Inside the Office of President of the New Republic
President Leia Organa-Solo turned the folded flimsie over several times in her hand, frowning as she studied the neatly printed letters addressed to her husband. 'To: General Han Solo-Organa, Presidential Palace, Coruscant' it said clearly, yet there was no return address and Leia felt a twinge of suspicion as she sniffed the envelope, trying to detect the subtle scent of feminine perfume. There was nothing, and the suspicion turned to guilt. Whoever sent this note obviously didn't know their home address, or Han's personal communication code. Leia smiled at the 'Solo-Organa' part of the address. Han would act highly put-out, and might not even open it based on that. Although it still could be a note from a jilted ex-girlfriend - and the stars only knew how many of those were out there - it was apparent that Han did not initiate this communication.
Tucking it inside her satchel, she headed out the office door toward home.
"Solo-Organa," Han muttered in disgust as he tore open the envelope. "If this guy is trying to annoy me, he's doing a good job." His eyes narrowed as he silently read the flimsie.
"Well?" Leia demanded. "What does it say? I'm guessing it's a crazed ex-girlfriend suing you for child support."
"You're just full of dry wit humor, Princess," Han drawled before reading aloud, "'My Dear Child -'"
"Child?" Leia interrupted.
"He's confused, obviously," Han said with a snort. "I'm one-hundred-proof grown man."
Leia coughed to cover her laugh. "That's true. Physically, anyway."
Han kept reading, "'I hope this letter finds yar well. I have kept up with yourn comings and goings and I see yar have married well...'"
"That's an understatement."
"Do you want me to read this?"
"Go on, dear."
"'I am proud o yar, and it is time yar heard the truth. I have vital clues to your history. Clues that the Imperials kept hidden from yar for good reason. I have enclosed coordinates to a system where yar can meet me, and we can discuss this situation in greater detail. Very truly yourn, Jakk Sprio"'.
"Hey," Han protested. "I'm just reading what it says."
"Are you going to meet this Jakk Sprio?"
"Things have been a bit on the boring side lately."
"And we certainly don't want things to be boring, do we?"
"Never. Are you coming with me?"
"They've been telling me I have vacation time coming." Leia smiled. "So I wouldn't miss it."
Skywalker Apartment on Coruscant
Mara Jade-Skywalker waved the flimsie at her husband. "I don't think this is a bit funny, and this idiot is going to be plenty sorry for sending me this garbage."
Luke drew back, somewhat fearful of a flimsie cut on his nose. "It doesn't sound like it's meant to be a joke."
"It was addressed to Mrs. Luke Skywalker-Jade!"
"But, it's close," Luke argued, not certain why he felt compelled to take the side of a total stranger that was causing so much ire in his wife. "And maybe he's from a culture that doesn't quite understand the subtleties of marriage. Or spelling."
"Did you actually read this letter?" Mara asked, arching her eyebrow in disgust.
"Yes, I read it," Luke said, trying not to sigh. "If it upsets you so much, just toss it. I can't imagine that you'll take that letter seriously, since it starts out, 'My Dear Child.' Do you have any idea how many people have claimed to be my mother over the years?"
"That doesn't matter. I'm not about to throw away what might be the only clue I'll ever have to finding my father."
Luke felt confused at Mara's turn-about. Didn't she just say it was garbage? "It doesn't actually say...."
"It says," Mara interrupted, reading from the flimsie, "'I have vital clues to yar history. Clues that the Imperials kept hidden from yar for good reason."
"But it doesn't mention family," Luke pointed out.
Mara shot her husband a look that would have withered a lesser man. "No. It says I married well, implying you're better than me."
"I'm sure that wasn't what he meant."
"I'm going to the rendezvous point. You don't have to come with me."
"You know I'm coming," Luke said, trying to smile. "After all, I'm yar first name."
It was necessary for Luke to dive swiftly to the floor in order to avoid his wife's foot connecting painfully with his kneecap.
Since Winter was occupied, and Luke didn't answer at his apartment, a reluctant Chewie was left to watch the children. Leia and Han headed for the berth where the Millennium Falcon was parked, which was directly next to the Jade Sabre. They arrived at exactly the same moment Luke and Mara were lowering the ramp to the Sabre.
"There's Luke," Leia said, exasperated and waving her arm to get her brother's attention. "Luke!" She quickly hurried over to the couple. "Why didn't you answer your comm?"
"It's in my pocket," Luke said, pulling out the little device and checking it. "Oh, I didn't turn it on when we left the apartment. Sorry."
By this time, Han had sauntered up to the group. "Hey, kid. Where're you heading off to?"
"Tyne's -" Luke's reply was cut off when Maraa jabbed him in the ribs. "Ow! What was that for?"
"You're going to Tyne's Horky?" Leia said, eyes wide. "So are we!"
"You've heard of that place?" Mara asked in surprise, ignoring Luke as he vigorously rubbed his side. "Why are you going there?"
Han folded his arms across his chest, narrowing his gaze at his sister-in-law. "Why are you going there, is more to the point."
"It's none of your business," Mara returned evenly.
"Fine," Han huffed out. "It's none of your business why me an' Leia are going there, either."
"This is ridiculous," Leia snapped. "We're going because Han got a letter..."
"LEIA!" Han yelled. "You're not supposed to be telling anyone."
"The letter doesn't say anything of the sort."
"Neither does Mara's letter," Luke added, carefully moving a step away from his wife.
"You got a letter, too?" Leia asked her now fuming sister-in-law. "What does it say?"
"It's from some crazy person," Luke muttered. "Mara seems to think it's a clue to her past."
"Oh, my," Leia gasped. "Han's letter is the same thing." She held out her hand to Mara. "Let me see it."
Mara shook her head. "Show me yours, first."
"We should just take off now," Han asked Leia. "The Falcon can beat Jade's ship to Tyne's Horky any day."
"In your dreams, Solo."
"Mara, please show Leia your letter," Luke pleaded. "What difference does it make?"
"Fine," Mara snapped, pulling the letter from her jacket pocket and thrusting it at Leia.
Leia quickly scanned the contents, then looked up in bewilderment. "This is exactly the same as Han's. Word for word."
"Great," Mara grumbled. "It's a scam to lure us all to Tyne's Horky."
"Yeah," Han agreed. "It's a trap, for sure. We should just ignore it. Right?"
Mara eyed Han warily. "Right."
"So we should just all go home," Luke said firmly. "It wouldn't be too smart of us to walk right into a problem if we can avoid it."
"I agree," Leia told her brother.
"So you two should head home," Mara said lightly. "Come on, Luke. There's something I want to show you onboard the Sabre."
"Why aren't you going home?" Han asked suspiciously.
"We are.... later."
Han spun around to face Leia. "She's not going home. She's going to Tyne's Horky anyway, just as soon as we leave. Well, let me tell you... I'm getting there first."
"Mara wasn't trying to trick you," Luke protested, looking at Mara. "Right, Mara?" When the red-head looked down, Luke felt her emotions clearly - she had no intentions of giving up on this trip. "Didn't we just all agree it was some hoax or a trap?"
"Or not," Mara mumbled. "We won't know unless we go and find out."
"See?" Han said triumphantly. "I was right. Come on, Leia. We're going to Tyne's Horky and find my father."
Mara's head snapped up, her eyes blazing. "He's my father! Not yours!"
"Ha. We'll see," Han responded, turning on his heel and marching off toward the Falcon.
"Do you just want to come along on the Falcon?" Leia asked with a sigh.
"Mara will want to take the Sabre," Luke started to say, when Mara suddenly grabbed her bag and followed Han.
"If it's a trap, let Solo's piece of bantha dung get shot up," Mara said over her shoulder to a gaping Luke. "Besides, this way we can keep an eye on our competition."
"Since when are we competition?" Leia questioned as she watched Mara head to the Falcon.
"Apparently, since Jakk Sprio sent our deranged spouses the same chain letter," Luke said with a sad shake of his head as he raised the ramp and locked up the Sabre, mentally preparing for what was sure to be an interesting trip.
The arid planet of Tyne's Horky hung like a dusty, over-baked ball in the viewport. "There it is," Han said, quite unnecessarily.
"It looks a little like Tatooine," Luke remarked glumly.
"Everything looks like Tatooine from a distance," Han said, trying to be upbeat. "I'm sure it's a lot nicer when we get close up and personal-like."
"But the scanner says it's arid, and has a small population," Luke argued. "That describes my home planet exactly."
"I'd like to know who Tyne was, and what the Sith a horky is," Mara said.
"Tyne was the guy who discovered this planet," Han explained with his straight sabacc face. "And Horky is the name of his religion."
"Are you lying to me?"
"No..." Han insisted. "The members all get into a big circle, and then start chanting about first shaking your left foot to get rid of the Demon Fairy of the Sky, and then you shake your right foot to get rid of the Devil Spawn of the Sea, and then you spin 'round and 'round. It's an ancient ritual called the Horky Porky."
Luke grabbed Mara's wrist so she wouldn't take her lightsaber off her belt.
"The planet's economy is mining," Leia said as she read from the Falcon's log. "Something called Keschel."
"That's a type of metal," Han informed the group. "Smuggled it once or twice, if I recall correctly. But the bigger payout was shipping a mineral called nergon fourteen, used to make proton torpedoes. Chewie hated smuggling that stuff, 'cuz it wasn't too stable. I knew a guy that blew himself into space dust smuggling nergon fourteen."
"So you've been here before?" Luke questioned.
"Kid, if I've told you once I told you a hundred times.... I've been -"
"From one side of the galaxy to the other," Luke finished for the Corellian.
"Glad my lectures sank in."
Following the instructions given to them in the disk, Han landed his ship in a run-down spaceport with Leia acting as co-pilot. Just as Luke predicted, the planet was a dead-ringer for Tatooine, and the heat blasted the group in their faces as they exited the cool interior of the ship.
"I think it's even hotter here than on Tatooine," Luke complained, wiping the instant sweat that formed on his forehead. "Now where are we supposed to go?"
"A cantina called Julpa's Pupae," Mara said, having memorized the instructions during the flight.
"Sounds charming," Leia said.
"Most of these places are very charming," Mara agreed dryly. "I wonder where this cantina is located."
"I think I remember," Han stated, shielding his eyes and looking around. "That way." He pointed off to the right.
"Are you sure?" Luke asked as they followed Han down the narrow, winding street, trying to avoid the various battered droids and the surly locals. "When was the last time you were here?"
"Oh, probably twenty years ago."
A half and hour later, they stopped at an intersection that looked suspiciously familiar. "Have we been here before?" Mara asked. "I recognize that food vendor."
"Maybe we should ask directions," Leia suggested.
Han looked highly offended. "Directions?"
"Yes, dear. When people - usually females - don't know where something is located, they'll ask someone that lives in the area to tell them how to get there. It's called directions."
"I'm Corellian," Han said.
"Corellians, and men," Mara continued with Leia's explanation, "usually prefer to wander around aimlessly, all the while claiming they know where they're going."
"Not me," Luke protested.
"You're the exception," Mara said, patting Luke's arm.
"I wouldn't be too fast to thank her," Han muttered. "She just said you're the exception to being manly."
Mara glared at Han. "That's not what I said."
"I'm asking that guy over there for directions," Luke grumbled as he stalked away. "There's no way I'm stumbling around for another hour while you pretend you remember things from twenty years ago."
"But I'm Corellian!" Han yelled in protest to Luke's retreating back.
"Hello!" Luke called as he approached the tall humanoid with blue-tinged skin. "Can you give me some assistance?" Slowly, the scarred man wearing filthy clothes turned to face him, and Luke forced a friendly smile on his face. "I said, can you give me some assistance?"
"Heard ya the first time," the man snarled. "I ain't in the business of giving out free help to trouble-makers."
"Uh, I only want directions to a cantina."
"Cantina on every corner. Are ya blind and stupid?"
Luke ignored the insult, and tried again. "Actually, I'm trying to find a particular cantina. It's called Julpa's Pupae."
"Never heard of it."
Luke sighed as he sensed the man's blatant lie. "Listen, I can give you five credits for your time."
