Paia D'Aeryn walked along the smooth path leading from the forest clearing on Tython to the rebuilt Jedi temple. Her attention wove out behind her, briefly touching her apprentice to confirm that he was on a parallel course and would catch up to her well short of the temple. Her lips twitched as his self-satisfied excitement conveyed itself to her, along with a curiosity so strong that it, and not his legs, was likely impelling him down the path. She adjusted her trajectory to carry her onto the path around the temple, rather than the one leading into the building. This conversation would be best held outside.
The Twi'lek boy caught up to her and matched his pace to hers, even folding his hands behind his back to mimic her posture. "Master Paia," he said in Twi'lek by way of greeting.
"Basic if you please, Brinn," she corrected. "Not everyone will understand Twi'leki."
They walked in silence for several steps. Paia amused herself with a private bet on how far they would get before his discovery would either burst from his lips or just explode his head off. To the boy's credit, they got two steps beyond the patch of wildflowers that she thought would be the farthest he could contain himself.
"Master Kai-Mal is no longer on Tython," her Padawan finally blurted out.
She smiled. "I am aware," she said, keeping her tone mild.
"That's why we've been doing so much physical training today."
That surprised her. Paia looked down at her small apprentice, arching one eyebrow. "Is it, indeed?"
"We didn't go to see him off."
"No we didn't."
"Didn't you want to say goodbye?"
There were ways to deflect the line of questioning, but Paia had decided back in her own padawan days that she would always be as honest as possible with any trainee she took under her wing. After a moment's thought about how bitter such youthful promises could be, she said softly, "Very much."
They continued in silence for several steps. Brinn had a good soul, and Paia could tell he wanted to ask her more but his curiosity warred with his instinct to refrain from causing her more pain. She waited. For this, she could be as patient as the rocks.
And if she were going to be as honest with herself as she was with her padawan, she had to admit she wasn't sure how she was going to answer the questions that would inevitably come. To other Jedi, the predicament between herself and Kai-Mal was all too evident, and nothing needed to be said. She and Kai were handling the situation as they always had, having come to a silent agreement long ago. They had never spoken of it, never said a word to each other about it, but it was there all the same.
"I thought… I'm sorry."
"Go on. You may ask."
"Don't the Jedi forbid such attachments?"
"That's a question that has many answers. I could answer that the Jedi, for all their power, have not yet mastered the art of decreeing what others may feel. Nor what they themselves may feel, for that matter."
"But you're always telling me to control my feelings."
"So I am. And there is a difference between controlling your feelings and choosing to feel or not feel. You will have emotions, Padawan. And there is nothing that you or I or any Jedi no matter how powerful may do about it. Emotions are part of life, and they have their place. They … inform us, educate us, prompt us. But we need not let them dominate us."
He thought that over, then set it aside with a shake of his head that made his lekku shimmy. "But the Jedi still don't let people get married."
"I am not, you might have noticed, married to anyone."
She chuckled. "All right, all right. The Jedi Council has not taken action because there is no action to take. Kai-Mal and I have… reached an understanding that is acceptable to all parties involved."
Brinn screwed up his jade-green face. "Reached an understanding?" His young voice was thick with annoyance at such a description of what, to him, should have been something much more romantic.
Paia tried not to smile at him. He was still so young, too young to understand fully.
Her, descending from the shuttle that had brought her to Tython, looking to her left and knowing what she'd see. Kai-Mal, standing just beyond the shadow of the doorway, a faint smile on his lips, dark eyes looking right back at her. A moment stretching out, a touch without touching, a greeting without words. He vanished inside the building, and she went to find her quarters.
"Yes. An understanding."
Later in the central living area of their shared quarters, Paia reviewed a news report while Brinn, at his desk, worked over a copy of an old treaty. Paia glanced over, grinning as she noted his fierce concentration on the task. The document was labyrinthine at best, and some might question her decision to assign it to the young boy. But she knew her padawan. Brinn had as clever and quick a mind as she'd ever encountered, and it required a challenge. She herself was more than a little familiar with the document; there were at least five distinct contradictions in it that had led to outright clan warfare. Brinn would probably find them before dinner.
A prickle at the back of her neck, like a shock wave running before an explosion, was thin warning scant moments before a Force-sent vision slammed into her, launching her to her feet in an abrupt movement that knocked over both table and chair. The curved hilt of her lightsaber smacked into her palm, called without conscious thought, igniting in a flare of pale green light.
"Master?" The alarm in his voice yanked her attention to the here-and-now and Paia blinked at her padawan. Brinn stood against his desk, his chair on the floor where it had plainly fallen as he had stood. He held his own lightsaber in his hand but unlit.
Jedi discipline reasserted itself and she fell out of the aggressive posture demanded by the Juyo style, thumbing her lightsaber off. "Brinn," she acknowledged. "My apologies."
"What was it?"
She simply looked at him, calming herself, letting her silence nudge him into relying on his own Force sensitivity to inform him.
"It was Master Kai, wasn't it?"
Paia nodded, one incline of her head. After a moment's uncertainty, she righted her own chair and collected the scattered items on the floor. Setting the table upright and placing the items on it, she sank carefully down, staring at the tabletop.
"Shouldn't we… Shouldn't we do something?"
"Like what?" she asked, still staring. "We are more than a little far away to be of immediate aid."
Brinn's frustration cut through her. "We could still go!"
"The council will send someone." She kept her tone flat as she worked with her emotions. Not to dampen or restrain, but to understand and accept.
The padawan slammed his chair back into place, anger spiraling up.
"Gently, Brinn," she said, glancing over. "Control yourself."
"I don't understand," he said. "I don't understand how you can just sit there and do nothing!"
She gestured at the chair opposite her own. "Sit with me, and I will try to explain."
He flopped himself in the chair and folded his arms, glaring at her with accusatory dark eyes.
"I can sit here because there are no other options," she said. "Kai is far away, and I am not free to simply leave the temple. If the council decides I should go, they will send me."
"But don't you want to—"
She interrupted him. "What I want to do is irrelevant, Brinn. Listen to me closely. You think I don't feel anything because I don't act on those feelings, but that's exactly what you must learn to do. Your feelings are just … data, input. My emotions tell me to go, but if I follow them blindly then I am, for all intents and purposes, only that emotion. No longer Paia, no longer a Jedi Knight, I am only fear and desire. Unthinking, an animal."
She searched for another analogy, a means by which to reach his mind instead of his heart. Reaching into a bowl on the table, she pulled out a piece of fruit. "Look. Emotions are like hunger. You can be hungry and choose not to eat. No matter how sweet the fruit, how soft the skin or succulent the flesh, you can refuse. You are not an animal, and you must not let your emotions dominate you into becoming one."
Paia put the fruit down in front of her padawan and fell silent, leaving him to think and giving herself time to understand what her Force-assisted connection was telling her about Kai-Mal. The connection was whisper-thin, a phantom of what she could normally feel. But he was not dead, that much was certain. Hope, too, was an emotion, but one she would cling to.
She looked up. "Hmm?"
"I understand what you're trying to say," he said slowly, hesitantly, as if unwilling to provoke another lecture, "but you have to eat sometimes. Just a little. Or you'll starve."
She blinked at him, processing what he was saying. Her lips twitched. "Impudent little scamp," she murmured. "Very well. Go and get your robe." She stood and moved toward her room.
He scrambled to obey, asking as he moved, "Where are we going?"
"We are going to see the Jedi Council," she said.
She didn't chide him for his exuberant yelp, but privately she thought the dancing leap into the air was a bit much.
Paia kept her walk through the corridors to a careful pace, but 'careful' didn't mean 'slow'. Her robe, one she rarely wore except for special occasions, flared around her as she moved. Brinn was hard pressed to keep up.
"Sure, now you're in a hurry," the boy grumbled.
"I want to be in time," she replied over her shoulder.
"In time for what?"
She didn't answer that, largely because she didn't have an answer to give. The Force wasn't a sentient thing that gave specifics. It was, to her, an understanding. Now that she had made her decision to go, the Force made her understand that if she wanted to be on time she had to hurry. But not too fast, or she'd be too early. It didn't matter for what; that was where her training came in. No matter what she found at the end of this rapid pace toward the Council chamber, she would be prepared for it.
Besides, the Force impelled her there, so it stood to reason there was something she had to do there.
There were guards at the door, but she was a Jedi Knight and her urgency would have been apparent to them. They didn't obstruct her way as she opened the doors in time to hear, "His loss is regrettable. It will be difficult to find another Jedi the natives will so readily accept."
"Kai-Mal Sanda is not dead," Paia spoke from the doorway, pitching her voice to carry and echo off the walls of the chamber.
All eyes turned to her. "Paia D'Aeryn. You have not been summoned before this council."
She bowed, and Brinn followed suit at her side. "Your pardon, Masters. It was necessary that I come."
The Twi'lek council member spoke. "How can you be sure he is not dead? We have all felt his passing."
"Kai-Mal and I have … had a connection since our days as younglings, Master. I would know if he were dead, and he is not. He is simply no longer connected to the Force. Exactly."
"There are fewer definitions of death more accurate than that, I'd say."
A wizened Ithorian held out his hands. "Come here, child."
Motioning for Brinn to remain behind, Paia approached the old master and set her hands in his.
"Clear your mind," he said to her, closing his eyes.
Obedient, Paia did likewise. Inside her, all went still and quiet, a meditative trance that she fell into as easily as breathing. As with all Jedi, it was then that she could hear the Force the clearest, when nothing stood between her and the rest of the universe but a simple shell. The presence of the Ithorian master wove through her mind like foxfire.
Kai-Mal Sanda. The thought was his, it was hers, it was a unified reach across lightyears that were irrelevant. The Force had no interest in space. It was interested only in connections.
Pain. Darkness. An image disrupted as if a pond's clear surface were slapped, shattering the reflection into broken and meaningless refractions. A thick fog, impenetrable, too dense for sound to penetrate, for light to penetrate, for anything but a thin awareness of presence. Paia. Paia!
She dropped out of the link abruptly, taking a staggering step backwards. Someone supported her by an elbow until she could regain her balance. Brinn, she realized, resting a hand on his shoulder.
"Kai-Mal Sanda lives," the Ithorian Jedi Master said, taking his seat again. He seemed paler to Paia, leeched of some essential energy that gave him color and life. "It is the dark side of the Force you felt, young Jedi. That is what obscures him from our sight."
The Twi'lek spoke again. "Take your master back to your rooms, Padawan. See that she eats and rests."
"What of Kai?" Paia asked as Brinn tugged her arm.
"Rest, Jedi. You have brought us the assurance we needed that he is alive. Now, the matter is in the council's hands."
Paia struggled with herself, Kai's desperate cry still echoing in her mind. The urgency and need of it wore against her discipline like acid, compelling a response. With difficulty, she forced herself to bow again and finally let Brinn lead her from the room, brushing past a Zabrak Jedi entering as they exited.
Her padawan all but vibrated with nervous energy, his lekku twitching uncontrollably. "Now what?" he whispered. "Do we steal a ship?"
A headache unfurled behind her eyes and she diverted part of her attention to acknowledging the pain so that she could begin ignoring it. "Do we what?"
