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Star Wars: Out of the Shadows offers dark moments of villainy: Exclusive excerpt

The High Republic novel, from author Justina Ireland, finds Nihil boss Marchion Ro acting as ruthlessly as ever.

The Jedi are the heroes of the High Republic, but they face a deadly threat in the form of the Nihil. 
Penguin Random House

Star Wars: The High Republic kicked off in January, bringing us, through novels and comics, new tales of Jedi heroism that took place more than 200 years before the events of The Phantom Menace. The second wave of stories is rolling out over the summer months, with Cavan Scott's The Rising Storm revealing a major attack on the Republic by cruel space pirates the Nihil.

Justina Ireland's Out of the Shadows, which hit shelves Tuesday, picks up in the aftermath of that attack as our Force-wielding heroes try to figure out how to deal with Nihil. We also spend some time with the baddies, led by the murderous and mysterious Marchion Ro, in an early scene you can read in CNET's exclusive excerpt. 

I also chatted with Ireland over Zoom about how the Nihil differ from traditional Star Wars villains the Sith.

"You always got the idea that the Sith had a higher goal, 'We want to rule the galaxy." but the Nihil aren't like that," she said. "When you're going up against an enemy who has no sort of ethos -- especially if you're somebody who has a strong belief system -- that can feel extra terrifying."

She also dived into the choice of Nan, a sneaky Nihil soldier introduced in Claudia Gray's Into the Dark, as the scene's point of view character. 

"Before now, we've only followed the top of a Nihil, we've gotten to see how our Tempest Runners and Marchion Ro operate. We didn't really spend a lot of time with the rank and file," she said. "As somebody who was in the US Army as an enlisted member, I've always been way more interested in how the rank and file react than in the people in charge, because I think it's a more authentic look at the kind of outfit you're dealing with."

Check out the excerpt below and continue the story when Out of the Shadows comes out next Tuesday. You can also get a hint of The High Republic's future at 2 p.m. PT Friday, when Ireland and her fellow authors offer a peek at upcoming titles during a virtual Comic-Con panel.

Padawan Reath Silas, pilot Sylvestri Yarrow and Jedi Vernestra Rwoh face the looming threat of the Nihil in Out of the Shadows.

Penguin Random House

Nan stood off to the side of the temple in the Gaze Electric and watched as the Eye met with his Tempest Runners. Like most of the ship, the room was dimly lit and smelled faintly of rust and decay. Once, this room had been a place of worship, even though Nan didn't recognize any of the symbols etched into the walls. Once, the Eye never would have dreamed of having Tempest Runners come to his ship, but in the past few months the Republic and their Jedi had done a number on the Nihil's many hidden bases, leaving them scrambling to muster up a response.

"You're not supposed to be here," whispered a boy a few years younger than her, his pale blond hair covering most of his face.

"And you are?" Nan said, smoothing her dark hair back and pretending to be unbothered by the challenge. Krix was right. She wasn't technically supposed to be in the room, but if that annoying mynock was going to hang out and eavesdrop, then she was going to do the same. "Leave me be before I slide a blade between your ribs."

The boy laughed in his throat before moving away, and Nan considered how she could end his life just to remove the stench of him from the room.

In the past year Nan had lived a hundred lifetimes. She'd fought Jedi and raided shipyards. She'd collected more intelligence for the Eye than any of his other trusted spies. Her young appearance and effortless ability to lie had made her invaluable. She could make just about anyone believe whatever she wanted, and she had used that ability all in the name of the Eye, Marchion Ro.

She had earned her place at his side, unlike Krix, who was nothing but a slimy, bucktoothed human who spent more time causing trouble than bringing glory to the Storm. Nan really did want to murder the pale boy, but she worried that Ro might actually like him for some reason, so instead she glared at him from across the room and hoped that he'd end up on the wrong side of a blaster bolt.

"Why am I hearing reports of a Nihil loss at Dalna?" Marchion Ro asked. He slumped in a massive chair that looked down on those occupied by his Tempest Runners, seeming for all the stars bored by the conversation. It gave Nan a thrill every time she saw him like this: helmet off, black hair free to hang over his bare, leathery skin and his star-marked shoulders. His pitiless eyes were all black, and Nan stood close enough that she could see the slight ruffle on the edge of his ears. No one knew just who Ro's people were. Every time someone asked him his species they ended up dead. He was as deadly as he was beautiful, and Nan counted herself lucky to be allowed to occupy the same space as him.

