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Chapter 10

Malfon steepled his hands and rested his chin atop them. The small Jedi transport they were in rocked to and fro as it traveled through the atmosphere beyond, but he took the shaking in stride. The young Jedi had learned much since that mission to save the passengers aboard the Anointed Heart, nearly ten years ago. And, of the many lessons, he realized just how little spaceflight bothered him. Their vessel could have been involved in a vicious dogfight, and he would have paid it no mind. Such was his confidence in the preserving power of the Force.

At twenty-five, Malfon was still a Padawan, but he was no longer the young Jedi he was under Rell Hernaster's care. The features in his face were more stolid now, but even behind the short beard he wore and the creases he was developing, he could not hide the youthful vigor still present. His dark hair was longer than it had been, nearly passing the edges of his cloak's collar and entirely covering his ears. On more than one occasion, he had been mistaken for a vagrant, but such a mistake was quickly remedied by his noticeable Jedi apparel and otherwise noble demeanor.

On the other hand, Avaran Whell looked no different than the day he and Malfon had met. The younger of the pair often joked about how surprised he was to see that Avaran was still alive to train him, much to the Jedi Master's chagrin. In fact, Malfon had no idea how old Avaran was—and he never dared ask—but the old Jedi seemed to be well over one hundred standard years. Even the oldest members of the Jedi Council seemed foolish teenagers by comparison. Everything about Avaran Whell awed Malfon. He only hoped to achieve the same caliber and strength when he was so old.

“Are you prepared, Malfon?” Avaran sat across from his Padawan. “We set down in five minutes.”

“I am well-rested and have my lightsaber, Master,” Malfon replied, “but my stomach rumbles. Perhaps we could stop for a bite to eat before we begin?”

The old Jedi sighed to himself. “No jokes today, Malfon. This is most urgent. When his master died, Celsus Djan warned the Council that raider attacks were becoming more and more frequent along the frontier, but his warnings were unheeded—as hazards often are. Now, a village here will pay the price.”

“What happened?”

“What is happening,” his master corrected. “A small village on this distant world is under attack by numerous raiders. The settlers here have no contact with the outside world, nor were they prepared for such an attack. It is by the will of the Force that the Jedi Council detected the raiders' malice and sent us here when they did.”

“Has the attack started?”

“Indeed. The moment we land, we will be engaged in battle. Are you prepared, Malfon?”

“I was born ready.”

The ship rocked more violently than before. A sharp hissing noise was heard coming from beneath the ship's deck, but the two Jedi paid it no mind. A few rounds of laser fire were traded in the distance before everything around them was silent again.

“We took a few hits,” the co-pilot drawled. “Should be able to maintain altitude, but we can't promise nothin'. It may be better if you two made an emergency drop.”

“Here we go,” Malfon said.

“After you.”

The rear doors of the transport opened slowly, but at the speed their transport was traveling and their distance above the ground, the wind rushed inside the ship and whipped around them in a frenzy. Their long cloaks and loose-fitting robes were thrown about, making it difficult to see at times. However, what Malfon did see caused him to pause.

This was chaos on a scale like he had never seen. The entire village beneath them, from the respectable towers made of stone to the smaller houses made of wood, was alight. Smoke rose up in vast columns, staining the sky an inky black and blotting out the sun in the distance. A few smaller ships, no doubt manned by raiders, soared through the collage of reds and grays, but they were more eager to shoot down innocents in the streets than fire on a single Jedi transport. Far below them, streets had been torn apart, shattered by bombs and torn up by vicious machines. Signs were vandalized, trees and greenery were burning with the homes around them, and debris littered the whole area.

In the madness, armored warriors wandered through the streets. Something about them looked familiar, as though objects of a mortifying nightmare that Malfon had experienced many times. With flat, opaque visors that reflected the fire colors around them and armor that was clearly designed for brutal warfare, these raiders became something more than mortal to the villagers they chased. With hooked cleavers, massive axes, and accurate blaster weapons, these raiders became fear itself. Not a single villager was safe.

Blood stained the streets below and limbs from the dead were visible even in the mess caused by the raiding force. Killing did not appease them. Only destruction on such a catastrophic scale could possibly curb their violence. The very thought made Malfon retch. Screams could be heard in the distance, but only barely. The crackling of fire and the roars of the raiders deafened the two Jedi to almost all else.

Malfon felt his skin burn from the heat. Smoke welled up in his nostrils, and his eyes watered as they passed over houses falling to the ground. There was familiarity to this scene; something about the pandemonium he witnessed in the village below that tore apart his peace at the seams. Rage screamed within his chest, begging to be unleashed on the sadistic raiders below. Every Jedi teaching he knew scrambled to provide him with mental fortitude, but it wasn't enough. Another laser shot rocked the ship, and—in spite of Avaran's attempt to catch him—Malfon found himself falling headlong toward the chaos below.

The blue lightsaber he always carried found its way into his hand. Landing in the midst of a pack of raiders searching for a new victim, his arrival immobilized them all. They were not used to seeing anyone fight back against them; they picked their targets to ensure that no one could. Malfon smiled in spite of himself. This close, their facial features could vaguely be discerned. Something about the terror that the mere sight of a lightsaber burned into their eyes gave Malfon courage. They were not stronger than him. They had no great power that allowed them to butcher as they did. They were opportunistic, but they were cowards.

The lightsaber that had once been Rell Hernaster's weapon danced in the crowd of armored warriors. Weapons were cut in two, three, and four pieces. Limbs were cut in just as many, until the entire company of raiders was on the ground. Each one was chopped up, defenseless, and incapable of complex movement. Not dead, perhaps, but living on would be a painful endeavor. Without stopping to eye the violence, Malfon moved on into another crowd of raiders. And then another. And then another.

His lightsaber traveled through the thick smoke and burning flames of the villages, incapacitating entire groups of these raiding creatures and saving several villagers in the process. Some of them, the older men and women especially, thanked him in tears. Others were too speechless to comprehend what had happened. Still others ran, fearing that Malfon would turn his blade on them. Theirs was an understandable fear, and one that snapped Malfon out of rage-induced brutality. What was he doing? Why was he being violent for violence's sake? Collecting himself as he traveled between raiders and survivors, Malfon did his best to efficiently and quickly end the threat that the enemy posed without causing unnecessary harm.

It was some time before Malfon ran into Avaran on the battlefield. The older Jedi did not have his lightsaber drawn, but he was as vigilant as his Padawan: no raider would catch him unaware, and he would leap into action should the moment decide it. As the two approached at what was once likely a busy intersection near the center of town, the two Jedi spotted a young woman being pursued by several quicker raiders, all of them armed with heavy melee weapons. Malfon dashed toward her and her pursuers, but Avaran grabbed hold of his arm and held him back.

“Hold, Malfon! Hold!”

“That woman is going to die!” Malfon shouted. “Let me go, Master!”

“She's already dead. So many in this place are already dead, Malfon! And yet, they still cling to life. There is so little hope for any of them; they are caught in a limbo—no better dead than alive.”

To emphasize his point, the woman was caught by the raiders. The blades of several dozen armored foes, each practically feral from the bloodlust, fell upon her. They were merciless. In mere seconds, she was nothing more than dark blood and torn pieces of flesh on the streets. Malfon allowed himself to look away, fearing that he would cry for the raiders' latest victim.

“How can you say that?” he said in a harsh whisper. “I've already saved so many, Master, and they are escaping this place now!”

“But to live after such atrocity… is such a thing worth it? Wives without husbands, husbands without wives, and children without parents. Friends lost friends, families with no homes, and all material belongings destroyed. A village ransacked and memories etched with terror. Is that living, Malfon?”

“What are you saying, Master? That no one here ought to live through this tragedy?”

