by Christine Morgan
This is a sequel to "Night Saber."
They came at him in clicking, clattering swarms.
Prancing and scuttling on insectile legs.
He sheared through their chitinous-metallic carapaces, sparks flying, the light saber thrumming in his hands. Yet as fast as he cut them down, more enforcer droids surged forth to take the places of the fallen. Energy pulse-darts stung his body, numbing him, slowing his reactions.
Desperate now, he pushed out with the Force but barely budged the nearest droid. Another reared up behind him. He sensed it, spun, slashed. It collapsed in a jittering, smoking heap.
His surge of triumph was short-lived as sharp pincers fastened onto him, yanked him backward into a dark and confining shell. No amount of kicking and struggling could persuade it to open.
"I think that's enough for now," he heard his master's voice say.
The enforcer froze, then slowly opened. He tumbled out onto the bare earth and stood, brushing dust from his clothes.
"Disappointing," Darth Sidious said, turning away and tucking his hands into the wide sleeves of his flowing robe.
"Ohh, thees ees very wasteful," Nali Dhorr said. The green-skinned sub-viceroy of the now-defunct Trade Federation scowled as she surveyed the field of broken droids. "Very, very wasteful."
"What would you have me do with them?" the Sith Lord asked irritably. "It's this or construction work, and frankly, I don't trust them for construction work either."
"Disappointink, Master?" He hurried over to them, smoothing back the strands of wiry white hair that had escaped from his waist-length ponytail. "How might I improve?"
"They are war droids!" Nali protested. "Designed for battle!"
"At which they proved miserable. They failed me on Naboo, they've failed me in every effort since then. Why, the entire Galaxy knows that to stop the droid army, all you must do is destroy their central command center. Until you devise a better way of controlling them, Dama Dhorr, they are useless to me."
"We can bettah conceal de command center --"
"That is what you said on Gethtooine," he snapped. "And still, the Jedi found it. No. I will not base my strategies on machines any longer. Living soldiers cannot be all put out of commission at once by a single well-placed laser burst."
"What is it?" He turned and peered at his apprentice from the shadows cast by his cowl.
"Please, I vish to be vorthy!"
Sidious sighed. "Dama Dhorr, if you'll excuse us?"
She huffed haughtily and left, followed by her droid guards.
The apprentice knelt before his master. "How may I serve you better?"
He felt the touch of a hand on his bowed head. "Darth Tepes, I cannot find fault with your dedication and enthusiasm."
"Yet I fail you, Master ... vy? Vat can I do?"
"I fear the Force is not sufficiently strong in you. The training demands more of you than you can give. Unfortunately, you were the best candidate at the time."
"At the time?" he echoed in consternation. "You cannot mean to ... replace me?"
"If a suitable replacement can be found, I may have to. As a matter of fact, I do have my eye on one young fellow ... headstrong and stubborn, but I sense that he might be corruptible."
"But Master! I haff served you faithfully --"
"Yes, Tepes, I know. I do appreciate it. But you must understand my position. I am working to overthrow a galactic republic. The Jedi seek to undermine my every move. I cannot let myself be burdened with less-powerful allies out of sentimentality."
"Let me prove myself to you!"
"I have no doubts regarding the sincerity of your devotion. You are a diligent pupil, but the fact remains -- the Force is not strong enough in you to allow you to progress further in your training."
A crestfallen moan escaped him.
"Tepes, Tepes. I wouldn't dismiss you from my service entirely. You are dedicated and have a knack for torture that is unrivaled. I'm certain I will not lack projects for you."
"Master, please! Another chance!"
Sidious shook his head sorrowfully. "My boy, you cannot change how strongly the Force flows in your veins."
"Vat if I could?" He looked up into that lined, weathered face. "Vat if I could change that? Vould I then be acceptable?"
"Possibly," Sidious said, eyes narrowing. "How would you propose to accomplish such a thing?"
"Give me leave to try!" he pleaded.
His mind-barriers, the product of many grueling hours of mental exercises, might as well have been non-existent as the Sith Lord probed his thoughts. He sensed his master's initial scornful skepticism, and then as Sidious delved deeper, reading for himself how it might be done, that skepticism turned to thoughtfulness.
"This could also be a rather novel solution to the Jedi problem," Sidious mused, stroking his chin. "Thus far, I've had to hold off taking any direct action against them. A Jedi is often more troublesome dead than alive. But this ... this is very intriguing, Tepes. You have my permission to proceed."
"Thank you, Master!" He prostrated himself at Sidious' feet and pressed the hem of the Sith Lord's robe to his forehead. "I vill not fail you!"
"See that you don't." He tempered it with a smile, but the words were still chilling. "See that you don't."
She had grown accustomed to the day, but the night would always be her time.
Beneath a sky as dark as the plait of hair hanging down her back, the woman in black approached the stone tower. She moved with the silence of a cloud, despite the carpet of dry autumnal leaves underfoot. Her golden eyes were keenly alert to the forest around her.
Small animals went about their nocturnal business. Find food and try not to become food, the law of the wild. None of them bothered with her; she was ten times the size of the largest hunter and quite a bit more dangerous.
The tower rose well above the treetops. It stood at the end of a twelve-foot wall that stretched for miles through the woods and across the countryside. It was the last remnant of an old defense, between lands that had known peace for the better part of a millennium.
The word itself was still strange to her. As strange as words like home ... family ... or love.
Two lights shone from the tower's oval windows. One was near the top, a warm and steady beacon she'd followed from the village.
She'd made that journey on foot, for there were no suitable landing sites this far out. Sylvar was an agrarian/orchard planet, known galaxy-wide for its bounty of fruit, nuts, and grains. Something was always in season on Sylvar. The harvest never ended.
A thousand years ago, warring factions had threatened to destroy this world. Now it was a place of simple harmony, consisting mainly of widely-scattered villages and traveling bands of workers from a hundred different cultures.
The only other people who lived on Sylvar were a handful of artisans trying to avoid distractions, some retired military types seeking a quiet refuge from the bustle of Republic life, and those wishing privacy and isolation.
Such as the inhabitants of the tower.
The other light was on the ground floor. It flickered and flared inconstantly, irregular spurts of green-white accompanied by grumbling in many alien tongues.
Raven went up to the low window. Her reflexes warned her to pull her head to the side as a tool came flying out.
"Daz abak arr!"
She boosted herself lithely into the window and crouched on the curved sill. "You curse like a spice miner, Skywalker."
Anakin jumped, and whirled on her with a pair of metal shears in his hand. Then he recognized her, relaxing with a grin. "Raven! I didn't sense you at all!"
"Am I getting better or are you getting sloppy?" She gestured around the room, which was strewn with clothes, droid parts, and bits of unidentifiable electronics. "Sloppier," she amended.
"This isn't so bad," he said. "You should have seen the junkyard where I used to work!"
She hopped down from her perch. "What are you doing?"
He made a face. "Working on my lightsaber. Obi-Wan says I have to. But it's tougher than I thought." Scorch marks on the worktable and blisters on his fingers proved his point.
"So the young genius has his limits, hmm?" she teased.
"I'd like to see you try."
"That's an art reserved for Jedi. I'm lucky the Council let me keep the lightsaber I have. They comfort themselves with the thought that one day it'll break and then I'll be out of luck."
"Well ... when it does, I'll fix it for you."
She picked up the chewed-looking, gutted handle of the one he'd been working on. "I'd better take good care of it until you figure out what you're doing."
"I'm getting the hang of it. Hey, I built a protocol droid when I was only nine." He was thirteen now, tall and handsome in a daredevil boyish way that made it easy to see how readily he could charm even a queen.
"From a kit, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, from a kit, so?" He laughed. "It worked. And so does the lightsaber. Sort of. It just needs some fine-tuning."
Raven activated it. A five-foot beam of pale emerald shot from the end, punching a smoldering hole in the wall.
"Yow!" Anakin cried. "Careful!"
She switched it off and turned to him, arching one ebon brow. "It's rather ... extravagant, don't you think?"
"Uh ..." he stammered.
"Believe it or not, Ani, there is such a thing as too big to handle."
He scuffed one foot sheepishly. "I guess ... see, I just wanted ..."
Raven stifled a bemused chuckle. "An impressive one?"
"Okay, okay, I get the point!"
She relented, though he was so fun to tease ... she'd never had a kid brother to torment ... and handed the silvery haft back to him.
"I'm glad you're back," he said. "It's been awful quiet around here. There's nothing to do on Sylvar."
"Which is why you're here," she said, her resolve to leave off teasing not lasting more than a few seconds. "To concentrate more on your training, and less on the queen of Naboo."
Anakin blushed and toyed with the long thin braid that lay over his shoulder. The rest of his sandy hair was too long and indifferently combed. "Miss one session ..."
"Didn't it also have something to do with Palpatine finding the two of you swimming with no --?"
"Um ... maybe," he cut in, blushing even more brightly. "So, Raven, how long are you staying? Are you home for good this time?"
Now she grew somber. "I can't, Ani. You know the Council doesn't approve."
"I also know you couldn't care less what they think."
"But you do." She cast her eyes at the door. "And he does."
"It'd be easier if you would agree to be trained," he said. "Then the Council wouldn't be afraid of you, because they'd know you were bound by the same rules as the rest of us."
"Until I broke those rules. I ... admire what the Jedi have accomplished. I admire many of their goals and ideals. But there is much of what they teach that I cannot accept. That's why I left in the first place. I've ... never been one to be able to keep my opinions to myself..." She shook her head. "I'm not sure what I'm trying to say."
"You're not evil," he said with lower lip outthrust. "Maybe a little bit on the Dark Side, fine, but not evil. Not like the one who killed Qui-Gon."
"The Council doesn't see it that way."
"You don't care what they think, remember?"
"I don't care what they think of me. But what they think of Obi-Wan means a great deal to him."
"And he's already on shaky ground with them, and that is my fault," Anakin said glumly. "Master Yoda always looks at me like I'm something slimy that oozed out of a rotten log on Degobah."
Raven smiled ruefully. "Likewise, except that he looks at me like I'm something poisonous that oozed out of that rotten log."
"My future's clouded ... isn't everyone's?" He looked up at her appealingly. "They're judging me for things I haven't even done, things I might never do! It's not fair!"
"I know," she sighed, resting her hand on his shoulder. "And associating with me isn't doing you, or Obi-Wan, any good in their eyes."
"It does him good. He's happiest when you're here, Raven. Even when you don't agree."
"Well, I'm here now. I should go and say hello."
"I guess I should adjust the lightsaber." He winked. "I'll probably be another hour or two at least."
Darth Tepes flung open the door with a resounding crash. "Eliry!"
"Down here, my sveet," her voice crooned.
His boots rang on the metal walkway, raised half a meter above the filthy floor. He kept carefully to the center. The stench and the screams had long ago ceased to bother him, but he could never get used to the bony, scabrous claws that shot from between the bars to clutch at him as he went by.
"Back!" Torek Roth, a burly man in the scarlet livery of Eliry's personal guard, thrust a pronged stick at the sea of haggard prisoners. Energy arced from the end, eliciting a shriek and causing the rest to shrink back.
Their eyes glinted murderously as they watched Tepes pass. He drew his crimson-edged black cape closely around him as the passage narrowed and began its sloping descent.
He found Eliry at the bottom, a slender figure gowned in clinging red, with a tumbling mass of white hair that fell to the backs of her knees. Her skin was as winter-blue as his own. Her eyes, avidly observing the scene before her, were orbs of opaque blackness.
Two other guards had just finished securing a gaunt man to a metal frame in the shape of an X. The man struggled feebly against the bonds that held his wrists and ankles. He raised his terrified gaze to Eliry.
"Please, Mistress! Be merciful!"
"Oh, but this is merciful," Eliry replied, giving him a reassuring smile filled with tiny needle-teeth. "You're already dyink. Those sores vill only spread, riddlink you vith infection. The flesh vill rot avay until your bones are exposed, and even then you'd linger. This is much kvicker, believe me."
"I wish to live! I beg you! Let me live!"
"But there is no cure." She raised her hand, rings sparkling on three of the six elongated fingers, the sheen of the enamel that coated her curving nails catching rainbows in the dim light.
The guards responded to her signal and rotated the frame on the wheel to which it was affixed. The man wailed piteously as his legs went up and his head pointed down.
Tepes moved closer to inspect the prisoner. A Prhei, distant kin to the elite race that ruled this world. The only outward differences were in the skin -- pinkish, and in the case of the plague-ridden, blotched along the limbs with oozing crescent-shaped splits -- and the extremities, lacking the sixth finger and toe.
The chamber around them was circular, soaring nine levels high to a domed roof. The walls were lined with cages and catwalks, every cage filled beyond capacity.
Tepes stood alongside Eliry, bending to nip at her smooth shoulder. His teeth left a dozen pinpricks. "Good evenink, cousin-vife."
"How vent your day, my sveet?"
He scowled. "As I feared."
"He does not appreciate you."
She turned as one of her maidens brought her a flat bronze box, and picked daintily through the implements within until she'd found the one she sought. It was a hollow crystal cylinder the width of her smallest finger, one end tapering to a curved blade.
