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Knights of the Old Republic: Vanguard of the Republic/Story, 2

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< Knights of the Old Republic: Vanguard of the Republic

“Sorry, Verita. No messages, as far as I could tell. Should I inquire further?”

“No, that’s… that’s quite all right, Gaiel. I have to get going, anyway. I need to get back to my patients.”

“Very well. May the Force be with you. Stay safe.”

“You too, Gaiel.”

Verita Ladola sighed as she watched the holographic representation of Gaiel Remus fade from view. The Nautolan Jedi was still stationed on Dantooine, so he had offered to keep an eye on any incoming transmissions or messages for her. He had not inquired why she was so eager to keep an eye on these messages, nor had he complained when Verita moved further and further from the Core and contact became more difficult. She appreciated his efforts to keep her up to date, and she could not ask for a better friend than him.

As a Jedi Knight, Verita Ladola was well known for her healing abilities. The Jedi High Council had lauded her as a prodigy, and to foster her gifts they sent her across the galaxy in search of more knowledge and great healers she could learn from. One of her earliest trips had been to the peaceful world of Alderaan, where she had stayed in the royal court for nearly three years. It was there that she had fallen in love with the prince of Alderaan. The Jedi as a whole frowned upon romantic love and attachment especially, but she had disregarded their warnings. There was nothing she could have wanted more than to be with him. If that meant abandoning the Jedi Order, then she would have done so in an instant.

Since she had left Alderaan, he had promised to message her on a regular basis. Verita obsessed over her long-range comlink and the Dantooine Jedi Enclave’s communication center, waiting for messages for him. After they had departed, he had been fairly consistent in his scheduling of these messages, but about four months ago he stopped entirely. The last she had heard of him, he had gone on a diplomatic mission into what had once been Mandalorian space. Verita refused to believe that he had forgotten about her. It was impossible. However, there was no way for her to check her messages now, so Gaiel stepped in to help her.

For now, though, she had her own duties. As a Jedi Knight of the Republic, she was responsible for healing those who were wounded in the fight against their fallen brethren, the warriors who now served Darth Revan and Darth Malak. She was the finest healer in the Jedi Order, and she was determined to use her skills for the good of the Galactic Republic and its soldiers.

Reaching the medical wards, she received status updates on several critically injured patients she had treated during her last visit. According to the room’s terminal and doctors, they were all in the process of recovery. Verita smiled. She had been worried about one or two of them, but to hear that they were all doing well took a great weight off of her. Taking a datapad from the lead doctor, a somber Iskallon, Verita got to work without a second thought.

The wounded in war were always the most painful to treat, but Verita didn’t dare complain. Making her way between cots, she picked one to heal before moving on. Pulling back her cloak sleeves and folding her tawny robes, she revealed the glowing power of the Force that was evident in her fingertips and forearms. Using the Force to ease their pain, clot bleeding, and repair damaged flesh, Verita did her best to ease their suffering.

Traveling between victims, she rued over the power she had been given. Healing others was no doubt one of the highest callings of those that served the light, but at the same time, there was very little she could do in the most hopeless situations. The Force was a powerful ally indeed–so powerful that she could hypothetically resuscitate those who were near death–yet it depended so much on her own power. As she traveled between cots of soldiers, she had to be careful not to exhaust herself trying to push her own limits, or else she would become fatigued before she reached all of the patients.

While she was healing some burns on a soldier’s leg, a nurse approached her from the other side of the room. “Master Jedi?”

“Yes?” Verita asked, brushing locks of blood red hair away from her face.

“Colonel Eto wants you to track down someone for him.”

Verita did her best to not look shocked. As the only Jedi stationed in the main Republic base, she was mostly in charge of tending to the wounded. Every so often, though, Colonel Eto felt inclined to let her run errands. Although the Jedi were technically inducted into the Republic military hierarchy as lieutenant colonels and their equivalents, this was hardly ever noted and most officers simply respected the Jedi’s autonomy.

But Colonel Ducian Eto did things his own way. To the colonel, the Jedi were just another group of soldiers. Powerful, no doubt, and beyond comprehension to those who did not use the Force, but soldiers nonetheless. As such, he sent the Jedi under his command to lead units, fetch supplies, and work military shifts. The fact that he refused to go through the Jedi High Council for approval earned him the ire of several Jedi under his command. Verita had no such qualms, but she knew her powers were best used here, to help the weak; she did not understand why Eto was calling her off.

“Who is he looking for?”

“He needs a private named Jhosua Weros. He should be down in the southern barracks; the colonel hasn’t had time to track him down,” the nurse explained.

