Prologue: Awakening


            Street Market

            Merinama Prime

            Merinama System

            3,929 Years Before the Founding of the Republic


            Waves crashed upon the sparkling black sands.

     The two young boys dashed across the beach, kicking up puffs of dark sand as they ran along the edge of the shore.

     “Look, Nim!” cried the taller, lankier of the two. “There’s something in the water!

     Nimlin’s gaze followed his friend’s outstretched arm, excitement building as they approached a glittering object resting just within the shallows. “I see it, Tark! It must have washed up after the storm!” The squall that had blown through the day before had eaten away large swaths of coastline, exposing additional ruins that had supposedly been buried for untold eons. It was exactly the kind of thing the young boys had come looking for.

     In his haste, Nimlin passed Tark and splashed into the water in front of the object first. The rippling waves obscured it from clear view, but it looked small enough to pick up. Gingerly he reached down into the water and grasped the object with both hands, then lifted. His thin arms, young muscles still developing, drew the thing up from the sand and out of the water. He was surprised at how light it actually was in his hands.

     The artifact glistened in the light as he held it up to study it. It was just larger than his palm, made of a pearlescent yet unfamiliar material, and covered with inscriptions of a strange-looking style. It was shaped almost like a teardrop.

     “What is it, Nim?” Tark asked, transfixed.

     “I don’t know. Maybe a pendant?”

     “Too big, I think. Is it worth something?”

     “You always just think of money.” Nim shook his head, studying the object all over, giving it a little shake. It looked like Tech, but he couldn’t discern any buttons or controls. Nothing he tried worked – either the power supply was empty, or it was activated by some other, unknown means.

     “I’ll take it to Dax,” Nimlin said, “See if he knows.”

     “He probably won’t know what it is. You hang around him too much.”

     “If he doesn’t know what it is, he’ll at least know someone who does,” Nimlin countered. “I’m taking this one back for sure.”

     “Fine,” said Tark. “In that case I’m going to keep looking for real treasure.” With that he took off back down the shoreline in the direction they were heading.

     Nimlin studied the artifact for a moment in wonderment. Could it really be an artifact from before recorded history? There were legends of races and civilizations that had existed eons ago, before the galaxy had been developed, when Ancients had apparently roamed the stars. Many such artifacts had been found on Merinama, as well as other places. But no one had ever found out what they did or to whom they’d belonged to. The possibility of this being another piece of the puzzle was intriguing.

     Turning, Nimlin glanced back toward the shore, in the direction of the city. Above, vast arcologies dominated the sky, towering columns with metropolises resting atop them, partly obscured by puffy clouds. Nimlin didn’t pay them any heed; his home was below, now, with everyone else. He’d long forgotten what life was like up there; he had been too young to remember much before they’d been forced out. Most residents of the city didn’t even notice them up there, anymore.

     Letting Tark continue on with his search, Nimlin tucked the artifact into the pouch hanging down from his shoulder strap and started running back towards the city.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


He ran into the city known to locals as the Lowers, passing by many residents hanging their morning laundry as he ran past their sandstone dwellings. On street corners, minstrels sat and played their syats and other, more exotic instruments, filling the air with their melodious strings and flutes.

     Like most other street urchins, Nim was dressed in whatever he could scrounge up, just enough to maintain modesty under the sweltering pink suns above. In his case, that meant a pair of short pants for his legs, a simple vest over his bare torso, and a headscarf that he used to cover his head to keep off the sun and absorb sweat. Besides his shoulder pouch, he carried little with him when he went treasure hunting.

     Moving into the main avenues of the Lowers, he found his progress slowed as he hit crowds of people now out and about, most heading towards the large open markets in the city squares. There, one could buy just about anything, from exotic foods and spices to appliances and equipment from all across the galaxy proper. Everyone wore clothing intended to keep its owner as cool as possible. For many, that meant long bolts of fine cloth wrapped around bodies and heads alike. The younger generation, by contrast, kept their shoulders, stomach, and legs bare for the most part. Most Merinama natives, like Nimlin, had dark skin that naturally kept off the sun and didn’t burn easily.

     The Lowers were built on a large hillside interlaced with canals that provided the city with water. Each was enclosed in walls that would hold the water at intervals of each level. Therefore Nim would pass a line of buildings, weave his way through the crowd to cross the street, climb some steps to the next level and across a canal, then pass more open-columned buildings again in a constant cycle. Artificial waterfalls ran down from each canal and flowed under the street below to the next one, all the way to the bottom and the shore he’d left behind.

     Nim kept climbing from street to street, past the waterfalls surrounded by hanging gardens and vegetation, heading ever closer towards his destination. Occasionally, a hovering sled would float down the street over the heads of the throng, advertising this business or that service. Others held rich merchants or dignitaries, often Duros or some other starfaring species, those who lived the kind of life Nimlin could only dream about.

     Still other advertisements claimed to offer passage to the Uppers, those islands floating in the sky above, but Nim hated lies like those. He knew there was really no way to go to the Uppers once you lived in the Lowers. It was a different world up there; the denizens of the Lowers might as well not exist as far as the Uppers were concerned. The promises of ascending to that glorious paradise were all a sham; he had firsthand experience of that fact. Once you were of the Lowers, then you would always be there.

     Finally he reached the crest of the hill, where the city widened out and the massive columns supporting the Uppers rose up in the distance. Buildings gained more floors and the streets became flatter and wider. Nim kept running deeper into the city, until he entered a section of more narrow, winding streets and less-trafficked roads. Shops and markets lay around every other corner, and the smell of spices and sounds of bartering filled the air as he passed.

     Before long, he had reached his destination: a nondescript, four-story sandstone structure along a modestly-traveled street corner.

     Weaving past a group of robe-clad pilgrims and checking to make sure no one was watching, Nimlin deftly vaulted up to the second-story ledge of the building and ducked beneath a hanging carpet to enter the cantina. At this hour of the day there were rarely any patrons – the staff would just begin to set the tables and start the day’s grub to get ready for the lunch crowd. Nim dodged a spindly Yunigal worker mopping the floor and sauntered his way confidently up to the large, squat being behind the bar.
     Dax’s full name was Daxisunumisunamis, or something like that. It was too long for Nim to try and pronounce, anyway. He was a Burkuain, a pudgy race of creatures with folds of tough, greenish-blue skin drooping around their sides, six limbs, and four eyestalks protruding above a wide-lipped mouth and inset nostrils.
     “My boy, do you always have to enter through the windows?” Dax nearly bellowed, though his tone was jovial. “Stairs are too good for kids like you, I conclude.”
     “Good morning to you too, Dax,” Nim grinned, hopping up to take a seat across the counter from him. “Busy day ahead?”
     “Your sister came here again this morning,” Dax sighed, pointedly ignoring his question. “She’s looking for you.”
     Nim grimaced. “What if I don’t want to be found?” he said.
     “How much longer do you expect to hide out in my place?” Dax asked. “You can’t keep this up forever.”
     When Nim didn’t reply right away, Dax gave a loud snort and leaned onto the counter with his lower set of arms. “Playing hero, it’s going to get you in trouble eventually, boy. Word is getting around about you.”
     “I’m not trying to be a hero,” Nim shook his head. “Anyway, I found something today on the beach I wanted you to take a look at.”
     “Don’t tell me you’ve been out treasure hunting again. Another ancient artifact?”
     “This one’s real,” Nim said, glancing around the room and then, satisfied of their secrecy, handed the teardrop-shaped artifact to the bartender. Dax took it in one pair of hands and held it up, scrutinizing it for a moment.
     “What do you think it is?” Nim asked.
     “I’ve never seen anything like this, boy,” Dax said, focusing on the artifact with a squinting eye. “Could be something left over from one of those ancient wars.”
     Nim nodded, becoming excited again. After all, historical records could not be found from over fifty thousand years ago. People claimed that there had been a terrible war that had ravaged the entire galaxy, yet details about that war were virtually nonexistent. One thing was clear: after the war, there had been virtually no technology left in the galaxy at all. From that time civilization had developed from nothing, right up until modern times. Due to the lack of information about it, it was most commonly known as the Dark War.
     But Nim had doubts as to whether there ever was any war at all. Maybe there was no galactic civilization before fifty thousand years ago. Maybe that had just been when the first races started traveling the stars.
     However, scientists had dated some of the ruins on Merinama – like those they’d found on the beach – at over a million years old. If that was the case, then some kind of civilization had definitely existed long before the Dark War had occurred. And due to evidence like that, legends abounded about ancient civilizations older than recorded time. Still, no one seemed to know anything about them, or even what their technology was – much less how it worked.
     “Be careful, boy,” Dax warned suddenly. “Strangers here in the Lowers.” There was a cautious edge to his voice.
     “We have strangers all the time here, Dax,” Nim said. “This is still a hub for space traffic in the sector, you know.” Merinama was far from the most prominent member of the galactic community, but it wasn’t nearly as isolationist as some, such as the Kashi Mer.
     “These are different, boy. Some of those mystics, calling themselves Followers of Ashla, snooping around this sector. Looking for fresh blood, I think. You’d better lay low for a while.”
     Nim took in the news grimly. Dax knew of his abilities, of course – but he was one of the few in the Lowers who did. Though he had a reputation as something of a hero – gleaned from good deeds done here and there – both he and his sister had taken great care to keep their powers a secret. “I’m not worried,” he told Dax.
     “Do at least try to stay out of trouble,” Dax said, waving his eyestalks. “Your sister works hard to make sure you both are taken care of.”
     “Zali and I can both take care of ourselves,” Nim countered. He took the artifact up again and hopped back down off the seat. “I’m going up.”

                                    *                                  *                                  *

Nimlin sat in his private hideout, his one personal place of refuge in the universe. Only he, Tark and Dax even knew that it existed, and the bartender had been kind enough to take Nim in and let him stay there since he was nine years old. It was a small storage space halfway between the second and third floors of the cantina, just above the ceiling of the main bar. There was a small window to the outside though, and Nim was just small enough himself to fit through it. It made an excellent place to hide from ruffians, authorities and his sister alike - which he'd often had to do. The streets were opportunistic and oftentimes brutal. He’d seen many perish due to the harsh reality of life in the Lowers.
     The artifact hovered above the low table on the floor in front of him, held aloft after Nim’s asked it to stay there. Above, a lone, rustic fan hung from the ceiling, spinning just fast enough to circulate air in the dry daytime heat.
     Nim thought about what Dax had said, about the Followers of Ashla. They were an enigmatic group, and conflicting rumors abounded concerning them. Most common folk were afraid of them, blaming them for everything from poor economies to natural disasters. At the same time, it was genuinely accepted that it was the Followers and their amazing powers that had constructed many of the wonders throughout the galaxy - the floating continents on Arc, the domed gardens of Dathron, the planet-sized Space Station Indra -  even the Uppers, themselves.
     Yet the Followers of Ashla must have come for a reason. Tensions were high between the civilized galaxy and the Rakatan Empire, which had been embroiled in an intense civil war for centuries. The Followers were always looking for more recruits to defend their territories in case the Rakatans' war spilled over into the wider galactic community. The mystics had their own agenda; that much was certain. They dabbled in politics, economics, and military affairs. They influenced education and interstellar relations. They were becoming more and more powerful, yet they were still disorganized, divided into many groups, and each one seemed to act independently of the others. The news that some were on Merinama didn’t bode well for any residents with the Gift.
     Nim knew that Zali’s and his abilities were somehow connected to the strange powers of the Followers. Still, they had done everything they could to lay low and avoid getting noticed. The last thing they needed was to get snatched up and embroiled in someone else’s power struggle. That was why he and his sister were living in the Lowers, anyway.
     Five years before, when Nim had been six years old, he and Zali had been cast out of the Uppers when their parents, members of a ruling family, were ousted from power and brutally murdered. After the coup, hostile families had taken control, and the two of them would have been killed, too, if a maid hadn’t hidden them in a garbage chute. Afterwards, with nowhere else to go, they had been forced into exile in the Lowers where they now lived. Nim didn’t remember much about life up above. Zali probably did, but she never talked to him about it. Besides, it was all done, now. Nothing could change the past.
    Turning his thoughts from the subject, Nim studied the ancient artifact floating in front of him. He still couldn’t discern how to activate it, or even what it might be used for. It sat there, covered in strange markings, yet utterly silent.
      He considered trying his powers out on it. He didn’t know if it would work, but it should be worth a try. If nothing came of it, maybe he could always sell it for a nice price down in the markets. Still, something about this artifact intrigued him more than any he’d ever found before. It beckoned him.
     He reached out tentatively with his mind, and willed something – anything – to happen.
     The result shocked him. All the markings on the artifact lit up, glowing with an inner light. Then, looking up, he saw the hologram in the air above his head.
     It was a square of light, covered with a script Nim could not recognize or read, like a series of abrupt strokes laid about in a strange pattern. It looked like no language he’d never been exposed to before. What could it mean?
     Then the artifact broke apart. Nimlin stared in shock as it split itself into a dozen pieces, each floating equidistant from the others, with a glowing yellow core in the center. In surprise he realized that he wasn't even holding the thing up anymore - it floated of its own volition. The artifact whistled softly then, and in his mind he suddenly got a single picture, a clue to what this artifact might do. It was intelligent; he was sure of it. It was as if the thing was trying to communicate with him, trying to be used as it was originally intended, yet Nim had no idea what that purpose could be. Could it be like one of the strange machines people had developed, calling them droids?
     Suddenly he heard a ticking sound coming from the large pipe running up through the floor and into the ceiling, and immediately Nim stopped using his powers. The light faded, and the artifact came back down to rest on the table.
     Hearing a familiar rhythm coming from the pipe, he pulled aside the carpet covering his small window and glanced downwards. There indeed was Tark, glancing up at him from the alleyway below.
     “Toss down the rope!” Tark whispered up at him.
     Nim did as his friend asked, and after a moment Tark came climbing up to sit beside Nimlin in the hideout.
     “Well, did you find out anything?” Tark asked, coiling the rope back up beside him.
     Nimlin hesitated. Should he tell his friend about the holographic projection that had come from the artifact? It had, after all, been activated with Nimlin’s powers alone. Tark would never be able to make it work through conventional means. He wouldn't even understand. “No,” he said.
     “Too bad. I guess we’ll go back out tomorrow for some more searching, right?”
     “Um. Sure,” Nim said noncommittally. He was still thinking about the artifact, and what he’d seen in his mind. He wondered if there were any books he could read that would tell him more about the Dark War, or what had happened before. But he’d already visited all the museums, and no such records existed anymore. It was hopeless; he’d have to learn everything by trial and error. Maybe he’d learn more if they found other, similar artifacts…
     “Hey, are you okay? You look strange,” said Tark.
     Nim shook his head, brushing the question off. “Never mind. Let's find some breakfast; I'm starving.”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Nimlin wandered the marketplace, checking the many stalls of the hawkers beneath the massive canvas roof that covered the street. Passerby generally avoided or shunned him and some of the vendors tried to shoo him away when he approached, thinking him a common street urchin. Not that he wasn't, of course. But he also had a code of honor. The plump, juicy-looking fruit at one stall looked particularly appetizing, and Nim knew he could snatch one up without anyone noticing. But stealing was wrong; Zali had taught him that much. So he looked at the few coins that she'd given him - his allowance for the week - and he counted out some and bought the fruit instead.
     He made his way back the way he'd come, munching along as he walked. His thoughts returned to the artifact. It had been a few days now, since he'd discovered it. Every night he would reactivate it, watch it split open again and try to communicate with him. He still hadn't figured out what it was trying to say, but given enough time, he was pretty sure he could. He'd never found a piece of Tech that he couldn't figure out. It was almost intuitive for him. He knew that it was part of his gift, his abilities, yet this one puzzled him. It was a real challenge. He had to find out what it was.
     He emerged from the market's side street and into a busy thoroughfare. The crowd was thick, and he had to stop to try and find a way through the moving bodies. As he watched, a row of shouts suddenly went up among the crowd, and denizens began milling about in alarm. Whistles blared from somewhere in the air, and Nim jumped up onto a raised flower bed to look down the street.
     A group of law enforcement officers were running down the street, pushing their way through the crowd in pursuit of someone. Nim couldn't tell who they were chasing - there were too many robed figures moving frantically around. As the officers passed, he heard one of them shouting, "Thief! Out of the way!"
     The officers passed, but hadn't gone much farther before they seemed to lose their quarry completely. It was understandable; there were simply too many people in the street. A local festival was going on, and beings were everywhere. The officers would simply give up; they looked like security for one of the local businesses, but even if every shop had guards, they couldn't eliminate crime in the Lowers completely.
     Nimlin knew he could help.

     It wasn't that he wanted to be a hero. There was just something that compelled him to act. He knew he had the Gift for a reason, and if he didn't use it, it felt like it would be some kind of cosmic waste to the universe. Besides, his reputation did give him certain advantages that were useful on the street...
     The thief must have gone to ground, hiding. Nimlin closed his eyes and felt around him, looking for the rush of emotion, the surge of adrenaline the thief would be feeling.
     There he was. Across the street, hunkered down around a corner next to a large rubbish bin. As he watched, the figure - wrapped in a close-fitting brown robe with another strip of cloth covering the lower part of his face - turned and began moving stealthily down the alley.
     Nimlin leapt.
     A few in the crowd gasped as he passed over their heads, then landed in the dirt alley between the two buildings. The thief saw him and took off running. He carried a bag of something in one hand, hefting it up as he ran. Nimlin followed, his powers giving him strength and speed.
     The man began weaving though the maze-like side streets, barreling past anyone in the way. Nimlin kept up, his small frame allowing him to deftly avoid crashing into anyone or anything. The thief glanced back at him briefly, dark eyes peering out from beneath his hood. Then he ran around another corner and down a deserted street.
     Nim followed onto the street and then, seeing no one else around, squeezed his middle fingers to his palms, focused on just ahead of the running man, and blinked hard.
     A loud boom exploded just in front of the thief. The man cried out in and fell to the ground, sending up a cloud of dust as he did so.
     Crouching down, Nimlin reached out and asked the bag to come to him, whispering fiercely. The bag left the man's limp fingers and floated its way back to Nimlin. The thief recovered quickly and turned back toward Nimlin in surprise, and Nim willed the bag to hurry up. Once his hands were on it, he grabbed the bag and took off the other way. It was a little heavy, and objects jostled inside, but he hoisted it over his shoulder and ran as fast as he could. He knew the thief would be chasing him, now.
     He quickly rounded the corner again and found himself facing a wall. A sudden idea striking, he crossed his fingers, inhaled sharply and held it, imagining that the wall was instead a normal-looking alleyway. Then he turned to the side and continued running.
     The thief rounded the corner, hot on his heels, and ran straight ahead. Never guessing he was seeing an illusion, the man ran headlong into the wall. Nim heard a muffled grunt, and turned back to see the man bounce backwards and fall to the ground, unconscious.
     Smiling slightly to himself, Nim quickly slid down another alleyway and paused to take stock of what he carried. He opened the bag, exposing its contents to the midday sun.
     Gem-encrusted objects, small containers, and strangely-shaped objects looking like amulets or talismans lay inside. The bag was full of antiques and odd-looking artifacts. His thoughts immediately turned to his own artifact. Even after several days of searching on the beach, he hadn't found anything else like it. It should be safe in his hideout.
     Closing the bag, he retraced his steps to the busy street again. By this time the crowd had returned back to its normal, sedate traffic of dark-skinned beings. Nimlin made his way up the street in the direction the officers had come, and after a few moments found the store that had been robbed, its front glass shattered and several guards standing about. Walking to the storefront, he tossed the bag onto the floor just inside.
     "There's the stuff that was stolen," he said simply. Then he turned and ran off.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


"Throw down the rope," Nimlin whispered up at Tark.
     In response, the rope came down, but before Nim could start up he saw Tark sliding down the it from above. The taller boy landed beside him with a grunt, then turned and looked at Nim excitedly.
     "Come on, let's go shopping!" Tark said, smiling. He reached into his pouch and produced a wad of currency wrapped tightly with a strip of leather. "Look how much money I got for it!"
     "Got for what?" Nim asked in confusion.
     "That old artifact we found. It was just sitting there doing nothing, so I took it to an antique store to see what it was worth. I never thought we could get this much for it!"
     Immediately Nimlin felt his heart drop to his knees. He knew he'd felt something when he'd seen those other artifacts! "Why did you sell it?!" he demanded.
     "What do you mean? You said it was nothing special. You thought it wasn't worth anything..."
     "I just said that!" Nimlin shouted. "I... It’s worth a lot. It's really important to me." He clenched his fists in frustration. He should have kept it with him at all times!
     "I didn't know," Tark said. "I'm sorry."
     "We've got to get it back," Nim said, looking up at him.
     "How? We'd have buy it back from the store."
     "Maybe they'll take that money back. Come on; show me where you sold it."
     "But... this is a lot of money..."
     "One way or another, we're going to get it back," Nim told him. He started off purposely down the street, pulling Tark along beside him.



                                    *                                  *                                  *


When they reached the store, Nimlin's small hope of getting his trinket back fell into full-blown despair. This store, like the one before, had been broken into, and security was everywhere, walking across broken glass and making a tally of what was missing.
     "I'm so sorry, Nim," Tark said. "I didn't know. I can't believe this happened. It must have been just a few minutes ago. If we'd just gotten here earlier..."
     Nimlin just shook his head. Something was wrong, here. It was too strange that two different stores would be robbed on the same day, at virtually the same time. This was coordinated.
     He approached one of the shopkeepers inside who was sweeping the floor, collecting the glass fragments for disposal. "Do you know who robbed your store?" he asked up at the man.
     The wrinkle-faced man looked down on him with a grimace. "What do you care, street rat?" he snapped. "This has ruined my business for the whole year!"
     "I just want to know who did it," Nim said adamantly.
     In response the man shook his head and spat on the floor. "What difference would it make? Those black-scarves act like they own the whole Lowers. There's nothing can be done."
     Nimlin immediately turned and started walking back down the street. Tark caught up to him after a moment, looking over at him with a confused expression. "What are you doing, Nim?"
     "I'm going to get it back," Nim said, looking straight ahead.
     "What? Are you crazy? You heard what he said; the robbers wore black scarves! That means they belong to the Hand of Dusk!"
     "I know that."
     "We don't even know where their hideout is!"
     Nimlin stopped walking, causing Tark to turn around and look at him. He thought for a long moment. Tark didn't know much about his abilities, and he didn't know that Nim could find someone by feeling their emotions and strong motives. He was sure if we focused hard enough, he could still locate those responsible and track them back to their base. "I can find them," he said.
     Tark just shook his head. "Even if you can find them, we can't just sneak into their lair. They have guards, and weapons."
     Nimlin fixed him with a stare. "Trust me on this, Tark. I can get it back. We're going to find it."
     "The Hand of Dusk isn't a gang you play around with. We could get killed."
     Nimlin considered that. He knew what it was like to be close to death; if not for the kindness of their maid, he and Zali would have died as children. He'd faced a harsh existence as an orphan on the streets of the Lowers. He knew how to handle himself, and he was confident that the Gift - his powers - wouldn't let him down.
     "We'll be fine," he promised Tark. "Come on; I may need your help."


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Dax was back behind the bar again, cleaning the countertop as always in preparation for the day's clientele, when she entered.
     "Have you seen my brother?" the girl, perhaps seventeen, asked, staring across the cantina at him.
     "No Miss, I'm afraid not lately."
     "I know he's staying here. He's refusing to come back to the apartments."
     "As I understand, he doesn't like it there, Miss."
     "Please, tell me where he is. He needs to stay close so I can look after him."
     Faced with the tone in her voice and the way she looked at him, Dax couldn't turn her down. He knew she worked hard to support herself and her brother.
     "I overheard them talking about some antique they found out on the beach," he confessed. "Apparently they sold it to a shop in the Northeast Quarter and were going to get it back for some reason."
     "I see," she replied.
     "There's a lot of shops in the Northeast Quarter," he told her. "I'm sure he'll come back to his room this evening. You may rather just wait for him here..." he offered.
     "No," Zalaria said, turning. "I'll find him."


                                    *                                  *                                  *


They paused outside the metal door that barred the way deeper inside the secure business area that took up a dozen square blocks in the middle of the Northeast Quarter. They'd already managed to sneak their way past several guards on the way in.
     Nimlin stood in front of the door's control panel, which was just above head height for him. Sometimes size could be an advantage – other times not. Tark stood beside him, constantly glancing back down the alleyway for signs of activity.
     "This is the most dangerous thing you've ever tried to do, Nim. Are you sure about this?"
     "I'm sure," Nim replied, narrowing his eyes as he studied the glowing panel in front of him. He'd never seen any kind of electronic lock that he couldn't figure out within a few moments...
     He tapped on the screen, and a numeric dial began flashing animatedly in front of him. He knew that the visitor would have to touch the right numbers in the right combination to get in. He let his hand hover over the screen and tried to feel what the mechanism was saying. Before long his eyes had closed completely.
     Almost instinctively his hand tapped the screen several times, and when he opened his eyes the dial began spinning on the screen. Then the door slid open sideways.
     "Unbelievable..." Tark whispered beside him.
     "Let's go," Nimlin said, moving forward.
     They moved through narrow, seemingly abandoned alleyways, always on the lookout for guards. Before long they approached a large square surrounded by squat buildings, inside which a large number of people had gathered. Two large vehicles sat on the ground, and groups of robe-clad beings lounged around - some near a cookfire, some near a makeshift bar behind some crates. Others stood around idly, handing weapons they carried as they watched over the square.
     Nimlin knew this was the place; he could feel the surge of emotion coming from the group. They were members of the Hand of Dusk.
     In the center of the square, between the two vehicles, a group of them were going through what must have been a dozen large sacks like the one Nimlin had rescued earlier. Each bag contained artifacts that the gang was going through, piece by piece, and loading them into one vehicle or the other.
     Signaling to Tark, he ducked through a doorway and let them through an empty building and toward the other side of the square. Then he crouched at a similar entrance on the other side.
     "This is it," he told Tark. "Watch those guards, and if anything happens, run for the exit. I'm going to get the artifact back."
     "How?" Tark whispered. "There are too many guards... You'll be spotted for sure."
     Nimlin shook his head and crawled through the doorway. The building adjacent to this one had a large veranda, and a small crawl-space beneath it. Glancing one more time to make sure he was unseen, Nimlin dove under the veranda and began crawling forward. Muffled voices could be heard from the square, the men discussing their finds.
     Reaching the front of the porch, though still hidden by its shadow, Nimlin watched the men empty the last of the artifacts from the bags. He still couldn't see the one he was looking for. In the center of the group was a tall man dressed in black robes, despite the heat. He must be their leader, Nim thought. With him stood what looked like two bodyguards, one a Duro, the other a large Herglic. The others, doing the work of loading the items, seemed to defer to them. They were nearly finished loading...
     There. Glinting in the sunlight, just like he'd first seen it. It was in one of the worker's hands, just produced from the bottom of the bag. The veiled man turned towards one of the vehicles, the closer one. No one could see what was happening but Nimlin. Now was the time to act.
     Nimlin reached out his hand, fingers clenched, performing his trick just like before. This time the blast appeared in the air beside the man. Immediately the entire gang of thieves went on the alert. Their weapons came up, and they began shouting and looking around in surprise. And the veiled thief dropped the artifact.
     Reaching out his hand, he wished the thing come to him as desperately as he possibly could. The artifact slid across the ground and up into the air, flying towards him faster than a man could run...
     And suddenly stopped.
     Nimlin blinked in surprise, then grimaced and redoubled his efforts. Then, to his complete dismay, the artifact moved away from him completely.
     It settled into the hands of the man in the black robe.
     "Get him!" the man yelled into the air.
     The gang scattered, and half a dozen men started running in Nimlin's direction.
     Run, Tark! Nimlin thought desperately, crawling backwards as fast as he could.
     He made his way for the other end of the veranda, while most of the gang members headed for the other side, from which he’d come. He slid out and ran into another building. Then, weaving his way through several doorways, found himself in a room with a latticework stone wall looking on the outside. He slid down to the floor in the corner, making himself as small as he could and willing himself to be unseen. He crossed his arms and clenched his fists, thinking to himself over and over, Be invisible. Be invisible. Be invisible.

     Men rushed by the door outside, glancing briefly into the room, but moving on quickly. A moment later there were no more sounds of pursuit. His powers had worked, again.

     He had just started to believe they’d made it when he heard the shouting outside. He turned and looked through the openings in the wall and instantly knew things had gone from bad to worse.
    Nimlin watched in dismay as the men pulled Tark bodily to his feet and shoved him towards the center of the square. Gang member followed him, jabbing him in the back with their rifles. Nimlin’s hopes that Tark had gotten away were gone, replaced by the coldness of the reality they had just fallen into.

     Tark was brought before the leader, the man in the black robes. The man looked around, his eyes dark beneath the veil he wore.

     “Come out or your friend will die!” the man shouted roughly.

     Nimlin thought frantically, trying to figure out what he could do. He knew that he’d be able to get out and save himself, but Tark was trapped. He couldn’t just abandon him; he’d been responsible for bringing his friend along. If only Tark hadn’t sold that artifact!

     “This is your last chance!”

     Nimlin knew he had no choice. The gang had his friend and the artifact. He had to go out. Standing, he ran back through the rooms of the building and out the entrance. As soon as he emerged, a dozen rifle barrels turned in his direction.
     Before he realized it, he was standing in the center of the group next to Tark, with the dark-clad man in the center, his bodyguards on either side. The man withdrew his face veil and stared down at Nimlin with dark, harsh eyes. There was a touch of gray to the beard on his chin, and his dark face was lined with creases. He looked like a native of Merinama.

     Tark stared at him in dismay, as if disappointed that Nimlin had actually come out. Nimlin just looked away. They were both caught, and whatever was coming next, he knew the Hand of Dusk didn't have a reputation as merciful to enemies.
     The dark man hefted Nim's artifact in his hands. "You wanted this," he said darkly.
     Nimlin didn’t respond. He mind raced; he couldn’t come up with any way to get out of here, not without abandoning Tark…
     "A Latent, aren't you? Interesting." The dark man interrupted his thoughts again. He gave a smirk. "You probably think you can use magic or such nonsense. But let me tell you boy, I am fully in control of the Bogan. You have no chance to defeat me."
     Nimlin just stared hatred at him.
     "Swear yourself as my slave, and I will let you live. Refuse, and die now." At Nimlin’s stoic silence, he turned to the Herglic guard beside him. "And as for your friend, he is worthless."
     Before he could react, the Herglic drew a long knife from his belt and slashed Tark from hip to shoulder in one powerful stroke. Nim’s friend fell back to the ground, where he began convulsing, uncontrollably. Nimlin stood frozen, staring down in shock. It had been so… casual.

     “What do you know about this!?” the dark man shouted, shaking the artifact at him. “Tell me, or you will die like him!”

     “No…” Nimlin whispered in disbelief. His best friend… Tark… He was still shaking on the ground. A pool of blood spread across the dirt beneath him. “No…”

     He looked up at the dark man, and felt no fear at all. Only total, complete… hatred.

     “NO!” he screamed.

     He felt the power within him swell up, somehow stronger than it had ever been before. It grew and grew, so that what had once felt like a trickle instantly became a raging river, widening more and more, faster and faster. Air rippled around him, flaring the robes of his attackers, then pushing them back under a sudden onslaught.

     So fast! It felt like a chain reaction inside of him. He couldn’t control it! The roaring river of power suddenly inside him emptied… into a vast ocean beyond anything he’d ever imagined. His vision went white.

     Then there was only the explosion, ripping away from him like a tornado.
     Everything around him was annihilated in an unstoppable wall of energy, expanding outward at blinding speed, vaporizing the dark man, his bodyguards, the gang members, the vehicles, the buildings around them – everything. One moment they were there, and the next there was nothing but dust.

     Unstoppable rage pouring out of him, Nimlin stood in the center of an explosion of fire that destroyed a dozen city blocks around him in the span of an instant. The ground shook, an expanding crater sinking down with him at its epicenter. There was nothing left. A cloud of dust surrounded him, and directly above, a blue sky that rested in tranquility.


*                                  *                                  *


            The spacecraft set down gently on the newly-bare ground, and as the boarding ramp descended, two robed figures emerged from within. They made their way quickly down the side of the crater, to the two small forms huddled in the center.

     Nimlin looked up as the strangers reached them, staring up at them dimly. Beside him, Zali – who had found him just standing there – put an arm around him, placing herself in between Nim and the newcomers.

     “Who are you?” she demanded.

     The leader of the two threw back his hood. He looked middle-aged, his hair long and tied back behind his head. His expression showed neither hostility, nor empathy.

     “We are the Followers of Ashla,” he said, deep voice filling Nimlin’s ears. “You will come with us.”

     “We’re not going anywhere,” Zali said darkly.

     “You. You have Awakened,” the second, still-hooded man said, pointing straight at Nim. Then he turned to his sister. “And so will you, soon. This is no longer your home. Your place is among the stars. With us. Come.”

     With that he turned and started back towards the transport. Nimlin glanced up at Zali, seeing uncertainty in her eyes. He felt… emptiness. All that rage he’d felt before was gone. Tark was gone, too. He didn’t know what had happened, but he knew he’d killed his own best friend, and everyone else. In that instant, everything had changed. He felt a well of power within him, now. It was more powerful than anything he’d ever felt before.

     He started forward, and his sister came, staying by his side. The other robed man followed behind them.

     As they neared the transport’s hatchway, Nimlin caught a glimpse of something shiny sticking halfway out of the crater’s sandy slope. He blinked in surprise. Somehow, the artifact had survived.

     He asked it to come, and it floated across the ground to land in his hand. No one tried to stop him. He carried it gingerly as he, his sister, and the mysterious men made their way up the ramp and into the waiting vessel…



                                    *                                  *                                  *


It is said there are beings known as Avatars of the Force.

Those legendary beings that appear once in a thousand generations.

They say there is no limit to their powers.

Their purpose, they say, can be for good… or for evil…



Varnusian Productions Presents:





            Catacombs beneath the Royal Palace

Vectur, Varnus

            0945 Hours


            Jinx ran down the corridor as fast as his Force-enhanced legs could move.

     Walls blurred as he ran, straining to reach the stairwell back up to the Archives. Dark footsteps hammered in his ears; the Jedicon were right behind him. Too many to handle. He had to warn the palace!

     Desperately he flung himself around a turn, bouncing his shoulder off the far wall and ricocheting down the next tunnel. An instant later a flash and an explosion sounded behind him, an energy blast destroying that part of the wall he’d just passed at head level.

     He hit the stairs and bounded up three, four at a time. The sounds of the Jedicon turning the last corner sounded behind him. “Sologan! Shangit comtas!” they shouted in Altarin’Dakor. Jinx didn’t know what they meant; he just knew he had to run.

     Leaping the last couple of meters, he passed through the reinforced doorway that had sealed off the catacombs from the rest of the palace, barely taking an instant to slap his hand against the control panel on the side. The doors began to swing shut, but he couldn’t take the risk they would hold. It might not even close in time. He kept going.

     Reaching at his belt, he pulled his commlink from its belt clip as he vaulted through the archive chamber. “Jinx to Command!” he shouted into the device. “Intruder alert!”

     He exited the room and turned into another corridor. The archive floors, down in the basement, were dimly lit; it was still too early in the day for most of its visitors. There was no one else in sight. Jinx glanced down at his commlink and saw that he had no signal. His commlink was being jammed! He stuffed the device into his pocket with a curse as a crash sounded behind, from the room he’d just left.

     Jinx risked a glance over his shoulder and saw three Jedicon stumble from the room and turn in his direction. Fear stabbed into his gut, threatening to slow him down, but he thrust it away, using his military training to keep his mind on the situation.  He ran harder.

     He was almost to the end of the corridor. Another stairway up was coming up on his left, while ahead the wooden doors to the palace library lay shut before him. He looked back again at his pursuers…

     And skidded to a halt as one of the Jedicon leapt into the air. His companions slowed and threw their hands forward, and Jinx felt a surge of the Force as they pushed. The Jedicon launched through the air toward him at blinding speed, covering the ground in a couple of seconds. Jinx started in surprise. Never thought of that one!

     He reacted by instinct. As the Jedicon’s piercing yellow blade came to life, Jinx brought up his own lightsaber and ignited it, trusting the Force to guide his hands. He caught the enemy’s blade on his own and thrust it to the side as hard as he could, but the enemy’s speed was too fast to clear it completely. He twisted his body as the Jedicon tackled him, and a burning pain sizzled his left shoulder as the blade grazed him slightly. Then his opponent’s momentum tore him away from Jinx and sent him crashing through the doors to the library. Jinx shook his head to clear it through the pain. His arm still worked, though. He’d been lucky; it only felt like a flesh wound. Hope no one’s in the Library… the thought popped into his mind.

     Turning, he fled into the stairwell, closing the door and slicing the control panel on the other side. Then he began leaping up the stairs, seeking the ground level. Below him, a shaft of blue light stabbed through the door and began to cut downwards.

     Only two more floors to go. He had to make it and warn the others. There really were Jedicon in the Royal Palace! The sense of dread was almost overwhelming. The invasion they had awaited and feared for so long was finally upon them. If only he had listened to Rynn earlier! Now he had inadvertently tripped whatever trap they had been planning to lay. He had to get to Control and activate the alert, get the defenses ready. He just hoped he wasn’t already too late…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Front Courtyard, Royal Palace

Vectur, Varnus

0945 Hours


            The morning sun glinted brightly across the tops of the skyscrapers in front of the Royal Palace. The city was alive and bustling with activity, though not the kind it was normally used to. This was far from an ordinary day in Vectur. There was an air of foreboding, of tension. Of destiny.

     Kiz Thrakus stood atop the long balcony overlooking one of the palace’s front courtyards. From here he could observe the progress that had been made overnight on the defense preparations, which he’d been in charge of. New layers of barricade walls had been constructed on the massive square and steps leading up to the palace entrance. On the front wall, troops had set up defense stations, and quite a number were there keeping watch, already. Further out, in the city, armored vehicles and walkers patrolled the streets, while aircraft kept watch in the skies above. Civilian traffic in the air was virtually nonexistent at this point. In fact, civilians could hardly be found anywhere.

     Much of Vectur’s populace had safely made their way into the emergency shelters the day before, or even this morning. Still, Vectur’s population had been bursting at the seams, what with all the refugees pouring in lately. There wasn’t enough room for everyone, so many were holed up in their homes or in safe rooms, or in hostels somewhere. Still others were hiding in the Royal Palace itself. Hopefully, the fight wouldn’t make it this far. But it still made sense to be ready.

     An enemy attack seemed imminent, now. There were two Titan-class Battleships in the system, making their way slowly, inexorably closer. Kiz doubted they would be the only two they faced before this was over with.

     At least there had been enough time to get everyone ready. Internally, Kiz wondered why the AD had waited so long, giving them time to prepare their defenses. He really doubted it was a tactical error on the part of their commander – this Nimrod was supposed to be a military genius, and unbeatable. That left only one possibility that Kiz could think of: that the enemy didn’t care how ready they were. That thought troubled him most as he stared out over the waiting city ahead.

     His commlink beeped, and he reached down to his belt and pulled it out. “Thrakus here.”

     “Kiz, status report,” Xar’s voice came over the commlink. “Everything ready down there?”

     “We’re all done here,” Kiz replied, staring back out over the city. “Ready as we’ll ever be.” Xar had tasked him with prepping the palace and surrounding areas for an assault. Kiz had set up the defensive positions on the wall, the square, and Star Way, the main road cutting through Vectur. They had just now finished everything.

     Xar’s voice cut back in. “Scanners report the two Titans in the system are moving in, now. Estimate about six hours until they reach orbit.”

     “Sounds like this is the big day, then.”

     “How are the men holding up?”

     Kiz made a wan smile. “If you’re referring to the soldiers, I think they just want this thing to be over with.”

     “We’ll see. With luck, they won’t even have to see combat. The shields should hold up against anything trying to get in.”

     “Copy that,” Kiz nodded. Vectur’s city shield was one of the strongest in existence; it had held up under Titans’ beam weapons before, and was able to prevent both weapons assault as well as landing parties from reaching the city. As long as the shield was there, Vectur was well protected.

     “Get up to the command center when you can. I’ve got a few things to take care of, and without Nico and Alyx, I’m going to need you to take charge if I’m indisposed. Don’t be doing anything foolish, putting yourself at risk if things get hot. I need you in one piece, not burning out in a blaze of glory.”

     “I could say the same thing about you, sir,” Kiz said.

     There was a moment of silence. “That’s all. Xar out.”

     The line clicked off, and Kiz replaced the commlink on his belt, shaking his head. Actually, he was worried about the soldiers tasked to defend the palace. They were holed up here, backed into a proverbial corner, what with the enemy surrounding the whole neighboring space. Now a vastly superior force was marching ever closer, and the men knew their odds of victory were slim at best. He’d been afraid morale would break even before the assault began. Once the actual battle was underway, he hoped they would pull together, but who could know for sure? Kiz understood how they must feel; the division’s Jedi were in the same position.
    He looked down, checking his wrist chronometer. 0954 Hours, he noted, feeling a bit of relief. Lorien Kal and Seydinl would be the Treasury by now. At least that tidbit was secure and taken care of. They would be safe down there in case the palace itself was breached. Or at least, as safe as one could be. Again it really came down to keeping the shield in place. Hopefully they could damage the enemy enough to convince them the assault wasn't worth the effort, and they would leave. But that was probably, he feared, wishful thinking.

     Turning finally, fairly certain that everything was in place, he moved along the balcony and made his way down a flight of stone steps to the ground level. The day was warm and the weather fair, the sky interrupted only by small, puffy white cumulus clouds. The sun shone brightly down onto the stone walkway. As he turned into one of the main corridors leading inside, he noticed more activity, both military and civilian. A couple of palace guards passed through an intersection, on patrol; a few palace personnel were out, running errands; a refugee or two passed by, heading to the mess hall or back to their shelters. Still, it was sparsely populated compared to just a few days ago, when the hallways had been shoulder-to-shoulder all day long.
     As he started down the corridor, he heard the swishing sound of a door opening, coming from the stairwell near the intersection ahead, and a figure suddenly burst out of the doorway, turning towards him. Kiz stopped in his tracks as he recognized Adept Jacob “Jinx” Skipper, barreling down the hallway towards him at breakneck speed, obviously pushing his Force Speed to the limit as he ran. Kiz blinked in confusion.
     An instant later, three more figures burst from the doorway, and Kiz’s blood froze. They wore combat armor, their faces and hands were covered in intricate black tattoos, and they held lightsabers ignited in their hands as they chased after their prey. His danger sense, previously oblivious to anything being wrong, suddenly flared up like the sun. It can’t be… he thought in bewilderment. This couldn’t be happening…
     “Sound the alarm!” Jinx screamed, running closer. “The AD are in the palace!”
     Instinct took over, and, Kiz turned around and ran over to the nearest control panel back near the entrance. He slammed a hand against the screen and quickly typed in his command code. “Red alert! This is Thrakus!” he shouted, his body surging with the adrenaline of imminent combat. “The palace is under attack!”


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Shield Generator

            Vectur, Varnus

            0950 Hours


            Sturm Brightblade stood at the balcony railing, staring down at the streets below, wispy hair stirring in the light breeze. The shield generator tower and dish towered over its surroundings, which consisted mostly of tan-colored, archaic three and four-story buildings. The streets below were deserted, mostly due to their being in the abandoned, ill-repaired Western Quarter, but even more so now, due to the curfew in the city that had taken effect. In the distance to the east, the Royal Palace dominated the landscape, rising above the city like a giant ziggurat. Flanking it was a mass of towering buildings that stretched off to the south almost as far as the eye could see, their tops and decorative spires glinted in the sunlight.
     His eyes searched the scene below, but far more acute were his Force senses, reaching out to discern any signs of life. He could detect nothing, no life at all. Anything bigger than a cat or large bird would have stood out.
     Above him, a pair of massive turbolaser barrels extended from one of the defense batteries. Their job was to keep watch in the sky. Ground patrols and closed-circuit cameras  kept an eye on the ground. Sturm and his contingent were there to watch for Jedicon infiltrators.
     Turning, he left the balcony and went back inside, descending a flight of utility stairs. Ambient light from display panels bathed the chamber in blue, coming out from the control station in the room's center. He came to a stop and nodded to a pair of guards on watch there. Other troopers stood in the doorway, and near the entrance to the turbolift. The low hum of the generators permeated the entire building.
     Melia stood there too, watching the camera feeds. She saluted when she saw him. "The Altarin'Dakor are getting closer," she said. "Command says the two Titans are coming in and could make it here by this afternoon." He nodded, and she turned back to the display, her tasseled braids swinging.
     They continued to wait, the guards keeping track of comm traffic, Sturm listening to the drum of the giant machine which they were inside of. Two more Knights, Lyn Cousto and Darm Sakan, came into the room - both personnel he'd brought along from Ar'Kell. He felt a twinge of frustration at not being with the majority of his House members, preparing them for the impending assault. As Quaestor, he naturally worried whether things would go well in his absence. But he had to trust. He had total confidence in Vykk, and knew he would do just as well in Sturm's absence. Besides, it was important to guard the shield generator, too. It was poor luck that the enemy was moving in during Sturm's watch. He'd only been there less than two hours. That meant at least six more to go before he could rejoin the action.
     His commlink beeped at his belt, and he reached down to answer the call. "Go ahead."
     “Brightblade, this is Command. The Grand Master has ordered all units to Red Alert. Enemy forces have infiltrated the palace. Seems like they came in from underground, somehow. We are sending reinforcements to your location.”
     “Copy that,” he replied. Worried, he glanced at the others. "We'd better double the shift guard."
     "How could they get into the palace?" asked Cousto, exchanging looks with Sakan.
     Sturm wasn't sure. He knew there was a series of tunnels that ran under the palace, and possibly throughout the whole city, but they were largely unexplored. How could the AD have known enough to make their way around? They would have to be more familiar with the city than the people who lived there.
     Melia met his gaze, her dark, pretty eyes gleaming in the light. “Sir, the power generators are located underground,” she said. “You don’t think that…”
     She didn't have to finish; the mere thought was enough to warrant action. He stepped over beside one of the guards and opened a channel to the engineering room. "Brightblade to Engineering," he called. "Status report."
     He waited fifteen seconds. There was no answer.
     Reaching to the controls, he set the main display to show the internal camera feed from the power generator's control room. A window popped up, showing a view of the room's interior. The room was empty, its stations unmanned. Then he noticed something white in the corner, just visible in the image's field of view. It was a pair of legs, belonging to a single, white-uniformed figure lying on the floor. A corpse.
     "By the Twin Suns! Sound the alarm!" Sturm said. "Let's go!"
     "Shouldn't we wait for the reinforcements?" asked Sakan.
     Sturm looked over at him, noting the fear in his voice. Truth be told, he was afraid, too. There must be Jedicon down there. The last time he'd faced one, he'd defeated his enemy, but had been seriously injured in the process. He still had the scar on his side to prove it. Would the Knights be ready? They didn't really have a choice.
     "We can't wait," he told them. "They're obviously here to take out the planetary shields. Without them, the whole city will be swarming with AD. We have to stop them here."
     The room's lights went from blue to flashing yellow and red as a peeling siren began to echo down the corridors. Sturm led the way, dashing across the floor and over to the turbolift. Melia, Cousto and Sakan were right behind him. He reached the lift and hit the button. Nothing. The lights were off inside.
     "Someone's cut the power to the lift," Melia said, incredulous.
     Muttering a curse, Sturm grabbed his commlink and punched in the palace's command frequency. "Brightblade here. The shield generator has been infiltrated."
     A burst of static came out of the device in return.
     "They're jamming us now," Melia said.
     "How are they doing all this?" Cousto blurted out.
     "Enough. The stairs!" Sturm shouted. He pushed open the double doors beside the lift and started down several at a time. The others followed. Sturm went ahead and retrieved his lightsaber handle from his belt.
     They went down fifteen floors before they even reached ground level. Once there, Sturm found another security station, this one still manned with guards. The soldiers held looks of confusion as they unsuccessfully tried to use the comm. Sturm stuck his head into the door. "We've been infiltrated!" he said. "Send a team on foot to make contact with Command. The rest of you, take battle stations and don't let anyone back up here!"
     Leaving them behind, he led the others further down the stairwell. It took another ten floors before they reached the power generators' level, which had been installed deep within the ground in an old security building's cellar. The glowlamps were still on in the stairwell. Sturm came to a halt at the doors, letting the others catch up and take up positions beside him.
     He suspected that the enemy would either sabotage or destroy the power generators. It was the most logical thing to do. The question was whether or not the enemy were still there, carrying out their work. He took a second to reconcile himself to the fact he was probably about to face Jedicon once more. They might not make it out of this one. "This is it," he whispered. Melia nodded grimly.
     Then he pushed open the doors, held his lightsaber at the ready, and snuck into the hallway.
     The lights were still on inside, as well. He moved stealthily down the corridor, checking the first security station on the left. The guards inside were dead, their consoles smashed. There were no burns on the bodies; they were simply lying lifeless on the floor. Not bothering to check how they died, they moved on.
     A few moments later they passed over an elevated walkway overlooking one of the energy transfer conduits. They continued on into a stairwell and descended another floor, moving into the engineering section. Still no sign of the enemy.
     The control room contained the bodies of three engineers; the bodies had been moved mostly out of range of the holocam built into the corner, but one's legs had obviously protruded out too far. Shaking his head in confusion, he walked out on the main deck itself, where the shielded conduits lay separated by narrow, scaffolding walkways. Another dead tech was lying down one of them. This one had a black burn mark on his back.
     "Where are they?" whispered Cousto.
     Sturm shook his head. He didn't know, and that made him even more worried.
     "Look there!" Melia said, pointing.
     Sturm followed her gaze, and he saw it. A large package had been attached directly to the side of the conduit. Sticking out the top and blinking red could only be one thing - a detonator.
     Melia was there in an instant, standing on the railing and inspecting the device. Sturm climbed up beside her, while the two Knights watched back the way they'd come.
     "I've never seen one like this," Melia said. "Have you?"
     Sturm studied the device. It was round and semi-transparent. Inside he could see sophisticated mechanical workings. "This is AD technology," he said, shaking his head. "I have no idea where to even start." A chill went up his spine. If the thing blew, the entire tower might go up.
     "There's another one over here!" Sakan whispered fiercely, coming around the corner from another power conduit. "They're probably all rigged."
     "We might set them off just trying to disarm it," Melia said. "What should we do?"
     "We have to find them before they activate it," Sturm said. "They can't have gone far."
     "Which way, though?" asked Cousto. "Down or up?"
     "I'd say down," Melia offered. "Back the way they snuck in."

     “But how did they get in? We don’t know,” Cousto countered.

