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Creeping Shadows

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Aria was jerked from her fitful memories by the groaning of the shuttle’s hyperdrive. Stumbling to the small viewport, she glimpsed their descent through the moon’s infrastructure down to the landing pad. She exhaled heavily, raking a hand through her hair as she trooped down into the bustling spaceport, thanking the pilot on her way past who gave her little more than a grunt in acknowledgement. Probably better that way, at least she'd know the few extra credit chits she'd slipped into his palm when she boarded at Tython’s orbital station had worked. He wouldn't remember ever seeing her. Nar Shaddaa was heaving with life forms and Force presences, so many that it was hard to distinguish one from the next. Exactly what she needed. Her nose wrinkling against the unsavoury smell, Aria pushed onwards, heading for the red light sector. It was the busiest place on the smuggler’s moon, and by extension the easiest place to get lost in the crowd and forgotten, which was why she had come. Nobody would ever find her here, not the Jedi, not the Sith...she'd be safe, finally. Now all she needed to do was forget, all of it.

There was only one way to do that. Neon signs buzzed overhead as they beckoned patrons into the various drinking establishments, the young woman choosing one that looked like it would suit her needs: somewhere a lady wouldn't look out of place and wouldn't draw too many questions to herself. She slid into a vacant seat in a less populated corner and placed a rolling order with the serving droid, sinking back in the uncomfortable chair as she debated whether or not to try making idle conversation with the Mirialan mam situated a table or so over from her. His blue eyes watched her curiously as she sat down, then returned to his meal as she started on her first drink. The alcohol tasted sharp and sour on her tongue, cheap stuff, not meant to taste great but good for getting smashed out of your skull. A couple of glasses in and her head was already buzzing, thoughts and sensations starting to blur together; she almost missed the Mirialan sliding into the seat opposite her, had he not spoken to her.
“I must admit I'm quite shocked to see a lady drinking such cheap liqueur.”
Aria glanced up at him through her eyelashes, making a quick assessment of the man now that she could get a closer look at him. He had a rugged sort of charm to him, his angular face broken here and there by thin streaks of paler white-ish skin, betraying the almost-healed scars that had once been there. A shock of dark hair framed his forehead, slicked smoothly back from his eyes but more ruffled and unkempt around his ears. His clothing was slightly tattered, all in all giving the impression of somebody who didn't exactly follow the law to the letter. “Look, buddy, ‘m jus’ here to get drunk, not start a fight with criminal syndicates.” she managed to exaggerate the slur in her words to a satisfactory enough level. Good, maybe he’d leave her alone.

His laughter startled her, perhaps because the sound was amplified in her drink-addled state but because it was so unexpectedly...pleasant. Just about in control of her faculties, she managed to use her Force senses to probe discreetly into the edges of his consciousness. His outwardly friendly demeanour proved genuine, and she relaxed somewhat. Smuggler, she decided, but not dangerous. Anything he offered her to drink was safe to accept, probably. Therefore, Aria saw no issue in downing the glass he pushed towards her. Much better than the last lot, actually tasted of something.
“I assure you my dear, I bear no affiliation to the crime gangs that terrorise these streets.”
Aria's eyebrows arched upwards as she took another swig.
“You don't work for the Hutts?”
White teeth glinted back at her as the Mirialan smuggler grinned.
“Darling, I work for whoever pays me more.”
“Don't do that, darlin’ thing. I'm not your darlin’.” He laughed at her again, waving a hand dismissively. She told him to clear off, in perhaps less than colourful language, bid him goodnight and stumbled out of the bar.
It wouldn't be the last she saw of him.

***

Drinking away her problems had served her well for a while, but it wasn't enough. She needed something better. Aria's trembling fingers fumbled with the drawstring that held the black velvet pouch in her hands closed. She had been skeptical at first as the dealer had pitched it to her, but he had assured her:
“If you really wanna forget anything, this'll do it for ya.”
It had cost her nearly all the credits she had left, but the blissful ignorance that the spice brought with each high was worth every single credit. It had addled her thoughts somewhat in the few days (or possibly more...she'd lost all concept of time. If not for her connection to the Force which gave her more strength, she may have overdosed by now). The strands were sticky and clung to her fingers like glue, difficult for her to cram between her dry lips. The headrush was instant. Colours were brighter, more vivid, sounds heightened...kriff she swore she could hear the infrastructure moving underneath their feet, memories and thoughts began to blur together in a tangled, indiscernible mess...the mind wipe she craved as badly as oxygen was utter bliss. But there was one thing the spice couldn't do for her, and that was remove her connection to the Force. From what she had learned contacting other rogue Force users who were scattered around the moon, that was nearly impossible. She could hope.

It must have been a couple of hours since her last dose now, because her senses had returned to normal, leaving only a dull, throbbing buzz in the back of her skull. It was safe to try walking again without risking blundering into anyone that might try turning her in to the Hutts as a trophy. She had been scouting out nearby establishments with the hopes of slipping in while the bouncers were distracted to swindle a meal or a few drinks from one of the patrons (it was amazing what a lady could get for free with a simple Force persuade trick, or occasionally just fluttering her eyelashes if they were already drunk enough!) when she spotted a familiar face conversing with a shady-looking Rodian. The Mirialan man from the bar a few days ago. Some form of stupidity possessed her then, and Aria abandoned her original mission to follow him to the loading docks. She wasn't quite sure why, perhaps she had hoped to hitch a ride off-world. She'd come narrowly close to being found by a group of Jedi one time too many lately and Nar Shaddaa was no longer the safe haven it had once been for her….or perhaps she was simply bored and looking for a bit more excitement. She didn't think too hard about it, her attention rather focused on the Mirialan as he stooped to pick up a stack of crates and began loading them onto an XS model freighter. An all too familiar smell wafted through a crack in one of the containers that made her mouth water. Spice.

So he was a smuggler. Aria kept her distance as she watched him from behind a tall stack of shipment crates, shrinking backwards with a startled exclamation as he dropped the crate he had been lifting to look directly at her.
“I know you're back there, shorty...why are you following me?” He called, a hint of amusement to his tone. “C'mon I'm not falling for that bantha crap!” he added, not fooled by her attempt to remain quiet and pretend he had been imagining the moment their eyes had locked.
“How’d you know it was me?” she muttered, straightening up and smoothing the wrinkles out of her synthleather jumpsuit where she had been crouched down.
His teeth flashed in a grin.
“I know a junkie when I see one. This stuff’s going off world if that's what you were after.”
Her gaze darted from the container at his feet back to his eyes.
"Off world? Got room for one more?” He laughed and shook his head.
“I fly solo now, last time I took someone on the son of a bantha stole my ship and I had a hells own job getting her back.”
Aria swiped her tongue over her lips, huffing an impatient sigh.
"Please? I'm just trying to stay out of the loop. I can't pay you, my credit chits are dry, but…” it was a risk, a big one, but she lifted the dark cloak that draped across her back to reveal the lightsaber hilts concealed at her hip. “I can help you out, give you protection.”

The smuggler eyed the weapons carefully, and broke into another toothy grin.
“You're a Jedi?! What you running from, kid?”
She shook her head, eyes narrowed.
“I don't work for the Jedi, I'm trying to get away from them. I just need a ride okay, can you give me one or not?”
He picked up the box he had set at his feet and jerked his chin up the loading ramp for her to follow.
“Double cross me and I'll put one right between your eyes, kid.”
“I'm twenty, I ain't a kid!” Aria snarled, skittering into the ship behind him.
“You didn't answer my other question,” He glanced over his shoulder as he stepped down into the cargo hold, “What you running from?”
She peered down at him through the opening in the ship’s floor, lowering another crate down to him as he gestured for it.
“I'd rather not go into details or I'd be taking public transport. Just suffice to say I'm trying to stay out everyone’s way, I don't want anything to do with the war anymore.”
“Fair enough.” the Mirialan chuckled. “Well, you're not the only one. Welcome aboard the Silver Zephyr, miss ‘trying to avoid everyone’. Don't scratch the paint, don't touch the cargo unless I tell you to, and we'll get along just fine.”
After climbing back out into the main seating area, he extended a hand towards her, which she hesitantly grasped and shook.
“The name's Merak Shenly. You got a name, or should I just keep calling you ‘shorty’?”
Aria considered lying, but withdrawal was beginning to make her head pound and she couldn't come up with anything believable.
“Aria. J-Just Aria is fine.” she swallowed, forcing a thin smile. Don't tell him your last name, a voice in her head told her, he might know who you are.
She'd learned to trust the voice. It was usually right.

Chapter Text

Merak turned out to be pretty good company, so much so that she had remained on the Silver Zephyr with the smuggler even after they had docked in the next spaceport. He was charming in a rugged and friendly sort of way without being overbearing, and didn’t seem to be interested in anything other than her company, which had been a major concern of hers after first signing on with him. The smuggler turned out to be far more friendly than he had appeared at his initial response to her, and confessed on one trip that he was glad to have humanoid company again after many years with nothing but the ship’s droid for company. Aria had begun to enjoy their company despite her former misgivings, too. The droid, a modified KM1 mining model which Merak affectionately referred to as “Clank” because of the way it clattered whenever it moved, was spunky and amusing in and of itself. The Mirialan claimed it was due to holding back on memory wipes unless they were absolutely essential.
“Gives them more character that way, makes them less boring.” he explained. Aria hadn’t remembered laughing quite so much in a very long time.

Mostly, Merak worked for the highest bidder, taking on varied cargo from relief supplies and ammunitions to Republic platoons stranded in Imperial or Hutt space and awaiting aid, to peddling spice and sometimes less than legal weapon mods for Hutt cartel lords and their allies. Lately, he explained, the legal contracts were harder to come by and he had to take what he could to keep income rolling in to maintain the ship and his droid companion. He seemed relieved when she promised him that she didn't care which people he chose to work for. As far as she was concerned, keeping her existence off the radar of both the Jedi and the Sith was all that mattered, as long as she kept usage of her Force talents to a minimum she was just another common criminal to any of the authorities on the planets they visited, and if they were ever arrested she would simply be treated as such. She'd even tried to keep them from Merak as much as possible...though there had been a few situations where a quick and discreet use of Force persuasion had gotten them out of a tight situation; though the Mirialan shot her suspicious glances after several of the exchanges, Aria was grateful that he seemed willing to do her the courtesy of not pressing her about it. Aria had originally intended to jump ship again at the next spaceport and leave the smuggler in the dust, but the temptation of an easy hit from the spice cargo in the hold had proved too much and she found herself unable to refuse his offer to stay on with him longer. Her quick ride off Nar Shaddaa had become an impromptu partnership that had so far lasted a few months without blowing up in her face. They did not argue about very much; Merak didn't appear bothered by her self-imposed secrecy on her origins, only irked by, as he called it, her ‘irritating habit of taking samples out of the cargo and thinking he'd never notice’. While he frequently reprimanded her for it, the Mirialan man had never taken other measures to keep her out of the glitteryll, so most of his scolding went right over her head and Aria just ignored him. Some days she felt bad for blatantly continuing to steal spice from their contractors, most days she didn't care.
Sticking with Merak as a partner hadn't been a bad decision, she reflected as she sat at the controls while Merak tweaked with some of Clank’s circuits in the maintenance bay. Travelling with them kept her moving, they never stayed on one planet more than a couple of days, which meant no time to risk getting spotted by somebody that might recognise her, which was exactly what she had wanted when she had been fumbling for an existence on the smuggler’s moon. That, and she had free access to any stims or spice they ended up transporting. It was better than having to pay exorbitant amounts of credits to a dealer for the same purpose. She glanced up as Merak returned to the cockpit and shifted across into the co-pilot’s seat once more, allowing her companion to take his place at the controls.
“Manage to fix him up?” the poor droid hadn’t been functioning optimally the past few days; his circuits were extremely old and could have done with complete replacement...if they could have found a dealer who sold the correct parts. After the mining facility that had orbited Peragus II had been blown to pieces the KM1 droids who had been essential to the mining operation had become somewhat obsolete. Very few people had need for such a baseline quadrupedal model, most people preferred the more robust bipedal protocol droids or the ever-faithful astromechs.
“As best I can with what we've got right now.” the Mirialan sighed through his teeth. “We really need to find some new...er, parts.” it would be impossible to get mint condition parts for such an old model, but certainly within the realm of possibility to come across parts in a better state than Clank’s current circuits.
“We might find some parts here on Taris.” Aria pointed out, leaning back in her seat as the Zephyr coasted down through the planet’s atmosphere and into the spaceport landing bay.
“I suppose, yes.” Merak grunted agreement as he killed the engines and got up from his seat. “Though we'd be lucky to find anybody that wasn't a scientist in this place, if you ask me. All they do is study the Rakghouls.”
“Well, they have security turrets and customs droids don't they?” Aria snorted, following the Mirialan man down the ramp. “They need fixing, and maintaining.”
Her partner muttered reluctant agreement as he brushed past her and headed down the loading ramp.
“Maybe. But we're here to pick up cargo, not go shopping.”
“I could go and look while you collect the cargo.” Aria protested as she trailed after him.
"Sure, like you went shopping last time I asked you to collect supplies for me?" he snorted.
"I promise this time...come on, we've got to repair Clank or we'll have to get a new droid." Aria protested. "You don't want that, do you?"

Merak considered this for a moment as they stepped out of the spaceport and into the complex, then stopped again to fish a bag of credit chits out of his pocket.“Alright, fine.” he tossed the bag towards her; Aria caught it in one hand and let it balance in her palm. “But you spend it on droid parts.” the Mirialan enunciated firmly, giving her a sternly disapproving look. “Not anything else, you hear?”
The shorter woman rolled her eyes, retorting with a snort of protest.
“Tsk, you smoke! Don't lecture me, Mer.” The exchange was not abnormal for them, nor could Aria claim that his suspicions were unfounded, when she had initially spent money he had given her for supplies on her next hit; their contracts with the Hutts had run dry for that time and Aria had burnt through her personal stash in the characteristic speed for a glit-biter(1), she'd had no choice but to buy more or suffer the awful withdrawal symptoms without it. She doubted there would be very many spice peddlars in a spaceport with as much traffic as Taris had been getting lately, the risk of being discovered by the authorities was too high to be worth it.
Even so, Merak’s blue eyes bored into her, the smuggler still appeared unamused.
“I smoke tobacco.” he huffed. “That's not illegal. Chewing spice is illegal, Aria.”
“And smuggling it, along with contraband supplies, under the noses of authorities from both sides isn't?” she raised an eyebrow at her companion. The smuggler’s expression softened into one of amusement as they exited the docking bay and stopped in the entryway of the spaceport.
“Alright, smartass. Just see if you can find a vendor toting old KM-1 compatible parts. Peragus II had the fuel monopoly in this part of the galaxy back in the day, you might be right and get lucky.” with that said, Merak waved her off and jogged out of sight down the steps and into the Olaris settlement.

Aria made her way down a little more slowly, tucking the bag of credits into her pocket as she took in her surroundings. A stark contrast to what had once been an entirely urban world, since Taris had been bombed by a psychotic Sith Lord many years ago, native flora and fauna had slowly begun to regrow amongst the ruins. The Republic had moved in and established a reasonable presence here not too long ago, but much of the planet was still plagued by the fearsome Rakghouls. Nasty, bloodthirsty creatures with six inch claws (2) and serrated teeth, one simple bite could spread the deadly plague virus to its unfortunate victim. In the aftermath of the bombings, they had run rampant and now the planet’s surface was crawling with them. The towering stone wall that encircled the entire boundary of the settlement kept the monsters out, far too high for them to scale it and with state of the art defense droids and Republic troopers standing watch at the only gate they were able to gun down any Rakghoul that got too close for comfort. There was no shortage of vendors in Olaris, all peddling various wares from blaster pistols and vibroblades to weapons upgrades (including those for lightsabers, which she made a note to investigate further at a later date) to speeders. Very few seemed to have any sort of droid parts, however.
Even the speeder vendor, whom she had counted on possessing mechanical inventory, informed her that he had nothing that would be compatible with a KM1 chassis. Aria was beginning to get frustrated with the whole endeavour.
"Surely you must know someone on the planet that might have what I'm looking for?”
“Sorry, miss.” the cyborg man apologised. “Most of those models went out of commission when the Peragus station blew up. (3)” he scratched his chin in thought, before following up with another suggestion. “You could try asking around at Waypoint Aurek. It's the next station along, they have a lot more droids there to protect the scientific facility in case anything goes uh...wrong with the studies. If your friend is a good enough mechanic to keep an old KM1 running as long as he has then they may have some spare parts you can put something together with.”

It was the best lead she had been given since the start of her search, and it was worth a shot or else they may have to replace old Clank with an astromech. Aria thanked the vendor and caught the next taxi to Aurek station. Aurek was much the same as Olaris, save for perhaps more security droids actively patrolling the walls instead of troopers. Aria’s attention was immediately drawn to a large crowd of people gathered around a woman who appeared to be speaking with great conviction. As she moved closer, Aria caught some of what was said:
“There is no disease in known space to multiply as quickly as the Tarisian Rakghoul plague. Even one individual Rakghoul can trigger a pandemic, as is shown by the eighty one observed colonies to date.” they must be the scientists the locals had spoken of, then. The rogue Force user was tempted to simply tune out the rest of the information, but found herself curious as the doctor spoke of development of a vaccine in order to get the disease under control and increase their chances of successfully re-colonising the planet. As the group of supporters-or perhaps they were medical students?-dispersed, she stepped forward to ask a question of her own.
“You're working on a vaccine?”
The other human turned to face her and emitted a frustrated snort.
“ ‘Working on’ is a very generous way of putting it, miss. The last breakthrough research was made three centuries ago by a doctor Forn just before the first bombardment.” Heaving another sigh, the doctor rested her hands on her hips. “I'm doctor Ianna Cel. I've been trying to acquire the serum but it's proving...tricky.”
Great. More people that needed her help. It was beginning to get annoying, she owed too many people favours now and she really didn't want to be adding to it...however it wasn't like she could shrug nonchalantly and walk away now.
"How so?”
“There's a pirate camp not far from here, holed up in the ruins of the Memorial Hospital. There are rumors they have the serum but without Republic help I can't get to it. Commander Viqui wasn't prepared to get involved since the pirates technically have legal salvage rights there.”
Pirates...they could have salvaged old tech that Merak could make use of. Chewing her lip, Aria tilted her head as she enquired further about the pirates.
"Pirates, you say? Any idea what they've salvaged down there? I've got a faulty droid that needs fixing and I could use the spare parts.”
“I wouldn't know.” the doctor shook her head. “The pirates are pretty dangerous, I'm a doctor, not a soldier. I can't fight through them just to go looking for the serum, much as I want to.”
“I can handle a few pirates.” Aria smirked, crossing her arms over her chest. “I think I'll take my chances.” As she turned to make her exit, Doctor Cel called after her, her voice somewhat frantic.
“If...if you’re heading down that way, and it’s all the same to you...if you could find that serum and bring it back to me, I’d be most grateful.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Aria noted the red haired woman shifting her weight nervously.
“I’m not your errand boy. I’m just here to pick up jobs and get the supplies I need.”
The good doctor latched onto that statement and persisted. Jeez, she must want that serum pretty badly after all.
“I can't pay you,  but there are others in the Republic who could, and would, reimburse you for your help. You'd get a lot of recognition, then maybe you wouldn’t have to steal from pirates to get your supplies.”
Aria groaned in frustration, rolling her eyes as she turned to face Cel again.
“I’m not making any promises, Doctor.” she muttered. “I’m not a Jedi or some Republic trooper, but if I happen to see it while I’m down there, I might pick it up for you.”
Cel nodded, a glint of hopeful optimism appearing in her eyes.
"That's all I ask. That serum could save a lot of people, if you can find it.”

