2 hours earlier
Imperial expeditionary outpost, Ilum
A black-and-gray-clad figure strode toward a holoprojector in the middle of a rectangular room, a disc-like device mounted on his back as he depressed a rapidly flashing button on the communicator. The projector flickered for a moment before its picture sharpened and expanded into the imposing mask of Darth Vader. The figure kneeled and closed his eyes in respect.
"Darth Vader," he said reverently. "This is an unexpected pleasure."
"You may dispense with the pleasantries. I have a task for you."
"And what is that, my lord?"
"My spies have uncovered the location of a target of interest on this planet, a Mandalorian named Xel Caden. He is a mercenary consultant for the Rebel Alliance."
The man felt slighted, but resolutely kept it off his face. "A mercenary, my lord? I do not mean to question your wisdom, but surely my talents can be better spent elsewhere." The fabric around his throat constricted slightly, and he forced down a gulp.
"This man is no mere mercenary. He is strong in the Force, and could become much stronger if left unchecked. His skills must not be allowed to serve the Alliance any longer. You are to find and eliminate him, by any means necessary."
"Understood," he said with a tilt of his head. "Do you have any additional information on this 'Xel'?"
A data drive popped out of a port on the projector. "That drive contains records of his abilities, as well as his friends and allies, both within the Alliance and without. Use this knowledge to isolate and destroy him. This is my command, Inquisitor."
The Inquisitor's head and body bowed low. "And so it shall be done."
The hologram winked off, leaving the pale, bald Sith alone, glowing yellow eyes fluttering open as a perverse smile came to his face.
2 hours later
Rebel encampment, Ilum
3 months BBY
"What's wrong, Xel? You look like you've seen a ghost."
The Mando looked at Eran sullenly. "You might say that."
Riilos stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment before Ezra spoke up. "Hello…the Ghost? Our ship?"
Xel forced a smile. "Exactly."
Eran blinked a few times and reddened a little before saying quietly, "Oh."
"Caden, Bridger, glad you could join us."
Xel and Ezra nodded to the commander in acknowledgement, falling into a circle around the holoprojector in the center of their command tent. The rest of the Ghost and Kandosii'tal's crews, plus Eran Riilos' team, were present, the three fireteams having become known in the past months as Commander Tobin's personal special forces. Tobin keyed the projector on, displaying an outpost mounted on the side of an ice-covered mountain, the structure nearly cloaked by the thick coating of frozen water on it.
"Approximately two hours ago," Tobin began, "we intercepted transmissions from this location regarding the gathering and shipment of Ilum crystals."
Sergeant Riilos furrowed his eyebrows. "Ilum crystals?"
"In the days of the Old Republic," Kanan explained, "Ilum crystals were most commonly used as core crystals for lightsabers."
The sergeant still looked confused. "What would the Empire want with those? I mean, it's not like they have many Force-users on their side."
"That's true," Tobin conceded, "but their presence here seems to be more preventative than proactive."
"Meaning they want to eliminate or severely reduce lightsaber crystals so no one else can make them," Alen said grumpily.
"Exactly," he nodded. "As such, we can't allow this operation to continue. Your mission is to infiltrate this outpost, find any stored Ilum crystals and recover them. Additionally, any excavation equipment you run across should be destroyed. Even if we can't stop them permanently, we can at least slow them down."
"Why stop with the equipment?" Sabine asked with a shrug. "Why not destroy the whole outpost?"
Xel smirked, as did Tobin, who answered her proposition. "Radical," he shrugged, breaking into a grin. "I like it."
Caden and Sabine exchanged a fist-bump. Kanan and Alen rolled their eyes in tandem, but Ezra and the massive Lasat at his side just chuckled.
Tobin coughed discreetly, suppressing a grin. "Specters, you'll infiltrate the lower levels, Riilos, the upper. Caden, you and your team will take the middle. If at all possible, you're to find the facility's primary data mainframe. We have reason to believe that this operation is being overseen by a high-ranking Imperial officer. If this outpost has data on his identity or location, you're to find and retrieve it. This man may have vital intel on the Empire's military plans and movements if he's being sent to oversee Jedi-related matters."