“That is precisely what I'm saying. All dead in the end, but some clinging to the last breaths of life! Let their fates be one, may they be united in death, and let theirs be an example to the Jedi and the galaxy why we cannot let these raiders continue this madness.”

“No.”

“Malfon?”

“Their lives are their own—let them decide what to do with it.”

“The raiders control their destinies now.”

“No! I will… save them!”

He wretched himself away from his master's grip. In an instant, his lightsaber severed the hands of several of the dead woman's attackers. A cacophony of growls rose up from among them, but most of them were too ecstatic from their recent kill to care. Their lives were inconsequential in comparison to the euphoria killing brought to them. Malfon hacked away at their legs, their thighs, and their shoulders until their mangled bodies were lying around the woman they had killed. Some of them still reveled in the death they had wrought, daring to cheer and gloat in their native tongue. Malfon turned from them, but Avaran approached, lightsaber in hand.

“And you don't even relieve them of the misery you bring.” Avaran's silver blade cut across the necks of several raiders. “Allowing them to relish in their masochism is essentially rewarding their efforts. You ought to put them down like the animals they are.”

“They live to reflect and to ponder,” Malfon countered. “Pain is a powerful deterrent.”

“Not when pleasure and pain are so intricately linked. These savages mingle the two—there is no differentiation in their feeble minds. You are wasting your time.”

“Arguing here, yes. I have to go save others.”

Disregarding his master's shouts, Malfon charged forth into the fiery chaos around him. The armored foes he sought were less in number now, and more spread out. There were fewer villagers as well; some of the raiders had begun killing their own just to appease their madness. The more enemies he wounded, the weaker he became. His vision burned with reds and yellows, and he started to cry, no matter how hard he tried to stop—whether from the burning smoke or from passion, he had no idea. Gasping, his chest ached, and his breathing was more labored with every step he took. Sweat dripped down from his hair, landing on his face, the sleeves of his robes, and just underneath the back of his neck. He could still hear the screams of the helpless, but there were less of them now. So many dead.

A man ran across his field of vision with a heavy bag, being chased by a small group of raiders with swords. The Force alerted him to another raider on the roof of a nearby building, taking aim at the man in an effort to aid his brethren. Activating the green lightsaber he had created so long ago, Malfon threw both of his weapons at the man's pursuers and he moved toward the roof to take down the shooter. As the two shimmering blades cut through the air, the startled gunman on the roof fired prematurely. Without any sort of weapon to defend the man with, Malfon called upon the Force to slow time and leapt into the path of the sharpshooter's slug.

He was too weak to redirect the shot with the Force, and he could not reach the man himself in time. This was the only way. Time, slowed by his own design, seemed to freeze when the slug made contact with his body. The tiny metal projectile tore through the thin robes he wore and exploded on impact, sending shrapnel flying through his torso. The pain was immense, beyond anything Malfon had ever felt, and he lost all control of the Force in that moment. Time sped forth in the blink of an eye. His lightsaber scythed the entire company of pursuing raiders, cutting them at the knees and sending them into the streets. Malfon shouted in pain as the slug's momentum seemed to deplete, and he hit the ground in agony.

Malfon saw the man he protected run into an alleyway, safe from the sharpshooter's vision and—hopefully—other raiders. With a smile on his face, the Jedi Padawan had only a moment to try and reposition himself on the burning street before pain racked his entire body and he passed out.

*** ***

“… Malfon.”

Malfon's eyes fluttered open. He noticed immediately that he could not move and that he was no longer in the dying village. After several failed attempts, his mind reestablished dominance over his wounded body and he shifted his head toward the sound of his master's voice. Avaran Whell was standing nearby, eying a pair of medical panels intently as the Jedi transport rumbled around him.

“You're alive,” Avaran said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah,” Malfon grumbled. “Feels like a Trandoshan went and body-slammed me, though.”

“You are lucky to be here. The doctors said that if the slug had been a few centimeters lower, not even the most venerable of all Jedi healers could have saved your life.”

“Did… did they survive?”

Avaran scoffed. “The villagers?”

“The villagers.”

“A few dozen of them survived. The rest died before the raiders fled. Two of the survivors—a husband and wife who lost their child, as I recall—were doctors. They operated on you prior to departure.”

“That's good…” Malfon mused. “And that man?”

“The one you didn't know?” Avaran growled. “The one you nearly died trying to save?”

“You sound displeased,” Malfon noted.

“Why would you risk your life for some fool?” his master asked. “He was a dead man, and-”

“Did he survive?” Malfon asked again.

“And yet… he managed to escape and survive.”

Malfon smiled. “That's good. It means that I didn't suffer for nothing.”

“Foolish.” Avaran left the medical displays and arrived at the opposite wall. “Do you think he would have done the same for you? Would you have done that for everyone there?”

“It doesn't matter what he would have done, Master. It's our job as Jedi Knights to make hard choices. If I had a thousand lives to lay down, I would have given them all to save them.”

“You sound as masochistic as those Iridorian brutes.”

“And you're too cynical. They were not lost. And if we did nothing…”

“The survivors are being escorted to the Coruscant refugee district. They'll be crowded into a makeshift hovel with aliens they have never seen and be forced to cry, beg, and fight for the rest of their lives. Most will probably become infected by disease, suffer from lack of sanitation or nutrition, or die during pointless infighting. And if we did nothing, they would be dead alongside their kinsmen, united in death.”

“Nonetheless, they are alive. They will command their own lives now.”

“Poverty and suffering are their masters.”

“Kinder than death, Master.”

“You have learned so little…” Avaran shook his head. “We've almost returned to Coruscant. Rest until then. We shall report to the Jedi Council once you've recovered.”

“Yes, Master.”

*** ***

Avaran and Malfon parted ways shortly after they had debriefed the Jedi Council. From what little he could sense, Malfon could tell his master was seething. The Council, in their wisdom and prudence, agreed with Malfon's course of action and saving of the survivors. Although Avaran said nothing, the glare in his eyes and veins that were slightly more pronounced than usual were indicative of his master's unexpressed anger. Unable to truly discern his master's hidden thoughts, Malfon left him and went about his own business.

With some difficulty, Malfon pulled himself into his hoverchair. As Avaran had explained to him, the slug had not been fatal, but it still hurt. Malfon would be confined to this chair for several weeks, and he would not return to full strength for a few months thereafter. Even kolto and Jedi healers would do little to accelerate the healing process. Malfon smiled ruefully. No more missions for the time being, it seemed.

“Malfon! What happened to you?”

North sprinted toward his friend with a look of abject horror on his face. Like Malfon, North was still a Jedi Padawan, but he too had matured since the day they had met, all those years ago. With flowing white hair that was tied in a ponytail halfway down his back, a youthful face that seemed to radiate with life, and standing quite tall for the average Human, North was no longer a holobook fanatic who hid away in the Jedi Sanctum's library. Granted, he still enjoyed studying alone than he did spending time with others—much to the disappointment of the older female Padawans in their midst. At the rate he learned, Malfon was convinced Northeus Ulsan would become a better Jedi than he one day.

“Me? I was lonely,” Malfon paused dramatically, waving his arms about, “and a slug took a liking to me.”

“You're in a hoverchair, and you're making jokes?” North was fuming. “Damn it, Malfon, what happened?”

“Like I said-”

“Seriously.”

“I had to jump between a gunman and his target. My lightsabers were preoccupied, you see, and the target would have died had I not intervened.”

“You couldn't have pushed him out of the way?”

The older Padawan flashed a roguish grin. “Nope. Not showy enough.”

“Malfon.”

“I was trying my best to guide my lightsabers through the air toward his pursuers. I was exhausted. I wasn't thinking clearly. If I had diverted my attention for a second, I would have missed them and been cut down by those same pursuers.”