The man on the frame writhed with renewed vigor as he saw it. He tried to lash his head side to side, but it was held firmly in place by clamps. He tried to raise his shoulders to his ears, also to no avail.
"There is vun ray of hope," Tepes said, stepping back to give her room to work. "He's granted me leave to pursue our plan."
"Has he?" She affixed the blunt end of the crystal cylinder to a length of flexible tubing that fed into the top of a squat, accordion-sided droid.
The din in the dungeon increased tenfold as the prisoners began to shout. Pleas, threats, and savage glee mingled into a roar.
Eliry motioned to the guards. One of them threw a lever, and the frame rose until the man's head was suspended at chest-height. The other trundled the box closer.
"I'll need your help," Tepes continued. "Your expertise. And ve'll haff to re-fit a droid or two."
"You'll have vatever you need." She felt for the man's pulse. "Poundink vith fear. Perfect."
"No, Mistress, no, please, for the love of mercy, please!"
"Shh, now," she said kindly. "It von't hurt a bit."
With that, she placed the tip of the crystal cylinder against the artery in his neck. One swift push sliced deep, embedding the crystal. Not so much as a drop stained his skin. Rich crimson fluid gushed into the tubing.
The man's mouth gaped in a soundless scream as he felt his life's blood pouring from him.
"Nicely done," Tepes said. "Your touch is so light, so skilled!"
"I learned from the best, my sveet," she said, favoring him with a loving smile. "Vould you care to cut the vein?"
"As you vish." He plucked a razor from the box the maiden held, and flicked it in one sure movement. The resultant flood ran along channels in the metal floor and vanished through a grate.
The sides of the droid began to bellows in and out, sucking the bright arterial blood with such speed that the man's vessels collapsed. Beneath the grime, his skin went pallid except for his face, which remained reddened.
The droid whirred and hummed. A glass bubble bulging from its top began to moisten with condensation.
"This is so much tidier," Eliry remarked, crouching to adjust the droid's controls. "Ven I think of how our ancestors lived, it appalls me. Can you imagine havink to do it ourselves?"
"And havink to ingest so much," he agreed, wrinkling his nose. "Eight to tvelve hours comatose in digestion, and all to filter out the little bit ve needed."
"Yes, I much prefer this." She peered into the clouded glass bubble, where yellowish-clear droplets were forming.
"Vy do you extract them down here?" Tepes asked. "The lab is kvieter, and certainly cleaner!"
"Ah, but it's not as much fun, is it?" Eliry waved to the rest of the prisoners, beaming as they cringed and stumbled over themselves in an effort to avoid meeting her eyes, lest she choose her next victim that way. "I find their fear nearly as invigoratink as the gift they give. It'll be interestink to see if ve can bestir similar fear in the Jedi."
He opened the door as she neared the landing. Light streamed around him, shining on his brown-gold-chestnut hair, while she remained in the shadows of the curved stairwell.
Light and dark ... good and evil? Halves of the same whole, sides of the same coin?
Or just themselves? Two souls drawn together by Force or fate or nothing more than random chance?
Raven ascended another step. She couldn't see his face, needed desperately to read his expression because his thoughts were carefully closed.
So much that needed to be said, so many words hanging unspoken in the air between them. The months she'd been away stretched out to seem like years.
Rather than try to voice them, she slowly extended her hand. As she did so, she dropped the mental barriers he'd taught her to create. Hopes and fears, regrets and remembrances, all there for him to read if he wished.
Obi-Wan stepped down to meet her, reaching out. Their fingertips touched, their palms pressed together. The violet warmth and wispy smoke of the Soulfire gloved their enfolded fingers.
"I've come back," she said softly. "I know we decided it was better if I left ... but I couldn't stay away."
"You chose to leave. I never wanted that."
"It had to be --"
She bowed her head.
"Do not change what you are," he went on. "You worry about the future, about what may be ..."
"At the expense of the moment?" she said, repeating the words of wisdom he'd had from his master.
"Yes." He caressed the line of her jaw.
Her eyes drifted closed. "Yet your own Council can't do it; how can I?"
"What do you mean?"
"So worried about the threat Anakin may pose that they refuse to see the person he is. If it does happen, Obi-Wan, it'll be because they drove him to it. Don't you think I know what it must be like for him? If, no matter what I do, they'll denounce me as evil ... why, what a temptation to have the game as well as the name!"
"Or prove them wrong."
"Would it work?" she asked, hearing her own bleak hopelessness.
"Even Jedi can be wrong. I was."
She opened her eyes and looked at him. "When?"
"When I let you leave."
Her inexpert mental foray searched his thoughts, finding no barriers and the truth of how much he'd missed her ... nearly as much as she'd missed him.
"What will we do?" she groaned. "Can't be together, can't bear to be apart."
"Trust our feelings," he said.
"The Council --"
"They're not here." He drew her into his arms.
She went with no resistance, giving in to the yearning passion she no longer wanted to control. His kiss was at once burning and tender, needing and giving.
Her senses seemed all to meld into one, so that she experienced each sensation in a multitude of ways. The feel of cloth beneath her hands as she gripped his shoulders came to her as the taste of fresh-baked bread. His scent was as the melody of wind's secret whisper through the leaves. The sound of his low sigh sent cool blue flames flickering in the darkness of her mind.
"Take me to bed," she murmured against his mouth.
Somehow, they were in his room without seeming to climb the rest of the stairs or break from their embrace. He swept a hand at the door and missed, but it slammed gustily shut all the same.
The months of separation crashed heavily down on her. So many desolate lonely nights in the cold depths of space ... the hours seeming endless, the memories bittersweet torture impossible to resist.
With a breathy little growl, she fell back across the bed and pulled him with her. Old fears at being pinned beneath the weight of a man were long gone thanks to his gentle patience during their first weeks together.
Urgency blazed in their reunion. They both understood that there would be time later for languid and loving explorations; this time they'd been too long denied.
It was all Raven could do to wait until they'd both shed their clothing, a testament to her willpower that she didn't use what meager mastery of the Force she possessed to just shred them from his body the better to get at the smooth warmth of his skin. Cream-colored Jedi garb and her own basic black garments made a hasty pile on the floor.
"Oh, yes, now," she gasped. Her mind was already open to him; now the rest of her was as well, and it was never invasion but a welcome sharing, holding nothing back, taking what was freely given.
She felt as if she was formed of living crystal, dark glass with a heart of amethyst radiance that glowed brighter and brighter still, illuminating her from within.
He said her name again and again as they moved together, steady but quickening toward a conclusion just shy of frantic.
As that moment drew near, he lowered his head to hers, not for a kiss but to press their foreheads together, eyes tightly closed but each of them still seeing the other as clear as could be.
Their bodies shuddered in one shared exquisite release, souls seamlessly joined for that eternally brief instant, just as two candle flames brought to touch would flow into each other, impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.
The next thing Raven was aware of was the soft brush of his lips, and the realization that in the intensity of her response she had wept without knowing she did so. Obi-Wan gently kissed away those tears, stroked her hair and cheek.
She raised one hand to trace her fingertips along his face, marveling at what she saw not only with her eyes but with the sight of her mind.
There were still unspoken words between them, but it didn't matter anymore ... even if they were never quite able to say them, they both already knew.
Wooden sticks the length and weight of lightsabers clattered in a blur of swings and parries, until the taller of the two combatants broke from the exchange and signaled for a stop.
"No more," Raven said, mopping her brow. "It's too hot for this."
"Hot?" Anakin echoed, lowering his stick. "You call this hot?"
"Your world was baked by two suns, desert-boy. Mine had none."
"Tatooine would fry you to a cinder."
"It very nearly did."
Obi-Wan smiled at their banter, watching from a spot in the shade of the tower. A cool breeze riffled his robe and sent a swarm of crisp reddish leaves skirling across the raked earth of the practice yard.
Raven tipped her face into the breeze, closing her eyes in pleasure as the cool air blew loose strands of night-black hair back from her damp brow.
She had been back for seven days, and already it was as if she'd never left. The time she'd been gone seemed unimportant, a dreary dream from which he'd finally awakened.
"You were on Tatooine?" Anakin perked up in interest.
"Once, briefly. And never again," she stated, dunking a dipper into a barrel of water and dumping it over her head.
"What were you doing there?" He hadn't even broken a sweat under Sylvar's yellow and mild sun.
Raven wrung a stream from the hem of her tunic. "I owed your teacher some money."
"No, you didn't," Obi-Wan objected.
"You fed me, clothed me, paid my way around three systems," she said.
"Like you didn't make it worth his while," Anakin snickered, then subsided as they both shot him sharp looks.
"I don't need the money, Raven," Obi-Wan said. "And I'm a little afraid to ask where it came from."
"I knew there was a reason I came back," she said, choosing a piece of fruit from the bowl beside Obi-Wan. "As it's not the cooking, it must be the high esteem in which you both seem to hold me."
"What, were you a dancing girl?" Anakin guessed. "There were a lot of those on Tatooine. The Hutts --"
"Was I a what?" Raven flung the fruit at him.
Before it hit, he snatched it from mid-air with the power of the Force. Bringing it to his hand, he took a bite, grinning at her with juice running down his chin.
"I take it that's a no," Obi-Wan said. "Something of a relief."
"You're as bad as him. No, I was not a dancing girl. I worked for Pran Kessel."
"The smuggler?" Anakin asked eagerly. "Really?"
"Smuggling, bounty hunting, some piracy here and there," Raven said. "And gambling; that's what took us to your sand-pit. Mos Eisley, what a place!"
"Scum and villainy," Obi-Wan said absently.
"That's putting it kindly."
"Well, I'm going back someday," Anakin said. "To free the slaves. I promised my mother."
"You'll go back," Obi-Wan said. "Once you've completed your training."
"I'm close, though, aren't I? I finished my lightsaber!"
"It does ... let's see how well you can use it." He tossed the recently-completed one to Anakin and drew his own.
"I'll sit this one out," Raven announced, making herself comfortable in the shade.
"While you rest," Obi-Wan suggested, glancing at her, "you could work on lifting objects."
"You should develop your gifts," he said.
"Remember what happened last time I tried that?"
"I do!" Anakin said, slapping his thigh merrily. "You cracked the stone in half instead of floating it!"
"Exactly, and this is supposedly a peaceable technique you Jedi use to hold off your enemies. Can you imagine what would happen if I directed that at a living person?"
"Better to practice and be prepared, so that you're not surprised into using it unintentionally," Obi-Wan said reasonably.
She fixed golden eyes on the bowl. It was heaped with yellow-orange globes, with thin skin and crisp, juicy innards. plucked only that morning from the trees surrounding their tower home. One hand reached out as if to grab, stopping several inches away.
Obi-Wan felt the Force thicken around her, saw a violet flicker in her eyes. Beside him, Anakin winced in anticipation.
"You're concentrating too hard," he murmured.
The bowl quivered, rattling on the table. One piece of fruit began to rise jerkily from the pile.
"Relax your mind," Obi-Wan said.
It imploded as if suddenly squeezed in an iron fist. Pureed bits spattered on the ground.
"Better," he admitted.
Raven voiced her opinion with a few words she'd probably picked up from smugglers on Kessel's Run.
"Repeat any of that in the presence of the Council, the Senate, or the queen," Obi-Wan warned him, "and you'll have to answer to me."
"See?" Raven chose another piece by more conventional means. "Bad example. I haven't even been back a week yet, and you've got me swearing in front of the kid."
"I've heard worse," Anakin said. "There was this one time --"
"Can we continue the lesson?" Obi-Wan tapped the haft of his lightsaber meaningfully against his palm.
"Carry on," Raven said, taking a bite.
They faced off. Blue-white and pale green came alight in unison.
Anakin's first swing was coming right at him. He parried, then began launching a series of testing strikes of his own.
"Don't watch my hands," he cautioned. "Watch my eyes ... that's where you'll see the attack coming."
"If we can see things before they happen," Anakin said, circling, "and that's what makes our reflexes so sharp, how can one Jedi win against another? They'd both know what the other guy was going to do before he even did it."
"We're not infallible, for one. For another, our mental barriers can help shield our intent. You'll also learn the knack of changing tactics at the last possible instant, without projecting. Even Jedi can be taken by surprise."
He demonstrated, starting off with a high-over arc but switching to a low sweep. Anakin, already raising his lightsaber to protect his head, yelped and leaped backward as Obi-Wan's bright blade seared a line at his feet.
"And sometimes," he said, "even knowing what your opponent is going to do can't help you defend against it. Sometimes we're simply outmatched. Or lucky."
Anakin nodded and lunged, swinging at Obi-Wan's left arm. Their blades clashed inches from his right leg instead.
"Not bad," he said. "You'll learn to do it as second nature."
"What I really want," Anakin said, "is for you to show me how you do that double-jump-kick thing. You know, where you go yah! with both feet at the same time --" He tried to demonstrate and nearly ended up on his backside.
"Let's focus on one lesson at a time."
A chill prickled his flesh. He looked up, thinking at first that a cloud had passed over the sun, but the sky was clear.
No, it had come from within ...
He turned inward to pursue it while holding his defensive stance. It seemed he could almost hear a voice, faint and far ... not calling to him but crying out in pain and dread ...
