There is no death, there is the Force.
White cliffs loomed on either side of the valley like jagged teeth. Shira glanced up at the dark silhouettes hovering high above the crags, circling the marsh, waiting. It was strange to see birds of prey in a place so barren. She wondered what they ate.
Every couple of steps, her boots would get stuck in the mud. As she pulled her feet out, it made a loud slurping sound that reminded her of a Hutt sucking down his supper.
Trust Revan to stop in all the most scenic spots, Shira thought. She shivered and pulled her loose jacket more tightly around her body. There was no doubt in her mind that he had been here. She looked for his footprints in the mud.
Only one species of vegetation grew on the planet but it thrived. The tangled vines crept out of the marsh, climbing over one another, fighting for the few pale beams of light that penetrated the thick clouds. In her curiosity, Shira crouched down and pulled up one of the plants.
The root shrieked in her hands.
She dropped it, starting back in horror. It looked like a bleeding heart.
The scream echoed over the blanched faces of the cliffs and then there was silence, broken only by the mud slurping at her boots.
Further out in the marsh, she glimpsed the outline of a still, dark figure wreathed in mist.
"Revan!" she cried.
The echo of the cliffs called back to her.
There was no answer.
She wondered if it was only a trick of the mind. In her solitary travels, tree stumps and boulders had been known to briefly assume the shapes of old friends.
She peered through the fog. It was not a rock or a blasted tree. She was certain of it. Squinting, she could just make out the contour of broad shoulders and the rounded shape of a head turned away from her.
Her hands clutched at her lightsaber. The beam unfurled before her, casting violet tints upon the foggy air.
"Who are you? Answer me!"
The figure slowly spun around and stepped towards her, parting the mist a single of swipe of large hands.
She gasped and reeled backwards, the lightsaber held out before her. "Stay back!"
"I know it's a shock, General. If it makes you feel any better, it came as a surprise to me, too."
Shira gaped at the face of Bao-Dur. "You died. We buried you."
"But you forget: 'There is no death, there is the Force'. Part of me is buried back under that tree on Telos, but part of me is here. With you."
She wondered if she had finally completed her descent into madness. Seeing objects as people was one thing, but inventing conversations with figments of her imagination was a whole other level of insanity. Still, it wouldn't hurt to answer. After all, she'd seen and done a lot of crazy things in her time.
"Why? Why are you here? How are you here?"
"I can't really say. There is a field of energy on this planet that allows me to appear, General, but you're the one who summoned me. So I should be asking you - why am I here?"
She looked down at the place where his mechanical arm used to glow. It wasn't there. His left arm was whole.
"It's going to take me a minute to get this straight in my head."
Bao-Dur smiled. "Have you ever been to the glass rooms in Ahto City? The ones where you can see the ocean and all the firaxan sharks swimming around?"
"What? No," she said. "Why?"
"Well, this place is like that, I think. You're on one side of the glass and I'm on the other. I can see into your world and you can see into mine, but we're in different places."
"So which of us is the firaxan shark?"
He chuckled. "I don't know, General. I tend to think it's you."
"You're probably right," she sighed.
Her throat was closing up and she had to struggle to push the words out. "I'm sorry, Bao, that things turned out…the way they did. I miss you. I shouldn't have brought you back there, to that place -"
He raised his hand as though to hush her. "I went back to Malachor because I wanted to, because I needed to. We all have to make our peace sometime. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I get the idea that you haven't come to that yet."
She looked down at the mud on her boots. "No, I haven't. You're right."
"To be honest, I knew it was coming," Bao-Dur said. "I just didn't know when or how. I was never very good at meditating, but one day I tried it and I just got a feeling that I was going to have to hurry up and get all my work done in the garage."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
The Zabrak turned his head, gazing up at the chalky cliffs and the grim shapes of predatory birds suspended in the sky. "What were you going to do? Everybody has a clock ticking inside them, General. Even you."
Shira observed her old friend as he surveyed the stark landscape with the same mix of wonder and scientific interest that had always distinguished him as a brilliant tech. She knew he was trying to understand the eco-system of the nightmarish place, trying to disassemble it into a series of biological mechanisms.
"Strange place, isn't it?" he murmured.
Shira hesitated before she spoke. "Bao, I've never been able to say this to you. I never had the courage before and then I never had the chance. What I'm going to say - it's a lot to ask."
