Updated 14 SEP 07. This was sitting in my queue for many months so I thought I'd post it. A lot of action, a little humor, a little romance... New dynasties are formed and old ones fall into shadow.

Other malarkey - I'm testing for Gokyu rank in Kendo on Tuesday. I defeated "Darth Sammy" in ji-geiko, or open sparring. The dark lord of the shinai has been known to terrorize beginners, but I was able to use superior speed and mobility to avoid his attacks and strike when and where I wanted. More importantly, I landed one cut on Sensei. It was a nice Kaeshi Do, parry, cutover, and cut to the flank with good ma'ai, or distance. True, he hit me 30 times, but it's a start. I was stunned by how many Star Wars fans and especially KOTOR fans there are in Kendo and Iaido. I can see the connection as this is as close to a real Jedi Academy as there is.

I'm gearing up for the Christmas mini triathlon. I benched five reps at 115 lbs. Rock on.

Kingmaker – Part III

The Shadowlands – Early Morning

A thick fog floated across the path, obscuring any visibility beyond a few meters, giving the whole area a damp, cotton-like feeling. Only a few diffuse rays of light danced through the mist, faintly illuminating the approach of a small group. Captain Kyle Durren walked in a low crouch, his boots squishing softly on the wet, mossy ground as he moved past hanging vines and massive Wroshyr trunks. He was clad in armor of muted colors with a helmet that covered his head and much of his face. Carefully, he scanned ahead with Night Vision Goggles, or NVGs, while sweeping back and forth with the muzzle of his weapon. The marine's skill was evident in the manner in which he manipulated his blaster; held aggressively, finger off the trigger and safety engaged.

Behind him came Carth Onasi, also scanning the area with his own visor. Despite his armor's violet color, he blended well with the thick mist, looking to be part of the forest itself. He moved quietly, with his body bladed and his pistol held in a two-handed grip with the left elbow bent.

Aerin, Bastila, and Jolee brought up the rear, appearing as specters in the predawn light. A bandage wrapping Padawan Shan's head was the only thing left to signify her earlier injuries while the others showed none of their previous wounds.

Walking next to Bastila, Aerin inhaled the cool, moist air and it invigorated her despite her fatigue. Padawan Dakar's mind flashed momentarily back to the brush with Carth and their near interlude.

What am I doing? she mused about the sexually charged moment. I have a team to lead…besides, where can this go? Surely, there will be no 'happily ever after for us.' Despite her thoughts, the void in her heart had grown and it ate at her like a hungry maggot. She let out a long sigh.

Aerin felt a presence next to her and saw Bastila's eyes fixed on her. "Focus," Bastila told her softly, her underlying intent clear.

Aerin nodded and then looked back to see Jolee strolling along, seemingly distracted by some other issue. "Get an old man out of bed before the crack of dawn…on some damn forest outing," he muttered at her in his deep, gravelly voice.

The dark-haired Padawan felt a pang of irritation and narrowed her eyes, showing her displeasure at him. "Well, Jolee Bindo, you promised to help us."

"I know, I know," he mumbled with a sigh of regret. He snorted and changed his tone to take the offensive. "So, do you think it was such a good idea to have the others run off to liberate the village without us?" he said with a hint of scolding.

Padawan Dakar closed her eyes for a moment, dispelling her earlier thoughts. She had experienced her own doubts about the situation, but realized it was too late for regrets and that there was no place for indecision in battle. She opened her eyes and forced a smile. "Jolee, I had to make a command decision. Zaalbar and the others will be fine. Besides, they have Canderous and HK with them…and I don't think the Czerka would be too wise to stand against those two."

In response, Bastila quickly checked her chronometer. "If my calculations are correct, the Wookiees should be striking the Czerka about now."

Aerin nodded. "I spoke to Freyyr and Zaalbar before we departed. I made sure they would try to make this coup as bloodless as possible." Then, she turned to face Jolee, trying to change the subject and inject a little levity. "Is your head okay? You took quite a bump in the lodge."

