For some reason that Kresh Tander didn't know, the creature had ceased to pursue him. He had continued to run through the cavern, turning into a passage and following it to its end, where he now stood, considering what to do next. The passage was roughly three meters in diameter, its roof a mosaic of fissures that admitted the light of Tatooine's twin suns. He peered through dust swirling in the bright rays along the way he had come. Patches of sunlight dappled the floor like stepping stones that marched along the passage and disappeared around a bend far away. The cavern had fallen silent.
He stood still, listening, and watching. Going back was out of the question. The fissures above might afford an escape, but he judged the aperture too narrow even for his slender frame. If the creature discovered him here...
They'll eat anything, the guide had said, leaning close with a dark gleam in his Twi'lek eye. Even human children. Even a Jedi Padawan learner, as you call yourself.
Kresh harbored an affinity for wild animals. He could name and describe over a hundred of the most exotic creatures indigenous to various locales in the galaxy. Among his favorites was the norak, a vicious carnivore. So when his Master's duties brought them to the region of Tatooine where noraks lived, he dared to dream, and had not been disappointed.
He had observed a live norak in its natural environment. Its beauty had surpassed even what the holograms suggested, and he fell in love. Viewing it from above through the fissures in the roof of the cavern had almost satisfied his curiosity. He had asked much of his Master when he requested that they detour out of the city to see this cavern, so, afterward, he had returned to the cavern alone, in secret.
He had only one option. He drew his right hand up his side, expecting to feel the cold metal of the weapon he kept slung from his service belt. A lightsaber, with its blade of pure energy that could slice through the hardest durasteel, rendered even a Padawan learner as dangerous as any norak. Please, by the Force, don't let it come to that. If he could scale the wall, he could use it to widen the aperture and escape.
A chill spread through his stomach as he realized the weapon was missing. To a Jedi, losing your lightsaber was like losing your identity. Could it have happened when he tripped and fell during the pursuit? Had he neglected to secure it properly? He opened himself to the Force, seeking the familiar impression of the lightsaber, but it eluded his senses.
Without the lightsaber, the Force was all he could use to protect himself. He had reached the stage in his Jedi training where he was strong enough with the Force to levitate nearly his own body weight, and to relocate it several meters - not much of a basis for the challenge he could soon face. Maybe he could direct a shower of sand into the creature's eyes, or cause the creature to swallow its tongue...
No time for that now. Looking at the crevices and protrusions of the tawny wall, he suspected he could climb to the roof, though he doubted he could squeeze through the gap in the rock. If I want to live to see my seventeenth year, I had better try it.
He strode to the wall at the end of the tunnel, located suitable points of purchase, and began to climb. He enacted the Force to reduce his burden; he felt as if he were climbing out of a body of water in which gentle waves were buoying him upward. He hauled himself up the first meter of rock, Padawan braid swinging like a bark rat's tail behind his shoulder, pale skin darkening to sienna as dust poured down onto him and clung to the sweat of fear and exertion. The holorecorder dangling from his neck scraped at the rock face as he climbed. All this trouble, and he had managed to record just four seconds of footage before the norak noticed him and gave chase. This couldn't get much worse.
As he paused to scrutinize the terrain of the rock face, he became aware of a sound emanating from the passage beyond. He twisted his head to peer over his shoulder, but saw only the hazy tunnel. He resumed his climb, moving faster. The sound was that of his doom, a crunching of pebbles growing heavier and closer. Frantic, his heart pounding, he lifted his boot to the next ridge in the rock. When he shifted his weight onto that foot, the rock collapsed and he fell. He pivoted and landed flush on his back with an impact that knocked the air out of him. He rose to his feet just in time to see the source of that sound emerge from behind the bend in the passage.
"Kresh!" came a fierce whisper.
Jedi Knight Reath Zundren trotted into the chamber, the edge of his brown Jedi cloak swaying at his ankles. Reath, a human, was twenty-six years old, young for a Knight, but competent, and a natural teacher. As he approached Kresh, his chiseled, clean-shaven face was set in a frown. Beneath a bald caramel pate, blue eyes blazed.
"You know why I forbade you to go near this cave," Reath said as Kresh patted dust from his light tunic. "That creature -"
"I know. Noraks eat anything. I only wanted to see it, I promise. I wasn't planning to hurt it." He looked down at his feet. "It chased me. I lost my lightsaber."
"Another point of concern." Reath sighed. "I think we can recover it. I sense its location right now. Let's get out of here. My mission on this planet requires constant attendance."
They advanced only a few paces before Kresh collided with Reath's outstretched arm.
"Master, I don't hear -"
"Shhh. Not a sound."
Reath retreated, pulling Kresh along with him. Reath turned around and Kresh felt his Master's hands on his shoulders, propelling him back. "Go on. Climb up and see if you can fit."
"But Master -"
Motion in the tunnel interrupted his thought. A shadow glided across the wall, moving toward them along the curve of the tunnel. Following it, a creature, striped black and white from its nose to the tip of its tail, galloped into view. Its body was a long, narrow blade that bent in a great arch as it paused to rear up on a pair of muscular hind legs. The fingers of its tiny forelimbs unfurled and contracted, splaying long black talons. It lifted the nose of its elongated head and sniffed at the air.
Then, the creature noticed them. With its striped tail undulating like a long flag in a wind and its chest heaving, the norak stretched its neck toward the Jedi and snarled, exposing crystal teeth the size of Kresh's fingers. Out from between its teeth slithered a black tongue that waved like a fluttering reed.
"Master, your lightsaber -"
"That won't be necessary, I think."
At that the beast charged. Kresh's heart leaped and, despite his Jedi training of self-control, he instinctively clutched at Reath's cloak.
Reath lifted a hand. Kresh sensed that his Master was invoking the Force, and the hairs on the nape of his neck bristled as he began to understand what was happening.
The beast dove headlong into the ground as a meter-long rod of light, thick as Kresh's thumb and sparkling like an emerald, stabbed out of its side through the ribcage. The beast howled and thrashed on the ground in a horrible fit of convulsions. The confines of the cavern amplified its howls, as well as a humming from the glowing lance. After several moments, the protests quieted, and the norak ceased to stir. Its chest no longer heaved with respiration.
Slowly, the Jedi approached the norak. Protruding from the animal's side, the beam of the lightsaber continued to sparkle with green luminescence. Kresh could hear the weapon humming at a low pitch. Standing before the beam, which pointed directly at him, Reath waved a hand in a gesture of beckoning. The blade extinguished as the hilt ejected and flew into his grip.
Kresh wouldn't assimilate all of what had just happened for some time yet. Still, his culpability in this tragedy was clear to him. This creature that had so intrigued him, and that filled him with such wonder, had died because of his recklessness. As he gazed down upon the remains, tears of guilt and remorse moistened his eyes.
Kresh stepped around and approached his Master, who proffered the lightsaber. "I'm sorry, Kresh, but this is the price of irresponsibility. It could have been worse."
Nodding, Kresh accepted the weapon. He placed it onto his service belt, securing it.
When they departed, he didn't look back.
Original cover by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2002 TheForce.Net LLC.