“He can’t just send some soldier to do it?” Verita asked, a bit irked.

“Well, he summoned most of his units to a meeting, leaving very few remaining soldiers on patrol. Private Weros hasn’t shown up, and he wants to meet with you. He figured you could fetch the private on your way to meet with him.”

“Very well. I’ll go grab him. Jhosua Weros, correct?”

“Yes, Master Jedi. Here’s his information.”

Verita skimmed the information briefly. Once she was confident she knew how Jhosua looked, she bid farewell to the nurses and doctors working in the medical wards and headed for the barracks. The base was empty; as the nurse had explained, most of the soldiers were meeting with Colonel Eto. During her trek, she realized that she had been in such a hurry to leave she had forgotten her lightsaber in the hospital. Cursing her forgetfulness, Verita fought the urge to turn around and continued south, working her way to the barracks Jhosua Weros supposedly resided in.

Following the instructions on her datapad, Verita made her way to the third set of infantry quarters in the southernmost barracks. Rapping on what she hoped was his door, Verita was unsurprised when she received no response. Trying again, she used the automated door alarm as well, which was usually used for waking unenthusiastic recruits. Again, there was no response. Verita was unsure whether there was anyone inside at all, so she extended her perception in the Force to see beyond the door. To her surprise, there was someone inside, and he appeared to be dressing himself. Verita pulled her perception back into her own surroundings before she caught a glimpse of anything she had no desire to see.

“Who is it?” a young man’s voice spoke from the door’s comm unit.

“Verita,” she replied.

“Who?”

“I’m a Jedi Knight,” she explained. “Eto sent me.”

There was a brief silence before the door slid open. Verita saw a man about her age waiting for her on the other side, his face agitated and groggy. He was lanky, almost uncharacteristically so for a young soldier, and he tried to hide his light build under the military jacket he wore over his thin white shirt. Wearing mismatched trousers and boots, Verita suspected she had awakened him.

This was Jhosua Weros. He didn’t look like a soldier, and he hardly carried himself like one. He was not respectable like the colonel, and he was not dashing and handsome like the prince was, but there was something about him that caught her attention. Whether it was his stance, his demeanor, or something in his dark brown eyes, she hadn’t a clue. Such thoughts were beyond her anyway, and she was not here to analyze him.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice ragged and cold.

Verita crossed her arms. She didn’t want to appear agitated, but she had never been addressed like that before. “No need to get rude, Jhosua! Eto sent me because he’s in a meeting with a large group of soldiers–your comrades included–but you didn’t show up. He wanted to be sure you were still coming.”

“Of course. Let me grab my things…”

“No time; no need,” Verita replied. “Eto will take you as you are. As far as I know, it’s just a pre-battle planning session.”

Jhosua nodded. At her urging, the two of them left Jhosua’s room and headed for the meeting place. The Jedi Knight made haste from the barracks to the meeting place, but Jhosua was content with meandering behind her. She waved him on every few seconds. After a bit of verbal encouragement, he did his best to keep up, but he was forced to jog after her. Her brisk pace seemed to be too fast for him. In spite of the complaints that Jhosua grumbled, she did not think she was being unreasonable.

Leading him through the snaking halls in the practically empty base, Verita brought Jhosua to the courtyard where Eto was meeting with a very large contingent of soldiers. The courtyard was littered with bushes and flowering plants, with a rustic set of pathways and a few scenic waterways. It was in the center of the roads, in a clearing between some trees, that Colonel Eto met with his soldiers. The remainder of the battalion he led, along with its surviving commanding officers, were scattered around the pedestal the colonel was standing on. Lieutenant Thonnel stood off on one side, taking notes.

Jhosua settled into the crowd with natural ease, drifting away from Verita without noticing. The Jedi Knight intended to stay for the meeting’s entirety, but there were no other Jedi around and she would not be involved in the planning. Realizing the meeting would go on for some time, Verita left the courtyard to fetch her lightsaber.

*** ***

To my dismay, Eto was nearly done with his speech when I arrived. Not that I was eager to listen to the whole thing, but being dragged from my room by a rabid Jedi Knight was not my idea of a fun time anyway.

“-while the Sluissi engage the Iridorian reinforcements near the entrance to the forest, fourteen teams of Republic soldiers will attack their outpost from its flanks. Once the Iridorian forces are engaged, the remainder of our soldiers will venture further into the forest and destroy the anti-air batteries positioned near Defender. Once their batteries are destroyed, our ships can land safely and pick us up from there. Any questions?”

“Are you saying we won’t be conquering Sluis Van, Colonel?” a soldier asked.