"Steal a ship. To go to Master Kai-Mal."
She frowned. "You have a positively villainous turn of mind, my young padawan. We will return to our rooms and rest."
He stopped. "You have got to be kidding me!"
"Ow." Both hands went to her head in a futile attempt to prevent her skull from flying apart. "Lower your voice, if you have any mercy in you at all."
"After all that, you're not going to go?"
"I suspect the council means to send Jedi Master Vexx," she said, finally putting a name to the Zabrak they had passed. Gingerly, she continued down the hall. It really hadn't seemed as long coming the other way.
"But it's not his job to go, it's yours!"
Sighing, Paia attempted to put some distance between her and Brinn's very shrill voice. "Ah, I see. The council's wisdom is second to that of a thirteen-year-old padawan's. I'll just go back and let them know, shall I?"
Abruptly, Brinn was in front of her and she frowned down at him and his angry eyes. "You're the one who's connected to him, you're the one who's his lifemate, you're the only one who knew he was still alive, so you should go! It's stupid to let someone else go!"
Well, at least it gave her a good reason to push aside the pain in her head. Paia drew on the Force, letting it lend her greater presence and stature, a tactic useful for intimidating crowds or very rude padawan. She switched to Twi'lek. "Brinn Sho," she said in a low and threatening tone, her blue-green eyes locking onto his and narrowing, "your romantic notions of propriety do not guide my actions, and they certainly don't guide the Jedi. We will trust in the wisdom of the greatest Jedi alive, most of whom sit in that room we just left. We will trust in the Force. This is not a holodrama. I will not risk Kai's life, my life, and your life on some foolish chance that you know better than the entire High Council. Is that clear?"
He lowered his gaze and folded his arms, lower lip sticking out.
"I asked you a question, Padawan."
"Yes," he mumbled, mutinous.
"Good. Now. We will return to our rooms where you will continue your study of the Treaty of Pinju, and I will lie down with a cold pack on my head and hope that my brains do not leak out of my ears. If you could try to restrain your native impulse to shout during that time, I would be grateful."
Paia put her hands on Brinn's shoulders and spun him about, pointing him toward their quarters and giving him a nudge to get him on his way. She would have to sleep in the common room tonight. Doubtless the little green chuda meant to sneak out and steal a ship on his own, certain that she'd have to follow him then. Never mind that he had no idea at all where Kai was.
But Paia knew. It was burned into her thoughts and there it pulsed like an angry star waiting to go nova.
"Are you ready?"
Brinn nodded, jaw clenched with the force of his concentration, pale blue lightsaber held before him in a classic diagonal slash.
He wasn't ready. In fact, he was going to get pummeled. No one could be that tense and properly channel the Force, but it was his lesson to learn. Paia, lounging in the shade, sipped from her glass and gestured. Small round balls lifted from the ground and flew at the young Twi'lek.
Brinn spun and dodged, whipping his lightsaber in arcs too broad for the situation. She would, she thought, have to teach him how to better choose a form to suit the situation. He had a habit of defaulting to the Shii-Cho form he and all younglings were taught from their earliest days in training. Whimsically, she bounced a ball off her trainee's head.
"Calmly," she said, sipping again. "Your anger is the short way to make yourself faster, and it is, eventually, finite. The Force is infinite; infinite in patience and in power. It simply is. To master it, you must learn to simply be."
The point of his lightsaber drooped, sizzling against blades of grass as he gulped for air. "Can I take a break yet?"
"You wouldn't need one if you'd stop holding your breath when you fight," she said. "Once more. Breathe. Stay calm."
"I don't recall you remaining all that calm when I used to hit you in the head with objects, my former apprentice." Shane Bartel, Jedi Master, dropped to sit on the turf next to her with an ease that belied his years. His hair had been silver since she had known him and the lines on his face were a roadmap of experience, but his body was as strong as it ever was. Paia could see the crinkles beside his black eyes when he tried not to smile at Brinn's exclamation of annoyance as another ball got through his guard.
She smiled, but kept enough of her attention on Brinn to keep him busy deflecting. "Yes, well, you used to use dirt clods," she said to her old master. "I thought you were on Varn. How was it?"
"Damp," Shane said succinctly.
They watched Brinn's practice in silence.
"Has it worked?" the old master asked.
"Wearing yourself out so you don't have to think about Kai-Mal."
Paia's attention to the exercise faltered and the balls wavered in mid-flight, allowing Brinn to smack all three out of the air.
"Ah. I see not."
"Enough, Brinn," Paia said. "Get a drink."
"It's only been a day. Too early to expect Vexx to report back," Shane said.
"I haven't been waiting for him to."
"Because you've been keeping a weather eye on that connection of yours, I suppose. That would indeed be more accurate."
Brinn sat equidistant from both Jedi, dark eyes moving avidly from one to another as they conversed.
Paia tried to suppress a flash of annoyance at her old mentor. "No one likes a know-it-all, Master."
"Tell me about it," Brinn interjected.
Shane's shout of laughter cut off Paia's indignant huff. "Ah, the Force is good. I always wished on you an apprentice fully as insolent toward you as you were toward me."
"You have no idea," she muttered. "Brinn, since you are recovered enough to interrupt, I assume you are recovered enough to run. Around the lake, if you please."
He groaned. "How am I supposed to learn anything if you never let me listen in to anything fun? How many times around?"
"Until I tell you to stop, naturally."
She held her silence until he was out of earshot. "I actually like him quite a bit," she confided.
"They're cute at that age. Wait until he's a teenager."
"You didn't come out here to watch me torment my padawan."
"No. No, I didn't." But he fell silent, watching Brinn move at a slow jog around the border of the lake, water birds skimming the surface away from him.
Paia waited him out. He would come to his point eventually.
"I thought perhaps you two should get off-planet."
She blinked, looking over at him. "The Council has a mission for us?"
"Pfft," he said with a grin altogether too impish for a man of his years. "The Council. If we always waited for them to make decisions, nothing worthwhile would ever get done. Here." He pulled a small datapad out of his pack. "Let's see, now. What is on the council's docket?"
"Master..." She layered her voice with as much disapproval as she could. Well, and still pretend at a modicum of respect anyway.
"Here we are. Hm. Investigating a sudden increase in the dune slug population on Aros VI. Stars and stones, why would anyone contact the Jedi over that? What else. Here's one, an entire farming community died overnight with no sign of plague. Just dropped over. That could be interesting."
Paia reached out and snatched the datapad away from him. "Stop that," she chided. "These are peoples' lives, not toys to keep children distracted." She studied the pad, trying to figure out how to get out of the list.
"I have no idea how you became so straight-laced a Jedi. You certainly never got that from me."
"A matter of your providing a negative example, I think," she said dryly.
"Hah. You had better hope not, or your little padawan there will become quite the hellion with the example you set."
"Too late," she murmured, attention caught by a particular listing. She poked at the screen. Beside her, Shane fell silent. "Tanuff. I don't know that world."
He took the pad back and looked at the file she had selected. "Not much to know about it. Nothing to interest any of the big mining concerns, not enough fertile land for agribusiness. I seem to recall the inhabitants there mostly raise koolach for their silk. The missing child interests you?"
"Missing Force-sensitive child," she clarified.
Shane tapped rapidly on the small pad. "There we are, then. Congratulations, young Jedi, you have been assigned to go and investigate the problem."
"Master Shane, I hardly think that the Council—"
"What's the problem?" he interrupted, waving the pad at her. "It's all right here, perfectly legitimate. You had better go. You know how touchy the Council gets about laggards."
Paia wanted to object further, but there really was something tugging at her. She stood. "Brinn!" she called to the boy who, thanks to his dragging feet, had yet to complete a full lap around the small lake. "It's time to go."
With considerably more energy, Brinn closed the gap between them. "Where are we going?"
"Evidently to Tanuff," she said, not without a disapproving glare at her old master.
Shane smiled beatifically.
"Off-world? A real mission?"
"Yes, off-world. Yes, a real mission. Return to our quarters and shower, then begin packing. Meet me at the spaceport when you're done."
With a whoop, Brinn dashed toward the distant Jedi buildings.
"Why does he always make that noise before he runs off?" she murmured.
Shane rose and dusted off the seat of his pants. "Additional propulsion," he suggested.
She eyed him. "I assume you're going to follow me around and make sure I actually lift off."
"The master-apprentice relationship is never truly ended, you know."
Paia unsealed the maglocks that held her pilot's chair in place, permitting her to swivel to face her apprentice. "We'll be landing on the surface of Tanuff in a few moments," she said, "and so I think we need to talk."
"This isn't our first mission together, Master," Brinn said.
"In a sense, it is. True, we have done other errands for the Council before, but they were tasks whose challenges were matched to the skill level of a young Jedi Knight and her new Padawan. This is a mission selected off a list more or less at random."
"Oh." His expression sobered. "But it's just looking for a missing child, isn't it?"
"As far as we know," she corrected. "It may be that the entire Council, considering the matter with their wisdom, experience, and collective strength in the Force, may have sensed a danger I have not and would have chosen to send a team of Jedi. This is, after all, a missing Force-sensitive child. They're different from other children. Just as you were, and just as I was. They rarely get lost, they are not easily deceived by strangers, and they have reflexes that keep them safe where other children would be injured. They have less clutter in their heads to sully their connection to the Force and, in some small ways, can be quite powerful."
"So something serious must have happened." Brinn frowned, thinking on it. "He still could have been hurt, couldn't he? Have fallen down a cliff or something?"
"He could have. But we do not know. It may even be that the Force will lead him to us, or us to him, with little investigation necessary. Such things have occurred in the past."
"Like it will lead us to Master Kai."
She blinked. "What?"
"That's why we really came here," he said with conviction. "This is where Master Kai is, that's why you picked this mission."
Her heart sank, though she kept her expression neutral. "Brinn, Master Kai-Mal is not on Tanuff."
His brow wrinkled in confusion. "He's not?"
"But… how can you be sure? You said your connection was bad, maybe he's-"
"I know exactly where Master Kai is. I could point the way for you, if you wanted." And could do so in her sleep while spinning on a lathe, but she didn't see the need to tell him that. She studied her apprentice, then shook her head. "This is a mistake. I should take you back to the Jedi compound."
"No!" Brinn reached out to take her hands, stilling them on their way back to the small ship's controls. "Please, Master Paia. I don't want to go back."
"This is no training exercise, Padawan. A child's life could hang in the balance. I need you focused on where we are and what we are about, not constantly trying to find a way for us to go to Kai-Mal. This situation is exactly why we repeatedly tell you to keep your mind on where you are and what you are doing."
He looked at her, meeting her gaze intently, but she wasn't yet convinced he understood the seriousness of the matter. "There is a possibility we haven't discussed. This child has been under Jedi surveillance for over a year. We judged him too young to remove from his home, but he undoubtedly would have been taken for training very soon. And if the Jedi knew of him…" She trailed off, waiting for him to finish her thought.
"Then the Sith might know of him, too," Brinn finished, his skin taking on an unflattering pale jade tinge.
