Backlash – Seed of Darkness
Disclaimer: Star Wars belongs to George Lucas
Evening was falling over Mos Espa, cooling the city bit by bit, but the heat was still intense enough that it might explode the temper of one customer or other that had settled in Myer's Den, one of the many little bars dotting the blocks around the space port. The atmosphere was charged inside the semi-darkness that permeated the bar's single low room, and smoke hung thick underneath the ceiling, leaving only one choice to clear one's lungs: a drink. The seats along the bar were packed with diverse specimen of different races and sexes, and yet they all had a certain look about them, of scruffiness and suspicion.
One of them was a tall human, sporting a beard and a wild hairstyle. Dark brown eyes scanned every newcomer who entered the bar, and one hand was cupped around a glass of Corellian whiskey, while the other casually stroked the butt-end of the blaster hanging from his belt. The man seemed nervous, but then, that could have been an illusion, meant to appease those who might be watching him. One who was watching was a younger man, also human, whose dark blonde hair was cut short, and whose blue eyes seemed to gather everything that was going on, above and underneath the surface. He had chosen to sit in one of the small booths along the wall, alone. Nursing a glass of local ale, he seemed content to study the growing crowd of patrons just as intensely as the tall man at the bar. And yet, where the man at the bar was bait, this one was waiting for a kill. Figuratively speaking.
When a Twi'lek bustled up to the bar, pushing his way between the bar stools, the tall man, a Corellian, by the look of him, lay a hand on the alien's shoulder. The Twi'lek's lekku twitched in anger when he turned his head to look at the intruder, but then the man said something, and the Twi'lek sneered at him contemptuously. Leaning closer, the human whispered more words at the Twi'lek, whose eyes widened gradually. Suddenly the alien nodded quite fervently and followed without protest, when the Corellian rose and propelled him toward the bar's back entrance. Taking his time, the younger man follwed. By the time he had made his way through the crowd and had reached the back-alley behind the bar, the Corellian was already ranting at the Twi'lek, threatening the alien heavily. The young man propped his hands on his hips challengingly.
"Now, now," he said pelasantly, "what is the meaning of this?"
"None of your business," the Corellian growled, and glared at the younger man out of the corner of his eye, while still holding the Twi'lek's collar in a death-grip.
"I do believe it is my business now," Kane Jinn answered and flipped back his cloak to reveal the lightsaber dangling from his belt. The Corellian barked a mirthless laugh and stood back, but for some reason the Twi'lek's small eyes shifted very nervously toward the Jedi. "Sir," Kane addressed the alien, "was this man assaulting you?" He took a step toward the two men cautiously, and the Twi'lek edged away, prepared to make a dash for freedom. But apparently he seemed to deem it necessary to appease his rescuer.
"It is quite all right, Jedi, sir. Thank you for your assistance," the alien mumbled.
"I wonder," Kane began anew, his voice low, "what this dispute was about. You see, I know this ruffian, and he would never attack anyone without sound reason."
"Sir! I assure you, I've done nothing wrong!" the Twi'lek protested as the Jedi Knight stepped in front of him. The Corellian had sidled around to block the alien's only way of escape.
Kane smiled. The alien's presence was a vibrant cocktail of fear, suppressed anger and aggression, with a hint of embarrassment. There was danger here, but only very little, he knew. Nothing he could not handle. "Perhaps it has something to do with Zullawa's mysterious deliveries he has you set up each time? Could it be that this gentleman," here he indicated the Corellian, "was dissatisfied with the quality of your boss' spice deliveries? Zullawa is very fond of experimenting with spice, I hear. Not concerned about random casualties either, so they say."
The Twi'lek stared at him, shoulders hunched. "I know nothing about that," he said, but the lie was plain on his mind.
"Ah." Kane gave a cautious nod. "Perhaps I was mistaken." He smiled again, reassuringly this time. "Let me not keep you, then."
Undoubtedly the Twi'lek would go straight to Zullawa's representative here on Tatooine to report, and then he would have that scum-bag. Finally. Kane had been tracking the smuggler boss across half the galaxy over the past months and now, here on Tatooine, they had finally found one of his bases. The Twi'lek worked with him, that much was clear, and with any luck, he would also point them toward Zullawa's den. Though Kane was pretty certain that the smuggler did not operate from Tatooine, perhaps he could get a fresh trail here.
"You're letting me go?" the Twi'lek asked, somewhat disbelieving.
"Should I keep you?" Kane asked right back, eyebrow cocked mockingly. Flustered, the alien simply turned and ran, side-stepping the Corellian on his way to freedom.
"What a miserable little speck of dirt," the Corellian spat. "Wanna follow him?"
Kane shook his head. "Not yet. We'll give him a lead, wait until he feels safe. I will know the time."
"Sure," the Corellian snorted. "You always do." Flexing muscled arms he yawned heartily. "What a miserable planet. The sooner we get on Zullawa's trail, the better."
"Trent Bryar, you must be the only Corellian I know who dislikes a cozy place like Myer's Den," Kane commented amiably.
"And you must be the only Jedi who's willing to get his hands dirty meddling with Zullawa. He's been poisoning people for years." Trent spat again. "Bad for business."
Kann Jinn gave a soft chuckle. "Of course. All you think of is your business."
The Corellian shrugged easily. "Hey, you can't let people go round ruining the trade. I have a reputation to keep."
"In your place, I'd be happy to lose it. Come on, let's go for a stroll. And, Trent, I'm the only Jedi you know. There are others who care."
"Sure. If you say so. Now we're talking your reputation, right?"
Shaking his head, Kane smiled as he led the way into the dark maze of Mos Eisley's back streets. Trent was right. Zullawa had been allowed to go about his business unmolested for far too long. But the law seemed powerless in blunting the man's operations, and the Jedi did not seem to see fighting petty crimes as inside their jurisdiction. Yet some did care, as he had told his partner. Jedi like Master Kattewa, who had sadly passed away a year ago, or Kane's own mentor, Hagen Dycos. But Hagen had retired from active work, or front line duty, as he had jokingly called it, eight months ago, to focus once more on his historical studies. He was getting old. Strange, though, to think of that vigorous Jedi Master as old; he was in his mid-fifties, not old at all, but somehow he had lost much of his vigor over the past two years, had delegated more and more tasks to his first and last apprentice.
