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Chapter 4

Malfon left the Council chambers humbled. It had gone better than he expected. The young Padawan expected the Council to be furious with him for his disregard for orders, his brazen foolishness, and his attempts to tap into the dark side. However, they did not address any of that. No, the Jedi Council congratulated both Rell and Malfon on a job well done, told the young Padawan to be careful in the future, and informed them that the officers who had been injured during the mission had recovered and sent their regards. Malfon was shocked, but he was not willing to question the judgment of the Jedi Council.

“Just because they did not scold you does not mean I will not,” Rell said as soon as they left the Council's presence. “If you pull a stunt like that again, you are no longer my Padawan. Understood?”

“Master, I-”

“Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Then that is all. Keep your opinions to yourself.”

Rell stormed away from the Council chambers, leaving the Padawan by his lonesome. He had been instructed to meet with the Council the moment he recovered, and he had not had a chance to do anything or explore the Sanctum since he returned from his mission. After such a startling and crazy mission, Malfon was delighted to have some time alone. He almost missed the Sanctum.

“Did you hear?” a Jedi whispered to another while Malfon walked by. “The Benax brothers are coming to Coruscant.”

“They're coming here?” the other muttered. “What could they possibly want?”

“I dunno. Maybe Dantooine got tired of hosting their pampered selves?”

“Great. That means we get to look forward to spending time with-”

Malfon kept walking, ignoring the two Jedi's idle chatter. However, he discovered that the more he traveled through the Sanctum, the more he heard about these Benax. He had never heard of them, and he didn't know they were so important. Perhaps they were not very special at all, and some younger Jedi just needed to amuse themselves with gossip. Malfon wasn't sure.

Some time later, he found himself in the library, as he often did. North was sitting in a table by the main terminal, skimming through an essay regarding the Pius Dea Crusades.

“Oh! Malfon! You're feeling better.” North beamed and waved his hand in greeting. “I'm sorry I couldn't meet you in the infirmary. They told me you weren't conscious long enough for visitors.”

“That's quite all right. I appreciate the thought, though, North,” Malfon replied with a smile.

“So what are you here for?”

“I was wondering if you could help me find some things.”

“Of course. What are you looking for?”

“I'd like to find books relating to the mind.”

“Oh?” North gave him a puzzled look. Neuroscience, neurology, psychology, psychoanalysis, and all that?”

“Yes. Anything related to the subject of the mind. Philosophical, biological, analytical, and Force-related. I want it all.”

North pondered for a moment. “I'll assemble a catalog for you that you can pick up tomorrow. Does that sound reasonable?”

“Of course,” Malfon said. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

North smiled slightly. “Not at all. Do join me.”

Malfon pulled a chair from another desk and sat across from North, who had returned his attention to the essay before him. Not wanting to the disturb him, Malfon removed a small datapad on lightsaber combat that he had kept with him during his time on bedrest. The two Jedi Padawans read in silence for some time, hardly paying any mind to each other or the Jedi that passed through the library.

“Could I ask you a question, Malfon?” North asked after some time.

“Only if I get to ask you one,” he countered.

“That's fair.” North put the datapad on the desk. “Why the sudden interest in the mind?”

“I didn't want to tell you; I think it sounds stupid.”

“No, please. Tell me.”

“Well, I ended up in the infirmary because I was assailed by an illegal spice that disoriented me and messed with my faculties. I couldn't move, I couldn't see straight, and my body was essentially a victim to some neurosis that the spice brought about.”

“We heard you had been drugged, but they didn't go into details,” North noted. “So what does that have to do with your new interest?”

“I… almost made some dumb choices out there. I wanted to complete the mission at any cost, and I realize now that that cost was too high. What happened out there should have been preventable. I should have been able to stop it. I've heard it said that the will is subservient to the flesh, and I think that's true. No matter how much I wanted to fight, I couldn't. My body was holding me back, and my mind was too weak to fight.”

“So, what? I don't get it.”

“Don't you see? I was completely hindered by my willpower and my mind. The drugs fooled me and my own thoughts betrayed me. If I can hone my mind and increase its prowess – memory retention, reaction time, cognitive ability, emotional response – then it doesn't matter how weak my body is. I can see through trickery and illusions, I can force my body to react quicker and stronger, and I can control my self by controlling my thoughts.”

“That sounds dangerous, Malfon. Don't you think that's a little risky, especially for a Padawan like you?”

“Age shouldn't mean anything. A Jedi is as powerful as his connection to the Force, and the Force is timeless.”

North curled his fingers into fists and rested his head on them, thinking over what Malfon had said. “Very well. I won't try to stop you, but please be careful.”

“I will. Don't worry.”

“So, what was your question?”

“Have you heard of the Benax brothers?”

“Only their names,” North explained. “Raystin and Dandek Benax. Everyone's talking about them.”

“I've noticed. Who are they?”

“Well, from what I've hea-”

“Hey, Elbrook! Look here! This is where Malfon's been hiding.”

Malfon spun around at the mention of his name, causing him to nearly collide with the staff Elbrook had extended to him. Gilith the Gotal and Rogos the Aqualish were with him, of course, and they were carrying practice staves of their own. North seemed to physically shrink in their presence, terrified of the three much larger Jedi Padawans, but Malfon regarded each of them with a quick glare. He was surprised Elbrook's companions even knew what a library was, much less how to read.

“What are you up to, Malfon?” Elbrook cooed, evidently amused with himself. “Did you lose your manhood after our last battle and decide reading was a better use of your time than sparring?”

“Yeah, you tell him!” Gilith jeered.

