And fire fell from the sky.
Great clouds of smoke rose above the trees, concealing the stars behind a hazy veil. Brilliant streaks of green light, descending from some unknown source above the smoke, cut swathes into the forests that surrounded the settlement, sparking new fires as old ones burned forth. Trees across the small moon were swallowed up by the inferno, each one serving as a conduit and passing on the deathly embers to other, healthy trees. The fires transformed the mighty forest from a shield that concealed the settlement below from outsiders into a burning wall that kept all within trapped. There would be no escape for its inhabitants, lest they try to navigate the wildfire blazing strong just beyond their homes.
There had been no warning of the Iridorian attack; there never was. Their Voracity-class frigates and Terror-7 gunboats could fly into a system unannounced, avoiding most traditional scanners and satellites, and begin razing the land below. Sometimes, they found true warriors to fight. Most of their targets, however, were small colonies like these, far from civilization and unable to defend themselves. It was at these places that the Iridorians satiated their desire for battle – their desire for blood.
Their prey was cornered. However, it was not enough to trap them with fire. These raiders used their gunboats to bombard the settlement's only spaceport, destroying what few low-altitude craft they had and totally preventing them from escaping their colony. If the Iridorians were merciful, they would have finished bombing them from low orbit, but the Iridorians were not, in any way, merciful.
Landing craft descended upon the colony shortly after the blaze began. Iridorians raced from their ships for a chance to begin killing their unarmed victims. Full-body heavy armor doubled as environmental suits in harsh conditions and served as a powerful defense against most standard forms of weaponry. The Iridorians' large helmets and square visors would have been a target for typical foes; against compound bows, hunting knives, and combat staves, they were practically invincible.
Jagged vibrating knives cut through the flesh of any settlers the Iridorians found. Most of the raiding warriors preferred the euphoric feeling of cutting open an enemy's chest and tearing at his innards with their clawed gloves and denied themselves the use any long-range weaponry. Those that did, though, were no less brutal. They were apt marksmen, scoring lethal headshots with their combat rifles. The sight of a subsonic slug shredding the brain and shattering the back of the skull was enough pleasure for the Iridorian gunmen.
The screams of the settlers were practically drowned out by the crackling of the fire around their colony. Even the guttural howls of the Iridorian warriors could scarcely be heard. Grown men who would have fought and died to defend their wives, parents, and children found their lungs invaded by the smoke around them, suffocating before they could even fight. Women who tried to flee with those unable to protect themselves were surrounded and cut to bloody pieces by Iridorian warriors, who proceeded to slaughter all who were with them as well. No matter their foe, their prey's blood tasted the same to them. It was the bitter taste of their crimson remains that fueled the Iridorian's strength as they continued their attack.
During the ensuing madness, a woman escaped her home with her young child, wrapping him in as many wet rags as she could find to shield him from the lingering smoke. Everything she had ever known was burning around her, crumbling into heaps of melted steel and dark ashes, and her friends and family were dying. The raiders – she had seen no offworlders before, and they could as well have been beasts from the forest or gods of war – were brutal, and they were skilled in their destructive arts. Using the methodical, almost perfectly crosshatched pattern of the streets to their advantage, the Iridorians rounded dozens of settlers into dead ends before slaughtering them all.
She saw these things happening around her, but there was a resolve in her that would not let her give up. They had not seen her; until then, she had hope. She had to hope, because her child had to live. She had left her husband behind in their housing unit. He had insisted on helping the infirm escape their confinement, and he forced her to leave. She cried the entire time, begging him to come with them, but he would not yield to her. A hushed apology and a quick kiss was his farewell, and then he was gone. They did not know the destruction was so rampant, and he had not told her where they would meet. But it did not matter; they would meet again.
The lump rose in her throat at the thought of losing him. Her eyes, already watering in the thick miasma around her, nearly let loose new rivulets of tears when she looked into the eyes of her son. She could not deny what her heart was whispering to her. There was a good chance neither she, her husband, nor her child would escape this. There was a chance they would all die. She shook her head. As long as she lived, she would ensure her only child survived this. He was her only hope.
Escaping the wide open streets, she slipped into an alleyway that contained a multitude of trash compacting units. The whole settlement seemed to be painted a deep red, and tongues of flames began to join the smoke along the roofs of their homes. Iridorians raced through the streets, some on all fours and others in a rapid march, cutting through the feeble opposition they encountered. She continued making her way beyond the large disposal units, hoping to reach a point where she could hide until the danger had passed.
Her son coughed inside his bundle of rags. He mumbled something unintelligible to her and gripped his mother's shoulder. Patting his back, she tried her best to expel the smoke from his lungs.
“Don't worry, my love. You'll be okay.”
“Where is daddy?”
She paused, finding herself short of breath. A few coughs did little good, and she only now realized how hard it was to breathe. Every breath she took caused her to inhale thick plumes of smoke, and it felt like her throat and lungs were actually on fire. She had reached the back of the alley now, and she stood before a wall twice as tall as she. There was no way to circumvent it, and she was in no condition to climb over it, even if she didn't have her child with her. Gripping the wall with her free hand, she tried to steady herself.
“I'm… I'm fine.” She coughed a loud cough. “Please… don't worry about me.”
Clutching her chest, she recovered what little strength she had left and regained her footing. She moved to take cover behind one of the trash compactors when she heard a clawing noise just beyond the wall in front of her. Blinking tears back into her eyes, she saw Iridorians trying to scale the wall from the other side, and they were just getting over the edge. She did her best to silent the screams that were welling up inside her. They could not stay here. Hiding would not work. Instead, she renewed her hold on her child and ran back the way she had come in, approaching the streets yet again.
Of course, she knew what was waiting for her there, but she had no choice. They were everywhere. Iridorian warriors patrolling the streets saw her emerge from the alley, and she practically tripped over herself trying to run away from them. None of these raiders had slugthrowers, so she was spared the horror of dying from their long-ranged weaponry. Her right foot struck shards of a bladed weapon as she fled from them, but the pain lasted only an instant. She gave no response, and she did not react to it at all. Only the bloody trail behind her proved – to herself and her pursuers – that she was wounded.
Their howls got louder and louder as she navigated through the empty streets. Her son's face was buried in her shoulder, and he was whimpering softly. He could see their pursuers and their faceless visors while she ran. No matter how far she went, they were always right behind her. She found no help, and it seemed that most of the other settlers were already gone. Bodies, or what was left of them, were scattered throughout the streets. The smell was enough to make her nauseous; she could not even force herself to look into their faces and try to recognize them.
Pain began flooding through her faculties. She had never been forced to run like she had now. She had never relied so heavily on adrenaline. Her eyes were dried out, reddened and sore. Her lungs spasmed against the smoke inside her body, and she took only short breaths when she required it. Even her foot, which she had ignored until now, began to tremble in agony like she had never experienced. At first, she lost feeling in her foot, but the numbness extended to her leg as well and began creeping up and around her body at an alarming rate.
She did her best to keep herself from dropping her son. With what strength she could muster, she placed him on a small stack of plasteel crates before collapsing near him. Her son called out to her, but she heard no words. The inside of her ears pulsated like a bomb had gone off near her, and her nose had shattered when she hit the ground.
This could not be the end. She had to escape. She had to get up. She had to… keep going.
Struggling to her feet, she ignored the blood pouring from her nose and stared at her son. His chilling blue eyes met hers, and it was in that moment she realized she had failed him. She could no longer protect him, nurture him, provide for him. Was her love so weak that it could overcome this pain? If he survived, he would be alone. Her heart could have shattered in that moment; her eyes could not even muster the tears she so desperately wanted to express.
She choked on her words. It was all she could say, in a hoarse and weak voice, before the Iridorians were upon her. One of them seized her by her curled brown hair, pulling her away from her child and into their midst. She heard his screams – they sounded so distant – for but a moment, and then she felt the cold metal of their daggers upon her throat.
One slice killed her, but their blades continued to tear into her flesh well after she had died.
It took several minutes for the raiders to finish their bloody handiwork. After they had stained their armor in intestines and blood, they cheered a brutal cheer. It was only after some time had passed that the lead warrior realized that the young boy was still there. For a second, the dazed Iridorians didn't know what to do with him; their bloodlust had so consumed them that they forgot their very purpose. Then, just as quickly, they recovered their wits and withdrew their blades yet again. The young boy made no sound. His voice had expired watching his mother die. His lifeless expression was like a corpse, and he was seconds away from joining his mother in death.
As the Iridorians took the final steps into the boy's midst, there was a buzzing sound in the distance. Before the leader of this troop could plunge his blade into his target, a gold blade of pure energy soared through the air and severed his entire body at the torso. The other raiders quickly turned to face this new threat, but they were already too late. Several more blades met their bodies at various locations, severing their arms, legs, and heads. The young boy made no effort to see who was attacking these murderers, but he also realized that these flying weapons were not attacking him. Shimmering blades of green, purple, blue, and yellow scythed through the smoke, killing raiders he could not even see from his seat. There were howls of pain in the distance, still barely audible above the crackling flame, but only for a short time. Soon, there was nothing but the solemn cry of the fire.