And Kane had taken to crime investigation like a narketa fish to the ocean. Petty crime could have very far-reaching consequences, just like Zullawa's experiments that had left thousands of spice users dead of disabled. And Kane had been taught time and again to think beyond the seemingly small and petty and consider the wider effects it might have. Yet, despite his experience, that he had gained as Hagen Dycos' apprentice, he had known that his insight would not suffice to take upon criminals such as Zullawa. Which was why he had teamed up with Trent Bryar. The Corellian was an ex-smuggler, a mercenary and part-time investigator. He had a strong sense of justice and saw himself as everybody's bigger brother. A caring man, and yet, he would never admit to having a good heart or a conscience at all.
Running side by side, the soft soles of their boots making hardly any sound, they glided through the night – ghostlike – toward where Kane could sense his quarry. The Twi'lek was terrified and desperate, and the Jedi Knight quickened his pace, anxious all of a sudden.
"Damn," Trent spat behind him, breathing hard, "Can't ya run a little faster?"
Chastised, Kane slowed down a bit to allow his companion to catch up with him. "Up there," he informed the Corellian, nodding ahead. "He's not alone." Detaching from the shadows of a house wall, he stalked toward the edge of the alley, when a sudden flash of emotion caught his attention. He whirled around, eyes wide, calling his lightsaber to his hand. "Watch out!" he yelled, igniting the blade just as a deadly laser beam lanced down from the house's flat roof.
Kane sommersaulted over Trent's head, his blade deflecting the bolt at the last second, but then more laser bolts roared at them in a deadly cross-fire. A trap! Kane did his best to counter the deadly fire, assuming the detached state of mental purity that he had been taught, pushing his terror aside. He had to be focused now. The Twi'lek probably had called reinforcements, more professional than he was, obviously, or else Kane would have felt their anxiety earlier. Their murderous intentions now filled the edge of his awareness, like hungry beasts frantically trying to get at their prey. He did not let them come close, always holding them apart. It was a lesson he had learned years ago. To be detached from the present, yet deeply immersed in its proceedings. Suddenly the blaster fire died, and he could pick up the sounds of running feet and muffled curses. They had given up.
"Trent?" he whispered into the suddenly pitch.black alley, that had been awash with garish laser light only a moment earlier. There was a soft groan. "Trent?" The sense of pain rushing into his awareness was almost overwhelming. His skin turned icy cold as he rushed over to where his friend had fallen.
"Guess they – got me – this time," the Corellian pressed out.
Running a hand over his partner's body Kane felt incredibly helpless. It was obvious that he was hurt, and the rudimentary assessment of the damage told him that he would not make it either. Slumping back, sunken in on his haunches, the Jedi Knight felt like crying.
"I am sorry, friend," he whispered, remembering a moment a long time ago, when he had first felt that helpless in the face of death.
Trent managed a small smile. "Don't be – just make sure – you get – that scumbag."
Kane could sense the Corellian's life slipping away and closed the dead man's eyes tenderly. "Sure thing," he told him grimly. "I'll get him, don't you worry."
Looking up, Jedi Master Hagen Dycos blinked at the young man who had thrown open the door to his apartment and was striding across the floor toward where he sat at the desk by the window, seemingly excited. For a moment Hagen had trouble putting a name to the face, but then he smiled, pleased. "Kane, you're back. Did you succeed in your mission?" Kane stopped before him, his face pale. Only then did Hagen become aware of the sorrow the other exuded. "What happened?" he asked, suddenly alarmed, and rose from his chair. A flash of pain stabbed through his right thigh, making him wince ever so slightly.
"Master, are you all right?"
"Yes, yes," Hagen cautioned the younger man. "Tell me what happened." He noticed the suspicious look Kane gave him, and secretly he was moved by the other's caring, but this was something he had to deal with alone.
Kane shook his head briefly, as if to gather his thoughts, then set his mouth grimly. "Trent was killed on Tatooine."
"I thought so," Hagen offered wearily. "I am sorry for your friend, Kane. What about Zullawa?"
"I conducted some more investigations, but I did not find much. They must have moved out once they realized I was after them."
Kane Jinn was trying hard to hide his private pain behind a facade of professionalism, but Hagen knew him well enough to sense that the young Jedi was far from calm. He needed to distance himself from events on Tatooine, before he could go on. Nodding to himself thoughtfully, Hagen took a seat again.
"Trent's wife lives on Corellia, is that not so?" he suggested quietly. Kane flinched.
"Yes, she does. They're divorced, though."
"You should still inform her."
"You mean – in person?" Kane's face was a study of disbelief. "What about Zullawa?"
"Hm-hm, I am thinking about that," Hagen sighed. "There is someone who might help you. Perhaps you can get at," he frowned slighty, scouring his memory for the name, "Zullawa ... by using his associates or competitors as pointers."
"A Corellian Jedi by the name of – " Again a frown. This was getting ridiculous. "Ah, yes. Zulkur Arden, he is called. He has been conducting investigations about the smugglers in that area. Perhaps he can help you."
"I see," Kane answered slowly, never taking his eyes off Hagen. "Are you certain you are okay? You seem distracted."
"Oh, it is nothing," the Jedi Master replied lightly, "I suppose I just did not sleep very well."
"You could always use the Force to refresh yourself," Kane reminded him.
Hagen smiled. "No need to tell me, my friend. But, please, let me deal with this my way." The moment the words were out of his mouth he knew he had made a mistake.
"Deal with what, exactly?" Kane asked at once, face impassive, voice cool. When Hagen did not answer at once he continued conspiratively. "I had suspected that you might be ill, Master. But I was not sure. Is that it? You are ill?"
"A virus, nothing more," Hagen tried. Unsuccessfully.
"A virus would be easy to cure, you could even cure yourself. But you don't want to use the Force, am I right? Why?"
Hagen fixed his young friend in an icy glare. "Hagen, if I need your help I will let you know. For now, you should bring your investigations to an end. Then we may talk." He rubbed a hand over his forehead, cursing his headaches. They seemed to be eating his memories bit by bit.
"Master," Kane began anew, as he stepped closer. "You should not let me go now."
