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Aronoke clung to Kthoth Neesh tightly as they zoomed between the dark trees. Branches occasionally whipped across his face, but that was better than the lashing he had gotten when Kthoth Neesh had tried to cross one of the open clearings. That had been a mistake. They had been forced to forge a path back towards the forest and had lost much of their lead.

“They’re gaining on us!” Aronoke’s words were whipped away uselessly, long before Kthoth Neesh could hear them, but she seemed to understand anyway. The angry insectile humming of the imperial speeders was louder now, clearly audible over the whine of their own bike’s engine. After Aronoke had inadvertently given their position away, the speeders had converged on them all too quickly. If only he could drive, Aronoke thought, they might have gotten away – he might have managed to fly completely in the dark with the assistance of his senses – but it had proved impossible for Kthoth Neesh to navigate the forest without the headlights and they had been followed. Even with the lights on, Aronoke wasn’t sure they would avoid crashing. He had shut his eyes tightly several times when they came too close to trees.

It was no surprise that their pursuers were gaining; they were trained Imperial scouts, while Kthoth Neesh’s experience was limited to a few occasions when she had visited planets and tried out the local transport. Narakites didn’t have much need to learn to pilot ground vehicles. Aronoke’s experience was more limited still, because the Fumers had never used bikes, so all he could do was cling to Kthoth Neesh and hope for the best.

It was strange, Aronoke thought, to be holding her closely so soon after the fiasco behind the log. He would have preferred to retreat far away from Kthoth Neesh, to come to terms with the strangeness of his overwhelming attraction to her, but necessity was a strong master.

He should be thinking about something else, he thought crossly, or at least, be working on regaining his equilibrium, but it was difficult when he was expecting they would crash at any moment.

Blaster fire had been whistling after them, but it didn’t seem like their pursuers were trying very seriously to shoot them. They were obviously supposed to be taken alive. Then suddenly there wasn’t any firing at all. Aronoke glanced back over his shoulder and saw one of the bikes was outdistancing the others. It drew steadily closer, flicking through the tree trunks with reckless expert ease. The rider must have amazing reflexes, Aronoke thought to himself. He had never seen anyone drive with such disregard for personal safety, not even Mill, but this person was taking insane risks and winning them time after time. Almost as if… of course, he realised with a pang of dread. It was the Sith.

“Drive faster!” Aronoke shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear, and the narakite girl stiffened tensely and bent further forward over the bike’s controls as if she was urging it onwards. The bike behind them swooped and zagged, drawing so close that Aronoke could see by the flashing headlights that its rider wore full body armour, black, ornate, and patterned in a distinctive style. It was definitely the Sith. Aronoke could see him casually steering one-handed while he reached for something at his waist. Could see his hand coming forward with a bright blaze of red as his lightsaber activated. Like a jouster, the Sith thundered after them and with a sudden sideways swoop, slashed at their speeder.

Much to his shame, Aronoke squealed in a most undignified way as he swung his leg up and out of the way, clutching even more tightly to Kthoth Neesh to avoid falling off. The speeder swerved alarmingly, sparks blazing off the rear panel, and she almost lost control. She hit the brakes hard as the bike slewed wildly from side to side, and the Sith shot past them, careering ahead into the forest. The other bikes were forced to go around them, to slow and curve back, but Kthoth Neesh heeled the bike over almost at right angles, pointed it at what looked like a solid wall of vegetation and pushed the accelerators full forward.

Aronoke ducked as some low-hanging branches nearly took off his head. One impacted against his back, where it was deflected by the thick swimsuit material, while a stick scratched painfully across his face, just below one eye. The speeder hurtled unstoppably onwards crashing through the bushes. They were angling downwards now, through stringy saplings and scraggly foliage, until the speeder suddenly shot out over water, trailing a mess of broken vines behind it.

The river!

Aronoke hadn’t been certain the speeder would even hover over water, but this model was apparently capable. He looked back over his shoulder, but he could see no one following. The density of the undergrowth had slowed pursuit for the moment. He glanced quickly upstream and downstream, but he couldn’t see very far in either direction. The river curved sharply here and the vegetation on the banks was dense and obscuring. If they hurried they might get out of sight before their pursuers could see which way they went. But which way should they go? Aronoke thought the ship lay downstream somewhere – they had travelled very quickly and had surely come further upriver than they had walked, but heading straight towards it might give their hiding place away. Upstream only led further from safety, and Aronoke doubted that Kthoth Neesh would be able to outmanoeuvre the more experienced scouts for long. Or they could abandon the bike and…

“Quick!” he shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear. “Stop! Deactivate the hover-thrusters.”

“But we’ll sink!” the narakite yelled unthinkingly, and then she staightened in comprehension. She braked so hard that Aronoke nearly shot over her head; was crushed up against her back, only barely resisting being flung off. The bike bobbed alarmingly over the water. It took a moment for Kthoth Neesh to find the controls and then quite suddenly the bike dropped in the water and began to sink, taking them both with it.

Aronoke felt a pang of dread as the water closed over his head and had to will himself to be calm as he kept hold of Kthoth Neesh with one hand while he fumbled in his swimsuit pocket for his breather with the other. If it wasn’t there, if it had somehow fallen out, then he was sure to be caught. Aronoke remembered Master Caaldor’s directions all too clearly. Don’t take any risks. Better to fail than to fall into the hands of the Sith. But then his fingers closed on the familiar wedge of the breather and he pushed it into his mouth, remembering to breathe out first to expel any liquid that might have gotten into it.

With any luck, Aronoke thought, the current should bring them straight back to Master Caaldor and the others. As he drifted, holding tightly to Kthoth Neesh’s hand, Aronoke concentrated hard on trying to dampen his thoughts and his connection to the Force, trying to hide their presence. It was difficult, because he had to keep one tiny tendril of his Senses open, feeling through the water for the vast bulk of the ship and Master Caaldor’s presence.

No sign of the ship, no sign of Master Caaldor’s familiar calmness. Surely they hadn’t come so far upstream as all that. Aronoke could sense a sudden spike of intense Force-driven rage from nearby. The Sith had lost them, he realised in relief, and had probably used the Force to do something nasty to one of his underlings. He wouldn’t like to be one of those speeder bike scouts right now.

They drifted for ten minutes and then ten minutes more, and Aronoke began to grow worried that they hadn’t been upstream of the ship at all. That they were drifting further and further away from safety with every passing moment. Maybe he had missed the ship in all this sludgy water. Or, worse still, maybe this wasn’t the right river. Aronoke allowed his senses a little more freedom, letting them probe out further, and was relieved to detect a familiar, if somewhat muted presence on the riverbank. Aronoke tugged at Kthoth Neesh’s hand and began to swim for the shore.

“What are you doing here?” Aronoke asked Hespenara as he staggered out onto the muddy bank. Behind him, Kthoth Neesh spat out her breather and let loose a deluge of curses as she examined something clinging to her leg.

“Leeches!” she said in disgust.

“I came to find you!” said Hespenara. “I was feeling better, and you’d been gone such a long time. Master Caaldor thought it best that I try and locate you, since he was worried you couldn’t find your way back, but I met a rather unpleasant creature while I was trying to get out of the river. I’m afraid it took me a while to deal with that.”

“The giant river worm?” asked Aronoke, and the green girl nodded.

“We met it too.”

“We’d better get back to the ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, still plucking at slimy things attached to her swimsuit, real and imaginary. “Wouldn’t be surprised if those speeders are still looking for us.”

“I can see you have a story to tell,” said Hespenara. “Let’s get under cover. You look all done in.”


“Padawan. I’m glad to see you’ve returned safely.” Master Caaldor looked remote, as if he was trying to see something far off in deep space, and Aronoke thought that his Master couldn’t continue shielding them for very much longer.

Aronoke, Hespenara and Kthoth Neesh had cleaned up and changed out of their wet garments. Aronoke had been glad to retreat into the depths of his Jedi robes. They felt safer than the tight-fitting swimsuit and helped conceal the collection of minor injuries this latest escapade had earned him. Yet, despite his weariness and the deterioration of his limp, all the scrapes and scratches didn’t weigh him down as heavily as his disappointment in himself.

“I take it things did not go as smoothly as we hoped,” Master Caaldor said, giving Aronoke a scrutinising look. Aronoke tried hard not to flush, wondering if his Master had detected the terrible surge in the Force that had attracted the Sith. Probably not, Aronoke deduced. Master Caaldor had been busy shielding the ship and was not particularly good at sensing things. He was probably just noting Aronoke’s grim expression.

Should he tell his Master what had happened? Almost certainly. But would he? No. Not now. Not with Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara here listening. It was far too embarrassing. He took refuge in starting his report instead.

“We managed to avoid being detected until after we set the beacon,” Aronoke said. “There were imperial speeders out looking for us, but it was very easy to hide from them. It took longer to get to the hill than I thought, because the terrain was very difficult, but once we got there, that part went quite well. But the beacon only signalled for a about a minute before someone blew it up. I don’t know that it was really signalling enough to do any good.”

“There may still be a response,” Master Caaldor said reassuringly. “The signal contained coded data as to our location. If it was detected by any Jedi anywhere, merely once, they will know where to find us. The beacon does not need to continue being active for them to do so.”

“So you encountered trouble on the way back?” Hespenara asked, and Aronoke couldn’t help but look at Kthoth Neesh. She looked back at him expressionlessly and shrugged.

“It was always going to be the rough part,” she said wearily. “Once we set up the beacon they knew exactly where to find us, of course. We got out of there quickly, but they were closer on our trail than before.”

Aronoke heaved an internal sigh of relief. He hadn’t really thought that Kthoth Neesh would reveal what had happened, but he was still glad she hadn’t said anything. I have too many secrets, he thought glumly, thinking of the map on his back. I don’t really need another one. In the end though, he realised, all his secrets came from one source, which at least was something Master Caaldor already knew about. But he still knew, deep down, that his Master should be told about what had happened between him and Kthoth Neesh – about what kept happening.

“And then?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke realised that they were all looking at him, waiting for him to continue as he stood there, caught up in reverie.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m tired.” He forced himself to breathe, slowly, deeply, and drew upon the Force to make himself calmer. To override aches and pains to allow him to concentrate better. As his heart rate steadied and his muscles began to relax, the right words came into Aronoke’s mind.

“On the way back, we were seen by a scout,” he said. “At first we hid and he went away, but he came back again after a few minutes and began looking around carefully, like he knew we were somewhere nearby. I think the Sith must have detected us.”

“Oh?” said Hespenara. “That’s surprising. Most Jedi, and Sith too I expect, wouldn’t be able to detect someone easily amidst all that jungle, unless you were doing something very overt and powerful.”

“Our Sith could possess a talent for sensing,” observed Master Caaldor, staring at Aronoke thoughtfully.

“Maybe we made some noise and the scout heard, I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Maybe he saw our tracks. It just seemed like he came back so suddenly, I thought it must be the Sith. We managed to get the drop on the scout, but not before he gave the alarm. We took his bike.”

“Then it was like we’d shot at their capital ship or something,” Kthoth Neesh interjected smoothly. “Suddenly there were speeders everywhere, chasing us. I tried to head upriver, but they caught up quickly. I’m not very good with speeders.”

“Most likely they had some sort of tracer on the bike,” said Hespenara.

“Possibly,” Kthoth Neesh replied. “But they didn’t seem to be able to trace it when we dumped it in the river.”

Aronoke listened to her tell the rest of the story. They had been very lucky to get away, he realised, and yet, the danger had not completely passed. The Sith might still trace them along the river, if he realised they had disappeared into it. He would doubtlessly be watching and scanning it much more closely than before.

“I suppose now we have to wait,” Hespenara sighed.

“For a time,” said Master Caaldor mildly. “There’s a limit to how long I can maintain our shielding. Hopefully the Sith will lose patience with the search before then.”

“So we do nothing?” asked Aronoke.

“Eat. Drink. Rest,” said Master Caaldor. “If nothing has happened after twenty-four hours, then we’ll have to work out another plan, but until then, we are best off conserving our energy.”


In the end they waited for about eleven hours.

Aronoke was awake again by then, having slept for nearly all of them. He was sitting in the cockpit in the co-pilot’s seat, leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the dash, concentrating on scanning the sky for ships – ships that might contain Jedi come to help them. It was important that any Jedi should be quickly informed of the situation, so they didn’t fall foul of either the Queb or the Sith.

Master Caaldor sat in the tilted pilot’s seat, steadily staring out into the murky water that lay beyond the front viewscreen. He hadn’t slept for at least three days running, Aronoke knew, but he didn’t seem to have any trouble staying awake. Aronoke wished his own control was so effective.

But there were things Aronoke could do better, despite his limited experience, and sensing other Force-users was one of them. Aronoke had been concerned that using his Force-senses might alert the Sith, and Master Caaldor had conceded that there was a risk, but, he had added, there was a risk in everything.

“Even merely hiding poses a risk,” he had said. “Everything is connected in the Force.”

Yes, thought Aronoke, every moment they delayed gave Master Skeirim a chance to pursue his treacherous plans, whatever those were. Every moment was one that Master Altus spent in suffering. And so Aronoke scanned for ships, for Sith or Jedi, hoping that help would come soon.

And then help came.

At first Aronoke thought he was imagining the twinkle in the sky, for it was as faint as the most distant star still visible to the naked eye. The tiny blip of Force energy was erratic, thready and diffuse, and yet he knew it was there. He sat up to focus more carefully. Even though changing his physical position made no difference to how well his Force senses worked, it still felt like moving helped. It seemed to help now, because a few moments later he had honed in on the twinkle and was certain of what he was sensing.

“Someone’s here,” he said to Master Caaldor. “Travelling in a ship, just entering the atmosphere. I think it’s a Jedi, but I can’t be sure yet.”

“Make sure first,” said Master Caaldor. “Then we’ll make contact.”

Aronoke obligingly probed more intently. Yes, it was a ship, a small ship probably, since it contained only one person, now descending through the higher reaches of the atmosphere, drawing closer to them with every passing second. The pilot was a human woman. She tensed and looked around, probably checking the instrument panels. She was definitely a Jedi, Aronoke thought, detecting no trace of the hot intensity he had felt surrounding the Sith. Her connection to the Force deepened and flared, and Aronoke realised she had detected something of his perusal and was trying to tell what he was.

It’s me, Padawan Aronoke, he thought at her, wondering if he could make her understand. Could you speak, mind to mind through the Force? He had no idea. He tried to connect to her more strongly, but only found himself more highly aware of her physical form. She was tall and slim, although not as tall as him. Her long hair was pinned neatly back in a tight braid. He could feel the flow of blood through her veins, the constant onward march of her digestion, the light play of the muscles in her hands and arms as she expertly manipulated the controls of her ship.

Aronoke hesitated a moment, remembering what had happened when he had sensed Kthoth Neesh so closely, but this time it was different. The strange attraction was not there: the experience was as sexless as if the woman had been a tree. There was no sudden overwhelming lust, no biological imperative, but just a deep awareness of her biological structure.

Suddenly Aronoke could tell something was happening, not because he could see it, but because the Jedi could. There was a rush of adrenaline, quickly controlled and harnessed. She wrestled with the ship controls, and the effects of gravity on her body told Aronoke that her craft was ducking, rolling, weaving.

“She’s been spotted,” said Aronoke aloud, and realised he hadn’t answered Master Caaldor’s most important question yet. “She is a Jedi, and I think she’s looking for something – for us, most likely – but she’s been spotted. I think she’s in combat…”

Master Caaldor said something then, but Aronoke didn’t hear it, because one moment he was embedded in the strange Jedi’s biology, and the next moment…. intense agony, pain, every molecule within his awareness being torn apart from every other, and she was nothing, falling through glaring light into darkness, and Aronoke was falling too, clinging to the shred of Force that was all that was left of her, because that was all there was to hold on to…

Someone slapped him hard in the face and it was like they’d slapped his bare brain, it was so devastatingly shocking. It was Hespenara, Aronoke saw, bent over him, pulling her hand back for another slap. Aronoke winced, putting up his hands automatically to shield his face, and Hespenara’s hand fell away in slow motion.

“She…they…” said Aronoke numbly, feeling each word to be a huge mountain he had to climb with numb legs.

“We know,” said Hespenara sadly. “We felt it in the Force.”

“Let’s get him up,” said Master Caaldor and together the two Jedi helped Aronoke to his feet. “You’re lucky you’re still with us, Padawan,” he scolded Aronoke as they helped him sit back down in his chair. “You must never allow yourself to become so heavily invested in what you Sense that you lose track of yourself, of your connection to your body. One of the major hazards that affects Seers is that they can become lost in the Force, unable or unwilling to return to themselves. Following someone into death is a hazard not even the greatest of Seers should tackle.”

It must have been serious, Aronoke thought, still dazed. His master looked so relieved.

“We don’t want you stuck as a mindless vegetable,” said Hespenara, also looking grim and shaken.

“I’m…sorry,” said Aronoke. His mind fumbled with the concept of being a Seer. The Seers in the Jedi Temple were such distant mysterious figures, he couldn’t imagine himself being one. And then they tended to stay there in safety, guarded like sacred relics, not taking any action but only making predictions of the future and watching for secret signs of trouble. He shivered, thinking how difficult such a life might be.

“Your training has been far too sketchy,” Master Caaldor was continuing. “Unfortunately your abilities in sensing far outstrip my own, and I have little knowledge of the specialised techniques Seers use to safeguard themselves. Until you can receive proper training, you must be very cautious, Padawan. Your natural instincts have served you well thus far, but out in the field there are always new dangers. The situation is hardly ever entirely predictable.”

No, Aronoke thought vaguely. There were river monsters and explosions.

“I blame myself,” Master Caaldor was saying. “I’ve made too many demands of you when you have had so little training.”

“No, Master, it’s not your fault,” said Aronoke, forcing himself to straighten a little, to push aside the heavy lethargy and the strange numbness that fogged his mind. He sternly made himself take stock of his condition, to flex his hands and wriggle his toes. He felt too loosely attached to his body, like that time long ago, when he had tried to see what had happened to Master Altus. “It’s like you said – we have to take risks and this one was mine. I had to try, and I don’t hink I’ve suffered any lasting harm. You brought me out of it.” He smiled weakly over at Hespenara, who was still regarding him with some concern. “You didn’t have to slap me so hard, though,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.

“That was the third time I slapped you,” said Hespenara flatly. “I thought we’d lost you.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “Just a bit shaken. But that Jedi… she’s not fine. She’s dead.”

“Do you have any idea what killed her?” Hespenara asked.

“It was almost instant,” said Aronoke. His voice still sounded dreamy, even to himself. “She was trying to evade something, throwing her ship around the sky. She must have been hit. It was… awful, but she didn’t suffer. It was so quick….”

His voice trailed off again, as he relived that terrifying yet oddly exhilarating moment.

“Stay with us,” growled Hespenara, roughly shaking his shoulder.

“Sorry,” mumbled Aronoke sheepishly.

“We’ve got to decide what to do next,” said Master Caaldor. “Whatever we do, the risks we have already taken will doubtlessly pale beside the ones we must take now.”

“We have to make sure the Jedi Council learns about Master Altus and Master Skeirim,” said Hespenara firmly. “If we are about to be caught, we have to send a message telling them what’s happened, so they can take action.”

“Yes,” said Master Caaldor. “That is a valid point. But I am loathe to sell ourselves cheaply to our enemies by broadcasting where we are. It is vital that we stay out of the hands of the Sith. Perhaps there is still a way we can win our freedom.”

Aronoke knew Master Caaldor wanted to save them all, but it was entirely obvious that it was him his Master was talking about. That it was vital Aronoke didn’t fall into the hands of the Sith, because of what was on his back. That Master Caaldor felt somewhat guilty, because they were here against the Jedi Council’s orders to stay as absolutely safe as possible.

“Let’s go through all the possibilities,” said Hespenara. “Ideas… We could lay an ambush for the Sith, tackle him head on, and take his ship. There are three of us and only one of him, although he does have lots of trained soldiers.”

“It would be best to avoid physical conflict if at all possible,” Master Caaldor countered. “The Sith might be able to bring in Queb reinforcements.”

“We could try setting another distress beacon, somewhere else,” said Hespenara, counting off on her fingers.

“They’ll just blow it up again,” said Aronoke dully. “Probably even faster this time. I barely got out of range as it was.”

“Besides,” said Hespenara, “it’s too dangerous – dangerous for us, as you say, but also dangerous for whoever comes to help us, unless they come in numbers, which they are unlikely to do, considering this world is off-limits.”

“We could choose to do nothing,” said Master Caaldor. “We could wait until someone investigates the disappearance of the Jedi who attempted to rescue us. She most probably sent a communication saying she was investigating a distress signal before she came here.”

“That might take a long time,” said Hespenara grimly. “I hate to think of us sitting here, waiting, hiding at the bottom of a river while Master Altus is still a captive.”

“We need to get a ship,” said Aronoke dreamily. “But the spaceport is up on the platforms and there aren’t any ships down here, except the ones looking for us, who are our enemies, and maybe mostly just atmospheric fliers anyway, and a few that come down to… that…”

Aronoke stood up abruptly, his mind suddenly racing.

“Aronoke?” prompted Hespenara gently, hovering at his elbow. He must look very unstable, Aronoke realised.

“That woman I met in the bar,” he said aloud. “The one with the ship who wanted to be our guide – she gave us a holocube with her frequency…. What if we called her?”

Hespenara looked blankly across at Master Caaldor who was stroking his beard and nodding thoughtfully. “Our enemies probably won’t be expecting us to make use of local frequencies since we’ve already shown our hand by trying for intergalactic assistance,” he said. “It’s possible they may still intercept any communication we make, possible also that Jark Tander won’t want to work against the Queb, but maybe…”

“We can offer her a good incentive,” said Hespenara. “Surely the Jedi Temple will hold good on any reasonable offer you make her to bring us to Coruscant.”

“It’s worth a try,” said Master Caaldor, “and there’s no point waiting any further. Padawan, if you could fetch the holocube…?”

It was a request designed to force him to focus, Aronoke realised, and perhaps to take him out of the room, so the other Jedi could discuss him in his absence. He stumbled along the sloping corridor into the main living area of the ship. Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were there, gloomily playing Smackdown on the sloping table.

“What’s happening?” asked Kthoth Neesh, dropping her cards and leaping to her feet at once.

“Help’s not coming,” said Aronoke. “We’re trying something else.”

Quickly he explained what had happened and what the new plan was.

She frowned at him. “That doesn’t explain why you look so terrible.”

“I’m fine – I just overdid things. Jedi things,” said Aronoke, but it didn’t stop her from coming over to stare at him as he began to search through the holocubes. They largely lay where they had been stacked before, stuck together by their magnetic surfaces despite the trauma suffered by the ship. “I expect we’ll be leaving rather quickly if this works,” he said, sorting amongst the teetering pile, “so you’d best get together anything you want to bring. We won’t be able to take much – only what we can easily carry – and it had best be wrapped in something waterproof.”

“Waterproof? You mean we have to swim out?” asked Tarric Gondroz, sounding alarmed.

“At least you didn’t bring much luggage,” said Kthoth Neesh lightly.

“Fate obviously has it in for me,” moaned the kubaz, cradling his head dramatically in his hands. “I can’t swim! I’ve traded a watery death in a tank for one in a stinking muddy river.” He scuttled off into the depths of the ship, making unsettled wheezing sounds as he went.

Aronoke turned his attention back to the task at hand. Jark Tander’s holocube had to be one of the ones on top.

He had just found it when Kthoth Neesh laid a hand on his arm. In his current state of mind it translated into a physical shock and he started, turning abruptly, the holocube in his hand. She looked up at him, and Aronoke was surprised by the genuine concern in her expression.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’ll recover,” said Aronoke brusquely.

“I’m sorry for what happened,” she said softly, her voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t mean for things to take off like that. I mean, I do like you, but mostly I was just fooling around. Not…thinking, I guess, about what it really might do to you.”

“It’s more my fault than yours,” said Aronoke. “You haven’t dedicated yourself to live by any code.”

“I know,” said Kthoth Neesh. “But still. At first I meant it, trying to seduce you so that you would let me go, one way or another. After that it was just funny, but I never expected you to… well, I didn’t mind but…”

“It’s alright,” said Aronoke. “I don’t properly understand why this is happening to me, or why you in particular have this effect on me. It’s not normal – it goes way beyond a normal attraction.”

Kthoth Neesh smiled a tiny mischievous smile. She was incapable of being repressed for long. “And here I thought I was just that sexy.”

“You are,” said Aronoke, seriously, and was surprised to see her pale cheeks tinge with pink. “But that doesn’t mean I should be acting like I have been. Being a Jedi… that’s my big chance. Maybe my only chance. I don’t want to stuff it up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh, contritely. “I’ll try to behave.”

“I’ve got to get this back to Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke gently, holding up the holocube.

“I could take it,” she said, reaching towards it. “You still look like you’re going to faint. You should sit down.”

Aronoke drew his hand back closing his fist over the cube. “It’s okay – I think they’ll want to keep an eye on me,” he said, and the Narakite nodded, stepping aside.

It was all horribly awkward, Aronoke thought grimly as he stumbled along the passage to the cockpit, and for a moment he envisoned an easier world where he wasn’t Force-sensitive, wasn’t a Jedi. Where everything wasn’t so much trouble and he could kiss Kthoth Neesh again without worrying about the consequences.

But there was never any point wishing for might-bes. No use imagining that you had a real family when you were a bioengineered freak, for example. And everything was so much better, a thousand times better, than it had been on Kasthir.

Yes, it was better to be a Jedi than a skimmer. Better to be a Jedi than a Sith. And then there were things he had to do, traitors to apprehend and friends to rescue Things that seemed impossibly difficult to manage, but the sorts of things that Jedi did all the time.

Being a Jedi was the only thing that really gave his life form and meaning. He couldn’t just give up because things became difficult. Because he was suddenly obsessed with a girl. No, he would save Master Altus. He would learn more about the biocron and find better ways to deny its hold over him. He would become a proper Jedi in proper control, and then these juvenile worries would seem unimportant.

Feeling more in charge of his destiny, Aronoke passed the holocube to Master Caaldor.

“Sit down,” said Hespenara firmly. “You still look like you’re going to fall over.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke mechanically, but he sat where she told him to anyway.


“Blasted droids – always causing problems,” growled Kthoth Neesh from the muddiest extremity of the riverbank, staring into the brown water as if the intensity of her glare alone could levitate PR-77 out of the mud. The rest of the party was perched on a giant dead tree partly embedded in the bank of the river, which extended some distance out over the water. Tarric Gondroz clutched his carry-all miserably, while Hespenara was keeping a careful look out for trouble.

“PR should be fine,” said Master Caaldor vaguely. “He’s quite waterproof.”

“But what if he gets swallowed by a river-worm, or stuck in the mud, Master?”

“Then I expect we’ll have to leave him behind, but there’s no need to be alarmed yet. Besides, I believe that’s him now.”

Sure enough, there was a swirling in the water, and Aronoke could see PR’s domed head just below the surface. The strange muted sounds rising from the water suggested that the droid was complaining non-stop as he slowly but steadily forged his way up out of the river.

Exiting the ship had been less of a drama than Aronoke had anticipated. Tarric Gondroz had been assisted by Hespenara, who was a stronger swimmer than anyone else. The other Jedi and Kthoth Neesh had managed without assistance, but PR-77, being made of metal and rather heavy, had immediately sunk to the bottom and been lost from sight. They had been forced to leave him behind while they made their way to shore, where they had quickly changed into dry clothes.

“I suppose we should find better cover,” Hespenara said uneasily, once the droid was out of the water. “Oh, do be quiet, PR – we’re trying to be inconspicuous.”

“Sorry, Mistress Hespenara.”

“Perhaps under that clump of trees?” suggested Aronoke, but they hadn’t moved far towards it, when the noise of engines warned them of an approaching ship .

“Quick!” said Aronoke, but it was too late – the vessel was obviously coming straight towards their position. It was with some relief that Aronoke saw it was the sort of ship he might have expected a smuggler to own, a slightly battered vessel about the same size as the XL-327, and surely not the sort of craft a Sith would deign to travel in.

With some difficulty, the ship set down on the riverbank, half-in half-out of the water, angled so that its access hatch was over the shore. Even before it came to a complete halt, the ramp came smoothly sliding down.

“Come on, it must be Jark Tander,” said Aronoke, but before anyone could move, shots ripped into the riverbank as a second ship streaked overhead.

It was a small strangely shaped vessel that looked a bit like a triangular wedge with three long tails, and it curved sharply about and came angling down towards them.

“It’s going to land!” yelled Hespenara and they all scattered. Aronoke and Master Caaldor went straight forward into the trees. Hespenara darted behind a slimy rock, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz fell back behind the log.

“Oh no!” said Aronoke. “The droid!”

PR-77 had attempted to run after the others, but had slipped and fallen in the mud. He was laying on his back on the muddy riverbank, his arms and legs twitching helplessly.

“Too late,” said Master Caaldor grimly.

