Reeling from the loss of Anakin Skywalker and the sudden disappearance of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda, the Jedi Council has been laid to waste in the brutality of the Clone Wars.
Hiding from the increasing anti-Jedi feelings, the Jedi Council has found a new home in the depths of the jungles of Arramon. The few remaining Jedi Masters have gathered there in an attempt to weather the storm that is coming.
Light-years away, deep inside the Galactic Core, a Captain prepares to take command of his vessel, and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's fleet begins to take shape...
Home to hundreds of the rich, privileged families of the Galactic Republic. Home to senators and their aides. Home to millions of sentient beings. All human.
Here, hanging in space, the newly completed Palpatine's Pride, an Imperial-class Star Destroyer - only the fourth of its kind - waited for its Captain. She was huge, over 1.5km long from tip to tail. Her v-shaped hull appeared to knife the darkness aside, the lights across her craggy surface pushing back the black of space.
Approaching her from the surface of the planet was the Lambda-class shuttle, Humanity's Salvation.
"Coming up on the Pride, Captain. Anticipate docking in approximately three minutes."
"Thank you, Ensign."
Captain Balamon Aruwn, thirty-one Coruscant-Standard years old, one of the youngest captains in Republic history, stood behind the pilots of the shuttle, hands clasped behind his grey uniform, his rank pips polished to a high shine. Nearly two metres tall, his body appeared sculpted rather than grown. His hair was neatly cut, the little visible under his cap a light blonde. He had clear, penetrating blue eyes. Many a junior officer had grown pale when those same eyes had been directed at them. He was everything the new Imperial Navy wanted in their ranks.
Approached by an undercover operative of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine Aruwn had jumped at the opportunity to join the secretive organisation that supported Palpatine's vision of the future - a vision where humans ruled, guided by a benevolent emperor.
Now, years later, their organisation was large enough to begin the process of launching the Imperial Navy, a fleet of ships more powerful than any vessel serving the Republic Navy. And he, Balamon Aruwn, would be Captain of one of the largest ships in the new fleet. Sworn to the service of Emperor-to-be Palpatine, he would rain fire and darkness down on those that did not acknowledge the truth of his emperor's destiny.
Aruwn looked out through the viewport at the rapidly growing Star Destroyer, his eyes tracking over the surface as the shuttle slipped under the main hull towards the large docking bay. The lights cast from sensor clusters, the turbolaser tracking ports, tractor beam arrays, indeed every bump or mark on the surface had meaning for him. He felt like reaching out his hand to touch the surface.
In moments, the shuttle ceased its forward motion and rose at a sedate pace upwards, into the cavernous hold of the mighty ship. Deft manipulation of the controls by the pilot moved the shuttle into the main hangar bay and Aruwn was impressed by the negligible shudder as the main leg mounts settled to the deck with a barely audible sound.
"Docking complete, Captain."
Aruwn nodded once to the pilot, then turned and made his way back to the exit ramp that was opening onto the deck below.
Arrayed before him as he reached the top of the ramp were several officers, his immediate staff.
"Welcome aboard, Captain."
"Thank you, Commander Petre," Aruwn said as he descended the ramp to meet the man. "It is a pleasure to finally board my ship as her Captain. Status?"
"A full complement of TIE fighters have been issued to us from the shipyards at Annuvasa. Crew is at full strength, and fully-trained."
"Excellent. I am going to my quarters, Commander. Give the order to get underway."
"Debron Asteroid Field."
Saluting in response to the Commander's words Aruwn turned to follow the aide assigned to him on board the ship. He could feel the thrum of the engines through the soles of his feet as they came up to full power. Several minutes later, as he sat back in the deep, padded chair of his quarters he felt the shudder as the ship traversed to hyperspace.
An idyllic planet. Vast open grasslands. Deep luscious forests. Beautiful mountain landscapes. Home to hundreds of species: Humans, Rodians, Wookies even a few Ithorians.
It was also home to the Jedi Council, or what was left of it. The recent battles in the Clone Wars, combined with the high-profile loss of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Master Yoda had reduced the Council's stature and influence, enough that they had been forced to leave Coruscant and the growing mobs of people who had wished them harm. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had aided them in their resettlement despite the obvious public resentment, helping the Jedi relocate and settle here.
Sarum Castle was the new home of the Council. A beautiful palace much like Theed Palace on Naboo, it lay nestled in the depths of the trees, shadowed in the early evening light.
Walking close to each other, approaching the entrance to the castle, were Ari-Pa Meron and Kurid, two of only twenty Jedi Masters left in the Order. The two humans were also members of the Jedi Council, of whom only five remained.
"I tell you, my friend, we should not have accepted this gift from the Supreme Chancellor. He already draws more power towards him than any leader before. The people will believe he controls the Jedi now," Kurid said, passing through the arch into the archaic tunnel leading to the depths of the castle.
"Calm yourself, Kurid. Granted, Palpatine has gone beyond any previous Chancellor, but the Republic has benefited from his leadership throughout these difficult times. I do not believe Valorum would have been able to survive the Clone Wars as well."
"For that very reason we should be wary!" Kurid said, his emotions slipping out from his grasp for the briefest instant. "Already our influence and advice is ignored, cast aside."
"Kurid, surely you do not believe that? We serve the Force, the balance. We do not crave attention, pride, influence. These are things of the dark side."
"Ah, Ari, I am sorry. I sense great tremors in the Force. Something has changed; the balance has slipped. I find myself unsure of my place in the universe."
Ari placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I feel it too, my friend. Why else would we be called to the Council at this time? Master Thanus obviously has news."
Kurid nodded in agreement as they reached a closed pair of doors. Despite the change of location and the loss of their chambers on Coruscant, some things had not changed. Two Padawan placed on guard outside the room opened the doors as they approached, admitting them to a large, circular room. Seated in three seats, spaced evenly about the edges of the room were the other members of the reduced Council. In the first seat was Master Thanus, a cousin to Master Yoda, a hundred years or so younger than the missing Jedi; next came Master Laerial, young to have gained such a position - she was barely in her forties. Laerial was human, one of only three remaining Masters of that race. The third was Master Jerrikaa, a Wookiee. He was the only one of his kind in the past four generations to attain Master, let alone a place on the Council.
Master Thanus waved the two newcomers forward. "Welcome Ari-Pa, Kurid. Please, take your seats."
"Thank you, Thanus."
As they settled into the two remaining places, completing the circle of the Council, the great doors to the room resounded with a knock. A smile spread on Thanus's face as the doors opened and admitted a young Jedi Padawan, her braid forward across her shoulder. She approached the centre of the room and dipped her head a little on her shoulders.
"Do not bow to me, child," Thanus said, smiling to her as she raised her head. "Know why brought here, you have been?"
"No, Master. My Master gave no indication of why I was sent for."
"As he should not," Master Laerial said, glancing across to Master Jerrikaa.
I have observed the traditions, Laerial. I will abide by the Council's decision, Jerrikaa said, his growling easily understandable by those gathered in the room.
"Very well," Master Thanus said, his attention still fixed on the woman in front of him. "Master Jerrikaa, if you would?"
The Wookiee unfolded himself from his chair, revealing his full height, well over two meters tall. He walked crisply across the hall, a slight tremor in his step. They were all remembering the touch and go response from the Jedi medical technicians when Jerrikaa had returned from a battle against the clones. For a while it was thought that the Wookiee would lose his leg. Despite that damage, the Wookiee walked with a clear purpose. When he reached the young Padawan he reached out one of his great paws and gripped the braid with it. A small blade appeared from the baldric across his chest and severed the braid in a single swipe.
"Your trials and tests are complete, Jedi. Take your braid and do with it as you will, Knight."
Joy lit the woman's young face. And she was young, no more than twenty Coruscant-Standard years, far younger than most that achieved Knighthood. But these were difficult times, and aeons-old practices had to be laid aside.
"Thank you, Master Jerrikaa, thank you!"
The Jedi Master smiled, a worrying image to anyone not familiar with a Wookie, and passed her the braid that had marked her as Padawan. As she pocketed it within her robes he waved her away. She turned to leave but was brought short when Master Laerial spoke.
"Go now, child, leave. The future is coming, it echoes through my mind. Leave, hide, mask your skills, your light. The darkness is rising."
A ripple of surprise raced amongst those gathered in the chamber. Laerial had not foretold future events in some time. The Force had been quiet regarding the future, too quiet to those attuned to it. Yoda had said as much not long before disappearing.
Jerrikaa quickly escorted the newly-raised Knight from the chambers with muttered instructions to mention nothing of this to any of the other Knights or Padawan. Even the Council had secrets. As soon as the doors were closed on the Council chamber, Thanus turned to Laerial.
"Fact, or speculation?"
"Thanus, you've known me since I joined the Order. When have I ever quoted anything but what I have seen?"
"I wish this was the first time."
"No, my friend," Laerial said, smiling at him wanly. "I have seen our future and it is only in the light of the Force that we go on."
"Can we secure the future for those to come?"
"I do not know. With Anakin lost, we are weakened more than I had thought. The Sith are rising again, and they intend our destruction."
"I agree with you," Ari-Pa said. "I have felt a deep change in the balance, as have we all these past few years. With the loss of Anakin, the balance was tipped deeply in favour of the dark side, the Sith. There is a new member of their ranks, Darth Vader, or so my sources have informed me. He moves in public, though few have seen him and it is not clear who his master may be. Again, as with Darth Maul, I believe we are seeing the apprentice at work. The master remains hidden in the shadows."
We must prepare for the future. Already the darkness has moved against us. The Clone Wars were clearly a device of the Sith to weaken the Jedi, Jerrikaa said, still standing in the centre of the room. Prepare the Padawan and the children. We must hide them.
"We are as one on this?" Master Thanus asked.
"Yes," Master Laerial responded.
"We have no other option," Kurid agreed.
"The future must be protected," Ari-Pa said, the words clearly indicating his agreement.
"Very well. Send for Kieran. He will be our guide."
"At once," Kurid said, rising from his seat and heading out of the hall.
The Palpatine's Pride knifed through the tumbling chaos of the Debron Asteroid field. Though only low density, the asteroid field was already pushing the ship's gunners to their limits.
"Status?" Aruwn said, his hands clasped behind him.
"Shields are holding at 43 percent, Sir, though we are taking a stronger hit on the aft-port quarter," Petre replied.
A junior officer appeared on Aruwn's left, awaiting orders.
"Inform Commander Krell that his team is performing below standard."
Despite only two days onboard the ship, Aruwn had already stamped his authority on the crew, literally, in some cases. Krell had been one of those cases. A veteran commander of the Republic fleet, he had not taken to a young, dynamic Captain. Against all regulations, Aruwn had let him take a swing, before finishing him off. A day in the in-ship bacta tanks had disabused Krell of any further notions of grandeur. Ambition had its place in the New Imperial Order, but it had to be tempered with a healthy level of respect for those in authority.
Word came back from Krell's team within moments, though not fast enough for Aruwn's liking. The Pride was a large ship, and needed thousands to crew her. It would be difficult to maintain operability without strict adherence to protocol. This was the true purpose of these tests. The ship's weapons and capabilities, devastating as they were, were already known to the Emperor. He needed to know how well the crew could perform.
"Response levels have increased in the aft-port section, Sir. Shield levels are rising again."
"Excellent. Prepare to disengage from the asteroid field."
Aruwn began to leave the Bridge, heading for his quarters, when Commander Petre approached him from one of the tracking stations.
"Sir, we are tracking a small vessel on the outer edges of the field. It is unlikely that they have spotted us--"
"--Set course immediately, and despatch a flight of TIEs." Aruwn spat. "The Emperor wished for no witnesses during these tests, so we will ensure his wishes are met."
"At once, Captain."
The Angelfire shot through the darkness of space past the low-density asteroid field in the Debron system. Its pilot, Syrenna Dreen, a blonde human in her mid-twenties, was one of the first female pilots, human or not, to have completed the Kessel Run in under 15 parsecs, and this ship was the reason for it. The Angelfire was a Corellian stock freighter, a YT-1100, and Syrenna had been flying her for three years now. Despite the modifications, she was still not happy with the overall performance of the ship. She was never satisfied with the performance. There could always be something new to make it better.
Syrenna was just about to hand over flight control to the Angelfire's navicomp when her threat screens began to flash, warning of several approaching vessels. The threat profile was unlike any ship she had seen. At first she thought they might be uglies, ships created from the leftovers of derelicts, but the threat assessor was indicating that they were identical to each other.
"What the hell are they?" she muttered out loud.
Syrenna turned to see her passenger entering the cockpit, the hood of his robe thrown back so that he could see clearly. The lightsaber hanging from his belt made it obvious what he was.
"Kieran, what are you doing up here?"
"I sensed the approach of those ships out there," he replied, pointing to outside the ship. "There is something strange about the pilots, but I can't tell exactly what."
Syrenna waved him to the co-pilot chair and focused back on the threat warning display. It was displaying limited technical readouts on one of the craft that was rapidly approaching the rear of her ship.
"Vertical vanes on twin horizontal unit. Cockpit appears to be a ball in the centre of the vessel. Readout suggests twin lasers mounted at the front, high power, with a twin-ion engine as its energy source."
Syrenna shook her head and glanced back to Kieran.
"Ever seen that configuration before?"
"Never, though it certainly seems to match some of the survivors' descriptions at the last outpost we visited."
"Well, whoever they are, we need to outrun them. I'm going to go in closer to these asteroids."
Kieran glanced out the cockpit at the asteroid field in front of them.
"It's your ship."
Syrenna keyed in her course correction, ready to jink her ship sideways to tackle the asteroid field, when one of the attacking ships unleashed a shot. She felt the ship rattle from the impact of the blast. A quick check of her systems informed her that the lasers were indeed powerful. Her shields were down to 72 percent.
"Kieran, check that threat assessment again," she said, changing her course correction and moving her ship away from the asteroid field. "Any indication of shielding technology?"
"No," Kieran said, looking up from the display. "They appear to have no shields. All the power is diverted to weapons and engines."
"In that case...."
Syrenna feathered power from her engines, transferred it to her shields and pulled her ship around in a tight arc, activating her auto-targeting features as she did so.
"They want to play rough! I'll give them rough."
The closest of the H-fighters, as Syrenna thought of them, was caught in the first blast from the laser cannons, ripping its wing off and sending the ball and other wing spinning off into space. Syrenna intensified fire on the remaining fighter until it too disappeared in a cloud of vapour. Bringing the ship down off alert, Syrenna re-oriented it back towards her original heading for Arramon. Just as she was about to activate the navicomp again for the jump to lightspeed, her threat warning went off again.
"Damn, what now?"
Kieran stayed her hand as she was about to turn the ship again against whatever was approaching. "We are in great danger, Syrenna. Divert all your power from lasers to shields and engines."
"What are you talking--" The rest of the sentence was forgotten as what little light did filter in through the cockpit was suddenly gone. Syrenna immediately re-routed all power from her lasers to shields and engines and powered up. She felt the inertial compensators try to dial up to match her acceleration, but she was pushed into her chair, knowing they weren't up to the task.
Flipping a switch on her console, she changed her view so that she could see above and behind. The sight struck fear into the depths of her soul.
Spewing out more of those H-fighters from a gaping hole in its belly was one of the largest cruisers she had ever seen. A monstrous vehicle, grey in colour from one end to the next, it was huge. The end nearest her swept away and back in a V to the huge drive plant at the rear. Her view afforded her no image of the top of the vessel, nor did she want one. She was too interested in the huge gun emplacements dotted along its length. Blasts of the same magnitude and power of ground-based turbolasers were winging towards her ship.
Using all the piloting abilities she had learned, and adding to it her innate senses, Syrenna dodged the cascade of light until the navicomp beeped confirmation of her course plot. With one final glance at the image on her viewscreen, she pulled down the hyperdrive activator and made the jump to hyperspace.
Aboard the bridge of the Palpatine's Pride, Captain Aruwn stood with his hands clasped behind his back. His subordinate, Commander Petre, stood just behind him.
"They got away?"
"Yes, sir. They made the jump to lightspeed moments ago. Navigation has them on course for Arramon."
"Unfortunate, but provided for. The Emperor was aware that he could not hide these ships forever," he said.
"Tractor control reports a loss of power to beam 17. The operator was unable to establish a new lock."
"Very well. Recall the TIE fighters and set course for the Annuvasa Shipyard, Commander. She still needs some work."
"At once, Captain."
"Oh, and have the tractor beam operator disciplined. Shoddy workmanship is no excuse."
The Palpatine's Pride turned to pick up its hyperspace vector as the last of the TIE fighters returned to the hold. In moments it had disappeared into hyperspace.
"Coming up on Arramon re-entry point now."
Syrenna grabbed the hyperdrive lever and promptly returned the Angelfire to realspace. Spread out in the distance was Arramon, the perfect hiding place for what remained of the Jedi Council.
Kieran reached over to the comm switch and activated it.
"Jedi transport Omega-34-Alpha-10 requesting docking permission on platform 2, Unity Base."
"Permission granted. We've been waiting for you, Kieran."
Syrenna handed the controls of the ship over to the automated docking services that had been installed to guide incoming ships through the thick vegetation. Jumping out of her flight seat, she walked towards the back of the cockpit and the living area.
"Well, I'm going to freshen up before we land," she said. She waved a hand in front of her nose. "I recommend you do the same afterwards. Three days cramped in this cockpit has left you a bit odorous."
Kieran smiled at the joke and followed her to the refresher.
The Angelfire landed without incident on platform 2, where Master Thanus met it. Despite being younger than Yoda, he walked with a cane as well. Age took its toll on his race's legs before anything else.
"Master, it is good to see you again."
"And you, my friend. Under better circumstances I wish it were."
"Then you know of the attacks in the outlying sectors?" Kieran asked, surprised.
"No, Kieran, not attacks. Come, much we have to discuss it appears."
Thanus motioned towards the small hover-car that waited for them to take them to the Council chambers. Syrenna held back slightly.
"Our daughter?" she said, smiling lopsidedly.
"Well is she," Thanus said, turning to look at her. "Drop you off on the way, we will."
Kieran winced at the bite in her voice, recalling the faint memories of the original division between himself and his Master, all over the love of this woman.
Once they were inside the car, Thanus settled himself and began to speak.
