Ahsoka, redeux.

Jedi Marso

Rear Admiral
Rear Admiral
Okay, I couldn’t help myself. I re-wrote Ahsoka, attempting to take the broad storyline and characters and remake it into a more cohesive and logical narrative. Without getting too spoilery, an overview of the effort looks like this:

  1. The biggest change is that Thrawn and Ezra are trapped in the Unknown Regions rather than some other galaxy, and I’ve got a story mechanism to make that work. Also, there is very little Dathomiri lore here. No zombies, although Marrok remains some sort of weird wraith. His part in the story is fairly small, and he meets a similar fate. Morgan Elbseth’s Nightsister powers are related to the dark side of the Force, rather than ‘magic.’

  2. The ‘map mc’guffin’ is worked over so it actually makes sense, and is tied in to the old Jedi Temple on Lothal rather than some Dathomiri ruin. Wait, what? The temple is destroyed? Well, we’ll just see about that. Also, the map itself is a Rakatan artifact rather than Dathomiri.

  3. The Lothal temple angle smooths over the WBW stuff as well, which I’ve worked in despite not caring much for it in the series. Actually, in this case, I think it works better than Ahsoka’s weird, underwater NDE- it happens as part of a shared temple experience with Ahsoka, Jacen, and Sabine, more along the lines of what Kanan and Ezra experienced during the course of Rebels, and it’s all tied to getting the map key.

  4. The matter of Sabine’s past Jedi training with Ahsoka gets fair treatment as well, so Sabine doesn’t suddenly pop as a ‘magic Jedi’. This will make a LOT more sense almost from the beginning. It also has the side benefit of offering an explanation as to Ahsoka’s whereabouts and activities during the OT. Readers may be surprised to see how Sabine’s arc wraps here.

  5. Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati’s storylines are expanded, more of their background explained, and their character arcs completed by the ending. There is a redemption story here in the finest SW tradition- something I wasn’t planning but it sort of wrote itself as I went along.

  6. Thrawn is not treated like a 6 year old Checkers player. His part in this story is actually fairly minor, but when he hits, he hits hard. Likewise, the New Republic government doesn’t behave like a pack of complete idiots. Admiral Ackbar is the only ‘official’ who makes an appearance.
This story is MUCH more Rebels Season V than the show, and Zeb is included from the beginning. Jacen Syndulla is also given a relevant part to play, without it being OTT. Hera’s role is expanded and much more in line with her characterization in Rebels. Moreover, she is FAR more concerned about her son being placed in dangerous situations than was shown in the show. The work is novella length, around 84,000 words, written in a regular third person narrative format versus a script. I’ve written this as a sort of canon-legends hybrid, but that part is fairly transparent- you won’t really notice it until the end. This is a self-contained story that technically serves as a lead-in to Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire”, so it is not open ended. All story threads and character arcs resolve by the end.
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Chapter 1

Hyperspace dissolved into streaks, which rapidly shrank to stars as the one-time Rebel freighter Ghost reverted to realspace over the planet Corvus. The disc of the planet mushroomed in the viewport, rapidly expanding to dominate the view in three-quarters phase. The damage to this planet’s ecosystem was immediately apparent, even from this far out in space.

“Whoa, that doesn’t look good, does it?” remarked Hera Syndulla, the green-skinned Twi’lek flying the Ghost. It was her ship and had been since the days of the Empire, before the Alliance to Restore the Republic was formed out of isolated, desperate rebel cells scattered across the known galaxy. She had finished the Rebellion with the rank of general; a rank which she nominally maintained in the forces of the fledgling New Republic. Five years after the Emperor’s death at Endor, however, the struggle was as real as ever. Re-establishing the Republic was proving far more difficult and involved than anticipated, and it didn’t help that criminal elements were running amok throughout the galaxy. These were abetted by various factions of the Imperial Remnant, none of which would admit defeat. With the New Republic’s leadership tied up in constant political struggles on Coruscant, it was up to folks like Hera and her old compatriots to identify the more dangerous threats and keep them in check.

The copilot’s seat was filled with the large bulk of an enormous, mauve-colored Lasat. Garazeb Orrelios was an old friend and crewmate of Hera’s—he’d been part of her original cell back in the early days of the Rebellion. A fearsome fighter with a noble heart and dry wit, Garazeb (or just Zeb, to his friends) was now a New Republic Ranger, tasked with maintaining law and order on the worlds that had signed the New Republic charter. Some days, like today, those duties included chasing fugitives to the worlds that hadn’t signed—worlds like Corvus.

“Yeah, looks like a real garden spot, doesn’t it?” Zeb replied, craning his neck slightly for a better look out the viewport. “You bring me to all the nicest places, Hera. Remind me to thank you!”

Hera didn’t reply, but a pleased grin lit up her attractive features. It was good to see Zeb again; she’d missed their banter. She missed all her old friends and comrades, but it wasn’t all bad these days. She sensed rather than heard the movement behind her seat, as her nine-year old son worked his way forward, trying to get a better view around his mother’s seat and Zeb’s bulk.

“Lemme see!” he groused, grasping at Zeb’s leg while careful not to accidentally bump any of the switches or controls on the cockpit pedestal.

Zeb looked down at Jacen with a grin, ruffling the boy’s jet-black hair. “You ain’t missing much, kid,” he said gruffly. “Just another nice planet turned into a poisoned mudball by Imperial mining and industrialization.”

“Why would anyone do that?” Jacen asked in an offended tone.

“That’s how the Imps roll, kiddo,” Zeb replied. “That’s why it’s so important that we stop them—permanently.”

Jacen looked a little worried now. “Are there a lot of Imperials down there?” he asked.

Hera glanced inquiringly at Zeb, who shrugged. “Not according to Fulcrum. She said the threat was neutralized. This is just a prisoner pick-up and transport.”

Hera glanced down at Jacen. “We’re about to make planetfall and start the landing cycle. Standard procedure, sprout. Get back there and help Chopper secure things for landing. We’ll be bringing people aboard, so I don’t want anything left laying out—especially your stuff. Make sure everything is picked up back there. Got it?”

“Aww, mom! I want to watch the landing!”

“Don’t argue,” she ordered firmly but nicely. “Chop, you two get to it.”

“Yeah, get to work, you old bucket!” Zeb snarked with a chuckle. Chopper, Hera’s battered C1-10P astromech, predated the Clone Wars, and hadn’t been memory-wiped since before Hera had owned him. As such, he was somewhat eccentric and quite a colorful personality. He fired back a long string of invectives in the form of whistles and chirps, spinning his red-colored dome once and waving his service arms threateningly at Zeb before turning and leading Jacen away in his signature weaving gait. Zeb laughed heartily as they went. “I’ve missed that old bag of bolts,” he admitted.

Hera was smiling again. “He’s missed you too. Can’t you tell?”

“Maybe,” Zeb said self-consciously, smiling and rubbing his head in an old, familiar gesture. His eyes softened a bit. “The kid’s growing up fast. He’s a good-looking boy.”

“Thanks!” Hera said brightly.

“I meant he looks a lot like Kanan,” Zeb added mischievously.

“Thanks!” Hera repeated loudly, this time with sarcasm and an affected pout.

Jacen Syndulla was a handsome child, which was a stroke of good luck considering he was the unusual hybrid of a Human father and Twi’lek mother. He had Kanan Jarrus’s lithe build and dark hair, and Hera’s expressive green eyes. His complexion was a light reddish-brown, the result of his genetics. Hera’s father, Cham Syndulla, had a red-orange complexion, and Jacen had clearly inherited a mixture of his grandfather’s coloring mixed with Kanan’s. If he’d been female, the odds were good that he’d have shared his mother’s coloring. As things stood, most people assumed he was pure Human until they saw him next to Hera, and then the eyes were a dead giveaway.

“Has he shown any Jedi abilities?” Zeb asked next.

Hera nodded. “He’s sensitive to it, definitely,” she confirmed, referring to the Force. It wasn’t surprising given that Kanan Jarrus had been a Jedi Knight. “He knows about the Force, although he doesn’t really understand any of it that well. He’s strong and fast, like Kanan, and his reflexes are something else, especially for a child. He’s already a fair bush pilot, even without any formal training.”

“Are you going to try to have him trained? Ahsoka—”

“—Ahsoka isn’t my first choice,” she said firmly, betraying a slight agitation by the way her fingers flexed on the Ghost’s controls. “She can’t seem to make up her mind about whether she’s a Jedi or not, for starters. She began training Sabine, and then quit—I’m not sure what happened between them, but it’s not encouraging. I haven’t even really decided if I want Jacen trained in the Jedi Arts at all, although I guess we’d better make up our minds about it sooner rather than later, or it’ll be too late.”

“What about this Luke Skywalker character? Have you heard anything about him?”

“I’ve met him. His war record is nothing short of heroic, obviously. He seemed genuine, but I’m not sure I’m ready to give Jacen to a stranger to raise for the next several years. That’s what it would mean, you know.” She sighed. “If Jacen is going to be a Jedi, there’s really only one person I want to train him.”

“Ezra,” Zeb said quietly. “I understand. In a way, it would be like having a direct line back to Kanan. But Hera, we don’t even know if he’s alive. It’s been almost ten years. If Ezra was coming back…”

“I know,” Hera replied in a pained voice, looking away so her friend wouldn’t see the tears welling in her eyes. Losing Kanan was bad enough. But losing Ezra too, so soon after… She dashed her sleeve across her face. There was a moment of silence between them, and Hera cleared her throat self-consciously. “Do me a favor, Zeb, and lock in Fulcrum’s landing signal beacon, will you?”

“You’ve got it, Hera,” he replied gently.

* * *

It didn’t take a war veteran to see that there had been a major fight in Calodan, the capital city of Corvus. Cleanup was well underway, but it was harder to hide blaster scoring against walls, blown-out masonry, or the now-inert force cages lining the roadway leading up to the governor’s estate. Zeb’s large bulk and unusual coloring drew some stares from the majority-Human population, but he and Hera passed unimpeded through the city until they spotted a familiar figure waiting for them by the gate to the government house.

Ahsoka Tano, once a promising Jedi Padawan, no longer counted herself a member of that fallen order. As a youth during the years of the Clone Wars, she had survived that maelstrom and the others since, making her way through the galaxy and living according to her own, self-defined principles. Although she had abandoned the Jedi Way, she’d been raised in the Jedi Temple and was exceptionally well-trained in the Jedi Arts. As such, much of their philosophy was ingrained in her whether she cared to admit it or not. She was an active player in the Rebellion against the Empire, had fought Sith and Inquisitors both, and provided no small measure of guidance to two who did claim the Jedi mantle: Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger. Her one attempt to take on a padawan of her own, Sabine Wren, had resulted in failure. In just the past few days, she had refused a second opportunity: a request to train Grogu, the enigmatic, Yoda-like youngling who had fallen into the unlikely company of a Mandalorian bounty hunter. She had set those two on a path to find what they sought but would go no farther herself. She had her own task to see to, one that was of paramount importance to the galaxy at large.

“Hera, Garazeb—it’s good to see you both,” Ahsoka greeted them with a warm smile. “Thank you for coming.”

“It’s the least we could do,” Zeb replied gruffly, rubbing his head. “Who’s this?” he asked.

“This is Wing, the new governor of Corvus,” Ahsoka informed them, inclining her whole body slightly as a form of gesturing to him. The wizened looking human in dark robes bowed humbly to the newcomers, a slight smile lighting his features. “Governor Wing, may I present General Hera Syndulla of the New Republic, and Ranger Garazeb Orrelios.”

“Welcome,” he said simply. “As you can see, we are in a state of transition. Governor Elsbeth’s tenure here was… quite destructive. Our recovery will be long and arduous.”

“I take it she’s the one responsible for the half-dead planet outside the city walls?” Hera asked.

“Here and some other planets as well,” Ahsoka replied. “She’s an Imp through and through—maybe even worse. Pick a planet, strip mine its resources until there’s nothing left but a toxic waste dump, then move on to the next one. She turned to Zeb. “She’s the reason I sent for you.”

“She’s the prisoner?” Zeb asked.

Ahsoka handed him a data chip. “This is my report, to be given to the officials on Coruscant.” She looked between Hera and Zeb. “Hera, I’m glad you’re here with him. Both of you should read this report as well because this isn’t going to be an ordinary prisoner transfer. Morgan Elsbeth is more than just an Imperial official: she’s a Force adept, and quite a dangerous one. When I first arrived here I thought this was going to be relatively easy, but she gave me quite a fight in the end. Even with your combat skills and experience, I don’t think the two of you together could take her if she gets loose.”

“Is she trained like a Jedi?” Hera asked.

“No, but it’s a minor distinction. She wields the dark side, but not in the same way a Sith or an Inquisitor does. She’s a trained martial artist, very skilled, and she draws on the Force to enhance her talents and endurance the same way a Jedi does. That said, she’s neither Jedi nor Sith, and her method of using the Force is…strangely different.” Ahsoka paused, frowning slightly. “Is Jacen with you?”

“He is,” Hera replied, suddenly a little concerned. “He’s on the Ghost, with Chopper.”

“Hmm,” Ahsoka mumbled thoughtfully, stroking her chin in contemplation. “That’s not the best news. Keep him away from her at all times, Hera. Zeb, did you bring what I asked?”

“I did, and it makes a lot more sense, now,” he grumbled, holding up a pair of bulky, non-standard binders. These were powered, designed to deliver disruptive electric shocks at random to the individual wearing them. On most civilized worlds they were banned, considered a torture device. “These came from one of Palpatine’s old Jedi holding pens. Took me a while to scrounge them up, it did.”

“Now you know why,” Ahsoka said. “Those are designed to disrupt one’s ability to use the Force. Elsbeth won’t be able to tap into her powers while she’s wearing them. It’s imperative that they stay on her, pretty much for as long as anyone intends to hold her captive.”

“I’ll see that they do, then,” Zeb assured her.

“Governor Wing can take you to where she’s being held now. She’s in a force cage, Zeb, so make sure you get the binders on her before you switch it off. I want to have a word with Hera.”

The Lasat chuckled. “No worries—I can handle it.”

“This way,” Wing said, bowing slightly again and gesturing with a knife-hand. He led Zeb away, through the open gate into the governor’s residence. It was a short walk to the main structure, through a pleasantly manicured garden dominated by a large freshwater pond.

Hera looked curiously at Ahsoka. “What led you here to begin with?” she asked.

“Grand Admiral Thrawn,” Ahsoka replied slowly, with gravitas. Hera’s eyes widened, and the gray-clad Togruta nodded. “You’re well established in the Republic military, general,” she added. “Haven’t you been hearing the rumors?”


“Well, they’re out there,” Ahsoka assured her. “Some whispers in the Outer Rim, and various rumblings throughout the Imperial Remnant, especially given Moff Gideon’s recent activities. If Thrawn were to show up right now, Gideon would certainly fight him for the leadership. One of Thrawn’s old captains has been amassing a lot of leftover naval resources based on the expectation—the promise, even—that Thrawn’s return is somehow imminent.”

“His return from where?” Hera asked intently.

Ahsoka folded her arms and nodded. “After almost a decade, that is the ten-million credit question, isn’t it?”

“So what does Morgan Elsbeth have to do with it?”

“According to her, she’s been researching how to get to him. It seems he’s been trapped in the Unknown Regions these past years.”

“Trapped? How? And what about Ezra?”

“I’m not entirely sure, yet,” Ahsoka replied thoughtfully. “Ezra Bridger’s fate is the other big mystery to be solved. When Ezra communed with the Purrgil space-whales and they jumped the Chimaera out with Thrawn and Ezra aboard, it essentially isolated Ezra with a star destroyer full of Imperials. Wherever they ended up, it’s quite possible Ezra was killed shortly afterward. Judging by these rumors, Thrawn at least is still alive. That doesn’t bode well for Ezra, especially not if they were trapped together, whatever that part of it means.”

“How could she even know any of this? Through the Force?” Hera asked.

“No,” Ahsoka replied. “Apparently the Imperial captain working on Thrawn’s behalf has managed to establish limited communications with him, or vice versa, but for some strange reason they are unable to establish a connection trace to pinpoint Thrawn’s exact whereabouts. Whatever is preventing that may have to do with how he is trapped. Elsbeth thought she had figured out how to track him: the key is in the migration patterns of those space whales that Ezra called to Lothal—the Purrgil. She has spent years researching the problem. According to her, there are various map locations around the galaxy that will show the migration patterns in detail, if one has the proper key.”

“Okay, hold up a minute. Are we supposed to believe that Elsbeth just willingly gave all this up?”

Tano’s expression hardened; it wasn’t a pleasant thing to see. “Not at all.”

“Not at all . . . what?” Hera prompted.

Ahsoka shifted uncomfortably. “I took it straight out of her mind, against her will. That was quite a fight as well, I must admit.”

Hera suppressed a shudder. “I wasn’t aware you could do something like that,” she said uncertainly. “It that the…uh… Jedi thing to do?”

“I’ve said it many times, Hera: I’m not a Jedi. And this is important.”

Hera decided to shelve the ethics discussion for now. “Okay, so we need this map key. Where can we find it?” she asked.

“Lothal, of all places,” Ahsoka answered. “In the old Jedi Temple that Kanan and Ezra found.”

“But that temple was destroyed,” Hera said with a crestfallen look.

Ahsoka smiled. “An ancient artifact like that is harder to destroy than people think. It’s not just a physical structure, but a vergence in the Force. I’m sure witnesses thought it was destroyed, but I suspect the Force is the keeper of a deeper truth.”

“Hmm,” Hera grunted. “Even if the temple is still somehow there, you’re going to have a problem. Kanan told me that it took two Jedi to get into that temple: a master, and an apprentice. How was Elsbeth going to do it?”

“That was a problem she was trying to solve when I interrupted her,” Ahsoka smiled. “It may ultimately solve the Thrawn problem for us. If nobody can get the key, nobody can use it to track Thrawn’s whereabouts, and he stays trapped wherever he is.”

“I don’t know,” Hera said uncertainly. “Is that a risk you want to take?”

“I don’t intend to, Hera,” Ahsoka replied. “I’m going to get that key, and at least try to find out what actually happened. If nothing else, I’ll have the key and it will be safe from the Imperial Remnant.”

“You have the same problem that Elsbeth had, though. You said it yourself: you aren’t a Jedi. And it takes two Jedi to open the temple, right?”

Ahsoka looked for a moment like she’d bitten into something sour. “Well, we’ll see. I’m Jedi trained, and it just so happens that I do have an apprentice. Sort of. Or at least, I used to.”

“Do you know where to find Sabine?” Hera asked.

Ahsoka nodded. “She’s on Lothal, Hera. And she wants to find Ezra more than any of us.”
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Chapter 2

A squadron of Imperial starships lay over Ord Trasi, well within space controlled by the Imperial Remnant. A trio of star destroyers formed the centerpiece of the group, englobed by several smaller capital ships to include an interdictor cruiser, half a dozen Victory class star destroyers, and a dozen Arquitens class light cruisers. These were augmented by numerous support and supply ships, with the Gozanti class and its variants proving the most numerous. It was a substantial force, sufficient for the subjugation of worlds, or to begin the restoration of the Galactic Empire. Yet, while the leadership aboard these ships was competent, there was no single officer among them with the strategic acumen to achieve the greater goal they sought. They were wise enough to realize this, which was a point in their favor.

That problem might soon have a solution, they hoped.

A patrol of four TIE Fighters was ordered to alter course upon the detection of two incoming vessels. The larger was an armed lighter of Corellian design. It was the sort of ship a planetary police force might employ, or a team of successful mercenaries or bounty hunters. This vessel was painted a dull, off-white color, with blue and grey highlights. Her drive tubes glowed blue-white as she closed on the lead star destroyer in the small fleet, approaching at the invitation of the second ship, which was leading her in.

The second ship was Imperial, but of a type rarely seen. A TIE Advanced v1, of the class used almost exclusively by the former Emperor’s Jedi hunters: the Inquisitors. Very few of that breed had survived the war, and most who remained had struck out as warlords themselves, hoping to achieve their own mad dreams of becoming the next emperor in the style of Palpatine before them. Moff Gideon, the chief rival of those assembled here, was such a one.

The two ships decelerated as they slid underneath ISD Harbinger, the flagship, and rose smoothly into her landing bay. The ships glided easily through the magnetic field on their repulsorlifts and set down, the whine of their drive systems fading away almost immediately. A platoon of white-armored Imperial stormtroopers stood nearby, weapons held precisely at port-arms across their chests. Whether they were present as guards or as an honor guard was unclear, and perhaps that was the way it was intended. A gray-clad naval officer stood nearby as a dark, masked figure emerged from the TIE Advanced and moved to stand by him.

A boarding ramp dropped from the lighter, from which emerged two figures. Both were Human, identically clad in dark robes with hoods disguising their features. One was a large man, solidly muscled, dressed in dark armor under his robes. The other was a female, slim but obviously fit, dressed in a gray version of the armor worn by the man, but sized appropriately for her smaller frame. She showed a shock of white-blond hair from underneath her dark hood, with a single, twisted braid of hair on her right side. Lightsabers hung from both their belts—a sight rare enough in the galaxy these days to be particularly notable.

The pair stopped in front of the Imperial lieutenant and the Inquisitor who had brought them here. The latter was a cloaked, enigmatic figure named Marrock. His only adornment was the signature, disk-like hilt of the lightsaber staff worn on his utility belt. “Welcome aboard the Harbinger,” the lieutenant said with a stiff bow. “Captain Pellaeon will see you immediately.”

“Very well,” the man said in a deep, powerful voice.

* * *

Gilead Pellaeon, survivor of the Battle of Endor and commanding officer of ISD Harbinger, stood up from behind his desk and moved around it to stand face to face with his visitors. He introduced himself, finding the upright bearing and lack of trepidation in the two visitors somewhat unusual. Most people, face to face with an Imperial captain deep within the confines of a star destroyer, felt at least a little nervous or unsure. Not these two, at least going by appearances.

“I am Lord Baylan Skoll,” the man said by way of introduction. He made a tiny gesture to the figure on his right. “This is my apprentice, Shin Hati,” he added. Both removed their hoods in unison. Skoll was older, just past middle age, with silver-gray hair and a well-groomed mustache and beard. Hati wasn’t much more than a youth, a fit young woman with thinly attractive features and wild, pale blue eyes that reminded Pellaeon of an untamed colt. He couldn’t tell if her expression was meant to be cold, or merely impassive.

“Thank you for coming,” Pellaeon said. “Lord Marrock informed me that you were difficult to find.”

Skoll smiled humorlessly. “Indeed. Until recently, any affiliation with the Jedi order, even a prior one, carried an automatic Imperial death mark. It seems that your defeat at the hands of the Rebel Alliance has forced you into a more conciliatory position on that point.”

Pellaeon offered a thin, tight-lipped smile. “One must adapt to the times, of course,” he allowed. “As it happens, my commander has need for Jedi. Or more to the point, a pair of Force adepts in an established student-teacher relationship. Only a handful of Jedi survived the Emperor’s purge, and those who remain now are older, like yourself, and have assumed new identities and new lives. It may surprise you to hear, Lord Skoll, but you and your apprentice represent the only such pairing that we’ve been able to find, and we’ve spent most of the last five years searching.”

“Lord Marrock and his fellow Inquisitors did their job well, these past years,” Skoll complimented, with a slight, sidewise nod in Marrock’s direction. The latter stood impassive, silent, and unmoving. “Of course,” Skoll went on, “ultimately they failed in their task. A few Jedi remain, scattered throughout known space. Luke Skywalker is the name that most readily comes to mind—I knew his father, back during the Clone Wars. I’ve heard he intends to restore the Jedi Order in some form, but of course, you will not find him a potential ally.”

“No, I expect not,” Pellaeon agreed sourly. “So tell me, my lord, do you still consider yourself a Jedi?”

“I do not,” Skoll replied. “I’ve long parted from the Jedi Way. These past years I’ve worked as a mercenary for hire, and sometimes as a bounty hunter. What is it you want of me?”

