Saber Master Cin Drallig rushed through the halls of the Jedi Temple, lightly favoring his left leg. He had been severely injured in a disastrous mission over twenty years ago. By all rights, those injuries should have killed him, so if his left knee twinged every now and again when he had been on his feet too long, well, he wasn't about to complain.
After that injury, Drallig could no longer take the more active missions he had preferred. He could have been reassigned to only diplomatic missions, but he was too much of a man of action. He loved danger and excitement, though Master Yoda told him that a Jedi should not crave such things. So instead, Drallig had given up fieldwork altogether to take on the most hazardous assignment in the Jedi Order.
Beginner lightsaber instruction.
Many a seasoned knight would rather face a ship bristling with Togorian space pirates than a roomful of younglings wielding lightsabers. But Master Drallig loved it, even though the children tended to get carried away in their zeal. Every day brought fresh burns - for the master as well as the younglings. The quartermaster joked that he had to replace Drallig's wardrobe more often than any field knight.
But the children were eager to learn, and their excitement more than made up for Drallig's bruised and burned shins. The daily peril gave him the adrenaline rush he needed, and he enjoyed the deep satisfaction of knowing that the skills he had imparted to a generation of younglings were now being well-used in the service of the galaxy. What Jedi could ask for more?
These days, however, another hazardous task had been added to his duties. With so many knights in the field fighting the war, the Temple was severely short-handed. So he spent his mornings teaching the younglings, and his afternoons working in the cr?che. Colic and dirty nappies and bottle feedings might seem insignificant compared to the galactic war, but Drallig knew that these infants represented the future of the Jedi Order. Without them, the Jedi might as well all retire.
Reaching the cr?che at last, Drallig opened the door. He shrugged his robe off and hung it on a hook, calling out, "Sorry I'm late, Nadi. The students got a bit carried away in saber practice. I had to take two of them to the healers to have burns treated."
An unexpected voice answered, "Still terrorizing the younglings, are you, Master?"
Drallig whirled around in surprise, his knee twitching as he pivoted. "Bless my soul, if it isn't Anakin Skywalker himself! How good to see you!"
The young knight was standing amid the cribs, an infant cradled in his arms. "I just stopped by to see the babies, and I told Master Nadi I'd stay after her shift ended." He smiled, the scar across his eye dancing. "I had no idea they would let you do cr?che duty. Lightsaber skills don't seem like they would be very useful here."
Master Drallig laughed. "You'd be surprised! Really, I enjoy the infants. It's a welcome relief to spend some time with people who are still too small to hold a saber. But you!" He clapped Anakin on the back, but gently, mindful of the baby in his arms. "The great hero has returned! You've had quite a busy time lately. Besting Dooku in a duel! I always knew you were good, but that is truly impressive. He was one of the greatest swordsmen, before--." A frown flickered across his face. No one really liked to talk about Dooku much. The shame to the Order was too great.
Anakin ducked his head, and Drallig was reminded of the young boy who had always been embarrassed by praise, even at the same time that he had craved it. "My defeat of Dooku was due in no small part to your teaching, Master," said Anakin, abashed.
The smile returned to Drallig's lips. "You were always a natural, Anakin. I did little more than show you the moves. And I understand you've been placed on the Council as well? Such a great honor for one so young!"
"Yes." Anakin's expression clouded, and he bent his head over the infant in his arms.
Drallig studied him a moment, watching as the knight brushed the child's soft cheek with the backs of his fingers. A tender, oddly vulnerable gesture. His voice gentle, Drallig said, "I know why you're here."
Anakin looked up, wary. "You do?"
"Do you think you're the first Jedi to return from the battle front and seek solace in the cr?che? Most of them stop by here at some point. I suppose it reminds them of what we're fighting for."
The knight's stance relaxed a bit, though his expression remained troubled. "Yes." He looked around at the occupied cribs, the children relaxed in the slumber of the innocent. "There are so few babies. I remember when this room was full."
"We are at war," Drallig observed. "We do not have time to go out looking for infants, and very few people are bringing them to the Temple." One of the babies began to fuss in his crib, and Drallig leaned over him, rubbing his hand on the child's back until he grew quiet once more. "It's just as well we have so few, I suppose. With so many Jedi dying in the war, there will not be many masters left to train all the young ones when they are old enough." The thought filled him with deep sadness. The casualties of war included not only deaths, but also the potential of so many young lives that would go unfulfilled.