"A vision has Laerial had. End of the Jedi does she see."
Kieran glanced at Syrenna and grabbed her hand, squeezing it in his own. He could sense the waves of fear coming from her. For once he was glad that she had no Force ability of her own. Fear led down the path to the dark side, and she would be deeply down that path by now with what they had been through in their brief time together.
"I will keep you safe," he said, squeezing her hand again.
"It's not me I'm worried about," she bit back, squeezing his hand in turn. "I'm not a Jedi."
"We are here," Thanus said, as the car pulled up outside the Jedi nursery.
"Come back quickly." Syrenna said, kissing her husband and squeezing him against her.
Syrenna ducked out of the car and Kieran pulled the door closed. In minutes they were beyond the nursery and approaching the main Council building. The car pulled to a stop just outside the archway entry and the two Jedi climbed out of the vehicle.
"Much to discuss we have, my friend. Not least this news bought with you, you have."
Syrenna poked her head through the door to the nursery and caught the attention of the nurse on duty.
"How is she?"
"She's napping," the nurse replied, pointing to a small child bundled in sleeping clothes on one of the beds towards the rear left of the room.
Syrenna walked on light feet through the room until she reached the bed and looked down at the small child asleep on the pallet. Mara was barely two, a quiet child who already showed early signs of the Force. Kieran had been very proud of that, though this recent news had upset Syrenna deeply. Would her daughter be part of the loss of the Jedi? She didn't know, but the thought that her life could go on without either of them could not even penetrate past the shadow of fear.
Sitting on the edge of the bed she reached a hand to brush back a loose strand of her daughter's flowing red hair that had fallen into her eyes. Mara stirred for just an instant at the touch, then settled again into a new position, her feet pushing her cover a little further off. Pulling it back gently, so as not to wake her, Syrenna made sure the covers were secure.
"I'll let her sleep," she said as the nurse approached. "Kieran and I are going to be here for a few days, so I'll pick her up a little later."
"No problem, Syrenna."
Syrenna smiled at the nurse, stroked her daughter's hair again and then left the nursery, heading for her apartment.
Kieran stood still in the centre of the circle of Council members. Thanus had taken his position in the chair that had once housed his older cousin, Master Yoda, with the other Masters on the Council gathered about him.
"I have come as asked, Master. What do the Council wish of me?"
"Master Laerial, a vision has she had, a glimpse into the near future of the Jedi. The destruction of our Order she sees."
Despite the words Master Thanus had used in the hover-car, Kieran had hoped that it was some kind of mistake. But Laerial was rarely wrong. Her predictions had been the most accurate of the Council, barring Master Yoda, in the last five generations. Despite his deepening sense of danger, he swallowed his fear and stood ready to serve.
"How may I assist you?"
"The children. To safety we wish to send them."
"Master! Surely they are our strength, our reason for going on. To send them away...."
"Patience, Kieran. Debated this we have, much already. The safest course this is. Laerial senses the darkness at its greatness whilst the children are near us."
"If this is how it must be, surely there are some that can go with them?"
Thanus smiled from his seat.
"As always, your true strength you have shown. Again I am forced to wonder why the position on the Council that Master Windu held for you, you did not accept."
"Master, you know the answer to that."
Kieran had been offered the post of Chairman of the Jedi Council, the most senior position in the entire Jedi Order, and he had turned it down. He chose his wife and child, aware that to take the Council position would take him away from them more than he wished to be.
"Very well, Kieran. The Masters of their senior Padawan I have relieved," Thanus said. "Chosen to remain with the children, to continue their training in secret, have they been. Away from the storm that approaches they shall be."
"And my task?"
"To their new home with them, you will go."
Kieran paused for a moment, balancing his desire to see the children and Padawan to safety, and his desire to return to Debron, to investigate the ship that had nearly captured them.
"I have news of my own, Master. News that may change your decision."
Kieran took a moment to order his thoughts, to place the jumble of images from the fight into a semblance of understanding. Removing a holopad from beneath his robe, he activated the display mechanism. A 3-dimensional image of the Angelfire passing through the Debron asteroid field sprang to life above his palm. The gathered Masters watched in stunned silence as the immense vessel moved into frame.
"What is that?" Kurid said, his breathing a little sharp.
"The end," Laerial said softly. "You have shown me enough. Now I see the darkness, it has a shape."
The mottled view of hyperspace reverted back to stars through the bridge viewport of the Star Destroyer Palpatine's Pride as it entered realspace in the Annuvasa system.
Moving at full speed, it approached the orbiting station around the third planet. Three other Star Destroyers already waited there for its arrival. With their huge size, they dwarfed the station.
"Transmission from Empire's Strength, Sir," the communications officer reported.
"I'll take it in my chambers," Aruwn said, turning and heading for the exit from the Bridge. "Commander Petre, move us into synchronous orbit with the station."
Aruwn left the man to it and entered the lift that would take him down to his private quarters. When he arrived he activated the holonet projector. It took a second or two before the image stabilised. As it cleared, Aruwn felt a slight tremor clutch his heart.
"Lord Vader, how may I serve?" he said, doing his best to hold his voice steady.
"The Emperor has ordered us to strike against the Jedi. We leave immediately."
"As you command, my Lord."
"I will be taking a shuttle to your vessel and assuming command."
"We will make ready for your arrival."
The image died before Aruwn even finished his sentence, leaving him shivering in the dim light of the room. Switching the unit off, Aruwn straightened his uniform and stepped out from his chambers.
"Find Commander Petre. Have him meet me in the main shuttle bay with his finest squad of Stormtroopers. Lord Vader will arrive in less than ten minutes."
The guard just outside his chamber door was gone in seconds, running down the corridor like a man possessed. Aruwn ignored him and headed directly for the shuttle bay.
Six minutes after the HoloNet call, Lord Vader's shuttle touched down softly onto the deck of the Star Destroyer.
He must have been in flight when he contacted me, Aruwn thought, seeing no other way for the Dark Lord to reach his vessel so quickly.
As the engines released the left over coolant steam, the ramp in the underbelly of the shuttle disengaged its locks and began to descend. Aruwn glanced across at the hastily assembled honour guard of twenty Stormtroopers, praying that it would be enough. His eyes returned to the shuttle as the ramp settled to the deck. A pair of jet-black boots was just visible at the top of the ramp. Snapping to attention, Aruwn found he could not draw his gaze away from the approaching figure.
Lord Vader was dressed from head to toe in black. His boots, trousers, vest, body armour and cape all sucked in light. Far worse though, by Aruwn's estimation, was the devastated face. With no hair and burn scars covering large areas of his head, Lord Vader looked to have fought the engines of a Star Destroyer, and won. The lower portion of his face was covered with a breathing mask to aid his respiration, an injury sustained whenever the rest of the damage had been done. Two tubes ran from the edges of the mask into the top of his body armour. Aruwn didn't dare contemplate where they went or what they did.
Without wanting to, and knowing he had no choice, Aruwn raised his face to look into the Dark Lord's eyes. Again, Aruwn was stunned by the anger and hatred he saw there, as he had been the first time they met. Not directed at him, and for that he was glad, but someone, or something, had angered this man beyond any level Aruwn had seen before. Even now, he could sense the coiled fury simmering just below the surface.
"Welcome aboard, my Lord. The Palpatine's Pride is yours."
"Set course for Arramon, Captain Aruwn. It is time for the Jedi to learn that the New Order has begun."
"At once, my Lord."
Lord Vader ignored his comment and swept past him, the twenty Stormtrooper honour guard in tow.
He sat in darkness in the Captain's quarters, his quarters, now that he had taken command of the starship. His hands clenched and unclenched on his knees as he stared at nothing, remembering the pain. He remembered the brightness of his earlier life, when he had been innocent, before he had met his Master. He had had another name then, a bright name.
Now, his name was Darth Vader. He remembered his other name though, the one his mother had given him. The image of her face danced before his eyes now, dragged from his memories by the tiny voice buried deep inside. The voice that told him what he was doing was wrong.
Shaking his head, he cleared the thoughts before the voice grew in strength, as it did in the darkest nights when he was alone, unable to sense his Master's thoughts. Touching a small switch on the panel next to him he activated the comm system.
"Yes, Lord Vader," the voice said on the other end.
"Arrival at Arramon?"
"We expect to arrive in a little more than 37 standard Coruscant hours."
"Inform me when we are ready to leave hyperspace. I wish to see this planet for myself."
"As you command, Lord Vader," the voice on the other end replied.
Darth Vader flicked the switch back to off and leant back into the chair. Working his way through a Jedi calming technique, he began to relax the muscles of his body, letting the pressures of the dark side lift for a moment. This technique had been all that had saved him after the damage his body had taken. His Master's med-techs had thought him beyond help, but his Master had told them otherwise, able to sense the depth of the trance he had placed himself into.
It was coming out of that trance that he had first heard his new name. His Master had called him by it as he awoke, used it to calm him, to help him separate the man he had been from the man he now was. That separation had been difficult, but he was whole again now, in spirit if not in body. His Master's med-techs had been unable to heal him entirely, and the mask had been the result. Even now, the current version was barely able to sustain him. The med-techs had been frantically designing a new mask when the call had come to take Arramon. Vader felt a strange eagerness for that new mask, whether despite the fact it covered his face entirely, or because of it, he wasn't sure.
As always happened when he let his mind wander, she appeared in his thoughts. The burning of his body was nothing compared to the burn on his soul. He remembered that day so clearly. Padm? had been behind Obi-Wan, trying to reach him, to tell him something, but she had been stopped. Obi-Wan had not allowed her to speak, had used the Force to silence her voice throughout their fight. Even now, several years later, he burned with the need to be with her, to hear her voice, to learn the words she had said. He wondered sometimes if it would have changed things, drawn him back to Obi-Wan's side, instead of the dark path he followed now.
It no longer mattered now. The oaths he had sworn to his Master bound him beyond anything the Jedi could offer, or do, to redeem him. Letting her image fill his mind, he slipped deeper into the healing trance, awaiting arrival at Arramon.
Kieran stood on the boarding ramp of the Angelfire, his daughter held softly in his arms. He was looking back at the majestic castle that housed the Jedi Council, his eyes discerning the gathered Masters as they waited for his ship to leave. The other transports were already on their way, several Padawan - including a promising young woman called Callista - in charge until they reached their new destination. The Angelfire was loaded with several families, including his own.
"Ready?" Syrenna said from just inside the ship.
"Just saying goodbye," Kieran said, turning to smile at her. "Your daughter wanted to see Thanus and tug his ears one more time."
"Oh, she did, did she?"
Syrenna took the little girl into her arms and wrapped her up tight. Kieran followed them into the hold of the ship where Syrenna passed Mara to their nanny. Kissing her lightly, Kieran turned and headed up to the cockpit with Syrenna, where they took the pilot and co-pilot seats as they had so many times before. Syrenna flipped several switches to start the pre-flight check whilst Kieran punched up the sensor package and the navicomp. Feeding in the course calculations, he set-up their path through to the hidden Jedi planet by several jump points; it didn't do any harm to play it safe. Just as the navicomp confirmed his course plots, Syrenna activated the repulsors and lifted the Anglefire off the pad into the night air. Glancing out of the cockpit one last time, Kieran saw Thanus wave before the Angelfire gained enough height to move into the clouded sky.
"Realspace in five seconds, four, three, two, one...."
Vader watched as the mottled tunnel of hyperspace reverted into extended starlines before collapsing back into single point stars. In the distance, rapidly approaching as the Star Destroyer decelerated from lightspeed was the planet Arramon. Vader could sense the presence of the Jedi on the planet.
"Only one vessel, outbound from the planet. All other sensors read negative."
"Dispatch a squadron of TIEs to deal with the ship. I want nothing to escape."
"At once, my Lord."
Captain Aruwn snapped to attention and turned away from Lord Vader to deliver his orders. Vader kept his gaze on the planet, reaching out through the Force, identifying those below.
The drop-ships split away from the TIEs as they headed for the freighter running out of the system. Lord Vader sat in silence on the only Lambda-class shuttle making the trip to the surface. He had sensed the presence of several Masters and Jedi that he had spent time with during his training. He knew that at least some of them had recognised his presence. Even they could not be so blind in the Force as to not know him. He reached out for a moment to the freighter as they passed it, and realised that he recognised someone there as well. It took him a moment to realise whom it was, and as soon as he did, he pulled the Force around him like a cloak, muffling his presence and identity. Now was not the time to face that one.
He looked at the view screen as the shuttle entered the atmosphere, his eyes tracking the castle structure that now housed the remnants of the Jedi Council. His Master had told him that they would be there, gathered in delusional devotion to their already crippled order. How sad that they did not realise whom his Master truly was. He had given them their new home, and they had thanked him, offered him their aid in the future. His Master had been furious that night when he returned, that they had the audacity to think they could aid him, the Master of the Sith. Vader had been amazed at the strength of the Force in Palpatine at that moment. Anger truly did make you stronger, he had learned. He let his own anger at the Jedi fill him, preparing him for the fight ahead.
Thanus sensed the presence before any of the others and felt a shiver run down his spine.
How could he be here? he wondered to himself as he unclipped the lightsaber at his belt.
"Is it really him?" Kurid asked, his lightsaber already drawn and lit as he entered the Council chambers.
"Yes. Feel the power can you not? So strong only Skywalker ever was," Thanus replied, glancing at the holo-display of the approaching ships. "Obi-Wan's message was real, seem it would."
"Then it is good that we got the children out when we did," Laerial said, entering the chamber. "The time has come."
"The darkness, for its victory shall it pay," Thanus said, lighting his own azure blade. "Come, approach the landing craft do."
The three members of the Council left the chambers, quickly joined by the remaining two members and the last of the Jedi still on world. They all arrived at the great entrance hall together.
"Now is the time, my friends. The Jedi, stand here they must, face the darkness they must, or lost is all," Thanus said, making his voice heard over the gathered throng.
"We are ready," a single knight said, from somewhere in the crowd. Her words echoed into silence for a moment until taken up by the rest of the gathered knights the hall echoing with the chant. Lightsabers were raised to the ceiling, the mix of blue and green bathing those gathered in their glow. Thanus smiled at their strength before turning towards the door.
Darth Vader, one-time Jedi Knight and now Dark Lord of the Sith, stepped onto the platform as it lowered to the grass below. The Stormtroopers had already disembarked and gathered, ready to storm the castle that held the Jedi. Vader could sense their presence, a blinding incandescence in the Force, and for a moment he felt as he had when he first became part of that group. The awe and intimidation of the gathered presence of Jedi, as he stood before them as a child. Even during his lessons with Obi-Wan, he had felt unsure of those around him. The name flared his anger again, fanning his hatred of the Jedi and their methods.
Standing at the end of the ramp, he motioned at the Stormtroopers standing to attention.
"I want no survivors."
The words were loud, but the energy behind them was even greater, lifting the Stormtroopers, infusing them with the Dark Lord's own hatred of the Jedi. In moments the Stormtroopers were running towards the castle, blasters firing at the few Jedi already outside. Vader walked behind them, his lightsaber drawn and ready.
Kieran sat in the cockpit of the Angelfire, his hands in a death grip on the cannon controls. Syrenna had her hands full trying to jink and manoeuvre the ship through the fighters swarming around her. He had felt a disturbance in the Force as they had slipped past the descending troop carriers, a darkness that was trying to conceal itself. He had wanted to turn back but Syrenna had said no. She wanted to protect their daughter, and he had to admit he loved her for that.
"Syrenna, dive right!" he said, spinning the upper starboard gun and vaporising one of the ships.
He felt pain at the thought that he was probably responsible for them being here, in the Arramon system. The ships were the same as those that he and Syrenna had faced in the Debron asteroid field. They must have tracked them somehow when they escaped.
His fingers squeezed the trigger again, his Jedi- enhanced abilities aiding him in clearing a path through the ships so that Syrenna could get to lightspeed. He felt that strange buzzing feeling again as two of the fighters zoomed close to the hull. He tried to remember who had mentioned that feeling before, but the memory would not come in the heat of this battle.
"Watch it!" Syrenna cried, bringing his attention back to the battle.
The Angelfire banked again, circling past the edge of one of the giant vessels that had arrived in system. Kieran had thought one was bad enough when they saw it in the Debron system. Now there were four.
"Dive port, now," he shouted, spinning the guns and tracking a feeling on the surface of the vessel.
Syrenna responded instantly to his command. Kieran was glad that she trusted his judgement in these situations. He felt a sudden tug on the ship, as if a tractor beam had grabbed them, and then they were moving again. He could see an explosion blossoming on the surface of the ship where he had fired at a moment before.
"Navicomp has co-ordinates for me," Syrenna said, punching a few buttons on the panel to her right.
"Then let's get out of here."
Syrenna nodded once and pulled down the lever. The Angelfire whined for a second, then the stars stretched out before catapulting them into the mottled tunnel of hyperspace.
Thanus dodged the blaster fire from one of the approaching Stormtroopers in time to see Jerrikaa shot down from behind. He felt a shiver in the Force at his death. They had been friends for many years, since Jerrikaa was a Padawan in fact. Laerial had warned them the darkness was coming, but Thanus felt despair at how complete it would be. He had felt Kieran escape into hyperspace, and that moment he locked away in his heart, using it as a point of hope to fight against the encroaching darkness.
He spun his blade again as he passed a hard-pressed young knight, taking the Stormtrooper's leg off and leaving him open for the knight to finish him off. He walked through the centre of the storm like the eye, calm in the knowledge that what he did was right.
Deflecting another blaster bolt, Thanus noticed a dark figure duelling with Laerial. He felt a shock of recognition.
Somehow the name did not feel right. That it was Skywalker was beyond doubt, but there was something else, something darker that seemed to blot out the boy's fire. Suddenly, he knew. The insight delivered to him from the Force made it clear as day.
"Vader!" he shouted, drawing the Dark Lord's attention.
Vader glanced across at him, before returning his attention to the battle at hand. Thanus watched in stunned silence as Laerial executed a stunning spin away from Vader's thrust, her lightsaber coming back in from high and right, lancing down towards the join between Vader's neck and shoulder.
With an ease born of great skill, Vader's crimson-silhouetted blade was back to block, forcing Laerial away from him with a Force-blast as he caught the attack. She was rocked for just a moment, long enough for Vader to spin his blade back and then round, slicing into Laerial before she had a chance to defend. Thanus watched without surprise as her clothes fell to the ground in a pile. He knew she would be one with the Force. It was her destiny.
