Destiny is a Seven Letter Word for Pain
by Hlynn []

First, the disclaimer. George Lucas created some of the characters featured hereafter, and I created some of them. I know who are mine, and he knows his. I'm just borrowing his for a while, and I'm not getting one thin dime for writing this story, so suing me would be pointless.

Second, the kudos. Thanks to Marlene, Tish, Tracy, Sue, Leah, Deb, Erin, KD, and Trish for beta testing and putting up with a fussy writer, and for any and all feedback. Couldn't have done it without some people prodding me for the next chapter!

Third, the other kudos. To David Eddings, Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, Bodie Thoene, Frank Peretti, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Tim Zahn, Mike Stackpole, and many others for writing the books that got me interested in writing my *own* story.

And fourth, the odds and ends. You should have a good knowledge of the SW novels, up until the Corellian Trilogy. I didn't include Planet of Twilight in the continuity because at this writing, it hadn't come out yet. I might rewrite parts of this to blend into the new continuity, unless POT turns out to be stupid.

You can do whatever you want to with this fanfic, as long as you don't send it out to someone else that way. If you want the Write format version, or want to get in touch with me, e-mail me at And most of all, enjoy!!


The vibrant azure blue and pale browns and greens of the planet arced over the lower right corner of the pilot's cockpit window, creating a dichotomy between life and death. One side would happily support his existence; the other would snuff it out just as happily.

The view was spectacular, but to the pilot of the TIE Fighter, it was a view he could stand not seeing ever again. He'd been up in space for the past six hours with no break, and the energy levels in his ship were running dangerously low. His replacement for patrol duty was supposed to come any minute now, but these last few seconds waiting to be relieved felt more like days to him. He started to stretch for the tenth time in the past hour when an alarm buzzed, and suddenly an image of a shuttle appeared on his display, closing in on him fast.

*Must have come out of Hyperspace*, he thought as he tried to focus bleary eyes on the readings. He opened a channel to the shuttle.

"Unknown shuttle," he broadcast to the newcomer, "You have entered Imperial territory. State your purpose, destination and cargo."

No response. He waited until he could finally see the ship in the distance before repeating himself. "Unknown shuttle, I repeat--" Suddenly static broke in, and he heard a man's voice over the noise, sounding panicked and distressed.

"--am having troubl---ship, I think---ngines are failing--must land now, or else--" The communication broke off into static, then silence. Was this a trick? He knew there was something he was supposed to do, but he hadn't run into this situation outside of basic training.

"Unknown shuttle, respond please!" Again, he was greeted with silence. The ship appeared to be in trouble, but his ship had long ago lost the ability to check for power fluctuations or internal damage in other craft. However, the shuttle appeared to be fine, as far as he could tell from the outside.

An alarm beeped, and he focused on the display screen again, thinking, *What now?* It was his replacement, coming up from the planet below. "What's going on?" the older man asked, irritated.

"You tell me! The pilot said something about his engines failing before his comm system cut out--"

"Do you have his ID code?"

"Not yet. He can't, or won't, respond to my hails." The shuttle was almost on top of them now. "What should we do?" The younger man asked desperately.

"The ship has no weapons, cargo," he added as the shuttle zipped by, unheeded, his scan of the ship complete. It careened wildly, still barely in control. "Let him pass. If he crashes, it's not our loss."

The first pilot mulled over that. "What if it was a ruse?"

He could hear the older man's smile in his voice, "If it was, he won't get far."

Chapter 1

Rain poured off the slanted porch roof and down into a quickly forming puddle at Mara Jade's feet. The breeze blowing past was cool but humid, lazily ruffling her reddish golden hair past her shoulders. Her usually green eyes now looked grey as she peered dismally into the stormy sky, absorbing the sight of the rainclouds and the mountains surrounding the small city.

The only reason she was on this sad excuse for a planet was because she had received a plea for help from Luke Skywalker; not by traditional methods, as she would have thought, but through the Force. She didn't know exactly what was going on--all she had managed to glean from the message was that he needed help, and he was in the Outer Rim. However, she was intrigued by the fact that he had contacted *her*, not his usual close-knit group of buddies.

It had taken some effort to get a slicer to find his itinerary among all those listed in the New Republic's files, then find the obscure planet on the map in her office. She had left as soon as possible in her faithful Z-95 Headhunter, not having the slightest idea where this little adventure was going to take her.

The rain poured even harder now, falling in sheets of white that occasionally splashed against her skin. *Time to come in*, she sighed inwardly, and pushed open the door behind her. The smell of chemicals, lubricant, and decay hit her like a slap in the face, and she suddenly wondered if being soaked to the bone was preferable to the overpowering stench of the place.

Her Z-95 stood somberly in the middle of the chamber, looking older than its years. Panels to the ship lay on the floor, leaving delicate electronics exposed to the damp air. A greasy, heavy-set man had his head stuck into one of the holes, completely absorbed in his work. "Will she fly?" Mara asked with great concern. The ship had pulled her out of many situations like this, and she wasn't sure she could trust the skills of the mechanic to restore it.

The man pulled his head out and gave a grunt. "Can't say as yet," he said, looking first at the wires, then at the corresponding panel on the floor. "What the hell were you doin' with this thing here, dodging Imperial Star Destroyers?" He tried to joke, but his tone was accusatory and suspicious.

His attitude indicated to her that he was someone not to be trusted. "I just ran into...some old friends," she smiled coldly at the tech, "and I dealt with them properly."

The man took her hint instantly, and quickly swung back into interest in the Headhunter, swearing assurances that the craft would fly, or else.

Mara smiled at the nervousness of the heavy-set man, and turned toward a small vertical slit in the wall, enjoying the smell of the damp air coming through. She wanted to escape the putrid stench of the hangar again, but realized that now she would have to keep an eye on the tech, or else she would wake up the next morning with a horrible headache and a stripped down Z-95.

If only she hadn't run into that TIE Fighter on patrol...well, what was done was done. She had managed to destroy the ship before its pilot could call for help, but not before it had fried her shields and electrical systems with an ion bolt, effectively grounding her here.

*Why didn't Luke mention that this backwater planet was occupied by the Empire?*, Mara thought angrily at both him and herself. She could have ignored his call for help and have continued to sit in her office, shuffling forms, cargo and complaints around, but she found her conscience gnawing at her; Plus, this opportunity for a break was too good to pass up.

Her anger started to flare as she recalled how Talon Karrde had left her in the lurch, leaving her to try and be both the leader and the ambassador of the Smugglers' Coalition. The stress of managing the coalition's affairs and thwarting rivals' takeover plans--with an assassination attempt thrown in for good measure--had threatened to give her a seizure, or at least a nervous breakdown. When Karrde had come back out of "retirement", she couldn't have been happier.

After years of these pressures, the life of a trader appeared almost carefree...or it did until she actually tried living it. More forms and less excitement had left her cold to the idea of being a trader, leaving her with the option of finalizing her Jedi training and becoming a Jedi Knight. *Maybe that's the reason why I came*, she thought wearily, though she couldn't say if that was the only reason.

Her thoughts wandered to Lando, now a happily married man, who had amorously pursued her until she had finally given up and relented. She hadn't expected much of a romance with Lando, and as a result didn't get much. *If Luke had been like Lando, he'd never have left the forest on Myrkr alive*, she thought privately, trying to imagine Luke using pick-up lines while having a blaster pointed at his face. Of course, it would have meant that she'd be dead too, and Thrawn would be more than likely sitting on a throne in the Imperial Palace.

She let out a long, deep breath, trying to compose her thoughts into something more cohesive, and less troubling. Just thinking about Luke had stirred up an old battle between her heart and her mind, both fighting over which would control her actions.

Luke's old girlfriend Callista hadn't been seen in about eight years, yet he remained faithful to her; He could not, or would not, accept the possibility that he would never see her again. Mara watched as the years went by, and Luke fell deeper and deeper into melancholy. She wanted to say something, maybe even tell him how she felt, but her mind told her there was no reason for Luke to care about her, especially considering what she had done and said. This time her mind triumphed, and all her feelings were stifled again by the walls she'd built within herself. *Now all I have to do is get out of here, before any more damage is done.*

She leaned her head against the side of the window, breathing the misty air in heavily. *Why does my life end up so intertwined with his?* she wondered as she gazed out into the street, and watched as the raindrops fell into a puddle just outside the window. She noticed two drops land side by side, sending concentric waves rippling past the other's and into the source of its waves, and marveled how often nature was mimicked in life.


Luke Skywalker lowered the pair of macro-binoculars from his eyes and peered toward the horizon, past rocky kraggs that jutted up from the earth and a distant town ringed by mountains, to a large front of metal grey clouds. After living on worlds that actually had rain, he'd learned that meant a storm was coming. He could feel Mara's presence coming from the town, but all his attempts to contact her were futile. She was absorbed with something important, though he couldn't discern what. *Well*, he sighed, *all I can do is try again later.*

He stepped down from the boulder he'd been standing on, and made his way back to his meager camp; a flat sheltered area he'd managed to find along the rocky slope of the mountain. He'd already been on the planet for two days and had yet to sense the presence of the possible candidate.

Luke had heard a rumor of a child who performed "parlor tricks" in a bar in one of the cities on this planet; Gheas, the trader had said, who'd heard the story in turn from someone he knew. He didn't doubt that the rumor was true: he had found many candidates using the same methods. However, the informant had precious little knowledge about the facts of the story aside from the planet's name, Detromi, the town, and the fact that the child was a native.

Using a shuttle the New Republic had loaned him, he had gone out to the planet he was now on, determined to find the child. When he had arrived, he thought that there'd be no hassle--until he accidently came upon one, then two TIE Fighters. The shuttle wasn't decorated with the New Republic emblem, thankfully, or else he would have been blown to bits before he even knew what was going on.

The identification code he had, however, was a Republic code. The TIE Fighters hopefully wouldn't try to stop him--not at first--but if they figured out he wasn't really in distress, it would be a short fight: his defenses were no match for two Imperial fighters. The pilots, however, hadn't caught on to his trick. In fact, they hadn't even done a follow-up check, to make sure he'd been registered. Luckily, the base was just as sloppy. He fed them the same story and promptly landed outside the city, in a trench not too deep to climb out of, but deep enough for them to assume he'd crashed for the time being. He'd covered the ship with stealth netting and some boulders for general looks, to keep out prying eyes. If the pilots and the soldiers at the Imperial base were careless enough to let him through, then he safely assumed that they wouldn't check up on a crashed ship. Obviously this world was controlled by the Empire, but having little or no contact with other Imperial forces had made them inattentive and slovenly. Avoiding Imperial troops would be easy enough, if all their forces were like the ones he had run into.

He looked back towards the horizon. The storm was moving at a relatively slow pace through the mountains--even so, it would be on top of him in approximately 15 minutes, more if he was lucky. Luke sighed audibly. He'd hoped to make it to the town by nightfall, but that didn't seem likely now. It looked like he was going to have to wait until morning.

His campsite was made up of a large tent, some supplies, his backpack and a small, portable communications center he'd brought with him from Coruscant. Looking at it now, Luke was extremely glad he'd brought it along, even though at the time he had been sure he wouldn't need it. The craft he'd taken didn't have a strong enough transmitter to reach Coruscant from the Outer Rim, but now he could broadcast to the New Republic that he'd stumbled onto another Imperial stronghold.

He lifted the comm easily and put it inside the tent, followed by the rest of his supplies, then sat down on the floor and began to concentrate on contacting--or at least detecting--the mind of the person he'd come to find. He focused his probe on a large group of humanoids he'd discovered on a previous search, but found nothing.

Disappointed, but not yet willing to give up, he swept the surrounding area and opened his focus up to include any unusual disturbances in the Force, not just one solitary mind. He had only begun when he felt an immeasurable cold flow through him, and began to shiver in spite of the warmth of the tent. Luke pulled back immediately, shocked at finding such a strong presence of the Dark Side on this planet, but the riddle of why he couldn't contact this person was solved. The tree-cave's Dark Side energy had theoretically masked Yoda on Dagobah, and it appeared that the same effect was happening here as well; turning the previous theory into fact.

*I guess this means I've got a lot of ground to cover*, he grimaced. *I'd better make sure I have Mara with me, or else I'll be wandering around for weeks.* He stood up, and checked his chronometer. He rubbed his eyes and checked it again. Still the same. Then he noticed the sound of rain on the roof of the tent, and it confirmed the chrono's fact; more than a half hour had passed.

Exhausted from his struggle to break free from the malevolent presence, Luke drifted over to his bedroll, consumed with ideas of what the evil force he'd touched could possibly be. But as he fell asleep, his concerns wandered over to Mara, and the disturbing thought that maybe she hadn't been as lucky at avoiding the Imperials as he had.


The constant rain continued through the night, turning the streets of the small village into a muddy soup. There was no one outside on a night like this, except for a young girl who had nowhere else to go.

Her clothes were saturated with rain water, chilling her skin even in the choking mugginess of the jungle surrounding the tiny hamlet. Her long dark hair hung down her back and face in thick strings, shadowing unusually large, black expressive eyes that seemed to absorb everything she looked at. Her thin frame spoke of several nights without food, and clothing which had once been in good condition now hung off of her in rags. She skulked silently through the muddy street, avoiding all lighted windows.

The houses in the village were made of a ceramic material that seemed to be all one form, rather than bricks, with roofs made of tightly woven branches and grass, or in some cases, stone shingles. The faded red paint of one house caught her eye, and she recognized it instantly. The girl found an advantageous spot across the street to watch the place, wedged inbetween the walls of two houses, out of sight to anyone happening to look out a window--and sat down to wait.

After several minutes, the door to the house opened and revealed a woman, middle-aged and pale. Wary eyes darted right and left, searching for some sign of life. Seeing none, she took the small bundle and put it just outside the door. Then she slipped back into the house, carefully shutting the door after her.

The young girl's eyes were fixed on the bundle as she made her way stealthily towards the dwelling, mud squishing beneath and into long worn-out boots as she arrived at the door.

She could hear the voices coming from inside. How she longed to stay, to listen to them speak, to not be alone! She knew, however, that to stay would risk her getting caught, and that would doom not only her, but the family inside as well. Tears welled up and ran down already wet cheeks as she grabbed the bundle and made her way back through the village.

She had nearly reached the boundary of the town when she heard the sound of wood slamming against wood.

"Hey! Where do you think you're going in a storm like this?" A gruff voice called out. The sound of the voice made her freeze midstep. The girl turned, and watched as the older man's expression change from mild concern to horror.

"No! St-tay away--", the man nervously twisted around to look for help, for support or for a place to hide. "Help! She's back in the village! The Cursed One's in the village!"

The man's cry of alarm caused the sound of shuffling feet and shouts of anger, fear and confusion to come from the houses around him. Hesitating no longer, she shot forward at a dead run for the safety of the jungle, a place that accepted her unconditionally.

After running for what seemed like hours, she finally came to a small cave she often used for shelter. Pulling back the covering foliage, she staggered inside. The girl collapsed to the floor, her lungs burning anew with each gasp for breath. She pulled dark, wet strands from her face and sat for a long while, expecting to hear the sound of feet crashing through the underbrush.

Nothing triggered her inner alarm during her wait, and the adrenaline in her system ran dry, leaving her aching and exhausted. Using the bundle as a pillow, she curled up for warmth and swiftly fell into a blissful, dreamless sleep.


Finding no sign of the girl, the men of the village went back to their dry homes, mumbling unkind words about their escaped quarry.

"Blasted witch! How dare she come back...!"

"Doesn't she know what exile means? She's got powers but no brains!"

"She's scouting out our village for the Scryth, no doubt!

"At least she's gone now. If she comes back....we'll be waiting for her."

The voices drifted off as the mob approached the village, all of them knowing why she had returned. The Council had to be alerted to this breach of exile, if they hadn't been already.

When they arrived, the mob saw that the lights in the Hall were on, signalling that the Council was in session. Some smiled as they thought of the consequences of the girl's actions, and drifted back to their homes. Others frowned, worried about those same consequences, and what it bode for her family.


"Darm, they're coming!"

The voice of his wife sounded tense and desperate to Darm Kipetk's ears. As soon as he heard the cries of alarm, he knew that Cerrah had been discovered, resulting in the Council coming for a "visit"--as good as a warrant for his arrest. He looked up from his woodworking to his wife's face, lined with worry but still as beautiful as ever. She was truly human, with long dark hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion. She was taller than all the women in the village, and as tall as some men, even though she was shorter than the average height for a human.

Darm and the other villagers--the Shadoui, they called themselves--were essentially human, except for their exceptionally large, sky black eyes and their shorter size. They tended to stay away from humans, especially after the Empire first arrived on their planet, determined to either eliminate or enslave their entire population..

He looked past her to their children behind her, three pairs of wide, obsidian eyes staring back at him. His son, Issik, stood tall at all of eight years, who was now the oldest in his sister's absence--she only three years ahead of him. His arm draped protectively around his younger sister Lyrie's shoulders, herself only a couple years below him. Behind them stood the baby, Eirsa, their miracle child, born not more than two winters ago. The fact that their children existed at all had been a miracle in itself, and now he felt as if they were slipping away from his grasp, as Cerrah had. They looked to him for support, something he felt he could no longer give them honestly.

His shoulders slumped from the pain he'd been trying to hide for the past few months, ever since Cerrah had been exiled for "endangering the safety of the village." All of it was being drudged up again, but this time he was determined not to cave in to the Council's demands. Somehow, hopefully, he'd be able to right some of the wrongs that he'd done.

Darm stood up from the table and walked over to the door. "Let's greet our guests, Nila. We wouldn't want to be accused of being impolite." His voice sounded tired and bitter; he was in no mood to be harassed.

He flung open the door, and there stood as much of the Council that would fit on their front stoop, with others trailing behind. The Council Leader, Aileh Topek, had his fist raised in the air, poised to knock on the door. The Leader twisted his aged, leathery face into a pout and quickly dropped his arm down to his side. Darm tried not to look pleased at the humiliated expression on the man's face, punctuated by the white, thinning hair plastered to the elder's skull. He swallowed his laughter and politely, if tersely, asked the Council if they'd like to come in.

"Thank you, no," Aileh sniffed, looking at the insides of the shack with some disdain. "We would prefer that you come to the Hall, so we can hold a formal meeting."

"A formal meeting? For what?" Darm asked nonchalantly.

"You know very well why we're here," piped up a second, reedy female voice from the crowd still standing in the mud."That..girl came back to the village--no doubt to visit you--and by doing so, expressly defied our authority!" Darm wondered how the Council would feel if they knew his daughter had already "defied their authority" at least 5 times since they had exiled her. "So, what does her coming back have to do with me?"

"You are responsible for her, and in her absence you will receive her punishment," the Leader said, trying to reassert his authority. At that statement, the group became very quiet, as did Darm.

"You know what the punishment is for breaking exile," he barely managed to reply, stunned that Aileh would even consider it. "Death." A general twitching and shuffling rippled through the Council, except for Aileh, whose eyes were firmly fixed on Darm's.

"Yes, I do. That is *why* we need to hold the meeting."

"But tonight?" Nila interjected. She had shooed the children away to bed when the Council had arrived, and now couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Can't this wait until morning? We could all use a good night's rest, plus the rain's sure to be gone by then."

"There's a risk that your family might try to flee. After all, you aren't truly one of us, so what would you have to lose?" The old man smirked sourly. Groans from behind him indicated that not all of the Council felt the same way.

Nila's eyes smoldered with barely contained anger at the old man's words, and she began to list off the events of the past thirty or so years, reminding him of her status as a member of the Shadoui, her acts of kindness toward not only him but the entire town as well, and her role as a teacher to all the children of the village until he regretted ever letting those words out of his mouth. Darm took great delight in watching the old sourpuss squirm under Nila's onslaught. He knew very well that the last thing you wanted to do was raise her ire, having been on the receiving end of that tongue many times.

"All right! All right, I give up!" The old man shrieked at last, "Tomorrow morning it is. But I still want someone to watch them, just in case. Any volunteers?"

Dead silence blanketed the group. After a few moments, a man named Jeth Kol spoke up, a friend of the family and a fellow woodworker.

The Council left the house, and separately headed for their own home, leaving the newly appointed guard with his charges.

"Is it alright if I come in?" The man asked meekly, his clothes thoroughly soaked.

"Sure, Jeth." Darm helped the dripping man into the common room. "I'll get you something to dry off with."

As he turned, he saw Nila already carrying a couple of blankets towards them, and marveled over how conscientious she was. It never ceased to amaze him how resourceful she could be, especially at a time like this.

She smiled and asked him to check and make sure the children were in bed. He nodded, and walked over to the door of the children's room.

Though their house was not as big as some of the more affluent townsperson's, they had plenty of room for the family; a common room, a bathroom, two bedrooms and a kitchen: Though the houses looked primitive on the outside, the Shadoui weren't ignorant of technology. In fact, their race had been ancient when the Jedi order had been young. After awhile, though, the Shadoui's ancestors had become bored with technology and power. They decided to take all the accumulated knowledge they had and settle down on Detromi: both for privacy and to avoid the ever-expanding population of humans.

Unfortunately, they hadn't managed to do that. When the humans came thirty-some years ago, they hadn't been prepared for it, and had paid for their solitude. The Empire took away the fields and the highlands from them, hunting them down until they'd run into the forest for shelter, and to join with the kin living in the hamlet. Those who survived the massacre swiftly succumbed to dysentery, and many of the women, children and elderly left afterwards died. Only their small number were left. For some reason, Imperial forces hadn't followed them into the jungle too far--they liked to believe it was because of the Scryth, but it was probably because they thought the dysentery had finished them off.

Even though their numbers were diminished, their knowledge and culture still remained. For the Shadoui, the preservation of their knowledge and their past was deeply sacred, because it held all the answers to their questions, great and small. The knowledge made it possible to live in the jungle, and use limited space for crops and livestock. Humans and the other, new alien races had always said they were insane for turning their collective backs on progress, but for the Shadoui, the lust for ideas and new technology was a dead and long-gone concept. Every thought had already been thought; every idea had already been done. There wasn't much left to do except live, and that didn't require the knowledge of the Ancients. Darm shook his head sadly, wondering if humans would ever begin to understand their philosophy.

Darm quietly opened the door and peeked inside, hoping to find all three asleep. From the slow, steady breathing of the two youngest, he could tell they were asleep, but he instantly knew his son Issik was faking from the rapid pace of his breathing, and his awkward sleeping position.

"Issik, I know you're still awake. Go to sleep.", he chided softly.

Issik's eyes cautiously opened, focusing steadily on Darm's silhouette in the doorway. He raised up on one elbow. "I can't, Dad," he whispered back. "I don't want you to die." He sounded on the verge of tears. A lump started to form in Darm's throat at the thought of Issik pondering over his death.

Silently, Darm walked over to his son's bed and sat down on the edge. "I'm not going to die. The Leader was just trying to impress the rest of the Council. He only reaches out of line as far as his wife's arm." As soon as he said it, he realized his son wouldn't understand what he was talking about, and the look of puzzlement on the boy's face confirmed it. Nila had taken care of Aileh's children in all their times of distress, and the Leader's wife wasn't the type to forget a debt like that. And neither, Darm hoped, would the rest of the Council.

The boy still looked unsure. He tried again, "Let's just say that a lot of the people in the village like us and don't want anything bad to happen to us. All right?" He got a convincing nod from his son. "Good. Now, let's get some sleep, hmm?"

"Okay." Issik slid back under the covers. His father looked back from the doorway at the three children. "Good night, son."

"Good night, Dad."

As Darm closed the door, he couldn't help wishing that tonight *he* had someone to tell him everything was going to be alright.


"Dismal night, isn't it sir?"

Commander Boraas Veid turned from the window towards the sound of the voice, into the darkened room. Lieutenant Brann Covell stood on the opposite side of the desk, hands in the pockets of his trousers--not the proper attitude for a junior officer in the presence of his senior officer, Veid noted. The young man's features were dark in the weak light from the window, though he could see that he wore a smirk on his face; a sight the older man was getting more and more tired of seeing.

"Yes, it is a dismal night, Lieutenant." To any other person, he might have added that he could feel the weather in his bones, but he couldn't afford to show any sign of weakness to Covell. He preyed on the weak and aging, always looking for an opportunity to advance. Veid knew that Brann now had his eye on his job, and thoughts he'd had of an early retirement faded like the morning mists that collected in the valley below.

Though Boraas Veid was no longer considered young, he could not in good conscience be considered old, either. Approaching his mid-fifties, he had managed to keep off the weight that usually plagued men in advancing age, and his hair had only started to turn grey and thin out. Veid's eyes still had their raven-like sharpness, and could make any man jump at the sound of his voice. That is, any man but the one who stood in front of him.

Veid looked hard at his rival. "Is there any particular reason why you're here?"

Covell smiled predatorially. "You have a way with words, sir. As a matter of fact, I was just going to tell you that Bortana's taken over my post for the night, so I'm going off-duty. Is that all right with you?" The sarcasm in the officer's voice made Veid cringe. Insubordination was a charge that fit Brann well, but finding competent officer material among the local population was a hard task. That, coupled with the fact that the last two superior officers he'd had vanished without a trace--though no direct link to Covell had ever been established. Just the same, Veid wanted to be alive to enjoy his retirement.

"Of course. I would never deny you a good night's rest." It didn't hurt, either, that this would get rid of Covell; at least until he came in tomorrow. Unfortunately, the lieutenant knew this too. Giving the commander a night's respite from his presence was only fuel for him later, when Veid would be off-guard.

The aging Imperial officer turned back towards the window--a signal to the young officer that he should leave--but Covell had already made his way to the door. The commander could hear it slide open and closed, and then all he heard was the pelting of the rain against the glass of the window.

Veid reflected sadly on his years of service to the Empire, years that had been filled with promise, though in the end, all those promises were hollow. He had even thought about defecting to the Rebels, if he'd thought it would do any good. However, the opportunity had never presented itself, and like so many other of his dreams, he had let this one fade. He'd convinced himself he wasn't Rebel material, because he knew he wasn't the sort of man who could make a difference, the kind that stands out from the annals of history...though he secretly wished he was. But, the bones that ached within his body told him he'd be foolish to even think about escaping this dull, uneventful planet.

He wished now that he'd had a family, even though the Empire frowned heavily on "something so trivial". Then maybe his life wouldn't feel like such a waste.

The intercom on his desk chimed twice, and Veid moved over to the desk to receive the transmission.

"Commander Veid, sir?" The holographic image of a fresh-faced ensign looked back at him with some concern. *As well he might,* the commander reflected darkly, *I should have left an hour ago.* "Yes, ensign, what is it?" He was in no mood for conversation.

"I was going to leave you a message, sir, but since you're there, I might as well tell you. The troops you ordered to check out the wreckage of that crashed ship have reported back, and they found no debris of any kind in that canyon, sir."

"Maybe the ship didn't crash there. It could be in the mountains, or in another canyon."

The ensign emphatically shook his head. "Our tracking system puts the ship in that canyon, sir. There's no trace of it."

"Which means it didn't crash at all. It may have been a pirate, or a smuggler, or...," his voice trailed off. Could it be? After all these years, had they finally come? "Or, a Rebel."

"A Rebel, sir? Do you really think so?" The voice of the ensign sounded eager, hopeful for some excitement to shake up his dull existence. The same tone was echoed in Veid's thoughts.

"Anything's possible." The "crashed" ship put to mind the other ship that had come only days after the first. Coincidence? "What about the other ship? Have you pinpointed where it landed?"

The ensign checked out something to his side. "We should have that information by morning."

"Good. I want a squad of Stormtroopers at the location as soon as the information comes in. Bring anyone near the craft in for questioning, and do not fire unless fired upon. I don't want another fiasco like the riot last year."

"Yes, sir. Understood, sir." The ensign saluted sharply, and ended the transmission. The holo faded, leaving the room dark once more.

Veid's thoughts rested upon the two ships who had innocently disturbed the relative quiet of his sector. *This had better be what I hope it is. I don't think I could take any more disappointments.* He decided finally to go home, but not because he was tired. He had a feeling that tomorrow was going to be a busy day.


The chill of the tent's air, and a nagging feeling tugged at the edge of Luke's consciousness until it finally dragged him awake. At first he was disoriented, trying to remember where he was, until it hit him. The probe into the rainforest, the blackout...

He stumbled out into the cold mountain air and took in a deep breath, which helped to clear the last of the cobwebs out of his mind. From the east, the sun had just begun to peak over the ridge to his left, and its light gently settled on a small base set on a plateau across the valley from where he stood. Or rather, a plateau that might have once been a mountain, now leveled and transformed into a base for the glory of the Empire. It stood like a vulture watching its prey over the city below in the valley, the mists still obscuring the majority of its features.

Luke knew that Mara was somewhere in the valley below, and after encountering that dark presence in the jungle, he was glad he had called on her for help. Her skills in navigating through different types of terrain were something he needed desperately, if he was planning on traveling through a potentially dangerous jungle for several days.

That wasn't his reason for calling her here, though. Normally, Han and Leia would've been somehow involved in all of this, but to purposely put them in danger, when they had a family to take care of...that would've been ludicrous. His students...were students, untrained and untested, and the graduates needed to be on their own--not to mention how embarrassing it would be to call on them for help. Lando was still a newlywed, and Chewie's place was with Han and Leia. Mara had no such ties, and was a much better choice in the long run, though he was sure she probably wouldn't see it that way. He'd be lucky if she agreed to continue on with him, instead of getting in her ship and taking off--if that was even possible anymore.

The rationalizations he'd formed were brushed away as he quickly packed his tent, supplies and comm into his backpack and set off in the direction of the city, hoping to get there before the sun rose high enough to shine its light on the sheltered inhabitants below.


Boraas Veid entered his office after what felt like only a short rest from the daily routine. Already, the messages had begun to pile up. He activated the first: a personnel report. Next, there was a complaint registered by the mayor of Yualpe, the city in the valley below, asking for leniency on the Empire-enforced weapons manufacture taxes. He wrote a short paragraph in reply, saying that he had read the plea, but had decided not to rescind the tax. Veid knew that to do so would be an incredible tactical error, one that not even a first year cadet would do.

When he reached the third message, his spirits rose. Intelligence had pinpointed where the second ship had landed: the outskirts of the city, where the slums and repair shops were. They had managed to triangulate a section of the outskirts where it was most likely to be, and troops had already been sent out to the area. He smiled with satisfaction at the possibility of finding a Rebel, or even more than one. Soon he would have the answers he needed to all the questions that had been nagging him following the arrival of the two ships.


At first it began as a buzzing sensation in her mind, then grew into a full scale alarm that jolted Mara Jade awake. Her back, arms and legs ached from sleeping in the cockpit of her Headhunter, and her vision was blurred from the abrupt awakening, but the sense of danger coming from outside somewhere drove the pain from cramped muscles back into oblivion and had her eyes straining for details in the weak light. She could feel four--no, five--humans coming down the street, directly heading for the small hangar. Their demeanor was cold and with purpose, leading Mara to conclude that these were soldiers, more than likely searching for a renegade ship and its pilot: or in other words, her.

She cursed silently as she eased her way out of the ship, grabbing as many supplies as she could carry, along with her blaster and the lightsaber that Luke had given her several years ago. Normally Mara would have left it behind at home, where it would be safe, but she had felt an overwhelming urge to bring it along. Now she considered it extra weight and an extra worry. If she lost it while trying to dodge those soldiers...*Well, it's with me now. I'll just have to be cautious,* she told herself firmly.

A thin grey beam came from the window at the front of the hangar, the only unlocked opening in the whole place. She couldn't use the front door, and the hangar was built with its back directly up against the mountain, which left only the side door, leading to a narrow alley on the left side of the hangar, and the roof.

All the roofs in this area were flat, and since the valley was crammed for space, all the buildings had been built side-by-side--giving Mara a perfect highway in order to escape. She peeked over the edge of the roof and was chagrined to find nothing but white mist. Reaching out with the Force, she found the five Stormtroopers, still heading for the hangar. She guessed that they'd probably split up: three for the front and two for the side door, if they had done their homework. Hopefully, they wouldn't think to check the roof.

Mara headed west, towards the end of the valley--and hopefully the way out of the town as well.


The Stormtrooper leader called for everyone to hold back. He reached for his comlink and turned it on, "We've found the building, Lieutenant."

"Good," Lieutenant Covell replied. "Make sure the scum doesn't escape. He killed one of our best men, and we can't allow that to go unpunished, can we?" The comment about the pilot was more than just a little white lie, but he hoped to arouse the anger of the 'troopers with it.

The leader was more cool-headed and loyal than Covell would have liked, however. "Sir, Commander Veid told us--"

"Never mind what Veid said! *I'm* in command of this operation, and I'm telling you that you may take any means necessary to apprehend the suspect. Have I made myself clear on this matter, Sergeant?" His voice sounded raw and hard-edged over the mild static of the comlink.

"Yes, Lieutenant. We are now entering the building, over." The stormtrooper leader turned off the comlink and re-attached it to his belt.


The mechanic awoke to the sound of blaster fire outside the hangar, and just as he got out of bed to find out what was going on, three Stormtroopers were suddenly there with blasters pointed in his face.

"Wh--what's goin' on?" the portly man whimpered, "I ain't done nothing wrong...honest!" His hands waved frantically in the air.

"Who are you? Where'd that Z-95 come from?" the middle Stormtrooper asked, apparently in charge of the group.

"I'm just the mechanic! I own this place, you can check the records yourself!" The man was sweating now, panic-stricken at thought of dying without even knowing why. "Why'd you bust in like that? I'm an honest citizen...I pay my taxes," he said the last defensively.

"We have reason to believe that there is an unauthorized person on the planet. Who owns that Z-95?" The sergeant waved his blaster back in the direction of the ship. The mechanic could tell the trooper's patience was wearing thin.

"Ah--some woman came in a couple days ago with it busted up real bad, looked like it'd been in a fight with somethin', I dunno. She's real pretty, with red hair and a nice bod--", the trooper grabbed the rotund mechanic by the collar of his nightshirt and lifted him a few centimeters off the ground. "Where is she?" He growled at the man.

"I dunno, honest! She was goin' to sleep in the cockpit, and if she ain't there, then I don't know where she'd be!"

The trooper leader thought for a second, then asked the mechanic, "Is there any other way out of here? Besides the two doors?"

The strain of the collar against his neck was sufficient in persuading him to tell about the stairway to the roof. After he'd finished giving directions, he was dropped unceremoniously to the floor. The leader began barking orders, leaving two men to guard the mechanic and also just in case their suspect came back for her ship. The remaining three quickly hurried up to the roof in pursuit of the fugitive, while the leader called for the rest of the squad--hoping to cut her off before she could reach the gate to the west.


From the vantage point of the mountain slope, the city looked calm and peaceful in its morning hours, shrouded in a thick fog that layer by layer was beginning to dissipate. Luke could feel Mara's presence stronger now, and if he was sensing it right, she was heading in his direction. Unfortunately, he could also sense three humans behind her and several more ahead of her, hoping she would stumble into them without ever realizing they were there. Mara would be able to sense the others as he had, but there was no way she was going to be able to take on that many of them at once. Luke started scrambling down the slope, throwing away all caution and concern for his own safety in his haste to make it to Mara before her enemies did.

The mist continued to evaporate gradually, revealing more of the roof line in front of her, though it was still too thick for her to see the ground. *Good,* Mara thought with satisfaction. *If I can't see them, then they can't see me.*

The three Stormtroopers had begun to gain on her, forcing her to move even faster than caution would advise. She had crossed over two more roofs when suddenly a screaming alarm went through her skull, and she stopped dead in her tracks. She squinted into the fog, and caught a glimpse of movement; the swing of a gun barrel, if she wasn't mistaken. As quietly and as fast she could, Mara dove for the rooftop, hoping that the one who had the gun also didn't have excellent eyesight as well.

A quick scan of the area proved her worst fears: She had fallen into a trap. There were approximately five 'troopers ahead and three coming up from behind, creating a bottleneck between the ground several stories down on one side, and a large gap between the mountain slope and the roof edge on the other. She was effectively stuck. She reached out further, to check for more troops, and was surprised and relieved to feel the presence of the man who had indirectly put her into this situation. Mara used her strength in the Force to call out to him for help. *Luke! I need some help here. You wouldn't mind taking the five in front of me while I take the other three?*

Words that seemed to speak in the voice of Luke Skywalker formulated in her mind and replied in an amused tone, *Of course not, Mara. Just wait until I'm in range before you do anything.* She responded an affirmative, and diligently checked Luke's descent down the slope, hoping that he'd make to the roof before the Stormtroopers caught up to her.

Luke could feel the roof top coming closer with every rushed step down the slope. After several seconds he finally made it within safe jumping distance, but he hadn't made it close enough to Mara to deflect the inevitable blaster fire. He caught Mara's nervousness and tightly-controlled fear, and wished he could give her some reassurance, but there wasn't enough time for that. Instead, he jumped down to the roof, grabbing his lightsaber and igniting it--making him a target for the Stormtroopers below and a signal for Mara to start her attack.

She caught the weak gleam of green light struggling through the fog, and snapped her own lightsaber into action, creating a blue halo in the thinning mist. A blaster would have been better for distance, but she knew that her best weapon for close in-fighting was the one firmly held in her standard two-handed grip.

She could see movement increasing on both sides; the group of five moving away from her towards the deadly gestures of the green lightsaber, while the three others began closing in rapidly, drawing out their guns. She turned to face the three, and heard the noise of blasters going off behind her, hitting Luke's lightsaber and ricocheting off into the mist. Soon enough, laser bolts from the three began spewing in her direction. Letting the Force flow through her, she moved the lightsaber to block every shot, gracefully dodging and blocking all the blasts taken at her. One ricochet caught the trooper to the left straight in the chest, causing him to fly backwards into the fog. She rushed over to the remaining two in order to finish them off, but they in turn tried to distract Mara by getting on either side of her. The one who had formally been in the middle now tried to shoot at her close range, but a little push from the Force directed the muzzle over her shoulder. The blast missed his target entirely and instead caught the trooper on her right on the shoulder, spinning him around enough to make him lose his balance and trip over the edge of the roof, disappearing into the white vapor. Mara easily sliced through the remaining soldier, and turned her attention back to where Luke was fighting.

Three Stormtroopers' bodies lay on the roof surrounding Luke, felled by the ricochet of their own blaster fire. He held his lightsaber in front of him, prepared for any attack. The two that were left had realized that they weren't facing a normal enemy, and had stopped shooting, knowing that to continue would only lead to the same fate as their fellow soldiers.

The younger, more headstrong one decided to end the stalemate and try a tactic that might throw the man off. He charged head-first into the Jedi, firing his blaster continuously. The last stormtrooper was so fascinated by the resulting display that he failed to hear the light footsteps behind him, and only discovered his mistake after he felt the tap on his shoulder, wheeled around, and felt the burning, liquid pain of a lightsaber slicing through his middle. The blackness that claimed him was the last thing he ever found fascinating.

Chapter 2

The Hall was an ancient structure, the hub of all the activities in the village and the cornerstone of the people's lives. It stood four to five stories above the smaller huts and formed the basis of the village's circular structure. All the stone-paved roads lead to the center of town while dirt roads connected one street to the next. The ivory tower had windows around its circumference on every level, and a main floor where people could air their grievances. It was also where the Council held their meetings.

The same morning that greeted Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade with violence now shed its sourness on Darm Kipetk and his family, as his trial started early that day. The twenty members of the Council, dressed in plain white robes, sat in a small semi-circle around Darm, with the rest of the Shadoui who had come that morning standing opposite the Council. Muddy streets and the earliness of the trial kept most away, leaving only Darm's staunchest opposers and most trustworthy friends--his friends outnumbering his foes three to one.

"The Council will now begin the trial of Darm Kipetk, charged in the absence of his daughter, Cerrah, with betrayal of exile. How does the accused plea?" Aileh Topek's voice turned into a squeal.

"Do I have a choice?" Darm asked tiredly. It was almost a direct insult to the Council to insinuate that they were anything but fair.

The Leader didn't miss Darm's point. "We are nothing if not a fair judge of truth and innocence. Justice *will* be done."

Darm's face twisted in outrage, but he held himself in check. It would not be wise to needlessly upset the Council, not when his life, and more than likely the lives of his family, were at stake. "I understand."

"So, how do you plea?" Aileh smiled faintly, as if he had won a small battle. His prejudices against Darm's wife were well known, but rarely echoed.

"Based on the fact that the exile was unjust, and therefore meaning that this trial is unjust, I would have to say 'not guilty', honored leader."

This sent a shockwave through the crowd and the Council. His accusation caused one of the Councilmembers to speak. "Why do you say this, Darm? You agreed with our decision at the time. What is different now that wasn't then?" An older woman asked, a person he'd known since childhood. She hadn't wanted to exile Cerrah, and neither had other members, but the more conservative side of the Council had won them over, chiefly on the point of the village's safety. If Cerrah wasn't a hazard, then there would be validity to his statement.

"Mainly, I understand now what a mistake I made in not opposing the decision beforehand. My wife is human, and it is known that the genetic inheritance in humans of sensitivity in what they call the 'Force' is strong, where the Shadoui have not had anyone with this sensitivity for millennia. It is also known that my wife has this sensitivity, but what isn't known,..." he turned to his wife, not knowing if he should continue. He was reassured by her nod of approval and went on. "It isn't known that she was *trained* to use this ability from when she was a child, before our people took her in. Nila has lived among us in peace, because she learned how to use this 'Force'; her control over it is much stronger than Cerrah's. Cerrah was only experimenting with her talent, and Nila was sure to keep her from going too far. We knew that anything could happen, but we never thought of her as a threat. When the matter was brought before the Council, we assumed that our judgement might have been clouded because she's our daughter, but we never thought it would end up like this." His voice ended in a near-whisper, stricken by how fast things had gotten out of control.

Another wave rippled through the crowd. The Shadoui didn't dislike Jedi--in fact, they had a mild admiration for them, partly because they held so much power in their hands and managed to exert self-control. However, they also considered them an incredible risk; wherever Jedi went, trouble was sure to follow. That, in fact, had been the main reason to exile Cerrah in the first place. Every year that passed saw an increase in her ability, and like the child she was, she experimented. A few minor incidents led to a panic, and many townsfolk came to the conclusion that she must be cursed and possessed by the Scryth; an unknown evil that lived and thrived deep in the jungle. Exile seemed like a logical idea at the time, but like most ideas, a gnawing doubt had settled into the minds of most, and the fact that a Jedi--or as near as anyone had ever seen--had lived among them for several years without any harm to the village was enough to unsettle those gathered in the Hall.

"Is this true?" Aileh questioned Nila, who stood behind Darm in front of the crowd. The Leader looked absolutely terrified.

Nila glanced at the faces of each member of the Council, and managed to summon enough courage to answer, "Yes, it's true. All of it."

"But why didn't you tell us?" A third member asked--a man almost as old as Topek--known for his robust personality and compassionate heart.

"It's not that I didn't want to tell you all, but...I doubted that you would understand, and I was afraid of what you'd do. If you could exile her, what would you have done to me? Would I have been exiled, or killed? If we rebelled against the Council's decision, what would become of our children? If we left, we'd have to go to the Imperial town for food, and that would lead them back here, eventually.

"I've abided by the Council's decisions almost all of my life, and when my daughter was accused like that," she paused; the words were coming too fast to her mind. She wanted to say everything at once, to let all her feelings out, but instead attempted to put them in an order that would clearly illustrate how she felt. It wasn't easy.

"She's my blood, my life and soul, as are all my children.When she was sentenced, I told her--and myself--the exile would be temporary. I believed that I'd find a way around it somehow, but I never did. Before she left, I told her to come back on a certain night, and she's been coming back to the village regularly ever since. Darm knew about some of the visits, but not all. I've been trying to please the Council in this matter, but I just can't do it anymore!" Tears began to stream down her face as she thought about those nights when Cerrah was out alone, and how ashamed she felt at her actions. "Please, you have to let my baby girl come back! I have to finish her training before the Scryth realizes her potential! I'm so afraid for her, please,..." Nila looked directly at Aileh, "I'm so sorry for deceiving you, but neither Cerrah or I would ever do anything to harm anyone in this town, you must believe me!"

The silence of the room was unbroken for several seconds, until the Leader cleared his throat and addressed the crowd. "The Council will deliberate this matter upstairs. We will have our decision at noon." The Councilmembers rose in unison and went single file up the stairs along the wall, and the crowd held its breath until the last member disappeared into the second floor.

Chattering broke out among the crowd, mostly in support of Darm and Nila, hoping that the members would be wise in making their ruling. Darm approached his wife and children, hugged them all, and said gloomily, "I think the worst is yet to come."


The young girl was already awake and alert by the time the sun rose, even though its light was heavily filtered by the foliage of the jungle. Cerrah had opened the contents of the bundle, and found enough food to last her for the next couple of days alone, but when combined with what she could forage it would easily stretch into a week.

When she had first started the exile, her mother had given her food, supplies and clothing enough to last a month, but Cerrah quickly learned that in order to survive in the jungle, you had to travel light, so a month later she told her mother to give her only what she needed. Her mother hadn't liked it, but she was forced into complying with her daughter's wishes.

Being in exile had given her an opportunity that she hadn't had before, and her natural curiosity had overpowered her. A couple of villagers mentioned a human town that lay along the riverbank of the river that ran not far from their village; though it was far upstream, to the north and east towards the plains, into where the land swelled into foothills and mountains.

The sight of a human town--half of her ancestry--was compelling enough to the girl for her to follow the river upstream, past a steep waterfall and carefully skirting a lake that was known to be cursed. All plant-life that fed off the lakewater were disfigured, gnarled and brown, even though the plants and trees near the river downstream were fine. It wasn't the water, exactly....but rather something *in* the lake that was causing it. It was known to all the Shadoui as the lair of the Scryth.

Cerrah knew the stories of the Scryth, of the evil it had caused, but what it was exactly no one knew--not even the ancient ones who knew everything there was to know about the forest. Even when she had gone deep into the surrounding wilderness to avoid the twisted vegetation, she could feel a cold, chill touch coming from the lake. It took all her courage not to run for her life, but her feet didn't move any slower, either.

After several days of traveling, the human town had finally come into view. Trees had begun to thin in acquiescence to the rolling prairie: grasses up to her waist and flying insects thick in the air. She followed the river as close as possible without being detected, her gaze locked primarily on the city in front of her.

It *was* a city; to her young, inexperienced mind, at least. She could see farms in the distance, with houses and buildings increasing in intensity as they came closer to the epicenter. The city was walled in, with taller buildings peeking up from behind the wall and from behind each other. Cerrah had never seen anything like it in her entire life.

When she had entered the town, she had received many stares and strange looks. She'd ignored them, however. The odd sights and sounds of the town had captivated her, drawing her deeper and deeper into the heart of the city. Her curiosity grew as she watched droids scuttling hastily after their masters, floating craft drifting through the air, weaving their way past tall spires and stocky megaliths. She saw white and black figures marching to various destinations, paying no mind to those they passed. Cerrah thought at first they were mechanical, but their gait and posturing were too life-like, and the fear they inflicted was far-reaching and powerful. These armored men had authority, and were not afraid to use it.

It wasn't long before she had gotten into mischief. Thinking she was free from the restraints of the village--and her parents--she began to experiment again, first by driving a stray pet wild with her use of the Force, taunting the poor beast by moving a piece of debris on the street back and forth, up and down, and in circles around the pet until it collapsed on its side, exhausted from trying to capture the scrap of trash.

She then moved on to bigger projects, growing in scale and intensity, until a local farmer caught her in the middle of placing another can on top of an already precariously high stack of metal containers, attempting to recreate the towers in the city. Startled, she had lost her hold on the can and the mimicking spire of garbage, and had run for the gate. She heard no shouts of alarm, no movement to stop her, and she was well into the forest before she found that no one was chasing her. Confused, Cerrah had stood there, not knowing what to do. This city wasn't like her village at all. If she had been caught doing something like that by one of her people...well, they definitely wouldn't have shrugged it off.

She had two choices. She could go back to the human town, and hopefully stay out of trouble, or head back towards her village. The first had a greater likelihood of shelter and food, and the second held no promises of safety or being fed, and her rations were dangerously low as it was. Her obsidian eyes took in her surroundings, the afternoon shadows hiding imaginary beasts, and the wind rustling the leaves to create the illusion of movement within the bushes. Her decision made, Cerrah quickly headed back towards the relative safety of the city, willing to accept whatever punishment awaited her.

To her surprise, there was no punishment. The farmer told the incident to a friend of his who in turn told the story to an ambitious young woman, looking for a new act to draw crowds to her bar. Cerrah stood out from the crowd of humans around her, and in no time the young woman found her and brought her back to the tavern. The woman was an attractive brunette--heavier than fashion dictated--but strong enough to hold her own in a fight. Her name was Larisa, and Cerrah took to her instantly, partly because in a small way, Larisa reminded her of her mother. The bar owner asked for a demonstration of what Cerrah could do, and was delighted at the show the young girl gave her, spinning glasses in the air and making napkins dance on the table in front of her. She signed the girl on right then, and for the next month Cerrah had a place to stay and food to eat. Unfortunately, the armored men--called Stormtroopers, Cerrah later found out--had begun to investigate the bar, and the unusual main act. Larisa told her to leave, for both their sakes, and gave her extra food and clothing for her trip back, though Cerrah didn't understand why she had to leave. She would never know what happened to the lady, and the events she had inadvertently set in motion.


The tension of the battle drained away quickly after the last trooper fell, leaving Mara and Luke standing opposite each other with the remains of the smoldering Stormtroopers between them.

"It's good to see you," Luke ventured out first, hoping that this whole situation hadn't soured her mood too badly.

"Good to see you, too," Mara replied back, trying not to betray her feelings one way or the other. She could sense, though, a light probe of her mind--coming from Luke, obviously. "What's the matter? You afraid I'm going to rip you open or something?" She joked lightly. Luke's sense was uncertain, and also a bit surprised--he hadn't thought she could detect his probing.

She smiled, partly from catching him off-guard, and also partly from the fact that he was walking on eggshells around her. *I wonder why?*

"I'm sorry I got you into all this," Luke apologized, a bit sheepishly. "If I'd known this would happen..."

"Look, can we save this for later? I don't think the rest of the troop is going to wait for us to finish our chat," Mara interrupted.

"Right. Let's go." He started moving toward the mountain face, Mara following fast on his heels. When he got to the edge, he looked up the side, trying to find the quickest route up. Unfortunately, it looked like it would take at least twice as long to climb back up as it had to rush down it.

"The way this mist is vanishing, there's no way we'd be able to make it to the top before they'd spot us," Mara frowned.

"Unless,..." Luke drifted off in thought. "I've got an idea." He looked at her earnestly, "I'm going to try levitating us both up the side."

"Both of us? But that mountain's gotta be at least 1500 meters high,..." she caught the reprimanding look in his eye, and corrected herself, "...sorry, I forgot."

"It's okay, I know how you feel." He moved closer to her, shyly, "You'd better hang on to me, just in case. It'll be simpler to think of levitating one object, rather than two."

She eyed him skeptically, for show. Inside, the battle raged anew. "All right. Let's get started." She closed her eyes and awkwardly wrapped her arms around his neck, while he focused on the two of them rising, and quickly felt the ground leaving his feet--and Mara's grip on him tightening as they ascended.

"Are you all right?" Luke asked with some concern.

"I'm fine. Just concentrate on getting us to the top!" She managed through clenched teeth.

He directed all his attention back towards the levitation--completely unaware that his arms had reflexively circled around her waist.

The ascent to the top of the mountain felt like an eternity for the both of them, so when their feet touched solid ground again it met with some disbelief. Luke was the first one to fully realize that they were at the top, and so was the first to take in their surroundings. He could see the base clearly now, shining in the fully-risen sun. The mist had evaporated enough to see the buildings in the town, and would quickly allow the people in the streets below an unobstructed view of the mountains enclosing them.

Luke noticed that his arms were still wrapped around her, and could feel Mara's grip loosening as she began to focus on where they were. His face was hot with embarrassment, and as he began to pull his arms free, he realized--with some concern--that he didn't actually want to move his arms away.

The morning sun shone off her hair, creating a flaming whirlwind that blew freely in the bitterly cool breeze. Her eyes glittered in the light as she directed her gaze on him, looking both frazzled and concerned. He could clearly feel a swelling of emotion in her, similar to what he had experienced the day before, but now he could see her face as well. She was terrified.

"What's wrong?" he asked, disturbed by the look on her face.

She pushed herself out of his tenuous embrace. "Nothing. Nothing's's just...let's get moving, all right? The faster we're out of here, the better."

"Right." Logically, he would've assumed that she was afraid of heights, but she was one of the best pilots he knew, and being acrophobic wasn't a quality of a good pilot. It had to be something else...but what? He would have asked, but her attitude informed him any probing into that area would more than likely cause a violent backlash.

The biting mountain air sliced through his clothing easily, urging him to follow Mara, who was already descending the other side of the rocky slope. It had been years since his emotions had taken that direction...ever since Callista had left. It made him feel ashamed, as if he was cheating on her behind her back, even though it had been so long that the idea of cheating seemed ridiculous. Even so, it caused him to reflect.

Over the years, his thoughts of her had gone from every day, to once or twice a week, to a couple times a month, then finally ever so often. He had truly never forgotten her, but time had faded his memory. In the back of his mind, he was still hoping that she would come back, but the years had taken their emotional toll, leaving him with only memories and might-have-been's.

The feelings he'd felt from Mara mystified him, nevertheless. *What just happened?* he wondered, puzzled. Luke put his curiosity aside for the moment and trailed behind Mara, hoping that they'd find another place to camp as far away from the Imperial base as possible.


The tension in the Council room was palpable. Stress was evident on every face in the Council, each for their own reasons. If the Council Leader had his way, things would not go well with Darm Kipetk and his family.

"I don't see what we need to talk about. Kipetk's whole family is obviously against the village, and our way of keeping law and order. We should banish the whole lot of them!" Aileh was saying to the Council.

Several members of the Council disagreed, however. "Having the presence of Jedi in our village is a blessing, and a deterrent to the Scryth," argued the elderly woman who had asked Darm the reason for his accusation. She hoped to encourage the presence of Jedi in the village, if only to keep their village safe.

"Jedi may be kind of troublesome, but I feel that a trained girl is more a benefit to us, than leaving her to the interests and wiles of that...Darkness," added Jeth.

Many heads nodded in agreement. The Council seemed to be split down the middle; Ten members for Darm, ten against. Most of the women had been persuaded by Nila's plea, but were also circumspect at her credibility for keeping the extent of her knowledge a secret. While it could go either way, there would be some sort of punishment handed down--though to whom, and for what, the Council didn't know yet.

An elderly man stood up, the same one who had spoken up during the trial, and the rest of the members could feel the strength of his personality from his stare, the weak frame of his body foiling the power of his soul.

"What we are challenged with, at this moment, is whether or not Cerrah Kipetk is a threat to our village," his voice echoed off the thick, plaster walls. "Her mother has admitted to us that she is trained in 'the Force', and that she was training her daughter at the time we exiled the child," Some members squirmed in their seats, including Aileh. "However, we now have a chance to right that wrong, if it's not too late. At the time, it seemed prudent to put the welfare of the village over that of the individual, but what if we've contributed to our own downfall? We thought that she *might* have been contaminated, but sending her into the forest was...well, we may have sent an innocent girl into the mouth of the beast. If the Scryth hasn't gotten to her yet, there may be a chance to save our village."

"What do you mean 'save' it, Rowan?!" Aileh questioned angrily. "Getting rid of her was the best thing to do, and bringing her back will only make matters worse!"

"If they do get to her, who do you think she will attack first?"

The silence Rowan got was answer enough. "We need to get her back before that happens. I'm sure her mother can handle her if there are problems."

Aileh's face was twisted into a scowl, a sign that Rowan's argument was wearing him down--and the thought of coming home to a very unhappy wife. "The girl needs to be punished somehow. If not exile, then what?"

Rowan smiled in triumph. "I'm sure we can think of something."


The eyes of Lieutenant Covell blazed with an incredible fury as he heard of the escape of the fugitive from the own mouth of the squad leader--who'd managed to survive the fall off the roof and the laser blast he'd taken from his own trooper. The debriefing was not all he'd hoped for, but it would have to suffice. He ran his fingers nervously through ink-black hair as he paced the length of the now empty debriefing room, trying to assimilate the facts he'd gleaned only a few minutes ago.

The news of an accomplice was not too surprising. He knew of Veid's suspicions about the two ships' connection, and of the near-certainty that the two they'd encountered were Rebels. The glowing swords they'd held--lightsabers, he'd heard someone call them--were a rarity that some knew of, but few had ever seen. Still, it was maddening to know that two trophies had escaped through his fingers.

To him, success was all that mattered. His father had left with the main body of troops when the Empire had begun to leave several years ago, before the Battle of Endor. He'd never seen his father again. Not that he cared anymore.

He wanted to prove to himself and others that he wouldn't be another face in the crowd, another abandoned mouth to feed. That attitude had driven him to the Empire's service, and their training had tempered his anger with ambition. He made few friends and those he did make, he used as stepping stones in order to raise higher in rank. Any others in his way, he disposed of, one way or another.

*When Veid finds out about this fiasco*...he shut that thought out. He instead began to organize a plan in his mind, one that would get him the rewards he deserved and hopefully see the last of Commander Boraas Veid.


Darm's eyes followed those of the crowd, and rested squarely on the twenty members of the Council, streaming in a line from the room above and into their seats. The crowd remained standing.

The Leader stood up, in order to grab their attention. He needn't have bothered, since everyone's gaze was already focused on him.

"We have deliberated, and we have come to the conclusion that the girl, Cerrah Kipetk, was given an unjust sentence, one that did not match the crime she incurred against our people."

Darm didn't believe what he was hearing, at first. Then it dawned on him that the Council, while admitting it had made a mistake, wasn't lifting the accusation from Cerrah. What was going on?

"We have decided to give her a lighter sentence, one that is given in respect to her age, and in light of new evidence presented before us this morning. Therefore, she will be escorted back to the village, and placed in the custody of her parents on a trial basis. In the event of new occurrences, she will be placed in the Hall's correctional facility pending investigation and a hearing on whether to adjust her sentence. As for Darm Kipetk," Aileh looked distastefully at him, "His trial, and Cerrah's, for breach of exile is acquitted, due to the oversight of the Council. However, since Nila Kipetk withheld information from the first trial, she is charged with withholding evidence, and is sentenced to the standard 100 hours of community service. This court is adjourned." With that, the whole Council stood and filed back up the stairs, to change back into their normal clothes.

Rumbles and cheers swept through the crowd; some unhappy with the ruling, some overjoyed beyond belief. That last sentence was mere fluff for Nila; she already was doing community service--and loving every minute of it.

Darm grabbed Eirsa and swung her around with joy, his daughter squealing in delight. Cerrah was coming home! He looked at his wife, her face beaming with barely contained happiness. "We won." He said simply, and she echoed back, "Yes, we won," a smile still on her face as she kissed him passionately, amid the cheers of their friends and neighbors rejoicing over Darm's good fortune.


Shortly after the crowds had dispersed from the Hall, search parties were formed in order to locate and bring back Cerrah. Nila wanted to go as well, but Darm convinced her to stay and take care of the children, and also in case she came back on her own. His search party planned to go up the river, to him the likeliest route she would've followed from the town. The others wheeled out in other directions, most in the direction she was last seen headed.

By the time the groups were formed and their search area set, it was already late afternoon. Darm and a couple other parties swept the immediate area, but turned up nothing. The rain had washed away any tracks she would have left, and aside from a few broken stems, they could only form the most rudimentary of ideas as to where she could have headed. They returned, disappointed, but not without hope. The real search would begin at first light.


The search for Luke and Mara was not quite so lackadaisical. Lieutenant Covell took personal control over the search, and assembled a small strike force in a short matter of time. However, the antiquated machinery and communication equipment he'd requisitioned broke down constantly, taking hours to try and fix in the field. Finally, his patience ran thin and he ordered the technicians in charge to take the vehicles back to the city while they continued on foot. He hoped that the technicians would remember to send other transports when they arrived, but knowing them, he'd be lucky if they actually fixed the things.

The troops were in poor shape; they hardly made any distance at all before nightfall, and many were tempted to just head back to the city and wait for the repairs there. Covell was in a rage, though, and no one dared to cross him. For the rest of the troops, they knew that eventually they'd catch up with the fugitives. It was only a matter of time.


The descent down the slope wasn't as treacherous as Luke had feared. By nightfall, he and Mara had made it to the foothills and set up camp in a small forest along a wide river. Luke still had his backpack, so he pitched the tent and started fiddling with the transmitter/receiver, hoping to send a message to Coruscant that night.

Mara's eyes widened as she watched Luke with the transmitter. "Does that thing work?" She asked cautiously.

"Yeah. At least it did yesterday."