     “There must be a hole somewhere, where they blasted through,” said Sakan.
     A sudden premonition hit Sturm then, a hint of danger sense that he hadn't felt up until now. "No," he said. "They went up, while we were coming down here."
     Quickly he ran back to the engineering control room and activated the base's internal comm system, which wouldn't be affected by the jamming. "Brightblade to Shield Control," he called.
     No answer.
     "Come on!" he shouted, running back the way they'd come. They'd been had! He felt like an idiot!
     They reached the stairwell, and the first thing he noticed was that the lights were back on in the turbolift. He hit the call button, and the doors opened immediately, the car sitting there, waiting. He knew they were heading into a trap, but at this point there was no choice. Piling inside with the others, he sent the lift heading back up to the control room's level. He shared a brief, knowing glance with each member of his team. There was fear there, but also determination. This was it.
     The lift came to a stop, the doors opened, and all four of them stepped out onto the deck.
     All the guards in the room were dead. Two more explosive devices were attached to the generator dish's spine, which extended up through the ceiling and outside. Red and yellow warning lights flashed around and around the room.
     And three Jedicon stood waiting for them, lightsabers ignited.
     The one on the left was dark-skinned and bald, while the man on the right had the long, dreadlock-style hair common among Jedicon. Both had faces covered with scrawling black tattoos. The one in the center, however, was strangely absent the tattoos. He had short, white hair, and his face was lined from years of experience. Sturm never seen a Jedicon older than himself.
     "I am Kalaran," the older Jedicon said in accented Basic. "Surrender, now."
     Yelling, Sturm ignited his lightsaber and charged the Jedicon on the left. He sensed more than saw Cousto beside him. Melia and Sakan went for the one on the right.  The battle began.
     His blade crashed against the Jedicon's, driving his opponent back. He swung again and again in a fury, using the Force to enhance his speed and guide his blows. The Jedicon matched him stroke for stroke, keeping up, sweeping his blade to the side to avoid the occasional strike from Cousto, as well. He was good.
     He heard a cry of pain and shoved his opponent back, glancing over to see Sakan stumble back, clutching his side from a cut by the other Jedicon. Melia stepped in quickly before he could finish Sakan off, driving her opponent back with skillful blows.
     "Go help Melia!" he hissed at Cousto. As she turned and ran over to help, Sturm spared a glance at Kalaran, the Jedicon leader. He still had not entered the fray.
     Refocusing his resolve, he found himself under attack from the dark-skinned Jedicon, who howled as he came in, spinning his blade over his head. Sturm fell back, blocking and parrying the blows, turning his opponent's blade aside mere centimeters from his body. He caught one overhand blow and turned it down to the side, barely shifting out of the way as the Jedicon twitched his blade and sliced a chunk out of his robe. Then he threw his blade back up to parry a lightning-fast thrust at his chest, but in a burst of strength the Jedicon pushed his blade to the side and snapped out with a wild kick at Sturm's head. Sturm ducked and rolled forward across the floor, hearing a hissing sound as the enemy's blade struck the floor behind him. He came back up in a crouch, then threw himself into a second roll as a ball of energy flew through the air towards him. He hit the floor again hard, the blast barely missing to scorch a black mark in the metal bulkhead behind him.
     Coming back to his feet, Sturm reached out with the Force and Pulled the Jedicon toward him. The man jerked forward, not fighting it, using the momentum to come at Sturm again. His blade made a twisting form in the air, leaving the afterimage across Sturm's vision as he flew across the room in a split second.
     Sturm drew all his Force power into his body, raising his blade to strike. His arms and legs felt more powerful than they ever could, unaided. The Jedicon brought his blade down in a diagonal strike. Sturm crouched and swung his blade laterally. Both fully committed, no holding back, eschewing any defense. Either one of them would emerge from the engagement, or they both would die trying. In the end, speed, skill and luck would decide.
     The enemy's blade passed just behind him as he ducked and slid forward. Sturm's blade took the Jedicon's leg off above the knee. Blood vapor sprayed into the air.
     His opponent fell screaming, and Sturm spun back towards him, throwing out a hand and Pushing him away as hard as he could. He knew that a Jedicon never quit while he still lived, no matter how grave one's injuries were. His push sent the man flying through the air to slam against the back wall, his blade flying from his hand. He dropped to the ground, unmoving.
     Sturm turned back just in time to see the other Jedicon fall under the combined assault of the other three Jedi. While he was blocking one strike from Cousto, Melia managed to slip under his defense. She caught his blade hand with her left and stepped close, swinging her own blade laterally with her right. The attack cut him in half at the waist. Their second opponent dropped to the floor.
     Kalaran remained where he was, his expression showing neither surprise nor anger. His orange-white blade hung loosely at his side. Sturm noticed a small device hanging from his waist on his left side. The trigger for the detonators.
     He suspected this man would be far more skilled than his protégés. One didn't survive this long as a Jedicon without knowing how to fight. Plus, his lack of tattoos seemed to suggest to Sturm he was high-ranking above them. He could feel the man's Force power level, and knew that it was much more than his own. They would have to do this together.
     "Take him!" he shouted, running forward. The others moved in too, all four of them rushing the Jedicon at once, even the injured Sakan. Their raised their blades, feet pounding across the deck as the sirens continued to blare through the air.
     Kalaran moved.
     He rushed towards the others first, throwing a hand forward. His Force Push sent all three scattering, but took Sakan, his main target, straight on. The man flew backwards, shouting in surprise all the way until he slammed into the far bulkhead. Sturm heard bones cracking.
     "No!" he shouted, surging forward. He drew close, but another Push hit him hard, harder than any he'd been hit with before. He tried to push back against it, but it was like trying to stop a Star Destroyer with his hands. Before he knew it he hit the floor, sliding backwards.
     Kalaran engaged Melia and Cousto at once, his blade snapping back and forth, keeping them both on the defensive. Melia tried to circle around behind him, but the experienced Jedicon was too fast, tying up with her and snapping a foot out to catch her ankles. She slipped but rolled away, somersaulting off one hand and back to her feet a couple of meters away. Then Kalaran shifted away, knocking Cousto's strike upwards in a lightning-fast move and driving his blade through her torso in one smooth motion.
     Sturm was back on his feet and on Kalaran before he could finish off Melia. He flew in, striking wildly and with all his strength. For a moment he drove the Jedicon backwards, then the man pivoted and parried one of his strikes forward past him, then thrust Sturm out of the way.
     Melia came in, shrieking as she struck at the enemy. Kalaran matched her attacks calmly, then at the right second, countered back with a powerful stroke that threw Melia's sword-arm wide. His next blow took her diagonally across the chest, and she fell, dead before she hit the ground.
     In final desperation, Sturm threw himself back at his opponent, attacking with all the skill he'd accumulated over the years. Kalaran blocked his blows calmly, wordlessly, as if expecting anything Sturm could throw at him. Sturm realized he couldn't win. Frantically he locked blades with the Jedicon and pushed in close, grabbing the man’s arm with his free hand. Kalaran grabbed his, as well, and they stood there, staring into each other’s eyes, grunting with effort as they struggled for a moment.

     Then in a burst of strength, Kalaran threw Sturm backwards, a wave of force blowing out from his body, lifting Sturm off his feet and into the air. Then the Jedicon thrust a hand forward, and a massive blast of energy erupted from his hand, taking Sturm straight in the chest.

     Sturm cried out in shock and pain, but his surprise quickly became a sense of relief. The Jedicon was far stronger than he was, maybe even as strong as Xar. But he had hit Sturm with a blast of energy, completely ignorant that Sturm’s natural Force affinity was for the absorption and dissipation of energy.

     The blast still blew him backwards through the air. His clothes still burst into flame; his skin still burned. Pain still tore through him. But Sturm drew that energy into his body, sending it flowing back down to his own hands, and threw them back towards his opponent. He sent every bit of Kalaran’s energy back towards the Jedicon, mixed with his own.

     The blast of force hit Kalaran and threw him into the air as well. He yelled in surprise, flames bursting out of his clothing. He flew backwards and slammed hard into the far wall, falling towards the floor.

     Then Sturm burst through the transparisteel surrounding Shield Control, crashing through the command console and displays. It took all his remaining power to avoid collapsing and push himself back to his feet, waves of agony flowing through his body. He was almost out of strength.

     He looked over at Kalaran. The Jedicon was on the floor, stirring groggily. His clothes were charred and he was wheezing loudly. Gripping his lightsaber, Sturm ran back across the room as fast as he could, knowing this could be his last chance. Kalaran grabbed his blade in one hand and slowly turned back towards him.

     Sturm closed the distance and struck downwards with all his might. Kalaran’s blade came up in a blur of light. Sturm felt his opponent’s blade cut through his torso even as his own blade sliced the Jedicon’s right arm away, cleaving through his opponent’s lightsaber in the process. Sturm cried out and fell away; Kalaran screamed. Then suddenly Sturm was on the floor, fire spreading through his body, his vision narrowing down into blackness.



                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1005 Hours


            Jinx clashed blades with the Jedicon over and over, circling in a deadly dance of light and energy. Thrakus had engaged a second enemy behind him. A third had disappeared somewhere inside the palace after cutting down a hapless worker in the corridors, along with the rest of the infiltrating Jedicon, who had streamed into the intersection by the dozens and dispersed into various side corridors. The situation was dire. Anyone in the palace not a skilled enough Force-user to take on a Jedicon would be slaughtered, mercilessly. Even strong Jedi wouldn't be able to stand against groups of them. By this point they could be on nearly every level, going after the command center or other vital points. Alarms sounded through the corridors. If they find the refugees and the children…

     Jinx longed to finish his opponent and chase them down. An overwhelming sense of urgency spurred him to fight even harder. If the Jedicon couldn't be rooted out of the palace, then this whole assault would be over before it even began, and everyone on Varnus was going to die.
     But first, he had to focus on the man trying to kill him. The Jedicon was good; these were not the average, front-line Jedicon that Jinx had faced before. These were Nimrod's elite warriors. Jinx knew that if he didn't have Thrakus there to help him, he'd probably be dead already.
     He blocked one high strike and parried it right, then struck at his opponent's left, but the Jedicon's blade was already there, blocking that strike and snaking around to stab at Jinx's chest. Sidestepping and twisting to the side, Jinx knocked the strike aside and disengaged. He stepped backwards over the body of a dead soldier, one of a group of palace guards that had rushed to help as soon as the alarm was sounded. The Jedicon had slaughtered the men with Force pushes, blasts of energy and lightsaber slashes, all while still dealing with the two Jedi Adepts. Now it took all the focus that Jinx and Thrakus had to keep their opponents at bay.
     Jinx knew how battle between two master-level Force-users inevitably ended. As long as each kept their defenses up, they would counter each other's stroke endlessly, provided there was little to no difference in power, speed and expertise. The harsh reality was that only when committing everything to one singular attack could one defeat an opponent quickly. However, the risk of being killed in the process was great, which meant duels could often last a long time.
     Today, there was no time to waste.
     Darting back in, Jinx struck twice on the right and then once in a powerful overhead swing. The Jedicon blocked his attack and swept his blade down, then released with one hand and backhanded Jinx across the face. Pain exploded in his cheek as Jinx fell backwards, then the Jedicon was over him, swinging down in a finishing move, his eyes full of hate and rage. Jinx snapped out with a foot, catching the man in the knee, then parried the blow away and down, where it sliced through the body of a dead guard. Then he lunged forward and swept his blade across is oppenent's midsection.
     The Jedicon blinked in surprise, then stumbled forward, clutching his middle. Jinx rolled to his feet, spun, and cut the man's head off in one clean motion. He stared in near-shock as his opponent’s body fell to the ground. He’d won; he had just killed one of Nimrod’s Jedicon!
     The other Jedicon, seeing what happened, rushed at Thrakus suddenly, roaring at the top of his lungs. Kiz, holding his own, backed up a couple of steps and raised his blade. The enemy struck down, hard, but Thrakus stepped forward in sudden strength and blocked the attack while it was still high. He shoved the enemy's blade up, snapped an elbow into his face, then sidestepped and raked his blade across the Jedicon's middle. The enemy toppled, falling face-first onto the stone floor.
     "Come on!" Thrakus yelled, turning from his fallen opponent and sparing Jinx a glance. "We have to stop the rest of them!"
     Jinx blinked hard and came back to his senses. Kiz took off down the corridor, and Jinx followed along right beside him.



                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Command Center

            Vectur, Varnus

            1007 Hours


            Xar came running back to the command center as soon as the alarms started going off. Within minutes, he had assembled his Cadre, his personal team of loyal elites, into the room with him. They were some of the few that he felt he could really trust – as much as anyone could by trusted, anyway. He stood behind Adept Gui Sun Paan, who was on watch for this shift, both of them staring at the main holoscreen. Behind him were Attrid Xoan, Ralagos Akala, and Nadia Ispen. He'd called Jinx, but couldn't get through due to enemy commlink jamming. They’d be able to talk using AD communicators, if they had them, but all traditional hand-held commlinks in the palace were out of operation.
     Xar stared at the screen in utter frustration. Nimrod’s Jedicon had snuck into the Royal Palace. His palace. It was... unthinkable. Xar's blood boiled at the thought. They had to be stopped, right now, before they did irreparable damage. To think that they’d actually been able to sneak inside undetected…
     "I found them," Paan said suddenly, switching the main display to one of the palace's internal camera feeds. "First floor, main corridor."
     Xar looked at the image Paan displayed. Dozens of tattooed warriors ran out of a stairwell leading down and were fanning out and scattering into different corridors. Some ran down the hallways, attacking everyone in sight like wild animals. Others made for other turbolifts or stairwells. Far down the hallway, he could just make out another pair of Jedicon facing off against two of the division's Jedi, lightsabers clashing in the background. They were too far away to accurately identify. Several bodies littered the floor in the corridor.
     "When was this?" Xar demanded.
     "Two minutes ago," Paan reported.
     "They could be anywhere by now," Xar said, biting back a curse. "They'll probably be here any second.”

     He turned to the other occupant in the room who stood peering over an officer’s shoulder. She stood there, brooding silently as she watched the tactical feed from orbit. He fixed his wife with a stare, looking askance at her. Had she known the attack was coming? How much would she lend her help? Their relationship lately had become… strained. Xar had found out  that his wife had been keeping things from him. They hadn’t slept together the night before, and Xar had barely spoken to her all morning. Now he couldn’t help but wonder, a question that he’d never really asked himself before; did he really trust wife?

     He knew that he had to. Otherwise, there was no hope for himself, or for the NI for that matter. “What now?” he asked.

     “Nimrod had no help from me,” Zalaria said, probably knowing what he was thinking. “I don’t know how they got in.” She looked at him. “Do you believe me?”

     Xar thought about that for a moment. “The Catacombs,” he said finally, ignoring the question. “Somehow they knew the layout. We should have foreseen it, sealed them off.”

     “It’s too late now,” she said simply.

     “We need your help to stop them,” he said.

     “You’ll recall my own Jedicon are… predisposed at the moment,” she told him.

     Xar nodded; she was right. Suspicion had already played its part. Zalaria’s Jedicon and military units were all in orbit because the NI didn’t want to risk putting Altarin’Dakor at their backs. She had agreed to use her forces to supplement the space battle, which they’d all assumed would come first. It had been yet another mistake.

     But bringing them back down would take time, and would require dropping the shields long enough to allow them through – which could also let in Nimrod’s troops as well. “Can you help us stop them?” he asked.

     She considered. “If I show my hand too early, Nimrod may use drastic measures to annihilate us, rather than try and take us by conventional means. But I will do what I can. At the least, I will make sure this command center stays secure. But let me be blunt and say that I believe we will soon be facing an attack from without as well as within.”

     Xar knew what she meant; it was probably only a matter of time before Nimrod’s fleet attacked full on. It seemed like someone had tipped the enemy’s hand, but if they didn’t use it to their advantage quickly, it wouldn’t matter. Zalaria would need to coordinate her own forces with Gaius in orbit, to ensure friendly forces didn’t start shooting at each other. He nodded to his wife, then turned back to Gui Sun Paan.

     “Secure the Command Center and inform me of any status changes in orbit or on the ground using these," he said. He pulled out one of his AD communicators and placed it on the console next to Paan, then turned to the rest of his companions. "Let's go."

     With that he took off towards the nearest door, the rest of his Cadre behind him. He caught sight of Zalaria, watching him leave, and wondered when he would be able to see his wife again.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Shield Generator

            Vectur, Varnus

            1014 Hours


            Sturm slowly pushed himself up to his hands and knees. It took almost all the strength he had left. His side felt strange; it had gone cold, along with most of his lower body. His breathing wasn’t working right either; it took great effort to draw each breath, and they were no longer full and satisfying. He didn’t have to look down at his body to know he was probably dying. His opponent’s blade had cut through his right side, slicing through his ribs, cutting through his lung, and coming back out of his back. He figured he had only a few moments left to live.

     He turned his head, looking towards his fallen opponent. Kalaran sat propped up against the wall, body broken from its impact against it. His face was etched in pain and his right arm ended in a blackened stump.

     Sturm managed to grasp his lightsaber handle in his hand and crawl forward. Almost… made it… he thought, etching closer, ever so slowly on hands and knees. He dragged his blade along beside him, it’s glowing edge slowly burning a furrow into the deck plating. He knew that if he could just finish Kalaran off, the shield generator – and the city – would be saved.

     The Jedicon didn’t seem to have the strength to get up. He looked back over at Sturm, his expression becoming strangely placid. There was no hate in his eyes. His lightsaber was destroyed; his right hand was gone. He gave Sturm a slight nod of respect, as if acknowledging their stalemate. Then he smiled slightly.

     As Sturm continued to edge closer, Kalaran reached to his side with his left hand, gripped the control for the detonators at his belt, and flipped the switch.

     Sturm was only a meter away. He was almost there.

     A tremendous explosion rocked the building from below. Then there was a flash of light from the detonators up on the shield dish structure.

     The room went white.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1010 Hours


            Xar and the others ran down the stairway leading from the command level down into the main levels of the palace. At each intersection they saw beings running down the corridors, fleeing to safety. There was no way to know how far the Jedicon had reached;  but they were certain to kill anyone they saw. Xar continued onwards.

     They emerged onto level five, in the areas open to the public, and proceeded through several large, deserted chambers with banners and tapestries along the walls. Xar prepared himself to meet the enemy at any moment. These Jedicon had broken into his palace, the very place where he had grown up, raised as crown prince of an ancient tradition and people. He had walked these hallways as a child. He was ready to fight for his home. There would be no mercy for the enemy.

     They made it into a large chamber and approached one of the large balconies on the west side when the Jedicon attacked.

     “Look out!” Atridd shouted just in time. Xar looked up and saw figures leap off the balcony behind them, screaming war cries and whooping wildly as they glided through the air towards them, lightsabers extended.

     No words were exchanged; the Jedi simply counterattacked. One flew straight at Xar, yelling, and Xar reached out with the Force, grabbed the man in a viselike grip, and sent him sailing on over Xar’s head and out the window on the other side of the room. The man screamed as he fell.

     Then the rest of the Jedicon landed, and the battle ensued.

     Lightsabers flashed to life and crashed against one another. There were no duels; the fights were short and bloody, pitting Xar’s closest bodyguards – and some of the few beings he called friends – against Nimrod’s finest front-line Jedicon. Xar, Atridd, Ralagos, and Nadia clashed against six Jedicon in a whirl of death.

     One came straight at Xar, too fast to hit with an energy blast. Xar’s yellow blade snapped to life, and he clashed blades with the wild-eyed Jedicon facing him. Xar drew in nearly all his Force power, the maximum that normal beings had been able to achieve in a thousand generations. With two blows he struck his opponent’s guard down and cleaved his arm away at the shoulder. Then he spun, blocking a downward blow from another enemy. He sent the first flying backwards with a powerful Push to the rear, which impacted the man against the wall hard enough to leave an indention. Then he locked blades with the new opponent and slid in, fast. He took the man’s legs out from under him with a powerful kick from behind, then swept his blade out of the way and finished him with a stroke that cleaved the Jedicon in half.

     He turned as Atridd sliced through another opponent with a yell, then saw Ralagos lock blades with his opponent and grab the man’s face with a huge claw. Roaring, the Togorian ran forward and slammed the enemy’s head into the wall with a crack, then disengaged his blade and stabbed the man through the chest.

     Nadia was still fighting, but she was managing to back her opponent towards the balcony. Xar ran past as Atridd and Ralagos went to help her, then two more Jedicon leapt up from below and landed in front of him.

     His speed enhanced to the maximum with the Force, Xar struck the first one twice on the right, feinted again on that side, then slid past to his left and sliced the man from the other side in a blur. The last Jedicon came straight in, stabbing for Xar’s heart, but he parried it quickly to the side, sliced through the man’s head with his return blow, then ran to the balcony and leapt over the side, his team on his heels.

     A flora-lined second balcony lay below him, two levels down. Xar dropped the whole distance, slowing himself with the Force at the last second, and landed amid total chaos. More of the division’s Jedi clashed with nearly a dozen Jedicon. He saw Amleth Uiara, Sian Rocanon, Ian Durran, Kip Slocum and Val Ricaud, all being driven back before a line of enraged Jedicon. Two dead division Jedi already lay face down on the walkway behind the enemy. Landing behind the Altarin’Dakor, Xar Pulled three of them backwards, cleaving one from behind as he fell.

     Ralagos and Atridd landed next and fell upon the other two, slicing them to pieces within a few seconds. Nadia followed a second later. Amazingly, everyone had survived the first encounter. The odds more even now, and Xar saw his Jedi go on the offensive in earnest. Amleth Uiara lunged at one Jedicon, the enemy’s blade passing just past his side as he rammed his blade through his opponent’s midsection.

     Nearby, Kip Slocum and a red-skinned Jedicon humanoid lunged at each other, each attacking full-on without the slightest hint of trepidation. Both opponents struck downwards, Slocum’s blade slicing his opponent from shoulder to thigh, the Jedicon’s blade landing on the Ho’Din Jedi’s arm and cutting it off at the elbow. Slocum screamed, and a second Jedicon lunged forward and thrust a blade through his stomach, finishing him off. But before he could extract the blade, Val Ricaud was there, slicing the Jedicon’s arm off and then carving a swath out of the man’s chest with his return stroke.

     Atridd and Ralagos made short work of the last two Jedicon, and Xar moved to the balcony’s edge and looked around, taking stock of the situation. His Force-enhanced ears could hear more screams, blaster shots and lightsabers clashing in the background. This was it; the whole palace was in a fight for its very survival. Few soldiers had the skill of Xar and his Cadre, enough to take on a Jedicon and actually survive.

     “All right!” he shouted, rallying his forces with a wave of his blade. “Fan out and help out anyone else in trouble! We’ve got to flush them all out before they can get in reinforcements and---“

     He broke off as a flash of light lit the sky to the west, and he stared in horror as a massive explosion ripped out of the shield generator, blowing the dish apart and expanding to cover several square blocks of ruined cityscape in an expanding wall of flame.

     Then the sound hit his ears, the sound of destruction and the complete shattering of the NI’s chances of keeping the AD from making a ground landing. Xar looked on in complete shock, at a loss for words. Somehow, the AD had penetrated the defenses at the generator. That meant everyone guarding it was dead, too. Now the shields were down, and AD drop-ships would be coming in at any moment.

     “Grand Master!” someone shouted, throwing him out of his thoughts. He looked over and saw Nadia there, staring at him in concern. Atridd, Ralagos and the other stood by, awaiting his orders. “What do we do now?” she asked.

     “Do what I just said,” he replied tersely. “I’ve got to get back to the command center! Go!”

     With that he left them behind, running inside the palace and heading for the stairs. It was only a matter of time, now. And time was running out.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



Royal Palace, Varnus

1011 Hours


Rynn ran through the chaos that filled the lower corridors of the palace. People were everywhere: civilians running for safety, soldiers heading to their stations, Jedi hunting for the Jedicon that they said had invaded the palace.
     The Altarin'Dakor had struck so fast! How had they gotten inside? Rynn felt a cold feeling in her stomach as she moved, knowing that she had been the only one to know that this was coming. She had sensed it, in a feeling as though the enemy was under the ground itself, but she hadn't been able to believe it. She didn't know how to interpret her budding new ability, and as a result the whole palace was now infested with Jedicon. People were dying, and she had to do everything in her power to save those she could.
     "Hold tighter!" she said, looking down at the young boy beside her. Derek ran to keep up with her, though thanks to his uncanny Force abilities he hadn't slowed or become winded. Still, talented as he was, fighting wasn't an option for him. They had to make it to the treasury, fast.
     They went though an intersection where people crossed back and forth in a state of near-panic. "Stay calm!" she shouted, though her voice was all but lost in the din. Beings of various species milled about, looking for shelter. There were innumerable rooms in the palace, but few would be safe from a powerful Force user.
     They turned a corner and she finally saw her destination ahead. "There!" she yelled, pulling Derek alongside her. She had called ahead, hoping the door hadn't been sealed yet, but the commlinks had been down. She breathed a sigh of relief to see that they had not.
     Numerous beings were still piling inside, and at the door she noticed at least one familiar face. Bren was there, his tall-shouldered form towering over most of the others, a look of concern covering his face. His expression immediately relaxed when he saw Rynn and Derek coming among the final few refugees.
     "Rynn! Derek!" he cried as they finally reached him. "Come quickly inside! We're just about to seal the doors!"
     They stepped inside, and Bren followed, keeping an eye down the corridor for others seeking shelter, or for approaching enemies.
     "Is everyone here?" Rynn asked, seeing what must be well over a hundred bodies piling their way into the recesses of the palace's massive treasure vault. "All the children are accounted for?"
     "Most got here earlier this morning," Bren replied, nodding as he kept watch.       
     "Will this keep the Jedicon out?" Derek spoke up, his voice sounding far more mature than his small frame would imply. "They can't cut their way in?"
     "This treasury has never been breached, and the walls are strong enough to make it nearly impossible for a lightsaber to penetrate," Rynn said.
     "But if we lose, they'll eventually get in," Derek said. "Nimrod can get in."
     She looked down at him, noticed the serious look on his face. "Yes," she replied, giving him the honest answer. "I suppose he can."
     "It won't come to that," Bren assured them. He took one last look down the corridor, which was now empty. "That's it; time to close us in." He nodded to a young Jedi Guardian standing there, still a teenager and too young to join the fighting. "Close the door."
     The young boy activated the controls and the massive door slowly swung shut with a muffled whomp. The boy tapped a few last keys and the panel went red. "We're locked in now," he reported. "We're the only ones who can open the door electronically, now."
     "Commlinks will still work, so we'll know what's going on outside," Bren said.
     Rynn nodded, then took stock of the mixed group of individuals inside the vault. She gave a nod to Lorien Kal, Thrakus' wife, who gave him a brave smile in return. Their daughter Seydinl was in her arms. She also saw Oriana along with her and Paan's children, as well as Fenora and a host of other women and children, and multi-racial civilians.
     "We'll be safe in here," Bren assured them. "Please have a seat and make yourselves comfortable." Then he looked at Rynn. "We should attempt to use Battle Meditation to help the others."
     "I agree," Rynn nodded immediately. "They're going to need all the help they can get."
     As Derek looked on, she walked over to a section of empty floor and sat down with Bren, cross-legged, each of them facing each other. Then they reached out with the Force and began to focus.

                                    *                                  *                                  *



Royal Palace, Varnus

1015 Hours


Erim Vannik, chief physician of the Royal Varnusian Palace, stood ready in the emergency care ward of the palace's medical facility. With him, spread throughout the room, were all of the physicians and nurses under his authority, standing by. Each had volunteered to serve, even though they knew that if the enemy actually invaded the medbay, they would likely all be killed. Despite that chance, their oath to treat and care for the sick, injured and dying was stronger. He was very proud of them.
     For five years Vannik had served in the palace, seeing beings of innumerable species, treating everything from headaches to severed limbs, heart attacks and cancers to shrapnel wounds. In all that time, he had never grown bored or considered leaving. There was always something new to learn, even for someone well into middle age. That quest for knowledge was what kept him going, day after day. The Force grant that his journey didn't come to an end, this day.
     The entire room had been cleared of all patients to make room for the wounded that would inevitably be arriving. There had been no one in critical or serious condition, so Vannik had ordered all of them into one of the city's shelters the day before, anticipating what was to come.
     Cleared, that was, except for one particular patient. Vannik turned around and stared through the protective transparisteel wall between himself and the quarantine area. Reserved normally for patients with extremely infectious or dangerous conditions, it was the safest place he could think of to store this particular charge. The man lay on a single bed inside, his eyes closed, his expression tranquil. Unfortunately, Jedi Master Nico Flygras had not yet woken up. It reminded Vannik of another comatose Force-sensitive he had treated in that room.
     Just like before, it wasn't a physical ailment that afflicted the patient, but rather a mental one. And though his brain-wave activities appeared as those of a normal, sleeping human, there was something far worse going on inside Flygras' mind. Thus again, Vannik had reached the limits of his medical knowledge, and though it drove him to seek the answers all the more, there was nothing else he could think of to do. Only a powerful Force-sensitive could possibly reach inside his mind and find out what was really going on. Barring that, all Vannik could do was wait for the man to wake up.
     If he ever did.
     As long as Flygras was in Vannik's charge, his life and heath were completely the responsibility of his doctor. And Vannik would do anything necessary to keep his patient alive.
     Turning back to the personnel gathered there, he began one last walkthrough of their stations, ensuring that they were totally prepared. A battle was raging out there, but soon one would begin here, as well: a battle not to end lives, but to save them.

                                    *                                  *                                  *


Command Center

Royal Palace, Varnus

1015 Hours


"The shield generator's been destroyed!"
     Gui Sun Paan stared in shock at the officer's viewscreen, seeing only a massive, expanding wall of flame filling the landscape where the generator had once stood.
     "By the Twin Suns. We're in trouble now..." he whispered. He turned away, unsure of what to say. It was the worst possible thing that could have happened - the shields had been the main line of defense for Varnus. Though there were auxiliary generators and shields in other areas, this had been the main hub, guarding the zone right over the heart of the city. There wouldn't be enough coverage now to keep the AD out - or to stop orbital bombardment, should they choose to do so.

     He glanced across the main console toward the tall, imperial-looking woman staring impassively over his shoulder, arms crossed impassively beneath her breasts. Zalaria looked down at him and her eyes narrowed. "They'll be attacking in full force soon, now. We must prepare for the ground assault. Ready the city's defenses and launch all fighters."
     Paan's mouth dropped open halfway, and he felt a stab of indignation at being told what to do. The situation was obvious to him, as well. Still, she was right, and he didn't want to risk talking back to her. So he simply nodded, realizing the direness of the situation. This was it. He keyed the main internal palace comm, which would link to all sectors in and around the palace square. Every loudspeaker, both internal and external, would carry his voice. "This is Palace Command. We are at Red Alert status. The palace has been breached by enemy forces and the planetary shields have been neutralized. Activate all defense systems. Ground troops to positions. All fighters, launch immediately and move to prevent ground assault."
     He watching on the various monitors as troops rallied to positions. Most had already started within the last fifteen minutes or so of the alert. Still, with the enemy already inside, he realized just how poorly defensible their location was. This was a palace, not a fortress. There were no heavily-armored security doors to close. There were no automatic sentry gun emplacements in the floors or ceilings. There were only a few guard stations inside, and then the barricades they had built up outside the palace. Hopefully they could keep the enemy from coming in, because once they did, it would be all over. Unless, of course, Nimrod simply decided to bomb the planet from orbit...
     "Don't worry," Zalaria spoke up from behind him. "They'll try and capture Vectur intact, not obliterate it."
     He spun in his chair, surprised how easily she could read his mind. He always kept himself shielded with the Force. "How..." he began.
     "Sir, priority communique from Sector Admiral Gaius!" exclaimed the officer at the main Comm station.
     "What is it?" Paan asked, turning towards her.
     "Sir, it appears the two incoming enemy Titans have disappeared!"
     "Disappeared?" Paan said. "That makes no sense. Are they sure?"
     The officer sat still for a moment, listening to her earpiece with a frown. Then an instant later a warning light flashed on the main control board, and Paan checked the main screen in confusion.
     A line of red enemy blips had appeared in mid-orbit over Varnus, directly opposite the New Imperium First Fleet's position.
     "Sir, multiple Titan-class Battleships have appeared in orbit and are on an attack vector!" shouted the logistics officer.
     "What?!" Paan blurted.
     "De-cloaked," Zalaria corrected him, her voice like steel. "The others weren't really there."
     "What do you mean?" Paan said, staring up at her.
     "This situation is serious," she said instead. "I have to coordinate my own forces." With that she moved to a second holoscreen and console, the same in design and function as the one Paan was using. Paan spared a glance to the back of the room, where two of Zalaria's bodyguard Jedicon - two of the few Jedicon still allowed on Varnus - stood guard watchfully. Zalaria leaned over the console and began speaking in Altarin'Dakor. Paan turned back to his own console.
     On the displays, he could see fighters beginning to launch out of the palace and ground troops starting to hunker down behind the barricades in front of the palace. And on the tactical display, he saw the NI fleet begin moving into position, spilling out fighters by the hundreds. Things were about to heat up, fast. By now the Grand Master had to know what was happening. Paan hoped Xar would return quickly; maybe he would be able to make more sense what in the twin suns was going on...


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Nexus

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1020 Hours



            “All ships to defensive position Aleph! All fighters launch immediately!”

     Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai shouted the command as soon as the Titans began de-cloaking. He ran across the ship’s massive bridge – an act that took much longer than it would have on the Independence. The ship’s massive holo-displays formed a chamber that encircled them, allowing them an unprecedented view of space around them. The ship’s commodore, Awel Kylar, stood there stone-faced, overseeing the situation. Four Titans had already appeared, forming a veritable wall pinning the NI’s First Fleet against the planet Varnus. Then, to Gaius’ dismay, four more Titans appeared, finishing the wall, staggered in a loose formation two high, four wide.

     “What’s going on?”

     Gaius turned from the dismal view of the situation, seeing Fleet Admiral Jann Percy, Field Marshall Rodin Kaler, and Admiral Walt Amason stride out of the conference room in which they’d all been meeting. The three officers jogged up, then went silent as they saw what was happening.

     “Eight Titans?” Gaius said, looking to Kylar. “How did we miss them there? I thought your ships can detect cloaked vessels!”

     The ship’s commodore shook his head. “They must have come out of hyperspace directly on top of us, then de-cloaked. A bold maneuver.”

     “Bold? It was crazy!” Field Marshall Kaler snapped. “And it looks like it paid off. We’re boxed in!”

     “I can see that,” Gaius said. “Sensors, give me a readout on those Titans.”

     “Eight enemy Titans,” the officer spoke up, in barely passable Basic. It made Gaius long to be back on the Independence, where communication could flow much more smoothly, not to mention saving time. Their transponders identify as the Ascendancy, Hegemony, Desolation, Munificence, Fall of Light, Subjugation, Right of Conquest, and Havoc,” the officer reported.

     “Those are all Nimrod’s warships,” Commodore Kylar spoke up. “But we thought that those were all the ships he had posted in Epsilon Sector.”

     “That means he’s drawn in reinforcements,” Percy added. “Must be because we took out one of his ships. He’s hitting us here with everything he’s got.”

     He glanced at Amason, but Walt just shook his head. “We did the best we could,” he said. "Even destroying one was a major feat. We lost all the World Devastators we've been constructing."

     “I know,” Gaius said. “So, he’s committed everything he has here at Varnus…” he began.

     He broke off though, as another warning beeped throughout the bridge. Another ship de-cloaked, lying just to port and beneath all the others. It was black, and impossibly long, dwarfing the others…

     He recognized it. It was the Titan that had single-handedly devastated the New Imperial Starfleet at the Battle of Mizar. It was just over fifty kilometers in length.

     “Another ship! The Cataclysm has entered the field of battle,” the officer reported.

     “That makes nine,” Percy pointed out.

     “This is crazy,” Kaler whispered.

     “Activate shield and weapons!” the commodore shouted. “Launch the Nexus’ fighters!”

     Gaius checked the displays showing the NI First Fleet’s position. It was quite a large force, including the Nexus, the Super Star Destroyer Independence, the Allegiance-class Star Destroyer Defiant, six Imperial-class Star Destroyers, multiple Victory-class Star Destroyers, Mon-Calamari Cruisers, and various other capital ships and support craft. They held a loose formation that stretched across the area above the city’s capital of Vectur. As he watched on the tactical holo-display, the ships began to draw closer, and hundreds of fighters began spilling out of their ships’ hangar bays. It was a formidable force, but next to what Nimrod had committed, it was pathetically small.

     "Sir, perhaps we should consider all our options," Field Marshall Kaler began.
     Gaius glanced back at him and frowned. "We can't retreat," he said adamantly. "There's no where else to go. And I won't abandon the people of Varnus to their fate."
     "Still," the man countered, "Maybe we could..."

     Naguis’Vox’Donn!” the tactical officer cried out. “Another ship appearing!”

     Everyone on the bridge stared at the display directly ahead. A bright flare appeared in space, slightly below the formation of other Titans. The light expanded, many kilometers wide, even obscuring the other ships from view. Then out of that light came a massive object, a blunt spear sided with circular structures on each side, slowly pouring out of that blinding brightness. The ship kept coming, resolving into a long spine, and a massive body with two giant wings that all poured slowly out of the wormhole.

     The ship came to a rest a moment later. Gaius saw on the readout that the ship was fifty-six kilometers in length. It was the largest ship he’d ever seen.

     “The ship is the Grand Crusader,” the officer said as the portal into ultraspace disappeared behind the huge Titan.

     “The Shok’Thola Nimrod’s command ship,” Awel Kylar pronounced gravely.    

     That makes ten, Gaius thought incredulously. Ten! How is that possible?

     “We’re finished,” the Field Marshall said from behind him.

     “This is far more firepower than Nimrod needs,” Amason said, shaking his head. “What’s his purpose here?”

     “We need to come up with a plan, fast,” Percy added.

     Just then the communications officer said something in Altarin’Dakor, and Commodore Kylar moved over to that position. The man stared down at the display screen, said something to the officer, and a link was established. Gaius recognized Zalaria’s voice on the other end. Both were speaking in Altarin’Dakor.

     “What’s going on?” Gaius said, coming over to the console. Gaius could see the image of the Warlord, who was Kylar’s supreme overlord, in what appeared to the control room of the palace. “What is Zalaria saying?” he asked.

     Kylar glanced at him briefly, then turned back to the display and continued speaking.

     “Excuse me, but unless you’re discussing the latest shock-ball scores, perhaps you could try speaking Basic,” he said, annoyance flaring. He was in no mood for games, and there was nothing they could be discussing that he shouldn’t be privy to, right now. “And while you’re at it, explain to me how Nimrod brought ten Titans here to Varnus to kill us!”

     Kylar eyed him again, then stood back condescendingly. Zalaria’s voice broke through on the Comm.

     “There aren’t ten Titans, Gaius,” she said, staring into the screen. If she was unsettled or upset by the surprise attack, she was hiding it well; her face betrayed little emotion at all besides bland annoyance. “Some of those Titans are not really there. They’re Force Illusions.”

     Gaius’ looked at her in surprise, which quickly turning to skepticism. He arched an eyebrow. “You can’t be serious. No one is powerful enough to fool everyone in the fleet and on the planet as well.”

     Zalaria’s eyes flared. “I’m not just wasting my breath for my own benefit, Admiral,” she said. “Believe what you wish; what I said is the truth.”

     “Well?” Percy spoke up, staring out at the display. The Titans hovered out there, waiting. A couple of dozen smaller capital ships - frigates, cruisers and destroyers, mostly - lay interspersed between the more massive vessels. Though the reality was, the Titans didn’t need any support. They were like whole armadas in themselves. “Which ones aren’t real, then?” Percy demanded.

     “Even I can’t tell you that,” Zalaria said with a shake of her head. “Only time will tell, as the battle progresses. It will inhibit our ability to block the real ships from passing the blockade, and limit the damage we inflict to their ships as well.”

     “Can’t we just fire on them to see?” Amason asked.

     “Even if you do, you might see illusory damage. Even sensors can be fooled.”

     “How can Nimrod be that powerful?” Gaius said, incredulous. What techniques must Nimrod know, that he could fool millions – millions of beings! – while directing an assault on one of the NI’s prime worlds?

     “I think you still do not comprehend the power of a Shok’Thola,” Zalaria chided them. “Regardless, Nimrod knows machinery better than anyone alive. There’s never been a technology we’ve encountered that he hasn’t been able to instinctively understand, and control. Furthermore, his command ship there contains a powerful Force artifact that enhances his ability to perform certain feats. This is one of them.”

     “Is he on there? Is Nimrod himself on that ship?” Percy asked her.

     “I can feel his presence. He will be coordinating his forces.”

     Gaius felt a chill go down his spine, and he shared a wary look with the other officers assembled. “What’s the situation down there?” he asked then, changing the subject. “I heard the palace is under attack.”

     “Jedicon invaded the palace from underground,” Zalaria said. “They will be dealt with, but you must prevent reinforcements or ground troops from landing.”

     “Small chance of that, with the planetary shields down,” Field Marshall Kaler said.

     “We’ll need all the help we can get,” Gaius told Zalaria.

     “I will commit all my forces to the defense of Varnus,” she replied. “Naguis’Vox’Donn Kylar will coordinate mine with yours. My Jedicon are also all in orbit; they will do what they can. Also, I suggest you call in reinforcements from Tralaria.”

     “The Second Fleet? They’ve been tied up with Nimrod’s Titans on the Western Front,” Percy pointed out.

     “They have nothing to worry about if Nimrod has committed all his forces here,” Gaius said.

     A beeping sound came from the communications console. The Comm Officer turned to look at him with a strange expression.

     “Admiral, a message from the Grand Crusader. It says that the Altarin’Dakor are prepared to accept our immediate surrender.”

     Gaius shared dark stares with the other command officers gathered, then looked at Kylar, whose face showed surprise. Gaius looked at him, expecting him to elaborate.

     “It is virtually unheard of for an Altarin’Dakor to surrender,” Zalaria’s voice broke in. “It seems Nimrod is acknowledging that you, as Outlanders, hold different values and may wish survive this engagement and retain your lives. It is, of course, a grave insult.”

     Gaius nodded gravely. He knew it was an Altarin’Dakor’s greatest glory to die in battle for their Cause, their ‘Return’. He sighed heavily, feeling the full weight of his decision on his shoulders. Of what he was about to initiate. “You can tell Nimrod where to stick his insults. And while you’re at it, order him to surrender to us, instead.”

     The officer turned back to his console in surprise, and Zalaria’s image gave a slight smile. “Very well. I have matters to attend to here. Carry on.”

     Her image vanished, and Gaius took a deep breath, preparing to give orders. “Rodin, I want you to coordinate the troops on the ground,” he said, turning to face the Field Marshall.

     “We’re really doing this,” Kaler said, giving a slow, deliberate nod. “Very well; we’ll give it our best.”

     “That we are. Percy, Amason, I need you two here to help coordinate logistics. I have to get back to the Independence,” Gaius turned and started to walk past Kylar.

     “We would prefer that you stay, Admiral,” the man spoke up, stopping Gaius in his tracks. “And coordinate the fleet from here.”

     Gaius narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “The Independence is the command ship for the First Fleet,” he countered.

     “The Nexus is the safest ship for you to be on, now. We have far superior defensive and offensive capabilities. It will also be much easier to coordinate from here, due to our technological superiority.”

     Gaius stared around the bridge, realizing for the first time that the few NI personnel, including himself, were sorely outnumbered. The ship itself probably carried a million Altarin’Dakor crewmembers. If they didn’t want him leaving, then he wasn’t going anywhere.

     “And if the Nexus falls?” he asked, facing the commodore once more.

     The nearest of the Titans began sending out beams of energy from its gun emplacements, which stretched across the distance to impact against the Nexus’ shields. A blue field began to glow around the ship.

     “Then we are all dead,” he said simply.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Inner Balconies

Royal Palace, Varnus

1020 Hours


Xar reached the center of the chamber and paused. The glowlamps were turned off, and the room was only dimly lit by the sunlight streaming in from the balconies outside. The far corners were bathed in shadow. Even still, he could see them there.

     Four Jedicon stepped forward to face him, angling in on his left and right. They quickly encircled him, and the multicolored blades of their lightsabers snapped to life in a sequence of piercing hisses.

     "We have been waiting long to face you," one of the warriors said in native Altarin'Dakor. "Defeating you will bring much honor."

     Xar gave a half-smile to indicate that he'd understood them. He could feel their strength in the Force; the Jedicon made no attempts to conceal it, arrogantly broadcasting it in an obvious, open challenge. He knew they were each about half as strong as he was, which would make them the equivalent of a strong Jedi Master. They held the advantage in numbers.

     Unfortunately for them, Force power levels weren't linear, but exponential. And these Jedicon would know that. It would take at least all four of them to equal one of Xar's ability. Yet Xar still held the advantage - he could divide and conquer.

     They started edging closer, watching Xar hungrily, obviously consumed by the bloodlust of already killing anyone they'd come across within the palace. Their clothes, he saw, were stained with blood, and not their own. Xar narrowed his eyes, his anger flaring white-hot inside. It was his people that they had killed. They were murderers. They deserved no mercy.

     So, they thought to force him into a four-on-one duel, did they? Using a technique he'd learned from his old master years ago, he reached out with the Force, sensing the crystals that were essential to a lightsaber's function and operation. He could feel them, vibrating subtly through the Force. Reaching out, he Pulled, jerking them out of alignment.

     Sparks shot out from the four Jedicon warriors' handles, and their faces registered surprise as their blades were extinguished. But these warriors were too experienced to be defeated by such a simple technique; reacting immediately, they threw their handles up and away, each in a direction away from himself and his comrades. Four small explosions lit up the air above their heads, sparing them from damage, and Xar was again impressed by the fighting instinct that a trained Jedicon, disciplined in war virtually from birth, could possess.

     Then all four Jedicon rushed in anyway, screaming war cries as they came in.

     Letting the blazing anger from within fuel him, Xar drew his Force power in, and time seemed to slow. The warriors were flying through the air towards him, fists raised.

     Throwing up a hand, he sent a powerful Force Push at the two on his left. As the men flew backwards, crying out as they somersaulted into the shadows, Xar threw himself at the other two.

     Even as one Jedicon reared back to strike, Xar's fist crashed across his face full-force, spinning his head wildly to the side. He heard vertebrae crack as the man's neck snapped, and he fell away, killed instantly from the blow.

     The next threw a fist at his head, which Xar quickly slapped to the side. Another punch streaked out, and Xar leaned away, dodging, then caught the man's arm with his hand, pulled him forward off balance, and threw a powerful kick to the man's head. The Jedicon's neck lurched to the side, his head falling at an odd angle, and Xar finished the throw, sending the man tumbling to the side.

     Barely a second had passed, but the first two Jedicon were back on their feet, launching back towards him. Xar sidestepped and caught the one on the right, sweeping his feet out with his leg and shoving him to the side. The man slammed into the wall, sending debris raining down on top of him.

     The last Jedicon had produced a wickedly-shaped dagger, and came at Xar with a wide, sweeping slash. Xar ducked, feeling wind pass over his head, then his hand snaked out and caught the Jedicon's wrist as he thrust a stab toward his midsection. He pulled the man's wrist to the side, then stepped in and rammed his fist straight into his enemy's solar plexus. Xar heard his sternum crack, and his hand sunk in nearly all the way into the man's chest, his armor caving inwards. The Jedicon's eyes went wide, and his mouth opened, but no sound came out. Xar released him and he fell to the floor face-first. Blood began draining from his mouth and formed a pool on the floor.

     He turned, and saw the Jedicon who'd hit the wall on his feet again, his face a bloody mess. The man screamed, then stepped forward, hands extended together, and a blast of Force energy shot from his hands, straight at Xar. Light flashed out, banishing the shadows from the room.
     Quickly gauging the strength of the attack, Xar retaliated, throwing out one hand and sending powerful blast of his own straight at his opponents'. The two blasts collided straight on in a flash, then Xar's more powerful attack dispersed his enemy's, continued straight on, and hit the surprised man dead in the chest.

     The man's torso exploded, sending blood and bone fragments flying into the air behind him. The body spun on its heels, chest blackened and cauterized, and fell to the floor, still on fire.

     Xar surveyed the scene, ensuring each of his opponents was fully deceased, then moved on. He took the turbolift up to the fifteenth floor without incident, then used his access code and took a smaller lift the rest of the way up to the command level. Still, his mind raced, adrenaline surging through his veins. He knew there were other Jedicon in the palace, other enemies invaders of his home. He wouldn't stop until every last invader in the palace paid the ultimate price for their invasion.

     As the lift doors whooshed open, he took off running again, eager to reach the command center. He sensed a shift in the situation through the Force, a building sense of unease and panic among the NI forces. Something bad was happening.
     He rounded the last corner in a Force-enhanced blur, approaching the command center doors, and heard the click of loaded weaponry and the shuffling of booted feet as several blaster carbines were aimed his way.
     "Stand down!" shouted one of the officers from within the guard station, the barricade that had been erected next to the command center's doors. Immediately the blasters returned to ready position as the half-dozen stormtroopers stationed there recognized Xar. The leader saluted even as Xar ran past. "Sorry, sir."
     Xar ignored him and passed through the doors as they opened. He found the Command Center just as he had left it, with officers at their stations, Gui Sun Paan at the primary console, and his wife standing nearby watching the tactical display.
     "Status report," Xar barked, causing all heads to turn towards him.
     "Sir!" Paan looked as relieved as Xar had ever seen when he saw the Grand Master. There was a sense of increased tension in the air, and many officers' faces looked ashen.
     Xar glanced at the tactical screen one more time and knew immediately what was wrong. His fierce anger at the invading forces turned into sheer disbelief. "Ten Titans?" he asked.
     Zalaria turned to face him as he moved in front of the tactical holoscreen for a closer look. "I sense that Nimrod is using his powers to create Illusions on a grand scale. An indeterminate number of those ships are mere phantoms, though at this stage it is impossible to determine which ones."
     Xar listened as she continued to explain, with Paan filling in a few gaps on troop movements and the preparations. As they spoke, a sense of dread began settling heavily on him, in addition to the weight that he'd felt all these past few weeks. This was it; the day he had feared for so long had finally come. And with stark realization he knew something else was now threatening to consume him - fear. It was immediate, a sense of impending doom that hung over him. He knew that they were hopelessly outmatched in this battle. Varnus was going to fall.
     "Be cautious," Zalaria said. "I sense Nimrod's influence affecting the minds and emotions of our personnel - including yours."
     Xar reared back in surprise, then shook his head to clear it. He hadn't even realized the subtle touch on his emotions, hadn't imagined that even he himself would be susceptible to such an attack. Now that he knew what it was, he was able to call on the Force and create a mental shield around himself. Nimrod's powers might be vast, but they were spread out on a wide scale, probably affecting the entire city and the NI fleet in orbit. He wasn't concentrating his attack on individuals, yet. With the shield up, the fear faded - mostly. There was still some; undeniably it must have been there already, resting within himself. That wouldn't be so easy to remove. He looked at his wife. "Do something about it," he said. " Fight back. Send out feelings of encouragement. Courage."
     He saw her hesitate. "I will try. It will shield our personnel, but at the risk of..." she began.
     "Forget about tipping Nimrod's hand," he said, gesturing to the holoscreen beside them. "He's throwing everything he's got at us. Whether or not he brings his full power against us, if we don't do something we'll all be dead by tomorrow, anyway."
     He met her gaze, unblinking, and after a moment her expression turned resolute and she nodded. "Very well."
     She closed her eyes for a brief moment, then opened them again. He immediately noticed a shift in the room's atmosphere, a more calm demeanor coming over the officers present. "Done," she said. "Though I can't guarantee complete protection from its effects. It may phase through at times."
     He nodded his thanks to her, then looked back to the screen. He could see the NI fleet moving into a defensive huddle, sheltering itself beneath the wing-like structures extending from the Nexus' hull. Fighters were spilling out of all the ships, including the enemy's, and a couple of Titans were already moving forward, opening fire on the NI vessels. The Battle of Varnus had begun.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Ascendancy

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1045 Hours


            Naguis’Voxavit Kamren Thansil rested in his cockpit seat and gripped the comfortable controls of his powerful Punisher-class assault fighter. It was large, yet sleek and maneuverable, and heavily armed, with five full beam weapons and an array of powerful missiles. It was made to destroy any enemy craft it encountered, from starfighters to transports, from bombers to corvettes. It was a thing of beauty, both for its form and also for its deadly efficiency.

     He waited in the quiet, face bathed in soft green light from above, his mind barely registering the reports of his and the other fighter wings coming into readiness. Instead his thoughts were on the coming battle, and on glory.
     Half a span ago, he along with every other warrior in the Ascendancy's vast hangar bays had knelt in solemn ceremony, in prayer to Nimrod that he would grant them swift victory and many slain enemies. It was an honored event held before any large-scale engagement, one that had been repeated through time immemorial throughout the Altarin'Dakor's long history. Today would be another of those days, one that would be known as the last step on the cusp of their glorious, grand Return.

     Once they launched, Kamren would command the fighters of the Ascendancy in a relentless assault in coordination with all the other ships in the fleet. It would be a glorious slaughter of the hapless New Imperium. In this battle, Kamren would give everything, holding nothing back, bringing all his skills and experience to bear in order to destroy as many foes as possible. He must shine, today - after all, as they all now knew, their god had joined them for this final, glorious battle. Victory was assured - the only question was how much glory would be had.

     Kamren wondered if, down there, some expert pilot awaited that would be able to give him the glorious death that all Altarin'Dakor craved. After the last engagement, he had meditated long and hard on the cause of the Return, on its true meaning. Now he had settled things in his mind. Things were clear once more.
     He hoped that Stele was out there, still alive. He hoped that he would be able to face him again. Kamren had bested Stele once, before, but his victory had been robbed from him at the last moment. Still, in Kamren's mind, he had already proved himself superior to Stele. He longed to finish what he had begun at Sigma. Nimrod grant that his prey would not elude him this time.
     Perhaps though, Stele would kill him, instead. This prospect also excited him as well, because it would mean he would fall in the greatest engagement of the war to date. Altarin'Dakor boys grew up hearing the stories of the ancient Battle of Varnus, when an outnumbered and outgunned force of Altarin'Dakor warriors and Jedicon had successfully defended the planet from a False Jedi attack, slaughtering millions of enemy warriors. Though they were eventually killed to a man by a second enemy force, that battle had been cemented in the psyche of all Altarin'Dakor that they were, in fact, superior, and that their claim of ownership to this galaxy was just and righteous.