Xel nodded and tuned out briefly, shooting Alen a look when an uneasy feeling reached his consciousness.
"Later," his brother sent. "I feel it too."
Caden returned his attention to the briefing just in time for Tobin to dismiss everyone. The twins made their way out of the tent and to a more private section of the camp, Iola in tow.
"When he mentioned someone overseeing Jedi matters—" Xel began.
"I know. Just for a second, it was like a cloud blotted out the sun, at least to us."
"The other Jedi didn't seem to have a reaction, though I might be wrong about that."
"Why don't we go ask?"
Xel sighed. "I hate to make them worry unnecessarily, but better safe than sorry."
Ezra and Kanan weren't too hard to find, seeing as how they were loading into the Ghost.
"Hey Zeb!" the former shouted up the gangplank, tossing a shined stormtrooper helmet up to the Lasat. "New punching bag!"
The alien's deep laughter reverberated from inside. "Thanks, kid."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "For the last time, I'm not a kid anymore!"
Zeb just laughed again.
The Jedi felt two strong Force presences approach and turned to face the brothers, Xel's helmet tucked under his arm despite the bitterly cold wind. Alen, by contrast, had his hood pulled all the way up and his arms folded over each other, rubbing slightly. Ezra was doing the same now that his hands were empty.
"You guys loaded up yet?" the younger brother asked.
"Almost," Kanan answered. "Still have a few extra explosives to get packed away."
Ezra grinned. "Sabine wants this explosion to be special."
"Of course she does," Caden chuckled. "When doesn't she want her work to be special?"
Alen coughed discreetly.
"Anyway, we wanted to know if you felt anything…off during the briefing."
Ezra and Kanan exchanged a look, frowning slightly.
"I take that as a yes," Alen said.
"It was a presence," Kanan said darkly. "One we haven't felt in a long time."
"And would've preferred never to feel again," Ezra grumbled, crossing his arms.
Xel arched an eyebrow in question, and the older boy met his gaze.
Caden's jaw dropped a little. "He's here, on Ilum? At the same time we are?"
Alen's eyes narrowed. "This can't be a coincidence."
"Maybe he's the Imperial officer in charge of the excavation," Ezra proposed.
Xel's teeth clenched briefly. "I wouldn't doubt it." He looked to Kanan. "Is he really as good as Ezra tells me?"
Jarrus' expression darkened, and he nodded. "He's beaten me on multiple occasions, though over the years that battle's fallen to a standstill." He shrugged. "To be fair, we haven't crossed blades in almost a year, so I have no idea how that fight would turn out."
"You think he's after me again?" Ezra asked his master.
"Maybe. Maybe not. We haven't gotten any indications of him being on our tail lately, so I doubt it."
"Regardless of his purpose," Alen said, "we need to be cautious. I say if anyone spots him, we break comm. silence and converge on his position. After all, if you can fight him to a standstill—" he waved at Kanan, "—what chance does he have against four of us?"
"Agreed," Jarrus nodded, "but the mission comes first."
"My mission is the Inquisitor," Xel said darkly, jabbing a thumb at his chest.
Kanan didn't like his tone. "Do not underestimate him, Xel. I made that mistake more than a few times and paid for it."
"I don't underestimate anyone, Jarrus," he said reasonably, shrugging. "I'm simply stating a fact. I'm a hunter, and today, the Inquisitor is my bounty."
"Just…if you do run into him, don't try and take him on alone."
"Understood," Xel nodded.
"Thanks for the heads up," Ezra said.
"Likewise," Alen responded with a slight bow.
The Specters simply nodded their heads and strode onto their ship.
As the brothers walked toward their own vessel, Xel smirked and spoke. "Ever notice how you're a lot more formal and stuffy than they are?"
Alen rolled his eyes in annoyance and slugged his brother's arm. "Shut up."
