I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Warriors of the Outer Rim
The Fulcrum of Fate
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Matt Wagner
with the invaluable assistance of the Usual Suspects
and thanks to all the sources
© 2016 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Darth Vader stood and silently regarded the jungle ziggurat, hands clasped behind his back. "It is as I feared," he said.
A short distance away, Rei Ayanami looked around the jungle clearing in which they found themselves. The native who had pointed them to this place had described it as a calm, tranquil, healthy place, where the grass was green and the jungle seemed to refrain from overgrowing the structure out of courtesy alone.
It presented a rather different aspect now. The pyramid, which appeared to have been hewn from a solid outcropping of some silvery-veined black rock in ages past, was silent, but Rei could not have described it as tranquil. It had an undefinable air of menace, a sense that it was a place where unquiet spirits dwelled and terrible things had been done. Rei was not a superstitious person—quite the opposite, in fact—but the ziggurat unnerved her slightly for no reason she could name aloud.
The fact that it was surrounded by parched and blackened grass and withered vegetation, not the lush green growth she had been led to expect, might have had something to do with it. She turned to HK-47, but before she could speak, Vader announced, "You will find no anomalies."
Rei glanced at him, but Vader was still looking up at the megalithic stepped pyramid. A moment later, HK said, "Confirmation: My sensors detect nothing to account for the condition of the area. No toxins, no abnormal radiation."
Vader crouched by the ziggurat's edge and ran his gloved fingers along the ground, crumbling the blackened grass to sooty ash. "This was not done by anything your sensors can detect," he said. Then, straightening, he added to Rei, "Come. Here begins your first lesson."
As they climbed to the top of the ziggurat, Rei felt the strange oppressiveness of it ever more deeply. The zanshin she'd been trained in during her time as a Katsujinkenryū apprentice prickled, but nonspecifically, as if the danger were everywhere but nowhere definite. When they reached the top, she got an inkling as to why. At one time there had been a series of markings, intricately worked from inlays of some silver metal, set in a great circle on the structure's flat roof—but at some point, they had been defaced. Crudely overwritten with some sort of cutting or burning tool, replaced with an unpleasantly familiar set of cruel and angular glyphs.
"These are the same markings we saw on Palaven," Rei said. "The ones Obi-Wan's padawan said she'd seen on Sarati." She glanced sharply at Vader. "The ones someone used to break Quintus Verorian's mind."
Vader nodded. "And Wald Corto's before it," he said. Dropping to one knee in the center of the circle, he touched his fingertips to the angry scar of the central glyph. "Here on this very spot. The Force still echoes with the death-scream of his sanity."
Rei nodded. "I know," she said quietly.
Vader looked up, met her scarlet eyes, and then rose to his feet. "Corto's suffering is only a part of the wrongness you feel here. The Force has been... damaged... in this place." He looked around, his expression grave. "This was once a place of peace and light. Now it's tainted. Poisoned. The very forest itself can feel its evil."
"If this is your 'dark side'," Rei told him frankly, "it isn't doing much to sell itself to me."
Vader shook his head. "This is not the Dark Side," he said. "This is where failure to master it leads."
Igniting his lightsaber, Vader moved into the center of the circle, his face an onyx mask of determination.
"What you see here is wasteful. Shameful. An act of vandalism in the service of senseless cruelty. Because these fools saw nothing but a path to power, they allowed themselves to become ruled by their basest impulses."
Slowly, Vader turned to regard her, his eyes burning with a tightly controlled fury. "In their teachings, the Jedi see the Dark Side as a quick and easy path. They believe that is what makes it so dangerous to those who seek it. They are wrong."
Rei could feel Vader's anger rippling from him in an almost palpable aura—as if his words were slowly adding fuel to a furnace—yet like a furnace, it was directed. Contained. Channeled. As he continued, it seemed to burn away some of the sickness from the world around him, like a flame burning off swamp gas.
"Those who seek power without discipline will find nothing but ruin," Vader went on. "Mastery of the Dark Side is not a simple or easy process; it is a constant test. The Force, light or dark, can grant strength—but it demands one prove oneself in the process, one way or another."
Rei frowned. "You said something like this before. So what test do these sigils represent?"
Vader nodded in acknowledgement of her memory, then walked to the far edge of the circle and extended the point of his saber to the crudely superimposed sigil there.
"I am unfamiliar with the use to which our enemies put them—it is a form of sorcery unknown to me—but I know these symbols. Their names, their individual meanings. To the ancient Sith Lords, these were the Eight Virtues. The pillars from which their philosophy was forged."
With that, he plunged his lightsaber's scarlet blade into the sigil; the temple's ancient stone, already abused, gave a hair-raising shriek as the sun-hot plasma bit into it further. With quick, decisive, but precise strokes, Vader altered the superimposed symbol, reminding Rei of a calligraphy master correcting an errant pupil's flawed efforts.
"Zon," he intoned. "The passion which drives us. The Sith way is to commit ourselves to that passion and let the resulting energy fuel our pursuits—but when taken to excess, it becomes merely an excuse for random violence. Lashing out blindly, until you are nothing but an animal."
His work complete, Vader walked the perimeter of the circle until he reached the next sigil, then plunged his blade into the ground again, his stentorian voice carrying through the noise.
"Rakh. Strength. Physical, yes, but also strength of spirit. Strength of mind. Strength of restraint. Strength of body alone is useful only for dull brutality. True strength is not measured in swipes of a blade or blows of a fist. It comes of bettering oneself. "
As Vader walked to the next sigil, Rei felt a tremor run through the ground—as if his steps were shaking the temple itself—but as the Sith Lord continued his work, she realized it was a deeper vibration, one that seemed to increase as he carried on.
"Krath—Power. The true Sith gathers power, but not for its own sake. His power is used to face oppression. To defend his home. To strike those who have earned his wrath through their actions or corruptions. By seeing power as a means to an end, the failed aspirant will only find himself destroyed by it."
HK-47 shifted his footing as the tremors increased. "Observation: This position could become untenable, Master."
Rei silenced him with a slight gesture. She had come this far. Something in her knew she had to see this through.
"Kharai," Vader continued, his blade moving like a fevered artist's brush. "Immediacy. Know the path and act at once; do not allow the moment of necessity to pass in self-doubtful hesitation. Those seeking shortcuts will omit the first step and simply act. To do so without forethought is the path to failure."
The vibration was still increasing, but Rei could feel a shift as Vader moved to the fifth sigil. Instead of a general shaking, it was taking on a feeling of imbalance—like an engine only firing on half its cylinders. It was as though the very fabric of the pyramid were in conflict with itself. Vader seemed unconcerned as he strode to and began to correct the next glyph.
"Re't. Adaptation—or flexibility, in some translations. The ability to approach any situation with an open mind, and the flexibility to change your course as you understand everything around you." As Vader withdrew his blade, he turned, locking eyes with Rei. "Those we faced on Jyurai, and those who defiled this place, twist this into deception and deceit. They believe they are fooling their opponents by living within a web of illusion, but instead they merely deceive themselves."
That uneven vibration continued to worsen, but Vader showed no hesitation, his tread as sure and measured as at their first meeting.
"Zekh. Pride—the confidence that comes of knowing one is held to a higher standard. This is one of the hardest of the Virtues for many aspirants to master. Assuming yourself to be infallible—falling into the grip of arrogance—will lead to your downfall."
The penultimate sigil brought Vader within a few feet of Rei and HK-47, and the sound of the lightsaber's blade reshaping it was joined by the sounds of stonework rippling and snapping—the stones far below beginning to succumb to the forces being exerted upon them.
"Nakhai. Certainty. The Sith must understand the need to act, and have the determination to do what is necessary. A cancer must be cut out. A forest must sometimes burn to allow for new growth. But just as kharai can lead to rash action, nakhai can be twisted to callous ruthlessness. Action taken to extremes for no reason. A surgeon cannot operate with a dull axe; forest fires are not meant to amuse onlookers. The true Sith does not raze a city to strike at a single denizen. This is the mark of the weakest mind."
Vader plunged his blade into the final sigil, and as he completed his strokes, the vibrations reached a bone-rattling pitch... and then stopped with an almost shocking suddenness. The unsettled stones subsided into their former stability as quiet descended over the jungle again.
The sense of wrongness that Rei had felt permeating the temple since their arrival lifted, and there was a sense of peace—like the center of a pond after a stone's impact, still and serene as the ripples faded.
"Gan. The focus which carries us forward as we follow our path. Concentration on the moment, but ever mindful of all that comes before us, and all which must follow. To obsess upon a single act is the path of madness. When you walk the path of the Sith, if you once lose sight of the Living Force around us, you may well succeed at a single battle, but you will have lost the larger war."
As he explained the last of the symbols, Vader walked to the center of the circle; once there, he raised his blade in salute, then put it away and sank into seiza. Raising his hand, he gestured for Rei to join him. After a long moment, she did so, a glance from the corner of her eye telling HK to remain where he stood.
Sliding into seiza across from the Dark Lord, she let her eyes probe his, and felt his silent approval before he spoke again.
"You asked me what test the Virtues represent. Each Virtue is its own test. If you can master them, they are the keys to your greatest potential; but if you cannot, they will make a slave of you. This is the trial of the Sith."
He let that sink in for a moment; when Rei offered no comment, he went on, "Close your eyes. Feel the stillness in this place. Let yourself fall into the serenity. Let your mind become one with its silence, and look inward."
As she did her best to follow this direction, Rei was reminded of the feeling she'd had when flying Cipher Zero in interstellar space—those moments when she could close her eyes and feel nothing but the stillness and quiet between worlds. This place was like that, now that Vader's fire had erased the blackness that had stained it when they arrived. She settled into herself, eidetically-remembered Katsujinkenryū lessons flickering through her mind, and followed the depth and rhythm of the Dark Lord's voice.
"There is a fire within you that cannot be quenched, a fire of passion and instinct. This fire burns in all beings—it is fundamental to consciousness and life itself. Sorrow, joy, anger, love, fear: they cause suffering, but they also enable us to triumph over suffering.
"Some fear their inner fire and suppress it, even strive in vain to extinguish it. They misunderstand it and call it darkness. Others revel so in its embrace that they become its slaves and are destroyed. Only a very few possess the strength, the courage, and the will to be its master.
"Concentrate on those inner passions, that flame within you. Let its heat warm you. Let its light illuminate your world. In this way you know the fire of the universe itself: living, loving, warring, conquering, surviving.
"All life is flame. All life is one.
"This is the Force."
Rei remained still and silent, her eyes closed, for several long, measured seconds.
Then she opened her eyes, scarlet as blood, and met Vader's gaze calmly with her own.
"Sō," she said; and that was all. A moment later, she stood up and looked around, asking, "What now?"
If Vader were disappointed by the paucity of her reaction, he gave no sign; indeed, it was with a distinct air of satisfaction that, rising, he replied, "It's safe to leave this place now. It... is not what it was before it was tampered with, but it no longer poisons the Force. I think we have learned all we can from it. Best to regroup with Obi-Wan and the others."
"Mm. In that case, we had best get started," Rei mused as she walked toward her waiting droid. "It's a long flight out to the Rim."
Obi-Wan glanced at Alaia as they came over the rise from the rough shuttleport and looked down at the ruined white stone building in the valley. Her mouth was tight, her shoulders set, and she caught his look.
"No, Master," she said, forcing a smile, "I'm not particularly happy to be back here again."
"I don't imagine you would be," he said gently. "How are you holding up?"
"There's a lot of..." She paused, hunting for a word, and finally settled on, "... static here, in the echoes from the past. It's always been strong here, but I got used to it by living in the Temple. Master Befin said it couldn't hurt us, and it'd be good practice to be able to see through the noise. That when we got someplace that wasn't so... cloudy, we'd be that much more effective. Like talking through a mouth full of marbles." She shook her head, as if she were trying to get water out of her ears. "It wasn't this bad before, though."
"The deaths of three Jedi in battle can't have helped it," he said sadly. "Do you need to stop?"
Alaia shook her head again, though this time it was a denial. "There's nothing here that I've sensed that can hurt me, Master. The worst it can do is knock me out of contact for a while, and I know that's temporary now." She gave him a grateful look. "It's just a little unsettling. And, well, you're here to give me some support, and haul me out if I make any mistakes and get in over my head."
He had to smile ruefully. "Don't overestimate me, please. I'm not infallible, after all. I've made more than enough mistakes to prove that."
"But, Master," she said, putting one hand against her chest and giving him a wide-eyed look. "What are you for if not to save my ass when I lose my shit completely?"
He smiled inside—she's learning—but outwardly, he only sighed. "Try not to lose it, Padawan, and I'll try not to find out. But I have a bad feeling about this."
Alaia sobered, and turned back to look at the ruined temple. "You're not the only one," she agreed. "Let's get it over with."
The temple was even more of a wreck than Alaia remembered. Though they'd only been living in it for perhaps two years, she and Khash and Anahita had done a lot of cleanup work to get it back into habitable condition; that was how she had found the old library and the still quasi-functional computer—removing debris from a collapsed alcove near the back that lead to a still-clear hallway.
