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Star Wars Visions: Ronin
Star Wars Visions: Ronin

At the far edge of the galaxy, a lone wanderer roams the Outer Rim. In defiance of Imperial edict, the RONIN dares to wear a certain blade on his sash. None know his name, nor what he seeks—only that death and disaster follow in his footsteps. No doubt the gods themselves have cursed his forgotten name. . . .

CHAPTER ONE

Two months after the Ronin arrived on the Outer Rim world of Genbara, he ran out of credits. This concerned him less than it did B5-56, who took every opportunity to scold.

“Look at it this way,” he told his trundling companion. “No need to worry about where we’ll sleep.”

A man with no coin had no reason to pace his trek in terms of outposts and inns. He could pay for no bed. Thus, he could wander to his heart’s content, and the woodland vistas of Genbara did reward the wandering. Vast stretches of pine were interrupted only by patches of farmland, claimed by settlers rebuilding their lives far from the scars war had left on worlds nearer the galaxy’s Core.

The Ronin slept that night under a small lean-to that a local woodcutter had told him of the day before, when he passed the old man’s hut on his way into the mountains.

“The mountains, sir? Are you sure?” the woodcutter had said as he sucked his teeth. They sat on the veranda of the man’s hut and shared a pot of stale tea. It had been the last in the Ronin’s tin, but he offered it freely in exchange for hot water and company. “You’ll want to follow this road up, past the ridge. It will take you to a village in the valley. If it’s still there.”

An ominous thing to say. To the Ronin, it suggested he was on the right course. B5 saw the look in his eye. The droid’s own eye flashed from red to blue under his thatched hat as he murmured a warning.

The woodcutter, who had no facility with Binary, mistook the dome-headed astromech’s sound for nervousness. He grinned. “There were four villages up there, little droid, when I first built my humble hut. Then there were three, then two—now just the one. Word is they angered a spirit. A spirit that doesn’t take kindly to settlers.”

Yet he thinks the spirits don’t mind him? said a voice in the Ronin’s ear.

“Mountains are different,” the Ronin said.

The woodcutter, who thought he had been spoken to, nodded sagely. B5 swiveled a baleful eye to fix on the Ronin in what was likely supposed to be a glare. The Ronin pretended not to notice it, but he did remind himself to be careful. On occasion, when in the company of others, his responses to the voice were dismissed. On other occasions, they were not, and this could go quite badly. If the village in the mountains still stood, he would be among new people soon, and they sounded like a superstitious lot.

The following morning, he stretched the cold out of his limbs as he rose and ate half a ration-stick from his pouch, the last remaining. The chewing was slow going, with the ache; he rubbed at the line of old metal that supported his jaw from ear to ear.

B5 grumbled at him all the while, calling him old and simple besides. Surely, the droid said, his master remembered that he had the means to acquire enough credits to fund his fool journey until it killed him—or at least enough to purchase a more up-to-date prosthetic. Yet he hoarded his bounty to the point that some shamefully mundane evil would doubtless get him first. Perhaps the chill, or infection, or worse.

“You know I would be more foolish to try to sell one of these,” said the Ronin, patting the treasures hidden in the folds of his robes. “Where would I say I got it?”

Then what do you plan to do with your winnings, other than collect them? the voice asked, rather bitterly at that.

He couldn’t give her an answer. Not one she could stand.

Moved by a reflexive guilt, he glanced at the inner lining of the long hooded vest he wore as a cloak. The robe had weighed the same for at least a year now, when he had last added to the collection within. The crystals sewn into the seam glinted as if in greeting, letting off red flickers that illuminated his fingers, elated by the promise of his attention. They wanted him to touch them, to take them and give them use.

He let the robe fall closed, crystals untouched. Here was his reason, even if she didn’t care for it: So long as he carried them, they could bring no further harm.

Outside of what harm you commit, she said.

“If you wish me dead,” he said as he stepped out onto the needlestrewn path between the pines, “you have only to point the way.”

Go on to your little village, then.

Experience told him that she would provide no further advice. After all, she would doubtless prefer that whatever he met in the village be the end of him rather than the other way around.

The chill of the night bled into spring as the sun rose. The Ronin stopped on the ridge overlooking the last village left in the mountains, B5-56 at his side. In the distance, at the far end of a pine-ridden valley, the swooping lines of a crashed ship gleamed whitely. Some sleek, gallant vessel that had met its ignoble end face-first in the sloping mountainside. Its silver hull shone like a star under the fierce morning light.

Poetic, wouldn’t you say? said the voice.

“I would say it’s broken,” said the Ronin.

B5 whined, disappointed.

“Doing what again? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

B5 sighed as magnificently as Binary allowed.

Together, they set off down the path to the last village in the mountains. Somewhere within it, they would find the Ronin’s quarry—or they would find nothing. A cowardly part of him hoped for the latter. Perhaps it was this part that made him slow as they reached the last rise before the village proper, where a teahouse stood beside an ancient bending pine. A troubling odor wafted out of the structure into the road, and despite B5’s scold—didn’t they have somewhere to be?—the Ronin let it lure him to the door. He found the shopkeep—a tidy Sullustan fellow whose rounded cheeks had grayed with age—seated on the clean-swept floor, fiddling with a rectangular power droid’s wiring and bemoaning its temperamental nature.

The Ronin’s shadow startled the shopkeep, who scrambled upright to study the stranger. His wary black eyes flicked up to take in the Ronin’s intimidating height, draped in road-stained garb, and down to the two scabbards hung conspicuously at his waist.

You look entirely evil, she said.

The Ronin frowned; the shopkeep flinched. “No, not you,” said the Ronin. Then he cursed, which didn’t help. “Your power droid. It’s leaking. I could smell it from the road. I can fix it for you.”

The shopkeep remained wary until B5 peered out from behind the Ronin’s cloak. The droid greeted the shopkeep and apologized for his companion’s dreadful appearance all in one go. Feed him, said B5, and he’ll fix any droid you point him to.

Even ten years ago, the Ronin might have argued for dignity’s sake— was he to be some manner of beggar, exchanging menial repairs for menial returns? Now he knew himself with the humility of age. When the shopkeep agreed, he simply asked where the man kept his tools.

The voice said nothing, though her impatience weighed on his mind like the threat of incoming rain. She would have preferred he throw himself boldly into whatever she had lying in wait. He preferred to make himself useful.

The power droid proved an easy enough fix. The Ronin had only to work off the stained front of its chassis and reach around its cabling to identify the leak. His fingers came away silty with exhaust debris that had disrupted the pathway of the power coupling. He asked the shopkeep if there was a sizable transmitter, or perhaps a chronometer he could bear to live without. The shopkeep returned with an ancient holoprojector, which the Ronin deftly dismantled. He found he only needed one of the projector’s two safety sealants to properly contain the leak and had the whole thing cleaned and fitted back together within the hour.

“Mortifying, isn’t it?” said the shopkeep to B5 as they watched the Ronin work. “I could have repaired an astromech like yourself in my sleep, back during the war. Still could, perhaps. But they never asked the specialists to look after our own power droids, and here I am, utterly helpless when it stops warming my tea.”

When the Ronin stood, the shopkeep ushered him out into the shaded seating area just outside the teahouse. He promised to provide a proper pot of his most exquisite blend, which was even now steeping on the humming power droid. “To think I mistook you for a bandit!”

The Ronin merely nodded thanks. From this vantage, he could see the entirety of the village proper. A humble affair, mostly comprising two rows of wooden slat and thatch-roofed houses reinforced with the discarded durasteel remnants of ships that had fallen in the war; these were lined neatly across from each other, aside from the handful of other outlying structures and a pair of simple, unfortified watchtowers. A grand storehouse occupied the center of town, hung with banners and protected by an old ship door. Most of the villagers worked the rice fields that sustained them, while some met in the central square before the storehouse to discuss this or that spot of business, and children ran cackling through the streets. A peaceful tableau. The sort only delicately held, this far into the Outer Rim.

Peace is scarce and dearly bought, she said.

This time, the Ronin managed to hold his tongue, though B5 detected a twitch in his lips; the droid beeped irritably, for which he earned a scold from the shopkeep while the man delivered the tea. B5 primly informed the shopkeep that it was rude to say things others couldn’t understand.

“Thank you,” the shopkeep chuckled in the Empire’s tongue—he thought himself chided. He poured an expertly steeped cup for the Ronin, who accepted the brew and found himself pleased by the local peculiarity of the aroma, faintly sweet with pine.

“How did you come to be traveling the countryside on foot, sir?” asked the shopkeep.

“A certain someone is always after me about exercise,” said the Ronin. B5 whistled hotly.

The shopkeep chuckled. “Of course you’re right, he should listen to your sage advice.”

The Ronin was inclined to weigh in on B5’s smug silence, but his attention twitched away. He let his eyes glide after what had pulled his mind and was drawn toward an oncoming rumble, echoing from the mountains. The source of the sound soon tore down the path the Ronin had walked only an hour before.

An enormously thick and armored vessel, one that had been built for war. It thundered down the mountain path, past the teahouse, toward the village. No branches snapped as it plowed through the trees. It had come this way before. The teahouse trembled in its wake and the shopkeep cursed its passage, as rattled as his teacups.

The sound of the vessel’s approach soon reached the town. The figures in the field dropped their tools. Adults grasped at children as they fled toward their homes, sheltering the young with their own bodies.

Scarce peace indeed.