"Hrmph…trying to make fun of the old man, huh?"

Aerin giggled in spite of his gruffness. She noticed that the atmosphere was a bit lighter among the group on this morning after their victory over Chuundar. They would most likely not encounter any opposition as the goal was to find the Star Map and not fight any battles.

In front of the line, Kyle seemed to peer into the gloom and called, "There is something up here!"

The group rushed forward into a wide clearing flanked by Wroshyr Trees. Shrouded in the mist sat an alien-looking pedestal, its surface covered in moss, grime, and other sediments built up over eons of time. Jolee pushed past the others and stepped up to it. He snickered to himself and stroked his chin. "Okay, I told you it was here. That's my part. Now, good luck getting it to work right."

Aerin gave him an odd look, but advanced toward the strange object. A light appeared at the center of the pedestal and the hologram of a tall alien materialized out of thin air. It had gazelle-like legs with long, clawed arms. Its head was cone-shaped with eyes protruding sideways from its temples. The alien's dress indicated that it came from some kind of civilization, perhaps even an advanced one.

The image regarded them for a moment and then spoke in an alien language.

"That is the speech we heard in the ruins on Dantooine," mentioned Aerin.

The hologram cocked its head as if it heard her words. "Dantooine…speech…Life forms detected…. Determining parameters. Step forward and prepare to be scanned for neural recognition, which is necessary for us to proceed," it said in clear and unaccented Basic.

Aerin and Bastila exchanged worried glances, while Jolee snickered off to the side at some inside joke.

Padawan Dakar's heart pounded in her chest as her mind played out all types of horrible scenarios. She grit her teeth and prepared to advance, but Carth gripped her shoulder gently. "Be careful," he said.

Steeling herself with false bravado, she winked at him in a cocky manner. "I didn't know you cared."

As he rolled his eyes, she approached the hologram. A thin beam of brilliant white light coursed over her face and body for a moment before dissipating. Aerin gasped at the suddenness of the action, but she had come to no harm. "Human," the Alien murmured, "you fit the profile stored within my memory. Access to the computer is granted."

Jolee frowned as if unpleasantly surprised. "Huh? Errrrr." He shrugged and looked at the other members, feigning disinterest. Bastila's face was scrunched up and she was obviously consumed by the proceedings. She glanced momentarily at the old Jedi and then turned red as if embarrassed by some hidden feeling. Jolee's eyes bore into her, seemingly suspicious of something. He tried to search her eyes, but she quickly turned away.

All eyes then fell on Aerin, who stood in front of the alien, slowly gaining confidence. "Where is the Star Map?" she asked.

The alien image examined her closely. "In my neural recognition scan, I sensed some fundamental differences between you and the data stored in memory. Before we continue, there are a series of questions I must ask of you to determine your suitability to be granted access to my data files. If you answer correctly, access will be afforded to you. If you should fail, you will suffer the consequences."

"And those are…?"

The alien paused momentarily as if unsure. "I…I do not have that information. It appears to have been purged from my files."

Carth moved protectively behind Aerin and spoke, "I don't know if I like that…. Also, what did it mean by neural recognition?"

"I believe it means that it's looking for a particular type of Force user," Bastila said a little too quickly, causing Carth to make a face. He too, was skeptical of Bastila's words.

This time, Aerin looked at Carth seriously, hoping to allay his fears. "It will be okay. Just remain vigilant. We don't want any surprises." She looked up at the holoimage. "I am ready."

The alien gazed down at the slender woman. "I will give you a situation. You must answer as you would in real life. The question is: you and Zaalbar are on a clandestine assignment. You both are captured and separated. During your interrogation, you are given the opportunity to speak. The outcome of your captivity will depend on what the both of you do. If neither of you implicates the other or if you both implicate each other, you will both be imprisoned for two years. If you say nothing and Zaalbar implicates you, you will serve five years. However, if you implicate Zaalbar and he says nothing, you will be set free and he will serve five years. What is your answer?"