She nodded once. "It is possible, though not likely, that the Sith have the child. If it is Sith, they have probably already taken him off the planet. According to the report, planetary defenses record no Sith ships in the area, but they would hardly be so open about it with the treaty in place. It is also possible that they're waiting, and the child is bait."
"Bait for what?" Brinn asked.
"I couldn't say as yet. But the possibility exists. The point is Master Kai-Mal is not here, and his predicament is not ours. Anything could be waiting out there, from the dangerous to the banal, but if you are thinking of Kai, then you will not be prepared for any of it. Do you understand now why I need you to be a Jedi Padawan, focused and clear, obedient and serious? Stay by my side. Listen to your instincts. Remember your training."
He nodded, dark eyes wide and somber.
She hesitated a moment longer, then made her decision. "All right. When we land, the locals will meet us at the dock. The Jedi have been through here before, so they will not object to our presence though sometimes local law enforcement can resent what they see as Jedi interference. Be polite and respectful. The actions of one small Padawan will reflect on even the mightiest Jedi."
Brinn sighed. "I knowwww…"
And that tiny moment of maturity is over, Paia thought to herself as she guided the ship to the landing platform.
Outside, a small group of men in dark gray uniforms were waiting. "The Council told us of your arrival," the oldest of the group said, stepping forward as the Jedi disembarked. "Thank you for coming so promptly. We assumed the Jedi would be interested. I'm Commander Jale Dornan."
"We are interested, thank you," Paia said. "I am Paia D'Aeryn, and this is my Padawan, Brinn Sho. If you don't mind my asking, how many ships have come and gone since the boy was discovered missing?"
"None," Jale said, shaking his head. "It was one of the first things I checked when we got back to town. The only ships we see regularly are the ones that come to pick up the processed silk, and they're not due for another month. The boy's still on the planet somewhere."
"Good news, then. We would like to look at the child's house, if we could."
"Of course. It's not far. I've had some men guarding it, though truthfully I don't think anyone would want to break in. It was pretty brutal."
Paia nodded as they stepped onto a waiting transport. "I understood from the report that the child's parents were killed."
"Killed." He snorted. "That's one way of putting it." After a glance at Brinn who was staring out of the window, the commander edged closer to her. "Are you sure you should be bringing a kid in there?"
Paia didn't so much as glance at Brinn. "It would be a mistake to discount him for his age. He is a Jedi Padawan."
The commander didn't seem impressed. "All right, Jedi. You're the one who'll have to deal with his nightmares, not me."
They quickly left the spaceport and the city behind. The view was nothing to excite the senses. The landscape was either gray or gray-green, depending on if you were looking at the rocks or the lichen that grew on them. Even the sky was gray, and a mist hung over the area too fine to be called drizzle, but too heavy to be fog.
Brinn grabbed her arm. "Master Paia, look."
Outside the window, high on a ridge of boulders, a large multi-limbed creature moved slowly across the rocks, its head sweeping back and forth as it went. It possessed broad armored segments on a thick body that narrowed to a taper, then widened again, and an odd set of curving horns that it used to flip heavier stones out of its way.
"One of the koolach," she said. "They browse during the day, ranging from their burrows to forage for lichen. At night, they return home and spin silk for warmth and as protection from the damp. The silk is very fine and entirely waterproof, but it can only be harvested when the koolach are feeding."
"Dammit. Hey, Kochanski, get on the comm and tell old man Haverty that his bull has wandered off again." Jale shook his head. "The only thing that keeps them penned up are repulsor fields, but sometimes the big bulls grow horns long enough to ruin the fences, and then they just keep walking and eating until nightfall. They're mean, though, territorial and aggressive. The only thing a mature bull tolerates in his territory is a cow, and the cows don't even like each other."
"That must make farming a difficult proposition," she said.
"Most farmers only keep one animal, maybe two. They're big, so each one can produce a lot of silk, but they eat a lot and need room to move. It makes it impossible to run large-scale operations."
"How often do the farmers harvest silk?"
"Every day," the commander said. "The silk gets thicker the more of it a koolach spins, and it gets tougher too. Fresh silk is best. Everyone turns in their harvest in the morning, then works the afternoon in the processing plant."
Brinn continued to keep watch, but the stray koolach was the only thing they saw that wasn't rock or moss. Eventually, the transport went off the visible road and cut across a field to a small cabin that looked to have been carved out of a particularly large boulder.
Paia glanced at the scene. "Commander, I thought you said you'd posted guards."
"I did," he said, frowning. "Where the two hells are they? Hey, Fayne! Baskez! If you two are inside playing Pazaak again, I'll have you busted down to street-sweeping!"
They weren't inside playing cards, of that Paia was certain. Her skin tingled, and she found herself looking carefully over the area. One hand slid her lightsaber free of its place at her belt, and she held her other hand out toward the locals, motioning them to stay with the transport even as she exited it. When the commander looked at her in confusion, she held a single finger to her lips, silencing him before he could ask any questions.
Brinn hopped lightly down to stand beside her, holding his lightsaber as well. He landed in a semi-crouch, scanning the area much as she had been.
She side-stepped to him, maintaining her guard. "What do you see?" she asked him.
"A lot of nothing."
"More specific, if you please."
"The house. The door is open. There are fence posts, but I don't see anything big enough to hold a koolach."
"What about those rocks?"
"It's just some rubble. Oh… It's a big rock all blown up."
"Very good. What kind of fences are they?"
"Repulsor fences, like the Commander said. Only…"
"They're dark. They're not turned on." He looked up at her, nervous. "Does that mean there's a koolach wandering around?"
"Oh, I doubt it's wandered far," she said, nodding toward the house. "Look at the door lintel. What do you see?"
He squinted. "It's … shiny."
She backed toward the transport, briefly touching Brinn's shoulder to bring him with her. "What kind of koolach did the family have?" she asked softly.
The commander went pale and looked around, finally seeing what the Jedi had. "Just one small cow," he said, unholstering the blaster at his side.
"Gently, Commander," she said. "They feed during the day, yes? We probably have a few hours to look around, but I suggest you contact someone about coming to find and contain the creature before it gets back. I think it's been nesting in the house. Someone destroyed its den."
Dornan stared at the rubble. "But… it wasn't like that yesterday," he said.
She paused and looked back at the den. "Really? Interesting," she murmured. "The fences were on then, too, I assume."
"I… think so. Yes, they must have been. My men—"
"Are likely dead. Stay here."
Paia left the commander to make his calls and walked toward the pile of rubble, cautious but not tense. Brinn kept pace, only a step away from her left shoulder. The padawan reached out to the rocks, broken but still clumped together with wads of sticky white silk exposed to the sun, and brushed his hand over a wide black streak. "Carbon residue, I think," he said. "Big marks, though."
Paia nodded. "And smaller ones here, and here," she pointed. "Some on the ground as well."
"Someone blew the koolach den up?" he asked, dubious.
"Sort of. Let's go check out the house."
She led her apprentice back toward the boulder-cabin, stopping briefly by the window facing the destroyed den. "More carbon scoring," she pointed out, nodding her head toward the wall around the window. Brinn nodded uneasily, and they entered the cabin proper.
The interior of the house was one large room with a loft for sleeping, lightly coated in a fine shimmer of silken threads. "Not very fastidious creatures, koolach," she observed, her tone light. Looking left and right, she discovered a panel implanted into the wall beside the door and sidestepped to inspect it. "Fence controls, I think," she said, tapping the controls. "Fairly complex system, but then I suppose you wouldn't want anything cheap if you're depending on it to keep a koolach contained. There's even a delay setting."
"Ewww," Brinn complained, trying to lift one foot free of the sticky silk. "People wear this stuff?"
Paia glanced back, amused. "When it's been refined, yes. And don't use your lightsaber for that, Brinn, you'll lose a toe."
She heard him catch his breath and turned completely, fearing for a moment that he actually had cut his own foot off, but he was staring at something in the rounded corner. She stepped quickly to his side, resting a hand on his shoulder then slipping past him to crouch and tear at the webbing.
"One of the commander's guards, I suppose," she said, staring at the face of an unknown man wearing a dark gray uniform. "He hasn't been dead long." Carefully, she pried the body away from the wall, staring at the bare stone behind it. She looked around, then stood. "We need to get back to town."
"Already?" Brinn said, tearing his gaze away from the corpse.
"We've learned what we needed to." She exited the cabin, picking silk from her hair as she brushed through the doorway.
"We did?" He hesitated a moment in the cabin behind her.
As a result, the koolach that plummeted from the top of the boulder-house missed him entirely and smashed into the gravel directly on Paia's heels.
It must have been feeding nearby and come up behind the cabin unseen, Paia thought even as she moved. She sprang into the air and back-flipped, twisting in midair to land on the creature's back. Her lightsaber sang to life, but before she could bury it in the animal's head, it cracked its body like a whip. The plates on its back proved to be jointed, too, and the entire creature rippled like a sidewalk in an earthquake.
Paia lost her balance and was thrown free. Tucking her shoulder as she hit the ground, she rolled with the impact, spinning lithely to her feet a few scant meters away. Immediately, she sprinted back toward the koolach.
It wailed at her, exposing a circular mouth lined with row after row of small but very sharp teeth, but before it could lunge, its wail changed to a high-pitched shriek and it doubled back on itself. She saw the light of Brinn's lightsaber flashing as he parried the creature's initial attack, watched as it reared high over her padawan.
Paia flicked her wrist, sending her lightsaber spinning in a lethal pale green pinwheel. Blade met neck, and the creature's head fell backwards, hitting its own body and rolling to the ground at her feet. The rest of the body collapsed, sending up a tiny cloud of gravel particles into the air.
Beyond the corpse, she saw Brinn on the ground, his lightsaber still buried hilt deep in the carcass's thorax. His eyes were huge and his breathing was rapid, but he wasn't bleeding and she sent a silent thanks to the universe at large.
Paia retrieved her lightsaber and powered it down, giving Brinn time to come to his feet. Only then did she look back at the locals to see them standing clustered around the transport, weapons drawn, faces pale and shocked.
She gave Brinn a hidden wink and a grin, then turned to walk back to the transport with her face set in an expression of perfect nonchalance. "I don't believe we'll be needing that containment after all, Commander. I'd like to visit the control tower now. I have a few more questions for you on the way, if you don't mind."
"But Master," Brinn whispered as they climbed back in the transport, "what if the Sith come back?"
She pretended not to notice how the locals gave both Jedi extra space, cramming themselves into one side of the transport. "It wasn't Sith," she said.
"You're certain?" she asked the tech at the control tower. "Your systems are working perfectly?"
"Yes, Master Jedi," he said, staring at her. "I've run the diagnostics twice."
She pursed her lips and tried to ignore the press of bodies behind her. The tower wasn't large, really was barely worth being called a 'tower' at all, and it was filled beyond capacity by the two technicians on duty, the commander, two of his men, herself, and Brinn. But, she noted, though the building wasn't impressive, the array of sensory equipment on display emphatically was. She hadn't seen a set-up this sophisticated since her last trip to the core worlds.
"If you don't mind my asking, Jedi Paia, what're we doing here?" Jale asked. "I told you I checked the logs first thing and no ships had been in or out."
