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Ghosts of the Sith by Daniel Jeyn
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Jeet Syllba was floating adjacent to the mountain, carefully following the bobbing probe droid. The probe was tracking the DNA traces of the phony Jedi which were detectable on the path below. Syllba himself was scanning for any kind of an outcropping from which a defense might be mounted. Scans for snipers or other hidden weapons had so far returned negative. He expected the Jedi would be up here with the Mystics, and ideally completely unaware of the slaughter of the garrison and the village below.
The repulsorlift vibrations from his flightpack were already putting his bones into a higher level of agony when he received a lucky break. A terrified scream came from somewhere in the mountain. That was it. His helmet’s HUD pinpointed the rift in the rock whence it came. The location of the scream was near the summit of the mountain, directly facing Vader’s Keep, over the sloping valley and the Voss village below them. That had to be where the Mystics were. And Skywalker would be with them.
He landed several meters down from the outcropping. The goal was to keep his approach as quiet as possible, maintaining the advantage of surprise. He’d find out what prompted that woman’s scream soon enough.
After landing, his body was no longer rattling, but was again under gravity’s oppressive squeeze. He was shocked at the excruciating pain the repuslorlifts caused him these days. This was greatly exacerbated by letting his fitness slide this past decade. Pausing to catch his breath, he pulled out three vials from his arm pouch, and opened a panel in his right leg armor. He injected himself with the highest grade stims he could procure; vial after vial were jabbed into the meat. They were for pain endurance, increased energy, and enhancement in mental and muscle performance.
His whole body was feeling warm with the rush of the injections. He discarded the vials on the path and resealed the armor. This probably also meant his heart would be lucky to even last two years after today. But who cares? He’d soon have all the money he’d ever need. He’d go to the best vat farm in the galaxy and have them swap in a new pink heart, freshly cloned. He’d swap out any organs he needed as a matter of fact. And maybe some he didn’t, just because he could. All for the head of one Jedi imposter. This would be the score of a lifetime.
And what a lifetime I will have! The stims hit his central nervous system. There was no pain. Everything was perfect. His body was alive more than it had ever been. Each limb was as strong as a ronto’s neck.
He was sweating. His heart sped up and time seemed to slow down. He remained motionless as he adjusted to this heightened awareness, crouching behind a grove of trees just off the trail. He let his ears take in the sounds around him, acclimating his mind to the environment of the mountain. He listened carefully for anything contrasting itself to natural noises. He could hear nothing that betrayed a living being except for the booming of his blood in his own head. The wind continually whistled, shaking the leaves in the trees. Occasionally, in the distance, there was the call of a bird looking for a mate.
Slowly, he worked his way forward, searching the rocks high and low for any visual movement at all.
There was another scream that came from the cave. It was followed by a series of desperate sobs. This was very strange. But he wouldn’t solve the mystery of that scream until he was standing over the bodies, regardless. He waited for more sounds, but could hear nothing else. At least he was more than sure he was on the right path.
The probe floated several meters in the air, scanning the ground. It was doing a detailed search in 10 meter-square sections. Syllba was taking no chances. He was intent on covering every angle for a possible ambush by any of the patrol possibly still guarding the bounty. The probe sent chimes into his helmet as it passed over and over the ground near the summit. Readouts came up for searches for any part of Skywalker himself, or any signs of a defense that was lying in wait.
…searching… grid 100939OWikdO… nothing found…
…searching… grid 101039OWikdO… possible movement…
…searching… grid 101139OWikdO… nothing found…
…searching… grid 101239OWikdO… DNA POSITIVE…
…searching… grid 101339OWikdO… nothing found…
…searching… RETURNING grid 101109OWikdO… possible movement…
This was infuriating. The readouts kept finding confirmation of Skywalker’s DNA, which was a happy enough circumstance. But it couldn’t verify if there was movement elsewhere in the grid. It seemed to think so. Thus, it kept returning to the same square in the search pattern, unable to verify if it was an ambusher, or a beetle, or just the wind. Syllba was now grinding his teeth. This is what you get with the cheaper model of these probe droids. Every damn upgrade from Czerka Industries was unreliable since the Empire had their board executed.