A concerned look crossed her face. "Aren't you afraid that they'd be able to home in on that? Wouldn't be too hard to do." Her eyes narrowed from the light of the camp's lantern.

"The Empire can't home in on the signal because you can't trace it to its source. The transmitter was designed that way. And," he continued, "I should be able to send information to Coruscant without attracting too much attention."

"Ah." Mara accepted the fact without much comment. Several minutes passed without a word spoken, and the silence between them grew until both Luke and Mara could feel it as a smothering presence that canceled out all attempts at conversation.

At last, Luke broke the silent wall between them. "I'm sorry."

"Luke, I thought we already had this conversation--"

"I shouldn't have asked you to come," he interrupted. "I needed help, and I really didn't think too far ahead. You could have been killed."

Mara rested her head on her hand, deciding to let the last comment drop. "Just out of curiosity, what *is* this all about, anyway?" Her voice having only the slightest edge of irritation. Learning to control her anger was one of the hardest things for her about using the Force, and she was determined to show she could do it.

"That's right, I haven't told you, have I?" He cleared his throat, more of a nervous reaction than anything else. "I've heard that there's a child who can control the Force, and he or she has developed pretty far, from what I've heard. The trader I talked to said the child was in a town called Gheas, about a day's walk from here, downriver. I would have sent one of my students to investigate, but I decided to go myself, thinking that it wouldn't keep me from Leia and her children for too long."

"Except now we've both landed on a planet controlled--albeit weakly--by the Empire." A thought came to her, spurred on by the last thing he had said. "They were on Yavin IV? I thought your sister was supposed to be at a summit meeting on Coruscant." She asked, confused.

"No. *I* was on Coruscant, actually. I'm...not really teaching anymore. Some of the graduates have decided to stay and teach, so I'm not needed there," he explained.

"So, what do you do all day? I can't picture you sitting around with nothing to do."

He smiled, "No, I guess you couldn't. Actually, I've been helping Leia with teaching my niece and nephews; now that they're getting older, they'll be needing more guidance. And, I've been looking for new students--though the only place I've had any luck is some dive that Han used to frequent. That's where I heard the rumor."

"Rumor? Wait a minute," Mara stood up. "You mean to tell me that I'm stuck on a planet crawling with Imperial leftovers because you decided to follow some rumor?!" The anger he sensed from her wasn't all that distant from the kind she used to harbor several years ago, when it was directed at him. Except now, it was aimed at many things; the Empire, their situation, him, and life in general.

Luke didn't blame her for being angry. In fact, he had been expecting this for awhile. "From what you just said, I take it that you no longer have the ship you came in with?" She nodded. "For what it's worth, my ship is still intact, but,..." he pointed back the way they had come. "'s in a canyon back that way."

"I see." Her anger drained away, pointless for the moment. "So, what do we do now?"

Luke stood up as well, trying to summon up courage enough to ask her to come with him...but one look from Mara told him what he wanted to know.

She was smiling, oddly enough. "You want me to go with you, to find this child? Considering my options, I really don't have a choice, do I?" She had wandered over until she stood only an arm's length away.

"I'm in."

Chapter 3

The morning dawned clear and bright, with a slight chill to the air that spoke of the coming autumn weather. Commander Boraas Veid breathed in the cool air from the window of his private quarters, the only thing that could soothe him in light of the Rebels' escape from the valley. A strange mixture of anger and sadness ran through him; Angry at the ineptitude of the soldiers and the quality of the equipment they had to work with, but also saddened by the sudden loss of purpose, of excitement. Having a solid enemy gave him a reason to live, an energy that didn't come when arguing over taxes or squelching riots.

Questioning the fugitives was his main priority, in order to substantiate the rumor he'd heard from the few traders that came this way. The Empire was strengthening again, slowly but surely. If it was true--the Empire was rising again--then he needed to make some decisions concerning the future. *His* future, to be precise. Would the new regime welcome as weak a link as his outpost? Did they even know it existed? All these thoughts burdened him, in addition to Brann Covell.

For now Covell was following orders, but he might take matters into his own hands and kill the Rebels for his own glory, and also to win the soldiers' support.

Veid got dressed for work and arrived in his office promptly, the messages and forms having piled up once again. This time, however, he felt a challenge and dug into his work enthusiastically, feeling an energy and a vitality he hadn't known for years.


Covell's strike force shuffled along at a sluggish pace, with most of the soldiers seeing the sun rise for the first time in many years. Having the Stormtroopers march was almost primitive, but for Covell, it was better than waiting in the valley and twiddling their thumbs. Besides, the Rebels would have to find transportation off the planet, since the Z-95 had been confiscated and the other ship was believed to be wrecked--though they had still to find its remains. More than likely, they would head for Gheas, the farming-trading town/outpost and spaceport along the Moras River, and try to find transportation off-planet there. The guards at Gheas had already been alerted to the fugitives' presence, and were prepared to stop anyone who seemed suspicious. They had a fairly good description of the woman, but a computer check turned up nothing; no warrants pending, not even a name. Their criminal database, however, was so old that no one was surprised when it failed to produce any leads. Meanwhile, the other Rebel was a complete mystery. It could be a man, a woman, or an alien--likely enough considering who they were dealing with. That one might get through the guards, but the red-haired woman would find it nearly impossible to slip through unnoticed, Covell smiled to himself. He became exultant with the prospect of elevating to the rank of Commander, and seeing Veid trembling at his feet, begging for mercy.


Luke and Mara had been walking along the riverbank for an hour by the time Covell got his troops moving. Both of them had sensed a large population--Gheas, most likely--several kilometers down the river. Luke estimated that they'd arrive outside the town just before sunset, hopefully in time to find some place to sleep.

"I'm surprised the Imperials haven't caught up to us already," Luke said absent-mindedly, speaking mainly to past the time. "I figured they were sloppy, but this is ridiculous!"

"You're right. We should be in a jail cell by now, or dead," Mara agreed. "They might be tracking us, though...or maybe setting an ambush up ahead. Either way, it seems that they're not too worried about us getting away, and that worries me."

Luke was about to turn and ask why, when he suddenly realized what she meant. As far as the Imperials knew, they had lost their ships and logically, the next place they would head to would be a spaceport, or a town with transportation to someplace with a spaceport...just like they were doing right now. "So, you think we're heading into a trap?" he asked with some concern.

Mara shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. It's possible that they really are this incompetent--the fact that we managed to get onto the planet at all is proof of that--but they could be hoping that we'd relax our guard and forget about them." She shifted her backpack to a more comfortable position, then continued on, "I think we'd better assume there's an ambush, or a trap."

"What they don't know is that we aren't planning to leave the planet just yet," Luke sounded slightly triumphant at the thought of that. "If there *is* a trap, it'll be mostly likely set at Gheas. If we head straight in, there's a good chance we'll be springing the trap,..."

"...But if we sneak in somehow, " Mara finished his thought, "we would have the upper hand. They'd never know we were there."

Luke stopped and waited for her to catch up. The look on his face was one of concentration and excitement, trying to figure out himself their best course of action."What do you think?" he asked her suddenly, but sincerely; if anyone knew what to expect from the Empire, it was she. Mara watched him for a second, and noticed that he was gazing at her with complete faith and respect, something that nearly startled her out of her train of thought. She recovered quickly, however, and began to give voice to some of her ideas, with the strongest first and the weakest last. After a few minutes of swapping ideas, they were on their way again--this time with a clearer plan in mind and their eyes fixed toward their destination.


Berries and dried meat weren't exactly Cerrah's opinion of the ideal breakfast, but she had been living on this and similar food for a while now, and all she cared about was stifling her hunger pains and surviving. She had spent the past day in her shelter, for fear of search parties coming after her in order to carry out the sentence. Her heart was sick at the thought that they might punish her family instead of her, even though she was the guilty one. Most of the hours had been spent agonizing over the consequences of being discovered. *What if they kill Father instead of me? What will happen to Mother, Issik, Lyrie and dear Eirsa?* She wondered over and over again, torturing herself with the possibilities.

This morning, however, had brought no sign of anyone, and Cerrah had ventured out in the direction of her next home--a small house abandoned long ago, when the Empire had come and sought to kill any aliens it could find. It had been set by the waterfall, taking advantage of the calming and peaceful effect of the rushing water. Today, its soothing sound did nothing to ease the turmoil in her.

The house was used occasionally by the people of the village, so it wasn't run-down or in disrepair. Flowering bushes and vines shrouded most of the adobe exterior and its windows as well--mostly for the privacy of the newlyweds who'd come to stay there. The small garden had been reclaimed by the jungle, as had most of the shrubbery that had made up the lawn. The stone walkways still existed, as did the rock wall...but little else. No one had visited the cottage for several months, and that only to trim back the overgrowth and check the house for damage. It was the perfect living space for a girl on her own, and in her mind she'd claimed it as hers.

The sun was high overhead by the time she reached the house. Cerrah quickly fixed lunch; more dried meat and some nuts she stashed in the cupboard. As she ate, she mulled over her future--wondering if she had one to start with, first. *They'll probably come after me soon. But until then, what do I do? Should I give myself up? What's the right thing to do?* She worried, wishing that the answers to her questions would come to her, but they didn't.

Frustrated, she finished the last of her meager lunch and decided to rest awhile before moving on. She poked her head out one of the heavily covered windows to gaze at the numbing tranquility of the waterfall. She was so engaged by it that she almost didn't sense the presence of a large group of people heading her way--the search party she'd just been thinking about, no doubt. Cerrah didn't take time to scan too deeply into the crowd, but she did sense a familiar presence, though now was not the best time for investigating. She grabbed her things and left, running as fast as she could toward the farthest, and least visited, of her shelters. She'd been hoping she wouldn't have to go back there, but if they were hunting her down, the only place she would be safe was the area surrounding the Scryth lake.


The river flowed past lazily, its calming gurgle ignored by the search party's leader, Darm Kipetk. He squinted from the glare of the noonday sun reflecting off the water ahead, trying to get a glimpse of what lay upriver. The rest of the twelve men fanned out from either side of the river, hoping to find some clue or trail that his daughter may have left behind. So far, however, the group had found nothing.

It wasn't long until he heard the roar of the waterfall in the distance, and decided that spot was as good as any to stop and regroup. He called out for the men to head toward the waterfall, and heard the echoing cries of his call taken up by the others.

Soon, the group was gathered at the cottage, reporting to the rest of the party what they had found. One of them was suspicious of some bushes with large amounts of berries missing from their branches, but the tracks he'd found were from many different animals, and it was hard to distinguish one from the others. Otherwise, no one had found anything suggesting that a young girl was living nearby.

Slightly dismayed, Darm and the rest decided to take a break to eat. Darm went into the house, looking for some more dry rations. As soon as he entered, he noticed that while it looked normal from the outside, the inside of the cottage was...different. The dust that should've been on the table in the kitchen was absent, and the air inside had the faint tinge of sweat and some sort of food smell, as if someone had eaten in there recently. He looked at the floor, and saw dirt--fresh dirt--scattered from the entryway to the kitchen. Had one of the men gone inside before he'd gotten there? He walked back outside and watched as the search group took food from the bags they'd brought with them, and sat down to eat by the waterfall.

He walked over to them, and tried to raise his voice over that of the waterfall. "Has anyone gone inside the cottage yet?" He yelled.

"What?" An older man close to him asked, narrowing his gaze.

"I said, has anyone been in the cottage yet?!" He yelled louder.

The men all looked at each other, a ragged assortment of middle-aged to elderly men, with a couple of younger men included. Some shook their head, while the others voiced their denial. Darm frowned, then went back, followed by Jeth Kol, who had joined Darm's party.

"What's wrong?" Jeth asked, when he caught up with Darm at the door of the house.

"Someone's been in there--recently." He emphasized the last word. "It could have been Cerrah."

Jeth's eyes widened. "Do you really think so?"

Darm smiled tightly, "Only one way to find out." He opened the door again and went inside, this time followed by Jeth. They scoured the inside, looking for any proof that she, specifically, had been there. They found the food supply severely depleted, and the bed slept in. The lack of dust indicated that someone had been inside, and had probably been living there for quite awhile.

"She was here." Darm finally surmised, after they had checked the house thoroughly. Nothing solid had been found, but Cerrah was the only one he knew of that would use this cabin.

"You're sure?" Jeth asked hesitantly. By now, the rest of the group had noticed the noise coming from the house and had come to investigate. They stood outside, waiting for Darm and Jeth.

"Yes. It took me awhile, but I recognize her handiwork in all this," his hand swept over the interior of the cottage. His spirits were at an all-time high, excited at finding some trace of his daughter. "And we're so close! She can't be more than a few hours ahead of us, at least."

"She might think we're hunting her down, you know," his friend mentioned ominously. "We don't want to chase her right into the arms of what we're trying to get her away from."

Darm nodded solemnly. "The Scryth."


The command center was deep in the core of the base, sheltered by the thick armor casings and the outer walls of the complex. It was built during the time when the Empire was prosperous and expanding, before the Rebel Alliance was formed and before the Empire had begun to abandon some of the less lucrative planets. Boraas Veid vividly remembered the times when he had enthusiastically served the Empire, following its doctrines to the letter and savoring the day when he would harvest his rewards. That day had never come, however, and the thought of ending his career sounded sweeter and sweeter every day.

He sat in a chair overlooking the main floor, figures of personnel moving silently and lethargically through the day. The only exciting area to be in was Maintenance, where the techs were working non-stop to get the transports and other miscellaneous items repaired and out to the troops waiting for them. The person normally in charge of over-seeing Maintenance was now in a holding cell, awaiting his punishment. Sloppiness was a well established fact for the Imperials here, but having equipment in such a state of disrepair was inexcusable. Unfortunately, being isolated from the Empire proper didn't help much either. It didn't matter how much they taxed the populace; Imperial credits were worthless on the open market, and so few traders and smugglers came their way. They had precious few items that weren't completely outdated or worn out, and the resources on the planet had long since dried out. It was a miracle that the Empire hadn't already been overthrown. The elderly commander sighed, *I wonder if it wouldn't be better if we just handed the keys over to the mayor and said, "It's all yours!"*

He rubbed his eyes, his vision starting to blur again. *I have to get down to the Med Center and get my eyes checked--in secret, of course. If Covell found out I visited a doctor, any doctor, he'd tally that up in his long list of reasons why I should be relieved of command.*

Veid stood up and walked slowly over to one of his aides, who was busy debriefing one of the tactical officers. "Have they found any sign of the other Rebel's ship yet, Haskins?" he asked, exasperated.

An anemic-looking man turned to face him, his weak eyes squinting in focus. His uniform nearly hung off his shoulders, and his cap concealed most of his bristle-cut brown hair. "No sign yet, Commander. We should find something soon."

"That's what you said yesterday! I could get more done by going out into the field and doing it myself," he muttered, frustrated with the whole process.

"Sir, there are still several thousand kilometers of canyon to be combed over. I'm sure it will be found. It's only a matter of time." The younger man's voice and demeanor was implacable, even in the face of wrath from his superior officer. It was one of the reasons Veid had chosen him.

"I wish I had your faith, Haskins. I've lived too long and seen too much to put much hope in anything."

The aide wisely said nothing. What had promised to be an event-filled day for not only the Commander, but also for the Imperial troops, had turned out to be less than they had hoped for. Naturally, the mood in the room had become more and more somber, until most of the enthusiasm had been nullified.

"How long until the transports are fixed?" Veid asked, hoping the answer wouldn't be too bad.

Haskins shook his head. "It's not looking good, sir. Every time the mechanics start to fix one problem, another crops up to replace the first. Obviously, the transports haven't been properly maintenanced, even though the Chief of Maintenance approved their checks." The young man leaned towards Veid and said, in a half-whisper, "It seems we have some serious corruption to take care of."

Veid looked at him in astonishment, then murmured back, "You don't know the half of it, Haskins." His gaze swept across the vast room, people moving from one area to the next in a pointless cycle. The expression on his face was morose. "You just don't know the half of it."

"Sir?" The aide replied, confused. He was too young to understand the way the system worked, was too naive about the workings going on under his own nose. The Commander longed to have that naivete again.

"I'll explain later. For now, I want you to contact Gheas and have them send transports out to get Covell's troops. Theirs aren't in much better shape than ours, but at least they'll run. I hope."


"And," Veid added in afterthought, "send a bulletin out to the farmers in the area, stating that two suspected murderers have fled the authorities and are rumored to be heading for Gheas. No one should try to approach them, and should report any sightings to the nearest Imperial soldier or base. Make sure the description of the woman is included."

"Yes sir. Is that all?"

"Yes. I'm sure you can come up with a few embellishments. You're dismissed."

"Of course. I'll get right on it." Haskins saluted, and turned crisply towards Communications. The tactical officer was still standing there, waiting for orders.

"Why don't you just write out a report and leave it with Haskins? I'll get to it when I can."

"Yes, Commander," he barked out, then turned and left. Veid remained standing until the man was gone, then walked back to his chair and sat there for most of the day, answering the occasional inquiries, comments and concerns. And wondering the whole time was it must feel like to be Rebel being hunted down by Imperial forces.


Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker were experiencing that feeling right now, as they trekked through the last of the forest and into the surrounding prairie. In the distance, Mara could see the homesteads of farmers, and heard the weak sound of running farm equipment coming from the complex closest to them. The presence of the land, however, was overshadowed by that gnawing feeling of pursuit.

The river flowed past them to the left, and as they followed it, it grew wider and deeper--and visibly harder to cross. Along the horizon they spotted the town they were heading for, jutting up into the sky in contrast with the softly rolling hills surrounding it. On the other side--their side--of the river, there were ferries for crossing over to the town, probably set up for the farmers and the crops they had passed.

Soon enough, they were within sight of the small complex; not much more than a handful of buildings that had seen better days, and a dock for the boats. Luke's cloak was fastened around Mara's neck, with the hood drawn up to hide her red hair. Luke was already suppressing the people's curiosity--very similar to what Mara had seen before, but with much more polish; something that had taken years to perfect. He still had some qualms about altering the people's perceptions, but it was necessary in order to keep the guards from recognizing Mara, and none of their other ideas'd had the chance of successfully passing by the guards as this one did.

Luke could already feel the curiosity building in one of the people, and soon he saw which one of them it was. The man had a pair of macrobinoculars up to his eyes, getting a good look at them while Luke relied on his enhanced vision to sum up the complex and their watchman. The watchman wasn't concerned or alarmed at the strangers, just curious--a good sign, so far. This meant it would be easier to persuade the guards that they were nothing more than a visiting farm couple.

After another minute of walking, Luke decided they were close enough to the small dock to give a friendly wave to the watchman--as if he had just now seen the man in the distance. The man waved back, and started back into the cluster of buildings.

"What did you do that for?" Mara asked harshly, "We're supposed to be keeping a low profile, not shouting to everyone that we're here!"

"Crops may differ, but farm folk are the same wherever you go. If I hadn't waved to him, he might've thought I had something to hide." He started to smile. "And here I thought you knew everything there was to know about blending in!"

He couldn't see her face, but her mood had suddenly become sullen. "I never had much opportunity to hang around farmers...or much use, for that matter. Please accept my most humble apologies for not being perfect!" Her voice had a mocking tone.

Her response took him aback. What was all this about? "I was just ribbing you, Mara. Don't be so defensive."

This time she turned and looked directly at him. He had expected the mild anger and irritation in her eyes, but not the sadness and loneliness he also saw reflected there. "'Don't be so defensive?' I've lived most of my life on the defensive, farmer. This is the way I was trained to live, to be,..." she paused, trying to find the right word, "...I don't know, professional. Suspicious. Cautious. Maybe even impersonal." She stopped talking, and looked back towards the horizon. He thought she'd finished all she was going to say, until she suddenly blurted out, "I envy you, y'know."

"What for?" He wondered, truly curious now.

"You have a family, friends, a purpose in life. I don't have any of that."

"What about Karrde, and your employees? And Lando?"

Mara smirked at the list he'd made. "Karrde and I are 'business' friends. We talk about business, nothing else--and I doubt my employees see me as their friend. Lando...wasn't anyone important to me, at least not in the way it should be. It was more about business than anything." Her mood grew more somber.

"You know you're always welcome on Yavin IV," he offered.

"I know, and I've been thinking about it more and more lately. I'm still not sure though." A faint smile appeared on her face, "I noticed you didn't list yourself as one of my friends. So then, what am I to you?" She wore an amused expression, but her tone was deadly serious. It was more than an idle comment.

"I thought I was your friend. Aren't I?" He asked, half-joking, half-serious.

"I was hoping you were." She paused for a second, then continued. "Isn't it pathetic that you're my only friend in the whole galaxy?" She commented, trying to sound light-hearted, but not succeeding.

"I think you have more friends than you know," Luke replied, marveling at fully seeing a side of her that he'd only glimpsed before. She was craving a way of life that was the opposite of everything she had learned; Closeness, friendship, trust, love....

He tried to probe a little deeper, but she had put the walls up again. Not as impenetrable as before, and probably more out of reflex than anything. Behind those walls, however, there was a sensitive, caring person who wanted nothing more than to love and be loved. Until she took down her defenses, however, she wasn't going to be let out.

*Maybe someday,* Luke thought. He didn't get much more time to ponder over it, because they were already reaching the small outpost. He focused on blunting the people's curiosity and having them believe what he wanted them to believe.

"Hello there, strangers!" the watchman called out, a man closer to middle age than youth. He looked and acted more like someone who'd be tending to the fields rather than someone guarding an outpost. His blaster was holstered--a positive sign--and the rest of the guards and boatmen were hanging around, not very concerned about their visitors. "Going into town?"

"Yep. We're from the east. Hopefully, we'll be able to sell some land in the marketplace." Luke tried not to offer too much information, but he didn't want to appear secretive, either.

"You'll be needin' a boat then. Come with me." The watchman started off in the direction of the river, Luke and Mara right behind him. Mara stole a glance at Luke, but his concentration was focused solely on the man ahead and the surrounding people.

"Y'know, I don't think I've seen you before," the man essayed.

"I don't think I've seen you before, either," Luke replied back.

The guard chuckled, "Well, that's something we agree on! They've got us on the lookout for these two people, one's a woman and the other--well, it could be an alien, for all we know, but that's not likely--anyway, it seems they're murderers on the run, coming from the east." The tone in his voice sounded suspicious, despite Luke's efforts. "The woman's a redhead, and a looker too, according to the description."

They arrived shortly at the dock, a few boats waiting patiently there for them to come aboard. Their guard turned and looked directly at Mara. "If you wouldn't mind ma'am, I'd appreciate it if you'd pull the hood down."

Mara glanced at Luke, but his demeanor was calm and passive; if they were going to be discovered, it wasn't going to be here. She took the hood down, and to the eyes of the watchman and people nearby, she appeared to be a lovely woman with long brown hair and deep brown eyes. The man smiled, "I didn't think you were them, but I had to know for sure. Good luck!" With that, he went back to his post.

When he was out of earshot, Mara whispered to Luke, more than a trifle curious, "What did he see?"

"My sister," he replied offhandedly.

She grimaced. "Great. And what does he think you look like?" Her voice had a hint of sarcasm.

"Hopefully, he won't think I look like anyone in particular. I was trying to make myself appear as average as possible."

She threw a look over her shoulder, but everyone seemed to be ignoring them now. "It didn't seem like you were trying very hard, but it worked, anyway. Shall we go?"

"After you." He bowed slightly, and gestured in the direction of the nearest boat.

Soon they were fording across the river and heading directly into their next obstacle, a much bigger task than just shifting around someone's curiosity. This time, Luke was going to have to directly manipulate the guards' minds--a thought that gnawed at his conscience and had him thinking about that dark presence he'd sensed in the forest to the west, and wondering if he'd arrived too late.


The sun was already beginning its slow descent into the horizon by the time Cerrah reached her last hideout. Her mother had told her of it, but had forbade her from ever going near it, fearing that she might be consumed by the evil living nearby. It had been awhile since she'd been back this way, and the memories began to play back in her head. She squelched them, however; staying alive was more important than reminiscing.

To the untrained eye, the small hill she was heading for was nothing to look twice at. However, the shape it made was rather unusual, and was the only reason Cerrah had been able to find it in the first place. The overgrowth had already begun its slow creep over the entrance she'd cleared off, determined to obliterate any sign of the shelter. She took a second to check for any signs that might have indicated someone had discovered the place, but all she could find were the tracks of the local animal life. Satisfied, she went to the door and pushed away some of the growth, revealing a small, square control panel that shone dimly in the filtered light. It opened with some effort, and behind it lay a series of buttons and a display. She typed in the proper code her mother had told her, and the door popped open. She pushed it over enough to let herself through, the door's hinges straining the whole way.

The main computer no longer worked, but the manual systems and back-up computer did, making it easier for her to live in the buried spaceship. A light dust had settled on everything, making the interior that less inviting. She flipped on the lights, and heard the faint whir of the backup generators working, though how they had managed to survive thirty or so years without being used mystified her completely. From her experience in the humans' town, she was aware that little--if anything--worked properly on this planet.

Everything in the ship was just the way she had left it. Mud that she'd tracked in had dried to a fine powder and the various objects that had fascinated her before lay on the floor, forgotten. The interior of the ship looked more like a house, really, with console panels holding knickknacks and deactivated holo-pictures, and the occasional toy hidden behind a piece of crudely made furniture. It had all the ambience of a temporary shelter, turned into a permanent one.

Her eyes focused on the book lying on top of a makeshift desk, a tome she hadn't noticed the last time she was here. The writing on the cover was familiar, but incomprehensible; it was in Basic, but much more complex than anything she had learned to decipher while in the humans' town. Its cover was ornately gilded, with carefully worn-down edges and a spine in disrepair. Flipping through the pages revealed little else about the content of the book, except for the fact that all the words were handwritten--a shocking concept for even the most tradition-minded of humans. Obviously, whoever wrote in these pages didn't want anyone else to get a copy. The idea piqued her interest, but now was not the time to investigate old books. She put it aside, but made a mental note to take a better look at it later.

Her mother had lived here with her parents. Nila didn't like to talk about it, but when pressed, she would tell stories about her family and what her life was like--before the dark times fell. Fleeing for their lives, they had found this small planet...not yet inhabited by Imperial troops. Her family had made the ship their new home, and they were happy. For a while, at least.

Cerrah didn't know the exact details of what happened, but the fact that the Scryth was involved didn't need much explaining. Everyone knew what would happen if you got too close to the lake. She could feel the chill, now, even from a considerable distance. The reason why she hadn't come back to this place echoed in her brain. How could she be so foolish to come back here? The evil, taunting voices would be back, she was certain, and the impulses as well. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to stay that long. *In a few days I'll be able to leave*, she told herself repeatedly. *Just a few more days.*

And the Scryth laughed in delight.


He heard the whine of a repulsor-lift coming from the direction he and his men were heading. Lieutenant Covell lifted macro-binocs to his eyes, but it was unnecessary; several of the men were already pointing towards the horizon at the growing specks. In a minute or two, the transports would meet them and take them to Gheas, only a short ride through the farmland. Even though he was happy they were coming, he scowled at the thought of his troops being in this predicament in the first place. The fugitives would have been secured in an Imperial detention cell several hours ago if everything hadn't been so disorganized and sloppy.

An idea struck him just then; the commander was the one who oversaw the base and its neighboring garrisons...if he could just tie this into Veid somehow, making him look like the slovenly, unconcerned leader that Covell wanted everyone to believe, it would make his work that much easier. Suddenly the situation didn't seem so dire. Veid would take the fall for this fiasco, and Covell would come out clean, with his pursuit--and capture--of the Rebels capturing the troops' attention.

The transports set down not far from where he and his Stormtroopers had stopped. He shouted for everyone to hop aboard, and in a minute they were up and heading back towards the spaceport. He asked the transports' leader if there had been any news on the criminals, but when the leader barked a laugh and asked, "Which ones?", he began to seriously doubt whether anyone was taking this in hand.

"The fugitives from Yualpe," he clarified. "Have you heard anything?"

"Not as yet. It'd be hard for two strangers to not be noticed in this country, though. I'm sure one of the locals saw something, but they're not sure what it was they saw."

"I see." This wasn't going to make it any easier. "You've set up checkpoints and patrols, I assume?"

"Well...we've got a checkpoint set up outside the city's gates, and the civilians have an outpost on the opposite side of the river. The patrols left early this morning, searching the road to Yualpe and the area around it, but we didn't find any sign of them."

Covell wanted to throttle the man. "You didn't check along the river, to the north?" He asked angrily.

The leader barely stuttered out a negative. "We were told that the Rebels were coming from Yualpe! The Moras River comes out of the mountains. Why would they be there?"

"They escaped by way of the mountains! Didn't anyone tell you that?!"

The man was stunned. "No. No one told me."

"Then they must be all the way to Gheas by now. No matter," Covell waved his hand dismissively. "The guards there will surely catch them.

"And if they don't, then I *will*."

Chapter 4

The afternoon sun peeked ever so often through the treetops, its light dotting the path before the search party. Darm Kipetk and the other men were following the trail left by his daughter, Cerrah, with hopes that she wasn't too far ahead.

Jeth Kol looked up, past the leaves and branches to the sun and its position. He grimaced, then called for all the men to halt. Darm turned toward his friend, mild annoyance reflected on his face.

"What's the meaning of this, Jeth? We can't afford to wait any time, not when she's so close to being found!"

Jeth took a deep breath. This wouldn't be easy, but facts were facts. Hopefully, Darm would be able to see that. "We have to start back now, if we want to get back to the village before it gets too dark." Darm started to raise his voice in argument, but Jeth cut him off, "Look, in order to track her, we're going to need more supplies and weapons than we have now, plus--" he added carefully, "we're going to need your wife."

"Nila? Why?"

"Jedi can sense other Jedi, can't they? Obviously Cerrah thinks we're hunting her down, or else she wouldn't be running away. If she could sense her mother in the party, I think she'd want to find out why, at least." He caught Darm's hesitance; not surprising, considering how close they'd come. But if Jeth could see the logic in it, so could Darm.

"All right. Let's go," Darm said, gesturing back the way they'd come. As the men started back, he caught up to Jeth and said under his breath, "I just hope you're right about this."

Jeth's face tightened with concern. "So do I."


The walls of the small town rose in front of Luke and Mara, a dull pale ochre Plexisteel face that towered 10 meters above the river. The surrounding area was mostly farmland, but with a denser population nearer to the town. The entrance was only a short distance in front of them, a half-elliptical portal barred only by a handful of Stormtroopers. Most of the people going through the entrance were leaving, but Luke could see a merchant being checked out by one of the soldiers, who was going through the man's identification. *This might be a little trickier than I thought,* he worried. The only identification both of them had was their New Republic ID's--not the sort of thing you wanted to show to an Imperial agent. He knew he could get through it easily enough, but he continued to worry about the consequences if their plan should fail.

Mara tightened her grip on his hand as they came up to the gateway. "All set?" she whispered. He nodded an affirmative, and she seemed to relax, ready to play her part.

The four soldiers were standing in place listlessly, tired of their duty already. The one who'd cleared the previous citizen now stood in a defensive stance, "Going into town?" he asked.

"Yes. We were planning on selling some of our land, and then staying overnight."

"I see. And your identification...?" he prompted, holding out his hand.

Luke took a deep breath. "You won't need to see our identification," he said calmly.

After a slight pause, the stormtrooper replied, "We don't need to see their identification." The rest showed no reaction.

"We can move on."

"You can move on," the soldier mimicked, waving them through. The other soldiers looked just the same as before. As far as they were concerned, this had been a routine check with no hassles.

They walked on a bit more, before stopping to see if anyone was curious or suspicious, but they didn't find anything. "Can I breathe now?" Mara asked wryly. "I was sure it was going to be harder than that."

"Easy for *you*, maybe," Luke retorted, nervous sweat running down the side of his face. "I know it wasn't easy for *me*."

"For a powerful Jedi Master like you?" She smiled, "I'm sure you could've had them not even see us."

"It's not that. It's just...." He furrowed his brow, "...I don't take manipulating minds lightly. I can't afford to. I don't want to turn into Joruus C'baoth, or the Emperor--convinced that what I'm doing is perfectly acceptable, and ignoring the effects it has on me, and the ones I'm manipulating."

Mara mulled that over. "I think I understand. The actions we take also reflect back on us, so if we do something that crosses the line from good to the Dark Side, then that evil will effect us back?"

"That's what I'm assuming. Although there's a good chance I'm wrong about that. It's frustrating. I feel like I've got pieces to a puzzle, and I can only make a couple of them fit together."

"You have enough pieces for now, at least. Besides, what's the fun in knowing everything when you need to know it? I've had to learn a lot of hard lessons without the help of some ancient tomes telling me how to solve my problems."

"True enough," he smiled. He turned to look ahead of him, taking in the atmosphere of the marketplace. It was relatively clean, compared to some of the run-down areas he'd been in. All the signs were in Basic, but appeared to be a simplified form, using only the easiest words possible and ofttimes formed incorrectly. All the items for sale in the marketplace seemed common enough...until he realized that the food being sold was the exact same thing they had walked past yesterday and today in the fields. There was nothing particularly exotic or foreign about anything.

"Mara," Luke said, trying to catch her attention.

"Hmm? What?"

"Did you notice anything different about what the vendors are selling?"

She looked around and shrugged. "Seems normal to me." She continued to look, when suddenly a frown crossed her face and she said, "A little *too* normal. Is that what you're talking about?"

"Yes. These people must be isolated from the normal trade routes." A concerned look crossed his face. "I know the trader I talked to said that *this* was the town the child was in."

"Traders usually frequent the same bars in a town or city," she said knowingly. "If we can find theirs, we'll probably be in the same bar that the kid was performing in."

"It's worth a try, at least." He looked up at the sky, which was deepening in color already, as the light continued to fade into the west. "I think, though, that we'd better find a place to stay before we go bar-hopping."


Finding a place to stay wasn't too hard; most of the hotels were clearly labeled and fiercely competitive with their prices. However, how they were going to pay was a problem. Did these people use Imperial credits only, or did they have an entirely different system? Mara had some of the new Imperial credits, and they decided to chance it and ask if they could the coins as payment. Luckily for them, the innkeeper accepted the money, though he was hesitant about it. He eyed them warily as he held the coin in his hand, asking how they'd managed to get their hands on this kind of money.

"We traded some of our wares for some spices. Unfortunately, this was all he had to pay the difference with." Mara lied smoothly.

The thin man took a good look at her, trying to tell if she was speaking the truth or not. "And what were these wares, madam?"

"Mostly fabric, woven by myself. We also had some metalwork and antique jewelry that we had to part with. Spices are more profitable than fabric, you know," she confided, playing the role enthusiastically.

The innkeeper nodded sagely, "Yes, yes, that's true." He smiled then, content with the story and ready to continue on with their business. "I assume you'll be wanting a single room, then?"

Mara nearly started, but Luke quickly jumped in, covering over her reaction. "We'd like adjoining rooms, if you can manage it."

"Of course." The thin man smiled again, weaker this time. The bill was figured out and paid, and the two of them went up to their rooms.

The rooms were standard, but comfortable enough. The communicational system was several years old, maybe even decades old, and the decor had been fashionable once, but its era was long past now. His window, like Mara's, faced out into the street, only a story below them. Luke opened the door between their rooms, and noticed Mara fiddling with a panel below her window while an annoying, buzzing sound reached his ears. "What *is* that?" He asked out loud.

"Lovely, isn't it? I think it's coming from this panel." She turned a knob, and the sound transformed itself into a shrill whistle. "Yeah, it's coming from here all right," she grimaced, turning it back the other way.

"Looks like the temperature controls to the room. We should call the manager and have him fix it," Luke offered.

She stood up, and gave a stern glare to the offending machinery. "I've got a better idea," she bent over and twisted the knob back the other way until she heard a click, and the sound seemed to sigh as it died away. She smiled at the presence of silence. "Problem solved!" She announced triumphantly.

"Turning it off won't keep the room warm," Luke reasoned.

"True, but it will keep my sanity. Are you ready to go?" She asked as she fastened the cloak back around her neck.

"More than ready," he replied, already walking to the door. "The sooner we find this Force-sensitive child, the better."

Mara nodded in agreement, and followed him out the door, into the approaching twilight and the town's seedy nightlife.


The sun was beginning to set by the time Lieutenant Covell arrived at Gheas. He was frustrated by the incompetence of his soldiers, and the fact that his quarry had eluded him so far. When he reported in to the town's commanding officer, he found that the guards posted at the east and west entrances hadn't discovered any redheaded females without identification--or anyone else suspicious, either. He asked to see the surveillance video of both the entrances, confident that he'd find something. The commanding officer didn't feel the same way, however.

"I can't possibly fathom how looking at surveillance footage is going to find these criminals!" The lieutenant commander questioned, his face already deepening in color.

Covell's patience was wearing thin. He'd listened to this blathering fool for twenty minutes now, and every minute wasted was another minute that the Rebels gained. Yelling at this pompous idiot wouldn't get him any closer to the video copy. "Farrst, all I want is the footage. If you don't give it to me, I'll have you arrested for impeding an Imperial investigation authorized by Commander Veid himself." He tried not to smirk. He wanted this fool to sweat a little.

Farrst squinted at him, "Veid, hmm? Well, if you're determined to waste your time watching surveillance tapes, I guess I can't stop you," the man relented.

Thirty minutes later, he was still scanning through the video footage, trying to find something worthwhile. He started to think that maybe he'd been wrong, when one of the peasants caught his eye. A woman, he'd hazard a guess, wearing a black cloak escorted by a man in his thirties or so, thin, with blond hair. He couldn't see her face because of the hood, and almost thought to dismiss it, until he noticed that the trooper hadn't taken any identification. He'd just waved them on, and no one else seemed concerned in the least. He checked the registration report and saw that they hadn't been registered at all. It had to be them...but how had they gotten through? He pondered over this for a minute, and then a horrible possibility reared its head. The outlaws had lightsabers, and had somehow gotten past the guards without any violence, which led to his next thought....

Mind manipulation.

*They're Jedi, even though all the Jedi are supposed to have been eradicated. Well,* he thought, amused, *I guess it's up to me to finish the job.* They might have mystical powers on their side, but they were on his turf, playing his odds. As far as he was concerned, they'd just walked into his hands.


The dim light coming through the trees gave an anemic pallor to the foliage around the buried ship, dampening Cerrah's spirits even further. Night was about to fall, and she knew that tonight she would not be having blissful dreams.

She ate a short meal scrounged from what she could find in the forest and what she had left in her pack. Food was running low again, meaning she'd have to find somewhere else to stay soon. For the moment she was alright, but she was glad to know that she'd have to leave this place eventually.

The soft bed was a welcome sight after spending several days at a time on cold hard ground. Cerrah was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Suddenly she was standing next to the lake, wearing a nice clean dress she would've worn when she lived in the village. It wasn't either night or day, but rather an inbetween haze that signalled to her vaguely that this was a dream; She ignored the warning. The surface of the lake was deathly still, mirroring the gnarled trees facing her on the opposite shore. She knew she shouldn't be here, but all thoughts of the outside world were fleeting and intangible.

A cold blue light appeared over the lake, and she instantly knew what it was. *The Scryth,* Cerrah thought ominously, having briefly encountered this being before, if one could call it that.

-You have come back to us,- the Scryth whispered joyfully in her mind, sending a chill down her spine. -We have been waiting for you.-

The sound of its voice horrified her again, like it did many months ago when she had first encountered it. It sounded like several people talking at once, both male and female, in a way that had made her wonder if the Scryth were actually a "they" rather than an "it". Asking which it might be sounded like a good idea to her.

"What are you? Are you one creature, or several?" She heard herself ask shakily.

-We are several. But, we are not creatures. We were alive once,- the Scryth answered sorrowfully, the word "once" echoing in her head. The sorrow was meant to evoke her sympathy, but she wasn't falling for it. "Why aren't you dead?" It amazed her that she hadn't thought to ask these questions before. *I must have been too scared to.*

-These questions bore us,- it said dismissively, waving the query to the side. -Have you come to join us? We will teach you everything you need to know. We will help you defeat your enemies.-

"But, I don't have any enemies," she responded weakly, her resolve fading.

-Those who called you their friend betrayed you, exiled you...even now they are hunting after you, isn't that right? Your family left you to their mercy,- it spoke bitterly, -It's only right that you pay them back accordingly.-

"My family loves me!" Cerrah cried, fighting against its words. She knew it was supposed to be evil, but it spoke the truth. She had been exiled, and now the villagers wanted her life as well.

-We can help you fight back-, the Scryth mewed, the words dripping like honey from its vaporous mouth. -Join us, and we will show you power beyond even your mother's grasp.-

"Leave me alone!" She yelled, trying to force the Scryth's presence from her mind. It laughed at her efforts, feeding off of her fear and rage. -You cannot defeat us that easily.- Its imperious tone changed into one of sympathy, -However, we do not need to be enemies. Eventually, you will see the wisdom in our words. Even now, another person--a human--comes after you with the same intent of the villagers.-

"Who is this human? Is he from Gheas?" She pleaded, worried that her dalliance in the humans' town would bring destruction to her and her family, though in the back of her mind she held no sympathy for the rest of the village's fate.

The Scryth laughed, and replied, -We will be back.- Then it was gone, and the scenery around her began to fade. "Wait!" She cried out, and she awoke to find herself sitting up in bed, her arms stretched out helplessly. Drained from the encounter, she fell back into the bed, her head hitting the pillow limply. She felt completely alone and abandoned, and would've cried if she had the energy left. Instead, she fell back asleep, with tears managing to roll down her cheeks before she lost consciousness.


The last of the light was fading into a deep blue by the time Darm Kipetk, Jeth Kol and the rest of the search party stumbled into the Hall. The rest of the parties were already there, ready to share any information they had gathered. Nila was also there, waiting for Darm to make a triumphant return with Cerrah. When he saw the look on her face at seeing him alone, it was enough to make him go back into the forest and not leave without their daughter.

She started to walk towards him, but he rushed to meet her halfway, embracing her as tightly as he could. They both leaned on each other for support. "You didn't find her," Nila managed to say. It was a statement, not a question.

"No. Not exactly," Darm said. "We were so close! But, she kept running away from us. She must have thought we were after her."

"Can't blame her, after everything we've put her through." She pulled back, trying to get a hold on her emotions. She was trying to think rationally, but her worst fears were beginning to creep up on her. "For all we know, she might be already under its', or their, influence."

"We don't know that," he said sincerely. "She's a smart girl. She knows that thing out there is evil and she'll stay away from it, like we told her to."

She smiled wanly. If only it were that easy to keep children out of trouble or danger...just tell them to not do it. "I have to go out there, Darm. She'll recognize me. I know she will."

He nodded, "I know. If Jeth hadn't been as level-headed as he was, we might still be searching out there. I know I still would be."

She didn't doubt that for a second. They turned back toward the meeting that was just beginning to start, hoping that tomorrow would prove more fruitful than today had been.


The nightlife of Gheas was about the same as any other place you'd find on the Outer Rim; lazy and under-handed. Projecting the image of a married couple in this type of environment didn't seem like a good idea, so Luke went with presenting themselves as traders looking for entertainment. This way, it would be easier to find the sort of bar that they were searching for.

After hopping around from bar to bar, and making several inquiries to various people, Luke and Mara finally found the tavern; Travelers' Oasis. Lit with outrageously flamboyant colors and boasting of the best entertainment anywhere, it beckoned to passers-by, hoping to ensnare someone and his credits.

"Looks like the place," Luke said, to no one in particular.

"Yeah, tacky as you can get," Mara commented disdainfully.

Luke just shrugged, and they went inside. As much as the exterior had been bright, the interior was dark and smoky, shadowing customers and their dealings. In the back of the room, a few people played Sabacc and a couple other games while in center stage, an unremarkable woman sang an old love song about the pain of loneliness. Almost drowning out the song was the constant sound of conversation, as the patrons ignored her crooning. The bartender looked to be an average-looking woman with short brown hair and a pale complexion; the color suggesting she'd been ill for some time. Weaving past tables and chairs, they made their way to the back, Mara taking the lead. She was in her element now, and she knew how to get the type of answers they wanted.

As they approached, one of the gamers let out a small cheer as he laid down his winning card. The rest growled in disgust as he collected the credits, smiling greedily the whole time.

Mara shook her head at the display, knowing that the winner hadn't won by skill, but luck. He couldn't have been much older than his early twenties, and the crowd he'd just taken his winnings from were a grizzled, experienced group of players. He wouldn't be keeping that money for long.

"Mind if I cut in?"

The group turned as one to take in the red-haired woman and her quiet friend. "Depends. You got creds?" The man asked bluntly.

She pulled out a bag full of the Imperial coins, along with the Republic standard credit to prove her worth. She was promptly dealt in and won the next hand before starting her questioning.

"I heard there was a good act here, not to long ago. That obviously wasn't it," she jerked a thumb back to the singer onstage, wincing as she went off-key.

The players became very silent at that probe, but Mara wasn't daunted. "I didn't hear much about it, in terms of description. Can any of you fill me in?"

"I don't think you want to know, and I certainly know that I don't want to answer. It would best if you let that topic drop, Red." The younger man replied, his black hair pointed down with sweat over his forehead and eyes. The rest of the gamers said nothing, intent on watching the show.

Her eyes narrowed in response, and tried a different tactic. "I didn't think traders would be afraid of having a little chat. What's the matter, the Imps have you shaking in your boots?" More sweat trickled down his face as he tried to meet her stare, but couldn't. He glanced back to Luke, who was watching all this with an serious expression on his face. Mara continued, "I only want to know who the main act was. I can make it worth your while," she indicated the cash on hand, "but I don't think you have the guts to take me up on my offer," she taunted, and the group let out a mocking sympathetic tone for the black-haired man.

"You have nothing I want, and I don't know what you're talking about," he said, and he promptly gathered up his chips and left. The rest of the players left after a few light inquiries and another win for Mara.

"Well, *that* didn't work," she murmured to Luke, who still stood behind her. He wisely said nothing.

"Haven't you two got somethin' better to do than scaring away my customers?" They heard a rough female voice chide over the noise of the crowd. Luke and Mara turned to the source of the voice, to see the bartender's gaze fixed squarely on them. They glanced at each other briefly, and decided simultaneously that if anyone would know about the child, it would be the owner. In a matter of seconds they were at the bar.

"What'll you have?" The woman asked tersely, not enjoying their company.

"We're wondering if you could help us out a bit, ah, what's your name?" Luke probed.

"Larisa Forna. I own this place."

"I figured as much," Luke said calmly. "We're trying to get some information."

"About what?"

"A child. Specifically, one that can do things that no one else can do without any mechanics levitation? I heard there was a kid around here who could do something like that."

Larisa snorted, "What would traders want with a kid? Unless you're doubling as talent agents."

Luke smiled patiently. "Not exactly. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

"No. Kids aren't allowed in bars, not to mention the child labor laws we've got," she replied, starting to sweat a little now. "I wouldn't let a kid in here, let alone force 'em to do hard labor." *She's lying*, Luke thought, knowing this not only from her visual reaction, but her sense as well. *The laws she just mentioned are probably why she's being evasive.* He couldn't be sure though. Obviously, she was trying to protect herself.

"I'm sure the Imperials don't patrol the bars all that frequently," Mara interjected. "A kid with a mind-boggling act would really bring the money, wouldn't it?"

The woman was angry now. "I don't know what you're getting at, but I haven't done anything wrong. I don't have to answer any of your questions."

That statement rang as untrue as the previous one, but Luke was determined to get some answers. He decided to bluff a little. "Look, I know there was a child in here, using some mysterious power to make things move and so on. I really don't care about you, or what laws you've broken--all I care about is finding this kid before something bad happens. I only want to help."

Larisa seemed to absorb this with more than a little struggle from her conscience, but in the end, she relented. "I've done my time for this already. I can't imagine why you'd be so concerned."

So the child *had* been here. The Imperials had found out and had locked her up. But where was the child? "What happened to the kid?" Luke asked, repressing the urge to drag it out of her mind.

"The girl? I don't know. She took off, probably back to her people," Larisa said, hoping this would get them off her back.

"What was her name?" Luke pressed.

"Cerla--no, Cerrah. That's it," she remembered. "Now will you leave me alone? Just talking to you about this could get me in more trouble."

"All right." Luke and Mara started to walk off, when they heard Larisa say over the noise, "If you find her, tell her I'm sorry, okay?" The expression on her face had changed from apathy to concern.

"Sure," Luke replied. He and Mara walked out of the bar, and soon were on their way back to the hotel, not even noticing the dark figure that had begun to shadow them.


By the time Luke and Mara got back to their rooms, morning was going into its early hours. Mara was just about to collapse into bed when her danger sense went off. Several people--soldiers--were coming up the steps to their floor. She dashed over to the window and saw a couple soldiers waiting outside. Luke already had opened the door between their rooms and made his way to the window. "They've found us," he said.


"It could've been Larisa, or the manager. Doesn't matter now," he put his backpack on, and she did likewise. "Now, we have to get out of here."

Mara opened the window slowly, and they crept out onto a short roof that projected over the door to the place. The guards didn't see them yet. They could hear the sound of the others pounding at their doors.

"Ready?" Luke whispered. She nodded an affirmative. They leapt down simultaneously on top of the two guards, who never got a chance to let out a cry of alarm as Luke and Mara's lightsabers sliced through their armor, silencing them for good. The two renegades then took off at a dead run for the west exit of town.

The Stormtroopers burst through the doors to find the rooms empty, their quarry having escaped. The window was still open, and as the soldiers tore through the interior of the rooms, one of the troopers stuck his head out the opening, hoping to get a clue as to where the fugitives were. Instead, he saw the corpses of the two soldiers below.

"Sergeant!" The trooper cried out.

"What is it?" Concern crept into the Sergeant's voice, fearing the worst. Then, his fears were confirmed.

"Harru and Corrjuah are down!"

The sergeant eased his way through the troops to the window, to see for himself."Lieutenant Covell's not gonna like this," he said under his breath, as he viewed the scene. "No, not one bit."

He reached for his comm unit, but before turning it on, he ordered the second-in-command to take all but five of the twelve men downstairs to go after the Rebels, and to call in any reinforcements they would need. The rest would comb the rooms for any clues they could find.

He took off the stifling helmet and ran a gauntleted hand through graying brown hair. This wasn't looking good. He had made this capture out to be easy, a simple case of bursting in and grabbing your man. Instead, the criminals were out on the street.

As soon as they were gone, and his troops were checking the place out, he made his call to Covell. He hoped desperately that the younger man would be away from his commlink.

"Lieutenant Covell, this is Sergeant Raes. Do you copy?"

The reply was near instantaneous. "Yes, Sergeant. I assume the fugitives are now firmly in hand?"

The sergeant paused only for a moment, but Covell understood perfectly. "They were here, Lieutenant,..." the older man continued, but Covell cut him off.

"They *were* there, Raes? Am I to believe you are so incredibly incompetent that you *allowed* two people to escape..."

"No, Lieutenant! They couldn't have known we were coming...they led us right to their hotel! The guards posted were the among the best we had, but they're still dead," his voice had a trace of bitterness to it. "I think these fugitives of yours are more dangerous than you're letting on. What haven't you told us?"

"Nothing that concerns you. Your job was to capture the Rebels and if you can't do it,..." he trailed off. The sergeant could almost hear the cruel smile in his voice. "I guess I'll have to find someone who will. Even if I have to do it personally."

He wished Covell *would* wage this war of his alone, if only for the satisfaction of seeing him as dead as his two men now were. He angrily shut off the comm, frustrated at the results of what should have been an easy ambush. *How could they have known?*, Raes wondered as he left the building, while also contemplating his future as an Imperial officer.


The streets were still dark as Mara and Luke wound their way through circuitous roads, trying to find the way out of town. In the distance, they heard the sound of repulsor lifts starting up, and they knew that their time was being cut short. If the Imperials had transportation, then it would a matter of seconds before they were caught.

"We have to get a speeder or something, if we're going to get out of here alive," Mara said as they stopped for breath around another corner. The sounds had not gotten more distant as they ran, and the buildings were beginning to look the same everywhere. Mara had her mental map from their traversing the alleyways last night, but she'd reached the end of her recollection of the area. The Imperials would know every alley by heart, and know the shortcuts as well. "Some of that Force-guidance would be nice right about now."

"I'm working on it," Luke replied mysteriously, and he took off in a direction Mara was sure lead to nowhere.

"We're not leaving that way, Luke. That's--" she stopped herself when she realized where he was going; the industrial section...where there was sure to be repair shops for speeders and the like. She took off after him, hoping that this wouldn't turn out to be a big mistake.


"Any sign of them yet?" Raes' voice came over the comm's speaker. The officer on the other end replied, "Not yet. The sensors aren't picking them up--or rather, they probably are, but they're also including every vermin and other lifeform in that reading."

"What happened to the selector?"

"Fried, I'd guess. Thinks every lifeform is human. Lasdan just hunted down and arrested a rat."

"Great. Well, keep at it. Two of those readings are our renegades. We'll find them. We know the city and they don't. That's our advantage; now prove it." The other man replied in the affirmative and stepped up the search, sending one craft above the streets in the hopes of pin-pointing by eye, instead of sensor.


The shop he'd picked out looked to be the least likely to have security devices, and the most likely to have something that actually worked. Luke paused for a second, trying to decide whether or not Jedi would actually steal in order to live. He justified his actions quickly enough by telling himself that it wasn't for him, but Mara also, and in an indirect way, for the young girl he hadn't met yet. Mara was at his side a matter of seconds later, and she volunteered to be the first one in.

It wasn't long until she found a barred window on the side of the building, at least five feet off the ground. She pulled out her lightsaber and activated it, the sound usually quiet in perspective, but the electric hiss echoed off the narrow walls, making it sound like ten lightsabers instead of just one. She cut the bars off as quickly as she could, and with a boost from Luke, crawled easily through the hole.

Luke joined her, and at first all he saw inside was pitch black. The weak light coming through the window helped somewhat, and after adjusting to the light level, he could barely discern Mara's form, bent over a XP-38.

"It's been awhile since I've seen one of those things," he whispered.

He could faintly see her nod. "No kidding," she replied softly. "But it's the only thing in here that looks like it'll run."

Mara flicked the hover mode on, and a faint sound of rushing air filled the workshop. "If you start it up here, the sound of the repulsors will wake everybody up," Luke pointed out.

She straightened, then grasped the top of the speeder's side. "Then we'll have to get out of here in a hurry. Open the door," she said as she started pushing it forward. Luke ran to the door, unlocked it, and pushed it wide open. He watched as Mara eased it out the door, hopped in, and activated the repulsors, filling the small street with the piercing whine. "Come on!" Mara prompted.

He closed the doors with the Force and jumped in, and soon they were blaring down the streets as fast as Mara dared. Luke listened to the sound of the engine, and discovered why it was in the shop. "The timing's off. We're lucky the engine started right up."

"Only that? I'm surprised."

"Just make sure you don't slow down too much, or it'll stall."

"Right." She turned a corner sharply, and they headed in a westerly direction, hoping that this would lead to its logical destination; somewhere on the west side. On a sudden impulse, Mara turned from the side street south onto a main road, and then turned west again onto an east-west bound road. Luke was tempted to ask why, but instead looked off to the right and saw a small flying craft over the area they'd just left.

Luke called up a map of the city while Mara drove, and directed her along a combination of alleyways and main routes, hoping to avoid patrols as best as possible. There was little to no traffic on the roads, so it made it harder for Luke to try and blend themselves into the surrounding area. As they sped down one street, Luke felt the presence of a large group ahead and to the left. He tried to find another street or alleyway to turn onto, but there wasn't anything on the map. Mara had sensed the group as well and had slowed down slightly, in the hopes that they'd be mistaken for locals heading somewhere. As they passed, Luke saw the Imperial transport and attempted to coerce the soldiers inside that they had seen nothing unusual. There were too many for such a quick attempt, however, and he heard the distinctive sound of the Imperials' repulsors following them. He twisted around to see the craft coming onto the road from the alleyway, turning in their direction.

"Hit it," Luke said, but Mara had already increased on the throttle. The Imperials gave chase, and Mara took the curve ahead as fast as she could manage without smashing into the other side of the street. Crimson bolts spat out after them as they sped out of immediate sight, and the soldiers that appeared in front of them startled them both, until they realized that they were supposed to be there; they were the west exit's guards.

Mara accelerated toward the portal wildly, not caring what she doing to the engine just as long as they made it out. The handful of guards turned slowly towards them as they approached, then raised their laser pistols as if to fire. The Imperials from behind only got a few shots off, and the ones in front managed to start their barrage before they dived off to the side, as Mara and Luke flew through the exit. The sight and sound of laser fire bid them farewell, as they shot toward the dark line of trees before them.

"We did it!" Mara finally said, only now willing to admit that they had gotten away. The laser fire had stopped once they were out of range, and for some reason no signs of pursuit had appeared. The XP was running full tilt shakily, but still holding on. Hopefully it would take them to the edge of the forest, where it would be easier to avoid the Imperials.

"Sure looks that way," Luke managed to smile, enjoying the thrill of it all. The sun was beginning its lazy ascent from beyond the horizon, and in the morning glow, he could see the line of trees ahead and passing farmland more clearly. He turned to make a comment, but as he started to speak, he felt a wave of cold despair wash through him. He pushed it back, but it did not accept defeat so easily, and felt it rise up in Mara also. The struggle continued for several seconds more, then Luke shoved it back with some considerable strength, and felt it relent finally and disappear. The internal battle had drained both of them considerably, and left Luke with little doubt as to the seriousness of the young girl's danger, and their own.

"Are you alright?" Mara asked with more than a little concern. "What in the worlds was that?"

"I don't know," Luke admitted, "but I've run into it already. Or maybe it would be better to say, *it* ran into *me*. It's some sort of presence of the Dark Side, but I didn't think it was actually *alive*."

"What have you gotten me into, Luke Skywalker? First the Empire, evil manifestations," Mara shook her head wearily. She had a strong desire to turn the XP around and head back toward the city in the valley, willing to take a chance in getting her Z-95 back rather than continuing on with this mad chase. She had given her word, however, and going back on it wasn't an option. In addition, although Mara wouldn't have admitted it out loud, she would've followed him to the ends of the universe if he had asked her to, making the idea of leaving him alone with whatever that thing was seem like desertion, and betrayal.

After a few minutes, the trees had gone from being in the distance to being right there, and then enveloping the two in their sheltering branches. They coasted in as far as they could, before the increasing thicket and the engine's stalling prevented them from going any further. Luke and Mara hid the XP-38 in the surrounding foliage; enough to keep out prying eyes, but not a good sensor probe.

They decided to press on before getting some sleep. As they walked, Luke's mind drifted back to the days when he and Mara had traveled through another forest, though on much worse terms than now. He glanced at Mara, and wondered if she was thinking the same.

The face that had borne so much hatred, bitterness and pain was now calm, at peace. Years had come and gone, but to his eyes she looked no different than when he had first met her. Better, in fact; all the hatred of her life had been scrubbed clean, inside and out, letting the spiritual beauty shine through physically.

"What are you staring at?" The object of his thoughts asked. He hadn't realized his glance had turned into a stare.

"I'm....sorry. I was just thinking."

"About what?"

He paused, tempted to actually confess his wonderings out loud, but instead took the easier route. "Wasn't important, really. Nothing you'd want to hear."

He turned away before he could see the sadness in her eyes. She tried to convince herself that it was nothing, as he said, but couldn't shake the feeling that it had been meant for her personally. Obviously, though, he didn't consider it important. *Honestly, I can't blame you for thinking that way, Luke. I never gave you any reason to think otherwise.* Her heart whispered to her about the possibility of changing his mind, but her mind was firmly against it. *It's too late.*

Their despair wasn't wholly their own. If a blatant attack wouldn't work, then a subtle gradation would work on them, the Scryth reasoned. It continued to plant seeds of doubt as they walked, to choke out their hope and optimism. In time, they would grow suicidical. And if that didn't get rid of them, then the girl would do just fine.

It thought about using the two humans the same way it was using the girl, but concluded that they were too dangerous to hold on to. Better to eliminate them now, than lose the girl to them. Then, there would be nothing standing in its way.


The scene following Mara and Luke's departure from Gheas was a jumble. The transport hadn't been able to turn the corner as well as the speeder had in the tight corridors of the city, and had crashed into the front room of a local business on the other side of the exit. In addition, outdated equipment and a poor defense of the West portal helped the fugitives escape from Sergeant Raes' grasp. Covell had gone beyond being merely angry, and was now exasperated with the officials in charge. Two transports were being loaded with as many troops as the CO had let Covell take with him. Lieutenant Commander Farrst was sweating nervously at the thought of so many troops going off into the forest, leaving Gheas with inadequate defenses.

"What if those criminals come back after you leave?" The sweaty officer was saying to Covell as they watched the transports being loaded. "We'll have no way to defend ourselves!"

Covell gritted his teeth as he answered, "You don't have to worry about that. They won't be coming back."