North stomped his foot several times. Malfon had come to associate the impulse with anger that North couldn't verbally express. His face contorted like a kinrath pup, much to Malfon's amusement. Shaking his head, North turned away and seemed to storm off, only to decide against it. Shifting on one foot, he approached Malfon and bent over so the two were face-to-face.

“Why are you so reckless?” North asked with a heavy sigh.

“Why are you so concerned?” Malfon retorted. “You're not my mother or my master.”

“Your mother isn't here, last I checked, and your master would probably want you to jump into blaster fire with a smile on your face.”

“That's not nice.”

“He hasn't exactly put a stop to your foolishness.”

This time, Malfon shook his head. Activating the small engines on his hoverchair, Malfon drifted by North, eliciting a quiet string of profanity from his acquaintance, and headed toward the Room of a Thousand Fountains. Obviously brushed off, North intended, yet again, to leave Malfon and return to his studies. He must have expected Malfon to at least say something before they departed, because he joined Malfon in his walk—in silence—before long.

“You worry too much,” Malfon said after some time. “Don't you trust in the Force?”

“Of course I do,” North replied evenly. “I just don't trust in your judgment.”

“My master does. You should too.”

“I just wish you could complete one mission without giving me reason to worry.”

“That's up to you, isn't it?”

“In a way, I suppose-”

“Malfon! North!”

The two Jedi Padawans sensed Raystin Benax before they heard him. Turning around, they saw the Jedi Knight waving to them from a hallway near the sparring center. Malfon smiled. Raystin's arrival postponed their discussion for the time being. Without a word, Malfon and North moved to join him, with Malfon taking a bit more time due to the awkward controls of his hoverchair.

If Malfon and North had grown from children to young men, Raystin had only become a more learned and stronger adult. Unlike in years past, he spent little time on Coruscant, and could ill-afford to waste time simply talking and training with his Padawan friends. It was as though his life had become one long mission for the Jedi Council, comprised of smaller missions, that never seemed to end. It was beginning to show in his features as well: his fair skin was darker now, he was a bit more muscular now than he was as a Padawan, and his robes were frayed from years of constant use. He was not quite a different person, but he looked like one to Malfon.

Oddly, in the ten years since he had become a Jedi Knight, he had yet to take a Padawan of his own. While none of the Council nor the Jedi Masters said anything, they were quite perturbed by his refusal to take a pupil. According to him, he was still a student in the ways of the Force and the path of the Jedi, and could not see himself training another so soon. Of course, since he was one of the most masterful lightsaber duelists and powerful Force users of the postbellum generation, no one shared his sentiment.

“What happened, Malfon?” Raystin asked.

“Took a slug to the chest.”

“Ouch. I'm sorry to hear that. How's recovery look?”

“A few months, give or take,” Malfon replied. “It's not so bad, but the hoverchair's going to be the death of me, I know it.”

“I hope not. You have a long way to go yet.” Raystin laughed. “You staying safe, North?”

“I'm not about to nearly get myself killed, if that's what you're asking.”

“More or less.”

“Are you preparing for a mission, Raystin?” Malfon asked.

Raystin shook his head. “Just finished one, actually. However, now I have to go and fetch some Jedi in the frontier and bring them back to Coruscant.”

“Oh?” North looked puzzled. “Did they get stuck out there?”

“You could say that,” Raystin replied. “I've got a few hours to myself, though. I'd ask you two for a quick match, but since Malfon is confined to a hoverchair…”

Malfon faked offense. “I could still beat you, Raystin.”

The Jedi Knight shook his head. “Chess, then?”

“I was hoping we could avoid a chess match,” North muttered with a sigh.

“Let's go, then!” Malfon shouted. “I'll defeat you both even in a hoverchair!”

*** ***

Malfon could display as much gusto and confidence before a challenge, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Raystin played three matches with Malfon and three matches with North. He won all six with ease, once again establishing himself as the champion. Despite North's insistence they find a new game, both Jedi Padawans knew that Raystin would trounce them soundly at that game too. Such was the way of things. Raystin was the best, and no one could argue against that.

Since his days fighting Elbrook and his companions in the Jedi Sanctum as a youngling, Malfon had a impetuous spirit. He wanted to become better and better than those he faced, if only to improve his own skill and satisfy his desire for perfection. However, he had no qualms being in the shadow of a Jedi Knight as skilled as Raystin was, nor did he find shame in losing to him. His decade-long losing streak did little to dampen that belief. He could not best him, but then, neither could anyone else. And he was content with his own abilities for now.

Raystin departed after their matches, bidding farewell to the two Jedi Padawans and Coruscant. North was in poor spirits after losing to Raystin, so he said goodbye to Malfon and went into his chamber to study. Once again, Malfon found himself alone in the Jedi Sanctum. It was the first time in a long time that he did not have missions to attend, lessons to learn, or people to interact with. In fact, the overwhelming loneliness forced him to head to the gardens in an attempt to relieve his mind.

Floating into the interior gardens, Malfon was surprised to see the Jedi Kreia sitting amid the flowers, meditating and altogether closed off from distractions. Her lightsaber was floating in front of her, and there were small bits of grass, petals, and leaves encircling it in a double-helix. Malfon was hesitant to disturb her, but he had not seen her for some time, and his curiosity got the better of him. Redirecting his hoverchair, Malfon floated toward the older Jedi as quietly as he was able.

“Malfon, was it?” she mused as he approached.

He nodded. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Master Kreia.”

“Likewise.” Kreia levitated in the air until she was about level with Malfon's body while it was in the hovering chair. “Tell me, what brings you to this place?”

“I wanted to clear my head. I had nothing to do, and I thought the Force would speak to me here,” Malfon explained.

“Indeed? The Force flows through all things, but there is something… mysterious about the natural. Many sentients find it permeates a sense of peace missing from our own creations.”

“Would you be among those sentients?” Malfon asked.

She grinned thinly. “So it seems.”

Malfon smiled as well. “Would you mind if I joined you?”

“Not at all.”

Malfon set down his hoverchair and scrambled off his rather uncomfortable seat. Using his legs as little as he could, he practically clawed his way to the river's bank near Kreia and positioned himself in a meditative stance. Malfon flushed red at his ungraceful actions, but if Kreia found his methods awkward or painful to watch, she made no such indication. Once he was in place, Kreia bowed her head and continued her meditation.

“I must thank you,” she said, half-conscious.

“What for?” Malfon asked, levitating above the ground with the Force.

“For teaching me the ability to manipulate a non-sentient mind. It has been useful in my travels.”

“Has it? I'm glad.”

“Let me return the favor to you, Padawan.”

“I'd be honored.”

Kreia's voice could no longer be heard, but her words seemed to seep into his mind. She entered into a deep meditative trance, but their minds were linked in such a way where they would be able to communicate. Taking a quick breath, Malfon faded into a meditative state and listened for the instructions Kreia gave.

Extend your senses, feel the Force around you, and let me teach you how to master control of the body and its functions, until you are immune to whatever seeks to harm you. Expel toxins from your lungs. Remove poison from your blood. Release adrenaline for vigilance. Render yourself comatose to appear dead. These abilities and more I give to you, and I hope one day they will save you as your talent saved me…


Chapter 11

Malfon arose early the next day. He had no recollection of how he had reached his quarters, but it was not out of the question that he had traveled here after his meditation with Kreia had concluded. Shaking away his confusion, he attended to his studies as quickly as possible. Reading the latest medical journals and reports from Coruscant's rising neurological specialists as he was apt to do, Malfon sighed at the lack of new information. He made it a habit to delve into scientific literature whenever he could, but there was so little development in the field. Cybernetics, astronautics, kolto research, and medicinal development were in high demand after the war, and those fields blossomed while others tended to stagnate by comparison. Truly a shame.

