Chapter 9

The sound of the Star-Wake's autonav update jarred Zannah awake from a restless slumber. She had curled herself awkwardly into the pilot's chair, and now her neck was stiff from sleeping in an uncomfortable position. There were plenty of places to lie down and stretch out properly in the cargo hold at the back, but Zannah couldn't sleep in there. Not with all the bodies.

She had removed Wend and Irtanna from the cockpit in the first few minutes after their deaths. It had been a struggle getting Wend out of his chair, but her adrenaline levels had still been high from the confrontation with Irtanna and she had managed to drag him down the hall to the cargo hold where his father and brother lay.

Relocating Irtanna had been more difficult. She had a soldier's physique, lean and muscular, and easily weighed twice what Zannah did. At first the girl hadn't even been able to budge the corpse. By the time she realized she would have to call upon the Force to aid her, the excitement of the moment was gone. In the aftermath she'd found it much more difficult to summon the dark side; each time she tried to draw upon her inner anger, her conscience had fought against her. Instead of the familiar heat of power, she'd felt only guilt and doubt. Images of Bordon and his sons lying side by side on the cargo room's floor had clouded her thoughts, making it difficult for her to concentrate.

Zannah had tried to block the images and allow the dark side to flow through her, but she'd been only partly successful. In the end she had relied more on determination and sweat than the power of the Force. Grunting and straining, she had eventually managed to drag Irtanna for half a meter before having to stop and catch her breath. She had repeated the process again and again, slowly pulling the body down the ship's corridor until Irtanna lay beside the others.

There had been very little blood; apart from the first glancing shot to Bordon's gut, all the wounds had been cauterized by the heat of the blaster bolts. Yet the lack of gore had done nothing to make the bodies' appearance any less unsettling. Their lifeless eyes had stared up at nothing, compelling Zannah to bend forward and close the lids, her hand trembling as she brushed against the clammy skin. Still not satisfied, she'd hunted around until she found several large blankets to drape over the corpses. Even under the sheets, the profiles of her victims were still somewhat recognizable, but there was nothing more she could do about that. She had only come back to the cargo hold one other time since then, grabbing as many ration kits as she could carry and taking them up to the front, trying not to look at the shrouded bodies at her feet.

In the ensuing seven days she had been both praying for and dreading an end to her journey, when she would be reunited with her Master and begin her training in the ways of the Sith. She never left the cockpit except to use the ship's refresher. Whenever she tried to sleep, she could never manage more than a fitful doze plagued with nightmares in which she relived her killing spree over and over.

Each time she woke she would tear open a ration kit and pick at the food, her body slowly replenishing what it had lost during her weeks on Ruusan. But the rations were meant for a full-grown adult, and she could never finish them. When she was done, she would toss the uneaten portion along with the container down the hall toward the cargo hold. After a few days the smells of a dozen half-finished meals began to mingle into a sickly sweet aroma that hung like a thin curtain in the air. Zannah actually welcomed the cloying scent of rotting food; it covered up the mounting stench of the decaying bodies in the back.

To fight the boredom, she'd tried to imagine what her future would be like as Bane's apprentice. She would focus on everything he'd promised her: the ability to call upon and command the Force at will; the mysterious secrets of the dark side; the power to reach her true potential and fulfill her destiny. Her mind, however, kept returning to the Star-Wakes dead crew. And each time it happened she wondered what her Master would think about such weakness.

The autonav chimed again. Zannah glanced at the readout: The ship would be entering atmosphere in five minutes. She was being prompted to select landing coordinates.

Zannah sat up straight in the pilot's chair, furrowing her brow as she studied the onscreen display. She'd been hoping that the automated systems that had carried the vessel from Ruusan to Onderon would also be programmed to land. Unfortunately, it seemed that task now fell to her... and she had no idea how to bring the ship down safely.

She punched a button on the screen labeled LANDING ZONES. A long list of unfamiliar locations and coordinates began to scroll across the display. She had no clue what any of the numbers meant, and no idea how to select one anyway.

As she stared at the readout-they were entering atmosphere now - Zannah felt the familiar bump of turbulence. Caught between frustration and panic, she reached out and began randomly poking buttons. She stopped only when the autonav beeped twice: Destination accepted.

