"Meditated further I have, on the question of the Sith," Yoda said. He and his fellow Jedi Master, Mace Windu, were in a private compartment on the new Supreme Chancellor's transport as it flew back to Coruscant. "The apprentice it must have been. Risk himself, the master would not."
"I agree," Windu replied. His dark features were troubled by recent events. It was horrifying enough that the Sith were rising again after so many centuries, but that it had happened without the Jedi realizing it? It would have been unthinkable just two days ago. But the evidence was unmistakable. Both masters, indeed the entire Jedi Council, were still coming to terms with this new threat. They had only felt vague tremors in the Force, nothing that would suggest something of this magnitude. What kind of power did the Sith wield? Could they truly blind the Jedi as they appeared to have?
The council had examined the body retrieved from the depths of Naboo's royal palace. Neatly cleaved in two by a lightsaber, the body had reeked of the dark side of the Force. They had been unable to learn anything else from it. The remnants of the double-bladed lightsaber matched the ancient records of how the Sith had constructed their versions of the traditional Jedi weapon. Those facts combined with the reports of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the late Qui-Gon Jinn on the creature's skill pointed to one conclusion. The Sith were back.
"Hmm," Yoda murmured. "The identity of the master, we must determine. Seek, it will, to avenge the apprentice."
"Yes," Windu said. "We should keep Obi-Wan and Anakin at the temple for now. We can protect them there."
Yoda nodded, closing his eyes in concentration on the Force. "How this will end, I cannot see. Clouded it is, by the dark side."
"We should begin informing all the Jedi in the field," Windu said. "If the Sith Master was the hand behind the crisis on Naboo, he will try to generate unrest elsewhere."
"I agree," Yoda said. "But in secret, it must be."
"Yes," Windu said. "It would seem the Master Varim was right. The dark side is rising."
"Listened, we should have," Yoda said. "Sensitive to the dark side, has he always been."
"The Sith Lord will need to replace the warrior Obi-Wan destroyed," Windu said. "It will take him time to train a new apprentice. Unless..."
"Unless a ready replacement, he has," Yoda finished. "Or a Jedi he lures to the dark side."
"Do you think that's possible?" Windu asked, not at all comfortable with the notion of one of their own turning.
"Masters of manipulation and deceit, the Sith are," Yoda said. "Possible, it is. Warned, all must be."
Unfortunately, that warning would come too late.
Kensigon was a lush and fertile world on the Outer Rim. Though it had a wide variety of life forms, none had ever developed sentience. Because of its remote location and lack of valuable resources, few ever traveled there. It would make for a good hiding place, Nilas Sarpe thought. He would have to remember that after this job. There was a smuggler or two he knew of who'd be interested. If it was nice enough he'd make it his own base of operations. It was out of the way, but that could have its advantages.
Such plans would have to wait for now. He had a tricky job at hand. Undoubtedly the most dangerous he'd ever accepted, and he'd done some nasty things in his time. The risk was high, having forced him to hire extra help, but the payoff was going to be enormous. Once it was done, he could easily quit and live out his days in comfort. He wasn't planning to, but it would be nice to have the luxury. He could definitely afford to buy the expensive ship he'd rented for this mission.
He sat on the bridge of the well-armed attack ship and watched the planet grow closer through the viewport. Before him, the two extra men he'd hired were piloting the ship. Normally he preferred to do the flying himself but he didn't trust either of his associates and this way he could keep a constant watch on them. Even now he wondered which of them was more likely to try a double-cross.
"We're secure from hyperspace," Garfo Onez said from the right-hand station. Garfo was a fairly competent bounty hunter, though starting to get on in years. He wasn't the best or the brightest, but when he took a job he did it and had never been known to cheat anyone. Once he'd been told what their objective was on this run, though, he'd started trying to back out. Nilas wasn't sure why, but he was watching Garfo closely.
"Start scanning for the beacon," he ordered.
"Right," replied Lyton Kians. Lyton was an alien, but never said what his species was called. Little was known about him, but Nilas had seen him take down two Barabels in a bar on Malastere. That was no easy feat and when this job came up, he remembered the tough alien. Lyton had made a few impressive captures as a bounty hunter but rumor had it that he was also an assassin for hire and had done some 'enforcing' for Jabba the Hutt. Exactly the kind of man Nilas needed on this job.
"No ships in the area," Garfo reported.
"I told you there wouldn't be," Nilas said. "No one comes here."
"I still don't like this," Garfo said.
"We're not getting paid to like it," Nilas said. "It's just a job."
"Just a job?" Garfo replied. "These are Jedi we're talking about. Aren't you even a little nervous?"
"No," Nilas said. "Are you?"
"Yeah, I am," Garfo said, stunned that Nilas was so calm. "And you should be too."
"Relax," Lyton said. "Nilas is right, we'll be fine."
Garfo seemed unconvinced. "Who's paying us for this anyway?" he asked.
The truth was that Nilas wasn't entirely sure of that himself, but he wasn't going to let these two know that. Instead he said, "Since when do you care?"
"Since the job came with a good chance of me getting killed," Garfo replied.
"I don't know the name," Nilas admitted, "but he's got a lot of money and he's willing to spend it. That's all I need to know."
Garfo was about to argue further when Lyton's console started beeping. "Got it!" he said. "They're on the southern continent."
"Take us down," Nilas ordered.
Garfo reluctantly turned to his controls and began lining up for their descent. "I've got a bad feeling about this," he said.
The best part about visiting a planet like Kensigon was how alive it felt in the Force. Therlissa Polgont, Jedi Padawan Learner, could feel the ebbs and currents of the Force flowing through all the life on this world. From the tiniest blades of grass to the massive beasts that roamed some of the forests, each had a particular resonance in the Force and she delighted in simply reaching out and sensing them. This degree of sensitivity was a rare gift, her master had said, and she had worked hard to develop it. It was particularly acute here because there were no sentient minds broadcasting interfering thoughts. Not that she didn't like being around people, but sometimes she needed to be alone to commune with the Force and the life that created it.
Gently reaching out with her feelings, she touched the first small stone and lifted it into the air in front of her. She repeated this process eleven more times until all the small stones were floating in a circle in front of her, rotating slowly. Then her mind reached out and found the large stone she had selected. Therlissa brought it up and moved it into the center of the circle. Once it was in place, she started it rotating in the opposite direction.
She was about to take the exercise to the next level when she sensed something approaching. Two spheres, floating towards her. Keeping the floating stones where they were, she reached out to get a sense of the new objects. She recognized them a split second before the first one started shooting at her. They were small attack droids on repulsorlifts. Though similar to the target remotes Jedi used for lightsaber training these were far more dangerous, capable of firing lethal laser blasts.
As the first of the two droids opened fire she sent the small stones flying towards it, using them to intercept the laser blasts while she drew and ignited her lightsaber. The green-white blade sprang to life and began blocking the shots from the second droid. With the Force, she hurled the large stone at the first droid, striking it dead center. The droid was not destroyed but some of its inner workings must have been damaged because it started firing straight into the air.
The second droid moved closer. Therlissa noticed that the laser blasts were growing stronger and stronger with each shot. The droid was well made and fast. Keeping up with the barrage of laser fire was taking all her concentration. Even with her Jedi speed, she wasn't able to close the distance to deliver a killing blow with her lightsaber. The droid's pattern of fire was broad and random, making it difficult to deflect a blast back at it.
She remembered the first droid, which was still firing straight up. Reaching out with the Force, she hurled it towards the second droid as she charged forward. The two droids collided. As they came apart, Therlissa reached them and sliced them in to with a single precise stroke of her blade. With a shower of sparks they fell to the ground, useless.
Therlissa quickly reached out with her senses, seeking further threats. Instead, she noticed a presence that hadn't been there a moment ago. She detected both pride and amusement, which confirmed her suspicion about the nature of the attack.
"Well Master," she began. "Did I pass?"
There was a rustle in the trees to her right. A figure emerged, wearing a traditional brown Jedi robe and carrying a small remote control. Ryna Zanik, Jedi Master and Therlissa's teacher for many years, regarded the small device and hooked it back to her belt. "Well done," she said.
Only then did Therlissa deactivate her weaopn. "Thank you, Master," she said.
"Did you have to destroy the remotes?" Zanik asked.
