Prologue – 6 months after Grave Affairs:
"Master Yoda, you can't die."
"Strong am I in the Force... But not that strong..."
The tall, slim woman known as Rynn Mariel aimlessly made her
way along the streets of Vectur, the capital city of
"So, big sister, where are we going today?"
Rynn looked down at her brother, who was peering at her from underneath his long brown bangs. Actually he was about as tall as she was, though at seventeen he was four years younger than she herself. Jen had always admired her, always looked up to her as his role model. It wasn't always easy to be that, she had to admit.
She strapped the safety belt around her and started the small hovercar they owned. "Just another trip into the city," she said, starting the craft forward.
After the Empire had suddenly come, taking their parents and everything they'd owned three years before, the two had had to make it on their own. They'd been able to escape, seen the results of what the Imperials had done to their home. They'd had to travel from place to place, booking passage on whatever means they could to make their way across the sector, finding temporary jobs until they had enough money to move on. Trying to stay one step ahead of the Imperials they knew were behind them, looking for them. They said their parents were Rebels; they'd had sympathies, had been against the hostile takeover of government the Empire had instilled. But the Empire's wrath had caught them. Now Rynn and Jen were on the run, looking for some place of refuge. Of course, they'd considered joining the Rebels themselves... But that way lay the same fate as their parents, only closer, more imminent.
Now they had to find another job here on Fornous so they could keep traveling. Word was that Imperial activity was low here; they shouldn't have much trouble. Of course, she had learned how to fight, how to hold her own before their parents had been taken, but facing a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers wasn't quite in her league. She didn't even have a weapon, save her own hands and feet. Enough perhaps to stop a would-be thief, but not an armored soldier. But hopefully she wouldn't have to use it here. Hopefully.
She moved away from the fruit stand, her thoughts far from food. She didn't want to remember... But the thoughts just kept coming on their own, against her will. She shook her head to clear it, but nothing changed.
"When can we stop running?" Jen asked suddenly.
Rynn looked over at her brother, feeling a twinge of sadness. She hesitated before answering. "I... I don't know," she said finally. "We've got to find someplace safe."
"You've kept us safe so far," Jen said, pride in his voice. "Being able to tell when the trouble's coming so we can avoid it. I'm glad I've got a Jedi for a sister."
"I'm not a Jedi," she said, but smiled anyway.
"You could be one. If we could just find somewhere you could learn."
"Maybe. But first we've got to make sure the Imps don't find us. After this, we should be all right..."
Rynn walked through the throng of people in the square, barely noticing them. Ahead, towering over most of the cities' other skyscrapers, was the massive Royal Palace of Varnus. She'd lived in Epsilon Sector all her life, but only recently had she heard of this place. Of this new chance, of hope. No more running. It was calling, beckoning.
A new life. They said this place was a refuge for Jedi, for those running from the turmoil plaguing the galaxy. From the Empire. A chance to become a Jedi, a guardian and protector of truth, justice, the innocent. Of people like what she and her brother had been.
"Oh no!! They're here! The Imps are here!" Jen shouted.
Rynn closed her eyes, tried to shut out the pain.
"Rynn.." Jen looked up at her, his eyes weak.
"Jen?" she asked. Her vision was blurry from the tears filling her eyes. She felt them run down her cheeks and drip to the floor. With a piece of cloth she'd ripped from her dress she covered the blaster wound in his stomach.
"Rynn... Promise me... you'll learn to use the Force... Promise me you be... a Jedi. You have a great… gift. Please, make me proud…."
Rynn felt another tear roll down her cheek as she stood there.
"Ma'am? Are you all right?"
She opened her eyes. An elderly man was there, looking at her concernedly. "I'm fine," she managed. Assuring the man she was okay, she cleared her thoughts. She was just delaying the inevitable. She looked up at the massive edifice in front of her. The thought of what she had to do sent her nerves reeling. She took at deep breath.
Well, enough of this. She'd dawdled long enough. Time to do what she came for. Settling her nerves, she approached the huge stairway that led up to the main entrance. The palace was a massive pyramidal structure blended with more modern architecture, and made an imposing site as the noon sun bore shone down on it. Slowly she ascended, approaching the entrance, each step moving her away from her past and nearer to an uncertain future. But you have to go on with this, she thought. As she reached the top, she moved into one of the side entrances beside the main doors, where a small security station was set up to check visitors. A young woman with blonde hair that didn't quite reach her shoulders saw her and smiled.
"Hello," the attendant said. "What can I do for you?"
Rynn returned the smile. "My name is Rynn Mariel. I'm here to see about joining the New Imperium. I'd like to speak with the Grand Master about training to become a Jedi."
"How nice," the woman said in a cheerful voice. "We do have a lot of volunteers, though they usually don't walk right in the front door. Unfortunately, the Grand Master is not here presently. He is..." The attendant checked something in front of her. "Away, on business." She gave an apologetic smile.
A perturbing , and elusive answer, at the least. "I... see. Well, who could I talk to then? I'm sorry, I don't really know how to go about this."
"Okay, it's no problem. I'll just set you up a testing and counseling appointment. Leave us your information and we'll get back with you when we can."
"What do you mean?" Rynn asked, feeling a bit out of the loop.
"Well, they'll have to test you for Force-sensitivity, interview you, set things up. It's pretty routine. You're basically starting a new life here, making a new home. It could take a while. I suggest you find a place to stay for a few days, spend some time around Vectur, enjoy the sites. We'll contact you. That is, if you really want to go through with this."
"I do," Rynn told her, shaking her head. It was obvious she wasn't being taken seriously. With all the people out there who dreamed of using the Force and becoming a Jedi, she could almost understand. She grinned. "But I don't think you understand. I am Force-sensitive." She reached out with the Force, with what she'd been able to learn on her own, and the attendant's datapad lifted into the air.
"Oh," the woman said quietly. "Well, that makes a bit of difference. Please, come right in."
footsteps echoed throughout the empty corridor, booted soles striking the metal
floor with a distinct clank. His black robe rustled softly behind him as he
moved, his dark eyes surveying every crevice and passageway around him,
watchful of any movement. This ancient space station, constructed in the early
days of the
Coming up to the end of the passageway, he
emerged in a large circular chamber with a high, vaunted ceiling. Several
yellow glowlamps hung on the walls over the other three passageways into the
room. At the other end of the chamber stood another dark robed figure. He gave
a slight smile, reassured at the weight of the sword under his cloak. One of
the station's defense systems was in creating a dampening field around all its
occupants, rendering all energy weapons harmless. Blasters, as well as
lightsabers. Another high technology that had vanished through the cracks of
neglect during the
Across from him the other being, a mid-sized, bald man with tanned skin and dark eyes smiled. It didn't do anything to make his ugly visage look better. The man was actually Melgus, a supposed Dark Jedi Master who had made this ancient station his hermitage. What he'd been able find out was that a number of hushed operations went on there with the station as some kind of staging or meeting point. Melgus was the man he was looking for.
"This isn't tourist season," Melgus said in a deep, rough voice. "What are you doing here?"
Xar came to a stop in the center of the room and shook his head. He wasn't in the mood for idle conversation, nor to reveal anything about himself to this man. "Where is Akira?" he asked gravely.
For a moment confusion seemed to appear on the man's dark face, but it quickly vanished as he shook his head. "Don't meddle in things you don't understand," he warned in a grim tone.
Xar's eyes narrowed. It had taken him a long time to find a lead that had actually come to fruition, to some tangible evidence of Akira's existence. There had been painfully little to go on, but he had been very resourceful in his studies. This man had ties to the group Dasok Krun had led during the attack on House Ar’Kell. He was the liaison with the Dark Brotherhood’s Dark Council. He knew something about what Xar sought. Now it was time to try another ploy. Suddenly he dropped the Force mask which had been hiding the vast majority of his Force power, something that a trained Jedi learned how to sense. It not only told someone how powerful another user was, but allowed one to identify that person's identity, through time, by the tale-tale traces it gave off. Now he dropped the guard, revealing his full Force imprint to the Dark Jedi across from him. He was mildly pleased by the reaction.
Melgus' eyes widened in surprise. So. He could also sense Xar's True Force power, not the Dark Side-clouded perversion that Melgus broadcast around him. Interesting. "I suggest you tell me what I want to know," Xar said more authoritatively.
For a second the man seemed to pause indecisively. Then suddenly he gave a cold grin. "You are a Varnusian," he said, giving a satisfied nod. "I can tell by your accent. You had me for a second. Now I understand; you’re not Altarin’Dakor." He shook his head. "No, I don't feel like talking about that right now. Why don't you leave now and keep yourself in one piece?"
The man's face was set, now. Xar had failed to trick him into revealing his hand early. Now there was only one other choice. "Not an option," he said. "In any case, maybe this will help change your mind." Reaching inside his robe, Xar pulled out his sword and brought it up to bear. Its curved dark metal blade coldly reflected the light. "I know about your little operations, Melgus. It is over."
"Not quite, my friend." Throwing his cloak back, the other man pulled out a similar blade. Xar gave a grunt of surprise. It looked like there would be a fight, after all. Melgus brought his blade up and began moving forward.
"Still, one thing. You know my name, but who are you? Who can wish for death so flagrantly?"
"My name… Is Kerensky." Xar stated. He stepped forward into a ready stance. He wasn't going to explain himself to this lowlife. Especially not to someone he was about to kill.
"Ah, how interesting. I'll be sure to put it on your grave!"
"Then come and die!" Xar urged, bringing his blade up eagerly.
Both men ran forward. Melgus swung first, and Xar blocked the clumsy attack, their blades meeting with a distinct metal crack. For a moment they moved back and forth, making small strikes, testing one another out. Then Xar attacked with a vengeance. He moved in swiftly, striking on one side, then the other. The Dark Jedi met him stroke for stroke, then suddenly moved in, locking blades, and pushing Xar's down and to the side. The man was strong, that much was certain. Then Melgus' hand disappeared beneath his cloak. A vibroblade flashed back out, striking at Xar's face. He drew back, but too late. Xar felt the blade slice through the skin on his cheek and cut into the bone as the blade passed though. Screaming, he pushed back, disengaging, trying not to touch the deep cut across the side of his face.
"Ah... It hurts?" the man snickered evilly. "Not as much as when I'm done with you."
"Aargh..." Xar grunted, wild-eyed. He reached up to his cheek, wiped the profusely bleeding cut, licked the blood. "You're dead..." Gritting his teeth, he came back in and attacked with all of his might. Melgus struck high, locking against Xar's blade and moving in again with the vibroknife, but Xar deftly kicked the weapon out of his hand and swung his sword down, pushing Melgus' down with the momentum and cutting across the man's arm as he moved out of range. Melgus hissed in pain and gave a curse, then moved in, but Xar slid back out of reach. He would let this rat come to him. Holding his blade up higher than normal, gripping the bloody handle tight, he smiled. A grimacing Meglus moved in, striking down hard, but Xar gave way and dropped down. Blocking the strike high, he ducked down and slid past the Dark Jedi, bringing his sword across to slice across the man's middle as he passed. Melgus' strike passed behind him and scraped the floor as he bent over, gasping in pain. Xar stepped back, bringing his guard back up, and watched the man warily.
Melgus turned, looking down in astonishment at the cut across his midsection. Xar hadn't struck too deeply, going through the fabric of his cloak and clothes it probably hadn't cut more deeply than two centimeters. But, to the apparent surprise of Melgus as well as Xar's, when the man removed his hand, under the thin streak of blood was a thin, white line of light. Xar met eyes with Melgus again. He knew what it was. Energy, the Dark Side power embodied in the Dark Jedi Master. Realization painted Melgus' face as well, then turned into a mask of rage.
Melgus gave a raspy breath, but surprisingly, he attacked again, a growing roar emanating from his throat. He didn't have a chance. He moved in, striking wildly and clumsily. Xar brought his blade up, blocking, then pushed the man's blade to the side, breaking his double-handed grip on the hilt. Then Xar brought his blade around and struck down, slicing the man deeply across his body. Melgus staggered, a wild look on his face, the shock too much for him to even scream. A much wider slash of energy crossed his front.
Xar swung his blade down hard, knocking the man's sword to the floor, then kicked it off into the distance. He slowly spun as Melgus fell to his knees, turned quickly, and with one clean stroke cut the man's head off. The severed head flew off, bouncing on the floor, and the headless body fell forward and spilt Dark Force energy onto the floor in a torrent. Yelling in surprise, Xar turned, dropping his sword, and ran from the room as the storm exploded behind him.
Xar dropped into the cockpit seat of his ship, the Black Star, and threw the ship into forward, calling himself nine kinds of fool for what he'd done. Idiot, you just killed your only lead! he berated himself. Bringing the ship up to full speed, he sped away from the abandoned space station. Behind, lightning struck between the latticework corridors connecting the different sections, exploding in blue Force energy. Leaving the storm behind, he took the ship forward into hyperspace, and was gone.
Sector Admiral Ryskar "Scourge" Dlarit sat behind his desk, shuffling through pile of official documents littering the surface. One of his first days as the new Speaker, or Diktat, of the New Imperium Senate. Six months had passed since Xar had filled in the position for the first term, doing a more than ample job of guiding the NI through its fledgling stages and keeping the various groups that comprised the NI from each other’s throats. But it had been more of an interim position for the man, and he’d opted to end after six months seeing how quickly the New Imperium had gotten on its feet. Now, with the second formal election done, Ryskar found himself in the position of Diktat, this time for a two-year term, along with a mountain-sized pile of paperwork and agendas in his lap that he hadn’t known existed a week before.
The Senate was in an uproar over the "incident" at
"Perhaps I could shed some light," a strange, deep voice answered him. Ryskar flicked his eyes up to the doorway, which framed the form of a dark haired man staring at him with a slight smile on his face.
"I'm not accepting visitors right now," Ryskar put in. "Come back later."
"Oh, but I think you'll be interested in what I have to tell you," the man began. Suddenly he stepped to the side, admitting Ryskar's secretary Brucmack into the room. Brucmack took a wide-eyed glance at the newcomer, then turned to Ryskar. "Sir, I'm sorry! I don't know how he got in here! We didn't even see him."
Ryskar waved the man off. "It's all right, Bruc. One moment, then. What can I do for you?" he asked the still-grinning man standing beside the doorway.
The man moved forward and stopped in front of the desk, shaking his head. "I'm afraid you're mistaken, Diktat. It's what I can do for you."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Moren Zein. I am an Ambassador, for my associates, though they choose to remain anonymous at this time."
Ryskar frowned, confused. Unnamed? "An Ambassador? Well why didn't you go through the normal channels? May I see your identification and pertinent information?"
"Of course." The man procured a small datapad and slid it to Ryskar, who took it and studied it briefly. Indeed, he seemed to have all the required criteria met for NI Ambassadors for the Senate. And there was a brief, basic readout for this Zein and the species he supposedly represented. They supposedly held territory in Delta Sector, in the Unknown Regions away from NI space.
"I haven't heard of this race before," he told the man.
"We are a relatively new species to this part of space," the man replied.
Ryskar frowned again. "We? But you're human." The species on the datapad showed a group of reptile-looking aliens.
Moren Zein gave a small laugh. "Nevertheless I am their duly appointed Ambassador. I have full authority to speak for them."
"Okay," Ryskar agreed, deciding to let it pass for the sake of argument. "So what do you need?"
"I told you, it's what you need," the man replied. "My associates are very interested in the number of species and governments in this area, and are very excited about meeting you and establishing relations with your government."
Ryskar nodded idly, flipping through the data on the handheld datapad he
held. No information on the race was included, and no images. Strange that this
man would come so under-prepared. Unless there was something he wanted to keep
hidden. But if they wanted an alliance, like it seemed this man was suggesting,
he was going to need a lot of
information. "Well, this is all well and good," he said, "but if
it's an alignment you're seeking, I am afraid I'm going to need some concrete
information, and for you to go through the proper channels this time. The
Senate is quite busy at the moment over trouble in the
"Ah yes, so I've heard," the man replied, an amused look on his face. "I wouldn't call it trouble, though, not anymore. You were having problems with those pirates, were you not?"
"Yes. Your point being?"
The man smiled. "Your pirate problems have been solved. You needn’t worry about them anymore.”
Ryskar frowned. “What are you saying?”
“As a token of our goodwill, we chose to eliminate this threat for you. To prove our intentions, we destroyed the Caledon System and your enemies within it. We have many services to offer you, Speaker. I believe you would be interested in what we have to offer?"
The datapad fell from Ryskar's limp fingers and clattered to the desktop with a clang. As he looked on in wide-eyed disbelief, Zein took the datapad, turned, and left the office.
Moments, later, Ryskar recovered, and stared up at his befuddled Secretary. "Call a Senate meeting… I… think we've got a problem..." he managed.
Grathkar Korealis sat in his command center, inside the secret main base of the Eyes of Elfodd. The name, he reflected, meant somewhat less that it had before. When his fleet was strong, his organization a massive tide against the pathetic government that called themselves the New Imperium, then the Eyes had been unstoppable. Now, countless struggles and confrontations with the blasted NI had dropped them down to almost nothing. This base and a small assortment of craft were all the resources he had left, along with the short-handed crew that was a mere shadow of his once-mighty force. Curse that Mathis Organa, anyway. Would that he had died on Alderaan with his relatives, where all of his race should have been when the planet was blown into oblivion. As he would be, once Grathkar's new plan was implemented. His material and personnel losses were setbacks, but problems he could rectify, as he would Organa's petty existence. He had only one thought at the moment: Revenge. The Elfodd Contingency would occur, of course; nothing could stop that from happening. But before it did, he would see Organa in his grave.
Grathkar shuddered slightly, reminiscing of his last confrontation with that sinuous, slimy maggot. His recently-healed wounds reminded him how close he'd come. But Grathkar knew his life wasn't the important issue. The Contingency would occur, by the Core, and right under the New Imperium's nose! There they sat, gorging themselves on other’s belongings, their territory, oblivious to the fact that their very destruction was imminent. How could they be so blind? But, of course, they were the Lesser. Only Grathkar knew the truth about the Elfodd Contingency. And when it occurred, he would be all-powerful, an Emperor in his own right. Immortal. It was written that way.
Glancing throughout the command room, seeing his crewmen hard at work at their stations, he smiled slyly. Yes, his new plan was flawless. With the Scepter of Karanishma in his hands, stolen from under his enemies' noses half a year earlier, he could finish them off for good. The Scepter allowed a Jedi to see nearly anything in the galaxy, perhaps further, and glimpse the present, the past, the future, all ten times clearer than one could do on his own. It was like comparing the vision of a blind worm to that of a predatory hawk in the skies. He liked that analogy. Of course, Grathkar himself couldn't use the Force, but that was no problem. Soon he would rule more than the NI ever hoped to attain. He, Grathkar Korealis, would be an Emperor. His destiny lay before him, and nothing would stop it from happening.
"Sire," one of the crew repeated, finally attracting Grathkar's attention. "There's been a security breach. Someone is inside the compound, and is heading this way!"
Grathkar swore. Could Organa have found him already? Did he not know that to enter the domain of the Emperor of Elfodd meant certain death? A laughable event. Organa was his. Ignoring the jabbering crewman, Grathkar turned toward the entrance. A scuffle could be heard outside, the sound of blaster fire penetrating through the closed door. Then, abruptly, the doors parted.
Several strange-looking, armored men filed in, sweeping their blaster rifles across the room, covering all its occupants. Grathkar watched with amusement as they moved in to take the crew in the back of the room, as two more men covered him and the two crew nearest him with their blasters.
Then another man entered, immediately attracting Grathkar's full attention. The man had short blonde hair, and a clean-shaven faced that was crisscrossed with strange tattoos. His cold eyes came to rest immediately upon Grathkar. He spoke.
"Grathkar Korealis, your time is up."
"How dare you barge in here unannounced!" Grathkar retorted. "How did you find this place? It's a secret." Not anymore, but he wasn't really interested in the question anyway. Strange man, he noted, but not all bad. He had good taste in clothing, at least, wearing a loose, beige tunic and comfortable-looking pants. Grathkar suddenly remembered; he needed to buy some more gum at the market the next time he went. He wished he had something to chew.
"Your question is irrelevant," the man retorted. Rude, though, despite seemingly good taste. The man drew himself up to this full height and glared down at Grathkar. His voice held a strange accent, one Grathkar couldn't place. Another intriguing aspect.
"Master Turles says that you have the Scepter of Karanishma," the tattooed man said firmly. His words held a strange accent that Grathkar couldn’t match. "Where is it?"
So, they wanted his prize, eh? Probably Force-Sensitive, the buggers. Well, they could just jump into a black hole if they wanted that from him. "Nope, I don't feel like talking today," he said in a lighthearted voice.
"Is that so?" Blindingly fast, the man whipped out a shiny weapon from his waist holster. Grathkar's two men tried to move, but the man quickly raised the gun and fired. The weapon made little noise, and fired projectiles, not blaster bolts. A mass driver, Grathkar thought with interest. The first shot blew through the crewman's heart, killing him instantly and spinning his body around. Then, turning, the man sent another shot through the other man's stomach. The man cried out, crouching down, then slowly sank to his knees and down to his face. Blood splattered the console behind him.
The intruder held his gun up and pointed it directly at Grathkar's face. "Where is the Scepter of Karanishma?" he asked firmly. Grathkar didn't answer. He knew death was staring at him, and strangely, knowing the man had the power of death over him, he found it to be pretty darn hilarious. He began laughing, softly at first, then harder, unable to stop, tears streaming down his cheeks. His mad cackles reverberated throughout the command center. Stang, he wanted some gum.
The man fired.
Carefully replacing his weapon, Kletian turned away from the bloody mess and brain matter splattered all over the console and screen behind the dead man. The faceless body still convulsed wildly. What a madman he'd been.
Kletian turned to his subordinates, who lowered their gazes in respect to him. "We'll do it the hard way, then. Tear this place apart until you find the Scepter. It's here, all right. Master Turles wants it as soon as possible." He turned his head, glancing back at the mess on the controls behind him. "Do not fail..."
* * *
Varnusian Productions Presents:
Grand Master's Office
Planet Varnus, Epsilon Sector
Deputy Grand Master Mathis Organa stood relaxed beside the Grand Master's desk. Icis Novitaar, the Traveler, stood by the corner, invisible, watching.
Xar Kerensky, sitting in his usual spot behind the desk, set down a now-empty glass of liquid on the desk and folded his hands in front of him, watching Organa. He seemed in an even less jovial mood today. In fact, he seemed more serious than normal. His dark gray eyes watched Organa intently, the imposing gaze enhanced by the new, long scar cutting across his cheek. Xar had returned from his latest expedition with that little memento, refusing to have it removed. The man was losing it, Icis knew. Someone had to bring him back, before the whole NI suffered from it. It might not be easy, convincing the man, as he always thought he was right. And why not; he’d been nothing but successful so far, even during his brief tenure as Diktat of the New Imperium. But if the work of reaching Xar could be done, Icis knew to whom the task would probably fall upon.
From his cloak pocket the long-haired, almost rough-looking Mathis produced a datapad which he laid in the center of Xar's desk. Icis noted the demeanor of the man, outwardly calm yet having an aura of danger and unpredictability around him, like a wild animal pretending to be tame. At least for the time being. He held an odd half-grin on his face as he looked down at the man seated at the desk. A grin he always bore. But at the moment, despite the grin, his expression looked downright dour. Probably still upset at the Grand Master's latest little excursion; he hadn't told anyone where he was going or when he'd be back, and it had nearly driven his subordinates over the edge.
"Here are the latest recruits, along with the Jedi Knight promotions that I made while you were gone. Only two for the latter, but they're good ones." He slid the datapad over to Xar, who picked it up and seemed to study it. A moment later he sat it back down, facing the Deputy. Icis moved near the desk for a closer look, his Force-enhanced vision picking out clearly the small, flat screen.
"Who is she?" Xar asked. The screen held an image of a striking woman with red hair and very green eyes. Icis supposed most men, including himself if he hadn't lost his love long ago, would find her quite attractive.
Leaning over, Organa studied the screen, tapped a few keys. "That's Rynn Mariel. Joined a few days ago. She picks up quickly, since she already had some knowledge when she joined, simply walked in through the front door, so to speak. We tested her power level, and it's respectable. She learns fast, faster than most."
Xar nodded. "Reasons for joining?"
Organa shrugged. "She says it's to become a Jedi, as if we didn't already know that. A guardian of peace, justice, and the innocent; that sort of thing. The real reason? From what we can infer, she lost someone close, a friend or relative maybe."
"Join the club."
"What about the Knights?"
The DGM hit a few keys, and the screen changed to a graphic text readout. "Two of them. Valuable additions. Malik Raven, recruited from the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, you know, and Atridd Xoan, home planet unknown."
"Not even he knows." Organa reached up to scratch his ear.
"Bring him up."
Organa complied, and a new dossier file came up. On the screen was the image of a large, impressive-looking black man. It only showed his top half, dressed in dark clothes and a robe, but the man clearly had a build about him. His head was bald, except for a thin mustache that went from his top lip down to his chin, ending in sharp points. The figure looked very distinctive, and impressively dangerous. The most striking aspect of the man was his eyes, an intense, fearsome look in them. They were a deep blue, almost violet.
"Are his eyes really that color?" Xar asked, mimicking Icis' thoughts.
"Hmm... He wears colored lenses, I think," Organa replied.
"He's a really valuable addition, very experienced. You may have met him before, when he joined, but he's opened up a lot more in the past six months you’ve been busy as Diktat. A good man to train with."
"Yes, perhaps I will. I have been planning on working with the Knights and some of the newer members..." Xar was interrupted as a new person strode into the office. A mid-sized, robed man with a strange look in his eyes and wildly unkempt hair, Vynd Archaron was the new Warden of the Jedi Division on the Council, since Nico Flygras had been promoted after his difficult mission to find Kurt. Now Nico was helping run the DLSF after D’larit became the new Diktat.
Icis studied Vynd Archaron as he entered. He had been chosen by Xar to personally take the mysterious Jedi they'd revived from stasis, guide him back to health, teach him Basic and bring him into the Force-sensitive aspects of the Society, and generally make him an acceptable citizen. Icis shook his head in disbelief, even after all this time. What had Xar been thinking, letting Vynd take care of him? The man was clearly insane.
Icis scowled, an expression that didn't lessen as the man didn't even bow in front of his superiors. He actually had to concentrate to keep his thoughts and emotions masked, less he might be noticed or cause his mask to falter. The sight of this man could do such things to him. It was strange; after all, Icis’ official position was the man's Attaché... unfortunately. But, truth be told, he couldn't stand the man, and he knew Archaron didn't hold any more liking for him, either. In fact, he'd tried to get a replacement, but Xar had been adamant that Icis keep a position which would make him inconspicuous yet leave him few duties... to Archaron's apparent dismay. But his Force Mask held, and the man didn't even notice him as he stood there purposefully.
"Greetings, Grand Master," the man drawled out. "I am here, as you requested."
"Good morning, Vynd," Xar waved the man forward. "So, what do you have for me today?"
"How about a knuckle sandwich, chump?"
"What?" Xar blinked.
Archaron cleared his throat. "Um… Just kidding, Grand Master, sir."
Xar just stared blankly at the other man. Several seconds later, as if by some delayed reaction, Organa burst out laughing. He slapped the desktop and leaned over, holding his middle. Xar turned, arching an eyebrow. "Please."
"Hey, where's your sense of humor?" Archaron said mock-seriously. Icis shook his head; he didn't find it very funny either.
"I left it in my other robe," Xar said, drumming his fingers on the desktop.
"You're not wearing a robe," Archaron pointed out.
"Get on with it, Vynd!"
Archaron shrugged. "Well then. Really, as you asked, I'm here to report about the Jedi... er... Bren, as he's called now."
"So he has chosen a name for himself? No memories coming back yet, then," he stated more than asked.
Archaron shook his head. "Nope. Well, he says he has dreams. Flashbacks, that sort of thing. Totally unfamiliar to him, though. He doesn't understand them a bit."
"A mind probe showed nothing either?" Mathis asked hopefully. One method by which they had originally hoped to revive the man's memories was to deeply probe his mind with the Force to try and reach those locked-up memories. While it worked on some patients, no one in known history had ever been in circumstances like the ones this man had. The worst part about the situation, from the Jedi’s historical point of view, was that everything this man had learned about the Force, at least ten thousand years ago, tapping into a Force neither Light nor Dark... All was gone, and completely useless to them now. Of course, Icis thought, he could have simply told them everything about the True Force... But no, it wasn't the right time yet. They weren't ready. Xar and Mathis had only begun to use it, and had barely scratched the surface of what was truly possible. Icis continued to listen in, and watch the conversation unfold, though he moved back toward the wall and the bookcase there.
"Afraid not," Archaron replied to Mathis’ question. "Though Doctor Vannik - who's still treating him a bit, checkups, that sort of thing - still believes his memory will return in time. But there is good news, too. He's learned Basic - or most of it, I guess. Which of course, is easy to learn, but still, he learns fast. Very fast. And he's got this weird accent... Anyway, as you know, he regained his vision a couple weeks after being revived, so that's fine now. As for everything else... He's learning... About us, about the NI, about the galaxy as a whole. This hasn't been easy, I'll tell you that much. He had general knowledge, feelings, tendencies... but he knew nothing about what the galaxy is like nowadays. Although I suppose some things might be familiar to him..."
"What about the Force?" Xar put in.
Archaron gave a short laugh. "By the Core, man, he's learning as fast as we can show the stuff to him. His power level - his strength in the Force - seems to be rising, too. Refraining from teaching him stuff he's not supposed to know, I really can't show him anymore. He's learned all I can teach him. Maybe he needs to move on up, I think you'd find it interesting to work more closely with him."
Xar nodded. "I will stop by and spent some time with him now and again. Hopefully get him to trust me, to gain his confidence. You are right, there."
"That was my professional recommendation, by the way," Archaron said with a wide, toothy grin.
Organa gave him a wary look. "Vynd, now come on... No tricks, right? You haven't been teaching this guy any of your antics, have you?"
"My dear Mathis! I'm hurt that you'd even imply such a thing!" the man said in feigned surprise. Icis shook his head; he could read the man like a book. But then, he could read most people. Archaron, surprisingly, used to be in the Sith Order – though such distinctions were moot at this point anyway. He’d also been weapons master of the old House Ar'Kell. He'd been quite stable then, or at least seemed that way. Then he'd come up with the Ar'Kell Academy, and even before it was finished he left and went there to stay and study. He'd promptly disappeared then, for several months. When he finally came back and was welcomed by Xar with open arms, he'd changed, saying he was a Krath, had a completely different attitude and personality, and often hinted at the 'scars' and effects that Frigg's 'creatures' had inflicted on him. Whatever had happened, it hadn't been pleasant. Icis had heard tales of the Mortigena... the death beast that preyed on Frigg's primitive, native tribes by stealing their life energy... There had only been one living survivor of Ar'Kell that had encountered a Mortigena. Kurt. But he was gone now, as well, defected to some force they had no knowledge about whatsoever. Icis had his hunches, of course, but he wasn’t yet ready to reveal all of that.
Archaron continued indignantly... "You shouldn't imply such things. To think that you'd imply I have been teaching my little secrets to your test subject. You could have just said it outright." Suddenly he broke into a wild grin. "He's actually enjoyed gleaning the finer points of humor from me," he said.
"All right, enough about that," Xar interrupted, not looking at all amused. "That is all I needed, except, well... Is he... all right?" he asked concernedly. "Is he mentally healthy?"
Archaron gave another laugh. "Quite stable. In fact, as sane as I am, I would say." Suddenly he gave an unnatural shake of his head; his left eye blinked several times. Then with a cocky smile and a bow, he turned and made his way out of the office as quickly and purposely as he'd entered, leaving the two men at the desk staring after him.
Xar dropped his head. "I hate my life," he moaned, a painful expression on his face.
"Stang. I know what you mean," Organa replied. "You really shouldn't have left him with Archaron. I hope he'll be okay." He didn't say which one, but he obviously meant the recovered Jedi. Archaron wasn't okay, that much Icis was sure of.
"Heh. Who knows what we will do if he has picked up some of Vynd's habits," Xar replied. "As for... 'Bren' as he calls himself now... I should go check up on him when I do the same for our new recruits and Knights. As you know, I like to spend some time with them personally, fine-tuning their abilities and getting them to know me and to trust me. If they don't know me, they will not be loyal to me; they will only trust those directly over them."
"Of course. But as Grand Master you can't be taking all of your time up in regular duties. You have to look after more broad affairs."
Xar nodded. "I know that, from trying to steer this crazy ship we call the NI the past six months.” Suddenly he raised an eyebrow. “Hmm. You would not be referring to my recent absence, would you?" he asked quizzically.
"No, not just now. Frankly sir, I don't really want to start that conversation."
"Ah, I see," Xar said flatly. "I knew it would come up. Are you trying to avoid an argument over the issue? To agree to disagree, as it were?"
Organa shook his head. "No, but it is one thing we will have to discuss eventually. Some of us are starting to worry."
"Worry? About what? You think I am having problems leading?"
"No, but I am concerned about your leaving without even telling us where you are or when you would be back..." Organa began. “Oh well, there, I’ve said it.”
"What I do is my business, Mathis. My missions are my own. I cannot have people following me around all the time."
"What do you expect, with already two failed assassination attempts? You’re our leader. You’re too important to risk on missions."
"I can take care of myself."
"I know you can. Stang, you're the most powerful Jedi I know of! But what if you're jumped by just one too many next time? What if an assassin's bullet finds its mark when you don't even expect it? You're not immortal."
"I know that!" Xar snapped. "But what do you want, a squad of Stormtroopers surrounding me everywhere I go watching my back? Fighter cover from the air? Do I have to order tables for twenty now at restaurants, for me and my bodyguards?"
"You're exaggerating," Organa said, shaking his head.
"Am I? Can you tell me you would not have people following me all the time?"
"Two guards," Organa interjected, "is hardly a large number. They only need to be in the vicinity. That's not what I'm talking about anyway, and we both know it. It's not that you've been gone a long time - you haven't, really. But this search of yours is taking up too much of you, Xar. I can see it."
"Here we go again," Xar sighed, throwing his hands up.
"Listen to me... People are noticing this. Then you suddenly disappear without telling us where you've gone or anything? You could have been abducted for all we knew!"
"I am the Grand Master here. I will go where I want to. I do not have to report to you like some child."
"Xar, this is hurting you too much. We both know that's not the point. Leave vengeance aside for once. You've got to leave Akira alone. He's dead!"
"He is not dead!" Xar snapped.
"I've been through this, Xar! You know, Alderaan? I know what it leads to. It destroys you from the inside. Don't you think I can see that in you now? You've got to give it up!"
"I cannot! He constitutes a serious threat to us," Xar warned, shaking a finger at his Deputy Grand Master.
"We don't even know if he's on this side of the galaxy!" Mathis countered.
Xar slammed his fist down on the desktop, causing a cat that had been lounging on the couch to jump up in surprise and scurry underneath. "I will not be patronized by you, Mathis. That is enough. You are dismissed."
"Xar, I..." He began...
"I said get out!!"
Mathis gave the man a vicious stare, then turned and stormed out of the office. "It won’t be on my conscience when some assassin finds you!!" he shouted outside, slamming the door behind him. Icis shook his head after the departing man. He knew what Organa was going through... he'd experienced the same thing, long ago. But Xar had been changing in the last year and a half, changes that were becoming more and more visible, especially as his never-ending search for the killer of his family and world continued.
Well, Organa had tried, and, as Icis had expected, the task had fallen to him. Time for his turn. He moved over to Xar's desk, where the man was viciously scribbling something on a piece of paper. Icis dropped the Force mask which had kept him invisible from all but the few who knew how to pierce through his barrier and see him. Becoming visible.
"I figured you were here. What do you want?" Xar said flatly, not even looking up from his desk.
"We need to talk," Icis said dryly.
Xar didn't answer.
"Do you know who I am?"
Xar let the pen stylus fall to the table and stared up at him. The new scar on his face was very prominent. "What are you talking about, man?"
"Mathis is right," Icis said instead.
Xar just shook his head.
Icis sighed. "Xar, I haven't lived as long as I have without taking a few risks, nor without learning a few things. If you continue your present course... You will die."
Xar arched an eyebrow. "How do you figure that?"
"Because I've seen it happen too many times. Because you will never be satisfied with your revenge. Because you will continue taking it out on your own men."
Xar gave an exasperated sigh and looked back down at his papers. "You are wrong," he said. "You do not understand." Icis shook his head. That was about the most ignorant thing Icis had ever heard in his life.
Icis made as if to turn away, speaking into the air softly so he'd know Xar would listen for him. "It strikes me as odd, that when you want my advice, you try and beat it out of me, but when you really need it, you ignore what I have to say, and throw me out."
A hesitant pause, then there was loud sigh behind him, but this one of resignation. Icis turned back to the man, and saw that it was as if all the energy had left the man.
"What can I do?" he asked simply. "I do want to stop this, Icis, but I cannot. It is what drives me onward. What do you want to say?"
Inwardly, Icis smiled. Maybe there was hope for the man, after all. "You have to give up your anger, your hard feelings. And you must not take them out on your friends. Or do you have any friends? If you lose Mathis, will there be anyone left? Tell me."
Slowly, sadly, Xar shook his head.
Icis continued. "You'll go looking after this man until it gets you killed or you kill him. But that won't be enough, because there will always be someone else to transfer that revenge to. It will not end. You have to change, Xar. Give up your hate, listen to your heart and do what you know is right."
Xar's hung his head, a weary look on his face. The distant, regal air he usually projected about himself faded. "But what if General Akira really is a threat? This is not just revenge. What of all that happened at Ravenspyre?"
"It's a chance you're going to have to take, Xar. Let it go."