"Fifty credits? Just for directions?"
"No. For not killing ya." The man pulled a blaster out from under his ragged coat.
Carefully, Luke put his hand over his lightsaber hilt. "You don't want to do that," he said, trying to project his peaceful intentions through the Force.
"Sure, I do," the man said, showing a mouth filled with rotten, jagged teeth.
"Is there a problem here?" Mara asked, stepping up unexpectedly behind her husband.
The man's attention focused on Mara, and his eyes widened in glee. "Now, I'll consider a simple trade for information. The bar location for an hour alone with this pretty wench."
"Wench?" Mara repeated, her voice deathly calm. "Who are you calling a wench?"
"This is my wife," Luke told the man sternly. "You owe her an apology."
That caused the humanoid to laugh, and spittle flew from his lips. "How about this, instead of an apology?" He aimed his blaster at Mara, and fired.
Watching from a short distance, Han had drawn his own weapon at the appearance of the stranger's blaster, taking aim. "I knew talking to strangers would be a bad idea."
The Corellian didn't have time to shoot since Luke's lightsaber intercepted the bolt meant for Mara, and just as quickly Mara's lightsaber lit up and dissected the alien's hand from the rest of his body, thus removing any future threat. The humanoid let out a scream of pain, and shouted something in his own language as he staggered away from the Jedi.
"Han," Leia said, tugging at Han's arm. "We've attracted attention." She pointed out various aliens and humans gathering in a loose circle around them.
"We?" Han asked, pointing at this chest. "This time it wasn't my doing, sweetheart. I'm just an innocent bystander in all this."
"You're never innocent."
"Hey! What did I do?"
"Can we discuss this later? We're about to be attacked," Leia hissed under her breath.
Indeed there was now quite a large mob, and the menacing locals were moving closer, various weapons such as blasters and large pieces of pipe appearing in their hands. Snatching Leia's hand, Han pulled her quickly toward Luke and Mara. "Luke," he yelled. "We've got lots of trouble."
Holding his lightsaber in a defensive posture, Luke gazed around the tightening mob. "I see that."
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have followed me around for an hour looking for this bar?" Han asked casually.
"Let's go this way," Leia suggested, pointing to the only unblocked access street - a narrow, dark alley. Without waiting for a reply, she took off, forcing the others to follow.
"Dark alleys..." Mara grumbled. "That's always a cue for something bad to happen."
Han gave a fast jerk of his head in the direction of the noisy gang still behind them. "Having those people following us doesn't qualify as something bad already? This is why men never ask directions. It's unnatural and a sign of weakness, and other males know it. Sorta like the lame quantilope in a herd being singled out by the predators. We showed a sign of weakness and that's why we're about to get beaten up."
"I love listening to your insightful philosophies on life, Solo."
"Thank you," Han said, ignoring the sarcasm.
In front of the group, Leia came to a skidding halt. "Uh, oh."
"What's uh oh?" Luke asked worriedly.
"It means we've run into a dead end," Leia said.
Stopping next to his wife, Han stared up at the high, flat duracrete walls that surrounded them on three sides. "Dead end. How appropriate."
A nervous rat-type creature scurried out from behind a pile of pungent refuse, and Luke and Mara turned to the oncoming throng of angry Horkies, standing side by side in a defensive stance as they prepared to fight. Han and Leia raised their own blasters and pointed down the dim corridor. "If it were just us Jedi, we could use the Force and jump over this wall," Mara groused. "Solo always makes our lives more difficult. Maybe we should just leave him behind."
"Go ahead and leave me," Han said, miffed. "I can handle this little problem. I've been in worse situations in the past and saved my own backside just fine without any fancy Jedi stuff."
"Speak for yourself, flyboy," Leia commented. "I want as much help as I can get."
"Oh, I didn't mean we'd leave you behind," Mara said with a laugh.
A loud, scuffing noise came from the ground next to Han's boots, and he jumped back in surprise as he readjusted his blaster to point downward. "What the....?"
A durasteel sewer cover popped open, and a lanky human man with long, braided hair stuck his head up through the opening. "Did I hear ye say yer in need o' assistance?" The four gaped at the man's unexpected appearance, and then a blaster shot rang out, striking the wall behind them and sending out a shower of duracrete. The man casually flicked a small pebble of duracrete off his shoulder with a long fingernail. "Seems to be a good time to make haste, savvy?"
Leia composed herself first. "Of course." She turned to the others. "Let's escape first and ask questions later."
With that, they scrambled down the hole and Luke pulled the cover back over the opening, using his lightsaber to melt a seal and prevent the mob from continuing their pursuit. It took long minutes to climb down the rusty ladder, and Luke feared their combined weight might pry the bolts holding it in place free from the wall, but his fears were unfounded as they all reached the relative safety of the wet floor. The putrid water reached his ankles, and Luke really didn't want to think about the sludge floating past.
"I thought the garbage in the alley smelled bad," Han complained, waving his hand in front of his nose. "This is the worst smell ever."
"It's a sewer system," Mara pointed out. "Of course it stinks."
Their rescuer sniffed the air. "Somethin' smells? I don't be smellin' anythin' bad."
The Princess took in the man's odd dress and appearance. He was an older, middle-aged man perhaps in his late fifties with heavy make-up outlining his eyes. He was quite tall, and his hair was reddish, streaked through with liberal amounts of gray. He wore tall black boots that flared out at the knee and tight, black and red striped pants. His ruffled and tattered shirt was probably once white but now was pale gray, and he wore a large gold hoop in his right earlobe. "Do you live down here?" Leia asked politely.
The man laughed, clutching his side dramatically. "Oh, no... no. I be just in the area, and I heard the ruckus yer caused."
Luke felt a twinge of Force-inspired suspicion. "In the area?"
The strange man waved his hand in an indiscriminate direction. "I be watchin' yer from the window o' the Julpa's Pupae, when I couldna help but notice all the commotion outside yer caused. So I says to meself, Jakk, I do believe those kids might be needin' yer assistance, and here I be."
"You're Jakk Sprio?" Mara spluttered in shock. "There is no way you're my father!"
"Father!?" Jakk cried, staggering back and grasping his chest as if he were suddenly having a heart-attack. "Who told ya I be yer father? I'll take me blade and cut 'em open like an overripe melon, I will!"
"You didn't send letters to me and Mara?" Han asked as he exchanged confused looks with Leia.
"And where is the Julpa's Pupae?" Leia added. "We didn't see any sign."
"Oh, the sign fell off a long time ago, and the owner never be bothered putting it back," Jakk told them. "Everyone knows where the Pupae be located."
"What about the letters?" Mara demanded, annoyed they had been standing only feet away from the establishment when Luke asked for directions.
Mara pulled out her folded flimsie, pushing it in Jakk's face. "This letter."
"Oh.... that letter," Jakk muttered, nodding as he took it from her and read it intently. "Where in here be I sayin' I be yourn father? I must've been over imbibing at the time if I wrote that."
"You sent us both letters, saying you had information about our families," Han snapped out, losing his patience. "Information hidden by the Imperials."
Jakk nodded again. "Imps be nothin' but trouble, my children."
Leia gave a huge sigh. "This was nothing but a waste of time."
"Waste o' time? Never did I claim to be this child's father, but I stand by me claim o' knowin' where the information lies," Jakk declared, holding the letter over his head and waving it to keep the flies away.
"Where is the information?" Mara demanded.
Jakk gave a wide grin, showing a mouthful of gold-tinted metal. "Can't tell ... I gotta show ye the way." He looked around the underground sewer system. "But first we should take our leave o' these tunnels, before someone upstairs takes to purge his bowels. Savvy?"
They followed Jakk around the tunnels for a bit, watching in silence as he paused at the first 'Y.' He tapped his chin before pointing left. "I do believe we should try this ways, mateys."
"Don't you know the way out?" Mara asked, clenching her teeth in frustration. "I've just about had enough of tagging after clueless men today."
"I am not clueless," Han argued. "Didn't you hear what Jakk said earlier? We were standing right smack in front of the Julpa's Pupae. It wasn't my fault the sign wasn't there."
"Han has a point," Leia agreed, somewhat reluctantly.
Jakk looked at her, squinting in the gloom. "Child, I truthfully can say I never be down in this particular hole. Now, mind ya, I be in plenty o' places in my time, some more pleasant than others, but never I be down here. Course, it hardly matters, since I never get lost."
"You win, Solo," Mara said dryly. "He's your father, not mine."
"He's got your color hair, and I don't think he's old enough to be my father" Han pointed out. "And he likes to cut people open. So I think he's all yours."
Jakk stomped his foot, sending foul water splashing up and perilously close to exposed skin. "I be no one's father, and I appreciate it kindly if ye stop saying those words. It makes me flesh crawl." He peered at his arm, then plucked a scaly, fingernail-sized bug off, inspecting it closely. "This might be another reason me flesh crawls." Then, to everyone's horror, he popped the bug in his mouth and ate it with crunchy gusto.
"Sewer slugs can't be very sanitary," Luke said, his stomach churning at Jakk's little snack.
"Protein," Jakk declared, picking a tiny, hairy leg out from his teeth. "And fiber."
"Can we just get out of here?" Leia demanded. "Let's climb up the first ladder we find."
The strange man smiled approvingly at Han. "Pretty an' smart. Yar truly did marry well, son."
"Don't call me 'son'. It makes my skin crawl."
After some additional time spent hiking through the filthy water, Luke stopped and pointed. "There's a ladder. Wherever we come out, it'll be better than here."
"Unless there's an angry mob waiting for us," Han said as he followed Luke toward the ladder.
"It oughta be meself that goes topside first, since the local natives don't have a bone to pick with me," Jakk suggested, craning his neck to peer up, and giving the ladder a good shake to test its strength. He climbed up several steps, stopped and looked down. "So if I be yellin' down at yer to run, don't ye try an' rescue me from those Horkies, even if they tear me limb to limb." When no one responded, he climbed several more steps before pausing. "I be knowing I got ye into this mess, and even if it were only with the best o' intentions, I wouldna sleep at night knowin' yer died tryin' to save me." This was met with silence, so he continued and stopped near the top. "I truly would feel poorly if it be my fault ye came all this way, and I caused ye destruction."
"Open up the damn lid before I shoot you!" Han shouted up.
Jakk pushed at the manhole, and stuck his head out of the opening. Then he looked back down at the group below, waving them up. "Nary a soul to be seen, just the worst piece of broken and rusted flotsam ye have ever had the displeasure of lookin' upon. Me thinks the owner must've left it sittin' here 'cuz he didna want to pay the towing fee to a junkyard."
Mara was the first to arrive at the top, and started laughing when she saw what Jakk was referring to - the Millennium Falcon.
"I don't see the humor, Jade," Han groused upon exiting the hole. Glaring, he turned to Jakk. "That's my ship you're busy insulting, Sprio."
The man put his fingers up to his lips thoughtfully. "Is it space-worthy?"
"We didn't get here by particle transportation," Han snapped back. "The Falcon's the fastest ship in the galaxy." He shot a glare at Mara, daring her to argue.
"Particle transportation?" Jakk asked, his eyes narrowing. "Can ye do that in this here galaxy?"
"No," Leia said slowly. "Are you implying you're not from this galaxy?"
Jakk gave Leia an odd look, then said, "Well, as long as yer ship can take us to Kyn Erudit. Ye do know how to get to Kyn Erudit, don't ye?"
"Is that a person or a place?" Luke asked.
"A planet, matey. Not too many e'vr been there... or returned."
Again, the Force warning flared up. "Why do we need to go there?"
"That's where we'll find yourn answers."
"I'm still not sure what the questions are," Luke replied.
Jakk gave Luke a hard slap on the back as he barked out a laugh. "All in good time. All in good time." And with that, he headed off toward the Falcon, not looking back.
Even Han had to admit he'd never heard of Kyn Erudit, and had to rely on Jakk Spiro to give him the coordinates, which took them even deeper into the Outer rim than he'd ever been before. As the ship flew through hyperspace, Jakk leaned back in his chair, looking around the ship's main hold. "Might've judged yer ship a bit hastily, Captain Han," he said. "After all, outside appearances can hide a great deal what's be inside."