The ship came down, contacting the muddy ground. It didn’t stop immediately – the bank was too slippery for that. It skated along on its landing struts. For a moment, Aronoke thought PR would be crushed, but the droid managed to roll sideways, flopping on his face, and the ship narrowly slid past, burying the droid in a wave of mud. It continued inexorably onwards, straight towards Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz. Aronoke thought they would be crushed to death for sure, and they obviously thought the same. Aronoke could hear Tarric Gondroz’s panicked wail and see Kthoth Neesh’s pale face gaping in terror, as the ship slid towards them, closer and closer. Kthoth Neesh made a last desperate lunge towards the jungle, dragging the kubaz after her. She would have been too slow, but the ship finally crunched to a halt, crashing forcefully into the log. Splinters flew and the great trunk shuddered, but the tree was so heavy and well buried that it barely moved. The narakite and the kubaz kept going, seeking the cover of the trees.

“Quickly now,” said Master Caaldor. “Get PR and head to the ship.” He gestured to where Aronoke could see Jark Tander, blaster in one hand, waving desperately at them from the ramp.

“But what about the others?” Aronoke asked. “I can help…”

“Get on the ship, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor sternly. “Let me worry about them.”

Aronoke obediently sprinted across the mud to where PR was wallowing.

“Master Aronoke,” said the droid. “For a moment I thought I was scrap-metal. Luckily the danger is past, but I still seem to be somewhat stuck!”

“Come on, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to tug the droid to its feet and getting more muddy than he would like.

“I knew I should have stayed on the ship, Master Aronoke,” said PR, his efforts to stand more of a hindrance than a help. Clumps of mud flew through the air as he waved his arms effusively. “I’m not designed for working in such primitive unstable environments!”

“Stop talking, PR, and get up!”

“Yes, Master Aronoke, I am trying!”

Finally, the muddy droid was standing and Aronoke led him hurriedly across to the ramp where Jark Tander waited.

“Go inside, PR,” Aronoke said, a bit breathlessly, and the droid meekly complied.

“Jaxxor Branx,” said Jark Tander, looking him up and down. Aronoke realised somewhat belatedly that he was wearing his Jedi robes rather than his smuggler disguise. “Or, should I say, Master Jedi, since I suppose that’s not really your name. I can see you’re not the freelance entrepreneurs I took you for. Are you really a Jedi, or is that a disguise too?”

“I’m Padawan Aronoke of the Jedi Order, and that’s Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke, deciding there was little point in further prevarication. “We were working under cover. We came here to rescue Hespenara.” He gestured across at where the green girl was running across the muddy bank towards the ship.

“You can explain later, once we get off the ground,” said Jark Tander tersely, passing Aronoke her spare blaster pistol. “That is, if we get off the ground. I trust you actually know how to use this?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“I mightn’t have agreed to this if I’d known you were Jedi,” muttered Jark Tander, giving him a hard stare. “I smelt something funny when you wanted to go to Coruscant. Who’s the canned meat?”

This last she directed at the well-armoured figure that had emerged from the other ship.

“Bolar Dak,” said Aronoke. “A bounty hunter.”

Jark Tander nodded grimly. “I’ve heard of him – he’s considered to be bad news. I suggest we fry him if he comes anywhere near my ship.”

“Well, you’re the captain,” said Aronoke, checking the settings of the blaster.

Hespenara came slithering across the last bit of mud. “Master Caaldor sent me back,” she told Aronoke, with a brief acknowledging nod to Jark Tander.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I think he’s a bit leery of the possibility of losing any more padawans.”

Along the river bank, Master Caaldor seemed to be delivering an ultimatum to Bolar Dak, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were doing their best to sneak by unnoticed, making their way along the edge of the jungle. The bounty hunter didn’t seem inclined to surrender. From the way he gestured with his enormous blaster-rifle, Aronoke thought he was making it quite clear who he thought was capturing who. He must have finished with something threatening, because Master Caaldor suddenly took a single step back and drew his lightsaber, as the bounty hunter threw something spherical into the air. It rose unnaturally swiftly, obviously under its own power.

“What is that?” Aronoke wondered aloud. “Some kind of explosive?”

“Surely he wouldn’t blow himself up too,” said Hespenara. But even from this distance it was becoming obvious that the sphere was a flying droid. It had extruded wing-like fins, antennae and little blaster guns.

“It looks little more dangerous than a Jedi training drone,” said Hespenara sceptically. “Master Caaldor shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with that.”

Even as she spoke, a swarm of larger drones, as uncountable as insects, swooped up from behind the bounty hunter’s ship and streamed down in an angry cloud towards them.

Of all the astonishing things that had happened to Josie, the statue coming to life as she climbed it was close to the most astonishing. It was strange how she had not been frightened, even at the very first. Tash was so obviously kind and had such a comforting smell. It was vaguely like jasmine, and impossible for Josie to associate with anything bad or dangerous.

She had no real hope that anything good would happen, when she began her desperate climb over the wall. Tash’s arrival had been miraculous; that was the only way to describe it. She could not help laughing for joy when their climb was over.

‘This has to be a dream,’ Josie told herself, as she had told herself so many times since she awoke by the side of the Lion’s Pool. ‘But I feel so very awake.’ She clung tightly to Tash, who had been a statue such a short time before, as he carried her through the forest on long swift legs.

‘Do you think this will do?’ asked Tash. Josie could still clearly hear the tinkling of the stream and the whistles of the night birds, but the air had a more closed-in feeling than it had before. There was a musty, herbal smell of decayed vegetable life.

‘I suppose so,’ she answered, climbing rather stiffly out of Tash’s arms and onto a carpet of dry leaves. ‘What is it like?’

‘A sort of a cave’ said Tash. ‘Just a little one. There are plants in front to make it hard to see.’

‘It doesn’t smell like any animal lives here – nothing large, at any rate – so it ought to do.’ Josie sat down on the leaves, which were soft and comfortable, if noisy whenever she moved a muscle. ‘If the ifrits know it is here, it will be a problem, but they seemed to spend most of their time at the castle, or miles and miles away running errands, so maybe they don’t know.’

‘It is dry,’ Tash said unhappily.

‘Dry is good for me,’ said Josie, and smiled. ‘Is it very wet where you come from?’

‘I think it must be,’ Tash said. ‘All the other places I have been so far seem too dry.’ There was a rush of dusty air, and rustling noise that took a long time to stop as Tash sat down

‘I hope it won’t be too uncomfortable for you,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe you will get used to it.’ Or maybe you will have to spend most of your time in a pond, like a frog, so you won’t dry out, she thought, but didn’t say. ‘Where is your country?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. ‘I – I came through a hole from a place where the sky is different. Everything is different.’

‘So did I!’ said Josie. ‘I came here from a different world entirely, somehow.’ She shook her head, but grinned with a wild exhilaration that came from she-knew-not-where. ‘It is the kind of thing that only happens in stories.’

‘We do not have any stories about holes into other worlds where I come from,’ said Tash. ‘I did not know of such things until I went through one.’

‘Well, that too,’ said Josie. ‘But what I meant was, there aren’t many people coming into this world from other places, from what the gazelles – from what other people I talked to here – said, so it is amazing that we should meet up with each other. It is the sort of thing that happens in stories, where a man might be walking down the road in a foreign country and rescue a strange woman from danger, and the strange woman turns out to be his long lost sister.’

‘I would have been in very great trouble if I ever lost a sister,’ said Tash gravely.

‘I didn’t mean the man would have been the one who lost his sister, I meant she would have been lost in some other way.’

‘Maybe her parents sent her off to be sacrificed for the greater glory of the Overlord, without telling her brother?’ suggested Tash.

Josie shuddered. ‘Is that- is that the sort of thing that happens in your world?’

Tash said nothing, and Josie guessed he was nodding, or shrugging, or something like that, from the way the dry leaves crunched beneath him.

‘Well, we should be figuring out how we can get away from this evil magician and his servants and find ourselves somewhere safe,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure there will be plenty of time to tell our stories. So. I do know this place is a long long way from any inhabited country, at least from what other people said before I was carried off. I don’t know anything about the country around us. I was carried here through the air, a long way, from the place I arrived in this world. Did you get to see much before you came here? Do you have any idea where we could go?’

‘I did not see anything,’ said Tash, sounding apologetic. A sort of sad uncertainty had come into his voice since the topic of long-lost sisters had come up, and Josie had a powerful urge to pick him up and give him a hug.

‘I was not outside until just now,’ Tash continued. The last thing I remember I was in an inside place, and there were creatures who looked like you, and dressed like you, so I think it was the inside of the same place as we were at. But that is all.’

Josie shuffled herself closer to Tash and reached out to pat one of his hands, in lieu of the impossibility of picking him and giving him a hug.

‘Maybe we should tell each other our stories, then,’ she said. ‘It might be there is something in them that can help us.’

Tash said nothing one way or the other, so after a moment Josie started to tell her story, much as it has been written here: how she was going to England to live with her father, how she was swept overboard, how she wasn’t drowned but ended up in a strange world, and how she had fallen in with the gazelles. It seemed to her that Tash cheered up a little as she told her story.

‘They say there is a lion who pulls people out of other worlds into this world, because there is something important they are supposed to do here. He is kind of like- like a god, I suppose, of this world.’ She said this last bit as if it was something shameful, since it was after all shameful to act as if there were any gods other than the real God.

‘One of the humans said something about a lion, before I was turned to stone,’ said Tash. ‘What is a lion? And a god, what is that?’

Josie explained as best she could.

‘That is what the gazelles told me, at any rate,’ she said, when she was finished. ‘They seemed to think I had been brought here for some particular reason. Which would mean you were, too. And us both being here makes it seem very likely.’

Tash sounded dubious. ‘I was sent out of my world by- by an evil magician. And it was only chance that I got here, instead of somewhere else. I think. So I don’t think that this lion can have brought me here.’

‘They say God works in mysterious ways,’ said Josie, with some bitterness. ‘So I suppose this lion could work in mysterious ways too, if he is a sort of god.’

‘We did not have a God,’ said Tash. ‘Only the Overlord Varkarian. I think her ways were mysterious. But I don’t see how it can be the lion bringing me here, if it was an evil magician, and me deciding to choose to jump one way instead of another.’

‘I guess it really doesn’t matter anyway,’ Josie said. ‘Even if we are supposed to do something in particular, there’s no way we can go out of our way to do it if we don’t know what it is. We will have to figure out what to do without the help of a lion.’

She went on with her story, telling Tash how she had gone along with the plans of the gazelles because they seemed to know what they were doing, and were kind to her.

‘There is only one kind of speaking creature on my world,’ said Tash. ‘All the others are just beasts.’

‘It is the same on mine,’ said Josie. She had never quite gotten around to letting go of Tash’s hand.

‘And it is strange that we all speak the same language, though we come from different worlds.’

‘I thought that was strange, too,’ admitted Josie. ‘It is one of the things that makes me still think this is a dream, though it feels so real.’

‘It feels very real,’ said Tash, and Josie could feel the inhuman shudder that ran through him. ‘I do not want it to end. Though it is too dry.’

‘How could we ever tell that anything is real, really?’ said Josie, squeezing Tash’s hand. He squeezed hers back, and she gave an involuntary cry of pain.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Tash, as Josie retrieved her hand and rubbed it. ‘I am stronger here than I was.’

‘That’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘Ouch.’

She went on to tell Tash how she had been carried off by the ifrits, and what the evil magician said he was going to do to her.

‘That name, Yustus,’ said Tash. ‘The others said that name, just before they turned me to stone. They were turning me to stone until he came back. He was going to get the apples you talked about. I am not sure what apples are.’

‘They are a kind of fruit,’ said Josie. ‘He said he came back with them, and all the others had been turned into beasts by the lion,’ said Josie.

‘Good,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose they deserved it,’ said Josie. It was growing cold, now that the excitement of escape was passing, and she wished she had taken a blanket with her when she escaped from her tower. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them to make a little ball of Josie-ness.

‘Hang on,’ she said, as she turned the events of her second meeting with the magician over in her mind to see which way they would fit in a story. ‘I remember the magician’s hand was all over rings, and Zardeenah said that rings were used to control the ifrits. Maybe if we took the magician’s rings… somehow… the ifrits wouldn’t be under his control, and would help us?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. It seemed as if his attention had wandered, or he was growing sad again, or both.

‘It is something to try for, anyway, if we get an opportunity,’ said Josie. ‘The kinds of rings an evil magician wears are almost always good to get away from him.’

Tash made the kind of nod or shrug that Josie had noticed him making a couple of times before.

‘Maybe that’s why we got away, even though the ifrits were so close,’ mused Josie. ‘I thought it seemed too easy in the forest, almost as if they didn’t really want to find us. Maybe they can’t do anything directly against their master’s orders, but they’ll do whatever they can to trickily work against him so they can get free –that’s what ifrits would do in the stories on my world. So they’ve let us go, and they’ll let us run free as much as they can get away with, on the off chance that we’ll do something that will set them free.’

‘The stories of your world seem to contain many useful things,’ said Tash. ‘Ours are all about the necessity of obedience to the Overlord.’

‘That’s terrible,’ said Josie.

‘What about the rest of your story?’ she asked after a minute. ‘Why don’t you tell me what happened to you?’

‘I am not very good at recounting events,’ said Tash, taking her question literally. ‘And I feel very confused.’

‘That’s alright,’ said Josie. She shivered. ‘Maybe later is better.’ Outside, she could hear the howls of the wild dogs drawing closer. They did not know what sort of thing Tash was, she thought, so they were being cautious.

‘If the dogs- the animals that make those sounds- come to the edge of the cave, you need to throw something at them hard to make them afraid of us,’ she told Tash. ‘If they think we are dangerous, they will stay away, but if they think they can beat us, they will try to kill us.’

‘I can do that,’ said Tash confidently. ‘I am stronger here.’


It was a pleasant thing for Tash to think about, that he was stronger in this place than he had ever been, and he had thought about it for rather a long time. It seemed all the time he was thinking that Josie was just about to say something more, so that Tash remained quite awake, but she fell asleep instead. She had seemed cold to Tash, and he certainly seemed cold to himself, so when she was asleep he curled up around her. She stirred, but did not wake. Nothing would happen to her as had happened to Nera, Tash promised himself. Never, never, never. The night of the strange world rolled on towards dawn.

Tash was not very tired. He had been resting, after a fashion, for who knows how many years. He was also unused to the uncomfortable prickling dryness, so he woke while Josie still slept even though he had stayed awake very late indeed. The sun was already high in the sky, casting a strange hot yellow light, and the plants at the entrance to the cave made complicated shadows on the floor. The edges of the complicated curling shapes were sharp, but they moved constantly as the plants shifted in the wind, making the floor a seething mass of light and shadow that kept Tash’s attention for a long moment despite the fierce itching that had woken him. He carefully unwrapped himself from around the human and went to bathe in the stream.

In the daylight the sky, where it could be seen between the trees, was painfully blue, brighter than the sky of the world where he had met Nera. The space between the trees was flecked with countless flying things. There were large ones with feathers like his own, dozens of them, in many different kinds; and smaller ones, thousands of them, with fragile wings that were transparent opal or any one of a hundred brightly-coloured patterns.

The stream was deep enough that if he sat in it, it came up to his middle, and he enthusiastically splashed water over the rest of himself. It was very cold, but it made the itchiness disappear at once, and in some curious way it felt more like water than the water of his own world did. This whole place was like that. It felt alive: beautifully and wonderfully alive. For all the dangers here, it was a world that was more alive than his own, and he felt more alive in it.

He would never go back to his own world, he told himself. It was not possible; and if it were possible, he would not do it. Whatever dangers waited for him here, he would never be sacrificed to the Overlord. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom it is-‘ he found himself thinking reflexively, and stopped himself. Then thinking of narbul venom reminded him that it must have been a long time since he ate anything, and he wondered that he did not feel hungrier. Except for the lime ice, he had eaten nothing at all since he had been a prisoner underneath the Procurator’s tower, who knows how many lifetimes ago.

‘And who knows how far away,’ he thought joyously.

Because of the noise of the stream, Tash saw the shadows momentarily dimming the sunlight before he heard the flapping of the great wings of the ifrits. It would have made more sense for him to remain still and quiet, instead of getting up with a great splashing and rushing back to the cave, but as it turned out it would have made no difference. The magician had evidently found where they were hiding by some magic, and arrived outside the cave a few instants after Tash ran rashly into it to wake Josie.

‘Awake!’ he cried, but she was already awake and alert, brushing the crumbs of leaves from her garment. ‘Be brave,’ she told him.

It was easier for Tash to be brave when he saw that the magician was not carrying the wand that had turned him to stone. It was still not easy at all, though, and he fought the impulse to bow his head and let his arms droop in submission. The magician was darker than Josie, though not as dark as Nera had been, and he stood head and shoulders above the girl; in turn he came only up to the chests of the ifrits who stood to either side of him. Their skin was the livid red of boiled mire-beast, their eyes had the cruel glare familiar to Tash from the priests of his own people, and they bore spectacular arching membranous wings, but otherwise they looked much like humans. They were wearing breechclouts and embroidered vests that were too small for them, open in the front, while Yustus wore sombre black robes as evil magicians ought to.

‘You fools are as blind as the child,’ Yustus snapped at his minions. ‘There she is, and there is the fiend that helped her. Tell me, why did I not have it broken into pieces long ago?’

Tash tried to be brave, putting himself between Josie and her enemies, but Josie pushed past to stand at his side.

‘The thrill of the chase is all very well, but the time for games is over,’ said Yustus, relishing the sound of his own words.

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Yes, child,’ said Yustus. ‘Your eyes are ready. Soon you will see. And soon afterwards-‘ he licked his lips. ‘Come quietly.’

‘No,’ said Josie, with authority. ‘I will not.’

‘It does not matter to me whether you come quietly or not,’ said the magician. ‘Eber, Saleh, seize her.’ The ifrits moved inexorably toward Josie, and Tash again tried to interpose himself, but she angrily batted him aside.

Why would she do that? She knows I am strong, and can fight them off, thought Tash.

Josie sprang, not backward into the cave, but sideways and away, crashing heedlessly through the undergrowth like someone who could see where she was going.

‘Get her!’ cried Yustus, his eyes glistening with excitement, and at a gesture the other two ifrits pounced after Josie. A few wingbeats, and the four ifrits had descended on Josie, bearing her down into a thorny bush. The magician clapped his hands in indecent glee.

His hands! Yes, one was bare, while the other bore six rings, five carved from precious stones, and one of gold. He and his ifrits were watching Josie’s capture, and – she knows I am strong, but they do not know I am strong – thought Tash in an instant. He thinks he is safe that far away.

Tash leapt forward, and in one bound had the magician’s hand in his beak.

‘Aieee!’ cried the magician, ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him!’ Tash’s beak cut through flesh and sinews instantly, but the bones offered more resistance; he levered his jaw back and forth, tasting human blood on his tongue for the first time. The ifrits had dropped Josie, were hurtling towards him in a storm of wings. The blood was hot and metallic and sweeter than narbul venom. One bone parted, than another; the magician’s hand tore free. The headlong rush of the ifrits suddenly slowed to a walk. Tash flicked his head, and sent the magician’s hand flying into the undergrowth.

‘Lion’s arsehole!’ swore the magician, desperately trying to staunch the torrent of blood from his stump with his remaining hand. ‘I will kill you with such tortures…’

‘No you won’t,’ said Tash, taking a few stumbling steps backward.

‘Help me,’ Yustus called to the ifrits. They slowly formed a circle around him, evidently in no hurry to obey his command.

‘You have been a good master to us,’ said the one the magician had called Eber, walking to where Tash had flung the magician’s hand.

‘Damn your balls, I have. Help me, you fools! And kill this monster.’

‘Of course, you could have been a better master,’ said Eber.

‘Damn you, help me.’ The magician was drawing on some hidden power, Tash could tell: although he was pale, he was controlling his pain, and the torrent of blood from his arm had slowed to a steady drip. Tash tried to follow Eber to where the hand lay, but the other ifrits blocked his path.

‘Indeed, I think you were no more than half the master you could have been,’ said Eber, retrieving the ring-encrusted hand. ‘What say you, my brothers?’

‘You speak truth,’ said Jabeth. The other two ifrits murmured their agreement.

‘What is this foolishness?’ cried Yustus. His concentration wavered, and he stumbled to one knee. He began – too late – to recite words that Tash could tell crackled with magic, forcing his good hand to trace letters in the air. ‘Makhr. Shalal. Khash…’

Eber nodded, and his brothers grabbed hold of Yustus by his ankles and his remaining wrist, as swiftly as a mist-stalker seizing a mire beast.

‘He has not been a half bad master to us,’ Eber told his brothers. ‘So take him halfway back to Telmar.’

‘No,’ said Yustus. ‘No!’ The wings of the three ifrits bore him irresistibly up into the painfully blue sky, up, up, and up. Eber followed a second after. A few drops of blood spattered the leaves of the bush where Josie lay, like the first fat drops of a thunderstorm.

The curses of Yustus trailed off in the direction of Telmar, and in a very little while were replaced by a scream, and then a sound of something hitting the ground.

At last, when everything had stopped moving, when the ship had ground to a creaking hull-rending halt and the whine of the engines choked into uneasy silence, Aronoke found the wherewithal to pick himself up and take stock of their situation. It was dark, very dark, but he could feel Hespenara stirring on the bench beside him and hear Tarric Gondroz muttering from across the corridor.

The emergency lighting flickered into dull green life.

“Is everyone alright?” asked Kthoth Neesh, her voice sounding strained and a little out of breath. Aronoke’s deafness seemed to be receding. He could hear her quite clearly now.

“I’m okay,” gasped Hespenara. “Just rather shaken up.”

“I can’t believe we’re not dead!” wheezed the kubaz.

Aronoke undid the buckles on his safety harness. “Everyone’s fine,” he said, standing up, his senses having already confirmed this, “but I think the ship’s not going anywhere any time soon. We’d best see what Master Caaldor thinks we should do now.”

Kthoth Neesh followed his lead, unbuckling herself and then helping with Hespenara’s harness.

“You should get yourself some other clothes, Aronoke,” she said. “And you need a medpac.”

Aronoke looked down. Kthoth Neesh must have been badly shaken to not take this obvious opportunity to leer at him, he decided. His garments were badly shredded, revealing more of his skin than he liked. His heart suddenly skipped a beat, as he wondered how obvious the markings on his back were.

No, don’t even think about that, he told himself firmly. There were more immediate things to worry about.

Like his leg. The left one was deeply gashed by shrapnel and gently pulsing blood. He hadn’t noticed it hurting any more than the rest of him, but now, as if encouraged by his attention, it began aching with a dull stabbing pain.

“I just have to speak to Master Caaldor first. Will you..?” he indicated Hespenara.

“I’ll look after her,” Kthoth Neesh said agreeably. “Come along, Padawan Hespenara. We’ll get you cleaned up and into some other clothes.”

“I could use a change,” said Hespenara wryly.

Aronoke could hear them continuing to banter as he stumbled and limped along the oddly angled corridor that led towards the front of the ship.

“Those robes are looking decidedly dated.” Kthoth Neesh’s voice was tinny but audible. “Let’s see if we can find you something in a more modern style. And do you realise you haven’t had a shower in over two years?”

“Better than Aronoke when we first met him,” came Hespenara’s reply, and Aronoke smiled to himself, blinking away the sudden tears that came into his eyes.

Master Caaldor was still sitting in the pilot’s seat when Aronoke came into the cockpit, bent over the instrument panel. He looked up as Aronoke came in. “Everyone is alright?” he said. It was only barely a question.

“Shaken and a little bruised, but nothing worse than that, Master,” said Aronoke. Master Caaldor’s dry expression told him that his own condition was obviously a lot worse.

“You should get yourself cleaned up, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor. “You could use some medical attention. In fact, you should probably be in a kolto tank, judging by that leg, but we don’t have the facilities. We do, however, have a little time. I don’t think the queb saw exactly where in the river we came down, which gives us some leeway. I’ve dampened all our external emissions short of turning off our life support systems. It’s best that we meet any new obstacles rested and refreshed.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, “but there’s something I have to tell you first. Just before we were taking off, I sensed something – or rather someone – in a ship high up in the atmosphere. I’m certain it couldn’t be anything other than a Sith.”

“A Sith?” asked Master Caaldor, studying Aronoke’s face intently for a moment. He sat back in his chair and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Well, that does complicate matters.”

“Why would a Sith be here now, Master?” Aronoke asked.

“There could be any number of reasons,” said Master Caaldor slowly, “all unrelated to our presence here.”

Aronoke nodded.

“However,” Master Caaldor continued, “I am not a subscriber to coincidence. It seems to me that there can only be one reason for the appearance of a Sith here now, and that is because we are here. Either they have traced Hespenara, or they came in pursuit of us. They could have had informants on Zamora station, or amongst the queb.”

“What do we do, Master?”

Master Caaldor sighed. “For the moment, we hide,” he said. “I have a knack for dulling the emanations that Force-users naturally emit, which is one of the reasons that you were assigned to me, Padawan. I can keep us concealed from the Sith for a considerable length of time.”

“But what about the queb?” asked Aronoke. “I doubt they’re going to give up looking for us any time soon. They must know that we’ve crashed, even if they don’t know exactly where. If they find us, the Sith won’t be far behind. They might even combine forces.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor. “We have some time in hand. Time that you should put to good use. Go and clean up and have that leg seen to. I only had time for very basic first aid earlier.”

“I’m sorry about the droids, Master,” said Aronoke, remembering his nigh-disasterous mistake anew. “I didn’t sense them at all, only the queb.”

“That’s something we can concentrate on during your future training,” mumbled Master Caaldor, his attention already back on the ship’s readouts. “Now go.”

“Yes, Master.”


Aronoke felt considerably better once he was clean and PR-77 had seen to his wounds. He had instructed the droid to cut his hair off evenly, which left little more than the barest fuzz covering his skull. He would have to cultivate a new padawan’s braid once it grew, he thought sadly.

“I do hope the ship will be repairable, Master Aronoke,” the droid had said nervously while it applied synthflesh to his various injuries, “but I estimate that there is only a 2.34978 percent chance of that being achieved with the equipment and spare parts we have on board.”

“Don’t worry, PR,” said Aronoke comfortingly. “I’m sure the Jedi Council will recover or replace the ship.”

“But a new ship would not be the same,” quavered PR-77. “I have spent years adapting this one and ensuring that its systems run according to Master Caaldor’s most exacting standards.”

Aronoke privately thought that PR’s standards were likely to be far more exacting than Master Caaldor’s.

“I think I may request that I remain with the ship, if Master Caaldor is required to abandon it,” PR-77 continued, pausing thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I could bear to think of it left alone, slowly deteriorating under the water, only observed by hostile river creatures.”

“If that happens, I’m sure Master Caaldor will want to bring you with us, PR,” said Aronoke firmly. “You are too valuable to be left behind.”

“You are very kind, Master Aronoke,” the droid said mournfully. “But there is also my collection of images of different models of ships. I doubt there will be time or storage capacity to recover it from the ship’s databanks before we are required to leave.”

“You can always start a new collection, PR,” said Aronoke wearily. “Master Caaldor and the Jedi Order need you more than your collection does.”

“Master Caaldor has put a great deal of trust in me, granting me the duty of overseeing the XL-327’s maintenance to such a high degree,” the droid said, brightening a little as it glued another patch of mismatched synthflesh on Aronoke’s upper thigh. The synthflesh was of a pinkish human skin tone, suitable for use by Master Caaldor, so it looked terrible applied to Aronoke’s dusky blue skin. It was a minor thing, not worthy of his consideration – he knew the colour would adapt to his own within a few days. “Do you realise, Master Aronoke, that he even entrusted the naming of this ship to me, back when we were first granted its use by the Jedi Council?”

“You named the ship?” Aronoke asked, a little confused. He had only ever heard it referred to by its number.

“XL-327 has such a nice ring to it,” said PR-77 proudly.


“Aronoke, come in and sit down,” said Master Caaldor, indicating a chair near Hespenara. The three Jedi were meeting in Master Caaldor’s personal chambers, which were on as lopsided an angle as the rest of the ship.

“Aronoke, you’re looking so grown up,” said Hespenara, smiling at him. “You’re even taller than I thought.”

“Your sight has come back?” Aronoke asked.

“Yes, although it’s still a little blurry,” Hespenara admitted. “I feel vastly better after my rest.”

“I trust you are also feeling recovered, Padawan?” Master Caaldor asked.

“Mostly,” said Aronoke. “A bit stiff and sore, but nothing to worry about.” He ran a hand ruefully across his extremely short hair.

“Good. Let’s get down to business then. I shall entrust most of the conversation to you two, since my attention is largely absorbed with maintaining a shield over us all, to ensure that the Sith don’t find us. I know we are both eager to hear Hespenara’s story, so we will start with that.”

“Very well, Master Caaldor,” said Hespenara, gracing the older Jedi with a polite gesture. “Master Altus and I, as the Jedi Council are doubtlessly aware, were investigating an artefact known as the Biocron.”

Aronoke glanced at Master Caaldor but could see no hint of recognition in his master’s face.

