by Aaron Sinner

Category: Novella

Part 1: Emotion

Master Roke Vodin sighed, his four arms floating down to his sides. The Besalisk Jedi found that, for the fifth consecutive night, he could not sleep.

His Jedi robe draped lightly over his massive shoulders, Roke slipped from his quarters and wandered down the hall of the Jedi Temple, past rooms that housed sleeping Jedi. This Temple had always been his home, and yet, since returning from his recent mission, it now seemed to hold a foreign quality, as though in his absence the true Jedi Temple had been demolished and a replica built in its place. Still, he knew it was not the Temple that had changed; it was everything else.

Three weeks ago, he had left Coruscant with a Padawan. Five days ago, he had returned without one.

His shoulders sagged; he walked as a ghost down the halls, his feet heavy and exhausted. The Temple was silent but for his dull footsteps as he shuffled down the hall, his steps illuminated by the dim lighting that ran along the base of either wall. The temple was dark, and though he had never been comforted by darkness before, he now appreciated its ability to hide his surroundings from him, to prevent anything around him from bringing back memories or forcing him to think about anything in particular.

But really, what was there to think about? In a world cruel enough to take the life of a young, promising Padawan well before she had any real opportunity to impact the galaxy with the brilliant spark of her life, what was left? It was a galaxy of darkness, with nothing but random stars of light set in between. One could cling to these bits of light and claim they gave the universe meaning, but in the face of the overwhelming darkness, it was nothing but a lie. He could spend two and a half weeks subverting an assassination attempt on a Republic senator, only to have that same senator die in an airspeeder accident days later. He could spend a month organizing and executing an effort to evacuate a planet’s citizens before its sun imploded, while a sector away an entire species was wiped out by a deadly virus. Or, he could spend three years training a Padawan and watching her grow into her new abilities, only to have her life snuffed out in an encounter with a gang of glitteryl smugglers.

Glancing ahead, Roke caught sight of a long, green ear, half a meter off the floor, protruding from shadow into the light.

“Master Vodin,” Yoda spoke as he stepped out of the darkness, his gimer stick rapping on the floor as he did so.

“Master Yoda,” Roke replied. “Not sleeping, are you?” the diminutive master asked. Roke sighed and leaned against the wall. “I’m afraid not, Master.”

Yoda nodded. “Difficult to sleep in such a time, it is.” He moved across the floor gracefully, as if on wheels, and soon rested at Roke’s side. “I miss Aura Lynstar, too,” he whispered. “A promising young Padawan she was. Brightened the lives of those around her, she did. Yours especially.”

Roke nodded. He believed that Master Yoda missed Aura—Yoda took a special interest in all the younglings he trained. Yet no matter how much Yoda and Roke missed her, it would do Aura no good. She was gone to a place where their feelings, one way or another, made not a drop of difference.

“It was just so... gruesome,” Roke spat out. As painful as it was to speak to someone else, it was more painful to be left alone to his thoughts and memories—memories a bound and scared Aura surrounded by the leaders of the glitteryl ring he and Aura had infiltrated. Their callous attitude as they brutally beheaded her...

Roke shuddered. Missing her with all his soul would make her murder no less brutal.

Yoda nodded a sad nod. “Sometimes, a dark place the galaxy is. But that’s why bring light into it, we must. We are bearers of the light. Turn back the darkness, we must, or the darkness will overwhelm.”

“But Master, the darkness already is overwhelming. No matter how hard I try, I can’t do anything about it. Believe me, I’ve relived Aura’s death a thousand times. There was nothing I could do. And it’s not just me! It’s not that I didn’t train hard enough—that might be something I could bear, knowing Aura’s death was my own fault. But when a petty thug robs and murders a young woman on a backwater world, the Jedi can’t always be there to stop him. When a baby Ortolan is born during famine and starves to death before his first birthday, no one can make a difference. We arrive on a world and though we think we understand the culture and try to administer justice, we don’t know. Can’t know. I could negotiate a truce between two warring

factions in a system, only to have a flood destroy their villages a year later. And if I’m too weak... if the Jedi Order is too weak... to make a difference with the overwhelming darkness washing over everything, then I don’t want to pretend I can bear that burden. That I can make a difference, when I know I can’t.”

Roke stopped, panting for breath. It was more words than he’d yet strung together since his return.

Yoda gazed up into Roke’s eyes, a look of deep sorrow crossing his face. “Feel your suffering, Roke, I do. Both through the Force, and from my own experiences. But in your suffering, forgotten you have the joy and connection felt in serving others. When living out the will of the Force you are and doing what the Force desires of you, then find peace, a Jedi does. Disappear, these fears do. And forgotten that, you have.”

Yoda lowered his head, then lifted his chin and continued. “Lost your inner peace, you have. Peace proves difficult to find sometimes. Our emotions are a natural thing—grief, sorrow; there is no shame in experiencing these. But remember, we must, that in doing so, we are dwelling on ourselves. A larger galaxy, there is, in need of our care. Need you it does, Master Vodin. Need you, we do. To honor the dead with suffering is no honor at all. We must honor their lives by living. Living for others.”

“Yes, Master.” Roke wished he could put conviction behind his response, but though he knew Yoda’s words were heartfelt, they offered little consolation.

“Care for ourselves first, we must, if we wish to care for the rest of the galaxy,” Yoda continued. “And sometimes, experiencing our emotions this requires. But be mindful: Experience the emotions, but do not dwell on them. Let them pass over you, you must. Only in letting go of your emotions and finding peace can your place in the Force you once again find. For now, further meditation you need.”

Roke sighed and nodded. He had tried meditating, but even in the confines of his room, alone, performing meditative exercises, the mental images of Aura’s decapitation continued to distract him. The injustice of the universe to which he had formerly been blind now overwhelmed him and made him restless, even at eighty-six standard years of age.

“Sorry, I am, that more to offer you I do not have, Master Vodin. In the place you are, there is no rescue. No magic words to pull you back. Advice and counsel I can offer, and listening, yes. But find your way back yourself, you must.”