"I would agree with that," Leia said, sitting beside Mara at the holo-chess table. "Tell us, Jakk, what are you hiding?"
The pirate grinned broadly. "I be an open book, Princess."
"That's not what the Force is telling me," Luke responded.
"And what be this Force yar speakin' of?"
"I have a hard time believing you've never heard of the Force," Mara said before Luke could answer.
Jakk narrowed his gaze briefly before nodding. "Ye be a savvy one, Jade. I heard of this Force business, long 'fore yar be born." The pirate stood up and began pacing. "I suppose I should tell ye a bit more."
"That would be appreciated," Luke said.
"Kyn Erudit be a special place," Jakk went on. "This means 'learned wisdom', in some ancient tongue." He swept his arm out theatrically. "Long ago, in this Land o' Great Wisdom, this be the main school for ye old time Jedi, many a year 'fore the Clone Wars. But the evil ones - those ye call the Sith - discovered the Land o' Wisdom, and a great war raged. Eventually, the Sith were driven away, but the Jedi that lived there were wiped clean away. Eventually, them Imperials found Kyn Erudit, and discovered many Jedi documents be stored on that planet. It were kept a secret from the galaxy, until now."
"How did you hear about this place?" Han asked.
"And is this planet where I'll find out about my family?" Mara questioned.
Han looked annoyed. "My family, too."
"You're not Force-sensitive. Why would the Jedi keep your records on Kyn Erudit?"
"No need to fight, me children," Jakk admonished. "All be known in the land o' learned wisdom."
"Han asked a good question," Leia said. "How did you hear about this place?"
Jakk crouched down, pointing at the ceiling as if he were tracking an invisible ship. "I be flyin' my own ship, mindin' me own business, when a space snake, longer than a Destroyer but much meaner, gobbles me up and poops me out its hind-end, just like a piece o' rotten fruit. And that be where I ended up... floating o'er Kyn Erudit, hyperdrive torn to shreds. Trapped I be.... for many a year on the planet o' wisdom, and that's were I read about many secrets. Tis only recently I made me escape, and I be determined to let Captain Jade and Captain Solo know o' their families' fates."
Luke frowned at this narrative. "Space snake? What's a space snake?
"How did you escape from Kyn Erudit, if your ship was destroyed?" Leia asked.
Mara nodded at Leia's question. "And were there Imperials on the planet when you arrived?"
"Where be yar 'fresher, Captain Solo? I be in dire need of some relief."
"Down the hall, to your right," Han instructed as Jakk scurried away. Once he was gone, Han turned to the others. "That sounded like a big load of poodoo, if you ask me."
"He's avoiding being pinned down with exact questions," Luke agreed. "Some of his story might be true, but I get the distinct impression he's manipulating us."
"I'm just truly amazed he even knows what a refresher is," Leia commented flatly.
A few hours later, they came out of hyperspace over a small planet that was eighty percent blue, indicating it was made up mostly of oceans. Another ten percent of the surface was the white ice-packs at the far north and south poles. The rest of the land was composed of small islands, dotting the oceans. Standing between the seats, Jakk Sprio pointed enthusiastically. "There be Kyn Erudit, just where I left 'er."
"Where else would it be?" Han asked, frowning over his shoulder at their odd guest.
Jakk twirled his dangling mustache. "Ye never can tell when a planet might take to its mind and move to a better location."
"Uh... okay," Han said, for lack of a better response. He headed his ship closer to the planet. "Where should I land?"
"Yar see that little piece o' land, right north o' the equator? The one shaped like a dragon's claw? That be where we make land fall."
Han carefully piloted the Falcon, setting down on top of a flat plateau. From this vantage point, he could see water surrounding them on three sides, since the landscape lacked foliage higher than waist-high dune-grass. Only a large sand embankment off toward the left blocked the view of water. "Is this where the Imperial records are kept? I don't see any buildings."
"Nary a building to be seen," Jakk muttered in agreement. "Not here, anyway, matey."
"Then why did we land on this particular rock?" Mara complained. "It's not like we can swim anywhere from here."
"This be the closest point, where we set sail for Skulls o' Fate."
"Set sail?" Luke repeated in horror. "What do you mean by set sail?"
"Sail... as floatin' on the briny sea. Glide along the surface o' the salty pond," Jakk tried explaining, bobbing his hand up and down as he pantomimed a boat.
"But.... but," Luke stammered out. "I'm from Tatooine."
Jakk looked confused. "What does that have to do with sailing?"
Leia smiled and explained, "Luke's afraid of large bodies of water."
"I'm not afraid!" Luke protested. "The Force is telling me we're heading into trouble, and we should be extremely cautious."
The pirate nodding knowingly. "Ye be a wise man to take caution on these high seas. Many a hungry and evil creature lurk below in the Sea Goddesss's icy lair." Jakk gave a wave as he hurried out of the cockpit. "Hurry up, me mateys! The taste o' the deep blue be callin' us."
"Kest," Luke grumbled. "I hate large bodies of water. I hope he has enough life-preservers onboard."
Han gazed out of the window. "Where in all the hells of Corellia is there a boat around here?"
"Well," Leia declared as she stood up, stretching her legs. "We'll never know unless we follow our guide."
"I have a better idea," Mara said. "Let's just ditch the lunatic here, and fly away. I'm not too fond of the idea of traveling anywhere on a boat with this pirate."
"You stay here with Luke," Han suggested as he headed out of the cockpit. "I'll go with Leia and find out if this guy is telling us the truth."
"That's a good idea," Leia said. "Someone should stay here as backup."
Mara jumped up. "No way. This is my quest, too. You're not leaving us behind."
"Are you sure?" Luke asked, his voice hopeful. "Han can just bring your family records back with him... if he even finds anything."
"Come on, farmboy," Mara ordered.
"But, you just said you wanted to leave," Luke said, trying not to sound pathetic. He wasn't too sure it was working.
"If Han and Leia are going, we're all going."
Reluctantly, Luke followed his wife. "I'm getting a bad feeling about this, Mara. Why won't anyone believe me? I swear it's not just because I don't like deep water."
"We're Jedi, Luke," Mara responded firmly. "I'm sure whatever it is, we can handle it."
Jakk led them all over the top of the large dune, and headed directly for what appeared to be a huge pile of brush and weeds composed of dune-grass and kelp. "There she be," he declared, pointing at the mound.
The foursome exchanged wary looks, and followed Jakk as he ran up to the kelp pile. He then began to pull the soggy brush away, slowly revealing what appeared to be a spaceship. Everyone joined in, and soon the gray object began to show its oblong, somewhat bowl shape.
Han stepped back a few paces, frowning as he looked up. "What the kest is this?"
"She used to be my pride and joy," Jakk said sadly. "Recall that I told ye about my hyperdrive being torn to bits when the space snake expelled me ship?"
"Yes?" Leia prodded.
"This entire planet is naught but one desolate island after 'nuther," Jakk continued on. "And once I came to realize there be no way off the island I landed upon, I set about turnin' my pride into a sailin' ship, in order to find a body that could come to me aid."
"You turned your space ship... into a water ship?" Luke asked, astonished. "It really floats?"
"O' course. Gutted her out, and turned her upside down, me did. Rigged up me sails, and pushed her out to sea."
Mara pounded the rusted hull, sending a hollow vibration ringing through the interior, followed by a loud thunk.
"Parts sometimes fall off," Jakk explained with a shrug, not noticing that at this point everyone had a look of queasy horror on their expressions.
"Amazing," Mara muttered sarcastically. "This is truly a piece of work, Jakk."
Jakk took a deep bow. "A craftsman is always pleased to hear his work is appreciated."
"You really don't think we're getting into that thing, do you?" Han asked.
"What's the matter, Han?" Luke goaded, unable to help himself. "Afraid?"
"Fear has nothing to do with this," Han lied. "I just happen to think wherever this Skull's End is - "
"Skull's Fate," Jakk interrupted helpfully.
"Skull's Fate," Han said, glaring at the pirate. "We can get there with the Falcon."
"I be not advising that," Jakk said, shaking his head. "Skull's Fate can only be reached by boat."
"Where is this Skull's Fate located?" Leia asked.
Jakk pointed toward his toes. "Under. We be going down, down in the biggest undertow you ever seen." And with those jolly words, he yanked down a rope ladder and climbed up the the top edge, waving for everyone to follow, then busily began pulling up what appeared to be makeshift anchors.
Han sighed. "You're right, kid. I'm suddenly afraid. Very, very afraid."
Mara and Leia both grabbed their husbands' arms at the same time to prevent them from climbing the rope. "Wait!" Mara yelled at Luke. "Undertow? He intends to take us down an undertow? On purpose?"
"Apparently," Luke said grimly. "But we're Jedi. We can handle anything."
"Don't you throw my words back at me," Mara huffed out. "Even I don't think Jedi are immune from drowning."
Leia nodded in agreement. "We have children at home to consider."
"Look at the bright side," Han said. "This so-called boat is perched at least twenty feet from the water. I don't think we'll be going anywhere soon, even after he has all his useless anchors pulled up."
"Soon enough we be settin' sail," Jakk shouted down. "The tide be coming at sunset. This planet has the most powerful tides ever to be seen. There be nothin' left o' this island but the plateau where ye ship be parked til the morning sun."
The four turned their eyes toward the setting sun, and then back toward the choppy surf, which for some reason, did appear a bit closer than it had a minute before.
"Yar better be gettin' up, or run back to the Falcon," Jakk advised. "Unless ye be needing a salt bath."
Reluctantly, the group climbed the coarse rope ladder. The top area was flat, with only three large pipes that acted as masts sticking up in a row. Once on top of the 'bowl', they were forced to enter a creaky hatch. Inside the dim interior everything was topsy-turvy, with tables and chairs bolted to the 'ceiling' over their heads. Doorways stood open, and crates were used as furniture. Wires that were once used to control the ship's computer functions hung in useless coils and loops from the walls, threatening to trip occupants.
"How do you navigate if you can't see where you're going or use an engine for propulsion?" Han wanted to know, trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness.
"The currents will take us where we need to go," Jakk said elusively.
"If your ship was ruined, how did you get off this planet?" Leia questioned.
Jakk frowned. "You be a curious bunch, that's for certain."
"You'd better start answering some of our questions," Mara snapped. "I'm running out of patience."
The pirate scratched his head. "I recall that I be answering all your inquiries. Anyway, to answer ye, a passin' ship finally heard my distress signal, only a day before me last power cell failed. Luck was with me, I'd say."
"You seem to be very lucky," Luke remarked. "Overly lucky, even."
"Are you sure you're not Corellian?" Mara asked, feigning innocence. "Corellians are noted for being lucky. Right, Solo?"
"If that be true, then how explain ye that I ended up here to begin with?" Jakk asked, shaking his head sadly. The ship bucked suddenly, throwing the occupants off-balance. "That'd be the sea dogs lappin' at our heels. Soon we be floating along, and Mother Bellona will be our guide."
"Mother Bellona?" Han asked, trying to remain on his feet despite the wild, rocking floor. It annoyed him to see that Luke and Mara, using the Force, were not having as difficult a time as he was. "Who's that?"
"The angry sea goddess o' the depths with blazin' green eyes. Me and Bello be very well acquainted."
Han grinned at Mara. "Angry sea goddess with green eyes? That must be your missing mother, since she's well acquainted with Jakk... the guy with the red hair. This trip might not be a complete waste of time after all."
"How many times do I have to tell you," Mara shouted, her voice ringing loudly in the confined space. "Sprio is NOT my father!"
"I don't think he's old enough to be my father," Han said smugly.
"So you're finally admitting you're old?" Mara shot back, restraining her impluse to slug the Corellian.
"I'm not old," Han said. "Just more mature than you."
"Oh, sure Solo. Keep telling yourself that," Mara responded with a groan.
"Age be a state o' mind," Jakk declared, completely at ease in the bobbing surf. "I be far older than I appear."
"See?" Mara said. "He could be your father."