“It’s a very ancient Force artefact, or should I say, network of artefacts, with nodes, or individual Biocrons if you like, hidden across the galaxy. They are large and ancient machines, incredibly complex and very powerful, thought to have been created by a mysterious and as yet unknown race of ancients. They are very strongly tied to living systems, but, as far as we know, no one has found any way of actually controlling or activating them.”

She looked at Aronoke seriously and he felt an icy wave of trepidation rise in him.

“Master Altus was convinced that you, Aronoke, were intrinsically connected to them.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke weakly. “So that was what you were investigating on Kasthir?”

The image from his vision arose as fresh and clear as ever in his mind – the now-familiar underground chamber floored with red sand and writhing bone-sucking worms, the simple monolith statue seething with dark Force energy.

“Yes,” said Hespenara, a little grimly. “Both Master Altus and Master Skeirim, Ashquash’s master, have spent years researching the Biocron, hoping that there might be a way to use its power for the benefit of the Jedi Order and the greater galaxy. We went to Kasthir, following up one of Master Altus’s leads, hoping to find part of the Biocron there.”

“And you found it?” Aronoke asked.

“We didn’t locate it entirely,” said Hespenara. “It was too deeply buried, but Master Altus found enough to convince him that it was there.”

“But you did find me.”

“We weren’t looking for you. You were a surprise.” Hespenara smiled, doubtlessly remembering the scruffy little chiss skimmer she had first encountered. “Even when we found you, we didn’t know you were anything more than a Force-sensitive kid, but Master Altus wanted to take you off Kasthir as quickly as possible, back to the safety of the Jedi Temple. Being so near the Biocron was dangerous for someone as inherently Force-sensitive as you, he said. We broke off our investigation early.”

Aronoke had no idea that they had considered his welfare so important. He remembered how he had expected that the deal would never go through. How it was impossible that he would ever leave Kasthir. Strong emotions rose in him, remembering what it had been like to feel those things, and he schooled himself to be calm and patient.

“Later he decided you were connected to the Biocron,” said Hespenara.

“I showed him my back when we were on Coruscant,” Aronoke said. He remembered the Jedi Master’s reaction. Master Altus had asked him nothing about the strange tattoo or the hideous scars that obscured it, but had only reassured Aronoke that no harm would come to him because of it. Only a good deal later had he asked questions and recorded an image of it.

“Master Altus thought you were created as a living key to the Biocron,” Hespenara said. “He believed that the markings on your back were a map, showing the path to the Kasthir Biocron. It explains why you were there in the first place – someone was trying to follow the map.”

“Uncle Remo?” mused Aronoke. The new information cast the large pink twi’lek, one of the few of Aronoke’s childhood memories that was not unpleasant, in a different light. “He was just a treasure hunter?”

“We don’t know what Remo’s intentions were,” Hespenara said. “Master Altus thought he was one of the researchers who worked with the project that created you, somewhere in the Empire, and that he went rogue and stole you away from them. He may have wanted to use you himself, he may have intended to sell you, or he may have taken you to Kasthir to hide you, thinking that your connection to the Biocron might protect you in some way. I don’t expect that we’ll ever know,” she concluded gently.

“Why did Master Altus never tell me any of this?” Aronoke asked, dismayed. Feeling betrayed and disappointed. He had learned he was bioengineered from a droid, sent by his harasser. He had felt so abandoned and alone, not knowing where he had come from, or why he had warranted such negative attention.

“Master Altus didn’t piece together everything I’ve told you until later,” said Hespenara. “He didn’t have a chance to tell you all of it, but I think he wouldn’t have told you anyway, at least not right away. He sought to protect you – he wanted you to have what you never had on Kasthir. He hoped that within the Jedi Temple you might be able to experience something of the childhood you missed out on. He wanted you to have as much time as you needed to feel safe and to grow into the Jedi he thought you could be.”

Her face fell. “I suppose his attempt to protect you failed after all,” she said sadly, “or you wouldn’t be here, a Padawan already.”

“Someone found out about Aronoke’s hidden potential,” observed Master Caaldor quietly. “He was not allowed to pursue his studies peacefuly within the Jedi temple, but was hounded by attempts to influence him in a most un-Jedi-like way. Being made a padawan early was considered the best alternative, especially when taking into account Aronoke’s rapid maturation.”

“The harassments started up again after you left,” said Aronoke to Hespenara, “as soon as Master Altus was gone. It wasn’t just me that was affected – they tried to get to me through Ashquash in a very harmful way.”

“And we didn’t come back to stop it,” Hespenara said heavily.

“But what happened to you and Master Altus?” said Aronoke. “How did you come to be frozen in carbonite?”

“Master Altus uncovered a lead regarding a Biocron hidden deep beneath the ocean on a planet called Zynaboon,” said Hespenara. “I don’t expect you’ve heard of it – it’s a water world controlled by the Sith Empire, unremarkable in most aspects, save that it’s inhabited by a native race of natural force-users, called the Kroobnak. We went there incognito, planning to meet with Master Skeirim to combine forces to search for it.”

Aronoke sat very still. “Master Skeirim?” he asked. “He knew you were there, on Zynaboon?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hespenara. “Master Altus and Master Skeirim often worked together. We went to meet with him, but the Imperials somehow found out we were there. There were so many of them and they had back-up forces. Mercenaries. Master Altus and Master Skeirim put up as much of a fight as they could, but it wasn’t going well, and after that – well, I don’t remember. I was stunned during the fight, and after that I suppose I was frozen in carbonite.”

“We have to get this information back to the Jedi Temple,” said Master Caaldor.

“I don’t understand,” said Hespenara, looking bewildered.

“Master Skeirim wasn’t captured by the Imperials,” said Aronoke. “He didn’t say anything about meeting Master Altus on Zynaboon.”

Hespenara looked horrified. “He betrayed us? But why? Master Altus and Master Skeirim were close colleagues.”

“He’s the one who has been put in charge of leading the search to recover you,” said Aronoke grimly. “No wonder it was taking so long. I wonder what else he might have been responsible for.”

Could Master Skeirim have also been involved in the strange incidents that had plagued Aronoke in the Jedi Temple? He hadn’t been there most of the time, Aronoke remembered, but he was Ashquash’s mentor and would have had ample opportunity to drug her. Master Skeirim had also encouraged Aronoke and Ashquash to spend time together. Had the entangling emotions that developed between them, the strange uncontrollable wave of lust, also been part of his plan?

If he had been responsible for hurting Ashquash, Aronoke thought, with an un-Jedi-like pang of fury, he would pay for what he had done to her.

Calm. Peace.

“So I was captured and frozen in carbonite,” said Hespenara. “But what happened to Master Altus?”

“I’m afraid we don’t know,” said Master Caaldor, but Aronoke shook his head fiercely, for he had worked something out in his head that very moment.

“He was captured by the Imperials, either then or later, trying to save Hespenara,” he said, intently. “He was taken prisoner on Zynaboon, and hidden away in an Imperial facility there, deep under the water. That’s the place I saw in my vision – an Imperial base, deep in the ocean, with strange Force-sensitive sentients swimming above. He was alive,” he told Hespenara darkly, “but suffering. Tormented. They were torturing him somehow but he was withstanding it.”

“Oh no!” said Hespenara, paling. “Poor Master Altus.”

“From what Hespenara has told us, it seems likely that facility is also where the Biocron is hidden,” said Master Caaldor thoughtfully. “Which brings us to the second part of our discussion. This information only makes it more imperative that we get out of here and back to the Jedi Temple as soon as possible. We will have to abandon the ship, I’m afraid. PR will be most upset.”

Aronoke judged that his Master wasn’t too pleased about it either.

“Getting away without a ship won’t be easy,” Aronoke said. “We’ve got the queb and the Sith looking for us everywhere, and there’s no vessels to, ah, requisition, down here on the planet’s surface.”

“The ship is too badly damaged to be repaired here,” said Master Caaldor shortly.

“Can we send a distress signal?” asked Hespenara.

“Sending a conventional communication will pinpoint our position accurately to our pursuers,” reminded Master Caaldor, looking strained. Aronoke guessed that the effort of maintaining the shield protecting them from detection was weighing heavily on him. “Although the content of our message would be protected by encryption, that’s of little help to us. With all the scanners they’ve doubtlessly deployed, they only need to pick up a stray electronic signal. By the time help arrives, they’ll have traced it back to our current location.”

“Bolar Dak is probably out there looking for us too,” said Aronoke glumly. Seeing Hespenara’s blank look he added “Bolar Dak is the bounty hunter who froze you in carbonite and auctioned you off. He worked with the Empire and for the queb.”

“I see,” said Hespenara.

There was a long minute of silence while they all thought.

“What if one of us sneaks off the ship,” said Aronoke slowly, “and fires off a distress signal from somewhere else? When the Jedi come to find us, we can send them a message then. If they’re close to us, they should be in a position to help us more quickly than the queb can trace us.”

“That could work,” said Hespenara. “I expect there’s a portable distress beacon somewhere on this ship. As long as it gets off a signal, there’s a good chance some Jedi somewhere will pick it up.”

“Of course, it could also attract a lot of unpleasant attention,” added Aronoke.

“Nevertheless, it’s probably our best chance,” said Master Caaldor. “All that remains is to decide who should do it. I am obviously the least injured, but I am also the only one able to hide our presence from the Sith.”

“That leaves either Aronoke or myself,” said Hespenara reluctantly. “I can see quite well now, but I’m afraid I’m not feeling very fit. Certainly not up to a cross-country expedition. That leaves Aronoke, but he has been quite badly injured.”

“There’s also Kthoth Neesh” said Aronoke. “She could come with me.” He didn’t bother to mention the kubaz. If Tarric Gondroz ran into any trouble, Aronoke didn’t doubt that he would sell them out immediately to save his own skin.

“That’s probably our best option,” said Master Caaldor. “Ask Kthoth Neesh if she will accompany you, Padawan. PR can assist with finding the distress beacon. You must not take any unnecessary risks. Better to fail to set off the beacon than to get captured by the Sith. I have little doubt they have made an arrangement with the queb specifying that they are to be given custody of any prisoners which are taken. Except perhaps for you, Hespenara.”

“Doubtlessly they plan for me to continue as some sort of lawn ornament,” said Hespenara wryly.


“I’d best leave immediately,” said Aronoke, climbing to his feet. “Perhaps you can decide where the best place would be to fire the beacon off while I gather together the equipment I will need.”

“May the Force be with you, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor.


“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to volunteer,” said Aronoke, looking doubtfully at the underwater breather Hespenara had just passed him. “I didn’t get up to the part of the training where we learned to operate these.”

“Look on the bright side,” said Kthoth Neesh, not looking any more enthusiastic. “At least you get to wear a spankworthy swimsuit.”

The narakite girl was dressed similarly to Aronoke himself, in a form-fitting full body underwater suit with a tight-fitting face mask.

“The breathers are very easy,” said Hespenara reassuringly. “You can’t go wrong, so long as you remember to breathe through your mourth and not through your nose.”

“Have I mentioned my phobia of water?” Aronoke quipped half-seriously, but both Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara looked so worried, he wished he hadn’t said it aloud. “It’s true – I don’t like water,” he added, trying to sound reassuring, “but I can deal with it when I have to. I’ll be fine.”

He didn’t feel like he was going to be fine when he and Kthoth Neesh stood in the ship’s airlock with cold green river water rising up around their waists. He felt like he was going to panic, to spiral out of control like he had when Ashquash pushed him in the pool, when he had thought he was drowning. Perhaps the Aronoke of back then would have perished in this situation, a victim of his own fear, but he had come a long way in the intervening months. He knew how to control his fear. Knew so many things he hadn’t known then.

A minute of meditation. A deep breath through the breather as the water rose to cover his face. A momentary twist of fear in his gut as the water completely filled the airlock, quelled by calm confidence that everything was okay. He was in control. Here by choice. He could do this.

By the time the outer airlock door slowly ground aside, manually opened by Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh, Aronoke was ready to face the great brown and green current of the open river beyond. A flick of his feet, and his special swim-shoes expanded into graceful flippers, allowing him to swim far faster and more competently. Beside him, Kthoth Neesh was also making good progress. The narakite girl had no more experience with swimming than Aronoke did himself, having been raised on a space station and spent most of her life on ships, but she grinned cheerily at him and made a thumb’s up sign as they surged downstream, angling across towards the riverbank.

Being underwater was not so different from being in open space, Aronoke thought to himself. It was odd that the latter didn’t disturb him anywhere near as much as the former.

The plan was that they should swim a considerable distance from the ship before surfacing near the riverbank, just in case they were observed leaving the river. Once on land, they would trek through the jungle several miles towards a low hill offering a vantage point above the trees. Here, they would set off the distress beacon and then retreat quickly back into the jungle. Once certain that they were not being followed, they were to return to the ship by a different route.

It sounded easy in theory, but in the field, even the best-laid plans were open to random influence and unknown factors, something that made itself clear only minutes after the two explorers had left the ship.

Aronoke had been keeping his senses open, watching for anything that lived in the water that might be a threat. There were plenty of small things that dwelt in the river. The vast majority of them were tiny – single-celled algae, slightly larger plants, some weedy and free-floating, others adhering to the bottom of the riverbed in the shallows. Then there were animals. Tiny swimming worms composed of chains of flat paddles, and crustacean-like creatures composed of balls of conjoined limbs, no larger than the fingernail on Aronoke’s smallest finger. Larger swimming wrigglers with fins and tentacles ate the algae and the smaller creatures, and then there was….

Big. Very, very big. Aronoke could sense the curiosity and hunger of the giant river worm as it oscillated through the water towards them. It was easily large enough to swallow them whole. He couldn’t be certain if it was purely aquatic or an amphibian, but now was not the time to get caught up in interesting taxonomic details.

Kthoth Neesh grabbed at Aronoke’s arm and he realised he had stopped swimming. She made a querying gesture and he pointed off through the water towards the creature. Big, he mimed, putting his hands far apart. Snake. He pressed his hands together and made an undulating movement. Kthoth Neesh stared off into the murky water, glanced back at Aronoke and shrugged. It was still too far away to see, but it was getting closer with every second. Too quickly for them to make it to the riverbank, Aronoke judged, even if they headed directly towards the closest point and swam with everything they had.

He gestured for Kthoth Neesh to wait and swam a few strokes closer to the creature.

As the monster came nearer and nearer, Aronoke tried to be calm and focussed his senses on its brain. It was small compared to the vast bulk of its long, thick finned body. The monster was surging forward, opening its mouth, getting ready to engulf him. Aronoke wondered briefly if it would swallow them both, and if he would be able to cut his way out of its gargantuan body with his lightsaber before he was digested.

Ah. No lightsaber.

This was not a good time to try learning how to trick minds, but on the other hand, the creature’s intellect was small. It should be easy to trick. It was the best option left to him.

Calm, peace and certainty. Aronoke tried to channel the Force into one decisive sweeping thought, emphasised by a single gesture.

You don’t want to eat us. You should go away.

For a moment he thought it hadn’t worked, as the creature continued to bear down upon him, but perhaps it was merely momentum that carried it along, for at the last moment, tossing Aronoke aside in its tumultuous wake like a drowned leaf, it streamed past him and Kthoth Neesh and continued on its way up the river.

Once he had righted himself, Aronoke located Kthoth Neesh and swam over to her. She hung in the water, her eyes huge and round in her face mask. She looked vastly relieved to see him and made emphatic gestures towards the shore.

Yes, perhaps we are far enough away from the ship, Aronoke thought to himself, and he nodded. They lost no time making their way to land.


“I thought we were dead and no mistake,” spluttered Kthoth Neesh as she tore off her mask. “Monster bait. Then I thought it had swallowed you. I wonder what made it change its mind. Lucky it didn’t decide to come back for a second try.”

“Yes,” said Aronoke taking a grateful breath of fresh air and restraining himself from kissing the ground. It sounded good from a dramatic perspective, but the riverbank was profoundly muddy. “Come on – there’s no time to waste. Let’s be off up that hill and get this over and done with.”

He retracted his flippers into his swim shoes and together they set off towards their goal.

Like the first part of their journey, the trek through the jungle looked far easier on a map than it was in practice. The jungle in this area was pock-marked with clearings and criss-crossed by streams. Whereas walking through a rainforest was relatively easy, since there were not many plants that grew beneath the canopy, this area was tangled with dense stringy undergrowth and oozing lobe-leaved creepers. Many tiny creatures lived amidst the densely coiled brambles and vines, and Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh were continually stopping to remove would-be parasites from their clothing. Aronoke was grateful for the tough form-fitting swimsuit now – Jedi robes would only be an additional encumbrance under these conditions.

They had been pushing their way through the undergrowth for about an hour before Aronoke heard the sound of a ship approaching.

“Quick, someone’s coming!” he said, pulling Kthoth Neesh under the nearest bush.

The ship that passed almost directly overhead was sleek, black and triangular.

“An Imperial ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, staring up at it angrily.

Aronoke was no expert on ship models, but his senses told him that this vehicle did indeed contain the Sith that he had sensed earlier. Suddenly the spark in his mind that represented the strange Force-user flared oddly, and Aronoke hastily withdrew his senses, clamping them tight around himself. Too late. The ship altered its path and began to curve almost lazily around, circling around their hiding place.

“They detected me,” he hissed to Kthoth Neesh. She shot him an alarmed glare.

How did Master Caaldor’s Force shielding trick work, Aronoke wondered fretfully as the ship droned by overhead. Another thing he had never been taught. The best he could do was to sit quietly, gathering his Force powers around him in tight-fitting quiescence. He tried to empty his mind and visualise empty space, an absence of everything except the natural world around him, continuing with its biological business. No Jedi here.

“I think they’ve given up,” said Kthoth Neesh after a few minutes. The Sith ship had streaked away across the sky, but not so very far, Aronoke thought, allowing a tiny tendril of his senses to follow that strangely tainted flare in the Force. It was setting down over there behind those trees, perhaps a mile away.

“We’d better hurry,” said Aronoke. “They haven’t gone far. They’re still looking for us.”

Kthoth Neesh nodded grimly. “Then let’s make as much distance as we can.”


Another hour and Kthoth Neesh was flagging and Aronoke was limping, despite his efforts to control the injury in his leg. They had reached a more substantial tract of forest and were walking under the trees. The sun was setting, casting long, low-angled rays sporadically through the canopy. The sounds of forest creatures heightened around them to a new crescendo as the diurnal cycle of the forest shifted through a crepuscular interlude.

Aronoke had been glad they had not encountered anything more difficult than the regular hazards of the jungle. Large predators had been conspicuous only in their absence. He was glad too that Kthoth Neesh had accompanied him. He had tried to keep his senses wound in tight, only using them intermittently to spot approaching threats. As his injuries had made themselves more loudly known, he found it difficult to concentrate, and he was grateful of the pirate girl’s quick eyes in helping to avoid potential dangers. Aronoke had not spotted the metallic wasp’s nest, suspended at head-height from a tree, nor had he noticed the trail of enormous spiked many-legged ground bugs, each the size of his hand, that consumed everything in their path. Both threats had been successfully avoided; each could have caused them serious trouble had they not been noticed in advance.

He and Kthoth Neesh had both heard the occasional sounds of speeder bikes criss-crossing the jungle around them. Thus far they had been lucky, easily able to avoid the search pattern of the vehicles, but the buzz of engines was a constant reminder that their enemies were aware of their presence and were hot on their trail.

As they reached the top of one slope and turned towards another, Aronoke could see the forest opening up into another clearing ahead.

“I think that is it,” said Kthoth Neesh, looking up from the navigation unit she carried. “It’s as close as we’re going to be able to get, anyway.”

“Good,” said Aronoke. “You might as well wait down here. There’s no sense both of us setting up the distress beacon – it might attract unpleasant attention rather quickly.”

“I can do it,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Your leg will slow you down.”

Aronoke’s injury had worsened as the day progressed, and his limp had grown more pronounced.

He took a swig from his water flask as he considered her offer, then passed it to Kthoth Neesh. “I can handle it,” he said to the pirate girl. “This is our mess that you’re caught up in, so it should be my responsibility. Besides, I’m experienced at being blown up.”

She smirked tiredly at him. “All right then. I’ll head north from these coordinates and meet you near the base of the hill,” she said. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to find me there.”

Aronoke nodded. “If I’m not back in half an hour, return to the ship,” he said.

“I will, but there’ll be no need,” said Kthoth Neesh. “I know you Jedi – tough as gundarks and full of hidden surprises.” She leered at him as she said the last bit, although Aronoke thought it was more through habit than from any immediate desire. They were both far too exhausted to worry about such things now, he thought.


The hill-top was choked with undergrowth and alive with tiny creatures. Clouds of leathery winged fliers, no larger than Aronoke’s thumb, flitted raspily through the maze-like world formed by the densely packed sticky-leaved plants, while many-legged carapaced invertebrates clung to leaves, flew through the air, crawled on the ground and burrowed underfoot. Swarms of aerial tentacular bladder-creatures were starting to awaken in dark clusters under the nearby trees. Here and there, larger creatures wandered through the tangle, preying on the smaller ones. Aronoke stamped out a small clear space at the top of the hill, and set down the distress beacon, feeling guilty that he was about to turn this thriving environment into a blazing warzone simply by pressing a button. He looked back along the way he had come, picking out the path he had made through the undergrowth. He intended to return along it with all possible haste as soon as he had activated the beacon.

He took a deep breath, snapping his control fully over the injury in his leg, dampening the pain, and simultaneously twisted the control on the beacon to start signalling. The barrel-shaped device expanded, mechanically unfolding stubby stabilising legs and spindly antennae. A small dish started revolving, and the whole unit emitted a faint glow. Aronoke did not wait to see more, but began running, across the clearing and down the hill, focussing on turning his body into a Force-driven propulsion machine. He surged through the undergrowth, leaping over the denser tangles of plants, narrowly avoiding ensnaring himself in the multitude of twisted vines and thorny bushes. He reached the edge of the clearing and continued off under the trees, his breath coming in steady, controlled gasps, the Force fuelling his muscles towards greater effort as the way became clearer.

How far… how far should he run? How quickly would…

The hillside exploded behind him, spectacularly. Trees on the edge of the clearing were knocked flat by the force of the explosion, and Aronoke himself was carried forward several metres and rolled along the ground like a quozball. He picked himself up painfully, staring in astonishment at the devastation raging behind him. The whole hilltop was ablaze with fire. The beacon surely hadn’t managed to function for more than a minute before it had been completely destroyed.

Someone was extremely averse to the idea of them getting help from outside. He could only hope that the brief window the distress beacon had signalled within would be enough.

There was no time to hesitate; enemy forces would soon be here, looking for him. Hopefully they would be uncertain as to whether he had been caught in the blast, and would spend some time trying to determine if this was the case.

Breaking into a steady jog-trot, Aronoke began running through the darkening forest, heading towards his meeting point with Kthoth Neesh.


Not far. Not far now. Surely no more than another hour. Aronoke was more tired than he had ever been in his life, except perhaps for that one time when Mill thought it would be funny to drop him off ten miles from Bunkertown, to see if Aronoke could run that far in the single hour remaining before sunset. Aronoke had been completely convinced that Mill was entirely capable of abandoning him out in the Fumelands at night, and had ran, as hard and as fast as he could, across the loose sand, across the firmer, crumbly ground scattered with tiny marble-sized rocks, across the vast dangerous sprawl of the Fumelands that lay between himself and safety. On and on, chest aching, robes flapping, legs turning to rubber beneath him. His ventilator filters hadn’t quite kept up with the demands his labouring metabolism had put on them and his body demanded water that he didn’t have.

Aronoke had nearly died of sheer relief when the flier had returned minutes before sunset. Mill had smirked as Aronoke climbed weakly inside. “You’re slow, kid,” he drawled. “There’s still three miles to go!”

Aronoke was certain that Mill would never have bothered to return, if not for the fact that Careful Kras would have been angry if anything had happened to him because of one of Mill’s stupid jokes.

As he and Kthoth Neesh straggled across yet another dark forested slope, Aronoke paused to briefly sense his surroundings and was immediately aware of a sentient approaching quickly from ahead of them.

“Another speeder bike,” said Kthoth Neesh at almost the same moment. “Hide!”

There was little cover, other than tall thin tree trunks. Both Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh dived behind the same fallen log, which would have been a close fit for just one of them. Despite the tenseness of the situation and his considerable weariness, Aronoke was intensely aware of the narakite’s warm body pressed up tightly against his own.

No, no time for distractions!

The speeder was drawing near, travelling quite slowly as it picked a path between the trees. A searchlight flickered between the treetrunks, glancing momentarily off the top of the log they hid behind. The engine slowed as the bike drew very near indeed and then idled a moment. A masked, slightly robotic voice spoke briefly.

“This is unit six, reporting in. All clear,” the rider said.

Aronoke held his breath. The speeder bike could be no more than two body-lengths away from them. The bike rider waited a moment that seemed to stretch on forever before he spoke again. He must be receiving further instructions, Aronoke thought.

“At once, my Lord,” said the rider, and the speeder bike turned and zoomed off through the trees.

Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh lay still and silent for a short eternity, crushed up against each other behind the log, as the sound of engines receded.

“Why, Padawan,” the narakite girl said seductively, twisting around to face him, “and here I thought you weren’t interested.”

Aronoke blushed and opened his mouth to voice a denial, but before he could say anything, Kthoth Neesh leaned over and kissed him.

And like before, when he had kissed Ashquash, a great green wave of energy broke over Aronoke, tearing his control aside as if it counted for nothing. His Jedi training was washed away, forgotten, as was his weariness and the pain of his injury. Any thought of shielding or restraint was lost in the current that ran between his body and hers, in the intense biological resonance between them, and the awareness of a connection, distant and tenuous, controlled by an ancient alien instrument, that nonetheless linked them intrinsically through the Force.

He kissed her back, pushing himself against her with a fierceness that Kthoth Neesh herself hadn’t anticipated. Her eyes widened and she tried to pull away, but she was trapped between Aronoke and the log. Then she gave in, relaxing against him, her hands coursing down his back delightfully. Aronoke was completely lost in the sensation, unprepared for the abrasive interruption when she suddenly broke the kiss and wrenched her head aside.

“Aronoke!” she hissed, fiercely.

He ignored her, driven by his rising passion, tugging at the fastener of her annoyingly restraining swimsuit.

She slapped him across the face. Hard.

“Ow!” he said, stung. She had wanted this… she had taunted him. What right did she have to suddenly deny him now?

“The speeder,” Kthoth Neesh hissed frantically. “It’s returning!”

Sanity returned slowly and Aronoke’s face burned with the enormity of his own foolishness. Whatever he had just done, whatever he had been intending to do, had doubtlessly blazed through the Force with a penetrating, clear and unique signature. Back in the Jedi temple, Master Insa-tolsa had known instantly that something was happening to Aronoke when this had happened with Ashquash! Here, now, while trying to hide from the all-too-observant senses of a Sith lord, Aronoke had announced their position as clearly as if he had fired off a flare.

Aronoke pushed the confusing tangle of thoughts aside, pushed himself away from Kthoth Neesh and scrambled to his feet.

“Stay in hiding,” he snapped at her. “I’ll distract him.” He ran over to hide behind the trunk of a nearby tree.

The speeder bike approached, more carefully than it had the first time. The rider was obviously alert and fully aware that there was some danger in the area. He probed the jungle carefully with his searchlight and scanned the ground, looking for footprints. Aronoke waited until the bike was near the fallen log and then leaned out a little too far from behind his tree.

The rider must have had some sort of augmentation system, Aronoke thought later, for he detected that slight movement immediately. His blaster rifle swung around to point at Aronoke instantly. “You there, step out into the open slowly. Throw down your weapons!”

The speeder bike rider dismounted smoothly while keeping Aronoke in his sights. He wore Imperial armour in camouflage green and black and the rifle that was trained on Aronoke was held sure and steady. Aronoke had no doubt that he was a trained professional soldier and a crack shot to boot.

“Don’t shoot!” Aronoke stepped slowly out from behind the tree, arms raised, moving carefully. Growing up in the company of Fronzak and the other Fumers had made him fully aware of exactly what damage a blaster could do. He was a Jedi now, capable of dealing with mundane forces like blaster fire, but he had a different plan in mind. Catching a glimpse of a slight movement behind the log made him certain that Kthoth Neesh had exactly the same idea.

“This is Unit 6,” said the trooper into his communicator, his attention focused intently on Aronoke. “I’ve located the subject. Repeat, I’ve located the subject at my current coordinates.”

Aronoke swore silently to himself. He had hoped to distract the man enough so that he didn’t send out an alert. Best to deal with him as quickly as possible and to get on their way.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Aronoke, talking to keep the speeder bike rider’s attention firmly on himself and to cover any small noises Kthoth Neesh might make. “I won’t do you any harm. In fact, I’m glad to see another sentient face. I’ve been wandering around this jungle for days, ever since I was separated from my hunting party. Just about near starved to death.”

“Keep your hands where I can see them and lay flat on the ground,” said the speeder bike rider, ignoring Aronoke’s patter. “Any sharp moves, and I’m instructed to shoot first and worry about your health later.”