"Yes, Master," she said. "I noticed that the laser bolts grew stronger with each shot and there were no timers on them. The attack wouldn't end until they were out of commission."
"Very good," Zanik said. "I was hoping your senses would be sharp enough to notice. Your use of the stones was clever, even if you were showing off just a bit."
"I wasn't..." Therlissa began. Zanik's knowing expression stopped her in mid-sentence. She grinned sheepishly. "Okay, maybe a little."
Zanik turned serious for a moment. "Power is something you should never flaunt, young Padawan," she said. "Apply it only when necessary and then only enough to complete the task."
"Yes, Master," Therlissa replied, obediently.
"The Force is strong with you, and it always will be," Zanik continued. "I'm going to miss being your teacher."
That caught Therlissa completely off guard. "What?" she exclaimed.
"There's nothing more I can teach you, Therlissa" Zanik said. "When we return to Coruscant, I'm going to recommend the council administer the trials."
Therlissa was stunned. "Master...I don't know what to say," she gasped. "Thank you doesn't seem like enough."
"Yes it is," Zanik said. "You achieved this, Therlissa, I didn't. All I did was guide you."
"You did more than that," Therlissa said. "Thank you, Master."
The two Jedi had been on Kensigon for several days. Zanik had chosen it because it was off of the main spacelanes, in a sector seldom visited by anyone. The isolation was necessary so she could gauge Therlissa's growing skills without distraction. That task had now been accomplished. Therlissa was as ready as she was ever going to be. Zanik knew that her student would become a great Jedi Knight, but that confidence did nothing to bolster her ill feelings about the kind of world she was sending Therlissa into.
For some time now she had felt a growing disturbance in the Force. Only a few other Jedi Masters had sensed it. Dunis Varim, one of her oldest friends, had been the first and remained convinced, despite the skepticism of the council, that it was a portent of horrible things to come. Zanik trusted her old friend and his instincts. Something terrible was coming, regardless of what the council believed. She respected those who led the Jedi order, but nobody was perfect.
Her own instincts led her to believe that somehow Therlissa would be involved in what was coming. She didn't understand how, or even why, but that wasn't necessary. The Force told her it would be that way, and so she believed. Therlissa was the most talented student she'd ever had. She was strong and courageous. They had been on many missions together over the years and the young Padawan hadn't let her down once. Zanik had felt for some time that she was ready to become a full Jedi, but when she started sensing this new disturbance in the Force she realized she had to be absolutely sure. Hence the trip to Kensigon. Whatever was coming, she now knew Therlissa was ready for it.
It had been a long last day of tests and both women were tired. They agreed to spend the night here and head home in the morning. They built a campfire, ate, and enjoyed fond remembrances of their years together. Zanik had wondered more than once how similar the relationship between master and apprentice was to that between parent and child. It was, of course, a hypothetical thought exercise. Potential Jedi were brought into the order as infants, they didn't grow up the way most people did.
She had decided at some point that for Jedi, this was as close as you could get to a true parent-child situation. Therlissa was not her first Padawan, nor would she be the last, but they had a special connection that she had not had with her other students. There was something special about this one, though she didn't know exactly why. Ryna Zanik did not share Master Yoda's gift for seeing the future.
"I wonder what will happen now?" Therlissa mused.
"What do you mean?" Zanik asked.
"My whole life has been about becoming a Jedi," Therlissa said. "The training, the study, everything has been about reaching that goal. After the trials, assuming I pass, everything will change."
"Have you foreseen anything?" Zanik asked.
"No," she replied. "But I've never been very good at that."
"Don't let that trouble you," Zanik said. "The ability to see the future varies among Jedi. It's not my strongest talent, either."
"I suppose I'll find out soon enough," Therlissa said. "There are certainly enough problems in the Republic. Plenty of work for the Jedi to do."
"True," Zanik agreed.
Therlissa studied her for a moment. "You're troubled, Master," she said.
There was no point trying to persuade her otherwise. The training bond between them was deep. Zanik simply nodded. "You know about the disturbance in the Force," she said.
"Yes," Therlissa replied. "I started feeling it before you did."
"It's growing worse," Zanik said. "Varim was right. Something dark is coming, something terrible."
"That's why you brought me here," Therlissa said. "Isn't it? You didn't say so, but I knew it was."
Zanik nodded. "I needed to be sure you were ready. Whatever this threat is, I know you and I are going to be involved."
"I wish we knew what it was," Therlissa said.
"It will manifest itself sooner or later," Zanik said. "We will find out when the time comes. I only hope that it isn't too late."
"We have the Force on our side, Master," Therlissa said. "We can deal with it."
"Be mindful, young Padawan," Zanik cautioned, realizing this was one of the last times she would address her this way. "The dark side is difficult to see. It works in secret to try and seduce you. Be aware of everything around you. Take nothing for granted."
"Yes, Master," Therlissa said.
"We should rest," Zanik said. "We have a long trip ahead of us."
The bounty hunters landed several kilometers from the Jedi campsite. When night came, they unloaded the specialized equipment and got ready to make their move. In addition to their regular weaponry, each bounty hunter took a long rifle and wore a special backpack that held a large frame. Large, sluglike creatures were entwined in these frames. The backpacks had been specially designed for the comfort of the wearer and were equipped with small anti-gravity units to help ease the weight. They also had a large cage on a repulsorlift sled. On top of this cage was another frame assembly that held two of the strange creatures. The three men boarded a small landspeeder they had brought along and headed into the forest.
Not wanting to alert the Jedi, they left the speeder about two kilometers from the camp site and went the rest of the way on foot. Lyton went first, carrying the portable tracker, Garfo was second and Nilas brought up the rear. The cage followed silently. As they got closer, they slowed their approach to avoid making any noise.
About a hundred meters from the clearing, they stopped for a few moments. Garfo took out a set of macrobinoculars and scanned the Jedi camp. "Looks like they're asleep," he said.
"Good," Nilas said, "Let's go."
"Wait," Garfo said. "They might be-"
Nilas had had enough of this. He drew his blaster and pointed it right at Garfo's face. "Shut up," he said. "We do this and collect our money. One more word out of you and you're bantha fodder. Got it?"
Garfo nodded silently and the party resumed it's approach. When they reached the clearing, they spread out and got ready. The two Jedi were asleep by a campfire. Their shuttle was about a hundred meters away.
Nilas assumed point position now, flanked by the others. He was about to give the go ahead signal when the two Jedi sprang to their feet and activated their lightsabers. Though surprised, he thought they'd be able to catch the quarry unawares, he reacted instantly, firing the long rifle. Rather than a standard blaster bolt, the rifle fired a large ball of blue energy. Lyton and Garfo followed suit. The problem was that they had to wait three seconds between each shot for the weapons to recycle. That gave the Jedi plenty of time to deflect the bolts and ready themselves for the next attack. Time for the contingency plan.
Though the Jedi defended themselves with relative ease, they quickly discovered a serious problem. "I can't get a sense of them!" Therlissa exclaimed.
"I know!" Zanik replied. The area the attack was coming from was...empty. There was no sense of it through the Force. She was about to charge into the tree and see what the problem was when a new element entered the pictures. Four floating attack droids entered the clearing, firing blaster bolts at them.
Nilas signaled for the others to hold their fire a moment while the attack droids took over. They took advantage of the opportunity to move to new positions. Once they were in place, they resumed their own attack. Still the Jedi held their own and showed signs of moving into the trees. He couldn't let that happen. He took a small concussion grenade and tossed it into the clearing.
The grenade landed between the two Jedi and detonated, sending out a wave of energy that knocked both to the ground. Zanik rolled quickly and came up in time to deflect another blue energy ball, angling it towards one of the empty zones in the Force she'd sensed. This was the area occupied by Garfo. When it hit him, tendrils of blue-white energy engulfed his body. He fell to the ground, unconscious.
At the same time, Therlissa didn't fare quite as well. Lyton's sharp eye waited until the concussion grenade went off, then fired his rifle as she flew through the air. The energy ball hit the padawan, knocking her out in the same way Garfo had gone down.
When she fell, the attack droids concentrated their fire on Zanik. Fighting attack from six different angles was difficult for the Jedi Master, but not impossible. Then Nilas threw another concussion grenade, knocking her away and into Lyton's line of fire. Another blue energy ball brought her down.
