Chapter 8



The leap was at the very height of his limit, and it took all the power and Force he could muster to make it all the way to the top, where he willed the Force beneath him and used it as a springboard to launch himself forward and up at an angle. He landed somewhere near the middle of the white-and-gray structure with the elegance of a creature that had been designed for such business. The sun hit his eyes, and his hand instinctively flew up to shield them.

"Vulcanus! Darth Vulcanus, Sir!" Trael Kitsun flung himself into his hero and embraced him warmly in a heartfelt hug. "I'm so glad I found you!"

Blinking the remaining glare out of his eyes, Vulcanus stared down at the fluffy blond head. It was the first time in a long time he'd been grabbed unexpectedly by someone he hadn't even perceived in the area.

"Trael! Come back here!" Obi-Wan demanded, giving Vulcanus a look that said he was still unsure about him, "We can't leave without you!"

"But there's somethin' I hafta ask!" Trael insisted, letting go.

Obi-Wan reached them and stopped, careful to maintain a reasonable distance between himself and Vulcanus. The younglings might be safe around this oddball, but adults could be a different matter. The frown he wore was one of concern. "Alright. But hurry up."

Trael looked Vulcanus straight in the eye. Beaming, he asked "Can I be your apprentice?"

Vulcanus gave him a weak smile. Aw. How cute. "Sorry, but I'm not allowed to have any apprentices." He reached down and ruffled the boy's hair in a clumsy friendship gesture. "My father would kill me. And you."

Obi-Wan was just about to coax Trael into to heading back with him when he felt an almost overpowering swell of frustration, anger, desperation, and regret in the Force.

Anakin was close by.

Ignoring the safety-conscious part of his mind which urged him not to take his eyes off of Darth Vulcanus, he lunged to the side of the bridge. Grasped the whitestone-and-metal edge that served as a railing. And looked down.

There he was. His apprentice; the man he thought of as a brother. He was just standing there on the landing platform, staring up at them. If Darth Vulcanus had hurt him at all, it couldn't have been very much. The height made facial expressions a bit difficult to discern, but Obi-Wan didn't need to see him up close to know he was the spitting image of emotional torment with the line of his mouth set as hard as stone and flames-turned-to-ice spewing forth from the cold furnaces of his eyes. Several feet away from him, shrouded in a black cloak, lay the motionless body of what appeared to be another Sith — his newest master?

Darth Vulcanus must have slain him, but why did he spare Anakin? That's twice now he's had the chance to kill him and didn't. Unless…maybe there's a grain of truth to that story he told me?

It seemed preposterous, but then, Master Yoda hadn't discounted the idea, and they had no proof there weren't other universes out there. At the very least, Vulcanus had an affection of sorts for Anakin, which, if he were lying about his origins, defied logic, sanity, and everything Sith.

Whatever the case, Anakin was incapable of matching Vulcanus's super Force leap, and his frustration at this grew more powerful with each passing second.

I have to reach him. We have to talk. For better or worse, Obi-Wan had to hear Anakin's side of the story. He owed him at least that much. Whatever happened after that…well, he'd cross that bridge when he got there.

Hold on, Anakin. I'm coming. Pulling away from the rail, he turned to Vulcanus. "I can't believe I'm asking this, but can you get Trael back to Master Yoda? I have some unfinished business with Anakin."

To his semi-astonishment, Vulcanus was agreeable. "Sure. I don't mind spending more time with my Number One fan, and I need to recharge a bit before I can go home anyway."

Trael waved happily to Obi-Wan. "Good luck! And be careful. Anakin can get awfully mean."

"So I've been hearing." the Jedi Master uttered under his breath. Giving Vulcanus a curt nod of appreciation, he bolted along the bridge back the way he'd came, where he knew there was an elevator not far.

Trael watched him go for only a moment before returning his attention to his Sith Lord friend. "But I really want to be your apprentice," he half whined half begged, big brown eyes sparkling with hope and admiration.

Vulcanus frowned and shook his head. "No."

"But there has to be a way…"

"There isn't."

"You could hide me from your father and train me in secret."

"No I couldn't. Kid, I live in another dimension. In that reality, my father is Emperor of the galaxy, and I'm King. People pay attention to what we do and who we're with, believe me. Even if I ordered my men to be silent on penalty of death it wouldn't change the fact that my father can almost read minds through the Force, has his own secrets-finding task-force — many of which I suspect may be focused on me — and there are millions of prying eyes out there. So even if we tried that, there's no guarantee you still wouldn't be found and murdered anyway."

Far from being deterred, Trael was fascinated. "King? You really are a king?"

"Yes."

"An Master Skywalker's son from another universe…the future of another universe?"

"What can I say? Sith lie, but in that case I wasn't." He gestured towards the edge of the bridge. "And if you think this 'Master Skywalker' is mean, hoh boy, you oughta see my father. Compared to him this version is the embodiment of kindness and patience. And, I know I've already said that my father is much stronger with the Force than this cheap imitation, but I really can't emphasize that enough. Comparing one to the other would be like comparing a fancy toy TIE fighter to the real thing, like….like a gas giant to a terrestrial world."