"Go ahead already. I'm listening."
"When I nodded at you that day, when I looked at you and gave the order, I broke you. I did it and at the time, I didn't even think of you. All I thought about was that battlefield and the directive from command. I'm sorry."
For a moment, Bao-Dur's powerful jaw seemed to grind at something tough, as though he had to chew his words before he spoke them.
"I forgave you for it a long time ago. I thought you knew that. It disappoints me that you even have to ask. Besides, in the end, I pushed the button, General. I could have ignored the orders. I could have destroyed the machine. I made my choice."
She felt as though there should be tears in her eyes, but she blinked and they were dry. When she spoke, her voice had a hollow metallic ring.
"That's what I need to tell you. With me, Bao, a lot of people don't get to choose.
You see, I'm not a great Jedi and I'm a terrible teacher, but I've always been what people call 'special'. I have a very rare gift. The kind that never stops giving to me and taking from you."
For a moment, Shira paused, looked into his unwavering eyes,
and then she spit the words out at him.
"I latch on to everyone around me, Bao, people like you who think we're friends, and I bleed them dry. Do you remember what Malachor looked like when I was done with it? That's what I can do to people when I hold on to them tight enough. After enough time with me, they won't even know themselves anymore."
He paused before he responded in the same ponderous way he always had, measuring his answers out with the slow precision he gave to all his work.
"I think you're wrong. I don't believe that. I won't. I told you that you had an effect on me that one time, but I just meant that seeing you again made me feel better."
"And maybe that was a lie, Bao. Maybe that was the best trick I ever played. I love it when people love me. It feeds me but I'm always hungry," she said. "If you want to know, that's why I'm out here in this wasteland, searching for a man I never wanted to see again. Freaks flock together, right?"
Bao-Dur frowned. "If you want it to be that way, General, then there's nothing I can say to change your mind. I accept your apology. None of it matters anymore." He began to turn away, retreating back into the fog.
"I'm sorry," she croaked. "I'm sorry! I wanted to stop it. I wanted to pretend that it wasn't happening, but part of me always knew, Bao. I hurt you and I lied to you and I'm sorry."
His body was almost completely shrouded by the mist, but she could still make out his voice. "I forgive you. I healed my wounds. Now go and fix yourself, General. Do it before it's too late."
And then he was gone.
Shira felt her boots sinking into the mud, but this time she just stood still and let them slip in deep. She wrinkled her nose. The swamp water stank like rot. As she stood there, rooted to the spot, the cold air sank in and chilled her bones. She imagined that her body was made of tiny icicles. When she moved, she was sure they would snap.
It was the dampness seeping into her thick-soled boots that got her moving again. She turned to look back at the way she came but instead of the Hawk outlined in the hazy distance, she saw two staring white eyes.
She almost leapt out of her skin.
Kreia gave a gleeful cackle. "Ah, at last you come. A pleasant surprise, even if it is behind schedule. Our Revan is waiting, you know. "
Shira caught her breath and tried to suppress the urge to scowl at her former Master. "Was it really necessary to scare me senseless?"
"The dead are allowed a sense of humor. I suppose you've tired of your fool?"
"That isn't up for discussion, Kreia," Shira snapped.
She instantly felt a twinge of regret. After all, the old woman had been her guide. In her twisted way, Kreia had loved her like a mother. And at the end, she had stood in place of Shira's real mother, the one she couldn't remember but couldn't quite forget. It was through the teachings of this dried-up old woman that she had experienced her agonizing second birth.
"I'm glad to see you," she said. "I wondered where you had gone, if you would even choose to let yourself exist in the Force when your body had gone."
"Yes, it is good to meet again, broken one," Kreia answered. "The Force and I have come to a sort of…understanding, I suppose. We tolerate one another as I imagine old married people do after many years of squabbling. Do you like our little valley?"
"No, I don't. Not at all. Do you know where Revan is now?"
Kreia lowered her head so that the hood obscured her empty eyes. "Sadly, I do not. He visited this place many days ago, but he didn't have the courtesy to call on me. Ingratitude always was chief among his flaws."
"I want to know what happened, Kreia. How did our bond break?"
"It is not severed, Exile. My love is there still, like a splinter under your skin. It pains you even now but it could not kill you. It was not as Atris surmised."
"How can I let it go? How can I be free? Tell me!"
