A/N: Many thanks to Buttercup for her fabulous beta services, and many apologies to the readers for the lateness of this chapter! This is the final chapter, with the exception of an epilogue to come shortly. I hope you enjoy it!
Severing the Past
N'oenar squinted, the sun's reflection off of the bright silver ship nearly blinding him. He shook his head and snuck back beside Ayliana. The waterfall Yaril had mentioned thundered nearby, and beyond a stand of stones Sarn and Zehrid awaited their report.
It was hard to believe that mere hours had passed since he'd stood over Yaril's body, his saber still humming in his hand. The sun was just now past its apex, and he estimated another couple of hours of daylight remained for them to plan their strategy.
The reconnaissance mission had proven useful so far; already they'd learned much by listening from their Force-enhanced cover. According to one overheard conversation, the higher level security teams were only on duty during the daylight hours while on Gabris Prime. The Silver Cage was stationed just out of normal foot range from the nearest population center, and at night no one would dare to use a speedercart or other transport because of the electrical storms.
A few beings still moved around the fat-bellied ship, calling loudly to their comrades and laughing as they finished preparations for the next morning's flight. N'oenar studied the ship itself, noting an open exhaust vent on the side closest to them. Suddenly, Ayliana gripped his arm, nodding towards two green-garbed figures. Frowning, N'oenar concentrated his will on their conversation.
"Yeah, you know, that blue guy." The first figure shrugged, scratching his head. "He said he might bring more, told us to stick around."
"That's why we haven't left yet? Because of him?" The second man leaned over and spat.
"More credits can't be bad-"
"This rock's been sucked dry already. Time to move on. We got nowhere near a full load yet, and I want to get back to my lady friend sometime."
"Worried that she'll take up with some other fella while you're gone?"
A bark of laughter. "Nah, not after-" He was cut off by a sharp order from his comm.
"Everyone on duty detail, back to the ship now!"
A shrug came from the spitter. "Captain's on his game. I'll catch ya up later. C'mon."
N'oenar and Ayliana stayed a few more minutes, but there was nothing more to hear. Finally, N'oenar sat back on his heels and, in response to Ayliana's questioning glance, nodded. They had seen enough. Carefully, the two Padawans backed away from the slave ship and headed back to their friends.
"So you saw the ship?" Danid's voice was slightly less shrill than it had been earlier that day, but it still echoed unpleasantly in Rohnid's kitchen. After surveying the situation, N'oenar and the others had returned to Rohnid's apartment to work on a plan of attack. It hadn't taken long; after all, there weren't many options. Their plan depended entirely on the Padawans' ability to find a way into the slave ship without detection, and then their ability to lead the captives off of the ship without detection.
"We saw it," Ayliana said quietly. She looked at N'oenar and shook her head slightly. It wouldn't be easy. Their main hope was that what they had heard earlier held true, and the higher-level crewmembers – who were generally stronger-minded than their counterparts – would spend the night resting, leaving basic security to the lesser crew.
"Then you can get into it!" Danid's hands shook. "Let's go now!"
"When night falls, Danid." The stool that Sarn perched on was dented and discolored, but it seemed the throne of a king, his eyes hard and determined as he prepared his generals for war.
Seeing Danid's mouth open for another protest, N'oenar raised a hand. "We'll need the cover of night while we search for a way into the ship. Plus, the security is more lax overnight, if what we overheard today is true."
"Why don't you go lay down, son? We have this under control." Sarn's voice was soft, but there was durasteel behind it. Without argument, Danid stood and rubbed his face before making his way to the bedroom that Rohnid waved him to.
"Poor thing," Rohnid murmured.
Poor thing? At least he still has hope. N'oenar looked over at Ayliana, and checked the shroud again. Silently, he vowed to never let her out of his sight.
N'oenar's jaw tensed. "We need to wait till full dark, but I don't want to wait too long past that." Now that the long-awaited task was before him, he was eager to go, whether or not it was the wisest move. Yaril's words echoed in his mind: Your light is a beacon to the darkness - drawing it ever closer.
"Just long enough to be certain they've settled in for the night," Ayliana said. Zehrid nodded.
"We've got time. They won't leave until the morning." Zehrid leaned against the counter beside Sarn, completely unaffected by the small man's newfound regal stature. "Wouldn't risk the electrical storms."
"True," Rohnid muttered, casting a sidelong glance at Sarn. "It's gonna be tight, though. You can't get them out too early, or you'll be stuck out on the crystal flats without any transport. The slavers'd pick everyone up easy. Too late, and…."
"And we're along for the ride," N'oenar said. "I hope those beacons of yours will work."
"They'll work." Rohnid sounded almost offended. "Just have to make some adjustments."
"What do you mean?" Zehrid asked.
"They aren't strong enough yet to transmit much beyond a single star system." Sarn's voice was cool. "If they jump to light speed with you folks on board, we'll need the transmitters to have more power."
"And a few more tricks," Rohnid said with a grin. "At any rate, Sarn, these two would do better for some sleep before they go. That is, if you think-"
"You would do for some sleep, too, Rohnid," Ayliana said. "You've got to be alert tomorrow, in case we have to fall to the backup plan."
"Have to finish the beacons." Rohnid caught Ayliana's eye and winked. "I'll be fine. Can always sleep in the ship, since Zehrid'll be piloting most the way."
"All of the way, Rohnid. As if I'd let you pilot my ship!"
Sarn smiled – the first smile they'd seen from him since Danid had brought the news of Brienna's capture. "Always knew you were a bright one, Zehrid. Well, let's get a move on those beacons, then. Much as I'd love to think you'll be able to free them while the ship's still on Gabris Prime, it's best to plan for all possibilities."
"It'll be tough for us to get to them if they end up landing on Rattatack, even with the beacons," Rohnid said, his face troubled.
"We could land outside the main city and act like we're interested in purchasing some slaves," Zehrid suggested.
Sarn nodded slowly. "That might work. I'd prefer not to wait until Rattatack, though."
"We overheard some of them saying that the ship isn't near full yet; they'll be stopping elsewhere before heading back," N'oenar said.