Nilas quickly deactivated the attack droids and signaled for Lyton to move into the clearing. The two bounty hunters approached Therlissa cautiously, weapons ready, just in case. Neither had ever actually faced a Jedi Knight before. Though this one was supposed to be a mere apprentice, they still considered her a serious threat. When they confirmed that she was indeed unconscious, they brought the cage into the clearing and put her inside. Nilas picked up her fallen lightsaber and put it on his belt.
"What do you need that for?" Lyton asked.
"The man with the money insisted we bring it back," he replied.
"The Ysalimiri really worked," Lyton said, looking at the creature Nilas carried on his back. "I have to admit when you first told me about them I wasn't too sure."
"Not many people know about them," Nilas said. "And you can see why the Jedi have kept it that way. They create a kind of 'bubble' in the Force. I don't understand it, but it works. No Jedi can use the Force while in its range. The two on top of the cage ought to keep her out of trouble until we deliver. We'll keep her on sedatives just in case."
Lyton gestured towards the unconscious Garfo. "What about him?"
"Ah, leave him," Nilas said. "The clumsy oaf is more trouble than he's worth. I'll split his share with you."
"What kind of split?" Lyton asked.
Zanik woke up to see a familiar face staring at her. "Headache?" Garfo asked.
The Jedi reacted instantly, pushing Garfo away with the Force and calling her lightsaber to her hand. She activated the blade and assumed a ready posture. Only then did she take the time to look at her target. "Garfo?" She exclaimed, recognizing the bounty hunter. "What are you doing here?"
"It was only a job, I swear!" Garfo replied in terror. "I had no idea it was your apprentice!"
"Therlissa!" Zanik exclaimed, looking around. She didn't see the Padawan anywhere. She closed her eyes for a moment, reaching out with the Force. After a few seconds, she opened her eyes in shock. Lightsaber still in hand, she advanced on Garfo.
"What have you done?" she demanded. "I can't sense her. I should be able to at least pick up an echo, even if she's light years away!
"It's the Ysalimiri," Garfo said, frantically. "You know what they are?
Zanik nodded slowly, finally deactivating her lightsaber and returning it to her belt. "All the Jedi do," she said. "They come from a planet called Myrkyr. They have the ability to actually push away the Force. It's a defense against a predator that uses the Force to hunt."
"I had one on my back," Garfo said. "But don't worry, I took it away from here. It won't bother you."
Zanik studied him intently and decided he was being honest with her. "So the Ysalimiri are the reason I can't sense Therlissa," she said.
"Yeah," Garfo said. "The cage had two of them."
The Jedi looked at him sadly. "Why?" she asked.
"Why else?" he replied. "Money. The price was too high to ignore. My cut alone would have been a quarter million credits. And I was just a minority partner in this. But if I'd known it was you, I wouldn't have done it. I swear! I owe you too much!"
"Who hired you?" Zanik asked.
"Nilas Srape, you heard of him?" he said. Zanik nodded. "It was his job, really, he just subcontracted some extra help. I don't know who he was working for but there's a huge pile of money involved."
"Where are they taking her?"
"Coruscant. I don't know exactly where."
Zanik sighed and sat down on a large stone. The same one, she realized, that Therlissa sat on for her last exercise. "You told me you were getting out of the business."
"I was," The bounty hunter said. "Had a nice little place picked out on Corellia. I was even going to open a cantina. But Nilas came to me with this job. With a quarter million credits I wouldn't even have to work. I could retire. He had the Ysalimiri and the stun rifles. It seemed safe enough. Besides, we weren't going to hurt the girl. It was a capture, not a kill."
"And you think whoever hired you has only good intentions towards her?" Zanik said. Garfo looked down in genuine shame. "Garfo, I've been too easy on you in the past. I can't let you get away with this one."
"I know," he said.
"The Jedi Council will have to decide what happens to you," Zanik continued. "In the meantime, you're going to help me find Therlissa."
"Me?" Garfo replied. "I told you I don't know where they're taking her."
"But you know where to start asking questions." Zanik said. "That's enough for me. Come on. We have to hurry."
Minutes later, Zanik's ship rose from Kensigon and blasted into space.
Coruscant. The center of galactic civilization ever since there had been such a thing. Here, the most important business of the galaxy was done on a daily basis. The city-covered surface was home to the government of the Republic and the billions it employed. It was also the center of commerce in the galaxy, with business of every type, both legal and otherwise, operating from its spires.
The amount of space traffic around the planet necessitated the use of the most sophisticated traffic control system ever devised. The flight patterns were intricate and precise, the slightest deviation being an invitation for disaster. But the system could be manipulated by those with the ability and resources. Nilas' rented ship was able to fly past the strict flight paths by virtue of a special beacon that gave them legal authority to go wherever they wanted without being challenged. Nilas had no idea how his patron had arranged this. It usually took considerable effort on the part of a full senator to pull that off. He wondered, not for the first time, if his client was a senator. But what would a senator want with a Jedi?
As planned, they headed for the planet's industrial sector. The Republic's economy was going through some problems right now and a number of manufacturers had been forced to cut back production. There were many dormant factories in the industrial sector, one of which was the rendezvous point with Nilas's mysterious employer. As they approached the massive building, a large door on its side opened to reveal a landing bay. He and Lyton brought the ship in for an easy landing.
Though the building looked dilapidated on the outside, the hangar bay was in pristine condition. The hangar door closed before the landing skids touched the deck. As they brought the cage with the still-unconscious Jedi apprentice down the ship's ramp, a black robed figure approached from a nearby door. The long robe gave him the appearance of gliding across the floor. His hood obscured his features but Nilas did notice an intricate brooch at the neck.
The man stopped two meters from them. "Remove the creatures," he said.
"Huh?" Nilas said. Then he looked at the cage and understood. "Oh, them. You sure that's a good idea?"
The man stared at him. Though Nilas couldn't see his eyes, he felt like they were stabbing right through him. "Okay," he said. "You've got the money. Take them back to the ship."
Lyton nodded wordlessly and removed the Ysalimiri from the floating cage. Once he was back on board, the man in black took two steps forward. This was the first time Nilas had met him face to face. All previous communication had been handled via the holonet. Nilas had not taken him seriously until the outrageous down payment he'd demanded appeared in one of his secret accounts. Nobody was supposed to know about that account. That had convinced him that this mysterious client was to be taken seriously. Now that he was in the man's presence, he began to question the wisdom of his decision. This person was, quite simply, terrifying. He couldn't explain why, but he trusted his instincts. Time to collect his money and go.
But of course, it wasn't going to be that easy. "Where is your other companion," the man said. "The one called Garfo?"
How the hell did he know who Garfo was. "That loser?" he said. "He was nothing but trouble. Got hit with a deflected stun-net. We left him behind."
His client was not pleased. "To be interrogated by Ryna Zanik?" he said. His voice was cold, angry. "He will lead her here!"
"He didn't know where we were going." Nilas protested. "Well...not exactly."
"I believe you promised him a quarter of a million credits," the man said. "That amount is now forfeit."
That was not what he wanted to hear, and Lyton sure wasn't going to be happy about it. But he would deal with that later. All he wanted right now was to collect what he could and be on his way. He felt a strange tugging at his belt. He looked down as the remote control for the cage's repulsorlift sled flew across into the dark man's hand. "Hey!" the bounty hunter protested. A moment later, Therlissa's lightsaber flew out of his jacket pocket into the man's other hand.
"Our business is now concluded," the man said.
The cage began moving across the hanger. That was not according to plan. "What about our money?" Nilas demanded.
"Your reward awaits you," the man said.
A strange hum was followed by a force field appearing around his ship. Nilas went for his blaster but it was too late. The floor dropped out from under him. Both he and the ship fell into a pit of molten metal.
The hooded man watched impassively. A droid floated up to him. "Instructions, Master?" it said.
"Cancel the payment to Nilas Sarpe," he said. "And arrange to have the deposit returned to my private account. Remove all traces of their ship from government registries. Then prepare the chamber."
"Yes, Master," the droid said, floating away to do his bidding.
The robed figure walked up to the cage holding the Jedi Padawan. "And now, Therlissa Polgont," he whispered. "You are mine."