"How can you be so sure?" The man was obviously more of a politician than a military commander. "You failed to capture them when they were in the city. I don't know how--"

"They *won't* be coming back," he interrupted harshly. "I'll take care of this personally. They'll be ours, or else I'm not coming out of this forest alive!"

That silenced the officer's next remark. Covell stormed over to the nearest transport, hopped on, and signalled for them to take off. Within minutes, they'd cleared Gheas' outer limits and were heading into the forest inhabited by the Scryth.

Chapter 5

Dawn arose without much fanfare, heralding the start of another day and the search for Cerrah Kipetk by two separate parties. Darm's was the one to wake up first; the light having just changed from grey to a warm yellow, boosting everyone's spirits from the low of last night. This time, however, the party was headed not by Darm, but by his wife, Nila.

They were on their way soon enough, Nila hoping that Darm wouldn't take offense to enlisting Mrs. Topek's aid in handling their children. The children had been marginally understanding in why she'd had to leave, but they were a handful, nevertheless. Darm had given her a long, lingering kiss and a treatise to return safely, with Cerrah. She'd answered back, "I wasn't planning to do otherwise."

Nila decided to use the same route Darm had used, hoping that Cerrah might have come back to the cottage, or that she might be somewhere in the vicinity. Leading the small group of men behind her, they followed the river up to the waterfall.

They arrived at the waterfall sometime before noon, already having an hour or so lead from Darm's party yesterday. They stopped only long enough to determine whether Cerrah had come back. Finding no sign of her, they continued on, traveling deeper and deeper into the territory that the Scryth had claimed.


Mara and Luke were up at first light, having had a solid night--or morning's--rest, broke camp and started heading deeper into the forest. After a couple hours of walking, Luke and Mara noticed the vegetation around them beginning to turn twisted and deformed, taking on a malicious look. After awhile of this, however, Mara ignored it, assuming it to be part of the natural plant-life. Luke stayed edgy for some time, until he too grew accustomed to their gruesome surroundings. While they struggled through the forest, Mara managed to find her voice and comment on the vegetation.

"Pretty nasty stuff, isn't it?"

"Hmm?" Luke remarked, absentmindedly.

She repeated her comment patiently. He replied, "Yeah, it is."

*What a sterling conversation this is*, she thought sourly. "I forget...why did you need me on this trip?"

This brought a smile to his face, and he turned to respond. "Are you having second thoughts?"

"No. Well, maybe," she confessed. "I've only been a liability, so far. My ship is probably in confinement, the Imperials know what I look like, and even though you were fooling everybody with that trick you did, they still managed to track us down somehow. Maybe I should draw them away from here by going in another direction."

From his expression, she could tell he wasn't thrilled with that proposition. "I'd prefer that you'd stay with me."

"Why? Two are harder to track than one, and I can take care of myself."

This argument wasn't persuading him. "If we split up, it'll only be that much easier to take us *both* down."

She couldn't argue against that logic, but tagging along wasn't what she'd had in mind. She was about to say something to that effect, when he interjected warmly, "Mara, I need you *here*--with *me*. I wouldn't have called you here if I didn't need your help, and I can't imagine anyone else I'd want at my side right now more than you." He paused for a second, and added, "You know more about surviving in the wilderness than I do, and when I find this girl, I'm not going to be able to get through all those Imperials alone." He smiled, then offered, "Why don't you take point?"

"Thanks anyway, but I'd rather follow behind, since you're leading us to her."

"All right."

They continued on. Mara tried to calm her heart from the flip-flops it was doing, hoping Luke hadn't noticed. Dark whispers were trying to persuade her that his words were only those of a concerned friend, but the hope it had created pushed the fledgling despair away.

His words were still ringing in her ears a half hour later. He'd taken a wide lead, and she could barely see him through all the trees. She thought about calling for him to stop, but decided not to. She wanted to be alone for a while.

Mara was mulling over the whole situation again when she felt sharp, stabbing pains in her left ankle. She looked down to see what the cause was, and was surprised to see some sort of thorny vine wrapped around her ankle, its needles having poked through the hard material of her boot. Annoyed more than anything else, she swore as she stooped down to unwrap the vine. As she bent over, she felt her left leg buckle and give way, smacking her knee into the tough thick vines lining the path in front of her. Her right leg went numb, and she tried to move her arms and fingers, to get the vine off, but to no avail. *It's some sort of poison,* she realized in horror. Suddenly, the thick vines rose up from off the ground and entwined themselves around her helpless form, picking her up and carrying her towards its origin.

Luke had been pondering over his own thoughts when he'd first caught the pain and annoyance coming from Mara. It didn't alarm him too much, until he felt her shock and horror...and had come running as fast as he could back the way he'd come. *Mara, what's wrong?*, he asked as he ran.

Her tone was filled with hopelessness. *I can't move. I'm paralyzed. There's some sort of poison rapidly moving through my system. Soon, it'll get to my heart and lungs--*

*Hang on, I'm almost there,* he interrupted, not wanting to think about her dying. He couldn't lose another person in his life, not now. Hadn't he been through enough? His uncle and aunt, Ben, his father, teachers, students, friends, loves....dead. Why?

*Start going through the detoxification cycle,* he tried to reply calmly. Finally he burst through the last of the twisted foliage, finding an amazing, if terrifying, sight. Mara was suspended over the maw of a gigantic plant, its petals retracted up to form a bulb shape. It stood nearly as tall as his shoulder, and like everything around it, it was the same dull green-brown color; easily hidden in the surrounding vegetation. Tendrils sprouted from it, spiraling out in all directions along the ground. Spiny thorns adorned the thinner ones. *Watch out for those,* he heard her caution weakly. She was using the Force to detoxify, but it was sapping all of her strength in order to keep the poison at bay.

Igniting his lightsaber, he cut off the vine at the base while supporting her weight with the other arm. Without even thinking, he suddenly whipped around, and sliced through the vines that had risen up to claim him as well, including a thorny one aimed for his right leg. He quickly carried her out of the range of the carnivorous plant, and after untangling her from the now limp vine, began to purge the poison out of her system. Their combined efforts removed most of the poison, but a portion of it mutated into a hardier version of its former self, in order to accomplish its goal. He could feel Mara's strength fading as the poison renewed its attack. *I'm not going to lose you now, Mara. Fight it!*

*I can't. It's too late.*

*No it's not! Please, try...if not for yourself, then for me.*

He felt Mara redouble her efforts to fight the poison, his hope pushing back the cloud of despair surrounding her. Several more harrowing minutes passed before it was finally purged.

Mara was safe, but not strong enough to travel on her own. "How do you feel?"

She tried to respond verbally, but the effort forced her to reach out through the Force. *Like hell. But, I'm alive.* She looked away, then back into his eyes. *Thanks.* She tried to keep the emotion out, but it escaped through that one word, nevertheless.

He brushed the hair from her eyes tentatively, trying not to reveal too much, but his relief and concern came through in his voice. "I'm glad you're alright."

*So am I,* she managed to smile. He laughed at that, hoping to encourage her humor. "C'mon, let's get out of here," he urged.

*I can barely move. How do you propose we 'get out of here'?*

"Simple. I'll carry you."

She started to argue, then thought better of it. Luke picked her up gently, and they soon were on their way.

After a short time she asked, *Aren't you going to get tired of lugging my useless weight around, eventually?*

"Maybe. Right now I don't mind. Plus, you won't be an invalid forever. In time, the effects will fade."

*In time,...* she thought pensively. *I wonder how long that'll take? At the rate we're going, even the Imperials will catch up to us.*

"I don't know," he replied. He hoped it would never come to that. "You should rest. The more rest you get, the faster you'll heal."

*You're right, I should.* She drifted off into a Jedi trance--one that would hopefully heal all the damage the poison had done--while Luke tried to erase the fear and despair her near-death had caused, still lingering in his mind.


Morning was a relief to Cerrah, knowing that she could expect no nightmares during the day. The warning from the Scryth wasn't taken lightly, but she didn't want to stay around there much longer, either. Nevertheless, she lingered around the ship, absorbing the memorabilia scattered about. Holos of people she recognized at her grandparents, along with people she didn't recognize. Mother had brought most of her belongings from the ship, but some had had to be left behind; she couldn't bring everything.

Thinking about her mother made her wonder whether her family had really turned against her. She decided to stretch out with the Force, to contact her mother. Expecting to find her in the village, she was surprised to find her presence not far away at all--was that good or bad? She stretched out farther and discovered that her mother wasn't alone; she was with the men from yesterday. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she remembered the Scryth's words. It was right. *My family *has* betrayed me. Oh mother, how could you?* Her dejection and loneliness at that realization was all the Scryth needed.

-We can protect you,- it cajoled softly, consolingly. -We can give you power enough so that you will never worry about anyone hurting you again.-

The words were small comfort, but comfort enough for Cerrah. "Where will I go?" The Scryth was about to respond, when Nila reached out to her daughter, trying to contact her. Cerrah slapped it away.

If it had a face, it would've smiled. -We know a place. The lake.-

"Yes, the lake...of course." She stuffed her clothes and supplies into her small bag, and hastened out of the ship, heading north.

The response Nila had gotten from her daughter confused her. *Why did she shut me out? I know she was probing me just now.* Maybe it had already gotten to her. She hoped desperately that this wasn't the case. She continued to reflect on it as she headed for the ship.


Covell's Stormtroopers followed their leader into the Scryth forest, despite the locals' rumors of an evil ghost who drove men insane. It was nonsense; nothing more than ghost stories to frighten children at night. He'd heard many of the same stories, and brushed off his own hesitation as a childhood fear. The transports had been left behind, since the trees grew incredibly thick. Even a speeder bike would've had trouble maneuvering, if they'd had one left, that is. Most had been destroyed by these very same trees thirty years ago, when the Empire had tried to rid this planet of its previous inhabitants.

They marched two men wide and twenty-five men back past the warped trees and tainted vegetation, following the signal they received from something ahead. Soon, Covell found his object; the stolen XP-38, covered with shrubs and dead branches. After searching the surrounding area, they found no reliable trace of the Rebels. He ordered six men to stay behind while the rest continued on, dropping their number to forty-four.

Sergeant Raes held back his own opinions in this matter, not willing to brook the lieutenant again. The only reason he'd been allowed to come was because Covell had taken command of his troops. He had been demoted to being Covell's second.

He knew that Covell was holding something back, but he had no clue as to what it could be. All he knew was that the chill permeating through the troops was not only dropping morale, but slowing the men down--himself included. He almost wanted to abandon this fruitless chase, but knew Covell had sworn that he'd bring them out, or else he'd be dead. Well, if it came to that, then he felt confident that the soldiers would be on his side, not Covell's.


More than a few times, Luke took a quick glance at Mara's face, in wonderment over how peaceful her expression was. She looked completely content, with a small smile tracing her lips. He had tried to remain focused, but nevertheless, the foliage had blended into one mass of brownish green, and he was no longer sure where he was headed. When he finally tore himself away from his thoughts about Mara, and focused his attention to the surrounding area, he was shocked and puzzled to find a Force presence so near; but it wasn't of a girl, that was for certain.

"Mara?" When she didn't respond, he tried again, through the Force. *Mara?*

*Yeah, what?* She wasn't up for conversation just yet.

*There's someone else here who can use the Force.*

*That* woke her up. *You mean, besides the girl?*

*Yes. She's not far from here...and if I can sense her, she can probably sense me.*

She reached out with the Force, and encountered the same mind. *She's looking for someone.*

*The girl?*

*Well, I don't think she's looking for *us*. Why don't you reach out and say 'hi'?*

He glanced down at her face, and saw that she was watching him back. "Sure, why not?" He did just that, and received a shocked reaction, then a rudimentary probe. The woman was attempting to gage their skill, and their intentions. Luke reassured her they meant no harm. Soon, they were directed to a meeting place farther north than where they were heading. The sun was hanging low in the sky by the time both parties reached the spot.

Luke and Mara arrived first, puzzling over why the woman would lead them such a non-descript place. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it, aside from the fact that there was a small hill to one side.

Luke hesitated in putting Mara down, not sure whether this woman was what she appeared to be. But, his arms were aching--Force notwithstanding--and Mara was able to move her arms somewhat, in addition to beginning to gain her voice back. In moments, the others arrived, and neither they or the woman were surprised at the encounter, though the five men had been doubting their leader's words until that moment.

Both sides hesitated, until the woman spoke. "Mine name is Nila." Her basic sounded fractured, unused for many years.

Luke appraised her, trying to comprehend a human woman leading a band of humanoid men, little more than her height. She stood only a centimeter or two taller than his sister, and somewhat shorter than Mara. Her long brown hair had been braided back, for utility rather than decoration, and her eyes were as blue as his own. She was maybe five to ten years older, judging from her face, and had the countenance of a mother in desperation. Her companions' large black eyes absorbed him and Mara with a glance. The woman gave the names of the men as well, though neither caught on to what she was saying.

"I'm Luke Skywalker. This is Mara Jade," he motioned toward Mara, who was propped up against a tree trunk. She gave them a weak wave.

Nila's eyes had widened at Luke's name. After a moment of scrutiny, she turned to Mara and instantly saw her weak condition. "You are hurt!" She flew over to Mara's side, searching through the Force for the cause.

Luke tried to explain, but the woman soon understood what had happened. "She should be dead."

"The Force healed her."

Nila's mouth drew into a line as she absorbed that. "Yes." Suddenly, a thought came to her. "Wait here!"

Luke watched her dash into the forest, wondering if she had snapped, until she came back with a olive green plant, its leaves looking oily and slick. She called to one of the men, and he brought her pack over. She rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for; something that resembled a mortar and pestle.

*What in the worlds...?* Then, he understood. The plant must be medicine. He didn't know at first whether to stop her, or let her try her remedy. After it had been made into a thick paste, she mixed it with water, and urged Mara to drink it.

"No thanks, I'm fine, really..." Mara tried to refuse, but Nila insisted. Luke asked Nila what it was.

"It is a..." she rummaged through her brain for the right word, "a cure. For the Veblos."

"You mean that bulb-like plant?"


"But she's fine now."

"True, but tired. This will help...cancel out the effects."

He looked questioningly at Mara. "Well? You want to try it?"

She squinted at the ugly, foul-smelling concoction. "If it smells this bad, it's got to be medicine. All right," she sighed. Luke helped her tilt her head up to swallow the brownish-green drink. Mara voiced her distaste at the drink, and tried to spit out the taste in her mouth. "I hope this works."

Nila smiled, "It will. The poison is gone, but this should help you gain your strength back." Luke noticed that the more she spoke, the more her command of the language was returning.

He decided to change the subject. "We've been looking for a Force-sensitive child...I can't remember her name, off-hand," he remarked, as a way to test whether the woman really knew anything. "Do you know who I'm talking about?"

The woman glanced up in surprise. "She is my daughter," Nila replied hesitantly. Her expression was full of sorrow. "It is my fault that she is out here."

"I don't understand."

"Can't you feel it? The evil here?"

"Yes. It,..." he didn't know quite how to explain it, "attacked us, I guess. Mentally."

She smiled wanly, "The same has been happening with Cerrah, no doubt."

"Cerrah is your daughter," Mara clarified.

The woman nodded. "She was exiled from our village. The story is very long," she sighed, "and unhappy."

"Why don't you tell us, anyway?" Luke smiled sympathetically.

Nila spent the next half hour explaining about her daughter, the exile, and everything that had happened recently with the Council. "If only I'd told them sooner," she berated herself, "Cerrah would be home now."

Luke wasn't sure if he felt pity for Nila or not. How could a mother let her child be exiled?

As if she had heard, she answered his silent question. "I truly believed in the Council's wisdom. I have been governed by it since I was a small girl. The Shadoui took me in after,...after my parents were gone," her voice grew thick with the memory. "I stayed with them even through the Imperial purges. Watched as the old and sick died from disease and plagues, and the women and children succumb to dysentery.

"What reason did I have to doubt their concern for the village's safety? I didn't really believe that it was permanent. I fooled myself into believing that she'd be back soon. I was wrong."

No one said anything for awhile. It was then that Luke noticed that the sky had turned dark. "Are we going to camp here?"

"It's the best place to camp for the night, in this area," Nila confided. "Watch."

She got up and walked over to the mound. She brushed aside foliage and Luke and Mara faintly heard the sound of a keypad. They looked sharply at one another, realizing that the small hill wasn't what they thought it was. Even the men didn't know what was going on. Then there was a click, and a plant-covered door popped open slightly. Nila pushed it open the rest of the way. She smiled, and gestured them over. "Come, take a look!"

Luke helped Mara stand--*that potion must be working,* he surmised--and led her over to the mound. Inside, lit by photolamps and their lumas, was the interior of a spaceship.

"Wow," Luke managed. Mara voiced a similar reaction. The Shadoui men were in awe.

All the mementos that Cerrah had gazed at were still there, barely touched by dust. Nila entered in, and turned on the back-up generator. The lights inside flicked on, making the interior that much cozier. The men paused before going inside, then Luke helped Mara inside as well. They found themselves in a circular hallway common to most spaceships, lined with makeshift tables and chairs. The left end lead into the cockpit, and the right side lead to the back of the ship, towards the engines and storage area. However, the place was a mess. Papers were scattered about, mud trekked in had dried on the floor. Some objects were lying on the floor; it looked like a child had played in there and forgotten to clean up.

"Oh, Cerrah," her mother moaned in embarrassment. Even though her daughter was in danger, she couldn't help but utter those motherly words at the sight she saw before her.

The Shadoui men, after a quick tour through the aft section, quickly returned, eager to leave the ship. One of them approached Nila, saying something in his native tongue. She merely nodded and said, "Saru, Jeth." The men promptly left.

"What was that?" Luke thought he understood, but wanted confirmation.

"They're not comfortable around technology, not this kind anyway. They're sleeping outside."

"We're sleeping in here?" Mara sounded surprised.

"Why not? There's enough room. Besides, there's some things you and Luke ought to see. But first, let me show you around."

Nila explained as they went that when she and her parents first arrived, they had decided to make the ship into their home, since they didn't plan to leave the planet. Her father had set the craft by the Dark Side presence on purpose, so they would be hidden from Vader's hunters. The ship had been turned into quarters enough for her, her parents, and the baby brother or sister she'd never had. They had hoped to live peacefully there for a long time. However, the evil presence had had something say about that.

"What is that thing, anyway?" Mara interrupted.

"It's called the Scryth by the Shadoui, and the humans think it's a ghost--and they're partially right, though I'm not sure what it is exactly, either."

"The Shadoui don't know?"

She only shrugged. "Once it's killed some of your people, you don't really have any desire to know more about it. You either kill it--which you can't--or you run away from it, as they did. All they know is that it's evil."

Luke and Mara accepted that without much comment. Nila showed them the bedrooms--very cramped for space--and a small living area/kitchen where the engines used to be. The ship had been gutted for every useable space.

"This was my room," Nila gestured to one of the bedrooms, a former storage area. "And my parents' room was the typical living quarters. I haven't been in there since they were killed," she added softly. "Do you two want to take that one?"

"Ah,.." Luke stammered, "You think--"

"You think that we're--" Mara fumbled. Neither could finish the sentence.

"Aren't you? Oh, I'm so sorry," Nila apologized, embarrassed. "I just assumed..."

"It's alright." Mara said, flustered.

"Nothing to be sorry for."

"Happens all the time."

Nila smiled, "Thanks. It's just that, the way you two act towards each other, I was sure there was something..."

"Let's move on, okay? You apologized, we accepted; end of story. Luke will take that one and I'll take the other."

"There's no bed in the third bedroom," Nila responded.

"That's okay."

"No, it's *not* okay," Luke retorted. "You're not sleeping on a cold metal floor in your condition--"

"My condition? I'm feeling much better, thank you for asking," she replied sarcastically. "I can make it on my own. I'm not an invalid." She pushed away from Luke, and only managed a couple of steps before her legs collapsed under her. Luke dove to catch her, and despite her earlier protests, leaned on him heavily as he lifted her back on her feet.

"You're not an invalid, hmm? Look, Mara, you're sleeping in her parents' room tonight, and I'm taking the floor. Understood?" His face was a mixture of concern and plain stubbornness. The fact that they were still somewhat entwined, and that their host was standing only a few feet away didn't seem to occur to Luke and Mara at that moment. Nila looked on, amused.

He still had his left arm around her waist and his right hand placed on the small of her back, while Mara's arms had circled around him and found purchase on the back of his shoulder. It hit Mara first that this embrace was a little too close for friends, and answered, "All right." Mara knew she had to pull free, but her arms didn't want to let go. Her heart was racing too fast, and that fear was rising up again, the fear that Luke would reject her outright; or even worse, do something from which there was no turning back.

"Good. That's settled." The coloring in his face was turning red; he obviously realized the same thing Mara had. "C'mon, let's go." He pulled his arms back, enough to hold onto her arms instead. She did the same.

Nila watched as Luke gently led Mara over to the designated bedroom, and shook her head in wonderment as soon as their backs were turned. Who did they think they were kidding? *If they're not in love, then I don't know what love is.*

Would they ever figure it out themselves? Probably not, at their rate. But, some probing might be in order once Cerrah was safe, or maybe even before then, to gage how long this had been going on. Next to her husband and children, there was nothing she loved more than a challenge.


The sky had dimmed into pale orange, then a deepening blue as Boraas Veid had watched out his office window. Covell still hadn't reported in yet, although that wasn't a surprise to his commanding officer.

He turned back to his desk, and activated the comm. "Haskins?"

"Yes sir?"

"Patch me through to Gheas. I need to speak with Lieutenant Commander Farrst."

The tone in the aide's voice gave away his opinion of that particular person. "Yes sir. Right away." Farrst wasn't the smartest, nor the cleanest, man on this world...but he was devious. Only Veid's power had kept him at bay, waiting until the right moment to strike.

Covell, however, put this man to shame. By the time the young upstart was through with him, Farrst would be either dead or demoted to KP duty.

"Yes, what is it Veid?" A wheezing, nasal voice came over the comm unit. *Farrst.*

"Hello there, Farrst. I was wondering, has Lieutenant Covell arrived there yet?"

"He came in two days ago. And left this morning with some of my best soldiers," the man sniffed, still obviously upset over his loss.

"That's too bad. Where'd he head off to?"

"He's *your* subordinate, Commander, not mine. Can't you keep track of your own people?"

"Farrst, I can see to it that you have even *less* soldiers than you do now. Do we understand each other?" He kept his contempt thinly veiled.

The man's voice falsettoed slightly. "Clearly, Commander. He headed off into the ghost forest after his Rebels, swearing that he wouldn't come out alive unless he had them in tow. I think he's gone off the deep end."

That didn't sound like Covell. This situation was obviously getting out of hand. "I'll be there within the hour."

"Sir?" Farrst replied, startled.

"Is there a problem?" Veid was deadly calm. He had no time to mess with Farrst and his schemes.

"No, no problem. Within the hour, you said?"

"Yes. Until then," Veid cut off the transmission. Haskins came through the door with more reports to review.

"Are the transports ready?"

"One is. Why? Covell's already been picked up, hasn't he?"

"Yes, but I need to get to Gheas. Now. Covell isn't reporting in, and according to Farrst, ran off into the forest with some of his troops."

"Including the Stormtroopers we sent with him?" Haskins asked incredulously.

"It appears so."

"I don't understand. They're only two people. How hard is it to capture two people, even if they are Rebels?"

Veid's eyes narrowed. "That's what I'm going to find out."


It was evening by the time Cerrah reached the Scryth lake, its waters unnaturally calm and placid. The water looked grayish-brown, and smelled of decay and mold. The trees surrounding the waters' edge were bent into knots, as if the evil that permeated this place had wrung its frustration and hatred on the plantlife. A truly nightmarish place.

*And I should know, shouldn't I?* Cerrah thought to herself bitterly, thinking not only of the shapeless evil, but her mother as well. *The past five months have been one long nightmare.*

She set up camp not far from the lake's edge, hoping to encounter the Scryth once again, but she couldn't feel its presence. Maybe it had forgotten about her? Well, she would see it in her dreams, at least. She finished up her meal and settled in to sleep, waiting patiently for the Scryth to arrive.

Its attentions, however, had been drawn elsewhere, for the moment. The scene being played out by his foes was too informative to miss.

"I'm not tired, Luke. I've been resting all day, remember?" Mara was saying as he sat her down on the bed. "Besides, Nila said she had something to show us--as in, you and me."

Luke only smiled. "I know."

"Well then...?" She had no intention of being dropped off like luggage while Luke and Nila continued on with their chat.

"Well what?"

Mara gave him an irritated glare. She looked to the side, to see that Nila was leaning on the doorway; probably following the whole conversation. "Why don't you tell us what's so important?"

Nila's gaze shifted between the two of them, finally settling on Luke. "Does she know?"

"Know what?" His voice was filled with an uncertain dread.

"About...Anakin?" Her gaze stayed fixed on him. "I assumed she did, earlier, but--"

"I know that Anakin Skywalker was his father, and later turned to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader, if that's what you're asking," Mara supplied easily. The woman's innuendo was more than a little transparent.

"Yes, it was."

"I'm surprised that you didn't ask me if I knew," Luke said. "If we'd had this conversation twenty years ago, I wouldn't have had a clue."

"I see. Well, Obi-wan told you, so it's a moot point, anyway--"

"Wait a minute. What's going on? How do you know about my father, and Ben?"

Nila didn't answer him. Instead, she reached over to one of the holo-pictures on a table by the door, and activated it. It looked like a group picture of friends enjoying themselves somewhere pleasant; maybe a lake, or a park. She brought it over, for them to get a better look. "The couple on the right are my parents," she pointed through the image of light to the two figures, a man in his thirties, with light brown hair and wearing a grey jumpsuit, and his wife, a woman who had Nila's dark brown hair and blue eyes. "General Kenobi is behind them, and he's got me on his shoulder," her finger moved to the left, pointing out a man in a dark brown jacket and beige pants, with dark, greying hair and beard, holding onto a spritely five-year-old.

"These two," she moved on, "are your parents, Luke."

A tall, thin dark-haired young man dressed in blue had his arm around his much shorter young wife, who wore a then-fashionable pale lavender slip that barely reached to her knees. Though blond haired and blue-eyed, she was the spitting image of Leia. Her eyes were his, however. There was no doubt about that. He found to his dismay that he didn't heavily resemble either of them, but rather a combination of both, with probably older relatives mixed in. The view of his father wasn't so good; he'd been standing too close, and was out of focus.

He had taken the picture from Nila's hands, and now held it gently, fearing that the slightest bump would erase the image forever. "Are there any more?" He asked hopefully.

"A couple. One with your father and mine, and another group photo with Anakin in it. But the one you're holding is the only one with your mother."

He marvelled at the image, trying to absorb her face permanently into his memory. "I've seen my father before, but I never thought--" his voice was too choked with emotion to go on. Mara laid a hand gently on his arm, and he sat down beside her, holding his prize firmly yet delicately.

"Leia looks so much like her, it's amazing! You didn't get Anakin's height, though," she tried to rib, hoping to bring up his mood a bit.

It worked. "No, I guess not," he smiled. "I always wondered if it was the suit or him. Now I know."

She smiled back, still bewildered with all this. "I don't suppose you have any pictures of *my* family, do you?" She directed at Nila, trying to fight the tightening she felt in her throat.

"No, I'm sorry. I've never heard of any Jades. sure that's your real last name?" Nila sounded uncertain.

The question seemed silly to her at first--Of course that's my real name!--but she quickly realized that she had no proof of whether it was real or not. The Emperor could have easily renamed her after taking her away, and she might have forgotten it entirely. She hadn't really thought about it before, since she'd never had a reason to. "I--don't know," she answered hesitantly, another facet of her self shattered.

The sound of her voice and the sudden change in Mara's mood shook Luke out of his own reverie. He turned to see her face; a mixture of sadness and longing, a lingering hope that she'd one day find some trace of her heritage. His own elation soon tasted bitter, knowing that he held a link to his past that Mara might never have.

Nila covered over the awkward moment by announcing that had something else for him, and ran off in search of it, leaving Luke and Mara alone for the moment.

"Are you alright?" Luke asked, deactivating the holo and putting it aside.

"I'm fine," Mara said, trying to dismiss her sudden weakness as if it had never happened. "I've just always believed that there was some long lost family of mine out there, waiting to be found...and now, I'm not even sure who I am anymore." She could feel the tightness in her throat start up again, and tried to swallow it away.

"Just because Nila's never heard of anyone named doesn't mean that they don't exist. I'm sure there's someone out there." He saw her nod weakly, more of a conciliatory action than one of belief.

He wasn't sure why, but he felt compelled to reach out to her, to comfort her...though he was pretty sure she'd only get angry with him. His feelings won out over his head, however, and he gently put his arm around her shoulder, hoping that she wouldn't lash back too harshly.

He was surprised, therefore, when she leaned into him, resting her head wearily on his shoulder. He tried to sense her feelings through the Force, and was rewarded with sadness, despair and loneliness--though the latter was fading away into a mild glimmer of hope and contentment. Her walls were beginning to crumble, until Nila came back into the room, carrying a thick book. Mara pulled away, scared of...something. Then the walls were back in full force, shielding her thoughts away. He deduced that her reaction here and back in the valley were the same, even though he still didn't know what she was afraid of. If he'd had time to think, he might have discovered it, but Nila was dragging his attention away.

"Have a look at this," she was saying, holding out the book for inspection.

"What--" he started, then stared at the book, recognizing it for what it was. On the cover was written in elegant script: 'My journal.' Then, at the bottom: 'Tarrant B'jor.'

"Your father?" Luke asked, and received Nila's nod in reply. He opened the tome and began to read.

The "kid" was obviously his father, Luke observed. He'd started somewhere near the beginning, when Tarrant had first met Anakin. He scanned through the next entry to find a description of his father, and received more than he'd expected.

The entry went on to describe the rest of the evening, mostly uneventful. Luke skipped through a couple of entries, one too personal for his comfort, and found another mention of his father, in passing:

He was right, but not in the way he expected. The misdirected insight was amusing to Luke, and at the same time it was depressing. He was almost angry with this long-dead author for failing to speak out, to leave Anakin to his fate. He closed the book reluctantly, thinking that was all, until Nila spoke out.

"My father's journal has a lot of things you might find invaluable; some of Yoda's teachings, some things about your father--and mother, too, though we only met her once."

"What was her name?" Luke was suddenly aware that he didn't even know that small piece of information.

"Illya, or Illyana, I think. It's written in one of the entries, I'm sure."

He tried out the sound of both names, finding he liked the latter name best. "Thank you, Nila. How can I ever repay you?"

"You don't have to repay me! Goodness! If I hadn't shown you these things, I might've gone insane from the stress." She looked at him appraisingly. "I still can't believe you're here. The Force works in mysterious ways, does it not?" Her gaze fell on Mara, and she quickly smiled and left.

*Now, what was all that about?* Luke wondered as he watched Nila leave. As soon as she was gone, however, a hundred questions he'd failed to ask suddenly sprang to mind. What was his mother like? What was Anakin like? How did she know about him at all? Did she know his mother was pregnant before she left with Ben?

Mara watched his face as the questions came to mind; curious, then puzzled, then suspicious. She didn't pry into his thoughts, but she had a pretty good idea what he was musing over. Her own thoughts drifted away, back to her momentary weakness. Thinking back now, she could still feel his arm around her, and she could feel her heart beating in her chest, both with longing and in protest of being held back. Maybe Luke *could* feel the same way about her...but it could've been a simple act of compassion, not passion.

When Nila had walked in, she'd suddenly felt guilty and exposed; leaning on Luke after she had just protested any feelings for him. And when Luke had probed her thoughts, she'd figured out too late that her defenses had loosened and he'd be able to read her mood. Nila's entrance was both ill-timed and perfectly timed, and Mara was grateful that at least Luke didn't know how she felt, so she wouldn't be humiliated when he laughed in her face. *It would make everything so much easier, though...or would it? If I knew for sure that he didn't care about me, would it be any easier than not knowing?* She distantly felt someone get off the bed, and the motion attracted her attention enough to turn to its source, her thoughts still focused inward. She watched as Luke approached the door with both the book and holo in hand.

"Where are you going?" Mara asked, wondering.

He turned, a look of surprise on his face. "Where do you think? I've got to get some sleep, and so do you. Good night," he turned back to the door and walked out into the hallway, the door sliding closed behind him. The sudden change in light levels, from the hallway to the luma, jarred her out of her stupor. She slowly realized what she had meant by that, and said it out loud; "I want you to stay here with me, Luke."

*Shades, what is wrong with me? I'm pining away for some man who doesn't even know I exist!* She'd managed to hide her feelings so far, and she'd come very close to actually saying those words to him. She collapsed into bed, feeling a headache coming on and wishing for the day to end.


The Scryth turned its attention back to the young girl waiting at its lake, the fascinating conversation between its enemies concluded. The girl had fallen asleep, and it entered her dreams easily.

-Hello, Cerrah.- Its voice was calm and soothing to the girl's tormented soul.

"You've come! I was so afraid..."

-You have nothing to worry about, child. We are taking care of everything. Soon, your enemies and ours will no longer be of any concern.-

"You promised to teach me how to defend myself. Is that what you mean?"

-That, and more. We'll start tomorrow, when you are fully rested. Sleep, now,- it lulled, its voice sedating the young girl. Soon she was dreaming of the Scryth and all the wonderful things it would show her, while it watched on, ever-vigilant.


The last few minutes had left Luke's mind whirling with questions; some about his parents, some about Nila, and invariably some about Mara. She'd been acting strangely ever since he'd met up with her on the rooftop, and the more of the strange behavior he experienced, the more confused he became. That moment in the hallway--with Mara holding on to him as if for dear life--had seemed to last for an eternity, although it had only lasted a few seconds.

The last thing she had said--or asked, really--had thrown him off-guard. He'd hardly expected to hear the concern in her voice, or the longing, either--it was as if she didn't want him to leave. She had been so remote after Nila had come in that he had thought she wouldn't even notice when he left. All of these clues were leading to something he wasn't sure he wanted to know, but the thought came to mind, nevertheless. *She couldn't possibly...feel something for me? Something more than friendship?* He wasn't sure how to take that idea. He knew that they were friends, but more than that...? A few years ago, when his memories of Callista were still fresh, he would've said no. But now...his feelings for both of them were in conflict. He still loved Callista, but the feelings he'd been having recently about Mara pointed to something other than friendship. How could he forget about Callista's promise to come back, and instead, start over again with Mara? It occurred to him that all this musing might be a moot point, if Mara didn't feel anything for him. He might have misinterpreted the whole meaning entirely.

Luke tightened his grip on the book and holo-picture, certain of one thing; Cerrah had to be found, and soon, before the Scryth got to her. As he walked to his room, he noticed the lights were still on in the main part of the ship, and decided to investigate. He found Nila gazing fondly at the mementos she'd left behind, succumbing to the past. He was about to turn and leave when she called for him to come over. He obeyed silently, his temper held in check.

"I'm glad you're here; I've got some more things to show you--"

Luke interrupted her, "What's your problem? Do you like messing with people's heads?" His temper was starting to show through, despite his efforts. "How could you say that to Mara? 'Are you sure that's your last name?'," he mimicked, his tone derogatory. "It's bad enough that you're acting so secretive around me, but then you have be so insensitive--"

"Me? What are you talking about? She asked me, and I said I'd never heard of them. It doesn't sound like any last name I've heard or read in there," she pointed at the journal, trying to support her statement with fact.

Slowly Luke understood that Nila couldn't have known what she was saying. She didn't know about Mara's past, about how Mara had been taken away and she didn't even know if her parents were alive or not, whether she had family who thought she was dead. "I'm sorry. I forgot, you don't know anything about Mara. She knows less about her family than I know about mine. She just told me that she's even doubting her name now," *Thanks to you,* he added, but left it unsaid. His bitterness was wearing away now, turning into pale version of itself. The look on Nila's face, however, turned even that last portion into shame.

"I had no idea...I mean, I could see she was upset, but it was so mild I didn't think anything of it. She must hide her feelings very well."

"Yes, she does." *Though not too well lately, it seems.* Not too long ago, he might never have realized that Mara had been upset at all. He remembered his thoughts earlier, and where it had lead him. "You said you had something more to show me?" Luke brought up, trying to change the subject of conversation and of mind.

"Yes. It's just the other holos, actually. I wanted to tell you since I might forget in the morning."

He nodded absently, then remembered one of the questions he'd meant to ask her. "How did you know I was Anakin's son, and not one of his relatives?"

She smiled, and replied, "Luke was on the top of the list of the names your mother had picked out for a son, after she and Anakin were married. He wanted to name his first son after his teacher, but she insisted on Luke. 'It means "light", or "bringer of light or knowledge"', she told me that day, when the holo was taken. It might have been prophetic, you think?" She probed, gauging Luke's reaction.

He smiled weakly, "Yeah, prophetic." If he hadn't felt like he'd been born with a birthright, he did now. That small piece of information had taken the last bit of control he had over his life, but instead of feeling worse, he actually felt better; as if a great weight had suddenly been lifted. "Thanks Nila," he said, tired and drained after a day full of surprises, and promptly went to his room.

Nila watched him leave, nearly grinning ear to ear. *Well, I know he feels something for Mara, or else he wouldn't have jumped down my throat like that. Now, to talk to her...but that can wait til morning.* She yawned, and walked back to her room, her thoughts going from the two Jedi to her daughter Cerrah, and all her previous mirth was washed away as if it had never existed. *Cerrah,* she reached out, but received no response. *Tomorrow,* she told herself, *tomorrow I will find her.* She reached her room, climbed into bed, and had troubled dreams the rest of the night.

Chapter 6

Veid's transport arrived at Gheas just short of a hour after he left, and was greeted by Farrst himself, looking typically sweaty and nervous. He was glad he brought Haskins along, if only for the company.

"Commander Veid, sir! I trust your trip went smoothly?"

"If it hadn't, we wouldn't be here, now would we?" Veid replied, forcing himself to sound civil.

"You're right, of course," Farrst beamed, in an effort to please. "Come this way." Veid followed Farrst into the central command building, the most impressive of all the spiraling towers, even though only five floors were actually used. *Another element of the diminished power of the Empire,* Veid thought morosely, but it was an idea he'd accepted years ago.

Farrst took them up to the third floor, and into the surveillance room. "These were the copies Covell was pouring over before he shot out of here with my troops," he said sarcastically. "Maybe you can find out what was so important."

"Which one was the last one he looked at?" Haskins asked.

"Here," Farrst leaned over, and grabbed one of the casings on the console in front of them. Haskins took it from him and placed it in the appropriate slot. After flipping the right switch, the screen flared to life, and started replaying the footage.

"How long is the video? Two hours?"

"Only one. It's easier to scan through that way." To Veid, it sounded like Farrst had had a briefing with the Surveillance chief recently. "It's farther down, I think."

Haskins scanned through the footage, eyes searching for any signs of foul-play. A few minutes later, something caught his eye, and he stopped the scan, went back and played it again, slower this time.

He looked over to Veid, and saw that he'd caught it as well. "Those two...a man and a woman, the woman's wearing a hooded robe; to cover her hair, no doubt." They watched as they went through easily, without their identification being checked.

"That's what caught my eye, sir. The checking-in process takes much longer than that!"

"You're right. But how did they get through so easily?" He tried to remember Covell's report on the Stormtrooper leader's debriefing. Lightsabers...and people who could get through a security checkpoint with ease. Then, it suddenly came together.

"Damn you, Covell. Thought you could keep this a secret, so no one else could steal your glory?" Veid said under his breath, as if Covell could actually hear him. He was fuming with barely-contained anger. "He's going to get himself killed!"

"What?" Farrst asked in a shrill voice. Haskins looked on with interest.

"He's chasing after Jedi, the fool! And we don't have the resources to take them down!"

The mention of Jedi shocked Farrst completely, while Veid's aide seemed to absorb it without much thought. "Like what?" Haskins asked coolly.

"Like a Dark Jedi, for one thing. And all the hunting devices used back when the Emperor wanted all the Jedi exterminated." He paused, his face looking grim. "I guess he didn't get them all, did he?"

"What do we do, then?" Farrst was in near-panic.

Veid grimaced, then said, "I don't know. Yet."


Covell's troops woke up to hot and sticky weather, the last vestiges of summer before the permanent cool of fall. The leaves of the trees around them would have been tinted golden with the anticipation of autumn, but instead they were welcomed to the sight of brown, decaying leaves and gnarled trunks. Even in the early heat, the Stormtroopers could feel a chill run down their spines.

Brann Covell ignored it, however. He pressed the men on, determined to catch the Rebel Jedi before they got too far into the forest. Sergeant Raes kept an eye on Covell and his troops as they walked deeper into the surrounding trees, the chill permeating every bone in his body. He knew his men well, and he knew they wouldn't be able to take much more before their morale completely broke and they fled as fast as they could from this evil forest. If they didn't find any signs of the Rebels, he was going to take his troops back and leave this place, fugitives or no. Let Covell continue on with his chase; so far it hadn't gotten them anywhere. In fact, the closest they'd come to capturing them was in Gheas. Raes was sure that if he knew was Covell was withholding, he could set up a trap that the Rebel scum would never escape.


The humid weather provoked Cerrah to wake up earlier than normal; the hot, damp air making it uncomfortable to sleep any longer. The Scryth had waited patiently for this moment to arrive, and continued to wait as the girl went through the morning routine of washing, then eating. After that, it reached out to her.

She instantly responded, anticipating its call. Like it or not, the Scryth was the only ally she had. "So, where do I start?"

-Listen to us, and we will show you,- it answered calmly. -First, gather your anger and aggression.-

Anger? Aggression? "Why?" She asked, concerned.

-Do you want to protect yourself? Keep those who have hurt you from doing so again?- It felt her anger rise, as she pictured the villagers and their hateful beliefs. -Good. Feel the anger flow. It will give you power to destroy your enemies!-

The idea of destruction made her falter. "I don't--"

It didn't lose patience, but instead directed her anger elsewhere. -Your mother. She has joined with the human who pursues you.-

The revelation stunned her. "No," she managed weakly, in an attempt to deny it.

-Reach out for yourself, if you do not believe us.- Angry at it, her mother, and herself, she reached out to find her at the ship, with the search party...and two humans. Two humans who could use the Force! she determined sharply. What did it mean? "Who are they?"

-It was people like them who killed us, who turned us into this,- its tone was bitter. -Your mother is one of them.- It let the implication hang in the air, letting Cerrah decide what lay in store for her.

"They wouldn't kill me! I'm one of them!"

-They know no longer acknowledge you as one of their own. You are one of us, now,- it confirmed, trying to sway the wavering girl to its side. -They will destroy you as they did us, first by trying to be friends. Then, when you trust them, they will attack.-

Her mind struggled to absorb all this, knowing her mother had betrayed her, but not knowing why. It sensed this, and added, -She is afraid of you.-

"Me? I can't do anything."

-Not yet. But eventually you would surpass her. She could not let that happen.- It was now boldfacely lying, but she was so distraught she bought into the lie. She was the only who had developed any powers so far, but Lyrie and Eirsa weren't old enough yet to know for sure. She couldn't allow the same thing to happen to them that was now happening to her. Her rage was built further.

"What do I do with this anger?" Her face was twisted with malice, her dark eyes glinting from the glare of the morning sun off the possessed lake.

She could sense its contentment clearly. -Now, you focus it. That tree...- it guided her vision to a gnarled tree not far from the shore, -...destroy it.-

It felt her aggression rise, and the tree shattered, splinters flying in all directions. -Good. *Very* good.- It was very pleased. The Scryth continued the exercises, binding the girl's will closer to its own with every task.


It was a jungle, that was for sure. Green vines hung thick in the air in front of her, barring her way forward. He was up ahead somewhere; she could feel his presence through the sluggish mire that surrounded her. She wondered idly if it was the Dark Side at work, then decided it didn't matter. She pressed forward, hacking her way through the vines.

After an eternity, she finally reached her destination. *A temple?* she thought, puzzled. It was nearly identical to the one on Yavin, but it was taller, more menacing. She kept on, her task becoming even more urgent.

She entered in, and the inside was lit softly, but from an unknown source. She took the lift as far as it would go, then climbed the rest of the way up the stairs to the top. Lightsaber held at the ready, she approached the doorway that opened to the roof.

It opened for her, and she was suddenly on a balcony overlooking Coruscant. *I know this place,* she realized. Then it hit home. *This is the same balcony I was overlooking when Luke...* she turned to the right, and saw Luke waiting patiently, leaning on the stone railing for support. She noticed her lightsaber was off, but paid no attention to it. In an instant she was standing next to Luke, her journey completed. The sun was setting behind the cityscape, the Menarais a black shadow in the distance.

"So, Mara, you've finally come," She heard Luke say, sensing his words rather than hearing them.

"I came as fast as I could. I have something to tell you."

"What?" He looked eager. "What is it?"

Suddenly, the words died in her throat. *What was I going to say?* Mara strained to remember, the sentence having flown from thought. Luke only watched her, waiting silently.

*C'mon, c'mon, think!* She searched desperately, knowing somehow that every second wasted left a deeper rift between them. She looked up, and saw Luke watching her from a distance, still leaning on the railing behind him. The balcony was growing incredibly wide; her on one end and Luke on the other.

"No!" She cried out, trying to stop the process. But Luke had become a speck on the horizon. All of a sudden, she remembered what she had planned to say and prepared to scream it, but it was too late. He was gone.

Numbly, she murmured, "I love you."

The next second Mara found herself lying in a strange bed, still wearing her jumpsuit from last night. Dimly, she realized it was all a dream, but she still felt as empty as when the dream had ended. Eventually, reality washed back in, and she felt a tremendous relief at knowing that Luke was still there. She checked her chrono, and saw that it was still three hours until sunrise. Her drowsiness soon persuaded her back to sleep, and after several minutes, her dreams resumed.

She was at the balcony again, Luke in front of her waiting to hear her words.

Mara was determined to rectify her mistake. "I love you," she said again, hardly louder than the first time.

He was visibly stunned. "I don't know what to say," he started hesitantly.

A lump formed in her throat. "You don't?" She replied weakly, confused.

He looked into her eyes, trying to gauge her feelings. "How can I say this? The truth is, I think of you as a friend--a good friend--but I love Callista. I always have and I always will. I would wait for her until the end of time, if that's what it took for us to be together."

He might as well have stabbed her in the heart. "I understand," she mumbled, not really comprehending this at all.

He started to laugh now, twisting the knife further. "The thought of you being in love with's ridiculous! Besides, how could even think I'd be interested in someone like you?"

"What do you mean?" Her voice took on an edge of steel.

"You're as cold as ice, Mara. Loyal, but cold. If the Emperor were here right now, you'd gladly hop back on his side, faithful as ever."

"That's not true! How can you even say that?" But Luke just shook his head, amused at her attempt to redeem herself. "You'll never understand."

"What?" she pleaded, but he had vanished again.

This time the clock read two hours 'til sunrise. She vaguely understood that all her worst fears were being played out in dream form, but she was still shaken by the boldness of the vision. It felt disturbingly real to her.

Mara was reluctant to go back to sleep, and managed to keep herself awake for almost 20 minutes before drifting off again, this time without any dreams plaguing her.

It took several seconds of knocking at the door to finally wake Mara up. She groaned, and managed to mutter, "What is it?"

"Time to wake up." It was Nila. Well, better than Luke. "I'll be right there."

She sat up, and swung her legs out of bed. She tested their strength warily, but they seemed to be holding her weight well enough. Her healing trance last night had been rudely interrupted by those nightmares, and she hadn't healed as much as she should have. Still, she could walk on her own now, much to her relief.

At that moment, another knock came; this time more gentle than the first. Knowing it was Luke, Mara beckoned him to come in.

"How are you doing?" he asked quietly.

"I'm fine. I guess I just needed some rest, that's all."

He gave her a worried look. "No pain, no weakness?"

She smiled, and replied, "Ah, the doctor doesn't believe his patient?"

"No, it's it okay if I see for myself?"

Her mouth drew into a straight line. "Sure," she replied. She wasn't thrilled at the prospect of him probing her with the Force, but it was better to get it out of the way now, than to have him worry needlessly.

He rested his hand across her cheek and temple lightly, searching for any residual damage. Her left leg had born the brunt of the nerve damage, but it was already forming new connections. She wasn't at 100 percent yet, but in time she would be.

"Everything's healing well. You should fine by tomorrow." His thoughts from last night resurfaced just then, and he gazed into her eyes, searching for some sign that she was feeling something more than friendship at that moment.

To Mara, his eyes bored into her soul, exposing her innermost thoughts and vulnerabilities. She recoiled reflexively, creating a distance between them mentally and physically. "I guess so," she replied, breaking eye contact in an attempt to push him away. She was arguing with herself when the first dream came forth from her memory. If not now, then when? But then the second came as well. He doesn't love you--how could he? Doubt and despair latched onto her mind while her heart fought back, trying to move her to action. This was the Scryth's domain, however, and the dark presence fed into her despair and loneliness. Any fantasies she had of Luke claiming love for her was brusquely shoved aside.

Luke sensed the battle, but not the reasons behind it. His tone was slightly puzzled as he mumbled something about getting ready to leave as an excuse, and left her room. He didn't know what to make of her reaction; his own feelings at that moment were jumbled enough to keep his mind occupied for a decent amount of time. As he stalked back to get his equipment, Nila watched him walk away, thinking how this whole situation was starting to seem very familiar. She couldn't put her finger on it, though. *Well, I'll know soon enough. Getting Cerrah back is first priority.* She went off to get her own gear, and start on planning their path around the worst of the jungle's terrors.


The heat and humidity turned the air into a choking steam, baking the Stormtroopers inside their armor. Sergeant Raes wiped the sweat from his brow, having taken the armor plating off his hands for some amount of comfort. Soon it would be time to stop and eat, and then he could start with his own scheme.

The sensors hadn't done any good in this jungle; wildlife skittered around everywhere, confusing the sensitive equipment, and now the humidity was making it go haywire; The most suspect reading had lead them to a gigantic bulbous plant that in the end had killed two of his men. The thorned vines had slid down the armor of the legs of both soldiers until it had found a vulnerable spot: the padding where the leg and ankle armor met. They had cut the men loose and destroyed the plant, but it was too late--the poison they'd been injected with had already stopped their hearts. He had ordered his men to dig a shallow grave, but Covell had countermanded his order, saying that any unnecessary delay would only allow the Rebels to escape. The men had rumbled about this, already shaken by their comrades' quick death, and the forest around them.

Eating would allow him time to talk his men, gauge their loyalty to Covell and their satisfaction with the search. The other soldiers were not as dissuaded by recent events, but even they had their limits.

Covell called for them to halt, and the men stopped. The lieutenant took off his pack and reached inside; his signal for everyone that it was time to eat. The troops took their own packs off with renewed energy, savoring the brief respite. Now it was time to make his move.

Raes sat down next to his second, a man with shaggy brown hair and a scar running from the left side of his jaw to the bridge of his nose. His eyes looked penetratingly at his superior. "So, when are we gonna dump this guy and get the hell out of here?" He asked quietly, not ready for anyone to overhear just yet.

He was mildly surprised at the blunt admission, then figured he shouldn't be; the corporal knew him as well as anyone did, and would know what he was thinking. "As soon as we know everyone's with us, Frick."

"Might as well wish us off this planet," the other man snorted. "You're never gonna get everyone on our side. Our men'll follow us; if Covell's men don't have the sense to realize their commander's gone nuts, that's their loss."

"Maybe I should have a talk with them, then." Raes stood up and walked over to sit with Covell's former second. He could feel the lieutenant's eyes watching him, but he ignored it, focusing on the thin man in front of him. He looked like he was intelligent enough, but looks could deceive easily.

"How are your men holding up, Sergeant?" Raes asked politely, trying to make small talk. The other man looked at him oddly, and replied, "About the same as yours, I'd imagine."

"You mean hot, tired, and afraid?" It was an incredible risk to come out and say this, but he needed to know how the sergeant felt, and he didn't have the time for diplomacy. He was rewarded when the other smiled thinly and said, "Yes, I guess so."

"What do you think about this chase? Do you think we'll actually find anyone?"

"It's possible." The man was smart enough to not commit to anything.

Raes stuck his neck out a little farther, and said, "There's a good chance that these Rebels will eventually come out of the forest, since they have to get a ship to get off planet anyway. Waiting for them at Gheas would be more prudent."

"Are you thinking of taking your men and heading back?"

It was a loaded question, but he was sure his answer was worth it, if his opinion of the thin man was correct. "Yes, I am. And I'd think it would be better for both of us, and our troops, if we left unified."

"A mutiny, of sorts?" The sergeant was amused. "I admit, it's appealing, but also career-ending."

"If Covell were dead--killed, say, by one of those plants--then it wouldn't be mutiny then, would it?"

"No, it wouldn't." This conversation was beginning to get interesting. Was the sergeant just going along with him, or were they really of like minds? Raes decided to take a chance and find out. "Are you interested in joining us?"

The man hesitated agonizingly, mulling over his offer. Mutiny, if discovered, would mean being stripped of rank, and even death. But staying out here with carnivorous plants and who knows what would get them killed eventually, anyway. Plus, the fugitives might be setting an ambush up ahead, or might have even circled around them and passed them by. In the end, the decision wasn't too hard.

Word spread quickly throughout the ranks, and despite Frick's conviction, they were all in agreement. Covell caught on to the rumbling and activity, and approached Raes. "What's going on? Is there a problem?"

"Yes sir. It's you," he pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Covell's heart. "We're tired of chasing after these Rebels of yours. We haven't seen any sign of them since we found their landspeeder, and that's been confiscated. They'll have to come out eventually to get a ship to get off planet, and that means they'll head for Gheas, or even Yualpe. Besides, I don't think they could survive in this forsaken area."

"You idiot! They're not like us...they could survive in this jungle for as long as they wanted! If we don't catch up to them, we'll never find them again."

"What do you mean, 'they're not like us'? They're humans! You told us so yourself!" His face showed his frustration and anger. "Who or what are they, then?"

Covell virtually shook with anger, "They're Jedi, you fool. They can sense us right now, I'm sure. They know we're coming, just like they knew about the ambush in town."

Raes wanted to laugh out loud, but Frick beat him to it. The sergeant replied, "Jedi! The Jedi have been dead at least as long as most of my troops have been alive. I'm old enough to remember the purges, Lieutenant...unlike you."

"How did they get into Gheas without raising an eyebrow? How did they escape your ambush?" He permitted himself a sneer on that one. "They were using lightsabers in Yualpe, and your guards weren't killed by blaster fire, were they?" His eyes were like fire. His lust for power had driven him to the brink of madness.

Sergeant Raes found himself shaking his head in disbelief, but it all added up. It made sense, as strange as it was. "When were you planning on telling us?"

"You didn't need to know. All you had to do was follow my orders."

He stared at him incredulously. "How did you expect us to fight Jedi?" He uttered a few curses, then turned to Frick. "Take everyone and get out of here. I'll deal with the lieutenant."

Frick smirked, saluted and after a small conference with the other sergeant, took off back the way they'd came, the soldiers following behind.

"Are you planning on killing me?"

"What else would you suggest?" Raes was tempted to let Covell go off on his mad chase. He wouldn't be coming back, that was sure. "Dead men tell no tales."

"If that's how you feel, then..." Too late, he saw Covell's gun pointed at him and dived, the blast catching him in the shoulder instead of the chest. He saw Covell snatch his pack and run into the forest, in the direction they'd been heading. He aimed his pistol and was about to fire, but realized that Covell wouldn't be coming back anyway; either the Jedi or the carnivores would get him. He eased himself up, and turned back towards the edge of the trees, hurrying to catch up with his troops and leave this evil place.


The sweltering heat had come from the south, so Darm's village was the first to feel its effects. Already noon, the heat was beginning to rise again, in anticipation of the afternoon sun. Issik was playing in the backyard, taking the heat stoically, but Lyrie was moaning continuously.

"Daaaaddy, it's so hot!" She was saying for the 15th time that day. "Let's go to the river!"

He glared at her, his temper running short, "We're not going to the river. It's still too high from the rains we had two days ago. You'd be swept under like that," he snapped his fingers, hoping it would jar his daughter somewhat. It didn't work.

She pouted now, trying to use guilt to obtain her goal, "Mommy would let us go."

"No, she wouldn't. Now I don't want to hear anymore about it. We can stay cool here just as much as we would there." He looked around, trying to find the object that yesterday he wouldn't even had had a fleeting thought about. Where was it? Then he spied it in the corner, toys stacked around it. "Here we are!" He said as he dragged out the fan, and plugged it into the power supply. He flipped it on, and it whirred to life, creating a warm, but pleasant, breeze. Lyrie smiled contentedly as the wind hit her face. "Thank you Daddy," she hugged him around the neck, and he hugged her back. "Sure, honey, but don't let your mom know I used some of our power for this, okay?"

"Okay." She went to grab some of her coloring books and sat down in front of the fan, doodling away. At that moment, Mrs. Topek came in with Eirsa, wondering what the sound was. She saw the fan and gave a chastising look at Darm, then smiled conspiratorially and set Eirsa in front of it too. "Don't worry, I won't tell her."

"Thanks. I'd better call in Issik too."

The older woman shook her head and said, "I'll get him." Going out into the sun wasn't something you wanted to do on a day like this, and the sun wasn't even done yet. He smiled in gratitude, and she went out the back door. He watched her leave, amazed that she could still wear an ankle-length dress in this weather. Her grey-streaked hair was pinned up in a bun, and she placed her sun hat on as she went out the door; suddenly, she looked much younger than you would expect for a woman who was also a grandmother of three young adults. The door closing behind her cut off his retrospective, and the view into the backyard.

Mrs. Topek was a godsend, no doubt about it. Darm knew he would've gone crazy trying to take care of the kids on his own, if Nila hadn't arranged for her to come and help. At first he was a little offended that Nila hadn't mentioned it to him, but there just hadn't been time, he had realized. Besides, Mrs. Topek could cook a heck of a lot better than he could.

The thought of Nila made him melancholy, as well as the reason why she was gone. He'd tried to keep his mind off of Cerrah, but the same fears kept coming back to haunt him. He had no idea what was going on, or whether Nila had gotten there in time.

His thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Topek and Issik, the latter insisting he was fine and that he didn't need to come inside to cool off. Then his eyes spied the fan and with a quick look to his father, joined his sisters by it. Darm knew he was trying to make it easy for the adults by staying out of everyone's way, and causing as little hassle as possible, but that was no reason to get sunstroke, nevertheless. Once Issik knew that he wasn't bothering anyone, he would start to join in with the rest of the family again. He'd already begun to tease his sister by pulling on her ponytail. She swatted him away, yelling, "Quit it!" Soon, with Cerrah home, everything would be back to normal.


The "lesson" the Scryth was teaching lasted until about noon, when Cerrah demanded a break and it gave in. Already she was sufficiently bound to its will, though she still needed practice before mastering the dark arts it had taught. She ate lunch in the shade of one of the gnarled trees, treating it as a perfunctory task rather than enjoying it. All was going well.

The Jedi would be here in a few hours, not enough time to indoctrinate her, but enough to give her the control and focus she needed to destroy them. It had a plan in mind; it would be risky, but it would give the Scryth the extra time it needed.

-Cerrah,- it called out to the young girl, -they are coming soon.-


-Your mother, and the others with her. Time is running short.-

"I'm not ready! I can't face them now!"

-We have a plan.-

"Go on."

-You will go back with them,- it caught her hesitance, and added, -for now. The power we have given you will protect you. Meanwhile, we will continue your lessons.-

"They'll find out."

-We have a bond, you and us. They will know nothing. We will catch them off-guard this way, also. Instead of them betraying us, we will betray *them*.-

Cerrah liked the sound of that. To have the power, instead of being the pawn. "What do I do?"

-Just follow our instructions, and everything will be fine,- it nearly cackled with glee. Everything was going well, indeed.


Nila, Mara and Luke, along with the search party, left early that morning, before the worst of the sweltering heat arrived. Most had stripped down their clothing as far as they could, and still keep some modicum of modesty, but it was still soaked with sweat. Luke tried controlling his metabolism enough to keep the heat from overwhelming him completely, and for the most part, he was successful. But he too had to reduce clothing as far as he could, to help cool off.

He'd been keeping an eye on the Imperial soldiers, and so was surprised when he felt them turn around and go back the way they'd come. They had called off the search, for now at least. One person seemed to be still out there, but he was far south of their position, and heading due west. It looked like he was hopelessly lost. Maybe a scout who'd been separated from the rest of the troops? Or reconnaissance left behind to find Mara and him on his own? For now, at least, the danger of the Imperials had lessened, and he could concentrate fully on their own search.