“One of my allies, an Imperial governor, has recently been captured by New Republic agents on Corvus. She was the one who needed you and your abilities, and still does. Her name is Morgan Elsbeth, and at this moment she is being transferred to a New Republic prison ship for transfer to the core, probably Coruscant. So now there are two jobs for you to perform if you are willing. The first is to free her from captivity. The second will be assigned by Lady Elsbeth herself, once the first task is complete. You will be well compensated, it goes without saying, but the hope of my commander is that you will remain with us. He has a grand strategy to restore the Empire, and you potentially hold positions of prominence in that effort.”

“Who is this commander, and why am I speaking with you, rather than him?”

“Grand Admiral Thrawn is the one of whom I speak,” Pellaeon said. “Are you familiar with the name?”

“I am not. But I have heard that there are no more grand admirals—that they’ve all been killed or defeated. So where is this Thrawn?”

“Currently, he is trapped in the Unknown Regions. The mission Lady Elsbeth has for you will result in his return to Imperial space. Once he arrives, he will take command of Imperial forces everywhere and the war begins anew.”

Skoll chuckled darkly. “Moff Gideon will have something to say about that,” he suggested. “So will Lord Jerec, who my sources tell me is still alive, and chasing some mad dream of power of his own. In fact, Jerec himself has an apprentice, so I understand—a woman named Sariss. Would they not have satisfied your requirements?”

Pellaeon had that sour look, again. “You said it yourself: Jerec pursues his own agenda. At present, he commands limited forces and is uninterested in a military campaign against the New Republic. That may change in the future once he achieves his current aims, but what those are remain unclear to us at this time. As for Gideon, Admiral Thrawn will deal with him when the time comes. He will be brought back into the Imperial fold, or he will be destroyed. Although he has proven tenacious and skilled so far, he is no match for any grand admiral, much less Thrawn. He also has no Jedi working with him, whereas we have Inquisitor Marrock, and hope to have you and Lady Hati as well, should you decide it is in your best interest to join us.”

Skoll nodded thoughtfully. He’d expanded his consciousness through this entire interview, using a talent which the Force had granted him since his time as a padawan learner in the Jedi Temple. Skoll had a superior ability to read a person’s intent, and even measure their overall character to a large degree. The type of person they were tended to stand out to him, like a coloration in their aura as he saw it through the Force. He could read situations the same way, by taking the measure of the intent of those around him. It was like Master Windu’s old ability to see what he called shatterpoints, but it manifested differently, and perhaps less directly. This gave him an almost unique form of prescience—that prescience had saved him when the clone armies of the Old Republic had betrayed and massacred their Jedi leadership. Marrock was a black void to him—there was little he could read there, but Captain Pellaeon stood out to him as forthcoming and relatively honest, at least as much as one could expect from an Imperial naval officer. There was a definite sense of honor about him, and Skoll could sense that whatever he was proposing would not result in any betrayal or double-cross at the end—at least not on Pellaeon’s part.

So be it.

“Very well,” Skoll said weightily. “I accept your offer, on the condition that the terms of payment are mutually agreeable. I will also need some of your assets to facilitate the jailbreak of Lady Elsbeth. Once she can explain her needs and the mission moving forward, I will decide on that portion of the arrangement.”

Pellaeon’s smile was genuine this time, warm rather than forced. “Excellent. Excellent!” he said with real eagerness, letting his reserve slip a little. “I’ll see to it that you have whatever you need. As for your payment, rest assured, it will be all you require and more. But we must move quickly—if we allow the New Republic to move Lady Elsbeth into the core sectors, getting her out becomes very problematic.”

“Then let us move quickly, then,” Skoll replied with the weighty air of the former Jedi general that he was.
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Chapter 3

Sabine Wren was contemplating whether she needed to run into Capital City for supplies, or whether she’d rather spend the day at the Pelamir Gorge, checking on the growth of the new spine tree forest. It was a replacement for the one cut down and destroyed by the Imperials during their occupation of Lothal, planted about seven years ago. The replanting had been part of a commemoration ceremony celebrating the lives of those lost fighting the Empire, and partly just to restore a native portion of Lothal’s damaged ecosystem. All in all, things could have been far worse—they’d gotten the Empire out of here just in the nick of time, as it pertained to the planet’s climate and health. The damage done had not been too extensive, and was reversible with time and stewardship.

Sabine sighed, realizing that neither option really appealed to her. She reached over and shook a plastic container experimentally, before pouring some kibble into the bowl of her one boon companion, a stray Loth cat that had adopted her, for lack of a better description. Sabine certainly hadn’t gone out of her way to take on any pets, but the Loth cat moved in with her of its own accord. They were living in Ezra’s old digs in the abandoned comm tower, and Sabine had finally named her Murley in lieu of just calling her ‘Loth cat’ or ‘Cat.’ Murley appeared as if summoned from the netherworld, drawn by the tell-tale sound of food hitting her bowl. Her tail swished appreciatively, and she purred, rubbing once in thanks against Sabine before settling in and setting to. Sabine watched her without much feeling, before sighing again. She gave Murley a gentle, melancholy scratch, and although the Loth cat lifted her spirits some, they didn’t rise far when they were starting from the proverbial cellar.

Unbidden, Sabine impulsively dug into an open crate underneath the table, rummaging for a moment before pulling a holographic solido and setting it on the table. She triggered it on, and a hologram of Ezra Bridger sprang into existence, smiling up at her in that mischievous way he’d always had about him, even when he was trying to be serious.

Hey Sabine, Ezra’s image greeted her, waving once with one hand. Sorry for disappearing on you. I made this recording because, more than the others, I need you to understand. As a Jedi, sometimes you have to make the decision no one else can. So, that’s what I did to defeat Thrawn. We’ve been through a lot… we grew up together, in this Rebellion. We’re not really family, but you’re like a sister to me. I know your fight isn’t over, and I won’t be there to help you, but I’m counting on you to see this through. May the Force be with you.

When the message ended, the holo-image didn’t fade out, just settled into a still of Ezra Bridger, smiling at her. Sabine stared at it for several long moments, her mind wandering, and then she looked up and away with an angry toss of her head as she bit back bitter tears.

At first, Ezra’s disappearance . . . no, she caught herself, call it what it is: his sacrifice . . . Ezra’s sacrifice had been easier to accept. There was the exhilaration of victory, the expulsion of the Empire from Lothal, and the slow realization over time that the Empire wasn’t coming back. Then things had started to slow down, settle down, and become… complicated. Hera and Zeb had left, still embroiled with the Rebellion, and after Scariff and the Battle of Yavin, General Syndulla had been all in, never looking back. Actually, that’s not true, Sabine corrected herself. Hera was all in from the very beginning, long before any of us. Ahsoka Tano, like Kanan before her, had recognized Sabine as a potential Jedi, although perhaps not the strongest candidate ever to begin training. Kanan had told her she was blocked, that maybe it had to do with her outlook on life, shaped by her Mandalorian values and combat training. He’d begun training her to safely wield the legendary darksaber, which had fallen into her possession by chance, but all that was cut short. Kanan was killed, and even before that she’d passed the darksaber to Bo-Katan Kryse to aid in her attempt at rallying the Mandalorian people. Those people—her people—were dead now, massacred by the Empire toward the end of the war, and her home planet was glassed—poisoned and lifeless for centuries to come. The Mandalorians were no more, except for isolated knots of nomadic survivors eking out a pathetic, meager existence on the fringes of the galaxy. Clan Wren was even less than that, now down to a single surviving member.

And that’s all she was doing on Lothal: surviving.

She could have gone with Hera and Zeb, and would have, except for Ahsoka Tano. The latter had seen something in her, or so she thought, and asked Sabine to stay with her for a time and train as a Jedi. Sabine had agreed, as much to honor the memory of Ezra Bridger and Kanan Jarrus than for any other reason. Ahsoka had taken her to Shili, the world of Ahsoka’s birth although she had no memory of it. They took up residence in a tiny mountain village in the middle of a large pine forest, spending most of the next few years living as virtual hermits within the depths of that forest. They ate Kybuck that they hunted themselves, supplemented with nuts, berries, and native root vegetables. They drank and bathed in cold, native mountain streams and brooks, and defended themselves against native predators as needed. Ahsoka immersed them in a rich, natural, life-filled environment that shone with the Force, and Sabine had begun her training in earnest.

Her tenure on Shili was where she met Huyang for the first time. He was an antique droid, a servant of the Jedi Order from time immemorial. He was so old that nobody, including himself, could speak with certainty as to his origins. He was a professor of sorts, a teacher of younglings, and a specialist in the engineering and construction of Jedi lightsabers. He had escaped Palpatine’s Jedi purge, perhaps finding it easier than most given his nature as a droid rather than an organic Jedi. He re-connected with Ahsoka Tano at some point during the intervening years and accompanied them to Shili where he aided in Sabine’s training. He helped her modify the lightsaber gifted to her by Ezra Bridger, making it her own. He was also helpful as a trainer and basic form instructor, but Ahsoka conducted most of Sabine’s training personally. While master and apprentice wandered the forest for weeks and months on end, training, meditating, and living off the land, Huyang would remain with Ahsoka’s hidden shuttle, maintaining the ship’s camouflage and seeing to its upkeep.

It was a difficult apprentice-ship. Ahsoka Tano, it turned out, had issues of her own to wrestle with—issues from her past which were unresolved, and about which she refused to confide in Sabine. Sabine was an adult by this time, her brain hard-wired by two decades’ worth of training and beliefs, and a philosophical outlook far from the Jedi Way. The mental block that Kanan Jarrus sensed in Sabine was difficult to overcome—there was much to unlearn that had already been learned. It took three years of intense study, physical and mental training, and meditation before Sabine felt the first vestiges of the Force as something tangible that could be called upon for knowledge and defense. The relationship between Ahsoka and Sabine was also difficult, even stormy at times. Both were strong-willed, and both in deep states of grief although they failed to recognize it within themselves.

Then, just when Sabine was starting to show real success in her journey to feel and wield the Force, word had come to them of the purge of Mandalore. A trip to the devastated star system confirmed their worst fears: Sabine’s family was lost along with the rest. This put her in a dark place, one of terrible grief, rage, and a burning hatred for the Imperials that clouded her mind and opened her to the dark side of the Force. Her relationship with Ahsoka descended into a state of mutual frustration, and her training reached an impasse.

So Ahsoka had walked away, abruptly severing the relationship, declaring that Sabine had to find a new path. It was painful for both of them, and Sabine was never convinced by the reasons that Ahsoka gave her, leaving her feeling embittered and abandoned. Ahsoka had resumed her solitary, wandering lifestyle, and Sabine Wren, having nowhere else she could think of to go, had returned to Lothal: the one place where she had known a sense of love and family, if only for a few short years. Ezra’s old haunt was still there, several kilometers outside Capital City, and Sabine had taken up residence in his absence. She felt like a squatter, empty inside, waiting for the return of someone she knew was never coming back.

Sabine decided on a third plan for her day: art. She’d begin work on a new piece, although a part of her dreaded that as well. She didn’t want to face what it would tell her about herself—her mood tended to come out in her art, and she didn’t like where it was pointing, lately. Still, she had to do something other than sit and cry over Ezra’s holo, or her dead family, or her wretched life. She was galvanizing herself to action when Murley suddenly sat up from where she was curled against Sabine’s leg, her tufted ears pointing straight up. She abruptly jumped up and sauntered cautiously toward the open door, clearly hearing something outside of Sabine’s auditory range.

Curious, Sabine followed her out onto the high tower balcony, leaning against the railing in the warm sunlight and closing her eyes as the morning breeze blew through her long, multi-colored hair. After a minute she could feel a vibration in the air and the structure of the old tower, soon followed by the distinct whine of a starship’s drive. This one sounded familiar, and she looked up as the red-and-white shape of a Jedi T-6 shuttle passed almost directly overhead, flanked by two escorting E-Wing fighters from Lothal’s defensive constabulary. The shuttle was still in cruise configuration, its broad wing rotated to the vertical position as it leisurely cruised Lothal’s cerulean sky towards the white, regular skyline of Capital City.

Behind her, inside the tower, her communications panel signaled an incoming call.

Sabine barely heard it; her mind was in turmoil, as a myriad of emotions wrestled one another. She knew of only one T-6 still flying, and it was her old master’s. The rarity of that design coupled with the arrival of one here narrowed the possibilities below the margins of simple coincidence. There was little doubt: Ahsoka Tano had returned, and Sabine guessed that she herself was probably the reason, for better or worse.

The communications panel signaled a second time, and Murley butted urgently against Sabine’s ankle, giving her an inquisitive mewl. Are you going to address that annoying noise for me, human?

Sabine cocked an eyebrow at the Loth cat before stepping back inside and answering the call. She was met with the white-bearded visage of Ryder Azadi, the governor of Lothal and about the closest thing she had to a friend, these days. He was one of the few people who knew where Sabine lived, and one of very few with access to her comm-code.

“I just saw her fly over, Ryder,” she said without preamble.

“Good,” he replied. “It saves me the trouble of explaining why I’m calling. She’s already contacted me and asked me to relay her request for you to meet as soon as possible. I think you’re going to want to hear what she has to say.”

“What did she tell you?” Sabine asked in a flat, uninterested tone.

“That she may have a line on where Ezra Bridger ended up after the battle with Thrawn.”

Sabine felt a psychic jolt run through her body, and something like a spark of fire ignited in the depths of her soul, like the power cell in a dead speeder being jump-started. The feeling was strange, and long forgotten—something she had given up on completely. It took her a moment to realize what it was.


“I’m coming,” she said, and severed the communications link.

* * *

Ahsoka’s shuttle was docked at the government complex, not far from where officials made public appearances and where the mural of Lothal’s liberators, painted by Sabine almost a decade before, graced the central terrace. Sabine stood there now, her body bladed almost defensively, arms crossed, and her hip defiantly cocked as she glared across the intervening space at Ahsoka Tano. The latter stood calmly, facing her with arms also folded, with warm eyes but a face almost devoid of expression.

“It’s been a while,” Sabine said, her voice almost a challenge.

“Things have changed,” Ahsoka replied, trying to calm her own emotions as well as her voice.

“Ryder Azadi told me why you’re here. Do you know where Ezra is? Is he alive?

“If we work together, we may be able to find out where he and Thrawn were taken by the Purrgil. If we can solve that, then maybe we can find the answer to your second question. Do you think we can do it?” Ashoka added, her voice taking on the old tone of the master addressing the student. “Can we work together?”

“You were the one who walked away, not me,” Sabine shot back.

“That’s true,” Ahsoka agreed. “Now I’m back, and to find Thrawn, and hopefully Ezra, I’m going to need your help. I can’t do it alone.”

“Which one are you looking for? Thrawn, or Ezra?”

“I’m looking for both, Sabine,” Ahsoka replied, her tone slightly pleading. “Things are happening, and another war may be brewing if they go badly. Not that the war has truly ended, but we’re talking about its resumption on a scale not seen since Endor. Would you like to come aboard the ship? We should sit down, and I can explain what I’ve recently learned.”

Sabine stared at her for a long moment, her eyes unreadable. Then she uncrossed her arms and shrugged. “I don’t see why not. It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”

The interior of the T-6 was just as Sabine remembered; even the smell was familiar. She almost instinctively moved to her old bunk, which with typical Jedi frugality was little more than a sleeping alcove that could be sealed off with an opaque transparisteel pane. Very monkish, and well in line with the way the Jedi Order had treated itself in its last few centuries before Palpatine and the Empire. She had doodled in that alcove, mostly small artistic renditions of Loth cats or Kybuck from Shili. They were still there—Ahsoka hadn’t wiped them clean. She felt another sensation tugging at her: the urge to smile. She didn’t give in to it, not yet.

When she turned around, she found herself facing another familiar figure: Huyang, looking at her through glowing yellow photoreceptors. “Well, look what the Loth cat dragged in,” he said in his distinctive mechanical voice.

“Hello, Huyang. Still in one piece?”

“Yes, and seventy-five percent original parts!” he joked. “Welcome back, padawan.”

“I’m not a padawan anymore,” she retorted sharply, although it was never easy to be cross with Huyang. The droid had a dry wit about him, sometimes a feigned world-weariness, but his voice was so peaceful and agreeable that he amounted to a soothing presence under any circumstance.

“But you may be again,” he replied sagely, foreshadowing what this was about. Curious, Sabine thought.

“Please, sit down,” Ahsoka added, gesturing to the table. Sabine did so while Ahsoka moved over to a side panel and retrieved a container of tea, and two plastic cups. She sat down opposite Sabine and poured for both of them, while Huyang cited work as an excuse to leave them alone to talk. Sabine took the cup she offered and set it aside for the moment. Ahsoka regarded her calmly but steadily, trying to read her mood.

“So,” Sabine said somewhat uncomfortably, “where do you call home these days?” Ahsoka looked surprised at the question and gestured slightly around her with her cup. “Really? After all this time?” Sabine went on. “Don’t you ever get tired of just wandering around?”

“I go where I’m needed,” Ahsoka replied guardedly.

Sabine sat back, crossing her arms again. “Not always.”

“You never make things easy, do you?”

“Why should I? You never made things easy for me . . . master.”

“There’s nothing easy about becoming a Jedi.”

“Then I should have made a good one,” Sabine countered.

Ahsoka smiled slightly, a hint of fondness creeping into her tone. “Yes, you should.”

Sabine blew out the tense breath she’d been holding. “So, what’s this really about? Why do you need my help to find Thrawn, and . . . Ezra?”

Ahsoka spent a few minutes telling Sabine what she knew. She related the rumors she had heard about Thrawn’s return, the involvement of Morgan Elsbeth, and what she’d learned about the map key, its alleged location in the Jedi temple on Lothal, and the challenges they would face in finding it. Most of that challenge now balanced on Sabine’s ability to use the Force, and the willingness of the Force itself, or the temple (Ahsoka wasn’t sure which), to accept them as master and padawan for purposes of gaining access.

“That temple is gone. Destroyed,” Sabine said, reiterating what Hera had said on Corvus.

“Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t,” Ahsoka replied. “If it’s truly gone, then there is nothing we can do and we’re right back where we started—with nothing. If it is there, even part of it in some form or another, there’s a chance. There’s no chance if we do nothing. Don’t you want to try?”

Sabine gave her former master a sarcastic look. “There is no try. Remember?”

“Then let’s do,” Ahsoka urged her with some genuine enthusiasm. “Have you kept up with your training?” she asked, noting that Sabine wasn’t wearing her lightsaber, or even her blasters, for that matter. Weapons were part of her religion, at least her original one. That was a favorite saying of the Mandalorians, anyway. She wasn’t wearing her armor, either; just a nerf-hide jacket over russet colored swoop leathers, painted up the way Sabine tagged everything. Ahsoka was suddenly struck by the realization that this was the first time she had ever seen Sabine without some type of weapon at hand. Even when she bathed, there was usually a blaster or vibroblade within easy reach. Seeing her this way said more to Ahsoka about her mental rut than anything else could have.

“In a word, no,” Sabine replied flatly.

“Can you feel the Force?” Ahsoka asked.

“Honestly, I haven’t made the effort in years.”

“Okay,” Ahsoka replied evenly, fighting to keep her own temper in check. Why does she have to be so hostile? She thought to herself. Deep down she knew the answer, even if she didn’t want to face it. Sabine was right—she was the one who’d given up, who’d walked away. And both knew that the only reason she was here now was because she needed Sabine’s help to obtain the map key. The young Mandalorian probably wondered what would happen when they had it. Would Ahsoka just walk away again? She realized that she hadn’t even addressed that issue with herself. Did this mission represent a permanent resumption of Sabine’s training on the Jedi path, or a temporary thing to be discarded when they had what they needed? One thing hadn’t changed in the past few years: her own worries and misgivings about her own training, life, and path were still very much a part of her. They had affected Sabine’s training before, and likely they would again. So what was the answer, here?

She honestly wasn’t sure.

What she did know was that to obtain the key, Sabine would have to become her apprentice again. And the first rule of teaching anything was to ‘start where your student was at.’ Ergo, she needed to know where Sabine stood with her ability to tap into the Force. She reached out with her mind, levitating Sabine’s cup off the table and drawing it to her, where she took it in hand and set it back down. She cocked an eyebrow at Sabine, the challenge clear.

Sabine’s eyes narrowed and she gave Ahsoka a dry look, before setting her gaze on the cup. She stared at it intently for several long moments, and it was clear to Ahsoka that she was concentrating hard. Ahsoka felt no stirring in the Force coming from Sabine, and the cup didn’t move. Sabine shifted slightly in her seat, eyes narrowing further in concentration, until it looked like she might bore a hole in the cup just with her gaze. Still nothing. Finally, she let out her breath and sat up with a small shrug.

Her self-evaluation was flip and sarcastic. “You win this round!” she sang to the unmoving cup. Her frustration and embarrassment were plain to see, and unfortunately very familiar.

“It’s alright,” Ahsoka assured her. “We have all the time we need, Sabine. Morgan Elsbeth is in custody, and there is nobody else who can open the temple. Let’s pick up your training and see where it leads. A lot of time has passed, giving pain and anger time to fade. The Force is with you, as it is with all living things. It always has been, and always will be. You reached the point where you could feel it and make it your ally. You can do it again, and I suspect that it won’t take long for you to rebound to where you were, if we make a genuine effort.”

Sabine nodded, but she looked unsure. Unconvinced. Uncommitted.

Ahsoka closed her eyes and lifted her chin slightly, taking a calming, peaceful breath and extending her senses. “The Force is strong on Lothal,” she added, feeling the eddies and currents of it around her. It enveloped her senses like warm light, passing around and through her and everything around her. She felt herself begin to calm—it had been an emotional day for everyone. “This is a good place to train the body and heal the soul.”

“Ezra’s place,” Sabine said in a small voice, anger and tension giving way to a soul-crushing, long-held grief. I can’t go on like this forever, she told herself. I need to find him or let him go. And I won’t ever let go until I know he can’t be found, or that he’s gone. So there’s really only one thing to do, isn’t there?

Ahsoka reached across the table and took Sabine’s hand—something she rarely did with anyone. “I can feel your sense of loss,” she said gently. “I know it well, trust me. Do you know what my master once told me?” she asked. It was something of a rhetorical question, as Ahsoka rarely if ever spoke of her own master or years of training. Sabine had never understood why, since the master referencing her own experiences seemed like a natural road for imparting knowledge to the student. Nevertheless, it had not been Ahsoka’s way.

Today merited an exception, apparently. “He once told me that grief is love that has nowhere to go,” she explained. “But it does, Sabine, even if most are blind to it. Grief is a consequence of attachment, and attachment is a trap of the ego. We are all one with the Force, Sabine. Your blood family has passed from mortal life, and maybe Ezra as well, but they, and us, are all one with the Force, now and always. Look to the Force, and you’ll always find them there.” Ahsoka’s voice had become soothing as she spoke, like a mother to her child, almost hypnotic. “Speak to the living Force, and hear it answer. Close your eyes,” she said, and Sabine did. “Take a deep breath and let yourself go . . . that’s it . . . floating free.”

“Floating free,” Sabine whispered, her breathing slowing and deepening. She felt a tightness in her chest beginning to let go, as if someone was loosening a constricting band around her. It felt good.

“There is no death, there is only the Force,” Ahsoka breathed. Sabine repeated the mantra from the Jedi Code, her voice a dry whisper.

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.” Ahsoka continued, her voice a lulling drone as she quoted the Journal of the Whills.

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” Sabine repeated. Ahsoka prompted her on, and soon the two were speaking in one voice, almost as if in prayer.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

Master and Padawan, again.
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Chapter 4

“Captain, the master at arms reports all prisoners secure, prison deck sealed. All other decks report readiness for getting underway.”

“Very well,” replied Captain Hayle, commander of the New Republic prison transport Masayos. “Helmsman, clear all dock moorings and engage sublight engines. Proceed at cruise velocity for the hyperspace entry point. Navigator, report completion of jump calculations. Comm-scan, what is the latest position on the Ghost?”

“She docked with the station three minutes ago, captain,” that watch stander reported. “General Syndulla sent her compliments along with her thanks for a smooth transfer. I answered in kind on your behalf—I hope that’s okay, sir, you were busy.”