"You are free to leave, Kane. I insist. Please," Hagen added more gently, when he saw the look in the younger man's eyes, full of hurt and betrayal. "Please go," he added in a whisper, and averted his eyes.
After a moment of silence the sound of retreating footsteps told him that Kane was heeding his words. Good. He did not want the boy to see him like this, ill and unable to control himself. Once the door had closed again, leaving him alone in his apartment again, Hagen rose unsteadily and dislodged the walking stick he had hidden underneath the table. Laboriously he made his way across the floor, toward his small library, two shelves filled with holocubes and books. He would find a cure. Somehow.
Inyo Di'vitt was brushing her long gray hair with energetic, methodical strokes, frowning at her image in the mirror before her critically. She was still beautiful, despite her years, with startling violet eyes and the pale skin to go with them. Still beautiful, but old. Every day she felt a little weaker, her mind a little slower. And her mind had been very quick once, had been her sole ally in surviving, after the desaster that had ended her world at Ruusan. A pretty girl alone was never safe, never, she had had to learn that very early, even before her parents had been killed in the last battle between Jedi and Sith, killed like beasts, their lives worth nothing. The brush tore through thick gray hair a little harder, and Inyo snarled at the mirror.
She would have her revenge for that, she would repay those Jedi who thought themselves above the law. She would ... A smile replaced the frown and snarl. And it would be sweet revenge too. Already she had begun experimenting with her latest design, a beautiful little virus that did beautiful little things to the victim. She giggled girlishly to herself. So far she had been able to acquire two specimen to test the virus. Both were out of her reach though, and that rankled. She had to get them back somehow. Somehow. Again a frown. But how?
Placing the brush on the table in front of her she sat there, her thoughts working the problem over again and again. Nothing came to mind. With a sigh she got up from the chair and turned around to survey her little kingdom. It was not much, a three-room-apartment in a sixty-storey house, but it was enough for her. When she had moved in what had to be about six years ago, she had redecorated everything. Apart from her experiments that was her sole passion. Decorating things, rooms, people. A pleased moan escaped from between her lips as her gaze fell on the flowers she had arranged just this morning on the large table by the window. They were perfect, and beautiful.
With a jerk she started toward the table, but passed it to open the door to the balcony. It was a large balcony, and when she stepped outside the warm air enfolded her in a cloud of the sweet scent of even more flowers. Nigh lilies, that bloomed in the moonlight, midnight orchids and even Scaala flowers, a rare specimen from distant Ruusan. She kept that one in memory of her parents, and the black blossoms with blood-red lining felt just and right for that purpose. The scent of the Scaala blossoms was heavy and sweet, reminiscent of the aroma of death. Death. She scowled fiercely at the flowers, then turned around and stormed back into her living-room. Damn! She needed to get her hands on those two soon, or she would never be able to determine the speed with which the virus took effect.
There was a knock at the door.
"Come," she called out. She never locked her door here, the entire building was safe, she knew.
As expected it was Mangus Zullawa, a stocky man of indeterminable age. He bowed toward her graciously, then straightened again with a smile. "My dear Doctor Di'vitt," he purred. "a pleasure to see you well. Are you ready?"
Inyo smiled, her violet eyes burning. "Almost, my dear Mangus," she replied, her voice sweet as honey. "I still need to select a dress for tonight."
Mangus face lit up. "May I be of assistance?" he offered eagerly.
Inyo gave a gay little laugh. "Dearest, of course you may. You know how much I appreciate your input and insight." She glided toward the bedroom, where her walk-in closet would provide this evening's dress, and her swaying hips brushed Mangus' body seemingly accidentially. He almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to join her. Inyo pursed her lips thoughtfully. Perhaps they would be just a little late for dinner. But Mangus' next words cooled her mood instantly.
"We have found him," he breathed heavily and almost bumped into her when she stopped all of a sudden.
Rounding on him – and he was shorter than she – she lay a hand imploringly on his chest. "Is that true? Oh Mangus, my dearest Mangus! When will he be joining us?"
"Soon," he mumbled, apparently encouraged by her touch, and slipped his hands around her ample hips. "Oh, my dear Inyo –"
He did not get further. Brutally pushing him out of her way, Inyo redirected her course and plowed straight for the third room that made up her apartment. Not her real laboratory, but a work-shop to develop the ideas further that came to her now and then in her free time. Here she could notch them down and start experimenting. And it was here that she kept the original of the beautiful virus she had engineered some four years ago. The vessel carrying the virus was blood, and the cask where she kept the virus was filled top to bottom with it. Not her own, of course. She smiled at the cask, a motherly smile, almost.
"Hello, my precious," she cooed, caressing the cool surface of the container. Leaning closer, she pressed a soft kiss on the cold glass. "Daddy is coming home." Her gentle features hardened. "And he will return to us what is ours."
Kane Jinn experienced his arrival at Corellia in a dream-like state. He was still confused about what had happened on Tatooine, about Hagen's cryptical words, and he was very worried for his master. Why had he not seen the signs earlier? Hagen seemed to wither away gradually, his skin had seemed dry and sported more wrinkles than Kane remembered. His hair – his thick, white-blonde hair – seemed to be getting thinner too. And Kane had noticed the walking cane Hagen had wisely hidden underneath the table. Why would he not trust his friend to keep a secret? Kane would not have told anyone else, had Hagen requested it, but he wanted to help him, damn that stubborn man!
Shaking himself a bit, Kane gave the customs agent a weary smile. "Excuse me, I was not listening..."
The Drall regarded him curiously. "Jedi Kight Kane Jinn, yes?"
"Yes, that is me."
"Very good, sir, your may pass. An honor to have you here, sir." The Drall handed his ID card over to him and Kane tucked it back into an inner pocket of his tunic.
"Thank you," he replied, a bit taken aback. So, it was good that he was here, was it. He wondered why. Very hard.
Frowning, he made his way deeper into the space-port, repeating his plan to himself. First he had to pay a visit to Trent's ex-wife, Yanessa, and tell her about her ex-husband's death. He grimaced wrily. Not a job he liked to do. Then he would try to find Zulkur Arden, and he already had an idea how to find him. CorSec would probably keep tabs on anyone 'special' here on Corellia, including any Jedi Knight who might be able to join an investigation, if needed.