Sensation ... a spreading, creeping coldness and the feeling of something being taken ... helplessness, immobility ... draining ...
He recognized the touch of that mind, the desperate flight of thought between childhood friends close as brothers.
Losing contact ... no, worse than that! Slipping away, clinging to a tenuous thread, weaker and weaker ...
Obi-Wan dimly realized that Anakin was trying again, coming at him with one intended maneuver, diverting ... even as he brought himself back to enough awareness to counter that plainly obvious move, Anakin was leaping-somersaulting, that was the real attack, landing behind him and ready to strike --
A wooden bowl intercepted the green lightsaber. Charred splinters exploded in a halo.
Obi-Wan staggered, bringing a hand to his forehead. He dropped his weapon.
Raven was there, shouldering past the stunned and stricken Anakin to support Obi-Wan as he chased the vanishing trace of Uri-Tan's mind into a frigid and empty darkness. His legs refused to hold him upright, and if not for Raven he would have gone sprawling.
"Did I hurt him? Please say he's okay!" Anakin cried. "I thought he'd ... I didn't think it would ..."
"Easy, Ani," Raven said. "You didn't hit him."
"But I would have!" he said, agonized.
"You didn't, Anakin!" she said sternly. "Now gather your wits; I need your help!"
All of this came to Obi-Wan as if he was listening to a conversation in a separate room. He quested outward, found only an echo of the initial sensation ... helpless ... draining ... so cold!
Then even that was gone, and he blinked and was back in his proper surroundings. Sitting with his back leaned against the tower wall. Raven kneeling over him, Anakin hovering at her elbow with anxiousness contorting his face.
"Uri-Tan," he gasped.
Raven frowned, perhaps thinking him delirious, but Anakin understood.
"Another Jedi," Anakin said. "His blood-brother. They grew up together on Coruscant after being taken away from their families."
"Dead?" Raven asked Obi-Wan.
"I don't know ... I felt his pain, his fear, his suffering ... but not his death. There was something else ... something was happening to him, being done to him ... something terrible." He convulsed in a shudder. "It was no premonition. It was happening at that moment. And now, I cannot reach him at all."
"He's gone," Mace Windu said.
Zadrek Kellnu sighed heavily, massaging her temples and absently pushing back a strand of auburn hair that had come loose from her elaborate coiled bun. "Gone ... but not dead. We would have felt that."
The rest of the Jedi Council sat in silence. In that instant, each of their faces, markedly different from one another as they were, all bore identical expressions of concern and dismay.
"That makes five," Imlen V'drin said, the membranous gills at his throat fluttering in agitation. His voice was at once high as a reed instrument and underscored with a deep hum. "And no answers, no explanations!"
"Accidents, these are not." Yoda thumped his walking-stick against the arm of his chair. "Action against us is being taken. The Sith it is!"
"We never knew whether Qui-Gon Jinn slew the master or the apprentice four years ago," Mace Windu said. "But there are always two, so one survived ... and has had time to gather strength."
"But what are they doing?" Kellnu demanded, her dusky skin still ashen at the memory of the last despairing cry of Uri-Tan's mind. "If they mean to attack us, why not kill them? Why this ... this ... we don't even know what is happening to them!"
"In danger are we all," Yoda said. "Worse things than death might there be. If dead they were, contact us they might. But lost are they. Lost even to us. The work of the Dark Side this is, hatred and evil."
"What do we do?" V'drin trilled furiously.
"Summon the Jedi we must," Yoda declared. "All of them."
"What of their missions?" Gol Xadir countered, clicking his hooflike knuckles together. "Can we endanger --"
"Can we endanger more of our own?" Mace Windu cut in. "Until we know what this new threat is, we must proceed carefully."
"We're going to get really sick of fruit and protein bars for dinner," Anakin remarked, poking the slices of melon on his plate.
"Learn to cook," Raven retorted.
"Who's going to teach me? Not you, that's for sure!"
"I survived on Rannok by what I could scavenge," she said. "We can live here the same way, and a lot easier. You can't take two steps on Sylvar without bumping into something edible."
"Unless we're stuck here until winter. Then we starve."
"He won't be gone that long. And we can always walk to the village and buy food there. Since he so considerately left the money I gave him."
They both looked at the empty seat. A full day now, and already Obi-Wan's absence was getting to them.
Part of it was the snub ... he'd been summoned alone, most pointedly alone. That bothered Anakin far more than it bothered Raven. She had neither the expectation nor the desire to be involved with the Jedi Council any more than was possible.
"I have a bad feeling about this," he said.
"So do I."
"They know more than they told him."
"I think so."
"And I can't get past the feeling that he's going to be in trouble."
She jabbed a chunk of melon fiercely. "There's nothing we can do. You're an apprentice and I'm an outcast, and the Council doesn't want to hear from either of us. We couldn't have gone with him."
"No ..." he trailed off, getting a faraway look. His eyes widened but didn't see her, his mouth dropped into an open O of alarm.
"Ani?" It was too much like the way Obi-Wan had looked in the practice yard. She reached over and shook the boy. "Ani, what is it?"
He came out of it and blinked at her. "Raven, I see things sometimes," he began.
"Yes, the visions, I understand. Obi-Wan says it's common."
"But I saw something now." The fright in his tone communicated itself to her, overpowering her carefully-constructed barriers as if they didn't exist. For the first time, she grasped an inkling of what the Jedi meant ... how much stronger it was in Anakin than in anyone else she'd met.
"Possibilities," she said, her grip tightening on her spoon because her hands wanted to tremble. "He says they are only possibilities."
"This isn't like the time I saw myself fighting him!" Anakin protested. "This felt real! He's in serious danger. I'm scared."
"There's nothing to be scared of --"
"Raven, stop it! I know you feel it too! Quit denying it! Obi-Wan says we've gotta trust stuff like this!"
She exhaled slowly. "I don't want to feel it, Ani. If I have to sit here and think that something might happen to him, I will lose my mind."
"Then let's act on it and not just sit here!"
"Go after him?"
"Yeah! So we're defying the Council; who cares?"
"But how? This is Sylvar, one of the most out-of-the-way planets in the galaxy! There won't be another courier ship until spring, and I doubt the Council's going to send us one."
"Vance Antilles has a star cruiser."
"Vance Antilles isn't going to give us a ride anywhere. You know how he babies that thing, washing it twice a week and coddling it more than he does his wife."
He leaned across the table, his eyes dark and piercing. "We have to try, Raven. With or without Antilles' help."
"How do you suggest we do that?"
"You're the smuggler, the pirate. Think of something."
"Anakin, are you suggesting we steal the personal star cruiser of a retired fleet admiral?"
"If you can get it, I can fly it."
"Why don't you just use the Force and convince him to give it up?"
She clapped her hands over her face. "Ani ..."
It came to her then, striking her with an effect not unlike being whacked in the back of the head with a plank.
The damaged interior of a transport ... bodies struggling to rise ... Jefin Valtac among them, the pilot cradling a shattered arm against his side ... smoke and screams ... metal peeling apart ... Obi-Wan crumpled in a corner, eyes closed, so still ... so still ... shapes through the smoke ... man-shapes in black armor and crimson capes ... helms designed in snarling gargoyle-faces ...
She came out of it with a harsh gasp. "Ah!"
Anakin nodded. "You saw it. We've got to go, Raven."
"Yes." She shoved her chair back from the table in one hard motion. "Let's go see Admiral Antilles about a ship."
"This vun is powerful," Darth Tepes said, brushing his fingers across the viewscreen.
The Vigilant, their target, stood out unmistakably against the pale backdrop of Festri's many-banded rings. Conversely, the gas giant's clutter of moons provided the perfect cover for the Drakuul to creep ever closer.
It wasn't the ship itself that interested him. Or the scenery, spectacular as it was. No, it was what his heightened powers told him was aboard the Vigilant.
"Called you home, did they?" he chuckled. "Little knowink they'd only make my job so much easier. Vun more Jedi ..."
Torek Roth approached and bowed sharply. "Do ve attack?"
"Yes. The usual orders apply."
As Roth went off to deliver those orders, Tepes folded his six-fingered hands in an intricate formation and smiled, quite pleased with himself.
The Vigilant had come out of light speed just beyond the outermost planet of the system, and was now cruising at a more sedate speed through the clutter of moons and asteroids on its way toward Coruscant, the fourth world from the sun.
"So predictable," he said. "You, my as-yet-unseen friend, vill be the final factor. How good of you to be so prompt."
"Ve're in position," Roth reported. "Your team is ready."
"Goot." He turned to the five black-armored men waiting nearby, and brought one closed fist to his forehead.
They mimicked the motion, and Tepes nodded approvingly as the psychic cloud that surrounded them intensified until it was nearly visible.
The Drakuul closed in, just another craft wending its way through the moons, no hint of threat detectable ...
"Their transmission systems vill shut down at your command," Roth said. "They'll have no chance to send a distress signal."
"Do it in the same moment ve begin the assault, Roth. Ve vould not vant the sudden loss of their communications to varn them of their peril."
"Yes, Lord Tepes."
"Fire," Tepes said.
A barrage of energy projectiles burst from the Drakuul's guns. The Vigilant's defensive shields lit up under the onslaught, the smaller ship slamming side to side from the impacts.
A second barrage was sufficient to tear the shields away in glimmering threads, leaving the Vigilant utterly exposed.
"Hold," Tepes said. "Single shot, propulsion drive."
One bolt lanced from the Drakuul's forward laser cannon. An explosion rocked the craft.
"Pick off those droids," he ordered irritably as a trio of squat dome-heads trundled across the hull of the ailing ship.
Three shots did exactly as he wished.
"The Vigilant is at your mercy," Roth said. "Lower bay open; tractor beam engaged. Ve're pullink her in."
Tepes gestured to his five soldiers. They left their posts, the spots immediately filled by standard crewmen, and followed him into the bowels of the ship.
The Vance's Pride decelerated out of light speed smack in the middle of Festri's moons. Raven recoiled as it seemed one barren cratered lunar surface was coming directly at her face.
"Whoa!" Anakin shouted, with far more exuberance than concern. He yanked at the controls.
The ship squealed like a wounded animal. The thrust of the sudden turn pressed Raven so far into her plush ultra-leather seat that she thought she was going to come out the other side.
They soared over the cratered horizon with what looked like mere yards to spare, and then a moon that looked like a solid ball of deeply-crevassed ice loomed dead ahead.
"Uh-oh!" Still exuberant, Anakin took them into a dive that caused all the etched-glass and silver-gilt decorations in the passenger compartment to musically detonate.
"You'd better just crash us," Raven said grimly, holding on, "because if we survive and Vance Antilles sees what you've done to his ship, our lives won't be worth a nubbat dropping."
"I haven't done anything that can't be easily fixed --"
As they passed through one of the gas giant's rings, a smallish chunk of ice and rock met the soaring swooped intimate cocktail lounge that rose from the tail section.
"Except that," Anakin finished. "Better seal off that section or we'll lose pressure."
Something struck them with a clang and a small explosion. The lights in the cabin stuttered, then came back steady.
"I see Jefin's ship!" he crowed triumphantly as they punched through the wide flat ring and left a roiling hole in their wake. Ahead of them, the crippled Vigilant was being drawn into the underbelly of a larger craft.
"No!" Raven slammed the heel of her hand on the brushed-velvet console. "Too late!"
"Obi-Wan's aboard, but he's unconscious." Anakin started to say more, then hissed through clenched teeth. "Raven, barriers, now!"
She didn't debate, but instantly stopped her faltering attempt to contact Obi-Wan and pulled her mental cloak close around her thoughts. "What is it?"
"Someone on that ship's trying to sense us, and he's not friendly. I better open fire."
"With the pathetic weaponry on this glorified space-yacht, I'd be better off holding my breath and climbing onto the hull to take a swipe at it with my lightsaber."
Their arrival had been anything but subtle, and now the other ship was coming about to have a look. Raven detected a foul spidery crawling sensation on the surface of her mind.
"Well, if we can't attack, what are we going to do?" Anakin shivered, feeling the same thing. "Sit here and get disintegrated?"
"I'd hope you would take evasive action."
"I'll do better than that ... I'm getting us out of here!"
He sped straight toward Festri's misty surface, a sight that reminded Raven of Cahaldra except that Festri was mostly in shades of orange and brown.
"Are you --" she began.
He went to light speed.
The rest of Raven's sentence turned into a yell as the Vance's Pride plunged into the gas giant.
She had a momentary impression of murky yellow, then the familiar streaked starfield of space, then Anakin slowed down and the stars returned to their normal shapes.
"Woo! Did you see that? Right through the planet! Wow!" Seeing her wrathful glare fall on him, he rushed on. "See, I figured, the only solid part of these kind of planets, if they even have a solid part, is a rocky core down at the center, no bigger than, say, Sylvar. We went in at an angle, not straight, so there was no way we were going to hit that part. And going as fast as we were, the atmosphere's acidity and turbulence couldn't touch us."
"I ought to ..."
"Hey, we made it, didn't we?"
"All right, since you have all this so well under control, what next?"
"We go back."