But now the front doors were completely demolished, the archway partially fallen, and copious quantities of rubble largely blocked the way upstairs. Clearly, the Darksiders who had come looking for them hadn't been above a little unnecessary vandalism.
"You were in the lower areas when the attack hit?" asked Obi-Wan.
Alaia nodded mutely, wondering if the bodies had been buried, if they'd been scavenged by animals, or if—
"Then I will check there—and deal with it, if there's anything left to see." He smiled at her gently, and she could see the compassion in his eyes. She swallowed gratefully, feeling the lump in her throat as the past pressed in around her and demanded admittance.
"Thank you, Master," she whispered, too upset to feel ashamed. "I'll check upstairs. I don't think they'll have done anything up there—it was just living areas, but just in case..."
"When you're done, come find me, and we'll see about that library you found. That's probably where they will have set traps, if anywhere, and it may take both of us to deal with them." He paused, let his hand rest against one wall as he gazed off into the distance of the Force. "This temple is old. I don't remember it, but it doesn't feel strange to me. It's possible I may be able to make sense of some of the technology that was foreign to you."
Alaia nodded, and set about trying to get up the partially blocked staircase.
When she got up there, she was sorry she had.
Anahita's room was completely turned inside out, her clothes strewn about, the ribbons she'd used to keep her long hair braided out of her eyes had been ground against the floor, and were covered in mud from somebody's boot. And Alaia knew Anahita hadn't been there when the attack came.
She picked up one ribbon and felt the tears start in her eyes. She had tried to get her grieving over with, but apparently, she wasn't done yet.
Her friends were dead—the boy and the girl who had almost become brother and sister to her. Her teacher—mentor, parent—of eight years, dead. She really would never see them again. It hadn't fully sunk in until that moment, but...
Glad to be alone for the moment as Obi-Wan checked elsewhere, she put the ribbon against her face and sobbed.
When she finished crying, Alaia just sat there for a moment on the floor of Anahita's room, holding the ribbon. She took internal stock with a clearer head since she'd first arrived back at Sarati; her grief was gone, her fear largely muted by the crying jag she'd just had, but she felt incredibly lonely. And she knew that even if she was careful, she was going to have a difficult time not getting angry at the damnable bastards who had come into their temple and wrecked their lives—
With a firm resolve, she cut off that train of thought, closing her eyes and whispering the words of the meditation chant that she had learned from her Master so long ago.
Din, sha—Master, they're coming through!
I know, Khash, I know. We'll just have to hold on and hope that Alaia can get help in time.
I'm scared, Master...
It's all right, Anahita. Trust the Force.
It's OK, 'Hita. If this is how we are going to end our lives, at least you won't do it alone—if they get Alaia out there, she's going to go down by herself.
I can't feel her anymore. Is she dead?
She's probably hiding—she can do that really well, remember?
Khash, Anahita, get behind me—
Anahita, get down! Khash—no!
Alaia clenched her fists at her sides, willing herself to stillness, and the flood of words stopped. For a moment, she just sat there, tense and furious, and then she inhaled, exhaled, and tried to let it go.
Anger is the path to the Dark Side, she thought, running over the well-worn words in her mind. Anger is a weapon I turn against myself whenever I give in to it. I will face my anger, I will acknowledge it, but it will not control me. Anger is a fire, and I am what is burned—but only if I allow it.
The Force is the answer to this.
But... dammit, I'm angry. I can't deal with this alone right now. Not here. Not now. Jedi are human too, Master Befin said, and we have to remember that and not try to lose it.
She got to her feet, trying to feel a little calmer, and mostly not managing it. "Master Obi-Wan?" she said, tapping her communicator.
"I'm here, Alaia," came the answer. "Have you found anything?"
Alaia took a deep breath. "Their goons seem to have liked gratuitous destruction. Everything up here is a mess, but I haven't found anything useful."
"What about you, Master?"
There was a pause, and then Master Obi-Wan said, "They were not kind to your Master, either before or after death."
Alaia shut her eyes and leaned against the wall for a moment, remembering the voices, and then she said, "No, they wouldn't have been. What about Khash and Anahita?"
"I haven't found their bodies."
She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and said, "I'll come help you."
There was a pause, and then she heard him sigh. "I had hoped to spare you this, Alaia, but yes, you're right. I'll see you in a few minutes."
Alaia shut off the communicator, thumped her head gently against the wall once, and took another couple of deep breaths before she started down the stone staircase she had gone up and down so many times before without thinking about it. As she went, she tried, again, to let go of her anger.
When she got downstairs to the practice room, it was both better and worse than she'd feared. Master Obi-Wan had taken his cloak and draped it over what was clearly a body, and he had cleared away a fair amount of the debris. There were lightsaber score marks on the walls, and blaster marks, and other marks she couldn't make sense of.
And the glyph that had once scared Anahita so badly was almost completely obscured with rust-red scribbles, like the marks of an insane finger-painter. Then it snapped into focus, and she read, "Run while you can, Jedi. We will find you all."
A warning, written in her Master's blood over the mark that he had destroyed.
"I'm sorry, Alaia," Master Obi-Wan said quietly.
Anger leads to hate... She took a deep breath. "This really sucks. Really sucks. This was my home."
He nodded, and thankfully didn't offer her any stupid platitudes—or tell her not to get angry. For a moment, they just stood there, looking at each other, and she felt herself start to calm down a little. "Thank you, Master," she said softly.
He shook his head. "I only wish I could do more." Then he looked over at the mess on the wall. "And I wish I knew what your Master had done to that glyph—I can feel the pressure of the Dark Side here, but it is nowhere near as strong as it should be, if this glyph is the same as the ones we found in the circle."
Alaia walked up to the wall and held her hand out towards it, feeling the unpleasant tingle on her palm for a moment and in her mind before she stepped away. "I wish he'd told me," she said wearily. "Especially since given the way these guys are reacting, they have to think we know, and it scares them."
Master Obi-Wan gave her a small smile, then looked around the room with some regret. "Such a waste," he murmured.
"Library?" she asked.
He nodded. "And we'll see just what kind of a trap they've left for us to spring."
The hall to the Library had collapsed again, and Alaia's shoulders slumped as she looked at the rubble. When Obi-Wan glanced at her, she didn't bother to try to paste a fake smile on her face—he knew she was upset. "I was hoping," she said, "that they'd left the engineering alone. It took us days to clear this last time."
"Perhaps it's only a small fall," Obi-Wan said.
"Maybe, but the trick with a rockfall," Alaia said, squatting to scrutinize the boulders at the bottom of the pile, "is that there's always some rocks you have to move first, and some you have to move last, and it's very important not to get them mixed up."
"There speaks the voice of long experience," Obi-Wan said dryly, and when Alaia looked up at him, he quirked a smile at her. "Don't worry, Padawan—I know when I don't know something. Tell me what to move and when to move it, and we'll avoid repeating past mistakes."
The next several hours involved a great deal of straining at boulders and sweating, though that was something of a blessing for Alaia, as the physical exertion helped her productively vent her frustrated energy. Also, to their fortune, the fall was not as bad as it had been before, if only because there was substantially less stone above left to come down.
Still, mindful of her Master's comments about traps, Alaia kept reaching tentatively into the recent past to see if she could "see" what they had left for any Jedi foolhardy enough to come back here.
She got nothing but static, and far more intense static than the aura of the Temple could account for, a fact she relayed to Obi-Wan after the third try.
Her master looked grim. "I have had that experience a few times. It generally indicates a strong presence in the Dark Side."
Alaia made a mental note to ask her Master—under less pressing circumstances—why Darth Vader didn't set her off like this, and resumed cautiously excavating.
Her caution served them both in good stead when she pulled aside one of the smaller stones near to the floor and Obi-Wan said in a tone of faint surprise, "Hullo, what's this?"
Alaia didn't see what he had spotted until he picked it up and, still crouching next to the hole where he'd found it, turned to hold it up. "What do you make of this?" he asked. "I'm no expert, but I think it looks a lot like those data crystals you gave me on Alderaan."
Coming to his side, Alaia bent down to take a closer look. "That's what it is, all right. They're a standard format."
"One of yours, do you think?" Obi-Wan inquired, turning the faceted, faintly yellow-tinged crystal so it glinted in the light of the work lamps. "I remember you telling me that you had some with you when you escaped."
Alaia looked more closely, then shook her head. "Wrong brand," she said. "Master Befin always used Marukan Triple 4s—they're green. This is either an Ono-Sendai 1061 or a Corellian knockoff." At Obi-Wan's bemused look, she reddened slightly and said, "What do you want, I'm a library nerd."
"That's fine," Obi-Wan protested. "I'm just always surprised by the things people know." He regarded the crystal again. "Well, at least we know why they didn't retrieve this—they couldn't. Not under all that rock." With that conclusion reached, he pocketed the crystal, and waited for her to chose the next rock to move.
It was another hour before they finally made enough space to wriggle through at the top. A nasty smell emanated from the hole, and Obi-Wan glanced once at Alaia, unsheathed his lightsaber, and went first. She didn't argue—whatever the trap was, the reflexes of a fully-trained Jedi Master were going to be much better equipped to deal with it than her own.
Ahead of her, she heard a shout, a shrill yell, and the snap-hiss of two lightsabers igniting. Then she wiggled through the hole into the dim light of the Library, and as the rancid smell of decomposing flesh hit her in the back of the throat, the clash of her Master's saber and another, pale green, illuminated the face of a madwoman.
"Anahita!" Alaia gasped.
The younger woman spared her only a glance—her eyes nearly glowed red with fury, and the rockpile collapsed under Alaia, partially burying her. Pain smashed into her mind, obliterating conscious thought.
Obi-Wan saw his Padawan fall, but there was no time to take action on her behalf as the Dark Side was smearing itself across his senses. There were three glyphs on the walls of this small room that gave off only the unfortunate buzz of the one in the main practice area, but a fourth pulsed with an angry, insistent energy that sapped his will even as it whispered abominably into his mind.
He brought his saber up, remembering the last time he had come so close to the Dark Side, and for an instant the memory superimposed Anakyn's face, twisted in a demented snarl, over the girl's. Then the insane padawan that Alaia had recognized charged him.
She fought with all the intensity he could ever have desired out of Alaia, her style eerily reminiscent of his Padawan's but much, much stronger, driven by the fury of the Dark Side. At the same instant she struck, the glyph pulsed, and he found himself staggered, falling back on the defensive.
A whirling attack he only narrowly blocked, he tried to riposte but the Force was not with him, his arms slowed by the heaviness of the air and his desire not to kill her.
"Anahita, stop!" he asked her. "We want to help you!"
She blinked at her name, but the onslaught didn't pause. Each strike against his saber brought another pulse of despair and fury from the glyph, and he missed a parry by a blink. A line of fire up his arm told him he'd been wounded.
"This isn't you," he tried again, mustering his concentration and willing with all his might for her to hear his words. "Anahita, stop! Master Befin—"
Her expression, already contorted with rage, clenched so hard that he saw blood dribble from the corner of her mouth, and she lunged straight at him for a heart strike in uncanny silence.
He dodged aside, missing dying by the space of less than a breath, nearly tripping over the partially decomposed corpse of another young human.
All right, he thought grimly, appeals to reason have failed, now how do I knock her out before she kills me?
Then the Dark Side tugged his attention aside, and he had to swallow hard as he realized that the corpse rotting at his feet had tooth marks on it.
Another strike arrowed towards his head, and he only barely managed to center his horrified consciousness again, parrying on instinct and ingrained muscle memory alone. Even then, it was a near thing; the mad girl's strength reminded him of trying to block Anakyn at his worst, and he wondered, Will I even manage that?
Doubt assailed him, as did the howling of the Dark Side, and he struggled to retain the core of serenity that had been his for so long.
Verorian cannot be faulted for failing in the face of this, he realized, dodging aside again and failing a disarming strike against Anahita's blade. But I do not want to kill her—it's entirely possible that stroke may send me to the Dark Side myself—
His expression set in a mask of serene concentration that covered intense and furious concentration, the ancient Jedi struggled with the embodied Dark Side of the Force. But as Anahita struck at him, he found it harder and harder to resist.
Alaia swam dimly back to consciousness, recognizing a familiar shattered sort of pain in her upper left arm. She didn't even have time for an ironic thought, however, because the moment she opened her eyes she had a clear view, in the clash of the flashing sabers, of her best friend trying to kill her new Master.
The Dark Side was howling around them both, emanating from both Anahita and the glyph on the wall, and Alaia struggled to open herself to the Force, even as she closed her eyes at the sight. She was saved in some fashion by the shocking pain clouding her mind—there was too much of it for the Dark Side to get a clear hold on her, though she knew that would not last.