“Reading is for old folks and people who can't fight, right boss?” Rogos asked.

“Right. Now then, Malfon, are you up for a little duel?”

Malfon pursed his lips slightly. “I just recovered from a mission, Elbrook. I'd like to fight you, but I don't think I'd be a good-”

“Aww. The bookreader is scared!” Gilith cackled. “What a loser!”

“Weak and useless. I bet he still fights like an armless Krath!” Rogos added.

Malfon frowned. “I'm just pointing out that it would be too easy to beat me, that's all.”

“That's fine. You probably couldn't beat us anyway,” Elbrook mused. “We've seen you fight countless times. I didn't think you were getting any better anyway. Come on, guys, let's go find some stronger Jedi to face.”

Malfon watched them leave. They were goading him on, and it was working. He wanted to defeat Elbrook and his friends so badly; if he could only best them, he could prove himself to be a capable fighter and a good Padawan. He needed them to train, didn't he? If they abandoned him, who was left? Even if they hurt him afterward, it was the duel beforehand that increased his knowledge and skill.

“Hey! Leave Malfon alone.”

The four other Padawans' eyes widened as they turned toward North, who had risen to his seat to stand at his rather unimpressive full height. His hands were clenched against the table as though he was about to try and flip it over, and he had a look on his face that Malfon had never seen – much less suspected he was capable of making. His eyes were still hidden behind his shaggy mess of hair, but his frown was stern enough that, had he been a more intimidating individual, would have given younglings nightmares.

“I'm sorry. What did the Chadra-fan say?” Elbrook drawled. “He was too busy squeaking; I couldn't make out everything he said.”

“Hah! Good one!”

“That'll shut him up good, boss!”

“You heard me,” North said between gritted teeth. “Leave him alone. If you want a fight so badly, I'll fight you. No, I'll fight all three of you.”

Malfon was stupefied. “North, you can't be serious!”

“No, no, Malfon. The Snivvian has a good idea. Let him continue,” Elbrook said. “We're always looking for some new competition.”

“I'll take all three of you on. If I win, you leave him alone,” North said.

“And if we win, you will do the weekly chores our masters assign us. And you'll do them until you are a Jedi Knight.”

“Would you all knock it off? No one's fighting anyone,” Malfon snapped. “North, just ignore them.”

“Aww. Malfon's scared! He's not only scared for himself, he's scared for the little librarian too!” Gilith said.

“That mission must have scared him senseless! He's not so much of a man anymore, Elbrook,” Rogos added.

Malfon glared at them again. No matter how much his body told him he was still weak and his mind protested at the ridiculous thought of fighting them again, they were just pushing the boundaries of his patience. Without so much as a second thought, he stood up to join North.

“Hey, North,” Malfon said, still watching Elbrook and his friends. “You want some help beating these idiots senseless?”

“I'd be happy to fight with you, Malfon.”

*** ***

North hit the floor in an ungraceful heap. Even after training with Malfon, fighting two Jedi Padawans at once was too much for the young Jedi. Malfon realized that he stood no chance, but North was determined to prove himself – or get humiliated otherwise. Gilith and Rogos took their opportunity to attack their fallen foe with glee; holding their training staves like swords, they swatted North's side and back, whichever one he decided to expose to them as he fumbled about in pain.

Malfon tried to go to his companion's aid, but Elbrook proved to be a tenacious opponent. Whenever Malfon tried to circle around him and make a run for his fallen ally, Elbrook was quick to intercept him and continue their own duel. The larger Jedi Padawan understood what Malfon was trying to do, of course, and he simply wouldn't allow it. Malfon did his best to keep Elbrook guessing, but he was still exhausted from regular medical confinement and was not able to keep up his dizzying attack patterns for long.

Leaping over Elbrook and swinging down at the large Human's head, Malfon managed to get behind him for the first time. Using the momentum from his first jump, he bounded over to Gilith and Rogos, swatting at their backs with his training staff and causing them to recoil. They were hardly aware of what was happening; they had thought Elbrook would keep him distracted. Smiling, Malfon smashed into the two Padawan's staves with heavy vertical swings, and they slowly began to retreat while Elbrook moved forward to join them.

“North, get up,” Malfon said.

“I… I can't. Everything hurts.”

“North, if you don't get up, they're going to beat us both until we're screaming for mercy. You have to get up!”

“My side… I can't feel it. Ahh… sorry, Malfon. I thought I was stronger than this…”

And then all three Jedi Padawans were standing in front of Malfon. He had fought Elbrook before, and he had fought his two friends, but he had never fought the three of them at once. Elbrook was chewing on his lower lip quite vigorously, his entire face reddened and contorted like a kinrath pup. Gilith and Rogos, too, were furious and just as eager to drive Malfon into the ground.

“Gilith. Rogos. Take him down,” Elbrook said hoarsely.

Malfon blocked Gilith's strike, because it had come first. However, the Rogos's strike found its mark, smashing into Malfon's ribs. There was a loud crack, and then all the air rushed out of Malfon's lungs. He gasped, and he realized it hurt to breathe. No longer defending himself, Gilith smacked Malfon across the face with his staff, forcing his target backward but not knocking him over. Rogos moved in and struck at Malfon several more times, hitting him in the arms, the leg, and his chest. Malfon felt like he was going to vomit. Another quick strike from Gilith caused Malfon to hit the ground beside North.

Elbrook nodded and called his two friends back. They returned to his side in an instant, but he stepped forward – weapon in hand – and left them there. With his towering figure, muscular build, and rubenscent face, he was truly a giant to them. As he stepped closer and closer, Malfon was sure he was going to crush them underneath his boots. Malfon tried to stand, but Elbrook smacked his arms with the edge of his staff, forcing him back down.