The pirates that had apparently been so fearsome that they had been giving all the locals trouble weren't that hard to deal with. But perhaps it was easy to say that when you were someone with a lightsaber. Ordinarily she would prefer not to use the weapon, it drew far too much attention to herself...but in this situation, with pirates firing at her from all directions, it was foolish not to make use of the weapons at her disposal that could deflect the shots aimed for her. Fighting her way through the hoarde of gun-wielding pirates was tedious more than anything else, but after cutting down a fair portion of them, the two left guarding the hospital’s entrance had the sense to give her a wide berth after shooting her a dirty glare. The facility was dingy and run down. She was honestly surprised the building was still standing, what with the large gaping chunks missing from seventy percent of the walls on the upper levels, the rest of the stone appeared to be steadily crumbling away too. The upper levels held nothing of value despite a thorough search, only more hostiles and debris. Here and there alcoves had been created by chunks of the ceiling caving in beside support pillars or in corners of the room, in these alcoves sheltered more pirates and perhaps most startling, Republic troopers who appeared to be suffering from the beginning stages of the Rakghoul infection. Aria dodged around them when she could, and cut them down with her lightsaber when she couldn't. Just when she was beginning to think this would be far more trouble than it was worth, the rogue Force user leapt down the remains of another staircase onto one of the lower levels and stumbled upon an impromptu treatment facility of sorts. Old oil lamps hung precariously from makeshift holders on the walls, casting a dim, fiery orange glow about the area. Threadbare mattresses were laid out in two rows of eight with a walkway between each row and a gap wide enough for one person to stand between each “bed”. On each bed lay a person, all of different species, completely still but for the eerie moans they emitted at odd intervals. Aria turned her head to examine the other side of the room and took in a similar layout of mattresses in front of three disused Kolto tanks. A loud, rasping cough drew Aria's attention away from the makeshift beds to the farthest corner from the rest of the patients, where a lone Twi'lek girl sat hunched over with her back against the wall. At first it seemed odd that she should be so far from the other patients, but as Aria carefully moved closer the girl’s head shot upwards and she watched the rogue Force user moving around the room with red-rimmed eyes. Unlike the others, she appeared to be very much aware of Aria's presence.
“Ya ain’t doctor Ryamn.” she croaked. Cautiously, Aria approached the young Twi'lek. While she was certainly unwell, it was safe to conclude that the girl didn't have the Rakghoul plague...yet. Her skin, which should have normally been a bright berry blue, had taken on a sickly greyish-purple tint, her cheekbones jutted out prominently and made her look even more sickly. She was so thin, Aria had to admire her resilience to cling to life despite her illness.
“There's still a doctor in this place? I was told it was abandoned.” Aria frowned. “I'm only looking for a few things.”

The Twi'lek tried to laugh, but the gesture wracked her spindly frame with another violent coughing spasm and it was almost another two minutes before she could regain her faculties enough to choke out:
“Wh-ha’? Y-Ya git b-bit too? (4)” despite her condition, she managed to crack a wry smile, which Aria had to admire. The rogue Jedi shook her head.
“No, I didn't get bitten. I'm looking for old instruments...mechanical parts, that sort of thing.” she was well aware that out of context, it was a strange request...so it shouldn't have been a surprise to see the young Twi'lek frown.
“Wha’ for?” as Aria explained the need to find older parts, the girl gestured towards the workstation she had glimpsed on first entering the facility. “Doc keeps ‘is in-instrument’s over th-ere. ‘e won’t be ‘a-ppy b-bout you takin’ stuff though.”
Aria simply shrugged and paid the warning no mind, heading over to the worktop.
“Sorry kid, but I need the stuff. Gotta fix our droid.”
Upon her mention of needing a droid fixed, the girl’s face brightened up somewhat.
“Y-Ya n-eed a dr-oid fixed, I could h-elp ya!” the smile almost reached her eyes. “I’m good at….at fixin’ dr-oids!”
Aria had to raise an eyebrow dubiously at the insinuation, turning back to face the young Twi’lek.
"You? You can hardly stand.” When the girl gave no further response, Aria returned her attention to the workbench.

Several old medical instruments were arranged as neatly as possible in the small space, a vial of viscous looking fluid stood in the center....if that wasn't the serum Cel was after, she didn't know what was. As Aria reached out to pick up the vial however, a blue green Twi'lek rushed out towards her, shouting:
“You picked the wrong med bay to rob, vac-brain! There's gonna be two hundred Death’s Claw pirates knocking down that door any second now!”
Aria raised an eyebrow and caught his eye, a smirk playing over her lips.
“Two hundred? I doubt that, I killed an awful lot of them.” she tapped the hilt of her lightsaber for good measure. It would be...unfortunate, if he started something and she had to kill him too but if needs must…
The Twi'lek, who must have been this Doctor Ryamn the kid had mentioned earlier, faltered and inched backwards a little.
“Uh huh, you see those guys back there?” he gave a nod towards the writhing soldiers on the mattresses behind him. “They've got the Rakghoul plague, you touch me and they'll be on you like Hutts on a buffet. Just...faster. If it wasn't for that serum…”
“Ah, so it does work?” Aria nodded. “Good. I need it.”
“Yeah, we've been using it to-” the doctor’s enthusiastic explanation cut off as he finally seemed to register what Aria had actually said. “Wait, no! You can't take it! That serum is the only thing stopping them from turning, do you know what that means?! They'll turn on me and I'll have to shoot them all in the head before they try to eat my liver!”
Feeling her patience wearing thin, Aria fought not to roll her eyes.
“That's too bad. You're a doctor, right? Just make more.” she snorted, snatching up the serum and rolling the vial in her palm. The doctor’s lekku twitched in agitation.
“With what?! These state-of-the-art facilities?!” he bellowed, gesturing at the ramshackled equipment around them with a broad sweep of both his arms. “This tech is too old, I can only use what I can find and nowadays that isn’t very much at all!” before Aria could speak again, a thoughtful look crossed the alien doctor’s features and he proclaimed, in a cheerful voice as though this solved both of their problems at once. “The only place I can think of that might have some lying around is the ruins of Dynamet General. The place is basically ghoul town.”
“I don’t have time to waste fighting through more Rakghouls.” Aria answered flatly, her fist still clenched tightly around the vial. “I’ve done enough of that to get here.”
Ryamn lunged for her and tried to snatch the vial out of the rogue Force user’s hand. Aria had to leap backwards to prevent him from grabbing it since he was several inches taller than her.
“You can’t just take it and leave us here! We’ll both die!” 

Behind Ryamn, the young Twi’lek staggered to her feet with considerable effort; her voice sounded a bit steadier than before, but still scratchy as if another bout of coughing threatened to take over her any minute.
“Please, wha’ if I could ‘elp ya find tha’ other serum, would ya leave this one ‘ere with Doc Ryamn then? Don’ let these people turn into those monsters.”
Aria’s gaze flicked between the pair, arms crossed over her chest.
“You're no healthier than the rest of the people here kid, what makes you think you can help me?”
“I ain't sick like the rest of ‘em!” the girl protested, her lekku wobbling as she shook her head. “I ain't gonna turn into a monster!”
“She's just sick.” Doctor Ryamn spoke up. “It's Bybbec fever (5), very treatable if you have the right herbs....I've done what I can to help her but I don't have the resources to cure her completely.”
A frustrated groan left Aria's lips as she glanced upwards at the ceiling for a moment, collecting herself.
“I'm not a doctor. I can't help her.”
Yet again, the Twi'lek man's gaze dropped to the lightsaber hilt resting at her belt.
“But you're a Jedi.”
"No. No, I'm not.” Aria snorted, fixing him with an unmoving glare. “I want nothing to do with them. I just happen to own a lightsaber and know how to use it, that's all.”

Doctor Ryamn frowned at her, his lekku twitching again
“Jedi or not, I know you can help us...why won't you?”
“I don't like sticking my neck out for other people, it never pays off.” the rogue Force user growled, extending her hand out and dropping the vial unceremoniously into Ryamn’s palm. “I'll go and check the other hospital, once. You better not be wasting my time, Twi'lek.”
An audible sigh of relief came from the doctor.
“Oh, thank you, thank you! It's there, I swear to you on my medical licence...the real one!”
As she turned to leave, her eyes fell on the sick young girl again and briefly that feeling of pity welled up in Aria's chest before she squashed it down and reminded herself that it wasn't her problem.

She hadn't rooted around in the medical cabinet of the Zephyr’s medbay, but Aria could feel reasonably assured they didn't have the supplies to cure Bybbec fever. Her Force healing abilities were amateur at best, no...this was out of her control. Out here it was survival of the fittest, if the kid was meant to survive then she would, somehow. It wasn't up to her to interfere with that.

Chapter Text

Dynamet General, on the surface at least, appeared to be in better condition than the Memorial Hospital.  The overall structure had remained intact, with four solid walls and most of a ceiling present, bar a few large gaping holes that cast large patches of the late afternoon sunlight onto the cold floors. There were no pirates here, but there were Rakghouls aplenty on the overgrown pathways leading up to the hospital, even the invasive Nexu cat packs fled from the fearsome Tarisian natives.  As was to be expected, with an increased number of Rakghouls, instead of pirates Aria encountered vast groups of former Republic troopers who had been sent by Saresh or some other chief of security to investigate the area, and had subsequently fallen victim to the plague themselves. They had not quite turned yet, but they were in the final stages of the process: feverish, delirious and highly aggressive to any life form they detected within close enough proximity. Avoiding them proved rather difficult, since it seemed that the beasts lurked around every single corner. Aria had to keep her senses on high alert to avoid being caught off guard as she ventured further into the abandoned hospital. The one saving grace of the Rakghoul plague was that while they were semi-sentient, at least the ‘ghouls were not Force sensitive….she and Merak often made trips out to this part of the galaxy however, and lately on the news a rather disconcerting scientific study had been airing; xenologists on Taris had come upon another sub-population of the beasts which apparently did possess the supernatural abilities: Nekghouls, the scientists had called them. Smarter and larger than their Rakghoul brethren, the Nekghouls inhabited several of the areas nearby to Dynamet’s ruins, swarming in such large numbers that it was entirely unsafe for humans to pass by the area. The thought of meeting a Nekghoul set Aria’s teeth on edge, the slightest noise or movement in her surroundings prompted her to reach for her saber, or tense poised to fire a blast of Force energy only to discover the source of the sound had merely been a Nexu cat, or a gust of wind stirring the ruins. It began to make her feel uneasy, she could no longer discern which sounds were in fact real from other sounds she was merely imagining in her head; which made it far more difficult to tell whether or not she was being followed. Every shadow grew a pair of eyes and sprouted razor talons ready to shred her to ribbons if she let her guard down. She ascended to the next floor, finding it as much empty as the one before it. A few ramshackled structures that may have once been kolto tanks stood against the half of the wall that was still intact, shattered glass strewn about the floors by the impact of the mortar that had hit the hospital. On her closer inspection, there were a few components left in the monitoring interface that she was able to carefully extract for her re-use. Aria froze mid way through tucking the central chip and it's surrounding wires into her pack, however, as she heard the glass crunch under footsteps that weren't her own. The rogue Force user turned sharply, expecting to come face to face with gnashing teeth or even the butt of a pirate’s blaster rifle, only to find the space unnervingly empty. Her gut told her that she was being followed, but when waiting in silence for a few minutes yielded no further noises or sightings, Aria forced herself to push her misgivings aside and keep looking; nearly two years of glit-biting was bound to have affected her connection to the Force and her senses were undoubtedly not as sharp as they used to be.

By the time she reached the uppermost levels of Dynamet hospital, her nerves were all but completely frayed. As she reached the top of the final staircase, her knuckles gripped her lightsaber so tightly that they had turned white. The further up she went in the structure, the more the stone walls seemed to have crumbled in on themselves, which Aria reasoned was an advantage, at least now she would see a Nekghoul approaching before it could creep up on her. And yet, there were no Nekghouls up here to be found, only a few scattered pockets of troopers with the Republic ensignia emblazoned on their breasts, but the savage, empty eyes of a Rakghoul. Needless to say, she had little choice but to kill them before they ripped her guts out first. Not like even this mystical Rakghoul serum would save them now, in a few more days they would be mutated beyond recognition. She was sure that the humans that they had once been would have thanked her for the quicker end they met at the blade of her lightsaber, if they had been able to. Aria’s lip curled in distaste as she planted her foot into the chest of the limp body on the end of her weapon and kicked it unceremoniously off the side of the ruined hospital building. Several stories up and hours of searching, with practically nothing to show for it! The spliced tech parts might save their droid, sure, but she could have just as easily found a salvage peddlar in one of the settlements and bought them rather than wasting her time looking for a serum that clearly didn’t exist (because if it did, she would have found it by now!)
Aria was beginning to regret not walking out of that other place with the vial of serum in her hand.
“Damn Twi’lek, lied to me.” she snarled to herself, peering sourly through a hole in the floor at the dark expanse of the levels below. She’d combed every last one of them on her way up here, almost got her throat ripped out, and not once had she seen a sniff of the serum he had claimed would be ‘here for the taking’. She was just contemplating marching back over there to bully it out of him again, when a weak Force presence approaching from the stairwell behind her startled her. Aria spun around on her heels sharply, extending a hand in a pinching gesture to lift the terrible beast the remaining distance up the staircase and several feet into the air, tightening its throat as it went.

Only to find that the being she held in her grip was not the Nekghoul she had been expecting, but the sickly Twi’lek girl from the hospital (1). Her skin flushed darkly in distress as the young girl’s legs kicked feebly in an attempt to escape the invisible hands clamping her airway shut, bony fingers clutched at her throat as she stared at Aria with wide, frightened eyes.

The rogue Force user spat angrily as she released the pressure instantly, the Twi’lek hanging in mid-air for a few seconds before she thumped heavily onto the rickety stone floor with an alarmed shriek.
KARKIN’ HELL(2), kid! I could’ve killed you!”
“N-no...kiddin’!” the Twi’lek hacked once between the words, clearing her throat as she staggered clumsily back to her feet. When she spoke next she had managed to steady her intonation once more, though the accent still remained. “Wha’ kinda Jedi are teachin'ya stuff like tha’? Ain't none I know of!”
Her words did nothing to appease the human's anger.
“I told you, I'm not a bloody Jedi.” she growled, her eyes narrowed to slits as she glared at the Twi’lek girl. “What are you doing here anyways; and how’d you get past the Nekghouls and the pirates?!”
The grin that split her face was so broad it looked like it might have shattered her cheekbones, being as frail as she was.
“I used ta explore this place all th’ time, ‘fore I got sick, so I know all th’ shortcuts, duuuh! I been followin’ ya th’ whole time an’ ya didn’ even know I was ‘ere!” she boasted proudly, her chest puffing out.
“Shortcuts?” Aria repeated the word slowly, though in her mind she was already turning over her options. If this kid could sneak around, despite her illness, and claimed she knew the layout of this place…
“Yeah, ‘ow else? Place is crawlin’ with ‘ghouls.” talk about stating the obvious! Aria steered the conversation away from the creatures and back to their current situation.
“Why’d you follow me?”
“Wanted ta see if ya really were a Jedi, or jus’ some crazy ‘ead’unter with a few saber trophies.” the Twi’lek shrugged, then beamed at her again. “ ‘n then I was tryna ‘elp.”
“I told you, I don’t need your help.” Aria snarled, stomping past the girl to head back down the stairs. “Look, you mean well - I get it, but you’ll just slow me down and I do not need you dropping dead on me in the middle of Ghoul Town(3).”
“Ya do!” she sniffed petulantly. “Yer goin’ th’ wrong way!”
“Excuse me?!” Aria snorted without stopping or turning around.
“I said, yer goin’ th’ wrong way! Serum’s hidden in one o’ th’ underground labs.”
This time, the rogue Force user froze with one foot on the step below and the other still on the previous one; it had not once occured to her that there may have been facilities belowground. “ ‘Ow else d’ya think it survived all them bombin’s?” 
Aria wanted to smack her forehead off her palm at her own stupidity. Of course there was a bunker, this was Taris. She pivoted to turn and face her again, huffing out a breath before she asked, in the most amicable tone she could muster.
"What’s your name, kid?”

 

“Ziv’erikreen(4), tho in Basic(5) most people tend ta jus’ call me Ziri.” she shrugged as if it made no difference to her, stuffing her hands into her pockets.
“Ziri, then.” Aria sighed, running a hand through her hair. “Can you show me where this lab is? I don’t have time to waste looking for it and my alternative is to go back to your good Doctor and take his, which I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t.”
As expected, Ziri found that quite agreeable and soon led the way to the underground bunker where the serum was hidden. It was well concealed, hidden by overgrown foliage beneath the half-collapsed ledge of one of the upper floors, so it came as no surprise that it had passed under Aria’s radar on her first search. They had to kill a few more packs of Rakghouls to get right into the facility, easy enough with Aria’s lightsaber, and Ziri proved to be reasonably adept with the small blaster she had brought along with her. As promised, once they reached the locker, the Twi’lek cracked the combination in nothing flat and inside sat a vial of the green-ish tinted Rakghoul serum.

It hadn’t been obvious before, but in the confined space of the bunker Aria realised that she had in fact been sensing a Force presence after all; it had not been from a nearby Nekghoul, however, but from this young Twi’lek. It certainly explained how she had been able to survive this long despite catching quite a nasty disease, and how she may have been able to (unintentionally) conceal her own Force presence to sneak past the Rakghouls and Aria’s own senses. More than that, too, Ziri had proved she certainly did know her way around mechanical parts by slicing into that centuries-old locking mechanism far quicker than Aria was sure she or Merak could have managed. Her first intentions had been to simply escort the girl back to the other Twi’lek in the makeshift hospital; as she turned these observations over in her mind, a new idea came to her, however.
“...Ziri.” she broached the subject carefully as they left the ruins of Dynamet General behind them. “I know you’ve been ill for a long time, but you know that if you didn’t have the...abilities that you do, you wouldn’t still be alive, don’t you?”
“I dunno ‘bout tha’.” the Twi’lek shrugged, kicking a loose pebble with her shoe. “I dunno ‘ow it even works really, I jus’ know I can sneak around an’ even though I feel sick I can still carry on. Don’t mean nothin’ though, does it?”
“Actually, it might. Only the Force could give you abilities like that. But even the Force can’t stop this fever from making you really ill, eventually.”
Ziri’s forehead crinkled uneasily, her lekku twitching.
“Wha’ you sayin’? I ain’t gonna die...not yet. Doc Ryamn said ya can fix this thing I got, with medicine.”
“If you stay here, you will.” Aria continued. “But, if you were serious when you said you could fix our droid...I might be able to persuade my partner to let you come aboard with us. I can try and help you get better-”
The Twi’lek’s eyes brightened up in delight at the mention of a cure for her ailments, but Aria quickly cut her off before she could interrupt. “But it’s not going to happen overnight, okay? Or even in a week, and I can’t even promise it’ll work! I’m not a Jedi, I don’t have their mystical healing powers, okay?”
Ziri proclaimed gleefully that she would take any chance she could get at getting better, and that settled that.

________________

Merak was less than impressed to discover the girl’s presence when he returned to the Zephyr two hours after Aria had constructed a makeshift quarters for Ziri in a section of the cargo hold. In the hair-raising first few seconds that he had discovered her, the Mirialan pilot had pulled his blaster out and levelled it with the girl’s head before Aria, hearing the commotion, raced down the corridor, leapt between them and implored for him to listen before he let any weapon off on the unsuspecting youngster.
His eyes narrowed dangerously at the shorter human woman, though he complied and tucked the blaster back into its holster on his belt.
“You know, I didn’t think anything you could do would make me more angry than the time you spent our supply money on spice. I was wrong.”
“Mer, just hear me out, please-”
“What, you think cause I put up with you we’ll just take any old kid on board now, too?!” Merak’s arms crossed over his chest, his glare no less sour the longer Aria took to answer. “Well?! Start talking before I throw you both out of the airlock.”
“Oh, don’t be such a fucking baby.” Aria scoffed, glaring right back at him. “She can fix Clank.”
Merak’s eyes almost rolled into the ceiling with the sheer level of his exasperation.
“I told you, I can fix the droid myself - if you got me the parts - and you bring me a sick street urchin instead.” 
'EY!” Ziri coughed violently in protest. “I ain’t no urchin, I can take care of meself!”
“She’s just sick, it’s Bybbec fever, Mer. You can’t even catch it (6).”