Blades stopped flying. From the depth of the smoke, several robed figures revealed themselves. Some of them looked like the young boy but were older; others were as alien as the raiders who had destroyed the settlement. Their actual ages varied; some were young like the boy's day caretakers, others were older like his parents, and some were older still. However, one thing united these peoples: they each carried the shining blades that had traveled through the air and killed all the murderous raiders. They were unknown to the boy, but they also meant him no immediate him.
“Master!” one of their voices called above the crackling embers. “Is that a survivor?”
“By the Force…”
The swordsmen were quickly upon him. They probed him with their eyes and with questions, cycling through what seemed to be different languages in an effort to communicate with him. The fact that anyone had survived the Iridorian attack was nothing short of a miracle. He was only a child; old enough to speak but young enough to not entirely grasp what was going on. No words reached the young boy. He ignored his apparent rescuers, refusing to meet their glances and keeping his eyes locked with his mother's. It was as though he could see her face there, where there was no longer one, and its beautiful eyes met his in an ethereal, timeless embrace.
“Do you understand me?” one of the taller swordsman asked. “Young man, do you know what I am saying?”
“What did he say?” another, this one a woman, asked.
“It sounds almost like the High Galactic word for mother,” yet another replied.
“That it does,” that same tall swordsman said. “It's a bit corrupted, though. As though the word was altered over a few generations.”
“Where is your mother?”
The boy said nothing. What was he thinking? His eyes would not escape his mother's damaged face. He was too young to truly comprehend the madness that had only just ended, but he understood that his mother was gone. He suspected his father was dead too. The gravity of this knowledge was lost upon him, but the terror was evident upon his features. His skin, pallid and cold, was unnatural for one surrounded by so much fire. His eyes were glazed over and reflected no emotion. Even his face, innocent as it should have been, was better suited on the dead.
He had never been weaker, more scared. The sadness inside him was entirely different. This was not a sadness like watching his family leave to work, nor was it the fright that the darkness brought every night. No, this was something utterly more heart-wrenching and twisted. What bothered him the most was that he simply could not cry.
“Master, he's… he's Force-sensitive.”
A swordsman with a blue sword turned to the younger one. “What? Are you sure?”
“Yes. I detected it ever so slightly just now, like a soft push against my mind. I think he is trying to figure out who we are, Master.”
The oldest of all the swordsmen knelt down near the boy. “Excuse me, lad. But where are your parents? Your mommy and daddy?”
He understood the question, if only barely. He pointed toward the Iridorian's handiwork.
“Ahh… I see. I'm sorry, lad.”
The other warriors said nothing for some time. The fires crackled beyond them, and the soft groans of dying Iridorians were heard only in short intervals. Watching the boy, none of them quite knew how to explain to the boy that he was alone. None of them knew how to apologize for the atrocity here. None of them could comfort the child who had just lost his mother. Their creed demanded that they forsake such attachments, and his emotions were wholly alien to them, just as they were to him.
“What is your name?” a female asked at long last.
The boy's eyes drifted toward her. He understood the idea behind this question, but he had no response for her. He was old enough, perhaps, to speak simply, walk, and communicate his needs, but he did not know what this 'name' was that she was referring to. Whatever it was, he did not have it. He did not know how to answer the question.
“Your name, boy, your name!” a large swordsman said.
He remained silent, pondering the question in his heart.
“Does he not have a name?” a swordsman with an alien figure asked his fellows.
“Let us take him to the Sanctum. I am not able to make any drastic decisions, but I am sure that the Jedi Council will be able to talk with the boy,” the swordsman with the gold sword said.
The other warriors nodded in agreement. While most of them traveled back into the smoke to secure some unseen objective, a few remained behind with the boy. They deactivated their shining weapons, believing that the absence of their weapons would put the boy at ease.
“My boy, it is not safe here. Would you like to come with us? We promise to keep you safe.”
The child stared back at the swordsman. They would take him away. He would not – could not – return to his home. He knew this, somehow, but he did not know how to express it. He had no reason to doubt the man before him was telling the truth, but at the same time, he was afraid. He had seen the unknown, and it had taken away his family. What made these mysterious figures any less harmful?
In the end, the boy only nodded. Whatever the reason, he would put his faith in these men and women. They had saved him, and they were his protectors now.
“Very well.” The eldest Jedi lightly gripped the boy's forehead. To his surprise, the boy made no motion; he didn't even flinch. “Rest easy now. You are safe…”
“What is your name, boy?”
The Sanctum was unlike anything the child had ever seen. It was a building much, much taller than any single house or business that had been built in his home. The city that encompassed the massive temple was certainly magnificent, breath-taking even, but the air traffic that zoomed through buildings and spires that reached into the skies above did not fill him with the same wonder that this place did. This place was different.
The pillars that held up the interior of this temple reached some unseen point high above him, disappearing into the shadows of the ceiling. Beautiful patterns of blue, gray, and white traced their way around the brown walls throughout the Sanctum, detailing some philosophical meaning or historical significance; he was too young to understand such things. Many swordsmen wandered the grand halls of this place, and he suspected that there were more here than stars in the sky.
Of course, it was not the architecture, the artwork, or the swordsmen – they called themselves Jedi – that truly enamored him. No, it was something else. Something nameless, something that he could not quite identify, but he knew was there. There was something in the air at this place that filled him with strength; it returned to him the hope he surrendered when he lost his family. It was powerful, it was comforting, and it was everywhere. It was almost as though his mother was watching him from some unseen place, giving him the vigor to keep standing.
It was not a surprise, then, that he found himself ignoring the demands of the Jedi before him. These mysterious feelings were simply too encompassing to ignore. There were a few Jedi in this place with him. With their hoods raised above their faces, he could not see much of them; even if he could, he would not be able to know who or what they were. Five of these Jedi sat on stone daises, and it was these Jedi that were questioning him. A few Jedi stood guard behind him, and the rest of the warriors lingered in this chamber, as if to listen to what the sitting Jedi would talk about.
“You understand me, boy, I know you do. What is your name?” one of the sitting Jedi asked again.
The Jedi who had taken him from his home had told him nothing. In an instant, he had left his home. He suspected he had been placed in a vehicle of some kind after the Jedi took him, but he never found out if he just dreamed it or not. In what seemed to be a few short hours, they had arrived at what seemed to be the Jedi's home. He did not know where exactly it was, but he knew it was very far away from his.
After being brought into these chambers by the company of Jedi who rescued him, one of the sitting Jedi had stood up and placed two fingers on the boy's forehead. Somehow, this allowed the hooded Jedi to understand him and the boy could grasp their words just as easily.
“Boy, do not make him ask again! What is your name?” one of the other Jedi commanded.
“I… I do not know,” he answered.
“Surely he is old enough to know his own name,” a sitting female Jedi mused.
“Do not play games with us, boy. Tell us your name.”
The child squirmed where he stood. He understood the Jedi he was talking to well enough, but he still had no idea what this 'name' was. Was it something he was supposed to have? Did he lose it? The Jedi seemed to expect him to possess one. He did not want to make them angry, but he had no answer for them.
“Mommy and daddy… they did not… I don't…”
“Peace. It is quite alright,” another sitting Jedi replied. “Tell us, do you know where you are?”
“I am… no.”
“This is the Jedi Sanctum on Coruscant, the galactic capital.” One of the Jedi removed a small chip from beneath his sleeve. Activating it somehow, a three-dimensional projection appeared before him, revealing a vast array of stars, suns, and planets in a great disk. Two planets lit up. “This is where you are now, and this… is where you were born.”
The boy was awed. There was life on other planets besides his own? Not only that, there seemed to be a great multitude of such planets! He stared at the map of space for some time, trying to convince himself that he was one of many living beings in a galaxy larger than he could have ever imagined. How distant and simple his home appeared, the second moon orbiting a massive planet in some cluster of stars so far away from the world they called Coruscant.
“Your world was not even a part of the Galactic Republic. I understand if this is alarming,” the Jedi said, returning the map to his sleeve. “We cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like for you.”
“I… this is a place is called Coruscant?”
“Yes,” one of the Jedi replied. “It is the center of galactic events. This is the most important planet of the galaxy.”
The most important planet of all. And he was on it. He couldn't help but smile.
“Boy, do you know of the Jedi Order?”
He shook his head.
“That is understandable. The Jedi are the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, and we defend the people of the Galactic Republic, and the galaxy at large, from harm. For our whole lives, we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge, harmony, and service to others. We…” The Jedi swept his arms around him. “We are all Jedi here.”
“We would like to take you into our Jedi Order,” one of the others admitted. “You must realize, boy, that this is a special gift, something that does not happen to just anyone. You are special. You have the power to become a Jedi Knight, to join our sacred order, and help protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
“Think,” another continued, “Every day, another planet in the farthest reaches of the Galactic Republic is attacked by raiders like the ones you have met. Like the ones who hurt the people you loved. We cannot save all those people who are attacked, but the more Jedi there are, the more people we can save. The more we can save people like you.”