"It's just another ploy by the Republic to undermine our victories," said the newest Tempest Runner, Kara Xoo, a brutal Quarren who thought torture was a spectator sport. Nan liked Kara's way of doing things, which was mostly smash and a little grab. The one time Nan had gone along with the Quarren's Tempest on a run, it had been great fun, if not particularly lucrative. She was only a Tempest Runner because Pan Eyta had gone missing in the aftermath of the attack on Valo. Most everyone thought him dead. He was not missed. 

"If that's the case, why is your fleet down twenty ships?" Lourna Dee said. Like Ro, she reclined in her chair, utterly at ease. Lourna was a sickly green Twi'lek who wore armor and was much deadlier than she appeared, and it was a mistake for any opponent to underestimate her ruthlessness. She didn't bluster or brag like Kara or the previous Tempest Runner, Pan Eyta; she smiled prettily and then killed anyone who annoyed her. Members of her Tempest were just as coldly efficient as she was, and just as reserved. She was the only Tempest Runner who made Nan uncomfortable. Not because she was dangerous, but because her speech patterns sometimes slipped into a moneyed Hosnian Prime accent. No matter how much Nan had tried to discover Lourna's secrets, she'd always come up dry.

"Twenty ships?" the Eye said, straightening. "Who was in charge of that run?"

"I was," said an Ithorian, his translator crackling as he spoke. "I lost half of my Strike and all of my Storm. The Republic was waiting for us. We didn't have any kind of chance, not even with the Path drives." The Ithorian still wore his mask, which Nan took to be an insult to Lord Ro. The Gaze Electric was the safest ship in all the galaxy. The Jedi had managed to ransack the base on Grizal and a number of other safe houses the Nihil used. But the Gaze Electric was so far untouched, and some of the younger Nihil had begun speaking of Marchion Ro as though he were more than a mere man.

Nan didn't think the Eye had any unusual abilities, but he was a survivor just like her and knew to plan accordingly, with several plans going at any single point in time. She liked that about him.

Marchion Ro picked up a small object next to his chair and threw it at the Ithorian. Nan had only a glimpse of it before it attached to the Ithorian's face. The other pirate pulled at the thing, which Nan now could see was one of the sticky charges the Nihil sometimes used to get through particularly stubborn airlocks.

There was no time for the Ithorian to say anything before the entire top half of his body exploded, the detonation also taking out his friends who stood too close to him. The rest of the Nihil didn't even flinch.

It wasn't a party without at least a little murder. 

"Speaking of ships, Lourna, where is my weapon you promised me?" Ro said, turning on the Tempest Runner just as Kara gestured for a couple of her followers to drag away the bodies. Her Tempest was now down at least another Strike's worth of Nihil, but Marchion Ro had moved on. "And my promised Jedi? With the last one gone, the butcher grows anxious for test subjects. I'd hate to see him start finding volunteers in other places."

Lourna shrugged, unbothered by the threat. "Science takes time, Ro. We're still mapping the overlapping routes that pass through the area. And as for the Jedi, I'm on it. Politics, as you also know, are impossibly slow. But the Graf family and I have enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership. You will have your replacements."

"The Jedi are less important than the weapon. The Republic has more than enough of our Path drives to begin researching in earnest. It is only a matter of time before the Republic understands the Paths," Ro said. He didn't seem to be any less bored than he was before, but the drum of his obsidian talons on the arm of his chair gave truth to the lie of his posture. "You promised me a way to disrupt that."

"And the Gravity's Heart will do just that. But without understanding all of the routes in the sector, we can't disrupt anything but those manifests we already hold. You did get the tithing of coaxium, did you not?"

"Yes, but that was not what I tasked you with," Ro said. Lourna Dee smiled at him. "If you were to give me the assistance of your savant I could finish the project more quickly."

Ro's scowl melted into an expression of surprise. "Is that so?"