“Bandits—they’ve been hiding in a deserted village across the mountain,” the shopkeep said, low and apologetic as he ducked behind a wall, peeking down at his neighbors below. “Soldiers. Ex-soldiers—or the remnants of Sith troops. We don’t know. Does it matter?”

That explained what had happened to the other mountain villages. Angry spirits were, in the Ronin’s experience, much harder to come by than bandits.

Will you not go to them? she asked. She meant to tease him. Goad him, more like. It would suit her if he ran toward danger the second impulse told him to. But impulse would so likely see him dead before he accomplished his goal. Moreover, he didn’t yet know if this was the sort of bandit who had earned his effort—or if the greater danger yet lay in wait within the village. Soon enough, he would see.

B5 whined lowly, as if his master’s thoughts were audible. The Ronin couldn’t be certain whether B5 wanted him to go now or if he feared his master going at all. Perhaps he wished for some impossible alternative course of action to present itself. B5 did hate to see the Ronin bleed, and it was all but certain that today, he would.

Below, the armored vessel came to a looming halt in the village square, doubly as tall as any of the houses. There, it opened its doors.

Three slabs of metal broke from its sides and extended forward into ramps, down which the bandits marched. They wore scraps of discarded armor—blaster-scarred white helmets, shoulder plates, greaves—and little else but loincloths, bandannas, and armbands to mark themselves to one another. They fancied themselves mighty for their nakedness.

Such brave men, who stormed down the street to kick open wooden doors and drag out crying villagers.

The voice chuckled. The Ronin gritted his teeth and sipped his tea.

“Sir, it’s dangerous—please, wait inside,” the shopkeep urged, an arm slung around B5’s head, as if in fear the astromech would skid off.

Indeed, two bandits had turned their eyes up toward the teahouse. The Ronin frowned down at them. The distance was too great for them to properly fix on his silhouette, and he had no fear of bandit blasters.

In any case, it was not these bandits who held tight to the edge of his attention, that drove him to study all before him—it was some other presence, a hidden thing, tense and poised to strike. If the Ronin hadn’t seen his quarry, he suspected it was because he had not seen them yet.

Such was the scene below:

The bandits gathered the villagers together in the dusty square. The better to dispose of them, should they so decide. Every last family member was caught, dragged, and made to huddle together in a display of abject helplessness.

“Thank you, thank you for the fine welcome,” crowed a bandit wearing the orange pauldron of a commander. “Now it’s time to pay up. We’ve come to collect this year’s taxes.”

The long-haired bandit beside him leered. “That was an order! Which one of you’s the chief?”

A figure emerged from within the crowd, small, lithe, and wild-haired. A child, no older than ten. He walked forward, posture stiff, and in a clear voice declared, “I am the current village chief. And you— you’ve taken enough.”

The commander leaned back, appraising the child. “You? I know you. You’re the chief ’s son.” He spat. “Running away and leaving his village to a child. What a coward your father must be.”

He broke into laughter, and the other bandits laughed with him.

Up above, the shopkeep whispered to the Ronin, sweat beading his brow. “The village chief is sick,” he said, voice tight with anger and with fear. “The boy—he’s too brave.”

“So valiant!” a bandit howled in the square below.

“‘You’ve taken enough!’” another bandit simpered. “Ahh, you’re adorable, kid.”

“A brave speech, boy,” said the commander, when the laughter had died down. “But a man’s word is only as good as his weapon, I’m afraid. Now where’s yours? Hmm?”

The boy chief met the commander’s leer head-on. That alone nearly made the Ronin stir from his seat.

Then the boy chief ’s arm shot straight into the air.

As it flew up, two shots fired, one from either side of the village. The Ronin tracked the trajectory of each bolt.

One had come from a rooftop near the square, another from one of the watchtowers overlooking the village. On the rooftop stood a three-eyed Gran in light armor, carrying a rifle with a bayonet blade, flat teeth bared. Up in the tower, a well-wrapped Tusken, already taking their next aim with a long sniper rifle. Gran and Tusken each fired another bolt, and another, rapid and precise. With each blast, a bandit fell.

“Well done, guards—I leave the rest to you!” the boy chief cried, and he dashed out of the square, leading the villagers in a herd. Not a single straggler was left behind. They had practiced this evacuation.

What a clever bunch of mice, trapping the cats, the voice said.

“Don’t be rude,” said the Ronin.

The shopkeep was too nervously enthralled by the violence to mind

his guest’s muttering.

Below, more hired bodyguards burst out of their hiding places—bounty hunters, by the look of their sturdy, mismatched gear. A bug-eyed silver protocol droid with a blaster-blackened chassis stalked out of an alley, their rotary blaster cannon mowing down the bandits in the square.

A lean, scaled Trandoshan hurtled down the main drag, taking advantage of his long arms and long weapons—a blade and a naginata—to carve through any bandit who dared cross his path.

A floating dome of a cockpit exploded out from a pile of crates, piloted by a dextrous Dug crouched in its center. A blade hung from each of the five insectile legs sprouting from the drone’s underbelly, and it whirled in a storm of slashes as its pilot howled a battle cry.

A stray bolt lanced up from the fight and caught a support beam of the teahouse; the shopkeep gasped, appalled in the midst of victory.

The Ronin, meanwhile, could only frown. Something on the wind kept his attention squared not on the bodyguards, nor the bandits desperately ducking for cover, but on the bandits’ massive vessel. He felt the voice’s attention settle there too.

For all the violence the bodyguards had unleashed, that lurking tension remained. It bled into the Ronin’s limbs, winding ever tighter in each of them as a hatch on the bandit vessel’s flat roof slid open.

From that hatch rose a figure, carried by a lift. Her dark cloak and veil hid her from the glaring sun as she stood atop the vessel, a short staff held loosely in her grasp. The Ronin shivered at the sight of her.

Well, said the voice. Run along now.

The tea tasted sour at the back of his throat. His fingers tightened minutely on the teacup. He had no reason to doubt what he saw.

Yet something held him still. Perhaps that it had been a good year, at least, since he last faced one of his quarry. Perhaps that he did not yet have proof of what he faced. After all, he didn’t recognize the veiled figure’s stance. He felt that he should have.

As if I’ve ever lied to you. What else do you think she could be?

He didn’t know. Yet neither did he move. The world turned without him.

The Trandoshan now stood in the square amidst a scattering of bodies, his blade and naginata at the ready, as he turned his sharp-toothed maw to face the bandits’ vessel. “Surrender,” he called to the bandit standing over them all. “Do so, and we might just spare your life.”

The bandit raised her staff to her shoulder. The sneer carried in her snarl. “You’re confused.”

“What?” the Trandoshan growled.

You’ll surrender.” Her head tilted back. “Although I’ll kill you anyway.”

The bandit had barely finished when the protocol droid at the edge of the square let loose a stream of blasterfire from its rotary cannon alongside a string of curses. In the blink of an eye, the bandit unfurled her weapon.

From the end of her staff, six red blades of light extended outward in a deadly flower. When she spun the staff, it formed a white-red shield of light that deflected every last one of the blasts.

“Red lightsabers—she’s one of the Sith!” the protocol droid shouted. More than anything, it was a warning.

The bodyguards’ following cascade of blasterfire had an air of panic.

They no longer fought to win, but to survive, no doubt driven by memories of the war and the fiendish devastation that followed each Sith warrior.

The bandit deflected every bolt, her lightsaber parasol a whirl of color. One shot ricocheted off her shield and screeched through the sky, straight into the teahouse.

The Ronin moved at a speed he hadn’t asked from himself in years. In the blink of an eye, he no longer sat before a low table but stood beside the curved pine in front of the teahouse. When he glanced behind him, he saw smoke and rubble. The blast had carved a hole straight through the teahouse wall. The shopkeep had fallen back and, thankfully, the Ronin did not smell singed flesh.

The scorch of metal, now. That was a different matter.

Beside the shopkeep lay B5-56, twitching on the floor, hat knocked askew. Blue shivers of electricity washed over the droid’s surfaces. An old heat crept up from the Ronin’s gut to his head, matched only by an accompanying chill.

He had delayed too long.

I told you, didn’t I? she whispered, although there was a bite to it. Whatever she felt toward him, B5 was another matter.

“S-sir, what should we . . .” the shopkeep stammered, too shocked to hide behind his remaining walls, let alone flee into the mountains.

“Shopkeep,” said the Ronin, “do you think you can repair him?” He picked up the teakettle from where it had fallen on the floor as the shopkeep nodded uncertainly. “Make sure my partner is fully operational by the time this water boils.”

The shopkeep looked from the Ronin to B5, large eyes unblinking. He nodded once, then again. “Yes—yes, of course!”

A bit of the commander in you yet, I see, she said as the Ronin turned to leave the teahouse. He found he lacked the stomach to reply.

Excerpted from Star Wars Visions: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon, Joel de la Fuente. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

CHAPTER TWO

“Keep firing! Don’t give her a chance to strike!” the Trandoshan called to his fellows.

They panicked so quickly, these rats. The bandit—the Sith—smirked behind her half-mask, a piece of lacquered armor wrought in the long-toothed grin of a proper demon. It had been so long since she was last correctly named. The people of these mountains called her all manner of superstitious things—an evil spirit, a devil witch, a god of foul luck—or they called her bandit, thief, and villain. But Sith? They were too eager to believe the Sith extinct.

So, she would relish the opportunity to recall her truest self.