Vader ignored the gathered pile of clothes and smashed his way through the few knights and Stormtroopers between him and Thanus.
Thanus could hear the sarcasm in the voice, despite the depth added from the mask, and the annoying breathing noise that seemed to continue in the background.
The crimson blade crashed down, caught easily by Thanus's azure saber, despite the difference in their sizes. Vader tried to force the blade down, but Thanus simply slid away from the attack, using his shorter stature to slip under Vader's defence and away.
"You will hold still."
Thanus felt the Force solidify about him, locking him still. Gathering his own strength, he pushed it away, freeing his movements, at least enough to dodge the next swipe from Vader's saber.
Setting himself for the next attack, Thanus felt a sharp pain in his side. Looking down he saw the rapidly expanding scorched hole from the blaster wound. Wrapping the Force about him, he let himself slip into its embrace. He had time to think of Kieran and the children before his luminous life-force joined with so many others who had been lost already that day.
Vader held the Stormtrooper nearly a metre off the ground without even touching him, his anger fierce. With one swift stroke of his blade he killed the man and let him fall to the ground.
"He was mine!" he said, turning back to the battlefield.
Around him were just Stormtroopers. Every Jedi was dead. Bodies littered the field in front of the Council building, though there were several piles of clothing as well. For a moment Vader envied their new closeness with the Force, but his anger soon suppressed that feeling. Striding away from the horrific scene he activated his communicator.
"The ship leaving the planet?"
"It escaped, my Lord," Captain Aruwn's voice said over the airwaves. "We have tracked their route, my Lord, and I believe we can catch them."
"You had better be right, Captain." Vader said, his voice clearly defining what would happen if the Captain was wrong.
"Have all the trooper's bodies been recovered?" Captain Aruwn said, glancing to his second-in-command.
"Yes, Sir." Commander Petre replied, clearly not looking at the man standing behind them.
"Very well, Captain," Lord Vader said, looking out the viewport at the planet below. "Destroy what remains of the Council chambers and the bodies down there. I want no trace remaining."
"At once, my Lord."
Captain Aruwn signalled for firing to commence, and blasts rained down from all four Star Destroyers on the spot where the Jedi Council chambers had been. Vader watched the scene impassively from the bridge of the Palpatine's Pride, his eyes unblinking as he watched the flames blossom from the surface.
"Dispatch a shuttle to follow that ship, Captain, and then set course for Annuvasa."
"As you command."
Vader whirled away from the bridge viewport and headed for his quarters. Captain Aruwn turned to his second in command.
"Take one of the Lambda-class shuttles from the bay and go after that hyperspace trajectory. Report in every day at seventeen hundred with details."
"At once, Captain!"
Commander Petre left the bridge and took a turbolift down to the hangar deck. He signalled two Imperial troopers, regular men rather than the unnerving Stormtroopers, and boarded the closest shuttle. A quick system check confirmed that the systems were all operational, including shields and weapons. Punching in the flight control activation command he lifted the shuttle off the deck and turned it out of the hangar. Once he was clear of the main docking bay he activated the wing extension lever, waiting for the telltale locking sound as the wings settled into position.
"Destination, Sir?" one of the troopers behind him asked.
"We are chasing the freighter that blasted out of here as we arrived. Lord Vader wishes to know where they have gone."
Petre punched in a few commands from the download on his datapad, using the co-ordinates that Captain Aruwn had given him, to give the navicomp the jump vector. The navicomp bleeped in confirmation of valid co-ordinates and Petre pulled the lever to activate the hyperdrive. In moments the shuttle was catapulted into hyperspace.
Kieran clutched the bulkhead of the cockpit, his heart pounding from the sudden, profound silence in the Force. He had only felt this kind of shock once before, during the Clone Wars, when a large number of Jedi had been killed in moments. Taking deep breaths he let himself settle into a trance. Images began to flash in his mind, as they always did when he opened himself to the Force. Impressions of danger, terror, pain, flickered through his mind's eye, before settling on a single image of Thanus, lying torn and close to death.
Kieran came out of the trance and was reaching for the controls of the ship before Syrenna grabbed his arm and stopped him. He turned to her, his eyes tight, his pain barely under control.
"We have to go back."
"No," Syrenna said firmly. "Those ships are back there. We go on, we get the children to safety. Then we go back. The Jedi can look after themselves."
Kieran didn't have the heart to tell her about his visions. He understood her concerns, her love for their child and the others they had on board. Again, Kieran found himself siding with his wife and daughter over the Jedi. He could feel the conflict inside between these two separate parts of his life.
Inspiration hit him a moment later.
"Syrenna, we are meeting one of the other transports in a few hours, right?"
"Yes. They have dropped off the first group of children and are moving on to their next site. We offered to travel with them during that phase of their journey."
"Good. When they arrive, establish a dock with them and transfer all the children across."
"Please, Syrenna. Thanus needs me, I can't abandon him again."
He saw the shot hit in her eyes, and hated himself for doing it.
"You can't pilot her alone."
"I can, and I will." Kieran said, firmly. "Our daughter needs at least one of her parents with her."
"No fair," Syrenna said, rising from her pilot seat and wrapping her arms around him.
"Come on Syrenna. You know I always come back, and so does the Angelfire."
"Yeah, just not always in one piece."
Kieran smiled and held Syrenna closer, glad she had accepted his choice.
Kieran sat alone in the cockpit of the Angelfire. The monitor screen showed Syrenna sitting in a chair on the Artinau, with Mara on her knees.
"I'll be back soon, I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," Syrenna replied, smiling back at him.
"Bye-bye, papa," the little girl said.
"Bye-bye, my little jewel."
"I love you, Kieran," Syrenna said, touching her hand to the camera.
Kieran touched a hand to the screen in front of him as the communication signal terminated, then punched in the docking release. The Angelfire detached with a hiss of gas, as the small amount of atmosphere in the docking ring was released into space. Grabbing the control stick, he turned and dropped two hundred metres from the Artinau and then punched in the sub-light drives. Glancing once at the rear viewport indicator he entered the co-ordinates for Arramon and pulled the hyperspace lever. The Angelfire disappeared into a whirl of stars.
"Chancellor Palpatine, Chancellor Palpatine!"
Supreme Chancellor Palpatine stopped in the corridor on the outside edge of the Senate Building. The two guards next to him--now dressed in the new red guard uniform instead of the original purple one--paused with him, their hands resting on the Force Pikes on their shoulders.
"What is it...?" Palpatine said, looking at the young man.
"Ah yes, Liat. What is it?"
"Terrible news, Sir, just arrived from Lord Vader."
Palpatine watched the young man with barely concealed impatience.
"The Jedi Council, Sir. They've been destroyed. The report indicates that Lord Vader has been unable to discover who did it."
Well done, my apprentice.
"Very well," he said out loud. "Convene the Senate. We must consider what needs to be done to curb this increase in violence. I do not wish to see another battle on the scale of the Clone Wars this soon after the last."
"At once, Chancellor."
Liat disappeared back down the corridor. Palpatine walked immediately to the next exit and headed towards his private office in the next circle of corridor. Stepping through the door, the guards remained outside, turning to watch the corridor as the door closed.
Subdued lighting bathed the room in a luminous glow, reflecting from the material he had imported from Naboo. Moving across the room he activated the holo-projector and punched in the code for the encrypted channel to Annuvasa and Lord Vader's personal compound. It took several moments for the connection to go through before an image of Vader appeared.
"The Jedi were not ready for us and easily defeated. Laerial and Thanus fell to my own blade. The Jedi will no longer trouble us. There were no Padawan or children on the planet at the time we arrived."
"That was expected. Laerial was always sensitive to echoes of the future in the Force. They would have removed the younger ones first." Palpatine paused for a moment before continuing in a voice almost low enough to be a whisper. "Dreen?"
Vader hesitated before responding, enough that Palpatine was not happy.
"He was not on planet when the attack came. I have sent someone to trace him."
"Intelligence said he had returned, apprentice."
Vader's hesitation again angered Palpatine. He was obviously searching for an answer that would not anger him further.
"He was on a vessel heading out of the system when we arrived. I dispatched three TIEs to intercept. They were lost."
"Three. Three," Palpatine said, his voice quivering. "I have foreseen that he could possibly be the most dangerous Jedi against my cause, and you assigned only three TIEs to destroy him! I taught you better than that, apprentice. Report to me immediately. It is time I taught you a new lesson: what happens when you fail me."
Palpatine cut off the communication before Vader could respond, his anger seething below the surface. He hadn't been this angry since Maul had failed in his attempt to kill the two Jedi and Amidala. Maintaining his outer calm would prove interesting during the coming Senate meeting. Feelings would be running high because of this incident.
Moving to the computer terminal across from the holo-projector, Palpatine entered in his personal keycode. Navigating through his file structure he pulled up the speech he had written, nearly a year ago when he had first decided that the Jedi needed to be finished for his dream to come true. Scanning the speech he made a few corrections for timing and location and then transferred it to the datapad he had with him. He would need it for the Senate meeting.
Shutting down the computer, he slipped the datapad into a pocket of his robes and left through the main door. His two guards settled into position behind him as he headed for the main Council chambers. The Senate had only finished a session an hour ago, so most of the Senators were still within the building. A few would be late to arrive, but that was the same at every meeting.
Palpatine stopped in front of the door that led to his personal pod. Keying it open he stepped through and onto it. His guards joined him, taking up their positions to either side. Palpatine had decided as soon as he took the position of Chancellor that he wouldn't allow the sycophants or silly diplomats to whisper in his ear whilst the Senate was in session. Valorum had made that mistake and it had cost him his leadership. Now he was a Senator that most people simply ignored. A vote of no confidence could be very damaging to a political career.
He could hear the rising voices in the gathered chamber, no specifics, but a general hum of noise. Punching in the code to make the platform rise, Palpatine prepared to put on the best act of his life, visions of his future echoing in his mind.
The Angelfire broke back into normal space and dove towards the surface of Arramon.
"Jedi transport Omega-34-Alpha-10 to Unity Base, come in Unity Base."
Kieran waited for a response, but there was only static.
"Repeat, Omega-34-Alpha-10 to Unity Base. Come in, this is Kieran Dreen."
Kieran felt the despair creep into his heart as the static continued. Punching the Angelfire up to full speed, he ripped through the outer atmosphere of the planet and dove towards the Council building. As he passed the last layer of cloud he felt a sharp pain in his heart
Spread out before him, where before there had been clear fields and a beautiful building, was a scorched stretch of land. Small fires still flickered in some areas, and what looked like remains of bodies littered the land.
The Angelfire settled onto the burned earth and Kieran ran from the opening hatch, landing before it had fully opened. He stared about in blank incomprehension, the scale of destruction beyond anything he had seen, even during the Clone Wars.
Kieran stepped carefully between the charred remains, looking for anything that would identify the bodies. One pile of clothing caught his attention ahead of all the others and he knelt beside it, lifting it out of the ashes into his arms. Very little remained, except for a simple brooch that Kieran had passed to Thanus on the day he had married Syrenna. Kieran sensed the truth the moment his fingers touched it. Here was Master Thanus, his teacher in the Force, his confidant when he had professed his love for Syrenna and his wish to marry her. He felt that ache in his heart again as he held the brooch close for a moment. His mind shied from the devastation around him, trying to distance his heart from what he saw, but the Force told him all he needed to know about the death of those he had been close to.
"What happened here?" he whispered to himself, his eyes trying to make sense of the tangle of bodies and charred clothes around him.
"Destroyed by the Sith we were."
Kieran span around, lightsaber out and lit in seconds. He let it drop to his side and turn off as he recognised the apparition standing near him.
"Master." His voice was strangled as emotion choked off his air.
"No longer, my friend. One with the light I am now," Thanus said, waving his ghostly hand.
"Who did this? Who were those people in the ships?"
"Darth Vader and his troops. Came as you left they did."
Kieran felt a surge through his body, felt the anger grow in his mind.
"Where can I find them?" he said, clenching his hands, his lightsaber quivering from the pressure he was applying.
Thanus paused as he looked at him.
"Close to the edge do you tread, my friend. Darkness in you do I sense. Beware that Vader on the dark side join you do not."
"Never, Master. I could never join with the ones who did this," Kieran answered, though the anger in him betrayed the lie in his words.
"Should on this path you continue, have no choice you may. Decisions carefully you must weigh before you act. Rushing after him aid you will it not, nor those you love."
"What do you mean?" Kieran said, the anger drifting away almost instantly at Thanus's words.
"To Syrenna you should go. You she needs more than we do. Gone are we, nothing can bring us back. Still here she is, to her you must go."
"But Vader..." Kieran said, still wishing to seek vengeance for his fallen comrades.
"Yours must the choice be, Kieran, but risk the entire future you do, if you choose wrongly."
Kieran stood in silence a moment, aware that somehow he was teetering on the edge of a great abyss even whilst he stood on solid ground.
"Then I shall go to my wife."
"Good luck, friend."
Kieran ran to the Angelfire and had it off the ground in minutes. Thanus watched it blast into the sky.
"You lied to him."
"No, Laerial. The truth I did tell, from my point of view. Different his entire future would have been if just this part had changed." Thanus paused and turned to look at the other Jedi Master. "Better this time together they get."
"He must see to himself then," Laerial said. She held out a hand to her fellow Jedi Master. "Come, we can no longer stay on this plane."
Thanus clasped her hand as Laerial's image began to shimmer and fade. "Ah, but miss it I shall Laerial, miss it I shall."
Vader watched the HoloNet of his Master's announcement as the Palpatine's Pride travelled through hyperspace to Coruscant. His master, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, was in the Senate, releasing the information about this ship and the others in the fleet. The delay meant that these events had taken place several hours earlier.
"My friends, the loss of the Jedi Council and all that this foreshadows, has left me shaken."
The camera cut to several shots of the gathered senators on their pods.
"I have been building a new fleet of ships, a force to police our systems, to aid the Republic in just these kind of situations. The Clone Wars proved we were not ready for true war. I have taken the first steps to protect ourselves from future danger."
The Senate was filled with noise, a mixture of applause and jeering. Vader knew that his master would be pinpointing those that had jeered.
"Even now, the first of these vessels is approaching Coruscant, ready to place itself at our disposal. Under the command of Lord Vader, it shall hunt down those that destroyed the Jedi and bring them to justice."
Another mixed response from the Senate didn't surprise Vader. He wondered if they were jeering him or the idea of bringing justice for the Jedi. The Clone Wars had severely damaged the Jedi's reputation with the general public. Only those in high power--Palpatine, Valorum, some of the other Senators who had died in the wars--knew what the Jedi had really done during those battles. Their sacrifice had been enormous, and Vader knew that he was a part of that. He thought again of that little boy on Tatooine, sitting on the edge of the balcony, waiting for Qui-Gon to finish tending to his cut. Had he known then what Qui-Gon had really been looking for he wondered if he would have left his mother to follow the Jedi.
"Sir, we are approaching the Republic capital."
Vader shook himself from the reverie he had slipped into and keyed off the HoloNet transmission.
"Send word to Chancellor Palpatine that we have arrived and place us in orbit."
"At once," Captain Aruwn said.
Vader rose from his seat and headed to the shuttle bay. Once settled into the small Lambda-class shuttle, he slipped back into his healing trance.
"Sir, we've docked at Platform 5. Chancellor Palpatine has sent a sky-taxi for you."
Vader looked about, acutely aware that he had let down his defences during his trance. Brushing away the concerned look on the pilot's face, he strode out of the shuttle and into the sky-taxi. As soon as the door shut, it shot off, joining one of the many lanes of traffic criss-crossing the planets surface. It took ten minutes to reach Palpatine's office.
"Ah, my Apprentice," Palpatine said as one of the guards showed him in. Palpatine waved at the guard. "Leave us."
As the guard left the room, Vader dropped to one knee and lowered his head. Palpatine came closer and reached a single hand forward. Vader knew what was coming and attempted to relax his muscles, but the searing electrical blast still caused him to arch backwards and cry out in pain. He could feel the tiny motors that drove his breath mask stutter under the electrical onslaught.
It was gone almost as suddenly as it started, leaving him kneeling with both his hands on the floor in front of him. His breath mask continued to flutter as it responded to his body's attempt to gasp for breath, a result of the pain that hadn't been allowed for in the design.
"I am not pleased, Lord Vader. Dreen is a danger, I have foreseen it. He must be dealt with. I gave you that honour, believing you to be worthier than my previous Apprentice. It seems you have disappointed me much as he did. Must I remind you again what it means to displease me?"
"No, my Master. I will not fail you again. I have already sent word to those who broker information. If Dreen comes looking for me, and he will after what happened at Arramon, he will find me. And I will be ready."
The silence from Palpatine was touchable, and Vader could sense the coiled anger in the room. Keeping his head lowered he pressed on.
"Dreen will die by my hand, my Master, and his child shall be yours. As you have foreseen, so shall it come to pass."
"Ah, yes, the child. Do you have her location yet?"
"No, my Master, but the man who has been sent to search out Dreen's location is due to report within the next day on their location."
"Good. She is the key, Vader. I have foreseen that she will be the difference between my survival and the loss of everything I have worked for. Bring me her location as soon as you have it. I will go for her myself."
"As you command, my Master."
"Now, leave. I wish to be alone."
Vader rose to his feet and backed away, wary of turning his back on this man. Twice now he had felt that lightning, and once was more than enough for any man.
"And do not fail me again, Apprentice."
Vader closed the door as he left and felt a shudder down his spine. Once more he considered the choice he had made. Even now, Palpatine's actions did not weigh enough on the scale of the balance he pursued to change his mind and force him to leave. Pushing the thoughts from his mind, he headed for the taxi to his shuttle.
Commander Petre, second-in-command of the Palpatine's Pride, punched in the co-ordinates registered by the last trace on the fleeing ship.
A tip-off from a local smuggler had informed him of the meeting between the transport vessel and the freighter he had been following. Upon reporting the news, Lord Vader had ordered him to continue following the transport vessel. Knowing better than to argue with a superior, especially one of Lord Vader's standing--his ability to sense thoughts and his supernatural capability to move things with his mind still gave him chills--he had done as ordered and followed the transport vessel.