He could see the grid that the probe was curious about. The outline was drawn on the grid’s borders as he saw it through the HUD. It was on the trail dead ahead, past the treeline, encompassing mostly bare ground without any cover.
The stims were still making his head as light as if it were swollen with a noble gas. He was feeling delightfully invincible. There was no pain in his bones any more. He remembered the training he had as a young Mandalorian warrior, imitating the forest nexu. Moving like a shadow, he was a predator now. Damn the clever gadgets he had. He was stalking his prey. He would take what was his.
Slowly, still, while his heart was beating to a quick-march cadence, he ascended the trail. He moved as silently as possible, barely brushing the branches of trees and tall grass obscuring his path. The grid-point the probe kept itself curious about was still just ahead. Syllba could see nothing that looked suspicious. That also was worrisome. He still assumed that it was likely the case that the touchy probe was just pinging off some tiny creature digging a hole in the soil.
The trail was jutted up against a rock wall on the left, and the ground gradually sloped more than a dozen meters to the edge of the cliff just on his right. In such a narrow path, and needing his arms and hands for balance, he slung his bullpup blaster rifle over his shoulder, and removed his pistol from its holster. He held the weapon with his right hand, allowing him to extend his arms for balance as he traversed the sloping rocks, crouching to keep his profile low.
He considered tossing a grenade into the cave once he was closer. But that would be amateur. While it would likely do a nice job of turning anyone within the cave to tenderized meat, he had no knowledge of the layout inside. It wasn’t guaranteed to kill them all. That would give anyone left inside a heads-up to brace for defense, and he’d then lose the element of surprise. Also, he’d lose the ability to possibly interrogate the inhabitants. So he’d take his time, assess the target, and do this correctly. He pulled out his datapad and sent commands to the probe to look into the cave and give him a visual readout of what defenses might be within. The probe itself was staying as much as possible out of sight, keeping far to the left of the trail while constantly scanning for any movement or tech activity.
Slowly. For now, that was the key word. He repeated it to himself multiple times in his mind: slowly. The HUD still read out the probe’s constant searching. There was still nothing detected up here. He fully expected if the patrol were anywhere near that they’d have comm-gear — or their own probes — or shield units. But it seemed more likely now, yet improbably, the pretend Jedi and the Mystics had come up here with the cloth on their backs. Alone. The fools.
Syllba gently placed a boot next to the area on the grid the probe could not make sense of. He let it hold his weight. He peered through his pistol sights, carefully scanning the ground and landscape. He looked through the sites to the wall and the ridge above it. Nothing. To his right across the bare ground to the edge of the mountainside. Nothing.
He felt a rush of pleasure. His head was so light, and his heartbeat so fast, he had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing out loud. The stim also made his bite frighteningly more strong than he expected. And now he tasted blood.
He walked on. Just as he passed the grid, he heard a shuffling sound. He swung his head to see the ground itself improbably come alive. He considered that the stims were playing tricks with his mind. Then he snapped his thoughts together as the loose, sandy dirt fell away from a reptilian face that was hissing. It was a juvenile Trandoshan with reddish scales, wearing a long, white tunic. It held a wooden spear with an obsidian shard fashioned at one end. No metal to set off the probe.
The Trandoshan bolted the spear at Syllba before he could react. His Mandalorian chest armor plate absorbed the blow without losing any of its integrity, but he was instantly knocked off balance.
Seeing that the spear couldn’t directly cut through the armor, Drrsala dropped it. Snarling, he leapt at his foe, aiming low. Sharp claws dug into the durafiber weave boots, tearing into them, ensnaring Syllba’s left foot, and toppling him against the rock wall on the side of the trail.
Syllba’s chemically-enhanced reflexes were at the top of their game. He swung his blaster pistol up immediately, only missing a direct hit because of the Trandoshan’s anticipation. The creature arrested the swing of Syllba’s right arm with a clawed left hand. The shot only grazed its side.
The Mandalorian cursed himself as he realized he was now in a fight he was in danger of losing very quickly. He had anticipated any number of scenarios facing him: A fake Jedi, cowering Voss primitives, or trained stormtroopers. A Trandoshan hunter that could lower its respiratory rate and hide in loose sand wasn’t one of them. The creature was small, which was lucky, because the Trandoshans were fast and strong to a deadly advantage. Had it been fully grown, it likely would have severed his ankle with its grasp. It had already rendered his firepower moot by grasping his weapon hand, now crushing it until Syllba cried out in pain and the pistol fell to the ground. The Trandoshan was dangerously close enough to open his armor or remove his helmet, after which it would be a simple matter for the reptililian to thrash his flesh into ribbons.