"Yes. She knows and has forgotten even the most tenuous Paths, untold byways through hyperspace. She can help us route and track the energy spikes in the area. She was the one who suggested the Berenge sector in the first place."

Ro sat up, suddenly interested. "She did? Have you been poking through my currents, Lourna?"

"Not at all. It was the Path I asked you for in the aftermath of Valo. Or have you forgotten?"

Lourna's words were nearly a direct challenge to Ro, and everyone in the room heard it. A collective breath was held, and everyone adjusted slightly as they waited to see whether Ro would take her words as a threat or not. The Nihil were always ready for a fight, but with their dwindling numbers Nan worried that a full-out brawl was unwise.

 If there was a fight, Nan knew exactly where she was aiming. As though Krix heard her thoughts, his eyes met hers across the dim room, and Nan showed the boy her teeth. 

But Ro merely smiled, flashing his own jagged teeth at Lourna before settling back into his chair. "And why should I give you my savant? Where is the benefit?"

Lourna sat up and gave Ro a sly look. "Where do you think I got the coaxium? The weapon is already a success, but is imprecise. Better mapping, along with better intelligence, would mean more profitable hauls. And the weapon could be most powerful in an offensive the next time the Republic comes calling. After all, it would be disastrous if we were taken unaware again like Pan was on Cyclor."

Marchion Ro's nails dug into the arm of his chair, shredding the metal. The reminder of their defeat on Grizal was a risky subject for Lourna to bring up. So many Nihil had been lost, and their scattered forces had been on the run ever since. 

"Eye, I can see that I have displeased you," Lourna said to Marchion Ro with an incline of her head, her challenge melting away into obeisance. "I only meant to indicate that your impending travels will render the Paths useless to you in the interim. With the help of your savant, we could better prepare the weapon so that it will be ready after your travels." 

Ro stared at Lourna Dee, and there was a long moment when Nan's heart pounded. She did a mental calculation of the knives she wore and the location of Lourna's faithful in the hall. Just in case. She liked to be ready when the killing started. 

But the Eye did not stand in challenge. Instead he laughed heartily. "Yes, yes, of course. Perhaps I should have you bring your mysterious scientist to the Gaze Electric instead of giving you my savant."

Anyone who had not studied Lourna Dee would have missed her surprised blink, but Nan saw it. Just as she saw the way Lourna stretched and sighed, her languorous movements drawing the eyes of any number of people in the hall as she settled back into her chair. "Eye, you know how academics are. If I bring you my scientist she will be unsettled for weeks, and then the final adjustments to the weapon will never be made. But, as always, I am at your disposal. As faithful as I have always been."

Marchion Ro smiled, and this time it was genuine. Nan relaxed. Her lord was amused, which meant that he found something Lourna said funny. Nan wished she knew what it was. "I see. It's all starting to make perfect sense. You can borrow the savant. I have no use for her on my undertaking. But she isn't going alone. Nan!"

Nan startled and ran over to kneel near Marchion Ro. "Lord Ro, I am at your command."

"You will accompany my savant to Lourna's Gravity's Heart. Safeguard my prize with your life."

Nan's heart pounded in her ears, and she fought to hide her disappointment as she stood. She'd seen the savant once, a frail human woman who looked like she'd died thrice over. Everyone knew the woman had been alive as long as there had been Nihil. She was ancient. What if the old woman perished from a heart attack while Nan was supposed to be caring for her? There was no mistaking what Ro meant by Nan putting her life behind guarding the old woman.

If the crone died, so would she. This wasn't a task; it was a death sentence. What had she done to earn the Eye's ire? Where had she failed?

Not a flicker of her distress made its way to Nan's face. Instead, she bent over at the waist in one last show of respect.

"I am honored to have this duty, Lord Ro."

"Indeed," Marchion Ro said, his gaze not on her but on Lourna. "Go to the labs and find the doctor. Tell him to prepare the savant for travel. He will accompany you."

Nan gave a short nod. "For the Storm!"

Nan turned on her heel and left. But not before she saw Krix grinning at her evilly from across the way.

She decided that maybe she would kill the boy after all.

Not today, but soon.

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