There it was, the thing they had all been searching for: a small, ebony pyramid nestled in the heap of moss and pine cones. Strange that the masters had missed it when Noval noticed it the moment he stepped into the glade, the bright rays of reflected sunlight coming eerily from the ground and catching his eye. How beautiful, he thought as he knelt beside it, a voice across the void of time, long-forgotten mysteries lurking beneath the surface, just lying there reflecting the sun's glare on a warm summer afternoon.
He reached out and slid the holocron into the folds of his robe.
He could not help feeling some pride at being the first to discover something of value, especially given that the rest of the initiates have been scouring the ancient ruins for weeks without finding anything of interest. Should he inform the masters? He stood indecisive, knowing that if he did the artifact would be destroyed. The holocron felt cold and damp against his skin and he had to resist the sudden urge to shiver.
"There is little point in standing there, initiate," he heard the voice of Master Pavarr coming faintly behind him. He turned quickly to see the master sitting cross-legged at the far end of the glade, eyes closed in a meditative stance. "We have thoroughly examined the forest around this clearing. You would do better to conduct your searches elsewhere."
"As you say, master," he replied (a little too eagerly?) taking care to set himself in motion. He wandered haphazardly through the forest until he was sure to be out of sight. When he pulled it out of his robe, the holocron felt icy to the touch and seemed to almost buzz in his hands yet he was certain the object neither moved nor made noise.
"Shouldn't we hesitate before taking a life?"
He interrupted master Shayn's lesson that morning partly out of conviction and partly out of boredom. The students were sprawled out on blankets at the top of small hill, notebooks in front of them, and the air was full of the pleasant sounds of quills writing on parchment. The lesson was a dull one, largely consisting of a rote recitation of the factions which ruled this planet as galactic politics twisted and turned over the course of millenia. The master had just started to explain the necessity of destroying relics left behind by the Sith during their occupation when Noval interrupted.
"A holocron is not alive," master Shayn replied. Noval had been in the academy long enough to detect the hint of impatience buried deep within the outwardly tranquil voice. "It is merely an imprint of a mind, an echo. The Sith who created them have been dead for centuries. They are dangerous artifacts and if left here they will, in time, shepherd someone to the dark side."
The wise thing to do would be to nod and offer a polite thanks for the dispensation of wisdom. Noval had so far received no offers of tutelage from any of the masters and time was running short. Each day he heard news of another student paired up with a master while he remained unapproached. The end of the academic year was close, a matter of weeks now, and if he did not receive an offer by then he would be politely asked to leave the order.
A reputation for being stubborn was unlikely to help matters.
"But master," he went on nonetheless, "it is well-known that when these - echoes you call them - when they speak, they say the same sorts of things as other sentients. I've heard it said holocrons will speak of thoughts, intentions, desires, even love."
Noval paused. Most of the other pupils were looking at him uncertainly.
"I can't say what it means to be alive, but shouldn't we begin with the assumption that holocrons deserve the protections we give to sentient beings - at least until proven otherwise?"
The master seemed unimpressed. "All living things are part of the force," he said unhurriedly. "Initiate, do not forget that you but a novice in the Jedi way. Should you become a full-fledged Jedi one day, you will know what it means to feel the resonance of a living being in the force. I assure you holocrons have none of that."
Noval's reply was hot on his tongue but master Shayn turned away and proceeded with the lecture.
He had little trouble wandering away the next day. Meditations by the masters revealed no imminent dangers, no dangerous plots awaiting them, and the students were only loosely supervised during their class trip. Technically, he was supposed to report to his assigned dig site and await instructions; but the masters were largely absorbed in the search efforts and took little notice of absences among the students.
He found a small clearing away from the ruined temples which were the focus of the masters' attention and spent a few hours sitting in front of it. There was an eerie beauty about it that was almost enthralling. How could he summon whatever lurked beneath the surface? Any questions to the masters would arouse suspicion. He tried focusing all the energy he could muster on the little pyramid, nearly sapping the force currents which swirled around the forest. Yet nothing happened and it only seemed to shimmer in his hands indifferently.
He began to doubt himself on the long walk back to the Jedi camp. Perhaps it was best to turn the thing over to the masters after all? What if the holocron was a Sith creation? Noval had little fear that he would be turned to the dark side, that the lure of power would somehow cause him to sacrifice all he held dear. The very idea was preposterous. And yet, all the same, who knew what havoc a Sith holocron might unleash?
There was something else besides, something lurking within the recesses of his mind which he could not put into words. The holocron came from this planet, and ever since he had set foot here he could not help feeling there was something awry, something indefinably wrong about it. The forest which covered the surface felt uncanny and sinister. The thick, ancient trees seemed to breathe out a quiet rage and the canopy of their branches might have been made from dens of snakes. An undertone of energy seemed to pulsate through the air. It was not like the energy Noval sensed in the sacred placed of the Jedi, which seemed to envelop him in soothing warmth; the energy here had a manic undertone to it, its oscillations always in motion and seeming to bore into into him. He sometimes felt as if he was on the verge of suffocating and had to put his hands on his knees and breathe deeply until the feeling passed.