“There’s no need to be like that,” said Aronoke, in a wounded tone. He moved slowly to comply.

The speeder bike rider made a choking noise and dropped to the ground, Kthoth Neesh’s vibroknife protruding from his back. The blaster rifle fell from his hands unfired. Aronoke could sense the life fading from him as he fell.

He turned to Kthoth Neesh.

“Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again,” he snarled, stepping towards her, ignoring the second vibroknife she still held in one raised hand. “No more seductions. No more kisses!”

“You didn’t seem to mind,” she said indifferently, dropping her hand and lightly kicking the body of the fallen soldier, making sure he was properly dead.

“This is not a game,” said Aronoke angrily, overflowing with self-loathing. “Not an amusing challenge. I don’t have time to explain, but I have enough problems without you playing with me. I know you don’t understand – I don’t understand properly myself – but there’s more at stake here than simply the Jedi code.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh curtly, but her face showed a moment of genuine regret. Then, as her expression closed down, Aronoke’s anger faded, and he chided himself for giving in to it so precipitously. For shouting at Kthoth Neesh, when the one he was really angry with was himself.

“I’m sorry too,” he said more quietly. “I should have more control. It’s not your fault, Kthoth Neesh, it’s mine, although I would appreciate it if you made things a little easier on me.”

The narakite girl studied him a moment, her emotions opaque to Aronoke’s scrutiny.

“Come on,” she said quietly. “Like you said, we don’t have time. Let’s get out of here.”

She climbed on the speeder bike and waited for Aronoke to climb up behind her.

As they zipped away into the darkness, Aronoke wished his life was less complicated. He could blame Kthoth Neesh, but she wasn’t a Jedi. He could blame himself, and by all means, he deserved a hefty serving of self-criticism. Yet there was something else with which some of the blame deserved to lie, and now he had a name for it. The Biocron.

4 – Carbonite

Aronoke adjusted his gun-belt for the third time in as many minutes and took the carry crate of plant samples back from from Kthoth Neesh. The pirate girl was carrying a basket of cuttings in her other arm.

“Stop fiddling with that,” she hissed. “You look about as convincing as a wookiee pretending to be a queb. You’re supposed to be a smuggler, not a green wannabe!”

“I don’t think it matters if I come across as a wannabe,” said Aronoke mildly, “and besides, if I was a real smuggler, this thing would be worn and comfortable, not hard edged and chafing.”

“If you were a real smuggler you’d resent looking like a walking garden,” retorted Kthoth Neesh. “Whose idea was this anyway?”

The cover story had been Master Caaldor’s idea, and Aronoke opened his mouth to remind Kthoth Neesh that native plant specimens were one of the few remarkable commodities on Quebwoz Prime, and that biocollectors would pay good money for these plants, as long as they arrived in good condition.

“Stop arguing, both of you!” Tarric Gondroz was hung about with so many cachebags and carry-alls, that it was hard to tell what race he was. They all contained more botanical samples, including a carnivorous motile variety that seemed to be taking an unhealthy interest in his snout. “I’m going to have to put this lot down very soon, or we’re going to have salad instead of specimens!”

“There’s just one shop left.” Aronoke took another look at the map on his datapad and started off through the maze of buildings. “I think it’s this way.”

“You said that half an hour ago!” complained Kthoth Neesh. “Give me that map!”

Sighing, Aronoke stopped and passed the datapad to her, almost dropping the carry crate in the process. He stood shifting from one leg to another while she looked at it for a few minutes, all too aware that their diverse group had no hope of blending in, despite the busy streets. The queb crowd flowed around them, universally short, lithe and whiskered. Their sleek, shiny fur and long top-knots varied from pale grey through dusty violet to almost black, and their large eyes were attentive and curious. Both genders, which Aronoke could not tell apart, wore little in the way of clothing, sporting simple dhotas fastened at the waist by large buckled belts. Engraved bangles, torcs and armbands completed their ensemble, the jewellery mostly made of copper, pewter or burnished plasteel and covered with crawling uninterpretable hieroglyphs.

The excursion to locate plant specimens was a scouting mission. They were disguised as independent traders since Quebwoz was a closed system, closed off to agents of both the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic under the Quebwoz treaty signed perhaps fifty years earlier in the interests of maintaining the world’s independence and minimising galactic influence. Although the treaty had been a Republic initiative, intended to support the developing Outer Rim world in its fledgling intergalactic interactions, Aronoke privately thought that the Queb had wrangled affairs heavily towards their own advantage, since it gave them the benefit of trading with whomever they wanted with no outward repercussions.

The nurseries and florists they had visited were all close to the Kalarka compound, the place were Hespenara was being imprisoned. Most of the shops were single-storied, flat-roofed buildings with cool, dark interiors, but the goods were displayed under airy awnings outside. There seemed to be no organised street pattern, the buildings sometimes clustered and sometimes single, forming little islands with the ‘roads’ flowing in the spaces in between. Here and there amidst the flat rectangular sprawl, grand pagodas towered, surrounded by extensive private gardens, walled off behind high metallic walls or electrified fences.

Their eventual target was the largest of these. Aronoke had tried to sense Hespenara and had caught a faint impression of her there. He had been relieved to detect even that; the fact that she was preserved in carbonite seemed to make locating her more difficult. Still, confirmation that she was there was all they needed.

Reconnaissance had revealed that the Kalarka compound was a substantial estate in a dominant position neighbouring the immense sporting stadium, the esteemed cultural hub of queb society. Reputations rose and fell upon the results from the sporting arena; fortunes were made and lost. All the most important queb families sponsored athletes to compete in the events held there. The stadium was always busy, hosting minor competitions and training sessions in between more important events. Aronoke had been most interested to note that the Kalarka compound had its own private entrance into the stadium. Although the passageway was certainly guarded, he thought it might well be of interest to Master Caaldor in planning their rescue attempt.

Kthoth Neesh frowned and turned the datapad ninety degrees. “Are you sure this is the right map?”

Tarric Gondroz made a despairing noise. “I need a drink,” he wheezed. “Let’s find a place to buy one, and you can work out where we’re going while we’re sitting down somewhere nice and cool and shady.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Aronoke admitted. He had been enjoying the sunshine and the heat, but the humidity was oppressive and he was thirsty. The Kalarka platform, where they had landed, hovered high above the intensely jungled surface of the planet below, a wilderness world renowned largely for its large predators and hunting preserves. Even at this elevation, it was much hotter than the standard temperature maintained on most human-inhabited space stations. Of course, it was quite mild compared to Kasthir.

Tarric Gondroz led the way to a drinking establishment they had passed a few minutes previously, showing more energy than he had all day. Aronoke trailed behind the kubaz and Kthoth Neesh thinking how odd it was to be posing as the kind of person he might have become if he were not a Jedi, had he ever won his freedom from Careful Kraas. It might not be a bad life, he had to admit, not if he found the right sort of person to work for, or managed to earn enough credits to work for himself. But as Master Altus had told him, and as Aronoke knew well from his studies in the Jedi temple, being force sensitive changed everything. There was no middle ground; there was only the Light side or the Dark side. Trying to pretend he had no Force abilities would change nothing. They would have presented themselves whether he had chosen to pursue them or not, and if he had not been trained to cope with them, terrible things might well have eventuated. Aronoke shuddered to think what would have happened to him if his Force abilities had become active while he was still on Kasthir. That would have been a good way to end up dead, or worse.

The cantina was a dimly lit building that catered more heavily to the local crowd than it did to tourists, although a flickering holographic drinks menu on one wall did list drinks in Basic rather than the local queb lingo. Tarric Gondroz had already found them a booth along one wall and was divesting himself of his various burdens. The kubaz let out a long relieved sigh as he took a seat on one of the benches. Kthoth Neesh took a place opposite him and looked up at Aronoke impishly. “I’ll have a Red Star,” she said mock-sweetly.

“I’ll have a Something Blue, that is, if you’re buying,” said Tarric Gondroz. “I’m unfortunately completely out of funds, since I was forced to leave everything behind fleeing for my life from those violent refugees. I mean,” he amended hurriedly, seeing Aronoke’s wry expression, “since you kindly rescued me from the very unfortunate position I foolishly got myself in.”

“Alright,” said Aronoke resignedly and he went over to the bar to order. The barkeep had been watching the small group of newcomers with mild disinterest since they had come in, and set about mixing the drinks Aronoke ordered while he stood waiting.

“Well, aren’t you a breath of fresh air. New here, huh?”

It was a human woman, with shoulder length brown hair, perhaps twenty years older than Aronoke himself. Her face was weathered and her garments looked like the well-worn version of this own: the kind of clothing preferred by experienced independent traders of the spaceways. Her expression was slightly puzzled, but not unfriendly.

“It’s not every day we get a human visitor here on Katarka platform, let alone someone as exotic as you. Looking for a native guide to do some sightseeing?”

“No, we’re here on business,” drawled Aronoke, dropping back into his native Kasthirian accent. Living on Coruscant had considerably changed the way he spoke.

“Ah,” said the woman. “Business. Jark Tander’s the name.”

“Jaxxor Branx,” said Aronoke, using the cover name he had chosen.

“If you’re interested in plants, I’m in the business of running expeditions down to the planet’s surface. Hunting, exploration and so forth. I know all the best places if you’re looking for the real stuff, instead of the things the vendors sell platform-side.”

“It’s not up to me,” said Aronoke. “It’s up to the boss. Captain Oldric’s back on our ship, the XL-327. He’s got a buyer looking out for exotic plants and sent us out to collect some samples.”

“Your boss, eh? Would he mind if I dropped by, maybe gave him my spiel personally?” asked Jark Tander.

“I’m sure that would be fine, although I don’t know how long we’re going to be here.”

“Well, here’s my data card, in any case. Maybe you can give him that, and tell him if he’s interested in going down to the surface and collecting some real specimens, I’m the best you’ll find for the job.”

“Sure,” said Aronoke. “I’ll tell him.”

The bartender arrived back with the drinks, and Jark Tander gave Aronoke a sketchy wave and moved off towards the exit, while he carried them back to the table. He set the Red Star, a drink with layers that gradated from thick golden yellow to dark maroon in front of Ktoth Neesh, and a clear bright blue effervescent one, containing tiny silver spheres that rose and fell with the bubbles [1], in front of Tarric Gondroz. He settled gratefully into the seat next to the kubaz to drink his own kwaro juice.

“I see you found a friend,” remarked Kthoth Neesh.

“A local, interested in taking us down to the planet’s surface,” said Aronoke. “I referred her to M… Captain Oldric. I think we should probably head back to the ship immediately, instead of finding this last shop, to give him fair warning that she might show up there.”

“Oh, thank every star in the Kiatu constellation!” said Tarric Gondroz, wiggling his fingers in the air and turning his eyes exaggeratedly towards the heavens. Unfortunately, the carnivorous plant specimen chose this moment to make a darting lunge at his snout, and Aronoke barely managed to rescue the kubaz’s drink and his own in the resulting tumult.


“A local human, eh?” said Master Caaldor, when Aronoke reported in back on the ship. “Perhaps she might be useful in our investigation. We had best prepare ourselves in case she does decide to visit. There are some things in storage that ought to make our ship somewhat more convincing.”

Half an hour later, Aronoke had to admit that the XL-327 did look more like the independent trading vessel she purported to be. The plant specimens they had so painstakingly gathered were strewn across a long work-table in the main lounge, while anonymous crates and tools stood about in the usually pristine hallways. A pile of dusty advertising holocubes from a wide variety of worlds formed an interesting sculpture on a side table. There was even a racy swimsuit holocalendar featuring tasselled Twi’lek girls, ten years out of date, that Kthoth Neesh had found somewhere and tacked up on a wall. Master Caaldor looked strange to Aronoke, dressed in unfamiliar clothing, although he did look far more like a smuggler than Aronoke did to himself. The role was obviously one he had played before.

When Jark Tander turned up, later that evening, Aronoke thought the ship made a positive impression on her. “Tidy looking vessel you run here, Captain Oldric,” she said to Master Caaldor, looking about herself. “I trust your offsider told you why I’m here.” She nodded to Aronoke, who was lounging idly against a wall.

“He did indeed,” said Master Caaldor. “Jaxxor, why don’t you go and fetch us some of that Corellian Spiced Ale?”

“Yes, Captain,” said Aronoke. By the time he returned, Master Caaldor and Jark Tander were deep in conversation about places in the galaxy he knew little about, exchanging stories about trading runs made in the past. Aronoke wondered at Master Caaldor’s knowledge of such things and the ease with which he discussed them with someone who was in that line of business themselves.

“Well, too bad I can’t interest you in a guided tour of the surface,” said Jark Tander reluctantly getting to her feet after several rounds of drinks. “I must say it’s been nice to have some human company for a change. It’s funny really – I came out to Quebwoz because I thought I was done with other humans for a good long time, but a few years later and here I am, seeking out their company.”

“I’m sure there’s a proverb about that,” said Aronoke, and Jark laughed drily.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “the Queb are good people in their way, but slipperier in their business dealings than Huttese swamp snakes. You’d do well to mind what deals you make while you’re here.”

“Is that a quality common to all Queb, or just the Kalarka?” asked Aronoke.

“Oh, all Queb really,” said Jark Tander. “The Kalarka clan are just better at it than most, as you can see by their wealth and success. They control this entire platform and it’s one of the more prominent ones.”

“We’ll be careful,” said Master Caaldor. “Thanks for the tip.”

“Here’s my frequency in case you change your mind, or if you ever come back this way,” said Jark Tander, passing a holocube to him.

“We’ll be sure to do so,” said Master Caaldor, beaming charmingly as he ushered her out.


Concealed by the dark velvety night, Aronoke followed Master Caaldor through the streets of the queb city towards the stadium. There was an odour of moisture and unfamiliar vegetation in the air, while insects and birds performed a constant background concert, despite the late hour. There were still a few queb in the streets, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures, but all the shops had shut save for a few scattered drinking houses. Even the great bulk of the stadium was quiet, the great spotlights still lit, but only dimly. Only a few athletes practiced out on the great expanse of duragrass.

Aronoke’s thoughts were racing. His hand itched to check the lightsaber hidden in his pocket, but he restrained himself, telling himself that the gesture was too suspicious. Were they being watched? Aronoke could not be sure. His senses told him that there were people everywhere in the surrounding houses and buildings – sleeping people, talking people, people doing late-night jobs – but his focus seemed twitchy and erratic, jumping from one cluster of living things to another, making it impossible to tell anything accurately.

“Stay calm,” admonished Master Caaldor as they approached the private entrance to the Kalarka compound, his voice barely more than a whisper, and Aronoke tried to relax, forcing himself to run through one of the simpler meditations.

As they moved into the entranceway, two stout queb guards stepped out to block their way. They were dressed in professional looking security armour, rather than traditional queb garb, tailored to fit their unique anatomy.

“This is a private throughway,” said the slightly taller of the two guards, crossly stepping to block their way. His nose quivered indignantly. “Public access is not allowed, human.”

“You must go back to the street and find another way around,” said the second, more helpfully.

“We are expected. We should pass through,” said Master Caaldor, waving his hand casually in front of the indignant guard’s face.

The queb looked at him for a moment. Its mouth dropped open slightly as it thought.

“They are expected,” said the guard, stepping out of their way. His fellow looked at him in mild confusion for a moment, but then nodded. “They should pass through.”

Then, easy as that, the gate was opened and they were walking along an impressive hallway into the interior of the queb compound. The passage bypassed the outer gardens and courtyards, leading directly into the interior of the massive pagoda that lay at the compound’s heart.

“We should get off this main corridor as soon as possible,” said Master Caaldor quietly.

Aronoke nodded. Their first goal was to find a terminal that would give them information regarding the layout. Master Caaldor chose a broad intersecting hallway and then picked a door, seemingly at random. He led Aronoke into a supply room and headed straight over to a terminal against one wall, where he began pressing buttons. A schematic came up promptly and Master Caaldor scanned it with his datapad.

“Central security is located here,” he indicated to Aronoke, pointing to a chamber at the junction of two major hallways – the one they had been following and a longer one that formed the backbone of the ground level of the pagoda. “Can you tell which of these walled gardens might be the one Hespenara is in?”

There were several large enclosed courtyards within the building’s bulk, any of which might contain the garden from Aronoke’s vision.

Aronoke focussed his senses and his perception of Hespenara’s frozen presence solidified, far across the compound. “I think it’s this one over here,” he said, stabbing a finger at the diagram.

“Good,” said Master Caaldor. “All we have to do is to deactivate the skyshields from the main security centre, make our way there, and signal the ship.”

He seemed blithely confident, Aronoke thought, when there were so many things that could go wrong!

“What about Bolar Dak?” he asked. “Aren’t we going to get him too?”

“We’ll worry about him once we’ve got Hespenara,” said Master Caaldor. “Chances are, he’ll be sent after us, saving us the trouble of finding him.”

Aronoke nodded. That made good sense.

Master Caaldor appeared to have completely memorised the layout of the compound from one good look at the schematic and didn’t refer to his datapad as they moved along hallway after hallway, detouring through room after room and scorning the use of major passageways. Where there was no way through, his lightsaber made quick work of thin-walled partitions. Aronoke recognised some landmarks from his brief surveillance of the map, but quickly felt lost. As they moved along the passageways, he was aware of queb in some of the side rooms and moving nearby, but nevertheless he was taken by surprise when a queb suddenly stepped out into the hallway ahead of them. It was dressed in a fancier version of the security armour worn by the entrance guards.

The queb seemed surprised to see them too. “What are you doing here? You have no right to be here.”

“We are supposed to be here,” said Master Caaldor, waving his hand casually in the Queb’s face. “We are expected.”

The queb hesitated for a moment, a peculiar expression crossing its furry face. Its dark, flat nose twitched expressively and its luxurious topknot quivered.

“No you’re not!” it said, suddenly punching a button on a control bracer locked about its forearm. Immediately an alarm began to sound in the distance. With its other hand, it reached for a formidable-looking blaster. “Surrender!”

Master Caaldor gestured briskly, and the queb security captain – if that’s what it was – was flung sideways into the wall of the passage. It slid down, slightly dazed, but even as it reached the floor it began to pick itself up, aiming the weapon as it did so. Another gesture from Master Caaldor and the blaster rattled across the corridor to land at Aronoke’s feet. Aronoke picked it up and pointed it at the guard.

“I think you’d better do what we say,” he said.

“You won’t get away with this,” the security captain chittered angrily. “Kalarka hires the best security on Quebwoz Prime. Surrender now and you may still get off lightly.”

“Thanks for the warning,” said Master Caaldor drily. “However, we’ve come this far, so I think we’ll take our chances. Bring our friend along, Aronoke. Perhaps he’ll prove useful.”

Aronoke grabbed the captain and hustled him down the corridor, keeping the mean-looking blaster pointed at the alien’s head. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use the weapon; it was non-standard issue and he was not sure how it worked.

The security alarm had done its work, and security guards boiled out of side passages to block their way as they approached the security centre.

Vermalkat!” shrieked the security captain, twisting wildly in Aronoke’s grip and forcing him to tighten his hold. “Bejari di kar! Instalki mari ar kar!

Master Caaldor waved an arm, and the security guards were swept aside like skittles.

“Lay down your weapons and let us pass,” demanded Master Caaldor, as the guards began picking themselves up. “Otherwise your captain loses an eye!” He gestured at Aronoke with his head as he spoke, and Aronoke shifted the blaster obligingly. “Do as I say, and no one gets hurt!”

The guards muttered uncertainly, but the captain had sagged slightly in Aronoke’s grip when he saw his guards were dealt with so easily. “Let them pass,” he croaked. “They are some kind of vermalkat!”

“Vermalkat?” wondered Aronoke and Master Caaldor shrugged. Beyond, the guards were laying down their blasters and backing away, muttering in the queb language to each other.

“You, gather up the weapons and drop them down that chute,” said Master Caaldor to one of the closer guards, gesturing towards a handy waste-disposal panel in one wall. He waited watchfully while the guard gathered up the fallen blasters and disposed of them. “Now, remove yourselves. If I see any of you following us, your captain will pay the price, one body part at a time!” The guards began scuttling away, some hastily, some more reluctantly.

“Bring our friend along,” Master Caaldor said to Aronoke, once the guards had complied. Turning, he strode off down the corridor, casting stern glances in the direction the retreating guards had taken. Aronoke followed in his wake, all too aware that the queb had not retreated far and could still cause trouble.

“Remember, if I see anyone following us,” Master Caaldor tossed over his shoulder as he led the way towards the security centre, “your captain will pay the price!”

Several queb heads withdrew hurriedly from the corridor.

Reaching the security office, Master Caaldor hastened over to a large central console, while Aronoke found a handy storage locker to shut the security captain in.

“I’m sure your guards will come and let you out soon,” he replied to the queb’s spluttering protests.

“Are you any good with these things?” Master Caaldor mused, once the captain was safely out of the way.

“Sorry, Master,” said Aronoke. “I’ve never had much training with computer systems.”

“Hm, well, we’ll just have to hope that my paltry skills are enough to deactivate the skyshields,” said the older Jedi, frowning in concentration as he navigated the complexities of a security menu. There was a tense silnce while he worked, during which Aronoke uneasily eyed the exits from the security room. He could sense the queb gathering in several locations, preparing their defensive.

“There, maybe that will do it!” Master Caaldor said triumphantly.

Heavy duty plasteel barricades slid down simulataneously to block all exits from the security room, sealing the chamber with a heavy clang.

“Or maybe not.” Master Caaldor turned back to the panel.

Aronoke felt oddly comforted by the barricades – even though it seemed they now were trapped, there was less chance of being suddenly swarmed by the queb.

“No, I think the shield is down,” Master Caaldor said, after a few more minutes. “I triggered some sort of security failsafe while deactivating it. All we have to do is to make our way to the garden.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, looking at the barricades dubiously. “We cut our way out?” He could hear faint sounds and detect the accumulated life-signs of many queb guards massing behind them. A lightsaber would deal with most obstacles, but cutting through the heavy plasteel barriers would be slow work. The guards would have plenty of warning and it would be a messy fight if they had to leave that way.

Master Caaldor drew his lightsaber and plunged it into the security console, sending out a shower of cascading sparks and causing a minor explosion. Security display screens flickered into blurs of static.

“Ventilation shafts,” he said, gesturing to a panel in the ceiling. “You go first, Padawan – cut through that grill.”

Climbing on top of the console, Aronoke drew his lightsaber and sliced through the edges of the grill in the ceiling. It was easier said than done, and Aronoke was certain that the tough metal would have stood up to anything short of a lightsaber or a high grade lasercutter. He neatly sidestepped the panel as it fell out and climbed cautiously up through the hole, trying to avoid the still-smoking edges.

“Which way?” he asked uncertainly, peering along a long dark crawlspace that led in both directions. No, he should know this, he thought. He could still sense Hespenara – she was somewhere off to the…


Aronoke hastened along on hands and knees, pausing only to make sure Master Caaldor was following him.
Moving as quietly as possible, they navigated several intersections.

“One moment.”

Master Caaldor had stopped and was inspecting his datapad, its faint green glow casting an odd tinge to his face. “Our best bet is this chamber here – it looks like a maintenance room. From there, it is only a short way out to the garden. Take the next left and be wary of a shaft down.”

“Yes, Master.”

Before long, they stood, dusty and dishevelled, in a small, metal-walled chamber with a single door. Tools and equipment hung on two walls, with a maintenance terminal taking up most of a third.

“Is there anyone in the room outside?” Master Caaldor asked quietly.

Aronoke closed his eyes and obediently cast his senses to the room beyond the door. The unmistakeable signs of life lay beyond.

“Yes, but I think it’s only one person,” said Aronoke. “They seem quite alert – perhaps it’s a security post.”

“We incapacitate them and go straight through,” said Master Caaldor showing Aronoke the schematic on his datapad. “Out this door here, along this hallway and outside.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Very well. I’ll open the door and you take point.”

Aronoke swallowed firmly and nodded, his lightsaber ready in his hand.

The door slid open and Aronoke rolled through, coming to his feet a short distance in front of the single queb occupant.

Who was accompanied by four heavy-duty security droids.

Bantha crap, Aronoke thought wildly. He hadn’t sensed the droids at all! He had gotten the situation completely wrong! He lunged towards the queb guard, aware that the droids would not be able to shoot him without harming the queb if he could only get close fast enough, but the guard was on his toes and vaulted nimbly back behind a low barricade that partially blocked the other exit while the droids moved to intercept Aronoke. Aronoke landed, rolling awkwardly to avoid the droids’ fire and came up ready to plunge his lightsaber into the turbomechanism of the nearest one. He was vaguely aware that Master Caaldor was coming into the room behind him.

Aronoke’s lightsaber missed its target, shearing off one of the droids arms instead. The other arm twisted around and fired at him, forcing him to duck aside. As he swivelled on his back foot, deflecting blaster fire and coming around for another attack, something sailed towards him from over the barrier, but before Aronoke had time to identify it, the object was abruptly deflected, suddenly changing direction midair, as if it had hit an invisible wall. For a moment it looked like it was going to sail back over the barricade, but it impacted against the rim instead. Aronoke had only a fraction of a second to try to shield himself, before the explosion effortlessly tossed the heavy droids aside, picked him up, and flung him backwards to smack painfully into a wall.

* * *

There was a loud ringing in Aronoke’s ears and the world swung sickeningly from side to side. A terrible burning smell filled his nostrils. Everything hurt, in a blaze of agonising, burning pain that washed over his whole body. He tried to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t open, and for a moment he wondered disconcertedly if he was blind. Panicking, he struggled for a moment, but his limbs only twitched feebly and his eyes stubbornly refused to open. Abruptly the world swung around in a circle and he found himself set down on something spongy and cool. It hurt. Everything hurt. Someone said something in a faint mumble and something briefly stung his arm.

As the pain retreated a little, one of Aronoke’s eyes came partly open, and he realised that they were merely gummed shut by his partially molten eyelashes. He fumbled at them awkwardly with his irresponsive hands, rubbing them until he could painfully tear them open.

The world was blurry and seemed darker than it should, for all that they seemed to be in a well-lit area outside. Most of Aronoke’s vision was obscured by dazzling after-images of the explosion. The ill-defined silhouette of Master Caaldor hovered in Aronoke’s view, and he was saying something. Shouting something, Aronoke realised, and gesturing.

“I can’t hear you,” Aronoke said, and he realised he must have been deafened by the explosion, because he couldn’t hear himself either. Master Caaldor said something else, and pushed a communicator into Aronoke’s hands. He pointed at the sky.

“You want me to signal the ship?” Aronoke asked, hazarding a guess, and Master Caaldor nodded. He pointed over to one side and hurried in that direction. Aronoke straightened to see where he was going and gasped involuntarily. It hurt horribly to move. It took him a few moments to succesfully control the pain enough to concentrate on anything else. As it receded to within bearable levels, Aronoke’s vision began to clear, and he turned his attention back to the communicator. Opening the channel, he pushed the button that signalled the ship and was relieved when the signal was answered almost immediately. He could tell someone was speaking, but couldn’t hear who it was, or what they were saying.

“This is Aronoke,” he said into the communicator, hoping he wasn’t yelling too loudly. “We’re ready for extraction at my current coordinates.” A voice at the other end said something, but Aronoke had no idea what it was.

Aronoke went to slide the communicator into his pocket, only to discover his pocket wasn’t there. Most of his clothes still hung on him, but only in burnt shreds. Grimly he took stock of himself. His lightsaber was missing! The blaster pistol he had worn was still holstered by his hip, although the holster was only hanging by a molten strand. Aronoke forced himself to his feet, finding his limbs to be bruised and scorched but unbroken. He felt very ethereal, a sensation augmented by the ringing in his ears and the strange muted silence of the world around him. Looking around for Master Caaldor, he caught sight of a flicker of movement from a doorway in the main building and identified several beweaponed queb taking cover behind a low stone wall. He hastily he ducked behind the lip of a low fountain as a few blaster shots whined past him, close enough that even he could hear them.

From that vantage point he could see Master Caaldor a little way along a stone garden path, kneeling beside a very familiar ornamental sculpture. Aronoke felt even more ethereal as he saw the scene from his vision laid before him in reality; there were no dancing queb, but there was Hespenara, frozen in carbonite, while Master Caaldor knelt, doing something to the controls of the carbonite block, doubtlessly beginning the thawing process.

A few more blaster bolts zinged overhead, reminding Aronoke that he should be doing something about the advancing queb. Even though he felt stretched to his limits by controlling the pain of his injuries, he tried to extend his senses to detect the approaching guards. None of them had managed to sneak around into positions from where they could get a clear shot at him. He peered over the edge of the fountain and inaccurately returned fire, sending the more daring ones scrambling for cover. He didn’t hit any of them, but his use of his senses allowed him to keep them pinned down effectively. He hoped that would be enough. Curiously, he began to feel a little better as he focussed on his task, trying to keep the queb at bay to buy Master Caaldor enough time to free Hespenara.

Suddenly, Aronoke became aware of another disturbance – something much further away and far above them. At first he thought it was the XL-327 come to rescue them, but then he realised that what he was sensing was another Force user, flying high overhead. Had the Jedi Council sent someone to help, Aronoke wondered confusedly. But how had they known where to find them?