A few hours later, Zanik's Jedi transport emerged from hyperspace near Coruscant. Jedi ships automatically got priority in the traffic patterns, especially during an emergency, so they were immediately cleared for priority approach to the Jedi Temple. Zanik had spent most of the journey in meditation, trying to get a sense of Therlissa. So far, she had failed.
Though the Jedi used coded frequencies that were supposed to be unbreakable, Zanik had not reported Therlissa's abduction to the council. For some reason, her instincts told her that those channels could not be trusted. She also did not want to advertise her return to Coruscant. Instead she used the ship's beacon as identification as they approached the temple, refusing all requests for visual or holographic communication.
Despire Garfo's offer to handle the controls, Zanik had kept him in restraints for the entire trip. She didn't truly believe he was a threat, but she would take no chances with Therlissa's safety. Garfo would remain restrained until he was turned over to the council. To his credit, the bounty hunter did not protest this treatment. Indeed, she could sense his feeling that he was getting what he deserved. It was not often she encountered a criminal who felt genuine remorse for his actions. She found herself hoping the council would sense that as well and show leniency.
As expected, several Jedi awaited her as her ship touched down on the landing platform, which then began to retract into the main building. The group was led by an old friend of hers, Master Dunis Varim. Varim was old and wise enough to have been granted a seat on the council long ago but had always refused, saying it would detract from his true calling which was to watch for any signs that the dark side of the Force was rising.
They had known each other since childhood, when they were students of Master Yoda himself. As a result, the moment Zanik came down the ship's ramp, Varim knew something was terribly wrong. "What happened?" he asked.
"Therlissa's been kidnapped," Zanik replied. "I need to speak with the council."
"They are in seclusion," Varim said. "Much has happened while you were away."
"Then we need to talk," Zanik said, turning to Garfo. "This is one of the bounty hunters responsible for the abduction. He's agreed to help us find her. Take him to archives and try to locate the ship he and his friends were using."
Varim gestured to the others to handle that task. "That will take some time," he said. "Come. You will tell me what happened to your apprentice, and I will tell you the most terrifying thing you will ever hear."
Once they were alone in one of the temple's private meditation chambers, Varim briefed Zanik on the recent events surrounding the Trade Federation, it's ultimately unsuccessful invasion of the planet Naboo, and the alarming discovery that the ancient Sith, long thought destroyed, had returned. When Varim finished the tale with the murder of Qui-Gon Jinn and the subsequent death of the Sith warrior who'd slain him, Zanik sat back in shock.
"After all these centuries..."
"I knew something terrible was coming," Varim said. "But even I did not suspect this. They must have worked in secret over the last thousand years to preserve their order, waiting for the right time to reveal themselves."
"All this political turmoil creates the perfect climate," Zanik said. "I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Sith are behind it. So you say the warrior was destroyed?"
"Yes, by Qui-Gon's Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi," Varim said. "You know what a master swordsman Qui-Gon was. Obi-Wan is every bit as talented, if less experienced. But this warrior was powerful enough to hold his own against both of them for some time before he was finally defeated."
"Always two, master and apprentice," Zanik said, mainly to herself. "Which does the council believe was destroyed?"
"The apprentice," Varim said. "I agree with the assessment. The master would not risk himself openly, not like this. Historically, the masters prefer to let others handle such matters."
"Yes," Zanik said, putting the pieces together. Varim was right, it was the most terrifying thing she had ever heard. But its implications, combined with what had happened to Therlissa, made only one conclusion possible. That conclusion was every bit as terrifying. "That must be why Therlissa was taken. He's lost his apprentice. He'll be needing a replacement."
Varim quickly understood immediately. "Therlissa is widely believed to be the most talented Padawan of her generation. Her skills rival even Obi-Wan's. She would be a logical choice."
"I know," Zanik said, filled with dread at the thought. "I was going to bring her back to face the trials. She was ready for that, I'm sure. But this?"
"This will be a trial for her as well," Varim said. "Trust in her, and in what you taught her. She is strong."
"Yes, she is," Zanik agreed. "But we still need to find her and this Sith Master, fast."
Therlissa woke quickly, springing to her feet and stretching out with her senses to try and figure out what was going on. She was shocked to find that she couldn't feel anything through the Force. Turning to her other senses, she saw that she was in a darkened room with only a single light coming from the ceiling. She could perceive the walls through the Force, but nothing beyond them. It was as though nothing existed beyond.
To say that Therlissa was nervous would have been an understatement. In truth she was terrified, mainly because she had never in her life been cut off from the Force. It felt as though a part of her had simply disappeared, leaving an empty hole in its wake. She briefly wondered if this was what non-Jedi felt like and decided that it probably wasn't. They couldn't miss the talents they never had. Her hand brushed her belt and the realized that she still had her lightsaber. She reached for the weapon, intent on cutting her way out.
"Welcome, young Jedi," a voice said. It seemed to fill the room, though she couldn't tell where it was coming from.
"Who's there?" she asked.
"Have no fear," the voice, a man's, replied. Something about it seemed familiar. "You are safe."
"Show yourself." Therlissa said.
"In time," he said. "We much to discuss."
"Such as how you've managed to block the Force from me?" she asked.
The man laughed, a very unpleasant sound. "Who are you?" Therlissa demanded.
"Your future lies with me, Therlissa Polgont," he said. "Though your Jedi training is almost complete, you have only begun to discover your true potential. I can show you power far greater than any Jedi can imagine."
"And you're so powerful you have to lock me away?" Therlissa said, her grip on the lightsaber tightening as she looked for an avenue of escape.
"You wish to strike out," the man said. "Good. Trust your instincts, young Jedi. Strike out!"
While that had been her intent, to hear her captor encourage such a course of action told her it was probably not a good idea. "No," she said. "I don't know what you want with me, but I won't cooperate."
The man laughed again. "I can see why Ryna Zanik and the other Jedi Masters think so well of you," he said. "You are not easily manipulated. Excellent. You will be a formidable power once you learn to embrace the true nature of the Force."
She definitely did not like the sound of that. "I do embrace it," she said.
"So you've been taught to believe," he said. "I will show you a better way. An easier way."
"An evil way?" she asked. This sounded very much like Master Zanik's lessons on the dark side of the Force.
"Look at the world around you," her captor said. "The Republic is dying. The Jedi know this but do nothing to save it. Corruption is rampant. The power brokers are interested only in their own pleasures and petty intrigues and the people suffer for it. You know it as well as I. Don't you wish you could do something to change it?"
The statement gave her pause for a moment. His words on the state of the Republic were true, as far as she was concerned. She had had enough exposure to galactic politics to know that. But the role of the Jedi was to keep the peace, not to police the government. Ideally, that was the responsibility of the voters. Realistically, she wasn't sure whose job it was. His accusation that the Jedi were somehow responsible, though, was outrageous. As for what she wished she could do about it...
"It can be done," the man said. "A new order must come. One that will wipe out corruption and act for the good of all. It is a purpose the Jedi should be dedicated to. Haven't you ever wondered why they are not?"
She knew the answer to that one. "The Jedi exist to serve, not to command."
"So it is written in the Jedi Code," he affirmed. "But that code was written a thousand years ago. The galaxy is a different place. Should not the Jedi adapt to meet the needs of today's society?"
"That's not for me to decide," she said.
"Why not?" he said. "You have great power, Therlissa Polgont. Great ability. The Jedi Council knows this but has held you back. Why else do you think your Master took to you Kensigon?"
"To make sure I was ready to face the trials," she replied.
"Ridiculous," he said. "You were ready long ago. No matter how many tests you pass, you would remain a Padawan learner."
"No, I wouldn't," she said. "Master Zanik told me that when we returned to Coruscant she would ask the council to administer the trials."
"They would see to it that you failed," he said.
"The council fears your power," he said. "You are the most skilled student the order has seen in a generation. You could become more powerful than Mace Windu or even Master Yoda himself. You could become the greatest of all the Jedi. If that happened, the Council would no longer matter. Do you think they would allow that?"
"Why should I believe you?" she asked. "You're talking about people I've known and respected all my life. They would never behave as you suggest."
"Ah, but do you really know them?" he said. "Have you ever looked into their hearts to see what drives them? What matters to them? Can you be absolutely certain? What makes you think that the corruption in the Senate hasn't spread to the council itself?"
"Now you're being ridiculous," Therlissa said. "The Jedi have no interest in political power."