Wonder and excitement played about Trael's features. "Wow," he marveled, "What about the Jedi?"

One corner of Vulcanus's mouth turned up in the ghost of a smirk. "My father and I killed them all." he said point-blankly, lying through his teeth to make his reality sound less appealing.

"But you told Master Kenobi that the Jedi didn't bother you."

Damn. Kid has a good memory. Vulcanus's near-smirked gave way to a comical, frustrated scowl. "Yes, well that's why they don't bother me and stay out of my way." He grabbed Trael by the arm and started off in the direction Obi-Wan had gone. "Come. Let's get you to that green midget with the speech disorder. He'll take you and the others someplace safe where you can finish your training and grow up to be good little Jedi. Save the day and all that good stuff." In spite of his efforts, he couldn't stop the sarcasm and disdain from slipping into his tone. He didn't agree with the Jedi way, and any child could see that.

Trael Kitsun was no exception. "But I don't want to be a Jedi anymore," he declared, tugging against Vulcanus's grip and planting his feet firmly on his next step, "I want to be a Sith, like you."

Vulcanus stopped and gave him a scary, dead-serious look. "Oh, is that so?" he said hotly, suddenly savage, "You want me to teach you how to kill the weak and be feared? Could you handle it? Could you plunge your lightsaber through the hearts of lowly nobodies, chop off the heads of those who got in your way, and ignore all the whiny sob-stories people give for why they and their precious families should live? I killed a man once for failing to address me properly. Sliced him in half before he even knew what hit him. Then his brother, who had been watching, broke down into a crying fit of sentimental weakness, and I threatened to kill him too, if he didn't get his act together. You think that's cool? Is it something you could do?" Releasing the boy's arm, he drew his hand over his belt and glided his fingers over the silvery lightsaber hilt. "I've destroyed entire cities, entire worlds. And I didn't feel a twinge of remorse. I like it. I love it. You do as I say or you die. Sometimes I kill people even if they do as I say, just because I feel like it. Just because I can. I laugh at their so-called suffering. Then I stomp them like the insects they are." His eyes shifted abruptly from their relaxed light-blue to the flaming Sith red-and-yellow.

Trael jerked back, startled.

"I think maybe you don't understand how cruel the Sith can be. How cruel I can be." His voice was a cold growl; not a glimmer of kindness or compassion lingered in his now brutally harsh face. He freed his lightsaber and activated it in the blink of an eye: a sharp crimson line reflected in two brown pools of innocence.

Trael stood his ground bravely — looked him right in the eye without flinching or displaying even the tiniest shadow of fear.

Vulcanus arced his weapon. "I hate to do this, but you leave me no choice."

The merciless blade blazed through the air.

And stopped dead short of slicing the top of Trael's head off; a sandy-yellow lock of hair actually incinerated on the burning laser.

Vulcanus's fearsome façade melted away. "I could have killed you, you know." he sighed in defeat. His eyes returned to normal.

A small smiled slithered onto Trael's face. "I knew you wouldn't."

Vulcanus snorted, but there was far more frustration than anger in the action. "Suppose you'd been wrong?"

Trael did not even attempt to step away from the deadly blade that hovered no more than an inch from the side of his head. "I knew I wasn't."

"But if you had been?"

The boy shrugged. "Then I'd be one with the Force. Better that than not gettin' to have you for a master."

Vulcanus groaned. "Oh, no wonder Anakin almost killed you!" He withdrew his blade and frowned sternly at the small child who apparently didn't fear Sith in any way, shape, or form. "You are impossible."

"Then I getta be your apprentice after all?" Trael was almost bouncing on his heels. Yes! I did it! I proved myself to him! I —

"No." Vulcanus killed the laser blade and slipped his weapon back into place. "Just get that out of your mind. I'll walk you back to where you belong, but that's it. If you keep bugging me, I'll just abandon you and let you find your own way. There aren't any Storm Troopers alive in there to worry about, and Anakin's busy with his ex master. You don't really need me anymore." He started forward again.

So why are you walking with him, then? his ever-present demon pressed, All the more time for you to get attached, and you know what your father said about that.

"But I do!" Trael was crushed. He kept pace at Vulcanus's side, staring up at him forlornly.

Vulcanus averted his gaze and refused to look at him. This was much more difficult and confusing then he ever imagined it would be. The kid didn't understand. He couldn't. Yet his determination was so strong that nothing Vulcanus said or did would convince him to give up on his fool's dream.

They made it to the ajar temple door in a charged silence, stepping over and around debris and the bodies of the fallen. Just as they were passing through the threshold, Trael said "Lord Vulcanus, Sir, don't you like me?"

The question pounced on the Imperial King like a feline predator on an ungulate, taking him completely by surprise. "Well, I uh…of course I do."

It wasn't a lie, yet it came out sounding phony and stilted all the same.