Now, he had the co-ordinates for the planet it had chosen to stop at. Out on the Rim, the planet was called Lurio, sparsely populated, with several continents of dense vegetation over the southern regions. The northern continents were made up of equal vegetation and barren regions. Its rotational cycle meant that the northern regions saw constant daylight for nearly a third of a solar cycle before it settled into a more day-night affair.
Flipping the hyperdrive lever, Petre made the final jump from the edge of the system towards the planet. He performed a quick double-check on the sliced ship identity codes the smuggler had provided him. They indicated that he was registered as the Errant Folly, a small haulage shuttle with hyperdrive functioning out of Aridon, a small system only three days travel from Lurio.
The jump took only minutes before the gravity warning came on and Petre slipped the ship back into normal space for the approach to the planet. Several vessels were in orbit, including the transport he had been following. Several stealth scans revealed no signs of the previous passengers; the holds and housing were all empty.
"Errant Folly, this is Lurio Control. Please state your homeport, destination, and reason for visit."
"Lurio Control, this is Kris Etrin of the Errant Folly. We are three days out of Aridon, with perishable goods for delivery to Gratiln Station."
"Transmit your manifest for inspection."
Petre entered the manifest code and details, glad that he had taken the time to complete this back-story before making the final jump. He waited patiently for the response he knew would come.
"Errant Folly, this is Lurio Control. You are cleared for docking at Pad 7, Gratiln Station. Please rig your ship for slave control and we will bring you in."
"Lurio Control, the Errant Folly is yours."
Assigning control of the vessel to Lurio Control, Petre slipped out of his seat and into the rear hold. His two escort troopers were already in civilian clothes, holdout blasters and several other non-visible but lethal weapons concealed about them. Petre pulled on his over-cloak and sealed the clasp, carefully designed with the new Imperial logo.
"Here is our mark," he said, handing a printed flimsy-plast to each of the men. "The woman is Syrenna Dreen, smuggler, pilot, and wife of Jedi Master Kieran Dreen. The girl is their daughter, Mara Dreen."
"Good looking woman," one of the men said, leering at the other guy.
"Touch her, and you will die," Petre said, recognising the look. "Lord Vader has asked us to find them and let him know where they are. We are not to touch them, hurt them, or even let them know we are here. Understand?"
Petre wondered if he would ever cause that level of fear in another man as he looked at their faces. It was obvious the mention of Lord Vader's name had cowed them.
Petre reached a hand next to him for a second to steady himself as the shuttle reached the landing pad. He waited for the signal on the shuttle bay door before punching the release button and opening the ramp.
"I'll deal with the station officials. Find the woman and the girl."
Petre walked over towards the approaching official as his two men melted into the crowds wandering past the landing pads.
Syrenna checked her holster again as she hid in the darkness of the alley. The reassuring presence of her blaster helped her as she watched the two men moving through the crowded street. One of the Padawans had identified them only two days after they had arrived. Their intentions had been clear in the Force, so they said, and Syrenna had learned to believe them. Staying still until they were gone, and then waiting for another minute to make sure they didn't backtrack through the crowd as she left, Syrenna slipped out of the alley and headed towards the north end of town.
The building she stopped outside of was very plain, a simple entry into a square building, just like every other one on the street. Her hand passed across the access panel in a brief wave, the sensor reading her DNA and opening the door.
"Trouble?" Callista asked as Syrenna entered.
"Nothing. I nearly ran into those two men the Padawan have seen around town. They are definitely looking for something."
"You, Syrenna, I've told you that."
Syrenna glanced back at the closed door to the street and tried to peer through it, her annoyance at being stalked causing her to simmer under the skin.
"That's it. Gather a few of the better Padawans and have them watch the children. Then, you are going to come with me."
"Where?" Callista asked, joining Syrenna as she walked down the corridor.
"We're going to give them what they want," Syrenna said, patting her blaster and grinning. "Me."
Commander Petre sat at the blinking console, his two men gathered behind him in the darkened room.
"Tell me again!"
"She is here. We've seen her on several occasions, but she has been adept at avoiding us." The officer paused for a moment, glancing at his companion. "So far."
Petre nodded at the tacked-on sentiment, acknowledging the statement his man had just made.
"We can confirm the presence of several Jedi children and a number of Padawan. They are hiding somewhere to the north of the city."
"Good. Wait for me outside."
The two guardsmen saluted and left the room, leaving Petre alone with the console. Punching a few digits into the keypad to the side, he waited for the connection to complete.
"Archon Base. Proceed."
"Commander Petre, Code Alpha-Seven Grand. Reporting on location of Jedi remnants."
"Located stronghold of Jedi children. Lurio, Sixth Quadrant, Gratiln Station."
"Data received. Proceed with original mission parameters."
Petre keyed off the console and leaned back in the chair. He watched the remaining glow on the console fade after it shut down.
"Proceed with original mission parameter," he copied, making his voice a little nasal. He couldn't believe that his report had been received with so little response.
Standing up, he walked to the door and opened it.
"Hire some local muscle. I want to be able to report that we have them in custody the next time we're due to communicate with Archon."
"How will we find them?"
"Leave that to me."
Kieran sat in silence at the table, his cloak wrapped about him. The serving droid had delivered his drink a few moments before, but he found no interest in it. He was waiting for the contact that would tell him the final location of Syrenna, Mara, and the other Jedi children. Across from him in one of the other booths were several Trandoshans. He could smell them from here, especially with his senses heightened by the Force. Since entering the tapcaf he had felt uneasy. Something was wrong and he didn't like it.
The booth next to him had several unsavoury characters in it. Two Weequay, a Devaronian, and a human had their heads together discussing what to do with some money they had come into. Kieran was about to place them outside his sphere of interest when something the large human said caught his attention.
"So, this man, Petre he called himself, wanted to know where that refugee transport was headed, like. I couldn't believe my luck. Here I was, only just takin' on the task to pass on the location of these people to the one comin' after them, and here it was."
"Karon, you gren, that weren't no refugee transport, that were Jedi I tell ya," the Devaronian said.
"Nah, not Jeedi," one of the Weequay responded, "Too young, even the woman. Not Jeedi."
"Don't matter much," Karon said, slapping his ample belly for emphasis. "Just glad to have some scrip to pay for my next meal, like."
Kieran slipped from his table and walked to the booth Karon was sitting in. He wrapped the Force about him as a cloak, clouding his presence from the others in the tapcaf.
"Karon, you have information for me," he said, passing his hand in front of him to influence the man's weak mind.
"I have information for you," Karon said, looking up at Kieran with a blank expression.
"Tell me where the refugee transport went."
"No, Karon. No tell the Jeedi," one of the Weequay said, rising from his own seat in the booth and facing Kieran. The other rose behind him.
"You not welcome here, Jeedi, you and your tricks. You leave."
"After you tell me where the refugee transport has gone," Kieran said, calmly, passing his hand across him towards the Weequay.
"Your ploy is obvious to me, Jeedi. I have spent time with the Toydarians, they have taught me your trickery."
"I just need the location. Give it to me and I will leave." Kieran could feel his anger trying to stir in the depths of his mind. He was worried for his wife; this Petre sounded like he could be trouble.
Kieran turned to the Devaronian. So far, he had been silent during the exchange, but Kieran felt he was the true leader of the team.
"I have no credits on me at this time," Kieran said, patting his clothing.
"Your weapon. Let me see it."
Kieran reached his hand down to his lightsaber. A simple affair, it was about twelve inches in length, covered in grip and then encased in a simple shroud that extended on two sides beyond the emitter. He had made it whilst studying as a Padawan under Master Thanus. He caressed it for a moment and then threw it to the Devaronian. His wife was more important than a weapon. He could build another.
"Yes, a lightsaber. It works, yes?"
"The thumb switch has two settings, locked on and dead-man switch," Kieran said, indicating the red power switch. "The blade is just under a metre in length. The power pack must be charged once every cycle."
"This lightsaber is good. I will hold it until you have credits. When you come back with credits, I will give you lightsaber and location of transport."
"No," Kieran said, his anger bubbling to the surface for a moment. The words of Master Yoda came to him then for an instant, and he centred himself, wrapping the Force about him, through him, calming the core of his being.
"No?" the Devaronian said. "I have lightsaber. You have nothing. We do not fall for your tricks. Leave and come back with credits. All will be well."
Kieran felt powerless, constrained by the precepts of his faith, the teachings of his Master. He could see no way to resolve this peacefully.
"Give the Jedi his blade."
Kieran glanced up to see a tall, lean man with short hair and a close-trimmed beard standing to one side of the booth. Several men were arrayed behind him. Kieran sensed that they knew how to handle themselves.
"This is no business of yours, Erinan. You and your band are not welcome on Aridon."
"But Likana, you make this my business. I was the man contracted for this job; not fat Karon here. You have stolen my money, and I intend to take it back."
"Leave now Erinan, or you will be made to leave," Likana said, his horns twitching.
Kieran sensed rather than saw the crew approaching from behind them. He could feel the apprehension from the thugs in front of him, and knew violence was about to come. Reaching out with the Force, he pulled the lightsaber from Likana's grip, igniting it in the air, ready to block the first crimson bolt racing across the room.
Erinan and his troop were moving before the first deflected bolt hit the wall. Two of his men were laying down a fire pattern, dropping the thugs approaching from the rear. Erinan had already shot Karon and was using the booth as cover to fire on the two Weequays who had dived behind the table.
Likana roared and ran at Kieran, a vibroblade in his hand. Kieran did not even think, letting the Force pull him into its flow, side stepping the thrust and removing the Devaronian's arm with a single blow. He could hear one of the serving droids crying, "No blasters, no blasters," but it was clearly too late for that. The few remaining patrons who hadn't run from the tapcaf were now joining in the fight, not caring which side they were on.
"Go, Jedi!" Erinan cried, dropping one of the Weequays. "The transport is on Lurio, Sixth Quadrant, Gratiln Station. They're waiting for you."
"Thank you, I won't forget this!"
"Glad to hear that. I might need a favour someday."
Kieran nodded once, diving from his place towards the doorway to the street. He deflected several more blaster bolts on the way out, before turning off his blade and sprinting down the street towards the docking platforms and the Angelfire. Behind him, Planet Security were converging on the tapcaf.
"Good luck," he whispered with a final glance back.
The warehouse was empty and unused. Syrenna had made sure of that before choosing it as the place to face the men searching for them. Callista had arranged for word of this location to leak out into the tapcafs and bars around the station, certain that the enemy would take the bait.
Now, a day later, Syrenna was hiding in the shadows watching three men enter the warehouse from the far end, through a window of all things.
Amateurs, she thought, shaking her head slightly.
"Spread out, search the area. They must be here somewhere."
Syrenna marked the man who gave the order, singling him out from the other two. Staying in the shadow of the packing crate, she signalled to Callista who was on one of the crosswalks overhead. Seeing the tiny flash of light that showed her readiness, Syrenna stepped out boldly from behind the crate straight into the path of one of the men.
"I believe you've been looking for me."
Instead of the moment of confusion and surprise she had expected, the man responded instantly, his blaster coming up and firing in a fraction of a second. Only her own responses saved her, arching her back as she spun away from the shot, using the momentum of the move to whip out her leg and kick the gun from his hand. The man let it go, advancing on her instead of scrambling after the weapon. His hand dipped to a sheath at his belt and he pulled out a vibroblade. Syrenna dropped into a simple fighting stance, balancing her weight evenly between her legs, raising her hands, open, waiting for his attack.
He moved swiftly, leading with the knife, following with a blow from his fist. Syrenna blocked the knife attack only to get caught with the follow-up, which knocked her back and left her face stinging. Her respect for her assailant went up as she shook off the attack. She waited for his next move, concentrating more than before. He came in again, this time with a front kick, followed by a swinging knife. Syrenna simply backed away from the kick, then stepped back in behind the swinging blade, launching out with a stiff hand punch at his throat. She caught a glancing blow as he ducked away. She could see the surprise on his face as he rubbed the point of contact.
"Petre, she's over here!" her attacker shouted.
Cursing under her breath, Syrenna exploded into action, slipping past the man's guard and disarming him. She locked him up into a hold, her blaster whipping from her holster to point at his head, just as the other two men came around the corner.
"Don't move, or he's dead!" she said, praying they wouldn't call her bluff. She didn't want to kill him in cold blood.
"That won't be a problem," the man who had given the original order said.
"Petre?" the man in her arms asked, his voice quivering.
"For the honour of the Empire!" Petre said, drawing his blaster and firing.
Syrenna fell backwards, the man's dead weight dropping her to the floor, his body on top of hers. Her blaster clattered away across the floor, knocked from her hand in the moment of impact.
"And now, my dear, you will tell me where the rest of the refugees are," Petre said, stepping forward to stand over her, his blaster trained on her face.
"Get her up and bring her with us," Petre said from below. "Make sure you don't try to make trouble," he added, waving his blaster at Syrenna again. "I have no problem with killing you if I have to."
Callista waited until they had dragged Syrenna to the door and slipped out into the street. Stepping to the edge of the platform, she somersaulted to the ground, using the Force to cushion her landing. Re-attaching her lightsaber to her belt, she sprinted to the door and leant against it, opening it a fraction to catch a glimpse of the men heading towards a street seven metres further down on the right. Wrapping the Force about her to mask her presence, a technique she had learnt under Master Kieran's guidance, she stepped out into the street and followed them.
Several streets later, and after having to duck into hiding twice--no matter how much she used the Force, she had not fully given it her trust--Callista saw them enter a storefront. She dropped the Force cloak, assumed the posture of a shopper trawling through the streets and entered the store. It was selling material for clothing, rather drab and unremarkable, but Callista made a pretence of examining it as she watched the men disappear into the back room with Syrenna. Cursing that she couldn't follow--she could see at least one guard on the door--she slipped back out of the shop. Walking casually down the street until she rounded the corner, she ran down an alley beside the store. On one side was a dumpster, tall enough that it would give her access to the roof if she could jump high enough. Using the Force she reached the rooftop and crept along until she could see the back entrance to the shop. She watched for the next five minutes to make sure that the men didn't leave. Convinced that this was their base of operations, she vaulted to the next roof over and set off for the building that contained the other refugees and her fellow Jedi.
"Unidentified freighter, this is Lurio Control. Identify yourself and reduce your speed."
"Lurio Control, this is the freighter Angelfire, requesting immediate clearance for docking at Gratiln Station."
"Negative, Angelfire. The holding pattern for docking at Gratiln Station is full. Please maintain your orbit. You will be contacted when the pattern has room for you."
"Not good enough!" Kieran said, flicking off the comm switch and bringing the Angelfire up to full power.
"Angelfire, Lurio Control. Reduce speed and heave-to immediately or we will be forced to fire upon you."
Kieran checked the sensor readings for the orbital defence platforms for Lurio. Several were within range of his ship, but the power readings indicated that he could probably withstand a couple of hits before his shields buckled. Dialling up the power to his thrusters again, Kieran slid back into the pilot's chair and held on as the Angelfire plummeted through the defence line.
"Repeat, heave-to immediately or we will open fire. This is your last warning."
Ignoring the incoming message Kieran kept on course for Gratiln Station. He saw the first lances of light spray out from the defence station nearest him, but whoever was firing had not allowed for his speed and the shot passed harmlessly behind his ship as it drove towards the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the next shot was on target and sparks flew around the cockpit as the shields tried to compensate for the amount of energy that had just piled into them. Kieran checked his readings and whistled. The hit had been more powerful than he had expected. Either the Angelfire's sensor package was faulty, which he doubted, or the Lurio techs had been deliberately emitting a reduced power signature. Bleeding some of the energy from his laser power bank he transferred it over to the shields, boosting them back to full strength. He bled some of it over to his engines as well, dialling them up to 120 percent. The additional boost carried him past the defence perimeter range in a matter of seconds.
Kieran checked his sensors again as he entered the atmosphere of the planet. Three blips had appeared, indicating that several ships had been dispatched to deal with him. Ignoring them, since they were still too far away to reach him before he touched down, he drove onwards towards the station. Flicking on his comm switch, he changed over to the Jedi comm frequency and began transmitting.
"Kieran to Syrenna, come in Syrenna."
Only static came back across the airwaves.
"Repeat, Kieran to Syrenna. Come in Syrenna."
Kieran waited again, trying to reach out to her through the Force.
"Master Dreen, this is Padawan Arn. Please follow the beacon to the landing port. I will clear this incident with the Lurio Planetary Patrol."
"Once you are on the ground. Arn out."
Kieran grinned despite himself. Arn had always been one of his favourite apprentices at the academy. Pragmatic and to the point, the young Bothan had often alienated many of the senior Jedi Masters. Kieran had liked him for that very reason. In recent decades the Jedi had become even more pompous than before and Padawan like Arn gave him some hope for the future. Switching over his ship's beacon to track the landing beacon Arn had activated, Kieran guided his ship down to the planet's surface and landed. Activating the auto-shutdown procedure he pulled on his robe and sprinted to the airlock. In minutes the ship was locked behind him and he was in a cab heading towards the refugee building.
Pulling up outside a small entrance Kieran paid the cab and walked to the door. As he was about to knock it opened and he saw a young woman arguing with another man behind the young apprentice holding it.
"Finally," she said, turning to him. "It's about time you got here. Syrenna is a hostage in a building on the other side of town."
Kieran sighed, feeling the tension build in the back of his neck again. Checking his lightsaber, he looked at the girl as he strode back out the door.
Callista nodded once and followed him out into the street.
The first of the twin suns had already dipped below the horizon of Annuvasa, leaving the second balancing on the edge, ready to drop. Vader stood alone on the battlements of the ruined Sith castle, his cloak flapping about him in the breeze that raced through the dusk air. In the distance he could see the lights of the Imperial compound, and the occasional shuttle making the journey to the gathered ships in orbit. It was strange how this planet, having twin suns so much like those of Tatooine, his home, could have such a different climate. Trees abounded, as well as great grass plains, and the temperature stayed more within human norm. Sometimes he missed that place, missed the simple life he had had there, with his mother.
Ignoring the continuous hustle of activity he turned his concentration to the holo-picture in the palm of his hand. He had started to take off his glove to hold it, but the scars on his hands had made him cringe and the glove had remained on. Pushing the on switch, he waited the moment it took for the image to form.