"Makes sense," Zehrid said. "They'll want to pick up more merchandise." When he caught sight of Sarn's expression, he raised his hands. "Sorry, Sarn. That's just how they see it, you know?"
"I know," Sarn said, his lips tight. "That's the problem."
Silence fell, then, until Ayliana stepped forward and put a reassuring hand on Sarn's bony shoulder. "We'll get her back."
A little while later, as they made preparations for the rescue mission, N'oenar cornered Ayliana in the room that they shared.
"Your light is a beacon to the darkness - drawing it ever closer." N'oenar tried to convey the gravity with his expression, even should she discount his words. "That's what Yaril said, right before… before he died."
"Before you killed him," she said, her voice holding a strange timbre. "I won't use the dark side, N'oenar, no matter what he told you."
"I'm not the one in danger, Ayliana!" N'oenar struggled to keep his emotions in check.
"Why would you even trust his words? You know that the dark side speaks half truths, when it's not outright lies."
"Not this time. Vader thinks I'm dead, and now he's searching for a young female Jedi. Don't you remember? Sarn said that, back on Jabiim." He barely held back a sneer. "You trust him, don't you? Vader is looking for you, Ayliana."
"Then I'll have to be careful."
"Yes! And if you really mean to be careful, then you'll learn to use the shroud. Please, Ayliana - it's easy, really, it is! Far easier than I'd thought, before…." He trailed off when she shook her head mutinously.
"Easy." Ayliana flicked her eyes to the corner, where the trunk full of dark texts lurked, and her mouth tightened. "That's what I'm afraid of."
The reprimand may have been unspoken, but he heard it clearly. Guilt flooded him, guilt and shame. But as he stood, staring at the trunk, that guilt slowly began to transform into fear, and then anger, the emotions twisting their shape and countenance faster than he could track.
A foreign thought snaked into his mind, then, fueled by emotion: Let her bring them, then, like moths to the flame. Let them come. I will stand in the shadows, and strike from behind…. He frowned, and shook his head. No! I won't use her as bait - she might die… I can't let her die. She must learn, she must! Stubborn…. I'll make her see…. Flames shot up from embers long smoldering, and he stepped forward, his hand on the hilt of his saber. He would show her the danger, force her to do as he bid-
With a jolt, he stopped, staring at her in horror as his saber dropped from numb fingers. He had been about to strike out at her… his emotions, twisted, urging him to do the opposite of what he wished. She was to be protected - that was why he was doing all of this!
What was happening to him?
His legs collapsed and he hit the floor, kneeling awkwardly before her. "Please, Ayliana… help me. Don't leave me alone… don't…."
Ayliana knelt and pulled him to her, and held tight. "I'm here, I'm here."
The Keeper of the Faith. "Don't… don't let me blaze."
Zehrid found them like that a few minutes later. He didn't comment on their position, for which N'oenar was grateful. He pulled away and, with a final squeeze of Ayliana's fingers, straightened and summoned a smile for the other man. "What's up? Did Rohnid finish already?" Mindful of the small space in the room, he moved over to sit on his bed.
"Not yet. Here, I brought you something to drink," Zehrid said, handing one of the bright orange cups he was carrying to N'oenar. He eyed the contents suspiciously, then shrugged and drank it down.
"Thanks, I-" Pausing, he frowned. "What was in that?" His voice sounded very distant to his ears.
"Something to help you rest. When you wake up, it'll feel like you'd slept for hours." Zehrid raised an eyebrow at him. "You'll need it. Both of you."
"But…" He couldn't finish; his lips and tongue made the motions, but no sound came out, and as he involuntarily fell back onto the bed, he cursed the other man for his stubborn thoughtfulness.
He stood in a field, the old
woman sitting in front of a fire, a pan of water in her hands. The
flames were far higher, far fiercer, than they had been in his last
vision of her. The reason for that tickled the back of his mind, but
he refused to consider it. "Do you always appear when
I'm forced into sleep?" The old woman jerked her thin
shoulders in a shrug. "Forced? You weren't forced. Not this
time." "In a way." "You took the
drink. Your own fault that you did not question first." She
shook the pan over the flames. "Just as with the shroud. Not
forced, were you? You drank willingly." "But I
didn't know what it really was," N'oenar said, his voice hollow.
"Didn't you?" She peered into the water, then nodded
slowly. "The silver cage will surround you, but you will not be
locked within. You must lead the birds to freedom. You have the
ability to escape; you have the skill that others do not. Use that
skill." N'oenar stared at her and then looked down at his
hands. One of them held his Padawan braid. With a sigh, he put it
back into his pocket. "When we free the slaves, will the Force be
done with me? Will my task be done?" The old woman didn't
answer. A moment later, she beckoned. Reluctantly, he moved to stand
in front of her. "You drink willingly," she whispered,
placing the pan on the sandy ground. Milky, sightless eyes met his.
"Look, and learn." Taking a deep breath, he knelt
and peered into the shallow pan of water. The vision came
immediately, filling his mind and senses. Zehrid stood in
Ayliana's room, the other orange cup still in his hand. As N'oenar
watched, the tall man shook his head and began to pace. "I don't
know, Ayliana. He was just… different. I mean, I wanted Yaril dead,
but…" "But what?" Ayliana looked up at
Zehrid, following him with her gaze. As the scene shifted, N'oenar
could see his own form lying on the bed behind Zehrid. "He
liked it." Zehrid ran his free hand through his hair, unruly
curls flattening under his palm and then springing up again. "The
killing, I mean. He liked it." Ayliana was
silent. "Something's changed, hasn't it?" "Something…
yes." Ayliana shook her head, placed a hand on Zehrid's arm.
"Don't worry. I'll help him." Zehrid placed his hand
over hers and squeezed. "Good. I don't want to see anything
happen to him. Kerenne, she…." "I know." "I
feel responsible for him. For both of you. Weird, isn't it?" Ayliana
smiled. "Not weird. I feel the same way about you and
N'oenar." "Me? Nothing to worry about, here."
