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After Master Bel’dor’ruch’s arrival, everything moved quickly. It was not long before Master Insa-tolsa sent Aronoke a message telling him that he was to be accepted as a candidate for the Padawan trials, which would proceed as soon as he had reached the sixth level of training in the way of the lightsaber. Aronoke was currently learning the third level, and to hasten his progress he was to be provided with extra tutelage by Weapon Master Squegwash.

“I would have you realise what an honour it is for Master Squegwash to agree to instruct you personally in this way,” said Mentor Snesgrul when he saw Aronoke during his usual training sessions with Clan Ryllak. “He takes very few students, only the best, and has very exacting standards of formality. You must be on your best behavior, Aronoke.”

“I will, Mentor Snesgrul,” said Aronoke and armed with this sage advice, he determined to be exactingly polite to Master Squegwash at all times.

Master Squegwash was perhaps human, perhaps not. Mostly he looked human, but Aronoke could not tell if he was even actually male. Mentor Snesgrul had seemed to think so, but Mentor Snesgrul was a bothan and perhaps did not know either. Like Ashquash, Master Squegwash was bald and androgynous, although they were otherwise not similar. Aronoke put his curiosity about the Weapon Master firmly aside. After Mentor Snesgrul’s warning, he was hardly going to ask Master Squegwash prying personal questions.

“I am not certain why your education is being hurried along in this way, Initiate,” Master Squegwash told Aronoke stiffly when they first met, “but Master An-ku insists that it is necessary.  Now, please demonstrate your understanding of the first six standard forms.”

“As you wish, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke, bowing formally before complying.

It was obvious Master Squegwash felt that Aronoke’s tutelage was something that could have been handled by other, lesser beings.

“You have a good understanding of the concepts of level three,” Master Squegwash said patiently, when Aronoke had finished.  “That is unusual in a student who has come to his training so late.”

“Thank you, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke, bowing again.

“In order to learn the higher forms of lightsaber combat, you must push beyond your reliance upon your physical senses,” said Master Swegwash. “When we train with a practice sabre, we teach the body and the mind to work together, to produce automated responses to stimuli. When our opponent moves a certain way, we respond with the correct opposing move. That is why students are trained from a very young age, because these responses become as natural as language to them. Just as you do not have to think about saying simple words, the correct form should automatically be there when needed in combat, with no thought involved. You have done well to learn as much as you have in a short time. I expect it is because you had some training in combat from a young age yourself, even if it is not in these specific forms.”

“Yes, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. “That is true.”

“However, when a fully trained Jedi enters combat, he does not merely use his physical senses to fight,” said Master Squegwash. “He uses the Force. Before you are ready to wield a true lightsaber, you must make the transition to using the Force to direct your movements, instead of merely your eyes and ears. This is something a Jedi trained from a youngling would also learn to automatically perform.  He has never fought without the Force – both are developed together.  Many older students can never learn this lesson, and thus are ultimately doomed to failure when attempting to learn the highest tiers of lightsaber combat. This is one reason why older students are so seldom accepted as candidates.  Nevertheless, I believe your great acuity in sensing the Force will allow you to make this transition, Aronoke, despite your late start, but it will not be easy.”

“I will work hard, Master Squegwash,” Aronoke promised.

Certainly it seemed that Master Squegwash expected nothing less.  By the end of the first lesson, Aronoke was exhausted, but was also pleased that Master Squegwash seemed to have warmed to him. If he was to face his Padawan trials so soon, Aronoke knew he needed Master Squegwash on side, and that he had to make every effort to be as focused as he could possibly be.


In between lightsaber practice sessions Aronoke went running every morning. He added weights training to his routine to help build his strength. Then there were all the usual lessons. He was doing a lot of extra reading as well.  There was hardly a moment to spare in his day.  He felt stretched to his limits.  Some days, usually when he had made some discernible progress, it was a good feeling. At other times Aronoke despaired of ever being able to pass the trials. The academic side of his training still lagged years behind that of the human students his age, let alone those of his maturity level.  It was difficult to feel confident about passing, and Aronoke had no idea what would happen if he failed.

Failing to be a Jedi, leaving the temple, disappointing Master Altus’s confidence in him – Aronoke spent long hours meditating instead of sleeping, trying to rid himself of these fears, whenever he found himself lying awake thinking them over and over.


Aronoke was told to report to the medical bay, ostensibly for a routine check-up.  D-2J399 was there as always, he was relieved to see.  Although he had been for many check-ups by now, and was accustomed to undressing in front of the droid, Aronoke never felt complacent about it. There were too many uncertainties involved – what if the person who sought to influence him did something to D-2?  What if some sort of device was hidden in the medical bay, to spy on Aronoke’s back?  It was paranoid to think these things, Aronoke told himself firmly as he removed his shirt and robes as instructed. Whoever had taken such an interest in him must have other endeavours to take up their time.  Other plans and schemes to watch over.

But no matter how he tried to convince himself, despite the fact that he was better able to control it now, the feeling of dread was always there. It wasn’t just the slight chill of the medical bay that made Aronoke shiver.