She had no breath for the chant, but she found didn't need it. Her mind shaped the words silently, and as it did, she found the shape of the word in her mind became a form—
Din, and she found she could set aside the pain in her arm, step away from the raging torrent of fury that poured forth from the glyph on the wall, detach from the shock and sorrow at seeing Anahita battering at her Master, be it Obi-Wan or Befin, or—
Sha, and the Force supported her capacity to endure the battering that the glyph threw at her, to smooth her edges and allow it to flow around her, leaving her intact—
Breth, and in control of both her feelings and space of the Force around her, to draw it into her without losing her ability to direct the flow of it where she wished it to go, toward a future that had both sorrow and joy in equal measure, but still a measure of peace—
Orrai, and even if it wasn't going to happen instantly, she could wait, she could have patience to know that it would come, as long as she could endure the moment that might not be as she might have wished—
—the light in her mind was stronger, the glyphs forming there seemed to circle her and give her a space of calm, an island in a sea of fury, but Anahita was going to kill Obi-Wan if she waited too long, if she was too patient, if she tried to exert too much control—
Ke'l, and she bent aside a strike aimed for him, reached out and lent him a certain flexibility that his struggles to maintain himself were denying him, and allowing the Dark Side to influence him—
—her calm shook, but for a moment she almost felt Master Befin's hands over her own, guiding the strikes of her saber in a motion that shaped the glyphs that now filled her mind, and she felt steadied—
Veth, but she could see the truth of what the glyphs had done to Anahita in all its horror and misery, could see what she had done to herself in her efforts to survive while under its influence, and she grieved—
—Master Befin's voice spoke in her memory: Someday, when you're ready, you'll know when—and then you'll know why I have taught you this chant. Someday, they will have much more power than just the power to calm you when you need the space of the center. When they are as much a part of you as the beat of your heart, you'll know the words for what they are.
Brai, she could see how the glyphs would link, how flexibility and control could meld together, how truth and detachment complemented each other, how it would all fit into one shining whole, but she couldn't put it into words, it was pure intuition and she had no way explain it but it was—
Shen. The glyphs slid together, like the pieces of a broken whole that longed to be together again, and for an instant, she stared at the unity of it, at the consensus of joy and quiet and light—
Alaia opened her eyes. Anahita had backed Obi-Wan toward the one spectacularly active glyph in the room. From the way he was moving, Alaia could tell that he was trying—hard—not to hurt Anahita, even as she was launching attacks at him that had left him scored in a couple of places. His robes were charred, and in one place, bloody.
The light, which had slowly been growing in Alaia's mind, shaped by the chant, snapped into being behind Obi-Wan, for an instant eight glyphs that crashed together into one single mark that obliterated the Darkness—
For just an instant.
Anahita's distorted face crumpled in anguish, her expression cleared of madness momentarily, as Obi-Wan—freed of the howling chorus of the Dark Side—disarmed her with a sweep of his saber.
"Kill me, please," she whispered, her voice hoarse with long disuse. Her gaze dropped to the body on the floor, then back to Obi-Wan's face in supplication. "Please—now—"
Obi-Wan didn't hesitate. His expression a benediction of pity, his saber snapped forward in a single clean stroke.
As she crumpled, Alaia felt the sudden clean brilliance of Anahita's spirit fly past her, fleeing the maelstrom of Darkness that was still boiling behind Alaia's counter-glyph, which was beginning to falter as shock gave way to exhaustion and pain.
Obi-Wan turned toward the radiance behind him and saw what Alaia had done. He put one hand out, pressed his palm against the center of her work's incandescence, and pushed.
Alaia felt his strength flow into the glyph through hers—
The Light Glyph touched the Dark—
And both of them exploded.
The sensation of floating and oneness was not unfamiliar, Obi-Wan realized. It was akin to the experience of total oneness with the Force that had followed the final stroke of Vader's blade, but he could still feel the distant ache that told him this time, his body yet lived.
Master Kenobi, a voice behind him said, you have my thanks.
He turned and found his Padawan Learner enfolded in the arms of a gentleman with white hair pulled back in a neat queue from tanned and lined skin. His eyes were a deep brown, and his smile was wry and a little sad as he gently ran one hand down the back of Alaia's head, which was pressed against the front of his slightly tattered Jedi robes. Obi-Wan realized her shoulders were shaking in silent sobs.
Master Befin al-Rashid, I presume? Obi-Wan said, bowing slightly.
Indeed, he said, and stroked Alaia's hair again. My thanks, as I said. It is good to see that you are taking good care of Alaia. Then gently he took Alaia by the shoulders and pushed her away from him. Now, my dear, you can see I'm perfectly all right. I haven't much time—you'll have to contain your grief a little longer.
Obi-Wan watched, in a small, proud instant, as Alaia pulled herself together. Her tears shone on her face, faintly luminous, as she nodded.
You did very well, Alaia—mastering the Glyph takes years, though you had rather more incentive than I did. Befin looked up at Obi-Wan. The words of the chant, when learned under proper instruction, will embody the eight glyphs of the Light separately. When they are combined, they can combat any of the Dark markings individually.
What about when they're together? Obi-Wan asked, catching the nuance.
Over time, the Dark markings will war with each other, much as the Dark Side makes war on itself, and the Light will wear them away. But in the instant when they are all created, their destructive power is nigh-impossible to combat. Patience is of the Light—not necessarily power. Befin shook his head. The knowledge of the Dark glyphs was lost so long ago, we hoped...
Master, Alaia said, Why was this knowledge hidden? Why are you the only one who knew it? If you'd died before you finished teaching me...
Together, the Light glyphs can be just as powerful—just as terrible—as the Dark glyphs, Alaia, Befin answered. A mind forced to the Light is no more free than one forced to the Dark. We defend—but there are those in the Order who once thought the Glyphs should be used to attack as well. And so the knowledge was conveniently... misplaced.
Obi-Wan had to conceal a smile at his Padawan's mutinous expression; she apparently did not always agree with her previous master either.
Unfortunately, now it has been found again—and desecrated. There was one temple that had this knowledge in it, but it is gone now. The Sorcerers who first learned the Dark runes built a similar structure, an engine of Fate, and it is now uncountered. If it is activated without the check of the Jedi Temple on Grushka to counterbalance it... He trailed off, his gaze unfocusing. You have very little time. They have almost completed their rituals.
A familiar sinking sensation made Obi-Wan frown grimly. And each of these rituals had a purpose? It wasn't just random mayhem, I take it.
Think of it as building up a critical pressure, Befin said, and you won't be far off.
Alaia's expression was determined. What happens when they activate their engine, Master?
The final ritual will plunge the galaxy into a dark age. It will set fire to the Force and burn it to ashes of despair and smoldering embers of rage. You must stop them.
Obi-Wan locked gazes with Alaia for a moment, and saw her grief fade behind an iron wall of determination. They both nodded as one, but as their wills firmed, the Light began reasserting itself. In that instant, Obi-Wan realized that it was only the combined forces of Light and Dark that had allowed Befin to reach them with such clarity, much as the Kamor Bakhva had let him return from the far side of the Force itself.
Where? Obi-Wan asked, struggling to hear the answer as he felt the pull of his body drag him out of the Light.
A word echoed through the Force, but then he was awake and it was gone.
He rolled over, growling, "Noy'j'tatt. Where?"
Alaia groaned from where she still lay partially buried under a pile of rocks, and rasped out, "Serenno."
As the Hydrargyrum emerged from hyperspace, Len and Emmy were greeted by the sight of a beautiful world, with land masses covered by healthy, dense-looking forests, and large dark seas.
"Ah, I see we've arrived," came the voice of Count Dooku as he came into the ship's control room. "Welcome, my young friends, to Serenno."
Emmy smiled as she turned back to look at him, then shifted her gaze back to the slowly approaching world. "It's a beautiful-looking world."
Len nodded, banking the ship slightly as he laid in an approach course. "You mentioned your family library might have information to help our search?"
Dooku made a pleased "Mm" of agreement as he settled into his own seat, securing his seatbelt properly as they prepared to land. "My family—House Dooku—have been the hereditary stewards of this world for nine thousand years. Thanks to the records kept as part of our family heritage, we can trace our ancestry back to the original Padishah viceroys. Indeed, I believe this is the only world of the Padishah Empire that is still known by its original name. All the others we still know of today are either lost, or—like Kaitain itself—known by other names now. Only Serenno remains."
Obi-Wan was not pleased with the cursory funeral that he had to give the three fallen Jedi at Sarati, but with Master Befin's words ringing in his mind, and no help to be had from Alaia (who had fallen very deeply into a healing trance to cope with her shattered humerus), there was no time for finesse or grace.
He set the three of them out, side by side, gathered what brushwood was handy, and then used the Ebon Hawk's gun turrets to light their funeral pyre. It was the best he could do. He suspected that Befin himself would understand, just as any Jedi fallen in battle would.
Alaia he left in sickbay to the attentions of the medical 'droid, close to completely unconscious, as he went to struggle with the navigational computer to locate 'Serenno,' wherever it was.
Fortunately, the computer was familiar with it as the Jedi Seneschal's homeworld, and had the necessary coordinates. Though he'd only watched Alaia plot the course out several times, he'd really only needed to let her manage the navigations due to the unfamiliar equipment, not due to his own inability. He plotted a course that Anakyn might have sneered at but that he trusted to get him there as quickly as he could safely manage, sent short text-only messages to Anakyn and to the Jedi Order to tell them where he and his Padawan were headed, then settled into the pilot's chair to think.
Anahita's death weighed on him; though he'd killed many in his time, and he expected he would have to kill more, each death felt like a failure—small or large, from Anakyn's to the many Sith and Santovasku sorcerers he's had to struggle with over his long life. And now he had slain a Jedi Padawan, albeit at her request.
"Are you brooding about Anahita?" he heard Alaia say from behind him, and turned to look his Padawan in the eyes.
"Yes," he said quietly. "Do you blame me for her death?"
Alaia shook her head, sitting down next to him. "I'm... I'm glad you were there," she said slowly. "I... I don't think I could have done it. It was all I could do to just look at her. She wasn't... she wasn't like that. I don't want to know what they did to her to, to drive her into that state."
"I felt some of it, when she was driving me toward the Glyph. Trapped in the room with that for so long—" Obi-Wan stopped, shook his head. "I'm mildly amazed there was any of her left to save. The teaching your Master gave you all must have helped somewhat. What are the full words of the chant?"
Alaia fidgeted with her braid where it had fallen over her shoulder. "I don't think... I don't think you're going to use them for attack, but Master Obi-Wan, I have to ask..."
Obi-Wan smiled at her with his deliberately-being-difficult smile, and said, "Now, Alaia, you know the Jedi only use the Force for knowledge and defense. Never attack."
"I know Master Yoda says they do, Master Obi-Wan," Alaia said, sighing in only mild exasperation and sitting down in the co-pilot's seat next to him.
"So, of course, there are no offensively aligned Jedi."
"Of course not. And Jedi never lie, use the Force to get past not having a current Master's Certificate, or pull fast ones on their Padawans either, so I'm sure I must be missing something here." She looked up at him with a weak smile. "You're very subtle, Master Obi-Wan, even when you're being so maddeningly blatant that I want to hang myself from the rafters on my own braid. Did you learn it in self-defense against Darth Vader, or were you always this exasperating?"
"A little of both, I expect," he said. "You're being unusually bold, Alaia."
Alaia's smile was only a ghost of one, as she said succinctly, "Punch drunk."
"Ah." Obi-Wan looked out at the whipping fire of hyperspace as they hurtled toward Serenno, then back at his padawan. "In answer to your question—I don't believe I will use them as an attack. But I never expected to use Soresu as an attack-form either. It's purely defensive, but it can be used as an attack, to guide my opponent's strength and saber against him."
"That's the lightsaber form you were using against Anahita?"
Obi-Wan nodded sadly.
"I felt her spirit go past me as she died. Into the Force. You... gave her exactly what she asked, Master. You'd probably scare a lot of the modern Jedi with the fact that you didn't hesitate, you know. You scare me a little, and I was there. But I knew, the moment she was gone, that it was what she really wanted."
"Thank you, Alaia," he said softly.
They sat in silence, and when Obi-Wan finally glanced over at Alaia to see that her eyes were closed, her aura still. He wondered if she had gone back into a healing trance—even with modern medicine, he doubted her arm was completely healed—when she said, "I feel a little strange being the instructor here, Master, but the words of the chant are, Din—sha—breth—orrai—ke'l—veth—brai—shen."
Obi-Wan frowned in concentration. "They don't mean anything to me."
Alaia smiled weakly, her eyes still closed. "They didn't mean anything to me, either, Master. But they've been part of my life for the past 8 years, now, and they're almost as natural to me as breathing."
"As Soresu is to me," he said slowly. "There isn't time for you to teach me the chant, then, before we get where we're going."
"No," she answered. "I don't think there is."
He sighed, then nodded slowly. "We will have to hope that what we are is enough then, and trust to the Force. But I hope that Anakyn is aware of the situation now as well, because if what we find at the end is a ritual to sacrifice Jedi, you and I are as much the trigger for the explosion as we are there to stop it."
Alaia frowned and opened her eyes. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Alaia, if it comes to that—I want you to drop out of contact with the Force. As hurt as you are right now, if the Force cannot reach you, you cannot likely be used as the trigger. And someone must retain the knowledge to help keep a small candle of the Light burning through the dark times. Do you understand me? You will need to be the Historian for an entire future of people who do not know what it is to live in a universe that is not filled with hate. I have stood in the presence of one of the glyphs and struggled against it—if the Force itself is set alight against the Jedi, someone must remain alive to keep the hope of change living."
He saw his Padawan swallow.
