“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.