W/N - This begins the final book. As I mentioned, there are three alternate endings - this one, Paradise Reborn, and the Instruments of Darkness. The one thing I'm hoping to portray is how the journey changes the characters. Jolee gives Aerin something to think about.
Other Malarkey - Huge marital spat... :P Totemo warukatta desu. Do not, repeat, do not do home projects with your spouse. Especially if he is a crazed perfectionist. Great night of Kendo. I was on my game, enticing opponents into bad attacks or shifting away from attacks to launch my own. I overcame a Sandan 3-1, a Nidan 5-1, two Shodans 4-0 and 5-1, and a Yonkyu 6-0...oh, and my husband 3-2. Sensei joked that my Japanese (nihongo) has a Dixie accent, southern belle that I am. Arigato ya'll. Kichigai desu kara.
Yonde kudasai (please read).
Dark Paradise – Part I
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Kubla Khan
The Ebon Hawk – Deep Space
In the medical bay, Aerin lay in Carth's arms. She breathed easier than she had in a long time and a dark void in her heart brightened. Maybe Carth couldn't say it right now…it was too soon, but he would love her again. Revan always got what she wanted. He squirmed a bit, causing her some annoyance. The captain seemed pensive and turned to face her. He studied her face intently as if trying to learn something. He traced his finger over her nose, along her graceful cheekbones, and over her rosy lips. This pleased her, but also made her curious.
"What are you looking for?" she asked softly.
Carth sighed deeply and looked away. "I…I was trying to remember my wife, Morgana. I can't seem to remember what she looks like. I should be able to remember, shouldn't I?"
"Carth, you will always have Morgana in your heart. She will always be with you." Maybe there was a little jealousy in her, but he needed to keep his wife in his heart. Her memory would help him move on to better things.
He nodded slowly, almost reluctantly. They said no more until he drifted off to sleep. Aerin lay awake for some time as Carth snored quietly. She stroked his hair, feeling the strands between her fingers. She loved it when he slept like that. She touched her fingertip to his lips and he moaned softly with a smile. All was good again. She felt a bit drowsy, but wasn't in the mood to sleep yet. Gently, she extricated herself from him and slid a silk robe over her body. On bare feet, she walked on cold deck plates to the galley, where Jolee sat with Juhani, drinking caffa.
Upon seeing the Padawan enter, Juhani rose and approached. The Cathar stood there, gave Aerin an awkward smile and embraced her. "I must thank you again," Juhani purred. Aerin returned the embrace, but felt that there was something more in that hug than sisterly warmth.
After a time, Padawan Dakar pulled back and gave Juhani a smile. "You're welcome," she said, feeling a bit strange. "Uhhh, I came to get some caffa," she commented as she broke eye contact and walked to the pot of hot liquid. She pulled a silver mug from a rack that bore the image of a black knight and the words, '6th Fighter Squadron' emblazoned on it and poured the steaming caffa in. Ahhh, the wonderful, rich smell of hot caffa was one of life's great pleasures.
Aerin sat next to Jolee and gave him a head nod as she pulled a flask from her pocket. "This caffa is going to need more of a kick." It had become like a habit, like brushing her teeth or putting on makeup. She couldn't imagine a single day…no, a single minute of being stone cold sober. The thought was depressing.
As she unscrewed the lid, Jolee spoke, "Don't you think you've had enough of that stuff? Drinking yourself silly is not going to change who you are or what you've done," he stated gruffly.
The Padawan was taken aback; after all of the adulation she had received lately, she found Jolee's tone insulting. How dare he? Who was he to point out her flaws? Didn't he know what a powerful destiny she had? Before she could retort, he continued, "Oh, I'm not kissing the behind of the great Revan? That seems to upset you. Well, I got news for you, kiddo…you put your pants on just like everyone else. And, if you're busted up over what the Council did to you, I got more news for you. Everyone on this ship has a sob story…and if you don't cut out this prima donna nonsense, the entire Republic will be one giant sob story…and that includes Sasha and Mission…or don't you care anymore?"
Aerin sat back with bulging eyes. Shock kept her from anger and she was unable to say anything for a moment as she realized how easy it was to step into the role of adoration and popularity…to keep the horror of who she was at bay. She was firmly in denial about her rage at the Council over what had happened. She looked around to see a stunned Juhani staring at them.
The Padawan blinked several times before she responded, "Ummm…. So Jolee, what is your sob story?" She didn't like this attention on her. The admiral in her told her to redirect the attack.