 

The Mirialan rounded on her again.
“That’s not my point, Aria!” he jabbed an accusatory finger at her collarbone. Aria scowled back at him, taking a step away from him again as she retorted.
“I wasn’t just going to leave her to die in that hell hole they called a hospital.”
A snort of derision left Merak.
“Well aren’t you a bloody saint all of a sudden! I said no.”
“She goes, I go.” Aria threatened, knowing he wouldn’t take the risk of flying solo again. She’d made herself far too useful for the smuggler to lose. The rogue Force user tapped her foot impatiently in the silence that followed. As if to cement her standing, she added in a sharp tone. “And just so we’re clear, I picked up a shit ton of old scrap parts that might be of use.” she all but threw the pouch of credit chits back at him. “Didn’t have to spend a penny, don’t trip over yourself thanking me, asshole.” 
“For the love of…!” the Mirialan grunted, barely catching the cloth purse before it hit him square in the face. He shot a final look over at the frail Twi’lek behind his business partner, scoffed again, and muttered: “FINE! But if she slows us down, I’m throwing her out the next time we make port!”

Chapter Text

Despite his initial grumblings, Merak had slowly warmed up to Ziri in the past few months that she had been with them. Good. He’s going to need her. Aria thought to herself as she watched her travelling partners from across the table. As time wore on, Ziri’s demeanour continued to improve; Aria had twisted some arms of a few gang bosses from Nar Shaddaa to Coruscant -  and everywhere in between - to acquire the healing herbs which the doctor on Taris had been missing from his concoctions. Regular doses of the tonic produced from it, coupled together with healing meditation (to the best of Aria’s abilities), seemed to be making a vast improvement on her condition. Within a month her breathing sounded easier, and when one month became two the coughing fits subsided. Nearly 18 months later, and it was impossible to tell that she had ever been sick at all. Putting weight back onto her frail frame had taken much longer (another six months), but she was finally looking healthy again. They’d beaten the worst of it and Aria couldn’t help but feel a small surge of pride that she had been responsible for the girl’s remarkable recovery. Six months down the line, and Ziri was well enough to accompany them to the cantina on their supply stops instead of being consigned to watching the ship with Clank. Aria watched as Ziri’s features split into an ear-to-ear grin after she cracked another wise ass comment that almost caused Merak to choke on his next swig of his drink. Aria smirked mildly to keep up the illusion that she had been listening to their conversation.

In truth, her mind was elsewhere. Her thoughts had wandered since taking Ziri on; it was almost as if the act of trying to connect to the girl’s Force presence during their meditation sessions had triggered long-forgotten, buried memories within her. She had grown used to the night terrors over the years, the blurred faces and disembodied voices begging for mercy in the moments before she ended their life, but these memories were different. The voice was calm, gentle fingers stroked through her hair as she told Aria that everything would be alright. But then, it also brought sadness and anguish, as she called out for Aria and received no answer. Sometimes, she saw her face, blurred and out of focus but still there, and almost, for a moment, tangible. But every time Aria tried to reach for her, the visions dissipated and she would wake crying like a lost Kath pup and drenched in a cold sweat, as always.

Sometimes, in the waking world Aria fancied that she could hear her voice too, desperately reaching for contact with her….but she knew this was a trick of her mind. The bond they had once shared had long been blocked by the spice and the alcohol she had lived on for the past 5 years. Her connection to the Force wasn’t as strong as it had once been, as a result of the drugs, meaning the chances of reconnecting the bond (even if she had wanted to) were slim to none. Aria was alarmed to find that she regretted that. She missed her.

If her mind was not occupied with sorting through those visions, she was obsessively on the lookout for a certain Cathar Jedi who seemed to have an annoying habit of popping up wherever she happened to be. This was not the first time, and Aria knew with a foreboding sense of dread that it wouldn’t be the last, either….

___________________________

Their first encounter, roughly eighteen months prior, caught Aria completely off guard. She and Merak stopped on Nar Shaddaa again to pick up a contract for a Hutt (questionable, sure, but they paid well and they could hardly do to be picky after all). The smugglers had not expected to encounter a trio of Jedi in the middle of the streets leading up to the Promenade. It was no secret that the Hutts held no favour for the Republic and if pressed would much more likely interact with the Sith, so for them to have been there was disconcerting enough, let alone for there to be a familiar face amongst them. Merak was too busy to notice Aria’s sudden silence, smoothly introducing them to the other two Jedi, and thankfully making a convincing white lie of the whole fiasco. Aria on the other hand, could not take her eyes off the Cathar, who likewise was staring at her intensely. She said nothing out loud, but her voice echoed in the human woman’s mind:

It is good to see you are well, Padawan. How fortunate that we should meet, I did not think I would see you again. Her twitching whiskers were the only indication of the feline alien’s amusement. Aria narrowed her eyes in retaliation and snapped.
Neither did I, in fact I deliberately planned NOT to. I’m NOT your Padawan, Qanarr.
Qanarr’s ears came forward sharply, a sarcastic chuckle echoing through Aria’s thoughts.
And how well that has worked out for you. It’s not up to you what path the Force chooses to set you on, this is out of your control, little one.
My life is ALWAYS mine to control. You have no say in what I choose to do with it. She snarled in return, instinctively taking a step backwards. Merak suddenly seemed to notice her unease, shooting her a questioning glance. Aria tried to shrug it off and smile at him, grateful when he returned his attention to Qanarr’s companions.
You cannot run from the Force, no matter where you go or where you try to hide, it will find you. Qanarr’s gaze bored uncomfortably into Aria’s skull, making her wish a hole would open in the ground beneath her feet and swallow her just so she could escape from it. I am sure we will meet again.
And with that cryptic message, Qanarr turned on her heel and followed swiftly after the other Jedi, who had bid Merak farewell by now and made their way towards the nearest staircase leading out of the lower floor of the Promenade. Merak stood silently beside her as she watched the Cathar’s tail whisk out of sight. The Mirialan man nudged her shoulder, prompting Aria to turn to meet his frowning gaze.
“Are you alright? If you clench your jaw any harder you’ll crack your teeth.”
“Fine, I’m fine.” she insisted, shaking the tension from her muscles and straightening her posture. “Let’s just get the brief and get the frack (2) out of here, I don’t like it...Jedi in Hutt Space, what’s next? Wookiees and Trandoshans having tea parties for Life Day(1)?!”

That night, the dreams returned; whether it was because she didn’t drink enough or some other reason, Aria couldn’t tell. Her own screaming woke her, loud and piercing through the still atmosphere of the Zephyr like a knife blade. The human woman sat upright sharply, clamping both hands over her mouth; her ears strained to listen for any sound from Merak in the captain’s quarters further down the hallway as she calmed her own rapid breathing with slow, deliberate gulps of air. Only silence greeted her for the minutes that followed, with still no signs of the Mirialan stirring after the erratic tempo of her heart had settled back to its usual thrum. Aria coughed out another choked whimper, drawing her knees up to her chest and holding them there for another few minutes, angrily wiping away the tears on the back of her sleeve.
“Fucking damn it all to hell.” she grated, kicking the covers off the end of the small bed frame and swinging her body out after them. The shock of the cold metal against her bare feet was a welcoming distraction from the terror she had experienced moments before as she shuffled quietly through the barely-lit hallway and into the main hold. She dared not change the settings out of night mode for fear that the extra brightness would wake her companion; she didn’t need the light to see where she was going, she’d been on this ship long enough to practically walk its length with her eyes closed should she ever need it.

Aria stumbled around, searching for a bottle or a spice crate, anything...right now she didn’t care, she just needed a hit, something to take the edge off this Force-awful terror. Her thoughts ran wild, fuelled by the adrenaline that still coursed through her veins; she finally found a bottle of some kind of alcohol (she didn’t bother to read the label) and threw herself down into the nearest chair. She flicked the cap off and took a long swig without bothering to look for a glass of any kind, considering her options as she listened to the liquid slosh back and forth with each draught she took.
“You’re in deep shit now, Saal.” she told the red-eyed reflection of herself present in the shiny metal wall. “What’re you gonna do ‘bout it?”

The Jedi knew where she was, there was only one thing she could do. She had to run. 

Could pull it off, if she went now, quickly. She had very little possessions, she’d be long clear before Merak even woke up. Aria was mentally calculating just how quickly she could whisk back to her room and grab her lightsabers and change of clothes when clattering footsteps echoed on the durasteel plated floor as the KM-1 droid trundled into the hold, its red eyes peering at her as it waved its large, rectangular arms at her and beeped quietly in a concerned tone.
“Nothing, Clank. I’m fine just....power down for the night.” Aria whispered, offering a feeble smile which she hoped would deter its simple-minded programming from any further interrogation. The droid regarded her for a moment as she gulped down another three consecutive mouthfuls of booze, then gave a consolary “bwoo-wip” and turned to go back the way it had come. Aria assumed it would do as she had suggested and paid it no more mind as she left the alcohol balanced on the center console and collected her things. On her way through towards the loading ramp, she grabbed it again; Merak wouldn’t want it after she’d been drinking right out of the bottle anyways.

“So, what, you thought you’d just swipe a bottle of Corellian Brandy in the middle of the night and leave? No ‘thanks Mer, nice knowing you!’ or anything?”
The gruff voice that spoke suddenly from behind her froze Aria’s hand on the button before she could deploy the Zephyr’s ramp.
“....Thought you were asleep.” she croaked pathetically, knowing it was in no way an adequate excuse.
“With you shrieking like that? You’d wake half the damn port if the hull weren’t so thick.” The Mirialan stepped into view, leaning on the hull as he scowled at her. “You really think I didn’t notice how often you wake up screaming?”
Aria worked her jaw silently, but made no reply, sighing and turning around to face him again.
“I can’t stay here.” Merak’s stern expression softened into a frown of concern.
“Do you...want to talk about it?” he asked slowly, motioning back towards the main hold. She took a moment to turn the possibilities over in her mind: she couldn’t very well run now she’d been caught again, and leaving him high and dry after he had given her so much wouldn’t be right.
“Not really, but I guess I could try.” she grunted, stomping past him and returning to her chair. Merak sat down opposite her and pulled a whisky glass and a second bottle out from a storage compartment under the console. Pouring himself a glass, he sipped it and peered at her over the rim of the glass.
“I’d offer you one but, looks like you’ve got it covered, sans-glass.” he smirked, gesturing at the bottle in her hand. Aria cleared her throat awkwardly, taking a less generous sip this time.
“Sorry.” she muttered. “Finding a glass took too long, needed the hit.”
Merak snorted a short laugh, leaning back against the rest of the booth with his glass in hand.
“Eh, I’ve seen you do worse, honestly.” his sharp blue eyes fixed on her face. “So, you gonna tell me what’s going on with you?”

Her hands shaking, Aria told him everything; she owed him that much at least.
“...Before, when I was with her, the night terrors stopped. I guess this girl, Vano, in some way, made me feel safe and that kept them away; but now, I’m starting to see her face, hear her voice...the drink and the spice help, they….repress the memories so I don’t think about it as much.  I haven’t seen her for a couple of years, not since I ran...guess, subconsciously, I’m missing her. But I can’t go back.” she shrugged sullenly, risking a glance at her companion to gauge his reaction to her tale so far.
He had gone as white as a sheet (if it were possible for his yellow-tinted skin to do so), his jaw slackened as he gawked at her. “...Why are you looking at me like that?” she scowled at him. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost; Mer, spit it out already!”
“You’ve seen my sister?! Where?!” he blurted out, his expression not much improved. Now it was Aria’s turn to stare, dumbfounded. Of course, in her drug-addled state she hadn’t made the connection between their last name, only realised that it was somehow familiar to her. The human swallowed the lump in her throat and managed to smile and nod, croaking out:
“Yeah.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.” Merak apologised, running his free hand awkwardly through the mop of hair on his head. “I’ve just...not heard anything about her for so long and, honestly, I was starting to think she was dead.” a hopeful smile flitted across the Mirialan’s features. “Y’know, I bought this ship and started smuggling cause I thought I might have a chance at finding her and bringing her home.” he finished his glass and set it down on the console, his full attention fixed on Aria now. “But I never saw her, not in Hutt Space, or the Core Worlds, or even the Mid-rim….still, it’s good to hear that someone has. Where is she?”
Aria chewed her lip. She could have lied to him again, but that didn’t seem right, not after finding out the lengths he was willing to go to just to find her again.
“On Korriban. At the Academy.”
Merak’s eyebrows pulled together in a tight frown.
“The Sith came when I was very young, but I still remember the day they took her from us.” he looked her up and down and chuckled wryly. “I figured she might have ended up training with the Sith, but you?” he gestured at her height, shaking his head in disbelief. “I never pegged you for a Sith, if anything I figured you were a Jedi tired of preaching all the peace and compassion drivel.”
“I told you when we met, I’m not a Jedi, just someone with a lightsaber.” she quirked an eyebrow at him. “Would you have taken me in, if I’d told you I’d once come from Korriban?”
“Probably not.” the Mirialan snorted. “But it’s a little late for that now, huh? ‘Sides, if you wanted to kill me in my sleep you would’ve done it by now, so what’s the point in me getting angry about it?”

 

Aria’s fingers drummed absently against the console top, the human falling into a somber silence as she battled with her own memories.
“I should’ve gone back for her.” she muttered at length, her tone sour and perhaps a little wistful. “Never should’ve left her there, still regret it. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop dreaming about her.” she trailed off, turning her head and hoping that Merak wouldn’t notice the flush of colour that engulfed her entire face. “Sorry, you probably don’t want to listen to me raving on about it. I’ll just-”
“Hey, she’s probably fine.” Merak cut in, leaning over to give her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “My sister’s nothing if not smart, and if she managed to stay alive as long as you I’m sure she’s doing alright. Those Sith Masters wouldn’t have kept her around if she didn’t make herself useful, right?”
Though she knew he meant well by his statement, it did little to appease Aria’s guilt at leaving Vano behind. “Look, I get it if you want to leave and go looking, if she really is still with the Sith somewhere then the chances of me ever getting close enough to find her are...slim to none. But, if it changes your mind at all….we’ve got a good thing going here and I’d be sad to see you go.”

Somehow, she’d decided to stay with him. Perhaps she thought whatever lies Merak had told those Jedi would be enough to dissuade them from looking too closely at her, provided Qanarr kept her mouth shut of course. Cathar were notoriously stubborn and Qanarr seemed determined that she would persuade Aria to see things her way. She was sure that she would be seeing more of Qanarr in the days to come.

___________________________

And here she was again, at the other end of the bar, those amber eyes picking Aria out from the crowd with ease. It was unsettling, how Qanarr just seemed to appear in every port the smugglers stopped at. There was no other explanation, she had to be following her.
“OI, ARI!” Ziri’s yell snapped her attention away from tracking the Cathar and back to her two friends.
“Hmm? Sorry, what?” the human woman coughed. “Didn’t catch that.”
“No kiddin’, ya were completely outta it, I said Mer ‘n I are gonna go’n git another drink, ya comin’?”
Aria shook her head almost instantly.
“No, y’know, I think I’ll stay here, keep the table. It’s getting pretty busy in here.” The Twi’lek frowned dubiously at her, but before she could say anything in protest Merak elbowed her lightly in the ribs and muttered.
“C’mon, let’s go.”
Ziri huffed feebly in protest, but let it go and flitted away into the crowd. Merak followed close behind her after shooting Aria a knowing glance out of the corner of his eye. When her companions had disappeared from sight, Aria quirked an eyebrow at Qanarr, who now sat a few tables away behind her.
“Do you think I don’t know you’re watching me? I’m not stupid.” the human spoke in barely a whisper, but with assistance from the Force could still project her words towards the Cathar behind her, without drawing too much attention from unwelcome ears around them. Aria heard a chair scrape backwards, then soft footsteps padding up to the table before Qanarr slid into the seat next to her.
“I am aware.” she answered in a similar tone. “I want to talk to you.” Aria scowled at the alien, crossing her arms over her chest and hunching down in her seat in an attempt to make herself look smaller.
“Thought I made it clear last time that I don't want to talk.”
“So you say, but I wouldn’t approach you unless it was of utmost importance, I need you to listen to me.”    

The rogue Force user scoffed, eyeing Qanarr reproachfully.
“So demanding, after you’ve been stalking me for the better part of two years. Shouldn’t you buy me dinner first?” she sneered.
“I admit that our first encounter was entirely coincidental, and after that I kept an eye on you.” Qanarr admitted, shrugging her shoulders nonchalantly. “I wondered whether I could persuade you to return to Tython.”
“How’s that working out for you? In case it wasn’t clear last time, I’d rather die.” Aria smirked, raising her drink to her lips and finding it disappointingly empty. This conversation had dragged on for long enough.
“Indeed. This may strike you as odd, but I do believe in allowing my Padawans to make their own choices, even if yours have been….questionable, at best, up until this point.”
“Pah!” Aria spat, getting impatient. “What do you want, Qanarr?”
The Jedi Master’s tail whisked back and forth, the only indication of the anger that she was keeping at bay.
“Simply put: your help.” she leaned across the table, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “There is trouble on Tython...the native Flesh Raiders have begun to get more...” Qanarr paused, clearly troubled by finding the right word to describe it, by the way her nose crinkled up as she continued, “hostile. Padawans have gone missing, and so has Master Yuon Par, we lost contact with her when she left to lead an archaeological expedition into the Gnarls.”
“Tick tock, still don’t see what this has to do with me, Qanarr.”
The Cathar pinched the bridge of her nose, heaving a sigh.
“I know you find it difficult not to argue, but if you would just let me speak without interrupting then you would find out.” she retorted sharply. Aria quirked an eyebrow at the Jedi Master, but sat back in her chair and said nothing more. After a moment’s silence, Qanarr took this as an invitation to continue.

 

“There aren’t enough Knights, and with so many Padawans missing, the others are afraid and not many of them are ready to complete their training. You might have left before your trails, but you did complete most of your training before you disappeared yourself.” her amber eyes flicked towards the bar, picking out Ziri and Merak amongst the crowd of other patrons.
“Leave them out of this.” Aria growled defensively. “The girl isn’t strong enough, she can barely levitate a hydrospanner.”
“And yet you decided to take her on and train her yourself, given that in the past your actions are driven by neither compassion nor pity, you can understand how I would find this rather odd behaviour for you.” Qanarr smirked, her ears coming forward as her head tilted to one side. “You’re restless, you didn’t help her because you felt sorry for her, you helped her because you needed a scapegoat-”
The Cathar’s sentence was cut abruptly short as Aria leapt to her feet, the air around the human Force user turning icy cold with her anger as she slammed her fist into the table. Bolts of blue electricity crackled from her fist on impact, stunning the surrounding bar patrons into wide-eyed silence.
DO NOT pretend as if you know my motives or who I am...you know nothing about me, Master!” she snarled, eyes blazing. Qanarr drew backwards in her chair, hissing as her hand closed instinctively around the hilt of her lightsaber in response.
“Oi! If you two’re gonna kill each other, take it outside!” hollered the server behind the bar, his features pinched into a wary scowl. “I don’t get paid enough to clean up that amount o’ mess in here!”
Aria’s own eyes flicked from the frightened faces of nearby aliens and humans alike, to the bartender, then back to the Cathar opposite her. The short woman coughed awkwardly and lowered herself back into her seat,  unwilling to speak any further with strangers’ eyes on them.