1 hour later
Imperial expeditionary outpost, Ilum
Xel nodded and activated his liquid cable launcher, zip-lining in with Alen in tow, Iola on loan to Riilos to fill in the gap on his squad. Ezra was waving from his own zip-line below, Riilos and his team rappelling from the top of the mountain. As usual, Xel led the charge on his end, knife acting as his hook as he approached and dropped down to an unoccupied platform, Alen following a moment later. The brothers peered over the edge of the railing to see Kanan cutting a hole into the wall they anchored their cable to, the rest of the team minus Hera, their pilot, suspended and stacked up behind him.
Riilos, for his part, was silently taking out any snipers he ran across, En trying to hack into the security mainframe before any alarms were triggered or cameras spotted them. Xel and Alen proceeded to the nearest entrance door, the latter slicing into the controls and opening it a moment or two later. Caden proceeded first, pistols drawn, and cleared one corner after the next as they proceeded deeper into the outpost. No guards yet. Bad sign. No Imperial leaves an entrance unguarded.
He could tell Alen was uneasy as well. The pair went through another door into a long hallway, making their way to a door at the far end that led to a rectangular room with a massive holoprojector inside. Xel exchanged a look with his brother, who shrugged.
"Briefing room. Could be some data here."
"Then slice the computer and get cracking."
"Roger." The Jedi kneeled at the terminal and pulled out a computer interface tool, going through each step in learned sequence as he unlocked the device's encryption firewalls one by one. Five minutes later, he arm-pumped. "Got it."
"About time," Xel said agitatedly, keying the device on. "What is this?"
"Looks like call records. The latest one is time-stamped about three hours ago."
Caden tapped a few buttons to take a closer look. "Looks like it was long-distance. New orders, maybe?"
"Maybe," Alen said thoughtfully. "But who has the authority to command the Inquisitor?"
"Only a few," he said, thinking back to his conversation with Ezra, "namely the Grand Moffs." Xel's teeth clenched. "And Darth Vader."
The Jedi stared at him. "You don't think—"
"That's exactly what I think. He's not after Ezra. He's after us, and Vader gave him the go-ahead."
"So…we're not really hunting him. He's hunting us."
The Mando nodded grimly.
"Careful with those crates."
"I know what I'm doing," Ijul chided. "I work with heavy explosives and materials so volatile, a sample the size of your pinky would—"
"Relax, Goros," Eran chuckled. "She's just teasin' you."
The Weequay snorted and cursed in Huttese, returning to his task of attaching repulsorlifts to a flatbed holding several containers of Ilum crystals. Linn was performing the same task on another set, while her brother, En, and Iola stood guard. The corporal's eyes suddenly narrowed, and he cocked his head at something just outside the storeroom.
"Sergeant," he said inquisitively, "did you see that?"
En cautiously approached the open door, blaster rifle in hand. "I just thought I—"
He was cut off when he shrieked in panic as his body was pulled through the door and thrown into a turbolift, no hand ever touching him.
Xel put a finger to his helmet. "Here, Sergeant. What's wrong?"
"It's En! Someone…or something just took him."
His eyebrows furrowed. "What do you mean 'took'?"
"No one even touched him, but he got yanked out of our room and into a turbolift. It's heading to this place's sub-basement, and without En's technical expertise, we can't stop it."
Xel exhaled sharply, anger steadily rising. "Understood." He turned to his brother. "You get all that?"
"Which part? That a comrade's in danger or an invisible man snatched him?"
Alen nodded in agreement. "We need to get to the sub-basement, now."
Xel nodded and strode out the door of the briefing room, pistols at the ready. A sharp push from the Force prompted him to hit the deck a moment before a blaster bolt whizzed through the air where his head had been. He rolled sideways and fired a salvo at his attacker, tagging a stormtrooper solidly in the chest as two of his comrades pulled him away, another three keeping up a pattern of fire. Caden kept barrel-rolling across the hallway into another room, eyes darting to the side to see his brother repeatedly deflecting bolts. His own lightsaber dropped into his hand a moment before the door of the room shut and the ground dropped out from under him.
At least, that was what it felt like.
"Alen!" he yelled, scrambling to his feet and realizing he had inadvertently stumbled into a turbolift—whose course was locked for the sub-basement. His dark blue eyes widened. "Oh shab." He put a finger to his helmet. "Alen, are you all right?" Static. "Alen!"