“Thank you, Master.” These last words of Yoda’s Roke believed wholeheartedly. He could feel deep down inside how alone he was, and had Yoda pretended it was otherwise, he would have seen through the lie.

Master Roke Vodin shuffled back to his chambers. He climbed upon his bed, but rather than lie down, he assumed a meditative posture and cleared his throat. Roke found that in his current state, he needed to recite the Jedi Code aloud in order to concentrate.

“There is no emotion; there is peace. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion; there is serenity. There is no death; there is only the Force.”

No death? Roke wasn’t sure he could believe that now with Aura gone. Taken. Even that first precept felt so off. To say there was no emotion when overwhelming emotion was all he could feel... the Code rang hollow. He wasn’t even sure there was peace, not when one properly understood the galaxy. He certainly could find no peace.

Sighing, he started again. “There is no emotion; there is peace...”

Part 2: Passion

“Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me.”

Darth Vanthiss, Lady of the Sith, rose from her meditative posture and slipped an overcloak atop her austere outfit. The wiry Arconan had never put much stock in decorative clothing. However, Vanthiss did have one piece of adornment she allowed herself—a Force focusing crystal her former master had given her, a gift obtained during his many travels. The Sith Lady slipped its cord over her anvil-shaped head, then cinched it, wearing it as a brooch.

Vanthiss gazed out the front portal of her ship toward the rolling plains of Jaciprus. The crimson sky and iron-rich surface bathed her field of vision in red, which presented a problem for many species, but not for an Arconan. Arcona’s eyesight was poor enough that members of her species relied more on infrared signatures for guidance, anyway. In the distance, she could just make out the estate that had brought her to this world; it sat atop a cliff overlooking the docking bay. Truthfully, many rich estates were within sight; this port serviced a rich, rural section of the planet, far from the capital, where the wealthy of the world relaxed when they could escape their work.

Though she often dabbled in wealth, it was not the explicit purpose of this mission. No, Vanthiss sought the estate of Canthe Crokirrit in search of a different commodity: information.

Slipping from her ship and into the twilight, Darth Vanthiss worked her way to the edge of the port, then broke into a sprint. The plains here offered little cover, and she knew she was better off racing through the semi-darkness, hoping any who glimpsed her mistook her for one of the local feline predators.

Truth be told, reconnaissance and information-gathering were not Vanthiss’s forte—they were skills better suited to her former master, though his strengths lay most prominently with sowing death and destruction. Vanthiss, on the other hand, drew her inspiration from a Sith Lord one generation removed from her: Darth Vectivus.

Perhaps Sith skills skipped a generation, but no matter the cause, Vanthiss had come to believe she and Vectivus were more kindred spirits than the ferocious Sith Lord that separated them in the Banite lineage. While her master had certainly taught crucial lessons that had shaped her into the Sith she was today, it was Vectivus’s holocron that had most informed her modus operandi: Like Darth Vectivus, Vanthiss dabbled in finance and monetary power. And like Vectivus, Vanthiss saw the benefits of financing the tools of war. But where Vectivus financed weapons development and the underworld, building an impressive fortune as he did so, Vanthiss put her money into the construction of armies—the literal construction of armies. And that was what now brought her to Jaciprus and the estate of Canthe Crokirrit.

Vanthiss slowed as she approached Crokirrit’s estate in the now-darkened night. Though Crokirrit was away performing his duties as Custodian of Defense in the capital, Vanthiss saw the presence of guards ahead. The entrance to the estate was protected by two—one each of the two leading species of Jaciprus.

The first was a human male with a head of dark hair, only a few standard years into adulthood. His strong jawline and dark complexion marked him as a descendent of the original human colonists who had settled on Jaciprus.

The second guard’s four reed-thin legs marked him a Jaciprou, native to the planet. The Jacipri were a tall, thin species with blue, rock-like exteriors. In the dark, Vanthiss couldn’t make out those details, but the four legs were evidence enough.

Sliding off to one side of the entrance, the Sith Lady sunk low as she continued picking her way forward. The human sat at a desk on the front porch fiddling with a rotating device of some sort, while the Jaciprou stood leaning against the wall next to him. The two certainly did not expect any action tonight.

Vanthiss reached for the lightfoil strapped to her waist; the device functioned identically to a lightsaber, but was designed to be wielded with one hand. Vanthiss had found this arrangement allowed her to integrate Force use into combat to a greater degree.

She hadn’t used her lightfoil in weeks and longed to use it. Having closed the distance to the entrance, Darth Vanthiss sunk into a crouch, then leapt off the ground, activating the lightfoil as she flew.

The blade penetrated the gut of the human before he even knew what hit him. Vanthiss landed on top of his desk and watched his eyes widen as he coughed blood. But she was already sweeping her lightfoil toward the Jaciprou, who had stumbled away from her on instinct as he reached for his holster. Her blade swung in a wide arc that he had just cleared.

Vanthiss snarled as she rocketed off the desk straight toward the Jaciprou, and as he raised his blaster, her blade struck home, catching him in the shoulder. The blaster clattered to the ground and the Jaciprou grunted. He tried to pull himself off the blade, but Vanthiss used the Force to pull him in closer, then swept the blade horizontally through his upper chest, cleaving the guard in two.

Raising herself to her full height, Vanthiss stepped forward. Her pulse had barely quickened throughout the combat—it was too routine. And with the Custodian elsewhere, it was unlikely any more guards were here. She anticipated only automated anti-intruder systems remained, and those would pose no threat.

Putting an ear to the door, Vanthiss used the Force to amplify her hearing and picked up a slight humming noise. Her suspicions were correct; there was an anti-intruder system engaged. Reaching to her belt again, Vanthiss removed a small triangular device and stuck it to the door. The tips of the device flashed a quick pattern in red, then blinked together before turning green. The system had been deactivated.