Zehrid gave her a half-hearted smile. "So it looks like
N'oenar's got both of us feeling responsible. That ought to make
Kerenne happy - she'd probably come haunt me if something happened to
him." Ayliana looked down. "Probably." There
was an uncomfortable silence, then. Finally, Zehrid cleared his
throat and held out the cup. "All right then. Time for you to
sleep, too." The vision faded, and he heard Master Dannew's
voice, a memory unbidden. Suddenly, a fog
surrounded him and he found it a struggle to breathe. Deep within, he
heard Ayliana's voice, repeating the words Master Dannew had spoken
to her in dream. "Worlds will not be saved nor destroyed by your
actions, but lives of individuals will be saved and minds will be
swayed, and to some that is of more importance than even the death of
a world." The fog thickened and darkness swirled around
him, and as he tried to fight against it, he heard Ayliana's voice
again. "I think she loved you." Everything went
black. When N'oenar came back to himself, he knew he was still
dreaming. He kept his eyes closed, concentrating on the sandy ground
beneath him, on the rock that dug into his back. On anything other
than the memory of Ayliana's voice. Tears drew hot lines down his temples. He felt a cool
hand on his forehead, and it startled him into opening his eyes. The
old woman knelt next to him, milky eyes staring into his. "So
much pain. And not all done yet."
"Do you always appear when I'm forced into sleep?"
The old woman jerked her thin shoulders in a shrug. "Forced? You weren't forced. Not this time."
"In a way."
"You took the drink. Your own fault that you did not question first." She shook the pan over the flames. "Just as with the shroud. Not forced, were you? You drank willingly."
"But I didn't know what it really was," N'oenar said, his voice hollow.
"Didn't you?" She peered into the water, then nodded slowly. "The silver cage will surround you, but you will not be locked within. You must lead the birds to freedom. You have the ability to escape; you have the skill that others do not. Use that skill."
N'oenar stared at her and then looked down at his hands. One of them held his Padawan braid. With a sigh, he put it back into his pocket. "When we free the slaves, will the Force be done with me? Will my task be done?"
The old woman didn't answer. A moment later, she beckoned. Reluctantly, he moved to stand in front of her.
"You drink willingly," she whispered, placing the pan on the sandy ground. Milky, sightless eyes met his. "Look, and learn."
Taking a deep breath, he knelt and peered into the shallow pan of water. The vision came immediately, filling his mind and senses.
Zehrid stood in Ayliana's room, the other orange cup still in his hand. As N'oenar watched, the tall man shook his head and began to pace. "I don't know, Ayliana. He was just… different. I mean, I wanted Yaril dead, but…"
"But what?" Ayliana looked up at Zehrid, following him with her gaze. As the scene shifted, N'oenar could see his own form lying on the bed behind Zehrid.
"He liked it." Zehrid ran his free hand through his hair, unruly curls flattening under his palm and then springing up again. "The killing, I mean. He liked it."
Ayliana was silent.
"Something's changed, hasn't it?"
"Something… yes." Ayliana shook her head, placed a hand on Zehrid's arm. "Don't worry. I'll help him."
Zehrid placed his hand over hers and squeezed. "Good. I don't want to see anything happen to him. Kerenne, she…."
"I feel responsible for him. For both of you. Weird, isn't it?"
Ayliana smiled. "Not weird. I feel the same way about you and N'oenar."
"Me? Nothing to worry about, here." Zehrid gave her a half-hearted smile. "So it looks like N'oenar's got both of us feeling responsible. That ought to make Kerenne happy - she'd probably come haunt me if something happened to him."
Ayliana looked down. "Probably."
There was an uncomfortable silence, then. Finally, Zehrid cleared his throat and held out the cup. "All right then. Time for you to sleep, too."
The vision faded, and he heard Master Dannew's voice, a memory unbidden.Warm your hands by the flame during this long winter's night. But venture too close and you will burn, flesh scorching and blood boiling.
Suddenly, a fog surrounded him and he found it a struggle to breathe. Deep within, he heard Ayliana's voice, repeating the words Master Dannew had spoken to her in dream. "Worlds will not be saved nor destroyed by your actions, but lives of individuals will be saved and minds will be swayed, and to some that is of more importance than even the death of a world."
The fog thickened and darkness swirled around him, and as he tried to fight against it, he heard Ayliana's voice again. "I think she loved you."
Everything went black.
When N'oenar came back to himself, he knew he was still dreaming. He kept his eyes closed, concentrating on the sandy ground beneath him, on the rock that dug into his back. On anything other than the memory of Ayliana's voice.I think she loved you.
Tears drew hot lines down his temples. He felt a cool hand on his forehead, and it startled him into opening his eyes. The old woman knelt next to him, milky eyes staring into his. "So much pain. And not all done yet."
When N'oenar woke, he looked over to where Ayliana still lay sleeping. As he watched her slow, steady breathing, the final words of the old woman resounded in his mind. What had the old woman meant?
He shook his head and stood, shoving aside all thoughts about the dream. Analyzing it would get him nowhere, and there were things that needed to be done in the waking world to prepare for their mission. He left the room in search of Rohnid.
He found the large man sitting with Zehrid in a small workroom off the kitchen.
"Awake already?" Zehrid said when he finally looked up and saw N'oenar in the doorway. "The beacons are almost done."
"Just a little bit more," Rohnid murmured, his large hands surprisingly deft as he maneuvered a small instrument into the center of one small transmitter.
"You heard the man," Zehrid said with a small grin. "You've got more time to sleep if you want."
"I think I've slept enough."
"Must have," Rohnid muttered. "That dose should've kept you under another hour, at least."
"It was enough," N'oenar repeated. Rohnid just grunted in response. A glance at the workroom's chronometer allayed N'oenar's sense of urgency somewhat; they had plenty of time, still, even considering the time it would take for them to reach the Silver Cage on foot.
Sarn appeared in the doorway, then, carrying a tray. "Heard the extra voice just in time," he commented, handing one cup out to N'oenar. "Just barkleaf tea, this time."
N'oenar accepted the cup gratefully, and tried to avoid wincing at the first sip of the harsh drink. It was relaxing, and he was able to clear his mind as he watched Rohnid work. It was almost like meditating, watching those large fingers work on the delicate instruments.