"Wouldn't it be funny if it turned out he's the father to both of you?" Luke murmured.
Luke looked startled, and swallowed hard. "I didn't mean to say that out loud. It was just a little joke. Sorry."
"How long will this trip to Skull's Fate take?" Leia asked, already feeling a bit queasy. Hopefully, it would be no more than one or two hours, since she wasn't sure her breakfast would stay down longer than that.
"Oh, I'd say 'bout two or three days, depending on the wind."
"THREE DAYS?" Leia yelled, aghast. "We can't float around for three days! Is there any water on this rusty tub? Or food?"
"Water, I have," Jakk informed the stunned group. "Food, I may've forgot about."
Mara couldn't take anymore and pulled out her lightsaber, turning on the blue blade. "You forgot about food?"
Jakk gave a weak smile, backing away from Mara's weapon. "The sea is filled with fishy-type food. Put the sword away, little lady, or I be forced to do somethin' rash."
"Just try it," Mara growled.
"How, exactly, are we suppose to catch fish?" Leia wanted to know, even if the thought of food was rather nauseating at the moment.
"Err.... me hidden nets?"
"Do fish eat nuts?" Leia asked. "Why do we have to catch fish with nuts? Can't we eat them ourselves?"
"Nuts?" Jakk repeated, confused. "What be this nonsense ye be spouting? Fish won't eat durasteel nuts... or bolts, neither. I should know this, 'cuz I tried."
"I think he said he has nets, not nuts," Luke whispered to his sister. "Although I'd have to say he has quite a few hidden nuts, too."
"O' course I be having nets," Jakk hastily explained. To prove his point, and to get further away from Mara's lightsaber, he rummaged around in some crates, finally hauling out tangled and torn nets. "See?" He grinned broadly. "Nets."
"They're full of holes," Luke pointed out.
"All nets be holey, or else they be solid, like tarps," Jakk argued. "I think ye children spend too much time smellin' spice with all this talk o' catchin' fish with nuts and tarps."
"No," Luke said, getting exasperated. "I mean... BIG holes. The fish can swim right through and escape."
Jakk held up the nets, inspecting them with great interest. "So they be. Well, in two days time, we not be needing much by way of food, anyway."
"What does that mean?" Han demanded in concern.
"How about this?" Jakk suddenly asked, pulling out a fishing pole. "We can use this to catch fish come morning. In any case, we should be getting some shut-eye." He scrambled to his feet and hurried through a doorway, disappearing in the dark interior of the vessel.
Three days later....
"Not one fish," Luke grumbled, pulling out his line as they all sat 'topside'. Even though the sun beat down mercilessly, the heat up here was less oppressive than the stifling dark interior. The flat sea shimmered for as far as the eye could see in all directions, the sky a pale, milky white. There wasn't the slightest breeze, and the boat bobbed gently in the water. "We haven't even seen a single fish in two days."
"And we're running out of drinking water," Han pointed out, rattling the water bulb and listening as the last drops sloshed inside. He looked down in concern at Leia, who lay flat on her back, shielding her face with her forearm. "You can have the rest of mine, sweetheart."
"Oh, goody," Leia grumbled. "I can live another entire day on this floating cooker while you get to die earlier. Thanks a lot."
Mara jumped up and stalked over to the unconcerned Captain Sprio, who was dangling his bare feet off the edge of the boat and holding a fishing line. "It's been three days and we're no closer to wherever this Skull's Fate island is than when we left. What are you going to do about it?"
"Skull's Fate not 'xactly be an island, poppit."
"Then what are we looking for?" Mara said, deciding not to ask what a 'poppit' was. Sometimes it was just best not to know.
Jakk dropped his fishing line, letting it splash into the water below as he slowly stood up, his eyes fixed on a distant point. "That be what we lookin' for," he murmured, pointing to the horizon. "Skull's Fate.... portal to Bellona's lair."
Everyone followed his gaze, and stood as well. Far off a dark cloud bank roiled and twisted, touching both the water and extending far upward. As they watched, the cloud obscured the sun and a sudden, cold wind swept across the deck. Then the cloud formed the unmistakable appearance of a grinning skull.
"That looks.... uninviting," Han muttered into the stunned silence that followed.
"We best be getting down," Jakk instructed, pointing at the hatch that led into the ship's interior as he quickly pulled on his boots. "The comin' fury of Mother Bellona is not somethin' to be reckoned with sittin' up here all exposed." The sea, which had been so calm and still only moments earlier, was now rising in swells, the waves sloshing over the edge of the boat.
As the group hurriedly followed Jakk to the entry hatch, Luke glanced up at the darkening sky. Flashes of lightning shot out from the towering thunderheads, and an ominous drum-roll followed seconds later. Although Luke knew it was just thunder, it sounded eerily like someone laughing maniacally. He was the last to enter, and turned one more time to look at the swirling, black mass of clouds. A funnel was slowly forming on the horizon, sucking up the sea-water, and the little ship was being rapidly pulled in the direction of this evil vortex.
Inside the ship, the pirate captain was busily tossing ropes at everyone, and starting to tie one around his own waist.
"What's this for?" Mara asked warily.
"Tie yerself to the sturdiest object yar can locate," Jakk said helpfully. "We're about to have a wild ride all the way to Palindromica. That's the official name of Mother Bellona's lair, just in case yer interested."
"I think we'd better do as we're told," Han said reluctantly, as he tied the rope first to Leia, and then around his body.
A few minutes later, the ship started to spin furiously, and the occupants were flattened to the sides by centrifugal force.
"Hang on to yer insides, mates!" Jakk yelled loudly, trying to be heard above the groaning and snapping sounds of overstressed metal.
"We're all going to die," Mara moaned, leaning against Luke. "I'm so s...sorry I insisted we come along. I should have listened to your f...feelings, Luke."
"Oh, s..sure," Luke shouted back. "Now...wh....when it's t..too late, my wife decides I was r...right."
"At least your spouse apologizes," Leia screamed out as intense pressure built inside her skull, making it feel like her head was about to explode. "N...notice that mine is still refusing to admit he was wrong about this trip."
With great effort, Han put his hand over his chest, although with his face skin drawn back because of the intense acceleration he couldn't convey his 'innocent' expression. "Wh..who, me?" Han stuttered. "I'm always wrong, so what's different about this time?" He reached up and touched his cheek. "You gotta admit, this face-lift is getting rid of unsightly w...wrinkles."
"M...Mara!" Luke suddenly yelled in shock. "I can't feel the Force anymore!"
Wide-eyed, Mara reached out with her senses. "Me, either...."
"I think it's gone for me, too," Leia said.
"Good thing I'm the only one that's still normal, huh?" Han joked.
Luke felt a rush of relief as his abilities came back. "The Force! It's back!"
Mara felt it return as well. "L...Luke? It's back, bu...but it's different."
Frowning, Luke reached deeper into his Force-sense. "You're right.... something's wrong....."
He got no further in his analysis, as they were suddenly tossed upside-down, and everyone gave a cry of shock as the twirling ship came to a crashing stop on something very hard and quite solid. Dangling from ropes and groaning from various aches and pains, the occupants carefully lowered themselves to what was again the floor of the ship.
Captain Sprio staggered to his feet, untying the rope from his body. "Well, we seem to have arrived in Palindromica in one piece, more or less. Now remember... be nice to Bello when yer see the lady. She's been known to strike men dead for just staring at her a second too long."
Mara cut off the rope with her vibroblade. "Just let her try and kill me man," she sneered, waving the vibroblade around. "I'll have her insides spilling out in less time than you can spit a wad o' tabboco."
"Spit a wad o' tabboco?" Han repeated, pulling his wife up off the floor. He quickly jumped back when Mara stabbed the blade in his general direction. "Watch where you're pointing that thing!"
"I seem to have lost my crown," Leia mumbled, feeling the top of her head.
This confused Han even more. "What crown?" He turned to look at Luke, who was standing quietly nearby, his eyes shut as if he were meditating. "Luke? What's going on here?"
"My name isn't Luke," Luke declared, his eyes opening wide. "It's Darth...." He stopped, frowning in thought.
"Norvus," Luke finished up. "My name is Darth Norvus."
"What does Norvus mean?"
Luke shrugged. "I'm the last Sith. If you were the last of anything, you'd be norvus, too."
Han spun on his heel, stalking toward Jakk. "What's happening to my family? What have you done to them?"
"Ain't me, matey," Jakk answered, backing away. "It's this place. Bellona warned me about a little detail like it may've a strange effect on Force users."
"You mean it makes them crazy?"
"Well, I be more thinkin' along the lines of inspirin' them to delusions o' grandeur, in sorta opposite way o' what they'd like to be. Or not to be." Jakk paused, thinking for a moment. "To be, or not to be. That has a type o' poetic ring to it, don't yer think?"
By this time, Han was nose to nose with Jakk, glowering at the pirate. "Why didn't you tell us this little detail?"
"Yer didn't ask," Jakk said indignantly. "'Sides, I wasn't too certain it be true." He looked around at the strangely behaving Force-sensitives. "I guess it be."
"You think?" Han said sarcastically. "Get this tub back to the surface." He jerked his thumb indicating up.
"Can't quite do that," Jakk said, squirming under Han's glare. "Only Bello can take us down, or up. If we want to leave, we gotta ask her, or we be stuck her for a long time."
"Fine," Han snapped. "Let's go meet your friend, Bello."
"Royalty should not have to go to meet the Subjects," Leia sniffed. "Subjects shall all come to me."
"I'll find her, alright," Mara growled, crouching and stabbing her vibroblade at an imaginary enemy. "Then I'll sneak up behind the creep. She'll never know what hit her."
"Whoever this Mother Bellona is, she'll be answering to me," Luke roared, shaking his fist at the ceiling. "No one dares challenge my Sithy-ness!"
"Well, kest," Han muttered. "I hate it when this happens."
Han followed Captain Jakk over to the exit hatch, however the hatch lid was now pressed firmly against the ground. "It appears we may have a small problem," Jakk said, kicking ineffectually against the metal. "This was the only way out."
"You don't have any emergency escape?"
"Once upon a time this was the emergency escape," Jakk explained.
The three confused Force-sensitives had come up behind them. "I refuse to suffocate to me death in this dingy tub," Mara cried out, taking her lightsaber and driving it through the side of the ship. She had located a colorful piece of cloth and it was now tied around her head in a piratey fashion statement. While everyone watched, she carved out a large door, then pushed the durasteel outward with a large, ringing thunk. "There. Now we are free, I say!"
Jakk took a large step through the make-shift opening, and looked up at her handiwork. "This does create a bit o' a mess when we need to take to sailin' again," he said thoughtfully. "Holes in boats usually be bad things."
"Sith don't need boats," Luke declared as he exited. "We can simply levitate."
"Over water?" Jakk asked in awe. "Can ye teach me that trick?"
Luke threw back his head, laughing hysterically. "You're not a Sith," he finally said, wiping away a tear of mirth.
The pirate looked annoyed. "Well, now yar bein' plain rude."
"I'm a Sith," Luke said. "Of course I'm rude."
"I'd like to know where all the water disappeared," Leia questioned, looking around at the orange ground. Indeed, there wasn't a drop of water to be seen, and the surrounding barren landscape was flat and dry for as far as the eye could see. The sky was a deep purple, and although there was no sun or moon, it was bright enough to see a long distance since the orange dirt seemed to be radiating some type of light. "You surely don't think I'm going to walk anywhere from here, do you? I'm the Empress! Empresses don't walk."
Han bent over and picked up what he assumed was a rock, but when he turned it over he dropped it out of shock. It was a bleached out skull, and he immediately noticed thousands upon thousands of other skulls littering the surface.
"That be the head part o' a Jedi, or perhaps it be a Sith," Jakk informed them. "Remember when I told yer about the great battle between the Jedi and the Sith? Bones be all that's left after the war."
"Good thing," Mara said, waving her lightsaber in one hand and her vibroblade in the other. "Or I be cuttin' them apart meself."
"Come give your Sith a big kiss, you beautiful pirate-wench," Luke told his wife. Mara threw her arms around Luke's neck, kissing him noisily and for a very long time with the weapons humming dangerously close to his ears.