Heaving a sigh of relief, she collapsed back into her seat and buckled up for touchdown. She tried to peer over the console to get a view through the cockpit window of where she was headed, but she was too short to see clearly. All she could make out was kilometers of thick, green canopy stretching out in every direction. Evidently she had selected a landing zone in a less civilized part of the world.

A sobering question crossed her mind. Does the autopilot know how to land in the middle of a forest? Or will it smash me to bits against the treetops?

As if reading her thoughts, the autonav chimed angrily. Zannah read the update: "Suboptimal conditions detected at selected landing zone. Seeking nearest available alternative site."

She felt the ship bank slightly, veering and leveling off to skim the forest in search of a large-enough clearing to land in.

"Alternative landing zone located," the screen assured her a few moments later, and she felt the nose dip as the vessel began her final descent.

She heard a loud bang and the heavy, staccato pounding of branches striking the exterior of the hull as the Star-Wake plowed through a thin layer of branches en route to her chosen destination on the surface. A second later the ship rocked hard to one side, deflecting off a tree trunk too thick to smash through. Next came a series of heavy, jarring thumps as the ship skipped and skidded across the ground before finally coming to a stop.

Shaken but uninjured, Zannah undid her safety harness and opened the exit hatch. As she descended the vessel's loading ramp, she noticed she was on one end of a large clearing that had been carved from the forest to create a circle nearly two hundred meters in diameter. Much to her surprise, someone was in the middle of the clearing waving her over.

"Whoever's flying that ship of yours must be the worst pilot in the galaxy" the man said, eyeing her up and down as she approached him and stopped a few meters away.

He looked to be in his late twenties, though it was hard to tell because of his scrawny and somewhat scraggly appearance. His long copper-colored hair was full of mats and tangles, and his red beard was patchy and uneven across his grimy face. He wore loose pants and a torn shirt that might have been white beneath the mud and other unidentifiable stains. Over the shirt he wore a short leather vest that was fraying at the edges, and a pair of heavily scuffed boots. He gave off a sour odor.

"What's the matter, girlie?" he asked. "You don't speak Basic? I said whoever's flying your ship is the worst pilot I ever saw."

"Nobody's flying it," Zannah answered carefully, glancing back at the ship that was now a good thirty meters behind her. "She was set on auto."

"That explains it," he said with a nod. "Auto's only good at landing on a permacrete runway. Not worth bantha poodoo out here."

The man took a step toward her, and Zannah instinctively took a step back. There was something very wrong about finding this man waiting for her at the heart of a clearing in the middle of the forest. But she wasn't worried about the strangeness of the situation. Instead her mind was desperately trying to think of a way to keep him from discovering the bodies in the Star-Wake's cargo hold.

"Why you using the autopilot out here, girlie? You don't got a pilot on that ship with you?"

Zannah shook her head. "No. There's nobody else on board. Just me."

"Just you?" he said with an arched eyebrow. "You sure about that?"

"I stole it," she said defiantly. Maybe if she could convince him she had been alone on the vessel, he wouldn't go in and find the bodies.

The man let out a low chuckle. "Stole it, you say?" Then, in a louder voice he called out, "Looks like we got ourselves a thief!"

A dozen men and women stepped out from the thick trees on the edges of the wide clearing the Star-Wake had landed in. They were all human, and most of them seemed to be about the same age as the redhead Zannah had first spoken with. Like him, they were clad in a motley assortment of soiled, ragged clothing. Several of the new arrivals had appeared from behind the redhead, but more than a few had emerged from the trees on the other side of the clearing behind Zannah, effectively cutting her off from her ship. And, unlike the man who had first greeted her, the newcomers were all armed with vibroblades or blaster rifles.

"How . . . how did you find me?" she demanded, glancing from side to side as she began to realize she was surrounded.

"Scouts saw your ship flying over our territory," the redhead answered. "Figured if you were looking for a place to touch down, you'd end up here on our landing pad."

"Landing pad?" Zannah repeated in surprise, momentarily distracted from her dangerous situation. "You made this place so ships could land here?"

"Who said anything about ships?" the man answered with a sly grin. He put two fingers to his lips and gave a sharp whistle so loud and shrill it made Zannah wince.