“Today I have instructions to take a number of scans of your dorsal dermis, Initiate,” said D-2.  “These will be made using several different spectra of light, and thus will take slightly longer than regular imaging.”

Aronoke nodded.  Master Bel’dor’ruch had said that the image on his back was to be recorded and investigated more thoroughly.  Even so, it was an uncomfortable idea. Aronoke did not like the thought of extra images of his back existing, even within the Jedi temple. It was bad enough that Master Altus had disappeared with one in his possession. If it wasn’t for the fact that his back might reveal some clue regarding Master Altus’s disappearance, Aronoke would have protested.

“The additional spectra do not seem to reveal any extra information,” D-2 informed Aronoke, when the scans were finished and he was dressed again.  “However, I may be mistaken.  They will be sent off for further analysis and forwarded to Master Bel’dor’ruch and Master An-ku.  If anything is discovered regarding them, or if additional images need to be made, you will be informed, Initiate Aronoke.”

“Thanks, D-2,” said Aronoke, grateful that his part in the procedure seemed to be over.


“You’ve got to go and see that Master Bel’dor’ruch again,” said Draken one morning at breakfast.  “It was up on the schedule board.  I thought you mightn’t have seen, since you were in such a hurry.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke.  “Thanks.”

Aronoke had been late that morning, and hadn’t bothered to look at the board.  He had slept far later than usual, right through the time when he usually went running and did his weights training, and through the time when he would typically shower, thanks to a particularly exhausting session with Master Squegwash the evening before.

“All sorts of strange Masters seem to be interested in you,” continued Draken, teasing a lump of red fribj fruit apart into strands on his plate.  “You are twice as busy as the rest of us, and Wyla Gorgeous knows, we’re busy enough.”

Wyla Gorgeous was a Twi’lek superstar, a wildly popular actress starring in many holovids that Aronoke knew were considered completely unsuitable for consumption by Jedi initiates. Draken’s latest gimmick was to mention her name at every possible opportunity.

“It seems every week Razzak Mintula thinks of a new thing I should be doing in my lack of free time,” Draken continued morosely.

Aronoke smiled to himself, thinking that Razzak Mintula knew Draken was best kept busy.  His inventive mind and undeniable curiosity would soon lead him into trouble if it were not so.

“So why have you got so much to do, suddenly?” asked Draken.

“They want me to take my Padawan trials soon,” Aronoke admitted quietly.

“What!?” squawked Draken, in loud surprise.  Razzak Mintula frowned at him from the end of the table and all the little kids stopped talking to stare at him too.  Aronoke took refuge in spooning more chornut porridge into his mouth and chewing thoroughly.

Ashquash stared at Aronoke from across the table, her expression blank, but her composure ruined by her open mouth and the way her spoon hovered in mid air.  Bits of porridge dripped off it unnoticed.

“When were you going to tell us?” she asked, coldly.

“I’m sorry, I only found out a little while ago,” said Aronoke.  “It was Master Bel’dor’ruch’s idea, and I was hoping that the Jedi Council wouldn’t go along with it.  I don’t want to have to leave the temple any time soon.”

Ashquash glowered at him and lowered her head to stare at her plate sullenly.

“I don’t want you to leave soon either,” admitted Draken, “but we’re clan mates, right, and that means we should consider what’s best for each other, not just our own preferences.  If there’s any way I can help, you should let me know.”

“I’ll help you too, Aronoke,” said Bithron, and then it became a chorus amongst all the little kids sitting closest to him.  Aronoke noticed that Razzak Mintula was watching and listening, yet saying nothing.  Waiting to see how he would respond.

“Thank you all very much,” said Aronoke, feeling awkward at being the centre of attention.  “But the trials are something each of us ultimately has to face on our own.”

The younglings’ faces fell, and Aronoke hastily added: “There’s certainly some things you can help me with in my training, though.”

It was strange how much they had become like family to him, Aronoke thought as he hurried off after breakfast to look at the schedule board.  Despite the diversity of age and race, Clan Herf had become a central part of his life.  They might mostly be a lot younger, but the younglings, alongside Ashquash and Draken, were wise for their years, changed already from self-absorbed little kids into something quite different. Something more Jedi-like. Just like Aronoke himself.


Master Bel’dor’ruch sent her padawan, a yellow-green twi’lek girl, to escort Aronoke to her chambers after the evening meal.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch when Aronoke arrived, fixing him with her gleaming red stare. Aronoke had spent all day psyching himself up to talk with the chiss master, telling himself that he would be brave and stand up to her.  After his friends’ reaction at breakfast, he had determined to tell her that he didn’t want to sit for his trials, that he wasn’t ready, but now his resolve weakened. She was scarier than he had remembered.

“Yes, Master,” he said.

“I would like to talk more about the problems you have faced here at the temple,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, pacing back and forth as Aronoke stood in front of her.  She was the most restless Jedi that Aronoke had ever met.  The initiates were always being schooled in being still as a lesson in calmness and patience, but Master Bel’dor’ruch made constant movement into her own unique art form.

Even Masters, Aronoke thought, had some failings.