The Sith Lady made short work of the door, then raced up the stairs to the computer mainframe. Any compromising information would surely be found here. She inserted a disk that quickly tore through the computer’s defenses, then exchanged it for one that began copying and storing all the communications history and other files that could prove informative. As the disk worked, Vanthiss left the room and searched the building for valuables. Best to make her visit appear to be a burglary, not an information-gathering exercise. The knowledge that someone had broken into the estate of Jaciprus’s Custodian of Defense seeking information would draw the ire of the planet’s government and law enforcement alike.

Custodian of Defense Crokirrit was the leading figure on all things military for Jaciprus. Unlike many Core worlds, the position was unelected and unappointed. Instead, Jaciprus relied on a meritocratic bureaucracy to select its leaders, meaning Crokirrit had worked his way up through the Bureau of Defense and now held the most senior position. That Bureau was now weighing a large-scale contract with Baktoid Industries for both an army of tanks and troop carriers, and a potential research grant toward the development of combat droids.

Vanthiss had spent years channeling her money through other investors to finance Baktoid’s development. Her goal was to build the company into something worthy of purchase by a larger conglomerate where it would have guaranteed streams of research and development funding. Vanthiss was certain the goal of galactic dominance by the Sith would benefit from, perhaps even hinge upon, the creation of armies that would lead to galactic instability prior to her Order’s conquest. And she had identified Baktoid Industries as a company with the knowledge and wherewithal to make that army a reality.

But after financing the corporation to build supply, she now needed to build demand. And Custodian Crokirrit stood in her way.

Crokirrit opposed the Baktoid contract Jaciprus was considering, and the Custodian of Defense’s word held final sway. Lucky for Vanthiss, the Associate Custodian of Defense was a strong supporter of the contract. If Darth Vanthiss could discredit Custodian Crokirrit, the Associate Custodian would assume his duties, agree to the contract, and guarantee Baktoid Industries’s future as a developer and manufacturer of the tools of war. Hence the need for as much private information on Crokirrit as Vanthiss could gather.

After locating and removing what appeared to be valuable works of art from the walls and snatching some precious gemstones, Vanthiss returned to the computer to find her program had finished running. Ejecting the disk, she slipped outside into the dark of night and raced back to her craft, wasting no time at all.

After running a quick systems check and notifying the port of her departure, Vanthiss took off, breaking atmosphere but not entering hyperspace. Instead, she set her ship in a steady orbit around the planet and turned to investigating the data she had uncovered.

Three days later, her large eyes sore from continually gazing at her computer monitor and combing the Custodian’s files, Darth Vanthiss reached a conclusion: Canthe Crokirrit’s record was spotless. There would be no disgracing the man. As she made her way to her quarters to collapse for some much-needed sleep, the Sith Lady offered herself a mental shrug. She was prepared for this contingency—in some ways, she relished it. If Custodian of Defense Canthe Crokirrit could not be disgraced, he would have to be removed through more permanent means. Vanthiss smiled to herself as she lay down and drifted off to sleep. There was nothing quite so satisfying as a sense of purpose, particularly one that was certain to result in bloodshed.

Part 3: Ignorance

Master Roke Vodin was certain there was nothing quite so frustrating as a lack of purpose. After a week of nothing but grieving, the Council had called Roke before them and assigned him temporary duty tending the Temple’s Garden of Perseverance. It was work he would have previously relished, yet now it felt pointless. Nurturing the plants might make them appear pleasing for the time being, but there was nothing he could do to prevent their trampling and abuse by Jedi younglings at play. Some Jedi referred to the battle between order and chaos, but as Master Vodin groomed another broken assari tree branch, he knew it wasn’t a battle. It was a massacre.

Still, Roke appreciated the opportunity to tackle such all-consuming work, meaningless though it might be. While he couldn’t quite say he enjoyed it, the Garden of Perseverance required enough maintenance that the work took most of his concentration and forced his grief just below the surface—a deeper place than any other task had succeeded in pushing it.

A light tapping noise pulled Master Vodin’s attention from the pruning. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Master Yoda picking his way across the garden. The tiny Jedi took a circuitous route, stopping to jest with a number of the younglings, but his path clearly pointed toward Roke as its destination.

“Master Yoda! Master Yoda!” a young Togrutan called, her red and white skin contrasting with the green of Yoda’s. The Jedi Master let loose a carefree chortle as the youngling approached. Roke watched as the two used the Force to brush at each other’s clothing, as if creating a breeze.

It was one of Yoda’s “games” that amounted to an excellent drill for learning control of Force manipulation.

Master Vodin grinned despite himself. As a youngling, he, too, had been instructed by Yoda. In fact, it was only recently the ancient Jedi had become a member of the Council; before then, he had been a full-time teacher of younglings. There was not a Jedi of Roke’s age who had not taken instruction from Yoda at some point. Unfortunately, too many of those Jedi had gone on to become Masters who believed they had outgrown Yoda’s lessons. Roke had been pleased when the Council finally stopped dismissing Yoda as nothing but a teacher of younglings and recognized the well of wisdom the aged master had to offer.

Roke watched as Yoda extricated himself from a backflip contest with a young human, then turned and approached Roke. Roke nodded in Yoda’s direction and wiped his four hands on his gardening apron. “Master?”

“Master Vodin, good it is to see you at work.” Yoda smiled up at him. “Hope, I do, that your time among these plants has been restorative.”

“I’ll undertake whatever work the Council assigns.” Roke knew that wasn’t a direct answer to Yoda’s remark.

“Pleased to hear it, I am. Because the Council has a new assignment for you on Jaciprus,” Yoda answered.

Jaciprus? Roke had a sense of what that meant. He’d spent months on the planet helping establish a planetary government when the various nations had decided to unite under one banner. Sending him there was likely an attempt by the Council to dole out an assignment he could handle in a familiar setting. Give him a chance to readjust without overwhelming him.

All Roke said aloud was, “If the Council commands it, I of course accept. Do you have a timeline for my departure?”

Yoda nodded. “The Council wishes for you to leave early tomorrow. The murder of security guards, you are investigating. Arrive before the trail grows cold, you must.”

Roke frowned. “The murder of security guards? That’s a matter for the local authorities.”