Syllba was in a defensive position with his back against the rock wall; savage claws kept striking at his limbs, and only the armor plates prevented grievous wounding.
However, Syllba’s combat habits were long ago honed by his rough training on Ankhural. He expertly used the Trandoshan’s fierce strength against itself. In the hand-to-hand struggle, Syllba twisted, falling backward, and in doing so, he let his opponent throw his weight forward in a lunge, throwing him off balance and falling into the wall himself.
Drrsala toppled downward, still grasping onto Syllba who twisted himself to get on top. Syllba had gained the advantage even with his right hand completely useless under Drrsala’s adamant grip. He was above the Trandoshan now, his right hand still unusable, but his left hand steadying himself against the brick wall as his knees dug into Drrsala’s chest.
From underneath, the claws on Drrsala’s feet tore into the Mandalorian armor, scraping the finish and getting stuck in the padding. Now it was a deadly struggle as he held the Mandalorian’s wrist, tearing desperately at the body above him with his clawed feet.
Syllba steadied himself, pushed himself back upright, and stomped down with his boots. It wasn’t elegant, but it was effective. His durasteel heel was a fierce weapon. His first blow hit the reptile in the face. The second landed directly in its ribs. He aimed hard for Drrsala’s collarbone, knowing that it could be a suffocating, deadly injury for a Trandoshan if done correctly. By gaining an advantage by getting on top of his opponent, Syllba also exposed the gaps in his armor that were visible from underneath.
Years of relentless Mandalorian training could not make up for the sheer animal swiftness of the Trandoshan. As Syllba leaned on the rock wall and drew back his foot for another blow, Drrsala had grabbed back hold of his staff-spear with the claws on his feet, passing it to his free right hand. He fired it upward in a singular, pointed motion.
A burst of light exploded in Syllba’s mind. The staff was thrust expertly just under where the joints met in his chest armor’s left side, entering his body under his ribs and lodging there. He gasped in shock, not even aware of how he was hit nor even where, but only found himself falling backward, falling against the rock wall and sliding down, his blood spilling out over his legs in warm gushes. As he crumpled to the ground, the spear stuck out from his torso like a planted flag.
Stupid! he screamed in his mind. Stupid, stupid! Overconfident! He heard the loud hissing of the Trandoshan. It had released all of its grasps, letting Syllba fall, and had jolted itself back upright. Drrsala grabbed hold of the spear and pulled it out of the body of his prey. Syllba howled in pain, watching the world explode in light, and then turn black.
A body suffering such a severe wound might be crumpled up and dying. However, Syllba’s heart was pumping mechanically, and the brain stims were firing his neurons enough to keep him awake. He gasped and opened his eyes again. Through his HUD, he saw Drrsala above him, that reptilian face in a frozen singular expression not unlike a smile; the creature’s single, long, white tunic rippling in the wind, as he heaved back the staff above his own head to deal a killing thrust of the spear to the Mandalorian’s neck.
Training once again took over in Syllba’s mind. Last second countermeasures were recalled with nearly pure muscle memory. Syllba pointed his left hand and fired a wrist rocket directly into his opponent.
Drrsala howled with the explosion that knocked him back, dropping the spear; he was burning, snarling, with his his arms flailing. Still swinging at the flames, he toppled off the side of the path, tumbled on the slope, and disappeared over the cliff.
And just like that, the fight was over. Syllba had won. He rolled slowly and painfully to his side, grunting. He lifted himself to his knees. He gasped and removed his helmet, immediately vomiting into the dirt.
The ground wouldn’t stop its spinning, seemingly pushing and pulling his body in a vertiginous ride. He gasped, lifting his gloved hands to run over the sweat on his head and in his beard. He had temporarily forgotten the puncture wound. As if in a dream, and watching it happen to someone else, he looked down at his damaged body, observing the blood pouring out with every heartbeat. He cursed and pulled out a field kit from a leg pouch. In a swift, rehearsed movement, he unlocked his armor chestplate and tossed it to the ground. He pulled at his environmental suit, exposing the skin and the gash. He covered the bleeding wound with bacta spray foam that instantly congealed. If it burned, he could not feel it. He knew he was numbed either through his shock or the stims’ effects, or both.