"Ah, my sweet Padm?, how I miss you," he whispered, staring into her face, his eyes drinking the image, trying to capture it and give it life.
"Where are you now? With Kenobi, hidden from me behind his shield, his lies?"
The image flickered for a moment, as if caught by some great wind, before stabilising again. Vader used all of his willpower to calm the seething force that threatened to consume him at times. He sealed the anger away, forcing it down despite the pain it caused him to remain calm, the pain he always felt whenever the Force didn't rage through him.
"Lord Vader, we have an incoming transmission from Alpha-Seven Grand. Priority one."
Vader thumbed the switch on the holo-picture and then activated his comlink.
"Acknowledged. I am returning to base."
Minutes later, Vader strode into the comm centre of the Imperial base. Display screens, coding and de-coding systems littered the space, testimony to the Emperor's need for secrecy at this time. One of the technicians in the far corner waved him over. Angered by the familiarity of the man, Vader pushed him away, putting the Force behind the move, sending the man flying across the room.
"Lord Vader, we have that transmission for you," another technician said, standing to stiff attention, not even letting his eyes stray towards the groaning technician lying on the floor several feet away.
"Very good, Technician. Decode and display."
One of the comm screens shimmered for a moment before activating, displaying Commander Petre.
"Lord Vader. We have captured the woman, Syrenna Dreen, and are currently interrogating her to obtain the location of the Jedi refugees and the Jedi Kieran Dreen. I will report on our progress in three hours. Transmission ends."
"Where are they?" Vader asked, turning to another monitor that had a map of the galaxy on it.
"Lurio, near the Rim."
Vader looked at the screen and let the Force flow through him, let it take him into its echoes, trying to discern what he really wanted to know.
"Dispatch the Eye."
"They are there, all of them. The Dreen woman would not be far from them, not this soon after fleeing the Jedi Council. Send the Eye to gather the Emperor's children."
"At once, Lord Vader. You do understand that it will take at least a week to reach completion on the project before launch can occur."
"I understand," Vader said, not even looking at the technician. "Lurio is simply a starting point. The Eye will go where we need it to go, whether it gets the children there or anywhere else they run."
Vader looked at the screen again, clenching his fist at his side. He fought the urge to run from the room, to board the first ship he could find and go to Lurio himself. His Master had tasked him with completing the fleet, preparing the last of the ships for deployment to Coruscant, ready for when he would seize power. Besides, Kieran would not be far from his wife, and when they provided word that he was found, the word of his Master would be as nothing. Kieran would be the last, the last reminder of those he had been closest to growing up, the last of those he had spent time with during his years as an apprentice. Once Kieran was gone, only two would remain. Two that he would need to find, to destroy. Two to end the cycle, to leave only him and his Master.
Whirling from the console, Vader strode from the room, intent on pushing forward with the task of completing the fleet.
Syrenna clutched her knees to her chest to try and calm the shivers. What little remained of her ragged clothing she had arranged to maintain some level of privacy from the two men who had interrogated her.
The cell she found herself in was dark, dank and cold, a condition not helped by the shock her system was going into. Her left eye was swollen shut, her lips were split and dried blood covered her lower jaw and neck. She could sense the welts on her back, gladly free of material. She wasn't sure she could face having her back touched again.
It had seemed so easy when she had outlined her plan to Callista. Allow one of the three men to capture her and use that opportunity to gain information about why they were after her and the others. Callista would be nearby and ready to come to her aid if things went wrong.
From the beginning it hadn't been right. The death of the man she had fought, by his own commander, had not really surprised her, though she had wanted to avoid bloodshed. Many military organisations were quite brutal with the way they dealt with failures.
What had happened as soon as she entered the building had surprised her though.
The door closed, and she felt her balance go as the man pushed her from behind. The push was harder than she had expected, and her face slammed into the wall in front of her. The world exploded in pain as she felt her lips split open. She could feel the blood dribbling onto her chin. The blow to the back of her neck dropped her to the floor, trying to clutch her face and neck at the same time, a task she found impossible with her hands tied. Before she had a moment to catch her breath, she felt hands grab her by the hair and drag her upwards along the wall.
"Come with me," Petre snarled, dragging her to another door towards the back of the room.
The door led to another room, this one with several computer terminals and some comm equipment. Syrenna tried to take in as much information as she could as they passed through. A second door loomed. Petre opened it and shoved her through. As soon as she entered the room, she panicked. On one side, against what she assumed was the back wall of the building, was a torture chair. Twisting her wrists to try and break the ties they had bound her with, she ripped her head away from Petre's grip and ran for the door. The second of the men in the warehouse was waiting for her. He punched her right across the face as she tried to struggle past him.
She had blacked out, that much she remembered with clarity. When she came to, she was strapped in the chair. Her clothes lay in a pile off to the left, and the straps were so tight they were cutting into her skin. She glanced across towards the door again as it opened to reveal Petre and the other one.
The other man had changed. He was now dressed in a single-piece black jump-suit, emblazoned on the left breast with a bright red circle, an inner pattern marring its perfection. The pattern was strange, a series of block spikes at regular intervals. She glanced across to Petre and noted that he also had the same logo, though not as pronounced.
"Now, Syrenna Dreen, we will discuss the location of your friends," Petre said, stepping forward and switching on the main device panel of the torture chair.
Syrenna shied away from remembering what happened next as she lay clasping her knees in the dark. The pain had been beyond anything she had experienced before, even the birth of her beautiful daughter. She had passed out several times, especially after they had activated the elements in the back of the chair. But she had not told them what they wanted to hear, and now she waited.
Her hopes lay with Callista. There was nothing she could do for herself. The room was locked, and she had found nothing to help her. She wondered for a moment, as she rocked away from the wall to make sure her back would not be hurt further, how long she had been in there.
Kieran stood in the shadows of the street across from the shop front of the building that contained his wife. Callista hung back a little behind him, watching the street.
"How long has she been in there?"
"Four hours, twelve minutes and several seconds," Callista answered.
"More or less."
Kieran shook his head. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Callista had made every effort to lighten the mood for him. It had taken them twenty minutes to get here, and he had wanted to storm straight in. Callista had persuaded him to wait, at least for five minutes, to make sure no one else came.
Those five minutes were now up. Kieran stepped out into the street, his cloak tight about him, but his hood down. He crossed the street in ten strides and placed a hand on the door. Twisting the handle, he found the door was locked. As Callista approached behind him, he tapped into the Force and unlocked the door. Pushing it open, he slipped inside, Callista closing the door smoothly behind them. The room was dark, but not dark enough that they couldn't see. It was also empty.
Kieran glanced across at the window and recognised a projection screen, used to display information for customers. Whoever owned this building had rigged it to display the interior of a shop with staff working. Ignoring it as no danger, Kieran let his senses spread out, discerning the location of people within the building. Two lights in the Force marked the location of two men in the next room. A third light, slightly discoloured, indicated a human woman on a lower level. Kieran felt his anger levels rise.
"Anger leads to the dark side," Callista said from behind him.
"I know. So Yoda reminded me, many times, " Kieran said through gritted teeth.
Grabbing his lightsaber from his belt he stepped lightly to the door at the rear of the room. The lights in the Force gave no sign that they were aware of his presence. Signalling Callista to be ready, Kieran smashed the door open and stepped in, igniting his lightsaber. Callista was right behind him, her own blade hissing into life as she stepped away from him to gain room to fight.
The two men reacted very differently to their arrival. The shorter man backed away, moving towards Callista's side of the room and away from Kieran. The larger man simply reached for a weapon leaning against the desk. It was a staff, not too long, not nearly as long as the blade of a lightsaber. The man held it lightly in his hands, pressing two neatly hidden buttons. Two metallic blades popped out of the staff, one on each end. Kieran dropped into a fighting stance and brought his blade to the fore. The man began twirling the staff, not in large, showy movements, but in controlled steps, as if settling his grip.
"I'll deal with this one," Kieran said, shadowing the man. "You stop the womprat over there."
Callista only nodded her concentration on the man stepping carefully towards the back of the room.
The room was quiet for a moment as if in anticipation of the violence to come. Then suddenly it arrived, in the form of a command from Callista's opponent.
"Kill him, Aridon, now!"
The large man took two huge strides forward and swung in with the leading blade of his staff. Kieran swung out with his own lightsaber, confident that he would simply remove the staff's blade and then move in on the man. As the blades met, Kieran's balance slipped, his timing knocked off by the resistance he met. Whatever that blade was made of, it could resist a lightsaber.
"Petre, go! May the Empire shield you," Aridon cried, disengaging from the lightsaber and bringing his staff's other blade through on the backstroke.
"I don't think so," Callista said, using the Force to slide past Aridon and block Petre's exit. Her blade waved back and forth in front of him, stopping him in his tracks.
Kieran regained his balance to block Aridon's next stroke. Changing the angle of his strike, he brought his blade in almost horizontally. Aridon slide-stepped away, spinning the staff in his right hand before steadying it with his left to block the attack. Kieran bounced away from the attack, with no intention of maintaining the strike, using the Force to spin across from Aridon in the blink of an eye.
Kieran ducked as he came to the end of his movement. He stared in shock, amazed that Aridon had been able to anticipate where he would be. The blade of the staff whipped through the air above him, screeching as it cut the atmosphere. Kieran lashed out with his blade, catching Aridon on the thigh. Aridon flinched away from the strike, his face screwed up for a moment, clearly in pain. The staff twirled down into a vertical position as Aridon paused for a breath.
That pause was all Kieran needed. Dropping himself into the flow of the Force, Kieran let it guide him, let it anticipate the next attack. Aridon settled his staff into his hands and then led with the left blade in a stabbing thrust. Kieran ignored the attack, anticipating the spin away that Aridon affected before the thrust was complete. As the staff blade whirled in at chest height, Kieran stepped inside the attack, thrusting forward with his blade. He felt a moment's resistance as the blade pierced Aridon's chest, then nothing.
Aridon looked down at the glowing azure blade, his face creasing as his jaw dropped open. His hands twitched and the staff fell to the floor, rattling as it landed.
Kieran turned off his lightsaber, letting Aridon slip to the floor. Turning to Callista he stalked towards her and her captive, Petre.
"No, Kieran. Aridon's death was in self-defence. Kill this man, and you take your first step."
Kieran looked at Callista, surprised again by her insight and understanding of the Force. Her ability to see so clearly the moments when a Jedi could take that step, that single step that would doom them, was a Force-given gift.
Kieran nodded. "Tie him up and gag him. I don't want to hear a word from him."
Using the Force to guide him, he stormed through the next door, past the torture chair and down a flight of steps. A single, very solid door waited at the end. Not even bothering to check if it was locked, Kieran simply shattered it with his will, expending more Force energy in containing the explosion than it did to actually destroy the door. Letting the splinters fall to the floor, he stepped into the darkness.
His heart clenched as he stared at the rocking image at the rear of the room. Without pause, he removed his cloak and knelt to wrap it about his wife. The flinch and shrug of her shoulders surprised him until he looked at her back. Another flash of anger ran through him, directed entirely at the man still standing in the room above.
"Sweet Syrenna, hush, hush," he whispered, using the Force to create a cushion of air between his cloak and the welts on her back.
Syrenna looked up at Kieran, and he could see the recognition spring into her eyes.
"Kieran! Oh, thank you, thank you!"
"Hush, Syrenna, hush."
Holding her close, Kieran brushed her hair away from her eyes, bending forward to kiss her on her forehead.
"I love you, my sweet wife, more than you will ever know."
"Just hold me, Kieran, please?"
"Whatever you say."
Kieran sat up on the edge of the bed, placing his feet flat on the cold floor surface. He reached a hand up to his head, his other gripping the bed frame as the headache threatened to send him unconscious again. He glanced at the time readout to the side and noted that it was still late at night. The sun wouldn't rise for several hours at least.
Clutching his head as he rose to his feet, he used one hand to guide himself along to the door. Touching the control panel the door slid open to reveal a well-lit corridor. Two Padawan dressed in standard soft brown robes were stationed outside the door. Arn was one of them.
"How is she?"
"She's doing better. The bacta is making good progress on the burns on her back. She should be up and about soon," Arn replied, his gaze scanning Kieran from top to bottom. "Clothes?"
Kieran glanced down, just realising that all he had on were his shorts. Whilst being this undressed didn't bother him much, each of the cultures that made up the Jedi had their own take on modesty, and he knew he should make the effort to respect at least a few of them. Reaching back inside the room he grabbed his cloak off the wall-hook, slipping it over his shoulders and tying it closed.
"Much," Arn said, smiling. "We'll escort you to the bacta room."
"That's fine, Arn, I can handle it myself. Send for Callista, would you?"
"At once, Master."
"Stop that, Arn. You should never have to call me that."
Kieran had tried to break him of that habit, but Arn insisted on calling him uncle. It was just a term of endearment, but Kieran knew that he could not be more proud of the young man even if it were true.
Arn set off down the corridor towards the nerve centre of the relocated Jedi children whilst Kieran used the wall to balance himself as he entered the room that held Syrenna.
She was dressed in shorts and a top, enough to maintain her dignity whilst she hung in the bacta tank. The marks on her back and face were already fading, after only a day, but Kieran worried for her internal wounds. Nothing physical, but the emotional damage that would have been caused by being at those men's mercy.
He walked into the room and touched his hand to the glass, pushing out with his feelings. He stopped after only a moment, still weak from his exertion.
Destroying the door, and keeping it from going anywhere, had cost him dearly. He'd used the Force before on some major tasks, but never like this, never in the heat of anger. He felt weaker now than after the trek through the Kathorn Mountains on his home planet, his final test to become a Jedi Master. He had used the Force almost constantly during that trip, and still felt vital and alive at the end.
Now, he felt weak, tired, and his meditation of the day before had shown him something new, something dark on his soul, a stain on the Force of his own making. Master Thanus, even Master Yoda, had warned him several times of the danger of the Dark Side. Now, he knew. He had taken the first step towards a terrible future, a future that he could only avoid if he turned away from the Force, away from the source of everything he was and might be in the future.
The door to the room opened behind him. He didn't need the Force to know who stood there.
"Callista, come in, please."
He turned to look at her as she entered. She was fully robed, as she had been every time he ever saw her. Her Padawan braid hung over her right shoulder, coming almost to her waist.
Callista released her lightsaber from her belt and handed it over to Kieran. He examined it, noting the simplicity of the design, closely resembling the blade of Adi Gallia.
"Good work, Padawan. How long did it take you to construct?"
"Two days, on and off."
Kieran nodded and handed the lightsaber back to her. As she clipped it to her belt he reached forward and touched a hand to her hair. As he pulled it away it held her braid, separated from her with a small use of the Force.
"Master?" Callista asked, her eyes wide.
"You proved yourself more than ready yesterday," Kieran said, holding the braid out to her with his left hand. "Do you accept your role?"
"Master, what of the Council? They must raise a Jedi to the ranks of Knighthood."
Kieran took a deep breath. He did not want to do this, not to someone so new to the responsibilities that would be asked of her.
"The Council are gone, Callista. I came here from Arramon. Someone," Kieran saw an image of Vader flash through his mind, drawn from the words of Master Thanus's shade, "or something destroyed the entire Council. We are all that is left."
Kieran had expected several responses from this vital, powerful young Knight, everything except the calmness that she radiated at his words.
"I understand, Master. I will ensure the others are made aware as best as possible."
"Thank you," Kieran said, holding out her braid.
Callista took the braid, smiled briefly, and then left, leaving Kieran alone with his wife and the medical droid. Reaching a hand out to the glass, he held it exactly opposite his wife's.
How do I give up the Force, he wondered, when it is so much a part of who, and what, I am?
He looked at the lines of his wife's face, her eyes closed, her muscles relaxed. He drank in the beauty of it, the same beauty that had led him to see the strength in her spirit.
"Help me, Syrenna, please. Help me find and hold the light."
It was dark. Kieran felt around for the light switch, but his hand met nothing but dangling tendrils of plant, lichen growing from the dense forest he suddenly found himself in.
He was robed, dressed in his full Jedi regalia, as he had been the day he had reached knighthood. In the distance was another person, a young man, concentrating on a training probe. He moved from one form to another as if flowing, his body a fluid rather than solid form. No stinger shot even came close to his body.
Kieran settled his belt and sash, as he always did before approaching students, and crossed from the dark edge of the forest into the open light of the fields. As he neared the boy he recognised him.
The boy glanced up at him, smiling as he deactivated his lightsaber. Kieran waved at him as he approached, then reared back as the sky darkened. From the edge of the forest behind the boy a figure stepped, dressed head-to-toe in black, his face obscured by a dark mask covering his mouth and nose. His hair was shorn away and a livid scar played upon his face; stretching from near his nose across his left cheek towards the back of his head, the scar seemed to seethe in the dim light.
"Anakin, look out!"
Too late, Kieran realised that he would never reach the boy, never be able to save him. The dark figure drew forth a lightsaber, its handle a series of black, vertical ridges to provide grip, its head in shadow. He couldn't tell if the emitter was sheathed in black or silver, but he could make out the curve of the design.
The scarlet-aura blade extended in silence, its glow making no impact on the gloom forming about the clearing. The dark figure reared back and brought the blade down in an arc to strike into the boy's back. Anakin fell to the ground, the blow clearly fatal.
Kieran reached for his lightsaber, to draw it and take vengeance for the death of the boy. His hand fumbled along his belt, trying to find the hilt. Glancing down at his belt, he realised that the lightsaber no longer hung there. He looked at his clothes. Gone were his Jedi robes, replaced by the black pants and shirt he commonly wore under his tunic. That same tunic was no longer there. Instead of a lightsaber, a holstered blaster hung from his hip. Reaching for it, he drew it in a fluid motion and fired, the blaster bolt flying across the clearing at the dark man, who raised a hand and deflected the bolt harmlessly into the trees. Kieran felt the tug of the Force on the blaster and saw it fly off across the clearing. He reached out to it, tried to call it back with the Force, but there was nothing there. Where once the Force had hummed inside of him, there was now only a hole, an emptiness unlike anything he had felt before.
The clearing went dark again, leaving him alone. Both Anakin and the dark man were gone. A single point of light moved towards him, growing in the darkness, until the glowing image of Thanus stood before him.