The air above was filled with the sound of a great roaring wind, and a dark shadow blotted out the sun. Zannah looked up in amazement as four enormous winged reptiles swooped down from the sky to land on the far side of the clearing. The creatures were outfitted with bridle and reins, and each wore a large saddle on its back that looked big enough to carry up to three people at once.

"You're beast-riders" she gasped, remembering Tallo's warning when she'd first mentioned Onderon.

"Skelda clan " the man said. "And like I already told you, you're in our territory."

"I'm ... I'm sorry," Zannah said. "I didn't know."

The man shrugged. "Doesn't matter if you knew or not. You want to use a Skelda clan landing pad, you got to pay us for the privilege."

From the corner of her eye Zannah noticed his companions slowly drawing in tighter around her.

"I don't have any money," she said, taking a half step backward.

"That's okay," the man replied nonchalantly. "We'll just take your ship."

Zannah spun on her heel and tried to run for the forest as the man lunged for her. He'd been expecting her to make a break for it, and he was quick. He was on her after only a few steps, tackling her from behind. He knocked her to the ground, his weight slamming her to the hard dirt. And the next instant he was flying backward through the air.

He hit the ground with a hard grunt, the wind knocked out of him as he landed on his side five meters away. Zannah scrambled back to her feet. The other members of his clan had rushed forward when she started to run; now they all took a quick step back, weapons raised high above their heads. They were staring at her with wide-eyed expressions of fear and disbelief.

She turned back to the leader when she heard him laughing. He picked himself up off the ground and winked at her.

"Looks like we got ourselves a little Jedi in training," he said, loud enough for his companions to hear. "What brought you to Onderon, little Jedi? Decided to run away from your Master?"

"I'm not a Jedi" Zannah said in cold whisper.

"That's right," he agreed. "You don't know how to control your power, do you? It only comes out when you're mad or afraid. Isn't that right?"

Zannah clenched her jaw and narrowed her eyes, but didn't say anything.

"Listen, little Jedi," he said, pulling a small blade from his boot and beginning to walk slowly toward her. "There are twelve of us and only one of you. You really think you can take us all on?"

"Maybe," Zannah said, thrusting out her chin.

"What about them?" he asked, tilting his head in the direction of the flying beasts as he continued his cautious advance. "One command from any of us and the drexls will rip your pretty little blond head clean off your body. Do you really think your powers will be enough to stop them?"

"No," Zannah admitted. In the back of her mind she felt something twitch, almost as if someone was calling out to her.

"It's time for you to give up, girlie," the redhead told her with a cruel grin. He was only a few steps away from her now, his blade held out before him. "You're all alone."

Zannah smiled back at him. "No, I'm not."

As the words left her lips a dark shadow fell across the two of them. The man had just enough time to look up before he was plucked from the ground by the swooping talons of a drexl far larger than any of the four he had called down earlier. It let loose a scream that, shook the ground beneath Zannah's feet as it arced back up toward the sky. Astride the great beast's neck sat the familiar figure of Darth Bane.

The drexl climbed to a height of thirty meters, then released its deadly grip on the redheaded man. His limp body plunged to the ground below, landing with a dull thud and the sharp crack of bones.

The sight of their leader's mangled corpse dropping from the sky spurred the rest of the clan into action. With whooping cries and shrill whistles, they raced to their mounts to take the battle to the air, all thoughts of the little girl on the ground forgotten.

The first drexl off the ground had only two riders. The woman in front handled the reins, focusing all her attention and energy on the difficult task of steering and controlling the mount. The man seated behind her served as her eyes and strategist, shouting out instructions she followed without question-when to climb, when to dive, when to bank, and when to strike. The empty seat behind them was no doubt where the redheaded man would have sat had he not been killed.

The remaining drexls each carried a full complement of three riders-one to work the reins, one to give the orders, and one armed with a large blaster rifle. The bolts would have little effect against a drexl's thick hide, but a well-placed shot could bring down an enemy rider from long range. However, the offensive advantage of the third rider was offset by the extra weight that made the mount slower and less maneuverable.

With only two passengers, the first drexl was able to quickly outdistance the others. It climbed into the clear blue sky where Bane and his new pet circled defiantly, issuing a challenge that could not be ignored.