Using his hoverchair to navigate through the empty halls of the Jedi Sanctum, Malfon reached one of the many balconies on the upper levels and used his mental powers to coerce and persuade morning avians. After spending several years mastering his control over simple-minded insectoids and other invertebrate, Malfon had moved on to larger species. Avians populated Coruscant in large numbers, so Malfon was content to test his skills with them. He guided hungry looking specimen to food sources when he could, aided others in avoiding aerial traffic, and helped a few sickly looking flyers mate by giving them the strength to fight off larger ones.

It was only after Coruscant's bright star rose over the cityscape did Malfon even consider stopping. By then, the yellow-tailed summerbirds and thrantcill had departed for other feeding grounds and traffic increased dramatically, forcing him inside to avoid the noise. He tried to do simple lightsaber velocities, but his body quickly protested. Confined as he was, he made do with simple stretches and Force practice. He was so caught up in his schedule, as he often was, that he forgot to eat. Unfortunately for his stomach, breakfast came several hours later, well into his training regiment, and he was quite grateful to sit down for his meal at around 1100.

“Malfon! Malfon, is that you?”

Malfon turned from scraping scales from his small portion of dreeka and saw Elbrook Naldrafos walking toward him. Behind him were Gilith, Rogos, and a particularly attractive white-skinned humanoid female practically hanging from Elbrook's arm. It had been nearly six years since he had seen Elbrook and his companions, and he would have been happy to go at least six more. Forcing a smile, Malfon turned his hoverchair and—with a heavy heart—left his food to go cold.

“Elbrook Naldrafos. What do I owe the pleasure?”

“By the Force, you look terrible, Malfon!” Elbrook bellowed. “Did you break your legs when you failed your knighthood examination?”

“Charming as ever,” Malfon grumbled.

With as much cordiality as he could muster, Malfon bid hello to Gilith, Rogos, and their female companion. According to Elbrook, her name was Rehy Merrev, and she was a Nagai. Malfon had never heard of them, and evidently she lived far enough from Coruscant that Elbrook had to show her around. Once the pleasantries were dispensed, Elbrook decried the lengthy introductions and sat himself across from Malfon. Gilith and Rogos were quick to join him, and Rehy practically sat on Elbrook's lap, only to be scolded by him. Much to her disappointment, she found herself a seat next to him. Malfon sighed drearily, and returned to his meal.

“What brings you here, Elbrook? Last I heard, you were tending to pirates in the Colonies,” Malfon muttered between bites of fish.

“So I was. But the pirates eventually moved on, seeing as they couldn't compete with a Jedi Knight of my caliber, and so the three of us were called back to Coruscant for a new assignment.”

Pity, Malfon thought. He had very much enjoyed how quiet it had been around the Jedi Sanctum. It was little surprise to him that Elbrook changed very little in these years; of all the people he knew, Elbrook would probably remain locked in his childish mindset for the remainder of his time as a Jedi—however long that was. And of course, Gilith and Rogos would be at his side, cheering them on, every step of the way.

“And you, Malfon? Keeping busy?” Elbrook asked.

Malfon gave him a curious glance. “I suppose. My master and I saved some villagers from a party of raiders a few days ago. That's why I'm beat up right now. I can't think of any other noteworthy missions, I'm afraid.”

“Oh, come. Don't be so modest.” Elbrook urged him. “I'm sure it's been plenty interesting.”

“In its own way. We can't all compete with you, Elbrook.”

“No one can,” Gilith intoned.

“He's the best,” Rogos agreed.

“I'd hesitate to say that…” Elbrook interrupted. “Anyway, now that I'm back, I want to accompany you on a mission, Malfon.”

Malfon nearly choked on his food. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. I'd like to see how you've grown. And since you can't fight now, I would rather join you on a mission.”

Malfon was silent. He realized only after a few seconds that he had positioned his cutlery in midair just below his mouth, as though he had literally froze in shock. Coughing and shaking his head, Malfon resumed eating as quickly as he could. “That… sure. I'd like that, Elbrook.”

“I thought you would. I'll see you as soon as you recover. Come on, then, Gilith, Rogos. We're heading out for some training.”

The three Jedi Knights and their guest departed from Malfon as quickly as they had arrived, leaving him alone to conclude his breakfast. How strange. Never, in the history of the galaxy, would he have suspected that Elbrook Naldrafos would seriously want to travel on a mission with Malfon. He had to have an ulterior motive. Elbrook always had one. He probably just wanted to prove how much better he was than Malfon. It was always the same thing. Elbrook and Malfon were in an unexpressed competition, and neither of them was able to admit it to the other. He was tired of it. He thought he had gotten over these childish feelings when he lost to Elbrook during the lightsaber competition so long ago, but apparently that only compounded his desire to be better.

Losing his appetite, Malfon discarded the rest of his food and left the cafeteria. However, he did not get very far. Avaran Whell appeared out of nowhere, and he raised one of his hands to stop Malfon in his path.

“Padawan.”

“Master, what is it?”

“You were speaking with Elbrook Naldrafos just then, were you not?”

“Yes.”

Avaran said nothing, but he bid Malfon to follow him. The Jedi Padawan tried to question his master, but the old Jedi was gone so quickly that he didn't even get a chance. Reactivating his hoverchair, Malfon did his best to keep pace with his master. The two Jedi snaked their way through the Sanctum, avoiding traveling Jedi and large groups of visitors. Malfon occasionally caught up to his master and tried to question him, but the old Jedi was not forthcoming with answers. Realizing that he would have to wait, Malfon finished the trip in silence.

Avaran took his Padawan to the far side of the Jedi Sanctum, where many artifacts were stored that were only accessible by those with the rank of Jedi Master. Malfon followed him past those storage rooms until the two ended up near the so-called ultimate chamber of artifacts, where none but the Jedi Council were allowed to enter. A single Jedi stood guard, a Quarren several years older than Raystin, with bulbous black eyes that were as unyielding as the durasteel door he guarded.

“Jram, let us in,” Avaran said. “I am here to see the others.”

“Of course, Master.”

The Quarren stepped aside, allowing the ancient Jedi Master to enter the passcode to open the door. Malfon said nothing as the massive blast door slid open, still rather confused by what was going on. Why were they here? How did Avaran have a code to a room where only the Council could enter? He glanced at the Quarren, expecting some sort of nonverbal assistance, but the Jedi Knight's blank expression was altogether unhelpful. Once the door was open, Avaran wordlessly commanded Malfon to follow him in, and he did so without question.

Malfon let out a slight gasp when he realized that there were other Jedi inside. Young, old, male, female, of all species and ranks, there were nearly a hundred Jedi seated in this rather small room. Malfon even thought he saw a member of the Jedi Council, a Selkath named Qual, seated near the back of the room nearby a large computer terminal. However, he recognized few others, especially because most of them were Jedi Masters.

“Malfon, I present to you the Jedi Covenant.”

The Jedi Padawan continued to stare. He had always expected the most mysterious of the Jedi's artifact chambers to hold dark secrets, fabulous wealth, or indecipherable mysteries. There was none of that here. Only Jedi. Then, all at once, every set of eyes in the entire room was focused on him, Malfon the Jedi, in his hoverchair next to Avaran Whell. The Jedi Covenant? What… was that? He had heard of no such thing, but there were so many of them, and they were all gathered here, as if they were waiting for something to happen.

No. Waiting for someone to get here.

“Master Whell. Who is this?” a stocky Human male asked.

“This is Malfon, my Padawan. He is here because he is in need of your aid.”

“Has he come to join our ranks?” the Selkath Councilor asked.

“Perhaps.” Avaran turned to his slack-jawed apprentice. “Malfon, do you recognize what this is?”

He shook his head.