“Quite all right, and well done,” Hayle replied, leaning back in his comfortable chair, and watching the starfield in contentment. Masayos might not be a Calamari cruiser, but she was a relatively stress-free command by comparison: nothing but blue-milk shuttle runs moving convicts between the rim and the core worlds. Masayos was a max-security vessel, rating a full organic crew in addition to droid sentries and automated weapons stations on the prison decks. Their prisoner load headed coreward was relatively light, this run. Three maximum security fugitives, and a mere two dozen ‘common’ criminals in transit for trial or transfer to penal colonies.

Captain Hayle also felt good about the added security for this run, in the form of the enormous Lasat just entering the bridge. Ranger Orrelios was a welcome addition at any time, a hero of the Rebellion and a sharp-witted conversationalist to boot, although his natural odor took a little getting used to. The ranger was currently wearing a large sidearm and had an AB-75 Bo-Rifle strapped across his back. The latter was unfamiliar to Hayle, but the weapon looked quite formidable, nevertheless.

The ranger’s keen green eyes swept the bridge as he entered, taking in everything at a glance and noting nothing out of the ordinary. He wore a tired but easy grin as he approached the captain’s chair. “Well, our precious cargo is well secured, captain. The sooner we deliver her to Coruscant, the better I’ll feel about it.”

“You and I both,” Captain Hayle agreed. “The quartermaster will get you set up with quarters and show you where the mess deck is,” he added.

“I can always use a good feed, that’s for sure,” Zeb said agreeably, rubbing his stomach.

“Captain,” comm-scan called, “new contact. We’ve got a lighter emerging from hyperspace, coming in at mark six-zero.”


“She reads as the Aldo Nova, registered to guild-licensed bounty hunter Baylan Skoll. He’s requesting permission to board us for bounty collection and prisoner transfer.”

“He’s a bit late,” Hayle groused. “Cutoff for this run was four hours ago. Tell him he missed the boat—he’s going to have to wait on the next prison ship to call here or use a different transfer point.”

“Aye aye, sir. Relaying.”

“Are we in that big a hurry?” Zeb asked.

“Not really, but it’s the principle of it, you see,” Hayle explained. “Bounty hunters think the entire galaxy revolves around their schedule and needs. If we stop now, we’ll have to unseal the prison deck for the transfer and then go through the sealing protocols again, and in the meantime Mister Skoll over there will be arguing with me over every credit he feels he’s due, and whether or not we should be paying his overhead as well, so on and so forth. And while we’re dealing with him, the next late bounty hunter will show up with more riff-raff, rinse and repeat. I’ve seen it before.”

Zeb chuckled darkly. “That’s very bureaucratic thinking, captain. Pretty Imperial if you ask me. It’s your ship, though,” he added quickly as Hayle started to bristle. He glanced around, noting some of the pointed looks from the bridge crew being directed at him, and rubbed his head self-consciously. “I’m just sayin’, that’s all,” he mumbled somewhat lamely.

“Captain,” comm-scan interrupted again. “I’m sorry sir, but Captain Skoll is asking to speak with you directly.”

Hayle got out of his chair and stood on the holo-transmitter directly in front of it. A receiving holopad was located just forward of that, between his chair and the helm. “Direct him here,” he ordered. Comm-scan acknowledged, and the receiving holopad flickered, materializing the life-size hologram of Baylan Skoll, dressed in dark armor and wearing a holstered blaster. “This is Captain Hayle of the Masayos.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Skoll asked indignantly. His voice was strong and deep enough to carry some gravitas.

“I’m sorry captain, but I feel like my last communication was clear. We operate on a schedule, and if you miss that schedule, you make alternate arrangements.”

“You bureaucrats are all the same,” Skoll scoffed derisively. “No understanding or appreciation for the expenses of small businessmen. A small delay on your part costs you nothing but a little time. A re-route to another system for me is a major expense in fuel and consumables—resources I could be using catching your criminal fugitives!”

“Then be on time, next time,” Hayle snapped.

Skoll smiled darkly. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I hear that half of you are former Imperials as it is,” he sneered. “You certainly behave like it.”

Hayle shot a quick scowl at Ranger Orrelios, who cringed and shrugged apologetically. The sting of it was that Skoll wasn’t wrong. A large portion of the middle and lower New Republic bureaucracy was necessarily staffed by former Imperial ‘civil servants.’ Administration of large cities and planets would have been impossible, otherwise. Just like the Imperial bureaucracy rose out of a restructured Old Republic, the cycle was being repeated with the New Republic. True as it was, nobody working in government liked to be reminded about it. “Insults will get you nowhere,” Hayle growled.

“Find out who his prisoners are,” Zeb suggested, almost hesitant to speak up.

Hayle flushed angrily but nodded curtly to the ranger. Here, perhaps, was a face-saving way out. “See here, Skoll,” he went on, discourteously excluding any rank or honorific, “how many do you have, and what’s their priority?”

“One. I have an Imperial Inquisitor,” Skoll claimed haughtily.

Hayle started to voice an equally haughty retort, but stopped short and exchanged a look with Zeb, whose brows went up in surprised respect. This revelation was unexpected. “An Imperial Inquisitor? As in a Jedi hunter?

“The same,” Skoll replied. “Her name is Hatuu. I can send you her chain code if you like.”

“Ahh, please do, and stand by,” Hayle replied, much more respectfully this time. He stepped off his holopad, and Skoll’s image flickered out. He glanced at his comm-scan officer. “Verify that chain-code as soon as you receive it. Helm, slow to rendezvous speed.” He turned to Zeb. “Well, Ranger Orrelios, what’s your opinion of this development?”

“An Imperial Inquisitor is quite a catch,” Zeb remarked. “I’m surprised a bounty hunter could pull it off. This ‘Hatuu’ is certainly going to be dangerous to hold and transport. She’d be far more secure on your max-security deck than she would be aboard that ship. We’re equipped to deal with her, and you’ve got me along as extra backup on this run. I’d stop and take her if it were up to me, captain.”

“Although it pains me, I’m inclined to agree. Comm-scan?”

“Chain code is verified genuine, captain. Inquisitor Hatuu, alias Ninth Sister, wanted dead or alive by the New Republic Defense Council. Her bounty is 50,000.”
Zeb whistled. “Karabast! I wish I’d found her!” Of course, it went without saying that as a New Republic Ranger, he was ineligible to collect bounties of any kind.

Hayle nodded. “Very well. Deck officer, signal the landing bay that we’ll be bringing that ship aboard for additional prisoner transfer. Send a fully armed detail to the landing bay and advise the detail commander we’ll be joining them shortly. Unseal the maximum-security deck and place all sentry droids and automated weapons in standby.” Hayle listened to the various acknowledgements before stepping back onto his holopad. Captain Skoll’s hologram flickered back into view. “We’re slowing to facilitate your boarding. The Aldo Nova is cleared inbound for landing. We’ll take your prisoner, captain.”

“My thanks,” Skoll replied simply, bowing slightly before his hologram flickered out.

* * *

Several minutes later, Zeb stood next to Captain Hayle on the Masayos’s landing deck, watching three figures come down the ramp. One was Skoll, as imposing a man in person as he appeared in holo, although nowhere near the Lasat’s size and bulk. The other was an HK-model assassin droid, holding the tether of a smaller, somewhat diminutive figure wearing unadorned gray armor. She was young, a Human female with white-blond hair and cold blue eyes. Her hands were in power-binders in front of her, yet she looked completely unafraid. They stopped in front of the New Republic party, where Hatuu coldly looked Zeb over from head to toe.

“You’re an ugly one,” she remarked casually.

“Yeah, and I thought you’d be bigger,” Zeb fired back without hesitation. “You’re a cheeky little bugger, I’ll give you that,” he added with a chuckle.

“Captain Skoll, pleased to make your acquaintance in person,” Hayle said, fighting down any residual urge to be rude or confrontational.

“The same,” Skoll replied curtly. “Prisoner, display your chain code for verification,” he snapped. Hatuu looked daggers at him, before raising her arms and holding out her wrists. The HK droid sent a signal, and the holographic code appeared in red over her left forearm.

Captain Hayle stepped forward with a scanner and read it. The scanner chirped once and blinked green at him. “So,” he said with a grim smile, “welcome aboard the prison ship Masayos, Ninth Sister. I’m sure General Skywalker and Councilor Organa look forward to speaking with you.” Hatuu smiled, and Zeb felt a chill run down the full length of his back. She hardly seemed old enough to be an Inquisitor to him; she didn’t look much older than Sabine when she’d shipped in the Ghost for the first time. Perhaps this one was an apprentice, accounting for how a team of bounty hunters could take her alive. Even so, she displayed a cold indifference to everything and everyone around her that he found disconcerting.

“My payment?” Skoll asked.

“We don’t have 50,000 cash credits aboard this ship,” Captain Hayle replied. “We’re processing a New Republic credit voucher for you, and it should be ready momentarily. If you’ll accompany me to my office, I’d like to offer you a drink and hear the details of your capture.”

“That will be satisfactory,” Skoll replied with a tight smile. He nodded to the droid, who offered Hatuu’s tether to Zeb. The Lasat stepped forward and took it.

“Captain?” Zeb asked.

“Ranger Orrelios, please escort the prisoner to her holding cell,” Hayle ordered. “Security detail will accompany.”

“Yes sir,” Zeb replied, heading for the lift with the security team marching smartly behind him. The HK-droid seemed to go into standby mode where it was, freezing perfectly still and waiting for further instructions. Captains Hayle and Skoll headed for the secondary lift, and nobody noticed the R4-series astromech in New Republic livery that fell in behind the security detail as if it belonged there.

* * *

A few minutes later in the captain’s office, Hayle handed a New Republic credit voucher for the sum of 50,000 credits to Baylan Skoll. It was essentially a bearer bond, negotiable by the holder for specie, cash credits, or any combination thereof at any financial institution that dealt in Republic currency. “Here’s your payment. I can only imagine it was hard earned, but it should keep you in fuel and spare parts for quite a while, eh? And please accept my apologies for my short temper, before. We do strive to be better than the Imperials were.”

“Apology accepted, Captain Hayle,” Skoll replied, pocketing the voucher. In almost the same motion he reached behind his back, producing the hilt of his lightsaber. He smoothly placed the emitter directly under Hayle’s chin and activated it with a snap-hiss, deactivating it almost as fast. The red-orange beam of energy lanced through Hayle’s skull and flash-fried his brain in an eyeblink, almost too fast for the human eye to follow. Hayle simply rag-dolled, smoke wisping from the top of his skull, killed instantly without ever knowing what happened. Baylan Skoll pulled his commlink and sent a single pulse over his tactical frequency.

* * *

On the hangar deck, the HK-droid suddenly came back to life. It raised two arms which contained embedded blasters and proceeded to shoot out every camera in the landing bay in rapid succession, and then started in on the few organic crewmembers present. At the same time, two squads of black-armored Imperial death troopers stormed down the Aldo Nova’s ramp and commenced a standard boarding action, moving to secure the ship’s bridge and engineering spaces. Masayos didn’t boast a large complement, only a few dozen officers and crew, with droids handling the remainder of tasks. The prison decks were almost fully automated, with no organic interaction with the prisoners while in transit. The maximum-security deck had its own safeguards, ironically inspired by Imperial designs. The deck corridors were electrified, making them lethal to walk on by prisoners who were kept barefoot in their cells. The cells themselves were locked off from the corridors, containing a bed, bulkhead-mounted feeding and watering tubes, a waste-disposal appliance, and nothing else. Lighting was kept at a constant low-medium illumination, and the cells were soundproof. Embarked prisoners were under constant observation by a droid overseer, for their own safety and well being as well as security during transit. For Morgan Elsbeth, a known Force adept, there were additional safeguards. She wore shock-binders at all times, and the binders themselves were tethered to the bulkhead with a power cord to ensure they were always energized. The deck plates of her cell also delivered random, disruptive shocks as a safeguard against malfunctioning binders. It was unpleasant to say the least, but a necessary safeguard.

Skoll’s signal came as Zeb was stopping in front of the cell prepared for ‘Hatuu’. He was about to key the cell door open when the trailing R4 astromech suddenly fired a wide-range electro-magnetic ion charge that knocked out everything on that deck. The corridor went dark for a moment, and in that moment Shin Hati’s binders unlatched and fell away from her wrists. Zeb felt the tether go slack and was grabbing the Bo-Rifle off his back when the emergency lamps clicked on. The security detail was milling about in confusion; the R4 astromech opened a chest panel and exposed a lightsaber, which flew unerringly into the waiting hands of Shin Hati. She snapped it on, adding an ominous, red-orange illumination to the corridor.

Karabast!” Zeb swore. “Look out!” he added as he hurled himself backwards, narrowly avoiding bisection from the first humming sweep of Hati’s blade. At that point she became a force of nature unto herself, cutting into the security detail like a whirlwind. There were panicked shouts and blaster shots that either missed or were deflected away with short sweeps of her lightsaber. She threw bodies into one another with the Force, hurled others down the corridor to smash heavily into the bulkheads or overheads and cut through others with lethal finality. Through it all she remained expressionless and cold, a mere tensing of her jaw betraying the fact that she was expending any real effort at all.

Zeb made one attempt to take her—a reluctant one, having seen firsthand over the years what a lightsaber could do in the hands of someone trained in the Jedi Arts. Furthermore, he grasped sooner than anyone else that this wasn’t the prisoner acting alone: Baylan Skoll was a bad actor as well, and this was a jailbreak. He’d participated in enough of them to know, and the execution of it read like a plan that Hera and Kanan might have come up with themselves, back in the day. And where had that droid come from? He had time to ask himself as he launched into action. It was like a strange blind spot in his mind—he hadn’t noticed it at all before now.

Zeb twisted and locked his weapon into its staff-form, with dual electrified ends. He stepped in swinging as fast and hard as he could, knowing that he had basically one shot at this, and she’d kill him if it failed. His three-strike combination was as fast and effective as any he’d ever struck, but the Force was with Shin Hati. She blocked each successive blow with relative ease, moving the way he’d only seen Kanan and Ezra move in past battles. With her last parry she forced the end of his staff over, taking him off balance. Her armored boot crashed into the joint of his knee in the next instant, bringing out a shout of pain. Her lightsaber was already blurring in for the killing blow when it suddenly diverted mid-arc, forced to bat aside an incoming blaster bolt fired by a trooper who was still in the fight. Quarters were too close now to bring his staff back into play; he head butted her instead, as hard as he could, splitting the skin on her forehead. Blood gushed, and she cried in rage-filled pain as she reached out with her free hand, instinctively shoving him hard with the Force. Zeb whoofed, feeling the wind knocked out of him as if someone had swung a wrecking-ball into his midriff. He flew down the corridor, limbs akimbo, and smashed painfully into the bulkhead next to the open lift. Somehow, he still had hold of his staff. Through blurred vision he saw Hati start down the corridor after him, blood pouring down her face and murder in her eyes as her lightsaber blurred around her, knocking away incoming blaster fire.

“Oh, Karabast!” Zeb wheezed to himself, seeing death incarnate coming straight at him. He tried to stand, but couldn’t, so he simply rolled over into the lift and mashed the button to take him back to the prison-access deck. He had the presence of mind to scramble back from the lift doors, and he was lucky he did: as the lift started to move, a red-orange lightsaber blade stabbed through them like a lightning bolt, rapidly dragged down and through the deck as the lift pulled away from the maximum-security deck. Zeb lay slumped against the back wall of the lift, wheezing for breath as his heart pounded like a triphammer after his close call. His knee was shattered, and it felt like half his ribcage was stove in. He couldn’t remember when, if ever, he’d had his lunch eaten like that in a fight. For a moment, he felt truly sorry for every Imperial he’d seen go up against Kanan and Ezra over the years. Now more than ever, he had a fresh perspective for being on the receiving end of a Jedi-style beatdown.

Then it occurred to him that the beatings weren’t over, not by a long shot. As the lift deposited him on the access deck, he grew aware of the sounds of blaster fire from adjacent compartments. There was a full boarding action underway, and with a sinking feeling, he knew the ship and her crew were doomed.

* * *

Shin Hati angrily wiped the latest welling of blood from her forehead; it left a fresh layer on the already blood-soaked sleeve of her grey under armor coveralls. She glanced around briefly, taking in the carnage she’d wrought over the past minute. Dead, broken bodies in the form of New Republic troopers littered the corridor as if scattered by storm winds. The emergency lights flickered, and sparks shot from the bulkheads in places where blaster fire or her own lightsaber had cut through the circuitry.

She noticed with some surprise that their R4 unit had survived the absolute mayhem that reigned in this corridor for a long minute or two. The droid saw her looking and chirped a question. “Move through the deck, and make sure of the security droids and automated defenses,” she ordered. “Hit all of them again with ion charges, even if they already look fried. Then call the lift and wait by it.” R4 beeped in reply, moving off to do her bidding.

Shin moved to the cell door behind which Morgan Elsbeth was being held. There was no window, and the cell was soundproofed from either side, so there was no way to tell her to stand back. Shin merely acted with caution, pressing the tip of her lightsaber through the hatch alloy slowly enough that Elsbeth would see it on the other side, and get clear. She proceeded to cut a large, man-sized hole in the hatch with her blade, carefully shifting her feet to avoid the chunks of melted molten alloy that fell away as she worked. Baylan Skoll joined her by the time she was finished, and he was the one to step through first.

Morgan Elsbeth looked exhausted and disheveled, but defiant. She sat calmly on the edge of her bed, still barefoot, wearing nothing but a gold-colored prison jumpsuit with blue lettering. Once power was cut to the deck and her binders were de-energized, she had simply used the Force to open them. She sat calmly now, waiting for the rescue she knew was coming. She looked up at Skoll and Hati, noting the lightsabers hanging from their belts, and she finally smiled.

“Lady Elsbeth, allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Baylan Skoll, and this is my apprentice, Shin Hati. We come on behalf of Captain Pellaeon and the Imperial Remnant. Would you care to accompany us? I am told that you may have further need of our . . . services.”

“I would be delighted,” Elsbeth replied, now smiling broadly. Skoll gallantly held out his hand, helping her to her feet.

* * *
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Zeb dragged himself down the corridor toward the escape pods, using one hand to help pull himself along while the other clutched his Bo-Rifle, now reverted to its standard form. Nearing a bend in the corridor, he suddenly stopped as he heard the electronic gibberish of encrypted communications going back and forth from somewhere up ahead, around the corner. He stopped cold, aware that he’d probably been making too much noise. Spast, he thought, I’m breathing too loudly—for all that he could barely get a breath. Sure enough, things went silent ahead, and he knew what that meant. Two of the boarders had heard him, and they were listening. He painfully held his breath, vision swimming as he silently grasped his rifle and brought it to bear, drawing a bead on the corridor bend. The lead Imperial commando was good, but not perfect. He paused just before the bend in the corridor and didn’t flag the muzzle of his weapon ahead of him—the mark of a professional. Unfortunately, he’d misjudged his last step, and the black toe of his boot was just visible, sticking out a mere dozen centimeters. Zeb opened fire in full auto, blasting the hapless Imperial’s foot, blasting away the bulkhead in front of it, then his leg, and then the rest of him when he collapsed into full view, howling in pain. His cries cut off abruptly as blaster bolts smashed through the body of his armor, and Zeb deliberately kept up his fire, simulating panic and running his power pack dry.

He grinned painfully as he drew his oversized pistol, pointing the long barrel down range before holding up his Bo-Rifle and loudly expelling the spent power cartridge. It made a distinctive sound as it hit the deck, and he heard the smooth, sudden movement as the second trooper appeared around the corner, already drawing a bead on what he thought was an enemy with an empty weapon. Zeb’s first shot knocked the black-armored commando back against the bulkhead, the return shots going wild and blowing out part of the bulkhead next to where Zeb was sprawled. His next three shots took the trooper in the head, chest, and midriff consecutively, decisively finishing the job. Zeb holstered his pistol and slapped a fresh power pack into his rifle before dragging himself up to the ravaged bulkhead corner and cautiously peeking around it. The corridor was clear, and the open hatches of the escape pods beckoned temptingly.

He spared one glance at the second commando he’d shot, chuckling slightly. “I can’t believe you fell for that old dodge,” he chided the dead man. “Sorry, mate, but you should’ve known better. Never take what the enemy offers you,” he added, noting that the trooper’s bandolier was missing its proton charges. Never take what the enemy offers you, he mentally repeated, glancing again at the escape pod hatches, and realizing he’d better take his own advice. It was an old military axiom that in any run for safety, the last hundred meters were always the deadliest. A quick search of both bodies turned up a remote detonator, showing active charges in all three escape pods. They were set for a proximity detonation if someone entered the pods or could be triggered remotely by a commando with the remote.

They could be deactivated with the remote as well, which Zeb did before painfully hauling himself into the nearest escape pod, tossing the now-inert proton grenade back into the corridor, and sealing it up. He debated the wisdom of launching himself, then decided there was nothing to lose. There was no capital ship hovering out there—the Aldo Nova was nestled inside this ship’s landing bay. If he could get clear, he could send a distress signal. He doubted it would do any good at this point, but the least he could do was try.

Zeb was an honorable warrior, and it galled him like nothing else to have fled from Hatuu, or the Ninth Sister, or whoever the Jedi-like warrior had been. He’d left living comrades fighting behind him, and they’d certainly been killed. Knowing there was nothing he could do for them didn’t help; it shamed him terribly, as did launching himself away from the fight in an escape pod. The truth, however, was that he was almost spent. He could feel himself weakening, and knew he had internal injuries. There just wasn’t anything else he could do, and if he didn’t get medical care soon, he was finished. That thought didn’t bother him as much as the idea that the enemy might get away free and clear. The New Republic needed to know what had happened, and he might be the only one left who could tell them.

Even so, Garazeb Orrelios felt wretched as he keyed in the proper sequence, and winced in pain as the escape pod blew free of the Masayos. Once the pod achieved a safe distance, he activated the communications array and recorded a distress signal, sending it out on repeat at the same time he switched on the pod’s emergency locator beacon. Farloon Station, the New Republic facility they’d launched from, wasn’t too far behind them. They’d receive the signal quickly and scramble fighters, but it was probably too late to do any real good.

* * *

On the landing deck of the Masayos, Baylan Skoll paused at the ramp of his ship. He nodded in response to Shin Hati’s querying look, and she promptly led Morgan Elsbeth into the ship with their trusty R4 astromech bringing up the rear. His assassin droid hadn’t been so fortunate; it was blasted apart two decks above this one, but it had sold itself dearly, to their advantage. Imperial commandos began reappearing in pairs and quads, some helping or carrying wounded brothers, until all who lived were back aboard Aldo Nova. The last one aboard reported to him that the scuttling charges were set. Baylan was last up the ramp, raising it and sealing the hatch behind him after one last look around the landing deck. He keyed the intercom to the cockpit, where his apprentice had taken the pilot’s seat. “That’s everyone,” he said quietly. “Let’s go.”

Aldo Nova was back in space, running for their pre-plotted escape point before he reached the cockpit himself. Their plan was a short jump to get them clear, from which they could take the time and let the navicomp properly calculate the next long jump. “Status?” he asked Hati.

“We're passing safe distance now,” she reported. “Someone managed to get off a distress signal despite our efforts—Farloon Station has scrambled a flight of X-wings, but they’re too far away. There’s another ship following behind them. It looks like a freighter of some kind.”

“Blow the prison ship,” Baylan ordered R4. The droid whistled firmly in acknowledgement, keying a transmitter to send the signal. Behind them, space illuminated brilliantly as Masayos disintegrated in a massive explosion, leaving no physical evidence or records in their wake. It was about as clean a finish as Skoll could have asked for.

“Coming up on the escape point,” Hati reported, reaching for the hyperspace throttles. “Mark,” she added dispassionately, pulling them back. The stars ahead of them elongated into bright lines, and Aldo Nova leapt into hyperspace in a flicker of pseudo motion.

Baylan Skoll smiled then, placing a gentle hand on Hati’s shoulder. “Well done, Shin,” he complimented her warmly. “That was very, very well done.”

* * *

Zeb was barely conscious when the Ghost blocked out his view of the stars through the pod’s tiny porthole. His breath was coming in short gasps now, and he simply lay still as he heard the telltale sounds of the freighter achieving hard dock with the escape pod. There was a pregnant pause, and the hatch finally squealed open. He saw Chopper there, with the small form of Jacen Syndulla behind him, straining to see around the droid.