But no, that distant presence was subtly different from the Jedi he was so accustomed to dealing with. This was something else. Another kind of Force user, he realised, and a moment later it was clear that whoever had just entered the atmosphere of Quebwoz Prime could be nothing but a Sith.

A shiver went down Aronoke’s spine as he took several more shots at the queb, who had taken advantage of his momentary distraction to advance a little. Then they were suddenly falling back, and Aronoke was not sure why, until a shadow fell over him, deepening the darkness around him. The XL-327 was setting down a short distance away, flattening several ornamental hedges in the process. Aronoke scrambled unsteadily to his feet as the ship’s ramp dropped down. A figure leapt out as the ship’s external lights suddenly blazed into life, bathing the garden into stark patches of light and shadow, revealing it to be Kthoth Neesh, looking about herself and making a quick and shrewd evaluation of the situation. Her gaze fell upon Aronoke and she looked just a little taken aback.

She didn’t hesitate, however. She raced towards him and grabbed him by the elbow, pulling him towards the ship and saying something as she did so.

“It’s no use – I can’t hear you,” yelled Aronoke in response. She hurried him over to the ship, dragging him up the ramp and sitting him rather forcefully on a metal bench just inside. She pulled a safety harness around him, snapping the clips shut, and then leaned over Aronoke’s body, pressing her lips so close to his ear that he could feel the moistness of them against his skin.

“Where’s Master Caaldor?” she yelled.

“Down there and to the left, getting Hespenara,” Aronoke replied, faintly hearing her query. “He might need some more covering fire while he finishes.”

Kthoth Neesh gave him a grin and an exaggerated salute and raced away down the ramp, while Aronoke leaned back against the wall, his head spinning. He closed his eyes, cautiously running a hand over his face and head, wondering how bad the burns really were. His hair! It was mostly gone, leaving nothing much behind save for a few ragged patches and some lumpy molten stubble that came away at his touch. Besides that, the damage didn’t seem as extensive as it could have been. His attempt to shield himself from the heat must have had some effect after all.

He opened his eyes and recoiled in surprise, because Tarric Gondroz’s elongated face was barely a foot from his own. The kubaz held up his hands placatingly and said something.

“I can’t hear you,” began Aronoke again, with some exasperation, when he realised that his hearing was returning and he could hear a little more than he had up until now. There was the dull rumbling of the ship, felt more as a vibration than anything else, the nasal buzz of the kubaz’s voice, and the intermittent high-pitched whine of blaster bolts. Then there was a sudden tangle of motion on the ramp, and Aronoke was overjoyed to see Master Caaldor, singed but intact, cradling a shivering Hespenara in his arms. Behind him came Kthoth Neesh, pausing to fire several parting shots back down the ramp as she came.

“Take us out of here, PR!” Master Caaldor yelled, faintly but audibly, and the ramp began to close as the ship’s engines whined into action. He set Hespenara down on the bench beside Aronoke.

“Take care of her, Padawan,” he yelled to Aronoke. “She’s suffering from carbonite sickness and I have to go forward to handle the ship. There’s going to be a fierce pursuit and it might be beyond PR’s capabilities to get us out of here safely.” Kthoth Neesh said something that Aronoke didn’t hear and staggered off down the corridor after Master Caaldor, while Tarric Gondroz hastily sat down and strapped himself in as the ship lurched wildly into the air. Aronoke grabbed Hespenara, before she could topple forward out of her seat, and fastened the straps around her.

“It’s me, Hespenara. Aronoke,” he said, as he fastened the clips into place. “You don’t have to worry. You’re safe now.”

The ship surged violently and shuddered, putting the lie to his words, and Hespenara said something, turning her face towards him. She put out a quavering green hand and found his shoulder. It travelled upwards, gently touching his face as she said something else.

“I can’t hear you, Hespenara. There was an explosion – it deafened me, but my hearing is coming back a little now,” Aronoke said.

“Aronoke!” said Hespenara. She must have spoken more loudly, because Aronoke could just hear her, if he used his sense abilities to augment his hearing. “It really is you – I can tell – but you’re so tall!”

“It’s a long story, but Master Caaldor and I came to rescue you.”

There was a pause as the ship lurched crazily again.

“You’re a Padawan?” asked Hespenara, her voice tremulous. “How long… How long was I frozen?”

“Not as long as all that,” said Aronoke hastily. From her perspective it would be impossible to know how much time had passed. It could have been more than a decade. “I grew up more quickly than a human would, remember? It’s only been about two years.”

“Two years,” repeated Hespenara, sounding rather dazed, as if she couldn’t really comprehend the information. “Two whole years… but…. Master Altus? Is he here too? What happened to Master Altus?”

“I’m sorry, Hespenara,” said Aronoke, taking her hand. “We don’t know where he is. You both disappeared, so we knew something drastic must have happened to both of you, and then we found out that a Jedi frozen in carbonite was auctioned off in Primtara sector. We don’t know what happened to Master Altus, apart from that he was captured by someone and kept somewhere against his will. I do believe that he’s still alive though.”

“I…. I do too,” said Hespenara, blinking furiously. Her face was paler than it had been. It had a yellowish tinge that didn’t look healthy. “I think I’d know if he was dead.”

“We were hoping you might be able to tell us something that would help us find him,” said Aronoke.

Just then Kthoth Neesh appeared, carrying a blanket and some drink bulbs in one arm, and hanging on to the safety railing with the other. She manoeuvred herself into the seat on the other side of Hespenara, and fastened the straps around herself, before tucking the blanket around the shivering mirialan.

“I’m Kthoth Neesh,” she told Hespenara as she worked. “I’m helping out for the time being.” She twisted the top of a drink bulb and pressed it into Hespenara’s hands. “This restorative beverage ought to get you feeling better quickly,” she told her. She passed another to Aronoke. “You should probably drink one too, Padawan. You look terrible.”

Aronoke obediently sipped the drink and then drank more vigorously as he realised he was very thirsty. The slightly tart liquid seemed to send cool tendrils winding through his brain and body tissues, soothing the fierce throbbing of his outraged skin.

“Padawan?” asked Hespenara again. “So soon?

“A lot happened while you were away,” said Aronoke. “The Jedi Council judged it would be better if I got out of the Jedi Temple sooner rather than later, and so they sent me off with Master Caaldor.”

“I don’t think Master Altus would have approved,” said Hespenara. “He wanted you to stay in the Jedi Temple as long as possible. He felt you needed time to establish yourself there after everything that happened to you on Kasthir.”

“I know,” said Aronoke, “but Master Altus wasn’t there.”

Hespenara opened her mouth to say something else, but just at that moment an explosion rocked the ship and it was flung sideways.

“Oh, by the Great Green Nebula! I’m too young to die!” wailed Tarric Gondroz, throwing his arms up to protect his face.

“What’s happening?” asked Aronoke, as the ship came out of its roll and regained some stability.

“As far as I can tell, some ship came streaking out just as we were taking off, and has been doing it’s best to take us out of the sky,” said Kthoth Neesh, wincing and rubbing a bumped elbow. “Master Caaldor is doing his best to get us out of here intact, but I don’t think it it’s going too well. I think I see why he usually prefers to let the droid fly.”

“Maybe it would have been better to stay frozen in carbonite until this was all over,” said Hespenara wryly.

“There wasn’t much choice,” said Aronoke.

“I’m very grateful, really,” said Hespenara, smiling wanly. “It’s just hard not being able to see anything.”

“Trust me,” squealed Tarric Gondroz, “you’re not missing anything worthwhile.”

Even as he spoke another explosion rocked the ship, sending it plunging towards the planet’s surface in an irreconcilable descent.



[1] You can make this drink yourself. Fill a glass with lemonade (the colourless effervescent variety), add blue food colouring, and sprinkle in a few silver cachous balls – the sort used in cake decorating. The balls rise and fall attractively with the bubbles. A friend and I invented this drink (or re-invented, most likely) as a prop to add colour to a pen-and-paper roleplaying session using the original Star Wars roleplaying system.




[1] You can make this drink yourself. Fill a glass with lemonade (the colourless effervescent variety), add blue food colouring, and sprinkle in a few silver cachous balls – the sort used in cake decorating. The balls rise and fall attractively with the bubbles. A friend and I invented this drink (or re-invented, most likely) as a prop to add colour to a pen-and-paper roleplaying session using the original Star Wars roleplaying system.

‘Tomorrow,’ thought Josie, in an agony of bitterness. Yustus had explained how it would work to her with an unutterably nasty glee. She would be given a drug to keep her from moving, and her eyes would be cut out, and then the blue diamonds would be put in their place, and once they had healed into place and he was sure she could see through them he would swap her into his own loathsome body. ‘And then he will kill me, I suppose,’ she said to herself. She fought down a terrible feeling of being powerless, trapped, overwhelmed.

It was the middle of the night, and Zardeenah had gone somewhere – Josie did not know where, or how long she would be gone, she had just heard her go as she lay there unable to sleep – so Josie had gone into the garden. She would try to escape. She could not fly herself, or burrow through the ground like a mole; the only way was to chance climbing over the wall. She should have done it before, she cursed herself, but the evil magician was quite right when he said that she could not will her own destruction. And climbing the wall, not knowing what was on the other side except for hungry wild dogs and mile after mile of wilderness, had seemed to her until this very moment too much like suicide.

Josie climbed carefully to the top of the bird-headed statue, judging each step carefully so she would not slip. She balanced herself on its head, made sure of her footing, and then leapt up to grab the top of the wall. Her fingers clung for an instant, then slipped, and she crashed down to the ground.

Determined, she grimly climbed the statue and tried again, with the same result. This time she could not help crying.

‘Try again, Josie,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm so she would not make her hands wet. ‘Try again.’

She climbed the statue a third time, tears streaming down her face. She told herself fiercely to stop blubbing, but the tears would not stop coming. Slowly, carefully, she steadied herself on the shoulders of the statue, then its head. ‘Third time lucky,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm again.

Josie did not notice, but in each place her tears landed on the statue, it began to change. The exquisitely-carved feathers became yet more fine, beyond the skill of any carver, then stirred in the gentle breeze. The stone became softer and warmer than stone. And the patches spread – slowly at first, and then with the swiftness of a locomotive.

Josie tensed herself to jump, and the statue moved.

The head turned, the body twisted at the hip, and she fell again. This time the statue caught her. The four arms, no longer stone, but flesh, made a secure net beneath her, cradling her like a baby.

Josie took a long shuddering inward breath, abruptly forgetting to cry any more. The arms smelled comforting in a feathery way, like a pillow, and she found she was not scared at all. A voice – a strange unmusical but not at all unpleasant voice – formed a word she did not understand.


‘Nera?’ said Tash. The world was streaming back into warmth and colour with unimaginable speed, bringing his mind back from whatever stony place it had been sleeping in, and there was a creature in his arms. It was a living creature with two arms and two legs and a tuft of dark fibrous stuff on its head, a human being, and though it was wet in patches it did not appear to be bleeding. He bent his head to down to look more closely at the creature in his arms, and the impossible hope within him died. It wore the same kind of black garment and seemed to be the same kind as Nera, but it was a paler creature than she had been, and taller, and fleshed like one who had more regular meals, and smelled saltier. Nera was gone. She was dead; he had seen her, moments before, and his heart should still have been hammering with the horribleness of it all, but it was slow, slower than it ought to be at a normal time, and he was holding on to this new human being.

‘Thank you,’ said the creature.

‘What for?’ asked Tash.

‘You caught me,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Tash. He uncurled one arm from beneath her and touched the wetness of her face. It made his skin tingle in a curious way, and sent a twitch of exultation all the way up his arm to somewhere between his shoulderblades. The creature made a noise then, and he drew his hand back in alarm. ‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘I was climbing the wall, trying to escape from this garden,’ she said, wiping her eyes. ‘You were a statue. Then you came to life.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash. So that was what had happened to him; they had made him into a statue. ‘Then we should get out of this garden?’

‘Yes,’ said the creature.

‘I will put you down now,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘My name is Josie.’

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, and very carefully set her down on the ground. He seemed stronger than he was used to being, and did not want to hurt her. He looked around. There were strange things above him. The moon was a skinny toenail clipping of light, and the sky was alive with hundreds or thousands of stars. He was glad for the walls and tall plants that put some sort of a limit to the unsettling bright things, confining them to a ragged circle of sky above him. The plants were unfamiliar. Besides the stars, the human Josie, and himself, there was nothing that he recognised in the garden. Things built out of stone are much the same on any world, however, and that was clearly a broken stone tower jutting upward, beyond the garden. A little further away there was another tower, unbroken, with light coming from windows about halfway up. It was a warm, reddish gold kind of light, not at all like the fires of his own world. ‘This must be Nera’s world,’ he thought, fascinated.

‘The wall is behind you,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t know what is on the other side.’

‘I will look,’ said Tash, forcing himself back to the task at hand. He would have struggled to climb a wall like this on the world of the thalarka, but here he simply had to reach up, grab the top, and pull himself onto it. The sky was larger from up here, and it made him dizzy. Beyond the wall was a valley overgrown with the same tall plants that grew in the garden, but now he was looking down on them: the tops of the closest were twice the height of the wall beneath him. A few miles away in every direction he could see the valley rise into hills covered with the same sort of plants, and when he peered down he could see a trickle of water glistening over rocks.

‘What is there?’ asked Josie, after he had spent rather a long time looking out at it. The bigness of the sky with so many stars in it gave him an uneasy giddy feeling that refused to go away.

‘It goes down a long way,’ said Tash. ‘Steep, but not straight down. I could climb it. There is a stream, and a big space with lots of plants.’

‘They are coming for me,’ said Josie urgently.

‘Who?’ said Tash. Then he too heard the flapping – the beating of several pairs of wings of Tash-sized creatures, approaching the tower.

‘Ifrits,’ said the human. This word meant nothing at all to Tash, but he was sure he did not want to find out anything more about the they who were coming for Josie just at the moment. Josie was standing by the wall lifting her arms above her head, and Tash let go of the narrow wall with a pair of hands to hoist her up.

The memory of Nera spilling out of his arms recurred horribly to Tash. ‘I will hold you and climb down,’ he said firmly. ‘It will be alright.’

‘Okay,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you.’

Tash was unaccustomed to being treated so politely. This Josie was different from Nera: she seemed to be from a nicer place than Nera had been, a safer place. He wondered how she had come to be a prisoner here – there was so very much to wonder about. Until a little while ago the world had seemed full enough of curious and intriguing things, though it consisted every day of the same grith fields, the same featureless sky, and the same thalarka; and now everything was new. The air was dry and cool and smelled of things he had never smelled before; and all those strange new points of light in the sky were like thousands of eyes watching him.

‘Is something wrong?’ asked the warm and curiously pleasant-smelling creature that was clinging around his neck.

‘No,’ said Tash. He must try to not get distracted, he thought. He would be useful in this new world. He would not lose this human – Josie – like had lost Nera. ‘I will climb down now,’ he said aloud.

Tash missed having all four arms to climb with, but it was not a great burden carrying Josie; it was as if she weighed nothing at all. It was further to the base of the wall on the outside, with hardly anything to hold on to, and there was only a knob of rock at the beginning before the cliff began, but the cliff was not difficult to climb down once he was there. Only near the bottom, under the shadow of the plants, did he get overconfident and distracted into peering at the sky, and ended up half-scrambling and half-rolling the last few dozen feet into a thorny bush.

‘Sorry,’ said Tash.

‘It’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘You took all the lumps.’ Indeed, without thinking he had curled himself around Josie to protect her.

‘You can let me go now,’ she said.

‘Yes, I will do that,’ Tash said, putting her down carefully beyond the bush. They seemed to be not far from the stream he had seen from above.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you very much,’ Her voice sounded different than it had inside the garden – higher in pitch, with more breath in it. She made a curious noise that sounded unaccountably pleasant to Tash.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘I am happy,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’

‘That’s good,’ he said. He looked at Josie, at the trees, at the wiry loops of thorn bush he had just climbed out of.

‘What is this place?’ he asked. ‘Why were you a prisoner?’

‘Hush,’ said Josie, in a different kind of voice again.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘It means you should be quiet,’ she said. She pointed upwards, and a few moments later Tash could hear them too – the ifrits had left the tower, and were fanning out across the valley. One of them called to another, and then another ifrit voice came, from someplace quite different. He could not make out any of the words. He crouched down in the undergrowth next to Josie for what seemed quite a long time.

‘We need to find a better place to hide, and quick,’ said Josie, when none of the ifrits seemed to be flapping close by.

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Do you know anywhere?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I haven’t been here before.’

‘We could follow the water,’ he suggested. ‘It makes sound, so it will make our sounds harder to hear.’ And even if it is cold, it will be get rid of this horrible dry feeling in my feet, he thought.

‘I suppose there might be overhangs and things,’ she said. ‘But it seems an obvious way for the ifrits to check.’

‘Where we are now seems an obvious place,’ said Tash. ‘But they haven’t come here yet.’

‘I suppose so,’ said Josie.

‘Uphill or downhill?’ asked Tash.

Josie made a noise that Tash recognised as one of exasperation. He had heard ones very like it from his mothers and sisters many times. ‘Whatever you like,’ she said.

Tash hurried toward the stream – the sounds of their flying pursuers were getting louder again – and then followed it upstream, plashing along the wet rocks at the edge. It felt nice to have water on his feet again, though it was as nastily cold as he had imagined. After a few moments he noticed Josie was falling badly behind. She was very slow. He backtracked a little. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ she said. Her face seemed to be wet again. ‘I’m sorry to slow you down. I’m blind. You might have to carry me.’

‘I will do that,’ said Tash, feeling useful, and scooped her up. It felt very good, despite all the horrible things that had happened and the danger they were still in, to walk so quickly through this wild place carrying someone who depended on him.

‘I am not useless here, not at all,’ he thought to himself.

So, we have been playing Final Fantasy XIV, re-released last year, a considerable time after its incredible nose-dive  into the sun shortly after its initial release. So far so good.  There still aren’t enough quests for my tastes, and some odd prohibitions that I can’t see the point of.  Why tie unrelated side-dungeons to the main questline, so you only get access after reaching a certain quest, even if you are the right level? Why can’t we take a too-low team into a dungeon?  Why can’t we try with three people?  These latter pushings of the challenge envelope are something I have always enjoyed, despite often being punished with much death for my audacity.   It’s those radical moments when you actually manage to pull off something unexpected that make it all worthwhile.

Revisiting Final Fantasy XIV has brought back vivid memories of Final Fantasy XI, my first real MMO, and doubtlessly where my rules-lawyery-ness about following “the unspoken rules” originates. (The tank goes first, let the tank pull, avoid getting aggro if you are not the tank, crowd control is sacred).  Although recent games challenge these traditionalist MMO concepts, these unspoken rules still exist in FFXIV, along with the same snide elitism about gear.  Is there something about Final Fantasy that encourages this?   ‘Cause although it is definitely present in other games, I haven’t seen (smelt?) such strongly scented epeen for some time.

Anyways, playing FFXIV did inspire me to make a new movie, the idea of which was forwarded by my good friend Guildenstern (who has been dragged, kicking and scream-emoting, from one game to another over the last few years, despite the opposition of  completionist tendencies).  Who knows how long it will last on the interwebs, since Square Enix is apparently just as rules-lawyery about copyright as it is about gameplay.

Ah well, it’s here for now.





Tash was stone. Nera’s world turned swiftly around its cheerful yellow sun, and summer followed winter in bewildering succession. Men rose to greatness and built things to last forever, and their grandchildren saw those things wither and fail.

Time does not flow the same way in different worlds, and on the clouded world of the thalarka time sped by yet faster still. While Tash was stone the long rule of the Overlord ended and those who came after her fought one another with evil over-powerful things, and it came to pass that a lifeless grey sea roiled without ceasing over all the places Tash had ever known or heard of before he was cast into the void. But Tash knew nothing, felt nothing, saw nothing.


Josie was a prisoner in Telmar for several weeks before she found the door. Yustus was busy researching magics to make her see, and Eber and Jabeth had been sent off to the Valley of Fire, wherever that might be, and were not expected back for some time. (Jabeth was the ifrit who had found it such fun to let her ankle drop in midair.) Ureth and Saleh carried her up and down through the window of the tower on the infrequent occasions Yustus wanted to gloat or make some unpleasant measurement of her face; and Zardeenah provided her with every comfort. She remained friendly, and Josie remained none the wiser as to whether it was true friendliness or a sham. Zardeenah was willing enough to talk, but Josie soon learned the topics about which she could not speak, at the bidding of her master: it was useless to ask any question that might have some bearing on the possible weaknesses of the magician, or a way that Josie might escape. At night she often heard the howling of wild dogs in the lands beyond, and Zardeenah said that these were ones descended from the men of Telmar, who Aslan had turned into beasts.

‘I rather hope the gazelles don’t manage to persuade this Prince Margis not to come here,’ Josie thought to herself. ‘I should like nothing better than a Prince with an army of knights to rescue me from this tower. And that magician certainly deserves to have his head lopped off.’

During this time Josie explored the tower room thoroughly. A blind girl can explore a room quite as well as a sighted one, given enough time, and when she is done she knows a great many things that the sighted one still has no clue about. The door was one of those things you or I might walk past a thousand times, and not notice a thing, but to Josie’s sensitive fingers it was as obvious as a line of red ink on a whitewashed wall, and the handle concealed in the carved olive branches of the panelling no more hidden than a brass knocker. It was a door about Josie’s size, under a writing desk that was ifrit-sized, which was a further reason she supposed why Zardeenah did not seem to know it was there. She was consumed with curiosity about what might lie behind it. It was good to have something to think about that had nothing to do with her troubles – except, just perhaps, as the first link in a plan of escape. The door was locked, but she had a very good idea of where the key might be – there were several keys inside a little porcelain box on a high shelf. The problem was only that Zardeenah never left her alone.

‘But if humans are really so clever at fooling ifrits, like she says we are, I should be able to think of something.  Or I could ask, I suppose, since I have not been told the door is forbidden. But, then if it is, as it probably will be, she will be forewarned and hide the key, and maybe put something heavy in front of the door.’


After Josie thought of something to distract Zardeenah it all happened exactly as she had imagined: when the lady ifrit had gone, she retrieved the porcelain box, rummaged through it to find the keys and took them under the desk with her. In a most satisfactory way the very first key she selected slipped easily into the lock and turned, and the door opened. The air behind it was cool, with a faint smell of drains and mouldy straw, and the inside of the door was covered with a thick coat of dust. She stepped cautiously through the doorway, careful to touch the walls and floor only with her bare hands and feet, since she did not want to leave telltale smudges on her clothes. Beyond the door was a little landing for a spiral staircase with steps leading both up and down.

‘It is a sensible thing to be here,’ she thought. ‘The tower was probably built in the first place by men who didn’t have ifrit servants, and would need a way to get up and down. And even if it was built later by the evil magician, if I was him I would want a way to get anywhere without letting my slaves know, just in case.’ Josie put the ‘if I was him’ out of her thoughts – it was too horrible to think that it might ever be true – closed the door behind her, and started down the staircase.  She passed other landings, and there might have been other doors with keyholes that a sighted girl could have peered through, but likely as not it would have been pitch black in those rooms anyway. She hurried on toward the bottom, because she wanted to find out what was behind the door, which meant getting as far she safely could get in the short time she had.

The staircase ended in a small room with a very dirty floor. Something that could only have been the dried-out body of a rat crunched under the ball of Josie’s left foot. Here was a grate, from which the foul smell of drains was strongest; and here was a faint draught playing across her ankles, coming from under a door. She bent down and felt the cool night air trickling in, carrying with it the unmistakeable scent of honeysuckle. The hopeful outsidiness of the smell made her desperately keen to keep going.

Here was the door’s handle, rough with verdigris. She turned it with difficulty and pushed against the door. When nothing happened, she forgot she was trying to keep her clothes clean and threw all her weight against the door through her shoulder. On the third try, the door swung open with a loud crack and spilled her out through a honeysuckle vine onto the grass.

‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said, fingering the tear in the shoulder of her dress. ‘It will be hard hiding that I’ve been somewhere I shouldn’t now.’ She stood up and dusted herself off. ‘So I should make the most of this adventure while I can.’

It is unfortunate that things that are beautiful and people who are kind do not always go together, for that walled garden was a very beautiful place and it would be nice to think that it had been planned by a man of Telmar who had something kindly inside of him, in order to imagine a place so lovely and peaceful. But history is full of tyrants who made the most beautiful gardens and temples and thought nothing of also making pyramids from the severed heads of the peoples they conquered, or fires to roast their enemies alive. So the man who planned that garden was very likely as horrid as all the other men of Telmar who come into this story.

The garden was round, with a wall on all sides, and had been planted with many different flowering plants which were now growing with a wild exuberance, though it had been kept up well enough that there were still lanes of lawn in between them. Next to the honeysuckle were oleanders, and then wisteria, and then several sorts of flowering bushes and vines that Josie did not recognise.  Standing around the edge where the marks on a clock would be were cypresses, and in the middle was a stone fountain, dry except for a little puddling from the rain. It was one of those fountains like a pie-plate, with an edge you can easily step over, a flat tiled expanse for the water to play in, and something in the middle for the water to come out of. This something was a pedestal about as high as Josie, with carved horses’ heads around the edges, and in the centre two sandalled stone feet that presumably connected to the rest of a statue – but Josie could not reach that high.

In one place in the wall there was a gate made of metal bars, but it was locked fast, and fit snugly into its stone arch, so there was no question of Josie squeezing through the bars or over the top of them. ‘So that way is out,’ she told herself.

Beyond the cypresses, right up close to the wall of the garden, were three more statues. There was a stag with his head low to the ground, as if he was about to charge; a large snarling cat that might have been a lioness or a leopard; and some sort of fairy-tale creature that Josie did not recognise. It was twice as tall as she was, and had bandy sorts of legs with clawed feet, arms that bent down at such strange angles that she bumped her head against them more than once – it did not help that there were four of them – and bits of it seemed to be carved into very realistically textured feathers. When she climbed it, since it seemed to be the tallest thing close enough to the wall for her to get an idea of how tall the wall was, she found it had a head like some great bird of prey.

‘What curious taste in statues these men of Telmar had,’ said Josie to herself. ‘It must have been a terrible lot of work to carve these things, and here they are tucked away in a corner of this garden.’

Josie found that by standing gingerly on top of the head of the bird-headed thing, supporting her weight by one hand leaning against the wall of the garden, she could just reach the top of the wall with the outstretched fingertips of her other hand.

‘I could probably jump and grab the top and pull myself up,’ said Josie to herself. ‘But there is no way of knowing what is on the other side. If it is the outside, I will have to deal with those wild dogs; and if it isn’t the outside, well, it could be anything. And the drop could be a lot farther on that side, for all I know.’

Josie was spared the chance to do something rash at that moment, or dither further about whether she should do something rash, by losing her footing and falling to the ground.

She lay there under something like a camellia bush, catching her breath. She had had the wind knocked out of her, and struck her elbow painfully on a foot of the statue, but did not seem to have broken anything.

‘Oh dear,’ she said to herself, hearing flapping in the sky above her. ‘Can Zardeenah be back so soon?’

There was more flapping as whoever it was entered a window, then she heard her own name called inside the tower. Very shortly afterward the sound of ifrit wings flapping came again, as Zardeenah – for it had been her voice – launched herself back into the air.

‘Back, I must get back,’ thought Josie, and scrambled to her feet, thinking at that moment only of hiding herself in under the blankets and pretending not to have been away when Zardeenah returned again. She had long practice at remembering the layout of new places on a brief acquaintance, so was able to run across the garden back to the door at a cracking pace without tripping over anything.

‘I will have to pretend I fell asleep somewhere peculiar, and didn’t hear her,’ Josie told herself, walking up the stairs as quickly as she dared. She knew her clothes would be dirty from falling to the ground, and it would be obvious to Zardeenah that she had gotten out somehow. ‘But maybe she won’t notice. Please, God, let her not notice.’

When Josie returned the ifrit did not seem to be there. She locked the hidden door, changed into a nightdress, took one of the underblankets from her sleeping pile, and curled up in a corner between a cabinet and the wood-box.

Before long there was the flapping of wings at the window, and a voice calling once more, bright with anger. ‘Josie?’

Josie stirred as if she was waking up from a deep sleep, and answered. ‘Yes?’

Josie could not see Zardeenah, but she could feel her eyes boring into her as she gave her a long stare. ‘Indeed, yes,’ said Zardeenah, the words pronounced so that they meant something entirely different.  ‘So, you have been there all this time?’ she asked.

‘All this time?’ said Josie.

‘Very well then,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Come out of there and sleep in the proper place.’

‘It felt more comforting over here when you were gone, somehow,’ explained Josie, acting as if she were younger than she was. She gathered up the underblanket and wandered over to her bed acting as sleepily as she could manage.

‘I don’t believe you for a moment,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Up to some scheming, I am sure. Well, I would do nothing else in your place.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie, settling herself down on her bed of blankets.