Outside the port Kane hailed a cab and gave the droid the address he had found listed as Yanessa Bryar's last known residence. He fervently hoped that she still lived there. The cab shot through the streets of Coronet, the planet's capital, and entered a freeway that led into the suburbs. The dwellings out here seemed friendly and peaceful, and Kane relaxed a bit. His friend's death still was foremost on his mind, where it had been joined only recently by the worry over his master's illness. Yet somehow the Jedi Knight managed to push his dark feelings aside, and concentrate instead on the flow of the Force, letting it soothe his anxiety. What would he tell Yanessa? How to begin? Misses Bryar, you do not know me, probably, but I am a friend of your ex-husband, Trent. Your late ex-husband. No. That would not do at all. Misses Bryar, my name is Kane Jinn, and I am a friend of Trent's. I have something to tell you. Hm. This was all so formal.
"We're here, sir," the droid announced, and Kane looked up and out of the window pane to see that they indeed had stopped in front of a nice little house, nestled in a community of almost identical looking buildings. There was a neat little garden in front of the house. Kane swallowed hard.
"Thank you," he told the driver and paid the fare, before he got out of the cab. A moment later he stood alone on the sidewalk, feeling like a ten-year-old again. Calming himself, he walked over to the gate and rang the bell.
After a few moments a female voice asked: "Yes?"
"Misses Yanessa Bryar?" he asked right back.
"Yes? What can I do for you?"
Relieved, Kane felt a little bit better, but only for a moment, before he became aware again of why he was here. "Misses Bryar, my name is Kane Jinn. I am a friend of Trent's –"
"Trent!" came a startled yelp from the gate's comm unit. "Come in!"
The gate swung open and Kane entered swiftly, now committed to his task. His features were grim, when the front door was drawn open, but he was stopped short when a woman practically leapt out of the doorway and hugged him.
"Kane Jinn! I have heard a lot about you!" Yanessa announced, a bit out of breath, then released him again, her blue eyes twinkling mischievously. "Mostly good. I suppose Trent kept the bad things back. Come! This is a surprise!"
She had seized his right arm and dragged him after her into the small living room, which was decorated with a lot of what Kane would call plunder, but it was comfortable and cozy. Yanessa sat him down on the sofa.
"Anything I can offer you? Water?"
"Yes, please," Kane replied, a bit taken aback. Her bustling activity and liveliness was a bit frightening, considering what he had to tell her. Now he was even more reluctant to break the news.
"So," she began, once she had rejoined him with a tray on which were balanced a jug of water and two glasses. Yanessa set it down on the table and took a seat opposite from Kane. "What brings you here? And why has my dear ex-husband not deemed it proper to pay a visit himself? I haven't seen him in years!"
"You've held contact ever since your divorce?"
"Of course!" she exclaimed, her face beaming. She was, Kane found, really attractive. Not pretty, but she had something. Her blue eyes seemed to be contsantly sparkling, and her mobile features spoke of good humor and a quick mind. "Just because we broke up does not mean we did not feel something for one another."
"Like friendship?" Kane asked, his voice hoarse.
Suddenly Yanessa's mood changed, apparently picking up on his own. "What is it? It is Trent, isn't it? You are his partner, he told me, a Jedi Knight. I – " She stopped, and her face turned very pale. She clapped a hand over her mouth. "No!" came a muffled cry. She rose quickly from her seat and came around the table to kneel before him. "What has happened?" she asked pleadingly.
"Yanessa," Kane began in a whisper, feeling his own voice choked with grief, "since you know so much, you must know that what we did was sometimes very dangerous."
"Yes, yes, of course. Everything Trent did was dangerous. Tell me," she demanded fiercely, her hands squeezing his almost painfully.
"I tried to protect him," the Jedi Knight continued, dropping his gaze. "I deflected the first few shots, but there were too many. I am sorry," he breathed, unable to look at her. "I should have tried harder."
For a moment there was silence, then Yanessa drew her hands away and rose quietly. Kane could sense the avalanche of emotions that crashed down on her, that she tried to hold back at first, but was powerless against. With a sob she ran from the room. He could hear her pounding up some stairs, and a door crashed on the upper floor. And then he could hear her crying. Loud, ragged sobs and moans, sometimes small, anguished screams that pierced his heart. Self-consciously he wiped a hand over his own eyes. It came away wet with tears.
"Well done, Kane Jinn, very well done," he scolded himself.
But immediately he realized that there was no way he could have prevented those tears, her sorrow. All he could do now was to determine whether she would need someone. With a heavy heart he rose and walked out of the living-room, toward the staircase at the back of the house. Slowly, he made his way up and found the door to what he thought was the bed-room. He hesitated, then went in. Yanessa lay sprawled on the bed, hugging the pillows tightly to her face and chest. Her body was heaving with heart-wrenching sobs as she caught her breath over and over again, only to continue crying. Kane stood in the doorway, undecided.
"Should I – should I call someone?" he asked sheepishly.
A moment passed before Yanessa fell silent. She sat up, not turning to face him. "Pass me the kerchiefs, will you?" She waved vaguely at a shelf, and Kane hurried over to hand her a box of kleenex. She blew her nose noisily, then shook her head and ran a hand through her hair. Twisting around on the bed she looked at him, her eyes red and puffed-up, her face swollen. "Did he say something?" she asked at last, hopefully, Kane thought.
He pressed his lips together for a moment, then nodded. "He asked me to get the man who is responsible for all this."
"Good," Yanessa declared, heart-felt, " 'cause I want him too. What's his name?"
"Mangus Zullawa," Kane sighed, and sat down on the bed beside her. "But I cannot let you run off to avenge your husband."
"Ex-husband," she corrected him icily, then gave a quick, guilty smile. "How long have you known him? Three years?" Kane nodded. "We were married for six long, beautiful years. I loved him."
"Why did you break up?"
She hesitated, then tried to find a more comfortable position on the bed. "Trent is – was – a nice man. " She grimaced in disdain. "Caring and generous. But at some point I got the feeling that everyone was more important than I was. All he expected of me was to keep his back clear and support him. I grew bored and restless." She blushed. "I started an affair with another man, a collegue of mine. Trent found out." Her face fell. "He was furious, accused me of having betrayed him. I told him he had betrayed me first. Well," she shrugged, sniffling a bit. "I suppose, in the end it was best for both of us." She smiled. "His last words, I suppose, prove my point."