Xar nodded slowly. "I tried to, at Ravenspyre. When I killed Krun."
"But you couldn't let it go while you were, even then, avenging those you cared about. At first you were content with simply taking out Dasok Krun. Until you learned that General Akira was behind it, and that he might be alive. But this isn't what your parents would have wanted. . Dasok Krun was enough; let it go. Leave them in peace."
Xar looked up at Icis strangely. "How can you know so much about me? How can you know what I feel?"
Icis just nodded. "Come. We should talk more." Turning, he made his way out of the office, knowing that Xar would be following behind.
* * *
Tralaria, NI Capital
“Congratulations, Diktat,” Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar’s cheerful voice greeting Ryskar D’larit as he entered the conference room. “I know the NI is in good hands now.”
“I speak for all of us when I say we are thankful that you took the initiative to lead in spite of pressing duties in your own fleet,” Caramon Majere added. Thank you for taking the burden off of all of us.”
Ryskar nodded to the two other men besides himself who were present at their private meeting. He felt sorry for the latter; he knew that Majere’s fleet was still battling it out with pirate clans holed up in Matacious Quadrant, along with the Star Vipers, their allies. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he addressed the two of them. “It is an honor.”
He gestured them to sit at the small conference table, and followed suit himself. “I’ll make this brief,” he said. “We have been contacted by a new alien race that claims to have wiped out the Blackhawk pirates in the Caledon System.”
His words were met with a look of surprise from Dogar, a frown of concern from Majere. “So someone has come forward to claim responsibility?” the latter mused aloud.
“And they are requesting an alliance with us, claiming their act as a gesture of goodwill,” D’larit added. “Frankly, I’m not sure what to believe, myself.”
“It’s too dangerous a claim to make,” Dogar said, shaking his head. “No, I believe it.”
The room was silent for a moment. D’larit looked from face to face. “What should our course of action be?” he finally asked.
“Well, they certainly helped us by eliminating the enemy,” Majere pointed out.
“But they took many lives to do it,” D’larit countered. “They don’t sound like the kind of people we want to deal with. We’re too young as a government to have a scandal break exposing corruption in the government.”
“I say do nothing, for now,” Majere offered thoughtfully. “Wait them out, see what their next move is. If they are seeking something from us, that puts us in a position of advantage. Wait a while and see what they’re really up to.”
Ryskar looked at the other man. “And your opinion, Arfann?”
The other shrugged. “I’d say find out as much about them as you can,” he replied. “And frankly I’d like to roll out the fleet for a little display and scare them back into their little hidey-holes. We could have wiped out the pirates just as efficiently. We just chose not to employ that way.” He shook his head slowly. “But in this case I’m inclined to agree with Caramon: wait them out and force them to move, next. Get them to reveal more information than they want to, and we’ll keep the pressure on them. Sooner or later we’ll find out what they’re about.”
Ryskar nodded, feeling better having his two most trusted advisors with him on this. “Good. Then that’s what we’ll do. Gentlemen, please keep me informed of everything you hear on this matter. Together we’ll get to the bottom of this, I’m sure.”
* * *
Royal Palace Halls
Vectur, Planet Varnus
Mariel sat at the table, alone, slowly working on her plate of cooked
vegetables and fruits. The food here in the
So, she was finally here. Five days had passed, and she'd already begun the new life of an apprentice. Everything seemed different here, almost like a martial discipline that pervaded the atmosphere. For the apprentices, at least. The palace seemed a bright place, not at all the dreary fortress she had expected. There were much more than Jedi here, in fact, the Jedi seemed pretty scarce compared to the myriad of people moving about, on countless tasks and jobs. Though situated in the center of the capital of Varnus, the palace was almost a city unto itself. She still wondered at how quickly recent events had transpired to bring her here. But, she couldn't think on that. Her new life would be taking a lot of her time from now on.
Sitting there in thought, chewing her food mechanically, she barely noticed an approaching figure until a large, broad-shouldered man sat down opposite her, setting his tray on the table. Rynn started and stared for a moment before catching herself. The figure's dark brown skin immediately set him apart from most people she'd seen around the palace, as did his sparkling, blue eyes. He had a single, gold speck of an earring in his left ear, and a black mustache that traced above his upper lip and came down into points below his mouth. The man seemed in his mid thirties, and though Rynn wouldn't bet money on her skill at age-guessing, she didn't think she was far off from that guess. “May I sit?” he asked in a deep, pleasant voice.
Rynn nodded meekly. The man settled down into the seat, dark Jedi robes rustling quietly, and put his big arms up on the table. More than intimidated, Rynn started to get up, but the man broke the unease with a wide grin that showed his pearl-white teeth.
"I'm Atridd Xoan," the dark man said, nodding. "Jedi
"Rynn... Mariel... I'm new here. How... do you do?" Rynn spoke, offering a weak smile.
"Fine, thanks.” The man nodded, and, taking an eating utensil from the tray, began digging into a large plate of ribenes. "Yes, I know you're new," he said, looking back up at her. "I'm your assigned mentor."
Suddenly the room seemed a bit stuffier, and Rynn took a large swallow of her water to help her suddenly-dry mouth.
There was a low, pleasant-sounding chuckle from across the table at her. "Oh, come on, I'm not that bad. I am a Jedi Knight, you know."
The words took a moment to register, but Rynn found herself feeling a little better once they sunk in. A Jedi. A real Jedi. Disciplined and skillfully trained in the use of the Force, and what she had secretly aspired to be since she'd first learned of her latent Force abilities. A spark of interest in learning more, from this man who was apparently her teacher for the time being, caused her to relax and continue eating, and brought up a few questions she had as well.
But Xoan spoke first, after wiping his mouth with his napkin. "You're pretty strong in the Force, aren't you? I can sense it, a bit, and I'm not especially trained to do that."
Rynn nodded curtly. "I... suppose so. They told me when they tested me that I was a level fifty."
"A level fifty! At testing?" His eyes widened in surprise. "You already had some control yourself, didn't you?"
Rynn shrugged. "I knew some, not really that much, though."
"No need to be so modest. It's quite an accomplishment, learning on your own. Have they taught you to contain your Force-presence? Otherwise you'd be sending out signals to everyone around you, bombarding them with your thoughts, feelings, and all other kinds of stuff that goes on in your brain. It can give people quite a headache, especially if you're fairly strong in the Force. It really has an effect on regular people who can't use the Force. Here we learn to shut out such interference, of course. If not, we'd be catching glimpses of people's thoughts as they pass by in the hallways. Not a pleasant experience, mind you."
"But isn't that something you learn to do with the Force, read people's minds?" Rynn asked curiously.
"Oh, no! We do learn it, of course, but we never use it unless it's absolutely necessary. There are strict privacy rules here, stuff that just makes sense to do, you know?"
"I... see," Rynn answered. "I guess I have a lot to learn. Will you be teaching me?"
"Part of the time," the man nodded. "Others will help, as well. We have a cooperative society here, where we believe in helping one another out and making things better. Even the Grand Master himself will probably want to teach you something, or train a bit with you. It's usually very important to him that he gets to know his students well, develop a relationship of trust and loyalty with them." He nodded and took another bite of ribenes, but Rynn noticed a thoughtful look on his face.
There was a brief chain of movement around the room, and the din of voices died down considerably. Rynn turned to see where most people were looking, and caught a glimpse of a robed, dark-haired man striding by in the hallway, coming from the direction of the main hallway. He didn't look around, but kept straight on his path, his face full of concentration.
"Is that...?" Rynn began.
Xoan nodded. watching the figure disappear around a corner. "Speaking of the man himself. That was the Grand Master."
"Ah." Rynn kept watching the place where he'd vanished, wondering where he'd been going, and why he'd looked that way.
The black man looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "What is your perception of him?" he asked simply, turning back to his plate.
"I..." she began, then hesitated, wondering if she could just speak her mind. She decided to. "He seems very occupied, yet alert. By himself, yet not alone. Intriguing. Am I going meet him?"
"Very perceptive, for an Initiate," Xoan studied her. "Yes, I'm sure you shall. But in the meantime, how about we get this mentoring under way? There is much for you to learn and fill your time with."
Rynn nodded. "Yes, I am ready to begin. The sooner and faster I learn, the sooner I will become a Jedi."
Atridd gave a deep laugh as he rose. "That you shall..."
* * *
studied the object in his hands, a sleek, black cylinder with several small
knobs and buttons, ending in a wicked-looking claw that housed the emitter
nozzle for the lightsaber blade. The dark blade had belonged to a man named
Dasok Krun, the man who had personally killed Xar's family and assisted in the
ruination of his home here on Varnus. Xar had only found that information out
after Krun had led an assault on Ravenspyre, the
But there was more. When he'd killed Krun at last, he had sensed the man's power in the Force, and had been consumed with thoughts of vengeance. Killing him wasn't just enough punishment. Just before he'd finished Krun, Xar had used a power so terrible it had been forbidden even by Dark Jedi. Reaching into his enemy's being, connecting with him and his connection to the Force, he had drawn the man's Force energy, his life energy, and claimed it as his own. Absorb Force Energy was perhaps the most shocking power ever developed, one Xar had only come across on Runis' secret files. Runis had studied the power extensively, though it was unclear whether or not he had used it before. But there were drawbacks. The person's Force-potential wasn't the only thing that was absorbed; also were the person's memories, and to a certain extent, his personality. Xar knew he wasn't completely himself anymore... He had only used the power once, and immediately vowed never to do so again. Part of Dasok Krun was inside him, and it seemed to be coming out lately. He knew he had become more volatile, more violent since the absorbing. It wasn't just Xar's giving up of the pain of his family's death, but part of Krun's personality itself which had turned him around and brought his emotions out like never before. He had gone from concealing and suppressing his emotions to letting them out, allowing them to control him, and that was what had caused him to yell at Mathis the day before. That was what he was fighting against, he realized. It was made harder, as it wasn't two personalities fighting one another, but both had integrated into the person he was now. Some of it, perhaps, had changed him for the better, but some was for the worse.
Sighing, he placed the hilt back inside the case with the others. His eye fell on the picture frame sitting on one of the shelves, the picture inside faded, a tear running across part of it. But he could clearly see the woman in it, smiling, fiery red hair framing her beautiful face. What wasn't clearly shown in the image was like crystal in his mind. It was the woman he'd loved more than anything else in the world, the woman he'd been going to marry. His betrothed from childhood, Illiana had always been around the palace. They'd grown up together, first as friends, not really knowing what the word ‘betrothed’ meant, thinking marriage was worlds and lifetimes away. But as they grew older, their friendship turned into love, to their parents' great delight as well. They had been close, sharing everything with one another, but as the most strict Varnusian rule of law for the Royal Family, had committed themselves not to be together until their wedding night. But then his capture by Runis came. And by the time he returned to Varnus, everything he'd known was gone forever. His parents; his brothers and sisters; including Rydon Kerensky, with whom he’d also grown up; his home; and Illiana. Old memories called out at him, but he shook them away harshly.
Since then, he hadn't ever opened himself up to anyone, especially a woman. There had been women, of course, but none that had captured his heart. And the few friends he had seemed to be dwindling. His uncle Aron was dead, murdered by Krun. Iver had recently left for prospective business in the Core; Kurt turned away to some enemy as of yet unknown. Now he had practically thrown Mathis out, and all around him were people that he was training to be living weapons. How could he afford to trust any of them? No. He shook away the thought. Without trust, paranoia set in. Without trust, he might as well not live. He wasn't going to lose his friends.
So long, so much of my life has been consumed by this. Could he really give up everything that had been driving him for the past seventeen years, since he'd first left Varnus, been injured, and captured by Runis? Things had come between him and his quest for vengeance, of course; Runis had pushed it into the background, the Imperial Navy had covered it for a while with its glory, then his time in Ar'Kell... But it was there all the time, lurking in the shadows. He had thought he'd overcome it before, when he defeated Krun, the murderer of his family. But then that need for vengeance had been transferred to the next enemy, then the next, and finally to the mastermind behind the devastation of Varnus: General Akira. And then, he knew, it would continue on forever, consume him for the rest of his existence. Icis was right; he had to let it go. He had to change. But it wouldn't be an easy task. It would have to be a continuous, conscious decision. And it had to begin now.
"Computer," he spoke aloud, slowly. He hesitated. Once he did this, there would be no going back. But that was what he had to do, what he wanted to do. It was his choice. Time to let the past rest, and to meet the future. Maybe he did have a destiny, but now, whatever it was, he wouldn't let it be driven by the past.
"Computer, delete all files regarding or in reference to the name Akira, from all records including the main database." The first step, albeit one of the largest. No temptation to go back to the past, to bring back those shadows on his life. The future lay ahead, and he would it meet as a new, free being.
Getting up, he steeled himself to head immediately for Mathis' quarters and apologize before he went any further. That was one friend he wasn't going to lose...
Rynn slid back across the top of the ten-meter-wide wall, bringing her practice sword back up in front of her in a guard position. Opposing her, the huge Atridd Xoan advanced cautiously, his blade at the ready in front of him. "Come on," he said. "Don't run, attack."
Rynn attacked. Running forward, she lunged at the larger man with her blade extended. But Xoan easily parried her attack, allowing her to slip past him, then extended one leg, tripping her. She pitched forward, but turned the movement into a roll across the stone. She came up and spun back around, expecting an attack, but none came. Xoan stood watching her, shaking his head. "Never come straight in," he said.
Rynn nodded, standing. Then, barring her blade in front of her, she charged in again, this time striking hard and fast at him, but he managed to block every move. Backing away, she surveyed her surroundings to try and find some place of leverage. The wide palisade they stood on dropped off shortly behind her, forming part of the west wall. Below, other buildings rose and continued off into the distance. The west side of the city was not as repaired or developed from the damage that had been done years ago. Many of the buildings seemed uninhabited, rising to end in broken roofs and shattered tops of structures. Across from her, opposite the wall, a building rose almost as high, its roof slanting down to end two stories above the street below.
Xoan's attack brought her back just in time to parry his strike, but his blade hit her arm anyway. If it had been a lightsaber, she knew, he arm would have been rendered useless or gone altogether. Grimacing, she struck back at him, but her skills just couldn't match a Jedi Knight's. Of course, they weren't supposed to, but that knowledge frustrated her and fueled her energy to lash at him.
He'd backed her up against the ten-meter drop to the street below, now. Refusing to give up, she struck to one side, then the other, but he blocked and swung his wooden practice sword so fast it moved as a blur. She ducked instinctively, the blade missing her by less than two centimeters. Then, in a sudden decision, she drew on the Force, gathered it under her, and leaped backwards as hard as she could, performing a back flip worthy of a gymnast. His blade passed through the air she'd vacated, missing by far.
As pretty as she knew her flip to be, the landing wasn't something she'd considered very clearly. Her feet hit the roof on the opposite building and slid right out from under her as they hit the slanted surface. Her back hit hard, and she found herself sliding downwards at a frightening pace. Then the roof suddenly gave out, and she dropped. The ground came all too soon. She tried to roll, but hit hard anyway, and ended up falling back to the duracrete street outside the palace, feeling pain shoot through her and her breath flash out of her lungs, leaving her gasping for air.
It had seemed like forever, but she knew only seconds had passed. And suddenly Xoan was there, though how he'd made it down so much easier she had no idea. Air seemed to come, ever so slowly, as her eyes focused on his concerned face.
"That... was very foolish," he said sternly.
As her breath returned, she forced herself to sit up and gasped air. "No... kidding... Tell me something... new, why don't you..." she panted.
She saw him frown, then shake his head in dismissal. "Forget it. Are you all right?"
Rynn managed a weak laugh. "Oh yeah, sure. Just had my insides turned to mush. Just give me a minute, okay?"
His eyes widened, then he stood back and looked at her with a stern expression. "Fine. If you can find your way back into the palace, I guess you're training will continue. Good luck," he said as if she needed it. Then he turned and moved out of her vision.
She shook her head. It hadn't been a good idea, but she wasn't about to give in one bit. After all she'd been through, she was going to train herself harder than anyone else. She would be the fastest growing, best Jedi of all. As much as she knew Xoan was right, and wanted to help, she couldn't concede that much pride.
Standing, she surveyed the street she'd
fallen onto. She couldn't see her wooden training sword; either Xoan had taken
it, or it hadn't come down with her. No matter. Up above, the west wall of the
Grand Master's Office
Xar smiled widely as the door opened, admitting a familiar figure. His elation was true, he really was glad to see his visitor, though he was still trying to make a conscious effort for his change. "Maarek, good morning! How have you been..." He paused, noticing the new change in the visage of his old comrade. "By the Core, man.... You shaved!"
His old friend gave a grin as he entered and ran a hand along his clean-shaven face. "Yep. Got tired of it, I guess. Got it just after I left the Empire, to help disguise myself. Now that I'm in the NI, think it's safe to go back to my old self?"
Xar gave a short laugh, and shook his head." Absolutely. It looks good. I suppose I could not quite accept it was you at first. This sure brings back a few things."
Maarek nodded. "Yeah. How about a walk? I just finished my morning jog. It's a nice day out."
Xar smiled. "Sounds good to me."
"So how is the training going, Wing
Commander?" Xar asked once they were outside. From the office, the two men
had passed through the sparsely-trafficked corridors of the upper class, and
emerged outside on the long balconies on the south side of the palace. Ahead in
the morning sunlight shone the skyline of skyscrapers and parks that had been rebuilt.
It had only been a few years since the reconstruction had gotten underway full
scale, but the city had been restored to more beauty than Xar had ever
remembered. It had been a quick period, as well, so occupied by all the events
and problems plaguing the new NI government that it was a wonder they could
make it where they were. But it was beautiful, the new city of
"Going great, actually," Maarek replied. "The squads onboard the Stormwatch have shown a real increase in efficiency, and I think they're almost worthy to fly those fancy ships you've got afforded to them. And I've finally got my personal squadron together. Hand-picked from all across the NI. These were the best I could find, and I've trained 'em with everything I know. Well, just about everything. I have to admit, these are some of the best I have ever seen. This whole area seems to produce great pilots, and, if I can take a guess, good warriors in general."
"Must be genetics," Xar shrugged.
"Either that, or their ancestors were really accustomed to war," Maarek pointed out. He glanced around the balcony, out at the city. The veranda they were on stretched the entire south side of the palace on this level, and was a great place for anyone to sit quietly and enjoy the atmosphere. Various flora had been set up around the balconies, and rugs, pictures, and banners of various colors adorned the floor, walls, and ceiling as one glanced down the hallways inside. Xar took a deep breath, enjoying for a moment the simple, yet complex being of life itself. He hadn't done that in a very long time.
"Grand Master?" a sudden voice interrupted his thoughts. With an annoyed sigh, he turned to face the Novice who had come up to them.
"Yes? What is it?"
The young man looked nervous at seeing the leader of the Jedi Order. Xar didn't recall seeing him before, so he must have been new. The Novice hesitated, then spoke in a rush.
"Sir, Ambassador Hursis of the Ssither would like to speak with you at your convenience, sir." The man seemed to falter over the alien's name, and an embarrassed look came over his face.
"Of course," Xar replied. "Thank you, that will be all."
The Novice bowed and left, and Xar looked down in the direction they'd been walking, to were a serpentine form was crouching near a tall fern plant. Beside him, Maarek seemed to be looking on in confusion. Xar gestured toward the snake form. "Come on. There is someone I want you to meet." Maarek seemed to hesitate, but gave a curt nod and followed.
Hrrssiss, as the Ambassador was really named, was the official representative of the Ssither to the New Imperium. Unbeknownst to most, however, he was also an acquaintance of Xar himself. The Ssither, while usually quite bright, could speak vocally, but also had a natural telepathy which was their primary form of communication on their nearby homeworld of Jatee. Rising up to two meters tall, they looked like tall, upright hooded snakes, save for two arms with hands and two large eyes that lacked irises. Hrrssiss had brownish-yellow skin that was a smooth as a snake's, and big, yellow, glowing eyes. His hood was out around him as he touched a large flower in the miniature garden beside him, but the hood lacked any design on the back, unlike certain other Varnusan serpents. As Xar and Maarek approached, the Ssither turned well in advance and gave a human-style bow. It spoke, of course, in Xar's mind, offering a greeting more eloquent than could ever be expressed in words.
Good morning, Ambassador, Xar projected back in a formal, eloquent tone. He was aware of Maarek, of course, who arched an eyebrow when he didn't see the two exchange greetings verbally. He spoke up for Stele's benefit.
"Maarek, this is Ambassador Hrrssiss of the Ssither. Ambassador, Maarek Stele, Wing Commander onboard the Stormwatch and in charge of the Division’s fighter groups."
"A pleasure to meet you," Stele offered. The Ssither turned his glowing yellow gaze on him, and he swallowed visibly. For a moment he looked confused as to how to greet the Ambassador, but settled on giving a small bow.
"Likewissse..." The Ambassador's body bent, his head dipping in an approximation of a return bow. Then he turned to Xar and explained, telepathically, that there were some things they needed to discuss, and that someone else, another advisor, was waiting for them.
Xar turned to Maarek. "There are a few things I need to take care of. Care to join me for brunch in the hall in about an hour?"
The other man smiled and shook his head. "Thanks, but I need to head up to the Stormwatch this morning, and I figured I'd hit the mess hall next and get up there. Maybe next time?"
Xar nodded. "Sure. Catch you later."
As Stele turned and headed down a hallway into the interior of the palace, Xar turned back to the Ssither and gestured for him to lead the way. Hrrssiss thanked him, explaining that he would be happy to get back inside. Xar understood; the Ssither lived underground on their homeworld, in huge chains of caverns, and had no permanent settlements, either. They roamed about the caves in family groups or clans, and the only two set job classes were those who grew the food and those who tended the caves. Still, they did see an importance in maintaining contact with the rest of the galaxy, which was why Hrrssiss was here.
Xar's footsteps echoed as they drummed on the stone tile floor. Hrrssiss moved along beside him, making scarcely a sound. The Ssither undulated as it moved, slithering along the floor on the lower half of his body, though he still stood nearly as tall as Xar did. As they traveled, the discussed, telepathically, how better to further sociality and inter-species relations between the many various races living on Varnus and in the New Imperium, something Hrrssiss knew about. Since the Ssither had a very close and personal communications method, there was virtually no crime rate on Jatee.
Soon they came to a large corridor, with doors lining each side. Moving down the hall, they went through one door and emerged into what looked to be a moderately sized, quiet study. With amusement Xar realized that he’d never been here before. Even though he had overseen much of the reconstruction of the Royal Palace, and knew it inside and out, the place was so large that even he didn't know what was in every room, every crack and crevice. His friend and Chancellor Alyx Misnera might, seeing as he had overseen the restoration and was in charge of the palace's upkeep and furnishings, as well as the rest of the city. But some levels were home to private individuals, and especially the areas designated for the Jedi Houses, that had done a lot of customization, and there was no telling what one might run into, wandering about. Maarek often wandered the palace, and had made it into a hobby. He might know his way around pretty well, as Xar did, but there were always places he’d never seen before personally.
The room was well furbished, with old-style wooden, padded furniture and decorations, real books in the shelves along the wall, and patterned carpet. Xar smiled as the person behind the large wooden desk at the far end of the room stood to greet him. "Rytor, good to see you again. I did not know you were back," he said, moving aside to allow the Ambassador to enter. "Ambassador Hrrssiss," he nodded to the Ssither.
"I know him," Gene Rytor nodded. Better known by his "front" name of Raptor, the middle-aged man, hair streaked with a hint of gray and wearing plain clothing looked more like someone from off the street instead of the leader of the Outer Rim’s most extensive spy network. Xar had made connections with Rytor, who had lent his services to Admiral Majere’s Fleet in Naroon Quadrant and the Intruder Wing on Erebria before offering his services to the NI. Xar was still unsure of his history, although he knew the man used to be in Imperial Intelligence. At any rate, Rytor liked looking inconspicuous. "I sent the Ambassador to find you, Xar,” the older man said. “There is something I think you should see."
As Xar moved over to one of the seats in front of the desk, Rytor took his seat again and activated the computer holoscreen on the desktop. Hrrssiss moved up beside him. The female reporter's image appeared onscreen and spoke.
"And there are still no clues as to who is responsible for the brutal murder of Eyes of Elfodd leader Grathkar Korealis. He was found dead only yesterday in his own command center, inside the terrorist base in which NI officials only found thanks to an anonymous tip after the incident. It also appears that at least a dozen on the leader's staff were killed in the attack, as well. Officials are attempting to follow up on the tip they received, though little progress has been made to date. More on this as it develops. Meanwhile, Representative Mathis Organa from the Jedi Division stated his displeasure that the criminal was not brought to justice in an NI court..." The transmission ended there at the end of the recording, and Rytor shut the screen off. Xar sat back in his seat, deep in thought.
"Sources say Korealis was killed by a projectile shot to the head, not a blaster." Rytor folded his hands on the table. "The shot went through him like flimsy, and went so far into the wall behind him they never found the shot."
That was disturbing news. "A mass driver," Xar said gravely. Beside him, the Ambassador hissed.
Rytor looked at him across his folded hands. "Who, besides you of course, has a handheld rail gun?"
Xar shrugged. "I do not know... Anyone, really. It is not exactly an advanced technology, by galactic standards. It would not be that hard to come by."
"But it would probably be large, and bulky, correct?"
"Miniaturization has been difficult," Xar nodded. "Except for certain parties, of course."
"The Crinn." Rytor stated. It wasn't a question.
"Of course I do. And there's one more thing. Whoever did this likes using his rail gun. My guess is it's his weapon of choice. Much like you?"
"Are you saying I am a suspect?" Xar arched an eyebrow.
"I know you're not, but someone could be trying to set you up." He shrugged. "Then again, there is another factor, perhaps… An anonymous force has been leaving its trail lately…" He trailed off slowly.
"The persons responsible for the
destruction of the
Rytor leaned forward, peering suspiciously at him. "How do you know about that?"
Xar smiled wryly. "I have my sources, too."
Less than a month before, the NI star
fleet had moved in on the home base of the Blackhawk pirates in the
"Do you think there is a connection?" he asked.
Rytor hesitated, then shook his head. "I don't think so. There has been no evidence to indicate that the same party was responsible for both, or of Crinn involvement, either. All we can do at this point is guess.”
Xar gave a curt nod. “Well then, we will come across something sooner or later. Whoever did this will show themselves again, and leave more clues for us to follow.”
“And we’ll be ready to snatch them up, as always,” Rytor added.
“As always,” Xar agreed, standing. “If that is all you needed, I have one more thing I need to see to. I have not spent much time with our new friend ‘Bren’. I need to see what he is about.”
“Be careful with him,” Rytor warned, inclining his head toward Xar and Hrrssiss. “He could be very dangerous.”
“I will.” Xar shook his head. “You know everything that is going on, huh?”
“That’s my job,” Rytor said with a grin.
Xar nodded knowingly. “So what are you doing next, Rytor?”
The man smiled. “Who knows. Maybe I’ll try my hand at politics.”
“Right. Good luck,” Xar laughed as he walked out of the study.
Maarek Stele sauntered his way into the mess hall and grabbed a quick bite to eat from the counter. Palace food wasn’t the best he’d eaten, he remarked to himself, but it was better than starship fare any day of the week. Casting about for a table to sit, he caught sight of a woman seated alone at one of the long mess tables, leaning over her meal, her head framed by a shimmering waterfall of red hair. Intrigued, he moved over to the place opposite her and set his tray down, smiling. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
As she glanced up from her mostly-eaten meal, Maarek got his first real look at her face. She was beautiful. Her green eyes met his evenly. “Sure…” she trailed off, then returned to eating.
Maarek took his seat, feeling a sudden surge of confidence. It sounded like this lady needed some cheering up. Maybe some male company, he thought amusingly. Then he took his first notice of her clothing. She didn’t wear the white robe of an Initiate or Novice, but her plain, dark clothing and training stripe showed her as a Jedi in training. “You’re a Jedi apprentice, aren’t you?” he asked aloud.
She looked back up at him and nodded. “They said they weren’t sure where to place me because I’m learning so quickly.” She gave a slight smile, a very pretty smile. “I knew a little before I joined, that’s all. But I do intend to learn faster and better than any man here. How about you?”
Maarek felt himself smile back. “I’m Maarek Stele.” When the woman didn’t show much of a reaction, he felt surprised. “You haven’t heard of me?”
She shook her head. “Should I have?”
“I’m the best starfighter pilot in the galaxy!”
She gave him a sour expression. “Great, another hotshot. You’re all the same, with your egos. Sorry, but I don’t have the time to entertain your delusions.”
“No, not at all… I’m the Wing Commander onboard the Stormwatch,” he corrected, trying to make amends for his hasty words. “Look, I’m not really like that. May let me explain…”
“I’m listening,” she said tenaciously.
Maarek glanced down at his chrono. He had to go. “Look, I have to get back to my ship right now. How about over dinner?”
Giving an incredulous look, she gave a sharp laugh and shook her head. “Nice try, flyboy. I don’t think so,” she said, gathering up her tray and utensils. Rising, she moved around Maarek toward the trash bins.
He turned in his seat as she passed, looking after her. “Wait! I didn’t catch your name…”
She stopped, looking back at him with a wry grin. “No, I don’t believe you did.” She turned and continued on, leaving Maarek alone to contemplate his cold, bland lunch. He decided he hated this food.
Xar had left Rytor's study and moved deeper into the palace. He headed for the levels occupied by the Warden and his archiving division, which went from ground level down into the catacombs lying underneath the palace. The Jedi only used and explored the upper portion of a vast network of tunnels, running underneath the entire capital city and who knew how far beyond that. No one knew exactly how far and how deep they went.
Though well inside the palace, the decorum was still maintained and well-lit, offering a pleasant walk for those with time on their hands. Xar was heading for the Warden’s Library, which was larger than even the official library of the Palace. Though the person he sought could have found all the information he needed from the main library, Xar knew this was where he would be. Bren learned fast, and already knew much about the current state of the galaxy, the New Imperium, and the Jedi Order. Now he was seeking Force knowledge, delving into secrets only Masters usually ventured after, trying to regain some of his lost Force knowledge. Trying because he had complete amnesia.
Bren, the name he’d chosen, had been found on Moro Three, the Krri’Graq Homeworld, immediately after the defeat of the insectile race and their NI occupation. Xar and Mathis had found the man in a stasis chamber in the Krri’Graq repository of Force artifacts. The device was still functional, and they had been shocked to find a live person still inside. But not just any person; this man had been in there longer than the machine was able to record. The timer had run out, stuck at its maximum reading at 9,999 years. Later, their scientists had studied the chamber and estimated he’d been in it for at least twice that.
It was virtually a miracle that Bren was alive at all. He’d been critical for days, then finally stabilized, and they had quickly discovered the man’s awesome Force potential. But he’d had no control over his powers, and lashed out unknowingly, causing harm to both his caretakers and the palace itself. Finally he came to, temporarily blind and speaking a completely foreign language. But it was then that the most depressing revelation had been made about him. He was suffering from complete amnesia. His past was totally shut off from him. Doctor Vannik surmised that it was possible his memories would return, and Xar had heard that Bren was finding some things familiar, and often had dreams about his former life. Perhaps he’d be able to stimulate the man’s memories today.
Bren had awoken blind and unable to speak Basic. His eyesight had returned within a week, though, and amazingly he had already begun learning basic. The man’s learning skills were remarkable; now in six months he had an excellent grasp on Basic and had learned to read as well. But it was his Force abilities that had returned even faster. Already Bren was at least as strong in the Force as Xar himself. He had had to learn the Force all over again, but every once in a while he would come up with something on his own, do something without thinking, that none of them had ever done before. Wherever and whenever this man was from, the mastery of the Force had been incredible.
As Xar entered the Library, passing through the old-style wooden door into the dark room beyond, he nodded to the chief librarian at the desk, an elderly Varnusan man who had volunteered for the job. He’d been happy to help out, as many of the Varnusans were, after the Palace and the city had been restored and their pride in their homeworld returned. It made Xar very happy to see his people filled with life and purpose once again.
The Library was arranged in two levels, with large, long wooden bookcases stretching further on, occupied by a myriad of books, manuscripts, and data files. The area was lit by small glowlamps hanging from the ceiling, which provided enough light to locate the items sought for. Another area was occupied by several tables with desk lamps for those studying material inside the Library. The place wasn’t trafficked by many at one time, since only the higher ranked Jedi frequented its halls, and only occasionally would a learning Jedi be sent to find some obscure manuscript or have the time allowed for personal study.
Bren was the exception. When he wasn’t learning about the new galaxy that had greeted him when he’d awoken, or engaged in his strenuous physical and Force training, he spent much of his time here, delving into the secrets of their Jedi records, searching through ancient manuscripts and datafiles for what Xar didn’t know. But he allowed the man in the hopes that he would stumble upon something familiar, something from his past, and jar his memories. The man was a living artifact, a treasure trove of Force knowledge. He just needed the right key to unlock that knowledge.
That wasn’t all Xar considered him good for, though. Bren could be a valuable asset to their new Jedi order, and could be a powerful ally in a fight situation, with his aptitude for physical combat and his awesome Force abilities. And from the time he’d been able to first communicate with him, Bren had turned out to be one of the kindest men he’d ever met. At a time when most anyone would be frustrated and angry, Bren had been patient with them and shown his kindness. Now that he had become a member of the Division, his good personality and love for learning had continued. He seemed completely content down here in the Archives, and Xar knew this was where he would be able to find him.
His senses turned out to be correct: he found Bren at one of the study tables on the second level, reading an old leather-bound book. He looked up as Xar approached, showing a calm expression and peaceful, dark blue eyes. His blonde hair descended to just below his broad shoulders. He looked regal even sitting there. Xar knew the way royalty carried themselves, their movements and expressions. This man was the very image of it. But there was one peculiarity about him; his face showed tale-tale signs of scarring, almost in a pattern across his forehead and down his cheeks. They’d been more apparent when he’d first been revived, but bacta had healed them somewhat. Still, they were barely perceptible.
Bren smiled. “Grand Master Xar Kerensky, I am glad to see you again.”
“Hello, Bren,” Xar nodded. “Mind if I join you?”
“Please do. I was reading this old text I found.” The man spoke slow, as if carefully making sure to choose the right words. He’d learned Basic fast, though he hadn’t mastered it yet. It was clear it wasn’t his native tongue, and an odd accent Xar couldn’t place made his words sound clear and precise. “It is very interesting.”
“So how are you enjoying yourself, Bren? Does life in the Jedi Order suit you?” Xar asked, moving to the chair opposite him.
“It does, very much. I think your dedication to bringing back the Jedi as guardians and peacekeepers is very… honorable. I want to help out as much as I can.” As soon as he’d learned enough and been able to function well enough to make the choice, Bren had been told about their mission in the NI, and had been given a choice of what he wished to do. From the hospitality and kindness he’d been treated with, and having been presented with the facts, Bren had chosen to join them. Even now, he knew he was free to leave if he wished, but he truly wanted to become a Jedi again and regain his lost knowledge. Xar was glad of that.
Still, as much as Xar wanted to help him in his quest, and to learn from whatever knowledge the man had locked away, he did have a few slight trepidations about it. What if the old Bren had been completely different from this one? It wasn’t likely, he knew, that the two would be that different, but it still nagged in the back of his mind occasionally. Especially since Bren’s disturbing dreams.
“I know you hate me bothering you about this, but have you remembered anything yet?”
The man shook his long-haired head. “Sometimes something will be… familiar… to me, but nothing yet.”
“And your dreams?” Xar pressed. “Could they be glimpses into your former life? Even, perhaps, altered because you do not remember them?”
“I am not sure, Grand Master. But I hope not.”
Xar nodded, deciding not to press any further. It was clearly a touchy subject for him. “So, how about a workout? I have not had as much time to spend working with you and the new members as I would like, but I would be interested to see how much you have learned. Besides, I have a few new things I would like to show you that might bring something back.”
Bren nodded with a smile. “I would like that.”
descended quietly over the city of
Once again in his office, Xar began to pace, deep in thought. In his hand he fingered a small amulet, a piece of jewelry with a transparent crystal embedded as the main piece. It had belonged to Jedi Master Janus. Not long after being made a Jedi Knight in House Ar’Kell, in the Remnant’s secretive Dark Brotherhood, Xar had gone on one of his first assignments, to track down a rogue Jedi on the run. It was a mission that had turned out to be much, much more complicated. Janus, a relatively weak Jedi Master who had gone rogue, used the amulet and the crystal therein, actually a Force Splinter, to increase his Jedi powers to something of even a Jedi Master’s level. A Splinter was actually a piece of a much larger object known as a Force Shard, and had actually been only a legend until Xar had seen it for himself. He'd searched for it before, but it was Janus who had been obsessed with finding it and increasing his Force powers even more. Janus had died with his power, following his precious artifact down a seemingly endless abyss inside the cavern-strewn world of Lyccos III. Xar had managed to procure the man's amulet as something of a souvenir, something he seemed to be getting a lot of from his enemies. He shook his head. No, he'd killed Janus and taken it, he admitted. He closed his eyes, trying to hold back the sudden rushing of emotion and pain. How many people had he killed? He'd long since lost count. I'm so tired of the killing, he thought sadly to himself. And yet, once the battle began, it was like he became another person, a finely-tuned weapon, a wild animal suddenly unleashed. He shot first and asked questions later, acting as prosecutor, judge, and executioner all in one. The higher tensions mounted, the harder things became, the more he became that ruthless warrior. He could only blame it on his training by Runis. That had certainly been ruthless enough. But oddly enough, when things got hot, he would find himself liking the challenge. And that scared him more than anything else. Once again he thought of that part of Dasok Krun now inside him.