"No ships were recorded coming in or out," she said without turning. "Those are two very different things."
"If a ship came through our atmo, we'd know," the technician said, eyes wide and earnest, his coworker nodding frantically beside him. "Processed koolach silk is expensive, and we have trouble with smugglers so we keep the system pretty top-notch. We just upgraded again last month. No one could sneak in here, not unless they had some really impressive cloaking. The system even queries a ship's log and finds out what its last port of call was, and if that information's not there, we get an alarm."
"It's not Sith," she muttered, then nodded to herself.
"We didn't see anything because there was no ship," Jale stated, a vein beginning to pulse at his temple.
"There was a ship all right. Not a very large one, but a ship nonetheless and one with engines powerful enough to achieve escape velocity. Which leaves just one possibility. Someone changed the station logs."
"Impossible," Jale stated flatly. "You need special security clearance to access them, let alone alter them. They're not even on a remote network; you'd have to be in the tower to view them."
"Good," she said, turning at last. "That will make our task infinitely easier."
Everyone stared at her. She cocked her head and looked down at Brinn to explain, arching an eyebrow at him and nodding her permission.
Brinn said, "It means whoever we're looking for has the authority to be in the tower unquestioned, the ability to clear the tower technicians out so he could alter the log without being seen, the security clearances to access the logs, and the computer know-how to alter them."
Pride, Paia reflected, was a dangerous emotion in a Master. She would have to be careful not to let her pride in Brinn push him into situations he wasn't ready for, and equally careful not to pamper him too much. But she couldn't keep the smile off her face.
"Th-there's no one," Jale stammered. "Well, I could. But I wasn't here that night, not until after we discovered the murders, you can ask anyone." His chin lifted in defiance.
She waved him off. "No, Commander, I know it wasn't you. Where are the security codes kept?"
"It's a new system. The properly paranoid thing to do would be to memorize them, but you're more worried about incursions from the outside and not your own internal security so I'm assuming you kept the security codes somewhere in case you forgot them. Where are they kept?"
"In my office," he said. "On my computer. But I have passwords…"
"And no one's ever around when you enter them?"
"Well… I don't…"
"So anyone could have gotten to the tower log security codes. Which leaves us with who was in the tower without being questioned and who got the technicians out of the room while he worked. Do the technicians ever leave?"
"Not both of us," the senior technician said. "Someone always has to monitor the system. If one of us goes to the head, begging your pardon Master Jedi, or to eat, the other one stays here."
"Who were the technicians on duty the afternoon of the murders?"
"Packendale and Brist," the senior technician said, after checking the schedule.
"Can you raise them on the comm from here?"
The technician nodded and began making the calls. She glanced toward the Commander who was deep in conversation with the two guards with him. "This isn't going to end well for some member of his staff," she murmured to Brinn, "and he knows it."
"Do you think he'll try to protect his man?"
"I think when the Commander finds out who it is, we'll be the ones keeping him from strangling the guilty party with his bare hands."
Brinn flashed her a quick grin.
"Master Jedi? I have the techs."
Paia leaned in to the screen, split to show both faces. Commander Jale crowded into the picture with her, but she didn't object. "Gentlemen, I am Jedi Knight Paia D'Aeryn. I have some questions for you about your last shift in the tower."
"And you better tell her the truth," the Commander snapped.
"When you were on shift, at any time were both of you out of the tower?"
"No way," said one. "Someone always has to be watching the controls."
"Never?" she questioned.
The second man shifted. "Well, there was…"
Paia turned her attention to him. "Your name, please?"
"Fri Brist, ma'am," he said. "Packs had gone to eat dinner and then Llaud showed up…"
"Llaud, you son of a bitch," Jale growled, motioning over his shoulder.
Paia glanced at Brinn, who stepped in front of the two officers before they could leave the room.
"Go on, Mister Brist."
"Uh… yeah, well, like I said, Llaud showed up with some of them rolls his wife makes. Then I had to uh… use the necessary real bad, and he said he'd watch the blips long enough for me to go. I wasn't out of the tower more'n a couple of minutes, though."
Paia sighed and leaned back. "Thank you, gentlemen." She nodded at the tech, who closed the connection. "There you have it, then. I take it you know this Llaud?"
Jale nodded, jaw clenched. "He's one of my officers. Good kid. So I thought. Works hard, first one in and last one out. He's been busting his hump to earn extra credits ever since his family lost their koolach to old age."
"All right, Brinn. Let them go and pick him up."
"You should let me talk to him," Jale said as the men exited the tower. "He won't talk to a stranger."
Paia slid her fingers around the hood of her robe and pulled it up, casting the soft oval of her face into dark shadow. She pitched her tone half an octave lower, making it gentle and dangerous. "Oh now Commander," she said, "I think you'd be surprised at the things people are willing to tell me."
Paia strode through the town toward the spaceport, Brinn at her side. Her robe snapped and fluttered around her ankles, much like Commander Jale.
"You can't just leave!" he said. "We're in the middle of an investigation!"
"No, Commander, you are in the middle of an investigation. Mine, insofar as Tanuff is concerned, is momentarily complete. Officer Llaud said the ship came from Pythus, according to the log, so that is where I am going."
"We still don't know who killed the farmers."
"Then I suggest you question Officer Llaud further. I was not sent here to uncover the murderers, only to find the boy. I have shared every piece of information I learned at the farm, and I have even led you to their accomplice."
"But how do you know-"
Paia stopped and turned to face him. "I don't understand, Commander. Is it the manner of my delivery that has you completely unable to absorb the facts of the crimes in question? I'll make one last attempt to tell you what happened. Perhaps chronologically, this time."
His face flushed red, but she lifted a single finger to silence him. "The kidnappers arrived at the farm yesterday morning, where they found and killed the boy's parents. They subdued the boy, and then hid inside the koolach den. When the parents failed to turn in that morning's harvest of silk, the authorities – that's you, by the way – went to investigate and found them dead. You checked around the farm but neglected to look inside the then-intact koolach den, since the fences were still up. And I daresay it simply never occurred to you that anyone would be stupid enough to hide inside one.
"You posted two guards and came back to town where you checked the station logs which had not yet been altered since no ship had yet landed. You then notified the Jedi Council, knowing of our interest in the boy. Officer Llaud arrived at the tower to cover for the ship that came to pick up the boy, which landed on the koolach den as it was the only surface of sufficient size around, the rest of the ground being too rocky and uneven to permit a decent landing. Your men probably attempted to contact you, assuming they were halfway competent, but must have been jammed. They turned off the fences to fire at the kidnappers from the windows of the farmhouse and were killed in the ensuing firefight. The ship left, the kidnappers returned to wherever they came from, and the koolach, upon returning from the day's grazing, nested in the house. Then I showed up, investigated, and now we're standing here having this rather tedious conversation."
"Investigated?" He laughed, one harsh hack of mockery. "You weren't there long enough for a kwit to take a piss!"
Paia considered asking what a kwit was, but time was short and she took it on faith it was an animal capable of urinating with great rapidity. "Your own forensics team has by now confirmed the time of the death of the farmers. You said the den was intact when you first arrived. That means something changed after your initial investigation. Scorch marks on the rocks tell us a ship landed there. The smaller burn marks are from the fire your guards exchanged with the kidnappers, meaning the kidnappers were somewhere between the den and the house. Since there are fence controls in the house capable of programming a delay in fenceline activation, since you didn't see the kidnappers, and since we can surmise they were near the koolach den, they must have used the delay feature to enter the enclosure and restart the fences behind them."
She continued, letting the facts pile up in an inexorable tidal wave. "Because the blaster fire hit the rocks, the fences must have been down and the only reason the guards would have deactivated the fences would be if they needed something on the other side of them. The destruction of her den necessarily drove the koolach to nest somewhere else nearby, and the silk in the house tells us where. The fact that the silk was over your guards and not under them tells us she nested there after they were dead. You confirmed no ships had been recorded coming or going by the control tower, but the scene at the farm tells us some ship had landed, so either your control tower logs are faulty or someone tampered with them. That the ship was small enough to land on the koolach den means that it wasn't big enough to hold more than one adult and a child which means the murderers are still here.
"And you should go find them. If the boy isn't on Pythus, I'll need to speak with them and if I have to come all the way back here to dig them up myself, I cannot guarantee there will be no collateral damage."
She turned on her heel and walked to her ship. "Brinn, get the engines warmed up," she said to her apprentice.
"You're not going anywhere until I'm through with you!" the Commander snarled, following her two steps up the ramp. "If you lift one centimeter off this tarmac, I'll have your engines shot off and you can rot here until I'm satisfied!"
Paia pivoted and strode back to the officer, eyes narrow, jaw set. To his credit, he didn't back up more than a step from the oncoming Jedi. "Commander," she said softly, "I so far outrank you, your boss's boss's boss doesn't have the license to pass me a tissue to blow my nose without my direct permission. The relative gulf between our spheres of authority is so vast, is such an unimaginably large distance, the entire galaxy could tuck neatly into one corner and still have plenty of roomto invite the other galaxies 'round for tea. No one murders two people and kidnaps their child so that they can take him out for candy and a nice party and I guarantee you, Commander, as bad as you think your day is right now, wherever that boy is, his day is worse."
She took one more step, backing him entirely off the ramp as the engines whined to life. "And if you order anyone to shoot at me, you had better be prepared to find out exactly what a properly motivated Jedi Knight is capable of."
Her eyes locked with his, she gestured behind her and the ramp controls inside the ship activated, raising the ramp even as Brinn guided the ship gently off the landing site.
"You made him pretty angry," Brinn ventured with a sidelong glance at her as she entered the ship's cockpit. "I don't think he likes Jedi much now."
"Unfortunate, I know," she said with a sigh, settling herself into the copilot's chair. "He's a good man, just a bit careless from being nothing but a glorified animal handler for so long." She paused as the ship broke through the upper reaches of the atmosphere and into the cold black of space. "He wasn't unintelligent, but his complacency did contribute to the deaths of both the farmers and his own men, and to the boy being kidnapped."
Brinn shifted uncertainly. "So… you were punishing him?"
"No." She looked over, surprised. "No, there was no thought of punishment. Say rather my concern was more for the safety of the child and less for the men who let him get taken. If my tactics overset their pride, then so be it. Perhaps they'll take more care in the future."
"You knew he'd get angry, though."
"He was already angry. He didn't want to accept that I knew more than he did. Anyway," she said with a smile at her padawan, "I suspect tracking down the locals who did the actual kidnapping will give him something to vent his frustrations on."
"What if they forged the ship's registry? Won't we need his help then?"
"They might have," she admitted, "but it's the only lead we have. If they're not on Pythus, my little tiff back there will have repercussions. But I had wasted enough time on his inability to absorb information. He's a grown man. He'll just have to get over his hurt feelings."
The stars stretched and blurred around them as the small ship sprang toward its distant destination.
Sitting back and sighing, Paia glanced at the shipboard chrono. "It's getting late," she said. "We'll be in transit for a little while. Why don't you go get something to eat and try to rest?"