The boy had to think for only a moment. He was special. The feeling gave him a pride that he had no recollection of. A willful delight in some accomplishment that he did not necessarily achieve. And yet, he didn't care about that. He still did not understand everything, but he did not need to. There was nothing to consider.
“I want to go home.”
The cloaked Jedi were silent for a moment. They were taken aback by his answer, clearly expecting him to join their Jedi Order when they first offered. It was generally the way of things; at least, for those who had heard of the Jedi and were old enough to decide. To be refused was not something the Jedi leaders had to deal with often.
They did not regard him for some time, talking to each other in hushed whispers that he would never make out. He felt uneasy standing in there presence, surrounded by Jedi who were no doubt eager to listen in and find out what they were going to do with him. There were so many strangers, and he did not know how to handle himself.
“That is… not possible,” one of the Jedi said at last.
“Your home has been destroyed,” another explained. “There is nothing left. You are the last survivor.”
“If we returned you there, you would not be able to defend yourself,” a third continued. “You would probably only become a victim for slavers or more raiders. You may not agree, but you would be safer here with us.”
The boy's head drooped. So it was true. He had accepted the Jedi's offer, and now he could never go home. On one hand, he had no reason to doubt that what they said was sincere. There was nothing left of his home – it had been destroyed by blade and flame. His family was dead, and so was everyone he knew. He was still very young. He could not live on his own.
These people, strangers though they were, were also eager to take him in. He did not know what this Jedi Order entailed, nor was he particularly interested in their complicated tenants. However, he knew that he would be safe here, and perhaps he could find someone who would not be a stranger to him.
He had to take that chance, slim as though it was. He would not refuse.
“Okay. I… I'll stay with you. I will become a Jedi.”
“Most excellent,” one of the sitting Jedi beamed. “I am glad you agreed to stay here.”
“Indeed.” Another nodded. “We shall look into finding you a master at once. After all, you have quite a bit of power within you, and it would be a shame to have to send you to Telos…”
“Ah, but the young boy needs a name. What shall we call you, boy?” the first Jedi asked.
“Why, yes,” the Jedi who had shown him the map earlier spoke. “Every sentient being needs a name so he can interact with others and be addressed as a thinking being. It seems that your parents either never gave you one or you do not understand the name they gave you; either way, this is fine with us. We shall give you a name, boy.”
And so he received his name.
“Get up, Malfon! Come on. You can't be done now!”
Malfon brushed the strands of his brown hair away from his eyes. The young man standing over him held his training staff as though he was afraid it would slip from his grip, clenching it until the veins were bulging from the back of his hand. Malfon had lost his own weapon. He had ended up on the ground, weaponless, and trapped in a corner. It was not the ideal position to be in during a sparring match.
There was a stinging sensation in his arm that begged him to stop. Training weapons could still inflict wounds if they struck with enough force, and Elbrook was quite eager to hit as hard as he could. The rest of Malfon's body joined in that silent chorus, requesting that he stop this fight and let Elbrook win the day – as he usually did. However, Malfon was determined to make this battle count. He would not go down so easily. Not today.
Elbrook's Aqualish and Gotal companions jeered as Malfon recovered his footing. He wobbled back and forth for a moment, trying to steady himself with his own strength and forsake the assistance that the wall behind him offered. The larger Human before him gave him the chance to recover; after all, beating Malfon while he was down was very little fun at all. If Elbrook was going to fight, he would have to allow his target to fight back first. Malfon silently thanked Elbrook for being so sporting as his strength returned to him in full.
“Pay attention, Elbrook! Here he comes!” the Aqualish shouted.
“I've got it. Don't worry!” the Human replied.
Malfon closed his eyes and called upon the Force around him. Jumping into its unseen power as one would the rapids of a river, he immersed himself in its omnipresent current and achieved a heightened sense of clarity and vigor. Its might was so much more than his own, and it gave him the spirit he needed to continue. With a quick mental nudge, Malfon snatched his training staff from the floor a few meters away and called it back into his hands; in seconds, he was armed and ready to fight again.
His staff snaked through the air, aiming for Elbrook's chest, but the larger Human blocked the incoming attack with ease. Malfon was not dissuaded. Repositioning himself, he tried again, and again, and again. Blow after blow was repelled by his opponent, and Malfon failed to land a hit. His attacks were staccato, separated like harsh breaths, and his ineffective offensive prevented him from gaining the upper hand in the duel.
Elbrook maneuvered away from an overhead swing and bounded over to Malfon's right side. Without a chance to dodge or reposition himself, Malfon was hit in the back by Elbrook's staff. The smaller Human let out a soft cry of pain as he fell over, delighting their alien audience. Elbrook chuckled softly to himself, evidently most pleased with his handiwork.
There was a lingering pain in Malfon's back, but he ignored it as best as he could. Standing, he gripped his weapon and faced Elbrook, determined to continue fighting. Elbrook grimaced at Malfon's steadfast endurance, quickly losing interest in the duel. With the encouragement of his companions, he decided to claim his victory now and stop delaying the inevitable. Elbrook moved in close before Malfon could react, swatting at his ribs and upper arm several times. Malfon clenched his chest in pain, practically inviting the follow-up strike to the face.
Malfon hit the ground in an instant. He gasped sporadically as his body tried to recover from the beating it took, and there was no way he was getting up again. Elbrook discarded his staff and walked by his friends, satisfied with his total victory.
“You two can finish up, if you want,” Elbrook called over his shoulder. “I have to catch Alel in the Room of a Thousand Fountains and… spar with her a bit. Meet me in the foyer later.”
“We'll do that, boss!”
“Have fun with Alel, sir!”
Malfon shuddered. This always happened. He knew he could not beat Elbrook Naldrafos. Elbrook was a giant compared to the other Jedi Padawans in the Sanctum, and he was the strongest lightsaber duelist who had yet to be achieve knighthood. Nonetheless, Malfon sought to challenge himself, and Elbrook was all to eager to oblige him. Perhaps, just as Malfon could not deny a chance to improve himself, Elbrook received some joy by beating Malfon senseless every few days.
However, it was the ensuing attacks by Elbrook's companions, Gilith and Rogos, that wounded his body and pride the most. Even compared to Malfon, they were average Force-sensitive students at best. If not for Elbrook's friendship, it was likely they would have kept to themselves and struggled to pass their master's lessons. However, Elbrook encouraged them to find other uses for their time – like testing their combat skills against Malfon after he was already beaten.
Most days, Malfon just took the abuse. There was no point in fighting back; in his weakened state, deprived of strength and too tired to call upon the Force, he could just lie still and endure their kicks and taunts. Sometimes, at their request, he would stand up and put up a vain attempt at defense, only to get knocked over again. Every time he fell over, the attacks increased in ferocity. He suspected that the two Jedi enjoyed the entirety of the situation, but knocking him to the ground in particular.
Of course, those were not the worst days. Losing to Elbrook had become a tradition. Being pummeled by his friends afterward only slightly bruised the remainder of his pride. No, it was the days when other Jedi stumbled into the training room that hurt him the most. Trying to help Gilith and Rogos come up with a suitable explanation was tantamount to betraying himself. After all, if Malfon did not ensure that it was just a misunderstanding of the situation, he couldn't duel Elbrook anymore.
But there was always some Jedi he could not fool. When they came around, those days were the worst.
“What's going on here?”
Malfon had taken a particularly sharp kick to the abdomen when Jedi Knight Rell Hernaster entered the training chambers. Of course, it took the two Padawans a moment before they realized that someone else was watching them.
As soon as they realized they were being watched by Malfon's master, Gilith and Rogos scooped him up and propped him on his feet. Making himself known, the older Jedi stood with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. His receding hairline seemed to be as eager to escape his ferocious gaze as the Jedi Padawans before him, and the various wrinkles lining his face made it evident that he rarely found reason to smile. Physically, he was as well-built as Elbrook despite being nearly three decades older than the Jedi Padawan, and that terrified Malfon and the others.
“Oh, Master Hernaster. We didn't see you!” The Gotal's stubby horns vibrated, agitated and frightened as he was.
“When did you arrive?” the Aqualish warbled with his tusks. “Weren't you on a mission for-”
“You didn't answer my question. Either tell me what is going on, or leave. Now.”
Malfon stepped forward. “Master, these Padawans and I-”
“Be silent. I was asking them.”
Elbrook's two companions dipped their heads in reverence – and fear – and left the training room in silence. Rell eyed them the entire time, perhaps suspecting that they would turn around and admit to him exactly what was going on. Neither of them returned. Once he was sure they were gone, he returned his attention to Malfon, who had already returned the training weapons to their bins.
“Come with me,” he ordered.
Malfon bowed his head. “Master.”
And so he followed his master through the halls in silence. It was a strange thing. Malfon had been rescued by the Jedi Order from his dying settlement some eleven years ago, and every time he walked through the Jedi Sanctum, it appeared different somehow. Of course, the building itself never changed. They were the same walls, the same murals, and the same rooms. However, even as the Jedi came and went through this vast temple, there seemed to be something that would come and go with each of them. As if a piece of the Sanctum itself was tied to the Jedi who resided in it.