Mara seemed to be doing well enough, though he could see the pain on her face when she had to climb up even the shallowest hill. He wished that she could have stayed behind, but she wasn't about to do that. He looked behind him, and saw her following step for step, not willing to admit she might need a rest. Perspiration rolled off her face, gluing dark red tendrils of hair to her forehead and neck, the rest of her hair pulled back for some relief from the heat. He quickly turned back around before she could see that he'd been watching her, and continued on, trudging deeper and closer to the center of evil in this place.

Nila lead him on, guiding him through nasty surprises and swampy versions of quicksand, while also keeping an eye out for any predators that may have wandered up this way, but that wasn't likely. Animals kept away from this place as well.

Shortly after the sun hit its zenith, and the heat started to increase further, the group settled down in the shade of a large, knobby tree, its leaves drooping in the heat. The Shadoui men all sat together, and soon had struck up a lively conversation; more to beat off the feeling of death and evil than anything else. Mara and Nila sat with Luke and ate silently for a while, neither really looking too closely at the other. Then Luke stood and walked off in a particular direction, not saying why, and no one really asked. Nila didn't stop him, since she needed to speak with Mara in private anyway.

"He's a nice fellow. A little lonely, but nice." Nila tested.

"Luke? Yeah, that's true enough."


Mara shrugged, "Many things, probably. I think, though, that he's missing Callista still."

This didn't sound good. "Callista?" She prompted.

Mara smiled weakly, "His girlfriend."

"Ah. So, she died?" She tried to sound sympathetic, but it came out a little too hopeful for her tastes, nevertheless.

"Not exactly. She's still alive, but she left him." Her voice took on a hard edge, as she explained further. "For Callista, trying to regain her Force powers was more important than being with Luke."

"You think she had her priorities wrong," Nila stated.

Her mouth drew into a grimace, "Yes. Luke didn't care about it, and told her so. She still left anyway, swearing to come back when she could use the Force again. That was eight years ago."

"He's been waiting all this time?" Nila was surprised.

"Yep. And you know what's really odd? She *could* use the Force, but it was only the Dark Side." Mara pondered that over, then muttered out loud, "I wonder why?"

"I have no idea. Of course, I don't know how she lost her powers in the first place." Nila smiled slightly, amused at Mara's suddenly transparent feelings. These revelations were helping piece together the whole scenario. Now it was beginning to make sense.

"No one's really sure. I think, though, that since she cheated death, the Force didn't like that and cut her off. It *is* somewhat sentient, and all Jedi have to pass on to the next plane whether they want to or not. She didn't."

"And it punished her. An interesting thought, but no one's sure that the Force is sentient or not. It does sometimes control our actions, and some of us have inescapable destinies, but for it to pass judgement...?" The idea sounded ludicrous, but the only times Nila knew of where someone was cut off was when it was done by Jedi to other Jedi, as punishment. This whole topic was making her head swim. "Maybe it did pass judgement. But how did she cheat death?"

"She transferred herself into the mind of someone else."

The very idea revolted Nila to the core, and she found herself recoiling physically. "Why would she do that?"

"She wanted to be with Luke. The person she transferred into--Cray--gave up her life in order for Callista to live again. Ironic, isn't it, that Cray died so that they could be together, and she ends up leaving him?" She shook her head in disbelief. "She had been in this computer for about 30 years before Luke found her. Sounds unbelievable, doesn't it?" She smiled bitterly. "Why she didn't go insane, I'll never know."

Nila continued asking questions, until she knew as much as Mara did about the whole situation. Any more knowledge would have to be gleaned from Luke.

Mara's tongue was now loosened, and Nila pursued on, not satisfied yet. "So, how long have you known Luke?"

"About ten years." Mara smiled suddenly and added, "And for five years before that, I wanted to kill him."

"Why?" Nila leaned in, this sudden insight into Mara and Luke's past making her very curious.

"I used to be the Emperor's Hand--basically an assassin who was at his beck and call. I was sent to kill Luke and I failed. The Emperor ended up dead, but before he died he told me a lie--that Luke and Vader had killed him, and he wanted me to finish what I started. Believing he had destroyed my life, I planned how Luke was going to die." Several years ago, recounting this would have had Mara's voice filled with anger and hatred, but now it was more like regret and weariness. "I remember asking him how the Emperor had died, and he told me that Vader had thrown him down an energy shaft. I was ticked off, since that didn't mesh with my version. Besides, why would the Emperor have me hunt him down when he didn't do anything? When I found out that Vader was his father, that's when everything clicked together. He was trying to get at Vader through his son."

Then Mara turned pensive, and said, "Once I found that out, my hatred started to evaporate. I tried to hold onto it, because it was the only thing I had left--I had lost everything when the Emperor had died. But it didn't last long. Luke and I are good friends now," she said dismissively, as this was hitting too close for her comfort. She finished the rest of her meal as Nila mulled that over.

Then Luke came back, and called everyone together. "I've pinpointed where she is," he declared, not managing to keep the smile from his face. "Plus, she's waiting for us."

"She is?" Nila was ecstatic. "C'mon, then, let's go!" All thoughts of Mara and Luke were pushed aside as her first priority now took dominance. Soon, they were back on the trail, of a better disposition than they'd been for days.


They reached the lake before sunset, and Luke finally got to see the person he'd been looking for for the past four days. Her hair was so dark he couldn't tell whether it was black or brown--he guessed brown. Her eyes were the same as the other natives; black, and very expressive. He also noticed that some of the men who'd actually come with them this far hung back from the girl, though he didn't understand why.

Her clothes were torn and soiled, and her mother fretted over her appearance, after she managed to unglue herself from her daughter. "Cerrah! Why didn't you tell me you needed clothes?"

"How was I going to do that, Mother? Knock on your door and ask for some?" Her tone was bitterly sarcastic.

"You know how to contact me, remember?" Nila lightly tapped her daughter's forehead, in emphasis. "Why didn't you?"

"I can take care of myself," she continued in that tone, puzzling her mother and putting Mara and Luke on edge. They didn't understand the words, but they got the main idea.

"What's the matter with you, Cerrah?" she whispered, not really wanting to go into this right now. "You've never spoken to me like this before!"

Maybe it was the pleading look on her mother's face, or something else, but Cerrah's attitude changed abruptly. She apologized profusely to her, and gave her a warmer hug this time. "I'm sorry," she said again.

"It's all right. You've been through so much lately, I can't blame you." Nila stood up and looked around the lake, as if searching for something. "We're going home now. That's all that matters."

Luke spoke up at that moment. "I don't see or sense the Scryth anywhere," he observed, catching onto Nila's concerned look. "Has it been bothering you, Cerrah?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ah, oppressing your mind, creating despair...anything like that?" She continued to look puzzled, and he amended, "I guess not."

"Well, no. I did have a bad dream, but that was at the ship, not here. I told it to leave me alone, and it did."

Luke nodded, not sure if he believed the girl or not. For some reason, he couldn't read anything from her mind. Maybe it was the dark presence of this place overpowering his efforts.

For Mara, though, the girl's lack of fear for the entity had her scrutinizing everything Cerrah did and said. She, more than anyone else, knew what it was like to be persuaded and controlled by someone. Moreover, the Scryth hadn't left them alone; why should it obey a little girl? Her mother didn't seem too worried, however, so Mara put her doubts and observations on hold, for the moment.

Most of the Shadoui men had stayed a long distance away from the lake's edge, and so it took some time to reach them, then decide the best route back. The men wanted to get as far away as they could before camping for the night, and all agreed, with Cerrah being silent. Nila plotted a direct path, skipping past the ship to one side and the river on the other, in order to cut down on their traveling time. Eventually their path would take them to the straighter part of the winding river, and then they could follow it home.

As they walked, Luke talked to Nila about his academy and his students, and how he was hoping to have her daughter as a member someday. Nila smiled in sympathy for what he'd already been through as a teacher, and what he still had yet to weather if Cerrah joined his group.

"I've been teaching her since we knew she was Force-sensitive, and I'd like to think I've done a good job. Tell me, what do you teach at your school?"

"Well, the basics, mostly, but I also guide students in the higher levels. I try to show them that having responsibility is one of the keys to using the Force. They go through trials, each depending on their field of study."

She nodded, then asked, "What did you specialize in?"

He gave a short laugh. "I really didn't have a choice. I ended up a Jedi Knight, so I could fight against Vader and the Emperor. I probably would have picked that, anyway."

"I can't picture you as a teacher, Luke. No offense," she added.

"It's okay. I admit, it's not exactly my area of expertise, but I was the only one left. Yoda commanded me to pass on what I knew."

"I happen to know some things about teaching the Force, Luke. I was learning from Yoda before we left, and my parents were continuing with my training, until they died." She grew silent then, and turned back to the darkening forest. After awhile, she mentioned, "I have the rest of my father's journals at home."

"The rest? You mean there's more?" His voice was very eager.

She looked slightly embarrassed. "I needed the others for guidance. That other one...I left because I didn't want to read know."

"I know." The last few days of her parents' lives. The fact that the knowledge of her father was stored in tomes still left him stunned. "Can I see the journals?"

"Of course. I have a feeling you'll need them."

Their conversation fell silent. As twilight began to fall, the Shadoui and Nila scanned the area for an appropriate campsite. As they were doing that, Luke used the Force to find where the other human had ended up. He could sense the other's presence to the right of their party, several kilometers away--probably by the river, he guessed. It didn't look like he was going any further west; he might decide to go back by following the river, which would miss them entirely, or he might go downriver and into the Shadoui's village. Luke was tempted to delve further into the man's mind, but figured he'd know soon enough tomorrow morning, and turned his attentions back on the group.


The river was not as swollen as it had been recently, but its current was still strong enough to sweep someone away if they tried to cross it. Brann Covell had decided not to try it, and instead follow the river. But which way? Upstream would head back to Gheas, but he would also be admitting failure if he did that. Raes would report him dead, he didn't doubt it; showing up from beyond the grave would be enough to have everyone court-marshalled or killed. He smiled at that, thinking of the punishment inflicted on Raes in particular.

The Jedi needed to be taken care of *now*, however. Were they downriver? He couldn't imagine why; the sergeant had been right in one thing--the Rebels would need transportation off-planet, and only Gheas and Yualpe offered that. And Gheas was their best bet. They could wait out the Imperial forces longer than any normal human, but their ultimate destination was either of the two cities.

So upriver it was. He failed to notice the whispers in his head as they wove a tapestry of assurances and confidence that his choice was right. And as he fell asleep that night, took no notice of the soft laughter coming from the rustling of the wind through the tainted leaves.

Chapter 7

Night fell quickly, but unfortunately it didn't take the heat with it. The temperature dropped enough so that they weren't constantly sweating, but sleeping would prove difficult. Mara sat down gratefully by the trunk of a tree, savoring the feel of not standing. The Force had helped her get through this day, but her legs weren't any better for it. If she went into a healing trance tonight, she was sure she'd be fine in the morning. Right now, though, her body wasn't thanking her for the trouble.

Luke was talking with Nila again, trying to get more information out of her, but she was evading his questions. It looked like she had her own questions to ask, primarily about Callista. Why Nila wanted to know about her, Mara couldn't say. Nosy, perhaps? Or truly fascinated over Callista's predicament? *Good luck in getting him to talk about it,* Mara smirked to herself. *He usually shuts out anyone even touching on the subject.*

Amazingly, Luke seemed to open up for Nila. Mara started to listen in, but after a few seconds, she felt guilty about it and tried to divert her attention elsewhere.

The villagers were sitting around in a circle, cooking up something. It smelled good, whatever it was. If she'd had the strength left, she'd walk over to try a bit of it, but her legs gave her a stubborn 'no'. Her eyes wandered further, and caught sight of the girl sitting on the other side of the campsite, away from everyone else. The scene was familiar to Mara, who was never much of a joiner, either. The girl was just watching everyone, coiled up as if ready to spring at a moment's notice. *You'd think she'd be enjoying the fact that she's going home,* she wondered with some concern.

Cerrah's eyes fell on Mara, and was startled to find Mara staring back, unfazed at the sudden connection. The girl's gaze hardened, then moved on, purposely avoiding her. Her sense was still dark, strangely enough. Mara's intuition told her to watch this kid--she might be dangerous. And Mara was never one to ignore her intuition.

The look on the woman's face had nearly given Cerrah a heart attack. *She knows!* But the woman didn't betray any sense that she was anything but wary. Contacting the Scryth would be too dangerous now--the woman Jedi, Mara Jade, would be observing her for sure--besides, she didn't need its help. She was strong now. Their abilities were weak and pathetic next to hers.

Her mother was calling her to eat, and replied tiredly that she was coming.. The Scryth had told her to play along with them until the time was right, and she was doing just that. All of them were pretending to like her, except for the woman Jade. In that, Cerrah had some amount of respect for her; at least she wasn't hiding her dislike. She decided to sit down next to her, just to throw her off.

Jade wasn't too happy, but took it in stride. Her mother wanted her to sit next to her instead, but the other Jedi made an excuse for her. The fool. He was just like the Scryth said--he was trying to be nice so he could earn some favor with her. *Nice try,* she thought, *but in the end it'll do you no good.* She smiled at that, and started to pretend that everything was fine, fooling everyone but the woman sitting next to her.


Exhaustion soon lulled everyone to sleep. After what seemed like several hours, Luke suddenly found himself waking up in a cold sweat, his heart pounding in his chest as if he'd been frightened out of his mind. He had no idea what could have caused that sensation, and turned to see Mara as she had been when he had fallen asleep, with her back turned away. He stretched out with the Force to her--for more reassurance than anything--and felt...nothing. It created more curiosity than fear, however, and he crept over to check on her, puzzling out the whole situation.

He rested his hand lightly on hers, and was shocked to find it cold and lifeless. He felt dread rise in his throat as his hand moved to her neck, to check for a pulse, while searching through the Force for some shred of evidence to the contrary. There was nothing. This can't be happening, he told himself, not understanding what was going on. He turned her over, and found a neatly cauterized stab wound in her chest.

*No, she's not dead. She can't be.* He called her name softly, and received no response. After a few seconds, it started to sink in, and it took awhile for his wits to return in some form. He searched through the Force again, and got the same feeling of emptiness. One by one he checked everyone out, both physically and with the Force, and the same thing was revealed; Death by lightsaber.

*Someone's killed them all. But how...? And why? Why not me as well?* He didn't understand any of this. He sank back to Mara's body, in a state of complete hopelessness.

Suddenly he ducked his head; the Force-attuned reaction saved him from the scything yellow blade above. He turned and rolled in one movement, to face his attacker. The death he planned for this murderer was coming vividly to mind.

He nearly fell backwards as he recognized the face, a mixture of two people in one. "Callista...?" This was wrong. All wrong. He should have sensed the death of Mara, Nila and Cerrah when it happened, not afterward. And where did Callista come from?

"Looks like you decided to move on with your life, Dearest. Got tired of waiting for me?" She sneered as she moved the lightsaber into an attack position. He reached for his lightsaber with the Force, and it rose in obedience, only to be slapped down and held in check. He pushed against the pressure, but it barely budged. He tried another tactic.

"Why did you kill everyone but me?" He asked, hoping to get her talking. The Dark Side obviously had taken over, but she could be turned back...

"I wanted you to suffer like I have. Didn't you think I'd know when you'd betray me?" The hatred was plain on her face. "Now that she's gone, it's time for you to pay as well!" Her blade swung down at him, and he dodged, reaching out again for his lightsaber, to no avail. She slashed at him once more, and he rolled to the side, this time reaching for Mara's lightsaber.

It was about to land in his palm as he saw the blade slice down again. *No...*

"No!" He sat up, and after several seconds he discovered that it had been a dream. Only a dream...but it had felt so real. He reached out with the Force to the others, and to his relief found them alive and well. His shout hadn't appeared to wake anyone up, but the man on watch was observing him with concern. Luke smiled in some embarrassment, and the man nodded in understanding. Just a nightmare.

He looked over to Mara, and though he knew she was alive, and could see her breathing, he walked over to reassure himself. Her skin was warm, as expected, though he couldn't help but sigh in relief at that. He started to walk back to his bedroll, when he heard her mumble out loud, "Are you all right?"

*I guess I *did* wake someone up,* he mused, walking back over to Mara silently. "It's okay. Just a bad dream I had, that's all," he whispered.

"Pretty nasty one, I'd say. Woke me up," she muttered sleepily. Her eyes focused on his face, and she asked, "Why did you come over here?"

He shrugged, and replied, "No reason."

"Right." It didn't sound like she believed his excuse. "You look like you've been scared pretty good. Want to talk about it?"

He was tempted, but had to decline. "Maybe in the morning."

"Okay, then. Good night," She rolled back over, and resumed her healing trance. Luke watched her for a little bit, then it occurred to him that the watchman was probably observing all of this. He looked around, to see if Nila had woken up too, but she was sound asleep. He went back to bed, and drifted off to sleep again, never noticing a young girl's eyes watching his every move.


The next morning wasn't much different from the last one. Heat still continued from the south, hinting at the possibility of thunderstorms coming their way. Luckily, Raes and his troops would be back in Gheas by then.

Sergeant Raes had his story straightened out with the other sergeant, who he found out was named Jerdon. He knew Farrst wasn't the type to ask a lot of questions, so he wasn't worried about him. The commander was the one he didn't know, and was the person who'd be the most upset at losing an officer. Raes tried to calm his fear at being found out, knowing that the possibility of Covell surviving the forest were incredibly slim. A blaster bolt would have made sure, but also would have confirmed mutiny if anyone went to find the body. Hopefully, the story would put any curiosity aside.


Covell woke up refreshed, and ready for his long hike back. Without any doubts, he headed upstream, towards the lake and Gheas--and his fugitives as well. He'd never felt so sure about anything, and for him it was a pleasant change. Today felt like it was going to be a wonderful day.


Everyone in the search party was up and ready to get as far away from the lake as they could that morning. Knowing that they'd be in the village before sunset brightened their mood considerably, and had them packing up enthusiastically.

Jeth Kol approached Nila while she was still gathering up her things, and asked quietly, "Have you noticed Cerrah's behavior?"

"What do you mean?"

"The way she's acting--she's hostile one moment, then nice the next. I don't understand it."

"I know. I'm not sure what's going on, but I'll let her have a little time to adjust, for now. I don't want to think the Scryth has gotten to her already, but if this keeps up..." Her voice trailed sadly. What would she do if this was the case? She didn't know, and saw the uncertainty on Jeth's face as well. All she could do now was watch, and hope.

Luke was about done packing up when Mara caught his arm. "What was that all about last night?" She asked in earnest.

He didn't know why this was so important to her, and tried to dodge out of it. "It wasn't anything, really."

She gave him a hard look, one that told him she knew better. "Luke, your nightmare woke me out of a meditative state, for crying out loud! It...wasn't a vision, was it?" He recognized the hesitance in her voice; the kind that was heavy with dread.

"No." *How much did she pick up?* he wondered.

As if in answer, she responded, "I was in it, wasn't I? I sensed that last night, when you came over." She gave him an odd look, as if puzzling him out.

He sighed, and gave in a little. "I dreamt that everyone in the camp was killed, and that Callista had done it in revenge, or contempt, or something like that. She'd been fully consumed by the Dark Side. I woke up right before she killed me," he swallowed hard, not wanting to remember any of it. It had been so illogical, and implausible, but it still hung with him. He knew what had caused it, and what the dream was about--but confessing it to Mara hadn't been on his agenda today. "I was just making sure it was only a dream."

"All right," Mara said quietly, still watching his face and mood. "I was wondering, that's all. I was afraid--" she interrupted herself, and amended, "--concerned that you were attacked again."

"I'm pretty sure that's what it was, actually. You haven't had any nightmares recently, have you?"

She paused long enough for him to doubt her answer. "No, not really."

He decided not to push her on it--mostly he was fearing her defensive reaction--and finished up what he was doing, as she walked off in thought.

Soon they were off, heading for the village with renewed spirit and an overwhelming urge to leave the evil behind. Cerrah followed along, thinking over the Scryth's plan, and the Jedi's reaction to the nightmare from last night.


The weary and sweating Stormtroopers arrived in Gheas shortly after the sun had hit its highest point. The transports had been waiting for them, and it didn't take them long before they reached the walls of the city. Raes and Jerdon were escorted into Farrst's presence as they expected, but to their surprise found Commander Veid waiting there as well.

Veid took Raes into the next room, as Jerdon was beginning his report to Farrst. They were separating them, Raes realized idly. Well, their story was pat; and switching around their commanding officers wasn't going to shake *him*, at least. Veid sat down behind the desk in the other office, and gestured him to sit. He did so, and started to recite the tale.

He started with the failed ambush at the hotel, and continued fleshing out the scenario, telling how the carnivorous plants had overtaken two of his men, and how they had pressed on in search of the Rebels. Covell had decided to scout out the area ahead for some reason--and here he intimated that Covell had begun to act rather strange and irrational at this point--and had never come back. He had searched for hours, but no sign of him had turned up. They assumed he was dead, and both he and Jerdon agreed that they should come back and get the proper equipment in order to prevent any more needless deaths.

The commander narrowed his gaze while thinking this through, until he finally spoke, "This all sounds very interesting, Sergeant, but what happened, really?"

"I just told you, sir. Covell--"

"Covell did not scout out any areas, Sergeant Raes. If there's one thing he knows how to do, it's how to delegate responsibility." He stood up and walked over to Raes' side. "I think you got tired of wandering around, and decided to leave without him."

"No, sir! We--"

"You killed him, didn't you?" The commander's eyes narrowed.

"No!" That, at least, was an honest statement. "He ran off into the forest." He could have slapped himself for the slip. Where had his resolve gone?

"'Ran off', Sergeant? What made him run?" The sound of Veid's voice was convicting. He felt like he'd already been exposed; now all he had to do was confess.

"He ran after the Rebels, sir. As far as I know, he's still alive. We didn't look for him, obviously. I have to tell you though, sir, that those people out there are Jedi." He tried to put the best spin he could on this mess.

"I know."

" do?" Raes was stunned. "Did everyone know this but me?" He asked with some amount of anger.

"No. Covell didn't tell anyone, including me. I only found out yesterday."

The sergeant grimaced, his mind still trying to absorb everything. "I guess my days in the Empire are over, aren't they?" He was hoping the commander wouldn't add death onto his sentence as well.

"I think in the days ahead, you'll be thankful that you're no longer a soldier, Sergeant." Veid called the guards in, and they escorted Raes away. As he walked down the hall towards the brig, he wondered what Veid could have meant by that.


After hours of traveling through the forest, then following the river south, Luke and Mara heard the thunderous sound of rushing water. Mara asked if there were rapids nearby, but Nila smiled and shook her head, and suddenly guided the group back into the forest.

"Why aren't we following the river?" Luke asked out loud, and Mara just shrugged her shoulders. Nila was being secretive for some reason, but he surmised that Nila was probably just taking them around a difficult part of the riverbank. The others didn't seem too concerned, and even Cerrah was looking more energetic than usual.

The sound turned into a torrent of noise as they came closer, and the ground began to descend sharply. Luke and Mara understood what it was then, and looked to their right in order to get a glimpse of the waterfall. Nila smiled even wider as she watched them straining to look through the trees. "Don't worry, we're coming up to a clearing."

They reached a flat expanse of rock and peered over the tranquil and awe-inspiring scene. Water gushed over the top of a 20 meter cliff, falling into a series of pools that in turn funneled water down to continue the river. A small pond had formed around the base of the pools, with aquatic plants and flowers shooting through the calmer areas of water. The sun glistened off the spray, creating a rainbow in the white haze. In the distance, they spotted a cottage on their side of the river, that enjoyed the view of the waterfall from a good 30 meters away.

"Incredible," was all Luke managed to say. Mara made a similar comment, and they hurried the rest of the way down in order to get a better view of the cascade of water and the house below. The path took them to a stone walkway that guided them straight to their destination.

The cottage was made out of some sort of ceramic that reminded Luke of the houses on Tatooine. Flowers bloomed across the face of it, as ivy crawled up the side in an effort to hide the house from the rest of civilization, and they passed the remnants of a stone wall that served as the border for the garden. Luke and Mara were struck by the idyllic scene, after drudging through an endless sea of olives, browns and grays. The idea of staying for awhile didn't seem to be out of the question, as far as they were concerned.

The rest of their group decided that today was the kind of day that called for swimming, and while Nila showed Mara and Luke the cottage, the guys had fun jumping into the cool water. Cerrah watched only a little of the fun, before tagging along with her mother.

Inside, the temperature dropped considerably. Darm had cleaned up the mess Cerrah had left behind as best he could, but signs of dirt on the floor showed that her daughter had indeed been there. This time Nila said nothing, and moved on, giving them a short tour. To the right was the kitchen area, with a wooden table in the middle and shelves for food that, at the moment, did not exist. The area to the left was used for relaxing and socializing, with comfortable-looking chairs and couches in a sunken part of the room; the step-down helped delineate that section of the room from the kitchen. Ahead they could see a short hallway that terminated at a door; Nila told them it was a linen closet. In the hallway, there was a door to the left, and offset from that, a door on the right as well. On the right was the bathroom, Nila informed them, and the bedroom was on the left. She opened the left door, and they saw an utilitarian, almost spartan room. Through the window, though, was a spectacular view of the waterfall, framed by ivy and a small, purple climbing flower of some sort. This wasn't a room to be spending your day in, Luke thought, and pointed this out. Nila responded, "Usually we set this place up before the newlyweds arrive. Trust me, it doesn't look like this when they get here." The smile on her face spoke of experience--and made Luke a little more uncomfortable than he had previously felt.

They headed back towards the main area and sat down on the padded furniture, more than eager to rest for awhile. Soon they started up a conversation that ranged from what the Empire was doing now, to the latest gossip and heresay spreading across the galaxy. Nila learned about Luke's past from an enthusiastic Mara, who enjoying watching a very modest Luke squirm under the recountings of his past and present heroics--and some not-so-heroic events as well. "You should've seen the look on his face," Mara was saying as she told one of his more unglamorous stories, one she witnessed herself while on Yavin a few years back. "The twins were covered head to toe in mud, and he was absolutely caked with it. It was hilarious!" She laughed, and Nila joined in, while Luke didn't quite enjoy the story as much as Mara did. "How was I to know they were going to start a mud fight--using the Force, no less? It was supposed to be a survival test for them, to see how well they'd do if they were alone on Yavin," he said defensively, though he started to smile as he remembered the sight of Jaina and Jacen dripping with mud. "Leia was furious!" And soon he was laughing as well.

"Remember what Jacen said?" Mara prompted, and both she and Luke said at the same time, " 'It's not my fault!' " and laughed even harder; Nila not getting the private joke. She continued to smile politely as the laughter ran its course, and the topic moved on to something else.

"You should hear some of the stories about Mara I've heard--and personally experienced," he grinned as he watched the expression on her face turned from amusement to near-horror. "Don't you dare, Skywalker..." she threatened as he grinned even further. If she'd had something to throw at him, it would have already been sailing towards his head. As such, she contented herself with a stern glare in his direction.

He went on to describe--in detail--one event in particular where she had drank a little too much at one of the diplomatic functions he'd been forced into attending, and began to make advances on some of the more handsome men in attendance, with or without dates. After that, she had ended up on stage, belting out one song after another. Luckily by that time, most of the more reputable guests had left, but she was still the talk of the town for many weeks afterward.

"She wasn't half bad," Luke managed to say, once the laughter had stopped. "She could really be good if she kept at it!" He was still grinning. The scowl on her face hadn't softened one bit.

"At least I got some contracts out of it. You, however, were stuck cleaning up after the both of them," she smiled in some satisfaction. Before Mara could bring up another story, Nila interrupted by observing how late it had gotten, and that they should really get going before it got too dark. Neither of them felt like moving an inch, but they knew Nila was right. The group was gathered up--most of them dripping wet--and they continued on downriver.


The heat was still going strong into the later hours, and Covell had to keep from panting in exhaustion; more for pride than anything else. The river had taken many twists and turns, and now he was finally at the lake. Its calm surface seemed to beckon to him, and he was tired enough to ignore the warnings of the trees as their branches swung to and fro, caused by the winds from the south. The clouds from that area were darkening ominously, and he vaguely realized the meaning of that. Rain meant a break from the heat, hopefully, and he was all for it. Right now, though, the waters nearby would have to satisfy him.

He slid easily into the brackish water, and as he did so, he felt oddly energized, almost as if--

His thoughts were cut off as he lost consciousness, his head bobbing underneath the surface of the lake. After a few seconds, he resurfaced with a renewed vigor. He rose out of the water, staring at his hands first, then the rest of him in curiosity and wonder. And began to laugh.


Darkness fell quickly as the storm clouds rolled in, cutting into their remaining daylight hours. Luckily, all they had to do was follow the river home. Nila had noticed that Cerrah's countenance had improved about an hour ago, and hoped it was a good sign. Cerrah was still blocking everyone out somehow, and it worried her to no end. She had never taught her anything like that, and the odds that Cerrah had figured it out on her own were slim, at best. However, she was confident that being in the midst of friends and family would return her back to her former self.

Soon, the lights from the village came into view, and they entered the outskirts of town. Luke saw how the houses in the village looked similar to the cottage they'd seen, but were larger, and occasionally painted other colors, although in the dark he could only distinguish a few. At first they didn't see anyone, but as they traveled farther into the heart of the village, more Shadoui appeared, very enthusiastic at seeing the group. Before long, a crowd had formed, and reactions were mixed; either they were overjoyed or dismayed. The group was ushered into the center of town, where Luke and Mara's eyes fell on a massive pillar of white ceramic jutting into the darkened sky, lit by the remaining light and the artificial lamps from below. Both were puzzled at the reaction of the crowd, but the excitement eventually washed over them, and took them along in its current.

After awhile, Nila, Cerrah, Luke and Mara found themselves in the tower, in what seemed to be an oratorium of some sort. A small group of people were assembling at one end, dressed in robes of white, while the crowd stayed on the other end.

One figure emerged from the mob, carrying a small child and towing two others, followed by an older woman. Luke had no clue who this man was, but Nila's eyes lit up at the sight of him, and she rushed forward to embrace him. *This must be her husband,* Luke thought, remembering their earlier conversations. His hair was dark, like the rest of the Shadoui's, and reached almost to the back of his shirt. He stood at about Mara's height, and looked a good deal older than Luke would have expected. The children were obviously hers, and they looked on cautiously, giving careful looks at the two humans. Cerrah was then swept in with the rest of the family reunion, being hesitant at first, but her attitude changed a little as more people came and said how glad they were to have her back. Her expression showed confusion, then understanding as she noticed the other side of the crowd; those who looked at her with reproach and fear. Her face became resolute, and she stayed placid and unflappable the rest of the night.

Nila introduced her husband Darm, who replied surprisingly in Basic, "Nice to meet you." Luke and Mara said the same, and then they were introduced to the other children: Issik, a tallish 8-year old boy; Lyrie, the precocious 6-year old; and Eirsa, a very shy 2-year old who hid her face in Nila's shoulder when she tried to introduce her to the two of them. The older woman turned out to be a friend of Nila's who didn't speak a word of Basic. She just smiled and nodded when her name was given, and theirs were given back, and quickly murmured something to Nila that sounded like an apology, and left. Nila smiled politely to Luke and Mara, and said, "Her husband is the leader of the Council, so she has to be up front, by the Council." She pointed at the group of people trying to call order to the crowd of Shadoui.

"What's going on?" Mara asked, bewildered.

"The Council is calling a meeting," Nila grimaced, then added more to herself than anybody, "Why can't they ever wait with these things?" then explained further, "They're going to officially give Cerrah into our custody, and give the dictates and terms and so on."

"Sounds incredibly tedious."

"It is," Nila sighed, and asked if they wanted to leave. "You won't understand anything they say, and Darm and I won't be able to translate for you."

"That's all right. We'll stay," Luke offered.

It took several minutes before everyone had settled down, and about a half hour before it was all done with. Shortly afterward, the crowd departed, and Nila's family and Luke and Mara were left alone in the Hall.

"Time to go home," Darm said, and Luke asked quickly, "Where's a good place to pitch camp?"

"No, you don't. You're staying with us," Nila demanded, and her disposition was not one to be brooked. "We've got room enough."

Luke was going to refuse her offer, but her attitude suggested that it wouldn't be a good idea, and he and Mara followed the reunited family down one of the spoke-like roads to their home.

As they walked, Mara absorbed the sights around her into her memory, in a reflexive survival technique. The plan of the town seemed simple enough, and if she got turned around somehow, she could always find her way back to the center. She guessed the spoke they'd originally gone down pointed northwest, and now they were heading almost straight north, back towards the woods. The air smelled faintly of wet iron, signalling that rain would arrive at any minute now. Hopefully it wouldn't start before they reached the house.

The family abruptly headed left, and she logged that direction change as well. The stone path had turned to dirt, and soon they were facing a small, thatched house with a faded red exterior, with a step leading up to the broad landing area.

"Here we are," Darm announced, in consideration for his guests, and they entered into the dark abode. A light was switched on, and they had to squint in order to adjust to the change in light levels. Mara didn't spend much time analyzing the furniture or decorations; to her, it looked like a house.

She spied where she and Luke would probably end up sleeping--a long sofa and a stretch of floor. The kitchen was in the back right corner, with a door to the outside straight ahead. To the left, it looked like there was a hallway; probably where the bedrooms were. Everyone had already eaten, so the dishes were in the sink, waiting to be cleaned.

"Just a second, let me clean up," Nila was saying as she hurriedly picked up toys off the floor and gathered them in her arms. Luke walked over and put a calming hand on her arm. "It's all right. You don't have to do this. We're all tired, and right now all I want to do is get some sleep." She didn't seem thrilled at the idea of leaving her house a mess, but his insisting tone left her nodding in acquiescence. She handed each toy to its corresponding owner, and went back to get some blankets and pillows for the both of them.

*She really doesn't need to do anything,* Luke observed, feeling like he was imposing on Nila and her family, but he knew she wouldn't have it any other way--partly as a matter of pride. She came back with her arms full of blankets, and Darm followed, carrying the pillows.

"Thanks," Luke and Mara both said, and Nila smiled, then asked, "Are you sure you don't need anything?"

"We'll be fine, honest. Just go on with whatever you'd normally do," Luke replied, trying to be helpful.

"We usually go to sleep early anyway. Well, good night," Nila added hesitantly, and she, Darm and the children went back to the bedrooms, leaving Luke and Mara alone.

"I'll sleep on the floor," Luke offered, but Mara shook her head stubbornly. "*You* are taking the sofa, and *I'm* taking the floor." His sense of honor conflicted with his sense of fairness, and he argued that she would need the sofa more than he would--considering her injury--but in the end, he gave in to her demands. He took the back cushions off and put them on the floor, along where she had been planning on putting her bedroll, and she gave him a mixed look; part surprise and part gratitude. She hadn't been expecting any special treatment, and wasn't certain how to take his gesture. Luke only recognized that she hadn't been expecting it.

She finished setting everything up and collapsed into her makeshift bed. Luke walked over to turn off the lights, and in coming back over in pitch black darkness, smacked his shin into a table leg. He swore profusely but quietly, as he hobbled back to the sofa. "Should've known that would happen,..." he remarked softly. He heard Mara whisper, in an amused way, "Ah, so you're not quite as omnipotent as everyone thinks!"

He stepped over her and onto the couch. "No, not quite." Then he added, "Do you think that?"

"What? That you're all-powerful?" She mused over that, and said, "Sometimes I do, but I've seen how you do without your powers...and I have to admit, I'm more impressed by that than being able to lift stuff around with your mind." The tone in her voice revealed the thought that she might have said too much. She shifted the conversation away from that topic, "Speaking of power, what do you think that Scryth is?"

"I'm not sure. It's of the Dark Side, obviously, and I'm sure now that it's sentient. Maybe it's a ghost, like Exar Kun was."

She groaned, "Not another one. You'd think these ghosts would just die and stay dead." Her mood grew sullen, then continued, "If it is, though, it might do another whammy on you like the last one did." He nodded, knowing that she wouldn't see it. He'd been thinking about that too, off and on, and started to wonder about Cerrah.

Mara must have been reading his mind, and that wasn't unlikely, because her next comment was, "What do you think about Cerrah?" From the sound of her voice, he guessed that she wanted him to say something first.

"Well," he started uneasily, "On the outside, I'd say she's fine, but....I still can't probe her mind at all. It's more than just a wall; it's a vast nothingness that tries to swallow you whole. I haven't encountered anything like it."

"I know what you're talking about. It's eerie, almost like a black hole in a person's soul." She added grimly, "I think this Scryth has gotten to her."

"Are you sure?"

"I have no proof, if that's what you're saying. But I know she's been staring at me, and at everyone else, like she's sizing us up. She obviously sees us as a potential threat. I think she's either been possessed, or strongly influenced by the Scryth.

"The real question is, what will we do now?"

"I wish I knew," he replied sadly, willing the answers to flow into his mind, but nothing came. "Guess we'll have to wing it."

" 'Wing it'?" She whispered in astonishment. "Boy, this is just getting better and better." They both noticed then the sound of rain coming from outside, which halted the flow of conversation. She tried to start up their dialogue again, but he shrugged it off.

"Can't think now. Too tired," he mumbled, and turned over to go to sleep. "Good night."

" 'Night," Mara answered back softly, and prepared to go to sleep as well, but her mind kept puzzling over this dilemma. She fell asleep that way, and dreamt of a dark creature that laughed and a small girl who laughed along with it.


It liked the feel of a human body again, after so long. The mixture of sweat and rain pouring down the skin was a wonderful sensation, as he...was it now a he? It had been so long, it could no longer remember whether it had been male or female. The thought distracted it for a second, and the body stumbled over a root poking through the ground. Yes, it had been awhile. Coordination was something to be re-learned, in time. Unfortunately, that was the one thing it didn't have.

This transference wouldn't last long, it had known; It had sacrificed itself for the good of the rest, in order for its will to be done. This body was not prepared to handle the mind of another. Even now it could feel the consciousness of the man beating to be let out, but it only smiled. Ah, another luxury to revel in; the simple satisfaction of a smile.

Many things had been denied it...or him, as he was beginning to think of himself, but now he would have everything that had been denied him. The key was the girl. They mustn't lose the girl, at all costs, or everything they had gained would be for naught. The two Jedi had to be killed, and if not by her, then he was here to make that a certainty. And he reveled again in the feel of a maddening grin across his face.

Chapter 8

The rain continued through the night and into the next morning, making the air even muggier than it had already been, if that was possible. Luke spent most of the morning consumed in the journals that Nila had given him to read. The knowledge contained in them wasn't the kind of information he'd found already, in various computer files and holocrons. Rather, it was the day-to-day living that fascinated him. Yoda's beginning in training the young Tarrant was very familiar to read; he recognized many of the same techniques, though it was stretched out over a series of weeks, not days. He sympathized with Tarrant's written frustration and misunderstandings, his young mind trying to unravel the mysteries of the Force. It was the later months in the training that caught Luke cold, and he had to reread the passages in order to confirm what he was seeing.

The rest of the entry went on to discuss the growing feelings Tarrant was having for one of Yoda's other students, who had her eye on Obi-Wan instead; hence, the jealousy that he had experienced. Luke skimmed over most of that, deeming it private territory. The revelation, though, caught him like a punch in the stomach.

*I thought passion had to be controlled...!* He was in a daze. Yoda had never gotten the chance to finish his training, to tell him that what he had learned were only the basics, the baby steps necessary in order to understand the vagaries of the Force. He had based his whole life on these teachings, and now felt betrayed in learning that this premise was false. He didn't need to control his feelings so tightly, not if they were based in the Light side of the Force. The Dark Side, though...*Anger begets jealousy, aggression begets hatred, and fear begets despair....*

Despair! Now it clicked together. The despair he'd been feeling while in the forest had been the Scryth's doing, he knew now. It had been so subtle he had barely noticed its oppressive weight on his psyche. That dream he'd knew his fears, he realized. And could exploit them. Maybe even Mara's too, which would explain her reaction when he'd asked her about her dreams of late. This creature was obviously something to be avoided at all costs.

He went back to his reading, gleaning every last bit of insight that he could out of the diary's pages. Most were the frivolous thoughts of a young man, but he managed to find invaluable pieces of information that left him feeling like he'd never learned anything at all.


Mara watched the rain turn into a light sprinkle, then nothing as Luke read. She had caught the shock coming from him, but he hadn't explained his reaction yet, so she let it go. *If it's important, he'll tell me.*

There was a peacefulness here that she liked. No rush to get someplace, no meetings or appointments to make, just the calm right after a storm; both literally and figuratively. She thought back to the other storm she'd been through on this planet, and saw the ripples of the occasional raindrop in the puddles just outside, in the muddy street. *Why am I here? Luke doesn't need me--I should just leave.* But her thoughts were never turned into action. She wanted to stay wherever he was, and if that included this village, so be it.

Soon, the villagers were out and about, hoping to get work done before the sun poked through the clouds and made the heat even worse. She heard Nila gathering things together in a satchel, and watched her as she came over to where Luke and Mara were sitting.

"I'm going to get some more supplies. Would either of you like to come along?"

Luke mumbled an apology distractedly, still engrossed in his reading. Mara jumped at the chance, though, happy to relieve some boredom and scout out more of the town.

They skipped around the worst of the muddy street, and followed the stone path to the center of town, where most of the shops were. As they passed by, many of the villagers stared at the new human, gawking at her height and unusual red hair. At first, it was amusing to be taller than everyone else, where Mara would normally be looking up or across at people, but the stares soon made her feel out of place and freakish. Several of the men took long glances at her, and even followed her with their eyes as she walked past.

"You'd think they'd never seen a human before," she murmured to Nila, uncomfortable with the whole situation. "I thought they'd gotten an eyeful last night."

"Most probably didn't notice you at first. Cerrah was their main concern. I think, though, that the men's thoughts aren't on you as a human," she smiled slyly, "but rather as a woman."

"You think they're interested in me?" Mara could barely keep the astonishment out of her voice. "I thought they'd hate humans, considering what the Empire did."

"Some do, but most know that all humans aren't evil," Nila's eyes looked grey as she remembered a time when that hadn't been so. "After the massacre and plague, so few women were left that widowers weren't allowed to remarry, in order for the younger men to be able to get married and have families. And I was considered 'untouchable', so to speak, since I was a human. However, the Council didn't raise any objections to our marriage, since Darm wasn't marrying a Shadoui woman, and I wasn't taking away any of their 'viable' men," she smirked at that. "Now, the widowed men around here see you as fair game. And a very attractive, exotic woman at that."

The thought of these men looking at her as a potential mate made her skin crawl. She couldn't help but notice, now, the way the men were staring at her. "As long as they don't do anything more than stare, I'll be happy."

"Let's hope so," Nila replied, her words more confident than her tone. "Here's our first stop; groceries." The market they stopped in front of was small, almost tiny, but when they walked inside, it was stacked to the roof with vegetables, fruits and dry goods.

"Where does all this food come from?" Mara wondered in awe. "I don't remember passing any farms on our way down."

"They're to the south of the village, where the forest opens up into plains again. Many of the people travel in the morning to tend to the fields, and travel back at night. There isn't as much variety as you might be used to, but we get by."

"Do you have a monetary system, or a trade and barter system?"

"A little of both. Since I teach, I don't have any goods to sell, but Darm does some woodworking and metalsmithing, and various other odd jobs. He's kind of a handyman. We sometimes get paid with these," she held out some bright circular pieces of metal, "or with whatever the person has surplus goods of." She finished picking out the things on her list, and paid the clerk accordingly. They moved back out to the street, toting bags of food, and Nila continued, "Sometimes it isn't the greatest, but Mrs. Topek--the lady you met last night--makes the best preserves, so we usually end up getting some wonderful jams and jellies when Darm fixes something of theirs."

"Does the Council get paid as well?"

"No, it's voluntary work. It's considered a high honor to be appointed, so they all consider that their payment." Nila hesitated in front of another store, and almost kept on walking until Mara grabbed her arm and asked, "What's that?"

"Fabric and clothing store. I can't really afford much in there, but it's so much fun to look," she sighed.

"Let's go in, then. We've got time to kill."

"All right," Nila acquiesced easily. As they walked in, the smell of perfume and dye hit them square in the face. Along the back wall were cubbyholes of uniform width and height, holding bolts of colored fabric. There were a few racks of shirts, trousers, and other clothing, but Mara disregarded those, since they'd be too small. She walked over to the massive selection of cloth, and pulled out a deep indigo bolt. The feel of it was extremely odd; it was soft, yet textured, and was as flimsy as silk, though it didn't have its shimmer. The texture was disconcerting at first, but soon she couldn't get enough of it. She'd never seen or felt anything like it.

The next cubbyhole had the same color, but she recognized the fabric as silk. When she touched it, however, it wasn't the same as the plant fiber type she'd come to know well; It felt more delicate, yet sturdy. Already she was starting to think how she could buy some of this, and sell it as the new, fashionable fabric whose origins were exotic and mysterious.

"Ah, I see you have an eye for fabric," she heard a woman's voice say over her shoulder--in Basic of all things. She turned around, and found an elderly woman watching her appraisingly.

"This isn't like anything I've ever seen, or felt. It looks like silk, but it's stronger. And this," she gestured back to the first cubbyhole, "I'm not sure what it is. Is it synthetic?"

The woman laughed politely. "No, it is organic. Actually, it is just the unrefined version of what you are holding, but most of my customers liked it so much, I decided to sell that too."

"Where do you cultivate the plants for this?"

"Plants? We have no plants," the woman looked at her oddly. "We have worms. Silkworms, we call them. They produce it, and we weave it."

"Ah," Mara said expertly, but not feeling that way at all. She'd heard of some fabrics that had a similar basis, but most weren't popular outside of the native planet, and weren't all that comfortable, or elegant. "This seems pretty extravagant to have, in a town this small." The look on the other's face, however, made her wish she could take that idle comment back.

The older woman arched a brow in reprimand. "We have been making this for many thousands of years. We may live without your 'modern' technology, but it does not mean we have to live poorly."

"Sorry, I didn't mean it that way. It's just unexpected." She looked around for Nila, and spotted her over on the other side of the store. She then tried to change the subject. "I'm curious, though; how do you know Basic?"

"The best way to survive, in a hostile area, is to know your enemies' language," she smiled oddly. Mara smiled back weakly, and replied, "Yes, that's a nice thing to have. But aside from talking to me or my friend, I hope you never have to use it." The look on the woman's face softened then, and she went back to what she was doing.

Mara put the bolt back, and waded through the racks to Nila. "So, what next?"

She looked up from the blouse she was admiring. "Ah, I need to pick up some things at the potters', and maybe I'll show you the rest of the Hall, since you only got to see the bottom room."

"Okay," Mara agreed, ready to leave this place. Nila sensed her impatience and asked her, "What's wrong?"

"I don't think that woman likes me very much," she pointed to the woman sewing in the corner.

"Girala?" Nila frowned. "She's one of the nicest people I've met. She even knows Basic, and not many people here ever bothered to learn."

"I know. Maybe it's just because I'm human, and new here. She probably doesn't know whether to trust me or not."

"That could be it." Nila turned back to the blouse, and sighing, put it back on the shelf. They left the shop, and as they walked away, Mara asked about the silk she'd seen in there. "Do you think she'd be willing to export it? I know I could find buyers; there are people who'll buy anything new and exotic."

"I don't know. It's very time-consuming to make, and I'm not sure the people around here want any contact with the outside. If it went into demand, you wouldn't have any automation to crank out more."

"That's all right. It just means the price would skyrocket, and I have no object to that," she grinned. The only problem was that the elderly woman wouldn't want to make money that in her society was worthless. And these people shunned excessive material wealth anyway. She had a feeling the shopkeeper would be uncooperative, and that made her plans null and void.

The rest of the town, while occasionally in disrepair, was still quite charming. Mara felt like she'd stepped back through time, into an age that knew nothing of Hyperspace, or laser pistols...just old-fashioned machinery and the basic principles of science existed here. The potters' studio was a good example of this, utilizing a mixture of low tech, such as the kickwheels and clay tools, and the higher tech, with high temperature kilns and an extensive array of glazes lined up on the shelves in back. The potter had some dishware ready for Nila, decorated with a matching pattern of colorful glazes.

Seeing the pottery had her wishing that she could make something like that, and the sudden urge caught her off-guard. *Where did *that* come from?* It was probably something most people experienced when they saw hand-made pottery; the desire to make it themselves. She didn't have a creative bone in her body, but now she was thinking of doing things that she would have scoffed at a week ago.

*I've lost my edge,* she thought mournfully. *Pretty soon, I'll start thinking I can bake a cake, too.* It was actually a funny thought; the image of her mixing ingredients nearly made her laugh out loud. She did allow herself a small grin, though, and knew if Luke were here, he'd be joining in the hilarity of it all.

Nila began to lead her back to the tower, since the sun had yet to beam through the dull grey clouds and cause stifling humidity. Before long, they were standing on the main floor, where some villagers had gathered in various groups and were chatting about one topic or another. The stairs the Council had descended were on the far side, and soon they were climbing up towards the higher levels. Mara looked up, and saw that the staircase hugged the wall for as far as she could see.

"Isn't this off limits?" Mara asked, concerned.

"No need for it to be. The Council doesn't own this place; they only use it." With that, the second story came into view. Small windows gave light to the circular room, and a table rested in the center, with enough chairs for the Council to sit it. Robes hung on hooks on the other side. "This is their deliberation room, though anyone else can use it for meetings if they want to. Let me show you the rest of the rooms," she said, directing Mara's attention back to the stairs. The third floor turned out to be a library, but instead of books--as Mara would have thought, considering the people--they had something that looked like data chips instead. Storage shelves lined the walls, and free-standing shelves stood in rows in the center."Their one reliance on modern technology," Nila explained. "They had to store their knowledge on something permanent, and paper wasn't up to the task."

"I don't see what they use to read the data," Mara peered hard into the darker room.

"It's on the top floor. Come," Nila beckoned, and Mara followed her past another floor of information to the 5th level, and the sight she saw was one that had to be seen to be believed.

The computer--she guessed it was a computer, though it wasn't even remotely familiar--was a cylindrical mainframe that sat in the middle of the room, about waist high and as wide as it was high, with several panels, depressions and keys on top. The outer surface of it was smooth black metal, but she didn't see screens anywhere. "It must use holo projections," she murmured out loud, and Nila nodded. Mara walked over to the computer, and saw there were interfaces that she both recognized and baffled over. She saw where the chips went, but several holes and slits made no sense. It was as odd a device as she had ever seen.

"Can you run this thing?" Nila nodded again, but added, "It's used only when you need to use it, in order to conserve power."

"Why? Is it running low?"

"Not exactly. It still has enough power to run for another thousand years, but they want to make it stretch out for as long as they can." Mara's eyes widened noticeably at the mention of a power source lasting that long, but nothing that she found out about these people surprised her anymore. The idea that a civilization could live simply while having a supercomputer in a room upstairs didn't seem ludicrous to her. *Just another weird facet to the Shadoui,* she sighed.

"I imagine that Luke'll be dying to see this place, to check and see whether there are any Jedi references," Mara remarked sourly. The man had a thirst for knowledge, but the word "Jedi" had to prefix or suffix every entry he sought after. Not to say that he didn't have interests elsewhere, but being a Jedi seemed to be his all-consuming goal in life. *With no room left for a wife and family,* Mara mused distractedly, her thoughts going back to raindrops, and the reasons she'd told herself why she was here. Suddenly, her reverie was shaken by the sound of Nila's voice, "--should start getting back," she managed to catch, and turned to face her. "Ah...right," Mara replied, and brushed past Nila to get to the stairs, as if hurrying would leave her thoughts behind.

Nila's interest grew as she watched Mara further; the woman was obviously shaken, but her thoughts were as impenetrable as Cerrah's. She did catch some emotion from Mara, and it confirmed her suspicions even more; not that they needed any more validation. *Why can't she just accept that she's in love with him? She keeps seesawing between acceptance and denial, for some reason. And now I see that she's afraid--probably afraid of what would happen if she confessed; though I can't imagine what she has to lose.*

Would a rejection from Luke really crush her spirit enough for her to be that afraid of it? That seemed unlikely, and didn't fit with what she knew of her. There had to be more--and Nila was determined to find out what that might be.


He was finished skimming the second journal, and was about to go into the third, when Luke suddenly remembered that he'd been planning on sending out another message. Rubbing his eyes, he placed the third to the side as he got up, and went over to his backpack. There, strapped in snugly, was the transmitter, its message light blinking.

"What in...?" When had that come in? Must have been last night, while he and Mara were asleep. He played the message back, and was both relieved and dismayed at the news he received.

Leia's voice came over the speaker, "It's about time you called! I was about to send Han out looking for you, when your message came in.

"Only you could find an Imperial stronghold by accident....well, I hate to say this, but this really couldn't have happened at a worse time. I can't go into details, since the Imperials--however unlikely--might be able to decode this, so you'll have to trust me. Hopefully in a few days, when things are settled here, we'll be able to attend to your situation. Any details you can tell me--size of their forces, what ships they have, anything--will help immensely."

The tone in her voice became more personal and intimate then. "I'm sorry about the delay--really--but I wish you'd told us you were leaving, at least. I called Mara, to see if she knew anything, but she was gone as well. Is that just coincidence?" Her voice teased. "Ah, I should know better. Well, promise me you'll stay out of trouble as best as you can, since I know you can't avoid it completely. Come home soon," She ended more seriously, and the message stopped.

*Well, this is just wonderful,* Luke thought darkly. *Looks like reinforcements aren't going to show up for awhile. At least they know about it, though--that's better than nothing,* he added, trying to put a positive spin on the situation. He looked around, and noticed Mara wasn't there, then he remembered; she and Nila went out shopping. *Shouldn't they be back by now?*

He lingered on the thought a bit longer, before replying back to his sister and giving as much information and guesswork on the size and capabilities of the Imperial forces as he could. His initial assessment was in error, obviously, and this new, less powerful version wasn't likely to bring reinforcements any time soon. He told Leia that Mara was indeed with him--*That should give her a shock,* he smiled to himself--and then asked worriedly about what was going on. Why is it a bad time? What things needed to be settled down?

A knock came at the door, and Luke watched Darm answer it. A short conversation ensued, and ended with Darm taking something from the man's hands. Darm closed the door, and after Luke finished the message and sent it off, he walked over, asking, "What is it?"

"It's a present, for your friend, Mara," Darm replied. From his grin, the man obviously found it funny, though Luke had yet to be let in on the joke.

"What's so funny about that?"

"I'm sorry, you wouldn't know, would you? It's a courtship gift." Courtship? As in...."You mean, someone wants to....go on a date with her?"

"It's a little more serious than that, judging by the gift, I'd say--this is practically a proposal."

"Of marriage?" In the back of his mind, Luke kept thinking that he should be finding this extremely hilarious; except that he wasn't laughing. "She hasn't been here *that* long. Besides, there's no way she would really consider it."

"You know that, but *they* don't."

"*They?* You mean there's more?"

"There's bound to be, considering she happens to be a beautiful, unattached woman that several of the widowers in town would jump at the chance to marry. This," he held up the packaged gift, "is only the beginning of the gifts she'll be getting from her suitors."

"Suitors...." The idea that she'd even consider any of these proposals was ludicrous. She'd fended off worse in her time--Lando's earliest attempts springing instantly to mind--and he couldn't imagine her wanting to stay here permanently. "I hope she doesn't come down too hard on them. Though I don't understand why they would want a human wife." Darm explained the whole situation to him, and the news that Darm was a widower took Luke by surprise.

The older man's eyes took on a slightly haunted look. "I was married to a wonderful girl several years ago, before the Empire and the humans came to our planet. The day they came, we fled from the plains to the forest, to here," he gestured out the window, to the houses outside. "She never made it. She caught the plague from some of the sick traveling with us.

"What made it worse, though, was the fact she was carrying our first child." He shook his head sadly, his mouth drawn into a grim line. "I don't think I'll ever be able to erase that from my memory, the last day she was alive."

The man's sorrow was clearly evident; both by his face and through the Force. Luke knew to some extent what he was going through, but his loss of Callista wasn't as certain as the death of Darm's wife and child had been. Luke had only possibilities to mourn over, while Darm had had the actual thing in his hands, and could only watch as it was taken away. "I'm sorry," Luke managed, but the words sounded contrite to his ears.

"It was a long time ago," the man dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand. "I've moved on, and have fallen in love so deeply and completely that I can't imagine what my life would be like without her. Or my children," he added.

Luke approached the subject hesitantly, but this had been on his mind for some time, and it sounded like Darm might have the answers he was seeking. "Do you feel...guilty about marrying again?"

"How so?" Darm eyed him cautiously.

He started to give an answer, then stopped. How could he explain, without going into a detailed explanation of the past eight years? Luckily, Darm saved him the trouble. "Nila told me last night about that woman, Callista," he said, hoping Luke wouldn't be too offended to find that out. Luke didn't seem too concerned, however; he was interested more than anything else. It occurred to Darm then that the common room wasn't exactly the place to hold a heart to heart talk. "Ah, why don't we discuss this some place more private?"

"Like where?"

"Come on, I'll show you," Darm motioned Luke to follow him to the back door, and shortly they were outside, and in front of a door leading to something underground, directly beneath the house. "This is where we keep the power generators," Darm explained, and both went inside. The noise coming from the system was faint, but enough to keep prying ears from listening in. Darm turned on a light, and Luke sat down on a nearby box while Darm remained standing. "As I was saying, Nila told me about Callista. Is that why you asked me about marrying again?"

"Yeah, but Callista and I aren't married, and she's not dead--as far as I know. I promised myself I'd wait for her," he sighed heavily. "What kind of a person would I be if I went back on that?"

"Does she know about this promise?"

"No, but she sent me a message, giving a similar promise to me, though it wasn't in so many words."

The other man's eyes narrowed. "Are you in love with someone else?" Nila might like to be subtle, but Darm wasn't into that. Either Luke was in love, or he wasn't.

"No. I mean...I guess, maybe. I don't know!" Luke said finally, frustrated. "How could I possibly love two people at the same time?"

Darm smiled sympathetically. "It's not impossible. I still love my first wife, albeit distantly, but it doesn't mean I love Nila any less for it. What I feel for Nila is different than what I felt for her, but it doesn't make it inferior. You probably won't love another woman the same way you love--or loved--Callista, but you shouldn't expect to.

"I love all my children equally, yet differently. Each individual person has a unique personality, and each demands a different approach to love. Sometimes people get confused in thinking that love falls into a certain category, but it doesn't. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I think so." His head was swimming with the possibilities. His attraction to Mara may not have been the relationship-destroying infatuation he'd thought it might be. He knew he could be in love with her, even now, but just hadn't realized it, in looking so hard for the qualities Callista and he had shared in their relationship. This, however, didn't alleviate his guilt.

"So, are you in love with her or not?"

"Who?" Luke started.


"Oh. Well, yes, I suppose so...though it's not as strong as it used to be," he shook his head sadly. "I guess I'm afraid that if she comes back, I might not be in love with her anymore."

"And that's assuming she *does* come back."

"Yes." There was that possibility, and the more time passed, the more likely it got.

Darm rubbed the back of his neck nervously, and said, "I have no right to ask you this, and it's none of my business--but, is this other woman Mara?" His tone indicated that he didn't have much doubt about it; the question was for Luke's benefit, not his.

"You're right. It *is* none of your business," Luke stood up to leave, but Darm caught his arm. The seriousness in Darm's expression surprised him. "Don't let your indecision give her the chance to slip away, Luke. I almost lost Nila because of my own conflict over her, and my dead wife."

His eyes bored into Luke's, wishing his words would stick with the Jedi. "I hope you don't take long in finding out what this woman means to you. So many years have already come and gone...don't let any more pass by." With that, Darm let go and left, leaving Luke to ponder over their conversation.


Nila's husband stomped up the back porch and into the house, wondering how people who could read another's emotions like a book somehow couldn't read their own. *You'd think Jedi would know these sorts of things,* he thought, irritated.

The number of gifts on the kitchen table when he got back surprised even him. There had to be, 13 presents on the table, already! And he could see that Issik was accepting another at the door. He shook his head in amazement. He'd never heard of this happening before, but then again, there were almost one hundred widowers in town. Over half were too old, but the rest--nearly 40 of them--would surely give it a try.

A couple of minutes later the women came back from shopping, and Nila's eyes widened at the sight of the gifts on the table.

"What is it?" Mara asked, confused at the reaction.

Nila looked oddly at Darm, "Are those what I think they are?"

"Yep," he grinned widely. His wife started to chuckle, then laugh out loud.

"Would someone please tell me what's going on?" Mara asked politely, hoping to join in on the fun.

"They're for you, Mara," Nila managed to say, "Your admirers left them. Or in this case, suitors."

"What?" The expression of confusion changed into horror, "Oh no, you don't mean--"

"I'm afraid so!" The look on Mara's face made her laugh even harder, with Darm joining in. Just then, Luke came through the back door to witness the comical event. He watched silently as Mara absorbed this new information, studying her reaction. She didn't notice him right away, however, since her focus was on the table in front of her.