When it was clear that there was no impending confrontation that might endanger them, the other bar patrons returned to their former activities and the usual raucous cantina ambience once again masked their conversation.
“Your temper may have served you well on Korriban, but here it does you no favours, Padawan.” Qanarr chided, slowly removing her grip on her weapon and neatly folding her hands on the table in front of her. “I know that you’ve been wanting to leave the smuggler for a long time; the only thing that has stopped you from leaving is the obligation you feel to him.” when Aria remained tight-lipped and only fixed her with a penetrating stare in response, she continued:
“He has gotten used to having someone of your...abilities, around to help him. If you left now, he would be put at a disadvantage and you would feel too guilty to leave on a clear conscience. The girl may not be strong enough to train as a Jedi, but her Force connection will suffice to function in your place, should you take yourself out of the equation.”
“You want a medal for figuring all of this out?”
“I want you to come back to Tython with me and help me figure out what happened to the missing Jedi Masters. As I said, the decision is yours, but I’m giving you the chance to make something more out of your life than you have done until now. It would be a shame for someone of your Force ability to spend the rest of their days as a spice peddlar.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Aria wasn’t sure if she was relieved or annoyed that Merak and Ziri had returned at that precise moment, she needed more time to process the Cathar’s request and decide whether she wanted to agree to it, “but you’re in my seat, Ma’am.”
“Of course.” the feline alien rose and dipped into a polite bow, turning to smile faintly at Aria before she took her leave. “Think about it. Hangar bay four, if you make it in time. If not, I’m sure you can find your own way there.”

___________________________

Aria had hoped to have a drink or two once they had returned to the Zephyr and then retire immediately, but Merak and Ziri appeared to have other ideas. The Mirialan jumped to his feet as soon as she tried to stand up herself, leaning his body into the hallway to block her path.
“Hold up a sec, Ari.”
“Mer, please, I’ve had a long evening, I just want to go to bed.” she implored him. The looks on both of their faces told her they didn’t buy into the white lie one bit.
“Bantha poodoo.” Ziri spat in protest, resting her feet on the empty seat in front of her. “We ain’t stupid, tha’ Cathar’s bin followin’ us fer a looooong time now. Thinkin’ ya oughtta tell us why.
“I’ve never seen you get that angry before.” Merak cut in, clearly wanting to get right to it. “Who was that, and what’d she say to get under your skin so badly?”
“No-one.” Aria insisted, trying to duck underneath Merak’s arm. “Just a Jedi who seems to think I owe her a favour.”
“Are you gonna take her up on it?” There it was.
“Mer…”
“Stop trying to pull the wool over my eyes.” he snapped impatiently. “If you’re going to leave, just tell me instead of trying to sneak around like some kind of thief.”

“...She’s spent an awful lot of time following me and trying to get my attention.” Aria admitted. “I have to wonder what exactly is going on that would drive the Jedi to seek me out, after I let them down so badly last time, and ask for my help...but whatever their reasoning, I owe them a favour at least. The Cathar could have just killed me five years ago and been done with it, but instead she gave me a second chance.” a smirk played across her lips. “Besides, I’m sure you’d rather see the Jedi on top of this war than the other way around, right?”
Merak was silent for a few moments, chewing his lip before he gave a half nod and moved out of her way.
“Are you sure that’s what you want? You’re still hoping to find my sister again, aren’t you?” Boy, he just saw right through her, didn’t he? It must run in their family, she thought with a sense of twisted irony.
“I-I don’t know, Mer.” the human stammered, raking a hand through her hair. “But I have to try.” she spared a glance over his shoulder to the confused young Twi’lek lounging behind him. “You don’t need me anymore anyways, three’s a crowd.” she plucked one of the lightsaber hilts from her belt and held it out to him. “My old saber, it’d attract too much attention on Tython, Ziri might find some use for it.” she smiled faintly. “We had a good run, Mer. Thank you...for everything.”
The second saber she kept, it was the only connection she had left to Vano, and perhaps her only chance of one day finding her again...what Qanarr didn’t know about wouldn’t hurt her; as long as she kept it well out of sight of any Jedi Masters and didn’t brandish it around on Tython they would be none the wiser, she hoped.

The Mirialan swallowed nervously, before accepting the offered weapon with a quick nod.
“Guess this is goodbye, then.” he smiled, pulling her into a quick hug. “Try not to die out there, and Ari….if you see my sister, tell her I’m looking for her, yeah?” he added, pressing a cloth pouch of credit chits into her now empty palm.
“Same to you.” she retorted, feeling the words catch in her throat. “I’ll be keeping an eye out for you two next time I hit a cantina.”

For the second time in her life, Aria felt the heavy weight of sadness at leaving someone’s company. But this had to be done, she told herself.
She had run from it all for far too long.

Chapter Text

Aria exhaled the breath she had been holding in as the shuttle’s landing gear engaged with a loud hiss. The human woman squared her shoulders, remaining seated for a few more moments to listen to the craft’s engines powering off while she composed herself before she rose and disembarked onto the landing pad. The river rushed down below her as Aria walked to the edge of the railing, gazing out at the landscape before her. Mountains stretched from one corner of the valley to the next, and nestled between them was a small building which was dubbed as “the Master’s Retreat”, for it was where the Jedi Masters came to discuss the most important matters, away from the hustle and bustle of the main Temple further out into Tython’s wilderness. It was also the main entry point into Tython’s grounds, however, meaning that the area surrounding the landing pads like the one where she had just arrived were often full of Knights, Padawans and other visitors either arriving or departing from the planet.

 

She let out a small sigh, of all the places she had thought to end up, back on the Jedi homeworld would have been the bottom of her list. Already, she could feel the eyes of every other person here boring into her back, she didn’t know every Jedi on Tython but apparently more of them knew her than she had first thought. She began a brisk walk towards the main building, hunching over and gritting her teeth, she tried to ignore all of the muttered voices as she passed them.
“What is she doing back here?”
“Didn’t she leave before finishing her trials last time?”
“Why would the Masters send for her? They must be desperate.”
“This can’t be good...is there trouble?”

The person who met her at the end of the landing pad was not the Cathar she had been expecting, but a human man of average height. He stood tall and proud despite his slightly greying hair, pulled back into a tight ponytail behind his head. As she approached, the man nodded his head and called out to her.
“Ah, Padawan! I heard your shuttle arriving, I’m Master Syo Bakarn, of the Jedi Council, welcome back to Tython; the ancestral home of the Jedi Order, and where our most promising Padawans will complete their training.”
Aria froze in her tracks, unsure whether to bow, curtsey, or stand at attention in response to such a highly ranked member of the Jedi Order, finally settling for an awkward half-bow.
“I’m surprised a member of the Jedi Council would come to meet me at all, in honesty.” she admitted, folding her hands behind her back as she straightened up again. “I was...expecting to see Master Qanarr here, at best.”


“I wanted to meet the student who caused such a stir personally, Qanarr will join us inside.” Master Bakarn’s features creased into an amused smile as he beckoned for Aria to follow him along the walkway. Aria did so, remaining nervously quiet as she listened to the man speak. “Your previous instructors tell me that you possess an incredible connection to the Force, one which they believe you had even as a young child. We haven’t seen such power in decades.” the two Knights in the doorway dipped their heads and stepped aside as Syo and Aria approached, allowing them to enter the small conference room. A small table sat just off the center of the room, Aria guessed it would house a holoprojection unit for communications to allow Syo to contact his fellow Jedi should he need to discuss anything with them. Other than this and the light fixture directly above it, the room was completely bare of any other furniture; a lone doorway branched off to her right, likely leading to the Master’s personal sleeping quarters (1). Qanarr was nowhere to be seen, either. Syo soon realised this, his back straightening even further in surprise. The Jedi Master cleared his throat awkwardly and muttered.
“I had hoped your Master would be here to greet you. She left Yuon’s dig site some days ago to come back to Tython specifically to train you (2).”
Aria scoffed loudly in annoyance. After all the fuss she had made, she had expected the Cathar to at least show up when she said she would.
“If Qanarr was so keen to train me, you would think she’d show up on time!”
“Patience.” Syo chided her, shaking his head. “A Jedi Master’s time is rarely their own, even a newly appointed Master like Qanarr has many duties to fulfil, remember the Jedi Code:

There is no emotion, there is peace

There is no ignorance, there is knowledge

There is no passion, there is serenity

There is no chaos, there is harmony

There is no death, there is the Force. This is-

Aria had been about to interrupt him and say “not much help if it doesn’t solve your problems”, but before she could do so, an individual hurried towards the room with quick footsteps. As she slipped through the doorway, Qanarr’s features became clear. Her golden fur stood on end and her breathing was shallow as she stumbled up to join the pair already inside. “Qanarr. I was beginning to worry you weren’t coming at all.” Syo greeted her in relief, but the Cathar seemed to pay him no mind, her attention instead focused on Aria. Qanarr gave a tired smile, the words slurring together breathlessly as she spoke.
“So, you did come. I’m glad to see you’ve arrived safely, Padawan. I apologise that I cannot greet you properly, but we already have a crisis on our hands.”
“And this is why you were delayed.” Aria nodded, her impatience cooling somewhat. Perhaps the story Qanarr had told her in the cantina wasn’t just a white lie to persuade her to agree to come and had some truth to it after all.


“Yes.” Qanarr nodded. “There are many ancient Jedi relics still scattered amongst the old structures of Tython, recently a research team working with my former Master, Yuon Par, uncovered four holograms which Yuon believed to be records from the founders of the Jedi Order - this makes them absolutely irriplacable.” the Cathar Jedi’s tail lashed from side to side, her speech becoming more urgent now as she caught her second wind, determined to make Aria understand how vital this was to the survival of the Order itself. “But recently the Flesh Raiders are amassing in much larger groups, and the few Knights and Masters left here aren’t able to hold them at bay. Those holograms could be destroyed forever if we don’t do something.”
Aria couldn’t help but frown.
“Forgive me for sounding harsh, but whatever these “Flesh Raiders” are, they surely aren’t so dangerous that they could damage a hologram - something without any physical form?”
“Flesh Raiders are the natives to Tython,” Syo explained, making a sweeping motion with his arms to emphasise his point, “savage cannibals who destroy everything in their path…”


“....Including our artefacts.” Qanarr continued. “They can’t damage the holograms themselves, but the projectors which allow us to view the holograms are prime targets for their attacks. Our combat teams are pushing the Flesh Raider forces back, but we need somebody to retrieve those projectors before it's too late….this will be your first task in your training.”
“No.” Syo protested, stepping forward to stand between Aria and Qanarr. “You can’t put a Padawan up against Flesh Raiders, not even for such important artefacts. It’s too risky.”
“A Padawan?” Qanarr threw her head back and scoffed, pointing at Aria. “She was stronger in the Force at four years old than I was at fifteen. Her refusal to complete the trials and subsequent disappearance five years ago was the ONLY reason she wasn’t Knighted back then. Any task less than this is an insult to her talent.”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here!” Aria snapped, stepping forward to stand beside Syo. “I’m not afraid of these Flesh Raiders, I’ll do it. Where do I find the holograms?”
The human Jedi groaned quietly, pressing his palm to his forehead for a moment before answering.
“The holograms are in the Gnarls, do not underestimate the region, it carries many dangers.”


“Be vigilant.” Qanarr advised, pressing a small, circular device into Aria’s hand. “If you encounter any difficulties, contact me on this holocommunicator.” the Cathar began to walk backwards, in a hurry to return to her previous task of locating her missing former Master. 
“When you have the holograms, meet me at the Temple. We have much to discuss.” Her sharp eyes glared into Aria’s own, the statement carrying a heavy warning: Don't even think about trying to run this time. before she disappeared quickly from sight, leaving Aria alone in the company of Master Bakarn.
“My warnings are sincere, Padawan.” the man spoke gravely. “The Gnarls are a dangerous place, even for those of us with more skill than a green Padawan, I advise you to take the greatest care.”
“I assure you I will, Master.” Aria bowed respectfully, before exiting the complex and making her way to the taxi pad which would take her to the other settlements further into the planet’s wilderness.

 

She had expected to be the only person here, not thinking that there would be other new recruits arriving at the same time, and so was quite taken aback to find the man standing on the pad waiting for the speeder to arrive. He was taller than her (as most people were), likely around her age, perhaps a few years younger, with chestnut brown hair that stuck up at awkward angles behind his ears. As he heard her approach and turned to face Aria, she saw the reason for this was the cloth mask wrapped tightly around his eyes, concealing them from view. If it hadn’t been for that piece of clothing, the Miraluka might have almost looked human at first glance.
“Oh, hello,” Aria cleared her throat awkwardly, offering her hand which he thankfully shook without preamble, “I thought I was the only one here.”
“So did I.” He admitted. “My instructors sent me here from Dantooine, to complete my trials…though I don’t recognise you, where did you come from?”
“Nar Shaddaa.” Aria stuffed her hands into her pockets, the one good thing about the robes Qanarr had insisted that she change into before she arrived, “I was…on assignment with Master Thimu. She asked me to come back, see if I could complete the trials.” she deflected any further questions as to her origins by putting on her best convincing smile and introducing herself. “I’m Aria.”


“Vagien.” He responded as an empty taxi pulled up in front of them. “It’s good to meet you, Aria. Where are you heading first?”
“The Gnarls.” She grimaced, keeping her gaze fixed on the landscape as it zipped past in a blur below them. “Lotta trouble down there, apparently.”
“Guess that makes two of us.” The Miraluka shrugged, stepping aside to let her get on board first. She blinked at him in surprise.
“You’re headed down there too?” when he nodded, the smaller Padawan shook her head to herself. “Fancy that. Maybe we should, you know, team up? I don’t know what you’re heading over there to do, but Master Bakarn says these…Flesh Raiders, are very dangerous.”
“What? You think just because I can’t see that I can’t hold my own in a fight?” Vagien smirked, his head turning towards her and despite his lack of eyes, she could feel his critical gaze knifing right through her.
“N-No!” the human protested abruptly, shaking her head. “That’s not what I meant at all, I just meant that with two pairs of ey…uuhh, that we can watch each other’s ba…damn it, that they’d find it more difficult to...to sneak up on two of us at once. And with two of us working together, we’d be more likely to succeed in both our missions.” Aria stumbled over her own words, having to check herself twice before she dug the hole even deeper; she sunk down as far into the uncomfortable speeder seat as she could, trying to make herself look as small as possible. “I’m supposed to be retrieving some old hologram projectors, but I don’t like the idea of turning my back to these things to get them out without somebody there to keep them away from me. Not that either of us couldn’t handle it on our own, but it’d be…better if we helped each other.”

 

This is why she didn’t make friends.

 

“Relax.” The Miraluka chuckled, waving a hand dismissively as he turned away from her again. “I’m used to it, just wanted to get it over with. I was informed about the Flesh Raiders when I arrived.” Aria was grateful that he seemed just as eager to change the subject back to their mission once they touched down in the training grounds. “They’re volatile, and uncivilized, that’s what makes them dangerous; they don’t value the same customs as we do, they have no concept of honour or mercy during or after a fight. They’d kill you as soon as look at you, worse than a Sith.” He flashed a smile in her direction as he concluded. “Not something you want to be caught facing alone and unprepared. The Watchmen in the training grounds need help, they can’t hold back the Flesh Raiders themselves, not after the brutes started picking up blasters and using them in battle.”
So Qanarr had been telling the truth after all. “I’m supposed to be investigating how and why they’ve picked up such advanced weaponry. It’d be smarter for us to stick together and help each other, for now.” He added as the speeder trundled into the docking bay outside the training center. Both Padawans rose from their seats, Aria pausing and dropping her gaze to her boots as Vagien snapped his head around sharply to face her briefly. “But I do not need you to hold my hand, understand? It’s the younglings and the Watchmen down here in the training grounds that need our help.”
“No hand holding. Got it.” She muttered under her breath, the words lost in the deafening roar of blaster fire and screams of pain from injured Jedi. They hadn’t even seen these Flesh Raiders yet and it was clear they were more of a problem than they had first sounded like.

 

“Padawans! Come here quickly, the training grounds are not safe for you today!” the pair were beckoned over by a concerned Watchman, and before Aria could protest and insist they headed out to start slashing at the intruders, Vagien had made his way over to join the man. Rolling her eyes, Aria took the steps two at a time and landed beside the Miraluka, crossing her arms as she stared the Watchman in the eye and huffed.
“Is this where I’m supposed to run away and be told later I failed the trials? I don’t think so.”
"Don’t be so paranoid, Aria.” Vagien protested. “They wouldn’t trick us like that.”
“No, we wouldn’t.” the Watchman nodded, looking them over. “You’re the Padawan that was assigned to Qanarr, aren’t you? Master Bakarn asked me to look out for you.” he spoke to Aria first, then moved his attention to the less hostile Miraluka beside her, “And I suppose you’re the one Derrin said he’d be sending down?”
“Vagien Zaraj, yes.” He nodded in confirmation. “You’ll have to excuse my companion, we only just arrived and we’ve been dragged into this chaos…can you explain the situation for us?”
“You came just in time; the short version is: Flesh Raiders are invading the training grounds and there’s a group of Padawans with no combat training trapped up in the hills, they can’t get back safely and we can’t leave the others undefended to go and look for them to bring them back.”


Aria exchanged a glance with Vagien, knowing that their other missions would have to wait if those younglings were in danger. What better way to get in Qanarr’s good books, too, than to announce that she had saved the next generation of Jedi from an untimely death?
“Maybe we can help? Just tell us what you need us to do.”
“Alright.” The Watchman fished a locator device from the pocket of his robe and handed it across to Vagien. “Take this beacon, if you can find the Padawans and set it when you do, we’ll know where to send the evac shuttle to come and get them. A group of Jedi are coming from the temple to search for them, but they won’t be here fast enough. Those Padawans will die out there if we don’t find them soon.” He clasped his hands together and bowed his head in thanks. “May the Force be with both of you.”

Leaving the Watchman to his post, the two Padawans paused to look out over their surroundings and evaluate their best course of action to look for the missing younglings. Injured Watchmen hobbled back up towards the main compound, the smoking corpses behind them the only evidence that remained of the fierce battle they had fought only moments before. Vagien raised an arm to point ahead of them, telling her: “There’s a bridge directly ahead of us, one of your projectors must be there.”
“How did you…?”
“Energy signals coming from the holding unit.” The Miraluka answered simply, then continued on as if she hadn’t asked such a stupid question. “We’ll have to cross it to get down into the wilderness, where the younglings were last seen, so you might as well pick it up, if the Flesh Raiders haven’t destroyed it yet, that is.”
Aria couldn’t fault his logic, given the number of Flesh Raiders that appeared to be advancing on the training grounds, if she waited too long to retrieve the projectors there may not be anything left by the time she returned. They would have to balance their search and her mission as best as possible.
“Alright.” she nodded. “Let’s go.” grasping her training blade tightly in her hand, Aria set her jaw and strode towards the bridge with Vagien close behind her.

They crossed the small stretch of land between the training ground and the bridge without any delay, her senses on high alert for any attack at first, slipped somewhat as Aria zero’d in on the podium that was only a few feet away. Thankfully, her companion was not so consumed by tunnel vision or they both may have found themselves impaled mere seconds later.
“Lookout, on your left!” Vagien called out just as an alien figure leapt from the foliage at the end of the bridge with a piercing war cry. Aria yelped in surprise, barely spinning on her heels in time to dodge the blaster bolt spinning straight towards her jugular. Aria strafed sideways and raised her blade to deflect its second attack, lifting her free hand to send out a blast of Force energy that knocked the creature backwards. It thumped into the side of the bridge, shaking its broad, flat head from side to side as it regained its footing. More Flesh Raiders appeared from both directions to defend their tribemate, teeth bared in savage snarls as they threw themselves at the Padawan. Vagien quickly stepped up to stand beside Aria, his energy blade deflecting a strike that could have sliced her right arm off at the shoulder. The pair mirrored each others footsteps as they parried and dodged blows from the creatures whilst trying to advance onto the stone bridge; killing the Flesh Raiders was more challenging than she had first believed, their dusky pink hide was thick and calloused, difficult to pierce with the low voltage training blades granted to Jedi Padawans before they passed their Knighthood trials and earned their true lightsabers. Aria was beginning to wish she hadn’t left her contraband blade hidden in a footlocker to be delivered to her temporary lodgings, it would have made short work of this battle and they could get on with what they came to do.
“Catch!” she called out a warning to the Miraluka beside her, throwing her blade to him. He reacted instantly, thrusting his free hand out to catch it as she threw both of hers outwards, the shockwave she produced throwing three of the Flesh Raiders over the side railings, the fourth dispatched by a quick downward stroke of the training swords.