The bounty hunters—for that was what they were—fired upon her in a frantic wave. The Sith flourished her lightsaber forward, letting it bloom. The auxiliary fit onto the hilt channeled the power of the kyber crystal straight, then outward into six blades that, when she spun the weapon, resembled a parasol. It was, more important, a conveniently deadly shield.

For now, manipulating the physical lift caused by the parasol’s spin let her leap up, carried skyward. The shots drew up short. Fear. It throbbed in time with her eager heart.

“No good!” the Trandoshan howled to his underlings. “Fall back! Don’t let her engage in close combat! Hrk—”

The Sith had landed before him. As she stood, her hand swept up, and with the black current of the Force, the bandit grasped the Trandoshan by the scaled throat as effortlessly as if she had taken it with her own fingers. She squeezed until his eyes bulged, pleased by the flow of her power. Living things outside of her own body rarely moved so lithely with her intent. Something in the air today had sharpened her.

“What were you saying about close combat?” she asked.

The bounty hunters cried out, fearful for one of their fellows. The Sith paid them no mind. Blasterfire sounded behind her again. Her men had risen, invigorated by her turn on the field. They knew they couldn’t lose whenever she deigned to join them.

The Trandoshan gargled, feet kicking at the air. His eyes darted from side to side, to where his men were now hunted by hers. Her own gaze never strayed. She heard screams. Thuds. He gasped. She suspected he had just seen someone die.

Some part of the Sith sympathized, even understood. But she had no true feeling for men who lived for the vainglory of credits.

“Did you really think you could stand a chance against a Dark Lord?” she mused.

The bounty hunter struggled to speak, words barely able to escape his mouth with her hold on his throat. “R-run! We can’t hope to—”

No last words for men without creed. She dropped the Trandoshan. He fell toward the ground, and in the same moment she thrust with her sword arm. Her six short blades speared him through, unfurling on the opposite side of his corpse in a burst of red light.

On the far side of the square, the protocol droid shuddered. Cursed. Opened fire with its rotary cannon.

The Sith flung the body off her saber and lunged toward the droid. Its circuitry couldn’t hope to keep up with her as she was, a living torrent bright with the white flare of the Force. She struck the droid down with a swift bisection—and halted.

As it clattered to the sand at her feet, she inhaled smoke. Blasterfire thickened the air with its searing heat, and on the ash she tasted some new shadow.

The Sith straightened and turned just so to glance over her shoulder. There, in the mouth of the village’s lone cross street that led to the square, stood a darkness of a man. Tall and tattered at his edges, though his broad frame and steady step brought to mind the inexorable chill of a glacier.

Smoke roiled between them. She realized abruptly the wrongness of him: Bright power seethed within a murky shell.

“You’re no villager,” she said. “Who dares face me?”

“A simple wanderer,” he said, and his voice curled at the edge of her memory like parchment set alight.

Her lip twisted behind her mask. She knew a threat when she met it. Fire called to fire, no matter how—or for what mad reason—it tried to douse itself.

She shucked the lightsaber’s parasol auxiliary and tossed the slender contraption forward. Her blood told her to meet the man with her blade. The auxiliary landed tip-first on the gravel of the village square. Tottered.

The Sith flew. She leapt up through the air, saber raised, and brought it crackling down upon the man’s skull.

Until she—it—the world stopped. She shuddered in midair, muscles trembling with kinetic energy suddenly seized. Her body would not move. Neither would her lightsaber. It hovered, centimeters from the man’s impassive face, caught with his naked palms.

No—between. A sliver of space sheathed his hands from her sizzling blade, a fraction pulsating with the feverish pressure of white flare shot through with black current. The Force.

“You. You’re a Jedi,” she snarled.

The very word disgusted her. She so rarely had reason to even think it, here on the edge of civilization. She would have to now. For what reason would a Jedi, vaunted protector of the Empire, have to go slumming in the Outer Rim? None but her, the lone surviving Sith in this half-forgotten sector of the galaxy. This man thought he could kill her.

Let him try.

The man—the Jedi—shoved her away explosively, rejecting every last one of her molecules in a raging white burst. She flew back, her body a puppet. Instinct brought her limbs back in sync. It was as if for a furious moment her body had been so much nothing. She twisted in the air and landed hard on her heels.

Blade out, she faced the man, eyes wide as she tracked his every breath. His hand rested by his hip, by one of the hilts at his belt. Two scabbards. Not just a Jedi—a knight, deemed by his masters to be worthy of a blade.

So much the better. She would enjoy wrenching it from his dying grasp.

“It’s been a long time since I killed a Jedi.” She remembered her last. She, a whip of a girl. He, a grimacing tower of a man. He had split as cleanly as the protocol droid now sparking on the far side of the square.

She came for the Jedi again. No man died simply because she wished it.

And again, her blade met a jarring stop. This one was more honest and true, a twinned flare of light. Another lightsaber clashed against her own—crimson.

No Jedi would carry such a color. Unless—to mock her? No.

The Sith dodged back, lightsaber held up to ward off the other. “You . . .”

The man’s hand moved by his waist. She tensed to meet whatever blow he would bring to her next. Instead a whistling screech came from behind. She whipped around.

The protocol droid’s severed torso hurtled toward her through the air, sailing on the black current. She sliced through it and spun back to face her opponent—the man had already lunged with blinding speed, his blade up.

“Coward,” she hissed, dodging back again.

“It’s a shame I’m not a Jedi,” the man said when he landed, head tilted as if in apology. “You might have had a chance.”

The Sith bared her teeth behind her mask. She straightened and flung off her cloak, revealing her billowing white hair, matched by the white mark on her brow. She wished to face him unimpeded.

No Jedi indeed. And indeed, a shame as well. A Jedi, she might have understood. This man, however . . . All she knew for certain was that she could not afford to second-guess one of her own.

The bandits have killed another of those guards, the voice said in his ear.

The Ronin’s jaw twitched. He wished she wouldn’t interrupt his focus. Then again, she wanted to see him dead at the Sith bandit’s feet.

I’m sorry, is this distracting?

“Is it?” he muttered under his breath.

“Talking to yourself, old man?” taunted the bandit as she advanced on him, her white hair a blaze.

He had managed to draw her out of the village, across the fields, toward the river that coursed down the center of the valley. He had seen the rapids glinting between the trees when he stopped on the ridge from which he first saw the village. He couldn’t spare a glance as they neared it, but the rush of water filled his ears. The current was fast. If he could shove the bandit in—

The bandit’s next lunge drove him to hop onto the skewed trunk of an ancient tree that jutted over the river, out of her reach. She leapt after him. Her blade flashed behind her, severing the trunk.

All of them splashed into the river, and the Ronin’s balance wavered as he steadied himself on the now floating tree.

The bandit took the moment of his imbalance to throw herself forward again, straight down the length of deadwood. He dodged around her and unleashed an upward cut as he went. The slash halved her mask and sent it flying into the air. She rounded on him in the next second, as if she had not just lost a vital piece of armor.

Someone had trained her, years ago. She wielded her lightsaber with a direct intensity, aiming always to kill—the sort of bladework he associated with battlefield instruction. But the next dodge, which brought her out of range, that one had the fluidity of forms practiced on a training mat.

Now they’ve rounded up the last of the villagers, the voice said. Right on schedule, I suppose.

The Ronin couldn’t respond before the bandit brought her lightsaber down on his, again and again. The pure physical power of her blows made their log bob in the raging waters. He could only weave around her after each strike, which seemed to infuriate him.

Let her kill you or take care of her already, she said. This is getting cruel.

Such confidence. He needed to borrow some for himself. He felt the slowness of his muscles, the lag in his bones. Age, perhaps. An absence of proper practice, more likely. Sensitivity to the Force faded in those who neglected to cultivate it, and he had spent too long only searching. This bandit, conversely, had fed her strength until it roared like a deadly inferno.

He did need to end this soon. The water eddied ever faster under the surface, and he heard, not far, the roar of a cascade. A waterfall. A theatrical sort of interruption, and not one he cared to navigate.

A new voice called to them then. A man raced up the crest of a hill overlooking the river—a surviving bandit carrying a banner. “Boss! Bounty hunters taken care of—and we’ve got the village chief kid!”

The Sith bandit’s mouth twisted into a toothy grin as she glared at the Ronin. “There. We don’t fight fair either. Drop your weapon.”

The Ronin squared his jaw; how long had it been since he left the teahouse?

Long enough, she promised, as if she stood just behind his ear. He couldn’t trust her with his life, but he could trust her not to lie. She didn’t like to, and she never did what she didn’t like.

He sheathed the lightsaber in its scabbard, wrapped snug in his sash beside its companion, though his sword hand hovered there. His other hand hung naturally beside it. There was a narrow band on this wrist, simple and black. It remained inert.

“I told you to throw down your weapon, not sheathe it,” the bandit snapped. She sneered. “Or do you not mind who dies for you?”

No faith to spare? she asked. You trust him or you don’t.

His thumb brushed the interior of the cuff—the fraction that faced his torso. A pale circle the size of his knuckle lit up on it and blinked red, red, blue.

***

This is how the voice laid it out for him, later:

B5-56 shivered to life under the shopkeep’s hands. The shopkeep had worked with frenetic obsession, ever on the verge of petrified terror. He had kept his attention fixed on the astromech, feverishly ignoring the screams and wails of his neighbors in the square below. He only ever paused to stare, momentarily, at the water simmering in the kettle.