But none of the other students mentioned anything of the sort and Noval wondered if he was imagining things. In any case, asking the masters about it would be unlikely to bode well for his future. He felt himself on thin ice as things were, and so he kept his silence as if nothing was amiss.
He didn't do well at lightsaber practice that afternoon.
For years now he had been unable to seriously challenge anyone from his own cohort of students and had been sparring with pupils who entered a year or two after him. He sometimes thought with longing to his earliest days in the academy, when the initiates were first given their practice sabers, all of them barely able to contain their joy, and when they tested themselves in the fighting ring none seemed any better than the rest.
But years of training showed he simply wasn't very good with the saber. Perhaps his reflexes weren't fast enough or perhaps he simply lacked the requisite coordination. Compared to his classmates his performance seemed to be getting worse with each passing day. No wonder - most of the students practiced day and night, sometimes sneaking into the arenas of the academy when no one was looking, sometimes hacking at each other with sticks during their free time; but Noval always tried to spend as little time in the fighting ring as possible. The Jedi emphasis on the lightsaber seemed like a pathology to him, a strange harkening to archaic times when hand-to-hand combat was what mattered, ill-fitting now in an age of spaceships and explosives.
He preferred to focus his efforts elsewhere. He was good at force sensing, much more so than anyone else within his cohort. Whereas his fellow students were still working on peering through walls, he was able to concentrate on a grain of sand several city blocks away, regardless of what obstacles stood between them. He could use the force to move objects, not just objects in front of him - his fellow pupils could do that - but objects far out of sight whose echoes he could faintly detect in the the way the force rippled around him.
What he had wanted most was the ability to predict the future. He had seeds of this ability when he was younger, often having dreams of events that would later come to pass. Mostly, these were events that were important to him at the time - class trips, days off, tournament standings - in hindsight, trivial things. He had, of course, told the masters but had received no guidance from them beside the instruction to immediately relay the contents of all such dreams. Far from sharing his excitement, he had the distinct sense the masters saw his ability as a portent of trouble. As he grew older, the dreams had grown rarer and rarer. He had not had one in several years.
The thought of spending hours each day practicing his lightsaber- when there were so many other things he would rather do - filled him with a quiet despair. But there was nothing to be done about it.
This afternoon he was paired up with Jann, a tall, ashen-haired boy who entered the academy a full two years after him and was one of the weakest duelists in his own class. Noval had little trouble defeating him in the past and assumed this time would be no different.
But from the outset, things did not go well; Noval began aggressively only to see his rehearsed sequence of attacks dodged with ease. The combination of thrusts and feints which served him well in matches with Jann in the past no longer seemed to be having an effect. In the split second before Jann counterattacked, Noval reflected that he should have been trying to increase his repertoire rather than relying on the same combination of practiced moves.
On defense now, he found himself hedged in, moving awkwardly to defend against Jann's charges and finding his position worsening with each blow. At last, corralled into a corner, he fell prey to a feint and struck his saber at empty air, only for Jann to knock it out of his hands.
Being disarmed was humiliating - most duels ended with a hit to the body - and the flickering look of satisfaction on Jann's face stung. Worse, the masters were watching, and though their faces betrayed no emotion he could swear the imperturbable lips of Master Pavarr arranged themselves into something resembling a frown.
He tried to slink away after practice only to be intercepted.
"Always the provocateur," Reena sighed at him. "I can never tell if you mean what you say. Do you really think that holocrons are people?"
Reena was his closest friend when he first arrived at the academy, years ago when the two of them had been wide-eyed kids astonished and bewildered by everything they saw. Joining the academy was a bittersweet experience for most, the thrill of being put on the path to becoming Jedi mixed with the pain of knowing you would likely never see your family again. But Noval was an orphan and felt only sheer joy when he arrived, whereas Reena swore an oath to her mother before she left, to find and reunite with her once she had completed her training, and the oath seemed to sustain her so that she felt none of the sadness the others had carried about them like a weight.
When the gloomy spell of the first few months at the academy had run its course, their fellow students emerged with a seriousness of purpose, a consciousness of the sacrifice they were making. They treated their Jedi teachers with veneration and they never laughed at the irreverent jokes Reena and Noval made at the expense of the masters. The two of them had felt like kindred spirits and spent the better part of each day in each other's company.
But a long time had passed since those days. Reena had grown more solemn over time, more in tune with what a Jedi was expected to be, and Noval wondered if she would keep the oath she swore to her mother, or whether, in the end, her family would be one more trial for her, one more worldly attachment to cast away on the path to masterhood.
"Well," Noval said, "I don't know - holocrons aren't people in the literal sense of the word - their nature could be somehow different. Regardless of what the masters say, though, they seem as if they could be sentient."
In truth, Noval was grateful to have an interlocutor. Few of the other students took the time to consider his beliefs seriously.
"Yes, but they only seem to be - they are not really alive," Reena replied in that slightly peevish tone which she seemed to reserve for him these days. "Well, I will not argue with you; a simple demonstration should suffice. Come with."
