Disclaimer: George Lucas owns Star Wars. I am not making any profit from this work of fan fiction.
Author's note: This is the final chapter of Hunters. The next story in the series will be titled either Warlord or Warlords (what? I'm indecisive!), and its first chapter should be up within the next few days. Thanks to everyone who has reviewed this story throughout its progress, and thanks especially to LJ's attanagra and FFN's very own estora, who beta'ed this chapter. Any mistakes left are my own. And, as always, I love feedback! :)
It was after midnight before they finally got the place locked down.
"The last of the mercenaries have been booted out," Ryn said, and Evinne raised her head to study the younger girl as she paced down the length of the great hall toward her, practically staggering with weariness. "I sent a few warriors under Merach to keep an eye on them and make sure they don't harm the villagers."
"Thanks," Evinne said numbly, still staring at her. "How old are you, Shorty?"
"Thirteen," Ryn said, giving her an odd look - probably because Evinne should know this already.
"Thirteen." She sat still for a moment, watching Ryn's shadowed face in the torchlight. "On any other world you'd have a damn curfew. And tonight you helped to take down one of the most powerful men on this planet, only to cap your evening by banishing a crowd of angry, highly trained warriors for hire."
Ryn shifted her weight. "I did okay. I think."
"You always do okay," Evinne told her. "That's not the point."
Ryn frowned at her. "Then what is?"
"Did you know I was your age when my father tried to marry me to the highest bidder?"
Ryn hesitated, just for a second. "I'd heard," she said finally, her eyes wary.
"Does that seem right to you?"
"I am sorry for your pain."
"That's not what I asked!"
Ryn flinched at her volume. "We are athelan."
"Like that makes it okay! Don't you ever want more?"
Ryn lowered her eyes. "I've only ever wanted one thing."
"Oh, fuck Skywalker." Evinne regarded her irritably. "Until you met him, you didn't have the personality to want anything else."
Ryn jerked as though Evinne had slapped her. "I know," she admitted quietly. "This is what I am." She glanced up cautiously to meet Evinne's eyes. "What do you want me to say?"
"Saints, Ryn, I don't know." Evinne gestured helplessly. "Maybe that there is something wrong with a society that raises some of its members from birth to be sacrifices for the rest?"
"I think all societies do that," Ryn said. "Whether they admit it or not." She bit her lip. "And ... I'm willing, you know ... to be taken for them."
Evinne closed her eyes against the girl's sheer earnestness. "I know you are, Shorty. But you shouldn't have to be." She pushed off the table and came to stand in front of Ryn, gripping the younger girl's wiry shoulders. "There is something wrong with a world that would give you up."
Ryn shifted uncertainly in her grip. "You left, too."
"Yeah," Evinne said. "I ran away to escape my fate. You were given away to the Jedi."
"I didn't mind so much."
"That's not the point!"
Ryn blinked at her anxiously. "You keep saying that," she pointed out. "But -"
"This is wrong!" Evinne dropped her hands from Ryn's shoulders and turned away, trying to breathe. "Something is wrong with Loreth, Ryn. What happened to us happens to kids every day here." She scrubbed at her face with dirty hands. "I know you were willing to give yourself up, because ... because you are one of the few truly good people I know. But I wasn't. A lot of young athelan aren't. And if ... now that I'm here, if I turn around and do to someone else what was done to me ... how have I made anything better?"
Ryn shuffled her feet. "I don't know," she said. "I don't really ... think about these things."
Evinne huffed a rueful sigh and sat down on the edge of the table again, bracing her palms against its sharpness. "That's because you're a good little athelan."
"Or because I'm afraid." Ryn folded her arms, studying the floor. "I've had ... the kind of life that doesn't bear a lot of thinking about."
Evinne snorted a surprised life. "Yeah, I hear that."
Ryn leaned one hip against the edge of the table, frowning in thought. "So ... you want to change things," she concluded. "How?"
Evinne sighed and leaned closer to nudge Ryn's shoulder with her own. "I have absolutely no idea."
Dawn rose swiftly over the rolling hills, gray sky turning to rose and gold and finally fading toward blue. Anakin stood still on a rise of the land, watching the multihued glory of Loreth's sunrise.
The vividness of the colors reminded him in some ways of Naboo, especially the richness of the green plant life. Loreth evidently was a place lush with chlorophyll-fueled photosynthesis. But her sky was darker than Naboo's, and the wide green plains were broken by the gray bones of the hills far more often than in Naboo's meadow country. This world was young - almost painfully bright and keen, the rawness of the land not yet worn mellow by wind and rain and the passage of time.
Ryn's voice. There was so much between them now - they'd come a long way from that day when Obi-Wan had put them together to study Ryn's reactions.
"Your planet is beautiful."
"Thank you." Ryn scuffed the toe of her boot in the grass. "I haven't been to the grasslands much. Grew up in the mountains."
They weren't really mountains, not compared to Alderaan or some other worlds, but certainly they were a different kind of country. "Those are pretty, too."