“Quick thinking.” he smirked, absently twirling the weapons in his grip.
“We could have been here all day otherwise, and we don’t have time for that.” Aria muttered as she ran the remaining distance to the platform and dropped into a crouch, gritting her teeth as she tweaked with the interface panel to try and disengage the projector. Vagien took up a defensive stance behind her, his senses on high alert for the approach of any more Flesh Raiders, but even he turned his head in surprise as the hologram of a human man flickered to life above the partially-cracked lens.
“I am Garon Jard.” it announced calmly, gazing down at them. “Millenia ago, I stood as a founder of the Jedi Order.”
"You’re programmed to think you’re Garon Jard, but this is just an image.” Aria retorted impatiently, she hadn’t meant to activate the stupid thing.
“Maybe so. But my wisdom can still be useful - to those who will listen.” the hologram answered, the amusement in its tone at the beginning of the statement melding into stern reprimand. “When the Jedi Order began, I saw that we must be dedicated to peace, to calming our emotions and so ending war across the galaxy. If we fought, it should be only in self-defence, that is what founds civilization to this day.”
“But we cannot be civilized if we refuse to protect others.” Vagien protested. “It is our duty as Jedi, to defend those weaker than ourselves.” 
“Indeed.” the image of Garon Jard nodded slowly. “But when you do so, remember the mark that it will leave upon history, and you yourselves. The Jedi have changed since my time, but they are still a symbol of Galactic peace.” with those final cautionary words, the hologram bid them farewell and deactivated, its wisdom shared. Aria exhaled loudly, pulling the projector out of its slot and shoving it into her pocket.
“That was weird.” she muttered. “Let’s just keep going.”

They forged onward, searching the northwestern perimeter of the Gnarls and finding nothing but Flesh Raiders at every turn, from the cliffside all the way down to the riverbank, it seemed as if the tide of savage creatures was never-ending. There was still no sign of the missing Padawans as they moved down the slope towards the river, when Vagien suddenly froze in his tracks, one hand closing around Aria’s forearm to pull her to a stop and the other going back to the hilt of his weapon strung across his shoulders.
“What is it?” she asked softly, her own muscles tensing instinctively in anticipation of impending danger.
“Down there, on the shore behind the Flesh Raiders.” he whispered back, jerking his chin at the small gravel spit before the water’s edge. Aria crouched down lower and inched closer, her brows furrowing as she squinted to make out whatever he had noticed. It was very difficult to make out by eye from this distance, but reaching out with her senses Aria could locate the faint, shimmering presence behind those of the Tython natives that Vagien must have picked up on, too. It had to be one of the Padawans.
“We have to get down there and help them.” she concluded, turning to face the Miraluka. “How about I deal with bashing the Flesh Raiders about and you...do the talking to the youngling thing, since you’re obviously better at being friendly than I am?”
“Are you scared of a child? They aren’t dangerous, you know.” Vagien chuckled in amusement, raising an eyebrow at her.
Intimidated. The word is intimidated.” she corrected him sharply, despite his protests that 'it meant the same thing', “I’m not good at talking to people, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
To her relief, Vagien made no protest to her statement, simply beginning to creep down the slope. Aria followed after him, poised to catch their opponents by surprise. As soon as they were within range, the human extracted a chunk of rock from the riverbed using the Force and flung it right into the center of the trio of Flesh Raiders. Before the creatures could react, the rock blasted apart into smaller chunks which were flung up into their faces by the force of the impact. With a rising motion, Aria seized them in an invisible grip and lifted them clean off the ground as the trapped Padawan watched in a mixture of awe and fright, while Vagien’s blade sliced the Flesh Raider’s heads from their shoulders.

 

Aria dropped the lifeless corpses back to the ground and hung back to stand guard while Vagien approached the crudely made wooden cage.
“It’s alright, we’re not here to hurt you.” he reassured the youngster, dressed in the typical cream and orange slacks of a newly-minted youngling. “We’re Padawans, sent by the Council to rescue you.”
“Boy, am I glad to see you two!” the young girl gasped, dusting her uniform off as Vagien sliced her free of the cage. “I thought those things were going to kill me!”
“They probably would have, if we hadn’t showed up.” Aria huffed bluntly, crossing her arms. “Are there any others, kid? The Masters mentioned some Padawans that might be trapped out here. We need to find them, too, before they get hurt.”
“There was a group - maybe three? - they went up into the mountains, across there, to look for some sort of holocron or something...” she gestured to the ridge over the north-eastern bridge (3), “but they never came back down, maybe something happened to them?”
“That’s very helpful, thank you.” Vagien smiled, bending down to place a hand gently on the girl’s shoulder. “You should head back to the training grounds now, just back over the bridge behind us, you’ll be safe from the Flesh Raiders there.”
“Younglings.” Aria clicked her tongue in disapproval after the girl had left, resting her hands on her hips. “Fancy wandering off into the mountains in a place crawling with hostile natives, when they don’t even know how to fight! That’s just asking for trouble!”
“Like you can talk, you aren’t any better.” Vagien chuckled. “If I hadn’t been here that Flesh Raider would have sliced you in half, earlier. You didn’t even look for enemies before you went sprinting onto that bridge.”

________________________

Aria had enough sense to at least learn from that mistake and scan for nearby hostiles before stepping onto this bridge. She retrieved the second projector, whose Master was just as drole as her predecessor: preaching of emotion-free ‘justice’ as the only way forward for Jedi to be true ‘guardians of the peace’ but failing to acknowledge that debating every consequence to every course of action often harmed more people than it saved, and protesting rather vehemently to Aria’s stubbornness when she pointed it out. Thankfully, the hologram was not programmed to engage in lengthy debates of its own subject matter and it deactivated shortly afterwards, allowing Aria to swiftly remove it and forge onwards up the mountain pathway before Vagien could make a comment on her un-Jedi like attitude. 
They had to climb several feet upwards before they finally found a sign of their quarry, in the other voices that drifted down towards them from the outcrop above their heads.


“How’s he looking?” asked a female.
“He should be resting at the Jedi temple, but if you’re determined to carry on...I can help him along.” answered a second.
“Give him the last of the kolto then if you have to, we need to fight again soon!” the first voice insisted. A simple Force-propelled jump allowed Aria and Vagien to land themselves on the rocky shelf, finding that the other youngster’s estimate of three had been correct. Huddled together against the cliff face was a human female and a Zabrak male (the two who had been arguing back and forth), and behind them a third boy who lay sprawled on the ground, face twisted in agony and clutching his stomach tightly. Blood smeared over the churned earth beneath him, it must have taken his friends quite an effort to get him up here and out of harm’s way.

As the older Padawans climbed up, the two youngsters who were still standing turned sharply to face them, reaching for their weapons on instinct. Thankfully, they took in their appearance and Vagien’s unthreatening, raised palms, and the girl’s face relaxed into an expression of relief.
“Hey! Good to see other Padawans alive out here!” she gasped, running towards them. “You’re lucky those...those things haven’t gotten you yet!”
“We’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Vagien muttered as he brushed past Aria and the girl to kneel beside the injured boy.
“What in the Force happened out here?” Aria asked, resting her hands on her hips as she eyed the girl critically.
“Knew they’d...send people to rescue us.” the injured boy coughed, only to be abruptly shushed by his friend.


“Shh, Jerridan, don’t try to talk, you’re very hurt.” the Zabrak turned to look at Aria, explaining. “We came seeking knowledge of the Jedi Code, someone told us there was a holocron somewhere here in the Gnarls. That’s when the Flesh Raider attacked us.”
“I’ve never fought like that in my life.” the girl, who told them her name was Avitla, interrupted him, “We managed to kill it but Jerridan was badly injured.”
“We can see that.” Vagien clucked his tongue sympathetically as he gently moved the boy’s hands out of the way. “What were you thinking?”
“He’s right.” Aria glowered sternly at the three youngsters, hoping that despite her height, the dour look on her face would terrify some sense into them. “The Masters wanted you out of harm’s way, they told us you don’t even have combat training!”
“We’re not warriors.” the Zabrak boy conceded, a sheepish look on his face. “Besides, it’s not the Jedi way to seek revenge.”
“That’s your opinion, Mennaus!” Avitla snapped, chopping a hand through the air in front of her in vehement protest. “That’s not what we decided! Forget the combat training, a bunch of savage animals won’t keep us from becoming Jedi!”
“She’s right, isn’t she?” Jerridan piped up, able to form some kind of intelligible sentence thanks to whatever Force healing technique Vagien had been using to try and help him feel more comfortable. “Jedi don’t...don’t give up!”
“She’s wrong!” Mennaus protested, shaking his head as he stood up and turned towards the other two. “Remember what the Jedi Code tells us,” and he proceeded to recite the code for what felt like the fiftieth time Aria had heard it that day. Thankfully, Avitla was also tired of hearing it and quickly cut him off, turning towards Aria again. She clearly felt that of the two of their rescuers, the shorter human would be the most likely to take her side.
“If you want to help us, we could really use you. You know, help us make the Flesh Raiders pay.”


Vagien’s head snapped up sharply, his tone low and warning as he muttered.
“Aria, don’t-”
She held up her hand to quiet him, rolling her eyes at the younglings.
“Don’t be so stupid!” she snapped, causing Avitla to recoil in surprise. “You three are going back to the training grounds, right now.”
“But, we’re so close to finishing the trial!”
“If that’s how you plan to solve every conflict you come across, you are further from completing the trials than you think.” the Miraluka muttered, straightening to his feet again and holding his hand out to Aria. “Give me the signal beacon, I’ll stay with them until the shuttle gets here and make sure they don’t try to do anything stupid. You’d better hurry and pick up those other projectors before something happens to them.”  
She reached into her pocket with some trepidation, unsure whether it was wise to leave the stupid kids before they were sure they were out of harm’s way, but if anybody could talk some sense into them it’d be Vagien. He seemed like a level-headed, sensible sort of guy, with far too much faith in the Jedi Code to boot.

She left him with the younglings and hastily made her way back through the Gnarls towards the south bridges that would take her back to the training grounds, keeping a lookout for any sort of shuttle out of the corner of her eye as she went. The third projector was easy enough to retrieve, the Zabrak master who resided within it introducing himself as Ters Sendon, the very first Lorekeeper and historian; unlike his predecessor he was far more pleasant to talk to.
“I’ve come to retrieve the projector for your hologram,” Aria told him, “it’s in danger of being destroyed by Flesh Raiders.”
“Ah, saving what could have been lost forever. You have my thanks, Padawan.” he bowed once, then flickered out of existence to allow her to pull the projector out of its podium. The fourth and final projector, on the bridge by the waterfall only feet away from the training facility itself, yielded concerning results. As she bent down and touched her hand to the access panel, Aria frowned in confusion when no translucent, blue former Master appeared to lecture her on why the Jedi were the best people in the galaxy. She tried again, prodding a bit more forcefully. The panel popped clean off and dropped into the river with a resounding “plop”, causing her to spit a curse. The Council would make her pay for that in criminal damages, for sure. Aria realised she had bigger problems on her hands, however, when she ducked her head into the internal workings of the podium and discovered that not only had it been damaged, but the projector which should have sat inside it had been cut clean out of it, leaving only damaged wiring in its place.


“Oh, balls.” she huffed out a breath, sinking her teeth into her lower lip as she fished the communicator out of her pocket and activated it. Moments later, the Cathar Jedi’s image flickered into view. “Qanarr, we’ve got a problem. The last holoprojector’s been stolen.”
“Stolen?!” Qanarr’s fur prickled in surprise. “But the Flesh Raiders don’t steal our equipment, they always destroy it…” she tapped her chin with her fingers uncertainly, speaking up again before Aria could: “Bring the other three holograms to the Jedi Temple, I’ll meet you there. I’m sending directions to your communicator right now. And be careful.” before Aria could protest, the channel cut off.

_______________________

Aria had little option but to do as instructed, what else would she do with thousand-year old holoprojectors anyways? Her father might have been interested in the Lorekeeper’s one, but the other two were useless even to the Sith, and risking her neck to try and make contact with him at this point was not something she wanted to try and do. Instead, she found herself standing in the doorway to Qanarr’s study, peering inside apprehensively as she caught the tail end of a conversation between the Cathar Jedi and a large, green Trandoshan in mercenary’s armour.
“-There isn’t, I’m sorry Qyzen, it’s out of my hands.”
“ ‘Out of hands. Can do nothing’. From you is strange to hear.” the Trandoshan grumbled in his guttural, native tongue, raising both arms in an exasperated shrug.
“I haven’t--” Qanarr began, then broke off as she sensed Aria’s presence and turned to beckon her inside. “Padawan, come in. This is Qyzen Fess, an old friend of mine and Yuon’s.” she introduced the Trandoshan, who nodded his head respectfully. “He’s here on an expedition of his own.”


Aria returned his nod, being careful not to hold the lizard’s gaze for too long, lest it anger him. Trandoshans were not too well known for their conversational skills, and this one certainly looked the part, with his old scuffed armour and one clouded, blind eye. He had clearly seen more than his fair share of battle and she fancied if he had a mind to do so, he could snap her spine in half like a toothpick.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Qyzen.”
“Is welcome, small hunter.” Qyzen answered, clasping a hand over his right collarbone and giving a toothy grin. “But must go, have scouting to do, before light changes. Scorekeeper watch over both.” and with that, he left the room.
“A lot of the Jedi disapprove of my friendship with Qyzen, so I wanted you two to meet before anyone else could give you a bad impression of him.” Qanarr folded her hands and smiled faintly at Aria. “I think you two may get on well. Now, the holograms?”
Aria dutifully handed them over, much to the Cathar’s relief.
“Thank you for saving them, the Jedi have lost enough lately without losing our history too.”
“ ‘Loss’ is a small word for a war that you dragged half of the galaxy into.” Aria scoffed.
Qanarr’s pale eyes narrowed in response.“The Sith were equally responsible for what happened, and so were you, for your part in it.” she reminded her sharply. “But this discussion will have to wait, we have a bigger problem on our hands.”

“The hologram that was stolen,” - continued Qanarr as if Aria had not brought up the war at all in the first place - “was of Master Rajivari, another of the Order’s founders. He fell to the dark side shortly afterwards, and betrayed the very Order he helped to create.”
“And you still kept his hologram? HA! Seems counter-productive doesn’t it?” she quirked an eyebrow at the Master in front of her. “With all the ‘thou must resist the dark side, don’t yell at that person or you might fall to the dark side!’ that you always preach at everyone.”
An annoyed growl rumbled in Qanarr’s throat.
“To honour his previous contributions, for one. Or perhaps as a reminder that even those who have fallen can still be healed.” she eyed the Padawan before her severely, hissing. “You of all people should know this. But again, you digress from the point:” she waved a clawed hand past Aria’s face, “that hologram could contain dark side secrets, left by Rajivari himself, and would be very dangerous if it were to fall into the hands of someone not strong enough to handle it. I have reason to believe that the thief isn’t a Flesh Raider but an inhabitant of Kalikori village.”

A group of local Twi’lek Pilgrims, Qanarr went on to explain, whom were resident on Tython illegally and so, many were living hand-to-mouth and struggling to make enough credits to find their next meal.
“Of course they would steal an ancient holoprojector.” Aria muttered. Selling one of those on the black market could feed those villagers for months.
“I need you to go to the village and retrieve it, but tread lightly.” she cautioned the Padawan, her face contorted into a somber frown. “Those Twi’leks are here against all Republic laws, as such, the Jedi cannot defend them, even against the Flesh Raiders, so relations with us are...strained.” an uncomfortable grimace. “They are unlikely to be very welcoming of you.”

More people that wanted to shoot at her; nothing new, then.

“I can handle it, relax Qanarr. I know how to haggle.” she waved the Master’s concerns off, turning towards the door. “You know, for Jedi I’d think you’d make more effort to protect those weaker than you. Don’t you think it’d be easier if you helped them? Then maybe this wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
“I might not agree with it, but this is the Jedi Council’s decision and I must abide by it.” Qanarr shook her head gravely. “When you reach the village, find the captain of the guard, his name is Bashenn. He knows every member of the village, if anyone has seen the projector, it’ll be him.”

Aria wondered, as she sat in the taxi, whether Qanarr was sending her to retrieve this hologram because none of the Jedi Masters were brave enough to go themselves. Or maybe, she snorted to herself, she wants to test me, put me face to face with the Dark Side again to see if I go running back to Korriban with all of their secrets. I'm smarter than that, Qanarr, don't you know by now?

_______________________

Qanarr was right about one thing, the Twi’leks were less than thrilled to see her as she leapt out of the taxi and approached them.
“Festival of Awakening, Jedi. You’re not welcome here.” the tallest man spoke brusquely, arms crossed over his burly chest as he tried to appear threatening. Aria was not swayed, retorting just as sharply:
“This is a Jedi world, I can go wherever I like and you can’t stop me.”
“Ha, what were you expecting Bashenn, an apology?” his companion asked Bashenn smugly. The guard captain’s lekku twitched in agitation, the last of the trio glaring at Aria as she growled.
“What do you want?” 


“I want the Jedi artefact that you stole, and the name of the thief who took it.”
“We don’t steal!” the Twi’lek protested vehemently. “We salvage!”
“From right outside of the Jedi training grounds? Not likely. The podium wasn’t scrap metal till your thief took it apart.” Aria huffed.
“I know what you mean.” Bashenn interrupted before a brawl could start between Aria and the Twi’lek woman. “Nalen found one. His name’s Nalen Raloch, you’ve probably heard of him.”
Aria fought the urge to roll her eyes and put on her best curious expression instead.
“No, I haven’t...but it sounds like he has a reputation here on Tython.”
From what Bashenn had to say about him, this Nalen was something of a local hero. The protector of the village who single-handedly kept the Flesh Raiders at bay (a very steep claim), and set up their defences to ensure they could live safely.
“Without Nalen, we wouldn’t even be having the festival.” the other Twi’lek man asserted. Aria opened her mouth to ask where she might find this Nalen (she was going to give him a verbal thrashing and take that projector back within five minutes if she had any say in things), but as if he could read her thoughts Bashenn snarled.
“And no, I will not tell you where he is! Nalen earns his peace and quiet and he certainly doesn’t need to be bothered by the likes of you.”

A true Jedi wouldn’t have taken the words so personally, but of course, Aria was no Jedi.
“Look, buddy,” she muttered through gritted teeth, “the data in that hologram is dangerous, and the likes of you shouldn’t be messing with it. If Nalen keeps it, he’ll be putting his life in danger.”
Bashenn protested that Nalen could take care of himself, only for the other Twi’lek to frown warily as he looked between his companion and the Jedi Padawan.
“Against Flesh Raiders, maybe...but she’s right, some of that Jedi tech is really weird. Maybe we should give it to her.”
“Okay, fine.” Bashenn grumbled. “Nalen went off into Flesh Raider territory and no-one’s seen him since, he’s probably still out there.”
This time, Aria did roll her eyes.
“Finally. Next time, try giving the simple answer first time  around and you’ll save everybody a lot of time and annoyance.”
She turned on her heel and walked away before he could throw another hostile quip her way.

Chapter Text

Aria was so close to walking straight back out of that village without any further ado, and then….

“Jedi! Would you come over here and spare a moment, for a humble servant of the Matriarch? I promise, your other dealings can wait!” an elderly voice called out to her as she passed one of the buildings (1). Aria fought the urge to roll her eyes, knowing that the Jedi would expect it of her to do what she could to help. Oh, how she hated owing people favours. It never ended! Nonetheless, she forced a smile and backtracked the few steps to stand in front of the wrinkled old Twi’lek woman that had spoken.