Aerin furrowed her eyebrows, surprised at the holoimage's knowledge of their group. "How do you know about Zaalbar?"

"This facility has many information-gathering capabilities that extend far beyond the planet. Please answer the question."

The dark-haired woman shrugged. "I trust Zaalbar; I would remain silent."

"That answer is incorrect-" the alien began.

"What do you mean, 'incorrect'? That's what I'd do!" Aerin protested.

"Your answer does not match the profile that is contained within my database. Here is your next question: You are at war with a fierce and determined enemy. Your intelligence intercepts communications that tell of an attack to one of your cities in a week. The decrypted communication also reveals a significant weakness in your enemy's forces and a window for exploitation will occur in ten days. Should you evacuate the civilians in the city, you will reveal that you have exploited the enemy's codes and they will surely compensate for any weaknesses that they had in their systems. Should you fail to warn the city, millions will die. How would you proceed?"

Aerin thought for a moment. "The purpose for our doing battle would be to protect our cities and our civilian populace. I would do the best I could to evacuate the city while still attempting to utilize the intelligence."

The alien shook its head. "Again, incorrect. Prepare your pattern for cleansing."

Suddenly, long metallic tentacles shot up from the ground near the pedestal and seized Aerin. As the others responded, more tentacles erupted from the earth. Their steely arms flailed for any purchase available, clinging to trees, earth, and flesh as the small clearing exploded into a frenzy of blasterfire.

The Village of Rwookrorro – Pre Dawn – 0300L

Canderous sat in the lodge, illuminated by muted lights throughout the structure. He checked his weapons yet again, wiping moisture off of the silver receiver of his blaster. He took a cloth and dabbed water droplets that had accumulated on his distinctive red armor. Having arrived early, he was the sole person in the lodge. Uncharacteristically, the mercenary was finding some comfort in being alone. Normally, he delighted in the camaraderie of fellow warriors, boasting of their exploits, but this morning, the still of the predawn air was all he needed.

I have fought hundreds of battles, slain thousands of foes…for what?

An alien feeling of uselessness began to creep into his soul, but he choked it down like so much bile.

As he inhaled deeply, footsteps sounded on the wooden boards. Canderous' blue eyes focused on two persons in the gloom. "Mission…Zaalbar."

The pair came and sat on a bench facing the Mandalorian. The tall Wookiee put his bowcaster on the floor and adjusted his bandolier of ammunition and grenades. He let out a low growl, nodding his head to which Mission patted him on the shoulder.

"I know you still feel bad about your brother, Z," she said, chewing on a bar of baked fruit and nuts. "We're going to free your people today. You and me, Z, just like always."

Canderous could see the young Twi'lek look up at her friend with new respect. Here he is, the son of a chief, fighting for the liberty of his people. Maybe there is something beyond just fighting for glory. He shrugged, knowing such thoughts were futile for a Mandalorian.

Mission seemed to sense the mercenary's thoughts. "I think I'm finding solace in being part of something big, something grander than myself, something to which I can belong."

Canderous looked at her with discerning eyes. She had grown much since Taris.

In a corner of the lodge, a pair of orange eyes flared to life and HK-47 made the droid equivalent of a yawn. "Ready!" he then yelled.

"Yes, we are," announced Freyyr in a deep warbling groan. He strode confidently up to the group, leading a number of Wookiees. "Let us make our way to the Czerka!"

The Great Walkway

The armed band crept stealthily along the Great Walkway toward the offworlder settlement, avoiding any Czerka patrols or droids. Canderous motioned for the group to kneel and hold and he nodded to the young Twi'lek. Mission then activated her dampening field and inched up to the blaster turrets that sat flanking the main gate while the others lurked out of range, cloaked in the shadows of the giant Wroshyr Trees. Any mistake would likely set off the turrets and result in her death or serious injury, but she nevertheless opened the hatch atop one and removed its access card.