He was unprepared for Aerin's question, putting him on the defensive. "My sob story? Hah, still the master strategist I see." He saw through her maneuver.
She wouldn't let up. "Hey, it's only fair…you brought on this line of conversation. Besides, I'd really like to know," she said and she meant it.
Jolee inhaled deeply and hung his head. Aerin smiled inwardly, knowing that she was off the hot seat…for the moment. "It's not something I like to think about," Jolee said, "much less discuss. But you're right, I brought it up and I suppose there's no more harm or hurt that can come from the telling. You recall my telling you that I was married? Well, it ended badly…very badly."
Jolee reached out with his weathered hand and touched Aerin's fingers. "It might be better to show you…so you might have an appreciation of how our attitude affects those around us…how we may think that we're all that great, but we're merely fools." They both inhaled deeply as the Force coiled around the old man. He concentrated his energies and images began to develop in Aerin's mind.
Jolee, full of youthful pride and righteous anger, returned to his quarters where his wife, Nayama, awaited. He was rebuffed in his request to have her trained as a Jedi, force sensitive though she was. He is full of self-righteous anger. "Those short sighted old men…they cannot see how badly we need new blood," he said, storming about the room, running his hands through his thick, black hair. After all, he had thought it all out. Who were they to question his judgment? "Exar Kun threatens to destroy the Order and all we hold dear. Nayama, we must take it upon ourselves to do what's right. Come, I will train you and show you the ways of the Force." Jolee knows better than the masters.
In an open courtyard, Jolee gave Nayama a lightsaber. He stepped back and powered his own weapon, a green beam of energy hissing forth. Together, they trained deep into the night as he showed her the dance of the lightsaber.
Months passed as Nayama grew in power and hunger for more learning. She stood as Jolee hurled mock Force attacks upon her. "You must learn to withstand the powers of the Force. Only then, can we confront the dark powers of Exar Kun."
Later, as they lay in a field of wildflowers, Jolee stroked Nayama's curly hair. "We have come so far. Those stodgy masters…why did they stand in the way of our progress? Together, we have achieved so much." He picked a bright red flower and put it in Nayama's hair. He inhaled the scent of the surrounding fields and smiled. "We are truly in paradise." Jolee knows better than the masters.
A sly look crossed the woman's features. "But Jolee, I hunger for so much more. There is so much left to learn." Something was awakened in Nayama – something that could not be put to rest.
Again, time passed as images flitted through Aerin's mind.
The tone of the images turned dark and malevolent. Jolee grabbed Nayama's arm, anger staining his face. "What have you done?" He could not believe what was happening. How did it turn to wrong? After all, he knew better than the masters.
The woman turned back toward him, a dark fire in her eyes. "You pathetic fool, how could I have ever imagined that you could fulfill my hunger? Your command of the Force is weak. Only Exar Kun has been able to show me the way…give me the true knowledge that I have sought. Let go of me."
"Exar Kun? No, Nayama, he is evil." Jolee could see how her skin had grayed and her eyes held a hue of gold. "I will not let you go. You must see what you have become!"
"Then, you will die," she retorted as her hand reached for her lightsaber.
In horror, Jolee seized her hand and threw her over his hip. "Don't do this, Nayama, please!" He doesn't understand why. He didn't know this could happen.
She crashed down at his feet and he straddled her body to keep her still, but she kicked the back of his head. Jolee was propelled forward and Nayama scrambled to her feet, her lightsaber flying to her grasp. The green blade shot forth and she cut down at Jolee's shoulder, but he rolled backward as the beam sliced the air.
Jolee reached down for his weapon, but he gulped hard. This was not the way it was suppose to happen. "I…I cannot. Nayama, please."
The woman turned and ran a short distance away. She looked back, and for a moment her features returned to normal. A soft, gentle expression covered her face and she looked at Jolee as if confused. "Jolee…I…I'm so sorry."
He reached out to her, thinking she would return…thinking that it would be ok. Then, the look of darkness returned and she sped away. Yes, Jolee knows…Jolee knows nothing.
Jolee pulled back from Aerin, his face stonelike. He choked for a moment, but then coughed. He seemed to force himself to smile. "There you have it," he said slowly, turning to look at her, "my arrogance laid bare…everything I had loved, destroyed through my actions."
"What happened to Nayama? Did you kill her?" asked Aerin, her heart aching in sympathy; at least she could still feel that.
"She lived…went on to join Exar Kun…and kill many of my friends. Did she die? Yes, she too, was eventually killed; by none other than Vrook Lamar."
Aerin lowered her head. Would all love come to the same end? She thought she understood the lesson here. "I'm sorry Jolee."