He knelt down so that he was quite closer to the two Jedi, but he still looked down on them. “So, now do you understand why we choose to fight you? Do you understand why I fight alone and let Rogos and Gilith handle the rest?”

“Because… you're afraid…” North hissed, but he was cut off by a hit from Elbrook's weapon.

“Wrong. I let them deal with garbage. When you have proven you aren't worth my time, you become trash. I am the best. I have no time to deal with things so obviously beneath me. Admittedly, you both amuse me. You think you can challenge me; that entertains me. And I cannot turn down free entertainment.”

“You're the best? You don't look like anything special.”

“Cocky, though. A shame. He has some skill.”

The Jedi Padawans in the training center turned to face several new arrivals. Most of them were wearing cloaks over their persons, shielding their faces and most of their features from view. From their robes and their lack of lightsabers, they seemed to be Jedi Padawans. However, there were two individuals who were not hooded. They were the ones who had spoken to Elbrook.

The first individual was a muscular terror of a man, standing shorter than Elbrook but built like a Houk. He had cropped, dark brown hair atop a small head that looked ridiculous on his massive body, as though it had been placed there as an afterthought. He had a slight goatee and a small cut above his lip; he had evidently seen his share of fights. Unlike the others in this new party, he wore rugged trousers and a stained vest on top of a white tunic, forsaking the clothes of the Jedi for spacer's attire.

The second individual, though, was a Jedi. He resembled the first man, but he was a year or two younger. His brown hair was longer, and it almost seemed to curl at the ends. His skin tone was about the same as Malfon's, and the two were about the same height. Wearing dark blue Jedi robes, he lithe and lacked the wrestler's physique of the other man. His face was like one seen on statues around Coruscant, pampered and free from signs of battle and age, with a small nose and cheekbones that were hardly noticeable. His blue eyes seemed to see everything in the room and more, as though he were staring into the depths of the Force itself.

“What did you say?” Elbrook asked, enunciating each word.

“I could take you on and win,” the more muscular man said. “By myself.”

“Now, now. Let's be fair. I'll take on one, you take the other two,” his companion said.

“I don't know who you are, but we can take you all on!” Gilith growled at the company of newcomers.

“Starting with you two, right boss?” Rogos roared.

Elbrook nodded. “If you two think you're so tough, let's go. I'm waiting.”

The thinner man used the Force to summon the staves North and Malfon had been using into his hands. Without a word, he passed one to his ally.

“We have to fight with these cumbersome things?” the muscular one said. “I wish the Jedi would just switch over to vibroswords and make training more fun.”

“Not now. We're fighting,” the other replied.

“The losers should always attack first,” Elbrook declared, flourishing his staff as fancifully as he knew how.

“Indeed? Let's go, then, Dandek,” the blue-eyed man said. “Wouldn't want to disappoint them.”

The man called Dandek moved in with a ferocious roar. Gilith and Rogos quickly positioned themselves to intercept him, figuring that Elbrook would have no trouble with the thinner, less muscular man. Dandek sidestepped away from Gilith's attack, dodging his vertical strike and staying too far away for Rogos to hit. Gilith tried again, this time swinging horizontally, but Dandek ducked under the strike and upon rising, countered with a horizontal swing of his own. The staff smashed into the Gotal's face, sending spittle flying everywhere as his face temporarily deformed from the impact. Gilith twirled into the floor, landing facefirst and nearly causing Rogos to trip over his unconscious body.

“Gilith! You'll pay for that,” Rogos shouted.

Dandek lazily parried the Aqualish's swings, which were mostly concentrated at his chest or his upper arms. The few times he did manage to dodge the attacks entirely, he swatted at the Aqualish's side, causing Rogos to warble in pain. The two traded blows for some time, but it was obvious Dandek was just toying with the Aqualish Padawan. His defense was peerless by comparison, and Rogos had not managed to land a single strike.

Blocking a simple swing at his head, Dandek repelled the staff and jabbed his own weapon into Rogos's chest. The hit drove the wind from his opponent, and Dandek took the initiative to end the duel. Battering a few times at the Aqualish's undefended arms, he forced Rogos to drop his weapon and then smacked one of his legs, sending him to the ground in a dutiful mess.

While Dandek fought the two Jedi Padawans by his lonesome, the other man engaged Elbrook. Malfon, admittedly, was enthralled by this man's fighting style. He held the staff in one hand, like a fencing saber, and he had no less control because of it. In fact, he seemed to be better. Blocking Elbrook's powerful swings with quick parries, he never stopped moving. He wheeled around Elbrook as he struck in rapid succession at targets across the larger Padawan's body, forcing Elbrook to pivot every few seconds to block attacks from new angles. Watching the duel play out, Malfon was certain that this was a Jedi Knight in disguise. There was no way any Jedi Padawan could be as skilled as this man was. Elbrook was the greatest Padawan swordsman he knew, and this man was dancing circles around him.

Malfon felt sorry for Elbrook. When the man noticed Dandek had finished off his two opponents, he decided that the duel had run its course. Catching one end of Elbrook's staff in his own, the blue eyed man twisted his weapon backward and counterclockwise until Elbrook was forced to drop his weapon lest he dislocate his wrist.

“Beaten.” Elbrook's opponent nodded simply. “Now leave these two alone.”

“Just who the hell do you think you are?” Elbrook sneered.