     Today's battle would be a great symbol to his people. Dying here would be a grand honor. Kamren thought of his wife, and his children. He would leave a legacy that his sons would dream and strive for, carrying them through the ranks to surpass even their father. Perhaps he and Stele would both perish together. It would be the culmination of everything he had worked towards. Yes, things were very clear.
     The order to launch came suddenly. Smiling in anticipation, Kamren ordered all fighters forward. The external lights went out, his fighter was released, and he dove his gray and black-hulled vessel downwards as space opened up before him.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            In Orbit


            1045 Hours


            Fighters streamed out of the Super Star Destroyer Independence, along with every other ship in the New Imperium's First Fleet. Colonel Rivian von Donitz guided his fighter out of the Independence's hangar together with the first of the squadrons to leave. The fighter wings, every one of the First Fleet's, were under his command. Every one remaining, that was.
     They'd given him a TIE Defender for this mission, a rarity since so many have been lost in the war, and with the transition to the newer, more inexpensive TIE Avatar. The Defender was still the superior space fighter, and he supposed this was the preferable choice of the two. The Avatar was a piece of junk, in his opinion, little more than a cobbled-together Ugly. Still, though the Defender was better, he would miss his own sleek, agile Avenger this battle.
     His craft had been armed with advanced torpedoes for this engagement, giving him much more firepower to get through the shields of enemy fighters and transports. The two ion cannons had also been removed, replaced with an extra set of lasers. That gave him six cannons to fire with, which could be linked for rapid-fire, three-by-three, or full-six bursts. For this battle, they weren't interested in capturing the enemy.
     As Donitz pulled out from beneath the Independence, he saw the larger bulk of the Nexus resting above, one of its giant sail fins extending overhead like a massive ceiling. Fighters flew from her hangers in swarms. Around him, streams of NI Imperial and New Republic-model fighters pulled into formation, racing out to meet the approaching enemy ships that hung like a curtain filling the space ahead.
     The remnants of the First Fleet were assembled in a close formation, in geostationary orbit over the capital city of Vectur. The fleet was tattered and damaged from several serious engagements already, though they had performed hat repairs could be done in time. Surrounding Donitz's Wings of fighters were: the ISDs Vindicator, Trident, Phantom, Stormwatch, Red Horizon, Tsunami, and Fang; VSDs Reaper, Novaprince, and Raider; MC-90 Courageous and MC-80 Retribution, along with dozens of smaller capital ships and support craft including two Escort Carriers, two Interdictors, and many different frigates. Also present were four Majestic-class cruisers, the Iovius, the Repulse, the recently-repaired Scimitar, and the Majestic, the prototype itself. All the stops had been pulled out for this one. Dominating the NI formation were the Allegiance-class Star Destroyer Defiant, the SSD Independence, and the Titan-class Battleship Nexus.
     Above, the Nexus and the other Titans exchanged rounds of blue and yellow beam weapon fire, each thicker than Donitz's own starfighter. He knew they would have to avoid those at all cost.
     "This is Alpha Leader," he called into the fleet frequency. "All wings report in and enter formation. Prepare to engage enemy fighters."
     He listened as leaders Wings Alpha through Psi called in, the wave of fighters swelling steadily at his back. Still, next to the sheer amount of enemy fighters approaching, it looked small. His HUD map was lit up with so many contacts it looked like a massive fireworks display.
     With the recent losses at Moro and Sigma, the First Fleet had been reduced from thirty wings of fighters down to about twenty-three, approximately a twenty-five percent reduction in strength. Vectur and the planetary defense forces held about another five wings, flying under Commander Stele, and the Nexus carried around 1,500 Altarin'Dakor fighters. That gave them just over 3,500 total fighters to commit to Varnus' defense at the moment.
     Under normal circumstances, it would have been a formidable force to deal with. But with the Titan reinforcements that the invading enemy now had, the NI seemed painfully insignificant. Donitz stared at his screens as they reported over 10,000 fighters approaching them, the number still rising rapidly.
     He knew the NI had no chance to win this engagement. They were all going to die.
     "Lead, this is two. There's just too many of them. What do we do?"
     Donitz frowned, but didn't answer. At his flanks were his two wingmates, Gaestial “Gastron” sul Ambrac, and Cousner Nibiuri. They were experienced pilots. He had flown with them for several engagements. They wouldn't normally voice their fears aloud. He didn't expect them to break, even under immense pressure such as this.
     But Donitz was feeling the pressure, too. A growing sense of trepidation had been building inside of him for the last half hour, and now it was stronger than ever. Seeing the mass of enemy forces spread out before them now, a surge of dread and near-panic threatened to rise up in him, nearly paralyzing his arms and legs at the controls.
     He shook his head inside his flight helmet. This wasn't right; it wasn't natural. It was like what he'd felt when they'd begun the Battle of Mizar, only here it was ten times stronger. With a start he realized what was happening.
     The AD were using the Force to affect their minds - all of them. Either all their Jedicon were working in concert, or there was someone out there strong enough to do all this by himself.
     Now that he knew what it was, though, he could do something about it. Using a mental disciplining technique he'd learned long ago, he separated his emotions from the rest of his mind, bringing everything into clear, logical focus. He felt himself settle into a void of calm, regarding everything has one might a simple arithmetic problem. It was something that others had misunderstood about him, thinking him icy, aloof and heartless at times. It had given him a reputation as an insensitive, cold killer. It had saved his life many times.
     Looking around, he saw fighters beginning to waver along the line. Random chatter on the open line had dissolved into whispers of fear and dread. Some pilots were considering turning back, making a run for it, abandoning their duty.
     Donitz keyed his commlink. "Hold the line," he ordered, pronouncing his words clearly, projecting all the calm and authority into his voice that he could manage. "Don't give into the tricks of the enemy."
     His words seemed to have only the slightest effect. Faced with insurmountable odds, he knew that the NI pilots were about to break.
     Then, just as he calmly made the assessment that it was all over before it had even begun, the part of him he had detached in his mind was embed with a sudden surge of confidence. It's all right, a voice seemed to say. It's just a trick. We can do this.
     He immediately recognized this new feeling as not coming from within himself, either. Both were outside forces, and one had just supplanted the other, or perhaps had driven it back to a large extent. He suddenly felt excited, capable, nearly invincible.
     This, too, he shunted aside, with some effort. He didn't need false hope to help him fight. He had made his decision before ever donning his flight suit.
     The other pilots, however, benefited greatly from this much-needed morale boost. Lines steadied, and chatter ceased. He felt resolve solidify in his pilots. He didn't know what had caused this sudden surge in confidence, but he had a good idea where to look. Both the NI and AD forces were the unwitting pawns in a massive game of wits. Both would be used, and sacrificed if necessary, in a battle of much larger scale than that which could be seen in front of them.
     His assessment done, Donitz quickly brought his mind back to the reality of the present.
     About 2,000 Altarin'Dakor fighters were barreling straight for the NI formation. Donitz and the other fighters were quickly heading out to intercept them. This will be the first clash, he realized. The NI fighters outnumbered this particular wave, but he knew that the enemy starfighters would have superior firepower and maneuverability. That, together with the cybernetic link that many Altarin'Dakor pilots held, would make this a difficult match. In fact, this could be the last engagement any of them ever flew. But if that were the case, so be it. Donitz was always prepared for the worst.
     Fortunately, with the unexpected morale boost they'd received, Donitz was fairly confident that the rest of his wing wouldn't turn tail and run. He was about to give the order to attack when his comm channel suddenly chimed in.
     "This is Fleet Admiral Arden Vonture onboard the Independence," a calm, steady voice came over the commlink. "All fighters stand by. We are preparing a barrage."
        Donitz checked his screens and blinked in surprise. The front wave of AD fighters had overextended themselves well out beyond the reach of their capital ships, with nothing between them and the NI Starfleet, and packed as tightly as canned nerf. In such a close formation they were completely vulnerable to the well-trained gunners onboard the NI ships. What had they been thinking?
     Unabated, the AD fighters soared in at top speed, as though nothing at all were amiss. Donitz watched them approach on his readout, imagining their pilots rushing in, desperate to make the first kill of the battle. He watched them approach, even as the Fleet Admiral Vonture allowed them to come into optimal firing range. Then the NI fleet opened fire.
     Thousands of turbolaser blasts shot out into space, flashing past the NI fighter formations in an eyeblink, bolts of green and red and blue streaking out to the interval between the two fleets. Then all Donitz could make out was a bright wall of light as hundreds of enemy fighters were hit and vaporized. His screens showed whole clusters of dots disappearing within the span of a dozen seconds.
     "Incredible," Nibiuri's voice came over the commlink.
     The barrage suddenly ended, and in the wake of destruction Donitz saw far fewer fighters emerge. Still, though the survivors were hopelessly outnumbered, they charged on anyway. Some of the advance NI wings moved in and engaged, though at this point the odds were back in the New Imperium’s favor.
     Donitz couldn't believe that their commander had been so foolish - or perhaps he had been overconfident?
     Then he saw the number of enemy fighters continuing to swell on his screens, and he shook his head inside his flight helmet. No, they had been neither foolish, nor overconfident. Simply assured of their victory. They outnumbered the NI forces so badly that they could afford to throw away thousands of fighters if they wanted to.
     Could they have simply been sending a message? He could think of no better way to strike fear into enemy combatants and destroy their morale than to flagrantly display such apathy towards the loss of their forces. The Altarin'Dakor didn't care whether they lived or died today.
     Suddenly, as if in retribution, at least fifty massive beams of energy shot out from all the Titans in front of them, reaching across space to connect with the ships of the NI fleet. Shields lit up brightly beneath the withering assault, and some smaller ships were immediately overwhelmed, the beams plunging into hulls and slicing them open like a surgeon's scalpel. Durasteel plates melted into slag, then vaporized in bright clouds of glowing hot gas. Within seconds the NI lost three frigates and two strike cruisers, their explosions lighting up the hulls of the surrounding ISDs and sending chunks of molten metal drifting out of the formation.
     Then Donitz turned his attention forward once more. They had nearly reached the halfway point between the two fleets. About a dozen AD heavy cruisers had advanced forward now, escorted by another cluster of fighters. Meanwhile, the Titans continued to advance, spilling out more fighters by the thousands. It was about to get ugly.
     The first rounds finally exchanged, the two fleets began pounding at one another at long range. The NI and AD fleets opened up again almost simultaneously. The battle was on full-force, now, with continuous fire lancing out all around them. The Nexus, Independence and other ships of the fleet spread fire forward at the lead Titans, while the massive behemoths returned fire, pouring energy into the Nexus' force field as well as the shields of the smaller NI vessels.
     "There must be twenty thousand fighters out here by now!" Nibiuri shouted on the squadron frequency.
     Donitz glanced at his screens again. Ten Titans. Fighters continued to pout out into space from them. Twenty thousand fighters was probably a conservative estimate. "Cut the chatter," he ordered. Then, switching back to the fleet frequency he said, "Alpha Leader to all wings. Break and attack."
     NI fighter formations broke up as they moved into range of the approaching AD fighters, the cruisers looming large alongside them. Suddenly beams of energy shot out of the sky ahead, hundreds of them, as the AD ships reached firing range first. All around, NI ships began to explode as they were struck. Soon after, bright flashes of missile launches appeared, flying into the cloud of NI fighters and lending more havoc to the fray.
     Seconds later, the AD ships were in range. Donitz got solid lock on two approaching fighters and armed his advanced torpedoes. He tightened his finger on the trigger, sending out one torpedo towards each. Joining him, hundreds of other missiles and torpedoes streaked out towards the cloud of AD fighters ahead. Explosions lit the space ahead, as missiles lit up enemy shields and sent their craft spinning off course, or penetrated and blew their fuselages to pieces.
     One of Donitz' torpedoes was speared by an enemy beam blast and detonated. The other hit its target in the starboard wing and blew it clean off before detonating behind the fighter. The vessel spun wildly out of control, out of the fight. Donitz forced his sights back on the first fighter again and switched to lasers. He got off a quick shot that missed, then the sleek fighter blew past him to port in an eyeblink, followed by uncountable numbers of others as the two groups of fighters finally mixed into a gigantic furball. He nearly jumped as a random fighter flashed into view and passed him by mere meters. Realizing he had just narrowly escaped accidental death, he wrenched the stick back, starting into a tight loop to get back on the enemies' tails.
     As his craft turned, he saw thousands of turbolaser blasts pouring out from the First Fleet, crisscrossed with fire from the enemy vessels. Just then explosion ripped out of the ISD Trident's forward center, as a Titan's energy beam penetrated her shields. Then the vista floated up and away from him as he dove to gain his target's six.
     He came in at a high angle of attack and opened up with stutter fire from his TIE Defender's six laser cannons. His shots peppered the upper shields of the craft, and the enemy pilot threw his craft into a corkscrew and dove away, finally realizing he had a tail. Donitz stuck to him like glue, his fighter's maneuverability high in the vacuum of space.

     He recognized the enemy fighter as an Aggressor, a sleek fighter as well suited to the atmosphere as in space. Turning tight to the point of nearly blacking out, Donitz pulled lead and squeezed the trigger again. This time he scored a direct hit, his first two blasts battering down the rest of the fighter's shields and the next pair catching the craft in the rear engine housing. Flames shot out the back followed by a flash in the stern, then the fighter broke apart, pieces flying in all directions.
     Donitz checked his screens and noted that he couldn't find Nibirui or Ambrac nearby, then muttered a curse. They hadn't been able to follow his maneuver and had probably lost him in the fray. Explosions blossomed all around him, with dozens dying by the moment. It was total chaos, and Donitz knew one of the biggest dangers was flying into someone unintentionally.
     Then his warning light went off. He glanced to port as a bright flash loomed towards him, an enemy missile coming in. Slewing his ship in that direction, he centered his crosshairs on the warhead and fired a chain of laser blasts. One hit, and the missile exploded, its fragments and expanding gasses passing by to port. Then, realizing that his enemy was banking around onto his tail, Donitz rolled his fighter to starboard and yanked the stick back hard.
     He was just in time. Two yellow beams shot through the area he'd been heading towards. Donitz pulled a tight loop, sensing his opponent match his every move. This ship was a Stiletto, one of the enemy's most advanced fighters. Dodging with all the skill he had, Donitz wove a crazy pattern in between dogfighting ships and laser blasts, realizing a stray burst could kill him as surely as the enemy on his tail. He passed low beneath one of the AD cruisers that was heading for the NI position, watching as a beam from the Nexus came down from above and cut the ship in half.
     As the cruiser exploded overhead, Donitz shot forward in a burst of speed, then cut his throttle back to zero and used the Defender's mobility to rotate 180 degrees to starboard. He saw a flash as his pursuer's blast passed beneath him, too far inside range, and just as the enemy craft loomed large over his crosshairs Donitz released two advanced torpedoes straight ahead. The missiles took the target straight in the nose, punching through to the center of the fighter before blowing it out of the sky in an expanding fireball.
     Spinning back on course, Donitz pulled a tight loop and turned back into the fray. At this point there was little point in using his display screens, since there were so many dots it was impossible to pinpoint the location of anyone. He simply locked onto the nearest enemy fighter and dove in.

     One thing was curious, though. A whole cluster of fighters from the Nexus, one thousand strong according to his computer, had moved out of the dogfight to engage another group of AD fighters about four times its size. The two groups of fighters met one another and blended into one massive furball. Oddly though, it didn’t seem to devolve into utter chaos as the current engagement had. Instead, whole squadrons of fighters seemed to be moving in perfect concert, matching one another’s maneuvers more perfectly than a flock of migrating birds.

     Such uncanny symmetry could only mean one thing: Jedicon were flying those fighters. For whatever reason, both the Nexus’ Jedicon pilots and those of the attacking Altarin’Dakor had chosen to engage one another completely separate from the rest of the battle. Though undoubtedly some mark of AD pride, he supposed it made sense, rather than have Jedicon pilots pick off regular fighters one by one in the chaotic jumble. Still, the odds did not bode well for the NI, at all. What would happen when the Nexus’ fighters were all destroyed? Not to mention that the NI’s fighter strength had just been cut nearly by a third.

     But there was no more time to worry about it. Even though the first furball was still underway, another large wave of enemy fighters was heading in. At the same time, Donitz’ commlink came alive again, this time with the voice of Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai himself.

     “Enemy transport launches have been detected,” the Fleet Commander’s voice came over his own squadron frequency. His voice, usually calm even back during the battle at Moro, had a detectable level of strain on it. With surprise Donitz realized the transmission was coming from the Nexus, not the Independence. “Donitz, I need you to take them out now. They cannot be allowed to land in Vectur.”
     "Roger, Admiral," Donitz replied at once. He hit the fleet frequency again. "Alpha Leader wings Alpha through Epsilon. Break off and intercept enemy transports immediately."

     A round of acknowledgements came in, and Donitz took the lead, turning away from the approaching new wave of enemy fighters, hoping he could stay ahead of them and reach the enemy transports before they hit the atmosphere. He could already see them on his HUD, a long string of bracketed objects surrounded by another cloud of enemy fighters.

     Meanwhile, Donitz could see the NI Fleet ahead once more, pouring turbolaser blasts by the thousands into enemy fighters, capital ships, and Titans. Near the center of the formation were the four Majestic-class cruisers that the NI still retained. Those ships, basically a cruiser-sized mass driver with engines, were firing ultra-high velocity projectiles larger than Donitz’s own fighter at enemy capital ships. When their blasts hit the enemy, even heavily-armored AD hulls broke apart under the impact. As he watched, a blast from the Majestic hit one of the AD cruisers head on, obliterating the front of the cruiser and sending the rest of the ship up in a chain reaction, consuming it from bow to stern in seconds.
     “Sir, we found you!” a voice broke through into his headset. Donitz immediately recognized Ambrac, and saw him, Nibiuri and the rest of his flight coming up to port.

     “Get in formation, Gastron,” he ordered. “We must catch up to those transports.”

     The enemy already had a solid lead on them. Donitz pushed the throttles up to full, passing back through the gauntlet of fire between the NI and AD fleets, which were getting closer by the minute. The fighter battle had pulled back closer to the NI ships now, and to his consternation Donitz saw that enemy fighters were buzzing NI capital ships, now.

     No, scratch that. They were attacking head on. In utter astonishment, Donitz watched as at least a dozen AD fighters flew towards the Independence at top speed, opening up with all their weapons as they got close, and never even moved to turn away. They simply slammed straight into her hull, obliterating themselves on impact.

     It was not an isolated phenomenon. As he passed by the fleet, he saw countless AD fighters ramming NI capital ships head on, sending huge explosions flaring up all over the NI vessels. Again and again fighters crashed into turbolaser emplacements on Star Destroyers, or windows, or flew into hangars, carrying their ships and warheads in a one-time, fatal attack. The MC-80 Retribution’s main hangar was hit, sending a gout of flame pouring back out, and as a half dozen or more fighters slammed home, the ship began to break apart in a growing ball of orange flame.

     “What are they doing?!” came Nibiuri’s voice.

     Donitz ignored him, simply staring in wonderment. Why were they acting so desperately? What could possess those pilots enough to commit suicide to inflict damage on the NI Fleet, even though victory was virtually assured anyway? Shouldn’t the NI be the one taking desperate measures?

     How were they going to stand up against this?

     Then passed by the Independence, and truly saw how far the enemy was willing to go to completely overwhelm and devastate their opponents. The entire superstructure of the Independence’s bridge was swarmed with enemy fighters, more than the gunners onboard could eliminate in time. Fighter after fighter slammed into the protruding structure, wreathing it in fire. Then a squadron flew straight in at the bridge itself. The bridge gunners shot two out of the sky, but the rest slammed into the forward viewport. A wall of fire made its way up the front of the superstructure before it dissipated in the void.

     But all that had been a prelude. Seeing their attack fail to produce its intended result, the largest of the AD Titans opened up with a pair of massive energy beams that hit the bridge structure dead-on. Then all that could be seen was a blinding flash of light as the structure was consumed, the blasts ripping through the bridge and continuing all the way to the other side, obliterating everything.

     At the beams subsided, a massive cloud of superheated gas and smoke poured upwards from the body of the Independence, all that remained of the bridge superstructure. The star destroyer sat there like a decapitated soldier that hadn’t yet realized he had been killed.

     Yet there it remained, still firing unabated. There was no huge outcry of dismay on the comm channels. Donitz knew, as everyone else did, that the whole bridge structure had been abandoned prior to the start of the AD attack. Fleet Admiral Vonture was controlling things from the auxiliary bridge deep within the ship. The loss of life had probably been minimal. There would be no Executor-style fall into the planet hovering below them. The Independence was still very much alive.
     As if to articulate the point, a hundred of the ship’s port batteries opened up on the foremost AD cruiser, catching it amidships. The shields failed and the blasts ripped into her side, chewing through her hull into the cruiser's interior decks. Then a massive explosion ripped out of the middle, blowing the ship in two and sending the two remaining chunks flying off in opposite directions.
     Then they were past, and the transports and their escorts were all that lay ahead. They looked to number in the hundreds, far too many to shoot down before they hit atmosphere. Donitz saw that a couple of hundred fighters had pulled up along with him, having broken off from the main fight. It still wouldn't be enough, he knew. They were just too badly outnumbered.
     Even worse, he saw that one of the Titans, the Fall of Light, was accelerating forward behind the transports, moving as if trying to cut of Donitz's group. If that Titan got close, it would all be over.
     As they approached, Donitz gave orders as needed, commanding different wings to target different points along the line of transports. The leading transports were already entering the planet's atmosphere, though, and some of the fighter escorts were breaking off to engage the NI attackers.
     "Punch through their defense line quickly," Donitz ordered into the comm. "Stay focused on the transports, we must stop them at any cost."
     Then beams lit up the sky as the AD fighters came in. NI ships detonated by the dozens as they were hit. Donitz let off a few potshots at an approaching line of fighters, then picked as spot between groups and led his flight through. They passed through the gauntlet unscathed, and Donitz locked onto the nearest transport and armed his advanced torpedoes.
     Each transport was between one and two hundred meters long, big enough to carry a few hundred troops or an assortment of assault vehicles. As they grew closer, the ships opened up with pulse laser fire, sending out a cloud of bright glowing balls by the thousands. Donitz's craft began to buckle as random blasts hit his shields, too many for even him to dodge them all. He jinked left and right, keeping his target in sight, his twin-ion engines screaming as he came in at high speed. Torpedoes began to stream in from all around, some being shot down prematurely, while others impacted and lit up their targets' shields a bright blue. Then his Defender's tone went solid to indicate a lock.
     Squeezing the trigger, Donitz sent two pairs of torpedoes streaking out, then banked to starboard to avoid running into his target. The transport took a couple of hits first from other attacks, then his own warheads penetrated the shields and struck near the transport's aft.
     The ship's rear quarter exploded - the engines were blown apart from the blast and the rest of the ship broke apart, spilling its contents into the void. Donitz glimpsed clusters of bodies flying out into vacuum before the remains passed out of view.
     "Sir, request for help! My target is still intact!"
     Donitz looped around to see what his flight member was talking about. Ambrac had made a run on the transport in front of Donitz's, loosed his torpedoes and was now pulling back around. Problem was, the transport was still there unscathed, still heading straight for the planet below. "What happened, Gastron? Did you miss?" he asked.
     "No, sir. Direct hit - only no damage! The torps... they went right through!"
     "What?" Donitz jinked to dodge a blast of pulse laser fire, then pulled alongside his wingmate.
     "I'm not crazy, sir. Look! There it is again!"
     Donitz did indeed look. The general comm channel was abuzz with pilots complaining of direct hits, yet their targets were completely undamaged. It seemed as though every two or three transports in the formation that had been targeted were still there, perfectly intact.
     Then, as he watched, a bright flaring torpedo from an NI Avatar shot in from the distance, hit one of the transports - and passed right out the other side.
     "Impossible..." he whispered.
     Then, even as he looked on, the hull of the transport faded, becoming almost transparent, and finally disappeared altogether. One minute it was there, and the next it was just... not there anymore. Donitz quickly glanced around the rest of the formation. Other transports began to fade and disappear, one by one, until in all probably a third of the ships they'd been targeting were simply gone. Most of the others were already entering the planet's atmosphere, leaving only a few stragglers behind in range of the NI's remaining fighters.
     "Sir, what do we do?" Ambrac's voice came to his ears.
     Donitz shook his head, at a loss for what to say. How in the name of the Sith were they to fight like this?
     "Form up," he ordered, his voice still icily calm despite the thoughts racing through his head. "Take out as many remaining transports as you can."
     He threw the throttles forward, straining his craft to catch up with the rearmost ships in the formation. The last transports were entering the atmosphere now, their hulls beginning to glow red from the friction of reentry. Locking torpedoes on target, Donitz fired. His wingmen followed suit, along with what few NI fighters weren't still engaged with the defensive fighter wing.
     Donitz's warheads hit, destroying the rear of the craft ahead, and another pair streamed in from the side to finish the job. Two other transports were hit, one exploding brilliantly off to port, the other taking the assault on with its shields and passing through intact.

     Suddenly a blast from one of the remaining transports took Nibiuri’s TIE Defender straight on, detonating the craft’s ball cockpit and sending its three solar panels flying off in different directions. Donitz swerved to avoid the debris, cursing under his breath.
     Then the transports were in the atmosphere. In order to pursue, they would have to dive in and follow them in, abandoning the rest of the fleet. For a moment, Donitz considered it heavily. His cockpit was already heating up, the tips of his solar panels beginning to glow slightly as his Defender began to skip across the outer edges of the atmosphere.
     But he checked his screens again, and saw the massive Titan growing ever closer behind them. If they went in, they would be cut off from returning to the fleet, and if they didn't do something about it, the behemoth would soon flank the First Fleet and begin assaulting them from both sides.
     Besides, his fighters were still engaged with hundreds of enemy ships, and thousands more were waiting in the wings. There was work to be done here, as well. The planetary forces out of Vectur would be moving to intercept the transports.
     With a muttered curse, Donitz pulled back to engage more enemies and to fight their way back to the First Fleet's position. They had failed to stop the enemy from reaching the atmosphere. But then again, the whole situation had been hopeless to begin with.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Main Hangar Bay

            Vectur, Varnus

            1105 Hours


            Maarek spent the morning with his pilots, chatting with them over breakfast. They discussed many things, catching up on their personal lives and their aspirations for life once the war was over. Maarek knew each one well, and spent the time trying to etch into memory each moment he had with them – their stories, their faces, their personalities. He had long since given up trying to stay cool and impersonal with them. They were his Squadron, his own personal squad that he had built and trained himself. They had flown countless missions together, and Maarek had been together with them longer than any other single unit before. They were like family, and truth be told, they were the closest people to him left in the New Imperium. Time had changed things, and aside from his squadron, he didn’t know who he could turn to – or trust.
     Good-natured, fun-loving Rann Wosper. Cool, duty-minded loyalist Tanya Vinikoro. Gentle, experienced leader Bast Vlagen. Kind-hearted jokester Kikitik, one of the few remaining free members of his race, after Sigma. Strong-willed survivor Gren Pabos of the Renastatians. Righteous advocate-fighter Salle Darl. The newest member, confident ace Narm Greyrunner. Maarek loved them all.
     He also missed Petur Kien, a young star that had risen fast, and had fallen far sooner than it should have.
     The squadron cherished the time they had together, discussing pleasant things. There had been no need to tell them of the direness of this mission; they had all been through many life and death situations already. Maarek hoped that they would all come out of this – hoped like he never had before. But the facts didn’t lie; the odds were not in their favor. Maarek knew – as did they all – that some of them might not make it back today. Still, they all knew their duty. They were all committed to the task set before them, and none of them would shirk back from it.
     When the report of the enemy came in, they made their way to the hangar bay to prep their ships, their prized TIE Avatars. Maarek had flown virtually every type of ship that the Empire or the New Republic had ever produced, but the Avatar was currently his favorite. She was as suited to spaceflight as to the atmosphere, and carried more firepower than a TIE Defender with a stronger power plant and shields. The only thing she lost was speed and maneuverability, but in the atmosphere the Avatar was more aerodynamic.
     It was to the atmosphere that Inferno Squadron had been limited, today. Orders from Command.
     They had barely started their pre-flight checkups when the palace alarms had gone crazy, and the announcement of intruders had been made. Pilots had scrambled to their ships, and moments later it was revealed that the Altarin'Dakor fleet was already in orbit. The battle had begun.
     Settled into his cockpit, Maarek had taken a few deep, calming breaths, trying to steel his nerves. The hum of the fighter's twin-ion engines did its best to soothe his worries away. He knew this could very well be the last mission he'd ever fly.
     As he sat there, a terrible feeling of dread had suddenly come over him. I don't want to die today, a part of him thought, trying desperately to make him reach out and open the hatch, to get out of the cockpit and run away somewhere to hide. He pushed that part down, knowing it was probably just his natural, human survival instincts. He tried not to think of things like that too much. But then, as he sat there just waiting, the feeling only got stronger.
     Maarek knew he was considered one of the best fighter pilots alive in the galaxy. His reputation had followed him around wherever he'd traveled throughout the Empire. He'd rarely met anyone, not in the last few years, who could offer him a real challenge.
     But days ago, fighting in orbit of Sigma Prime, he had been bested. Finally, Maarek had encountered someone who was better than he was. And sitting there, in the insane, nerve-wracking waiting that always comes before a battle, Maarek felt true fear once again. What if he met Kamren Thansil again in the skies above Vectur this day? From the moment he'd first seen their impossibly-huge ships, the Altarin'Dakor had scared him in a way that nothing ever had, in the way that all creatures feared the dark unknown, the utterly foreign. Now Kamren Thansil embodied that fear, and today was the day he would have to face it head-on...
     Suddenly, the tension eased. His fear lessened. He felt a reassuring warmth seep into his muscles, and an inaudible sense of someone telling him it was going to be all right. He felt better immediately; in fact, he felt almost giddy at the prospect of going into battle. It was such a sharp turnaround that it immediately flagged his concern.
     Something is messing with my emotions. There was little doubt as to what it could be; they were surrounded by Force-Sensitives. A knot of fiery anger suddenly blossomed in his stomach. All his life, Maarek felt like he'd been a pawn to the Jedi, and he was tired of it. They meddled where they had no right to interfere. They used people's lives like they were playing some grand game of strategy. And now, the AD wanted to use that power to control everyone, everywhere with their power. This time, they would pay.
     Then the announcement had come through - AD troop transports were entering the atmosphere. Inferno Squadron and the rest of the planetary defense force would launch and intercept.
     That had been Maarek's morning.
     Now he pulled back on the stick, banking his TIE Avatar into a climb that left the Royal Palace behind, a massive square of land receding quickly below, along with the huge cluster of skyscrapers stretching off to the south. Supersonic and nearly vertical, he ascended past the puffy white clouds and into the clear blue sky, gunning for altitude as fast as he could. The rest of Inferno Squadron, along with the rest of the Varnusian planetary defense force, was right beside him.
     The enemy was coming down.
     The city's turbolasers were already opening up, targeting the bright spots in the sky growing closer and lower by the minute. The ground fading quickly below, Maarek adjusted his TIE Avatar on an approach to head off the leading transports. As they grew closer, those specks in the sky became dozens of different pinpoints of light, then resolved into hundreds. The larger specks were surrounded by clusters of smaller ones - fighter attack squadrons.
     "Break and attack," Maarek ordered to the whole wing. "Inferno Squadron, on me. We'll take out the lead ships."
      "Copy, Lead," Bast Vlagen's voice came.
      "Understood," Salle Darl chimed in.
     He kept both the wing and squadron channels open, one ear on each to keep abreast of things, then soared in towards the enemy.
     "They're coming in fast, Boss," Rann spoke up.

     Rann was right; was right; the enemy was getting closer with each passing second, resolving into hundreds and hundreds of growing bright spots in the sky. Most were fighters, but the larger ones that were transports were also numerous, and Maarek knew he would be hard-pressed to stop them with just under 400 fighters. Reaching altitude in the upper regions of the atmosphere, he began to level his fighter off, turning onto an approach vector with the leading ships.
     As they closed, beams of energy began striking down from the sky, followed by streaking contrails of missile launches. NI fighters began to take hits, exploding before they even got into range. Seconds later Maarek attained lock on an enemy ship, and he let loose with a pair of advanced concussion missiles that soon joined with hundreds more, firing towards the approaching enemy. The warheads rose into the sky, seeking their targets. Many were shot down before they could make it, but those that got through created a cluster of explosions along the enemy's frontline, sending ships careening off course and destroying others.
     Maarek saw that his target was still coming in, and as the distance shrank further he switched to lasers. As he tried to draw aim, he saw a blast from the enemy flash downwards and begin angling straight towards him. He applied left rudder and skidded to port, missing the attack, but that put the enemy off his crosshairs. As the AD ship blew past him towards the surface, he pulled the stick back and looped back around as fast as he could.
     Altain'Dakor and New Imperium ships met together in a crazy swarm of steel, energy and death. As Maarek turned in the thin atmosphere, NI fighters passed him from beneath while AD ships streaked downwards, and explosions lit up the sky all around him. He made it around, another TIE Avatar flashing by to port as he did so, and angled his craft back downwards. He pulled around onto his enemy's tail and quickly attained lock once more. Though the target was kilometers away by now, he squeezed the trigger, sending out another pair of missiles. The warheads streaked away, quickly gaining the distance, and his enemy apparently finally realized he was under attack and began to go evasive. Unfortunately, his speed had built up to the point where the craft could not turn fast enough, and as he began to pull out the missiles connected, detonating as they struck the rear of the craft and blowing it into a thousand fragments.
     Maarek pulled out in search of other targets, and saw that Rann had stayed close to Maarek while tracking another enemy fighter. As he watched, the ships banked hard to port above his cockpit canopy, Rann turning tight in on his opponent. Green blasts of energy shot from the Avatar's wingtips, catching the enemy Aggressor in the wing and blowing it clean off. The enemy fighter started a tight spiral and plunged towards the ground.
     "Three. One on your six, Lead!" Tanya's voice rang in Maarek's ears.
    Maarek rolled to starboard and banked right and down, hard. He glanced back over his shoulder, just glimpsing the top of an enemy Stiletto's fuselage as his opponent turned in expertly behind him.
     Diving sharply, Maarek banked left and right, twisting his fighter violently from side to side in an attempt to escape. Streams of air trailed above off the edges of his wings, while each time he turned away, beams of red energy punched through the air he had just been in. Even with his inertial compensator dialed way up, the gravitational forces plastered Maarek in his seat, and he felt just one step away from blacking out at any moment. He hoped the whole fighter didn't fly apart under the strain. The numbers flew by on his altimeter; he was falling, fast. Meanwhile, the enemy stuck to him like glue, and Maarek wracked his brain trying to figure out what else to do.  
     "Hang on, Lead. I've almost got him!"
     Maarek didn't bother responding; his teeth were so tightly clenched from the strain that he doubted he could. As he rolled left again and began to bank hard, he saw the Stiletto overhead again just as a missile from Tanya flew in and hit the craft in the craft in the side. The AD fighter was blown to the side by the blast, its shields flaring up from the impact.
     Cutting the throttle back, Maarek pulled a left turn as tightly as he could, bringing the enemy fighter back into view as he fell down past Maarek's Avatar. The enemy had miscalculated and dove right instead of left, passing him right over his crosshairs. Maarek fired, sending a quad-linked burst of fire straight into the ship's fuselage. The fighter ripped open and exploded, the blast shattering the cockpit and sending pieces of both craft and pilot raining down towards the surface.
     Maarek pulled back into formation with Tanya again and saw that Rann was just moments away from joining them. Anxiously he scanned the skies above and his tactical display, searching for the other members of Inferno amid the swirling chaos of blips, and after a moment gave a sigh of relief. Everyone was still alive.
     With Flight Three down to two pilots anyway, he had asked Salle and Narm to join in with Bast's flight, creating a five-strong bond with which to take on the enemy. They were all still in the same vicinity now, and had routed a cluster of fighters away from one of the transports. As Maarek's flight rose to join them, he saw several missiles fly in from Bast and Kikitik, finally penetrating the transport's shields and blasting into her sides. Atmosphere, fire and troops poured out of the openings, and under coordinated fire from Salle, Narm and Gren below, the transport broke up and became a flaming ball of wreckage plunging towards the ground.
     Maarek took a sip of water from his suit's built-in bladder and took stock of the rest of the battle going on. They had descended more than halfway back down to the surface, and yet most of the transports were still there. The NI ships were busy dogfighting AD fighters, and to his dismay he noted the New Imperial forces had suffered heavy casualties already, probably at least a fourth of their original strength. And every minute more AD ships were making it through the blockade above.
     "Form on me," he ordered even as a flaming Avatar plunged downwards in front of him, pieces breaking off in a trail behind the craft. "We've got to hit those transports hard."
     "Four. We're on you, Lead," Bast's voice came in, reassuringly.
     Cycling through targets, Maarek found the nearest transport and dove towards it. All of the large craft were barreling towards Vectur at high speed, desperately gunning for ground. In only a few more minutes they would reach the gleaming metropolis and slow, emptying their contents down onto the city streets. Maarek knew that every transport they destroyed would mean a little easier fight for the ground troops, and fewer casualties as well.
     Gunning the throttles forward, Maarek led Inferno Squadron on a high-speed intercept with the target. Trails of vapor streamed out behind them as they closed, and as the transport loomed larger ahead Maarek thumbed over to missiles again.
     Suddenly, a trio of fighter escorts broke off from around the transport and turned towards the attacking Avatars.
     "Two Flight, take 'em out," Maarek ordered.
     As Bast, Gren and Kikitik broke off to engage, Maarek led Rann, Tanya, Salle and Narm straight at the ship's heart. Pulse laser fire lit the air in front of them, and their shields began taking loud hits as they soared ahead in close formation.
     Fortunately, the overlap from their shields proved strong enough, and as the transport grew to fill the sky ahead all four Avatars unleashed their missiles straight ahead. Then they broke off, each headed away in a different direction, as eight missiles hit the ship broadside in rapid succession.
     The transport exploded, a massive fireball separating the front and rear of the craft and sending the pieces falling below, even as the cloud of fire and smoke expanded upwards.
     Banking around, Maarek moved to assist the rest of the squadron with the three enemy fighters, but as he did so he saw the last enemy fighter, a Dirk, blown to pieces by laser fire from Gren Pabos. The debris rained down into the clouds as Gren's fighter soared past above.
     "Nice work, team," Maarek said, smiling victoriously. There was nothing quite like being part of a tightly-knit unit, where each member knew one another so well that they hardly had to speak at all, yet could act completely as one.
     Glancing at his status display, he saw that his shields needed a few minutes to recharge after the last barrage. Furthermore, he was down to only a few missiles. "We'll have to rearm soon," he said over the link. Meanwhile, the fight was still raging around them, and had finally moved into the airspace above Vectur itself. Despite their best efforts, the enemy had reached the city, and he saw transports begin to disappear behind the tall buildings of the city center as they made their landing.
     "Kriff it all," he cursed under his breath. "Commander Stele to NI pilots, pour it on. We cannot allow another wave of transports to land. Secondary objective is now to provide air support for the ground troops. We must not allow the enemy to achieve air superiority."
     Then he banked his Avatar in a wide turn towards the city, realizing even as he spoke that the task set before them was virtually impossible. More enemy ships were coming down, and with the fight over and around Vectur itself, things were about to get far uglier. This was going to be a very, very long day.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1125 Hours


            Jinx sprinted across the front balcony, coming up to face the latest enemy Jedicon. His opponent, heading towards a group of guards stationed on the wall, saw Jinx and abruptly started towards him, instead. Jinx brandished his lightsaber, yelling as he came in.
     They clashed blades in a burst of light, Jinx's momentum driving his opponent temporarily backwards. The Jedicon stepped to the rear, then quickly jumped and pulled a backwards somersault as Jinx stepped in and swung, his blade passing centimeters underneath his opponent.
     The Jedicon landed on his feet and drew his blade in a complex spiral, weaving a pattern of light that left streaks in Jinx's vision. His opponent smiled. Jinx stepped in with a roar.
     They clashed blades again and again, the Jedicon matching him stroke for stroke. Jinx stepped back, riposted and came back in, striking high twice in rapid succession. The Jedicon parried and blocked, then in a show of strength locked blades and drew Jinx's down until they were face to face.
     The dark-skinned Jedicon extended his tongue, growling in thirst for blood, and with a roar pushed Jinx back, disengaged, then rushed forward with a powerful overhead strike. Catching his footing, Jinx brought his blade up and met the blow straight on. Then, drawing deeply on the Force for strength, he forced the enemy's blade around to the right and down to the wall's edge beside them. Their blades dug into the stone, and before the enemy could extract his weapon Jinx reversed, swinging his blade to the left and cleaving through the Jedicon's torso in one powerful stroke.
     He quickly jumped back, avoiding the enemy's blade as the man fell dead, blood vapor setting on the wall and stone floor below.
     I can't believe I'm fighting in the palace, he thought. Just days ago it had been a place of safety, a fortress of security for refugees throughout the Quadrant. Now he wondered if those refugees had come to their deaths, here.
     He turned to survey the rest of the scene. The battle was raging out here on the balconies as well as inside the palace itself. Dozens of Jedicon had infiltrated, but so far the combined force of the whole Jedi Division seemed to match them nearly evenly in strength. Members had fallen on both sides. But the Division, of course, didn't have as many to spare.
     So far, the more adept Jedi had done the best they could to keep the less-experienced Jedi from facing their opponents alone, but they had not been entirely successful. Eric Donos lay in a pool of blood on the stone floor at Quaestor Neres Warjan's feet. As Jinx watched though, Neres finished off the opponent, batting aside the blue-skinned Jedicon's blade and sending a blast of energy from his hand, taking alien in the chest.
     Nearer to Jinx, a Jedicon penetrated Knight Jaren Dunt's guard and thrust his blade through the young man's midsection. Jaren fell, but before the Jedicon could fully extract his blade Kiz Thrakus was upon him. Thrakus swung twice, and his enemy fell in several pieces on the ground.
     Finding a momentary lapse in the fighting, the Jedi outside took a moment to regroup. About a dozen of them were there, and Jinx jogged up beside Thrakus, who was leaning out over the wall and looking towards the city.
     Jinx followed his gaze and saw that the AD were finally landing transports in the city. Meanwhile, a fierce dogfight was raging in the air. Fighters dodged in and out of the clouds as sonic booms reverberated throughout the city.
     "This is bad," Neres panted, coming up beside them. He was covered in dirt and sweat, but otherwise appeared unharmed. Jinx nodded agreement - he felt like Neres looked - but before he could speak Thrakus broke in.
     “Look there!" Kiz shouted, gesturing to the right with his glowing blade. Transport coming in towards us!”
     Everyone else turned to look, and Jinx saw something approaching them from the west. A flight of fighters seemed to be flying directly in front of the approaching transport, taking the brunt of the defensive turbolaser fire from the city.
    As they watched, one of the fighters was shot down, followed by another, blasting into a thousand pieces. The rest continued to approach rapidlly, and split away just before they reached the palace. Turbolaser strikes hit another one and sent it crashing towards the ground in flames. Then the transport itself was visible. As it soared overhead, it abruptly slowed, passing directly overhead the palace and the Jedi position. Jinx let the Force enhance his vision, and what he saw immediately mortified him.
     “What are they doing?” someone blurted.
     Figures were pouring out of the open hatch on the transport’s underside. Dozens of beings dropped down into the air, simply freefalling straight down towards the palace itself. It was crazy; they had no chance of surviving, and if they deployed some type of parachute, they would be easy targets for the troops on the ground.
     But the falling figures used no such equipment. As they fell, they moved closer to one another, clustering in groups, and their momentum suddenly began to slow. As they neared the surface, they were no longer falling, but merely descending. Shots rang out into the air as soldiers on the ground took aim and fired, but just as quickly blades of light snapped to life and batted them back down towards their attackers.
     Jedicon reinforcements were arriving.
     "Get ready to regroup!" Kiz shouted, his voice wavering as he stepped away from the wall's edge and began moving towards the enemy's likely landing spot. As he went, he spared a glance back at Jinx. "We'd better warn the Command Center."
     "I'm on it," Jinx said, then turned and ran towards the nearest wall comm.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Main Courtyard

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1150 Hours


            Dropships were landing in the distance, coming to within a few meters above the streets and dropping large, hovering platforms bristling with weapons. Others touched down and extended their boarding ramps, disgorging hundreds of shock-troops onto the city streets.
     The man known as Jac Railler stood with his men, hunkered down behind one of the massive durasteel and ferrocrete barricades they had erected in front of the Royal Palace's main entrance. They wore white armor plating reminiscent of Imperial stormtroopers, but not as extensive in coverage. Rather than the deaths-head helmets of their predecessors, they sported simpler helmets with clear faceplates, allowing much higher visibility. It didn't make him feel very safe, but then again, no amount of personal armor could likely stand up to what the AD would throw at them.
     Star Way sat directly ahead of them, cleared of traffic, abandoned. He could see several kilometers, all the way down to Star Park at the other end. That street wouldn't be empty for long, he knew. This was the front line of defense.
     Railler had been in situations like this before. He had worn many types of armor before, also - everything from a stormtrooper's to an Imperial Sovereign Protector's. For what the troops didn't know was actually his real name, one that he'd tried to leave behind for good.
      Kir Kanos.
     This was a war he hadn't counted on. Before this, he had always been the instigator, exacting revenge in the name of a leader he no longer believed in. That had all changed a few years ago. It was almost unreal, how meeting one's adversary and understanding him for the first time could completely shatter everything. Kanos had given up on his quest for revenge, only to find an emptiness remaining. It was as though all the hate and vengeance had grown to fill everything inside, and once that were gone, he found in himself only that nothing else was there. Leaving only one burning question: what else did he have to live for?
     He hadn't found that reason - it had found him, instead. Seeing those Haveners slaughered and rounded up like cattle to be slaves... He couldn't believe humans could do that sort of thing to each other.
     Now the day of reckoning had arrived.
     He looked up at the sky, saw hundreds of shiny objects twisting and looping in a dance of death, each one trying to blast the other out of the sky. The city's cannons spat fire heavenwards, and as he watched, an enemy fighter came down in flames, disappearing behind a building where it crashed to the streets below.
     Soldiers surrounded him, watching and waiting. Some of the men with him were ones he had trained himself. Others he barely knew, or didn't know at all. But soon they would all be close comrades.
     They heard the enemy before seeing them. Transports had disappeared within the city moments before, and they'd heard booming crashes and muffled explosions. Screams pierced the air occasionally.
     Then, coming out of a side street, a massive battle platform turned the corner, coming into view. It was wide, covering over half the street, and bristled with weapons. Kanos heard muffled curses from the soldiers around him, heard their drawn-in breaths.
     It was too late to run away, now.
     Armored tanks and AT-ATs were the first to open up, pouring fire down the street towards the enemy. In response, blasts of plasma, beam weapons and hypersonic projectiles flew towards the NI vehicles. Stray blasts hit the ground and struck buildings, sending debris flying through the air between the combatant forces.
     Durasteel armor was just simply not strong enough to withstand the advanced weaponry of the Altarin'Dakor. The front-line AT-AT was holed by mass driver rounds, the projectiles slicing through the armor as though it were hardly there. A pair of beam blasts hit the vehicle's head then, sending an explosion up from the cockpit and melting the rest into slag. The massive beast tottered, then fell to the right and crashed deafeningly, sending up a cloud of dust.
     Combined fire from several NI tanks flashed out and struck the lead AD platform dead in the center, blasting into the armor. But the front of the craft was too well-protected. They couldn't penetrate.
     The platform fired again, sending a thick beam of energy into the lower section of one tank. Flames burst out beneath and the craft dropped, then the beam swept upwards, slicing inside and sending up an explosion as its ammunition detonated, destroying the vehicle. Seconds later, a well-placed mass driver sent a projectile into a second tank, stopping it in its tracks and sending it crashing to the ground, disabled.
     Kanos started to wonder if this would be over before it even began, when out of the sky a pair of warheads flew straight down and connected on the top of the AD battle platform. A gout of fire and smoke erupted upwards and pieces of the platform were blown high into the air. The craft sank, then hit the streets below, carving up chunks of ferrocrete as it slid forward for another fifty meters, then stopped.
     "They got it!" someone shouted, sending up a cheer among the gathered soldiers.
     A round of secondary explosions burst out of the vehicle as it continued to burn. It had effectively blocked off the street, making it difficult if any other craft tried to pass. NI reinforcements began to file in from the streets adjacent to the palace's front gate, moving to the corner to guard this position. Perhaps they would be able to hold out longer than he'd thought.
     "Wait, do you hear that?" someone called out. He looked around wide-eyed, then stood up to look over the wall.
     Kanos felt a sick feeling in his gut; he heard it, all right. He moved to the wall again, peering over the top of the barricade with the rest of the troops.
     The NI troops looked out, seeing the momentary lapse in armored vehicle and artillery fire. As the dust settled in the streets, they could see that Star Way was filled from one side to the other with a mass of hundreds armored bodies, all charging forward, filling the air with as near-deafening battle cry.
     Here they come, thought Kanos. "Weapons up!" he shouted. Blasters were raised. Men took position.
     Then all hell broke loose.
     The scene exploded in enemy fire, blasts filing the air, chewing into the barricades, ripping up the streets beneath them. AD shock-troops ran forward, screaming, the forward line pouring out shots with animalistic fury. Large, double handed mass drivers sent bolts blasting into the barricades, while handheld beam cannons sliced into them and through armored bodies as well. Pulse-laser fire sent hundreds and thousands of green bursts into the air, while smaller, automatic rail guns sent out rapid-fire projectiles that pulverized whatever they hit.
     Men fell screaming on all sides, even as a torrent of blaster fire opened up on the approaching invaders. Kanos ducked just as a blast hit the barricade beside him, blowing off chunks, then stepped over to one of the openings and lined up his sniper rifle onto the enemy line.
     Through his scope he could see the shocktroopers taking dozens of hits, with some soldiers taking multiple hits in a row. Astonishingly though, few were falling, and some that did were rising to their feet again. Their tough armor was taking blaster bolts quite well, far more efficient than what the NI had to offer. Enemy troops were going down, but it was taking far too many hits. Whereas a single blast could fell an NI soldier, it seemed to take five or six before AD armor was penetrated fully.
     They'd have to aim carefully to make their shots effective. Kanos drew a bead and fired. His first bolt hit an enemy in the waist, sending him to the ground. As the first man was trampled by those behind, he took aim at another. This time his shot blew through an enemy's faceplate, collapsing him instantly.
     Then he had to turn away as the firefight intensified, and mass driver pellets flew though  the opening with the sound of miniature sonic booms after they passed. Explosions hit the street from mortars, and one cluster of NI soldiers was blown off their feet from a near-miss.
     Facing away from the storm, Kanos saw that they weren't the only ones taking the heat. Flashes lit up different areas of the palace, and every few moments a pair of dueling figures would come into view, lightsabers visible over the external walls as they clashed together again and again. Other troops were stationed along the walls, pouring out fire at the approaching enemy. In other areas, troops were engaged with enemy Jedicon, although those men weren't faring too well.
     He saw a Jedi and Jedicon lock blades and slam against a railing, then both figures toppled over, falling out of view into a courtyard below. Shaking his head, Kanos turned back to the front, as a barrage of fire tore though his troops. A beam shot overhead, slicing through one man’s body and severing half the head of another peering over the edge, while another soldier took several rounds of mass driver fire, blasting holes out of his back and sending blood all over Kanos and the others. Roaring in defiance, Kanos stood and leaned up against the barricade once more.
     "Hold the line!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, as an enemy missile struck the turbolaser atop a building overhead, blasting the emplacement apart and sending debris raining down towards them.

     NI troop fire redoubled. Soldiers lobbed thermal detonators. Another mortar hit at the corner of the nearest building, scattering a cluster of soldiers in a blast of fire and blood. Someone behind Kanos fired a grenade launcher that hit the AD front line, blowing a score of enemy troops and their constituent body parts into the air.
     It was truly a war zone. And from here on things were only going to get worse.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Royal Palace Command Center

            Vectur, Varnus

            1155 Hours


            “Jedicon reinforcements have landed!” Jinx’s voice came over the comm. The words caused an immediate stir in the control room, the dozen or so officers present turning from their stations to stare worriedly at the main display.
     “Copy that, Jinx,” Xar replied from his seat at the main console. He turned to look at his wife, standing beside him. Her expression, as was often the case, was absent any telling emotion.
     Xar shook his head. The battle was full-on, now, encompassing the palace, the city streets, the skies above, and in orbit. So far the NI had given nearly as good as they got, but the tide was turning in the enemy’s favor. The fleet was starting to accumulate damage, fighters numbers were dwindling, and every fallen Jedi was a precious resource lost. Soon the momentum would build, and things would be very bad for the New Imperium. The situation was dire. “We’re in the thick of it, now,” he told her grimly.
     "We could really use some help out here," came Jinx's concerned voice.
     Zalaria said nothing. Xar turned back to the comm. “We’ll be there soon,” he promised Jinx, then closed the connection. The room was quiet, full of an air of expectation.
      “We’ve got to get out there again,” he told Zalaria. “I need your help. Forget about what your brother might do,” he said, repeating his former argument.

     She looked away, and he didn’t know quite what to think. Their relationship had become strained by recent events. In fact, the truth was they were having problems. Zalaria did things without asking Xar, things that he didn’t approve of at all. Putting his friend and Deputy Grand Master into a coma. Lying to him about her dark past.

     He was angry at her, and she knew it. Maybe she was angry at him, too. But for some reason she had clammed up, refusing to share her feelings or move toward some kind of resolution. The rift between them was growing wider, and the truth was they didn’t have enough time to mend it, for now. What have I gotten myself into, he wondered. He’d married an Altarin’Dakor Warlord over a thousand generations old. They weren’t just from different worlds, they were from different times. How could they possibly hope to understand each other?

     “Sir, there’s a communiqué from the Diktat’s office on Tralaria,” the Comm officer spoke up.

     The words pulled Xar out of his thoughts, reminding him that there were more important things to worry about than his wife, right now – such as the enemy inside his own palace and assaulting his homeworld. “Put it onscreen,” Xar said immediately.

     After a second, Gene Rytor’s face appeared on the holoscreen. He looked tired, and the gray in his hair seemed to outnumber the rest, these days. The Diktat was fully dressed, however, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night on Tralaria. Xar didn’t think the man would have waited to dress before calling in.

     “Sorry for the delay,” Rytor said, staring into the screen. “I only just heard of the attack on Varnus. What’s the situation there?”

     “Not good,” Xar replied. “We’re overrun, and we could use some reinforcements from the Second Fleet as soon as possible.”