"Kissing in public is déclassé," Leia declared. "Therefore, I have decided it is now against the law."
Han sighed and looked at Jakk. "How far is Bellona from here?"
"Not too far.... me thinks." The pirate spun slowly around, frowning in concentration, then he finally pointed. "That be the direction."
"Are you sure?"
"Sure as I can be, matey," Jakk said as he promptly headed off.
The others had no choice but to follow or stay with a broken-down ship in the middle of nowhere, so they all followed.
For the first several miles, Jakk seemed to take the hiking in stride, then he started slowing down and panting. "Good thing I be ten years younger, or me never make it this far."
"Don't you mean, it's a good thing you're not ten years older?" Han asked.
"Slip o' the tongue," Jakk said quickly. "That's what I means to say, indeed."
Han continued to follow Jakk, with a complaining Leia by his side.
"How many times do I have to tell you, sweetheart?" Han said, irritated by now at her constantly ordering him around. "I'm not going to carry you."
"But you're my consort!"
"Quit calling me that. You know I hate that title."
"Tell them to quit making out," Leia sniffed out, pointing back to Luke and Mara who seemed unaffected by the long march and couldn't seem to keep their hands off each other. "It's nauseating."
Glancing back at his brother-in-law and sister-in-law locked in a passionate embrace, Han couldn't help but agree with Leia.
"Sure could use a bit o' rum," Jakk complained, smacking his dry lips as his feet scuffed the parched and cracked ground.
Han looked up at the purple sky, wishing he had some cool water. "Maybe it will rain."
"I wouldn't advise wishin' that," Jakk warned. "This be Palindromica."
"I don't get it," Han grumbled, wiping sweat off his forehead with his sleeve.
"Palindrome means topsy-turvy," Leia informed him. "Or wrong-side out. Upside down."
"Is that why everyone is acting so strange?" Han asked.
"I'm not acting strange," Leia answered. "I'm the only one that's normal."
"Why does this place only affect Force-sensitives?"
"Bello never did say the reason," Jakk replied to Han, ignoring Leia's comment about being normal. "But ye won't be wantin' it to rain." No sooner had the words left his mouth than puddles began appearing at his feet. "There," he said in disgust. "Yar had to go give it ideas."
"Ideas? Who did I give ideas to?" Puzzled, Han looked down at the gathering water. "Where is this water coming from?"
"The ocean where we just be floatin' upon," Jakk explained. "Now it be leakin' through the floor. For such galaxy-wise travelers, you mateys surely be simpletons."
Han bent down, put his finger in the water and tasted it. "Salty," he said, spitting it out.
As the group gazed worriedly down at the deepening puddles, droplets began sporadically firing upward, hitting them in the face. "Shiver me timbers! What's it doing now?" Mara griped, wiping a drip out of her eye.
"Rainin'," Jakk lamented as the liquid pellets began shooting up in earnest. "Yar asked for it, and now it's here."
"Sith don't like getting wet," Luke said, annoyed, and pulling his cloak tighter. "It's cold."
"Sith?" Leia said. "Try being a soggy Empress. No one listens to you when you're soggy."
Han turned to look at Jakk, having to shout to be heard over the noise of the rainstorm. "How long will this go on?"
"Until it stops," Jakk answered quite sincerely. "In any case, we'd best be gettin' along. Stayin' in one place in Palindromica is never a good idea, savvy?" He squinted through the downpour... or uppour in this case. "Now there be a good thing," he cried out, pointing off in the distance.
Everyone looked at where Jakk was pointing, speechless at the sight of the red, massive round objects heading toward them. Finally, Luke found his voice. "What are those things? They look like giant snails."
"Or maybe like Jabba the Hutt," Han added worriedly. "Hutts with shells."
"Rain brings 'em out in heaps," Jakk said happily. "Once we climb on top, we won't have to be hikin' to our destination. O' course, balancing on top be tricky, since they be on the slippery side."
"You want us to ride on top of those things?" Leia asked in horror. "These indignities I have to suffer are just getting worse and worse."
"What are they, anyway?" Mara asked. "If they're dangerous, I'll be using my lightsaber and slicing them into pieces."
"Why, them be Arsecargoes," Jakk explained, waving at them to come closer. "And our bums be their cargo."
As the Arsecargoes slithered past, the humans followed Jakk's lead and grabbed the creatures' waving antennaes, pulling themselves up and flinging their legs over the snails' backs. The pirate was correct about the slipperiness, and it took a few falls to actually get the hang of staying onboard. Finally, everyone was situated on their snail, and they moved along... at a snail's pace.
"At least the rain stopped," Luke yelled over to Mara. "I knew it wouldn't dare keep defying me, the last living Sith Lord."
One of the snail's antenna caressed Mara's face, making her smile as it left a slimy smear on her cheek. "I thinks it likes me."
"It had better keeps its tentacles to itself," Luke warned. "Or I'll cut it off with my lightsaber."
"I just love it when yar all authoritative and threatening, Darth-boy," Mara cooed back. "Why don't you join me up here on my slug?"
"As Empress, I hereby banish both Sith Luke and Pirate Mara from Palindromica, on the grounds that they are making me ill," Leia decreed.
"Banishment to anywhere with my Mara would be heavenly," Luke said with a contented sigh.
Jakk shook his head. "I do believe all o' yar are making me lunch head back north."
"How much longer before we get to wherever Bellona lives?" Han said, trying not to sound like he was complaining. Although, considering the circumstances, he felt he was certainly justified in becoming petulant.
"Funny yar be askin' that," Jakk said. "See that lone mountain o'er yonder?"
Han squinted into the purple haze. The land looked as flat as before. "No."
"Yer not lookin' hard enough," Jakk said impatiently. "Look up."
"Up?" Han asked, moving his gaze toward the sky, almost falling off his snail yet again. "UP?!" he stuttered in shock as he finally saw what Jakk was pointing to - a large, inverted mountain, simply floating in the sky, giving it the appearance of a child's spinning toy top. It reminded him a bit of Cloud City, without the clouds. "How did that get up there?"
"I be callin' it Hangin' in Space, Upside-down Mountain - Space Mountain for short - coz it be hangin' in space," Jakk said. "That's where Bellona abides her time."
"How do we get up there?"
"Force, matey, you sure do ask a lot o' questions," Jakk muttered. "Have a bit o' faith. I been up there before, and I suppose I can find me ways up there again."
"Yes, Consort Han," Leia said primly. "Captain Jakk hasn't led us astray yet, has he?"
Eventually the snails got to where the mountain was hanging, and the group slid off their mounts. The Arsecargoes simply kept inching along, not even noticing their cargo had been left behind.
Luke craned his neck, peering up at the dark mountain. "The Dark Side is strong in this place. I like that... I like that a lot."
"I hope it doesn't decide to fall on our heads," Leia said worriedly.
"I still don't see how we're going to get up there," Han complained. "We can't fly." After a moment's thought, he added, "We can't fly, can we?"
"Fly? Now you're just bein' silly," Jakk said with a laugh. "If Bellona wants us to come up, she be extendin' an invitation. After we knock, o' course."
"Knock?" Han questioned. "There isn't a door to knock on."
"We be havin' to knock on the ground," Jakk instructed. "Stompin' our feet. Just follow me lead." With that, he started jumping up and down while waving his arms toward the mountain.
"You look like you've lost your mind," Han groused. "I'm not doing that."
"Arrr," Mara agreed. "I'd be rather knocking on yer head with me lightsaber handle."
Jakk stopped his prancing around, putting his hands on his hips and shaking his head in disgust. "I can't do this alone, mates. You all have to help me get her attention, savvy?" He pulled out an ancient metal sword and waved it around as he hopped about, then with his free hand, grabbed Leia by her wrists swinging her around.
Reluctantly, Leia started jumping up and down, as she shouted at her brother and husband, "Luke...Han.... I hereby order you to dance."
"My name's not Luke anymore," Luke shouted, twirling in circles. "It's Darth Norvus!" He took Mara's hands. "Let's do the Sithy-Sithy-Shake, my love."
Feeling like a complete fool, Han slowly jumped up and down, while trying to look nonchalant. After several long minutes, he stopped jumping. "Why isn't this working?"
Jakk let go of Leia and stopped dancing. "Perhaps Bellona be asleep?"
"If that's the case, how do we wake her up?"
"We should shout, callin' her name loudly," Jakk said after a moment of consideration. "BELLONA! BELLONA! Come on, everyone.... join in! BELLONA!"
Everyone, except Han, screamed up at the mountain until they were hoarse. "Well," Jakk declared. "I guess she not be home."
Han had had enough, and whipped out his blaster, pointing under the pirate's nose. "You don't have a clue how to get inside this thing, do you?"
"Well...." Jakk said, eyes wide as he stared at Han's DL-44 blaster. "I - "
"Hey," Leia shouted, pointing skyward. "What are those things?"
Everyone craned their necks, looking up. Slowly circling about were two dozen winged creatures, and as everyone watched, the creatures got closer and closer... and bigger and bigger. Eventually they were close enough that everyone could see the creatures had a wing-span twice as long as a Wookiee, bodies shaped like a mynock, wicked looking, curved claws and human-looking faces.
"Manbats," Jakk said, pushing Han's weapon away from his face. "I guess I might've forgot that Bellona wakes up in a bad mood, so yar might wanna point yer weapons at our attackers."
"Bring 'em on," Mara yelled, shaking her fist at the flapping beasts. "I'm itching for a good fight."
"Ah, ha!" Luke cried out. "Those creatures reek of the Dark Side! I love this place." He held up his hands, trying to shoot Force-lightning at the manbats. When nothing happened, Luke stared at his fingertips, puzzled. "I must have forgotten to charge them." Shrugging, he took his lightsaber off his belt and turned it on.
Han looked at his wife, the only one not holding a weapon. "Princess, you might want to think about using either your blaster or your lightsaber right about now."
Leia gave an exaggerated sigh, then pulled out her lightsaber. "Let's get something straight - I'm not a princess... I'm an Empress."
The manbats swooped down low, screaming and reaching out their claws as they tried to tear at the humans. Between the sword, lightsabers and blaster, the humans managed to prevent serious bodily harm from occurring, and the manbats were finally driven away, leaving several of their dead comrades lying on the hard ground.
"That was jolly fun," Mara said.
"A family that fights together, stays together," Luke declared, giving his wife a big victory kiss.
Jakk mopped his brow with his handkerchief. "That be a close call, mateys."
"And yet, we're still no closer to getting inside than we were before," Han said sarcastically.
"True," Jakk said, nodding thoughtfully. "I wonder if we might try your idea 'bout flying."
Han was on the verge of strangling the man when a low rumble started above their heads, and as he looked back upward to the inverted mountain, his jaw dropped. A large hole opened up, and something began to protrude from the bottom tip of the mountain. "What... what the Sith?"
No one spoke a word as a long ramp of stairs slowly extended in a circular loop, stopping at Jakk's feet. "Well," Jakk finally stated, regaining his composure. "I told ye that me and Bello be close friends. Now maybe yar will believe old Jakk when he states these facts."
Jakk led the group, followed by Luke, Mara, and Leia. Han brought up the rear. After about two hundred steps, Han's legs were started to feel like jelly, and the effort to climb all these stairs without having eaten for days was leaving him light-headed.
"How much further?" Leia complained. "My feet hurt." She looked back down at Han. "Why can't you carry me? That's why I married you, you know."
Mara snickered at Leia's comment as she hiked upward. "She married a pack-nerf. The truth finally comes out."
Grasping his aching side, Han staggered up another step, unable to concentrate on formulating a decent comeback. He'd have to get even later, when he could think straight again. Were these stairs getting further apart as they got higher? Long, long minutes later, they finally entered the opening of the mountain, and Han sank to his knees in exhaustion in the gloomy, cool interior. "I'm so glad those stairs are finally behind us," he gasped out.
"Uh, Captain Solo?" Jakk said, his tone sounding suspiciously.... contrite?
"Yar might want to hold that gladness in fer a bit," Jakk said.