But he could not allow himself to think such negative thoughts. As long as these children were here, he would give them everything he could. He moved quietly among the cribs, touching the infants, tucking blankets tightly around them, imparting to them his love.
Behind him he heard Anakin crooning softly to the child in his arms. The song was gentle and slow like a lullaby, but the few words Drallig could catch were in Huttese. It was clearly not a lullaby Anakin had ever learned in the Temple. He turned to listen, but when Anakin saw him, he fell silent, blushing.
The young knight hefted the child against his shoulder. "It's amazing how tiny she is. How old is she?"
"Gria will be eight months next week."
"That old?" Anakin asked in surprise. "I thought she was a newborn."
Drallig laughed. "Oh no. Newborns are much smaller. But then I suppose you aren't around infants very often."
"No," said Anakin. "But perhaps that will change." He brushed his cheek against that of the sleeping child. It was such a beautiful sight that Drallig felt a lump rise in his throat. "As long as I'm grounded here at the Temple, maybe I'll stop by the cr?che every once in a while to help out. I'd like to learn how to take care of babies."
"You are most welcome to, Anakin."
Caressing Gria's soft skin, the young knight said, "I swear, I will do everything within my power to ensure that this galaxy is made into a place where all children will be loved and well cared for."
"A Jedi can leave no greater legacy than that," Drallig quietly agreed.
Alas, Anakin's new duties on the Council seemed to take up all of his time, and Drallig saw little of the young knight over the next few days. Events were moving rapidly in the galaxy, but the saber master's routine remained the same. However, the children in his care were not untouched by the recent dramatic events, especially on Coruscant, and it was reflected in their performance.
One morning, they were performing their kata very poorly, their movements sloppy and uncoordinated. They were only halfway through the routine, and there had already been three burns as younglings inadvertently hit each other during the movements. Drallig was beginning to wonder if he should start over again with the basic dueling stances when a loud shriek interrupted the class, causing everyone to break form.
Cradling one arm across his chest, Pitti, a young Human boy, glared at his neighbor. "You did that on purpose!" he screamed, as she shrank back.
Drallig immediately rushed over, chiding, "Now, Pitti, you know Ishandofar wouldn't hit you deliberately."
The Iktotchi girl stood, saber held loosely in her grip, eyes filling with tears. Shaking his lightsaber at her, Pitti snarled, "You'll never be a Jedi! They ought to ship you off to AgriCorps right now!"
"Pitti!" Drallig said, shocked.
"I'm sorry," Ishandofar wept, her great, horned head drooping. As an Iktotchi, she was very sensitive to the emotions of those around her. Ever since the siege of Coruscant, she'd been overwhelmed by the tension and fear surrounding them, not only among those at the Temple, but from an entire planet that had been traumatized by the battle. Lately Ishandofar had been having a great deal of trouble focusing, and she had single-handedly been responsible for many of the saber accidents in the class.
But she was not the only one having problems. Pitti could scarcely manage to control his temper these days. "You're just a waste of space!" he shouted at Ishandofar, while the other younglings huddled close to each other, watching the outburst with nervous eyes. "There aren't enough masters anyway. And you - all you ever do is mess things up for the rest of us!"
"Pitti, that is enough!" Drallig rebuked. He knew the child was voicing a common fear among the younglings, and he spared a quick glance at his padawan assistant, Whie, who stood behind the children, forehead creased in worry. Whie had lost his own master several months ago and had since been assigned to work with Drallig, as there was no one left to take him as a padawan. Drallig's gaze returned to Pitti. "Stand down now, or I'll ban you from the class."
For a tense moment, Pitti glared up at the saber master as if he
might defy him. Then mercifully he stepped back, extinguishing his saber.
Quietly releasing the breath he'd been holding, Drallig knelt next to Pitti and gently took hold of his arm so he could examine the burn. Fortunately, the child's sleeve had absorbed most of the burn. There was a red patch on Pitti's skin, but Drallig knew from experience that it looked worse than it hurt. He placed his large hand over Pitti's forearm, channeling healing Force into the wound, and when he removed his hand, the burn was gone. "There. No harm done," he said.