Finally, she said softly, "Yes, Master."
He put a hand on her good shoulder and squeezed gently. "Thank you, Alaia. Now we will do everything we can to make certain that you never need to do that, but. Knowing that we need not despair entirely for the loss of knowledge will give me hope."
Alaia shut her eyes again. "Thank you, Master. I'll try not to disappoint you—though I'm afraid I won't be much use with a saber in this fight."
"That's all right, Padawan. It may not be sabers we're contending against. Get some rest."
Len found Carannia, the planetary capital, a rather pleasant set of contrasts. While some of the architecture clearly dated back to the original Padishah settlements, other sections, including the spaceport, were quite modern, but carefully blended in to the character of the city to prevent them from becoming jarring.
Case in point, the spaceport that they had been directed to upon contacting the planetary ATC for landing clearance, which was clearly well equipped to handle anything from a small shuttle for a good sized freighter with equal aplomb, yet appointed in a style that made Len think of a grand hotel.
As they disembarked and made their way to their landing berth's doors, he received a slightly alarming surprise when the double-width doors slid open, revealing around two dozen figures in sleek black and grey armor standing in formation to either side of the portal, their monotone color scheme broken up by a single splash of white on each breastplate that resolved into a handprint as they got closer.
When their small party was perhaps five feet away, the apparent leader of the force broke ranks and walked to them, stopping at a militarily precise distance, his hand snapping up in salute. "Welcome home, My Lord Count."
While Len and Emmy both blinked with some surprise, Count Dooku gracefully slipped through them, then bowed respectfully. "Thank you, Captain. How stands Serenno?"
The captain moved to the side, allowing the Count to take a step past him, then fell in behind him before speaking as the other two Jedi began to follow. "Serenno is well, My Lord, and sound. The Knights of the White Hand stand ready to serve."
"Excellent," the Count said, nodding to the pairs of Knights as he walked towards what Len assumed was the main terminal. "Please have my car brought around, and notify the House Librarian that we will require access to the family archives after we've had an opportunity to refresh ourselves and dine."
"Of course, My Lord." With his marching orders received, the Knight snapped off another salute, then stepped back to allow the three travelers their privacy before beginning to mutter orders into his subvocal mike.
Once they had cleared the honor guard, Emmy quickened her pace slightly, until she was a half step behind their host. "I had thought your title was ceremonial—a recognition of your heritage from before you joined the Order."
Dooku offered a slightly wan smile. "When I was younger, yes, that was the case. But when my father died unexpectedly and left me the sole heir... Master Yoda and I eventually came to an understanding." The Count's eyes took on a slightly distant look, his gaze shifting slightly upwards.
"As I said, my family has been responsible for the safety and security of our people for a very, very long time—and I take that obligation seriously. Our line has been an unbroken chain, each passing on that power, but also the responsibility for each and every soul on our world. I will not allow that chain to be broken—so I asked the order of our hereditary retainers to help handle most of the daily concerns, and in the case of more serious matters, I can be reached by hyperwave, or make the journey home should it be required."
By the time he'd finished that explanation they had reached the spaceport's main apron, where a sleek black and silver aircar was waiting, the door to a spacious backseat held open by one of the White Hand.
Len and Emmy settled into the back, but to their surprise Dooku stepped around to the other side of the car, opened the driver's door, and slipped in.
Len raised an eyebrow. "Don't you have, I don't know, a chauffeur or something?"
Dooku looked back to them and smiled before firing up what sounded like a quite impressive engine. "Well, yes, but what's the point of being the Count of Serenno if I can't have a little fun?"
The Count clearly did seem to enjoy showing off his capital to his guests, and after a brief diversion to show them a few highlights, he brought the car through the aerial traffic pattern until they had reached what Len at first took for a small park, until he realized there was a building in the almost exact center. Apparently the local version of a country manor house, the home appeared to be made from light colored stone, nicely lit and with surprisingly modern lines.
As they made their approach to the garage landing pad, Emmy was apparently thinking along the same lines, as she offered, "You know, after your description of your family's long history and the age of Serenno's civilization, I was really expecting you to live in a drafty old castle on an imposing-looking cliff."
The Count chuckled as he brought them down smoothly, then shut the car down before turning in his seat to look at her with a smile. "As it happens, my ancestral seat is just such a place—but it's in quite poor shape and frankly, rather depressing to live in. Making this my primary residence and letting the poor thing crumble away with some dignity was practically my first order of business when I returned home."
The discussion broke off there as several of the Count's retainers arrived, opening the driver and passenger doors and taking a few polite instructions before allowing their sovereign to lead his guests up to the guest rooms.
"The kitchen staff will have something ready for us shortly—in the meantime, please enjoy our complete hospitality, and someone can show you up to my study when you're ready to eat."
Her face impassive, Rei Ayanami sat in the captain's chair of Cipher Zero's control room, not really staring out at the swirling maelstrom beyond the bridge windscreens. Since her moment of... revelation, she supposed, Rei had felt a certain restlessness. Her eyes had been completely opened to the Force, and that had brought a sense of awareness that she was still processing. Her training in Katsujinkenryū had offered her something like this, as she developed her zanshin, but this was a deeper, more instinctual perception than a carefully cultivated focus. More worryingly, what she now felt was... unsettled. The Dark Side of the Force had been disturbed. Agitated. Almost as if someone was throwing rocks into a cosmic pond, causing cascading shockwaves that rebounded and spread through the water.
Their work at the former Jedi Temple had calmed some of those ripples, but the reverberations of the earlier acts of vandalism and terror were still spreading. She could feel those other disturbances, even after they'd made the jump to lightspeed, and a sense that they were almost ready to overflow—turning the warming tongues of flame that Vader had revealed to her into raging, uncontrollable blazes.
Her reverie was interrupted by an urgent tone from the ship's hypercomm, and she leaned over to review it before straightening up and punching a key on her main console. "HK-47."
There was a momentary pause as the ship's comm system located the droid, and then his voice came through the control room's intercom. "Report: Receiving you, Master."
"Please locate our guest, and bring him to the bridge. Politely. We've received something he needs to see."
"Bemused acquiescence: I will be extremely gracious, Master. I have no idea why you would expect otherwise."
Rei clicked off the comm, then produced a hard copy of the burst transmission the ship had received before she punched up the Navicomputer and began to consider options. She'd almost finished calculating the best possible course changes when the control room's door opened behind her, followed by the metallic sound of HK-47's footsteps against the deck plating.
"Statement: I've done as you requested, Master. Expectant query: Do you require me to remain here?"
Rei considered that, then nodded, turning her chair to see Vader, dressed again in his tunic and robes, entering behind the droid.
"I assume," the Sith Lord rumbled, "that there has been a complication."
Rei handed him the message printout:
FRM: EBON HWK EHK-22081
TO: CPHR ZRO CZR-0000
ANAKYN—MAKE BEST SPEED TO SERENNO. FINAL RITUAL IS PLANNED TO TAKE PLACE THERE. LEN/EMMY/DOOKU IN TERRIBLE DANGER -KENOBI
Vader looked at the message for a long moment, nodded, and then placed it on the console beside him. "So. How difficult will it be to correct our course, Captain?"
It would take someone incredibly familiar with Rei Ayanami's moods to notice the slightly frustrated twitch of her bottom lip, but she otherwise kept her usual controlled mien as she turned slightly to allow Vader to see the readouts and displays in front of her.
"At lightspeed, the course correction alone would cause a significant delay. Adding to the problem is the fact that Serenno is almost on the exact opposite side of the Outer Rim Territories from Naboo. It would be almost impossible to get there in time to be useful."
Before Vader could respond, she leaned forward and pulled the main drive collective back, dropping them out of hyperspace and back into local space with a groan as the drive spooled down.
"Fortunately, we have another option. HK, rig for warp travel."
Reaching to her left, Rei pulled a black and yellow striped handle down and to the right, and Vader could feel a shift in the almost subsonic hum of the Cipher Zero's drive systems as Rei bent to the controls at her station, while HK-47 moved to what he had taken for a flight engineer's station off to the side, working controls and reporting back to his master as he went.
"Status update: Dilithium array: energized. Warp nacelle plasma pressure: optimal. Antimatter intermix: stable. Hyperdrive motivator: disengaged and secured."
The droid turned, looked at a final readout, then swiveled to face her. "Satisfied declaration: EPS systems have switched to auxiliary power shunts. We are ready for warp speed at your command, Master."
Rei nodded, finished locking in their new course, and then slammed the collective forward again. The ship seemed to hesitate a moment, and Vader could sense the vast amount of power being channeled into the vessel's drive systems before it suddenly leapt forward, the stars transforming into rainbow streaks of light.
"A flat-out sprint at warp factor 7 will get us to Serenno in ten hours," Rei explained, then looked back to Vader. "It may help to know where on the planet we'll be going when we arrive."
Vader smiled slightly, despite the gravity of the situation. "The Force will guide us—and I suspect our enemies will make sure we know exactly where to find them. In the meantime... I believe it may be best to get what rest we can."
Rei considered that, then nodded to him as she stood. "Good advice. HK, monitor the power systems."
"Acknowledgement: I shall alert you if anything changes, Master."
After a light meal of what Dooku's head chef described as "traditional foods after a long journey", Len and Emmy were ushered up into the Count's private study, where a tall, drawn looking man in a rather archaic looking doublet and trousers waited for them, bowing to the Count as they entered.
"Good evening, my Lord Count."
Dooku returned the bow, then straightened with a smile. "Good evening, Kadreth. May I please introduce you to my fellow Jedi, Leonard Hutchins and M'yl'ya Kyn'o'bi. They're looking into a matter I think you may be able to assist with."
"The Archives are always at your disposal, my Lord, and certainly to the Jedi Order." Kadreth offered each of them a bow, then broke his air of formality with an eyebrow lifting smile. "Now, then. Where shall we begin?"
"Kadreth has been the head archivist since my late father's day," Dooku explained to Emmy as Len started to explain their situation, "If anyone can find what we're looking for, it will be him."
As the night progressed, their search lead them through datacrystal stores in the study itself, then into the deeper, dustier stacks of the townhouse's library.
There was something about the smell of the place that put M'yl'ya in mind of her father's library back on Hyeruul—a much happier thought than it would have been before her last visit. Her mind drifted slightly as she ran her fingers along the backs of exquisitely bound books and ancient map cases, until she felt a slight twinge under her hand.
It was as if the Force itself had whispered There, and it brought her instantly back to full mindfulness as she stopped, turning to examine the object under her fingertips with a soft "huh!"
Len looked back, surprised. "Emmy? Is something wrong?"
Emmy looked back, "Did you feel that?"
Emmy frowned slightly, then carefully drew a heavy tubular case from the rack.
"Something about this one... I think it might be important."
Bringing the tube to a table at the center of what the Count referred to as his "reading room", the four gathered around it as Kadreth carefully examined the case.
"These are some of the original blueprints for Castle Dooku, my lord. They would likely match the time period you're investigating." Opening the case with a careful hand, the archivist drew out a thick roll of documents, activating an artfully concealed field generator at the base of the table to help preserve them from damage before he began to gently unroll them. "Hm... surveys of the site... the original writ to the land provided to the Dooku line by the Padishah Emperor, a preliminary budget...the initial architecture draft... plans for the extension of the sewage drains... oh. Oh my."
Dooku's face creased with a slight frown, his voice dipping slightly. "Is there a problem, Kadreth?"
The archivist looked over, an embarrassed look on his face. "It would seem so, my Lord Count. Much of the documents related to the actual construction are missing—as are the final blueprints. There should be several more pages here."
"That's... disappointing. Have you any idea why?"
"I've no excuse, my lord. I suppose it's possible one of my predecessors placed them into another vessel to protect some of the more delicate items—photographic flimsy from that period is rather sensitive, as you know—but I've never seen records of that."
Len looked over to Emmy, his voice thoughtful. "Does anyone else have access to the section of the library where this was stored?"
Kadreth tilted his head slightly, as if in thought. "Cleaning droids, certainly. A few apprentices I've trained who are now working in other libraries and museums. We do allow some public access to the House Library, but only certain selections of documents without the Count's express approval."
"Before you ask, my friends, no, I haven't granted any such requests recently." Dooku's bearing was clearly concerned now, and he began to pace the table, his voice thoughtful. "If those documents were separated from the rest before these archives were moved... there is one possibility. My father kept a private vault at the Castle—items too rare or too dangerous to be stored publicly, and too difficult for me to move safely when I made the decision to relocate the County seat. Its location was a carefully guarded secret—even I only received the instructions on how to reach it after his death."
"That seems like a possibility," Emmy agreed, "How difficult would it be to investigate the vault?"
"Not difficult for us, as Jedi, but it would be best if we waited for daylight. A good night's rest, and we'll make short work of it."
Turning, the Count seemed to relax himself with a slight effort of will, then smiled at his guests. "In the meantime, please, let me offer you my hospitality for the night. Kadeth, please see to it that these blueprints are properly stored, and with any luck we shall return the missing documents to you tomorrow evening."
Alaia found her Master brooding in the cockpit in apparent meditation. Except, of course, that having spent quite some time in healing trance, she was rather more attuned to the Force than she had been in months, and she could tell that he wasn't actually meditating. She had a pretty good idea of why, as well.