"Thanks." Ryn cleared her throat. "Anyway, there's no sign of Omega here."
"But he has definitely been here," Evinne's voice added, and Anakin finally turned around to look at them. "People remember him. They just can't tell us where he went."
Ryn blew out a breath that lingered in the cool morning air. "It would help if we knew what he wanted with Loreth in the first place. Even if he's working with Zan Arbor, as Obi-Wan suspected, plant samples don't seem like enough."
Evinne frowned. "If he is as obsessed with the Force as the Jedi seem to think, maybe that's not it at all."
"What?" Anakin jerked his eyes to her face. "I knew I felt the Force more strongly here. How many Lorethans are Force-sensitive?"
Evinne closed her eyes. "All of us."
"What?" said Anakin again. "How -"
"Evinne!" Ryn hissed, glaring at the older girl. "What are you doing? Telling a Jedi?"
"It's just Skywalker," Evinne protested feebly.
"If anyone finds out that he knows, he'll be killed!"
"I'm surprised you haven't told him yourself!"
"I am not a traitor!"
"Whoa," said Anakin, raising his hands in the face of their rapidly-increasing ire. "Hold on. Nobody's a traitor, okay? I'm not going to tell anybody, so your secret is safe." Although why Ryn didn't trust him to begin with was a question that hurt to think about. Save Obi-Wan now, worry about Ryn later. "Evinne is right: we have to share information if we're going to figure out what Omega is planning." And now I'm the voice of reason.
Ryn stared at him, her face tight with something that looked a lot like anger but that Anakin knew her well enough to recognize as fear. "If the Jedi find out about our Force-sensitivity, they will come here," she said, in a choked little voice. "They will try to take us by force. I know you think they won't, but they will. They'll say it's for the greater good, that they need to understand in order to better serve the Republic, but that won't make it right. We do not belong to your Republic, and I can't let that happen to my people. I can't let Loreth's children be treated like that."
"The Jedi are good, they would never -"
"They tortured me, Anakin!" Ryn's eyes were bright with tears. "They strapped me down and hurt me just to see how I would handle the pain!" She dragged in an unhappy breath, reaching for him. "I know there are good Jedi. Obi-Wan is probably the most genuinely decent man I have ever met -"
"Hey!" Anakin objected, trying and failing to coax a real smile. It cut too deep, the reminder of what she had revealed on Fjornel. He still couldn't believe Vokara Che would do something like that. But on the other hand ... he couldn't believe Ryn would lie, either. He could feel her sincerity, fueling her desperation. She felt lost, so unlike her usual groundedness that Anakin felt adrift, too.
"But Obi-Wan isn't in charge," Ryn went on, at least sounding a little calmer. "And he's so brainwashed into doing whatever the Councils tells him that I can't even be sure of what he would do, much less any of the other Jedi. Why do you think Yoda objected so strongly to accepting you for training? Not because you were too old to learn the ways of the Force. Because you were too old to forget how to think for yourself. You know it's true."
It sounded uncomfortably like his own thoughts sometimes. Even more awkwardly like some things Palpatine had said. "I don't think -"
"I want your word that you won't tell anyone," Ryn said over him. "Not even Obi-Wan."
"I already said -"
Something in the way she said that set his teeth on edge. "And if I won't?"
Ryn laid a hand on her sword-hilt. "I'll kill you before I let you betray Loreth."
Anakin didn't even remember drawing his lightsaber. "You could try," he challenged her.
"What the hell is wrong with the two of you?" Evinne demanded, interposing between them as Anakin moved his thumb to rest over the activation switch. "We don't have time to fight each other, we've got real problems!" She looked from one to the other, exasperation rolling off her in waves. "Shorty, put that thing away. Skywalker, for stars' sake just give her your oath. Unless you're planning to tell the Council, it shouldn't cause you much anxiety."
"She should trust me!" The words hurt his throat.
"Unfortunately she's known too many of your fellow Jedi," Evinne answered tartly. "And you're not making it any easier."
"I thought we were friends!" he shouted over her shoulder at Ryn. After all they'd been through together ...
"So did I!" Ryn shot back. She was taut, ready: and angry, in a wildly unfocused way that was so unlike the Ryn he knew that Anakin faltered, suddenly unsure what they were fighting about.
"Ryn," he began uncertainly, but he was cut off.
"We don't have time for this!" Evinne snapped. "Skywalker! I don't care how hurt your feelings are, just swear the damn oath." Anakin opened his mouth to protest, but Evinne rode right over him. "Ryn has catered to enough of your idiosyncrasies. You can do this for her or get the hell off my planet and I'll go after Obi-Wan myself, because he damn well deserves better than this foolery." She glared disparagingly at Ryn. "Put up your fucking sword, or I am going to take it away from you until you learn not to pull it on your friends." Ryn put the sword away - a little grudgingly, Anakin thought - and Evinne turned to face him again. "All right, Skywalker. If you really don't intend to sell us out, then you ought to have no trouble with the oath."
"You ought to believe me anyway," Anakin muttered, anger still burning hot in his chest.