Pitti's blue eyes were brimming with tears, and he sniffled as he glanced warily over Drallig's shoulder at Ishandofar.
The girl cried, "I'm sorry, Pitti, really I am. It was an accident!"
Drallig looked kindly at the boy. "Pitti, do you have something to say?" he prompted.
Lowering his blond head, Pitti said, "Apology accepted."
"All right." Drallig stood, tucking his hands into the sleeves of his robe. "We all seem to be overtired." He looked at Ishandofar. "Are you still having trouble sleeping?"
She nodded, rubbing at her eyes with her fist. "I can't help it. Whenever I close my eyes, I keep seeing those ships falling out of the sky. I know I'm not supposed to be afraid, but --." She stopped, her little hands twisting on the hilt of her saber. "Pitti's right: I'll never be a Jedi if I'm so scared all the time."
Drallig saw Ishandofar's distress mirrored on the faces of many of the children in the room. The younglings leaned close to each other for support, holding each other's hands. Such young faces should not be so lined with worry. He took a deep breath, drawing in the calming presence of the Force and sending it out to them. "Everyone put your sabers away," he instructed, "and come sit down."
He settled down cross-legged on the floor, and the younglings gathered around him. In their stress, they couldn't hold the proper form for a learning circle. One by one they nudged a little bit closer, hungering for reassurance, and at last Drallig opened his arms and beckoned to them. "It's all right. No more lessons for today."
Relieved, they all scooted closer until they were packed tightly around him, all but sitting in each other's laps in their effort to be close to him. He gave them his warmest smile, reaching out to touch their heads. Even Whie, he noticed, was leaning close.
"It's not true that Jedi feel no fear," he started. "It is natural for us to be afraid, especially when something as scary as the battle over Coruscant happens."
"But Knight Skywalker is never afraid," said Pitti, and the others nodded in agreement.
Drallig suppressed a sigh, cursing whoever had come up with the nickname, 'Hero Without Fear.' "That's not true," he said. "A wise Jedi feels fear when it is warranted. There is no shame in that. But we must not let our fear control us. We must learn to release it into the Force. And the first thing we need to do is acknowledge our fear. We must not keep it locked up tightly inside us." He looked into the group of little faces surrounding him. "So, what is everyone afraid of right now?"
For a long moment no one spoke. They shifted uncomfortably against one another, no one wanting to be the first to speak.
At last Whie cleared his throat. His voice trembling slightly, he admitted, "I'm afraid that I'll never have another master.
Drallig could tell from the eyes that widened at those words that others shared Whie's fear.
"I'm afraid because Master Yoda isn't here," one of the younglings said, clearly on the verge of tears.
More nodding. The stress level among the youngest Temple residents always rose whenever Master Yoda was in the field. Even Drallig felt it. What was the Temple without Master Yoda hobbling through the halls?
Ishandofar leaned on Drallig's knee. "I'm afraid of ships falling out of the sky."
Her reference to the recent battle seemed to open the floodgates, and the younglings no longer hesitated to unburden themselves.
"I'm afraid the Temple will be attacked."
"I'm afraid General Grievous will come back."
"I'm afraid something will happen to Master Yoda."
On and on the list of fears went, as the children opened up and shared what had been lurking in their hearts. It saddened Drallig to hear how adult their fears were. Truth be told, he shared many of these fears himself.
Finally one youngling, eyes wide, said, "I'm afraid of Master Windu."
Drallig chuckled. "I understand how you feel. *Everyone* is afraid of Master Windu." The councilor's stern reputation had not made him very popular with the Temple's youngest residents.
"He's not the one I'm afraid of," said Ishandofar. "It's Anakin who scares me."
That surprised Drallig. Most of the children worshipped 'The Hero Without Fear.' "Why does he scare you?"
Ishandofar scratched the end of one of her horns as she sought the right words. At last she said, "He's too hot."
The Force shivered down Drallig's spine. He could understand that. It was what concerned the Council about the young knight. He was unmistakably powerful, but sometimes he seemed only barely able to keep his power under control.
"I'm not afraid of him," Pitti spoke up. "If Master Yoda can't be here, then I'm glad Anakin is. He'll keep us safe."