Vulcanus mentally kicked himself, but it was too late to try and fix it now — he'd only sound even more insincere. Still he neglected to make eye-contact with his little friend, choosing instead to keep his focus resolutely on the path ahead. Too bad I'm not as big a champion with words as I am dueling. Well, the nicer words anyway. I've get this kid so messed up he thinks I'm the messiah and can't tell black from white. I probably look like the biggest, fattest hypocrite in the whole freakin' universe, too. Not that he cares. I could sell him cordless extension cords if I wanted.

Where were those Jedi?

Vulcanus reached out with the Force to see what he could get.

"Then why don't you want to be around me?"

Vulcanus's concentration shattered. He finally met the youngling's gaze.

Trael's sad, pleading face said it all. He looked like a baby animal that had just been abandoned by its mother, kicked, and thrown out into the cold rain to fend for itself.

A foreign emotion stabbed Vulcanus's heart — how could he care so much about someone other than himself and his father's feelings? Lives were one thing — and that in and of itself was a wonderfully gray area — but feelings?

Ridiculous!

They were unimportant and trivial, like the dirt beneath his feet. He certainly didn't worry about feelings when he was making his rounds, having fun, or punishing those who rubbed him the wrong way.

A small, subdued sigh escaped his lips as he reached up and massaged his temple lightly with two fingers, eyes downcast. He was so distracted that he almost tripped over a slab of broken marble. They were walking around the fallen giant statue for some reason, even though it would have been nothing for Vulcanus to grab Trael and leap over it.

"Listen, Trael…I think we'd better clear the air here. It's not that I don't like or want to be around you. It's that I can't. My life is too busy. My father is an 'evil bad guy', to put it in a language you can understand. The likelihood that you would die within the first week is quite high, and even if you don't care about that, I do." He paused to lift a few large chunks of collapsed wall and debris out of the way with the Force before continuing. "Besides, even if we pretend for a moment that my father had a complete and utter change of heart and personality and decided to accept you, that still wouldn't change the fact that you're never, ever going to get as powerful as us with the Force —"

"That's okay —"

Vulcanus went on as though he hadn't been interrupted. "Oh, sure, you say that's unimportant now, but how will you feel ten or twelve years down the line when my father and I are still throwing Force lasers out of our hands, leaping a hundred feet high, moving too fast for your eyes to follow, pulling ships out of the sky, splitting the ground open, controlling fountains of lava, and running on the air and you're still struggling to throw Force lightning and lift large objects? You won't be able to keep up with us. And you'll be a liability — the weak link our enemies seek out. Even in the best case scenario we'll still outlive you; my father and I are filled with so much midi-chlorian it actually greatly slows our aging processes. So we'll still be fairly sharp of mind and body even when you're a white-bearded old coot reminiscing to anyone who will listen about the good 'ole days when you still had it." He shook his head. "No. Just…no. This really is the best way for you, Kiddo. We'll find the green guy. He'll set you straight. And if he doesn't, don't go looking for Sith. Most of them aren't anything like me. At all. End of discussion."

Trael went silent, and Vulcanus could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he took it all in.

They reentered the hallway in which they'd first encountered Obi-Wan and Yoda. It was just as they had left it, minus the younglings and Jedi.

The Force told Vulcanus to keep going straight; the Jedi Master and his batch of kids were hesitant to leave, probably because they were waiting on Obi-Wan and Trael.

"I understand." Trael finally relinquished. This time, when Vulcanus attempted to meet his gaze, his eyes fell to the floor, as though he couldn't bare to look at him.

Vulcanus nodded slowly and awarded him a very thin, strained smile. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it?" He said with false cheer, "Trust me, after a while you won't even miss me."

The wall to their right collapsed in without warning, drawing Vulcanus's immediate attention.

Trael offered up a smile of his own. Yes. Yes I don't think I will miss you.

X-x-X-x-X-x-X

It didn't take Vulcanus long to find Yoda and the other younglings and reunite Trael with them. They were really happy to have him back — Vulcanus figured Trael must have been their unofficial leader in the absence of older people. The problem was that they were equally as elated to have their guardian Sith Lord back, and not in the least thrilled with the idea of him leaving their lives forever.

How they begged and pleaded with him to stay!

Jenn-Fa said he was a powerful force of good who could really help the rest of the Jedi recover.

The brown-haired girl — bless her heart — even went so far as to call him the very soul of goodness, a compliment which made him blush all over and feel mightily awkward and guilty inside since it was so very, very untrue.

Ola said the Jedi needed him — they needed him — and when he'd pointed out that Jedi needed a Sith like a coat on Tatooine she'd merely laughed and declared she would wear a coat on Tatooine for as long as he wanted if it would make him stay.

Master Yoda knew better than to hastily affix a label of 'good' on him just for doing one or two good deeds, and knew fully well that he was, in fact, a Sith, and not merely a Jedi with an identity crisis. Nonetheless he didn't correct the children or try to dissuade them from praising their dark savior or trying to get him to stick around.

Vulcanus didn't fully understand why; perhaps he already knew the outcome. Or perhaps, maybe, he knew the younglings now more than ever needed something to believe in: a hero.

In truth, it was a little of both, but he never dreamed that there was a third element, and that it involved him personally.