Soon enough, Rohnid was finished with the modifications. Ayliana was awake, though Danid still slept on. Sarn just winked at N'oenar when he asked about the young man, and N'oenar smiled wryly. No doubt the cup for Danid had held more of the sleeping agent than the one given to Ayliana and N'oenar.
"Pay attention, now, you two," Rohnid said gruffly. "This button here is an 'all right' signal to us. Hit it every now and then to let us know you're…."
"All right?" N'oenar supplied.
"Yeah. This one on the other side is a 'come get us now' signal. If you're able to get the slaves off here on Gabris Prime in the early morning before takeoff, hit it."
Sarn sat forward, looking at Ayliana and N'oenar intently. "And if we have to fall back to the plan B, hit it to let us know you're landing. We'll land nearby, and be ready to load and take off."
Ayliana nodded. "What's the third button?"
"The 'don't get us after all' signal. Just in case something happens, right, after you hit the come get us now." Rohnid frowned. "I guess you could also use that in the morning, if you don't think it'll be safe to escape before takeoff."
Zehrid gave a low whistle. "That's a lot more than just expanding the range, big guy. These are pretty sophisticated devices."
Rohnid grinned. "I'm not just another pretty face."
The trip to the Silver Cage took less time than N'oenar had estimated – their feet moved swiftly and silently over the crystal flats, the Force lending lightness and speed to their travel. Staying in the deepest shadows behind some crystal mounds, they watched the ship and the surrounding area, making certain that there would be no surprises.
After watching for a time, N'oenar determined that there was just a single guard on patrol around the outside of the ship. N'oenar caught Ayliana's eye. "When he returns to the ship," he breathed, "we can slip in behind him."
She nodded slowly in response. As they waited, he inspected the outside of the ship once again. The exhaust vent that he'd noted earlier that day was still open. He wasn't comfortable entering the ship by that method, but once they were inside he could confirm it was connected to the air duct system and not an engine exhaust. It could make a good escape route.
He whispered his idea to Ayliana, and she scanned the open vent with a critical eye. "It's a little far from the ground," she murmured.
"Given the choice of a twisted ankle or a lifetime of servitude, which would you pick?" he whispered back.
"True." She chewed her lip thoughtfully. "We could use the Force to slow their descent-"
"No." The word came out louder than he'd expected, and they both fell silent until they assured themselves the guard hadn't noticed. "No, you can't." At her quizzical look, he shifted uncomfortably. "Your light shines bright without the shroud. I think we should… we should be careful about using the Force too much. He's searching for you."
There was no need to identify the "he" that N'oenar referred to. She gave him a level gaze, then nodded calmly.
"There!" N'oenar whispered as he saw a crack widen in the underbelly of the Silver Cage. The patrol guard walked up to the lowering ramp without even checking behind him. Even if he had, it was unlikely that he would notice the two Padawans coming up from the rear, silently leaping up to grab hold of the smooth opening and pulling themselves up away from the ramp.
Immediately they slid down the dimly lit corridor, away from where N'oenar estimated the bridge to be. He allowed the Force to guide him, and Ayliana didn't question as he suddenly took off down one side corridor and up one level, then halted before a reinforced doorway. Instead of the normal palm panel on the side of the door, there was a complicated-appearing control box with a number of symbols.
"Code-locked," Ayliana breathed. N'oenar nodded, frowning. How would they get in? If this was even the right room. Putting one hand to the door, he felt for the shroud and sighed in relief when he realized it was still there. Using a whisper of the Force, he reached out with his senses beyond the door, and another, and felt something on the other side.
"This is the right one." He looked at the door again, then up at the ceiling.
"How will we get in?"
"I have an idea. Come on," he said, walking down the corridor a ways, still staring up at the ceiling. Ayliana watched him quizzically for a moment, then her face cleared.
"The air ducts!"
N'oenar nodded, still studying the ceiling. Distracted, he rounded the corner and froze when he felt a presence in front of him.
The guard frowned, then jumped back and brought his hand to the blaster at his side. Instantly, N'oenar raised his own hand, fingers slowly squeezing together in a pinching motion as he used the Force without thought. A strangled gasp escaped the guard and at the sound, power flowed through N'oenar, whispering, demanding more.
"N'oenar! Stop!" Ayliana's hiss penetrated his consciousness and he paused, confused, until she grabbed his elbow. He looked at her, blinking, as the dark power let go its hold. "The shroud is one thing… this… this is different."
Abashed, he dropped his hand, fear lancing through him. Why had killing been his first instinct? It was as if he'd opened a floodgate when he began to study the shroud, when he began to use the dark side in earnest. "You're right. I… I'm sorry, Ayliana. I don't know… I don't know what's happening. But I'll fix it."
Turning back to the recovering guard, he raised one hand and casually waved it, cautiously reaching out with the Force to bend the man's will. "You saw nothing out of the ordinary."
The guard's hand fell away from his throat. "I saw nothing."
One more casual movement of his hand, another careful bending of the mind. "We're just two other crewmen that couldn't sleep. Taking a walk around the ship."
The guard nodded dazedly. Satisfied, N'oenar and Ayliana began to walk the other direction, hoping to make it into hiding before any other guards showed. "Wait!"
N'oenar whipped around, already reaching for the dark side. The guard must mean to sound an alarm; N'oenar had to stop him before -
"Warm bantha milk," the guard called out.
Confused, N'oenar let go of the dark side, a part of him mourning its loss. "What?"
"Warm bantha milk. Best thing when you can't get to sleep."
"Ah… thanks. Didn't try that yet."
"No problem!" The guard waved at them cheerfully and then headed down the corridor, rubbing his neck.
As soon as the man was out of sight, Ayliana turned to N'oenar. He braced himself for more recriminations, but instead she said, "We have to get out of the open. There's a grate over there."
N'oenar nodded and moved to stand under the grating. Reaching out with the Force from the safety of the shroud, he felt along the grate and then the duct system, testing the strength of the tubes. Satisfied, he nodded and reached out with the Force again, this time shifting the grate soundlessly out of the way.
"After you," he whispered to Ayliana, kneeling down before her. He boosted her up, then jumped up and gripped the edge with his fingers, pulling himself up.