He only hoped he would prove worthy enough to leave pieces of himself here.
“What happened, Malfon?”
His master's question caught him by surprise. What was he supposed to say? Surely he knew what had happened, or else he would not have sent the two Padawans away so quickly. Lying would be useless, and yet the truth was shameful.
“I… I'm sorry, Master.”
Rell stopped walking and spun to face Malfon. “Answer me.”
“We were in a training match.”
“That did not seem to be training or a match of any sort.”
“I was dueling with Elbrook-”
“And yet he wasn't there. Interesting.”
“His friends. His friends continued the battle in his stead.”
“It seemed very little like a battle and more like a beating.”
“I suppose you could put it that way, Master.”
Rell huffed. Without another word, he turned his back to Malfon and continued walking through the empty halls of the Jedi Sanctum. Malfon sighed to himself and followed his master with as much haste as he could muster. Of course, his body was still agonizing from the staff blows and kicks that he had received, making it difficult to keep any sort of pace at all. Despite his body's protests, he did his best. He refused to disappoint his master twice in a single day.
Passing a few Jedi and bidding them greetings or safe travels, Malfon hoped to distract himself as much as he was able. Perhaps if a Jedi Knight or Master delayed him with a brief conversation, he could use it as an excuse to explain to Rell why he had lingered so. It was a useless venture; no one wanted to speak with him for very long.
The two Jedi met in Rell's chambers. After closing the doors behind them with a wave of his hand, Rell bid his Padawan to sit in the center of the room, a few centimeters from the actual meditation mat. The room was small and quite bare, like almost all the other rooms in the Jedi Temple, so he and his master were not very far from each other at all. Malfon positioned himself in a meditative pose and listened for Rell's instructions.
“The Jedi Code.” Rell stood at the opposite end of his chambers, facing a window that gazed toward the Coruscant skyline. “Recite it.”
“There is no emotion, there is peace… there is no ignorance, there is knowledge. There is no passion, there is serenity. There is no chaos, there is harmony. There is no death, there is the Force.”
“Tell me, where in the Code does it say to be servile to those who seek to oppress you? To grovel and beg like a fool when faced by a superior enemy?”
“A Jedi is not a weak victim… he is a champion of the Force! He is a warrior. He is a defender. If a Jedi is all these things, what does that make you?”
“Master, I only desired to test my skills against them. I had no intention of being bested.”
“And yet you let them do so. Where is your will? Why don't you fight back?”
Malfon hesitated. That single moment was all Rell needed to act, and he seized the Padawan by his robes, pulling him off the ground with Force-imbued strength. Malfon made no attempt to resist, despite the fact his initial sitting position would have made grappling difficult. The two were face-to-face, and every terrifying feature of Rell's anger was visible now. If he was not a Jedi, there was a very good chance he would have destroyed Malfon then and there.
And yet Malfon said nothing, and he showed no fear. This apathy only angered his master, and he dropped Malfon to the floor. To Rell's obvious disgust, Malfon let himself fall over instead of recovering his footing.
“Get up.” He kicked his Padawan with his heel. “Stand.”
“My body still aches from the battle, master…”
“Wounds you obtained in your weakness. The pain will stop as soon as you stand. Do it.”
Rell kicked his student again, this time much harder, in the ribs. Malfon was surprised nothing broke, and he felt the wind get knocked from him. This time he let out a gasp, and his master nodded solemnly, determined to get through to his student. Malfon knew the pain would stop the moment he stood up; it was a simple task, and it was a simple lesson. If he showed any sort of resistance, then he would never be attacked like he had been again.
But he just couldn't. He couldn't stand. He had been training himself to endure this, even when the pain became so horrendous he wanted to pass out. His master did not understand. Without Elbrook and the others, he received no lightsaber training. He never had a chance to test his capabilities in the Force. He could not analyze opponents, and he could not learn how other Force-sensitives fought. Without Elbrook and the others, Malfon had no one to talk to. No one wanted to talk to the one without a name. Not even his own master.
And so he remained on the ground. After some time, the kicking stopped. Rell sneered just loud enough for him to hear and returned to his place by the window. How hopeless Malfon must have appeared. His student understood his rage, but he could not appease it. He could only hope to earn his master's forgiveness for this.
“Leave me,” he ordered.
Malfon recovered and left his master's presence as soon as he was able. Once he was gone, however, he realized that he lingered outside of Rell's chambers for some time. Beyond all sense, he hoped that, perhaps, his master might call him back in. He wanted his master to apologize for his severity and try to understand him. There was still a chance for him to remedy his past actions and explain to Malfon his reasoning. His knew his master could still sense him, waiting outside his chamber doors. But no such call came. Biting his lip, Malfon turned from his master's room and hobbled away from the dormitories.
At first, he was undecided on where he should go. Further training was out of the question, in spite of the plentiful lightsaber dueling and Force acrobatics classes available. Food was being served in the cafeteria for the hour, but he had lost his appetite some time ago. Holovid lessons on the Great Hyperspace War did not appeal to him, so he decided to venture to his usual place.
After some difficulty, he made his way to the library at the farthest corner of the Sanctum. He spent time here as often as he was able. It was a haven within a haven for him. Malfon had never seen so many books, and the fact that the Jedi apparently had even larger libraries seemed impossible to him. Just as he forced himself to endure combat with Elbrook and the others to increase his fighting skills, he used his free time to journey to the library and further his mental faculties.
Very few Jedi visited this place. Most Jedi used their spare time to meditate, socialize, or venture around Coruscant. After spending many hours in this place, he finally recognized a few faces, as difficult as remembering them was for him. He enjoyed knowing that there were familiar Jedi even though they never spoke to him. It put his mind at ease.
Heading straight for the terminal in the circular corridor that stood between him and countless shelves of tomes, scrolls, and datapads, Malfon browsed the library catalog for anything of interest. He was so enraptured by the selection of titles that he didn't even notice one of the Jedi in the library approach him from behind.
“What makes a Jedi?” she asked.
The hair on the back of Malfon's neck jumped before he did. Turning around, Malfon realized that the Jedi Knight Kreia was speaking to him, her hands steepled in a sort of meditative pose. She appeared like a noblewoman; not necessarily in her dress, which matched his own simple robes, but in the way she carried herself. She had a devious smile on her face, and he could just barely see the whites of her eyes beneath her hood because of the way she cocked her head back. Examining her for a moment, he realized he had never seen skin so pale. She could have been the ghost that haunted the library with her presence.
“Master Kreia…” he paused, realizing he had no way of knowing if it was her first or last name. “I didn't… I didn't see you there.”
“Do not worry, Padawan. I know the books have a tendency to draw our minds from this place.”
“You could say that. Can I help you with something, Master?” Malfon asked.
She shook her head, letting some of her blonde hair escape the confines of her hood. “I was simply curious if you had an answer to my question.”
“What makes a Jedi?” Malfon repeated. “Why, anyone who follows the Jedi Code and carries a lightsaber is a Jedi, of course.”
“Of course?” Kreia seemed intrigued by his answer. “You speak with such confidence. Tell me, if a Jedi was stripped of his lightsaber, would he still be a Jedi? If the Jedi Code was lost for a thousand years, would the Jedi remain?”
Malfon paused for a moment. “The lightsaber is the weapon of the Jedi Order, and each member must follow the Code. Without either, how could the Jedi Order exist? I do not understand your question.”
This time, it seemed Kreia took a moment to ponder his response. “As you wish. I'll ask you again after you've given it some thought.”
“As you say, Master.”
“May the Force be with you.”
And so she left, just as quickly as she had arrived. Malfon stared at her for some time, bemused by her sudden inquiry and quite unsure if his answer had satisfied her. He had never spoken to her before, and she certainly had a strange way of meeting new people. He wondered if she made it a habit of asking Padawans strange questions, or if she wanted his opinion in particular.
After she had disappeared from view, he began to doubt the answer he had given her. He had been so certain of it, but now his mind chided him for it. Something about his response just seemed lacking. Perhaps it was a trick question. Malfon made a mental note to consider the problem later and returned to his business.
He found the location of the title he was looking for without any new interruptions. Leaving the empty entryway behind, Malfon ventured forth into the countless rows of books before him. These shelves always inspired a sort of awe in him; standing at least three heads taller than him, they held enough knowledge to piece together the whole history of the Galactic Republic, a good deal of its member-worlds, and recount the lives of several famous individuals on just a few of these shelves. The entirety of the library had more information than he could possibly fathom.
After walking by quite a few rows, Malfon found himself in the back of the library. It was on these last few shelves that particularly noteworthy pieces of fiction from across the galaxy were stored, preserved thousands of years after the culture – not to mention the author – that constructed them was gone. Pulling a small datapad copy of an ancient tome from the fourth row at his right, Malfon took a seat on the ground nearby and began skimming the tale.
