Chapter 19

Chapter 19

The old foundry was buried beneath years and years of construction that had once been new, but now was just as ancient as any other portion of the Undercity. Inside, durasteel supports held up walls and roofs that had long been stripped of any functioning properties, and were now mere patchwork barely supporting the above and surrounding levels of the city.

Thal and Zyn crept past the antiquated machinery, the dilapidated infrastructure, and the abandoned offices, searching for the entrance to the Sith temple.

“Do you think the Brokers may have sent us here, knowing that there was nothing to find?” said Zyn.

Thal shook his head. He had thought the same thing several times during their journey down here, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. There had to be something down here. There had to be.

He reached out with the Force. Somewhere, perhaps he could detect the hidden presences of Johram’s enclave. These Force-users were clearly skilled in masking their presence in the Force, as Thal hadn’t felt anything while with Johram or while hunting others, but a skilled Force-user could pierce through the haze thrown up by another. It was just a matter of whether or not Thal would be able to do that.

Damn, they can’t all be this good at hiding, Thal thought. Surely they have neophytes, acolytes, some kind of new student who hasn’t yet learned how to hide their presence.

Unless their master was powerful enough to conceal the entire enclave.

That thought caused Thal to shudder. Such mastery did not imply raw power, but it did reveal a potentially skilled manipulator who understood the value of secrecy. Such a subtle mind would be difficult to outwit, and duels of the Force often came down to one’s understanding of each participant’s limits, not necessarily the strength of their abilities.

But none of that mattered if Thal and Zyn couldn’t find them.

Thal reached out again and continued trying to find something, anything that might imply the presence of a Sith temple.

Nothing. All he felt was Zyn.

Zyn.

Thal looked at the Kel Dor. The man had been able to detect Thal’s Force-sensitivity while he had still been locking it away behind walls that had been built up for years. That was a powerful level of perception for one untrained such as he.

Of course, Thal realized. Kel Dor have a heightened awareness of the Force. He likely has a greater skill than I in this area because, for him, it’s an instinct.

Thal opened his mouth to ask Zyn to search for the enclave, but then another thought occurred to him, causing him to hesitate.

Why was he only able to detect me? Thal thought about their discussion at the cantina. Zyn had said that Thal was the only one he had felt that was like him. He said that he had thought he was the only Force-sensitive for years.

But that simply wasn’t possible. Force-sensitives were rare, yes, but Nar Shaddaa held billions of inhabitants. Thal had personally felt and investigated the Force-sensitivity of dozens of people during his time here, thinking each time that he might have stumbled onto the Sith. There was no way that Zyn had been living on Nar Shaddaa, as a fully aware Force-user, for any length of time and not felt the presence of other Force-sensitives around him.

Zyn Par was lying about something.

“Yes, Sentinel? Is there something I can help you with?”

Thal glanced up at the Kel Dor.

Of course, he had been about to say something. But now…

“Why did you lie to me?”

As usual, the Kel Dor’s masked face remained unmoving. “Excuse me, sir?”

“You said I was the only Force-sensitive you had ever felt. You said that you had been feeling alone. But that’s not possible. Your ability to detect the Force would have led you to others. You can probably feel the Sith below our feet right now, especially if you put some effort into it. So why did you lie to me?”

Still and stoic, the Kel Dor folded his hands behind his back.

“I did not know how to reach out to you,” he said. “There was a hole in my life when I left the Hutt’s service — I no longer had an authority, I no longer had a family, and I no longer had a mentor. These things are difficult to replace.”

“And you thought I seemed like a good candidate?”

“Hardly. But you were the only candidate that I had been able to find. I could tell that you were hiding. But I could also detect the discipline and sophisticated levels of training that were required for you to remain hidden. I wish to learn those secrets. I wish to have a purpose again. I wish to feel accepted again. Are these things so much to ask for?”

Thal thought back to the various times he had seen the Kel Dor. The man had always been aware of Thal, but he had also been meeting with others, building a network.

“I’m not the first you’ve approached, am I?”

The Kel Dor hesitated, then shook his head.

“No, Sentinel, but I hope that you can be the last.”

“Why?” said Thal. “Why would you wan to stay with me?”

“You hold knowledge, and a deep sense of purpose. You are experienced in both the ways of the Force and the ways of Nar Shaddaa. I need someone who is both those things, for I cannot be all one thing anymore. Not since I learned of my secret power.”