"Not at light speed! You could have popped us out the other side of that planet and straight into a moon."
"Oh ... I didn't think of that."
She moaned and sank her head into one hand.
"I recognized the ship," he added.
Her head came back up. "What?"
"Not it specifically, but it's a Bram ship. From beyond the White Nebula. We can go straight to Coruscant, tell the Council --"
"They'll listen! This is an emergency! I picked up some stuff from whoever was on that ship ... the Council's in danger! All of the Jedi are in danger! We have to --"
Raven swiveled her seat and grabbed him by the chin. "Worm slime to the Jedi Council," she said deliberately. "We're going after Obi-Wan."
He stared. "But ... you know he'd tell us not to. He'd tell us that the safety of all those people were more important than just one --"
"You can take the escape pod if you want; it should have enough fuel to get you to Coruscant or at least picked up by another ship."
"You can't fly this --"
"You really, really love him," he said in awe.
She averted her eyes. "Send a transmission to the Council, then."
"Can't ... our communicator's down ... might have been when we passed through the atmosphere."
"Then let's go."
Obi-Wan groaned and tried to raise a hand to massage his aching head. His arm moved a fraction of an inch and then jerked to a stop, held by hard pressure around his wrist.
He blinked a few times to clear the dark blur from his vision before realizing the dark blur was all there was to see.
Taking slow, even breaths to focus his thoughts past the pain, he made a quick assessment of his condition.
His head was the worst. Without even touching it, he knew there was a swollen lump above his ear, and when he moved that side of his face he could feel crusted blood crinkling on his skin.
Nothing broken. No serious injuries. Battered and bruised, to be certain, but alive.
Alive and strapped down in what felt like a chair of smooth duraplast. In addition to the bands around his wrists, his ankles were secure, and three wide metal belts cinched him at chest, waist, and across the upper thighs.
He was unarmed, barefoot, missing his cowled robe. His tunic and trousers were smoke-blackened and smelled of laser scoring.
It brought back his memory of the last few minutes of consciousness. The Vigilant had come out of light speed beyond Coruscant's system and begun its final approach toward the inner planets. All was going fine. Jefin was telling a long, involved, and fairly obscene joke about a two-headed Pwillian who'd been courting two sisters.
No premonitions, no warning, nothing. Hindsight let him look back on the faint tremor of apprehension he'd felt as being an indication of trouble, but at the time he'd dismissed it as worries about Uri-Tan and what the meeting of the Jedi was going to bring.
And then another ship, firing with precise aim to gravely damage the Vigilant, cripple and seize her. Jefin's shout of pirates, raiders. A console spewing sparks, sending one of the crew lifeless to the deck. The ship being tossed and batted around.
He remembered starting for Jefin, and then a wave of pure cold malice roared out of nowhere and swamped his awareness. He'd stumbled, heard a solid crack that seemed to reverberate down his spine, and had time to clinically note that he'd just landed on his head.
Then nothing ... until awakening in this place of dark blur and metal bonds and distant sounds that might have been echoed screams.
He cast outward with the Force, trying to get an impression of his surroundings. Square room, little more than a cell. One door. Triply-locked. Presences nearby ... coming closer.
A peculiar noise, a rolling mechanical rumble, brought him back to his current state. He also heard the clunk of locks disengaging.
The door slid sideways into the wall, and that cold malicious wave washed over him again.
"He's avake," a woman's voice said from behind a lamp.
"So soon?" a man replied curiously. "Goot ... this vun is strong. Just vat ve need."
They appeared, the man coming in first, the woman behind him. Two others, guards by their bearing, flanked the door.
The man was tall and commanding, with sharply angular features and long white hair pulled back from a pronounced widow's peak. His red clothes and black cape contrasted with pale blue skin. He smiled when he saw Obi-Wan looking at him, showing plentiful, pointed teeth.
The woman greatly resembled him, her beauty that of a merciless goddess carved from glacial ice. As she set the lamp on a niche in the wall, Obi-Wan noticed her hands, six long fingers to each. She smoothed her crimson gown with a distracted ladylike gesture and beckoned to the droid that waited in the hall.
"Velcome, Jedi," the man said. "Do you know who I am?"
"You are a Bram, than much is obvious," Obi-Wan said, willing his mind to be serene. As well as he could with his wrists held down, he moved one hand and added, "and you'll unbind me at once."
The Bram threw back his head and laughed. "Do you believe it, Eliry? He tries to use that old trick on me!"
She joined him in his soulless mirth. "Spirited creature, isn't he?"
"Let me explain," the Bram said. He flipped his cape over his shoulder and rested his many fingers on the black-ridged cylinder at his belt. "I am --"
"Sith." The word hung like a death sentence between them.
"And you are the vun called Kenobi. I haff you to thank for my elevation in status; you killed my predecessor and cleared the vay for my advancement."
A mental probe lanced against the barriers and was repelled, but left Obi-Wan alarmed at how weak and scattered he felt.
"Ah," Eliry said, closely observing his reaction. "The drug is beginnink to take effect."
He would not give them the pleasure of asking any of the questions they were waiting to hear. Instead, he shut his eyes to block out the sight of both of them and their odd medi-droid, if that's what it was.
Hear me, he thought. Jedi Masters, hear me.
Sluggish, fuzzy ... as if he were trying to speak through wadded fabric.
"It is 'shal," the Sith warrior said, with a click at the front of the word. "A contact agent, absorbed through the skin. It ... how to say ... puts your little friends to sleep for a vile."
Eliry coaxed the medi-droid to a spot in front of Obi-Wan. "Shall I begin, Tepes my sveet?"
"Do ... I am eager to add this vun's strength to my own."
Obi-Wan twitched at a touch on his leg. He opened his eyes and the woman was bending over his lap. She cut a slit in the cloth of his trousers, just below the restraint that held him in the chair. Then a second, on the other leg.
He pushed out at her with the Force, but might as well have tried to blow her away with a puff of breath. A creeping lassitude was spreading through his limbs.
"Femoral arteries," Eliry said. "Here, and here. Buried deep in the flesh, vell-protected."
He still would not ask, knowing they would either tell him or demonstrate.
Anakin ... Raven ... warn the Council ...
"Oh, stop," Tepes snapped. "It von't help. Ve've done this before, you know."
Two narrow segmented arms extended from the front of the droid. Each held a glass needle affixed to a length of tubing, which snaked into the droid's inner workings. A third arm rose from its top, holding a clear cuplike mask with another tube retracted inside.
Obi-Wan strained against the bonds. Tepes grabbed him by the top of the head, fingers settling over his scalp like a bony skullcap.
"You don't need to move," he intoned, a weight of power in the words.
He felt his will bend, was unable to resist it. Tepes was right ... he didn't need to move ... it wouldn't do any good ...
The first of the glass needles pierced his leg. His throat constricted against a shriek as it drove through muscle and into the artery. That pain had not even begun to dim when Eliry thrust the second needle unerringly to the mark in his other leg. A strangled cry escaped him.
A steady red tide advanced up the first tube, but not the other. He watched in horrified fascination as his blood flowed into the droid.
Eliry adjusted a dial, and the droid began pulsing with a rhythmic 'whrrm' noise as a cycle of lights chased themselves across its control panel.
Seeping away ... draining ...
What he'd experienced second-hand from Uri-Tan was now happening to him. The terrible helplessness, the encompassing dread ...
Darker liquid, purple-maroon, appeared in the second tube. It moved downward and back into his leg, rejoining him. He could feel it entering, cooler than it should be, oozing back into his bloodstream.
"In case you're vonderink," Tepes said, leaning over Obi-Wan with a predator's grin, "ve're extractink chemicals from your blood. The very chemicals that the midichlorians need to survive."
Now he had to ask ... "Why are you doing this?"
"See here." The Sith tapped a fogged glass dome bulging from the top of the droid. "The chemical vill collect here, and then I shall inject it into myself. The more bountiful their environment, the faster the midichlorians breed ... and the more powerful the host becomes."
"It is the beginnink of a new era," Eliry said, gazing with adoration at Tepes. "Ve shall decide who rules the galaxy."
"It shall become a great empire," Tepes said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. They made a dry rasping sound. "My Master and I vill determine vere to bestow the gift. In time, all the Force vill serve our purpose."
"That will not happen," Obi-Wan said. Yet bit by bit, drop by drop, he could feel it being leeched from him ...
They acted as if they hadn't heard. Eliry consulted a gauge on the collecting unit and nodded to Tepes.
"Soon now," she said.
Cycling, cycling, his blood leaving him, wending its way through whatever intestinal path lay hidden in the droid, and then returning. He began to shiver from a cold that permeated him from the inside.
Eliry brought the mouthpiece cup to his face. He turned his head away.
"You vill use it or die," she told him bluntly. "Your body is already beginnink to fail."
His heart was slowing, pumping listlessly at the cooling, thickened blood. Looking down at his hands, he saw they were no longer clenched in defiant fists but limp on the arms of the chair. Dissociated from him somehow, as if they were stuffed gloves attached to his wrists. The skin had gone a pallid greyish hue.
She deftly inserted the mouthpiece. A tube snaked from it, making him gag as it slid into his throat. A pair of bellows on the sides of the droid began to whoosh in and out, inflating his lungs.
"Vell," Tepes said cheerily, "you are going to die anyway ... for a short vile. But it vould be a shame to vaste your skills ... thanks to your trainink, the physical reflexes vill remain even ven the livink Force has been stripped from you. So ve'll convert you."
"At the moment of death," Eliry said, "I shall introduce another substance directly into your heart. It vill avaken you to your new existence."
Tepes beckoned to one of the guards. The man stalked forward and paused, the snarling draconian mask of his helmet tilting impassively down at Obi-Wan.
"Best of all," Tepes said, "you'll still be recognizable, for long enough to make our foes neglect their defenses. Ve shall haff even the Jedi Masters at our mercy."
The guard removed his helm.
Obi-Wan stared in shock. "Uri-Tan ..."
Raven and Anakin looked from the viewscreen to each other, and she saw her own dismay mirrored in the youth's expression.
"Two of us, against that thing?" he said.
"We have to," she replied. "He's there."
"How can you be sure? Didn't you feel --"
"I felt it!" she barked. "Of course I did! I felt what was happening to him, before he faded so that I couldn't sense him at all."
"He's probably --"
"Don't say it!"
"But, Raven! What good is it going to do if we just get ourselves killed? We might not be able to help him!"
"I won't leave without knowing one way or the other!"
"Even if we could get in there, how would we find him? We lost him! I've called, and there's nothing!"
Ahead of them, the main city of Bram sparkled with lights. Most of the buildings were low, crowded along streets laid out like the spokes of a spider's web.
At the center of that web, a single structure reared hundreds of feet in the air. It was bleached-white and made of six curved spires that jutted up from a central walled courtyard, the whole thing giving the impression of a skeletal, clawed hand thrusting up from the earth as if to rend the sky.
The ship they'd encountered at Festri's moons was parked in the middle of the courtyard. Enough other craft were flying and hovering above the city to make them as inconspicuous as they could be in a flashy star cruiser with go-faster stripes and outlandish lines. If any of the crew of the enemy ship saw them, they were sure to be noticed.
"We don't have time, Anakin. He needs us. And we need him ... if he does die, what'll happen to you?"
He recoiled as if slapped. "No other Jedi would train me. I'd lose everything."
"We have to do this." She stood and headed for the back of the ship. "Take us in fast and low, every gun blazing. Open the side hatch long enough for me to jump out. Then make a diversion."
"Okay." He settled his blast-goggles securely on his face. "Ready."
The Vance's Pride shot into motion. Even prepared for it, Raven was almost thrown off her feet by the sudden burst of speed. She made her way to the side hatch and held on as Anakin caromed between the bone-white spires. The guns spat meek little bolts of energy.
They dipped steeply, then the door in front of her irised open. She saw the courtyard fifty feet below, heard the alarm claxons and shouts and the heavier thump of laser cannons returning fire. Anakin swerved to avoid one of these, and Raven leaped.
She dropped lithely and landed in a crouch. For once, her choice of fashion served her well; the guards racing for strategic posts and the rest scattering for cover all wore black, or black and crimson.
One of the guards saw her and realized where she'd come from, but never had time to raise the hue-and-cry. She was on him in a flash, not daring to draw attention with a lightsaber here in the open, a kick to the gut and lightning-quick a second kick that caught him square in the face as he bent double.
Before he even hit the ground, she was running for the nearest doorway. Mouthlike arch lined with metal blades, portcullis, closing as whirling beacons lit up the courtyard.
She dove headfirst through the dwindling opening. One of the pointed blades snagged her cloak and she tore it free. The door clashed shut, plunging her into a darkness that would have blinded anyone who hadn't grown up on a sunless prison moon.
Amethyst flare, slicing.
Raven jumped over the body, lightsaber in one hand, and ran down the passageway. At the sounds of many voices, she ducked into an alcove and doused the beam.
Guards, wide awake. A lot of them. Armed.
She tensed, ready.
Impact and explosion, shaking the entire building.
The guards changed course, taking a branch of the corridor that did not lead them past Raven's hiding place.
With a moment of relative safety to use, she summoned the Force as best she could and tried to reach Obi-Wan.