     “I wish I could,” Rytor said, turning apologetic. “I’m afraid we’re under attack, as well. Seven Titans have entered the system and are approaching Tralaria, fast. We’re vastly outnumbered and will be under attack within a couple of hours.”

     “Seven!” Xar exclaimed. He turned to stare at his wife. “I can’t believe Nimrod would have so many Titans here in the sector!”

     Zalaria had a curious look in her eyes. “They’re probably experiencing the same effect that we are. What are the names of those Titans?” she asked, stepping beside Xar in front of the screen.

     “I’ll get them for you. Hold on.” Rytor glanced off-screen, presumably at another data screen. “They are the Fall of Light, Munificence, Subjugation, Right of Conquest, Havoc, Ascendancy, Hegemony, and the Desolation.”

     “That’s impossible,” Gui Sun Paan blurted from the other console.

     “Your scanners are fooling you,” Zalaria told the Diktat. “Some of those Titans are not really there.”

     “How do you know that?”

     “Because those are the same Titans attacking us,” Xar answered. Nimrod is using Force Illusions to trick us both. I can’t believe he can do it in both places at once.”

     “That’s astonishing,” Rytor agreed. “So, how do we know which ones aren’t real?”

     Xar glanced back up at his wife. “We’ve got to do something about this, now,” he said. “You helped negate the effects of Nimrod’s emotional attacks. Can’t you do the same thing with these Illusions?”

     Zalaria shook her head sharply. “This is not simply his powers. His flagship, the Grand Crusader, is built around a powerful Force artifact.”

     “There must be something we can do,” Xar countered. He looked back up at the screen. “Gene, can you give us a video display of those incoming Titans?”

     “Just a minute,” Rytor replied, then gestured somewhere offscreen. A moment later the palace’s display showed each Titan for several seconds. Each was an identical match to the ones orbiting Varnus right then.

     “Even the previous damage is the same,” Paan noted beside them. “It’s perfect.”

     “Not quite,” Xar said, eyes narrowing. Yes, the ships looked identical, but it was their names, not their appearance, that caught his attention. As well as which Titans weren’t supposedly there.

     “What are you thinking?” Zalaria asked him.

     Ignoring her, Xar stared down, his mind racing. It was a big gamble, he knew, because Nimrod could have very well outthought them at every turn. But they had to do something, now, and they couldn’t second-guess themselves forever. Xar was sick and tired of being outsmarted and at the Warlord’s mercy.

     “The Grand Crusader and the Cataclysm, are only here,” he said. “Those are definitely real. What Titans have been most active in this Quadrant?” he asked, already thinking he knew the answer.

     “The Ascendancy, Hegemony, and Desolation, sir,” someone in the room reported.

     Xar paused, nodding in agreement for a moment. “Then those are here, as well. Nimrod could call in reinforcements from Mizar, and bring in his own ship. That’s enough Titans to defeat us. The others are at Tralaria. They’re the ones Dogar has been engaged with, are they not?”

     On the screen, Rytor nodded. “Dogar and Sanders are in orbit organizing our defense now. He confirmed that those other ships are the ones that have been driving them back all the way to here.”

     “Then you’ve got five Titans bearing down on you,” Xar said to Rytor. “Five Titans for each target.” It was still a lot. Too many. They would both still lose these battles.

“Thanks for the information,” Rytor replied. “It helps, at least a little. Hang in there, Xar. We’ll get through this somehow.”

     Xar nodded, then reached up and closed the channel. “Paan, signal Gaius and tell him he can ignore those other five Titans.”

     “Will do, sir.”

     He turned to look at Zalaria. “It’s time to turn this thing around. I’ll flush them out of the palace; I know the halls better than anyone else. I need you to help stop the army outside.”

     Xar knew it was a risk, ignoring those other Titans – as was going into the fray of battle, anyway – but he was willing to do whatever it took to drive the Altarin’Dakor off his world. He would fight until every last one of them was dead, even if he had to kill them all himself. They would pay.

     He locked eyes with his wife for a moment, and he wondered as he often did what she was thinking inside. She might be able to read his mind quite easily, but to him she was as closed as a book he could never open. Finally she spoke.

     “It is pointless to go out there now,” she said.

     Xar felt as though she had just slapped him. “What do you mean? This is our last chance to save Vectur!”

     “Nimrod has still not committed fully to the battle,” she explained calmly.

     Receiving no further explanation, Xar just stared at her incredulously. She just sat there watching the screen, as though everything were proceeding according to plan. Xar shook his head. Men were dying out there. His men.

     “You don’t care, do you?” he asked suddenly.

     She met his gaze, and Xar felt something dark pass over him. Suddenly his anger flared, surprising even himself. “You really did kill your own people, didn’t you? And now you’re going to let everyone here die, too.”

     Shock seemed to cross her face for an instant, but Xar dismissed it; how could he believe her when he couldn’t even read her emotions? She was a master of subterfuge and manipulation.

     “You don’t understand…” she began, her voice softening.

     “I understand enough,” he countered. “What are you waiting for? For Nimrod’s troops to march right in?” He pushed himself out of his chair, rising to his feet as he kept his eyes trained on her. “Whose side are you really on, anyway?” he felt himself say.

     “Xar!” she said, reaching out for him. “Listen…”

     “Stay away from me,” he said darkly, pulling away from her. “How can you act so inhuman? I don’t really know you at all, do I?”

     Her expression turned suddenly cold, her eyes flaring in anger of her own, or perhaps indignation. “What made you think I was human?” she asked softly.

     He stared at her mutely for a moment, nothing more to say. He turned to Paan. “Take care of things here,” he ordered. Then he turned and made his way towards the exit, the fire inside of him burning to find a way out.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1200 Hours


            Jinx ran forward into the jaws of hell, knowing he was about to die.

     Facing them now was a fresh sampling of Nimrod's finest Jedicon, all in a frenzied state of bloodlust. The group of Jedicon had blocked off the Division's Jedi down a narrow balcony ledge, with a short ledge leading to a drop of the wall on one side, and large windows leading to an interior hallway on the other.
     Flanking him were Kiz Thrakus, Neres Warjan and the leaders of the other Jedi Houses, including Draken Ar’Kell and Amleth Uiara, plus Atridd Xoan, Ralagos Akala, and more. The best Jedi fighters the Division had to offer, this was the day their fate had arrived.

     Duels were raging all across the palace balconies and walls, and Jedi and Jedicon were falling in rapid succession on each side. The Jedi were outnumbered now, though. Untold numbers of Jedicon were wandering around the interior by now. The whole palace was in dire danger of being overrun.

     Jinx had been fighting for two hours straight, now, and he was tired. He had successfully killed five Jedicon so far, more than he’d managed in his whole career to date. His body hurt from half a dozen burns, cuts and bruises, and his shoulder felt like it was on fire. It seemed a miracle that he was still alive, yet now even that feat seemed painfully insignificant. And while they fought on the tops of the walls, dogfighting starfighters streaked overhead, while the sounds of artillery and infantry fire filled the air around them.

     The fighting was brutal and quick. Jedicon crowded forward, even shoving at each other to try and get to the Division’s Jedi first. The two sides met, and only death and destruction ensued. Blasts of energy shot back and forth between the two groups, felling warriors on both sides. But the close-quarters combat at the wall was the bloodiest.
     Templar Sian Rocanon surged forward and engaged a black-skinned Jedicon with pale tattoos, a notable change. Both warriors screamed and swung their blades, their attacks meant for killing, not dueling. Rocanon’s saber split the man's head in two at the same time the Jedicon’s blade cleaved the Mirialan Jedi’s arm away at the shoulder. Rocanon passed out and collapsed, but the next Jedicon in line ran him through before he could hit the ground.
     Atridd Xoan struck blades with an enemy, then caught the opponent’s wrist, wrenching it up, and slid his blade across the Jedicon’s stomach. Beside him, Ralagos Akala blocked an attack, grabbed his opponent with his clawed hands and tossed him over the wall to the ground below. On a nearby ledge, Ken "Nova" Nandos was clashing blades over and over with a large, muscular Jedicon, while Draken Ar’Kell was being driven quickly backwards by another opponent. In front of him, another dark-haired Jedi that Jinx's didn't recognize was beheaded by a blow from the advancing Jedicon line. Everywhere around, a rainbow of multicolored energy blades clashed, sending their light reflecting off the walls and windows. Blood vapor wafted through the air, collecting on faces and uniforms, but there was nothing to do but breathe it in as the Jedi fought for their lives.

     Parrying an attack, Nova stepped back and thrust his palm forward violently. His opponent, caught with his blade overhead, launched backwards, thrown through the air over the heads of his comrades where he plunged off the palace wall. Nearby, Draken blocked again and again, doing everything he could to stave off the Jedicon assaulting him. As they clashed again, the Jedicon’s blue blade forced Draken’s to the side, then struck hard downwards. Draken’s lightsaber fell from his hand, and he gave a yell as he quickly ducked a swipe from his opponent’s saber. The Jedicon followed through with his swipe, spinning around and sending a back-fist across the Jedi’s face as he rose. Draken stumbled backwards, then just before the Jedicon moved in for the final blow the Jedi launched himself over the wall and down towards the courtyard below.
     Then Jinx lost sight of them as he hit the line, with Thrakus right beside him. The one had that killed Rocanon struck at Jinx next, and their blades locked in a flash of light and whining energy. At his side, Thrakus’ swing met his opponent’s blade, pressing it down into the wall beside them. The Jedicon dropped his blade and pulled out another, igniting it right in Kiz’s face. Thrakus dodged back just in time with his Force-enhanced speed, but the blade still caught him on the arm, cutting shallowly but enough that the Jedi gasped and fell back.
     Still locked in with his opponent, Jinx quickly reversed his blade’s momentum and forced his enemy’s to the side, then spun his wrists and came down, cleaving the Jedicon’s arm off at the elbow.
     Beside him, Kiz dropped his own lightsaber and thrust his good hand out towards his opponent and unleashed a blast of energy. It hit the enemy square on in the chest, and the Jedicon was blown backwards into two of his comrades, one of whom speared him by accident from behind.
     The loss of his arm barely phased Jinx’s opponent. The Jedicon lunged forward inside Jinx’s grip, closed his other hand around his neck and squeezed. Jinx choked and fell back, the enraged Jedicon opening his mouth wide as if to bite him in the face. Jinx's vision went dim almost immediately, and he cartilage cracking. He tried to bring his saber hand up to defend, but his arm was blocked by the Jedicon's body and he couldn't seem to bend it around enough. Then a shaft of green light passed through the side of the man’s head. The Jedicon's eyes glowed for an instant before he collapsed at Jinx’s feet, dead. Neres stepped into view and reached out to steady Jinx, who nodded his thanks.
     Thrakus stepped back from the front, nursing his injured left arm, and Amleth Uiara slid past him to fill in the gap. Leaning around, Kiz used his right hand and send severak blasts of energy at the enemy line. Men dodged or blocked with defensive shields around their hands, but some connected, sending several enemies down to the floor.

     In front of him, Ian Durran struck at an opponent but missed, the Jedicon spinning away from the blow and back around to slice Durran’s head clean off. Yelling, Amleth jumped forward and batted the Jedicon’s blade aside, then split the enemy from shoulder to hip in one huge swipe.
     Jinx saw a massive saurian Jedicon in the thick of it, towering head and shoulders over even the largest Jedicon, waving a massive lightsaber back and forth and driving the rest of the Jedicon forward. Beside him was a shorter man with wildly spiked hair rising over his head, and several small tattoos on his face.

     Jinx had faced this particular Jedicon before.
     Nobien’s eyes widened in recognition as he saw Jinx, then it was full-on. Moving as fast as he could, Jinx backed away from one Jedicon, extended a hand and released a blast of Force Destruction at the wild-haired man. Nobien dodged to the side, his body a blur as he moved, and the blast ripped through another man behind him. In response, Nobien put his hands together and fired a slightly larger blast in return, even as Jinx rushed forward, his blade singing overhead.
     Jinx dove to the ground and rolled, the blast passing above his body and singing his robes. He came up and swung his blade at his seemingly unarmed opponent – but Nobien’s weapons were his bare hands. The Jedicon leapt over the first blow, and even as Jinx brought his blade around and down diagonally as fast as he could, Nobien was faster still, pivoting sideways to miss the attack by centimeters. Then the Jedicon leapt backwards out of Jinx’s reach.
     Before he could react, Templar Vern Mavrik jumped forward to fill Jinx’s place. Jinx shouted for Mavrik to stop, that he was out of his league, but it was too late. The Jedi swung hard at Nobien, but the Jedicon ducked under the blow and surged forward, bringing his arm back and, in a blur almost too fast to see, sending his fist straight through the Templar’s heart.
     As Mavrik fell, Jinx jumped over his body, yelling, bringing his blade straight down at his enemy’s head. Nobien lunged forward as well, his bloody hand now surging forward and catching Jinx’s wrist and arresting his momentum before he could connect the blow. Jinx grunted as he struggled against the Jedicon’s grip, then Nobien reached out with his left hand, gripped Jinx’s robe by the belt, and with a cry of effort lifted him up into the air and threw him straight at the window on Jinx’s left.
     Jinx cried out as he crashed through the transparisteel, the window giving way to his Force-strengthened body. Pieces of the glass cut him all over, and he hit the floor of the corridor on the other side and rolled away as Nobien dove through the opening after him.
     The fight on the balcony, however, was far from over. More bodies rushed to fill the space left by the dueling warriors.
     Kiz Thrakus, having retrieved his blade, ducked under a quick blow and with his good arm cut off one Jedicon’s leg just above the knee, moving past and leaving him for his comrades. Another one came in screaming, locking blades with Kiz and forcing his lightsaber to the side. The enemy’s foot snapped out and caught him in the chest, and Kiz flew backwards several paces to the floor.
     By this point, a near river of blood had slicked across the stone walkway, making footing precarious. Loria Sornen slipped, proving a fatal mistake as her opponent took advantage of her stumble and skewered her through the chest with his bright blue blade.
     Thrakus pulled himself to his feet, but before he could make it his opponent rushed forward to finish him off. Kiz knew he wouldn't make it in time, and he brought his blade up in his good hand to try and defend. But before the enemy could reach him, Ralagos Akala's blade slashed in, batting the Jedicon's away, followed by a clawed hand that raked across the enemy's face. The man lurched back, falling against the wall, screaming as he reached up to his ruined face where the skin was peeled away, bone visible underneath. Then Ralagos drew his blade across in a massive swipe, ending the man's cries forever.
     Further down the line, the saurian Jedicon towering over all the others sauntered forward, hefting a massive lightsaber twice as large as anyone else’s. It came up behind where Huan Knor'lian stood locked in a duel with one long-haired Jedicon. Brushing the Jedicon aside, he stepped forward to fill his place, bringing his huge blade around in a huge, horizontal swipe at the Jedi. Knor’lian’s brought his blade up and blocked, but the Bothan Aedile had sorely underestimated his opponent’s strength. The attack wasn’t particularly fast, but Knor’lian’s blade offered little resistance the Jedicon’s saber swept it right along and sliced the Bothan in half at the chest.
     Then Val Ricaud was there, striking fiercely at the Jedicon to avenge his fallen Aedile. He moved fast, his blue-tinted blade a blur as he came in high, low, diagonally, catching the reptilian’s blade with a flash each and every time.
     The Jedicon defended, stepping back as he parried a blow, and pivoted – Kiz thought he was going to run. That was when he saw the lizard’s long tail lash out. At least two meters in length, the leathery appendage swept out like a whip and cracked the Duro across the head with a loud snap. Ricaud stumbled back, dazed, and the Jedicon pressed the advantage. Striking out, he caught the Jedi’s guard high, then lashed out with his tail again, this time catching the Jedi across the ankles. The Duro’s feet were swept out from under him, and as he fell, the saurian brought his blade down vertically. Ricaud fell in two pieces.
     “Fall back!” Kiz shouted. “Regroup!” He knew they weren’t going to last much longer out here. He suited actions to words, moving back down the balcony and allowing some NI troops to distract the Jedicon for a moment by taking potshots at them.
     Out towards Star Way, the street was filled with enemies, running the gauntlet leading up to the front of the Royal Palace. By now, the streets parallel on either side were full of enemy troops and tanks also. The defenders were taking extremely heavy fire down there. Stray shots flew through the air, and Jedi had to bat away blasts fired at them from the distance below.
     A slim woman with long blonde air was striding out on one of the forward walls with an air of near impunity. She wore tight-fitting clothes that left her skin exposed in various places – between her breasts, over her biceps, thigh and calf, as well as other spots, and underneath Kiz could see vivid red tattoos that appeared to mark her entire body. Her attention seemed to be on the troops below.
     The woman raised her hands, and red lightning shot from them, tearing into the New Imperium troops from behind. They never knew what hit them. Those bolts didn’t electrocute – they seared, and cut, slicing through armor and sending men down screaming. In response, the woman laughed, a rich, evil sound that overlay the sounds of war around her.
     “Thrakus!” a voice shouted from nearby, jolting Kiz’s attention elsewhere. He turned and found himself face to face with Atridd Xoan, the large, dark-skinned man an imposing figure staring down on him.
     “Get to Medbay,” the man ordered. “We’ll hold out here as long as we can.”
     Kiz stared at him incredulously. “I’m not abandoning my men!”
     “At least take the time to heal yourself – this isn’t over by a long shot. We need reinforcements!” Behind him, Ralagos Akala was fiercely engaged with two Jedicon at once, and holding his own. Some of the other Jedicon were no longer visible – probably they’d penetrated the palace, now. Kiz shook his head – how powerful were the people in Xar’s cadre? The Division was fast running out of Jedi to defend with; could Xar’s personal few make up the difference?

     “Go!” Atridd shouted. “Find Xar!” Then he turned, joining with Amleth and Neres and moving away to assist Akala.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace Command Center

            Vectur, Varnus

            1215 Hours


            We are all going to die, Gui Sun Paan realized grimly as he watched the viewscreen.

     On all fronts, the NI was losing fast, while the enemy was gaining momentum. The fleet in orbit was being battered. Air forces weren’t enough to prevent enemy landings. The Palace grounds, the central target of the enemy shocktroops, was about to be overrun. And with the Jedicon reinforcements, it was only a matter of time before they overwhelmed the Division’s Jedi and killed every one of them, Paan included.

     The entire First Fleet in orbit hadn’t been able to even slow them down. The second force attacking Tralaria was more than strong enough to take the NI capital. They were simply facing an enemy far, far beyond anything they had ever known, and they had no chance of stopping them.

     The New Imperium was about to be destroyed. It was over.

     “Please, help us,” he said to Zalaria, looking at the woman as she stood quietly in front of the other console.

     She barely spared him a glance, instead staring forward at her own viewscreen. Paan watched her for several seconds, then finally looked away, afraid she might know he was looking.

     What was she doing? She seemed to be keeping track of the fleet battle in orbit, and making instructions for her own forces. But was that all she was doing? How hard was she really trying to help them defend Varnus?

     “I have been too lenient with him,” he heard her whisper.

     Startled, Paan found his eyes on her again. As he often did, he found himself intrigued by her presence. She was, undoubtedly, the most physically beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her skin was flawless, her body perfectly proportioned, her eyes holding immense intelligence and wildness at the same time.

     He realized that he really had no idea how old she really looked. Her poise and regal bearing often made her seem far older and more mature than he, yet physically he wouldn’t have placed her a day over thirty. No – in fact, the longer he looked, the younger she seemed. Maybe twenty-five? That was impossible. Did her appearance actually change?

     Suddenly apprehensive, he looked away again. Her words hung in his head, generating a thousand different questions in his mind. What did she mean? Hearing her and Xar arguing had been disconcerting, to say the least. They should have been the closest now, in the face of danger. Instead, the whole room had been full of tension as long as the two of them were together. The anger had been palpable; it felt like the whole room was going to burst into flames. This would not help the morale of the troops at all.

     In fact, it created a truly frightening question in Paan’s heart: If even Xar didn’t trust her anymore, how could anyone?

     He felt like the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up, and he glanced back towards the Warlord. Her eyes were boring straight through him. Paan shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The truth was, he was scared to death of her. Paan swallowed hard – could she really read his mind? Did she know everything he was thinking?

     “What do you want?” she asked abruptly, almost confirming his fears.

     “We…” Paan stammered. “We can’t survive this without you. Please, help us,” he pleaded.

      She stared at him a moment longer, then turned her head, staring distantly away. “Quit whining,” she said.

      Paan opened his mouth to respond, but a sudden chill shot through him, along with a feeling of dread. It felt like he was in grave danger, and he had no idea if the source was the enemy outside, or the woman beside him. He kept his mouth shut.

     He spared a quick glance around the room, where the staff were all busying themselves in their consoles and displays, pointedly avoiding looking in his direction.  Zalaria’s two burly Jedicon bodyguards stood at the room’s flanks, keeping a watchful eye over everything. Paan suddenly realized that he was the only Jedi in the room. And not only was he outnumbered, he knew he was outmatched beyond all hope should something untoward happen.

     Trying to ignore them all, Paan turned his attention back to the displays. The situation was continuing to deteriorate.

     “Sir, we have a problem,” one of the officers spoke up suddenly. “Our cameras are showing more and more Jedicon inside the palace, now.”

     “What areas?” he asked.

     “They’re spreading out to wherever they can go. They’re just – destroying everything they come across,” the woman reported. “They go into the rooms, and if they don’t find anyone there, they just trash the whole place before moving on.”

     “What if they do find someone?” Paan asked, feeling panic set in.

     The officer just looked at him sadly. Rising to his feet, Paan ran over to her station. One look at her console screen told him all he needed to know.

     “There are civilians still loose in the palace!” he exclaimed. On several of the cameras he could even see figures running around. On others, Jedicon ran though the corridors in a crazed frenzy. “They’re trapped! We have to help them!” Paan looked over at Zalaria. The woman stared back at him, but didn’t say anything.

     What was she doing? Was she even on their side, or did she simply deem them unimportant? Maybe Xar was right after all.

     “I’m going,” he announced. “If we don’t stop them, the Jedicon will slaughter every last one of them.”

     “If you go, you will die,” Zalaria said, her soft voice undercutting the hubbub in the room. She watched him, and Paan felt her gaze like a weight on his shoulders. He shook his head, realizing one thing – unlike her, he was a Jedi. Sworn to protect and defend.

     “Take command,” he told the woman officer sitting next to him. Then, to Zalaria, he forced a grim smile to his lips. “Join me later if you want. I’m a Jedi, and I have a job to do.”




                                    *                                  *                                  *


            In Orbit


            1240 Hours


            Donitz was hot on the tail of an enemy fighter, pulling tight with his opponent and about to pull the trigger, when his quarry abruptly disappeared.
     Sithspawn's carcass! Again! How was he supposed to fight when half of his enemies didn't really exist?
    Hissing in frustration, he pulled his fighter around in a loop, heading back towards the main battle. The NI fleet was in dire shape. At first they had held up well, fighting back hard, but as the enemy numbers continued to swell, the damage was beginning to take its toll. Huge chunks of debris floated among the fleet's formation, pieces of ships that had already been obliterated.
     "This is Gaius to all fleet ships," the Fleet Commander's voice came over the comm. "Be advised that some of the enemy Titans are also phantoms. We have conclusive evidence to indicate that the Titans labeled Fall of Light, Subjugation, Munificence, Right of Conquest, and Havoc on your transponders are illusions. They are not actually there.” A pause. “Yes, you heard correctly – it sounds impossible, but they are indeed fakes. All ships are instructed to disregard those vessels as targets. Fire from those ships will not cause damage to our ships. Out."
     Donitz glanced at his commlink, knowing his eyes were narrowed in skepticism. Fighters and transports were one thing, but five entire Titans? How powerful were these Jedicon that the Altarin’Dakor had? Nothing, even myths and legends he had heard growing up, compared with what he had been seeing here, right now with his very eyes.

     Nevertheless, the NI forces were following orders. No more fire was headed towards the Titans in question. Attacks were focusing on the remaining five Titans. Meanwhile, AD fire continued to pour into the NI ships, most of which had lost shields by this point.
     Donitz’s engines sang as he crossed back into the main field of battle. As he grew closer, he saw the final death throes of the ISD Phantom as thick beams of energy carved through her hull broadsides, turning whole areas into slag and cutting deep into her decks. The whole ship appeared to be aflame, and as beams from one of the nearby Titans - the Cataclysm, he noted - tore into the ship, they hit the Star Destroyer's solar ionization reactor. An explosion blossomed within the ship, blowing out through the breaches in her hull, then a chain reaction devoured the ship in a massive explosion that lit space up like a small star. A shockwave wiped out dozens of fighters around the vicinity, and a ring of blazing hot gases filled the star-studded view in front of Donitz.
     It wasn't the only casualty of war. A dozen other NI vessels were heavily damaged, on fire and leaking atmosphere and smoke, leaving a thick cloud that partially obscured the fleet. The Defiant was taking heavy fire, her shields down now, her entire port side a blackened char with fire and gas pouring out of her. Meanwhile, the enemy line remained constant. Though numerous smaller capital ships had been destroyed, the Titans stood resolute, mercilessly wiping out the NI fleet ship by ship.
     Then, as he glanced at the enemy lined, five of the Titans – all those that Gaius had mentioned – suddenly wavered like ripples in a pond. Then they disappeared, too.
     Donitz blinked for a minute in near disbelief. Gaius was right, he realized. That meant the attacking AD force was only half as strong as they’d thought. Unfortunately, they were still more than enough to defeat the NI defenders. And perhaps even more telling, Donitz realized they had been outwitted. The fake Titans, in a position to cover the transports as they landed, had stopped the NI from preventing ground landings on Varnus. Now Vectur was under attack and in bad shape.

     The remaining Titans were pouring on the assault, almost as if dropping the illusions freed them up to attack even more aggressively. The two largest Titans, the Grand Crusader and the Cataclysm, continued to hang back, firing with impunity into the NI formation. Two others, the Ascendancy and the Hegemony, were moving closer to the fleet, picking the NI ships apart. The Desolation was the only ship not unleashing one devastating beam weapon blast after another. All the forward batteries on the ship’s nose had been neutralized, some from a previous engagement, the rest more recently from precision fire from the ­Majestic-class cruisers.

     “Sir, two bogeys incoming at ten o’clock high!” Gastron shouted.

     Donitz looked up and to port, spotting two sleek craft diving towards them. Losing Nibiuri earlier to the transport attack had left the two of them flying alone for the time being.  Pulling back on the stick, he moved to engage. “On me,” he told Gastron. “Take the one on the right.”

     They pulled up, beams of energy flashing past underneath as they angled in. Gastron began firing at the starboard bogey, and Donitz let his crosshairs drift over that way, as well. As they came together, he fired several blasts at the same enemy, causing the craft to pull off. At the last second Donitz pulled his Defender back up towards the second enemy, but he was too far inside to draw a bead. The enemy Stiletto flew past behind him, and Donitz rolled to starboard and dove after him.

     The enemy was looping to port, thinking that Donitz was tailing him the other way around. Instead, they were turning in the same direction, and the Defender got lead on the AD craft much earlier. Donitz squeezed the trigger, sending bursts of fire from his ship’s six laser cannons. The Stiletto’s shields lit up under multiple hits, and suddenly the enemy pilot veered his craft in the other direction, heading away as if trying to escape.

     “Sir, he’s gotten around on my tail!” came Gastron’s voice.

     Donitz noted his wingman’s position, saw that he would need help soon but knew he could finish this opponent off first. Switching to missiles, he got lock almost immediately and sent an advanced torpedo after the enemy fighter. In a couple of seconds the warhead crossed the distance between them, then struck the Stiletto in its tailpipe, blowing the fighter out of the sky.

     He turned back and pushed his throttle to full, heading after the other enemy Stiletto on Gastron’s tail. He spotted them quickly, two bright dots reflecting the light of Varnus’ sun. The enemy fighter was matching the Defender’s evasive maneuvers expertly. Centering his crosshairs on the enemy blip, Donitz heard his tone go solid, indicating a lock, and launched his last torpedo out after the enemy.

     The Stiletto went evasive, pulling off of Gastron’s tail, but he couldn’t avoid the warhead traveling much faster than he was. The torpedo hit, flaring his shields and sending the fighter into a wobble. Soaring in with twin ion engines screaming, Donitz drew aim and fired, knowing that at this speed he would only get one quick pass.

     His blasts hit, tearing away the rest of the shields and hitting the fighter’s portside wing. The whole left side of the fighter exploded, sending the rest of it into an uncontrolled spin towards the planet below.

     “Thanks for the save, Sir,” Gastron said, his craft pulling back into formation.

     “Copy. Set heading one-oh-four,” Donitz replied, bringing them closer to the NI fleet again. He could see AD fighters swarming around the fleet, many of them actually still ramming themselves into the NI capital ships. The tactic was beginning to take its toll. The SSD Independence herself was on fire from countless impact points on her hull, and other ships were either out of commission or in the process of going up, one detonation after another. One of the frigates was hit by several suicide impacts, some of which must have been carrying warheads, because the ensuing explosions tore the ship apart and sent debris raining down out of orbit.

     New Imperium and Altarin’Dakor fighters were still swarming around in a cloud out between and amongst the capital ships. Donitz estimated that the NI had lost fifty percent of their fighters already. Though they had perhaps taken out as many AD fighters as they had lost, it put the NI forces in an even more hopeless situation. With casualties continuing to rise, he wondered how much longer the NI could hold out.

     Suddenly he noticed a large group of AD fighters descending from an engagement in a coordinated swarm. It didn’t take long to realize that these were the enemy’s Jedicon fighters, the victors of the exclusive little furball they had been having with Zalaria’s Jedicon. In amazement, Donitz noted that not one of Zalaria’s forces had survived. They had all been wiped out to a man. Having won the engagement, the remaining AD fighters were now descending upon the rest of the NI fleet, which would be helpless to defend against their Force techniques. As he watched, a cluster of the fighters began buzzing around some of the NI capital ships, blowing away any fighters that dared to approach them, cutting through the hulls of the larger ships while managing to avoid return fire. The MC-90 Courageous fell to a swarm of Jedicon fighters, hitting weak points, destroying shield generators, communications hardpoints, and weapons emplacements with expert aim. The cruiser was quickly incapacitated, and still the enemy continued to cut up the doomed ship like a surgeon’s knife. Other fighters went after the SSD Independence, their pilots amazingly able to dodge the turret gunners virtually every time.

     Still other Jedicon fighters were headed down into the atmosphere, to help finish off the NI defenders and help the ground assault. They passed the NI formation and quickly began entry, still holding their uncannily perfect formations.

     Donitz knew better than to engage with any of them. The only thing they could do was take on what fighters they could, protect the NI ships from further suicide attacks and follow orders as they came down, whether that included covering a retreat or fighting here to the death.
     His scanners showed another squadron of enemy fighters set on a collision course with the ISD Vindicator. Signaling to the other craft around him, he pulled around to intercept them, wondering how much longer his luck was going to hold out. He was out of missiles, and NI losses continued to mount. He might be able to outfly any enemy pilot, but as the numbers began to mount against him, statistically his chances of survival were growing slim. Still, if that were the case, he would continue to do what he could, for as long as he could. Fate would take care of the rest.


*                                  *                                  *



            Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            1255 Hours


            Naguis’Vox’Donn Gerim Chothas stood on the bridge of the Desolation and watched as the other Titans continued to destroy the enemy fleet, ship after ship.

     The Desolation deserved to join in the honor, to take her share of the glory. She should not have to sit here like this, her forward guns destroyed, unable to exact revenge upon the Outlanders for their defeat on Varnus millennia ago. Every Altarin’Dakor child grew up hearing stories about the great battle on Varnus. Now countless warriors were out there taking part in the honor, many destroying themselves in glorious form as they rammed their ships into the enemy line, sacrificing themselves. This was history being rewritten before their very eyes, and one inconsequential formation should not prevent this grand command ship’s crew from partaking in this glorious event.

     Chothas turned his graying head – a testament of his years of service – towards the navigation officer. “Turn us to port,” he ordered. “Prepare a broadside barrage against the enemy command ship. No, not the Nexus – the other one.”

     The words had barely left his mouth before the communications officer spoke up. “Sir, a priority communiqué from the Grand Crusader,” the officer reported. “We are ordered to stand fast and not face our side towards the enemy.”

     “What?” Chothas barked out. “How could they?” He blinked at the display holos in shock and outrage, mixed with more than a little awe. The order had come as soon as he considered turning; they must have known what he was going to say before he’d even said it! The Great Lord was truly in full control, this day. And yet why prevent them from joining in the battle? Was it punishment for the damage they’d received at the Moro System? The order seemed senseless, but the Great Lord always had his reasons.

     The holo showed the other four Titans were pouring fire into the enemy fleet. Return fire was becoming weaker by the moment. There was virtually nothing the enemy could do, no obvious danger that needed to be avoided. Chothas seethed with the desire to kill, to unleash a barrage of fire that would destroy these Outlanders once and for all. With the Desolation’s help, the battle would be won all the faster.

     He stood there for a moment, brimming with excitement, torn between sense of duty and the desire for glory. So what if disobedience cost him his life? The glory earned from so many kills would surely serve his eternally in the afterlife. What did it matter, if they turned broadside? The enemy didn’t have enough firepower to destroy the Desolation. Seeing how much more devastating their assault would be, the Great Lord might even be pleased, might even reward him.

     “Turn to port,” he commanded. “Track all starboard batteries on the Independence and open fire.”

     “Sir…” the communications officer started.

     “Silence!” Chothas snapped. “Tell them our receivers are damaged. Turn this ship and open fire!”

     “Yes, sir!” the navigation officer answered.

     Slowly, the starfield around them began to shift, and the massive Titan began to turn.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Nexus

            1300 Hours


            The Nexus took another hit from the Grand Crusader’s powerful forward cannons, and the deck shook slightly beneath Sector Admiral Gaius’ feet. A chime sounded from somewhere else on the bridge.

     “Our shields are down to thirty percent,” Commodore Awel Kylar reported crisply. “Attacks are beginning to penetrate and damage the hull.”
     Gaius stood resolutely, staring at the battle unfolding all around them thanks to the Nexus' holographic walls. He watched as the ISD Fang went up in a series of explosions, ripping out of her engines, up through the bridge superstructure, and chewing through the ship’s body, ripping her hangar apart and sending the rest of the vessel pitching forward, a drifting hulk on fire.

     "We've taken over fifty percent fighter casualties," Fleet Admiral Jann Percy spoke up from the tactical station, his voice tense.

     Standing next to Percy, Field Marshall Kaler shook his head. “This battle is over. It’s only a matter of time, now.”

     The Fleet Commander ignored him. There was no need to state the obvious. The NI couldn’t win this battle; only a miracle could save them, now. The question that Gaius knew was on his shoulders, however, was whether to sacrifice everything in defense of Varnus. There were millions of lives down there at stake; at the same time, Tralaria was under attack, as well. If the combined NI fleets had amassed all in one place, they might have saved one of the two targets. Yet those kinds of decisions were impossible to make – besides, even if one of Nimrod’s fleets was defeated, the other would surely come and exact revenge later.

     The decision had been reached long ago. They would fight here until they could fight no longer. Whoever survived would then flee NI space and try to warn the rest of the galaxy of the impending invasion. For once the NI was defeated, the AD would march on an unsuspecting galaxy ripe for the taking.
     “Gaius, what’s that Titan doing?” Walt Amason’s voice came from across the bridge.
     Turning to follow the man's outstretched arm – it was good having extra sets of eyes when on a near 360 degree view of the battle – Gaius saw the Desolation beginning a sweeping turn to port, bringing it out of line with the other Titans. The Desolation, her massive bow a blackened, ruined char, had been unable to fire at the NI fleet in any significant capacity. But if she brought her side batteries to bear... They could have as many as a score of new fusion beams emplacements to worry about, he realized.
     "They're going to broadside us," Gaius realized.
     They all watched as the Titan continued to turn slowly, thousands of viewport lights becoming visible along the ship's spine.
     "Admiral," Awel Kylar spoke up from the tactical display nearby. "The Desolation has lost her forward shields. Those on the starboard side are still intact. However, in approximately thirty seconds we will have an opening through the forward shields to strike anywhere along the ship's starboard side."
     Gaius immediately caught the meaning of his words: they would have an unprotected target for a matter of a few seconds, but they would only get one chance at it. Though they might not have a chance of winning this battle, they could certainly take as many of the enemy with them as possible.

     “Order to all ships: train all batteries on the opening in the Desolation’s shields. Target all vital systems that you can, especially the bridge. We might be going down, but by the Force we’re taking her with us!”

     He watched as the tactical holo counted down the seconds to the Titan’s opening. As they dropped to within five seconds, Gaius raised his voice, trusting that the whole fleet could hear his orders.

     “Fire on my mark,” he said. “Three… Two… One… Fire!”

     The NI Fleet opened up just as the Titan's turn reached the perfect angle, and at that moment all the fleet's batteries turned towards that one, single target. Thousands of green and red turbolaser blasts shot out, passing through the opening in her shields and impacting against the Desolation's hull, melting armor into slag and blowing huge chunks into the ship's interior. The Nexus' beam weapons joined them, cutting into the ship's vital areas.
    The four Majestic-class cruisers, having hovered safely within the Nexus' protective shield, opened up with their transport-sized mass driver rounds. Each fired her rounds even as a beam from the Hegemony penetrated the Nexus' weakened shield and sliced into the Repulse. The beam cut through her just aft of the cannon's barrel, tearing through the ship's body and causing an explosion to rip out in its wake, blowing the ship apart and sending the barrel drifting forward away from the ensuing fireball.
     Nevertheless, the four blasts hit, easily penetrating the shields to strike around the presumed bridge area. The mass driver rounds punched through the Desolation's hull before detonating their armor-piercing, explosive rounds. The shots hit at an angle, blasting massive craters into the Titan's side in a series of huge explosions. The Desolation seemed to shudder under the impact.
     Then the turbolaser blasts began to light up the Titan's shields once more. "The opening in the Desolation's shields is now closed," Awel Kylar reported. "We can no longer penetrate her defenses."
     Gaius nodded, masking the frustration he felt inside. They'd brought all their firepower to bear, inflicting incredible damage on the enemy ship, and yet she was still standing. What did it take to destroy a Titan? They had eliminated a dozen more beam turret emplacements, but the ship still had more remaining. Had they damaged the bridge?
     "Keep up the attack," he ordered finally. "She's the weakest target out there. We're not going to hold back until that ship is space dust."
     He hoped their attack had been effective enough. If not, then they would find out soon enough. Whatever happened, they would keep firing until either their guns overloaded, or there was no one left alive to fire them at all.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1300 Hours


            It seemed as though they had been in darkness forever.
     In reality, though, it had probably been only two or three weeks, and only about a week since the newcomers had arrived. Meals had been sparse, only once a day and consisting of bland, grueling porridge that probably had no nutritional value. Water had been precious, too. They were probably all dehydrated and malnourished at this point, and their unwashed bodies doubtless smelled rank and intolerable by this point.
     Still, the thing they missed most was the light.
     Only when meals were passed in and brought out, along with their bodily wastes, would some light spill into the pitch-black room. It seemed blinding every time the small slot would slide open, yet it was welcomed like water in the hottest desert. Without light, humankind would probably dissolve into insanity and dementia. Only the company of their comrades had kept them going this far. They were all tired, hungry and weak. Without the Force, they had no way to pass the time through meditation, no ability to boost their physical condition, no method of contact with the outside world.
     And that darkness, the absence of that sense of life generated by all living things in the universe - that made the darkness even more complete, and final.
     Suddenly, unexpectedly the ship lurched and shuddered violently, sending the captives scrambling to keep their positions on the floor. It the first time they'd felt anything like it on the Titan, anything more than small vibrations and muffled whoomps. Those telltale signs had alerted them to the continuing battle, but they had no more information about it than that. This time, though, the movement was so violent, Roger Macreed knew that if anyone had been standing, they probably would've been thrown off their feet.
     "We just took a big hit!" someone exclaimed, and Macreed recognized Domi's voice.
     Then suddenly, Macreed could feel the Force around him again. Even though they were all still in pitch-black darkness, it was as though a light suddenly came on in his mind and soul. The room went silent in an instant, and he knew that everyone felt it, as well. It was like stumbling upon an oasis in that desert. It was like waking up from a nightmare.
     Whatever had been keeping them from touching the Force was gone, now.
     The Grand Master wasted no time. Macreed felt a surge in the Force, and suddenly the cell door was blown outwards off its hinges. Light flooded into the room, blinding them temporarily. Macreed drew in the Force, feeling it flood him with light, and his eyes started to adjust and send him information.
     For one thing, the hallway outside was lit by emergency lighting strips at the ceiling. Power loss, he realized. The ship must have taken a major hit to lose vital systems. What could damage a Titan so badly?
     "Come on," Misnera urged them, stepping into the doorway and waving them forward. "We've got to get out of here while there's still time."
     Macreed pushed himself to his feet, swaying unsteadily. He had no idea how long it would take for the AD to notice their escape, but he knew that the Grand Master was right; this was their only chance at escape, and they had to move fast.
     The room's other occupants followed the Grand Master into the corridor, and one by one they emerged from the cell. Macreed was second out, behind Misnera.With each step he found himself getting steadier and stronger, thanks to the Force. Following him were Vykk Olyronn, Colin Moore, Jontaar Domi, Mrax Satai, and Rilke Darcunter, and finally Brajo, who had been in just as long as Macreed himself. Brajo's eyes were wide, and he looked as though he were seeing things for the first time in his life.
     The corridor was empty except for them. Turning right, Grand Master Misnera led them at a trot down the hallway. They had a fifty-fifty chance that the control room would be this way. It turned out that they chose correctly.
     They came upon a guard station lightly guarded by several unsuspecting troops. The Altarin'Dakor, concerned with the power outage, had apparently not noticed that the Jedi prisoners had escaped. They looked up just as the whole group barged into the room, Grand Master Misnera leading them.
     Misnera moved swiftly and decisively. The guards were behind their control stations, trying to get their systems back online. As they saw the Jedi approach, several went for their guns, but Misnera ran forward and threw out a hand, and the whole group of them were blown out of their chairs. They slammed against bulkheads and consoles, cracking helmets open and crushing bones with sickening crunching sounds.
     Out of a side corridor, two more guards appeared, hefting pulse blasters and aiming right for the group of Jedi. Macreed turned towards them, together with Vykk and Domi, and all three sent out a Force Push as strongly as they could. The two soldiers flew backwards, their guns misfiring into the floor as they flew into the wall and fell to the floor, unmoving.
     Then suddenly a Jedicon leapt into the room, lightsaber igniting with an unmistakable snap-hiss. He leapt over a retaining wall and across the control room, flying straight for Misnera. The Grand Master, however, made no move to avoid the attack. Instead he leaned back, drawing his hands together, and Macreed felt a rush of the Force flowing within him. Then Misnera threw his hands out, still together, and a blast of energy leapt from them and connected with the enemy. The warrior took the hit straight in the chest blowing his chest armor to bits and sending him in a complete back-flip before landing face-first on the floor, sliding up against the Grand Master's feet.
    The whole ordeal had taken only seconds. With no one left visibly alive in the vicinity, the Jedi moved into the guard station. They checked the consoles, which were just coming back to life on auxiliary power, but as all the readouts were in Altarin'Dakor, Macreed could make no sense out of them at all.
     "Where to now?" Vykk asked, glancing at a schematic map overlay of the detention area. A red light was now flashing over one of the cell bays, presumably the one from which the Jedi had escaped.
     "Out," Misnera replied, coming up beside him. He apparently could read some Altarin'Dakor - perhaps from studying after some had joined with the NI - because he glanced down at the controls intently, as though looking for something. "Where... There it is. Security doors. Closed, it says." He glanced up at the other Jedi. "Let's try 'open', shall we?" He tapped something on the screen. A second later, a reverberating hissing noise echoed from down the hallways, sounding oddly as though a whole lot of doors were opening at the same time.
     Misnera grunted in satisfaction. "That should keep security occupied. Now, let's see... This area of the map says its a storage unit. We need our gear back - or if we can't get our own, we at least need some weapons. Come on."
     They found the storage locker down a side corridor, unoccupied. Breaking into the crates and units with the Force, they were able to locate their personal items, which had been locked down, and they were able to procure at least six pulse blasters that Misnera spread out among them. Rilke Darcunter even located a cache of what appeared to be stun grenades.
     Macreed brandished his newly-acquired pulse blaster and experimentally switched his lightsaber on and off. It seemed good as new. Beside him, Vykk, similarly equipped, gave him a grin. "Now we can do some real damage," he said.
     They made it back to the guard station and found utter chaos. Prisoners were running everywhere, flowing out of the detention cell area through the security room and into the hallways beyond. The dead guards' blasters were gone; Misnera guided others back into the storage unit so they could acquire even more supplies and weapons.
     The prisoners were a mixed sort: many humans and humanoids, some other mainstay races such as Bothans and Duros, and a few Sigmans, but most were of species Macreed couldn't recall ever seeing before. Many were gaunt and emaciated, but they moved with desperation and purpose. All wanted to escape. Misnera shouted as loud as he could for them to flee, that the ship was under attack and taking damage, and that this was their best chance to escape.
     Then as they were watching the escapees file past, Colin Moore started and pointed at one human running along the far wall. “Hey! That’s the pilot of our ship!” he exclaimed.
     The heads of several other Jedi snapped to follow, and instantly Vykk, Satai and Darcunter were leaping over the consoles after him. Within seconds they had the man cornered, and Satai and Darcunter grabbed him by the shoulders and pressed him against the wall while Vykk stood before him accusingly, shouting at the man amidst the din.
     "What's going on here?" Misnera yelled, coming up beside Vykk. Macreed and Brajo, unsure what was going on, followed close behind.
     "This was our pilot, Master!" Satai said, giving the man a shake. The Altarin'Dakor, human man was staring at them wide-eyed, but he looked just as malnourished as the rest of the prisoners.
     Misnera put a hand on Vykk's arm and moved him aside. "This man was a prisoner, too. Why is that?"
     "Maybe it's to trick us again," Darcunter offered, glaring at the man.
     Misnera arched an eyebrow. "I hardly believe that, considering they didn't know we would escape."
     “He betrayed us, sir!” Vykk's face was flushed with anger.
     “How can you be so sure?” Misnera asked him. "We only know that our AD guide betrayed us, and he isn't here. Our pilot left us as soon as we got off the transport. He may have had nothing to do with it."
     "I..." the man spoke up for this first time, his Basic broken and Altarin'Dakor-accented. "I did not betray you. They... captured me."
     Macreed sensed truth in the man's words. Misnera nodded, then motioned for the others to let him go. "Well, we're free now. So tell me, are you on our side or not?"
     "I serve the Shok'Thola, Zalaria."
     Something dark came over Misnera's face. Macreed had heard the story of their capture, and knew that they were close to blaming Zalaria for the whole thing - as a setup. There was still not enough evidence, though. Yet.
     "Let me phrase it another way," Misnera said. "Will you help us? We have a mission here, and we need a guide who understands fluent Altarin'Dakor. Will you help us destroy or disable this ship?"
     The man blinked, taking a second to comprehend the Grand Master's words. Then nodded. "I will help you."
     Meanwhile, all eyes had turned to Misnera. "Sir," Domi spoke up. "How are we going to stop this Titan when they're going to be looking everywhere for us?"
     Misnera kept his gaze on the AD pilot. "Do you know how to get to the bridge?" he asked.
     The man nodded slowly. "The ship, it is damaged, I think. We can go to the bridge, maybe take another way. You can take control of the ship there. But the bridge is heavily guarded." He thought for a moment. "Or you can to go the engine room and try to destroy it."
     "Which one is easier to get into?" Misnera asked.
     "Maybe the engine room. But I think engine room is very difficult to attack."
     "Why?" Vykk asked.
     "It is very large. Maybe larger than one of your Star Destroyers."
Well, scratch that," Satai snorted. "We'd never be able to take out something that size, there aren't enough of us."
     "Okay, that settles it," Misnera nodded, backing away and motioning for the others to give him space. "Take us to the bridge, then. We'll fight our way through or die trying."
     "Most Titan ships have a cargo transport system," the man said. "Not many people riding."
     "Good. Lead the way."


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Skies above Vectur


            1315 Hours


            Fighters swarmed in the sky over Vectur, dogfighting in a swirling mix of metal and fire. Every few seconds another one would fall flaming from the clouds down to the surface, adding to the fires already burning both in the outskirts as well as the downtown district.

     Maarek pushed his throttles forward, skimming across the top edge of a cloud, then rose and turned sharply to port on the tail of an enemy fighter that was pursuing a friendly TIE Avatar. The gravitational forces whipped him back into his seat, sending a surge of adrenaline through his body. His HUD painted green brackets around the AD Stiletto as it tried to attain a lock.
     “He’s on me tight, sir!” the Avatar pilot called out over the commlink. Maarek didn’t know him personally, but he was in the defense force, he was an NI pilot and that meant he was Maarek’s man.
     “I’m on him,” he replied, keeping his voice as steady as possible. “Give me fifteen seconds.”

     The enemy fighter jinked and turned tightly, hot on the tail of the other Avatar, firing blue and yellow beams of destruction that kept missing by mere meters. So focused on its target, the Stiletto didn't seem to notice Maarek, who gained speed and pulled a bit closer to his opponent. His crosshairs came over the target and he squeezed the trigger, firing a burst from his quad-lasers.

     The advantage of energy weapons was that virtually no lead was needed on a target. Maarek's lasers crossed near-instantaneously to the enemy fighter, hammering at its shields. If the AD pilot noticed the attack, he didn't show it, for he kept on doggedly pursuing the Avatar in front of him. Pulling back a bit, Maarek switched to missiles and acquired a lock. He hit the trigger, sending out an advanced concussion missile that streaked across the sky.
     “He’s got lock! I’m ejecting!”

     Just before the warhead connected, the AD pilot's persistence paid off. Turning tight on the Avatar's tail, it fired its beams again, this time connecting, shearing through the TIE diagonally from port wing to starboard engine. The fighter's aft end exploded, engulfing the whole ship in flames. Maarek felt his heart skip just before he saw the pilot rocket out of the canopy on a trail of flame, and he gave a sigh of relief.

     Then Maarek's missile hit the Stiletto in the left side, and the fighter exploded. Pieces rained down towards the ground below, following the Avatar's remains in their wake.

     "Scratch one more," Maarek announced, pulling a loop around the smoke and debris. He saw the ejected pilot floating downwards, heading towards the towering spires of the city's business district. "Need a pickup in Sector Three."

     Maarek cursed under his breath at failing to save the other Avatar. That left one fewer ship on the NI's side to fight, and more AD ships were constantly entering the atmosphere. They had lost well over half the planetary defense forces and were outnumbered, now. But despite the odds, the Vectur Defense Force had performed admirably. Maarek had trained most of them himself during his tenure here, meaning that he knew a lot of them, some close enough to call comrades. That made it that much harder every time he saw another one shot down.
     AD fighters were picking NI ships out of the sky, proving their superiority in both equipment and, often, in piloting. Now not only were more ships coming down, but the ships entering the theater of battle seemed to be growing more and more powerful and heavily armed. New ship designs, ones that he'd never seen before, had arrived and were destroying NI ships far more efficiently than those they'd engaged with previously. That fact put a sinking feeling in Maarek's gut, making him wonder what might come down next. There was one kind of fighter that he never wanted to see again, and every passing minute gave him more cause for worry that the next fighter he faced might have a Jedicon inside.

     Maarek had done everything in his power to keep his pilots in Inferno Squadron together and alive. They were fighting off fatigue as best he could after hours of flying. Sweat covered him inside his flight suit, and he drank constantly from his built-in water canister, thankful that it kept him from passing out from dehydration. He’d already rearmed his craft with missiles once, and was getting low again, already.

     He spotted a flight of three enemy fighters diving down from above, going not after him but head-on against a flight of TIE Avengers from the VDF. "One Flight, form up," he called, pulling back on the stick and trusting Rann and Tanya to join formation in time to help out. The other Inferno pilots were out there engaged, but not too far away.

     He watched as the enemy fighters grew closer. One big difference fighting in atmosphere versus space was the speeds at which things happened. In space there was no resistance, but down here in the atmosphere, there was the constant friction of air to worry about, limiting the speeds at which you could turn and testing the integrity of each fighter's construction. For Maarek, things seemed to be happening much slower than he was used to. His fighter reacted just a little less responsively than normal, frustrating him sometimes with the bulky solar panels on the sides of his wings. Plus, shifting winds and pressure variations made him constantly have to adjust his pitch and aim. It was a trade-off he had to deal with down here.

     Inferno’s Flight One pulled onto the enemies’ tails just as they made a head-to-head against the Avengers.

     Both sides fired; the TIE Avenger in the center was hit and blown to pieces, and the other two scattered to either side. One of the AD fighters turned to starboard, while the others to port in pursuit. Inferno's flight followed those two, Maarek taking one while Rann and Tanya dogged after the other.