Yoda knew that Vulcanus needed to hear his praises sung. Needed to see the smiling, loving faces of these small children in all their innocence trust and adore him for all the good he had done. Because Yoda knew — even if Darth Vulcanus didn't — that the experience would fundamentally change him.

Not in a big way. Not at first. Maybe never in a big way. But the seeds were sown, and now all they needed were the right catalysts to start them growing; perhaps the tears of the grateful. Or the joy of unselfish love. A Sith he may be, but Darth Vulcanus had more Jedi traits than most.

Yoda wondered what his master/father thought of that — if he even noticed.

Finally, after a few long goodbyes, Vulcanus turned away from his adoring fan club and raced off for lonelier parts.

Yoda smiled. Treat a person as he is, remain as he is, he will. Treat a person for what he could be, become what he could be, he will.

X-x-X-x-X-x-X

Vulcanus didn't know where he was going. Someplace quiet and private, he supposed. But now that the Jedi Temple was an empty, massive graveyard, he had plenty of places to choose from.

So why was he charging through the rooms and corridors as if he already had a place picked out and knew exactly how to get to it? He'd already passed several suitable areas along the way. Any of those would have done.

Yet hefelt compelled to keep on…he was running from something.

Running from the younglings.

Why?

It wasn't like they could follow him, especially at this clip and with Master Yoda keeping a watchful eye over them.

No.

He'd seen the last of them for sure.

He breezed through a large double-door and ended up in what was probably the slumber party/ extra-large meditation room, as it was vast, bland, and almost completely lacking furniture or equipment. One of the grande windows was busted in and splintering shards of glass coated the short tan carpet.

Okay, Vulcanus thought with a degree of amusement, pausing in the threshold, Official favorite Jedi color is tan. They prefer their rooms to be spacey, familiar, and without décor or personality. My god, they're boring. If this place were mine, I'd have the fanciest stained-glass windows, an assortment of different-colored furniture that actually looked good, a black carpet, interesting lighting, holo portraits of natural disasters hanging from the wall, and an actual use for this room. And just while we're on it, why the spotted lipercats do the Jedi need so many rooms for sitting around peacefully getting in touch with the Force? Does the Force really hate them so much that they have to work so hard to 'connect' with it? Do they have to make it offerings, do little dances and rituals to earn its favor?

An eerie stillness hung in the air. Coruscant's traffic hummed faintly in the background. A gentle breeze gusted in through the window and caressed Vulcanus's face in a light, almost flirty manner.

This room felt too exposed.

Sure, there wasn't anyone here now, and likely wouldn't be for a while, but sooner or later the planet's primary authority figures were going to work up the nerve to come in and investigate. Nowhere near a threat, but definitely annoying. Vulcanus didn't feel like dealing with anyone else in this reality.

He took the Cindray out of his pouch and stared at it. The beautiful diamond-shaped crystal was still dark and dead, but a soft, fragile pink glow was just beginning to color the point of one end.

The Cindray was coming back to life. But not nearly fast enough.

Vulcanus brushed the fingers of his left hand over the facets lovingly.

And sighed. I have to charge it up. But first, I have to charge myself up. Two hours' rest should do it.

He wasn't sure exactly how long he'd been asleep in the sick-bay, but he'd woken up feeling much more revitalized and the fight with Anakin and Sidious hadn't taken anything too substantial out of him. Still, he wanted to be at full-power for the recharge, because it would take a lot out of him, and he preferred not to enter his own reality at the critical-point.

As he gazed into the technological — or should that be mystical? — marvel, he couldn't help but to wonder why it had appeared away from him on this trip when it hadn't on all the others, how it had ended up where it had, and if it was going to do it again.

He noticed a door down the long hall on the far left side of the room. It felt inviting somehow. Warm.

Still deep in thought, he headed slowly towards it.

What made this trip different? What did I do differently?

He hadn't done anything differently. Unless….Just before I set out, Sky Lieutenant Avena gave me a smoky quartz crystal ring for good luck. His eyes fell to the ring, still nestled snugly on his left pointer-finger. The band was a rare white silver which glinted and shimmered with every move of his finger like fresh-laid snow on a moonlit night. Twisting strands of it rose up to tightly embrace the medium-sized cut of quartz, which, true to its name, resembled a normal clear crystal which had been hung over the smoke of a fire and absorbed some of it. Compared to diamonds and other rare gems it wasn't particularly lustrous or interesting to look at, but when light — particularly sunlight — struck its tiny facets at just the right angle it sparkled with a brilliant rainbow of purple, green, and blue, with flecks of fiery red-orange.

Vulcanus knew that of all the precious gems and minerals crystals of any type were considered the most powerful because of their strong influence on and ability to change, absorb, and channel the energy fields which were said to surround every living and nonliving thing in existence. Since these energy fields were, in fact, the living Force in its purest form, crystals were constant Force disruptors that, when focused upon with a trained mind and will, made Force feats much, much easier and sometimes even possible for non Force-sensitive beings to perform. Which made a crystal ring a natural compliment to any Force user.