“The manner of the deaths requires our attention. A lightsaber, the murder weapon appears to be.” Yoda’s tone was almost conspiratorial.

Master Vodin rolled his eyes. “Master Yoda, with all due respect, that could mean anything. Are you sure sending me to Jaciprus isn’t more for my sake than the mission’s?”

“Nonsense!” the diminutive master bit out. “Know we both do that accelerating in recent decades has been the number of our brothers and sisters leaving the Order. Once, when a Jedi Master turned their back on the Order, a once-in-multiple-generations tragedy, it was. Now, only a matter of time, it is, between each departure. Growing, the ranks of the Lost are! Ensure, we must, that perpetrated by one of our fallen members, these crimes were not!”

Roke gave an understated nod. “If it’s what the Council wishes, I will of course undertake the mission.”

Yoda met the reply with a slight nod of his own. “In your debt, the Order is, for your continued dedication to service, Master Vodin. Long have you been a model of steadfastness.”

The ancient master turned, his stick tapping the ground, and Roke Vodin moved back toward the tree he’d been pruning.

Then the tapping stopped, and without turning back toward Roke, Yoda spoke. “Your pain is great, Master Vodin. Loved selflessly, you have. Unfair, it is, that you are punished for that. A personal favor, I ask: Continue your meditations on the Jedi Code. Trust, I do, that there you will find the comfort you seek. Hope, I do, that again you can learn the joy of loving this galaxy.”

Yoda’s stick resumed its tapping as the Jedi Master receded into the distance. Roke inhaled deeply, allowing the scents of the Garden of Perseverance to fill his lungs. Perhaps Yoda was right—there was much to love about the galaxy. But Roke also now understood the uncertainty of the future and the danger that ignorance brought. It was a threat to anyone’s ability to create lasting good for the universe.

Perhaps if he were stronger, he could create that good. Perhaps he could eliminate that uncertainty. In the meantime, the Jedi had sent him to Jaciprus—clearly not a vote of confidence in his inner strength.

Part 4: Strength

Darth Vanthiss gazed at the shimmering holomap before her, then deactivated the device and turned left. If her probes were accurate—and there was no reason to doubt them—this large tunnel would lead to her destination, and ultimately to Custodian of Defense Crokirrit’s final end.

Vanthiss had surmised from the Jacipri’s biology that their semisentient ancestors were subterranean creatures, and her discovery of these tunnels confirmed it. The tunnels must have existed for millennia, and likely no accurate map of their layout had ever been created. No map, that is, apart from the one Vanthiss’s probes had assembled in the past few days.

It was a lengthy tunnel, with a high-arcing but weathered ceiling, but Vanthiss could be patient while she traversed its distance. Killing the Custodian would be a worthwhile prize. Even so, she had to admit to herself the true prize lay in what his death would set in motion, and not in her own act of slaughter. He was sure to put up very little fight—and it had been months since she had engaged in worthy combat.

No opponent had come close to approaching her level of ability since her defeat of her master, ending his two hundred year reign as Sith Master.

The Sith Lady smiled to herself as she remembered that day, months ago. Darth Mutilus had been a being of brute physical strength, but he had forgotten the strength that could be found elsewhere.

Over the centuries, Sith apprentices had used many methods to defeat their masters. Some relied on cunning or trickery, while others opportunistically seized the proper moment to destroy their teachers, waiting until their masters had dropped their guard. However, Vanthiss knew in her heart that she must defeat her master in open combat to assume his mantle, because of rather than in spite of his prowess in combat. She could not confidently proclaim herself the new Sith Master unless she did so.

She had confronted him immediately upon return from a mission, leaping from her starfighter to the floor of the large hanger bequeathed to them by Mutilus’s own master.

“Lord Mutilus,” she proclaimed to the hulking Abyssin who stood before her, “your reign is at an end. It is time for me to take my rightful place atop the Sith Order.”

She had hoped her immediate challenge would take him by surprise, but he met her boast with a roar. His one eye locked onto her form as he ignited his double-bladed weapon and advanced on her. The longer of the two blades swept at her legs as Vanthiss backflipped away, igniting her own lightfoil in the process.

As she had seen him do in combat so many times before, Darth Mutilus began with an overwhelming barrage of powerful blows. The Sith Master used both the longer and shorter blades of his double-bladed lightsaber, randomly alternating them so the source of each strike remained unpredictable. Vanthiss ceded ground to her master, knowing that if she could survive the initial onslaught and conserve her energy, she would have an opening to utilize her own strengths. She had seen Mutilus in combat with Force users before, and she knew the pattern to his attacks.

The two did not speak as Mutilus forced Vanthiss backward, step after step. The elder Sith had always been a master of few words and painful lessons, and Vanthiss called on those experiences to strengthen her rage and quicken her step. Today Mutilus would receive his own painful lesson, and it would prove fatal.

Mutilus continued driving Vanthiss back toward the hangar wall, and she continued to cede ground to her master while maintaining a defensive posture, parrying his attacks and keeping pace with the deluge. His attacks usually overwhelmed his opponent within seconds, but Vanthiss had seen him in combat enough to know what happened when they didn’t.

The blows slowed, and Vanthiss knew her moment of opportunity approached. Finally, Mutilus issued two short strikes that forced her backward further still, then a large, powerful blow that she deflected, barely maintaining her balance as she did so. The Sith Lady knew her moment was at hand.

Darth Mutilus snarled, and Vanthiss felt him initiate a Force attack he had developed himself and taken to calling Deadly Sight, which converted his hatred into dark energy that emanated out across all living creatures within his field of vision. She had witnessed him wear down opponents with a barrage of lightsaber strikes before, then unleash this Force ability to such an effect that his exhausted victims caught fire, burning and smoking as they expired.