“It’s HIM, mom!” Jacen shouted, his voice cracking slightly in urgent excitement and relief. He was hollering over Chopper’s alarmed whistles and chirping. “It’s Uncle Zeb! And he’s HURT!”

“Hang on—I’m coming!” Hera’s voice called firmly from somewhere up forward. To Zeb’s ears, it was about the sweetest sound he’d ever heard in his life.
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Chapter 5

Seatos was the sort of world which few sapients ever got to see. It was alive and hospitable, but for reasons unknown, unsettled. There were plant and animal forms in abundance, but no cities, technology, or civilization. Much of the planet was carpeted in russet-colored forests, with rocky coastlines and gray, choppy, wind-swept seas. Those rare few who visited often commented on its almost primeval aspect, as if the world possessed a wild, restless spirit of its own.

It was twilight near the sight of the ancient henge when the Aldo Nova descended through the sky, circling the area once before setting down not far away from the curious ring of ancient standing stones. It was evidence that sapients had lived here once, or at least visited long enough to erect this ancient monument.

The boarding ramp lowered, and Morgan Elsbeth strolled down casually, now dressed in flowing, crimson, kimono-like robes. Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati followed, keeping a respectful distance behind her as she led them into the center of the henge, where she closed her eyes and extended her senses around her. Baylan also sensed the power of this place, or perhaps sanctity was a better word. Shin, younger and less experienced, felt something, but she wasn’t sure what it was or what it meant. She would occasionally glance up at him, looking for clues on how to act or perhaps feel, her silent questions hiding behind her eyes. Baylan understood how hard it was for Shin to feel anything, these days. She cultivated stoicism as a shield against her pain, and it wasn’t a trait he’d made any effort to change. One couldn’t fall to the deepest depths of the dark side without passion, and she’d gone to great lengths to quench any semblance of it in herself. Ironically, it was a very Jedi-like mindset.

Baylan could read Elsbeth’s intent and mood; she was pleased, and he sensed explanations would be coming forthwith. Whatever it was she sought, this place was an integral part of it. Her mind was calm enough, although a vast darkness lay just under the surface of her consciousness. He’d noted its constant presence before now but found the true nature of it elusive. Still, there were elements he recognized easily enough: Grief. Loss. Anger. Pain. Longing. All were shades of attachment, but these seemed to stem from the darkness at her core, rather than lead to it as the causes. He was forced to admit that she remained an enigma to him, but there was no question that she wielded a great power.

Shin, not able to sense as much through the Force as the other two, wandered the perimeter of the henge, making a study of the standing stones. There were markings carved into them, some in an ancient language unknown to her, but others seemed to be pictograms. She let her fingers trace curiously over one, in the shape of a cetacean. She felt eyes on her and turned to see Morgan Elsbeth watching her intently with a slight smile on her features.

“You are more perceptive than you realize,” Elsbeth told her.

“These creatures . . . these are what we seek?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Elsbeth allowed, clasping her hands behind her back, and strolling towards the center of the henge. “Have either of you heard of the Purrgil, the great space whales that live among the stars, can move naturally through hyperspace, and perhaps other dimensions we know nothing of?”

“Legends, really,” Skoll replied. “Childhood tales, told to younglings in the Jedi Temple. Purrgil were rumored to be strong in the Force. It’s what gave them the ability to navigate between worlds—even galaxies, some say.”

“They are no mere legend, Lord Baylan. At the Battle of Lothal, almost ten years ago, a large number of Purrgil appeared and jumped Grand Admiral Thrawn’s flagship away, and him along with it. He ended up somewhere in the Unknown Regions, but not even he knows where he is.”

“You’re certain of this?” Skoll asked, looking skeptical.

“Captain Pellaeon was an eyewitness, and he barely escaped with his ship and his life. The Purrgil that remained all but destroyed the rest of the Imperial 7th Fleet. It’s not something the Emperor wanted publicized of course, so very few know about it, even today.”

“How can Admiral Thrawn be in contact but not know where he is?”

“Have you ever been to Kessel, Lord Baylan? Are you familiar with the Maw?”

Skoll genuinely grinned—a boyish, raffish grin, like the Loth cat that ate the Convor. It was a complete surprise and very out of character—Shin was quite startled to see it. “I once made the Kessel run in twelve and a half parsecs,” he boasted, growing a little animated. “It wasn’t long after I left the Jedi Order, and I’d fallen into spice smuggling for a time. Anyhow, the Purrgil aren’t the only ones who can navigate . . . ahh! I think I understand!” his face lit up in epiphany.

“Yes,” Elsbeth replied. “The Purrgil can get to places we normally can’t. In the early days of hyperspace travel, it is said that pathfinders allied themselves with the Purrgil to uncover safe routes that eventually became the hyperspace lanes we use in known space. Some of the earliest species to travel the galaxy made maps to track the movements of Purrgil, to help facilitate safe travel for themselves. This henge is such a map, built by an ancient race known as the Rakata. Have you heard of the Rakata, Lord Baylan? It is said that the Rakata were very powerful in antiquity, holding most races of the galaxy in bondage.”

“I’ve no knowledge of them,” Skoll answered slowly, “although it is possible the former Jedi Council, the temple masters, may have. Certain archives in the temple were only accessible only to the masters.”

“My people had extensive knowledge of them, though most of it is lost, now,” Elsbeth said.

“Who are your people?” Shin asked abruptly.

Elsbeth’s eyes locked onto her. “The Dathomiri,” she said, waiting to see if her answer would draw a reaction.

“You’re a Nightsister?” Shin asked, admitting to knowing at least that much about Dathomir.

“A survivor,” she replied, her voice sounding like a razor that could slice spirit. Skoll felt a dark wave roll off Elsbeth, something icy and eldritch in his perception, reeking of the dark side of the Force. Elsbeth didn’t move, nor did her visage change, but he felt it like a tangible thing. Shin clearly felt it too, though perhaps not as strongly, and she stood her ground without flinching or stepping back. Baylan nodded slightly in silent approval.

The moment passed, and Elsbeth turned her gaze from Shin, continuing her explanation. “Thrawn’s ship is trapped at the center of a dense star cluster riddled with perpetual ion storms, black holes, and gravitational anomalies. It is a far larger and denser arrangement than the Maw, and un-navigable by normal means. There are far too many mass shadows and too much gravitational distortion for navigation computers to calculate a path through. It took Thrawn years of trial-and-error just to successfully get a comm-relay to a point where limited holonet communications with the outside galaxy could be made. Even so, the distortions are still so severe that a connection trace has proven impossible to establish.

“While travelers in known space eventually found their way to Kessel and the center of the Maw over centuries of trial and error, it is doubtful this will ever be possible from the anomaly where Thrawn is trapped. From his position at the center where the Purrgil dropped him, Thrawn cannot even accurately fix his position in the galaxy. A Force sensitive pilot, however, with a strong enough connection to the Force, could navigate him out naturally, the same instinctive way the Purrgil navigate. So, the next question is obvious: with all the Force users available to Emperor Palpatine, why didn’t we send the grand admiral a Force-sensitive navigator years ago?”

“Because we don’t know where to send one,” Baylan replied. Elsbeth nodded.

Shin gestured around them. “This map will lead us to the anomaly that holds him, and from there it is the simple matter of navigating in and out?”

“We know it’s possible, because the Purrgil have already done it,” Elsbeth confirmed. “We just need the location of the anomaly itself. The Rakata held dominion over the galaxy for thousands of years, including large areas of Unknown Regions. Thrawn has told us that he orbits a planet in a system at the center of the anomaly, and that the planet is ringed with a Purrgil graveyard. I don’t believe we’ll find more than one instance of those two factors combined, and this map should be able to pinpoint that location. Then, as you said, Shin, it's a simple matter of going and getting him.”

“So how do we read the map?” Skoll asked.

“We need a key: a piece of ancient Rakatan technology. It will both power the map and allow us to access it. Fortunately, through extensive research and the access I had to the old Jedi Archives—at least until Ysanne Isard lost Coruscant to our enemies—I’ve been able to learn that a map key exists within an ancient Jedi temple on Lothal.”

“Lothal again,” Skoll reflected thoughtfully.

“Yes. Thrawn reported that the temple was destroyed, but as gifted as he is in military matters, his knowledge of the Force is purely academic and quite shallow. I believe the temple still exists, or at least a portion of it, and we can gain access. This is why I need the two of you.”

“Not to navigate for Grand Admiral Thrawn?” Shin asked.

Elsbeth smiled wanly. “I could do that by myself, child.” Hati flushed slightly at the condescension but showed no other reaction.

Skoll nodded sagely. “I see. Certain temples were used for testing and require both master and padawan to access them together. I assume this is one of them. This clarifies other matters, as well. It is probably no coincidence that the key to a map detailing Purrgil migrations lies in a temple on a planet that the Purrgil saw fit to defend. There is obviously a deep connection between Lothal and the Purrgil.”

“You see things clearly, Lord Baylan,” Elsbeth nodded. “It was something Thrawn had no knowledge of, so it was impossible for him to foresee or calculate. That,” she said with surety, “is why he was defeated! If we can succeed and return Thrawn to us, he will not be defeated a second time.”

“Do you plan to accompany us to Lothal?” Skoll asked.

“No. Ahsoka Tano will be there and trying to access the temple herself. She took the information about the map key from me when I was defeated—I was unable to stop her. My presence on Lothal would give us away prematurely, so I will remain aboard Sion in orbit. What Tano does not have is the location of any Rakatan map sites, including this one. She only has the key to half the puzzle, whether she realizes it or not. See to it that she cannot follow you here, should she survive your meeting.”

“Ahsoka Tano,” Baylan muttered, looking thoughtful. “Interesting.”

“Do you know her?” Elsbeth asked.

“I know of her. I knew her master, by acquaintance: Anakin Skywalker. His strength as a Jedi was beyond measure, and Tano’s reputation was formidable, even as a padawan. She will prove a major obstacle to our goal, whether she can access the temple or not. There is another matter as well, Lady Elsbeth. Not to cast aspersions on our chances, but I am no longer Jedi, and Lady Hati has never been Jedi. Despite my training and the Jedi-style relationship we share as master and apprentice, we may not be able to access the temple ourselves. As you know, the will of the living Force is not always knowable to us.”

Find a way, Lord Skoll. That is your mandate,” Elsbeth ordered in a low voice. “If you cannot access the temple and Tano can, take the key from her once she obtains it. Do whatever is necessary, but do not fail!”

Skoll sketched a humble bow. “As you command, my lady.”
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Chapter 6

The light of a million stars illuminated Lothal’s night sky as Ahsoka and Sabine ran through the tall grass of the plain, sweat pouring off them as they pushed themselves to their physical limits. Neither one carried a light source of any kind. The starlight was bright enough to provide some illumination, and they used the Force to feel their way ahead, at least to the limit of their individual abilities. Ahsoka sensed rather than saw the crag-like boulder in her path. She didn’t give it any conscious thought, just acted on instinct. She let the Force guide her leap, turning a twisting somersault in the air that carried her well clear. She landed lightly on her feet and kept going, almost laughing at the pure joy of it.

Sabine didn’t sense it nearly as fast, and when she did it was too late. She dodged sideways, but her shin smacked painfully against a part of the boulder, hard enough to bruise bone. She tumbled and fell, but valiantly tried to salvage it with the Force. She was only partially successful but managed to convert an impending face-plant into a sideways tuck-and-roll. She took a hard landing on her side and back but let momentum bring her right back to her feet so she could continue to run. Anger and frustration blossomed through her, lending her a burst of strength and speed, but she knew that wasn’t the Way.

“Keep going, don’t give up!” Ahsoka called lightly from ahead of her.

“I think I broke my shin!” Sabine shouted through gritted teeth, exaggerating.

“You did not!” Ahsoka shouted back. “A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force! Run, padawan!”

Sabine ran, aware of the growing knot on her shin, and substantial pain. She followed her training, both Mandalorian and Jedi. The Mandalorian refused to acknowledge pain—a warrior was expected to fight through it, to make it an ally, and overcome it through sheer force of will. This is the Way. The Jedi used the Force to neutralize pain—to anesthetize the mind against it, to heal it by regulating the body, to accept it and then let it go through strength of spirit. There is no pain, there is only the Force. For years, the two philosophies had warred with one another inside her, hampering her skills as an athlete and warrior, and stifling her abilities as a Jedi. Now they felt like they were starting to come together, in a weird way that was uniquely her own. Sabine Wren was Mandalorian and Jedi—she used the Force to dull the pain, allowing her to battle through what remained. She used the Force to accelerate healing, using pain as a focal point for focus. She sought stillness of mind, letting go of the mental shock of sudden injury, keeping her focus indomitably ahead, not behind.

It was working. It was hard, but it was working.

Sabine lost herself in her concentration, letting her mind work on the fusion of past and present, the merging of two philosophies of life and training that would make her a singular whole, rather than two halves of herself fighting each other for control. Her breath was rapid but calm, arms and legs pumping madly, and she suddenly realized that she could see her master just ahead. Sabine was gaining on her, and bit back the urge to laugh. Focus! she told herself.

This is the way: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

Suddenly the two of them broke into the short grass, into the large clearing where the T-6 sat on the plain as a dark silhouette, blocking out some of the stars. Ahsoka was slowing down and stopping, and although she was breathing deeply, she wasn’t panting or out of breath. As always, she was physically in command of herself. Sabine tried to imitate her, but she was tired, and her shin was killing her. Over by where the shuttle’s boarding ramp was hidden in the darkness, she saw two glowing yellow photoreceptors indicating that Huyang was standing there. He tossed something toward her in a high arc, but she sensed it was going to sail right over her head and vanish into the grass unless she intervened. In the darkness, her lightsaber was nothing more than a flickering shadow as it tumbled through the air.

“Catch, padawan!” he called in a cheerful tone.

The run was over—training was not over.

Sabine stopped, her injured leg threatening to buckle under her as she was forced to shift her concentration. She closed her eyes and reached out but was too anxious, too eager to catch her lightsaber before she lost it. She managed to stop its forward movement at least; it stopped as though hitting a solid wall and fell straight to the ground, but it did not fly into her waiting hand.

Sabine heard the telltale whine of capacitors charging up behind her, and the hum of training remotes activating. “Oh, Spast!” she breathed, diving for the lightsaber as the first training bolt zipped from a nearby remote, hovering invisibly in the darkness of night. It missed, but the next one caught her square in the buttocks as she dove and rolled in a somersault, coming up with her lightsaber in one hand and swatting at her glutes with the other. It stung!

Sabine’s green lightsaber blade ignited with a snap-hiss, casting a bright emerald glow around her and pushing back the darkness. She moved quickly, almost presciently, as another training bolt zipped out of the darkness from beyond the circle of greenish illumination and narrowly missed her arm. She strained for a moment to see, then realized it was too dark and the remotes too small, too mobile. This was like training while wearing a helmet with the blast visor down, but with differences. The good news was that it was easier to breathe, the bad news was that there was nothing between a stray training bolt and her face.

This is the way . . . Sabine told herself. I am one with the Force, and—OWW! “SPAST!” she swore viciously. Almost as quickly, the lightsaber moved of its own volition, and two more training bolts were successfully swatted away. Then she was struck again, and again, and her concentration was finally broken. She began to give up, to stand upright with the intent of closing down her weapon.

No!” Ahsoka’s voice called sternly from the darkness. “Don’t let your spirit sag!

Sabine crouched and pivoted, kicking her rear leg around in an arc and ducking at the waist, before launching herself in an athletic, side-spiraling flip as three more training bolts whipped out of the darkness and found only empty air. If nothing else, her mind had moved beyond the shin injury she’d sustained during the run. She landed on her feet and her lightsaber flashed, deflecting a bolt right back where it came from. She sensed rather than saw it hit the remote, which let out a notifying beep before falling inert into the grass.

Sabine executed another defensive pivot, stretching out with her feelings, and then abruptly realized there wasn’t another active training remote gunning for her. She could have sworn there were at least three. The idea of only two seemed a little insulting, given how it had gone. But one? One stinking remote had hit her a half dozen times? She closed down her lightsaber in disgust, trying to control her temper along with her breathing—the way Ahsoka always did.

“Catch, padawan!” Huyang called again. Sabine reacted without thinking, reaching out sideways and feeling the satisfying slap of a wooden bokken landing in her hand, grip-first and blade up, even! “Impressive!” Huyang said in a slightly mocking tone. She knew what was coming next.

Remote practice was over—training was not over.

“Set!” Huyang ordered. Sabine hooked her lightsaber to her belt and took the bokken in a two-handed grip, going to high guard. Using two auxiliary arms on his back in addition to his regular ones, four amber, cylindrical holograms sprang into existence from metal cylinders that looked like basic lightsaber hilts. Each cylinder was broken into small segments by circles of light, presenting multiple target zones. Huyang presented the targets as sets of two parallel cylinders, requiring precise striking angles and follow-throughs.

Ki-sei!” he called. That was the shoulder-to-hip cut, starting high on the side which the knee was forward, cutting diagonally toward the side of the back leg. Sabine struck, the wooden blade passing through both horizontally held targets.

Keer-ay!” The was the opposite of Ki-sei, starting low and ending high. Sabine struck again.

Gai-ke!” Horizontal cut, starting from the side where the blade tip had finished the last movement.

Gai-ke!” Repeat, the opposite direction. Sweat exploded off Sabine as the wooden blade whistled though Lothal’s night air. It was a lot heavier than a lightsaber, which was the point. It built muscle, and controlling the motion and momentum of it required more concentration and control than swinging a blade of energy. As such, it improved one’s form. Huyang pivoted precisely after each cut, his mechanical arms snapping the targets into their next position.

“Set!” Low guard this time.

Keer-ay! Ki-sei! Gai-ke! Gai-ke! Set!”

Middle guard.

Ki-sei! Gai-ke! Keer-ay! Gai-ke! Set!”

High guard.

Ki-sei! Keer-ay! Ki-sei! Keer-ay! Gai-ke! Keer-ay! Ki-sei! Gai-ke! Keer-ay! Ki-sei! Set!”

Low guard.

Gai-ke! Keer-ay! Ki-sei! Gai-ke! Keer-ay! Ki-sei! Gai-ke! Ki-sei! Keer-ay! Gai-ke! Set!

Middle guard.

Yo-ke!” Sabine stepped forward, maintaining middle guard, focus, and concentration.

Yah-taaay!” Huyang drawled in a sing-song voice. Stop. Sabine held guard for two more heartbeats, then stepped back upright, letting the blade of the bokken arc back to her left side, hilt forward, blade up, tip down, held loosely at her belt in her left hand.

“How’d I do?” Sabine asked, as Huyang held all four target holograms up for her examination. Green circles and ellipses showed her good cuts, yellow ones her marginal strikes, and red ones that were outside acceptable norms. There was roughly an even amount of all three colors there, with the Gai-ke cuts generally being her best, and the Keer-ay cuts her worst. The latter were far easier to manage precisely with a lightsaber than with a steel or wooden blade—she knew that well from past practice, going all the way back to her Mandalorian weapons training.

“Not bad . . . but not good,” Huyang reported with blunt droid honesty.

“But better than last time,” Ahsoka added, her voice close by in the darkness. “It’s good to run that drill when you’re tired. You stop thinking and just do. Are you tired?” she asked.

Sabine wasn’t sure what the right answer was supposed to be, so she decided on honesty. “Yes, master, I’m tired,” she admitted. “Dead tired.”

“Good!” Ahsoka said, the merest hint of warning in her voice. “Stop thinking, and just do.” Sabine sensed her master stepping back, and Huyang was retreating as well. The next thing she heard was the low hum of training remotes activating. Three of them, this time.

“No mind!” Ahsoka called to her, one last word of instruction.

No mind, Sabine mentally repeated, feeling utterly exhausted. They’d been at it for hours, even before the run. Her shin was throbbing, threatening to expand into a major headache as well. She took a deep breath and blew it out, just letting herself go. I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

Sabine blinked, realizing something had just happened. Her lightsaber glowed green in her hand, and conscious recollection of the past several seconds flooded back to her. She’d sensed the three remotes circling, and as each fired in succession, she sent each bolt straight back into it, deactivating it. She remembered it now, but not as she’d done it.

“Huyang, light,” she heard Ahsoka call. The boarding ramp floods suddenly switched on, bathing the immediate area in soft white light. Ahsoka appeared in that circle of illumination, leaning in with an excited look on her face. Sabine closed down her lightsaber and clipped it back to her belt. “See?” Ahsoka said with a bright smile. “You can do it!”

“Well done, Sabine,” Huyang added, some genuine admiration in his voice.

Grife, master, it took me all day to get there!”

Ahsoka nodded. “But you got there, didn’t you? Learning to wield the Force is like a form of muscle memory. The more you exercise it, the more natural it becomes, until one day you can do it without consciously trying or thinking. It just happens when you need it to.”

“So what now?” Sabine asked.

“Now we go in, clean up, and Huyang serves us up some Kybuck chops. We’ll get your leg fixed up, and you can get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s another day, and another day to train.”

Sabine looked worried. “What if I can’t do it again tomorrow?”

Ahsoka shrugged. “Then maybe you will the next day. Don’t center on your anxieties, Sabine. Keep your mind in the here and now. Train your body, train your mind, and trust in the Force.”

* * *

Sabine decided she wanted to sleep out on the wing, under the stars. When she had retired for the night, Huyang sought out Ahsoka. “Lady Tano, I didn’t want to disturb you during Lady Wren’s training session, but we received a communication from General Syndulla today.”


“She’s at Capital City, with the Ghost, and wanted our position. She’s planning to meet with us in person tomorrow morning. She wouldn’t go into specifics with me, but she sounded worried.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“No,” Huyang agreed.

Ahsoka yawned. “Alright. Tomorrow can wait for tomorrow. I’m going to turn in. Today was a good day, Huyang. Sabine made a real breakthrough, tonight.”

Huyang’s analysis was a little more somber. “It took her more than nine hours to achieve a momentary mental state that a youngling Jedi at the temple could reliably maintain throughout a two-hour training session. She never would have been accepted for training in your day, Lady Tano. Are you sure we’re doing the right thing? Can she really be a Jedi?”

“The temple didn’t start Human padawans in their twenties, either. I don’t need her to be a Jedi, Huyang,” Ahsoka replied with a wise smile. “I just need her to be Sabine. She’s doing fine.”

“If you say so,” Huyang said dubiously. “Good night, Lady Tano.”

Later, as Ahsoka lay staring at the ceiling of her bunk, she couldn’t help but wonder about Huyang’s strictly objective opinion of Sabine’s talent, and what was Hera doing here? She tossed and turned for a bit, before taking a deep breath and calling on the Force. Don’t center on your anxieties, she thought, imagining it in the voice of Anakin Skywalker. He said Obi-wan Kenobi had laid that one on him often as a padawan, and doubtless Obi-wan had gotten it from farther up the line. Good advice—take it, she smiled to herself. She slipped off into an easy sleep a short time later and dreamed of Kanan Jarrus of all things, appearing as a spirit clothed in light, peacefully walking the grassy plains of Lothal in the company of a gigantic gray Loth wolf.
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Chapter 7

The Victory II class star destroyer Sion cruised slowly through space near Lothal. Close enough to watch the planet from afar, but far enough away to prevent an immediate, hostile response. In the main hangar bay, Morgan Elsbeth stood at the foot of Aldo Nova’s boarding ramp with Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati. “You have the coordinates of the temple from the old Mining Guild reports?”

“We do. We’ll go there immediately and investigate the site. If the temple exists, we’ll find a way inside.”

Elsbeth looked uncertain, as if a shadow had fallen over her. “Even from here, I can feel the currents of Lothal,” she said softly, closing her eyes for a long moment. When she re-opened them, Skoll was startled to see that the orbs of her eyes were, for a moment, a solid, inky black. That darkness faded, collapsing rapidly into her irises until her eyes looked normal again. “Be mindful, Lord Baylan. This is a place of power, and those places tend to protect themselves. We are not welcome here,” she added, speaking almost as if to herself.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Baylan replied.

“Again, I offer you some of my troops to augment your own crew. Or Lord Marrok could accompany you.”

“Imperials on Lothal will not be well received,” Skoll replied. “An Imperial Inquisitor, even less so. If we can achieve our goal here without having to wage war against the local population, that would be best. My crew is enough.”