He had studied the Splinter, handled it, but never used it to any real extent, fearing he would become addicted to using it constantly. That was always a problem with Force artifacts of that sort. It was the same with the Scepter of Karanishma, but that was now gone, stolen a full six months before by whom he could only guess were the Eyes of Elfodd, led by that madman Grathkar Korealis. That thought still wanted to send his blood boiling. It had been stolen right from under their noses during the assassination attempt. Those kriffing thieves, he thought. Now that Korealis was supposedly dead, what had become of the Scepter? Its loss could hurt the New Imperium more than any of them knew. Xar had spent many hours delving into the Scepter's power, which allowed one to see virtually anywhere in the galaxy, and glimpse much more clearly events in the future and past than one could do in the Force unaided. And it seemed that now the future was more clouded than ever; more ominous. He was having trouble seeing what was to come, but he knew it was going to change things. Compounding the problem was that if, using the scepter, one sought out something specific, the artifact could reveal exactly the details or steps necessary to attain that goal or object. It wasn't something he'd prefer to have in enemy hands right now. But there wasn't a thing he could do about it, because it had not been at the discovered Elfodd base, and aside from that he had no idea where in the galaxy it could be...
Then there was the matter of the Elfodd Contingency itself. Nico had returned from the recent mission to find Kurt with an intact copy of the Contingency, handed over by Kurt himself. It was a book, obviously, written nearly five thousand years ago after the Sith War. But so far they had been unable to solve the thing. He sighed. So much to do, so little time. Replacing the amulet and moving to the desk, he keyed in a comm sequence on the computer terminal. The screen presented him with a view of the Warden’s quarters.
"Nico, come to my office, please."
At first, there was no reply. Then abruptly the image changed, and Xar gave a wry grin at what he saw. The lean, light haired man sat leaning back against the edge of the spa he sat in, his bare, pale torso showing above the water's surface. A thin, decidedly female set of hands snaked around his neck from behind, massaging him. That would be Mina, his Twi'lek maid. Or more than that, perhaps. Xar's grin grew.
The man onscreen sighed in satisfaction, then suddenly seemed to realize someone was watching. Glancing at Xar though the screen that would be sitting near the spa's edge, he gave a jolt and sat up straight. "Gr... Grand Master!"
"Sorry for the interruption, Nico. Could you come up here please?"
The man's eyes went wide, and he glanced momentarily over his shoulder. "Uh... Now? This isn't a really good time..."
"Vacation is over. Just do it," Xar interrupted him, closing the link. He glanced at his chronometer, noted the late hour. Oh well, this would be his last audience tonight.
Nico Flygras was actually one of his most loyal and trusted friends. And one of the few people Xar had opted to share the Elfodd Contingency with so far. Of course, he hadn't had much choice when Nico had returned from his last mission with an actual complete, working copy. The other one, found and reconstructed by Mathis, had a safety password mechanism which they had virtually no chance of breaking. A Holocron in all but name, the strange book, the Elfodd Contingency, held a tremendous secret hidden for longer than all surviving Jedi records went back. A secret destined to change the entire galaxy and bring balance to the Force, at last. Xar knew it had something to do with what Icis had taught him, about his ‘True Force’ philosophy – neither light nor dark. But further details were still a mystery.
Xar had originally sent Nico on a search to find the former Warden Kurt, a founding Ar’Kell member and one of the key players in the New Imperium founding. But on a mission to find what he thought was the last untouched Sith Temple, Kurt had vanished without a trace. Nico had followed the former Warden's path into the Unknown Regions and Delta Sector, only to find much more than they had ever dreamed to find. First, along their way they had run into a fanatical Imperial faction whose leader claimed to be working directly for the Emperor himself. The Emperor Reborn. The rumors spreading throughout the Empire and the galaxy, rumors most dismissed as fantasy, were true beyond their most horrible imaginations. Palpatine was alive again, and Nico had seen himself, via a holo-transmission from the Imperial faction's leader. Still, as monumental as this news was, it was only one of the problems Xar had to deal with. All that had happened before Nico and his team had even reached Kryshran, where secrets far older and more powerful than the Sith awaited them. The Kurt they met there was nothing like the one they knew. A strange man named Rofel, who, according to Nico, used the True Force, neither Light nor Dark, had turned Kurt to his own plans to release the spirit of an ancient Warlord imprisoned inside the Repository, a collection of hundreds of Jedi spirits from eons past. But he'd needed a body for the victim, and planned to use a young girl captured from Valtarin, where her brother ruled and had helped Nico's party on their journey. Nico's group had arrived just in time to foil the plot and save the princess, but could not convince Kurt to come back with them. Kurt escaped, but Rofel died trying to stop the Repository from shattering. He'd failed, and the resulting release of energy decimated the planet and sent shockwaves through the Force strong enough for anyone with Force potential to feel. Kurt's whereabouts were unknown, now. Before he'd left, he'd shoved a copy of the Elfodd Contingency into Nico's hands.
Xar shook his head. The entire mission had been one incredible sequence of events after another. Nico and the surviving members of his party had gotten a well-deserved break while Xar and the Jedi Division’s Council tried to piece together the puzzle which had been handed to them, bit by bit, more and more as time went on. And at this point they were far from the answers they sought.
Moments later the door opened, intruding on Xar's thoughts, and Nico entered, a robe draped around himself and his hair still a bit visibly wet.
"Nico," he acknowledged with a nod. The other man bowed, then moved unbidden to the seat across from Xar and sighed.
"Just tell me this isn't another crazy mission," he said in a jocular tone.
Xar smiled. "No. Actually I wanted to talk to you. By the way, I thought you were with that princess..."
Nico flushed, and glanced downward. "Well yes, Nareni and I are in love. We can't see each other all the time though, because she lives on Valtarin... Mina is just my maid, nothing more. She’s just doing the job you hired her for." His gaze rose stubbornly to meet Xar's, as if daring him to press the subject. Xar shrugged it off.
"In that case," he began. With the press of a few buttons he brought up a file on his holoscreen. "You know about all the rumors of Palpatine returning to lead the Empire?"
Nico shrugged. "Of course. I saw him, remember? Just his outline, but the presence behind it... It had to be him. Of course, most people would consider even a decree like that by the Imperial Remnant to just be a fraud and a hoax. I wouldn't have believed it myself until I saw him."
Xar arched an eyebrow, and glanced at his screen. "Well, I think recent events will cause people to re-evaluate what they think they know regarding the Emperor's death. This 'hoax' has launched a full-scale assault on Mon Calamari, with a whole fleet of 'mythical' World Devastators. If they can do anything like the Pillager Nine could, then I do not see how they have a chance."
Nico gasped, sitting forward with sudden interest. His mouth had dropped; his reluctance at coming vanishing into the air. "Palpatine is moving at last! And striking Mon Calamari first? That's..."
"Incredible? Insane? Not-unexpected? After all, this is the Emperor we are talking about here."
Nico nodded slowly, as if trying to digest all this new information. "So... What do we do?" he asked finally.
"We continue as we have been," Xar answered promptly. "There is no reason for us to become involved, yet. We would only get in the way. Besides, we have our own problems here..."
Nico nodded in acquiescence. Xar wondered how the man was taking it all so easily. He changed the subject. "Have you been studying the Elfodd Contingency?" he asked.
"Some, but I haven't had a lot of access to the device," the
man responded. True, with only one copy to use, access was strictly portioned
out. The book was not even kept in the treasury, where most other artifacts
were. Mathis had a secret location where he studied and brought it out to allow
others access only occasionally. Except for the Grand Master, of course. But
that was a problem that had been plaguing him from the start. There was no one
they had found who was experienced with tapping into what they had deemed the
"True Force". The words in the Elfodd Contingency had been sealed
away since the early days of the
"I'm still not completely clear on this ‘True Force’, master," Nico was saying. "It seems to me like a step backward, not forward."
Xar nodded. "Yes, but that is because we have not fully explored the depths of our abilities within the Force. This has opened up an entire new world to us, without many of the limitations we had learned to live with. We do not know how far we can go, and there is no one to teach us." He sighed. "The Jedi who had this knowledge and mastered the Force are long-since gone, dead for millennia. We have had to rediscover what bits we can on our own. We are groping through the dark. It is very akin to learning the Force on one's own instead of from a practiced Master."
Nico nodded sadly. "And the one person who could teach us has permanent amnesia. He doesn't even know his real name."
"His memories may return in time," Xar said, trying to sound confident. In truth, he wasn't sure at all whether Bren would remember his past. Nico knew about Bren, being a close confidant of Xar's and a link in their chain of those who knew about the True Force. Still, they had kept the knowledge of Bren's true identity as contained as possible.
"We may not know everything," Xar told him, "But surely we know most. We can do nearly everything we could before we began using this, except for some of the darkest Sith powers that were banned anyway. And everything is better, so far. I will continue to teach you what I know."
Nico nodded his thanks. "Still, I can't shake the feeling that there's a lot more out there we have no idea about." Nico looked uncertain.
"That may be. But in time, we will find out. I know it."
Bren was dreaming. Lying on the bed in his moderately sized quarters, he tossed about, trying to avert the dreams which came to him almost every night. But he couldn’t stop them; he never could.
These weren’t the strangely familiar and prophetic visions he’d had during his unconscious recovery from stasis. Those he knew were real, ones he had experienced in whatever life he’d had before. These, on the other hand, were true nightmares. Some hidden part of his brain was conjuring up apparitions of terror, made all the more horrifying because he knew they were there for a reason.
Inside the dream, he had no idea they weren’t real, though. Backed into a corner, he shrugged away in terror from the hands reaching for him, white, pale, dead hands. They groped hungrily for him, eager to destroy him, crying out for his death. Crying out for revenge. And he knew why they wanted it. He’d killed them.
He didn’t know how or why; his former life was completely obscured from him, save for brief glimpses of shadow which passed by through the mists of his subconscious. They came in dreams, or in moments when something happened to him that he knew had happened once before, long ago.
He pushed back in terror, frantic to be away from those groping hands. Then the wall behind him gave way, and he fell. Fell forever.
His eyes snapped open, showing him the ceiling of his small quarters in
“Lasitus.” A voice spoke out of the dead silence, causing a jolt of fear shooting into his bones. The voice was soft, but formless, soundless, reverberating throughout his head. He didn’t understand what the word meant, but there was something familiar about it…
Then suddenly the bed tipped down, revealing a dark opening below him. He slid down, quickly, down the tilted bed, as dark hands grabbed him and pulled him into the darkness, laughing.
He screamed, lashing out with his hands, with his very being, fighting. His life force seeped out of him as his desperation grew, then blackness consumed him.
woke most of the city of
"Master Turles, the control room is being set up now. Soon we will be able to begin the plan you have laid before us." The short-haired blonde man glanced around the room, his face emblazoned with a fierce-looking crisscross of tattoos. Nearby in the grand atrium of the Fortress of Hijarna, a second man with a similar, yet slightly different design of tattoos sat on a stone bench, watching alertly.
At the top of the broad dais, the person they watched so vigilantly turned to face his subordinates and gave a half-grin. He wore a white cloak, signifying his high rank, underneath which was a light yet durable body armor which clung closely to his muscular form, covering his torso, waist, and matching the shin and forearm guards he wore. His tattoos were few, yet elegant, running out from his mouth and eyes, forming a wicked-looking design on his cheeks, joining on his forehead in a V. His long, dark hair was pulled back in multiple dreadlocks about two centimeters thick. His dark eyes met his pupils' knowingly.
"Patience, my friend Elmbore. The Force speaks as it will, and does not follow the busy meandering of mortal beings. Your brother Kletian understands.”
Turles had spent much time delving into the power of the Scepter of Karanishma. Many secrets had been revealed to him, and his plan is slowly forming. “Each moment I remain in meditation it is revealed to me one more step toward our goal. I search the Scepter, ask it what we need to accomplish them, and it reveals to me what is necessary to gain what we desire."
Elmbore nodded respectfully. "You are right, Master Turles. I only wish to know what my next goal is, so I can devote my full energies to accomplishing it."
"With Immortality in our hands, we will be unstoppable. Nothing will be out of our grasp," Kletian spoke from the corner. "Even the Shok'Thola could not stop us. The Scepter will reveal any opposition to us and show us exactly how to counter it." He finished with an ironic laugh.
"And what if it shows your defeat?" a new voice called out. "What does the Scepter tell you will cause us to fail?"
From the nearby archway a dark-cloaked figure emerged, flanked by several others of varying stature. They were the figure's Apprentices, Dark Jedi he'd taught in his over fifty years practicing the Dark Side. The leader pulled back his hood, revealing a gaunt face laced heavily with age. His cheeks and eyes seemed sunken, his skin stretched and thin. His head was bald and pale. But there was a fire in his eyes borne from decades of practice in the Dark Side arts. Dark Jedi Master Estod was the second member of their little triad, second to Turles, though the dark Master probably thought he was in command.
Turles dismissed the comments with a wave of his hand. "Soon all
our plans will fall into place. The Scepter has clearly shown me what needs to
be done. First, we take the Kaiburr Crystal.” His eyes gleamed as he spoke.
“Amazing that such an object still exists in this galaxy. Then, we find this
boy, this child the Scepter has shown us. He is the key to this. Then our good
doctor uses the child, with his machines, to set up the device necessary to
give us the near-limitless power he can draw through the
"Yes, and without me, your plan is rubbish."
Both men turned toward the croaking sound of the newcomer, a short, balding man dressed in tattered robes. As aged as Estod appeared, Doctor Borowen looked much worse. His flesh was splotched, his eyes sunken pits. As he smiled, only a few teeth were there.
Estod snorted as the man approached. “Is all your equipment finally set up?”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” the ancient man countered. “You have no comprehension of the details involved with implementing this scheme.”
The third member of the triad, Borowen thought himself the most important chain in the link. As the brain power behind their plan, he was the only one with the skills necessary to manipulate technologies associated with neural interfaces. With his devices he could control one’s mind for whatever purposes he desired, an ability that was an essential part of Turles’ plan.
“We don’t have forever,” Estod said, a touch of anger and contempt showing in his voice. Estod was old; he’d been a Dark Master even before the Clone Wars. His time was fast running out, and he knew it. Every time he delved into his dark powers it filled him with life, but afterwards it drained more and more of his essence. A disadvantage to the dark path he and others had chosen, drawing too deeply on the Dark Side could be fatal. Fortunately for Turles, he didn’t have that drawback.
“Patience, my friend,” Turles soothed him.
“Patience! I have waited thirty years to exact my revenge on Runis! I won’t have it spoiled – or delayed – now.”
Turles smiled. Estod may have waited long for revenge, but Turles had trained his entire life for the art of combat, and for the impending Return. It was his sole purpose for living. He was a killing machine, one that had turned from its former ways in order to acquire the power for himself.
“We will bide our time until the moment is right to make our move,” Kletian said confidently. “Then all our plans will be realized.”
"I still don't like your plan, Turles," Estod muttered. "It's too risky. It could reveal us too soon."
"Nothing worthwhile is accomplished without risk," Turles countered, becoming more than a little annoyed.
"Yes, but what if the Jedi find us?" Estod’s words were pointed and concise.
Turles snorted. "The Jedi are extinct. All that remains are small bands of untrained whelps, and we know all about them and their activities. We have studied the Jedi and their development intensely over the years, watching. If any of the few scattered factions find us and try to stop us before we reach our goals, they will learn the error of their impudence. No Jedi alive today has a chance against me. And with the boy transferring the full power of the Kaiburr Crystal to me, I'll be unstoppable..." He smiled.
Master Estod shook his head, and returned an evil grin of his own. "No. WE will."
Turles' eyes narrowed, and he turned and left from the room, his white cloak billowing out behind him.
in the lonely, empty alleys of the business district in the city of
Derek made his way out of the alley and started down a sparsely-traveled street. Here in the business district, stores and companies dotted the sides of the street, and he usually stayed clear of them. There were always bad people who would want to take him away or put him to work as a slave. So far he had become adept at evading them, though. He was a small boy, with a dark mop of hair and a grimy face – he hadn’t had a real bath in ages – and his green eyes stared out searchingly along the street for a source of food or money. Sometimes he could do small things for money, and sometimes he had to “borrow” it from people. He didn’t like that much, though. His mom had taught him it was wrong to steal.
A brown-robed form huddled against the side of one of the buildings caught his attention. He didn’t know why; he saw homeless people all the time, but something about this person seemed different. He walked up hesitantly. The figure seemed asleep. The brown robe he wore was tattered and thin.
Then suddenly the person looked up at him, causing a small jolt of surprise in Derek. He was an older man, his brown hair turning gray; his face lined with age marks. But it was a kind-looking face, almost sad looking. He wondered if he should speak.
The stranger spoke first. “Hey there. My name’s Jace Burter. What are you doing down here in the big city?”
“I live here,” Derek said simply. He didn’t give his own name. That wasn’t a smart thing to do. If people knew your name, they could hurt you. “What about you?”
“I used to pilot trade ships, but they hired a bunch of Duros to do it for ‘em. I’ve been living here for years now. Strange that we haven’t met before.”
“Yeah, strange,” Derek repeated. An old pilot? He probably had some interesting stories to tell. And something felt odd about this man. “You’re hiding from something, aren’t you?” he asked on impulse.
The old spacer smiled. “You’re a smart lad. I sense the spark in you, quite deeply. I have to keep hidden from those who are after me for my… abilities.”
“Were you a Jedi?” It was his first thought – too exciting to miss such a chance to meet a real Jedi!
“You know about the Jedi, do you, lad?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t?” His mom had taught him about the Jedi, and he’d heard stories from some of this friends.
“Well, I suppose you’re right,” the old spacer conceded. “I never reached Jedi Knight. The Empire came before I could, and hunted down our kind. We’ve got to keep ourselves hidden, secret our powers away so the wrong people won’t be able to use them.”
Derek just nodded quietly. He knew he had “the spark”, the ability to become a Jedi, though he didn’t know much about it. He used it, on occasion, to help himself out of sticky situations. Sometimes he used it to trick the bad people, or to help himself get money or food, though whenever he did he felt bad for doing it, and tried not to anymore. He imagined the Jedi must have incredible abilities, way past his simple mind tricks and illusions. They had been the Guardians of the galaxy, the heroes of legend, able to defeat the bad guys without ever losing. That was, until some of them turned against the Jedi. Until the Empire used them. At least, that’s what he’d learned.
“I was valued, once, because I could see things,” the spacer said, his voice distant. “The Empire would have wanted that. They’d have killed to have me.” He looked into Derek’s eyes, coming back to the present. “I can see a lot about you, my young friend. You’ve a great future ahead of you. You won’t be on this rock much longer.”
“Don’t say things like that. They’ll never come true,” Derek said plainly.
“Oh, but it will, lad. I can’t see things very clearly all the time – I suppose if I was fully trained it would be easier – but I see some clear things about you, lad. You will be a great Jedi someday.”
Derek shook his head in confusion. Should he believe this old spacer? “But how can that be? The Jedi are gone.”
“I don’t know, lad. I just know it’s true.”
Derek and the man named Jace talked for a while longer, the spacer recounting some of his old piloting days, and his trip to Coruscant before the Clone Wars erupted. Then he gave Derek some credits he said he had been saving and told him to get something to eat.
“Won’t I see you again? I like talking,” Derek told him. “I don’t have many friends to talk to.”
“Of course I’ll be around, lad. Us Force-users have to stick together.” He gave another kind, sad smile, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Derek thanked him for his generosity, promising to repay him someday, then continued down the street, intending to buy something to eat.
Dark Jedi Master Estod sat alone in silent contemplation. Turles was beginning to overstep his bounds, but his usefulness could not be discounted. His plan seemed foolish, but even if there was a slight chance it could be accomplished Estod knew he would do anything to attain it. He traced a hand across his scarred face, remembering the events of over thirty years before. He was the only remaining survivor of Runis’ betrayal of the Brotherhood of Darkness. Nearly everyone had been killed when the Republic ships swarmed over their great Hall, destroying them. Only Estod and a few others had made it out, but then Runis had come to hunt them down, one by one. Cernis, Farn, Distris… All had died because of Runis’ treachery. Estod had retreated to the shadows, training those he could find in the Dark Arts, forming his own elite Brotherhood of Dark Jedi. But he was old, now. Soon he would join the rest of the Council in eternal darkness, unless… Turles’ plan. Immortality could be his. The mere thought of it sent jolts of exhilaration throughout his frail old body. With it, he would never die, and he would rise to take revenge upon all who had thwarted him before. He, Dark Jedi Master Estod, would be greater than the Emperor ever had been. For unlike the Emperor, he would be truly Immortal.
Estod’s cackled madly at the thought. Vengeance would be his, and he would live forever. Nothing would stop him. His cackles turned into laughter, laughter he could not stop. He would be Immortal.
* * *
Another week passed on Varnus with little incident. Word spread that Grand Master Xar had finally given in and accepted a personal guard to escort him at all times. As much as Xar agreed with the necessity, he didn’t like it, and made sure to keep the guards out of his own chambers. Meanwhile, activity seemed to blossom again. Training continued at a heavy pace among the Jedi, both new and experienced. Rynn Mariel had become something of a prodigy, training harder and learning faster than any of the other Initiates. She seemed possessed of a strength and focus that was very rare among beginners. Within the week she had already passed through the Academy and advanced to Guardian.
At the same time, news of the strike at Mon Calamari by the supposed
reborn Emperor Palpatine continued to filter in, as well as stepped-up
activities by other Imperial Warlords, feeling braver with a new master at the
helm. After the defeat of Thrawn, Imperial organization and morale had seemed
to collapse. Hope of re-establishing the New Order had been all but
extinguished. But now, a counterstrike on almost all fronts was driving the
World Devastators. One of them had been captured from Admiral Tarjon Solus from his secret Sovereign-class Star Destroyer production site in the Vargon Death Cloud. With physical evidence of the Empire’s new death machines sitting right in the New Imperium starfleet, and the word of Nico and his team actually seeing the reborn Emperor himself, the New Imperium couldn’t dispute what was happening. Thus, instead of covering up the evidence, the Senate released the news for everyone to see and judge for himself. After the recent attack by COMPNOR forces and the expulsion of countless Imperial-loyalists within the NI, there wasn’t very much love for the fanatical antics of this new Empire. The Senate chose to keep themselves out of the conflict as much as possible, and their decision was widely approved. The New Imperium wouldn’t be involved in this war, it was decided. It was exactly what Xar had been hoping for.
* * *
Xar stood on the open field, watching Icis Novitaar carefully. The man had proven his friendship and loyalty to Xar, and had given him invaluable advice over the few years they had known one another. Indeed, if not for Icis, Xar would probably not even be alive, and Ar’Kell would probably have been destroyed or made a slave of the Dark Brotherhood. But Icis had more to offer than simply advice; he had taught Xar the ways of the True Force, and had revealed Force powers that Xar had never even heard of before. This was one of those times that Xar treasured.
“This technique is called the Focus Bomb,” Icis stated, standing simply in front of Xar. “It is called so because it uses another, simpler power, Draw Force, to pull in all the Force around you and focus it into e a powerful, explosive ball of life energy. Thus the name. I shall demonstrate.”
Xar felt the Force stirring within Novitaar. Although not quite Xar’s match, Icis was still stronger than any other Master in the Jedi Order. As he watched in surprise, he felt the man growing stronger by the second, slowly at first, but building in momentum.
“Open yourself to the world around you, Xar,” Icis instructed. “Feel it flowing between everything in its infinite, regenerating cycle. You will draw that Force into you, but let it come slowly.”
“If it takes so long, how can it be used effectively in a fight?” Xar asked pointedly.
“Indeed, it takes time to perform, and you could be defeated while trying. But if you do have enough time, this attack is virtually unstoppable.”
As he waited, he felt the power in Icis spike suddenly, climbing far higher than Xar could ever hope to pull in by himself. He gasped in shock. Then Icis set his stance, his brow knitting in concentration, and he held a hand in front of him. Wind began to stir his clothes, and as Xar watched in fascination, a pinpoint of light appeared above his outstretched palm.
“Focus the energy,” Icis coached, even as the point of light grew larger and brighter, first to a small ball, then to a sphere larger than his hand. It continued to grow, larger than his head, then to nearly twice its size. Xar realized he no longer felt all that power inside of Icis; rather, it was now inside the sphere of energy floating above his hand. And it was more Force power than he’d ever felt before. It glowed with light and warmth, and Xar felt inexorably drawn to it.
“This is as much as I can draw, personally,” Icis said, his voice strained. Then he relaxed, and stood holding the ball aloft, his gaze resting on Xar. “The stronger you are, the more powerful Focus Bomb you can create.”
“And what happens now?” Xar asked.
“This is a subtle weapon. Most opponents don’t detect it until it’s too late. When I throw the Focus Bomb, it will lock itself onto its target and unleash it’s energy. It cannot be overcome with anything less than the amount of energy currently inside it.”
“But that is more Force power than I’ve ever felt before,” Xar said, transfixed by what he was seeing and hearing.
“Exactly what makes it so dangerous. And once made, the Focus Bomb must be used.”
Abruptly Icis turned and hurled the ball of energy away, toward a large hillock rising off in the distance. The ball left slowly at first, then picked up speed rapidly, flashing across the distance to impact against the ground and disappear inside.
Then the entire hill exploded outward as though a turbolaser had struck it. Dirt and flame shot skyward, and the resounding boom of it hit the two Jedi with enough force to drive them back a step.
“Practice using the Focus Bomb,” Icis said once the noise died down and the dust began to settle far away. “One day it will save your life.”
Xar shook his head in disbelief as he saw the huge crater, all that was left of the large hillock.
* * *
Master Alyx Misnera, once known by his callsign of “Vamp”, strode out across
the breezy plain about fifty kilometers north of the
As he reached the lip of the shallow crater, he came to a stop in front of the two guards that had alertly watched his approach. A brief exchange and showing of his identification allowed him to pass, but still Alyx wondered at the stepped-up security. Apparently Xar had finally given in to reason. That would be a welcome change.
He passed the edge of the crater, where grassy plan met bare earth, and his eyes trailed down to the lone figure standing in the center of the area. Dressed in plain, dark clothes, having forgone the cloak he wore only on occasion, Grand Master Xar Kerensky didn’t exactly strike fear into those that saw him. Dark-haired and well fit, he nevertheless held a kind of aura about him. Not one of imposing power and terror, as Darth Vader had shown, but of calm, simple danger and a touch of mystery. Alyx knew that to face the man meant you’d better not slip up, or Xar was likely to capitalize on your mistake – to amazing effectiveness. As he moved down into the wide clearing, Alyx felt the power Xar was holding even at this distance. Xar wasn’t facing him; his attention was focused away and to his left, and Alyx knew not to get too close. He stopped about twenty meters from him and watched.
Xar was currently holding more Force power than Misnera could have safely drawn himself. Alyx knew if he’d tried to actually use that much power, he’d more likely lose control and destroy everything around him – and himself along with it. But Xar held it with cool control and confidence, and his focus was almost palpable in the warm, still air.
As Alyx watched, Xar set his stance, his feet burrowing into the dirt beneath him, and he raised his hands in front of him, together, one up and one down, palms outward. Alyx felt the Force energies gathering in front of his hands. Droplets of sweat ran down the Grand Master’s face, collecting on his chin and dripping to the dry ground below. For an instant, it was as if everything slowed to a near-stop, as if time itself had begun to drag. Then, all at once the energy coalesced, exploded into a ball of energy in Xar’s hands, and flew out almost instantly toward its target, annihilating a man-sized boulder in an explosion that sent hot pieces of rock flying back at them both. The entire action took barely the space of an eye-blink; only Misnera’s own training and proficiency with the Force let him catch what happened. It was why time had seemed to slow. A trained Jedi could increase his senses and speed in order to catch every such detail. But of course, he could only sense it so far as his own power level allowed. There was theoretically no limit to how fast a Jedi could move, and Alyx wouldn’t be able to catch it at all if Xar had been much faster. As it was, both men were easily able to sense and avoid the rock fragments that pelted the ground around them, sliding around invisible fields of air that protected them.
Breathing a heavy sigh of exertion, Xar straightened and turned toward Vamp, giving a half grin. “How was that?”
Misnera broke into a cynical grin. “Any stronger and we’ll have to move the training grounds further from the city,” he said.
“I can do even better than that,” Xar returned with a grin. Misnera believed him, since the man had a natural talent for energy projection. Strangely enough though, he was weak in absorbing the same kind of energy. “Good to see you, Alyx. Something up?”
“Yeah. I guess you know me too well,” Alyx interred.
“Well, I doubted you would come all the way out here just for a social visit.”
“True. I want to call a meeting of the Council. I’ve already informed the others, I just need to collect you.”
“Very well then, I will be right behind you. As long as my new guard does not mind, of course,” Xar added with wry expression. “They give you any trouble?”
“No,” Alyx shook his head. “They don’t let you out of their sight, do they? It makes sense of course. You’ve had enough assassination attempts already.”
Xar grunted. “So what is this meeting about?”
“You’ll see. I think I’ve found us a new source of recruiting,” Vamp replied with a grin.
“Sounds interesting. Shall we be off, then?”
Inside one of the small, private conference rooms inside the Palace, the Jedi Division Council met to discuss Misnera’s new plan. Alyx himself currently held the floor, and everyone’s attention, as he explained the details of his proposal to the leaders of the Division. Gathered around a small holotable, the room’s ten occupants, their dress as varied as they themselves, sat and listened attentively.
“As you know,” Misnera explained, “Our stream of new members has fallen back to little more than a trickle. Too many recruits either give up or don’t pass the tests, and our recruiting methods within the NI itself can only go so far. I propose we locate a new source of members. And I think I’ve found the perfect spot.”
“I agree with your assessment of the situation, and the need for more members,” the Dean of the Academy, which was in charge of apprentices and novices, Kayt Osiris, spoke from underneath his hooded cloak. The light from the lamps overhanging the holotable bathed his face in shadow. Unlike Alyx, he didn’t rise, but everyone looked at him, anyway. “There are fewer members passing through the Academy every month. However, things aren’t quite so desperate. The palace is still full of members, many of whom are fully-fledged Jedi.”
A low snicker came from underneath the hood of the man across from him, one that could only have come from the Warden, Vynd Archaron. “You haven’t seen the roster lately, have you, old chap?”
At the head of the rectangular table, Xar brushed a hand across his face in a tired-looking gesture. “Okay, okay. What exactly are you proposing, Alyx?”
From his standing position to Xar’s left, Misnera reached down and tapped a few buttons on his console, identical to the ones in front of every Council member. In response, the table’s built-in holoprojector came to life, creating a floating image of the galaxy in front of him. The New Imperium territories, at the edge of the galaxy’s disk, was marked, along with a few important locations such as Coruscant and the Imperial-Rebel borders. Each member present would already have recognized these locations, but they were still there for visual effect. A sector of space closer to the core was highlighted, and the entire map was replaced with a close-up of the Queli sector. While not nearly as detailed as the huge databases located in Star Destroyers or special meeting holoprojectors like those in the Senate or War Chamber, the map hanging in the air above them held the information being read from the chip Misnera had installed, and thus provided them with a good level of detail. One star system expanded to fill the space, followed by a close up of one of the planets, a blue and green world accented with long sections of white clouds. A class M, there was one massive ocean, in which rested three continents. The land was green, punctuated with vast purple plains, and small icecaps rested at the poled. Four small moons hung around the life-filled planet.
“This, gentlemen, is the planet Dathomir, in the Drackmar System.” Alyx said with satisfaction.
“Dathomir?” Another voice cut in. Sitting one seat down and across from Misnera, newly-designated Praetor Thrakus shook his blonde-haired head. “The system where Warlord Zsinj was defeated? The planet of the Force-witches?”
Alyx’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded. “That’s right. A planet full of Force-sensitive people, already half-trained… It could be the break we need. We considered it once before, but the NI was still young, and the galaxy was in turmoil because of the Mutiny. Now we have the means to do it. We can go there and offer them the opportunity to train and become Jedi. Not all may come, but even a few would be worth the trip.”
“Worth it, depending on what you ran into along the way,” Nico Flygras put in. Having just recently returned from a two-month journey into the Unknown Regions, he knew what it was like to meet unexpected obstacles on such a trip. “That is, even considering any would come with you. From what I’ve heard, these Force witches have formed clans, and hold tightly to their own kind. And just for the record, I am not going this one, thank you very much.” He glanced at Alyx knowingly. “By the way, are you sure the fact that they represent a source of Force-potential beings that is totally female hasn’t influenced your decision?”
Several smiles broke out from the Council members, and Misnera himself gave a wry grin. “I don’t think so. The advantages here outweigh the potential obstacles in our way. We’re talking hundreds of Force-sensitives here.”
“Not to mention breeding them with all our male Jedi would likely result in Force-Sensitive offspring, a good investment policy,” Archaron spoke up. Another round of laughs echoed through the room.
Misnera drew himself up to his full height, his eyes searching each of the Council in turn. “As I have proposed this plan, I will be responsible for it. I will personally lead this mission.”
“A trip to Dathomir…” Xar’s voice said softly. Alyx looked over at him. The man was staring at the holo-projection slowly spinning above the table.
“I volunteer my personal ship for this mission,” Misnera continued. “The Marauder-class Corvette Annihilator, courtesy of Phoenix Technologies. It will be more than enough to get me there and back.”
“Who else are you taking?” Mathis asked from his place at Xar’s right.
“I’m not exactly sure yet. Probably a team of Knights or higher…”
“I will go, too.”
The statement swung every head to the end of the table, where Xar sat looking thoughtfully. It was the Grand Master who had spoken.
“Most certainly not,” Nico countered.
“We can’t risk you,” Misnera added. “It’ll be too dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Xar gave them a challenging stare. “What do you know of danger and risk? And who are you to tell me where I can go and where I cannot go?”
Beside him, Deputy Grand Master Mathis leaned over and said something in Xar’s ear. The man nodded, and turned back to face Misnera. “I sense something about this mission. It is elusive, and it makes me concerned for your safety. I must go.”
Misnera hesitated. He didn’t want to put the Grand Master in danger, yet he couldn’t readily refuse his order without calling an awkward and potentially hurtful Council vote. If Xar came along, he would be in charge of the mission, then. He was the best man Alyx knew, and the most powerful Jedi he’d ever seen. If anyone among them was capable of doing this, Xar was. Finally, he nodded. “As you wish, Grand Master.”
“Then we call it to a vote. Shall we accept Master Misnera’s plan?”
Quickly, quietly, the Council cast their votes. At first a few of them seemed hesitant to accept it, undecided, but they finally gave in. Unanimously the mission to Dathomir was approved. It would begin.
One by one the Council filed out, leaving Xar, Mathis, and Misnera in the conference room to go over any other issues the mission might bring up.
“We need to decide what route we’ll take to Dathomir, and choose the rest of our team.” Misnera stated.
“Yes,” Xar agreed. “I will trust you with the route and the core member group, then I will add anyone else I think might be needed. I am going to take care of a few things and go get the Black Star ready. I want to take her on this one. It might prove useful.”
Misnera tapped his knuckles on the table thoughtfully. “Hmm. I’ll go ahead and call the Annihilator. If you want to take the Black Star, I will have one of the standard transports taken off before it departs from Tralar. It will also take a little while to prep it and get it over here on such short notice.”
“No problem. Anything else? Mathis?”
“What about the route you’ll be taking to Dathomir?” Mathis showed no evidence of his and Xar’s earlier argument, and neither could Xar sense anything of that sort from him. The gap between them seemed to have healed.
Misnera spoke up in answer. “I can use the HoloNet and access the great library on Obroa-skai to find all the information about Dathomir we need, as well as the best, fastest route there. It may take a while though. Should we all meet back here this evening?”
“Yes,” Xar agreed, “And then we will fill in the rest of our team in on what this mission is about. I will contact you a bit later to see who you come up with. Mathis, you should be there this evening.”
The Deputy Grand Master nodded. “I’ll look forward to it.”
With that, the three Jedi Masters rose and made their way out, the same way the rest of the Council had, earlier.
As soon as the last Jedi’s robes had flitted away from the exit, the air in the middle of the room shimmered and coalesced into a tall, dark robed form. The pale man turned his dark haired head toward the holotable, then looked back at the exit thoughtfully. Then abruptly the air folded around him again, and he was gone.
“All right Vamp, what have you got?” Xar asked Misnera four hours later. He looked through the screen at Misnera, who was seated at one of the terminals in the Palace command center.
“Well, I checked into Obroa-skai, and am still awaiting the results. I didn’t figure it would go fast. I also contacted the ship and told my people to get her ready and over here as soon as possible.”
“Excellent. And I am about to head over and prep the Black Star, also. Who have you selected for our team?”
“I’ve checked the roster pretty thoroughly, and there aren’t many choices. Still, I believe I have a good enough team set up for us. I’ve chosen Jedi Templars Omega Kira and Draken Ar’Kell. They’ll be good as support, against anything we run into,” Misnera informed him. “They’ve had time to rest up from the last mission with Nico, and their experience from it may help us. I’ve also chosen Jedi Knight Attrid Xoan.”
Xar nodded. “He is a good man to have along. Good team, Alyx. Anyone else?”
“Thanks. Um…Well, I’d also like to include Guardian Rynn Mariel.”
“She is a new student. Why her?” Xar arched an eyebrow.
“Well, think about it. The Dathomirans are all women. It would be good to have a woman with us, too. At least, subconsciously to them, I think it would help, and we didn’t have many to choose from.”
Xar made a noncommittal sound. “I met her, though I do not know here
that closely. She seemed very focused on her training.” He shrugged. “Xoan is
“All right then. I’ll let these people know.”
“ Tell them to come to the conference room in the morning. When do you think we should depart?”
“As soon as possible,” Misnera stated. “It’ll take most of tomorrow for the Annihilator to get here from Tralar. How about first thing the next day?”
“I will be ready if you are.”