No 13-year-old in Paia's experience ever needed to be told twice to get food, and Brinn hopped to his feet. "Would you like me to bring you something, Master?" he offered.
She smiled at him. "No, thank you Brinn. I'll be fine."
The ship was tiny, not much to it beyond the cockpit and an open area with two fold-down bunks, the food synth, some cargo nets, and the head. Though he wasn't especially noisy, she could hear Brinn moving around. There wasn't time for sleep, and there wasn't room for any decent exercise, so Paia conserved her energy. She closed her eyes.
She heard the sound of the engines, she deliberately listened to them, felt the low pulse of them through her body, let it become like her own heartbeat. Brinn's small noises danced across her awareness, taking on a rhythm-that-wasn't, like a song without a melody, and she found she knew the notes before he made them. Together, ship and Brinn were the only noises in her world. Slowly she relaxed her focus on them and they faded from her perception leaving her floating a pool of silence, her mind free to drift.
Kai-Mal. They had been in some of the same classes as younglings, though they didn't associate. Instead, somehow she was always near him, he was always near her. They didn't talk or play together, they never shared toys or chased each other. They moved around each other, like stars caught in a mutual gravitational pull.
When they weren't together, they were distracted, each by the absence of the other. She would gaze off, looking toward where he was regardless of the walls or spaces between them. He would do the same, looking at nothing and smiling on the far side of the compound. And it was so subtle, no one noticed much beyond the fact that they were easily distracted daydreamers.
Until they were padawan. It took Jedi Masters in the constant company of the young couple to notice, and it took a Master's curiosity to encourage his padawan to follow whatever inner prompting kept making her lift her head and stare into the distance. They arrived at a small training room. She walked to the window and he was on the other side, waiting for her, fingertips touched to the glass.
The stories began that night, cautionary tales of what happened to Jedi in love, to Jedi who succumbed to the temptation, stories about Jedi who fell prey to their own emotions, Jedi who became dark and twisted or sometimes simply vanished into time without a ripple.
There it was, then. How she became what her Master would one day call a straight-laced Jedi. Determined not to fall, unable not to feel, she walked a tightrope over a chasm of failure. But she was not alone, suspended in the darkness by the thinnest margin imaginable. Kai-Mal was there with her, striding along his own tightrope with confidence and surety.
They never spoke of it because they had found their perfect balance. Neither knew what might disturb that poise: a kiss, a touch, a word. As time passed and confidence grew, they spoke of other things, but never that. They would see each other, their eyes would meet, each would know the heart of the other without a word being said, and they would pass each other by. Each poised over the abyss, balanced perfectly between falling and feeling.
The sound of the engines changed, pulling her from her meditation. Safely out of the planet's gravity well, the ship emerged from hyperspace with its viewscreen offering the sight of Pythus.
Paia sat back abruptly, making her pilot's seat rattle against its magnetic moorings.
Brinn came into the cockpit. "Is that it? Is that where they took the boy?"
"Where they took the boy," she repeated, then turned her head to stare at her padawan. Part of her dreaded saying it out loud, what she had to say next, but he deserved to know. She braced herself for the inevitable. "And that," she said, "is where Kai-Mal is."
Brinn's eyes widened at her as her words sunk in.
"I KNEW it!" he whooped.
Paia stood in the tiny cargo area and held the holoemitter steady. "I have been unable to raise Master Vexx," she said to the tiny image of the Jedi Council in her palm. "But I have located his ship on the central continent not far from Kai-Mal's vessel. I am… uncertain how to proceed."
The voice that answered her was staticky with distance, but calm and assured nonetheless. "This can be no coincidence. We recommend you attempt to locate both Jedi Sanda and Master Vexx. It is likely your missing child will be with them."
"May I ask the details of Kai-Mal's mission, since it is now entwined with my own?"
There was a moment of silence, then: "The information is being sent to your shipboard computer. You should familiarize yourself with the details. In short, he was sent to discover the meaning behind a report of a rogue Force-user."
"And he never reported in?"
"His disappearance was concurrent with his arrival on Pythus."
Her eyebrows rose briefly. "And the same with Master Vexx?"
"Yes. We assume further words of caution are unnecessary."
They were. Whatever or whoever it was had taken down two Jedi, one a Master, and had done so swiftly.
"Find the boy if you are able, Jedi," said the voice from the emitter, "but the task of Kai-Mal and Master Vexx falls now to you."
"Yes, Masters. I will report in within the hour. Oh, and Masters?"
"About the mission to Tanuff…"
"We have already spoken with Master Shane. Although his actions were rash, we believe the will of the Force has been made plain. There will be no repercussions."
"Thank you, Masters."
"May the Force be with you."
Paia closed the connection and looked toward the cockpit, meeting Brinn's eyes. For once, her Padawan learner seemed composed and serious, neither overawed nor overconfident. "Well," she said to him, moving to take her seat in the pilot's chair. "There you have it. We're to go down to the planet, locate Kai-Mal, Vexx, and the boy, and bring all three back to Tython. Any questions?"
"Many," he said. "But I'm not sure they have answers yet."
"Very wise, Padawan. What do we know of Pythus?"
He punched commands into the computer and read the display. "A few cities. Mostly destroyed by the war. The archives noted it mostly because it was a source of Adegan crystals."
Interesting. "Which kind?"
"Mephite, it says."
Adegan crystals were common in Jedi lightsabers. The Kathracite variety was used in virtually every youngling's training saber, and Paia's own lightsaber used one of the green shades of Mephite. She had thought that all of the mines were in the Adega system, though. "You said it was a source, past tense?"
"The record says the mines were destroyed about forty years ago by the Sith."
"So. Jedi crystal mines, a Sith attack, ruined cities, and a rogue Force-user capable of striking down fully-trained Jedi. Any answers yet?"
"No," Brinn said dubiously.
"Nor have I. But I can't say as I like any of the possibilities that present themselves."
"Do you think a Dark Jedi is down there?"
"Oh, please don't call them that. As a lot, they're pretentious enough as it is. Just stick with Sith."
"Fine," he sighed. "But do you?"
She considered it. "I'm not sure. It would be the most logical option. The Sith might maintain a presence here in case the Jedi attempt to reopen the mines. But it would have to be a very careless one, if news of his presence reached the Council as simply a rogue Force-user."
"Maybe he's insane."
"That's very comforting."
"Well, I'd say we've learned all we can peering at the place from orbit. Now we land. I think we'll put a bit of distance between our ship and the other two, though, and hike in."
Brinn pulled up a map of the surrounding landscape and pointed to the rumpled line of a ridge. "We could go behind this ridge here," he said, pointing, "and then fly behind it to here. That will keep us out of sight."
Paia nodded. "Excellent plan, Padawan. Take us in."
The ship banked and rolled, entering the atmosphere well away from the landing site of the other two Jedi ships and coasting along the planet's surface to the landing area they'd selected. Paia braided her hair, securing it with a leather tie.
"It is vital," she said to Brinn, "that word get to the Jedi council of whatever we find. They need more information should we fail to deal with this situation and they need to send in a different force. If I tell you to run, it will be because I do not feel we can both get out. I am better suited to covering your escape than you are mine."
She turned to him. "And if I tell you to run, I need you to run. Come back to this ship, don't try either Kai-Mal's or Vexx's. We don't know how they have been tampered with. Record a short message to the council, then try to lift off, and only when you're leaving orbit should you contact them with a more detailed account. Do you understand?"
Paia found she believed him. "All right, then. And what else are you to do?"
"Stay close to you. Remember my training."
"And above all, stay calm. The dark side will use your emotions against you. Keep that in mind before you act."
Together, master and padawan exited their ship and began walking toward the abandoned vessels.
"Is Kai-Mal over there?" Brinn asked.
"Honestly, I'm not sure. I know he's here somewhere, but everything is blurred and unfocused. He could be anywhere in that direction." She gestured in the direction they were walking.
Brinn quieted, thinking. Several minutes later, he said, "I guess we don't really need to locate him."
"What do you mean?"
"He's hidden by the dark side, right? So what we really have to find is a concentration of dark side energy big enough or strong enough to hide Master Kai-Mal from you."
Paia thought about it. "That," she decided, "is very insightful. Quite correct, Padawan. So?"
"So where is one?"
"You want me to find it?"
She blinked at him with mild confusion. "It was your idea. You're capable. Where are we going?"
He stopped walking and concentrated. She could feel the energy pooling around him, bringing with it hints of the Jedi he would one day be. "That way," he said definitively, pointing somewhere slightly right of their current course.
"I concur," she said. "Well done." Adjusting their path, they approached the final ripple in the landscape. Paia dropped down, crawling to the top of the ridgeline, Brinn copying her.
She looked across the scene. The ships were off to their left. To their right was the ruined remains of a large building, though a smaller building to one side was mostly intact. Both were in the shadow of a cliff, a rocky outcrop of dark basalt that loomed over the wrinkled plain. She could see a cave in the cliff face.
"One of the mines, perhaps," she murmured. "I don't see anyone."
"Me neither," Brinn whispered. "Do we have to go down there?"
"Yes," she said, staring at the buildings. "And that, I would say, is definitely the source of the dark energies we both feel."
Brinn looked unsure, and Paia forced a faint smile. "It's never an easy thing to face," she said. "Such concentrations often feel alive and malevolent. At best, you seem beneath their notice. At worst, they notice you."
"It's not alive, is it?"
"No more than any place strong with the Force, light or dark. It's just a place. But things can happen in such places. You can see visions of the past or the future that might be. Sometimes things move on their own; rocks may float or trees may walk. But in the end, it is all manifestations of the Force, manifestations you yourself are capable of. Stay calm, control your emotions. You are a padawan, and it has over you only the power you let it have."
She turned back to the mining station, but still saw no sign of movement. "It can't be deserted, but I sense nothing except the dark side." And Kai, the buzz of his presence diffused by the energies pulsing around the cliff. "All right," she said. "Let's go. Maybe they're off buying groceries."
Paia rose, feigning a confidence she didn't entirely feel. She checked her lightsaber at her hip, ensuring the hilt would rise smoothly and not catch. This was why she never wore the robes of her order unless she had to; though some Jedi learned to work with the loose folds, she could never escape the feeling that they would impede her motion just when she needed it the most.
She noted Brinn checking his lightsaber, too. He had left his robes on the ship, she realized. And his slender shoulders were knotted with tension.
"Easy," she soothed. "Remember. Calm and controlled."
He made an effort to relax. Should she have left him behind? No, she decided. He wouldn't have stayed and if there was one constant in any form of leadership anywhere in the galaxy it was that you never gave an order you knew wouldn't be obeyed.
They crossed into the shadow of the cliff and stopped. Hairs rose in waves, prickles of apprehension chasing each other down her arms and legs. It seemed colder than the shadow itself could account for, and she took a slow breath.
"It knows me," Brinn whispered.
She kept her tone steady. "Of course it does. You are part of the Force, as one with the primal nature of the universe as the brightest star or the smallest pebble. But it cannot control you."
Her words seemed to help, and he nodded.
"The smaller building, I think. If anyone is living here, they'll be in there."