He rose up and slowly pulled his overskin environmental suit back closed. He clasped his armor pieces together again. The machined parts slid smartly into their counterparting buckles in a smooth, autonomous motion, culminating in a click as they sealed back together. He found his pistol on the ground and checked the action of the slide. He strapped back on his flightpack and re-slung the rifle, finally placing his helmet back on his head.
He knew this reprieve was temporary. The wound was still in danger, and his body was just pouring blood internally now. He’d be dead in six hours if he didn’t get help. But it didn’t matter.
Get the Jedi was his only thought. He stumbled forward, the second wind from the stims kicking in, propelling him onward.
Get the head of Skywalker! He pushed himself forward with fury. Feeling dizzy now, he tumbled again and fell to his knees. He realized his armor was slippery with his own blood. He cursed the Trandoshan race. He vowed he’d live on reptile soup for a year when he got out of this.
Get the head of Skywalker! The thought echoed and again he rose to his feet, letting the nausea pass. The bloody staff was lying in the dirt. He picked it up and used it to lean on. He needed a moment, he swore, just a moment to get himself righted and back to fighting shape.
He pushed doubts out of his head. Should have had an apprentice! Should have offered the Marauders a bigger share and brought them with. The Mandalorian way was victory to the strongest. Woe to the weak. Pity them, but have no mercy.
Get the head of Skywalker!
He drove himself forward. The stims’ effects were now cresting. He could feel no pain at all. Sure, he was lightheaded and woozy, but he was steadfast in his mission. No doubts. No backing out now. It was only 20 or 30 meters of a steep climb. He contemplated turning on the repulsor liftpack. Weakness! He despised himself for even considering it. Although truthfully he also dreaded the pain the repulsors would reverberate through his wounded body.
He took hold of the rocks and began to climb. Sheer hatred and a lust for riches now were his only sensations. They would sing of him, for sure, in the cantinas from Dantooine to Ord Mandell.
Get the head of Skywalker!
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Something was wrong. Even here in the Force, beyond the physical realm, Luke could sense that something had happened. He could no longer feel Tylo’s anchor to the solid world of Voss. He continued to meditate, feeling the presence of Anakin, Ben, and Yoda, all bolstering his strength. The Sith spirit that Vader had communed with was still here. But it was constrained, walled off, and being pushed back to the boundaries of the Dark Side.
Now without an anchor, Luke felt a solidity slipping away from him. Among the spirits of the Force, there was a divide between the living and the dead. Luke was now just a projection of his living self, but no more connected to the physical realm than any of the spirits around him.
He had seen Jafan for a moment, somehow, blinking in the Force, standing before him and giving him a knowing nod and a wink. He knew then that something had happened. The garrison was in trouble. The Voss were being attacked. Jafan the Centopt was dead. That must have pulled Tylo away, as they had shared a strong bond through the Force.
The Sith entity, calling himself “Bane,” laughed hollowly. He sensed it as well.
“Do you feel that, Son of Skywalker? You have been abandoned here. You do not have the advantage you thought you would, do you? This is the way of things. Your peace — your Jedi peacekeepers — all fell. Because they were a lie.”
Bane was no longer constrained. He seemed to walk forward effortlessly, his visage shimmering within the Force itself. Luke found he could not feel Ben and the others as strongly as he could just moments ago.
The Force entities of Anakin, Ben, and Yoda were unmoving. They were still sitting, cross legged, in meditative positions, but their visages were blurred to him. Their souls glowed with ethereal light, but Luke could no longer hear them or distinguish them. Bane’s power was pushing back now, pushing the Jedi’s forms away from him. He was indeed anchored strongly to the Keep, and the Mystics’ remnants there. His form paced back and forth in the light on the floor, strobing from solid to transparent with the Force.