     Both pilots seemed to notice their pursuit and broke off their attacks. Maarek stayed on his target, the wind buffeting his craft as he kept it in his sights - then he attained lock and fired a missile. The warhead burned across the sky on a trail of smoke and hit the craft in the underside, flipping it halfway over. The enemy pilot, reacting quickly, turned the move into an inversion and dove toward the ground. Maarek inverted also and followed, switching over to lasers. The enemy ship had slowed, and Maarek realized at this angle he was going to overshoot. Pulling in tightly, he slammed on the reverse thrusters, giving him a split second for his crosshairs to pass over the other fighter's fuselage, and he fired.
     "Lock attained!" Tanya Vinikoro's voice dimly registered in his ears.
     "Firing!" he heard Rann Wosper say.

     The hail of green lasers crossed over the enemy fighter, knocking down its remaining shields and ripping into the fighter's armor. Then they hit a critical component and an explosion ripped out, blowing the fighter in half as Maarek passed by overhead.     "Scratch another one," he announced, righting his craft and looping back around. He watched the stricken fighter's front section - cockpit and all - flipping over and over as it fell  downwards. Then out of the corner of his eye, he caught another flash of light and looked over to see another expanding fireball.

     "Boss, this is Two. Make that both of us," he heard Rann say. "Three and I double-teamed him."

     "Good work." Maarek joined back into formation with them and took a second to take stock of the battle. What looked like hundreds of fighters were crisscrossing the sky both above them and below, with all of Vectur as the backdrop, the battle below raging just as heavily as that above.

     As he watched, a group of three NI fighters made a run on another descending AD troop transport. The ships came in, guns blazing, the transport returning powerful pulse laser fire back out at them. One Avatar got hit dead on and exploded in mid-air; the other two flew past the fireball and continued in. Another Avatar and an X-Wing, they launched torpedoes and pulled out and their warheads flew true in to the target. Explosions ripped across the spine and aft of the transport and the large craft began to sink, plunging down between the buildings towards the street below.

     "Kriff it all! Vectur's getting wasted!" Rann shouted.
     "Lead, this is Four," Bast Vlagen's calm, professional voice broke in. "We've got more incoming at my twelve o'clock high. Looks like they want to engage us."
     Maarek saw the other five Avatars in Inferno closing up with them from below and to starboard; Bast's flight included Kikitik and Gren Pabos, while off their six in Flight Three were Salle Darl and Narm Greyrunner. Maarek pulled into line with them, turning in the same direction, and looked up. A cluster of black dots were growing larger now, directly in front of them. He checked his scanners; they included Aggressors and another class of fighter that Maarek hadn't seen before, sporting hook-shaped wings.
     "Those new craft look like heavies," Rann spoke up.
     "Flight Two assuming Star Pattern Delta," Bast reported.
     "Inferno Squadron," Maarek ordered. "Choose your targets and engage at will."     Within seconds the two groups met. A few blasts lit the air from the oncoming enemies, but Inferno had scattered into its respective flights, making them too hard a target to hit. Then they blew past each other in a blur, sleek AD fighters streaking between the formation of the TIE Avatars.
     "This is Seven," said Salle Darl. "I'm turning left - coming around to engage."
     "I'm on your wing, Seven," Narm exclaimed.
     Maarek brought his fighter around, blue sky changing in a blur back to clouds and ground, seeing beams crisscrossing the sky against the backdrop of the city. He picked one target trailing right and opened up with his lasers. In response, the ship dove, pulling a split-S and heading back the other way a thousand meters lower.
     "Lead, two incoming to port," Tanya spoke up.
     Maarek glanced left and saw the bogeys in question. "Roger, engage." He pitched the fighter on its side and turned into the approaching enemies. He pushed the throttles up, pressing him back into his seat. "Split up, Delta," he ordered.
     The three fighters of Flight One spread out from one another into a loose triangle. The pair of AD fighters flashed by between them, barely visible at these speeds, and began banking upwards. In response, Maarek twisted to the right and pulled back on the stick hard, bringing his fighter in a tight loop. He knew that Rann and Tanya were doing the same, bearing back towards the pair of bogeys.

     One of the enemy Stilettos appeared in his sights, curving back towards him for another head-to-head. Maarek attained lock first and squeezed the trigger, sending another advanced concussion missile streaking out. The missile had barely left before a flash came out of nowhere, missing him to port by mere meters.

     Immediately Maarek snap-rolled to starboard, then dove. The enemy fighter that had attacked him flashed by overhead, and Maarek felt his heart skip a beat. If that blast had been just a little closer…

     “Target down,” Bast Vlagen’s voice reported.

     He pulled back on the stick, making a quick loop and heading back the other way. Halfway there he could see another Stiletto target, missing a wing from a missile hit, spinning slowly downwards.

     “Watch it, Lead! One on your tail!” Rann shouted.

     Maarek rolled and dove, going evasive. A second later his missile alert went off. He glanced overhead and saw another Stiletto, along with a glowing missile heading straight towards him.

     He turned tighter, heading straight downwards and releasing countermeasures. The maneuver worked; the missile flashed past, leaving a trail though the air ahead. Maarek brought his craft back up, still working to evade the enemy craft still on his tail. “Little help!” he shouted into the comm.

     “Almost there!” Rann came back. “I’m still about ten seconds out; can’t make lock!”

     “Lead, break hard right!” Tanya’s voice came.

     Maarek reacted instinctively; trusting his wingman without question, he rolled out to starboard as hard as possible. His enemy turned to follow, right into the path of Tanya’s lasers. The AD fighter’s shields lit up under the impact, and the pilot turned away, going evasive.

     “Thanks, Three,” Maarek said.

     “Anytime, Lead.”

     “Lead, request for help. We’ve got a problem over here.”

     Maarek turned his craft to find out what Bast was talking about. There he saw them, a cluster of craft intermingling directly in the airspace over downtown Vectur. Bast’s flight was being pursued by several of the hook-winged fighters and a couple of Aggressors. The heavy fighters were firing multiple beam weapons at once. As he watched, another Avatar from outside Inferno was hit and exploded brilliantly.

     Bast snap-rolled his fighter, a maneuver matched by his wingmen. Behind and all around them, enemy fighters copied the maneuver, keeping behind.

     “We are completely evasive now.”

     Bast’s always-calm voice held an edge of strain that Maarek could detect. “On my way, Bast,” he replied, pushing the throttles forward and leading his flight closer.

     He realized he wasn’t going to make it in time, however. As he watched, one of the heavy fighters homed in on Inferno Five, firing a barrage from its beam weapons. Kikitik dove, missing the attack, and descended quickly towards the surface, where streams of turbolaser fire were still streaking up though the atmosphere.

     The AD fighter dove in pursuit, hot on the Sigman pilot’s tail. The Avatar slowed, jinking back and forth, keeping the enemy from attaining a solid shot. If he could get closer to one of the ground batteries, they might be able to take the heavy out.

     Then, to his surprise, the heavy fighter opened up with a different weapon. Maarek’s cockpit speakers gave a sharp buzzing sound, and streams of air shot out from the heavy fighter’s wings as it fired supersonic mass driver rounds down towards the NI craft. The projectiles passed straight through the TIE’s shields and chewed into the craft. The port solar panel was hit first, shearing into a thousand pieces, then more rounds hit the fuselage, punching straight through to continue down to the ground and leaving huge holes in their wake.

     Finally something vital was hit, and an explosion ripped out of Kikitik’s fighter, and it began to dive in a trail of smoke.

     “Five! Bail out!” Maarek yelled out in alarm, fearing that the hero of Sigma would soon follow the fate of his people. But Kikitik had proved himself an excellent pilot on countless occasions. Inverting his craft, he managed to bank out and put his ship on a course that would take it away from the city. Then his cockpit canopy flew off and he blasted out on a jet of flame. The fighter continued to plunge downwards, heading towards a series of grassy hillocks that surrounded the capital city of Varnus.

     Then Maarek’s flight caught up with Bast and the rest of Inferno. They opened up with missiles and lasers, impacting on half a dozen of the pursuing craft, then buzzed the formation, forcing several to break off. Maarek took his Avatar straight through the group of enemy fighters and was past in an instant. He glimpsed one of the heavies up close, seeing the craft practically bristling with weapons mounts.

     “We’ve got to take those heavies out!” he shouted as he pulled a sharp turn, then saw a friendly X-Wing blown out of the sky by an enemy missile hit.  
     Maarek blinked in surprise; the AD pilots were getting more skilled, too. The first ones had seemed haphazard, even suicidal. They'd come in hot and fast, making wild maneuvers and often firing until their guns overheated, almost as though they wanted to die. As if the glory of fighting and dying in battle was all they had to live for. Matched against that, even the desperate defense mounted by the NI forces seemed to be lacking the zeal to win.

     “This is Seven,” Salle Darl’s voice broke in. “I’ve got him. Engaging now.”

     Looming into view were Salle and Narm’s Avatars, pursuing another heavy fighter that was itself on the tail of Gren Pabos. Maarek checked his range and realized it would take several moments to get into position.

     Two missiles streaked out and hit the heavy fighter in rapid succession, lighting up its shields. The fighter broke off its attack and dove, and Maarek heard a muffled curse from Narm Greyrunner at seeing the enemy fighter survive.

     “Got good tone. Firing!” Salle yelled.

     Two more advanced concussion missiles shot out from her craft. They soared through the intervening air between her and the bogey, angled in for the kill, and impacted simultaneously on the enemy target. This time they penetrated the shields, and the Altarin’Dakor fighter detonated in a huge ball of flame, sending tendrils of fire and smoke streaking out and down towards the ground.

     “Good shooting, you two,” Maarek complimented. He turned, automatically seeking out another target. Despite their efforts, the enemy numbers continued to swell.

     “Thanks, Lead,” Salle’s voice came back. “Looks like they’re not invincible after all.” Another heavy fighter flashed by to starboard, and the two of them pulled around to follow.

     “Lead, I’ve got a pick-up ordered on Five,” Bast reported. His Avatar came into view ahead and above of Maarek, and he pulled up into a better formation with his flight leader.

     Maarek opened his mouth to respond to Bast, then stopped as he saw another cluster of enemy fighters descending from orbit and entering the field of battle. “Hang tight,” he said. “We’ve got more incoming. Let’s see if they’re more of the same…”

     He broke off then, his breath catching in his throat. The sensor profiles on these new incoming showed sleek, small fighters with round cockpits and four protruding wingtip structures jutting out all around it. It was a type of fighter that he’d encountered only once before. And that time, half of Inferno Squadron had been shot out of the sky.

     “It can’t be…” he whispered. There were too many of them – dozens, at least. Any one of them would have been enough to take out an entire squadron. Maarek felt his blood go cold, his limbs go suddenly numb. Sweat broke out all over his body. He opened his mouth to comm Inferno to form back up, to get ready, but the words just wouldn’t come. There wasn’t anything they could really do.

     All was lost, now. The enemy’s Jedicon fighters were finally entering the fray.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1321 Hours


            Paan paced through the corridors, searching frantically for sign of any more refugees or survivors. So far, he’d found three clusters of hiding civilians in rooms still untouched by Jedicon activity. He’d guided them out and into safer areas, rooms that had heavy, lock-equipped doors that could withstand a lightsaber better than most. He hoped that if the Jedicon had trouble getting into one room, they’d simply give up and move on to the next one.

     He’d encountered a variety of inhabitants in the palace; Weequay, Chadra-Fans, Sigmans, and humanoids of various races. There were families, women and children that had been taking refuge here in the palace, and simply hadn’t had enough warning to make it to shelter in time. The attack had come too suddenly, too brutally.

     So far he’d helped those, and had avoided contact with any enemy Jedicon. But his good luck, he realized, was about to run out.

     He was down in the Palace’s lower areas now, around ground level. The corridors here were wide, well-lit and decorated. Ahead was a large intersection that seemed empty at first. Then he heard a whimper carrying faintly through the air, and Paan put on a burst of speed to find out what it was.

     In the corridor was a young woman and a child. And to Paan’s horror, standing over them was a long-haired Jedicon, lightsaber ignited in his hand. He hadn’t sensed the opponent – the AD were still using their Force Masks, which made it impossible to detect them if you couldn’t see them. There could be any number of them inside the palace by now, preying on the innocent victims of this conflict – just like these two, here.

     Paan reacted instinctively, both adrenaline and the Force taking over. He pushed his Force Speed to the max, practically flying down the last few meters of the corridor. The Jedicon noticed the commotion, turned back towards him, hair flying over his shoulder…

     Time seemed to slow. Paan brought his blade up and down in a powerful stroke. The Jedicon’s own blade was suddenly there, parrying the blow and sending Paan past his body. He planted his feet, arresting his momentum, and struck again, catching the Jedicon’s blade once more. The Altarin’Dakor warrior was ready for him, instinctively ready for battle, and strong in the Force as well. Though everything else around was slowed, the two trained Force users spun in a deadly dance that was all too fast.

     Paan struck hard with all his skill, driving the Jedicon back for a second. Then his opponent turned the tide and drove Paan back with lightning fast swings that he barely managed to block. The enemy warrior moved with catlike grace, his blade an extension of his body. He had trained for this since birth.

     Desperation kept Paan from panicking. He summoned up all his strength in the Force, using it to enhance his speed, strength and cognitive abilities. Somehow he managed to stop the enemy’s advance and begin matching him, stroke for stroke. The enemy made no mistakes, and it took everything Paan had to stand head-to-head, the very fact that this was happening here in the Palace an surreal moment of destiny stirring within him.

     Clashing blades with the Jedicon for a final time, Paan ducked under the enemy’s next swing and swung his blade laterally, stretching out as far as he could. His blade sliced through the Jedicon’s midsection, and as Paan sidestepped and disengaged his opponent doubled over and fell face-first to the floor, dead.

     Time returned to normal, and Paan gasped for breath. The entire fight had lasted but seconds, yet he had won. Switching off his blade, he looked down at the woman and child, who were still crouched on the floor, staring up at him wide-eyed.

     “Are you okay?” Paan said once he caught his breath. He extended a hand down.

     The woman nodded briskly, still shaking uncontrollably from fear. Her child clutched her arm intensely. She reached up her other hand to grasp Paan’s. “Th… Thanks…” she stammered.

     Then her eyes went wide as a shaft of red light erupted from Paan’s stomach.

     At first, there was no pain; Paan stared down in disbelief, not sure what he was seeing was real. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and the blade was removed, passing back out his back. Leaving a blackened hole straight through Paan’s middle.

     The numbness started in his legs and moved up, quickly. When it reached his middle, there was fire. Paan collapsed, dropping his lightsaber. As he fell to his knees, he managed to turn halfway back and look upwards.

     Overhead was a bald Jedicon with scrawling black tattoos, bringing his blade back around for the final kill.


     Suddenly someone else was there. A blur of robes and glowing blade drove the Jedicon back. The sizzling crack of blade on blade sounded in Paan’s ears again and again. Squinting through the blurriness caused by the pain, Paan recognized who it was.

     Kiz Thrakus, fighting one-handed, was fighting the Jedicon at an incredible speed. His blows were quick and deft – not powerful, but fast enough to drive the enemy back on the defensive. Their feet scuffled across the floor, the only other sound besides the crashing blades was the men’s heavy breaths.

     Then the Jedicon lashed out in a counterattack. Shunting the enemy’s blade to the side, Thrakus brought his blade under and upwards, slicing the Jedicon’s arm off at the elbow. The enemy’s lightsaber fell with it, and his momentum continued to carry him forward. Thrakus shifted his stance, brought his blade around, and his return stroke took the man’s head off.

     Then he was right there over Paan, staring down at him in shock and concern. Paan felt his strength draining from his body; he fell backwards from where he sat, but came to rest against something soft. The woman sat behind him, holding him, crying softly.

     “Hold on, buddy. We’ll get you to medbay.” Thrakus said, putting one hand on Paan’s shoulder and another over the wound in his stomach. Paan felt a gentle tingling of the Force through him, and Thrakus’ face took on a new level of worry.

     Paan reached over and put a hand on his Thrakus’. “I don’t think so, Kiz.” He gave a soft smile as he looked up at his friend. “Tell Oriana and the kids I love them. Take care of them for me…”

     “Paan, no…”

     Shaking his head again, he squeezed the man’s hand with the rest of his fleeting strength. “It’s okay. She’s a strong woman,” he managed. “There’s a bright future ahead for her.”

     His vision began to dim, but from somewhere within, a warm feeling began to spread throughout his body. Paan smiled again; this was what the Force had shown him, what it had guided him towards all these years. It was time to join with it, to pass that threshold and begin a new journey, now. This was the destiny he had been waiting for, and he was unafraid.

     Paan’s eyes closed for the last time, and he breathed a final sigh out, his spirit becoming one with the Force.

     Kiz stared down at the man’s peaceful face for a long moment, his friend’s hand still clenched tightly in his own. “Goodbye, Gui Sun,” he said finally.

     Then, stooping down, he slid his good arm around the man’s chest from behind and gingerly lifted the man’s body as best he could. The young woman moved to help, grabbing his feet and hefting his lower half a bit awkwardly. Little by little they carried him to one of the doorways set along the length of the corridor. It opened as they approached, and inside Kiz found what appeared to be a study of some sort, untouched by the enemy. Leading them across the room, he nodded to the sofa in the center, and together they lay Paan’s body there.

     Retrieving the man’s lightsaber, Kiz turned back to the woman and her child, who had watched the whole ordeal in wide-eyed bewilderment. “Follow me to medbay,” he told them. “If you want to live, that’s the safest place now, I’d bet. As long as they haven’t destroyed it, too.”

     Kiz turned and led them down the corridor in the proper direction.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1322 Hours


            “Another wave coming in!” shouted one of the sergeants behind the barricade.

     "Get down!" Kir Kanos yelled.
     Suiting words to action, Kanos joined the rest of his squad as they ducked down beneath the barrier, another hail of fire passing by overhead. Mass driver pellets blasted craters into the duracrete, while beam weapons melted parts of the barricade into slag. They'd already had to abandon the first line of defense, and were now behind the second tier of barriers. The bodies of hundreds of NI troops littered the ground behind the first tier, as well as the main courtyard facing the Royal Palace's entryway. Bright sunlight poured down from above, illuminating the blood that had stained the streets red all the way out to the enemy line.
     Altarin'Dakor shock troopers filled the street, continuing to pour fire at the NI defenders behind their barricades.
     We can't take much more of this, Kanos realized starkly. Pretty soon they, or one of the other garrisons of defenders at the palace's east and west front corners, were going to be overrun. Then it would be hand-to-hand with the enemy.
     He peeked back out of one of the sight-holes in the barricade, seeing the enemy grow another dozen meters closer.
     Snipers, hidden in the windows of the tall buildings to either side, had taken out one soldier out of another, targeting the higher-ranking officers with precision shots. In response, instead of hunkering down for cover, the AD troops continued to march on, letting loose with their weapons almost randomly on the buildings themselves. Handheld beam weapons shot beams that cut through windows and floors, and rocket launchers blasted holes into buildings that sent debris raining down on their own men. Despite their haphazardness, the attacks proved effective enough; there were fewer and fewer snipers left up there to take out the enemy.
     Kanos raised his own scope to his eyes again and fired, blasting another shock trooper through the faceplate. The soldier fell, but another moved quickly to fill the space.
     Then one of the NI's stormtroopers fired a portable rocket launcher that sent a missile streaking out towards the enemy forces. It hit the street in front of them, blowing men everywhere, blasting another crater into the street. A second later, two enemy rockets answered in return, and Kanos ducked back behind the barrier, for all the good it would do.
     The first warhead hit the barricade across from him and exploded, blasting away most of the duracrete structure and sending a dozen men flying backwards. The second shot passed between them, cruising through the air to impact against the wide steps leading up towards the palace entrance, blasting a hole into the steps and sending stone chips flying into the air in all directions.
     Up on the balconies beyond, he could still see Jedi fighting against Jedicon, dueling with their lightsabers and other arcane Force powers that Kanos had never tried to grasp for himself. They leapt and rolled, clashing blades, then separating and releasing blasts of energy from their hands that seemed as powerful as the rockets that had just hit the NI line. Every few moments a duel would end with one side felling the other. Sometimes the Jedi would win. More often it was the Jedicon.
     Though the years, he had experienced certain things, done feats that seemed just quite beyond a normal man's abilities, things he couldn't quite understand.
     Could he ever have been like those warriors above, moving almost too fast for the eye to follow? Skywalker had told him that he was Force Sensitive. That had laid a piece of the puzzle in Kanos' mind, but it was something he had never desired for himself. It was not the life he was meant for. It was far too late for that.
     Still, with the entire planet locked in the fight of its life, he felt an affinity for the Force-users as he never had before. Perhaps it was because of their sheer numbers here on this world. Maybe it was just the NI's Jedi Division, who seemed more balanced, more focused than any Jedi or Sith Kanos had ever knew. Or maybe the sheer destiny of the moment was beginning to put on him a new mantle of understanding about things.
     For an instant, two dueling figures appeared along the top of a wall, jumping there and clashing their blades violently against each other. He thought he recognized this particular Jedi before from somewhere. But from the looks of it they would never have a chance to meet formally. The Jedicon came at a rush, throwing the Jedi down to his back. He was about to be defeated.
     Swinging his rifle up to his shoulder, Kanos sighted the Jedicon, raised his aim to cover the man's back, and fired. It was a long shot; much further than the approaching enemy line. But Kanos had years of sniper experience.
     His bolt flew true, straight for the enemy’s back. But if Kanos had wondered if the Jedicon had some kind of danger sense like that the Jedi used to protect themselves, his questions were answered. The Jedicon spun even as Kanos fired, his blade a blur of light as it came around and batted the energy bolt away into the distance.

     Then the Jedi lunged forward and swung, and a line of light passed through the man’s waist from one side to the other.

     Dropping his blade, the Jedicon toppled from the edge, splitting into two pieces as he disappeared from view. The Jedi looked around, but not knowing where the saving shot had come from, he rolled back off the wall and fell out of sight.    

     Then his sergeant’s yelling brought Kanos’ attention back to the front.

     “They’ve broken through on the east side!” the man roared, fighting the sound of blasts firing and explosions all around them. “Here they come!”

     Kanos’ eyes went wide as he saw a full squad of shock troops come running down the street and begin vaunting over the barricades. Dropping his sniper rifle, he reached behind him to his pack, pulling the double-bladed shaft weapon that hung collapsed back there. He pulled it around and activated it, its length extending to full, over a meter and a half long, and he charged.

     White-armored stormtroopers and Royal Palace guards clashed with black-clad Altarin’Dakor shock troops at close range in front of the palace steps. Guns blazed, blasting armor to pieces, while AD beam weapons sliced men completely through. Then both sides ran up to each other, swinging blades, rifles, and fists in a fury.

     Kanos ran to engage two shock troopers coming directly at him. Feinting right, he shot to the left, avoiding a flurry of pulse blaster fire from that direction. The other troops brought up some kind of vibroblade at him, but Kanos rolled forward beneath the attack and swept out his spear, slicing off the man’s leg at the knee.

     As the first one fell, he was up and at the second even as the man turned around. A swipe with one side cleaved the enemy’s gun hand clean away, then he reversed directions and spun the blade back up in a one-two slash, cutting through the man’s armor like flimsy and sending a gout of blood out of his torso into the air. The man fell backwards, dead.

     He turned back, stabbing downwards to put the first man out of his misery, then ran forward to save the sergeant from an enemy wielding a vibrosword overhead, coming in with a wild scream. Kanos lunged forward, approaching at a ninety degree angle, and swung hard with his blade’s length advantage, taking off the attacker’s head before he even realized Kanos was there.

     The headless trooper fell at the sergeant’s feet. Not bothering to say thanks, the officer raised his blaster and fired straight over Kanos’ shoulder. Kanos spun back and saw the faceplate of the shock troop that had been approaching from behind shatter, flame and smoke pouring out of the hole as he collapsed.

     “I think that’s got ‘em!” shouted the sergeant. “But there’s more making a run straight down the main way!”

     Kanos glanced around briefly, saw that the whole squad had been dispatched – with almost an equal number of NI dead – and then turned back to look down Star Way. Taking a deep breath, he planted his staff on the ground, that end’s blood-soaked blade biting into the stone at his feet.

     A hundred more soldiers were rushing down the street at full speed, roaring as they came in. This time they were going to be outnumbered, and badly.

     This would be the perfect time for some great hero or squadron of friendly fighters to zoom in, dispatch the enemy and save the day. But Kanos had been fighting far too many years to believe such stories happened in the real galaxy. What was coming was going to be bad – and this might be the end.

     Raising his double-bladed staff again, he prepared for the onslaught.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Skies Above Vectur

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1326 Hours


            Fighters exploded overhead in a continuous rain of fire, speared by beam weapons with more accuracy and cunning than Maarek had ever seen.

     Inferno Squadron had scattered to escape the entry vector of the approaching Jedicon spacecraft, breaking off from their engagement with the other AD squadron and diving towards the deck. Overhead, Maarek could see countless fighters swirling overhead, the dogfights continuing heatedly. But whenever a Jedicon fighter entered the fray, it dispatched even the finest NI pilots with ease.

     In fact, whenever a Jedicon was in pursuit, the NI craft simply began flying straight on, as if completely conceding the fight, giving up. Then the beams would spear his craft, turning it into an incandescent fireball.

     Maarek held no illusions that the Jedicon weren’t using the Force. It was completely unfair – and a completely unstoppable battle tactic. Every NI pilot who wasn’t a Jedi would be indefensible against them.

     The ground spun below him as he corkscrewed downwards, evading another one of the AD heavy fighters following close behind, lining up for a shot. Though he couldn’t do his signature trick in the atmosphere, he still knew his Avatar could outfly his opponent’s craft. Jinking right, he slammed on the reverse thrusters, and the enemy pilot couldn’t react fast enough. He shot out ahead of Maarek, Rann and Tanya.

     “Fire!” he shouted.

     All three Avatars opened up with their lasers, pelting the enemy craft with dozens of hits in a second. The shields were overwhelmed, then the blasts chewed through the armor and the fighter was blown apart.

     “Boss, what do we do?” Rann spoke up. “Those Jedicon are getting closer.”

     “We’re losing more pilots every second,” Salle Darl added.

     “Keep evasive!” Maarek said, hearing the desperation in his own voice. There was no more use in hiding it; he was terrified, flying on pure instinct. This was his worst nightmare; being thrust into combat with another pilot, and being stripped completely defenseless before them. It was in the air and space that he lived and breathed – where he came alive. Now his most prized place, that most familiar friend had been taken from him.

     Glancing downwards, he saw Vectur itself, the shining crown jewel of Varnus, now bruised and battered, a hundred different plumes of smoke rising through the air, huge fires raging in a dozen different locations. Enemy forces filled the streets, engaging NI ground forces in intense firefights, or one-on-one combat. The palace itself was shrouded in smoke, off in the distance.

     But the spires of the downtown district still stood, and from some of the rooftop turrets, turbolasers still fired up into the sky.

     “Head for the skyscrapers!” Maarek shouted. “We’ll hide out there and try to ambush them when they come in!”

     “Lead, Eight,” Narm Greyrunner chimed in. “All due respect sir, but that sounds nuts. We won’t be able to maneuver down there!”

     “Neither will they,” Maarek said, bleeding more altitude. “Dive, now!” He saw Seven and Eight already a klick or so beneath them. “Take us in, Salle! Stay out of visual contact and wait for them to pass. If they come in, we’ll take them out!”

     “We can’t just run, sir!” Salle countered, her voice pained. “Our people are all dying out here! If we don’t stop them, they’ll overrun the city!”

     “Just do it, Salle!” Maarek shouted, feeling guilt wash over him. This was it; the moment of truth had arrived. He could avoid the truth no longer.

     Maarek realized he wanted his squadron to survive, no matter the cost.

     He didn’t want anyone else’s death on his hands.

     “Lead, this is Four,” Bast Vlagen’s voice came in. It held an analytical air as always, but this time his words were far from calming. “We’re not going to make it to the buildings.”


     “We’ve got two Widowmakers at nine o’clock high. Coming in fast,” Bast added.

     Maarek spotted them, two very small fighters diving straight down towards them from above.

     “Lead, I’m on your wing,” he heard Tanya’s voice in his ears.

     “We’re with you all the way, Boss,” Rann said.

     Maarek took a deep breath, fighting the panic. This wasn’t what he was trained for; he was a soldier! He would not be ruled by fear!

     “I’m going in,” Bast reported. “Get low as fast as you can!”

     “Bast!” Gren Pabos shouted.

     “Lead!” Salle shouted. “Let’s go!”

     Maarek watched Bast Vlagen’s fighter angle upwards in horror. “NO!” he yelled.


     “Get the squadron down, Salle! That’s an order!” Maarek shouted. Then he pulled back on the stick, climbing.

     “We’re on your wing!” Rann yelled.

     Bast’s fighter was a good klick ahead of them. Rising, he released two advanced concussion missiles skyward, straight towards one of the small, heavily-armed Widowmakers.

     A quartet of beam weapons flashed downwards, hitting first one warhead, then tracing across to touch the other one. Two explosions lit up the sky, the missiles exploding prematurely.

     “Get out of here, Lead!” he heard Bast shout, as the man’s Avatar opened up with lasers, flashing up into the sky.

     It was the last thing he ever heard him say. Another set of beams opened up from the other Widowmaker. Bast sent his fighter into a wild evasive upwards corkscrew.

     He might as well have not bothered. The beams were tracing through the air before he even got there, anticipating the maneuver exactly. The Avatar flew straight through those four bright blue beams – and exploded.

     “BAST!” Maarek screamed.

     Shoving the stick forwards, he pulled away, clenching his eyes shut.

     “Sir!” Tanya’s voice echoed in his ears.

     Then, suddenly, a strange sense of peace settled over Maarek then. He opened his eyes – and blinked in surprise.

     He was home.

     He was sitting at the kitchen table at his family’s private residence on Kuan. His mother Marina had her back to him, preparing something on the kitchen stove. Delicious smells wafted through the air, and Maarek felt – and heard – his stomach growling. It seemed like days since he’d last eaten.

     “Hey there, Son,” a new voice spoke up. Maarek turned, and saw his father Kerek standing in the doorway, a gleam in his eye. “Come help me with something while your mother finishes up.”

     “Okay,” Maarek said, rising. He ducked through the doorway and followed his father into his small private laboratory they had set up in the house. Looking at the displays on the screens there, and seeing the jumble of equipment on his father’s work desk, Maarek knew that his dad was working on some new, hair-brained idea. If the Imperials ever came into this sector and realized just how valuable Kerek’s research really could be… Well, they would either be rich, or else they might just disappear under a veil of government secrecy.

     “What’s all this, dad?” Maarek asked, stepping down into the room. On the wall to the left he saw a standing model of an aerodynamic-looking racing swoop – just like the one Maarek had saved up so much to buy in real life. It was sitting down in the hangar, now, waiting for a new round of repairs so he could fly it again in the races next week.

     “Over here, lad,” his father said, grabbing his attention once more. Maarek traversed the room and came to stand next to his father, looking down at what Kerek held in his hands.

     “I want you to take as look at this,” his father said. “This could be something big, here. Something that could change our little system forever. Maybe even end the whole war between our peoples.”

     Maarek blinked. Those words – they sounded strange. Did he mean the war against the Bordali? That had ended years ago – when the Empire had shown up.

     Right after Kerek had been kidnapped by the Bordali, so they could use him against his own people.

     As Maarek stared down at what lay in his father’s hands, he couldn’t quite focus on it. The object was blurry – he couldn’t make it out. In fact, the blurriness grew, covering his whole vision, until Maarek couldn’t see anything clearly anymore. In fact, he couldn’t think very clearly, either. How was his father here? How were they back on Kuan? How could he be reliving these events again, when they’d happened years ago?

     This wasn’t real.

     He brought his hands up, rubbing at his eyes, hoping to clear the blurriness that still filled his vision and had started to completely disorient him.

     He removed his hands.

     And saw the streets of Vectur looming upwards to meet him.

     Yelling, he pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, slamming on the reverse thrusters. His fighter plunged beneath the level of the building tops around him, the Avatar shaking violently as it struggled to bleed off speed. Maarek activated the repulsorlifts and threw them on full, still pulling back desperately on the stick.

     The fighter angled out of it slowly. His angle drew up until he saw buildings ahead of him, then the repulsorlifts slammed him into his seat. He skimmed meters above the surface of the street as the Avatar barely leveled off. He kept pulling back, and the craft shot skyward again, blasting a row of parked hovercars off the street and crashing them into the surrounding buildings.

     He gained altitude and looked around, gasping for breath, still in shock. So that was it: his mind had been taken over! Another second and he would have been dead. It had been like before, simulating against Xar – but this time it had been real.

     Then his terror and sense of dread suddenly came full circle. What about his wingmen?

     His eyes searched the skies desperately for them. Then he saw them – two sleek Avatars, plunging straight downwards out of the sky, already passing below the city’s tallest buildings, just as he had seconds before.

     “Rann! Tanya! Eject!” he yelled into the comm.

     There was no answer. The two fighters continued to plunge downwards. There was no sign that they had heard, or were even awake at all. It was like watching an unreal dream unfolding before his eyes.

     Can you hear me!?” Maarek screamed.

     The fighters impacted, Rann’s first on the roof of a high-rise apartment complex, then Tanya’s directly onto the street below. Twin fireballs blossomed out, reaching for the sky.

     Maarek’s own scream was the only sound he could hear on the comm, mixed with a burst of static from the vanished starfighters.

     And with a sob he dove again, sending his craft down among the cluster of skyscrapers that held his only chance of protection – and solace.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1330 Hours


            The blast of energy hit the floor and exploded, blowing chunks of stone and tile into the air. Jinx dove forward and rolled, missing the attack by a meter or so, then came back up to his feet.

     Nobien was on him in an instant, grabbing him by the shirt with both hands and driving Jinx backwards through the hallway.

     Jinx fought, gripping the man’s arms and struggling with all his Force-enhanced might. Face to face, they snarled as they spun round and round, tugging and pushing, locked in a match of wits and strength.

     Jinx hit the wall behind, crushing fabricrete behind him. He grunted in pain, his Force power high enough to avoid serious damage, and got his footing under him again. Countering, he launched forward, driving Nobien back across the hallway on the other side. He slammed the Jedicon’s back into the wall, creating an indention in the wall in the shape of the man’s body.

     “I am… enjoying this!” Nobien roared, his Basic broken but understandable enough. Jinx grunted as he was thrown backwards once more. A wave of Force threw him away from the Jedicon and he slammed into the wall again, much harder this time. Chips and dust rained down on him.

      He looked up just in time to see the Jedicon’s fist flying towards him at a blur, so fast a corona of air surrounded it. Only his Force speed let him move in time. He ducked as the man’s fist hit the wall, burying his arm in the wall nearly to the shoulder.

     Spinning, Jinx threw a sidekick into the man’s stomach, then followed it up with a powerful hook punch across the man’s jaw. Nobien grunted and fell back, his movement extracting his arm from the wall.

     Jinx struck as fast as he possibly could, his own motions a Force-enhanced blur as he threw kicks and punches at his opponent. He landed two more fists across the man’s face, sending a tooth flying off into the distance, but Nobien quickly caught up, and soon Jinx found every strike being blocked with an arm or leg as tough as durasteel.

     Catching Jinx’s leg as he threw another kick, the Jedicon spun and threw a backfist across Jinx’s face. Stars exploded in front of his eyes, and Jinx dove away to gain distance again. He ran forward, hearing his enemy’s footsteps rushing behind him.

     A doorway loomed ahead. Sending a blast of Force ahead of him, Jinx blew the door off its hinges and dove inside just as a booted foot hit him in the back.

     He flew threw the air and landed on a sofa, flipping the furniture over and spilling him onto the floor on the other side. Jinx pushed himself back up to his feet, noticing with a glance that they’d stumbled into someone’s apartment.

     Then Nobien was coming through the doorway. Launching forward, Jinx threw another punch at the man’s face, but his opponent was too fast, dodging his head just in time. Catching Jinx’s arm, he stepped forward and swept Jinx clean off his feet. Jinx felt himself being hurled through the air and then straight down.

     He slammed through the low glass table that sat at the sofa’s foot, shattering the table and slamming into the floor. Another fist rose to meet him, but Jinx snapped his foot out, catching the man under the chin and sending him stumbling back.

     He rose and cast about desperately for something to use as a weapon. Nobien recovered and came in again, his right fist flashing out again. Jinx caught sight of a metal bust of someone’s head resting on a columed stand, grabbed it and brought it around to intercept the man’s blow.

     Nobien’s fist hit the iron trophy with a ring that sounded throughout the room, and he screamed, clutching that hand. Jinx snapped out a kick that hit the man in the chest and sent him back into the overturned sofa, then threw the trophy at his opponent as hard as he could before turning away again.

     The Jedicon came in again, roaring in a frenzied battle rage. This time Jinx brought up a ceramic-looking vase as the man’s other hand came in, but this time he wasn’t as lucky. The man’s left hand crashed through the vase and caught Jinx right across the face. The blow hit so hard he was flying across the room before he even felt pain from the impact. He blew through a dining room table and chairs, sending them twisting away, splintered and broken.

     Lunging left, Jinx found himself in a narrow kitchen. The Jedicon launched himself over the divider between the living room and where Jinx was, laying his hands on the Jedi once more. Jinx pushed him off, grabbed a random object, and crashed it across the Jedicon’s face. The small appliance shattered as it hit, ripping the man’s face and sending blood splattering into a nearby refrigeration unit. Hardly phased by the blow, Nobien sent a left hook into Jinx’s stomach, doubling him over, and crashed his broken right hand across his face again.

     Jinx fell over the unit’s sink and spit out blood into the drain, along with one of his own teeth now, as well. Then he pushed away just as the Jedicon’s elbow came down where his head had just been, shattering the tiled structure into pieces. Jinx punched again, striking the man in the back, then grabbed his ridiculously long, spiky hair and slammed his face down into the counter.

     Somehow the Jedicon spun under his grip. Jinx felt another blow explode into his stomach, sending the air out of him, then Nobien leaned back on the counter and snapped out a kick into Jinx’s chest.

     Jinx flew through the air, out of the kitchen and straight for the glass door that opened onto the veranda. He burst through the transparisteel, shattering it into hundreds of pieces, and hit the balcony on the other side, hard.

     Struggling to catch his breath, he pushed away to the side to get out of the way, just as a blast of energy shot through the air where he’d just been. Nobien appeared through the doorway, and Jinx took a potted plant that had been sitting nearby and slammed the vase end straight into the man’s face.

     Nobien stumbled back, dirt raining down over his shoulders and down his front, and he roared as he lunged forward again, grabbing Jinx in a deathgrip. Jinx’s eyes widened as he felt the man’s Force power, spiking over and over. He had to be drawing in every tiny drop that he could, and yet still the fight raged on.

     They struggled on the balcony, oblivious to the sound of the explosions coming from the city beyond, and the air above. They leaned against the balcony, pressing their Force-enhanced strength and body mass against it, and suddenly the balcony gave way and the two men fell away into the air.

     As they fell, Jinx caught a glimpse of the pavement rushing at them from about ten floors below. Then he pushed Nobien away and drew the Force beneath him, hoping to cushion his fall as best he could.

     He landed softly enough, crouching down, then stood up again and cast about for his opponent. They were in an alleyway somewhere between the main palace building and one of its courtyards, and behind him was an electrical panel box of some sort. Stone walls rose over their heads above.

     Nobien was to his right. The Jedicon had recovered quickly as well, and came in without a second’s hesitation. Jinx dodged the man’s wild swing, and shoved away from the wall as just what he’d expected happened – the man’s fist slammed into the electrical box.

     The Jedicon’s hair stood even more on end, if that were possible, and he shook for a second as the high voltage electricity coursed through his body. But that wouldn’t be enough to kill a powered-up Jedicon like him.

     Without hesitating, Jinx drew up all his power and thrust both hands forward, sending a blast of energy straight into the man’s torso. The blast took the man in the chest and exploded, blowing the Jedicon off his feet and away from the panel. His clothes caught fire, and he screamed as he flew backwards through the air, propelled by all the Force pushing power Jinx could muster.

     There was a crash as Nobien crashed through the stone wall at the far end and disappeared on the other side. Jinx let out a sigh as he released the Force, and he sank down to his knees in sudden exhaustion. He’d never fought anywhere near as intensely as he had been for the last half hour or so. He and Nobien were close enough in strength that it took all their strength to damage each other. He just hoped that last attack had been enough.

     His hopes were dashed as he saw a silhouetted figure rise through the hole in the wall. Shaking his head in exasperation, Jinx watched his opponent stumble back through the opening and stand up once again.

     It wasn’t over yet.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1405 Hours


            "So what's your name?" Alyx asked the Altarin'Dakor pilot.
     "Nerif," was all the man said. Every few seconds light flashed across his face as the transit car sped them down the service corridor.
     Alyx nodded, then settled back to wait some more. Reaching up again, he readjusted the coat of his Altarin'Dakor officer's uniform, which was a bit too large for his frame. The guard station they'd raided hadn't had a lot to choose from.
     Situated around him in their cramped vehicle were the other seven escaped Jedi: Roger Macreed, Brajo, Vykk Olyronn, Colin Moore, Jontaar Domi, Mrax Satai, and Rilke Darcunter. At least each had managed to acquire a uniform as Alyx had, though none really looked the part. Alyx doubted the deception would last long if they ran into a real guard patrol.
     For the last hour they had traveled through the ship as stealthily as they could. The whole ship seemed to be in a state of near-chaos, both from the recent damage as well as the hundreds of escaped prisoners roaming around freely. Their guide, Nerif, was unfamiliar with this particular ship, but with his experience as an Altarin'Dakor pilot he had enough general knowledge to get them around. They'd seen countless officers and crew running around throughout the ship, but so far they'd managed to avoid any guards.
     Nerif had wanted to avoid taking one of the main transit systems through the ship to the bridge, so after some searching they'd eventually found a service tunnel meant for transporting supplies and tech crews. They'd made their way to the nearest station and caught the on-duty crew and guards by surprise, quickly dispatching them with the Force and then stealing some extra uniforms from the storage locker.
     At first, Alyx had felt bad at killing some of the ship's unarmed crew members. But he reminded himself that they were the enemy, and in this battle, every Altarin'Dakor would try and kill them if they had the chance.
     Besides, anytime you destroyed an enemy capital ship - with a torpedo or otherwise - the crew members onboard died, whether they were mechanics, doctors, gunners, or just civilians. Nobody mourned that fact - so it shouldn't matter when they had to do it up close and personal.
     "We are arriving," Narif's voice broke through Alyx's thoughts.
     Checking his lightsaber on his right hip and the stolen pulse blaster at his left, Alyx nodded.
     "Get ready, everyone."
     Their ten kilometer ride towards the Desolation's bridge finally complete, the car came to a halt at the last stop and the doors opened. The crew looked up with expressions of surprise as eight Jedi launched themselves out of the vehicle. With the Force they quickly choked off any outcries of alarm, yanking them to the floor and finishing them off as quickly and silently as possible. Visions of dark-side Jedi Force-choking their victims flashed through Alyx's head, but he shunted them aside. They were not murderers, killing in a mindless rage; they were soldiers, dispatching the enemy as efficiently and humanely as possible. This wasn’t personal – it was war.
     They quickly stuffed the bodies into that station's storage locker, then proceeded down the next corridor and into a service lift, which they took back up to the main deck levels. From here on it was going to be tricky, Alyx knew.
     "Form up," he said just as the doors were opening. "Let's try and at least look like real guards. And no talking."
     At the next corridor Narif studied a map inlaid into the wall for a moment before starting off again. Alyx and the others had no choice but to follow, hoping he knew where he was going. They weaved through several more wide corridors,
     The lack of any security checkpoints confirmed something Alyx had been considering for a while: as militaristic as the Altarin'Dakor were, their social order seemed to be highly structured. Officers knew their rank and position and tended to be united in mind and purpose towards their goals. Titans were such powerful fortresses that an enemy was never expected to make it inside in the first place. And Alyx had heard that although duels and coups were commonplace, whole mutinies were rare. Thus as Alyx and the team marched briskly along in double-file, all the other crew, officers and guards barely spared them a glance as they passed.
     They weaved their way through the mazelike interior, their boots ringing off the polished metal floors. They took two more lifts up, then turned down a wide corridor and up a broad staircase before they reached the entrance to the bridge. It was there that Alyx knew they could hide no longer.
     There, standing in front of the bridge's massive, sealed doors, were two Jedicon in full heavy body armor, including helmets.
     "Attack!" Alyx yelled. Rushing forward, he headed straight at the one on the right. Virtually everyone else took the one on the left, only Narif staying behind to watch the fight.
     The two Jedicon noticed the intrusion and responded immediately, igniting their lightsabers. Throwing a hand forward, Alyx hit his target with a wave of Force, launching him backwards off his feet to slam against the gleaming metal doors to the bridge. Then, with his other hand, he sent a powerful blast of Force energy straight at his opponent. The Jedicon took the attack with both hands forward, and the blast dissipated against an invisible Force shield right in front of them. Then, dropping to the deck, he sent a blinding return blast straight back at Alyx.
     Batting the blast aside with a shielded palm of his own, Alyx rushed forward and ignited his lightsaber, bringing it down to crash against his opponent's with all his might.
     The sounds of saber combat filled the chamber as the combatants clashed. Alyx struck fast and expertly, and though his opponent matched his every move, he stayed on the defensive before the Jedi Master's attacks. Then, feigning right, Alyx reversed direction and slammed the enemy's blade aside, then sidestepped and swept his blade across the man's midsection.
     Nothing happened. The blade scraped off the surface and passed without even leaving a mark on the opponent's armor. Realizing he'd underestimated his foe and his beskar-equivalent armor, Alyx ducked just in time to avoid a decapitating strike from the Jedicon, then stepped back just as his opponent sent a powerful Push slamming into him.
     Alyx flew back and rebounded off the doors, then ducked out of the way as his opponent's blade crashed against the spot where he'd just stood.
     Elsewhere in the chamber, a pained yell sounded, and Alyx turned to see Brajo fall down to the deck. The younger Jedi had been too weakened from his longer captivity, and the Jedicon had capitalized on it.  Somehow, the other Jedicon was managing to take on all seven other Jedi at once. As Alyx watched, he received hits from several lightsabers in a row, striking his arms, legs, body, and neck, but to no avail. The armor’s coverage was just too great; it even had neck guard that extended up to join with the helmet. Only their faces were exposed.

     Taking another hit on a gauntleted forearm, the Jedicon pushed Domi’s blade aside and struck down again with his own, cutting through the dark-haired man’s midsection. Domi collapsed to the deck.

     Catching his opponent’s eye again, Alyx saw a smile form on the enemy’s face. They thought they were going to win.

     That was enough for Alyx. It was time to show them what a Jedi Master was capable of.

     Crouching and clenching his blade in his hands, Alyx opened himself up to the Force completely, drawing it in as hard as he could, letting a growl emanate from his throat. The Force surged within him, quickly bringing him to full power, and the air around him seemed to swirl like a wind surging up.

     Sensing Alyx’s power, the Jedicon’s smile vanished, and he began powering up, as well. But Alyx gave him no time. Dashing forward at a blur, he launched himself at the Jedicon and crashed his blade against his opponent’s in a flash of light. He struck again and again quickly, overwhelming the enemy’s ability to concentrate and counterattack.

     Drawing on the Force in a burst of strength, Alyx knocked his opponent’s blade out of the way. Then, disengaging the blade, he jumped forward and grabbed his opponent by the shoulder, jammed his handle’s emitter nozzle straight into the man’s face, and ignited the blade again.

     The glowing blade shot out the back of the enemy’s helmet. Letting the body fall, Alyx removed his blade and turned to face the other enemy.
     The others were still holding their own. Switching his blade off once again, Alyx extended his free hand and summoned up the Force. Then, when the way was clear between him and his opponent, a blast of energy leapt from his hand.

     An explosion blew the enemy off his feet as Alyx’s blast hit the Jedicon in the back, destroying his armor. His lightsaber flew away through the air. The opponent hit the deck front-first, and a second later the remaining Jedi pounced on him as a group, finishing the job with their lightsabers.

     Clipping his lightsaber to his belt, Alyx nodded as the rest of his team turned to face him. Roger Macreed dropped down to check on Brajo, then shook his head sadly. Domi was still alive, but barely. Satai and Darcunter both crouched down and helped him up to a seated position.

     “Did… we make it?” asked Domi.

     “We got them,” Satai nodded. “We made the bridge.”

     “Good…” the man replied, his voice but a whisper. “Get everyone out of…” he began, but his voice broke off. His eyelids fluttered quickly, then closed, and he let out a long breath.

     “He’s gone,” Darcunter said.

     Alyx turned away and looked forward. The bridge doors stood before them, and so far no alarms had sounded. Narif joined the group from his safe spot, and walked over to the controls next to the entrance.
     "Open the doors!" Alyx ordered, hefting his pulse blaster. Inside, a cold fire had settled. The Force still raged with him.
     The bridge doors opened, and they walked into a room that already felt full of confusion and tension. Bridge officers were standing at their stations, furiously typing in or speaking out orders and relaying communications. In the center of the room, where the commodore's seat appeared to be, lay the body of an older, balding man wearing an obvious uniform of rank. There were no marks on the body; he simply lay there, eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling, an expression of horror on his face.
     The officers all looked up from their stations at the team's intrusion, and the noise level died down to silence. Alyx didn't need to understand the situation in order to act.
     The team opened fire. Green blasts filled the air.
     In moments it was over. With a combination of the Force and pulse blaster fire, everyone on the bridge was dead, either lying on the floor or sprawled over their consoles. Behind them, Nerif closed the doors and tapped a few buttons on the side console. "It's sealed," he reported.
     "Let's make sure," Vykk spoke up, then walked over and fired a bolt straight into the controls.
     Narif ran over beside Alyx at the main command console. Looking down at the controls, Alyx shook his head. "We really need you now, Narif. I can read a little of this, but don't have a clue how to operate this thing."

     The pilot began running back and forth, checking displays and consoles, some of which had been damaged by the blaster fire. “First,” he began, “I can tell you that we are sitting still. We are not firing. Defensive shields are good, but the ship is damaged on many levels.” He looked up at Alyx. “Maybe the New Imperium found an opening in the shields… I think that is what helped us escape.”

     “Show me a display of the battle,” Alyx said.

     The man ran over to another console and typed in a command. A moment later the holograms forward of the bridge zoomed into the battle taking place before them. Alyx heard muffled curses and cries of alarm at what they saw, and he felt a jolt in his gut, as well. There were four other Titans out there in addition to the Desolation. Furthermore, the entire NI First Fleet was sitting between them an the planet, and they were getting ripped to shreds. The Nexus was there, and below her sat the Independence, though Alyx could see the ship wasn’t going to last. Smoke billowed from half a hundred hits, some of them big ones, obscuring much of her bulk from view. Surrounding her were debris from other destroyed ships, including several huge chunks of what had to have been the Defiant, her pieces still glowing hot out in the void. She must have been destroyed mere moments ago.

     What good did it do to come here and take over this Titan? Alyx wondered to himself. There were four Titan-class Battleships more out there. Given these odds, Alyx knew there was no way the First Fleet could stop the enemy. Varnus was going to fall.

     “This is crazy,” Colin Moore broke the silence. “There’s no way we can win this.”

     Alyx looked back over at Narif and this time saw on the screen a layout of the Titan, zooming in towards the bridge area. After a moment, Narif opened his mouth again. “There are Altarin’Dakor reinforcements coming here, to the bridge.”

     “Great,” Macreed spoke up from behind Alyx. “How long?”

     “Not long.”

     “Are we safe here? Can they get in?” Macreed asked.

     “The bridge is sealed,” Narif replied, his voice tense. “But they can eventually get in, I think.”

     “Then we need to act fast,” Alyx put in, thinking about their options. Every few seconds, he noticed that the floor seemed to shake slightly under his feet. “What’s happening? Are the NI ships still attacking us?”

     “Yes,” the man replied. “But only with something big, making explosions. Something is penetrating the shields.”

     “The Majestic-class cruisers,” Alyx explained. “Well, we need to get them to stop if we can. No, wait a second – what about our weapons? Can we fire on the other Titans? That’ll let them know something’s wrong.”

     Narif looked down at the controls, then frowned. “The bridge has control over the weapons systems, but it is limited. We can fire, but it can be stopped from other stations.”

     “So it can be overridden manually by the gunners?”


     “Fine,” Alyx said. “What about self-destruct? Can we blow the ship up?”

     Narif shook his head immediately this time. “I do not know how to do that. I need the commander’s access codes. Perhaps the ship does not even have a self-destruct. Titans are controlled by very advanced computer systems. Very smart.”

     “Like artificial intellgence?”

     “I think so, yes.”

     “Sounds like we’re pretty helpless up here,” Vykk supplied, coming to stand next to Alyx. “What good is it to take over the bridge, then?”

     “Stow it, and think for a minute,” Alyx chided him. He considered the situation. They couldn’t destroy the ship, and their ability to attack was limited…

     “Okay,” he said finally, his plan of action springing to mind. “You’re a pilot. Can you fly this thing?”

     Narif walked over to yet another station, this one a good ten meters away. Alyx assumed it was where navigation was controlled.

     “I can move the ship,” he admitted after a moment. “But not as good as a full crew.”

     “I understand that,” Alyx said, walking over to join him. He stared down at the controls, a maze of foreign symbols he hadn’t yet learned, then turned his gaze down to the Altarin’Dakor pilot. “I want you to aim this ship at the nearest Titan and ram into her as hard as you can.”

     Another startled cry sounded behind him from the others, and Narif looked up at him with an expression of obvious shock.