Kane nodded. "I suppose so too."
"You were his friend," she said suddenly, her blue eyes earnest. "You cannot tell me you don't want revenge."
"Revenge is of the Dark Side," Kane answered automatically.
Yanessa drew her knees up to her chin. "I think I need some time alone. I am tired." She sought his gaze again. "Thank you, Kane Jinn. Could you – " she blew her nose again. "Could you leave your number, or something, where I can reach you?"
"Sure," he answered with a nod, his voice very small. "You won't do anything foolish, will you?" he added lightly.
She laughed a bit, then shook her head. Strands of dark brown hair fell across her face, making her look like a girl. "Right now, no. Later – who knows?"
"When you've decided, call me," he tried. "Are you certain I should leave?"
"Yes." She gave a brave little nod. "I'll call some friends – you understand," she added hurriedly, apparently fearing she had offended him.
"No, of course. I understand. I'll be there, if you need me," he offered at last, then wrapped his arms around her to squeeze her gently. "And I'll keep you posted on what I can find out about Zullawa. Just in case."
"Thank you," she answered in a hushed whisper. "I appreciate it."
He nodded, then let her go and stood. Her gaze was directed at the window, she seemingly already had forgotten about his presence. Moving as softly as he could, Kane left. But before he went out of teh house, he wrote his comm code down on a sheet of paper he found in the hallway. Just in case.
Hagen stared at his right hand, that refused to work properly. His fingers did not seem to want to do what he wanted. He frowned darkly.
"Master Dycos, can I help you?" Olana Uvas, the head-librarian, asked gently, when she stopped next to where he sat by one of the windows. "What are you looking for?"
"Medical records," he explained.
"Are you ill?" came the prompt question.
"Just research," he answered a bit gruffly.
She did not seem convinced, but did not press further, probably deciding that a Jedi Master should know what was good for him. She shrugged, then smiled and went away. Hagen continued staring at his hand, then shook his head resignedly and continued his lecture of an old scroll on midichlorians and their specific attributes.
The first time he had noticed the changes had been eight months ago. He had almost killed innocent bystanders when he had tried to trip a thief in the crowd and flattened the entire assembly to the ground. The outcry had been enormous, and Hagen had fled the scene, heart beating in his throat, his mind confused. Somehow the midichlorian-count in his blood had skyrocketed way past the scale. The micro-organisms seemed to be reproducing so fast that by now Jedi Master Hagen Dycos, formerly in middling range of power, would have easily be able to level Coruscant. Not that he even thought about such a thing. And he had not dared go see the temple's healers.
He shivered. Not because he did not think they could help him, but because he was afraid they would betray him. That paranoia, also part of the symptoms, he thought, had also hindered him from confiding in Kane, and other friends. In hindsight his behavior always seemed ridiculous, but when the moment came, when he felt he had to trust someone, he always chose to hold back. Scratching a patch of dry skin at the base of his neck, Hagen sighed. Something was terribly wrong, and he had no idea what it was. The scrolls did not help much, he had found. There was nothing that was even remotedly close to what he was experiencing.
Hagen was not really focusing on the report before him anymore. He had almost given up on finding anything, but then a piece of conversation drifted toward him from the library's front desk.
"No, I fear we have nothing of that kind. But the prophecy section may have some pointers. If you would want to try, I can give you the exact location," Olana Uvas was just saying, her nasal voice pitched into a sweet timbre.
"Thank you, Mistress Uvas," a male voice answered smoothly, and Hagen felt his thoughts freeze. He knew that voice! Damn! Pushing back his chair, the Jedi Master got up quickly, ignoring the screech of protest the chair's legs made upon the floor. He stood staring in the direction of the front desk, where he could see a hooded figure leave for the prophecy section of the library. Olana was thoughtfully gazing after the retreating visitor. Hagen frowned. Then he went after the newcomer.
They met in Section B-D, and when Hagen rounded a corner to step into the small corridor between the shelves, the visitor was just putting back a volume of holocubes. The dark cloak hid his features effectively, but the Jedi Master still wondered how he had managed to get past the guards.
"You must be mad," he declared in an angry whisper.
"Why?" the all too familiar voice asked coolly. "I believe you have quite an extensive collection here, and that spares me a lot of research time."
Hagen stepped closer toward the figure. "If they find you here –"
"They won't. Hagen, don't be so damn jumpy. I know what I am doing."
"What are you looking for?" the Jedi Master inquired, curious now. "What prophecy?"
"The Jen'da Prophecies," the other replied calmly. "A very rare piece of work."
"Ah, a good question," his friend chuckled. "Maybe because I am bored."
But Hagen wasn't really listening. His thoughts were circling a very specific question. If anyone might know something about what was ailing him, it was this man. Licking his lips anxiously, Hagen Dycos reached out to lay a hand on the man's forearm.
"I need your helpd," he breathed, a slight whine on his voice.
Apparently taken aback the other shrugged free of his grasp. "What is it?"
"Not here," Hagen explained. "Let's go to my quarters."
"Ah. A private conversation. I am honored."
For a moment Hagen felt ten years younger. "Come. Let's go," he suggested amiably.
They walked past Olana, and only when he saw the curious glance the head-librarian directed at his companion, did Hagen realize how risky his showing himself with this hooded stranger was for him. There might be questions later on ... He exhaled in relief when the door to his quarters closed behind them. Safe. For now. Ushering his guest into a seat, he placed his walking cane on the table-top quite deliberately. As expected the newcomer's gaze lingered on the staff, before he turned his head to gaze up at the Jedi Master.
"What can you tell me about the reproduction of midichlorians?" Hagen asked directly.
"Reproduction?" Shaking his head, the other let the hood of his cloak drop down to his shoulder. His formerly black hair was almost completely gray now, a dark gray, reminiscent of a storm cloud, or weathered granite. "You mean whether the midichlorian-count in, say, a Jedi's bloodstream could rise?" Hagen nodded. "Never heard about something like that," Roj Kell mused aloud. "At least not at your age. Usually the midichlorians stop reproducing once a certain level is reached, depending on a number of things. Have you been experiencing any troubles lately?"