The shack was small, probably once an equipment shed. There was one central room and a large locker, currently closed but with no handles, only holes to indicate where they had once been. A cot was pushed against one wall, and the floor was littered with trash.
A soft gleam of metal caught her eye. She took another cautious step in and crouched, brushing away a food wrapper to reveal a lightsaber hilt, smooth metal banded with soft leather just beginning to show enough wear that it would require replacement. She knew the craftsmanship. Her fingertips tingled to touch it, warm as it was with the remnants of Kai-Mal's life force.
From the door, Brinn cried a warning.
Her hand flew over her shoulder and she summoned her lightsaber to it as it moved. The sword ignited as hilt met hand, and she froze.
The cabin was silent but for the threatening hum of her lightsaber. Slowly, Paia straightened from her crouch, pivoting around her hip, shoulder rotating to keep her blade absolutely still.
Behind her stood a man, grimy and unkempt, with shaggy knots for hair and a wayward beard that bristled furiously from his chin. The tip of her lightsaber penetrated the whiskers cleanly, boring a tidy hole that sizzled and smoked. High over his head, he held a hammer poised to drop on her once-exposed head.
"Well now," she said calmly. "I didn't hear you come in. Don't you knock?"
"He didn't come in, Master," Brinn said, remaining at the doorway. "He was just... there."
She angled her head to one side, eyes narrowed. "Cloaked yourself, did you? A neat trick, though perhaps easier here for one who has fallen to the dark side. Where are the two Jedi who came before me?"
He didn't answer, didn't move, just panted, blowing whiskers in and out with every breath. He didn't even lower the hammer.
Paia shifted her sword, straightening it and nudging it ever so slightly forward. More hairs crisped and curled away from the blade, and the tip paused a millimeter from the skin of his chin. "Where are they?" she repeated.
It was his eyes that warned her, the way they narrowed, a focusing of his hatred, a swell of intent. The hammer descended, but she was already moving. Her lightsaber swept out, and his arm was severed at the shoulder.
Paia settled from the sweep into a ready stance, but straightened from it. The man howled in agony, curled up on the floor. "You haveto be smarter than that," she began.
He looked up at her with eyes that were completely black. His one remaining hand shot out.
An impossibly powerful wash of pure Force energy slammed into her, flinging her back into the wall of the shed and through it, across the space that separated the two buildings, and crunching her against a support beam from the remains of the larger building where it pinned her for a heartbeat before she dropped gracelessly to the ground.
Paia shook her head and climbed unsteadily to her feet. She had never felt anything like the strength of that. Her own fault; she had underestimated the man, despite knowing that he'd conquered both Kai-Mal and Vexx. She tried to catalogue her injuries, but her entire body wailed in pain.
The madman appeared in the hole she had made, then climbed through, ignoring his missing arm entirely as he advanced on her. Paia straightened, her training a crutch enabling her to keep moving.
Warnings shrilled across her nerves, and she dove sidelong as the man gestured and the support beam toppled where she had been only moments before. She rolled as the beam tumbled after her like a boulder rolling downhill though they were on relatively flat ground. More pieces of the building followed, chunks of masonry, metal, and glass hurling toward her in an avalanche.
She crouched, one knee on the ground, holding out one hand. Impossible to deflect the entire wave, she decided in an instant, forming instead a wedge of power. The flow of debris split, parting around her and she got to her feet.
She had lost her lightsaber, she realized, dropped it somewhere between being hit and fetching up against the support beam. In need of other weapons, she co-opted some of the madman's own, flicking her wrist and sending a shower of slivered metal at him.
They bounced, they just bounced, and he snarled in fury as he advanced on her.
Abruptly, she decided that close combat favored the two-armed, and she matched him step for step. She sidestepped a flying timber, swept aside the rusted remains of a chair, and closed the gap between them. He wasn't much bigger than she, but his tattered clothing hid the shape of his body. She launched a series of blows at him, intent more on keeping him too distracted to use his terrifying mastery of the Force against her than on landing a disabling blow.
Right cross, right sweep kick, palm thrust, left side kick, she backed him one step at a time toward the shack. He blocked some of the blows, but had not had time to become accustomed to his new handicap, and she landed more hits than he blocked. Still, she felt the solidity of his body as she struck him, and knew she didn't want to get hit in return. Her biggest advantage, besides his missing arm, was that she was physically faster than he, and she used that speed to the fullest, relying on the Force to give her hits extra power.
He must have been waiting, taking her measure, because his good arm swept up, his palm connecting with the back of her ankle as she aimed another kick at his stomach. She felt the surge of Force energy as he shoved, flipping her backwards. She spun about, landing in a flat crouch. Before she could close with him, he reached out with his hand and clenched his fingers.
Her throat clamped shut, and she rose into the air.
Even Jedi discipline could only do so much without a ready supply of oxygen, and her body was shuddering in need of it. Her eyelids fluttered as he pulled her closer, the tips of her toes dragging lines in the dirt. "You're lucky I need you alive, Jedi whore," he growled, the first words she'd heard him utter, and she dimly perceived his fingers closing tighter as she began to black out.
She reached frantically for something, anything. Dust and tiny bits of debris plumed up from the ground, pattering no higher than his knees. His chuckle, low and satisfied, echoed oddly in her ears.
And then she could breathe. She dragged a breath in past the pain in her throat, realized she was on the ground on her knees. Air, even dust-laden as this air was, had never tasted so sweet. Instinct pulled her to her feet, and she looked over to see Brinn facing the deranged Force-wielder, his lightsaber held in a defiant point of brilliant blue between them.
She tried to yell at him to run, but could only manage a hoarse cough. She moved, staggered toward them and almost fell.
The madman laughed and then snapped a hand toward Brinn, sending a flurry of rocks toward him, toying with the boy.
Brinn's saber flashed with tiny, controlled flicks of his wrist. A smooth connection with the Force led him to let some missiles fly harmlessly past his head, his blade meeting and destroying the others before they could hit him. His expression was one of calm serenity, and Paia wanted to cheer.
But the man wasn't accepting Brinn's defiance and his fist lashed out, catching Brinn on the chin, sending him to the ground in a lump.
Paia broke into a limping run, reaching out as she moved. Brinn's lightsaber flew to her grasp, igniting as the man turned, impaling him neatly in the chest.
His eyes went huge with surprise. Lightning crackled briefly around his hand, spiraling up his arm, around his head. She could see traceries of the energy bouncing around inside his gaping mouth. With a yank, she pulled the sword free and let him fall.
With the end of combat came an easing of adrenaline. As Paia let go of the Force, she staggered and dropped to her knees, her injuries making themselves vividly and painfully known in one collective silent shout of agony. "Ow," she said to no one, falling sideways to sit on one hip in the dirt beside the corpse.
On the other side of the body, Brinn moaned and stirred, slowly lifting his head. Memory returned and he scrambled to his feet in alarm. He stared at the man's body, drawing in rapid breath after rapid breath.
"You're going to hyperventilate," Paia said, not bothering to get up.
"We did," she said, holding out his lightsaber to him. "Together."
He stepped gingerly around the dead man to take the hilt of his lightsaber. His expression caught her, tormented and sickened. "Brinn," she said softly. "What is it?"
"I…" He stopped, gestured behind him weakly toward the shack.
She tried to guess what he wasn't saying, but her control over the Force was unsteady and no guiding insight came. "What?"
"I didn't help."
"You saved my life."
His eyes showed his disbelief plainly.
"Brinn, I was almost unconscious when you distracted him. I had lost. One-armed, he was still too much for me. When he turned to deal with you, he forgot about me long enough for me to get your saber and kill him. If you hadn't been here, I'd be wherever Kai-Mal and Vexx are right now."
"But I… I should have been here sooner."
She waved that off. "Nonsense. You were exactly in time for a dramatic rescue."
"I couldn't move! He threw you through the wall and I couldn't move!"
Paia tried to straighten her back so she could study her padawan more closely. "Did something happen to you in the shack?"
He nodded, looking down at his own feet.
She glanced at the shack, a broken-down structure with a Jedi-shaped hole in one wall, and yet it still managed to radiate a feeling of menace. "Did you see something?"
He nodded again, then turned his back. She pretended not to notice the tear on his cheek. Even young men had their pride.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She saw him shake his head and muffled a sigh. "Very well. We will speak of it later. For now, help me up."
After a moment, he turned back around and supported her from her left side, letting her lean on him as she clambered painfully to her feet. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"No," she said. "But it's nothing a few weeks in a kolto tank won't cure. We still have to find our missing brethren."
They limped to the shack, stepping through the hole in the wall. She located her lightsaber in the mess and returned it to its place at her hip. After collecting Kai-Mal's weapon, she hung it on the other side.
"All right," she said. "I suppose we venture into the caves."
"Not yet," Brinn said, not meeting her eyes.
He grimaced, shifting his weight on his feet. After a moment, he opened the large locker, a container she had thought contained only clothes or perhaps food supplies.
Inside were Kai-Mal and a young boy.
Both people were enveloped in a red-black haze. It moved as she watched, writhed around the two in patterns that suggested something horrible if only they were free to move faster. She reached out her left hand toward Kai, fingertips hesitating just shy of the slowly shifting energies.
His eyes were open, and she could see a wound at his temple. A droplet of blood swelled like a plant unfurling a leaf, moving too slowly for her to see the progression. She could only see the changes. She was inches from him, and yet his presence was no more vivid to her now than it had been when she was high in orbit.
"What is it?" Brinn asked, voice thin with hidden agony.
"I don't know," she said slowly. "I've never seen anything like this. If I had to guess I'd say it's a stasis field formed of pure Force energy."
"How do we get them out?"
She shook her head. "I have no idea."
Some instinct warned her away from touching it with her bare hand. She tried using a metal bar to pry them from the cabinet to no avail. Her lightsaber proved unable to penetrate the energy field. Temporarily stymied, she rubbed the back of her neck with her good hand and suppressed the morbid urge to use the dead man's arm and hand to poke at the stuff.
"I don't know why it hasn't faded with his death," she said. "It may be that the energies of this place are powering the stasis fields. If we could remove them from the area, get them closer to the ships, perhaps distance would release them."
"Can't you just…" Brinn began. She turned, and he lifted a hand then glided it through the air.
"Move the entire cabinet with the Force?" she translated, then looked back at the cabinet and assessed her own physical and mental state. "I could. I wouldn't have any attention for defense, though. You'll have to keep watch, make sure no one sneaks up on us."
"Isn't he dead?" Alarmed, Brinn looked out of the hole in the wall, seeming not at all relieved to see the corpse still on the ground.
"Him, yes. But who's to say he's alone?"
Brinn tugged his lightsaber free of his belt. "I'll watch," he said firmly. "You lift."
So many wounds. She was sorely in need of rest and healing, and fatigue dragged at her, urging her to lie down and sleep. Paia took a breath and invoked her training, setting aside the sensations. Pain still howled at her, but she understood it, acknowledged its message, and ignored it. Exhaustion swirled in her head, but she had no time for it.
When she opened her eyes, she lifted her left hand toward the cabinet. It rattled, shaking dust loose from its metal sides. Her eyes narrowed, her concentration sharpened, and with a shriek of protesting metal, the cabinet tore free of the wall. It hovered there a moment, the doors swaying open and closed. Slowly, Paia turned toward the door like a sleepwalker, the cabinet hovering behind her like an obedient pet.