     “You heard me,” Alyx said firmly. “Can you do it?”

     “I…” the man began, looking skeptical. But he broke off when he saw Alyx’s face, and realized that the Jedi Master wasn’t bluffing. He looked out at the forward bridge holograms. “Which… Which one?”

     “Whichever’s nearest,” Alyx repeated. He caught sight one on long, dark-colored shape nearby, a ship with a ring that surrounded the ship at the spine. Though it was not connected to the ship by any means Alyx could see, it remained in place, spinning along its center at a moderate pace. From that ring a near-continuous beam of fire was streaming out towards the First Fleet, cutting through the New Imperium’s remaining starships. “That one,” Alyx pointed, feeling a tugging through the Force as he said the words.

     Narif typed into the controls for a moment. “The ship’s autopilot will not allow a collision with another large ship,” he said finally. He looked up at Alyx. “But we can fly it in manually.”

     Alyx knew what he meant; they would have to stay onboard right up until the two ships collided. “Do it,” he ordered. “If we have to, we’ll take her all the way in. We can’t lose this chance to destroy or incapacitate two enemy Titans.”

     He looked back at the others, who had all gathered around the commodore’s seat and were watching the exchange. All held serious faces, but no one protested. Domi’s body lay behind them on the floor near the entrance.

     “Take us in,” Alyx said. “Full power.”

     Narif's hands moved over the controls once more.
     Slowly, the Titan began to move. Engines flaring brightly, the ship began turning to starboard, bringing its nose back towards the remnants of the NI starfleet. Their commander - probably Gaius - must have noticed, because the fire coming into the Desolation suddenly intensified. Turbolasers by the hundreds came at them, somehow finding a way through an opening in the shields and tearing across the Titan's armored surface, turning plates into slag, ripping breaches in the hull and destroying more weapons emplacements. Huge mass driver rounds slammed into the ship, blasting gaping holes that now penetrated deep within the ship.
      The bridge had gone from rumbling occasionally to a near-continuous shaking, and Alyx gripped the handrail in front of him as he watched the torrent of fire pouring in at them. He was pretty sure the massive ship could take it, but still he longed to signal the fleet and call them off. They were wasting precious seconds on the Desolation when they could be assaulting the rest of the enemy fleet. Still, he knew he couldn't. If they tipped their hand, they might never make it to that other Titan.
     Nearby, an incessant whining chime began sounding from one of the other consoles. "What's that?" Alyx demanded.
     "Looks like the communications console," Roger Macreed answered, hoping over the dead officer's body that lay in front of the station. "I can't read it."
     Narif spared a moment's concentration from navigation to look at the holographic image displayed over the console in question. "It's the command ship," he said.
     Dimly Alyx realized again how helpless they would have been without a native Altarin'Dakor's help. This mission never would have had a chance otherwise.
     "Doesn't sound like they're very happy about what we're doing," Vykk added.
     "Keep her steady," Alyx called, watching as the elongated hull of the Titan Hegemony loomed into view. "How long to impact?"
     The Altarin'Dakor pilot studied his screen for a moment. "We are gaining speed," he said finally. "Maybe two minutes."
     The bridge had stopped shaking once more, the NI's attacks now hitting harmlessly on the port shields. But smoke poured from the bow of the Desolation, drifting over the main body as the ship picked up momentum. Alyx watched the Hegemony growing larger and swallowed.
     "Go to the Naguis'Vox'Donn's ready room," Narif broke into Alyx's darkened thoughts.  "He should have an escape vehicle."
     Looking up in surprise, Alyx exchanged glances with the rest of the team. "Check it out," he ordered.
     Macreed and Vykk took off towards the doorway across from them, and disappeared inside when the doors whooshed open. Alyx was about to join them when Narif suddenly called out.
     "Something is trying to engage the autopilot!" he exclaimed. "It's trying to steer the ship away!"
     "What?" Alyx ran quickly over, coming to stand beside the man. If they turned away, then the mission would be a complete failure. "Is it the ship's computer?"
     "No. It's - I think it is someone on the command ship!"
     "Controlling the ship remotely?"
     "Yes! I must change to manual," Narif exclaimed, his hands moving on the controls.
     "Can you fly this thing on complete manual?" Alyx asked incredulously.
     "I do not know! But we are only going straight ahead..."
     He broke off as a holographic image materialized over the communications console, at least two meters in height. It depicted the waist-up visage of an armor-clad figure, night-black in color, with a winged helmet and mask from which glowed a pair of piercing red eyes. It was terrifying, right down to the core of Alyx’s very being.
     Narif shrieked and dove for the floor immediately. Alyx stood transfixed; he had seen this image before. It had been during the briefing about Nimrod's empire and the forces he commanded. But this was not a recorded still-image. The figure turned slightly, as if scanning the bridge, seeking out those who were still alive.
     The eyes came to rest on Alyx. It looked as though he were staring straight at him. Instantly he knew that this was the Warlord, and this was no recording. It was real-time.
     Yelling, he stood and threw out his hand, sending a blast of Force energy directly at the console underneath the hologram. The blast hit and exploded, blowing the console into a thousand pieces.
     The image abruptly vanished.
     "Get up, Narif!" Alyx said, gasping as he realized he'd been holding his breath for too long. He pulled the man to his feet, looking back to where the console had been, where flames licked the shattered remnants of the console.

     A warning klaxon began sounding throughout the bridge. In front of them, the view of the Hegemony filled all visible space to either side.

     “How long?!” Alyx asked.

     Narif seemed to come back to his senses and looked down at the screen. “Less than one minute! You must go!”

     “We’re both going! Come on!” Alyx shouted.

     “No!” Narif shook his head, putting his hands on the controls firmly. “I must pilot the ship! Go now! Goodbye!”

     With a last, futile glance at the man, Alyx turned and ran towards the commodore’s room in a Force-enhanced sprint. He burst through the room, barely noticing the opulent office with its luxurious wooden furniture. At the other end stood an open doorway, and Roger Macreed waving him forward. Alyx joined him, running down a short airlock and into a waiting transport. The others were already there, and as soon as they were in the doors sealed behind them.

     He could already hear the engines’ whine rising in pitch throughout the ship. In the cockpit, Vykk sat in the pilot’s seat and turned back to give them a thumbs up. “Prepare for takeoff!” he shouted.

     Alyx took a seat, watching Macreed slide into the copilot’s seat. There was a click as the docking clamps were released, and suddenly the transport shot forward through the small personal hangar. The doorways loomed ahead though, still closed, and as they launched Vykk hit a button and a pair of beams flashed out, striking the doors. The entire assembly blasted apart in an instant, bursting outwards from the pressure of space’s vacuum. Then the transport shot from the hangar and into open space, burning away at maximum acceleration.


            The Desolation plowed straight into the side of the Hegemony, one thirty-kilometer vessel slamming into another with unimaginable force. The Desolation’s nose first hit the rotating ring around the other Titan, ripping it apart and sending its pieces flying off in all directions due to its centrifugal motion.

     Then the two Titans touched. The nose of the Desolation collapsed under the impact, but the inertial force of the whole Titan behind it sent a shockwave blasting through the Hegemony. That Titan began to crack beneath the impact, and as the Desolation pushed itself inside the other vessel, the Hegemony broke in half, both pieces bending back towards the assailing ship. Fire ripped out of the vessel, washing over the Desolation, sending up thousands of secondary explosions in both ships.

     The rear half of the Hegemony exploded first, the detonations working their way back to the engines and causing a chain reaction that blew the ship apart in an explosion that rivaled Varnus’ own sun. The shockwave and expanding blast tore through the Desolation as well, and a host of explosions blossomed all over the ship, building and combining with one another until the entire vessel was consumed in one massive fireball that stretched for dozens of kilometers, and a shockwave that passed through the entire battle arena.

     The explosion dominated everything else in the field of battle, wiping out an entire side of the Altarin’Dakor offensive line. And for a moment – even for a brief, fleeting moment – the New Imperial forces were able to revel that they’d dealt the enemy a hard blow, a blow that could not be ignored.

     The New Imperium wasn’t quite finished, yet.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1430 Hours


            Bren sat across from Rynn Mariel, watching as she focused intently on the Battle Meditation. “Keep at it,” he encouraged. “You’re getting close. I know you can do this, Rynn.”

     Young Derek sat next to them, his gaze passing from Rynn’s face to Bren’s, his desire to learn more never completely satisfied. In the corner stood Cozeeke, the curious droid that had been given to Grand Master Xar and had been recording everything that happened around him ever since.

     The rest of the room was packed full of civilians and refugees, as well as those members of the Division who were too young or inexperienced to fight. Also present were the wives and children of quite a few Jedi members. This room was the last line of defense, its treasures not only the Force artifacts inside, but the also precious lives that were at stake. It had to be protected at all costs. If only he and Rynn could help out everyone above, somehow.

     “I can’t,” Rynn finally said, shaking her head and breaking their connection through the Force. “I can’t concentrate enough on the other Division members. All I can feel, sense – see – are the Altarin’Dakor. They’re everywhere; above us, beneath us, all around us. It’s just too strong… I’m sorry.” She blew out a sigh of frustration and looked away.

     Bren hung his head, feeling failure finally set in. It wasn’t Rynn’s fault; she just hadn’t had enough time or training in Battle Meditation. Bren himself knew the technique, but he wasn’t strong enough to bolster the entire Jedi Division at once. He needed help, and Rynn was the only other person who had considered it important enough to devote significant time in study.

     “I wish I could do something,” Derek said beside her.

     She spared him a glance that held genuine gratitude in her eyes. “It’s all right,” she said. Bren knew the offer wasn’t just empty words – Derek had more Force Potential than anyone they’d ever known, but he was just eleven years old – they didn’t want to push him too hard, too fast. He still had a lot of growing to do, though most of it physically.

     Something that Rynn had said had struck a familiar chord in Bren’s memory somewhere – he just couldn’t place what it was. There was something that he was forgetting, something that he would have known in his past life, but something that just wouldn’t come to the surface where he could grab it. There were still many holes in his memory, lots of gaps. And a lot of what he did remember, he wished he never had, in the first place.

     One of the room’s other occupants walked over to them and sat down cross-legged next to Derek. He was tall, and dressed in simple, dark clothing – an imposing figure, but Bren wasn’t afraid of Icis Novitaar. He was another refugee in here, now, simply waiting for the battle overhead to play out, however that might be.

     “Mister Novitaar,” Derek greeted the man with a smile. “Maybe you can help us.”

     “I’d like to, Derek,” Icis said, tousling the boy’s hair in a playful gesture, “but I’m afraid there’s not much I can do anymore without my Force Powers.”

     “I can tell that,” the boy replied, his tone implying more maturity than any eleven-year-old should normally have. “What happened? Why did you lose your Force Powers?”

     Bren watched Icis, the boy having iterated a question Bren had often wondered, himself. People didn’t just go around losing their Force Sensitivity by accident.

     Icis smiled, but it looked a little sad to Bren. “That’s a pretty long story, actually,” he said. “I don’t know if this is the best time for it.”

     “We don’t have much else to do right now,” Rynn told him, spreading her hands out to indicate their current location.

     “The short of it is, my own people branded me a traitor for helping the New Imperium out,” Icis said, glancing from her to Derek.

     “Why would they do that?” the boy asked.

     “They don’t take very kindly to interfering in others’ business,” the man explained.

     Bren listened thoughtfully. He’d heard Xar mention that Icis was part of a group calling themselves the Travelers, who recorded events but never interfered with the affairs of those they observed. He was fairly confident that what Icis had done for the NI would classify as interference.

     “Anyway,” Icis continued, speaking to Derek. “I think you might be able to help them much more than I can.”

     “Derek’s not getting involved in the fighting,” Rynn spoke up before anyone else could. “He’s too young, and I won’t let anything happen to him. The Grand Master and I have already been through this.”

     “Hear me out, I’m not suggesting he fight.” Icis raised his hands in front of him in a placating gesture. “I agree, he’s too important to risk right now. But his is very powerful in the Force. If he can lend his strength to you two, it might make your efforts more effective.”

     “You know Battle Meditation?” Bren asked him.

     “Yes” Icis nodded. “Well, at least I did when I had Force Powers. Which bring me to Rynn. What’s keeping you from successfully concentrating on the flows of the Force around our Jedi?”

     “It’s just that special ability everyone keeps telling me I have,” she admitted. “I can’t really feel anything but the AD, right now. I’m afraid it’s handicapped my ability to sense the Force. It’s just gotten stronger and stronger, and now I feel so useless. Have you heard of anything like this before?”

     Icis made a thoughtful hum, but shook his head. “Can’t say that I have.”

     “This is so frustrating,” Rynn sighed.

     “While we’re on the subject, how did you come to learn the technique?” Bren asked Icis.

     The man seemed to consider the question a moment before responding. “I’ve been around a lot longer than some might think.”

     “Sounds like you have quite an interesting story to tell,” Bren offered, his interest piqued. Novitaar was very secretive, and had never revealed much about himself that Bren had overheard. He always seemed to have a way to escape awkward questions, and leave answers that were just cryptic enough to leave you wanting more.

     “You’re very old, isn’t that right?” Derek said, looking at Icis strangely.

     The man’s eyes widened slightly as he looked down at the boy. “You’re very perceptive as always, Derek,” he said, putting on a smile. “But I’m not the only one here with an interesting history to be told. Isn’t that right?” He glanced up at Bren.

     Bren nodded and leaned back, putting his hands on the floor behind him. “As you all know, of course. I was an Altarin’Dakor general. In fact, I fought a battle right here on Varnus, probably not close from where present-day Vectur stands. It was a lot like this one, actually…”

     He broke off as suddenly that missing memory in his head fell into place. Everyone else was staring at him, waiting for him expectantly to continue, but Bren locked his eyes on Rynn and couldn’t look away.

     "That's it!" he exclaimed. "I just realized it!"

     "Realized what?"

     "Your gift in the Force. You're a Cognizant!"

     "A what?" she said, her face covered in confusion.

     "A Cognizant," he explained, leaning forward. "That's what we call people who can… who can do what you do," he said in a rush.

     "What's a Cogni-whatever?" Derek spoke up concernedly. "Is something wrong with Miss Rynn?"

     "Quite the contrary, Derek," Bren told him, feeling his excitement rising. "Rynn has a special ability that almost no other Jedi have, that I know of. In fact, she may be the only one living today with the talent."

     Icis made another thoughtful noise. Bren looked over at Rynn again.

     "So, are you going to tell me what it means?" she asked.

     “It’s a form of Battle Meditation,” he explained, “only this works in reverse. Okay, think about it; Battle Meditation allows you to focus on a situation and perceive what is going to happen in the future, then subliminally guide your allies to take action appropriately, to help them in battle.” He glanced back between her and Icis. “Cognizance allows you to do the same thing, only in a much more specific application: you can perceive your opponents, to such an extent that you know exactly where they are and what they’re going to do, ninety-nine percent of the time. It also allows you to sense your enemies even if they are hiding their presence in the Force using a Mask.”

     “So what good is it? The part about knowing what they enemy will do, I mean?” Derek asked. “If two Jedi are fighting, how can you warn one of them before the bad guy does something?”

     “Cognizance is intended to be used as part of a Jedi Battle Meld,” Bren explained. “One, the Coordinator, uses Battle Meditation to perceive the battle at large, and to direct his or her own men. The Cognizant links with the Coordinator, feeding him everything she sees, which is then passed on to our own Jedi. It’s like Battle Meditation, improved exponentially. It can make an army virtually unstoppable.”

     “And you’re saying that’s what I can do?” Rynn asked, her tone one of disbelief.

     “Is that true, Mister Novitaar?” Derek asked, looking to Icis.

     The tall man shook his head. “There are many powers out there that were forgotten long before even I was born. Some fell into disuse because they just weren’t practical, but others proved very useful – like this one, I think.”

     “Wow,” Derek exclaimed. “You have an amazing special ability, Miss Rynn!”

     “I… I don’t think I want the enemy running around inside my head,” Rynn replied uncertainly, staring at Bren.

     “Link with me again,” Bren told her excitedly. “This time, don’t fight the sense of the enemy around you; embrace it. Focus solely on them. It won’t be pleasant, especially considering what’s going on up there. But I want you to focus completely on the Altarin’Dakor, to make yourself one with them if you can. Then, when you’re linked with me, I’ll be able to coordinate our forces and help them survive.” He glanced down at Derek, also. “Derek, if you join the link too, and lend me your power, we may be able to help all the Jedi in the palace at once.”

     “I’ll do my best,” the boy promised. He looked focused, intense.

     “I’m not sure about this, Bren,” Rynn said. “I don’t… I don’t want to focus on the AD. I can feel their aggression, their thirst for blood. Their evil. I feel that if I let them in my mind – I won’t be myself anymore. That they’ll consume me!”

     “I know this won’t be easy for you, Rynn. But please, for the sake of our men, and for everyone in the New Imperium, this is something we have to do.”

     “Don’t make me do this, Bren.”

     He looked at her pleadingly, understanding finally that this was their only chance to come out of this alive. It was suddenly crystal clear; it wasn’t about power, or about the ends justifying the means. This was the will of the Force. “You were born to do this, Rynn,” he told her as gently as he could. “The Force has chosen you for this. I need you. I can’t do this without you.”

     “I’ll help,” Derek said, looking at Rynn intently. He slid over beside her and took one of her hands in his. Bren felt the Force flowing through him subtly, and within seconds Rynn relaxed visibly.

     She blinked, then finally took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said uncertainly. “I’ll try. Oh, Jinx… Hang on.” She closed her eyes again and began to concentrate.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1430 Hours


            “Get him stabilized!” shouted Vannik, running over to the struggling patient lying on the operating table. Pulling out a hypospray, he practically dove over the man and grabbed his head, pinning it down to the mat, then pressed the device to the side of his neck and injected it.

     Within seconds, the patient relaxed, and his vital signs fell back into the normal range. Vannik breathed a sigh of relief, then glanced at the assistant doctor next to him and nodded, relinquishing the patient to further care.

     Medbay was filled to capacity with wounded already. Though he wouldn’t turn anyone away if more arrived, Vannik knew that there would be serious trouble caring for them all, should the numbers continue to rise.

     And right now, all the evidence pointed that they would rise, indeed.

     Though most of his patients were troops from outside that had been wounded by enemy fire or shrapnel, they were beginning to see civilians come in, injured with stories that made Vannik’s blood run cold. They said Jedicon were in the palace, and that they were killing everyone they came across. Whenever they came across someone, civilian or not, there would be no survivors. It was as if they were going from level to level, trying to flush everyone out, to find as many victims as they possibly could.

    What was their purpose here? If they wanted to cripple Vectur’s Command and Control, then they should have focused all their resources on taking the command center. If they wanted to win this battle quickly and decisively, that should have been their strategy. Taking control of the palace would mean taking control of Vectur, and Varnus with it, winning the battle. Why go about on a seemingly random slaughter? If it was only the Jedi they wanted, Vannik could understand their hunting about. But killing innocent civilians – such an act reeked of animosity, of pure hatred towards their foe. What could cause them to hate the people of this galaxy so much?

     Suddenly the main entrance doors parted, and Vannik looked up, his breath catching for what must have been the twentieth time this hour alone. He knew that anytime now, it might be Jedicon coming through that door, and that would be it.
     Instead, he saw Kiz Thrakus jog into the room, holding his left arm as though it were in a sling. One quick glance told Vannik the man was injured. He had a lightsaber wound just below his shoulder, but it appeared to have cauterized properly; the man was in no immediate danger.
     “You need to pack everyone up and get out of here,” Thrakus said, coming to a halt a few meters away. “AD Jedicon could show up at any moment.”

     Vannik blinked in mild surprise at the man’s gruff tone. “We’re not exactly in any position to leave,” replied the doctor. “Look around you. I’ve got people in critical condition here.” He gestured around the room, which was full of other doctors and nurses, attending to dozens of wounded, with everything from lightsaber gashes to blaster burns.

     “If you don’t leave soon, you won’t have to worry because you’ll all be dead,” Thrakus countered. “Don’t think they’ll spare you because you’ve got doctors and injured in here.”

     “I’ve no illusions about that. But still, we’re staying. There’s nowhere to go now if we wanted to, anyway.” Vannik shook his head. He turned, and took a few steps towards the quarantine room. “We’ll see this through to the end, just as you.”

     Thrakus also walked over to the quarantine window and put his good hand up on the glass, peering inside. The room’s sole occupant still lay stretched out on the large table inside, covered mostly with a white sheet and surrounded by various medical devices that monitored his condition.

     “Nico,” the man whispered. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save you.”

     The man in the room didn’t stir, didn’t budge one bit. He was totally oblivious to the battle raging around him. He was probably the luckiest of them all, in that regard.

     “You can still do something,” Vannik told Thrakus. “We may not be able to leave, but we can still save lives while we’re here. You can help you friend by helping us. We are defenseless here.”

     Thrakus turned back to look at Vannik, seemed to consider a moment, then nodded. “Fine. I’ll stay with you.”

     Walking back over to the entrance, he tapped several buttons on the door controls there, and the set of inner blast doors slid closed in front of the transparent normal doors, locking in place with an audible click.

     “Seal this place off,” he ordered. “It’s too late to let anyone else in here by now. I’ll do my best to make sure you can work in safety for as long as possible. Do what you can.”

     “Thank you,” Vannik said.

     Turning, he strode back to his working table and the sedated patient lying there, continuing the endless work of repairing the damage this war had wrought, of saving those he could. His task might never be completed, not as long as the conflict continued, but his oath compelled him to act. He would serve until it was over, until his job was no longer necessary. Or, he would keep going until there was no one left to save, at all.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1450 Hours


            Jinx struggled to his feet, forcing his muscles to work, drawing on the Force as much as he could to keep himself upright. He was exhausted; he couldn’t remember being this tired in his whole life. And still it wasn’t over.

      Before him stood his opponent, burned, bruised and bloodied, and madder than ever.

     “I… hate… you!” Nobien snarled, his eyes white with rage, with pure, all-consuming hostility towards the Jedi standing before him.

     Jinx didn’t know if he could stand up to another round. The two of them were virtually matched in Force power, true. But Nobien was a Jedicon, and he’d trained his entire life for the sole purpose of Force-powered combat. Jinx was a fighter – one of the best – but even his own training experience paled in comparison to that of his opponent.

     Now he was just too tired to summon up the strength necessary to win.

     Perhaps sensing or seeing his opponent’s fatigue, Nobien began marching towards Jinx, his fists clenched at his sides. His clothes were a tattered char, and even his hair was half burned off. Yet his exuded power through the Force. His steady strides picked up pace, becoming a trot, then a full run – then a Force-enhanced blur.

     This is it. Jinx saw his opponent streaking in, one fist raised high, pushing the very air away from it with its sheer speed. The blow might very well take Jinx’s head off.

     Then somehow, to Jinx’s eye, Nobien’s motion slowed. He no longer soared through the air, but rather floated, his fist raised out straight for Jinx’s face. But instead of seeing where that fist was now, he suddenly saw another fist, a shadow fist, stretching out in front of the real one and touching his face.

     And in a burst of insight, Jinx knew that was where the attack would be.

     As time returned to normal, Jinx side-stepped out of the way of the coming blow and let the attack pass by harmlessly on his left. As Nobien’s eyes widened in sudden shock, Jinx brought his left elbow up and cracked it across the Jedicon’s jaw as he passed.

     The blow cracked loud as a thunderbolt, twisting the Jedicon around in mid-air. He bounced off the alley’s wall and crashed to the ground, sliding several meters before coming to a halt. Blood spattered the wall and floor, a trail leading to the Jedicon’s body.

     Nobien had looked as surprised as Jinx felt. How had he just done that? For a moment, he’d known exactly what the Jedicon was about to do, predicting the movements as though he were far more powerful in the Force than his opponent. Only, he wasn’t.

     Or was he?

     A new feeling of power was surging in his chest, and Jinx felt rested and more powerful than he’d ever felt before. And not only that; he felt a presence with him, a familiar one. Distinctively feminine – calm, and soothing. He knew exactly who it was. He had absolutely no idea how she was doing this, but there was no question that Rynn was with him now, lending him her power, her assistance.

     Nobien drew himself to his feet again, somehow still alive. Looking over at Jinx with insane, hate-filled eyes, he screamed and launched himself into the air again, his hands claws that reached out at Jinx.

     Again, Jinx saw what the Jedicon would do. He would act as though moving to grapple with him, but at the last second would release the power powerful blast of Force energy that he could, straight into Jinx’s torso.

     Along with that knowledge came a thought, almost a memory. A memory of centuries ago, before Jinx’s long sleep in a stasis pod, on a battlefield where he’d faced an enemy far more powerful than this Jedicon. Then, he’d immolated a Warlord using a power he didn’t even know he had, must less understood. Throughout his life, Jinx had never been able to duplicate that feat, no matter how strong he became or how much he learned.

     But now he knew.

     As the Jedicon descended towards him, Jinx raised both hands in front of him, the Force blazing within, and concentrated all his power through his hands and into the air in front of them.

     From him hands sprung a blast of flame that poured through the air, soaring upwards to connect with the Jedicon, instantly consuming him with fire. Nobien’s body ignited like a torch as he fell, and he screamed in agony. The fire coursed over him, burning his body to a cinder, consuming him armor, flesh, and finally bone, until nothing was left remaining there at all. 

     The fire faded from his hands, and Jinx stared at the superheated air rising overhead, shock and wonder pouring over him. The sense of power slowly faded, and he let out a sigh as it left, slowly replaced by the tiredness once more. But not everything faded; there was still a reassuring presence in the back of his mind, that same familiar presence that he’d come to know and love over the last couple of years. I’m still with you, that presence said in his mind. And I won’t leave you again. I promise.

     Jinx smiled, and sank to his knees once more.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


In Orbit


1510 Hours

The fireball from the Titans' destruction had barely faded away, and Gaius stood on the bridge in open and total shock. Time seemed to have frozen, everyone around him staring open-mouthed at what had just taken place. Two of the enemy Titans were gone, their remains drifting hulks floating out in the void. The one, the target of much of the NI's assault, had abruptly turned, but instead of attacking them it had continued turning and slammed full-force into the Titan next to it.
     What in the galaxy had just happened?
     Slowly, murmurs of amazement and wonder drifted across the bridge. Whatever had happened, there were now only three Titans facing them. Though none had suffered serious damage - they hadn't even penetrated those Titans' shields yet, to Gaius' distress - still the NI had dealt the enemy a most serious blow. Their Warlord must certainly be furious at this sudden change of events.
     "New orders," Gaius spoke up, watching the enemy forces swirl about for a moment in seeming confusion. "Target the next Titan - the Ascendancy. Maybe now they realize they're not invincible."
     At his command, the NI ships all opened up on that ship, their attacks impacting against her forward shields and lighting them a transparent blue haze. The ship herself appeared to have suffered at least some damage from the shockwave produced by the other Titans' destruction. Now, fire from the NI vessels poured in, and though they didn’t penetrate her shields, the fire from the Majestic-class cruisers made it through, all right, blasting gaping holes in the ship’s bow and shattering its reflective hull plates. For a brief moment, Gaius felt a glimmer of hope, though he tried not to let it take full hold. Though they seemed to have gained some momentum for the moment, he was sure it wasn't to last very long given the current situation.
     Sure enough, his thoughts were confirmed a mere moment later. The New Imperium's sense of accomplishment was to be short-lived. Their blow had struck near the enemy's heart, stoking their anger like a hive of deadly predators.
     Now it was time for vengeance.
     Suddenly every forward weapon emplacement on the Grand Crusader, the Cataclysm, and the Ascendancy opened up on the NI First Fleet. As though they had been holding back before somehow, they now attacked with a ferocity that Gaius had never seen before. And this time it was simply beyond the NI's ability to bear.
      Two dozen shining beams swept below the Nexus and into the Independence, sweeping across her decks and ripping immense gouges through her hull. Explosions ripped out of her hull, the shields long since demolished, and plumes of fire erupted like geysers from the top of the ship. The beams raked across her hull, slicing deeper and deeper, even passing through to the other side in spots.
     The comm crackled to life nearby, and a holographic window showed the Independence's command officers in the deeper auxiliary bridge. Fleet Admiral Vonture was there, and behind him Gaius could see chaos taking over, officers running to put out fires, embers flying through the air in all directions. The man's image vibrated constantly from the pounding they were taking.
     "Vonture!" Gaius shouted over the din, hoping they could hear him.. "Get out of there!"

     The Fleet Admiral was still barking out orders, his eyes elsewhere on the bridge. “Reroute power to auxiliaries and seal off Section D!” Vonture shouted. “All hands, abandon ship! Everyone get to the escape pods as quickly as you can! And get those fires out if you can!”

     Then he turned to look towards Gaius and the rest of the bridge officers. “We’re taking a pounding, Admiral!” he said, the image shaking again as more explosions ripped throughout the ship. “Weapons and defense systems are offline! We’re going down, Admiral! I’m sorry!”

     “There’s still time! Get yourself to the escape pods!” Gaius ordered.

     “I need two minutes!” Vonture shouted back. “We’ve lost power to the main turbolifts and we’ll have to evacuate manually… Aaagh!”

     Vonture turned away from the screen, and the whole image was filled with blinding light… and was gone.

     More beams blasted into the Independence’s interior, and a massive eruption blasted out of the ship’s core. Gaius knew that the auxiliary bridge had been in that area.The explosion blew fire and huge pieces of debris upwards to slam against the bottom of the Nexus.
     Then the whole ship was obscured by fire.

     A series of explosions consumed the Independence from the inside out, spreading back towards the engines and detonating them; then the ship vanished within an enormous conflageration, an inferno that swept out and enveloped everything else around it. When the blast faded, there was only debris, floating slowly down towards the surface of the planet below.

     Gaius kept his voice steady, quashing the rush of emotion that welled up inside, unable to get out. He would not break. “Dispatch rescue ships and assign all remaining fighters to cover---” he began.
     Then the Titans fired again. Massively thick beams of energy cut through the Nexus' shield and bore into her thin, fragile-looking hull, and explosions ripped out of the Titan.
     The deck dropped out from beneath Gaius' feet, and control panels all around them blew out in showers of sparks. He struggled to regain his footing as other officers collapsed to the deck.

     “We’re hit!” Amason yelled from somewhere. “Massive damage! Our shields are down and we can’t take many more of these---“

     Another explosion blew Gaius off his feet, sending him onto his back this time. Drawing the Force inside him instinctively, he shook it off and pushed himself up, watching the holoscreens showing the deadly beams streaking in, bringing the destruction of the Nexus right before his eyes.
     This was the enemy's final push, their last volley. And with it, Gaius knew this battle was over.

                                    *                                  *                                  *


 In Orbit

1515 Hours

Donitz watched the Titans open up full-bore onto the tattered remnants of the NI Fleet, and this time it was clear the fleet was in its death throes.

     “Pull back to defensive point Alpha!” he shouted into the comm, wondering how many other pilots were out there to even hear him. He pulled back on the stick, at least a dozen different enemy fighters on his tail. At this point, he knew, there weren’t enough NI targets left, and these must be several AD ships for every New Imperial pilot.

     “Keep it tight!” he shouted, turning his fighter so hard that he nearly blacked out even with inertial dampeners at maximum. He saw Gastron pulling up in front of him, pursued by at least six enemy fighters, then a blast from one of them blew Gastron’s fighter out of the sky.

     I’m totally alone now, Donitz realized. His whole squadron – his whole wing – had been shot down, and as far as he knew he might be the only NI pilot left alive. Pushing the throttles forward, he dove back down, completely evasive, trying to shake at least some of the fighters on his tail. It was only a matter of time, he knew, before Colonel Rivian Donitz joined the rest of his comrades this day.

     Then, looming ahead on his radar, he spotted an Altarin’Dakor transport barreling down towards the planet below. For all Donitz knew it could be ferrying some high-ranking official down to declare victory and assume control of the city. And so, despite all his pursuers, he knew that ship needed to be taken out. He designated it as his target.

     He was over halfway there when his commlink suddenly burst to life.

     “This is Jedi Grand Master Alyx Misnera to approaching TIE Defender: we are in the transport you are engaging! Do not fire!”

     Momentary confusion quickly gave way to curiosity. “High Admiral Misnera. Didn’t expect to see you flying through the battle in an AD ship,” he said, keeping his voice guarded.

     “We were prisoners onboard the Desolation and managed to escape. We also were able to ram her into Hegemony and take them both out.”

     “I see that,” Donitz replied. “I can tell you the gesture was greatly appreciated.”

     “We’re making for the surface,” Misnera said. “Do we have a clear path?”

     “Yes, except for the score of enemy fighters on my tail,” Donitz shot back, jinking to avoid a beam blast that shot through where he’d just been. “A little help would be appreciated, if possible.”

     “So even the great Donitz can admit when the odds are too high,” Misnera’s voice came back, with just enough sarcasm to avoid insult. “Stand by.”

     Then, as the two ships closed, a cluster of missiles suddenly shot from the transport’s banks, flashing past Donitz’s Defender and streaking towards his pursuers. A dozen craft took hits and exploded, completely unsuspecting of the AD craft, not even knowing what hit them. The rest broke off, at least momentarily, and Donitz soared past the transport and gave them a mock salute as they shot on down towards the surface.

     “Appreciated,” Donitz spoke into the comm, turning back onto the transport’s tail to provide cover to the atmosphere if needed. The fleet came back into view…

     The Independence was gone, consumed by a massive fireball that expanded for dozens of kilometers in every direction. It faded, and he could only see chunks where the ship had once lay.

     Misnera’s voice came over the sudden comm silence. “What in the name of---“

     Then a stream of countless beams flashed out to strike the Nexus, and explosions ripped out along the ship’s long spine. Donitz watched as the blasts concentrated in one spot, right in the ship’s center, voraciously burning their way through the ship’s central axis. Finally an explosion blossomed out, and just like that the Nexus had been sheared in half, a widening gap separating the bow of the ship from her stern. It was simply… incredible.

     The comm crackled to life once more. This time, Donitz heard the calm yet heavy-hearted sound of the Sector Admiral’s voice. His words conveyed no emotion, nothing except for total discipline and dignity. Donitz admired him for his control at a time like this.

     “This is Fleet Commander Gaius Adonai to all surviving New Imperium forces. I am ordering a full retreat from Varnus effective immediately. All capable ships are to set course for Tralaria and make for hyperspace. When you arrive, you are to assist in the defense of the NI Capital. We are abandoning the Nexus now and will join you at the earliest possibility.”

     And with that, the escape pods began to launch. Donitz knew that the Altarin’Dakor would probably not let any of them survive. Even now, the beam weapons continued to chew through the ship. Two of them blasted clean through one of her massive fin-like sails, slicing them apart as they swept downwards leaving a trail of fire.

     Beneath the Titan, no longer in the protective bubble of her shields, the other NI craft were faring badly. The Majestic-class cruisers were hit next, the enemy exacting revenge for all the damage they had inflicted. The Scimitar was hit straight on and detonated just as she launched one final blast towards the Ascendancy, which blasted apart more of that shiny armor over her hull. The remaining two cruisers abruptly turned and started heading out, but not quite fast enough. Another beam came down on the Iovius and split the ship in half, and a second later the aft section of the ship detonated, blowing it into a million pieces.

     The final cruiser, the Majestic herself, dove down between the bulks of the ISDs Stormwatch and Vindicator, and with a jolt of shock Donitz realized they were they only two Star Destroyers left in the field of battle. The Trident, Fang, Tsunami, Phantom and Red Horizon had all been destroyed, along with the majority of other capital ships within the NI Fleet.

     Then more beams continued to sweep across the two halves of the Nexus, even as escape pods and craft of all sizes poured of the doomed ship, some heading for open space while others dove towards the planet below.

     And with that, Donitz realized it was time for him to go, too.

     There was nothing more that being here could accomplish. His death would mean nothing, simply another statistic amongst the thousands – perhaps millions – that were perishing this day. The battle was over, and there was no point in sacrificing one’s self in a vain burst of glory that would do nothing to stop the enemy, which by now had firmly solidified their victory.

     Donitz was, after all, nothing if not practical.

     Setting a course out of the Varnus System, he turned away from the planet and engaged the hyperdrive.


                                    *                                  *                                  *




            1530 Hours


            They set the AD transport down on the West District’s landing pad, which was no longer in actual use but hadn’t been appropriated for any other function. It was large and flat and cleared of any obstacles, which was all that was really needed. As soon as they touched down, Alyx dropped the boarding ramp and ran outside, the other remaining five Jedi close on his heels.

     He made it to the top of one wall, where he could get a view of the palace and surrounding city, and came up short as the vista opened up around him.

     What had happened here?

     From the air, most of the city had been obscured by smoke, but from here it was clear: Vectur was a scene of devastation. Smoke rose in hundreds of columns, rising to form dark clouds that hung above the city skycrapers. Fires raged everywhere from downed ships and burning buildings, and ground fighting continued in the streets as far down as he could make out. On their way in, there had been all too few NI fighters in the sky, and no ground batteries had opened up to greet them. Now Alyx could see that the latter had all been destroyed, along with the tops of many of the buildings housing them.

     The air was thick with the sound of gunfire and explosions, much of it close; the ground battle must have nearly reached the palace by now. The Royal Palace itself was blackened and pitted in many places from enemy fire, and rubble was strewn across the walls, courtyards, and walkways. Furthermore, he could still here the sounds of yelling and lightsaber combat somewhere ahead, as well as feel the Force being used intensely in combat all around.

     Somehow, the enemy had invaded the palace with their Jedicon. Altarin’Dakor troops were in the street, and the enemy had established air superiority in the skies. It was his worst nightmare, being realized before his very eyes.

     Vectur was being lost, and the Royal Palace was the last stronghold to be taken, holding out to the last, but itself in the process of succumbing to the enemy. This city, this world, the place where he’d been born, the place he called home – it was all about to end. The thought was unbearable.

     Even as he took stock of the situation, four Jedicon appeared from around the corner and launched themselves at Alyx and the team. Alyx brought his lightsaber to life, followed by Vykk, Macreed and the others, and rushed forward to meet them.

     The first one headed straight for Alyx, ahead of the others, brandishing his lightsaber. He had underestimated the Jedi Master. Dropping his blade to his side, Alyx stretched out his other hand and send a blast of Force energy directly at his opponent, taking him in the chest and blowing him backwards off his feet, sending blood and bone flying through the air. Alyx brought his blade back around and ran forward to meet the second Jedicon, clashing blades with the muscular, tattooed man. The other two moved past, engaging the rest of the team.

     Alyx fought his opponent for a moment, dueling back and forth in a deadly dance of skill and blade. Then, slipping around to the side and passing his enemy’s guard, he swept his blade downwards and sliced the Jedicon through the torso, dropping him to the ground.

     The rest of the team managed to deal with their two attackers, as well. As the last one fell, Alyx yelled out, “Fan out and engage the enemy! Take out as many of them as you can!” Then, raising his blade overhead, he ran around the corner and headed for the palace’s main entrance.

     He stopped as he saw a cluster of Jedi locked in mortal combat with armor-clad, wickedly-tattooed Jedicon warriors. Lightsabers clashed, blasts of energy flew through the air, and the Jedi were falling behind. Bodies and blood littered the walkways and the courtyards below. Alyx recognized Atridd Xoan there, fighting off one enemy, as well as Amleth Uiara, Ken ‘Nova’ Nandos, Draken Ar’Kell, Varanus Templar, and others.

     And floating in the air above all their heads were Togorian Jedi Ralagos Akala and a massive reptilian Jedicon with black tattoos on its leathery green skin. Their lightsabers were gone; these two aliens were fighting with teeth, claws and the pure power of the Force.

     Then Macreed, Vykk, Moore, Satai and Darcunter rounded the corner and joined him, and together the six Jedi rushed forward to reinforce their comrades, engaging the Jedicon with weapons held high and voices raised in battle cry.

     Ralagos floated, fully powered in the Force, his fur standing on end, his clawed hands clenched into fists. The air swirled around him like a vortex. Then, rushing forward, he slammed into the saurian Jedicon, driving them both backwards. They grappled for a moment, raining blows down on each other, then Ralagos gave a roar that drowned out even the clashing sabers and energy flying through the air, shoved his opponent away, and swung his clawed hand, slashing a set of deep gouges across the Jedicon’s face.

     The enemy roared, then was sent flying backwards by a powerful kick from the Togorian. The Jedicon flew back and hit the side of the palace, then quickly leapt out of the way as a blast of energy from Akala blew a huge chunk out of the wall.

     Then, rushing forward suddenly, the Jedicon counterattacked Ralagos with a series of powerful blows and strikes from claws, feet and tail. The Togorian fell back, blocking the blows with his own well-muscled arms. Then, spinning, the Jedicon lashed out with its tail, striking Akala across the face, then before he could react grabbed the Togorian Jedi, mouth splitting open to reveal a row of razor-sharp fangs, then bit down, sinking its teeth into Akala’s shoulder.

     Ralagos roared again in pain, shoving the Jedicon violently away. Fur and flesh ripped free, and he reached up to grip his injured shoulder. Warm blood began flowing freely down his side, mixing with his yellow-colored fur.

     Then in a Force-powered blur, the reptilian flipped forward, bringing its hands together and down in a hammerblow, slamming the Togorian across the head and sending him plummeting towards the ground.

     Akala hit the deck hard, but still had enough wits about him to roll away, just in time to avoid a blast of energy that annihilated the stones he’d been on. He stood, then threw out his good hand, sending a blast of energy of his own. But the Jedicon, rushing downwards full-force, crossed its arms and flew through the blast, coming though with little more than blackened scales on its forearms. Landing in front of the Jedi, it flew forward and slammed an elbow across the Togorian’s face, sending him reeling.

     Then the Jedicon brought its hands together, stretched outwards, and a second later a blast of blue energy burst from them, taking Ralagos straight in the chest. The Jedi flew backwards through the air, fire exploding across his torso, and slammed into the far wall hard enough to blast a hole through the side. Ralagos collaped through the opening, debris falling on top of him, and he lay there, unmoving.

     “Akala!” Xoan yelled. Locking blades with his own opponent, he pushed the enemy’s saber aside, slammed his handle across the man’s face, then finished him off with a blow that took off his arm and right torso in one curving swipe. Then, rushing past the falling body, he ran forward towards where his comrade had fallen.

     The reptilian Jedicon had resumed his spot in the center of the walkway, barring any passage that would allow the Jedi to help the troops on the ground. It extended a hand, and its massive lightsaber flew back up into its hand, igniting with a white glow and a snap-hiss. The slash-marks on its face bled dark blood that ran down the scales on its neck and torso.

     Atridd ran forward, drawing in all the Force power he had, violet-white blade raised overhead. He screamed, and the Jedicon opened its own mouth in a roar, a wordless challenge to its next opponent, saliva and blood dripping from its teeth.

     Atridd struck with ferocity, throwing all his strength at the enemy. Their blades clashed again and again, his every blow met by his opponent’s unmoving arm, steady as a tree trunk and nearly as large. The Jedicon towered over him, hissing taunts at him as Atridd struggled to gain the advantage and avenge his fallen friend.

     Then the Jedicon moved into a fierce counterattack, striking down with blows not as fast as they were powerful. The force behind the saurian’s attacks was incredible, driving Atridd back. He managed to stop the enemy’s blade time and again, but barely centimeters from his own body, nearly cutting himself open with his own blade..

     He was so concentrated on the enemy’s lightsaber that the enemy’s tail seemed to come out of nowhere. Catching Atridd with his guard up, the Jedicon’s first strike lashed out like a whip, coming from behind its body to crash across the Jedi’s right side at rib level. Atridd cried out, his side stinging like fire. He lurched to the left, bringing his blade around just in time to stop the enemy’s next blow from taking his head off. He ducked and stepped back, then blocked another powerful overhead strike. It felt like at least a couple of ribs were broken. He found his saber locked with his enemy’s and felt his blade being pushed slightly to the right…

     The tail whipped out again, lashing across Atridd’s head. Pain and stars exploded through his head, and he knew his skin had been sliced open. He fell backwards, stumbling against the wall. He pushed off it, the enemy’s blade carving a chunk out of where he’d just been. He stepped back and brought his blade back up groggily. Something warm was flowing down the side of his face, and his head was going numb. He blocked another blow, then another, falling back, his motions getting gradually slower. The Jedicon’s attacks became more fierce, more desperate, thirsty for the rest of his blood. Atridd fell back even more, letting all his fatigue show in his face, his actions…

     His ploy worked. With a hiss of triumph, the Jedicon brought its blade down again, shifting its hips and bringing the tail around again for one final, decisive blow.

     And at that moment, Atridd let out a burst of speed and rushed forward, reaching out with his goodhand and catching the Jedicon’s wrist before it could complete its swing. Then with his prosthetic arm, he brought his blade up in a vertical cut, slicing through the tail just as it came around.

     The Jedicon roared in shock and pain, and leapt backwards out of range. The remaining, stubbled end of its tail swung behind it, but no longer reached quite to the ground. The reptilian stumbled, suddenly off-balance. The severed end of its tail twitched rapidly on the ground. Atridd smiled, standing confidently, dropping the deception and letting the raging Force within emanate outwards from his body.

     Then, yelling again, Atridd launched on the offensive. The Jedicon retreated, blocking desperately as Xoan’s powerful strikes pushed it further and further back. Its steps were awkward, its secret weapon neutralized, its technique unsure. Atridd pressed the advantage, his Force strength landing blows that sent flashes of light from their blades and powerful crashes through the air.

     Then, knocking the Jedicon’s weapon up with a powerful rising blow, Atridd sidestepped to the left, brought his blade around, and sliced the Jedicon’s right arm off at the elbow. The thick, muscled arm dropped, landing on the ground with the lightsaber still clutched in its fist.

     The Reptilian opened its jaws again to scream, but its roar was cut off as Xoan’s blade cut him in half at the waist.

     Atridd turned away from the mess just as Alyx finished off his opponent and approached from across the walkway. Behind Xoan, Ralagos barely stirred beneath the rubble, blood running freely over the stones at his feet.

     “Get Akala to Medbay!” Alyx yelled as he ran up. “I’ll handle things from here on. You look terrible.”

     “Well. Been quite a while,” Atridd said, giving Alyx a dark look. “You don’t look too great, yourself.”

     “My men and I haven’t eaten in nearly a week,” Alyx answered. “We were AD prisoners.”

     “One of your secret ‘missions’ backfire on you?” Atridd asked testily.

     “You could say that.”

     “I see. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in the Division is dead. I’m sure you’ve been keeping busy, escaping and all.”

     “You’ve got two Titans to chalk up thanks to our efforts,” Alyx shot back, pointedly ignoring Atridd’s insubordinate tone.

     “If that’s true, then you have my appreciation – and condolence.” Atridd turned and bent down to scoop up Ralagos’ unmoving body in his arms. “Take care of things while I’m gone.”

     “What happened here?”

     “We never knew what hit us,” Xoan snorted. “We were outmatched all the way. They were always one step ahead of us.”

     “What about Xar? Where is he?” Alyx asked as Xoan turned to leave, the Togorian in his arms.

     “Who knows,” the man answered stiffly. “Probably inside the palace, fighting Jedicon. Ask her. She’s finally decided to come out.”

      Alyx turned to follow the man’s nod, and there he saw her.

     There was Zalaria, standing on the corner of one wall looking over the road to the east, her back turned to them. She appeared to be fighting the enemy approaching from that direction. But she betrayed us. The thought came instinctively, as of its own volition. Alyx didn’t know whether to believe it or not. Nevertheless, a chill flowed through his body at the sight of her. Was she really holding the enemy back, or was she beckoning them onward?

     Whichever it was, there was an Altarin’Dakor Warlord in their midst. Which meant that whatever they decided to do, there was little that Alyx and the Jedi, or anyone else for that matter, could do to stop them.

     The sound of explosions and fire were growing closer, now. He looked down the main street, and saw the enemy moving forward again, in a fresh offensive. Armor-clad Altarin’Dakor shock troopers were coming in, weapons blazing. One way or another, Alyx knew this thing would be over soon.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Main Entranceway

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1540 Hours


            “Fall back!” someone screamed.

     Kanos leaned back and thrust one bladed end of his fighting staff into the belly of a shock troop. The enemy fell over forwards, taking the staff with him as he collapsed to the ground. Half-tripping backwards, Kanos reached down, picked up a blaster carbine from a fallen comrade and spun towards another target rushing towards him. He fired, sending out a burst of bolts that worked their way from the enemy’s midsection up to his armored helmet, and the enemy fell on his face, landing barely a meter from Kanos’ feet.

     Turning, he tried to move back closer to the palace steps to take shelter behind the final barricade there. The others were in ruins, mostly blasted apart by rockets, beam weapons and rail gun rounds. He stumbled over the bodies littering the ground at his feet, both NI and AD, ducking instinctively as blasts of energy ripped by overhead.

     He made it behind another wall, gaining the cover he needed, then turned back to peer down the street. AD troops had made several runs on their position, resulting in bloody hand-to-hand combat and utter chaos.

     About a dozen NI soldiers remained around him, with a few more still holding positions up on the walls and around the main gates. A group of NI troops next to him hunkered down and opened fire, sending blaster bolts streaking out at the line of enemies rushing towards them. Kanos joined them, raising his blaster and squeezing off round after round. To his frustration, most simply bounced off the enemies’ protective armor, and his arms were too fatigued at this point to accurately hit any of their few weak spots.

     In return, a beam of energy sliced through four of the NI soldiers in a single swipe, sending them falling in pieces to the ground. Kanos dove down as the blast slashed by overhead, cutting into the wall. Raising his head, he saw that a large armored figure had nearly reached the barricades, wielding a massive beam weapon in both hands. The enemy fired, sending another beam towards the soldiers on the wall, the blast thick and powerful enough to slice through walls and incinerate anything it touched.

     Men were down all around him, screaming in pain. More of the remaining NI troops moved in to fill the positions of their fallen comrades, while pulse blasts and mass driver rounds shot through their ranks, sending more men down in sprays of blood. Kanos centered his crosshairs over the enemy with the big gun and fired, sending red bolts blasting into the trooper’s armor. Again and again he sent rounds into the armor-clad figure, each shot blasting off armor, sending flashes and small explosions into the air.

     Finally the large man fell, crashing back onto the street, his gun falling silently beside him. But behind him was another group of shocktroopers, perhaps twenty in number, and they were running towards them, fast. They fired as they ran, and the air between them and the NI troops was filled with crisscrossing blasts of energy and projectiles. More men dropped at Kanos’ side. A few shocktroops fell to the ground. Then from somewhere behind the enemy troops, a bright flash came soaring past them on a trail of smoke.

     “Get down!” Kanos yelled as the rocket came in. He dove back behind the last barricade, the other men scattering. The warhead flew past the opening and hit the ground mere meters away…

     The explosion blew Kanos off his feet and into the wall, hard. Stone and dirt flew all around him, along with pieces of his own men.

     The next thing he knew he was on the ground, staring up at the sky. Pain shot through his shoulder where he’d slammed into the wall, and along his left side. He might have broken a few ribs. Clouds floated by slowly overhead in his vision. Smaller objects soared by much faster, in and out of them. He blinked, unsure for a moment where he was.

     Then he rolled halfway over, and saw the crater in the ground where the rocket had impacted. Smoke filled the air. Men were down all around him, most of them dead from the look of them. Kanos’ ears were ringing so loudly he couldn’t hear any sounds of the battle anymore. He pushed off against the stones beneath him, struggling to rise. He made it to his hands and knees, the world still swimming around him. The barricade behind him had been halfway blown away. Beyond it he could see AD troops running, getting closer. They would be here any second. What was worse, he’d lost his blaster somewhere in the blast.

     When those shocktroops reached him, it would be all over.

     Desperately he looked around, casting about for some kind of weapon. A few guns lay nearby, but nothing with enough punch to get through that armor. He was still the only person in the squad that was up. A few others rolled around weakly, but Kanos knew they were out of the fight.

     The enemy troops were getting closer, now. He’d always figured he would die like this, fighting against impossible odds. Considering the life he had led before, it was only a rational conclusion. He’d tried to step away from that, to start a new life, become another person. But ultimately fate had brought him back to this, the true Kir Kanos. A glorious death was what he deserved.

     But he wouldn’t go down without a fight. There were others out there, depending on him. He couldn’t help but think of the hundreds still holed up in the palace – and the thousands hiding in shelters throughout the city. Because he had failed, they would die. Because of him.

     Sudden anger burst in his chest, and he forced himself to crawl forward. There, lying a mere ten meters or so away, was the massive beam gun that the downed shocktroop had been using. If only he could get his hands on it…

     But it might as well have been kilometers away. He could never reach it in time before the approaching wave made it to him. In fact, he had only seconds, now.

     Still, he crawled. He reached a hand towards it, as if he could draw the weapon to his hands, like those Jedi fighting on the walls above could. He remembered times, when strange things like that had happened to him on the battlefield, sudden intuition that had saved his life, unnatural feats he’d been able to accomplish at the right moment. And once, when his staff had flown into his hand as though it had a mind of its own. If only that could happen again, now. Why not now, when he needed it the most? It must be the galaxy’s own cruel sense of irony. What a bloody farce.

     He reached for that weapon, still trying to will it to come towards him. If only he’d actually learned to control those freak things that happened to him! But the truth was he had no idea what he’d done – it might as well have been magic.

     Suddenly, the weapon stirred.

