Chapter 17

A chill wind blew through the forest, dropping the temperature well below freezing, but Johun was able to draw upon the Force to warm himself and keep away the worst of the cold.

The Jedi Knight was frustrated. Little progress had been made in the construction of the monument on Ruusan over the past weeks, the project the victim of a campaign of vandalism and sabotage.

It had begun with the destruction of the hoversleds, the repulsor coils eaten away by some type of toxic substance smeared across their surface. It had taken four days to arrange for the shipment and installation of the replacement coils.

The second incident had seen all the heavy equipment coated with a thick, sticky sap that turned out to be a powerful adhesive. Gloves, boots, and other clothing of the workers had stuck fast, becoming permanently attached to any surface they even brushed against; luckily nobody had made contact with bare skin. It had taken hours to find and apply chemical solvents strong enough to break the bond, and two full days to clean the gummy residue off the equipment.

Johun had considered posting some of his crew as guards through the night. But the monument site was remote; each morning the crews were flown in by air shuttle. Anyone assigned to watch over the site would be left completely alone, and if the unknown vandals were armed, the guards might be injured or even killed. That was something the Jedi was not willing to risk.

For a few nights after the second incident he'd hired a private security team to patrol the region, hoping they could catch whoever was responsible. Those nights had passed without incident, however, the would-be saboteur likely scared away by the show of force. But funding on the project was limited, and Johun was already over-budget because of the previous setbacks. Ultimately, he'd ended the contract with the security patrols... and two nights later the vandals had struck again.

The third incident began with the crew arriving in the morning to find that someone had spread pungent pollen around the entire construction site. As the suns rose, a great flock of tiny birds-tens of thousands of the squawking, screeching creatures- descended on the site, drawn by the scent. Their numbers blotted out the twin suns as they swooped and dived at the crew, making it impossible to work. Even after the pollen was gone, the smell lingered for two days, drawing the birds back each morning to put a halt to construction.

Johun had decided to take matters into his own hands. Whoever was behind the mischief was cautious, and a security team marching the perimeter was too visible to be an effective deterrent. So for the past three nights, when his crew boarded the waiting flier and returned to the comfort of their beds, he had remained behind, determined to catch the vandals in the act and bring them to justice.

As a Jedi, he could go several days without sleep, instead throwing himself into light but restful meditative trances that allowed him to remain aware of his surroundings. And if the perpetrators turned out to be armed and even hostile, Johun was confident he wouldn't be in any danger.

He was hunkered down behind a camouflage blind hidden in the trees that surrounded the construction site. Located atop a small bluff that overlooked the site and armed with night-vision goggles, he had a clear view of the entire area. The first two nights had passed without incident, and Johun had begun to fear that whoever was behind the attacks must have known he was there. If something didn't happen tonight, he decided, he'd have to try some other course of action.

Nearly two hours later his patience was finally rewarded when, through the goggles, he saw a single figure creep out from the trees less than a hundred meters from where Johun was hiding. At its side was a long, thin object that could have been a weapon, a walking stick, or possibly even both.

Johun scanned the surrounding forest, looking to see if the person was alone. The only companion showed up in the night-vision goggles as a small green blob, hovering in the shelter of the branches. Johun recognized it as one of Ruusan's indigenous bouncers, and he felt an involuntary shudder as he remembered the terror the species had inspired in the Jedi after a powerful Sith ritual had destroyed their forest homes and driven them mad.

It would make sense if the bouncers turned out to be behind the vandalism. To protect his troops, Hoth had, in the last days of the war, given standing orders to shoot the creatures on sight, and hundreds had died at the hands of the Jedi. Though the surviving members of the species had returned to their peaceful, healing ways, it was possible they still bore a grudge against the order for what had happened. But that still didn't explain the involvement of the humanoid figure making its way slowly toward the camp.