“That is correct, Sergeant Major,” the colonel replied, hesitantly. “Our objective has… shifted. Escaping the world with as many lives as possible is our utmost priority at this time.”

“Sir,” another soldier spoke up, “will we be receiving armored support?”

“The area around the landing zone is too forested to use our tanks effectively. Swoops are a possibility, but we don’t have enough,” Eto explained.

Eto continued taking questions about the upcoming operation. From what I could tell, the Sith had finally played their best cards; Dark Jedi and Iridorian mercenary reinforcements. Without additional forces from the Core, our mission on Sluis Van was hopeless. Colonel Eto could only improvise an escape as best as he could. Even for someone of his caliber, that could prove difficult.

We owned the Defender landing zone for weeks before the Iridorians arrived. As if to demonstrate their brutality, they slaughtered our garrison defending the LZ and captured it for the Sith. Even so, the colonel figured it would be the least defended of the planet’s landing zones–all controlled by the Sith.

While some of the commanding officers questioned Eto’s plan thoroughly, my eyes drifted through the crowd. Searching for a familiar face, I was concerned because I couldn’t see anyone I knew. I should have seen Jacque or Marina in the crowd somewhere. Even Horan or Regen would have been welcome. Venturing further into the crowd, I continued scanning the faces around me. During my scan of the area, I saw someone rapidly approaching our position from the eastern side of the base. Horan? The figure appeared to be Sergeant Horan, but he did not appear like himself. His eyes, sullen as they were, seemed tainted and bloodshot now. Ghastly and pale, it was as though he had traveled to the grave with Major Mallory and come back to meet us.

To my surprise, he withdrew a shotgun from the holster across his back and fired at a random individual in the crowd. The boom of the shotgun and the cry of the female soldier he had hit echoed in the crowd. In the distance, I could see his target fall to the grass below while blood splattered across her back. In response, the two noncommissioned officers stationed on guard duty fired at him. Their blaster weapons proved ineffectual against his personal shields, and he shot them both down as well.

The entire crowd dispersed into a tumult. Even Colonel Eto, normally composed and stolid, seemed startled as he was escorted away by a number of officers. Most soldiers ran for cover or left the area entirely, not entirely sure what was going on and suspecting Sergeant Horan to be the vanguard of some greater attack. Others tried to pin him down, to no avail. He fired round after round of slugs into his assailants, leaving their corpses strewn around him in the grass. Soldiers were not allowed to have weapons on hand while in the base, leaving everyone who was not Horan at a distinct disadvantage.

I had no idea what was happening. What was this madness? Sergeant Horan had given up on aim and skill as he fired at random, allowing his shotgun fire to spread out around him in every direction. His shields were durable, so even soldiers who broke the rules and found blaster rifles were helpless against him. Why was Sergeant Horan attacking his own allies? What happened to him?

Drawing on all the strength I could, I was determined to stop him. It was a ridiculous idea; everyone who had tried to stop him was already dead. I didn’t care. I knew him, and that alone gave me the justification I needed to stop him. Managing my way through the chaos and over the bodies that were spilling blood into the ground, I found myself less than three meters from Horan. He and I were separated only by a rather large bush, and his back was turned toward me.

There was no way I could restrain him; I knew he was stronger than me. Without a weapon and lacking shields, I could not hope to defeat him in combat. Nevertheless, this insanity was too much to endure. Without a second thought, I sprung out from behind my cover and struck at him. The sergeant must have seen me in his peripheral vision; he sidestepped my attack, causing me to fly helplessly through the air. With a heavy-handed swing, Sergeant Horan smashed the back of my head with the butt of his shotgun.

I was on the ground in an instant. I could taste the dirt on my lips, and there were warm rivulets of blood flowing from the back of my head. Struggling to get up, I heard Horan reload his weapon behind me. Pressing his boot against my back, he stomped down until I was face first in the grass again. It was over. My consciousness was fading in and out, but I knew that his gun would sound.

I winced and prepared for my inglorious end, but no one pulled the trigger. Sergeant Horan’s attack did not come. The distinct buzz of a lightsaber activating sounded just above my head, and I heard Horan scream several times. There was the shattering of metal, and then I felt another body land on mine before I blacked out entirely.

*** ***

Colonel Eto had summoned Verita after the chaos had died down. He had informed her that she was to lead a squad of Sluissi insurgents against one of the anti-air guns at the Iridorian base. This was no trouble for her, and she agreed. Before she left, though, Colonel Eto also confessed to her that Darth Revan was looking to capture her. She had no idea why, but Colonel Eto was not taking any chances. She would be escorting a large group, and several Republic officers would be nearby at all times, just in case. Without another word, she had excused herself from his office.

