.”
Jaeln reached for his lightsaber, ready to strike down the traitor. How had he been so blind? Nafyan was a devious creature, and Jaeln had been too trusting. Whatever Preux saw in him was not worth the danger he presented. Even so, Nafyan proved too quick for the younger Sith, and his knife plunged deep into Jaeln’s abdomen. The Sith Master gasped as the cold metal cut into him, stunned at his seemingly loyal servant’s betrayal.
Jaeln’s eyes lit up in anger, even as his body failed him. “You…”
“Good. Use your anger. Hate me. Do you wish to strike me down for my betrayal?”
“Trust. Love. Kindness. Selflessness. You know not these things. You are a master of survival. You are an unstoppable warrior. You are a merciless killer.”
Jaeln said nothing.
“Rise above your pain. Rise against me,” Nafyan continued. “Convert your rage, your suffering, and your desire into power. You are power. You are the dark side.”
“I will kill you.”
“Only Preux’s successor can hope to learn from me. Only his progeny can achieve the power I have to offer. Do you understand?”
Jaeln Benax smiled. He knew that the Sith only achieved power through strength, but he hadn’t expected Nafyan to attack him. He would be ready next time, though. He knew what he had to do. He understood his servant’s lesson. He pulled the blade out of his body, ignoring the fiery pangs it sent through him.
“I understand. Jaeln Benax dies today.”
“Good,” Nafyan said. “Your first lesson. Trust no one, and allow no one to trust you. You are your own ally.”
And then Nafyan’s blade plunged into Jaeln’s stomach again.
“What are your thoughts, Northeus?”
From the bridge of the Arca-class shuttle, Legacy, Jedi Master Northeus Ulsan peered at the remains of the Phantom Rising. The derelict Sith warship had found its way into a rather populous hyperspace route in the Outer Rim, not far from the borders of what had been Darth Malak’s Sith Empire. The ship had nearly caused several fatal collisions before the Jedi had been called to investigate.
On arrival, the Jedi did not know what to think. The ship’s entire crew had been cut down, mutilated, and butchered with vicious brutality. There was not a single sentient left alive. Northeus understood why local law-enforcement had been hesitant to approach or enter the ship based on the reports he was receiving.
A fellow Jedi Master, Zhar Lestin, had boarded the ship with several squads of Republic troopers, scouring its interior for clues about the Phantom Rising and its crew’s last hours. However, as Zhar sent data to Northeus for decryption and analysis, it became increasingly obvious that they were searching for clues where there were none. Security terminals had been tampered with—destroyed—and wiped of any backup information. Without witnesses and lacking clues, the Jedi and their Republic allies could only suspect what had happened on board the ship.
“I’m not sure, Zhar,” Northeus replied. “From the look of things, I’d think they had a mutiny. It’s not uncommon; the Sith are known to compete for power.”
“Since the Sith Empire collapsed, such events have become commonplace,” Zhar agreed. “However, the captain is dead, and their Sith passenger also seems to have perished.”
“He could have died in the infighting.”
“That is unlikely. A lone Sith could defeat a great many unsuspecting soldiers before being taking down.”
“Do we know who the Sith was?” Northeus asked. “I haven’t seen that section of the report.”
“Initial reports suggest it is Jaeln Benax.”
“The last Sith of Alderaan?”
Northeus kneaded his jaw, surprised by the corpse’s identification. Based on logs from the fighting on Alderaan at the end of the war against Malak, the Jedi Council confirmed that the only Sith who had escaped from the fighting was Jaeln Benax. If he was dead, then the Jedi could consider the Sith influence on Alderaan permanently eradicated. Now that Alderaan was under Republic control and Jaeln had died, they no longer had to worry about a phantom from the past rising up to fight them.
Everyone on board was dead, including its Sith passenger, and all the ships in the hangar were accounted for. The logs in the Phantom Rising’s hangar control had been wiped along with the rest of the ship’s records, so there was no way for the Jedi to determine if any additional ships had been present. Northeus had initially suspected a pirate raid or local gangsters, but from the reports received from Alderaan, Jaeln Benax was a powerful dark-sider. It was unlikely that any pirates or slavers could have overtaken a Sith warship, and it was even more implausible with such a Sith on board.
“So you don’t think the ship was raided by criminals? Gangsters?” Northeus asked anyway.
“I doubt that. But Major Altesius has informed me of a most interesting discovery,” Zhar spoke up.
“What is it?”
“Not what, who. Marcellan Q’endel.”
“I’m not familiar with him,” Northeus admitted.
“He was a Jedi Knight who left the Order as the Mandalorian War ended,” Zhar explained. “Marcellan was a student on Dantooine who showed promise, but he had a dangerous interest in the dark side.”
“Why did he leave the Order?”
“He became estranged to the concepts of the light and dark sides of the Force. He claimed to be on a pilgrimage, trying to reconcile the Jedi teachings he understood with his own experiences and knowledge.”
“Do you assume he was responsible for the state of the ship?” Northeus asked.
“He lost his hand in a lightsaber duel, it seems,” Zhar pointed out. “But he seems to have died after being exposed to a power conduit… or being attacked by Force lightning. Strange.”
“You’re right. The rest of the crew was killed with a bladed weapon—a lightsaber could not cause the gore described in these reports,” Northeus replied.
“Major Altesius tells me a vibrosword found in the body of a young female officer has traces of Marcellan’s fingerprints on its hilt,” Zhar added.
Northeus pondered on this information. It did not make much sense; the Jedi Knight had no way of getting into the ship. Unless, of course, he was already in the ship when it took off from Alderaan. Otherwise, he would have boarded the ship with a vessel—unaccounted for by Zhar and his team—while it traveled the spacelanes. That seemed unlikely, but plausible. Considering that he had lost his hand in a duel and seemed to have been attacked by Sith magic, the chances of his death being caused by a technical error seemed unlikely.
“He could have been a Dark Jedi under Jaeln’s command. During their trek to Sith space, Marcellan could have led an uprising against him,” Northeus mused.
“Do you think he lost his lightsaber, then?” Zhar asked. “He had one during his tenure on Dantooine.”
“It is possible.”
“Although confusing, this seems to be a case of Sith infighting.”
“The dark side is a powerful tempter. We should destroy this ship; we’ve acquired all the information we can, and its very frame is tainted by the dark side.”
Zhar sighed. “I agree. It is a shame we do not actually know what happened here.”
“Give the order to destroy the ship so we can return to Coruscant,” Northeus said. “We’ll scour the archives for information on this ship and Marcellan before we give our report to the Jedi Council.”