"Well, I'm still afraid of him," said Ishandofar.
"That's silly!" added a third child.
"Now, now," chided Drallig. "We feel what we feel. There's no right or wrong. This is why we must first acknowledge our fears, not judge them. Now that we understand them, we must release those fears into the Force. One way for us to do that is to look at the situation rationally. The battle that took place here was very scary, but what was the result of it?"
"Anakin killed Count Dooku!" Pitti piped up, giving Ishandofar an I-told-you-so look.
"Yes. And what else?"
"Anakin and Master Obi-Wan rescued the Chancellor."
"General Grievous ran away!"
"We won the battle!"
"Yes, very good," said Drallig. "And now Master Obi-Wan has been sent after General Grievous. So what does all of this tell us?"
"That we're gong to win the war!" one of the children piped up, grinning confidently.
"Well, that might be a bit premature, but it does mean our current situation is better than it has been in quite some time." He looked around at the younglings, laying a reassuring hand on a shoulder here, cupping a chin there, comforting them through his touch. "Things have been very frightening lately. But remember: the Jedi have existed for over a thousand generations. There may be a shortage of masters now, but I assure you that each of you will become padawans when you are ready, and someday you will be knights and take padawans of your own. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things seem, we always have the Force guiding us and giving us strength. Nothing and no one can take that away from us."
The children all relaxed at that, smiling up at him.
"Let's remember our meditation, shall we? There is no emotion -"
"There is peace," their young voices intoned solemnly.
"There is no ignorance -."
"There is knowledge."
"There is no passion -."
"There is serenity."
"There is no death -."
"There is the Force."
Drallig felt a shiver at that last phrase, almost like a presentiment. It must have been the power of those words, so familiar, so deeply ingrained into every Jedi's consciousness. The Jedi Code was sung to infants in the cr?che as a lullaby before they could even speak. Many a Jedi child's first words came from this mantra. Opening himself to the Force, he led the younglings in chanting, "Peace over anger. Honor over hate. Strength over fear."
They fell silent, and Drallig could see the power of the Jedi Code settle over the children like a protective cloak, the tension leaching from their shoulders, their expressions relaxed in peace. Strength over fear. Their trust in the Force was their strength, and with it they could face anything.
As Drallig entered the dining hall that evening, he noticed that the hall was even more empty than usual. Almost all able-bodied knights had been dispatched to battlefronts across the galaxy in an effort to finish off the war. Furthermore, not a single member of the Council was in evidence. He wondered where they were. Only younglings and masterless padawans were left, along with the score or so of knights assigned to tend them.
He filled his dinner tray and took a seat with the other masters. Their numbers were so few that they could all sit at one table.
"And there's the esteemed saber master," Nadi greeted him. "Have you heard the good news?"
Drallig raised an eyebrow. "I don't think so. Pray enlighten me. I could use some good news these days."
"The Temple just received word that Kenobi has defeated Grievous. The war is as good as over."
He felt a weight lift from his shoulders. "That is indeed good news! Though we shouldn't be too optimistic about the end of the war. I suppose that's why none of the councilors are here?"
"They just left to discuss the matter with the Chancellor."
At the mention of Palpatine, an uneasy pall fell over the group.
"Let us hope that he will finally see fit to relinquish some of the powers he has accumulated," said Zor, the scars on his face shifting in an indiscernible expression. He had been badly wounded in the field, his once handsome face now a mass of scar tissue. With the current bacta shortage, none could be spared for any but life-threatening injuries.
"He'll have to," said Master Sorisan, pressing her lips together in a grim line. Ever since she had lost her padawan in the carnage of Jabiim, she had made no secret of her passionate disapproval of the war, and of the Supreme Chancellor. "With the Separatist leaders dead, he will have no excuse."
Drallig made a face. "Oh, politicians can always create an excuse. And if the Sith Lord is somehow behind all this -."
"One problem at a time," counseled Nadi. "For now, we can rejoice in the hope that the war will soon be over."
"And the dining hall will be full again," said Drallig. "It has been empty for far too long."
"And perhaps the children will start to smile once more," Zor added.
Sorisan nodded. "Perhaps all of us will. I can only hope that we never get involved in a war like that again."
"We do what we must," said Nadi, ever the diplomat.