It was, indeed, poetic, the synchronization of the kettle’s screech with B5’s revival. The Sullustan shopkeep barely threw himself out of the way as the droid tore out of the remains of the teahouse, snapping free of power cables.

B5 skidded toward the rise and down the hill, then launched forward into the air with his thrusters—an improbable missile darting at sudden degrees. Years of his master’s devoted attention to his hydraulics lent him odd agility, and B5 careened through the village streets with a quickness. As he barreled down the main drag toward the square, a rectangular hatch on his front chassis slid open. Out from it, a box emerged, lined with orderly cartridges. In a blink, they lit and burst into the air.

Ribbons of light danced up from the box, twisting like fish into the sky. They dived like shrieking raptors.

Each missile hit with firework impact. The first slammed square into the chest of one bandit, then another into the next and the next. When the smoke cleared, not a single bandit had been left standing. Only the villagers, their chief, and the single surviving hired guard remained.

The Sith bandit learned the price her men had paid when the last one met a missile to the back. He fell with a gurgle, off the hill where he had called to her, and tumbled to the shore. The river current tugged at his limp legs.

The last shot came for her. It screeched through clear sky, arching over trees and river toward her skull. She knocked it from its path with her saber. She never let her eyes stray from her opponent.

On the other side of the bobbing log, the old man held his left hand up, palm turned toward her. The circle on his wrist cuff blinked blue and blue.

Was he gloating? The monster.

She didn’t need to see what had happened in the village to know what he had done. He was Sith, like her, which meant he was without mercy for those he deemed his enemy. He wanted to kill her; he would think nothing of killing every last one of those who had pledged themselves to her service.

The old man didn’t care to know what made a man a bandit—or what had made her into herself. In all likelihood, he cared nothing about banditry at all. Had she been anything but Sith, he would have passed through this village as indifferently as a cold wind.

But she was Sith, and so was he, and he had decided that meant he had the right to kill her. Inspired by the traitor’s madness, then, that cur who had ended the rebellion with his faithless blade. She bared her teeth, the white flare of the Force rising in her like a bonfire.

Their log careened down the river, toward a thunderous waterfall she well remembered. It was an end as punctuated as any other. She would not give him a chance to escape, even if it meant losing hers.

She came for him again, then, knowing the cost and not caring. She was alone now, but so was he. They plunged together toward the drop. The white flare surged through her. She struck the man’s lightsaber, barely unsheathed, as hard as she had ever struck anything.

The power of her blow sent him sailing off the log, through the air— over the end of the waterfall.

She cursed herself as he plummeted out of sight into the mist. She didn’t regret her violence; she never did. But the white flare that blazed so bright within her could at times steal her focus. The advantage had been hers—the old man’s blade still caught in that strange scabbard, hers at the ready to cleave him through. Now here he was gone, and she could not be certain she had killed him.

She maintained her posture on the log and seized the trunk in place at the very edge of the cascade—half to prove to herself she could still summon the black current of the Force, the cool intent that allowed her to manipulate her world as easily as her own fingers—and she walked to the end to stare down into the roiling pool at the bottom.

No matter how she searched, she saw no body.

The Sith cursed herself again as she hopped off the log, down past the roaring water, toward a mossy boulder that jutted up from the pool below. She landed atop it, feather-light.

From there she could see that a paved path bordered one side of the pool at the base of the falls. A narrow trail led down to it from the cliffs above; both it and the path had been hidden from bird’s-eye view by a bulging, spray-dampened overhang. The path curved around the pool to an entrance that had been carved into the cliffside beside the falls—a squared-off doorway. It led, she suspected, to a temple, or a shrine, or some other forgotten thing; the whole affair was dusty with neglect.

Faint footsteps with a staggered gait trailed through the dust and past the doorway. That explained the lack of a body.

There, behind the curtain of water, the Sith spied her prey. A red length of light glinted behind the thundering falls. She swiped forward— her blade touched only water. He had hidden farther in.

She smirked. Let the old man sneak, dodge, and hide. He was tired, and injured, and she had a need to make him pay.

She raised her hand and guided the log at the top of the falls forward. The torrent broke around its sides, parting the veil of the flood—clearing a path.

She didn’t wait to lock eyes with her opponent. She threw herself forward, a streaking blaze of white Force, and she cut him down before he had the chance to block, let alone to swing.

It was as his top half toppled over that she realized her error. The hands holding the red lightsaber behind the falls were lifeless, cold, and metal. The bisected statue thudded to the stone temple floor.

Simultaneously, another red blade lit the damp dark—a third lightsaber. The end of it stuck out of her midsection, and she found that it was hot, but cold, and that most of all, she hated it.

The third red blade disappeared. The Sith bandit fell forward, as still as the statue, and as the man who had killed her.

***

The Ronin retracted the blade of the scabbard auxiliary he usually kept at his waist, then reattached it to his sash. The unlovely length of dura-steel and component parts looked nothing like the handsome hilt of the lightsaber he more usually wielded. That was its strength. Not even the opponents who should have known better suspected that he carried more than one red blade.

He frowned as he considered the old Jedi statue, desecrated, beside the body of the young Sith warrior, quite dead.

You’re right, the voice said, thoughtful. Now this is poetry.

If she was disappointed that the bandit had failed to kill him, she hid it well.

He offered her no answer but for a brief, silent prayer before the remains of both statue and woman. Then he gathered the dead bandit’s lightsaber from her limp hand and his own blade from the statue’s. The latter was still humming, endlessly red. He slid the humming length back into its scabbard.

When are you going to fix that dreadful thing? she asked. It was so nearly the death of you today.

He said nothing to this as well; she understood why he hadn’t or she didn’t, and either way, he would never discuss it, not with her.

The walk to the village took rather more time than he might have wished, thanks to the aches and pains of his fall, as well as the rigors of bladework. He thought himself lucky to have survived. By the time he returned to the village, his cloak was nearly dry, and the sun had arced past its zenith.

B5-56 spied him at the end of the main road before the rest and blatted out a scolding chime as he raced up, dragging the bandit’s parasol auxiliary through the dirt behind him. The Ronin put up a pacifying hand in apology. The villagers, meanwhile, regarded his approach in a nervous awe that he didn’t like to see.

The shopkeep came running down the road from the opposite direction, his power droid bouncing in his wake. “Master Ronin!” he cried, and doubled over, wheezing. “Y-you were incredible, sir.”

However, the Ronin found his gaze drifting up, toward the smoking shell of the bombarded teahouse. Such a structure took time, diligence, and no small amount of resources to construct, here on the edge of colonized space. “I’ve troubled you,” he said.

The shopkeep snorted but was too short of breath to protest. Convenient, as it meant the Ronin was free to take the bandit’s auxiliary from B5 and hand it to him. “Here. A tip for the additional service.”

The shopkeep received the auxiliary with a fascinated mumble, too tired to refuse the gift. He held the device with light, practiced hands. He had confessed himself a mechanic, at one time, before he took himself to this far-flung reach of the Outer Rim. In any case, even if he had not personally witnessed other Sith iterations on lightsaber technology, he clearly recognized the auxiliary for what it was: a clever, specialized contraption that could fetch him an enviable price from the right buyer.

Before the shopkeep could ask any undesirable questions, the boy chief stepped forward to face the Ronin. He held himself as straight as he had when he’d ordered his bounty hunters to kill, and he stood square when he declared, “Our village owes you a debt.”

“Think nothing of it,” said the Ronin.

“Such humility. Surely you must be a Jedi knight,” said the boy. “Please, I must know our savior’s name.”

The Ronin squared his jaw shut.

Oh? Why not? she said.

The Ronin turned aside. He withdrew the bandit’s lightsaber from the folds of his cloak and dropped it to the ground. The boy chief watched, puzzled, until the Ronin withdrew his blade from its scabbard and the boy’s face froze, illuminated by the length of red light.

Gasps flooded the square. The only surviving guard, the Gran who had fired from the rooftop, tensed where he stood a few meters away. He no longer held a weapon, but his hands clearly wanted one.

B5 trilled a low warning: No theatrics.

The tip of the Ronin’s lightsaber punctured the hilt of the bandit’s. He didn’t need to think of where best to break it; the black current of the Force guided him to its shatter point with the ease of familiarity. The durasteel shell broke, and the end of his saber met the whispering kyber shard that had powered the bandit’s blade.

He leaned down and retrieved the crystal amidst the villagers’ hushed whispers, tucking the shard away to join its brethren in the inner lining of his robe. More than a year since it had last received an addition. It always managed to weigh so much heavier on his shoulders than it should.

“You . . . who even are you?” the shopkeep gasped. At the Ronin’s glance, the shopkeep, who had thrown himself into the demanding work of fixing an astromech as finicky as B5 while his village was under siege, quailed behind the boy chief.

Well. Everyone had a limit.

The boy chief, though, moved not at all. He stared up at the Ronin with hard eyes, his mouth determinedly expressionless. What was it the shopkeep had said? Too brave.

How familiar, she said. Where have I seen that face before?

The Ronin clenched his molars, just once, as if biting through a thin bone. The face of a child too ready to become old, that would become the face of a man too ready to die. What could possibly protect a boy who expected to meet his own death from rushing toward it with all speed? Nothing the Ronin could provide.

Instead, he reached into the folds of his robe and retrieved the kyber crystal he had just tucked away. The boy thought nothing of putting his hand out to meet his, though he took the bleeding crystal with a hint of surprise; it weighed little.