As Han's eyes adjusted to the darker inside of the mountain, his eyes gazed up in horror. Wrapping up the outer walls, and going up and up and up.... were stairs. Hundreds more steps to climb. "It's not.... fair."
By the time Han had reached the next level, he was crawling on his hands and knees, annoyed beyond words that none of the Jedi - or Sith wanna-be - seemed to be having nearly the trouble he was having. Even Jakk appeared barely fazed by the mind-boggling climb. And the cool interior of the mountain had become downright cold the further up they hiked. All in all, Han decided he hated Space Mountain. Stars be damned... he hated this entire warped planet, Captain Jakk Sprio included. Why did they come here again? Whatever the reason, he was sure it wasn't worth it.
Torches began flickering on, lighting up the huge room, and Han pulled himself to his feet, unable to once again quite believe what he was seeing. "A banquet hall?"
"Food!" Leia cried out happily, running over to the large table, laden with heaping platters of hot food, plates of fruits and vegetables, and bottles of wine. There were also five elegant place settings in front of ornate chairs. "It looks wonderful!" She reached out, picking up a glistening red fruit, and lifted it to her mouth.
Han moved faster than he thought possible, considering his current state of exhaustion, snatching the fruit from Leia's hand as his heart pounded in fear. "Wait! This could be poison."
"The best assassin trick in the book," Mara said in agreement. "Poison wine."
"Sith prefer a more direct approach," Luke stated. "Like cutting off your enemies' vitals with a lightsaber."
"The food's not poisoned," Jakk said, picking up a piece of meat dripping with gravy, putting it in his mouth and letting the juices trickle down his chin. He gave a contented sigh. He picked up the wine bottle, staring critically at the label. "Wine. I prefer rum, meself."
Mara blinked in surprise. Were those two bottles sitting there a moment ago? She reached over, picking one up. "Here's a bottle o' rum," she told Jakk. "And next to it sits a bottle o' Corellian whiskey."
Nodding, Jakk took the rum and popped the cork, taking a long swig directly from the bottle. "The whiskey be for Captain Solo and the rum be for me. Bellona's a fine hostess." He gave his chest a pound, letting out a large belch.
"If she's such a good hostess, why did she send those manbats to kill us?" Han demanded hotly, trying not to think about how good the food looked and how wonderful the whiskey would taste right about now.
Jakk looked affronted. "I never did claim she was perfect." He pulled out a chair, sat down and proceeded to fill his plate to overflowing. "Pass the salt, please."
Han watched worriedly as his family sat and wolfed down the food and drink. After a while, he decided if it was poison it wasn't a fast-acting one, since no one seemed to be suffering ill-effects. It was also worrisome that this enormous room had no other exits, besides the stairway they had just climbed. If Bellona lived here, then where was she? And why did this appear to be yet another dead-end?
"Aren't you hungry?" Leia asked.
"Sure," Han said, sitting down next to his wife. He dished up some food, and poured some whiskey in a crystal goblet. He took a mouthful, frowning in confusion, then tasted a different item and swallowed some water.
"What's the matter?" Leia questioned, taking a sip of wine.
"This food doesn't have any taste," Han said, picking up his goblet and sniffing. "No smell, either." He tasted the whiskey, and it was the same as the food - simply non-existent.
"Maybe you have a cold," Luke suggested, stuffing a blue egg in his mouth. "Head colds can take away your ability to taste."
"I don't have a cold," Han snapped, annoyed. "Even if I did, I could sure taste whiskey, and this doesn't have any flavor at all. And my mouth is just as dry as before."
"You're crazy, Solo," Mara said between bites. "This is the best meal I ever had."
"I agree," Luke stated firmly. "He is crazy." He looked at Leia. "You should never have married him. I told you Isolder was a better choice."
"You never said any such thing," Leia sniffed. "Although, in hindsight, I can see that's true. Empresses should always marry other royalty."
Han slammed his goblet down. "You think you're an Empress, Luke thinks he's a Sith, Jade thinks she's a pirate-assassin, and YOU have the nerve to call me crazy?"
"Maybe they be the normal ones, and you be the nutso," Jakk mused, stroking his beard. "Crazies always believe they be the only one sane, savvy?."
Han glared at Jakk. "You can't tell me that's true. You said earlier this is the land where everything is backwards."
"True, so maybe the sane then be the insane in Palindromica."
"Where does that leave you, Captain Jakk Sprio?" Han asked, his voice low and threatening as he pulled out his blaster and pointed it across the table at the pirate. "What's your game? Why did you bring us here?"
Jakk scratched his head, then stood up and started pacing. "I guess now may be a good time for the truth."
"I think so, too."
"There be no hidden Jedi records o' yar, nor o' Jade."
"I sorta figured that out a long time ago."
"See, Mother Bellona wanted me to escort yar here," Jakk said, nervously looking around the room. "I just be surprised she's not made her appearance yet."
"There is no Mother Bellona," Han growled, raising his blaster. "If you don't start telling me the truth...."
"You are such a skeptic, Han," Leia said, still shoveling food in her mouth. "If Jakk says Mother Bellona is here, then she must be here."
"Aye," Jakk said, waving at Han to lower his weapon. "Yer pretty wife says to be patient, Captain. Bello will come, all in good time."
"The time had better be now, or you're going to need a wooden leg," Han vowed. "In case you failed to notice, there isn't another way out of this room other than the way we came."
Suddenly, the floor jolted, nearly throwing Han off-balance and the flames on the torches went out. Luke ignited his lightsaber to allow them to see, and Mara stopped eating. They watched in awe as the floor began to lower.... or maybe it was the ceiling that was rising. In any case, the only exit door disappeared entirely.
"Is it just me, or is this room stretching?" Luke asked.
"The exit is gone, too," Leia pointed out, taking a large gulp of wine.
"Now we be trapped like bilge-rats," Mara complained.
Han tried to point his blaster everywhere at once. "Great. There goes our only escape route." He turned to a pensive Jakk. "Would you like to explain this?"
The pirate opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly the ceiling crackled with lightning, and a wall swung open revealing a wide, long, magenta-colored carpeted hallway. "Mother Bellona likes to make a grand entrance," Jakk stated.
There were no torches in the hallway, only small, intermittently placed sconces that cast a pale glow on the grand, if dusty and cobweb-filled corridor. Once again they followed Jakk, who seemed to be both nervous and excited at the same time. There wasn't any chance to get lost, for there were no intersections down the winding hall. Finally they made a turn and came to a stop before a shut double-door at least twenty feet high and twelve feet wide. The dark wood was intricately carved with various serpents and gargoyles as ornamentation, and heavy durasteel hoops hung down in the center of each door, apparently as handles.
"Finally, we have arrived," Jakk informed the group. "This be Mother Bellona's throne room."
"A throne room?" Leia asked excitedly, smiling and clapping her hands together. "Goody. Every Empress needs a throne."
"I waitin' a long time to cut out this Bellona's innards," Mara said. "I don't like Bellona. I don't be liking anybody."
"Perhaps Bellona will become my apprentice," Luke said, pursing his lips in thought. "Every Sith needs an apprentice."
"What be I?" Mara groused, waving her vibroblade in Luke's direction. "Chopped nerf-burger?"
"Does this door open, or do we have to do another happy dance to get her attention?" Han grumbled.
"Only one way I know to find out," Jakk said, pulling at the handle. To everyone's surprise, the door creaked open loudly. Jakk straightened out his clothes and picked a cobweb off his beard. Then he took a deep breath and stepped inside the room, while Han and the others cautiously followed. "Avast, Mother Bellona, I have returned."
A deep voice boomed from the opposite side of the blackened room. "You have done well, Captain. I did not expect you to succeed in your mission."
"I had a good cause to succeed."
The room suddenly flooded with a blinding white light, and everyone intinctively shielded their eyes. It was Luke that spoke first as his eyes adjusted to the brightness. "Wow...." he gasped, openly gawking at the radiant being sitting on a golden throne. She was the most lovely humanoid he had ever seen, with long, waving silver-toned hair, and a pink complexion, so light it was luminous. Her eyes were emerald green, sparkling like actual gems. A jeweled crown sat on top of her head, and she wore a feathery, pale green gown.
Mara felt her jealousy spike as she saw Luke's reaction. "I be spillin' your innards if you don't stick your eyeballs back into their sockets, Darth-boy."
"There's my crown," Leia shouted, pointing at the woman's head. "She stole my crown. I want it back."
Smiling, Bellona nodded her approval. "These Force-strongs will serve me well, Captain."
"Serve you?" Leia stuttered out indignantly. "I'm an Empress, not a slave!"
Bellona started laughing, the same evil, maniac laughter Han recalled hearing while their boat was being pulled under the ocean's surface.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Han muttered under his breath.
Luke attempted to move toward the throne, only to realize he was frozen in place. "I can't move! Someone's glued me to the floor."
"Arrr...me muscles are frozen as well," Mara cried as she struggled to lift her arms. "This must be some type o' evil spell."
"Well," Luke pondered thoughtfully. "Evil is a good thing, right?"
"It's certainly no way to treat an Empress," Leia agreed hotly. "Royalty must chose to be immobile lumps of superfluousness."
"Do I get me reward now?" Jakk spoke up, moving forward and bowing before Bellona. "Yer promised me."
"I never break my promise, Captain Jakk Sprio," Bellona rumbled, waving her fingers. A golden goblet magically appeared in her hand, and she held it out toward the pirate. "Remember, three swallows for three Jedi."
"What's going on?" Han demanded.
Bellona turned a contemptous gaze toward the Corellian. "Why did you bring this one? He has no powers."
"True," Jakk agreed as he cradled the cup lovingly. "But this one's married to the dark-haired wench, and he's got a good ship. After the destruction of me love, the Blood Diamond, I be needin' a replacement."
"You intend to steal my ship?" Han shouted, outraged. He pulled his blaster out of his holster again. "Over my dead body."
"Your weapons are useless, human," Bellona stated. "And so are you."
"We'll see," Han snapped, firing at the alien woman. Nothing happened, and he pulled the trigger several more times to no avail.
"Do not be foolish," Bellona said. "I have no need for you, and perhaps Captain Sprio will wish to hire you as his first-mate."
"Let's get something straight, lady," Han sneered. "I'm the one and only captain of the Millennium Falcon."
"That is your choice, then," she replied. "Captain Sprio, please take your reward, and I will send you back to your new ship... after you escort this one to the dungeon."
"Me pleasure," Jakk said, grinning. He raised the goblet to his lips, and took a swallow. As everyone watched in shock, the gray in his hair and the lines in his face faded before their very eyes. "Now I be in me forties?"
"Yes," Bellona explained, sounding bored. "Each swallow takes you back ten years, just like the taste I gave you before you left on this mission regenerated you a decade. You came to me as a man in his sixties, and left as a man in his fifties. Now you are in your forties."
Jakk eagerly took another swallow, and the gray and wrinkles completely disappeared. "I now be in me thirties.. no more aches 'n pains." He did a little dance around the room. Then he quickly took yet another swig, and his face and body became a young man in his twenties. "Me eyesight is clear as the day I be born." He quickly handed the goblet back to Bellona, turning and holding out his arms for everyone to admire his youthful appearance. "I wish I be havin' a mirror to see meself now."
Bellona grew wild-eyed. "MIRROR? You know the rules, Captain Sprio! No mirrors in Palindromica!!" She stood, stamping her foot in anger. "NO MIRRORS!!"
Jakk cowered before her wrath. "I be rememberin', me lady. No mirrors." Recovering his composure, he turned to the frozen Jedi, preening before them. "Well? What yer be thinkin'?"
"Yar be a black-hearted knave," Mara growled.
"You sold us into slavery to get your youth back?" Leia questioned, appalled. "That's downright mean."
"I think you might have made a good Sith, if you could use the Force," Luke added.
"Why stop there?" Han asked bitterly. "If you would've told lies to even more Jedi, you could get even younger."