The Cindray was a very special crystal that acted as an unfathomably powerful superconductor, retainer, and multiplier of the Force. It was this extreme power that allowed it to cut through the fabric of space-time and warp its users to another universe. It was not a product of nature, but rather the most highly-sophisticated technology in probably all of Creation, and unique in its ability to gather so much energy without being willed to do so, multiply it by a large factor, and store it indefinitely until willed to release it in the form of transportation.

Could my ring have messed it up somehow — repelled it from me?

Vulcanus didn't see how it could have, since his smoky quartz wasn't even a speck of dirt in the shadow of anything in the shadow of the Cindray's magnitude, but he had been holding the Cindray in that hand last time he'd used it.

Did size really matter when it came to crystals? Could something with such a weak Force influence as the smoky quartz actually disrupt the Cindray's energy flow?

Possibly. Probably not very much, but then the Cindray hadn't appeared very far away from him, had it? Not considering that it had a whole planet, galaxy, or even universe to work with. The interference had been minimal.

The ring had been in very close proximity to the crystal at the time. The connection was present, and it was the only thing that made any sense, so Vulcanus decided to go with it. I'll take the ring off and put it in the Cindray pouch before I go ahead with my traveling plans this time.

Reaching the door, he opened it and was greeted with an eyeful of half a dozen rows of bunk-beds lining each side of two walls across from each other in a fairly large room. The frames were all made of the same simple gray metal alloy, and the mattresses were all dressed in the same monotonous brown blankets with folded-back white sheets. The carpet was a little thicker here, but still that blasted tan. There were no windows.

Vulcanus placed his ticket home back into its pouch and zipped it tight. Then he went over to the nearest bed and dropped down on it.

It was unpleasantly firm.

"You know, these Jedi do not know how to live," he said scathingly, not caring that there was no one around to hear him complain, "I can almost forgive the lack of identity and taste, but damn — only a droid could sleep on these beds without getting sore and bruised all over." He patted the mattress for good measure and rolled his eyes. "Yep. Like sleeping on clouds. What type of rock did they use to make these?" He grabbed the pillow and fluffed it.

It was pretty stiff, too.

"Well, I found their prison chamber. And here everyone tried to tell me the Jedi didn't have one. Pfft."

Vulcanus took the ensuing silence as an agreement. Still, beds were beds, and he didn't have anything better to do while he waited.

Undoing the Cindray pouch from his belt, he slipped it just out of view underneath the bed, rolled over, and closed his eyes, relaxing. He tuned into the Force, trying to sense any potential threats.

There were none.

Secure in the knowledge that he would wake up instantly if anyone were to enter the room, he slipped into Dreamworld.

This time it was kind to him, and the reliving of painful memories did not occur.

X-x-X-x-X-x-X

Yoda disappeared around the corner, midway in the youngling herd.

Trael knew that if he was going to go, it had to be now. Yoda would never abandon the others to look for him, and if he brought them along he risked exposing them to more danger, and they'd just slow him down. Once Obi-Wan came back it would be a different story.

So he had been hanging out at the very back of the procession, waiting for just this opportunity. The moment Yoda was out of sight he turned around quietly and power-walked the other way, careful not to run as it would just draw attention.

Once he felt he was far enough away he broke into a gallop down the halls, trying to sense out Vulcanus's path.

Ahead!

Left!

Right!

Trael wished he was better attuned to the Force and could trust his judgments wholly. The Jedi Temple was a big place, and as fast as Vulcanus moved he couldn't afford to waste time getting lost.

But for better or worse, he would find him.

No matter what.

X-x-X-x-X-x-X

Vulcanus's eyes snapped open. It was a sudden awakening, for no particular reason than maybe, perhaps, he had unwittingly set a subconscious alarm-clock at the back of his mind.

As usual when he went to sleep in an area not graced by the presence of a timepiece, he had no surefire way of judging how long he'd been out, but it had to have been at least two hours because he felt fully-powered and invincible.

A bit sore, also.

Stupid rock-bed.

He stretched heartily, then rolled off the bed and onto his feet. The Cindray pouch was right where he left it. Taking it into his hands, he switched it with his crystal ring before reattaching the pouch to his belt and sealing it shut.

Now it's just me and you. The crystal lay comfortably in his open right palm, dull and almost back but for the faint glow. Vulcanus closed his hand over it so that the upper third jutted out and began concentrating.

He pictured the ever-moving strings of Force that ran through and surrounded everyone and everything. Envisioned them obeying his silent command and channeling through his hand into the Cindray. Willed them to do so in the form of pure, raw energy. Fierce blue eyes locked on to the dark crystal with a bird of prey's intensity.

For the first half a minute, nothing seemed to be happening, even though Vulcanus could feel the Force flowing out of him. Then the weak pink light of life began to emerge in the innermost core of the crystal. It lingered there for a moment, collecting strength, before billowing out for the whole length of the shaft.

Vulcanus continued to feed it.

Two minutes later and the whole core from end to end was blazing with a luminous, gentle pink. The glow began to work its way out slowly, turning dark to light. The edges of the facets were just beginning to blush when Vulcanus's hand started getting a bit warm.