It had been nearly three hours since the commotion at Colonel Eto’s meeting. Verita Ladola was as busy as ever, healing older patients as well as the influx from the event. Sergeant Horan’s rampage had not actually killed as many soldiers as initially suspected. Most of the soldiers involved had been wounded, although some had received severe injuries. Among the few dead soldiers was Corporal Marina, a soldier who had served alongside Horan during his recent mission.

Colonel Eto’s forces were falling apart on themselves, and the time for their attack was nearing. Desperate to get as many soldiers as he could, Eto had called the other Jedi in from the field to aid Verita in her efforts. Now, she and the other Jedi were hard at work ensuring everyone in the medical wards now would either be able to fight tomorrow or were strong enough to be evacuated.

Although she was scrambling about in her efforts to heal as many as she could, she had noticed that Jhosua Weros had been confined on her side of the medical center. Checking his vital signs and injury report during some spare moments, she noticed that he had some minor to moderate bruises, a few cuts, and a light head injury. His wounds were nothing compared to some other soldiers around him, but he was not quite in fighting shape either.

Healing him while he was unconscious, Verita ensured that his wounds were healed during her trips around the room. Even so, he appeared dazed and not quite recovered, so she went out of her way to visit him during one of his bouts of consciousness.

“Hello again. Jacque, yes?” she teased.

Jhosua struggled into an upright position and shook his head. “Jhosua. Jacque is the Mon Calamari.”

“Ah, that’s right! My apologies, Jhosua,” Verita said with a smile. “Colonel Eto has me checking up on patients here. He wants to make sure that as many injured soldiers as possible are able to fight in tomorrow’s offensive.”

“I’m going to be fighting?” Jhosua grimaced.

“Of course,” the Jedi explained. “You were to be led by Sergeant Horan, but… his condition will force Eto to reassign you. I suspect you will be placed in Major Altesius’s unit.”

“Are you going to be aiding us?”

“Yeah. You and your allies will be on the frontlines. I will be helping the Sluissi. They’re resilient, but they’ll need some help against the Iridorians.”

“You’re a warrior, then?”

Verita winked. “Not really. I’m more of a healer. Ask any of my old friends–Gaiel, Knosar, Marcellan–and they’ll fill you in.”

Jhosua shifted uneasily in his bed. Something she had said must have bothered him. “Were you the one who saved me from Sergeant Horan?”

“Hmm?”

“I heard a lightsaber before I passed out. I think it broke his gun. Was that you?”

“Oh, yes, that was me.”

“I suppose I should thank you,” Jhosua replied, not at all sincere.

“You sound… bitter,” Verita noted.

“Figured that out, did you?”

“No need to be rude.”

“Says the Jedi.”

Verita frowned. Did Jhosua have a problem with her? No, it was not with her. The Jedi as a whole seemed to be the object of his disdain. But why? Determined to find out, Verita took a seat at the end of Jhosua’s cot. His body tensed again, as though he was worried about her presence, and she was certain that there was something amiss.

“Do you hate the Jedi? I don’t blame you if you do,” she said. “We’re… we’re not holding ourselves together very well, and-”

“I don’t… I don’t hate the Jedi,” Jhosua admitted, but Verita could sense his deceit.

“Are you sure?”

“My brother,” Jhosua blurted out. “My brother was a Jedi before the Mandalorian War. Ibrays. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”

“I haven’t, actually. What happened?”

“He was trained on Coruscant, but he tried to keep in touch with my family. My father wouldn’t have it. He was disowned; the old man thought he was a failure because he refused to take over the business.”

“Your father didn’t like the Jedi, then?”

“What do you think?” Jhosua snapped. “Ibrays was grieved by my father’s reaction, and he followed Revan off to war to prove himself. The rest… the rest isn’t important.”

“You can tell me,” Verita assured him.

Jhosua shook his head. “I don’t hate the Jedi. That’s all you need to know.”

“Very well,” Verita replied slowly.

She very much wanted to talk about Jhosua’s family, but she realized that it was not her place to pry into his past. She knew that he was hiding something, because she knew that he actually resented the Jedi. He just refused to admit it. With a bit of a sigh, she rose from his cot and headed back to the other patients.

*** ***

The next morning, I left the infirmary to prepare myself for battle. I had reacquired my combat suit–the damage to it had been repaired–and received some new equipment for myself. Once I accounted for all of my accoutrements, I headed into the hangar. The remnants of Colonel Eto’s battalion were packed into the rust-colored hangars like red and yellow livestock. I had never seen so many soldiers before. There were so many faces, I was certain that I saw soldiers who I had served with under Major Mallory. But, of course, that was impossible.