“Speak quickly, Twi’lek.” she muttered. “I’m on a bit of a time crunch, here.”
“Vederiat Ayon.” the Twi’lek coughed politely. “I have only a simple request for you. Of course, I am speaking of the Flesh Raiders...”

Of course it was the Flesh Raiders. Everything on this karkin’ planet was the Flesh Raiders. Funny, Aria thought snidely to herself, they didn't take so kindly to you taking over their homeworld and forcing them out? I wonder why. “Of late, we’ve seen them growing stronger, and I figured out why.”

Aria raised an eyebrow.

“It doesn’t matter how strong they get, the Jedi can handle them.”

Vederiat’s brow pinched together anxiously, her elderly features becoming even more accentuated.
“Perhaps, but we cannot and so I must ask for your aid.” She looked more frantic the more that she spoke, clearly this was some cause for concern for the Pilgrim villagers, and at the very least it pulled at some long-forgotten heartstrings Aria had neglected to remember she had.

Oh, she looked forward to the day that she would be free of owing this person this, and someone else that....Still, the Jedi of Tython had treated these Twi’leks much the same way as they had the savage natives; if Aria had anything to say about it, she thought the Pilgrims had just as much right to be on this planet as the Flesh Raiders, perhaps even more so than the Jedi.

“They have been experimenting, concocting some sort of elixir that seems to drive them mad.”  

 

Aria had been thinking the old woman might have been talking some measure of sense, until the last sentence. “Black medicine, really?” she groaned, pressing her palm to her forehead, “Are all you Pilgrims this superstitious?”

Vederiat waved her hands about as if it would help her case, trying to placate Aria with a half-witted explanation.
“Listen, I’m no scientist so you can explain the process however you would like, but I know what I saw!”

“Alright, so, this elixir is what’s giving them the advantage right?” Aria prompted, going out on a limb. “Why not just destroy the elixir?”
“Well, that’s the plan.” Vederiat cleared her throat awkwardly, “We lack the numbers to attack them directly and even your Jedi Knights couldn’t completely drive them from this world. But with our warriors’ help, you could get deep enough into Flesh Raider territory to find and destroy the vats where they make the elixir.”
You can't fight them, but you're happy to use me as a meatshield, of course.

“And how does this benefit me? Am I getting paid?” Aria tilted her head, “I’m a busy person, I don’t work for free.”

“If you can help, I’ll offer what I can in return for your time.”

She’d get something out of this, then. Maybe it was worth her time, and Qanarr wouldn’t be able to accuse her of being completely heartless, again. Vederiat’s face brightened somewhat when Aria vocalised her agreement to take a look at the situation on her travels, the elderly woman pointing out another Twi’lek man standing watch close to the gate. “Odumis Mer is our guard captain, he will have all the information you need.”

She only had to look in the Twi’lek man’s direction before Odumis was beckoning her over and calling out to her. Rolling her eyes a little at their over-enthusiasm, Aria made her way across to him.
“I’m guessing you’re a Mister Odumis Mer?”

“Yes, yes, Vederiat sent you didn’t she, about the Flesh Raiders?” Odumis got right to the point, which Aria appreciated for once.

Leaning against the guard rail to her right, the Jedi apprentice nodded.
“This dark elixir, yes. She wants me to destroy it.”

“Yes, and she’s making a terrible mistake!” the guard captain insisted, his eyes wide as he looked pleadingly at her. “We can’t destroy the elixir, we need it!” for a long moment, he stared at her and Aria stared back at him, completely stunned.

“I’m sorry..you...whatnow?”

Odumis grinned sheepishly at her, as if he had only just realised how little explanation his sort-of request had provided the Jedi before him.

“If the elixir can make a Flesh Raider so powerful, imagine what it’d do for a Pilgrim warrior!” She didn’t have to sense his emotions to figure out how strongly he believed in this, Odumis’ eyes blazed with a kind of determined fire she had grown all too familiar with on Korriban. “If you can bring it to me instead, I can pay you way more credits than Vederiat would offer you!”

“Alright.” Aria answered without hesitation. “Elixir for credits, I’ll get it for you.” not only would she get paid, but in the long run these Twi’leks may have a chance of standing on their own metaphorical legs without having to rely upon the Jedi’s great-and-powerful mercy every time they had some silly little problem.

 

***

The path to Flesh Raider territory had looked considerably shorter from the safety of Kalikori village; Aria was almost out of breath by the time she reached the top of the ridge. At least from up here she had a good vantage point of the lands below...the pass was flanked by impressively large cliff faces on both sides, and the footway itself so choked with grass tussocks that it meant she would see any Flesh Raider coming long before it could get the jump on her. DAMN she missed her saber, right now. But she had to play the part, keep on Qanarr’s good side until the time was right. Perching her hands on her hips, the Padawan (ugh) focused her Force energy just so, to enhance her vision and pick out the details of the lumbering shapes below.
The Flesh Raiders appeared to be gathering in scattered groups, branching out from the main “cave” that the Twi’leks had directed her towards.

The ramshackled tents, quite frankly, looked as if their stilts were barely holding them up, more interestingly, however, were the large steel vats that the creatures appeared to be huddled around. 
The elixir.
It had to be, considering how they all but clambered over one another, roaring and beating their fists against their chests, to get half a taste of it. Aria withdrew her sight, raising an eyebrow to herself. Whatever this stuff was, it was clearly potent...the effects it might have on the Pilgrims if they were to use it-

 

But the Jedi had decided that the village was not their concern, a niggling voice in the back of her head reminded her. The Pilgrims had suffered long enough, and the choice was theirs to make. To whatever end it reached, her part in this began and ended when that elixir passed from her hands to the guard captain’s. The Jedi wouldn’t know the details, they didn’t need to know them. Rolling her shoulders, Aria dislodged the blade that until then had sat comfortably against her spine, calling it back into her hand as she started down the slope towards the encampments.

 

As she had been warned, this time the fight was far more ferocious. Whatever in Force these creatures had put in that elixir seemed to gift them unnatural might. A trio of the Raiders caught her scent on the breeze as she approached, their screams echoing off the cliffside as they stampeded towards her. This time, she was alone, that meant no holding back. This time, it could be a real fight, something she had sorely missed since setting foot on the Jedi homeworld.
They had brute force, but the Flesh Raiders’ large, stubby-toed feet meant they had the co-ordination of a drunken Rancor, and they were comparatively easy for her to avoid. As the first one swung a meaty arm towards her in an attempt to hack at her neck with the blade he held, she ducked beneath it and, holding her breath against the vile stench, drove her own weapon squarely into its gut. She could hear the other two pounding over the grass towards her, even with her back turned. Aria deftly twisted her shoulder out of the way of the second blow, causing the Flesh Raider’s blade to slice into its tribemate’s arm instead. Yanking her blade free of the first corpse, she propelled herself into a backwards flip, kicking the second one’s teeth in for good measure.

“You wanna go then?!” she snarled at them, her eyes flickering to amber briefly, before they returned to their natural silver and brown colour again. “You don’t scare me!” Her warning appeared not to register with the beasts (perhaps they were too stupid to even understand Basic), for both once more charged towards her with their blades aloft. Aria shifted her stance, leaning her weight into her back-most leg, and waited. Just another inch or so...as the Raiders drew level with the full range of her training blade, she threw herself into a 360-spin and slashed their legs out from underneath them, able to dispatch both with swift stabs to the chest once they were floored.

 

Thankfully, none of the other creatures nearby appeared to pay any mind to the confrontation. Aria stood, silent and with her blade at the ready to fend off any more waves of attackers, for some time. Tilting her head to one side, she heard nothing but the same raucous caterwauling she had observed from the top of the ridge. Shrugging, she stowed her weapon, and stepped over the fallen bodies to inspect the vat of elixir.

The bright magenta liquid inside appeared to be viscous, oozing and bubbling ominously. It smelled like a Rancor pit, too. She didn’t much fancy sticking her bare hand into it and finding out what it might do. Instead, the Padawan cast her eyes around in search of some sort of vessel which she could scoop some of the liquid into. If she could get him a big enough sample, Odumis should be able to reverse-engineer it and come up with the formula so they could make more. Finding one of the flagons which the monsters had been drinking out of was the easy part, trying to make-shift a kind of lid so it would be watertight and not explode all over her backback while she was busy with Nalen, required a bit more creativity, but eventually Aria managed it.

 

The cave didn’t smell very much better than the elixir, Aria found herself crinkling her nose and bringing one hand up to cover it as she stepped inside. The interior was very dimly lit, making seeing where she was stepping rather challenging. Tiny red lanterns hung suspended from heavy iron chains driven into either side of the wall, bathing only the middle portion of the cave in their light and leaving the corners largely invisible. Aria managed to catch sight of the piles of bones, just out of the radius of the light, and shuddered uncomfortably. That would explain the smell, though. She couldn’t wait to get clear of the place, hopefully for good.

The cavern itself was mercifully short, and she quickly caught the Force energy pulsating from the projector, snapping her head up to look towards it. Another plateau sat directly opposite, and if she squinted, she could see a faint reddish glow coming from an object propped up against a block-like object.

 

With the cave empty, Aria took a leisurely stroll across to it, finding a small power generator set up outside of the tent, which powered the lamp that lit up the top of the plateau. Outside of the tent sat a row of three storage boxes, and, on top of that sat Rajivari’s holoprojector.  Bright orange-red, and thrumming with Force power, as she drew closer to it Aria felt the magnetic pull that drew her towards it, and momentarily started, staring.
The Dark Side.
There was no mistaking the distinctive, electric sizzle of the Dark Side, she knew it well; her father had been an avid collector of all kinds of Dark artefacts. Aria exhaled softly, and reached out to grab it. Before she could touch it, however, Aria felt a faint presence behind her, and wheeled around to face the approaching footsteps. Slowly and methodically, another Twi’lek strode towards her, his chin held defiantly high as he declared.

“You make an awful lot of noise! I come expecting a Flesh Raider, and I find a Jedi Padawan instead.”

 

Aria’s eyebrow quirked upwards, her mouth twitching as she met his gaze.

“You must be Nalen Raloch.” Her eyes followed the Twi’lek warily as he paced up and down in front of her, spreading his arms out as he spoke of the Pilgrims.

“Yes. I come here to listen, to think among the dead... to fight for my people.” Nalen stopped in his tracks, his head snapping around as his eyes locked with Aria’s. “Why have you come?”

“Me?” Aria echoed with a mocking snort of her own, pointing a finger at him. “I’m here for the holoprojector that you stole, it belongs to the Jedi Temple.”

The accusation seemed to make Nalen rather angry, he began to speak much faster, the venom in his voice clearly meant for the Jedi he felt had betrayed his people for so long.

“They don’t understand...Are the Flesh Raiders destroyed? No! My people aren’t safe until my learning is complete!” and before Aria could react, Nalen lunged across to grab for the holoprojector behind her. Aria hissed out a breath, and side-stepped abruptly to avoid getting hit in the process. Before he could pick it up, however, the Twi’lek stopped again, his lekku twitching as his shoulders sagged. Staring at it, he murmured, almost reverently.
“Tython’s relics still have lessons, I listen...I can...I can do things I never imagined possible, I can be the defender my people need!”

Aria couldn’t help but widen her eyes in surprise as the realisation set in.
He's Force sensitive.

 

Aloud, she muttered.
“Help Kalikori village all you like, I don’t care,” she narrowed her eyes at him, “but that holoprojector was not yours to take.”

Nalen barked a laugh, wheeling his body around to face her head-on as he retorted.

“Tython is our home too, we’ll use whatever we find to defend ourselves, you Jedi don’t have a say!”

For a moment, Aria thought the Twi’lek was going to walk away and simply let her have the projector, as he walked to the edge of the plateau and looked out at the rest of the cave. “But you’re not my concern, the Flesh Raiders are all that matters, and Rajivari showed me how to punish them.”

Oh, good, they didn’t have to fight over this like children-

That thought was quickly interrupted as Nalen stuck his hand out in front of him, Aria felt the Force shift around them, and looked up towards the ceiling in alarm as the cavern gave an ominous rumble in response.

 

While her attention was diverted, the Twi’lek raised his other hand to pour even more energy into what he was doing, and this time, the entire cavern shook from floor to ceiling, dust and pebbles clattering down onto their heads from above. Nalen turned to face her smugly as a large boulder-sized chunk of the ceiling dropped down behind him.

“The Flesh Raiders will come, but not leave. A very...merciful death, compared to what my people have suffered.” Nalen sneered.
“Woah, hey!” Aria hissed at him. “Hey! What does this have to do with me, you don’t need to bury me alive in here too!”


I'm just the messenger, stars! She’d been under the impression that helping the Jedi would mean less people wanted to kill her, apparently she’d been wrong!

“This place has many hidden wonders, Jedi.” Nalen shrugged, dropping into a crouch, the Twi’lek looked over his shoulder at her one last time, smirking. “Now you can run, or die.” before he leapt off the plateau, landing below and taking off for the exit at a breakneck sprint. As Nalen’s feet hit the ground, the cave shuddered violently again, and Aria cursed as she was flung sideways by the force at which the ground shook. Flailing her arms, the human stumbled into the crate where Rajivari’s holocron sat, and managed to grab onto the side of it to steady herself long enough to pick it up and tuck it into the inside of her robe. There was no other reason to stay here and get buried alive with the hoards of Flesh Raiders that suddenly seemed to crawl out of every crevice, and more besides that she hadn’t noticed in her haste to grab the artefact. Aria squared her jaw, called her weapon back to her hand once more, and broke into a Force-propelled sprint after Nalen.

 

The Flesh Raiders were understandably agitated by the threat of impending death, but she didn’t have much time to be worrying about that. Massive chunks of debris were raining down from the collapsing ceiling, and if she didn’t get out NOW then she’d die down here, she was sure of it. Any monster that got in her way was swiftly sliced down by her blade. Her blood roared in her ears as she leapt over a chunk of rock, all but skidding out of the entryway and back into the sunlight. Aria had to stop for a moment, then, bracing her hands against her knees as she gulped down huge lungfuls of air and tried to process what she had learnt from Nalen.

 

Speaking of the Twi’lek, the slippery son of a Hutt was nowhere to be seen. There were so many Flesh Raiders in the area, too, that she could scarcely tell where he had gone, they had all but ruined any chances of a trail being left. Aria spat angrily onto the ground and straightened up.

“Doesn’t matter, I suppose...got the stupid holocron.” she reminded herself. Qanarr would be happy with that at least. All that was left, was to make a quick stop at Kalikori and hand that elixir over to Odumis.

The Kalikori guard captain was all too happy to see her approaching him once she crossed through the village gate.
“Ah, Jedi, you’ve returned from the Flesh Raider caves!” his nose wrinkled a little as she got closer, and he declared, with as much politeness as he could, “I can smell them on you.”
“Yes, I apologise, it’s not very pleasant.” Aria agreed with a smirk, reaching into her supply pack to pass him the flagon. “But I got what you needed.”

“Excellent, you’ve done well by the Pilgrims today, friend!” Odumis grinned, taking the offered container with one hand and holding out the pouch of credits to the Jedi with the other. “As agreed, your compensation.”

Aria gladly took what was offered, flipping it over in her hand and weighing up what was inside.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” she dipped her head cordially, and turned to head for the taxi again, before pausing to look at him over her shoulder and add: “Odumis, be careful with that. I know why you need it, but it seems a lot more...volatile, than we first thought. Try not to get yourselves killed.”

“If it is, then we die fighting and surrounded by Flesh Raider corpses!” the guard captain shrugged, waving her off as she hopped into the next speeder car that pulled into the station.

 

She was going to need at least ten showers tonight to get the Flesh Raider stink off her skin.

 

She was very much aware of that fact, as she straightened her back outside of the door to Qanarr’s chamber, took a steadying breath, and then stepped inside. The Cathar Jedi looked up from her meditation as Aria’s feet crossed the threshold, standing to walk over and meet her in the middle.

“Ah, good, you’ve returned. I just spoke with Ranna Tao’Ven, the daughter of Kalikori village’s matriarch. They spoke well of you.”

“I didn’t do much.” Aria protested with an embarrassed shrug. “I just spoke to the villagers…”

“And we will see what comes of it.” Qanarr responded with a shrug of her own, her ears twitching questioningly as she continued. “Now, Rajivari’s hologram, did you find it?”

“Yes, I did.” Aria grunted, frowning somewhat as she had to dig into her robe to find the stupid thing before she could pass it over to Qanarr.
“The holoprojector was stolen by a Twi’lek, named Nalen Raloch. He took it to learn the Force techniques that the hologram knew. He was...very unstable.”

“So this Nalen, the villager, was Force sensitive?” Qanarr made a small, surprised noise in the back of her throat. “Interesting.”

“Well, he almost dropped the entire cavern down on my head without touching anything, so unless there’s something else I missed, I’m pretty sure it was the Force.” Aria muttered sulkily.

"Is that why you look like you've been dragged through every bush on the planet on your way here?"

"Shut up, Qanarr. I know, okay?"

The Cathar shot her a chiding scowl, took the projector, and after fiddling around with it for a moment, held out her communicator balanced on her palm.
“Let’s see what he saw, shall we?”

The projector flickered to life, and a thin, bald man with deep-set lines around his mouth materialised in the classic off-blue hue.

 

“Activation protocol begins. A few words...shall this be all my legacy is?” he sighed, shaking his head to himself. “No, my enemies are long dead. It is time. Hear me, I have left true wisdom behind. For those who follow where the first blade points, from the sanctuary of the Order.

Without any further explanation, it deactivated, leaving Aria grumbling under her breath and rolling her eyes.

“Typical Jedi, always speaking in riddles that make no sense.”

 

Qanarr, too, had gone suspiciously quiet, though upon looking in her direction, Aria discovered the Jedi Master frowning thoughtfully. “...What?” she braced herself for another lecture, pleasantly surprised when instead the Cathar murmured.

“I think...I think he’s talking about the Fount of Rajivari.”

“Rajivari’s what?” Aria huffed. "That makes no sense either, you know." she crossed her arms and quirked a brow quizically at her teacher. Qanarr waved a hand in Aria’s direction to silence her once more. 

“No, no, Padawan...after Rajivari fell, sources say he created a knowledge archive of his teachings, they called it the Fount of Rajivari. The Jedi have searched for it for generations, but no-one has ever found it, many believe it is nothing more than a hoax.” the Cathar Jedi’s honey brown eyes met Aria’s. “But you and I have just heard proof from Rajivari himself that it exists.”

An untouched archive of Jedi knowledge...

“Imagine what we could learn from that.” Aria ventured carefully. Perhaps this would be of interest to her father, after all…

 

“Indeed!” Qanarr agreed, huffing out a quiet breath as she waved Aria away. “But that is a concern for tomorrow, go clean yourself up and get some sleep (2), Padawan, I will see what sense I can make of the riddle, and we will go from there.”

Chapter Text

Though Qyzen had called them the “waterfall caves”, Aria was pleasantly surprised to discover that the system was not, in fact, behind a waterfall as she had expected. Rather, the caves were adjacent to the large waterfalls located on the far side of the Tythos ridge. They were perfectly dry on the inside, but the rumble of the nearby falls echoed off the walls and gave an unsettling impression of a river somewhere in the chamber. Aria still chose her steps carefully, just in case.

 

There was little to no light in these tunnels, which made trying to track the Trandoshan hunter rather difficult, even for someone like her who was used to looking for the tiniest signs of activity. Aria thought she could make out the distinctive three-toed claw marks against the floor, so inched further into the cave, her voice low as she hissed out his name.
“Qyzen?!”
She received no answer, but Aria thought she could sense several presences deeper inside the tunnel. Cautiously, she flattened her back to the rock face, and edged herself around until she could peer around the corner. She caught a glimpse of more of the training droids from Kaleth, before she had to throw herself back around the corner to avoid being picked up by their sensors.