Her hand shot out to grasp Kreia's robe, but it passed right through the old woman.
Kreia's thin lips curved into a smile. "I do not have an answer to that puzzle. It is not I who will put the pieces into place. But there is something else that I wish to say to you."
Shira felt her patience fraying. "What is it?"
"The act of prophecy is a game, broken one. I told you a few tales of the future once, but there are many things I left unsaid," the old woman replied. "You will see them in time and when the time is right, you will understand why I could not speak. You must now venture onto a path you cannot see and you must trust it. The True Sith are not what you suspect. You will go blind into the darkness. It is what it must be."
"I don't understand. Kreia, please just give me an idea what I should be looking for. There has to be something -"
"Do not try to bargain with me! What can the living offer the dead?"
Kreia's parched skin became a fine powder, disintegrating before Shira's eyes. Her smiling lips peeled away, baring square little teeth, rotted gums and a wide expanse of gleaming bone.
"I am made only of dreams and dust," the death's-head laughed.
Wind gusted through the valley and blew the bones into ash. The grinning teeth chattered together and dropped to the ground like rotten fruit.
Shira stood alone.
Thanks, Kreia, she thought. You're just like a mother, alright. Just like the old Gamorrean sow who eats her nine farrow.
She trudged back towards the ship, hoping to avoid any other wandering ghosts who might wish to renew an acquaintance. She didn't want to see any of the soldiers again. In her mind, the phantoms were already arrayed before her: the recruits so proud in their uniforms, wearing the invincibility of their youth, and the grizzled veterans whose lips curled into sarcastic smiles when she passed, all too ready to condescend to a Jedi girl playing war. There were men and women, so many of them, too many to count except in rank-and-file, and she had betrayed them all, as surely as if she'd choked the life of them, one by one, with her own two hands.
She was aware that the bottom of her robe was trailing through the sludge, but what did it matter? She was going back to an empty ship. T3 didn't care whether dirt clung to the hem of her skirt.
Shira had nearly reached the ship when she spotted something shining amidst a tangle of vines. She reached down into the mess and plucked out a viridian crystal. The gem emanated a silvery-green glow in her hand. From her first days at the Enclave, she had been taught to respect it as a sign of honor among Jedi. Even the Sith revered it.
It was undoubtedly Revan's doing. It was he who had left it there. Was it his calling card or an offering for the dead?
She was tempted to take it. It was rare, and the smug schutta had no business leaving something so precious in the mud. She was about to slip it under the lapel of her robe when she caught a glimpse of Tahet standing only a few steps away from her.
"Master!" Shira cried.
But how…? It took a moment for the ugly truth to dawn on her. She had always assumed that the woman who had been her Master had simply walked away from the Order as so many of the others had done. She had imagined Tahet living a normal life somewhere, having tucked her lightsaber carefully away in a drawer. She had not ranked her counselor, her mentor, her friend, among the ghosts haunting this dank pit of a planet.
Tahet did not say a word. She simply shook her head in admonishment. The golden hair that Shira had admired so much as child fell lightly around her teacher's kind, weary face. There were strange marks on her neck, dark purple like a tattoo.
"What happened to you? Tahet? Master?"
Tahet raised a finger to her lips as though to quiet her. Her face was very calm, very grave. All there was, all there ever could be, was silence.
Shira lay the viridian crystal back down amid the brambles. She wanted her teacher to see that she still knew the old ways, even if they had lost power over the way she lived. She wanted another one of the smiles she had once practiced for hours to earn.
She wanted to say and do so many things, but when she looked up again, Tahet had vanished into the mist.
Revan was taking a stroll in the countryside. Stalks of chitle'wost lined either side of the dirt road leading to Aartdil, tall orange spires stabbing against an afternoon sky. The horizon was dotted with the dark outlines of distant farm houses.
It reminded him of Deralia. Or at least the memories of Deralia the Council had so thoughtfully bestowed upon him. He rather liked the picturesque rural scenes that occasionally played through his mind like so many souvenir holo-images sold on tourist planets.
Someone in the Order must have had a sense of humour, he thought. There was something richly comic, delightfully incongruous, in brainwashing a former Dark Lord to believe he'd spent his formative years as a country bumpkin, attending family picnics and shoveling bantha fodder. It should have made him angry and it often it did, but at other times, it was almost amusing to think he had the benefit of two lives instead of one.
Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't have stepped foot on Farschi. The Chiss colony was just a patchwork of farm tracts interspersed with trade villages. Even if he could gather enough soldiers to form an effective and loyal militia here, he doubted the True Sith would bother with such a backwater.
If it was conquest the Sith wanted, he conjectured that they'd launch surprise attacks at Csilla and the supply lines on Thrago first, wiping out the Ascendancy's ruling families and crippling its economy. From that position, it would be easy to quash any incidental rebellions in the colonies. Or in any case, that was the way he would have done it.
He'd come to Farschi for information. Astraroth Kan, the colonial representative for House Csapla, had sent him a message three days ago through the military academy on Rhigar. Kan claimed to have discovered evidence of Sith incursions into the sector. It was a long shot, but it was obvious that something had terrified the settlers. Time spent observing the Chiss bureaucracy had taught him that they didn't condescend to talk to outsider "aliens" unless they were scared out of their wits by something even more foreign and threatening.
There was a rustling noise in the bushes. He glanced to his left and saw something large and blue sprawled on the ground. It looked ominously like a corpse.
He was about to inspect it when a blaster shot zinged past his ear.
Revan unsheathed his lightsaber and deflected the barrage of bolts. The shooters were hiding in the crops.
He plunged into the field, mowing a path through the stalks of chitle'wost. His blade made a very effective scythe.
A few meters away, the stalks rattled together again.
"Die, Sith! Die!" a voice shrieked.
The blaster fire was heavy but erratic, scorching the tips of the plants. Revan barely had to deflect the onslaught with his beam but he knew that someone was not going be happy come harvest time this year.
He parted the crops with his hand and kept plowing through.
"Retreat!" someone shouted.
There was more rustling. He glimpsed a flash of blue skin, at least three scrawny bodies fleeing through the tall stalks.
Children at play.
He didn't know much about Chiss parenting, but he'd always assumed that blasters weren't standard toys for the kids. It was something he'd have to mention to Kan later.
He made his way back to the dirt road. The blue heap lay in the dust, completely motionless. It had thin limbs and a paunchy torso. It looked Chiss and male. The back of the head was covered in a mop of dark hair.
Revan rolled it over with his boot. He almost laughed at the black stitches in the blue face, the stuffing bursting out of the coarse fabric of the 'stomach'. It was just a manikin, a decoy set up scare off the birds.
So much for that little adventure, he thought, bending over to prop the manikin back up on its stake again. It was the least he could do after the damage he'd caused to the crops.
When he reached the village of Aartdil, Revan couldn't help but notice that the streets were almost entirely deserted. The market stalls had been abandoned in haste. None of the tradespeople had bothered to pack up their wares and vegetables, rolls of coarse fabric and machine parts had tumbled onto the ground, lying in the thick dust.
Turning down the main road towards the town square, he saw a woman fumbling with the data-lock to her house. Revan was just about to greet her in Cheun when someone else opened the door and pulled her in. The door slammed shut.
As he walked towards the imperial administration center, he could feel eyes trained on him from within the small, darkened houses that lined the streets. Once in a while, he'd glimpse a silhouette framed by a window, then quick movement as the watcher caught him staring back.
The Chiss weren't a friendly people under normal circumstances, but this was far worse than Revan's usual experiences. Generally a welcoming committee would arrive to guide him to the Foreign Quarter, the only place non-Chiss were allowed to rest and obtain food. These weren't expressions of friendliness so much as pre-emptive strikes, designed to ensure he didn't poke his nose in anywhere it didn't belong, but at least before, people had been willing to say hello. Whatever it was, he felt sure that something had the townspeople spooked.
The administration building was a stark white structure as austere as the Chiss themselves. Its sole embellishment was the wide yellow banner of House Csalpa, which was draped just above the double doors. Or it had been the only ornamentation until recently. One of the locals had decided to decorate the building further. On the right hand corner of the office building, someone had executed a lurid portrait of a gaunt-faced man with two crossed-out eyes. The epigraph beneath it read, "Collaborator Csalpa".
Revan walked up the steps and into the building, with the feeling he was stepping into a political minefield. That was nothing so new, but it had been a hell of a lot easier to handle in Republic space, where he knew the history and the culture, where he was comfortable with the essential languages.