Forcing himself to calm, he reached out over the Bond and breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the warm confidence coming from Alen's end.
"Where'd you go?" the Jedi sent.
"Got locked in a turbolift and sent downstairs. All the way downstairs."
"The shabuir's trying to isolate me."
"Don't worry. I'll get down there as soon as possible, just avoid him until then."
"He's got En, vod. I can't just leave him to die."
"I know, but…"
He felt Alen sigh.
"Look, I know you don't like playing defense, but do it. Just this once, play defense. Save En if you can, but don't risk yourself."
Xel's jaw dropped. "That doesn't sound like the Jedi I know."
Alen's end was silent a while. "I'm not speaking as a Jedi this time. I'm speaking as a brother. More specifically your older brother."
Xel rolled his eyes.
"For once in your life, do what I say and don't die."
Caden smirked. "I think that's an order I can follow."
"Good. I'll be there when I can."
Xel closed the link and gripped his lightsaber tightly, a blaster held in his left hand and pointed at the lift door. It opened with a hydraulic hiss a moment later, and he cautiously stepped out when there was nothing but an empty hallway on the other end. He strode progressively forward, the uneasy feeling in his gut slowly but surely intensifying the further he went. The hall led to a large square chamber whose floor was comprised of a scaled-down square, railed platform in the center connected to the walls by four non-railed catwalks, one at each vertex. Below the platform and its catwalks was a black, bottomless pit that was spewing updrafts of icy wind.
Even in his climate-controlled armor, Caden felt a chill, but he wasn't sure it was the wind. A moment's waiting was enough to verify that suspicion.
Xel's body turned toward the source of the voice in a lightning-fast maneuver, eyes widening at the pale figure that faced him.
"As you probably figured out by now," he said with a smirk, "I am the Inquisitor."
He strode toward the center of the platform from a catwalk on Xel's right, his right hand holding a semi-circular device by a short rod that spanned its diameter. The device flashed, and a single crimson blade shot from the rod. He grinned with two rows of jagged, inhuman teeth. "Welcome, my boy…to your destruction."
Alen's eyes snapped wide open as he felt a cold shiver of fear flow over Xel's Bond. His comlink opened a channel to the Specters, the closest team to the sub-basement, but there was no answer but static. The Imperials must have full jamming going. He grit his teeth. They knew we were coming. He knew we were coming…which means I have to deal with this myself. The Jedi sprinted past the charred bodies of his stormtrooper attackers, moving as fast as possible to find another turbolift to get him down there.
Xel grinned malevolently behind his helmet. "Really? Is that cliché or what? 'Welcome to your destruction,'" he mocked, imitating the Inquisitor's accent.
The Sith arched an eyebrow.
Caden laughed darkly. "Pathetic."
The Inquisitor smiled, an action Xel instantly decided was the creepiest thing he'd ever seen. "Am I now?" He stepped to the side, allowing the Mando to look past him at the hallway he'd come out of.
Xel's eyes widened in horror as he took a sharp intake of breath, then narrowed as his features twisted in anger. "You…monster."
Just at the entrance of the hallway lay the immobile body of Treyvan En…who was missing his right leg from the knee down. The limb lay smoking some two feet away from his body, his eyes closed and mouth open. He'd apparently passed out from the shock of such agony.
"Don't worry," the Inquisitor assured. "He's alive…for now. But that can change." He pointed his lightsaber at Xel threateningly. "Give up now and your rebel friend will live to fight another day."
Caden stared at En's form for a few more moments before turning his eyes back to the Sith's. Those yellow orbs glowed with a perverse fire, all the hatred and loathing of the creature who owned them put on display for all to see. This man…this thing was pure evil, and Xel could feel it. The same black hole he'd come to associate with the Dark Side yawned in the blade-toting Sith before him every bit as much as the bottomless pit below. The boy's teeth gritted hard, fingers clenching around his saber as his left-hand blaster returned to its holster.
"I've got a better idea," he said in a near-whisper. His lightsaber ignited with a ring, and he spun it into a two-handed position. "I kill you and step over your smoking corpse to get him out of here."