Suddenly the Temple's alarm system went off, the beacon startling everyone. Dropped utensils clattered against the tables, as heads rose in apprehension. But no voice came on to explain the emergency. Concerned, Drallig whipped his commlink off his belt and called the front gate, but no one answered. He looked at the others in dread. "What could have happened?"
"I don't know," said Nadi, "but we need to take action."
They all looked to Drallig as the senior master among them. Grimly, he nodded. "All right."
He stood up, and instantly all faces turned toward him. The children were frightened, but they kept their fear under control. Drallig had never been so proud of them.
"Attend to me," he announced. "Knights Nadi and Zor will go to the cr?che and make sure the infants are all right. Padawan Whie, I want you to take the younglings under the age of ten to the Council chamber. It is the most secure spot in the Temple, and once they are locked in, only a Council member will be able to let them out. They will be safe there.
"The rest of us will divide into two groups. Padawans of the Bear and Lizard clans will come with me to the great hall to see what has happened. The rest of you will go to wait in the Room of a Thousand Fountains."
Master Sorisan stood. "With respect, Master, you should not be at the front. I will lead the group to the Great Hall. You lead the others."
Drallig reflected on this and nodded. "Done. Maintain contact through our commlinks." He paused to look around the hall. "Remember, we are Jedi. May the Force be with you."
With only the slightest of murmurs, the groups split up as instructed and headed out. As Whie passed him leading the younglings, Drallig reached out to stop him. The boy had suffered so much with the death of his master, yet he bore his duties bravely. Drallig had begun to consider taking the boy as his own padawan, if the war ever ended. He gave Whie's shoulder a squeeze. "Rejoin me in the Room of a Thousand Fountains after you have ensured the children are safe." Whatever happened on this night, he wanted Whie at his side.
The boy seemed to recognize their bond, and he answered with a grim smile, "Yes, Master."
Without a backward glance, Drallig led the way to the Room of a Thousand Fountains. The lights in the room had been dimmed for the night, and the faces around him glowed faintly in the gloom. The padawans wore grave expressions, admirably restraining their fear, and Drallig was proud of the fact that none of them bothered him with questions he couldn't possibly answer. They fanned out into a standard battle formation, with padawans in the rear and knights in the front. Unlit sabers at the ready, senses alert, they waited in silence.
Not knowing was agony. A fundamental part of Jedi training was about being open and ready in a crisis situation, not relying on the need for information in order to be prepared to act. After all, preconceived ideas could be misleading. But the thought of a possible attack on the Temple itself was so shocking, Drallig had a desperate urge to find out what was going on. He struggled against the desire to call up Knight Sorisan and learn what she had found. But he managed to resist. She would notify him when she learned anything, and a call to her might distract her in a crucial moment.
So they waited, silent and ready, knowing that *something* was happening elsewhere in the Temple, wondering how the younglings were faring in the Council chamber, and whether the infants had been disturbed by the alarm. The peace of the gardens belied the tension they all felt, the threat that the Temple was under.
Drallig's commlink buzzed, and Sorisan's voice disrupted the quiet of the garden. "It's not the Separatists; it's the Republic Army! And they're being led by -." A storm of blaster fire drowned out her voice, answered by the buzz of lightsabers.
Alarmed, Drallig glanced at the knight standing to his left. "The army? It can't be!"
The knight shook his head, voicing what Drallig couldn't bear to admit. "They're attacking the Temple."
"But - why?" All the padawans had managed to avoid asking stupid questions, but Drallig couldn't help it. The situation was incomprehensible. His hand trembling, he flipped on his commlink again, calling up Master Windu, but there was no answer.
"Master," the knight asked, his voice pitched low. "Should we go to their aid?"
Drallig bit his lip, looking around at the padawans. They were shaken, but determined. These young ones, many of whom had lost masters on the battlefield, who had grown up in a time of warfare such as the Order had not seen in millennia. Though young, they were mature and battle-seasoned beyond their years. They were warriors. They did not need protection.
With a curt nod, he said, "Follow me, silently. We will attempt to flank them from the East Corridor."
He led the way, the knights and padawans behind him not making a sound. As they were leaving the room, Whie dashed up the corridor toward them. "The younglings are secure?" Drallig asked.
"Well done. Take your place among us, Padawan."