Johun broke from his hiding place. He knew the bouncer would flee at his approach, launching itself on the forest limbs high into the air where he couldn't follow. Short of killing it-which he wasn't about to do-he wouldn't be able to bring it down. But the bouncer's companion would have to escape on foot, and Johun was confident he could outrun any non-Jedi.

He raced toward his prey and the figure turned its head, alerted by the loud crunching of Johun's boots in the snow. Johun caught enough of a glimpse of the face beneath the hood to know he was chasing a young man. The man threw down the walking stick and bolted for the trees, the long robes he wore to protect against the cold fluttering out behind him.

Johun had fifty meters of ground to gain; with the power of the Force flowing through his limbs he had expected to make up the distance in a matter of seconds. But his adversary moved with surprising speed, and the Jedi realized that his quarry was, at least on some small level, attuned to the Force as well.

Across open ground Johun was still faster, but he was a good ten meters behind when the man reached the forest's edge and plunged into the undergrowth. He cut a path that would have shaken off almost any pursuit: weaving and darting in and out of the densely packed tree trunks> ducking under sharp branches, and leaping over thick, protruding roots at a breakneck pace. Drawing heavily on the Force, however, Johun was able to match his progress, swatting away the limbs and leaves that threatened to smack him in the face and nimbly avoiding the roots that would have sent him crashing to the ground.

They sprinted through the forest for several kilometers, neither able to gain ground in their contest. The chase ended when they broke into a small clearing with a tiny mud hut built in the center, and Johun realized that his quarry, blinded by panic, had instinctively run for home.

The man raced to the door, as if hoping to escape by locking himself away inside. Then he stopped, suddenly realizing the mistake he had made. With slumping shoulders he stood by the door, making no attempt to flee as Johun cautiously approached.

"I didn't think anyone could keep up with me through the forest" he said, defeated as he opened the door to his small hut. "You might as well come inside and get out of the cold."

The interior was simple but clean, and just large enough for the two men to share the space without feeling cramped. The only furnishing was a small sleeping mat in the corner. Glowing embers in a pit at the room's center threw off enough heat that Johun was able to remove his thick winter robe and lay it beside him as he sat cross-legged on the floor.

His host also shed the heaviest of his garments, peeling away multiple layers before kneeling across from his uninvited guest. Johun guessed the man was in his early twenties, only a few years younger than the Jedi himself. He had dark scruffy hair and a long scraggly beard; there was a wildness in his eyes. But it was only when Johun noticed he was missing his right hand that he recognized him as the famed Healing Hermit of Ruusan.

"Do you know who I am?" Johun asked.

"I know you're a Jedi," the hermit replied. "That's why I couldn't shake you."

"My name is Johun Othone. I'm in charge of the project to build a monument to those who sacrificed their lives here on Ruusan."

Johun waited, giving the other man a chance to respond or reply. But the hermit simply stared at the ground, his good hand resting in his lap, clasping the stump of his right arm.

"Why did you wreck our equipment at the construction site?" He half expected the hermit to make some type of denial; after all, Johun hadn't actually caught him in the act. But instead he freely admitted what he had done.

"I wanted to stop you. I figured if I cost you enough time and credits you would give up and go back where you came from."

"Why?" Johun asked, puzzled at the venom in the hermit's voice. "We don't want your kind on Ruusan," the younger man snapped. "You have no right to be here!"

"I served with General Hoth in the Army of Light" Johun answered, trying to stay calm despite the righteous indignation he felt. "I saw my friends die. I saw them sacrifice themselves to save the galaxy from the Sith."

"I know all about the Sith" the hermit sneered. "And the Jedi, too. I saw the war with my own eyes. I know what happened.

"Look at what your war did to this world!" he shouted, his voice accusing. "Every year the snow falls, and with each winter more and more animals die from the cold. Ten years after your so-called victory, entire species are still being driven to extinction by what you caused!"

"I am sorry for the suffering this world has endured " Johun said. "But the Jedi cannot be held responsible for everything. The greatest harm to this planet was done by the Sith."