“My apologies. I should have introduced myself sooner. I am Raystin Benax, and this is my brother, Dendak. I'm a Jedi Padawan from Dantooine, and he… is not Force-sensitive.”

Malfon almost laughed out loud. That was impossible. Gilith and Rogos were both Jedi Padawans. They could not lose to some random Human who was not even a Force-user. If that was true, then that meant the Jedi Order was struggling more than he realized. After all, only another Force-user could kill a Jedi, right? That was what everyone always said. He and the others were not immortal by any means, but they were strong enough to defend themselves from those without it. At least, that was what Malfon liked to believe. His latest mission and this duel were changing his mind.

“Not… not a Jedi?” Gilith muttered, recovering his senses.

“How is that… possible, boss?” Rogos asked.

“It doesn't matter. We're leaving.” Elbrook picked himself up. “We'll talk about this later.”

The three disgraced Jedi Padawans filed out of the training area, pushing their way past the other cloaked Padawans near the entrance. Once they were gone, Dandek moved to put away the used staves while Raystin turned his attention to the two wounded Jedi still in their midst.

“I'm sorry I was not here sooner,” Raystin said. “Can you two stand?”

Malfon nodded, and Raystin helped him to his feet. North took a few moments to collect himself, but he agreed to accept Raystin's help as well. In a few moments, the two Jedi were standing again. They both ached and probably would deny any challengers who came their way for the next few days, but they could walk and they would be fine in time.

“Raystin Benax, as you probably heard.” He shook both of their hands. “Your names are…?”

“North.”

“Malfon.”

“A pleasure to meet you both. Again, as you heard, this is my older brother Dandek-”

“Charmed,” he grumbled.

The three other Jedi who were waiting at the door came forward at Raystin's behest and removed their hoods. The first – and tallest – was a female Twi'lek with deep blue skin, almost the color of Raystin's piercing eyes. One of the two lekku that descended from the back of her head had been curled across her neck, and the other dangled just above her left shoulder. She smiled a gentle smile at the both of them, curtseying gratefully.

The next Jedi was a Kel Dor female, wearing a rebreather mask and pair of goggles over her wrinkled orange-brown skin. She was only a bit shorter than the Twi'lek, but she was quite lean and that made her look taller. The last Jedi was a short, pudgy species that was rodent-like, with squinted eyes, a massive nose, and a large face with an equally wide grin on his face.

“The Twi'lek here is Lyth'iarane. The Kel Dor is Olnara Pel, and the Kedorzhan is Harada Maximorium,” Raystin introduced each of them in turn.

“A pleasure to meet you both. But please, call me Lythi or Rane,” the Twi'lek said.

“I am glad to meet you as well,” the Kel Dor added.

“Yes, yes, yes. Harada will do fine. I hope we get to meet again,” the last Jedi intoned. “But please, shower first. Your sweating selves reek of-”

“That's enough, Harada,” Raystin advised. He turned to face the two Jedi. “We are all Jedi Padawans, my brother not included, who were displaced from Dantooine. Our masters have passed on, left the Jedi Order, or decided to abandon the training ways and return to their studies elsewhere across the galaxy. While we do not blame them, we recognize that the future needs Jedi and without proper training, we cannot grow into a position to serve the next generation of learners.”

“We have come to ask the Jedi Council to give us new masters,” Lythi said.

“Until then, we have to stick together,” Harada noted.

“We suspect you two have masters, but we wouldn't mind if you joined our little group and spent some time with us,” Raystin explained. “After all, we need tour guides. Sometimes the older Jedi are just so stuffy when it comes to these things, you know?”

Malfon looked at North, but the white-haired Jedi recoiled emotionally in front of all these new Jedi. Although he wanted North's agreement before he volunteered them for anything, he saw no harm in accepting the offer himself. If North didn't want to, he could simply opt out and return to the library.

“Sure. I'd be glad to.”

Raystin nodded. “Thank you. And you, North?”

“Uhm… yeah, sure. I suppose I can join you.”

“Great! We have to go to the Council chambers later, but we know where that is,” Raystin explained.

“For now, just tell us where the cafeteria is. We're famished!” Dandek groaned.

Malfon laughed. “Yeah. Come on, it's right this way.”

The Padawans and their non-Jedi filed out of the training room while Malfon leading the way. North decided to linger near the back of their group, despite Malfon's insistence otherwise. The other Padawans were talking amongst themselves, while Raystin and Dandek commented on some of the artistry and masonry that they passed on their way to the cafeteria.

Although he was amazed at the two of them, all of the whispering he had heard before had not prepared him to meet the two brothers. They were different than any other Jedi Padawans that Malfon knew. No one else would have stopped the duel against Elbrook and his friends; no one else would have challenged the trio to protect him and North. He still didn't even understand why they did that. Despite Raystin's explanation that they needed a guide, Malfon didn't believe it. There was no reason for them to get involved. And yet here they were.

Malfon turned back and caught a glance of Raystin and the others. Why? He and his brother risked injury and humiliation fighting for them. But they did it anyway, and he had no idea why. No matter how Malfon tried to come up with a reason, he only found himself with more questions. And all of these questions went unanswered, because he did not have the nerve to ask Raystin or his companions before they departed at the cafeteria.


Chapter 5

Malfon closed the tome he had been reading. The lights around the library had been dimmed since last night, and it was difficult to read for extended periods of time. He was, admittedly, quite curious about the effects on hormones and their quantities on the mind, but he was still too tired to properly absorb the information. Yawning as softly as he was able, Malfon resisted every urge telling him to recline his head and fall back asleep.