In that moment, as Mutilus initiated Deadly Sight, Vanthiss knew he was pouring all his energy into the attack. He had abandoned shielding himself in the Force and given himself completely to his offensive strike. So, just as Mutilus had issued his final, powerful lightsaber blow, Vanthiss had wrapped herself in her own Force power, one she had honed secretly, without her master’s knowledge: She poured all her rage into a Force draining ability directed straight at Mutilus. Such an attack was risky; if her attempt to pull his Force energy into herself was unsuccessful, if she were not strong enough and her attack met nothing but resistance, she would quickly tire as her own strength dissipated, and her master would no doubt taste victory seconds later. But if successful, Darth Mutilus would leave himself vulnerable as he poured all of his own energy into his Deadly Sight attack, which she would absorb, becoming all the stronger.

Mutilus’s Force attack struck Vanthiss directly, and she felt her chest warming. Yet she knew she was not catching fire, for with the warming she felt her own power increasing. Her master’s gaze wavered and he took a shallow breath as he realized her counterstrike. Vanthiss knew the battle was already hers as she continued to drain her master of his Force-enhanced strength. Mutilus gasped and sunk to his knees as his power continued to feed Vanthiss, and she suddenly realized she was screaming. She tasted her own blood as she felt dark side energy emanating off of her in waves of destruction.

Mutilus’s naturally sallow skin had faded to pale, but Vanthiss lifted her eyes from her master and screamed her scream out toward space, gazing out the front of the hangar, through the energy shield, into the galaxy’s infinite blackness. The blackness and meaninglessness fed her and comforted her. In a galaxy with nothing to offer, no rules or structures, her power knew no limits.

Darth Vanthiss shuddered with delight as she remembered that moment, months ago, when she had assumed the Sith throne. Life as a Sith Apprentice had been rewarding, but the true ideals of the Sith were embodied in the Sith Master: Only from there could one control her own destiny and impose her will upon the galaxy. And as she came closer to murdering Custodian Crokirrit, she knew she was moving toward that goal.

As the tunnel before her began to narrow, Vanthiss came to a halt. Consulting her holomap once more, she confirmed she had reached the right position. The time had come to initiate the heart of her plan. Reaching beneath her cloak, the Sith Lady flipped a switch on a device strapped to her back. Now her movements would be undetectable to any movement- or vibration-sensing scanners. Next, Darth Vanthiss took out a plasma drill and, activating it, approached the wall before her. Her hands shook slightly, but she steadied herself. Vanthiss burned with emotion, for she knew her prize would soon be hers.

Part 5: Passion

The red surface of Jaciprus zipped past beneath Jedi Master Roke Vodin’s feet as his swoop bike raced over the planet’s iron-laced plains. The lightning-fast ride to Custodian of Defense Canthe Crokirrit’s estate gave Roke an adrenaline boost, one that helped wake him from his weeks-long stupor.

Or perhaps it wasn’t the swoop ride that jolted the Jedi Master into awareness so much as his prior visit to the morgue. He had received a wary welcome when he arrived on Jaciprus; no doubt the locals had some hesitations about meeting with a lightsaber-wielder after the security guards’ cause of death had been identified. They had escorted him to the morgue all the same. But upon viewing the bodies, Master Vodin immediately experienced flashbacks to the last time he had seen corpses—the occasion of Aura’s death.

Roke had been reliving that occasion in his head ever since it had occurred, and so would not have guessed seeing the bodies could have such an effect on him. But in that moment, he re- experienced her death—and more significantly, this time, retouched the well of emotion he had tapped into when he slayed the spice gang immediately thereafter. His whole body tensed, his heart pounding all over again. It was a necessary reminder that this mission presented an opportunity to avenge someone’s death—and perhaps prevent another.

In examining the guards’ wounds, Roke had sensed something amiss. They were filled with anger and hatred in the Force—clear indications of the dark side’s presence at the time they were administered. Master Vodin had decided he would need to investigate the Custodian’s estate.

That estate now loomed just ahead, and Roke decelerated the swoop. The whole incident made no sense. The Custodian’s schedule was public knowledge; everyone knew he would have been at the capital when the break-in occurred. Some expensive items had been stolen, true, but the Custodian was not particularly known for his wealth, and there were larger estates nearby. What had this lightsaber-wielder been after?

Roke dismounted the now-stationary swoop and approached the estate. A cylindrical HXZ-1 police droid rolled toward him.

“Please state your identity,” the droid intoned. “Jedi Master Roke Vodin,” Roke answered. “I’ve been assigned to investigate this incident.”

The droid pivoted back toward the estate. “Please proceed. Please notify me if I may be of assistance.”

Roke nodded, but came to a stop as he prepared to enter the estate. Here it was again—feelings of anger and hatred. They were faint and had certainly dissipated, but they left no doubt as to where the murders had occurred.

Roke walked through the front door and looked up to see ceiling-mounted security cannons. They were online but disengaged.

“Droid,” he asked, “why didn’t the anti-intruder system prevent the burglar from entering? The front door was clearly the point of entry.”

“The system appears to have fallen victim to a bug,” the droid explained. “It’s unclear whether the bug is a manufacturer’s defect or was introduced at a later date.”

Roke snorted. This was too large a coincidence for the bug to be a mere defect. His lightsaber- wielder was also tech-savvy.

Tech-savvy...

“Droid, where is the Custodian’s computer mainframe?” Roke asked. The police droid swiveled. “Upstairs and centrally located, but it is only for authorized users.”

“I have Jedi clearance,” Roke answered as he bounded up the stairs. From his supply pack, Roke removed a scanning disk the Jedi had manufactured for reading a computer’s recent activity.

As he inserted it into the computer terminal, Roke asked, “Has anyone been on here since the break-in? Have there been any attempts to glean information from the computer?”

“Not that I am aware of, Master Jedi,” the droid answered. “And I would be aware.”

Roke grunted. The scanning program was unresponsive. Something in the computer prevented it from accessing recent activity. If whoever had been here could outsmart the latest in Jedi slicing technology, he was tech-savvy indeed. The burglar would have had no trouble accessing any data on the computer terminal he wished.

Master Vodin’s pulse quickened. “This is more than a petty burglar,” he announced. He needed to travel back to the capital to let the Custodian know there had been a data breach. There was no telling what information had been gleaned, or the threat it might represent to Jaciprus. And something in the Force told Roke the threat was immediate.