Gripping his lightsaber, Whie fell into step with the others.
As they sped down the hallways, Drallig flipped on his commlink once more, calling Nadi to warn them, but there was no answer. A sharp pain speared through him, freezing his blood. It was so intense that it took him a moment to recognize it as panic. Neither Windu nor Nadi answering their commlinks, at a time when the Temple was under attack from the Republic Army? The bits and pieces were starting to form a picture, but still Drallig shied away from the truth. Right now, he must concentrate on defending the Temple.
En route to the main entrance, they passed a communications room. Instructing the others to wait in the hall, he entered the room and called up the Temple's security holo system. First he checked on the Council chamber. He could just make out the shadows of the younglings crouching behind the chairs. He even thought he could see Ishandofar's horned head as she leaned closer to a Human child, perhaps Pitti. They were safe. Relieved, he checked on the cr?che. But no image appeared, only gray static. He frowned. The Temple's security system shouldn't lose power. He called up the other holocams in the cr?che, but they all showed the same thing: gray static billowing like clouds.
Stomach lurching, he suddenly realized what he was seeing: not static, but smoke. He could discern the flickers of flame amid the billows. The cr?che was on fire.
That paralyzing emotion from earlier returned in full force, and for a long, awful moment he could do nothing but stand there, staring into the viewer, gasping for breath, each beat of his heart ripping through him with the destructive force of a blaster bolt. It couldn't be! The Temple under attack - the infants -.
"Master Drallig?" Whie said, standing behind him, his view of the holocam blocked. The boy's words trickled over him, warm and soothing, bringing him out of his shock. "Master, what did you find?"
He couldn't bear to tell Whie. He wanted to run off immediately to the cr?che to see if by some miracle any of the babies might still be alive, but he had to check on Knight Sorisan first.
"Just a minute." He wondered how his voice could sound so calm, as if he were drilling katas with the younglings. He switched the holocam to the great hall.
Images appeared of clonetroopers, hundreds of them, swarming through the hall, filling it. Dark shapes lay crumpled on the floor. He saw the occasional beam of a lightsaber, but even as he watched, they winked out of existence, one by one.
No spear of panic now. He felt only a cold numbness. He couldn't handle so much emotion, so his heart just shut it out. Instead, in true Jedi form his mind kicked into high gear. Years of training urged him to go to the aid of the Jedi in the great hall, but reason informed him that they were all as good as dead, and he'd only be leading his group to their own destruction. The scenario was not one any Jedi could have ever imagined, so they must do what to any Jedi would be inconceivable: they must abandon the Temple and flee for their lives.
He shut down the holocam and exited to the hall, his movements swift and sure. The group looked expectantly at him, waiting for orders. They could not have anticipated what he would say.
"Attend to me," he said, his words shockingly calm. "This is your first priority: escape and survive. We will go to the utility entrance at the south of the Temple. We will stick together for now, but we may need to split up. If so, flee. Each on your own. Do not linger to help anyone. We must each escape and go to -." He paused. Several rendezvous points suggested themselves to him, but he no longer knew which if any of them might be safe. He shook his head. "Just flee. Stay safe, and stay alert."
"But Master," Whie began, "what has -."
"No questions. Do as I say."
A range of emotions flickered in the faces of those around him, but if there was one thing a Jedi could always be counted on to do, it was to obey the direct order of a ranking master. He only prayed he was not the highest ranking master left.
Swiftly they moved down the halls, their boots making no sound on the carpeted floor. Now they could hear the sounds of battle echoing through the corridors, explosions, blaster fire. The temperature was rising, an indication that fire had spread throughout the Temple complex. Drallig tried to lead them away from the sounds, but they came from every direction. The group made rapid progress, but he feared they would not be fast enough.
Suddenly, blaster bolts ripped past them from behind. Drallig whirled to see clonetroopers swarming up the hall toward them. One of the bolts caught a young padawan in the back, and he twisted in mid-step and collapsed to the floor.
Igniting his saber, Drallig shouted, "Scatter! Flee!"
The padawans broke ranks, sabers ignited, but more troops appeared at the other end of the hall. They were cut off. The blaster fire did not ease up in the slightest. The troopers seemed willing to mow each other down in the crossfire as long as they exterminated all the Jedi.