‘There are stranger things in the world,’ said Zardeenah, and Josie could still feel the pressure of her inhuman gaze. ‘I have it mind not to tell you the news Saleh has brought.’

‘Please tell, Zardeenah,’ said Josie, ‘I really am sorry to worry you.’

‘Not so sorry as you will be when you hear it, girl,’ said Zardeenah, but her voice was not unkind. ‘It would only have meant his death, of course, but your ally from the human lands will not be coming to save you. He has turned back.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, thinking of the man Margis she had never met. She had not known that she had put any hope at all in him coming to rescue her, but at the news that he certainly wasn’t, she felt a crushing sense of disappointment. ‘That’s too bad,’ she said.

‘Console yourself with the thought that he would certainly have died otherwise,’ said Zardeenah. ‘He and all of those with him. We ifrits are powerful servants.’

Josie did not find this a terribly consoling thought. ‘Do you know why he turned back?’ she asked.

‘His brother was thrown from a horse and broke his neck,’ said Zardeenah. ‘That is the tale Saleh brought. He was needed then to return to the city of the humans.’

Josie thought of Gerry and the accident again, and bit her lip. ‘Maybe he will try again later.’

‘Indeed,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Maybe he will.’


At midwinter Jabeth and Eber returned with two great diamonds from the Valley of Fire, and Yustus made Josie feel them.

‘Are they not splendid?’ he said. ‘They are exactly the right size, and a splendid shade of blue. I always think that a pale woman like you looks most imposing with blue eyes.’

Josie held the stones in her hands and wondered if they would smash if she were to hurl them at the floor.

Yustus snatched the diamonds out of her hands as if he could tell what she was thinking. ‘You are growing well,’ he said approvingly. ‘Soon you will have reached your full height, and then, ah, then let the world tremble before a new queen!’

‘I will kill myself first,’ said Josie. ‘I will.’

Yustus laughed. ‘No, you won’t. The power that is in you will not let you. The hunger for life is strong in you. I never saw the White Queen, but I recognise in you what is said of her in the tales. Only those who are exceptional in power are drawn through from world to world.’

‘You should be careful, then,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe I’ll work out how to use my power against you.’

‘Delightful, child!’ said Yustus, reaching out and patting her cheek. ‘Delightful! You just keep telling yourself that.’


At times it seemed to Josie that she had spent all her life as a prisoner of the evil magician. At first she missed her mother, she missed her sister, she missed potatoes and the smell of the bush and the hot Australian sunshine; but she missed these things less and less each day, and all her memories of her life before she came to the new world grew more and more vague and dreamlike.  From the passing of the seasons, she could tell that more than a year went by: a year of eating Telmarine food, and wearing Telmarine clothes, and only rarely speaking to anyone other than Zardeenah.  She could feel her body growing and changing – which would have happened wherever she was, but seemed almost to be a malign enchantment in Telmar. For she knew that when she had grown close enough to a woman’s size and shape Yustus would judge her big enough to steal her body, and this made the process of growing up, which was already nasty enough, truly horrible.

Every month or so Josie would be brought before Yustus, who would appraise how much she had grown and say again how fine her white arms would be splendid for casting incantations. Sometimes he would come up and squeeze her arms when he said how fine and white they were, and once he had her brought before him naked – so he could look her over for blemishes, he said – but he did not do any of the most dreadful things that Josie had feared evil magicians might do to girls they captured, especially after she had heard Zardeenah’s stories.

Josie often felt that she would have gone mad if it were not for the garden.  She could not go down there often, and had to plan her excursions very carefully so as not to be caught. When she thought about it, she was quite certain that Zardeenah had a good idea of where she had gone, that first night when she returned unexpectedly; but Josie was very careful not to give her any extra cause for suspicion. Thinking about how she would next get out took up a good deal of Josie’s time; and when she was out, she savoured every moment of the outside air on her skin and the smell of the garden, and learned every branch of the bushes until she could navigate in the garden as easily as she could in her bedroom at home.  Sometimes she would sit underneath the statues and talk to them.

It was a summer evening and the crickets were loud, and Josie was stretched out on the grass beneath the statue that was rather like a lion.

‘It seems a terrible shame to bring me here just so I can be a prisoner and then be taken over by an evil magician. What is the point of it all? I wish I knew what was going on. Please, Aslan, if you can hear me, do something to get me out of here.’

These were the sorts of thoughts that had gone and on around in her head unceasingly all year. She prayed a little prayer. ‘Please, God, help me to get out of here.’ She tried to be calm, and breathe slowly, and told herself for the ten-thousandth time that while there was life there was hope. After a while she felt a kind of peace.

‘It will be all right in the end,’ she told herself. ‘It has to be.’

She gave the face of the great stone cat a familiar pat, and made her way back to the door at the base of the tower.

The next day Yustus told her she was ready.

“I think it will be enough if we merely escort the Perspicacity from our own ship,” Master Caaldor said, as they prepared to take off. “Our presence nearby should keep the refugees in check now that they anticipate their journey’s end.” The refugee ship was already hovering above the asteroid that had been its unplanned home for far longer than intended, while the crew performed last minute checks on the engines. “If there’s some problem we can cross over, of course, but things have settled down since the perpetrators of the murder were arrested.”

The documents Aronoke had recovered had contained evidence identifying the killers. The victim was a wealthy kubaz belonging to an opposing faction, one much smaller than that his killers belonged to. His death had not been a random unplanned act of violence or an accident, but an organised thing, and Master Caaldor had decisively and efficiently unearthed those responsible for ordering and carrying out the murder.

Aronoke was glad to not have to travel with the refugees. Although he felt sorry for them, especially for the children, the atmosphere of the larger vessel was oppressive. It was hard to remain uninfluenced by all the negativity and anger that had built between the ship’s crew and the more obstreperous passengers. He was glad too of the prospect of several days of relative peace and quiet. He would still have to tend to the prisoners of course.

Master Caaldor ordered Aronoke to let the pirates out when it came time to leave. There was no sign of the narakite pirate ship anywhere near the asteroid now – it was long gone.

“We are going to Trangoz system, where the refugee ship is headed,” Master Caaldor announced. “As it seems your captain has decided not to wait for you, you have a choice. You can choose to remain here, on the surface of the asteroid, on the off-chance that he chooses to return, as I agreed -”

“Frek that for breakfast,” said Rakskrak under his breath, but still quite audibly.

“- or you can ride with us to the station and get off there,” finished Master Caaldor.

“That’s hardly a choice,” muttered Tarth Lendriac, the old narakite. “Begging your pardon, your Jediness, but getting off on the asteroid is no longer a valid option.”

Master Caaldor shrugged. “You know your captain better than I do. He may yet come back in time.”

From the glances the three pirates exchanged they certainly didn’t think so. Aronoke didn’t either, but he knew Master Caaldor was merely taking a hard line with the pirates, letting them know that he wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense.

“Excuse me, Master Jedi,” said Tarric Gondroz, stepping forward. “I’m not a pirate! I haven’t made any agreement with you at all, although of course I’m very grateful that your Padawan stepped in when he did and took me over here. It’s all been quite comfortable, and I don’t want to complain, but do you intend the same offer to extend to me?”

“As far as I’m concerned, you chose to throw your lot in with these pirates,” said Master Caaldor mildly. “It seems poetic that you share their fate.”

“But the station will be crawling with refugees!” Tarric Gondroz protested. “My life won’t be worth a mynock’s fart if you leave me there!”

“Perhaps you should have thought of that before,” said Master Caaldor.

The pirates had been conferring. “We’ll take the ride to the station, Master Jedi, and thank you for your generosity,” said Tarth Lendriac. “You’d be entirely in your rights to leave us behind, according to the deal the captain made, but we’d rather come along with you.”

“Very well, then,” said Master Caaldor. “Aronoke, see our guests back to their cabins.”

“Shall I prepare the ship for take-off, Master?” asked PR-77.

“Yes, thank you, PR.”

The next few days passed slowly as the refugee ship limped through space, sound enough to ensure the safety of its passengers, but still too highly damaged to reach its full speed. The Jedi vessel matched the larger ship’s pace, and Aronoke spent most of his time concentrating on his training regimen of reading, lightsaber drone practice, and cooking. Master Caaldor had suggested that Aronoke attempt the latter using the minimal resources of the tiny onboard kitchen. Aronoke was not sure why, since Master Caaldor seldom ate anything besides Ration Bar B, one of the standard ration packs issued to Jedi field operatives. Whereas once Aronoke would have thought Ration Bar B to be the Food of the Gods, after having spent several years enjoying the wide variety of dishes available at the Jedi Temple refectory he found he preferred fresher fare and in greater variety.

In any case, Aronoke tried some of the simpler recipes in “Easy Recipes for the Shipboard Cook – Basic Meals using Easily Synthesised Components” which he had found on a datapad in the kitchen, and tested his concoctions on himself, Master Caaldor and the pirates. Judging from their reaction his cooking wasn’t terrible, but still held room for considerable improvement.

The Orproz Blotoz memorial station was a large radially symmetrical vessel with many outstretched arms, a great grey mechanical starfish hanging in space. Although it lay within the same system as the planet Trangoz, which was the refugees’ destination, it was isolated in deep space, far from any other body. Aronoke thought privately that he would not like to live on a tiny artificial world like a space station, confined to a mechanically maintained bubble of air and life. He reflected that he had been spoiled by the luxuries of the Jedi Temple; when he had lived on Kasthir, he would have thought the ugly space station something akin to paradise.

Master Caaldor waited until the refugee ship had docked, and then ordered PR to dock their own ship and had Aronoke assemble the prisoners.

“We are currently in the process of docking with Orproz Blotoz memorial station, in the Trangoz system,” he told the pirates. “This is the destination of the refugee ship we have been accompanying, and doubtlessly the station will have a very high refugee population, at least until they are dispersed to their new homeworld.”

“Excuse me, esteemed Jedi Master,” blurted Tarric Gondroz, bowing obsequiously. “But delivering me onto that station is no better than a death sentence. The refugees will see to it that we’re lynched before we’ve been there a day!”

“Perhaps you should have considered the implications of your actions earlier,” said Master Caaldor mildly.

“Yes! You said so before, and yes, I see that now,” wailed Tarric Gondroz miserably, “but I can’t take back what I have done! I would if I could, but the refugees are hardly going to take sorry for an answer. I already tried that multiple times, I assure you, and to no avail, which is why I was so eager to throw myself under your benevolent protection. Please, I beg of you, don’t leave me here! I’ll take my chances with Republic law enforcement any day!”

Master Caaldor shifted uncomfortably, and Aronoke thought that his master did not like having the prisoners on board his ship and had hoped to be rid of them as quickly as possible.

“Very well,” Master Caaldor said, throwing up his hands. “You may stay aboard for now.”

“Oh thank you, thank you!” Tarric Gondroz wheezed in relief.

Master Caaldor sighed and looked at the pirates. “Having extended this offer to one of you, I suppose it would be unegalitarian to not offer it to all of you.”

“Thanks, but we can look after ourselves,” said Tarth Lendriac. “I’m not afraid of a bunch of snouty refugees. We’ll be getting off here, thanks all the same.”

Rakskrak nodded emphatically.

“Actually, Master Jedi, I think I’ll take you up on that offer,” interjected Kthoth Neesh. “Seems to me, the space station isn’t a healthy place to be right now.”

“What!?” exclaimed Tarth Lendriac. “We aren’t going to stick together? You’re deserting us? The captain won’t like it, girl.”

“The captain can go frek a hyperbolean death weasel,” said Kthoth Neesh easily, with no hint of venom. “He left us for dead on that airless ball of dust. I don’t owe him anything and I figure this is a good chance to break off and start something new.”

She exchanged a glance with the kubaz, and Aronoke guessed that they had come to some sort of agreement during their shared incarceration.

Tarth Lendriac struggled for an argument, but then obviously gave it up as a bad deal. “Bah! Do what you like then. Just don’t expect the captain to welcome you back with open arms once the Sweeping Hawk latch onto your trail!”

Kthoth Neesh shrugged, unimpressed.

Tarth Lendriac made a dismissive gesture and stalked off towards the airlock, where PR was waiting to return the prisoners’ weapons and escort them off the ship.

Rakskrak looked from Lendriac to Kthoth Neesh hesitantly.

“I’m with him,” he said awkwardly. “No offense, Master Jedi, but I’d rather take my chances.”

“Be on your way then,” said Master Caaldor comfortably, gesturing towards the airlock.

Once the two male pirates were gone, Master Caaldor turned to face Kthoth Neesh and the kubaz.

“Since you’re staying on, I’m going to lay down the law,” he said. “You’re not prisoners any more – you can consider yourselves passengers. My padawan has more important things to do with his time than fetching your meals and escorting you about. If either of you demonstrate any inclination towards violence, towards recovering your weapons or taking over our ship, I’ll ensure that the rest of your journey is extremely uncomfortable and terminates in you being handed over to Republic Security on an inner-system world. Otherwise you will depart at the next stop we make where your personal safety is not in question. Is that completely clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Tarric Gondroz.

“Glassteel,” said Ktoth Neesh. “Thank you for your forbearance, Master Caaldor.”

Master Caaldor nodded curtly, and made his way towards his cabin.

“Aronoke, I wish to speak with you in my study,” he said, as he passed.

“Yes, Master.”

Master Caaldor sighed as he lowered himself into his chair as though he were feeling the weight of his years, and Aronoke was reminded that he was far older than his appearance suggested.

“I wish you to go aboard the station, Padawan,” he said. “Make sure that the Perspicacity has docked safely and that the refugees have been allowed to disembark and are being housed appropriately. We haven’t brought them this far for them to get caught up in some bureaucratic nonsense now.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.

“There’s no need to go at once. Give them time to disperse. If there’s anything that requires my attention, send me a message. And Aronoke -”

“Yes, Master?”

Master Caaldor stared at him thoughtfully.

“I trust you agree with the decision I made regarding the pirates?”

“Of course, Master.”

“I was hoping Ktoth Neesh would choose to stay with us a little longer,” said the older Jedi, bridging his fingers comfortably, “which is why I extended my offer to her and the others. I thought it likely she would accept after what you told her about your vision.”

Aronoke nodded.

“I am convinced there is something important about her,” Master Caaldor continued. “You wouldn’t have seen her otherwise. Those visions you had are all connected which is why the Force showed them you all at once, entwined. I believe it is important that we don’t ignore them, but at the same time following up on them means working at cross-purposes to the Jedi Council. I have been strictly instructed that my primary objective is to keep you safe while continuing your training, and yet, my own intuition tells me that you must follow the path that the Force has presented you, or our efforts will be in vain. Where is it that you want to go, Aronoke? What would you do, given the choice? Following your visions would almost certainly lead us into danger, and equally likely, the Jedi Council’s displeasure.”

Aronoke’s heart pounded more quickly in his chest.

“I want to rescue Master Altus and Hespenara, Master,” he said, immediately. “I know it sounds arrogant, to think I could do so when more experienced Jedi have failed, but I’ve always felt I could find them, if only I was allowed to.”

Master Caaldor nodded, as if this confirmed his personal opinion.

“Good. Keep probing Ktoth Neesh for more information and try to befriend her, but remember – she’s not necessarily your ally, nor do her purposes mesh with our own.”

“I know that, Master.  She keeps trying to seduce me, to convince me to join her pirate gang.”

“And is she succeeding?”

Aronoke blushed deeply. “Of course not, Master.”

“See that it continues to be so,” said Master Caaldor, candidly. “If you find yourself experiencing any difficulty or loss of direction, please come and speak with me.”

“Yes, Master.”


Late the next day, Aronoke was returning to the ship, satisfied that the refugees were in good hands. The kubaz on the station had seen many shiploads of passengers pass through already, on their way to a new settlement on Trangoz, and the process for handling their arrival was well established. Although the refugees from the Perspicacity would have to wait several weeks until transport was available to their new home, their quarters on the station were spacious and all their needs had been catered for. Aronoke had been pleased to see that the ugly mood between the various factions appeared to have dissipated as he had predicted.

“Master Jedi! Wait!”

The voice rang out from down the passage and was followed by the clatter of small feet. Aronoke turned to see three kubaz younglings running after him down the passageway, dressed in crude approximations of Jedi robes. He immediately recognised them as children from the Perspicacity.

“What are you three doing here?” asked Aronoke as the kubaz younglings hurried up.

The older two, a boy and a girl, hesitated shyly and pushed forward the youngest, a stout girl of about five or six, who looked up at Aronoke with big imploring eyes.

“We waz to go wiz you!” she said. Obviously she had learned the basic phrase by rote just for this occasion, but even so, Aronoke was not immune to its impact.

“We’ve been training hard,” added the older girl, hastily. Her basic was stilted, but clear. “We can show you what we’ve learned. We want to be Jedi too!”

Aronoke smiled.

“I’m sure you have,” he said gently, “but not everyone can be Jedi, no matter how hard they train. It’s just something you are or you aren’t.”

“Even if we can’t be Jedi, we could still be useful,” blurted the oldest boy. “We could be your servants. We could help you aboard your ship, even if it’s boring jobs.”

“I’m sorry,” said Aronoke, “but it isn’t my ship. I’m only an apprentice, and I have to do what my master tells me. I can’t bring you along, even if I would like to.”

All three hung their heads sadly and the youngest began to snuffle a little.

“Just because you’re not coming with me, doesn’t me you can’t continue your training,” said Aronoke. “All the things you learn will still stand you in good stead one day, if you keep on trying.”

“How do you know?” asked the older girl sullenly. “You got to be a Jedi. You were never stuck having to be a boring old settler.”

“No,” said Aronoke, smiling. “When I was your age, I wasn’t a settler. I was a skimmer. I would have done anything in the whole galaxy to be a settler like you.”




“Everything in order?” asked Master Caaldor when Aronoke returned.

“The refugees are in good hands,” said Aronoke. “Seems that everything is progressing well and most of the trouble has evaporated now there’s more room and better facilities.”

“Excellent,” said Master Caaldor. “There’s nothing to delay us here any further. I believe our next stop should be -”

Just then the buzzer from the ship’s airlock sounded several times, loudly and insistently, as if someone was hammering on it repeatedly and hard.

“Goodness gracious me,” came PR’s tinny voice from out in the hallway, as he tottered towards the airlock. As Aronoke arrived to see what was going on, the droid activated the intercom. “Yes? Who is it?”

“It’s me, Rakskrak!” came a desperate out-of-breath voice. “Please, Master Jedi, let me in! I’ve changed my mind!”

“Should we let him in?” Aronoke asked Master Caaldor, who had followed him out into the corridor. “Obviously he’s run into some sort of trouble.”

“Hrm,” said Master Caaldor critically. “I suppose we can hear him out. Why don’t you deal with this matter, Padawan, and let me know your decision.”

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke took a deep breath and straightened his robes as Master Caaldor disappeared back inside his study. “Open the airlock, PR, and let him in.”

“Yes, Master Aronoke,” said the droid. It activated the airlock controls and Rakskrak fell through the hatchway and stumbled to the floor.

“Thank you,” the young pirate said, trying to catch his breath on his hands and knees.

“What’s going on?” asked Kthoth Neesh, coming up behind Aronoke. She had obviously been sleeping and seemed to be wearing little besides a loose robe tied about herself. “Rakskrak! What are you doing back here?”

“It’s terrible, Kthoth Neesh,” said Rakskrak, picking himself up. “Tarth Lendriac – he’s dead!”

“Dead?” asked Aronoke. “What happened?”

“The kubaz – that’s what happened. They nearly caught us both, only I managed to get away, but they got hold of Tarth and flushed him out an airlock!”

Kthoth Neesh flinched. She gave Aronoke a considering look.

“Please, Master Jedi, don’t make me go back out there! I don’t want to die! I’ll do what you say, anything!” Rakskrak was in a blind panic, clutching at Aronoke’s robes, tears and snot streaming down his face.

“Pull yourself together, Rakskrak,” said Ktoth Neesh, kneeling to disentangle the narakite boy’s hands from Aronoke’s garments. “I’m sure Padawan Aronoke will put in a good word with his boss to let you stay and he certainly doesn’t want you blubbering all over him.” She looked up at Aronoke inquiringly.

Aronoke was still feeling stunned. If he hadn’t told Kthoth Neesh about his vision, would she have been flushed out the airlock instead? Had her unpleasant death been averted, only to fall upon another? Was that how these visions worked, or would Tarth Lendriac have died, regardless?

“Master Aronoke, what course of action do you suggest?” prompted PR-77.

“You did make your choice,” said Aronoke to Rakskrak sternly. “You chose to throw in your lot with Lendriac, and you were well aware of the risks. If you hadn’t victimised the refugees in the first place, doubtlessly he would still be alive and you wouldn’t be in this position.”

“I know,” said Rakskrak piteously. “I know, but it’s our way. I’ve never known any other.”

“You always have a choice,” said Aronoke mildly. “Perhaps you should reconsider your career. Even if you survive this incident today, there’s no guarantee that you will next time.”

“You mean you’re going to let me stay?” asked Rakskrak, looking confused.

“You may stay, on the same terms as the others,” said Aronoke. A flood of relief washed over the young pirate’s face.

“You won’t regret it, Master Aronoke,” said Rakskrak. “I swear on Bizruth’s black nebula you won’t!”

“He’s Padawan Aronoke,” Kthoth Neesh corrected. “The master is the other one.”

“I’m sure Kthoth Neesh can fill you in on the rules,” said Aronoke, and the female narakite nodded, taking Rakskrak by the elbow and guiding him off towards the room he had occupied so recently.

“You let him stay?” asked Master Caaldor, when Aronoke arrived to report.

“His life was at risk,” said Aronoke. “I could hardly deny him refuge. The other one was flushed out an airlock, probably by the refugees.”

Master Caaldor sighed. “And so our actions come back to us,” he said mildly. “Well, I’ve had enough of the Perspicacity and its occupants to last several decades. Time we were on our way, Padawan. Tell PR to set course for Regado in Primtara sector. It’s a highly technological world where practically everything is for sale. We should be able to find out more about this White Krayt there.”

“Cancel that,” said Kthoth Neesh, suddenly appearing in the open doorway. “I don’t mean to intrude, Master Caaldor, but I couldn’t help overhearing. I know a thing or two about the White Krayt, and the place you’re looking for is Zamora station. The White Krayt’s main offices are there. Chances are you might find out more about your lost frozen Jedi if you know exactly where to go and what to say.”

“You’re volunteering for the job?” asked Master Caaldor.

“Guess I owe your padawan and all,” admitted Kthoth Neesh, a little grudgingly. “If it weren’t for him, I reckon it’d be me eating vacuum instead of the old man. He wasn’t a bad sort, Lendriac, and I wish it had happened to someone else, but I’m still glad it was him instead of me.”

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor. “Zamora station it is.”


They did not travel directly to Zamora; Master Caaldor stopped off in Regado sector after all, to send a message back to Coruscant.  He had been eager to avoid talking to the Jedi Council directly, and so the message had been a recording, a unidirectional missive, the contents of which Aronoke had not been privy to.  He had taken the opportunity to send his own message to Draken like he had promised.  It was odd to think of Draken still back in the Jedi Temple, his situation unchanged. Aronoke’s own life was so different now, and full of such interesting things that it was hard to believe he had ever wanted to stay in the Jedi Temple.

Rakskrak chose to leave the ship during their stopover in Regado.  He had tried to convince Kthoth Neesh to join him – begged her even – but she had airily denied him.

“I’ve got a deal going here,” Aronoke heard her tell the younger pirate firmly.  “You go ahead, and try and make something for yourself.  Regado’s no tough crowd like on that kubaz station. You’ll fit right in, and we’ll probably meet up later.”

“Don’t you want to go too?” Aronoke prompted Tarric Gondroz, when the kubaz showed no sign of leaving.

“No, no,” said Tarric Gondroz hurriedly.  “We’ve got a business deal arranged for later, Ktoth Neesh and I.  I’ll stick with her, unless you’ve got other ideas of course.  I won’t be any trouble, I promise!  I’ll be useful, even.”

“Hm, we’ll see,” said Aronoke noncommitally, but since Master Caaldor said nothing about enforcing the kubaz’s departure, he had stayed on board.


Zamora station was an elongated ovoid of metal hanging in space, more organic and multi-globular in appearance than Oproz Blotoz station had been.  It was busier too, thronged about by a flotilla of large vessels, while a steady stream of small space skiffs taxied in between. Large holoadvertisements hung about the designated space lanes, advertising casinos, ship modification services and cargo storage facilities.

“We have to proceed with caution.  It’s not the sort of place where the Jedi Order holds any jurisdiction,” warned Master Caaldor.  “Our presence will still carry some weight, of course, by means of the rule that might makes right.  No one wants the Jedi Order breathing down their necks, which is certainly what would happen if we disappeared here.  I expect we can come to some sort of arrangement with a business-being as astute as the White Krayt.”

“Is this whole station owned by him?” asked Aronoke.

“From what Ktoth Neesh tells me, he maintains a controlling influence.  It is run as a trade centre, masking a black market operation, dealing, no doubt, in goods equally as dark and dangerous as a Jedi frozen in carbonite.”

Aronoke nodded.  It was the equivalent of a compound back on Kasthir then; a place run to the convenience of a few at the expense of many, but nevertheless, a place of protection that its underworld inhabitants could call home.

It was a good deal grander than any establishment on Kasthir, Aronoke thought a short time later, as he strode along the glossy glassteel hallway of the station’s main promenade at Master Caaldor’s elbow.  The walkway was busy, thronged by a diverse collection of aliens, merchants, customers and dancers.  Exotic pets were common, and many shoulders sported colourful multi-headed avians, tentacular arboreal hexapods, or tiny wide-eyed long-haired lemurkin.  Kthoth Neesh walked a short distance ahead of the Jedi, sliding deftly through the crowd, her attitude nonchalant, her slouch almost too casual to be believable.

Despite the glitter, Zamora Station still reminded Aronoke strongly of Kasthir.  It was not so much the architecture, which was expensive and technological compared to Kasthir’s worn squalor.  It was the people –  the way they walked, the way they held themselves.  There were races here that Aronoke would never have seen back on his homeworld, but regardless of species, both locals and visitors were aware of everything that happened around them. The casual ease with which they wore their weapons told Aronoke that this was a dangerous place for the uninitiated.  He and Master Caaldor were a novelty here, it was obvious, and they stood out just as thoroughly as Master Altus and Hespenara had on Kasthir.  They drew curious glances from most of the passers-by, while Kthoth Neesh went virtually unnoticed.

About half way along the main drag Aronoke noticed an impressive establishment, obviously the sleek and well appointed headquarters of a wealthy trading company.  The name was written in flamboyant golden hololetters in the convoluted script of the kubaz language, but repeated below in Huttese and Basic: White Krayt Enterprises.

Aronoke fully expected that this was their destination, so much so that he slowed his pace as Ktoth Neesh led them past the front door.  He glanced uncertainly at Master Caaldor, but the older Jedi was looking distractedly across the corridor at a display room modelling interior ship fittings.  He opened his mouth to say something aloud, but Ktoth Neesh shot a cool glance at him over her shoulder and gestured minutely with her head further along the main corridor.

They strode further along the promenade, following Ktoth Neesh, who shortly turned into a narrower although equally well presented corridor, and then into another completely utilitarian one.  A short distance along this, the pirate girl paused outside an unmarked door with no ostentatious markings or gaudy sign.

“That back there was the front door,” she said softly. “A distraction for those who don’t know the facts. This is where the real business happens. Now hang back, and let me do the talking, or we won’t get to speak to anyone who knows anything, let alone the White Krayt.”

Master Caaldor made an acquiescent gesture towards the door, and Ktoth Neesh traced several symbols, one atop another, in quick succesion on a touch-pad on the wall beside it.  After a moment there was a muted noise and the door slid back abruptly.

Beyond, Aronoke found himself looking along a short unremarkable corridor with another door at the other end, something that looked like it led to a maintenance room. Was this really a place of business?  It felt more like walking into an ambush. Master Caaldor was calm and unhesitant, however, following Ktoth Neesh inside and Aronoke trusted his lead. The door slid shut behind them, closing with a conclusive ringing clang.  Aronoke still felt uneasy, trapped inside this unknown place, but Master Caaldor showed no sign of concern, and he reminded himself that even if it was a trap, few restraints could hold Jedi for long.

The second door slid open as they approached, emitting a gust of cooler, more sophisticatedly filtered air, and revealing a plain but expensive chamber more expansive than Aronoke had expected.  The floor was dark extruded stone with shiny glistening darkest-green specks in it, the walls sleekly curved metal decorated with holosculpture.

Ktoth Neesh strode decisively up to a desk, where a yellow-green professionally dressed twi’lek woman sat behind a terminal.  Aronoke could see the glitter of a decoration on the twi’lek’s temple, just below the base of one of her head-tails, and guessed that it was a cybernetic implant of some kind. Off to one side of the reception desk was a dark glass door, leading to an alcove.  Aronoke could see large shapes moving subtly there; beaters, no doubt, he thought to himself.  Obviously, whoever it was they were going to see was somewhere behind there.