The air duct was larger than he'd expected, and he wondered if it served a secondary purpose. Perhaps as an access point to some of the engineering sections, he thought, noting the railings and what appeared to be handholds.
N'oenar listened to his instincts, leading Ayliana through several turns and twists before suddenly halting in front of one grate. "Here. They're below." He looked back at Ayliana. "Are you ready?" If any guards were present in the slave quarters, there might be trouble.
She nodded slightly and, taking a deep breath, he moved the grate to one side and jumped through the opening, already reaching for the Force as he dropped.
He hit the floor lightly and scanned the figures in the room. There were no guards, at least none that he could see or sense. But there were plenty of children, some just a few years younger than himself.
"Hey! Who're you?" one boy said, pushing aside one of the smaller children and standing before N'oenar. He heard Ayliana drop behind him, and saw the boy's eyes widen. "And who're you?"
"We're friends," N'oenar said, calmly waving his hand. He saw Ayliana stare at him from the corner of his eye, but he ignored her. A mind trick wasn't necessary, perhaps, but he didn't want to risk the boy sounding an alarm.
However, instead of blankly repeating N'oenar's words, the boy scowled. "How do we know?"
N'oenar cursed inwardly. Of all the children to act as spokesperson, it had to be one strong-minded enough to brush off a Jedi mind trick as easily as he'd brush off a bit of dried mud from his shoe.
Ayliana stepped forward. "Because we're going to help you escape."
There was a commotion at that, until a young woman stepped forward and raised her hands. "Calm down, everyone! Last thing we need is a bunch of guards coming in here, wondering why we're not sleeping like good little prisoners."
"Thank you," N'oenar breathed. The girl turned towards him and winked, then gave him a sly grin. Unbidden, a memory rose to the surface of N'oenar's mind: "Reminds me of Kerenne, actually, Brienna does. Same smile, like they're hiding something. Wicked things, both of them."
Sarn had been right. They were similar.
"Brienna, isn't it?"
The girl stared at him in surprise, then raised an eyebrow. "How did you-"
"Your uncle sent us." Ayliana nodded at the girl's hopeful look. "Danid came to him for help."
"So he did get away!" Brienna breathed, then turned to the boy who had originally challenged N'oenar. "Did you hear that, Joren? Danid got away!"
N'oenar frowned. "Well, you knew that already, didn't you? That is, he's not here…."
"This isn't the only room," Brienna said.
"There're three total where they keep slaves." Joren stared at N'oenar suspiciously. "If you're gonna help us escape, shouldn't you know that?"
Ayliana looked over at N'oenar, her smile barely suppressed. N'oenar sighed. "Why don't you fill us in on what you know?"
"Not just the rooms, but how the guards handle things with the captives. Do they come in on a schedule to check on you?" Ayliana asked, all amusement gone from her voice.
Joren shrugged. "I've been here for three planets so far. They'll check on us right before takeoff, that's when they'll drop off more food."
"When else do they make rounds?"
The boy shrugged. "That's it, really, until we've landed at the next planet. Sometimes they do it while we're in space, but not much. Anyway, when they've landed they'll come back to check on us and add a few more kids to the room. Usually it's a half a day or a day… I lose track of time." The boy's eyes narrowed. "So what's your plan? We can't get out through the doors."
N'oenar nodded slowly, meeting Ayliana's gaze. The timing on Gabris Prime wouldn't just be tricky, it would be impossible. They had less than three hours until dawn, and from what they'd already overheard, he knew that the Captain would take off immediately. A guard would enter the slave quarters to check on them and then the external exhaust vent would be sealed in preparation for takeoff, cutting off their escape route.
"Three rooms, and no time. I guess we're going with Plan B?" Ayliana whispered to him. Reluctantly, N'oenar nodded.
"We'll have to wait until after we land at the next planet," N'oenar told the boy. "We're going to get all the slav- I mean, captives, together and out through the air ducts at one time. We'll have ships waiting."
"The air ducts?" Brienna stepped forward, her keen gaze strongly reminiscent of her uncle. At least she wasn't smiling. "Are they strong enough to hold dozens of people?"
"Yes." N'oenar's tone was closed, but Brienna pressed on.
"How do you know?"
He shot her a quelling glance, but she refused to be quelled. Finally, he looked over at Ayliana. They had discussed this already, and had agreed to avoid mentioning their abilities if at all possible. What now? When he saw her shrug, he sighed and said, "I used the Force to judge the strength of the alloy. The ducts will hold."
"The Force?" the boy said, looking at him dubiously. "Like that blue guy?"
"No, not like him," N'oenar said harshly, not caring when the boy blinked in surprise. Ayliana laid a hand on his arm just as Brienna spoke again.
"But I thought all the Jedi were dead."
Ayliana smiled. "Not all of us."
Not yet, N'oenar thought bitterly. He started when he felt a hand slide into his, gripping it tightly. He looked at Ayliana, saw her encouraging smile, and felt his spirits lift.
Without letting go of N'oenar's hand, Ayliana quickly filled the children in on the plan. After the ship entered the atmosphere, the children would need to enter the air ducts and head towards the external exhaust vent. Then they'd leave the ship and search out Sarn and Zehrid. "But first," she finished, "we have to find where the other captives are being held and tell them about the plan."
"It's just these three rooms. They're all in a row… sometimes we can hear the other ones."
"We have to be sure," N'oenar said, staring up at the grating. He itched to be on their way; they had no way of knowing exactly when the ship would take off, and they had two more rooms – at least – to speak with. He had already sent the appropriate signals to Rohnid.
"We don't doubt you, but we must be certain not to leave a single captive behind." Ayliana's voice was soothing. "First, we have to convince the others that they should trust us."
"I'll help." Brienna stepped forward. "It'll be quicker to convince them if some of us are with you."
N'oenar shrugged; it mattered little to him, so long as they were on their way. "No more than three."
He paced around the holding cabin while the others decided who would accompany them. One group of children sat against the wall, playing some sort of game that involved a bit of cloth and random clapping. Another group stood watching him closely as he paced. He nodded to them, and as he met the tallest boy's eyes, he felt a strange affinity flood him. It was so distracting that he almost didn't hear Ayliana calling to him.