Nothing ... hollow empty used-up nothing.
She wouldn't allow it!
I know you're here! she thought furiously. Answer me!
The faintest of flutters, the dimmest of sparks, there and then gone but it was good enough for her. He lived, and while maybe she couldn't consciously find him, fate or Force or even Noct would lead her to him.
Obi-Wan barely stirred when the alarms began to sound. He hadn't even flinched when filaments within the medi-droid's glass needle began to heat up as it withdrew, cauterizing the deep holes closed.
"Hurry, ve're under attack," Tepes said, seizing the syringe that Eliry had just finished filling. It contained a clear, thick fluid. "I had a feelink that other ship might give us trouble."
"Jedi?" she inquired with an air of unconcern.
"If they are, ve'll put them to good use." He tilted his head to the side, found the artery throbbing in his neck, and slid the needle deep.
Obi-Wan watched with detached concern as the chemical that had been stolen from him flowed into the Sith.
The second glass needle began to grow warm in his leg, his blood having finished its last circuit through the droid. He could hear his flesh sizzling, but there was still no pain.
Tepes exhaled, trembling either from reaction or exultation. "Ah ... yes! Now it is complete! I haff powers to rival my own Master! I vill deal vith this attack personally. Eliry, finish vith him." He tapped Uri-Tan on the arm. "You, come vith me."
The two of them hastily left, while the other guard remained alertly at his post. Eliry balanced a black case atop the medi-droid.
Noises of a battle raged above. Muffled explosions. Obi-Wan barely noticed. He knew he should be more attentive, knew he should try to break free ... but lethargy wrapped around him like iron chains, pulling him into a dark and cold sea, down and down.
He flinched at a jab, thought at first it was the promised injection that would turn him into a living-yet-not servant of the Sith. But Eliry had said that would go into his heart; this had been in the vicinity of his head.
Or had it?
He dredged the last of his will and made himself attempt to return his awareness to his surroundings and his increasingly unresponsive body.
Another jab, and he understood its source.
"Here ..." he mouthed. Here ...
Just holding his eyes open called for a titanic effort. He couldn't move so much as a finger.
Eliry either hadn't noticed his attempted response to the call, or didn't care. She held up a small vial of blackish-red liquid.
"In the ancient history of this vorld," she said conversationally, "a disease svept through our people. Some of our ancestors realized that the key to survival could be found in the life's blood of other races. They took vat they needed the only vay they could. Vat they didn't know vas that ve possessed special chemicals of our own, found in our saliva. This is a concentrated version."
Air, dragging in and out of his lungs. His body wasn't his own, just a sack of meat growing colder by the minute. His heart didn't beat in its familiar rhythm anymore but convulsed then went slack for long moments, then convulsed again.
Eliry peered into his eyes. Hers were featureless black orbs that could have been made from polished onyx, yet he could still read the cruel amusement and scientific curiosity in them.
"You are very close now to crossink over," she said. "Any moment now, your heart vill come to a stop. There vill be a perceptible change in your eyes ... that's vat I'm vatching for ... as the midichlorians begin to die and take you with them."
She poked a needle through the cap of the vial and filled the syringe.
The Vance's Pride was no match for laser cannons. Anakin was all too aware than a pilot a smidgen less skilled than he would have already been reduced to burnt jelly in a crumpled can.
He shut out all his worries and concentrated wholly on the moment. The star cruiser had been designed more for looks than speed, and shuddered as he got it to perform unfamiliar stunts.
Laser shot, coming ... now!
He veered a hard left, skimmed past a tower with a coat of paint to spare, and whooped in glee as the cannon blew a big crumbling hole in the wall.
Something blipped on the instrument panel. He spared a glance, saw a cluster of tiny skimmers sweeping toward him. He identified the type if not the particular make at once. One-man security ships, little more than a giant flying blaster with a guard sitting on it.
Shielded, though ... a mousy pop of energy from the Vance's Pride only sparkled prettily as it struck. And payback was a giant nova of yellow that bucked his ship, made his teeth clack together so hard he could've bitten off his tongue, and ate up the last of his own shields.
"Now I'm in for it," he mumbled.
Spinning, once and always a good trick. He barrel-rolled the star cruiser, one wing swatting a skimmer as if it were a gnat -- a gnat that exploded when it hit the ground.
Maybe not such a good idea after all ... he managed to even out but there was another tower coming right at him, and the controls had locked up.
Anakin knew when he was licked. He scrambled to the escape pod, hit the ignition almost before the door had fully closed behind him, and erupted from the bottom of the ship.
The Vance's Pride smashed straight into the tower and burst into a colossal fireball. The shockwave tumbled Anakin's pod high into the sky, all he could see were stars revolving dizzily, weird feeling of precognition as his rapid breath gasped in the close confines.
The escape pod slowed and began a downward trajectory. The steering mechanism was only rudimentary, and the moment he grabbed it he knew he would be lucky to land in one piece.
He jolted it to the ground, bouncing across the courtyard like a skipped stone on a placid pond. The last bounce brought it down on a guard, and Anakin winced at the crunch, winced more as the pod slid greasily to a stop, cushioned on the trail of the guard's smeared-out corpse.
The flaming wreckage of the Vance's Pride and chunks of broken wall were still raining down, and the rest of the tower had taken on a pronounced lean. As Anakin fought his way free of the escape pod, he heard its ominous rumble and realized it was coming down right at him.
He raced out from under it, and it slammed down behind him. He was hurled off his feet, landed on his stomach and got the wind knocked out of him, and then covered his head as debris pelted him.
When it ended, Anakin slowly got to his knees. He was nicked from flying bits of stone and coated head to toe in dust and plaster, but considering that the escape pod was now about the thickness of a slice of bread, he felt fairly lucky, all told.
Until, that is, he looked around and saw three guards closing in on him, with blasters at the ready.
"Get up, boy," one of them said.
He rose, keeping his hands carefully within view. Two of them approached him, while the one who had spoken kept him covered.
"Sorry about all that," he said with his most disarming smile.
Before they could answer, he jumped.
Straight up, simultaneous kicks, both feet connecting. The one to the left got it in the forehead, the one to the right got it across the bridge of the nose; they both went down hard.
Anakin landed and immediately sprung in a forward flip, lightsaber taking off the last one's arm at the elbow and then slashing-searing him across the belly.
Panting, emerald light blazing from his fist, Anakin stood in the center of the three guards, all laid out around him.
"All right!" he crowed. Then he snorted in disgust. "Shazbat! My best move ever and nobody even saw it!"
The corridor ahead of her ended in a balcony alcove overlooking a circular room with a floor of mosaic tile in a swirl of red, black, and white.
Raven stopped and leaned over, looking down. Long scarlet draperies hung to either side of the balcony, rippling like twin waterfalls of blood.
As she gathered a double handful and prepared to swing her leg over the rail, she first sensed serious danger and then heard an imperious man's voice ringing commandingly from below. She ducked instead, peering over the top.
He stalked into the room with his cape flaring behind him. A near-tangible aura of darkness engulfed him, one that seemed to absorb light, warmth, hope.
Another man was at his heels, wearing the armor she and Anakin had seen in their prophetic vision. Four more like him hurried from other archways, all of them meeting at the center of the room.
The leader drew a lightsaber and thrust it over his head. It shed a poison-yellow glow. In unison, the five others followed suit, their weapons shining in many colors.
Raven bolstered her mental cloak, eyes widening as she understood what had become of Obi-Wan's friend, and presumably other missing Jedi as well. This was an evil that made even one such as her go pale.
She poked her head up again, and thankfully saw that none of the lightsabers were blue-white, none of the figures below familiar despite the concealing armor.
A strange heaviness settled over the group below. Silent communication, passing among them with the speed of thought. It lasted only an instant, orders given and accepted.
They rushed out and Raven let them go. The moment the room was deserted again, she vaulted over the rail and slid down the curtain, then ran down the hall from which the leader had come.
She rounded a corner and there was a guard, standing by a half-open door through which issued odd mechanical sounds. He saw her and raised his blaster. She drew-activated-swung even as he fired, deflecting it right back at him.
It hit him in the shoulder and he stumbled against the wall. The blaster flew into the shadows. Raven struck so fiercely that she cleaved him in two on a diagonal, from the collarbone to the waist.
The pieces were hitting the ground as she kicked the door the rest of the way open and sprang into the room.
A woman whirled away from Obi-Wan, dropping a syringe. She curled her fingers in a hard, swift movement, and the long sharp nails at their tips extended into ivory daggers.
"What have you done to him?" Raven demanded. She could not bear to look at him, slumped in restraints and connected to the medi-droid. One glimpse of his haggard face was enough to flay her raw with dread.
The woman's only reply was a piercing shriek as she launched herself at Raven. She was cat-quick, dodging Raven's instinctive lightsaber slash and raking claws at her eyes.
Raven jerked her head back. Only one of the claws connected, splitting her eyebrow. A red haze clouded her vision on that side as blood oozed into her eye.
The woman lashed out at Raven's arm, seeking to make her drop her weapon. Raven tossed it high, elbowed the woman in the mouth -- razor fangs shredding her skin, breaking off in flesh and bone -- leaped up, caught the descending lightsaber, pivoted and kicked.
Her foe pinwheeled across the room, scarlet gown flying. She collided with the wall and rebounded, and Raven thrust with both arms.
The violet beam plunged into the woman's chest to the hilt. Her body went rigid, her bloodstained mouth worked feverishly. Her fingers stroked the air like sharp spider's legs, inches from Raven's face.
Their eyes met, fiery gold to opaque black.
"No ..." the woman moaned. "Please ..."
Raven, trembling with rage, bared her teeth and shook her head silently. She twisted the lightsaber in one hard wrench, then yanked it free as the woman collapsed.
The corpse began to jitter. Winter-blue skin turned brittle and dry, then cracked apart like old parchment. Raven stood over it, revolted and amazed, as it withered and shriveled in on itself, until there was nothing left but a greyish dustlike grit sifting from the clothes.
A shaky breath escaped her. She turned off her lightsaber and prodded the fabric with her toe, stirring it around. Nothing remained but the sparkling jewels that had adorned her, some strands of long white hair, and a few teeth.
Raven pried loose the other teeth that had gotten stuck in her elbow and cast them on the floor, scrubbing her hand on her tunic in distaste.
She turned to Obi-Wan, and fell to her knees at his side.
"Get away from the ship!" Anakin yelled, shoving his way through the crowd. "Get away!"
His voice was just one in the hundreds, and the rest were howling for revenge. The freed Prhei surrounded the ship. They hammered at it, rocked it side to side in hopes of upending it.
Make a diversion, Raven had said. Improvise, she'd said.
Well, he had ... but it might have gotten a little out of control.
They weren't listening to him. All he could do was try not to get cooked with the rest of them when the Sith Lord's ship took off.
"Chicken!" he shouted, waving his fist in a rude gesture.
He'd seen the Sith emerge from a tower just as he'd led the throng of Prhei into the courtyard and knew him for what he was. Snooty, aristocratic-looking, angular, a far cry from the savage visage of Darth Maul, but Anakin had instantly recognized the stench of evil.
In the excitement of freeing the prisoners from the dungeons, he'd stopped worrying about keeping a low mental profile. The Force in him drew the Sith Lord's gaze like a magnet. Their eyes locked, and he'd felt the most terrible lusting hungry greed roiling toward him.
Everything was suddenly open to Anakin. He knew exactly what had happened, not only to Obi-Wan but to the five men surrounding Darth Tepes.
"Take him alive!" Tepes pointed his lightsaber at Anakin.
His voice rang over the din of the alarms, and the Prhei turned like a flock of birds in flight. At the sight of their hated captor, they loosed a collective roar and surged forward, carrying Anakin with them like a twig caught in floodwaters.
The ex-Jedi had moved as one to defend Tepes, but even their skill couldn't hold back the press of the enraged throng. Tepes, who had been anticipating a straightforward battle, fled before he could be torn limb from limb. He left his bodyguards behind, doomed to fall but certain to take a score or more Prhei apiece with them.
Anakin had tried to fight through to him, but the Sith reached his ship and leaped-flipped inside. He slammed the hatch on the hands of his pursuers.
Now he could see Tepes through the windshield. The engines roared. The guns began to mow through the Prhei.
It instantly turned them to panic, and now they were stampeding away from the ship as ardently as they'd been trying to reach it. Trampling, lashing out in urgency.
Tepes lifted off, out of their reach, and the Prhei vented their frustration in a single mass shriek before falling on each other in their wrath.
Realizing he was going to get ripped to bits if he lingered, Anakin got out of there as fast as he could. He raced for the entrance through which Tepes had come, suspecting he'd find Obi-Wan still within.
He scrambled over a section of fallen wall and was almost to the doorway when a fist closed on the scruff of his neck and hoisted him off the ground.
Uh-oh ... it was the big one, the one who'd seen him letting the prisoners out of their cells.
"Let me go!" Anakin put all the power of the Force behind it.
The command was immediately obeyed. Down he went, landing in the rubble and bruising his tailbone.
He mentally snatched up a hunk of debris and propelled it at the big man's head. Anakin heard a noise reminiscent of whopping an underripe melon hard with the haft of a knife, and the man keeled over.