He followed behind her as they walked through the Jedi camp, giving occasional greetings to the students who were lounging beside the now-extinguished campfires used in morning meditations. When they reached her tent, she carefully extracted something small and shiny from one of the beige boxes stacked in the corner.
But this one glowed white, apparently made out of some kind of polished alabaster, and Noval could feel nothing from it, no plays of light, no sense of almost-movement.
"My grandfather," Reena said by way of explanation. "Or, rather, what remains of him. He made this when he was close to death. I'll unlock it now."
"How?" Noval said, a little too quickly.
She looked at him with incomprehension.
"I meant to ask - how does one unlock a holocron?"
"I simply think of him - I mean my grandfather - while focusing force on the holocron. It won't take more than a moment."
"What if I did it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Suppose I focused on the holocron," Noval said, "thinking of your grandfather. What would happen?"
"To be honest, I'm not sure," Reena said thoughtfully. "From my what I understand, nothing will happen unless my grandfather desires to appear, which he probably will not if he senses you in front of him. But I think most holocrons are usually a little less selective in who they agree converse with..."
"Anyway," she said eyeing him curiously, "why do you ask?"
"No particular reason - just trying to understand how these things work. Anyway, go ahead."
She looked at him skeptically before turning away and closing her eyes in focus. He took the opportunity to cast an unhurried glance in her direction, and, as always, was starstruck by her simple looks which seemed to radiate thoughtfulness. There was something about her face, some magnetism that made him steal glances when she wasn't looking, something that made him feel as if he could stare at her for a very long time.
Rays of light began to pour out of the holocron.
"Welcome, honored elder," Reena intoned. "May the days of your life be as many as the autumn raindrops."
"Greetings, child." The rays of light had coalesced into a small figure and a voice as light as a wisp. "May your path be straight as an arrow, and just as sharp."
"Where are we, child? I see trees."
"Planet Nar Mantell, grandfather. We are on a field trip searching for artifacts in the ancient temples here. Grandfather, there is someone here who has a few questions for you. This is Noval."
The image of the old man turned to look at Noval.
"He is extremely interested in holocrons, grandfather. I thought you might answer some of his questions."
The old man chuckled.
"Why not? I have always been more than happy to play my part in the education of youth."
"Well, grandfather, we were wondering - are you alive?"
This seemed to bring forth more chuckles.
"What a question! No, child, I am not alive. The real me died some decades ago. I am only a record of the person who once was."
Reena looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Honored elder," Noval began, "I wonder if I could ask whether you still feel the same sensations you did when you were alive - pain? pleasure? hunger?"
"I no longer feel any of the primal instincts," the old man seemed to be smiling as he spoke, "no hunger. There is nothing that could cause me to feel physical pain. But I do take pleasure in things. It gives me great pleasure, for example, to see my grand-daughter take her first steps to become a Jedi."
"It must be odd to have no physical sensations."
The old man nodded.
"I remember thinking that myself when I first woke up in here, ages ago. Now I am so used to it I can barely remember what it felt like before."
"It was very strange," the old man went on, "to be without the rhythms of life, the cycles of morning and evening, sleep and wakefulness, night and day. The monotony was unbearable at first. But over time I've grown to like it. It feels reassuring to have a mind that does not waver."
"What is it like," Noval asked, "between the times you talk to someone? Do you sense the time passing?"
"It is as if I'm in a dream. Images from my life wash over me."
"What sort of images, if I may ask?"
The old man paused.
"Memories of those moments of my life that mattered. Seeing my wife for the very first time, for example. We were both initiates at the academy then. Her funeral, decades later, me standing beside the casket as it was lowered deep into the earth."
His face become more impassive.
"She became a Jedi, you know, and I did not. I think a lot of our first kiss."
He smiled once again, now with some embarrassment.
"Is that what you wanted to know? If I seem to be rambling, do not hesitate to interrupt."
"I would be very glad to hear more, honored elder," Noval said.
The old man kept smiling, seemingly lost in some private reverie.
"I was proud of my wife, you know, of her role in putting in an end to the disorders convulsing the galaxy. And she gave me Reena's mother, the apple of my eye."
"You must miss her in there," Noval said, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth he wondered if it was cruel to be probing like this.
The old man nodded slowly.
"Very much. And yet her life, as well as her death, served a purpose. I envy her that."
"How long have you been apart?"
"Who can say?" The old man replied with some consternation. "Sometimes it feels as if little more than a moment had passed. Other times it seems as if I have been in here for ages. My sense of the passage of time is a little hazy, to tell the truth."
He paused, and a look of determination crept into his face.
"But I do remember her, that is the important thing. And she will always exist as long as I remember her, because I know who she was and what she fought for. As long as I am here, she is not erased from the record of life."
"These don't seem like altogether pleasant thoughts you are having in there," Noval said.
He meant it as a bit of a joke, an attempt to lighten what was turning out to be an uneasy conversation, but the old man took him seriously.
"You will learn one day that life is about more than seeking out pleasure, if you have not learned it already."
Noval bowed. It felt like the only appropriate response to make now. He could not think of anything more to ask.
"Thank you for your insights, honored elder."
The old man nodded, wishing them peace, and the holocron flickered off until it stood motionless in Reena's hands.
"Well," she said, looking up at him, "as to being alive, he said it himself, plain as day."
Noval didn't reply - he scrunched his face and looked over her shoulder as if he were glancing at something very far away - and after a moment she continued.
"I know it sounds as if he could be human at times, but try to imagine an existence with no sensations - no physical pain or pleasure - nothing but thoughts. It has more in common with being a navcomputer than it does with being alive."
"Maybe," Noval said, turning his attention back to her. "I'd say he was more alive than half the masters I've met."
So he had to make whatever was inside the holocron want to appear. But how to do that? He found some empty space on the outskirts of the forest and once again spent an afternoon focusing the force on it until his abilities were strained to their limits, all with no apparent effect. Walking back to the Jedi camp at dusk, disheartened and exhausted, he began to wonder why he was so intent on unlocking it in the first place. Why not simply turn the blasted thing over to the masters and be done with it?
Maybe he stubbornly believed that holocrons could be alive and did not wish to see a living sentient destroyed. But even if the holocron was not alive, it still wasn't right to dismantle it. Imagine everything that could be learned from it, he thought, all the knowledge that could be obtained from talking to a being who lived countless ages before our time.
Noval always had an attraction to the repositories of knowledge, the old tomes of wisdom passed down from ancient times, the faded scrolls with barely legible ink on parchment, the ancient temples and ruins with their mysterious inscriptions. They were more than just relics, they were a part of a story, a story about a galaxy made up of countless species and planets convulsing over millenia, jumping from conflict to peace to conflict, culminating in the present orderly but admittedly imperfect state of affairs. It was the story that gave things meaning. What sense was there in his life, in his efforts to become a Jedi, except when thought of as part of a quest spanning many thousands of years to bring peace to the galaxy?
The thought of finding a missing chapter in the story of the world filled him with a pleasure he could not explain. He kept turning the holocron over in his hands, daydreaming about the secrets it might hold. But several hours spent in such reflections produced no changes in the holocron.
His performance at battle practice took a turn for the worse the following day. After another painful loss to Jann, the masters paired him up with a student who joined the order a full three years after himself, a determined and slightly impish-looking boy who stood a head shorter than Noval. Determined to redeem himself, Noval threw all his concentration into the battle, furiously attacking his opponent with all the energy he could muster.
They seemed evenly matched for a few minutes until a thoughtless misstep on Noval's part left his left flank open and allowed his opponent to seize the initiative. Noval struggled to dodge the sequence of attacks thrown at him, and, a minute later, feeling exhausted and seeing himself backed into a corner, gambled on a bold and, so he thought, unexpected lunge, only for his lightsaber to be knocked away by the parry.
Disarmed again. Standing out of breath and defenseless, he wondered how many more such humiliations he would have to endure, how long until he could finally fight his last saber battle. When he would, at last, become a Jedi knight, his saber would be there for ceremonial purposes, nothing more. Although the stories of the Jedi abounded with tales of hand-to-hand combat, he was sure such battles signaled nothing more than an inability to properly anticipate events, a mistake he would not make.
He was called into master Shayn's tent that evening. A droid brought the politely phrased request to seek out the masters at his earliest convenience and he walked over with a sinking heart. Had someone noticed the holocron under the folds of his robe? What could he say to explain why he had kept it secret?
He strode slowly through the camp, eyeing warily the initiates he saw idling beside the tents and wondering if any of them had discovered his secret. Was he sighted during one of his trips into the forest when he imagined himself alone? In any case, it did not matter now. He turned over various excuses in his head, none of them satisfactory.
Entering the tent, he found both Shayn and Pavarr conferring in low tones. He waited patiently at the entrance, watching as they talked and cast occasional glances in his direction. He had not been in here before, and taking a quick long look, he saw it was a sparse and unassuming dwelling as befits a Jedi master: desk, meditation mat, a few books strewn about, and little else to catch the eye.
Finally they motioned him to come closer.
"As you well-know," master Shayn began after a pause, "not all students are chosen to become Jedi knights. Many serve the Republic in other capacities, insofar as they are able."
He stopped, seeming to await some sort of reply from Noval.
"Indeed, master, this is known to me."
"We believe it unlikely that you will be selected for further advancement," Shayn continued. "We have made inquiries to all the masters that know of you. None have expressed an interest in taking you on as a padawan."
Noval caught his breath. This news hit him like a cold gust of wind in the face. He said nothing for a few moments, desperately trying to steady his thoughts. When he was certain his voice would not quiver, he said, "May I ask why, masters?"
"It is thought that you do not have the temperament to be a Jedi," Pavarr stepped in. "Jedi must know how to defer to the wisdom of others. I myself regularly defer to the directives of the Jedi council. The council itself defers to the teachings of our order, which have been honed over millenia of practice."
"A Jedi prone to take matters into his own hands is a dangerous thing indeed. I cannot take the responsibility of educating such a student."
"Our path is not easy," Shayn added, "it requires forbearance and patience. There is danger of yielding to the dark side."