There were only eight Kneebhawks available to us; their maximum capacity was about thirty. Squeezing every last man they could into the few aerial units we had left, the officers gave us a few encouraging words before sending us on our way. As the sun rose over the hills at 0500 hours, the Kneebhawks’ engines roared, sending us to execute Colonel Eto’s ultimate plan.

We were thrown into the forests around our target nearly an hour later. Our going was quiet at first, but it was not long before laser fire erupted in the distance. Our artillery was probably raining emerald fire down upon the Iridorian soldiers within the heart of the forest; for now, we were told to advance.

Underneath a canopy of tree branches and a multitude of leaves, the sun barely shone into this forsaken forest. Without the light, it was impossible to see more than six meters ahead. Twenty or so Republic soldiers–my new comrades-in-arms–had intermingled in the logs and thick brush around me, carefully navigating through the darkened woods. The laser fire stopped at sporadic intervals, leaving the soft crunching of leaves and the thumping of our hearts as the only sounds we could hear.

I had crawled through the underbrush for several minutes before finding cover behind the gnarled trunk of a dying tree. Two other soldiers raced beside me, taking cover behind an overturned log directly ahead of me. As far as I knew, there were no enemies this far from the landing zone, but it payed to be cautious. Better to sneak around than stride through the forest and end up dead.

Major Altesius, my new commanding officer, had opted to venture out onto the field with us. He reminded me of a wild man from the stories of my youth. Orange-brown hair circled his face in great swatches of hair on his head and a thick beard, leaving a bit of room for his beady little black eyes. He had giant’s hands, holding a rocket launcher as though it were a toy, and had a thick, almost unintelligible accent. He was eccentric at best, but I did not question his bravery. I had seen very few officers–outside of emergencies–join their men on the field.

Suddenly, soldiers around me opened fire at some unseen foes in the distance. I followed suit, popping out from behind the tree and releasing a steady stream of green fire. I couldn’t see my enemy, but their shimmering red return fire was obvious enough. Major Altesius bellowed at us, probably to keep firing, but I couldn’t hear him because the damn laser fire had started again. The forest was disorienting and it was impossible to see anything, but I did my best. Other soldiers had just as much luck as I did, firing at random and hoping to hit.

The major launched a few rockets deeper into the forest, shattering trees and sending dry clumps of earth flying through the air. My blaster rifle overheated, and I ducked behind cover just in time to avoid a few stray blaster shots. In my peripheral vision, I saw squads of Republic soldiers and Sluissi warriors racing forward, ready to circle around and strike at our enemies’ flanks. While my blaster cooled down, two other members of my squad–Toredo and a green-skinned Twi’lek I didn’t know–remained close by and kept firing. Once my weapon was back at full power, I traded positions with Toredo, letting his weapon restore.

“Hold position. Here come the Iridorians,” my comlink crackled with Major Altesius’s voice. “If you get a chance, push forward.”

Sadomasochists and animals, that’s all they were. Armed head-to-toe in heavy armor, the Iridorians made a fearsome sight to us and our comparatively light armored selves. They carried short war-blades and carbines, along with a few additional weapons in case of close-quarters combat. No one wanted to fight them; their bloodlust was legendary. Nevertheless, we held our ground.

Just as the last few shots were fired from Sith troopers in the distance, orange energy from Iridorian carbines soared over my head. The first one charged through the brush and tackled one of our leading riflemen. He was quick; we didn’t even realize what was happening before he was upon us. The poor soldier he had pinned beneath him was subjected to his knucklers, jagged and coated in a vicious concoction of biological agents. Several swift punches and cries for mercy later, and our squad had taken its first casualty.

The remains were gruesome. The soldier’s bloody remains were splattered about the forest floor where he had died, and his Iridorian killer had torn out his eviscerated entrails as if to dine on them. The sight was too much; some soldiers fled in spite of the major’s orders. While we fired all we could at the enemy, two of our squadmates nearby tried to stop the Iridorian warrior’s advance with their swords, but his knucklers were quicker. Two swift cuts severed their torsos from the rest of their bodies; their gory remains splattered all around him. The amount of blood–on his armor, the trees, in the grass–was nauseating.

I shot at the Iridorian in a frenzy, hoping that it would not pick me as its next victim. One of our allies leapt down from the tree he had climbed and cut through the Iridorian’s armor with his vibroblade. The alien’s dark blood splattered everywhere, but our squad fired on him until we were sure that the beast could move no more.