"The past eight months," Hagen confessed. "They seem to be reproducing like mad. At the same time my body seems to be deteriorating. My memory is failing sometimes, too."
The ancient Sith Lord laughed quietly. "Then I must have made quite an impression on your memory," he quibbed.
Hagen smiled. "You know you did," he answered gently.
Sobering again, Roj Kell frowned. "Do you have any suspicions?"
The Jedi Master hesitated, his thoughts drifting again, to a conference eight months ago on Alderaan. "Yes," he breathed at last. "Indeed I do have a certain suspicion." And with a certain amount of mischief he realized that he could fully trust a friend who was so untrustworthy that his paranoia was perfectly balanced out. Hagen laughed. "I never thought I'd say this," he confessed, "but it is good to see you again."
Kane felt a bit light-headed by the time he was back in the city center. He had consulted a city directory to find the CorSec headquartes, and now he was seated in a small cafeteria for a light lunch, needing some time to digest his visit with Yanessa Bryar. Had he been right to leave her alone? She had claimed she would call some friends for support, yes, and he was a stranger, but he had been Trent's friend, too. Not for the first time in his life he felt very lonely. Idly stirring his cup of sweet tea, Kane directed a pensive frown at the sub he had ordered earlier. It looked appetizing, but suddenly he found he was not hungy anymore.
"Sir, everything all right with you?" a waiter asked pleasantly, and Kane gave a small nod.
"Yes, thank you."
The waiter shrugged and went away again. Kane heaved a small sigh. Raising his head he gazed out at the street, watching people pass, picking up their mood. Most seemed to be in a hurry, and there were flashes of joy and laughter mixed with sorrow out there. He sighed again, then rose from his seat, leaving the sub untouched. It would probably be offered to the next paying customer. Kane gave the waiter an apologetic smile as he left, and walked out into the street, determined to at least get a trail on Zulkur Arden before he found some quarters for tonight.
CorSec headquarters dominated a small plaza and was easy to identify. Relying on his outfit to at least convince the officers at the front-desk that he was authorized to enter, Kane stepped into the foyer and looked around. Immediately one of the uniformed men at the desk rose, urgently speaking into his head-comm, his eyes never leaving Kane. His collegue gave the Jedi Knight a somewhat suspicious glare, then stood and came around the desk to welcome him.
"Good evening," he said in clipped tones. "What can we do for you, sir?"
"My name is Kane Jinn, Jedi Knight," Kane offered formally and handed the officer his ID card.
"Yes, of course," the other replied, after a cursory and practised glance at his identification. "Kane Jinn of Coruscant, right?"
"Yes, that is right."
"And how may we be of service?"
"I was sent here to join an assignment conducted by Jedi Knight Zulkur Arden, but I cannot find him. I thought perhaps you could help me here."
"Zulkur Arden?" the officer's brow rose. "I suppose you should put that request to our tracking department. I will send someone to fetch you. If you would take a seat over there?"
The man pointed at a sad assembly of chairs in a corner, where two Dralls and a teenage human girl were already waiting for one thing or the other. Kane joined them with a friendly nod and smile. None of them looked at him twice.
It only took a few minutes, before a short female officer appeared to fetch him. She was obviously impressed with meeting a Jedi Knight in person, smiling at him all the while. Kane refrained from talking to her, and instead concentrated on drinking in every tiny detail of the building as they made their way deeper into the structure. Finally they reached their destination and his guide handed him over to one Colonel Malek. Malek was a tired-looking, elderly man, who shook Kane's hand absent-mindedly.
"Welcome. Your arrival was announced already."
"Announced how?" Kane asked, bewildered.
"Hm? Oh, we keep track of everyone important or suspicious who arrives on Corellia. Including Jedi Knights, lucky for you," he added with a weary smile and motioned for Kane to follow. "You are looking for Zulkur Arden, I was told," he continued, pitching his voice into a question. Kane nodded mutely, keeping stride with the colonel. "Well, Knight Arden has been investigating some smuggling incidents over the past two months, and the last we heard was that he was planning on lying low somewhere." Malek stopped at a cubicle and seated himself. He did not offer a chair to Kane, though. "We checked your ID, of course, and got confirmation for your authorized departure from Coruscant and authorized arrival on Corellia. The authorities deny, though, that you are to join Knight Arden's investigations."
Kane had a quick answer ready: "That is true. I won't be joining him for those particular investigations. But I am relying on what information he can give me on the people he is investigating."
"I see. So what is your directive from Coruscant?"
"No direct orders from th Council, if that is what you mean," Kane admitted. "I am also investigating smuggling activities. Conducted by a man named Mangus Zullawa. The trail has led me here, to Corellia."
Colonel Malek whistled through his teeth. "Zullawa, eh? Not bad. I don't think he was on Arden's list."
"Is that so?" Crossing his arms across his chest Kane decided to use some of his intimidating height to impress Malek a bit. "Why do I get the feeling that you are out to prevent me from joining Knight Arden instead of trying to assist me?"
Malek squinted up at him. "They don't breed fools on Coruscant, I can see that," he muttered, then twisted his chair around, turning his back on Kane, to activate his compad. "All right. Reason why I'm a bit cautious is that Knight Arden has propably stirred up more trouble than he could handle alone. We know where he is, you understand, since we provided that shelter. Therefore I'm a bit reluctant to reveal the location to you, Jedi and all."
"You need some more convincing?"
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble..."
Kane shrugged generously. "Not at all. As you said yourself, the reason for Knight Arden's disappearance may well be that he cannot continue investigating without jeopardizing his work. He has not contacted any other Jedi Knight resident on Corellia, has he?"
"Haven't thought of that," Malek confessed, and typed some code into his comm dial. "Good thinking, young man." Kane bristled a bit. He was almost thirty, for Force's sake! But Malek's voice interrupted him. "Ah, yes. Colonel Malek here. Yes, Master Halcyon, I have a quick question concerning a collegue of yours, Zulkur Arden. He has not tried to contact you, has he? No? Thank you. Why? Oh, another collegue, Knight Jinn, has been asking after him. Yes, thank you. I will tell him." Malek hit a switch to disconnect the call, then turned toward Kane with a pleased smile. "Master Halcyon says he hasn't seen Zulkur in months He says you can always come to him if you need help."