It had been so long he had nearly forgotten, but the more he read, the more it came back to him. The young king who was captured by an enemy nation and tricked into fighting his own people. The woman he loved was a general for that same nation. Their servants and advisers trying to control them, to divide them, and ultimately to lift themselves above their masters. It was a long work – some three hundred selections – but Malfon was determined to finish it. He needed to know what happened.
While he read, another Jedi wandered by the set of shelves he sat between. This other Jedi was young, with unkempt robes that had hints of sweat marks and a shaggy mess of white hair that practically covered his eyes. He didn't even realize Malfon was there at first, walking by the shelves while he searched for something. The other Jedi actually backpedaled to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him – there was, in fact, someone here in this section of the library.
“Would you like a chair, Master?”
Malfon glanced up from his book. “I'm not a master; I'm just a Padawan.”
“Ah. My mistake. I just figured…”
“It's fine.” Malfon returned to his reading. “Am I not allowed to sit here, then?”
“Oh, it's quite all right. I just, well, I've never seen anyone browse the fiction section. Besides myself. That's all.”
“Well, you know. Jedi Masters aren't very interested in fantasy and tales wrought of the mind. I can't blame them, but they do miss out on quite excellent stories. Isn't the mind amazing?”
Malfon smiled. “That it is.”
The other Jedi slapped his head dramatically. “Gah! Where are my manners? My name is Northeus Ulsan, but you can call me North.”
“Malfon.” He shook North's extended hand and put his book away. “I didn't see any chairs walking in here. Where are they hiding them?”
“Oh, on the second floor. Where no one would think to look.”
“Would you mind showing me?” Malfon asked, gesturing forward.
“Ah, yes. Follow me.”
Malfon followed the younger Jedi from the fiction section without a word. On one hand, he was rather disappointed that he wouldn't have a chance to continue his tale; on the other hand, he was shocked to discover that there was another Jedi Padawan his own age in this place and wanted to get to know him. If his words were any indication, North knew the library almost as well – no, better – than Malfon did. The fact that he had never seen this Padawan here was surprising. Perhaps he was new, or maybe he had transferred here from some other enclave? It would not be unheard of; the last war had cost the Jedi many masters, sending Padawans across the galaxy in search of teachers.
North said nothing while they walked, passing rows upon rows of silent books, leaving Malfon's thoughts to wander for some time.
“So, who is your master?” North asked as they climbed the stairs to the second floor.
“Rell Hernaster,” Malfon replied. “You?”
“Well… strictly speaking, I am the Padawan of Guun Han Saresh.”
“Strictly speaking? What does that mean?”
“Well, he was called off on a mission for the Jedi Council several years ago. He has yet to return; while the Jedi Council has not declared that he and his companions are dead, I am unfortunately without an actual master.”
“Wouldn't the Council provide you with a new one? It's been a long time, hasn't it?”
“Not long enough that they will tell me he's become one with the Force. Until then, though, I have received a few interim masters. Generally, they're busy and away on missions.”
“Leaving you free to peruse the library,” Malfon concluded.
“Exactly.” North pointed toward the chairs and desks near the windows at the farthest end of the second floor and continued walking. “So it's not all bad.”
“No, I suppose not. But aren't you afraid you won't get the training you need?”
“A little. That's okay, though. I'm not a very good Jedi.”
“That's not true. You can't be a bad Jedi,” Malfon said.
“Can't you? Well, I much prefer spending time with this place than fighting with lightsabers or tapping into the Force, anyway. It seems like a more worthwhile pursuit of my time.”
Malfon was about to say something, but he stopped himself. He didn't understand North's reasoning. The Jedi Order defended the Republic and spent their lives in service to others. Surely that was a higher calling than any sort of learning that North acquired here. He could not exactly condemn him; Malfon was guilty of spending more time here than properly training. He realized that any sort of training would be difficult without a master, and he silently conceded to North's point.
The two Jedi arrived at the chairs in silence. North sat down first, and Malfon took a seat closer to the glimmering windows nearby. Malfon found his eyes drawn to the cityscape just beyond the Sanctum's walls, admiring the complexity of the air traffic and the design of the spires in the distance. North had no such view, and he fiddled with his hands rather awkwardly for some time before an idea dawned upon him.
“Are you a good lightsaber duelist, Malfon?” he asked.
Malfon glanced at the other Jedi. “Not particularly. I train often, but I don't think I'm getting any better.”
“Oh. Well. What about the Force?”
“About as impressive as my lightsaber skills.”
“So why do you come here, then? Shouldn't you be spending more time out there?”
“I could ask you the same thing, I think.”
“Well, you have a master to train you. I'm just wasting time.”
“My… my master does not enjoy the training process,” Malfon admitted. “It makes learning difficult. I have to find my own teachers.”
“Oh. Well, do you have sparring partners?” North asked, as if pressing his initial, unvoiced question.
“I see. Well, I wouldn't normally ask this of other Padawans, but would you mind… teaching me?”
“Teach you? To fight?”
“Yes. My skills are rather sub par. I can hardly bear to show up to the lightsaber exercises run by the Jedi Masters because I embarrass myself.”
Malfon smirked. “That bad, huh?”
“It's not pretty at all,” North agreed.
“Like I said, I am not exactly the best Jedi to teach you how to use a lightsaber-”
“I don't need the best. I just need a teacher.”
“I'd be happy to teach you what I know,” Malfon said. “Although, quite honestly, I'm worried you'll pass me rather quickly.”
North laughed. “That's not likely. You haven't seen me handle a weapon before. There's a reason I spend all my time here, Malfon.”
“Because you like history?”
“It's a deal, then.” Malfon clasped North's shoulder. “First lesson tomorrow at dawn?”
“Dawn is rather early for me. How about noon?” North countered.
Malfon laughed. “Very well. Noon it is.”
Three staff strikes, then four. Malfon's weapon struck at North's defense, threatening each of his shoulders in blindingly fast intervals. To North's credit, Malfon had not managed to score a hit yet. The white-haired Jedi fought with the skill of a youngling, but Malfon could see that his errors were not crippling. In fact, it seemed as though he struggled with doubt and unfamiliarity more than anything.
Malfon had learned all he could from Elbrook, memorizing his fighting style and beneficial quirks over nearly a hundred battles. It was these things that he tried to impart to North. Their first few lessons had consisted of combat basics: stance, carrying the weapon, simple velocities, and blaster bolt deflection. North learned quickly. They moved to actual sparring drills, where North proved an able defender and a mediocre attacker. He was not the best combatant Malfon had ever seen, but he would improve. He was sure of it.
Their staves met in a lock some centimeters from North's face. Applying some force to his weapon, Malfon allowed their two weapons to drift closer and closer to his target. North fought back with all of his might, huffing and straining as he tried to push Malfon and his staff away. His frazzled hair was drenched in sweat, sending droplets into his face and across his arms as he shook. Even though he looked like a mess, his dark eyes stared up at Malfon, just barely visible underneath the interlaced locks of hair.
Malfon pushed down on North's weapon, sending the other Padawan on one knee. His strength was impressive for someone who had little previous physical training. However, his arms were still quavering from the strain and the rest of his body was trembling in kind. Malfon could feel his grip weakening. It was only a matter of seconds until he disarmed North and won the duel.
The two Jedi Padawans turned to face Rell Hernaster, who was standing at the edge of the training circle. Malfon was first to yield his place in the staff-lock, turning to face his grizzled master. North was a moment too late, and he failed to recover from Malfon's sudden absence. Stumbling to the ground, it took him an extra moment for him to stand up and incline his head to the Jedi Knight.
“Master?” they asked in unison.
“I was not talking to you, Northeus,” Rell replied.
North visibly flinched at the remark. Embarrassed, he turned to leave before Malfon could bid his farewell. With the other Padawan gone, Malfon was left alone with his master. Despite their familiarity, it was not a position he enjoyed being in. It was in these situations that the worst of both of them was revealed. Yet diligence demanded he respect the one who had chosen to train him in the ways of the Jedi.
“The Jedi Council has given us a mission,” Rell said pointedly as he turned to leave.
“A mission?” The word nearly got caught in Malfon's throat. “When? Where?”
“Here on Coruscant. Right now.” Rell continued his walk through the Sanctum, keeping track of his Padawan's position with the Force instead of his eyes. “I'm not sure who elected us for the mission, but they were foolish to do so.”
“You're not ready for a mission,” Rell snapped. “You need more training.”
Malfon's gaze met the ground. His own master did not trust in his skills. Since Rell had picked him as a Padawan, Malfon had been improving his skills. He obeyed his master as much as was possible, and he tried his best to please him, yet Rell had no faith in him. There was no pleasing him. Malfon needed a chance to prove himself to his master, and even if Rell disproved, he would not forsake this opportunity.
Malfon had not been outside the Jedi Sanctum since he was brought to this place, and he wanted to see Coruscant. More than that, he wanted to use his powers to help others. Even if questioning Rell was out of the question, this was the first chance he had to escape the status of a trainee and become a true Jedi. He had to win his graces, and the graces of those Jedi who had selected him for this mission. They deserved that much.