"Ah, but they do," the dark man said. "Do the Jedi not hold influence over the Supreme Chancellor? Do they not receive a sizeable portion of the Republic budget to finance their operations? Are they not often sent to settle disputes between member worlds? They do serve a political function, young Padawan, and they have great power."
"You suggest that they would use their power for their own gain," she said. "That is not the nature of the Jedi."
"It is the nature of all things," he said.
"I don't believe you."
"That is unfortunate," he said. "You do not deny the problems in the Republic. If the Jedi truly wish to reform it, they must stand up for the ideals they profess and use the power they wield to make things right. Yet they do not. Why do you think that is?"
"It is not for me to question the wisdom of the council, or of our traditions," she said.
"Is that the only thing you can do, pass responsibility to that band of fools?" the man said. "Can you not think for yourself?"
Therlissa said nothing, sensing the conversation was going around in circles. "Think of how the Jedi isolate themselves in their lofty temple," he continued. "Cut off from the world. They believe they are too good for the common people."
"That's not true," she said. "I myself have helped many people whom you would call 'common' and I'm not even a full Jedi."
"Commendable," the voice said with considerable sarcasm. "You are an exception, young Jedi. Few of your order do what you've done. Most Jedi only leave their sanctuary when it serves their purpose, or the purpose of the bureaucrats. When the Trade Federation blockaded Naboo did the Jedi rush to their defense? No. They waited until the Supreme Chancellor asked them to go and then only as ambassadors. They are incapable of deciding anything for themselves. That is one of the reasons they fear you. You are different. You are better and stronger than they are. They know this, and fear you. Even your master fears you."
"Master Zanik has nothing to fear from me," Therlissa said.
"Perhaps," the man said. "But that is not how she feels."
"How can you know that?"
"Look at their actions, or lack of them," he said. "They are ruled by their fear, their contempt for the people whom they are supposedly sworn to serve and protect. I will prove it to you. Tell me, is slavery wrong?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Then tell my why Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn allowed the continuation of the practice when he was on Tatooine recently?" he asked. "He was there for several days. He and his apprentice could have put an end to slavery on that world, yet they did nothing. Why do you suppose that is?"
"Assuming you're not lying about it?" Therlissa said. "There must have been a reason. A good reason. Something so important that he couldn't help those people."
"I should add one more piece of information," the man said. "He did free one, a young boy who is extremely strong with the Force. He rescued the boy, but abandoned his mother. Can you say that was the right thing to do?"
"You're not telling me everything," Therlissa said. "You couldn't be. I know Master Qui-Gon. He is a deeply compassionate man. If he did what you say he did, it would only be because something of overwhelming importance had to come first."
"You have all the facts before you," the man said. "The Jedi have since had ample time to send people to Tatooine. None have gone there. Why?"
"They're busy with something else?"
"No," he said. "The Trade Federation was defeated by the Naboo. It was the gravest situation the Republic has faced in centuries and they only sent two Jedi. If they had truly cared, they would have sent more and ended the matter quickly. The Jedi have lost touch. They are no longer effective. Their complacency is a thing of evil."
"You lie!" Therlissa barked. "I've been in the council's presence. They are not evil. I would know!"
"Would you?" he said. "Have you ever encountered the dark side of the Force? Do you recognize its presence?"
"I would know it," she said.
"So be it," he said.
The chamber was silent for nearly a minute after her captor pledged to prove his accusations. Therlissa was highly skeptical that he could pull it off. She was no closer to determining the identity behind the voice, but she was certain she was being tempted by the dark side. In that respect, having the Force taken from her was actually an advantage. She had played the dialog game with him up to now because she was counting on Master Zanik to come for her. All she needed to do was buy time.
Then the rules changed.
The chamber was filled with the sound of screaming. Many creatures nearby were in horrible pain. There was also a crackling, like lightning or an energy discharge. After a few moments, the noise subsided and something invisible slammed her to the floor. It took a moment for her to realize that she could once again feel the Force. But it wasn't like the sensation she'd known throughout her years of training. This was far, far different.
She felt like she was surrounded by death, like a cold hand was slowly closing around her. It was unlike anything she'd ever sensed in her life. She struggled to control her fear. Fear leads to the dark side, she reminded herself. You must control it. The Force is with you.
She heard a door open and close. Turning, she found herself facing a man in a black robe and cowl. His features were obscured. When he spoke, she recognized his voice as that of the man who'd been speaking to her.
"The Ysalimiri that have blocked your powers are now dead," he said. "Reach out with the Force. Tell me what you feel."
Therlissa closed her eyes for a moment and reached out with the Force. In her mind, she saw the robed man and the energy surrounding him. It was the source of the feeling she'd had since the death of the Ysalimiri. He was the source of it all. Instinctively, she grabbed the lightsaber from her belt and activated it. "What are you?" she demanded.
"You tell me," he said.
"You're filled with the dark side," Therlissa said. "I can feel the cold and death that surround you."
"What you feel is the true power of the Force," he said. "The same power lies within you, if you are willing to use it."
"No," Therlissa said, calmly. "I will not turn to the dark side."
"You have no choice," he said. "This is your destiny."
"My destiny lies with the Jedi," she said.
"No, it lies with me," he said. "I am Darth Sidious, Lord of the Sith. You will join me, or you will die. I am your master, now."
Once they had left Kensigon, Garfo had told Zanik everything he knew about the plot to abduct Therlissa. He also told her everything he knew about Nilas Srape, including the fact that the assault ship used in the operation was not his regular transportation. Once back on Coruscant, it hadn't taken long for the Jedi Archives to track that ship down. Called the Bantha Trap, it was a modified Corellian YT-800 freighter. Though reasonably fast and well, if illegally, armed, the Bantha Trap would have been no match for a Jedi ship. That explained why the assault ship had been hired.
But Nilas hadn't given up on his YT-800. It was berthed at a less than reputable docking facility in one of Coruscant's seedier sections. Though the ship's security systems were quite efficient, Garfo was able to override them and gain access. Zanik would have preferred to leave the bounty hunter in detention, but she had a feeling that he might be useful in the search. Over the years, she had learned to trust feelings like that. Unfortunately, those same feelings told her that Therlissa was in mortal peril.
Bounty hunters were not noted for keeping extensive records of their activities and Nilas was no exception. Still, she hoped that the Bantha Trap's computer would hold some clue as to where they may have taken Therlissa or at least where to find Nilas. As she expected, the computer data was encrypted but among Garfo's repertoire of illegal skills was an uncanny ability to crack codes. It was that propensity that had led to them crossing paths in the first place.
Three years earlier Zanik had been on a solo mission investigating illegal trafficking in ancient Jedi artifacts. Garfo had been after the same group, one of them having had a bounty placed on his head by the criminal organization Black Sun. Zanik had gotten to them first. What had made her remember Garfo was that he hadn't seemed too disappointed to lose his commission.
A year later they crossed paths again. The smuggler they had been after the first time had escaped from prison and Black Sun had renewed the bounty on her head. Garfo was after her because Black Sun had 'asked' him to, but it was clear to Zanik that he wasn't too enthusiastic about the assignment. Garfo simply didn't like Black Sun. They had their fingers in everything, he'd explained, and used murder to achieve their goals on a regular basis. Anytime they put a bounty on someone, it was understood that once captured the mark had a very short life span. Garfo didn't like dealing with people like that. On the other hand it was profoundly stupid to defy Black Sun.
As before, Zanik got to the escapee first. After returning her to prison she learned that Black Sun had put a contract out on Garfo. Clearly, they had not been pleased that he had failed them twice. Zanik tracked the bounty hunter down and saved him from an assassin. Once Black Sun found out that a Jedi had saved Garfo, they cancelled the contract. Afterwards, Garfo had promised to get out of bounty hunting for good. It was a promise he had kept until Nilas Sarpe had turned up with an offer too rich for Garfo to ignore.
"I think I've got something," Garfo said. "It's a flight log of all his recent travels, going back about a year. Besides the navigation charts, it's the only data in the computer. Mostly ports of call. Tatooine, Bespin, Coruscant, Ord Mantell, Nar Shadda, the usual haunts."
"How specific are the Coruscant entries?" Zanik asked.