“It will ward off evil spirits,” said the Ronin. “Take great care of it.” Then he turned from the boy as, within him, she cackled.

The Ronin left the village by way of the valley, walking toward the crashed silver ship at the other end of the mountains. At first B5-56 urged him to turn back—to claim food, or shelter, or credits. When the Ronin continued to walk, undeterred by his droid’s scolds, B5 opted instead to complain.

What could have possessed him to leave a kyber crystal with hapless villagers? How could they expect to protect such a treasure against the Empire’s agents? Did his master not realize he had left them defenseless with contraband of the highest order?

The Ronin snorted at this last. He was no protector, and B5 knew better. “It was all I had to offer for the tea,” he said. “Would you have preferred I give them you?”

B5 chirred, somewhere between miffed and outraged, but resigned himself to muttering.

The Ronin took the scold closer to heart than he admitted. The part of him that thought in logical bursts regretted leaving the crystal. It would be hard for the village to sell, if they decided to—if they recognized its worth. Those who bought kyber were either enemies of the Empire or its most ardent servants. Both would want to know where the crystal had come from. The truth would bring trouble for the village before it caught up to him.

He prayed the villagers understood. That they realized it was in their best interest to keep the thing. Kyber thrived when nurtured. It desired people and wanted to give of itself. Properly homed, it could promise the village generations of health and vigor. A better spirit by far than what had haunted them before—the ghosts of war that should have passed on long ago.

When the Ronin and B5 stopped to rest that night—in the lee of a low hill, having found no other shelter—they saw in the distance the billowing smoke of a funeral pyre rising from the direction of the village.

“Ah, I should have told them to check the temple,” he said.

You have time yet to turn back and tell them, said the voice, which suggested to him that he was better off doing nothing of the sort.

“Is there anything left for me here?” he asked her instead. “Or is it on to the next road?”

She was silent for a time, and he chewed through his last half of a ration-stick, watching the smoke spiral into the star-specked violet of late evening.

When at last she spoke, it caught him by surprise: You’re not as alone as you think.

She said nothing else that night, and it took him some time to find his rest. A chill had settled into his bones.

Excerpted from Star Wars Visions: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

CHAPTER THREE

Don’t you have work to do?

On the damp stone floor of the temple behind the waterfall, a body stirred. Its second movement was greater and more abrupt. She lurched upright from the ground, gasping. The world addled her with its lightlessness. Her palm skidded over her pounding forehead. Her other hand fell to her stomach.

There was a hole in her chest armor, blackened around the edges, where the old man’s lightsaber had run her through. She remembered the white heat and red flare of the blade protruding from her stomach. Yet the ache she felt when she pressed her palm to her gut was only remembered. Her unblemished skin didn’t look as though it had earned any pain at all.

It made no sense. She knew in her blood and bones what had happened—their duel, her death—and even if she doubted herself, she could rely on the evidence. The shorn Jedi statue, her own victim, loomed over her. The statue’s other half lay abandoned on the floor, the lightsaber it had held no longer anywhere to be seen. Her weapon was also gone. She had only herself, but that was mystery enough. Mountains. She remembered something about mountains, from some long-ago lesson. Mountains are strange, her master had said. Gods live within them, and spirits, and the things that you can’t rightly call either. She wished to scoff at this. In all her time in the mountains of Genbara, she’d never met anything greater and more frightening than herself.

Except, now, for the man who had just killed her.

And, except for whatever it was that had just undone his work.

She had died, yes? She stared hard at the hole in her armor. More, she

remembered—hot, cold, and nothing. And yet.

Yet here she breathed, here she ached—she, bandit, Sith, Kouru, she was called Kouru—whatever she was, dead couldn’t be it.

“What the hell?” Kouru groaned. She sat hard on the halved statue’s dais and stared at the torrent of the waterfall, through which an evening orange filtered. She found herself thinking, rather petulantly, that the swine had taken her lightsaber.

So? Take one of his.

Kouru’s lip twisted. “I want both.”

That’s all?

No. Kouru wanted him dead. He was her unfinished work, this man. She wouldn’t rest until she had stricken him from the living world. She knew this with a clarity she had rarely felt outside of the rare moments when the black current freely opened itself to her.

Yes. Focus. You’ll need it. Now run along. He had a head start.

It would take Kouru some time yet to think on the coaxing murmur in the hearing part of her soul—the whisper that urged fury, blood, and vengeance. By then, she would believe it a part of herself and give it no second thought at all.

Excerpted from Star Wars Visions: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

CHAPTER FOUR

With nowhere to sleep but for under the stars, the Ronin did so, and he woke up damp. When he did, B5-56 reported that he had prayed for his good master’s sanity to return, but as his master was continuing on the road away from the village, B5 wouldn’t hold out hope.

“And here you’re always after me to be some sort of vigilante,” the Ronin said under the drying heat of midmorning. “You understand that’s a charitable sort of endeavor, yes?”

B5 whistled something the Ronin wouldn’t have repeated to a child. “Not very pious of you.”
They repeated some iteration of this argument every few months. It

had a seasonal feel that the Ronin appreciated, because it let him mark time as they moved from sector to sector, moon to planet to moon.

The road today was wide and clear. It had broadened the farther they got from the village, and now that they neared the crashed silver ship at the end of the valley, the Ronin spied a crossroads where their road met an even wider track. This occurred beside a copse of pink-blossomed trees, which surrounded the buried nose of the silver vessel.

From within the flowered shade, a melody played. A flute of some sort. A musical phrase flourished, paused, and repeated with new form. The player was practicing.

The Ronin slowed his step as they neared. A figure came into view among the trees, seated on a rock, working through the song in stretches as they sorted through the proper movements of mouth and fingers. The snatches of melody were at times familiar, at times not.

I think you like this better than a true performance, the voice mused. “I think they’re a little sharp,” he said.
“Oh, I’d say flat,” said the musician. They raised their head, and though their tone smiled, their face was largely concealed by a mask—a white vulpine shape with slashes of red at the mouth and brows. Their simple garb, kimono over trousers, was morbidly white as well, though it had the faded look of bones left to dry in the sun. It might once have held color. It was now as pale as their hair, knotted at the back of their skull. “Don’t look so abashed,” they cajoled. Unlike their dress, their voice was all light and life, with the fluid cant of a born storyteller. “I’d rather know my flaws now than when I’m trying to earn dinner. Are you headed to the spaceport?”

“If that’s where this road leads,” said the Ronin.“Then let’s share it.”

B5 chirred as the musician got up to join them, flute tucked away into the wrap thrown over their shoulder before they hopped down off the rock.

“Did he now?” said the musician to B5. “My apologies. I could play while we go, but not well.”

“My partner is greedy,” said the Ronin over B5’s affronted squawk.

“He knows my value. Here, I’ll tell a story. What sort do you prefer? Though I’m afraid most trend depressing, what with a war behind and a war ahead.”

“You think I’d like to hear of war?”

The musician glanced meaningfully at the scabbards affixed to the Ronin’s waist. “You have the look. It’s not often you see a man styling himself such a warrior wandering the back roads of the Outer Rim. Two blades! It’s nigh old-fashioned, sir . . .”

They wanted his name. The Ronin offered none. The musician neglected to take the cue and turned to B5.

B5, little traitor, trilled a suggestion.

“Oh, really? Master Ronin, then.” The musician bowed their head in thought. “Fine. You may call me the Traveler. We’ll match.”

“Why would I want that?” the Ronin asked. He meant: Why would you?

“Camaraderie,” said the Traveler, as if it had been decided.

The Traveler continued with them, matching the Ronin’s pace and chatting with B5 until their newfound party of three reached the crossroads. There, the Traveler turned in the direction that led to the spaceport—as did B5, who paused only to swivel his head and chirp chidingly at the Ronin, whose step had slowed.

The Ronin had not intended to head for the port when he woke. Nevertheless, he found himself following droid and Traveler both, though he kept a step behind. Under other circumstances, he would at this moment have been planning to lose this inquisitive satellite sooner rather than later, likely in the first crowd the spaceport mustered. Now he wondered.

Not as alone as you think, she’d said.

She hadn’t clarified because there was no need to. She only ever directed him toward one sort of being—those whom he and she had once called brethren, and whom she hoped would soon run him through. They were an increasingly rare breed, the Sith, never so common as the Jedi whom they had betrayed, and made rarer every year by the Ronin’s own hunt. Was this “Traveler” his next mark? He couldn’t yet be sure.

Inwardly, he cursed his negligence again; he had for so many months allowed himself to lie fallow, and now when it came to the pulse and flow of the Force, he was as intuitive as a brick. Admittedly, even in his prime he had run into no small amount of difficulty differentiating a being sensitive to the manipulation of the white flare and black current from a being merely saturated with it. The latter applied to all life, to a degree. The finer points of philosophy lay beyond the Ronin’s ability to describe. He only knew that it was terribly common for any honest artist to shimmer with white flare and course with black current, and this musician was no exception.

In the Traveler’s favor, he didn’t recognize them, and they seemed old enough that he would have expected to. At one time, he had known every warrior who called themselves Sith—nearly every one. Not the bandit.

She would have been quite young when the war ended.

He stretched the arm he had bruised on his topple off the waterfall and strove to phase out the Traveler’s banter with his droid. “No hints?” he asked under his breath.

“What was that?” said the Traveler.