“Then let’s do it.”
* * *
me… the… Kaiburr…
The aged, long white-haired woman shook her head adamantly, obviously clutching something under the layers of tattered robes covering her. “No! Old Halla knows who you are! She has seen you coming! You cannot have it!”
“You old fool. Give it to me or DIE!” Turles’ hand rose, slowly, threateningly, pointing his finger at the frail figure standing not far in front of him. The old woman’s eyes widened.
“No, no, evil Jedi! Old Halla won’t give it to you. Luke Skywalker entrusted it to her. I cannot let it fall into the hands of someone like you!”
“You don’t have a choice,” Turles spat. “And don’t ever call me a Jedi.”
“No! Doesn't matter! Halla
will stop you!” Reaching underneath her clothing, she produced a large,
multi-faceted red jewel and held it aloft. “
Turles' eyes glowed as he saw the object she'd brought forth. “Heh.
Pretty light show, but I’m afraid the
“You will see! Take this, evil Jedi!” Suddenly a wave of Force energy pulsed out from her. It washed over and passed him, strong enough to knock an ordinary man backwards through the air. But Turles wasn't budged. He snorted. If that was the extent to which she was prepared to fight, then it was a wonder she was alive this long at all. Obviously she had underestimated her opponent, opting to injure or disable instead of kill outright. Fortunately for Turles, he didn't have this flaw.
“You old fool! It’s time for you to die!” A flash erupted from Turles’ outstretched index finger, flaring across the street to strike the old woman. The squat figure flew backwards through the air, dropping the crystal, her tattered robes flying about. The form crashed against the far wall of one a building, fell slightly, then slammed against it again, and again, until the only sounds coming from the form were muted thumps as it hit. Finally the body landed and slumped into a pile. Then the crystal rose up from the ground and coasted through the air into Turles’ hand.
“Ignorant old hag,” Turles snorted. “You should have just given me the crystal. Now you’re dead.” He looked down into the deep, blood-red jewel resting in his palm. His eyes glowed for a moment as the light was reflected in them. This would magnify his Force power beyond anything he’d ever imagined.
“Good thing I didn’t send Kletian or Elmbore after this,” he said, a touch of awe in his voice. “They wouldn’t have been coming back with it.” Then he broke into a crooked grin. “But now it’s mine. And with this, I will become… Something powerful beyond imagination!”
Drawing deeply through the
The party members were assembled in a room very similar to the one that the Council had met in the previous day. Icis watched, concealed in the corner beside a potted fern, as the Jedi gathered around the holotable. Thin, red-haired Rynn Mariel; big, muscular Attrid Xoan; and the Quaestor and Aedile of Ar’Kell – Draken and Omega respectively, stood around the table dressed in appropriate palace attire, simple clothing with Jedi robes. Xar, Misnera, and Organa were at the head of the table, beside the holo-projection of the planet Dathomir. As the members watched, Xar put forward a brief detail of the mission to Dathomir and its objectives.
“We do not expect any serious trouble on this mission,” Xar explained. “There is a possibility that the Dathomirans will not accept us, of course. If that happens, then we will have to accept their wishes. We cannot force them to come back with us.”
Beside him, Misnera nodded. “Our mission is important, but we always have to respect the feelings of others. Are there any questions?”
“When will we leave?” The question came from Quaestor Draken.
Xar leaned forward. “We will be taking a Marauder Corvette, as you know, but it will not be here until sometime tomorrow, probably in the morning. We will leave as soon as it arrives. Is there anything that might hamper any of you from coming on this mission?”
No one spoke up, and Xar nodded. “All right then. Be ready to leave by tomorrow morning. The ship has its own supplies, so only take what you need. You will be called when the ship arrives, and we will assign transports at that time. That is all.”
The Jedi bowed, and the members left. Icis would have revealed himself then, but he noticed that Rynn had remained behind to speak with the three Council members.
“Yes, Guardian?” Xar acknowledged her.
The woman smoothed her robes unconsciously as she stood before the Jedi Masters. “I am… not one to question your judgment, sir,” she began a touch uncertainly, “but I do not know what help I could be to you. I am not a fully trained Jedi, yet.”
“I do not choose people solely because of their rank,” Xar told her. “You are more than ready to accompany us, and I feel you have much to contribute. This will also train you for later missions, when you are a full Jedi, that you will perform on your own. We often do this sort of thing. It will be an invaluable source of experience for you. That is your goal, to become a Jedi and protect others?”
“Of course, I mean, yes, Grand Master. That’s the goal I have set for myself, and I intend to accomplish it. I have determined to train harder than anyone else to reach my goal.”
“I am glad to hear it. And no need to be so formal around me, Rynn.” He smiled gently.
“Thank you for giving me this opportunity, sir,” Rynn said, determination in her green eyes. “I won’t let you down. I promise.” Then, bowing, she turned and made her way out.
Xar watched after her, stroking his new scar with a thumb. “She is very determined, very focused. More than anyone else I have seen at her level. But she is holding back; I think she is trying to push away her past. She needs to open up, let it out and deal with it.”
“She reminds me of how you used to be,” Mathis added, raising an eyebrow. From his thoughtful conjecturing in the corner, Icis agreed: her down-to-business, self-drawn personality did remind him of Xar.
Xar turned to look at Mathis, about to speak, then hesitated. “She has great potential,” he said softly.
“True. I can sense it in her.”
Giving a short laugh, Misnera settled into one of the seats at the table and scratched at his head. “Are you sure you two aren’t feeling something else about her?”
Mathis cleared his throat and sat down, while Xar shook his head and made a noncommittal sound. “What I sense it genuine,” the latter said. “She has real value to this mission. Which reminds me, if there is not anything else you needed to discuss, I have some things I need to take care of…”
“I’m coming with you,” Icis said simply, moving closer and dropping his Force Mask.
All eyes turned to the tall, dark robed figure that was suddenly standing in the room. Misnera and Mathis sprung to their feet, but Xar hardly seemed surprised. After all, Icis had done it to him countless times already, and the man knew he could appear at any moment. Instead, Xar arched a skeptical eyebrow at him.
“You must be joking.”
“No,” Icis replied flatly.
“Hey, wait a minute here, who in the Emperor’s name is this?” Misnera blurted, looking unsure whether to attack Icis or throw himself in front of Xar to protect him.
Mathis seemed to recover next, and settled back in his seat with a snort. “Novitaar,” he muttered.
“Icis is a special advisor of mine,” Xar replied, holding his hands up to calm Alyx. “He has been with us for a long time. I am sorry I could not reveal it to you yet.”
Icis felt an annoyed twinge. “I told you never to say my name in public.”
Xar shrugged, and Mathis brought his hand up to stifle a laugh as Misnera finally peered at Icis in recognition. “I remember seeing you now, you’re the Attaché to Archaron, the Warden.”
Xar idly stroked his scar again. “It is a dummy position,” he said. “He does nothing there.”
Mathis failed to stifle another laugh. Icis fought not to give a sigh of annoyance. “Why do you persist in making amusement out of me and my position?” he directed his question at the Grand Master.
“Who is making fun?” Xar asked, bewilderment on his face.
“Not me,” Mathis put in.
“Hold up here,” Alyx interjected. “So who is this guy, really?”
Xar leaned back in his seat and folded his hands across his stomach. “Now that is a good question, Alyx. Unfortunately, he will not talk about that, not really. He is very… stringent on information.”
“I’m serious, Xar,” Icis said, getting back to the subject. “I have to go.”
“To Dathomir?” Misnera blurted.
“What makes you so sure of this, Icis?” Xar asked, raising his eyebrows. “I am not necessarily opposed to it, but… You are going to have to be more open with me… About many things.”
Icis could not suppress a sigh this time, as he paused at the other man’s words. He hesitated to speak, without thinking things through. He’d already told Xar much. Too much, in fact. It might already be too late. Privately, he knew he’d already cast his allegiance on Xar’s side. Still, revealing what he knew to the man was against everything he’d ever learned, and it was almost painful every time he did it. But that didn’t matter. Slowly, silently, he nodded his head. “A number of times now,” he began, “You have gone off, alone, for whatever reason, time and again. Each time you put yourself in danger, increasing danger, it seems. I need to go with you, to record, to assist if necessary. And I feel something about this mission ahead. You know of my abilities, how I can sense important events, trace them. Suffice it to say I have a fairly strong feeling about this one. I also think we should take ‘Bren’ along…”
“You must be kidding,” Mathis said. “He’s not fit to go anywhere.”
Xar had opened his mouth to speak, then shut it abruptly. He swallowed, then spoke. “Bren? What for?”
“I have a pretty strong feeling about him, as well,” Icis explained. “You need to get to know the man, Xar. He’s an ancient Jedi. Far older than me…” He broke off, struggling with his next words. He’d already said way too much. Should he press this issue just on a hunch? That Bren needed to come on this mission, that there was something important Xar needed to learn from him? That if he didn’t come, everything they’d worked for would be for naught? “There are certain… Parties,” he spoke softly, carefully. You never knew who might be listening. “Those who might want him for his memories, as you know. What if he regains his memories and you are not there to find out? What if others are?”
Xar leaned back, realization dawning in his eyes as they met Icis’. “You are right,” he conceded. Involuntarily he touched his scar again. “I will trust you, Icis. You have always been truthful with me.” He sighed. “You and Bren will come.”
thirty minutes Xar had located and contacted Bren to tell him of the upcoming
mission. When he’d briefed him, the blonde-haired man said he would be
delighted to accompany him on the trip. Xar knew that it was due in part to the
man’s insatiable appetite for knowledge of the galaxy around him, but he
wondered if Bren was also motivated by a desire to get off Varnus. Though the
man had said he was perfectly happy here, Xar knew that feeling wouldn’t last
forever. And he was bothered by what Icis had said: that there were others that
would be after Bren. After him for his knowledge, and his abilities. Though it
was possible that information about him had leaked to the Empire or even the
But he had other things to do than sit and ponder. After speaking with Bren, he’d gone down through the western side of the Palace into a secret hangar, which held his own personal ship, the Crinn-designed and made Black Star. Like a raven with its wings outstretched, the thirty-meter long ship rested in the underground chamber, dim overhead lights gleaming off its jet-black, reflective surface. The cockpit sat forward, in the middle of the symmetrical vessel, with room for two in front followed by several utility stations. The rest of the ship spread out into two broad wings that were cut off at the ends and tapered back, ending in the engine array. Several stabilizer fins sat vertically for atmospheric control, and the ship had two laser turrets above and one beneath, blended into the dark hull.
In response to a code sequence Xar tapped into his remote control, the ship’s boarding ramp descended, revealing the dark interior within. As he paused, staring at the entrance, he was reminded of another mission that had started out similarly. Only a few years before, yet it seemed like an eternity ago. So many things had changed since then.
The touch of a few more buttons and the interior of the ship lit up, and Xar ascended the ramp and went inside. Though built over thirty years ago, the ship had only needed one overhaul and was still top of the line, comparable with any newly built ship in the New Imperium. In some ways, it was better. The vessel contained a veritable arsenal of weapons, both inside and out. Two quad heavy laser batteries sat forward on either side of the cockpit, accompanied by two rapid-fire missile/torpedo launchers. Each turret held another quad-laser array. Inside the ship itself was Xar’s personal weaponry, consisting of spare lightsabers, energy and projectile weapons, and a plethora of knives and other bladed and throwing weapons. Though the ship hadn’t been used in some time, Xar was fairly certain it would be spaceworthy with little or no maintenance. All he really needed to do was run a checklist, power everything up, and take any extra equipment he would need onboard. It shouldn’t take to long to do, but he might drag it out a bit. It would at least give him a respite away from the bustle of daily palace business and give him a chance to be alone for a while. Moving into the Black Star’s observation room and office, he went to the large wooden desk that had once belonged to his own mentor. He sat down in the plush seat behind the desk, the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to starboard at his back, and he relaxed.
* * *
Bren was dreaming again. But the dreams were distant, fleeting, and he couldn’t remember them as he shot awake in his room and sat up in bed. It was quiet. He glanced at the chronometer beside the bed. At first, the letters didn’t seem to make sense in his head. It was almost as if they were written in some strange, blocky language. Then, as he watched, the numbers revealed themselves. It was in the hours between night and morning; no wonder he was a little out of it. He shook his head to clear it. He wanted to go back to sleep, but strangely, he didn’t feel tired. The room was dark, but he could make things out, barely, as his eyes adjusted. It felt… strange, somehow, though. Unreal.
The word exploded into him, sending shivers through his entire body. The voice, impossibly deep and profound, resounded in his being, calling him. Both voice and word, so familiar that he should immediately recognize them, yet they fleeted just beyond reach. Mesmerized, he got out of bed, straining with his senses for the source of the voice, the meaning of the word. Echoes of it still lingered inside his head, imprinting an image upon his mind he couldn’t shake. Reaching to the stand beside his bed, he drew his robe over his underclothes, tying it around his waist.
“Lasitus…” The voice was faint now, higher-pitched, delicate. What does it mean?
“Who is it? Who is calling me?” But there was no answer. The voice hung in the air, fading slowly away, leading him toward the source. Intrigued, almost unconsciously, he followed it. Moving to the entrance of his quarters, he touched the handle, slowly opened the old-style wooden door. He stepped out into the corridor, glanced both ways. No one was in sight. Not strange for this late hour.
Then the voice called again. There. To the left, further on down the corridor. Vaguely he remembered it led outside, toward the western wing. The voice led him on, and he followed.
His bare feet padded softly on the stone floor, moving him forward without conscious thought. He reached an open chamber which split off down several other corridors. More living quarters, he knew, in this part of the Palace. He continued onward though, up a flight of stairs and into an open vista and walkway overlooking one of the courtyards. He looked down and to either side, but the place was empty. There was a slight fog, and the air held a surrealistic feel. He glanced up at the palace walls, and noted distantly that even the guard stations were unoccupied. They should not have been.
“Come,” the voice called out in his head. He obeyed.
He descended a winding flight of stairs that lead into the courtyard, then continued on, following only the guiding of the voice. It was then that he noted, only distantly, how dark everything was. He looked towards the city, and the skyscrapers which usually jutted up above the palace walls. There was nothing. Skyscrapers? What a strange thought. It had no meaning to him. He looked up at the sky, but saw only blackness. No stars; he couldn’t even see his home system, Golron. He arched an eyebrow, confused. Now where had that thought come from?
The voice spoke again, closer, much closer. He looked toward the sound, toward a sudden hole that appeared in the palace wall. It wasn’t supposed to be there, he knew, yet there it was. The sides of the hole looked perfectly smooth. Smooth as glass. He moved forward, passing through the opening without incident. Still no sounds, no activity around him. Ahead of him now was the west side of town, the side which hadn’t been completely restored. Broken buildings reached for the sky, their tops snapped off, like some predator’s teeth. Rubble strewed the streets, and gaping windows of the empty structures were dark eyes boring through his being. He went forward.
He barely noticed the uneven ground, the rocks he stepped on with his bare feet. All that mattered was that he reached that voice. He scraped his arm on the side of a broken outcropping, part of a building long since crushed. But it didn’t bother him. It wasn’t far, now. The light fog hung around him, but he could see his path ahead as clearly as if it were daylight. Steam rose slowly from vents in the street, in tall columns of white that joined the fog overhead. But he kept moving. Then, all at once, he felt he’d reached his destination. In response he stopped, waiting. He felt a presence nearby. A familiar presence, yet at frightening one at the same time. And it was powerful.
A dark figure stepped from around a pile of duracrete rubble, emerging through a column of steam to face him. The figure was cloaked in black from head to foot, revealing no trace of information about the character. Then the surrealistic feeling dropped, and Bren was plunged into a terrific sense of reality, of himself. He felt mirth and contempt in the gaze from the figure before him, a thousand different emotions and thoughts he couldn’t possibly hope to decipher. Then the being spoke, a deep voice, different form that which had called him, though he knew it was the same speaker.
“It is good to see you again, brother. It has been… a very long time.” A feeling of mirth again. “You haven’t changed much.”
“Who are you?” Bren asked. Oddly enough, he didn’t feel nervous, or afraid. He couldn’t discern any particular emotion in himself at that moment. He just was.
“When I heard you lived still, I had to see you for myself,” the dark form spoke.
“I said who are you?”
A slight feeling of annoyance, barely felt. “You know who I am.”
And suddenly, Bren knew. Brief feelings, fleeting back and forth, told him of the atrocities this being had committed. And the horror of it sent shivers shooting throughout his body. “No…” he denied it. This man was… had been… his friend? How could it be?
“I have come to take you back with me, brother.”
“What are you talking about? I… I don’t know…” Half-memories floated just beyond his grasp. He knew there was something important he was missing, but he just… couldn’t… remember.
Amusement from the figure. “You lie.”
He shook his head. “No… I was in a stasis pod. I’ve got… amnesia,” he admitted reluctantly.
Contempt. Anger. “You fool! You forgot.”
Bren clenched his fists. “I couldn’t help what happened to me! I’m trying to remember things… but it’s hard. That wasn’t the only effect I suffered.”
The figure actually laughed. “How touching. Well, come with me and I will restore your memories, and your power.” The figure’s arm stretched out towards him, the dark cloak falling away to reveal his bare arm. “Lasitus. I’m here to bring you back into the fold. Join me, and be my comrade once more. Remember who you are, and embrace your true self, and your destiny.”
“That’s right. Your name.”
Bren shied back from the figure in horror. “No… My name is Bren now! I won’t go with you. I’m happy right here, so just leave me alone!”
The outstretched hand clenched into a fist. “You don’t comprehend the scope of who you are.”
“I don’t care! If I was once who you say, I’m not like that anymore. I have nothing to do with that life now!” He’d changed. Hadn’t he? He couldn’t remember who he used to be, but he’d seen images, returned to that person in his dreams.
“You fool! What language are we speaking in?” The hand dropped, sliding by the figure’s side. Bren felt confidence in the stranger’s gaze.
“I…” Bren paused. He thought back to what the man had just said. Joznnar, supin de’luadi? His language. But… It wasn’t Basic; it wasn’t what he’d learned. It was the language he’d first spoken when he’d awakened from stasis! The language he knew, but didn’t know where it fit. Now there was no doubt; the man before him was telling the truth. “Who… are you?” he stammered in Basic.
The figure laughed again. Slowly his hands reached up and pulled back the dark hood concealing his features. And Bren… Lasitus… recognized who he saw. Long dark hair fell in waves behind his back, and he had a short beard accenting his handsome face. But his eyes, his gaze, held true power. The figure responded in his own language.
“I am Akargan. Your onetime comrade… and brother. Unlike you, captured by our enemies during the war, I survived.” He voice spat contempt. “You were tried and sentenced like a common criminal, but I became Shok’Thola.” The man’s eyes practically glowed with pride, and Bren felt it stir through his very being. The sense of pride tried to overwhelm him. He shook his head in denial.
“No! I don’t remember any of that! If you were with me back then, there’s no way you could still be alive! You’re lying!”
The dark man laughed, and gazed upwards past Bren at the palace. “Believe what you will, it makes no difference. There’s no challenge for me here. I could dispose of all of your friends in an instant.” He held out his hand once more. “I offer this to you one more time. Come with me.”
Bren stepped forward, clenching his fists. “Never!”
The man shook his head sadly. “I could restore your memories now,” he said in a low, considering tone. Then he dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “No, it will be better to let you remember on your own. Then your decision to join me will be sincere. I am the master now, Lasitus.”
“I’ll never join you. Leave me alone.”
The man ignored him. “When next we meet, brother, it will not be on such friendly terms. I offered you this choice now, but later it will come with a price.” His hood came back up on its own accord, covering his face again. He spoke in that low, groveling tone once more. “But… I cannot let you remember this meeting. It would reveal too much, and it is not yet time for our return. Goodbye, brother. I regret what has become of you, but I will make things right once more, for certain.”
With those words, a gout of steam shot up around the figure, obscuring him from view. It was the last thing Bren saw as darkness consumed him…
Then Bren snapped awake, sitting up in bed. He looked down at himself, his hair and underclothes soaked in sweat. A dream… He thought. But this time it was different. The dream seemed familiar, like he’d had it before. But what does it mean?
Then he looked over at his arm. It hurt. A trickle of blood came from the wound, trailing down his arm to drip silently on the bed sheet. Where had that come from?
* * *
The Jedi filed into the meeting room, each toting his or her bags and luggage for the mission ahead. Rynn, Xoan, Draken, Omega, Bren, and even Novitaar briefly took their seats among the grouping of chairs while Xar and Misnera waited at the front of the room to give a final rundown before they began. Xar, standing off to the side to let Alyx take the floor, studied the faces of each member of their group. Rynn seemed to be focused on the mission ahead, almost as much as Attrid Xoan. Omega and Draken were mumbling about something he couldn’t quite make out, and Icis looked bored as ever. Bren put on a smile for everyone, his usual cheerful self. Everyone’s confusion at seeing Icis and Bren there was averted when he explained that the two were late assignments to the group and would be very beneficial to the mission. Of course, Xar himself didn’t know if that was true or not, and he was certain the rest had their doubts, as well. But if they did, they kept them quiet.
“Good morning, everyone,” Alyx greeted the assembled Jedi. “I trust you all slept well. The Annihilator arrived during the night, and we are on schedule. I see everyone has their things together, so whenever the Grand Master is ready, we’ll leave.” He nodded to Xar. “Any questions?”
There were none. Xar stepped forward. “I want to thank all of you for accepting this mission. If everyone is ready, we will go ahead and get going.”
“I’ll go on up to the Annihilator and get her ready,” Misnera put in. “Draken, Omega, I believe you’re coming up with me on the shuttle?”
The two nodded and got up. As the three made their way to leave, Xar addressed the rest.
“All right. I assume everyone else is heading up with me on the Black Star?” Rynn, Xoan, Icis, and Bren nodded their assent.
“Good. Then, it is time we got underway.”
The Grand Master led them down through the palace, not toward the east-side landing pads as they might have expected. Icis followed silently. He knew where they were going. It actually felt odd for him to be walking with so many people. It had been a very long time. Even odder, his going on this mission. Interfering. It was against everything he’d learned. Yet, he’d done it before. And he did have a feeling about this mission. He knew he had to be on it.
After a number of confusing twists and turns, and the clearance of
several security stations, the five Jedi finally emerged in the hidden,
personal hangar for Xar’s ship. The
As the Jedi waited, Xar pulled out a remote control and tapped in a key sequence, and the Black Star’s boarding ramp descended soundlessly. Then, without further delay, he brought them up to the sleek, black-hulled craft and led them inside. The interior corridors were lined with red running lights that guided them toward the central room of the vessel, the office/observatory. The ship had already been powered up, and only awaited its human passengers to be off. Xar pointed them to where they could stow their gear and take seats for the trips into orbit. Then he called Icis up to the cockpit with him. Being the only other pilot among them, he complied, and joined Xar at the controls.
As Icis slid into the copilot’s seat and strapped himself in, Xar did the same, beside him in the pilot’s chair. They ran through the pre-flight sequence quickly; the ship reported itself at 100% efficiency. Xar politely turned the computer’s language from its Crinn default into Basic, then brought the ship fully online. A low rumble spread through the ship as its engine array came on line and the stabilizer fins extended all the way out. Then Icis watched, through the expansive view offered by the cockpit’s numerous transparisteel viewports, as the ship lifted up on its repulsorlifts and swiveled to face the hangar entrance.
“All systems go,” Xar called out, tapping switches on the control panel. “Traffic lanes clear, ready for departure.”
doors slid open before them, revealing the long access tunnel that ran through
the Palace from the outside. Then Xar pushed the control lever forward, and
Icis felt the force of their acceleration pull him back into the seat as they
shot off toward the exit. The tunnel sides sped by in a blur, the bright light
at the end looming towards them, and suddenly they were out, the deep blue
Varnusan sky filling the viewports around them. Xar angled the ship upwards,
burning for the sky, the city of
“I have the Annihilator onscreen,” he announced, targeting the vessel. A holographic marker painted itself on the viewport, bracketing an invisible point in the darkness ahead. “Twenty kilometers.”
“Go ahead and hail them,” Xar responded.
Icis complied as Xar locked their course in. Soon the ship’s outline came into view, aided by a computer representation as the distance between the two closed. At first, it was difficult to even see the ship. Icis realized why: the ship was painted black to decrease visibility. He quickly recalled the specifications that he’d learned for vessel. The Marauder Corvette was a sleek craft designed for both space and atmospheric flight. At 195 meters along the body, with extended airfoils, or “wings”, the ship looked more like an overgrown fighter. The ships were most commonly used by the Corporate Sector Authority, although Misnera had gotten his hands on one, being part of NI Command, now. This particular ship had been modified, however. It held twelve turbolasers over the standard eight. Two double-turbolaser clusters extended forward from the wings like spears. The ship also boasted heavier armor and a faster sub-light drive. These modifications lessened the ground troop capability, and cut the hangar size down to where it only held space for ten fighters and two transports. Its black color probably wasn’t the only ward against detection; most ships, especially those in the Security Bureau, held anti-tracking devices to guard against scanners.
“Quite impressive, yes?” Xar spoke from beside him. “It really is perfect for this mission, thanks to Alyx’s special modifications and upgrades. It also has Jedi training areas, more luxurious quarters, and fine dining – or so he has told me.” He glanced at Icis and half-grinned. “High quality living for the head of the Security Bureau. We will not have to worry about roughing it. Not that it really matters to me, but I think he went soft after he made it to Jedi Master,” he said jokingly.
Icis made a noncommittal sound. Fine living didn’t matter to him anymore. He’d made do in situations that would have driven most beings to starvation – or madness.
Xar grunted beside him. “Well, I think the training areas will be useful, at least. We can keep up training on the journey, and it will give me a chance to work more with the group.” He pulled back on the controls, slowing the ship as the Annihilator loomed in the viewports. “In range. Initiating automatic docking sequence,” he announced. The ship shuddered slightly as the Corvette’s tractor beams took hold of it, pulling it around and toward the hangar entrance on the underside of the vessel. Xar unstrapped himself from the seat. “Well, that went smoothly. Now I guess our real journey begins.”
Xar stepped onto the bridge, followed closely by Misnera, as the crew swung to attention.
“As you were,” Alyx announced. As the head of the vessel, it was firstly his job to direct orders at the crew. Xar himself would only take over if a necessary situation arose.
“Status report,” Alyx ordered.
“All systems secured and ready, sir,” one of the crewmen reported.
Xar took up an out of the way position where he could see out the viewport. After the Black Star had docked with the Corvette, he had seen to it that the rest of the team had been shown to their quarters for the first jump. Misnera, who had gone ahead with Draken and Omega, had everything prepared for their arrival, and they were now ready to be on their way.
“Excellent,” Misnera responded. “Activate navicomputer; set course for the Drackmar system, planet Dathomir. Let’s be underway, shall we?”
“Aye sir,” came the faithful reply from the navigation officer. Xar watched the starfield shift outside as the Annihilator altered course for the jump. The ISD Stormwatch briefly slid by in front of the viewport, and he felt himself smile unconsciously. Every glimpse of the awesome vessel filled him with pride. He had never really gotten over the sense of awe he felt when seeing the might of an Imperial Star Destroyer in full array. It went back to his days as a fighter pilot in the Imperial Navy. He knew Maarek Stele held the same feeling, as the two had served together as pilots during their early careers. Now, as the Stormwatch passed in front of the viewport, he remembered Maarek, probably onboard even then working on building the fighter wing up. Or, he might be off training with his own elite squadron he’d assembled in the few months since he’d joined.
He should do well while I am gone, Xar thought. Perhaps Rytor will be able to solve the mystery of Grathkar Korealis’ murder, as well. He’d left him a message to contact Maarek if he needed assistance. Together they should be able to find out who did it. And, of course, who had apparently framed Xar for it. He was going to settle up with whoever was responsible for that…
The motion of the stars outside the viewport halted as the Marauder Corvette’s course was set and locked in. “On course for jump point,” the navigation officer announced smoothly. “Jump in approximately fifteen minutes.”
Misnera turned back to glance at him, his eyes voicing the silent question to proceed. Nodding, Xar turned it over to him and made his way back to the turbolift, heading for his own assigned quarters.
Each of the Jedi members were led to their assigned quarters in the large vessel, and allowed free reign of most of the ship. A crewmember led Rynn through the ship to her quarters, which were located in the vessel’s midsection. She stowed her gear in the luxurious room accommodated for her and decided to have a look around. The room was a little too comfortable to her taste, and quite large, complete with a sitting area, full-sized bed, computer terminal, and an oversized refresher station. Leaving her bags on the bed, she went back outside and secured the door, then started walking down the corridors.
Rynn usually liked to know as much as she could about places where she
stayed, a tendency probably brought on by years of staying one step ahead of
Imperial search teams. She had spent a lot of time exploring the myriad areas
As she traversed along the port corridor of the ship, she glanced out the viewports, filled with the vista of the planet Varnus hanging in below. The lush, blue-green world below struck her with its beauty. With the ship in low orbit, the planet filled the entire panoramic view from the windows. The huge southern continent stretched out before her, browns and greens, meeting a massive blue-green ocean off in the distance. Billowing white clouds stretched out, forming a multitude of fantasy shapes as they floated between her and the ground.
Then suddenly the image shifted as the Corvette changed course and started off. The motion of the ship was almost imperceptible through the deck plates, but the shifting view outside was almost disorienting. The bright image of the planet was replaced by blackness, punctuated with gleaming stars. A wide, wispy band of deep purple momentarily passed by the viewports, the massive Galbagos Nebula that dominated NI Territory. On clear Varnusian nights, the nebula could be seen in full splendor, sparking the imagination with its beauty.
Turning from the viewport, Rynn continued on down the walkway. With the ship set on course, it wouldn’t be long before they jumped, but she opted to explore the rest of this level before returning to her quarters.
She had just made her way into one of the Jedi training areas when a claxon sounded over the loudspeakers.
“All hands, prepare for jump. Repeat: All hands prepare for jump.”
Already?! They don’t waste time! Rynn stifled a curse and ran toward one of the emergency holds for the jump to hyperspace. No time to get back to her quarters, to the medicine which lay in her bags. The stations usually held them. But, even as the computer made its countdown, she knew she wouldn’t make it in time. The weight areas and other training devices were all attached to the floor and wall racks, of course, and a nearby counter was set up as a refreshment station, but it was closed for the day. All prepared for the journey. All this she took in with a glance as she scrambled for the jump station. A feeling of dread hit her as the countdown finally reached zero, and time moved in slow motion. She hadn’t experienced an overly large number of hyperspace jumps before, only when it had been necessary to travel to another star system, usually to avoid detection by ISB forces, but that itself wasn’t the problem. It only took once to realize you were one of the 0.001% of the individuals in the galaxy who had hyperspace-jump sickness.
She dove for the handrail, just as the ship ripped a hole in the fabric of space and left its dimension behind.
The next thing she remembered was slamming into the counter hard enough to create a huge dent in the duraplast side. Then, the feeling of her shoulder giving way underneath the impact, the breath rushing out of her, the intense pain that burst all up and down her shoulder. She cried out, but the pain itself wasn’t the only cause for injury she felt. The pain she could handle. The other effects, the actual effects of the sickness were what was uncontrollable. The jump to hyperspace had been little more than a shift, a small increase in G forces and perhaps a momentary dizziness for some. Most people recovered almost instantly. But for those with hyperspace-jump sickness, the effect was tenfold. The room swam before her eyes as if it had been turned into a kaleidoscope. Her stomach turned inside out, her muscles relaxed, and she slumped to the floor. Unable to control herself, she bent over and retched. Her head felt like a knife had been plunged into it up to the hilt, piercing through her whole head. She reached ahead of her, tried to crawl toward the emergency station, tried to cry out for help, but all she could manage was gurgled murmur.
Misnera knocked before entering Xar’s quarters, which, of course, just happened to be larger and more luxurious than anyone else’s on the ship. Except, of course, those of Alyx, himself. He smiled at that thought. After all, it was his ship.
Xar’s quick acknowledgement of his presence caused the door to slide open, and Alyx moved in. Xar was sitting behind a desk across the room from Alyx, as he always seemed to, but this time the swirling blue sky of hyperspace sped by the viewports behind him. Xar looked up and nodded as Misnera came in.
“Excellent accommodations, I must tell you, Alyx. I may have to sign you up to redecorate the Stormwatch.”
Misnera grinned ruefully. “I’m frankly surprised. After all, you insisted on decorating your office and quarters in the palace all by yourself, instead of leaving it to me like the rest of the place. Now it doesn’t match.”
Xar grinned. “Well, you have a point there.” He leaned back and spread his arms out in a wide gesture. “So, we are finally on our way. Excellent. I trust everything is running smoothly?”
Alyx rested his hands on the back of the chair facing the desk and shrugged. “I guess you could say that. I’ll refrain from taking any offense at the notion my ship’s not in perfect working order, of course.”
“Of course. None intended,” Xar replied with one of those half-grins.
Alyx grunted noncommittally. “Well, there was one minor incident,” he remembered aloud. He rubbed his chin. “Actually, turns out that Rynn Mariel suffers from hyperspace-jump sickness, something I take it wasn’t on file.”
“Hyperspace-jump sickness? Never heard of it,” Xar admitted.
“Not surprising,” Misnera responded smoothly. “It’s so rare that most people don’t know about it. But Rynn has it, nonetheless.”
Vamp twisted his mouth in disgust. “She got caught in the open when we jumped, and… Well, it wasn’t a pretty sight. Dislocated her shoulder and passed out before we found her. She’s in sickbay, the doc popped her shoulder back in place and drugged her up on whatever medicine counteracts it. She says she’s fine, of course, but the doc insisted she stay for a few hours.”
Xar’s eyes widened as Alyx spoke He reached up and idly rubbed a finger across his scar. “Well. That was an unexpected turn. I should go make sure that she is all right.”
“She’s a tough one.”
Xar nodded. “So, how long to Dathomir?” he asked, changing the subject.
Vamp shrugged. “Well, I got the map from Obroa-skai, and we’re en route now. I’d say around a week to ten days,” he estimated. “If you need to know for sure, I can…”
“No that is fine,” Xar waved him off. “Enough time to get some training done, at least. We are well on our way. Tell the bridge to contact me if anything important happens.”
“Already done,” Alyx nodded. “I know you’d want to be notified first thing anything happened. After all, with your reputation for drawing trouble…” he trailed off jokingly.
Xar grinned, but didn’t laugh. “Yes, well you can never be too cautious, I say. Let us just hope this will be a milk run, like it is supposed to be.”
The next morning, Xar found himself sitting in the Jedi training area and watching the two Jedi on the large training mat as they sparred. Draken and Omega danced back and forth, their stun sabers flashing in hand as they exchanged strikes. Since lightsaber sparring could quickly and easily become a deadly situation, they used low power stun sabers that were part of the Jedi training facility’s stock. The toned-down blades still handled and felt like actual lightsabers, but only delivered a sharp crack of pain and a stun to their victims. However, the two Jedi seemed evenly matched, with neither scoring a hit so far. The cracks of saber contact sent their distinctive sound through the room, a pleasant sound to Xar. He half-wanted to get in there himself, but he knew they needed practice with one another, not a proverbial spanking. He grinned.
Besides, Jedi Templar Attidd Xoan could probably do the job for him. The large, tough black man stood at the edge of the mat, watching the fight. Xar could sense the man’s desire to enter the fight. Across the room, on the other side of the training area, Bren sat cross-legged on the floor, using a Jedi meditation technique. Unsurprisingly, Icis was nowhere to be found. The mysterious man had vanished as soon as they’d come onboard, and hadn’t revealed himself since.
Nearby, Rynn Mariel had curled up in one of the plush couches, wrapped in her Jedi Guardian’s robe. She was feeling much better now, and off the medication, also. Xar had shown her a simple Jedi focusing skill that removed her symptoms. She’d caught on to it quickly, as usual, and he thought she could probably break the illness entirely with time.
“I wish you had informed me about this before,” he’d told her earlier. “As a Jedi, you have an opportunity most people with such afflictions do not. With the Force, you can overcome such ailments, even cure them completely, so they do not have to become a dominating and hindering factor in your life.”
Now he glanced back at her from time to time, gauging her coolly. He kept his attention divided as Draken and Omega continued their mock-duel. Neither was making any real headway.
His musings were interrupted as Atridd Xoan, who’d been standing at the edge of the mat, watching anxiously, lost his patience with the slow fight and moved forward. Xar tapped his chin thoughtfully. This ought to be interesting. Xoan’s stun saber ignited, and he rushed forwards at both Jedi, emitting a roar of anticipation for the upcoming fight.
The two combatants, at first oblivious to the interruption, backed off in alarm as they finally noticed the newcomer. But Xoan didn’t give them any time to react. He bore down on Omega first, launching into a series of fast, powerful strikes that the smaller man could barely fend off.
Then Atridd clashed his saber down against Omega’s hard, pushing it down on-handed with his sheer strength, and back-handed Omega across the face. The smaller man fell back. Xar arched an eyebrow in surprise; such fights were rarely brought to such physical levels. But they did have a good effect on the training of the members. He continued watching with interest. This fight was only beginning. Draken had taken Xoan’s occupation with Omega to launch an attack of his own, but the huge man spun, thrusting out his right hand, and a Force Push hit Draken, sending him flying backwards. He hit the mat hard, breathing out and rolling back up to his feet to come in again. As with physical blows, use of the Force was rare in sparring, as the contestants usually wanted to prove and increase their skills rather than relying too much on the Force. Still, it provided an unexpected change and had its uses. After all, on the battlefield, unexpected events were a certainty. Xoan moved in to intercept Draken as the latter rose up. Striking furiously at his opponent, Atridd forced him back despite Draken’s excellent attempt to hold his own. Then in a quick movement Xoan forced Draken’s blade up high, then ducked low and struck the man cleanly across the belly. The force of the blow sent the Ar’Kell Quaestor reeling backwards again, this time his saber flying from his hand. He hit the mat, grunting in pain and clutching his midsection, effectively out of the fight.