"You're not sure they're going to get to us in time," she said, sitting down in the co-pilot's seat and resting her cast-encased arm in her lap.
"No," he admitted. "Things seem to have a way of...falling out, around me, where there is too much that happens at the last minute in the wrong order." Alaia raised an eyebrow, and Obi-Wan shook his head, declining to explain. "I couldn't even access that data crystal we'd found. The computer says that it's encrypted, and will take days to break. We don't have days."
Alaia considered for a moment, then held out her hand, palm up. "Maybe not."
Obi-Wan seemed to come more fully awake, opening his eyes to meet her gaze. "Eh? Oh, Alaia, surely you're not suggesting —"
"You have a better idea, Master?"
That bought her a small, tight laugh and an honest smile. "Oh, how I've missed having a Padawan ask me that question, " he failed to mutter quietly enough. "Alaia, are you sure?"
She shrugged. "If it knocks me out of the Force, they can't use me to trigger their end game, and I'm still a decent shot with a blaster if that happens. If it doesn't, we gain valuable information. And you've been able to help me anchor myself before, Master. We don't lose much."
"You're the only one who can unmake the glyphs, Alaia," he pointed out.
"If we succeed in stopping them," she said, "it will still take me time to unmake them. What's another month or two while I rest up? Now that I know not to force the issue, after all. Aren't Jedi supposed to take the long view?"
Obi-Wan had to smile at that. He reached down under the console and extracted the data crystal—which he had left the computers trying to crack while Alaia was sleeping, on the off chance that they got lucky and broke the encoding earlier than anticipated.
Alaia closed her eyes as he placed the crystal in her palm, and waited.
Of course not, she thought. It's not one of those things that triggers flashbacks because it's not been at a vergence... but... She felt her Master's presence behind her, felt his hand on her shoulder, and she focused in a direction that was neither downward nor inward but felt a bit like both at once, ran through her Master's meditation chant four times in her head silently, and then opened herself to the Force.
At first, it felt like a cascade of noise, like an audio crystal on sped-up playback, or flipping through a dozen video channels in the space of three seconds, but then she caught the words:—as the ancient Yoma—and seized hold of that moment as hard as she could.
After a moment of breathing and centering and things wobbling around her uncontrollably, she felt Obi-Wan put a steadying hand on her shoulder, and distortion cleared. She stood in a rather prosaic block office, one of the sort that could be rented by the hour, day, week or month, with nothing to indicate where, or even when, they were. No calendars on the walls, no art, nothing but beige carpet and a flat plasteel desk with a bog standard chair behind it. And a woman wearing a neat business suit, a small cellcase on her desk in front of her. The case held the memory crystal.
The woman looked both irritated and bored, and when the door opened and two men in dark red robes, their hoods pulled up to obscure their faces, came through. Her expression changed from boredom to pure, unadulterated irritation. "You're late."
One of the men raised a hand in what looked like the beginning of a threatening gesture, but the other grabbed it and forced it down. "Yes," he said, and did not elaborate. "Do you have the data?"
"Yes," the woman said, sitting up straighter and tapping the case with one finger. "The unexpected excess fee has become relevant, however. My people had to get it straight from the source, and the Count's personal archives are not lightly invaded, not even when the man himself isn't home."
The first man made a growling noise, but the second only nodded. "You have the whole of the plans, however?"
"All of it, yes," she said.
The second man stepped forward and placed a credit chit on the table. "That should adequately cover your expenses, I expect," he said.
The woman slotted it into a reader, tapped a couple of buttons, then nodded. "That will do," she agreed, and pushed the case across the table. "I'm glad you're not going to do something stupid like try to kill me," she added. "That gets very tiresome."
The first man growled again, but the second only shook his head. "We gain nothing from killing competent people," he said in a rather tight baritone. "If you'd failed to get it, however, well, then we might have had words. Let's go, Harry," he added, picking up the case.
Alaia followed the crystal, passing through the door behind them, and out in the hallway, as the two men waited for the elevator down, the first said, "I can't believe you actually paid her! We could have —"
"The money is nothing, Harry. Only the data is important. And if she hasn't gotten all of it, we will need to be able to hire someone else to succeed where she's failed. And in that case—we will need to be known as something other than the killers of small black market information brokers."
Harry subsided for a moment, then as the elevator doors opened, he intoned, "But at last, we shall wrest control of the Force from the Sith and the Jedi alike. At last we will rule as the ancient Yoma lords of old did! Mwuhahahahaha!" And he strode into the elevator with a swirl of his red-robes.
Behind her, Alaia felt Obi-Wan stiffen.
"Stuff it, Harry," the first man said in a weary tone of voice, following him. "Your cackle is terrible, and you sound like some cheesy Saturday morning cartoon villain."
"But Paul," Harry protested.
"I said shut it, Harry," Paul replied, his tone dangerous and vicious, far more so than Harry's growl had been. "Let's get this back to the Supreme Archimandrite. The Fulcrum is waiting."
Alaia felt along the data crystal's history line for a bit longer, skipping like a flat stone across a lake along a tedious journey where she learned the sensible other man's name was Paul Tsonaris and Harry's last name was Jeefer. Tsonaris spent much of the trip studying the plans, and Harry indulged a taste for cheap alcohol—she felt her master laughing at that part—and then they arrived at a transfer station.
Tsonaris and Jeefer passed the card to another man who swiped it through a reader, apparently copying the information without erasing it—Sloppy! If they want to keep it out of other people's hands—and ordered them to Sarati, to "deal with a Jedi problem that might be an impediment to our grand plans."
Alaia stiffened, and pulled back, speeding faster along the timeline; she doubted there was anything else to learn, and she didn't particularly feel the need to relive the moments of her Master's death. Nothing caught at her attention; she felt the moment when the rocks of the wall had fallen on it, and pulled herself back out of the vision with a cautious slowness. She settled back into her own skin with a series of long, slow breaths, and then opened her eyes.
Her master still had his eyes closed, but his expression was one of a man confronted with something cold and deadly, and for a moment Alaia stared at him before she realized that he must be afraid.
She took another couple of calming breaths, and when he didn't open his eyes, she said, "All right, how bad is it, Master?"
"They have power—but they lack understanding. Worse, they don't have any sense of the true consequences of their actions. Like children lighting fires in a drought-stricken forest." Alaia, who came from a very hot planet, shuddered at that image.
"Wonderful." She grimaced. "Still—how bad can this be? You told me on Jyurai that the Yoma were just another kind of Dark-sider."
Obi-Wan opened his eyes, and in his bleak expression, Alaia found no solace whatsoever. "In my day, that was true...but the very ancient Yoma, the ones near-forgotten when I was a young man, were something more. Something best left buried."
Alaia glared at him. "Next time, you should lead with that kind of information, Master. I could have actually done some research on this, you know."
"I had no idea it would be relevant. One of these days, I'm going to be right about such a surmise..."
"You have a habit of discovering long-thought-dead menaces to Galactic Civilization, Master?"
"I wouldn't exactly call it a habit..."
Alaia flopped back in her chair in frustration, and stared at the ceiling. "Aaargh," she said, to no one in particular, and then concentrated on her breathing again for a bit. After she'd calmed her frustration to a dull roar, she levered herself out of her chair. "Well, at least we know where they're going."
Obi-Wan looked up. "Serenno's an inhabited system. The planet has thirty or forty population centers, as I recall, plus a number of inhabited satellites on three gas giants. What do you mean?"
"They talked about needing to get the plans to the Count's residence. That means they're either going to his house in Carannia, or more likely, the ancestral castle, from which the Count's line draws its title." When he blinked at her, she said defensively, "It's got one of the oldest libraries in the known galaxy. I've always wanted to see it."
"Not under these circumstances, I expect," Obi-Wan said dryly.
Alaia grimaced. "No, rather different ones, I'd hoped."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Good work, Alaia. Go get some more rest, and eat something. I'll send another message to Anakyn. We'll have to hope that he got the first one. I only wish we could get through to M'yl'ya and Leonard."
The following morning, Len woke to find the skies above Carannia thick with clouds. There was a tension that seemed to promise a whopper of a storm soon, but things were dry enough for the time being.
After taking care of his morning necessities, Len considered finding his way back down to the kitchen for breakfast, or possibly seeing if Emmy and the Count wanted to try getting moving before the storm hit, but something didn't quite feel right. A little itch, just at the back of his head, like there was something he'd forgotten in last night's search.
Pulling on the overcloak for his robes, Len headed out of his room and moved for one of the exits to the townhouse. A walk might be just what he needed to sort things out.
He'd made a respectable circuit of the surrounding block when his nose caught a whiff of something with a spicy, sweet scent that immediately made his mouth water.
I don't think the Count will mind if I snag a little bite before I visit his breakfast table...
Len turned down a side alley, then started up another, attempting to follow his nose, when there was a sudden tone of warning in the Force, and his lightsaber was snapping to life as he turned to face it—just in time for the shining white blade of his saber to be engulfed in snapping, sizzling arcs of blue lightning, the painful jolt of the channeled force energy traveling through his arms and making his muscles tingle and burn.
Gritting his teeth, he managed to stay with the sudden assault, and as the attack faded he let his saber come into a natural guard position as he shook his head, trying to clear his vision from the jagged afterimages.
When his eyes cleared, three men in identical red robes stood at the mouth of the alley, their hands glowing with concentrated power.
"Well," their apparent leader said, his voice slick and satisfied from within the depths of his hood, "the son of the IPO chief himself. We could not have hoped for such a prize."
Len couldn't help but smile. "I suppose you're the men in red I've heard so much about. Could you forgive me if I don't care to go with? I have a breakfast appointment."
There was a scraping sound behind him, and Len turned enough to see another pair of the robed figures closing off his exit.
"I'm afraid we cannot allow that," their spokesperson replied, "but we will be happy to provide your regrets to your friends, soon enough." As he finished speaking, the apparent leader raised one hand, no longer filled with lightning, and made a gesture that Len couldn't quite follow. A moment later, Len felt a strange sort of pressure, as if his brain was somehow being squeezed within his skull. He closed his eyes and turned his head back and forth as he attempted to push the painful sensation away. As he did, his mind suddenly seemed awash in every moment of doubt—of fear—of anger he'd ever had. The pain intensified with a stomach twisting sensation, and suddenly he was millions of miles and almost a decade away, standing in the dojo in New Avalon with Achika sprawled on the floor before him, panic raising a taste of bile at the back of his throat.
No. No! NO!
He felt himself slipping, about to be pulled beneath the undertow of the mental onslaught, when something in Len's mind sparked in response to that moment, and he heard Juhani's voice, breaking through the cascading illusions: Every bad memory, every painful experience I have ever had... all happening at once. I tried to find my inner peace, block it out, but...The darkness took me.
This is what they did to her, Len suddenly realized, and with that, he knew how to resist it. Instead of pushing back and trying to batter through the waves, Len relaxed and faced...himself, really. Accepting his decisions. Knowing the consequences. Understanding what he had done wrong. He regretted many of them—particularly when someone suffered harm—but he had to learn from those moments, not deny them.
For a long moment, the sorcerers waited, watching Len's face pale and break out into a pained sweat as he attempted to fight their cantrip, but they were dumbstruck to see his face relax, his bearing change. He wasn't writhing in pain or bent into an unwilling servant as they expected, nor was he snapping like the turian and descending into a bloodthirsty mania. The Jedi took a long, slow breath, extinguishing his saber and opening his eyes.
"Well," Len said as he locked eyes on the leader again. "That was really unpleasant, but it's a fascinating trick. Do you mind if I ask where you learned it?"
The red-robed man gawped at him, completely dumbstruck, his mouth soundlessly working as he tried to figure out why, exactly, his trump card hadn't worked. Taking advantage of their shock, Len set himself as subtly as he could, preparing himself for a Force-assisted leap to the rooftop of the nearer building. but before his body could put that plan into action, the apparent leader of the robed figures leveled a finger at him, his face darkening with rage.
"I don't know how you did that, but it doesn't matter! Take him!" In that same instant, the rest of his opponents struck at Len with their lightning, too quickly to defend or evade the crackling arcs of channeled energy and his breath gasped out of him in a soundless cry, his muscles spasming from the torrent of shocks.
As he collapsed to the filthy pavement of the alley, the last thing he heard was a snarl of something clearly foul in a language he didn't understand, followed by a brief moment of respite, before the pain began again, and his vision went black.
Emmy was finishing dressing when she felt a sudden sharp wrench of pain, and a flash of fear as one of the constant presences in her mental "landscape" suddenly faded away.
Leaving her room at something well past what Master Gajic would have considered a reasonably brisk pace, she found the Count in his study, his eyebrows shooting up in surprise as she entered.
"Miss Kyn'o'bi—is something wrong?"
Emmy took a breath to center herself, then nodded, one hand reflexively tucking her hair back behind her ear. "Yes, Count. It's Len. Something's happened—I felt him in a great deal of pain, and then... he was gone. As if something was smothering his presence in the Force."
His eyes flashing, the Count nodded. "I felt something odd a few moments ago, but you are likely much more attuned to him in the Force than I. We—" An urgent-sounding BLATT cut off Dooku's words, and he looked down to his desk, where a comlink had begun to flash for his attention.