B5 swept in with an excuse, calling his master senile and eccentric besides. The Traveler looked, if anything, more intrigued. The Ronin was compelled to shrug in vague agreement. He had been called worse.

Unsociable, she said, which was not the hint he had asked for.

He wanted to remind her: I killed a woman yesterday. Instead, he called B5 a gossip and resolved himself to listen. It was as yet entirely possible that he would part ways with this musician without either of them trying to murder the other.

The road to Osou spaceport, the main point of interplanetary departure on all of Genbara, thickened with traffic over time. By the afternoon, they had joined an impromptu caravan of treaded wagons, landspeeders, and other travelers on foot. Most had come from the outlying farm villages that sold goods at Osou’s central market, which unfortunately made the Ronin and his companions all the more unusual.

The Traveler did nothing to dissuade the attention, telling tales as they walked in a bright, compelling voice that faltered far less often than their flute. To the children riding on their mother’s wagon, drawn by a massive scaled boar, they told fairy tales; to the sisters carting a haul of fresh red fruits, the latest gossip from the Core; to the elderly uncle driving the sputtering landspeeder that brought up the rear, a ghost story. The Ronin preferred eavesdropping on these accounts to the news about which most of the adults wished to speak.

“Oh, yes, Imperial unification, what a wonderful thing,” said an aunty toting baskets of rice on a pole slung over her shoulder. “Twenty years of peace! Tell that to my cousin. He got the hot end of a bandit’s blaster bolt just last year. We could barely afford the bacta treatment. How’s that for peace?”

“I’m telling you, it’s going to get worse,” said the uncle beside her, herding his sturdy beast of burden, a shaggy, antlered creature taller at the shoulder than the hip that towered well enough to provide shade to everyone nearby. “The Emperor didn’t fight with his siblings about who got to sit on the throne because it didn’t matter when his Empire belonged to the lords. The princes, though, now that their father’s on his deathbed, they think they have something to fight for.”

“Well, let them squabble.” The aunty sniffed, shifting her load. “Out here, we’ll be fending off the same old pirates.”

An aunty toting an apothecary chest on her back sucked her teeth. “And who’ll do the fending, if they’re taking our kids for their fights? They’re recruiting at the port. You’ll see the posters.”

There was a degree of discontented murmuring about this. The Ronin found he agreed. He did not, however, voice this agreement. Already the others were eyeing him, as if the opinion of the tall, blade-carrying stranger could assuage their fears of future violence—or at least give them something more concrete to worry at. He suspected they had only accepted his presence in their midst because while traveling in the company of a performing musician, he seemed less a threat than a curiosity. That would have changed if they realized he carried something other than metal in his scabbards.

“They’re always recruiting,” said a frail old voice. “That’s not what you should be looking for.” It was the uncle on the landspeeder who liked ghost stories. The Traveler, riding beside him, tilted their head with interest. “It’s the bodies. They’re going missing again.”

A ripple of discomfort washed over the caravan. Anxious gossip begot more of the same. When nervous about the future, people liked to know they weren’t nervous alone. But this declaration spread a worse and more cloying air than the possibility of drought or an unreasonable new governor, and the company’s faces grew taut with a feeling far more difficult to exorcise: fear.

“Don’t,” said someone. “Let’s not—”

They were drowned out by the aunty with the apothecary chest. “I heard so too.” She raised her chin at those who glared at her to hush. “A village on the little red moon over Buna. They had pirates. The local lord sent some of his most trusted Jedi, but the reports stopped. He sent more Jedi, and they found no one left. No pirates, no Jedi, no villagers. Nothing at all.”

“Oh, that’s hearsay.”

“It isn’t, I heard on the HoloNet. They had to apologize to the families. Couldn’t send the bone shards home.”

“Of course not! Jedi don’t leave bones. Not the good ones. The spirits take them.”

“The Force, Aunty.”

“Same same! Don’t say such things. It’s gruesome. Unlucky, probably.”

“Luck,” grunted the rice-carrying aunty. Her hands, hooked on either end of the pole across her back, had faint burn scars at the knuckles and peeking from beneath her palms. The sort of scar a person got from handling the heat of large cannons on the ramshackle vessels at the front. “You talk like it’s a story. It isn’t. I remember. Every battlefield left bodies—until that Sith witch came through.”

Beside the Ronin, B5-56 trilled a low cautionary note. An uncle mistook it for fearful and placed a warm hand on the droid’s hat. Feeling himself patronized, B5 warbled. Someone laughed, halfhearted, but they laughed alone.

Everyone knew the stories. The unholy sorcery of the Sith. The dark lord and his witch, he who killed and she who resurrected, stealing the dead from their right to join the Force—or the spirits, or the sublimity beyond the galactic order, depending on who you asked. No matter what anyone believed, the stolen ghosts were blasphemy of an order beyond reckoning. The witch’s demon army had been fearsome as much for the unceasing devotion with which they pursued the Sith’s ends as for the threat they posed to every facet of natural order.

That was why, in all likelihood, the company’s eyes traveled slowly, inevitably, toward the Traveler. Who but a storyteller could hope to make sense of the wrongest thing in the world? The Ronin intended to keep his eyes forward, yet they drifted toward the Traveler as well. The way they spoke of the Sith would prove informative.

For their part, the Traveler had at some point exited the uncle’s landspeeder to walk more closely to the center of the group. They held a hand to their chin in thought, and though their fox-masked head was bowed, when they spoke, it was clear they realized they would be listened to.

“I’ve seen some things,” they said, “and I’ve heard some others. Ghosts, demons. Spirits and gods. Each use broadens the words—and deepens them. I count myself lucky to hear the words you choose, Aunty. You’ve seen the things you tell us of, and you’re willing to do that telling. We ought to listen, and learn, and remember, I think, that stories about the dead often say true things, even if not quite the truth. Does that sound right to you?”

The aunty with scarred hands grunted and turned away.

The Ronin frowned. The answer pleased some, but he found it less telling than he might have desired.

The caravan remained quiet after that. It drifted into parts and pieces down the road as friends and neighbors paired off, whispering together. Some managed to laugh. The imposing white plaster walls of Osou spaceport were in sight, and the sun was setting. They would get to rest in the warmth and light of civilization, and no one needed to fear a ghost unless they particularly wanted to.

Except for you, she said. She could be a bit of an ass.

A cloud front had haunted the caravan for the past few kilometers, and just as Osou’s gates came into view, it broke into a sudden, drenching rain. Most of the remaining caravan took off at a run. B5-56 elected to retreat beneath the drooping limbs of an expansive tree beside the road; he did hate to get his hat wet. The Ronin joined him, half to see what the Traveler would do.

It was not, by this point, a question of whether they would stay but how they would justify doing so. The answer: They did not. They simply lingered, observing the rain with a curious air until they dug into the bag thrown over their shoulder and extracted a small pouch. This, they offered to the Ronin. It contained a selection of speckled red fruits.

“Not in my diet, I’m afraid,” they said.

“Are they in mine?” asked the Ronin.

“If you’re asking whether they’re poisoned, you’ll have to take your inquiry to those sweet young ladies carrying their wares to market— you rude, rude man.”

The Ronin took the fruits, which were more tart than sweet, but kind on his jaw, which had developed an ache in the returning damp. Not that the Traveler could have possibly known about this particular pain, unless they knew far more about him than they were willing to confess.

“You’re put out.” The Traveler sighed after a length of quiet. They crossed their arms, contemplative. “My apologies. Was I insufficiently dramatic for your tastes?”

“My life is dramatic enough already.”

The Traveler clucked their tongue in sympathy. “Oh, the woes of an old warrior boldly flaunting at least one remarkably illegal weapon.”

They glanced knowingly at the hilt of his lightsaber, and at the scabbard into which it fit. The Ronin frowned, which the Traveler waved off. “I never saw a thing, Master Ronin. I only say it at all because our friends aren’t wrong about the posters, and the princes have sent more than that to every spaceport in the galaxy, even to this little world. If you’re as tired of drama as you claim, you’ll want to be a touch more careful once this rain lets up and we reach port.”
B5 sang a thank-you because the Ronin remained thoughtfully silent.

It was difficult to believe this person was one he needed to be warned of, and indeed it was entirely possible that the voice had meant to warn him of someone else.

But a Sith warrior was nothing if not clever.

It would be better, he decided, to take his leave. If the Traveler wanted more than his friendship and stories, they would pursue, and if they did so with a blade of their own, the Ronin would do what was required of him. If they wanted only those stories, well, it would still be better to leave them unsatisfied. Either way, he would have his answer.

In the end, they weren’t difficult to shake. The rain let up soon after, but the trio didn’t reach the market until after dark. There, the Traveler found both the local teahouse and the cantina vying for their services. As they negotiated, the Ronin and B5 continued on into the unnamed alleys of Osou, in search of someone willing to trade a meal for a vagabond’s skilled repair.

As the caravan gossip suggested, the Ronin found there were indeed posters. He stood before the plastered walls of a communal storehouse that was covered with them. Some of the posters advertised holodramas, while others proclaimed the glory of the Genbara system’s lord or his favored prince. More advertised the honor (and compensation) of applying to the armed forces of this or that prince, while a smattering posted the dates for the annual exams required of all the Emperor’s citizen officials.

The freshest poster, still crisp at the corners, depicted a glowering, scarred face—a man wanted for banditry, extortion, and disturbance of the peace in the countryside, who had long plagued a mountain village only two days’ walk from Osou. The bounty was considerable, the likeness unflattering.