"Jedi, Sith, you're all the same" the hermit spat. "You were so blinded by your hatred of each other you couldn't see the consequences of what you were doing. And in the end your general marched down into the underground caverns to face Kaan's followers, knowing he would unleash the devastation of the thought bomb on this world."

"Hoth sacrificed himself so that others could be saved," Johun protested.

"The thought bomb was an abomination! Hoth should have done everything in his power to keep Kaan from using it. Instead he intentionally forced his hand."

"There was no other choice" Johun answered, defending his former Master's actions. "The detonation of the thought bomb destroyed the Brotherhood and forever rid the galaxy of the Sith."

The hermit laughed loudly. "Is that what you believe? The Sith are gone?" He shook his head and muttered, "Poor, deluded little Jedi."

"What do you mean?" Johun demanded. He felt an icy fist closing around his guts. "You don't believe the Sith were wiped out?"

"I know they weren't wiped out," the hermit answered. "One of the Dark Lords survived, and he took my cousin as his apprentice."

Johun's head snapped back as if he'd been slapped. "Your cousin?"

It sounded crazy, completely implausible. But the hermit, despite his wild eyes, didn't strike Johun as mad.

"How do you know this?"

"After the thought bomb exploded, I went down into the tunnels to see what was left," the hermit whispered, his expression grim as he dredged up dark memories from his past. "I saw them there, my cousin and Lord Bane." He held his stump up before his face. "They gave me this."

Johun's mind was reeling. He remembered the mercenaries he'd encountered in the aftermath of the battle, and their tales of a Sith Master who had brutally slain their companions. Though he'd later recanted his position and dismissed their account in the face of Far-falla's irrefutable logic, part of him had always clung to the belief that their story was true.

With no evidence and no leads, he had abandoned his efforts to prove that a Sith Master had escaped Ruusan alive. Now, inside the walls of a tiny mud hut, he had stumbled across the proof that had eluded him a decade ago.

"You saw a Sith named Lord Bane?" Johun pressed eagerly, looking for greater confirmation. "How do you know it was him?"

"For a time I was part of Kaan's army," the hermit whispered softly. "We all knew who Bane was."

"This ... this is unbelievable!" Johun stammered, all thoughts of the monument and the vandalism that had led him to the hermit gone from his mind. "We have to tell the Jedi Council! We need to go to Coruscant as soon as possible!"

"No."

The refusal was delivered with such simple finality, it stopped Johun cold. "But... the Sith are still out there. The Council must be warned."

The hermit shrugged. "So warn them. My place is here on Ruusan."

"They won't believe me," Johun admitted. "They'll want to question you themselves."

"I've seen what happens when the Jedi and Sith go to war. I won't be part of it again. I won't go to Coruscant."

"You were vandalizing Republic property" Johun reminded him. "I could arrest you and bring you there to face charges."

The hermit laughed again. "And then what, Jedi? Torture me until I confess what I saw? Use your powers to twist my mind and make me say the words you want to hear? I'm sure the Council will believe you then."

Johun frowned. The hermit was right; the only way the Council would believe him was if his testimony was freely given.

"Don't you see what's at stake?" Johun said, changing tactics. "You saw what happens when the Sith raise an army and go to war. If you come with me now, the Council will listen to your warning. We can seek out this Lord Bane and stop him before he has a chance to lure others to his cause."

As he spoke he reached out to touch the hermit's mind with the Force. He didn't compel him to agree to the request; that wouldn't serve his purpose here. Force persuasion was a temporary measure, and by the time they got back to Coruscant, the effects would have worn off and the hermit would know he had been manipulated, making him even more intractable. Instead Johun simply tried to make the man more willing to listen to reason, casting a veil of calm and tranquillity over his thoughts. He gently swept the other man's bitterness and resentment to the side, allowing him to weigh the logic of his arguments unclouded by passion and emotion.