"We're ready, N'oenar."
Nodding to the tall boy, he left, still feeling a lingering sense of kinship as he walked away.
It didn't take as long as he'd feared to go over the plan with the other two rooms. It did, however, take long enough that the takeoff procedure started before they were able to complete their search for other captives and return the children to their quarters. Hoping that the guards wouldn't notice the three missing children, they stayed in the ducts until the ship was well out of the atmosphere.
As they were headed back to the room, N'oenar sensed danger approaching. Instinctively he clutched one of the handles lining the ducts. A split second later, a rush of air came through the duct, tearing at his grip. "Hold on!" he cried, reaching out and grabbing Brienna. He wrapped her fingers firmly around one of the handles, then turned to the others, his hair whipping into his eyes.
The other two children were holding on, but N'oenar's sense of warning didn't lessen. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but a secondary gust of air in the shaft ripped Joren from the wall and he went flying. N'oenar reached out with the Force to grab him, but he was too late. Ayliana had already pulled on the Force to slow Joren's progress and pull him back to the side. N'oenar's stomach froze when he sensed her in the Force, her light proud and evident.
He hoped fervently that no one else was watching.
Later, he and Ayliana took off through the ducts alone, hoping to find out some information about the next planned landing. If they could give the children a more concrete time to prepare for, it would be easier on everyone. They moved through the ducts effortlessly, and it reminded N'oenar sharply of their trips through the laundry and trash chutes, escaping the Jedi temple, which reminded him of his orders.
He was so immersed in memory that he didn't relize they were over the bridge until Ayliana grabbed his arm. When he looked at her, she pointed to her ear and then the grate. Listen
Two voices were clear from the room below. N'oenar concentrated on breathing silently as he listened.
"There's no one on the comm. What's the meaning of this?" A pause, then the voice came again, this time angry. "I didn't order you to begin the landing sequence!"
"We were ordered to land so that the Empire can board for inspection, Captain. I didn't think it would be wise to ignore their request."
The answering voice was no longer angry, but shrill with fear. "The Empire! What?"
"It's someone named Lord Vader, not the Emperor himself, but they insist on inspecting the vessel before we continue on."
"Well, what are you waiting for? Continue the landing sequence!"
They backed away from the grate, and in the dim light N'oenar could see Ayliana's eyes shining. "We're landing. It's our chance."
"Our only chance, if Vader's boarding." He forced himself to look away from her before his own expression gave away his emotions. Her light shone bright, and she refused to learn. Gripping her arm, he pulled her towards the slave cabins. "Come on."
Working swiftly, they entered each room in turn and assisted the captives into the air ducts. A single fierce look from N'oenar was enough to keep them silent – they knew the plan, as well as the stakes if they should fail.
The final room took far too long in N'oenar's estimation. They had just a few children left when the ship finally landed. Fear rose in him like a black cloud. "Hurry, Ayliana! We need to be gone when he arrives."
But it wasn't to be so. The moment after the craft settled firmly on its landing gear, N'oenar heard the hiss of the ramp opening below them. With his senses enhanced by the Force, he could feel Vader approaching the Silver Cage. Ayliana caught his eye, and he knew that she felt it, also. They urged the final captives to move more quickly, practically shoving them through the open panel above the holding chambers.
Hoping that the boarding protocol on a slaver ship would take as long as it did with normal bureaucracies, he caught the edge of the vent and pulled himself up enough to see the children huddled in the duct. In an urgent whisper, he ordered them to move towards the external exhaust. "Go, keep moving! Quietly – we'll be with you straightaway."
A faintly heard voice from below – where the ramp was located - sent icy fear to the pit of his stomach. "You appear to have a breach in your security, Captain."
He couldn't hear the rest, but he recognized the speaker. Vader. He could sense the Sith Lord easily, which at first confused him. But then he realized – why would the man bother with the shroud? Why would Darth Vader waste energy hiding his powers, when he had nothing to hide from – nothing to fear?
Dropping to the floor silently, N'oenar caught Ayliana's gaze. He shook his head at her - let me - and then concentrated all his will on the voices. They came into focus, bolstered by the dark power roiling within him, power that was safely hidden beneath the shroud.
"Jedi? Well, we have some… ah… some passengers. But they're not Jedi."
"Passengers." A pause, then, "Show me."
"All right. They're in a few different rooms. Right this way."
He could feel them approaching. They were in the corridor, headed towards the The footsteps approached in the corridor. It would take a minute or two for them to get through each of the security doors. Too long, and not long enough.
His fingers fluttered over the hilt of his saber, but he knew it would be pointless. The dark Jedi that N'oenar had fought had been amateurs – Padawans, in a way – while the man outside was a true Master. He knew he didn't stand a chance. As a Jedi, or a Sith.
Ayliana was watching him expectantly. "They're coming to this room," he whispered, his voice barely a breath. Ayliana nodded calmly.
"Go, N'oenar. Get them out." Ayliana's voice was calm. Deadly calm.
Mindful of the beings in the corridor, he kept his voice low. "No, you have to come with us-"
"But-" His mind cast around wildly. He knew she was right, but there had to be another answer! There had to be… "Call on the shroud now! You can do it, Ayliana, you can! You've seen me practice! The fear, use it!"
"But I'm not afraid."
He felt like ripping his hair out, like screaming, like…. The anger and fear came so easily to him, now, that it was second nature. And that made him more afraid.
"You should be afraid! Why aren't you? Be afraid… if not for yourself, be afraid for the children, the slaves, then!"
Be afraid for me.
She smiled sadly and laid one hand along his cheek. "N'oenar. You know what has to happen. You can hide; I can't. I won't. He already knows; he's sensed us. He's sensed me."
The footsteps approached the second door, and N'oenar heard Vader say, "The Jedi is here. Leave, Captain. I do not require your assistance any further."
The Captain's reply was softer, but audible. "All right, but… you….." Vader must have conveyed something silently, because the next words were, "My apologies, Lord Vader. Here's the sequence you need to enter, let me just get them on this datapad…."