The Inquisitor chuckled and spread his arms out to the sides tauntingly. "Well then, what are you waiting for?"
Xel snarled. I'm gonna wipe that smirk off your face, you miserable—
The Mandalorian charged him with a yell, swinging hard at his midsection. The Inquisitor lunged in the direction of his blow and angled his blade vertically, blocking Xel's strike and lessening the force behind the blow. He slid his blade across Xel's, drawing closer and slashing at the boy's neck. A quick duck was all that prevented him from being decapitated, and a following roll prevented him from being skewered from behind. Xel spun as he regained his footing, deflecting several rapid stabs from his opponent and countering with an upward slash and a spin of his body, adding power to another horizontal strike.
Unable to lunge away to decrease the incoming blow's power, the Inquisitor blocked it with two hands, shoving it away and swiping at Xel's neck. The Mando snapped his head back, narrowly avoiding the strike, and lunged toward him, catching his blade and angling it away as he slammed his shoulder into the Inquisitor. The Sith was shoved a few feet back, and he took this opportunity to withdraw to a neutral distance.
"Form V," he said thoughtfully, smiling. "Interesting. Your height and armor definitely facilitate the style, but your technique is…" he grimaced in disgust, "lacking."
Xel yelled and leapt into the air, coming down with a gravity-assisted vertical strike. The Inquisitor, as expected, rolled to the side and countered with another slash at his neck, but Xel anticipated the move and instantly switched his saber to an underhanded grip, stabbing it backward and nearly spitting him on it. The Inquisitor withdrew a step and laughed.
"Good! For a moment there, I was worried this would be a waste of my talents." He charged back in, swinging furiously and rapidly.
Xel barely deflected his first lightning-fast salvo and marveled at the sheer strength of his blows. He was starting to cut loose. The Mando grit his teeth. So I do the same. Xel met his next strike with an opposing one of nearly equal strength, tangling the two blades in a saber lock and keeping them at a median point between them. The Inquisitor grinned into his faceplate, causing Xel to snarl. His left hand left his saber and gripped the blade of the Sith's, yanking it downward and causing the yellow-eyed monster to raise his eyebrows a moment before a beskar helmet slammed into his face.
Xel released his blade and leapt into the air, stabbing one-handed at his heart. The Inquisitor thumbed a control on his lightsaber, and a second blade snapped out of the other side, spinning to deflect his blow. Caden's eyes widened. A…double-bladed lightsaber…great. The Inquisitor twirled his saber a few times, grinning madly and rushing toward Caden, who leapt over him and landed ten feet at his back. Xel's heart leapt into his chest when the black-red blur of his enemy rushed to meet him, eyes barely tracking his movements fast enough to keep him alive.
Blue met red again and again as they dueled, the boy giving ground every second that passed until he was pushed back onto a catwalk. The Inquisitor slashed downward with his right-hand blade, a strike Xel dodged, then spun counterclockwise to drive a hard strike into his vertical guard with his left. The boy gritted his teeth as his feet slid almost a foot nearer to the edge and an unending drop. His eyes stared into the grinning expression of the Inquisitor, the Sith pushing harder and causing him to slide another couple of inches. Xel snarled and drew his blaster with one hand, firing repeatedly.
The Inquisitor snapped his head to the side, dodging the first few shots, then withdrawing and deflecting a few more, allowing Xel to regain his footing. The Mando rapidly checked on En's position, then fired a wrist rocket at his opponent. The Inquisitor ducked to the side, right into the path of another rocket, then waved his hand hard and redirected the missile into a wall. A Force Push sent Xel flying into the hallway at his back, and the Inquisitor sprinted toward him, intending to corner him in tight quarters. His semi-circular lightsaber hilt expanded into a full circle as he approached Caden, the dual blades starting to spin around the track of the circle.
Xel's eyes went wide. What the hell? Mine can't do that! Caden withdrew as steadily as he advanced, at a slow stride, blue blade angled toward his spinning ones. The propeller blades kept rotating in a blur of red light, and Xel focused in the Force, closing his eyes as he came to a stop, then opening them when he felt a warm sense of confidence fill him. The blades didn't seem to be moving quite so fast, and he began to see openings in his opponent's approach. A malevolent smile came to his face, and he lunged forward in a stab.
