Ring of Fire

by geo3

Prologue

Firestones were an interesting geological phenomenon.

They appeared only rarely in the Galaxy. Most were mined on a small cluster of moons around an uninhabited planet in an obscure system somewhere near the Minos cluster, where the dull, dirt-colored stones lined the walls of deep subterranean caves. Extracting them was costly and dangerous and would never be attempted if it weren't for a particular property of these stones that gave them an open-market price beyond the rarest gemstones.

Firestones seemed to respond to thought.

Even the most primitive sentients could make the stones glow slightly by thinking about them, and in the few cultures that had evolved with access to the stones, their primary use had been to provide a kind of pale light. A more powerful mind could make that glow brighter or dimmer with a little concentrated effort. Magicians and sorcerers had used firestones to impress their intended audiences for centuries, as had entertainers. Rumor and a few erudite academic studies posited that very highly trained minds, like those of the Jedi, could make the stones burst into a visible flame. Most people never got to see that phenomenon, of course. Jedi were not prone to giving demonstrations.

Still, that 'flame-light' property of firestones was all the more remarkable because those dancing flames gave off light without heat. Firestone flames could be made to burn on skin without causing the slightest sensation, or on a fine piece of silk without leaving the tiniest mark. It wasn't a process of chemical combustion that made firestones burn; they seemed to respond to much more subtle qualities of matter. It was, people said, like seeing the power of the mind made visible.

Needless to say, it was fashionable throughout the Galaxy for the wealthy to own at least one firestone, whether or not they could make it perform. It was enough that the stones were rare and remarkable, and very, very expensive.

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, the war-torn Republic's duly elected leader, owned a large collection of firestones.

Most of them had come to him as gifts. The Chancellor's office regularly received official gifts of such number and variety that a separate bureau existed within the administrative structure of the Senate to manage the influx. Official gifts of any value were accepted on behalf of the Republic and then indexed and stored as part of the assets belonging to the Senate. Personal gifts to the Chancellor were actively discouraged in the democratic Republic as inappropriate attempts to curry favor. More subtle ways had to be found to garner influence and power.

And yet, over the long years during which he he'd held the office of Supreme Chancellor, Palpatine had managed to gather quite an extraordinary collection of the finest firestones. Each homely, mottled gray stone had been shaped carefully into a modest oval that fit comfortably into the palm of a human hand. He kept them in a priceless antique votive bowl from his native Naboo, as one of the very few ornaments in his Senate office. Visitors often eyed them curiously, but no demonstrations of the stones' capacities had ever been given.

The stones were well used, though. In his private moments Chancellor Palpatine often spent time arranging and re-arranging firestones in patterns that had meaning only to him. He delighted in the knowledge that the true power of firestones, like that of so many other arcane phenomena, was perfectly hidden in plain sight. While to most people in the Galaxy firestones remained benign toys for the primitive or the privileged, to the few who understood their true nature the stones were a source of limitless illumination of the very essence of the universe – the Force. A useful tool, in other words, for the knowledgeable.

Knowledge was power. He had the knowledge.

Thoughtfully Palpatine chose a firestone from the bowl and set it on the bare, polished desktop before him. Then he added another, and another, until he had arranged all the stones from the bowl in a ring.

He sat back and focused. Seven of the stones flared into iridescent flames that danced and flickered as vividly any blazing hearth.

Seven in all, then. Only seven.

He leaned forward again and removed all but the seven flaming stones. Those seven he rearranged into a smaller circle. He focused. Immediately two of the flames disappeared.

He frowned. Only two are gone. The third lives still.

He sat quietly for a moment, contemplating the ring, and then formed the remaining stones into a small pile next to the ring of seven placing a particular stone, one that was slightly smaller, paler, and more polished than the others, at the top of the pile. Before he even had removed his hand, the topmost stone blazed into fire, gradually appearing to ignite all the remaining stones in the pile except the three directly below it. Those three remained untouched by flame.

Three? Palpatine sat very, very quietly for some time. Then, as one, all of the flaming stones went out and sat mutely on the desk. Once by one he returned them their bowl, again placing the smallest, palest stone at the top. He sat back and folded his hands in his lap.

Anakin?

The bowl of stones blazed into a single mighty flame that reached higher than his head. Unhesitatingly he reached into the flame to remove the topmost stone and peered beneath it.

Three stones at the very bottom of the bowl remained dark and mute.

Pausing only to extinguish the leaping flame with a single thought, the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic signaled his chief assistant.

"Hold all my calls and visitors for a standard hour."

"Y-yes of course, My Lord. W-what reason shall I give? This is unexpected…"

But the communication already had ended.

Palpatine closed his eyes and withdrew into the distant realm of his deepest, most private thoughts.