There was no more time. "Ayliana, please-"
"Goodbye, brother of my heart. Protect the slaves. Guide them out; they'll need you. The children need you. Hide. Live."
He choked back a sob and opened his mouth for one more protest, but he knew… he could feel it… Vader was too close to them. The door would soon open. The slaves needed someone to lead them off the ship, to lead them back to where Zehrid and Sarn waited with the transports. But….
She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Go. I am the Keeper of the Faith. I will be one with the Force. And through the Force, I will always be with you, N'oenar. You will not be alone."
He couldn't speak past the thickness in his throat. With a nod, and a long final look at her peaceful face, he filled himself with fear and anger and sorrow, hiding within himself. Hiding within the Force. Covering his light with the shroud. Only then, only when he was hidden completely in the Force, did he step away from Ayliana and her light.
Quickly he leaped up and grabbed the edge of the open ventilation shaft. He pulled himself through and lifted the grating back into place, moving silently. Backing away from the opening, he turned and looked up and down the shaft length, his Force-enhanced senses easily picking out where the others were gathered in the shadowed vent. They were silent, huddled together, watching him. Waiting. He had just begun to head towards them when he felt it.
The presence. It grew strong. Unable to stop himself, he crept back to the grate, peering through the opening into the room he'd just left.
The respirator was steady and slow, the voice mechanical and monotone. Only the speed of speech told of any anger. Cold, he sounded, though N'oenar knew – all too well - the heat that lay beneath that cool surface. Ice gives way to flame. Except this one did not even attempt to smolder… he blazed, blazed like a thousand furnaces, an endless cavern of fierce flames.
"So. Not a Jedi, but a Padawan."
Ayliana ignored his comment. "The slaves are gone, Vader. You won't have them."
"Slaves?" The dark figure paused, and N'oenar frowned, edging closer to the opening. The light… a light began to shine from Vader, but then it was gone again. It had seemed somehow familiar….
Luminous beings, we are.
A chill crept down his spine.
"Yes, slaves. I freed them, and they're gone now." Ayliana settled her stance and pulled out her saber. The green light shone on her face, illuminating it with an unearthly glow.
"And you think one noble act will erase the black stain of treason from your conscience?"
"Treason?" Ayliana stared at the Sith Lord, honest confusion etched on her features. "There was no trea-"
Continuing as if she hadn't spoken, the deep, mechanized voice declared, "If they are gone, then they will live. You, however, should not have lingered."
A red glow joined the green one, and N'oenar's mind raced, trying to think of some answer, some way to help her, something he could do, something other than simply hide… the fear twisted around him and he held onto it tightly, strengthening the shroud… live…
The blades met.
Green and red, he watched, unblinking, as they whirled and crashed together, the glows burning into his retinas. Loud humming, electrical crashes, Ayliana spun and twisted, meeting Vader's blade with fierce determination, with the strength of the righteous. Vader stepped back once… and then again…. For a brief time, N'oenar began to hope. Maybe she could do it, where others had failed! Maybe she could-
Then he realized the truth: Vader was toying with her.
"I have not met a saber in many days. I hoped you would give me some practice before your death, traitor, but it seems you have failed in this, as well."
Then the Chosen One pulled on his power, on the Force, on both sides of it… dark and light… oily black snaking through the brightness… his blade rose and fell, fast, strong, steady. N'oenar knew he shouldn't watch, but couldn't help himself. His sister – sister of his heart, if not his blood – fought valiantly. But then, one misstep… a red slash, red like the darkest center of flame, red like blood. A muffled groan, and then the horrific sound of her body falling to the floor, the red following her….
He watched numbly as Vader turned off his saber, attached it to his belt. He listened without truly hearing as a low voice came from the dark figure. "Slaves."
And then… a light shone brightly in the Force. So brightly. The black mask turned towards the vent and N'oenar frantically scrabbled for the dark, only to find that his fear and anger had maintained the shroud even without his conscious effort.
But, why was Vader's attention drawn to- no! His eyes followed Vader's line of sight, fixing on the corner of the vent grating. A small bit of torn cloth hung from the edge. A painted arrow, lighting the direction the slaves had escaped.
He had failed.
Then, the light shone again, and he heard Vader's breathing, loud and unnatural, in the silent room. His eyes were drawn to where Ayliana lay, and the silence of her form, the stillness, cut him in a way nothing else had. His saber hilt held tight in his hand, he waited for Vader to beckon, to rip the vent cover away from the opening with a gesture, to find the slaves and slaughter them, as he had the children in the Jedi Temple.
N'oenar would be ready. He would slow this creature that used to be Anakin Skywalker long enough for the slaves to escape. He could blaze, if he must.
One more mechanical breath, then a slow nod, and to N'oenar's surprise the black figure turned away from the grate and walked from the room, cape rippling behind him.
From the corridor, he heard Vader's voice, the unmistakable mechanical tones grating on ears sensitized by the Force. "There are no survivors."
Another voice, one that he recognized… the whiny tones of the slave ship's captain. "No survivors? But, what about our shipment? Do you have any idea how many credi-" A horrible choking sound came, then, and N'oenar smiled bitterly.
"Your shipment was without the Emperor's approval and, therefore-" The thick thud of a body hitting the floor echoed from the corridor. "-I am relaying his displeasure." Then N'oenar heard nothing but the breathing from Vader's regulator and the sound of his footsteps, slowly diminishing as the Sith Lord walked away.
N'oenar held onto the anger and fear, maintaining the shroud, until he and the former captives were far from the Silver Cage. Far from Vader. Even then, he continued to hold onto it, clinging desperately to the emotions that protected him from detection.
The trip was a blur. Rohnid and Sarn handled the travel arrangements, identifying those children that lived near each other, separating them into groups for ease of transport. He rode with Sarn back to Gabris Prime, with Brienna's group. Many had been taken from the Hroten province, and he endured the families' gratefulness as well as he could, summoning a half smile when appropriate, speaking short words when necessary. Sarn understood, and did not disturb him beyond a clap to the shoulder on occasion.