The padawans and knights formed a tight circle, sabers out, deflecting the bolts, but Drallig knew it was simply a matter of time. He could not think or feel anything any more. He could only throw his entire being into deflecting those bolts, in the hope that they might possibly outlast the clonetroopers. Even if only one of the padawans could escape, if they could just last that long....
Then, amid the clonetroopers appeared a figure bearing a lightsaber. The figure strode forward, shrouded in a typical Jedi robe. Drallig had seen images like this on many a holonews report of Jedi Knights leading the clone army into battle. It had meant that even in a time of war, the Jedi Code still reigned supreme. Even at the head of an army, the Jedi stood tall.
But now the image was all wrong, and Drallig finally understood that it had been wrong from the beginning. The Jedi were never meant to lead armies. And this Jedi who approached him now, whose lanky gait Drallig recognized, this Jedi who had been the hero of the war, a Hero Without Fear - he was not a hero at all. "Anakin Skywalker!" he cried out in disbelief.
Face impassive, the young knight ran forward to meet him, their sabers clashing. Drallig felt the jolt of the impact through his arms, yet he held strong against Skywalker's attack. He knew what an excellent swordsman Anakin was. He had taught the youth everything he knew, but Anakin had outstripped Drallig's skill years ago. The war had given Anakin a range and depth of experience that no Jedi his age should possess. Drallig knew with fatal certainty that he would lose this battle. But there was more to any fight than mere skill alone.
"Anakin," he called over their clashing sabers, addressing the boy as one he had known for many years, a friend, a colleague. "Anakin, what are you doing?"
Skywalker's eyes burned with determination. "I do what I must."
Their blades engaged and disengaged so fast the eye could not keep up. Drallig could feel himself wearying. He'd spent too many years teaching katas to younglings. "The cr?che, Anakin," he said. "It's burning, the babies murdered in their cribs. You said you would protect them!"
Pain flared deep in Skywalker's eyes, but then was extinguished almost as quickly as it had appeared. "They are a necessary sacrifice to protect others. Isn't it the Jedi way, to give your life for others?"
Drallig shook his head. Tears burned in his eyes, but the heat from their clashing sabers dried them before they could fall. "But you are taking life, Anakin!"
"A cleansing fire is needed," said Anakin through gritted teeth. "Master Yoda says I should rejoice when a Jedi passes into the Force."
"Rejoice! How can you -?" Anakin struck a fierce blow, and Drallig stumbled backward. He barely had the strength to deflect Skywalker's blade away from him. He spared a glance around him. So few sabers were still lit.
Anakin hammered on him, not easing up for a moment. "Where did you send the younglings?" he demanded
Instantly, Ishandofar and Pitti rose in Drallig's mind, the one so fearful of Anakin, the other so trusting. Even if the rest of the Temple were destroyed, the Council spire had been built to withstand any attack, and a sudden frantic hope rose within him that the children would survive.
Quickly, Drallig checked his emotions, schooling his features into a neutral expression. But Skywalker had always been good at reading repressed emotions. He had so many himself. He saw the hope in Drallig's eyes and smiled. "Ah. You sent them to the Council chamber, didn't you? Very clever, Master. But you forgot - I am now on the Council!"
His words struck Drallig like a bolt of lightning, evaporating all remaining hope in him. It couldn't be! Anakin wouldn't do this! Violate the sacred heart of the Temple to murder those children - it was unthinkable!
But Anakin had always done the unthinkable. They had always known Anakin would achieve what no other Jedi could. They just hadn't known it would be this.
Drallig backpedaled, stumbling over something on the floor. He tripped and fell. It was Whie, smoke rising from the blaster burns riddling his body. The child lay curled up on his side, as if he were sleeping. Drallig wanted to reach out to him, to smooth the boy's hair back from his forehead, but he had no strength left. The saber rolled out of his nerveless grasp.
He looked up at Anakin. "How could you do this?" It was not a question. There was no answer that could satisfy him. It was a cry of lament to a Force that had turned against him, turned against them all.
But Anakin answered anyway. And perhaps he *was* the Force. "I am fulfilling my destiny," he said. The Hero Without Fear.
The blue blade rose high in the air and swung down to strike home.
Original cover by Clara Swift. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.