A few seconds later, and the feeling had spread throughout the rest of his body. The midi-chlorians were working overtime.

Still, he plugged on, pushing them — and the Force — to the max.

Another minute or so and the Cindray shone so brightly that its edges were no longer visible; it looked like Vulcanus was holding a sliver of pink star.

It was full. It wasn't taking any more.

Vulcanus cut his efforts and exhaled a crisp sigh of relief. He wasn't tired physically, but he felt tremendously drained Force-wise and his extreme concentration had given him a slight headache, just like all the other times he'd done this.

By experience he knew he wasn't yet at the critical-point, but he was dangerously close. His intuition and senses were blunted probably to Jedi level. Two strong shudders went through his body — it wasn't uncomfortable, really, just his midi-chlorians' way of telling him to give them a break. He couldn't agree more.

"Alright. I am out of here." He shut his eyes and began to envision his home reality and his own personal Command Station inside the Volcano lair where he wanted to appear.

So caught up was he that he didn't notice the faint scrape of fabric against carpet.

Take me home.

The mental command stimulated the Cindray to glow so brightly its light filled the room.

Trael was at Vulcanus in an instant. His hand shot out and clamped over both the crystal and Vulcanus's hand.

The Sith Lord's eyes flew open at the same moment the Cindray put forth a blinding flash and sent them hurtling through realities.

X-x-X-x-X-x-X

Flash!

The world changed instantly.

Vulcanus and Trael appeared in the center of a large oval room lined with workers in crimson uniforms sitting at computer terminals. An additional bank of computers and controls in the shape of a big 'V' flanked them to either side, with a comfortable black leather rolling chair empty and waiting at the point of intersection.

The workers, startled by the brilliant flash of white and popping noise of displaced air, pivoted in their seats and noticed them at once.

"Lord Vulcanus!" several out-of-synch voices gasped. As one they rose and saluted him, each doubtlessly hoping he was in a good mood.

But their king was too busy staring in disbelief at the blond child standing almost at his side, tiny hand glued to the once-again-dark Cindray, to appreciate the respectful greeting.

"Trael!" he exclaimed, absolutely dumbfounded. He couldn't believe the kid had actually managed to sneak up on him and grab the crystal at exactly the wrong time like that. It was unreal.

While his Sith friend stood there gawking at him in a state of total shock, Trael took his hand off the Cindray and offered him an apologetic look. "Sorry. But I couldn't let you go! You're my hero. If this reality's good enough for you, it's good enough for me." A boyish smile broke on his face. "No matter what happens."

Vulcanus blinked twice, registering.

Then his great surprise changed to frustration. "How'd you find me?"

"Intuition."

"How'd you get in without opening the door?"

"I didn't. I came in while you were asleep, shut the door, and hid under a bed to wait and see what you'd do when you woke up, and if you'd find me. You never checked to see if anyone was in the room."

Vulcanus scowled. What is wrong with me? Why didn't I wake when…waitaminute. The Force would wake me if something potentially harmful came in the room. Trael doesn't fit into that box. Aw, fried womprat tails soaked in vinegar! What a mess! "How'd you know when to come out?"

"A little bitta intuition and a little bitta hearing you say it was time to leave."

Vulcanus crossed his arms, one end of his mouth fixed up in an annoyed grimace. "You're a pain in the neck, you know that?"

Trael nodded. Then he spun in a slow circle and helped himself to a look around the room, brown eye widening with excitement as they took in all the state-of-the-art supercomputers, richly expensively cutting-edge technology, flashing monitors, glowing gauges, and uniformed workers standing attention with a likeness to statues. "Wow…where are we?"

"My Command Station on Tatooine." Vulcanus's pride was staggering. Yet his mind wasn't on himself. He was in the process of trying to decide what to do with the boy, and how to do it.

"Whoa…this is…" Trael's eyes again moved over the workers, who dared not move or even speak, it seemed, without Vulcanus's express permission. "Are these your friends?"

"Hardly," Vulcanus said, amused by the innocence of the question, "They're some of my very best technicians, liaisons, strategists, communications specialists, security and planet monitors...you get the idea. Their job is to keep me informed of anything interesting that might be going on."

"They seem so…nervous."

"That's because they know a single mess-up could cost them their lives. The Empire doesn't tolerate failure, or disrespect." He returned the Cindray to its pouch, wishing he could will the annoying pain in his head away. His eyes fixed on Kodis, his top security guy.

The man stood firmer under his sight, his expression that wonderful mix of afraid-to-make-the-wrong-move and dead-serious Vulcanus loved to see in his servants.

"Kodis. Stun — I repeat, STUN — the boy."

Kodis's special multi-functional blaster was raised and leveled at Trael in a flash. He ticked the switch from 'MURDER' to 'STUN', and appeared relieved that he didn't have to kill the child.

Trael's eyes shot to him. His face flared with surprise. "What? No! Vulc —"

A shot of yellow light hit his chest and silenced him. He froze rigid as a steel beam, eyes still bright and wide, lips parted in the middle of saying Vulcanus's name.