     Shock hit him for a moment. Then, with his ears clearing, the sound of footsteps rushing towards him drove him onwards.

     Pain and anger and desperation rolled through him. All he could see was that beam weapon, resting there, and he called to it with everything in his entire being. It was his only hope. It was as necessary as life itself.

     In a second, the weapon lurched into the air, soared past the squad of shocktroops running towards him. The weapon slammed into Kanos’ body, and he curled his hands around it, barely registering what had just happened. The impossible.

     He didn’t have time to think. There was no time for shock or wonder. He simply gripped the weapon, forced himself to stand, and hit the trigger.

     The beam flashed into existence, extending straight out to cut into the street fifty meters ahead. Heat assailed him, and a piercing, consuming sound filled his ears. This was more than just a weapon. It was a force of nature.

     Blasts of energy ripped past him, missing him by centimeters. Screaming, Kanos pivoted, and nearly a score of Altarin’Dakor shocktroopers were sliced in half in a single swing of his weapon.

     Just like that, they were gone. The whole squad of approaching enemies was dead. Down the street, a line of enemies still held their ground, some distance away. They had a small hovertank, which was just finished maneuvering past all the other debris in the street.

     Kanos pointed his gun at it and fired. The beam sliced through the air, punching into the body of the tank. A glow appeared over its armor for a second, then the beam disappeared inside. And the tank exploded. Fire and pieces of the vehicle blasted into the air, and men scattered.

     His rage was not yet abated. Turning around, he looked up at the walls, where Jedi were still locked in combat with the Jedicon that had penetrated the Royal Palace. He saw a small group of Jedi, trying to hold a narrow section of walkway, outnumbered but fighting valiantly. A group of six Jedicon was rushing towards them, lightsabers drawn.

     No, he thought angrily. Enough Jedi had died on those walls this day. He didn’t care how powerful these enemies were, how well versed in the Force they might be. Raising his gun, he fired again. His beam streaked out against the wall, and he swept it across the group of unsuspecting Jedicon.

     He released the beam, and six Jedicon were dead, a long, glowing scar splitting the wall that had been behind them.

     Only then did Kanos take a deep breath, and realized what had just happened.

     I just killed six Jedicon. He doubted hardly any Jedi in the whole NI could claim that. He looked down at the weapon in his hands, his awe overwhelming, giving way to a sense of fear. What are we capable of? he wondered. Would they keep going on until the whole galaxy was destroyed in an endless war? When was a weapon so powerful that its very use might destroy everything around it?

     Another sound drew his attention away. Looking up, he saw an Altarin’Dakor fighter streaking down Star Way, flying between the buildings and heading straight for the palace. As he watched, two missiles launched out from the fighter on trails of smoke, flashed by above Kanos’ head and impacted against the tower jutting straight out of the center of the Royal Palace.

     The warheads detonated as they hit, blasting fire and duracrete into the air, and the fighter turned away and passed by the other side. Debris rained down on top of the palace, leaving a pair of huge, smoking craters in their wake…

     And slowly, the tower holding up the glass observatory above the palace swayed, then toppled and began to fall.

     Kanos knew right away that it was coming at him, towards the front of the palace. There was nothing he could do to get out of the way; he’d never make it in time, even if he could run in his present condition. The tower leaned out towards him, a massive cracking sound splittng the air.

     And Kanos realized that his luck had finally just run out.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1545 Hours


            Zalaria stood on the wall facing east, offering support to hold off the troops from penetrating the palace on that side. Before her, troops hid behind debris and inside the bombed-out interiors of buildings. They knew she was out there. As soon as she’d stepped outside and wiped out a few hundred of them, they’d known they were completely outmatched.

     Varnus had almost fallen, she’d noticed. At this point the battle in orbit was lost, and almost all of the NI fighters in the sky had been destroyed, giving Nimrod’s forces air and space superiority. Jedicon still fought with Jedi in the palace, though there couldn’t be that many NI warriors left. The palace itself was about to be overrun by ground forces, especially at the main gate.

     Perhaps this would be enough to bring her brother down to personally oversee the surrender. By all logic, he should be there any moment. Zalaria had not interfered enough for him to commit widespread destruction of the planet. Soon, he would come down and they would meet face to face once more, and end this.

     Another group of shock troops had overrun the troops at the east side before she’d gotten there, and even now they were taking shelter behind the NI’s own barricades. Bolstered by her assistance, some NI troops had retaken positions up the steps and along the walls, keeping them under cover fire.

     At the end of the road ahead, one of the enemy’s massive battle platforms was making its way down the street towards them. Heavily armored and bristling with weapons, it was more than a match for any ground vehicle the NI had to offer, and mere troops would never have been able to harm it at all. Behind it would be a column of shock troops, enough to overrun the palace and complete their victory.

     Hopping off the wall, Zalaria glided down to the street and landed amidst the debris – pieces of buildings, vehicles and people. The soldiers in view cowered even further away. The battle platform continued to hover forwards.

     Raising a hand, Zalaria sent a blinding beam of light from her palm that crossed near-instantaneously to the enemy platform and annihilated it in an explosion that filled the entire street with fire. 

     The enemy advance futher delayed, she took stock of the situation and scanned the sky for Nimrod’s personal ship. Surely he would arrive at any moment.

     Then she saw the two missiles streak in from down Star Way and slam into the tower jutting out of the palace’s center, exploding.

     The tower began to fall, breaking nearly at the halfway point and toppling downwards, the glass-encased rotating restaurant pitching directly towards the front gate of the palace.

     She had no choice. Reaching out with one hand, she grabbed the entire structure with the Power, throwing her strength against it. The falling tower slowed to a stop and hovered there, unmoving. Then, beckoning it forward, she began to pull it away.

     The structure itself was huge, comprising probably thirty stories of building. It was far too large and heavy for any mere Jedi to lift or control. For Zalaria, it was not so much difficult as it was bulky. She needed some place to set it down, and rather than toss it into a random building, she decided it would be better to drop the tower in the street and completely close it off to further assault.

     Deciding that was the best choice, she drew the tower overhead and guided it down the street, right towards the plume of smoke rising towards the sky from the destroyed platform. The building began to pass overhead, and she kept her hand extended towards it, keeping it aloft with the sheer power granted a Shok’Thola.

     So focused was she on the tower that she never saw the soldiers taking aim at her from near the palace steps.

     The first blast hit her in the back and blasted straight out of her midsection, the mass projectile ripping through her in an instant and sending bits of her flesh and clothing flying into the air in front of her. She gasped in shock, the force of the shot staggering her forward.

     It was followed by another, and another, and then a whole cluster of pellets blasted through her body from behind, passing through her ribs, sternum, out of her chest. Blood and bone fragments sprayed the air in front of her as her body lurched and flailed under each successive hit. Her mouth gaping, no sound coming from her pierced lungs, she was able to half-turn back towards her attackers, catching a glimpse of several soldiers taking aim at her from one of the barricades, then they spun out of view.

She hit the ground, the pain still not yet registering. She felt death quickly looming over her, but she shunted the feeling aside. There was only one thing she could think about. One desperate thought thrust away any concern for herself or anything else. Reaching inside her body with the Power, she felt into her lower abdomen area. Had it been hit? Was the child safe within her?

     Panic shot through her. Immortal she might be, but the life within her was very much able to die. And her reckless action may have been the end of everything she had worked so hard to protect. Her very reason to go on. Was the baby still alive?

     Before she could attain her answer, a deep shadow fell over her field of vision. Her concentration broken, she turned her head to look upwards – at the wall of duracrete falling straight on top of her.

     Instinctively raising a shield around herself, she threw her hands over her face and turned away, just as the tower came crashing down.

     The building hit the ground and collapsed with a thunderous crash, filling the entire street as it disintegrated and sent a plume of dust towering into the air. One of the buildings on the side was hit as well, ripping off the external fasod and collapsing another pile of rubble onto the one now spreading out below. The cloud of dust expanded in every direction, rising among the buildings around it and obscuring the whole street from view, extending all the way to the east entrance.

     And as the dust and debris began to settle, a silence had taken over the battlefield.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Main Entranceway

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1540 Hours


            The tower collaped with a massive crash, shaking the very ground underneath Kanos’ feet. Clouds of dust shot into the air and started working their way towards him.

     Still, Kanos could do nothing but shake his head in wonder that he was still alive. The falling tower had suddenly stopped its downward momentum, hovered east towards one of the side streets, then abruptly fell the rest of the way. There was no way such a thing should have happened.

     Whoever had done it was more powerful in the Force than anyone Kanos had ever heard of. Even the Emperor had never shown feats of strength and control like that. To whomever it was that had saved his life, Kanos was grateful. It seemed he would live at least a little while longer.

     Then he looked up to see another figure making its way along the top of the wall inside the palace. It was a Jedicon, he recoginized immediately. But what was unusual was that it was also a woman. She had long, golden hair that extended to her shoulder blades, and wore a tight-fitting black outfit with patches of armor, but completely open to skin in other, strange areas. Beneath them he could make out wickedly-carved red tattoos, the first of their kind he had seen on any Jedicon.

     The women thrust out a hand, and two Jedi that had been rushing towards her were blown off their feet and into the air. Then she reached out with both hands, and beams of energy speared them, sending them falling down into one of the courtyards below.

     In response, NI soldiers from atop the wall and down near the steps opened fire on her. The woman turned towards them, hands still out, and the blasts began dissipating within a meter of reaching her. Bright red blaster bolts shot in from all around, but stopped harmlessly short, as if hitting an invisible barrier that no one else could see.

     Then bursts of white lightning shot from the woman’s hands into the NI ranks.

     Soldiers one the wall were sliced open where they stood, flying backwards as bolts shot though their bodies. The woman swept her hands together, and a sudden wind sprang up, powerful enough to sweep men off their feet and into the air. They flew out over the wall, yelling, then more lightning shot out and tore through them.

     More men rushed in, screaming battle cries. By this time Kanos had taken several steps closer to get in a better firing position. Four other soldiers ran forwards, their blasts vanishing harmlessly, and looked as though they would assail the enemy directly.

     Then the woman pointed at them, and they simply exploded.

     There was no fire or burst of energy. The men’s bodies burst open as if two invisible hands had gripped them and simply ripped them apart. Their insides and bodily fluids gushed out onto the floor.

     The sight of such casual slaughter was too much. Yelling a wordless roar, Kanos brought his weapon up with all of his strength. He centered his crosshairs on the woman, who turned towards him, revealing an attractive face covered with red tattoos.

     “No!” Kanos yelled, and fired.

     The beam blasted out the barrel of his weapon straight towards the woman. Her eyes widened in surprise, and at the last second she threw both hands out together in front of her.

     And to Kanos’ astonishment, when the beam hit her hands it split apart, seperating into a half dozen smaller beams that passed around an invisible bubble surrounding the woman. The beams came together again behind her and sliced into the wall, but left their target completely unscathed.

     The beam died, and Kanos gaped open-mouthed as the woman stood, still in one piece, and straightened. Her face was a mask of concentration, and she breathed heavily, as though the effort had drained her considerably.

     Still in shock, Kanos raised his weapon at her again and fired. The woman looked surprised, and Kanos thought that this time he would have her.

     Instead, a thin line of light shot from the barrel towards the woman, made it about halfway, then vanished.

     Kanos glanced down at his weapon. He pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened. The weapon’s status indicator had gone from orange to red. He was out of power.

     “Sir! Get down!” someone yelled.

     Dropping the gun, Kanos glanced up at the woman and threw himself to the side just as a web of lightning shot through the ground where he’d stood. He caught a glimpse of the woman as he fell, standing atop the wall, her eyes glaring balefully down at him.

     Then a burst of wind came from beneath him and launched him into the air. The world spun in his vision. He saw someone beneath him, shooting a blaster. The air was filled with the sound of bolts firing below him. Then he saw a flash of light, seeming to come from the direction where the woman was standing.

     Then an explosion ripped through the air. Kanos felt himself picked up more forcefully this time, launching him forward over one barricade and down towards the rubble of another one. The ground loomed at him…

     Then he hit the street. Pain shot through his side, his hip and left leg. His vision swam, everything a blur, which narrowed to a tunnel of light that slowly faded down to black.


                                    *                                  *                                  *




            Skies above Vectur


            1550 Hours


            “Maarek Stele!”

     His TIE Avatar floated ten meters above the street, nestled within the shade of the towering buildings around him on all sides. His cockpit was quiet; the only sound came from the hum of his twin ion engines and the beeping of diagnostic and sensor scans.
     So far, his hiding spot hadn’t been noticed. Passive sensors had picked up AD fighters passing close by, but they hadn’t gotten a visual on him.
     He couldn’t keep flying – not right now, anyway. All he could see were Rann and Tanya’s fighters plunging down to their deaths.
     The senselessness of it all was maddening. How could life end just like that? So… casually. Maarek had seen many comrades die before, had witnessed the destruction of thousands, even put an end to hundreds of enemy combatants, himself. But suddenly he felt like a rookie again, losing his wingmen for the first time.
     The truth was, Maarek wasn’t really even sure who he was, anymore.
     “Are you still alive, Maarek Stele?”
     The voice brought him back to reality, not from its content but from its familiarity. He recognized that voice, though he couldn’t quite place it. It seemed unlikely that NI search parties had come looking for him to rescue him.
     No, that voice had been accented with the voice of an Altarin’Dakor. And as the dreamlike state he’d retreated into faded into the real world around him, he knew who it was. It seemed that fate would not let things go unresolved.
     Terror rushed into his gut. Kamren Thansil had come looking for him, finally.
     “Let us settle this conflict,” the AD commander’s voice came over the open channel. “I will duel with you, just the two of us. I swear to you, others will not interfere.”
     Maarek stared at his commlink and didn’t respond. A cold chill had sank over him, and he realized that he would indeed have to face all of his worst fears, this day.
     “Maybe you are dead," the voice continued. "If you were alive, you would respond. You would not hide, like a coward.”
     Maarek forced his eyes shut.
     “I killed your friend. He was squadron member. His name was… Petur, yes?”
     The pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but it had its intended effect. Indignation sparked in Maarek, quickly turning to anger. He knew the AD commander was prodding him, trying to evoke a response. Maarek gripped his controls tightly, but said nothing in reply. How could he face Thansil now? After hours of dogfighting, he was tired. So very tired. Thansil might still be fresh, having overseen the battle to date from afar. Maarek's fighter had only three missiles left, and had gone through heavy strain already. Kamren's fighter was probably fully armed and ready for battle.
     "I am waiting for your answer," said the voice.
     Maarek wanted to ditch his fighter somewhere, climb into one of the surrounding buildings and hide. The only thing stopping him was knowing that he’d feel even more vulnerable outside. All his life, the cockpit had been where he’d felt the safest, the most confident. Now even that last respite of peace had been stripped from him.
     “If you were alive, you would want to avenge your friend, yes?”
     Could he win? He would have to fly at his very best in order to stand a chance.  Without proper preparation and motivation, Maarek was as good as dead already.
     “Maybe you really didn’t care about Petur.”
     The words sent an explosion of anger flaring white-hot inside Maarek. His vision went red. The faces of Petur, Rann, Tanya and Bast stood etched in his memory. The AD had murdered them without remorse.
     Cowering here would not honor them at all.
     There was nowhere to run. No way to avoid this. In the cockpit he would have to stay. It was, after all where he was born to be. Victor had taught him that.
     "Maybe you didn't care about any of your men," Thansil taunted. "You only care for yourself."
     Maarek thought of those in the city who were dead or dying because of this attack. Ever since he’d first sat inside a fighter’s cockpit, Maarek had known only conflict and war. And this war would be the end of the galaxy as they knew it. At this point, Maarek had no illusions that the NI could stop the AD. In fact, the New Republic wouldn’t be able to defeat them, either. This was a war without end, one that was destined to happen and that would continue until the path of dominion by the Altarin’Dakor was culminated. It was going to be a long rule.
     Still, Maarek knew he couldn’t live under such a galaxy. He would fight it to his dying breath. Not out of mere duty, but because he had no other choice. If he could take down as many Altarin’Dakor with him as he could, then he would go out a happy man. And most of all, there was one pilot out there whom he knew he had to kill: the man who was searching for him even now.
     "I think you are dead, Maarek Stele," came the voice. "And soon everyone you want to protect will also be dead..."
     Reaching up to his commlink, Maarek clamped his hand over the transmit button. “I’m still alive,” he growled into the mic. “Let’s end this, you AD kriffer. I’m right here; come get me!”
     Gripping the throttles, he pushed them forward, sending his fighter lurching ahead. His craft rose, the buildings beginning to pass by more quickly around him.
     In the sky between the buildings, a lone AD fighter began to pass by at about a thousand meters, then at the last second cut in and began a sweeping dive towards Maarek.
     “You are still alive!” came Thansil's exultant, almost jubilant voice. The fighter dove straight at him, and warnings went off in Maarek's cockpit as two missiles shot out of the approaching craft towards him.
     "Kriff!" Maarek shouted, pulling the throttles back. Forgoing his climb, he put his fighter on its side and dove to port down another street, then punched it again, sending out chaff and countermeasures as fast as he could.
     Panic shot through him as he saw the missiles make the turn onto the street. Keeping his fighter banked, he reared back on the stick to turn down another side street, this one narrower than the others. His breath caught as the opposing buildings came within spitting distance, but somehow his fighter managed to turn in time.
     Behind him, the first missile turned too early and hit the corner of the building behind, exploding. The fireball apparently disrupted the lock of the second, and it flashed across the street and slammed into another building on the other side. Glass and ferrocrete blasted out and rained down on the street, while gouts of smoke rose up to the sky.
     On his new heading, Maarek realized he had lost track of Thansil's fighter, but he hoped that he had evaded his opponent, as well. Tall buildings of myriad designs and colors swept by, and he crossed another wide intersection...
     A glance caught Thansil's fighter ninety degrees to port and above him. His first glimpse of Thansil's craft gave him a good look at what he was flying. His opponent's ship was a heavy, without question. A thickly armored fuselage, swept-out wings bristling with weapons. It was similar to the hook-winged fighters from before, but this one looked modified.
     Five beam weapons opened up on him as Maarek's TIE Avatar flashed across the intersection. The reaction hadn't been fast enough, and the beams sliced through the street and over to cut into one of the buildings behind Maarek as he passed.
     Maarek pushed the throttles, trying to gain some distance. If he could keep the fight low, he might be able to level the playing field. Plus, he knew the city a lot better than the AD commander would. He might just have an advantage.
     He had almost reached the edge of the business district, where skyscrapers gave way to a large park area. But just before he got there something flew into the gap between the buildings and sent an array of beam weapons into the air in front of Maarek.
     With no other choice, Maarek hit the reverse thrusters and ducked his fighter down another side street to port.  
     Another AD fighter! He was obviously being hemmed in, with other fighters keeping out of the fight, but not letting him run away. They wanted to make sure he and Thansil fought a battle to the death.
     Grimly he realized that even if he survived his fight with Thansil, he wasn't likely to stay alive much longer than that.

     In the distance he caught a glimpse of the Royal Palace. Columns of smoke and dust rose into the air nearby, and he immediately recognized that the trademark tower atop it was now missing, ending in a jagged block of ferrocrete jutting into the sky. Less than a week before Maarek's birthday party had been held there, hosted by Rann, Tanya, Bast and the others...
     No, stay focused, he thought, shaking his head to clear it. Letting his mind wander was a sure way to get himself killed.
     He cut another left, passing between massive buildings near the city center, then pulled back on the stick, rising sharply to the tops of the towers. Some buildings towered higher than others, rising two hundred floors or more, but the top of each structure was uniquely designed and decorated in a myriad of Varnusian designs. He looped around a one massive building’s towering spire, curving back the way he’d come, and spotted Thansil’s fighter just a few klicks ahead, heading to starboard. The AD commander noticed him, as well, and started turning towards him, but Maarek got lock first and sent a missile flying out towards the enemy.

     The warhead shot across the tops of the buildings straight for its target, and Maarek pushed the thottles hard, following it in. Thansil, unable to evade, had no choice but to turn into the missile and try to shoot it down. The enemy fighter turned, and an array of beam weapons shot out into the missile’s path, detonating it in midair.

     By that point Maarek had closed the distance and rolled down lower to get a high shot at his opponent. Thansil continued his turn, trying to angle down on Maarek, but he was coming in too fast. The enemy fighter loomed closer in his sights, and Maarek thought for a second that he had him. But at the last instant Thansil reversed direction and blasted away, and Maarek had to wrench the stick back to get his crosshairs over his opponent. Even still, he knew he would have one short pass.

     He opened up with all guns as Thansil’s fighter shot across his sights. Laser fire passed by beneath, then he saw the enemy’s shields light up as they stitched across the fuselage and then shot by overhead.

     Then, his run past, Maarek inverted and dove back towards the streets. He knew his blasts hadn’t been able to penetrate the enemy’s shields. Thansil was probably angling back to get a shot on him from behind…

     His missile alert went off again as Thansil sent a parting shot his way. Already passing beneath the building tops again, Maarek launched chaff and dove around another corner. Behind him, the missile flew straight through the chaff and angled downward, slamming into the street and exploding.

     He pulled up, and suddenly beams of energy were dancing by overhead. He glimpsed the Thansils’ craft coming down from a high angle. Turning inside the enemy’s aim, he headed straight for the enemy fighter, goosing the throttles as much as he could. Maarek stayed just below his opponent’s firing range, though that meant he couldn’t get a firing angle, either. He shot underneath the enemy fighter, then pulled a hard-G turn to port to try and come around on Thansil’s tail. The tightness of his turn plastered Maarek back into his seat.

     But when he came back around, his opponent was nowhere to be found.

     A quick scan of his sensors revealed nothing of value. There was no way he could make out Thansil’s single blip among all the other dots on there, much less with the enemy’s jamming. He soared over the rooftops, scanning the sky above as well as the streets below, but saw nothing.

     What was Thansil up to? He knew the last thing he needed to do was get confident and walk right into a trap. Thansil had to be hiding behind some buildings, just as Maarek had done. He’d have to wait his opponent out.

     Cutting the throttle back, Maarek spotted a tall skyscraper jutting out a few hundred meters from the others surrounding it, and chose that as his fall-back spot. He moved alongside, then killed his forward thrust and hovered on repulsorlifts only. He carefully scanned the sky, alert for any sign of the enemy. Other fighters were still above him, dogfighting what remained of the NI fighter contingent. Other than that, all was silent.

     Taking several deep breaths, he tried to settle his nerves. The last few moments had been intense, the adrenaline pumping in Maarek’s veins. It wasn’t just the high-stakes flying in between buildings. It was his opponent. Maarek knew this was the most dangerous and skilled enemy pilot he’d ever faced. Thansil would be quick to capitalize on the first mistake Maarek made. Already his nerves had kept him from taking full control of the situation. He had to calm down and think.

     Behind him, the building walls were countless panes of transparisteel, reflecting the city and sky surrounding them. As Maarek turned to port, he caught a glimpse of his own fighter, mirrored in the glass beside him.

     A brief glimmer from behind the transparisteel was all the warning he had, and he shoved the stick downwards as four beams of energy shot out of the side of the building, passing within a hairsbreadth of Maarek’s canopy. Fire and shattered, flaming transparisteel blasted into the air around him, and a warning blared through the cockpit as his shields were overloaded. Maarek’s Avatar dove towards the ground as the beams swept down through the air where he’d just been, slicing all the way through the building from the other side. Glass and metal rained down after him.

     Thansil had spotted him from the other side of the building and fired straight through! Maarek cursed himself for not remembering the power those beam weapons had. That brief lapse in judgment had nearly cost his life. Pushing the throttles forward, Maarek pulled away and began a high-speed evasive turn. Behind him, the beams faded out, and he caught a glimpse of Thansil’s fighter coming around from the building’s other side after him.

     From that point, it was on. Thansil was on his tail, and Maarek knew he was in for the fight of his life. Pushing his throttles to the max, he dove for the streets.

     Buildings zoomed past him on both sides as he passed into another street. He jinked and twisted as much as he could, bright beams of energy shooting past and missing by mere meters. The beams shot by to port, then raked to starboard, and Maarek dove lower. Then they came back down for him, and he had to jink to port and rise. Acting on instinct, he dodged with every bit of skill he could muster. Thansil’s beams flashed out blue, then yellow as the weapons cycled to let the others cool, keeping the rate of fire constant. Maarek knew he couldn’t dodge forever. Sooner or later his luck would run out.

     As the buildings grew lower, he pulled up and turned tight to port over the rooftops. Thansil stayed right behind him, pouring more fire all around Maarek. Beams passed by so close he thought he could feel their heat, always just one step behind, cutting through buildings around and in front of him as he shot past.

     His missile alert went off, too close for Maarek to even launch chaff. He kept rotating and a bright object flashed by just beneath him and pulverized the side of the building next to him.

     Maarek kept twisting and turning, pulled a tight loop to starboard, and saw the enemy’s weapons blast into a tall building half a klick ahead. Continuing to loop around, Maarek cast about desperately for something that might help shake the enemy off his tail.

     There! Another klick to the east was a large skyscraper that was still under construction. Maarek knew because he’d flown past it before en route to landing at the palace. If he remembered correctly, that building should still have a large gap through the center where there was nothing but metal beams. He thought his smaller Avatar might just be able to fit through there.

     Finishing a turn that nearly blacked him out, Maarek shot towards the building, looming like a hollowed-out skeleton over the surrounding structures. He made as if to pass by it on the right, hoping he could catch his enemy by surprise. Then at the last second, he dove towards it.

     For good measure, as he headed for a network of scaffolding and structural beams, he opened up with his lasers, sending shots blasting through support structures and the surrounding ferrocrete. Metal and fire exploded in front of him, raining down just as he dove beneath and through an opening barely larger than his Avatar. He blinked instinctively as he came within centimeters of thick metal beams.

     Thansil had not followed him through. Behind, the whole internal structure of the building collapsed into a cloud of smoke and dust. It looked like Maarek’s shots had been too accurate.

     Cutting the throttle back, he waited for Thansil to circle the building. Just like before at Sigma, Thansil passed by on the other side, but wasn’t foolish enough to continue on his present course. He knew Maarek would be waiting for him. Unsure whether to watch left or right, Maarek was caught half off-guard when he saw Thansil’s fighter curve away on his port side. He throttled up to go after him, bringing his nose up to try and get his crosshairs on his opponent’s fading engine nozzles.

     He cut loose with his lasers, sending blast after blast after the distant enemy fighter. By now he was kilometers in front of Maarek, and to the best he could tell, none of his shots hit. Maarek cursed; Thansil was too far away, and was easily avoiding his fire. In the atmosphere he just couldn’t catch up fast enough. He considered using his last two missiles, but he knew Thansil was probably just as good at avoiding them as Maarek was. Plus, if he used them now, he’d have nothing but lasers, which would take forever to knock down that assault fighter’s shields.

     He pulled off his pursuit, letting Thansil’s craft disappear behind a line of buildings, and made a wide loop, scanning the horizon. The battle was still going on, but he could barely see any more NI blips left on his sensors. AD troops had overrun the streets, and the palace was probably falling to the enemy Jedicon even now. This had to be it; if he was going to defeat Thansil, he’d have to do it right now.

     “Let’s end this!” he called out over the comm. Looking down at the city below, he spotted the widest-looking avenue he could see running in the direction Thansil had gone. Looping around, he dropped altitude and headed towards it.

     It was a wide thoroughfare, though now totally unoccupied by traffic. Dropping between the buildings on either side, Maarek leveled off at about fifty meters, watching to see if Thansil accepted his challenge.

     “I agree,” Thansil’s voice came back in his ears. The man seemed exuberant; he didn’t sound tired in the least. “This duel has been an honor, Maarek Stele. Let us finish this like true warriors.”

     In the distance, his scanners showed Thansil’s fighter dropping down into the thoroughfare as well, coming to virtually the same altitude as Maarek. The enemy craft began picking up speed. Maarek pushed his throttles forward, as well.

     This seemed to be one of the longest streets in all of Vectur; separated by over a dozen kilometers, Thansil dove into the street from one end while Maarek began to speed down the other, the two craft heading straight for each other.

     On a head-to-head pass, Maarek knew he should have no chance. But he was tiring, and he still had his missiles left. He knew he couldn’t keep fighting at his current level. This was the only choice; he would only have one chance to finish this.

     The two fighters grew closer, gaining speed. Maarek’s missiles quickly gained lock, but he didn’t fire. At this angle they would be easy for Thansil to shoot down. No missiles came from his opponent, either. Letting his finger hover over the trigger, Maarek kept closing.

     “I have you this time, Maarek Stele.” Thansil’s voice was completely level and calm, full of confidence. Maarek forced himself to smile, feeling all emotion suddenly fade away. This was it; now he knew what it was to face the last few seconds you knew you would be alive.

     He began to fire lasers blasts randomly down the thoroughfare. He knew none of them would be effective, but he hoped they would throw his opponent off just a bit.

     The distance continued to close. Thansil’s fighter became visible – at first just a dot, then a speck that quickly swelled to become a fighter, weapons bristling, ready to fire.

     Maarek’s Avatar soared over the streets, the buildings to either side a blur. Thansil’s assault fighter came in directly at him. Neither pilot flinched. Neither would turn away.

     Thansil’s fighter came square within his crosshairs. He knew that he would be right inside in his enemy’s.

     And as Thansil’s fighter finally loomed in the viewport, Maarek squeezed the trigger and sent his last pair of missiles streaking out at near point-blank range.

     At that same instant, Thansil opened up with all beam weapons.

     Maarek blinked in shock as the bright beams of energy sheared his left solar panel completely away next to the fuselage. The wing spun away, and his Avatar lurched to starboard, looping completely over.

     Maarek’s missiles hit the nose of the AD fighter dead-on. The warheads exploded. Thansil’s fighter burst through the flames, dove for the streets, bounced off hard, then curved up and to port and slammed into the side of a building.

     The fighter exploded, sending a fireball ripping through the building’s interior and sending glass and duracrete into the air.

     Maarek twisted the stick, managing to right his fighter, but it immediately began to slew to one side. His speed dropped and the Avatar stalled, plunging downwards.

     Maarek had no choice. He reached up above him, pulled his emergency levers, and ejected.

      He blasted free of the fighter on his cockpit seat, the force of it sending his stomach plunging into his guts. Below him, the Avatar plunged down and slammed into the street, exploding into a thousand pieces. The blast washed out across the street and swept across the side of a building, ripping inside. Maarek continued to float on the small repulsorlift built into his seat, but he was still flying forwards at near-breakneck speed. Wind tore at his clothing, whipping past as he flew through the air. His seat had no vectoring or thrust controls whatsoever, and the world swam around him in a blur.

     He was spinning out of control.

     The transparisteel-layered side of the building his fighter had hit loomed straight into his vision. He was headed straight for it, and there was nothing he could do about it.

     He tried to control his spin as best he could in his seat at the last second. Then he slammed into the building’s large windows, bursting through the transparisteel. Maarek’s seat ripped a gash through a ceiling above him, rebounding him off and sending him spinning again. His vision swam, blurred. He hit things he couldn’t identify, felt their impact against his body. There was no pain yet.

     The last thing he saw pass through his vision was a wall coming straight at him.

     Then he impacted, and all conscious thought left him as the darkness came…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Royal Palace


            1601 Hours


            Xar stood in the intersection of two palace corridors, taking in the silence and the sudden stillness that seemed to hang in the air.
     For the last hour or more, he'd been running throughout the palace, looking for Jedicon and fighting them wherever they could be found, and saving what few civilians, soldiers and other Jedi he could find.

     So far, he'd killed twenty-eight of the enemy Jedicon, sometimes two or three at a time. He'd been fighting at full power, and though Nimrod's forces were powerful in their own right- far more powerful than an average Jedi from this galaxy – few Jedicon were a match for someone of Xar's level.  
     It still wasn't enough. Xar wouldn't be satisfied until he'd killed every last one of them.
     But a moment ago Xar had been stopped in his tracks. All of a sudden he'd felt incredible pain in his back, chest and midsection, as if something were ripping through his body. It had taken a huge amount of willpower not to succumb to the pain and simply pass out. He'd never felt anything like it before – but he'd instantly recognized what it was. It was the Bond, and it was Zalaria's pain he'd felt.
     Up until now, he'd never actually felt pain coming from her – though to his knowledge she'd never even been injured since they had first Bonded. But this time, what he'd felt was no minor pain. It had felt as though he were dying, himself. And if it was that intense for Xar, it must have been far worse for her.
     Now, he couldn't feel Zalaria at all.
     There had been many times in which she'd shielded herself off from Xar, making it so that he couldn't sense her or feel emotions from her. Xar had never been able to emulate that kind of control, and she'd never taught him. So sometimes Xar couldn't sense her, but she could always sense him.
     At first he’d felt a sense of stark panic, but soon after a wave of suspision had come over him. He knew that there shouldn't be anything capable of killing Zalaria. She was, after all, a Shok'Thola, an Altarin'Dakor Warlord. She was immortal, incapable of really dying, and she was more powerful in the Force than anyone else in this galaxy.
     That left only one possibility that Xar could consider: Zalaria was hiding from him again.
     Now, moments after her sense had faded from his mind, Xar felt something else: a terrible darkness approaching, even now threatening to fill him with unnatural, visceral fear.

     As fate would have it, he would indeed come face to face with Nimrod again today. The Warlord was on his way down.
     Xar stood in the now-empty corridor, thinking of what he had to do. Zalaria had shut herself off from him, and Nimrod would be here within moments, most assuredly to oversee his victory over the New Imperial forces. What was Zalaria planning?
     All his trust for her had long since faded away.
     Icis had been right all along about her, he realized. He had no more illusions that she would come to aid him. Most likely she intended to negotiate a surrender, then try to get her and Xar some kind of immunity. Of course, that assumed that she really cared for him at all. Maybe she would join Nimrod and help him take over the galaxy, instead. They were, after all, siblings.
     Perhaps she planned to take Xar back to the AD galaxy. Any of these could have been her plan all along. But if that were true, why carry on the farce of helping the NI for so long?
     The feeling of darkness and dread was growing closer.
     The logical part of his mind knew that he had to surrender. This battle was lost already, and there was no hope Xar had of defeating Nimrod and driving off the AD all by himself. If he resisted, he might end up getting everyone on Varnus killed for his stubbornness. Every man, woman and child on his home planet could die, his entire race wiped out. This was his home.
     Still, one thing remained that held him back: Xar was a Varnusian, and Varnusians had never surrendered to anyone. They’d seen their homes and even their world razed and plundered countless times, but they’d never given in to the enemy before. He couldn’t just quit, now.
     Xar's last encounter with Nimrod had shown the vast difference in their power levels, and he knew there was no way he could match his opponent. There was, however, one thing that he hadn't been able to try before. And so far it had saved him from certain defeat time and time again.
     Xar didn't believe this was the end. He had a destiny. Zalaria had told him of the prophecy that an outlander would defeat the Altarin'Dakor's attempts to carry out their grand Return. Well, it was time to put those prophesies to the test.
     Standing in the empty corridor, stretching out with the Force, Xar began to sense the latent life energy that existed all around him. Deeply immersed in the Force, attuned to the energies created by all life, he could feel every living thing in the palace, the city, and the continent they resided on. Soon, his sense of life energies grew to encompass the entire planet in a vague sense of exuberance and vitality. And slowly, little by little, he began to beckon that energy, to ask its assistance, drawing it in and focusing it right here where he stood.
     He knew this would be the only chance of victory. He just hoped he had enough time.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            In Orbit

            Planet Varnus

            1604 Hours


            The dark transport launched out of the Grand Crusader’s forward hangar, streaking out towards the planet hovering below.

     Escorted by an array of heavy assault fighters, the black ship passed by the shattered NI formation, now an array of twisting, lifeless hulks floating in the void. It passed the remnants of the Nexus, two dark, silent hulks slowly separating themselves from each other. All survivors had long since fled the devastation.

     Passing the scene of destruction, the ship began to plummet into the planet’s atmosphere, far faster and at a steeper angle than any normal ship could have. The escort fighters broke off, letting the transport plunge downwards, burning down towards the surface seemingly unscathed.

     As it approached the sprawling city laid out across the main continent, it slowed, and another group of fighters moved in to provide an honor guard. They descended towards the city, a massive metropolis now obscured by hundreds of rising plumes of smoke and flame.

     Quickly the transport descended to the point that it passed over the buildings of the city itself. NI fighters, some of the few that still remained, turned to try and engage the mysterious newcomer. At just the sight of it, they knew that something terrible was approaching.

     But even as the NI ships began turning towards the ship, even as they targeted the vessel to engage, they began exploding, one by one. Every ship that so much as moved towards the approaching black orb simply detonated in midair. As dozens exploded within the span of moments, the rest turned away, simply unable to defend against an attack they could not even see.

     Then, at last, the transport approached its target.

     The Royal Varnusian Palace at first lay enshrouded in dust and smoke, but as the dark ship passed through the cloud, the structure became visible, its scarred, scorched exterior clearly visible, unable to hide further. The escorts finally broke away, presenting a clear landing target for the approaching vessel.

     And as the ship moved to settle down upon its target, it was as though the entire planet held a collective breath.

     The Destroyer had arrived.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Main Entranceway

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1615 Hours


            Kir Kanos slowly came to, his eyes fluttering open, and he groaned.

     He was lying face-down in the yellow-white dirt, and his body was crying out in pain. With effort, he rolled over onto his back and squinted as the sunlight bore into his eyes. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but it seemed not much time had passed. The blue sky hung overhead, filled with clouds of dark smoke that moved slowly across his field of vision.

     His right leg was agony; it felt broken in at least two places. His ribs hurt as well, and he figured that he’d probably cracked a few of them, as well. Breathing was difficult, almost laborious.

     The sounds of battle had died down, sounding distant. For a moment he thought the battle might be over. But the noise of an approaching ship drowned everything else out. At the edge of his vision, he could make out a black sphere, descending nearby.

     Grimacing in pain, mindful of his injuries, he rolled halfway over and managed to prop himself up on one elbow to get a better look.

     What he saw sent a jolt of fear straight through his bones.

     A large, spherical-shaped craft was descending onto the street in front of the palace’s main entrance. Behind it, Altarin’Dakor forces had moved up as far as the end of the road, but were not advancing further. In fact, they stood at attention, as though in greeting for whoever was arriving in the black ship that was landing.

     The craft descended, and in the background, a massive beam of blinding yellow energy appeared out of the sky and plunged into the heart of the city. It was followed by another, the two beams raking their way across the horizon, sending gigantic gouts of flame rushing up into the sky.

     As if the bombardment from orbit was there to accentuate its arrival, the spherical black transport finally touched down gently, with barely a sound to be heard. The line of AD shock troopers behind it all dropped to their knees.

     Then the ship’s boarding ramp descended, and at that moment, all hope left him.

     Before the ramp had even touched down, two heavily tattooed figures burst from the opening and leapt into the air. They flew off, heading in opposite directions, and Kanos could do naught but simply look on in wonderment.

     Then as the next occupant emerged from the transport, his eyes could focus on nothing else.

     A massive, black-armored figure emerged from the vessel and strode purposefully down the ramp. His boots touched the ground, his massive black cape swinging behind him. The armor itself looked exquisite, beyond anything Kanos had ever seen. It was midnight-black, yet appeared intricate, made of many segments that joined together and allowed a broad range of motion. The figure was well over two meters, and its breastplate was broad and massive, yet it was the helmet that was most riveting. Two wide, skeletal wings swept out from its sides, and in the center, two red eyes glowed inhumanly.

     The sight of the figure sent sheer terror through Kanos. He knew this was the Warlord. He knew this was Nimrod.

     The figure approached the steps, though by now they were covered in debris and bodies, looking nearly impassible. But then the debris began to move, sliding to either side, clearing the way. Kanos lay just outside the rubble, and he watched as the black armor-clad figure passed not ten meters away.

     Suddenly blaster fire erupted, and Kanos fliched. Red bolts streaked out from both sides of the steps as NI troops there opened fire. Their bolts came within two meters of the Warlord, and simply disappeared, impacting an invisible shield they could not penetrate. Kanos wanted to cry out, to call them off, but he could no more scream than stand up and join the fight himself.

     The NI soldiers were blown backwards instantly by an invisible force, their bodies flying through the air to slam into the barricades and walls on either side. The large boulders and stones that had provided cover or had been blasted away followed them, slamming into the soldiers’ bodies and grinding them between the duracrete, burying them in the holes that their bodies’ impacts had made.

     After that, two Jedi came running down the steps, their lightsabers ignited.

     They never made it halfway. The two men slammed into something invisible, halting them in their tracks, and they screamed, lightning coursing over their bodies. Then they simply burst into flames. They were immolated within seconds, and as the flames faded, the only evidence that they’d even been there were two blackened spots on the ground where they’d been incinerated.

     The Warlord had not even broken stride. He hit the first step and began walking up, one foot in front of the other.

     From behind the Warlord, two Jedi appeared from within a side entranceway that the NI soldiers had used as an access point. One of them rushed out towards the dark figure’s back, raising his lightsaber. Behind him, his companion reached out a hand to stop him, but he was too late. He cried out after the attacking figure, his face and voice filled with despair.

     “Amleth, no! Don’t do it!”

     Kanos watched, horrified, fascinated. The Jedi came within a few meters of the Warlord, and suddenly was launched backwards off his feet. The Warlord never looked back as the young Jedi slammed into the opposing wall hard enough to blast chunks out of it.

     Turning away from the mess, Kanos kept his eyes on the Warlord. Nimrod came within steps of the two massive doors that guarded the main entranceway to the Royal Palace. Just before he got there, another Jedi appeared from the side, sliding to a halt and raising his blade overhead. The man was dark-haired and broad-shouldered, and Kanos recognized him. He was the roguish Jedi who called himself Nova, often brash, leading an upstart faction of young Jedi who believed that force was the best way to win, and believed the ends justified the means.

     Now the young Jedi stood mere steps before the approaching Warlord, his blade held high, a visceral roar emanating from his throat.

     “Come on!” Nova screamed at the top of his lungs. “Let’s see how powerful you really are!”

     Kanos just kept watching. He couldn’t turn away. This was, after all, the end of everything he knew. It was all over.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Main Hallway

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1620 Hours


            The main doors split open, releasing a sliver of light into the room that widened as the doors swung open all the way. As they did so, a river of blood ran into the room, mixed with small bits of flesh and bone, and a broken lightsaber handle, spreading out to touch the edge of the Royal Varnusian seal set into the floor.

     The Warlord strode across the dark red slick, the sound of his boots echoing off the walls. He came to a rest in the center of the chamber, standing directly over the seal.

     There he paused, simply standing there, letting silence settle across the entire chamber. Two corridors branched out directly in front of him, leading deeper inside the palace.

     Out of one of them burst a blinding ball of light, brighter than the sun, streaking through the air directly towards the Warlord.

     Nimrod made no move to evade, even if he had been able to do so. Instead, he raised both his armored hands directly towards the Focus Bomb and caught it dead-on.

     It seemed as though the Warlord might be in trouble. The ball shone in his hands, driving them back slightly, and what might have been a grunt of effort escaped the Warlord’s lips, enhanced by the artificial vocalizers in his helmet. The blinding brightness of the ball reflected off the figure’s black armor, and for a moment it looked as though the Warlord would be overwhelmed.

     Then suddenly Nimrod threw his hands upwards, sending the Focus Bomb flashing up into the air. The ball hit the ceiling and burst through, traveling upwards and out of the palace itself, and was gone.

     The Warlord turned to look down the corridor from where the attack had come.

     And out of the second corridor came a blast of energy, a bright beam of light that streaked towards the Warlord’s side.

     The time Nimrod did not struggle with the attack. He reached out with his left hand, and the beam slammed into an invisible barrier half a meter in front of his hand and collected there, turning into a shifting, fluid blob of energy hovering in front of him.

     Then the Warlord extended his hand further, and that same energy shot back down the way it had come, streaking back through the same corridor, magnified twofold. Its passing burned the tapestries and paintings off the walls, warping even the stone walls as it passed. Then the beam hit, and a massive explosion ensued from deep within the palace, filling the corridor with fire.

     But the assailant had moved on from there, as well. Up on the balcony, a door burst open, and a dark-clad figure flew though in a blur, flying over the railing and heading straight for the armored figure, yellow-white blade extended directly for the Warlord’s faceplate.

     Xar slammed into an invisible wall of air. He hovered there for a second, two meters from Nimrod, his blade held futilely in front of him, yet it might as well have been light-years away. Then a wave of Force blew him backwards.

     He hit the back wall with bone-crushing force, knocking an indention into the wall in the shape of his body, arms, head and legs. His lightsaber went flying off somewhere.

     Pain exploded across Xar’s body from the impact, and he knew that only his power in the Force had kept him from being killed. Still, he hung there in the air, pinned against the wall, the pressure against his body overwhelming. He struggled to move, but it was like trying to lift a mountain. A groan escaped his lips as he stared balefully at the dark figure, the Warlord in the center of the room.

     Finally, Nimrod spoke, and it was as though thunder peeled in the chamber, echoing off the marble floor and the columned walls.

     “You have been defeated,” came the voice, filling Xar’s ears with its deepness, making him want to weep and beg for forgiveness. He gritted his teeth instead. His plan hadn’t worked. He’d been almost sure the Focus Bomb would have given Nimrod more trouble. Yet it was clear that he just wasn’t strong enough to create a Focus Bomb capable of defeating the Warlord. Even the combined Force power of every living creature on the planet, all that he could summon, had not been enough to phase the Warlord.

     How could anyone be that powerful?

     “Resisting any further would be utterly useless.” Nimrod’s voice came. Xar closed his eyes. His desperate attack had failed.

     The Warlord paused, letting the silence stretch out for a long moment. Only the rumbling of distant explosions and blaster fire could be heard echoing in from outside. He just stood there, arms at his sides, watching as Xar struggled beneath the overwhelming weight pressing him against the wall.

     “Surrender,” Nimrod commanded finally.

     Xar struggled to take a deep breath. He’d been in this position before, both with Nimrod, and before with Kronos. The last time, he’d managed to summon up enough strength to distract the Warlord and escape. But this time, the pressure was so strong he could barely think straight. He knew he’d lost, that there was really nothing else he could do.

     But he could not surrender. It went against everything that made him who he was.

     He managed to take a breath beneath the crushing force pressing against him. “I’ll…” he stammered, “I’ll… never… surrender… to you…” He broke off, gasping.

     “You fool,” Nimrod said derisively. “I spared your life before at Altima’s order. Now you have tried my patience for the last time. Some things can be forgiven, to one who has accomplished so much.”

     “So why… kill… me now?” Xar managed to say, between gasps for air. His chest struggled to heave, each breath bringing strain. “You can… use me…”

     “It doesn’t matter. Unlike the others, I have neither the patience nor the desire to break you, to turn you to my side.”

     Then the Warlord gripped him in an unmovable fist of air and pulled him away.

     Within a second, Xar was thrown between the floor and wall like a rag doll. He was flung face-first down onto the floor with enough force to shatter the marble beneath him. Then he flew back against the wall again, crushing stone. Then he flew downwards again, slamming into the floor, then against the wall again. Then down a third time.

     Once, twice, three times Xar was flayed between the floor and the wall. The final time Xar was thrown back against the wall the Warlord released him. He crashed in further than ever the final time, then his broken body fell to the floor.

     Xar fell so that his head was facing the Warlord, and that was the only reason he could still see him. He stared blankly, in shock, as sheer agony ripped through his body. His bones had been crushed, his internal organs ruptured. Ribs had punctured his lungs. His skull was fractured and his vision was turning blurred. He knew all this from what little of the Force still flowed through him.

     It was enough to know he was dying.

     He opened his mouth, but blood gushed out of it, falling onto the floor beside him. He struggled to breath, each motion of his chest bringing agony. After everything, one simple attack had fatally ruptured his entire body.

     Still, Nimrod stood motionless in the center of the room, like a black mountain unable to be shaken.

     This was the end. The prophecy had been wrong. Xar’s destiny – what he’d believed in all his life – was to die lying in his own palace, all the power and knowledge he’d ever gained proved insignificant next to the unstoppable might of the Destroyer. He was merely another victim.

     Where was Zalaria? He wondered about her dimly, realizing his thinking was no longer working properly. His whole body was crying out in the agonizing throes of death. She’d abandoned him, of course. There was no hope in her, no hope at all. He was truly going to die, this time. What a fool he’d been to think he could face a Shok’Thola. All of his efforts had been useless, as ineffectual as a single gust of wind against a mountain.

     “And now,” the thunder boomed, driving finality into the air. “Die.”
     Xar looked away. Finally, after all he'd endured, after so many harrowing encounters and near-death experiences, Xar knew his life was over. Destiny would not intervene to miraculously turn the tide. Xar’s whole life had built with so much anticipation, and instead of delivering on its promised glory and significance, it had brought him to this singular moment, where it would all simply… end.
     Nimrod’s voice filled the air for a final time. “Goodbye, Kerensky. I only regret the trauma that my sister will incur as you pass from this life into… What?”
     The abrupt change made Xar strain to look back up… And stare at the heels of someone standing right in front of him. The newcomer was short and thin, and small of stature. He could only glimpse from behind, but with shock Xar realized he was little more than a boy.
     He had felt no one approach; it was as if the boy had appeared from nowhere.
    "Who is this?" Nimrod demanded. “And how did you---“
     “I’ll give you one chance to walk away and live,” the boy said, his voice full of youthful intensity. “I don’t want to kill you… But either way, your reign of terror ends, right now.”
     A moment passed in tense silence. Then a peel of laughter came from the Warlord’s helmeted mask, lasting but a brief – almost condescending – moment.
     “Insolent young one,” the voice intoned, “You do not know whom it is you address. Your courage is laudable, and I see you are quite formidable in your own right, but you have no chance of victory, here."
     Another moment passed before the Warlord continued. "But, I understand that you act in ignorance; therefore I will permit you to live, provided you will flee from my presence immediately, that I may spare your life from premature---”
     “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear!” the boy interrupted. “You’re finished, Nimrod!”
     “You fool!” boomed the Warlord. “You incur the wrath of my anger. You shall both perish toge…”
     He broke off as the boy’s Force aura changed. What had once been a respectable Jedi power level suddenly skyrocketed, rising faster than anything Xar had ever felt before. Dimly he recognized the familiar sense of a barrier being removed – the telltale sign of a Force Mask being dropped. The boy’s power kept rising; it was insanely fast! Soon his Force aura became just as bright as the Warlord’s – and shot right past, with no signs of slowing at all.
     “What are you?!” Nimrod shouted. Then he raised his hands, and a flash of energy erupted from them. It pulsated rapidly, stretching out and growing, blinding in brilliance, brighter than the sun. It became a beam of purple-white energy, streaking across the floor towards Xar and the boy.
     Xar screamed. There was no time to act – no one, nothing, could withstand such a blast. The faintest of hopes had been shattered.
     The beam grew closer, consuming everything, wider than the boy was tall. Amazingly, the stranger stood at ease, his head tilted back. Xar tried to throw his hands over his face. They would both be incinerated in an instant.
     Then, as the energy reached his face, the boy stepped forward and screamed.
     Instantly the beam stopped, shying away from him, like an invisible bubble pushing it back and away. His hair flew wildly above his head; his arms were outstretched, hands open wide.
     The beam reversed course.
     It refracted halfway across the room, splitting into multiple beams as it ripped up the floor at Nimrod’s feet – then enveloped him.
     The Warlord grunted as the blast threw him back into the air, ripping his cape apart, and he threw his arms up in front of him.
     Then the boy calmly raised a hand – and a ripple burst out of his palm.
     It traveled across the room in half a second, like a tiny wave distorting the very fabric of space. It hit a few pebbles of stone that had been thrown into the air, and they disintegrated.
     The Warlord screamed as the wave passed across his body, first ripping the armored gloves off of his hands and arms, turning the gauntlets to dust. Skin was exposed for a brief instant – then was seared off, followed by muscle and bone that disintegrated in its wake. The Warlord’s night-black armor – impenetrable even by lightsaber – shattered and ripped free, melting into constituent atoms at its owner fell back through the air. Then, for an instant, Nimrod’s body was exposed. Xar saw a young man, with dark skin and hair, and a look of bewilderment – and wonder – on his face.
     And then, from the boy’s calm, outstretched hand, a beam of energy ten meters wide erupted into the air.
     Xar thought he saw the beam vaporize Nimrod before he was overcome by blindness. He screamed in sheer terror, huddled at the feet of the stranger, the shaft of light traveling upwards with a rush of wind and burning air from the boy’s still hand. Then finally the blast died away, revealing an empty entry chamber, a perfectly round, ten-meter hole in the wall, and what could only be a deity standing over him.
     What had happened was impossible.
     Overcome by the pain of his broken bones and ruptured internal organs, Xar blacked out.