 

These droids looked far less rusty than their former counterparts, almost as if someone had taken them and completely reprogrammed them to be used as some sort of security force. That meant they probably had functioning heat sensors, which would leave her usual stealth-sneaking tactics as worse than useless. Even if they couldn't “see” her, the droids would pick up on her body temperature and they'd gun her down faster than she could react. Aria was not liking her odds, so far, but if Qyzen’s footprints were here then it meant that the Trandoshan had come into this cave, and she had to get him out. 

 

She hadn’t exactly had the greatest start since coming back to Tython, a lot of the other Jedi still muttered as she passed them in the halls, and it seemed the Masters didn’t trust her either if they felt the need to constantly keep an eye on everywhere she went, and when she did it...so far, Qyzen was the only one she had met on this stupid planet that had shown her any sort of respect. Or who treated her like a person. If he was in trouble, he deserved to have her help. 

 

Aria weighed up her options; the droids were not what she had sensed, they were synthetic, they didn't give off a Force presence…that had to mean there were other people deeper in the cave. She was going to have to cut through the droids in order to get any further in, meaning that whoever the other presences belonged to would be alerted to her being there. But the only other option she had was to turn around and walk away. 

For Qyzen’s sake, she’d risk it. 

 

As she sliced through the first wave of droids and moved onto the second, Aria could make out the voices of the people further in. It took her brain a moment to process the words being spoken, even though they were in Basic. 

“Did you hear that? Sounded like the droids…”

“Shh! Someone's coming!” Aria rounded the corner, and found herself nose to nose with a group of Twi'leks. 

“Now…” she started slowly, sizing each of them up in case they attacked first, “I'm sure Nalen’s told you what happened to the last people he had try to stop me. You wanna be next?”

 

“We’re just here to stop you from catching up to Nalen.” one of them sneered at her, lifting his chin.

“Don’t be foolish.” Aria retorted. “I’m going to catch him either way, you really want to die for him? Nalen’s crazy. Go. Home.” 

Of course, they didn’t want to listen, so she had to fight her way through them too. At least these Pilgrims had enough self preservation to recognise when the odds had tipped away from their favour. As Aria threw one of the men into the wall, using the Force to hold him there, she watched his companions flee towards the exit out of the corner of her eye.

 

The Padawan narrowed her eyes at him, growling firmly. “The Trandoshan that came through here, what did you do with him?”

“Nothing!” the Twi’lek insisted, struggling against the invisible weight that pressed him into the rock face. “He’s further in, with the guards! Nalen said you’d...come looking for him!” 

Aria looked him over critically, debating whether or not she should let the man go. Never leave witnesses. They will compromise your position. her father’s teachings rattled through her skull. Live witnesses are a liability, you should ALWAYS neutralize the threat!

But was it such a threat, if his companions had already escaped? They'd warn Nalen regardless. What difference would one more survivor make? And Qanarr would expect her to let the Pilgrims go…

Sighing, Aria loosened her hold on the Twi'lek man and let him drop back onto his own two feet, gesturing over her shoulder. 

“Get out of here. Tell Nalen I'm coming for him.”

She didn't turn to watch him leave the cave, instead drawing upon the Force to conceal her presence so she could sneak deeper inside and locate Qyzen. 

 

Tendrils of Force energy lapped around her feet, coiling slowly further up her body as she directed them, until her entire form melted into the rocky cave backdrop. This technique was simple, but effective, and had served her well for many years, allowing Aria to move with near-silent steps towards the overhang in the center of the cave. As she climbed to the top, she caught a glimpse of the cage surrounding the Trandoshan, and the three guards that stood in front of it, their eyes fixed on the only entry point as they waited for her arrival. 

 

It was rather satisfying to see the shocked looks on their faces as she appeared seemingly out of thin air and smacked them over the heads with the blunt end of her training staff. As the guards dropped unconscious onto the floor, Aria stepped over them and set to work on the lock. 

“Small hunter. Should not have come, is only shame here..” Qyzen rumbled, tilting his head until he could see her properly with his working eye. “Nalen Raloch tracked...and captured. Used pain. Demanded answers of your old thing, Rajivari’s Fount.” 

“Nevermind about Nalen, he’ll get what he deserves.” Aria promised as she worked the lock free and the cage door swung open to allow him to step out to join her. “Are you alright?” 

 

The Trandoshan’s footfalls were heavy as he paced angrily in front of her.
“Was captured alive, small hunter. Is no greater dishonour!” he growled, hands clenched into fists. “All my points are forfeit, lifetime’s score gone!” 

“Hey now, that’s not-” Aria began to protest, but was immediately cut off as he continued on his rant. 

“Without score, I am nothing!” Qyzen hissed angrily, “Scorekeeper turns face away!”

“Alright, stop that!” Aria scolded sharply. “You’re not nothing, Force, you’re the only one on this planet who hasn’t insulted me ever since I got here!” 

 

That, at least, seemed to get Qyzen’s attention, for he abruptly stopped pacing and looked at her instead. When he said nothing else, Aria took that as an invitation to continue on. “You said you get Jagganath points from hunting, right? We can get you more, starting with Nalen.”

“But, small hunter. Do not understand.” Qyzen’s tone became something stuck between that of a petulant child, and someone who was entirely baffled by the situation. She wasn’t sure if he was telling her that he didn’t understand her words, or that he was trying to say that she didn’t quite understand the severity of his predicament. 

 

But regardless, Aria took the Trandoshan’s sudden silence as an opportunity to give him a once-over for injuries. She couldn’t see anything obvious; even if Nalen and his thugs had roughed him up, it would appear that the reptilian alien’s thick hide had protected him from any lasting damage. Qyzen surprised her when he began to speak again, out of the blue. 

“Qanarr brought hope, risked all to come past Nalen’s men. Asked for last coordinate to Fount of Rajivari.” he tilted his head to one side, as Aria had noticed he seemed to do when confused. “Was...strangeness, to see her. Scent all changed, was…” he struggled to find a reason for such an anomaly, and so instead simply shrugged and repeated. “Was strangeness.”

 

Aria couldn’t help but frown in confusion herself.
“Qyzen...Master Qanarr has been with me at the Temple for hours, I just left her there…”

Nalen. There was no other explanation, the Force-sensitive had to have used some sort of cloaking technique. Her eyes flicked back to the mercenary and she growled. “Nalen must have tricked you into thinking he was Qanarr so you’d give him the coordinate.” 

Qyzen’s voice rose into an angry snarl. 

“Trickery?! Masking as friend?! I will track and punish for this!” He raced to the edge of the plateau, before stopping abruptly and turning to look over his shoulder at her. His voice was low and urgent as he muttered. “Small hunter, Nalen then has all coordinates. Fount of Rajivari is his to find.” 

“He's going to need more than the Fount when I catch him.” Aria snarled through her teeth, storming past the Trandoshan and heading for the entryway, “Come on.”

He fell into step with the Padawan, nodding along in agreement. 

“Yes, I will accompany. To guide, and to see Nalen Raloch dead.” a sigh slipped out and Qyzen shook his head to himself. “Points are gone, Scorekeeper will not see...but perhaps is some good I can do.”

 

***

 

Flesh Raiders were everywhere on this planet. She and Qyzen had to fight her way through another entire tribe before they could make it to the Fount. The only problem was, their chief was a karkin' giant. He towered over Qyzen, and the mercenary in question wasn't exactly short. Taking him down required considerable skill on their part, but by cooperating with the Trandoshan and using herself as a decoy to garner the chief's full attention whilst Qyzen crept up on him from behind and swung for the Raider's undefended neck, they managed it. The stupid beast didn't know what hit him. As Qyzen's blade hit its mark, the Raider blinked in confusion, then let out a strangled grunt and toppled over limply. 

 

“Fount is this way. By coordinates found.” the Trandoshan rumbled, gesturing to the crumbled stone structure behind her. Aria turned around to follow his lead, her brow knitting in a frown. The smell of partially-stagnated air drifted out of the dark tunnel, making her crinkle her nose in distaste.

“Oh, charming.” the human huffed. “Who knows what’s down there, waiting for us.”

In response, Qyzen raised his nose to the air, sniffed deeply, then growled down to her.

 “Is Flesh Raider stench, but stale...not there now. Very little to smell. Abandoned.” 

Aria doubted they would be lucky enough for the last statement to be true. 

“Except for the traps, and whatever else Rajivari left in here.” she smirked, rolling her shoulders to loosen them before she stepped forward into the tunnel. “Come on, let's go find out.” 

 

Qyzen stuck close behind her, and for a moment the only sound that could be heard was their own breathing. As she cleared the first flight of steps, however, Aria was forced to stop dead in her tracks on the landing as a thick cloud of black mist materialised out of nowhere in front of her. 

“No further, seeker!” a deep, masculine voice boomed as it solidified into the shape of a hooded figure, knelt between the pair and the rest of the Fount. He held out a hand to stop them, though Aria had long since frozen on the spot while Qyzen took a little longer to register the command and ended up crashing into the Padawan’s back with a startled grunt. “You come here unpurified, it is an insult to Rajivari’s memory...His apprentices were flawed, but they walked the fire and were reborn.”

 

As was typical of Force projections (and/or spirits, she wasn’t sure which of the two this happened to be), its words didn’t make very much sense. Aria and Qyzen exchanged uneasy glances, the Trandoshan tilting his head slightly in a silent question. She responded with a shrug, shuffling to one side to allow him to step up so he was level with her and could face the being more directly.

“Purification. Chance to atone for losing score, I would do.” he volunteered.

“Only a personal sacrifice will show your strength and resolve, seeker.” The Guardian’s eyes pierced into them from beneath its hood as it sought out Aria in particular. “Will you be purified by flame?” 

 

To a Jedi fledgling, the challenge might have seemed terrifying. But Aria had been the chew toy to many a tomb beast on Korriban, and target practise for the Force lightning of many other Acolytes besides, so being scorched by fire either literal or imagined wasn’t all that daunting to her.
“Yes, I’m not afraid.” she answered, raising her chin. The Guardian chuckled eerily in response, rising to his feet.
“Powerful words. But self-sacrifice is the path of a fool.” 

 

She had been expecting it to some degree, but the pain that suddenly engulfed every muscle in her body at the entity’s words was intense enough to wring an involuntary cry from Aria’s lungs. The Padawan felt her knees buckle underneath her as her field of vision swam with colours of bright red and orange, oddly reminiscent of the flames the entity had warned her of. She bumped into something as she staggered, which she realised must have been Qyzen; as Aria struggled to get her feet underneath her once again, grunting an apology to him, the Guardian of the Fount uttered one final, ominous warning. “The Fount of Rajivari is unkind to strangers, flee now, or suffer.” 

 “Small hunter?” as her vision cleared, Qyzen’s face came into focus at her shoulder, his three-fingered hand clasped firmly around the joint so as to help steady her. This time, he looked equal parts concerned and impressed. 

“Fine.” Aria waved him off quickly, able to stand of her own accord once the flashes of pain subsided. “I’m fine. Let’s keep going, it’s just trying to scare us off.” 

 

The Fount would soon figure out that she wasn’t going to be deterred so easily. As they progressed deeper in, they lost the light from the surface and so had to rely only on the greenish glow cast from the sconces on the walls. It wasn’t ideal, but she’d found her way through worse before. Qyzen didn’t seem to have too much trouble either, but chose to stay close to Aria’s side in case there happened to be a few Flesh Raiders here, after all. As he had predicted, though, the lingering stench of them about the ruins was just that. Old. They saw not a single Raider as they made their way into the center of the labyrinthine passageways, but did come across a wounded Twi’lek pilgrim.

 

Aria paused as she spotted him in the middle of the antechamber, keeping at least two strides of distance between them as she inched closer to get a better look at him. The Twi’lek rolled over to face the sound of their approaching footsteps, his hands clutching a rather nasty wound on his torso.
“Heh, so you made it after all.” He smirked up at Aria, pausing to swallow between every few words, clearly in a lot of pain every time his lungs constricted for his next breath. “I’d hoped...your head would...be Nalen’s trophy by now. I came to...prove myself to...Nalen, but...the traps…” 

Qyzen let out an uneasy, but sympathetic growl as he looked down at the injured Twi’lek. His face twisted into a grimace. “Doesn’t matter...you’re the enemy...I can still hold a blade…”

 

She felt bad for snickering, but looking at the state of him, Aria was sure she could knock this Twi’lek over if she breathed on him too hard. 

“You have to be able to stand first, don’t get ahead of yourself.” She had started to move closer to him, intending to try and heal his injuries at least a little bit. Even if he came here with Nalen, he didn’t deserve to bleed to death because he’d been left here...before she could crouch beside him, however, the Twi’lek man lunged towards her again, snarling.
“I will...I can still...stick you in the heart!” 

 

She highly doubted that he had the strength in him to hold himself upright, nevermind swing a vibroblade in her direction, but Aria wasn't going to take any chances. On instinct, she backpedaled away from the Twi'lek, bunching her hands into fists and snarling. 

“Then that makes you my enemy, and sparing you would only bring me more trouble.”

Unsettlingly, the Twi'lek grinned in response to Aria's statement. 

“Ahh, a disciple of Rajivari after all.” he murmured, before vanishing from their sight in a small ‘puff’ of air. Beside her, Aria heard Qyzen emit a confused, but unintelligible grunt as he looked wide-eyed in either direction trying to pinpoint where the figure could have possibly gone. While she wasn't quite as confused as her companion, Aria couldn't help but cast a quick glance of her own. Nothing came out of the shadows to meet them, and she heard no panels moving in the walls or anything to suggest that they might be in trouble.

“Well, then.” Aria concluded, “...I suppose that was one of the traps.” she shrugged. 

 

It took them a few more moments of blinking and turning in circles, before Aria and Qyzen realized that a door on the opposite wall which had been previously shut when they entered the crypt, was now open. Therefore, it was a reasonable assumption to make that this was the way they were meant to proceed forward. 

“This is...Fount?” Qyzen snorted as he peered over the top of Aria’s head at the stone structure in the center of the room. The human woman, too, was stunned into silence. Truthfully, she had expected ...well, more. From the way Qanarr had talked about the Fount, she had assumed it would be some monolithic and impressive structure, not a tiny slab of rock on an equally small pedestal?

 

“I ...guess so?” She shrugged in response to her companion’s question. As Aria reached out to touch the stone, it hissed ominously, and bright green gas began to pour from the compartment beneath the pedestal. In mere minutes, the short woman was up to her waist in it.

"Small hunter-" Qyzen growled urgently at her shoulder, "Is cyanogen gas, will not harm me, but you…" 

Her throat was already uncomfortably tight, Aria's eyes widened as she tried to fight down the panic threatening to consume her as breathing became increasingly more difficult. No! She wasn't going to die here, not like this. Not without a fight. The Padawan gritted her teeth, mustering all the strength she had left in her muscles to lunge forward and bring her training staff down against the surface of the stone. A metallic clang rang out as the energy blade connected with the Fount, pulling the gas back towards the compartment until it dissipated. Aria had to double over, clutching at her knees as she gulped down lungfuls of air. 

 

She heard Qyzen emit a low hiss, pushing the hair out of her eyes and turning her head to follow the Trandoshan's gaze to the next open door.

"Guess that...was trap...number two." She gasped, clearing her throat until she could swallow the lump that had formed and speak clearly again. Qyzen grumbled something else unintelligible, hanging back from the doorway to let the Jedi go through it first. When she felt collected enough, Aria did just that. She had expected to see some sort of computer terminal connected to a databank, or perhaps another holocron. What she had not expected to see, was the shimmering blue spectre standing in the center of the room. As soon as Aria's feet crossed the threshold, he spoke, voice lilting and melodic. 

“Of course, here is the other. Seekers of such knowledge always have their rivals.” his ethereal gaze turned to focus on Aria as she inched cautiously further into the room, “If you’re here for Nalen, he’s already been and gone. And I remain, as the man I was, Rajivari.” 

 

The short woman couldn’t help but lean forward slightly, squinting as she tried to make out more of the details of the man’s appearance.
“You’re no hologram…” she breathed softly as the realisation dawned on her. Holograms were blue-tinted, yes, but they also typically had some form of static breaking up the shapes that they projected. This Rajivari had none of that, though his form was translucent, it was strangely clear, not like any sort of projection she’d ever seen before. “You’re really Rajivari, aren’t you?” 

Qyzen’s footfalls were hesitant behind her, but she heard the Trandoshan murmur, in a hushed tone that hinted at his confusion.

“Small hunter, who is you speak to?” the mercenary paused for a moment, mulling the situation before him over, before he shook his head and huffed thoughtfully, “Must be Jedi seeing...not for my eyes.” 

“Your pet is brighter than he looks.” Rajivari mused, folding his hands neatly.
“He’s not a pet.” Aria muttered in Qyzen’s defence, “He’s an ally.” 

 

The Force spirit quirked a brow at her questioningly, and offered a briefly mumbled apology for his mis-speaking before he continued with his explanation.  “When my body failed me, I could not become one with the Force, not while the Jedi were still imperfect. I remained here, created devices to gift to a worthy apprentice if they should find me. (1)

“You’re the Fount of your own knowledge.” 

“Yes.” He nodded. “And I have waited long for one able to carry on my teachings. But...Nalen walked through the traps instead of solving them. He suffered greatly for it.” Rajivari’s voice was laced with regret as he spoke of the Pilgrim warrior’s fate. “I...miscalculated. I made not a successor, but a monster.” This was all very well and good, but Aria was growing impatient. 

“I don’t care.” she growled, curling one hand into a fist, “All I need to know is where he is!”

“He has gone to the Forge, where lightsabers are made.” the man’s expression fell to something much more grim as he warned her. “Nalen will not remake the Jedi, as I thought, but destroy them and everything else on this world. You must stop him.” 

“I thought you wanted to destroy the Jedi?” Aria tilted her head in confusion. “You attacked the Council.”

 

Rajivari huffed, this time.
“I sought to cleanse them, to start over and correct their mistakes. Nalen wants only ashes.”
Perhaps he and I have something in common, after all... Aria thought, ironically. The Force spirit raised a hand to point to the training blade clutched in her other hand.

“That weapon will not be enough to defeat him. But, you carry the hilt of the First Blade with you. A simple enough procedure could make it a working lightsaber hilt, provided you can retrieve a crystal from the caverns to power it, given its age and lack of emitter.” 

“Finally, a lightsaber.” Despite the troubles they had been through to get this far, Aria couldn’t help but be glad to finally wield a familiar (and powerful) weapon again. 

“When you have the crystal, go to the Forge at the mountain’s summit, and stop this...abomination my knowledge has created.” 

 

Before she turned to leave, another thought occurred to Aria and she looked at Rajivari once more.

“I’m stronger in the Force than Nalen, why not use the device on me? I could be the acolyte you wanted.”
“Small hunter- !” Qyzen sputtered in protest, he may not be able to see Rajivari’s ghost, but he certainly wasn’t deaf and knew full well the implications of his companion’s suggestion. Aria shot him a piercing glare that caused the Trandoshan to fall silent with a muted rumble. 

“The devices were spent during Nalen’s procedure, alas I fear that is not an option,” he murmured regretfully, dipping into a bow as he backed away towards the far wall, “but the Force has its own plans for you, you will see. Go, stop Nalen.” 

And with that final word, the apparition faded away into the wall. 

 

Aria and Qyzen left the Fount, skirting around the rest of the Flesh Raider tribes to climb up the mountain Rajivari had told them about. Luckily, the crystal cavern was nestled somewhere close by, and thus not much of a detour was needed in order to go and pick one up. A few packs of horranths were the worst thing they ran into as Aria searched for a crystal, passing over the stereotypical blue, green and yellow...she hated that she had to call herself a Jedi, the last thing she wanted was to reaffirm that by wielding a saber that made her look even more like one. As she managed to locate one that was more her “style” - a deep, blood-orange-red - however, Aria was caught off guard as a great, dark beast lurched out of one of the empty tunnels and set upon them. If it hadn't been for Qyzen keeping watch, the human woman was almost sure the thing would have injured her far more gravely before they managed to put it down. 