“Did you tell the Council that?” Malfon asked after some time.
“Keep your snide remarks to yourself,” Rell growled.
“I only meant-”
“Yes. I told them that. They told me that every Jedi needs a chance to grow beyond the Sanctum.”
“You can't hide your elation from me.”
Malfon reddened. “I… I don't mean to-”
Rell entered the small hangar bay that doubled as a communication center for the Jedi Order with Malfon in tow. Since the last war, they had little use for warships and had considered decommissioning their starfighters; however, the Jedi Council elected to preserve them, if only to use for transport around Coruscant itself. The Jedi Knight boarded the Vanya-class courier and bid his Padawan to follow. The hulking ship proved difficult to start, no doubt in part due to its age, and Rell swore under his breath the entire time he tried to start it. After some struggle and a call to the Jedi technicians in the hangar, Rell managed to start their courier vessel and they were off, joining the traffic above Coruscant's skyline.
“Sir, here come the Jedi.”
“All right, everyone. Keep it calm. I don't need any trouble with Senior Command.”
“But nothing. They're here to help.”
The two Jedi heard the Coruscant Security personnel even though they whispered as quietly as they could. Even amidst the traffic soaring overhead and the wail of the electronic advertisements, their Jedi senses were unencumbered.
This lower district was much different than the parts of Coruscant Malfon had seen; gone were the white towers, the synchronized air traffic, the quaint shops, and the bustling streets. Coruscant's sunlight barely reached down here, and it was plagued with a near-perpetual darkness. Glowpanels illuminated some areas with splotches of light, mired with fetid water and all sorts of dying matter and useless debris, and Malfon wished they hadn't. The smell down here was like the stench of the Sanctum's trash compactor when it was damaged, but it seemed to stem from everything. Everything down here seemed wasteful and sick, as though the planet was slowly decomposing from the inside out.
As instructed, Malfon had pulled his hood over his head as he followed Rell to meet with the officers across the street. During the ride to this quadrant of Coruscant, his master had explained that Coruscant Security had mixed feelings about the Jedi. On one hand, younger officers and idealistic veterans of the force understood that the Jedi were their most prominent allies on Coruscant. On the other, cynical rookies and those in Senior Command considered the Jedi a nuisance at best.
“Don't antagonize them, don't question them, and let me speak for us,” Rell reminded him as they took the last few steps toward the officers.
“Of course, Master.”
Of the four officers assembled, only the oldest of them bothered to face the Jedi when they arrived. A Human male about fifteen standard years older than Malfon, he had dark hair and olive-colored skin. He wore the fanciful blue uniform of Coruscant Security that resembled the dress uniform of the Republic Army, but he had a white breastplate to defend himself on duty. The officer had something of a frown on his face, and he was clearly not happy with these arrangements.
“Detective Indos Nyre, Coruscant Security,” he introduced himself.
“I am Rell Hernaster, Jedi Knight of the Republic. This is my apprentice, Malfon.”
“A pleasure to meet you both,” the officer said, keying in some values on a datapad.
“What seems to be the problem here, Detective?” Rell asked.
“Besides you?” one of Nyre's men muttered.
“Stuff it, Lieutenant,” the detective growled. Turning to face the Jedi, he explained: “We were called here to investigate the report of a rather grisly suicide. This area has been nasty of late, so we were sent out immediately. As we investigated the scene, we couldn't find any witnesses. Turns out, there were several deaths that went unreported. At least six dead, all with similar injuries.”
“Where did this occur?” Rell interrupted.
“In that apartment over there.” A Chadra-fan officer pointed. “It's all but abandoned now, but it used to have some four dozen tenants. Shame, really. Nice apartments.”
“I'd like to investigate the crime scene,” Rell said simply.
“Impossible. We already cleared the bodies and sent them to forensics,” the detective replied.
“Yeah, besides, do you think you could do better than us, Jedi?” the lieutenant, a Bothan, growled.
Rell frowned. “I did not imply that. However, I do want to see the situation for myself.”
“We already have a lead we'd like you to help us investigate,” Detective Nyre explained. “From initial scans, it seemed like a suicide – spice overdose, specifically, with some general bodily mutilation. It seems as though each victim was involved in a brief scuffle with… something before they ultimately expired.”
“We think it's homicide,” the Chadra-fan noted.
“And you said you have leads?” Rell asked.
“From what our crime scene investigators could tell us, it is likely that the suspected killer made his way through the apartment complex, traveling floor-by-floor, and picked out specific targets-”
“Minimal. Male and female, different careers, income, marital statuses, ages, species,” the Bothan answered.
“But you said specific targets,” Malfon spoke up.
“Aye. After killing some of them with a forcible spice overdose, we think our suspect left other tenants alive, but we can find no link between them all. It seems random. The survivors abandoned the building, leaving it empty until the landlord came to collect some debts. He was the one who reported the suicide,” Detective Nyre said.
“So what's your lead?” Rell pressed.
The detective pointed toward a decrepit building several blocks away. “We've received numerous reports from undercover agents that something is going on in that building. We cannot say for sure, but we believe that one of the tenants is dealing in potent spices that could easily incapacitate and kill your average sentient in large doses.”
“We did a little fact-checking, and it turns out this spice-killing is not an isolated event. Over the past three months, several instances have been reported, all centered around this area,” the last officer, a female Cathar, noted.
“Now we have a warrant, and we're going to investigate,” the Chadra-fan added. “If the spices being made in that place match the ones found in the victims' bodies, we could very well have our killer.”
“Are you certain? There could be other spice smugglers,” Malfon replied.
“Too rare,” the Cathar noted. “We've never quite seen a strain like this before. Of all the quadrants on Coruscant, this seems to be the place where it's been originating.”
“You want us to assist you, then?” Rell asked, glancing at the building in question.
“It would be much appreciated.” Detective Nyre said. “This area is known for being problematic. With Jedi around, I'd feel a lot safer.”
“We'll do the best we can to assist you.”
The Coruscant Security officers replaced their blasters and vibroblades and left the side of the street where they had gathered. They decided it would be safer, if not faster, to travel by foot. Rell made no objection, so he led Malfon to follow the line of police. It was only a few blocks to the building anyway, and it would not take very long at all.
Malfon allowed the details of the case to sift through his mind. Killing with spice was certainly not subtle, nor was it entirely foolproof. Unless the perpetrator had been present the entire time, he risked the patient recovering from the harmful substance. Even what seemed to be lethal overdoses could be recovered from, medically unlikely though it was. That presented a chance that witnesses had seen or heard the deed. With all the tenants the killer had not killed, it seemed strange to Malfon that no one came to the police sooner.
Perhaps the killer had friends within the building? Other tenants could have been in on the killings. However, Coruscant Security noted that there was a very tenuous link, if any, between the victims. Such targeted killings generally had a larger motive. Without seeing the crime scene for himself, it would be difficult to determine any such motive or the precise method the killer used, but Coruscant Security deemed it unimportant. Strange. He was not suspicious of their actions, but he disagreed with how they were handling the operation. He thought they should have allowed the Jedi to at least examine the scene of the crime before they pursued this lead.
“Come here,” Rell whispered to his apprentice.
“Be cautious. There is more at hand here than it seems.”
“Do you suppose Coruscant Security is involved?” Malfon asked in a hushed voice.
“Shh.” Rell waved his hand to keep quiet as they took a few steps away from the officers. “No. They are not, but this spice-killer… he or she left those other tenants alive for a reason.”
“Just what I was thinking, Master. Do you think they were accomplices?”
“That is a possibility. Or perhaps he wanted to be tracked down. For now, just be mindful of the Force and follow my orders. We'll carry this through to the end.”
The Jedi caught up to the Coruscant Security officers after they finished their discussion. The four officers had already crossed the garden and courtyard which no doubt once served as a suitable entrance to the building they were targeting. The garden had long since fallen into disarray, choked to death by weeds that continued to grow longer and longer with each passing year. The courtyard, too, was in as much disarray as this whole district; ruptured water pipes visible from beneath the ground and overturned stones made travel dangerous. Malfon had no idea what sort of people would willingly choose to live in this place.
The Jedi followed the law enforcement agents and met them at the stairway that led up to the apartment itself. The four officers had their blasters drawn, and they were scanning the perimeter in utmost silence.
“What's the plan?” Rell whispered upon approach.
“We'll all head inside. Once we've secured the lobby and ensured that there is no resistance, I'll send two of my men to investigate the lower two floors while you and your apprentice investigate the other two. One of my officers and I will hold our position in the lobby to ensure we aren't flanked and the suspect doesn't escape,” Detective Nyre explained.
“If the suspect is inside,” Malfon noted.
“Of course. Are you ready, Jedi?”
Rell and Malfon nodded.
The four officers led the way, blasters at the ready, while the two Jedi trailed behind them. Malfon thought it was strange that the police wanted to go in first, but he said nothing. It was their prerogative to do as they wished, but he couldn't help but think they would be safer if the Jedi led the charge. The Bothan leaned against the wall adjacent to the door and – on the count of three – tackled the door open. His allies immediately ran inside to scan for hostiles, and Rell followed suit, blue lightsaber active. Malfon withdrew his vibrosword and ran in seconds later.