                                    *                                  *                                  *




            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1620 Hours


Xar was in mortal danger, she knew. He had faced her brother again, and had failed.
     The knowledge brought her out of her temporary hibernation. Her body had healed by now, made fully whole once more. She reached out with the Power and let it rage within her.
    The line of defenders had been routed and were scattering, heading inside for cover. Nimrod's shocktroops had advanced to the steps and were starting up when the pile of rubble behind them exploded outwards with a sonic boom that reverberated through the air.
     Massive chunks of ferrocrete crashed into armored troops, crushing their armor and soft-bodied forms like insects. Stones hit soldiers and ripped them to pieces, and the shockwave from the blast sent the survivors hurtling through the air.
     Zalaria stood in the cratered epicenter, a bubble of energy surrounding her body, her hair flowing wildly around her head. All the rubble around her had been blasted away. Her gaze turned to the scattered and injured soldiers, those who had been bold enough to strike out against a Shok'Thola. Shocktroopers littered the steps, struggling to rise and often collapsing again, their faceplates and eardrums bursted, their feet slipping on steps wet with their comrades' blood.
     She raised her hand, preparing to finish the remainder off, when her danger sense flared higher than ever before.
      It was Xar's final moment.
     She turned in shock and looked towards the palace, knowing she was too late to stop whatever was about to happen...
     Then an impossibly wide beam of blue-white energy erupted from the palace’s main entrance, emerging straight through the front wall and blasting diagonally up into the air. It continued onwards, striking out into the sky, through the clouds, and out of the planet's atmosphere, until its end could no longer be seen.
     Zalaria gasped. She'd never felt that much power since Altima had directly engaged in battle. That could only mean…
      But then she felt it. Her brother was dead.
      Confusion gripped her mind. She looked across the battlefield. Everywhere, Nimrod's soldiers had paused in stunned bewilderment. They milled about, as if knowing something had changed, but uncertain what it actually was. Their master was no more, his influence no longer on their collective consciousness. They were leaderless.
     One of Nimrod's Kodonn'Dakor Jedicon, the woman with the yellow hair and striking red tattoos, stood on top of a large pile of rubble, part of the palace wall that had collapsed. She was staring up at the palace's main entrance, her face frozen in shock. She knew.
     The woman spun then, and Zalaria caught her eyes. Zalaria’s mouth twisted into a smile.
     The Jedicon's expression became a mask of terror. Turning, she leapt away and began flying west, away from the battlefield.
     Launching herself into the air as well, Zalaria streaked after the Jedicon at several times the woman's speed, the ground blurring beneath her, hair flailing wildly behind her. The Power surged within her like a mighty torrent.
     Cindlin hadn't made it fifty meters before a blur shot in front of her, and the Warlord's hand clamped down on her face. Trapping her.
     Zalaria held the woman aloft in midair. The Jedicon screamed, clawing at the immovable hand holding her in its vice-like grip, shrieking for mercy in Altarin'Dakor, begging the Warlord to spare her life, even swearing service to her.
     Her thirst for vengeance unabated, Zalaria turned and hurled the woman down the main thoroughfare leading to the palace, using her power to Push the Jedicon away with the immense strength of a Shok'Thola.
     The woman's screams died before she reached supersonic velocity, and her body flashed down Star Way and impacted the front of the huge attack platform hovering down the street. The body crashed through and an explosion blossomed out of the front, obscuring it from view. Then a blast of energy from Zalaria's hand finished the job, obliterating the tank and sending pieces of it high into the air and crashing into the buildings around it.
     Admiring her handiwork, Zalaria turned back to the line of terrified soldiers below. They began scattering beneath her, giving up all pretense of discipline and order. She ignored them, letting them flee. They were unimportant.
      She turned back towards the entryway and took off flying. Something had happened in there, something she did not quite understand. And that concept was something that, for the first time in a long time, gravely frightened her.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Conference Room

Royal Palace,  Vectur

            1630 Hours


Xar awoke, holding just above the edge of consciousness. Dimly, through half-closed eyes and blurry vision, he saw the figure standing over him. The boy hesitated, hovering over Xar a moment, as if afraid to touch him. Then, finally, he reached down and pulled Xar up underneath his shoulders.
     Xar felt himself being carried, his feet sliding across the floor. Corridor walls slid by in his field of vision. He caught a glimpse of the boy, holding him up with seeming ease. He looked so familiar…
     Then Xar felt his body began to change. The pain faded as if hit with a powerful suppressant. He felt shifting within his torso, in his abdomen. And he heard pops as his bones set back into place - all without pain. Every other time he'd been healed, he'd either felt intense pain - like that from Runis' dark side healing, or he'd felt like being plunged into ice-cold water. This time, there was nothing. Only... tranquility. It was like the stranger's very life force was being imbued into Xar even as he was being dragged, filling him with strength and energy.
     The sense of motion stopped, and his eyes slowly came into focus. The floor beneath him was soft. Still bewildered and half in shock, Xar looked around, saw the stranger had taken them into a small study somewhere on the main floor. Desks with computer consoles sat on the floor, and real books filled built-in cases in the walls. The stranger let him go, and Xar lay back on the rug beneath him, staring for a moment up at the ornately carved ceiling.
     Slowly Xar brought himself up to a sitting position. His body felt perfectly normal - better than normal, in fact. He wasn't even fatigued. It merely felt... unsure. Was this real?
     He looked up at the boy, who was standing over him with an unreadable expression on his face.
    "Who... are you?" he asked uncertainly, wondering if the boy was real, or some kind of apparition.
     “I think you know," the boy began, then hesitated. "I am… Well, I'm your son,” he finished, trailing off a bit sheepishly.
     Xar stared at him, transfixed. The words hit his ears, but for some reason they didn't seem to register. The boy opened his mouth again.
     “I’m from the future. I came back to save you, father.”
     Xar continued to stare blankly at the boy. He wanted to say the boy's words were ridiculous, impossible. Part of his brain, the logical part, told him that he'd truly lost his mind from the trauma he'd undergone. The only thing filling him was only a stunned sense of wonder.
     "This... Well, this isn't exactly the way I imagined meeting you," said the boy.
     Xar knew that this couldn't be real. Had Nimrod killed him? This had to be a dream. Time travel was impossible. If it were feasible, surely someone would have discovered it already by now. Of all the people in the galaxy, why would his son be the one who could travel through time?
      But all he had to do was look at the eyes, and he knew the truth. Those eyes were the same as his own.
     He took several deep breaths of air, feeling the sensation in his lungs. The carpet beneath him felt soft, made of fine Varnusian fabric. This felt very, very real. He couldn't be dreaming. Slowly, reality settled its way back in.
     A thousand questions ran through his mind. "W... Why?" he managed to ask. It seemed as good a place to start as any. He didn't think he could handle how, yet.
    “You…" the boy began, then gave a sigh. "All right, I'll try to make this easy to understand. You died, father. Nimrod killed you. My whole life I’ve grown up and never even known you." He shook his head, gave a small grin. "All my life I wanted to meet you. But now that you’re here, I have to admit… I don’t really know what to say.”
     Xar listened in stunned silence for a moment. A burning question rested on his mind. “You mean… I was supposed to die in there?” he whispered.
     “That’s all changed now,” the boy said. He gave a smile, but didn't look as reassuring as he probably intended.
      Then another thought hit him. “But if I was going to die today, and you're here, that means that Zalaria…” Xar began.
    The boy nodded. “Right. Mother is pregnant with me right now. She never had the chance to tell you. Or rather, she didn’t feel it was the right time, before… Well, she always regretted it. It nearly destroyed her, that you never knew.”
     Xar found himself completely speechless. He let himself fall back to the floor again, dumbfounded. He was a father. He was supposed to be dead. Those two facts overwhelmed his ability to even think. An overwhelming sense of weight fell on him then. It was true; his worst fear had been realized. Everything his life had built up to had been meant only to end this day, on the floor writhing in front of Nimrod.
      He had no destiny. Everything he’d believed about himself had been a lie.
     “Father, listen! Stay focused!" The boy's worried voice shattered through Xar's thoughts, suddenly frantic, as though he'd remembered something, as though he could read his mind. Xar looked up at him.
     "I don't have a lot of time," the boy said. "I wish I could say I saved you for my sake, but there’s another reason. Doing this was a big risk, but I have to take the chance. I need your help, father."
     Xar opened his mouth to ask what, but the boy cut him off, his expression deadly serious.
     “Listen, father. The future... It's dominated by death and devastation. By an endless war, one that we’re losing. I’m doing everything I can, but it’s just not enough. They’re too powerful. I think my only chance to stop them is now, in this time.”
     Xar shook his head, not sure he was following. “You mean… the fighting is still going on?” he asked dimly.
     The boy nodded gravely. "It never really ends."
     “I can’t believe the Altarin’Dakor are that powerful…” Xar trailed off.
     “The... What? Who?" the boy asked, looking confused. “No, not the Altarin’Dakor! Don’t worry about them; you’re going to defeat them!” He knelt in front of Xar then, a look of near-panic on his face. He grabbed Xar by the shoulders, staring intently into his eyes. “Listen! The Altarin’Dakor are irrelevant! It’s the Ones you’ve got to be worried about! The Ones!”
    “The… The what?” Xar blinked.
    The boy's expression became pained, and anger filled his eyes. “Father! In the future, the Ones have destroyed everything! Every civilization will eventually be wiped out by the Ones and their brutal leader, Altima.”
     “Altima?” Xar said, shocked. “He’s still alive?”
     “Altima can’t be killed,” the boy said in frustration. “I’ve got to figure out how to stop him, in this time. It’s all got something to do with someone named Malduke. That's all I know.”
     “Malduke?” The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t recall why. “I don’t know who that is.”
     But the boy was still focused on other things. He stood up and started pacing back and forth across the rug. “I’ve tried everything I can think of! I’ve traveled from one end of the time-stream to the other. I’ve gone all the way to the end… of everything. And all the way back to the beginning… Even to the Celestials. No one has any answers.”
    “The Celestials?!” Xar blurted.
     The boy simply nodded absently, continuing on as if it didn’t matter. “Father, listen. In the future, the Ones destroy all things. It’s the end of everything. There are just too many of them. I can defeat one or two, or a handful, maybe. But there are trillions of them! Quadrillions! I have to stop them before they come out. That’s why I need your help. It’s the only thing I haven’t tried…" He turned to look at Xar. "It’s my last hope.”
     Normally, Xar would never have believed such an incredible story – except the boy had just killed an Altarin’Dakor Shok’Thola. It had been… casual. It had been like swatting a fly.
    “What do you want from me?” Xar asked, feeling helpless. Insignificant. “What do you think I can do?”
     The boy stared at him, seeming in intent thought. Finally he spoke. “Just keep going on as you are, right now. There are a few more things I have to take care of first. I’ll return to you when the time is right.” He looked around the room, suddenly looking desperate again. “I... have to go now. Mother will be here any second.”
     “She’ll want to meet you!”
     “No. It’s important that she doesn’t. Just… Don’t tell her about me yet. I have to leave.”
     “No, wait! Help us fight the AD!” Xar cried out as the boy turned to leave.
     “I will. I’ll be back. Until then, take care of yourself, father! You have to stay alive!” The boy moved to the door, glancing outside, and started to step through.
     “At least tell me your name!” Xar pleaded.
     “You’ll know my name,” his son said, glancing back at him. Then he disappeared through the doorway.
     Xar just stared after him, unable to get up and follow, unable to even think straight. For a moment he sat there in a stupor-like state, mulling over what had just happened. Now that he was gone, the whole thing was starting to feel like a dream again.
     He had just met his own son. From the future. He had saved Xar's life. He'd said there was another threat out there, strong enough to make the Altarin'Dakor seem insignificant. Dire news for anyone to bring, much less his own son. Then another thought hit him.
     His son was the most powerful Force-user he'd ever seen. A chill washed through him.
     Suddenly a new figure appeared in the doorway, and Xar looked up as his wife glided quickly in, her face a mask of concern. “There you are,” she exclaimed. "What are you doing in here?"
     Xar stayed seated where he was, unable to say anything. Zalaria came over and knelt down beside him.
     “Are you all right? My brother is dead. What happened?” she demanded.
     “I…” he began, then shook his head. Where to even start? “I’m fine,” he said finally, staring into her eyes. Suddenly emotion flooded back into him, and he felt his love for her swell back to where it had been months ago. Any negativity, any animosity caused by disagreements they'd had, just faded away. Also gone was his distrust. At that moment his love for her was so strong it felt his heart would burst.
     Zalaria was carrying his child. It was incredible.
     “I felt you very close to death, Xar,” she said, breaking into his thoughts. Her face was still full of concern.
     “I know… I felt you die too,” he said. He looked at the rest of her then, noticed the holes that had been ripped through her vest, the blood staining her torso and legs as she knelt beside him. “Is that what it’s like? It felt as though…” he broke off, unable to describe it.
     She just shook her head, her face gravely serious. “Xar, I… I must apologize. I spoke in haste, before. If you had died… To think that I never would have had the chance to tell you…” She broke off uncertainly, and for the first time ever Xar saw indecision in her eyes. And there was something else there too, impossible as it was… Fear.
     “I'm sorry too," he said. "For all the things I said. It was wrong of me to doubt you. I apologize.” He reached out, placed a hand over her midsection. “He’s going to be fine,” he said softly.
     Her face suddenly became an unreadable mask. “How… How do you know about that?” she whispered. Then she blinked, leaning forwards, staring at him intently. "Xar, who killed Nimrod?"
     Xar paused, watching her face, seeing that she had no idea what he was about to say. "I... I saw our son," he said finally.
     Her eyes went wide. But before she could respond, Xar spilled it all out. She listened quietly as he recounted everything that had happened, from the moment Nimrod had stepped foot inside the palace until Zalaria had walked into the room.
     When he was finished, he looked at her face, her expression still unreadable. "What do you think?" he asked her. "Do you believe me?"
     She seemed to consider for a moment. Through the Bond, he felt a dozen conflicting emotions swirling within her. Which would win out? Which earth-shattering revelation would she address first?
     “What did he say his name was?” Zalaria finally asked.
     Xar blinked. That wasn't what he'd been expecting. He just shook his head. “He said I would know his name.”
     She paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. “I had a vision,” she said, “back on Mies. It was… our son.” She arched an eyebrow, her gaze going to the floor, then back to Xar. Then suddenly her eyes widened. “He told me the same thing. He said I would know.”
     A chill ran through Xar. Before he knew it, he found himself smiling. "Then... It's true! You've seen him too? You never told me that!"
     “He warned me, Xar,” she said. “He warned me about Nimrod. He told me to stay close to you. I didn’t heed his words, and you almost…” She broke off. For a second he thought tears would well up in her eyes.
     "Come here," he said. Leaning towards her, he put his arms around her, felt her hands snake around his neck. Then she buried her face into his chest, and he held her.
     For a long moment, they clung to each other fiercely. He felt her breath against his chest, strong and vital. Her scent, though mixed with sweat, grime and blood, was wonderful.
     Finally she reached up, placed her hands on his face, and kissed him softly. He returned the kiss, closing his eyes, savoring the softness of her lips, the closeness of her face to his. Then she pulled back, a curious expression on her face.
     "I have an idea," she said. "Come quickly; we have to get to the Command Center."
     "What are you going to do?" he asked.
     "I'll explain on the way." She stood, drawing him up to his feet finally, and began leading him towards the exit. "There are still millions of Nimrod's forces out there, some even in the city and the palace. They have to be dealt with."
     "What can we do?" Xar asked as he followed, worry returning as reality set back in. Varnus was still occupied by Altarin'Dakor forces. Both Zalaria's and the NI's forces had been routed, nearly wiped out. Could she stop them all by herself? Why had his son left so soon, when he could have helped defeat all the AD?
     "There is an ancient order, one which we Shok'Thola have practiced through the ages, and all of our most trusted commanders and admirals know about it. It is called Shu'Du'naman, and it means that the victor of an engagement - or a war - has the right to claim ownership of everything belonging to his opponent - even their military personnel and resources."
     "You mean you can take over all of Nimrod's forces?" Xar asked as she led them quickly through the corridors.
     "In theory. The Altarin'Dakor and everything they have are, ultimately, the property of the Shok'Thola," she answered. "Militaries and worlds often change hands after a conflict. The Jedicon, however, usually will not defect. Often they must be killed one by one, to the last man."
     "So what happens if you invoke this right on Nimrod's forces?"
     "We'll find out soon," she promised.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Command Center

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            1640 Hours


            Zalaria stood over the main command console, with Xar at her side. They were the only two occupants left in the room; the rest of the command center was empty. Yet there was no sign of damage or forced entry, no bodies. At some point the chamber must have been evacuated.
     On the way up, they had encountered no one else in the corridors. There had been plenty of bodies there, though, evidence of the devastation this long, bloody day had wrought, and the price that had been paid. There were soldiers, men, women and even children, lying disfigured, even mutilated, their blood staining the stones red. He'd wanted to look away at the sight of them, but he forced himself to gaze at them, to remember what their victory had cost.
     Rage, and thirst for power and glory had done this. The palace itself was a shambles, in ruins. Some whole sections had been destroyed. It would take a long time to clean up the destruction, to repair the damage, to mend the wounds.
     As Xar watched, Zalaria reached over to communications control and switched to an open frequency, then depressed the transmit button. It was a message that everyone would be able to hear, on either side, from those on the surface to the forces still hovering in orbit.
     It was a message she wanted all to hear.
     “Attention, all Altarin’Dakor forces,” she said, speaking in their native language. “The Shok’Thola Nimrod is now dead. I am his sister, the Shok’Thola known as Zalaria. As the victor of this engagement, I invoke Sha’Du’naman. As of this moment, I lay claim on all resources and personnel that belonged to the Shok’Thola Nimrod, as my own. All dissenters to this claim as well as any order I place henceforth will be under orders of immediate execution.” She paused, allowing her words to sink in, to be understood. Then she continued.
     “As of now, all hostilities against the body known as the New Imperium are to cease. As your new Shok'Thola, I command this order be obeyed immediately and without hesitation. All Altarin'Dakor forces are to immediately withdraw from the field of combat and take up a holding position onboard your command ships in orbit. I will arrive shortly to personally oversee the transfer of command."
     Xar listened to the authority in her voice, and felt the aura through the Force that she was projecting. Even he wanted to obey. He expected that anyone who decided to disobey those orders would be summarily dealt with. His doubts that Nimrod's forces might not believe her were quickly melted away. This was really going to work, he realized.
     Then her next words, spoken in Altarin'Dakor, jolted Xar to his core.
     "From henceforth I declare, under the Right of Conquest, and as the sole Shok’Thola present, that all territories and holdings of Nimrod, as well as those of the New Imperium itself, now belong to me.”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Epilogue: Dusk




Royal Palace, Varnus

            1810 Hours


            “About time you let me see you about this,” Vannik said, putting the final wraps around Thrakus’ upper arm and shoulder.
     “I’m fine,” Kiz said idly, continuing to gaze around the room. Medbay was filled to capacity; there were even injured lying on makeshift cots on the floor between the beds. Those in recovery had been relocated to some of the residences on the upper levels. Miraculously though, they'd managed to avoid direct attack by the enemy Jedicon. Kiz had breathed a sigh of relief when he'd heard that the fighting was over.
     About an hour before, Xar’s voice had come over a system-wide comm message, announcing an end to the hostilities. Shortly after that everyone’s personal commlinks began working once more. Somehow, amazingly, the Altarin’Dakor Warlord attacking them had been defeated, and his forces had, apparently, actually surrendered to the NI, as impossible as that sounded.
      But the injured had continued to stream in even after the cease-fire had been ordered. There had been one tense moment when the blast doors had opened via security override, and Kiz had rushed forward, lightsaber in hand, only to discover Attrid Xoan with the battered body of Ralagos Akala in his arms. Now Ralagos lay with the most seriously injured patients, in critical condition. There were all too many like him, their lives still hanging in precarious balance.
     The mood in the room was somber. It seemed the reality of just how much they'd lost this day was finally settling in. Victory had come at a very high price. For some, the devastation seemed too much to bear. Among the moans and groans of the injured, quiet weeping could be heard.
     As Vannik left him to attend to other patients, Kiz glanced back at the occupants lying inside the quarantine room. With all the injured coming in, they'd finally been forced to open the room and house other patients in there. Now Thrakus' comatose friend was but one of many filling the chamber. At least he's still alive, he thought. It was amazing any of them were, at this point.
     Xar himself had come in a while ago, checking to see who was injured, who was okay, and who was no longer among the living. He’d explained – rather hastily – that the battle had been won, and that the AD were retreating. Most of the enemy Jedicon inside the palace had been eliminated, it seemed, and those few remaining had apparently fled. He said that he, Alyx, and Zalaria, of all people, were actually going through the palace floor by floor and making sure there weren't any Jedicon left in hiding.
     Thrakus didn’t understand why the Jedicon would fight to the death while the rest of the AD retreated. But apparently a Jedicon’s life was so bound to his Warlord that there was simply nothing left to live for once they were gone. At any rate, they'd been ordered to stay locked inside until the all-clear was given.
     Shortly after that, some soldiers had brought in a badly injured Kir Kanos. Rumor was he’d been at the main entrance for the entire duration of the battle, where virtually all the defenders at that position had been killed. Thrakus couldn’t imagine being there the whole time, where the fighting was thickest. It was a miracle that he'd survived. He was currently being treated for a broken leg, some broken ribs and a concussion, but that seemed to be the extent of his injuries.
     Last but not least, Jinx had walked in and been treated for some minor injuries. His face was swollen and bruised, but otherwise he appeared to be okay. After the nurse had finished seeing him, he spotted Kiz and walked over.
     "You look about as bad as I feel," he told Jinx as he settled down on the floor next to Thrakus.
     "It's been a long day." Jinx shook his head, staring down at the floor. "So what happens now I wonder?"
     "No idea," Kiz said. "Stang, I don't even know how we got to where we are. This doesn't seem real."
     Suddenly his commlink beeped. Pulling the device off his belt, he saw that it was Xar calling him. "Go ahead," he said into the mic.
     "Kiz, we've finished searching the palace. Looks like all the Jedicon have been eliminated and we can't sense any more in the vicinity. Any survivors appear to have fled back down through the catacombs. We're in the process of sealing it off right now. I want you to set up security with what personnel we still have, then when it's safe, go up to the Treasury and let everyone out. Just be careful; there could still potentially be AD forces in the area we missed. "
     "Copy," Kiz said as the connection closed. He glanced over at his companion. "Business as usual, I guess."
     "I'm coming with you," Jinx said. "Two people should be able to work twice as fast."
     Thrakus nodded. He knew the other man was just as eager to open that vault door as he was. "Let's go," he said, standing.


*                                  *                                  *

About an hour later, they stood wearily in front of the sealed Treasury doors, as the occupants on the other side deactivated the locks and sent the hatchway doors splitting open finally. Packed inside, staring out at them nervously, were over a hundred faces - civilian men, women and children who had been unable to join the fight. Some were wives or husbands who may have lost loved ones this day. Others were Jedi Initiates, or Force-sensitive children, the future of the Order now that so many had been lost. Some were merely workers or other civilians At least everyone had been safe inside, Kiz realized.
     When he saw his wife and daughter standing near the side wall, he breathed a long sigh of relief.
     He saw Rynn come running out first and embrace Jinx in a fierce hug. Behind her he noticed Bren, Derek, Icis Novitaar, Fenora and a slew of others. As people began to file out, Kiz pushed his way through the throng, heading for his wife and child.
     "Why can I still sense Altarin'Dakor everywhere?" he heard Rynn ask behind him.
     Jinx's voice answered her quickly. "They've disarmed, but haven't completely left. No, they haven't surrendered. I think they've defected somehow..."
     He lost the rest of their conversation in the hubbub of conversation, then quickly forgot about it as he met Lorien and Seydinl and swept them both up in his arms. His daughter giggled in delight, and his wife put an arm around his neck, drawing him down to her.
     "I was worried for you," she whispered into his ear.
     Kiz felt the cold, distant shell in his mind, the only thing that had kept him sane during this day, finally melt away. Suddenly emotion burst forth inside him, filling him with a sense of relief, of worthiness, of compassion... and more than anything - of his humanity. "I know. I love you both so much. I missed you," he said, burying his face in her hair.
     After everything that had happened this day, after struggling to simply make it through and survive, this moment made it all the effort worth it. It was good to be alive.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Skies above Vectur


1925 Hours

Salle Darl guided her TIE Avatar through the canyon-like gap between the buildings, hovering on repulsorlifts and inching her way forward slowly. Keeping her eyes peeled on the streets below, she listened as the beacon signal in her headphones grew stronger and stronger.
     "I think I'm getting close," she said into the comm. "The tone's better in this direction."
     "Be right there," replied Gren.
     Somehow she, Gren and Narm had all managed to avoid the Jedicon pilots and survive long enough to hear the cease-fire order. After that, the majority of the AD forces had retreated.
     Still, the state of Vectur was worse than her most dire imaginations could have made it. Rubble and bodies filled the streets, shattered windows stared out like empty sockets, and even entire buildings had been toppled and collapsed. Fires still raged further south, consuming the lower-lying, lower income districts. Smoke still rose in massive columns all across the city, forming a dark cloud layer that hovered above and obscured the sky. The sun, slowly dipping its way towards the horizon, cast diffused light that painted everything in an orange glow.

     She still couldn’t believe that Bast, Rann, and Tanya were gone. That left her, Gren and Narm, and Kikitik had apparently been picked up by a rescue transport. The question now was, whether or not their commander was still alive.
     Salle turned a corner and emerged onto a broad thoroughfare devoid of any traffic or pedestrians. It was there that the signal's pace increased, and as she grew closer it continued to quicken. Gren Pabos' Avatar dropped into her twelve o'clock about half a klick away.
     "See anything?"
     Salle scanned the street below with her eyes. Ahead on her right was a huge burned-out hole in one of the buildings lining the street. At its base lay a scattering of rubble - duracrete, transparisteel shards, and broken office furniture.
     Not far from there, she saw a TIE Avatar's shattered solar panel lying on the street.
     Her heart beginning to thump in her chest, she followed the trail of debris to another building that had been burned out. More wreckage littered the base of the structure.
     The tone went solid as she came directly overhead.
     "I don't understand this," she said, glancing at her scan display screen. "It says he's to my left."
     "But that would mean he's inside that building," Gren said.
     "Maybe he got out and took cover," Narm's voice broke in. His fighter appeared overhead, hovering perhaps thirty meters above her.
     "I don't know..." Salle broke off. "How could he have taken his whole seat with him?"
     Each fighter pilot's seat held a homing beacon that would activate when he or she ejected. It the beacon that enabled them to be found and rescued, whether in the depths of space or on the surface of a planet. They were ultra-reliable and very hard to destroy.
     Not only was the beacon coming from her left, but it also appeared to be resting at altitude. She looked in that direction, becoming completely confused at the whole situation...
     Then she saw the gaping hole in the building's exterior transparisteel viewports.
     She looked down at her screen, switched the display over to check on the ejected pilot's vital signs. The seat also acted as a monitoring device.
     The heartbeat was there, but so faint that she could barely even discern it.
     Before she knew it she was pressing the comm button as hard as she could. "This is Salle Darl of Inferno Squadron!" she shouted. "I need an emergency pickup here, right now!"


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Grand Master’s Chambers

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            1953 Hours


            Icis Novitaar waited in the Grand Master’s chambers and took stock as the others entered the room. Interim Grand Master Alyx Misnera, Attrid Xoan, ‘Jinx’ Skipper, Vynd Archaron, and Kiz Thrakus all filed in one by one.

     He’d arrived to find that Jedicon had completely trashed the room. Icis sat in a chair that had been overturned and he’d righted. Beside him, the display shelves had been shattered and many of Xar’s personal antiques and collectables were scattered across the floor. The desk itself had been sliced in half with a lightsaber blade, and Xar’s personal computer had been completely obliterated.

     Everyone got situated standing on the ornate Varnusian carpet across from the ruined desk. In front of it stood Xar and Zalaria, the former looking focused, the latter completely unreadable as always.
     “All right, this is everyone I asked to come,” Xar spoke up finally as the last guest entered. “Honestly, we’re about all that’s left as far as leadership goes. We’ve lost Paan, Nico’s in a coma – well, this is just about it. I think we all need to be up to date with what’s going on, so that we can move forward.”

     Icis watched the expressions on everyone’s faces as they waited to hear what Xar had to say. Alyx looked especially perturbed, and pointedly avoided looking at Zalaria. Atridd, Jinx and Thrakus looked more tired than anything else. It had been a very long day.
     “First off, an update on the cease-fire. As you’ve heard, the Altarin’Dakor forces in service to Nimrod have all surrendered to us. They’ve pulled back into orbit and are awaiting orders from us as to what they should do next.”

     Those words brought a series of skeptical glances from those gathered. Icis knew what they must be thinking – after all, they’d just spent the whole day fighting AD forces and killing as many of them that they could. “So what’s our status?” Alyx spoke up.

     Xar crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Well, the entire First Fleet has been basically wiped out. Gaius ordered a full retreat just before the Nexus was destroyed. I managed to get hold of him and it appears he, Amason and most of the command staff managed to evacuate and are safely en route to Tralaria.

     “Speaking of Tralaria, I just received word from the Diktat. The Second Fleet was heavily engaged with Nimrod’s other fleet by the time they received the cease-fire order. Our forces suffered at least twenty-five percent casualties by that time, though. The AD forces at Tralaria retreated, then they suddenly disappeared.”
     “Where did they go?” Jinx asked. “What are we going to do about them?”
     “They are deserters,” Zalaria spoke up. “They will be tracked down and pay the ultimate price for their betrayal.”

     “Are you saying that all of Nimrod’s forces are now subject to you – to us?” Thrakus asked.

     “That’s the idea, yes,” Xar nodded. “In fact, so are all of his territories.”

     A murmur of surprise went softly through the room.
     “Have you actually been onboard the Titans to assume command?” Xoan inquired.
     “Not as yet. That is my next destination after the conclusion of this meeting,” Zalaria said. “I will be working to foster a smooth transition, and to ensure cooperation with our forces in the future.”
     There was a moment of stunned silence. Suddenly Alyx cleared his throat and raised a hand. “Wait a minute, Xar. You’re saying that the people I was fighting against just a few hours ago – now I have to turn around and be friends with them? I don’t buy that, and I can tell you our men won’t either. They nearly wiped out the whole Order, to say nothing of our military forces! There’s virtually no one left in the Division between Guardian and Adept.”
     “Where we’re going from here on there won’t be much of a role for anyone below Adept,” Xar answered tersely. “And besides, I’m asking you to work with them, not befriend them. Hate them, for all I care.”

     Icis arched an eyebrow at the man’s cryptic response. Where exactly was he expecting the NI to go from here, after being brought to the brink of destruction?

     Xar continued speaking straight on. "Jinx, Thrakus, I'm promoting you both to Jedi Master effective immediately. You're both easily strong enough for the rank, and I’m sure you already have most of the knowledge you need. Without the both of you, we might have lost everything today. I want you to make sure there’s nothing you’re lacking in any knowledge or ability of the position. Use Alyx or me if you have any questions."
     Misnera looked over at Xar and opened his mouth as if to speak, then simply closed it again.
      "Jinx, with Nico out of commission, I'm installing you as Deputy Grand Master of the Order,” Xar continued. “We can't leave the position empty. Your role will be vital in the upcoming days." Jinx's eyes, already wide, went even wider.
     "Also, Atridd – I'm making you Head of Special Ops in Paan's place."

     “Who, me?” Xoan said, his eyebrows going up.
     “We’ve got to keep the Council positions filled; we can’t just leave it half empty anymore.” Xar glanced at each of them in turn. “We’ve won a break here, and we’ve taken the enemy totally off guard. We have a limited time to press our advantage, so we need to figure out our next course of action right away.”
     “Hold on,” Alyx cut in. “What do you mean, our next course of action?”
     "Obviously, Alyx, retaking the systems we've lost and preparing a counterattack against Mizar. We have to drive them out."
     Icis continued to watch things unfold with a growing sense of trepidation. Xar's eyes were wild-looking, intense. He looked like a man possessed. Alyx stared at him with an incredulous look on his face, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. “Wait a second. That just isn’t realistic, Xar. We’ve got to cope with what’s happened here. People have lost nearly everything. Thousands, tens of thousands may be dead. We’ve got to help people recuperate, help them rebuild. We’re in no position to launch any counterattacks.”
     Icis watched Xar with growing concern. The man seemed to be swinging from one emotional state to another quite quickly, lately. It was a trend he’d begun to notice, and it seemed to be getting worse. Xar would be compassionate and reasonable one minute, cold and heartless the next. Now he spoke of moving on as if the NI had lost nothing significant at all.

     “Don’t forget, we have all of Nimrod’s forces at our disposal,” Xar countered. “We’ve just become more powerful than we were even before this war began.”

     “Are we going to trust them, just like that?” Jinx put in. “Sir, having AD forces make up the bulk of our fleet sounds like a sure recipe for disaster.”
     “I don’t think you understand what we’re up against,” Xar declared, beginning to pace back and forth across the rug beneath his feet. “We’re not out of this yet, not by a long shot. Tell them,” he said, looking to his wife.
     “We have defeated Nimrod’s forces,” Zalaria said, looking around the room at each of them, “but he was only one of the ten active Warlords out there, excluding myself. There is Kronos, who is still alive and sure to want revenge against us. Asellus, cold, vengeful and calculating. Akargan, a powerful fighter and master of war. Strife – whom we encountered on Mies – who is ruthlessly cunning and incredibly strong. Velius, the most powerful and also happens to be insane. Sado, the first of us to become a Shok’Thola, who is unpredictable and reclusive. Raftina, the Queen Mother of the Crinn race. Elidibsatianouka, who is a Star Dragon, one of the last of his kind.
     “All of this precludes,” she continued, “Altima himself. He is directly connected to the Entity, our source of power – in fact, we all receive our power directly from Altima. He is not a Warlord, or Shok’Thola. He is… something else. Something that’s never been seen before. To win this war, it is him that we must defeat, and prevent the Entity from using other Shok’Thola to attack this galaxy.”
     “But this… Altima... He’s supposed to be unbeatable, isn’t he?” Jinx broke in.
     “How exactly do you expect to win a war against all of them?” Thrakus added.
     “I don’t know how exactly, yet,” Xar admitted. “But I know that we will win. We have help that will virtually secure our victory.”
     Icis had had enough of this; they were all ignoring the number one question on everyone’s mind. The two of them had been avoiding the subject with their cryptic, confident-sounding answers for long enough. It was time to get to the bottom of this. "Xar," he finally spoke up, standing to his feet. "What happened to Nimrod? How were you able to defeat him? You have to tell us eventually."
     Xar glanced at him, then looked away, hesitating. "I've been meaning to get to that," he admitted. "That's why I called such a small, limited gathering. What I'm about to say doesn't leave this room under any circumstances. Don't ever tell this to anyone without my express permission, even to your spouses. Am I clear?"
     He was met by a series of confused nods. Slowly, Xar grabbed an extra chair by the far wall and set it down in front of the desk, then settled into it. Then, with a sigh, Xar spilled out the whole story about his confrontation with Nimrod, the appearance of the mysterious visitor, and the message about the future that the visitor had foretold. Icis felt his eyes continue to widen the more Xar said. As he listened, the news of what had happened, and especially the future that Xar spoke of, hit him like a sledgehammer. It had been a long time since Icis had been surprised.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            North Balconies

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            2002 Hours


"Hurry up Derek, we're going to be late to the Grand Master's meeting," Bren called out as he waited in the doorway of the boy's dorm.
     "I'll be right there!" the boy replied. Bren could hear him rummaging through his belongings in his room. Derek had been housed with some of the other Jedi in-training, mostly Guardians who were far below him in terms of Force skill, yet whom were all his elder by several years, at least. That was the problem with Derek; he was still a boy, yet his was stronger in the Force than just about anyone else in the Order.
     Still, having his own bunk in a dorm with other students gave Derek some sense of autonomy and adulthood. Though the truth was, Bren wished he'd just take it slow and enjoy being his age. You can only be young once, he knew.
     The room was currently empty except for the two of them; they'd all taken shelter in the Treasury during the battle, and most of the trainees were staying close to their elders now, both for protection as well as a sense of peace after all that had happened.
     He'd only allowed Derek to come up here provided he accompany the boy, and that Bren would go in front and make sure the corridors were cleared of anything the boy shouldn't see. He knew that Derek had grown up on the streets. He'd seen more than his share of violence. But Bren didn't want the blame for exposing him to any more.
     "Okay, got it," Derek said as he emerged from his room. He took the small, crystalline object in his hands and stuffed it into the pouch dangling from his shoulder. Bren knew the object had some special significance to the boy, being the only thing he'd taken with him from his former life, but he hadn't directly asked what it was. Figuring Derek would reveal it when he was ready, he decided not to push the issue.
     "Let's go," Bren said, leading the way out of the room and back through the corridors. They were supposed to be at the Grand Master's office to hear what had happened, and why the battle had just ended all of a sudden.
     Unfortunately, going to Xar's office from here would require them to head straight through the heart of the palace, where the fighting had been thickest. There were still bodies littering the floors everywhere, down there. Those palace workers who had survived, most of them having hidden safely in the Treasury or other shelters, were now working to remove the bodies and the most obvious signs of violence. Uniformed and masked workers and medical personnel were rushing through the corridors, figures covered with white sheets laid out on stretchers as they ran. Even with the bodies gone, there was still blood all over the floors and the walls – even on the ceilings in some hallways – that had to be cleaned.
     Wanting to avoid that as much as possible, Bren decided to take an alternative route. He led them north, heading down a couple of floors and across a path that would take them near the mess hall. However, he had to turn back when he found the hallway in front of them collapsed inward, debris filling the corridor halfway to the ceiling. It looked as though a blast had taken out the entire section.

     He'd felt a tremor surge through the whole palace at one point. Maybe this had been the cause. Only Xar or a very powerful Jedicon should have been able to do something like this.
     Turning away, they went further north and finally emerged out onto the balconies at the northern edge of the palace. The evening air met them, bringing with it the smell of smoke and a multitude of unknown, burned things. The sun had nearly set in the west, finally falling beneath the level of the dark smoke clouds overhead, and its setting beams shone through the columned walkway, making everything was bathed in an orange glow.

     They turned west and walked in that direction, and were going to round another corner when a sudden premonition hit Bren. Something just didn’t feel right, that way.

     Then a feeling came over him, a familiar presence. It can’t be… he thought.

     “Bren… I feel something wrong,” Derek whispered. Bren glanced down at the boy. Derek’s face was dark, focused. He felt it, too. That was enough confirmation for Bren.

     He turned them back, intending to head in the direction they’d come. They had to warn the palace as soon as possible. But as they neared that corner as well, the sense of danger came back, jolting through his entire body.

     “Not this way, either!” he whispered to Derek.

     Now in desperation. they headed back and turned along an walkway heading further north. The walkway stood between two separate courtyards, and was open on both right and left with a roof supported by columns along either side. An array of glowlamps and garden areas lined the railings on either side.

     They’d made it halfway when a rough voice came from behind Bren in Altarin’Dakor.
     “Stop right there!”
     Bren didn’t turn back. He kept running forward, Derek matching his stride…

     Then two other figures leapt up from either side of the walkway, coming out of both courtyards, and landed right in front of them, lightsabers igniting with a twin snap-hiss.

     Bren and Derek skidded to a halt, as one of the Jedicon, a thin, heavily-tattooed man with red armor and wildly standing hair let out a harsh laugh.

     “Look what we found!” shouted the Jedicon.
     “We are not a threat!” Bren said, raising his hands. "We are noncombatants!"
     He glanced backwards and saw four more Jedicon coming up behind them, closing off their last hope of escape. A cold feeling of dread shot through Bren.

     One of the Jedicon behind him jerked Bren backwards by the robe and pressed his lightsaber handle against Bren's side, his thumb just over the weapon's activation stud. Another grabbed Derek by the arm and slipped his other arm around the boy's neck in a vicelike grip. Derek grunted in pain. "Let... me... go!"
     "Let him go!" Bren shouted.
     The wild-haired Jedicon gave a sneer and laughed again. Beside Bren, another Jedicon stepped forward, and this one was huge. Well over two meters in height, he wore a massive brown robe with its hood pulled up over his head, concealing most of his face in darkness. Still, his hands and forearms were exposed enough that Bren could see the man's thick muscles, far more than any normal human should have.

     The first Jedicon stepped forward, taking Bren’s attention again. He peered at the two of them, bouncing his lightsaber handle off of his right leg idly as he smiled.
     “I am Kodonn'Dakor Fiaros, and this is Kodonn'Dakor Dhuladan.” He nodded towards the giant, robed man standing just behind Bren.

     “What do you want with us?” Bren asked them in Altarin’Dakor.

     Fiaros’ eyes widened as he heard his own native language spoken back to him.

     “So, you are one of the traitors,” the Jedicon leader said derisively. “Well, we need hostages to help us get off this rock. You two should do nicely.”
     “Please, reconsider. The battle is over,” Bren countered. “There is no more need for hostilities. The Shok’Thola Zalaria has taken command of all Altarin’Dakor forces in this system.”
     Fiaros shook his head, waving his blade back and forth at his side. “That may be, but we serve the Shok’Thola Nimrod. You know as well as I that no Jedicon will betray his master for another.” The man’s eyes narrowed in obvious anger.
     “Listen to me!” Bren pleaded. “I was once an honored Kodonn’Dakor as well, loyally serving my Shok’Thola during the Great War, but I was eventually defeated. I once thought as you do, but I found another way. I found another way to live, and continued to fight as an honorable Altarin’Dakor warrior. We can choose our own way, to live with new purpose.”
     “Then you’re a coward, in addition to a traitor!” the Jedicon snarled. “You should have died honorably with your Shok’Thola. Even if what you said was possible, which it is not. The Great War has been over for a thousand generations. This is our time.” He glanced at his companions.

     “Fiaros,” the Jedicon behind Bren spoke up. “I think we should not bother with these as hostages… We should rather kill them now and be done with it.”

     Fiaros licked his lips, seeming to consider the other’s opinion. A stab of fear shot through Bren, and he glanced down at Derek. The boy didn’t know what any of them were saying. His eyes were narrowed as he glared at the lead Jedicon. He didn’t seem frightened at all.
     Bren decided to play his last card. "You call me a coward? Then consider this: take me in exchange for the boy. Do as you will with me, just let the young one go. He cannot keep up with us."
     "An interesting prospect," Fiaros said, sneering. "But I have another idea. The boy will be far more useful as a hostage.” He turned to his colleague, then nodded towards Bren. “Fight him. Give him a dishonorable death.”
     “Wait!” Bren pleaded as the Jedicon stepped forward. “I have sworn not to fight!”
     “Then you will die!” the Jedicon snarled.
     The Jedicon raised his hand, lightsaber flashing overhead in a blue arc. Bren tensed himself; he had to make sure Derek made it out of this, no matter what the cost.
     “Bren! No!”
     Suddenly he felt a massive surge in the Force. In an instant the Jedicon holding Derek launched backwards, flying through the air to slam into one of the side columns. His head slammed against the stone and he collapsed to the ground.

     “No!” Derek’s hand shot forward, and a wide-eyed Fiaros and his companion flew backwards, slamming against the railing and falling to their knees.

     “Derek, stop!” Bren shouted. The Jedicon at his side was watching the scene in shock. Bren drew on the Force and pushed the man away behind him, then ran forward to grab Derek.

     Bren was already several steps behind. “I won’t let you!!” the boy shouted, his voice full of rage. He launched himself toward the lead Jedicon, flying through the air, his fists raised. Bren had seen him like this before, when he’d been training intensely. He’d lost it – he was in complete battle mindset, unable to snap out of it until his energies were expended completely.

     But Derek had never fought in a real battle against at Jedicon before. He didn’t know what he was getting into. Bren ran forward, yelling for him to stop…

     Fiaros spun on his knees just as Derek came within range, his lightsaber a blur of light as it slashed horizontally. It swept across in front of Derek. There was the horrible sound of searing flesh, and clothing and blood vapor flew into the air.

     Derek stumbled back and half turned, looking back towards Bren, his face a mask of surprise.

     The boy’s lips moved, and they formed a single word – Bren – even as he fell to the ground.
     “Derek!” Bren shouted. He was over the boy in an instant, crouching down, rolling the young boy’s body over to stare at his face. His eyes were closed, his expression one of tranquility.

     He was dead.

     Bren stared down at the boy’s face in shock and confusion. This couldn’t be right. Why weren’t his eyes opening? Why wasn’t he speaking? He cradled the Derek’s head in one hand, touched his torso with the other. His hand came away red and sticky. He shook his head, unable to comprehend how this had happened. It just wasn’t possible…

     It wasn’t possible!
     A sob burst out of his lips, and his body heaved. He blinked, sudden wetness in his eyes. His breath came in gasps; he just didn’t seem able to take a breath correctly. He looked away, closed his eyes.

     The scream that emanated from his throat seemed to come from another man.

     “Fools!” Fiaros yelled, scrambling halfway to his feet. “You should have held onto him! Now what are we going to…”

     “NO!!” Bren screamed, launching himself at the Kodonn’Dakor in front of him. He managed to bat away the man’s saber hand with his own, landing directly on top of him.

     Straddling the man, Bren raised a fist over his head, his mouth wide open, a wordless roar emanating at the top of his lungs. His hair flew wildly over his head, and the Force raged through him as it never had before. He dimly remembered having this much power, in another life, in another time. Suddenly something snapped in his mind, and he remembered who he was. It was like breathing air again finally, after what seemed like an eternity. Everything went red in front of him, and the man who had been Bren was overwhelmed with the all-consuming sweetness and power that raged within his veins.
     His fist fell.
     A moment of stark silence filled the corridor; not even breathing could be detected in that moment. Lasitus knelt, staring downwards. The other Jedicon stood frozen in shock, their eyes and mouths open wide.
     The Jedicon’s head lay half a meter away, severed from its body by the force of the blow. A trail of blood connected the two, staining the stones below in deep red, a pool of dark blood forming above the headless corpse as arteries continued to spurt the liquid onto the floor.
     Bren spun as he heard a low growl emanate from behind him and a power spike rise through the Force.
     "How dare you to that to Fiaros!" Dhuladan, the massive Kodonn'Dakor, roared. He grit his teeth together, his fists clenched, every muscle contracting on his face, neck and arms. Then he threw his arms back and his cloak ripped itself off of him, revealing a massive array of rippling muscles across his bear torso and arms.
     Dhuladan screamed as he came in, arms raised to smash Lasitus to pieces.
     But all his fury was like nothing compared to the boiling inside of Lasitus. He ducked the Jedicon's wild swing as he passed, letting his opponent's momentum carry him several steps past him on the balcony.
     Then, spotting a four-meter-tall lamppost that had just turned itself on next to the railing as the sun finally descended below the horizon, Lasitus leapt over to it, gripped it by the metal post with both hands, and heaved.
     The entire lamp ripped free from the stonework, the glowlamp going out with a flash as it was disconnected.
     Dhuladan had arrested his forward momentum and spun around. Still emitting a guttural roar, he came rushing back in, straight towards his target.
     Screaming, Lasitus raised the massive post overhead and swung it downwards with all his Force-enhanced might in a blur of speed.
     The post hit the Jedicon and split him in half from shoulder to groin in one powerful stroke. Blood, gore and entrails sprayed everywhere across the floor.

     The hum of a lightsaber blade sounded in his ears. Turning to his left, Lasitus saw the Jedicon that had been with Fiaros swinging his blade down towards him. To Lasitus’ eyes, it seemed like he was moving in slow-motion.

     Standing, he caught the man’s handle with one hand, then reached back and threw his fist into the side of the side of the Jedicon’s cheek.

     The man’s face exploded. He fell to the ground dead, his lightsaber now in Lasitus’ hand.

     The remaining two Jedicon turned around and began running away on Force-enhanced legs. Lasitus stepped towards them, glanced at the other, unconscious Jedicon slumped against he railing, and swung his blade, slicing the man’s head off.

     Then, dropping the lightsaber, he raised both hands and sent out an invisible blast of force into the retreating men. The fleeing Jedicon burst into flame even as Lasitus knelt once more beside the boy’s unmoving form.

     The screams of the dying Jedicon were like a dull thing to his ears. Their armor and skin burned away, followed by muscles, sinews and joints.

     Their blackened skeletons collapsed in two piles to the floor as Lasitus scooped the boy’s body up in his arms.

     Turning, he walked back into the palace, oblivious to the darkening sky behind him, the colors fading to gray, the shadows falling as dusk settled in, promising the nightfall to come.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Grand Master’s Chambers

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            2033 Hours


            When Xar was finished, he stared at each face in turn. Everyone’s face held different amounts of shock, doubt and even outright disbelief. Icis watched them in silence, his mind racing.
     Time Travel. It seemed impossible. Yet there was no other was Xar could know the things he was saying. He had effectively described a threat that the Travelers had been fearing for years.
     “So what do you think?” Xar asked finally. “Do you believe me?”
     No one replied immediately. The room still hadn’t recovered from the shock of Xar’s words – his claims. What would they all think? That he was crazy?
     "What are the Ones?" Thrakus spoke up, looking confused. "I've never heard of them."

     “I can’t tell you any more information than I have,” Xar admitted. “Even Zalaria knows nothing about them.”

     Icis considered hard. He knew of a threat out there, one that was far greater than the Altarin’Dakor could ever be. He also knew that the Travelers were preparing for something, something big. Could he assume that this threat and the Ones were, in fact, one and the same? Could he make that connection without further evidence?

     Seeing silence consume the room once more, Xar let out a sigh. “Does anybody believe me at all? Am I wasting my time?”

     “How do you know it was really your son?” Vynd Archaron spoke up. “It could have been another Warlord, claiming to be him, could it not? Did he tell you his name?”

     “No he didn’t. But he was far too powerful to just be another Warlord. Besides, I know my own son when I see him. Look, do I seem like an unreliable witness? Do you think I was dreaming?”
     Finally, Alyx threw up his hands. “What do you expect us to believe, Xar? That despite no evidence throughout history to support it, time travel is somehow actually possible? That your son happens to be the only one who can use it, and that he came back in time just to save you? What’s the most likely explanation?”
     “Blast it Alyx, I’m telling you that it happened. Do you think I’m crazy?”

     It’s entirely possible that you are, Icis thought. He supposed that only time would tell.

     “You were beaten almost to the point of death, Xar,” Alyx said, keeping his voice level. “People can hallucinate things when they get to that point. Something happened, that much is certain. But oftentimes the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true. And frankly, it’s hard to believe that someone time traveled here to save you.”
     “What about you, Icis?” Xar asked, turning towards him. “Do you believe me?”
     “I believe you saw something,” Icis admitted. “And there is circumstantial evidence to suggest your story is accurate. But…”

     “But what?”

     “There’s just no precedent,” Vynd spoke up, finishing for him.
     Zalaria cleared her throat, getting everyone’s attention. “Regardless of what you believe, my brother is dead,” she said. “All of his forces and territories are now legally under my – our – command.” 
     “Aren’t you forgetting something though?” Icis added, daring to interrupt her speech. “Nimrod will eventually come back.” At the others’ confused looks, he turned to them to explain. “The Altarin’Dakor Warlords are Immortal. They have a limitless source of life energy. Remember Kronos and Velius? They may have been defeated, but they are still alive. They are able to transfer their essenses to another body like Emperor Palpatine did.”
    Zalaria fixed him with a level stare. “When I said that he’s dead," she said, her voice cold as ice, "I meant that he is dead. I felt him die. He is no more.”
     Xar nodded, his gaze intense. “Whatever my son did, it completely erased his presence from the Force.”
     “How can that be possible?” Icis asked.
     “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers,” Xar said. “I’m just telling you what I saw. You can take it or leave it, but as long as we’re working together, I’m going to ask you to take it as fact, unless proven otherwise. If you don’t believe me, then ask Zalaria. She’s seen our son before too. There’s more evidence for you.”
     There was no response. No one seemed particularly fond of the idea of asking Zalaria for proof. In fact, none of them looked comfortable to even be in the same room with the woman. Icis had gotten somewhat accustomed to it, awkward as it was, though it still took a large amount of self control.
     Xar obviously picked up on everyone’s mood. “None of you really trust her, do you?” he asked. He looked around the room, his eyes resting on Alyx – who sighed and looked away – and finally to Icis, who kept his expression carefully guarded. Of course he didn’t trust her – that was well documented. He had reasons of his own, and by now he was sure Alyx did, as well.

     “Since when do you, Xar?” Alyx asked, his voice blunt. “So frankly, why should we? Now we’ve gone from one AD Titan supplementing our forces to a whole fleet of them totally supplanting our military. You’re giving them control over the whole NI!”
     “Don’t be ridiculous,” Xar countered back sharply. “I can’t believe this!”
     Zalaria opened her mouth to say something when the door to the room burst open. All
eyes turned to the figure who stumbled in, and the small form he carried aloft in both arms. A collective gasp went up among everyone gathered.
     Bren’s face was soaked with the tears that were streaming down his face. “Je… Je… Jedicon…” he sobbed. “I… tried to… stop…”
     Xar leapt out of his chair and was on the floor next to him in an instant. “Derek!” he screamed, cradling the young boy’s lifeless body in his arms.
     Icis stared in horror at the bloody pair that had entered. Derek was gone. It was… It was unbelievable. Even with everything else that had happened this day, even with all that the Scepter had shown him and what it had not… he had never expected something like this. Even Zalaria was watching the scene, speechless. She seemed completely in shock. A chill silence had taken over the whole room.
     “DEREK!!! NOOOO!!!”
     The anguished sobs brought his gaze back to the man on the floor. And as Xar’s screams echoed off the walls of the room, Icis knew he was looking at a broken man.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


The End of



Written by Joshua Ausley

Copyright New Imperium 2009