B5-56 squawked, indignant.

“You’re just mad they didn’t mention you,” said the Ronin.

B5 opened a flap on his side and stuck out an articulated metal digit that sparked. Whether he was attempting to be rude or violent, he was interrupted.

“My, that’s troublesome,” said the Traveler. They stood beside the Ronin, and their frown was just visible beneath the curve of their mask. “Quite the character, aren’t you?”

There was no one else on this street, which wasn’t far from the dockyard that made up the majority of the spaceport. It was an industrial sort of avenue that saw its fair share of foot traffic during the day, but on a quiet world like Genbara, most people let their lives be ruled by the orbit of the sun rather than by chronometer. It being dark enough for the river frogs to sing, the Ronin had expected himself to be quite alone but for B5. It was troublesome indeed, then, to find the Traveler had insisted on tracking them down.

“Now this seems like a bit of exaggeration,” they went on, “but I thought you should know that there was a Gran at the cantina making all manner of wild claims. Something about dark warriors—Sith, if you’ll believe it—descending on a poor farming village in the mountains just south of here. I told him that I peddled in the fantastic, but his story was simply absurd. I’d just met a man coming from that direction, after all, and he surely would have mentioned an event as remarkable as the return of the Empire’s most hated foes.”

“Is that a warning?” asked the Ronin. “I suppose it would be, if you had reason to need one.”
It came a bit late. Another voice called from down the street. “You—Sith scum.”
The Ronin glanced toward the voice. On one end of the street, at an intersection with the main avenue where the central market spread, stood not one but a multitude of beings, all plainly armed and armored. Among them, the Ronin recognized the Gran bounty hunter from the village in the mountains, the one whose companions had been slaughtered by the bandits.

B5 crooned uneasily. The Ronin glanced in the opposite direction. Another group approached from that end of the street, far enough away that they were as yet concealed by the shadows of the darkened town. They carried themselves with an ambitious air, expecting a fight.

Talk about trouble, the voice mused. And just when you’d found a friend.

The Ronin snorted. The voice saw no reason to clarify her meaning, but he expected nothing and so couldn’t be disappointed. He wasn’t about to befriend anyone, least of all the sort of person who would tell a cantina full of bounty hunters that they had just entered town with the sector’s most profitable target.

He still sensed no particular enmity in the Traveler. This disconcerted, somewhat, given how many gruesome tales they surely knew of the Sith rebellion. He would have expected revulsion, or at the very least trepidation, but he detected only a trace of curiosity and a concerning degree of focus. Even if they weren’t the sort of trouble he most feared, he could now be certain that, at best, they had a distasteful interest in brewing the sort of trouble that was. That was exceptionally irritating, but it didn’t necessarily warrant murder.

In any case, he could linger no longer. The Ronin sighed as he lowered himself to speak to B5. “Keep an eye on them.”

Then he leapt straight up and swung himself cleanly onto the tiled roof of the storehouse plastered with posters. Below, B5 cursed at him in Binary while the bounty hunters cursed at him in a handful of languages and the quickest let loose the first wave of blasterfire.

He sent no backward look to see who followed, but the memory of the Traveler’s interest flickered all through the chase, an unnerving tickle at the back of his mind.

Excerpted from Star Wars Visions: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

CHAPTER FIVE

Alarm bells clanged. Lights flared haphazardly across the town. Splatters of blasterfire sprayed upward at shadows that proved to be nothing—an open window, a futon hung out to dry. More troublingly, illumination spilled from within homes and outside businesses as the people of Osou woke to the clamor.

The local Imperial troops had also been roused. The Ronin saw them here and there, smartly clad in their burnished red-and-black armor. Only a handful thus far, and he suspected they were alone, led by no Jedi. Otherwise, he would already have been found.

The Ronin nevertheless understood this was a bad assumption. Thus he kept to as-yet-shadowed roofs as he ran, feet swift and soundless even over the clay tiles. When he came to a fully lit intersection, a flick of his hand made the bright glare of the comm tower in the center of the square falter. In a sputter of dark, he leapt over the street from one slanted roof to the next and ran farther.

His pursuers were more coordinated than he liked. They had left some half dozen of their own at strategic intersections. These bounty hunters held amplified lanterns, which they swung to illuminate every moving darkness at street level and overhead. Small flying recon droids swooped past one another over the roofs, spotlights clashing as they vied to catch their bounty.

One such droid, a narrow, palm-sized disk with two thin articulated arms and a staring white eye in its middle, zipped past the Ronin where he crouched in the lee of a balcony. It slowed for a moment, swiveling its eye in his direction. The Ronin made a shooing motion with his hand. On the opposite side of the street, a loose tile skidded halfway down the roof. The little droid’s eye light flared as it dived across the way toward the disturbance.

The Ronin exhaled relief and took the moment to check his wrist cuff. It remained dark. B5-56 had made no effort to contact him. So much the better; it meant the droid had no reason to. The Ronin had set no rendezvous point, but they would find each other in the end. They always did.

Cautiously, the Ronin stepped just out of the shadow, the better to judge his course.

This would be so much easier if you took it seriously, she said.

“What do you mean by that?” he muttered, though he knew.

You know who you are—what you are. This filth should be nothing to you. Why persist in pretending they deserve your caution?

He felt a tug at his waist, as if she had placed a hand on his lightsaber. He tightened his mouth against a frown. She knew better. He wouldn’t turn such a weapon on anyone but those who could properly defend themselves from it.

You have alternatives, she said.

His fingers rested briefly on the second hilt.

No. He could do without.

That said, tonight he regretted himself a bit more pettily than he usually did. It had been a long time since he found himself hunted—since he had shown the world the kind of man he truly was.

You think you’re hiding? she asked.

“I thought that was obvious,” he said, because he knew it would annoy her. She didn’t mean his skulking about in the dark of a nothing town. She meant his weapons, and that they lay in plain view at his waist, just as the Traveler had criticized. But these, too, he didn’t ever intend to hide, no matter how illegal any of them had become, nor that he would only be mistaken for a Jedi by those who had never met one. Every being he met deserved a warning before they faced him.

Though some apparently took his gear as some kind of invitation instead.

They really are haunting you, aren’t they? she said. You don’t think that little fox is only after your story?

The Ronin scowled at her openly now, as if she were at his shoulder. But he was alone at the end of this dark stretch of tiled roof, which ended just before the massive main entrance to Osou’s dockyard. “Even if a story’s all they want—that would be bad enough.”

She knew it too. He couldn’t afford a companion. Even a trustworthy friend was obligation and liability. What was she playing at?

A sudden light burst down the street toward the entrance of the dockyard, the beam broad and sharp. A landspeeder. It had rounded the corner and was coming his way. Two bounty hunters sat in it, one to drive and the other to hold a lantern on a pole that shone so bright it illuminated every corner of the street.

The Ronin threw himself forward, off the ledge of the roof that faced the dockyard. He clung to the eave with his fingers, the balls of his feet pushed against the wall to keep himself in the shadows. Then the light faltered—swerved—and he was obliged to haul himself back up onto the roof because his arms were shaking with fatigue.

There, at the far end of the avenue, the landspeeder spun in a tight circle. The bounty hunters who had been in it were still in evidence, but they clearly were no longer in control.

The speeder spun higher and higher over the avenue, and it did so upside down. Its driver clung to the headrest of their seat, their feet kicking five meters above the ground. Their passenger struggled to clamber onto the skyward-facing bottom of the speeder, but the repulsorlifts threatened to jettison them off.

Abruptly, the upside-down speeder fell toward the street. The bounty hunters screamed as it swooped at an angle. The whole thing collided with a gang of their compatriots dashing onto the avenue, and it bowled over the lot like an infuriated, feral wall.

Don’t gawk, she hissed. Go.

The Ronin was already moving. Not back down the street—light filled every crevice of the ongoing disaster behind him—but forward. He dropped off the roof into the alley beside the dockyard and ducked through the darkly yawning entrance.

Though he slid into the shadows cast by dimmed ships, his ear strained to hear more of whatever the hell was happening outside. Blasterfire—of course. Screaming—yes, yes. The ceaseless mechanical cries of a machine compelled to function outside the physical rules of its being—there, that was the problem.

No landspeeder flew upside down. The fundamental tenet of its gravitational system forbade it. Only one power in the galaxy could so defy the laws of the universe. Someone, the Force coursing through them, had seized the speeder with a focus and intent the Ronin had not seen in decades. A flagrant display of obscene control. And for what? To distract his pursuers?

To herd you, she said.

Yes. Every act of great power came from great need. Whoever had turned the black current against the bounty hunters wanted more than a distraction. They wanted him funneled away from the town and among the ships.

Now here he was, slipping between and beneath the hulls of battered scout vessels, transports, and freighters. She watched him sneak, offering neither agreement nor warning, merely waiting to see what came of him next. Whatever lurked, she had already warned him of it. He couldn’t yet say what shape it would take. He had lit too many small fires to easily identify the one that had caught best and brightest.

All he knew was that he had flaunted himself most carelessly in the mountains. He had also managed to spend months missing news of galactic unrest, a political shift so dire that it had apparently agitated Imperial agents—and all this did concern him, though it wasn’t his business. There was, on top of all this, the matter of the bounty hunters.