"This is the Count."
"My lord, this is Sarash ATC. We've had an unscheduled departure from pad 9."
"Are they leaving the system?"
"No, my Lord, that's part of what's so strange—they triggered the emergency protocols on the landing doors, boosted out without response to our hail, and then left on an intracontinental vector."
"Can you track them?"
"We attempted to, but they were able to get into the ground clutter once they left the city's airspace. Our best track shows them heading towards the Faradin coast."
"I see. Please request the White Hand lock down Pad 9 and begin investigating the persons who were residing there. I shall see to the rest personally."
"At once, my lord!"
Once the connection closed, Dooku looked back to Emmy with an entirely humorless smile. "You won't be surprised to hear that Castle Dooku overlooks the Faradin Sea, atop the boundary cliffs."
Emmy gave a mirthless laugh of her own. "Do you think they're after the same information we've been searching for?"
"That," Dooku agreed, "or something they believe to be within the Castle. Regardless, it seems we must make haste. I fear they wish to subject young Leonard to the same treatment that did such harm to our other friends." With a graceful sweep, he was up and heading down the hallway, his purposeful stride eating up so much ground that Emmy had to hustle a bit to keep up.
As they entered the garage where Dooku's aircar waited, the Count mildly surprised Emmy by leading her not to the aircar he'd had waiting for them at the spaceport, but rather toward a smaller, lower shape that stood in the corner, shrouded under a grey fabric cover.
"I fear we shall require a greater turn of speed," he half-explained to her unspoken query, then took hold of the cover and whipped it away like a sculptor unveiling his work, letting it fall aside with an unconscious flourish. Emmy wasn't a car fancier, as such, so she didn't recognize the vehicle underneath, except to know that it was a wheeled automobile rather than an aircar. Its lines were almost absurdly aggressive, though—it appeared to have been styled with a razor blade—so she had no doubt that it could provide the speed of which Dooku spoke.
She couldn't help but smile at the fact that, despite the serious danger and urgency of the situation, the Count insisted on opening the passenger door for her. Then, with all the alacrity of a much younger man, he darted around to the driver's door, slipped behind the wheel, and fired up the engine. The sound this made lived up to the car's styling, and as Dooku guided the vehicle out of the city in grimly determined silence, Emmy discovered that the rest of its performance did as well. In the Count's hands, it proved to be less an automobile than a sort of wheeled tactical missile, slicing through the streets as if guided by machine intelligence from above.
Dooku didn't speak until they were outside the city, hurtling coastward at preposterous speeds on a broad, mostly empty motorway. Then, with his eyes still fixed on the road, he said,
"It will take us about three hours to reach the cliffs. By that time, I fear, Len's abductors will be well along in their scheme, so we must be prepared to act swiftly."
Emmy nodded, then looked at him thoughtfully. "We won't have any of your retainers meeting us there?"
"Much as I'd appreciate their assistance, no." Dooku shifted a bit in his seat, his eyes sweeping pensively over the horizon. "None of the White Hand are Force sensitive—or trained to combat whatever kind of manipulation these 'sorcerers' are apparently using. If they were able to subdue Leonard..."
"You have a point," Emmy admitted. "I just hope that we'll be enough."
"Well," Dooku mused with a dark, ironic smile, "there comes a time when a man must simply spit on his hands, hoist the Black Flag, and begin slitting throats."
Emmy gave him a long look. "That's...not a very Jedi thing to say, Count."
"I suppose not. But then, the Jedi Order isn't infallible, either—or we would not have found ourselves in the recent restructuring." He looked over to her, his smile turning a bit wolfish. "And Master Yoda would be the first to admit that there is no such thing as a perfect Jedi."
They stayed on the motorway for perhaps two hours, then dove off onto a much narrower, more winding road that hugged the rocky coast of the Faradin Sea, climbing ever upward as those cliffs rose toward a mountain peak in the distance. Dooku, never particularly talkative on the way up, lapsed into silence again, concentrating with laser-like focus on what he was doing—and since that concentration was all that stood between them and a fiery tumble down the coastal cliffside into a jumble of surf-washed rocks below, Emmy was more than happy to do nothing that might threaten to break it.
One thing, she decided partway up, was certain: this was far from the first time the elderly Jedi Seneschal had taken this machine to its limits. He handled it with an assurance that bordered on a kind of tacit arrogance, holding it in constant tension at the very edge of disaster. It reminded Emmy of the way true masters of the lightsaber approached combat, that same constant exertion of will (and the Force) to remain balanced on that edge. She had experienced that state herself, more than once, and seen it in others more often still. As the car's outside wheels brushed the brink of the abyss, sending disturbed gravel hurtling into space, or the inner ones flirted with the unforgiving wall of rock, Dooku's expression never changed...
... except that, as Emmy watched him, she realized that he had—ever so slowly, ever so slightly—begun to smile. The man was enjoying himself; not the situation, but the test. She began to sense from him a palpable aura, not of excitement, but of satisfaction. If it had been the sort of Force kenning that could be put in words, she decided, those words would have been something like: I've still got it.
She supposed he had few enough opportunities to really challenge himself any longer, in the largely ceremonial role he played on Alderaan.
Presently they crested a rise, coming to a place where the road forked, and Dooku hauled the car to a halt. Before them, silhouetted against the grey sky, stood the grim and forbidding bulk of a ruined castle, looking just as Emmy's slightly fanciful imaginings from earlier had pictured it—crumbling towers, brooding slit windows, and all. It could almost have been a scene from one of the wilder parts of her homeworld.
"There it is—Castle Dooku," said the Count. "And I see we're not the first to arrive," he added, gesturing to the gate at the foot of the long, winding drive. This had been flattened, probably knocked down with a vehicle, by someone who felt no particular need to maintain any sort of deniability.
"Whoever did that didn't care if people noticed," Emmy mused. "Which means either they weren't planning to stay long..."
Dooku nodded grimly. "Or they expect that anyone who might see it will soon have bigger problems," he concluded. "We must make haste."
Instead of going up the drive, however, he took the other turning, which led to a shorter but even more harrowing ride back down most of the elevation they'd gained on the drive out from the highway. This, after many switchbacks and steep descents, brought them to a narrow strip of beach between the surf and the crag on which the castle stood. As she climbed out of the car, Emmy could look up and see the side of the edifice, rising sheer and black from the cliff face; from down here, it was almost impossible to tell where the natural landform ended and the built structure began.
"This way," said the Count. A dozen or so yards up the beach, a circular pipe about ten feet in diameter jutted from the cliff, its mouth blocked with a grille of stout steel bars.
"It appears the castle's unwelcome visitors didn't know about this," said Dooku as they reached it. "I'm not surprised. If, as I now suspect, our 'friends' helped themselves to the diagrams we discovered were missing earlier from my archives, they won't have shown this. It's been sealed off for generations. When I was a boy, I was told it led to an ancient water cistern, decommissioned centuries ago." With a look of faint satisfaction, he regarded the grating for a moment, then drew his lightsaber and remarked, "I always suspected there was more to it than that. Now it seems as though I was correct."
When Leonard first saw the place where the red-robed sorcerers had broken Quintus Verorian, back on Palaven, he had the fleeting thought that it looked like a prototype—a sort of hand-hewn rough draft of some altogether more purposeful and sophisticated place. The idea hadn't taken root in his conscious mind, but he was reminded of it now that he opened his eyes and found himself in exactly such a place.
From where he lay, affixed with heavy straps to an inclined sort of table, he perceived the space as a sort of amphitheatre or arena, a great bowl of dark-hued stone perhaps two hundred yards across, in which he presumed his position was roughly centered. The boundaries were marked by great, hulking columns of a still darker stone, which, unlike the walls and columned, torch-sconced galleries of the chamber, seemed not to be made from blocks. Cut from bedrock, he supposed, or rather the bedrock cut out from around them; their surfaces elaborately carved with twisted, semi-organic, vaguely repellent shapes. With a bit of craning, Len could see six of them; from their spacing, he assumed there were two more behind him, out of sight.
Each column, he saw with mounting dread, was inscribed with one of the dark glyphs from Palaven, but these had not been hacked crudely into the stone by the sorcerers. They seemed as fully deliberate, and as fully ancient, as the rest of the room. Elaborately mannered with cruelly curled serifs, they fit perfectly into the patterns of the general carvings with which each column was covered. Before each was a short, flat-topped pedestal, almost like a lectern, and at each one of these, facing the center, stood a red-robed figure. Though they were facing Leonard, he had no sense that they were aware of him; each was blank-faced, in some sort of near-catatonic trance, muttering dark and sinister syllables under their breath.
Another pedestal, not associated with any of the columns, stood directly before him, but this one appeared to be unattended. There was an ineffable sense of preparation, the feeling that whatever was meant to happen here hadn't yet, but was soon meant to. It felt much like the dark place on Palaven had, only... louder.
At the far end of the room, directly ahead of Len's position, he could see a rectangular lobby or anteroom of some kind, the only part of the chamber not contained within the circle of columns. A set of massive, black-timbered double doors at the far end of this was the only obvious exit. Marshaling his concentration against the "noise" in the Force all around him, Len considered his prospects for escape and decided they were unacceptably slim at the moment. He'd be put off his stride by the metaphysical atmosphere in here, and even if he could free himself from the table, there were a dozen or so further red-robed figures (he was unable to stop himself thinking of the phrase "surplus sorcerers") and a number of what appeared to be heavily armed mercenaries between himself and...wherever that door led. That he had no idea of that either made making a break for it at this moment still less advisable. Best to let matters unfold, for the moment, and watch for opportunities.
A moment after he reached this conclusion, another red-clad figure stepped into his field of view from off to his left. Leonard recognized him, from his bearing and his slightly more elaborate robes, as the man who had done the talking earlier. He carried Len's lightsaber clipped to his belt.
"Ah," he said, his voice again as smooth and confident as it had been before Len's resistance to his mind trick had shaken his composure. "Our guest of honor is with us. It is well. You deserve a chance to consider the place in which you find yourself." He gestured with one long, bony hand to their torchlit surroundings. "Hidden away all these millennia, uncovered by our order, and now, at long last, ready to be put to its purpose. Its ancient name, if it had one, is lost now."
Folding his arms within his sleeves, he fixed Leonard with a look of dark satisfaction the Jedi could sense even past the obscuring shadows of his hood and went on, "It is a machine for altering the very fabric of the cosmos. A tipping-point for the universal balance. You might think of it as the fulcrum of Fate."
Leonard looked around, taking in the crumbling details and the dark-shrouded heights of the ceiling, which the feeble light of the upper gallery's ring of torches could not penetrate, then said matter-of-factly,
"Boy, you guys have really let this place go. I'm not judging you."
The arch-sorcerer's disapproving glower, too, reached Len without being strictly visible as he replied sourly, "Selven told us you were a talker."
"It's a stress response," said Len, and then, with a thoughtful tilt of his head, "How is Selven? We didn't really hit it off on Nar Shaddaa. I blame myself."
The sorcerer remained silent for a long moment, then seemed on the verge of some kind of comeback when the moment was rather dramatically taken away from him. Len felt a sudden, tremendous surge rising in the Force, even through the haze of the Sorcerers' work, and then the great doors leading into the chamber were blasted off their hinges with a sound like a titanic steel bell being struck. Falling forward—still latched, Len noted, which made him want to laugh despite himself—they slammed to the stone floor with a resounding crash.
In the aftermath of that impact, there was a pregnant, almost equally deafening silence as everyone in the chamber turned to see what had happened, and froze at the sight of a man striding through the cloud of dust and powdered stone that filled the opened doorway.
Every eye was suddenly on him as the sorcerers and their heavily armed hirelings turned to face him, many of them gaping in shock at the old man who had suddenly appeared in their midst. Len found himself abruptly tempted to laugh, but controlled himself.
On a certain level, Count Vladimir Dooku had to admit he was enjoying this. There was a magnificent sense of theatre about it all, and despite the gut-wrenching sensations rippling through his perception of the Force from each of the eight ancient marks, he kept his bearing ramrod straight, his voice pitched just so.
"This is my family's home," he explained in a perfectly reasonable tone, then ignited the blade of his lightsaber, its color a rich, deep red that glowed like sunlight through a bottle of dark wine. Raising his weapon in salute, he went on, his words rimmed in a touch of frost:
"And you were not invited."
When Obi-Wan and Alaia arrived at Serenno, the weather in the capital region was visibly terrible even from orbit. Visually, this was something to behold, but beyond that Obi-Wan could feel in the Force a sort of tension, like a wire strung so taut that it was vibrating from its own internal strain and the mere passage of air. If something plucked that wire, it would snap, and let loose a terrible sound.
He set the controls to auto-pilot briefly and went back to sick-bay to rouse Alaia, from where he'd ordered her to sleep for the remainder of the trip. She was already awake, sitting up groggily and drinking something the medical droid had handed to her. "What is that noise?" she asked him, rubbing at her eyes with her unbroken hand.
"It's not your ears you're hearing it with, Alaia," he said, his expression grim.
Her eyes cleared faster than he had any right to expect. "We're too late."