“Very well. I look forward to your successful return, Lord Baylan.”

* * *

A short time later, Aldo Nova was dropping into the blue skies of Lothal when a pair of E-wing fighters appeared, forming up in a classic intercept pattern: one in parade on their wing, the other at six o’clock, in firing position. Baylan glanced over and saw a blue-helmeted pilot staring back at him. Their comm crackled for attention. “This is LothSec-1, Captain Porter of the Lothal Constabulary speaking. Please confirm your ID and state the nature of your business.”

“LothSec-1, this is Aldo Nova. Tell me, captain, do all arriving vessels warrant intercept?”

“They do when they launch from an Imperial star destroyer,” Porter snapped back. “Business?”

Baylan’s hand made a slight, twisting motion. “You don’t need the nature of my business,” he said in a slightly hypnotic tone.

“I don’t need the nature of your business,” Porter repeated back a moment later.

“You are cleared to proceed on course,” Baylan suggested.

“You are cleared to proceed on course.”

“Good day.”

“Good day. LothSec-1, out,” Porter added. The E-wings abruptly peeled up and away, with panache. Both fighters formed up on a diverging vector and soon vanished into the sky.

“That’s a temporary solution, master,” Hati warned him. “When they report back, their superiors won’t be happy—they’ll search for us.”

“We only need a temporary solution. We aren’t going to be here that long, hopefully. This is a large planet, sparsely inhabited, with only one major city. We’ll set down somewhere remote, where there’s some cover, and take the swoops. Once we power down and go dark, it’ll take them a week or more to find the Nova if they make a concerted effort. Since the Sion has clearly been noticed, I expect that is where they will focus their attention.”

“You always say we should plan based on an opponent’s capability rather than their intent, master.”

“True. But I have unique talents in that regard. We do it my way, Shin—No argument.”

“Yes, master.”

* * *

“There they are,” Hera said, more to herself than Jacen. Her son piloted the Phantom II toward the solitary sight of Ahsoka’s T-6 grounded on the Lothal plains, kilometers outside Capital City or any other settlement. As they got closer, they could see Ahsoka Tano and Sabine Wren in the grass a short distance from the shuttle, running through a lightsaber form. Green and white lightsaber blades moved in near-perfect unison as Ahsoka ran them through the exercise, and the movements of their bodies were sharply focused yet smooth and graceful at the same time.

Hera cast a sidelong glance at her son, whose attention was captured by the sight below. She smiled at his obvious fascination, as the nose of the Phantom dipped slightly toward the ground. Unfortunately, it was distracting him enough that it began affecting his flying. “Hey, sprout,” she said, snapping him out of his reverie. “Pay attention. You’re power diving!”

“Sorry mom,” Jacen replied quickly, pulling the nose up. He began a clearing turn prior to setting them down, going through the landing cycle by rote. His eyes kept straying back to the two women on the ground, and his approach was rougher than normal. They must have known the Phantom was there, but they hadn’t paused their exercise or allowed it to distract them. Jacen, however, remained well distracted.

Hera sighed, but she was still smiling. “My controls,” she announced, placing her hands on the grips. Jacen snapped out of it, glancing guiltily at her. Hera had been teaching him to fly since he was old enough to reach the controls while strapped in, and he knew that any time she took the ship away from him like this, he’d messed up.

“Sorry,” he said.

If he was an adult, Hera would have told him that ‘sorry’ didn’t fix a crash-landing, but he was a nine-year old boy whose dead father had been a Jedi Knight—his rapt curiosity was understandable. “Go ahead and watch,” she said gently. “I’ve got it.”

“Your controls,” Jacen said, adhering to proper form, but he was already looking outside again. The dust from the landing was settling around the Ghost’s auxiliary craft when Ahsoka and Sabine finished their form and closed down their lightsabers. All of them met at the aft end of the Phantom as Hera and Jacen emerged from the ship. Hera was dressed in her typical fashion, a comfortable tan-and-cream colored flight suit under a brown, nerf-hide leather flying jacket, with a leather skullcap with macro-goggles fitted to her head tails. Jacen wore dark brown utility pants and boots, and a cream-colored tunic with matching brown shoulder pauldrons. Both wore gun belts. Hera carried her old standby, the Blurgg-1120 holdout blaster that had seen her through a lot of scrapes. Jacen was sometimes allowed to carry a small sleeve-gun, properly holstered as a sidearm, in environments or situations where the need for self-defense was possible. Hera was teaching him marksmanship and the proper handling of weapons, but she still required him to use ‘stun’ as his weapon’s default setting.

Ahsoka grinned and knelt, holding out her arms. The boy ran to her and happily accepted a hug, and she fondly brushed a shock of dark hair back from his forehead. “I missed you on Corvus,” she said by way of greeting. “Sorry about that, sprout!”

“That’s okay. It wasn’t a very nice place anyway,” Jacen replied.

Sabine and Hera shared a warm embrace, laughing and smiling at one another. It had been a few years since they’d seen each other. Hera held her at arm’s length when they broke apart, studying her face carefully. “How are you, Sabine?” she asked seriously. “You look well!”

“I’m fine,” Sabine replied, and Hera sensed that her answer was mostly truthful, at least. Sabine turned and looked at Jacen. “You’re getting big and handsome!” she added, appraising him with folded arms and an easy grin.

“I know,” Jacen grinned cheekily, winking at her.

“Come here, you little gundark!” Sabine laughed, holding out her arms. Jacen laughed and another hug was exchanged. “Good to see you, Jacen.”

“You too, Aunt Sabine.”

The reunion was pleasant and long overdue, but Ahsoka could feel the underlying urgency in Hera despite her smiling façade. “Jacen,” she said, “how would you like Huyang to give you a tour of my ship?”

“Aww, I’ve seen plenty of ships,” he dodged.

Jedi ships?”

That sparked his interest. He glanced over his shoulder at the T-6, where Huyang was waiting. He nodded silently and went. As the two of them headed up the boarding ramp, they could hear Jacen plaintively asking if Huyang could teach him how to build a lightsaber, and the droid’s droll reply of ‘not today.’

Hera’s smile vanished in short order, and Ahsoka looked inquiringly at her. “Did Zeb deliver Morgan Elsbeth to Coruscant?”

“Zeb’s in a bacta tank on Farloon Station, and he’ll be in it for another week,” she replied.

Ahsoka leaned back slightly, crossing her arms. “What happened?” Hera went on to relate everything she knew, everything Zeb had been able to tell her about Elsbeth’s escape and the Jedi-trained warrior who had beaten their stout Lasat friend to within an inch of his life.

“This ‘Hatuu’,” Ahsoka said with a frown. “Ninth Sister? I’ve never heard of a ‘Ninth Sister.’”

“There was one, years ago, but it wasn’t this ‘Hatuu.’ That was an alias, and her chain code was an elaborate forgery. Once we dug into it, it was more obvious than ever that we still have a lot of Imperial sympathizers running around Coruscant and our other datacenters, slicing records. We found this hack fairly fast, because it was done recently, and it was a rush-job.”

“You caught it after the fact,” Ahsoka corrected her, unimpressed.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Hera confirmed. “In any case, Morgan Elsbeth is free.”

“And she has a Jedi accomplice . . . or at least someone trained in the Jedi Arts,” Sabine added with a pointed look at Ahsoka. “Do you think that Elsbeth and her ally could work together to gain access to the temple?”

“Two Inquisitors managed to open it on their own, at least once,” Hera reflected.

“Well, kind of,” Ahsoka clarified. “Kanan, Ezra, and I were already inside when that happened. Sabine, tell me again how Ezra accessed the temple just before it was destroyed?”

“He found a mural on the side of the temple, one with three figures on it,” Sabine recalled. “A female, and two males. There was also a Convor, and Loth wolves. He used the Force to manipulate it somehow and was shown a portal to enter.”

“You didn’t help him?”

“I helped him puzzle it out,” Sabine said, casting her mind back. “I was forced to go with a couple of stormtroopers to give Ezra time to work. I didn’t actually see what he did to make the portal appear.”

“But he went in alone,” Ahsoka finished thoughtfully, thinking back to her fight with Darth Vader on Malachor and the impossible way she’d escaped certain death. Of course! she thought to herself, nodding in sudden understanding. That’s when it happened, from Ezra’s point of view! Ezra Bridger had snatched her from that fight, reaching through time and space and drawing her temporarily into a strange, timeless realm that derived from the Force. She’d been returned to Malachor from that realm a short time later, after Vader had gone. It was on Malachor that she’d learned the true fate of her master, Anakin Skywalker. She shuddered slightly at the memory.

“He went in alone,” Sabine confirmed. “Come to think of it, he mentioned you right before that.”

“He did?”

“The Convor on the mural. He said it reminded him of the bird he always saw whenever you were with us.”

Ahsoka lifted her chin and closed her eyes, understanding even more now. “Ahh. The mural. You said there were three figures, one female and two male. The daughter, the son, and the father. The Convor was with the female, right?”

“I think so . . . yes,” Sabine said, looking curiously at her master. “Do you know what it all meant? Was the female supposed to be you?”

“It’s complicated. I honestly don’t understand it all myself.” She sighed. “I think we may have been going about this all wrong. In any case, time is no longer on our side. It’s time we visited the temple.”

The site of the temple held painful memories for Hera, and she didn’t care to see it again. When Ezra had emerged and the temple vanished, she’d known—felt—that her love, Kanan Jarrus, was finally gone forever. At that time, she hadn’t even known she carried a kernel of him inside herself, in the form of their unborn son. “You two go to the temple,” she said quietly. “I’ll head back to Capital City and contact the Defense Council. I’m going to try and shake loose some assets to cover us. With Elsbeth loose, the Imperials could conceivably show up in force.”

Before Ahsoka could agree, she sensed a presence. Glancing around she caught sight of Morai, the mysterious Convor who seemed to be a spirit-companion of sorts ever since the events on Mortis, years ago. Most of the time she seemed to be the only one who could see her, although Ezra had always been able to. Speak of Morai and so she appears, she thought. She glanced quickly at Sabine, but her apprentice gave no indication that she was aware of Morai. The Convor flew to the T-6 shuttle, where she orbited overhead in a tight circle, warbling in a voice only Ahsoka could hear. Then, to her amazement, Ahsoka saw Jacen Syndulla come down the ramp and stop, looking up at Morai. He could obviously see her, and he waved cheerily at her. Morai’s movements became more excited, and she looked between the boy and Ahsoka. Of course.

“Ahsoka? What is it?” Hera asked, glancing towards her son.

“I’d like to take Jacen with us to the temple site,” she said.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea!” Hera protested quickly.

Ahsoka turned and looked at her, smiling with reassuring eyes. “It will be alright. Huyang will be with us.”

“But why?

Ahsoka crossed her arms and cocked her head slightly, still smiling as she looked back at Jacen. “A little birdie told me it might be a good idea,” she half-joked, adding: “It’s just a hunch. Trust me, Hera. You know I’d never let anything happen to him.”

Hera bit her lip, clearly not liking the idea. Well, if he has his locator tracker… “Alright,” she conceded. “Ahsoka— ”

“—He’ll be fine,” Ahsoka promised.

* * *

Baylan Skoll slowed his swoop-bike to a gradual stop as they approached a sharp drop in the terrain, where a fault-line had created a steep ridge that ran for over a hundred kilometers in either direction. Hati pulled up beside him, her cloak billowing behind her. These weren’t Imperial speeder bikes they rode, but Mobquet-S sport models. Both were a fine gunmetal color, trimmed in blue and black. To a casual observer, the riders might look like nothing more than a pair of friends, or perhaps father and daughter, out enjoying the wild. Baylan pulled a flask of chilled water from his saddlebag and took a long swallow, before handing it to Hati. She nodded her thanks as she took it, but her face remained an impassive mask, as always. Even with his ability to read people, Baylan rarely had any idea what she was thinking unless she gave voice to her thoughts. He could sense her well enough right now, though: she was failing to appreciate the simple beauty of this world in favor of her driven, single-minded focus on their task.

It was a fine day, warm, and the air here was fresh and clean. There was a vitality to this world that Skoll felt throughout his entire being, enhanced by his connection to the Force. Elsbeth had been right about one thing: Lothal was a place of power. In many ways it reminded him of Seatos that way, but while Elsbeth had felt some sort of repulsion or antipathy from Lothal, Skoll felt nothing of the sort.

He liked it here, and he was enjoying himself.

“Do you think the Jedi Order will ever be re-established?” Hati asked him out of the blue.

“Perhaps,” Skoll replied. “Not by Ahsoka Tano, if that’s what you are asking. Like me, she saw the failings of the order, and took up her own path.”

“Yet you often refer to your time in the order. Do you ever miss it?”

Baylan thought about that for a moment, accepting the flask back from Hati and taking another drink of cold water. “I miss the idea of it,” he decided. “But not the truth of it. The weakness. There was no future there.”

“Do you see one with Thrawn? With the Imperials?”

He looked sharply at her. “Probably not. Time will tell. Right now, this is just a job. A very well-paying job.”

“Should we be on our way, then?” Hati asked boldly, clearly impatient.

Skoll smirked at that, stowing the flask. “If you say so.”

* * *
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Ahsoka and her companions stood at the site of the Jedi temple. Or what had been the site of the temple, once. The land for kilometers around was flat and featureless, the ground covered with a peat-like brown and green moss, broken here and there by low, natural stones protruding from the earth. A low mist seemed to cling to it, even in the full light of day. At the spot Ahsoka best judged to be the exact center of the missing temple spire, there was a seal-like impression in the ground: a solid circular ring around a four-petaled geometric shape that didn’t correspond to anything Ahsoka was familiar with. It was almost like a monument of sorts, pressed flat into the surface. Three lines ran straight out for about ten meters from the center of the seal, placed equidistant around its circumference, terminating in smaller circles etched into the mossy ground. The outer circles were broken, and barely visible. A line joining these three circles would form an equilateral triangle with the seal in the center.

The T-6 was parked a good half-kilometer back from the site, just to be on the safe side.

“What happened here?” Ahsoka asked incredulously.

“Well,” Sabine answered, “it’s kind of hard to describe. The temple collapsed, and the ground swallowed it, along with a lot of Imp bucket heads and their Mining Guild cronies. The next morning, it looked like this. Like the land had just . . . cleansed itself of the whole thing. Look who’s here!” she added a moment later, as Morai suddenly fluttered into view, as if from nowhere. She flitted around their heads for a moment, before catching an updraft and relaxing her wings, spreading them wide as she soared in a broad circle around them. Jacen giggled, delighting in her antics.

“You can see her?” Ahsoka asked.

“Of course,” Sabine replied, as if the question were ridiculous.

“Alright. Well, let’s give this a— “ Ahsoka stopped herself; she had been about to say give this a try, which of course was the wrong thing to say. They would either find a way into the temple, or not. There was no try. “Let’s do this,” she corrected herself quickly.

Sabine stepped up next to her, and the two of them closed their eyes and reached out with their right hands, palms out. “Breathe with me,” Ahsoka told her, extending her senses and letting herself feel the Force. It was there, as ever, strong and fresh in this place. With Jacen standing aside and watching intently, the two of them began reciting the Jedi Code, together.

There is no emotion; there is peace.
There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.
There is no passion; there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death; there is the Force.

They lost themselves in that standing meditation, reciting the Code, extending their senses, reaching, searching. However, they felt nothing more than the Force itself, like they normally did when meditating on it. It was with them, it was strong, but there were no strange eddies here, and certainly not a vergence. Nothing spoke back to them.

Jacen grew bored and he looked around, seeking distraction. That was when he saw it: a gigantic white Loth wolf, standing nearby watching him, half-shrouded by the mist. Its eyes were yellow and held a mysterious intelligence. Jacen grew wary as the wolf approached him slowly, its head lowered as it sniffed at him, drawing closer. Jacen took a hesitant step back, glancing over his shoulder at Ahsoka and Sabine, but the two were lost in their own meditation. His heel caught on one of the low rocks, and he fell down. He flinched as the gigantic wolf suddenly closed the remaining distance, the large, damp muzzle of its nose pressing into the juncture of his neck and shoulder, first on one side and then the other. It nudged him, as if urging him to get up. Jacen draped his arms over the wolf’s muzzle, and it effortlessly lifted him back to his feet. It leaned in close and he felt himself getting dizzy, falling into the deep ocean of the Loth wolf’s piercing, golden gaze.


Jacen started, realizing he’d heard the voice in his mind, loud and intense. “Wha . . . what?” he asked hesitantly.


The wolf leaned in closer, nuzzling him once gently in the neck, rubbing the fur of its face against his before stepping back with sad eyes and turning away. It walked slowly, not looking back, vanishing into the mist.

“Wait!” he called after it. Ahsoka’s eyes snapped open at his cry, immediately bringing her out of her meditative state. Sabine opened her eyes a moment later, and both women looked at Jacen, who seemed on the verge of tears. “Wait!” he called again, holding up his hand as he ran a few steps forward.

“Jacen, what is it?” Ahsoka asked, moving quickly to kneel at his side. She looked where he was looking, into the mist, but there was nothing there.

“Did you see it?” he asked, speaking rapidly. “Did you see the Loth wolf?”

“No,” Ahsoka replied, her curiosity piqued. “Did you see one?” Jacen nodded, looking at her with wide eyes. Ahsoka immediately cast out her senses in the Force, but again felt nothing. There was nothing there as far as she could tell.

Sabine sighed. “We were at it for almost an hour. I didn’t feel anything. Did you?” she asked. Ahsoka stood, one hand resting on Jacen’s shoulder, and shook her head. Sabine was looking around and took notice of the outer circles again. “Three figures,” she muttered contemplatively to herself. “Just like before, in a way. The mural had three figures, a Convor, and Loth wolves. We’ve seen Morai here, Jacen just saw a Loth wolf, and there are three of us.”

“Jacen isn’t a Jedi,” Ahsoka replied, but she could already see where Sabine was going. And hadn’t Morai given her the idea to bring him along? “Still . . . not a Jedi,” she muttered. “Neither am I, and neither are you, yet, though arguably, all three of us also are. Jacen by birthright if nothing else.”

“Let’s do it,” Sabine said with an excited grin. “Jacen, can you sit in that circle over there? Maybe you can help us open the temple.”

“Really?” he sounded somewhat dubious, but not frightened.

“Really. Ahsoka, you take that one, and I’ll take this one. Everyone sit in your circle.” They did as she said. Sabine looked over at Kanan’s son. “Jacen, just close your eyes, relax, and try not to think about anything. Repeat the mantra with us, and let your mind relax and float free, kind of like daydreaming. Can you do that?”

“Sure, Aunt Sabine. But the Loth wolf— “

“I know,” she said soothingly. “He was friendly, right? He didn’t want to hurt you, did he?” Jacen shook his head. “Don’t worry about him for now, Jacen. I think maybe that was his way of showing you how to help us. Now, can you do as I asked?” He nodded; eyes wide. She looked back at Ahsoka, who was grinning at her.

“You’re a natural,” she exclaimed.

“Maybe someday,” Sabine grinned back. “Now, everyone with me. Breathe in, breathe out, relax. Breathe in, breathe out, relaaaax.” The three of them breathed with her, together, letting Sabine lead. “This is the way: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me,” Ahsoka and Jacen said together. Sabine led them in another chant of the Jedi Code. It took a minute or two for the three of them to get into sync, especially Jacen, but soon they were speaking with one voice. They went on this way for several minutes, losing themselves in relaxed concentration, stretching out with the Force.

This time, Ahsoka could feel something happening. The currents of the Force around her seem to settle into a pattern: a swirling vortex that was slowly shaping in front of her, centered on the seal. It began expanding outward, growing in size and strength as their meditation deepened.

“Can you feel that?” Sabine shouted in excitement.

“Yes!” Jacen and Ahsoka cried together. The question was for Ahsoka; both women were surprised when Jacen answered as well. White-gold light suddenly erupted from the seal, the lines, and the circles all at once. All around them, the ground itself began to rumble, and then shake. In their perception, the seal began to expand towards them, and the circles they sat in were drawn towards the seal, bringing the three of them together where it seemed they would collide in the center. That didn’t happen, however. Their speeds changed at the end, so that each of them reached the center of the seal one behind the other. Jacen arrived first and vanished as though he’d been dropped into a hole of light. Sabine was next, crying out slightly in surprise as she went, and finally Ahsoka.

Light exploded from the seal in a blinding flash, and then vanished. When it was gone, all that remained were the original seal, lines, and circles, pressed in the peaty ground just as they were before the group’s arrival. When Huyang finally grew concerned enough to check on them, that was all he found.

Ahsoka, Sabine, and Jacen had vanished.

* * *

The ground near the site of the temple was so flat and featureless that Baylan and Shin spotted the T-6 from a long way off—long before they could have been spotted themselves. Skoll held up a hand and the two swoops rapidly decelerated to a halt. Cautious concern creased his features as he reached for a case containing a set of macro binoculars.

“Master?” Shin prompted him.

“Patience,” Baylan instructed her, taking the binoculars and zooming them to their maximum magnification. He studied the area around the T-6 for a long minute, before shifting his scan to where the coordinates of the temple were located. A light obscuring mist blew over the ground, but after a few minutes he decided there were no signs of life, at least outside. “It appears that Ahsoka Tano has beaten us here,” he finally admitted. “The question now is whether she already has the map key or is still searching for it. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything here, does there?”

“No,” Shin agreed hesitantly, looking at him for guidance. “What do we do, master?”

“There’s only one way to find out, and if the shuttle takes off, we lose them. Ready yourself,” he ordered sternly. Shin’s eyes widened in excitement, and she nodded quickly, gripping the controls of her swoop. Baylan shot away in the next moment, his swoop motor screaming in protest at the sudden demand placed on it. Shin followed a moment later. The bikes closed the distance to the T-6 in seconds, but there was no response from it. Baylon Skoll gritted his teeth as he threw the swoop into a sideways skid, skillfully avoiding either a wipeout or smashing himself into one of the shuttle’s landing pylons. He rolled off the machine with Jedi swiftness, his red-orange lightsaber igniting with a snap-hiss.

He charged up the ramp of the ship with weapon at the ready, Shin following as quickly as she could with her own blade in hand. Baylon’s senses were fully extended in the Force—he could feel there was nobody aboard before he was even halfway up the ramp, but caution was still warranted. There was no knowing what sort of defenses Tano might have left in her absence.

The last thing he would ever have expected to see was the familiar shape of Huyang in the central compartment of the shuttle. The droid saw him coming on fast and stepped back in surprise, yellow photoreceptors glowing brightly. Baylan stopped short, amazement crossing his features, and Shin almost ran straight into his back.

“Huyang!” he half-shouted. “It can’t be! You’re alive!”

“Alive, and with seventy-five percent original parts!” Huyang joked, using humor as a shield in this uncertain moment. The memory of ten thousand padawan learners was cycling at droid-speed through his memory banks, until he suddenly had the one he sought. “General Skoll,” he added with more confidence. “Alive as well, though perhaps no longer a Jedi,” he added astutely.

Hati had circled out from behind her master, lightsaber at the ready, and ready to take advantage of the distraction. She moved and struck, only to have Huyang pivot away from the blow with machine speed and precision. He made no attempt to hit or interfere with her, merely got out of her way. He dodged a second blow, lightning-fast, and on her third he caught her wrist and swung her around, letting his grip slide forward until it locked onto her lightsaber. He snatched it out of her hand with a pop of machine strength, disarming and throwing her simultaneously. Hati leaned into the momentum of the throw, executing a neat, twisting Force-flip to land on her feet in a crouch, facing her unexpectedly competent opponent. She was about to reach out and shove with the Force when Huyang stood erect and closed down her lightsaber, rather than attacking her with it. She hesitated a beat, eyes wide.

“Stop!” Baylan commanded, his voice cracking like a blaster shot through the compartment. Shin froze, her body bladed and leaning forward, and she glanced at Baylan for guidance, as was her habit in moments like this. He held up his free hand, closing down his own lightsaber in the same motion. “It’s all right, Shin. Disengage,” he ordered, before looking back to Huyang. “Where is Ahsoka Tano? Does she have the map key?”