"Landing sites," Garfo said. "Either names, or coordinates. Chances are the unnamed places are the ones he landed in without clearance, but there are only two of them. The first was about a year ago. He landed the Bantha Trap in an entertainment district. I remember hearing about that. Some singer was deeply in debt to Jabba the Hutt. The other one is in the industrial district.
"Let's see what we can find out," Zanik said, turning on her communicator. "Archives."
"This is Jeseben," a young voice replied. "How can I help you, Master Zanik?"
"I'm transmitting a set of coordinates in the Industrial District," Zanik said. "Can you tell me what's there?"
"One moment, Master," the boy said.
"You've got a kid working your Archives?" Garfo asked.
"Many Padawans work there as part of their training," Zanik replied. "I did."
"Master Zanik?" Jeseben said over the link.
"The Celexia Durasteel Foundry is at that location," he said. "But according to our records the company went out of business six months ago. The facility is dormant. The owners have been trying to sell it but so far there have been no offers."
"Is the foundry equipped with a docking bay?" Zanik asked.
"Yes, it is," Jeseben replied.
"Check the traffic control records for that sector," she instructed. "Find out if the assault ship we're looking for is in the area."
"Yes, Master," Jeseben said.
She put the comlink away and turned to Garfo. "I don't have time to take you back to your cell. Can I trust you?"
"Sure," Gafro said. Zanik eyed him uncertainly. "Couldn't you tell if I was lying?"
She concentrated on him through the Force, looking for deception. She found none. "All right, you can come along," she said. "But do precisely what I say."
"Will do," he said.
They were coming down the Bantha Trap's gangway when a sudden wave of darkness hit Zanik. "No!" She said, staggering.
Garfo caught her before she could fall. "What is it?"
"I can sense Therlissa again," she said, regaining her balance. "She's...surrounded by the dark side. We have to hurry!"
"My master is Ryna Zanik," Therlissa said, firmly. Inside, though, she was trembling. The Sith! She didn't know how it was possible, but her instincts told her that it was true. This creature...this Darth Sidious, was at the center of the disturbance in the Force she and Master Zanik had felt recently. The dark power emanating from him was nearly overwhelming. Why hadn't anyone sensed this before? She had to stop him.
"No more," Sidious said. "Your future is at my side.
"Never!" Therlissa replied.
"Ah, but I can feel what you feel, young Jedi," he said. "You are growing angry. You want to strike out at me, don't you?"
Almost of its own accord, her hand drifted towards her lightsaber. She realized what she was doing and jerked it away.
"Good!" Sidious exclaimed. "Do it. Follow your instincts, girl. I am not armed. You can kill me with ease."
Therlissa's certainty was beginning to waver. To strike out in anger, to attack with the Force went against everything she had ever believed in. "A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack." Every teacher she'd ever had, even Yoda himself, had drilled that lesson into her. But did that mean allowing a creature like Sidious to live? What depredations was he planning? How many lives would she save by killing him here and now? Again her hand strayed towards her lightsaber.
"Am I not your enemy?" Sidious taunted. "Are not the Sith the enemy of the Jedi? You want to do what is right. Do so now!"
"If I strike you down now, the dark side will take me," she said.
"Yes," he said.
"But if I do nothing, your evil will continue," she said. "I am sworn to stand against you and everything you represent."
Sidious laughed, a sound that filled her with dread. "Now you are beginning to understand, my young apprentice," he said. "Right and wrong are not as simple as you once thought. See now the true fraud of the Jedi. They have the power to bring true order to the galaxy yet they do nothing. What good is power if you are afraid to use it?"
That statement actually made her feel more confident. "Power is something you should never flaunt," she said, quoting Master Zanik. "Apply it only when necessary and then only enough to complete the task."
"The foolish prattle of Ryna Zanik," he said, clearly displeased. "I told you, she seeks to keep your strength in check, to keep you from realizing your true potential. Had you been properly taught, we would not be having this conversation. You would know what to do. You would strike me down and be done with it."
Could that be true? No, she couldn't believe that Master Zanik had anything but the best intentions for her. But she was stuck here, uncertain of what to do. She had a choice, strike out at Sidious, destroy him, and save everyone from his evil plans. But to do that meant giving in to the aggressive feelings that always led to the dark side. If she did nothing, then Sidious could go on to wreak whatever havoc he had in mind for the Republic and the Jedi. What other choice did she have. Master Ryna, she thought. Why didn't you prepare me for this?
Sidious seemed to read her very thought. "She failed you from the beginning," he said. "She has lied to you again and again. Do what your heart tells you! Take your place at my side!"
Therlissa trembled with the forces doing battle within her. Rather than flowing smoothly as it always had, the Force within her was like two stars colliding. Anger versus calm. Passivity versus aggression. Peace versus hatred. Two paths before her, both of which would lead to disaster. For the first time, she realized the truth of her situation. She was doomed.
But that thought brought her a strange kind of resolve. If she was doomed, then there was no longer a reason not to act. Suddenly, the lightsaber was in her hand.
Darth Sidious laughed.
Jeseben had sent them the complete plans of the Celexia Durasteel foundry. Zanik chose a landing platform near the top of the structure for their landing. It was open and would allow for a quick getaway once they found Therlissa. She had given the controls over to Garfo, who was handling the ship as if he'd been flying it all his life.
"This baby is sweet!" he exclaimed. "Any chance it's for sale?"
Zanik stared at him.
"Never mind," he said.
The foundry was just ahead. She could already make out the platform. Something wasn't right here, though. She looked closely. "Garfo!" she said. "Evade!"
Though it seemed peaceful, Garfo didn't hesitate to follow her instruction. He jerked the craft to starboard as a volley of laser fire streaked at them. It had come from the foundry. "Since when do foundries have guns?" he exclaimed, maneuvering to avoid another volley.
"Since they started putting Jedi prisoners in them," she replied. "Can you get us in?"
"In my sleep," Garfo said, confidently. "Get ready, I'll drop you and then take off to draw their fire!"
Understanding that this was really the only way to proceed, Zanik left the cockpit and positioned herself at the side hatch, lightsaber ready. Garfo expertly weaved in and out of the laser fire, managing to stay one step ahead of what appeared to be automatic guns. The ship rocked a bit as a stray shot grazed the hull, but she knew it had caused little more than a scorch mark.
Several of the guns were mounted in the building's walls. Garfo chose a spot beneath the landing platform and flew straight towards it. The guns tracked with the move and opened fire. He continued rolling and shifting to evade the fire without straying from his course. Then he opened fire with the twin laser cannon mounted in the ship's nose. One enemy battery was taken out instantly, another damaged. Then he pulled back on the flight yoke. The craft jumped up and was over the platform.
The side hatch opened and Zanik jumped out, lightsaber lit and ready. The ship started to pull away when a powerful blast struck the starboard engine. The force of the blast knocked her to the deck as smoke began pouring out of the engine compartment. She pulled out her communicator. "Garfo!" she said. "Land now!"
The only reply was static. The ship wavered, then began to move off. Then the damaged engine flamed out and the craft began to fall. "Garfo!" she yelled into the communicator. "Eject! Eject!"
The surviving port engine flared once, as if about to accelerate, then went dark. The craft floated in place, held by the repulsorlift. But without the ability to maneuver, it was a stationary target. Another volley of laser fire struck the ship. It spun out of control, falling towards the surface. Zanik ran to the edge of the platform and tried to look down, but the slope of the building obstructed her view. "Garfo," she whispered. "I'm sorry."
She turned and entered the building. Almost immediately she came under attack by two floating droids. The blasts they fired at here were powerful, but not too strong for the Force and her lightsaber. She turned the shots aside with ease and quickly reached the droids. Two more smooth strokes of her lightsaber left the droids in smoldering pieces.
The sound of a pressure door opening brought her around, weapon up and ready. It was Therlissa, lightsaber drawn but unlit. Zanik turned off her own weapon. "Therlissa!" she exclaimed. "Thank the Force, are you all right?"
"Yes, Master," she answered, softly.
Her feelings were wide open, Zanik could see, and she was anything but all right. "No you're not," the Jedi Master said. "You're troubled."
"No, I'm not," Therlissa said. "Actually, things are quite clear."
"I've known you since you were a child," Zanik said, allowing her disappointment to show. "And this is the first time you've ever lied to me."
"But you've lied to me, Master," she said. "Haven't you?"