“This is the Jedi Covenant. Every Jedi in this room has formed an oath to protect the Jedi Order from the threat of the dark side at any and all costs. Our founder, Krynda Draay, realized that only by dedicating all of our energies, foresight, and knowledge could we hope to detect and end a new dark side threat before it begins.”

“But why meet here?” Malfon found himself asking.

“He hears a most startling revelation, and that is his first question?” a female rodent-like Jedi asked. “He is either incredibly sharp or terribly dull-witted.”

“Why not here?” Avaran retorted. “This place is the most forbidden place on all of Coruscant—none but the strongest Jedi may meet here. When Master Qual joined our ranks, he so dutifully opened this place for meeting. None may disturb us here, so we are free to pursue the dark side without oversight from anyone.”

“Even the Council?” Malfon gasped.

“Even the Council.”

“But… but… why? Why all this secrecy? Why so many? What is the point of it, Master?”

“The Jedi Order and its Council failed to stop the Jedi Knight Exar Kun and his followers from starting a war that devastated thousands of star systems. We are still fighting those who remain, pockets of resistance, throughout the known galaxy. Master Draay saw this, and she realized that secrecy is our most potent weapon against the darkness.

“Other Jedi, as you can see, have come to realize this. There are more Jedi than you can imagine on our side. We have become so numerous that we have divided ourselves into watchcircles, each deigned with a particular task. This is Watchcircle Dominus, led by me.”

Malfon shook his head.”You, Master?”

“Yes. I founded this Watchcircle, and all of these Jedi before you yield to me.”

“Master, I…”

“Do you still doubt?” Avaran shook his head. “Come, let us demonstrate our power.”

Malfon shivered at the sight of so many Jedi rising in unison. It was almost as though their minds were controlled by some greater entity, and they had no independence to speak of. Extending their hands, every Jedi Padawan, Knight, and Master before them allowed a burst of white light to fill their palms. The radiance of all their power was too much to endure, and Malfon shielded his eyes as Avaran looked on. A warm mist seemed to wash over Malfon as he turned away, and he felt vigor and strength return to his body. The Force began flowing through him at a feverish pace, and his mind's alacrity was noticed immediately. One-by-one, the Force dissipated from their hands, and then they all sat back down.

“Rise,” Avaran ordered.

Malfon eyed his master suspiciously. He felt stronger, yes, and he thought he had enough strength to wrestle a gang of Gamorreans and win, but he was not about to risk permanent injury by getting out of his hoverchair. He shook his head. His master was crazy, as were the Jedi in this place. The best Jedi healers in the Jedi Sanctum had told him not to stand or walk, lest he aggravate his wound. There was no way these Jedi were wiser or more powerful than they.

“Get up. Walk.”

Malfon frowned. One leg, and then another found its way to the ground. There was no pain. None at all. Twisting his torso and hopping, Malfon realized that every trace of his wound was gone. Impossible, he thought. It was not possible. It was some sort of trick. The Jedi healers…

“The Jedi healers told you to wait two or three months, didn't they?” Avaran asked, staring forward at nothing in particular. “Did you think their power could compete with nearly fifty Jedi fully dedicated and strengthened by the light side of the Force?”

“Master, I…”

“You will say nothing of this place, the Jedi Covenant, nor its members to anyone. Should you do so, we will be forced to send you away from Coruscant and anyone you could possibly harm. Do you understand?”

Malfon nodded.

“Very good. Then we are done here. Take your hoverchair; you have lessons to attend to.”

*** ***

Malfon stood alone in the Old City of Coruscant. Using the newfound strength that had been provided to him by the Jedi Watchcircle, he had ascended the grand archway that Rell Hernaster's father had built before he died. He visited here on occasion, although his trips had been sporadic of late. When he needed to clear his thoughts and the Jedi Sanctum was too busy, this was the place to do it. It was quiet here, and it reminded him of times long gone. This was a perfect place. Standing at the apex of the arch, Malfon could see for kilometers in all directions. The winds whipped across his face and through his hair, under his sleeves and around his robes. Distracted as he was, he hardly noticed the blue sky of Coruscant fade into an evening mix of oranges, yellows, and pinks.

Avaran Whell was part of a cabal within the Jedi Order. Not only that, there were multitudes of Jedi involved in it. Jedi from the Council, young Jedi, powerful Jedi. They were acting independently from the Jedi Council, and that was dangerous. Their methods and motives were quite similar to the Jedi Order as a whole—for now. All of them desired to see the end of the dark side and bring about a lasting peace to the galaxy. However, could they be trusted? Why the secrecy? Malfon could not shake the feeling he had that there was danger in the Jedi Covenant, but he could do nothing to stop it.

There was no one he could talk to about it. He had only seen Jedi from the Dominus Watchcircle. There must have been dozens more, comprised of many other Jedi. Who else, then, was a part of the Jedi Covenant? Who else belonged to their order within an order? Everyone was suspect. Was there anyone he could trust?

“Malfon? How did you get up there?” North called from the bottom of the arch.

The older Jedi jumped and, quickly recovering his bearings, looked down at his younger peer. How did North know where he was? Had the gate guard told him? Did North follow him here? Did he go searching for him, as he had done for Rell when he first came here? However North had done it, he wasn't about to send him away.

“I leapt on the back of a hawk-bat and wrangled him until he brought me up here.”

“Funny. I meant your legs…”

“Ah, yes. Quick recovery.”

“I see. Mind if I come up?”

“Not at all.”

North bounded straight up; with the Force as his ally, he achieved an astonishing height in one jump. With the grace of an acrobat, he twirled and leapt through the air with impressive ease. In a mere second, he was standing beside the older Padawan. Malfon smiled at his grandiose display of his skill, and North did as well.

“Showoff,” Malfon muttered.

“Says you,” North shot back. Glancing at the top of the arch, he realized that a lightsaber had been placed into a crevice near his feet. “Is that yours?”

Malfon shook his head. “It was Rell's. I've decided to leave it here.”

“Why?”

“I don't know. I think I've reached a point where I don't need to depend on it as much. Besides, it doesn't rightfully belong to me. It was his weapon, and it deserves to rest just as much as he does.”

North smiled. “That's a funny way of looking at it.”

“I suppose it is.” Malfon smiled again. “Plus, I'm sure he'd have wanted to get up here and vandalize his father's monument.”

North laughed and shook his head. “Only you would think that.”

The two Jedi Padawans stood in silence for some time after that. The star Coruscant sank far behind the skyline at their backs, causing the last vestiges of daylight to fade into a nightly gray. The winds became calmer after a while, leaving the roar of aerial traffic and the shouts of inebriated citizens to fill their ears. The Old City was rather still, as it often was, and very little activity happened below the two Jedi. A few ships took off in the distance, and advertisements began to light up along the night sky, but otherwise their silence went undisturbed.

Malfon was pondering the ramifications of the existence of the Jedi Watchcircle when North removed something from his pocket. Something glittered near the end of the chains in his hand, and Malfon thought he saw North stare at them as though his life depended on holding fast to whatever it was he had removed from his pockets.

“What have you got there, North?”

“Do you recall how you broke the first lightsaber you created? The very first one, with a blue crystal and all?”

“Yeah. Messed up pretty bad.”

North frowned. “It was my fault.”

Malfon nudged him. “We've discussed this before. It wasn't your fault then, and it isn't now.”

“We both know the truth.”

“Yeah; we know I'm ri-”

“We could argue about it all day, and we'd never get anywhere.”

“You're right. So why bring it up?”

“I… didn't want to forget what happened that day,” North confessed. “I let you down, Malfon. And to be sure I wouldn't fail you again, I saved a few of the shards from the blue crystal that shattered.”

Malfon eyed him quizzically. “North…”

“I know. They're just a silly trinkets. But, really, they're more than that. They're a reminder to me. A memento. They're symbols of the friendship we've created—good times and bad, you know?”