Huyang paused before answering, taking all factors into account, deciding what should be disclosed, and what should not. Too much information could be harmful to the cause of his allies. Too little would result in the resumption of violence, and he wished to avoid that if he could. “I am unsure as to Lady Tano’s location,” the droid replied. “It is possible she has the map, but I cannot say for certain. She has . . . disappeared.”

“So, the temple does still exist,” Baylan said. “In some form, at any rate. When do you expect her return?”

“Unknown,” Huyang replied. “Insufficient data.” The droid decided that this was an opportune moment to defuse the situation further. He took a step towards Shin Hati, offering her the lightsaber. He wished to study it further but having held it for several seconds he’d already learned a great deal, including the fact that Baylan Skoll had helped her build it—that was one question answered. Hati reached in tentatively and took the weapon from Huyang, returning it to her belt.

“Shin, go outside and keep watch. Safeguard the bikes and let me know the moment you see anyone.” Hati nodded, looking between Huyang and Skoll, before heading back down the ramp. When she was gone, Baylan Skoll glanced around curiously.

“I haven’t seen one of these since the Clone Wars. I’m surprised any are still flying.”

“It’s a large galaxy, Master Skoll, and full of surprises. May I inquire as to how you managed to escape the purge? I’m also curious as to your acquisition of an apprentice.”

Skoll chuckled. “Is there anything to drink around here?” he asked. “We might as well get comfortable, Huyang. It may be a long wait, and we have a lot of catching up to do.”
Chapter 8​

Ahsoka Tano found herself standing in darkness on a path marked by translucent light, with a universe of stars around her. While lines and arcs in what seemed to be random patterns were visible here and there, arcing between beginning and end points that were impossible for her to see. She glanced around quickly, noting that she was alone. Whatever had brought her here, it had either left Sabine and Jacen behind, or taken them somewhere else.

She recognized this place—this realm. She had been here before, with Ezra, when he’d rescued her from Malachor. Now, for reasons yet to be learned, she’d been brought back again.

“Hello, Snips,” a familiar voice said behind her.

Ahsoka’s voice caught in her throat and a wellspring of emotion burst inside her as she turned. “Anakin?” she asked.

He was there.

Anakin Skywalker, looking just like she’d known him in her youth. He was standing on the path in front of her, arms folded into his robes and wearing a slight smile. He was both outlined by light and suffused with it. “Anakin!”

“I’ve been expecting you,” he told her.

“Have you?” Ahsoka replied mildly. “You look the same.”

“You look older.”

Ahsoka folded her arms, wondering if this apparition was really her old master or some illusion, a trick of this place. Thinking back to her experience on Mortis, it wouldn’t the first time. “It happens,” she said. “Tell me what’s going on.” Anakin took a few steps towards her, hands folded behind his back.

“I’m here to finish your training.”

“It’s a little late for that.”

Anakin leaned in slightly as he passed her, speaking into her ear. “One is never too old to learn, Snips.”

“Alright.” Ahsoka said, turning to remain facing him. She was almost afraid to take her eyes off him, for fear he might vanish. “What’s the lesson . . . master?”

Anakin unhooked his lightsaber from his belt, igniting it in blue-white fire. “You have a choice to make: Life, or death.”

Ahsoka smiled. “Well, that was easy. I choose life.” Her smile faltered as Anakin stepped toward her, and despite her flip answer, she sensed the choice as Anakin meant it was a little more complex than she understood. “I won’t fight you,” she added as he closed towards striking range.

“I’ve heard that before,” he remarked, stepping in and striking. Ahsoka’s primary lightsaber twitched into her hand as she activated it, the silver-white blade appearing just in time to block Anakin. He pressed in and she held the block, and they were tete-a-tete for a moment before he pushed and she yielded, stepping back to open the distance. He came at her again, his lightsaber a blur as he rained blows on her and she continued to block and yield ground. Although she hadn’t faced it in years, his style and rhythm were familiar to her, almost like an old friend. She defended his sweeping attacks with an effective methodology of her own, keeping her own blade within an imaginary rectangle in front of her torso, tip always pointed more or less at Anakin no matter which position she blocked from. Being so much smaller than him, especially when she was younger, she’d found it particularly effective.

She continued to give ground until the path behind her met its end, terminating in a circular disc. Ahsoka stopped just inside the edge, allowing herself to become more aggressive as she realized she couldn’t keep retreating. She began counterattacking, and now Anakin was forced to defend as well, and it became more of a match. Ahsoka batted aside an attack and launched into a swift, acrobatic flying kick that laid the side of her boot alongside Skywalker’s face, knocking him back. He was grinning slightly as he recovered, with the pleasure of a teacher seeing his student exceed expectations.

Ahsoka’s smile was a little sardonic—she wasn’t a fourteen-year-old padawan anymore. “Looks like you don’t have much left to offer,” she taunted.

Anakin’s smile grew wider as he twirled his blade. “I haven’t taught you everything yet,” he answered, swinging at the path at their feet. His lightsaber passed completely through it and the disk shattered beneath Ahsoka’s feet. She let out a startled yelp.

And fell into infinity.

* * *

Sabine Wren found herself standing in what appeared to be a training room. She was faced by a man wearing an ancient Mandalorian helmet, and an outfit that was a strange, archaic hybrid of Mandalorian armor and robes. “Welcome, Sabine Wren,” the man said, his voice sounding hard coming from under his helmet.

“Do I know you?” Sabine asked, feeling like she at least should. But there was something missing here, something incomplete about the figure before her. She couldn’t place it, or him.

“That remains to be seen,” the man said. “It is in your purview. Ready yourself.”

“Ready myself? For what?” Sabine asked. “Where is Ahsoka? Where is Jacen?” she added, a hard, dangerous edge creeping into your voice.

“Ready yourself!” the man commanded, suddenly stepping aside with a billowing sweep of his cloak. Sabine suddenly saw an old enemy: Gar Saxon, standing opposite her in the training room, wearing full Mandalorian armor and weaponry.

Saxon leapt at her, raising an arm to fire his fibercord whip. Sabine drew and ignited her lightsaber, already moving. She was unarmored herself; she hadn’t worn her armor in years, and never during her periods of training with Ahsoka. It seemed counterproductive to wear it when training as a Jedi. Sabine severed the fibercord with a sweep over her blade and executed a hard, decapitating blow that Saxon deftly blocked with a flick of his beskar armguard. He flipped away from Sabine with a short burst of his jetpack, landing in a crouch. He raised the nozzle of his flamethrower, and Sabine knew what was coming next.

She planted one leg behind her and raised both hands, calling desperately on the Force. Flame jetted at her in an arc, and Sabine screamed as it burned her, but only for a moment. The arc of fire suddenly stopped in front of her, then deflected up to wash against the stone ceiling of the training room, having no effect on it.

The pair of darts Gar Saxon fired next were similarly redirected, as were the blaster bolts when he speed-drew a brace of pistols and began snapping off shots at her, moving rapidly around her in a circle. Sabine called on the Force to deflect them away, but when she deflected them straight back, his beskar armor protected him, and he kept firing. She swept in with Force-enhanced speed, as much as she was able to muster, and destroyed both blaster barrels with one sweeping strike of her blade. His whip-fast response, a gauntleted backhand slap, split her lip and sent her reeling; by the time she recovered and returned to the guard position, spitting blood, Saxon was at her with vibroblades clutched in each hand.

Her eyes narrowed—Sabine was finished playing games. She could use his beskar against him, since the lightsaber wouldn’t cut through it right away: She could treat the energy-blade like a steel sword for a moment, using it as a lever. Rather than trying to intercept the smaller vibroblades, she moved sideways and hooked her blade in the bend of his right elbow, then twisted to spin him off-center to his left, forcing him off balance and exposing his back. This took her blade tip high to her right, and she almost heard Huyang’s shout of Ki-sei! in her head as the follow-on strike cut a fiery swatch down through his jetpack. It exploded, knocking her back and spearing Gar Saxon into the wall headfirst, his rigid helmet proving unyielding as his head was crushed sideways. She heard his neck break, and he rag-dolled to the stone floor, rolling akimbo onto his back with his head twisted at a wrong angle.

Sabine slowly stood upright, blowing out her breath and fighting to get her breathing under control against the adrenaline-fueled racing of her heart. She spared a glance at the mysterious Mandalorian figure who observed the bout without moving, but even now he merely regarded her silently, saying nothing. She looked back to her fallen opponent, about to deactivate her lightsaber, and then noticed something. Almost as if in a dream, the body was different. It wasn’t Gar Saxon’s anymore. It was smaller, more diminutive.


Swallowing as the gorge rose in her, Sabine took a cautious step in, and then held her breath as she used the tip of her blade to flip the beskar helmet up and away from the head of the body.

The wide, dead eyes staring back at her were her own.

* * *
Jacen Syndulla found himself in a brightly lit room, with large, curving windows that looked out on an unfamiliar cityscape. Outside, there were endless streams of airspeeder traffic passing in the distance, crisscrossing each other at different altitudes. The room was large and clean, with a polished stone floor showing pleasant geometric patterns. There was nobody else here, except for a small, wizened, green creature with wrinkled skin and large ears. It was sitting cross-legged on a round seating pad, looking at him with kind eyes.

“Where am I?” Jacen asked. “What is this place? Who are you?”

The creature laughed, almost a trilling sound. “So many questions! Truly marvelous, the mind of a child! Hmm. Ask you a question, I will, young Jacen. Why are you here?”

“To help Ahsoka and Sabine open the temple. Is this the temple?”

“In a manner of speaking, it is. And for what reason did the temple need opening?”

“They were looking for something. A map, I think. At least, that’s what my mother said.”

“And find it here, you thought you would?”

“I guess so,” Jacen shrugged, looking around. “This isn’t Lothal.”

“So sure, are you?” the creature smiled. “Deceive you, your eyes can. What does your mind tell you? Your instincts?

Jacen looked thoughtful. “It’s hard to tell. I feel like there is light all around me. It’s hard for me to see through.”

“Good. Good!” the creature said, its eyes narrowing. After a moment it added quietly: “Very good.”

“Where are Ahsoka and my Aunt Sabine?” Jacen asked. “I thought we came here together, wherever this is.”

“Finding their own paths, they are. What path do you seek?”

“I’d like to find the map, I guess, so we can go home. Can you help us find it?”

“Help you, I cannot,” the creature said, “but know of one who can, I do.” He gestured towards the door to the room with his wooden gimer stick. “Through there, find you will, that which you seek.”

“Thanks!” Jacen said brightly. He walked straight to the door, unafraid, and turned back to the creature, who still watched him with a slight smile. “May the Force be with you!” he said cheerfully.

The creature bowed its head slightly. “And also with you, young one.”

Jacen keyed the door open and stepped through.

* * *

A very young Ahsoka Tano picked herself up off the ground and waited a moment for the dizziness to pass. She became aware of movement around her: distress, strife, and the sounds of battle. Clone troopers in familiar livery moved past her, and the sound of blaster fire increased. Everything was obscured by a pinkish mist.

“Forward!” she heard her master cry from behind her. Anakin Skywalker appeared out of the gloom, lightsaber in hand, charging forward with their clone troops.

“Master!” Ahsoka called, glancing wildly around her.

“Hurry up, Snips!” Skywalker urged. He was past her now, moving fast, as always. Ahsoka sprinted after him. She faltered, raising a hand against the glare as a large explosion went off to her right.

“Wait!” she called. Anakin paused ahead of her, his lightsaber flashing to block a fusillade of blaster fire coming at him. “This is the Clone Wars!” she cried incredulously.

Anakin glanced back at her, looking amused. “Yeah, no kidding!”

“This was one of our first missions. Why are we here?”

“You tell me!”

“I don’t understand!”

Anakin nodded. “That’s your problem.” He turned and charged forward again, and this time Ahsoka followed, pulling the single lightsaber off her belt, and igniting it. When the green blade sprang to life, she didn’t even notice the weapon was her original; because of course it was, in this time and place, just like she was a teenager here. That only made sense and didn’t register with her.

“Master, wait!” she called, running after him, and deflecting incoming battle droid fire.

“You gotta keep up!” Anakin called back to her.

“What about my training?”

“This is your training!”

Ahsoka moved and fought. Some time later, during a break in the battle, she wandered through the carnage. Dead and wounded clones were everywhere, and battle droids smashed beyond repair. She found herself in the triage station, compassion welling in her as she wearily sat next to a badly wounded clone, placing a hand on his chest. The clone couldn’t speak, but he moved a gloved hand to cover hers, acknowledging her presence, and thanking her the only way he could. Ahsoka bit back tears. Nearby, Anakin was consulting with a pair of Twi’lek officers and Captain Rex. He spotted her and came over.

“C’mon, Snips, the battle isn’t over. There are more Separatist battle droids approaching.” Ahsoka nodded, sighing, before getting back up. The clone’s hand fell away as she did, and she spared him one last glance before squaring off against her master, angry and confused. Anakin’s tone turned slightly reprimanding. “Is there a problem?”

“We lost so many.”

Anakin glanced at the ground, showing a hint of remorse as he walked back toward her. “There’s always a price to be paid.”

“This was my fault,” Ahsoka said guiltily. “I got them killed!”

“This is war, Ahsoka,” Anakin reminded her. “As Jedi, it’s our job to lead. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes.”

“But our mistakes cost lives. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Of course it does!”

“This . . . ” Ahsoka said, glancing at the carnage around them, “. . . this isn’t what I trained for.”

“We must adjust to the times. Look, when Obi-wan taught me, we were keepers of the peace. To win this war I’ve had to teach you to be a soldier.”

“Is that all I’ll have to teach my padawan one day? How to fight?”

Anakin flashed her a sardonic grin. “Do you even want a padawan?”


“You know, teaching is not always what it’s cracked up to be.”

“Really?!” What makes you say that?”

“I’m joking!” Anakin replied, spreading his arms.

“You’re joking!” Ahsoka was genuinely angry now.

“Yeah, I’m joking!” Anakin replied.

“How can you joke at a time like this?”

“What would you prefer? Tell me, what do you want? Do you want me to be more serious?”

“I’d prefer it!” Ahsoka snapped.

“Listen, I’m teaching you how to lead—how to survive. In order to do that, you’re going to have to fight.” An explosion went off nearby, signaling the fresh resumption of battle. Around them, the clones were beginning to pick themselves up, to mobilize again.

“What if I want to stop fighting?” Ahsoka asked plaintively.

Anakin’s look was hard. “Then you’ll die,” he replied, stepping away and igniting his lightsaber. “Let’s go,” he added to the troops around him, as fresh blaster fire started going back and forth. He moved forward, leading a squad of clones onward into battle.

Ahsoka began to follow, then stopped. She saw the silhouette of her master walking away from her, lightsaber held out beside him. There was an explosion directly ahead of him, and a flash, and suddenly he was different. A dark-armored figure wreathed in flame, ominous and evil, and the lightsaber he held was no longer blue-white, but the familiar, bloodshine color of a Sith blade. Another flash, and he was Anakin again. And then it happened again, and he was Vader. And then Anakin, until he disappeared from view. Ahsoka watched with wide, young eyes, terrified to her core.

* * *

A stone doorway opened in one corner of the training room. Sabine spared one last look at the ancient Mandalorian, before stepping through. Here she found her own Mandalorian armor and weapons, laid out for battle. She sensed rather than heard the ancient Mandalorian entering the room behind her. “Arm yourself,” he ordered.

“Why. This is all I— “ Sabine started to say, reaching to brandish the lightsaber at her belt. Only it wasn’t there. “Oh, I get it,” she said with a sarcastic shake of her head. “That’s how it is. All right, have it your way,” she ceded. She spent the next few minutes putting on her armor and weapons. It had been a long time since she’d done it; it felt strangely empowering and reminded her of days when things were less . . . conflicted.

“Ready yourself,” the ancient Mandalorian ordered her a second time. Sabine nodded, and another stone door slid open in the far end of the room. A tall, imposing figure stepped through, wearing padded, cream-colored robes and a stylized facemask. It also carried a long metal hilt, and twin yellow lightsaber blades sprang from each end, forming a staff.

“Really?” she said, feeling exasperated now. “What is going on here, anyway?”

“That is a Jedi Temple Guard,” the ancient Mandalorian explained.

“Gotcha,” Sabine replied. She gestured to the temple guard. “Look, I’m on your side. I don’t want to fight another Jedi.”

“I am the only Jedi here, Mandalorian,” the guard’s voice rasped from behind its mask. “Your presence is forbidden. Defend yourself or perish!”

The saber staff hummed as it whirled in a blur, and the temple guard stepped in. Sabine slipped her helmet on and moved, just barely fast enough. The guard came in with an overhead strike, and she had nothing in hand. She stepped inside the arc of the guard’s swing, catching part of the saber-staff’s hilt in her hands as she pivoted, executing a hard teras-kasi style hip-throw. The Jedi guard went with it and flipped over her back to land on his feet, rather than coming down hard on his back. They both had hold of the staff; Sabine head-butted the guard with her helmet, hard enough to crack his mask, and she let go of the staff in the same moment, backing away just as the guard was beginning to pull it. He stumbled back, using the Force to quickly regain his balance.

Sabine speed-drew one of her blasters and snapped off a shot, raising her flamethrower with the other. The saber-staff whirled again, sending the blaster bolt straight back at her. She expected that though, and dodged sideways with the Force to avoid it. She fired several more shots and let go with the flamethrower. The flames were deflected harmlessly away with the Force as she had done before, doing no damage.

Another flash of the saber-staff and her blaster was cut in two. She dropped the sparking parts and dodged again as the other end of the staff whipped in a decapitating blow. She couldn’t avoid it, and winced as she threw up an armored forearm to parry the blow. She wasn’t sure if the beskar armor would hold against the powerful strike, but it did. When the reverse blow came from the opposite side, almost faster than thought, she tried holding that one off with the Force.

To her amazement, it worked. The blade stopped midair as if hitting a solid wall, but Sabine knew this wasn’t a strong play for her and didn’t try to turn it into a test of strength. She merely used the time it gave her to move, stepping and pivoting before the guard’s mastery of the Force overcame her own, and the strike followed through. The saber-staff whirled and hummed, finding no target, and the two danced away from one another in what looked like an impressive martial choreography, but was merely excellent form on the part of both combatants.

The guard stepped in for a second overhead strike, mirroring his opening move. No mind! Sabine thought, stepping inside and catching the hilt the same way she had the first time. She repeated her hip-throw, and the temple guard repeated his attempt at a flipping escape. This time Sabine leaned into it, her grip on the saber-staff firm but light enough to feel everything happening. As the guard landed, she moved in slightly and twisted expertly, arcing the opposite lightsaber beam into the crotch of the guard. It sliced up and into him effortlessly, and he suddenly staggered, mortally wounded. Sabine followed through, using the Force to add power to the motion, ripping the staff completely up through torso, neck, and head. The guard fell away in literally two halves, each burnt black and smoldering like a cinder along the lines of the cut. In her follow through she deactivated both ends of the staff at once and let the hilt spin with a slight flourish, stepping back into a low combat crouch with the weapon held out behind her.

Conscious thought returned and she realized the fight was over. As with the last exercise with the remotes the night before, she didn’t remember the movements of the last pass until after she’d won, and then the memory flooded back in a rush. Sabine stood slowly and peeled off her helmet, reluctantly looking down on her handiwork.

The dead temple guard had again transformed into a mirror image of herself, but she felt understanding begin to creep into her perception.

As before, the ancient Mandalorian watched impassively, his face completely disguised behind his helmet. “You are beginning to see it clearly,” he said.

Sabine nodded; her mouth pressed in a thin line. “I think I am.”

“Then let us find out,” the ancient Mandalorian said.
* * *
Jacen stepped through the stone door, only to find himself in a different place. This one seemed more like what he had expected to find in the first place: a packed dirt floor, dim lighting, and sloping, rough-cut stone walls. There was something else waiting for him as well. The gigantic Loth wolf he had seen before, sitting quietly on its haunches as if it had been waiting for him. Jacen smiled and strolled up to the wolf. It watched his approach with unreadable yellow eyes, then lowered its head when Jacen reached up to pet it. Their eyes met, and again Jacen Syndulla felt a dizzying rush that made the world seem to spin around him.


“Yes, I guess I am,” Jacen answered solemnly. “If he had lived and given me his original name.”


“Can you help me? I need to find a way out of here, with the map and my friends, or hopefully both.” As if in response, the Loth wolf settled down onto its belly, giving Jacen the ability to clamber up onto its back. The Loth wolf stood, turned, and walked off into the temple with Jacen riding along. Another large door slid open ahead of them, and bright, natural light showed on the other side. They passed through, and suddenly they were outside, walking a grassy plain under a night sky full of stars.

Jacen glanced up at the stars, noting the constellations. “Well, we’re still on Lothal, I guess,” he muttered, a little disappointed. He’d hoped for help finding the map or his friends, but getting out of the temple was good enough—his mother was going to be so worried that she’d be angry with him, even though it wasn’t his fault. However, he noticed after a minute that not only was the Loth wolf not slowing down, but Jacen also didn’t seem to be anywhere near his starting point. There was no sign of the T-6, Huyang, or the ground markings where they’d entered the temple to start with. More Loth wolves appeared, and they began running in a circle, nose-to-tail, as they loped along.

Jacen gasped, almost shouting as the ground seemed to fall away. They were airborne, and he clutched at the wolf’s fur frantically, suddenly afraid of falling off in a moment of vertigo. The Loth wolf looked back at him for a moment, eyes unreadable, before picking up even more speed. The ground fell away even faster, until soon he was completely above Lothal, in space. But he could still breathe, and he was still warm. Stars were all around him now, and strange white lines bending this way and that, and pathways marked in light. The other Loth wolves had vanished, and now it was just the two of them again.

I’m still inside the temple, he realized in a sudden flash of insight.

The Loth wolf began to run again, and Jacen watched as the stars began to move, rapidly leaving Lothal behind. This is getting interesting, he told himself, grasping that there was some strange agency at work here which he didn’t understand. But he knew he’d better start paying close attention to what he was being shown.

* * *

Ahsoka was a young adult as she plunged twin blue-white lightsaber blades through the chest plate of her Mandalorian enemy. She withdrew them just as fast, launching herself into a spinning arc as she both deflected blaster fire and cut into her enemies in a finely choreographed dance of death. This was Ahsoka in her early prime, a few years after leaving the Jedi Order and her master behind. Her movements were fluid, economical, and perfect. Nothing could stand before her and live. She was the perfect warrior her master had trained her to be.

“Nice work, commander,” Rex called to her from nearby. “We’ll secure the perimeter. Let’s go! Let’s go!” he shouted to the troops around him, charging into the mist. Ahsoka watched him go, pausing with arms folded, contemplating the battle as it raged on around her.

Anakin Skywalker appeared out of the mist, looking around curiously and stepping carefully over debris and fallen bodies. “I don’t know this battle,” he remarked conversationally.

“This was the siege of Mandalore,” Ahsoka informed him. “We’d parted ways by now.”

Anakin looked down at her. “It looks intense.”

“It was.”

“You did well. You’re a warrior now—as I trained you to be.”

“Is that all?” she asked in a disappointed voice.

“Ahsoka, you will be everything I am. All the knowledge I possess, just as I inherited knowledge from my master, and he from his. You’re part of a legacy.”

Ahsoka shook her head. “But my part of that legacy is one of death, and war.”

“But you’re more than that,” Anakin said, “Because I’m more than that.”

She turned warily to look up at him. “You are more, Anakin—but more powerful, and dangerous than anyone realized.”

Anakin looked away for a moment, before leaning back with the defensive expression he always wore before getting angry. Ahsoka knew it well: it was as if he knew his temper was rising and wanted to stop it, but couldn’t. “Is that what this is about?”

“If I am everything you are— “

“—You’ve learned nothing,” Anakin cut her off, strolling angrily ahead. “Back to the beginning. I gave you a choice: Life, or death.” He extended his arm, and a bloodshine lightsaber ignited in his hand. When he turned to face her, his complexion looked diseased, and his eyes were a sickly yellow color—a color she’d seen before. Her own eyes widened in shock.

“No,” she said.

Anakin’s head tilted slightly, as if processing her answer. “Incorrect,” he said flatly. He stepped and struck, and Ahsoka defended. Battle was joined once again. This time she fought with passion, angrily, going on the offensive. Anakin effortlessly defended against her attacks, and when her aggressiveness disrupted her form, he caught one of her wrists in a hold, clinching her close and studying her dispassionately for a long moment. Then he shoved her back, landing a hard kick to the chest that folded her up and sent her flying into the mist.