Of course, that was not the end. Twelve more Iridorian warriors emerged from the forest, charging headlong into our ranks. Orange carbine fire raced through the air from behind them, finding their mark on two of my allies. Altesius was really shouting now. The Iridorians threw grenades into our midst, forcing us to scatter. My Twi’lek ally had not been fast enough, and his body was torn apart by the explosion. The blood-curdling screams of the Iridorians were amplified by their helmets’ receptors, weakening our resolve even further. From the corner of my eye, I saw dozens of Republic soldiers fleeing the battlefield, running toward the edge of the forest to escape the Iridorian attack.

We were at a disadvantage. Our blasters could not breach the enemy’s shields fast enough, and we were sure to lose in close-range combat. Even so, Major Altesius refused to order a retreat. I was firing at random now, hoping that the torrent of blaster fire coming from my weapon would slow down the advancing horde. Toredo had pulled back a bit, realizing his blaster fire had minimal effect. I didn’t move. I could not move.

“Ambush! Left flank, left fla-”

One of our soldiers had tried to warn us, but we were too late. Another swarm of Iridorian warriors sprinted forth from the left, attacking a few unprepared Republic soldiers with their heavy axes and serrated knives. Realizing our situation, Major Altesius ordered an immediate retreat. Most of us accepted his orders gladly. The Iridorians pursued us for about two minutes before losing interest; instead, they turned to butchering the corpses of our dead allies and wallowing in their blood. Disgusting creatures.

During the ensuing panic and unorganized retreat, I was separated from my squad. Artillery fire pounded the forest, shattering trees and tearing holes into the ground all around me. Vertigo overwhelmed me as the twisted undergrowth and low-lying trees began to blend into a maze of green. My ears rang violently as the artillery fire got closer and closer, and I struggled as much as I could to get away from it. Stumbling about on my own, I found myself entirely lost. I could see battles in the distance, but I did not dare approach them. I saw Iridorians satiating their bloodlust in clearings, but I could not fight them. I wanted to find the edge of the forest so I could escape and maybe regroup, but I didn’t know how. I was lost and terrified and the laser fire was getting closer. Running across the corpses of Republic soldiers, Sluissi, and Iridorians, I had no idea where I was going.

As I continued through the forest, I saw a squad of Republic soldiers pinned down near a crashed Kneebhawk. There were many dead, but they were using the last of their resources to hold back an Iridorian force. If I could link up with them, I would be safe for the time being. Scrambling through the brush, I was close enough to hear their shouts and see their turrets clearly. Then, without warning, an artillery shot hit the Kneebhawk like a bull’s eye. The shot had been perfect–every Republic soldier and Iridorian warrior died as the downed craft exploded. I had been close enough that I flew through the air, violently landing on my side while the charred remains of bodies and burning metal pieces fell around me.

That was our artillery fire. Why did it hit our ship? Our gunners did not make such careless mistakes. Every single one of the soldiers… dead. They never had a warning. As I lay there, blaster fire flying over my head, I was sure I was going to die. My legs were shaking and my side had gone numb. I could hardly even hear anything.

“This is Lieutenant Colonel Foel,” my helmet’s comlink crackled to life. The voice was faint, as though I was hearing someone shout from a distance, but I could hear it. “My group has destroyed the third AA gun. We need infantry support to engage the Iridorians and destroy those last guns. I repeat, we need infantry support, over.”

Once I could stand, I started running. I didn’t know where to go, but I was certainly not going to approach the Iridorian stronghold.

The battle in the forest had become splintered and personal. Most of the combat took place in small duels or exchanges of blaster fire between two or three squads. I could see these fights in the distance, barely making out the distressed shapes of my allies and the vicious forms of the Iridorians. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t. Even if I wanted to. Moving on, I left them all to their fates.

As I ran, I saw a lone Iridorian using his carbine and combat knife to fight a group of Sluissi warriors. Those serpents were cut down almost effortlessly, and even the last of them–carrying a Republic-issue shotgun–was taken down before he could kill the Iridorian. Normally, I would have kept running and not paid this slaughter any mind. But as luck would have it, the Iridorian noticed me. And so I was pursued. The Iridorian was clearly faster and stronger than me; he had just killed about six Sluissi by himself. I could not simply escape him, either. I was too tired and he would run me down. With no other option, I turned to face him and stood my ground. Taking my last fragmentation grenades, I threw them toward the incoming warrior, but I missed both times. Backed into a tree, I realized that he was less than four meters away now. With a feral howl, he sprinted even faster to close the distance.