Even if it was the Traveler’s fault that he was presently being pursued, they couldn’t feasibly have summoned such a sizable collection of bounty hunters to remote Genbara within the few hours they were apart. Nor could they have put up those unbecoming posters of the Ronin’s unsmiling face—not while walking beside him on a country road. No, the Traveler was but fractionally culpable. Someone else had put a price on his head. Perhaps the same someone who had tossed the speeder through the air like a plaything.

Jedi, he thought—an old reflex that burned in his chest and head. The possibility, the threat, it dizzied him like river rapids. Yet even as he feared the thought, he doubted it nearly as soon as he had it. What manner of Jedi resorted to trickery and deceit? What Jedi lured their prey into the still dark of an empty dockyard?

One he could not afford to underestimate. He sensed their next trick already. One ship, a sharp-nosed light freighter with broad, curved wings at its base, hummed nigh inaudibly. Its lights were yet dark, intentionally so, and no internal system that generated an excess of sound had been activated. But there was someone waiting within—someones, perhaps.

The black current of the Force had always guided him first to the intricacy of electric mechanism. He could more intuitively grasp the minute capacity for malfunction within a passing droid than he could the complexity of a living being that stood directly before him. Regardless, the people in the freighter didn’t want anyone to know they were bringing it to life. It was to his advantage that he did.

What did they intend? To fire on him? They had to know the futility of such an assault, if they knew him for a Sith. Perhaps they thought to catch him in the full brunt of their engines bursting viciously to life. That, he would want to avoid.

Or was he nothing to them? Would they even know to fear him?

The Ronin’s fingers shook, slightly so. His chest shivered in sympathy, and he clenched his fist to ward off his frailty. He needed calm. Direction. A way out of this port and off Genbara before—

The jerk at his waist was quite slight. He might not have noticed it, were he not assiduously searching for some sign, any sign, of danger. The possibility that he would not otherwise have noticed . . . It disturbed him powerfully, when he saw what had been taken.

The telltale thrum of a lightsaber made him turn, his hand falling to his waist. His fingers found only one hilt. The other was gone—taken—and the blade flaring in the dark not three meters away was a distinctly familiar red. It illuminated the face of the Sith bandit, grinning, her teeth made scarlet by the light of the blade she had stolen from his waist.

He understood her presence in his bones before he registered her in his brain. His blood ran cold and his heart beat in a great empty lack. He had not seen one of her kind in so very long. He was so sure he should hear a voice laughing in his ears, but there was only his breathing, low and shuddering—and the bandit, her focus entirely upon him.

No further pause. The bandit came for him. The Ronin sprang back, skidding over the dust of the dockyard floor and having immediately to leap up to avoid a tangle of power cables. The bandit followed, lightsaber a furious whirlwind of movement. Everywhere he leapt, she was on him in an instant, gouging through durasteel with her blade and leaving a trail of sparks.

He spun out his scabbard auxiliary, readying himself to block her—he could trust no other weapon to do so—but his body, mind, soul wouldn’t let him stand and engage. He could only think with the frenetic need of a drowning man that he had to get away, to find high ground. He feared, clinically, that he had begun to panic. In another lifetime, this would have shamed him. It didn’t now because he understood with horrible clarity the danger of what he beheld.

A fallen warrior no longer dead. A living curse. A demon, they’d called her kind during the war. The bandit would from now on pursue him with relentless need. She would never stop, not until she had him skewered on the length of his own blade and had carved his remains to her satisfaction. Or the satisfaction of her master.

And he was still tired, and old, and shaken. He felt his infirmity in the way he missed a jump by half a meter and had to scrabble up onto the jagged hull of a transport, and in how, when she whipped a reinforced cargo crate at his head, he ignited the scabbard auxiliary to cut it down when it would have been so much cleaner, smarter to simply dodge—

And he felt it when the bandit, stalking across the pitted hull of an ancient transport, lashed out with her arm and a wave of pure black current threatened to throw him off his feet. He kept himself upright with a ferocious desire, his robes whipping in the burst of her fury.

The bandit never slowed. She flew forward, lightsaber a red wound in the night. He hadn’t fully recovered his footing from the onslaught of her attempt to throw him from the hull, and he was forced to finally catch her blade with his. Their lightsabers hissed and crackled as they ground against each other. For a second, he met her eyes.

Fire and amber, pupils blown, incandescent with her need to unmake him. He knew then with the pulsing core of him: He would have to kill her again or she would never fall.

A blaster bolt cut through their clash. It lanced between the cross of their sabers, and where the bandit snarled over her shoulder, the Ronin once more leapt back, flourishing his lightsaber off and melting into the shadows beneath the nearest scout ship.

The bounty hunters had found them, attracted by the unmistakable sounds of their fight. More of them fired toward the bandit. She deflected each bolt, then gestured roughly upward with her free hand.

The Ronin had only seconds to understand what was happening before a bounty hunter—that poor foolish Gran from the village—came hurtling through the dark, limbs flailing, straight toward him.

This time, he dodged. At the frayed edge of his conscience, it was all he could think to do. By some luck, the Gran flew past him and into a canopy of cargo netting—netting that he could have sworn was too far away, just a moment before. Either way, the bounty hunter tumbled into it with relative softness.

Lucky, was it? she asked.

“Not the time,” he snapped.

The bandit was coming for him again, bounding off the transport

and lunging into his hiding spot. The Ronin dashed off under a hull, sprinting back toward the entrance. He now had a sense of what had happened. The bandit had cornered him in the dockyard to make it her death trap. Therefore, it was time to leave.

As if in perfect time with that thought, his wrist cuff buzzed. A glance at his wrist showed the blue circle of light below his palm blinking a message.

“Up,” said B5, and that was all.

Indeed, the Ronin heard the creak of docking bay doors opening overhead. A blanket of moonlight spilled over the vessels.

Up. Yes, that would do.

The Ronin gathered white flare in his legs, crouched, and jumped up onto the nearest hull—a scouting vessel—then up again to the next, the laser-scarred shielding of an off-model freighter. He leapt again and again, making his way toward a pyramid of cargo crates beside loading machinery and a web of maintenance walkways. Between these, he would be able to clamber his way to a position that would let him make a final jump to the dockyard roof.

He felt the bandit’s pursuit not via the Force but through instinct and understanding. He didn’t look or listen for her; it was unnecessary. She followed him as surely as a tide followed a moon.

She gained on him steadily. This he felt in the shiver of the white flare and black current. She nipped at his heels, a white-spiked fury boiling in black surf. She was a vision of a warrior. What a Sith she would have been.

Weakness made him stop a second too long. He dared to turn and see her. They stood across from each other in pale light, he on top of the pulley rigging that let crews load their ships, she crouched on a maintenance walkway, pulsing lightsaber held low and at the ready. They were separated only by empty space and many meters of distance, so much farther apart than they had been on the log as they rushed down a raging river. Yet it felt like she was on the verge of sinking her teeth into his throat.

“Stop running,” she spat, and her voice was so very much the same as it had been the last time she demanded he kill or be killed. “This doesn’t end until you face me.”

He knew it to be true. Yet end it did, prematurely, when a light freighter’s engines roared. It was the long, sharp-nosed ship that he had seen readying its systems when he first entered the dockyard. It surged up from the floor, broad, scarred wings extending as it scattered the bounty hunters surrounding it, and it came to a skillful halt between the Ronin and the bandit. The stenciled writing on its side called it the poor crow, and its lower hatch hung open from its bottom, the walk-way extended toward him. Through it he saw B5, who shrilled at him to jump.

“Quite the executive decision,” muttered the Ronin.

They could argue about it later. For the last time, he leapt. He flew through the air, grasping toward the Crow’s walkway.

But he had miscalculated. The bandit leapt too.

He saw what would come next in the fragment of his mind’s eye where he at times beheld such things, a flash colored by the visceral shades of shifting possibility.

The bandit would grasp him either by his limb or by his robe, and it didn’t matter, because either way, she would knock him askew, and with that he would lose his chance. They would fall to the ground, and even if B5 and the Crow returned, it would be too late, because she would have had the upper hand for too long, and he would already be dead.

Yet the moment he grasped the inevitability of his fate, it broke.

The bandit’s body jerked mid-flight, struck in the torso from the side by no visible power. She flew back through the night air and collided with a cargo tower, her lightsaber slicing through the crates she fell past. The Ronin saw this from the Crow’s walkway, onto which he had landed safely and scrambled up as he stared down.

The bandit had not merely fallen, she had been pushed—and not by an assaulting wave of black current, such as she had thrown at him mere minutes before, but a powerful, targeted blow of that same power. And, whether she had been too wholly focused on the Ronin to withstand it or because the push itself had been so eerily precise, she fell.

He was free.

Free to run, in any case, which he had long since learned was not much freedom at all.

Excerpted from Star Wars Visions: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Get Your Copy Now

Star Wars Visions: Ronin

Emma Mieko Candon, Joel de la Fuente

A mysterious former Sith wanders the galaxy in this stunning Star Wars tale, an original novel inspired by the world of The Duel from the Star Wars Visions animated anthology.
 
The Jedi are the most loyal servants of the Empire. 
 
Two decades ago, Jedi clans clashed in service to feuding lords. Sickened by this endless cycle, a sect of Jedi rebelled, seeking to control their own destiny and claim power in service of no master. They called themselves Sith. 
 
The Sith rebellion failed, succumbing to infighting and betrayal, and the once rival lords unified to create an Empire . . . but even an Empire at peace is not free from violence. 

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