“You're ridiculous.”

“I know. I know I am. It's lame, but… I wanted you to have one, Malfon.” North held out a chain with one of the blue shards, their tiny pieces melded together by heat. “I thought it was only fair that the person who broke it in the first place would keep it, but since we can't agree…”

Malfon said nothing, so North continued.

“You were the first and only friend I ever had. And I thought it was just a passing thing, but you've stood by me all these years, even as I failed… myself and you. So let this be a reminder of those times. Of our friendship.”

Malfon couldn't look at North for some time. Breathing in the night air, he didn't know how to respond. It had been so many years now, the details of their friendship were being washed away by the ever-moving waves of memory. He had befriended North for the same reason he was being praised now: Malfon had no friends, and North had reached out to him. If anything, Malfon should have been giving North something in thanks for their friendship. A token of mutual respect and appreciation. Without North, Malfon would still be a fool under Elbrook's heel.

North seemed to sense Malfon's thoughts, and he extended his hand again. Malfon smiled. Whatever these things represented to North, he appreciated the gesture. He wanted to remember this too. In a single motion, he swiped the token from his friend's hand and pretended to throw the tiny blue crystal into the air. North visibly jumped and nearly tackled Malfon off the archway for his insolence, but Malfon revealed the crystal, safe in his hand, just in time. North stomped his foot and nearly kicked Malfon, but was appeased when the older Jedi tied the chain around his neck. Nodding, North bound his own along his wrist.

“North.” Malfon said, taking a seat on the archway.

“Yeah?” North asked, sitting next to him.

“We're going to be Jedi Knights very soon.”

North laughed. “Yeah, so?”

“We have to work together to make the galaxy better.”

“Oh?”

“I've seen so many people suffer—even here on Coruscant. I want to stop that.”

“What do you suggest we do?”

“Well, back when I was under Rell's tutelage, I met an old woman named Aethals. She was homeless, starving, and sick. I did what I could for her, but… she was just too sick. She never got better, but even in her last few hours, she was thanking me for my kindness and the work I had done.

“I hated myself for not being a richer Jedi, or even a better healer. But, eventually, I realized that there are so many poor sentient beings just like her-”

“Do you propose we take care of them all?” North asked, somewhat facetious.

“Not all of them. Not by ourselves. But I think we can do a lot—just the two of us. Feeding, healing, and caring for them. What do you think?”

“I like it. I'll do it if you lead.”

Malfon chuckled. “Then as soon as we both become Jedi Knights, that is our goal.”

North clasped his hand in Malfon's. “It's a promise.”


Chapter 12

Rain on Coruscant was a strange thing. Orbital satellites were used to to amplify the heat provided by the ecumenopolis's rather small sun, and as a result daytime temperatures were agreeable with many sentient species. However, the bizarre effects of these satellites, coupled with rampant pollution and a general lack of water on Coruscant proper, made rain scarce. Most people living on Coruscant counted it as an ill-omen. Hovercar traffic became more perilous in the diminished visibility, pedestrian traffic was difficult due to slick walkways, and acid rain was not uncommon, especially in areas around the Old City. Rain was, for most, a nuisance.

Malfon himself didn't mind the rain. There was something strange about it, almost alien, that he had come to appreciate. The way the fauna fled from it and the flora sought it out, the pitter-patter against the masonry of the Sanctum, the howl of the wind in the storms—the novelty was a welcome change.

It was on a particular rainy day that Lythi, Harada, and Olnara returned to Coruscant. As it turned out, Raystin had gone to fetch each of them and bring them back. North found out before Malfon had, and he nearly put himself in the infirmary rushing halfway across the Jedi Sanctum to tell him the news. It wasn't long before Malfon and North had joined Raystin and the others on a balcony on the highest floor of the Sanctum, shielded from the rain by a massive canopy that sent water into the under levels in sheets.

After exchanging greetings, comprised of as much tears and laughter as it was jocular comments and congratulations, Malfon realized just how much their old friends had grown. Of course, it was to be expected—they were all different people now—but they had not seen each other in so long, and yet they were together again. Lythi had grown into a beautiful young woman, as Malfon had expected and much to North's delight. Harada looked barely a day older than he once did, but seemed far more grizzled than when they were last together. No longer the teasing sort, it seemed as though he had just escaped the terrors of war and could not confide in anyone about it. Olnara, for her part, was taller and slightly more wrinkled, but Malfon did not know what else to look for in Kel Dor growth. She was reserved as ever, and it seemed that shyness was one of the harder personality traits to shake—Malfon knew that all too well.

Of the three of them, Lythi and Harada had become Jedi Knights. Olnara was well on her way, but she needed a little more time, it seemed. Malfon was delighted at the news, but could not help but feel an inkling of regret. After all, he would probably end up being the last of their group to become a true Jedi Knight. It was a bit embarrassing, and he hated himself for envying the rank that his friends had achieved.

“Will you be staying on Coruscant for now?” Malfon asked during a pause in their conversations. “Or should I expect to say goodbye to you all again?”

“Here to stay, as far as we know,” Lythi said.

“That's good,” North managed to utter.

Harada grunted his agreement.

“Did the Council assign you missions yet?” Raystin asked.

“Why? Are they working you to death, Raystin?” Lythi teased.

“Just enough,” he replied. “I was hoping you three wouldn't mind assisting me.”

“Well, that's why we're here,” Olnara spoke up.

“Try not to be too busy,” Malfon replied. “We have to see each other sometime.”

Lythi nodded. “I'm sure the Council will keep that in mind.”

“Missions…” North muttered. “Oh, by the Force! What am I doing here? I have a mission to attend to!”

Olnara scoffed softly, and Harada shook his head. North bowed slightly and left their company, nearly tripping over himself on his way out of the balcony. The company watched him leave, chuckling amongst themselves at his carelessness. Once he was gone, the five remaining Jedi were quiet for some time, lost in their own thoughts and not quite sure what to talk about. It was only after Malfon had nearly dozed off from the sound of the rain when Raystin cleared his throat to speak.

“I suppose you've all heard?”

“You'll have to be a bit more specific than that,” Harada drawled.

“About Master Sunrider,” Raystin clarified.

“No, not at all. What happened? Is she all right?” Olnara asked.

“Well, that's the problem. We don't know. Master Sunrider had gone on a mission with her daughter, Vima, into space that had been controlled by the enemy… a very long time ago, mind you. It's been nearly three months now, and we've lost all contact with them.”

“What's out there, besides smugglers and rogues?” Olnara wondered aloud.

Raystin crossed his arms. “That's just it. There is nothing out there. And yet…”

“The Head of the Order is missing,” Lythi concluded. “And her daughter as well. What is the Council going to do about it?”

“They're giving her another month. If there's no word, we're going to vacate her post and allow the Jedi Council to take over her duties.”

“Ridiculous. The Council's always been at odds with Nomi because of her unorthodox leadership,” Harada grumbled. “Of course they'd take the first opportunity to take her power away.”

“Harada! What are you suggesting?” Lythi asked.

“I'm not suggesting anything. It just sounds awfully convenient to me. Suspicious, even.”

“What about Vima?” Malfon inquired. “Any word on her?”

“No,” Raystin said solemnly.

“Are they searching for her?” Olnara wondered aloud. “For either of them?”

“No.” Raystin frowned. “They're not. It's too dangerous, and the Council says we cannot risk losing any more Jedi. But I will.”

“You?” Harada sounded dubious. “Will the Council let you do that?”

“She was my master, and I knew Vima as well. They have to give me permission to search for her.”

“No they don't,” Harada countered. “In fact, it'd be better for them if both Nomi and her daughter disappeared—for good.”

“Nonetheless, I'm going. I don't care if the Jedi Council denies me.”

Lythi rolled her eyes. “Now you're sounding like Harada.”