With a long, spike-like instrument, Mission hacked into the defense network and powered it down. She repeated the procedure with the rest of the turrets, then rolled back toward the team, deactivated her stealth field and waved her friends forward. The mercenary gave her a tight smile and then gave the signal to advance. As one, the team rushed up to the wooden gate into the Czerka area. With a wave of his hand, the Mandalorian motioned HK-47 up to the door. "I need a breaching round through the lock."

The killer droid nodded with flashing eyes and then set his blaster to breach mode. He took aim and pressed the trigger. A shaped bolt splattered over the lock, shattering it into dozens of pieces. Canderous then kicked the gate open. "Go!" he yelled to the team.

As the Mandalorian burst through to the other side, he raised his blaster and scanned for targets. The sight of several unconscious Czerka guards lying on the ground caught his attention. "What the…?" he began, surprised at the lack of resistance. Standing there was Ensign Niki Helos, holding a nerve agent spray and pulling off a gas mask.

"You're late," she quipped dryly, hands on her hips.

The mercenary grimaced, now feeling foolish at the dramatic entrance. "How'd you even know we were coming?"

The blonde woman gave him a grin while cocking an eyebrow. "I'm in Intelligence. It's my job to know."

As Canderous snorted sourly, HK and the Wookiees poured through the door and began advancing up the walkway to the Czerka lab. Niki pointed to a back wall. "There's a loading dock back there. I was able to get a good look at the layout."

Canderous nodded. "Good, I'll have part of the team keep them occupied at the front while we take that route."

He spoke to Freyyr and the Wookiee Chief agreed to assault from the front. Then, the great chief and Zaalbar led the mob of Wookiees down one pathway. After they had departed, Canderous knelt behind cover and delivered the rest of his plan. "Mission, Ensign, you secure the rear entryway. HK, keep cover as Juhani and I advance. Once the entryway is held, I'll take point. Understood? Good."

On his command, Mission advanced in stealth mode ahead of Niki, reaching the door. Soon, the sound of blaster fire rang from the front of the lab, punctuated by deep whines. The ensign listened for a moment. "The Czerka have some heavy guns up there. We must hurry."

Mission's blue hands worked furiously over the door, undoing the lock. She gave Canderous the thumbs up and he and Juhani sprinted over. The Mandalorian clapped Mission on the back. "Good work. Okay, let's go."

Just then, Niki received a call on her comlink. "This is Commander Ergot, I am sealed within the Ebon Hawk with Sasha and Tee Three. All hell is breaking loose here. There are Wookiees everywhere! Everywhere! Return immediately!" he cried in wild desperation.

Niki bared her teeth over Ergot's panic and disregard of Communications Security, revealing sensitive information over an unsecured line. Picking her words carefully to remain vague, she answered, "We are engaged in operations to support the Chief's return to power. I am unable to return at this time, over."

"Ensign, did you not understand? I said-" he screamed, nearly incoherent.

"Sir, pssssshhht…you're breaking up. Pssshhhhtttt," she answered before shutting off the link decisively. She looked up at Canderous. "Sorry, bad reception. Now, where were we?"

The Mercenary shrugged and then flung open the door. Two Czerka guards stood there, looking nervously down the hall toward the Wookiee assault, their backs to Canderous. The sound of the door opening caught their attention. As they turned, the color drained from their faces. The guard's horrified expressions were met with a smile from the big Mandalorian.

"See ya!" grunted Canderous as he fired a bolt that split into a shotgun blast, filling the hallway with deadly energy. Both guards took the impact of the bolts, flew over backward and lay still. HK then peered forward. "Statement: Nice meatbag toast. The hall is clear."

Canderous nodded and then hustled forward, his large frame filling the space in the hall. The sound of fighting from the front of the lab emanated through the walkway; they would have to hurry.