The rotating blades came to a stop when one locked with Xel's, the tip dangerously close to the Sith's neck. The look of surprise on his face was priceless for the instant it was present. The instant before it morphed into a mask of sheer hatred. His head lowered slightly and glowing yellow eyes met Xel's through his visor, the perverse fire in them sending a burst of cold fear into his blood. The black hole expanded and increased its hold. The Inquisitor's attitude had turned from near-humorous to deadly serious.
Xel withdrew just a moment before a glowing blade slashed through where his neck had just been, the Inquisitor swinging again and again with his double-blade. It was all he could do not to lose an arm or other appendage, much less counterattack. The Sith advanced again and again, smacking Xel's blade away from his body, then grabbing him by the neck and throwing him back onto the catwalk. Caden rolled to a stop, scrambling to his feet and rolling away from his opponent's next strike before jetpacking away, firing his pistols several times. The Inquisitor deflected several rounds, sending two back toward him and hitting him dead in the chest.
Caden snarled and yelped in panic when an iron Force Grip pulled him toward an outstretched red blade. He ignited his own saber and spun it counterclockwise, smacking the tip away and thrusting the pommel at his face. The Inquisitor smacked his hilt aside and punched his faceplate, jolting and knocking him back. Xel ducked his next swipe and thrust his blade upward, then spun and leapt into the air, slashing at him from above and landing at his back, thrusting backward and stabbing at his exposed back.
The Sith moved away and charged back, deactivating his second blade and locking swords with Xel.
"Juyo and Ataru," he snarled. "So you assimilate other styles into your own. Fascinating." He pushed Xel back two steps, toward the edge of the railed platform. "You must know by now that you can't win, boy." He laid more force in and Xel slid another couple feet. "You are nothing before me, a mere insect."
"This insect," Xel hissed, "is still breathing."
"For the moment." The Inquisitor's fiery gaze seemed to relax a bit. "You could be more, you know. In fact, you've already taken the first step."
Xel's eyes narrowed.
"I can feel your anger, boy. Your hatred. Your Jedi brother was not able to winnow them out, and that is good. It means you can still be saved. Give in to the Dark Side. Join the Sith." He nodded at Treyvan. "It is the only way you can save him and the rest of your friends."
Caden was shaking progressively more violently, but not in strain, in anger. His fuel kept piling up and building in pressure. One good spark would set it off, and he intended to. "You have…no idea who I am. What I am." His arms pushed back hard as a growl emanated from his throat, the Inquisitor's blade actually gaining some distance from his body. "I am no boy." He channeled his anger into his arms, and the Sith was sent stumbling back a few steps. "I am Mando'ad, a child of Mandalore. I am a brother and a son and a friend. I am my family's embodiment of vengeance." His saber twirled into a two-handed grip, blade held high and in front of him. "And I live to kill Sith."
The Inquisitor snarled, his second blade activating. "So be it." He charged toward Xel, twirling his saber and slashing horizontally as the boy's left hand dipped to his belt.
The crimson blades met blue and green as one saber met each of the Inquisitor's in a lock.
"Your resistance is futile, boy! Your friends, your family will burn!"
"Then you will burn with them!" Xel roared.
The Sith raised his eyebrows in surprise a moment before Xel shoved both blades upward and thrust-kicked him in the chest. He stumbled back a step before the Mando descended in a torrent of blue and green blurs, one strike following the next and forcing him on the defensive as the full force of his anger burned against his enemy. A bellowing roar came from Xel's vocalizer as he battered his enemy's guard again and again, driving him toward the opposite edge of the platform. He almost couldn't believe it. He was winning. Of course, there was a reason he didn't believe it. It wasn't true.