“He's just doing what's right,” Malfon noted. “If you had gone missing, wouldn't you want us to search for you, Lythi?”

“Not if the Council denied you.”

The conversation drifted into a brief argument between Lythi and Harada, and mumbling and whispers after that, leaving Malfon alone with his own thoughts. Grandmaster Sunrider was missing? What could keep her away from the Jedi Order? The enemies of the Jedi and the servants of the dark side were no more, and there were no other beings who could possibly pose a threat to a Jedi, especially one as trained as she. Although he had never met Vima Sunrider, Malfon had been told that she was every bit like her mother, down to the unorthodoxy and the raw potential in the Force. Were they stranded? Imprisoned? They could not be dead, but no other reason seemed to make sense. Malfon feared for them both, and for the future of the Order without their gallant leadership.

“I have some business to attend to,” Raystin said after some time, drawing the others from their introspection. “Malfon, are you going to be busy tonight?”

“Tonight? No. Why?”

“Would you be interested in partaking in a mission?”

Malfon's eyes lit up. Lythi must have noticed his reaction, because she laughed quite loudly at the sight. He ignored her. There were some things that deserved exceptional reactions. “Of course!”

“Very good. Would you mind meeting me outside the Twisted Filament at 1600?”

*** ***

The hours since then had passed very slowly. Malfon could scarcely contain his excitement. He and Raystin were going to go on a mission. They had gone on a few missions before, that was true; however, none of them were recent and most had included their respective masters. This was the first time in a long time that Malfon would be able to observe Raystin's skill and ability, and he could impress Raystin with his own. Admittedly, he had no idea what the mission was about, but that hardly mattered.

He was fortunate that the mission was on Coruscant, or else Avaran might have accompanied him. He had nothing against his master, nor did he mind his presence on a mission; quite the opposite, in fact. Having Avaran standing beside him often put his mind at ease during a difficult case or in the face of a dangerous criminal. However, since he learned that his master was the leader of a hidden Jedi organization, he found himself wary of the older Jedi Master. He needed some time to himself, lest he begin to have actual doubt about him.

Malfon found himself lingering outside the Twisted Filament astronautic technology building well before the time he was supposed to meet Raystin. The rain had long since stopped, he had nothing to do, and his excitement seemed to dwindle while he was here. Pacing back and forth, Malfon found himself lost in his own thoughts and thoroughly distracted, but he did his best to keep a mind open to the ever-present Force in case any warnings should arise.

Raystin pulled up at exactly 1600 in a rather fancy hovercar. The shimmering red vehicle had looked like it had been recently refurbished, replete with fancy decals, new headlights, and upgraded engines that would have made any hover-racer envious. Hardly a car fitting for a Jedi, Malfon cautiously entered the vehicle, finding the interior to be no less fancy than the outside. Comfortable seating, a sizable music system, and state-of-the-art technology to assist with piloting and navigation. For whatever reason, Malfon was not surprised to see that Raystin had chosen a dark evening jacket with matching pants and shoes instead of his Jedi apparel.

“Robes?” Raystin noted, beating Malfon to a similar question. “I suppose that will do, but…”

“Sorry, my suit is still at the Sanctum's cleaning facilities.” He couldn't help but glance around the car as Raystin drove it away from their meeting place. “Where did you get this?”

“It was a gift from a wealthy businessman from Taris. I didn't want it, but he was insistent. I thought it would be useful for more… high-profile missions.”

“You went back to Taris?” Malfon glanced at Raystin. “What did you do? Did you see your brother again?”

“Nothing too important. It was mostly an investigative mission—eying the political and economic landscape.” Raystin was silent for a moment. “But yeah, I did see Dandek again.”

“What happened?”

“We… had some disagreements. I went in there, hoping for the best, but I hadn't even thought about how much time influences us. He's changed. I hardly recognize him now. You know, I knew it would happen, but I had no idea we would disagree on so much,” Raystin explained, his voice getting quieter and quieter. “It was a disaster.”

“I'm sorry, Raystin. I didn't mean to pry.”

“Oh, no. Don't think of it like that. I appreciate you asking. He's actually right, in some ways.”

“What do you mean?”

Raystin smiled, but kept his eyes on the traffic in front of him. “As a Jedi, I think I've become too absorbed in Jedi problems. In fact, Dandek probably thinks the same thing of me that I thought of him. Both so caught up in ourselves. I've been so dependent on the Force, living without family, tending to my own needs, he must have seen-”

“A stranger,” Malfon concluded.

Raystin nodded, but he said nothing more. Malfon was silent after that, thinking about what Raystin said. Even when he was angry, mortified, or saddened, Raystin Benax hardly ever showed it. Even now, to see him justify his brother's disagreeable attitude was humbling. It was as though he had mastered his emotions on such a level that Malfon could not even comprehend his self-control. It stirred up a desire in him to be better. Incredible.

If only Malfon could be such a Jedi.

“Anyway, enough of that. We're driving around, prattling on, and you don't even know what we're doing out here.” Raystin set the hovercar to autopilot before explaining: “A Jedi Knight was found dead recently here on Coruscant. Cheryon Malth. After some investigation, Coruscant Security and our Order suspect that he was assassinated.”

“Assassinated?” Malfon repeated. “A Jedi?”

“Yes. While we're unsure who the killer is and have no motive, Coruscant Security thinks they have a lead for us. They're sending us to investigate a politician named Kres Fal'teye.”

“Do they think he's the killer?”

“No, no. He's a small-time senator. But the Council does believe that he ordered the killing.”

Malfon nodded. “So what's the plan?”

“Well, I had planned for us to perform some reconnaissance, but since you came in your Jedi robes, I figured it would better for me to do that alone,” Raystin explained. “While I do some hunting, you can interview Kres Fal'teye.”

“I like that idea.” Malfon cracked his knuckles. “What are we looking for? Motive? Confession of guilt? Accomplices?”

“Just find out what he knows and, if he is involved, who he hired for the job and if he's after anyone else. It would be nice if we knew where the assassin was hiding out, and if he's on Coruscant. That said, we can track him or her down without that information. Just do what you can, Malfon.”

“Sounds good. Just leave it to me.”

*** ***

The office of Kres Fal'teye was elaborate, to say the least. Much more elaborate than Malfon expected, given Bothawui's rather unimportant position in galactic affairs. It was true, the Bothans were intrepid politicians and avid explorers, but they were a relatively unknown species and did little to stand out from the bureaucratic heavyweights of the Galactic Republic. In time, perhaps, their influence would spread by means other than political gain, but not anytime soon.

Kres Fal'teye had no aide, so he saw Malfon into his office personally. Passing several high-standing sofas dyed a brilliant red and a claristeel table that had enough room to seat eight humanoids comfortably, Malfon was led to the back of the office where the senator's main working area and decorations were located. A wooden bureau dominated this part of the office, extending at least a meter from its resting place against the eastern wall. Opposite of it were several small travel bags, filled with other, more personal effects. The window beyond the desk probably provided some exterior light for the Bothan working at his desk; now, well into the evening, they depended on the glow of the panels overhead.

The Bothan must have noticed Malfon spy the bags against the wall, and he smiled innocently. “I am planning on returning to my homeworld for a local celebration of the unification of our clans. I'm sorry for the mess.”

“It's no issue,” Malfon assured him.

“Of course, of course. Please sit down, Master Jedi,” the senator requested, clearing his voice into a crisp baritone. “Let me fetch you something to drink.”

“No, thank you. Jedi do not-”

He found himself trailing off as the senator ignored him, heading for the bureau to his right and fishing out several goblets and a bottle of wine from within. Malfon sat down across from the cluttered desk, practically sinking into the chair's seat. Clearly not meant for Humans, but some heavier species, he concluded. Doing his best to remain upright, Malfon waited for the senator to return with the drinks.