At the Front

At the front of the lab, Freyyr and the Wookiees stormed forward through the doors, capturing a number of Czerka guards in a blitz of fury. Zaalbar had secured one of the security stations, but now, they had run into heavier resistance. The Czerka had deployed on a balcony, overlooking the foyer and had the height advantage.

Z took careful aim with his bowcaster and fired a quarrel at an enemy. Polarized energy enveloped the quarrel as it emerged from the weapon and it buried itself in the man's chest, exploding in a brilliant display of pyrotechnics.

With a grunt, Zaalbar motioned his Wookiees forward and led the charge, but they were met with a wall of heavy blaster fire that splashed along the ground in front of them. The staccato thumping noise from above told Z that the Czerka had a support weapon set to rapid fire. Wookiees fell and tumbled in the onslaught of blaster shots and Zaalbar was forced to retreat and take cover.

"Father!" he bellowed, "We are pinned down!"

Freyyr howled back and the Wookiees surged forward again in a wave of fur and rage. Freyyr rushed ahead with his glaive held out, blaster fire streaking by him. A Wookiee to his right took a hit to the head and spun around before collapsing.

At the stairway to the balcony, Freyyr hacked down a guard as Zaalbar covered his advance. Many of the Czerka had now drawn vibroswords for close quarters, but Z knew that the massive Freyyr could not be slowed. The chief head butted one Czerka and then flung him over the railing followed by a heavy, downward cut with his glaive into another man.

An enraged Wookiee was fearsome to see and the Czerka men began to give ground, backing up the stairs. Zaalbar added to this onslaught by firing his deadly quarrels into the packed ranks of the enemy, where he could not miss. On the stairs, many of the Wookiees were now beneath the firing arc of the support weapon and Z could see the Czerka desperately folding the tripod of the gun to move it to a better position.

We have but moments to gain the landing.

As Freyyr neared the top of the stairs, he seized a guard by the collar and slammed his head on the railing before throwing him back into the Czerka ranks with his mighty arm. The blood-covered Wookiee then stepped onto the balcony and cut a wide swath with his glaive.

Zaalbar could now see the muzzle of the Czerka weapon pointed down at them and his blood ran cold. Time's up.

From a new vantage point, the Czerka heavy blaster barked out fire and ionization fumes floated from the barrel. Sprayed with bolts, Czerka men and Wookiee alike fell or tumbled over the railings onto the ground below. Zaalbar picked off a gunnery sergeant with a quarrel, but the weight of Czerka fire had stopped the Wookiees cold.

We're failing! The liberation will die here with us.

Suddenly, a bolt slammed into Freyyr's chest and the great chief fell sprawling. Zaalbar howled and tried to rush over to him, but the support blaster kept his head down.

"Father!" Zaalbar yelled over the din of battle.

The Shadowlands – 0345L

The tentacles lifted Aerin off of the ground and grasped her arms and legs, holding her in thrall. All around her, her friends were struggling with their own troubles. As one tentacle reached for Carth, he blasted it with a bolt, but another took its place. Bastila swatted at tendrils coming for her, but one wrapped around her leg and yanked her down hard. With a powerful slash, she severed the attacking limb and scrambled up on her feet.

From behind, Kyle Durren pulled her back out of the way of another tentacle and shot it with his carbine. Bastila turned and cut another limb down that was creeping up on the marine. He gave her a quick wink before pumping out more bolts.

Carth rolled to the side and took aim. His eye focused in on his front sight and he pressed the trigger, sending a bolt upward. The shot struck a tentacle that was wrapped around Aerin, freeing her hand. She seized her lightsaber and slashed through the remaining limbs. No longer held up, Aerin plummeted down, but her mind reached out and cushioned her fall.

Unexpectedly, the tentacles writhed and returned to the ground. The alien looked down upon them and spoke in his detached monotone, "While you were under stress, I had the opportunity to scan your brainwaves again and found that you do match the neural profile in my database. This facility is now at your disposal."