The first rays of the sun's light were beginning to stream through the windows on floors above him, providing some light but not enough to wake him. He had more work to do, and it would become difficult to accomplish his tasks when Jedi began waking up and using the library. Learning about the mind from books and scrolls was enriching, and watching holographic diagrams demonstrate the effects of drugs, chemicals, and the Force proved helpful, but nothing matched active testing of his knowledge. It was then that Malfon truly learned, about his passion and himself.

While the sun was still sleeping beyond the limits of Coruscant's skyline, Malfon had wandered into the darkened meditation gardens. Wandering through the still plants, Malfon had collected insects from the leaves and amongst the grass. The sweet scent of flowers wafting about and the air, chilled enough to make him subconsciously relax, were too distracting in his tired state, and he left the garden to perform his experiments elsewhere.

Confined to his bag since he reached the library, some of the insects had died in their enclosures. At this point, only a single chirping kaddyr bug and a small group of Dantari fire ants remained alive. Malfon was surprised; the kaddyr bug in question lacked one of its hind legs, preventing it from jumping around as the small creatures were prone to do. The fire ants were quite healthy, although their restlessness seemed to hint that they were hungry. For now, these insects would do. Clearing the desk that he was working at, Malfon released the kaddyr bug one one end of the table. Without its hindquarters in working order, it was content with chirping on the table and examining its surroundings. On the other end of the table, he allowed the small company of ants to disperse.

Malfon watched the tiny creatures for some time. As expected, it took them both some time to adjust to their new surroundings. The tiny red ants scoured the area around them with microscopic feelers on their feet and nettled antennae. Working as a single organism, the insects seemed more like an army than a non-sentient collective; they moved about, taking inventory of their fellows, judging the stability of the tabletop, looking for immediate food.

Although they were separated by at least a meter, the ants' eyes saw the kaddyr bug lingering on the other side of the table, helpless as it was. Several orders of magnitude larger than them and usually too quick for them to kill, these fire ants were hungry enough to try and engage this one anyway. The host of ants reorganized themselves into rank and file, released pheromones that triggered a common attack response, and then they were on the move.

Malfon watched the tiny soldiers scatter around the table on their way to their larger prey. The kaddyr bug was unfamiliar with the species and, wounded as it was, would have been swarmed by the tiny predators before it had a chance to react. Under normal circumstances, it would have been a slaughter. That was where Malfon came into play. This was his experiment.

Calming himself, Malfon closed his eyes and sealed himself off from the world around him. Gone were the sounds of the air filtration units, the smell of musty books and dried scrolls, and the sights of the library. He opened himself up to the Force's vivacity and achieved senses foreign to his natural body. He felt the presence of Jedi walking in the distance as imprints in his mind. Every blood vessel, every hair, and each muscle fiber operated as plainly as though he saw them on holographic displays. And, of course, he could detect the dozens of insects as though they were giants before him.

Honing his powers on the wounded kaddyr bug, Malfon extended his presence so the rotund insect could feel him reaching out to it. With no means of protecting itself from such things, the simple-minded bug and he were linked in that moment. The Force brought his complicated mind to bear against the bug, and its own basic thoughts were increased a thousandfold within him. Its basic drives – feeding, self-preservation, and mating – began working in him as well. Malfon's stomach roared, begging for food, he felt his mind seal itself from enemies that were not present, and the testosterone and dopamine levels in his mind spiked.

“There is no emotion, there is peace,” he whispered.

The instincts of the creature were strong indeed, but such blasé drives could not control him. Repeating the Jedi Code and reminding himself of his place, Malfon evicted those stimuli from him. His hunger, defensive reaction, and sex drive decreased as he abandoned the insect's will and enforced his own. Their thoughts clashed for but a moment, and then he had perfected his connection. It understood that Malfon was greater; it would listen to him.

And not a moment too soon. The fire ants were nearly upon the insect now, and there would be no escape if it resisted his thoughts. Stretching his consciousness into its tiny mind, Malfon sent a simple warning to the creature, informing it of the hostiles approaching. It hesitated for a moment, and then it complied. His first command was successful. The thought was comforting, and he was glad to be making progress. He smiled in spite of himself.

The insect bounded, clumsily, away from the incoming ants. Reaching out to it, Malfon identified the pheromones that simulated warning responses and projected safe paths to the flightless bug, and he used those to guide the insect to safety on the other side of the table. While the ants struggled to regroup and reach the other side of the table, the kaddyr bug released a pheromone of its own. Malfon scoured its mind and pieced together that it was released when in the presence of insects that shared many common genes – family, essentially. The simple creature seemed to place trust in Malfon, despite being beyond its understanding. It seemed to know that following the instructions kept it safe. How strange.

The fire ants, of course, proved apt at cornering prey. Surrounding the wounded insect in a wide semicircle, their formation proved too spread out to jump over and impossible to navigate around. If the larger insect had been on its own, it would have perished then, without a means of escape. However, Malfon was watching over the injured insect, and he was determined to keep it alive for as long as he was able. Extending a hint of Force power from his presence into the creature, he infused its body with tiny streams of Force power, allowing it to bound over the predators on its one good hind leg.

Manipulating the scene as he saw fit, Malfon enabled the kaddyr bug to escape its pursuers no matter how they approached. The more complicated their own methods became, the more Malfon encroached his own will on their prey, and the stronger it became. The ants were helpless, then; their attack patterns and single-minded determination might as well have been made in a drunken stupor. Soon, he had immersed the bug in so much energy that he had unintentionally healed its wounded leg and created an ethereal shield around its body, allowing it to leap from the table to the ground without injury. On the floor, it had escaped its predators for good.