He waved his hand dismissively at her apology. "Well, I've had enough fun for one night. Beat up on an old man, will you? Aerin…I still like calling you that, you think upon what we said this evening…and you think long and hard. The journey from here on in is only going to get tougher and what you do will affect all of us."
With that, he stood, finished his caffa, and departed.
Aerin looked over at a still stunned Juhani. She said a quick good night and went to the women's quarters. There, she picked Sasha up and took her to the medical bay, where they nestled in Carth's arms. There were many lessons left to learn and maybe, just maybe, she wasn't all that. Still, Revan's call was hard to ignore. Aerin visited her another time where she learned the intricacies of Jar'Kai, the two sword style. It was very athletic, requiring dramatic upper body strength. She took to it well, the style being perfect for her body type. Still, there were times when she favored a single weapon that could deliver a devastating, decisive blow.
Then, her mind wandered back to Jolee's lesson. As Aerin, it was not her nature to be arrogant – fussy and aristocratic maybe, but she loved life, honored people, and tried to do good. It was only when Revan asserted herself that those issues came out. Jolee's smart and has good insight, but I think I know more about this than he does.
The Ebon Hawk – Bridge – Several Days Later
Tension filled the bridge as they neared their objective. The culmination of their long journey would be at hand very shortly. Aerin wondered deep down at whether the Star Map coordinates would even work. She turned her head down, honoring all who had died for them to get to this place – Trask, Belaya, Komad, Kel, and many others. Would the blood never stop spilling? In the Navigator's Seat, Mission looked at the plotter. "We will arrive at the Star Forge in ten minutes." It was what they had been waiting for, but it was also the moment they had been dreading. What could they possibly be facing there.
All ears perked up and Carth set the EMCON controls for the vessel and shut down any emissions that might set off Sith sensors. "We can't see any Star Forge yet. Are we sure of the coordinates?" he asked, still somewhat doubtful that the Star Maps had done their job.
Aerin nodded. She had checked the calculations many times and had T3 confirm them. "I don't think there is any mistake. Wait…look at the collapsed star. By the Force…." Her eyes widened and her mouth opened with a look of awe.
Through the forward viewing screen, a massive structure floated above a dwarf sun. It looked like an enormous spike, aimed at the heart of the fiery orb and long tendrils of dark energy coiled upwards to fill the Star Forge with evil power.
"T…Transmit the coordinates now!" called Aerin and Mission jammed her finger onto the communications array control. That had to be it. How could they possibly take on such a behemoth?
"Coordinates sent," announced Mission, sounding more and more like a Republic officer than a Taris street urchin. Aerin glanced over briefly to give her a nod of approval.
Suddenly, the Ebon Hawk shook violently. "We're caught in some kind of disruption field!" shouted Carth over the din of beeping alerts and flashing red lights.
"Hyperdrive offline…Main power offline," called Aerin, reading the Master Caution Panel. There was nothing to indicate anything wrong.
Carth fought with the controls in vain. "We'll come apart unless we set down. Mission!"
Mission's hands worked over the navigational controls. "I've set a course for that planet. You have an entry solution."
Captain Onasi swung the Hawk about to follow the waypoints for an atmospheric entry. Soon, they were buffeted by the outer layer of the atmosphere and the hull glowed orange as flames shot past the forward windows. "I can't control her. We're too shallow; we'll burn up."
The heat in the cabin rose steadily as Carth tried to force the yoke forward. Aerin grabbed the copilot's yoke and pushed forward, adding her strength to his. A sudden jolt threw items into the air and there were yelps from the aft cabins. Together, the two pilots lowered the nose and the inertial compensators screamed in complaint as gravity fled the ship's interior. Aerin could feel her stomach lurch into her throat and her vision grayed out for a moment.
Aerin looked back to see Zaalbar floating in the corridor, waving frantically. She would have laughed if not for her terror.
"Okay…okay, I've got it under control," shouted Carth. "We're still going in…we're going in hard."
The Ebon Hawk broke through the outer edge of the atmosphere and fell like a stone toward a world covered in beautiful, azure seas with islands dotted across its surface. Gravity suddenly returned to the ship and numerous thuds sounded as things crashed back upon the deck. Waves of G forces washed over Aerin and her arms felt like they weighed tons. She grunted under the strain.
"We got new problems," urged Aerin. "The Structural Integrity Field is coming apart. We won't survive a hard landing."
Another jolt sent the Hawk into a clockwise spin. If they didn't have bad luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all. In the forward window, the planet twirled about as Mission's lekku spun about the back of her head. "I'm going to be sick," she yelled.
