When Thal rose from his seat in the cantina, he knew he was not the same person he had been earlier in the night. He was now the leader of an organization. A small one, yes, but even so.
He was like Gaul.
The realization caused him to shudder.
Were the Brokers right? Or had the Verpine simply been blowing smoke. Trying to protect himself.
There’s only one way to find out.
Thal and Zyn Par were wandering the Red Sector as the night drew to a close and the grey light of dawn began to break over the horizon. The first rays were beginning to peek through the haze of the city and sent shafts of light chasing up the streets, but they had not yet pierced the alleys and nooks and crannies of the labyrinthine placement of buildings in the city.
“What is our next move, Sentinel?”
The Kel Dor had taken to the new roles immediately. His kind of desperation was a hungry one indeed.
But it didn’t mean Thal was about to drop his guard around the man. He knew that Zyn was capable of stopping him in his tracks, if he wanted to. He wasn’t going to just forget about such a power. It would be a useful tool for his efforts, but should it ever turn back against him…
Well, he would have to be ready.
Zyn Par also didn’t carry himself like a man desperate. Especially now. Thal thought back to their encounter in the Undercity. The Kel Dor had emerged confidently from his hiding place and taken command of the situation with expert cunning.
And now, as well, his question was not one of brash enthusiasm, but of cold understanding. He honestly wanted to know their goals and plans. And Thal had no doubt that the man would be more than capable of dissecting any plan Thal presented.
Does that make me excited or frightened?
He honestly couldn’t tell.
“We’re need to find the Sith,” he said. “And we need to go to the Diplomat to do that.”
“Very well, Sentinel. Let us continue to the Diplomat.”
The call echoed through the quiet streets like a blaster shot.
Both Thal and Zyn turned to find Drelga capering toward them.
“Yeah, it’s me. Been lookin fer you all night.”
Of course. The information. How could Thal have forgotten?
Well, it had been a busy night.
“Look, here you go. Rumors, all, like you said. But there they are. I’ve even got the bits about Nar Shadaa listed up front.”
The Dug handed Thal a datacard, which Thal promptly slotted into his datapad and booted up.
The first entry told of a Sith Temple hidden in a foundry deep in the Undercity.
Thal looked up at the Dug.
Drelga didn’t react in any visible fashion, except to speak.
“Don’t think me too stupid, all right, Thal. I told you. I’m smart. I can figure stuff out. So don’t think you’re hiding anything from me.”
“I’m not about to rat you out or anything. You’re a decent friend and a good work partner. And I can see you’re even growing a little operation here, is that it?” He nodded to Zyn. “Your business is your own business. And as long as it doesn’t conflict with mine, I’m content to let you be. Even work with you on occasion. But it doesn’t, for a second, mean that I’m not paying attention to you. And everybody else.”
The Dug sauntered up to Thal’s side and held out one of his hands.
When Thal took it, Drel pulled him down to his level.
“Don’t forget that, Thal. Especially if you’re going to get in on this game. Everybody’s watching. Everybody.”
With that, the Dug sauntered off into one of the nearby cantinas. Though it would be long empty by now, Thal had a hunch that Drel hadn’t had a drink all night on account of looking for him.
“Sentinel, what is our next move?”
Thal stared back down at the datapad.
It was just a rumor. It wouldn’t do them any good. But the warning was invaluable. And he would never be able to thank Drelga for it. This was the end of their amicable friendship. From now on, it would be entirely professional.
That’s for the best.
He turned to Zyn.
“We continue to search for the Diplomat.”
Mandalorians guarded the Diplomat’s compound. It was still early, and so many of the Diplomat’s men would not be present, aside from the ones who slept at the headquarters, like Thal.
Gaul himself would be unlikely to be there. But Thal couldn’t wait anymore. He was on the edge of completing his mission. He just needed a that final piece of information. Whatever nugget Gaul supposedly held.
“Have you dealt with the Mandalorians of Nar Shaddaa before, Zyn?”
“No, Sentinel. I have not had occasion to do so. I left the Hutt’s services before the Mandalorians arrived from the war. They had not yet established themselves as an official organization.”
I guess I’m on my own then.
“Wait here,” Thal said. Then he rose and strode confidently into the midst of the guards.
They quickly surrounded him, and their heavily-armored captain stood to face him.
“Well, who’s this? Thal Lirin, I presume?”
“The Mandalore of Nar Shaddaa, I presume?” said Thal.
The man laughed, a hollow mechanical sound echoing from within his helmet.
“Hardly. Just a unit captain. These are my boys.” He spread his arms to take in the gathered men. “And we’ve been tasked with making sure you don’t get in there.”
The Mandalorian nodded.