“It's not much, but this Kattada wine is simply to die for. I got it as a gift you know. He told me it was simply to die for. Fabulous year, apparently. I was saving it, but I would be honored if a visitor of your status drank with me, Master Jedi.”

“I'm not a master, Senator, but…” Malfon squirmed nervously. “I… perhaps only a glass.”

“Excellent,” the Bothan boomed. Pulling out the cork with his furry fingers and pouring the shimmering red liquid into two metal goblets, he swished their contents about before extending one to Malfon. “Cheers?”

“Cheers,” Malfon replied half-heartedly. The liquid was not at all tasteful, and he gagged quietly to himself. Nevertheless, he drank as little as he could without appearing too suspicious.

“Now then, Master Jedi, what is it you wanted to talk with me about?” the Bothan asked with a smile.

Malfon put the goblet down on the table before him. “Well, Senator Fal'teye, I'm actually here because I have disturbing news.”

“Why? Has something happened?”

“I'm afraid so. We… that is, the Jedi Order… have reasons to believe that you have ties to the criminal underworld.”

The Bothan let out a hearty chuckle. “Dear me, is that what you've heard? That I'm nothing more than a sort of common criminal?” He took a seat in his desk just across from Malfon, pushing some flimsy out of the way. “And where did you hear this dreadful rumor?”

“It was a reliable source.” Malfon stopped, quite unsure how to proceed. Then, without thinking, he added: “Senator, we have reason to believe you hired an assassin to kill a Jedi Knight of the Republic.”

The senator scoffed. If he had been a standard officer, using such a forward approach would have been tantamount to investigative suicide. Malfon knew no better; he had never done this before. Despite his inexperience, he was assured the Force would assist him. And he was right. The Bothan senator gave no indication of nervousness or alarm, and nothing in his body language or temperament changed upon hearing the accusation. However, there was a sudden hint of alarm in his mind, something so faint a polygraph might have missed it.

But Malfon picked up on it. The Force revealed what would have been hidden otherwise. The Bothan must have suspected for an instant that his entire scheme was about to collapse, but his cool, distant political persona was quick to recover. There was no proof, and both he and the Jedi knew that. It was essentially his word against a single Jedi. Malfon had nothing—it was only a hunch. Malfon counted on the Force not to deceive him, and he trusted Raystin's information. This man was hiding something. Like the senator sitting across from him, Malfon betrayed nothing as he stared forward, eying the Bothan as though he was trying to see through the window just behind him.

“An interesting accusation, to be sure. Tell me, Jedi. Who hired you to do this? I know you all preach of humility and poverty, but there are credits to be made here. Who was it? Twi'leks? Gran? Perhaps a member of my own people, trying to sabotage and end my career?” The Bothan smiled toothily. “Or perhaps you came here on your own accord. You need a victim for your poor friend's death, and I, the hapless Bothan senator, low on the rung of Coruscant politicians and hated for it, is a suitable scapegoat.”

“I'll ignore your insults, but are you actually accusing me of framing you?” Malfon replied angrily.

“That depends. You've no proof, have you?” his voice was more hostile as well. “There is no evidence, no leads, no witnesses. I suspect this is all a setup. Will you use your magician tricks to fool me? Torture me and elicit a pained confession?”

“The Jedi Order does not accuse anyone. All are innocent until proven guilty. And you are guilty, Senator.”

“I will not stand for these baseless accusations, and I have no need to deal with this anymore.” The Bothan tapped a button on his desk, evidently an intercom of sorts. “Security, there's b-been an incident,” he said, his voice sounding a bit shaken. “The Jedi who came up to my office to speak with me is- he's collapsed! I need a medic here, immediately!”

Malfon frowned. “What are you talking abou-?”

Malfon found his throat constricted, and he began wheezing violently. His entire body felt weak, as though he had been thoroughly thrashed in a lightsaber duel, and his vision began to blur. He tried to stand up, but he tripped over himself and hit the floor, narrowly missing the edge of the table on his way down. The Bothan chortled softly to himself, and Malfon heard him stand and walk over.

“Why, Master Jedi. It seems to me that you had an allergic reaction to something in the wine. It looks like anaphylactic shock to me. I will try to do my best to attend to you, but I cannot promise you'll be alive when the medics get here.”

Malfon spasmed on the ground. He questioned only for a moment whether it had been pure chance or malicious intent that the wine had chemicals in it that his body reacted violently to. But even if the Bothan intended to leave him to die, what would he gain? If Malfon died, the Jedi Order would send someone else to investigate—a stronger Jedi who was not as foolish as he. Perhaps the Bothan had been caught unawares; he was about to escape Coruscant for good, but Malfon arrived at the last minute. With nowhere to run, he became desperate. No matter the reason, Malfon was going to die unless he acted quickly.

Without air in his lungs, he knew his brain would die from lack of oxygen. Malfon called upon the last reserves of Force power he had left, taking control of his otherwise automatic biological functions. Heeding the advice he had received from Kreia, Malfon first quickly expelled any toxins from his blood, along with the allergens and other foreign chemicals. Guiding his breathing and keeping his brain from shutting down, Malfon monitored his heartbeat and lungs until he was sure he was recovering. It took several painfully long seconds for him to regain control over his eyes, mouth, and limbs, and he gratefully allowed himself to breathe normally again.

Returning to consciousness in an instant, Malfon's eyes snapped open and stared at Kres Fal'teye. The Bothan senator was in the process of pouring something in the wine he had just served Malfon, no doubt to tamper with evidence. The Bothan must have had an immunity to whatever it was that was in that wine. Senator Fal'teye didn't even realize Malfon was conscious and standing again until the Jedi threw the chair he had been seated in across the room with his mind.

“H-how? You should be in shock! You should be dea-” the Bothan managed to gasp before Malfon used the Force to pick up the senator and throw him across the room.

Malfon strode over to him with a blank expression on his face. When the Bothan senator tried to get up from his position on the floor, Malfon tossed him further. By the time he reached the terrified politician, Malfon and his target were essentially in the farthest corner of the room from the table where they had been drinking a moment earlier. Using both hands, Malfon scooped up the Bothan and shoved him against the wall, increasing his physical strength with the Force.

“Where is the assassin you hired?” Malfon asked, putting as much edge into his voice as he could.

“You're a madman!”

“Wrong answer.” Malfon reached for his lightsaber and activated in an obvious flourish. “Where is the assassin you paid to kill that Jedi Knight?”

“Damn you, Jedi scum!”

Malfon stared into the Bothan's eyes. “You will tell me what I want to know.”

Something in those words shook the Bothan senator to the core. It was almost as though Malfon's voice had real power in it, a strength not unlike the power of a blaster or the sting of a lightsaber. The Force erupted around the two of them, weakening Malfon considerably and sending Senator Fal'teye to his knees. Quivering, the Bothan shivered from some chill that Malfon did not feel, and he looked up at Malfon with eyes that were essentially lifeless.

“I… I will tell you what you want to know.”

Malfon didn't even think twice about the strange occurrence. Panting heavily, he asked: “Who is the assassin you hired, and where is he?”

“I do not know his name. He called himself the End of Stars. He is operating out of the local apartment complex known as the Racer's Gambit. Seventh floor, room six hundred.”

Malfon nodded and began to leave, but stopped mid-stride. “Why did you order Cheryon Malth killed?”

“I had to. He was… snooping around.”

He wanted to stop and ask the senator what he meant by that, but the medics burst in through the front door, replete with life saving equipment and emergency medpacs. The four of them were quite confused when they saw Malfon, the man they were supposed to be saving, standing alive and well. Finding it pointless to stay and contribute to the confusion, Malfon left the senator to explain and made his way out of this set of senatorial offices, heading toward his meeting place with Raystin.

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