Nodding thoughtfully, Kane glanced briefly at the comm dial, where the recently dialled comm code was still visible, and memorized it quickly. Perhaps another ally would come in handy at one point. Then he turned his attention back on Malek. "That is all very well, and it proves that Zulkur Arden may be in danger. He has not even contacted another Jedi to assist him. Any reasonable knight would have done so. Perhaps he is injured, or worse has happened to him." Frowning hard, he bent down toward Malek, who unconsciously leaned back. "You will surrender the shelter's location to me right now, Colonel Malek. No more excuses. If your delaying tactics have endangered Knight Arden you will have to justify yourself in court. Is that clear?"
Malek gulped noisily. "Yes, sir. Of course. But I'll have to check back with my superior – And that is no delaying tactic," he added hurriedly, "that's protocol."
"Then make it quick, Colonel," Kane snarled, now truly angry. Damn these bureaucrats!
When finally he had the address and location he stormed out of CorSec headquarters, fuming. His day had not been well so far. And he dearly hoped that it would at least get better.
"Extreme care will be necessary for this operation to succeed," Inyo explained, from where she had draped her body over an incredibly comfortable couch. Dressed in a purple robe that went well with her eyes, she gave Mangus Zullawa a fond little smile that he returned gratefully.
"That much is clear, love," he answered, checking over his blaster again. "But you yourself said that the virus should have impaired his reflexes enough by now. Enough for us to get close and overwhelm him, at least."
"And yet," she cautioned him, completely earnest now, "another side effect of my little darling is an immense boost in the victim's power in the Force. If you should fail to knock him out in time you will be dead before you can blink an eye." Her voice softened, taking on a motherly tone. "I would not want that, dearest."
Mangus' features lit up warnly, and again Inyo was astonished at how easy it had been for her to make him her willing tool. But then, she was very experienced in these matters. Beckoning him closer, she waited for him to kneel before the couch reverentially. With a gentle gesture she ran perfectly manicured fingers through his thick, black hair, down the back of his neck, and drew him closer. His breathing quickened in anticipation, and Inyo smiled. Such power ... She loved power, more than anything else, she knew.
Which was why she had bedded Zulkur Arden in the first place, because he was a Jedi, one of those mighty sorcerers that had destroyed her parents' masters some forty years ago, that fateful day at distant Ruusan. But he had escaped, the side-effects of her precious virus pushing his mind into paranoia quickly. He was still around, she knew, and at last they had found his lair. By now he would be a ripe fruit, ready for the harvest. A beautiful, deadly weapon of unimaginable destructive potential. Yet Inyo needed him under her control, to experiment further, to find out how her pretty tool could be controlled most effectively.
"You must go, dearest," she whispered softly, her lips almost touching his ear. Mangus shuddered delicately, then raised his head to look at her. The longing in those indigo eyes was fierce, and Inyo felt herself responding to his naked need with alarming intensity. It took some of her self-control to let him go then. "You must leave," she said once more, and withdrew her hand.
"I will go, love, as you command," he answered determinedly, but there was hurt in his tone, oh yes. That was another thing Inyo wanted very much. Hurt.
When he had finally left, she sat up elegantly, always aware of how she looked, how she wanted to present herself. She needed perfection, craved it dearly, and yet perfection seemed so quaint, compared to power. A vulgar thought, she knew, and she remembered a lesson given decades ago, a quick lesson on perfection and power, that she had listened to with ears burning in shame, a fourteen year old serving girl lectured by one of her masters. She frowned in remembrance. What had been his name again? Strangely enough she could not recall, and then she realized that he had never given his name, had never surrendered it to her. Had he known her cravings then? In hindsight it seemed obvious, and the lesson only seemed proof for it. Even after all those years Inyo found herself blushing in embarrassment, the way she had back then.
Well. She had moved far beyond youthful ambtions.
Rising gracefully, she straightened her dress self-consciously, and her eyes automatically sought the mirror's reflection, checking her image carefully. Perfect. Yes, that she was. A triumphant smile crept upon her generous lips, making her look even more sensual than she already did. Soon now she would have her former lover returned to her, and she would perfect her control over him. Soon now. Very soon.
The CorSec shelter was either incredibly obvious or else cleverly camouflaged. When Kane arrived in front of the run-down apartment block in the least desirable quarter of Coronet, he felt slightly apalled for some reason. Though he was used to disorder and discomfort both, Kane did relish the security of a beautifully kept house, and the clarity of the Jedi Temple's airy walkways and spacious rooms. Bracing himself, he walked toward the entrance cautiously. He could sense the malice hidden there easily, and just as easily convinced the presence concealed within shadows that he was not worth the while. As he stepped in front of the door, he could hear a faint rustle off to his left, and retreating footsteps. Kane studied the door critically, but found no booby-trap or similar.
He turned th handle and was rewarded with an ear-splitting screech as he pushed the door open with some effort. It swung inward, scraping across sticky plasteel tiles that made him grimace in disgust. The stench inside was unbelievable. Hurrying inside, the Jedi Knight immediately began tracking the house for a presence that might point him toward Zulkur Arden. But the entire building was a den of dark intentions, suffering and violence. How any Jedi could agree to stay in this vicinity was beyond Kane.
The elevators had been scavenged for spare parts long ago, leaving only rusting holes that could lead the unwary visitor into a plunge to death. So Kane had no choice but to use the staircase at the back of the house, which was littered with trash and stinking excrements. Quickly he threw his arm across his nose and mouth, to shield himself against some of the vile smells filling the corridor. He hurried through the poorly lit house, searching, and became more distressed with each floor he passed. He had reached the tenth floor or so, when he felt a flash of something, of recognition, and in an instant he knew that Zulkur Arden had found him. Following the direction he had felt the flash of awareness from, Kane cautiously walked along a dark hallway, and stopped in front of the last door.
"Come!" came a hoarse voice from within.
Pushing at the door, Kane tensed in anticipation. The room beyond was as disorderly and dirty as the rest of the house seemed to be, and he could barely make out the figure seated at the dimmed window.