Then Atridd turned his fierce blue eyes back on Omega, who had risen and was studying him cautiously. Omega came in first, attacking with skill and grace, and for a moment the two seemed evenly matched as they danced around, sabers clashing again and again with palpable force. But eventually Xoan’s superior strength and stamina won out. He was fresh, while Omega had been fighting Draken for some length before the former entered. Xoan began driving Omega back with his powerful blows, and then finally, with one strong swipe, knocked the stun saber out of the smaller man’s hand. Omega’s face lit up with astonishment, then Xoan’s blade slapped him across the back of his shoulders, and he dropped like a sack of Bantha fodder onto the padded mat.
As Omega hit the floor a chime sounded from the table beside Xar. The ship’s commlink activator. Slightly annoyed at the disturbance, he reached over and answered the call. “Yes?”
“Grand Master, bridge here. Admiral Misnera suggests you come up here, sir. There’s something you may want to see.”
Xar sighed. “Acknowledged. I will be right up.” No use blaming the crew. After all, he had asked to be kept informed of everything. Taking one more longing glance at the mat, where a towering Atridd Xoan stood victorious over his fallen opponents, he got up and made his way for the turbolift. On the other side of the mat, Bren had never moved from his meditations.
The bridge doors swooshed open, and Misnera turned around just as Xar emerged onto the bridge. The Grand Master stopped at the handrail, staring out at the black circle ahead surrounded by a swirling kaleidoscope of light; hyperspace. Alyx moved around from the console he was manning, ascended the stair up to the side of the circular control center and came around beside him. Xar turned to look at him inquisitively. “So what is going on?”
“We’ve picked up an unusual subspace signal coming from nearby our relative position in realspace,” Misnera responded, gesturing over to the ship’s holoprojector map. The holographic display showed the Corvette as it traced its pathway through the stars, marked the positions of nearby systems, and an anomaly which they were fast coming up on. He pointed to the anomalous signal.
“You can detect that even though we are in hyperspace?” Xar asked, arching an eyebrow.
Alyx nodded. “Well, we have some experimental technology we installed aboard. What do you make of it? I guess it wasn’t really important enough to call you up here, but…”
“No…” Xar interrupted him. He stared at the map, an odd look in his eyes. “What is our position, and that of the signal?”
Alyx glanced at the current map coordinates. “We’re moving through unclaimed Outer Rim territory right now, passing by the Bruani System. The signal… may be coming from in-system.”
“Interesting…” The Grand Master sounded distant, considering. “Would… it be a large delay if we stopped to check it out?”
Vamp shrugged. “Not really. You… sense something about this?”
Xar’s eyes were fixed on the signal, pulsing on the map. They were nearly on it, now. “Maybe…” he said quietly.
Nodding, Alyx turned back to the bridge and relayed orders to the navigation officer to alter course. “Bring us to a safe distance from the anomaly,” he ordered.
The swirling sky of hyperspace shifted imperceptibly in front of them, then a moment later the whirlpool of light and color shattered into a thousand fragments that coalesced into starlines, then drew back into individual stars. Uncounted numbers of them. A faint cloud ahead was the galactic core, which lay in the direction they were heading. According to the map, the signal was heading that way, too. Off to the side, a dim red sun glowed faintly.
“Contact,” reported one of the bridge officers. “I count up to a dozen medium-sized capital ships ahead. Course: Mark one by eight. Heading away from us, sir.”
“Ships?” Alyx remarked. He smiled.
“What do you mean? This system can detect ships in hyperspace?” Xar asked from behind.
“Only close ones,” Vamp admitted, still looking ahead. “Enhance visual of unidentified ships.”
A section of the viewport shifted as it magnified an area of space ahead, then the Heads up Display outlined the shapes of the unknown vessels. Uneven, alien craft, with parts of their hulls jutting out in spike-like projections. The image enhancer lightened the craft, finally making them visible. They were, of course, black as space itself, and their hulls seemed more rock than metallic.
Misnera heard a muffled curse behind him, realized the sound came from Xar. He turned back to look at the man. “You know who they are?”
“I have seen those kind of craft before,” Xar responded softly. “On my second and last visit to Crinn. These are Crinn ships.”
Alyx’s jaw dropped. “Like the Black Star? Are you certain?”
“Sir, incoming transmission,” the communications officer announced. “From one of the ships.”
“Let me handle this, if you would,” Xar asked, sliding past him and moving down to the center of the control station in front of the main chair. “Put it on the main viewscreen, please.”
The main screen, hanging just above the forward viewport, flickered and flashed to life. The image which appeared sent gasp throughout the room, even shouts of fear by some. Misnera just felt a cold feeling set in his gut. He’d never seen a Crinn before. The creature on the screen was black as night, and covered with what appeared to be thick natural body armor. Only the top half of its body was visible. Two sets of arms extended from its massive shoulders, from which projected half a dozen large black spines. The lower set of arms ended in fingers, but the top ended in large claws. But the most frightening aspect by far was the creature’s head. Set low and forward on a level with its shoulders, the long head ended in a long, animal like face with few features, save a row of frightening needle-sharp teeth. And the eyes were what held them all in terror. Blank, yellow-white orbs looked like the eyes of a dead thing, staring through them, focusing on nothing but seeing everything. Misnera shied back instinctively, grateful he wasn’t in front of the screen where the creature could see him. But Xar was; if the man was affected by the grisly scene in front of him, he didn’t show it.
“Grrhak tuk’na vetho’suka,” the low, groveling, guttural tone sounded from the creature’s throat. The voice sounded like cracking glass or crushed gravel than a true method of communication. The ship’s computer, with no trace of Crinn language to translate, played the ear-wrenching sound in its full horror.
The creature spoke again, this time recognizably addressing Xar. The man paused, then nodded. “What are you doing here?” he asked in Basic. The creature responded, rambling on in its native tongue. The two continued to make conversation, though only catching the half of it Xar spoke. Then, abruptly and unexpectedly, the Crinn cut the connection, and the screen went dark. Instinctively Alyx braced himself, worry of an impending attack filling his thoughts.
Xar turned back toward him just as one of the crew called out.
“Sir, the ships are gone.”
Alyx started. “What do you mean, gone?”
“They’re just gone sir! The second they cut the connection, they disappeared from our scopes.”
“Shields up, prepare for…” he began, images of the Crinn fleet bearing down on him fueling his orders. But Xar broke through his thoughts.
“No need for that,” the Grand Master interrupted, reading his mind. “They are not attacking. They simply left on their way.”
“But sir, we didn’t read an energy spike from their hyperspace jump.”
“Better not to question it,” Xar spoke. “They just wanted to talk to me.”
“So what did they say?” Alyx asked intently.
Xar moved closer to him before speaking, though he didn’t lower his voice enough to hide his words from the rest of the officers. “Basically… that the ‘time’ has come; that they are running from the ‘darkness’. They remembered me. I was the only human to visit their world twice, the last outsider to view their world before they left it. You might remember; that was about a year and a half ago.” He hesitated. “They said some things I did not understand, about me, and about something I have to do.” He swallowed. “And they told me to run, too. All of us. They said if we do not get out of the sector soon, we are all going to die.”
* * *
“That is it. Good. Feel it out, through the Force,” Xar said softly, watching Rynn as she ran through her Jedi meditation techniques. They were alone in the training room, Xar having taken the opportunity and time to work personally with each student. Rynn concentrated, reaching out with the Force, keeping her mind at rest. Brief glimpses passed just outside the sight of her mind, tremors through the Force.
“Draw in as must Force power as you can,” Xar instructed. “In time, and training, your well of Force energy, your power level, will increase. Already you are much stronger than you were when you came to Varnus.”
Rynn opened her eyes. To her astonishment, not only had she been able to lift all the weights in the room, but the entire rack was floating off the deck. She had simply directed the Force within her, imagined the weights rising into the air. But she had no idea she could have been this successful.
As she gasped in surprise, she lost her concentration, and the rack slammed back onto the deck with an ear-splitting crash. The legs of the rack bent under the weight, causing the whole thing to lean.
“Very impressive,” the Grand Master said from beside her. He paused. “I suppose I can tell you, no one else at your level in the Division could have done that. I think it is a safe assumption that levitation is one of your special aptitudes.”
Rynn looked over at him. “What do you mean?”
“Most Jedi have natural affinities for certain aspects of the Force,” the Xar explained. “They are naturally better at certain kinds of skills. These can include levitation, energy projection or absorption, farseeing, mind control, or a myriad of other techniques. Each of these is a different aspect of the Force. Some people have greater strength in specific powers, as well.” He gestured at the bent weight rack. “You are very strong in the Force for a Guardian, but you still should not have been able to lift a few thousand kilos so easily. You have a special ability in that area, which will be useful to you in the future. Not everyone has special aptitudes, and sometimes their strengths and weaknesses are less conspicuous. Still, each lends his or her abilities to better the Jedi as a whole.”
“I… see,” Rynn said. She understood the concept of what he was saying. She’d always found it easy to move small objects around with her powers. Before she started her training, of course, and learned to really control and build her powers.
“People often have weaknesses in certain skills, as well,” Xar continued. “They usually involve the opposite skill to the strength, and in relative proportion. These can be small or great, and can make you very vulnerable if your enemy knows what they are. Jedi often train harder in these areas to try and defeat their weaknesses.”
Rynn nodded. “So the stronger I am in one power, the weaker I am in the opposite power?”
“Sometimes,” he responded.
“If I may ask,” Rynn started curiously. “Do you have a strength or weakness?”
Xar grinned at the question. He nodded. “A Jedi with great strength in every aspect and no weaknesses is extremely rare, even among Jedi Masters,” he told her. He hesitated, looking into her eyes. Rynn felt slightly uncomfortable, wondering if she’d asked too personal a question. She opened her mouth to take it back when he shook his head and spoke.
“No, it is all right,” he said lightly. “I could sense your discomfort. See, I have never been good at absorbing and dissipating energy,” he explained. “It can be an annoying flaw, at times. I barely have any skill at it, no matter how hard I try. I can stop blaster bolts now.” He shrugged. “But that is not very impressive for a Jedi Master when Knights can do the same.”
“But if you can absorb a blaster shot, what else is there to be able to absorb?” Rynn asked.
“The opposite power,” Xar explained. “The power I am gifted at.” He paused.
“Which one is that?”
In answer, Xar held his hand out, two fingers extended, pointing toward a large, hundred-kilo heavy bag hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Rynn felt a slight stirring in the Force as she watched him. Then, in the space of an instant, his fingers glowed, and a flash of light shot out and touched the heavy bag. The heavy canvas bag exploded, scattering its innards throughout the training area.
“That,” he said, turning to look at her between floating strands of cottony-white material that had been blasted from the bag. Suddenly he smiled at her, a warm, friendly smile. And for the first time in a long while, she found herself smile back.
Bridge, Marauder Corvette Annihilator
Hyperspace, one week later
Misnera glanced at the swirling sky of hyperspace outside the viewport as he hit the commlink on his command chair. “Bridge to Grand Master. We’re coming up on Dathomir. Please come to the bridge immediately.”
“Acknowledged. On my way up,” came the reply over his speakers.
“Two minutes to reversion,” the navigation officer called out.
Misnera nodded patiently. According to their plotted course they would enter the system some distance from Dathomir, which would allow them to scan the system for potential hostiles or other problems from a safe distance. The entrance had already been rehearsed by the bridge crew, and everything was expected to go smoothly.
“One minute to reversion.”
The turbolift doors swooshed open behind him, and Alyx swiveled around to see Xar emerge onto the bridge. The man had already assumed standard Division dress uniform, as Misnera had, to lend authenticity to their proposal to the Dathomirans. The men exchanged nods, and Xar moved down to stand beside Vamp, leaning on the rail as he stared ahead.
“Entering Drackmar System,” the navigation officer said smoothly. “Reversion to real-space in ten… nine… eight…”
And quite unexpectedly the Marauder Corvette Annihilator dropped out of hyperspace. The mottled sky of hyperspace dissipated eight seconds early, starlines stretching back into stars. Two particular stars glowed much closer, directly ahead, each locked by the other’s gravity. The bridge lurched forward, nearly throwing him out of the command chair. Xar flipped over the railing and out of sight, to Alyx’s shock.
But Alyx had no time to wonder about him, as two green spheres loomed into view ahead, filling the viewport. Warning claxons began blaring all over the bridge. The ship’s collision warning system tried to turn the ship even as it dropped fully into space. The ship shuddered under the tension.
Misnera dug into the armrests of his command chair, biting out a curse as the bridge erupted into a hubbub of yelling crew members.
“Emergency reversion!” Someone shouted above the din. Alyx thought it was the navigation officer, but the voice didn’t sound like the formerly calm announcement from moments before. “Unknown gravity mass shadow blocking the passageway!”
Despite the jargon Misnera understood what had happened. The ship’s navicomputer had automatically brought the ship out of hyperspace when it detected a nearby gravity well in its path. That kept the ship from plowing its way through whatever stellar obstacle was in its way, scattering the ship over light-years of space. It was the concept behind the Interdictor Cruiser, which simulated a gravity well that could draw ships out of hyperspace or prevent them from entering it. But this was obviously not the work of a fake gravity well. The two green-covered worlds floating ahead told him that.
“Helm recovered,” the crewmember reported.
“Talk to me!” Misnera shouted finally. “Where are we? Those planets aren’t supposed to be there. Only Dathomir!”
The warning sirens died out. “Star maps confirm that this is the Drackmar System,” one officer reported. “However, ship scanners are saying the opposite.”
“Of course we aren’t in the Drackmar System!” Misnera shouted angrily. He pointed toward the double sun in the background. “What I want to know is where we are, and why we’re not where we’re supposed to be.”
“Obviously, the star maps were hacked,” Xar said flatly, rising up on the other side of the railing.
“The Great Library on Obroa-skai?” Alyx said incredulously. “There’s no way.”
“Then how else do you explain…”
“Sir! I’m reading capital-class starships at mark three fourteen!!”
Misnera swung his head around to stare at the tactical officer. “What class?”
The ensign turned to him, his face gone pasty-white. “One Imperial-class Star Destroyer, one Victory-class Star Destroyer and a number of support craft,” he said breathlessly.
Xar looked back at Vamp. His hand reached up to brush his scar. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Ahead, two gleaming white wedge-shapes were now visible. They were growing closer.
“Confirm that last report,” Alyx said quickly.
A pause. Then, “Confirmed, sir. One ISD, one VSD, and support ships of varying type. Their IFF codes mark them as Imperial, though it’s a different kind the computer hasn’t seen before.” He paused again. “They are moving to intercept, sir. Estimate two minutes before they reach maximum turbolaser range.”
Misnera slammed his fist on the padded arm of the chair. He knew,
despite the NI’s roots and the negative opinions of the
“I want names and positive identification of those ships,” Alyx barked out. “And find out where we are.”
“Sir, without accurate star maps, it’s impossible to tell where we are. Our old star maps do not cover this area.”
Misnera cursed again. The Imperial warships were growing closer now, much closer.
“Hail the ships,” he said. “Tell them we’re not hostile to them.”
Xar was standing in front of him, staring distantly out the viewport. “But they are to us,” he said softly.
“Imperial ships in range in one minute,” the tactical officer announced.
A moment later the comm officer confirmed Xar’s words. “They do not respond,” he said. “When we transmitted our NI IFF code they closed the comm channel.” He paused. “They have begun jamming all frequencies,” he said, his voice starting to shake.
“Fanatics,” Xar said, shaking his head. “Forget reasoning with them. All you can do is destroy them.”
After the Mutiny, countless Imperial factions now existed, many fanatically devoted to reestablishing the new order, or to their own vies for power. And to destruction. Worlds innumerable had been ravaged by the greed of the collapsing Imperial war machine. Even Coruscant.
“Blast it,” Alyx spat. “They don’t want us calling for help.” And they didn’t stand a chance against the fleet looming ahead of them. He could make out the individual sensor towers on the ship’s bridge structures now. “And we don’t have any idea how to escape out of here.”
“Sir.” The navigation officer spoke up again. “I believe we can compile enough data to jump to another location and obtain an accurate starmap.”
“How long will that take?” Alyx asked.
“It would take some time, sir.”
“Wonderful. Get on it.”
“Sir, enemy ships will be in range in thirty seconds.” His voice was shaky too, now.
Alyx looked up at Xar. The man was watching him, as if he expected him to make the decision. All right. It was his ship. Enough waiting; time for action.
“All right, full power to engines. Change course mark seven five, take us past them and toward that big planet filling our viewscreen. We’ll enter its upper atmosphere, slingshot around and evade them while we compile a new star map.”
The bridge bustled with activity again as the officers returned to their duties, a clear purpose in mind now. The Annihilator turned away from the incoming ships, angling down for the planet below. Alyx smiled. That was one of the beauties of the Marauder-class. The ship was made for flight both in atmosphere and in space. The VSD could only enter the upper atmosphere, and then at risk to itself, while the ISD had to avoid gravity like the death plague. That would be their escape route.
Suddenly the ship shuddered again. The engines’ sound increased in pitch as they began to strain. Misnera knew what that meant even as it was announced across the bridge.
“Enemy ISD has us in a tractor beam.”
“How is that possible?” Alyx demanded. “We’re out of their weapons range.”
“They’ve still got us, sir. Closing fast now. In weapons range!”
The ship shuddered under enemy turbolaser fire. The shields had automatically raised once they dropped back into space, and held for now under the blows from the heavy turbolasers.
“Return fire,” Misnera ordered, though he knew their own weapons would prove useless against the mighty Star Destroyer. “Angle us down more steeply. Break this tractor beam and get us out of here!” The ship shuddered again and again. The shields wouldn’t hold out much longer. “Divert all other power to the engines.” Then an idea struck him. “Wait, release a spread of proximity mines behind us. The tractor beam will take them in and they’ll break us free!”
“Aye, sir,” the tactical officer responded.
Alyx sat in his seat, tight-lipped. If this wouldn’t work, he did not know what would.
The Corvette Annihilator’s engines strained as they tried to release the vessel from the iron grip of the Star Destroyer Vicious. Heavy turbolaser fire pelted the smaller craft, finally piercing the shields and assaulting the unprotected hull. Armor plates melted and vaporized, causing miniature explosions as sections vented their atmospheres and fed the brief fireballs that erupted. The ship’s own turbolaser fire impacted harmlessly on the Destroyer’s massive shields, which were designed to take many times the damage that was being thrown at it.
Then a flash came from the rear of the Annihilator as a spread of mines were launched. Several of them were quickly caught into the tractor beam playing over the ship’s hull and were pulled up toward the Vicious. The tractor beam was cut off, but too late. The mines were already on their way. The Marauder Corvette shot forward as if out of a slingshot, burning through the upper atmosphere of the forested green world and plunging downward. Behind it, the mines exploded as they neared the Vicious, piercing the shields before they detonated, covering the ship’s forward hull with bright fire.
* * *
The wizened old form of Doctor Borowen, draped in his white smock, stepped into the audience chamber where Estod stood. His mouth opened in an almost toothless smile, and he croaked out a sickening laugh. To Estod, he was a symbol of his future, an inevitable future unless their plan succeeded. Estod snorted. He would never let himself grow that old and pathetic.
“The device is all set up,” the ancient figure rasped. “The control room and monitors are ready for the next phase of the plan. I hope you appreciate my part in this. Without me, you could never begin to realize your petty dream. I expect my reward as soon as you succeed.”
Estod snorted. The deal with Borowen was that once he and Turles had Immortality, they would use the power called Transfer Life Essence to give Borowen a new, young body. While it was true Borowen’s talents were irreplaceable in the technological aspect of their plan, once everything had been set up it would be easy for Estod himself to keep it running. Borowen would no longer be needed, and was easily disposed of.
The same thing went for Turles, too. Estod had no intention of sharing his Immortality, nor his power. The blind fool Turles would never knew he was being betrayed until it was too late. He should not have been so trusting with a Dark Jedi. He was really the non-essential part of the plan; only the idea had come from him, and the use of the Scepter. But Estod knew he could have done that, himself.
“That is good,” he told the doctor. “Now we can fulfill the next objective, and take the child.”
Across the chamber, the two tattooed Jedi warriors rose from their lounging positions, coming up to face Borowen and Estod.
“Good, I’m tired of this waiting,” the blonde man, Kletian, said. He idly rubbed the mass gun at his belt. “Thanks to the Scepter of Karanishma, everything is proceeding as planned.”
“That’s not where your thanks belongs,” a new, higher voice sounded. Estod looked over as Turles entered, draped in his white cloak, dreadlocks wildly spread around his head. “You should thank the fools who found the Scepter for us in the first place.” He gripped the end of his cloak in his fist and held it up. “Now, Estod. Send your mercenaries to the planet New Cov to capture the boy. My students will accompany you.” He gestured to the other tattooed men, Elmbore and Kletian.
Estod’s eyes narrowed. “My men can handle themselves. They don’t need them.”
“They’re going,” Turles said firmly. He moved over to the two men, pulled something from underneath his cloak and gave it to the blonde-haired man. “Take the Scouter,” he said. “It will help you find the boy easily.”
“What if those you saw in the Scepter are there and try to stop us?” Estod said. “I don’t like it. It leaves room for… failure.” Failure wasn’t an option, for him.
“The future is always moving. Even the Scepter cannot tell it for certain.” Turles addressed his men. “Do not let them stop you from obtaining the boy, but do not go out of your way to engage them. They might follow you back here.”
“Yes, Master,” the two replied in unison.
“Believe me, Master,” Kletian spoke. “If they try to interfere, I’ll be glad you won’t be there to see what I’m going to do to them.”
Turles grinned. Across the room, an ear-piercing cackle came from the ancient doctor. Annoying as it was, Estod joined in, and soon everyone present was laughing, confidently, darkly.
“Stabilizer fins out! Engines full reverse!” Misnera shouted. The ground was coming up at them at an alarming rate. The expansive green field ahead grew until he could make out individual trees. He knew they were close, then. The ship burst through low-lying cloud cover, the vessel shaking violently as it tried to stop its fall. The nose slowly began to come up, and Alyx ordered the ship acceleration forward, hoping they could turn their fall into a controlled glide. Even if they crashed they could make a gentle landing. The ship began to move forward, their fall slowed, and they began moving ahead faster than downward. Vast tracts of forest sped by in a blur. He knew it was too late to pull out. “Engines full reverse again,” he ordered. “Begin the landing cycle.”
The ship slowed, and then fell below the treetops. Though they’d nearly stopped, they snapped the tops of dozens of trees before finally stopping their forward motion and dropping to the surface. Tree trunks stretched upwards as they fell, taller than he’d first believed. Then the ship hit ground, hard. Nearly everyone was thrown from their positions again, and a huge roar sounded through the whole ship. A moment later the navigation officer crawled back to his post and shut the engines down. The rest of the crew proceeded in shutting the rest of the ship’s in-flight systems off, treating it like a standard docking on-planet. Then the bridge was plunged into an eerie silence. Dark forest stretched outside the viewports.
“Well, that was smoother than I expected,” Alyx admitted. He glanced at Xar, eyed him askance. The other man said nothing.
* * *
The night sounds of the planet Yavin IV were even louder and more varied than those of the day. But in a planet-wide jungle, that was to be expected. The figure made his into a clearing and approached the large, black temple surrounded by huge statues of alien structure. In front of the temple was a dark, serene lake, its untouched surface reflecting the massive gas giant filling the sky above. The figure knew of the stone steps just underneath the water’s surface, which could be used to walk across the lake. To another viewer it would seem as if the person walked on water. Of course, the visitor didn’t need the stones, or such an illusion. His heels rose two inches off the ground and he floated, body still, across the lake.
His feet touched down soundlessly on the other side, in front of a large stairway leading up to the palace entrance. Above the entrance, a great statue stood, cloaked, imposing and terrible. The great Dark Lord of the Sith, the figure had heard it said. But statues didn’t concern him. The visitor ascended the stairway, stopping in front of the entrance. After a brief moment, the figure entered. In the center of the interior chamber a blue crystal jutted out of the floor, radiating with the ‘Dark Side’ of the Force – with Sith Power. The figure stopped there. He waited.
The ephemeral spirit coalesced in front of him, a blue-black outline of a man, handsome once, now a shadow of the being’s own evil heart. The figure spoke.
“Who are you?”
The visitor smiled. He dropped his mask, revealing his true face. He was tall, with short-cropped, light hair. Handsome wasn’t a good enough word to describe him. He was beautiful. His right eye was a deep violet color. The left was light blue.
“How dare you venture here, into my sacred temple! Kneel before me or I shall snuff your life out!”
“You are the presence that called me here?” the stranger said instead. “What a disappointment. I thought to find a servant and ally, or at the least, a worthy challenge. Instead I find a disembodied child whose head it too big for his power to match.”
The shadow frowned. “What do you mean? I can sense the power inside of you. It is very strong. Speak with me.”
The stranger smiled. He’d been slowly uncovering more and more of his true power. He’d wondered when the ghost would notice. “I… like what you have done with yourself,” he said sardonically. “A noble stab at Immortality, albeit the wrong method. But it was the best you could have done, I suppose.” He gave a short laugh. “Perhaps I should give you a new body. You have moderately strong power.”
The figure’s attitude changed. Instead he took on a more friendly, open posture. “Please tell me more. I can see that you have much knowledge. I am Exar Kun.”
“You mean you were Exar Kun.” He watched with amusement as the Kun’s anger flared at his words.
“I have been imprisoned here for four thousand years! All this time I have sought a method by which to restore myself. I sense a power in you that is different from mine. If what you say is true, you can aid me.”
“Of course I could,” the figure said. “But you do not even understand. All this time you have existed without an inkling of the truth. Your entire existence, but a sham. I sense it within you now. You have progressed too far into the… ‘dark side’, have been consumed by it for too long. I cannot turn you now.”
“What do mean? There is… another power?” The figure practically radiated anticipation at the prospect of a more power for himself.
The stranger gave a coarse laugh. “I do not have time to explain it to you, or to teach you. You are of no use to me now.”
He turned to go, but Kun held him back with a word.
“Wait! Give me a new body! I will listen to you, and if you can convince me I will work with you. We can work out those details after you restore me.”
The stranger gave an amused smile. “Why should I do that? I told you, I have no time to teach you. Nor could I use you, for even now you are too absorbed in yourself. Find another way to return to the living, physical realm, come to me, and then perhaps you can serve. Consider it a test.” With a last laugh he turned and walked from the temple, knowing the figure would never succeed.
Exar Kun screamed at him, cursing him for leaving. He flew to the entrance, stared after the stranger, but the man was gone. Kun’s anger grew into a mad rage. He would find a new form, and then he would be the most terrible, ruthless ruler the galaxy had seen. He would be Dark Lord once more.
* * *
“I can’t believe this,” Draken sighed. He stared around from his standing position atop the grounded Annihilator. Downed trees lay across her hull, which turned out to be a quite functional camouflage. However, it hadn’t stopped them from being spotted by the planet’s indigenous, intelligent life for. Of course, Draken didn’t know if he’d call them intelligent.
The Tarongs were a quadruped avian species with tough, leathery skin and long wings that ranged up to ten meters long. They had tough beaks, clawed hands and feet, and tufts of feathers that stood out around their heads and along their wings at certain points. They ranged from light to dark browns, greens or even black, and had clawed hands and feet. Their ‘hands’, though, were limber enough to handle the smallest technology. The Tarongs were actually extremely intelligent, and though they held mostly to their own, they were fascinated by the outside galaxy and its technologies, and apparently stayed in regular contact with traders in the system. That was, of course, until this Imperial faction had decided to blockade the world and force them into servanthood. But so far the Tarongs had resisted fiercely. There had been some momentary confusion when the NI officers arrived, but due to their candid explanation to the Tarongs of who they were, and the fact that they had been shot down by Imperial forces banished any doubt from the aliens’ minds.
Their drawback, of course, was their immense love of talk. Conversation seemed to be the absolute dominating factor in the Tarong’s lives. As soon as the Jedi had emerged from the crashed ship the avians had swarmed around them, astonishingly, begging to be taken with them on their space journey. Draken had stood speechless as the creatures stared at him with their large, round eyes, dark yellow with slit pupils. Despite the fact that their crashing had destroyed several of their tree-homes, no one had been seriously hurt, and the Tarongs had still taken them in and began treating them as old friends from the moment they met. Personally, Draken didn’t like all this talking. He wanted a clear enemy to fight, needed one. All this waiting was really getting to him. In the hours since they’d landed here on Disim, one of the twin Tarong worlds, Disim and Iri, all they had done was talk and ask questions. Draken shook his head. There was an enemy star fleet in orbit; this was no time to socialize.
He looked over to another spot on the hull where Xar seemed to be negotiating with the chief of this family of Tarongs, a dark-skinned alien called S’kari. He moved closer to try and pick up their words.
“I am telling you,” S’kari explained. “We will be happy to help you out, as long as you take some of us along with you.” That was the other wonderful Tarong trait: their natural aptitude for mimicry let them learn new languages quickly, and it also held a habit for subconsciously picking up on voice inflections and tones of those they spoke with. Now S’kari sounded exactly like the Grand Master, so alike that Draken wouldn’t have been able to tell the different if he weren’t watching them.
Draken knew this much about the Tarongs already because, from the moment he’d emerged into sunlight from inside the ship, one of the creatures had latched itself to him and began talking his ears off. The Tarong, a young, yellow bird named F’tank, had been content to do all the talking, and had explained in much detail the ways of the Tarong people. This was just the tiny bit that Draken could actually remember, or paid any attention to.
“All right, all right,” Xar finally agreed, raising his hands in resignation. He’d been negotiating for over an hour. No wonder he was so tired. But Draken was surprised at his acceptance to take some of the birds along with them. “We will take a dozen of you with us. Acceptable?”
“Acceptable,” the elder agreed. “And they will have many fine stories to tell when they return. We often gather around in family meetings to tell stories, even with other families. I remember one story that…”
“Save it for later, please,” Xar sighed in frustration.
S’kari gave the man an insulted look, or at least what it appeared to be to Draken. It opened its beak to speak, but its reply was cut off as Misnera came running up.
“Alyx, what did you find out?” Xar asked, turning to the approaching man.
Misnera took a moment to catch his breath, then spoke. “They don’t know the location of Dathomir, but they do have some maps of this area of space, and they say they can show us a place where we can get the information we need. We’re not far from the New Cov System.”
Xar nodded, reaching up to brush the hair out of his eyes. Sweat plastered his face, as well as everyone else’s. Tarongs thrived in hot environments, they had been happy to tell him. He turned to S’kari.
“Choose your dozen, so we can get on with this.”
“With pleasure,” the Tarong replied happily.
Xar waited until the creature took wing and flew off. “Well, it looks like we have no choice but to take some of them with us,” he sighed. “Otherwise they would have refused to help us. Feistiest creatures I have ever seen,” he added, glancing sideways at the dark-skinned S’kari as he flew off back towards the forest. “What kind of shape is the ship in?”
“There is some minor damage,” Vamp replied. “Could take up to a day to get us up again, but we can do it. Some of the more intensive repairs, like the damage to the hull and certain systems we can’t repair ourselves. Maybe they can on New Cov.”
Xar nodded. “We better get on it. I want us out of here as soon as possible. I do not want any of these creatures rubbing off on us.” He glanced down in the direction of one of the wings. Draken’s eyes followed. Omega sat on a fallen tree trunk, fully engaged in conversation with not one, but two Tarongs. Not only was he carrying on enthusiastically with them, but he seemed to be talking as much as the birds.
Misnera grimaced. “How do you expect to get past the blockade once we get up again?”
“We will use your plan,” Xar answered. “We should be able to outrun them easily, head out on the other side of Disim. If things get tight… The Force is a weapon the enemy cannot stop. Then we head for, where was it?”
“A place called New Cov. I’ve heard of it before somewhere.”
“New Cov then,” Xar agreed. “Well, we had better tell the others.”
Early the next morning, the Marauder Corvette Annihilator lifted off and shot off into the sky, large chunks of trees falling away as it accelerated. Hundreds of Tarongs flew up above the treetops as they left, waving goodbyes and wishing their lucky comrades farewell. Then they went back to their homes, to get ready to relay their stories of this strange visit at the night’s gathering.
“Pressure stabilized,” one of the crew announced. Misnera watched out the forward viewports as the lush green planet dropped out underneath them. The atmosphere parted around them, and in moments the planet Disim was a shrinking sphere behind them.
“Scanners,” Vamp ordered. “Where’s that enemy fleet?”
A pause, then the tactical officer announced, “No enemy ships on scopes, sir.”
Alyx swiveled in his chair to face the man. “What do you mean? They aren’t there?”
“No sir. Possibly they were called away elsewhere. Or they could be on the other side of the planet, where we can’t see them.”
Alyx frowned. This was an odd turn. He couldn’t believe things were as easy as they seemed. “What’s our jump trajectory? Will we have to orbit the planet to make the jump?”
“No sir,” the navigation officer stated. “Locking in our course now.”
“Very well,” Misnera replied. “I’m not sure why those ships aren’t here, but I’m not going to push our luck. They missed their shot at us, and I don’t plan on coming back here for a long, long time.” He reached down and hit the comm button on his armrest as the ship’s jump claxon sounded throughout the ship. He called up Xar’s personal commlink. The man would have been on the bridge himself, but he had to make sure their new passengers were being taken care of. “We’re about to jump to New Cov,” he said. “Those enemy ships that shot us down aren’t on our scopes, so we’re going to get out of here while we can. Oh, and you better tell Rynn we’re jumping.”
Xar’s reply held an amused tone. “Acknowledged. I will tell her. This little detour has been costly enough already.”
Draken sat in one of the Corvette’s lounges, enjoying lunch. While not overly crowded, there was a variety of beings there to eat, crew members, various alien passengers, the new Tarongs, and even the Grand Master. Xar sat nearby, not touching the fruit plate on the small table in front of him. He had apparently lost his appetite. The Tarong opposite him rambled on incessantly. The creatures seemed to like those who were willing to converse more than those that would not. Xar offered an occasional comment, so as not to be rude. Draken could barely stand them, himself. And the birds seemed to have gotten the gist that Draken wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and left him alone. Even this one was beginning to grate on his nerves, though, especially since the alien’s voice sounded so close to Xar’s. The Varnusian accent was thick in the bird’s voice, copying even the minor inflections in Xar’s own voice. It was more than a little unnerving.
He looked over at one of the small tables, where a green-yellow skinned Tarong sat. The avian was holding up a small rodent, part of the food supply they had brought onboard with them. The alien, named P’wali, was holding the small creature up and chattering fiercely at it. Attempting to converse, Draken realized with astonishment. He stared at the alien. “Excuse me… Just… What are you doing?” he asked.
“Oh, attempting to converse, of course,” P’wali responded with a chattering laugh. “We refuse to eat anything that can talk to us,” she said.
Draken just turned back around and continued his meal. He wasn’t even going to comment.
* * *
The Black Star eased out of the hangar on the underside of the Corvette and coasted off toward green planet below.
The ship flew over the dense jungle surface of New Cov, quickly descending upon the massive dome-city of Ilic. It, like the other seven cities, was a massive technological and engineering feat. Surrounded by high walls and domed to keep out the deadly jungle plant-life around it, the city looked like the top of an astromech droid poking through the jungle canopy. Following their designated flight path, the black ship entered the city through one of the numerous large top vents. Grand Master Xar deftly piloted the ship through a series of large, winding pipes, finally bringing the ship to rest on a small, interior, personal landing pad lit from overhead. Then he powered the ship down and left the cockpit, telling the chosen group of Jedi to assemble outside the docking ramp.
Xar descended the ramp, his Jedi cloak rustling as he moved. He paused as he reached the metal deck of the landing pad, taking in a glance at the five Jedi who’d accompanied him. Alyx Misnera, Draken Ar’Kell, Omega Kira, Rynn and Atridd Xoan. He’d trusted each to be able to handle his or her own down on this unsafe world. Bren had understood that it could be dangerous for him here, with his limited knowledge of the galaxy, so he remained behind. And Icis hadn’t even shown up for the briefing. Rynn had orders to stay with Xoan, while Draken and Omega would form another two-person team. Xar and Alyx would be the final duo. Each was permitted to explore the city, but their main focus was to find an accurate star map and any other information they could. Still, Xar wanted them to be cautious. Something about this place did not feel right.
“All right,” he told them. “We split up and meet back here in three hours. Keep in contact using your commlinks, and report in every thirty minutes. Be careful where you go. I sense a tremor in the Force; there may be something about to happen here.”
The five Jedi nodded their agreement. Xar felt the reassuring weight of his mass gun in its holster under his left arm, hidden from view by his cloak. The others were armed, as well in addition to the lightsabers everyone except Rynn had. It was a risk, carrying weapons here, but this was an unknown place, and the feeling Xar had about it had clinched his decision to go armed. “Very well then. Synchronize your chronometers now, and get going. May the Force be with us.”
With that the group split up into twos, with Alyx moving alongside Xar as they made their way for the turbolift. They entered and rode it down, emerging onto the main level. They passed the administration office, where Xar quickly dealt with their docking fees and security, and acquired a datacard map of the city. After paying their nearly outrageous fees in advance, they then walked to the transit dock and entered the tram, which would take them from the hangar levels into the city proper. Xar had given everyone a few hours leave down here to restock on supplies and explore the place.