"I couldn't save him, Master Thanus. I was powerless," Kieran sobbed, dropping to his knees.
"The past you have seen, Kieran. Already happened, has this," Thanus said, resting a ghostly hand on his shoulder. "Already gone, is the boy."
"The Force, it was missing, empty."
"The future, that was. You have forsaken that which drives you, that which makes you who you are."
"But the darkness..."
"In all of us it is!" Thanus said, his tone sharp. "In each of us the forces of good and evil do we balance. For too long have we held the balance on the side of light. To right this does the Force move. Balance it seeks to restore."
"What are you saying, Master?"
"Embrace who you are, embrace the Force and accept what it offers. Only through this the future before you can you hope to face."
"The dark man. Who was he?"
"Darth Vader, the Apprentice. Face him you must, or all is lost."
"For you he waits, burns with the need to face you he does. Your light he fears, your essence he is jealous of. Quench that fire we must, before the galaxy he burns."
"Where is he?"
"That we do not know. There is one, a man who aided you before. Seek him out, he will show you the way."
"Seek him out."
Thanus faded away, the lingering motes of his essence spreading away on the wind. Kieran stayed bent on his knees, his face in his hands. The footstep in front of him made him look up. Darth Vader stood over him, his lightsaber ignited. Kieran screamed as the blade descended.
Sitting up straight in bed, Kieran felt the sweat trickling down his spine, his bed shirt damp and clinging to his back. Syrenna stirred next to him before settling back into sleep. Gently touching her hair, he stroked it back from her face to kiss her lightly on the forehead.
"The man who helped me?" he murmured to himself.
Reaching for the comm link next to the bed, he activated it.
"Yes, Master?" a young voice said on the other end.
"Contact Callista. Ask her to get a trace on a man called Erinan. He was on Aridon three days ago. When she finds him, let me know."
"At once, Master."
Kieran clicked off the comm link and turned back to look at his wife. He wondered how he would tell her he had to leave again.
Syrenna brushed a stray strand of hair back from her face as she looked through the small window in the door. The room on the other side was full of children, ranging from two years old through to their early teens. Each one of them was dressed in comfortable clothing, as was allowed them before they reached the level of Padawan. In the far corner, floating some alphabet bricks between her hands, was Mara. Syrenna regretted that she hadn't had much time to spend with her since they had arrived on Gratiln Station. Once the refugees had settled in the lessons had begun again, led by the senior Padawan and the few Knights who had made the journey. Those lessons had taken Mara away from her, keeping her in seclusion with the other Jedi apprentices. Syrenna knew this would come, that one day she would have to let her daughter go, let her join with the Jedi as her powers begged her to do. It hurt to think that it would be so soon.
A scuff of the floor behind her made her turn away from the door. She smiled as she saw Kieran standing there.
"Thank you," she said, touching a hand to his face.
"Being there. Just always being there," she said, smiling at the sheepish look on his face.
She looked up into his face, trying to read the new look she saw there. As understanding came she stepped in to him and wrapped her arms about his body.
"No, Kieran, not again, please," she said, talking into his shoulder. "Don't leave us."
Kieran's hands came up and around her, enfolding her in his arms. He held her for a moment, and Syrenna could sense some hesitation as he drew a breath to speak.
"I have to do something," he said, pushing her away so she could look into his face again.
"What? What is so important that you would leave me, leave your daughter, again?"
"I'm...I'm not sure."
Syrenna turned away from him to look back into the room where Mara was training. She could hear Kieran shuffle behind her, closing the gap again to look over her shoulder into the room.
"She needs you, Kieran. Not because you are a Jedi, but because you are her father. You can't leave her."
"Syrenna, I have to go. The Force is guiding me now."
Syrenna looked at Mara again, studying the shape of her face, the joyous smile as she noticed her parents at the window. Syrenna waved and smiled back, unable to laugh when Mara dropped the bricks as her concentration wavered. The rueful smile on the girl's face made her heart want to burst.
"If you go, we are coming with you."
She said it quietly, with a simple force behind it. She turned to face Kieran again, looking straight into his eyes.
"Do you understand, Kieran? You chose us, remember? You chose Mara and I ahead of the Jedi." Syrenna grabbed Kieran by the arms, holding him tight in her grip. "You can't change that, no matter what happened on Arramon. I grieve for those that died there. I had friends in the Jedi ranks, even Thanus, but I cannot change the destruction, the loss. I understand that, and I am not even a Jedi. Surely you can see that as well."
Kieran lowered his head, staring at the floor. Syrenna thought he was about to explode when she realised he was shaking under her hands. She ducked a little to look up into his face, and raised a hand in surprise to wipe the tears away that were flowing down his cheeks.
"Hush," she said, wrapping him up in her arms, whispering into his ear. "Hush, Kieran. Come, let's go back to our room. The other Jedi should not see this, not now, with them so scared already."
Syrenna led him back down the corridor and through the complex to their room. Saying a silent thanks to anyone who would listen that the Padawan guards were no longer on the door, she touched the panel and guided Kieran through. He collapsed onto the bed, his head in his hands.
"Talk to me, Kieran, tell me what happened."
He sat there for a moment, his head buried, unwilling to speak. Syrenna went to move to him again, but he sat up, turning to look her directly in the face.
He started speaking, haltingly at first, before breaking into full flow. As his description touched on what he had seen on Arramon, Syrenna felt a great pit of despair open up in her stomach. No matter her feelings towards the Jedi and the conflict between them concerning her husband, she had always believed that they were a force for good in the galaxy. That someone had destroyed them so completely, so callously, left her shaking.
"Oh, Kieran, I am sorry. I never realised it was so bad."
Kieran began speaking again, describing his dream of the night before, his acceptance of Thanus's words and the darkness he had seen in the Force that permeated his own essence. Syrenna said nothing as he finished, just stepped close and took hold of his shoulders, his head resting against her stomach.
"Don't go, Kieran, nothing good can come of this. The Jedi are gone, their light has been extinguished. The few we have here are all that is left. Facing Vader will only put you, and them, at risk."
"I have to," he said, looking up at her again. "If I do nothing, I am no better than him. To stand aside, to let the darkness win by not fighting, would be as bad as embracing the darkness myself."
"Kieran...." Syrenna started, letting the words fade on her lips as she looked into his eyes. "I understand. But...."
"No buts, Syrenna," Kieran said.
"Then listen carefully, Kieran. I am coming with you. Mara will be safe here. Have Callista keep an eye on her during training."
"Callista is coming with me," Kieran said, his hand darting out to grab her arm as she pulled away. "Listen, Syrenna, please. I trust you with my life, but I trust you more with the life of our daughter. No matter how good Callista is or may become, she is not you and she is not Mara's mother."
"Please, Kieran," Syrenna said, knowing already that he had made up his mind.
"Syrenna, I love you, more than I love anything in this world. But...."
"No buts, Kieran," Syrenna said, smiling at him despite the sadness in her heart. "I understand. I will stay with Mara whilst you take Callista with you."
"Promise me you'll come back, Kieran, promise me."
"I promise that I will always come back to you, no matter what."
The platform on Gratiln Station was filled to capacity. The Angelfire hummed on the deck, her sub-light engines warmed but not ignited. The repulsorlift coils could be heard whining to life. Callista was already aboard, continuing with the pre-flight checks, preparing the ship for her next trip into space.
Kieran stood on the platform, his arms wrapped about his wife. They stood together, Mara clasped between them, heads buried into each other's shoulders. Kieran listened to their breathing, letting it calm him and lend purpose to his life and mission. If Thanus had told the truth, and he saw no need to doubt him, then he needed to go, needed to face this monster, for the sake of his family.
"Don't go, papa," Mara said, tears dripping from the tip of her nose onto his shoulder.
"Hush, Mara, I'll only be gone a few days. I promise."
"You see that you keep that promise," Syrenna said, pulling away and lifting Mara into her arms. "We'll be waiting with the others."
Kieran glanced at the crowd. Mostly older Padawan, and a few Knights who had made it to the planet some time after the initial arrival. They had come to see him off, to wish him good luck on his journey. None of them would admit to luck existing, it was merely an aspect of the Force, but he knew that was why they were there. Even for the Jedi superstition could still be a powerful force, enough to rival the power that bound the galaxy.
"We'll expect you in five days, a week at most," Arn said, stepping forward. Kieran smiled at the boy, really a man now and beaming with pride, clearly trying his best not to be obvious about the missing braid. Another Knight to protect the children. Kieran regretted that the full Council had not been able to witness their elevation. He was sure they would have agreed with his choices.
"May the Force be with you, my friend," Arn added, clasping Kieran's forearm.
"And with all of you, Arn. Remember my words," Kieran said, returning the clasp.
"I will, Kieran, I will."
"Ready?" Callista called from the boarding ramp of the Angelfire.
"Just a moment."
Kieran turned back to his wife and daughter. Lifting Mara from her mother's arms, he lowered her to the floor and then knelt to be on the same level. Enfolding her in his arms he kissed her softly on the forehead.
"Let no one tell you who you are, my sweet child. May you shine like the jade you are named for."
Mara continued to sniffle, sucking back the tears as only a child could. Kieran stood and tussled her hair in an attempt to lighten the mood. Her sudden smile lit up her face, leaving his heart a little lighter than before. He turned to Syrenna and wrapped her in his arms again. He kissed her with a passion, letting himself drink of her warmth, the love he felt radiating from her through the Force. Not for the first time he was amazed that she had no ability in the Force herself. He smiled as he pulled away, accepting that he had absolutely no regrets that she did not. He would have her no other way.
Lifting his pack onto his shoulder he turned and walked up the ramp. As he reached the top he hit the door seal button, causing the ramp to raise and the airlock to slam closed. It took every bit of willpower he had to walk down the corridor, past the gun mount, to the cockpit. Callista was already in the co-pilot chair, completing the pre-flight checks. Kieran stowed his pack behind the pilot chair and slipped into it. Picking up the headset and mic, he tucked it over his right ear and activated the comms. He watched out the cockpit as Syrenna activated the receiver on the platform.
"I'll be back sooner than you think," Kieran said, trying to make his voice sound carefree and unconcerned. "See you in a week at most."
"I love you, Kieran."
"Me too, papa."
Kieran smiled at Mara's voice.
"I love you both, too. See you soon."
De-activating the comm to Syrenna's unit, Kieran switched over to the tower frequency. Only days ago he had been dodging his way through a hail of fire trying to get to the surface. Now, thanks to Arn's success in clearing up the incident with the authorities--he still wondered how he had done that so smoothly--he would have a safe ride back out into space.
"Freighter Angelfire prepared for departure."
"Angelfire, this is Lurio Control. Your departure corridor is clear. You may leave when ready. Lurio Control out."
"Ready?" Kieran asked Callista, echoing her earlier comments to him.
"Whenever you are," she said, feathering the co-pilot controls to cut in the repulsorlifts.
Kieran drifted the Angelfire up until she was well over twenty metres in the air. Satisfied that the platform was clear of people, he punched in the sub-light engines, driving for space.
"Next stop, Aridon," Callista said.
Aridon Central was a dive. That was the only way to describe it. Frequented by the lower level of customer, ranging from smuggler to thief and any field in-between, it had a reputation for trouble. It was also the last place anyone expected to see a Jedi. That was why the refugees had used it as a message point on the last stop, and why Kieran had returned here now, in search of the man who had aided him in his search.
They had landed just before sunset, as the moon was rising in the northern sky. Kieran had greased the palms of the local port staff, asking them to watch the ship, and had activated the most lethal defence setting he had on the ship's intruder detection system. He didn't trust those men any further than he trusted Vader.
A quick trip through the bustling port in an open-top airbus had deposited them just outside Slurr's Tapcaf, the same place he had last seen the man he was looking for. Now he stood at the door, Callista standing just behind him, watching the street. Taking a deep breath, sensing the stirring in the Force that indicated he was doing the right thing, he stepped through the door into the tapcaf's interior.
It was dimmer than he remembered it. It looked like several lights had been taken out in some of the booths, to give them a quieter, more private feel. Some of them now had curtains hanging across them and Kieran sensed several aliens in one booth, but no noise issued from it.
He looked away from the booths to the bar running along the edge of one wall. Sitting at one of the stalls was Karon, the man who had sold the location of his wife to Petre. He walked up behind him, Callista shadowing him as she had since they had arrived, and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Karon, don't make any sudden movements."
Karon moved very slowly, turning just his head until Kieran was sure he could see him clearly.
"That's far enough," he said, leaving his hand resting on the man's shoulder. "I need your help, Karon. Do you want to help me?"
Karon nodded once, slowly, his lower lip trembling.
"Tell me where I can find the man who helped me. The man called Erinan."
Karon glanced beyond Kieran for an instant, enough to warn him that someone was approaching. Cursing himself for concentrating too much on Karon, he turned slowly to face the other direction, projecting an aura of calm confidence. Callista was already facing the newcomer, her hand resting lightly inside the fold of her cloak, obviously on her lightsaber.
"You came back then?" the approaching man said, a smile on his face.
"I had to come and say thank you," Kieran said, releasing his hold on Karon and extending an arm out towards the man. "You saved my life, and the lives of those I love, Erinan. I am in your debt."
"Interesting choice of words, Jedi. In my debt. Well, let's see what I can do to help you pay that off, shall we?" Erinan turned to the barkeeper and waved him over. "Bring me a Lomin Ale and whatever these guys want. Give Karon his usual."
"At once, Mr. Azzameen."
"Just water for me," Kieran said, unwilling to drink whilst he faced this man. He sensed a keen intelligence behind those eyes, a mind he would have to be awake to spar with. For what this man had done, Kieran had no doubt he would demand a high price.
"So, join me in my booth."
Kieran inclined his head, recognising the demand for what it was. He had already sensed the other men in the room. Despite their outward appearance of disinterest, he could sense their minds, their awareness of exactly what was happening between him and Erinan.
"Glad to. You own this place now?"
"I decided I liked it after that little fire fight the last time you were here. I paid off the law, then bought out the owner."
"Well, you never said you were a legitimate business man the last time we met, so I shouldn't be surprised."
"Ah, that may be the case, but I am building all this for my sons, Tomaas and Antan. I don't want them in the smuggling trade with me. They're better than I am."
"We all believe our children to be better than us. I think Mara will be one of the greatest Jedi we have seen, if the Order continues," Kieran said, taking a seat on one of the benches in the booth.
He motioned for Callista to join them, but she refused, shaking her head and taking a stance a meter to the side of the booth, her arms loose at her sides, but her entire body warning that action could come at any moment.
"Your bodyguard is very good," Erinan said, accepting his Lomin Ale from the barkeeper.
Kieran accepted the small glass of water, taking a sip from it first to test its purity.
"Ah, so the Jedi doesn't trust me. Surely you should have had your bodyguard try it first?"
"She's not my bodyguard," Kieran said, glancing at Callista. "But she is a Jedi. I'd be careful of what you say around her. She might take offence."
"Right you are," Erinan said, leaning back and smiling. He took a long drink from his Ale and placed it back on the table. "So, what really brings you to this dive?"
"I need your help, again," Kieran said, taking another sip from his water as he gauged Erinan's response. "I need to find someone, and I think you will be able to point me in the right direction."
"Now that depends, you see, on whether you have something I want or not, doesn't it?"
"As I thought. What do you want, Erinan? What is it that only a Jedi can offer you?"
The smuggler-turned-tapcaf owner sat in silence opposite him for a moment, turning the glass about in his fingers.
"I have a daughter, a young girl, much younger than her brothers. My sweet Sarina. They don't know about her, since they never met her mother. Let's just say I had an indiscreet liaison about four years ago, and now I have a sweet, three year-old daughter."
"Get to the point Erinan, please," Kieran said. He already had an idea where this was headed, and he wanted to ask his own questions.
"Very well, Jedi. She has shown remarkable insight at her age, she seems to be aware of things before they happen to her."
"You believe she can touch the Force?"
"I know she can touch the Force," Erinan said, sharp and fast. He reached out and grabbed Kieran's hand across the table, enfolding it in his own. "I heard about the Sith, about the dark side of the Force. I do not want her to face that. Take her to join the Jedi and I will find anyone in the galaxy for you."
Kieran sat still for a moment, considering Erinan's request. She was young still, only a little older than those that would normally be accepted. Anakin had been much older when he started, and until he was lost he had been one of the most promising Padawan for years.
"I cannot take her in person," he said, "but I can record a holo-letter for you. If you take her to Gratiln Station and show the holo to the Jedi there, they will take her in and begin her training. I promise you this."
Erinan's face crunched for a moment, his forehead crinkling as he considered the proposal. Kieran waited, holding his breath. If necessary, he would take the girl himself to gain the information he needed, but returning to Gratiln so soon after that hard departure was not something he wanted to do.
"I accept," Erinan said, holding out his arm.
Kieran clasped forearms with him, sealing the agreement. Erinan signalled to the barkeeper to come over.
"Bring me a holo-recorder immediately."
The barkeeper nodded once and disappeared again, leaving Kieran and Callista alone with Erinan again.
"So, who is it you need me to find?" Erinan said, looking from Kieran to Callista and back again as he asked. "State a name and the information will be yours."
Kieran glanced out from the booth to see who was close enough to hear. Checking that Callista was maintaining her Force-enhanced awareness, he turned back to Erinan.
Kieran studied Erinan as he lifted his drink to his lips. His face had gone pale, almost white in the subdued lighting of the booth, and his hand shook the slightest amount as he took a sip from the glass. Kieran suspected that there were few things in the galaxy that Erinan found frightening. Vader was clearly one of them.
"You don't know what you're asking for, Kieran," he said, putting his glass back on the table, careful not to knock it over as he let go. "Vader is not someone you want to face."
"I have to," Kieran said, holding up a hand as Erinan began to respond. "Don't ask me to tell you why, I don't know why. Simply accept that the Force is telling me to go to him, to face him."
"It's your funeral."
Kieran was sure it was intended to be inaudible, but the words struck him somewhere deep inside. The finality rang through the recesses of his mind, waking new images, new visions supplied by the ever-living Force.