"But Shorty wants a formal oath, and it won't kill you, so let's go."
"I swear I will tell no one of Loreth's Force-sensitive population."
"There." Evinne nodded briskly. "Are you satisfied, Areth'ryn?"
"No," said Ryn, shakily. "But it will do, for now."
That sounded ominous, but Evinne seemed willing to let it pass - and she was right about Obi-Wan deserving better, so Anakin gritted his teeth and did the same.
Later, he promised her silently, and caught Ryn's spare nod of acknowledgement.
"Next order of business," Evinne said, ignoring the byplay. "If Omega isn't here with his patron, where is he?"
Ryn cleared her throat. "I might have an idea about that," she said. "But you're not going to like it."
"I never do," Evinne said. "Spit it out."
"If I understand correctly, then Omega is fascinated by power, in any form," Ryn said, glancing to Anakin for confirmation. "But we all know the real power here is not on Loreth, but in it, beneath the planet's surface."
Evinne's eyes widened. "If you're right, the entire galaxy could be in danger."
"After the bolg?" Ryn said. "I do not doubt my guess. And your wise-woman's apprentice has been gone some six weeks."
"Then we have to assume the worse," Evinne concluded, with a grimace that Anakin guessed might be for the apprentice. She actually looked rather ill. "All the armies of Loreth scarcely sufficed to confine Khalî the last time. And we are weaker now by far."
"I know," said Ryn. "But we can't just -"
"Wait," Anakin interrupted. "Who or what is a Khalî?"
The two girls looked at each other in unhappy silence. At last Ryn sighed.
"There is a hole in the North of the world," she said slowly. "There dwells the Dark Goddess we call Khalî: a being of extraordinary power, whose only joy is destruction. She was driven there over a thousand yeas ago, by Ethyn's grandsire. The Temple and the Rangers between them have served to keep her pinned there, below the surface, ever since."
That sounded uncomfortably like the beginning of another Lorethan folktale - or more like a dozen, maybe - but evidently Ryn was willing to let the short version serve for now.
"If Omega craves power, that is where he will find it - more than is good for him," Evinne continued. "Even the ghosts of Korriban cannot match her. Though I have heard tales, of a world in Wild Space ..." She trailed off, looking at Ryn, who shook her head.
"Let's not worry about that now," she said succinctly. "If we can deal with the trouble in our own backyard, it will be work enough."
"More than enough," Evinne said. "The bolg are only the beginning."
"You mean the shapeshifters?" Anakin said. "What have they got to do with it?"
"Khalî controls them," Evinne answered grimly. "We don't know how."
"It doesn't matter," Ryn said. "Defeat Khalî, and the rest will fall with her."
"We can't defeat her," Evinne said. "Not even all the tribes, united under Edhrel Ar-dain, could do more than driver her underground."
"Wait," said Anakin again. "You think Omega has gone to this ... this hole in the North of the world? With Obi-Wan?"
They glanced at each other. "There's no way of telling whether he took Kenobi or not," Evinne answered carefully. "But he is not here, so ... maybe. It is said that in the Dark Days, Khalî's servants used to offer her ylfe as sacrifices - sentient beings."
"And you think he - Obi-Wan ..." Anakin fought for breath. "No! I'm not giving up now! I'm going after Obi-Wan! Alone, if I have to."
"Not alone," Ryn said, resting one hand on his shoulder. "I will go with you anywhere - even into the pits of Khalî." She managed a shaky half-smile, reassurance that whatever their fight had been, at least it wasn't the end. "I'm still your warlord, remember?"
Anakin wasn't sure whether to kiss her or tell her to make up her damn mind.
Evinne gripped his other shoulder, hard. "Count me in," she said roughly.
The morning breeze lifted their hair and blew it out, black and golden against the colors of earth and sky. Anakin tried to speak and found his throat too choked for words.
Evinne saved him by speaking first. "So, Warlord," she said, glancing at her dark-haired counterpart, "what are your orders?"
Ryn took a deep breath. "Light the beacons, sound the horns, and send a rider to the High King. And find me every wise-woman, soothsayer, and hedge-witch within a day's ride."
"What?" said Evinne, startled. "Why?"
There was a wild light in Ryn's eyes. "We are going to raise the land against them."
"What?" said Evinne again. "Ryn, you can't. Nobody has managed it in over a thousand years - if it was ever more than a legend! It can't be done!"
"I know," said Ryn calmly. "I'm going to do it anyway."
"Are you out of your mind? You can't -"
"Send for them," Ryn said. She was already moving, heading down the slope to catch the trail that led up to the dun. "Anakin, I need you to tell me everything you know about battle meditation."
"Battle meditation?" Anakin said, turning to keep pace with her. "But those are just stories -"
"Tell me anyway."
"Ryn," said Evinne, pleading, "the last person who tried what you want to do went mad."
"I'm already there," Ryn said, not breaking stride.
"Oh ... hell," Evinne said, and fell into step beside them.
We're coming, Obi-Wan.