* * *

Sabine stepped into a third training room and saw her lightsaber sitting on a side table. “Take it up,” the ancient Mandalorian ordered her. Sabine did so, replacing it with the saber-staff she’d taken from the temple guard. The ancient Mandalorian stepped up to the table behind her, taking the staff and twisting it expertly, keeping one half for himself. He stepped around to the center of the room and turned to face her.

“Ready yourself,” he warned, before igniting the single lightsaber formed by the half-staff, and stepping in expertly. Sabine ignited her own and blocked overhead with one hand, while clenching a fist underneath and sending an explosive dart rocketing into the Mandalorian’s armor at point-blank range. It burst forcefully against him, and he staggered back slightly.

“You do see it!” he said approvingly from under his helmet. Flame suddenly issued from his own flame thrower, but Sabine deflected it with the Force and moved, simultaneously trying to entangle his legs with her own fibercord. The filament was slashed away by the yellow lightsaber blade, leaving him open to the lightsaber strike Sabine brought in from the other side. He deflected that with his beskar armor, head-butting her in turn and gesturing with his free hand. The Force picked Sabine up and hurled her against the far wall. It threatened to knock the breath out of her, but she was able to take the brunt of it on her armor the way she’d been taught. His lightsaber flew toward her, flying out of the swirling dust an instant later, but Sabine ducked her head sideways with Force-enhanced reflexes. It speared into the wall where her head had just been. He appeared right behind it, hand outstretched and clenching his fist. Sabine ducked and just missed having the top of her head shaved off as the lightsaber sliced sideways through the stone wall, controlled by the Force.

Sabine lashed out with a tremendous kick, catching the Mandalorian in the midriff and knocking him back, but with his control of the Force he didn’t tumble or flip, merely slid on the flats of his feet.

No mind!

Sabine speed-drew her blaster with her free hand and sent several shots at her opponent, forcing him to bob, weave, and dance, whipping his forearms up with Jedi reflexes, blocking them with beskar. He reached out an instant later to recall his lightsaber—as she intended. As it flew from the wall, her own lightsaber flashed up and cut the hilt in two, sending the individual pieces sparking away. In almost the same motion she launched the rest of her explosive darts at the other half of the saber-staff lying on the table where they’d entered the room, destroying it as well.

Fibercord lashed around her wrist and forearm, taking control of the arm holding her lightsaber. She felt herself jerked forward into the fresh gush of flame from the ancient Mandalorian’s flamethrower. She trusted her armor to protect her for a moment and went with it, leaping into a Force-enhanced double kick that sent her opponent sprawling. They were still tethered by the fibercord; rather than cut it, Sabine wrapped it more tightly with a corkscrewing motion of her arm and pulled him into her, threatening to impale him on her blade. He shunted it aside with the Force, so she stepped in as she had earlier, catching him in a teras-kasi hip throw that he wasn’t quick enough to Force-flip out of. He came down hard on his back in a thundering crash of beskar, and Sabine still had her lightsaber. A moment later the tip of it was a centimeter under his chin, ready to be rammed home for the killing blow.

“Well done, Sabine Wren,” the ancient Mandalorian congratulated her. “Only one decision remains.”

Life? Or death?

Sabine nodded. With a flick of her thumb, she deactivated her lightsaber and offered a hand up to her beaten opponent. “This is the way.”

“I am one with the Force . . .” the ancient Mandalorian said.

“. . .And the Force is with me,” Sabine finished, sighing in satisfaction.

“Do you recognize me now?” the ancient Mandalorian asked.

“You are Tarre Vizsla, the first Mandalorian Jedi.”

“And you, Sabine Wren, may very well be the last. Come with me,” he added, leading her to another stone door. This one slid open, and they stepped out into darkness, where they stood on a path of light in a realm where they were surrounded by stars. White lines arced through the space seemingly at random, but a branch of the path ahead terminated at a white-lined circle surrounded by a triangle. It had the look of a portal. As they approached, images in the portal shimmered and began to take solid shape.

“Behold!” Vizsla said.

The images became clear. Sabine gasped. There was a battle being fought—a desperate one. Mandalorians fought Mandalorians, or so she thought at first. When she looked more closely, she saw the armor of one force bore Imperial insignia. Then the images seemed to focus on the battle between two warriors. One was a large man dressed in a black, Imperial version of Mandalorian armor. He fought with an electrostaff. The other she recognized: it was Bo-Katan Kryse, and she was wielding the darksaber. The dark warrior demanded that she hand over the legendary darksaber, forged by Tarre Vizsla himself a thousand years before. She refused, but in her next series of attacks, the dark warrior caught her hand and crushed it, and almost impossibly, the darksaber with it. Sabine gasped as she saw the weapon flicker and go out. It dropped to the deck, sparking and shattered, as the dark warrior advanced on Bo-Katan.

“The darksaber is gone,” the dark warrior said. He stabbed at Bo-Katan with his staff, knocking her back several meters. “You’ve lost everything,” he taunted as he advanced on her. “Mandalorians are weak, without their trinkets.”

Bo-Katan looked up at him with defiance flashing in her eyes. “Mandalorians are stronger together,” she said. There was a blaster discharge, and the dark warrior was hit on the side of the helmet. The beskar protected him, and he turned to see another Mandalorian advancing on him. Combat resumed.

Tarre Vizsla, or at least this manifestation of him, reached out with his hand. On the other side of the portal, the shattered remains of the darksaber whipped towards him, drawn by the Force. It passed through the portal and into his hand. The sounds coming from the portal faded, and then the images dimmed and vanished in a sheen of mist, leaving only a circle outlined in white light again, though which the backdrop of stars shone clearly.

“What was that?” Sabine asked breathlessly.

“A vision of the future,” Tarre Vizsla revealed. “In this place, where time and space merge with the living Force, all things are possible.” His hands encompassed the shattered hilt of the darksaber and closed over it. They glowed with a crackling, black-and-white energy as what remained of the darksaber seemed to collapse in on itself, vanishing to nothing within his grip.

“You have passed your trial, Sabine Wren. Like your master, you walk a unique path—one that I walked a thousand years ago. You know now what you need to walk it—Remember what you have learned.” Vizsla held out his right hand and opened it, palm up. It revealed a smooth, translucent black crystal that seemed to crackle with an inner white light. The crystal rose from his palm, suspended in the air between them. “The darksaber is no more,” Vizsla said with gravitas, “but its successor may rise anew. Take it.”

Sabine nodded and took the jewel. She could feel it in the Force, just like a kyber or Ilum crystal—It was a lightsaber crystal. Vizsla stepped aside, a white mist appearing around his feet to rise around him like a cloud, obscuring him. When the mist cleared, Sabine was alone.

The portal opened again, showing familiar blue skies and flat, mossy ground.

* * *
Jacen Syndulla might not have had any formal training as a pilot yet, but his mother had taught him enough to read a star chart. It didn’t take him long to grasp that he was being taken on a walking tour of the galaxy, all from within an ancient Jedi temple. The galaxy stretched out in all directions below his feet, as though he were some sort of god standing above it with a bird’s eye view. He was no longer riding his Loth wolf companion—the wolf walked beside him now, looking almost as curious as he did as the lighted path led them from world to world. Jacen guessed that the paths were hyperspace routes, or at least possible hyperspace routes.

He'd lost track of how long he’d been here. From one perspective it seemed like he’d just arrived; from another it seemed like he’d always been here. He didn’t give it too much thought; he figured he’d been here a long time, probably long enough to scare his mother to death and set the galaxy ablaze searching for him, but he knew he was alright, so he didn’t spare her too much concern—everything would work out in the end.

The latest path brought them to a world on the very edge of the outer rim—almost into wild space. They paused here for a time, long enough for Jacen to get a good look, and see a world with gray, overcast skies, beautiful red-leaf forests, and the surf of wine dark seas breaking against windswept, eroded cliffs. As if he was flying the Ghost, the view spiraled down until he could see a ring of old standing stones at the top of a rounded portion of protruding cliff ledge. He circled it once, before being swept back up into space, far faster than the Ghost could ever go through atmosphere.

The ongoing path led them through wild space, arcing into the Unknown Regions past worlds, nebula, and other stellar artifacts that he doubted anyone from this part of the galaxy had ever seen, or could imagine seeing.

At one point he was moving with a large group of Purrgil. He laughed in delight at that, and whether they were somehow real or not, the Purrgil seemed to acknowledge his presence in return. He felt their eyes upon them, and he could see the bright light of their being suspended within the broader light he felt all around himself in this place. The Purrgil were luminous, and Jacen felt an intense joy in their being alive and sapient. They moved along the same paths he did, although eventually those paths diverged and the Purrgil moved off on their own, a few looking back at him as if they wished they could wave.

Eventually, Jacen’s journey slowed again, and he came to a place where things were strange. The stars were much closer together, and there were ion storms, gaseous clouds that roiled and boiled in interstellar eddies spanning light-years. There were black holes large and small, and entire star systems’ worth of shredded planets and other loose matter being whipped here and there on a gravitational roller-coaster. He circled this anomaly, or cluster, from all directions, without the path taking him inside, although here and there he could see twisted, tightly defined paths that led farther into the interior. Eventually he was brought back to the point where he had arrived at the anomaly, and he noticed a lone star system that sat just outside it. The star was large and bright, with several orbiting planets. Four of those planets were gas giants, and Jacen was brought to a moon of one of those worlds. It wasn’t very large, but it was green and teemed with life. Large flying creatures lived in high, rocky aeries, and there were numerous other life forms as well. One stood out to Jacen, however, because its inner light was so bright—far brighter than the light of other living things around it.

His own curiosity seemed to spur his own approach. He was shocked to see that the bright life form was another human being—a man, where no man should be, and he was the only one on this entire world. He was an adult, about six feet tall with a tangled mass of dark hair and an equally tangled mustache and beard. He looked tanned and weathered and was dressed in clothes fashioned from native furs. He sat alone at the top of a cliff, legs dangling easily over the edge, looking wistfully at the night sky. Although the Purrgil had sensed Jacen, the man seemed to have no sense of his presence, even if only in spirit. That made Jacen wonder if he was there or not, or just seeing all of this in his mind.

Then the moment passed. The man faded rapidly from view as Jacen was drawn upwards and away, returning to known space far faster than he’d come. The stars blurred past so fast that it began to look like a hyperspace transit, and the next thing he knew, he had settled back into the galaxy, losing his bird’s-eye-view. Soon he and his Loth wolf companion were suspended over Lothal once more, back where the journey had begun.

The wolf nudged his shoulder and began walking one of the light paths. Jacen followed, and was led to an ending, where the path terminated in a vertical circle surrounded by a triangle. The portal shimmered, showing the stone interior of the temple. Jacen followed the Loth wolf inside, and when he looked behind him, it was as though he had walked out of a stone wall—there was no doorway behind him of any kind. The Loth wolf led him farther, until he passed into a circular chamber with a stone pillar at the very center of it. Sitting on the stone pillar was a metallic orb, etched with symbols and pictograms he couldn’t read. The wolf sat down next to the pillar and looked back at him, expectantly.

“Is that that the map key?” Jacen asked. The Loth wolf had no answer for him—it merely looked at him with sad, yellow eyes. He walked up to the pillar and examined it. The orb was some sort of ancient artifact, that much was clear. After what he’d just experienced, it was his guess that this was what they had come here to retrieve. He reached out tentatively, looking quickly to his wolf companion to see if it was going to offer any helpful clues as to whether he should take it or not. The wolf merely sat and watched.

Jacen reached out and took the orb. It was cool to the touch, solid but not too heavy, and absolutely nothing happened when he touched it. He hefted it once in his hand, holding it up to eye-level to peer at it closely. As near as he could tell, it was just an etched metal orb, made of some mysterious, gunmetal colored alloy.

The Loth wolf stood up and led him to the next antechamber. An animated pictogram of six Loth wolves was the only adornment on the far stone wall, running to form a large circle within which the stone shimmered as if it were a liquid surface that a stone had been dropped into. Jacen understood that this was where he was supposed to go: the path home. The wolf stopped, sitting down again and silently watching him.

Jacen suddenly felt a pang of loss, and he didn’t know why—he wasn’t even sure the Loth wolf was real, or just some sort of vision. He stepped back to it, and the great beast lowered its head one last time, sniffing him and nuzzling his neck as it had at their first meeting. “Good-bye,” Jacen said. “And thank you.”

Dume, echoed a deep voice in his head.

Jacen turned and walked through liquid stone, back into the physical world.
Chapter 9

“Shin came from a family of Force-sensitives,” Baylan explained to Huyang, sipping from a cup of tea. “Her mother, older sister, and younger brother were all potential Jedi, along with Shin herself. Her mother was the only one old enough to have trained at the temple, had the Jedi Order found her as a youngling. But their homeworld is an outer-rim backwater; I doubt the planet had seen a Jedi in a hundred generations or more, if ever. So, they had the potential, but knew nothing of it. I ended up taking shelter there; I’d worked as a smuggler for a time since the purge, but I made some mistakes and managed to get an Inquisitor gunning for me.”

“I know your reputation from the Clone Wars, General Skoll,” Huyang said. “It seems to me you could have easily handled a single Inquisitor.”

“I lost my lightsaber escaping the purge,” Baylan explained. “I went several years without one, and Inquisitors rarely come alone—there was always the Imperial war machine behind them. Anyway, to make a long story short, the Inquisitor came searching for me, but found Shin’s family instead. She wasn’t there when it happened, and what happened wasn’t pretty, as you can imagine. Shin found them slaughtered, and I found her soon after. I knew what she was, or at least what she could be, properly trained. I’d never thought to take another padawan . . . I didn’t even consider myself a Jedi anymore. I still don’t,” he added with a pointed look at Huyang.

“Go on,” Huyang encouraged him.

“Needless to say, that Inquisitor didn’t make it offworld,” Skoll said with a slight grimace. “I felt badly for Shin—what happened to her family would not have happened if I hadn’t been there. She wasn’t quite old enough to take care of herself, so I took her on. I don’t know what she was like before her family was massacred, but she’s never recovered. Emotionally, she’s mostly shut down, like she’s in a state of shock that never completely goes away.”

“But not catatonic, obviously,” Huyang said.

“No, not like that at all. She functions normally, but she’s broken, maybe sociopathic. In a way, it’s helped with her training. The murder of her family burned the fear out of her, like she’s already been through the worst than can happen. She doesn’t form attachments, not even to me, after all this time. Which is probably for the best,” Skoll reflected, looking like a man with regrets. He said nothing for a long moment, morosely taking another drink of his tea.

“You managed to build a new lightsaber,” Huyang observed. “From the Inquisitor’s weapon?”

“Yes. He carried one of those bizarre circular saber staffs. I recovered the kyber crystals as power sources, the lens-focusing crystals, and cannibalized some of the electronics, as well. I used the Force to re-align the lattice structure of the focusing crystals, but the Sith use synthetic crystals, not natural ones. I wasn’t sure how well it would work . . . the orange color you saw was the result.”

Huyang nodded. He didn’t mention that Lady Tano had achieved far more success re-aligning Sith crystals, resulting in the silver-white blades she carried. What Huyang couldn’t say for certain was whether their ability to re-align the crystals was a matter of strength in the Force, or a reflection of their individual character—good vs evil, as it were. Baylan Skoll certainly didn’t strike him as evil, but he wasn’t necessarily a good man, either.

“May I?” Huyang asked, holding out his metal hand.

It didn’t even occur to Baylan to refuse—the Law of Primacy was a powerful thing, and Huyang had been one of his teachers since he was a youngling in the temple. He unclipped his lightsaber and handed it over without hesitation. Huyang turned it over in his hands, studying and scanning it from all angles. “I can see your original style here, necessarily adjusted to use the materials you had on hand,” the droid said. Huyang activated it, and the red-orange beam of energy appeared. The droid studied this as well, taking energy readings and recording their signature, before closing the weapon down and setting it on the table between them. The readings on this weapon would go into Huyang’s extensive, 25,000-year-old database on the subject of lightsabers. “Did Lady Hati construct her own weapon as well?”

“Partially, under my close supervision,” Skoll answered. “Resources for making lightsabers are hard to find these days or must be improvised. I couldn’t afford a lot of trial and error, to risk ruining the components we did have. Her skillset is fragmented, obviously—the training I’ve provided her is nothing like the training I received in the temple.”

“How could it be?” Huyang reflected philosophically. “I’ve seen much the same thing in other places as well,” he added, specifically making no mention of Ahsoka Tano having an apprentice.

“Yes, I’ve heard things—I know Shin isn’t the only one. So this is what the Jedi Order has come to, eh? One last generation of bokken-Jedi, trained in the wild after the fall of the temple. This Luke Skywalker I keep hearing about is probably no better trained than Shin, and nowhere near as well as Ahsoka Tano or myself. It’s probably for the best,” he added bitterly, draining his tea.

“The death of hope is the worst of all deaths,” Huyang quoted. “This has happened before, General Skoll. It is far from the first time the Jedi Order has almost been eradicated, only to rise again.”

“Skywalker is welcome to it. It’s fitting, isn’t it, that the son rebuilds what the father destroyed? I’ve moved on.”

Huyang took special note of that—Skoll knew things about Anakin Skywalker that very few people in the galaxy knew about.

“So, you wander as a mercenary? Working for the people who killed Shin’s family?”

“I’m more than a mercenary, these days. That small planet where I found Shin? I rule there, now. They are good, simple people, just isolated and poor. They need little protection because they have nothing anyone wants. The work I do provides them with the resources they can’t provide for themselves: medicines, technology, and some manufactured goods. It’s a symbiotic relationship, of sorts. They need what I provide, and providing it gives me a purpose, and keeps my skills sharp. And I do enjoy the work, Huyang. I enjoy it immensely.”

“What you’re doing now may trigger another full interstellar war.”

Skoll waved a dismissive hand. “War in this galaxy is the season unending. You know it far better than I do. How many of those wars were fought between Jedi and Sith? Perhaps that is the cycle that needs breaking. The Sith are finally extinct—best now if the Jedi follow them.”

Baylan suddenly sensed a disturbance in the Force; it was followed by the sound of rapid footfalls coming up the boarding ramp. Shin Hati appeared, looking excited.

“Does Lady Hati know that it was the Imperials who murdered her family?” Huyang asked conversationally, completely out of nowhere.

Hati looked blankly at the droid, as if not sure of what she’d just heard. “What?” she said dully.

Baylan stood up from his seat. “Shin!” he said sharply, snapping her focus back to him. “What’s happening?”

“There’s someone outside, a young boy. He just . . . appeared, as if out of nowhere.”

“Nobody else?”

“No, master.”

“Grab him and find out what’s going on. I’ll be right behind you,” he ordered.

“But— “ she said, her eyes darting back to Huyang.

Now, Shin!” Skoll said intensely.

“Yes, master,” she replied, heading down the ramp. Skoll turned back to Huyang, who was standing as well. Skoll’s jaw clenched in fury.

“That was unwise!” he growled, his voice a near-snarl.

“Bad timing?” Huyang offered, sounding not the least bit remorseful.

Both were preternaturally aware of the lightsaber sitting on the table, between them.

* * *

“But this star destroyer is standing off from the planet?” Admiral Akbar asked, appearing in front of Hera Syndulla as a hologram. “It hasn’t taken any offensive action?”

“Not as of yet, admiral,” Syndulla replied. “Its presence can’t be coincidence, though—they are after the map key, just like we are. A ship matching the description given by Ranger Orrelios launched from the destroyer and slipped past the local patrols. There are Imperial agents on the surface of Lothal right now—I’m sure of it.”

“Map key?” Ackbar asked.

Syndulla sighed. “You haven’t read Ahsoka Tano’s report yet, have you? Or Zeb’s?”

“Tano’s report is in my ‘to-read’ file, but it was primarily considered intelligence, not military. Ranger Orrelios’s report goes to a different chain of command. I’m sure it doesn’t escape you that we have a lot going on, general.”

“We’ll have a lot more if Grand Admiral Thrawn makes a grand return,” Hera argued back.

Ackbar couldn’t argue that point. “What is the state of Lothal’s defenses?”

“A couple of smaller corvette gunships, and a wing of snubfighters. They’re basically the local police, not a real military force per-se. Look, admiral, we’re flapping in the wind out here resource-wise. I’ve got the Ghost, and that’s it. A Victory class star destroyer carries two squadrons of TIEs aside from its own firepower, which is substantial, and the mercenaries who freed Morgan Elsbeth are here with them. At least one of them has powers like a Jedi.”

“It sounds like I’d better read those reports sooner rather than later,” Ackbar grumbled. “The problem is that Ahsoka Tano is a mercenary herself—she doesn’t work for us, not anymore. At least, not officially. You say you’re looking for a map key. Where’s the map?”

Hera opened her mouth to answer, and abruptly closed it. She’d just assumed it was with the map key—that the key was the map, in some form. But what if it wasn’t? Ahsoka hadn’t said anything about it, and Hera had just assumed she knew what she was after. Hera testily reminded herself about the dangers of assuming.

“I’ll need to clarify that with Fulcrum, admiral,” she replied, embarrassed.

“Please do, as soon as you can,” Ackbar replied. “I don’t have anything heavy to send your way, at least not in a timeframe you’ll find useful. There are the forces on Mon Calamari, which isn’t too far from Lothal. I can chop a squadron of X-wings to you on temporary duty orders. Those, coupled with local forces, should be sufficient to run off one VSD. If you need more than that, you’re going to have to show me more. I have to answer for force deployments—mystical map keys and outer-rim rumors don’t fill the fishing nets.”

“Understood, admiral. I appreciate whatever aid you can send. Governor Azadi assures me he’ll cover the cost while they’re here.”

“I didn’t bring up the point that Lothal has not signed the New Republic Charter,” Ackbar said archly. “That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten it. You’re in shoal water here, General Syndulla. Make sure the good governor understands that how our assets are handled this time will have a direct impact on whether he sees any next time.”

“Yes, admiral. And thank you.”

“May the Force be with you, Hera. Ackbar out.”

Ryder Azadi was standing off to one side, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I do believe that old salmon is turning into a data pusher.”

“It’s not the Rebellion anymore, that’s for sure,” Hera groused. “A squadron of snubs is better than nothing, and they should get here quick. I need to call Ahsoka about that map issue,” she added, almost to herself. She keyed in the comm-code for Ahsoka’s T-6. “Fulcrum, this is Spectre. Fulcrum, this is Spectre. How copy?”


Hera frowned, double-checking her frequency, the comm-code, and console itself. She knew Ahsoka’s ship was sitting out in the middle of nowhere—there shouldn’t any interference at all. Even if they’d accessed the temple and were inside, Huyang should be available to answer. Or Jacen. “Fulcrum, this is Spectre-2, come in . . . Fulcrum, Spectre-2, respond please.”

Hera reached down and pulled a small electronic box off her belt, checking Jacen’s coordinates based on the locator she made him carry when they were separated. The coordinate readout was null: completely blank. Hera shook the box once, slapping it in frustration. The vestiges of motherly panic began to tug at her.

“You think they’re in trouble?” Azadi asked.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Hera breathed, jumping up. “Ryder, put your forces on alert. I’ve got to get out there!” Ryder pulled his commlink and began issuing orders. Hera barely heard him—she was sprinting, now. “Chopper!” she bellowed into her own commlink. “Fire up the Ghost! We’ve got problems!”

* * *
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“Who are you? Where’s Huyang?” Jacen Syndulla asked as Shin Hati met him part way between the ship and the temple seal. He looked around quickly, and there was nothing and nobody else in sight, other than the T-6 in the distance, behind this stranger.

“Who are you?” she asked in return, her cold blue eyes locked onto him like targeting lasers. Jacen had stopped, and now he took a step back. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he sensed a wrongness about her, surrounding her like the dark cloak she wore. He remembered that he was holding the map key, and self-consciously tried to slide his hand behind his back. Hati’s eyes missed nothing. “What do you have there?”

“No . . . Nothing,” Jacen stammered, taking another step back.

Hati snapped her wrist for emphasis, activating her lightsaber with a snap-hiss. Jacen started slightly, his wide eyes locking onto the blade. “Show me your hands,” she said flatly.