The accusation took Zanik completely by surprise. "I've never lied to you," she said. "I've never needed to."
"Yes you have," Therlissa said. "You never told me the truth about the Jedi and our role in society. About how the Republic is dying and we do nothing to stop it because the council is afraid."
"What does the council have to fear?" Zanik said. She could make some sense of the energies swirling around her Padawan. She did not like what it represented.
"What would happen if we rooted out the corruption in the Senate and the bureaucracy," she said.
"The Senate is made up of the chosen representatives of the people, Therlissa," Zanik said. "And it is up to them to decide who remains there and who doesn't. Who are we to tell the people what to do?"
"We are Jedi," she said. "We have the wisdom and the power to lead and to do so justly."
"That's what you think?" Zanik asked, clear now about what had happened to her.
"It's what I know...now," Therlissa replied.
It was time for Ryna Zanik to ask the questions she did not want to ask. "And how did you arrive at these conclusions?"
"I've been shown the truth," she said.
What she said next confirmed her worst fears. "My new master," Therlissa said. "The Lord of the Sith."
Zanik struggled to maintain her composure. "Listen to me," she said. "This Sith Lord is using you. His apprentice was killed on Naboo. All he wants is for you to replace him."
"He wants to bring order to the galaxy," Therlissa replied. "Can you call what we have order, Master?"
"We have democracy," she said.
"What we have are self-serving, power-hungry fools who don't care about the people," Therlissa said.
Though Zanik herself held a dim view of most politicians, she couldn't simply agree with her wayward Padawan. "They're not all like that," she said.
"Yes, they are," Therlissa said. "And the Jedi allow it because they fear the burden of doing what is right."
This conversation was going nowhere. "Therlissa," Zanik said. " I can feel the dark side in you but it hasn't taken over. It's not too late for you to turn back. Let go of your anger."
"But it makes me so strong," Therlissa said, a cold smile on her lips.
"It makes you evil," Zanik said. "And it will destroy you."
"Is that a threat?" Therlissa asked.
"No," Zanik said. "It is the truth. Remember what I told you about the dark side? It will consume you and bend you to its will."
"I will have power the like of which you have never seen," Therlissa said. "And then, we will remake the galaxy. You cannot stop it. Now, I will fulfill my destiny!"
With that, Therlissa activated her lightsaber and leapt towards Zanik, who quickly brought her own blade up to block. Drawing on the power of her anger, Therlissa moved faster than her master had ever seen. She could feel the dark energies powering the assault. Zanik centered herself and stretched out with her feelings, able to anticipate each strike and counter it accordingly. Even so, the fierce power behind the attack forced her to try and back off. Therlissa drove her down the corridor, back towards the landing platform.
In his private chamber, Darth Sidious watched the battle closely. With the Force, he reached out carefully to get a sense of his new apprentice. Using his power without attracting the attention of Master Yoda, by far the most powerful of the Jedi, was a difficult task but he thrived on such challenges. There was nothing the dark side could not do. The foolish Jedi would realize that in time. For now, he would make sure that his new apprentice followed the path he had set for her. The destruction of Ryna Zanik would bring her completely to the dark side.
It would require considerable retraining to bring her to the level of skill Darth Maul had possessed but the potential was there. Obi-Wan Kenobi be damned! The operation at Naboo had produced the desired results except for the disastrous loss of his apprentice. Though his overall master plan would proceed, he needed someone to handle special missions so he could remain near the center of power. Therlissa Polgont had proven more resistant to his temptations than he expected, but she appeared to be going his way. He could feel the conflicting feelings within her as her anger flowed. It would overcome her completely, he was certain. Still, perhaps it would be best to make certain.
Sidious left for the landing platform.
Strange as it was to admit, this was Ryna Zanik's first real lightsaber battle. It was nothing like the training sessions she had gone through as a Padawan and later with her own students. She had used her weapon in combat many times, but never in a genuine duel like this. Therlissa's power, fueled by the dark side, was frightening. Her skill was just as deadly, easily anticipating Zanik's counterstrikes. Of course, who better to fight Ryna Zanik than the Padawan she had trained? And trained well, it would seem. Zanik was hard pressed to keep up. But she could still feel Therlissa's inner conflict. There was still a chance to save her.
"It's not too late!" Zanik gasped. "You can still turn away from this."
"This is my destiny," she replied. "Nothing can change that."
"You have free will!" Zanik argued. "You always have a choice!"
Therlissa responded by renewing her attack. Zanik was forced to retreat, only too aware that she was being driven to the edge of the platform. Therlissa lunged with her lightsaber. Zanik swung to parry. Therlissa's blade came up and she pulled with the Force. Zanik's lightsaber flew out of her hand, landing inert just a few meters away. Then Therlissa pushed with the Force, knocking Zanik to the edge of the platform. The Padawan stepped forward, leveling her blade at Zanik's throat.
"Good, good," Sidious said, coming out to the platform. "Your anger has made you powerful. Now finish what you have begun. Strike her down and your journey to the Dark Side will be complete. You and I will reshape the galaxy forever."
Zanik looked at her Padawan with more sadness than she had ever thought herself capable of. She didn't even know why. What had the Sith done or said to push her over the edge? Then Therlissa got a strange look on her face. Her eyes softened, and she smiled with genuine warmth.
"I'm sorry, Master," she whispered. "It's the only way."
Before Zanik could react, Therlissa reached out with the Force and flipped her over the edge of the platform. Zanik slid down the sloped edge of the building, unable to stop. At the same instant, Therlissa hurled her lightsaber at Sidious with all the power she could muster. The Sith lord was caught unawares, but only for a fraction of a second. Using the Force, he deflected the lightsaber with one hand and gestured towards Therlissa with the other. Blue-white lightning shot out from his fingertips. It slammed into Therlissa and knocked her to the floor.
"I told you to strike her down!" the Sith Lord hissed.
Therlissa pulled herself up and faced him directly. "Sorry, I don't take orders from the dark side," she said, bracing herself with the Force. At least she had gotten Master Ryna out of harm's way.
Sidious realized instantly how he had been deceived. The anger swelled up in him and he gave it free rein. "You will pay for your defiance," he said.
He struck out with both hands, pummeling her with the Force-based lightning. Therlissa gathered the Force into herself to block it while mentally searching for her lightsaber. But the dark energy was too powerful. The moment's distraction as he found her weapon was all Sidious needed to breach her defenses. The energy slammed into her chest and head. She screamed. This was pain unlike anything she had felt before. Therlissa collapsed.
Zanik slid off the building and went into free fall. The surface was distant. She had time to find some way to avoid crashing. She reached out with the Force, looking for some way to stop. Then, that tiny voice that had always guided her told her to accelerate. She went into a dive position, closed her eyes, and waited. There was the sound of an engine and suddenly she saw her Jedi spacecraft flying up towards her. The hatch was open and in the perfect position for her to grab on to. It rushed up at her quickly, but with the Force to guide her she grabbed on easily. She scrambled inside and shut the hatch.
When she staggered into the cockpit, she was taken aback by the sight. Half the controls were shattered and burned but Garfo had it flying and had saved her life. He didn't look too well himself. An emergency pressure bandage had been hastily applied to his side but he was piloting the craft with a smile on his face.
"That's my good deed for the day!" he beamed.
"I thought you'd been killed," Zanik said, getting into her seat.
"I almost was," he said. "This is a tough little ship. Sure it isn't for sale?"
In spite of everything, Zanik smiled. "We'll discuss it later. I need to get back to the platform!"
The ship began to climb.
On the platform, Sidious kept pouring the Force lightning into Therlissa. The Jedi Padawan writhed in pain, trying to shield herself from the onslaught. The Sith Lord's features were hidden by his cowl, but Therlissa could feel his fury. His uncontrollable rage at being defied. For a moment, he stopped his attack. Therlissa went limp, but she was still conscious and aware of what was going on around her. Sidious walked towards her. She actually caught a glimpse of the lower part of his face. His mouth was a study in rage. This is what I almost became, she was able to realize.
"Foolish girl," he said. "Now do you understand the depth of your mistake?"
He attacked her again with the Force lightning. "Since you choose to remain loyal to the Jedi, you will share their fate!" he spat.