As they rode, Xar glanced that the map while listening to the welcome and introduction playing on the monitors set into the ceiling of the crowded car. The viewscreen showed them various places inside the city and out about the planet itself, while a commentary played over the speakers, telling them of the market, administrative, residential, and processing areas of the city. New Cov’s economy depended on the biomolecules that were harvested form the exotic plant life of the world’s endless jungle. The biomolecules drove the economy, and were used in a myriad of functions. Virtually all the residents worked for the New Cov Biomolecule Company, which paid high wages to its harvesters. After all, the exotic plant life was known to snag the unwary or careless worker, and the unique, expensive qualities of the biomolecules made the business very profitable.
Standing opposite him, Alyx gave him a guarded look, the corridor lights they passed as the tram moved along flashing across his face. Xar stared back, not speaking. He understood. The feeling was growing stronger.
“They’re here,” Elmbore stated flatly. He glanced warily at his tattoo-faced brother in arms, Kletian. Gathered with them in the dark warehouse, the strong-arm forces of Estod’s mercenary group were prepared to assist them in capturing the boy, or to cause a distraction for them to get him off-world.
“No matter,” Kletian replied calmly. “Master Turles said to take care of them if they get in the way. The mercenaries can handle it,” he said, gesturing to the armed force gathered around the hover-chariot in the center of the warehouse.
“But that may be risky. The planetary authorities could come down on us. We don’t want to be discovered here.”
Kletian shook his blonde-haired head. “No. They will not be a problem. The authorities have an… understanding with our friends here. They will not be concerned with one small child, at any rate. And that, my brother, is our concern – finding this boy. It won’t be difficult, with the Scouter. A power-level that high is easily traced, since he cannot control it yet. We will take him back to Hijarna, and our destiny will be ensured.”
Elmbore smiled. Immortality.
Xar strode into the bustling, seedy pub whose large neon blue sign outside simply read ‘Beer’, blazing out in the night. As soon as he entered his senses were assaulted with a mixed smell of bodies, smoke, alcohol, and other rotten substances. He peered through the smoke and light in the room, then moved forward and shouldered his way through the crowd of beings up to the bar. He lost sight of Alyx through the crowd, but kept on, leaving the man to find his own sources of information. He sat down at an empty spot between what appeared to be an Elom and a Sic-Sic, and glanced around the room. More species than he could identify filled the bar. Neon blue lights cast an azure glow throughout the room, and ultraviolet lights set aglow various patterns and shapes on the walls and ceiling.
“What’ll ya have?” a voice snarled out. Xar spun, startled, into the face of a big, ugly human he assumed was the bartender. A bald man, he didn’t look to have any more patience than he had hair.
Xar glanced beside him at the Sic-Sic, who was busy sucking a glowing orange liquid from a skinny vase with its mouthparts. It wasn’t an appetizing sight.
“Well?” the barkeep demanded impatiently.
“Just give me… something tasty,” Xar replied blankly.
“Tasty, huh.” The man turned, and a moment later returned with a frothing glass of thick, blue liquid. Xar eyed the drink warily, but, to keep up appearances, brought the glass up to his lips and drank. The drink was cool, but whatever combination of alcoholics burned in the back of his throat. The rotten-fruit taste almost made him gag, but he forced it down, trying to look as if he was used to it. When he’d finished half of it, he summoned the barkeep again, ready to put on the next phase of his plan.
“I need some information,” he told the pudgy-faced man quietly.
“Oh yeah?” the man answered, his face twisting in a sour expression. “What is it you’re wanting to know, stranger?”
Xar smiled at the man’s words. So the man knew he was new to the city. Of course. Bartenders always remembered their regular customers. “I am looking to buy a navicomputer,” he said. He thought he noticed a slight slur in his voice. He cast the thought away. Impossible. He didn’t get drunk, especially not that easily.
“Ah, those are very expensive,” came the man’s guarded reply. “Very hard to find. Black-market stuff, here. You’ve not come to the right place for that.”
Xar shook his head, feeling a little dizzy. “I know you can help me find one, though.”
“Well now. We’ll have to talk about that elsewhere. What’s your name, boy?”
Boy? That didn’t sound right. He shrugged it off. “Runis…” he said, not wanting to use his real name. His mouth didn’t want to move right. He blinked up at the bartender. The man’s face was contorted into an impossible shape, all scrunched together. “What’s going on?” he whispered. Suddenly the man’s face twisted, contorted into that of a different man’s, one with a dark mustache and almond-shaped eyes. General Akira! The words left his lips before he knew it.
“I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” the man’s voice said. “You shouldn’t be asking too many questions around here. It gets you in trouble.”
“Akira… You dog. What did… put in my drink?” Xar slurred, his vision swimming.
“Just relax, son. It’ll all be over in a minute.”
“No!” Xar answered tersely. “No! Won’t… Akira!” He pushed himself back, swayed unsteadily on his feet. He couldn’t remember why he was here… Couldn’t remember where here was.
“Aaaagh!!” He yelled, slamming his fist on the table. The fat shape across from him reached for his hand. He pulled his arm away, sweeping his drink off the bar, sending the glass flying over the counter. It shattered, its crash echoing through his head. Voices… The chatter of the room filled his head, voices, reverberating, making him crazy. He stumbled back, trying to find the entrance. Beings filled his way, pushing at him, laughing at him. He broke through, slammed into the doors, and shoved them open.
He stumbled out onto the street, looking wildly around. Nothing made sense. Where was he? People walked the streets, ignoring him, but he knew they were after him. They all knew. They all knew who he was!
“No!” he yelled. He had to stop them!
A whirring sound filled the air, and a breeze stirred his cloak around him. Xar spun, saw the approaching hover-chariot as it came towards him. People were clearing the streets, all but a few: those who were after him. About to kill him.
Blaster fire spat from the chariot, reaching out towards him. He stood still, staring at the approaching vessel, the blasts somehow missing. He felt their intense heat as they passed him by mere inches. Couldn’t kill him. He began laughing. They couldn’t kill him! What a rich joke; too bad for them.
More fire shot out, reaching for him. He leapt to the side, reaching for the Force. At first, he couldn’t feel it, and almost panicked. Then the Force suddenly filled him again. He jumped forward. Shots blew away the street where he’d been standing. He flew through the air, reaching out with his hand. The Force gathered in him. The Force… The True Force…
A blast of light and energy shot from his hand, tore into the rear of the vessel. People’s screams filled the air as they saw. Fire blossomed out of the chariot; he could feel its heat. He fell, landed on the street, stayed there, mesmerized by the sight. The chariot dropped, fell to the ground in front of him, its momentum carrying it forward. It struck the street just in front of him and rebounded, scattering duracrete over him. It flew up again, missed him by less than a meter. Then a massive crash as the chariot slammed into a building, boring on inside, an explosion erupting, filling the interior with fire.
Xar pushed himself to his feet, his head clearing. His body had finally detoxified the poison in the drink, once he’d summoned the Force within him. He looked around the scene as if seeing it for the first time. The last few minutes were only a blur, now. The street was now all but deserted. The front of the bar was in flames, too. Alyx was nowhere to be seen.
Then he spotted several dark figures moving towards him down the street. With the Force filling him, he could feel their malicious intent. He started moving off, toward one of the alleyways. No use staying here and trying to fight his way out. He didn’t want to be there when the authorities arrived. If they ever did; on most worlds they would have been there already. Something was going on here, that feeling he’d sensed when they first arrived. And the approaching gunmen. Someone wanted him dead. But who, and why? There were plenty of individuals that had reason enough. But he’d never been here before. There was no way they could have known he was here, was there?
As he moved down the dark, steamy alley, he was concerned. Not only for
his own safety, but for that of the rest of his party, his friends. Tonight, in
the dark city of
“Look out! There’s more of them!” Rynn yelled, drawing her hold-out blaster and taking a quick shot at the dark figure hiding behind the crates against the alley wall. Her shots splintered off the wood, causing a small fire. The gunman returned fire twice. Beside her, Xoan pivoted, sweeping out his long, violet saber blade to parry the two blaster bolts back at the attacker. He pushed out his hand, sending the crates toppling back over the assailant with the Force, then turned back to face another onslaught.
They’d been herded into this small alcove beside a conservatory, which held a large tract of jungle plant-life beneath them, encased beneath glass. Then they had been surrounded by the dark bandits, who were trying their best to finish the two Jedi off. Rynn didn’t know who they were, but she knew trouble when she was in it. How she wished to be a full Jedi, like Xoan, able to take on numerous opponents at once. But now it was all she could do to stay down and not get herself killed.
Suddenly her commlink beeped. “Rynn! Atridd! Where are you two now?!” The strained voice was Omega’s. He and Draken had been attacked too, at about the same time. Whatever was going on, it was coordinated. They’d kept in contact via commlink, but there had been no word from either Jedi Master Misnera or the Grand Master. That wasn’t a good sign.
“We’ve moved south into a large greenhouse area!” she responded. “We’re caught between two groups. Can you help us out?” They’d gone into the administrative area of the city, but after the first engagement with the bandits they’d retreated into the less-occupied processing area. It had turned out to be exactly what the enemy had wanted.
“I’ll be right there,” the man answered.
Atridd had moved forward, blocking close-range blaster fire from a lone bandit up against the conservatory wall. Finally he reached out with his hand and sent the man flying back against the glass. He crashed into and through, yelling in pain as he stumbled into the biosphere. As the glass broke, alarms began shrilling throughout the compound. Rynn cried out as she saw what happened next. One of the exotic, multi-colored plants actually reached out and grabbed the man, pulling him, screaming, into the thick of the jungle. Sounds of blaster fire came from the thicket, then more screams that faded into silence. Rynn felt a chill wash over her at the sight.
“Don’t just stand there!” Xoan’s harsh words broke her out of her momentary shock. She turned, started running after him back the way they’d come. As they neared the exit back out into the square, another figure stepped from around the corner, leveling his blaster at them. He brought his weapon up, adjusting his aim…
Then a flash of light hit him from behind, and he pitched forward in front of them. Atridd kept running and jumped over the fallen figure. He hadn’t seemed phased at all by the sight of a blaster muzzle pointed at him. Rynn found that she’d stopped, herself.
Then Omega stepped back from around the corner, glancing at the fallen man to make sure he was dead. “Come on, Rynn!” He shouted. There’s more behind you!”
She complied, running back with them out into the deserted square and back toward what she noticed the middle of the city. They held a hasty conversation as they ran along the sparsely-populated streets. The few bystanders seemed not to even notice they existed. Rynn supposed that was normal for them. If you didn’t notice suspicious characters, then you weren’t noticed, yourself.
“Where’s Draken?” Xoan asked panting as they ran down the level streets.
“I don’t know. We got separated… We agreed to meet back at the hangar… at the assigned time… if anything went wrong.”
“Perfect. So he could be in trouble, or worse..”
“Maybe,” Omega said, breathing heavily. “But… I don’t think so. Draken can… handle himself.”
“And the Grand Master?” Rynn asked.
Omega glanced sideways at her. “I don’t know. That’s where we’re going… To find out…”
Derek ran down the alley, hoping against hope that the old spacer would step out of the shadows to help him out. The evil men were after him. He could… feel them, behind him. He dodged into a small space in the wall, hunkered down behind a trash bin. The old spacer had been right: the Jedi hunters had finally come. But he wouldn’t be caught. He couldn’t be. He made himself invisible.
The dark men ran by his hiding place without even looking. Derek smiled. He waited until their footsteps faded, until he sensed them gone, looking elsewhere. He started to come out…
And a large figure moved in front of him, blocking his way. The dim light glinted off a device sitting over one eye, lit his blonde hair. The man smiled.
“I won’t go…” Derek growled. He stretched out, sent his words pouring into the man’s head, sending out his thoughts in waves. His illusion sprang into being, that of a monster, something he’d seen in a comic vid. Most people would have been running in terror at the sight.
The stranger waved his hand, and suddenly, everything Derek had done vanished. The device over his eye lit up, made some kind of beeping noise. The man smiled again.
“Quite an impressive little show, my short friend,” the stranger said. “You’re definitely the One. Now I’ll show you how to really use that power…” He stretched his own hand out. A hammer hit Derek inside his head, pain exploded in his brain. Darkness settled around the edges of his vision, swelling up until everything had gone black.
Xar stalked along the seemingly endless maze of alleyways, daring anything come at him. He was ready. It seemed he walked for hours, through quiet, motionless alleys. He no longer knew where he was. His map must have fallen out or been stolen back in the bar. At least his gun and lightsaber were there. So he used the Force, and his senses to tell him his way. He stopped, listening. Steam rose silently from vents in the street. He looked up at the featureless dome kilometers above, but with buildings rising on all sides he couldn’t use it as a guide back towards the center of the city. He didn’t sense the presence anymore of the dark figures that had been following him. But nevertheless he knew he was being stalked. By someone else.
The others were being stalked, too. They’d begun calling him earnestly on the commlink, but he’d told them to continue on and shut the device off. He was onto something, and he didn’t want a beeping commlink to give him away. Besides, whatever it was, it was after him first. The others were just secondary targets.
He continued moving. Let whatever it was, come. He emerged through a column of steam onto an old, thin, abandoned street, the small shops along the sides longs since closed. It must have been used years ago, when the city was much smaller, but abandoned when Ilic became the megalopolis it was now.
He turned and walked along the sidewalk, passing old, ruined, boarded-up shops and apartments. He went slowly, listening through the Force. Someone was near. He paused beside an empty building whose front had collapsed into a pile of rubble. He waited.
Suddenly he reached out beside him, gripped the wrist he found there, and jerked his stalker out onto the street. The man stumbled back, looking up in surprise. Xar warily gazed at the tattered man. He had the look of a homeless person, with old, worn-out clothes and long, unkempt hair and beard that were gray with age. The man’s eyes held an intelligent look, and as they rested on Xar, they lit up with what appeared to be… recognition.
“Who are you, and why were you following me?” Xar said tersely.
The man definitely recognized him. He nodded, gave a slight grin. “You are the one. You’ve come at last. I’m Jace Burter,” he said quickly. “We don’t have much time. I’ve known you were coming for some time, but I’m afraid it’s almost too late.”
Xar nodded. “All right. Who are you?”
“I was a Jedi in-training back before the collapse of the Order and the
Xar knew the man was speaking truth. He couldn’t sense any deceit in him. He also sensed the Force in him rather strongly. “I believe you,” he said. “But I do not understand what it going on here. What is so important about these events? Why is someone trying to kill me and my party?”
“They’re not after you at all. You’re just… in the way. I don’t know exactly who they are, but I know they have a horrible plan. And I know the threat they represent to the galaxy.”
“What is their plan then? Who are they after?”
“A young boy named Derek. He’s the son of biomolecule harvesters that died a few years ago. He’s survived on his own since. I’ve gotten to know him over the past few weeks, trying to keep him safe until you arrived.”
Xar shook his head. “But why would they be after him?”
“Because… Well, I can sense roughly the amount of Force within him, and you. You’re stronger, but not by much, and he’s totally untrained. Sir, this boy could well be the most powerful latent Force-user the galaxy has ever seen.”
“What?” Xar blurted, unable to contain his shock.
“There’s more. He’s never been trained, yet he already casts Illusion and mind-control techniques more complicated than any I’ve ever seen.”
Xar shook his head in disbelief. This just couldn’t be possible. A mere boy… that strong? Xar himself had had to absorb the power of Dasok Krun, nearly doubling his energy, to be this strong, and had much more training, besides.
“You’ve got to act quickly,” Jace told him. “These men are killers. He’s just a boy. They want to kidnap him for their own uses. You’re the only one that can rescue Derek, and stop them. It may already be too late…”
His words were cut off as a pop sounded through the air. Something hit Jace, blowing through his middle and spinning him around. Xar blinked as the man’s blood splattered over him. With a grunt of pain, the man slumped to the ground.
Xar slowly turned toward the sound of the voice, eyes narrowing. A lone figure stepped out of the shadows of an alley, moving into the street. The dim light revealed his blonde hair and a strange glass device resting over one eye. A relatively handsome man, he wore plain, but tight fitting, dark clothing. Strange black tattoos covered his face. The silvery mass gun in his hand was trained, unmoving, on Xar.
“Don’t make a move,” the man said. His voice held an odd accent Xar hadn’t heard before. Xar just stood there, not answering.
The device over his eye beeped, and some kind of writing appeared on it, inverted from Xar’s view.
“Wow…” the man breathed, awe suddenly in his voice. “You definitely are the one.”
“The one what?” Xar asked flatly. He could sense the Force strongly within this man, as well. It didn’t feel like the Dark Side. A dread feeling hit him, as he realized what this man represented. Another group that could use the True Force.
“We can’t let you get in our way,” the blonde man said instead. He tapped something on the side of his face, and the readout on his device vanished. His face broke into a confident grin, and in a flash the gun was back in the holster on his right hip. He stood still, letting his hands hang at his sides. Xar read the challenge in his voice and eyes. He was giving Xar a chance to fight back. Whether from some ego-driven need to test his skills or a bout of insanity, the man wanted an even duel. He could sense the emotions in the man, feelings he freely let emanate from him. The man was actually excited and eager to face him in combat. That’s all right, Xar thought. I feel the same way. Funny enough, I kind of like the challenge, myself.
Reaching up, Xar pulled his cloak off, undoing his wrist holster with it. He let it drop to the street, leaving him wearing his short-sleeved shirt and pants, his own shoulder holster slung underneath his left arm. He brought his right hand over, slowly, and undid the strap on the gun, then held his hand up in front of him.
The blonde man’s eyes widened as he saw Xar’s own mass gun. Then his smile grew. It was clear he was confident he could draw much faster from his hip than Xar would be able to reach across and pull out his own. That was fine; let him think that.
Xar turned slightly to the side, exposing only his left side to his opponent. He held his hand up, halfway to the gun’s handle. His fingers twitched eagerly with the desire to draw.
The two Jedi stood still, eyes boring into one another’s, the man’s dark eyes meeting Xar’s own gray. He knew the other man must be thinking the same thing he was; whether or not to draw on the Force to increase his draw speed. It might be a matter of honor to use normal means, but in the end, one of them would be dead, and the other alive. If either made the wrong decision, it would mean death. But, if both used it, then the faster Jedi would, in theory, win out. That was enough. The man may or may not know how strong he was, but Xar had made his decision.
As the Force surged within him, time seemed to slow. To the injured Jace Burter, if the man were still alive, only an instant would pass, while it would be whole moments for the two Jedi. The standoff wore on, at least to Xar’s perspective. Neither man moved.
Then the blonde man moved. Xar smiled. He’d made the same decision. It would all be over in an instant. His opponent’s hand reached down and deftly flicked the gun out of its holster, brought it up to aim and fire. Simultaneously Xar pulled his gun free, brought it down to chest level. But while the other man brought his gun up to him, Xar fired almost as soon as his weapon left the holster. There was a loud snap as the projective created a miniature sonic boom when it left the barrel. With mass drivers, their projectiles instantly crossed the distance to their targets. If they had been using blasters, the duel would not have been possible. Each would have been able to absorb and dissipate the energy of a blaster bolt. But these shots were solid. It was a true duel.
It all happened in an instant. Xar’s gun snapped free, and he had leveled and fired in one fluid motion. The mass pellet blew through the right side of the other man’s chest even as he aimed his gun to fire. His gun arm was thrown to the side, and he spun around, blood vapor spurted out behind him as the shot continued on unabated. The man’s own gun misfired into the ground, sending up a chunk of pavement.
The man continued his spin, coming back around to face Xar unsteadily. He coughed on blood, staring at Xar with disbelief in his eyes. Then he grunted, trying to pull his weapon arm back up to fire anyway. In response, Xar brought his own weapon into aim again and fired another shot through the man’s chest, putting him down on his back. And this time Xar knew he wouldn’t be getting back up.
He smoothly replaced the gun and turned away. Then he knelt down over the Jedi who’d fallen prey to the surprise attack. Jace was still alive, groaning and coughing weakly. Xar knelt over him and stared down sadly. “Jace? Can you hear me?” he asked.
The man’s eyes stared ahead, finally focused on Xar. He smiled weakly. “You… did it…” he whispered softly. “I knew you were the one.”
“Just hang on,” Xar said quietly. “I will get to a hospital.”
“Too late… for that…” Jace replied, shaking his head barely. “I knew this was coming. Listen, they have taken the boy to the planet… Hijarna… Promise me you’ll… save the boy…. Save Derek…”
Xar nodded. “I will… I promise.”
Jace nodded weakly, and smiled. “I’m glad… I could help you. It was… an honor…” Then he closed his eyes and leaned his head back. Xar put his hand behind the man’s head, holding it gently, as Jace took a final breath. Then he went still.
“Goodbye, my friend.” Xar let his head down softly, feeling a wetness in his own eyes. He shook his head. Another pointless death. It was time for the killing to stop… He had to make it stop. It was a regret that he could not give the man a proper burial, away from this place. Perhaps on Varnus, a world now dedicated to peace, not death. He saluted the fallen Jedi. Though he may never have been fully trained, he was still as valuable as any Jedi Master.
Getting up, he looked maliciously at the fallen figure lying still a dozen meters away. Walking over, he studied the dead assailant. Tattoos crisscrossed his face, sparking a bit of recognition in Xar. But he couldn’t place them, exactly. The mass gun in his hand was not unlike his own, but this one was shiny like Xar’s first, the one destroyed by Dasok Krun. His new one was black, less conspicuous. This was the standard-production Crinn model. How this man had gotten his hands on one was a mystery that worried him. After a brief search of the man’s clothing he found no identification, no lightsaber, or any other items except for the gun, and the device on his head. That was another mystery. For a moment he considered taking the two items, but quickly decided to leave them with the dead. He didn’t need someone else coming after him for them.
He walked back over to collect his cloak, giving a last sad glance at the body of Jace Burter. He re-attached his wrist-holster and put on the cloak. Then he continued on, leaving the grisly scene behind for the authorities to figure out.
Moments later, Elmbore stepped onto the scene. He looked about, noting the two bodies in the street. Moving over to the body of the tattooed man, he stared down at his fallen comrade.
“Kletian. My brother. We were trained together, taught by Turles himself. Why did you fail?” He bent down, took the gun from the fallen man’s hand, then reached over and pulled off the Scouter. He hit the activation switch, looking for the monster that had done this. The Scouter’s last power reading was still on the sight. The reading on it almost made him drop the device in shock. He shook his head, dismissing the reading as inaccurate, perhaps a combination of Kletian’s and the other’s power level, or of two seperate Jedi. But not one. Quickly pocketing the device, he continued on the way the other had gone, Kletian’s mass gun in hand. This hunt was far from over.
Xar saw a fleeting glance of the cloaked form as it disappeared around the alleyway ahead.
He continued to follow, gun in hand, knowing he was being purposely led on. He methodically stalked the unseen figure, following relentlessly. He needed some answers. He caught another glimpse of him as he slipped into an alley. This was the man who had been following him, but now Xar was the pursuer.
He hit the alley at a run, ready for anything, but no one was there. Then a side door banged shut. He stopped, considering. It was almost certainly a trap. Nevertheless, he had to continue on. There were answers he had to find. He moved up to the door, turned the handle, and entered the darkness beyond.
Footsteps ahead led him on through the dark rooms, past boxes and crates, around various objects, until he finally came out into a lit area once more. He emerged onto a railed balcony overlooking rows of plants two levels below him. Why the entrance to this place hadn’t been locked he didn’t know. Perhaps it had, and the other man had broken through. At any rate, he noted with relief that none of the plant-life below appeared to be of the deadly sort that surrounded the city. These were simply flowers and ferns.
He looked both ways along the railing, seeing no sign of his bait, but through the Force he could feel him. He turned right, moving quickly, his prey almost within his grasp. He ran by the railing, through another doorway, and into what appeared to be a control room for the conservatory. There was a console array of controls, and numerous other stations, but the room was unoccupied at the moment. At least, except for one other man.
“Freeze,” the cold voice came from behind him. Xar turned slowly, keeping his gun down, finally getting a full view of the person he’d been chasing for the past fifteen minutes. Another tattooed man sat in one of the console seats, the previous man’s mass gun trained on Xar’s chest. Xar chided himself for not taking the weapon. This man had long brown hair and light-colored eyes. The pattern of his tattoos was reminiscent of the other’s, but different in actual form. He stood, keeping the barrel unwaveringly steady. His cold eyes were full of hate; hate directed at Xar.
“Drop your gun,” the said roughly, the same odd accent on his tongue.
Xar complied, switching on the safety and letting it fall to the floor in front of him. The tattooed man smiled. “Foolish,” he said. He extended his hand, and Xar’s weapon rose up to meet his palm. Now, standing with two weapons on Xar, the man appeared completely confident. “Hands up, now.”
Xar did as he was told, content to wait a minute. It was clear the man had something to say. He detested people like that. Whatever the man said was pointless, suited only to fill his own ego. If he killed Xar, his words would be for nothing. But Xar didn’t intend to die.
“My name is Elmbore. You killed my comrade, Kletian. I don’t know who you are, but I tell you, you won’t interfere with our plans any further. You denied my brother from his destiny. Now I will deprive your of yours!
“Do you have anything to say before I kill you?” the man asked.
“Where is the boy?” Xar said, getting right to the point.
“So you do know,” Elmbore said in a dark tone. “You’re too late. We’ve already got him. The mercenaries are taking him to our ship, now. You’re the only thing left to finish. With you gone, there will be no one to stop us.”
“What about the rest of my group?” Xar asked. “They will come after me.”
Elmbore laughed. “They can’t stop us.”
“And I can.”
“Not anymore.” The man smiled, brought the gun in his right hand up to point directly in front of Xar’s face.
“I am afraid you are mistaken about that, my friend,” Xar said, his hands held up in front of him. He turned them, palm inward. “You see, there is something I need to show you…” he broke off, stepped in and to the side, and with his left hand slapped the gun out of the man’s right hand. The weapon flew out of his grip, firing into the wall as it fell. At the same time, Xar twisted his right wrist, activating the wrist-holster there which held his smaller, single-shot mass gun the Crinn had given him when he’d last been to their world. The gun flew into his hand, even as Elmbore pointed the second gun at him and fired. But he’d forgotten to take the safety off Xar’s gun. The weapon clicked.
As the gun hit his palm, Xar twisted it and fired, sending its single shot straight into the man’s forehead. A cloud of blood exploded out the back of his head. The man paused, his eyes rolling up toward the hole in his head, trickling blood. A second later he convulsed, collapsing onto the floor, dead before he hit the ground.
Placing the mini-mass driver in his pocket, Xar bent down and retrieved his own mass gun, placing it in his holster, then went and picked up the other one, as well. This time he wouldn’t leave any loose ends to tie up. He searched the other’s body and found the device that the other one had been wearing over his eye, and stuffed it in his pocket, as well. Then, stepping over the body and the pool of red forming around the dead man’s head, he left the room at a run. He had to catch up to the mercenaries before their ship took off. He’d made a promise.
Misnera was waiting with the rest of the group in the administration office of the hangar level when Xar finally ran up. Member by member they’d returned – first Draken, who had come back to the designated meeting site, then the trio of Rynn, Attrid, and Omega. Alyx himself had been the last to arrive except for Xar, after evading an attack by the bandits and gathering the star map. Xar had been their concern; the man was an hour late from their meeting time. But when he finally came in, he didn’t have any time for pleasantries.
“I’m glad you’re safe!” Rynn said, breathing an audible sigh of relief.
Xar nodded as he approached. “We have a problem,” he said tersely. Misnera gave a start as he saw the condition the man was in. His clothes were splattered with blood, and he held a gun in his right hand. He was walking around city openly bearing a firearm!
“Xar!” he said as the man approached. “No kidding. What happened? We couldn’t raise you on your commlink.”
Xar slapped his belt, where the device was hooked on. “Blast! I forgot; I shut it off.”
“You’re a mess. What happened?”
The man shook his head. “No time to explain. We have to have to find the ship those bandits are leaving on. They accomplished their mission. I killed their leaders, but they still have him.”
“They are kidnappers,” Xar snarled. “They stole a child with immense Force potential, as part of some crazy plan. They will take him back to their base, and their leader. We cannot let them take him!”
Misnera’s eyes narrowed as he listened to the brief rundown. A child… kidnapped. “Right!” he said. “Let’s go! Any idea where they’re leaving from?”
“Follow me,” Xar said. “The Force will guide us.”
The Jedi emerged from the turbolift, hitting the landing pad just as a large Muurian Transport lifted off on its repulsorlifts, swiveled in midair, and jetted off toward the entrance tubes. The group opened fire with their blasters, but the ships’ shields batted the energy away like gnat bites. Xar ran ahead of them, the force of the ship’s repulsorlifts blowing his cloak wildly around him, as he whipped out both mass guns and unloaded on the ship. Shot after shot penetrated the ship’s shields, pouring into the hull and engine array. But it was to no avail. With a blast of heat that nearly blew them down, the ship roared off into the tube array, heading for the surface.
Misnera cursed. “Blast it! Now what do we do?”
“Call the Annihilator,” Xar answered. “Tell them to track that ship! We have to get to the Black Star and follow them, follow them back to their base!”
“Right…” Misnera said roughly, leading the Jedi back into the turbolift. “They may have won a brief respite, but they won’t get away for long. I’ll see to that personally.” With that he brought his commlink up to his lips. The Annihilator held hyperspace tracking devices. If they could tag the ship with one before it jumped, they’d be able to track it down with impunity. And that they would. Then they would force a final confrontation at the mercenary base, wherever in space that was. And he wouldn’t want to be the bandits when that happened.
* * *
“Ah, at last the boy has arrived.” Estod smiled as the Muurian Transport landed, stirring up the dust from the stone courtyard that filled the center of the Fortress of Hijarna. Beside him, Turles grimaced. Both Estod’s and Turles’ cloaks were swept back as the craft landed, and those of Estod’s student Dark Jedi behind them. The ship began powering down, and the boarding ramp descended with a hiss. Dark-clad mercenaries from Estod’s group filed out and formed up in front of Estod and Turles.
Turles counted less of them than had gone out on the mission. And his own two men were not among them.
One of the mercenaries, a corpulent, ugly man, came up in front of them and made his report, mostly directed toward Estod, not the white-cloaked Jedicon. Such insubordination was an annoyance, but one that wouldn’t last much longer.
The corpulent man finished his report, and Estod made and angry snarl. “I told you there would be opposition,” he said, facing Turles. “But you wouldn’t listen. Now where are your precious lackeys?”
Turles suppressed a sudden urge to rip the man’s head off. “They got careless, let their egos take them beyond my orders. They died for their foolishness. It is of no consequence.” The loss of Kletian and Elmbore stung, but only for a moment. They’d been expendable from the beginning; their power levels were below ten thousand. He’d actually been surprised they had left the Ka’adram with him.
“Bah. They even lost the Scouter, the fools. And did you hear what he just said?” Estod pointed at the obese figure. “Their leader called himself Runis.”
“So, Runis is the name of my old enemy! The destroyer of my entire Order! I’d heard that he was exacting his revenge on us through his student, a man named Kerensky. I’m the only one left!”
“This doesn’t concern me,” Turles said flatly.
"It better concern you! You'll be next!"
“You’re just imagining things.”
“No I’m not! He’s coming here, after me!” Estod spat.
“He’s coming here after the boy,” Turles said evenly. “Keep your focus on the mission, Estod. Speaking of which…” He arched an eyebrow at the huge mercenary.
The man started, then gestured back toward the ship. “Yes sir…” he stammered. “The result of our efforts…” At his words another figure came out of the ship’s entrance.
“Let… me… go!!” the boy yelled as he was brought out of the ship, trying to jerk his arm from the vice-like grip of the burly mercenary holding him. His effort was to no avail. The man practically dragged him away from the ship and brought him up before Estod and Turles.
Stepping forward, Turles replaced the mercenary and took hold of the boys arm. At his touch, the boy went quiet for a moment, staring up at him in wide-eyed wonder. His lips uttered something Turles couldn’t make out.
“So you’re the One,” Turles said, smiling. “Well, hello.”
“Let me go!” the kid yelled, pulling away sharply. He might as well have tried to move a mountain than stir Turles’ arm.
“Hey kid, just relax. I’m not going to hurt you… unless you deserve it,” Turles grinned. The brown-haired boy went quiet, shrinking back from him.
“Well, Turles,” Estod said, “Now we’re at the final phase. The boy is in our hands. Let us begin immediately.”
“What do you want from me?” the boy asked angrily.
“You’re going to be working with us, kid,” Turles said. “What do you say? You can travel the galaxy with us. Maybe even destroy some planets. What’d you think? It’ll be fun, a whole lot better than having to steal scraps from a garbage can for your supper.”
“I’ll never go with you!” he yelled. “Mister Jace told me you were coming! I know all about you! You can’t fool me, you just want to use me for your evil plans!”
“Hah! That’s right, kid,” Estod cut in. “You’re just a pawn to us. We’re going to use you to gain Immortality. It’ll be quite painless for you, really.”
“You’re just an evil old crone!” the boy retorted. “You don’t deserve to live forever, you should be dead right now!”
“You won’t win! Evil never does!”
“Shut up, you little brat!” Estod snapped. Reaching out, he grabbed the front of the boy’s filthy clothing, away from Turles, and tried to shake him. When he did, the boy took Estod’s hand in both of his and bit it. Snarling, Estod jerked his hand away and instead backhanded the boy across his face. The boy cried out, but didn’t fall, and turned back to look up at Estod, ready to fight.
With an angry growl of his own, Turles reached out and grasped Estod by the front of his cloak and lifted up onto his toes. Estod grunted in pain and opened his mouth in anger to speak, but Turles cut him off with a perilous glance.
“Don’t… ever… touch him… again,” Turles said slowly, evenly. His dark gaze and words banished whatever the man had been thinking, and he shut his mouth. Turles let him go, and Estod stumbled back, dazed.
Turles held the boy’s hand again and glared at Estod. But the Dark Jedi directed his gaze not at him, but at the boy. Derek stood with his full concentration on Estod, gritting his teeth in anger. Turles could feel the immense power within him, as he knew Estod could.
“What? This is impossible…” Estod uttered. “How… How can a boy have such power?” he said in awe.
Turles grimaced. The boy’s power level already exceeded Estod’s, but it didn’t touch Turles’ level. “Bah. His power is great, true, but far from what his potential could reach,” he said. Then he leveled his menacing gaze at Estod and dropped the Force Mask that had been hiding most of his power from the Dark Jedi. It was time to put the senile old man in his place. “He’d really not that strong, yet. You see. I’ve been hiding my own power level from you since the beginning, old crone. Now you feel my true power, and understand how insignificant your pathetic ‘Dark Side’ really is...”
Estod’s expression of utter shock brought a smile to Turles’ lips. “Now you see who has been in command all along,” Turles said smoothly. Then he turned and walked off, the boy moving beside him, leaving the estranged Dark Jedi Estod wide-mouthed behind them.
The Marauder-class Corvette Annihilator burned its way through hyperspace, its engines straining at their maximum level to propel the ship faster. The mottled sky of hyperspace swirled around the craft, spinning crazily, too fast for the eye to follow any single spot, casting its light over the hull of the vessel. Following an almost unknown hyperspace route, they flew at the tremendous risk of running into some interstellar mass that the warning system wouldn’t be able to detect. If they hit another planet like Disim again, they wouldn’t emerge from hyperspace; they’d simply be vaporized. All they had to go on was the trust that the mercenaries had followed a safe path, and that they were properly aligned in their wake. Straining the engines like they were, there wouldn’t be time to realize if they’d made a mistake.
Inside, in the training room one more time, eight Jedi prepared themselves for what was coming. Misnera had opened up the ship’s entire weaponry, and Xar had done likewise with the Black Star’s veritable arsenal. As they suited up in their Jedi attire once more, each contemplated his or her own part in the certain upcoming battle. Xar had asked everyone to accompany him down to Hijarna, their projected destination, and everyone had accepted, even though they all knew that some of them might not come back.
Xar looked at the pile of weapons arrayed on the mat in front of him. He didn’t plan on carrying too much for himself; he had other weapons to use. His lightsaber and trusty mass gun, both staple weapons and recognized as part of his arsenal, would be enough for him. His main weapon would be the Force, itself. The same thing with Alyx and Icis, for the most part. The others equipped themselves as they saw fit.
Xar turned to look at Alyx, who was brandishing a hold-out blaster and packing extra power cells into his belt. “You look ready to take them all on,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.
"I can't wait." Misnera's eyes were filled with anticipation as he holstered his blaster. He was clearly focused on the mission ahead. Xar nodded. That was how he should be, how all of them should be.
Xar clipped on his own weapons belt and surveyed the force of Jedi around him, equipping themselves with a veritable arsenal of weapons. Draken, Omega, and Xoan looked crisp and sharp, the epitome of Jedi Knights ready for action. Rynn looked as composed as they did, and Bren was unusually focused for this after hearing of the kidnapping. Misnera looked so eager it almost scared him. And Icis, who he’d only seen occasionally and briefly since their trip began, looked, perhaps, the deadliest of them all. Icis had told him that this was why he’d come. Not Dathomir, but this. And it looked as though he planned on making good use of his presence.
"Remember,” Xar ordered. “We will be using everything we have to stop these people. I do not mean only these weapons here. Remember, your ally, your primary weapon, is the Force. Everything else is secondary. Rely on it.”
Misnera nodded, smiling darkly. "They're going to wish they never met us..."
Taking a glance over each member of the team, who had equipped themselves with an assortment of blasters and knifes and throwing weapons Xar had taken from the Black Star, he took stock of their conditions. They looked good, ready for a fight. Whether or not their training would be enough was something they’d all find out soon enough. On their belts, each held his lightsaber. All except one.
Moving over to where Rynn stood, clad in a black jumpsuit with her fiery red hair braided behind her head, he pulled out a long cylindrical device and presented it to her with a formal bow.
Rynn stared down at the lightsaber uncertainly, glanced back up at him. “Grand Master?”