The lobby itself was abandoned, just like the exterior of the apartment complex. The attendant's desk had been broken in two, as if by some giant bladed weapon, and the elevator seemed to have fallen into disrepair. There was no light at all, but the shoulder-mounted lamps that the Coruscant Security officers wore illuminated most of their surroundings. The entire room was dusty and there was a tang in the air, as though the last fumigation had been only hours before.
The four officers made a circle in the center of the room, each facing one of its corners and searching for hostiles. Each step they took seemed to echo in the darkness, as though they were racing along grating. Rell reached into the Force, scanning for hostiles and other sentients. Malfon was nowhere near as capable as his master, but he did his best to imitate him.
“I've got movement!” the Cathar officer hissed.
“Hands up! Coruscant Security!” the Bothan shouted.
Every blaster pointed toward the wall she was facing, and the two Jedi turned in that direction as well. Just as they were about to fire, a GD-series protocol droid emerged from the darkness, ambling forth in a clumsy sort of gait that was instantly recognized by the officers. With a skeletal appearance and lanky arms barely strong enough to lift drinking glasses, the harmless protocol droid couldn't pose a threat even if its programming told it to.
“Oh… oh my!” the droid spoke in a feminine tone. “Visitors. How odd.”
“Droid, give us your make and specification,” Rell ordered.
“H-8J5-GD. I have been placed here by Master Regerapium to handle affairs in the lobby. In the event of visitors, I am to initiate Zerek Protocol.”
Detective Nyre frowned. “Droid, what is the Zere-”
He was cut off by an explosion. Rell wheeled around just in time to see the elevator erupt into flames, spewing forth chunks of superheated metal. The officers managed to get out of the way, and Rell erected a shield to defend himself and his Padawan. The droid activated some sort of self-destruct program and sent the remains of its own circuitry flying in every direction. Before the officers and the Jedi could adjust or react to the explosions, the unnoticed ventilation panels on the floor around them shifted open, releasing a thick stream of dark gas from the depths of the building.
“A trap?” the Bothan lieutenant asked.
“Let's get out of here!” Detective Nyre shouted.
Before they could head for the door, the Chadra-fan officer collapsed. The other three officers turned to help him up, but the gas acted too quickly. In such an enclosed area without any exposure to the outside, there was no way for clean air to reach them. Rell tried to calm himself and use the Force as sustenance, but explosions continued to shake the building, disrupting his concentration. Malfon raced for the door, hoping to let in some air from outside.
One by one, the officers fell over, incapacitated by the effects of the potent gas. Malfon stumbled over himself and hit the ground a few seconds later, less than a meter from the door. Rell managed to stay standing for a bit longer due to his connection to the Force; however, he could not remain conscious and move at the same time, rendering him as helpless as his companions.
A few minutes after the gas had been released, an individual who had hid during the explosions emerged from the staircase at the opposite end of the room. Standing about as tall as Rell, he was an insectoid with apian features and transparent wings barely visible from the front. His thorax was incredibly bulky, as though fitted with some sort of internal armor beneath his golden hide. What was most strange, though, were the blades that seemed to be grafted onto his arms.
This strange insectoid moved to investigate the victims of his gas attack, his arms twitching in what seemed to be excitement. However, any plans he had were cut off when he realized Rell was still standing. He must have thought that Rell was somehow immune to the toxins in the gas, because he fled the moment he saw the standing Jedi and didn't put up a fight. Smashing the door open with the back of his bladed weapons, he raced into the darkness without looking back.
Malfon was still partly conscious, drifting between the empty blackness of the unconscious and his dazed perception of reality. Somehow, whether by his Jedi training or sheer luck, he was not totally crippled by the gas he was breathing in. Pushing upward on his entire body, Malfon managed to struggle into an upright position and saw their insectoid culprit fleeing in the distance from his place by the door.
“Stay… here,” Rell ordered between gritted teeth. “Wait… for reinforcements. Contacting Jedi… now.”
Malfon jumped, not realizing his master was still conscious. “Master, if we don't do something, he'll get away!”
“Revived you… to help me… wake the others… don't do anything rash.”
“But the murderer-!”
Malfon stared outside. He could still just barely see the one who had tried to gas them all, but it wouldn't be long before he disappeared in the shadows of the buildings. Glancing at his master, he suspected that Rell was trying to contact the Jedi in the Sanctum for help and keep them both from collapsing at the same time. If his master didn't have to worry about him, then Rell could focus on staying conscious and calling for help. There was no point forcing him to overexert himself. Rell would be fine, but if Malfon didn't act now, their killer would get away. The Coruscant Security officers admitted that this was their only lead. He could not let this criminal flee from justice.
“I'll be back, Master! I'm sorry!” Malfon shouted.
And then he was gone. In an instant, the insectoid's base of operations was behind him, as were his master and their allies. Rell had forcibly expelled most of the toxins from Malfon's body via the Force, and the lingering traces were quickly overcome by the foul-tasting, if healthy, air of Coruscant's lower level. A few passers-by and vagrants shouted at him as he raced across the streets, nearly crashing into a few on accident. Malfon's strength was quick to return to him. His target had a lengthy head-start, but he was a Jedi. As long as he could see his target, he could chase him.
As though he suspected that he would be followed, the insectoid sentient eschewed the main streets he had been frequenting and escaped into the countless alleyways of the quadrant. Malfon refused to give up the chase, avoiding parked swoop bikes and overturned trash canisters where he could. When his target flew over walls or fluttered to an alley some meters away, Malfon matched him by using the Force to jump the same distance. The Force, binding him and the entire galaxy together, gave him the power he needed to keep up the chase. The Force had aided him so far; it had gave him strength in times of hardship, and now it would be the very thing that would carry him to victory over this criminal. He was certain of this.
Malfon began closing the distance between himself and his target. They were about ten meters apart now, which was a vast improvement since the start of the chase. His target was getting tired; he could tell. The insectoid flew over traffic and weaved his way through small crowds of pedestrians in an effort to avoid his pursuer, but Malfon was persistent. He would not lose him. He stayed as close as possible, dodging civilians and debris so as not to alarm anyone or slow himself down.
The insect seemed to realize that there was no way he was going to lose Malfon, and he jumped into one of the sewage tunnels in the middle of the street that had been forcibly opened. Malfon hesitated only for a moment. Peeling off his dark cloak, Malfon leapt into the hole. The drop itself was less than two meters, and his feet hit the dried earth with a soft thud. To his surprise, his target had been waiting for him to descend. The hulking apian stood before Malfon and released a grenade in his face. The explosive did not fragment; instead, it released a thick fume of red-orange gas that clouded Malfon's vision and caused his entire body to go numb. In mere seconds, he was on the ground.
There was a paralysis. He could not feel his body, everything was dark, and he was not even sure he was still conscious. Then, his sight returned to him. His nose and his forehead were bleeding, inhibiting his already clouded vision. His breathing was louder than normal at first, as though it echoing inside his head. His heart thumped against his chest louder and louder until he thought it would burst out, but no such thing happened.
“The numbness is painful at first,” a voice said. “It lasts about four minutes, and then your body's strength will return.”
Sure enough, Malfon could feel his arms and legs again. He struggled to his feet, with some difficulty, only to fall over again when eight golden eyes, each one larger than him, stared back at him from the darkness of the sewers. He had only been inside this place for a moment before he was attacked, but he was sure he would have noticed something that large. Eight mighty limbs emerged from the shadows around him, clothed in minute hairs. Then eight more. And more and more. Soon there were enough tendrils to completely surround him. Malfon tried to scream, but he found that he could not. A gaping maw opened up underneath the eyes, lined with glistening teeth and coated in some sort of acidic waste. The tendrils grabbed at his feet and pulled him toward the mouth. He tried to struggle, but his body was still so weak and whatever was attacking him was too powerful.
He was lifted off the ground and hoisted into the air. Raised like some sort of morsel above the giant monster's mouth, Malfon prepared for the worst. He had no chance. He thought of nothing. He gave in as he felt the monster's tendrils give way and release him to his death.
But nothing happened.
When his eyes opened, he was lying on the ground just below the entrance to the sewer tunnels. He was perspiring heavily, and his breathing was erratic. Glancing around, he saw no trace of the insect he had chased here, nor did he see the monster that had nearly devoured him. Sighing, he moved to wipe the sweat from his face. It was only while he was doing so that he realized that his hands had changed. He shouted when he saw that both of his arms were covered with necrotic scabs and bulbous growth and had claws befitting a ferocious lupine. What was going on?
He tried to return to his feet, only to realize that he did not have feet anymore. The rotting stumps that attached to his pelvis left the legs of his Jedi robes dangling in front of him. He shook his head. This was impossible. He had to be dreaming. He had to have slipped during the fall. Without thinking, he started scratching at the dying growth on his arm with his clawed fingers. Every time his nails met his skin, there was a painful sensation, but no blood. Scabs tore open and puss spewed forth around his limb, but there was no other obvious sign of self-harm.