He looked so cute and desperate, Vulcanus thought. Innocence and trust radiated from him like light from a sun. Touching, really. He would have made a lousy Sith. No, Trael was definitely Jedi material. Had he stayed in his home dimension, he would have made a good one. What a waste.

"Communications," he said, not remembering or caring about the name of whomever he'd ascribed to the station, "Order up a needle of Kahlchite-Oxidose Fourteen. Dosage for a human child his size." He gestured to Trael, stiff in his posture.

"Affirmative." a vaguely-feminine voice responded.

Kahlchite-Oxidose Fourteen, Vulcanus knew, would put Trael in a deep sleep akin to hibernation from which he would not awaken for a full day no matter how roughly he was shaken, his heartbeat and breathing slowed to an almost lethal level. To the casual eye, he would appear dead.

His gaze swept the rest of his minions, still respectfully standing attention.

He gave them a severe look, his patience waning. "What are you guys waiting for, a miracle? Get back to work! And tell no one about this child, or I swear I'll force you to live out the rest of your pathetic lives as impoverished amputee Xernon miners in the Havolt mine."

The Havolt mine was the most dangerous in the galaxy with its slowly-debilitating poisonous fumes that killed its victims over the span of years, nasty inhabitants, labyrinth tunnels, steep shafts, and frequent collapses. Rather than sending droids to extract the precious metal, Vulcanus, Vader, and a number of their highest-ranking officers sent rebels and underperforming Imperial servants there as punishment. There they were forced to spend every waking hour working in the darkness of the mine, with only their helmet-lights to see by, chipping at and carting away hard rock to extract the desired element with only brief breaks for life's necessities. The labor was back-breaking. There was no pay and no medical assistance for the sick or wounded, who were whipped viciously by cruel overseers or their torture-droids if they faltered on the job. Most never got to see the light of day again. It was an agonizing, cruel death sentence.

"Yes SIR!" The workers obeyed at once, all too eager to resume their high-status, relatively comfortable jobs.

The communications worker relayed Vulcanus's message through her headset. Then she turned to face her king, looking very ill at ease. "Your Majesty, the emperor wishes to speak with you."

Vulcanus winced and made a face, wishing deeply that his father couldn't sense his presence so well. "Tell him I'm busy."

The worker — who sort of resembled a tall, slender human with bluish skin, four nimble arms, and long, white hair — paled, her already-oversized black eyes growing even larger with fear. "He — he says he's busy, Your Excellency." she almost squeaked into the mouthpiece. This was followed by a stony silence. Then she turned around and hit a button on her station, eliciting a frustrated groan from Vulcanus.

He knew what was coming.

"VULCANUS!" The overhead speakers shook the room with Darth Vader's angry roar, "REPORT!"

Vulcanus sighed. He really, really hated it when his father did this. "Mission a failure. Nothing else to report. Now, if you don't mind, I'm kinda busy here so —"

"Come meet me in Conference Room One."

I have to take care of Trael first — I don't have time for this! Vulcanus whipped up a quick, snide reply, counting on his father to cave in the way he usually did when he got ridiculously defiant over trivial things. "Yeah yeah, when I'm good and ready."

Just as he had hoped, when Vader next spoke his voice was firm but calmer, betraying the fact that he didn't feel like arguing. "Fine. You have fifteen minutes. I'd better see you then." 'Better' was stressed with a growl.

"Fine, fine. Fifteen minutes. You got it." He aimed his next words at the communications girl. "Turn the intercom off."

Hearing no complaint from Vader, the nervous worker complied.

There was no time to lose. Vulcanus went over and jerked Kodis up out of his seat by the shoulder.

Kodis shivered as though he'd been blasted with ice.

Vulcanus spun him around so they were face-to-face. "Listen to me carefully," he said in an austerely no-nonsense tone, his eyes burning holes into his minion's retinas, "After the boy is injected with the solution, take him to the hangar and load him on the nearest transport ship. Make sure — very sure — everyone who sees you thinks he's dead, especially my father's minions. Hide him in a secret compartment. You know what I'm talking about. Make sure he is safe and comfortable. Then gather Sky Lieutenant Avena and four of your best men and wait for further instruction outside the transport ship. If anyone questions you, show them this" he opened a drawer at his computer station with a backward motion of his hand and without looking used the Force to pull out a thick, palm-sized isosceles triangle comprised of extremely rare, expensive, and specially-alloyed metals. This triangle was dark-brown with a bloodred 'V' positioned perfectly in the middle underneath a smaller triangle formed by its top point of the same color. The backside was a solid milky blue with the ghost image of the lines on the front sunken in. Vulcanus floated it into his waiting hand and then shoved it into Kodis's cold, sweaty palm. "and tell them it's top-secret."

Beads of sweat ran down Kodis's ashen face. He nodded vigorously. "Yes King Vulcanus. It will be done at once." His fingers tightened around the metal triangle.

Vulcanus gave him a dangerous leer. "Good." He released him and walked back to the computer station.

Kodis hurried at once to Trael's side to await the injection.