"Nay... it be one swallar per Jedi," Jakk explained. "Any younger, and I be turnin' into a teenager, and I not be crazy enough to wanna go through that again." He pulled out his sword, and took Han's useless blaster away from the seething Corellian. Then he pulled binders from his belt and placed them around Han's wrists. "Now, be a good matey and don't make Jakk run yar through before we get up to the dungeon."
"Up? Oh, nevermind," Han groaned. "I keep forgetting this place works backwards."
After Jakk Sprio had forced Han to leave the room at sword-point, Bellona stood up and gracefully floated over to her victims. "I suppose you might be curious as to why you're here."
"I'm a Sith," Luke responded. "Sith know everything."
"Then why are you here?" Bellona questioned, amused.
Luke pondered the various possibilities. "A party?"
"If that's the case," Leia stated. "I'll have you know that Royalty doesn't attend parties. We just attend banquets and balls."
"Pirates only attend marauding parties," Mara said. "So we'd better be doing some plundering and pillaging."
A red flush appeared across Bellona's lovely features. "No, you fools. This isn't a party. I am Mother Bellona, Ruler of the system of Kyn Erudit. I use my Force-song to lure Force-users to my planet. Once, I could lure both Jedi and Sith to my planet, but it's been many years since a Force-user has heard my call. I didn't understand why this was, until Captain Sprio crashed his ship on Kyn Erudit. He spent some time here, and I listened to the tragic tale of how one solitary Sith killed nearly every Force-user in the galaxy. I, in turn, told him about the many Jedi and Sith that came here, and entertained me until they died. The Jedi believed they were Sith, and the Sith believed they were Jedi. It was all quite amusing." She gave a happy sigh as she recalled the good old days. "Captain Sprio told me there were a few Force-users left, and that was when we struck a deal - he would bring some here, and as a reward, I would restore his youth. And so that has now happened."
"Are all those skulls really the bones of Sith and Jedi?" Leia asked nervously.
"Of course," Bellona replied. "And yours will be joining them, soon."
"You're going to kill us?" Mara questioned, still trying to move her legs and arms. "You won't kill me without a fight."
Bellona smiled widely. "That's exactly what I want to hear."
"Explain!" Luke snapped out. "Sith don't have much patience for small talk."
"You will fight each other with your lightsabers in the arena of death while I observe, just like Jedi fought with the Sith long ago," Bellona informed the group. "As you kill each other, I will consume your Force-spirits before you become one with the Force. Instead, your spirits will join with me, for all eternity." She threw her head back, her evil laughter echoing loudly in the large room.
Han glared back at his captor as he climbed more steps. "You're not getting away with this."
The pirate ordered Han to stop at a durasteel door, and gave it a push. Expecting a dark and dank dungeon, Han was astounded to see a large, airy space with green grass, trees and wildflowers, surrounded by brick walls. There was no ceiling, just a bright, purple sky overhead. It looked like a well-kept park. "Here we be... at the top o' Space Mountain."
"This is a dungeon?"
"Well, I suppose it be a bit disappointin', considering other dungeons." He pointed to a babbling brook. "That water be good enough to drink."
"Is it real?"
"As real as anything else be here," Jakk replied.
"Swell," Han said sarcastically. "What's your friend going to do to my family?"
"I suppose I owe yar the truth, child," Jakk said, looking like he was about to cry. "I not be wantin' to betray yar family. Bellona not be givin' me much choice. She be wantin' to suck up their Force-spirits, like a berry-bliss slurpee. Bellona not be overly nice to her guests."
"Will you help me rescue them?" Han asked.
"Well," Jakk drawled out. "Seein' as yourn my first-born child, I suppose it's the least I can do."
Bellona stared at the ceiling for a moment as she thought about her options, then declared, "I will first watch as the two females fight to the death. The winner can fight the Jedi-Sith in a few days, when I require more entertainment."
"Wait!" Luke cried out. "Let's make a deal. If you let me leave, I'll send my sister's three Force-sensitive children to Kyn Erudit."
"LUKE!" Leia yelled in shock. "How could you?"
"You'd leave your pirate wife behind to die, too?" Mara asked angrily. "I shoulda cut out yer heart when I had the chance."
Luke had the grace to appear ashamed. "I'm a Sith. We do those sorts of things. We can't help ourselves."
"Do you have other Force-sensitives you can send me, as well?" Bellona asked eagerly as she leaned forward.
"Lots of them."
This seemed to please Bellona. "You will find that I can be reasonable. We shall discuss this further, after the duel." She motioned toward the far wall, and a panel slid away to reveal a large opening to the outside of the mountain. "Now, if you don't mind, please proceed into my sailbarge and we will make haste toward Skull's Fate, the arena where all visiting Force-sensitives die." Bellona floated rather than walked toward the opening, and her guests found themselves gliding along the floor, pulled by some invisible power and unable to offer resistance.
Soon, everyone was inside the open-topped sailbarge, and heading back toward Skull's Fate.
Han watched as Jakk opened the binders around his wrists. "Don't start up with that garbage again, Sprio. I ain't buying that you're my father."
"But it be as true as the day be long, Hannie," Jakk said, sounding quite sincere. "Yourn mother was a true Corellian, with lovely blue-gray eyes and honey-colored hair. We met in the cantina where she worked as a server. I fell hard and fast, and before yer could blink, she informed me she was gonna make me a daddy." Jakk gave a sad sigh. "So o' course, I did what any self-respectin' pirate does when he hears such news... me ran away. Never did I see yar lovely mother ag'in, but I heard she died when yer were but a tiny tot."
"And you never bothered to find out what happened to me?" Han demanded, outraged.
Jakk waved toward the stairs. "We best be hurryin'. Bellona be takin' yer family back to Skull's Fate, so their skulls can join the rest o' em."
"How are they going to get there? When we left, they were frozen in place," Han pointed out as he followed Jakk back down the steps. Going down was much, much easier than going up.
"They be goin' on Bellona's sailbarge. But first we've got to find ourselves the only weapon that can defeat Bellona."
"What type of weapon?" Han became worried. "And how are we going to beat a sailbarge?"
Jakk stopped walking and leaned closer to Han in a conspiratorial whisper. "Mirrors. Bellona be allergic to mirrors."
The Corellian drew back, more because of Jakk's terrible breath than anything he said. "How can anyone be allergic to mirrors?"
"Shhh!" Jakk looked around wildly. "You can't be speakin' too loudly. She's got spider spies all over."
"You mean listening devices? Bugs?"
"Spiders not 'xactly be bugs. Me thinks they're technically arachnids."
Han shook his head in confusion. "Let's get back to the original point. How can anyone be allergic to mirrors?"
"This be Palindromica, and everything be backwards," Jakk said with a weary sigh. "You be very dim for bein' me son. That must come from yer mother's side o' the family."
"Yes," Han said, clenching his jaw in frustration. "I'm dim. Humor me."
"Mirrors show everything backwards, but here in Palindromica they show everything the way it truly be. If Bellona looks upon a mirror, she won't see herself as she wants to be, but what she truly be. It will finish her off." Jakk nodded, pleased with the look of comprehension on Han's face. "So we find a mirror, and some rocket-skates, and get ourselves back to Skull's Fate."
"Where do we find a mirror and rocket-skates?"
Jakk hit his forehead. "Duh! We find the attic, where everything unwanted be stored. Just like yer home. 'Cept the attic be down at the point o' the mountain."
After a few moments of walking down in silence, Han couldn't help himself. "Why didn't you use the mirror trick the first time you were here?"
"And spoil me only opportunity to get young?" Jakk asked, truly appalled. "What pirate in his right mind would take a pass on that?"
Once they neared the bottom of the mountain, Han was feeling an entirely new set of leg muscles hurting. They stopped a few dozen steps from the opening, and Jakk pointed to a trap door at their feet. "The entry to the attic."
"I never knew mountains had attics," Han muttered.
"Life is one learnin' experience after the other," Jakk agreed, pulling up the door. An intense musty smell hit them in the face, and Jakk lowered his body into the hole. "We can only hope those spies don't bite."
Reluctantly, Han followed down into the gloom, listening as Jakk stumbled and crashed around in the darkness. Finally, a small beam of light appeared.
"Found me a handbeam," Jakk said happily, shining the light into the shadowy corners of the attic. The room was filled with various boxes and old broken down furniture, and it looked amazingly similar to a million other normal attics in the galaxy. Jakk busily shoved boxes aside, and peered under shelves.
Using the little bit of light he had available, Han also searched the boxes. Finally he spotted something about a foot long and oval shaped hanging on the wall, covered with what appeared to be an old bedspread. He pulled off the cloth, trying not to choke on the cloud of dust that billowed up. He smiled upon seeing his reflection staring back. "I found a mirror."
"And I found us some rocket-skates," Jakk replied, holding up two pairs of battered looking shoes with cylinders attached to the heels.
"Do they still work?" Han asked, trying to get the image of a screaming Jakk Sprio blasting off into the sky out of his mind. He wasn't sure if that would please him, or not.
"O' course they must work," Jakk replied brightly. "If they be broke, then why keep 'em?"
Han couldn't argue with that logic.
The sailbarge came to a leisurely halt over the field of bleached skulls. Bellona glared at Captain Sprio's broken ship in disgust. "I can't stand litter. It's such an eyesore."
"I agree," Leia said. "Litter should be against the law, therefore I shall declare littering in Palindromica against the law. Someone needs to put those skulls in a tidy stack."
"I'm the only one that makes the laws in this land," Bellona warned.
"I be getting plenty tired of all these laws," Mara muttered. "Pirates don't care for laws."
"Laws are what keeps everything running smoothly," Leia declared. "Laws are good."
"Laws are busy-bodies interfering with other peoples' lives," Mara argued.
"Can I give my opinion?" Luke asked.
"NO!" both Mara and Leia yelled at once, making Luke shrink away.
Bellona clapped her hands together in glee. "This is perfect. Now, the Sith can watch with me in the sailbarge, and the women can step out and fight to the death with lightsabers."
"Step out?" Mara asked, peering over the side to look at the orange ground about six feet below. "That be one mighty big step."
Leia nodded in agreement. "I'm an Empress. I need a red carpet."
"A red carpet?" Bellona asked, raising her eyebrows. "Will this do?" She pressed a button, and a metal support beam extended.
"Yar be making me walk the plank?" Mara cried out as she was moved out onto the ledge. "Why, thank you!"
"You're welcome," Bellona said dryly, pushing Mara off. The redhead landed with a dusty thud and a stifled cry of pain, but she quickly jumped to her feet, now back under her own power.
Leia didn't go quite so happily. "I'll get my clothes dirty! There isn't a mattress to land on down there! Where is my consort? He's supposed to do these things in my place, or what good is he?"
Bellona was more than happy to shove the jabbering Princess off her sailbarge.
Furious at the lack of respect she was receiving, Leia got up and dusted off her slacks. "I'm going to make a law against pushing people off sailbarges," she shouted up to Bellona and Luke, who were still standing on the large, hovering craft.
"Take out your lightsabers and fight," Bellona ordered, folding her arms across her chest.
The Princess took her lightsaber off her belt. "I'm not very good at fighting with a lightsaber. My Sithly brother was always too busy to train me properly."
"What?!" Luke yelled back in outrage. "I offered and offered and offered.... but you kept putting it off. First you were too busy getting married to the wrong guy and being President Mothma's drudge, and then you were too busy having cry-babies and running the galaxy. It was one thing after the other. Don't blame this on me, or I'll shoot Force-lightning at you."
"Besides which," Mara added as she turned on her blade and stalked toward Leia. "It works out in me favor you don't have much training."
Given no choice, Leia turned on her blade to defend herself, and much to Bellona's delight, the duel to the death began.
After a few false starts, Han was pleasantly surprised to find out the rocket-skates worked. With the skates strapped over their boots, the two men blasted off, nearly crashing into each other more than once. Now they were skimming over the flat surface at high speeds, and Han could only hope they were heading in the right direction. He was fairly sure they were, but if everything worked backwards, perhaps his Corellian sense-of-direction was mixed up, too.
After a few minutes, he thought he could see something floating off on the horizon. "What's that?" Han yelled over the wind as he clutched the mirror to his chest.