As this first opponent drew near, the Dark Lord's flier screamed its war cry and veered to intercept it. From the ground Zannah watched as the two reptavians clashed, the beasts seeming to throw themselves at each other in midair. Grappling together, they plunged planetward in a short but savage confrontation. The two great bodies twisted and writhed against each other, buffeted by wings and slashed by claws that glinted in the sun. Tails lashed out, attempting to blind the enemy flier or dislodge a rider. Jaws bit and snapped as the drexls' oversized heads danced and weaved atop the serpentine necks.

The beast-riders had counted on their skill and experience in aerial combat to carry them to victory against a lone rider overwhelmed by the struggle to control a flier by himself. They didn't realize that the Force gave Bane complete and total command of the creature. Without this advantage, their defeat was never in doubt. Bane's mount was larger and stronger, it carried the weight of a single rider, and it had no reins, bridle, or saddle to encumber its movements.

Less than twenty meters above the ground, Bane's drexl twisted, ducked, and tore out the throat of its enemy. Ten meters above the ground it disengaged from its foe, pulled out of the deadly free fall, and soared victoriously upward. The other drexl, mortally wounded, crashed to the dirt, a landing that killed the mount and both riders instantly.

The entire sequence had taken less than ten seconds, yet it had allowed the other Skelda clan flier teams to get high above their quarry, giving them a tactical advantage. With powerful flaps of its mighty wings, Bane's mount rose up to meet them. They responded with a barrage of blasterfire aimed at the mysterious lone rider, only to see the Sith Master ignite his lightsaber and deflect the incoming bolts.

One of the enemy fliers swooped in toward him, a feint meant to draw Bane's attention from the other two. The beast dived past him, a few meters too distant to actually engage in combat, then banked away sharply as the rider yanked hard on the reins. As they flew by, Bane reached out with the Force and ripped away the harness securing the saddle to the drexTs back. There was a trio of startled and then terrified screams as the saddle broke free and the riders plummeted hundreds of meters to the ground below. The mount, oblivious to their plight, continued to circle upward in preparation for another dive.

Bane didn't take the time to revel in the fear of his fallen enemies. Before they even hit the ground he'd turned his attention to the third opponent, unleashing a storm of Sith lightning that reduced the riders to ash and the drexl into a hunk of charred and smoking flesh that dropped from the sky.

With a single thought Bane directed his mount's attention to the lone remaining flier team... a tactical error on his part. For even though its riders had been slain, the second drexl was still alive. Acting on primal instinct, it had veered back to attack the unfamiliar male invading its territory.

The riderless drexl slammed into Bane's flier the exact instant he engaged the final team. The three beasts intertwined with one another, becoming a single, screaming mass of flesh, claws, and teeth hurtling toward the ground below. A spray of hot, foamy blood splashed across Bane's face as the creatures ripped one another apart. For a brief instant he glimpsed one of the other riders through the flailing wings and limbs of their mounts, her features frozen as she realized they were all tumbling toward a gruesome and inescapable end.

Bane released his hold on the drexl's mind and concentrated his awareness on the terror of the other three riders. He drank in their fear, using it to fuel his own emotions. He focused his power and channeled it through the orbalisks, letting them gorge themselves on the dark side. In return they pumped a fresh dose of adrenaline and hormones into his blood, allowing him to generate even more power in a cycle he repeated over and over until the moment before impact.

Zannah saw the last three flying creatures lock onto one another. As they dropped from the sky, spiraling down faster and faster, she watched them, waiting for one to break free and mount back up to the heavens. None ever did.

She screamed in horror as they all slammed into the ground together. The sound of the crash was like an explosion; the shock wave knocked Zannah off her feet and launched a great cloud of dust and debris into the air. The cloud rolled quickly over the ground to envelop her.

The would-be Sith apprentice struggled to rise, coughing and choking as small chunks of dirt and stone rained down on her. Through the haze she stared in wonder at the twenty-meter-wide, two-meter-deep crater left behind. In the center was a gore-covered mountain of pulverized flesh: the individual bodies of mounts and riders compacted into a single pulpy, quivering mass. And walking toward her from the carnage was the blood-soaked form of her Master.

He was limping and hunched over, with one arm clutched at his side. Yet even through the obscuring dust Zannah recognized him immediately. She could only stare in utter disbelief as he drew nearer, his gait becoming more sure and steady with every stride. With each step he stood taller and straighter, and when he let his arm fall away from his side, her heart began to pound with excitement.