Luke was standing now. No longer on the dirty, windswept surface of Tatooine. He was in a ship that was clean, bright, and antiseptic. He looked around the room, recognizing the minimalist Imperial finish; the military gray, and distinctively knurled latches of polished durasteel on all the bulkheads. There were curved, clear transparent panels around him on all sides. He was in a command Star Destroyer. He stood on an observation platform overlooking a vast debris field stretching at the intercourse of two fleets. There was a massive gas planet to his starboard side, pulsing with clouds across its surface. A giant star loomed above them all, but yet still several million kilometers away, fire and light tumbling across its surface, dwarfing the the assemblage below.
Sirens burst into life as the Imperial fleet began a final descent toward the Rebels. His Imperial fleet. He felt an electric thrill at knowing that. He looked at his hands. No longer was he wearing the simple farmer’s tunic. He wore interlaced black armor that was composed of tiny durasteel scales, and polished to an immaculate shine, expensively fitted to his body.
Completely immersed in this shimmering Force dream, there was an undeniable rush of power coursing through this body. The Star Destroyers opened their launch bays. Curved attack waves of TIE fighters and TIE interceptors bolted from their pens. He was connected to all of them. He could sense every pilot’s soul like he was feeling every hair along his arms. Reaching out and rippling a muscle even gently, he could direct their attacks. The bend of one finger reverberated through the fleet, and hundreds of ships wheeled in a synchronized dance. Puffs of fire dotted nearly empty space as the Imperials burned through the motley Rebel fleet, cutting the Viscount cruisers in half. The Calamari ships went unlit, their armored exteriors sparkled with reflecting starlight, turning over and over, tumbling upward to fall into the sun.
He now traversed a vast courtyard. A pattern of alternatingly shaded dark and light squares of Ilum granite extended the length of a hallway that ended at a pair of doors which were the size of a thumbnail at their distance. Trees lined the entire path, resting in pots that hovered above the polished tile floor; a forest planned with opulent precision. They dripped green and red leaves as he crossed the vast courtyard solely by himself. His black armor was so polished that it glinted blindingly in the corner of his eyes, reflecting the light coming from the curved glass domes hundreds of meters above him. He came at last to the doors and opened them to a balcony. He was washed with a roar of millions of voices.
Mon Mothma and General Dodonna were led in chains. The jeering crowds watched from the walkways around the palace, across the slums for multiple levels of the city far under them, and on the holos across the galaxy. The Rebel leaders dropped from a scaffold and were hung by wires, their tongues hanging from their mouths as their lives were choked out. Perversely, Luke felt pleasure at this, as if this was his very command.
He watched on holos as he could see Han and Lando and Chewie; ragged, dirty, stand defiantly before a firing squad; Han squaring his jaw and shaking his head one last time. He sensed Leia in prison, somewhere in a dark, forgotten dungeon, overcome with despair, far under Coruscant. All while the crowds roared for the execution of the Rebellion leaders above her.
He knew it was his work. Looking back from the balcony, from the cheering crowds, he turned back inside. The long hallway was covered now with a holo. The projected known universe floated there, the multiple systems of the galaxy covering the entire length of the massive hall. He passed through the lighted illusion, running his fingers across one system to another, slowly panning his eyes from orb to orb, tracing the paths of stars and comets. He knew that it all was his.
He continued, passing through the enormous palace, each room itself as tall as the tallest buildings on Mos Eisley. He passed room after room of elaborate tapestries that took several hands working across lifetimes. There were hallways of chiseled statues that were samples from worlds more numerous than he’d bother to count. He turned and caught a glimpse of himself in a polished granite pillar. He saw a man who was once Luke Skywalker. But with gray cropped hair, and a full white beard trimmed to a fine point. The face was sunken and fierce, the skin scorched and tightened. It was a face fully enthralled to the power of the Dark Side.
The whole vision only lasted a fraction of a second, but Luke had felt it imprint the vastness of its entirety on his mind like a singular shock falling on all his senses at once. He sipped the vision like a shot of strong drink that would take his legs from under him.
Still sitting on the ground, in his mere farmer’s tunic again, he shivered. He was shaking now. This was too real. In a moment, he had inhaled an entire lifetime revealed through the Force. The Dark Side was more powerful than he had imagined. The potential for power was also too real. Luke had only to draw from it, and it would be his.