All were hand-crafted items of some sort, and of a quality that would fetch outrageous prices on the open market. One drew her attention in particular; A glass vase, intricate in its detail and elegant in design. The note attached was scrawled in barely comprehensible Basic, the gist of it an invitation to talk. No demands, no pleading...just hopeful for a single conversation, a chance. How old was the man who wrote this? she found herself wondering. Thirty? Fifty? Was he so desperately alone that he sent this to a complete stranger, in the hopes it would spark some interest from her?

Years ago, she could have enjoyed a good laugh at the man's expense, but now she only felt pity, and some flattery at the attention. "When will they stop?" she asked quietly.

"Stop what?" Nila said as she wiped tears from her eyes, still laughing.

"Giving gifts, eyeing me in the street...all of it."

Everyone caught the shift in mood, and Darm replied, "I don't know. Probably when you're married," he tried to joke lightly, but Mara wasn't amused.

Luke came over then, and said forcefully, "We have to stop this, before it gets out of hand. It's harmless now, but who knows what'll happen next?" He looked specifically at Nila and her husband, hoping they'd have some insight. Mara looked at him sharply, and wondered what he was so worried about.

"Well, usually they wait for some response from the lady in question--you," Nila pointed at Mara, "but there are some who will approach you--even bug you, if necessary--in order to get an upper hand."

"We'll be leaving in a few days, so I guess I'll just have to weather it until then," Mara smiled mildly, then saw the look of concern on Nila's face. "What is it?" She asked, alarmed.

"I'm afraid it won't be that easy. They'll want an answer, and if they're desperate enough, they won't let you leave until you give them a good reason."

"What?!" Mara said, stunned. "They can't keep me here!"

"No, but they might follow you." This was steadily getting worse, Mara decided. Then again, this was all speculation; No one knew for sure what the Shadoui would or wouldn't do. "Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," Mara answered finally, truly hoping that this was the worst of it.


The human's body struggled through the undergrowth of the forest, its inhabitant still trying to get used to the idea of legs, and the need for rest. He had slept nearly a whole day, after realizing shortly after dark that his body would no longer go any further. Exhaustion, and the transference, had taken a toll on the body, but to him it didn't matter.

If he could have gotten this far without the body, he would have; But, they were confined to that area, and couldn't reach the village at the same level of strength they enjoyed around the lake. If they tried to exist too far from it, they would vanish into nothing. Hence, the need for a shell, or a host. This person wouldn't last much longer, he knew, but it would be enough to do the job.

A rumbling feeling in his stomach reminded him that his new body needed food in order to continue functioning. The pack the human brought with him still had rations left, and he devoured them hungrily, not expecting to need to conserve it. The village wasn't all that far--by the end of the day he'd almost be there, and tomorrow would be the day that everything would start to fall into place.


By the afternoon, the situation had worsened. Mara had started to answer the notes in person, but the sheer number--and pleading from some--had her resulting in refusals at the door, or from a window, if the man in question had decided to woo her by poetry, singing, or music. The meeker ones had given up, but that still left 25 hard-core admirers, who would not relent unless given a fair try--which would have her here for the next month trying to pacify them all. Which was not going to happen.

"Okay, this has gone far enough!" Mara nearly screamed in frustration; The pity she'd once possessed having been replaced by annoyance. She thought she'd be able to tolerate it until she and Luke left, but the fact that no reinforcements were coming soon, and she didn't know when Luke planned on leaving--maybe when he finished reading--had left her with no place to escape to. She and Nila were in the kitchen talking about anything else other than that, when Mara could no longer restraint herself.

"This is ridiculous! Why can't they take no for an answer?" She gestured to the man currently strumming an instrument and singing something unintelligible outside. A handful of others milled about, hoping she'd notice them, or get a glimpse of her through the window. "I can't even go outside in peace," she said under her breath, trying to control her anger.

"I have an idea," Nila piped up. "It isn't one you'll like, but it's your best chance of getting them off your back."

At this point, Mara didn't care. "What? What is it?"

"Well, Darm had the right idea before,..." Nila began, and Mara saw where she was going with this. "You want me to marry one of these guys?!" Mara asked, incredulous.

"No, no...I was thinking of, well, Luke."

Mara began to laugh, finally finding some humor in all this. "You're joking, right? Luke would never agree to that." As she finished her sentence, she sensed him standing right behind her.

"Maybe he would," she heard him say, and turned to find him leaning on the kitchen's doorway. "You're not serious," she replied, thinking that this was the most outlandish thing she'd ever heard. "I'm not going to get married just to get rid of some lonely men, who don't even know when they've been rejected!"

Nila cleared her throat, to catch their attention. "I wasn't thinking of going through the ceremony and all. Announcing an engagement should be good enough."

Mara thought that over, then asked, "What if it isn't?"

"Then we'll deal with that problem when we get to it."

"Okay," Mara sighed. "So, how do we announce it? Put out a big banner, or send out invitations?" She remarked sourly.

"The Hall is where all announcements are made. All couples, when engaged, have to stand in front of the townspeople and declare their love for another. Everyone has to do it," Nila reprimanded, seeing the look of distaste coming from Mara, "and usually there's some token of love given to each other at the same time."

"Like what?" Mara asked hesitantly.

"Usually something handmade, that you'd know the other would want. Jewelry is common, though it's typically considered insincere."

" 'Insincere'? Does that really matter?" Luke interjected.

"Yes, it does. If anyone in the crowd has a reason--a good reason--to doubt the validity of the couple's feelings, then they can call them on it."

"Meaning...?" Luke prompted.

"Meaning that the couple's engagement would be halted until the matter was settled. Which could take days." The very days they were trying to avoid, Luke noted.

"That's stupid. Why should anyone interfere if two people want to get married?" Mara commented.

"It's a practical measure, started back when many young people were planning marriages in the heat of the moment, without considering the responsibilities and commitment it demands. It's almost never used, but it certainly will be in your case, if you give them any reason to doubt."

This was unbelievable. To go through all this, just to get some guys to leave her alone, was unacceptable. She decided she was going to get rid of these widowers once and for all. She pushed past Luke, and made her way to the door. She flung it open impatiently, and the man who'd been singing suddenly stopped, in shock. The few outside quickly gathered around the door, all talking at once--most in their native language, but she did hear a smattering of Basic words.

She sucked in a deep breath, and began. "Attention, everyone! I am not--I repeat, I am not--going to be marrying any of you, dating any of you, or even talking to you, is that clear? I have no intentions of ever considering your pleas, and will gladly put any one of you in his place if they so much as look or speak in my direction!" Her eyes were like ice, and her voice was as cold and harsh as she'd ever heard her voice sound. Even if they didn't quite understand the words, they should comprehend her tone.

Or at least that's what she thought would happen. Nearly all the men looked bewildered, but a few understood what she meant and one in particular asked, brokenly, "What reason you give for this? You have no *savran*," Mara guessed that was the Shadoui word for "husband", or maybe even "boyfriend", though without Nila or Darm there she couldn't be sure. At the mention of the word, the others quickly began to understand the meaning of her words. Some walked off, and she felt a small amount of triumph at that, but the rest waited for her to answer the man's question.

She sensed Nila come up behind her, and quickly asked, "What's a savran?"

Nila replied anxiously, "It's basically a mate, or a husband--though it also refers to engaged men as well. Looks like they haven't taken your rejection to heart just yet," She waved to indicate the remaining 10 or so men left.

The same man spoke up again, this time in his native tongue, in seeing Nila standing there. "He wants to know the reason why you're refusing everyone," the older woman translated, "and why you're so upset."

Typical. They may be aliens, but they're still men, deep down inside, Mara concluded. They didn't understand her behavior at all. "Tell them the reason why, is because...." she trailed off, and sighed. Well, why not? It didn't look like any other method was going to work.

"'s because I'm already engaged."

Chapter 9

The heat barely touched the people who lived in Yualpe; the cool northern air blunting the worst of it. Unfortunately, this comfort didn't extend to the canyons farther north, where the steep walls only served as a funnel for the winds coming from the south. Stormtroopers fanned across both banks of the rapids, still searching for the elusive wreckage of the Rebel's ship.

The whole exercise was meaningless, one trooper in particular decided. Commander Veid had ordered them to keeping looking and scanning the area, certain that it was there, but no one had found anything so far. Now they were forced to comb the length of the canyon by foot, using their eyes and scanners to pick up a trace of metal, synthetic, or anything else that wasn't supposed to be there. The trooper desperately wanted to take the stifling helmet off, if only to wipe the sweat off his forehead, but the sight of the others in his group staying in regulation kept him from doing so. Instead, he tried to focus on the surrounding area, rather than the heat.

A landslide on his side of the rapids drew his attention, and he turned the scanner on it, only to find nothing. He started to look elsewhere, when he realized how orderly the rocks had fallen, almost as if they had been--

He quickly checked his readings again, to confirm his suspicions. Still nothing. Suddenly, it occurred to him; He should have been at least picking up the trace of metal in the rocks themselves, yet the data showed that nothing was there. Nothing at all.

He climbed up the bank to the rock pile, drawing the stares of his fellow soldiers. After studying the pile for a few seconds, he picked up a small rock and cast it down with the rest below. Several more followed, and soon he was rewarded with the dull color of some sort of fabric--a synthetic, he'd wager. Lowering the setting on his blaster, he aimed and fired at the surface. After the smoke cleared, he saw the blackened hull of metal, and smirked in satisfaction.


A day had already passed, and Commander Boraas Veid still had no ideas on how he was going to manage capturing the elusive Jedi. The information banks had precious little to offer, and his aide even less. He had no guarantees that the Rebel Jedi hadn't called for reinforcements, and that a fleet of Mon Calamari cruisers wouldn't suddenly show in the skies above. He assumed that the Jedi had contacted the Rebel fleet, and soon there would be enough to satisfy his desire for action.

His pessimism had kept him alive so far in his life, but he needed something--anything--that would give him some leverage against the Rebel forces. The Jedi would do nicely, but he needed a way, not wishes.

The only thing that he had on his side was the possibility that they were stranded here; but the wreckage, or ship, had still not been found, and they might bypass Gheas and head for Yualpe instead, if there was too much resistance here.

A pinging sound caught his ear, and he depressed the appropriate key on the console. "What is it, Haskins?"

His aide's face usually showed little emotion, but it was obvious that he was fighting a grin. "We've found the ship, Commander."

"In the canyon?" He struggled to keep his own face calm.

"Yes sir. Apparently, one of the troopers found it under a rockslide. It had some sort of stealth cover over it as well."

So that's how he'd done it. For a normal human, it would have been impossible to hide a ship like that, in that area, but for a Jedi..."I want the ship flown here as soon as possible. We can use it to our advantage." The look on Haskins' face showed his puzzlement, but he acknowledged the order and signed off, leaving Veid to devise a new strategy.


The men outside Darm and Nila's home buzzed and murmured at the statement Mara had just given, both surprised and dismayed. Mara felt a hand rest lightly on her shoulder, and turned to see Luke standing behind her, again. The sound of a man's voice drew her attention back outside, and looked to Nila for the translation. "They want to know why you didn't say something about this engagement before."

"I shouldn't have to mention it, should I? If I'm not interested, that's exactly what I mean; Apparently, things work differently in your village. Are women here expected to be coy?" She directed the last to Nila, and she translated all by the last comment, then responded, "Some of the women are like that. Men get used to having to ask twice, or three times, for a straight answer. Especially in courting situations."

Men could be like that, too, Mara thought, but held her tongue, considering the company around her. She could feel a headache coming on.

"Who is this man?" They answered back, via Nila. At this, Luke shifted forward, and Mara moved back to allow him through. "That would be me," he said easily, not letting the anger of the group agitate him.

At their reaction, Mara guessed they hadn't paid much attention to Luke when he came in, so seeing this tall--to them--human with blonde hair and blue eyes took them aback. The fact that his head nearly hit the doorway only helped their impression. Gradually, the group dwindled away until there only a handful left. One middle-aged man came forward, and addressed them all formally, though his eyes narrowed perceptibly when he fixed his gaze on Luke. He then turned and left.

"What did he say?" Luke wondered aloud, and Nila supplied, "He wished you both well, and said that he and the others would expect to hear of the engagement soon, in the Hall," she sighed, closing the door behind them. "We can stall this for a few days, and by then, they'll either have forgotten, or you'll have left."

Mara looked at Luke, and saw doubt expressed in his face. "There are several things I still have to take care of here, Nila; One is your daughter, who's avoiding me for some reason. Another is the Scryth--then there are the journals, and I still need to read the first one you gave to me. The Imperials are still out there, too, and--" he stopped suddenly, realizing the next thing he'd been about to say wasn't something he'd plan to talk to Nila about yet; Whether she would consent to let Cerrah leave with him, for the Academy. He'd love for Nila to come along as well--he could use someone with experience--but he knew that she had responsibilities here, and he'd be the last to recommend uprooting a family for whatever reason. Nila looked at him questioningly, but he just mumbled something about holos she'd shown him of his parents, saying that he didn't want to leave without copying them, but he didn't have the proper equipment with him. Nila only smiled, and said they were his, now, not hers. "I've got plenty of pictures of my family, Luke. I'm not going to miss two holos."

He thanked her, and out of the corner of his eye saw Mara watching him intently. If he hadn't spoken with Darm earlier, he might have passed it off as nothing. "Why are you looking at me like that? Is something wrong?"

She blinked, stammering out, "Ah, no reason," then she recovered, "I just never thought your presence could inspire people to leave so quickly." She grinned mischievously, and quickly changed the subject. "How soon can we do this announcement?"

Now it was Nila's turn to blink. "Well, usually it takes some preparation, but I guess it's up to you."

"Is tonight okay? I'd like to get this proom off my back before something happens. Besides, it'd be nice to walk around hassle-free, while we're still here." *She sounds tired,* Luke noticed.

Nila nodded, and the two of them walked back to the kitchen, figuring out the details. He spied Cerrah watching from around the corner, and she jumped back and out of sight. *I still have to talk to her, too--find out how she's blocking out our Force probes.* It might be a defensive reaction to the Scryth, or to them, but he'd have to find that out from her. If she'd ever stay in his presence longer than a few seconds.

However, his thoughts were preoccupied elsewhere, as Mara's voice drifted from the kitchen into the common room. When he had watched her earlier with the presents on the table, he had expected her to laugh at the Shadoui's attentions, but her sadness and pity had thrown him. She had taken no delight in setting the men straight, and her weariness had come through in her voice, at the last. He'd thought he'd known her well, but this new angle fed the fires that had started within him only a few days ago.

His own reaction hadn't been light-hearted, either. He'd felt overwhelmingly protective, and even threatened--however ludicrous it might be. He hadn't wanted anyone to get near her, for fear that someone might catch her eye after all and be somehow swayed into...he blocked that out, realizing his jealousy was taking over.

He didn't want to lose her--he knew that much, for certain. Thinking of the scare with the Veblos and the dream he'd had caused a lump to form in his throat. Swallowing it down, he approached the kitchen again, but this time he only watched, from a distance.

Eirsa had joined Nila and Mara there, and Mara had the toddler balanced on her hip while Nila cooked something--he couldn't tell what. They chatted away, not even realizing he was there; talking about the announcement that had to be done. The hold that Mara had on the girl wasn't too familiar to her, he could see from the constant shifting she had to do, but Eirsa was non-plussed by it. The girl said something--a rarity for her--and her mother smiled, then translated for Mara. "She likes your hair," he heard her say, and Mara replied back to the girl softly, "You do, huh?" The girl bobbed her head, causing Mara to grin even wider; a genuine smile that, to Luke, made her even more beautiful. His heart ached just from the sight.

Mara looked up then, her eyes finding his. He felt caught, exposed; He was sure his emotions showed on his face, if not through the Force, and was positive that his heart had stopped beating. But instead of walking off, he smiled back, and came into the kitchen. Her reaction to that was mixed, and her smile was milder now, more cautious.

"So, what's the plan?" He leaned back on the counter, never taking his eyes off of Mara. She visibly swallowed, and replied, "It's going to be held tonight, and Nila thinks that since we're not members of the village, we don't have to give those tokens to each other."

"Since we just got here, practically. Makes sense." He felt Nila's uneasiness, and asked her what the problem was.

"Well, you may not like this, but it would be better to substitute it instead, rather than ignore it." Darm came in just then, and Nila smiled slightly to her husband. "Do you remember what Sadoh did, at his engagement?"

He chuckled at the memory, "*Do* I? That was the talk of the whole town for months! Even now, people still mention it." His face took on a look of mild shock, when he realized what Nila was suggesting. "You mean, you want *them*--"

"I don't see why not," she interrupted, "it'll certainly get rid of any doubts people might have."

"That's for sure," he said, grinning again.

Mara was not smiling. Neither was Luke. "What did he do?"

Nila was smiling even wider now. "He couldn't think of anything to give his bride-to-be, and he couldn't make anything, so he gave her the only token of love he had that she'd want; a kiss." She nearly sighed.

"Oh, but it wasn't any old kiss," Darm put in. "They were lip-locked for so long, people started walking out," he laughed at the sight of Mara's face; it had completely drained of color. Luke was more stunned than anything, but he managed to ask, "And you want us to do this, Nila?"

"Well, only as long as it takes. If you do no token-giving at all, they'll call you on it. I can guarantee that." She looked at their faces, and laughed as well, "You look like you've seen a ghost! Come on, it's only for a few seconds, then it's over. There's nothing to be afraid of."

"I'm not afraid of--" Mara began to say, but quickly bit back her words; She looked like she had almost said something she would have regretted. Luke covered by asking, "There isn't any other way?"

"None as good as this," Darm replied. "If you want to, we could stall instead--"

"No," Mara said firmly. "I want to get this over with." Luke had anticipated her to be angry, but she was still pale, and her voice had indicated fright, rather than bitterness. What was she afraid of? Him? That didn't seem possible. The only time he could remember seeing her afraid was when they on Wayland, both before and during the confrontation with C'Baoth. So she was afraid of death; only an idiot wouldn't be afraid of that. But that didn't explain the mountaintop, or the ship, or just now. It was the same fear in her eyes, and in her face as before.

He glanced at Nila, and saw her watching Mara as well. Maybe she knew...but Mara suddenly handed Eirsa over to her, and left, muttering something about practicing her lines. Eventually, he left as well, hoping to find something to do until tonight.

"Do you think this was a good idea?" Darm asked cautiously, checking for any eavesdroppers.

"They need a good swift kick in the hinder to get them moving, dear. They're just waiting for the other to make a move, and neither of them is going to do that soon, if those ten years are any indication. If nothing happens, then so be it."

"Knowing you, that won't happen." He took Eirsa from her, and smiled conspiratorially. "You won't *let* it happen." She only grinned in response.


The young girl was puzzled. She had expected the two Jedi and her mother to show some sign of deception, but instead all she found was politeness and concern. Even though the woman Jedi was still keeping an eye on her, she hadn't given any indication that she wanted to kill her. In fact, she hadn't gotten that impression from anyone at all.

Cerrah was to expect it, according to what the Scryth told her. But, she couldn't help wondering; if they were going to kill her, why did they bring her back at all? Why not do away with her quietly, while they were still in the forest? She had thought that she would be sentenced to death by the Council, but instead they let her go home. What was going on?

She could still feel the Scryth's presence, though incredibly weakened by distance. Recently, however, she'd begun to sense someone coming from that direction, though she didn't know who it was. It wasn't the Scryth, exactly, but it felt familiar.

She sat on her bed, arms locked around her knees. Issik was over at a neighbor's house, and Lyrie was in the back, playing with her dolls. Eirsa had stumbled in the direction of the kitchen, last she'd seen of her. She could trust them, she knew. As for her mother, she wanted to believe that this wasn't her idea, that she was brainwashed--anything other than thinking she'd been betrayed. Her father, she wasn't sure about.

At first she had despised the Jedi, but that night in the forest had begun to weaken her opinion. The man's reaction to the nightmare hadn't been what she expected at all; he was supposed to be scared, but when he'd gotten up, and made sure everyone was all right--especially the woman--she couldn't have been more confused. And Jade's reaction to him was just as odd. She was sympathetic and concerned. And now the man--what was his name again? She couldn't remember, but she knew it had sounded familiar--he was looking at Jade in the same sort of way she'd seen her father look at her mother. She may be young, but she wasn't stupid; she knew exactly what that look meant.

Suddenly, the man's name popped out at her: Skywalker! That was it. Skywalker, just like the person Mama had spoken of, once. When she'd asked why Mama was here instead of a human planet, she'd said that Skywalker had been a good person who had turned into a bad man, and tried to kill her and her family, and the rest of the Jedi. He and another person had forced her family to flee here, to try and escape their fate.

So, who was this man, then? It wasn't him, obviously, since he was younger than her parents. And if Skywalker was a Jedi, and this relative of his had killed Jedi, then what did that make the Scryth? Her grandfather and grandmother had been Jedi, and they were good people. Or were they? Were they the evil ones, and the Scryth the persecuted one, like her? Or had it deceived her, as her mother had warned it might?

Distance weakened the bond it had on her, so doubt wormed into every crack of logic she had. Soon, she didn't know what to believe anymore.

Luke read, hoping to keep his worries at bay by immersing himself in the journals. He picked up one at random, and opened to a page that might not have caught his eye yesterday, but now held him riveted.

*Marriage ritual?* Luke wondered in shock. *There is such a thing? Odd, I've never heard of anything calling for a 'Force bond' before, does make sense, I suppose. I wonder how something like that could be done permanently?* It occurred to him that Nila would probably know something about it, even if she didn't have it with her own husband.

*I'll ask later.* He scanned the rest of the entry, hoping to find more information, but the young groom had more on his mind than how the bond would be made. All Luke had was the idea of surrendering yourself to the other person, and then some sort of guidance. He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration, then scanned the later entries. One caused his face to turn red, and he quickly flipped to the next page. The next one was a little less embarrassing, but he didn't gleaned much from it, aside from Tarrant's marveling over how easy it was to speak to his new wife. He didn't have to fumble around to know what was on her mind; he already knew. Of course, that could also cause problems down the road, if he wasn't careful.

After that came a more complete analysis; Vows were spoken during the ceremony, and he recalled vividly how it felt to open himself completely to her, no walls or barriers--like he was stripped naked for all to see, and vulnerable. But, that had been for Ophela only; Yoda was there to shield him, and her from the people who came, so they wouldn't be able to sense any of it. He couldn't describe the feeling of joining with her in words; they paled in comparison to the joy he'd felt running through him.

Still frustrated, Luke read on, wishing that the man had been more scholarly for just one day, one passage...but it was only mentioned briefly later on, and by that time, Tarrant had accepted it like it had always been there, so it needed no further explanation.

He looked up, and noticed it had gotten dark rather rapidly. He glanced at his chrono, and was stunned to see that nearly three hours had passed. He put the book aside and headed for the kitchen.

"Ah, Luke! Perfect timing--I was just about to put dinner on the table."

"I need to ask you something. Your parents...did they have some sort of bond? I just read about when they got married."

"You mean the wedding ritual," she clarified, frowning in thought. "Yes, they did have a bond through the Force."

"How did they do it?" Luke's earnestness was starting to take hold. "I know how to contact other people's minds, but to have a permanent connection without constantly maintaining it..." he trailed off, thinking about the bond he had with Leia. That was different, he told himself firmly. They were connected by blood. This link transcended that, somehow. "I understand how it would happen between siblings, but--"

"I think you know already, but you're just not seeing it." She interlaced her fingers, and held the example in front of her. "The Force binds us together, right?"


"So, this is just an extension of that. Or rather, tapping into that connection through the Force." She pulled her hands away, until the fingers were touching end to end. "The Force helps maintain the link, but it can't do so without two people who can access it, like the Jedi. It allows the other to sense the person from light years away, to know how they are physically at all times, and what they're thinking, though it's usually not in so many words."

"Isn't that something Jedi have already? If I wanted to know what you're thinking, or how Mara is, I could just reach out for it."

"But you'd have to concentrate in order to reach across that distance. In the bond, it's instantaneous. My father always knew where my mother was, without even thinking first. It may seem like there's no privacy, but after awhile--so my mother told me--she couldn't imagine living without it."

"And the Jedi who married each other, they all did this?"

"Not all. Some didn't like the loss of privacy, but those who chose not to do it usually split up afterwards. More often than not, they just weren't serious enough about the relationship to make a commitment that deep. As far I know, it can't be undone."

He thought about that for a moment. "I see." Callista would have known about this ritual. Is that why she had left? Because being with him, without the link, would be inferior? Or maybe she felt it wouldn't have lasted without the bond. Either way, she had made her choice; now it was up to him to live with it.

Nila called everyone to eat, and Luke ate silently, thinking of weddings, and engagements that had been made, and Mara, who sat across from him. He stole glances at her whenever she wasn't looking--completely unaware that she did the same thing. Nila and Darm tried to keep from smiling. The children ignored the grown-ups, except for Cerrah, who watched the two Jedis with growing confusion.

Word of the announcement spread quick, so by the time they were done eating and had gotten to the Hall, a crowd had formed. Nila ushered the two up the stairs to the second floor, Darm trailing behind.

"You know what to do?" She asked breathlessly.

Mara nodded, while Luke answered an affirmative. "Good. Remember, it doesn't have to be long-winded, but it better be convincing, or else this will have been for nothing. Don't forget to, ah..."

"We won't," Luke answered quickly. How could he forget? He looked at Mara, and reached out to her through the Force, but her face and sense were like stone.

Nila hurried down to get things set up, leaving Darm alone with them. "Lighten up, guys. It's not like this is for real."

"I know," Luke replied. But knowing it didn't make the nervousness go away.

Mara, for her part, was trying to keep her mind off the subject, though it invaded her thoughts every other second. It was going to be simple; speech, then the kiss, which shouldn't take too long. So assured she was that everything was under control, she barely realized she was biting her lip.

Nila called up, "It's showtime."


Cerrah could feel the stranger even closer now. By morning, he would be at the village. She knew he was familiar, but who--?

*Cerrah, I have come to help you.*

The Scryth? No, it wasn't the same sound, as if several people were saying the same thing at once. This voice was singular, and male. *Who are you?*

*I was one of many, but I have come so that your enemies will not defeat you.*

*What are you talking about?*

The voice seemed to sigh. *The Jedi have gotten to you, haven't they? They have made you think that they are good, and I--we--are evil. I will show you the truth.*

The truth? It seemed like such an odd concept to her. *I don't know what's right or wrong anymore. My mother--*

*Your mother is one of them! But you aren't. You don't have to be like them. You can be one of us.*

*One of you?* She almost laughed. *You are disembodied souls, haunting a remote lake. Why would I want that?*

*We have our own society, Cerrah. One you could join.*

*And that would be...?*

*Your people call us Scryth, but that is a perversion of our true name; The centuries have not been kind. Soon, you will know everything.* With that, he was gone, leaving a very confused girl to sort out his words.

The effort to contact the girl had drained him; he was losing strength hourly now, but he would survive until dawn. He had to.

He stumbled along a little farther before collapsing to the ground, the strain of walking and contacting her through the Force too much for his human body to take. His last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of the Jedi, the source of his problems.


The crowd looked bigger than it actually was, Luke decided, the idea helping his stagefright somewhat. Mara clutched his hand as part of the show, the stony gaze having been dropped for a loving look. The sight of her expression had nearly caused him to forget all his lines, until he realized it was an act for the crowd. It hadn't been for him.

She gave her speech first, and it didn't sound stilted or practiced at all, surprisingly. He tried not to look directly at her, instead focusing his attention on a wisp of hair that fell down across her cheek, and he followed it down to her neck--but he heard her stumble a little and glanced back, directly into her eyes. She froze, the word she had been saying tumbled out, "--love you, Luke. I have for a long time." The remark caught him completely off-guard. He had been ignoring the beginning, knowing the story she concocted of how they met and fell in love from her conversation at dinner, but this hadn't been in the script.

He felt a small stirring in the Force from her, a vague suggestion that she wasn't able to block him out as well as she might have hoped. The tension only increased as he watched and listened to the rest of her speech.

Was that a slip of the tongue, a simple accident, or something more? He listened to the remainder of the tale, straining to find meaning in every word she said. He struggled to be objective, but found himself believing her when she said she loved him with all her heart and soul.

Mara berated herself for the slip. This was becoming too similar to the dream she'd had; once again he was waiting to hear what she had to say, and her heart had taken over. She sensed his stunned reaction, though none showed on his face. He tried to sense her emotions through the Force in turn, but the walls stayed, albeit weaker than before. She didn't know how long her resolve would last, now.

She ended her proclamation, and now it was Luke's turn. He looked into her eyes, searching for some sign in the Force as well, and felt a trickle of something...fear? Then it changed rapidly, into a strong passion that he could feel almost as if the barrier were half of what it was.

He started his speech, knowing that there were those who knew Basic in the crowd, and confronting her now would do little good, although he added a few lines that were personal enough to get a physical reaction from her. He searched deeper within, hoping to see something else, but the wall was still up. After a few minutes he finished it off, and realized with a start what was next. The crowd was waiting expectantly, and Mara stood there patiently, her face unreadable.

*Now or never,* he thought as his left hand traveled to her face, brushing the stray hair away to the side. He felt her tremble slightly at the touch, and moved closer, his hand following the jaw line to cup her chin and lead his mouth to hers.

Their lips met, and Mara attempted to hold back, to be as unyielding as she could manage, but it was too much. Her feelings had been held in check for so long that she no longer cared what her rational mind thought. She leaned into him, hands reaching around his neck as his hand dropped from her chin to embrace her, his arms pulling her in tightly. Her walls dropped away, and Luke felt the full power of her wash over him, engulfing him in her passion and love, and she was consumed by his. Time seemed to stop for both of them, as the crowds vanished into nothing and it was just them, alone.

After awhile, Luke felt a faint tap on his shoulder. He ignored it, but it persisted, and finally he withdrew from their embrace--very reluctantly--and focused on Mara first, her hands pulling away from his face, and a look of...astonishment? was in her eyes.

His gaze flicked to the area around him. He blinked. The last of the crowd was filing out, grinning wildly. *What in--?* He turned to his left, and Darm stood there, grinning as well. "Looks like you did it."

He focused on the man's face. "What?"

"No one contested it." He looked at Luke shrewdly, then laughed. "You should have seen their faces! You just kept going and going..."

"How long?" Luke was still dazed, and he hardly felt his arms go slack to his side. Hadn't they been around Mara a second ago?

"Two, maybe three minutes."

Minutes! He barely kept his jaw from dropping. It had felt like seconds, instead.

"I think you've lost something," Darm commented mildly, and Luke followed the man's finger. He watched as Mara disappeared up the stairs.

He hesitated, not sure what to do, when Darm slapped his back. "Well, what are you waiting for? Go after her!" He said, still smiling.

His legs moved slowly at first, but soon he had dashed across the main area and was climbing the stairs.

Darm walked back to his wife, and kissed her warmly. "You are the queen of all matchmakers," he announced triumphantly.

"I know, dear," she said, "but they did the matching, not me. I only helped them along."

"No one could have arranged this as well," he argued.

"Thanks," she flashed a grin, "but I *did* have help."

"That you did," he finally gave in, grinning back. "Let's go home. I doubt they'll be back anytime soon."

"Let's hope so." She took his arm, and they walked back to the house, to deal with the children's mess that would inevitably greet them at the door; Mrs. Topek, or no.


She'd seen the ladder before, when she had been in the computer room earlier. It only took a few seconds to climb up, and close the hatch behind her. Too bad there wasn't a lock.

Luke was coming after her. Her heart was soaring still; she could still feel his lips on hers, his arms around her...*I thought I was stronger than that! I was so sure he wouldn't get to me..!* Now he was coming to tell her it had been a mistake. I'm sorry, he would say, I don't know what came over me. I can't cheat on Callista. She wanted to grind the heels of her hands into her forehead.

*If only she had died,* Mara started to think, then cut it off abruptly. *If I had told Luke sooner, Callista wouldn't have been a problem to begin with.* It was too late now. Now he knew, and all she had left was damage control.

Luke rushed up the stairs, past a room with a round table and chairs, and two others with shelves of some sort. Torches, *torches!*, burned along the stairwell, and when he reached the top floor, their illumination revealed that Mara was not there. The flickering light cast eerie shadows, and he noticed a large cylinder in the center. He wasn't interested in that, however. He scanned through the Force, and found her above him. *Above?* He looked for more stairs, and instead found a ladder, leading up into the darkness. He climbed up that as well, wondering suddenly what he was going to say when he did reach her.

He found the hatchway easily enough, and it landed with a thud on the roof. He pulled himself up, and saw Mara with her back turned, watching the village below.

"Mara," he began, then stopped. What should I say? What *can* I say? "I'm not sure what--"

"Luke, don't." She didn't turn to face him. "I know you love Callista. I know about your promise; I saw it all in your mind."

He walked towards her, "If you saw that, then you know how I feel about you." She didn't respond, and her sense was as stone again. He took her by the arm, gently, and turned her to face him.

As soon as he did so, her head whipped to the side, trying her best not to look at him. He gently guided her face back, and even though it was dark, his eyes saw the nervousness she was feeling. "What's wrong? Are you afraid to be alone with me? Or is it just me you're afraid of?"

This was probably the first time he had seen her speechless. After a few seconds she retorted, "I'm trying to make this easy on you, farmer. Walk away now and I'll forget this ever happened."

"What if I don't want to forget?" He edged in closer, and to his surprise she didn't back away. "I wasn't the only one involved, you know. I know what I felt, and I know what *you* felt. That kiss wasn't just for the crowd."

The walls stayed up, though they were weakened. Unfortunately, the damage control wasn't working quite as planned. "I know you love Callista," she argued softly. "You can't love me as much--"

"Can't I?" He grabbed her by her shoulders. Why was she acting like this? She knew how he felt...when it suddenly came to him; *Say the words*. His hands traveled up to her face, caressing her cheek and pushing back wind-swept hair. "I love you, Mara. I think maybe I always have, though I just haven't seen it until now.

"How can I describe the beauty I see in you? It's more than just physical. When you smile, I can see your soul in your eyes." He leaned in closer, and she stayed silent, watching him intently, though he noticed she was breathing harder. "You're all I think about, whenever I can think. Please, don't shut me out."

He felt her sense touch his mind lightly, probing his feelings. He opened himself up again, hoping it would encourage her to do the same.

Gradually, he sensed the walls recede, and was overwhelmed by the intensity of her love for him. She smiled then, and his heart filled with joy; He couldn't contain it all. He gave in to his urges, and kissed her passionately. He buried his fingers in her hair as her arms went around his back and traveled upwards, pressing him in tighter.

This time when they parted, Luke could still sense her feelings and thoughts, the ecstasy of the moment washing over him. "I love you," he said again, thinking he could never say it enough.

"And I love you, Luke Skywalker," she smirked, "and no, you could never say it enough--to me, anyway." He kissed her again, and it left her breathless. Finally, she managed to say, "You know, I could get used to this."

"So could I."

After several more minutes, they reluctantly decided to enter back into the rest of the world. Luke took a better look at the computer this time, and Mara tugged him away, promising to see it again in the morning.

The walk back was uneventful, except for the occasional person who grinned knowingly at the couple. All too soon they arrived at the home, and came in as silent as possible. No one was up, and that had Luke's mind pondering things he wouldn't have considered before, but Mara put a stop to it quick. "That is *not* an option."

Luke insisted she take the couch this time, and she agreed reluctantly. After a half hour of whispered conversation, they finally fell asleep, with no thought of any problems whatsoever.


Cool air swept down from the north, driving away the heat and humidity and leaving the crisp air of an early autumn. Dew hung heavily on the surrounding foliage, and when the man who had once been Covell woke up, he found his clothes and hair damp with moisture. His stomach was growling ferociously, and after a few minutes discovered a bush with berries still on it, though most were picked over and rotting. Not caring one way or the other, he devoured them all, hoping to quell the echo the rumbling produced.

The man had a day or so's beard growth, and he unconsciously rubbed his chin as he thought of the Jedi. Their weakness was the girl; They would never harm her, but if properly motivated the girl would have no such qualms against them. She had grown strong in the Dark Side, but she hadn't fully succumbed; Her mother was probably the cause. Dealing with the mother was going to be hard, since she was part of the Scryth's plan, moreso than the girl. Harming her would accomplish nothing, and would in fact hinder their whole scheme.

Three more hours after sunrise, he arrived at the edge of the village, near to where the girl's house was. He sat down in the shade, away from prying eyes and with a good view of the street ahead. The girl was just beginning to wake up, and soon it would be time.


She rubbed bleary eyes and stretched in the hope of waking up further, but instead it only made her sleepier. Cerrah noticed that everyone else had woken up, and that urged her to get dressed. She was just pulling on a skirt when she felt the man's presence. He's here! she realized, and began to panic. *What does he want?*

Abruptly she heard his voice in her mind, *Stay where you are, I'm coming for you.* Now she was alarmed. *He wants me to join him still, but I don't know if that's what I want to do.* She wrung her hands nervously. *I have to get away from here, before he finds me!*

She quickly finished dressing and bolted out of her room, running headlong into the Jedi, Skywalker. "Hey, what's the hurry?" He was very concerned, but she didn't have time to explain--she had to leave. She wriggled out of his grip and ran on, hearing him call out to her distantly. She flew out the door and into the street, heading as far from the house and the man as she could possibly go.

He saw the girl run from the house and head directly south, towards a large tower. *The little brat! So this is how it's going to be, eh?* Summoning the strength, he charged out into the main street, chasing after her. Luckily no one was out this early, and he could see her clearly as she sprinted farther away from him.

*I'm a friend, I mean you no harm!* he sent to her, but received no response. He muttered a few ancient curses and followed on, hoping to catch her in time.

Cerrah had been terrified; Luke didn't need the Force to see that. After a quick discussion with Nila and Mara in the kitchen, he took off after her, hoping he wasn't making things worse.

At first he didn't see her, but soon he figured out which direction she had headed, and made his way to the stone paved street leading southward. He turned right and saw her off in the distance, being chased by someone whose outfit looked very familiar--then he recognized in horror...*that's an Imperial uniform.* The lost scout the Imperials had left behind was no longer lost; He stretched out to the man's mind, and felt only evil and darkness beyond dark. He was filled with the Dark Side.

How could that be? He was no Force-sensitive. Luke's mind whirled from the revelation, but his inner sense shook him from his wandering thoughts and reminded him to follow the girl. He took off again, and vaguely sensed Mara also joining in the pursuit. He didn't have time to stop and wait for her, however, and kept on running.

Her legs pumped faster, but the man was still gaining, nevertheless. Cerrah was almost to the tower, though from there she didn't have any other ideas of where to go. She hadn't seen anyone yet, but the area around the Hall usually had the most activity. If something happened to her, she wanted witnesses.

The street ahead opened up, and she was in the plaza. A few people were out, and they cast strange looks in her direction as she ran by. She cut through the main floor of the Hall and out the other side, still heading southward.

This was not going as planned. He was catching up to her, but he was being exposed. He felt the eyes of the natives on him as he pursued her, and heard shouts of alarm as he ran through the Hall. He ignored everything but the girl in front of him.

She dodged down a side street, and followed her, the Dark Side sustaining his strength. He came up on the dirt road and saw nothing but a row of houses. He scanned around him, and sensed her immediately. Sprinting to the alleyway, she cut her off at the entrance, before she could escape.

" you're going?" He croaked, the words coming out between pants. The girl was terrified; Good, that should make his job easier.


"I'm trying to help you, Cerrah. The Jedi are coming after us, you know. They know I'm here, and they'll kill us both unless we do something about it."

He sensed her stretch out, and realize with a shock that the Jedi were indeed following them. "I don't know..."

"If they find you they'll surely kill you, especially since I'm here. You have to get them before they have the townspeople behind them, backing them up."

That thought spurred her anger, and he felt the Dark Side surge through her. "Good, good. Remember what we've taught you."

She nodded, and he grinned in satisfaction.

Luke followed the trail of stares and horror Cerrah and her Imperial pursuer left behind, drawing his own stares as he went. Mara was practically on his heels now, and he heard her voice in his head, *Who is this guy? His presence is as dark as the Emperor's, but how can that be? He wasn't any more Force sensitive than those people we just passed.*

Obviously, Mara had been keeping track of him as well. *Guess we'll find that out when we catch up,* he replied back, and sensed her wry amusement. *Now why didn't I think of that?* He would have laughed if the situation weren't so desperate.

He saw the man disappear suddenly off to the side, and slowed down slightly; He didn't want to run into a trap. He scanned the area, but he still couldn't sense Cerrah; only the man was present as far as he could tell. A flicker in the Force far behind him grabbed his attention, and he identified it as Nila. He couldn't wait for her, either.

Luke and Mara reached the side street, and turned to see the man bent down, talking with Cerrah. He looked to be about ten years younger than they were, with short black hair and wearing a very loose fitting uniform. He turned, and Luke saw dark eyes sunken in a gaunt face, pale as death.

Luke called out her name, and as she pivoted towards him, he saw the look of hatred in her eyes. *The Scryth's got her,* he heard Mara's bleak tone in his mind, and had to agree. Cerrah's face skewed up in anger, and said accusingly, "You're not going to hurt me!" Luke felt the Dark Side well up in her, and a wall of air smacked into them both, sending them flying backwards. He hit the dirt hard, and as he looked around, saw Mara land not too far from him; the pain he felt from her made his seem pale and remote.

He scrambled to her side, but she was already sitting up and dusting herself off. No need to ask if she was alright; he knew she was. Luke glanced back at the girl, and saw her advancing towards them. "Cerrah, we're not going to hurt you....we only want to help."

She only snarled in reply, and he both saw and felt stone pavers being lifted from the street behind them and hurled in their direction. This time, though, Luke was ready; He got his own hold on the slabs and sent them hurling back the other direction. Mara had ignited her lightsaber in the meantime, preparing for another attack, but that only gave the wrong impression to Cerrah.

The man bellowed, "You see? Even now they try to sweet-talk you, while they plot your demise." Who was this guy? Luke's thoughts unknowingly echoed Mara's, and he heard Mara call out, "Who the hell *are* you? The Scryth?"

The man laughed, "I guess you could say that. But you won't be killing us again, Jedi." Mara looked slightly perturbed at being called a Jedi, but she shook it off. "What are you talking about? We haven't--"

"Every word out of your mouth is a lie!" The gaunt man yelled, and Mara felt her arms slam into her side as the very air around her squeezed in, forcing the breath out of her lungs. It felt to her as if the man had created a physical hand through the Force, and was intent on crushing the life from her.

"Stop it!" Luke commanded, but received no clemency from the man. Not really expecting the Scryth to listen, he then took control of the Force surrounding Mara and pulled it outward until the stress created by both Luke's and the Scryth's commands caused it to evaporate, creating a small nether-Force area that was quickly flooded over by the Force surrounding it. Mara gasped for air as the invisible vise lost its strength, and managed to stand upright before Luke grabbed her arm.

"We won't hurt you, Cerrah. If we wanted to do that, we would have done it a long time ago," Luke said, and Mara added, "If anyone's trying to hurt you, it's him." She pointed directly at the dark-haired man standing at the girl's side. "He's only using you to get rid of us."

Cerrah turned to the man, and asked, "Is that true?" Her loyalty was beginning to waver, since the Jedi weren't attacking her in kind.

"No. *They* are the ones who--"

"Cerrah!" Her mother's voice interrupted his sentence. "Cerrah, are you alright?"

The man muttered something and grabbed the girl's arm, "Come on, let's finish this and leave."

"Let go of me! All of you, just leave me alone!" Luke and Mara saw the ripple in the air a split second before it hit, and were knocked down again as the sonic wave pummeled into them, Mara's lightsaber flung from her grasp. Glass shattered from the surrounding windows and the ceramic walls cracked from the pressure. Dimly, Luke saw the man lying on the ground, several feet from where he had been standing. He felt like one giant bruise, and got the same impression from Mara. Nila's shock at the display pushed his own thoughts back, as she was just now coming around the corner.

Immediately, shards of the broken glass were hurling towards them all, but heading primarily for Nila; Luke and Mara stayed down, but nevertheless Luke felt a low-flying one dig into his back, and one catch into Mara's shoulder. Then the shards stopped just as suddenly, quivering in the tension of push and pull, a couple meters before they reached Nila. Cerrah had stopped the man's attack, and from the way she was staring at the possessed man, both Mara and Luke knew at that moment that Cerrah knew who was right, and who was wrong. The shards dropped to the ground, shattering further, and Cerrah ran to her mother, crying in relief.

"This is not over," they heard the man rasp distantly--up on his knees now--and he pulled a blaster from his holster. Nila and Cerrah dived around the corner, while Luke and Mara rolled and dodged forward, Luke igniting his lightsaber and Mara's flying to her hand as the Imperial opened fire.

Unfortunately for the Scryth persona, he had been so preoccupied with eliminating the Jedi that he almost failed to notice his loosening grasp on the human's body. He could no longer feel his legs and felt the lower part of his body slacken. "No, not now!" he cried out in desperation as his fingers went numb. He shrieked, forgetting that anyone was there, and Luke took the opportunity to snatch the blaster away with the Force, throwing it off to his left. Abruptly, the man fell forward, unconscious. Luke and Mara could no longer sense the Dark Side in him, so they headed over to the body when he stirred suddenly, and peered up at the two who stood no more than a few meters away. His eyes widened in recognition, but regardless, he asked, "Who *are* you?"

"My name is Luke Skywalker." He didn't think the man's eyes could get any wider, but they did. Then he started to laugh bitterly, "I don't believe it. And I'm so close! If only Veid knew..."

Neither of them knew what the Imperial was talking about, but he obviously wasn't well. Luke said, "You're incredibly weak from what you've gone through, but if you come with us--"

He rose unsteadily to his feet, and spied the blaster off to the right. His eyes shifted warily between Mara and Luke, then made an unexpected dive for it. He had it in his hands and fired before they could react in their stunned state; Mara just barely got her lightsaber up in time to deflect a shot. He continued to fire rapidly, but they advanced through the barrage, and he couldn't summon enough strength to get back up, to run for it. "I *will* be Commander--I will!" he mumbled feverishly, and used the last of his energy to weakly throw himself at Mara, laser bolts heading straight for her. She dodged to the side smoothly, and took a swipe at him as he passed, cutting through the barrel of the blaster and into his side, nearly slicing him in half. He crumpled to the ground, dead before he even knew his plan had failed.


Villagers took the remains of "Lt. Covell" away--according to his ID--while Luke tended to Mara's shoulder, the Force reducing the cut to a thin scar. The gouge in his back was deeper, but he shrugged it off, saying that the Force was healing it. It was no longer bleeding, but the sight of it made Mara concerned, nevertheless. She didn't want to think about how the shard could have punctured a lung if it had dug any deeper.

She switched the topic over to the Scryth, pondering over what it could be, exactly. He reached out for her thoughts and got them, still a strange experience for him, though no less thrilling. "I wish I knew what it was, too. It obviously can possess a person's body, although possessing her couldn't have been the reason, or else they would have done that back at the lake."

Mara nodded her head, and added, "And they didn't want to kill her, either. I figured they were using her, but for what?"

Nila came over then, and suggested searching through the computer's database. "The records go back to when the Shadoui first settled here. If there's anything to find out about the Scryth, it should be in there." She continued on, sheepishly, "I could slap myself for not checking it earlier, but I never thought--"

"It's all right," Mara said, trying to ease the woman's guilt. "We can't change the past; We can only deal with the present."

"I'll also check your father's journals afterward, to see if he made any mention of it," Luke added, wrapping his arm around Mara's waist. "Looks like it isn't over yet."

Mara grimaced at his words, and he sensed her uneasiness. She wasn't thrilled at the idea of traveling back up there, especially without knowing what they were up against. He wasn't all that excited either, but the Scryth had to be dealt with. He only hoped that nothing else went wrong; the Scryth was more than enough to handle, and the fleet wouldn't here for some time, according to Leia. The Imperials were probably the least he had to worry about, now. Hopefully, the computer would yield enough information to have the odds more in their favor. He shoved all other concerns aside, and headed for the tower looming above them, Mara, Nila and Cerrah following behind.


They felt their comrade's death, and the Scryth knew that he would not be joining them again, his soul unrecoverable. Now the Jedi would be heading for them, and they only wait and plan. However, the advantage was theirs; their enemies just didn't know that yet. But *they* did.

The girl was lost, though. Little could be done to fix that mess. Only if chance were on their side, could they hope to replace her with someone. Not impossible; it could be done, in time. They had waited millennia for a chance...they could wait for a few more years, or days, if it would set them free.

Chapter 10

The four of them--Luke, Mara, Nila and Cerrah--searched diligently through the library's shelves, looking for any arcane references they could find on Jedi, or Scryth. Dust had settled in every nook and edge, so after several minutes of unearthing the filing system's directory and scouring every shelf, a pale choking haze of dust circled the air, their particles glinting mischievously in the now-risen sun.

"There's nothing in this room," Nila said with a strong certainty, "and nothing written in the directory, either."

"It has to be here," Luke replied earnestly, just as certain there was something to be found. "We haven't tried the next floor yet."

"The directory's for both floors, Luke. I doubt they would put information in here and not catalogue it." Luke wasn't listening, though, and jogged up the flight of stairs. Nila looked questioningly at Mara, who only shrugged and said, "He's been this way for as long as I've known him. He's positive that there's something here," Mara's eyes narrowed in thought, peering up at the ceiling as if looking past it, "and I can sense it, through him. Feels like..." she trailed off, and went up the stairs as well, almost in a daze.

"Like what?" Nila called out after her, but was ignored. An annoyed look crossed her face as she hiked up her skirt to climb the stairs, Cerrah following after.

As the floor came into view, she saw Luke already rifling through the shelves and files, opening and closing drawers one by one. Mara had taken the other side, and was picking through labeled data chips carefully, trying to keep things in order. Cerrah passed by her and headed for one area in particular, one that was cluttered with various odds and ends. Nila sighed, and made her way past Luke to work on some files he hadn't reached yet.

More minutes passed, and Nila accepted defeat. There weren't any chips to be found, and there weren't any files that even hinted at the knowledge of the Scryth. Her daughter walked over, having found a pretty, sided glass rod in the pile, and shone it in the light, hoping to see a rainbow. The light, however, stayed white, to the girl's disappointment. Then she frowned at the object, and called out, "Mama? There's something in this glass."

Weary, and her temper short, she almost didn't budge, until her curiosity got the better of her and she wandered over to take a look. Sure enough, there was something in there; long fibers of some sort--maybe cracks or some kind of metal? Slowly, she realized what this rod in her hand might be, and said, "Luke? Would you come over here, please?"

"Can it wait, Nila? I've still got a whole section to comb through."

"I think you'll want to see this."

The tone in her voice drew his attention and Mara's, and soon he saw what Nila was talking about. "It looks like some sort of component. But to what?" Luke mumbled aloud. Mara took it from her hands, and shone it in the light. "Might be informational, since it's in the library. Would the computer be able to read this?"

"I don't know. It's worth a try, anyway."

Luke nodded in agreement, and they all headed upstairs, leaving the swirls of dust to settle back into place.


The shuttle sat alone in the deserted hangar, patrolled only by the occasional soldier. It was supposed to be bait for some plan of Commander Veid's, but Haskins only saw it as a potential hazard, considering who they were dealing with.

The smell of oil and other lubricants permeated the air, so thick he could taste the residue in his mouth. Frowning dismally, he turned back to the exit, and the meeting that awaited him in the town's headquarters.

After several minutes he arrived at the designated room, showed clearance and entered in. Veid sat at the head of the table, with a spot to his right left open for him, and the chair to his left taken by Farrst. Other officers had taken places around the table, situated in their own way in order to take some advantage, whether to be near Veid or on the opposite side, to watch him diligently. All watched each other warily; Covell might not be here, but his influence had stretched into Gheas' ranks.

Veid nodded silently to him, and he sat in his chair, wishing that this didn't feel like the beginning of the end.

"Now that Haskins is here, we can proceed." Veid's voice wasn't accusatory, but he hadn't expected that it would be. Discord would be seen as a weakness to exploit. "Since we have no idea how much time we have before the Jedi come back, or any more Rebels arrive, let's cut to the chase. I have a plan for capturing the Rebels."

This caused a slight gasp by some, but the others were non-plussed. "How do you plan to do that, Commander?" A sergeant demanded, leaning in closer.

Veid smiled unpleasantly, "I have their ship."

The shocked expression on the man's face faded, and he asked, "How can that be? I thought both of their ships had been accounted for."

"One was, Sergeant. The other was an unknown, so I had the troops continue to search for it while we hunted them down...unsuccessfully." That was an understatement. Aside from a close call, they'd had no chance to capture the fugitives. And since they now knew the Rebels were Jedi, it was even less likely than before. "One of the Stormtroopers found the ship hidden in the canyon, and I had it flown here, where it's under close guard." Haskins almost laughed at that, having seen the guards on duty himself.

"What then, sir?" Haskins said instead, sounding as if he already knew.

"We'll lure them here by letting them know we have their ship; that way, we can be assured somewhat that in trying to get their ship back, they'll come to us. Yualpe is heavily guarded, and the Z-95 impounded there can only carry one person--the shuttle can carry at least four people, if not more.

"Catching Jedi won't be easy, but it has to be done, if we're to have any leverage with the Rebel forces." At this, the whole table fell into stunned silence.

"What forces, Commander?" One officer asked weakly, a man that wasn't even half Veid's age. The Commander only stared, then said, "Where there are two Rebels, there will be more; I have no illusions about that. We aren't any match for their ships--but if we catch their spies, then we'll have something, at least. They've always been known to be soft-hearted towards their own," he smiled coldly. Only Haskins knew that Veid was putting up a front; probably because he felt their efforts were all in vain. He nodded in support, however, and saw the rest do likewise.

Veid detailed the plan to his officers and dismissed them, then sank back into his chair as they departed. "Haskins, do you think this'll work?" He spoke freely, since they were the only ones in the room..

He paused before replying; even though he had the freedom to speak his mind, he tried to choose his words carefully. "No, I don't think so, sir. The Jedi have shown that they're resourceful, and can outmaneuver our attempts at capture. Odds are good that they'll find a ship somewhere that will get them off-planet."

"What would you suggest then?" Veid rubbed his eyes wearily.

"Taking the shuttle and getting the hell out of here, sir--if you're right about the Rebels coming." The frankness of the remark didn't faze his commander. Veid looked at him sadly, "I wish I could, but I couldn't--wouldn't--abandon my post, even if it *is* worthless. These men depend on me too much." He sighed deeply, and continued, "I wish I was worth that trust."

Haskins was truly astonished. "Commander, what are you saying?"

He smiled wanly, "Nothing, really. Just the ramblings of an old old man who is very, very tired." His eyes looked sunken, and his skin seemed pallid in the overhead light; he was not the strong leader at that moment--just a man who wanted something to lean on, for support. The aide had an incredibly powerful urge to leave, and Veid noticed his agitation, "Why don't you post more guards on the ship? Now that the others know about it, they might be tempted to steal it and flee."

"Understood, sir. And sir?" Veid looked up. "The men *do* look up to you...more than you know. And it isn't out of fear; it's respect. Sure, the officers want your job, but they'd need the men behind them--and that's the one thing they don't have, the one thing Covell was trying to get. Respect."

Veid smiled again, this time with more confidence. "Thank you, Haskins."

He returned the smile, knowing that this whole conversation was odd for two Imperials to be having. "You're welcome, sir," he answered back, and walked out into the hallway, heading for the hangar. No one was going to be stealing *this* ship, Haskins assured himself. Veid might not be planning on leaving, but he was no fool; if things turned hopeless, he would make sure that everything was ready.


It took some doing to activate the computer, but soon its reassuring hum filled the small room, and the once-dark panels emitted a warm glow. After several tries, the slender rod finally fit into a matching hole in the surface, with an inch still protruding.

"I hope it's supposed to look like that," Mara supplied, eyeing the console distastefully. "I'd hate to think we've got it backwards."

Nila smirked, "It's not. I've seen data crystals before--though not quite like this one. It's rather large, considering."

"Maybe that means it has a lot of information," Luke said eagerly, anticipating the next step of the operation. Mara nearly rolled her eyes, until she noticed Luke watching her, and instead smiled a little too sweetly at him. She picked up his thought, *I do *not* spend all my time reading about Jedi, Mara. I just take whatever I can get.*

She quickly suppressed the scathing remark that had popped up in her head, but he gave her a warning look, nevertheless. *I wish I had the barrier back,* she thought briefly, then felt his presence suffuse warmly into hers. *You do, huh?* His arm wrapped around her waist as he drew her near, and before she knew it, his lips met hers. *Well, maybe not right now...*, she sent back as he pulled her in tighter.

"Ahem." It took them both a few seconds to realize Nila was trying to get their attention. "It's working."

They looked up at the hologram hovering over them, projected from surprisingly small lenses in the computer. Ten hand-sized boxes were floating in a orange-red haze, with foreign characters etched into every facet of the boxes, except one, which was in Basic. Nila reached out and touched the one that said, "For Jedi only," and it expanded, pushing the others out of view.

Inside the "box" was a holo-projection of a middle-aged man, wearing clothing that hadn't been fashionable for millennia--carbon-scored armor plates covered his brown tunic, and had a blaster strapped to his side in addition to the lightsaber. Obviously he was a Jedi Knight, not a Healer or a Master.

"Hopefully whoever hears this recording is a Jedi," a gruff-sounding voice echoed from the projection, lips matching perfectly with the words, "because what I have to say is only significant to them.

"Yesterday, I and seven other Knights encountered one of the last of the Sith strongholds, here on this planet. Luckily, the Shadoui people had Force-sensitives among them, who could tell us where they were hiding--north of a fairly large lake. They had stolen a Sith artifact, a talisman, that looks like this," his image was replaced by a metallic tetrahedron, with arcane carvings on its surface that Luke and Mara recognized as Sith writing. In the center of each of the three slanting planes was a red gem, and as they watched, the sides opened up to reveal a clear crystal rod inside; the focusing element of the artifact.

The recording continued on, "This has the ability to create a portal, so to speak, in the Force--it draws the presences of the dead Sith Lords and other Sith magicians into it, and can manipulate them at the will of the holder; essentially trapping them. Unfortunately, when we attacked them, one of their number had fled with the device, and by the time I caught up with him, at the lake," his face twisted into a mix of anger and regret, "he was dead. There was no trace of the talisman anywhere around him. If it's in the lake, then there's no reason to get it; our Shadoui guides told us it's several, several meters deep. No one could dive deep enough to retrieve it, without proper gear, and I couldn't sense it with the Force, let alone levitate it up. I say this only so you will know the truth; we are planning on telling the rest of the galaxy that it was destroyed.

"This information is in the care of the Shadoui, whose vast collection of knowledge is unsurpassed, as far as I know. It has been also been repeated in the Shadoui language, for their benefit. May the Force be with you," the form bowed slightly, and the recording ended into darkness.

Luke stood there, silent, while Nila mumbled out, "Talisman? What talisman?"

"Obviously that's one secret that was lost over the years," Mara observed, when suddenly Luke gave out a short burst of laughter, after being silent through the recording's playback. "Of course! Why didn't I see it before?"

"What?" Nila asked desperately, while Mara stepped back a pace from Luke, wondering if he was feeling alright.

"I'm fine, Mara," he replied, and Mara only shook her head in exasperation. "I just realized something; What's the name of the thing out there?" he began, already knowing the answer.

"The Scryth," Nila answered back, and Luke smiled. "Right! And the talisman in the lake is what, Sith? Think about it..."

Mara jumped in, "Scryth is just a mutated form of Sith." The realization caught her cold. "Then that presence out there is actually the Sith themselves."

"Exactly. Who knows? Maybe the Sith who died at the lake was trying to call up the power of the dead Sith, and knowing it would be too late, threw it in while it was still activated."

"Thereby drawing in the newly-dead Sith, and whoever else had been drawn in," Nila finished. "They're trapped in the talisman! That's why they wanted Cerrah--if they had her on their side, she could use it to free them, or to use it to possess other people like the Imperial, Covell. Though that still doesn't explain why they didn't possess her in the first place."

Forgetting that her daughter was there, Cerrah piped up, "They aren't that strong."

All heads turned to face her. "What do you mean, they aren't that strong?" Mara asked her directly. The girl pouted in thought and replied, "Well, if they wanted me to kill you, and they had the power to do it themselves, they would have done so by now, don't you think?"

"True. But why did they possess Covell, and not you?" Luke mused.

"They're tied to the lake; they don't leave, unless they possess someone else," Cerrah answered. "That guy was weak because he was too far away from the lake. Maybe they can't use the talisman themselves, 'cause they're only spirits?" Mara shrugged her shoulders, and Nila accepted it tentatively. Luke only nodded, "Maybe so. But I'll see what your grandfather's journal says about it. Hopefully that will give us some clues."