Darth Bane was alive! And the power that had let him survive this incredible ordeal-the power of the dark side-would one day be hers to command! Overcome with emotion, she stepped forward to embrace her Master ... only to recoil when she saw the alien growth protruding from his chest.

"They are called orbalisks," Bane said, offering an explanation rather than a greeting. "Creatures that feed on the power of the dark side. Without them I could never have survived what you just witnessed." He gasped faintly as he spoke, though whether from pain or the recent exertion of using the Force - or possibly both - she couldn't tell.

He stopped in front of her, and Zannah reached out slowly to touch the cold, hard shell. She pulled her hand back with a start when she felt it twitch beneath her fingers.

"They feel the power of the dark side within you " Bane said, speaking like a proud father.

"How do you get them off?" Zannah asked, her question an equal measure of curiosity and revulsion.

"I don't," Bane replied. "This armor is permanent."

"Will I have to wear them, too?" she asked softly.

Bane considered before replying. "The orbalisks give me great power, but there is a cost. The physical demands can be ... taxing. It would be too much for you to bear as a child. Maybe too much for you to ever bear."

Relieved, Zannah only nodded. Her Master seemed to be almost fully recovered now, though his face and armor were still drenched in blood.

She noticed him looking past her at the Star-Wake on the far edge of the clearing.

"I stole a ship," she told him. "I... I had to kill the crew."

"You did what was necessary to achieve your goal," Bane said. "You showed the power and the strength of will to destroy those who stood in your way. You saw what you wanted and you took it, no matter what the cost.

"You acted like a Sith."

The young girl felt a surge of pride well up within her. "What happens now, Master?"

"Now your real training will begin," Bane said, marching off toward the Star-Wake.

She quickly fell into step behind him. The doubts and fears she had experienced during her time alone on the ship were gone, swept away by the words of her Master and the display of raw power she had witnessed. No longer was she afraid or uncertain about her future; she finally accepted who and what she truly was. She was the chosen apprentice of Darth Bane. She was the heir to the legacy of the dark side. And she was the future Dark Lord of the Sith.

* * *

"You sent for me, Master Valenthyne?" Johun said as he entered Far-falla's private quarters.

It was three days after the Senate had passed the Ruusan Reformations, and they were still on Coruscant. Johun was eager to leave the city-world behind them, but after his shameful outburst in Chancellor Valorum's chambers, he was determined to show that he could control his emotions and that he trusted in the wisdom of his Master. As long as Farfalla felt they were needed here, he would serve without further complaint.

"Sit down, Johun," the Jedi Master said softly, pointing to a nearby chair. From his tone it was clear he had bad news to deliver.

Johun did as he was instructed, dreading what was to come.

"We've located the Star-Wake"

For a brief instant Johun's heart leapt. Sometime after he had left Irtanna and her crew, their ship had gone missing. Search parties had been sent out but had come back with nothing. Now, nearly two weeks after she disappeared, she had been found!

Then Johun's elation vanished when he realized that his Master had specifically said the ship had been located; he'd made no mention of those aboard.

"What happened?" Johun asked, almost too afraid to get the words out.

"We think it may have been mercenaries," Farfalla explained. "The ship was discovered floating in the Japrael sector, abandoned. Everything of value had been taken. Everyone aboard was dead, shot with a blaster at close range."

"Everyone? Irtanna? Bordon? Even his sons?"

Farfalla could only answer with a solemn nod.

There is no emotion, Johun thought, reciting the Jedi Code as he fought to control the sudden burst of anger that flared at their senseless deaths. There is only peace.

"I know this is difficult for you to accept," Farfalla said, taking a seat across from Johun so he could face him. "But there is nothing we can do for them now. And whatever happens, you must not take it upon yourself to try to avenge their deaths."

"I understand, Master," Johun said, choking back tears. "Yet I cannot stop myself from grieving for their loss."

"Nor should you, my young Padawan," Farfalla said, giving him a reassuring pat on the knee before rising to stand. "It is only natural that you feel sorrow over what has happened. Grief alone holds no danger."