“I want you to have this for the upcoming mission,” Xar told her. “You have proven to have the skill to wield it, and it might prove the most valuable thing you take with you today.”
She reached up and accepted the weapon, held it gingerly. Though it was one of the extras Xar always carried around, it was as capable and functional as any but the most exotic blades. “Remember,” he said. “This is an extension of your own body. Do not be afraid to use it. If you use it well, you will have earned the right to keep it.”
“I won’t disappoint you,” she said evenly. Focused.
“Excellent,” he replied.
Then, moving to the center of the mat and facing each of them, he started to speak a few final words. As he opened his mouth, a reversion warning sounded through the ship, cutting him short.
“All right,” he said in a crisp tone. “We do not have much time. You have all trained hard during this journey, and I believe each of you has reached a new level in skill. I sense a powerful stirring in the Force around what is to come. Remember: never give in to the enemy, or to evil. Give it your all. This is it.”
The huge man continued dragging Derek through the underground levels of the huge fortress. They kept walking, on and on, so that he thought they would never reach where they were going. They hardly passed anyone on their way, and the ones they did were all dressed in dark clothes or robes and never looked at him as they walked by.
Finally they walked across a large open area with windows looking down into other levels inside the fortress, and he could see multiple levels and corridors stretching off out of sight. The fortress had looked incredibly massive from outside; but the inside seemed to be even bigger. The builders – whoever they were – must have carved it out of the entire mountain the fortress sat on top of.
They ascended a broad flight of steps, emerging into a large chamber with a huge bench on a raised platform in the middle. They went left through an exit, walked across a balcony that looked down into the deeper fortress levels, and continued on through several more rooms until Derek finally heard the whirring sounds of machines. They reached another door, this one made of metal and sealed tight. The big man tapped in a key sequence on the control pad beside the door, and it opened. They emerged into a room surrounded by computers and machines. Console banks lined the walls of the narrow room, full of blinking lights and whining machines. Large monitors showed scenes of the outside of the fortress, in the massive courtyard and the ship he’d come in on, as well as numerous interior places in the fortress. The man led him forward, past them, around several more turns. This section had been entirely redone, Derek realized, made into some sort of control room. Finally they reached a wall with a large window looking into a circular chamber. A slanted bed sat in the middle of the room. The sight of it sent shivers of fear through Derek, and he tried to pull away. Turles dragged him forward anyway.
“No!” Derek yelled. “I won’t go in!” He kicked the man’s shins as hard as he could, but instead of hurting the man he felt like he’d broken his own foot. He tried to bite the man’s hand, but as his teeth grated against the man’s flesh. Turles just smiled.
Then he let go of him and grabbed the front of his clothing, lifting the boy completely off the ground and up to his face level. Derek’s feet dangled over a meter off the ground.
“There’s no use fighting it, kid,” he said calmly. He smiled. “It’ll really be fun. Come on. I know you want to have real power, do some damage.”
“Who… are you?” Derek grunted.
“I’m just like you,” the man said, half-smiling. “We’re really the same, you and I. We’ve got the same spirit. I’m Turles.”
“That’s right. A Jedicon Master. We use the same power, though you haven’t learned it yet. But don’t worry; I’ll teach you later. This process won’t last long. I just need enough power to reach my ultimate level on my own. Then you and I will rule the galaxy. You can be my son,” he said with a grin.
“No! Never!” Derek shouted. He grabbed the man’s wrist, tried to pull himself up. He brought his other hand back and punched at the man’s face with all his might. Faster than he thought he could.
But Turles simply reached up and caught his fist. “Now, now,” he said coldly. “That’s no way to treat a fellow Jedicon. It would be such a shame if we didn’t become good friends.” He pushed Derek’s fist back, squeezed his hand. He felt pain shoot through his arm, spreading through his whole body.
“I won’t join you!” he shouted defiantly.
“Oh really? Hmm, perhaps you’re right. Maybe you want to die here.” He squeezed harder. Derek cried out in pain.
Then Turles dropped him. Derek hit hard, the fall knocking the breath out of him. He struggled to get up, but Turles bent down and grabbed him by the back and held him up. “Come on, kid. If you’re going to be a real Jedicon, then act like one. Otherwise you’ll dishonor all of us.” With that he carried him away from the window and through a side door. Derek looked up as they entered another control room, this one small with more sophisticated equipment lining the walls. Inside he saw the frail body of the oldest man he’d ever seen.
“There it is. Hijarna.” Alyx said, looking out the forward viewport of the Black Star. The planet was a barren wasteland, colored in a dull grays and browns. They were quickly approaching a mountainous region bordering a massive plain, the flatland scarred and pitted from what could only have been technological weaponry. Overlooking the plain itself was a huge mountain with a fortress on top. Their destination. “What happened to it?”
“According to the records the navicomputer had on it, it has been a
mystery to xenobiologists since its discovery,” Xar answered from beside him at
the pilot’s seat. “Virtually all life on the planet is totally gone. The huge
fortress below is the one of the few remaining structures. Nobody knows who built
it, or what destroyed the people. The Fortress of Hijarna is occasionally used
by smugglers for meetings,” the man said. “But if our pirate friends are down
there like we suspect, I doubt the Smuggler’s
“It looks more like a crater itself, to me,” Alyx said. The whole top of the mountain was gone, creating a large, hexagonal shape of walls that slanted sharply downward from both sides. Four large towers stood on each ‘corner’, but one of them was missing its top, instead a broken stub rising into the sky. As they grew closer, he could make out more and more details. The interior inside the walls was flat stone, and a series of giant-sized steps lead up to the walls on the inside. The inside corner where the broken tower lay was strewn with a huge pile of rubble. Various other parts of the wall itself were in fairly poor shape, cracked, missing bite-sized chunks, and creating more rubble.
“Bio-scan looks safe, at least for us, anyway,” Xar reported, glancing at a side screen. “The atmosphere is really dry, and warm. Not uncomfortable, though. There are reported some biocontaminants present. Our Jedi healing techniques will be able to kill them, but I wonder what they are doing to the regular people down there.” He looked ahead, his eyes narrowing. “We will be coming down almost at sunset. We will have to act fast. Saving the boy is top priority.”
“Right,” Misnera said. “I just wonder why they’re not activating any defenses. Surely they know we’re coming.”
“They probably do not need any defenses, Alyx,” Xar said gravely. “Just be ready.”
“We will be. What are you going to do after you let us off? Take the Black Star to a landing site before you join us?”
“Do not worry about me. I may go off on my own after I drop the rest of you off and land. If you get separated, keep moving.” He turned to look at his friend. “We only get one shot at this.”
Misnera nodded, understanding full well the scope of the mission, and its consequences if they failed. There was no other alternative.
A simple touch on the boy’s neck and pressure through the Force sent the boy unconscious. Then Turles took him and lay him gently on the bed, snapping the restraints into place.
“It’s about time,” Borowen muttered. “I don’t like waiting.”
“Don’t worry, you can do all you need now,” Turles answered, exiting the room. Borowen replaced him, first tilting the bed up, the reaching up to the array above his head and attaching the neural interface cables. Finally, before leaving, he took the Kaiburr Crystal, held by mechanic arms, and swung it down into the unconscious boy’s hands. Then he returned to the control room and sealed the door.
“Well, it won’t be long now,” Borowen sighed, starting up the controls. He looked through the window at the unconscious occupant. “I agree with Estod. This is totally crazy.”
“You don’t think the device will work?” Turles asked. If everything he’d done was for nothing…”
“No, I can control him easily,” the ancient doctor returned. “But how am I going to transfer the energies he is drawing to you, Turles?”
“Don’t you worry about that part, my friend,” Turles said clapping the doctor lightly on the back for fear of breaking his frail form. “Just have him ready and fully powered-up. When I’m ready, I will reach to him, make the connection, and then the bond will form.” He smiled. “That part isn’t technological at all, so you wouldn’t really know about that. Think of it as a well of energy which I can tap into anywhere, at any time. Once that happens I will become… much more than this feeble body is, now, at least.”
“And what about Estod?” the old man inquired, looking back at him questioningly.
“Estod won’t even be in the picture, my friend,” Turles said with a smile.
Then suddenly Turles’ ear link clicked. Estod’s voice came over the speaker. Turles wondered if he’d been heard, but Estod had other news.
“Look at the monitors, Turles,” the Dark Jedi’s voice spoke briskly. “Our visitors have arrived, just like I said.”
Turles glanced at one of the viewscreens, which showed a dark vessel outlined in red approaching their position on the map. “Don’t despair, old bag. I’ll be right up. I hope your lackeys have trained for this,” he said with a grin.
“Don’t worry about them, Turles,” came the man’s angry reply. “Just get up here.”
Turles laughed, shutting the link down with a tap of his earlobe. Estod’s dozen or so Dark Jedi apprentices should provide suitable distraction for the trespassers. He just hoped there was something left to challenge him. And, if Borowen worked on time, Turles would be able to wipe everyone out. Everyone.
Like a swooping bird of prey, the raven-ship Black Star descended upon the Fortress of Hijarna. As the ship cleared the walls, the interior courtyard came into view, and the Muurian Transport sitting on the stone surface. As the ship’s targeting reticule painted the ship red, Xar let loose with two pairs of advanced concussion missiles from the ship’s forward launchers. The warheads streaked down to their target almost instantly. The first two hit the rear of the craft, punching through the engine array and detonating inside the craft. A huge explosion rocketed out the engines, and then spread to consume the entire rear of the ship, blowing chunks of durasteel into the air. One of the other missiles hit the craft just behind the cockpit, piercing inside before exploding, decimating front of the ship. More flares leapt up from fresh gashes along the ship’s hull, until the entire transport was aflame, a burning pyre of metal sending a column of smoke into the air. The guards stationed around the ship were destroyed or incinerated as the ship blew itself to pieces. The fourth missile missed its target, passing the ship and detonating on the stone floor of the courtyard. Its explosion blew a large crater in the surface, launching shards of rock over the entire courtyard. The force of the blast sent the remaining pirates flying.
Xar flew the ship over the two explosions, then set the craft down on its repulsorlifts, scattering dust and small pebbles as he hovered a meter off the ground. He activated the control to descend the boarding ramp, waited ten seconds for Misnera and the rest of the Jedi to get out, the retracted the ramp and picked the ship back up, looking for a suitable landing spot.
Xar never saw the dark figure watching from the wall as he brought the ship around and towards a landing site on the other side of the Fortress.
Misnera led the group of seven Jedi as they quickly ran across the courtyard, between the burning wreckage of the Muurian Transport and the smoking crater the other missile had caused. The planet’s large, red sun shone down on them as it slowly fell, nearing the edge of the Fortress’ walls. They moved toward the wall and the huge tower rising above them, looking for the interior entrance which should lay nearby the place the transport had landed. They came upon a lit opening in the side of the wall; started toward it. But their enemy wasn’t going to make it that easy.
Misnera turned, his danger sense flaring, spotted movement behind a large pile of rubble. He paused, motioned to his party of the imminent trap, when blaster fire erupted from all around them.
But the attack hadn’t gone completely unanticipated. Moving as only true Jedi could, the party broke up as its members Force-jumped in seven different directions. They landed, lightsabers ignited, and fell back on the attacking mercenaries, their blades deftly parrying each shot that came too close. Then, from around the rubble, four black-robed figures flipped into the air, landing in the middle of the scene with their crimson lightsabers held at the ready. Four of Estod’s Dark Apprentices, come to lend their skill to the growing battle.
His ship safely nestled away, Xar ran back across the huge courtyard at blinding speed, crossing hundreds of meters in seconds. He saw the signs of battle ahead, signifying that Alyx’s group didn’t get inside without a fight. Stray blaster shots went skyward, and flashes of clashing lightsabers lit up previously hidden parts of the grounds. Xar was growing close to the battle site when three black figures appeared in front of him. He stopped almost immediately, drawing himself up to face the three cloaked apprentices. Their lightsabers ignited as one, green, orange and red, as they came in at a blur.
With a quick motion Xar shed his own robe and tossed it behind him; with the other hand he drew his lightsaber and flicked it on, its yellow beam piercing the night. He prepared for the onslaught.
In the thick of battle, Icis spun, taking his opponent’s blade around with his as he did so. The man disengaged, then came in again, flipping through the air onto the other side of him. Icis blocked the man’s strike by passing his own blade behind him, then spun it around, taking the Dark-sider’s blade up. He feinted a high blow, then brought his saber around and struck at the man’s middle. The apprentice took the feint, then brought his blade down to block, but it was too late. Icis’ light blue blade changed direction and cut through the man’s handle, severing one of his hands, and continued on to swipe a thick swath out of the man’s chest. He crumpled to the ground, dead before he landed.
Nearby, Omega was blocking a concentration of blaster fire from two mercenaries, while Draken engaged another of the Dark Jedi behind him. Further off, Atridd Xoan was simply overpowering all those who opposed him. His foes were even dropping their weapons and fleeing, but not in time to save themselves from his dancing purple blade or a push of the Force that sent them flying.
It seemed as standoff for Omega, parrying blaster bolts without room for an attack himself. Then suddenly a flash of red caught his eye as Rynn Mariel moved up, her hand outstretched. Head-sized pieces of rubble flew at the mercenaries, pelting them and causing them to stumble back. Breaking off their fire. Omega flipped through the air, landing between them. One smooth spin with his blade striking sent both men down, never to rise again.
From his position on the wall, Turles impassively watched the two battles unfold. He had shed his white robe of rank, fully revealing his dark, tight-fitting body armor that covered his chest, back, forearms, shins, and waist. His feet were booted, and he wore gloves that protected the backs of his hands and left his fingers open. His armor was standard, but extremely strong, easily capable of deflecting blaster shots. His multi-braided hair fell all around his head as his dark eyes watched the scene below him.
On the left, near the entrance to the inside of the palace, six of the enemy Jedi were going against the remaining mercenary force and four of Estod’s Dark Jedi. Three now, he noticed, as one of the apprentices was cut down by a deft move from one of the Jedi. He was really getting disappointed in the skill of Estod’s pathetic lackeys. On the other hand, that of the trespassing party was even better than he had anticipated. Even three of Estod’s men couldn’t take out the lone Jedi in the battle to the right. The man with the piercing yellow beam spun and flipped away from three blades at once, occasionally striking back, for a moment captivating Turles with such a beautiful sight. The man performed perfectly, a true Jedi Master in full form. He was the one who’d killed Kletian and Elmbore. Turles knew it. And this would be the man he would face down, himself.
“Why watch the fight when you can join in?”
Turles turned toward the low voice as Misnera’s hand reached out to grab him, Instead of letting the man grab his wrist, he pulled away from the grip, and briefly stared into the eyes of the dark-haired man who had come to oppose him. A Jedi Master, from the look and power in his gaze. Turles smiled.
As the man struck at him again, Turles brought his hand across and grabbed Misnera's arm in a vice-like grip and pulled him around, easily dodged the man's quick strike at his face. His palm slammed into Misnera's chest, then he released the arm and struck him across the face with his other fist. Misnera fell back, but even as he did his hands came up together, end to end, his Force energies building. As he landed, a blast of Force Destruction shot from his hands, directly into the tattooed face of the Jedicon. But before the blast reached him, some time in the space of an instant, Turles' hand came up in front of the blast and took it palm outward. A blast of light enveloped both men, the heat sending a rushing of air around them, blowing Turles’ hair back. Then, the energies died, and the smoke cleared. Turles stared down the fallen Jedi Master and grinned evilly, his untouched palm still held outward.
"Was that… all? It felt... Good. Refreshing," he said with a malicious smile.
Misnera's eyes widened and his mouth opened in surprise and shock, even as the flash of light erupted from Turles' outstretched hand and enveloped the Jedi.
Even as the blast of energy shot from Turles’ hand, another figure appeared beside him, hands out to meet Turles’ attack. The flash of light bent back on itself, then vanished, leaving only a mote across the men’s eyes and tiny sparks of light that quickly faded.
Turles stared wide-eyed at the man in front of him. How had he learned such an advanced technique to dissipate his attack? Long blonde hair descended from the man’s head, tied back behind him. His face held barely visible scars, like a spider-web stretching across his face, and his eyes held a fire Turles recognized, and respected.
“Misnera! Get out of here!” Bren yelled. The fallen Jedi, finally stunned back out of his shock, rolled to the side, continued as he fell on a section of the wall collapsed into a slope of rock and rubble. As the man disengaged from the fight, Bren Force-jumped off the wall and back-flipped into the air. He landed down in the flat plain of the courtyard some thirty meters away. Turles simply turned to face him, forgetting his former opponent. His concentration was on this new threat.
“Who are you?” Turles asked. In this man he felt a fire… the burning of the True Force… of a Jedicon, like himself. Only he was actually stronger! Only how strong was a mystery… And the barely-seen scars… Tattoos that had been removed? But it didn’t make sense. Why would a Jedicon be working with these half-trained children?
“I’m not here to answer your questions,” the man breathed, his voice low and reverberating throughout the courtyard.
Turles’ mouth opened wide in shock as he felt the immense power radiating from the man. Whoever this was, he was in a complete fighting craze. It had taken over every fiber of his being, overrode everything else. The man’s aura of authority and power radiating from him was almost strong enough to make Turles want to bow down and serve him right there. Almost; but Turles had faced such power before, and knew how to resist it. Still, the skill this being showed was a mystery to him. There was no way this man should be doing what he was doing. No way he should know such powers. He was a completely different person from the others Turles had seen a moment ago, fighting the mercenaries on the courtyard plain. This man was completely in fury mode, seething in anger, and it was feeding his Force power. Turles wished he had his Scouter back, now. It would be interesting to see how strong he actually was.
"Enough!" the man screamed. "You've killed enough people! I won't let you hurt anyone else!" Only the whites of his eyes were visible, another sign of the utter battle-craze only Jedicon knew. Turles could feel his power, the immensity of the well of Force inside the man. With that much power, he might well be unstoppable. But for all his strength, he apparently hadn't learned control of it. The man was just holding the power, begging to unleash it, but he lacked the purpose. Turles began to relax. He still had to learn the skill to use his power. And that was his fatal flaw. Turles smiled.
“Give me your best shot!” he yelled down at the crazed man, holding his arms out wide.
“TAKE THIS!!!” With a scream of fury Bren stepped forward, extending his hands. He never saw the chunk of rock flying towards his head at lightning speed. The piece of rubble struck the man in the back of the head, sending him spinning wildly to the side. Turles heard the crack as it hit; knew his skull had been fractured.
But the man’s Force energy had already escaped, and Turles’ attack was barely enough to put it off-aim. The invisible blast of energy flashed out and blew away a huge section of wall to Turles’ right. The attack decimated the wall from top to bottom, sending a cloud of rubble flying outwards off the mountain, toward the vast plain stretching below. The entire mountain shook, and Turles fought to keep his footing. As the dust cleared, a huge hole had appeared in the wall of the Fortress. The tremors slowly faded, and Turles regained his balance and looked down at the long-haired man, who had fallen to his hands and knees on the rubble slope.
Turles extended a finger, intending to send a focused blast clean through his enemy. The thought of how close to death he’d just been enraged him, but at the same time gave him a strange respect for the warrior beneath him. Truly the man was a warrior, and deserved a just death.
The flash of light shot from Turles’ finger just as the Fortress shook one final time, throwing his aim off by inches. The pile of rubble beneath the man exploded upwards, blowing him backwards and sending rock shards and fragments tearing at his body. Bren hit the stone ground some distance away and lay still. His battered body went limp, his clothes were torn all along his body. Turles let out a sigh of anger and frustration. The next shot would finish him off.
Xar spun and danced as he fended off the three opponents' lightsabers with his own. Again and again they attacked, with a ferocity he'd rarely seen before, but his masterful strokes countered every attack. He jumped, dodged, ducked and parried every attack, then finally stepped back and let out a yell of anger. Reaching out through the Force, he reached for them and tugged their sabers' crystals out of alignment one by one, their handles cracking open with gouts of smoke. Xar flipped twenty feet into the air over their heads as their sabers detonated, destroying the center Jedi as the two on the side threw theirs inward. Xar landed behind them and swung his blade horizontally, cutting the first of the two survivors in half at the waist. The other turned, his face and hand a charred ruin, but his screams were instantly silenced as the piercing yellow blade sliced him through vertically.
Xar shut off his blade and Force-jumped across the castle grounds toward his fallen comrade.
“Bren!” he yelled, landing softly beside the unconscious Jedi. Seeing the condition of Bren’s injuries, Xar glared upward at the dark man on the wall.
Turles slapped his hands together, his face a mask of concentration and anger. He drew them apart, grunting with effort. Xar’s eyes widened as he saw the blinding circle of energy building between the man’s hands. The man on the wall screamed.
“DIE YOU FOOLS!!!” Turles yelled, bringing the circle of energy above his hands and thrusting it towards Xar and his fallen comrade. The blast of energy floated through the air toward them and dropped suddenly. In that instant Xar held Bren close and Force-jumped up and away from their position, carrying the unconscious man with him. The ball of energy struck the stone ground, consuming it, and a massive explosion of light and energy consumed the spot they’d been standing in before. The entire fortress filled with light, and the ground fell away in and around the impact of Turles’ attack. Xar and Bren landed some distance away, flames licking at their clothes, as huge cracks in the stone floor shot past them. Then the section of ground tilted back toward the yawning opening in the ground now, and they found themselves sliding down amidst an avalanche of rocks and dust. Xar watched in dismay as Bren’s unconscious form slid through the hole and into darkness, just before he started after Bren, himself. He yelled as he slid down the slanted surface, grasping about for a handhold, but there were none. Then he fell off the edge, and slipped into darkness.
As the last of the enemy fell, Rynn, Omega, Draken, Icis, Xoan, and Misnera met up at the entrance to the interior of the fortress. The lit opening in the wall extended downward, inside. The exterior fight was over, but the real battle was just beginning. The setting sun had already fallen below the horizon, and dark was quickly setting in. The interior courtyard of the fortress was cast in shadows.
“Is everyone all right?” Alyx asked, looking from face to face in the dim light. Xar and Bren weren’t among them. Xar had told him not to worry about him if he ran off, but Alyx nevertheless was worried. And for Bren, as well; he shouldn’t have been down here. He wasn’t ready to fight.
“We’re okay,” Omega spoke up for the group. “Just a few cuts and bruises, that’s all.”
“What happened to Bren?” Draken asked, breathing heavily. His cloak was torn halfway down, from a close call with a lightsaber blade. “I don’t see him or Xar either.”
Alyx turned to look over at the entrance. “Well, we don’t have time to worry about them right now. We’ve got a mission to complete. Inside, everyone. Let’s go.”
The six Jedi moved through the entrance, leaving the scene behind them as it descended into night.
Deep within the interior of the Fortress of Hijarna, Xar made his way
through pitch-black corridors, his only sense to guide him being the Force. He
continued along the seemingly endless stone passageways, reminding him of the
tombs below his own
Trusting the Force to guide him, he finally emerged onto a wider corridor that stretched on for some distance to the left, probably toward the main area of the fortress. But to the right, the passage ended in a large stack of supply crates. Other side doors and smaller corridors ran off from the side of the long passageway. Xar turned left and ran down the corridor, emerging into a large, dimly lit interior chamber that extended upwards for several levels. Other floors of the fortress were visible; open passageways and balconies that were lit were visible all the way up. Bridges crossed the space in the chamber, linking sides of one floor or connecting differing levels. A stairway in the center of the room led upwards, connecting with the bridges as they crossed above. The place was truly a marvel of architecture, with elaborately detailed hieroglyphics marking all the stone structures and columns. Whoever had built this place was very technologically advanced.
And, in the center of the room, an armored man stood ready to face him. He had a simple yet elegant tattoo design running around the contours of his face, and wildly-braided long hair that fell around his head.
“I am Turles," the man said, his voice full of arrogance, or perhaps contempt.
Xar didn't answer. The man glared at him, his eyes cold and calculating.
"So you’re the one named Kerensky, the student of Runis?”
“My name is Xar Kerensky. Runis was my teacher.” Xar narrowed his eyes. “Until I killed him.”
“Ah. How nice. As it should be, of course.” Turles kept his gaze focused evenly on Xar’s, his expression emotionless. Even so, Xar felt the presence of someone approaching from behind. A small, dark, stealthy power, probably belonging to one of the Dark Apprentices. He knew if he turned to face his stalker, that Turles could take advantage of his distraction. So he dared not expend the Force inside him to defeat the man behind him. Holding his Force power steady within him, keeping his eyes and focus on Turles, he slowly reached around and pulled his lightsaber from its clip. Turles watched with seeming interest as Xar took the handle in both hands, reversed it, and set its beam setting for maximum dispersal and intensity. One of his special modifications was about to give the man behind him a rude awakening. Xar activated the blade, creating an intense hiss as the energy shot out behind him, but didn’t bend itself back into a blade. Pure energy and radiation poured out in a bright stream behind him, and he heard a high-pitched scream of agony overcome the sound of the blade behind him. After waiting a few more seconds, Xar shut the blade off and returned it to his normal setting, clipping it back onto his belt. He never took his eyes off Turles. The other man smiled.
Then Xar turned and risked a glance behind him. The body of a young man dressed in smoking, black robes lay sprawled out on the floor. The man’s features had been burned away, his hair singed off, and his body was only a charred ruin. He turned back to look at Turles.
“Kerensky, you are a strong fighter, and if you wish to join me, kneel before me and I will welcome you and the boy as my comrades. No one else here is going to survive tonight, but together the three of us would make a powerful team.”
“Don't waste your breath,” Xar cut him off harshly. “Why should I bow to you? I can see now what you are. You are what I would be if I had not changed from the path I was on two years ago.”
Turles waved his hand in dismissal. “Enough, and let me warn you: Do not challenge me, because I have access to a power you cannot comprehend.” He grinned. “The difference between our powers is as wide as the universe itself.”
“Your fear of losing will be your undoing," Xar countered. "But you haven't seen me start to fight, yet.” In one swift motion he reached up, drew his mass gun, aimed it at the man’s chest, and fired.
The mass projectile left the chamber with a snap as it created a mini sonic boom, speeding almost instantly across the distance between the two men. In the blink of an eye, though, it was over. Turles suddenly had his hand across in front of his chest, clenched tight. Xar knew what he held.
“My, my…” The man smiled, opening his palm. Inside was the small mass pellet, slightly warped from its impact against something that it couldn't penetrate. "Nice try, my friend.” Xar stared at the man in disbelief. No one was that fast! Then Turles took the pellet in his fingers and thrust it forward. The bullet shot from his hand as fast as if it had been fired from the gun. Before Xar could react it slammed into the weapon in his hand, shattering the gun into a hundred fragments. His face stung as pieces hit it and ricocheted. His gun hand throbbed in intense pain from the impact. Xar held the broken handle of the gun in disbelief as unspent balls of ammunition fell out of the chamber, dropped to the ground and bounced across the floor.
Xar dropped the useless weapon and narrowed his eyes at the huge man. It looked like this was going to descend into a real fight.
The force of six Jedi ran down through the main passageways of the fortress, approaching the ever-increasing sense of danger ahead. Misnera led them, purple-bladed lightsaber held up in front of him.
They emerged into a wide, long chamber, with open windows in the side looking down into a deeper section of the Fortress, multiple levels visible above and below. And there, standing in front of them, was at least a half-dozen cloaked figures, waiting for them.
Six Dark Apprentices stood before them. Each was different in stature and features, but they all held the same sunken, dark eyes and pale faces. Mere shadows of what they used to be. Standing behind them, dressed in a black Master’s robe, was a tall man whose face was marred heavily with age. His skin had shrunken to the bone, paled, dry like parchment. His eyes stared malevolently at them from sunken pits. He raised his hand as the group of Jedi slowed to a stop.
“So you are the ones who seek to deprive me of my Destiny.” His voice was cracked and aged, but held anger borne of years of being consumed by the Dark Side of the Force. Misnera could feel the evil power in the man, increasing with the man’s own anger and hatred toward them.
“We represent the New Imperium,” Alyx said evenly. “We don’t care about your petty plans, we just want the boy you kidnapped.”
The Dark Side Master cackled in laughter. “You stupid fools! Who do you think I am?!” He brought his hand up, his face contorted in palpable malice and hatred. “You’re all going to die here! What a stupid decision to make, marching to your deaths. I am Estod. I was a Dark Jedi Master before any of you were born!”
“That’s all well and good,” Alyx conceded in a low voice. “But I’m a Jedi Master, as well. And though I’ve learned to respect the elderly, I think I’ll make an exception for you. And we’ll see how your pathetic excuses for students fare against real Jedi. The ones we’ve killed so far have seemed a bit… lacking.”
His ploy succeeded brilliantly. Maybe too well. Estod was so mad his own students seemed captivated by his Dark Side aura. Thick blue veins pulsed in the man’s neck and on his bald head. He had to be beyond rational thought, with that much anger and Dark Side energy in him. That was what Misnera wanted.
“We’ll see who’s lacking!!!” Estod screamed at the top of his lungs.
“Move!” Alyx shouted to his group, sensing the man’s increasing energies. Perhaps he’d underestimated this old man a bit.
Stepping forward, Estod thrust his hands forward, and a huge blast of Force Destruction erupted from his palms. Misnera gathered the Force in him and leapt to the side, as did everyone else as the blast hit the middle of their group. The floor where the blast hit was decimated by the expanding energy, and even though Alyx had jumped clear the force of the blast sent him flying much further than he’d anticipated, and everyone else for that matter. They crashed into supply crates and furniture lying along the sides of the corridor. Without much room to maneuver, the Jedi braced themselves and came back up, their lightsabers igniting in a series of snap-hisses. The sound was repeated by the Dark Jedi as they ignited their sabers, as well.
“KILL THEM ALL!!!” Estod screamed to his minions, who launched themselves forward madly at their master’s words.
Draken, Omega, Xoan, and Icis jumped forward to meet them head on. Alyx moved to join them, pushing off from the window where he’d landed, but Estod seemed to have sought him out for his own personal destruction. White-hot bolts of Force Lighting flew from his hands, each centimeters thick, twisting and reaching for Misnera as he jumped to the side and over a stack of crates piled near the window. The bolts tore into the crates, igniting them and sending bits of wood splintering all over him. Yelling in fury, Misnera vaulted back over the crates and ran forward, ignoring his own safety and the lightning reaching out to embrace him.
“I can sense the fire within you, my friend,” Turles said, his gaze boring into Xar. “Join me. I will ask only once more. We are the same, you and I. Inside, you must know this.”
“I said ‘quit your mumbling’,” Xar replied flatly. Something was wrong… He had the strange feeling that Turles was stalling, waiting for something. But what?
"How dare you kidnap a child for your own evil purposes..." Xar said menacingly.
"Hah. I'm surprised you care about such helpless beings," Turles retorted grimly. "You're supposed to be a warrior. Forget about them. I can see it in you, you know that the only true path to greatness is power. You have the spirit of a warrior, you live to fight!"
"Shut up!” Xar cut him off with a yell. “I have heard enough of your trash! You will never get what you want."
"Then come stop me!"
"Count on it!" He moved forward, gathering the Force inside him, increasing his speed and fluidity. After what the man had done to Bren and Alyx, he knew he'd need it. He shot forward, running up on the man, enraged.
Turles was ready... As his power rose, his long, multi-braided hair began to rise around his head. A feeling of exhilaration radiated from him through the Force. The veins in his neck pulsed out, and his eyes were filled with a fire like Xar had never seen before. Turles' mouth opened in a scream of unmitigated fury.
"BRING IT ON, JEDI!!!"
The battle raged on in the wide corridor deep within the Fortress of Hijarna. Estod’s Dark Jedi Apprentices were skilled, but no match for the trained Jedi of the New Imperium. Omega whirled around his opponent, driving him back with strike after strike, then ducked a swing and dropped down to the floor, taking his opponent’s legs out with one swipe.
Nearby, Icis took out two of the Dark Siders at once as he dropped his saber, letting the blade hang in midair with the Force. He extended his arms to either side, and with a massive sound twin blasts of energy shot from his hands. One of the blasts cut the first apprentice in half at the waist, the top part of his body flipping over forward and down to the floor. The second’s lightsaber did no use in deflecting the energy, which blasted through him, igniting his clothes and skin. The blazing man was propelled through the window, and fell downward out of sight, his screams fading into the darkness. Icis grabbed his levitated saber and continued on, seeking out another target.
Rynn had dove for cover at first, watching the battle unfold, then when the opportunity came she moved out, igniting the blade that the Grand Master had entrusted to her. She held the saber handle out horizontally, grip inverted, as the azure blade extended out, casting blue light on her face, a contrast to her fiery hair. Her eyes were on the evil Dark Jedi Master ahead, her will focused entirely on him. He stood, hands raised, sending Force Lightning pouring out at Misnera, who couldn’t get close enough with his saber. This man was the evil that she’d vowed to face as a Jedi, a guardian of the weak and innocent. This vile creature preyed on the weak, seeking only his own selfish gain. It was he that she had trained to destroy. All of Estod’s attention was on Misnera. Suddenly, she felt she heard the Jedi Master’s voice in her head.
Now, Rynn! Misnera’s voice came through the Force. Attack!
Instinctively, she obeyed. Gathering the Force within her, she crouched low, angled herself toward the Dark Jedi Master, and leapt, boosting her jump with all her Force power. She flew across the corridor and up the steps, inverted grip on the blue blade extending out to her side. At the last instant, Estod turned toward her, his face a mask of surprise. His hands came up, sweeping the lightning out toward her, to embrace her with their deadly energies, then she flew past him, barely noticing as her blade passed through his frail body as if it weren’t even there.
For an instant, Estod stood still, one arm outstretched, complete and utter disbelief covering his face. Then a line of light cut through his body, and the top part of him above the midsection began to fall over. Then the Dark Side energies within him escaped. Estod’s body exploded with blue Force energy, scorching the stone with blue-white fire. The ripping explosion blew all of them down as his energy escaped and coursed down the corridors, seeking freedom. Glowlamps exploded outward in showers of sparks, and crates were blown around the room, knocking down Jedi on both sides. Finally the whirling vortex of energy swirled down the passageway and finally out of sight, leaving the room in dead silence. Rynn and Alyx got to their feet and looked around. The Dark Apprentices were all down, for good. Novitaar, Xoan, Rynn, Omega, Draken, and he were all up, and alive. They’d won.
Misnera sighed and walked over towards her. She barely noticed; all she could see was the charred spot on the floor where Estod had died. She realized the saber she held was shaking uncontrollably, then noticed it was she that was shaking it. Her finger hit the kill switch, and the blade went out. She set it on the floor, not trusting herself to pick it up again.
"What's wrong?" Misnera asked quietly as he knelt by her side.
"I've… I've never actually killed anyone before," she admitted in a whisper, unable to fight the shock she felt.
"It's all right," he said beside her, his hand coming to rest on her shoulder. "We all feel like that at first."
"I felt so… overwhelmed. Invigorated by the battle… I wasn’t myself at all.” She turned her gaze up toward him. “Did he have to die? Did it have to come to… this?" she asked, gesturing to the battle scene strewn throughout the hallway.
The Jedi Master nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so. Sometimes there's no reasoning with your enemy. But that doesn't mean we enjoyed it. It's when you don't feel any regret, when you start to enjoy it, even killing those you know are evil and would kill you… That's when we start to worry."
Silently she nodded, wiping a sudden tear from her face.
"It's all right, Rynn." Misnera said softly. "This was your test as a Jedi. You've saved many lives by killing this Dark Jedi, including mine and everyone else's here." He reached over and took the dark-handled saber lying in front of her, placed it back in her hands. "You've earned the right to use this, now."
She looked down at the lightsaber, feeling a new sense of pride undercut the sadness. "Really?"
"Absolutely. What you've done is more than any other Jedi has to face for his or her Knight test. I think you've earned it, and I'm sure Xar will agree with me."
She nodded and took the saber up again, gripping the handle tightly as if it would get away on its own.
"Good," Misnera said, standing. "Then let's keep moving. We've got a little boy to find."
Rynn stood as well, turned to face the rest of them. Yes, that was what all this was for. What it meant to be a Jedi. There was a child to save. That was her mission, and what made everything else worthwhile.
"I won't let you leave until I make you pay for what you've done!!" Xar yelled, the air stirring around him as hair rose, and pebbles and small objects lifted up in the air around him.
Incredible… Turles thought, a sense of trepidation creeping on him. His Force Aura is unlike anything I've seen in this galaxy! As much as he was looking forward to this fight, he knew that this would be a test of his true skills. He hoped Borowen would hurry up. It should happen any second, now.
Turles met Xar head on, striking out at the man’s head with all his Force speed. But Xar, full of battle fury as he was, evaded the attack and slammed his shoulder into the Jedicon full-force. Turles staggered back, the events unfolding in slow-motion to his Force-enhanced senses. He reached for the man, but Xar ducked under his grip and somehow slipped around behind him, striking the back of his armor with both hands. Turles pitched forward and turned to face the man, dodging his head to the side just in time to avoid the man’s fist. Xar struck again and again, Turles barely avoiding or blocking the attacks in time. Impossible! He thought. He’s even stronger than me! His power level must be at least thirty thousand! That in itself shouldn’t have been possible, yet here Kerensky was, and it was all Turles could do to defend himself. He needed the crystal's power; he could sense that Borowen was close. Very close, now.
Xar caught Turles’ wrist as he struck, but the larger man pulled his arm away and down, bringing his foot around and sweeping Xar's legs out from under him. Xar fell back to the floor, turned and pushed himself up, barreling at the man once again. But before he could reach him, Turles jumped up high, performing a back flip in midair, landing on one of the long walkways up ahead. Xar crouched and leapt after him, touching down one the same level ten meters above the main floor. He saw a flash of speed as Turles ran down the walkway, away from him. Xar stared in disbelief. The man was actually running away! He knew had to be some kind of trick, but he had to follow. With the Force flowing inside of him, he flew after the retreating man, ready to end their little fight.