When both his blades swung in the same direction, the Inquisitor slashed upward, knocking Telia's lightsaber from his left hand, then thrust toward his chest with the opposite blade. Xel barely managed to deflect it, but the Force Push that followed sent him flying into a wall. The Sith was relentless, slamming him into one metal wall after the next until he dumped him in the center of the platform, lightsaber flying from his hand. He approached and kicked off his helmet, then placed a boot on Xel's sore chest, pressing down hard. Caden hissed out a breath through clenched teeth.
"Your compassion for your loved ones is your weakness, Xel Caden."
The boy smiled crookedly at the tip of the blade four inches from his face. "And your lack of it is yours."
The Inquisitor smirked. "How so? Your comrade lies crippled and maimed beyond repair. Your friends are steadily being pushed into an inescapable corner." He nodded his head at Xel. "And you, my boy, now lie at my feet, disarmed, helpless, and moments away from death." He arched an eyebrow mockingly. "Where then does my disadvantage lie?"
Xel smirked and cocked his head. "Tion'ad hukaat'kama? Who's watching your back?" He grinned sinisterly. "Because I always know who watches mine."
The Inquisitor obviously disagreed, by the way he scowled and raised his blade for a two-handed falling strike.
As the Inquisitor's blade fell, Xel watched it collide with a blazing sapphire shaft, blocking the blow and spinning to point in its direction. A moment's glance saw the thrown lightsaber return to Alen's outstretched hand. The Inquisitor, snarling, blade angled at the newly arrived Jedi, was too distracted to notice Xel's angry scowl or the way he threw his hands up. Caden released his anger in a double-handed Force Push that sent him colliding with the ceiling, then rolled into a crouch and let him down only to slam him against a wall on the far side of the room.
A wall hanging over the bottomless pit.
Xel smirked malevolently, locking eyes with the Sith's hate-filled orbs before just letting his hands fall, and his enemy with them.
The Mando inhaled and exhaled heavily a few times, slowly but surely turning to his brother. "Thanks, vod. He had me."
Alen smiled as he strode toward him. "You don't have to thank me. You were right." He put a hand on Xel's shoulder. "I'll always have your back." The Jedi looked behind him and paled.
Xel sighed and turned. "I know." The pair approached En's unconscious body, kneeling on either side.
"That…monster," Alen breathed.
"Now do you see why I couldn't be on defense?"
The Jedi shot him a look, but nodded. "The wound's cauterized," he said, voice a little shaky, "but it can still kill him if he doesn't get medical attention, and soon."
"Agreed," Xel said with a nod, recalling his lightsabers and helmet and slipping the latter on. "I'll take En, you cover my back."
"Right," Alen agreed numbly, staring at the rebel's severed leg. "You're the stronger one anyway."
Xel pursed his lips and slung Treyvan over his shoulder, using his free hand to tap Alen's arm and get him moving. They both headed toward the nearest turbolift, relief flooding them when it got moving without issue. A burst of static filled both their ears, and they flinched in tandem before a voice reached them.
"Hello, does anyone copy? Respond, please!"
Xel tapped his helmet. "I'm here, Linn. We've got En." He glanced over at the man slung over his shoulder and grunted as he adjusted him. "He's in pretty bad shape."
"All right…look, you need to get to the mid-level hangar bay. We're exiting through the roof, but the Ghost's crew got flushed out of the lower levels. Their ship is heading for an RV at the hangar right now, and considering how many Imperials are swarming this place, it's starting to look like your only ticket out."
"Roger that. We'll make it."
Alen frowned and nodded determinedly, igniting his lightsaber as the lift came to a stop. They charged out in tandem, blaster fire greeting them as Alen batted it all away, clearing a path for his brother and unconscious cargo. They ran as fast as possible down one corridor after the next, slowly but surely making their way to the hangar. One final door was in their way, and Xel was so intent on getting out that he didn't realize it was locked until he slammed into it shoulder-first.
"Haar'chak! It's sealed!"
Seeing that Alen was busy holding off the attacking stormtroopers, Xel reached for his belt with his free hand and ignited his saber, slowly but surely cutting a way through the blast door. The cut-away section fell on the other side with a firm kick from Caden, and he went through followed by Alen, free hand planting a detpack on the doorframe and detonating it once they were clear. Of course, "clear" was a relative term, considering they promptly found themselves surrounded by over two dozen stormtroopers.