Farfalla stepped away to the far side of the room and studied a painting on the wall, giving the young man some privacy and allowing him time to collect himself. When Johun stood a few minutes later, his Master turned to face him again.

"This news sits heavy upon my heart, Master Valenthyne," the young man offered. "But I understand that it is not my place to seek out their killers. And I am grateful you brought me here to tell me."

"That is not the only reason I sent for you," Farfalla admitted. "I have a mission for you."

"Tell me, Master. I am ready to serve." Johun thought that truer words had never been spoken. He was desperate for something, anything, to take his mind off thoughts of Irtanna and her crew.

"The Senate has passed the Ruusan Reformations. You already know what this means to our order, but there are many other aspects to this legislation. As Chancellor Valorum has said, the Republic must be reborn."

Johun nodded to show he understood.

"There will be many people across the galaxy who are opposed to this new legislation " Farfalla continued. "Some see Valorum's efforts to reunite the Republic as an attempt to reestablish Senate control over worlds that have declared their independence... or worlds that were just about to."

"You fear for the Chancellor's life," Johun guessed.

"Precisely. And I also feel it is important for the Jedi to show our support for the Chancellor and the Ruusan Reformations. We must take a leading role in protecting him from those who would do him harm."

Johun struggled to keep his emotions under control. Farfalla had said he had a special mission for him. Maybe he was sending him to the Outer Rim Territories to infiltrate a radical separatist movement, or deploying him to the front lines of a battle against some dangerous rebel faction!

"I have chosen you to serve as the Jedi representative among Chancellor Valorum's personal guard" Farfalla continued, and Johun felt as if he had been punched in the gut.

The last thing he wanted was to stay on Coruscant, and now he had been condemned to remain here until the end of the Chancellor's term. Plus four more years, if the Chancellor won his bid for a second term.

"You seem upset, Johun."

"Not upset, Master," the young man answered carefully. "Disappointed. This was not what I was hoping for."

"Our order is sworn to serve. Often we must sacrifice what we most value for the good of others. This is what it means to be a Jedi.'

Johun felt no desire to argue the point. As usual, his Master was right. If this was his duty, if this was the role he was asked to serve, then he would not only accept it but embrace it.

"Master Valenthyne, I humbly accept this great honor you have given me. I will serve Chancellor Valorum with all my heart and spirit, to the best of my abilities."

"It gives me great pleasure to hear you accept your fate so willingly, Johun ," Farfalla answered with a mischievous smile. "But there is still one more small matter.

"I will have to leave Coruscant in the next few days to attend to other business. As you can imagine, this is a difficult time for our order."

"Of course, Master."

"But you must understand that I cannot leave a Padawan here on Coruscant unsupervised."

It was true. All Padawans were required to be under the constant care and watchful eye of a Jedi Master until they completed their training. "I'm afraid I don't understand. If you are leaving, then what new Master will I serve?"

"I think your period of service is over, my young Jedi."

For a moment Johun just stood there, unable to wrap his mind around what he had been told. Only when he realized Farfalla had used the honorific Jedi instead of Padawan did it become clear.

"You mean ... I am to be knighted?"

"That is precisely what I mean," Farfalla confirmed. "I have met with the Council and they agree that you are ready."

Involuntarily Johun's hand dropped to brush against the hilt of his lightsaber. He had constructed it on Ruusan at Hoth's insistence only weeks before his first Master's death. He realized the general must have been preparing him for this moment even then. However, building a lightsaber was only one step on the path to Jedi Knighthood.

"What about the trials?" Johun asked, trying to contain himself. "I must still pass the final tests of the Council." "I have spoken with them about this, too, and they agree that you have already proven yourself many times over during your service on Ruusan. Assigning you to Valorum's guard was your final test. In accepting the position as you did, you have demonstrated beyond all doubt that you are willing to sacrifice your own wants and desires for the greater good."

"I ... I don't know what to say, Master" the young man stammered.

"You earned this, Johun," Farfalla assured him. "General Hoth would be proud."

The Jedi Master's lightsaber appeared in his hand, igniting with a clean, crisp hum. Johun bowed his head and turned it slightly to one side. Farfalla flicked his wrist, and the lightsaber sliced away the dangling apprentice's braid. The young man felt the weight of it tumbling away as it fell to the floor, then raised his head with tears in his eyes.