He flew across the bridge, made a sharp right into a balcony, and stopped dead. Turles stood there, a half-grin on his face as his eyes stared at Xar.
“I think I’ve won this fight, Kerensky,” he said, grinning.
“You shouldn’t have challenged me.”
And then he felt it, a stirring, a far off well of energy… a rivulet of Force power, lurking just beyond reach. And he knew that whatever Turles has been stalling for had come. The line of power, barely felt, lashed around, finally connected to Turles, who was smiling broadly, confidently. Somehow he was tapping into that well of Force energy. Xar gasped as he felt the power in Turles swell… double… triple… He lost count. The man actually seemed to increase in size; his muscles bulged, stretching the armor. He gave a sigh of pleasure.
Then the man moved so fast that Xar couldn’t even track his motion. Turles’ fist slammed across his jaw, sending him flying back in shock. He couldn’t even sense the pain yet, as their speeds were so increased everything else seemed to slow to a stop. Xar felt his jaw crack and dislocate from the force of the blow. Teeth came loose and dislodged. Then pain exploded through his face and head. He rebounded off the wall, felt his body contort as it flattened against the stone and fell back toward this new Super-Turles. The man let him continue on past his body, pushed him off the balcony edge with barely a gesture. Xar dangled in midair for a split second, ten meters off the ground, but before he fell he sensed Turles beside him, hovering. All thought vanished as the man’s knee came up into his middle, exploding air out of both ends of his body and wrapping him around the man’s leg. Then Turles brought his hands together and hammered them down onto Xar’s back, sending him plunging down to the ground.
Xar tried to scream as the floor flew up at him, but he didn't have time. He struck the stone with an audible crack, only his Force-enhanced strength and endurance keeping him from fatal internal disruption from the blow. He bounced once, and through delayed action felt agonizing pain arcing throughout his body, rippling through his internal organs and smashing his muscles. As he finally came to rest, he lay still, unable to move. Distantly his thoughts accessed the situation. He realized that he probably hadn't ever taken such a beating; not in such a short time. He summoned up his strength, tried to push himself up on his hands and knees, spitting out rivulets of blood. One of his teeth fell from his lips and bounced on the stone floor. This is insane, the rational part of his mind told him, the part not reeling in pain. And yet, it was real. He raised his head, saw the towering bulk of man above him before a foot pushed his head against the floor, hard. Turles laughed.
“Beg for forgiveness,” Turles spat, “And I might just spare your worthless life.”
"No…" he managed, feeling as though his head were ballooning under the pressure. Soon it had to pop…
Then the booted foot left the side of his face. He knew it was an invitation; but he had no choice but to take it. Yelling, Xar pushed himself up and launched all his strength in an uppercut at the man’s groin, his hand coming up in a blow too fast for anyone else normally to block. But Turles’ hand easily reached down and caught his wrist, pulling him up. The grip bit into his skin. Then the man swung him around by the arm, and Xar felt the joint in his shoulder give way under the force of it. Then Turles let him go, sending him flying across the room. Somehow he slammed into a wooden double door, shattering it and falling into a small utility room inside. He bounced off shelves, knocking unseen items down on top of him as he fell down again.
“You poor fool, with the power I possess you don’t stand a chance against me!” the man yelled. He brought his hand up into a fist, stared at it smiling. “You’re going to die here.” Xar struggled to get up. He leaned against the wall and snapped his shoulder joint back into place, wincing in pain.
“Come on, is that the best you can do? You’re amusing me!”
“No…” Xar muttered, forcing himself up. “I… made a promise… to save Derek… I know your using him has… done this to you… I… will beat you!”
Giving a yell that rose in pitch and intensity, Xar called upon every bit of his Force power. Utter rage filled him, the sweet nectar that was the Force filling him with life, the True Force.
He shot forward, slamming into the man and forcing him backwards. His punches and kicks came almost too fast for the naked eye to even catch as he put everything he had into fighting the seemingly invincible warrior, driving them both back into the corridor.
Taking stock of the condition of the five Jedi with him, Misnera nodded his approval. “Good work. Looks like Estod and all his men are out of the picture. I just hope Xar’s faring as well with that other guy.”
He turned to look up the staircase and the large chamber beyond. “We’ll just have to trust his abilities. Our job is to find the boy. Let’s do it.”
Screaming, Xar extended his hands and unleashed blast after blast of Force Destruction from his hands toward the man in the corridor. Turles moved like a blur, dodging most of the blasts entirely. He spun his body from side to side, a blast of Force energy missing him by inches on either side. The first two slipped past, but a third flew straight in on him, slamming into his chest full on. But the deadly bolt of energy hardly phased the huge man; he absorbed the energy almost immediately, transferring it down into his hands, sparks of lightning arcing around them. He stepped forward and extended his hands, and a blast of heat and fire rippled down the corridor. Xar dove to the side and crashed into a stack of boxes, the heat of the blast singeing his clothes and skin as it passed. He focused away the pain of the heat as the blast continued down the corridor, tearing long cracks in the stone and warping support beams out of place. He forced himself back up.
Now it was Turles’ turn to pour on the attack. Blasts of energy, smaller, yet more numerous, concentrated bursts, poured from his hands, flying towards Xar. The stack of boxes exploded as one of the bursts hit and ignited it. Xar dodged with all his speed, trying to evade the bursts, but the attacks kept coming. He knew he wouldn’t be nearly as efficient at absorbing energy as Turles had been. Did the man have no weaknesses? Was he one of the rare warriors who was strong in every aspect of the Force?
Then a bolt of energy hit him in the left
side of his chest, throwing him sideways. He managed to absorb the brunt of the
attack, but another hit him in the other side, forcing him back.
Another hit him dead on, overloading his ability to absorb the energy. The force of the blast shot him backward through the air. He felt an intense burning through his shirt and over his skin from the searing blasts as he reeled back. Then he hit the ground and slid to a stop, gasping for breath. The world swam in front of his eyes.
Grinning, Turles moved forward, ready to finish off his opponent. But Xar hadn’t quite spent all of his energy, yet. Coming to his feet, he threw himself forward, striking the man in his armored chest once, twice, three times. He brought his left around in a hook to the man’s face, barely succeeding in moving his head. Roaring in frustration, knowing the man was letting him hit him, he reached back and punched with his right hand. Instead of contacting, his hand slammed into an invisible wall of air, a shield generated by the Force. His hand cracked against the shield, tearing the skin over his knuckles. He struck with his other, slamming it into the shield as well, but to no avail at all. He felt something brake in his hand.
Turles smiled. This was so easy. The power of the Kaiburr Crystal, drawn and magnified by the incredible energies of the kid being controlled by Borowen, filled him with life and power beyond anything he’d ever imagined. The man he faced was no more threatening than a child could be. Even now he was merely practicing with his newfound powers. So he experimented. Using the Force, he sent a fist of invisible air slamming into Xar’s stomach. The man took that blow, hunching over a bit, but more invisible strikes slammed into his body. Projected Fighting, a simple power, but enough to damage this weakling before him. Another fist of air slammed into the man's face, twisting it to one side. Then one hit the other side, driving his head the other way.
Yelling, Xar launched himself forward in a crazed, futile attack. Turles reached out and grabbed the man by his tattered shirt. Then he opened his hand and send a wave of force pulsing into the man. Xar flew backwards across the room, emitting a yell that faded as he did, crossing twenty meters in seconds, and slammed into a series of ancient crates at the end of the passageway. There he collapsed, for once not rising back to his feet. Turles was impressed that the man had lasted so long. Tough as xenotronium, he thought.
But enough of this game. Turles needed to get back to the control room, so he could access all of his power. He extended his right hand toward the small room and the crates, among which Xar lay, two of his fingers pointed outward. He let the Force flow through him, into the area, connecting him and the room.
Then he brought his hand and fingers up, releasing the stored energy. The end of the corridor exploded in flame, igniting the crates and obscuring everything in the conflagration Turles had caused. Flames worked their way down the passageway, hungrily consuming the air toward him, but his Force Shield kept him protected. Fire passed around him harmlessly, finally fading back to the source at the end of the corridor. He snorted at the scene in front of him. “What a pathetic way to die,” he mused aloud. "Perhaps I'll give a decent burial, at least, to whatever remains are left." Then he turned, making his way back down the passage toward the main chamber and the control room. His destiny awaited.
They all felt the spike in Force power, then a sudden lull. “Xar’s hurt!” Icis shouted.
“What?” Alyx asked. “How do you know that?”
"Forget how,” Icis said, concentrating deeply. “We don’t have much time.”
"Right," Alyx responded. He turned to the team of Jedi in the corridor and gestured to the open atrium area. "Let's go!"
Ages seemed to have passed. Ever so slowly, Xar stepped from the flames, his body a tattered mess, his clothes rags around him. His shirt had been burned off. The fires died out at last, and as soon as he was cleared, he felt the last of his energy leave him. He collapsed to the floor, rolling onto his back. For a moment, he just lay there. Surely he could rest here a while. Death wasn’t far off, he knew. Could he have been wrong? His destiny not set in stone? He could die here… There didn’t seem any way possible to defeat this monster.
Xar…The thought came into his mind. Icis’ voice, telepathically communicating with him. So they were all right, at least. But Icis would know, now, the extent of Xar’s injuries.
Icis, Alyx… he thought back. I… can’t…. fight anymore…
The Focus Bomb, Xar… Icis’ thoughts came. Use the Focus Bomb… Then suddenly the link vanished. He felt a pang of fear among the pain shooting throughout his body, fear for his friends. He knew that if he didn’t act, they would all die. Icis, Alyx, Omega, Draken… Even Rynn and Xoan… Bren, as well, if he wasn’t already. And the boy, Derek… His promise. He’d promised to save him, promised a dying man.
“Please,” he called out, reaching upwards. “I…” He struggled, groaning. “I… must try… Help me…”
Summoning up what strength he could, forcing the pain away from his thoughts, he rolled himself over. There was only one weapon now that he could hope to defeat Turles with. The most powerful Force weapon he knew, an ancient power… the power Icis had first shown him. Novitaar hadn’t completely mastered the thing, but Xar, with his latent energy projection abilities, had taken it up with more ease. Now it was his… their… only hope.
He forced himself up on his knees, slowly rose to his feet. Blood trickled from his split lip down his chin, dribbled on his bare chest. He pulled the last, charred remnants of his shirt off and let them fall to the floor, exposing the mass of scars tracing along his right side and arm, a tribute to past injuries and the price of Dark Side healing. Reaching out desperately to the Force, he felt it around him. Felt… the life… of the planet. But Hijarna was a dead world. There wouldn’t be much energy to Force Draw in. The Focus Bomb wouldn’t be at full strength. But he couldn’t think about that now. Perhaps there would be just enough; the Force existed even on such a dead world. He had to concentrate…
He felt the Force… It still existed on this world, remnants of its longtime inhabitants. In the air, on the plains, between the rocks. Even in the empty halls of the fortress. He staggered forward, one foot somehow going in front of the other, his arms outstretched to draw in the energy. The Force itself. Their only chance.
As Turles began making his way back towards the control room, he passed the area where Estod and his lackeys had made their own stand, in front of the throne room. He turned to look down the corridor, facing a throng of new opponents ready for him. At the foot of the staircase stood six beings, glowing sabers in hand, all focused on him.
Turles half-smiled. "Oh… You're still alive..." He gave a low chuckle. "Persistent…"
"We're gonna take you down," Misnera growled.
Turles just laughed. With subtle flicks of the Force, he pulled the crystals of their lightsabers out of alignment. Bright flashes and sparks coming from their weapons’ power packs were all the warning the Jedi had. Gasps and yells came from them as they realized their weapons were about to overload. Almost at the same instant they flung the weapons away, in different directions, a mere second before the weapons exploded, showering them with flaming bits of metal. The yells that came next were those of anger and frustration, as they turned as one, moving toward the dark figure at the head of the staircase. Undaunted, several of them paused just long enough to retrieve the lightsabers of the fallen Dark Jedi they’d defeated moments before. Then they moved in.
Xar kept moving, forcing himself along, gathering the Force slowly within him… It trickled in, but little by little the energy was gathering… He didn’t know how long he walked, nor where he was going. He limped through the dim corridors, trusting the Force to guide him. It was taking forever to Force Draw the energy. But he had to make it in time. With his last strength, he pushed onward.
Misnera came in first, striking first with a left, then a right, both blows easily avoided by the larger man. Turles' caught the man's arm, and his return backfist caught Vamp against the side of his face, driving him back. He stumbled down the stairs, barely catching himself from tripping. But even as he fell backwards, all five of the other Jedi came in on him as one.
"YOU'LL ALL DIE!!!" Turles screamed in fury. Reaching back, he pulled the rod-like staff from its clip on his back harness. He enjoyed personal combat. Bringing the weapon in front of him, he hit the switch in the middle, extending two razor-sharp blades from either end. Yelling in the fury of battle, he charged forward, meeting his opponents halfway. He burst into their formation, splitting them apart from one another as they moved to avoid the deadly weapon he spun around. The Jedi clustered around him, trying to exploit an opening without leaving themselves vulnerable. But they knew that with the lightsabers they held, the normal bladed weapon Turles bore shouldn’t have posed any threat to them. They didn’t have time to learn the error of their assumptions.
Turles moved like lightning. Ducking underneath Draken's wild saber swing, Turles brought one bladed end of his weapon up and sliced the man deeply across his midsection. As Draken bent over, gasping in shocked pain, Turles brought the same hand up and around, and slammed the man in the face with the blunt side of the weapon, sending him falling backwards. Then he turned, sensing another attack an instant before it came from behind. He sidestepped, glimpsed a dark form approaching from the left. Spinning, he brought the other end of his weapon up and sliced downward, cutting Xoan’s right arm clean away with one blow. The man screamed in instant shock and agony, falling back, his saber falling away with his dead arm. Turles then spun to face Rynn, approaching him up the staircase. Using a lightsaber she’d retrieved from one of the fallen Dark Jedi, she swung it down toward him, cutting through the middle of his staff, splintering pieces off the weapon, leaving him holding two smaller weapons with a single blade each, pointing downwards. He dropped the one in his right hand as she stabbed at him, moved his other blade over to parry her strike, and brought his right hand overtop, striking her hard in the face. She screamed and fell back, her nose crushed and spurting blood. Her blade fell away. Turles dropped the other end of his severed weapon and turned to face his next opponents.
A scream of hatred and rage made him glance to the side. A wild-eyed Xoan, clutching the bleeding stump where his shoulder had been, threw himself forward in mindless rage. He didn’t even have a chance. Turles’ foot snapped out, catching him in the chest hard enough to send him flying in the air back towards the far wall. He slammed onto the windowsill and went still, falling over to his side. Blood began running like a stream out from his body.
Clearly out of the fight now, the man was forgotten as Turles drew deeply into his new power to face the three other warriors surrounding him.
Hold on, my friends… Xar thought. The energy was almost gathered now. He felt it… It was a warmth to him, soothing the agony his whole body was feeling… It enveloped him, filling him with light and joy, the pure, true Force. And suddenly the energy was there.
“About time…” Xar whispered. He looked around, looked up to the bridge and balcony crossing several levels above him. Turles was moving like lightning, surrounded by Misnera, Icis, and Omega. The others weren’t to be seen.
They had made their way to the side balcony, giving Xar brief glimpses of them as they moved around. Xar looked back down at himself, at the energy that had drawn down into his right hand. He concentrated, focused it. A spot of light appeared above his hand as the energy focused, forming the awesome Focus Bomb. The energy built and grew, like a miniature sun. Then suddenly it snapped into place, filling the room with its warm, radiant light. All Xar’s remaining strength was in that ball. It was time. All he needed now was the opportunity to use it.
Time slowed as Turles moved, faster than any living man could, too fast for the Jedi to match. Turles slammed his fist into Misnera’s jaw with incredible force, at the same time striking Icis with a round-kick to the side, hitting him underneath his right arm in the ribs. Only the thin armor covering the man underneath his robe saved him from a shattered ribcage. As it was, Icis spun in mid-air as the force of the blow slammed him head-first into the opposite wall. He slumped and collapsed, blood tracing a trail down the stone wall.
Only an instant had passed. As Turles’ fist left Misnera’s cracked jaw, the Jedicon turned toward Omega as he launched himself toward Turles, yelling as he flew in, using the Force to increase his speed. But he wasn’t nearly fast enough. Moving like lightning, Turles rammed his fist into the approaching Omega's sternum, the body of the young Jedi wrapping around his clenched hand, going in several inches more than it normally could have. There was a cracking sound as the man's sternum split, and Omega hunched forward in astonished pain, his eyes wide, mouth open, barely emitting a cry of agony from the near-death blow. Then Turles brought his fist back and rammed his elbow up into the man's face, crushing his features and sending him backwards.
Turning back to Misnera, who was still flying back from Turles' forceful strike but an instant before, Turles sent a blast of Force Destruction into him at point-blank range. The man seemed to ignite, his body glowing a deep red as flames burst up all over his clothes. The man catapulted backwards and slammed into some crates behind him, crushing the wooden structures sending and them crashing down overtop him.
Grinning evilly at his handiwork, Turles turned back to where he'd come. But a sudden tingling in the back of his mind stopped him, at the power he felt suddenly rise nearby. He looked down from the balcony at the level below, where a tattered man in equally ragged clothes stared up at him, a sphere of pure, glowing energy in his upraised palm. Kerensky. How had he survived?!
"What's this…" he began.
"Turles! It’s over!" Xar shouted up at him. "Now… TAKE THIS!!!" Reaching back, he hurled the Focus Bomb upwards, a ball of awesome energy flying at his enemy at an incredible speed.
With a roar of desperation, Turles leapt upwards, clearing the balcony railing, bringing his hands up and threw them down, a blast of purple-white energy erupting from his hands. The two blasts met in midair, the ball of energy striking, then being enveloped by, the larger blast Turles had loosed. A flash of light filled the room, then and explosion of energy filled the air, obscuring everything.
Xar stared through the smoke and light, gasping from the effort of casting the Focus Bomb, sensing what had to be the imminent destruction of his enemy. Then, suddenly, a pinpoint of light penetrated the smoke, growing larger, closer. He stared in horror at the impossibility of it, then threw himself backwards at the last instant.
Turles' blast hit the wall next to Xar, blowing the whole section away in a huge explosion. Xar's body was flung back through the air like a rag doll, stone pieces larger than his head flying outwards around him at blinding speed. He landed somewhere in the darkness. Then the whole area caved in, obscuring everything in a layer of dust, smoke, and fire.
Turles landed and stared down at the destruction for a moment. He frowned. "Hmph. Lower-class warrior. Look how weak you are. You're not like me. I'll rule the universe with the Kaiburr Crystal’s power." Then, with a last disdainful gaze below, he turned and made his way back.
* * *
An indeterminate amount of time had passed. Maybe seconds, maybe hours. "No…" Icis muttered as he rolled away from the wall. The pain he felt was almost paralyzing, his ribs ached from the blow he'd taken. Several had been dislocated, he knew. His face felt like it had been smashed flat. But he'd felt such pain many times before. His mind was working, figuring out what had happened. He could sense it, sense that Xar was alive… just barely. "This planet's well of energy is less, there wasn't enough to Force Draw… And Xar couldn't form a Focus Bomb powerful enough to defeat Turles…" He shook his head, staring at the ceiling above him. "We're dead for sure, unless…"
Somewhere in the blackness, a pinpoint of light shone. It grew, filling his vision, bathing him with its warmth. He wondered what it could be. He reached for it, his hand grasping just short of the source. He no longer felt his body. There was only him, and the light. It grew larger, brighter, warmer. It reminded him of sunset on Varnus. Dimly he wondered if this was the threat of power he had seen before, if this was what it was really like. Could he touch it, too? He followed it, listening, obeying. It filled him with life, with energy. Calling him. Leading him.
The door slid open, and Turles walked into the control room. The machines on the walls whirred with life, their consoles lights blinking, the viewscreens flashing from the power involved. Here, closer to the source, he felt the power coursing into him more strongly. Not must longer, now. Soon he would have all the power flowing into him, and a new dimension would open up for him. Already he could feel it, sense it. Immortality was but one step away. Surely he was the most powerful Jedi ever to walk these stars. And soon he would rule those stars…
Then a most peculiar feeling hit him. It
felt as though some of the power actually left him. Some of the
Borowen turned to look at him. “How do you feel, Turles?” the old crone asked, almost cynically. “Are you Immortal, yet?”
Turles simply stared at the man without answering. Am I? he wondered. How was he supposed to know? He didn’t feel any different… But surely this was how the Shok’Thola did it, how they had attained Immortality. It could only be through their unmatched Force power, could it not?
Then his thoughts turned back to the power itself, sensing a distinct split in its direction. He had to find out who was doing this. No, he decided, he wasn’t Immortal yet. He had to get all of the crystal’s power. He had to stop whoever was doing this.
“Xar…” Misnera’s voice was weak, coming from atop the pile of smoldering crates, but he was alive. He felt the same power Icis did.
“It has to be,” Icis replied, coming to his feet and wiping blood from his chin. “I can feel him drawing in Force power, but from what? It’s got to be the… the same source Turles was using… Incredible…”
“Wha's… going on?” a higher, smooth voice asked from behind him. He turned, seeing Rynn Mariel, rivulets of blood coming from her broken nose. She pulled out a cloth and held it up to her face to stop the bleeding.
“Xar… He’s doing it,” Icis told her. “We’ve got to find him… and find the boy. Can you walk?”
“Yes,” she replied, taking a glance at the rest of their members. Draken was sprawled on the floor, unconscious, a small pool of blood forming around him. His life essence was fading in the Force. Omega was on the other side of the room, barely audible moans of pain telling Icis he was still conscious. But he was near critical, too. And Xoan was not moving near the window, his own blood dripping in a small river along the stone floor. The man would be dead in moments without emergency medical help. Misnera was still attached to the crates, his body charred and blackened. He had stopped speaking. If they didn’t act fast, they could lose them all. He shook his head in disbelief, that one man could do so much damage, could take out so many Jedi at once. He'd seen it before, of course. But it had been a long time ago, and now the sight of it was shockingly fresh. Turles truly was a powerful Jedicon.
He started forward, after the way Turles had gone, Rynn close behind him. As they passed Omega, he reached a weak hand out to Icis’ foot, stopping him.
“What… are you going to do?” He asked, his words a bare whisper.
“We’ll do what we can to help Xar,” Icis answered simply.
“Come on…” Omega stammered. “We defeated all the others… But this one guy… How can we hope to stop him?”
“Just rest, my friend,” Icis said. Then, leaving the man behind, he continued on at a brisk pace, Rynn alongside.
Xar followed the light, drawing it in, letting it fill him with life. Its warmth soothed him, eased his pain. Having become aware of his physical presence once more, he stumbled along, his bare feet padding across the stone floor. He held his crushed and dislocated left arm with his right hand. It wasn’t much further, now. Xar had never felt such energy before. With it filling him, the pain wasn't even noticed. With it, he knew everything would turn out all right. Finally, all the anger and hate was gone, instead replaced by a peace that filled him and calmed him. This was what Turles had been bragging about. The simplicity of the Force filled him with life, and he was no longer worried about what would happen. If he died, then so be it. He’d finally let it all go.
stared around the control room, checking the displays. All the readings were
correct, but he still distinctly felt the shifting of the
He spun around, hearing the voice of the man he thought he’d killed twice before already. There he was. Kerensky stood there, his shirt gone, his clothes torn and tattered, scarred body visible in the multi-colored light cast from the display screens. His hair was plastered with sweat down onto his face, his bare feet gripped the stone floor. His face was swollen, his body was cut and scraped all over, and he was covered in enough blood that he shouldn’t even be conscious, much less standing there stronger than ever, his eyes full of focus and power.
“So, Kerensky. You’re still alive?” Turles asked, staring incredulously at the man. A rhetorical question, but it didn't seem like it could be possible.
“It’s over, Turles!” Xar yelled.
And for a moment, they stood there, facing each other. Each gauging the
other, each drawing in more power from the
Silence descended upon the fortress. Only the whirring of the machines broke the quiet in the control room. In other parts of the interior, injured comrades waited. Outside, night had descended. No one could know the struggle that had taken place that night. The planet sat silently in space, peaceful, tranquil, a monument to a war long past, a glimpse of shadows of a war yet to come.
Turles rose up, his long hair rising wildly, unbelievable energies charging within him, even as a new, far more powerful Focus Bomb erupted from Xar's palm. The power in the air was palpable, a charge as it rose to unstoppable intensity. Every circuitry and computer microchip blew out, filling the room in a shower of sparks. Turles stepped forward, eyes gone completely white, and extended his hands. A blast of energy as tall as the room shot from his palms. At the same instant, Xar threw the Focus Bomb.
The Bomb met Turles’ massive blast of white energy, piercing it like a silk sheet and dissipating the energy as it bore its way through. Turles’ blast died out instantaneously, and a piercing ball of blue-white light shot through, covering the Jedicon with light. His eyes went wide, his mouth opened as he let out a final yell of fear, bringing his hands up in front of his face.
The Focus Bomb struck Turles. The man was instantly enveloped in energy, his body turned into a miniature nova, blinding Xar with its bright light. He stepped back, covering his eyes, as the high whine of the Focus Bomb increased to deafening levels, climaxing, and exploded upwards and around, tearing away everything around it.
Turles screamed, his body going transparent, converted into a pale black and white outline of itself, his face and body stretched out of proportion. The pulse of light filled the room, consuming him.
Turles’ screams filled the air, filled Xar’s ears, an agonizing death throe. Xar felt the intense power radiating from the burning form, more power than he’d ever felt before. It threatened to overwhelm him. He couldn’t believe he had been holding that much power an instant before.
The man’s screams continued, as Xar felt the exchange of Force energies, the Focus Bomb overpowering Turles’ own stored energy. The Jedicon's body was enveloped in white light. He was a shadow, his expression was full of agony and terror, his mouth opened wide as he yelled with all his breath. Then, in a small space of time, he felt Turles’ spirit, felt a… connection… between them. Turles hadn’t been that different from himself, only Xar had managed to change himself in time.
The thought exploded and vanished as Turles’ screams reached their apex, the light expanding and brightening to consume every fiber of his body, every molecule; his face, his hands, his spirit – everything. And in a flash of light and energy, Turles ceased to exist.
The Focus Bomb continued onward, flashing across the room and hitting the console on the far wall. It detonated at last, sending a blast so powerful it blew Xar clean off his feet and back out the entrance. Debris shot out after him, covering him in stinging hot pieces of metal and stone. Slowly, the roar faded, descending the room into quiet, broken only by the crackling fires that cast flickering light over him.
The entire control room shook violently,
as all of Borowen’s systems overloaded.
Derek screamed, the energies within him reflexively releasing in an invisible, expanding bubble of Force energy. The floor, ceiling, and walls all pushed away from him as though an expanding ball of force pushed against them. Borowen scrambled wildly for the exit, but the wall pushed in on him, pinning him in place and knocking him down onto the floor. Then his huge consoles tipped over from their wall slots and crashed down on him with the force of thunder, crushing his frail body like a twig.
The boy’s energies spent, the
Icis and Rynn arrived in the control room to find it a shambles. The entire area was burnt, crushed, or completely obliterated. As they ran up on the circular room, the two of them ground to a halt, simultaneously giving a collective sight of relief. The battered, bruised, and tattered form of Xar knelt on the floor in a crater, cradling the small, unconscious boy in his arms.
Rynn stepped forward to take the child from him, gingerly picking him up and holding his body close. "Are you all right?" she asked down at the Grand Master.
Xar offered a wan smile in response. Then he looked up at Icis, his eyes weak. “We… did it…” he whispered.
Icis nodded. “We did.” Then, moving past them into the room, he walked over and retrieved the Kaiburr Crystal, lying there like a gigantic ruby. He reached down to take it and wrapped it up in his robes. It certainly wouldn't do to leave that behind, he knew.
Pulling his commlink from his belt, he punched in the code for the Annihilator, waiting in orbit. He quickly called in transport and emergency medical facilities for all members of the party, including himself, Rynn, and the boy. After the order was acknowledged, he glanced down at Xar again. The man was unconscious, asleep. Icis shook his head. Typical, he thought.
* * *
Marauder-class Corvette Annihilator
Xar stood on the Observation Deck of the Annihilator, despite the doctor’s explicit orders not to get out of bed. He had focused away all thought for physical well being, and so barely noticed the bandages he wore. Still, he had quite a few more bacta treatments to go. His missing teeth were lost somewhere deep within the fortress back at Hijarna, a personal memento to his ordeal there. New ones were being replicated for him in medlab, which he'd been told would be as good as new.
He stood there, enjoying the quiet and peace, the roaring of the engines, staring out at the swirling, beautiful sky of hyperspace. It was good to be alive. He could hardly believe everyone had come out of this ordeal in one piece, though all had come through in various states of injury. What had happened, their trip, it had to be destiny. If the records on Obroa-skai hadn’t been broken into and hacked, this would never have happened. The mission to Dathomir had been scrapped, for now. But Xar knew the discovery of Derek was greater than any amount of Dathomirans they could have recruited. This boy, this… child… held more Force-potential than he'd ever seen or heard of. Derek was somewhere in his quarters below, sleeping. Xar had a very strong feeling that this was just the beginning of what was to come; of struggles and revelations he couldn’t possibly begin to imagine yet. Could it be a sign of future hope? Or could it be this was just a glimpse of shadows to come?
He felt more than heard or saw Icis appear beside him. He acknowledged the man’s presence with a nod. Icis and Rynn were actually the two least injured among their original party. Everyone else was still in sickbay, including Bren, who had been found before they left.
“Well, Icis? What did all of this mean?” he asked softly.
“For once, Xar… I’m truly not sure,” the man answered.
Xar turned to the dark headed man and arched an eyebrow. “Surely you have some ideas. What about those records we found in their systems? How does that tie in?”
The other man just shrugged, raising his eyebrows. “You used the Focus Bomb well,” he said, changing the subject. “I cannot teach you any more. You have completely transitioned from the ‘dark side’, now. You are a True-Force user.”
Xar accepted the compliment in silence. His thoughts were drifting again. “Derek…” he broke off, looking back out the viewports.
"You're taking him back, for training?"
Xar nodded. "He has no family; I cannot leave him somewhere for the reborn Emperor's executioners to find. He must learn to use his powers. Already he knows some advanced techniques. I am going to teach him to become a Jedi."
Icis said nothing.
“Something is coming, you know, Icis.”
“I know, Xar.”
Xar stared ahead, his thoughts deep in contemplation.
“That kid is going to be stronger than all of us, one day,” he said.
He didn’t speak again. For some time they just stood there, watching the sky, each alone in their silent thoughts. Xar wondered what his destiny was, now. Things were changing. The galaxy was changing. Something new was beginning…
When he finally turned back, Icis was gone. He walked toward the turbolift, to return to medlab, entered it. The doors shut behind him. Outside the viewports of the empty room, hyperspace swirled. Possibilities.
It was beginning.
Rynn looked at her face in the mirror, gingerly touching the bandages covering her nose. She knew she'd really gotten off lucky. And more than that, she had survived her first real engagement, a true initiation more fierce than any Jedi Knight testing. Still, the thought of those she'd had to kill hung in the back of her mind. There wasn't really any other way to solve this situation, she knew. But that didn't make it much easier. Derek, the boy they'd saved, was asleep in another room. Trying to explain all this to him when he woke was going to be a task in itself
She turned back to see the other Jedi, each occupying one of the beds in the facility, and shuddered at the thought of being any one of them. Jedi Master Alyx Misnera was still a bacta tank, on his fourth therapy, waiting for his burnt outer skin to fall away, to be replaced by a healthy one underneath. In the beds nearest her, both Omega and Atridd Xoan lay unconscious. Omega was in a tight brace for his sternum, with a supply of bacta running in through a small pipe to aid the healing process. Xoan's right arm was gone; the wound, which had been stabilized, was attached to a bacta pump. His arm had been unsalvageable, but the doctor said that he could get an excellent prosthetic back on Varnus. She shuddered again.
Beside them was Bren, awake on his bed. His skull had been fractured and he’d taken several broken bones from the fall, but enough time in a bacta tank had healed those. Still, he’d be tender for a while. He seemed lost in thought, saying nothing, and Rynn could only guess at his thoughts. It had been his first fight since awaking. Perhaps he had remembered something. Perhaps he was trying to remember, even now.
Draken was in another bed across from them, conscious, his stomach cut healing very well, thanks to more bacta. Thyferra would be making a killing off the Jedi Division, this month. Draken would have a nice scar to show for it, though. Finally awake, he was constantly pestering the nurse every time she moved around to check on them. She was rather good looking, but by the Core, didn’t the man have any sense of timing? Rynn shook her head in amusement. This certainly was a motley group, yet somehow they all worked together, as a team, and as a Jedi Order. And somehow she felt that this was the place she was supposed to be.
The medlab doors slid open, and she saw the Grand Master enter, look around the room, then finally settle on her. He came up to her, and though draped in his dark Jedi robe, as it flapped she could see the bandages wrapped around his bare chest underneath.
"I have been hoping to speak with you," he said.
She watched curiously as he reached underneath his robe and produced a black lightsaber handle. "Rynn," he said. "You have proven yourself in this battle more effectively than any Jedi Knight test could. You've shown you can handle a lightsaber, and keep your cool in battle. This is only one skill you'll need, but without your help, comrades might have died today. You've earned the right to wear this," he said, offering the handle to her, "And the right to bear the name of Jedi Knight."
She gasped at his words, looked down at the saber wide-eyed. "I… don't know what to say," she breathed. "I don't feel ready… and I don't know if I can pick up one of those again…"
"If you felt ready, then you probably would not be," he said, suddenly breaking into a smile. "Here. Take it. Believe me, you deserve it. That blade belonged to Dasok Krun, one of the most difficult opponents I have ever faced." He shook his head. "Except for this one, that is. He wasn't anything compared to Turles, but… Well. This was a new experience for all of us, I think." He offered the handle to her.
Speechless, she took the handle, felt its weight and power in her hand. Turning to the side, she hit the activation stud, and the blade of energy extended out, a deep crimson casting its light throughout the chamber and on the two figures standing there.
Rynn looked up at his face then, her green eyes meeting his gray. "I won't let you down," she said resolutely.
Xar smiled warmly. "I know you won't."
Deep within the ship, in the quarters appropriated for him, Icis Novitaar stared at the Kaiburr Crystal sitting on the desk in front of him. It glowed in response to his touch, pulsed in rhythm to his thoughts. Lying next to it, as inconspicuously as it could, the Scepter of Karanishma rested. The scepter they had found in a chest in the throne room. Only Icis had been sensitive enough to realize it was there, taken from the Eyes of Elfodd for use by Turles and his lackeys. Now both of the crystals glowed in response to his control. It was truly a once in a lifetime occasion, that he would have the opportunity to study both legendary objects together. And he knew they were connected, as all crystal Force artifacts were. The Kaiburr Crystal, offering tremendous life Force to its holder; the Scepter, offering sight into the far reaches of the universe. He considered using the latter, to see what stage things were in, or to look in on the other Travelers. And if he used both, there might be no limit to what he could see, of the past or of the future, even. But he held back in trepidation. In fear, really… fear of what secrets would be revealed to him. To him who knew where to look. There were horror stories of Travelers who had peered too far into the past, or the future, and had been lost… Vanished from their rooms, or died screaming. Or gone insane. There were some things that they just weren’t supposed to know. But, he reasoned, they could be things he had to know, if this was to be pulled off right. If the galaxy was to be saved.
He thought long on whether or not to give the objects back to Xar and the Jedi Division for safekeeping. It would be a simple matter to wipe all thoughts of it from the minds of those who knew about it. Besides, what might Xar find within if he used the Scepter again? Here before him was all the power Turles had wanted and more; more knowledge than every Holocron ever made, more power than most Jedi ever dreamed of. And by delving into these hidden things, he knew there was always the chance that you could be discovered by something out there… Searching in the wrong place, something could notice you. Threats existed that were far worse than the Altarin'Dakor... Others threatened the galaxy itself, perhaps even the entire universe, no matter what they did. Not as imminently, of course, but inevitable. The Yuuzhan Vong who would come in fifteen short years; the Killiks, later; and after that, the ultimate threat of all. They were frightening beyond all others, beyond all reasoning. He didn’t want to think about that. First things first: the Altarin'Dakor, and the fate of their own galaxy, this small corner of the universe… Was he, and the New Imperium, strong enough to even have a chance? Even he didn't know everything about the Altarin’Dakor; he'd only spent a thousand years there, limited to Zalaria's sphere of influence. He'd never even discovered the source of her Immortality, that mysterious, ubiquitous trait of the Shok’Thola, the Warlords, that Turles and Estod had sought so obsessively. But even now, the consequences of those years with Zalaria still haunted him.
The Altarin'Dakor were coming soon, he knew. Could he step in to intervene? Could he tell them what they needed to know? Revealing the truth of it was against everything he'd learned, the entire Traveler way of noninterference.
But, in the end, he knew he had to. He'd vowed to stop them, much preferring the saving of countless lives than breaking that static, irrational Traveler Code. He had already broken it, this day. Yes, Icis would give the objects back to Xar, and let this destiny run its course. And only time would tell. He would see it to its end. After all, time had no meaning to the Travelers…
Written by Joshua Ausley
a.k.a. Xar “Sauron” Kerensky
And next, read:
Runon 3: The Clandestine Conflict
The Altarin’Dakor. The Galaxy’s greatest threat… An unstoppable armada… An ancient prophecy… And only the New Imperium stands in their way…