Thal could understand that. When he had first come to Nar Shaddaa, he had been a Jedi, and it had been difficult for him to blend in without making himself forget that he was a Jedi. So he had hidden, and while he had hidden he had learned how to live on Nar Shaddaa. He had learned how to gain power and acceptance in this new culture, while abandoning the power and acceptance of his old one.

But now… now he felt the blend and tension that Zyn spoke of. He was no longer a Jedi only; he was no longer a criminal only. He as both, which meant he was neither. He had to be something new.

And, he had to admit, it would be easier to do that with someone else along for the journey.

“I think I understand what you’re saying, Zyn. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.”

The Kel Dor didn’t back down. He seemed much stronger now, standing up for himself against Thal’s accusations.

“You do not need to be happy about it, Sentinel. It is not a thing to be happy or sad or angry about. It is simply what I have done. You can accept me or you can dismiss me, but you cannot change what I have done.”

That… is surprisingly simple and accurate, thought Thal.

“All right,” he said. “I accept you. We shall remain partners in this, but our discussion is not finished. I’ll want to know more once we’re out of here.”

Zyn Par nodded. “Of course.”

“Now,” Thal said. “Can you feel any sort of Force-sensitive presences in this area? I’m blind, for some reason, but you’re clearly more proficient in this area than me.”

Zyn didn’t speak at first, and Thal heard the Kel Dor take in a long, slow breath. Then he turned to Thal.

“There are indeed a number of trained Force-users lurking in some tunnels below, but their presences are being masked by one very large power. It is as if a cloud of smog were settled over them, obscuring my vision. I am sorry that I cannot see more.”

That’s it, then, thought Thal. Their master really is that powerful. We’ll have to be careful.

“Good work, Zyn. Now let’s go find a way in.”

#

Finding the entrance wasn’t difficult, now that Zyn had a reasonably clear picture of where the temple’s inhabitants were. Once inside, he and Thal crept through the darkened tunnels, hoping to find the Sith before the Sith found them.

“Make sure you keep yourself open to the Force,” Thal said. “We don’t want to be surprised.”

From what Thal could tell in the dark, the corridors were made from a worked stone of such masterful craftsmanship that they were still holding up after however many tens of thousands of years. It was difficult, however, to determine where they were. Had they entered at the top of the temple? Was it at the base? Was the entire temple even still intact? What shape was it?

Navigating this place would be a nightmare, but hopefully with Zyn’s abilities they’d be able to hone in on the leader.

That’s our goal. He’s likely the one who’s been training all of them. If we can get to him, we can end this.

Everything else was a distraction. A delay. And after ten years of delaying, Thal was impatient to wait any longer than necessary.

Thal flexed his hand, listening to the leatheris bend and stretch as it tightened. Johram had been the first rogue Force-user that he had killed in over ten years. The justice was satisfying. He had destroyed an enemy of the Order, and his hand itched to hunt down more of them, to purge the planet of the Council’s foes. Those who would see the Jedi extinct.

Before this day was out, Thal knew he would be executing many more.

“How close are we?” he said after a while.

“Difficult to tell,” said Zyn. “As we travel, the cloud grows denser. My vision is even more obscured now that we are within than when I gazed in upon it from without.”

Thal silently cursed himself for his stupidity. Of course, how could I have forgotten?

“This is a place of power for the Dark Side,” he said to Zyn. “It will disrupt our use of the Force, clouding our senses and weighing heavily on our hearts. We must be wary.”

The Kel Dor nodded silently and they pressed on.

I wonder if the woman in the crimson armor will be here, Thal thought. She must be one of the chief acolytes if she was given opportunity to roam abroad. Being so open is quite a risk, potentially spelling doom for the entire academy.

It could have brought the Inquisitors down upon the enclave. It had certainly earned Thal’s attention. So in a way, it did mean their doom.

But what was he going to do if he met her here? Kill her? She had saved his life. It was a tricky situation.

Perhaps he could redeem her.

That was a difficult road, though. He was a Sentinel, a hunter for the Jedi. He was not one of their teachers, or sages — a great Consular whose sole purpose was to study and instruct others in the ways of the Force. They were best suited for guiding a Force-user through the long, patient journey of redemption. Not Thal.

He would just as soon purge their darkness from the galaxy.