He saw his vibroblade on the ground. He was certain that blade was strong enough to remove the foreign matter from his arm. Snatching the blade, he was about to cut off his whole arm when he realized that this was madness. He couldn't just slice his own body to pieces. Something was going on. Blinking a few times as if to awake from an unknown sleep, he was relieved to see that his body was back to normal. His vision was acting up, but at least his body was fine.
“Weak. Weak and stupid.”
Malfon spun around. He realized, only a few seconds later, that he was facing his master. The Jedi Knight was scowling more than he had ever seen the Jedi Knight scowl before, and his lightsaber was activated in his hand. At his left, Elbrook revealed himself from the shadows. At his right, North approached.
“He deserves every beating he gets,” Elbrook noted.
“A fool. Doesn't even deserve to be a Jedi,” North said.
“Failure. He's too weak to protect anyone,” another voice said behind him.
“Pathetic. Can't he overcome his own weakness?” someone else asked.
“Stand up, weakling!”
“When are you going to give up, nameless freak?”
And then, she appeared. Her face was familiar. Familiar, yes, but something was eerie about it. It had the vestige of a being long dead, but the smile gave it the loving care of a close friend. She had curled hair which had long since faded into gray, and she had wrinkles across her face that moved with her smile.
And then she frowned.
“I don't know you. He's not my son.”
Malfon's eyes widened. Something in his mind scraped at the inside of his head, as though someone was bringing a scalpel across it while he was conscious. The ringing sound that followed threatened to rupture the insides of his ears, and his eyes bounced back and forth in a flurry. He was certain that he was going to die. The pain in his head caused his whole body to shake. Falling to his knees, Malfon clenched his chest and heaved. The first time didn't help, so he vomited a few times more. It didn't help; in fact, it only made him feel worse.
Raising his head for a moment, he saw something else. Through the men and women that surrounded him, through the children who jeered and laughed at him, and through the brutal raiders that stood at the edge of his vision, he could see the silhouette of something. Someone. In the horizon, he could just barely see the insectoid who had disappeared from his vision and his mind since the grenade went off.
“You!” Malfon tried to shout at him, but it was more of a pained groan than anything.
“You can see me? Interesting. That means the spice has not rendered you totally helpless.”
“Who… who are you?”
“I… I am… Regerapium.”
Malfon groaned as he tried to get to his feet. “Let me… clarify. What are you?”
“Nevoota. We were a proud species. I was a faithful servant of my queen mother, a larva for a time but destined to be a guard and a taskmaster. Then the Mandalorians, beings of armor and mask, came to my homeworld. The Nevoota are no more now, annihilated entirely by the war-bringers. We fought, but they fought with a hideous strength.”
“And you survived?”
“My brood leader sent me from my home to this place. This great world of machine and warm-bloods. I have discovered that the masked people destroyed all of mine. So now, I, last of the Nevoota, will have my revenge on those who brought death from the stars.”
“The Mandalorians… are not here. Why are you doing this?”
“Old man sold me concoction. Tells me it is a spice formula created from dangerous insect. I approve of this. He tells me that the spice has fatal hallucinogenic effects on mammalian species. Mandalorians mammalian, so I agree to buy it. However, this world has made me realize my superiority to your peoples. There is so much filth, destruction, and waste here. I will not stop at Mandalorians. Expand to all warm-bloods on this planet.”
Malfon shuddered. Now it made sense. Even in his clouded mind, he pieced his situation. When the insect activated his grenade, he made Malfon inhale a powerful hallucinogenic. What he was seeing, what he was experiencing, it wasn't real. All of these things were just the effects of a powerful spice. Granted, these hallucinations were so vivid and terrifying, they might as well have been real. The pain both without and within his body, too, was nearly unbearable. But if Malfon could just concentrate on this Regerapium, he could recover his strength and overcome the effects of the drug. He was a Jedi, and no biological weapon was going to overpower him.
Malfon tried to use all of his strength to stand, but the hallucinations around him lost their humanoid shapes and took on terrifying appearances that violated geometric and physical sense and pushed him back down. As though he had entered some haunted realm, the distorted and disfigured faces that stared back at him were monstrous to behold, and some of them were so foreign they looked more bizarre than the alien faces he had seen. Somehow, these falsehoods were stronger than he was, and they managed to pin him to the ground in spite of his best efforts. Regerapium noticed Malfon's attempts, and he carefully approached the immobilized Jedi.
“You are strong. Stronger than most mammalians. Would be pleased to fight you in actual combat, but I am no longer interested in that. Instead, I will leave you here to suffer and… eventually die while I escape. Goodbye.”
Malfon watched as the Nevoota turned from him and headed deeper into the sewage tunnels. He was going to get away. Malfon's vision was fading quickly, and the shape of the tunnel began twisting and distorting around him. Everything appeared in two or threes in his mind, as if the afterimages of motion blurred behind the hallucinations every time they moved. What had once been headaches now became what he could only describe as violent migraines, and the screeching sound in his ears was practically unbearable.
That criminal was getting away, and there was nothing Malfon could do. The knowledge weighed heavily on him, even in his disoriented and spice-induced stupor. As soon as his mind failed him, he would be helpless to stop him. If he could not control his own body, his entire mission would be for naught. He had already disobeyed his master's orders; if he failed now, he would be entirely useless. His only chance to impress Rell was doomed.
With the knowledge of his present weakness, Malfon knew what he had to do. If he wanted to stop the murderer, he had to tap into all of his power. He had to use all of his emotions to free himself. His resolution, his anger, his fears, his hopes. Everything within him would become tinder for his inner strength. Taking deep, slow breaths, Malfon could feel his mind recovering bits of its natural vivacity. He could feel it fighting back. What's more, he recognized the anger rising up inside him, the indignation that increased with every step the criminal took. He would soon be strong enough to take that fury and release it in a form of tangible energy. In the same way he could twist the fabric of space into a telekinetic burst at his behest, he would release some furious power with his new strength. And then, the murderous insect would die and he would be safe.
Before he could finish preparing his attack, a group of Jedi leapt into the sewage tunnels, lightsabers at the ready. At first, Malfon thought they were an illusion, just like the rest of the people he had seen since arriving here, but they quickly proved themselves to be quite real. One of them released a blast of blinding white light from his fingers, illuminating the entire tunnel in shimmering yellow. Others charged forth, seeing – and apparently sensing – the Nevoota further on. An older female Jedi stayed behind and released a searing aura of brilliant energy, dissipating the illusions around Malfon and throwing him to the ground. At first, it felt as though he had been hit by a high pressure blast of scalding water, but the pain subsided after some time.
“Master! We incapacitated the target. We tried to convince him to surrender, but he killed himself with the weapons embedded in his flesh,” one of the Jedi reported.
“I see. That's a shame. Does he have any accomplices?” the female Jedi Master asked.
“None that we know of.”
“Very well. How is Hernaster?”
“Rell survived and is already on the shuttle.”
“Very good. One of you, lift this young man onto the stretcher. We're getting out of here.”
Malfon recovered quickly after he returned to the Jedi Sanctum. The spice he inhaled, while usually lethal to mammalian sentients and non-sentinets alike, did not contain very complex toxins. The Jedi healers stationed in the infirmary were more than capable at removing the dangerous spice from his body and speed up the healing process. Although his vision was a bit weaker than he would have liked for the first few days and his body was bruised and quite numb for several more thereafter, he was grateful to be alive.
During his time in the hospital, he dwelt on the events that had transpired in the Coruscant's poor quadrant. He had directly refused a command from his master, and that foolishness nearly cost him his life. He wanted to impress Rell, that was true, but at what cost? In the end, his dire actions probably made the Jedi Knight angrier with him. At this point, that was something he couldn't bear to think about.
The insectoid was a tougher opponent than Malfon had expected, even though he was not a Force-sensitive. He had underestimated him, to his folly. However, that was not the worst of it. Not only had he failed to defend himself against a weaker foe, he had allowed himself to give in to his emotions. He was moments away from unleashing the terror that every Jedi feared: the tempting power of the dark side. He had been warned of its power since he was a young boy, but he never actually feared it. He had no reason to. Now, he noticed just how seductive it could be. He did not even realize that he had almost given in to the dark side until after his fight was long over, and it was only the timely intervention of the other Jedi that saved him.
“Padawan Malfon?” a nurse called from the hall.
“Yes?” he answered, regarding the nurse with a slight nod.
“The Jedi Council would like to know if you are well enough to stand and walk.”
“I… I think so. I haven't tried, really. My body feels better, though.”
The Zabrak nurse walked in and examined the readings on the medical displays around Malfon and then examined him personally. After a few moments of silence, she shook her head. “Not yet. I'll give you a day or two more, then you should be fine. I'll inform the Council.”
“Thank you,” Malfon replied.
“Of course. The Jedi Council will wait for your report. Do try and get some rest.”