"Not yet," Obi-Wan said, "but it's going to be a near thing."
She hopped down off the bed, staggered briefly, then caught herself. "Then let's go," and followed him back to the cockpit.
It took both of them working in concert to guide the Ebon Hawk through the weather and down to the spaceport. Space vessel she might be, and a sturdy one at that, she was not large, and even a ship ten times her size would have had trouble holding her own against the buffeting, shifting winds.
The two Jedi flew her more on instinct than anything else, and as Carannia Spaceport repeatedly warned them off for unsafe landing conditions, Obi-Wan slapped the comm system silent with a mental touch on the Force. He felt, more than saw, Alaia's crooked smile, but he heard her tsk softly under her breath, "show-off."
If we survive this, Obi-Wan thought, her sense of humor is going to get her into almost as much trouble as mine does. And then there was no time to think of anything else as they fought with yoke and thruster against more-than-hurricane-force winds to get the Hawk on the ground.
Then the wind abruptly calmed, and they were in the eye, and there was a crumbling castle on the ground nearly directly beneath them. Alaia sheared off with a whine of gravity thrusters that was audible even through the sound-dampening of the cockpit, nearly clipping the remains of a turret, and set the Hawk down. Obi-Wan tore off his harness straps before she'd touched the grass and bolted for the exit ramp. Alaia was not far behind.
As they emerged breathless into the gently gusting wind of the meadow below the ancestral home of Count Dooku, the roar of a second ship had them briefly ducking by instinct, and Alaia's pupils constricted down to stars at the brilliant plasma exhaust of Darth Vader's personal ship setting down a bare fifty meters away.
"Good, my messages reached him," Obi-Wan said, sounding mildly surprised. "You'd be amazed how often critical intelligence gets cut off, or garbled, or lost at a critical moment."
Vader, Rei, and her unnerving battle droid emerged from the underbelly of the ship nearly as quickly as Obi-Wan and Alaia had. The high-pitched whine of the Force was clearly as audible to the Sith Lord as it was to the Jedi.
"I don't suppose destroying the castle would solve anything," Vader called, the moment he was in earshot.
"I think it's too late for that, Anakyn," Obi-Wan called, "or we would not be dealing with this atrocious noise."
"At this point, even if we destroyed what they're written on... I think the glyphs would still be there," Alaia added. "This has gone beyond simple... matter."
Vader nodded thoughtfully. "I suspect your insight serves you well, young one," he mused. Then his gaze settled on Alaia's cast and bound arm. "You are wounded," he added (a bit unnecessarily, she thought), and then, "Obi-Wan, perhaps—"
"No—she's the only one who can actually unmake the glyphs," Obi-Wan said, giving Alaia a look that spoke volumes and made her stand straight with pride, even with her arm bound to her side. "If we leave her behind, I'm sure she'll be found by those we least want to have her encounter alone, and if she comes with us, she will be able to help us stop what's happening."
Vader's smile was a slash of white in his dark beard. "Ah, I stand corrected. It is neither the first nor the last time. So," he turned toward the Castle "then let us go and make sure no further glyphs are created—and that those that are there are destroyed."
Their decision made, Vader and Obi-Wan took point, followed by Alaia, her lips white with suppressed pain, with Rei and HK-47 bringing up the rear. Rei's blood-red gaze met Alaia's star-pointed eyes as they crossed the threshold of the castle as she tore her gaze away from the relative sanctuary of the Ebon Hawk and squared her shoulders to walk forward. A raised eyebrow asked a single question, and Alaia shook her head. "It feels like... like the Dark Side is inside the break in my arm—eating at me," she said quietly.
The ricocheting sound of blaster fire ahead of them broke their train of thought, and Alaia's gaze flashed forward, and Rei surged past her. They reached a branching of the dark corridors only lit by Vader's bloody-lit saber, only to be joined by Obi-Wan's blue-white—well after the fact.
The smell of blood and viscera filled the air, and Vader snorted. "Thugs," he said. "Cheap labor, and terrible shots at that."
"They're still going to slow us down," Rei observed dispassionately, kicking one man's hand aside to scrutinize the blaster he'd been holding.
"Confirmation: These are N'gant-Zarvel 9118 heavy blaster carbines," HK-47 agreed, a judicious professionalism replacing the usual mild flippancy in his voice. "A single hit from one will kill, or disintegrate a limb, depending on shot placement."
Alaia shivered as she saw the sweat on Obi-Wan's forehead. He looked at Rei, looked at Vader. The Force screamed in her mind, and he shook his head, half to clear it, half in negation. "Anakyn, you must take the lead here—Alaia and I are—handicapped."
Vader's expression grew grim, and then he nodded. "Follow the lives," he said, nodding to Rei. "They will have only guarded the entrances they care about. They haven't thought to guard areas to distract pursuit, and they do not expect us to come."
Obi-Wan fell back to the rear again, with Alaia, letting Rei and her viciously effective droid move up to take his place.
And then Alaia whispered, "Din, sha, breth—" and the heaviness in the air began to lift, just a hair. She continued the chant softly, with a single breath between each recitation, and Obi-Wan felt his nervous sweat begin to abate.
Beyond the bubble of clarity created by her chant, he could almost see the swirling maelstrom of the Dark Side, but she held peace around her like a candle in pitch blackness.
"Thank you, Padawan."
In the part of her mind that was not holding absolute focus on the chant, and which consequently could make useless observations of no value whatsoever, Alaia wondered why Darth Vader was thanking her. After all, as a scion of the Dark Side, he didn't need her to be doing this.
As if he'd heard her thought, Vader continued, "One may ignore the rantings of a madman on a street corner, but he is still annoying. You may rest assured that it is a welcome relief to not have to suffer this abominable noise more than absolutely necessary—particularly as I suspect I will shortly be very busy," he added with a note of grim satisfaction.
Around her soft chanting, Alaia smiled, and held the light. Thus they went forward, downward, following the Sith to face the heirs of the Yoma.
As Vader had predicted, the deeper they moved into the old castle, the more guards they found. By the time they’d finally reached the final sublevel, dominated by a long hallway that ended in a set of suspicious looking doors, they’d had to battle through so many guards and droids that Alaia found herself concentrating as much on finding safe footing as she descended as she did on maintaining the chant.
"We must be almost there, Anakyn," her Master observed, his attempt at a cheerful tone thwarted by the rather grim surroundings. "I notice that it just keeps getting worse."
As if on cue, the doors burst outwards with a staggering wave of pressure that traveled up the hallway to them, and a dark-clad shape—almost certainly a man—came flying through a moment later, ending up in a painful looking heap a few feet from where they’d descended the stairs. Alaia had just enough time to recognize Count Dooku before there came a snapping, crackling sound that arrested everyone’s attention as a virtual storm of channeled Force lightning came boiling up the corridor, carving smoking furrows into the stone wherever it touched the walls.
Vader stepped forward, sheathing his saber before thrusting both hands out, his legs locking into a defiant stance. Bringing his arms up, he slowly drew his fingers closed, as if gripping onto a thick bar, and then slammed them down, bringing massive chunks of rock down from the ceiling to form a barrier.
Unfortunately, though that stopped the lightning, a moment later the sections of ceiling around where he’d collapsed the stone began to cave in, no longer able to support the weight of the level above, and thoroughly blocking them from the chamber where the lightning - and the Count—had come from.
Obi-Wan stood considering the cave-in for a moment, then said dryly, "Well, Anakyn, I have to give you points for effort, but I believe that may have been a tad overenthusiastic."
"Sorry, Master," said Vader contritely.
Alaia stared at the mess as Rei and HK-47 prodded experimentally at it, and finally shook her head. "You got some of the load-bearing supports there," she said in a tone of grim finality. "There's not going to be any way to clear this fall without some heavy grav-lifters, or maybe a thruster tractor. It was probably about ready to fall anyway, before you hit it, my lord."
Vader raised an eyebrow at her, and Rei made a noise somewhere between a snort and a sneeze, which Alaia suspected was her trying to not laugh.
"Master Obi-Wan?" she said wearily, and resumed the chant as the wailing in the Dark Side resumed, after muting itself somewhat with the rock fall—Alaia suspected the sorcerers had been somewhat surprised themselves. Everyone's ears popped, and the shriek of the Dark Side abated again.
Obi-Wan knelt next to the prone Count, and as he checked his pulse, said, "Alaia has had quite a bit of experience with structural engineering in the last three years," then fished around in his belt pouches for a stimulant and dose of synergine.
Upon administration, the Count exhaled abruptly and sat up, then rubbed his ears and looked puzzled. He glanced at Alaia, and his expression cleared to one of understanding. "Master Befin taught you," he said, quietly. "Of course. But there is no time —" he looked around, saw the fall of rock and sighed. "I disabled a number of them, but this atrocious noise they create around them—it will not have been sufficient. We will have to go up a level, and cut across to one of the old aqueduct sluices. They have Leonard, and M'yl'ya is also there, though I do not know how she fares."
Rei nodded. "HK, go back to the Ebon Hawk and prep for launch. We may need an exit very soon."
"Reluctant acquiescence: Yes, Master. Please exterminate a few more of these meatbags for me."
Within the chamber, Emmy took advantage of the distractions provided by the Count's brief assault and the collapsing wall to slip down to the floor of the chamber unnoticed, staying tight to the cistern's walls and avoiding the ominously glowing glyphs as carefully as she could. The Force rippled unpleasantly around her, clouding her senses and making her feel as if she were walking along a tightrope while strobe lights flashed on and off beneath her unpredictably. It made for torturously slow going, and she heard the sorcerers conferring frantically as their hired help fired terrified, useless shots into the rockfall.
"Supreme Archimandrite, what are they doing here?"
"They're trying to stop us, you fool," said the tall one in the more elaborate robes.
"Should we start the Fulcrum?" asked another.
A third objected, "We've not finished the preparations yet, though—what if the —"
"Don't be an idiot, start the Fulcrum," still another urged. "Or are you afraid?"
"What about that big one in black? He's no Jedi!"
The Supreme Archimandrite halted the argument among his underlings with a wave of his hand, declaring grandly, "When the Fulcrum turns, we will be as gods—and if he survives, we'll crush him. It doesn't matter. Get to your places."
No time left to be sneaky— Emmy sprang from cover, running flat out for the table where Leonard was secured, her lightsabers igniting with their snap-hiss, and flashing twice to slice the straps free from the stone table. He slid from the table to his knees, dodging a stray round of blaster fire as one of the goons spun at the sound of the sabers, spraying everything in the room.
"Another Jedi—shit! The trigger is loose!" cried the sorcerer who had been concerned about preparations.
Len's hand reached out, flinging the cutoff straps away, and his lightsaber arced from the Supreme Archimandrite's belt to land with a smack in his palm. Emmy shook her head, feeling like she had water in her ears, and yelled, "Time we were going!"
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," said the Supreme Archimandrite, sounding unnervingly smug for someone in what should've been a rapidly devolving situation. "After all our preparations, it would only take one Jedi to activate the Fulcrum—but how much better to do so with two!" He raised one hand, pointed it at Emmy, and lightning arced from him toward her; and while she was dealing with that, one of his subordinates lunged forward and slapped a palm down on the unattended central pedestal.
Emmy couldn't help it—she let out a snort of laughter as she rolled beneath the lightning, sabers flashing, and booked it up the three low steps that led to the outside of the ring, when she heard Len's shout. He was still trying to get to his feet—
The men at the stations in front of the columns, never jarred from their trances by the commotion, suddenly ceased to mutter their eldritch chant and began to scream it.
What happened next reminded Emmy a little bit of two different occasions in her life. One was a sandstorm she'd been caught out in on Bonadan during her training, a brief but unbelievably furious cataract of hot, whirling winds that had blinded her, deafened her, and seemed like they would suck the very breath from her lungs. The other was her first real brush with the Dark Side, in a glacial cave on Ice Planet Halloran V, when she had experienced a rush of mingled fury and fear that had given her an inkling of what it would feel like to go suddenly and irrevocably mad. With a noise as she assumed the onrush of universal doom would sound like, the bottom seemed to drop out of all reality, and her eyes saw nothing but an indecipherable visual cacophony to match.
Alaia let out a gasp and dropped to her knees, planting her good hand on the floor and shaking as the bubble of calm rippled around them as if in a huge wind. Obi-Wan and the Count both put hands on her back, trying to lend her strength, as the shockwave rippled past them. Miraculously, the noise inside the calm space she was holding grew no worse, and her chant held.
Then Vader spoke. "Master?"
"I fear your descendant has been forced into a terrible choice."
"... oh," said Obi-Wan, his face ashen. "Oh, M'yl'ya."
"Take heart, Master," said Vader grimly. "She has the steel of her ancestors in her. She won't break."
As the energies of the Fulcrum roared around them, Emmy felt like she was caught between a rocky cliff and an oncoming tidal wave of pure, roiling darkness. There was no chance she could survive if it caught her. There was no way to avoid being caught by it. The Light was an infinity away, fading around her, gone, gone, gone, and she could not catch it in her grasp, not even a tiny fragment to take with her to her grave.