Master Caaldor drifted into the room, to all extensive purposes admiring an abstract holosculpture in subtly shifting dark red and burnt orange.  Aronoke glanced about, and noticing a long, low bench of white marbled stone, went and sat on it.  It was something of a surprise when the hard, cold surface he had been expecting yielded comfortably beneath him, adjusting simultaneously to his body temperature.

Ktoth Neesh spoke avidly to the twi’lek receptionist, gesturing towards the Jedi with a sweeping gesture of one arm. Aronoke could hear the rise and fall of their voices, but could not make out exactly what they were saying.  It took him a moment to remember to drop his shielding and reach out with his Senses to extend his natural hearing.

“…I figure that this could be turned into a useful opportunity,” Ktoth Neesh was saying, “if it’s handled the right way.  They were going to find their way to you, with or without my help – thanks to Jedi mind tricks and Tarth Lendriac’s loose lips – so I figured it might be best for your people and my people if they arrived under my guidance, relaxed and willing to make a deal, instead of all wary and looking for trouble.”

The receptionist put her head on one side, and frowned.

“Well, as relaxed as Jedi get, anyway,” Ktoth Neesh continued drolly.  “I think the lightsaber blades come up so regularly mostly ‘cause nothing else gets to.”

Aronoke tried hard not to blush as the two women laughed.

“One moment, please,” said the receptionist.  She stared vacantly into space for a few moments, and Aronoke guessed she was communicating over a cybernetic interface.

“Master Jedi,” she called, more loudly.  “Please, step this way.  The White Krayt will see you now.”


The internal office was large and comfortable, more like a recreational lounge than a workplace, and large display screens on the windows showed vistas of space around them, a myriad of twinkling stars, bright lights and busy ships.  Its occupant was a kubaz, unremarkable in appearance to Aronoke, except for its subtle but numerous cybernetic implants.  It was dressed in dark, flowing clothes, simple but expensive, and Aronoke could not tell what gender it was, despite his practice dealing with kubaz on the Perspicacity.

“Please, Master Jedi, have a seat,” the kubaz said in smooth, almost unaccented Basic, gesturing towards comfortable chairs arrayed near the viewscreens.  “Some refreshments?”  It gestured, and a small wheeled droid appeared with a tray of drinks and sweetmeats.

“No, thank you,” said Master Caaldor crisply, waving the droid away.  “I would prefer to get straight to business.”

“As you wish,” said the kubaz.

“You are the White Krayt?” asked Master Caaldor sceptically.

“I am the Voice and the Ears of the White Krayt,” said the kubaz smoothly, “and authorised to serve as his direct agent. He is a busy entrepreneur with many interests and can not always be physically here to deal with every matter that unexpectedly arises, but you may be assured, Master Jedi, that you have his attention.”

“Hm,” said Master Caaldor.  Aronoke could see he didn’t like the prevarication, but it was obvious that they had little choice.

“I am here in regard to a cargo which I know passed through your organisation’s possession some time ago,” Master Caaldor said.  “A female mirialan Jedi preserved in carbonite.”

“White Krayt Enterprises would never intentionally do anything to incur the displeasure of the Jedi Order,” said the Voice.  It would have continued further, but Master Caaldor held up one hand, and it paused expectantly.

“There is no point denying it,” said Master Caaldor, “I have firm evidence, verified to my complete satisfaction by a Jedi Seer.  The mirialan Jedi was certainly in the White Krayt’s possession and was later sold at auction in this sector.”

“There are an extensive number of subsidiary organisations that deal and trade with us,” the Voice said.  “It is possible that one of these handled this cargo without our knowledge.”

“I don’t care who handled it,” Master Caaldor said, his tone hard and uncompromising.  “I’m certain the White Krayt is an astute enough business-being to be perfectly well informed concerning the actions of the web of miscreants and troublemakers who work for him, directly or indirectly. What does concern me is the retrieval of the miralan Jedi.  I wish to know where she might be found.  Should this information be readily forthcoming and the Jedi be recovered, I see no need for further investigation or reprisal.”

“I assure you, White Krayt Enterprises was not involved in any aspect of the transacation you describe,” said the Voice, unintimidated.  “However, I believe we may be able to provide the information you seek.  As you have mentioned, very little of the business that occurs in Primtara sector goes unnoticed by our operatives.”

“The Jedi’s current location is all I require,” said Master Caaldor.

“Of course, this information can only be provided at considerable cost to White Krayt Enterprises,” the Voice continued, its tone almost oily. “While the White Krayt himself would be more than happy to provide this information gratis, a disclosure of this nature will have sizable repercussions that will be of detriment to our profit margins.”

“I have no interest in your business dealings,” said Master Caaldor.

“And yet, this is a place of business,” replied the voice.  “Generally we restrict our trade to resources and commodities, but in this case the White Krayt would be willing to consider an exchange of services. We provide you with the information, in exchange for a favour. The handling of a small matter, doubtlessly of little inconvenience to one such as yourself, Master Jedi, would go a long way towards balancing the spreadsheet.”

“I will not tarnish myself or my padawan in any activity of a dubious nature,” said Master Caaldor flatly.

“Of course not, Master Jedi. I would never suggest such a thing,” said the Voice.  “But surely you would not be averse to capturing an agent who was instrumental in delivering your Jedi compatriot into the hands of the one who now holds her.”  The Voice looked at Master Caaldor expectantly, but he said nothing, merely waiting for it to continue.

“That one not only dealt the Jedi Order a terrible insult, but also stole valuable data from one of our closest and best beloved trading partners,” said the Voice. “We would consider the retrieval of this person to be adequate compensation in exchange for the information we provide you. Since he is currently in the same location as the Jedi you seek, you would hardly be inconvenienced at all.”

Aronoke could see that Master Caaldor did not like coming to such an arrangement with the Voice.  Although mind tricks might persuade the Voice to be agreeable, it was obvious that the kubaz in front of them was merely a go-between, incognisant of the actual information they sought.  They could go no further without making a deal.

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor, doubtlessly having come to the same conclusion.  “We will retrieve this operative and return them to you, providing they are still at the location you provide.”

“That will be satisfactory,” said the Voice.  “We are well aware of the reputation of the Jedi Order, and have every confidence that you will honour your obligations.  The mirialan Jedi girl is in the possession of the Kalarka family on Quebwoz Prime, the only inhabited planet in the independent and rarely visited Quebwoz system in the Outer Rim.  There you will also find Bolar Dak, the agent previously mentioned.  He is a bounty hunter of notorious reputation, known to stoop to such crimes as kidnapping and extortion.  The coordinates are on this data stick.”

“Sounds like a charming fellow,” said Master Caaldor flatly, leaning forward to accept the data stick the Voice passed to him.  “Well, it seems we have a deal.  You can expect delivery of this Bolar Dak upon the successful conclusion of our expedition, should he still be on Quebwoz Prime when we arrive.”  He stood to leave, and Aronoke hastily followed suit.  Ktoth Neesh, who had remained standing quietly by the door, smiled at them sunnily.

“May your efforts be rewarded profitably,” said the Voice, as they were shown outside.

“See, no hassles,” the pirate girl said as they made their way back through the station proper.  “A quick trip to Quebwoz Prime, and you’ll have your mirialan corpsicle alive and kicking again.  My debt will be all repaid, and we’re all happy.”

“I somehow doubt it will be quite so straightforward,” said Aronoke.

Ktoth Neesh shrugged.  “You’re Jedi.   You can always work your amazing mystical hoo-ha on them, like you did on us.  I doubt these Queb people could be much tougher.”

“That remains to be seen,” said Master Caaldor, “although it is true that those who possess Hespenara are not the ones who captured her and Master Altus. However, they must anticipate that the Jedi Order might seek to retrieve her, and that suggests a certain degree of blatant confidence of their part.  Let us hope it is misplaced.”

Aronoke said nothing, but a joyful feeling of anticipation rose in him at the thought that he was finally embarking on the mission that he had wished to pursue for so long; a mission that he had never expected Master Caaldor to support him in.  Surely if they managed to retrieve Hespenara, she would have new information on Master Altus’s whereabouts, and the green man could be released from the prison Aronoke had envisioned him in.

“You’re happy,” noted Ktoth Neesh when she and Aronoke crossed paths in the tiny ship’s galley, after the ship was underway.  “You look different when you’re really happy. Kind of glowy. Getting this Jedi girl back is really important to you, isn’t it?”

Her tone suggested that there was something more between Hespenara and Aronoke than mere friendship, and as she spoke, she moved far too close for comfort, looking innocently up into his face, so close that he imagined he could feel the warmth radiating off her body.

Aronoke drew back a little, but the food synthesizer was behind him and he bumped into it.

“It’s not like that,” he protested.  “Hespenara and Master Altus are the ones who found me, back on Kasthir.  The ones who took me to Coruscant and had me trained as a Jedi.  If it weren’t for them, I’d probably still be back there.”

“It wasn’t a nice place, huh?”

Aronoke shook his head. “Everything that lives naturally on Kasthir is poisonous.  There’s nothing there but dust storms and a few minerals rich enough to attract the more desperate miners.  No one would want to live there, if they could choose anywhere else.  I worked as a skimmer.”

“A skimmer!” exclaimed Ktoth Neesh, looking genuinely surprised.  She was obviously familiar with the term.

“I worked for a duster, hitting up miners for a percentage of their take,” said Aronoke. “The Jedi came there looking for something and I tried to stop them.  Let’s just say that didn’t go as planned.”

Ktoth Neesh had sidled forward while Aronoke spoke and now she reached out a hand to trace an undulating path down his chest.  He froze, unsure whether to rebuff her over-intimacy or to try to ignore it entirely.  There was a part of him that didn’t want to do either; part that wanted her to continue.  His awareness of his body had increased exponentially, the tiny details of his anatomy snapping so intensely in focus that the galley and Ktoth Neesh’s voice seemed to come from far away.

“And here I thought you were such a straight-liner,” Ktoth Neesh was saying softly.  “A good little Jedi who never put a foot wrong, and here you are, far more like me underneath those fancy robes and platitudes than anyone would ever guess.”  Her hand had reached Aronoke’s navel.

“No,” he said, swallowing hard.  “It’s not true.  I’m a Jedi now.  I put that behind me.”

“Tell me,” she said, as her hand drifted ever so slowly lower, “did Ashquash and you ever do anything like this, back when you were room-mates?”

Aronoke felt heat flood his cheeks and he slapped her hand abruptly away.

“No!” he said vehemently, pushing roughly past her and away down the hall.

“Oh, of course not,” said Kthoth Neesh to his retreating back, and she whistled cheerfully to herself as she began to program the food synthesizer.


Aronoke was woken by the chime at his door. “Master Aronoke,” the ship’s droid’s tinny voice said over the intercom. “Master Caaldor wishes to speak with you on the communicator.”

“Okay, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to blink himself awake.

It was all very well for practiced Jedi Masters like Master Caaldor to get along without any sleep, but Aronoke still found it difficult. It was hard to wake up quickly after only six hours. He had been awake for more than twenty-four hours previously. It was no use complaining – Master Caaldor would only say he had to work harder on his control techniques.

He rubbed his face, stripped off his sleeping robe and quickly dressed, yawning hugely.

“Are you ready to take a shift here now, Aronoke?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke nodded. “Yes, Master,” he said. “I should probably see to the pirates first, though.”

“Do that and then come across,” said Master Caaldor. “I’ll see you on the bridge.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke again.

He dealt with the two male pirates first, checking the older one’s arm, which seemed to be healing well. He showed them into the facilities at the end of the hall near their cells, and then provided them with food and drink. Next he took the kubaz out and did the same with him.

“I must express again how grateful I am that you rescued me,” said the kubaz. “Those others would have killed me for sure! My life was worth nothing back there.”

“Perhaps you should have been more careful how you dealt with the pirates,” pointed out Aronoke. “I don’t know what sort of deal you made, but obviously the other refugees consider you to be a traitor.”

The kubaz fidgeted anxiously. “That wasn’t my intention,” he said, his voice whining nasally. “I didn’t want anyone to be hurt. The pirates were frightening! They threatened us! Someone had to say something.”

“Your fear betrayed you and through it you betrayed your friends,” said Aronoke patiently. “Sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to act out of fear.”

Hearing his own voice he couldn’t help but smirk internally at himself. Spouting platitudes. Making moral judgements. So much had changed in the way he thought about things. Yet even when he had been a skimmer working for Careful Kras, Aronoke had known that it was better to stick by his own people than to betray them to one of the opposing compounds. No matter what the blandishment, what the temptation, no one ever trusted a turncoat, no matter what side he ended up on.

Although wasn’t that what Aronoke himself had done, when he made that deal with Master Altus? Turned traitor to the Fumers?

Life was complicated. That moment on the sand when Master Altus could have killed Aronoke had been crucial. That was when everything had changed.

“I hope you Jedi will consider taking me with you when you leave this place,” said the kubaz. “If you hand me back over to those refugees you might as well have left me there in the first place. Not that I’m not grateful, mind you.”

Aronoke shrugged. “It’s not up to me, it’s up to Master Caaldor.”

“You might tell him that I’ve been very well behaved,” suggested the kubaz, as Aronoke opened the cell door to put him back inside. “Tell him I deserve another chance. My name is Tarric Gondroz, by the way.”

“I will be sure to tell him exactly how you’ve behaved, Tarric Gondroz,” said Aronoke, propelling him gently through the door.

“Your turn,” he said to the pirate who looked like Ashquash.

He took her to the facilities first. When she was finished there, he said “I would like to talk to you for a minute.”

“Me?” said the pirate, scowling. “What about?”

Aronoke silently gestured she should walk in front of him. He took her to the common room of the ship, where there was more room and it was more comfortable to talk. The pirate glowered at him suspiciously and stood staring at him with open resentment.

“What do you want with me?” she demanded.

“Just to talk, nothing more,” said Aronoke. “Firstly, what’s your name?”

“Kthoth Neesh,” said the pirate sullenly. “And I know you’re Padawan Aronoke and a Jedi and all that.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Aronoke. “Do you know someone called Ashquash?”

The pirate girl forgot to glower at him for a moment, her mouth dropping open slightly, her eyes widening. She recovered quickly, but Aronoke had been watching for her reaction. He could see that the name meant something to her.

“I don’t think so,” said Kthoth Neesh stubbornly.

Aronoke smiled. “I can see that you do,” he said. “I thought you might be some relation of hers. She looks a lot like you.”

Kthoth Neesh was surprised enough to forget to glower. “She’s my sister,” she said guardedly. “She was taken away by the Sweeping Hawk when she was very small, only two or three years old.”

“The Sweeping Hawk?”

“Another clan of my people. Our enemies.”

“You make slaves of each other?”

Kthoth Neesh nodded. “It’s our way. Our life is harsh, but it makes us strong. How do you know Ashquash?” she asked, curiosity tinging her voice.

It was Aronoke’s turn to hesitate, but there was no harm, he thought, in telling Kthoth Neesh what he knew.

“She was my room-mate at the Jedi Temple. She was being trained, like me, to become a Jedi.”

“A Jedi? Ashquash?” Kthoth Neesh’s mouth dropped open again. It was a long moment before she closed it properly. “I didn’t know my people could become Jedis.”

“It’s true that there aren’t many,” said Aronoke. “Just like there aren’t many of my people. Ashquash was rescued from the slavers by a Jedi master and he recognised that she was Force-sensitive, so he brought her to the temple to be trained. It hasn’t been easy for her though. While she was a slave she was addicted to riksht, and it was difficult for her to be weaned off it.”

Kthoth Neesh was nodding. “It’s the only way we can be made slaves,” she said proudly. “Our people are strong willed and do not submit easily. Is that why you chose me as a hostage? Because you thought I looked like Ashquash?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “Partly. I recognised you,” he said awkwardly, “not only because you looked like Ashquash, because frankly, you narakites all look alike to me, but because I had seen you before.”

“Seen me before?” Kthoth Neesh frowned.

“In a vision,” admitted Aronoke, feeling very pretentious.

“You have visions? You are a seer?” asked Kthoth Neesh doubtfully.

“I’m not fully trained. I’m only an apprentice,” said Aronoke. “I had a series of visions during one of my tests and you were in one of them. I recognised you immediately when I saw you in the hallway when you were trying to ambush us.”

“Bah, you took us far too easily,” said Kthoth Neesh, scowling and rubbing her arms. “All by yourself. Jedi have so much power, and you do so little with it.”

“We do plenty with it,” countered Aronoke. “We defeated you and rescued those refugees, for one thing.”

“Yes, you have a point. But in this vision, what was I doing?”

Aronoke felt uncomfortable. Telling someone you had foreseen their death was an awkward thing.

“It’s not good, I can see,” Kthoth Neesh remarked lightly.

“You were being pushed out an airlock,” said Aronoke.

Kthoth Neesh was silent and thoughtful for a moment. She didn’t question Aronoke’s vision. Seemed willing to believe it well enough. “Not good at all then,” she said, pulling a face. “It could happen, of course. The sorts of things my people do, it could happen all too easily. Can I avoid it, this fate, or is it a fixed destiny?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Aronoke. “I’m not trained as a seer. But I would think it could be avoided, otherwise why would the Force show me something like that?”

“I thank you for the warning,” said Kthoth Neesh. “It is very strange to think of Ashquash as a Jedi,” she said, shaking her head from side to side. “Is she doing well?”

“She has had a hard time of it,” said Aronoke. “She has some problems in the Jedi temple that have been difficult for her to deal with, but she is very determined. I hope she will succeed.”

“She was so small when she left,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Hardly more than a baby. She probably doesn’t remember anything of what it was to be one of us.”

Master Caaldor was waiting for him on the refugee ship, Aronoke reminded himself.

“I had better go now,” said Aronoke. “There are things I am supposed to do.”

He escorted the pirate back to her cell and locked her in, thinking that although he had confirmed Kthoth Neesh and Ashquash’s relationship, he had learned little.

Why had the vision of the pirate girl been tangled up with all those other things? With Master Altus and Hespenara, and that strange underground place on Kasthir?

As Aronoke pulled on his suit and PR checked that he had done all the connections up properly – he had only used the suit for the first time when he and Master Caaldor had taken over the pirate ship the day before – he tried to piece together what it might mean.

If they were all isolated events, why had he seen them all together like that, mingled through each other at the same instant, and yet each distinct?

He wished he had more training as a seer. It was all very well for Jedi Masters to go about cautioning initiates against using powers, but sometimes things happened without you intending them to. No one had ever explained anything about what he should be doing with his senses, other than restraining them.

No, that was not quite true. Master Squegwash had encouraged Aronoke to use his senses during his lightsaber training, and Master Caaldor had called upon Aronoke to use them several times, to sense things that Master Caaldor himself could not sense accurately. The trials, too, had required that Aronoke use his senses to complete them.

Obviously the use of Force powers, other than control, was something Initiates learned more about during the later years of their training. The years that Aronoke had missed out on.

On the refugee ship, repairs were proceeding very slowly.

“The mood amongst the refugees is unsettled,” said Master Caaldor. “They feel considerable resentment towards the ship’s crew. You should make your presence known, Padawan. If there are any disturbances, you may have to use an ostentatious display of power to maintain order, like you did yesterday when you were escorting the prisoners.”

Oh, so Master Caaldor had heard about that?

Aronoke nodded. “I spoke to the pirate I saw in my vision, Master,” he said.

“Oh? And did she have anything interesting to say?”

“It seems she is Ashquash’s sister,” said Aronoke. He had already discussed Ashquash with Master Caaldor earlier; how she had been his room-mate and had borne the brunt of a number of insidious attacks, presumably because of her friendship with Aronoke.

“That is a strange coincidence,” said Master Caaldor, “and yet, I am inclined to think it is no coincidence at all. The Force works upon us in peculiar ways. You would not have seen her, and we probably would not have encountered her if she did not have some connection to the other visions you had at the same time.”

“I can’t see a connection,” said Aronoke. “Perhaps I will learn more if I speak to her again.”

“For now, stay here and keep order,” instructed Master Caaldor. “You can contact me on the communicator if anything arises that you can not handle yourself.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.

More of the ship’s crew were on duty on the hulking refugee vessel, Aronoke was pleased to note, and more of the systems were operational, although it would still be many days, he was informed, before the ship was ready to depart the giant asteroid where it had landed to attempt to make repairs.

Aronoke spent most of the day touring about the refugee ship, making his presence felt. Most of the refugees seemed grateful to be rescued, but some of them were despondent and fractious. They had fled from their home planet, driven out by a terrible civil war, and they came from many different factions and social situations. While some had managed to retreat with their resources partly intact, many had only managed to escape with their lives. There was considerable resentment between some of the different factions. This was, Aronoke gathered, a ship that had left late in the war, when there had been little choice left about leaving. Those who were cautious, who had the wherewithal, and who had planned ahead had left on earlier vessels.

These people were desperate and unhappy, having not wanted to leave their world at all.

Still, they were lucky to be alive, Aronoke thought. Lucky to not be taken as slaves. He thought they would feel a lot better once they reached their destination and could leave the overcrowded, smelly transport ship behind. Once there was room to spread out, the different factions would not be pressed up against each other. There would be less friction than there was now.

Of course, until the ship was repaired, the order of the day was keeping the refugees from each other’s throats, and also under the control of the ship’s crew. Many of the refugees felt the latter had handled the incident with the pirates very badly.

It was not all doom and gloom though.

“This kubaz wants to know how you became a Jedi,” said the crewman assigned to be Aronoke’s interpreter.

“Not everyone can become a Jedi,” said Aronoke. “Only those who are Force-sensitive are selected to be trained. Usually those people suspected of being Force-sensitive are brought to a Jedi temple for testing, and if they pass the requirements, then they are trained. Usually this happens when they are very young.”

The crewman relayed this information.

“He says there are some children on the ship they think might be Force-sensitive,” interpreted the crewman.

Aronoke stifled a smile. He thought these people were impressed by their rescue and quick to see an opportunity for their children.

“He wants to know,” the crewman continued, “if you will bring these children to the Jedi temple to be tested.”

“We can’t do that,” said Aronoke. “Master Caaldor is in the middle of other Jedi business, and won’t be returning to the temple any time soon.”

“Can’t you tell yourself if these children are Force-sensitive?” the crewman asked next.

Aronoke hesitated. It would be wrong to give the refugees any false hope. “I might be able to tell,” he admitted at last. “But I am not an expert. I am only an apprentice, not a Jedi Master. I can give you my opinion, but even if someone is Force-sensitive, I can’t promise to take anyone to the Jedi Temple to be tested.”

“But you could tell the Jedi about them?”

“Yes, I expect so,” said Aronoke. “If Master Caaldor agrees with my opinion.”

“He says he will gather the children together,” said the crewman, “if you will agree to test them later.”

“Very well,” said Aronoke, thinking that such an event might make a welcome distraction for the refugees, if nothing more.

The kubaz passenger went off smiling.

There were no serious outbreaks of discontent amongst the passengers during Aronoke’s watch. Nevertheless, he was very tired by the time Master Caaldor returned to take over. There were still the pirates to see to when Aronoke got back to the ship.

“You know, Aronoke,” said Kthoth Neesh, when Aronoke was taking her back to her cell after she had used the facilities, “there could be lots of opportunities for someone like you outside of the Jedi order.”

“I’m quite happy where I am,” said Aronoke firmly.

“But just imagine,” said Kthoth Neesh, stepping a little closer to Aronoke than he found comfortable, “what someone like you could do if you joined a group like the one I belong to. You could be rich, own your own ship. No one would be able to stand up to you.”

“I’m not interested in becoming a pirate,” said Aronoke. The smell of her breath washed up into his face. It was warm and slightly spicy; not at all unpleasant.

“But why be a servant to someone like your Master, when you could be your own Master?” asked Kthoth Neesh. “The master of others? I could introduce you to the others in my group. Smooth things over, so there are no hard feelings…?”

“Then I wouldn’t be a Jedi at all,” said Aronoke. “Jedi don’t seek power or personal wealth. When Jedi follow that path, we become something else. Something dark and terrible.”

“It might not be as terrible a thing as they want you to believe,” said the pirate girl, sidling closer still. The static slider on her jumpsuit was not closed all the way to the top, Aronoke could not help but notice, revealing more of her smooth white skin than he had seen before.

“It’s not what I want,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. “I’m happy being a Jedi.”

“Isn’t there anything you do want?” asked Kthoth Neesh, looking up at him, all wide-eyed innocence. Her hand toyed with the slider of the jumpsuit, tugging it even lower, and her freshly moistened lips indicated that whatever he asked for might well be freely available.

A pang of undeniable lust washed over Aronoke. He felt a sudden connection to Kthoth Neesh, a sense of how her hormones were coursing through her body. A sudden intimate awareness of the changes her tissues made in response to them. He knew exactly what her body wanted and what his own desired in response.

Right here. Right now. Master Caaldor was far away on the refugee ship, and need know nothing…

What do you think you’re doing, Aronoke thought furiously at himself, blushing. This isn’t how Jedi behave!

He stepped back. “At the moment, I want to get some rest,” he said abruptly. He was too tired for this. He shoved Kthoth Neesh back into her cell less gently than he might, locked the door, and stomped off to bed.


Despite his exhaustion, Aronoke found himself lying awake thinking over what had happened. It had been very like when he had gone to say goodbye to Ashquash shortly before he had left the Jedi Temple. He still blushed and felt guilty when he remembered that occasion.

He had reacted so precipitously, despite his long inurement to Ashquash’s proximity. They had done little more than kiss, but they might have done so much more, were it not for Master Insa-tolsa’s timely interruption. Logic had been swept aside by lust, inexorable and undeniable, which Aronoke had experienced right down to a cellular level. He had put it aside as a fluke, born out of the emotional discord of saying goodbye to his friend, but the temptation he had felt when Kthoth Neesh attempted to proposition him had felt the same, an echo of that moment.

Aronoke knew from his studies that Jedi must avoid romantic entanglements and his training had previously helped him bridle his natural urges. He had thought himself well under control, but the incident with Ashquash had shaken his confidence and now it had happened again.

Had he been misguided in thinking he had mastered the meditative exercises Master Insa-tolsa had taught him? Or was this something different, something to do with being a chiss? Master Bel’dor’ruch had not mentioned anything he ought to be aware of and she was blunt enough to have done so, regardless of Aronoke’s embarrassment. But then there was his odd awareness of Kthoth Neesh’s biology. Perhaps it was something to do with his hyper-acute Force senses, something that had become apparent now because he was using his senses more and going unshielded more often?

Aronoke knew he should seek Master Caaldor’s guidance, but he felt embarrassed just imagining how to start that particular conversation. Master Caaldor would doubtlessly ask if it had happened before, and he would have to admit the scene with Ashquash. No, it was too painful. He would have to try and deal with it himself and hope that it didn’t recur.

Aronke sighed and began to meditate, trying to convince his agitated mind and his rebellious body to both be calm.


The next day, there was a murder on the refugee ship.

“A dead body, discovered by the kitchen staff!” Aronoke’s translator informed him. “They found him in the freezer, not yet frozen solid. Perhaps it was an accident.”

“I expect we should go and investigate,” said Aronoke grimly. It had seemed inevitable that something would happen on the refugee ship eventually, considering the turbulent social atmosphere. He had hoped that a Jedi presence would be a restraining influence, but apparently it had not been enough.

It did not look like the victim had struggled, nor was the door locked or forced shut. Questioning the kitchen staff who worked in the area immediately outside the freezer where the poor frozen kubaz had been found revealed nothing. It was obvious that the alien had been left in the locker alive and he appeared to have been uninjured. Had he been drugged or poisoned?

“We should search his living quarters and question the ones who knew him,” prompted Aronoke, scandalised that this had been left up to him to suggest.

“He was from floor nine,” said the translator, dismissively. “Almost all the trouble that happens comes from floor nine.”

“Why is that?”

The translator prevaricated. All of the inhabitants of floor nine were troublemakers. They came from opposing criminal elements that had fought like quats and queasels on their homeworld. Everyone would be better off, if only they had been left behind! Aronoke was left with the impression that the translator privately thought all the passengers on floor nine should be locked in and allowed to kill each other off, and that the resulting carnage would only be of benefit to the galaxy at large.

“Nevertheless,” said Aronoke firmly, “we can not allow this to escalate into a larger conflict, as it so easily could. Should one or another of these factions gain control, they might make a bid to take over the ship. Also, I don’t believe that everyone on floor nine can be involved. There are innocent people who must be protected.”

Somewhat wearily, the translator relayed Aronoke’s demands to the rest of the crew.

The investigation proceeded with more difficulty than Aronoke would have thought possible. Although the crew agreed that the victim’s quarters must be searched, they refused to participate more than minimally. Aronoke was escorted there by some of the refugees and quickly became aware that he was being led along a divergent and unnecessarily lengthy route through the ship. Since he didn’t know where he was going, Aronoke was forced to be patient and swallow his annoyance. It was obvious that the victim’s cabin would be extensively doctored by the time he got there.

Indeed the three kubaz in the small cabin seemed to know little about the murdered kubaz. Aronoke thought they were probably not the regular inhabitants of that room at all.

