The great warship of Lord Valenthyne Farfalla-leader of the Jedi Army of Light since the loss of General Hoth-maintained a slow orbit high above Ruusan's surface. Fashioned so that her exterior resembled an ancient sailing barge, the vessel had an archaic elegance, a grandeur that some felt was a sign of vanity unbecoming in a Jedi.
Johun Othone, a young Padawan in the Army of Light, had once shared that opinion. Like many of Hoth's followers, he had initially regarded Lord Valenthyne as nothing but a prancing fool concerned only with brightly colored shimmersilk shirts, the long flowing curls of his golden hair, and the other trappings of garish and gaudy fashion. Yet in battle after battle against the Brotherhood of Darkness, Farfalla and his followers had proved their worth. Slowly, almost grudgingly, Johun and the rest of Hoth's troops had come to admire and even respect the man they once had scoffed at.
Now General Hoth was gone, destroyed along with the Sith in their final confrontation, and in his absence it was Lord Valenthyne who had taken up the banner of leadership. Following Hoth's orders,
Farfalla had organized the mass evacuation of Ruusan before the detonation of the thought bomb, saving thousands of Force-sensitive Jedi and Padawans from its devastating effects by loading them onto the ships of his orbiting fleet.
It was mere chance that Johun had ended up here on the Fair-wind, Valenthyne's flagship. The vessel was large enough to hold a crew of over three hundred comfortably, but crammed into the hold with nearly five hundred other evacuees, the young man was anything but comfortable. They were packed in so tightly, it was difficult to move; Jedi Masters, Jedi Knights, and Padawans were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder.
The other ships were just as full. In addition to the Jedi, the vast majority of the non-Force-sensitive troops who had joined Hoth's cause had also been taken offworld. One of the ships had even been loaded up with several hundred prisoners, the non-Sith followers of Lord Kaan who had quickly surrendered to the Jedi when their dark leader had abandoned them to embark on his final mad plan to destroy the Jedi. There wasn't any real danger for these ordinary soldiers; the thought bomb only affected those most attuned to the Force. But in the haste to evacuate it had been simpler to just take everyone.
Here on Valenthyne's personal galleon, however, Johun recognized nearly every face. He had fought beside them for many months, through ambushes, skirmishes, and full-scale battles. Together they had borne witness to death and bloodshed; tasted glorious triumph and endured crushing defeat. Each of them had seen many foes-and too many friends-die as they had waged a seemingly endless campaign against the forces of the dark side.
Now, as they huddled together in this ship, the war was finally over. Victory was theirs at last. Yet every being aboard wore a grim and somber mask. The extinction of the Sith had come with a terrible price. There was no doubt about what had happened, no hope that any of the Jedi still down on the surface had survived. Orbiting high above Ruusan, they had been safely outside the blast radius of the thought bomb. But through the Force they had heard the agonized screams of their fellow Jedi as their spirits were torn apart and swept up in the swirling vortex of dark side energy. Many of the survivors had wept openly. Most simply endured the suffering in stoic silence, reflecting on the sacrifice others had made.
Johun-like Farfalla and virtually every other member of the Army of Light-had volunteered to stay behind with General Hoth. But the general had refused. Knowing that those who stayed with him faced certain death, he had ordered all but a hundred of his Jedi followers off the world. None of the Padawans had been allowed to remain. Yet even though he was only following orders, Johun couldn't help but feel he had betrayed his general by fleeing the planet.
Across the densely packed hold he could just make out Farfalla, his bright red blouse standing out like a beacon among the sea of mostly brown-clad bodies. He was organizing the rescue parties that would be shuttled back down to Ruusan's surface to deal with the aftermath of the thought bomb, and Johun was determined to be among them.
It was difficult to move through the mass of Jedi, but Johun was small and slight. He was nineteen, but he had yet to fill out, and with his slender build, fair skin, and shoulder-length light blond hair- twisted into a tight braid, as was the custom for a young Jedi still in training-he looked at least two years younger. It could be frustrating to be mistaken for a kid, but now, as he twisted and slithered through the throng, he was grateful for his slim physique.
"Lord Valenthyne," he called as he drew near. He raised his voice further to be heard above the din. "Lord Valenthyne!"
Farfalla turned, trying to pick out the owner of the voice from the wall of bodies and faces, then gave a nod of recognition as the young man finally burst into view. "Padawan Johun."
"I want to join the rescue teams," Johun blurted. "Send me back down."
"I'm afraid I cannot do that," the Jedi Master replied with a sympathetic shake of his head.
"Why not?" Johun demanded. "Do you think I'm too young?"
"That is not-" Farfalla began, but Johun cut him off.
"I'm not a kid! I'm nineteen-older than those two for sure!" he insisted, waving his hand in the direction of the nearest rescue team: a group consisting of a middle-aged man with a short beard, a woman in her twenties, and two boys in their early teens.
"Be aware of your anger," Farfalla cautioned him, his voice stern.
Johun was about to reply, but instead bit his tongue and merely nodded. There was no point in getting upset; that would not convince Lord Valenthyne to let him go along.
"Your age has nothing to do with my decision," the older Jedi explained once he was assured that Johun had brought his emotions under control. "Fully a third of our forces are younger than you."