“What makes a man?”

Malfon's concentration was disrupted when someone entered his mind via the Force. Spinning around, he found Kreia standing near him, peering over his shoulder. Seconds thereafter, tendrils of anguish raced through his body; his eyes flushed with bizarre colors and his limbs locked up. He convulsed for a moment, and foul bile rushed to the back of his throat. Kreia cried out to him, and he recovered after a few moments. Revitalized, his heart was still smashing against the inside of his ribs and his lungs were practically spasming within him. He gasped for air a few times before regarding Kreia again.

“Are you all right, Padawan?” she asked.

“Y-yes.” He wiped sweat from his forehead and his cheeks. “I… something happened. I don't…”

“What were you doing?”

“I was using the Force to reach out into the minds of that insect there…” Malfon pointed to the kaddyr bug, only to realize that it had perished sometime after landing. “I wanted to test my ability to persuade a being with a weak mind.”

The whites of Kreia's eyes seemed to light up. “You can control the creatures?”

“I think so. But I was certain that the insect was strong enough to survive its fall.”

“Perhaps you unknowingly severed the connection when you talked to me,” Kreia offered. “The shock of its mind separating from yours was too much to bear, and it perished. Or, perhaps, no amount of Force power will protect a being who is simply too weak to survive such extreme conditions.”

“No, I'm sure it was strong enough to reach the ground. It was alive; I felt it. It must have happened when I accidentally lost my focus,” Malfon grumbled.

“Would you mind teaching me how to interact with them?” Kreia asked.

“What for?”

“I could ask you the same question.” She shrugged. “Why are you so interested in this act?”

Malfon nodded. “Very well. Take seat.”

She did as he recommended, and after a brief moment, Malfon collected himself and reached out to her through the mind. In the depths of the Force, she was nearly undetectable. Somehow, Malfon could hardly see her, in spite of all the power she had to possess as a Jedi Knight. Nevertheless, Kreia seemed to guide him to herself and let him into her mind. Whatever she was thinking, whatever she felt, and whatever she wanted to hide she kept to herself, but Malfon could communicate with her. That was enough to teach her.

*** ***

Kreia had come and gone. She had learned quickly, much quicker than Malfon expected, and she had gone off to attend to her own duties. Malfon, too, left the library and returned to his quarters to shower and change into a pair of training clothes. Malfon had hardly left his quarters when Raystin came up to greet him.

“Good morning, Malfon. How have you been?”

“Quite well, thank you. You?”

“I too, have been well.” Raystin was already in mid-stride when he motioned for Malfon to follow him. “Come on! The masters have called us to meet in the engineering room.”

“Both of us?”

“Yes. I suspect they are calling most of the Padawans there, in fact.”

Malfon followed Raystin from his rooms through the Sanctum's halls. Malfon was still in his training robes; after walking some of the way, he scolded himself for forgetting to change into formal robes to meet with the masters. He tried to come up with an adequate explanation for his carelessness for them, but no ideas were forthcoming. The fact that Raystin was already in his was discouraging. The older Padawan occasionally glanced back at Malfon to ensure that he was all right, forcing Malfon to smile in the midst of his self-chiding.

“What do you think they're planning?” Raystin asked, no doubt sensing Malfon's grim attitude and hoping to take his mind off it.

“It may be a transfer,” Malfon noted. “They've done it before.”

“I'm not familiar,” Raystin admitted.

“They explain that there are too many Padawans here, and they send some of them and their masters to other Jedi training academies.”

“That would make sense, considering the… sudden influx of students,” Raystin replied with a smile. “However, I do hope they don't send us back to Dantooine.”

He didn't admit it, but Malfon silently agreed with Raystin. Although he had only briefly spoken with him and his companions on a few occasions since they arrived, he enjoyed spending time with them. Unlike other Jedi here, they were more than willing to take time to talk with him and help him when they had free time. It was nice; he was not used to such kindness.

“Where's your brother?” Malfon asked after a brief silence.

“Dandek? Oh, he had to return to Taris. The Jedi Council accepted our staying here – for now – but they said a non-Jedi couldn't remain in the Sanctum.”

“You're from Taris?”

Raystin nodded. “It's an okay place. It used to be much better, though. One day, when I'm a Jedi Master, I want to travel to the Jedi Tower there and help them fix Taris.”

“Fix it?”

“Yeah. It's been struggling for some time now. It's not a part of the Galactic Republic, and trade routes have forced the world to turn away from trade for its primary revenue. Swoop gangs are starting to pop up in the lower regions of the city, and anti-alien polices are rampant.”

“It sounds like it would need Jedi to get it going again,” Malfon observed.

“That's what I'm thinking,” Raystin agreed with a smile. “I intend to be that Jedi, but the Force works in mysterious ways. I may never get the chance to return there.”

“I hope you do.”

“Dandek is more than capable of fixing things on his own. I just-”

“Raystin! Malfon!” Lythi called out. “Come on, you two! The Jedi Masters and their Padawans are already inside!”

The two Jedi Padawans ended their conversation and dashed over to the female Twi'lek, who was standing just outside the engineering room. Following her inside, the three of them found themselves in a crowd of nearly a hundred Padawans. Malfon immediately recognized some of them: North was there, Elbrook, his followers, and his women were huddled together, and some of Raystin's friends were scattered about as well. Wherever Padawans gathered, the musk of body odor and dank sweat seemed to follow, and Malfon loathed it. The young Jedi were chattering to themselves, but the Jedi Knights and Masters who trained them, standing in the distance, were completely silent. Workbenches and wicker baskets were at their sides, with a few protocol droids interspersed between them.