They made an odd little parade out on the open plain: the Jedi Knight limping slowly in front as solemn as if in a funeral procession, a metal cabinet floating serenely behind her, and an alert and watchful Twi'lek padawan with an ignited lightsaber held in his hand. It was almost anticlimactic, then, when they reached the ships unassailed.
Paia walked until they were in the shade of the second ship, then let the cabinet settle. When it was steady, she blinked and rose from her semi-trance, immediately sitting in the dirt, wincing, then carefully lifting her weight off her left hip. "Open the doors," she said, "and let us hope the Force is with us."
Brinn did as she requested after settling his weapon at his belt.
She stared into the cabinet.
Brinn stared into the cabinet.
"Oh well," she sighed. "I suppose we can take them back to Tyth-"
The cabinet crackled as the energy inside pulsed once. It flexed, bowing out the sides of the cabinet, and Paia cried a warning, diving to the side and curling into a fetal position just before the cabinet exploded.
She uncurled from her protective ball as the last of the shrapnel flew overhead. Kai-Mal knelt on the ground on all fours, covering the small boy with his body. He looked up without releasing the child, and their eyes met.
Paia froze, her awareness of Kai surging to life inside her. She could feel him, vital and alive, could smell the warm spiciness of his skin, could feel the soft susurrations of his breaths. She was here. He was here. They were together.
The boy in Kai's arms burst out with a spiraling cry of fear and heartbreak, the sound freeing them both from the grip of their mutual awareness.
"Shh," Kai-Mal said, his hold shifting from protective to comforting. He sat back, pulling the boy with him. "You're safe now. The Jedi have come." He pulled back a bit from the child. "See? Here is Jedi Paia D'Aeryn, and that is Brinn Sho, her padawan learner, like you will be one day."
She smiled at him. "Go with Brinn now," she said. "He'll take you on the ship and make sure you're well." She gestured to Brinn who stepped forward. "Find us some food and water while you're in there," she said to him.
Brinn nodded and left, one arm around the younger boy, speaking soft reassurances.
Kai-Mal and Paia looked at each other.
"Well," he said.
"Well," she agreed.
"My shoulder. And perhaps some ribs. And… my back, my throat, both knees, and I'm not at all sure about my left hip. Though I think only my shoulder is broken." She considered for a moment. "And maybe the ribs." She glanced toward the wound on his scalp. "You're injured, too."
He lifted a hand to his head, touched the caked blood and grimaced. "He hit me with a hammer."
"He missed me," she said, just a hint of teasing admonishment gentled with a grin.
"He only hit me once. And you had help."
"So I did. You and the boy should go to Tython," she said. "There is a very good chance he saw his parents murdered in front of him. He will need help. Brinn and I will remain here and search for Master Vexx."
"Master Vexx is here?"
"You didn't see him?"
"I could see, but not when the doors were closed. If Vexx was in the shed, I never saw him." A thought occurred to him, drawing his mouth down into grim lines. "If you haven't seen Master Vexx, then he is likely dead. And probably purchased our lives with his."
"What do you mean?"
He nodded his head behind them, toward the mine. "I heard it before I encountered the Jedi. There's a terentatek in the mine."
Her head spun. She blinked at him several times, then shook her head a little to try and clear it. "A terentatek? What Jedi?"
"The man you fought. Didn't you get a good look at his clothes?"
"He was a Jedi?"
His expression gentled. "You didn't know. Yes, at one time he was a Jedi. He could be quite talkative at night. When the Sith attacked, he was one of the defenders. He and the miners were herded into the mines and, as near as I can determine, the terentatek was brought here. It wasn't always a place of dark energy, but something about the deaths of the miners and the release of the terentatek turned it into… Well, that." He gestured behind them, then continued.
"The Sith blew the mine entrance, sealing it off. Tasek, the Jedi, told me the terentatek talked to him. He was… quite insane. It helped him clear the rockfall, told him where to find other Force sensitives. He's been systematically culling the planet's population for forty years now. I doubt you could find anyone left alive on this rock who could sense the Force if the entire Jedi High Council was dancing naked on a table in front of them."
She let that image slide by without commenting on it. "Your arrival must have seemed like a blessing."
"So I gather, from the things he said. The creature would eat anyone who came into the cave, but it wanted the blood of Force sensitives. Then he left, in my ship might I add, and returned with the boy."
Paia looked toward the mine. "But didn't feed him to the terentatek. Then Master Vexx…"
"Probably fed the terentatek, yes. So Tasek could store me and the boy for later."
She thought on that. "I suppose Vexx was too powerful to be caught in that stasis field."
"Perhaps," Kai-Mal agreed with a nod. "It was exceedingly unpleasant."
"I wonder how he found out about the child," she mused.
"Who knows?" Kai-Mal said with a shrug. "Perhaps the terentatek told him."
"Terentatek can't talk," she said.
"I know that, I'm not the insane one. Doubtless it was the Force, finding a way through his madness."
She rubbed her aching right arm absently. "Though the creature was plainly cooperating with him. I wouldn't have thought a terentatek intelligent enough to let him live just so he could keep it fed."
"Nor would I, but this one evidently is."
"We should contact the Jedi Council."
An angry roar, bass rumble and high-pitched shriek at the same time, brought both Jedi to their feet. Smoothly, Paia tossed Kai-Mal his lightsaber. He snatched it from the air and ignited it, a blue counterpoint to her weapon's pale green.
Brinn appeared at the top of the ramp, the child plastered to his side. "What was that?" he asked.
"Trouble," Paia said. "A terentatek."
"Sounds like he's gotten hungry," Kai-Mal said.
"What's a terentatek?" Brinn brought his own weapon up.
"A vicious monster, heavily armored, with claws the size of your leg. It's almost completely immune to Force powers. They have the unfortunate nickname of 'Jedi Killers'," Paia said, eyes on the mine. "There are periodic hunts to try and wipe them out, but they always seem to reappear whenever the dark side of the Force is on the rise. The Council only lets teams hunt them."
"Teams of Jedi who share a very strong Force bond," Kai-Mal added, glancing at her.
"Yes, the coincidence isn't lost on me," she said. "Everyone on the ship. We'll crowd in, but we cannot stay here, not if it's loose."
"There's a problem," Brinn said.
Paia sighed and let the tip of her weapon dip to the ground.
"You can't possibly be surprised there's a problem," Kai-Mal said, wry amusement in his voice.
"I suppose I'm not. What's the problem, Padawan?"
"I tried the engines. I thought maybe I could take this ship to our ship, and then fly that one back here since it's bigger. The ship won't start."
"He probably disabled Vexx's ship as well," Kai-Mal said.
Paia looked over at him and they shared a moment of perfect understanding. They wouldn't all make it to her ship before the terentatek was on them. Neither of them alone would be able to stand against it. If it went after Brinn and the boy as they raced across the plain, the children would die. They had to fight it, here and now.
"Are you sure?" he asked quietly. "Your arm…"
"Take the right."
He nodded and moved to stand on her right-hand side, her weaker side. Paia looked up the ramp to her padawan. "Brinn, take the boy, get to our ship. Once there, lift off and come back to pick us up. Do not land until one of us gives you an all-clear, do you understand?"
"But the terentatek…"
"We'll keep it busy."
Brinn stared at her. "Master…"
She offered up a smile. "It will be all right, Brinn. Just hurry. Be mindful of the boy."
Together the two Jedi walked toward the mine and passed into shadow, lightsabers held low and out.
Crossing into the open maw of the mine was like crossing onto another world entirely. Unable to resist the impulse, Paia looked behind her to assure herself that the entry was still there, that sunlight was still visible beyond it.
"Look," Kai-Mal said, drawing her attention to something on the ground. He crouched with one knee in the dirt, and his expression was bleak.
She moved to stand next to him. At his feet was a skull, fractured and broken, still bearing a strip or two of dirt-crusted flesh. Tiny bones protruded from the skull in a symmetrical pattern, save those that had snapped off. "Master Vexx," she said, stomach rolling slowly around itself.
"So it would seem," he sighed. "I had hoped we were wrong. Notice the holes?"
She nodded. "Fang marks. The terentatek, then."
"He must have come in here searching for me, and found the beast instead. Damn."
Paia touched his shoulder briefly, offering a tendril of comfort. "We have to go," she said. "He wouldn't thank us if we got killed standing here mourning him."
"No, I suppose not." Kai rose and looked down into the dark throat of the cave, reached up to brush her hand with his. Together, they continued into the gloom.
The enveloping power of the dark side was thicker here than it had been outside, palpable, crawling into her lungs with each indrawn breath. It seethed around her, seeping from the very walls. What she had perceived in the shack had only been the fringes of the true darkness within the cave, a pale penumbra around the deepest shadow. She turned to Kai, wanting to warn him about the increasing presence of the dark side…
Only to find herself alone in the cave.
She stopped, dropping into a defensive semi-crouch. No need to call for him, not when her awareness of him was telling her he hadn't moved. He was with her. She just couldn't see him, though the rest of the cave was clear enough. "Kai…"
Kai-Mal's voice carried clearly to her. His voice, and yet… She had never heard him sound like that. Low and rough, a hungry murmur of her name echoing from farther in. She stepped deeper into the cave, following the sound.
It's not him, she thought. It can't be. I know he's here next to me. But she was helpless to stop moving forward.
Rounding a bend in the cave, she saw him. The cave widened and deepened here, forming a large open chamber, metallic props evidence of the old mining operation. Kai-Mal stood slightly above her on a ledge. His hair was longer than she had ever known it to be, brushing his shoulders. He wore black, from his loose shirt to snug pants and leather boots. One corner of his lips swept upward as he saw her, a seductive cruelty implicit in the curve. His eyes were pale amber, not the warm, rich chocolate she was familiar with. But it was Kai-Mal, and she felt her pulse leap at the promise in his strange eyes.
"Paia," he said again, making a caress of her name. The sound went through her like a lightning bolt.
Not him, she thought, forcing the thought through the haze in her mind.
"I am," he assured her. "In every way that will ever matter. Only come to me. Take my hand." He stretched out a gloved hand to her and beckoned.
"No," she whispered over the pounding of her heart.
His chuckle was a husky rumble of sound teasing across her skin. "So much restraint for so many years, and for what? Do you really look forward to a lifetime of denial, when what your heart truly craves is right in front of you?"
"Am I to give up everything I have done, everything I might become, for the sake of…"
He pivoted and crouched in one lithe motion, forearms resting on his knees. "For the sake of what, Paia? Poor little chaste Jedi, you cannot even bring yourself to say the words. For the sake of pleasure, primal and perfect."
"The cost is too high." But even she could hear her voice tremble. "The things I've accomplished, the people I've saved…"
"And how many more must you save before you have done your duty?" he asked. "When is it time to set aside the cares of an insatiable universe that will take and take and never become what you want it to be? Haven't you earned this yet?" He leaned forward. "Haven't we earned us yet?"