Aerin powered down her weapon and took a breath while looking for other threats. Seeing none, she slowly placed her lightsaber back on her belt. She frowned in anger at the holoimage, but shook the emotion off. She took several deep breaths to refocus before speaking.

"Fine, I have a few questions," she said tersely.

Aerin asked the alien about a number of topics, but much of the computer's memory had been corrupted; much of the damage having been done recently, when the computer was last accessed by someone.

"Revan," Bastila whispered knowingly.

Aerin glanced at her fellow Jedi and nodded. "Computer, have persons other than Revan attempted to access your functions?"

"Affirmative…the Wookiee, Freyyr made three attempts and the human, Jolee Bindo has made six hundred and seventy five attempts…all unsuccessful."

Aerin turned and gave Jolee a glance, raising her eyebrow.

The old man shrugged in embarrassment. "Hey, when you're down here for twenty years, you have to find things to do."

The alien went on to say that it had been on Kashyyyk for many thousands of years, before the forest came into being. Carefully controlled ecosystem management had been employed, but the computer's ability to control the system malfunctioned and the forest grew wild.

Jolee narrowed his eyes. "I don't think the Wookiees would believe this…that their world was seeded by an alien species."

"Thank you, computer," voiced Aerin, ignoring Bindoo's words. "Show us the Star Map."

As before, a metal flower emerged from the ground and its petals spread to reveal a hologram of the known galaxy. A planet flashed.

Carth examined it closely. He finally drew back, looking towards the rest of the group. "Manaan…."

The Czerka Lab – 0400L

The heavy blaster raked back and forth, spitting out bolts by the dozens. Czerka men scrambled out of the way as Wookiees dove for cover.

Then, a grenade landed in the midst of the gun team. The officer's eyes widened before it detonated, shredding them and the weapon in a blast of flame and shrapnel.

"For Mandalore!" Canderous yelled as he rushed onto the balcony from the rear.

Czerka men turned around in near panic as they were being sandwiched between hostile forces. HK charged into the fray, pumping blaster bolts into hapless guards while shouting derogatory statements. "Protest: You fight like tach monkeys. Come back here!"

The psychotic droid rotated his upper body, bringing his blaster to bear on a guard. Two bolts flew from the muzzle, striking the man in the torso. As he stumbled backward, another guard shot HK in the head. The droid's durasteel skull snapped back and he made a wobbling noise. "Statement: That's more like it, meatbag. Git some," he uttered as a nozzle in his body sprayed the man with cryonic chemicals. The guard shrieked as the icy fluid covered him, freezing him to the ground. HK smacked the ice man as he walked by, shattering the body into thousands of pieces.

At that display of violence, Czerka men began throwing down their weapons and raising their hands. HK's eyes flashed in seeming frustration. "Protest: I'm not done yet!"

Canderous and Niki herded the prisoners together while the Wookiees went mad with anger, destroying the lab. Bleeding heavily, Freyyr was moved to a nearby clearing by his son. Zaalbar knelt and groaned with worry as Mission pulled out medpacs.

The Shadowlands – 0405L

Aerin and Bastila fed the information into their holocrons as the Star Map faded. With a sigh of relief, Carth walked over. "Those little cubes can hold all that information?" he asked.

Aerin nodded. "You'd be surprised. I've been able to store my every conscious memory in here…in essence, my entire life."

Suddenly, Aerin cocked her head as if listening. The Force was telling her something. "We must hurry. The Wookiees' attack is meeting heavy resistance."

They ran quickly back to the lift and, using the power of the Force, shot back up to the village. With pulleys and gears smoking and straining from undergoing such unnatural speed, the lift slammed to a halt at its upper berth.

Leaping over the gate, Aerin sprinted to the lab, Carth and the others struggling to keep up to the Force-powered woman.

Smoke poured out of the Czerka lab as Aerin rushed through the shattered glass door. She entered and walked over more shattered glass and broken furniture as Bastila joined her. Up on the balcony, Zaalbar and Mission fought to stop Freyyr's bleeding. The two Jedi rushed over and knelt besides the chief. His breathing was labored and his fur was blackened from blaster shots.