“Jedi Padawans!” a massive Houk Jedi shouted at the top of his lungs.

The entire crowd of young Jedi hushed in an instant. It was so quiet Malfon could hear the mouthy breathing around him.

“Those of you who have been called in today are here because we deemed it necessary for you to take the next steps in your training. Many of you have been practicing swordplay, engaging in physical and mental disciplines, and increasing your prowess in the Force. Others of you have wasted your time, proving that your self-control and diligence are sorely lacking,” the Houk Jedi continued.

“You have one task today, with two secondary objectives,” a Gran Jedi shouted. “Today, Padawans, you are going to build your first lightsabers. That is your first goal. The second is to prove – to all of us and your individual masters – that you are able to conduct yourself as a Jedi.”

“Wisdom, restraint, and patience. Those are your virtues for this mission. You will find all the materials you need in these wicker baskets and on the workbenches,” an aged Nemodian said. “You must share what little we have until all of you are finished. Begin… now.”

Before Malfon even had a chance to move, he felt himself being pushed forward by the crowd around him. The fact that he was near the back of the sea of Jedi was irrelevant; they were all moving now. Raystin grasped Malfon's shoulder, keeping the young Jedi from completely falling over and being trampled by the Padawans around him. The Houk Jedi growled at the younger Jedi to be more orderly than they were, but even his mighty voice was hushed by the cries of the others. Even if they had heard him, their excitement was uncontainable.

Malfon eventually made it to the workbenches without being crushed to death. He was sweating now, encompassed by so much body heat, and other Jedi were reaching around him to snatch at components in front of him. Scooping up what he could before it was stolen from him, Malfon gathered the parts he had near his chest and wandered toward the farthest end of the engineering room. Jedi Padawans were already hard at work putting pieces together and refining pieces of metal; some gathered in small groups around the floor and others isolated themselves, pockmarking the floor with lightsaber parts and bodies.

He searched the great sea of young men and women for Raystin, hoping to receive advice from him on the process, but he could not find him anywhere. Even scouring for his Kel Dor and Kedorzhan friends proved fruitless. Resigning to doing things himself, Malfon left the crowded first room and took a seat near the farthest wall in the second room conjoined the engineering room proper. Laying down the parts he had, he got to work in earnest.

Of course, assembling a lightsaber was more complicated than he thought. His initial excitement and eagerness quickly faded as he struggled to get pieces to fit together. Some parts could only go in a single place, but others seemed impossible to fit together. It was like constructing a puzzle without confined pieces. Jedi Padawans studied lightsabers and their construction only briefly, but they were expected to memorize what they learned for this day. The rest, it was said, came from inherent knowledge provided by the Force.

Malfon was not the only Jedi struggling in the process. Padawans around him flailed about with their weapons, breaking parts and damaging rare items. Some young Jedi returned to the workbenches several times, resulting in disproving looks from the older Jedi monitoring the building process. During this time, Malfon saw Elbrook and his companions; they seemed eager to sit near Malfon, but they suddenly changed their minds as left the area. What compelled them to leave, he was not sure, but he was disappointed. This room was fairly empty, being the farthest from the main one, and he would have liked to have someone to talk to.

Several hours later, Malfon was using telekinesis to try and piece some of the internal components together when North sat down nearby. His weapon was a mess; the hilt looked distorted, he appeared to have broken his power cell, and other things were clearly out of place. He looked at Malfon's floating, weapon with awe; it was as though the half-completed strip of metal and fragile pieces was the most fantastic lightsaber he had ever seen. Malfon reddened when he realized he felt proud of his accomplishments, meager as they were.

“It's looking good, Malfon,” North finally said, returning his attention to his own weapon.

“I suppose. I think I've got this emitter matrix settled in. I just can't find the proper focusing lens for this thing.”

The other Padawan nodded. “I had to ask one of the other Jedi Masters for help. It's more difficult than it looks.”

“How's yours coming?” Malfon asked offhandedly.

“Well, I suppose it's coming along. I have a long way to go before I get the point your at, though.”

Malfon nodded and found himself drawn back toward his lightsaber, ending the conversation rather abruptly. Despite the dreams of some of the Padawans, the lightsaber process did not happen in a single day. For the next several weeks, Jedi learners wandered in and out of the engineering room, gathering supplies, repairing their work, and resting. Malfon did his best to stay inside and work at all times, but hunger and fatigue caught up to him quickly. Spending his hours outside the assembly process with North, Raystin, and the others, Malfon tried to devout all of his time to either study or work.

Some three weeks passed since the beginning of their construction. Raystin Benax was the first to complete his lightsaber. The others cheered and clapped when he presented his weapon to the masters, its shimmering blue blade fluttering through the air, making delicate patterns as it went. In passing, Malfon noted the dejected look on Elbrook's face. His weapon, presented several days after Raystin, was as elegant as the first, its two blades a testament to his skill. Even so, Malfon could not shake the feeling that Elbrook had wanted so very badly to be the first to complete his weapon.

After four weeks, Jedi began to trickle out of the engineering room at a steady rate. Raystin's friends Lythi, Olnara, and Harada finished their lightsabers within that week. Some other Jedi Malfon knew but did not talk to completed theirs as well.

Malfon doubled his efforts after most of his friends left the area. With some haste and a bit of ingenuity, he finished his weapon a few days after they did. The handle itself was complete, and its components had been brought together inside. All that was left was to grab a crystal, pommel cap, and a few buttons to increase its functionality. Closing his eyes, he entered a meditative trance and lifted his lightsaber to eye level with the Force. Submersed in his own thoughts, Malfon pictured the weapon floating before him and disassembled it, adding the last few pieces without much trouble.