I would have to face him in close-quarters. Discarding my blaster rifle, I drew my vibroblade. Once he was within range, I thrust my weapon forward, trying to stab at his heart. I missed. He blocked my strike with his heavy knife, and then he shot me at point-blank range with his carbine. The blasts were absorbed by my shields, but the force was enough to knock me into the trunk behind me. I would not survive that again.

I gave him a kick to the knee, and the Iridorian crumpled over. I tried to stab him with my knife again, but he grabbed the vibrating blade with both hands, despite the fact it was tearing into the flesh of his palm, and ripped it from my hand with brute force. While he recovered his footing, I ran around him and approached the group of dying–and dead–Sluissi. I was reaching for the shotgun to finish him off when I felt something cold plunge into my back. Gasping, the pain from the attack knocked me over.

Half-conscious, I turned and looked at the Iridorian. He was standing now, but he was still back at the tree. He must have thrown his knife and struck me in the back. What a lucky shot. Blood was pouring out of the wound, but it had missed my spine. My heart was racing and my face turned cold; I was going to vomit. The Iridorian licked away the blood from his hand and fired a few carbine shots at me. My shields gave way as my body did, causing me to hit the ground with a heavy groan. I couldn’t… die… here…

The Iridorian marched forward, hovering over me like Death itself. Adrenaline and rage conquered the fear that had mastered my body, giving me the bit of strength I needed to fight. Before he plunged my own vibroblade into my back, I spun around and fired the shotgun I had procured at my enemy. The resulting blast shattered his breastplate, spraying his blood into my face and sending green bits of metal to my feet. The Iridorian collapsed at my side, gurgling as his lungs filled with blood. He shouted ‘Rainos’ or something to that effect, coughing blood on the inside of his visor.

As I lay motionless on the ground, just as close to death as he was, the old red Sluissi crawled toward me. His left arm had been torn apart by the Iridorian’s blade, but he still had the strength to reach out to me with his other arm. The eyepatch that had covered his bad eye was now gone, revealing some sort of ghastly, tumorous growth where his eye should have been.

“The Ssorc Daemons lives,” he said, panting.

I shuddered. He was still babbling about that prophecy? “I’m not a spirit, and I’m certainly not your savior.”

“You have passed your trials… of courage… and fire…” the Sluissi continued.

“What are you talking about?” I fumed. “I’m about to die, you’re about to die… we’re all going to die! I couldn’t even save… Mallory, Horan, Marina… they’re all…”

“The Ssorc Daemons cannot die…” the Sluissi muttered. He gasped for a few seconds more, and then he died.

I stared at his motionless form for a few minutes, utterly speechless. Blaster fire was still flying over my head, and I could hardly focus with all the sweat in my eyes and blood in my mouth. What was I supposed to do? Spirits, Iridorian monsters, and Sith. Why did I sign up for the military? That poor old fool was adamant to the end, but his shotgun had saved my life. I tried to reach out to the red Sluissi to close his single good eye in reverence, but I was too weak to even do that. I screamed. I cursed my own cowardice, incompetence, and weakness. Then I started sobbing. The tears rolled down my cheeks and under my helmet until it mingled with the sweat and dirt around my neck. I didn’t even know why I was crying! Maybe I was crying for the old Sluissi and his failed prophecies. Maybe I was crying for the inevitable collapse of the Republic. Maybe I was scared of dying here. I’m pathetic.

Several Republic soldiers found me sometime later, motionless on the ground. Examining the area, they were certain I was dead. However, my moans and sobs betrayed the fact I was alive, and they carried me away from that graveyard of Sluissi. As they dragged me through the forest–burned and decimated by bombardment–by my arms, my helmet fell off. Free from the murky visor, I saw everything around me with terrifying clarity. I didn’t want to see anymore.

My legs were carried over bloody Iridorian corpses, the severed limbs of Sluissi warriors, and broken bits of metal and cloth from Republic armor. Fire engulfed trees and grass, flesh and stones. The muddy residue on the ground was unnatural, a mix of blood, oil, and grime from soldiers and machines. My sweat-drenched hair eventually covered my eyes, providing me with the relief I craved. I couldn’t even close my eyes in fear of crying again.

I was brought to one of the bulbous Diath-class transports that had been responsible for carrying us to the larger Foray-class blockade runner waiting in orbit. It had been docked just meters away from what had once been the entrance of the forest. The ventral section of the craft had been left open, and I was carried up on an automated stretcher. Colonel Eto was stationed in this transport, and he gave me an encouraging smile and a tap on the shoulder as I was carried into the hangar which had been cleared to fit all the evacuated soldiers. Eventually, my stretcher was placed alongside several other wounded soldiers and I was told to remain still until we were in orbit.

Eto was walking by my position, talking with his lieutenant.