Together, the two Padawans took the chief's hands and spoke, "Freyyr, drink of the life of the Force and be healed. You have triumphed."

The chief smiled weakly and squeezed their hands in reassurance. His breathing relaxed and his wounds seemed to close as they spoke. Zaalbar wept with joy as Mission tried to wrap her arms around him.

"I do not regret my lifedebt to you, Aerin Dakar, not for one second," Zaalbar exclaimed as he knelt.

Aerin put her hand on the Wookiee's head. "We are friends, Z. You do not serve me."

Then, Freyyr groaned heavily. Everyone looked to him with concern, but he stood and stretched his arms. The chief saw his audience's worry. "Can't an old Wookiee get stiff after a battle?" he mused, causing a ripple of laughter.

In response, Jolee came up, huffing and puffing. "I know just what you're saying, old friend."

Outside the Lab

With Freyyr, Zaalbar, and the other leaders having gone off for a council to determine their next course of action, Niki Helos sat with Mission, and T3, drinking from a canteen of water. Suddenly, Niki remembered something from her recent wanderings to gather intelligence.

"Mission, Tee Three, there is something I need to check out. Would you back me up?" the ensign asked.

The three rushed off to a low-rent motel in the Czerka area. It was relatively desolate now that the non-Wookiees had evacuated. Niki scanned the area with a device that brought them to the door of a motel room. "I detected this earlier, but I didn't have time to investigate. There are emanations of the Force inside."

"Beeeep!" exclaimed T3 with a sense of worry.

The ensign drew her blaster pistol and Mission followed suit. The door was unlocked so they pushed their way inside. On a bed in the room was a dead woman, shot several times in the body by a blaster. Flies buzzed about the room. Niki pulled the woman's head up and saw her mask.

"A Dark Jedi? Whoever killed her wasn't a very good shot," she said, examining the random shot pattern.

Putting on gloves, she began to search the dead woman's belongings. "A lightsaber…oh, she has clear paper." Niki showed Mission the sheets of nearly invisible paper that would contain messages or maps that could be revealed only with the application of a specific substance. The paper would then dissolve to leave no incriminating evidence.

Mission and the little droid gathered up the belongings while Niki continued to search. The ensign examined the carpet and the doorknob, but could find nothing else.

"Mission, this all means something. It's just that I don't know what it is…yet."

At the Hotel

In the aftermath of the coup, the Czerka were expelled from the planet. Those, who gave in peacefully were allowed to gather their belongings prior to departure. On a walkway, high above the hotel arboretum, Carth and Aerin stood, overlooking the birds. They were silent for a moment, enjoying the avian antics. Then, Aerin took a breath and said, "Boy, that HK is a real find. He tore through those Czerka guards. Did you know that he assassinated a Hutt and made Hutt soup out of the parts?"

Carth nodded quietly.

Feeling uncomfortable, Aerin continued to ramble. "Yah, HK took a shot to the head and it unlocked some more of his memory, which has made him even more formidable. You know, he worked for the Hutt for a time, but-"

They made eye contact, which silenced her and Aerin inhaled deeply. She whispered, "Oh, I'm rambling…."

"Yes, you are-" he began, but they had locked in an embrace, their lips meeting with heated intensity.

Aerin's heart raced and she tingled all over, feeling the warmth of his body against hers. Her mind screamed, but her soul doused all dissent. As they came up for air, Carth sighed. He blinked hard, looking around, breathing heavily. "Wow….I….Jordo? Hey, that's Jordo!"

Aerin's brows furrowed in surprise and annoyance. "Jordo? What's a Jordo?"

Carth released his hold on her and danced excitedly. "Jordo Crae! I knew him when I was a kid on Telos! Hey, Jordo!" He ran down the stairs, leaving Aerin breathless on the walkway. She rolled her eyes.