"Three cheers for the Force," he said, and dashed into the darkness.
He still couldn't sense Obi-Wan, but he sensed Raven and could tell it wasn't good news. They were too late ... they'd failed, they'd blown it ... all for nothing!
"You've failed me," the hologram said, only twelve inches high on the projection disk but towering with presence. "You ran like a coward."
Darth Tepes glowered smolderingly but kept his head deferentially bowed. "I had to escape, or they vould have destroyed me."
"Yes," Darth Sidious said flatly. "As they killed your wife."
"I felt her dying scream ... the Jedi haff taken my voman from me." His knuckles were dead-white around the ship's controls.
"Do you take me for a fool? The only Jedi there were the ones you left behind! You were outdone by a boy and a maverick."
"No! They vere Jedi! I sensed the Force in them! And I vill see to it that all the Jedi pay for vat they haff done!"
"While I am normally in favor of my apprentices giving in to their darker emotions," Sidious said, interlacing his fingers, "you cannot afford to rush off in a hate-filled fog."
"Vat is it to you?" Tepes snapped. "You said how I disappoint you; ve shall see how disappointink you find it ven I haff personally dealt vith the Jedi Council!"
"You don't mean to go to Coruscant! I cannot permit this."
He sneered. "Vat vould you do? Dismiss me?"
"I thought I'd made it clear that I will tolerate no impertinence. Your first duty is to me, apprentice. You will do as I say."
"I vill make them pay! I haff powers now even greater than yours, Master! Perhaps it is you who are unvorthy of me!"
He slapped the controls, causing the bluish image of Sidious to contort and then vanish in a snarl of static.
Jumping over part of a dismembered sentry, Anakin skidded to a halt just inside the room where Raven knelt by Obi-Wan.
She spun and drew, then saw it was him and let her lightsaber drop. Her eyes were haunted.
"Found him," she said softly.
Anakin came closer, taking in the entire scene -- medical kit, medi-droid, all of it. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"He's breathing, Anakin!"
He wouldn't back down, though his voice was near to breaking and he was fighting off hot tears. "The machine's breathing for him, Raven. That's no way to be. Who'd want to live like that, dependent on a machine to breathe? We ... we have to let him go."
"You mean unhook it?"
"We can't leave him like this." He reached for the droid, then cried out as she seized his wrist in a crushing grip.
"It's not your day to kill him," she said. "He ... he has to live, don't you understand? He has to live!"
"There's nothing we can do!" He told her what he believed had been done to Obi-Wan. Warbles and beeps from the amiable medi-droid confirmed it.
"You can communicate with that thing?"
"Yeah. It was just following orders."
"That's what they all say."
"This syringe would have done something else, I don't know what, only that it's bad!" He flung it against the wall, where it shattered and leaked black-red fluid down the stones.
Raven sat with her head down, tendrils of hair that had come loose from her braid falling around her face. "Can't we get back what they took from him?"
"The Sith Lord got away. Even if we could catch up, we'd have to capture him alive ... we don't have a ship ... there's no way we could find him in time."
She pressed her hand against Obi-Wan's chest, raised his chin. His eyes were closed, he looked twenty years older than he had when he'd left Sylvar.
Anakin bit his lip. "I know, Raven ... I wish there was something --"
"Can you work this machine?"
"Yeah, sure, but Raven, like I was saying --"
"Take it from me."
"My blood, Anakin. Take it, and give him what he needs."
"No! This is crazy! I can't ... I couldn't ..."
"You can and you will!" She took his head between her hands and fixed him with her glittering eyes. "It has to be this way. I'm the only one."
"Needed to operate the machine," she interrupted. "And if he and his mentor were right, you're too important to risk. You need him to guide and teach you. That leaves me. It's what I choose."
"But ... but ..."
Whatever he might have said was forgotten as a man appeared in the doorway and trained a blaster on them both. It was the big one, the one that Anakin had dropped with a chunk of debris. Now he was mad.
Anakin grabbed for his lightsaber, but Raven just shifted her intense gaze to him and reached out, curling her fingers.
The blaster clattered to the floor. The man clutched at his throat and made a hideous strangling gurgle. A tide of purple flooded his skin.
Raven's eyes narrowed and she tightened her grip.
He fell down, tearing at his neck now, desperate for air. His heels drummed on the floor.
Her fist clenched.
His back arched. His larynx crunched, the small vertebrae cracked in rapid succession like a chain of fireworks. He went limp.
Anakin sucked in a deep breath of his own to assure himself he still could. "You ... wow!"
Raven relaxed her hand. As if the events of the previous minute had never taken place, she turned her attention back on him.
"We have to save him, Ani. No matter the cost to me. I can't do it alone ... but I'll try if I have to."
"The first thing we'll need to do is warm him up," Anakin said slowly. "The droid's got a thermal ray that should counteract the chill in his blood."
She examined the restraints, found them locked, and rather than look for a key just wrenched them open with her will.
Obi-Wan slid forward and nearly fell, but she caught him and carefully lowered him to the floor, making sure the breathing tube didn't become kinked or stretched.
Anakin told the droid to activate the thermal ray. A cone of orange light beamed over Obi-Wan.
Raven brought his motionless hand to her face, rubbing her cheek along the back of it. She kissed it, placed it across his waist, and leaned to brush another kiss on his brow.
"All right," she said, seating herself in the chair. "Let's get it over with."
The droid obligingly extended twin arms. Its internal cleaning and sterilization systems had removed every trace of Obi-Wan's blood from the crystal needles and clear tubes.
Raven withdrew a short, slim knife that had been hidden in her braid, and Anakin's eyebrows went up in surprise.
"Smuggler's trick," she said, using the knife to make two cuts in the black fabric that sheathed her legs.
He started to point out that the droid lacked a second breathing apparatus, but she already knew that. Instead, he gave her a quick and awkward kiss on the cheek. "Is there anything you want me to do?"
"All I'd ask is to be avenged, and I don't want to put that burden on you." She smiled, a sad and familiar sort of smile.
It took Anakin back four years and halfway across the galaxy, to his last glimpse of his mother. Grieving but knowing she was doing the right thing, the only thing.
"I'll do it, though. I'll find him, I promise."
Raven nodded, then closed her eyes and held onto the arms of the chair as the medi-droid rolled into position.
He became aware of the beating of his heart, the regular coursing of life through his veins. His nerves tingled, his muscles twitched as each independently re-awoke.
Air hissing in and out of him, sterile and tinned.
Was this it? Was this the new awareness they'd told him of? Had he revived not as himself but as a tool of the Sith?
No, he sensed nothing of the sort. His thoughts, his will, were his own.
His eyelids fluttered.
He detected a presence nearby, felt a touch, heard a voice anxiously speaking a name. His name.
Tried to speak. Couldn't. Coughed against the invasive tube that filled his throat. He gagged as it was withdrawn -- slithering, lurching sensation. Then gasped in a breath.
Blood. Ash. Decay. Mustiness.
A veil, a murky grey veil, hanging before him. Blocking the way. Blurred shapes half-seen through it.
A thought, pulled whole from its thinker.
He's not going to make it, after all this, after what she did, he's not going to make it!
"Come on, Obi-Wan!" the voice urged. "Come back! Wake up!"
A sharp slap.
He lunged upright, crying out. Before he knew what he was doing, he had someone by the upper arms, was shoving that person against the wall.
The veil tattered and blew away.
The youth's face lit up with hope. "Obi-Wan? You're back!"
He let go and brought his hands to his face, dazed. "Alive. I'm alive ... and ... the Force ...so weak, but with me again ..." he turned his palms up, looking at them as if the answer might be written there. "How --?"
It popped like a bubble to the surface of Anakin's mind, though he tried to block it, tried to spare Obi-Wan the truth for a little while longer.
"No," he said strengthlessly, turning almost against his will. When he saw her, it burst from him loud as thunder. "NO!"
Slouched in the chair, arms dangling limp at her sides, head down. New scars on her legs matched the ones he bore, and there was spilled blood because Anakin wasn't as adept with a needle as Eliry had been.
He was beside her without knowing how he got there.
Cold, she was so cold! But ...
"Not dead," he murmured. "She's not dead!"
"I couldn't do it," Anakin said. "Couldn't take it all. I thought maybe if I just took some, it'd be enough to help you and not kill her."
He lifted her head, running his thumb over her lips to feel the breath she took in shallow sips. She was deeply unconscious, her mind utterly dark to him. Whether that last was from her condition or his weakened ability, he wasn't sure.
"I just couldn't," Anakin said softly. "I had to trust my instincts, right? Stop when I felt like it was okay, right?"
Obi-Wan swept him into a tight embrace. "Thank you, Ani."
"Are you mad that we came after you?"
"I should be. It was too dangerous, too great a risk. But under the circumstances, I can't scold you. You saved my life ... more, you saved my soul."
Anakin nodded. "I know what they tried to do."
"The other Jedi --?"
While Anakin told him everything that had happened, starting from his vision on Sylvar, Obi-Wan wrapped Raven in her cloak and fastened her lightsaber to his belt. It seemed to be the lot of these Sith to deprive him of his own; first losing one down a shaft then having a second confiscated.
"So we don't have a ship anymore," Anakin finished, a bit shamefaced, "and Admiral Antilles is going to pitch a fit ... but I figure that's the last of my worries right now. We've got to find Darth Tepes."
"We're in no condition to --"
"Not just because I promised Raven. I mean, technically, since she's alive I don't have to avenge her; I can probably get out of that one. But I think he's going to do something. I felt it. He's going to do something to the Council."
Obi-Wan picked up Raven. Her head rolled against his shoulder. She was beginning to shiver, which he took as a good sign.
"Then we will need a new ship," he said.
Anakin nodded eagerly. "I'll find us one!"
That proved to be easier said than done; when they emerged from the tower they found that the Prhei had descended into a full-fledged riot. The city beyond the walls was in flames, mobs packed the streets.
"What's happening?" Anakin asked, staring out over the scene.
"They're rising against their rulers," Obi-Wan said. "The Bram have dominated this world for centuries, but I think that's just changed."
"Oops." He looked sheepish. "Uh ... we Jedi don't have any big rules about messing with local cultures, do we?"
"At the moment, I wouldn't worry about it."
The courtyard was silent, the action having moved into the city. They moved slowly, picking their way, trying to find a path through the dozens of bodies. Most were Prhei, but many were Bram guards.
"Wait," Obi-Wan said, catching sight of a black demon-visaged helm. "That one ..."
Anakin inched over as if he expected the corpse to suddenly spring up and get him, though the man's chest was a caved-in ruin. He gingerly flipped up the visor. A human face, glassy-eyed and slack, stared back at them.
"I don't know him," Obi-Wan said, holding Raven more securely in his arms. "But he was Jedi."
"Do you want me to look for his lightsaber?" Anakin asked reluctantly, clearly not wanting to paw through the dead on such an errand. "Or ... bring the body?"
"No." He sighed desolately. "We can't take him with us, can't give him the funeral a Jedi deserves ... we have to put the living first."
They found an intact skimmer. Obi-Wan studied it, then turned to Anakin with a questioning look.
"Yeah, I can fly it," he replied. "But it's a one-person craft, and even if we could all fit, it's only good for short-range flights."
"Then take it, search for a suitable ship, and return," Obi-Wan said, carrying Raven to an undamaged section of wall and setting her gently down in a corner. "We'll wait here."
"Are you sure?"
"It's our only hope."
Anakin climbed inside, fiddled with the instruments, muttered to himself, and then the skimmer's engine chugged to life. He gave Obi-Wan a beaming thumb's-up through the canopy. Obi-Wan returned it with a half-smile, then turned away as the skimmer lifted off.
He sat down beside Raven. She was still breathing shallowly but evenly, her pulse slow but strong. Her skin was even paler than usual, chalky, tinged faintly with blue. Resting on cold stones wouldn't help her, nor would the chill in the air.
Obi-Wan collected three red cloaks from fallen Bram guards, spreading one beneath and wrapping the others around them as he huddled beside her to share what little warmth he had.
His arm ached dully. Now that he had the leisure to examine it, he found a bruise flowering in the crook of his elbow and understood that this was where Anakin had injected him with the chemical extract. Better there than the neck, he thought, remembering the long needle sinking into Darth Tepes' flesh.
He took deep breaths ... calm, calmer ... and sent a mental warning to the Council. The effort left him with no inkling whether he'd reached them or not. No comforting sense of presence met his reaching mind. Too far away, or his own powers were still too weak.
No other options, then. They had to go after Tepes.
A grating, dragging footstep brought his head up sharply, and he realized with chagrin he'd fallen into a near-doze.
Something, someone, was moving across the courtyard. Limping, hunched over.
Raven was still beside him, her color a bit improved. There was no sign of Anakin.
He was suddenly sure it would be Eliry, reanimated by some hideous magic and bent on finishing the job.
No. He had seen the spill of dust that was all that remained of her. This was ... he opened his mind and instantly shied back in sweeping horror ...
The figure stopped, straightened up, and yanked off the black helm. Uri-Tan's familiar features were alien now. A wild light blazed in his eyes, his mouth was twisted in a snarl. Blood was dried in a smear across his cheek.