She stood on the edge of the deepest despair she had ever seen—but not the deepest she had ever known. She stared into the abyss, and for just a moment, she remembered. Not a memory of light—but a memory of darkness.
"You would have let me kill you," said Emmy, a note of wonder in her voice.
"If that was your destiny," replied Vader, unperturbed.
"Balance," said Vader.
Her lips quirked up for a moment in the tiniest of smiles... and she opened her eyes wide, welcoming the darkness into herself, to join with the darkness already there and become part of her. It flooded over her, washed through her, fear, anger, rage, despair, and finding nothing to block its path, to strike against and destroy, it kept going and was gone.
And left in its wake, M'yl'ya Kyn'o'bi, sane, unbroken, dark as night and glowing with blazing wrath that snarled and roared like a dragon unchained. Though she hadn't been there to hear Vader's description to his new initiate on Grushka, she now heard it anyway, rattling through her head as if the Dark Side itself had remembered it for her.
Living, loving, warring, conquering, surviving.
All life is flame.
All life is one.
This is the Force.
Her eyes snapped open, her hands snapped out, and her sabers lit.
Three steps away, the sorcerer who had tried to blast her with lightning had his hands on his pillar, his head flung back, screaming silently in agony or ecstasy. Emmy didn't care which; she took those three steps forward; her sabers flashed once; he fell. Her head snapped around to look for Len, and there he was, pinned in place, spine arched back, frozen in the center of the maelstrom, trapped in the moment of trying to stand. The storm was still concentrated upon him, had not yet broken out of the bonds of the circle of the cistern's stones. If—when?—Leonard broke, she now understood, it would be completed and unleashed, and when that happened, the galaxy would burn.
Emmy could not, at that moment, have been said to give much of a damn about the galaxy; but now perhaps more than ever, she did give a damn about Len. Fury merged with wrath. If one death would not free him, perhaps seven more might. And if not, well, it would be seven fewer j'ton'tuu sorcerers left to bother the universe's balance.
Obi-Wan and company burst through a bricked-up doorway onto the upper balcony just in time to see her bound from one of the column stations to the next, her sabers scything down the entranced sorcerer who stood there. She seemed to be making her way around the room clockwise, and to judge by the trail she'd left behind her, this was her fourth stop.
Obi-Wan, Alaia, and Count Dooku stood at the gallery rail and took in the scene with horrified astonishment. The glyphs on the bedrock columns blazed with a lightless intensity that hurt Alaia to look at, reminding her of the far-ultraviolet novelty lamps that had been popular in some circles when she was a child, because they made reflective surfaces glow with a weird silvery sheen to Isisren-modified eyes (she'd once been warned that they could blind ordinary humans). The psionic roar of the maelstrom swirling around the center of the room was so powerful it nearly blotted out thought altogether.
"May the Force preserve us," Dooku breathed, horrified.
"Master, look," Alaia called, shouting to be heard, shouting to hear herself. "In the center of the storm—"
"It's Leonard," said Rei, her quiet voice all but swallowed up. Alaia turned to look at her, saw that her ghostly-pale face was as impassive as ever, but there was a spark of... something... in her crimson eyes—and without another words, she mounted the railing and dropped into the chamber, igniting her captured lightsaber as she went.
With the faintest sound of satisfaction and a swirl of black cloak, Darth Vader followed her.
"Rei, wait—" said Alaia, but before she could follow, Obi-Wan had seized her arm.
"Alaia, no!" her master cried. "We cannot go down there—whatever this machine is, we Jedi are its fuel!"
She pulled against his iron grip for a moment, then subsided, knowing he was right. She wanted to hate the enforced helplessness of their position, but knew that to do so would also be to play into the hands of the men who had set this madness in motion; so, with the greatest of efforts, she composed herself and did the only thing she could do that might help: she began once more to chant her mantra. She didn't know whether her light glyphs' names would be able to counter such fully realized dark ones, particularly from this range, but Obi-Wan was right: she dared not go closer, not with the monstrous thing fully activated.
Din, sha, breth, orrai...
Emmy struck down the eighth of the pillar-trance sorcerers and turned to face the center, feeling vaguely cheated that his death did not cause the storm to dissipate and the terrible moment to end. Behind her, under the continual tortured howl of the Force, her sharp ear caught a dark chuckle. Whirling, she found herself confronted with the Supreme Archimandrite.
"Well done, youngster," said the robed figure with evident satisfaction. "You've purged my circle of weakness." Removing his almost skeletal hands from within his sleeves, he leveled sharp-nailed fingers toward her like weapons and went on, "You will find, however, that I am not as—"
A slim, pale figure dropped out of the shadows above him, plunging a lightsaber through his body like an icicle falling from a high eave, and whatever the Supreme Archimandrite's last threat might have been died with him.
Someone else might have made a witty quip over his crumpled corpse, but Rei Ayanami only made an instant's eye contact with Emmy, then turned to see if anyone else wanted some. A moment later, Vader alighted behind her, his scarlet lightsaber igniting as he took up a back-to-back position with her—
Before any of the surviving sorcerers or mercenaries could lodge an objection, the seething coil of energy in the center of the room suddenly exploded.
Leonard's initial experience of the Fulcrum was much like Emmy's, an all-erasing onslaught of psychic noise that threatened to reduce him to his most primordial elements. For him it was arguably even more intense, since he was closer to the center—the event's intended focal point right from the start.
Just at the critical moment, when he had felt his very identity begin to crumble, something happened—the barest flicker, an unforeseen ripple in the vortex. He wouldn't know until later that the ripple had been Emmy's turning point, the instant at which she had confronted herself and made a choice that, perhaps, no other Jedi could have made at that moment. He knew only that whatever it was, it had fleetingly short-circuited the process and given him a split-second's respite.
It wasn't much.
But for Leonard Hutchins of Avalon, just then, it was enough. Enough for him to take a single psychic breath, and in that breath, assert his sense of himself against this raving, howling blackness. The light of the greater Force was cut off, blocked out by the eldritch eyewall of this artificial soulstorm, but he himself was a point of that light. Master Gajic had taught him as much, and before that, both his own father and Achika had shown him a similar truth using different words, both from the Jedi Master and each other.
I am the Force and the Force is me.
And for just that instant, with the fabric of reality so close to undone by the monstrous energies of the Fulcrum, it came near to being literally true.
"Len? Is that you? What's going on?"
"I couldn't explain it if I tried, Kate. But try not to worry. I think I know what I have to do."
"Lieska, do you hear that?"
"Y... Yes, Master Vert. But... I don't understand..."
"No, no more do I. Is that not fascinating? Let us contemplate this extraordinary moment together."
"Your Majesty, are you all right?"
"I... yes. I'm fine. For a moment I thought I saw... I'm fine. Please, Mr. Ambassador, continue."
"Wake up. I don't have long."
"Wha—Len?! What in the—how did you—"
"No time. It's dangerous to go alone. Take this."
In the upper gallery, Alaia felt something change. The storm seemed to... to polarize, as if it had suddenly started to turn the opposite way. The dark glyphs pulsed, crackling. Something had happened, gone wrong amid the inner workings of the ancient sorcery. Some contingency even the black masters of the Yoma hadn't anticipated had disrupted the pattern, and the hideous energies were feeding back on themselves.
Alaia wasn't arcanist enough to know what that meant for the galaxy at large if it blew out now, but she was fairly sure it wouldn't end well for any of them, anyway. For a moment, she nearly panicked—and then, as it had on Sarati, the moment suddenly came together for her, and she knew exactly what to do, Master Befin's spirit (at least metaphorically) speaking with her as she gave full voice to the counter-working.
In this place, unlike Sarati, the dark glyphs were so old, so well-made, that even in the cataclysm that resulted, the light ones could not wipe them away; but no more could they resist the light, wielded with purity of intent by a serene and well-trained soul. Instead, the two sets of ancient symbols merged, forming a third, entirely new construct—one which could contain neither the vast dark energies the originals were meant to harness, nor the equivalent vastness of light needed to produce the opposite effect.
Instead, with a shattering metaphysical noise that could be sensed many light-years away, the ultimate scorched-galaxy weapon of the ancient Yoma...
... did nothing at all.
The sudden silence was like a hammer blow, leaving most of those still alive in the room as concussion-shocked as any explosion would have done. Where the storm had been, there was nothing at all, only a dully gleaming spot where the stone floor had been scoured as smooth and flat as glass.
In the quiet and the strange, nacreous light of the light and dark glyphs merged with each other, a single sound brought the stunned survivors' minds back to the here and now:
Emmy, kneeling where the storm had been, was crying.
Her mind swirled, the newfound perception of Light and Darkness around her. She wasn't feeling burned, or broken, or even weakened—no, if anything, she felt stronger, as if something was holding her up. The power of both, she realized, and yet, she still felt an aching emptiness.
Len. She knew, oh, did she know that what she felt for him was more than attachment, the kind that Master Gajic warned them was the path to the Dark Side. Well, she thought bitterly, you were right, Master.
And then: Fuck it. What does it matter now?
She gave in, fully, to her grief, to the pain of her loss. To Obi-Wan and Vader and Alaia, and even to Rei, it was a bitter dirge in the song of the Force. Alaia and Rei started forwards, drawn to comfort her, and both were gently held back by their masters.
"She must face this alone," Vader said, his seismic baritone somehow gently muted with both control and compassion, in a way that Alaia never thought to hear in the voice of a self-declared Sith. Those, she'd always thought, would have reveled in Emmy's pain, encouraged it, used it to break her to the Dark Side.
But she'd already taken it up, Alaia realized, and it didn't break her. Even with her still-forming sense of the Force's secrets, she realized that Emmy's grief wasn't because of the Dark Side... the Dark Side had accepted her, like Vader, as one of its own, and was giving her strength through the part of grief that is made of anger. And the light side... was strengthening her as well. It was a revelation to the young Padawan.
A soft light appeared, almost flowing over Emmy. It was of the Force—all could feel it. And as it surrounded her, it took on shape, form, substance...
"Len!" burst from Rei's lips, almost involuntarily. Behind her, the Count began to laugh—an amazed, delighted sound; as if he had suddenly gotten a joke, long after he had given up hope of understanding it.
As Leonard materialized, it became obvious that he was holding Emmy, arms around her. She shifted while he came back into being, her head on his shoulders, crying into the fabric of his robes.
"Yes, Anakyn?" Obi-Wan answered, softly.
"I think we've won the day."
And as Emmy wept, suddenly realizing what happened, tears transmuting from grief to joy, Obi-Wan Kenobi smiled. "I think you're quite right, Anakyn. And I could not be happier with the results."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Warriors of the Outer Rim
The Fulcrum of Fate
written by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Matt Wagner
With the gracious aid of the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects
Alaia ner Ronor created by Anne Cross
This Eyrie Production is dedicated to
the life, work, and memory of
Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE, CStJ
May 22, 1922—June 7, 2015
"Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time,
but the trick is never to be terrible in them."
A lone figure stood at the window overlooking the city below. In the night sky, two moons shone brightly, illuminating the sweeping curves of the city, the nightflier traffic flitting from building to building. In the distance could be seen the waters of a natural harbor, and beyond the pinpricks of light denoting other structures on islands further out. In the shadows cast by the skyscrapers, the harbor glowed the deep red of blood.
He frowned. He hated this job, this city, this planet, but to go against his orders was to risk not simply his own chastisement, but that of his entire pack. He had already learned that lesson once. When first assigned to this "noble and important" task, he had protested being told to guard a single insignificant prisoner of war, and had earned a not-inconsiderable beating from his immediate pack leader. Who was he to question the will of the Chieftains and Hierarchs? As much as he wanted to have the prisoner roasted over a spit, he held his tongue and suffered through it.
He at least had the consolation that the prisoner was as much discomfited by the situation as he was. This world was too hot and too weak in gravity for his comfort, and it set his fur to itching. There were too few moons in the sky, and too many suns during the day, that it made him privately glad that the majority of the time he and his pack could stay indoors. Certainly the prisoner was barely holding up to the environmental rigors; its pathetically flimsy little body usually required a support frame to manage the higher gravity.
He snorted as a darkly amusing thought crossed his mind. They should have incarcerated the prisoner on his own homeworld. The still higher gravity would have kept the prisoner in its place, and he'd have much more of the comforts of home to boot. Fresh thorn beast straight from the roasting spit, pack females within easy reach, and an excellent treetop view of his home's three moons. He licked his lips, running his tongue over his canines, savoring the thought. At least he would be away from the smell of the ocean. He'd never liked the scent of brine and seafood.
Speaking of unpleasant scents, a deep inhalation through his nose brought with it a familiar one, breaking him out of his reverie. Coupled with the sound of a door opening behind him, it could only mean that the prisoner had just entered the room, no doubt with another inane request.
His nominally good mood lost, he growled as he crossed his arms, not extending the prisoner the courtesy of a face-to-face address. "What do you want now, human?"
The prisoner chuckled, a low, darkly mirthful sound.
"I've decided it's time you and I had a frank exchange of views, Jiralhanae," she said; and then, with a peculiar snapping hiss, a meter-long beam of light unfurled from the cylindrical device in her hand—
—its pure white glow illuminating the roguishly smiling face of Kei Morgan.
E P U (colour) 2016