At the base of the stairway was a man, carrying a pack. He wore a tattered uniform and had a small scratch over his eye beneath tousled brown hair. The man looked up at Carth.

"Carth? Carth Onasi! It is you, you old devil!"

The two men embraced as Aerin glided down the stairs. Carth put Jordo in a mock headlock. "Damn, it's good to see you. What are you doing here?"

"Hey times were tough on Telos. My cousin, Vinly, got me a job with Czerka. It pays the bills."

Carth gave him a sideways look. "You weren't mixed up in that slavery deal, were you?"

Jordo shook his head. "I was just a mechanic. I didn't like what was going on, but hey, what could one man do?"

"You could have resigned," chastised Aerin, now at the base of the stairs. "This was an abomination."

The former Czerka man shrugged. "Yah, I suppose you're right. I guess the point is moot now; I'm out of a job anyway."

Carth thought of an idea and grinned. "Well, Jordo, what do you say…I have a job for you. We need a good mechanic."

"What, in the Republic Navy? Or did you get out like your wife…oh, oh, I'm sorry Carth…damn, I'm sorry…," he trailed off, realizing his mistake.

Carth's face went blank for a moment and he glanced at Aerin. With a breath, he composed himself. "Hey, no, it's alright. No worries, Jordo. We could use a man like you."

"Aww, man, I'm sorry…. Say, did you ever get a chance to talk to Dustil?"

Now the color drained from Carth's face. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. "What do you mean? Dustil's dead."

Jordo realized he had gone into uncharted territory. "Ummm, Carth, Dustil's alive. I saw him on Korriban at the Sith Academy."

"What?" Aerin saw Carth take a couple of steps backward and his legs wobbled. He slumped to the ground and started to shake. Aerin knelt beside him and put both her arms around his shoulders. She had never seen him like this before – his confidence was shattered.

Carth looked up at Jordo, searching for some answers, shaking his head as if to clear a bad dream. "You . . . you're sure it was him?"

Jordo gave him a sad look. "Well, as sure as I can be. I could be wrong, but I doubt it."

Carth's voice came in rasps. He put his hands to his cheeks and shook his head vigorously. "Aerin…I have to find him."

She and Jordo helped him to his feet and she looked deeply into Carth's eyes. "Don't worry, we'll find him. You just have to be patient, Carth."

Carth nodded stiffly almost without recognition as he gazed off toward Kashyyyk's forested landscape.

Jordo gingerly placed his hand on Carth's arm. "You can count me in, boss."

Kashyyyk Docking Bay

Aerin and Carth watched as Zaalbar and his father sat on a long wooden bench. Zaalbar held Bacca's Sword close, as if it were the dearest thing in the galaxy. She saw Freyyr put his hands on his son's shoulders. "My pride in you is boundless, my son. Go with Bacca and return to our people; your rightful place will be held for you."

Zaalbar let out a growl that was both joyful and painful at the same time. He clenched his fists and then stood. The two great Wookiees embraced for a time, their great arms straining to keep father and son together. Then, the two stepped back and with a deep sigh, Zaalbar turned from his father and walked to the ramp of the Ebon Hawk.

As the Wookiee passed Carth, the captain clapped his hand on Zaalbar's back. "Z, you did good."

Aerin looked up at Zaalbar. Something needed to be said here. He should be free to pursue his own destiny. "You don't have to do this, Z. You've more than repaid your debt. Your people need you."

He gazed back down on her and smiled. "Aerin Dakar, you above all should understand duty. I will not go back on my word to follow you to whatever fate awaits us."

The Padawan was taken aback by his words and it warmed her heart. Nodding, she replied, "Then it is an honor to have you with me. Yes…duty…above all."

As the boarding ramp closed, Aerin walked to the flight deck. It seems I cannot escape this destiny…whatever it is. She looked skyward for a moment and thought of Master Zhar and Master Vandar. By the Force, all I ask is that you spare my friends…. If it means my life, so be it.