His clothes were in tatters, his armor dented from the damage he'd sustained at the hands of the Prhei. But aside from the limp, he was moving well enough, and as his gaze locked with Obi-Wan's across a heap of bodies, he raised an unlit lightsaber in mute challenge.
"Uri-Tan, no," Obi-Wan said, standing. "Listen to me!"
It was no use, he knew that. The face was that of his friend, but the rest of him was no longer Uri-Tan. The real Uri-Tan was dead, had died when Eliry's needle had found his heart and filled him with the essence of evil.
Resignedly, he drew Raven's lightsaber and moved to meet Uri-Tan. Both of them were at less than peak, their respective ordeals bringing them to a fairly even match.
Uri-Tan looked at him without a hint of recognition, and activated his weapon. It was a shade of turquoise as vivid as a shaft of sunlight through the tropical waters of Marn, Uri-Tan's homeworld.
The beam jumped with a sputtering and spitting hum that Obi-Wan knew was the sign of a damaged power source. The handle was badly scarred.
Despite what he knew was truth, Obi-Wan could not attack first. He stood his ground and waited as Uri-Tan came to him.
It was like a training match in slowed motion, both of them with reflexes dulled. But Uri-Tan's intent was earnest enough to overcome that. He slashed so fiercely that he nearly disarmed Obi-Wan, which would have ended things in short order.
Obi-Wan felt the searing heat pass his wrist, a shower of blue-green sparks stinging his skin and leaving tiny smoking holes in his sleeve. He retaliated, knowing he didn't dare attempt any maneuvers other than straightforward saber-play.
They ranged back and forth through the corpses, death-stink rising sickly all around them. Obi-Wan, still barefoot, slipped in congealed puddles and streaks of Prhei blood.
Turquoise and amethyst, flashing, flashing.
Uri-Tan's lightsaber cut out just as he made to parry, and Obi-Wan's strike landed on his shoulder. A chunk of armor fell away with glowing red-hot edges, leaving the skin beneath blistered and black.
He swung with the unlit hilt. It cracked Obi-Wan in the head, by malign mischance hitting him right on the already-swollen lump left over from the assault on the Vigilant. Novas burst across his vision and he dropped to his knees.
Making low glottal noises of anger, Uri-Tan pounded the hilt into his palm and shook it. The beam sprang on, went out, sprang on again and stayed steady.
A surge of transcendent energy poured into Obi-Wan. He was on his feet and flipping backward as the turquoise lightsaber sliced through the spot where he'd been only a fraction of a second before.
His powers were fully restored. Not stopping to question it, he vaulted over Uri-Tan's head. A well-placed kick in the small of the back sent Uri-Tan face-first to the ground, but he held onto his lightsaber and rolled to bring it up just as Obi-Wan jumped toward him.
The turquoise beam nearly impaled him but he twisted in mid-air and swung hard, severing Uri-Tan's arm above the elbow and scoring a deep charred trench in his side.
Somehow, Uri-Tan got his weapon up in time to intercept a follow-up blow, but on the hilt rather than the beam. Metal split asunder, the blue-green light went hot yellow-white, and then Uri-Tan was engulfed in flames.
He reeled backward with a terrible scream, the exploded remains of his lightsaber still clenched in his hand. His legs tangled with those of a Prhei corpse and he fell, rolling and howling.
Obi-Wan ran to him, but the heat was too intense. He stood helplessly, unable to give the killing strike that would have been more merciful, watching as his former friend burned alive.
It went on far longer than should have been possible. Maybe an effect of whatever they'd done to Uri-Tan. Or maybe it only seemed that way to Obi-Wan.
At last, the blaze died down enough for him to get close. But by then, there was no need.
Obi-Wan bowed his head, just as if it had been a proper Jedi pyre. He heard an engine approaching and his restored senses told him it was Anakin without even having to turn around.
The boy approached hesitantly, eyes fixed on the leaping flames. Probably remembering the funeral of Qui-Gon ... but such a difference! Qui-Gon had seemed at repose within the fire, the shell of his body being burned away as his spirit moved on to a new freedom.
"Your friend?" Anakin asked softly.
"A good friend," Obi-Wan replied. "It's better this way."
Coruscant was most beautiful by night.
During the day, the silvery buildings shimmered and the endless parade of vehicles wove a tapestry against the blue sky, it was pretty enough. Brimming with a sense of bustling business, life, and activity.
But when the sun set and the skyscrapers' windows sparkled, when the aerial traffic turned to streams of light, the city-planet took on a rich dark enchantment that made it seem less a civilization and more a wondrous thing in its own right.
It was a scene that normally filled Zadrek Kellnu with peace and purpose, and a stroll along the high ledges of the Jedi temple usually soothed her. Tonight, it could not ease the troubles that plagued her mind.
A strange pall had fallen over all of them. Anxiety and grief, dismay and dread, putting tempers on edge. Her fellow Jedi Masters were unsettled and edgy, unable to pinpoint the source of these disturbing feelings.
The Knights, being more prone to action, were petitioning for permission to go and search for their absent brothers. They resented being denied, but such was the way it had to be.
It formed a conundrum that did not seem likely to be resolved. Until they knew more, the Council would not endanger the lives of the Jedi; without sending Jedi to seek answers, they would not soon know more.
Six Jedi Knights lost ... not cleanly to death. To something unutterably foul, unmistakably evil. The last, taken when he was responding to the Council's own summons, carried the additional weight of guilt, for had they not sent for him, he might have been spared.
Kellnu sighed, not looking forward to the unhappy task that awaited her. As the most empathic of the Council, it fell to her to inform the families of the fallen.
True, young ones strong in the Force were removed from their homes, brought here to be properly raised and trained, but they were not barbaric about it. Contact was still permitted, and such ties were encouraged ... not only was it the kind thing to do but it let them keep an eye on families that showed strength in the Force.
Such relationships were not always so smooth. Some families resented the Jedi, were not honored to see their sons and daughters 'snatched' away.
Soon she would have to deal with one of those very families. She would have to tell them that the son they hadn't wished to be parted from would now never return at all.
The brother worried her most. None were more bitter against the Jedi than those who had once been considered, and rejected.
She suspected that his future was bound to the Jedi in some vital but concealed way. How she handled him could affect that role, and she was uncertain as to the best way to proceed.
This curious blankness, this unsettling cloud ... it infiltrated her every thought and mood. As if the combined weight of sorrow upon all the Jedi were coming to rest on her.
Yet through it, thin threads of disquiet wove themselves into a design, whose pattern she could not foresee.
Anakin had liberated a courier ship, long and narrow and boldly blazoned with the colors of the Republic.
The interior was not really equipped for passengers, consisting mainly of a straight cramped corridor that ran from cockpit to rear, pocked with compartments to hold packages. The crew of two shared a tiny living space tucked behind the cockpit almost as an afterthought.
To further complicate things, most couriers in this sector were Tad'k, a humanoid race that reached five feet at their full growth and were winged and hollow-boned. This meant that the bunks were too small even for Anakin, the ceilings were low, and the pilot's seat was more of a perch than a chair.
But it was a fast little ship.
Obi-Wan didn't like to wonder what might have happened to the Tad'k; Anakin reported that there had been no sign of them. He hoped they'd flown away from the riots in the city.
He checked the autopilot and nodded in satisfaction, then went to the tiny living area.
Anakin was on the top bunk, feet sticking out the end and one arm dangling. He snored lightly, his face squashed into a thin pillow.
Obi-Wan knelt beside the bottom bunk and started in surprise to find Raven awake, looking up at him with astonished golden eyes.
"How do you feel?" he asked, taking her hand.
"I'm alive," she said in disbelief. "And ... so are you."
He pressed his forehead to hers, closing his eyes tightly. A strong thought/emotion flew between them, I feared I'd lost you, born from both their minds simultaneously.
"You shouldn't have done it," he said. "Not for me, not for anyone."
"It wasn't your decision."
"I wouldn't have permitted it."
"That's why it wasn't your decision."
"You're crazy, you do know that?"
"Always have been. Anakin?"
"He's here, he's fine. Worn out."
"I know the feeling. You?"
He shook his head. "Nothing that won't mend. Bruises. A headache as if a construction droid was hammering on sheet metal. What about you? I know what you've sacrificed ..."
"It's okay. It'll be all right."
"We couldn't bring the medi-droid, but I will find a way to give back what you gave to me. I promise you."
"Don't. I won't take it from you. You're the Jedi, not me. You need it. It's your whole life. I can get by, and ..." speaking was wearying her, but when he tried to shush her, she would have none of it. "And maybe it's not gone forever. We bleed, we heal, and our blood replenishes. Maybe the chemical does too."
"Maybe," he allowed.
"Where are we going? Coruscant?"
He nodded. "Darth Tepes escaped, and Anakin thinks he means to move directly against the Council. I haven't been able to send them any transmissions, and whenever I try and warn them any other way, it's as if I'm trying to push my way through a dense cloud."
She managed a ghost of a smile. "They won't be happy to see me. Didn't they forbid you to ever let me set foot on that planet again?"
He ignored the question. "I will make sure that they know what you've done. How could they doubt you after this?"
"Master Yoda will find a way," she said wryly.
"Would it help to know that he doesn't like anyone?"
"Probably not," she sighed, shifting to seek a more comfortable position on the bunk. "But if we're too late, it won't matter."
"We won't be." He smoothed her hair back from her face, letting his hand linger on her skin and relish the returned warmth.
"Tell me honestly ... can we take this Tepes out, or are we rushing to throw our lives away?"
"He has the strength of many Jedi now," Obi-Wan admitted. "He is powerful. But I will face him. You will stay on the ship and rest."
She started to push herself up and he held her down with a minimum of effort.
"You will stay on the ship."
"Are you trying to use that mind trick on me? Because it's not working."
"I wouldn't do that," he said after a pause to contemplate it, a pause during which she looked as if she might be thinking of swatting him. "I'm telling you that this is what you must do. You can't fight. You can barely move. Stay here, and let me handle this."
Even her glower was sorely weakened. "And do nothing while you get yourself killed?"
"I will have Anakin with me, and many other Jedi. Once we raise the alarm, Tepes won't stand a chance."
The hour was late and the night was growing old, yet Zadrek Kellnu still walked the ledges on her solitary vigil, watching the courier ships come and go on late errands.
Most fully-trained Jedi had no physical need for sleep, having honed their bodies to the point where they could get by with a few moments a day of quiet meditation.
But sleep was a mental necessity as well, she knew. A chance for the mind to sort through the cares of the day that couldn't be resolved by waking thought.
There would be no sleep for her tonight. Not with so much to worry about.
The boy, for instance. What was to become of the boy?
They could not turn him loose to go on his merry way; he would be far too vulnerable to their hidden enemy. For his own sake and all of theirs, he had to be properly trained and educated.
Some Knight would simply have to take over for Kenobi in that regard, she thought somberly, walking along the ledge.
Presentiment touched her like the brush of a moth's wing. She pulled her robe more closely around herself as the night seemed to turn colder, and banished her other concerns to analyze the warning.
She shuddered, struck by the sudden knowledge that it was far more urgent, immediate, and personal. Quickening her pace, she turned a corner and stumbled over a body.
V'drin stared up at her, his features agape in horror and agony. The side of his neck was torn away in a ragged wound. Judging by the discoloration of his skin and the stiffness of the body, he'd been there for hours.
How could a Jedi Master have died without her knowing? How could he lay here undetected all that time?
Someone grabbed her from behind.
Mind and body reacted together, silently screaming a warning to the others and drawing a lightsaber that gleamed pearl-white.
No sooner was it lit than it was struck from her grasp, spinning off the edge and vanishing into the city below.
Six-fingered hands slammed onto her shoulders and spun her, sharp nails ripping the cloth of her robe to reveal her throat.
The Bram's face was streaked with dried greenish-brown blood, and strings of gore dangled from his teeth as he snarled at her.
A massive wave of blackness swamped her mind, blotting out psychic sensation. Robbed of her powers, she could not save herself, could only stand as frozen as an ice sculpture as the Bram lowered his jaws toward her neck.
Brilliant amber flared, and Mace Windu's voice boomed, "Kellnu!"
The Sith -- for so she now knew it to be -- shoved her so hard that she struck the waist-high rail and flipped over.
Zadrek Kellnu clutched the top and hung there, feet kicking in open space, unable to use the Force to boost herself back up, as helpless as a child. She saw at an odd angle how the Sith leaped to attack, agile as the best of the Knights.
Mace Windu was a staunch and solid warrior, holding his ground without any of the slick moves or fancy tricks that characterized the fighting style of so many other Jedi. He was a wall, unbreachable and resolute. The Sith's best efforts met with an impenetrable defense.
They moved out of her line of sight, leaving her with only her ears to tell her how the battle was progressing.
Kellnu still sensed nothing. Did those in the temple not know what was happening out here? Her hands slipped and she fell, but caught a lip of stone and found purchase.
The battle ranged back into her view. She saw Windu stagger, not from a physical blow but from the same black wave that had drowned her powers. Now the Sith had more of an advantage and wasted no time taking it.
"I now haff the powers of seven Jedi!" he boasted, driving Windu back with a series of slashes and thrusts. "Soon I vill haff yours too!"
"You will have nothing!"
So saying, Obi-Wan Kenobi dropped from a higher ledge. A beam of violet sprang from his fist. The moment he landed, he bounced on one foot and kicked the startled Sith in the ribs.
Kellnu looked up with a gasp, and saw Anakin Skywalker leaning over the rail, reaching.
"Let me pull you up!" the boy said.
She clasped his hands, sure that she would drag him over and down after her. He strained, then his eyes slitted in concentration and she felt herself drawn steadily upward by the unseen Force, and deposited safely on the ledge.
Nothing should have been able to stand against the combined assault of Kenobi and Windu, yet the Sith was doing so. Barely, but successfully.
"I'm fine," she told Skywalker, catching her breath. "Help them."
He saluted smartly and dashed into the fray.
The Sith stunned Windu with a punch to the head, would have spitted him if Kenobi hadn't parried for Windu; a backhand swing scorched a line across Kenobi's midsection and would have gutted him if the Jedi hadn't jumped back with such alacrity; he bent with a forearm pressed along the wound, not crying out but agony evident in his expression.
The boy attempted a leaping kick and was batted out of the air; the Sith somersaulted over Skywalker and stabbed downward; the boy rolled and arched into a bow and the yellow lightsaber sank into the stone, leaving a hole. It wedged and he growled, lashing out with a kick that landed between Skywalker's shoulderblades. The boy yelped and rolled.
As the Sith bent over to free his weapon, Kenobi shoved a hand at him and sent him sprawling at Windu's feet. The Jedi Master stepped hard on the Sith's wrist, pinning it, and breaking it by the sound. His lightsaber tumbled over the edge and was gone.
The Sith latched onto Windu's leg with his teeth, shearing through flesh. Bellowing in pain, Windu recoiled and fell on his back, blood not running but spouting.
Springing upright, unarmed but still fast even by their standards, the Sith went after Kenobi with a shriek of purest fury. "You killed my voman!"
"No," a female voice said. "That was me."
His head whipped around, white ponytail flying.
A woman in black was leaning on the wall to support herself, her fair skin even paler, dark smudges beneath her eyes.
Kellnu knew her at once, this protégé of a Dark Jedi dismissed from their order. In that moment, in the shadows, she could have been Damon Blake come back to life.
"Raven, no!" Kenobi said through gritted teeth.
"I impaled her through the heart," Raven continued relentlessly, inching forward. "Watched her crumble away to dust."
"And I freed your prisoners!" Skywalker announced. "Smashed your towers!"
"I vill see you both die," the Sith vowed. He seized Raven and yanked her to him. Her head fell weakly back, leaving her neck exposed and vulnerable.
"Ani!" She thrust out an arm.
The boy threw his unlit lightsaber and it socked firmly into her waiting palm. As the Sith darted at her with the speed of a striking snake, she pushed the end beneath his chin and depressed the button.
Emerald light gushed from his open mouth, lit up his skull from the inside, and burst out the top of his head.
He struck out wildly, clawlike nails raking at Raven. His eyes were boiling in their sockets, his hair was aflame, and still he lived, still he fought. She lost her hold on the lightsaber and it slid out of his sundered head, leaving a gruesome blackened dripping trail.
Kenobi interposed himself as the Sith blindly reached to grapple Raven. The claws found him instead, tearing, drawing blood; the scent of it maddening the Sith further. His claws sank deep into Kenobi's arm, the furnace cavern of his mouth yawed insanely wide.
Raven grasped Kenobi's wrist, steadying it. Together, they brought the violet lightsaber up and out, plunging it into the Sith's chest.
Whether he crumbled to dust or burned to ash, Kellnu was never fully sure. The night wind whisked the remains away, leaving just the empty shell of armor and clothing.
Raven and Kenobi sank to their knees together and clung to each other in the manner of grateful survivors. The boy flung his arms around them both. All three of them groaned from their various injuries but none pulled away.
"Another one," Darth Sidious said to himself. "That Kenobi is becoming a serious problem."
He'd witnessed all, his senses easily able to penetrate the muffling psychic cloud that he'd formed around the Jedi temple to confuse their powers.
Once he'd realized his temperamental apprentice truly meant to go through with his attack, he'd decided that lending a hand wasn't out of order. It had prevented the Jedi from divining the danger until it was too late.
Now one of the Council was dead, not much but a start. A shame Tepes hadn't been able to get rid of more of them. He would have, if Kenobi and his Padawan and his shades-of-grey woman hadn't turned up so inopportunely.
From his personal chamber's balcony, located near the great spherical hall of the Senate, he'd even had a visual view of the confrontation on the temple's high ledges.
His powers had told him much more, picking up thoughts and feelings from all the involved parties. He took delight in Mace Windu's stalwart struggles to avoid showing his pain, hands clamped to his leg in a futile attempt at stopping the bleeding.
He wrinkled his nose sourly as Zadrek Kellnu tore a strip from her robe and tied a quick tourniquet. Would have been nice if Windu bled to death, but his downturn of luck wouldn't even grant him that.
Tepes' flamboyant death had loosed not only his own living Force but that of the drained and destroyed Jedi, which had been held in suspension until that moment.
The resultant disturbance in the Force made it difficult for Sidious to maintain his dampening cloud. As there was no further need for it, he let it go and formed a few lingering impressions to make the Jedi believe that it had all been Tepes' doing.
Kenobi could never be turned, he admitted. For a time there, when he'd been struggling to come to terms with the death of his mentor, there had been hate and anger in his soul. But he had turned it into a determination to live up to and exceed the example presented by the late troublesome Qui-Gon Jinn.
The woman? She lived cheek and jowl with darker emotions, thrived on revenge. As a bonus, she was already half-trained and adept with a lightsaber, and when her powers fully returned as they soon would, she'd be a formidable prospect.
Sidious contemplated the fleeting touches he'd had of her mind, and finally dismissed it with a frown. No, she was too willful by half, one that would never bow to a higher authority. Be it Jedi Council or Sith Lord, she would accept no Master.
The boy, on the other hand ... more and more, Sidious was certain the boy could be turned. The Council was already wary of him. With the further arrangement of events, he'd be ripe for a change.
Such arranging of events would take time. Years, perhaps. He would want to tread very carefully this time.
In the meanwhile, he was once again left without an apprentice.
The temple was now bustling with activity, as the Jedi had awakened from a daze they hadn't even known possessed them to the realization that their very inner sanctum had been breached.
Sidious smirked bemusedly, letting their consternation be some bitter balm to his sour mood as he went back inside and closed the curtains.
When three members of the Council came in, Raven and Anakin both rose from their spots on either side of Obi-Wan's bed and moved in front of him protectively.
The only other remaining inhabitant of the infirmary was a Knight who'd had the misfortune to run afoul of Darth Tepes on his way into the temple; that man had been spared the bite but it still remained to be seen whether he'd recover from his wounds or follow two other unlucky Jedi into death.
He didn't stir as Mace Windu, Master Yoda, and Zadrek Kellnu entered the room.
Obi-Wan sat up, wincing as the movement pulled at the burn across his stomach. It was shallow but still painful. The gouges caused by Tepes' claws had closed to reddish scars, the deep healing itch the worst of that.
"It's all right," he murmured.
Raven gave him a look that implied he didn't know what he was talking about, then returned her just-so-slightly defiant gaze to the Council members.
Anakin nervously eased back into his chair, a bit gingerly because Tepes' kick had bruised his spine.
Everyone waited in apprehensive tableau as they all sized each other up. Only Master Yoda was unscathed. His wizened green face was pinched in heavy disapproval as he stumped on his walking stick over to the end of the bed.
Mace Windu walked with the aid of a crutch, his lower leg swaddled in bandages. The brutal bite had become badly infected, necessitating surgery.
Zadrek Kellnu's arm was in a sling; she'd gotten a serious sprain at some point in the proceedings and hadn't even been aware of it until later.
"I understand I've put you in an awkward situation," Obi-Wan said, not contritely, not apologetically, simply stating the fact.
Raven said nothing, not even when Yoda harumphed and peered up at her. Her mind was controlled and serene, even with her mental barriers still barely a wisp.
Obi-Wan could sense that she'd been right, the chemical that had been drained from her blood was gradually regenerating itself. The same might have happened to him and the other Jedi, had they been given enough time, and not brought to the point of death by the actual procedure.
"You did break the Council's edict," Zadrek Kellnu said gently, "but under the circumstances, we cannot fault you for it."
"Without that distraction at a crucial moment," Mace Windu said, "the Sith might have killed us all."
Yoda harumphed again. "Done well, have you," he admitted grudgingly. "Discussed this has the Council, and agreed that perhaps ... perhaps overcautious were we in that edict."
A faint quirk of a smile tugged at the corner of Raven's mouth.
"Does that mean Obi-Wan's not in trouble?" Anakin asked.
Kellnu inclined her head. "Not at all. He has once again proved himself a most worthy Jedi."
"What about us?" he ventured, with a darting-quick glance at Yoda.
"You disobeyed your teacher's wishes, disregarded several laws of the Republic ... "
Anakin's face fell.
"But as I said," Kellnu continued, touching the boy on the shoulder and smiling down at him, "under the circumstances, we cannot fault you for it. If not for you, both of you," she added with a nod at Raven, "another Jedi would have been lost to us and we would still have been ignorant of the threat posed by Darth Tepes."
"Your willingness to put your life in danger to help a Jedi speaks well of you," Mace Windu said to Raven.
She regarded him evenly. "I only did what had to be done. For what I believe in, and for what Obi-Wan believes in."
"From now on," Windu said, "you are welcome on Coruscant, and in this temple."
"You mean she can be trained?" Anakin blurted excitedly. "She can be a Jedi?"
"No!" Yoda thumped his stick. "A Jedi she shall not be. Too old. Too easily ruled by emotion."
"Master Yoda --" Obi-Wan began.
"I will never be a Jedi, Anakin," Raven said. "It's not what I want, and we all know I'd be very bad at it. And I would certainly not want to force the Council's hand, and take advantage of any gratitude they might feel toward me."
Yoda bristled, Windu frowned, and Kellnu looked stung.
"It's enough," Raven went on, "not to be shunned, and perhaps to be judged by what I do rather than why I do it or what I might do. Isn't that all any of us want?"
"Yeah," Anakin muttered.
"Difficult, she is," Yoda grumbled to Mace Windu. "Willful and disrespectful."
"Just like her father," Kellnu said, her voice soft yet pointed. "But if we put the burden of his past on her, we're as guilty as anyone of being ruled by emotion over reason."
Obi-Wan couldn't believe that she would criticize other Council members in front of them. By the astounded looks they gave her, they couldn't either.
"My father?" Raven asked, brows knit in puzzlement.
"She didn't have one," Anakin said. "Like me. She just ... happened."
"When I see you ..." Zadrek Kellnu came forward and pressed her fingertips under Raven's chin, lifting her face and turning it, "Yes ... I see Damon Blake in your eyes, in your hair, in the set of your jaw. He was your father, Raven. And he was one of us."
"My mother was tei-gam, a sacred bride of Noct," Raven argued. "Noct sired me, not the Noctus, not Damon Blake."
"Question your heart for the truth," Kellnu advised.
"Blake's daughter." Mace Windu snorted and rolled his eyes at Yoda. "That does explain much."
"It is true," Obi-Wan said. "I know it to be so."
She sank onto the edge of the bed. "The Noctus ... my father?"
"Enough of this," Yoda said. "Permitted on Coruscant she is. The gratitude of the Council that far extends."
"Thank you," Raven said distractedly. Obi-Wan could sense the dawning realization and acceptance in her, followed closely by fresh pangs of grief for the man who had died to save her from Dol Bethra, cruel warden of the prison moon that had once been her home.
Yoda and Mace Windu left the infirmary. Kellnu remained, bending to give Anakin a hug that startled him.
"To you, young Padawan," she said, "my thanks for your help. The fear we felt when you first came before us is so much less ... and your future, I sense, is now so much more ... be well, Anakin Skywalker."
"Be well, Master Kellnu," he said, trying to wipe away a tear without letting on that the motherly embrace had affected him so strongly.
She turned to Obi-Wan and he felt the warm gossamer brush of her mind, composed and reassuring. He responded in kind.
Then she was gone, and they shared a relieved glance all around.
"What now?" Anakin finally asked.
"Home to Sylvar?" Obi-Wan suggested, watching Raven's reaction closely. "All three of us?" He held out his hand.
She took it. "Sylvar."
Anakin covered their hands with his own. "Like a family?"
"Yes." Obi-Wan didn't drop his eyes from Raven's. "Like a family."
She drew in a slow, tense breath and loosed it in a sigh. "Yes."
"We're going home!" Anakin's whoop was nearly loud enough to rouse the other Jedi from his drugged state, but it ended abruptly when Raven added a few words.
"Where you can tell Vance Antilles what happened to his ship."
His horrified expression gave way to a grin, and the three of them laughed together as the lights of Coruscant began to shine against the darkening twilight sky.
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