When they reached their final destination, Brienna's home, he accepted her family's invitation to stay with them for a time. He knew he could lower the shroud, now, so long as he didn't use the Force, but he clung to it, denying the need to let it go… fear and anger were his existence, and he welcomed them, using them as a shield against more painful emotions.
Eventually, however, anger and fear had to fade. And he had to dream.
The Jedi Council chamber was empty, except for
his master. No chairs sat in a circle, no dark cloud hung within, no
other beings made their presence known. "You have done
well." Master Dannew's voice was calm, steady. "The
birds are free," N'oenar said, his voice hollow. Was it worth
it? Was all of this worth it? Master Dannew nodded. "The
birds are free." He could feel his Master's eyes follow
him as he walked to the window. The blackness still hung outside, but
it did not roil with the same intensity. The Force's will had been
done. He clenched his fists, then relaxed them with an effort. "Many
of them will become Force users, won't they? The
captives." "Yes." "Yaril chose
them, special…. You said they would be the building blocks – some
of the building blocks - that recreate the Order. " N'oenar
squeezed his eyes shut. "Who will train them? I… I can't." "I
know." "I can't… I can't use the Force any longer,
Master. I can't." Master Dannew moved to stand beside
him, and he could feel the weight of his stare, sadness seeping from
him. "It is your choice." "No. I have no
choice, not now." "There is always choice." N'oenar
shook his head. "Not for me. I never learned… things… the
dark side, how to wrestle it-" "It can be learned.
The will of the Force-" N'oenar whirled on his Master,
then. "It was the will of the Force that Kerenne should die?
That Keruck should be killed? That Ay…" He squeezed his eyes
shut and turned back to the window. "That Ayliana should
die?" "The will of the Force isn't always clear at
first-" "If that was the will of the Force, then I want
nothing more to do with it!" he snarled, pounding the cool glass
with one fist. "You still have a task." "I
deny it." Master Dannew continued as if N'oenar hadn't
spoken. "Knowledge you hold. Ayliana was the embodiment of the
Jedi Order. She kept the faith, and shared it. You are the embodiment
of its knowledge. You must keep it, and share it." N'oenar
stared at his hand, silent. "You must share that
knowledge. If not now-" "I can't." He bowed his
head and let his arm drop to his side. Then he felt a hand on his
shoulder, and he looked up into his Master's calm eyes. "You
have time. The blood of the Chosen One will light the way."
Master Dannew squeezed his shoulder gently. "The Force will
always be with you, N'oenar, whether you choose to see it or
"You have done well." Master Dannew's voice was calm, steady.
"The birds are free," N'oenar said, his voice hollow. Was it worth it? Was all of this worth it?
Master Dannew nodded. "The birds are free."
He could feel his Master's eyes follow him as he walked to the window. The blackness still hung outside, but it did not roil with the same intensity. The Force's will had been done. He clenched his fists, then relaxed them with an effort. "Many of them will become Force users, won't they? The captives."
"Yaril chose them, special…. You said they would be the building blocks – some of the building blocks - that recreate the Order. " N'oenar squeezed his eyes shut. "Who will train them? I… I can't."
"I can't… I can't use the Force any longer, Master. I can't."
Master Dannew moved to stand beside him, and he could feel the weight of his stare, sadness seeping from him. "It is your choice."
"No. I have no choice, not now."
"There is always choice."
N'oenar shook his head. "Not for me. I never learned… things… the dark side, how to wrestle it-"
"It can be learned. The will of the Force-"
N'oenar whirled on his Master, then. "It was the will of the Force that Kerenne should die? That Keruck should be killed? That Ay…" He squeezed his eyes shut and turned back to the window. "That Ayliana should die?"
"The will of the Force isn't always clear at first-"
"If that was the will of the Force, then I want nothing more to do with it!" he snarled, pounding the cool glass with one fist.
"You still have a task."
"I deny it."
Master Dannew continued as if N'oenar hadn't spoken. "Knowledge you hold. Ayliana was the embodiment of the Jedi Order. She kept the faith, and shared it. You are the embodiment of its knowledge. You must keep it, and share it."
N'oenar stared at his hand, silent.
"You must share that knowledge. If not now-"
"I can't." He bowed his head and let his arm drop to his side. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up into his Master's calm eyes.
"You have time. The blood of the Chosen One will light the way." Master Dannew squeezed his shoulder gently. "The Force will always be with you, N'oenar, whether you choose to see it or not."
He couldn't breathe. Leaping from the guest room bed, he ran out into the rear yard, stumbled to the riverbank. The sound of the water was low, rippling, constant, and would have been a comfort to him in any other time.
But not now.
Everything rushed in at once. Her muffled cry. The sound of her body falling to the ground. The steady, inhuman breathing from him. Now that the children were safely away, now that the shroud had lowered, he had time to think. To remember. To feel.
And right now, to feel was the last thing he wanted to do.
There is no death; there is the Force.
A wave of nausea crashed over him and he bent over, wretching.
Do not mourn those that join the Force… Rejoice in their passing…
Rejoice that she'd been killed by a dark Jedi, by a fallen hero, by a man who had been trained by the best of the best to kill with efficiency and coldness? Rejoice? Skywalker may not show joy in his face, but he certainly showed it with his actions. How many Jedi had he killed? How much joy had Vader brought to the Force?
Was N'oenar the last? The last living Jedi?
He didn't want this. Not… no. He wouldn't follow it any longer. He couldn't. He had lost too much, gained too little. His hand shaking, he pulled the braid from his pocket and stared at it. The symbol of his Padawan status. The symbol of the past. It had been severed from his head, thrown to the ground, and though he'd tried to catch it and hold onto it, it was forever lost to him. The Jedi were lost. He was lost… almost. The darkness was ever present, waiting, waiting….
You're not a Jedi. Hide. Live.."
His final order. And he would obey it.
He would not fall to the dark.
He would not become truly lost.
He would hide. And he would live, but not as a Jedi. The last true Jedi had died. Ayliana, sister of his heart, had died.
Walking to the edge, he stared at the river. It flowed past, blissfully ignorant of misfortune and pain. Without care for his troubles. Like the Force.
Sever the past.
He tightened his fist around the braid and then, his jaw clenched hard, he threw it into the rushing water.