It was true, Johun realized. The mounting casualties of the Ruu-san campaign had forced the Army of Light to accept younger and younger recruits into its ranks. His youth was not the issue; there had to be some other explanation. But instead of asking why he could not go, Johun simply remained silent. Patience would win him more from General Hoth's successor than incessant, thoughtless questions.
"Take a closer look at who I am sending down," Farfalla instructed. "These are brave volunteers, valuable allies in our battle against the Sith. But none of them is attuned to the Force."
Surprised, Johun took a second look at the shore party as they made their final preparations. The woman had dark skin and short black hair, and the Jedi realized he had met her once before.
She was a Republic soldier named Irtanna, and she had joined their cause a little over a standard year earlier. It took him a moment longer to place the others, until he noticed the resemblance between the bearded man and the two teenagers. They were natives of Ruusan. The man was a farmer named Bordon who had fled before the advancing armies of Lord Kaan during the latest Sith offensive. The two boys were his sons, though Johun couldn't recall their names.
"We do not know the full extent of the thought bomb's effects," Farfalla continued. "There may be aftershocks that could harm or even kill a Jedi or Padawan. That is why you cannot go."
Johun nodded. It made sense; Valenthyne was just being cautious. But sometimes it was possible to be too cautious. "There are other risks on the surface" he noted. "We don't know that all the Sith are dead. Some of them may have survived."
Farfalla shook his head. "Kaan had some spell, some power, over his followers. They were enthralled to his will. When he led them down into the cave, they all followed him willingly. He had them convinced they could survive the thought bomb if they united their power... but he was wrong."
"What about the Sith minions?" Johun pressed, unwilling to let the matter drop. Like the Jedi, the Sith had their share of followers who were not attuned to the Force: soldiers and mercenaries who had allied themselves with the Brotherhood of Darkness. "We didn't capture them all" the young Padawan pointed out. "Some of them fled the battle. They'll still be down there."
"That's what this is for," the woman soldier assured him, patting the blaster on her hip. She gave a fierce smile, her gleaming white teeth contrasting sharply with her dark complexion.
"Irtanna knows how to take care of herself," Farfalla agreed. "She's seen more combat than you and me put together."
"Please, Lord Valenthyne," Johun begged, dropping to one knee. A vain and foolish gesture, but he was desperate. He knew Farfalla was right, but he didn't care. He didn't care about logic or reason or even the dangers of the thought bomb. He just couldn't sit by doing nothing! "Please! He was my Master."
Farfalla reached out with his hand and placed it tenderly on Johun's forehead. "Hoth warned me that his decision to send you away would not rest easily on your shoulders," he said softly. "But your Master was a wise man. He knew what was best for you, as do I. You must trust my judgment in this, even if you do not fully understand it."
Removing his hand from the young man's brow, the new leader of the Army of Light took Johun by the arm and helped him to his feet.
"Your Master made a great sacrifice to save us all," he said. "If we give in to our emotions now, if we allow ourselves to come to needless harm, then we dishonor what he has done. Do you understand?"
Johun nodded, a Padawan acquiescing to the greater wisdom of a Jedi Master.
"Good," Farfalla said, turning away to focus his attention on one of the other rescue teams. "If you want to help, give Irtanna a hand loading up their supplies."
Johun nodded again, though Farfalla didn't notice. He was already gone, whisked away by the responsibilities of his position.
Working in silence, Johun helped load the last few supplies into the shuttle: field kits filled with rations and water capsules; medpacs in case they came across any wounded; electrobinoculars and a sensor pack for scouting and recon; glow rods for when night fell. And, of course, spare power packs for the blasters Irtanna and the others carried in case they encountered any surviving minions from Kaan's army.
"Thank you," Irtanna said once they were done.
Trying to appear casual, Johun took a quick look around. Farfalla was nowhere to be seen.
"Did you want to fly us down, or should I?" he asked her. The words were easy, but as he said them he reached out with the Force to touch her mind. He did it gently, being careful not to cause her any harm as he planted the seed of a suggestion.
Her eyes glazed over momentarily and a look of blank confusion crossed her face. "Uh . .. I'll fly us down, I guess. You can take the copilot's chair."
"You're coming with us?" Bordon, the middle-aged father, asked. From his tone, it was obvious he had doubts.
"Of course" Johun replied amicably. "You all heard him say I should help you load up the supplies, right? Why else would he say that if I wasn't going with you?"
As he had done with Irtanna, he gave another slight push, adding the mind-altering power of the Force to the half-truth. Normally he would have abhorred the idea of manipulating friends or allies in this fashion, but in this case he knew the ragtag rescue team would fare better if he accompanied them.
"Yeah. Right," Bordon agreed after a moment. "Good to have you along."
"Makes sense to have a Jedi with us" Irtanna added. "Just in case."
Persuading someone through the Force was always easier when it was something they wanted to be convinced of, Johun noted. Still, he felt a slight twinge of guilt as he climbed into the small ship-to-surface shuttle.
That's only because you re disobeying Farfalla, he reassured himself. You're doing the right thing.
"Everyone strap in," Irtanna ordered, speaking over the pressurized hiss as the air locks sealed.
The shuttle's engines flared to life, lifting them off the docking platform.
"Back home to Ruusan. Or at least what's left of it," Bordon muttered glumly as they drifted through the cargo hold doors and out into the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere.