A/N Wow, I am overwhelmed by the kind response to my latest update. Thank you all-it means a lot to me. I messaged those of you with accounts, but thank you to my guest reviewers: Anon, Guest, Guest, Gator, and Guest. Also, Malachi, where you at bro? We miss you!
As we learned in the previous update, the Jedi on Anzat are Master Tholme and Master T'ra Saa. Many of you may know them from the Quinlan Vos comic saga. I fell in love with Quinlan (who will NOT be appearing in Travel Companions) and his associates waaay back in the day (middle school, to be exact) and I have always wanted to pay homage to them. There is such a sense of wonderment and adventure surrounding Quin, and I tried to capture a bit of that mood in Travel Companions. Also, it seemed to fit considering T'ra trained Mace Windu, who trained Depa Billaba, who trained Kanan, who, of course, trained Ezra. If you would like to learn more about T'ra, Tholme, or Quinlan, head over to Wookieepedia (just make sure you select "Legends" at the top of the page, because Dark Disciple cancelled out a lot of the canon set up in the comics… Don't even ask me how I feel about that). Now, onto the story..
One chapter left! Mando'a words are at the end.
Gray light bled into the dark sky like dye spreading through fabric when Sabine awoke. It had rained overnight, she noticed, her blanket damp and clinging to her. Heavy guilt weighed on her mind, and for a moment, she could not remember why. Then, she realized. Laying on her back, her fingers stiff with cold, she stared upward, refusing to look at Ezra, who sat in meditation just beyond her peripheral vision. He had meditated all night, Sabine realized with a pang. Rolling onto her side, facing away from him, she could not help but run her fingers over her lips.
Sabine knew better. She knew better than to allow her emotions to get the better of her, than to give into her feelings. But as she had looked into Ezra's brilliantly blue eyes, confronted by their mutual affection, all of her idealistic resolutions fell away. The thought of his arms around her, gentle yet firm, his lips against hers, made her heart trip in her chest.
She mulled over the scathing words she had said to him after their kiss, and they circled around her mind again and again, driving her insane. The careful balance of their friendship had toppled with one reckless gesture of affection, and she had expressed her fear as anger. Ironically, she was afraid of hurting him, and her fear had caused her to do exactly that. For a moment, Sabine felt an urge to apologize. But what could she ever say to restore their easy companionship? She came up blank.
Her mind completely consumed with the events of the previous night, Sabine sighed. This exact scenario was why she had resolved not to give into her feelings for Ezra: Both of them were emotionally compromised, and their ability to work together would no doubt be inhibited. The odds on Anzat were already stacked against them, and this distraction was the last thing they needed. She felt trapped, in a panic, hemmed in by an impossible situation. It was a familiar feeling, one that permeated her memories of the Imperial Academy.
Reminded of the Academy, defiance bubbled in Sabine's chest. It was her mechanism of choice, and sitting up, she stubbornly refused to allow the events of the previous night disconcert her. She would carry on with her mission, as though nothing had happened. She put Ezra out of her mind as she pulled on her boots, beginning her daily remembrances in a whisper.
A cold wind had picked, laced with the sort of energy that made it feel as though it were about to storm. It whipped at Sabine's hair, which she had taken out of the braided halo, and was currently trying to secure in messy knot at the back of her head. The wind caused the meager fire which Jahr had built to fall back down into the coals. Storms left Sabine with a strange sense of anxiety. Growing up in Sundari, capital of Manda'yaim, one of her earliest memories was seeing a massive storm roll over the city, and fearing that it would crack the transparasteel biodome surrounding the capital. Ezra, on the other hand, liked rain. He had told her that he associated storms with the end of a draught, as they had signified on his desert homeworld.
Haar'chak, Sabine thought, realizing she had absently allowed her thoughts to return to her Jedi companion, and irritated, she sat beside Jahr's fire, her back to Ezra. Deep down, she knew her stubborn resolution was childish, but she did not know any other way to respond without falling apart.
Sitting on the opposite side of the fire, Jahr looked past Sabine and called, "What are you doing?"
"Meditating," Ezra answered. His voice sounded thick and sleepy, like it usually did in the mornings. Sabine always found that sweet, but now, it only made her heart ache. She began to heat some water for caf, trying to mask her feelings.
"All night?" Jahr asked, tossing a ration pack Ezra's way. Sabine felt a pang: That was something she would have done for him, only a day prior. Ezra did not retrieve the packet.
"Yes. Jedi can go a while without sleep."
Jahr looked at Sabine with a shrug, but she fixed her gaze on the fire. "I think we'll reach Cadaman in a quarter of a rotation," she said.
"Where are you planning on going, once you have the Senator?" The bounty hunter asked around a mouthful of the dry, flavorless bars found in their Alliance-mandated ration packets.
"Karkko, I guess," Sabine said, with a shrug, "But our ship is in the spaceport orbiting the planet, so I suppose it doesn't really matter."
"Karkko will be crawling with Imperials," Jahr pointed out, "There's another city not too far from here… Bryx, I think it's called. A few clicks to the north of here. It's off the records; only locals know about it. Smugglers use it, mostly-trying to avoid the taxes the Imps put on spice. You could probably convince one of them to take you to the spaceport."
Sabine glanced at Ezra for his opinion, but the Jedi remained silent. "That is," Jahr continued, "If the Imperials haven't already confiscated your ship."
"Don't worry," Sabine said, "The Phantom can mask her signature, and we didn't leave it in our own names."
"Don't forget," Ezra said, breaking his silence, "We still have to find the Jedi."
Jahr looked confused. "We believe that Miles Croft could be the Jedi Master Tholme," Sabine explained quickly, "And that his Neti companion could be Jedi Master T'ra Saa."
Jahr chuckled. "It might be hard to find 'em."
"Why is that?" Ezra asked.
"For starters, Miles Croft had been dead for years-That was his funeral pyre you saw," Jahr responded, "And the woman is a Neti."
"What's that got to do with anything?" Sabine questioned, taking a long sip lukewarm of caf.
"A Neti?" Jahr said, as though it might jog Sabine's memory, "They're shapeshifting, sentient plants. If a Neti wanted to hide, a forested planet like Anzat would be their ideal spot. Trust me, you'll only find this woman if she wants you to find her."
"Oh," Sabine said, the bit of information beginning to tug at her memory, "I think I've heard of the Neti. They can 'plant' themselves, and stay that way for thousands of years, right?"
Jahr nodded. "She could be any one of the trees on this planet. I think the only one who might have a chance at finding her would be your Jedi." He turned to look at the Knight, and said, "Why don't you use your Force magic and find her?"
"That's not how it works," Ezra responded sullenly.
Jahr laughed, revealing broken, yellow teeth, then stood, brushing the dead leaves off of his trousers. "That storm will hit soon. I'd like to reach the Senator before it does."
By the time Anzat's single sun was a cold, gray ball overheard, the travellers were deep within a lonely, steadily-narrowing canyon. A heavy mist hung over the thick trees, and Sabine kept expecting to see the hunched form of an Anzati materialize between the low-hanging branches. Trying to wrap her stiff fingers in the fabric of her trousers, she surveyed the ridges of the canyon: With every step the travellers took, the rock walls rose higher above them. It would be the perfect location for The Empire to stage an ambush, Sabine thought, and glanced warily at Jahr. If he were going to betray them, this would be the place. In her peripheral vision, Sabine caught sight of Ezra looking at her, no doubt guessing her thoughts. When she turned to awkwardly regard him, his gaze fell to her well-worn boots.
"Jahr," Sabine began, "Can I have a word with Master Bridger, alone?"
"Sure," the bounty hunter responded, and continued on, allowing the two rebels to fall back.
Sabine's stomach lurched when Ezra turned to her, looking into his blue eyes for the first time since the previous night.
"Look," she said, pushing her hesitance aside, "We need to work together until this mission is over. Then… Then we can talk about…" She trailed off, unsure of how to finish her sentence.
To Sabine's dismay, Ezra merely looked sad. "Okay," he responded with a nod, not maintaining eye contact.
"I don't like this," Sabine continued, motioning to the canyon around them, "We're essentially trapped, if anything goes wrong."
"I think something will," Ezra said, lowering his voice, "I can sense that something is… Off."
Sabine shivered in spite of herself, sweeping a distrustful gaze over the ridge. "What do you think it is? Jahr?"
"The Silent Voices are clouding my judgement," Ezra responded, looking at their Devaronian partner in the distance, "But it's possible. Be on your guard."
"I will," Sabine said lamely, longing to say more to him, to somehow appease the sadness dulling his eyes.
When they caught up with Jahr again, he leaning against the thick, red trunk of a tree. Just beyond, the path sloped downward, leading into a box canyon. Two rock walls rose toward the gray sky, and against the back wall, surrounded by a copse of trees, was a small cave.
"In that cave, you'll likely find your senator," Jahr said, folding his arms over his chest. Sabine took a deep breath. After all of the turmoil of the past week, they had finally reached Cadaman's coordinance. As she waited for the familiar swell of satisfaction, she was met with none. All she wanted was to be off of Anzat, and to be right with Ezra again.
She looked at her Jedi companion, who was surveying the box canyon. If they thought that the path behind them made them vulnerable to attack, this canyon was essentially a death trap. They were hemmed in on three sides by tall rock formation, and Sabine was unsure if even Ezra, aided by the Force, could clear them.
"You go first," Sabine told Jahr, "And, give me your weapons."
"This seems pretty unnecessary," Jahr protested, but was quieted by a glare from Sabine. He handed his blaster to Ezra, while Sabine took the rusty spear affixed to his back.
"Now, walk," Sabine said gruffly, and the bounty hunter made his way down the precarious slope.
"I don't know," Ezra whispered, leaning close to Sabine, "I'm not sure he's going to betray us. Something feels sinister here, but I'm not sure it's him."
"Don't start feeling sorry for him," Sabine responded, beginning to trudge down the muddy trail leading to the canyon.
"We should give him back his weapons," Ezra said, "What if something happens and he can't defend himself?"
"A few days ago, he was still trying to kill us," Sabine said, stopping and turning to look sharply at her Jedi companion.
"That's cold," Ezra said, glaring at her, "Maybe try a little compassion?"
"You're the Jedi," Sabine said sarcastically, continuing on down the path.
"Hey," Ezra called after her, indignation in his tone.
"Well, you're the one that just called me 'cold.' Is that what you expect from a Mando?" Sabine accused, "Didn't you just say last night that we 'aren't our ancestors'?"
At the mention of the previous night, Ezra grew silent. He fixed her with a blank look, then continued down this path. "We'll talk about this later," he said gruffly.
The ground in the box canyon was rocky, and when coupled with the pervasive mist, it made the terrain difficult. The sound of branches thrashing in the wind was deafening, and each gust brought on more damp cold. Sabine was beginning to lose feeling in her nose and fingers when they reached the mouth of the cave.
"Senator Cadaman!" Ezra called, and from the rough, arcuated opening, crept an elderly man. Sabine instantly recognized him from their hologram conversations. He gave a restrained smile, but his thick, gray brow was furrowed.
"I know who you two are," he said, motioning to Sabine and Ezra, "But who is this?"
"A guide we picked up in Karkko," Sabine lied, not wanting tell the Senator to know Jahr's real identity, for fear that he would object.
"Come in," Cadaman said, motioning for the travellers to follow him into the cave. The space was fairly small, and Ezra had to hunch over a bit in order to avoid bashing his head against the natural rock above them. The interior was strange: Make-shift chairs of rough, gray stone surrounded a finely-crafted Kriin-wood table, no doubt sourced from Cadaman's former senatorial office. Likewise, just beyond a barely-contained fire was a bed made from the same fine expensive, juxtaposed against an Anzati cave painting, filling an entire wall. Sabine wondered how the elderly Senator was able to transport all of these fine items to Anzat, but before she could ask, Ezra spoke.
"Senator," he said, "I think we should be getting on our way. The Empire is here; they're not far behind us at this point."
Cadaman shook his gray head. "I just need to gather a few things. While I do, you all are welcome to my supplies." He motioned to a shelf, which was stocked with many packages of food, vastly superior to the Alliance-mandated ration packs. Hunger gnawing at her stomach, Sabine advanced to look over the supplies, her companions following suit. She sat beside the fire, breaking into a bag of dried fruit and savoring the sweet aroma, when she noticed that Ezra wore a preoccupied expression.
"What?" she asked, tossing a handful of dried fruit into her mouth.
"I don't like this," he said in a low voice, "The Silent Voices are especially strong here. Something bad will happen. I know it."
"Good thing I took Jahr's weapons, then," Sabine said insolently, washing down the fruit with a long swig of water.
Instead of responding, Ezra stood. "Senator Cadaman," he called, "With all due respect, sir, I think we need to move. I can sense that something is amiss."
"Well," the senator responded, "If there is one thing I remember from the Clone Wars, it's that a Jedi's instincts are nearly always right. Lead the way, Master Bridger."
Just as Eza turned to exit the cave, a figure stood in the doorway. Sabine instantly recognized the clean, gray uniform of an Imperial agent. The wearer of the garment was a human male, with a long neck, bulging eyes and a sharp nose. He grinned as a pack of baying primitive Anzati, led by one of their civilized counterparts, approached from behind.
"Senator Cadaman, Commander Wren, Master Bridger," the Imperial began, his accent betraying his Coruscanti origins, "You're under arrest."
"Like hell we are," Sabine snapped, drawing both of her blasters. In an instant, the cave was lit up, the rebels and the Imperials exchanging fire. Through the smoke, Sabine recognized a familiar blue shaft of light as Ezra ignited his lightsaber to face the Anzati who swarmed into the cave. Sabine turned her attention to the elderly senator, who was huddled against the wall, trying to shield his head with his arms.
"Senator!" Sabine yelled over the sound of blaster bolt meeting lightsaber. She grabbed Cadaman's arm, pulling him over to the Kriin-wood table. She knocked it on it's side, positioning the old man behind it. "Stay here."
She had reemerged only to find Jahr lying on his back, the Anzati captain's boot on his chest, his blaster pointing in the Devaronian's face. Instantly, Sabine remembered that she had disarmed Jahr earlier, and he was defenseless. Before she could act, however, the captain pulled the trigger, killing Jahr instantly. Dismay and guilt flooded Sabine's mind, but she pushed it aside as an onslaught of primitives advanced toward her. Avoiding their eyes, she fought ferociously, picking off the beasts with expertly-aimed shots.
Suddenly, the voice of the Imperial agent rose above the chaos of the battle. "Listen," he yelled, and Sabine followed his voice to the mouth of the cave, where he stood with Senator Cadaman, blaster held to the elderly man's temple, "Surrender now, or I kill him."
Sabine paused, looking wildly at Ezra, who was beginning to lower his lightsaber. The agent rammed the blaster into Cadaman's temple, causing the old man to cry out in pain and fear. Reluctantly, Sabine sat her weapons on the floor, raising her hands to eye level. Ezra followed suit. The Anzati captain hurried forward, scooping up their weapons while some of his underlings secured the rebels' hands behind their backs with stun cuffs.
Slowly, a smug grin replaced Senator Cadaman's expression of terror, and cold realization dawned on Sabine. The Imperial agent lowered his blaster and handed it to the elderly man, who affixed it to his belt.
"Son of a-" Sabine began, but Cadaman interrupted, turning to glare at his superior.
"Damn, Polus," he snapped, rubbing his temple, "You didn't need to be that rough."
By this time, Ezra had realized the situation. "You've been with the Imperials the whole time, Cadaman?" he exclaimed, struggling against the cuffs.
"Tanner Cadaman is dead," the actor responded with a snort, "He has been since the early days of The Empire. Killed by Darth Vader himself."
Sabine's heart sank, and she glanced at Ezra. That was the something he was sensing. Her suspicion of Jahr had been entirely misplaced, and he was dead as a result. Even worse, the Alliance had been walked into an elaborate trap, and Sabine had unknowingly dragged her best friend in with her.
The captives were moved outside of the cave as a cold rain began to fall. Sabine and Ezra had been ordered to stand back-to-back, as one of the primitive Anzati shot a long, writhing proboscis from it's chest cavity, binding the two rebels together. Just before the strand incapacitated their arms, Sabine caught Ezra's hand in her own, a quiet display of solidarity. The proboscis bonds stung where they touched bare skin, and Ezra shifted, trying to have as little contact with them as possible.
He shook his drenched hair from his eyes, searching the scene for their weapons. Beside them was a pack of primitive Anzati, salivating over the rebels, their superiors being the only thing holding them back from feasting on their prey. Ezra avoided their glinting, bulging eyes as he continued to scan his surroundings.
"Don't look at them," Ezra said to Sabine, "Keep your eyes shut."
"I know," she answered from behind him, and although he could not see her, he could tell that she was distressed. The Force around them reverberated with her barely-contained panic, and he could feel her back muscles tense against his own. Although Sabine was one of the most fearless people Ezra had encountered, he knew that she was particularly horrified by the idea of death by Anzati. And with the brain-suckers surrounding them, hungers in their eyes, their sharp teeth glinting, he knew she was terrified. He knew, because he was as well.
"Sabine," Ezra said softly, setting aside all of the chaos in their relationship that the last rotation had brought on, "It'll be alright."
She did not answer, instead squeezing his hand. Ezra continued surveying the area, ensuring he could make good on his promise to her. Beneath a spreading tree, shielded from the rain, Agent Polus, the civilized Anzati captain, and 'Cadaman' argued amongst themselves in hushed tones. Then, Ezra's gaze fell to Polus' belt, where his lightsaber was affixed. Pushing his fear aside, Ezra closed his eyes, beginning to draw the Force in, preparing for action. He focused on gathering the ancient power in every fiber of his being, his body and mind becoming primed for battle.
"Ezra?" Sabine said suddenly, taking the Jedi by surprise, "I need to say something."
"Not now," he responded, closing his eyes tightly, trying to regain his momentum.
"This can't wait," she insisted, and after a moment, Ezra complied, giving her his attention. After a deep breath, Sabine continued, "I'm sorry about last night. About everything."
"Me, too," Ezra responded, looking at his feet. Before he could say anymore, Sabine spoke again.
"I don't know if we'll make it out of this one, and…" Sabine paused for a moment, her voice trailing off. Then she spoke again, "I want you to know that I love you."
Ezra had imagined her saying those words for years, since he was a fourteen-year-old kid on Lothal. Finally hearing it from her lips, not as a definition for some Mando'a phrase, caused a feeling of elation to rise in his chest, in spite of the dire circumstance. "You love me?" he asked, breathless.
"I do," Sabine responded, her voice soft and warm and honest, before adding, "And I know that you love me."
"Since the day I met you," Ezra responded ardently. Her fingers, entwined with his beneath their bonds, somehow gripped him tighter. With a renewed sense of urgency, Ezra began to gather the Force within him. If he could only manage to slip his hand through their restraints, he could call his lightsaber to him and free them. This, however, was no easy task: The poisonous enzyme coating the proboscises made Ezra's skin feel as though it were on fire. Gritting his teeth, he began to burrow the fingers of his free hand through the layers of bonds. As he set about this painful task, their captors returned.
Flanked by 'Cadaman' and the Anzati captain, Polus approached, the rain darkening his gray uniform. He wore a look of cunning determination as he clasped his hands behind his back.
"I didn't expect the Alliance to send such high-ranking members to retrieve an exiled senator," Polus remarked, grinning at Ezra, "And a Jedi. Lord Vader will be pleased."
"I didn't expected The Empire to send an underling after us," Sabine countered, looking over her shoulder at the Imperial agent, spirited in spite of the dire situation.
Polus turned away from the Jedi and walked toward Sabine. Ezra could no longer see the Imperial, and he prayed that he would not hurt the Mandalorian for her defiant words. "And would you look at that, Commander Wren," Polus said, "An underling took down the Alliance's best and brightest."
Before Sabine could retort, the Anzati captain approached, regarding the Imperial Agent with an accusatory glare. "My men were promised compensation," he said, "You need to produce someone for them to eat, or they may resort to an unplanned meal." He glanced at 'Cadaman,' causing him to squirm, which gave Ezra some small satisfaction.
"They can eat that bounty hunters," the actor fired back, pointing to the cave.
"If the prey dies, so does the 'soup,'" The captain insisted, "They need live prey."
Polus held up a hand to silence them. "The girl," he said, and Ezra could hear the gleeful malice in his voice, "We'll tell our superiors that there was an 'accident' with the locals. Lord Vader is more interested in the Jedi anyway."
"No! Wait!" Ezra exclaimed, struggling against the bonds, but it was too late. The captain motioned to Sabine with one deft flick of the wrist, and a pack of Anzati swarmed forward, proboscises writhing. Their hisses nearly drowned out the sound of Sabine's terrified cry, and she gripped his hand with frightening intensity, her fingernails digging into his skin. After a moment, however, her hand fell slack in his.
Panicking, a surge of adrenaline coursed through his veins, Ezra plunged his free hand through the bonds, the searing pain from the poisonous enzyme barely registering in his mind. He called his lightsaber from Polus' belt, and in a flash of scorching light, he cut through his bonds. The Imperial Agent raised a blaster, but before his finger even brushed the trigger, Ezra took his head off with one powerful stroke. Before his decapitated head hit the forest floor, Ezra was upon Sabine's attackers.
Rage. Ezra had brushed with the forbidden emotion many times on his path to Jedi Knighthood, but not since obtaining the title. In that moment, however, is filled him, dangerous and familiar. A hunched, sinewy Anzati had inserted it's proboscises into Sabine's nostrils, beginning to feed on her mind. Her eyes were frozen wide with terror, reflecting the red, telepathic light of the demon-creature before her.
Ezra swung his 'saber without mercy, first severing the beast's proboscises, then thrusting his weapon through it's chest, killing it instantly. Sabine fell forward, unconscious, but Ezra caught her before she hit the muddy ground. Her head against his shoulder, dread filled Ezra's heart as he noticed two thin trickles of blood coming from her nostrils.
By this time, the Imperials had realized the situation, and both the Anzati captain and 'Cadaman' drew their blasters. Calling on the Force, Ezra leapt into the tree above, still holding his unconscious companion. The branches were slippery with rain, but he managed to catch himself before leaping to the next tree over. Blasterfire scorched the air around him as he continued traveling from branch to branch, trying to make it to opening of the canyon. Sabine was a deadweight in his arms, and he could sense her lifeforce beginning to grow dim.
"Master T'ra, if you're here," he implored desperately over the pouring rain, "Please, help us."
Manda'yaim-the planet Mandalore