He was standing in a corridor, though it was hard to see much else. The small, simple wall lights did nothing to strengthen his view. Kneeling below him, his head bowed, was the form of Vader. The blond hair was short, unkempt, and he was breathing hard. Kieran looked in shock at the lightsaber in his hand, lit and poised, ready to strike. Knowing that this was what he had to do, he sliced downwards, the blade descending down and through the person below him. Vader collapsed under the attack, the wounds sealing as his head fell away from his body.
Kieran started back from the image, from the darkness he had felt inside at the moment he struck. He sensed a lingering presence, that of his master, Thanus. He could not sense whether he approved or not.
"Hey, you all right?"
Kieran looked up to see Erinan staring at him, a puzzled look on his face. Seeing that the bar was emptying, he checked his chrono, stunned by the time.
"Your lady friend here was worried for you, as was I," Erinan said, pushing a glass of water in front of him. "We tried to wake you, but we couldn't."
"I need to discuss something with you, Kieran."
Kieran picked up on the serious tone of Erinan's voice, calming himself and putting the dream behind him.
"The holo-recorder is not enough. Not for the information you want. You will have to contact them directly, I need to know that she will be welcome before I send you off to face him."
"I can't do that, Erinan. It's dangerous, it could expose them."
"If they haven't moved yet, then all of this quadrant knows where they are. Use this as a chance to get them to move."
Kieran considered it. He knew that contacting them would not put them in further danger than they already were. It may expose them more, but the people Petre worked for already knew where they were.
"Very well. Do you have encrypted systems?"
Kieran followed a smiling Erinan to a small room in the back of the bar where several comm stations were installed. Erinan tapped a few keys and one of the systems flared to life. Kieran sat in front of it and removed a small data disc from inside his robe. Inserting it into the access port of the comm system, he tapped a few keys and an encoded message was on its way to Gratiln Station.
"Arn here. Go ahead."
"Arn, it's Kieran."
"We didn't expect to hear from you so soon. Trouble?"
"No more than usual. I am sending a new trainee your way. A young girl called Sarina Azzameen. She will be on the next transport in. Once she arrives, you are all to get off planet. Understood?"
"I'm going to get off now, before this is traced to your exact location. Give my love to Syrenna and Mara."
"Of course, uncle. Good journey, and may the Force be with you."
"Always, nephew, always. Kieran out."
Kieran de-activated the comm-channel and removed the encryption disc from the terminal port. Turning to Erinan, he stood and stretched out his hand.
"We have a deal?"
"We have a deal." Erinan said. Kieran could see the acceptance in his eyes before he spoke. "The man you are looking for, Darth Vader, is on Annuvasa."
Syrenna stood in the darkened room, glancing through the mirror at the man who had brutalised her and left her in so much pain before Kieran had arrived. Petre was his name, a Commander of some kind, a fairly high rank in the military structure he represented if he was to be believed. He had remained close-mouthed throughout his interrogation, ignoring the Jedi as if they hadn't even existed. He was lying alone on a small cot, his clothes removed and replaced with a single-piece jump-suit. Syrenna sensed that he wore it with pride, as a badge for what he had accomplished here at Gratiln Station.
Turning to the young Padawan next to her, she motioned for the screen to be dropped. The mirror coating on the prisoner's side shimmered and faded, revealing those watching him from the darkened room.
"Commander Petre, stand up."
Petre casually moved his feet off the end of the cot and rose to his full height. He was not an exceptionally tall man, but he obviously stayed in shape. His body was lithe and toned, his muscles honed to sharpness rather than bulked to appear more than they were. Despite that, Syrenna was sure he was strong enough to face any man here, even her husband had he still been around.
"We'll begin again, shall we?"
"But of course, sweet lady, why not?"
The smirk on his face told her more than any words that he was unlikely to talk again. This had been done every two hours since Kieran had left. Arn had decided that they needed the information this man had. Someone was looking for the Jedi; someone who wanted them destroyed. Arn felt that was enough of a threat.
"Commander Kellan Petre."
"Whom do you work for?"
"The Imperial Navy."
"Who are the Imperial Navy?"
As it had every time before, this question caused Petre to smile, before he sat back down on the bed. This time, Arn had authorised several Padawan with sensitivity to other's feelings and thoughts to be present. One of them stiffened, his breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Syrenna waved the screen to be opaque again and turned to the young man.
"Ru-Nea, what is it?"
"A moment, please, Syrenna. The image was dark, painful."
Syrenna waited, her fingers tapping her arm as she tried to control her patience. It was another minute before Ru-Nea was ready to speak.
"I saw two people, one kneeling, the other standing tall. The kneeling one was dressed in black, his face masked. The other was a man I had never thought to see in such a dark vision. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine was standing there, his shadow casting a pall over the entire galaxy."
Syrenna felt a chill run down her spine at the mention of the Supreme Chancellor. The name of the force Petre belonged to slipped into her head again, and she felt her breath catch as she made the connection. De-activating the two-way mirror again, so that Petre could see her, she leant close.
"How long before Palpatine declares himself Emperor?"
Syrenna felt little satisfaction at the guilty start from the man lying on the cot. She would have preferred to be wrong, to believe that Palpatine was still the visionary who had taken over from Valorum, that he was still the man who had saved the galaxy from destruction in the Clone Wars. Re-activating the screen, she left Petre to think about what she had just said. Suddenly her husband's instructions to leave were foremost in her mind.
"Go to Arn. Tell him I've learnt enough of what we need from the prisoner. Tell him we are to be prepared for departure immediately. We are no longer safe."
"Here, Syrenna?" Ru-Nea said, heading for the door, his face pinched in worry.
"I'm not sure, Ru-Nea. Here, or anywhere."
Syrenna watched the young man leave, her attention returning to the man sitting on the cot, his eyes burning into the mirror.
Kieran sat alone in the pilot's chair of the Angelfire cockpit. His eyes roamed over the controls, the familiar upholstery. Images of Syrenna smiling back at him as he ducked them through the edges of asteroid clusters, using the Force to guide his path, taking her to the brink of destruction. Even now he could see little wrong with it. He had never felt that same destructive urge as her, but he had wanted her to feel it, knowing she would relish it, would revel in it. He wondered now how long ago he had first stepped onto the dark path. How long he had trod the path of so many before him, those that tried to follow their hearts only to stray from the path, to fall to the dark side.
"Republic credit for your thoughts," Callista said, entering the cockpit behind him and taking her place in the co-pilot seat.
"Nothing," Kieran said, staring out the view port at the mottled background of hyperspace. "Just thinking about the past."
"Yes, among other things. I was wondering where I lost the path."
Callista's eyes widened a little, her mouth dropping slightly open.
"Kieran, you are one of the greatest Jedi Masters I have ever known. I use you as an example of what I want to be."
"No, Callista, I am not a great master. I've strayed. I've touched the dark side."
"Who hasn't when they go as far as you?"
Kieran glanced back up at her, surprised by her words. He heard an echo of Yoda and Mace in there, when they had spoken to Obi-Wan after his battle with the Sith apprentice, Maul.
"Touched the dark side, have you?" Yoda had said, Mace standing a little behind him. Kieran had been standing in the background.
"He was strong, Master Yoda. Master Qui-Gon had just fallen to him and I was angry."
"Anger is normal, Padawan Kenobi," Mace had said, not moving from his place behind Yoda. "But you have been trained, Master Qui-Gon considered you to be ready for the tests. And yet you could not control your anger, you could not put it aside and fight with the calm that is our way."
"Anger, young Padawan, to the dark side does it lead. Know this you do."
"It seemed so easy, Master Yoda."
"We have all felt the dark side, Padawan Kenobi," Mace said, this time stepping forward to bring the young man up from his bowed stance. "As you grow in the Force, the temptation becomes greater. How you deal with that temptation is a part of your training, a part of who and what we are, as Jedi."
"I understand, Master Windu."
Kieran had left them to finish the conversation, wishing to pay his final respects to Master Qui-Gon before the funeral that evening. They had not been that close, but Kieran felt uncomfortable in large crowds at these sombre events.
Now he was here, hurtling through hyperspace, headed for the shadow of a moon deep inside the Annuvasa system. That moon would be their cover until night came to that side of the planet, so that they could try to slip the Angelfire in undetected. Erinan had provided them with a jamming device that would project a false image of a shuttle on sensors should anything come too close.
"Sorry Callista, lost in the past again."
"We're coming up on Annuvasa now. We'll revert to normal space in five minutes."
Kieran looked out at the mottled hyperspace tunnel again. The five minutes seemed to fly by, the counter dropping to zero almost before Kieran was ready.
"Okay, let's do this."
Pushing the hyperdrive lever away from him, the hyperspace tunnel flared back in to star lines. Already filling the view port ahead of them was the lit side of the moon. Beyond it was the planet they were headed for. Feathering the engines, Kieran parked the ship into orbit. Flying in the opposite direction at well under sub-light speeds, he had the Angelfire maintain her place, keeping the moon between the ship and the planet.
"Now we wait."
The Angelfire hovered over the surface of Annuvasa on her repulsorlifts, Kieran's hands dancing over the control console. As soon as he had taken her low enough to cut the sub-light engines he had done so, reducing the noise output as much as possible. They had passed close to an old ruined castle, close enough that Kieran had sensed someone's presence there, someone strong in the Force. Guiding the ship away, he was settling her into a small clearing in the trees a few miles from the base lit in the distance. Once the Angelfire touched down, Kieran cut all power, leaving the entire ship in darkness. Callista already had two pack lights ready to go. Touching the bulkhead once for luck, just as Syrenna had done so many times, he followed Callista back to the ramp and off the ship.
The forest was quiet, any animals disturbed by the arrival of the ship already silent in the darkness. Kieran punched in the code to seal the ramp and turned to Callista.
"It's about four miles in that direction to the base," he said, pointing off into the darkness.
"And it's only three miles in that direction to the castle," Callista replied, pointing slightly to the left of Kieran's original line. "I felt that presence as strongly as you did. Surely he's the one you came here to face."
"I don't know that," Kieran said, settling the trembling in his hands, glad that Callista couldn't see them shake. "Let's check the base first."
"In these?" Callista said, tugging her brown robe. "Obvious, don't you think?"
Kieran flashed his pack light at her.
"Fine. We'll drop the robes."
Callista dropped her pack to the ground, shrugged out of her robe and pulled off her tunic. Instead of her inner tunic, she was wearing a plain flight-suit, made of a dark material and adorned with the symbol found in the building that had held Syrenna on Gratiln.
"There's a matching one in your pack," she said, picking her own pack up from the ground. "I promise I won't look whilst you change."
Ignoring her poor attempt at covering up the glances in his direction, Kieran slipped out of his outer robes. Keeping his inner tunic and his pants, he slipped the flight-suit over the top.
"Ecstatic," Callista said. "So, the base first?"
Petre glanced at the mirrored wall, trying to work out if anyone was still behind there. It had been some time since the last interrogation, when they had extracted the information from him. He still wondered how they had done that. Perhaps some of the things he had heard about the Jedi were true. Maybe they could read minds.
Pushing the thought away, since it meant only his continued capture if he believed it to be true, he stood up and walked across to the window. Despite not being able to see through it, he felt that no one remained in there. They would have guards on the door, to be sure, but they wouldn't bother to watch him every hour of the day. They would rely on recording devices, as did every other civilised race. Turning so that his back leant against the mirror, he reached up to his mouth, putting a finger inside and depressing a small cap on his right upper molar. Trusting that the device would do what it had been designed for, disrupt any recording devices within a thirty-metre radius, he walked across to the main door.
"Please, I need some help in here. Something's wrong. I'm bleeding."
Stepping back away from the door, he waited as he listened to whispered voices in the hall. The voices got a little louder before he heard footsteps heading off down the hallway. Closer to him, he heard the sound of a keypad being punched. Staying behind the door, he raised his hand, ready to render the person entering unconscious. To his surprise it was a young woman, in her early teens at the most. His hand descended with a sharp smack, catching her in the crook of the neck. She went down, but rolled away from the attack, coming to her feet on the far side of the room. Petre felt a sudden pressure on his body, trying to hold him still. Ignoring it as best he could, he kicked the door closed behind him, and forced himself across the room. The young girl was fumbling for something on her belt as he got close. Reaching out a hand, he dragged open her robe. Realising what she was going for, Petre felt a burst of energy that allowed him to knock the girl's hand away and remove her lightsaber before she could grab it.
Igniting it, he stood with the blade mere inches from her throat. The pressure he had felt only moments before was gone, and he could see real fear in the girl's eyes.
"Well, my beautiful young lady, I think it's time for us to have a talk, don't you?"
Twenty minutes later he deactivated the lightsaber and dropped it to the floor.
"Useful tool," he said to himself as he headed to the door. "No blood."
The corridor was empty. Whoever else had been on guard when he first called out had left, and he reflected that discipline was lacking in this new batch of Jedi. Unfortunately for them, they had also neglected to blindfold him when he had been taken, so he traced the path back to the door that led out of the building into the main street. Something was obviously going on in the central courtyard, since the corridors were so clear.
The door to the main street was alarmed, though he had expected that. He looked at the mechanism for a minute or so before accepting the fact that he would be unable to bypass it. Knowing he would have to move fast, he pulled the door open and sprinted into the street, the alarms going off further back in the building. He didn't look back as he rounded a corner and disappeared into a flow of people moving through the station. Turning his thoughts to a shopping list of food and drink, he tried to blend both physically and mentally into the crowd.
Syrenna looked at the body of the young Padawan, her life cruelly ended whilst she was guarding Petre. The way he had killed her was so foul she realised again how lucky she had been to be saved by Kieran.
How the man had escaped she could not fathom. The cameras were all blank for the time period it would have happened in. The only thing she could think was that he had been able to hide a disruption device somewhere on him. If the alarms on the exits to the building hadn't gone off they would never have known he was gone until evening meal.
Now the camp was a shambles, the few Knights remaining doing their best to direct the Padawan and younger trainees as they prepared for departure. Kieran's words had already stung them into motion, but Petre's escape and the girl's death had sent them over the edge. Too much had happened in the last month for even the Knights to cope with. Most of their training had flown, leaving them unsure and afraid. Through it all, Syrenna had kept a close eye on Mara. Her daughter was still so young, despite her growing strength in the Force, and the hustle around her was a source of wonder rather than fear. She was constantly appearing in the most awkward places, under people's feet as they tried to pack the few remaining pieces for the journey.
Syrenna had already made the deal for the ship that would take them away from here. She had used the funds the Council had left for them, as well as trading in the ship that had got them here. Now she had a de-clawed Corellian Corvette to transport them out of system. It still had the upper turbolasers, but the lower ones were gone, and some of the hull plating could do with maintenance work, but it would at least change their profile. She had christened it Salvation as soon as the deeds had been handed over. The name was more appropriate than its previous, Grathen's Rage, a sentiment not shared by the Jedi who now owned it.
"Syrenna, we should be ready to complete boarding and launch by tomorrow morning."
Syrenna glanced up to see Arn standing just to her side. His boyish face reminded her so much of Kieran. It was easy to think that their relationship was so much closer than it really was. He could have been his son.
"Good. Has Sarina Azzameen arrived?"
"Several hours ago. I've already got her a place on the ship and she's logged into our records."
"Keep an eye on her, Arn," she said, turning to look at him directly. "Kieran made a promise to her father that I intend we keep."
"I watch all of them, Syrenna. This is my family."
Syrenna touched a hand to his shoulder in understanding, feeling his worry for the others despite having no sense of the Force. He smiled back at her, the action brightening his face.
"Then get back to it."
Arn nodded once and disappeared back into the crowded courtyard.
Petre sat with his back against the wall in what remained of the communication room he had set up on arriving at Gratiln Station. Arrayed about him were several components, the last few pieces he needed to activate the long distance comm unit that would let him call Annuvasa.
It was another hour before all the components were inserted and he did his first test. The results were more than he had hoped for. On his first attempt to contact the Imperial base he received an answer.
"Commander Petre, we've been trying to contact you for days. What is the status of your mission?"
"Not good." Petre had decided before even attempting to contact his superiors he would tell the entire truth. He wanted the Jedi to pay for his capture, and to ensure that he wanted the Imperials suitably warned and prepared to destroy them. "My team is dead and I have only just escaped capture. My suspicions were correct, the remnants of the Jedi are here on Gratiln Station. They have obtained the deeds to a Corellian Corvette, ID Grathen's Rage, though I suspect that the name will change. The ID code is 874-A-548-GKC. Based upon activity at the time of my escape, I would estimate departure by the group within two days."
The image on the far end fuzzed for a moment before being replaced with the masked face of Lord Vader. Partially visible behind him was what looked like the ruins of a castle. Petre felt a chill run down his spine as he looked into the man's blue eyes.
"I am disappointed in you, Commander Petre."
Petre was more frightened than before as he heard the words. The calm, icy inflections, disconcerting when backed by the mechanically aided breathing that permanently covered all the words, left him in no doubts of the danger he would be in when he returned.
"Is the child there?"
"The child is with her mother, Syrenna Dreen."
"And the father?"
Petre heard the tone of that question, despite the mechanical nature of the words. Whoever this man was, Lord Vader wanted him.
"Kieran Dreen left planet almost a week ago by my reckoning. I was not able to glean the information of his destination from my captor before she died."
"Very well, Commander Petre. Your service for the Empire is complete."
Petre frowned at the words, unsure of their meaning, until he felt the pressure in his throat. His hands jerked upwards in an attempt to remove the invisible fingers, a reflex action that he knew would not save him. The pain increased, as the air passed less and less through the crushing windpipe. Trying to plead for his life, Petre collapsed forward into darkness. His last vision was of the comm unit turning to static.
It took Kieran and Callista several hours to make it through the dense forest growth to the edges of the base. Wire fences were linked around the entire perimeter, with only a gateway allowing entrance to the North of the compound. A landing field to the East had several Lambda-class shuttles at rest, with several white-armoured troops patrolling the area.
"That building slightly to your right looks a good place to start," Kieran said, indicating a well-lit building with several entrances. "Ready?"
Callista nodded once in assent, following Kieran from the dark edge of the forest and using the Force to aid her jump over the wire fencing. Landing with very little noise, they ran across the small open area between the fence and the building, flattening against the wall to reduce their profile.
We enter the building through those doors on the left, Kieran thought, looking directly at Callista.
She nodded once, her eyes tracking to the double doors he had indicated. In seconds she was off, her dark flight suit hiding her as she moved from patch of darkness to patch of darkness. Kieran was a few paces behind her, watching for any movement from the ripples in the Force he had detected around the camp.