That ended the discussion, for the moment. As they came downstairs, Luke discovered how distraught the villagers had become. A group of them were waiting for him and Mara at the bottom, wringing their hands and shifting around nervously.

"What's wrong?" Luke asked, half to Nila and half to the people below. She frowned and said, "It looks like that Imperial soldier really shook them up. I can imagine how worried they must be right now--they don't know he was possessed, or that he was the only one. As far as they know, he might be part of a group coming to destroy their people, once and for all." Luke asked Nila to allay the people's fears, and he and Mara took off back to the house.

"How's the cut?" Mara asked pointedly, and he shrugged. "It's'll heal."

"I'm sure it will," she said, not meaning to sound sarcastic, but it came out that way, nevertheless. Luke arched a brow and gave her a questioning look, then realized what the problem was, from Mara's reaction through the Force. "You're worried about me?" He said aloud, then smiled in gratification. She glared at him, "Well, someone has to worry about your health, if you're not going to. It was all nice and chivalrous of you back there to put my well-being in front of yours, but that doesn't mean I'll allow you to destroy your own, at any expense." She gave him a playful shove, the words still awkward after all the years of keeping her feelings bottled up inside. "I can't have you dying on me, now can I?"

"I have no intention of doing that," Luke said, grinning, then turned serious. "If anything happened to you...I don't know what I'd do."

The desperation in his voice caught her off-balance. She swallowed her flippant remark, and said instead, "Now you know how I've felt for the past ten years."

He stared at her, stunned in spite of himself. He tried to say something in return, but everything he thought of sounded petty and contrite. She sensed his turmoil, and slipped an arm around his waist. "I guess that proves how well I was able to hide it," she said, smiling softly. Luke smiled ruefully, thinking more of all those lost years.

He found the journal at the bottom of the stack, and flipped to the end, to Tarrant's last entry. The writing was barely readable, and Luke had to struggle to keep his composure while reading.

Unfortunately, Tarrant hadn't written any more than that. Despair had obviously overtaken him, as it had taken his wife. No wonder Nila was apprehensive about the journal--it only dredged up what she was trying to forget.

Luke sighed and went back farther into the book, seeing the progression of the Scryth's, or Sith's, influence on their minds. Worst of all, they saw it coming, and yet could do nothing to stop it. He shook his head sadly as he read, vowing to destroy this monstrosity before it claimed another life.

Plans were made to travel back to the Scryth's lair; intending to retrieve the talisman and destroy it as it should have been done millennia ago. Everyone was naturally cautious at the thought of being under its influence, but if they could get rid of it, then their efforts would be worth whatever price. Darm wanted to come along, but Nila convinced him to stay with Cerrah and watch over her. She didn't want to mention that the odds of them coming back unscathed were pretty slim, though Darm seemed to notice her fear and wished desperately that he could protect her, somehow.

The rest of the day involved organizing their limited resources and figuring out how to reach an object that was supposed to be out of reach of humans. Luke only rebuffed Nila's and Mara's negative statements with a firm reassurance that they would find a way. In the end, Luke decided that only he, Mara and Nila should go, since they were the only ones who could fight the Scryth on even terms. Packing up their supplies, they planned on leaving at first light.


The sunset faded from orange to magenta, then slowly into a deep blue as Veid watched from the highest spire in the city. Structurally, it wasn't built to support someone's weight, but at this moment he didn't care; his world would end soon, and he had no idea whether he would end up dead or not.

He looked for the telltale signs of spacecraft in orbit, the glint of a hull from the diminishing sun, but he saw none. Sighing, he climbed back down, ignoring the sudden pain in his back. *It's just old age,* he mused to himself, *I'll have to get used to it eventually.* If his plan worked, he'd have a place to go. If not...well, he'd heard that the Rebels didn't kill their prisoners, but it had been a few years. Any government could be corrupted, in time. Just like the Empire had been.

In greatest secrecy, he had started the first phase of his plan; something even Haskins was not privy to. The stormtroopers guarding the landspeeder were pulled back, and Veid himself would be going out there with a technician, to set up the bait. Everything had been going smoothly; maybe this would work after all.


Time was not wasted the next morning. As efficient as soldiers heading out for combat, they had dressed, ate, and had gear ready to travel by first light, knowing that they needed to cover as much ground as possible. Luke's cut had completely healed, leaving only a thin scar, and Mara reported no lingering pain from her earlier encounter with the Veblos. Nila kissed her sleeping children good-bye once again, and held onto Darm as long as she dared to, given their need to leave promptly.

"I'll be back," she told him, more for her benefit than his. She knew what the Scryth was capable of; she hoped that making this promise would be her guarantee of coming back.

"I know you will," he whispered back. Nila didn't need the Force to know what he was thinking, after all their years together. "The kids and I will be waiting."

She only nodded, then smiled wanly. "Love you."

"Same here," Darm smiled back, trying to hide his concern.

Standing at the doorway, Luke watched them finish their good-byes. He turned to Mara, standing next to him, and thought about having to do this eventually. After they got off-planet and back to Coruscant, would she head back to her business? He didn't want a long-distance relationship, especially after having a relationship with no contact at all for seven years. For once, Mara wasn't listening in to his thoughts, and didn't hear the interesting turn his mind was taking.

As for Mara, her mind was running along a similar line, already. Instead of dealing with it then and now, however, she pushed it back in priority, promising to get back to it later.

The morning air was cool and moist, and the sharp wind from the northwest foretold the coming of colder air, and the approaching fall. Mara noticed spots of color in the trees as they walked, hints of red, russet and gold touching the leaves. The scrub and undergrowth looked duller and weaker, and berries were picked clean from the bushes.

They went straight north from town, not bothering to follow the river in their need for haste. All of them were sorely tempted to stop awhile and rest after a few hours of steady walking, but any time for the Scryth to recover would be time they could not afford to lose. Whatever plans it had made had failed, and they had to strike while they had the advantage.

The Sith sensed the Jedi coming. With one mind and purpose they began their campaign, planning on weakening them as best they could before they reached their area, softening the Jedi up for tonight. Dreams were their specialty, but only one of the things they could do to ensure their survival, and maybe even to capture their freedom, if the opportunity arose.

As the Jedi came closer to the lake, they could feel the oppression and despair creeping up on them, although vaguely. It took Luke several minutes before he realized his steps were dragging and his demeanor had worsened. Nila's face drooped with worry and fear, and Mara looked as if she were fighting back tears. He called everyone to halt.

"It's attacking us again," Luke said, and both Mara and Nila nodded in agreement. "We have to stay focused on our goal; we can't let it get to us."

"What about tonight?" Mara asked, knowing he was wondering the same thing. "It'll mess with our dreams just like before, except this time it wants us dead, not just out of the way. And the closer we get to it, the more control and influence it has over us. I think we shouldn't go too much farther today, so it can't attack us fully."

"But what if that's exactly what it wants?" Luke argued. "Any time we give it will be used against us, in the end. Besides, if we stop now, when we reach the lake tomorrow it'll almost be too dark to do anything--and that also means an additional night of torment."

Nila mulled that over. "You may be right, Luke. But I can't stand the thought of getting closer to that thing. The only reason I could do it before was because my daughter was out there; it overrode all my common sense. Now, I don't know." The Scryth seemed to be affecting her the most--especially considering her previous tie to it. "I wish there was some way to get there faster."

"Well, we've got a speeder on the other side of the forest, but barring the fact that it might not run, the Imperials have probably found it by now. It would take too long to get there, anyway," Luke explained.

"You're right. It's more time spent in an area we don't want to be in. Let's go," Mara urged the others forward, and shortly they were back to their own semi-private thoughts, the Scryth watching on eagerly.

-The older one is coming, as we wanted, though the trap we had planned for her is no longer possible...- It hissed anxiously as it assimilated this knowledge. -She is afraid, and angry as well--elements we need. We must be careful, though. The other two know what we are doing, and are fighting it. The dreams, though, the dreams...-

Its mind trailed off, absorbed in ideas and schemes. It allowed itself a small amount of hope as time passed, and the woman's mind grew more fearful and full of spite at the creature. Yes, this could be useful indeed.

The despair from before adapted itself to prey on Mara's doubt and confusion. She knew for a fact that Luke loved her, and that she loved him back, but their future was a worry that wouldn't go away. Everything was blissful now, but what would happen once they left? She couldn't imagine herself living as a housewife, taking care of children, cooking, and cleaning like Nila did. She nearly laughed to herself; *Housewife! As if Luke and I were going to get married!*

Certain that she would die single, and childless, the idea of having a normal life was absurd to her. That was the thing that panicked her most, in fact; losing her identity and turning into a being known only as Mrs. Skywalker, or worse yet, Mom. She didn't get along with kids at all--Cerrah was a good example of that. And days like this would be over. No running off to whereabouts unknown in a second, dropping everything for excitement. No freedom at all.

She shook her head in disgust. Luke wouldn't ask her to marry him, she was sure. *He knows I wouldn't make a good wife. I'm not domestic.* She thought about creating a link in order to find out for sure, but waved the idea away. *Why bother? I already know the answer.*

Her thoughts continued down their morose turn, only occasionally thinking that maybe the Scryth had something to do with this sudden fear.

Unknown to Mara, Luke had already considered the same topic. The decision, though, was of an opposite nature; He wanted her by his side for the rest of his life, and if that meant marriage, then so be it. He could sense her struggle over something, but decided not to pry, especially since she had begun to pull away somewhat. He looked back at her, and she glanced up, smiling warmly. He returned the smile in kind, and turned back to the path. If he asked her, would she say yes? And should he ask her now, or later? Maybe it was too soon; he could wait if he needed to, but not for long. Now that he knew what he wanted, he grew more and more impatient. He had spent so many years alone, and he didn't want to lose her as he had lost the others he was close to.

He could feel the despair threatening to tear him down, but pushed it away. He recognized the fear of rejection and staved it off with the knowledge that Mara loved him deeply. What reason could she have to reject him? His heart started to ache at the thought, but he quickly shifted away from that topic, and focused on keeping the fear at bay.

Fear had created a horrible lump in her throat that could not be swallowed away. Nila tried focusing ahead, but images of her parents kept floating in front of her; her mother's body spinning lazily from a tree, and her father hastily cutting her down, hoping that she wouldn't see it. Her father poisoned himself so there wouldn't be any blood, not too long after. She found him staring, no longer tormented by the Scryth--his face peaceful for the first time in several months, when he also turned to nothing, his clothes settling into the divot his body had created in the cushion.

She had hated them both for leaving her, for not being strong enough. Her anger had nearly driven her to the Dark Side, until she found the Shadoui and they accepted her into their village. Days filled with fear, anger, and loneliness were replaced by love, companionship, and acceptance. Nila never thought she would come back here again, and now she was having to re-live everything. She despised the Scryth, and it frightened her too, knowing that she could easily succumb to her parents' fate.

The Scryth, in its glory, cackled with glee.


Haskins looked everywhere for Commander Veid, searching the hangar, his private quarters at the base, and his office, but finding no sign of him. He was heading for the security building when he spotted Veid out of breath, coming from where they stowed the troop carriers and land vehicles. What would he be doing there?

"Good afternoon, sir," Haskins called out, and Veid slowed to look at him. "It's after noon already, is it? And I haven't eaten yet. Not to mention all the work that needs to be done," Veid trailed off, and continued walking, Haskins falling into pace behind him.

"Sir, what's going on?"

"Nothing, Haskins. I'm taking care of everything."

"And that would be...?"

Veid gave him a hard glance out the corner of his eye, but it didn't faze his aide a bit. Sighing, he said, "You'll know soon enough. Let it go at that."

"All right," the aide allowed, and they headed for Veid's temporary office, set up where Farrst's office had once been. Veid had been acting strangely ever since the meeting, but Haskins passed it off as anxiety. If he were in the same position as his commander, he'd be nearly out of his mind. Weak and apathetic soldiers, with outdated and worn out equipment, up against Jedi and possible Rebel forces, who had the resources the Empire had once had behind them? Haskins didn't envy those odds. In that situation, he'd be drawing up his own terms of surrender. If they would be listened to.

Neat and orderly, the desk was free of clutter. The rest of the room, though, was a mess. Charts and maps lay on the floor, spread end to end, and chairs were pushed to one side to make room. Haskins looked to his commander, but Veid only side-stepped around it, and over to the desk.

"What's this?" Haskins dared to ask.

"Plans." Usually Veid wasn't so taciturn, but again he let it slide. He had his own plans that he didn't want anyone to know about, just yet, and if Veid wanted him to know, he'd tell him.

Business went as usual from that point on. Reports files, orders issued, barricades set, and so on. Haskins checked and double checked his escape plan, finding it satisfactory. All was in readiness; Now all that was needed was Veid's mysterious bait, and the Jedi who would hopefully take it.


Weary and disheartened, the small group of Jedi stopped to make camp. Darkness was falling earlier than normal, due to cloud cover that had arrived only a couple hours before. The trees around were becoming gnarled and twisted; a good indicator of how far they'd come, and how close they were getting to the lake, and the Scryth.

Silently they pitched tents, expecting rain to fall either tonight or in the morning, and ate dinner--mostly poking at the rations distastefully and commenting on the trip so far. The conversation lapsed back into silence, until Luke spoke up, "Looks like it's gotten to us already." No one needed to ask what he meant.

"They've been on us nearly all day, and now we're so depressed we can't even hold a simple conversation!" He tossed a branch past the lamp, and into the inky darkness beyond the reach of its light. "If this keeps up, we really are going to die."

"Don't say that, Luke," Nila pleaded. "It might just happen."

"So now you're getting superstitious?" Luke was dumbfounded. He looked to Mara, and she didn't seem fazed at all. "What's going on?"

He could feel the oppression almost as a tangible thing now, its tendrils digging deep into the group; dividing and conquering. *Well, that's not going to happen,* Luke decided, and walked over to Mara. He kneeled down by her side and took hold of her hand. She looked up, and he smiled warmly, encouraged that she was doing the same. "I love you, Mara," he said, hoping to break through the shroud covering her, and felt her reach out in reassurance. *I love you, too. Thanks.*

*You're welcome.* He bent down and kissed her lightly, but it changed into something more as Mara drew him in closer. Nila tried not to leer at the two, but she felt her spirits boost and lighten by the display of love, nevertheless, in defiance of the overpowering fear. They pulled back a few seconds later, realizing that Nila was still there, watching.

"Um, I think I'll turn in. I'm getting kind of tired," Luke said quickly, his face reddening.

"So am I," Mara joined in, and each went to their tents, with Nila looking on in confusion, until it hit her. *Ohhh...If I hadn't been here--* She felt her own face flush, and decided that rest was a good idea after all, following after Mara into their tent.


The message Leia got from Luke was encouraging, but at the moment, things in the New Republic were at a standstill. She hadn't wanted to worry Luke needlessly, since there wasn't anything he could do, but he sounded anxious as he asked about the "things that needed to be settled down." It wouldn't help his nerves any if he knew they'd found a bomb in the general assembly hall, not 10 meters away from where she normally sat. Fortunately, it hadn't gone off, and no one was hurt, but it put the security guard into hysteria and had her sealed off from the populace for a couple days. There was a lock-down until they could figure out who could have had access to the hall, placed the bomb, and have a motive. Leia chuckled sardonically; Who didn't? Off the top of her head, she could name a handful of senators who had disagreed with her lately, a large group of sovereign planets who'd like nothing more than to see the Republic fall--and of course, there was the Empire.

She had already contacted Admiral Ackbar with the update on Luke's situation, and had received a reply that pretty much stated that everything was ready. They only waited for NRI to catch the would-be assassin, and let the fleet leave Coruscant.

*Hold on, Luke,* she sent silently, hoping that he would hear her. *Just hold out a little while longer.* She prayed that they would not be too late.

Chapter 11

Sleep came quickly to the exhausted travelers, and the Scryth took the opportunity eagerly. It started with the hardest one first, the male Jedi, and dug as deep into his psyche as it could. Soon the fears came to the surface, and all it had to do was guide it in the right direction.

He could faintly hear the rushing noise of water through thick walls, as he focused on what he was planning to say. Mara was coming to meet him here, he knew suddenly, and he was going to propose to her. If he could ever get the words out of his mouth.

"Mara, I know this is sudden, even though we've known each other for so long..." That didn't sound right; it made it sound like he needed an excuse for asking, which he knew he didn't want. Maybe simple and straightforward would work.

"Mara, will you marry me?" Too lame. Women liked flowery words, and even though Mara was tougher than most, she still had a soft side. "Will you consent to being my wife?" No, that sounded like he was begging.

Shortly, he heard a knock at the door, and knew it was Mara. *I'm not ready yet!* his mind screamed, and felt his stomach sinking--she had probably heard that. The slightly amused sense he got from her confirmed it.

He opened the door, and she stood there expectantly, looking as radiant as ever. Did he really deserve to be this happy?

"I'm so glad you came..."

"Did you think I wouldn't come?" She smiled, and he nearly lost his train of thought, "Uh, I've got something prepared for us," he said awkwardly, indicating the table in the kitchen, loaded with food to eat. "I hope you like it."

"I know I will."

After dinner, they were sitting on the couch comfortably, chatting about nearly everything under the sun--Yavin, her business, the likelihood of a certain musical group getting back together, politics--then their relationship came up. "You know, I've been thinking about us--about the future," Luke started cautiously.

"So have I."

That was a good thing, he hoped. "Well, I know that I don't want to lose what we have, and I was hoping you felt the same way."

"What are you getting at?" She frowned, looking at him warily. This was not going like he thought it would. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Mara. I want you to marry me." There, it was finally said.

She grimaced slightly, and he felt his heart sink into his stomach, and his throat clench. *Please say you feel the same way...*

"I'm sorry, Luke. I love you, but I'm just not the marrying type. Can't we just hang out together for awhile, see each other when it's convenient?"

"No, don't you understand? I want you to be with me always, not just ever so often. I want to have a wife and children--a family," he said faintly, realizing that he was losing her. *I can't lose her now--I can't!*

"I'm not your ideal wife figure, Luke. I won't be tied down that way," she stood up, and looked down at him sadly, "I can't be tied down. I just can't. And our priorities are so different..! This will never work out, so I think we should just end it now, and save ourselves the trouble."

"We don't have to get married," Luke tried desperately. "I won't even bring up the subject again."

"No, that won't do us any good. You want a wife; I want freedom. It's best this way," she opened the door and stepped outside, giving him a look that both pitied him and warned him to stay away. "Good night, and good luck." The door slammed shut, the empty echo resounding through the whole house.

*No, not again.* He'd lost another woman he loved; was he cursed? He wasn't sure he cared anymore. He wanted to curl up and die from the pain.

Luke opened his eyes, and saw the dark interior of the tent. Sighing in relief, he tried to wipe away the residual despair and fear, and did not succeed too well. His hands shook with fright and his breathing came in shallow gasps. The Scryth had truly gotten to him, and exposed his greatest fear. He couldn't face being alone for the rest of his life. He loved Mara deeply, and even though she had not truly rejected him, her words still stung in his mind; "You want a wife; I want freedom."

Had he been a fool to think that she would want a life with him? That she would drop everything to be his wife? He drifted back to sleep with these disturbing thoughts on his mind, and the Scryth smiled at the work it had done.


Mara's dream had her forward in time five or so years, to a house with children tugging on her arm, and a husband she saw occasionally. The two-year old was screaming again; She didn't know what was wrong, and felt her nerves being driven to the edge.

"Mama, can you fix this for me?" Her son was shoving a toy in her face, with one part hanging from it limply. "Just wait a second; your sister is--"

"NO, I want it fixed NOW!"

"Don't you dare--" her sentence was cut off by another scream. Just then, Luke walked in. *Thank goodness he's here--he can take care of his son while I see what's wrong with her.* "Luke, could you--"

"Where's dinner?" He asked harshly. She did not need this right now. "Can you take care of your son for awhile? I need to--"

"When I come home, I expect things to be in order, not in chaos."

She felt her temper rising, "You could help out a little here!"

"That's not my job," he walked past her into the kitchen. "You haven't even started it yet!"

"Is that what you think I am? Someone to cook your meals and breed children?" She didn't like the face he made at that remark. Now the boy was screaming as well, and tugging at her sleeve again. "What happened to the man I married?"

"I don't know," he replied in a sarcastic tone. "Maybe you drove him off?"

"Me?! I think you need to take a long, hard look at yourself, buddy."

"So now you're saying it's my fault?!" His face darkened in anger. "You always try to shift the blame to me."

She realized distantly that this argument had been going on for quite some time, and now it was being drudged up again. "Please, let's not do this now, especially in front of the kids."

"Why not? You were sure hot to start this a moment ago."

She had to get out of here, for her own sanity's sake. "I'm going out to cool off, then. You can take care of the children while I'm gone, and taste a little of what I've gone through today." With that, she grabbed her coat and left, leaving him slightly bewildered at her disappearance.

Outside, she was free; no more responsibilities, no more children, no more husband, and no more dinners. Best of all, no more screaming. She had been trapped, forced to live according to a pattern and tied down to it. All the kids did was complain, and Luke was just as bad; he grumbled at everything, taking her for granted.

This freedom wouldn't last long. She knew she would have to return back home--to children that screamed, to a husband that treated her like a servant. Her heart sank in despair. *It wasn't supposed to be like this. We were going to be happy, and build a family together. Where did it go wrong?* Or maybe it was her, after all. Maybe she couldn't handle a domestic lifestyle--no longer traveling the edges of the galaxy, fighting off Imperials or taking down the latest would-be ruler of the universe. There was an exciting thrill to it that she missed, and she wasn't sure she could deny it to herself.

The dream continued on, without her waking from it in pure fear and shock. It all seemed so logical, so complete--she had no reason to fear it. Her despair was abated by the notion that by never entering in to this situation, she could escape its fate. This was going much better than the Scryth could have ever hoped.

The next one was to be the easiest, since she had already been softened up during the day. It wove a special dream for her, and decided to play an active role in her dream as well.

*Where am I?* she wondered idly, the dreamscape changing and shifting slightly with every turn of her head. Trees rose up ominously around her, their gnarled and knobby branches coiling towards her and upward. She thought she recognized the place, but she wasn't sure. A large hump of dirt stood some distance away, its proportions hidden by the leaves and foliage surrounding it. She walked closer, for a good look, and knew where she was, suddenly; *I'm back home.*

This wasn't her home anymore, though--she had abandoned it several years ago, and lived now in the village, with a loving husband and family. She looked down at her hands, and noticed how small they were. Taking in the rest of her, she realized she was a child again. *Maybe Mother and Father are alive!* She thought hopefully as she skipped over to the makeshift house, all previous thoughts having been washed away by that one hope.

The door opened easily, and the interior was dark--too dark for someone to be there, normally. She decided to look further, in case Mama was sleeping again, or if Father was working in the back. Silence cloaked the hallway, creating an ominous feeling to the place that had once been home. Toys laid on the floor as if she had just left, and tools were scattered about as they always were, left behind by an absent-minded father. Where was he, anyway?

Not a sound escaped any of the rooms, and it made her only more anxious. Her parents' room was on the left, and she peeked in even though she wasn't supposed to. A large form was shrouded by the bedsheets, and she crept around the side, in order to find out who it was.

Once she saw the long, dark hair, she knew it was her mother, but her face was so pale. Her skin was cold to the touch, and fear seeped into her bones. *What's wrong with my mama?* Daddy would know. If she found her father, everything would be alright; Mama would be better, and smiling at her like she always did.

A search of the immediate rooms found no sign of her father, so she went to his workshop by the old engine room, expecting him to be working on another piece of furniture. The door was open, so she walked in without wondering why he hadn't locked the door as he usually did. Makeshift tools and metal parts towered over her, their sharp points and vicious edges both beckoning and threatening her away. The maze of metal continued to the back, and at seeing no sign of her father, decided to break another rule of the workshop and call out after him.

"Daddy?" she called out softly, "Where are you?" No response came, and her fear increased, causing her chest to tighten. "Daddy?" She ran through the maze and got lost trying to find her way back. Edges gleamed like blades, and threatened to cut her if she came nearer. Tears started to stream down her face, and she took another right turn, hoping that this was the way out.

She tripped and fell, landing hard on the metal floor, and cried out in pain. The echo bounced off the gleaming parts of scrap around her, mocking and teasing her. Through the crack of one pile of metal, she saw a hand, lying palm up on the floor. Cautiously she walked over, and found a way through the scrap to the hand. But as she moved forward, she could see more of the person attached, and felt her heart freeze in her chest. It was her father.

His skin was as pale as Mama's, but blood covered his face and shirt, dripping down from his nose and ears. His eyes were wide open and staring in horror, his mouth open as if he had screamed in fright at the last second. The whole place smelled of death and decay, and Nila had to keep herself from running in fear.

She called out again, tentatively, but knew deep down it was futile. Grief welled up, and she burst into tears once more, crying until she didn't think she could live, the ache and pain of it being so strong. Daddy was dead, and Mama must be, too. *But why? Why did they leave me all alone?*

-They were weak, spineless creatures. They didn't think about you when they killed themselves--they only thought about their own pain.-

The words came unbidden to her mind, and the voice sounded so familiar..."Who are you?" She called out to the air, and discovered she was no longer in the ship, but along a lake. *I think I remember--*

-We are your enemies, but we could be so much more.-

"You killed my parents!" Nila announced triumphantly, finally remembering.

-Your parents killed themselves...-

"You did that, murderer! You created the despair that drove them to suicide, and you were the one who tried to use me, and my daughter." Hatred and anger welled up in her now, side by side with the creeping fear she felt--she was where the Scryth was strongest; in the mind. "I'm going to kill you for what you've done!"

-You can't kill what is already dead,- the Scryth laughed at her, and she grimaced. It was right, but it didn't know what they were planning. Or did it? The idea of the Scryth already having the upper hand chilled the anger, and had her fear and despair coming to the fore. Something nagged at the back of her mind, though, something that didn't seem right...but the thought eluded her. All she knew was it had something to do with her parents.

-Come to us, and we will see who is the stronger,- the Scryth challenged openly, goading the woman's anger. She fell into it easily, "You'll be gone tomorrow, monster--I swear it!"

It only laughed in reply, and the dream ended. She woke up soaked in sweat, and groggy from sleep. Mara was still asleep, but she tossed and turned restlessly, her dream obviously no better than the one Nila had just had. The dream's surreal qualities occurred to her slowly, and the change of method of her parents' death was obviously the Scryth's doing. She could still feel the anger and hatred that had built up inside her, and she went back to sleep with those thoughts in mind.


Daylight broke through the treetops, heating up the tents of the small band--enough to wake them up and groan at the intrusion. None of them had slept well that night, and now they had a torturous day ahead. Mara was the one to get up first, and was dressed and ready to leave before Luke and Nila had even rubbed the sleep from their eyes.

"Well, sleepyheads...guess you both decided to join the land of the living," Mara jibed, her mood having improved from last night. Luke stared at her in astonishment before asking, "What's got you up and about so early? Didn't you have a poor night's rest, courtesy of the local spook?"

"I slept fine," she replied, and Luke could hear the sound of a half-truth in her voice. "You did, huh? Funny...I didn't." Tensions rose perceptively as Mara stayed silent, and Luke chose not to press the matter further. Nila walked out shortly after, visibly pale and in no mood for conversation, either.

After a short while, Luke voiced the plan that had been formulating in his head, and both nodded their acceptance of the plan, and their involvement in it. Quietly, they all took the tents down, gathered everything together, and started off into the forest again. The morning light filtered through the leaves faintly, and a chill wind blew down from the north, chasing away the early morning heat. Shivering, the small group traveled farther and deeper into the Scryth's territory.


The day wore on, and Commander Veid's patience was starting to wear thin. How long would it take before the Jedi sprung the trap? Would they come to Gheas before the Rebel troops arrived, or would he have to face those odds by himself?

Questions like these plagued his mind, as he paced the length of his office. Reports and paperwork piled up on his desk, and he shrugged it off, seeing it as inconsequential. Haskins was pressing him still for details on what would happen, but he had assured him that the less he knew, the better. The farther away his subordinates were held from his decisions, the better the chances that the Rebels would go easier on them, if his idea failed.

*It has to work,* he thought grimly, as he turned to walk another length of the floor. *I don't want to think about what will happen to the troops if it doesn't.*

The trap had been laid and set yesterday, but there was still no sign of the Jedi. Maybe they wouldn't go back to the XP-38...maybe they'd assume that it had been taken, and decide to walk back. Then again, they might check to see if it was there, in order to shorten their trip--the main reason Veid had taken the guards away. The Jedi would be able to sense them easily, and would detect the Stormtroopers' minds from some distance. He'd even made sure that the engine would run, so they wouldn't be stranded at the edge of the forest. And once they received the bait, then things would fall into order.


The kids were restless, constantly asking when their mother would be back, and Darm had no definitive answers. Maybe she would be back today...maybe tomorrow, at the latest. If she didn't come back tomorrow, though, no promise he'd made to her would keep him from searching the jungle. He couldn't stand by and have her in direct danger like that--once had been more than enough. Cerrah seemed to understand this, and eased the tensions on him by taking care of herself and her siblings, and helping out whenever she could. She shouldn't have had to do this, and in truth, he wished she didn't have to. But he appreciated it all the same. He just hoped that this wouldn't turn out to be permanent.


After eating, Luke, Nila and Mara trekked farther into the forest, their spirits sinking even farther than before. Luke tried to stave off the crushing feeling by thinking of home, and his family, and Mara....but worries gnawed on his mind. Leia still hadn't responded to his last transmission--probably because of that trouble she said she'd be having lately. And Mara was growing distant again, the bond they had being weakened hour by hour, until it seemed to him that they were back to square one. He wanted to walk over and shake her into confessing what was on her mind, but he wasn't sure whether that idea stemmed from his own thoughts or the Scryth's, so he kept silent.

Mara had drawn back as a defensive measure, and didn't fail to notice Luke's sudden distance as well. It was all for the best, she tried to tell herself, thinking that her dreams of a blissful, normal life had all been a fallacy. Knowing it and living it were two different things, however. A lot of things in her dream had seemed out of place, and after several hours of contemplation, she began to see errors in judgement. *Luke wouldn't act that way--I've seen how he is with Leia's kids...he treats them like they were his own. And all the rest of it, including how he treated me--well, that's only one possibility, and a pretty far-fetched one at that. The kids, though...I don't know if I could handle that.* She didn't hate children or anything; she just wasn't used to being around them, and didn't know what they'd need in terms of discipline, and love. Mara had picked up clues from Nila over the past couple of days, and had watched Leia and Han with their children, so she wasn't completely ignorant. *Why am I even thinking about this? Luke wouldn't want me as his wife, anyway.* Would it really be so bad, though, if he did? She pushed the idea from her mind, but not far away enough to keep it from coming back again and again. The manipulations of last night were fading somewhat, leaving Mara to sort through the issue she'd kept back for so long..

Anger seethed from every pore of Nila's body, in contrast. She wanted this thing dead, or as close to it as she could get, and she wasn't going to leave until the deed was done. It registered vaguely in her mind that the deaths depicted in the dream were different than the actual thing, but it didn't matter how they died, really. They were still dead, and the Scryth still responsible. The fact that their deaths in the dream were much worse didn't seem to draw her attention consciously, but inside all the old wounds were opened, and her carefully locked-up want of revenge had been renewed. It would pay dearly for what it had wrought.


Clouds obscured the afternoon sun, and a cold dampness had seeped into the group's bones by the time they reached the lake. The chill wind blew even harder now, the weather somehow in tune with the general feeling that this lake provoked. The rain that had threatened before now seemed inevitable.

Shivering slightly, Mara moved forward in defiance of the wind, a physical challenge to the Sith who inhabited the area. Luke followed, pulling the cloak he wore off his own shoulders and wrapping it around Mara, who at first looked annoyed at the gesture, then grateful. She smiled slightly and Luke smiled back, and all the tensions of the previous hours seemed to shrink in comparison.

"Are you all right?" Luke asked as softly as the wind would allow, and Mara nodded. "I'm fine. You ready for this?"

"As ready as I can be. I just want you to know that I'll always love you, no matter what." He felt an urgent need to say that, though he couldn't pinpoint why. Grateful, she smiled in return. "Thanks. I think I needed to hear that, farmer." She leaned in closer, "The same goes for me."

Nila, unfortunately, had no reassurance to cling to, and so fed off her hate. "Let's get this on, shall we?" She nearly growled to the other Jedi, and Luke looked at her in surprise. He'd been so consumed in his own thoughts and troubles that he'd completely neglected Nila's well-being. "Are you okay, Nila? You sound--"

"It's coming!" Nila interrupted, and soon they saw the reason why. A thin white haze settled over the grey lake, and steadily approached the Jedi. They all braced themselves for a fight, but Luke and Mara weren't prepared for the voice that spoke in their minds.

-So you have finally arrived,- the Sith's voices echoed boldly, tearing away any previous thoughts. -Are you still determined to destroy us? Many have tried, and none have succeeded--do you think you will be any different?-

Nila's answer was raw and out of character, "You're going to die once and for all, you rotten, son of a--"

"Your reign over this lake and this area is at an end," Luke interrupted purposely, not really wanting to hear the rest of Nila's retort. "I know how to beat you--and destroy you--now. And there's nothing you can do to stop me."

-Is there?- The wind kicked up harder, but Nila merely scowled at it. Her anger and hatred was being fanned to new heights, and Luke identified what the Scryth was doing; it hoped to lure Nila to the Dark Side by provoking her into attacking.

"Nila, the Sith are taunting you...can't you see it? They're trying to--"

"They're trying to kill us, Luke! All they want is to see us dead, and all I'm asking is to give it back to them in kind."

"At what cost? Your life, or our lives?" Luke shook his head, "Mara and I need your strength if we're going to do this. You can't take it on alone."

Nila smiled cruelly, and pointedly ignored his advice. With the Scryth taunting her, Luke's plan started to dissolve. He needed them both, not just Mara, in order to do what he was planning on doing. "Mara, we can't let the Sith lure her over. It looks like--" the sound of a splash reached his ears, and he turned to see Nila swimming to the center of the lake. His heart started to sink. No...

He ran to the shore and quickly tossed aside gear and boots, and waded in. The water was cold and brackish, and Luke began to rethink his idea. Nevertheless, Nila was trying to do it alone, and he had to get her back.

Summoning the Force, he dragged her back to shore, with her muttering curses and sputtering water. He and Mara managed to calm her down somewhat before Luke attempted to find out what hold the Scryth had on her.

"Let me in, Nila, please," he begged, and she stared at him for a long while, considering. "We need you here, not out in the lake. I'm the one who's going to do that, remember? We have a plan."

"I can do this alone. I don't need you."

"I know the Scryth killed your parents, and what it did to Cerrah as well. If you're going to fight this thing, you have to let that go."

"No, you don't understand! It's doing this because of me!"

He was completely puzzled, and a glance and thought to Mara showed she had no clue, either. "What do you mean, it's because of you?"

Nila sighed deeply, "I always wondered why it killed my parents, and not me. Then with Cerrah...why use her like that? Why not have her do what they wanted, and get the talisman? Then it occurred to me--it wasn't Cerrah at all, and it wasn't my parents, either. It wants me."


"I don't know," Nila shrugged. "Why not me? My parents were too strong and set in their ways, and Cerrah wasn't developed yet as a Jedi. I have the skill, but not the guidance."

Luke was still baffled. "I don't get it. If you let me in, maybe I could understand."

Nila was hesitant, but acquiesced. Using the Force, Luke traveled farther and farther into her mind, and saw what the Scryth had wrought. Self-doubt and grief permeated her thoughts, as well as revenge and hatred. Despair throbbed vibrantly, and so did another odd concept; reproach.

*Why are you blaming yourself, Nila? There wasn't anything you could have done...*

*I could have stopped it, if only I had seen it coming...if only I had been stronger--*

*But you weren't,* Luke interjected. *You have to let it go, or else it'll consume you. The past is the past, and now we've got to deal with the future. You wouldn't want Cerrah to go through what you went through with the Sith, do you?* His implication of what might happen to Nila would hopefully put her mind on things other than herself, and revenge.

Thankfully, it caused the anger to subside. *No, I wouldn't.* Gradually the hold the Dark Side had on her slipped away, leaving a sorrowful woman behind. "Thank you, Luke, for pulling me back. I had no idea..." She paused in thought, then let the remainder of the sentence slide. "All right, let's get this moving. I want to get home before sunset tomorrow."

"That's the spirit," Mara chimed in, and looked over to Luke. He nodded, and headed back into the water. Nila reached out to the Scryth, and tried to hold its attention as Mara did likewise, hoping that it would focus some of its energy towards them. The Sith decided to play their game, but by its own rules.

Swimming to the center of the lake, Luke could hear with perfect clarity the sound of stifled screams of pain and the thud of flesh meeting ground, traveling along the surface of the water. He wanted turn around and help, but this was too important--and he knew that was exactly what the Sith wanted him to do. Still, he couldn't help feeling the cold settling down his spine at every noise, in spite of the freezing water.

Realizing that the ploy wasn't working, it shifted its attention to Luke, but sensing this, Mara lashed out at it again. Unfortunately, most of Mara's and Nila's knowledge of Jedi skills didn't extend to bodiless spirits, so their jabs were, for the most part, harmless. Still, this last attack caused it to pause, and it turned its focus back to the source of pain.

-What a wonderful sensation...we had almost forgotten what that felt like. We must, of course, pay you back for that service.- Limbs from nearby trees snapped off easily and came flying at them. Mara ignited her lightsaber and sliced the limbs in two as they came near her, Nila ducking down for safety. Unfortunately, the Sith only found this a better opportunity to throw more things, and picked up the smaller remnants of the branches, repeating its attack.


Luke reached the center of the lake, and uneasily began his descent into the murky grey water. He beat back the panic that went through him as his head went under water, still unaccustomed to swimming after spending more than half his lifetime in a desert. He could hold his breath for quite awhile, but he had no idea how long would be enough. Hopefully he would find the talisman, bring it back to the surface, and destroy it once and for all. If they weren't too many distractions.

He winced inwardly at every sensation of pain he felt from Mara, and guilt at leaving her there as a lure washed over him as he dived deeper. He pushed it aside as best he could, knowing that such thoughts were likely to cause him to lose focus; both on the Force and the task at hand. He sank further and further, until he wondered if there was indeed a bottom to this lake, with the minutes clicking by ominously. Despair clutched at him, and he nearly turned back at the thought of drowning so far from the surface. Instead he reached out with the Force, to calm his fears and to sense where it would be, but the general sense of the whole water around him was of death and bitter cold. His lungs were starting to feel the strain, but he kept going, praying that he would reach bottom soon. *There has to be a bottom to this lake--and I can't leave until I find it.*

The water began to get warmer all of a sudden, and shortly his hand touched bottom. He reached out again in search of the talisman, and by this time, he was close enough to it to sense its presence--though it was intensely muffled by the Sith. At realizing where the artifact was, a sharp pain echoed through his skull, and the suddenness of it almost made him gasp in water. Splitting his concentration, he focused both on keeping himself from drowning and fighting off the Scryth. It knew that if this kept up, he wouldn't be able to maintain both for very long. In fact, that might've been why the Sith had allowed him to get this far in the first place; so he would drown in the depths of the brackish water. Determined that this would not happen, Luke pushed ahead, following the scant trail left in the Force by the Sith talisman. Soon, he found the tetrahedron, covered in slime and other things Luke didn't want think about, and gingerly held it with cold-numb fingers. *Just get to the surface. That's all you have to do now.* The Sith, however, weren't going to allow that if they could.

The pain from his head and his lungs grew as he swam back up, and Nila pressed in on the Scryth just then, giving Luke the temporary reprieve he needed. He'd made it halfway to the surface, but he felt his lungs aching, and his concentration growing fuzzy from the lack of oxygen. *I'm not going to die now, not when I'm so close!* The Sith's claws dug deeper into his mind, ferreting out all the fears and anxieties it could to use against him. It was too little, too late; Luke had dealt with all his fears, and the Scryth could no longer effect him by using that trick.

It seemed like he began to speed up somehow, and his head broke the surface, lungs gasping for air. He heard someone cry in relief, and turned to see both Mara and Nila watching from the shore, waving him in. He started to swim, and felt his strokes being helped along by the Force. The Scryth had fallen mysteriously silent, and none of them wanted to know what that might portend.

Soon enough, Mara and Nila were helping to drag Luke out of the water, and he sank down gratefully onto the dirt, the talisman still in hand. Every muscle in his body ached, and every breath burned, but thankfully so. He'd rather have that than the alternative. "Here's the thing that's been causing all the trouble," he rasped drolly, and tossed it to Nila.

"What do we do with it?" She asked, and Mara replied, "Just toss it in the air, and I'll cut it in half."

Nila looked skeptical. "What if it explodes? We should probably try to deactivate it." She turned the tetrahedron over in her hands, studying the carving and symbols on its surface.

"I'd rather just destroy it than risk doing more harm. C'mon, throw it up," Mara flicked her lightsaber back on, "Let's get it over with before the Scryth starts in on us again."

Luke watched this exchange curiously, noticing that Nila was much more interested in the talisman than she had ever been before. "Nila, why don't you give it back to me?" He put as much of a gentle and comforting tone into the sentence as he possibly could, hoping that his suspicions were wrong.

"I just want to look at it. Can't I do that?" Her voice was sharp, and Mara blinked in surprise. Quickly, she realized what was going on and joined in. "Nila, can I take a look? It'll be really quick, I promise."

"I don't know," she clutched it protectively to her chest. "I don't think so."

The Scryth *had* been working...just more subtle than usual. Unfortunately, Luke and Mara hadn't determined what it was doing until that moment. With an unspoken thought, they both entered Nila's mind, intent on finally driving out the Scryth. *Give it to us, Nila. You don't want it.*

The insistent tone made her pause in thought, and Mara pressed in. *He's right--you wanted to destroy it, remember?*

*I...remember,* Nila replied distantly, and her hold on the object loosened. Carefully, Mara took it from her hands, and gave it to Luke. His muscles felt like wet rags, but he managed to stand anyway, and tossed the talisman high in the air.

-No...!- The sound of the Sith's voices echoed in their minds as Mara's blade sliced cleanly through the middle, severing enchanted gems and crystal and destroying the source of its power. Suddenly the two halves blazed in hot, white light, and landed with a dull thud onto the shoreline, blackened and broken.

"Well, at least it didn't explode," Nila muttered softly, and both Luke and Mara looked at her sharply. She glared back defiantly and said, "What, did you want it to?"

Luke only smiled. Mara replied, "That was the one thing you decided to say after all these years of torment and anguish? '--at least it didn't explode?'"

"I'm glad it's gone, finally, but right now I'm more glad that I lived to see this moment." Mara couldn't think of a response to that, so she turned to Luke instead. "So, what now?"

"Let's go home, shall we?"

"I'm all for that, but what about the pieces?"

He looked closer at the charred bits of metal. "They're not going anywhere. I can feel the absence of the Sith's presence, so they've obviously moved on to whatever was waiting for them, be it oblivion or the Force." His arm circled around her waist, and grinned, "I think it's time we did the same." Mara smiled back, then it occurred to her that he may have been talking about something other than heading back to the village.


"What do you have to say for yourself?" Leia asked her would-be assassin, from the safety of a blaster-proof piece of transparisteel and foot-thick walls. The former senatorial aide said nothing, merely shrugging his indifference. He would die for his assassination attempt, and he knew it well. No need to argue the point.

His nihilistic demeanor frustrated Leia to no end, and she wondered about the new kind of terrorism out in the galaxy today. He belonged to a small group who believed in the ultimate good of chaos and anarchy, and his task had been to foment it. No political philosophy, no upstart regime...just a cold desire for nothing at all.

She found herself shivering after speaking with him, his words chilling the marrow in her bones. Well, it was over, for now. Things needed to be running again, and she wasted no time in making that clear to the Senate and the military.

Faster than expected, Admiral Ackbar had two Corellian Corvettes, one frigate, and three squadrons of X-wings at the ready. "Commodore Sdensk has expressed his readiness to leave, and he only awaits your permission," Ackbar rasped, his voice still sounding unaccustomed to making sounds in air. In a matter of hours, things had returned to a state of near-normalcy, and foremost on Leia and Ackbar's minds was the Imperial outpost that Luke had stumbled upon. Ever the prepared leader, Ackbar had held this small force in check, waiting for its time to draw near.

"Very well, then." She turned to the holoscreen and it flared to life. A small human male appeared in the air in front of her, a faint blue glow surrounding its image. "Commodore Sdensk, you may launch when ready."

"Thank you, Madame Organa-Solo," the small figure bowed slightly. He signalled his men to leave, and the image faded into nothing. Ackbar left as silently as he had come, and Leia sat for awhile, enjoying the short respite. Sighing, she sent off her delayed message, knowing that Luke should receive it before the fleet arrived. *Your cavalry is coming, Luke,* she sent the thought to him, but was sure that at this distance he couldn't hear her. *I hope you haven't gotten into *too* much trouble.* Knowing him as well as she did, she had little hope of that happening.

Her inward jibes soon softened into concern, though, and she sent her own blessing on the ships as they left--that they would find Luke safe and sound, and with luck, not as morose as he had been lately. *He loves to be in the thick of things, so I imagine he's having fun at our expense.* The Imperials sounded harmless, anyway--maybe there wasn't anything to be worried about.


Most of a day had passed, and still no word had come from the sentries posted to watch the forest's edge. The alert had not been tripped, and no sign of the Jedi was to be found. Sighing in resolution, Veid cleaned up the floor for want of something to do, and straightened up Farrst's office. Yualpe was slowly falling into chaos with him being away, the mayor taking this opportunity to strengthen his position. *He can have it,* Veid thought morosely to himself, expecting the worse to come, soon. Suddenly, his thoughts flicked to the sergeant he had imprisoned in the brig, and wondered desperately if he could use it to shelter Haskins, and others. The Rebels wouldn't treat a prisoner of the Empire as badly as a loyal soldier. *There's no place for me to hide, if the fleet shows up first, but there's still a chance...* he drifted off in thought, pondering over the possibilities.


In defiance of their victory over the Scryth, the heavens opened up above them and poured down the rain that had threatened for so long. Soon, their clothes were thoroughly soaked, and they had to keep from shivering in the damp chill. Fog hung in the air, created by cold rain and latent heat in the air and ground. Completely miserable, Mara trudged along the path that now was more mud than dirt, and wondered about the Imperials, and the condition of the speeder.

"Do you think it's still there?" She called out to Luke, and he shrugged, having picked up on her thought. "Could be, but probably not. Though if they couldn't get it running, they would have left it."

Nila asked them what they were talking about, and Mara supplied, "The landspeeder we came in--I was wondering if it was still there or not. Otherwise, we'll have to hike all the way back to where the shuttle's parked."

Luke stretched out with the Force, and failed to sense anyone in the vicinity of the speeder. "Well, there are no sentries, at least." He called a halt, suddenly, and waved them over to the base of a tree nearby. Nila and Mara both followed, puzzled. "What is it?" Mara asked, concerned.

"I need to know--should we check to see if it's still there, while we're out this far?"

Nila looked on, while Mara struggled with the simple question. "Well, I don't know. Are we going back to the village for a particular reason?"

"Yes. Several reasons, actually."

"Then let's keep going. If it's gone, it's gone. If it's there, it'll still be there when we come that way, I hope." She shrugged slightly, and that was that.

The rain turned into a trickle by the time night fell, but they kept on, hoping to close the distance as well as they could. Soon, exhaustion took hold of them, and they set camp amidst the darkness, wet, and cold of the forest. Luke checked the receiver again, and the message indicator blinked happily. Eagerly, he listened to the message Leia had sent, and sighed in some relief. The trouble was past, and reinforcements were coming. It finally looked at if things were heading upward, but the sense of something not right gnawed at him. As soon as possible, he'd have to leave the village with Mara and reach Gheas, before something happened...though he couldn't put a name to that particular something. Shortly, he drifted off to sleep, with disturbing thoughts of Imperials and the schemes of men.

Chapter 12

The chill that had descended yesterday stayed into the next morning, the grey clouds shielding the earth away from the warm rays of the sun. The rain from last night was now a light drizzle, keeping the road in front of the house a damp, sodden mess of mud and rock.

Darm hadn't been able to sleep well, the fear and concern he had for his wife building up as no word or sign of them had shown itself. He knew that by all rights they shouldn't be back yet, anyway, but that didn't ease the wait and not-knowing.

He'd already tried calculating when they might be back, and today was the day--barring any problems. He'd gotten provisions ready if they didn't show by noon, prepared to go out after them, if need be. He hoped that all his worrying and preparations would count for nothing.

Slowly, he made his way to the kitchen, to get breakfast started for the children. School was starting that morning, and Cerrah and Issik had begun to sulk, anticipating the end of their temporary freedom. They had no doubts that their mother would be back, and drilling them endlessly over history and math lessons. He caught himself smiling at the thought, and let himself indulge in that childish reality. If nothing else, it would keep the sadness back for awhile.


Mist hung thick in the air, hampering the small group's progress through the last of the forest. To Mara, it felt as if she were breathing in half air, half water, but as the morning wore on, it slacked off gently until it was barely a haze in the distance.

After a couple of hours, the sounds and smells of civilization drifted to them, the humid air making the smells all the more pungent, and the noises subtlely muted. The trees began to part somewhat, and the travelers found themselves not far from Nila's home--maybe a block or two away. People milling around stared in surprise at the new arrivals at first, then smiled and gave a cheer. Some approached the weary Jedi with wondering questions.

"Is it dead?"

"Did you truly kill the Scryth?"

"Are you all right? It didn't...."

Nila waved most of them away, scolding them for their impudence, but Luke answered quietly, "It's gone for good. It'll never harm or terrorize your people again." At that, the crowd's cheers turned to deafening proportions. Many began to soften their conceptions of Jedi, and joined in the impromptu festival. None thought of them as hypocrites, however, and the fervor continued down the streets at a break-neck speed


The noise from outside reached Darm's ears easily, and he nearly ran to the door in his excitement. Was that them? He didn't remember opening the door or wading through the crowd later on, but he could recall in vivid detail the look on his wife's face as she caught sight of him, and remember holding on to her for dear life. The rest of the day blurred in the adrenaline rush and fervor of the moment.

Mara watched the reunited couple fondly, happy that things had taken a turn for the better. Suddenly, it struck her as odd that she was appreciating something that previously she would have scorned. She could imagine the old self saying, "This is nice and all, but we really should be getting out of here," or leaving to brood over the lack of action and the overwhelming amount of emotion. *I guess I've changed,* she reflected, thinking that maybe that wasn't such a bad thing after all.

The man to her immediate left caught the change in her, and smiled. His own fears had been conquered yesterday, and apparently so had hers. Luke placed his hand lightly on her shoulder, and whispered, "I don't think it's bad, either."

"Couldn't resist, huh?" The words would have been harsh if not for the smile on her face. "I'll have to get used to you always being in my head like that."

"Any particular reason, or just in general?"

"What are you implying?" She responded innocently.

"I think you know--in fact, I *know* you do." At that moment, Mara wasn't seeing any advantages in having someone know your thoughts. She gave him a reproachful look, but it didn't faze him in the least. She sighed, "All right, I give up. It's been on my mind a little..."

The glare she got from Luke compelled her to change her answer. "Okay, it's been on my mind a lot. What about it?"

The facade she was trying to create had no effect on Luke, and it had her wondering why she bothered to hide her intentions at all. His grin faded as he took in the surroundings. "I think we should talk about this later, when there aren't so many people around."

She didn't understand his statement completely until she caught the glares directed at them from certain men in the crowd, and then it clicked together. "Yes, let's do that." Obviously, this was not a conversation they wanted overheard by any Basic-speaking ex-suitors.

They weaved their way through the rejoiceful crowd and past the embracing couple, and a quick glance behind her told Mara that no one seemed too interested at the sudden disappearance of the two humans. "Where to now?"

"We'll stop at Nila's home, and pick up the rest of our things, then..." he trailed off, trying to assimilate his thoughts into some cohesiveness. "Then, I guess we head back to Yualpe. I wish Nila could come with us, though. She'd be perfect for the Academy."

"Then what would *you* do all day, Luke?" She teased, and caught the sense of self-reproach flicker through his thoughts. "Come on, we're not going to start that again..."


"The 'I'm not worthy' crap, where you agonize over leading people to the Force and fear that you'll lead them astray, or something like that. I bet you're thinking of heaping all that onto Nila's shoulders--in fact, I *know* you are," she grinned mischievously, having used his own words against him. "Planning on a 'cut and run'?"

He stared at her in surprise. After a second or two, he finally responded, "I don't think I ever thought of it that way."

"I knew you hadn't; that's why I'm here," she patted his arm in mock-comfort.

He shook his head in wonder, pondering over how women could make men feel foolish, and yet lucky at the same time.


The New Republic fleet materialized on the edge of the Detromi system, in order to scan the area for any ships that might perceived as a threat insystem. Commodore Sdensk leaned heavily on the railing overlooking the "pit", where the crew members hustled from station to station, comparing various data and sources. Unlike where Commander Veid had seen the movement as pointless action, Sdensk reveled in the adrenaline of the moment, eager for the battle to begin. *But not too eager,* he chided himself, remembering that premature action would lead to premature deaths.

He was shorter than average for a human, but the respect and admiration he'd earned over his years of service had diminished that fact into a mere footnote. His dark hair was thinning noticeably now, and the uniform which once had been trim and precise now stretched through the middle, leading him to believe that the outfit had shrunk.

His aide scrambled by, looking flustered and withdrawn. Sdensk grabbed him as gently as possible by the arm, and turned him around to face him. "What's wrong, Tel?"

The young man named Tel breathed deeply, and managed to say, "I think we may have ended up in the wrong system. There are no signs of Star Destroyers, carriers, frigates, or anything else insystem that would indicate an Imperial stronghold. In fact, from the lack of traffic, I'd guess there's no real habitation here at all."

Sdensk's eyes narrowed briefly, then he said, "If Navigation says we're in the Detromi system, then we are. I don't know why there are no capital ships, but that just makes our job a little easier, doesn't it?"

"It might be trick," the aide added hastily, and the commodore waved it aside.

"Where would the ships hide? On-planet?" He nearly laughed at the thought. "Besides, they don't know we're coming--how could they? The only thing we have to worry about now is plotting a course to Detromi. Make sure of that," he said in way of dismissal, and the aide moved to follow his new orders. He merely shook his head at the youthful naivete of the aide, and wondered if he should cut access to the fiction section of the computer's library. Obviously the young man's ideas of ambushes and traps being set were fanciful concepts dreamed up by well-meaning authors who knew little of real warfare. No true commander would leave his planet undefended just for the sake of luring Rebels in, just in case they came by. There would be resistance from the planet--that much he expected--but the reports gathered by Skywalker indicated little effort would be required in taking the Imperials down. The fact that the Imperial forces had been undetected until now either spoke of the vastness of space, the wisdom of the commander, or the sheer luck of it all. That, or else the base was more underdefended that the Jedi thought.

*No matter. It will take another day to reach the planet with some caution, but we will get there, and that day will be ours.*


Darm and Nila found Luke and Mara packing up to leave as they came home. The two Jedi had slipped away while the celebration was going on, and after several questions and inquiries, had discovered that they'd headed back for the house. Now, they both looked up from their work to see the couple in the doorway, watching with curious intent.

"What's all this?" Nila asked pointedly.

"It's time for us to start back, Nila. We've already overstayed our welcome, and the Republic fleet should be here soon," Luke sighed, then continued. "I wouldn't want to draw attention to your village by staying here to be picked up, since I know the Shadoui weren't exactly thrilled to see strangers in the first place. Having more crawling around doesn't seem like a good idea."

"You have a point," Nila conceded. "I have the feeling there's something else you want to mention."

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he replied, "I was hoping you would ask me about it. Would you consider a place at my academy, sometime in the future? Or for your daughter? I was going to ask her, but she's not here."

"Cerrah's in school--which is where I should be," she answered, giving Luke her answer in one reply. "I'll think about it, though, since Cerrah will be going there eventually anyway. Is there some way I can reach you when I decide?"

It only took him a second to realize that she hadn't rejected his offer, and hastily untied the receiver from his backpack. "I won't be needing this anyway, once we get back to the shuttle," he said anti-climacticly, and Nila took the transmitter with only a small amount of hesitation. He'd heard all the messages Leia had sent thus far, and knew the fleet was due to arrive in a day or so--not enough time for them to make it to Yualpe, but enough to leave the jungle behind and have the Republic forces ignore the people living peacefully in the forest's depths.

"Thank you, Luke, for everything. Mara, you've been such a help to us, especially with Cerrah--and the Scryth..." Nila's thanks to them went down deeper than words could express, but gratefully they understood what she was trying to say. Luke grinned and attempted to side-step the issue, while Mara merely nodded, accepting the praise more gracefully than Luke did.

"I hope we see you again soon," Luke added, putting emphasis on the last word. Nila smiled, and gave her word that she truly would think over Luke's offer. A few more heart-felt good-byes, and wishes that the children were there to see them off were said, then Mara and Luke headed off for the forest again, in the general direction of their "borrowed" speeder.

"What do you think, Darm?" Nila asked as the two figures disappeared around the corner of the street.


"The academy. Should I go? Cerrah will need to attend eventually, but I'd like to be with her if I could. I don't want to uproot our life here, though, if I can help it. And your life as well--I can't forget that."

"I'm only a tinkerer and a wood-worker, Nila. I doubt the village would collapse if I weren't around. Besides, the young man I've been training has a sharp mind and learns quickly, and Jeth can handle the load, too. The children, though...their whole lives have been spent here. Would it be fair to them?"

Nila sighed. "I don't know, but we could ask them. We don't have to decide right now, thankfully, but I hope we can settle it soon."

"So do I." Lost in thought, Nila barely noticed her husband's arm fall lightly on her shoulders and guide her back into the house.


Time passed by quickly as Mara and Luke made their way back to the hiding place where they'd left the XP-38. Circumventing the area where they'd encountered the Veblos plant, they reached the spot before the sun hid completely behind the horizon. Mara checked for signs that the area had been disturbed, and found footprints around the perimeter, signalling that stormtroopers knew of the place. There were no signs of traps or sensors left behind, however, and that troubled her. *There should be evidence of some tampering, at least. I can't believe they'd leave it without having something left behind.*

*I think you're right,* Luke answered back, and still to his surprise, Mara didn't bristle at the intruding thought. *I'll check around the speeder.*

*No! That's the first place they'd leave a trap. It could be a bomb, or a triggering device that'd alert them from a distance. Let's just leave the speeder behind and go on foot.*

*And make it easier for them to catch us?* Mara saw the disapproving gaze from Luke despite the enclosing darkness. *I have to try, Mara. I'll be careful--trust me.*

*Right. I forgot, you're all-knowing...*

He kissed her lightly on the cheek. *Thanks.* He dashed off around the perimeter, and she lost sight of him in the approaching twilight, but held on to his presence in the Force. Sometimes she wanted to beat him senseless for being so stubborn, and others she wanted to beat herself for letting him be that way. Despite her apprehensions, this situation was definitely the latter.

Everything seemed fine as Luke came up to the side of the speeder, still covered with leaves and branches as it had been when they'd left. Not in the same arrangement, but close, very close. He stripped off the cover and tensed as he waited for alarms to go off and for stormtroopers to appear from behind trees. When nothing happened, he searched the inside of the craft for any bombs attached to the starter, or the engine. Finding none, he combed the rest of the speeder, and found a small holoprojector in the back seat. He waved to Mara to come join him--if they had been discovered, he'd prefer that they'd be together, anyway--and looked for the activating mechanism.

"What is it?"

He glanced over his shoulder and saw Mara coming up behind him. *That was fast.*

"I was trying to keep an eye on you," she replied, "and I couldn't see you from where I was. Well?"

"Looks like a holomessage was left for us. I was looking for---there!" He pressed the button he'd been searching for, and a small image of a man appeared in the air above it, no higher than half a meter. He wore Imperial clothing that signified a rank of Commander, but his bearing and penetrating stare alluded to a higher station. His hair was more grey than not, but the man looked younger than the hair color would suggest. After a small pause, the holo begun, "I apologize for the impromptu message, but with luck, you will be hearing this before the New Republic fleet arrives. My name is Commander Boraas Veid." The image made a sharp bow, "I believe I have the honor of addressing Commander Luke Skywalker, do I not?"

Luke couldn't have been more stunned. How had he...? "A Jedi has great skills with manipulating the minds of others, but obviously the same cannot be said for a surveillance camera. Your companion we have not yet identified, but she must also be a Jedi, since she was seen with a lightsaber.

"I could have had guards posted here, yes...and sensors as well. But you would have left if you had found evidence of tampering with the site, and I couldn't have that. Now that you've activated the device, I know you're back."