 

As they climbed the rest of the summit to reach the Forge at the top, Aria frowned thoughtfully as she considered the beast's appearance, and how familiar it seemed to her. 

"Small hunter, is something on mind?" Qyzen rumbled from beside her. She nodded, tilting her head upwards to meet the Trandoshan's curious yellow gaze.

"I've seen beasts like that before...but not on any Jedi worlds."

"Is Sith thing?" Her companion asked slowly. Aria wasn't entirely sure of the answer herself. 

".. .Perhaps, yes. It's just, strange, to see it here of all places." 

 

Any further discussion as to the origins or meanings of the beast were pushed aside as the pair crested the rise, both of them stopping to stare upon the structure ahead of them in awe.

"Forge." Qyzen breathed, reverently, "Qanarr has spoken of, is maker of weapons. Arms Jedi."

Aria still couldn't believe she was finally looking at it...whilst the human slowly made her way up the staircase to the top of the structure, Qyzen hung a few flights back, sniffing deeply. "No scent. Or tracks. Nalen is not here," he reported, jogging up the rest of the steps to join her, "but should prepare. Perhaps is time enough to build weapon." 

She knew he was right. Nalen wasn't here now, but he would be. Aria blew out a quiet breath to center herself, then began pulling the parts she'd gathered out of her pack: the First Blade's hilt, the emitter and other assorted parts Qanarr had given her, the crystal. She placed each of them on the Forge's pedestal, then smiled over her shoulder at her companion. 

"I'm going to have to concentrate on this, can you watch my back?" She asked him. 

 

The Trandoshan nodded in confirmation, spinning around to walk to the edge of the platform where he would have the best vantage point to spot any approaching Pilgrims. 

"Of course, small hunter. Make your weapon. You have earned." 

Trusting Qyzen to keep a close watch, Aria sank down to crouch before the Forge on her knees, breathing deeply to keep herself centered, and tapped into the threads of Force energy around her. With the greatest care, she levitated each saber part into its correct place, willing the Force to join them together as they should be. Lastly, she let the two separate halves hover above the Forge whilst she maneuvered the crystal into place behind the emitter and lens, as she heard it all click together, Aria reached out a hand to float the newly constructed lightsaber into it, and froze as she heard Qyzen's electroblade activate behind her. 

 

Aria opened her eyes, rising back to her feet and moving to stand at the mercenary's shoulder, following his gaze to the familiar blue-skinned Twi'lek man who was glaring back at them with just as much venom in his gaze. He had company, too, a contingent of at least six Pilgrims crowding behind him to get a look at her for themselves. She and Qyzen are severely outnumbered, but there's no other way off this mountain except straight through the Pilgrims. They're trapped. Aria's lightsaber activated with a SNAP-HISS, the blood orange blade crackling for a few moments as the energy beam settled into the proper shape. They both stood still as statues, gazes unwavering as they scowled at one another in silent condemnation. Qyzen let out an angry hiss. Aria was the first to move, propelling herself back down the stairs two at a time, with the Trandoshan hard on her heels.

 

"Fitting, that it's you, armed with the last lightsaber this Forge will ever make." Nalen sneered at Aria as her feet hit the soft grass at the bottom. Next, he turned to the other Twi'leks beside him, throwing an arm out to angrily point in her direction as he shouted. "Look at her! Another Jedi to nod, and preach, and do nothing, while the Flesh Raiders ravage our homes!" 

"Nalen, listen to me. You're not thinking clearly." It took almost all her power for Aria to keep her voice low, but still urgent - screaming at him wasn't going to get through to Nalen, however much she wanted to do just that. She cast her eyes frantically over each of his companions, imploring one or more of them to believe her, too. "I know the Jedi haven't been good to you, but I'm not like them." 

"Liar!" Nalen snarled at her, beginning to pace up and down in agitation. 

"No, ask your guard captain, Odumis!" Aria insisted. "I helped him get you an advantage over the Flesh Raiders!" 

 

Qyzen made a small noise in the back of his throat, as if he were about to pipe up with another protest, until Aria shot him a furious scowl that made the words die down before he could even get them out. Nalen had returned his attention to his Pilgrims once more, continuing on his rant. 

“I know Rajivari’s secrets! Horrors that the Jedi - this Jedi - have been chasing! Only I can protect our families, and our home!”
Aria was done being patient. As Nalen stopped to inhale another deep breath, she cut the Twi’lek man off before he could begin his next sentence, sneering back at him.

“Let them speak for themselves, Nalen.”
“Shut up!!” one of the women stepped forward to scream back at Aria. “You’re no better, you attacked our friends, our brothers, in cold blood!” 

Aria’s lip curled upwards as she met the woman’s gaze evenly.
“I gave them the chance to walk away, they chose to fight. That’s on them, not me!” 

Behind the two angry Twi’leks, the others were looking back and forth and muttering uneasily amongst themselves.

“But…” spoke another, his calmer voice lending to the impression he was still trying to approach the situation logically, “maybe we don’t have all the facts. What Nalen’s been saying... something’s not right…” 

“Stand there and watch, then!” Nalen snarled as he drew his blade and spun it into a ready position, his glower once again returning to Aria as he hissed through his teeth: “Justice needs witnesses!” 

 

Aria mirrored the Twi’lek’s shift in posture, her saber humming ominously as she dropped into a guard stance. She didn’t take her eyes off Nalen, either, her voice low and menacing, she warned him firmly.

“If you attack me Nalen, I swear by the Force I’ll kill you if I have to.” 

“Enough! First you, then your great Forge!” Nalen spat, taking a step closer to her. “You Jedi have lorded over us for long enough!” 

Before the human woman could make any sort of retort, Qyzen stepped up to join her, electroblade pointing threateningly at Nalen.
“Does not fight alone. You owe blood, dark thing.” the Trandoshan hissed. 

 

Nalen let out a war cry and lunged past Qyzen, aiming straight for Aria. Qyzen was too slow to stop him, and very quickly became occupied with the two other Twi’leks who had stepped forward to speak before, locking his blade with theirs as he attempted to stop them from swarming Aria all at once. She focused all her attention on Nalen, twisting her shoulder out of range of his blade as he tried to bring it down on her collarbone. Aria was faster, however, twirling the polesaber in her hand until it spun around to meet Nalen’s weapon. The sub-par electroblade didn’t stand a chance, the much hotter energy beam from the saber slicing through it as if it were made of butter. 

 

Nalen let out an alarmed shout, springing backwards with surprising agility before she could bring the other blade up towards his face, stumbling towards Qyzen who still had his back turned to the Pilgrim while he dealt with the other two. It wasn’t really much of a fight. Aria shifted her polesaber into one hand and thrust the other out towards Nalen, grabbing hold of him with the Force and pinning his feet to the floor. It gave Qyzen just enough time to hear Nalen’s footfalls, and spin around to slash him across the torso before he could land a blow with what was left of his own weapon. The Twi’lek yelped in pain, staggering and falling onto his knees, where he stayed this time. He coughed, clutching at the gash across his stomach. 

“I’d forgotten...the smell of my own blood…I, I yield…”

 

Aria stayed where she was, standing over him, lightsaber poised to strike him again should Nalen attempt to get up, when the other male Pilgrim stepped forward again. His lekku twitched in distress as he looked from Nalen, to the Padawan in front of him, and then back again.
“But Nalen, he…he’s never been beaten.”

“I warned him.” Aria answered simply. “It didn’t have to come to this, but I warned every single one of you that this would happen.” 

“What...what are you going to do with him?” he asked, the whites of his eyes showing for a moment. She looked at Nalen as he coughed painfully again, rolling half onto his side as he struggled to hold himself up. He’d gotten a thorough ass-kicking in nothing flat, and it was no less than what he deserved. And oh, she really wanted to kill him for all the trouble he'd put her through, dropping that cave on her head, using Qyzen as bait to draw her out, trying to make her a laughing stock in front of the Kalikori villagers...but as she stood there, staring down at her beaten opponent, Qanarr’s angry face and the words she had spat at her the day before flashed in Aria’s minds’ eye.

"You KILLED them?! How could you?!"

 

So instead, she sighed deeply, and deactivated her lightsaber as she met the man’s gaze.

“That’s not my decision to make. It’s for the Jedi Council to decide.”

Something that might have been relief flashed on the Pilgrim’s face, but it was quickly replaced with a melancholy as he, too, looked down at Nalen and murmured.
“But...the village needs Nalen. Without him, how will we protect ourselves?” 

Aria wasn’t very good at giving advice, her specialty was more along the lines of ‘sarcastic or otherwise scathing remarks that slipped out before she could think about it’. This was one of those times. 

“You have to find your own strength.” she snapped back at him. “Relying on others to protect you makes you weak, remember that.” 

Rather than putting their backs up, for once her words seemed to get through to the Twi’leks. The man in the front frowned thoughtfully, and those left behind him mumbled something unintelligible in agreement with his next words:

“We always relied on him too much. Maybe...we pushed him into becoming this?” he shook his head, and offered Aria a consolatory smile. “We’ll carry him to the Temple, Master Jedi. We owe him that much.” 

 

Eugh. Was this ‘Master Jedi’ thing going to become more popular now that she had her own lightsaber? She didn’t care for it, and she wasn’t sure she ever would. It took all of Aria’s self control not to pull an uncomfortable face at the misnomer while she and Qyzen watched the Pilgrims lift Nalen to carry him back to the temple. The Trandoshan stopped at her shoulder, looking down at her as he murmured, sounding awestruck. 

“I have been fool. Spoke false. You are no small hunter.” 

Once more, Aria felt as if she was missing the context of Qyzen’s statement, so she craned her head upwards to raise a confused eyebrow at him.
“I don’t understand what you mean, Qyzen.” 

 

The Trandoshan puffed his chest out proudly, lifting his chin as he declared. 

“Can be no other. Scorekeeper has chosen for greatest honour. You are Herald of Scorekeeper.” 

That…did not really make his original point any clearer to her.
“But I’m not a Trandoshan, how can I be a Herald of your goddess?” Aria asked, her frown deepening. Qyzen shrugged, unsure of the real answer himself, but choosing not to question whatever sign he had  received during their scuffle with Nalen.
“Is no importance. You are her Herald. Cannot be otherwise.” he tore his gaze away from the Padawan next to him, to look back out along the path they had climbed earlier that day to reach the Forge. “Losing points was horror, but Scorekeeper has led through darkness to greater thing. You.” He dipped into a very formal bow, which Aria thought was entirely unnecessary, but did not protest as he grinned broadly at her and declared: “I will follow, Herald, wherever needed. Scorekeeper has shown my path: to serve her Herald.” 

She couldn’t very well disagree with him when he spoke so passionately about his beliefs, so as she had done before, she ducked her head awkwardly.
“Oh, well then...thank you...I guess. If you truly believe that, then I’ll do my best to live up to the name.” she promised, smiling at him again. “And I’ll be very glad for a powerful ally like you.” 

“Is much news we have, Herald.” Qyzen nodded down the slope, towards the spires of the Temple they could just see in the distance, through the low-hanging clouds. “Should return to Council, and Qanarr, to tell.” 

 

***

 

Aria paused in the doorway to the Council chamber, tilting her head up to gaze towards the vast ceiling, several feet above the top of her head. It was even bigger than any other chamber she’d ever seen, and the short woman suddenly felt so very small as she stepped over the threshold to stand before the Council. The heels of her training boots clicked softly against the polished marble floor, until she came to a stop in front of the circle of twelve high-backed chairs. Qanarr stood to one side of the circle, facing Aria as she halted beside her. Qyzen remained silent at her other shoulder, though he offered Qanarr a brief smile. The Cathar Jedi folded her hands neatly in front of her chest, dipping into a half bow of greeting. Aria mimicked the gesture out of politeness, and turned to face the two Masters who were seated in their chairs before them. One she recognised as being the man who had spoken to her with Master Bakarn, outside Qanarr’s library, but the woman was a new face. 

 

She wasn’t much taller than Aria, yet she exuded a strength within the Force that made the Padawan shake in her boots. Whoever she was, the woman was clearly not one to be trifled with. What had she gotten herself into…? The Jedi Master’s sharp blue eyes studied Aria briefly, before diverting to someone over her shoulder as Master Bakarn joined them. He, too, bowed in greeting to Qanarr and Aria, before he brushed past the shorter human to take his place with his peers. 

“We’ve been waiting for you, Padawan.” he began as he turned to face Aria again. “You’ve already met Master Jaric.” he indicated the familiar face, then nodded towards the woman next, who raised her hand in a polite greeting. “This is Grandmaster Satele Shan.”

“I’ve been treating Nalen Raloch.” Satele explained, folding her hands neatly into her lap, “The pilgrims who carried him here told us about your battle, and how you dealt with him.”

 

Aria wanted to appear more confident than she felt on the inside, so she managed to smirk and brush off the praise.

“I’ve yet to face anything I couldn’t solve one way or another.” she tilted her head to one side curiously. “Will Nalen be alright?” 

“A good start, to be sure, Padawan.” Satele chuckled, though declined to provide an answer to the question they’d been asked. “How you proceed remains to be seen.” 

Master Jaric sat forward, fingers steepled and brows pulled together severely.
“The pilgrim’s deaths that you caused may be problematic, it may take years - decades even - to regain their trust-”
“I tri-” Aria began to protest, only for the argument to be abruptly cut short by Qanarr.

“Enough, enough of that.” she scowled momentarily at Jaric until it was clear he wasn’t going to continue to bring up the subject, before her expression softened and she turned back to her Padawan. “The Fount of Rajivari. Did you actually find it?” 

 

Aria nodded in confirmation, proud to be able to relay some real findings to the Council, and perhaps prove Jaric’s superstitious worrying wrong.
“Oh yes, it’s very real. Master Rajivari himself spoke to me, or…what was left of him, anyway.” 

Qanarr’s eyes widened in awe.
“You saw a Force apparition of Rajivari?” she breathed. In front of them, Satele and Bakarn were stunned into silence, while Jaric cleared his throat and averted his gaze from Aria’s. 

“It seems you were right, Qanarr. I...apologise, to you and your Padawan.”

“She carries a lightsaber now.” Satele pointed out, her gaze drifting to the hilt that dangled from the clip on Aria’s hip, “She’s no longer a Padawan, and has more than proven herself. I have only one last question before her training is complete.” 

 

Aria’s stomach twisted uncomfortably, and her muscles tensed on instinct, ready to run if she had to. With a statement like that, it usually wasn’t going to end very well for her. Out loud, however, she forced herself to keep her composure and instead repeated the bow Qanarr had given her moments before.
“Of course, Master Satele. What would you ask of me?” 

Satele shifted in her chair to sit further forward and study the woman before her more closely.
“At the moment, Nalen Raloch is resting in a kolto tank. When he is well, what should become of him?” 

It's all about playing their game. Aria reminded herself in her head. She'd gone over this many times; The key to keeping yourself safe is to tell them what they want to hear, even if it may seem like it creates a bigger problem in the short term...

 

The most ‘logical’ outcome was to either kill Nalen, or simply to throw him back out to Kalikori as soon as he was well enough to stand. After all the trouble he had caused for the Jedi, he wasn’t really worth the same amount of resources...but that was logically. Of course, the Jedi thing to suggest was to somehow extend an olive branch to the Twi’leks, by offering him further help. So, she went with that. 

“Nalen proved he has great strength in the Force. It would be a shame for that to be wasted.”

Satele looked surprised by the suggestion, blinking as she asked.

“Train him here with us?” 

“I think it would be a step in the right direction.” Aria pointed out. “And a show of good faith for us.” 

“And it may bring reconciliation with the Kalikori villagers.” Satele reflected, nodding slowly. “A sound idea.” 

Master Bakarn was next to step forward and address her.
“We judge you ready to accept your place as a Jedi. Qanarr, if you would?” he waved the Cathar forward. On queue, the Jedi Master stepped up to stand opposite Aria, enunciating her words clearly.

“Before this Council, I take from you the title of Padawan, and name you a full Jedi of our Order. Honour the past.” 

 

Her words had started out steady and purposeful, but as Qanarr continued to recite the ritual’s blessing, she suddenly seemed to falter. She sounded woozy, maybe inebriated in some way...if Aria hadn’t known the Cathar never to touch a glass of alcohol in her life, she might have worried this was the case. But this wasn’t a drunken stupor, it was...something else. “May the Force be...always with you. You have...done so well...I’m…” Qanarr’s breathing hitched, and she swayed unsteadily as she clutched at her forehead. 

 

“Master Qanarr?” Aria frowned, deeply concerned. Qanarr’s eyes darted to Aria’s face, and the newly-minted Jedi’s heart sank as she realised that the Cathar’s gaze was entirely unfocused...as if she was looking straight through Aria. She made no attempt to give Aria any sort of response to the query, and without warning dropped onto the ground. “QANARR!” 


Luckily, Aria was close enough that she managed to dart forwards and catch her master before she could smack her head off the hard marble floor. As she lowered the Cathar more gently onto the ground, the three Jedi Council members all hurried over to crowd around them too. Master Bakarn shooed Aria aside so he could kneel beside Qanarr in her place, calling the Cathar’s name a bit louder as he hoped for a response.
“Qanarr, can you hear me?” 

 

There was no answer.  

 

Satele’s face set, and she was on her feet and striding out the door in the next breath, telling her companions.
“Get her up to the medbay, quickly. I will see what I can do.” 

The Masters lifted Qanarr between them and took her away upstairs, leaving Aria and Qyzen staring, shell-shocked, at the place where the Cathar had fallen moments before. Minutes passed into hours, Aria paced restlessly while Qyzen did his best to rumble some reassuring words. Still, they saw none of the Jedi Masters return. Just when Aria began to fear she would go crazy, Master Bakarn stepped back through the chamber door. 

 

“She’s resting, for now.” he informed the pair. “Satele thinks she’s suffering from some kind of illness.” the grimness of his facial expression didn’t echo the apparently good news he was delivering. “I can’t lie to you, her condition is grave.” 

Aria’s frown returned.
“Now that you mention it, she was acting rather...strange, this morning, and yesterday.” 

“She did best to hide her sickness, Herald.” Qyzen huffed, placing a comforting hand briefly on Aria’s shoulder. Syo scowled across at the Trandoshan distrustfully. 

“You knew Qanarr was ill and didn’t inform us?!” 

Qyzen didn’t seem rattled by Syo raising his voice, instead he simply met the human man’s gaze calmly and replied, with an accompanying shrug. 

“Is not my place to tell her secrets. Was her wish to train one last hunter. I understood.”

“Now I understand why she was so persistent about wanting me to finish my training…” Aria breathed, feeling a stab of guilt claw at her gut as the realisation dawned on her. Perhaps if she’d listened, returned to Tython sooner...could they have caught this earlier? Looking back to Master Bakarn, she asked weakly. “Is there anything we can do for her?”  

 

“We’re sending Qanarr to Coruscant.” the Jedi Master explained, hands crossed behind his back. “Our researchers there have been recovering artefacts from the first Jedi Temple, they may know of something that could help Qanarr.” he shook his head gravely. “This illness...it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s going to take more than kolto to make it right.” 

He quickly regained his composure, voice once again steady and all-business as he ordered Aria to take a shuttle to Coruscant and meet Qanarr there. “She’s going to need your help, talk to the researchers, see what you can do for her.”

“Yes, Master.” Aria nodded, dipping into a quick bow. Qyzen stepped up to follow her.

“Where Herald goes, I go too.” he announced.
“Thank you, Qyzen.” Aria flashed him a grateful smile. She didn’t much fancy making such a long journey completely on her own. It would be nice to have someone to talk to, to keep her mind off of what in Force could possibly be ailing her former Master.

“When you dock on Coruscant, find a researcher named Attros Finn. He’ll be expecting you.” Syo instructed them. “In the meantime, if she wakes, assure Qanarr we’ll be studying your discoveries regarding Rajivari. Some of them...bear investigation.” his last statement sounded awfully ominous, and Aria couldn’t help but frown at Master Bakarn as he bowed and took his leave. “May the Force be with you.”