"Well," Alen deadpanned, "do you have a plan B?"
Xel opened his mouth to answer when a half-dozen thermal detonators dropped from the ventilation shaft above—right onto the enemy squads.
"Hit the deck!"
Most of the stormtroopers did just that…some in several pieces. A neon pink Mandalorian dropped from the ceiling, followed by two Jedi and one bo-rifle-toting Lasat.
"Move!" Zeb shouted to the pair as he fired at the remaining troopers.
"Trying!" Xel yelled back irately as he was forced to duck behind the cover of a storage crate.
The Ghost had already made its appearance at the exit of the hangar and was currently hovering just six feet away from the edge, its landing ramp down. Four Specters leapt aboard, then turned around to give the brothers covering fire.
"Go!" Alen shouted, prompting Xel to channel the Force into an all-out sprint.
With the Epicanthix slung over his shoulder, Xel sprung forward mid-step twenty feet from the Ghost, wincing as it was hit repeatedly with laser fire, then spun a full 360 and threw En, adding Force to the toss and guiding him into Zeb's waiting arms. He ignited his lightsaber as Alen ran past, deflecting absently and sprinting for the ramp.
"We can't hold this position!" Hera yelled into her comlink as Alen leapt aboard, the ship starting to rise and disengage.
Xel nodded and sprinted for the vessel, then stopped in his tracks when he saw a familiar flash of red. "Oh no you don't!" he shouted, throwing his lightsaber and intercepting the Inquisitor's propeller-like saber en-route to the Ghost's landing ramp. He turned and faced the Sith as both their lightsabers returned to their hands, staring each other down.
"What is he doing?" Ezra asked Alen incredulously.
"My thoughts exactly," Li-am agreed, eyeing his brother warily.
Xel scowled at the Inquisitor, wondering in the back of his head how he survived, then spotting something at his back that would allow them to leave without being followed. All the while, the Ghost was getting further and further away, and the flashing lights on his HUD were indicating that his jetpack had malfunctioned, probably as a byproduct of being repeatedly pummeled with the Force. His eyes closed briefly as a confident smile came to his face.
Alen felt it through their Bond, if his deadpanned, "Oh Force," was any indication.
Xel's eyes snapped open, and he threw his lightsaber with pinpoint accuracy. The Inquisitor snarled and deflected the strike—right into the power assembly of a nearby cargo loader. The blade melted through the safety shielding on the massive machine's power cell, exposing the volatile core to unsafe amounts of heat, then returned to its owner a moment later as he gave the Sith a mocking salute. Xel sprinted for the edge as a fireball engulfed the Inquisitor, yelling as he directed the last of his anger into the furthest Force-powered leap he'd ever taken.
It still wasn't enough, leaving him at least twenty feet short of the ramp. Of course, having three Jedi on the other end helped, given that they Gripped and carried him inside, helping him into the lounge and watching him pull his helmet off a moment before he collapsed.
Sabine's armored boot nudged his side a few moments later.
"What?" he whined.
"Don't you wanna see the fireworks?"
Xel's eyes went wide as his face split into a gigantic grin, head bobbing emphatically.
She sighed and rolled her eyes in the safety of her helmet. Of course, she thought. The only time he ever seems like a kid, and it has to be when there's an explosion. Sabine smirked wider. I guess I was kinda the same way. The six piled into the Phantom, the attached jump ship on the rear of the ship, and watched in rapt attention as she hit the trigger, causing a blossom of chained explosions across the lower rim of the outpost. A certain sense of glee rushed through the older Mandalorian as she watched it collapse, and she realized there was no "kinda" or "was" about her previous thought.
Her eyes drifted to the armored boy at her right, inspecting his bruised face and suspecting there was much more damage underneath. He met her gaze after a few seconds, the smile on his face doing nothing to hide the look in his eyes. It's still there. After all these months…it's still there. Though they brightened a bit as he grinned and gave her a double thumbs-up nodding appreciatively at the falling structure, her fist clenched as she suspected they would still carry that immense weight for the rest of his life.
And she hated the Empire for it.