Kan's valet greeted him at the door. Revan observed him cautiously, making a diplomatic effort to conceal his curiosity at the servant's appearance. Nobles from the Chiss dynastic houses kept cyborg servants instead of droids as a mark of status and Revan always found it intriguing to examine their various modifications. This one had a scanner implanted in his right eye, a pair of mechanical arms that undoubtedly doubled as weapons and what appeared to be a state-of-the-art holo-vid projector lodged in his back.
The valet spoke very slowly in Cheun, obviously well-aware that he was talking to an outsider, and thus, a primitive and an idiot.
"[Syndic Kan… will be… very pleased. He has… heard of your quest… and he believes… you may be interested… in the recent situation here on Farschi.]"
"[Take me to him.]"
Revan had always taken to languages easily and he understood spoken Cheun very well now, but proper pronunciation was almost impossible if one's pallet was shaped normally. Trying to converse in the language was a continual embarrassment for him. If he ever got a chance to describe this place to Bastila, he figured he'd compare speaking Cheun to hocking back spit. Not that Princess Bastie would have any idea what that felt like.
The valet led him down a short corridor to a small, dark-paneled office.
Syndic Kan's red eyes glimmered from behind a broad desk. He was just past middle-age and like all Chiss, lean to the point of gauntness, but the skin on his ashy blue face had begun to sag into jowls. The heavy bags under his eyes gave him a look of perpetual weariness.
Kan spoke in perfectly enunciated Cheun, a stark and shameful contrast to the way Revan hacked at the words, butchering the language.
"[Greetings, Sith Hunter Revan. Is that the proper former of address for your people? Please sit down]"
Sith Hunter. The Chiss didn't have a word for 'Jedi', only for Sith, and so this had become Revan's new nickname. He rather liked it.
He moved a little closer, but continued to stand, his arms crossed over his chest. "[That will be fine. I prefer to stand.]"
"[Very well. I will not use much of your time. Perhaps you noticed the graffiti outside the office?]"
Revan felt a twinge of annoyance. Why did people tell you they wouldn't waste your time and then proceed to ask stupid questions? Of course he'd seen it. He still had eyes in his head.
"[I have. I also noticed the children shooting blasters at me and the empty streets. I assume this isn't business as usual. What's happened here?]"
Kan frowned, deep creases growing around the sides of his mouth.
"[The Sith have happened here]," he sighed. "[You must excuse my people. The recent attacks have made them suspicious and inhospitable to strangers, particularly those who wear unfamiliar costumes such as yours. I issued a bulletin to warn them of your visit, but I fear they have lost much trust in authority and begin to forget even their House allegiance.]"
Revan eyed Kan's high-collared jacket. The yellow ribbon of a true-born Csalpa was pinned to his chest, yet he was only an imperial bureaucrat on some far-flung farm planet. He must be an aristocratic plodder, Revan thought, just clutching on to his House status with everything he has left. Sad, really.
"[Tell me about these attacks.]"
"[The first one was reported five moon-changes ago. Three house-groups farming on the outskirts of village Te'sola disappeared. It was concerning, but settlers come and go all the time, and our investigators did not find any bodies nor were there any signs of violence. Then more people started to disappear. The colony has become unmanageable. There are whispers about Sith. I have never seen such creatures, but the people, they believe in them.]"
"[Alright. When did the last attack happen?]"
The sides of Kan's mouth twitched and his posture became ever more rigid. He obviously resented having to take orders from an off-worlder without rank or class, but at least he was trying to hide it.
"[Nowadays, it is difficult to know. Incidents are not being reported as they should be. Settlers have started to pack up and flee for other colonies. The last attack I heard of occurred ten days ago on the road between here and Hanyune.]"
"[There is one. A commoner child. Not reliable, I think. She may not have even been there.]"
Revan wondered if haughty old Kan had even bothered to get someone to interview her. It could just be a child's nightmare, fear playing on an overactive imagination, but he'd learned from experience that kids could be pretty tough, pretty useful, when it came right down to it. He thought of Mission. Funny kid. She was probably all grown-up now.
"[Get me the girl's name and house-grouping number anyway and as much information as you can about these attacks]" he said. "[Frequency, locations, anything you or your servant can dig up. We're looking for patterns.]"
Kan arched a thick black eyebrow. "[I assume this means you plan to undertake an investigation?]"
"[I'm a Sith hunter, aren't I? Let's see if we can catch a few.]"