For a second, he hesitated. What color would his blade be? Although the weapon could be refined once he became a Jedi Knight, the color represented his place in the Order. Blue was the obvious choice; after all, Raystin and Elbrook had chosen blue, and they were both masterful duelists. If Malfon intended to emulate them, he would need to have a blue lightsaber as well. Finding a blue crystal in the pile, he slid it into its place before sealing the interior with the cap.

He smiled. It was done. This was his weapon. Pressing the activation switch with the Force, Malfon listened intently for his weapon's blade to spring forth. No sound came. No blade appeared. Escaping his trance, Malfon opened his eyes and glanced at the floating lightsaber. There was nothing wrong as far as he could see, and the parts seemed to be in working order. So why didn't the blade emerge? He used telekinesis to hit the blade a few times. Still nothing.

Figuring he had accidentally forgotten something, Malfon reached for his weapon to disassemble it. However, just before he grabbed the weapon, the blue blade rushed out from the back of the lightsaber, shattering the cap and burning through several internal components. Malfon jumped back to avoid being skewered by his own weapon, and the lightsaber burnt itself out as he released the telekinetic hold he had on it, letting the disabled weapon fall to the ground.

“What happened?” the Nemodian Jedi who was watching the area asked.

“I… I must have put the emitter in backwards,” Malfon mumbled to himself.

The other Jedi sighed aloud. “Well, try again. You'll have to start over; the damaged crystal no doubt managed to melt some internal components, not to mention the cap.”

Malfon nodded curtly and got to work scooping up the useless parts. Once the Jedi Master was gone, North scurried over to Malfon's side and helped him pick up some of the destroyed components. Malfon had to resist the urge to shout. This was his failure, and North should have been focusing on his weapon. He had just failed to create his lightsaber, and now North would not even let him fix it!

“You don't have to help me,” Malfon growled.

“No, I… it's my fault,” the other Jedi replied.

“What?”

“I noticed you had put in the emitter matrix the wrong way. I was going to tell you, but you looked so determined to finish it yourself so I didn't bring it up. I was sure you'd notice. You had to. We left for the day and I forgot – didn't even think of mentioning it. I didn't even remember until I saw… well, I saw your efforts ruined.”

Malfon gritted his teeth together. North was right. He should have noticed. He should have caught his own mistake. North could have helped him, yes, but he was not at fault. It was his own carelessness that led to this. Making such an obvious mistake was bound to have consequences. Besides, anything North could have done was in the past. There was no use blaming him for it.

“Don't worry about it, North. I can handle it.”

“I should have warned you, though!”

“Well, it's too late for that now. The Jedi Masters probably think I'm an imbecile. Who puts their lightsaber's parts in the wrong way?”

“You're not an imbecile, Malfon. It was a simple mistake. Let me at least help you by getting you some new parts.”

“It wasn't your fault.”

“I know, but… I feel bad about it.”

“Fine,” Malfon said with a sigh.

North nodded and continued helping with the clean up. Once all the damaged parts had been separated from the working ones, Malfon gathered the pieces he could use and began the process anew. North quickly discarded the useless components and took everything Malfon would need from the workbenches in the conjoined rooms. After a few minutes of tinkering with his own lightsaber, North laid them at Malfon's feet and returned to his own tasks. Malfon hardly acknowledged the act at the time, furious at himself and quite content with ignoring everyone else for the time being.

Jedi Padawans left the engineering room and its sister chambers in droves after that day. Lightsabers had been presented, completed, and dedicated. In due time, only Malfon, North, Rogos, Gilith, and a handful of other Jedi Padawans remained working. It had been nearly six weeks. He had to do less work since some of the parts were still in working order, and the second attempt went quicker than the first, but it was not nearly fast enough for his liking. The fact that his first attempt should have been his last disrupted his thoughts and kept him from working as efficiently as he could.

Every passing day made Malfon more and more furious with himself, as though he knew he could have been finished days before had he paid more attention. He should have caught his mistake. He should not have been so foolish. The fact that he was still here with learners like Gilith and Rogos made his blood boil. He should have been far quicker than them, but now his master and the other Jedi Knights no doubt considered the there of them to be quite similar in terms of their skills. It was infuriating.

He had not even realized that, in his fit of rage, he had finished putting together his lightsaber. The Force had guided his subconscious hand and placed the final pieces of his weapon where they belonged. Rell Hernaster wandered from the central chamber to where Malfon had been working all these weeks. Like Malfon, he looked frustrated and quite exhausted with this event, and he was no doubt relieved that his Padawan had finally finished his lightsaber. With a quick bow, he regarded his master before presenting him with the lightsaber he had made.

“Interesting. Let us see it, then,” Rell said.

Malfon took his lightsaber back and hit the activation button. Sure enough, the blade burst forth in a fountain of green light, revealing its presence with the snap-hiss so characteristic of the Jedi weapon. It was done. Malfon heaved a heavy sigh of relief before waving his weapon between himself and his master.

The Jedi Knight nodded. “I see. Not bad. Go rest up, now. You've done your part here.”

Even Rell Hernaster's dour tone could not dispel Malfon's excitement. He had completed his lightsaber. Now his path as a Jedi could advance. His efforts had not been in vain. No matter what mistakes he made before, he could set them aside and lay claim to the title of Jedi now. Malfon bowed to his master and left the room, not bothering to return North's farewell. With lightsaber in hand, he went in search of Raystin and the others to show them the product of his work.

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