He paused as if to let Noval work out the implications of his words. After a few moments of silence, he continued.
"The prevailing consensus is that you are too headstrong. Too attached to your opinions. Argumentative. Unwilling or unable to defer to the wisdom of your superiors. These are traits that lead to the dark side."
"You may attempt to find a master who thinks differently," Pavarr took over again, "that is, of course, your prerogative. Rest assured, we will do our utmost to aid you; for the moment, you remain a student under our tutelage. But I must advise you that such efforts are unlikely to bear fruit."
There was something almost clinical about Pavarr's way of speaking, as if he was delivering fatal news at a patient's bedside.
"There are indeed many Jedi masters who have not interacted with you," Pavarr went on, "and some of them occasionally visit Dantooine to see if any of our initiates are promising candidates for further tutelage. I believe we have such a group of visitors arriving soon after our return to the academy. But they usually pick students based on proficiency with the saber, and in that area, I am afraid, you are not very advanced."
Noval stood in silence, too many thoughts seeming to race through his head at once. He had enough experience with Shayn and Pavarr over the years that know that once their minds were made up, attempts at persuasion were futile.
"Thank you, masters," he said finally, having collected himself. "I appreciate the advance notice you have given me."
Shayn and Pavarr shared a quick glance.
"We are pleased to see you take the news with the equanimity of a true Jedi," Shayn said. "We expected nothing less."
He reached over to the desk behind him and picked up a bulging brownish folder stuffed with papers.
"There are a number of agencies within the Republic that have historically been keen to employ our former students. Do take a look at the references we have put together for you."
Noval took the folder, bowing slightly in thanks, and turned to exit the tent.
"In many ways," Pavarr said when they were alone again, "he is one of our best students."
Shayn sighed to himself. It was an irksome habit his friend had, to revisit each decision after it was made, to rehash the arguments that had been discussed again and again.
"Indeed," he replied. As always, he would humor his friend.
"His saber skills nonwithstanding," Pavarr continued, "he is quite adept in the force."
It was Pavarr's way of assuring himself that he did not making a mistake, to play the devil's advocate. Now it would be up to Shayn to persuade him, which he would by repeating the very same arguments that proved decisive not less than an hour ago.
"He is full of longing and desire," Shayn said.
Pavarr nodded, as if acknowledging a point has been scored.
"We cannot mold him," Shayn said. "He honors our authority for the time being but he does not accept it in his heart."
Pavarr nodded again.
"He does have some talents. One of us could take him on or we might pass along a strongly worded recommendation. But what if the Sith arise in the galaxy again? Can we be certain he will not by seduced by their whispers?"
They had made the right decision, Shayn said to himself, smothering away any doubt that remained within him. It was too easy to see himself in Noval, to be reminded of the person he used to be. He had once been on the verge of being expelled from the order himself, long ago when one of the masters caught sight of him kissing another initiate in the temple gardens.
It was all so perfectly innocent. Her name was Amaeda and they were both young and quite in love with each other - or so they told themselves. The masters had given them a stern lecture about the Jedi rules on attachments and ordered them to break it off or leave the order. Amaeda, hotheaded as she was sometimes wont to be, refused to back down; standing in front of the academy council, she accused the masters of heartlessness and malice before storming off. He joined her, only to reconsider the very same night as he lay awake and visions of his dreary life-to-be flashed before him. He went back to the masters with apologies on the following day.
She had not taken it well. Words of anger burned on her lips: he still remembered some of the names she called him. He thought she would come back to the order as well but to his surprise she did not. Declaring that she wanted nothing to do with the Jedi, she took the next shuttle to her homeworld.
Years later, he had come to understand that it was all a test for him, and that he had passed. Likely the masters had known of their secret dalliance for some time; and it would have been obvious to all involved that Amaeda was too passionate and quick-tempered to become a Jedi. Her fate was set in stone from the start; it was only his future that had been decided.
Strangely enough, he met her for the first time since not two months ago. He was surprised to learn that she had become a senator in the meantime, a rare honor though not entirely unexpected for someone who could draw on the force, even weakly. Engine trouble on a trip to the outer room brought her for an unscheduled stopover at Dantooine and the masters invited her to take supper alongside them. He sat a few seats across from her, making polite conversation as they all partook of a simple but pleasant meal. She glanced at him occasionally and when she did her gaze was cold and unfeeling. Not a word between the two of them was exchanged and she made no allusions to their past connection.
Like Amaeda, Noval had made his choice. He had made it a thousand times when he preferred his own wisdom to the teachings of the order, when he trusted his reason over the teachings of the Jedi masters. There was much pride in him and pride led to the dark side.
"You speak the truth, my friend," Pavarr said solemnly. "I fear this one's path lies elsewhere."
He felt as if the floodgates within him had broken and his emotions poured forth uncontrollably. Years of hard work and all for nothing! His dreams of playing a part in the fight for justice, perhaps of being part of the generation of Jedi that finally ushers in lasting peace in the galaxy, all gone in an instant and the order tells him to find himself a job - a job! Would he spend the rest of his days writing reports and getting pleasantly drunk with coworkers at the local cantina?
He found himself walking as fast as his legs could take him and soon he was deep inside the ancient forest. It didn't seem as menacing as it did at first and he found the disorderly web of branches mirrored the disquiet within his own soul. The pulsating energy passed through him and sharpened the edges of his thoughts, which seemed to bounce around in his mind like lightning. He wondered once again if he was imagining things, and the thought struck him that it mattered little now, for without anyone to train him he would never be able to probe into the mysteries of such things.
To think of all the evenings he spent memorizing the mystical gibberish of the order, the days wasted trying to get a glimpse of what the old masters meant by their cryptic remarks. The number of times he held his tongue and dutifully accepted a rebuke.
What now? He could try to impress the masters visiting the academy by entering a saber tournament, but it was pointless, he could not make up for years of neglect within weeks. Damn the Jedi and their closed-mindedness, he thought bitterly, damn their senseless obsession with hand-to-hand combat.
There was something deeply wrong the order, something rotten to the core. It was - and the thought struck him so clearly now that he could not believe it hadn't occurred to him before - it was a failed order. The Jedi were the peacekeepers but there was no peace, the galaxy was always convulsing in war after war, more often than not led by former Jedi.
Deference, he remembered suddenly the words of Master Pavarr, it was the ability to defer that he lacked. Perhaps if there was a little less of that, perhaps if the council deferred less to the old teachings and experimented more with new ideas, the order might be more successful at its mission.
Maybe it was for the best, he thought, for now he could stop pretending that he wasn't human. The order trained him to suppress his emotions but it was those emotions that made him what he was. "Peace is a lie, there is only passion." He could not recall where he heard the phrase, but it popped into his mind now and the words felt right on his tongue. His feelings were a part of who he was and any peace achieved at their expense was not worth having.
All of a sudden, he gasped with pain. Something was burning, something scalding pressed to his leg. He tore open his robe and it rolled out of it.
It was blinding red now and the rays it emitted were coalescing into something.
Noval squinted. It was a woman, he realized. Short white hair, robe the color of coffee beans, a harshly sloped face, looking only a decade or two older than himself. She had an elegant sort of beauty to her that flustered him. He searched his mind for something to say to someone who hasn't been in the world for ages and came up blank.
She looked at him appraisingly for a moment and smiled.
Noval did better at lightsaber practice the following afternoon. He won a series of quick victories against the younger students, including several against the boy who disarmed him only on the previous day. It was hard to say what, exactly, he was doing better but he appeared to be full of new energy, somehow seeming lighter in the fighting ring.
His final bout of the afternoon was against Jann. This time the duel seemed to go on interminably, the initiative changing hands several times, and it looked as if Noval might prevail. A circle of students had gathered, most of them wondering whether Noval's skill with the saber was finally improving or whether he was only having a run of good luck. Finally, Noval's made an awkward step and the split second before he righted his balance was enough for Jann to shave off a winning touch.
Noval did not seem much disappointed, bowing gracefully in thanks, his face calm as he surveyed the initiates standing around them. Master Shayn wondered if he was going through one of the stages of grief, and he was not the only one to guess something along these lines, for gossip traveled fast in the Jedi camp and there was scarcely anyone who did not know that Noval's days with the order were numbered.
Noval continued to improve in the following days. His form tightened up, his strokes became quicker, his movements more nimble. After a few days, he was making short work of Jann each time their sabers crossed: sometimes defeating him with an energetic sequence of thrusts just as the duel began, sometimes slowly wearing him down over time, and sometimes with a sequence of feints that that led Jann to thrust in wrong directions and leave himself vulnerable. He seemed to take no joy in his victories, much to the surprise of the rest of the students who had thought him impulsive and poor at self-control. It was not long before the masters began to pair him up with students from his own year.
He did not seem to be exerting himself much: no sweat ever broke his brow and no cries ever came from his lips. His movements were calm, methodical, and, in retrospect, even somewhat predictable, though none of his opponents seem to be able to predict them during the bout itself.
"How is it even possible to learn so much so quickly?" Shayn asked one day as both masters stood beside the fighting ring. Neither of them could help noticing that Noval's swordsmanship had improved by months of work from the bouts of the previous day.
"Perhaps he has had a predilection for the saber all this time," Pavarr replied uncertainly and the two of them shared a troubled glance.
They began to scrutinize Noval's fights each day. Ostensibly they behaved no different than before, walking slowly through the afternoon's saber practice and offering occasional instruction to the sparring students. But their minds were focused solely upon Noval and there was not one movement of his that they failed to sense, nor one stray thought they failed to detect. But though they kept at this for some weeks, they sensed nothing unusual, only intense concentration on his part and strong efforts to align body and mind.
They had now spent many weeks on the planet and the trip was turning out to be something of a failure. No artifacts were discovered, despite a thorough search of the ancient temples and the vegetation surrounding them. Scavengers must have stripped the planet clean over the past decades, which, in retrospect, was not entirely unexpected: there were many collectors of Sith paraphernalia throughout the galaxy and functional relics could fetch a hefty price. The council had hoped to learn something new from the ruins themselves, which might bear Sith markings or otherwise reveal something of the rituals performed within their walls, but they were much decayed and little of interest could be gleaned from them.
Although the masters were reluctant to return from their expedition empty handed, for a while it seemed as if they would have little choice. Fortunately, one of the initiates soon stumbled onto a find of some value, a collection of shards infused with dark energy, all of unknown origin and purpose. The masters surmised that these were once parts of an apparatus which played some part in the Sith rituals, but beyond that nothing could be inferred.
The shards were passed around that afternoon, each student holding one briefly and peering into it. It was a safe way to expose the pupils to the corruption of the dark side, lest any of them be one day tempted to stray. The shards were destroyed that very day, to much rejoicing round the camp, and the students spent the evening telling each other stories of the unadulterated evil they had all apparently sensed within them. The following morning, Master Shayn announced they would be packing up and returning to the academy within days. There was much acclaim all around, as the novelty of the expedition had worn off long ago and the students were all eager to get back to the comforts of Dantooine after having spent months sleeping in tents on bare ground.
By now Noval was routinely beating all the other students at camp. That morning, as Reena watched him gracefully disarm the tall, lanky boy who was the best among them only recently, she thought he might have been dancing. His motions had a continuity to them, one movement seemingly flowing into the next, all the parries, feints, and thrusts blended into a single waltz of movement.
It should not have been surprising to Noval that his preeminence in the fighting ring would translate into a rise in social status; nonetheless, he seemed to be astonished at the attention that was now directed at him. Before he was almost invisible, no one bothering to take notice of his movements about the camp; now he became a bit of a celebrity, the eyes of others always upon him, always approached for a passing attempt at conversation whenever he dallied.
One day, a group of pupils arrived at his tent with follow-up questions on whether holocrons should be considered people. They sat patiently in a circle, seemingly hanging on to his every word. Reena, who came along out of curiosity, thought he seemed disconcerted by it all. She expected him to feel a little happier to be the recipient of all the attention, especially after years of being considered unworthy of notice by most of his fellow students; and, though he smiled at times, there was also a strange undercurrent of anxiety flowing through him. Perhaps he would relax, she thought, once the question of finding a master would be resolved one way or the other.
When asked how he was able to improve his saber skills, he answered only that he had finally decided to put his mind to it. Reena put the same question to him when she caught him alone and was vexed to receive the same answer. He looked at her apprehensively, leading her to question him further, but despite her many questions he had said nothing else.
As their ship lifted off the planet, Master Shayn's gaze settled on Noval. The shuttle was drowning in an enthusiastic buzz as the students chatted excitedly with one another. Noval sat apart, eyes closed and body taut and steady. He seemed as if he could be meditating though he was not using any of the familiar Jedi stances.
"He must have been working hard indeed," Shayn said leading over to Pavarr. "Do you suppose it will do him any good?"
"Unlikely," Pavarr scrunched his lips, "he will have to defeat the best swordsmen in the academy to get any attention. He has improved much in recent weeks but nowhere near enough."
For a time, it seemed as if the masters' prediction might come true: hours after landing on Dantooine and checking in with the academy's steward, Noval left his chambers with a small bag on his shoulders and was nowhere to be found in the following days. Master Shayn thought to himself that he would likely never see the boy again. Was he drinking down his sorrows at the local cantina? Did he use his newfound freedom to chase members of the opposite sex, as so many who left the order were wont to do? Did he join a guild of bounty hunters in search for adventure? With a sigh, the master turned his thoughts to other, weightier, matters.
But ten days hence, moments before the annual lightsaber tournament was about to commence, Noval walked into the arena of the Jedi academy and calmly wrote his name on the roster.
"I thought you had abandoned us." Master Shayn, in charge of determining the tournament pairings, stood nearby.
"Perish the thought, master."
"Where have you been?"
Noval made an all-encompassing gesture with one of his hands.
"This planet, master, its hills and its fields and its caves, that is where I have been. Dantooine lives, it abounds in the force, does it not?"
He smiled again before moving off to join the rest of the contestants. It was uncharacteristic behavior, Master Shayn reflected, but Noval had broken none of the academy's rules with the term winding down and classes long over.
Over the next few hours, Master Shayn witnessed an event to which he had only recently ascribed a very low probability: under the eyes of more than a hundred masters gathered in the arena, Noval defeated all his competitors, one after the other, and placed first in the tournament.
He seemed to have an uncanny ability to guess his opponent's moves. No one could say how he always seemed to be in the right place; some of the students claimed he foresaw his opponent's intentions using the force, but he was not drawing upon it more heavily than anyone else; others said he was merely good at reading footwork and tried to fool him by improvising, always unsuccessfully.
It was not merely his victory that was eye-catching but also his measured demeanor. Whereas his opponents seemed to bring a fierce determination to the matches, coupling thrusts of the saber with spikes of emotion that were instantly felt and disapproved of by the watchful masters, Noval's exterior remained calm and no outbursts were noticed coming from him. His assured appearance matched his clean and efficient saber style, which was free of the theatricality and exhibition that one often saw in tournaments at the academy. To the visiting masters who were seeing him for the first time, he appeared to be an ideal padawan.