Jakk studied it for a moment as the object rapidly grew larger, taking on a rectangular shape. "That must be Bellona's sailbarge. I knew this be the right direction."
"I see lightsabers clashing over there," Han said in concern, as he now could see blue and green flashes. No sooner did those words leave his mouth than one of his rocket-skates gave a spluttering cough, and the blue flare went out. Unable to adjust to the abrupt loss of speed in one foot, Han hit the ground, tumbling head over heels before rolling to an inglorious halt, the mirror flying up and out of his grasp and the remaining rocket-skate flickering off. He watched in horror as the precious object hit the dirt with a resounding crack. "Rodders."
Jakk gave a wide turn, hitting the brakes by pressing his heels together, and stopping next to Han. "That be a mighty fine piece o' stoppin', me boy. If yourn wife ever leaves yar for another man, yar may wanna consider a career as a stuntman." Jakk reached down and turned off his skates. "Probably best we sneak from this point, anyway."
The Corellian staggered to his feet, and limped over to the mirror, pulling the cloth away. "Aw..kest. The mirror's broken." He dejectedly held up a small remaining shard.
"So it be," Jakk said in agreement. "But yar have to look on the bright side o' things, son. Now instead o' one mirror, we be havin' plenty o' mirrors." The pirate picked up several of the larger, jagged pieces. "Hurry along, Hannie-boy. We don't want our poppits to become topless." He paused, then got a huge grin on his face. "Least not topless by yon lightsaber, if yer get me drift."
"That's my wife you're mentally undressing," Han warned, pulling off the malfunctioning skates.
"Aye. Do yar suppose she may be wantin' a younger version o' her first husband?" Jakk asked casually. "A scoundrel with a bit more spring in his step, so to speak?"
Han eyes widened. "No. No, she wouldn't. I still have plenty of spring in my step, and if you don't believe me, I'll take you in a fight anytime."
"Well, don't be gettin' yourn tails in a twist," Jakk said. "It were just a passin' thought."
Jakk and Han both picked up the largest mirror segments, and they ran toward the sailbarge.
Leia was getting tired. It was obvious that Mara was far more accomplished with a lightsaber than she was, and it was only a matter of time before the blue blade would find its mark. The Princess staggered back, tripping over a skull and holding up one hand. "I give up."
"Good," Mara said, smiling. "Hold still, while I finish yar off."
"What? That's not fair." Leia yelled. "I order you to turn off your weapon. You win."
"That's not how Bellona wants it to end," Mara replied. "It's you or me, and I don't intend it to be me that dies today."
"LUKE!" Leia shouted toward the sailbarge. "I'm your sister! I demand that you help me!"
"I'm his wife," Mara groused. "That's more important than a sister."
"No way," Leia argued. "A wife can be replaced. How can he replace me.. his one and only sister?"
Mara frowned, annoyed at Leia's logic. "He'd better not have any plans for replacing me. I be no man's starter wife." She turned and looked up at the sailbarge. "Are you planning on helping me or your sister?"
"But I'm a Sith," he yelled back. "Sith don't help anyone."
"How do you know?"
Luke frowned as he considered her question. "I don't know, I guess. But it doesn't really matter, because Bellona won't let me move, anyway."
"Finish her off, Jade," Bellona snapped. "She deserves to die."
"So do you," a deep voice growled from behind her.
Bellona spun around in surprise, her eyes wide as she saw both Captain Jakk Sprio and Captain Han Solo standing behind her. "How did you morons get here?"
"The tangerine hoverline?" Jakk asked, slowly moving away from Han and putting Bellona between them.
The pale woman looked confused. "I don't understand....."
"Can't say I understand, meself," Jakk interrupted, sounding annoyed. "Disembodied voices orderin' me to take small children by their hands? Why would I want to take somebody's grubby moppit by their sticky hand? And how many times do I have to hear them say to watch me head? It better not be goin' nowhere without me."
The woman turned her befuddled gaze on Han, who merely shrugged. "Don't ask me," Han said. "Maybe this will help you understand." He turned the reflective side of the mirror toward Bellona, and waited to see what happened next.
Bellona's expression grew horrified as she stared into the mirror. "NO!" She spun around, turning away from Han only to come face-to-face with Jakk, who was holding another piece of the broken mirror up. "NO!!!" She put her hands to her cheeks, screaming.
With her back to him, and her face reflecting back in Sprio's mirror, Han could see what Bellona was screaming about. She was no longer a beautiful woman with silver hair and shining skin. In the mirror, her hair was thin gray strands, and her mottled flesh was cracked and sagging. Her eyes were no longer sparkling jade, but a sickening opaque moss, like the color of algae, underscored with deep red bags. Her teeth were black and mostly missing, and her long fingernails were thick, dark yellow claws.
"Eww," Luke said, gagging. "You look like Palpatine's ugly sister."
Bellona reached out, slapping the mirror fragment from Jakk's hand, cutting her boney fingers in the process. But it was too late.... whatever spell she had been using to make herself appear young and beautiful was gone. "You shall all die because of this outrage!" Bellona screamed. "Watch my true powers at work!"
The ground began to rumble, and large cracks started appearing in the orange dirt. Leia looked down in concern. "I think we've made the old hag really angry."
Water started rushing from the cracks as Mara nodded her agreement. "We'd best be getting back on that sailbarge, before we get swept away."
Both women hurried over to the sailbarge and reached for the lowered ladder, but Bellona appeared at the top. "You will both die an inglorious death by drowning," she cackled, moving to raise the steps. Han tried to shoot her with his blaster, but like before, it refused to fire. Frustrated, he was about to throw his blaster at the woman when Jakk pulled out his metal sword and thrust it through her abdomen. Bellona crumpled to the floor, and as the men watched, her body shriveled into a dry powder, blowing away like sand.
Captain Jakk held up his sword in triumph. "Sometimes the best kind o' weapon not be the fanciest kind."
"I can move!" Luke cried out happily as he jumped around. "I'm free.... frrreeee!"
"Are you still Darth Norvus?" Han asked his friend.
Luke pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Yes, but I'm a bit less Norvus than before."
Han helped Leia and Mara onto the barge, watching in awe as the water rapidly covered the ground. Jakk's broken ship was quickly swallowed beneath the deluge.
"And that be truly the end of the Blood Diamond," Jakk commented sadly, waving goodbye as the last vestige of his ship disappeared. The barge began rocking under the heaving torrent of water. "Hang on tight. The ride back to the top be worse than the ride down."
"Worse?" Luke yelled, clutching Mara tightly. "I don't think that's possible!" A large wave swept over the top of the barge, drenching the occupants. "Never mind," Luke spluttered out, watching as a fish flopped around on the surface of the sailbarge. "Oh, sure... now a fish finally shows up."
Mara opened her eyes, squinting up into the bright sun and coughed. She struggled into a seated position, and looked around in alarm at her family lying on their backs in the sand, arms splayed out and eyes tightly shut.
"They be fine, as soon as they wakes up," Jakk informed her, approaching her from behind.
The former assassin stood up, ignoring the aches and pains in her body, glancing over at the sailbarge lying on its side several yards away, the surf lapping up against it like a beached trobo-whale. "Where are we? How did we get here?"
Jakk grinned, pointing back over his shoulder with his thumb at the tightly locked-up Millennium Falcon, perched high atop the sandy mesa. "We be back where we started. These tides on Kyn Erudit sure be funny things."
Mara put her hands over her face as the memories flooded back. "Rodders. What made me think I was a pirate?"
"Maybe it be the truth," Jakk said, putting his arm around her shoulders. "After all, yer be my daughter."
"What?" Mara cried out, jumping away from the man's touch. "I'm not your... your daughter. Don't you dare say things like that.... or...or I'll dismember you with my lightsaber."
"Just a thing me own offspring would say," Jakk said proudly. "Tell yar a little story, I will. Years ago, just before them Clone Wars, I met a pretty lady with the greeniest eyes. Jedi she told me she were, and Jedi don't fall in love. But all the same, we fell in love. Then she told me she was goin' be a mommy, and it would cause me nothin' but grief if I stayed. So she sent me packin'." Jakk gave a long, sad sigh. "Right after yar be born, them Sith kilt all the Jedi, and yar disappeared. When I saw yer face on the holo-net durin' yourn wedding, I knew rights away yar were mine and me Jedi love."
"I think you're lying," Mara whispered, stunned. "There is no way you're my father."
"Now yar just making me sad," Jakk muttered. "Still, I don't blame ye for doubting. I'll go wait ov'r by yonder dune for yar family to wake up."
She watched as Jakk Sprio trudged away, his head downcast. Then she jumped in surprise as someone cleared his throat. Spinning around, she was appalled to see Han Solo standing behind her. "How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough," Han replied, grinning like a drunken gungan.
"Yeah, but I wouldn't worry too much about it," Han responded. "He gave me the same idiotic story about being my father, too, only my mother worked in a bar, instead of being a Jedi."
"Well," Mara muttered. "That I could believe..."
"Hey!" Han bit his lower lip in thought. "Wouldn't it be funny if we were half-siblings?"
"We could get tested..."
Han looked offended. "Fine. You'd better just hope you never need a kidney, 'cuz I won't be volunteering to donate."
"I'd rather die than have one of your pickled organs inside of me, anyway," Mara shot back. "Look... Luke and Leia are finally coming around." She turned a warning glare at the Corellian. "Don't you dare say anything about this. Ever." She put her hand on her lightsaber, just to make the point clear.
"It will never escape me lips, yar pirate-wench." Han quickly ran over to Leia for protection.
Onboard the Millennium Falcon
Luke sat dejectedly at the gameboard, with Leia sitting across the table, drinking a glass of cold water. "A Sith. I can't believe I thought I was a Sith!"
"Don't take it so hard," Leia said, reaching across and patting his wrist. "You weren't a very good Sith."
"I don't know if that's a compliment or an insult."
"Well, I wasn't a good Empress, if that makes you feel any better," Leia said with a sigh. "No one listened to any of my orders."
"They were stupid orders."
"Making out with Mara non-stop wasn't stupid... it was gross," Leia shot back, glaring at her brother.
"Not as gross as if you and Han would've been making out," Luke returned.
Leia opened her mouth to continue, then started laughing. "Why are we fighting?"
"Because we're siblings, that's why," Luke replied, laughing as well.
As he sat alone in the cockpit, Han wasn't too surprised when Jakk entered, plopping down in the co-pilot's seat. "What do you want?" It was a less than friendly greeting, but he wasn't in the mood for chit-chat.
Jakk rubbed the Falcon's console in a loving gesture. "I was wonderin' if yar be needin' a co-pilot."
"I've already got one," Han said quickly. "Sorry."
"Well, then, how about a little loan to buy me a new ship? After all, I be yourn father..."
"You are NOT my father," Han said, trying to keep his voice down. "And no, I'm not stupid enough to buy you a new ship."
"How about half a ship? Sweetheart that she be, Mara has already agreed upon giving me a loan for the other half."
"She has?" Han said, completely taken aback. "After everything that's happened, why in all the hells of Corellia would she do that?"
Mara stuck her head inside the cockpit. "He mentioned something about selling his tragic story to the holo-shills."
"You're blackmailing us?"
Jakk put his hand over his heart. "I be never blackmailin' me own kin. I just need hard credits after me little accident."
Han glowered at the pirate, his mouth set in a tight line. "Fine. Half the price of a small inexpensive ship. Small and cheap! Got that?"
"See? This trip turned out fine for all, didn't it?" Jakk said happily.
"How do you figure that?" Mara asked sharply.
"Well, I be gettin' me a new ship, got me youth back, and yar got to know the truth about yar relationships." Jakk smiled. "Yar make me proud to be yourn pappy."
Mara and Han watched as the pirate left the cockpit. "If that story were true, I'd have to impale you on my lightsaber, Solo."
"I'd have to shoot you with my blaster."
"We couldn't be siblings anyway," Mara said after a pause. "Siblings argue all the time."
"True," Han said in agreement. "We never argue."
"I thought I said that."
"Shut up, Solo."
"You shut up first, Jade."