Being stymied like this was frustrating, but Aronoke thought it best to pretend he hadn’t noticed. Master Caaldor would be able to get more information and it would be easier if the perpetrators were unsuspecting.

It was when he was returning to the bridge that a kubaz sidled up to him and tried to pass him a parcel.

Aronoke hesitated. He was too accustomed to strangers trying to give him unwanted things to take it instantly.

“What is this?” he asked. The bundle was not large or heavy. He frowned uncertainly. Was it something to do with the case of the murdered kubaz or not?

The kubaz muttered something urgently in its own language, but Aronoke had no idea what it was saying. The alien thought for a few moments and put a few basic words together.

“Take… you take,” it buzzed. It held out the parcel.

But before Aronoke could take it, a group of other kubaz approached down the hall, and when Aronoke looked back, the parcel-bearer was gone, vanishing swiftly down a side passage.

Aronoke frowned again to himself. Had he had just missed out on something important?


The next day, Aronoke was escorted to a spacious chamber which had obviously been designated as a community recreational area. A large number of solemn adult kubaz were waiting there, along with clusters of children. Some of them looked hopeful, while others seemed merely apprehensive.

“These are the ones they have brought to you for testing,” Aronoke’s interpreter supplied unnecessarily.

“So I see,” said Aronoke, smiling.

It was not the first time he had dealt with identifying Force-sensitives. Master Caaldor and Aronoke had been investigating a town called Trefon on Erebor-3, an agricultural world in the Tionese cluster. Shoka-world, Aronoke thought of it in his mind, because of its endless plains of grass and high concentration of methane-producing herd-beasts called shoka. It had been a very alien environment to him – the blue sky, the towering banks of clouds, the endless fields of crops and creatures, the strange shoka-like smell of the air. It rained often, something Aronoke had never previously experienced. The area surrounding Trefon had produced a statistically improbable number of Force-sensitives in recent decades, and Master Caaldor had been investigating why this might be so. They had spent a lot of time interviewing the locals and driving across the endless plains, while Aronoke tried to sense anything unusual in the Force.

It was while they were staying in Trefon that Aronoke had suddenly noticed an odd, if minor, fluctuation. It had tugged at his senses insistently, and he had looked around startled for a moment before pinpointing the source of the disturbance. It originated from a woman with two children walking along the street. The smallest child, a youngling still too small to walk, was being pushed in a hovercrib. The child was waving its hands in the air in a seemingly pointless fashion, but Aronoke could tell at once that it was using the Force in a way akin to how he used it himself.

“I expect the best thing to do is to inform the child’s parents immediately,” Master Caaldor had said when Aronoke told him. “You can do that tomorrow, Padawan.”

It had seemed a serious duty to Aronoke. He was going to bring disquiet and uncertainty into these peoples’ lives. Getting the news from someone like him would make things even harder. Shoka-world was such a human place. People there sometimes crossed the street to avoid passing Aronoke too closely. He had not seen many non-humans there, and even an alien as mildy different as Aronoke was strange enough to be unsettling to the locals.

The parents had been shocked, and Aronoke did not feel he had broken the news well. He felt like the bearer of bad tidings. It did give him insight into how families felt about their children becoming Jedi. The little kids in Clan Herf had sometimes cried because they missed their families, but Aronoke had not considered how the families felt. Although becoming a Jedi was a great honour, it also took people away from those who loved them most.

There were some advantages to being a bioengineered creature with no family.

Now, however, there was no such concern; a quick scan of the younglings in front of him told Aronoke that apart from himself, there was no one even remotely Force-sensitive on the entire ship. It was disturbingly easy to tell. Aronoke found it unsettling how simple it was for him to sense things like that, things that he knew most Jedi Masters would have to consider carefully.

Even Master Altus, who had spent his career searching for Force artifacts, could not spot them as quickly as Aronoke, although his other abilities far outweighed Aronoke’s own.

Aronoke knew the kubaz would not be convinced if he told them straight out that none of the children were Force-sensitive. They would benefit from a distraction that lasted longer, something that let them think of something other than the sour, unhealthy environment of the transport ship. He made a short speech, interpreted by one of the kubaz who was fluent in basic, repeating what he had said before. That he was only an apprentice. That this testing was only his opinion. That even if the children were Force-sensitive, they would have to be presented to a Jedi centre for proper testing to confirm this. He and Master Caaldor could not bring the children, because they had other important Jedi business to attend to. This last Aronoke was making up. He had no idea what Jedi business Master Caaldor would choose to pursue next. Master Caaldor had made it clear that his major concern was keeping Aronoke safe, out of the hands of those who might wish him harm, or try to make use of the map upon Aronoke’s back. If they could do some good in the galaxy while achieving this, so much the better.

For the kubaz’s benefit, Aronoke made a show of using cards to perform a basic test on the children, examining them one at a time. He rewarded the children with sweets he had hidden in his pockets. For a short time the younglings were happy and distracted. Seeing their children enjoying themselves made the parents happier too, and they all relaxed a little.

“I’m afraid none of you are Force-sensitive,” Aronoke announced to the children and their parents, “but that is not a bad thing. It is not easy to leave your family and everyone you know, to live in a place far away and learn strange new things. And even after spending years in training, only a few candidates become Jedi knights. Being a Jedi is dangerous and a lot of Jedi die in the service of the Republic. Although none of you are destined to be Jedi, you should remember that doesn’t stop you from pursuing other careers, as pilots or or peacekeepers, for example. It doesn’t mean you can’t do things that are impressive. If you work hard, you can change your life and the lives of those around you for the better.”

Aronoke knew all too well that individuals, especially children, were often swept along by events, powerless to influence their destination. But no one needed to believe that. People needed to have hope.

Coming back from this event, Aronoke noticed the kubaz with the parcel approaching in the hall.

“Please, take…” said the kubaz. It muttered some other things in its own language, but Aronoke had no idea what it said. “Take….tell no one.”

This time Aronoke took the bundle it offered – it seemed to be a roll of flimsiplast – and secreted it in his robes.

“Did you learn anything new about the murder?” asked Master Caaldor, when Aronoke swapped shifts with him.

“Not really,” said Aronoke. “I think the refugees are covering up – they won’t tell me anything. I believe the three kubaz who supposedly shared a room with the dead man are plants. There is this though – some documents that one of the refugees slipped to me. They might be relevant.”

“Did you open the package?”

“No. I was being observed.”

“Hmm,” said Master Caaldor, taking the bundle. “I’ll have a look. Maybe talk to some of the suspects again.”

Master Caaldor would be able to get more information out of the refugees, Aronoke knew. He would be able to mind trick them into giving information.

“I had been hoping we could leave the refugees to take care of themselves, once things had settled down a bit,” Master Caaldor sighed, “but this murder has made the situation clear. The refugees have no confidence in the ship’s crew and if we leave, there’s a strong possibility everything will erupt into violence. For the sake of the innocent among them, we will have to wait until the repairs are complete and then escort this ship to its destination. It’s going to take a while, I’m afraid.”

When Aronoke got back to the ship, he gave the pirates their few minutes of freedom.

“How long is this going to take?” complained the eldest pirate. “Is your master really going to let us go afterwards? This is all taking longer than I thought it would.”

“The refugee ship is damaged,” repeated Aronoke. “It needs repairs before it can take off, and until then, my master and I must remain here. You won’t be set free until we leave.”

“Hm,” said the pirate unhappily. “The captain will be impatient to be underway. Do you know if our ship’s still waiting?”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “It was last time I checked, but I don’t know about now.”

The last time had been a day or two before.

“What if the captain’s gotten really impatient and cut his losses?” said the pirate. “Gone off and left us. What would your master do then?”

“I expect he’d drop you off somewhere else,” said Aronoke. “I doubt he’d leave you here on this asteroid if there wasn’t a ship waiting to pick you up. Jedi don’t do that sort of thing.”

“Yes, but what sort of place would he drop us?” asked the old pirate cannily. “Straight onto a heavily policed republic world no doubt. Straight into the slammer.”

Aronoke privately thought it was likely to be somewhere more convenient to Master Caaldor’s plans – probably the first place they stopped. Master Caaldor did not like paperwork, council meetings or legal entanglements and was inclined to follow his own interpretation of the Jedi code rather than the Council’s. When they had left Erebor-3, Master Caaldor had even had PR disable the ship’s holocommunicator, so no one would know exactly where they were.

“If someone on the Jedi Council is trying to manipulate you,” Master Caaldor had told Aronoke, “than it’s safer if we have minimal contact with them.”

“It seems reasonable to me, but Master An-ku won’t like it,” said Aronoke. Master An-ku was the council member who was ultimately in charge of Aronoke’s affairs. She had been very diligent about checking up on exactly what he and Master Caaldor were doing, ever since they had left the Jedi temple. She had not been pleased when they didn’t go to Ilum as planned.

“Master An-ku and I have never seen eye to eye, anyway,” Master Caaldor replied easily. “As long as you understand why I’m doing things this way and don’t have any objections, I think we’ll fly silent.”

Aronoke had agreed. It did seem sensible.

He was loath to tell the pirate his guess, because he didn’t really know Master Caaldor that well yet. Master Caaldor might have other ideas.

“I don’t know. I will ask him next time I see him,” said Aronoke. The old pirate grunted uninterpretably, and Aronoke shut him back in his cell.

He saved Kthoth Neesh for last because he wanted to talk to the pirate girl again. He had thought of something else he wanted to ask her. Every time Aronoke escorted her to the facilities or accompanied her on walks around the ship’s corridors, she had continued trying to flirt with him. Expecting that she was going to try to seduce him had made it easier to resist. There had been no recurrence of the odd impulse Aronoke had experienced, and he found himself puzzled as to why he would react that way to her. She was not his type. She had no hair, was pale, tattooed and flat-chested as all narakite women were, and looked too much like Ashquash. Kthoth Neesh was Ashquash’s sister. He had felt the same way about Ashquash. So why had it happened with both of them? It was all very weird.

“So what’s this?” said Kthoth Neesh, when Aronoke led her into the tiny dining room that led off from the ship’s kitchenette.

“I want to talk to you,” said Aronoke. “But I’m tired and I need to eat. There’s plenty to share if you’re hungry.”

“More restless than hungry,” said Kthoth Neesh. She sidled a little closer to Aronoke.

“Sit down,” said Aronoke. “I haven’t forgotten that we’re not friends.”

“Would you like to be friends?” leered Kthoth Neesh, leaning closer still.

“Stop that and sit down,” said Aronoke impatiently. To his relief the pirate obeyed, sliding into the seat opposite him.

“I figure the captain’s not coming back for us, you know,” said Kthoth Neesh philosophically. “He’ll cut his losses and go. Not that it matters – we can hook up with them again. Unless there’s a better deal on offer.” She leered at Aronoke again so he might know exactly what sort of offer she would find interesting.

“My master will probably drop you off on the next world we visit, should your captain desert you,” said Aronoke.

“That would be right decent of him,” said Kthoth Neesh. “So what was it you wanted to talk about?”

“I noticed your ship had a lot of people frozen in carbonite in the cargo bay,” said Aronoke. He and Master Caaldor had regretted the necessity of leaving those people there, but the greater concern of rescuing the thousands of refugees had taken precedence. “Are those slaves that you captured?”

“No,” said Kthoth Neesh. “We don’t freeze people in carbonite. Don’t have the equipment. It’s too bulky for our kind of operation. But we transport ‘em quite often.”

“I’m interested in one particular person,” said Aronoke. “A Jedi frozen in carbonite, perhaps a year ago now. A mirialan girl with tattoos.”

Kthoth Neesh shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Usually we don’t get to know any details, although maybe the captain does. I don’t know. I don’t remember any mention of Jedi though.”

“Where do you transport most of these frozen people to? If you transport them often, do you transport them for the same person or company?”

“The White Krayt,” said Kthoth Neesh. “He’s a kubaz and something of a legend. We run corpsicle runs for him all the time.”

“And where might he be found?” asked Aronoke.

“In the Primtara sector,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Anyone who’s anyone should be able to tell you where to find him. Mind you, you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Of course not,” said Aronoke, and Kthoth Neesh grinned.

“Good to see we’re on the same wavelength about something,” she said. She stared at him a moment and then shook her head dismissively. “It’s weird to think about Ashquash being a Jedi,” she said. “I can’t imagine it at all.”

“She’s not a Jedi yet,” Aronoke reminded her. “Hopefully she will make it. She’s had a tough time.” Tougher, he thought privately, because of her association with him.

“Ah well, maybe I’ll meet her myself again one day,” said Kthoth Neesh. “See for myself.”

Aronoke nodded. He stood reluctantly. “You’d better go back in your cell,” he said. “There’s things I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Aw,” said Kthoth Neesh. “You don’t have to lock me up you know – I promise I won’t be any trouble.”

“Yes, but trouble is what I’ll be in when my master comes back and finds his ship missing,” said Aronoke, gesturing that she should walk ahead of him down the hall.

“Have you given any thought to what I suggested earlier?” asked Kthoth Neesh persuasively as she complied. “We don’t have to join up with my old friends, you know. We could start afresh on our own. It might even be more profitable – my experience and your skills. We could do things our own way.”

“I’m not interested,” said Aronoke

“That’s a pity,” said Kthoth Neesh, posturing sadly. Her mouth made a little moue of discontent.

Aronoke smiled to himself as he locked her back into her cell. He found he was enjoying the back-and-forth of his conversations with Kthoth Neesh, now he had inured himself to her charms. Her offers appealed to the skimmer in him – he knew she would manipulate him shamelessly to her own advantage if he did take her up on them. He had no intention of doing anything of the kind, of course, but in an alternate universe, if he were still a skimmer and not a Jedi, he might well have enjoyed working with someone like Kthoth Neesh. Might well have ended up a pirate himself, if he had ever managed to get off Kasthir.



Yustus’ room was warm and comfortable after Josie’s painful journey through the skies, but it had a feeling of menace to it, the feel of a place where terrible things had happened once and might well happen again. How she could tell this from the smell and the sounds of the room and the feel of the upholstery against her hands, Josie could not say, but she knew it to be true as clearly as she could tell wool and eggshell apart.

‘Why have you brought me here?’ Josie asked the evil magician. She coughed.

‘Because, I heard that you had come here from another world. Bring her something to drink,’ Yustus commanded, and an enamelled cup filled with some sort of fruit cordial was almost instantly pressed into her hands. It smelled pleasant, but Josie did not drink it immediately. ‘There is something that only someone from another world can help me with. Something I have been working on for a long time.’

‘What is that?’ asked Josie.

‘We have plenty of time to explain the details,’ said Yustus. ‘All the time in the world. I would not concern yourself with that now. Have you indeed come from another world?’

Josie considered refusing to answer Yustus’ questions, but instantly discarded the idea. He seemed quite capable of being very nasty to her, and had answered her questions so far – after a fashion – so there would be a kind of injustice in not answering his. ‘Yes,’ she said. She coughed again.

‘Drink, drink, you silly child,’ said Yustus. ‘How can you talk when you are coughing all the time?’

Josie had been at school enough to get accustomed to obeying orders from unpleasant people, so took a drink of the cordial. It was made of some citrus fruit she did not quite recognise, and nice enough that she very quickly drank it all without noticing.

‘Have you come here with any brothers? Perhaps a male cousin? A fiance?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I am alone.’

‘Whyever do you keep your eyes shut, child?’ said Yustus impatiently.’ Have a look around you at the glory that was Telmar.’

‘She is blind, Master,’ said Eber’s voice, as Josie was opening her mouth to say the same thing.

‘Blind? Fool among ifrits, why did you not tell me this at once?’ The brittle mask of friendliness fell from Yustus’ voice.

‘I crave your pardon, Master,’ said Eber, in an tone of oily subservience that Josie could tell hid contempt for the human who had somehow gained power over him. ‘It seemed that you wished to speak with the child at once, and I did not wish to interrupt.’

‘Bah!’ said Yustus. ‘Is what this fool among ifrits tells me the truth, child?’

‘Yes,’ said Josie.

‘Well, that is a problem.’ He paced back and forth. ‘It would be better if you were a man, but there is no shame in that; after all, the Queen-that-was-is-and-shall-be is a woman. I expect that will be quite interesting. But the blindness, that is another matter. A serious one.’ Back and forth the man paced, his boots striking the floor emphatically. ‘There will be a way around it. A magic. There always is something. Yes, I remember reading about artefacts for such things. Enchanted jewels. It can be done. I will do it. It will just take some time and preparation. We have all the time in the world.’

Josie had not really felt scared of the Master of the ifrits before; she had been too glad not to be manhandled through the air any more, and more angry than afraid. But what he was saying now frightened her.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘I was going to keep it a surprise,’ said Yustus petulantly. ‘We have plenty of time. But no matter. There is no harm in telling you. There are things that only a body that has come from outside this world can do: very important things. Things I have been waiting a very long time to do. So we are going to swap. I will have your body, and you will have mine.’

‘That’s not possible,’ said Josie, trying to keep her voice steady.

‘Oh, it is,’ said Yustus, sounding very pleased with himself. ‘No one else has done it, but I have done it. This is not my first body. Nor my second.’ He laughed.

Josie could not think of anything else to say. She concentrated very hard on being brave and thought of the kindly voices of the rock-badgers and the gazelles. She thought of Aslan, who seemed to show up at the end of stories in this world and make things alright. She tried to pray to the God of her own world, who used to show up in stories thousands of years ago, but the words got tumbled and tangled together in her head.

‘You can tell me more of your world later, child,’ said Yustus. ‘I will be interested to hear of it. But now, I have much to do. Take her away.’

‘Yes, Master,’ said a chorus of ifrits.

‘You’re not going to fly for miles and miles again, are you?’ Josie asked, as the gigantic over-warm hands of the ifrits pulled her not ungently up from her chair.

‘Many leagues,’ said one of the ifrits.

‘As many as there are grains of sand in the desert,’ said another, with an evil laugh.

‘Do not listen to them,’ said Eber. ‘It is not far.’

It was a very short trip and seemed to be mostly up. The night air was blessedly free of Yustus’ nasty perfume, but the room she was brought into next was even thicker with the same kind of smells.

‘Zardeenah, here is the man who has come from the other world,’ said Eber.

‘Indeed,’ said a voice that could only belong to a lady ifrit. It was a voice like wild honey and the fancy cream soups they served on board the steamship and was not at all kind, not exactly, but from the very first word Josie felt it to be more trustworthy than the other ifrits. ‘I am called Zardeenah, girl. What are you called?’

‘Miss Furness,’ said Josie. She felt a strong urge to call this lady ifrit, ‘Ma’am’ and struggled against it on principle.

‘It is a well-fashioned name,’ said Zardeenah. ‘You may go,’ she said to the ifrits who had brought Josie, and they departed in a great flurry of wings.

‘You have had an arduous journey,’ Zardeenah went on. ‘You must be tired, and hungry, and you appear very disorderly.’

‘Yes,’ said Josie. ‘I have been dragged about from world to world and place to place like a – I don’t know. Nothing makes sense, and everything here is so horrible.’ She had not meant to say so much.

‘Now, now,’ said Zardeenah. ‘We will do one thing at a time, and the first is to see you properly settled.’

Zardeenah led Josie to a low table and sat her down on a cushion, and there were pleasant things to eat and drink: much more of the fruit cordial she had before, and pomegranate juice, and the sorts of human food she had not had for some days; a great slab of roast pork, bread and olives and pickled turnips, a kind of toasted cheese that was very nice indeed, and to finish off, pastries that were sticky with honey. Josie was hungry, and ate a great deal.

‘Now to deal with your hair,’ said Zardeenah. A hot bath had been run somehow close at hand while Josie had been eating, in a vast stone tub that made sense when Josie thought of how large the ifrits seemed to be. Zardeenah washed Josie’s hair, and then combed some kind of strong-smelling oil through it. She had quite a skill at untangling hair, Josie thought; it was getting done much quicker than she had thought it would be after her days sleeping out of doors, without any matted places having to be cut out or painfully pulled apart.

‘That man – that magician – wants to swap bodies with me,’ said Josie.

‘I know,’ said Zardeenah. ‘He is our master, and we cannot go against his wishes. But we do not have to approve of everything he does.’ Whether Zardeenah was really kindly, or was just artfully pretending kindliness, had ceased to matter to Josie.

‘Has he really done it before?’ asked Josie.

‘Yes, Miss Furness,’ said the ifrit. ‘Once in my time, and twice in the time of my mother before me. The body he is in now is the body of a brigand who killed a man and ran away over the mountains to avoid the revenge of the man’s family. Better for him that he had suffered it!’

‘I have to get away,’ said Josie, fighting back tears.

‘Indeed,’ Zardeenah said. ‘You are lucky that you are blind, or he would have begun the rituals at once. But he will be a long time looking for some magic to restore your eyes, and in that time, who knows what will happen? You may think of something, or an earthquake may level this place, or an ally may turn up for you. Who knows, maybe the Lion will come again?’

‘I guess so,’ said Josie.

‘There, that is done. Now we will get you dressed, and you can sleep.’

‘I don’t think I can possibly sleep,’ said Josie, but in truth she was already feeling relaxed and sleepy from the bath.

Josie’s old clothes from the ship had vanished while she was in the bath, and instead there was a nightdress of some light smooth fabric that smelled strongly of cedar. After wearing the same clothes for day after day and night after night, clothes that were intended for a very different climate, it was very comfortable indeed

‘Probably they are just being nice to me so I won’t try to run away,’ thought Josie to herself. But at the moment there seemed nothing else she could do.

Zardeenah led her to a pile of blankets on the floor – so very soft and comfortable they were, much nicer than meadows, or even her bed on the ship – and she fell asleep nearly at once.

Josie dreamed all night that she was back at school, doing problems in geometry. However long she took to do a problem, it seemed that hardly any time passed, so that she began to despair of the lesson ever ending.  When she finally awoke she ached all over from being carried through the air, but not nearly as badly as she thought she would.  It was more like the almost comfortable ache you sometimes get after exercise than the screaming pain she had dreaded. It was very comfortable to lie in bed in the morning – or the afternoon, it felt more like an afternoonish kind of warmth – knowing she did not have to get up and go to school. If she had not been the prisoner of an evil magician who wanted to steal her body, and if she had not been separated by an unimaginable gulf of space and time from everyone and everything she had ever known, it would have been perfect.

‘I suppose it makes sense that Yustus would be nice to me,’ she said to herself. ‘He would not want to worry me and make me sick, if he is going to take my body over.’ She tried to think of something more pleasant, but everything she thought kept bringing her back to her present troubles. ‘I was just saying how everyone in this new world had been so kind to me.’ She sighed. ‘And now the gazelles will be worried about me as well, and Murbitha will get in trouble.’

After a while Zardeenah fetched Josie out of bed and made her have breakfast. There was strong and rather gritty coffee that she did not much like, and a kind of flat bread sprinkled with salt and herbs that she did.

‘So you are an ifrit?’ she asked Zardeenah over breakfast.

‘Indeed,’ said Zardeenah.

‘If you will pardon me asking, what is an ifrit exactly?’

‘We are the people of the fire,’ said Zardeenah in a good humour. ‘All things that are fiery delight us; and as the fire rises, so we fly, as you have seen. We ruled these lands before men came, together with the djinn, the people of the air.’

‘I have a feeling I may have heard of you somewhere – in my world they have stories about people like you, who are magical and fly and live in places like this, where there are pomegranates and gazelles.’

‘I am pleased to hear that our fame has spread so far,’ said Zardeenah.

‘In the stories they – the djinns, anyway – are always making deals with men to use their magic that turn out badly for the men.’

‘Would that it were so!’ said Zardeenah. ‘The truth is unfortunately very nearly the other way around. We are forever making deals with men that turn out badly for us.’

‘Come to think of it, some of the stories are like that, too,’ Josie admitted.

‘For instance, my parents had dealings with men that ended with me and all my brothers and sisters slaves to this magician.’ Zardeenah sighed.

‘That’s terrible!’ said Josie. ‘Why would they do such a thing?’

‘At that time they were in trouble, and it was made to seem the easiest way out of their troubles. At times we find the words of men very convincing. Sit still a while longer, and I will comb your hair again.’

‘How many brothers and sisters do you have?’ asked Josie.

‘We were seven; four boys and three girls,’ said Zardeenah. ‘I am the eldest.’

Josie decided it was best not to tell Zardeenah how horrid her brothers were. Perhaps Zardeenah would have been horrid to her as well, if she had not been commanded to be nice. ‘Will I meet your sisters?’ she asked.

‘Alas, no,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Our master sold them.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘When the humans first came to this land, they were nearly all men, and it was said that their honeyed words and earthbound beauty enticed many of our young women away, so that today there is much ifrit and djinn blood in the veins of the men of the south. Then we took ourselves away into the wild places so that we would have little to do with men. But there are still those among the Sons of Frank who desire wives from the daughters of the Efreeti, and if they cannot find them they are not above buying them; them, and the magics that keep them slaves. For my sisters were each enslaved to obey the wearer of a particular ring, and so long as their owners bear their ring they can do nothing  that he does not wish them to do.’

‘That’s disgusting,’ said Josie. ‘The men in this land do not seem very chivalrous.’

‘I do not know that word, chivalrous,’ said Zardeenah.

‘I am not surprised,’ said Josie glumly. ‘Why did he not sell you as well?’ she asked.

‘He would if he could, for I would have fetched a better price than my sisters. But he did not dare. I know too many of his secrets, and if I ever had another master I could use them against him. But my sisters did not know many of his secrets. They were young when they were sold. Sharnah was about your age, and Ayeshah a little younger.’

‘That’s terrible,’ said Josie.

‘There – your hair is done,’ said Zardeenah. I will tie it back, and then it will not be too disordered when you are brought to meet the master again.’

The master – that is, the wicked magician Yustus, as we should be in the habit of calling him, not being his ifrit slaves – approved of Josie’s clean hair and Telmarine clothes.

‘Much improved,’ he said to himself, when she was standing in the downstairs chamber like a china doll on display in a cabinet. ‘That is a figure I can see commanding armies. Raise your arms above your head, child.’

Josie saw no reason not to obey this command, and raised her arms.

‘Yes, those will be fine arms for casting incantations. It will take some getting used to, but still, I could do much worse. There will be all the time in the world. You can put them down now. Yes, in your form I will do great things.’

Josie flinched then, for Yustus and the foul perfume that hung about him had suddenly taken a few steps forward, and he had taken her chin in his hands. Now he was prodding at her eyes, quite unpleasantly.

‘There is just the matter of these. Diamonds will be best; yes, diamonds. I will send Eber to the Valley of Fire, there should be suitable stones there.’

Josie twisted her head out of the magician’s hands. ‘I’m not your toy,’ she said. ‘And you’ll never use my body to command armies, or see through diamonds with my face. I’d kill myself first.’

‘No, you won’t,’ said Yustus.  He ran his hand gently across her cheek. It was encrusted with stone rings and made her skin crawl, as if it were some loathsome creature you might find living under a rock.

‘We have that much in common,’ said Yustus, as she drew backwards away from him. ‘You have the same hunger for life that I do. I can sense it. And that will keep you hoping until the very last minute; and then it will be too late.’

Josie knew that what he said was true. ‘It’s not true,’ she said. ‘I’m not afraid to die.’

‘You only say that because you know you have no choice,’ said Yusuf, running his fingers through her hair. ‘What if you were not doomed to die, but could live forever?’

‘That’s stupid,’ she said, stepping backward again.

‘Those who are born here are doomed to die,’ he said. ‘The most powerful magics can give youth and strength and length of life, but at the end they will fail. But if a man comes from another world into this – then, O then, there are magics that can make him truly immortal.’

Again he ran her fingers through her hair, and again she took a step backward.

‘Know, child, that at the very uttermost end of the world there is a garden where magic apples grow,’ said Yustus. ‘Magic apples of immortality. When I was young I made a journey of many years to find them and bring them back here. Three of us set forth, and only I returned. I faced countless trials and torments. I doubt there has been any greater journey in the history of the world. I found the apples; I brought them back; but when I returned to Telmar I found that I was alone. My people had been turned into beasts by the magic of the accursed Lion. But he missed me. It was my destiny to escape his anger, and my destiny to keep all the apples for myself.’

‘It’s a pretty pathetic thing to be proud of,’ she said. ‘More likely you were too unimportant to bother with.’

Josie had backed up into a chest of drawers and could back up no further, and this time when Yustus ran his fingers through her hair he gripped it cruelly and pulled her head back. She could feel his nasty hot breath in her face.

‘It was destiny, I tell you. If the Lion did not want me to have the apples, he would have stopped me. And I was not unhappy to find Telmar empty. No, I exulted in it. Why should I have to share my prize? Or have it stolen from me by old fools? Never, little girl, never!’

‘Ow,’ said Josie.

Yustus let her hair go. ‘I still have some of the apples,’ he said. ‘Preserved by my magic for all these years. I will take your body, and then I will eat again, and this time it will not just be youth and strength. This time I will become immortal. I have waited lifetimes for this moment. These are glorious days.’

Josie was very grateful when Yustus at last summoned the ifrits to return her to Zardeenah’s tower.