She didn't remember moving forward, but she realized then that no more than a hand length separated them. He was so close. She took a slow inhale, her eyes heavy-lidded.
"Paia," he murmured, lifting one gloved hand toward her face.
With a wrench of will, she tore herself backward, crying aloud at the strain of it. The ledge was empty. A vision, she realized, conjured by the dark side. A vision, but she ached…
Kai-Mal's voice snatched her attention away from the ledge. His lightsaber wove a tapestry of blue-white light as he frantically parried the sweeping claws of a beast easily half again his size. Spines speared upwards from the creature's back, and two huge tusks swept out from the corners of its wide, multi-fanged mouth.
Paia flung herself at the creature's back, wielding her lightsaber in her left hand. The awkwardness of her swing seared a scar across the terentatek's armored skin rather than piercing it entirely. As it shrieked its anger, it turned and swung at her, and she danced back out of reach. Across from her, Kai's saber flickered out, scoring a hit on the back of its bent knee and it spun again, unable to settle on a single target as the Jedi flashed in and out of its range.
Wolf pack tactics could only prevail so long. The beast was preternaturally fast, and her mobility was limited. Even as Paia swept her lightsaber in a shining emerald arc, it whirled and its razor claws snapped toward her face. She dodged, flinging herself in the direction of the swipe but not even Force-enhanced reflexes could get her completely clear. The terentatek's claws caught on her shirt and whipped her up toward the cave's granite ceiling.
She spun in its grasp and flipped her lightsaber over her own shoulder, slicing her shirt between its claws and the skin of her back. But though Force use and the warrior-monk training of the Jedi Knights could help her ignore pain enough to fight, even it couldn't force broken bones to function perfectly.
Paia fell and twisted, trying to bend her knees as she hit, to fall into a roll to disperse the energy of the fall. Her hip didn't support the impact, and she crumpled too soon, causing her damaged shoulder to slam flat into the ground. Pain overrode every synapse, locking her in place.
Her sensitivity to Kai-Mal expanded in a rush. She saw from his perspective the broad, pebbled foot of the creature descending toward her. She knew she had to move, but her nerves would not obey. Kai's eyes narrowed in concentration, and she felt him shove against her. Pushed by the Force, she slid backwards along the cave floor, the terentatek's foot stomping down just shy of her hands, landing on the blade of her still-lit lightsaber.
It howled and flung itself backwards away from the pain that ate into its foot as behind it, Kai-Mal sprang high into the air, bringing his lightsaber down in a shining arc and burying it in the creature's shoulder.
Its roar of rage and pain shook rocks loose, and before Kai could leap clear, it reached up and grabbed him, flinging him to the ground beside Paia. She stirred, realized she had control of her own body again, and tried to stand.
Her legs refused to grant her that much, and she fell. Again she tried to rise, and failed. Her bare hand landed on Kai-Mal's bare arm. Concepts flashed between them, plans made and discarded in a fraction of an instant, until one plan presented itself and found acceptance.
As one, both Jedi reached up with fingers curled into claws that grasped toward the rocky ceiling. Twin demands of the Force dug deep into the rock and pulled.
The cave shook, rumbled its displeasure, and brought choking ruin down onto the furious terentatek.
"Come on!" Kai-Mal jerked Paia to her feet by her good arm. She could do little more than stumble where he pulled, stopping when he shoved her away from falling rock, until he finally swept her up into his arms and ran through the cascade of stone. She felt him coil under her as he gathered himself and leaped, flinging them both through the mouth of the cave as tons of rock crashed down, sealing it behind them.
They curled into each other as a wave of dust and pebbles rolled outward, expanding over them and on into the open plain. Paia coughed and lifted her head, blinking grit from her eyes, trying to see the cave entrance now choked with rubble.
"I think that did it," Kai-Mal said close to her ear.
She turned back to him, only then realizing they were still tangled in each other's arms.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, stroking a thumb over her forehead.
But all she could see was an outstretched hand in a black leather glove, and a pair of predatory amber eyes.
What he saw in her expression she couldn't say, but it caused him to frown and pull back so he could see her more clearly.
Before he could ask questions she did not want to answer, the ground rumbled. They both looked up, lifting and reigniting their lightsabers with exhausted determination.
A ship appeared over the ridgeline, and through the viewport Paia could see the concerned expression of her Padawan. Relief spilled through her and she managed to wave him in before giving herself up to the demands of unconsciousness and sweet oblivion.
Paia smiled as her former Master climbed out of the Tythonian pond and wrung his hair out to one side. "He won't learn if you keep interrupting him," she said, scratching absently at a patch of new skin barely a week old.
"Bah," Shane replied, flipping a hand (and not a few drops of water) at her. "I was only demonstrating the technique."
"You were in there for fifteen minutes, you dunked him twice and threw him into the air once. None of which had anything to do with the exercise I assigned him."
"He wanted to dive."
"You're a bad influence."
"You're too stuffy."
Paia wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at him, causing him to laugh.
"That's better," he said. "You've been worse than ever since Pythus. See there? You've lost your smile again."
"Yes, well, Pythus didn't leave me with much to smile about."
"You could try to be more like Finn."
She was puzzled for a moment, then nodded. "Oh, the boy."
Shane sighed. "Sometimes you can be all Jedi focus… You never even learned his name. Yes, the boy. Finn. Settling in nicely with a new play group, and not even as many nightmares as you might think. It's a blessing he was unconscious for as much of that as he was. He didn't witness the murders, you know."
"So they told me. Thank the Force for that favor."
"But still, if he can move on…"
"Young hearts are more resilient, I think. I haven't been dealing well with it."
"You haven't been dealing with it at all," he corrected gently. "You've just been brooding over it."
She watched Brinn, still in the pond that Shane had left, stare intently into the water. "My 13-year-old padawan saw what I did not," she murmured, bitterness edging her words.
Shane shrugged. "It happens that way sometimes."
"But we know why it happened to me. I was so busy trying not to be misled by … by the other things I was feeling, I ignored every bit of urging by the Force. So many clues, but I refused to be tempted by any of them out of fear."
"Not fear," Shane said, compassion making his voice warm. "Say duty, rather, and you'd be closer to the truth. You had your path and it has been one you've walked well. Now perhaps the time has come for you to diverge from it, just a little."
She didn't answer for a moment. "What if I fall? What if I fail, and take him with me? And Brinn too, now?"
"What if you don't?"
The words were in her mind and on her tongue, but she held onto them, afraid that speaking them would make them come true somehow.
"You know you can say anything to me," Shane said, reading her expressions correctly.
"Shane… What if I've already fallen, and I don't know it? Am I so blinded by what I think I should be, that I… I've lost touch with the Force?"
"Absurd," he said forcefully, "and I'll give you three reasons why it's nothing you should worry about. In the first place, no one who has lost touch with the Force would have survived what you did on Pythus. In the second place, why are you so convinced that you would fall just because you acknowledge what is between you and Kai-Mal? It makes you more susceptible to the dark side, and so we warn against it. The Council prefers it not happen, but do you seriously imagine the two of you are the only Jedi to have this sort of bond and yet not turn to the dark side?"
One corner of his lips swept upward as he saw her, a seductive cruelty implicit in the curve.
"The temptation…" she started, then shook her head.
"Is there," Shane acknowledged. "But strength untested is fragile and brittle. Yours will be honed, and you will not break."
Privately, she was no longer as certain of that as she once was but she wasn't in the mood to share so much. "You said three reasons."
"Yes, well. In the third place, my former apprentice, falling is one thing you need never worry about. If you were to fall to the dark side, I can promise you one thing."
She looked over at him, seeking reassurance.
His black eyes were as cold as the space between the stars, and his smile was not the least bit warm or fatherly. "I promise you that if you fall, I will be there."
Out in the water, Brinn held up a shimmering ball of water contained with only the power of the Force, examined it, sighed, and let it drop.
Paia took advantage of the distraction, turning her attention away from the unnerving concept of Shane Bartel as her hunter and not her mentor. "Brinn hasn't been the same either," she said. "He still hasn't talked about what he saw in the shack."
"Mm. No one's first confrontation with the dark side is ever easy," Shane said as if nothing odd had passed between them. "Would you like me to speak with him?"
She managed half a rueful smile. "My pride wishes he would confide in me, as his master. But better that he speak with someone about it, and it may be that he'll be more willing to talk to another man. I would appreciate your help."
"Then I'll make the attempt." He cocked his head, his eyes shrewd. "Though most are unwilling to share what they see in such visions. They are ashamed of them, fearing to expose their own weaknesses. Hiding them only gives them more power, of course. Hopefully, I can make him see that.
"Ah," he continued before she could do more than blink at him in surprise, his neck craned to look behind them. "I'm about to be a crowd. Tell your padawan I'll be waiting for my dinner."
He rose and stepped up the gentle slope behind her. Paia heard him exchange a quiet greeting, and she didn't need to look to know that it was with Kai-Mal. She turned back to watching her padawan as the other Jedi sat beside her.
The world spun on and the sun as it set shed light the color of wild honey. They sat together, inches apart, watching Brinn study another sphere of water between his hands.
"Well," Kai-Mal said at last, voice touched with amusement.
"Well," she replied with a faint smile.
"It seems the Council is actually pleased. They're a bit short of terentatek-hunting teams."
She huffed a quiet, wry laugh. "Nice to know something positive came of this."
"Oh, more than one thing, I think. We learned some lessons."
Paia bent her knees and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around them and resting her chin on the backs of her hands. "Yes we did, didn't we?"
After a moment, Kai said, "I, for one, have learned that our robes would be a damn sight more effective if they had a helmet sewn into the hood."
That got another smile from her.
Out in the water, Brinn dropped that sphere and eyed the pond with a frown.
"They're having a ceremony for Master Vexx tomorrow night," Kai said.
"I'm not sure I should go."
"You're not responsible for what happened to him, Paia."
"Am I not?" she asked. "Had I come sooner…"
"That's a destructive game, and you know it. Had you come sooner, had I been more careful, had the Council sent you, had they sent a team instead of one Master, had Vexx been more cautious…" Peripherally, she saw him turn his head toward her. "I could even argue that if it weren't for Vexx's disappearance on top of my own, you wouldn't have been as wary as you were, and would have ended up in the larder with me. Both of you. You came for me."
"Late." She turned her head a quarter turn to look at him.
Her eyes met his, pale blue-green to rich brown. Hearts touched, minds danced briefly together.
"You came," he repeated, softer.
It was enough. She smiled. "Saved you," she teased.
"Saved you back," he countered, matching her smile with one of his own.
They both looked away from the moment, eyes on Brinn and his mounting frustration.
"What is he doing out there, anyway?" Kai asked.
Paia leaned back, arms braced behind her, hands flat on the ground, fingers splayed out. "Fishing, of course," she said, grinning.
Brinn dropped yet another fish-less globe of water, uttering one soft curse.
"Calmly!" both Jedi on the shore admonished.
"I know!" he yelled back.
Kai-Mal leaned back, mimicking her posture. His hand brushed against hers, lifted away, and hesitated. Under the setting sun by a small lake, his fingers slowly nested between hers, intertwining on the cool green grass of Tython.