Exiting the estate, Roke again addressed the HXZ-1 unit. “Droid—send a message to the Custodian of Defense that he needs to put his security on high alert.”

“Unnecessary,” the droid responded. “The Custodian of Defense maintains a constant security presence.”

Roke shook his head. Local security forces would do their best, but he needed to look after the Custodian personally—and deliver the message that his files might have been tampered with.

The Jedi Master hurried to his swoop bike and rode it for the many hours necessary to carry him straight to the capital. He hoped time remained to prevent this threat, whatever it was.

But even as he raced to the capital, Roke felt his doubts returning. Was he wasting his time? The lesson of Aura’s death still burned in his heart, despite his attempts to smother it. Was there still good to be done? Roke knew now that any good he might do would be overwhelmed by the cold, unfeeling darkness of the galaxy.

Still, this was his mission, given to him by the Jedi Council. Even if they couldn’t understand the emotional loss he was experiencing, he owed it to them to do his best.

Finally, Roke reached the capital, then the Bureau of Defense, then the anteroom to the office for the Custodian of Defense. The room was vacant save for a desk and two guards who stood before it.

“I need to speak with Custodian Crokirrit,” Roke explained to the guard before him, a human woman. “It’s urgent.”

The guard glanced down at the lightsaber hanging from Roke’s belt, then turned to her companion, a Jaciprou. The two conferred quietly for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” the human answered. “We’re under orders to prevent anyone from seeing the Custodian right now.”

“But I’m a Jedi Master!” Roke answered. The pair both glanced down at Roke’s lightsaber again. “We know,” she responded.

Roke, too, glanced at his lightsaber, then made the connection. These two were wary of allowing the Custodian to see anyone with a lightsaber.

Roke grimaced and began turning away when he felt a tingling at the back of his neck. Through the Force, he knew he had to act—now. Alarm bells went off in his head. The threat had arrived.

He turned to face the human guard squarely. “He must see the Custodian,” Roke said, lacing his words with the Force.

The human turned to her companion. “He must see the Custodian,” she announced. 16 “What?” the Jaciprou grunted. He was clearly of a stronger mind than the human. “Kem, that’s not authorized!”

Roke’s lightsaber was already ignited, its emerald blade reflecting off the polished floor. The Jedi Master leapt forward, landing a kick squarely on the Jaciprou’s chest. The guard tumbled backward.

The human, Kem, was shaking herself out of her confusion. Her blaster came up, but Roke’s blade was already slicing through it. With a Force push, Kem flew backward into the wall, unconscious.

Roke grimaced. He was trying his best to incapacitate without doing permanent harm—but he couldn’t waste time with these guards. These two were inconsequential compared to whatever threat might be confronting the Custodian of Defense.

Roke heard a whirring noise and looked up toward its source. A ceiling-mounted defense cannon had spun to face him. Simultaneously, the Jaciprou guard rose to his feet. As the cannon began firing, Roke deflected its shots toward the ankles of the Jaciprou. With a yelp, the guard collapsed.

Roke re-angled his blade to deflect the cannon’s laserbolts back toward the cannon itself. He met with success as a bolt struck its source, temporarily overloading the system. Master Vodin lowered his lightsaber and reached out with the Force, yanking the defense cannon from its ceiling emplacement and dropping it on the Jaciprou.

Leaping over the desk, Roke closed the distance between himself and door before him in three steps. He hit the door release, and as it raced upward, he ducked beneath it, into the Custodian’s chamber proper. His Jedi reflexes left him slamming the controls to lower the door even before it had fully opened, and with a quick crunching of gears, it altered its course, closing once again. Roke reversed his grip on his lightsaber, driving it into the door controls and sealing himself and the Custodian within the chamber.

The Force alarm bells in his head did not dissipate, though, and Roke knew he had not averted the threat.

The Custodian sat at his desk before Roke, his gaze on the Jedi. Roke’s move into the chamber and sealing of the door had taken mere seconds, and the Custodian’s mental faculties were no doubt trying to make sense of what he had just witnessed.

A half-second later, the Custodian rose from his chair and took a step back, his gaze fixated on Roke’s lightsaber.

He had no doubt made the same connection as the guards. “What do you want of me?” he asked, his voice even.

Roke opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment, an explosion in the air vent at the center of the room overpowered everything else.

Part 6: Power

Darth Vanthiss dropped from the air vent, landing in a crouch in the center of the room. To her right stood a Besalisk Jedi, his green lightsaber blade humming in one of his four hands. To her left, Custodian Crokirrit stood just behind his desk.

She knew she should ignite her lightfoil and handle her task as quickly as possible. But there was something about this Jedi...

Vanthiss raised her left hand and hurtled the Custodian backward into the wall, knocking him unconscious. Then she pivoted to face the Jedi, her lightfoil inactive in her hand. She probed him quickly in the Force. He felt like a raw wound with nothing but a cloth bandage wrapped over the surface.

“What are you here for, Jedi?” she asked. “Justice? Your presence in the Force reeks of despair. You know there is no justice. You understand the true nature of the universe.”

The Jedi should have moved to engage by now. Instead, he answered her query with, “And what nature is that?” Vanthiss could see the uncertainty in his eyes. His gaze pleaded for an answer.

“That the universe is inherently unjust. Justice is a lie. There can be no justice when you bow before others who have not the strength to impose order. And that is your flaw.” Vanthiss decided the risk was worth it, and continued. “The Jedi serve. The Sith rule.”

“Sith? Is that what you are?” The Jedi certainly recognized the term. The fact that he had not responded with an immediate attack suggested she had made the correct call in revealing her true nature.

“I am a seeker of power,” she answered. “I know the secret of the universe, and it is this: Only power can bring order. The universe will not administer justice itself. And yes, the name for those of us who know this secret is Sith.”

The Jedi glanced down at his hands, which he balled into fists. Vanthiss could feel the anguish emanating from him and see the pain on his face as he raised his gaze to meet her own. “...So what does that make me?” he asked.