“No!” he said, louder and more defiantly this time. Hati’s eyes were like blank ice as she leaned forward, starting quickly towards him.

“Get away from him, you schutta!” a new voice barked.

* * *

His jaw clenched in anger, Baylan Shin gestured slightly, and his lightsaber flew from the table into his hand. He didn’t activate it. “I don’t want to destroy you, Huyang, but I can’t let you interfere. You have a choice: You can let me shut you down, or I’ll cut you down. Decide.”

Huyang sat back down and placed his hands on the table, signaling surrender. “Shut me down, then. One last word of warning, General Skoll. If any harm comes to the boy outside, there will be no safe place in the galaxy for you to hide.”

“Threats don’t become you, Huyang, and it’s a big galaxy. But don’t worry, I’m not Anakin Skywalker—I don’t murder children.” He stepped forward and reached behind Huyang’s neck, flipping his deactivation switch. The droid’s yellow photoreceptors went dark, and his head slumped sideways. Hands on the table prevented the inert droid from falling over completely.

“Now then,” Skoll said, stepping back into the engineering compartment of the T-6. He looked around quickly but with appreciation. “I’m sorry, old friend, it hurts me to do this . . . it really does,” he said to the ship, activating his lightsaber. He found the power feed to the repulsorlifts right where he remembered they should be from years past. He slashed hard, up vertically through the console on one side of him, then down vertically through the one on the other side, in one lightning-fast sweeping cut. He deactivated his lightsaber in almost the same motion, returning it to his belt with panache. By severing those power conduits, the ship wouldn’t be able to lift off. They were repairable, but it would take time and maybe parts that Tano didn’t have on hand. “Shameful, treating a valuable antique this way,” he muttered, quickly checking his handiwork before heading outside. He shook his head in regret. “A real crime.”

* * *

Sabine Wren exited the temple the same way she’d entered—without her armor and its arsenal. She was back to her riding leathers, jacket, and lightsaber. It would have to be enough. Shin Hati launched herself at Sabine faster than the Mandalorian Jedi anticipated. Sabine ducked and dodged, calling on the Force, pivoting away from Hati’s first two snake-fast strikes before getting her own lightsaber activated and working in her own defense. Emerald-green clashed with red-orange as the two blades locked together, sparks flying as they tried to overcome one another. Sabine’s teeth were clenched in savage effort as she stared into eyes that were frighteningly cold and devoid of emotion.

It was apparent after a few passes that Hati had more raw strength with the Force than Sabine did. The latter mentally cursed—now that she’d found the key to success, here she was stuck without her armor! Hati pressed her hard, and Sabine began to give ground, but in a way that took them away from Jacen. The boy stood, spellbound, watching the combatants. Sabine wanted to yell at him to run, but she didn’t want to draw Hati’s attention back to the boy.

And where was Ahsoka?

Sabine used what she had learned during her trial to the best of her ability. She kept the fight physical rather than a simple fencing match, moving, striking, and kicking in concert with her lightsaber work. But Hati was always a split second ahead of her, it seemed, and Sabine couldn’t penetrate her defense. In fact, it was about all she could do to prevent Hati from penetrating hers. Their blades clashed again, a one-two-three combination with Shin striking like lightning, and Sabine desperately defending. At the end, as if she’d planned it (and maybe she had), Shin suddenly caught Sabine’s parry in a binding corkscrew, disarming her. Sabine’s lightsaber flipped away, deactivating as it went, and Shin’s lightsaber cut under and up in a quick follow-on, attempting to take Sabine’s hand off at the wrist. Sabine snatched her arm back, but she could have sworn the red-orange lightsaber blade took the top layer of cells off her fingertips, it was that close.

Sabine desperately punched out with the Force, knocking Shin flying, but the latter arrested the movement with the Force and turned it into an impossibly short flip, landing on the balls of her feet and coming right back at her. “Jacen, get out of here!” Sabine finally shouted.

The boy froze for a second like a nerf in the floodlights, and Shin’s head snapped to quickly look at him. In that moment of distraction, Sabine reached out and her lightsaber sluggishly flew back to her hand. The sound of it igniting brought Hati’s attention back to her, and the blond woman easily blocked Sabine’s cut one-handed as she reached out with her other and pulled Jacen towards them with the Force. The boy cried out in surprise as he was jerked off his feet, to land in a hard, sprawling belly flop. The orb of the map key was jarred from his grasp, rolling ahead of him on the grass between him and Shin. Both women saw the orb, and both divined instantly what it was.

The two women acted together, almost as if reading each other’s minds. The orb flew into Sabine’s outstretched hand, while Shin executed a back flip, landing on one knee beside Jacen. She grabbed his hair and jerked his chin up, placing the blade of her lightsaber right under his throat. Sabine instantly poised her lightsaber over the orb.


* * *

“Crix, do you read me?” Balyan Skoll spoke into his commlink, coming down the boarding ramp.

“Yes, Lord Baylan. Orders?”

“Lift off and bring the Aldo Nova towards our coordinates. We’ll be heading back to you shortly; when you spot the swoop-bikes, land and be ready for a quick dust off.”

“As ordered, m’lord. Crix out.”

Baylan jumped on his swoop and headed directly to where he could see the combat between Shin and Sabine taking place. It only took him a few seconds to cover the distance, and he pulled up just in time to see his apprentice put her blade to Jacen Syndulla’s throat.

“Shin, let the boy go,” Baylan ordered firmly as he got off his bike and started walking towards Sabine.

Shin looked at him. “Master?”

“You heard me,” he said calmly. “Let him up. Now.”

“Yes, master,” she replied, deactivating her lightsaber and coming to her feet, letting go of Jacen. The boy rolled away athletically, coming to one knee and drawing his sleeve-gun sidearm in a classic two-handed grip.

“Don’t!” Sabine quickly warned him.

“Best listen to her, boy,” Baylan said harshly, reaching out with one hand. The pistol flew from Jacen’s grip, flying far enough to vanish in the ground mist where it landed. Skoll then reached toward Sabine. Her eyes bugged, and she dropped her lightsaber as she was lifted four feet off the ground, grasping at her throat as she began to choke. The orb flew from her grasp into Baylan’s other hand, and he casually tossed it to Shin without even looking at her. Sabine gasped for breath, feeling her vision graying out as she tried and failed to break Skoll’s grip with the Force. He was far stronger with the Force than she would ever be, and he demonstrated it to her now as an object lesson. Skoll felt her beginning to lose consciousness, and he released her, throwing her bodily into Jacen and knocking them both sprawling on the mossy ground. “I was expecting Ahsoka Tano. Who are you?”

“Sabine Wren,” she wheezed, gasping for breath as she struggled to her feet.

The name meant nothing. Skoll reached out and called her lightsaber to hand, giving it a quick examination before tossing it back to her. The insult in his action was obvious—Sabine Wren, whoever she was, posed no threat to him. “Not bad for a bokken-Jedi. Tell your master I’m sorry I missed her,” he added. He turned with a whirl of his cloak, heading for his swoop.

Shin fell into step with him and looked back at Sabine with contempt. “You have no power,” she spat dismissively, as a parting shot.

“We’ll meet again,” was Sabine Wren’s seething reply. Shin just smiled coldly at her as she mounted up behind her master.

“You’d best hope we don’t,” Skoll warned her in no uncertain terms. “If we do, it’ll be the end of you. This is for the boy’s sake,” he added, gesturing at Jacen but perhaps thinking of his own apprentice. “I won’t spare you a second time.” He gunned the swoop, returning to the T-6 so Shin could retrieve hers, and then the two of them lit out across the plain.

Sabine turned to Jacen. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” he replied, but he was obviously shaken. “They took the map key!” he added in dismay.

“This isn’t over yet,” Sabine said doggedly, looking around. “Have you seen Ahsoka?”

“Not since we went into the temple,” he replied. “Do you think they hurt Huyang?”

Spast,” Sabine swore. “Okay, let’s check on him,” she replied. Her commlink was buzzing for her attention before she could even pull it out. “This is Spectre-5,” she answered.

“Spectre-2 here,” Hera’s voice crackled back. “Are you okay? Is Jacen with you? I’m on my way to you in the Ghost.”

“Listen,” Sabine said quickly. “We found the map key, but Elsbeth’s mercs grabbed it. They just took off to the northeast on swoop bikes. You can probably catch them if you hurry, but do not try to engage them on the ground. They are Force-adepts, Hera: Dark Jedi. Very dangerous. Their ship is probably nearby.”

Is Jacen with you!”

“Yes! He’s with me, and he’s fine. Did you hear a word I just said?”

“I heard,” Hera replied—she sounded pissed. “Where’s Fulcrum?”

“She’s missing. Get after them, Spectre-2! We’ll follow in the shuttle!”

“Negative! You keep Jacen out of this! Do you hear me? I’ve got fighters on the way. I’ll handle it, Spectre-5. You look after my son and find out what happened to Fulcrum. I’ll call you when I have the map key.”

“Copy that, Spectre-2,” Sabine replied, deflated. “Remember what I said—shoot them from the air, and do not, I repeat do not try to take them face to face. Even airborne in the Ghost, you’d better be careful.”

They’d better be careful,” Hera’s voice crackled from her commlink, sounding low and dangerous. Sabine knew that tone: Hera was on the warpath, and no mistake. “Spectre out.”

Sabine and Jacen ran the rest of the distance to the T-6, and Sabine made him wait outside while she went in with her lightsaber at the ready, expecting trouble. She found an unflyable ship and a deactivated droid. She switched Huyang back on, quickly brought him up to speed on recent events, and showed him the damage Skoll had done. The T-6 was solidly grounded for now.

“Can you fix the damage, Huyang?” Sabine asked. “Do we have the parts?”

“We do . . . some at least, and I can cannibalize a couple of other systems long enough to get her airborne and over to Capital City where we can finish the repair properly. It will take me several hours, and it will go faster with your help.”

“Have you seen Ahsoka since we left? Did she come back?”

“No, I thought she was with you and young Jacen,” he replied. “What happened to her?”

“I don’t know,” Sabine answered. “All three of us got into the temple, but we were separated from one another on the inside. Jacen and I are back, but Ahsoka . . . “ her voice trailed off. “She must still be inside the temple, somewhere,” Sabine mused. She hadn’t had a chance to find out what Jacen had experienced, but clearly he was the one who’d found the map key. Her own trial in the temple seemed more dreamlike than ever now—it was hard for her to say if she’d ever been in real danger or not. She had no idea what Ahsoka was facing, or the danger level. Don’t center on your anxieties, she reminded herself, almost hearing it in her master’s voice. In the meantime, she knew what she needed to do.

“Huyang, I’m going to leave Jacen with you—he can help with the repairs, and you should wait here for Ahsoka in any case. My speeder bike is stowed aboard; I need to head back to the comm tower for some things I left behind. If you get the ship repaired before I get back, I’ll meet all of you in Capital City as soon as possible. Oh,” she added, almost as an afterthought. She dug into her pocket, and produced the crystal given to her by Tarre Vizsla, or at least his apparition.

“What is that?” Huyang asked, immediately fascinated.

“I think I just passed my Jedi trials . . . or something like that, anyway. Hang on to this until I get back, will you?”

“Certainly, Lady Wren. I’d like to make a study of it.”

“It came from the darksaber, or at least I think it did. Don’t ask me how that’s possible: I don’t even know. Just keep it safe for me, okay?”

“Of course!”

Sabine turned and knelt beside Jacen. “Things are a bit crazy right now, sprout, but we’re going to be very interested in hearing about what happened to you in the temple. Are you hurt anywhere?”

“I’m fine, Aunt Sabine,” he said. “That girl scared me, though,” he shivered. “She was all wrong.”

“I know, I felt it too,” she said, gently ruffling his hair. “But she’s gone, we’re here, and everything is fine for now. Help Huyang repair the ship—you probably help Chopper and your mom on the Ghost all the time, right?” He nodded, and Sabine gave him a reassuring squeeze. “Good boy.” She paused, and gave him an appraising, sidelong look. “One other thing. From now on, you’re Spectre-7.”

“Really?” he asked, visibly brightening.

“You bet. You earned it today, Jacen. Welcome to the team!”

“That’s wizard!” he said, looking at Huyang. “Didja hear that?”

“I heard it,” Huyang replied. “Let’s get to work, Spectre-7!”
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Side note:

I'm starting a work trip tomorrow so output on this is going to drop off for about a week. Never fear, though, the adventure is far from over...
In honor of McQuarrie art concepts being extensively used in Rebels, for anyone reading this and trying to form a mental image of the Aldo Nova, this is what I had in mind:

Chapter 10

Chopper's determined whistles and boops alerted Hera to what she'd already seen: the dusty trail below them on the plain, where two swoops were heading northeast for all they were worth. She missed Kanan and Ezra intensely in that moment, knowing that she was zeroing in on two Force-users, but she'd have settled for any one of her old crew who could have manned the nose turret, rather than her having to fire weapons and fly simultaneously.

The Ghost stooped like a prey bird, and Hera didn't spare the firepower. Concussion missiles and laser blasts whipped ahead of her, but the swoops behaved with unnatural prescience—they broke and veered off ninety degrees left and right, avoiding her attacks completely as her weapon's fire boiled the ground in a line that stretched half a kilometer. Hera cursed a blue streak, pulling up and sending the Ghost into a high, twisting loop to set up for another pass.

Her worry was that the swoops would just continue in different directions, leaving her a 50/50 choice as to which rider carried the map key. She was spared that choice as the swoops gradually arced back toward each other. This time they settled back on their base course with a good bit of separation between them—there was no way she could get them both with one pass using only her forward weapons on remote. One at a time it is, then, she thought grimly, arrowing in on the left-hand swoop. It swerved precisely when it needed to once again, at the last possible moment, and her murderous second salvo was as ineffective as the first.

Chopper gave off a panicked electronic scream, and Hera's eyes bugged in alarm as she caught sight of an armed lighter rocketing straight towards them on a collision course, all her forward weapons firing. “Holy—!” Hera shouted, jerking the controls. The Ghost rolled away and dropped precipitously in altitude as laser blasts whipped past the canopy, followed closely by the single blue-white orb of a proton-torpedo. Several of the laser blasts, fired by live gunners, splashed into Ghost's deflector shields as the ship dodged, causing bright flashes in Hera's vision. The torpedo would have knocked out the shields and caused severe damage if it hit them. It would have been very bad in space; in atmo, this close to the ground, it could have proven fatal. Only Hera's innate skill and honed reflexes saved them.

Hera wrestled her ship as Aldo Nova screamed overhead, a sonic boom trailing in her wake as the pilot leaned on his retros and began a combat landing cycle. Side and rear gunners continued to direct fire at the intruding freighter, forcing Hera to stand off and regroup as the lighter arced around and set down. She understood now why the swoops stayed together—they were both making a beeline for the lighter's large side hatches, which were open to receive them.

“LothSec Leader, this is Spectre-2,” Hera called. “Say position.”

“Spectre, this is LothSec. En-route to your beacon, high hypersonic. We'll be there in thirty seconds.”

“Negative, LothSec. Recommend you break atmo and place yourself between Lothal and the star destroyer. You can intercept the lighter coming up. Be careful—she's heavily armed.”

“Can do. Thanks for the heads-up, Spectre,” LothSec Leader replied.

Hera set her deflectors double-front and rolled in on Aldo Nova. The lighter was about twice the overall size and mass of the Ghost, and designed as a combat vessel. Even with the weapons, shield upgrades, and boosted engines Hera had modified her with, Ghost was still a freighter at her core. Hera did her best, cutting loose with everything she could bring to bear. Aldo Nova's shields withstood the hits as the mercenary vessel returned fire. The Ghost rocked under the incoming barrage, and Hera suddenly felt the ship yaw crazily sideways and pitch up, responding to control inputs she wasn't making. Ghost began to roll off to starboard, uncommanded, as Hera fought the obvious influence of the Force coupled with Lothal's gravity.

“Grife!” she swore fearfully, wrestling the controls and stamping her etheric rudder. Rather than try to fight the yaw and right the ship, she went with it instead, increasing her flat-spin rate as she hollered at Chopper to equalize the deflector shields. The felt the ship lurch and heard the explosion aft as some of the lighter's weapons fire hit their unshielded side; it sounded to her like the airlock was blown out, and sure enough—there was the warning light blinking redly at her. A moment later Chopper had the shields equalized again, protecting the entire vessel once more. What was left of the shields, anyway.

Hera was fighting for her life and control of the Ghost, but she was still in the fight. She stopped the spin, and corrected the roll by eye and feel, and grinned wickedly as the Ghost shuddered to a relative hover, her repulsorlifts screaming and her drive tubes pointed directly at Aldo Nova. She wondered if her Force-using opponent realized he'd almost caused her to crash full-on into the lighter, which would have killed them all. “Eat this!” she cried, jamming the throttles forward and remote-firing her rear weapons. The backblast from the Ghost's fusion drive rocked Aldo Nova, threatening to flip her over. The lighter's shields flickered in and out, near total collapse, and some of Hera's shots slammed home, taking out one gunner's turret and blasting large pieces of armored hull plating off of her. Chopper hooted in defiance as Ghost rapidly accelerated skyward, under full control once again.

Aldo Nova lifted off beneath her, the recovery of Balyan Skoll and Shin Hati completed. The lighter pirouetted gracefully on her own repulsorlifts as her landing skids retracted, before pointing skyward and accelerating rapidly, a visible shock-wave forming around the curve of her forward deflectors. Hera doggedly swung around in pursuit, causing Chopper to whistle and wave at her in protest. “Cool your jets, Chop, and keep angling those shields,” she ordered wryly. “Actually,” she added a moment later, “I've got the shields. Get back there and load a tracking beacon into the concussion missile launcher. I don't think we're going to knock this guy down, so we need to know where he's headed.”

Chopper's whistles and beeps took on the tone of acknowledgement, and he rapidly departed the cockpit.

The comm crackled, heralding more bad news. “All LothSec units, this is control,” Ryder Azadi's voice called. “We have a new set of signals. Imperial squadrons are headed your way, inbound from the star destroyer.”

“LothSec Leader copies,” came the reply. There was a slight pause, then: “Spectre, did you copy that? I can't ignore the threat or we're going to get vaped.”

“This is getting better and better,” Hera growled to herself. She keyed the comm. “Spectre copies. I'm still in pursuit of the lighter. What've you got inbound?”

“Two full squadrons of eyeballs,” LothSec Leader replied, using fighter-pilot slang for TIE Fighters. “We're turning to engage.”

“Copy!” Hera replied. Spast! She began to sweat—Lothal's E-wing pilots were decently trained, but almost certainly not up to the standards of any Imperial flight academy. Whoever commanded the Imperial capital ship didn't take half-measures, either: the Imps had put their entire complement of fighters on the board. If the Imps were even average fighter-pilots, Hera calculated, this could get ugly. The X-wings Ackbar was sending were obviously not going to get here soon enough to matter. Hera was thinking like a general now, desperately trying to find a way to snatch some semblance of victory from what was shaping up to be imminent defeat.

In space, twenty-four TIE Fighters rolled and peeled away in mutually-supporting pairs, mixing it up with an equal number of Lothal's E-wings. Fighters swirled and spun into a massive, roiling furball, with red and green laser blasts crisscrossing the space over Lothal as both sides began to suffer attrition. Lothal's two gunships began to enter the battle in a supporting role, but quickly withdrew as VSD Sion closed to enter the fray herself.

Hera dodged and weaved, avoiding incoming fire from Aldo Nova as the slightly faster Ghost slowly gained on her in the ascent. Hera depowered her weapons except for the concussion missile launchers, diverting that valuable power to buttress her shields and increase her velocity. “Chop,” she called, “do you have that beacon loaded up?” Chopper whistled affirmatively at her, rolling back into the cockpit less than a minute later. He studied the scope and let loose another barrage of agitated whistles and boops, accentuated by 'large hand motions' made with his metal utility arms. “Yes Chopper, I know I can't fire until their shields are down!”

Chopper's arms went to imaginary hips as his beeps grew derisive. How do you plan on getting their shields down without power to the weapons?!?!

I'm workin' on it, Chop,” Hera grinned. “What kind of general would I be if I didn't have a plan for that?” Chopper's dome spun in conjunction with his worried retort, voicing his doubts about her skills as a general. Hera spared him a wounded glance. “Have some faith!” she scolded him, keying her comm. “LothSec Leader, Spectre-2.”


“I need one or two firing runs on the lighter. I just need her shields down, nothing more. Can you manage that?”

“LothSec-5, take flight two and collapse the shields on the lighter.”

“As ordered, Lead,” came the reply.

“LothSec-5, I'll cover you,” Hera added, looking at the rapidly gyrating symbols on the scope and peeling away. To the uninitiated, the morass of swirling icons would have been incomprehensible, but this was her bread-and-butter. Hera Syndulla was at home in a dogfight, whether she was directing the action or merely one of the participants. She took advantage of that superior situational awareness now, moving the Ghost to intercept the pair of TIE Fighters rolling in on the E-wings that exposed themselves by disengaging for firing runs on the Aldo Nova.

The Ghost rolled around her long axis as she swept in, lasers blazing. The Imps had to honor the threat or be vaped; one TIE Fighter spun away on fire after taking a hit to one of its side panels. Hera was vaguely aware of the pilot ejecting just before the fighter blew asunder in a brilliant explosion. His wingman accelerated away, flying an evasive course to keep him clear of the uncertain threat posed by the heavily armed freighter. That left the E-wings clear to do their work. The three remaining fighters in that flight rolled in one after another, firing lasers and concussion missiles. The lead and third fighter successfully got away; the second was shredded by counter-fire from Aldo Nova. The runs were successful: the lighter's shields collapsed, at least temporarily. Hera was watching for it and played her cards like a professional. She didn't want to give away what she was doing—if she lined up and took the time to allow the targeting computer to lock on, it would be a dead giveaway and draw immediate return fire as well.

Instead, she deliberately blundered into the path of the lighter, pretending to notice it at the last moment as if she was distracted by her participation in the larger dogfight. She worked her magic, twisting and rolling the Ghost clear of Aldo Nova so that her nose crossed the flight path of the lighter at close range. Using the judgement and intuition she'd picked up in a hundred fights like this one, she fired by eye. Her fingers brushed the firing studs at just the right moment, and there was no tell-tale streak of light as the homing beacon fired and intercepted the lighter just forward of amidships. She finished her maneuver and skillfully worked the Ghost clear, flying a wickedly unpredictable course as frustrated laser fire from Aldo Nova whipped past without scoring on its target.

“Chop?” she asked a moment later. “How'd we do?” This time, his whistles and beeps were full of admiration. Direct hit. Beacon placed and functioning.

VSD Sion was almost on top of them now, her turbolasers and point defenses selectively beginning to add their considerable weight to the fray. “Spectre, this is LothSec Leader . . . it's getting thick.”

“Withdraw all units,” Hera ordered, trying to sound resigned and disgusted. It wasn't that hard, really. “We're outgunned, here. All units, retreat!” As if to emphasize her point, a turbolaser blast hit the Ghost solidly on her top starboard side, where she was previously damaged. The ship rolled off violently, and the shields flickered out for good—at least for this fight. Hera spent the next few moments doing some inspired flying, working just to keep them alive as they fled the large Imperial destroyer.

“Copy, Spectre. LothSec Leader to all units, disengage and withdraw. I say again, disengage and withdraw,” he ordered. The surviving E-wings broke off and began to retreat: a dangerous enough maneuver, because the Imperial pilots were disciplined enough not to pursue in this case. Once they were separated from one another, VSD Sion had a clear field of fire. Her volume of fire rapidly increased from selective targeting to a full-on barrage, and several more E-wings were lost just trying to escape.

In the interim, Aldo Nova successfully slid into Sion's landing bay, her mission complete. Sion's fire slackened and then finally ceased as the last of Lothal's fighters pulled out of range. The Victory class star destroyer began pulling up and away from the planet as her surviving TIEs returned, coming around in a wide arc and increasing speed as she recovered them. Not long after the last of them was aboard, Sion vanished in a flicker of pseudo-motion, making the jump to hyperspace.

Ackbar's reinforcing X-wing squadron arrived six hours later, only to find they'd missed the battle.

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