And that’s what I’ll do, he realized. She may have saved me, but her darkness is not absolved by that action. I cannot allow my personal feelings and gratitude to get in the way. They must all die. It is the will of the Council. The will of the Force.

“Sentinel…” The hesitation in Zyn Par’s voice was clear, even through the mechanized breathpiece. “There is something strange. I can’t… I can’t quite make it out.”

“What do you mean strange?”

“It’s like… a shadow in the Force. An emptiness.”

Thal’s heart sank into his stomach. It couldn’t be.

Ysalamiri.

The lizard-like creatures, native to the planet Myrkr had developed a way to silence the Force in a bubble around themselves in order to protect themselves from the Force-sensitive predators on their planet.

Unfortunately for the Jedi, a few enterprising organizations had found the protection offered by the Ysalamiri to be invaluable, and so they began tending and breeding them as a means of defending themselves from the awesome power of the Force.

What they were doing in a temple dedicated to the training of Force-users, Thal did not know, and he didn’t have a chance to muse upon it.

Before he or Zyn could react, the darkness around them lit up in shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. The glowing blades of at least a dozen lightsabers greeted them and revealed a coterie of armored swordsmen and women from a handful of different species. Humans, Duros, Twi’leki, and even a Gamorrean all glared back at Thal and Zyn from behind the violent light of their blades.

“Look, everyone, it’s Thal Lirin, the hunter.”

The voice was female.

Thal looked and there she was, standing directly before him, leading the group. A woman with a crimson blade wearing scarlet armor. Her dark hair pulled back in a tight tail and hidden beneath a black hood.

“You,” he said.

She grinned, all the sinister lines of smug approval creasing in her face to form darkly shadowed lines, like the stripes of some jungle predator.

The others around them were dressed in similar fashion, though the woman was clearly the only one who had truly embraced the garb of the Sith. Each of the swordsmen wore armor of some fashion — some more uniform than others. There were scraps of Mandalorian hunters’ armor, breastplates and other components from several varieties of Stormtrooper, one man even wore a particularly elaborate set of near-golden armor, much like the color of Thal’s lightsaber blade. Some wore cloaks and hoods, others wore robes, a few wore capes, but the variety in coloration covered the entire spectrum.

They spent all their money on smuggling in the lightsabers, Thal realized, thinking back on the delivery slip hidden on the dead Corellian’s body. I wonder which one killed him.

Returning his attention to the present situation, Thal realized that the woman had said his name.

“How do you know who I am?”

“We know many things about you, Thal Lirin. You’ve been busily hunting us for some time now.”

The woman turned and waved them along. Thal and Zyn had no choice but to follow, as the other swordsmen began to close in and escorted them along the way.

“Come along, Thal Lirin. Our master wishes to meet with you.”

Good, thought Thal. That’s exactly what I was hoping for.

#

As the swordsmen led Thal and Zyn through the darkened tunnels, the shadow in the Force lifted. Soon after that, Thal noticed light ahead.

So, apparently they keep Ysalamiri in the walls in order to mask the presence of their warriors, allowing them to set up ambushes. Similarly with the darkness. Do they really get that many visitors that they are forced to be so paranoid?

As they emerged from the tunnels, the light revealed an enormous chamber the stretched upward in tiered fashion as the ceiling formed a pyramid. Observation platforms circled the walls, likely forming upper stories to the complex. How this thing had remained hidden for so long, Thal could not understand.

Except, it wasn’t hidden. It was intentionally ignored.

That explained the Brokers’ hesitation. They probably knew about this place the entire time. Maybe even knew what was going on in here. But the acolytes likely paid handsomely for the privilege of secrecy.

Which meant that Thal’s deal carried far more weight with the Brokers than he had initially suspected. He’d have to be careful with that.

If he made it out of here alive, that is.

The woman detached herself from the group to approach a podium toward the back of the chamber. It was only then that Thal returned his attention to the ground floor and found himself surrounded by a hundred more acolytes, slowly emerging from peripheral chambers.

By the Force, how many are there?

He had known that they were building an army. But there was a difference between knowing something and actually seeing its reality.

“Master,” called out the woman. “We have brought you Thal Lirin, the hunter.”

Thal looked up to the head of the podium as the master rose from his throne and began to descend to the floor.

Dressed in resplendent violet tones and wearing gleaming black and white ceremonial armor, Thal barely recognized the man. But when he did, he couldn’t have anticipated his surprise.

It was Gaul.

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