Flinging open one of his many drawers, Vulcanus pulled out a pad of brilliant gold-leafed paper measured with fine silver lines and set it on the immaculate top of his spacious desk. He flicked open the lid of a velvety black cube, and, from his assortment of pens, pulled out the very finest: a sleek black Silvershadow Sharpex with a bright crimson geffek feather decorating its end.

Removing the cap, he hovered the point over the paper as he contemplated what to say.

Fifteen minutes. Should be enough time to compose a decent letter. If I can get my thoughts in order. He took a deep breath and shut his eyes, relaxing so the words would come. The ticking of computer keystrokes filled his ears. Okay, that's enough. His eyes shot open. He began to write in his fanciest penmanship, which meant very loopy, slanted, and delicate letters:

Trael,

I don't apologise often, and when I do it is usually not heartfelt, but I truely am sorry it had to be this way. You never should have come with me. I admire your courage, persistence, and impekable taste in friends, but despite all you've been told you don't seem to really understand what the Sith are or how they work. I'm afraid I've been too kind to you. That was probably a mistake.

I have given my officers orders concerning you. Do as they say. Your new home is on a planet under my rule that my father finds hideously boring and will probably never, ever in a million years visit. You'll be safe from him there. Keep a low profile and don't draw attention to yourself. This includes telling people that we ever met, or that I'm your friend. Trust me, that will only make you a big fat target for my enemies, and if word should get out to my father — may the Force save you, because I won't be able to.

Also, I lied about the Jedi being extinct here. They're not quite yet, but they're very close. I'd be shocked if you encountered any, but just in case that happens do NOT make yourself known to them, and UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES join them! If they discover you're Force-sensative and ask, tell them to get lost and leave you alone. If that doesn't work, tell them you're a loyalist. Really brag the Empire up. That should do it, but there's always a chance they might try to convert you. I don't care what kind of a sob-story they give and they will give one decline, decline, decline. Unless you want to be facing me as a true enemy someday.

The pen quivered over the next line, the black liquid ink turning a shiny metallic silver in the centers of the letters that had already been penned, leaving each predominantly silver with a thin black outline. Someone had brought the Kahlchite-Oxidose Fourteen up, and Vulcanus heard them administering it.

He re-read his paragraphs, and, satisfied with them, levitated another of the brown-and-red triangles marked with a 'V' over to him and dropped it next to the pad. Once more, pen glided over paper:

I've left you with my seal. Hide it. Keep it safe. It means you have my special protection. I usually only give these to those I send to speak on my behalf or carry out a special order so there can be no doubt they were sent by me and are acting on my command. Only use it in an extreme emergency. Simply show it to any Imperial presence and demand to be put in direct contact with me at once. By law they have to do it. I will order them to assist you in any way you need. Don't think of this as a way to see me again — the only way I will ever come to that planet is if my father does, and that would be bad news for you, me, and pretty much the whole planet.

So with this we part. Stay strong, weather the storm, and try to live a happy life.

Best of luck,

King Vulcanus

He wrote his signature in extra large, fancy letters.

Trael had been taken out of the room several minutes ago by this point, and Vulcanus knew he was going to be running a bit late to that appointment.

Oh-well. Not like that's never happened before.

He folded the three single-sided pages into thirds and stuffed them and the seal inside a big sturdy black envelope, which he quickly sealed and slipped into a high-security chest he kept nearby that could only be opened with the Force.

He'd come back for it later, after he had given his father a partially fictional and much-abbreviated account of his trip through space-time. Then he'd rendezvous with Trael one last time in the transport ship and affix the envelope to him somehow, making sure it was secure in a place he couldn't lose it.

The crew would have strict orders to fly nonstop to Fescal, a primitive, backwater swamp-and-jungle world that nonetheless possessed a few hundred civilized colonies and some soft-hearted inhabitants. Upon arrival their job would be to adopt him out to the people of his choice, and the whole family would receive permanent tax-exemption from the Empire effective as long as Trael stayed in their care.

A sweet deal, really.

Who said Sith couldn't have a heart?

He'll be fine, I'm sure of it.

As he made his way out of the room, Vulcanus noticed the hilt of a lightsaber on the floor in the spot Trael had been. The child hadn't been wearing a belt — it must have slipped off him when Vulcanus's men had moved him, and since their orders were never to touch a lightsaber on penalty of death they'd left the weapon where it lay for Vulcanus to deal with.

Metal-Arm Anakin's lightsaber. I'd almost forgotten Trael had this. Too bad I can't give it back to him. He opened his hand and pulled the lightsaber into it with the Force, the metal slapping his palm quietly.

He stared at it: a relict from another place and time, a piece of foreign history. It was also probably a pretty good clone of the blue-bladed lightsaber his father still kept from his Jedi days.

Vulcanus fastened it onto his belt next to his own. This may come in handy someday, he thought as he headed out the electronic double-door, which drew apart for him. You never know.


End



A/N: Visit my profile to see a pic of Darth Vulcanus's seal! Reviews are lovely and will be much appreciated. Please review! ( gets cute )