When Reena heard that Noval received several offers of tutelage, she stopped by his chambers offer her congratulations. She had always hoped that he would go on to become a Jedi. Even though he never quite seemed to fit in, and even though his irreverent attitude had morphed into an unpleasant bitterness as of late, somehow the Jedi order felt as if it would be less without him.
But he was nowhere to be found and his roommate told her that he had been distant as of late, leaving early in the mornings and coming back in the middle of night. Sometimes he was gone for days. She left Noval several messages with warm congratulations and requests for a celebratory meal, all unreturned.
She had received several offers of her own and was having a difficult time choosing. One of them was from Master Shayn, currently in the process of planning another expedition, this one to one of the far corners of the galaxy. The archaeological work was important but tedious, painstaking, requiring much forbearance, and she was sure it would strain her patience.
She was more inclined towards an offer from one of the order's most celebrated negotiators, master Elysar. They had gotten along instantly during their meeting. Master Elysar was startlingly informal - "Call me Cora," she had said barely after they had bowed to one another. They ended up talking for hours, and it felt less like talking to a master than to an older sister or a friend. She imagined what life would be like for an envoy's apprentice: traveling the galaxy, seeing hundreds if not thousands of worlds, shepherding along negotiations that would bring peace to the world. It was breathlessly exciting.
And that was also the problem. Reena recalled something she had heard years ago from one of the oldest and wisest masters in the academy:
"Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things."
Was it wise to put herself into temptation's way, to let herself indulge the very impulses she should be working to excise?
She sought guidance from the masters who had taught her in the past, receiving much advice, most of it conflicting. The most common suggestion was that she should choose master Elysar - but only after curbing her impulses and expunging the emotions that would be a stumbling block for her.
One day she stayed up late into the night, unable to stop thinking about the possibilities before her. She overslept the next day, not having the strength to rise with the dawn as she usually did, and it was after some hours, late into the morning, as she drifted fitfully between sleep and wakefulness, that she heard Noval's name mentioned by someone walking past the door of her chambers.
Forcing herself to awaken, she strained her hearing.
"...hasn't talked to anyone."
"I heard he barely said a word to his roommate."
"Selfish of him not to share his secret with all of us."
"Maybe there is no secret."
"Come now, no one can become that good so quickly."
"Maybe he stumbled onto an ancient sparring technique."
"I suppose we'll never know. His shuttle departs on the hour."
Throwing on her clothes (if there was one advantage to the Jedi attire, it was that the robes did not take long to put on), she rushed to the landing pad, and there he was, shoulders hunched, looking around uncertainly as the droids carried crates onto a shuttle that was prepping for take-off. He seemed to be anxious, eyes darting aimlessly in the morning breeze, hands buried deep in his pockets.
His eyes brightened when he recognized her. She thought that she might get a stiff reception after he ignored her messages earlier, but he greeted her with a warm smile and a tight hug.
"Congratulations," she said disengaging, "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am. Which master have you chosen? Wait, I know - I'd bet anything you've picked Master Doshan."
Doshan was a scholar before he joined the ranks of the Jedi at an unusually old age and was thought to be the most cerebral of the Jedi masters. His students told stories of staying up late into the night, arguing fine points of Jedi doctrine. She heard a rumor several days ago that he had made an offer to Noval.
"In fact, I've chosen Master Nimbo," Noval replied.
Nimbo was known for his obsession with combat skills, which he prized above all else. He was often mocked by the initiates for his less than complete knowledge of Jedi practice. Several years ago one of the older students swore he heard him mangle the Jedi code, though this was mostly likely exaggeration.
"You surprise me," she said.
"I surprise myself," he said somewhat bitterly.
They stood awkwardly for a moment.
"Tell me, Reena," he said all of a sudden, "do you believe the order will bring peace to the galaxy?"
She looked at him with confusion.
"That came out of nowhere," she said. She paused for a moment. "Peace - isn't that what we are fighting for?"
"Of course it's what we are fighting for," he parried. "Do you think we will succeed?"
She considered it.
"You know, I never thought much about it." She hesitated. "Fighting for the right thing is honorable, regardless of whether one succeeds or not. That is enough for me."
"I'm not sure it's enough for me," he replied curtly. "The order has existed for thousands of years. You know the history as well as I do - the one thing the galaxy has not had is lasting peace. Do you really think we will succeed where the famous masters of old have failed?"
"When you put it that way, perhaps not." She looked intently into his eyes. "But if not this, then what? What else is there besides serving the Republic in its mission?"
"Good question," he said, meeting her gaze. The droids had ceased carrying crates and the shuttle's pilot could be heard shouting orders over the roar of the engines.
"You and I," he went on quickly, "we were always the ones with questions, weren't we? The ones no one else wanted to ask?"
She nodded. In fact, she thought, he was usually the one asking the questions no one wanted to hear, but she had at least been willing to play along.
"Maybe one day we'll have some answers." He began to say something else but it was lost in the ear-piercing rumble coming from the landing pad. He reached over and gave her a brief hug before turning to the shuttle and walking away.