“When you are calm. That is when you will know.” Yoda’s admonition rang in his head. He must be calm to know the Dark from the Light. Yet, somehow, as he concentrated, this world was alluring. He could not purge the vision from his mind.
Bane was growing in size. His ghost now dwarfed the Jedi arranged before him. He was pacing like a feral creature, his face hidden by the flickering skull-like mask of carved metal.
“I studied many ways for a soul in the Force to anchor itself to the living, Skywalker. All of what you saw could be yours with power I can lend you. I have seen this future. You need only invite me in.”
Luke sat cross legged before the shimmering Sith spector. He inhaled before defying his tormentor.
“I won’t allow it, Bane. I can’t have you cross this plane to find a host among the Voss… or the Jedi pilgrims who may follow me. Or me.”
The Darth guffawed hollowly from behind the mask. “And who would stop me, Jedi? You are just a child at this game. You are weak here. Stranded. And I no longer see that witch holding your lifeline. Your Jedi ghosts do not have enough strength to hold me back.”
The Sith spectre was now not only larger, but now more solid. More clear in the Force.
“Perhaps I’ll eat your soul, Skywalker. Your body will still be my conduit to the physical realm.”
Luke lowered his head. He felt a muddiness to his thoughts. He cursed his own impatience. He was too young when he faced down Darth Vader. Was he too weak in the Force to take on the spirit of Darth Bane?
Bane’s shadow now overcame Luke. He felt a blindness, no longer seeing even the bleak light on this flat Tatooine plane. He felt himself choking. Slowly, but surely, Bane’s power was growing. It was strangling him like a bog snake.
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She thought of the words the Mystics had taught her. Of the transitive nature of life’s burning fire. How we are not just the sum of our parts.
But the tears and heaving wouldn’t stop. The discipline and the training could only go so far. The sudden emptiness was echoing inside her now. Jafan was dead. She could no longer reach him. No longer could she feel his presence she had known through the waskaja for more than a decade.
She thought of the children. She felt them. They were alive. They were safe for now, but they were scared. They wouldn’t be safe for long.
Heaving, she caught herself now. Her training. Her discipline. Skywalker was still seated and deep in a trance. She knew she had to get him out. For the sake of the Republic restored. For the sake of her family.
Jafan would have no hesitation. He was a sentimental fool, too, but he was too much a stormtrooper at heart. “Do your duty!” he would implore her. “You’ll mourn for me enough some day! Save Skywalker.”
She wasn’t sure if it was her own voice that had said this. Was it Jafan from within the Force? Or was her mind compensating?
Too many thoughts. Too many distractions. When you are calm, then you will hear the song of the waskaja clearly. Her own thoughts bounced jaggedly between Vossik and Basic. Languages were all jumbled in her head.
She realized how she had thought and dreamed in Basic for years now. But her thoughts, going deep into the trance, and her dreaming, now, was in the language of her parents and mentors in the Mystics. She spoke the words to herself for the ritual again. She attempted to slow down her terror, wipe her eyes, and feel the Force. She didn’t notice the other figure that was quietly entering the cave.
Before she knew what happened, a pneumatic blast her her back, stealing her breath. A duracord net enveloped her, delivering an electric shock that instantly made all her muscles stiffen, no longer under her own control.
Through blurry vision, she could see the top of the cave. She felt the fire. She could hear wheezing and footsteps as someone approached. A man in a Mandalorian helmet stood above her, holding a bullpup rifle aimed at her face.
She could no longer scream. After the fear, and then the shock, now her mind was momentarily as sharp as a whetted blade. The Mandalorian stepped forward and spoke in a voice that was hoarse and baited with death.
“I’ve come a long way for this. I can see the blasters you have under your tunic, Voss toad. So I had to restrain you.”
Immobile in the net, she stared up. She saw him clearly. That voice was dripping in pain. He was badly injured, and his armor was covered in blood. It must have been Drrsala who had injured him. She wondered if he was still alive. She blinked, distracted by her own plight. Her brain was on fire with fear as Syllba carefully scanned the room, stopping, and focusing on Luke.
Syllba stared at his bounty and seemed to cough a joyless laugh.
Luke said nothing. He was still sitting cross legged, deep into the Force. His physical body was practically lifeless. And defenseless.
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Ghosts of the Sith by Daniel Jeyn