The pain grew worse and worse with each strike. Therlissa felt the world around her beginning to fade. Oddly enough, in the deepest core of her being she was calm, at peace. She had faced the dark side and prevailed. Then a random gust of wind blew at the Dark Lord's cowl, pushing it off of his head. Therlissa saw the face.
"You..." she groaned.
Sidious quickly pulled his cowl back into place and attacked her with the most intensity he had ever used. The life was draining from her. She would never tell of what she had seen. The Sith order was secure. A few moments more...
A laser blast struck the platform near his feet. Zanik's ship rose over the platform, headed right for him. Sidious wasted no time. He turned and ran from the platform, using the Force to shield himself from the laser fire. He made it to the door and sealed it behind him. A hover-droid was waiting for him at the elevator. "Begin the destruct sequence," he ordered.
Moments later, he fled the foundry in his private shuttle.
As soon as the dark figure fled, Zanik jumped from the ship to the platform. She ran to Therlissa's side. Her Padawan was badly burned, her face barely recognizable. Even the thin braid of hair that was the mark of a Padawan learner was burned. The smell was very nearly overpowering. Zanik reached out to her with the Force, trying to steady her. Therlissa opened her eyes and recognized her master. "Sid...Sidi..." she gasped.
"Don't try to talk!" Zanik said. She saw Garfo landing the ship a few meters away. She started to gather Therlissa up when the building started to rumble beneath her. Garfo appeared at the hatch. His right leg was a mess. She had no idea he'd been hurt that badly.
"The building's power generator is going critical!" he said. "We've got to go!"
Zanik picked Therlissa up and ran for the ship. As soon as she was inside, the hatch closed and the craft lifted away from the platform. The foundry began to collapse from within as the reactor went critical. Moments later, the building was vaporized. The shockwave rattled the ship, but Garfo managed to keep it in the air.
Zanik lay her student out on the deck of the main cabin. Therlissa's eyes were fluttering open and closed. A feeling of dread came over Zanik.
"Dar...Sidi..." Therlissa gasped.
"Don't, Therlissa," Zanik said. "Save your strength."
Therlissa's mouth, badly damaged though it was, tried to form a smile. Her plan had worked, for the most part. She had lured Sidious out of his sanctuary and kept her master away from him. Now she had to tell Ryna the truth, the secret of the Sith. "No..." she managed. "No time...going fast...have to tell..." "Garfo!" Zanik shouted. "Get us back to the temple, fast!"
Garfo? She remembered him. What was he doing...oh, one of the bounty hunters. "I'm going as fast as I can!" she heard him reply. "The engines are damaged!"
It was kind of Master Ryna to try, but the moment she had chosen to defy Darth Sidious and set a trap for him she had known she was doomed. She had accepted this, she hoped her master could as well. But first, she had to tell. "Sith...Sith..."
Zanik could feel her start to slip away. "No!" she exclaimed. "No, Therlissa! Hold on!"
Not much time. "Dark Lord...really...Sena..."
That was all her broken body could take. Had she gotten the words out? Did Master Zanik understand. She wasn't sure, but it didn't matter now. She could feel the Force is a way she never had before. It was reaching out to her, calling her to come rest. That sounded like a wonderful idea. She was very tired. The Force beckoned to her, and what Jedi could refuse that call? She closed her eyes.
Therlissa went limp in her master's arms. "No!" Zanik cried, even as she felt the life force go out of the young body. "Therlissa, no!"
She was gone.
Darth Sidious, followed by the floating droid, entered one of his many hidden information chambers. Screens flickered to life instantly, showing information and scenes from throughout the Republic. One report showed the Viceroy of the Trade Federation being arraigned on charges stemming from the failed invasion of Naboo. It served the fool right for underestimating his enemies, Sidious thought. He had no other regard for his one time ally. The Viceroy had served his purpose and that was that. He ignored the other screens and summoned the droid who ran his information network. "Report," he ordered.
"Latest intelligence from Jedi Temple indicates Therlissa Polgont is dead," it said. "Master Ryna Zanik and Bounty Hunter Garfo Onez are alive. Bounty Hunter Garfo Onez in secure medical facility pending transfer to judicial authorities."
He would have preferred a young Jedi, someone pliable and easily manipulated. He should have known better than to try and turn a female. Historically, the Sith had little use for women and now he knew why. Men were far more resolute in matters of the Force, he reasoned. He had only been thinking of power and skill when he selected Polgont, not the inherent weaknesses all females possessed. It was something of a mystery to him why the Jedi had never figured this out for themselves. Another of their foolish notions, this idea of equality. This mistake was one he would not repeat.
Sidious would have to watch events very carefully for the next few days. If Polgont had told Zanik what she had seen, the Jedi would move quickly. If they failed to do so, it meant his secret was safe. Regardless, his plans had to move forward. He satisfied himself that killing Polgont was adequate vengeance for the death of Darth Maul on Naboo, though he still intended to see Obi-Wan Kenobi suffer for that outrage. He would be patient. The Sith were very good at that.
"Locate Jedi Master Dooku," he said.
Atop the east spire of the Jedi temple, Therlissa's body lay on a bier. Zanik had asked for her funeral to be held here. Many times over the years, their training sessions had brought them to this spot. Therlissa had always loved the view. As the other Jedi watched, Zanik stepped forward with a lit torch. She set the bier ablaze and watched as her Padawan's body was slowly consumed by the flames.
Of all the Jedi present, only Yoda dared to approach her. He ambled up to her slowly, leaning heavily on his walking stick. "Grieve with you, all the Jedi do," he said.
Zanik didn't reply. "Blame yourself, you must not," the ancient Jedi said. "Architect of this tragedy, the Dark Lord of the Sith was. Behaved bravely, your Padawan did."
"Yes," Zanik whispered. "She sacrificed herself to save me. It's not supposed to work that way. I was supposed to protect her."
"Ready for the trials she was," Yoda replied. "As a Jedi Knight, she acted. Remembered that way, she will be."
Zanik nodded in understanding, but said nothing further. Yoda left her alone with her grief.
The next morning, Zanik was summoned to the council chamber. She knew there were many questions regarding the Sith and that she would be called upon to answer them. If only she had more answers. What had Therlissa been trying to tell her at the end? Had she discerned the identity of this dark master? Had she learned details of his plans? Her last fragmented words could have meant anything. She had spent the whole night meditating on the question without success.
She stood on the balcony outside the council chamber, watching the sun rise. It was no surprise when her old friend Varim joined her.
"It was not your fault," he said.
"Master Yoda said the same thing," she replied. "But I failed her. I felt the disturbance in the Force. I took her to Kensigon to make sure she was ready to face it. She wasn't. Now she's dead. I've never been good at seeing the future, Dunis, but I should have at least had a sense of what she would face."
"A dark cloud is descending on us, Ryna," Varim said. "Even Master Yoda is having difficulty seeing into the future. You must not blame yourself."
"Therlissa should have been the greatest of us," Zanik said. "Why else would the Sith want her?"
"She sacrificed herself so that you could escape," Varim said. "Thanks to that we now know more of the Sith than we did."
"I still failed," she said.
"Did you?" Varim asked. "She faced the dark side and its temptations, but in the end she did the right thing. She met the challenge as a Jedi. As you taught her to."
Zanik looked at him, still uncertain, but willing to consider it. "Master Yoda said that too."
"You should listen to him," Varim said, launching into a mimic he hadn't tried since childhood. "After all, for eight hundred years has he trained Jedi. Knows he, what a true Jedi is."
In spite of herself, Zanik laughed. "Do you suppose he ever knew about your little impression?" she asked.
"Of course he did," Varim replied. "He gave me a few pointers on the accent."
She laughed again. "Is the council waiting?" she asked.
"Yes, we have much to discuss," Varim said.
"I'll be there in a moment."
Varim nodded in understanding and left her alone. She remembered a sense of peace when Therlissa had died, as if the young Jedi had welcomed the release her death would bring. Zanik looked out across the cityscape again. For a moment, just a moment, against the rising sun she thought she saw Therlissa's face. It seemed as if she was smiling. A feeling of warmth and contentment washed over her. When the face was gone, Zanik knew she had been right. Therlissa was as peace. She turned and walked into the council chamber, only too aware of what her future would hold.
Jedi Master Ryna Zanik would face the Sith again.
Original cover by Rabid Rob. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.