A smile came to Vanthiss’s lips. Since defeating her master, she had carried the mantle of Sith alone. This was her chance to change that.

“Ah, Master Jedi,” she said, still grinning. “Do you wish to become more than a mere speck of light in a well of darkness? More than a pebble of sand upon an indifferent beach? Do you understand the error that results from focusing on others, how it only leads to a constant struggle with the failure that results from their weakness? Do you see the infinite value in empowering yourself if you truly wish to affect the galaxy?”

The Jedi deactivated his lightsaber. “When Master Yoda assigned me to this mission, I couldn’t believe he thought it warranted the attention of a Jedi. But it seems fate has led me to you.”

Vanthiss shook her head. “No, Master Jedi. There is no fate—the Force has no will, despite what your Order might claim. Your teachers might as well be reading a streetcorner magician’s cards. They look into the Force and see what they want to see, but believe the Force wills it. Embracing the dark side means staring into the abyss and recognizing nothing stares back; you alone are the mover of your destiny. The galaxy is in chaos, and nothing will bring order unless we impose our will through sheer power. Are you prepared to stare into the abyss, Master Jedi?”

The Besalisk’s eyes hardened. “I’ve been staring into the abyss for weeks, Lady Sith.” And she knew it was true—through whatever circumstance, this Jedi had come to know the true nature of reality.

He inched forward. “I have spent decades serving the Jedi Order, following its dictates, and living by their Code. And yet... I now find only empty promises. Their way has led to nothing but pain. Your words ring truer than any I can remember.” He took an additional step, then sank down on one knee. “I am Roke Vodin, a Jedi no longer. And I am yours to command.”

Vanthiss gave him a weary smile. “Roke Vodin is dead. You have torn him from you just as you have torn the failed Jedi teachings from your mind. Despite your age, you have true vision for what is to be accepted and what must be abandoned and destroyed. And so your reign as Sith

shall rip an orderly galaxy from a universe that clings to chaos. Where Roke Vodin died, it is Darth Sunder that rises. I am your master, Darth Vanthiss, and from me you will learn the secrets of the dark side.”

Part 7: Death

“Roke Vodin is dead.”

The diminutive Jedi Master’s eyebrows scrunched together and his eyes closed in sorrow. “Certain, are you?” he asked.

“Quite certain, Master Yoda,” responded the Jaciprou security captain. “My men shot down his craft as it fled the planet this morning, while you were still en route.”

Master Yoda’s heart ached for Master Vodin. Yoda had been summoned to Jaciprus the day before, when the planet’s authorities had contacted the Order to assert Master Vodin himself was suspected of murdering Custodian Crokirrit. Yoda had travelled to the planet to sort out the matter.

“Believe, do you still, that guilty of the Custodian’s murder he is?” Yoda asked.

“All the evidence suggested it, and we wouldn’t have shot down his craft if we didn’t,” the security captain explained. “We know he incapacitated two guards, nearly killing one, and forced entry into the Custodian’s main office. We know the Custodian was killed in that office by a lightsaber. And it appears Master Vodin escaped into the air ducts, as the air vent was removed in Custodian Crokirrit’s office, and there was no other evidence of egress by Master Vodin.”

Yoda sighed, shaking his head. It made no sense. Master Vodin had been struggling with his beliefs, perhaps, but he had been a Jedi for decades. There was no reason to think he would lash out at another being like this—especially when there was clearly another lightsaber-wielder involved, as evidenced by the earlier break-in.

“Still...” the captain muttered. “More to say, have you?” Master Yoda asked him.

“Well, some evidence has come to light since Master Vodin’s death.” The security captain grimaced. “Master Yoda, it is nothing conclusive, and certainly nothing our officers could have recognized at the time. They acted in good faith, and what they knew suggested we could not permit Master Vodin to leave the system. But it seems that when we shot down Master Vodin’s starship, it was on an intercept vector with another departing ship—Master Vodin did not deviate from that course, and maintained comm silence as we radioed him and instructed him to land. The records for that second ship show it touched down in and departed from a port near the Custodian’s estate on a timeline that roughly matches the break-in at the Custodian’s estate.

“But Master Yoda,” the captain continued, “that timeline seems too compressed for an individual to have traveled to and from the Custodian’s estate at the time of the break-in, even on a swoop bike. My security force is highly competent, and we would have investigated if the arrival and departure times would have allowed the ship’s owner to take such action.”

“It seems you have found your culprit, Captain,” Yoda said. “Came, I did, to advocate for Master Vodin’s innocence. Pointless it would be for me to do so now. Clear to me, it is, and to the Jedi Order, that nothing did Roke have to do with the killing of the Custodian. Collect his body, I shall.”

“Master Yoda...” the captain began, and Yoda knew what he was about to say. “...I’m afraid there is nothing left of him from the crash.”

“Then nothing more to discuss do we have, Captain,” Yoda answered. “Concluded, my business is, and a fool’s errand, this was.”

With a firm nod, Yoda turned to return to his ship. The Jedi Master was certain Vodin had nothing to do with the Custodian’s death, and likely was in the midst of investigating when Jaciprus Planetary Security had shot him down. But why he allowed himself to be shot down was less clear—as a Jedi pilot, he certainly could have avoided it. Perhaps Master Vodin had not overcome his despair, after all. Perhaps even in the heat of investigation, a certain fatalism had set in for him. Perhaps he had no desire to argue for his innocence while the true culprit escaped.

Master Yoda sighed. Every time one of his students entered the Force, he mourned the loss. The grief had grown no less with age. Master Vodin’s death was especially hard, as Yoda knew he had failed to convince Vodin of the beauty the galaxy retained. Still, now that Master Vodin had entered the Force, he could finally understand the final precept of the Jedi Code, the Code that had troubled Vodin so much over the past several weeks. Yoda could only hope that Master Vodin now understood, There is no death; there is only the Force.

Part 8: Victory

“Staging your death using your ship’s autopilot was a stroke of genius, Lord Sunder.”

Darth Sunder offered a small grin. “Thank you, Master. I admit I was nervous my summoning device might lead the craft too close to us before Jaciprus Planetary Security acted, but they didn’t disappoint.”

“Nonsense,” Darth Vanthiss answered. “If your craft had come anywhere near us, I would have jumped to hyperspace before it could arrive and be at all connected with us.”

Sunder nodded. Despite their short acquaintance, he was continually impressed by the cold logic his master wielded. Her understanding of the true nature of the galaxy and how to operate in it had already proven more accurate to his experience than his decades with the Jedi.

“I sense your determination, my apprentice,” Vanthiss continued. “You truly are ready to learn the ways of the dark side, aren’t you?”

Sunder gave a nod. “It’s liberating to discover the galaxy has no meaning or purpose—when the Jedi suggested it did, it gave their edicts moral weight. But in a meaningless galaxy, I’m free to give my life its own meaning.”

“So long as you are powerful enough to execute it, Darth Sunder. You still have much to unlearn.”

For the first time since his conversion, Sunder thought of Aura. The meaninglessness of her death still haunted him, and he knew deep down that was the true threat to defining one’s mission in the galaxy. He looked to his master. “Can you teach me to defeat the greatest enemy of all? Can you teach me to conquer death?”

Darth Vanthiss met his gaze. Then suddenly, he felt a blast of Force energy strike his cheek. The pain wasn’t great, but it was sharp, and stunned him.

“To conquer death is short-sighted, my inexperienced apprentice,” his master bit out. “What is the value in conquering death if you have yet to conquer yourself?”

“You don’t believe death is the ultimate threat?” Sunder asked, disbelieving.

“To be Sith is to understand that life is not the most valuable commodity in the universe. Not all lives are created equal; not even all Sith. You must recognize that as a Force-user and a Sith, you are more valuable than the common being. But you are only as valuable as you are perfect. And

believe me, Darth Sunder, no Sith is perfect—at least, not yet.

“Death can stop any one Sith. But death cannot stop an idea. Therefore, the Sith Order is greater than any one individual—and as long as we stand, the galaxy will someday be ours. Someday, we will bring order to chaos.”

“The Sith Order?” Sunder asked. “So far I’ve only met you.”

Vanthiss offered a feral grin. “There are just the two of us. Ah, my apprentice, you have so much to unlearn! The Jedi have taught you that strength lies in numbers, but centuries ago, the Sith found the truth: Power—and that is the heart of the Force—is not to be shared. Power is to be hoarded, for it is in the hoarding that it becomes an asset.”

Sunder nodded. This teaching at least made sense to him—though he struggled to see why Darth Vanthiss dismissed power over life and death so quickly. “If we concentrate power in the hands of just the two of us, we don’t need to rely on those weaker than us.”

“Precisely, Darth Sunder. Precisely.” Sunder felt a slight bump beneath his feet, indicating the ship had reverted to realspace. “We’ve arrived.” Vanthiss offered a sly smile. “You should join me in the cockpit.”

Sunder followed his master to the front of the ship, where he gazed out the viewport upon an asteroid field. Vanthiss took over for the autopilot and began guiding their craft—and immediately, Sunder knew where they were headed. He sensed a deep well of the dark side on one of the asteroids. As they approached, he saw the asteroid housed a multi-story mansion.

As she guided the ship toward the mansion’s hangar, Vanthiss declared, “The mansion was built from the money cultivated by my master’s master. We may be small, but we are a prosperous order.”

Sunder glanced upward, counting at least ten above-ground stories. “Impressive,” he said. “The Sith have used their wealth well.”

Vanthiss offered a short laugh. “We’ve done better than this. My trip to Jaciprus will help guarantee a growing market for the army I’m financing.”

The statement surprised Sunder. “You’re raising an army for the Sith? Doesn’t that mean relying on those weaker than us?”

Darth Vanthiss shook her head. “The army isn’t for the Sith. It’s for the galaxy. You and I understand the chaos inherent in this universe, but the citizens of the galaxy do not—or rather, not yet. But if given the tools of war, they will no doubt use them. And when the galaxy takes that path, the true chaos of this universe will be brought to the surface for all to see. Then, and only then, will the galaxy beg for our rule and the order we bring.”

Darth Sunder grinned. He could see—perhaps through a gift of the Force, perhaps merely in his mind’s eye—the galaxy erupting in flames, flesh and metal destroyed on the battlefield, and the Jedi Order slain. He knew it was true: Only then would the citizens of the Republic understand the value of stability.

“You have already taught me so much, Master,” Sunder proclaimed as the two disembarked from the ship. “And yet I know there is so much more you have to teach me.”

A wicked smile appeared on Lady Vanthiss’s lips. “You’re in luck, my apprentice,” she whispered. Pure Force energy formed into forks of lightning and erupted from her hands, driving toward Darth Sunder and dropping him to the ground, where he writhed in pain. “Your training begins now!”

Epilogue: My Chains are Broken; The Force Shall Free Me

Darth Sunder had spent over a decade as the apprentice to the Sith Lady Vanthiss, but the time had come to replace her.

He had increased exponentially in his knowledge and understanding of the dark side over that time. Much of his tutelage had come at the hands of Darth Vanthiss herself, but he had also sought out Sith knowledge from more arcane sources. In the meantime, Vanthiss had come to rely too much on her technological terrors, losing sight of the power of the dark side itself. As Sunder had increased in prowess, his Sith master had plateaued, perhaps even slipped.

With the right tampering, Sunder had turned Vanthiss’s devices against her. All that was now required was the right spark to set the chain of events in motion. She would look to her tech for aid, and when it failed her, she would panic. Leaving her right where Sunder wanted her.

Speaking barely above a whisper, Darth Sunder recited the words in which, so late in life, he had finally found meaning—or, rather, embraced a lack thereof. He clung to each word as he spoke it, feeling it down into his bones.

“Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me.”

With that, Darth Sunder rose from where he crouched, removed a vibroblade from the pouch strapped to his belt, and sliced through the wire before him, plunging the village into darkness.

Tonight was the night Darth Sunder, Lord of the Sith, would teach his master the power of the dark.