“How many troops are still groundside, Lieutenant?” the colonel asked.

“Less than eighty,” he replied. “The majority of the Sluissi who have survived have been recovered.”

“And our Jedi?”

“We lost six of our ten,” Lieutenant Thonnel said gravely. “We rescued three survivors. Verita is still groundside assisting the Sluissi. Shall we wait for her?”

Eto paused for a moment, stopping in front of my stretcher. He seemed troubled, but said nothing at first. “We,” he began, “will leave Verita. Our transports need to link up with our fighters, now. The Sith don’t realize that we’re leaving so soon, thanks to our distraction at the LZ, but we cannot waste anymore time. Get us into space, Lieutenant.”

“I will give the order, sir.”

*** ***

So here I am, in a bar at Fere. I’ve hardly recovered from that battle. There happens to be a section of the Fere Graveyards dedicated to those who died at Sluis Van, so I stopped by their graves today. Major Mallory, Corporal Marina, Horan, Verita… I left each of them some flowers and scribbled a little note for each of them. I know they can’t read it, but it’s the thought that counts, right? I cried a bit while I was down there. Some kids were there with their mother while I was leaving my gifts, and they started crying too. Their dad died in that battle. I can’t believe it. I was bawling like some kid.

I should have died back then. I don’t know how the hell I’m alive, and they’re not.

Colonel Eto resigned from his position shortly after the battle ended, and he received several honors for his prominent service. I haven’t heard from him since; Thonnel, his lieutenant took up some of his duties. Horan killed himself while being sent to the Core for psychological treatment, and I heard he took a few others with him. He was officially listed as killed in action for the sake of his family and his career, but most of us know the truth. Major Regen lost his leg during the final battle, against the Iridorians, and he was honorably discharged before moving back to Ando. He won’t be fighting anymore, I’m sure. I haven’t heard anything from the Jedi Order, and I don’t intend to, but I suppose they did something nice for Verita. I hope they did. She deserves as much.

I run my finger across the rim of my empty glass. The bawdy music of the bar is hardly enjoyable, but at least it’s nothing sappy. I would start crying for sure. I reach for the brandy, but Toredo beats me to it. Pouring himself the last of its contents, he dons a victorious smile as he drinks the last of it. Jacque laughs, apparently at my startled expression.

“Distracted, Rookie? You almost never miss the bottle,” he says.

“Yeah.”

“What were you thinking about?” Jacque asks.

“Sluis Van,” I reply.

“Heh. I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Jacque quips. He places his glass on the windowsill of our practically empty table.

“It feels like yesterday for me, Jacque.”

“Doesn’t it? You should really consider joining the Republic Navy. No blood, no Iridorians, and you receive excellent pay. Starfighters aren’t too hard to pilot either, or so I hear.”

I shake my head. “Sorry, Jacque. I got to keep my feet on the ground. Someday, maybe, I’ll take you up on your offer.”

Jacque shrugs. “Fine. Just a thought. I know Toredo is too afraid of heights to join me…”

Toredo scoffs quietly and takes the empty bottle as he leaves the table, intent on filling it up again.

“Don’t tease him, Jacque,” I retort. “It’s a perfectly sensible fear.”

“Of course, of course,” Jacque mutters. Reaching around to the side of the table, Jacque pulls out a large black case. “This is for you.”

I look over it; it isn’t too impressive. “What is it?”

“My old sniper rifle.”

“Jacque, you don’t have to…”

“No, take it.” He holds his hands out, preventing me from returning it. “I insist.”

As I pull the rifle case onto my side of the table, Major Altesius stomps over to us. He survived the battle, as I had expected, and Toredo and I have been under his command ever since. I stand as quickly as I can–banging my knee on the table–and salute. He waves and beckons me to sit back down.

“Let’s go, boys,” the major says, “and no more drinkin’. We’re heading out.”

“Yessir,” I say. Picking up the sniper rifle case, I throw it under my arm and stand up. Turning to Jacque, I add: “Well, I’ll be seeing you. Don’t get your starfighter blown up, yeah?”

The Mon Calamari laughs at the thought. “Never! Enjoy yourself, Corporal-Rookie! Until we meet again, pleasant skies and good hunting.”

I nod and wave one last time before following the major outside. Toredo trails behind me, carrying a new pitcher of alcohol with his blaster pistol. As we leave the bar, I scarcely hear Jacque begin singing some sad old military tune from our days on Sluis Van when we were with Mallory. It sounds so atrocious when he sings it, but I suppose it can’t be helped. It sounds like a better coping mechanism than crying.

Until we meet again… in this life or the next.

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