He heard Mara inhale air through clenched teeth, and suddenly wished he'd never found the blasted thing. *I should have known there was some sort of alarm.* The projection continued, "I need something from you, something that I'm hesitant to admit. I wouldn't do this unless it were of the gravest circumstances." The grimace on his face proved his sincerity. "I want to defect to the New Republic, and I need your help to do it."


A chime sounded off in Veid's office, its soft pinging alerting the one who had set it. Veid's head turned towards the sound, a mixture of relief and anxiety sweeping over him. *It's begun. They're listening to my message.* Thankfully, Haskins and Farrst had just left the room, so they weren't a party to the guilty look on his face. They hadn't realized who the blond man had been on the surveillance footage, but Veid had. Covell might have known as well, but unlikely, considering how eagerly he had chased after them. *And now he's what--dead? Injured?* The odds in favor of surviving in the forest and against a Jedi's attack were very slim.

Commander Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. Supposedly the last of his kind, but the woman's presence put an end to that theory. Traders had mentioned the growing number of Jedi in the galaxy, though most of the people had tossed it aside as rumors. When those two had appeared at the city's gate--and walked through--Veid no longer considered them rumors at all, but fact.

*Is it too late?* He wondered, thinking over the time spent waiting for them to return, and the fleet that was on its way, undoubtedly. Would Skywalker even take mercy on him? Both Jedi and the Rebels were supposed to be compassionate, but time could have changed their position. *They could be despots for all I know.*

He sunk into his office chair, watching the dim interior as it slowly faded to a hazy, uniform grey. "As grey as my world has become," he murmured somberly, the concept of his salvation being in someone else's hands just now sinking in.



Luke echoed the sentiment. "I don't believe it. He wants to defect...?"

The recording went on. "I know that your fleet is coming--there can be no doubt about that. You either transmitted that information before you arrived onplanet, or afterwards. However, that's not entirely why I'm asking you for help.

"This is partly to save my own skin, true, but our forces would never be able to defend ourselves against a well-equipped fleet. You've seen how well they've done against two Jedi." The disdain in his voice was evident. "I thought of surrendering, but certain subordinates would take actions into their own hands to prevent that from happening, and this is the only action I can take which doesn't require a discussion with them. Defecting leaves a power vacuum which several will try to fill, and hopefully in the resulting chaos, your ships will come in and take control with little bloodshed.

"Your role in this, Commander, is to alert the fleet to my plan before it arrives, and to let them know I am defecting. If you are planning on refusing my offer, then you should know that my people aren't completely incompetent--a stormtrooper found your shuttle outside Yualpe a couple of days ago, and is waiting for you in an Imperial hangar inside Gheas."

Luke felt his stomach turn to stone. Their only way to escape was under security, their communications ability was gone, and on top of that, the Imperial commander was relying on him to relay a message to the fleet, telling of his defection. The rest of the message detailed ways to contact him if they needed to speak with him. The holo ended by saying, "I am putting my hope and the hopes of my men in your hands, Commander. Please do not fail us."

If nothing had persuaded him thus far, then this was what made up his mind. "We'll have to go to Gheas."

"Excuse me?" He couldn't see Mara's face in the near-darkness, but heard the scorn in her voice. "What are you talking about?"

"The fleet will be here in a matter of hours. There's not enough time to trek back to the village and retrieve the communicator, then come back. We'll have to contact Veid through one of the secured channels he gave us, then get access to a comm that will reach them in space."

"This *could* be an elaborate trap, to prey on your compassion. I wouldn't put it past them, honestly."

"And if it's not?"

Mara had no answer for that. She was tempted to let the Imperials lose against the tremendous odds, but the civilians didn't deserve to pay for the crimes of their rulers. After a long silence she replied, "Well, let's get started then. I think there was a comm unit in the speeder--we can use that to talk to this Veid, and hopefully get this all resolved before the cruisers come and burn this whole area to the ground."

Luke nodded silently, barely perceptible in the darkness. "Let's hope this thing works," she walked over to the speeder and climbed in, feeling her way through the whole start-up procedure. The engines eventually started and hummed with action, sounding better than it did only a few days ago. "Someone's been tinkering with it," Luke observed, wondering if Veid had anything to do with this change of events.

*Probably*--the answer Mara gave floated up in his mind. He couldn't help but feel elated at that small reaching out from her.

*I'm glad you decided to come, even though I did make a mess out of things. I couldn't have gotten this far without you,* Luke sent, hoping to encourage her further, and he felt her anxiety loosen somewhat. He climbed into the landspeeder as well, and it took off into the darkened forest, guided primarily by the Force.

"Thanks." He was very, very glad she couldn't see the smile on his face. "So, what's the plan?"

Luke shrugged, "We'll have to talk to Veid first, and explain the situation. Hopefully he'll have an idea on how to get us in."


Veid was about to leave the office when he heard the odd noise coming from the cabinet across the room. The fact that it was from one of the secure channels he'd given to the Jedi didn't register until he'd nearly reached the door. Hurriedly he opened the cabinet and found the keypad for the security clearance, entered the password, then spoke. "This is Commander Boraas Veid." His voice betrayed nothing, but he recognized the cold grasp in his stomach as fear, nevertheless.

"Commander Veid, this is Luke Skywalker." He noticed that Skywalker didn't address himself as a commander, and noted it. "We've considered your proposal and have decided to accept it, but we have some news to tell you upfront.

"First, we no longer have a way to reach the fleet before it arrives from hyperspace. There is a fleet coming, but we need to use any communication equipment you have available. The shuttle's comm system is strong enough to reach off-planet and in-system, but not if they're still in transit." That information sunk Veid's spirits to a new low. He'd hoped that the Jedi could speak with the New Republic before it would arrive, but that didn't seem likely now.

"Second, if we're going to do anything at all, we need to get into Gheas. Can you arrange something?"

"I'm not sure I can," Veid hesitated. "Any action I take to prevent your capture will seem like treason, and end up with results we both don't want."

"We could surrender," A woman's voice suggested, and Veid concluded that it had to be the woman Jedi he'd seen. "What are you talking about?" Skywalker's voice came over the comm, as puzzled as he was.

The woman sighed, then explained her plan at length. It sounded tricky, but if everything went accordingly, then the Jedi could enter in hassle-free, get to their equipment, and call to the fleet. "It's worth a try," Veid relented, and Skywalker responded, "We'd better do more than 'try', Commander, or else we're all going to be in more trouble than we could ever want."

Veid allowed himself a smile. "Understood. May the Force be with you."

"And with you, Commander. Skywalker out."

He placed the comm unit back in its holder, and puzzled out his end of the scenario. *I'll need some inside help, but who can I trust?* Haskins would do anything he asked, but he couldn't put him that situation, could he?

"Sir, I think an explanation is in order."

Veid nearly jumped. He hadn't even heard the door open, or the aide's footfalls as he entered the room. The door had slid closed behind the young man, sheltering their words from the outer office. "Haskins, what are you doing here?"

"Checking up on you, Commander, since you've been so out of sorts lately. Now I see why."

"Do you now?" Veid calmly shut the cabinet doors, a vain attempt to hide his crime, if he could truly call it that. "And what have you seen?"

"A man collaborating with the enemy. Or are they now your allies?" In the dim light from the window, he could see his aide's eyes narrow in contemplation. Veid walked past him to lock the door, and sighed heavily. The aide was still somewhat naive, and now Veid had to be the one to tell him that his life--as he knew it--was at an end. "The New Republic fleet will be here tomorrow. We have no chance in defending ourselves--you know that as well as I do--and any attempt to do so will result in many people's deaths...deaths I can prevent."

Haskins took the news better than he'd thought. "I see. So, you've already surrendered?"

"No. If I did that, Farrst would just call me a traitor, imprison me or worse, then take my place. Besides, I couldn't make a decision like that without some discussion, and none of them would ever surrender to the Rebels."

The aide inhaled suddenly, and he knew Haskins finally grasped what he was doing. "Sir, you know I would follow you to the end..."

"But not in this? I understand, and I wish you hadn't heard anything--"

"No, sir, you *don't* understand." He took a couple of cautious steps forward, then added, "What do you need me to do?"

Veid was speechless. He stared at the young man he thought he knew, and managed to reply, "You don't have to do this. Your life will be at risk if any of the others find out."

"But that's only *if* they find out," the aide's voice took on a mischievous hint. "I don't truly think Farrst will catch on to us, anyway."

"I'm not worried about Farrst, specifically. Any loyal Imperial soldier will report treacherous activity to his nearest supervisor, and that will be carried through the ranks to someone who'll decide to take matters into his own hands. That could be Farrst, or any other ambitious officer. I'm truly glad Covell isn't here, or else I'd be in prison by now."

Haskins nodded in agreement. "Well then, we won't allow that to happen."

Veid smiled bitterly. *If only it were that easy.*


With a teeth-aching squeal the cell door opened, sending a sheet of light into the darkened interior of the room. Raes shielded his eyes from the bright pain as he woke, and his view finally focused enough to distinguish the form of a man in the doorway. The familiar angles and blockiness of the stormtrooper were missing, leading him to believe that his visitor was not paying him a social visit.

"What's goin' on?" He mumbled sleepily, wondering why anyone would see him when most sane people would be asleep.

"I apologize for waking you, Sergeant, but I have a pressing need that has to be taken care of, and you're the only person I think is trustworthy enough to carry it out."

Raes snapped into attention. "Commander Veid, sir? What do you mean?"

"Come with me, and we'll discuss it. The guards aren't here to listen in, but walls have been known to have ears." Veid motioned him to leave the cell, and Raes hurried to get dressed and follow, pondering over this 'need' that had Veid willing to come ask him for help.


The small fleet came out of hyperspace again, after making another insystem jump. Caution was necessary in making the approach to Detromi, as well as evaluations. As they came nearer they checked new data with old, and found that nothing had changed. No capital ships were in orbit, and no defenses were detectable as far as the scanning equipment could tell. Sdensk grew more and more anxious as time went on, and he had to keep his enthusiasm in check while the techs readied the squadrons for launch. This next jump was the last one before it brought them out in orbit around Detromi, and he could feel his nerves tremble in anticipation.

*Not much longer now,* he reflected, and wondered about the Jedi, Skywalker. Hopefully he would make it off planet before the attack commenced, or he'd be trapped on the ground by the resulting battle. Sdensk knew where to pinpoint his attack, thanks to Skywalker himself, but hadn't heard anything recently from the Jedi Master. Had he already left? Or was something wrong? *Well, I'll know soon enough, I suppose. No sense worrying about it now.* He turned his attention back towards the crew and focused on their ultimate destination.


"All right, men--here's the situation," Raes was saying as his men clustered around him for the impromptu briefing. "A farmer to the west of us, about 100 kilometers out, heard a landspeeder leave his premises early this morning, about 0430, heading east. Another farmer saw the landspeeder, an XP-38, slipping through his fields and heading easterly also. I have little doubt the speeder was that of our recalcitrant Jedi." A couple of the troopers snickered in response, while the others stared on blankly. *Well, I wasn't asking for hyperspace scientists, anyway.* "I've pinpointed their approximate location, and have planned out where we're going to head them off. With luck, they won't discover what's going on until it's too late."

"What if they *do* realize what's going on? What then?" A young voice piped up; one of the snickering soldiers. "I doubt we'll be able to take them on."

"One on one, no. But we've got numbers on our side, and that'll be enough." Telling the soldiers the truth would have made his job harder to do, and just that more dangerous. Neither Veid nor he could afford anyone's suspicion. "Corporal Obers will give you the details." He left the debriefing odds and ends to Frick, and stalked off to check on the gear as a pretense.

His one boon to Veid had been to have Frick on his side, as someone he could trust. He hadn't told Frick what to expect--he didn't want him to know too much, in case either Veid or he were caught--but he had given him as much information as he could afford to, including his plans for the Jedi.

He looked at his chrono, and grinned faintly. *They should be having engine trouble right about now. Time to load everyone up.* The plan was simple enough, and everyone absorbed it quickly. Thankfully, no one was questioning the sketchiness of the details, or the lack of a concrete plan of attack. *They're supposed to follow my lead, and little else. I hope no one gets ideas of glory and fame, or else we're *all* dead.*


As agreed, Mara and Luke had arranged for the local farmers to get a good look at the "Rebels", hoping that some would be diligent enough to report it in order to provide an adequate cover story for the person in charge of their capture. They'd only managed to snatch a few hours of sleep before they'd left in the wee hours of the morning, heading for Gheas at a reasonable pace.

They found a good place to "stall out" along the designated route, away from prying eyes but close enough to the city to make it easy for Veid's man to find them. Faking the malfunction wasn't hard to do on the old machine; various tubes and wires were already loose and fraying. It surprised Luke that the thing hadn't exploded so far, what with the numerous patch jobs he'd seen while under the hood.

"This thing is officially a piece of junk," he declared as he finished the last of his handiwork. "I doubt it'll ever work again."

Mara didn't say anything, so he peeked out from under the raised plate, and saw her gaze fixed on something along the horizon. *What is it?*

Never taking her eyes away, she replied, *I think our ride's just arrived.*

He closed the hood and took a look for himself, noticing a small cloud of dust rolling towards them. Gradually the form of transport vehicles came into view, and Luke tried to fight the reflexive fear that came when he realized they were Imperials. He felt fear coming from Mara as well, though to her credit it was better controlled than his.

"Time to start the performance," Mara mumbled out aloud, already moving to the back of the speeder. He grabbed his lightsaber and stood waiting, hoping that everything had gone according to Mara's plan.


"Forward, men. I think I see them," Raes called into the comlink. "Head along the perimeter until you've surrounded the craft."

He heard affirmatives over the speaker, and turned his attention back to the stationary speeder. The two Jedi were nowhere to be seen, but he had expected that. This had to look as good as possible, and an easy capture would cause even the most loyal soldier to raise questions.

Frick grinned expectantly, anticipating the results of this interception, but Raes couldn't find the energy to respond in kind. He managed to smile wanly, which Frick misinterpreted as fear. "Come on, Sergeant. Don't tell me you're afraid?"

He used that misconception to hide his melancholy. "I'm surprised you aren't. Any sane man would be." Frick fell silent at that remark.

He looked at the transport's scanning indicator and found them hiding in the tall weeds and grasses, not far from the speeder. They would attack the soldiers as they inspected the XP-38, and the soldiers in turn would stun them. Their attack was to be clumsy enough to get caught, but not enough to be suspicious. He wished he could be there to control the situation better, but the standard op called for his subordinates to be sent in, then be followed by their superior officer.

He watched from afar as the stormtroopers approached the speeder, looking for signs that the Jedi were nearby. "I don't see any signs of them, sir," one of them called out.

"They're in the grass off to your right, private. Don't spook them, though, or you'll end up on their casualty list." The private's voice sounded weaker as he confirmed that assessment.

The Jedi struck just then, but the troopers had found out where they were a split second before, and were more prepared for it. A barrage of stun bolts flew at the two rebels, and most ricocheted off their lightsabers. One soldier got a lucky hit, however, and Raes saw the man go down on one knee before hitting the ground. The woman was distracted long enough to catch a bolt in the arm, then the chest as she turned to see where her comrade had fallen. In seconds it was all over.

*Now to make sure nothing goes wrong.* Raes came up on the site, and ordered the curious troop away from the stunned Jedi. Both were out cold, but he knew that wouldn't be so for long. He gestured to Frick and said, "Shackle them up and hurry, before they wake up. They can resist a stun bolt better than a Wookiee can, and I'd hate to see whether they can reek as much havoc as one, too." Shortly the two prisoners were bound and placed into Raes' transport, and the group headed back to Gheas in all haste--Raes being the only one to know that those people they were carrying back with them held all of their futures in their hands.


At first all Luke could feel was a dull ache, as if he'd been beaten from head to toe. Then, as he tried to move, he experienced a sharp jabbing pain in his wrists and legs, which he shortly realized was caused by the restraints he was wearing. There was no light coming into the room--or cell, as he was beginning to think of it--but he could hear echoes of his own shuffling coming from the walls, and estimated that the room wasn't very big; probably no more than two meters by three meters. He stretched out with the Force, and panicked when he couldn't find Mara as easily as he should have. He put more effort into it and found her on the other side of the complex, still out from the stun bolt. Or at least, that's what he assumed happened. The last thing he remembered was his left side going limp, and feeling the ground rush up at him.

Separating them was a tactical move on the Imperials part, since he'd have to go to the other side of the building to free Mara, whenever he managed to get out. *I wonder if that was Veid's idea, or one of the others?* It didn't make things any easier for him, that was sure.

He woke Mara up, though she wasn't thrilled to wake up to the lingering pain and restraints that he'd found upon awakening. So far the plan was going accordingly, and soon there would be someone to let them out and get to some sort of transmitter to contact the fleet.

After a few minutes he hear murmuring at the door, and the sound of someone disagreeing with a change in orders. The clang of footfalls gradually dimmed into nothing, and Luke heard the soft pings of a keypad being used. The door slid open abruptly, and Luke barely had enough time to adjust to the sharp change in light when he felt hands grab his shackles and unlock them, the heavy metal slipping to the floor silently. He squinted his eyes and saw the figure come into focus; a stormtrooper, or so he thought. The man took off the helmet briefly and said, "Name's Raes. Put these on and let's get your ladyfriend before Farrst or the others find out you're here." The man named Raes thrust a second lieutenant's uniform at him, and Luke quickly complied. Thankfully the uniform was big enough to fit over his clothes, and his boots were already regulation according to Imperial standards.

They glided down the hall as if they owned it, hoping to give people the impression that nothing was wrong. Luke helped along with that, having the passersby believe they were nothing more than an officer and his escort. Once they were relatively clear, Luke noticed the man for the first time, recalling the tinge of grey in Raes' hair and realizing that he wasn't too much older than Han. His bearing was that of utter self-confidence, and Luke had no worries as they continued down to where Mara was being held.

This time, Raes used a different strategy, since Mara couldn't be passed off as an Imperial officer or stormtrooper. They gave phony orders to the guard on post, saying they were supposed to transport her up to the interrogation chamber for questioning. The stormtrooper hesitated over this, but Luke sent calming assurances through the Force and the guard let them in to "sedate" the prisoner once again, and load her onto the medical lift. There was nothing in the shot that Raes gave her, so Mara was awake while they took her to the turbolift and headed down to the lower levels.

"We're heading for the hangar," Raes told them as they descended. He'd taken off the helmet and now Luke saw the lines in his face, and the glimmer of knowledge in his eyes. "Veid and his aide are handling that end of the deal, in addition to the surveillance and guards." He looked at Mara, who was now sitting upright. "Ma'am, you're going to be Tirsha Malorr, Second Lieutenant Nevyn's secretary, who's here with him visiting from Yualpe. He's here to oversee security on the Rebels' ship, and to replace Lt. Covell who's been listed missing in action."

"Covell?" Luke said in recognition, and Raes turned to him in surprise. "Did you see him?"

"I guess you could say that. He wasn't well in the head, if you take my meaning," Mara supplied, and Raes only nodded.

"Is he still alive?" The question wasn't enthusiastically asked, so Mara answered, "No, he's dead."

"Thought so. No one will miss him, don't worry," he smiled faintly, and handed Mara her disguise; a drab grey outfit meant for business and little else. He paused the elevator long enough for her to change, and they arrived on the ground floor with only a slightly longer trip than normal.

Luke concentrated on projecting the image of an officer surveying his territory, while Mara followed submissively, playing her part to the hilt. *You know, I could get used to this side of you.*

*Don't even think about it. Why don't you focus on playing your part before you get us both killed?* The deadly tone put an end to the next comment he had in mind, and he turned his attention back to the hangar.

He knew it would be there, and yet the sight of the shuttle sitting in the distance had him disoriented enough to wonder if what he was seeing was real. He recognized the figure of Veid patiently waiting at the ship, his mood mixed with anxiety and fear. Soon they were face to face, and Luke had to admit the man's presence was even more striking in person.

"Lieutenant Nevyn, it's good to see you again," Veid smiled, acting in the little deception as well, for the benefit of the mechanics nearby. "Come, let's have a look at the shuttle, shall we?"

"By all means," Luke gestured for him to head up the plank, and the rest of them followed, with Raes standing outside as guard.

The interior looked the same, and Luke noticed that all his gear was on board, as well as Mara's. Veid gestured to the walls and said, "This ship is more secure for a discussion than anywhere else on base. Hopefully, no one will realize what's happened until the fleet arrives."

"Which should be happening shortly," Luke added. "Can you trust these men of yours?"

"As much as I can trust you...since I have to, don't I? I don't think--"

Veid's portable comlink buzzed once, and he answered the page. "Yes, what is it?" A long pause followed, then Veid said, "I see. Do what you can, then." He snapped the comlink shut, and frowned. "They've found the empty cells."

Mara swore, and Luke took a deep breath, to calm fraying nerves. "Do they know where we are?" He asked.

Veid shrugged. "Haskins--my aide--didn't know exactly who knew, but they'll be looking for you, and Raes."

"How much time do we have?" Mara asked.

"A few minutes, maybe more. The base isn't that big."

"Let's hope it's enough," Luke remarked, and settled down in front of the console. He was setting the controls when he heard the sound of blaster fire coming from outside.

"They've found us," Veid pronounced, and Luke couldn't help but feel that something, somewhere, had finally triumphed.


The New Republic fleet came out of their last hyperspace jump and into orbit around the blue-green planet. Sdensk was surprised to find only a simple patrol out, and told the gunners to use the ion cannons to disable the ship and keep it from communicating back to base. He sent the squadrons out, and had them pinpoint the two main strongholds that Skywalker had scouted for them; Yualpe and Gheas. Yualpe's base would be easy to subdue, since it was isolated away from the main populace, but Gheas was another matter. The base sat in the middle of town, surrounded by civilians under the thumb of their Imperial overlords. A clean strike was needed to destroy the base, and he sent Red squadron to that task, especially since they had more experience as a whole, and more flight time than the other squadrons present.

"The time for your reckoning has come, my friends," he murmured quietly, savoring the obvious victory. He was still concerned that he hadn't heard from Skywalker or the Jade woman that was supposed to be with him, but he shrugged it off as a puzzle to be solved later. The Imperials would soon no longer be a threat, with their bases destroyed. He couldn't help but smile at the thought, and signalled for the attack to begin.

Chapter 13

Everything had been going well, so Raes had thought, until he saw the stormtroopers coming from the other side of the hangar. Thinking it might just be a patrol, he acted as though nothing were wrong--he was just another trooper assigned to guard duty. When he heard the voice come over the comlink in his helmet, however, he felt his stomach sink.

"What are you doing there, soldier?" He didn't recognize the man's voice, but he knew that wasn't the officer's true question. *'Who are you?' would be a little more accurate,* Raes thought.

"I'm stationed here under Commander Veid's orders, sir."

"Is that so? Then why is there only one guard here, when we've got Rebels on the loose?" The voice was suspicious now. *Probably thinks I'm one of the Jedi.*

"The Rebels have escaped?" He put as much astonishment as could into his voice. "I had no idea...why hasn't anyone told me?"

"Step aside, soldier. I need to secure the ship."

"Wait a do I know *you're* not one of the Rebels, trying to trick me?" It was a little desperate, but he needed all the time he could scrounge for Veid and the others. "Why don't we all stay outside?" He raised his blaster pointedly, hoping the other wouldn't take it as a direct threat.

He was wrong, unfortunately. "You're under arrest, soldier. Jambres, Parrn--move him aside."

Taking the only route left, he fired at the two, hitting them square in the chest. The others hoisted up their weapons and fired, but Raes was already running for the plank up to the shuttle. Laying down cover fire as he ran, he made it to the platform when his leg blazed with pain, then his shoulder. He staggered up the rest of the way and slapped the control to raise it up, then turned to see Veid and Mara watching him expectantly.

"We've got to go, now," Raes managed to breathe out between gasps of pain. The armor had caught most of the energy, but he could hear his flesh sizzling underneath. His right arm hung loosely, and he was leaning heavily on his good left leg.

"How did they find out? We couldn't have--"

"I'm not sure they knew for certain, sir, but I couldn't take that chance. I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for, Raes. You're alive, aren't you? I'll just have Haskins open the hangar doors, and we'll be out of here."

Mara smirked, "Not bothered in the least of leaving behind one of your men, are you? Typical." She shook her head until Veid's gaze caused her to pause.

"Haskins is one of the most capable officers I have; I wouldn't do this unless I had complete trust in him, and in his ability to survive."

The conversation was caught short as the sound of a large explosion rocked the hangar, causing the laser fire to stop. All three rushed to the cockpit where Luke was waiting, and looked out the viewport.

"What was that?" Mara asked, and Luke shrugged. "I have no idea. It sounded like it came from--"

Another explosion interrupted his reply, and all realized nearly at the same moment that it was coming from outside the base. Smoke drifted past the window, and all could see techs and stormtroopers running in all directions, pilots scurrying for TIE fighters and scrambling to get them up in the air.

"The fleet's here," Luke stated. "We've got to get out of this hangar, or we'll end up like the rest of this base."

"That's only a little obvious," Mara shot back, and got into the co-pilot's seat. "Sit down everybody, unless you want to end up on the floor."

Both Imperials found their seats quickly enough, and strapped in tight. "Did you contact the fleet?" she asked Luke, and he shook his head miserably.

"I haven't had the time, but I certainly will now," he flipped the comm on, and set it to the proper frequency. "New Republic fleet, this is shuttle *Vartek*, of the New Republic--recognition code alpha one zero niner. Do you copy?"

A long pause followed the end of Luke's message, then a Calamarian voice came over the comm, somewhat mystified. "Affirmative, shuttle. That code is valid. I'm patching you through to the commander now," The voice fell silent, then another voice appeared; a young-sounding tenor. "This is Commander Sdensk. I've been wondering when you were going to contact us, Skywalker. Where are you?"

"On the planet surface, Commander. In the Imperial base," he replied, his voice thick with meaning. Luke heard an odd, strangling noise, then a distant barking of commands. He could practically visualize the veins popping out of the man's forehead. "Uh, your safety has been secured, Skywalker."

"Thank you." They had already lifted off the ground, but the mayhem was making it hard to get to the hangar's opening. Mara skillfully dodged another TIE fighter while Luke continued talking. "I've haven't got time for pleasantries, so I'll cut to the chase. I've got the Imperial commander in my shuttlecraft, and he wants to defect to the Republic."

If he thought the man couldn't have been more stunned, he was wrong. "Are you joking with me?"

"Jedi don't "joke", Commander."

The man on the other end seemed to mull this over. "I'll have to take your word, then. I was wondering why the Imperial forces weren't putting up much resistance...anyway, this is great news. How soon can we expect the enemy's surrender?"

"Very soon, I hope. Their resources aren't up for a long fight, so I can't expect this lasting too much longer. If they're smart, they'll stop right now."

"Good. Carry on, then. Sdensk out." The transmission fell silent, and he turned to Mara. "I'll control the fighters while you get us clear."

She tried to ask him what he was talking about, but he was already deep in concentration, and she didn't want to distract him further. Shaking her head in consternation, she flew towards the opening once again, and this time the fighters and ships parted in front of her, allowing the small shuttle to escape.

After a long silence, Mara found voice enough to speak. "I want to know how you did that," she said in mild awe, knowing the variables involved with controlling all those craft at once, in such a limited space. He shrugged as if it wasn't a big deal, though his face was slick with sweat. "You'll learn soon enough, Mara, if you're planning on being a Jedi Knight. You are, aren't you?"

The knowing smile only caused her to smile back. "Sure, why not? I have nothing else better to do." Veid and Raes watched on, fascinated. Luke and Mara ended their conversation abruptly, when they realized they still had company.

"I've got an idea," Veid suggested out of the blue, and both turned their attention to the former Imperial commander. "The troops won't know I defected, so if I tell them to surrender, they will."

"You think so? Maybe they won't go down without a fight..."

"Trust me, madam. I know my soldiers." He reached for the comm, and changed the frequency to match that of the TIE fighters. "This is Commander Boraas Veid. Stand down, men, and surrender to the Rebel forces. We haven't a chance of winning against these odds, and losing valuable men like you won't change that. I repeat; Surrender your craft and yourselves to the Rebel fleet--this is a direct order."

The results weren't obvious at first, but as they watched, they saw the TIEs peel away from the action and head back towards the base, in an expression of defeat. The ground troops stopped setting up defense, and let the X-wings enter the air space without contest. In a matter of seconds, the fight was over.

Raes let out the breath he'd been holding, and noticed Luke doing the same. Veid smiled knowingly at the two, thinking that if he hadn't been the one doing the announcement, he'd have held his breath, too.

"That worked out well, even if it wasn't what we were planning," Veid stated, straightening out his uniform. Mara stared at him incredulously, while Luke could only shake his head. They'd been seconds away from annihilation only a short while ago, with the fate of all the Imperials on their hands, and Veid was taking it in stride, with barely a hint of residual fear.

"Sure, right. Whatever." Mara threw up her hands in defeat.

Raes showed relief, but not much else. "Sir, should we contact Haskins, see if he's all right?"

Without a word, Veid took the comlink again, and changed the frequency to that of the secret channel he and his aide had. He received nothing but static in reply to his calls.

"Is he okay?" Luke asked, concerned from the sense and look coming from Veid.

"I don't know. It might be the transmitter, or some residual radiation in the atmosphere." The Imperial commander grimaced at the other thoughts running through his head. "I need to make sure he's all right."

"No problem. I'll have the Republic's people look for him--"

"They won't know where to look, but I do." His face was set in stone, although his emotions were fluctuating wildly, as Mara and Luke could easily tell. "Set me down somewhere, and I'll go look for him."

"I'll go with you, Commander. You'll need someone to help, if he'd trapped under debris," the former sergeant offered.

"I will at that. Thank you, Raes."

The shuttle set down near the northern part of the base, and the two Imperials entered through a large hole that used to be the main entrance, continuing down the hall until they found the emergency stairs. The hallway was deserted for the most part, with only one stormtrooper lying on the ground, dead. A shaft from the ceiling had crashed down on top of him, piercing through the armor and into his chest, pinning him to the floor.

With luck, Veid hoped, the emptiness of the base was attributed to the fact that everyone had either evacuated, or sought shelter deeper in. Raes opened the door to the stairs, and they started the climb to the fourth floor, where the control room was.


"I can't wait here, Mara. I have to go with them--"

"For what, Luke? To find their dead comrade?" Mara pressed her hand to his chest, hoping the gesture, more than the pressure, would keep him back.

"He might be alive. Besides, there are people who could use our help. I can't stand by and watch people suffer, even if they *are* Imperials."

"This isn't our fight, Luke." She shook her head in defiance, and wondered why he didn't feel the same trepidation that she felt. His sense in the Force told her that his stubbornness had come to the fore, and mere subtlety wouldn't work. He interrupted her, however, before she even started to form the words.

"I'm talking about helping people in need. I thought you were *for* that." He didn't understand why she was arguing over this. People were in pain--he could feel that clearly--and needed help. Some were dying, some were only injured, and others were cowering in fear, waiting for the Rebels to come and kill them. For some reason, Mara was trying to keep him from getting involved.

"I do care, it's just...this doesn't feel right. Something's wrong."

His stubbornness gave in to his curiosity. "Like what?"

"I'm not sure. I feel death, but not the same as you'd normally feel with people dying. More like an omen...a bad one. I really don't want you going in there." Her eyes were fixed firmly on his, trying to communicate the feeling she was getting. It was partly based on the Force, but also on something deeper inside, something she had trusted far longer than any mysterious energy field.

"Then I've got an even greater reason to go, if someone's going to die. I'm not planning on turning suicidical," he smiled, hoping that Mara would realize he wasn't someone to be coddled. Having your thoughts open to the other person, however, makes all verbal innuendos null and void.

"You think you can take of yourself, huh? Well, I don't plan to take a chance on that, so I'm going with you--if you're still going through with this crazy plan of yours." His first instinct was to declare that impossible, until he saw the look in her eyes, and decided otherwise.

She smiled slightly, "Smart move. C'mon, if we're going to go, let's move it." Now she was shoving him into action? *So, as long as you come with me, I can throw myself into harm's way?* He sent to her, and Mara grinned conspiratorially. *You've finally gotten it, Skywalker--and here, I was beginning to lose hope!*

*Very funny.* Mara was already down the platform by the time he grabbed his lightsaber and followed.


Stepping carefully over debris, Raes and Veid climbed the three flights up to the fourth floor of the shattered base. The door wouldn't slide open as it usually would have, so after opening up the emergency door release, both men tugged and pulled on the door until it was finally wide enough for them to fit through.

Most of the ceiling was on the floor instead, turning it into a treacherous obstacle course. Veid tried to not look at the occasional arm or leg that jutted out from beneath the rubble, and tried not to think about those few seconds that hadn't meant much to them, inside the shuttle, but had meant life or death to the people inside the base.

Raes, for his part, didn't understand where all the people had gone. Sure, there were bodies trapped underneath the debris, but that was only a small percentage of the people in the base. There would--of course--be survivors, but where were they? They had neither seen nor heard a living soul in the building, and he was starting to wonder about the absence of cries for help, instead of the desolation that enveloped the area around them.

When they reached the control room, Veid nearly hesitated, not really wanting to see what might have happened, but also consumed with a need to know. He steadied himself on the wall with an outstretched hand, and pushed the door release.

It sprang half-way open, wide enough to let them in, and to see inside. Aside from some structural damage to the ceiling, and the thick haze of dust in the air, there was nothing to see. No bodies, no people, and more importantly, no Haskins.

"Now where?" Raes asked impatiently, his battle nerves already on edge. This wasn't right, not at all. Everyone must have been evacuated, but to where, and how? The attack had happened so quickly that they--with advance warning of it--had barely been able to get out. How had hundreds of technicians, officers, and soldiers done it?

"If I were in Farrst's shoes right now, I'd be hiding somewhere," Veid said quietly, scanning the outer hallway with a gaze that saw past walls and debris. "He wouldn't want to be taken alive, and he would make sure to bring people with him, for extra security. I wouldn't be surprised if he's set up an ambush, a sort of 'last stand' before he dies..."

"He might've at that," a voice called out from behind them, causing both to whirl around defensively. Farrst was standing there calmly, his blaster pointed in their direction. Four others rose from beneath the rubble, their pistols trained exclusively on the two former Imperials. "Where have you been, o fearless leader? Cowering in the corner somewhere?"

"Like you? I don't think so, Farrst. Where did everyone go? Are they dead?"

"No, not quite. Why don't you take a look and see what's left of our glorious Empire," he swung his arm in the direction behind him, and Reas noted the slightly crazed look in his eye, the same one he'd seen in Covell's eyes right before he'd disappeared into the forest. Doubtlessly Farrst believed he was going to die, and he wanted as many to go with him as possible. Oddly, the sweat that Raes expected to see on the nervous man's face was missing--considering Farrst's predicament, he was sure the man would be drenched in sweat by now.

Pushing the both of them forward, the impromptu guards took up the rear, guiding Veid and Raes to the makeshift stronghold.


The lift in this part of the building still worked, and soon they were heading down past the basement, into the shelters below. With a sickening feeling, Raes realized where they were going; The weapons cache in the lower level. At the first sign of danger, Farrst must have taken the soldiers and hid, setting up an ambush for unsuspecting Rebels. *And they still are unsuspecting, since they haven't got a clue as to what's going on. When they come to secure the base, they'll get a nasty surprise.* Unfortunately, the effort would probably take more Imperial lives than Rebel. Farrst wouldn't care about that, however, especially since he didn't seem to care about his own life anymore.

Farrst's behavior was unusual, to say the least. He had never been one to sacrifice himself for anything, so the idea of him planning this suicide attack was ludicrous. The others kept their distance from Farrst, enough to draw Raes' attention, and he added that to his growing list of oddities.

He still couldn't satisfy the one inconsistency in this whole scenario. The base was built for a mass evacuation, but how had Farrst gotten that prior warning? Had it been luck, or had the Rebels' plan been leaked somehow?

The lift stopped at the designated floor, and the prisoners were prodded out first, with their dutiful guards behind them, leading them on. The walls of the underground complex were metal, reflecting the small amount of light illuminating the hallway and at the same time, making it hard for visitors to pick out doorways and changes in direction. For soldiers who spent enough time down here, though, the reflections became second-nature; For anyone else, it was distracting and painful to watch.

Raes looked over and noticed Veid squinting slightly, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. He, on the other hand, had been in munitions before getting promoted, and could recognize outlines of doorways and a telltale sign that the hallway was about to end. Sure enough, the guards told them to slow down, and the hall ended into a T-shape, with each end continuing in bright gray infinity.

He remembered that the main weapons storage room was on the right, and felt a slight dread as the guards prodded them towards that direction. *So, we're going to be part of the suicide,* he acknowledged finally, having held to some slim hope that maybe Farrst wouldn't include them in his plans. *I don't know why I thought otherwise. Maybe I was being too optimistic for my own good.* Giving up wasn't on his agenda for today, however, and in the few minutes left to him, his mind worked furiously to unearth long buried memories of this place, and figure out a way to survive.


Luke and Mara had trailed the group cautiously, while Luke had tried to decipher the emotions and feelings he was getting from the soldiers. He was picking up several things from each person, but separating each component and comparing it with the other parts was a time-consuming process. Anger, fear, trepidation, sorrow, relief, and an underlying tension ran through it all, plus a strong warp in someone's mind--he guessed it was the leader of the group, though he couldn't say for certain. He told Mara what was picking up, to see if she was receiving the same, and she stopped her surveillance of the control room and nearby area to answer.

"A warp? What kind of warp?" Mara looked at Luke alarmingly. He was known for his tendency to understate things, and right now looked like a prime example.

"I can't say as yet. We'd better be careful, just in case."

Which was his way of saying that the situation was now very serious. "Great. How do I get myself into these situations?"

Luke, wisely, did not answer that question. "They're getting farther away. C'mon," he gestured, and they continued down the hallway to the elevator.

The indicator above the lift's door showed letters instead of numbers, telling Luke that Veid's group was probably now underground. It passed one level until it stopped at the second letter and stayed; long enough for several people to leave the car.

*I found something*, he heard the words echo in his mind, and he turned to see Mara shoving away plaster and metal wire to reach something beyond it. *There's a door hatch here, and a release stud for the door. It looks like an emergency exit, but it isn't labeled.*

*They might have assumed people would know--then again, they might have never thought someone would need it.* He helped lift the debris away, and pressed the release button. Nothing happened, but that didn't surprise him. Other Imperials might have disconnected the circuitry leading to the button, to prevent people from using it, for whatever reason. *Guess they wanted to know not only where people were, but also how they got there.* With the Force, opening the door was no problem at all, and in a matter of seconds they were on their way down to the lower depths.


Squinting miserably into the reflected light, Veid's eyes watered in fatigue and pain as he tried to follow the shifting images before him. He could see the reflections of the other people in the metal, and of himself and Raes, but otherwise everything had turned into a silvery blur. His weakening eyesight was another facet of the pain he felt, and knew that even if he managed to escape, he'd never find his way out.

After another twist and turn, they arrived at a storage area--one designated for explosives and timing devices. The detonators were farther down, if he remembered the schematics correctly, and the blasters should have been across the hall from the explosives. All in all, not a bad place to cubby-hole yourself into.

"In here," a gruff voice demanded, and they complied eagerly, walking carefully through the now-open room into darkness.

The lights flicked on a few seconds after they entered, to reveal a heart-stopping sight--Hundreds of blasters trained directly at them, with grim, hardened faces above each one. Veid said nothing, but visibly tensed. Raes couldn't help but utter the first words that came to mind.

"Oh boy."


The hallway's light irritated the eyes of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade, but the Force helped compensate for the disorientation. The echoes of footsteps could be heard around the next corner, and they followed, ever alert for a trap. The floor had not been made for stealth, however, and Mara found it hard to keep from creating slight metallic echoes whenever she walked. Luke had the same trouble, but his face was impassive, and after reaching out to him, she realized he was masking their approach by having the Imperials believe any echoes they heard were their own. They crept along quietly until the hallway ended in a T-intersection, making them choose a new direction.

A quick reaching out with the Force revealed that the group had taken the right branch and had come to a stop, waiting patiently for something in particular. Veid and Raes started moving forward, and after only a few seconds, Mara and Luke could detect the fear and horror that came sharply from the two. Luke swayed forward reflexively, intending to help, but Mara put up a hand as she noticed the large group of people inside the same time he did, and their wonderings about where everyone had gone were answered.

*Now what?* Mara asked none too gently, and Luke shook his head. *I don't know. Maybe we can follow them inside?*

*And shield our presence from all those people for an undetermined length of time? Imperial troops--regularly--aren't like backwater guards, Luke. We might fool them for a short amount of time, but I wouldn't count on it. And considering the situation they're in now, I doubt they're being lax with security.*

*True enough. So, what then?*

*I'm thinking--wait, I recognize that kind of panel.* She pointed across and down the right, not too far from the soldiers waiting outside. *It controls the electrical outputs on this floor, I'm willing to bet. And if that's the case, then I think I've got an idea. As soon as those stormtroopers go inside, I'll be able to get at it and see if I'm right.*

*Sounds good.* Slowly the remaining soldiers drained into the room, until there were only two left. Unfortunately, they didn't join their comrades, and instead closed the door behind them and took up defensive positions by the door.

*Great*, Mara thought sourly. *Now we'll have to deal with them.*

*We can handle it, Mara.*

*I know. It's just a blasted inconvenience.* She rested her hand lightly on her lightsaber, *How do you want to do this--temporary or permanent?*

*Temporary. I'm not too eager to start clogging the hallway with dead bodies just yet.* She nodded in agreement, and he strode forward into the hallway. He masked his presence well, but the alert guards noticed something was wrong, regardless. He thought about creating the suggestion of sleep in their minds, but decided it wouldn't be effective enough. His lightsaber didn't have a stun setting, obviously, so he needed something that did. Like the blasters those soldiers were carrying.

His chances of dodging a blast were slim, at this range, but he let that knowledge slip from his immediate concerns. He took a firm hold on both guns with the Force, and yanked the blasters from the men's grip and into his own. The nearest one didn't notice what happened, but his friend certainly did. He managed a small cry before Luke stunned him, and turned the blaster on the other. Their cries were never heard by the people inside the storage room; the heavy shielding prevented all sound from either entering or escaping.

Luke motioned Mara forward, but she had already started on her way over before the second man had been stunned, and was now prying the panel open. Within seconds, the hatch flew open and revealed its contents for all to see.

*I was right, but this circuitry is a mess--almost looks like Han got a hold of it.*

*Han's not this bad...*

She silenced her laughter with some effort. *Please...I've seen the Falcon's inner wiring. Now, where to start?* She picked her way gingerly through the tangled wiring, avoiding bad patchwork and connections that looked particularly dangerous. *Here we are...that should be it.* Luke was left to guess what that "it" was, until the entire floor's lights went out, leaving everyone in darkness.


The lights went out suddenly, making the stormtroopers and officers inside panicky and disorientated. Raes hit the ground in case one of the younger ones decided to open fire on some imaginary foe, and dragged Veid down with him. Whispering as quietly as he could, he directed the commander to follow him to the door, which should have been able to be opened manually in case of a power failure.

"I'm not leaving without Haskins, Sergeant," Veid whispered back forcibly, and he was compelled to agree. He'd been thinking about his own survival, and had forgotten why they had come in the first place. Unfortunately, this made their own situation more difficult.

"How are we going to find him in this black-out? We have only a minute or two until the back-up generators kick in."

"I can only think of the obvious." Standing on his knees, and away from where Raes was still spread out, he yelled Haskins' name and heard a faint response from the back. A sudden shuffling of the feet around them caused Veid to hit the ground once more, and they half-crawled, half-ran to a quiet spot in the semi-circle of troops around them.

Sounds of confusion and calls for order echoed off the walls, distorting the exact place that Haskins' call had come from, so they made their way to the door, where they heard the presence of several men standing next to it, trying to pry the door open.

"Be patient. The power will be back on soon enough." Farrst's voice said calmly-- another odd characteristic that Raes added to his growing list. "We'll be..." he trailed off, and Raes felt the air around them grow tense, everyone waiting for Farrst to finish his sentence. When he didn't continue, the soldiers moved away from the door, in compliance with his wishes. Farrst, however, began to mumble to himself, his voice so low that neither of them could hear over the noise being generated by the troops.

"I hope Haskins is coming this way. We'll have to make a break for it soon," Raes muttered under his breath, and he heard a faint sound of agreement from Veid's direction.

He'd heard the commander's voice; he'd been sure of it. He hadn't been able to see past the crates and gear when Farrst had come back from patrol, but that was Boraas Veid's voice echoing over the clamor, as clear and penetrating as ever. *If I can make it to the door, I should be able to call out again, find out where he is.*

He bumped and pushed past stormtroopers and officers alike, hoping that no one would discover that it was Veid's personal aide who was trying to get past, the one they'd caught in the control room when the Rebels had attacked. The only reason he wasn't dead yet was because the attack had taken them so by surprise, they'd had little time for pointing fingers, and exacting sentences.

Luckily no one had stopped him, and he figured he'd gotten to the middle of the room, near where Veid had been. *Now where would he be?* Looking wouldn't get him anywhere, so he paid attention to the sounds around him. It seemed that most of the soldiers ahead of him were heading for what should have been the door, so he followed along, expecting to find Veid along the way.


Luke hadn't been expecting this. How would they find Veid's aide in this darkness, when Veid himself wouldn't be able to find him?

*We'll yell, then make a run for it. If Haskins doesn't follow, too bad. We can't risk both our lives and theirs for someone who may or may not be dead.* It sounded perfectly logical to Mara, but Luke wasn't getting it.

*How could you abandon someone like that? We're talking about a life...*

*I'd love to discuss this later, when we have the time. Right now, though, we need to get to work.* She turned her mind away from him and back on distracting the guards inside, while opening the doors as cautiously as she could.

*Is it because he's an Imperial?*

She sighed, exasperated. *Maybe, maybe not. I don't're the one who knows so much about what's going on in my head--you tell *me*.*

Luke ignored the snappish tone of her last sentence, and dropped the subject completely. Mara was right; now wasn't the time for a heart-to-heart talk. The power might be off indefinitely, or it might come back on any second. He helped Mara pull the doors apart with the Force, the noise created by protesting joints being ignored by everyone except for the two people they knew inside.


"Someone's opened the doors," Raes whispered to his former CO, but the officer had heard it perfectly well.

"I know. I can't believe someone would risk Farrst's wrath--" He cut off his own sentence when he realized no one was swarming to the door. But why? Not willing to wait around and find out, Raes picked himself up and dashed the remaining yards to the door, slamming into two people who were definitely not wearing armor.

"Raes--it's us," he recognized Skywalker's voice say, slightly hushed. "Where's Haskins?"

Veid joined the sergeant in the next moment, and both were trying to describe where they'd last heard his voice.

"It was over that way--"

"To the left, and back...maybe 20-25 meters."

"I was sure he was on the right, and closer than that, sir."

Luke ignored their advice; eager yet confusing as it was. He noticed one mind among the others was filled with hope, and heading purposely towards the door--winding around groups of people and through conversations being held by soldiers and officers. He felt Mara grab his arm about the same time, telling him that Raes expected the lights to come up any second now. The words had barely left Mara's lips when he heard the telltale hum of surging power, and the flicker of interior lights.

"Oh no."

"Come on, we've got to move!" Mara was urging him, when the lights came on full power, illuminating everyone within the giant room.

A moment of confusion ensued within the Imperial ranks, allowing Luke and Mara to start moving toward the door, with Veid and Raes following behind. Unfortunately, they hadn't counted on anyone being by the door, least of all Farrst. His blaster was out and trained on them, and he stood in the doorway, blocking their path. "I don't think you're going anywhere just yet, Jedi."

*How in the--?* Luke turned to see Mara glance at him, and Raes watch on in astonishment. He pulled out his lightsaber and flicked it on in one smooth, quick motion, letting its presence detour the officer somewhat. "We're leaving. Move aside."

The other soldiers in the room were now getting their bearings, and the four could clearly hear the shuffling and clicking of metal against metal. Luke didn't doubt that there were a large number of blasters pointed in their direction, and he slowly deactivated the lightsaber. They'd been too slow--waiting for Haskins had cost them the seconds they needed to escape. He didn't blame the aide, however. Events just hadn't played out in their favor.

Luke decided to probe the officer's mind further, to try to decipher the warped feeling he was detecting. The brain pattern wasn't normal--in fact, if he had to describe it, he would say that this man's mind barely resembled that of a human being. Scanning deeper, he found an ever-present cold blackness, a dark pit that swallowed everything whole. Not unlike the feeling he'd gotten when he'd probed Cerrah's mind, not so long ago. He pulled back quickly, shaking despite the warmth in the room.

*What's wrong?* he heard Mara ask, and replied, *I didn't think it was possible...*

*What?* She was impatient now.

*It's the Scryth.*

Mara let out a slow breath, assimilating the knowledge. *How long do you think it's been?*

*A day, maybe more. Its strength must be failing, or else it would be attacking us. Our being here must have been just a stroke of luck.*

*For them...not us,* she remarked sourly. *So, what's the plan?*

*I'm working on that,* Luke replied, not sounding as confident as he would have liked.

"I've been hoping you would come by," the man was saying, drawing Luke and Mara's attention back to the room. "This one's been tiring me out."

The soldiers nearest to Farrst looked at him in confusion, not understanding what he was saying. Some shifted nervously, and others lowered their blasters slightly, trying to puzzle out their leader's comments. Veid and Raes were equally as puzzled; What did Farrst mean by the term, 'this one'? Was he referring to Veid, or Raes?

Seeing an opportunity, Mara responded, "Body hopping's not to your taste, is it? What did you do to the soul who used to be there...did you suppress him, or just erase him?"

Now the crowd was baffled. Body hopping? Suppress, erase...? Who was this person in Farrst's body, if it wasn't Farrst himself?

Noticing the soldiers' and officers' reaction, he tried to cover over Mara's words. "I don't know what you're talking about. Guards, kill Veid and his outlaw sergeant, and take the Jedi into custody."

"You don't want us dead because you need a Force-sensitive body in order to survive," Luke joined in. "Why don't you just take us over and be done with it?"

The taunting didn't work on the Scryth-possessed man, but it did cause the guards to pause. They'd seen his odd behavior lately, and now had a reason to put behind their doubts. None made a move towards the two Imperials.

Obviously dismayed, Farrst turned towards Veid and Raes. "If you're not going to do anything, then I'll just have to do it myself," the man sighed, and in one move, pointed the blaster at Veid and fired.

Raes had seen the barely telegraphed movement, and jumped in front of the commander. He was outdone by his zealousness, however, and the blast only caught him in the side, while the rest of the energy passed through him and into Veid. He landed hard on the cold metal floor, and turned his head to see Veid clutch his lower abdomen and fall to his knees, partly in shock and partly from pain. The sound of running feet was loud and metallic as he started cursing himself for not catching the whole blast. His vision started to blur, and his attention was riveted on those of their group that remained standing, lightsabers out and ready.

*Get 'im for us,* he thought silently, wondering if the Jedi could truly hear his thoughts before passing out from the pain.


Haskins pushed his way through the Stormtrooper barricade, not caring whether the troopers shot at him. He ran past the prostrate Raes and to Veid's side, catching him before he hit the ground and slowly lowering him to the floor. It looked like a typical blaster gut wound, but having little experience with the field, Haskins nearly passed out from the sight of all the blood and charred skin.

"Can you hear me?" The other man's face was pale and drawn, a danger sign to be sure, but one he wasn't familiar with. He looked around for help, and saw the soldiers standing a respectful distance from him, watching and waiting for something to happen. And then it did.


Mara's lightsaber was up and ready, buzzing with eagerness to start the fight, "Come on, let's get this over with."

Luke took her words for impatience, then found that her thoughts revealed something else. *Not bad, Mara. Goading him might work.*

A ghost of a smile crossed her lips, signalling that she'd caught his comment. "Are you too scared to try me out, Scryth? I'll last a lot longer than what you've got now."

"Interesting proposition, but your friend is more to my liking."

"He'll put up a better fight than me."

"Maybe, maybe not..." The air around her seemed to thicken, and the next sensation she felt was the impact of her body with the metal wall in the hallway. Explosions of pain burst all along her back, neck, head and arm from where she had hit the wall, and the places where bone was covered only with thin muscle and skin felt numb and useless. She sucked air back into lungs that had lost their volume from the impact, and struggled to get back up, and into the fight.

Luke had felt every nuance of pain as she had slammed into the wall, the flight quicker than he had time to register in his mind. Anger seethed up in him, but he pushed it down, knowing now what the Scryth was trying to do. "It isn't going to work. You haven't got much time left, and you aren't going to turn me. Beings greater than you in power have tried and failed."

The Sith presence only laughed. "She means a lot to you, doesn't she? What if I did this...?" A swift new feeling of pain swept through Mara, turning her nerves to fire and causing her to stop her progress towards the room. Luke felt this also, and used the Force to shield Mara from the Scryth's technique. Stunned, the Sith man stopped his attack, trying to puzzle out his foe's strength.

Luke dug deeper into the other man's mind, trying to oust the darkness that had taken up residence. After a few seconds of probing, he realized that the man that people had known as Farrst was gone. In order to survive, the entity had scoured out every crevice of the man's soul and settled into the shell of a body, waiting for the Jedi to come to him.

All of a sudden, blaster fire shot past Luke from his left, and even as he saw it, he knew what would happen. His verbal warning came too late, and he saw the blaster fire ricochet off the possessed man's hand and head in varying directions. Some of the troopers managed to duck before catching a bolt, but others weren't so lucky.

Luke had been diving for the trigger man when he caught a bolt in the thigh, then his upper shoulder. He finished his descent on the soldier and landed hard, knocking him down and sending the blaster flying. He could smell his own burnt flesh and wanted to pass out from the pain, but instead forced himself up and away from the crowd, and back to the waiting Scryth.

Mara, however, hadn't been idle. Seeing the Scryth's attention focused on Luke, she had kept on coming forward, thinking over the situation in her mind. Killing him might solve their problems, or it might make matters worse--if he was free of the body by no effort of his own, he would instantly look for another victim...which would be either Luke or Mara. She hadn't been afraid for Luke; he'd handled something like this before. She hadn't, on the other hand; causing her earlier bravado to look pretty foolish.

Seeing the bolts spewing out from the non-descript soldier's gun had stopped her cold, and nearly cried out when she saw and felt Luke get hit, twice. Oddly enough, this event made up her mind for her, and she pressed on, determined to end this for good.

Luke saw Mara come in through the door, and wondered, *What in blazes is she doing?* She'd blocked off her own pain from him, and could see the strain showing on her face. *She doesn't have the strength to take this creature on alone.*

The Scryth's attention was still on Luke and the would-be assassin, walking slowly over to where Luke was. "I have had enough of this body, with its weakness and limitations...if you surrender now, no more people will suffer needlessly."

Luke only stared, not moved in the least. He knew what the Scryth was capable of, and had no illusions of any mercy being shown to Mara or anyone else. "I don't think so," Luke said, hoping to keep the Sith presence focused on him, rather than Mara. He shifted his weight to his uninjured leg, blocking out his own pain with the Force.

"Very well, if you want this to be difficult..." A weakened, yet no less potent, version of lightening shot from his hand, heading towards Luke. Instantly, his lightsaber was up and ready, but it wasn't needed; a blur of movement behind the man caught his eye, and he saw blue light slice through the man's midsection at an angle, ending the lightening assault. The lifeless form dropped to the ground in two distinct sounds, and Mara stood with her lightsaber still on, staring at the motionless body as if expecting it to animate itself from the dead.

*How did you sneak up on him like that?* Luke was dying to know. He'd been sure that as soon as Mara got close to the Scryth, it would sense her. She smiled wanly, the effort of distracting the Scryth despite the pain showing clearly on her face. "It wasn't easy. Now I know why you're so jumpy about controlling other people's minds. I--" she paused suddenly, and Luke felt a sudden dread sweep over him.

"What?" he asked desperately as Mara closed her eyes in concentration and pain.

"I was afraid of this..." she trailed off dangerously, and Luke probed her and the area with the Force, trying to see what the problem was.

He sensed a small taint of darkness still lingering in the immediate spot where Farrst had died, reaching out for Mara in a desperate attempt to stay corporeal. He shoved a barrier in between her and the thing, and after a few seconds of struggle, it died away. The last of the Scryth was gone, he hoped, but its handiwork had not gone unnoticed.

He let out a slow breath, and turned to see the havoc the Scryth had caused around him. Two soldiers were dead, and others wounded by the re-directed blasts that he'd tried to stop. Raes had collapsed on the floor, and Veid lay very still, held by a pale-looking young man--almost a boy, really--who looked as if he were in a state of shock. Men were yelling for medics and help, and others were milling around in confusion.

Veid! He'd almost forgotten about the commander entirely, and now rushed over to the older man's side. The one he guessed was Haskins barely noticed him approach, and only protested slightly as Luke probed through the Force and physically, in order to see how bad the wound was. "It doesn't matter," the aide said numbly. "He'll be dead soon, anyway."

Luke ignored the gloomy pronouncement, and saw Mara helping Raes back into consciousness out of the corner of his eye. He sighed in relief, having thought that Mara wouldn't aid the wounded soldier, from the way she had been talking earlier. He turned his attention back to the patient and started to heal some of the damage.

Most of it was incredibly severe--only the fact that it had been a gut wound had saved him from dying immediately--but the Force helped heal enough of the charred area to keep Veid alive for the moment. Unfortunately, it was beyond Luke's strength or knowledge to fix the wound completely.

"He'll live, for now. If we can get him to medical attention soon enough, we might be able to save him." A glimmer of hope shone in Haskins' eyes, and the young man thanked him.

"Don't thank me yet. I have to call for the Republic's medics first. Where's the nearest comlink?"

"Over there," Luke followed the man's finger to find that a soldier was calling for anyone in the Imperial sick bay, and was getting no response.

"It's probably been destroyed," Luke said quietly as he approached, and the man turned to face him, his thin face tense with stress and panic. "What do you mean? It can't be," he looked back to the chaos surrounding them. "We've got wounded--"

"If you let me have the comlink, I can call for medical help."

The thin man narrowed his eyes, "You mean *Rebel* medics. No thank you, we've had enough of your kind of help."

Another man quickly joined them, who had a thick shock of brown hair and a long scar running from jaw to nose. "Jerdon, Raes is doin' better now. That Jedi woman healed him a little, and managed to wake him up." He looked at Luke, and smiled appreciatively. The other man continued to scowl.

"It's time to put the past behind us," Luke responded to the man's look. "Your commander needs medical attention now, or he's going to die."

That caused Jerdon to waiver, and he slowly handed the comlink to Luke. In a matter of seconds he had contacted the fleet, and was directing medics down to the lower level; Jerdon helping him give directions to their present whereabouts.

After help was on its way, Luke handed the comlink over and thanked him for letting him call. The thin man replied, "I didn't have a choice, did I? We're all going to be prisoners anyway."

"We don't take prisoners if we don't have to." Luke proceeded cautiously, trying to sway the man over by words, instead of force. "If you help us, instead of fighting, we can make sure no one else dies today."

"We're not really in any position to fight back, are we? We have no leader, no goal, no strength left and no place left to go," he sighed. "What do you want us to do?"

Luke helped Jerdon and the others organize the group, and they had the wounded evacuate the room and be moved towards the lift, in order for the New Republic medics to reach them faster. Veid and the more severely wounded went up on the first lift, and Luke and Mara went with them, to tend and keep them alive until they reached help. Veid was still unconscious when they lifted him off the floor by the Force, and started to carry him out. Shortly the medics arrived and took over, leaving them to search for any other survivors in the building.

They didn't find many. Anyone who hadn't made it to the lifts were likely crushed by debris, or burned alive by explosions. There were some clerks and computer slicers who were trapped in the center of the building, and Luke and Mara got them out in a matter of minutes--the only thing having saved them was where their offices and workstations were. Others had not been so lucky, the two of them reflected sadly, and after they confirmed that all the living were accounted for, they headed wearily back to the shuttle.


After a few minutes of debriefing on the Calamarian Star Cruiser *Krazentor* with Commander Sdensk, both Luke and Mara were checked out by the medical staff onboard and allowed to either return to their shuttle, or let the Cruiser take them back to Coruscant. They opted for the shuttle, and were back in space, refueled and ready to head back. Or so they thought.

"I can't leave my ship there--I paid a lot of money for it, and I'm not going to let anyone dismantle it--"

Luke sighed. He'd been so close..his hand had been on the hyperspace controls, ready to leave, and then she'd remembered her Z-95, still sitting somewhere in the Imperials' control. It wouldn't be hard to get it back, he knew--fixing it was another matter.

So he turned the ship around and landed in the now-New Republic owned spaceport in Yualpe, and they started asking questions about it. It didn't take long to find the ship--in boxes AN6256-12, and AN6256-13, ready for shipment as parts.

"The cannibals," Mara was livid with rage. "How could they--it was in good shape, it only needed some repair to the navigational systems..."

