CHAPTER 1

Five years before the Battle of Naboo...

The shadows the Vescarian temple cast were long and inky black, perfect for concealment.

Darth Maul arched his back to rid himself of any lingering stiffness, powerful muscles rippling like ocean waves. He had been lying in wait here, hiding out, for several Standard days.

But not for much longer. His victim, his very first victim, was approaching.

He could feel it.

Maul's only regret, he mused, was that his master had been exquisitely clear about wanting this one brought back alive.He had protested, but Sidious had held firm. This one was to serve as a ransom.

The Jedi, Sidious was certain, would pay dearly for him.

It was time for the Sith to reveal themselves.

Smoothly, Maul inserted himself between the statues of two long-forgotten saints and crouched, resting on his haunches, fingertips just lightly brushing the floor.

And waited.

- - - - -

A lone, brown-clad figure weaved through drunkenly stacked piles of rubble and narrow, claustrophobic hallways, as silent as the shadows it clung to. Devastated altars and icons were passed without so much as a glance. This figure, evidently, had no use for them. Its eyes were fixed straight ahead of it, never deviating, never wavering.

Suddenly, the figure stopped. It bowed its humanoid head, brow furrowed as if in deep thought. Confusion etched itself across its face.

Then the figure looked up, eyes wide with deadly surprise. It staggered back a pace or two and inadvertently stepped into a pool of light, revealing its identity: a human male.

The Sith have returned...

These words battered the inside of the skull of Alan Beltoola'Raf. He caught himself and slid back into deep shade, but sank to the floor, resting his head on his knees.

The Sith have returned!

He had felt something different, an abnormal whisper of the Force, as soon as he had touched down on this barren planet. The thought had plagued him without rapprochement for hours now, and every time Alan had believed to pin it down it escaped his searching grasp.

The Sith! The eternal enemy of peace, of order! They're supposed to be extinct...

Obviously, Alan reflected facetiously, they were not.

He wrung his hands and stood, rolled his shoulders, attempted to calm himself. Welcomed rationality returned. The first order of business was to exterminate this Sith. He had no doubt it knew of his presence here, and his errand. His ship was too far away to get back and radio a call for help to the temple on Coruscant; the Sith would sense him leaving, and either give chase or flee.

His only option was battle.

Alan took a deep breath and cleared his mind, vanquishing all shreds of emotion, leaving only smooth serenity. His lightsaber appeared in his hand and snapped open, releasing a bar of green and the acrid smell of plasma.

More cautious now, Alan sallied forth.

- - - - -

Maul gritted his teeth and growled, a low, animal sound. Damn it all! Why hadn't he thought to shield his presence? It was a stupid mistake, a beginner's mistake.

Too late. The Jedi, walking swiftly and surely, strode through the chamber entrance.

He was a middle-aged man, fair of complexion, with silver-streaked blond hair and strikingly clear emerald eyes. His gait, his posture, his expression all suggested cool confidence. Maul watched him unblinkingly.

The Jedi halted in the center of the chamber, assuming a battle-ready posture. Sunlight streamed through the cracked ceiling above, highlighting the specks of dust and dirt that flocked together like birds.

The Jedi spoke, resolute.

"Reveal yourself, Sith. Fight me."

Maul didn't stir. How was the best way to continue?

Warily, he pulled a blaster out of its holster and leveled it. The Jedi was almost completely turned away from him, seemingly unaware.

Maul targeted the back of the Jedi's head.

And fired.