"Bane has gone into hiding," he continued. "If we do not find him, he will reveal himself only when he has rebuilt the armies of the Sith, and the galaxy will be plunged once again into war. But if you come with me now, we can convince the Council to seek him out. Help me stop him, and we will prevent another war."

The hermit stared at him for a long time before finally nodding his agreement. "If it means stopping another war, I will go with you to Coruscant."

* * *

The chief librarian of the Jedi Archives was a venerable Cerean named Master Barra-Rona-Ban.

"Welcome to Coruscant, Padawan Nalia," he said, rising from his seat to greet Zannah with a smile as she entered his room. "How was your trip from Polus?"

Master Barra's private quarters looked much as she had expected: a great number of journals, handwritten notes and datacards covered his small desk, organized into neat little piles. There was also a small viewscreen and a terminal that she suspected was linked to the main index catalog of the Archives, allowing Master Barra to reference it at will.

"The journey was long but uneventful," she replied.

Her voice was calm and relaxed, though inside her heart was pounding. The illusion she projected of being an apprentice of the light side had served her well so far, but now she was face-to-face with a Jedi Master. If she made even the slightest mistake, all was lost,

"It was good to get away from the cold," she added. Nalia, unlike her Master, had not been born on Polus: She had originally come from the tropical regions of Corsin.

The Cerean laughed, creasing up the wrinkles on his tall, cone-shaped forehead. "Master Anno would disagree with you, I suspect."

She replied with a gentle laugh of her own. "My Master sends his regards," she said, recalling from the profile that Anno and Barra had briefly studied together at the Academy here on Coruscant. "Do you have any plans to visit him on Polus in the near future?"

"I'm afraid such a journey would be impossible," he replied with a sigh, "The Archives require my constant attention."

"Master Anno warned me you would say that," she said, smiling. "He told me you would use any excuse to avoid ever visiting Polus again."

"Not everyone takes to the ice and snow with the ardor of the

Pyn'gani," the Cerean admitted with a sly twinkle in his eye.

The exchange of pleasantries concluded, he returned to his seat and punched a key on his terminal, bringing up a large block of text on the screen.

"I have reviewed your request to access the Archives," he told her,

"and I believe we can accommodate you."

He tapped the terminal again and inserted a datacard. The terminal hummed as encrypted data was loaded onto it.

"The Archives are available at all hours, day or night," he informed her. "You will have clearance to access the general collection, but please remember that the contents of the analysis rooms and the chamber of Jedi Holocrons are restricted."

"I don't think they'll be necessary for my research," she assured him. "Master Anno was very specific in what he wanted me to look for."

The datacard popped out of the terminal, the information download complete, and Master Barra handed it to Zannah.

"Insert this into any of the catalog terminals in the Archives whenever you wish to log in and look something up. Original works may not be removed from the premises, but you are free to copy any materials you find onto this disk for your personal use or collection.

"I've taken the liberty of preloading your disk with some seminal works that may be of interest to your research," he added, smiling at her once again.

"Thank you, Master Barra," Zannah said with a bow.

"How long do you expect to remain here on Coruscant?" he asked.

"A few days at most," she answered. She doubted she could maintain the illusion that shielded her dark side powers from detection any longer than that. "Master Anno is anxious to continue his research. He wants me to return as soon as I have the information he needs."

The Cerean nodded in understanding. "Of course. But while you are here, I hope you won't spend all your time studying parasites and symbionts. You have a rare opportunity to explore all the knowledge and wonders of the galaxy, and I hope you will take advantage of it."

"I will try, Master Barra," Zannah promised, though she had no intention of staying a second longer than was necessary.

"Good luck with your research, Padawan Nalia," the librarian said, dismissing her.

With another bow, Zannah turned and left his room, more confident in her mission than ever. If she could fool Master Barra, chief librarian of the Jedi Archives, into believing she was Nalia Adollu, she knew she could fool anyone.