The doors opened automatically as they approached, so they stepped inside. The corridor before them was plain, with white duracrete walls and overhead lighting. Occasional doors dotted the perfection ahead of them.
"Where first?" Callista asked, speaking normally.
Kieran stretched out with the Force, ignoring the strong presence back towards the castle. The greatest concentration of people was in the third room down on the right. Kieran got the impression of people at rest. Senses of food and relaxation washed from the room. Fourth down on the left was different. He could sense only two people there, both attentive and concentrating.
"Fourth on the left," he said, joining Callista in speaking normally. They had decided early that skulking and whispering were more likely to get them discovered than just pretending they were supposed to be there.
Walking down the corridor, Kieran felt someone approaching the door to what he assumed was the common room. A tall, black-haired man, dressed in a flight suit very similar to the one he was wearing, walked out and turned towards them. As he passed Kieran felt Callista manipulate the Force, subtly removing any questions from the man's mind regarding their presence.
Kieran nodded in response, whilst Callista smiled at the man as he passed. He left the building through the doors they had entered by. Keeping his senses extended, Kieran passed the common room and came to the door they were aiming for. He glanced once at Callista to confirm she was ready, then opened it.
Inside was a simple communication room. Several comm units were arrayed along the left wall, along with a holo-projector on the right. Two officers sat at the desk, headsets on, monitoring the comm traffic flashing about the base.
Kieran touched each of them lightly with the Force, sending them to sleep. He removed the headset from one, slipped it on, and turned to the console. Looking at the screen he read the options available. Choosing the Operational Staff option, he pulled up records for the base. It took only moments to confirm that Erinan had been telling the truth. Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, was indeed in command of this base, and records confirmed that he was on planet at this time. He reached out again with the Force, this time deliberately probing towards the presence in the castle. To his shock, it was waiting for him, returning his probe with one of its own.
"He's here," he said, turning to look at Callista.
"That's not all," she said, pointing to a playback on her own monitor.
Kieran stared in horror at the image of Petre, the man that had been captured before he left Gratiln, informing Vader of the most current plans of the Jedi refugees. He looked at the small symbols at the bottom of the image and selected the one that indicated linked information. With growing fear--something he had not felt for a long time as a Jedi Master--he read the technical readout of a ship dispatched specifically to retrieve the Jedi children. He heard Callista gasp behind him as she read the data over his shoulder.
"Come, we need to leave," he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her to the door.
"What about Vader?" she asked, joining him as they checked the corridor.
"I'll deal with him," Kieran said, stepping out and heading towards the double doors at the end of the hall.
"As it was meant to be," Kieran said.
They slipped out of the building and back to the fence. A second Force jump had them out and clear. Once they were back under the cover of the trees, Kieran pulled her down to the ground and glanced back to see if they had been followed.
"Callista, I need you to go. Back to the Angelfire. Blast off of this planet and go after the Jedi. They must be warned about the Eye, they must be kept safe."
Kieran took her by both shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. He was surprised by the depth of fear there, the depth of her feelings for him.
"Callista, please. Go to Syrenna and tell her to get the Jedi to safety. Scatter them. Place them with foster families. Hide their gifts. Darkness is coming, darkness I am not sure we can face. Master Thanus tried to warn me, but I didn't listen." He stopped, shaking his head for a moment, seeing Syrenna and Mara in his mind's eye. "Tell Syrenna I love her."
Callista had tears welling at the corner of her eyes, and her hand raised to wipe them away. A quirky smile appeared on her lips.
"I'll go, Kieran, but I'll be back. I promise."
Kieran nodded once, recognising the promise for what it really was, a chance for her to feel she wasn't truly leaving him behind.
"Now go, and hurry. The Eye left three days ago, so it is already on its way to Gratiln. The Fire is faster, much faster, so you should beat it."
"May the Force be with you, Kieran."
She leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the cheek, before turning and disappearing into the darkness, headed towards the Angelfire.
Kieran waited for several moments after she had left before he removed his flight suit and pulled his robes back out from the pack. Dressing in them felt right for what he was about to do. Checking his lightsaber was secure at his side, he turned towards the castle and the looming presence in the Force that was waiting there for him.
Callista sat in the pilot's chair of the Angelfire, aware that dawn was fast approaching. The engines had just completed their pre-flight check and were now available. Powering up the repulsors, she lifted the ship gently from the forest floor, raising the landing struts. Goosing a little power to the engines, she took her over the tops of the trees, staying low to avoid detection. She reached out for Kieran as she passed over the castle, but he wasn't there yet, only the darkness that she had felt before. Once she had reached the open area beyond the castle she slammed power to the sublight engines on full, causing the Angelfire to rocket spaceward. It took her only seconds to clear the atmosphere. As soon as she did, every proximity alarm in the cockpit went off. Calling up the defensive display she registered three of the large ships that had been at Arramon when the Jedi had been destroyed. Her sensors indicated that they were already spewing forth the small fighters that had been identified as TIEs. Switching the turret guns over to auto-fire, she slaved the side-mounted lasers to her control stick. Whatever was in her sights, they would hit.
Driving away from the planet, she checked the sensors for a hole in the pattern. Two of the large destroyers were close together, the third a little further away. Switching deflector shields to full front, she dove towards the small gap between the two ships. Lances of turbolaser light began to reach out towards her. Settling herself into the Force, she let her consciousness expand outwards, let it read the intentions of the many ships around her. This was something she had never tried before, something she did not know if she could do, but she forced herself deeper, letting the Force guide her movements.
Two TIEs approached hard from behind, lasers flashing out at the unprotected rear of the ship. Aware that they were getting close Callista flicked a little shield energy back to the rear. The turret lasers tracked the two incoming TIEs, lances of laser flaring out at them. The first one took a strike on the upper left panel, sending it careening across to smash into its wingman. Satisfied that the closest threat was taken care of, Callista plunged the Angelfire into the gap between the two giant destroyers.
Turbolaser fire flashed around the ship as it shot along the bottomless trench, but more shots were hitting each of the destroyers than were bouncing from the Angelfire's shields. Callista equalised the shield settings, aware that a quick strike from behind could end her ability to escape, even her life. Several more TIEs were brave enough, or stupid enough, to try and follow her into the laser nightmare. They were quickly destroyed before they reached her. In moments she was beyond the end of the ships, the control stick shaking in the engine wash that was buffeting the Angelfire as she headed for freedom. More turbolaser fire flashed past her as she jinked around. She felt a sudden tug on the ship and was slammed forward in her seat. Checking her sensors she realised she was in a tractor beam.
"Damn. What now?"
Kieran stood in the shadows of the ruined castle. There were no signs of Imperial troops anywhere in the area. Only that presence, waiting in some kind of broken-down antechamber of a roofless great hall. There was a sudden noise from behind him that he had not expected; his attention was too focused on what was ahead. He turned, his lightsaber springing to his hand, igniting with a snap-hiss, its blue glow comforting in his hand. Walking around a corner in the distance were two of the white-armoured troopers. Seeing no threat, he turned off his lightsaber.
In the brief respite he felt as they passed from his view he felt a tremor in the Force, warning him. The snap-hiss of a lightsaber behind him was enough of a warning. Spinning away from the wall he re-ignited his own glowing blue blade.
Standing in front of him, cloaked in black, with black clothes, boots, gloves, was the man of his nightmares. His hair was gone, replaced with a mess of scar tissue that still looked fresh. His eyes were tight with pain as the filter on the mask over the lower half of his face flickered with his breath. Kieran saw the tubes leading from the edges of the mask feed down to a control box of some form on the man's chest. Holding his lightsaber ready, Kieran stretched out with the Force, trying to sense his opponent's move. The echo back through the Force made him lower his sabre and look more carefully at the man standing before him. Despite the scarring, the pain, and the mask, he recognised him.
"Anakin! By the Force, it is you, Anakin!"
The man in black did not respond, merely stood ready, his sabre poised.
"Anakin, we thought you were lost! When Obi-Wan returned without you and then disappeared, along with Yoda, we thought that you had died."
All thoughts of fighting this man were gone. All the words of Master Thanus faded into nothingness as Kieran felt joy at seeing his lost friend.
"The man you knew as Anakin Skywalker is dead, he died in the fire pits," the man said, keeping his glowing red blade centred before him.
"Obi-Wan!" The anger in Vader's voice was clear, as was the sudden surge in the Force. "He did this. He scarred Anakin, stole his wife, left him for dead. Now there is only me."
"My name is Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, Apprentice to Emperor Palpatine."
"Your time has come to an end, Jedi. Your ways are old, antiquated. It is time for the Sith to rise again."
Kieran barely set his lightsaber in time to block the first blow from Vader, backing away under the hammering onslaught. Despite the obvious injuries from whatever had happened to him, Vader was clearly very strong and very quick. Kieran backed away, using the small width in the antechamber to give him room, blocking attack after attack. Reaching a more open area of the ruin, he dodged one way and then the other. Vader misread his intention, whether by accident or deliberately Kieran did not know, and left enough time for Kieran to recover his balance. Seeing an out-cropping above him that could give him more breathing room, he jumped, using the Force to aid him. He had just landed when Vader was there, his crimson blade angling in again. Kieran exchanged blows with him, his blade dancing to block the angry strikes of the man before him. One particular strike came closer than he had hoped for, and Kieran somersaulted backwards off the ledge into the great hall he had noticed earlier. Long and rectangular, there were two bases of the old support columns left that interrupted the large open, gravelled area.
Vader stopped on the edge of the upper floor, staring down at Kieran.
"Why did you come, Kieran? Why did you need to face me?"
"I didn't know it was you," Kieran said, keeping his saber ready in front of him. "I would never have come had I known."
"That is your mistake then, Kieran Dreen. I would have come for you."
Vader dropped into the hall, his lightsaber ready.
"Now we end this," he said, advancing like a tide of darkness. "Now I find peace."
Callista transferred as much energy from her laser system into the engines as possible, but the ship was still being pulled back towards the two destroyers. She reached out with the Force to Kieran, but she felt only worry and fear from him, as well as a deep sense of sadness. Something was happening on the planet that neither of them had expected. Knowing as soon as she touched him that he did not expect to get away, Callista felt a burning need to reach Syrenna. Turning back to the console, she called up the sensor readings on the ship pulling her in, registering that it was the left one of the two that had grabbed her. She checked the weapon status readouts and nodded to herself. Arming all of the torpedoes she had onboard, twenty in total, she keyed in a firing sequence that would have them re-enter the tractor beam just shy of the actual emitter, giving her a forty metre gap between the explosion and the shields on her ship.
Punching the launch button, the torpedoes shot out in fours, firing out towards space before arcing out two to either side of the ship. She tracked them on the sensors, registering the sudden renewal of turbolaser fire from the ships. Thankfully the torpedoes were too small and too fast for the gunners to accurately track them. Three were tagged before they reached the base of the tractor beam. Callista slammed the throttle to full power and shifted all shields to the rear, bracing herself for the impact.
Three seconds later it came. The Angelfire bucked as the torpedoes hit the shields of the mighty destroyer. The second set hit again, destroying the shields at that point, allowing the remaining torpedoes direct access to the hull of the ship. Explosions rocked along the surface in that area, erupting out into space with spurts of fire. When viewed against the whole vessel it was nothing, but Callista thanked the Force anyway as the Angelfire launched itself out towards deep space again. Her sensors indicated the second destroyer attempting to establish a lock, but the Angelfire was moving far too fast for it to grab her. In moments she was far enough away from the planet's mass shadow to engage the hyperdrive. Reaching out with the Force, she sent a final, reassuring touch to Kieran, letting him know that she was away.
The Angelfire accelerated to lightspeed and punched through into hyperspace.
"Never underestimate the power of the light side of the Force, Darth," Kieran said, blocking the next powerful attack.
Vader was losing all semblance of control now, his lightsaber swinging wide on each pass, power rather than finesse guiding his hand. Kieran could feel the anger boiling below the surface, breaking out with each attack, with each unsuccessful strike.
"The dark side is not the way, Anakin. Come back to the light, come back to your friends."
Vader snarled, before striking out again. Kieran blocked the blow, side stepping the following strike and swinging in with a blow of his own. Somehow Vader's blade was back blocking the attack and giving him time to recover from the strike.
"You can't win, Darth," Kieran said, settling back into his stance, letting the Force surround him, penetrate him.
"I have already won."
Kieran frowned at the words, stepping back from the combat, pushing out with the Force. He felt a brief brush from Callista as she disappeared into hyperspace. That brush was enough to lift his spirits.
"You have won nothing, Darth!"
"The Jedi are gone," Vader said, "Only the young and the weak remain, and soon I shall have them too. The balance will be restored."
Kieran's core belief was shaken with those few words. Not at the loss of life when the Jedi had been destroyed, not from the threat to the remaining Jedi, but the final words, the conviction in Vader's voice when he talked of restoring the balance. Master Thanus's words in his dream came crashing back to him.
In each of us the forces of good and evil do we balance. For too long have we held the balance on the side of light. To right this does the Force move. Balance it seeks to restore.
Kieran shook that away, concentrating on the menacing figure before him. "How does this restore the balance?"
"For too long the Jedi Council have stood in judgement over all those around them. They became so blind to the darkness they could not even see it under their noses."
"My master, Palpatine."
Kieran frowned at Vader's tone. Even now, Vader would not admit the link between the shadowy Darth Sidious, the man behind Darth Maul's attack on Queen Amidala, and the now Emperor Palpatine. Kieran wondered if the link truly existed.
"I can't let you do this," Kieran said, resuming his fighting stance. "Balance should not be restored when the cost is this high. It is too great."
"No price is too high to restore the balance."
Vader lunged, his blade coming in straight and hard. Kieran stepped away, his own blade parrying the attack and then darting in for a strike of his own. To his shock the strike connected, damaging the left breathing tube, separating it from the mask. Vader's breaths came in shorter bursts, as the regulator tried to compensate for the damaged tube. Vader spun away from Kieran, his shock palpable through their connection in the Force. Kieran felt his own anger building, the tight rope he had walked across the pit of the dark side swaying alarmingly.
"You feel it, Kieran, you are embracing the darkness, the balance. Cease this fighting and I will spare you."
Kieran snarled, images of Syrenna and Mara flicking through his mind, hurt, tired, in danger. His anger flared, and he consciously drew on the power of the dark side, using its energies to strike out at Vader.
He never saw the strike that came, but he felt the shock in the Force as Vader connected with both lightsaber and the dark side, his opening created as Kieran tumbled into the darkness of his own soul. Kieran screamed as pain fired from every nerve in his body. He collapsed to the floor, his lightsaber forgotten next to him, clasping a hand to his ruined eyes. Vader's saber had cut him horizontally across the face, burning away his eyes and cauterising the wound as it passed. Kieran tried to stretch out in the Force, to use it to augment his lost senses, to aid him. Only then did he realise what the true pain had been. The Force was gone.
"Yield, Kieran, there is no need for you to die."
Kieran could not hear the words; his mind was turning in on itself, grabbing memories, thoughts, feelings of when he had used the Force, when he had been one with it.
Vader stood over the huddled man that he had once called friend. The midichlorians were gone, destroyed in the whirlwind of Force he had hit him with. Activating his comlink he turned away from the shivering wreck.
"Send a transport to the old castle and a detention crew."
"At once, Lord Vader."
"Prepare my shuttle. I wish to return to Coruscant immediately. Have the prisoner transferred to my ship once he has been cleaned up."
"Understood, my Lord."
Vader turned off his comlink and walked past Kieran to retrieve the man's lightsaber. Attaching it to his belt with his own, he used one of the walls to steady himself as the adrenaline from the fight left his body. He would wait now for the prisoner to be taken. Soon, he would be with his Master again, and the balance would be a step closer to being achieved.
Captain Aruwn stood on the bridge of the Palpatine's Pride, waiting for the arrival of Lord Vader. The Angelfire had disappeared into hyperspace nearly an hour ago, and reports from the scouts had found no trace of her along the route she had left by. Word had come from the planet only minutes ago that Lord Vader would be arriving by shuttle for transport to Coruscant, along with a prisoner. Aruwn was feeling extremely proud that his would be the ship to arrive first at what would soon become Imperial Centre.
"Lord Vader's shuttle will dock in five minutes, Sir."
"Thank you, Ensign."
Aruwn strode from the bridge, taking the first turbolift from outside the command deck to the dignitary's docking bay. Already waiting were a squad of his finest men and two members of the detention block team.
The Lambda-class shuttle was settling to the deck in the hanger as he reached his place at the front of the squad. The rear ramp descended slowly to the ground, steam from the frozen hydraulic system billowing out as it re-heated in the confines of the sealed docking bay. In moments Lord Vader appeared, flanked by Stormtroopers in their brilliant white body-armour. Aruwn felt like cringing in fear. Gone was the complex breath mask and tubing. Instead his face was gone, covered in a black, domed helmet. The rasp of his breath was louder in his new helmet. It seemed to drown out the hiss of the escaping gas from the hydraulics.
"My Lord, welcome aboard the Palpatine's Pride."
"We are ready to leave on your command, my Lord."
"Good. Try hard not to let your normal incompetence defeat you in such a simple task."
"The Emperor is not pleased that the other Jedi escaped. He has foreseen that she may be trouble."
"But, my Lord, she was too fast for our ships...."
Aruwn raised his hand to his throat as he found it harder to breathe. Lord Vader's hand was raised slightly, the fingers clenching towards each other, mimicking the crushing effect on his windpipe.
Turning away from Aruwn as he collapsed to the deck, Vader approached Lieutenant Karan.
"Commander Karan, make all speed for Coruscant, the Emperor awaits."
"At once, my Lord."
Aruwn lay gasping on the floor as the crushing sensation left him. Lord Vader stood over him.
"Be thankful that I am in a forgiving mood today. See the prisoner to the detention block. Do not harm him and see that he is guided carefully."
"As you command, Lord Vader," Aruwn gasped. He turned to look at the prisoner being escorted down the ramp. His face paled at the livid scar across the man's face, where his eyes had once been.
"Who is he, my Lord?"
"The beginning of the end."
Aruwn watched in confusion as Lord Vader swept from the docking bay, leaving him alone with the prisoner.
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