"Who are you?" the man demanded harshly.
"My name is Kane Jinn. Zulkur Arden?"
A bitter laugh rang out from the stranger. "I suppose so." Arden rose slowly, clumsily, and Kane tentatively stepped forward and closed the door behind him.
"Is there any light?" he asked politely, already searching for power lines.
"Light!" Zulkur Arden said contemptuously. "I don't need light. Hurts my eyes," he added grimly. The Jedi Knight was a tall man, not as tall as Kane, though, but much heavier set.
"You have been injured?" Kane asked, immediately turning into a protective mode. "I heard about your investigations. CorSec informed me of where you are hiding. If there is anything I can do to help you – "
Arden waved him into silence wearily. "No help necessary, Kane Jinn. I think a little light would not hurt. I think I'd like to take a good look at you." A small lamp was turned on and the light beam redirected so that it was pointed straight at Kane's face, blinding him effectively. Blinking into the garish light, he frowned. "Ah, young and eager," his host chuckled. "Welcome to my little den, Kane Jinn."
The lamp was straightened again, and Kane took a relieved step forward, a smile on his face. Which died promptly when he first caught a glance at Zulkur Arden's face. Grimy hair hung into his sickly yellow eyes that seemed almost dead, and his facial skin appeared dry and sore. As if responding to Kane's scrutiny, Arden brought a hand up to scratch his bearded chin, and dry flakes of old skin came loose, opening more wounds underneath. The hand, Kane noticed with rising disgust, was more claw than anything else, the fingers bent arthritically, and the fingertips dark and swollen.
"You are ill," he stated the obvious, his voice revealing compassion and caring.
"Quite a sight, eh?" Zulkur Arden asked with a horrible smile that revealed gray teeth set in blackening gums.
"How? How is that possible? And why did you not seek help?" Kane demanded, somehow furious at the man for having let this happen to him.
"But who can I trust, Kane Jinn?" the man asked, a dangerous whisper that set Kane's teeth on edge. Zulkur Arden took a slow step toward the young Jedi Knight, and the smell emanating from his rotting teeth was overwhelming. "Who can I trust? You? I do not think so," he finished in a hiss, and raised his claw-like hands threateningly. "You are not the first to seek me out, little Jedi," the man continued, "and I fear you won't be the last."
Before Kane could react in any way, blue lightning sprang from the other's fingertips, and when it reached him the young Jedi Knight was thrown back against the door hard. Blue tongues of electricity licked over his chest and face eagerly, and he felt his body jerk in helpless response to the mind-rendering pain that shredded his will into bits. When he blackened out it was almost gratitude, that he felt before oblivion closed all around him.
Hagen watched his guest pace the length of the room patiently, feeling somehow more at ease now that his secret was a secret no longer. He had endured the other's probing a while back, and had felt actually relieved, when Kell had announced that he had never before seen anything like what was ailing the Jedi Master. It confirmed what Hagen had already suspected. That this virus was unique, and not a mutation of another. It also had hardened his suspicion concerning the question of how he had been infected.
"So, this conference on Alderaan eight months back, you suspect that you contracted the virus there. That is correct?"
"Correct," Hagen answerd calmly, relishing the cool of the other's magical voice. It soothed him somehow, taking part of his confusion away.
"And you suspect this woman – what was her name again?"
"Doctor Inyo Di'vitt of Corellia," the Jedi Master supplied.
"That one, yes, of having infected you. How?"
Hagen shrugged. "I have no idea."
"Why do you suspect her then?"
"A feeling. Only that."
For some reason Roj Kell stopped his pacing and turned to face him, pale eyes narrowed dangerously. "A feeling you should trust indeed, Hagen. I knew her, when she was a girl," the ancient Sith explained.
"You mean she is a Sith?" the Jedi Master asked, aghast.
"For someone with a mental illness you are still a quick thinker," Roj Kell teased him. "No, she was no Sith. She was a slave, she and her parents. A pretty girl, and driven in a way I cannot describe." He shrugged. "I met her once, she caught my eye, you understand. A very pretty girl." Hagen kept his features carefully neutral. "But I do not see how she could have done what you claim she did."
"You saw for yourself," the Jedi Master reminded him. "The midichlorians are infected, you said, and they cause all those health problems that ail me."
"Yes, yes. Very hard to spot. And you did the right thing. The worst you could have done was to use the Force to heal yourself. Yet the question remains: for someone who is insensitive to the Force like her, she has achieved a very deep understanding of the workings of the Force."
"Perhaps she had someone to assist her. A Force-user," Hagen offered.
"You mean a Sith," Kell corrected him absent-mindedly. "I suppose that could be the answer to this riddle. And you sent Kane to Corellia, where Inyo Di'vitt might get her hands on him, or worse, that Sith?"
The Jedi Master shrugged guiltily. "It seemed the right thing to do."
"What if it was the Dark Side guiding you?" Kell asked conspiratively, a mocking smile on his lips and a challenging look in his eyes.
Hagen blushed slightly. He knew what the other thought about the difference between Dark and Light, and, furthermore, what he thought of Hagen's own beliefs. Clearing his throat he asked right back: "Is there anything we can do? I remember you cleansed me of Dark Side traces once before, on Korriban. Could you do something like that again?"
Roj Kell pursed his lips thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Not like that. The infection has gone on for too long. I'd have to take more drastic measures."
"Such as?" Hagen asked, feeling suddenly afraid again.
Those pale green eyes regarded him with something he had never seen in them before. Compassion. "Drastic may be the wrong word, Hagen. The only solution I see is to destroy every infected midichlorian I can find."
Hagen swallowed hard. He knew that Kell was an excellent healer, when it came to healing others, and that he knew what he was talking about. But if he applied that cure, Hagen would lose almost every shred of power he possessed. For a moment that vision overwhelmed him and he lowered his gaze to stare at the floor in front of where he sat on a chair. In a small voice he answered: "I will have to think about this. A difficult choice."
"Granted," came the sharp reply, and in a gentler tone, that was almost fatherly, Roj Kell added. "But remember that I cannot stay forever. If I am found here you will not get that chance. And you only have that one, Hagen, as much as it pains me to say."