Carth jammed his foot hard upon the port rudder pedal and thrusters shot out of the ship to stabilize the spin. Aerin watched as the altimeter clocked downward at an increasing rate. "Close the throttle!" he ordered, and Aerin yanked back on the knobs to slow their descent.
"Ten thousand meters…eight thousand meters…six thousand meters," she said, reading off their descent. Sweat was pouring down her face. They were getting awfully low and the pitch of the engines continued to rise.
The Hawk ceased its wild spin and Carth and Aerin pulled back on their yokes with all their strength. Every muscled and sinew was working overtime and her body ached with the effort.
"Four thousand meters…two thousand meters…five hundred meters," she continued to call as the nose came up.
The ion engines screamed in protest and the Hawk's computer warned, "Pull up! Pull up!" Aerin's head felt like it weighed a hundred kilograms and her neck fought to keep upright. Nausea washed over her as her vision darkened from the G forces. Only dogged determination to stay alive kept her conscious.
Blue water filled the window and Mission covered her eyes with a yelp. Carth tried one last, desperate maneuver and shot a burst of ions through the ventral thrusters as he rammed the yoke back into his belly. His hand thrust the throttle forward as the nose came up in a trick, known as the cobra maneuver. The ion engines roared, rippling the water ten meters below and stopped the descent of the Hawk.
Carth sighed. "Gravity sucks," he said, sweat beaded on his forehead and Aerin looked at him for a moment before a stress-filled laugh filled her belly. Damn, he was a good pilot.
On the Unknown Planet
The Hawk settled onto a desolate beach, its skids digging into the grainy sand. Aerin was thanking her lucky stars they were still in one piece. She was still covered in cold, slimy sweat from her earlier terror. T3 beeped out a complaint.
"He says we're not going anywhere for a while," Aerin advised, feeling exhausted. "We'll need to repair the main reactor and the ion engines."
Carth groaned. "We're stuck…and the Republic fleet will be too, unless we figure out what happened."
Mission wobbled to her feet. She tried to point off in the distance, but her hand couldn't remain still. "Ohhhhh, I tracked a beam of energy from near here. I think that was the source of the disruption field."
Juhani staggered in, followed by Mekel and Lashowe, both covered in the return of their lunches. The Cathar shook her head several times to clear it. "Amid my screams of terror I observed an alien temple north of our landing point. It had a high tower and, what appeared to be an emitter." Deep down, Aerin knew that this was what they were looking for. A sense of growing dread filled her guts.
"Well, I guess we go there," voiced the Captain in his sardonic manner.
He lowered the ramp and the crew staggered out onto the sand. Aerin held Sasha in her arms, shaking her head. "She slept through the whole thing…Ahhh, to be a kid again." She staggered over to a nearby rock and sat, just getting her bearings.
Mekel and Lashowe wobbled down the ramp and knelt on the beach, kissing the sand. "Ohhhh, land!" they cried in unison, their faces covered in yellow grains. Aerin nearly laughed, but she completely understood. For a moment, she mused how the two former Sith were deadly enemies just a month ago and now, they swore their lives to Revan. Aerin smirked at this. It was becoming awfully confusing as to who she was.
Aerin looked around and nudged Carth as he sat next to her. "Wow, kinda looks like paradise. Warm sand, palm trees, rolling surf…I can see our bungalow built right over there," she said, pointing off toward a rise, overlooking the beach. "And a new Ocean Spray Hotel," she added, knowing that the place had special meaning for the two of them.
Then, her eyes narrowed as she spotted a horde of alien beings running down the slope toward them. They were tall, with cone-shaped heads and eye stalks protruding from the sides of their heads – and they were all armed. This couldn't be good.
Aerin quickly handed Sasha to Jordo. "Return to the ship and seal the hatch. You and Tee Three need to begin repairs. Carth, Canderous, help me set up a defensive line. Juhani, Jolee, prepare for a vertical envelopment. HK, flank them on my command." Revan was showing herself again. Her mind was envisioning just how things would occur.
"Anticipation: A new brand of meatbag…with pleasure, Master."
As the mob drew nearer, they leveled long spears and sharp swords at the group. Aerin tightened her gut, thinking to engage with Shien when the battle was met. It would do well against their numbers. As they gathered speed, they let out an eerie, alien wail, a sound impossible for human vocal cords. The Jedi's skin crawled and her hair stood on end.
"So much for paradise," mumbled Aerin.
Then, the melee began.