"According to the file, the electronical systems were shot. Seems that after you landed and shut off the power, the systems just gave up from wear and tear. They deemed that it'd be too much to repair it, and scrapped it instead," Luke reported somberly.

Her ship didn't deserve this, she decided firmly. It had served her faithfully for the past few years, whenever she wanted to slip away without notice. The shuttle, however, couldn't carry the large boxes in its tiny hold; making the idea of taking it along impossible. Sighing in defeat, she searched and found the rest of her belongings in another box, and they carried that back to the shuttle, the mood much darker than before.

When they got back to the spaceport, and the box was tucked safely away, Mara had time to reflect on everything that had happened in the past week. The ties to her smuggling days and life as a trader were wearing away, and being replaced by the need of finishing what she had started on Yavin so long ago, and continuing what had begun here.

Luke came over to where she was sitting, and sensed she was deep in thought--about the future, and the present. Was he going to be in that future? This time no fears invaded in mind, but he was still nervous about what she might say, what she might be thinking.

Recognizing his presence, she took his hand and led him to sit next to her. She'd been shutting him out lately, she knew--mainly because she didn't want him to worry about the thoughts running through her head, about their relationship. She was happier than she'd ever been, knowing that she was truly in love, and knowing that Luke felt the same way. Unfortunately, the future loomed over her like an axe waiting to fall. She knew what Luke wanted, but wasn't sure she could give it to him.

Through the Force, Luke could feel her hesitance, and slowly she revealed the thoughts she'd been hiding from him. He was dismayed at first, but he soon recognized where her fears had come from.

"You're afraid of becoming something you're not; you don't want to be trapped in a persona you'd hate for the rest of your life."

Hearing it out loud jarred her somewhat, but it was true. She couldn't be a homemaker, and had no desire to be one, either. She expected Luke to be upset, and angry, but certainly didn't expect him to start laughing.

"What's wrong with you? I just told you I couldn't be your wife, and you're laughing...?"

"No, no, that's not it," he managed to gasp finally. "It's just that I never wanted you to be...someone like that. I don't want to 'settle down' in the conventional sense. I don't think the Force would let us, anyway, considering the lives we lead."

"So, you don't want to get married?"

"What? No, I mean, yes, I want to get married. Don't you? No, wait--don't answer that." He stood up and started pacing around the small room, cursing himself out softly. "We don't have to move so fast...that is, unless you want to. If you want to start off slowly, that's fine with me...blast it! This isn't coming out right--"

"You haven't asked me anything yet, Skywalker. Why don't you give that a try before you decide anything else?" She looked up at him with amusement and anticipation, her mind and mood still hard for Luke to read.

Relieved at her response, Luke tried to compose his thoughts and found they wouldn't stay still. He attempted to remember one of the phrases he'd constructed in his mind, but failed to retrieve it. He had to settle for whatever heartfelt jumble came out of his mouth, and hoped that Mara wouldn't mind.

"A week isn't really all that long when you consider a lifetime, and yet it's changed my life forever, in ways I couldn't have foreseen. A week ago, all I lived for was the academy, and a dim hope that was more desperate than logical. Now, I've got something that I've been wanting for so long, but I was looking in the wrong place for it.

"I could say some mushy stuff right now, but I know you don't like that. So, I guess what I'm trying to get around to is, will you marry this poor excuse for a Jedi Master and make him the happiest man in the entire universe?"

It was probably the most inarticulate plea he'd ever given in his life. She stared at him for a long while, the stress he was feeling increasing second by second. Then she smiled at last, a little surprised by her own decision. "I've finally run out of excuses and fears, Luke, after quite a number of years trying to hide from myself. I know what I want, now; I want to be with you for the rest of my life," she blinked back sudden tears, and added, "Yes, I will marry you."

The techs and pilots milling by the parked shuttle never heard a sound, nor saw any indication of what caused it, but they felt a rush of joy and happiness that pushed back the darkest of thoughts and had them smiling contentedly the rest of that day.


The chief-of-state for the New Republic tilted her head up reflexively at the sudden wash of emotion, and smiled in spite of herself--and the large amount of paperwork left on her desk. She knew who it was from, and where it had come from, but had no clue as to what had caused it. *What could have caused Luke to be so happy?* Leia thought to herself, but then left the matter aside, and starting humming an old tune that she and Han had danced to on many occasions, including their wedding day.

She stopped cold as soon as she realized what she was humming, but then continued on, not knowing why she had picked that tune, of all the ones she knew. Then, she didn't care anymore, still too happy to reason out why. Today was a brand new day, filled with possibilities. And tomorrow would be the same as today, though she had no idea of the events already started in motion, on the far side of the galaxy.


Before leaving the system, Luke had decided to visit Boraas Veid in the *Krazentor's* sick bay, hoping to get a chance to talk to the former Imperial commander. He found the man resting after surgery, after a small treatment in bacta to help heal the incision scars and burns from the blast.

The doctors had done the best they could, but even their technology couldn't predict whether Veid would pull through or not. He'd lost a great deal of fluids as well as blood, and his intestines had almost been completely burned away from the energy of the blaster bolt. The young medic Luke talked to was amazed he'd lived long enough to receive any care at all, and shook his head when Luke asked if that was a good sign; it was just too early to tell.

The man looked small and pale as he lay in bed, the white sheets pulled up as high as they could go and not suffocate the patient. The life and power that had once illuminated Veid's eyes were dimmed, almost non-existent. He was conscious of Luke's presence by the doorway, and quietly directed him to come in further.

"Are you sure? You aren't well," Luke replied delicately.

"That's more than a little obvious, wouldn't you say?" the older man rasped slightly; the trauma from his abdomen made it painful to talk. "I don't think I'll be getting better very soon."

"If you talk that way, you won't," Luke frowned.

"That's neither here nor there. Now, what's brought you out this way?"

Luke pulled up a chair and sat down, prepared to make a series of comments and suggestions to the older man. As he watched Veid struggle for breath, he realized all his carefully constructed dialogue was inane and meaningless at that moment. Instead, he asked, "Why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Surrender to our forces. Ask for my help. And risk your life to save a subordinate, to name a few."

Veid grimaced, and waved his hand vaguely, "Why does a man do anything in his life? Some men kill for pleasure, some imbibe or inhale hallucinogens to escape their life, and some gamble in the hopes of obtaining a better one."

"Are you the latter kind, Commander?"

This time the Imperial smiled. "Very observant. I wonder; why did you ask me for my reasoning, when you probably already knew it?"

The Jedi leaned back into his chair, "I wanted to know whether you'd try to deny it, rather than accepting the fact that you make for a lousy Imperial officer."

The Commander would've laughed, if it wouldn't have hurt so much. "I can't deny it, Jedi Skywalker. I have too many witnesses."

Luke grinned, and he changed the subject to what Veid planned to do after his recuperation. The man shrugged and said that he didn't know for sure. Luke's swift offer to put in a good word for him with the New Republic touched him deeply, but in Veid's heart he knew that would do little good; he could never respect a military force that had enlisted him only on the word of someone influential. Better to have died in the lower levels of the Imperial base than live with the stigma of being favored, no matter if he deserved it or not. He thanked Luke for the kind gesture, but told him that he'd wait for the Republic to ask him in, as a way to appease the Jedi's soul.

Veid had been thinking of his own future, but he had the presence of mind to know that even if fully recovered, his life would never be the same. It both terrified and excited him, but he had to make it to the next day before he'd allow himself to sketch out a future that far in advance. Besides, there was no use in getting worked up about something that either was or wasn't going to happen.

Luke noticed that Veid was tiring quickly, and after easing the man into sleep through the Force, rather than sedatives, he left for the shuttle waiting for him in the landing bay.

*The medics were right,* Luke allowed himself to think for the first time since entering Veid's room. *He's alive, but just barely. If he had something to live for, maybe that would give him strength, but he won't accept any kind of hope.* Luke shook his head sadly, wishing he knew the answers that Veid needed, but the Force couldn't--or wouldn't--help him in that regard.


Months passed quietly and swiftly, the time taken up mostly by studies and students for Luke, and tying up business deals and loose ends for Mara. Some female business partners and trader 'friends' of hers decried her plan of selling the business to an associate and "traipsing off with that moody Jedi guy," as one of them put it, as they ate and talking during a 'business' lunch meeting.

"What I do with my life is no business of yours," Mara replied coolly, her eyes narrowing; letting the others know that their comments weren't appreciated, nor invited. What had originally been intended as a "send-off" meal was now turning into an ugly--and rude--interrogation.

The women ignored the warning signs and continued on, convinced they were in the right. "How can you leave your freedom behind for a guy, for crying out loud?" One human female named Telrian asked, a mug of the local stimulant forgotten in hand. Others munched delicately on salads and filets, while they watched the tirade in silent agreement. "All you'll be known for is being Mrs. Skywalker, and the mother of such-and-so, if you actually cave in and have kids. You'll lose your entire identity!"

Mara smiled politely, but coldly, calming her urge to lunge across the table and strangle Telrian. "Have you ever known me to sit on the sidelines and watch others live their lives?" Their faces paled visibly, and Mara took that to mean 'no'. "Then how can you think that of me? I'm not going to sit on Yavin IV and twiddle my thumbs."

"All my married friends say the same thing, though--how they never have time anymore for the fun things they did while they were dating, how the kids took up their time and energy..." Telrian cast a glance around the table, and got a few nods in support. "You'd be miserable, Mara. You and I both know that."

"How many of your friends wish they'd never gotten married, or never had kids?" The silence answered her question for her. "Single life isn't a paradise either, in case you've forgotten. I know you complain about not having someone about as much as you complain about the guy you're with." Snickering broke at the table in response to Mara's observant barb. The guilty party flushed in embarrassment, and stammered out a weak denial. Mara just shrugged her shoulders at the woman's pathetic attempt to save face.

A dark-haired woman named Alana interjected, "I don't think I understand why you're giving up your life to follow his."

Mara sighed, "This isn't a life, Alana, so I wouldn't say I was giving it up. I'm independent, yes, but do I enjoy it?" She shrugged. "Maybe I used to, but not anymore."

"You've certainly changed." She arched an eyebrow, surprised. With her groomed appearance and calm demeanor, she could have been Alderaanian.

"Yes, I have." A change for the better, Mara knew, but these women wouldn't understand that until they came to the same situation in their own lives.

Alana watched her neutrally, while Telrian just scowled at the red-haired woman who refused to listen to reason. None of the others at the table breathed a word, for fear of an unspoken retaliation.

Alana was the one to speak first, "I'm glad that you're glad, Mara, even if I don't agree with your decision. I hope you never regret it." Her tone was sincere, and her cautionary smile told Mara that she might be wishing for that same change of heart as well, someday.

"I know I won't. Believe me, I've had enough of the lonely, solitary life."

"I find that hard to believe, but it's your call," Alana laughed in response, amused at the thought of Mara being tamed. "Skywalker must be worth it. Tell me, how far did you two..."

The glare that Alana got for her troubles had stopped lesser men and women cold. Instead, she grinned and switched the conversation's topic to business at hand, leaving the other women sighing in relief. They would've hated to explain how Alana's blood had ended up on the restaurant's floor, if it had come to that.


A week later, both Luke and Mara were back on Detromi again, along with Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and the droids--with the turbulent Jedi kids in tow. Han landed the *Falcon* as close to the edge of the trees as he could, just south of the village and at the edge of the farmland. Luke and Mara were supposed to be at the village already, having taken the *Jade's Fire* and landed it in the partly-reconstructed spaceport, Gheas. Some inside joke about landing bays was all Han could catch, and he left it alone, figuring that it was something he wouldn't want to understand, anyway.

The smell of wet earth and fresh air hit him immediately after stepping from the gangway. New growth had budded and flourished on the nearby trees, and was now taking on a sharper color of green. From the temperature in the air, he guessed it was late in the spring, and on the edge of warming up. Leia smiled at the weather as she came outside, obviously pleased by the discovery. Was there something in the rules that weddings had to be in the spring? Funny how it had worked that way--Coruscant's upper hemisphere was in the winter season, and Yavin was having the worst heat wave in recent history. Circumstances had just brought the wedding here rather than anywhere else; Han didn't know if it was that Force thing again, or just odds. He didn't care for either choice.

It didn't take long to arrive at the small village by foot, and all could see that it was alive with action. Leia watched in astounded awe as people bustled by, moving with purpose and energy that had been left unused and forgotten. Chewie merely snorted in response, wondering what all the excitement was about, while the kids put their own repressed energy to full use. Thankfully, the droids were left behind on the ship until tomorrow--Threepio's constant observations and Artoo's rejoinders would be for only them to hear, until then.

The others wouldn't arrive until tomorrow, either, and that was for the best; Han couldn't imagine the chaos that would ensue with a couple of rowdy fighter pilots and some tipsy Jedi students, and he wasn't lacking in the imagination category. The party tonight was mostly a pre-wedding celebration that was intended primarily for the bride and groom, though the villagers seemed to be the ones who were getting the biggest thrill from it all. Even though the majority of the guests weren't here, there would be enough celebration all around afterwards--if not here, then the entire galaxy, since one of its most eligible bachelors was finally getting married.

*'Finally' is the right word,* Han mused as they walked past the commotion in the town center, and especially around that white tower of theirs. *I don't think people are too concerned about who it is...rather, it's the when and where they're drooling to know.*

Leia had known beforehand, of course. Luke hadn't stepped into their doorway for more than two seconds when she'd blurted out the news by congratulating him. That Mara was the wife-to-be didn't throw her too badly, but Han had seen the reservation in her eyes. It wasn't that she didn't like Mara; her concern was more for her brother, and this sudden decision of his. With some difficulty, Han shoved his thoughts as far back as he could, hoping that Luke wouldn't be able to pick up on them later.

His wife pointed them down another side street flawlessly, tracking her brother's whereabouts as easily as he could for her. In a matter of moments, Luke appeared at the doorstep of a faded red house--with thatch for a roof, of all things--and quickly made his way over to the group. After a minute or two of hellos and inquiries about the wedding arrangements, Luke lead them inside to meet the owners of the house.

Darm and Nila Kipetk greeted them pleasantly, and after a few awkward moments of the getting-to-know-you chit chat, they settled down into the matters at hand.

"Cerrah, would you take the Solos' children into the backyard? I'm sure they don't want to hear all our boring adult conversation." Jaina insisted that it wouldn't be boring at all, but her mother pressed her to join the others, and she reluctantly obeyed. "She's growing up so fast, I can hardly believe it," Leia said after the children were gone. "A year ago, you wouldn't have been able to keep her at any adult gathering; now all she wants to do is stay."

Nila nodded in instant understanding, and after a matter of minutes of chatting about their kids, the women had formed a bond that seemed to be pre-destined for all who'd suffered and enjoyed motherhood. Only Han's not-so-polite observation that they keep on-topic kept the women from comparing birth weights and time in labor.

Most of the party-related issues and decorating ideas had been taken care of by the very eager villagers, and Mara...who really didn't know what she wanted, but certainly knew what she *didn't*--and let the Shadoui know that fact firsthand. The ceremony was the main issue, though, and problem.

"Did you actually attend one of these weddings, Nila?" Luke was asking her pointedly, hoping she had some firsthand knowledge, however vague.

"I saw a holo taken from one of the weddings, and my mother told me about her wedding in detail...but I haven't witnessed one personally, no."

"I'm sorry to put you in this position,..."

"It's no problem, Luke. Technically, a Jedi Master is supposed to do the honors, but seeing how there isn't one available, I'll gladly do it."

He smiled gratefully, "Thanks. I know you and Mara have been talking about the details--is everything working out?"

Mara answered him, "Aside from the occasional snag, it's been fine. No disasters, no catastrophes."

Luke grinned, "That's a good sign, anyway." The topic changed from one area to the next, jumping from the middle of the ceremony to the end, then back to the beginning. Nila didn't stop questioning the couple until she was sure they understood their parts perfectly. After an exhausting round of last-minute changes and decisions, the adults took a break from the discussion and called the children in for lunch.


Later on, Han managed to pull Luke aside for a more intelligent discussion, while Leia and the others talked about themes and other stuff like that. Darm had mysteriously disappeared shortly after lunch, and so the two men found themselves taking a short walk around town.

"How are you holding up, pal?"

"Fine. I'm a little nervous, but I know that's normal. Mostly, I can't wait to get this over with."

Han chuckled, "I know what you mean. I wish I'd eloped with Leia and gotten it over and done, instead of waiting around like we did."

Luke nodded in understanding. He wished he could do that too, but a Jedi didn't have that luxury. "Nila's explained the whole ceremony pretty thoroughly, and I read her father's journals from end to end, so I shouldn't mess up too badly. It's the actual ceremony that has me, well..."


Luke grimaced in embarrassment. "I want this more than anything. So why am I feeling this way?"

"You're human, Luke. It's the biggest event of your life so far, and it's only going to happen once. If you weren't scared out of your mind, I'd have been worried."

Luke sighed in slight relief, grateful to Han for helping in only the way he could. "Thanks, Han."

"Don't mention it." The moment gone, the two friends and in-laws changed the topic. "So, how has the re-location been going?" Luke asked, and Han shrugged. "Most of the Imperials defected to the New Republic, but many just wanted to get off the planet. Only about two-thirds of the human population stayed."

"Mostly civilian, I'd bet. More will leave, I'm sure. It's just a matter of funds and getting transportation. There were signs in Gheas' spaceports, soliciting for rides offplanet."

"Speaking of Gheas, what happened with that commander and the other soldiers you told me about? Sounds like they'd be good for the Republic."

Luke grimaced, "Well, as far as I know, Raes joined the Republic shortly afterwards. Haskins is somewhere in the system, but they don't have much use for an Imperial aide's skills in our government. And Veid..."

From the look on his face, Han thought he knew where his friend's next comment was going. "What happened?"

"Veid died about a week after Mara and I left, due to complications after surgery. According to the medics, it was a bacterial infection."

"Infection? How can that happen? It couldn't have been the bacta, could it?"

"They were positive it wasn't, but we know that bacta can be contaminated. It wasn't just that, though. Veid didn't have much of a will to live."

Han mulled that over. "No family? No friends?"

Luke shook his head. "None that I ever knew or heard of. He was completely alone." He slammed a fist into the palm of his hand, his voice telling of his anguish. "I only wished I'd known that when I visited him. I could've said or done something to give him some hope."

"Don't beat yourself up about it, Luke. There's only so much you can do. You can't save the galaxy, no matter how hard you try."

"I had the chance to save one life, Han, and I blew it."

Not knowing what to say, Han replied, "Maybe it was the Force, or something. It's hard to understand why things turn out the way they do, but we can't control how they turn out." A blur of movement caught his eye, but when he turned to follow it, the smear of gray vanished. For a moment he thought it might be related to what he talking about, until he recognized that type of blur; the kind the Noghri usually made if they didn't want to be seen. *I should've known that they'd be here,* Han thought as he turned his attention back to his friend.

Luke seemed to take some comfort in Han's previous words, and Han let the matter of the Noghri slide. "Now, what about the honeymoon...?" He prompted, and the grin that illuminated his friend's face stayed there until they got back to the house.


Mara, for her part, was feeling out-of-place and forgotten as Leia and Nila discussed the wedding details at length. She had long stopped caring about what colors went with what, and what they were supposed to mean, when Han and Luke came back from their walk. Desperate to escape the deliberations, she sprang over to Luke's side and with a quick glance and a suggestion through the Force, both left their hosts and friends alone. Neither were seen again until shortly before the party was to begin.


A short knock echoed through the bedroom's door, as Mara was hurriedly trying to find what she was going to wear for tonight. Flushed and distracted, she tore through her belongings and swore out loud. Why hadn't she realized it was getting late? After she and Luke had gotten back, Nila had swiftly shoved her into Cerrah's bedroom, telling her to hurry up and get ready. She had nearly bit off Nila's head for the rude behavior, until she'd looked at her own chrono.

The knocking persisted even through her assurances that she was moving as fast as she could, and Mara decided that the only way to stop the knocking was to take away the door. She knew it was Nila by the time she reached her hand around the doorknob, but didn't expect the patient look on her face.

"I've got something for you, Mara. It's a gift from Girala."

Girala? The name seemed familiar...*It's not from one of those guys, I hope.*

Nila laughed, "No, not exactly," seeing the thought on Mara's face as well as in her mind. "It's from the seamstress you met."

"The one who didn't like me?" The memory came vividly to mind. "I think we'd better scan it first."

Nila just grinned. "Go ahead. Open it."

Sighing, Mara undid the ties and wrapping around the box. Placing the thin, rectangular box on the bed, she gingerly lifted the lid, not knowing what would come out of the box. Her surprise could not have been more total.

She instantly recognized the deep blue silk, and as she pulled it out for further inspection, discovered to her delight that it was cut, sewn and shaped into the form of a dress; elegant, simple, and exactly her size.

"How...?" She studied the fabric, trying to figure out what was going on. "Why? I don't understand."

"It's her wedding gift to you. She happens to be very good at what she does, and having someone genuinely appreciate her work was a rare treat for her. I can tell you like it."

"Liking it" was a tame way to put it. It was perfect. "Tell her that it's just what I needed, and thank her for the trouble."

"'It was a challenge,' she told me, 'but one that I'd been hoping for.' I think that her reward was in its making, though I'll tell her that if she doesn't come to the party tonight."

Mention of the event sprung Mara into action again, and she urged Nila both physically and verbally to leave the room so she could get ready.


The men had grown impatient, so they had already left for the Hall. The effort involved in setting this up had not been lost on them, so when they approached the scene, they were in a state of awe and admiration. Ribbons and colored lanterns had been strung from the windows of the tower and attached to the tops of the roofs of nearby houses and businesses, giving the area below it a festive glow. Nearly the whole town must have been there, since the walkways to the center grew exponentially crowded with people, and the sound of laughing and talking increased as they came closer. It looked as if they were celebrating something bigger than a wedding; more like emancipation from tyranny, or the promise of a better life.

Once the Shadoui nearby recognized who they were, they parted as if commanded to by some unseen force. Darm directed them to one side of the oratorium, where they were supposed to sit, as Han took in the sight of the Hall and its decorated interior. "You guys sure know how to throw a party," he commented lightly.

"Coming from you, I take that as a compliment," Darm replied smoothly, and Han gave a quick glance at Luke, wondering what stories he'd been spreading.

Luke smiled mysteriously at Han's sudden glare, and not entirely sure that he wanted to know more, Han let it drop. "So, where have you been, Darm? I noticed you hiked out of there pretty quickly, after lunch was over with."

"Oh, just running errands, and finishing things up. Nothing to get excited about," Darm dismissed it with his tone and gestures, and soon the trio found themselves talking about other things of importance until the rest of the group arrived.

Their wait wasn't long. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, the women arrived with Chewbacca in tow. He didn't seem to be pleased at having to go through this odd ritual, but genteelly gave in to Nila's request.

Leia came in first, followed by Nila, and then the bride-to-be, as per the custom. The woman that stepped through the archway didn't look quite like the Mara Jade that Han knew, however. As Han and the other men stood, he glanced out the corner of his eye, and saw that Luke was similarly impressed.

That wasn't how Luke would describe it, however. Stunned, or awed, might be a better word, he concluded. Had he ever loved her more, as he did this moment? He didn't think so.

He was about to take a step forward when he felt Darm's hand on his arm, holding him back. "I know exactly how you feel right now, but I wouldn't act on those feelings, if I were you." Luke wasn't sure he knew why, but the tone in Darm's voice insisted that he obey. Instead, he contented himself with watching Mara approach.

The color of the dress--Luke was sure that it was blue, but occasionally he'd doubt his eyes and swear it was black--stood out against the rest of the crowd, making her look like the only substantial person in the room. The bottom flared out just enough to make dancing possible, and the top had a low, but respectable circle cut, with the sleeves ending and flaring slightly at the elbow. Very simple, but very elegant. He smiled as she came closer, and realized that it was indeed blue. Her hair contrasted nicely with the color, and he told her so.

*I'm glad you noticed.* She smiled ever so slightly, and he couldn't help but grin in response. *You like..?* She grabbed a bit of the skirt to indicate what she meant, but Luke understood her perfectly.

*Very much. Where'd you get it?*

*Here, just now. I'll tell you later,* her eyes flicked to the side, indicating Nila, who was acting a little too nonchalant for her own good, obviously trying her hardest not to eavesdrop.

According to Shadoui tradition, the bride was to approach the man she wished to marry the night before their wedding. If she'd had a change of heart about the marriage, then she would walk to someone else--usually a family member or friend, though it might be another man. Only rarely did that happen, but the man couldn't do anything about it, if his intended did so. It was considered the man's responsibility to woo the woman, and his to keep her. Both Mara and Luke had been briefed on this, but obviously Luke's mind had been somewhere else--and knowing this would probably happen, Darm had been prepared for it.

Finally Mara arrived in front of Luke, and Luke took her hand, as Darm prompted him to do. A loud cheer went up from the crowd around them, who'd kept quiet the whole time, and the band in the dais started up, playing something quaint and festive.

"Now what?" Luke asked, and Darm smiled. "Now, we have fun!"

"Can't wait," Mara smiled back, and Luke echoed the sentiment, albeit silently.

They watched for a moment as the villagers formed a dancing circle of sorts, and called out to the couple to join them. Mara absorbed the routine fairly quickly. It took Luke a couple of passes and turns before he got the rhythm down, but soon he was enjoying the whole experience thoroughly. Several more steps and dances were demonstrated, and they spent a great of time laughing and bonding with the Shadoui folk nearby, who were more than happy to join in the fun. Han and Leia even tried a little bit of it, and Han proved to be the better folk dancer of the two, ironically; Leia's schooling hadn't included group dances.

As the night wore on, the tempo slowed, and the older couples came out on the main floor to dance something vaguely reminiscent of an Alderaanian *Dasmourir*. Leia felt more prepared for this, and so pushed Han back onto the floor for some "more normal" dancing.

Luke knew he should feel at least a little tired, but he was wide awake and ready for the next song. "Would you like to give this a try?" he asked, indicating the dancing couples.

"You up to it? I didn't think you could *really* dance." She managed to say it without smirking too badly.

"I'm a fast learner." He held his arm out, and she took it gracefully, letting him lead her out to the edge of the floor.

Mara felt his hand press lightly into the small of her back as he took her right hand in his left, and she let herself drift close enough to place her hand around his shoulder. He looked mildly surprised at that, but genuinely smiled when she raised a silent question at his response. *I didn't think you would want to get that close. It didn't really hit me until right then how much you *have* changed.*

*Is that so bad?*

*Not at all.* True enough, Mara could feel the warmth and love coming from Luke, and returned it in kind.

The dance called for steps both forward and backward and to the side, with a quarter turn to the lead's left as well. True to his word, however, Luke learned quickly, and Mara was impressed in spite of herself, though not really surprised.

*This should make marriage to you a little more interesting,* Mara smiled wickedly, and Luke tried to divine where her thoughts were leading. *Ah, not yet. I've still got until tomorrow, you know.*

*What difference does it make?* He barely caught her sigh of resignation, and she replied, *You'll know. Trust me.*

Letting the matter drop, he instead focused his attention to dancing, and the wonderful feeling of having Mara in his arms like this. It didn't seem possible that he was actually going to have happiness in his life, for once.

The band ended its song and started another, even slower than the first, and many of the couples left. Those that remained didn't really seem to dance as much as sway to the music. That was fine with Luke, who certainly knew how to slow-dance, and Mara agreed.

The dancing went nearly into the wee hours of morning, until at last the band called it a night and the remaining party-goers went back to their respective houses. Han and Leia were already on their way back to the house they were staying at, and more villagers were handling the clean-up for tomorrow, when Luke and Mara headed back as well. The Kipetks were letting them stay at their house again, but had arranged for Mara to get Cerrah's room and let Luke have the couch. When Mara had asked if the town had a hotel or inn, they had just laughed. Hospitality called for inns to be unnecessary, and Luke and Mara were no exception. The Topeks had enough room for the Solos and Chewie; although Aileh wasn't crazy about the idea, his wife had effective override on those opinions.

Luke got the couch ready and laid down to sleep. He had been dreading some sort of bachelor party, and was glad that the night had passed without any sign of it. What had Darm been hiding, though, from Han and him, if not that? The question was pressed from his mind by the pull of sleep, and the weariness that had eluded him that night attacked him with full force as he quickly fell into slumber.


Morning broke languidly, compelling those who were half-asleep to stay in bed a little while longer. Reality sunk in quickly, though, and the house was soon filled with the noise of several people getting ready at the same time. Darm and Luke had gotten up first, and were already on their way to where the wedding was being held by the time Nila, Mara and the others had crawled out of bed.

The place wasn't the Hall, since Luke and Mara wanted it to be private, and Nila echoed the concern, considering what the ceremony entailed. Another member of the Council named Rowan had a large enough room to hold about 30 or so people inside, and a platform had been set up to hold Nila, Luke and Mara about 10 centimeters above the rest of the group who would eventually come. He had graciously lent it to them without cost, and when Luke insisted on paying him, the old man had replied that seeing the Jedi prosper once again was enough of a payment for him.

The wedding wasn't going to happen until late that afternoon; right before sunset, when everyone had hopefully arrived by then. Luke knew that most would be punctual, but with Lando and some others, you never knew. Getting there early helped him clear his head somewhat, and got him focusing on the main event.

He wasn't feeling nervous, but that didn't mean it wouldn't happen later on, he was sure. It was a strange, calm-before-the-storm sensation, that had him feeling like he was floating above his concerns. Why did Darm keep asking him if he was fine? Of course he was...why wouldn't he be? Darm only eyed him uncertainly, while he talked with Rowan and the other volunteers.


A short time later, Wedge and Qwi Xux appeared from the forest to find a small party of greeters, who escorted them to the Hall for a small luncheon before the ceremony. Lando, with Tendra by his side, stood talking to Talon Karrde and a man he vaguely recognized. The name floated up from his memory, and he berated himself for nearly forgetting Aves a second time, after the first time with Thrawn. Wedge spotted Han and Leia talking with Winter and Mon Mothma, and lead Qwi over to make their presence known.

"Hey Wedge!" Han greeted him first, and the others joined in as well. "Glad you could make it!"

"I wouldn't miss this for anything, believe me," Wedge grinned, and caught a glimpse of the Jedi groom through the shield of students around him, recognizing Tionne, Kyp and Streen in the mess, along with others he thought looked familiar. "I'm going to go over and pay my respects."

"Or do you mean condolences?" Han mumbled over a sip of whatever he was drinking, and Wedge caught Qwi's baffled expression. He laughed weakly at Han's light verbal jab, and gently pushed his way through the screen of beings into Luke's presence.

Luke smiled as he made eye contact with the former Rogue Squadron Leader. "I thought I recognized your presence here, Wedge. Is Qwi...?"

"Yep. Talking to Winter, I think." He threw a look over his shoulder, but only saw a mass of brown robes. "Where's the bride?"

"She's on the far side of the room, trying to stay as far away from Lando as possible."

"You didn't have to invite him here, you know."

"I know. If we didn't, though, it'd look like she still held a grudge against him."

"Doesn't she?"

"Yeah, but don't tell *him* that. He still thinks he was the one to break off the relationship." Luke's mood soured noticeably, and so Wedge changed the subject to something more upbeat. "So, who else from the gang is coming?"

Luke grinned in response, "Janson, Hobbie, and Tycho. The others begged off, and I can sympathize. Most are too high up to let go of their commitments for even one day."

"And they have families to think of, too. Well, it's probably for the best; I'd hate to have this nice town messed up any worse than it might be, later on."

His friend laughed out loud at that, and the non-descript students around him stiffened in surprise. Wedge could only smile ruefully, and thank the Force that Luke had finally come to his senses. Mara was a good influence on him, and brought out the side to Luke that had been missing for a long, long time.


"Is Qwi coming this way?"

"No, I don't think so. She's walking over to Luke and Wedge."

"Good." Mara blew out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. "At least she didn't come here."

"Why?" Winter asked, who had left Han and Leia to chat with Mara for awhile. "She doesn't seem too bad."

"Have you actually *talked* with her?"

"No, not really. Some chit-chat, here and there."

"Be glad of that, Winter. Be very, very glad."

Winter gave her a shocked look that wasn't too sincere. "Oh, and why's that?"

Mara smirked in response. "To be honest, anyone that can build a weapon like the Death Star, and think it was for peaceful purposes, is one too many circuits short of a motherboard."

"But she *did* create it," the white-haired woman pointed out.

"Yeah, with a tunnel leading straight to the core," Mara gave her head an incredulous shake. "She may have intelligence in some places, but it certainly doesn't show--oh, Sith. Here she comes."

She was leading Wedge by the arm, blue head-feathers bobbing to and fro as she walked over. A beatific smile crossed her face, and it took everything in Mara's power to smile back. Winter watched on in amusement.

"Hi, Mara! Wow, what a place this rural and so quaint!" Her grin was so sugary that Mara nearly gagged. Winter succeeded in stifling a laugh. "I can't wait to see the wedding...will you have a real simple gown like Leia's was, or will it be more traditional?"

Mara wasn't sure she wanted to know what Qwi was talking about, so she answered, "It's a Jedi ceremony, Qwi. I'll be wearing whatever's traditional for them."

"Oh." Mara could picture the synapses in her brain firing and re-routing signals to assimilate that information. "Okay."

Wedge caught the dangerous flicker in Mara's eye, and knowing better than his girlfriend, culled her away from the two women and toward Lando and Tendra. "We'll talk later!" Qwi called out over the conversational roar, and Mara politely waved back, trying to keep from screaming out loud.

*I think you handled that well.*

Mara couldn't help but smile at the sound of Luke's voice. *Oh yeah? You weren't trapped in a room with her for a whole hour, trying to make small talk. She makes my teeth ache.*

A questioning feeling came from Luke, so she clarified. *She's so sugary sweet, she gives me cavities. Hey, I wonder if she'd like--*

*Don't even go there. Stop.* Mara grinned wickedly at the thought of putting Qwi in a sugar coma, old habits coming to the fore.

"Mara?" The voice drew her back to the outside. "You there?"

"Yeah, just having a long-distance conversation," she replied distractedly.

"Ah. Sorry about intruding."

"No problem." Her attention was quickly drawn from thoughts of Qwi to the figure of Talon Karrde coming across the room, having left the presence of Qwi Xux and Wedge Antilles in favor of his former associate. "Hello, Mara. I haven't had the pleasure of congratulating you yet." He took Mara's hand in his and lifted it to his lips graciously. "You either have great luck, or great skill."

Mara's fingers arched almost imperceptibly at his last remark, "Thank you, Karrde. I'm not sure you've met Winter--"

"We've met. Nice to see you again, madam," he gave Winter's hand a hearty shake, and smiled politely. Winter responded in kind, and after a few more pleasantries, left to talk with some of the others in the room.

"What was that all about?" Mara nearly hissed as soon as Winter had left.

"Which 'that' was that, Mara?" He smiled, knowing he was prodding her temper further. He didn't even have the decency to tell her outright--relying instead on old verbal codes to do his work for him.

"You know very well. That remark of yours about "great luck and great skill" is very nearly a death warrant, Karrde. Am I now on your hit list?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course not." But, he didn't deny the other meaning behind it, either. With that sentence, he'd just told Mara that she was no longer welcome at his home or base of operations, and could expect no help from him in the future. Virtually a death sentence in her eyes.

"That's a small relief, anyway," she replied coldly, understanding why he had done this. One could not be reputable as a smuggler and keep Jedi friends; it simply wasn't possible. Rather than putting Mara's loyalties on the line later, he'd severed the friendship first. "Please enjoy your stay while you're here." It was more a dismissal than a request.

"I hope to, Mara." He bowed ever so slightly as a sign of respect, and left to join another conversation. She was trembling with a mixture of rage and grief when Luke found her, on the verge of either bursting out in tears or ripping Karrde apart.

He didn't say anything as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she let out a deep sigh. "I know why, but it doesn't mean I have to like it," she said out loud in clarification, though Luke didn't need any of that. He'd felt and seen the whole thing from where he was.

"He isn't much better, Mara, honest. That was probably the toughest thing he's ever had to do." He felt her lean into him more, and wrapped her into a warm embrace in response. He wished he could abolish all the pain and suffering out of her life, and was tortured by knowing it was an impossible task. The best he could do was to be there for her when it happened.


The other guests arrived in good time, leaving the planners and helpers in a state of relief. Everything had to be perfect, and aside from that odd episode with Mara and that other human, the day had been just that; perfect.

The talking continued for a long while--Jedi engaging battle-hardened soldiers with philosophy debates, smugglers cracking deals, and a scientist finding a perfect audience with the young girls of the village and with Jaina Solo, who were entranced with the concept of marriage. Eager to learn about the perils and excitement of womanhood, she listened attentively to Qwi's tales of romance as her brothers tried to lure her outside to play tackle, or whatever else caught their imagination. Issik shrugged at Cerrah and Jaina's indifference, and suggested that they find their adventures elsewhere. They never noticed the gray shadows that benignly followed them into the woods.

"Boys," Jaina shrugged as if that explained everything, and Cerrah smiled in agreement.

Darkness started to fall after a few more hours, and the boys were easily rounded up--though Jacen was sporting a scraped knee and Issik had a bruised arm for their trouble. Anakin wasn't entirely unscathed, with a bump on his head from falling off a low-hanging branch. Leia thanked the Force heavily for the fact that they weren't hurt worse, and hadn't been wearing their good clothes. She made sure they scrubbed the dirt off before getting dressed for the ceremony.

"When can I see Mara, mama?" Jaina asked quietly, and Leia had to explain that she was mentally preparing for the ceremony and couldn't be disturbed. Her daughter frowned in response, and Leia reassured her that she'd see once the wedding started. "But *everyone* will see her then, too!"

"Isn't that the point?" Leia gave as a reply, but those weren't the words Jaina wanted to hear, apparently, and she stormed out of the room. Leia was bewildered with the entity her daughter had turned into, and saw Nila standing in the doorway. "It's started, hasn't it?"

"What?" Leia answered back tiredly, not in the mood for games.

"Puberty." The word shocked her to the core; moreso because it was deadly accurate. Leia started, "My little girl..."

"Not so little anymore, I'm afraid. Cerrah's going to go through it eventually, too, but I hope I can be spared a little while longer."

Leia was numb from the revelation. She didn't want this now, but it wasn't something that was going to go away. Jaina was too young...but then she remembered that she had matured at an early age also, and the genetics of the matter had been passed from mother to daughter, unmercifully.

"As long as she doesn't get interested in boys anytime soon, I can handle it--I hope." Leia moved her thoughts back to the wedding, in order to keep from brooding about certain events that were inevitable with a pre-teen daughter.


The guests filtered into the Council member's house several minutes before sunset, and took places in chairs neatly set up, allowing family and close friends to sit nearer to the platform. A doorway was on the left, and a hallway lead off to the right. Han found himself as part usher, part host as he lead people to roughly designated places and chatted with them until the next person arrived.

"I wasn't made for this, sweetheart," he argued softly with his busy wife.

"You're doing fine, Han. Just remember that this is for Luke, all right?"

*Easy for you to say*, he thought as she left. *You weren't stuck talking to Qwi for 20 minutes straight.*

"Hey Solo, you got a place for me and my bride?"

He turned to see Lando heading for him, trailed by his new wife, Tendra. She smiled pleasantly at him as she followed, letting herself be the anchor for Lando's wild personality. Lando pumped Han's hand enthusiastically, genuinely happy to be there.

"Sure, Lando. Though I don't think you'd want to shake my hand off before I show you to it."

The darker man grinned apologetically, and stepped back. "Man, I never thought I'd see this day."

"You and me both, pal." Han confided quietly, which caused even Tendra to grin conspiratorially. "I'm glad it's Mara, if no one else."

It was one of those sentences that Han wished he could instantly take back, but luckily, Lando didn't seem too fazed by the remark. "I'm glad too, old friend. There've been sparks between those two for awhile, and I didn't want to mess it up for I stepped aside, of course."

"Of course," Han echoed, not believing it for an instant. Lando had changed a little, but not enough to suit Han. "This way, if you would," he bowed over-dramatically, a sarcastic barb directed at the "chivalrous" friend.

The droids were allowed to be present, but under the strictest rules, and were not allowed to bother the spouses-to-be on threat of deactivation. That sufficiently killed Artoo's curiosity, but Threepio was yet to be calmed, insisting that he had to speak with Master Luke to inform him of the protocols inherent in the marriage process, in all their varieties.

Leia informed him that the protocols that the Jedi followed weren't in his databanks, and that he should, "butt out before I have you permanently dismantled!"

"Oh, dear," Threepio mumbled disheartedly, fearing the worst. "I shall endeavor to abide by your wishes, Mistress Leia."

"Yes, do that, Threepio. For all our sakes, not just yours." She left the anteroom in a rush, and Artoo gave a low whistle filled with ominous doom.

"Well, I certainly won't do *that* again, Artoo. I try to help, and where does it get me? Nowhere, that's where." But in seconds his programming was already guiding him towards the next area that needed his aid. "Wait, General Solo can't seat the guests himself! He has no concept of the details involved, the disasters that would happen if...! Come on, Artoo. We've got a job to do." Threepio hustled as fast as he could out the doorway, and Artoo followed hesitantly, concerned about what havoc his counterpart would be reeking now.


A knock on the door shook Mara out of her relaxed state, and back into the reality around her. The spare bedroom had served as her dressing room, and her solace from the world outside. A dim luminescence came from one corner, casting the walls in a faint warm haze of light.

Nila had directed her in the steps involved in her "reflection", and had told her that she would be back in two hours to check on her. Stretching cramped muscles, she approached the door and asked, "What is it?"

Nila's voice penetrated the thick wood of the door, "It's time."

A similar scene was acted out on the other side of the house, as Kyp came to get Luke. As a groomsman of sorts--as close as the Jedi got to one--Kyp was responsible for keeping any and all visitors away from the Jedi before the ceremony. He checked the hang of the folds in the robes Luke was wearing, making sure everything looked alright. The thick cloth was dyed a deep russet color, and the lining was a soft cream tint that served as a highlight in the folds of the robe and its sleeves. The hood had the same treatment, and as Luke pulled it over his head, he noticed how deep it was and how it completely shadowed his face when he checked in the mirror. Why the hood, he couldn't say...maybe it was just tradition.

He took in a deep breath to calm the nerves that had suddenly appeared, and knew now why the meditation was necessary--to keep the person's mind off the wedding at all costs, and to keep their nerves as steady as possible. The Jedi calming exercises he knew didn't do much to solve his anxiety as he and Kyp left the small room.

Han came back to give him a short pep talk, and his words helped calm the nervous Jedi, but as soon as Han left, his throat tightened once more.

"Don't worry, Master Skywalker," Kyp was saying. "It'll be over before you know it."

Somehow that didn't comfort Luke too much, but he thanked Kyp anyway. He looked for the signal to start, but was disappointed to find Nila still missing. What was taking so long?


"Get out of my room!" Mara yelled, though thankfully not loud enough for the guests to hear. As Nila had been getting Mara's robes on and straightened out, they'd found to their horror a couple of zealous Noghri hiding in the closet. Nila had been reaching in for a last minute attachment to the outfit, when her hand had touched flesh.

"We mean you no harm, consort of the son of Vader. We are only here to protect."

"Protect me from what? The Empire doesn't know anything about where the wedding's being held, and I personally think they'd care less."

"We do not think so," the grey-skinned alien mewed, brandishing his knife. His friend nodded in agreement.

"Well, why don't you protect me from the *outside* of the building, then?"

"Is that your order, consort of the son of Vader?"

Mara sighed, exasperated. "Yes, it is." No sooner than she spoke the words, the Noghri were out the room and beyond sight.

"Is this something that normally happens?" Nila raised an eyebrow, amused.

"It's never happened, actually. I completely forgot about that part of the package," she sunk her head in her hands.


"Luke has permanent bodyguards wherever he goes. They're sworn to protect him and his sister, *and* their relations...which will now include me."

"I see," Nila said, barely understanding this at all.

Mara sighed again, then stood up. "Come on. Let's get going before any more Noghri pop out of the woodwork." Nila took a last appraising look at Mara's robes; a duplicate of Luke's, but with the colors reversed. Mara pulled the hood over her head to complete the image, and Nila nodded approvingly.

Leia entered just then, to mimic Kyp's role as supporter, and Nila left to take her place and start the ceremony. With a moment to collect themselves mentally, Leia and Mara strode out of the room and into the hallway leading to the platform, to the waiting crowd, and Luke.


After what seemed like an eternity, Luke finally spotted Nila approach the platform and take her place facing the crowd. She nodded solemnly, and Kyp went first, followed by the groom.

To the guests, it was an eerie experience, to have a march with no music. But that was the way it was done, and the small crowd of friends and family stayed silent. Leia appeared shortly after Kyp, with Luke next, and then Mara. Luke knew what would happen when they appeared, and he sensed it instantly; a sense of unease and restlessness at the strangeness and unfamiliarity of it all. The students understood, but clearly Jaina and some others--mostly female--didn't. He turned his thoughts inward as he stepped on the platform, and stood facing the woman he'd born so much pain, anguish, love and realizations with.

The cream-colored hood lifted, and their eyes met instantly. All nervousness fled at the sight of her, and he couldn't help but grin in response to a silent, Force-driven remark of hers. Nila stifled a grin, and started the ceremony in all seriousness.

"We are gathered here today to witness the marriage of two very special people, who have decided to commit themselves further than is called for by most. Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade have decided to join themselves not only in law, name, and body, but in spirit as well. They will be joined together in the Force today, for all time. It is a special thing that cannot be undone, which makes it even that more precious, and important. For those of you who are not Jedi, you will not see or hear much; please be patient, and supportive, in not talking during the process. It is very exhausting, and considering the lack of experience on everyone's part, is also very dangerous.

"For those Jedi in the crowd, you know about this already, so I won't have to repeat it in front of the crowd," *but if I catch one of you trying to pry in where you don't belong, I'll find you and hunt you down. Understood?*

The pale faces and weak nods of the students in attendance assured her that would not happen. The non-Force sensitive beings in the crowd never caught the words, but understood the silent meaning of her unspoken words sure enough. Jaina pouted slightly at the rebuke, but a quick glare by Jacen kept her behaving correctly.

It was an unorthodox way to begin a wedding, but this was no ordinary union between two people--they were about to do something that hadn't been done in least 40 years, if not more.

Leia stepped up first, and fulfilled the New Republic's law by being the witnessing--and marrying--governmental official. She spoke the wedding vows by rote, and both Luke and Mara followed her example exactly as they had been told earlier. With some modifications, of course. The New Republic's suggested vows didn't express the true complications that they'd gone through, and the promises they intended to keep.

After that part was over, Nila signalled the start of the Jedi ceremony by closing her eyes, and Luke and Mara followed instinctively, having had the ritual thoroughly drilled into them over the past two days. Nila first created a wall between them and the rest of the crowd, shutting out nearly all Force-sense perception from the Jedi in attendance, including Leia and Kyp. Then, she created a thin barrier between the two and herself, trying to give them as much privacy as possible, without jeopardizing the whole process.

Luke only needed the slightest prompting to start, and he gradually and deliberately deconstructed all of his mental walls and barriers, laying himself completely open and vulnerable to Mara's mind. It was a humbling experience, and Mara knew instantly how hard it was for him to let go of the comfort of the inner walls, where he was always safe. She entered into his mind tentatively, not knowing whether she might cause a backlash. His sense was still open, however, and she plunged deeper into both mind and soul.

Events and memories flashed by, starting with the earliest he could remember, and continuing through his lifetime; either good or bad. She shared the thrill of joyriding through Beggars' Canyon with him, and also the horrible, wrenching pain of seeing the only home he'd known destroyed, along with the deaths of his aunt and uncle.

Some things surprised her, like his and Han's rivalry over Leia. Some nearly tore her apart, as with Luke's revelation over learning who his father really was. All previous horrors dulled before this devastating truth, and she felt the wave of despair that followed afterward, along with the pain of a mutilated limb.

*Do you still want to go on? I'll understand if you don't*, Luke's voice echoed in her mind, and she brushed the remark away softly, knowing that this was necessary. If she wanted to live a life with Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and Master, she needed to know him inside and out.

More memories flitted by, with Gaeriel and Teneniel, Wedge and Han and Leia, and Isolder, along with several moments of near-death. Those were the hardest to get through; feeling his pain and knowing that there was nothing she could do. Dimly, she felt his hands grasp hers, and she felt a renewed strength to carry her through to the end.

She got to see herself through his eyes, and was surprised to find that he had never carried a grudge against her, not even through the forest of Myrkr. If anything, his compassion had increased, and he truly hesitated over telling Han anything about her plan to kill him. *I knew you never told them, but I never knew why.* The confusion and odd feelings she got from the memories hinted at a beginning love for her, that was so deep within that he hadn't even seen it for what it was. He'd always expected a love that would slam him in the face, knock the breath out of him, and instead had gotten one that had crept up and stolen his soul.

He'd always been there for her, saving her life when she didn't deserve it, helping her out while she continued to swear she'd kill him. He'd known, in his soul, that she would never go through with it. Knowing her feelings now, she realized he must have picked up on her ambivalence subconsciously, and maybe her own feelings as well.

*And it took us ten years to figure this out*, she remarked with humor, and felt an easing of tension from him, and a reply, *Better late than never.*

She couldn't disagree with that. More years and memories flew by; some she was present for, some she wasn't. She tried to not watch the memories of him with Callista, but had no eyes to shut away the images. He was genuinely tortured over having her watch this part of his life, but it was needed. He had to put this aside, and hiding it from Mara wouldn't accomplish that.

The memories buzzed by at a faster pace now, more clear and vibrant, and yet less substantive. Faces and events she didn't recognize whizzed by rapidly until she reached the end, the here and now. Mara felt an odd sensation, and understood that she was connected differently to Luke's thoughts now. Was it over already, then? It wasn't supposed to be, and true enough, Luke was full of confusion over Mara's sudden insight. It was now her turn, she realized with a mixture of horror and excitement, and began the same process that Luke had done after what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, ago.

Her childhood was severely sketchy, Luke discovered, but he absorbed all the information he could glean, nevertheless. Her training was rigid and unforgiving, precise in military format and as disciplined as a boarding school's timetable. Her life was a bleak gray that had only brief glimpses of wonder and joy, and those were only carefully doled out by the Emperor and his advisors. He was molding her into his instrument, and the tempering had to be just so; not too overwhelming to crush her, and not too soft to have her rebel. She was poured into the mold perfectly, believing Palpatine to be the only person who cared whether she lived or died.

Astounded by what he was viewing, he fell silent as her life before Endor played out for him. The assassinations, the betrayal and death of informants, the cold, harsh calculations of the Emperor's Hand as she traveled the galaxy, carrying out his will. The Emperor's voice tickled acidly in the back of his mind, and he felt the joy and fulfillment of purpose she felt whenever he was pleased. When he was angry, however, was another story. Enduring the scathing blame and bitter disappointment that she felt every time she disobeyed the voice was a sobering experience for Luke, and told how much Mara had gone through to keep him alive. The betrayal by the Emperor had helped smash the mold, but it was only because of the one thing Mara would never have anticipated; Love had been the conquering force over the Voice, and he loved her more for enduring that pain for his sake, because he didn't deserve it.

*If you don't stop kicking yourself, Luke, I'm going to start doing it for you.* Mara's light-hearted reproach drew his mind away from melancholy and back on the images flickering through his mind.

The events of the last few years came and went quickly, and he paused to reflect on seeing he and Callista together through Mara's eyes, and the wrenching emptiness he experienced as well. What had once been a happy memory in his mind was now stained with a despair that ached in his soul.

The time she spent with Lando was not as horrible as he had feared. She had played a game with Lando, and then let him think he had won it. For the most part, Lando had been a way for her to take her mind off of Luke and her future, both of which were subjects that she hadn't wanted to face, or deal with.

Her present memories went by fast, with unfamiliar faces and a different perspective on recent events, and soon he felt the same thing Mara had, he was sure, since his bond with Mara had suddenly become deeper and more powerful than he could have ever thought. Now he knew why Terrent's descriptions had been so vague and incomplete. He couldn't describe in words the emotions that ran through him, the joy and cognizance he now had. He could tell that Mara was starting to tire out from standing, from the pain he could feel from her legs, and that she was in the same state of bliss he was in. He opened his eyes and saw that she had already been watching him. Somehow, he felt he'd already known that. The information wasn't shooting straight at him; rather, it was unconscious and subdued, letting him assimilate it as he needed.

Nila had woven their minds together through the Force, and now having first hand knowledge of the process, he was sure he could duplicate it. He felt her clearly let down the barriers between herself and them, and between them and the crowd. He knew in a detached way that his walls and barriers had immediately gone up, but it hadn't affected his new link with his wife.

*My wife...* He tried to let it sink in, but the words Nila spoke tore his attention back to the outside world.

"Would you like to say something, Luke?"

He looked around, dumbfounded as to what he could say. Eventually he split his concentration between his wife and the crowd enough to form some words. "That didn't take too long, did it?"

Mara laughed, and the ones close enough to Luke to catch what he said chuckled in reply. He knew he should be saying something poignant and important right now, but he couldn't honestly think of anything too noteworthy. He'd already said it all. Knowing Mara's thoughts now as well as he knew his own, he could tell she had nothing to add.

"Well, they're married, folks, if you hadn't guessed that already," Nila declared, and a loud cheer came up from the group of friends in attendance. "Luke, aren't you going to kiss the bride?"

*Those* words quickly registered in his mind, and he set himself to the task immediately, drawing a number of catcalls and ribbing from the rowdier members of the crowd. The bond that had been formed made the kiss even more electric and potent, and he had trouble bringing himself back to reality. Mara was feeling it too, he realized slowly, and thought the sooner the honeymoon started, the better.

Friends and family were herded back to the Hall for the reception party, and the newly married couple talked with Talon and Aves, who were begging off the reception and saying they couldn't stay any longer.

"We have to get back, you understand. I'll regret this later, I know, but it can't be helped." The tone in Karrde's voice indicated that he meant more than the reception. "Good-bye, Mara." He nodded solemnly, and Mara nodded back. They'd already spoken what needed to be said.

He pulled Luke aside as Aves and Mara talked, and whispered, "You take care of her, understand? I don't want to hear about anything bad happening..."

"You won't, I promise," Luke replied, amused at Karrde's protectiveness, even now. The older man pulled back slightly, satisfied, and called Aves to join him. A swift good-bye from Aves to Luke, and they were gone, probably never to be seen again.

"He wanted you to protect me? I thought he knew better than that," Mara was saying as she took his arm, escorting him back to the room to get changed.

"He does." Luke didn't have to say more. Mara understood what he meant instantly. *I'm beginning to really like this new arrangement.*

Amusement trickled into his sense, and he began to appreciate it even more, even though it was still awkward. *Wait until tonight,* Mara promised slyly, allowing the bond to give Luke an idea of what she was thinking.

He'd thought he was worldly, but even her ideas made him gasp softly in shock. His reaction only made her grin further. *Well, that's technically only an hour or so from now,* he countered, and the teasing sense from her deepened, replying, *The others wouldn't miss us all that much if we left now, would they?*

He laughed, imagining Threepio's histrionics as the bride and groom never showed up for their own reception. *They probably would miss us, but they'd understand.*

Mara was getting the distinct impression that he wanted them to attend, regardless. *Well, let's get there before all the food's gone.* She tugged on his arm again, and they walked back to the room.


"You don't think they cut out on us, do you?"

"I don't know, Han....wait. Here they come," Leia answered, though the couple didn't show for another minute or two. Leia had been having trouble reading her brother's thoughts, and believed it was a temporary side-effect from the ritual. Han was thinking otherwise. It sounded as though they didn't want any interruptions, and made sure none would happen, with that Force of theirs.

The party passed quicker than expected, and soon the revelry was extended to various parts of town; the Rogues had bested some novice Jedi in an odd drinking game, and the last anyone had seen of the pilots and the drunk Jedi was towards where the ships were docked. Lando and Tendra had headed back to the *Lady Luck* very shortly after eating, and Tionne and some others headed upstairs to see the ancient computer, and check out the files.

Darm came over to where Han, Mara and Mon Mothma were in a heated discussion about trading issues, and the smuggler's role in it. Mothma was urging the dissolution of the smugglers' guild, citing its drain on the Republic's resources, while Han and Mara took the other side of the argument.

"It's about time to send them off, don't you think?" Darm suggested to Han, and it took a few seconds before he absorbed the words, having been ready to launch a retort at Mothma.

"Actually, you're right. I don't think Luke and Mara want to hang around here all night, do they?" One look at Mara's face was telling enough. The debate had completely taken her mind off of leaving, and seeing Luke engaged in conversation with his sister and Qwi was confirmation enough to Han that the same had happened to the new husband.

In a matter of minutes, most of the friends had been gathered up to send them off. A cart being pulled by one of the resident work-beasts was prepared and ready, decorated and manned by the farmer who owned it.

"You're leaving in *that* thing?" Janson slurred out. Thankfully, only his comrades heard him.

"The Shadoui are shunning technology," Tycho supplied helpfully, noticing that he had trouble getting his mouth to form the last word.

Wedge was the most sober of the group, thought that wasn't saying much. He gave Luke's back a hearty slap, and congratulated him once again. "It was about time, honestly."

"Yeah, well, I beat you to the punch, wiseguy. You're still a bachelor."

"And I will be for a while longer, at least. Take care of yourself," he added in a more serious tone, and they parted, each wishing the other well.

Mara had already hopped on the impromptu seat of straw, waiting patiently for him. Their gear was thrown in the back as well, leaving only enough room for him to squeeze in. A final hug for Leia, Han, and his niece and nephews, and he turned to the people who'd been the perfect hosts.

"I can't thank you enough, Darm, Nila," he smiled appreciatively. "I'll be seeing you again in about a week or so, I guess."

"That sounds about right," Darm grinned, and Nila added, "I have something to discuss with you, when you get back."

"Is it good or bad?"

"A little of both, but mostly good. You'll see," she replied mysteriously, and Luke let her leave it at that, too preoccupied to follow it any further.

Good-byes were heartily bellowed as the cart pulled away from the small gathering. The darkness swallowed the area around them now, as they headed away from the town and to the river.

"Where are we going?" Mara asked cautiously, having expected the cart to take them to some ship on the edge of the forest. She had thought that her ship would be their way off-planet.

*We're not going off-planet.*

*Well, that's a little obvious. I guess we're heading to the waterfall, aren't we?*

*There's no point in keeping secrets, I suppose, since you'd find them out, anyway. I didn't arrange this, however.*

*Then who? Nila?*

*I think so. Either her or Darm. Or maybe one of the villagers, even.* Darm seemed like the logical culprit, since he wouldn't tell anyone where he'd gone that one afternoon, and the arrangements had been a complete mystery to Luke.

Their conversation shifted to something else, and they talked while the cart bounced and rocked slightly, the driver oblivious to their unspoken dialogue. Before they knew it, they'd arrived.

"What time is it?" Luke spoke aloud, nearly startled by the sound of his own voice.

"Hmm, almost 9:30, standard," Mara said as she squinted at her chrono in the weak moonlight. They swiveled around to see their surroundings, and could barely make out the waterfall through the mist, though they certainly heard the roar. The lights inside the cottage were on, oddly enough, though Luke knew he shouldn't have been surprised; everything had been meticulously planned, so why not this as well? Mara grinned as she took her bags off the cart, and he did the same. The farmer nodded his farewell, and took off before they could say anything.

"I guess he didn't know Basic," Mara said, and Luke agreed.

The door was unlocked, and when Luke opened the door, he was stunned enough to be speechless. This wasn't the same place he and Mara had seen only a few months prior. There were flowers everywhere; on the mantelpiece, in the kitchen, in the anteroom, in the hallway, and Luke was sure it continued into the bedroom as well. The place was clean and well-lit, the lamps being either powered or burning light. The smell was of fresh air, perfumed with a hint of the flowers surrounding them.

"I can't believe they did this all for us," Mara said, amazed. It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. The gardens of Coruscant were nice, and the verdant lush of the most tropical planets were wonders to behold, but the care and detail she saw before her made those examples pale in comparison. This was no hotel room groomed to please them by paid servants; it was an expression of gratitude and love by the Shadoui, for the two people who'd freed them of the Scryth and its terror.

The bond was a wondrous thing for Luke, since he got to experience Mara's surprise and delight with his own. "I can't believe it either, but it would be rude of us not to accept this from them."

Mara nodded faintly, and turned to face him. His presence alone was enough to drive her to distraction, but the gaze he directed at her was all-encompassing of her attention. She let thoughts of Shadoui and Scryth trickle out of her mind, and filled it instead with the plans she had from before. "You're right. It would be rude, wouldn't it?" The slow smile was as telling as her mind, and Luke brought her into a close embrace as he shut the door, blocking their actions away from the outside world, and the diligent Noghri who guarded them.