He was unable to speak, his mind still swirling with all that had happened: his ascension to the rank of Jedi Knight; his posting to Valorum's guard; the tragic news of Irtanna and her crew.

"You will forever look back on this day as one of great joy, but also one of great sorrow," Farfalla told him, offering one final piece of advice. "It will help you to remember that, in life, the two are often closely linked."

"I will remember, Master," Johun vowed, realizing that for the first time he was offering his word not as a Padawan, but as a true Jedi Knight.

* * *

Darovit moved with a slow but steady pace across the cracked soil of the sunbaked field. His left hand clutched a walking stick while the stump where his right had been was wrapped in heavy bandages. A hovering bouncer matched his pace on either side; their round bodies bobbed along like a pair of furry green balloons tethered to his shoulders. They had wide, soulful eyes but no visible nose or mouth. Their long, flat tails streamed out behind them like ribbons fluttering on the breeze.

The bouncers had first come to him in the cave, where he had lain for days in a near-catatonic state. Huddled and clutching at his maimed limb, he had given up all hope. When they found him, he had wanted nothing more than to die.

The compassionate, telepathic creatures had circled above him, speaking directly to his mind, offering words of comfort and assurance. They had soothed his troubled spirit, and though they could not heal his wounds they were able to ease his physical pain.

They had guided him safely out of the underground tunnels and back up to the bright sun and fresh air of the surface. They had led him to a grove where he found cool water to slake his thirst and sweet berries to sate his ravenous hunger. They'd even shown him where to find an abandoned cache of medical supplies, so he could properly clean and dress his amputated stump to stave off infection.

For several days the young man had stayed hidden at the bouncers' grove, gathering his strength and recovering from his terrible wound. He was too afraid of being recognized as one of the Sith to seek out others of his own species, too ashamed by his actions and his mutilated limb to face others of his own kind. But more powerful than either his fear or his shame was his rage-Rain had taken his hand! His own cousin had betrayed and maimed him! Thoughts of vengeance and retribution consumed him; images of hunting her down and destroying her filled his restless dreams.

Yet as his body began to heal, his anger began to fade. Desperate to cling to his hatred, he had replayed the encounter with Rain over and over in his mind . . . only to have the truth suddenly dawn on him. Rain had been trying to save him!

Surrounded by the gentle bouncers and their calming presence, Darovit was finally able to understand what she had done. The Sith at his cousin's side would have killed him without a second thought. By crippling him, Rain had spared his life; a final act of mercy before she fell under the sway of her new dark side Master.

And with understanding came acceptance, Darovit's hand was gone. Rain was gone. His dreams of joining the Jedi-or the Sith- were gone. All he had left were the bouncers.

Darovit was grateful for their kindness, but he couldn't understand why they had helped him. Perhaps it was because everyone else was gone: The Sith were destroyed, their minions had fled the world or been taken away as prisoners of war. The Jedi and Republic soldiers serving in the Army of Light were all gone. Two nights earlier he'd seen the telltale flicker of ships making the jump to hyperspace in the starry sky as their fleet had left orbit. Even those who lived on Ruusan had gone back to their farms and villages, abandoning the site of the great battle between the darkness and the light. For several days now he had seen no living creature other than the bouncers who had saved him.

He understood that they had given him a second chance at life. He could put his past behind him and start again. But to what purpose? To what end? The bouncers spoke often of the future, as if they had some ability to see glimpses of what was to come. Like most oracles, however, they used words that were couched in vague riddles and generalities, words that offered him no clue to his own fate.

Darovit sad, one of the creatures projected into his mind, a statement more than a question.

"I just don't know what I should do now," he answered out loud. While the bouncers could project their thoughts and empathically sense broad emotion in others, they weren't able to read minds. It was necessary to actually speak to carry on a conversation with them.

"What kind of future is there for me?" he continued, giving voice to the problem he had been struggling with internally. "I failed as a Jedi. I failed as a Sith. What could I hope to become now?"

Man?

The answer actually made him stop short. "A man?" he repeated.

Not a Sith, not a Jedi. Not a mercenary, not a soldier. Not anything but a simple, ordinary man. He nodded and resumed his march across the empty, open field, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from him.

"Just a man. Why not?"