Curious, Thal thought. That was not the impression I got from Gaul when he sent me to secure a contract. Is he really so afraid of me?
“So I guess negotiations went well?”
“Nevermind,” said Thal. “Just let me through before I’m forced to kill you.”
The man scoffed. “I’m sure the Diplomat has good reason to fear you. But I think you overestimate your chances against a full squad of trained, Mandalorian warr-”
Thal cut him off with twin blaster shots to the chest. The body armor prevented the blasts from killing the man, but at least they cut him off and knocked him to the ground.
“Anyone else?” he said.
A flurry of motion was all that Thal registered as the squad whipped out their weapons and opened fire.
Thal was ready.
Taking a deep breath, Thal drew upon the Force and waited for the impact.
The blaster bolts struck him in an erratic pattern. That was good. If they had all hit at once, Thal doubted if he could have dissipated them all. Such tremendous force would have overwhelmed him.
Even so, the collection of bolts together was too much for him to neutralize in quick succession on his own.
But he wasn’t planning on neutralizing them.
The first bolt struck and Thal felt the impact in the Force like a boulder falling into a stream. However, rather than allowing that boulder to block the flow of the Force, lessening it to a trickle, Thal used the boulder to divert the flow of the Force. There were now two streams, diverted by the boulder. The first stream he prepared to receive the next blaster bolt. The second stream took that deadly energy he had absorbed and carried it away from his body, back toward the attacker.
It was a trick he had learned during the shootout on that rooftop in the Corellian Sector. He didn’t just negate the energy, he absorbed it in a non-deadly form. It actually strengthened him, to a degree. But like too much of a good thing — or an overcharged battery — Thal could still burn out if he absorbed too much energy without using it first.
So he did. He poured it out through his fingertips, causing arcs of violent energy to leap toward his foes.
With each blast he absorbed, Thal created a new stream of the Force that carried the energy back toward his attackers. Soon, the arcs of energy branched from one to two to four to eight until soon he was the center of a veritable storm of energy.
The Mandalorians no longer had the freedom to attack. Those who weren’t caught by Thal’s currents of energy were instead diving for cover or using their own allies as shields.
The first were protected. The second were not. The energy used the bodies as a conduit and coursed through to strike the man behind.
Thal was power incarnate.
After a few short breaths, though, it was gone. The energy he had absorbed had run out, and thus so had his storm.
Thal surveyed his work.
The Mandalorians were scattered. A handful were fleeing. A few others hid behind cover. Most were either dead or incapacitated. Thal couldn’t really tell.
The captain was just now rousing himself from the ground.
Thal held up his blaster to the man’s head.
“Take your men and leave,” he said. “I don’t want to kill you.”
The captain scrambled to his feet and fled, leaving his men behind.
Thal was not concerned. He could feel the fear in the men around him. None would dare touch him again.
Which was good, because Thal wasn’t sure if he’d be able to muster up the focused control that his divergent streams trick had required. He felt drained, mentally as well as physically. But he was unharmed, and the Mandalorians were gone.
That’s all that mattered at this point.
Thal could feel Zyn Par approaching. He could also feel the reverent awe coming off the man in waves.
Good. You are even more in my shadow now.
The Force was a flowing river through Thal now. All barriers had been broken down. All hesitation had been evaporated. Thal was a living weapon of the Force. A tool in the hands of infinity. He could feel the planet beneath his feet, far away beneath the hundreds of levels of the city. He could feel countless beings inhabiting the planet, fueling the Force.
He could also feel the other squad of Mandalorian guards, waiting inside the compound.
“Prepare yourself, Zyn. We have more enemies to deal with.”
“Sentinel… what you did… that was incredible.”
It was, he thought. I hardly even know how I was capable of it.
“Someday, should you continue to study the secrets of the Force, you may become a master such as I. For now, focus on the present. We must defeat these guards.”
The Kel Dor nodded, and his demeanor changed instantly to a cold professionalism. It still both impressed and frightened Thal how quickly and completely the Kel Dor could flip that switch.
“Let’s go,” he said.
They climbed the steps to the entrance, and Thal reached out with the Force.
“There are three men waiting for us on the other side,” Zyn Par said.
Thal was shocked.
But of course. He is likely a master of perception. That’s how he can manipulate emotions so effectively. He has acute senses when it comes to detecting other beings. Excellent.
“Very good. Can you affect them from here?”
Zyn nodded. A moment later, Thal sensed the auras of the guards change distinctly as they grew cold and afraid, as he himself had in the Undercity outside the Brokers’ sanctum.
Thal opened the door and released a flurry of stun bolts to strike the paralyzed Mandalorians.
“Good work,” Thal said. “Let’s keep moving.”
The two of them ran down the halls, toward the Diplomat’s offices. In the main corridor, they encountered another team of Mandalorians.
“Allow me,” Thal said, holding back a hand.
Racing down the passageway, drawing on the Force, Thal shifted away from the flurry of blaster fire as it flew toward him. Running up along the side of the walls, Thal loosed his own flurry of blaster shots at the four waiting Mandalorians.
Two went down beneath his assault. Another dove away from the hall’s entrance, finding cover around the corner. The fourth lined up a shot at Thal on the wall and fired.
Thal absorbed the energy, this time turning it out into a bubble of energy that surrounded him in a protective field.
Then he put two blaster bolts in the Mandalorian’s chest, dropping him to the ground.
The shell came in handy, as the remaining guard struck Thal with a flurry of blasterfire. But Thal was unaffected, the barrier absorbing all of the attack.
That’s all it was able to absorb, however. It’s a remarkably short-lived trick.
Thal raced down the hall in one breath, pulling off two shots with his blasters at point blank range.
The guard dropped to the ground.
“Alright, Zyn, let’s keep mov-”
A ripple in the Force.
Thal leaped into the air as a glowing, sapphire blade swept through where his midsection had been a moment before.
A half dozen blaster bolts were deflected away by the lightsaber, but it kept the wielder busy enough to allow Thal to land without getting an arm cut off.
What is this? In the Diplomat’s compound?
Thal reached out with the Force and suddenly realized that there were only three living people in the building.
Of course, he thought. Why else would he show such interest in the investigation?
Thal kept up a steady stream of blasterfire as he backed away from the warrior.
Then he got a good look of who it was.
The Weequay lowered the lightsaber. For the first time, Thal saw that he was wearing body armor beneath the otherwise tattered garments that Thal remembered him in.
“What… is going on here?”
“You are a threat, Thal Lirin. The grand master has demanded your extermination. I volunteered to stay behind so that I could deal with you personally.”
He swept forward with his blade. Thal dove out of the way.
“You left me for dead, Thal Lirin. You sought to conceal your true self.”
Another sweep with the blade. Thal was beginning to sense a pattern.
“I don’t conceal myself much anymore,” Thal said, before diving away from another wide sweep. “Didn’t you hear? I just decimated a squad of Mandalorians on your doorstep.”
Another sweep, this time with a second as followthrough.
Uh-oh, Thal thought wryly. He’s getting creative now.
The Weequay’s fighting style was basic. Very straightforward. It focused on establishing a threatening area and then exerting consistent strength on that area. Useful for group fighting. Nearly useless in a duel. The man’s skills with deflection were also feeble, though competent.
“Where’s Gaul?” he said.
“Leave him out of this, Thal Lirin. He knows nothing.”
“Fine. Where’s your temple?”
“I act alone,” said Johram as he launched himself into a full-bodied leap toward Thal.
Thal barely managed to slide out of the way of the attack as the seemingly massive Weequay came crashing down, sending a shockwave of Force energy out from his landing point.
Fortunately, Thal was in the air before the wave hit, or else he likely would have found himself in a highly vulnerable position.
“You’ve received training from somewhere,” Thal said. “I’m willing to bet you’re working with that Sith woman who killed the Imperials. Where are they?”
“Silence, Thal Lirin! Silence and die!”
A wave of Force energy launched Thal off of his feet and sent him crashing into the far wall.
Johram was charging toward him, raising his blade for a deathblow.
Thal drew his lightsaber.
The golden, glowing blade met with the sapphire in a flash of light. The Weequay’s strength was great, and Thal had to grip tightly to hold back his enemy. But the look on Johram’s face was satisfying enough to give Thal the endurance to hold on. It would be worth it if only to exploit that shock.
“You’re not the only fool on this planet with a lightsaber,” Thal said. Drawing on the Force, he added strength to his frame and pushed Johram away. Then he stood and held the blade at ready. “The only difference is, I know how to use it.”
And he did. As he gripped the weapon, locked in combat as they were, long-forgotten memories of duels from the past rose unbidden into his mind. Sparring with padawans and fellow knights. Hunting down rogue Jedi. Practicing each of the seven forms to master his chosen one.
It all came back. And with it, the confidence to win against this untested, over-ambitious imposter.
The shock and surprise in Johram’s face transformed into a sinister confidence as he deftly blocked the attack.
It was Thal’s turn to be surprised. His assault had been complicated, well-constructed for the sole purpose of circumventing the Weequay’s simple fighting style. He shouldn’t have had a chance.
Blades still locked, Johram leaned forward to whisper harshly to Thal.
“You’re not the only one who can keep a secret, Thal Lirin. And you’re not the only one who knows how to use a lightsaber.”