“I can’t understand how the Jedi Council can fail to clear up these harassments that you have faced,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch.  “I have spoken to Master Insa-tolsa and Master An-ku, amongst others, and they assure me that every appropriate action has been taken, but I find that difficult to believe, considering their utter lack of results.  It seems a hopeless incompetence on their behalf.”

“It is frustrating, Master,” said Aronoke evenly, “although I’m sure everything possible is being done.”

“Are you?” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I am not. Someone high up in the Jedi order obviously wishes to manipulate you, or these things would not continue.”

“Yes, that’s what Master Altus thought,” said Aronoke. “He said he could not discover who had sent me to train with Clan Sandrek, but that the order had come through the Jedi Council from very high up indeed.”

“I see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I have read all the reports, but I wish to hear about these harassments from you. Perhaps there is something that was missed.”

She led Aronoke chronologically through all the events that had taken place according to Council records – the missives from the droids, the drugging of Ashquash, Clan Sandrek’s strange behavior, the droid in the shower – encouraging him to elaborate and add anything else that might have been missed.

“What about this time when you were discovered in an off-limits maintenance area?” asked Master Bel’dor’ruch. “Was that anything unusual?”

“No, Master,” said Aronoke, blushing. “That was just us fooling around. Being silly.”

“The time you fell in the swimming pool and nearly drowned?”

Aronoke hadn’t known that had been reported to the Council.

“No, that was an argument with one of my clan mates.”

“I see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. She looked thoughtful. “Is there anything else about your early history on Kasthir that you did not tell Master Altus that might be relevant?”

Aronoke thought carefully.

“There is one thing, Master. I don’t know how relevant it is. It is only a minor detail, and I did not think to tell Master Altus at the time. He never asked me for all the details of my childhood.”

“Well, then?” she said, gesturing impatiently.

“When I was about five years old, in galactic standard years, my Uncle Remo died, and another Twi’lek took care of me, named Boamba. At first everything was fine, but then she became addicted to spice. A few years later, there came a day when she didn’t come back. I assumed she was dead. Some bigger people forced me out of our home, so I had to live on the streets and scavenge for myself. I wasn’t very good at it, was starting to starve, but then the Fumers came and took me to Bunkertown, out in the desert. I believe they were looking specifically for me, because when I was in the speeder going to Bunkertown, some of the things from Boamba’s house were there too.  Some of my old things. It was like I was collected along with all of Boamba’s other possessions. Then, when I arrived in Bunkertown, I was sent to be a menial in the kitchens, and no one seemed very interested in me, but a few days later, I was dragged up in front of Careful Kras. He cut my shirt off my back, like he knew something was there.”

Aronoke faltered at the thought of what had happened next, but swallowed hard and forced himself to continue as unemotionally as he could.

“He didn’t like what he saw. He cut it and burned it to hide it. I’ve never understood why he did that instead of just killing me. Why he wanted to hide it, but keep me alive.”

“Perhaps he wanted to keep you for the right buyer,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “He might not have wanted to reveal the information on your back, but might have been tempted by the high prices on offer for strong force-sensitives. And then you are bioengineered, a complicated and expensive business. Others would pay a lot of money for you just because of that. But you’re right, this could be an important bit of information. I think that Careful Kras is long overdue a visit from the Jedi Order.”

Aronoke felt a most un-Jedi-like pang of malicious glee at the thought of Jedi wrath raining down on Careful Kras’s head.

Master Bel’dor’ruch paced a minute or two in thoughtful silence, and Aronoke was glad of the opportunity to regain his composure. Along with thoughts of rightful vengeance, his mind was seething with all the emotions that always erupted when he spoke about his past, despite his best efforts.  It was not the right way for a Jedi to feel.

“You have not been raised as a chiss, as I was,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch at last. “But anything you might have learned from exposure to chiss culture is irrelevant. There is nothing in being a chiss that would benefit you in being a Jedi. Quite the contrary. It is only your chiss biology that affects your training. You should not feel that this is unusual. There are a plethora of different species who train to become Jedi. Did you think all of them grew at the same rate and were made padawans at the same age?”

“No, Master,” said Aronoke. “I just did not know I was different from humans in this way until recently. Most near-human species are not.”

“Your tests should be scheduled soon now,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “Do you feel ready for them?”

“Not very, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “I am supposed to reach lightsaber level six to do my tests, but I am only level four. I train hard and my new lessons are very helpful, but I make slow progress.”

“Let me see,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, and before Aronoke could say anything, she flung her lightsaber, thankfully unactivated, across the room at him.

Aronoke was startled and nearly failed to catch it.  He fumbled and nearly dropped it on the floor. Could feel himself flushing. He had never held a real lightsaber before.

“Show me the standard forms,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch, making a little hurry-up gesture. “Start with form one.”

Aronoke swallowed firmly and tried to relax. It took him a moment to work out how to activate the lightsaber and then he was startled by the feel of it when it did. The balance was completely different from that of his practice-sabre; it felt awkward and unfamiliar in his hands. He found himself hyperaware of the glowing blade that could slice through flesh so easily, and made a couple of passes in the air, trying to get the feel of the weapon. The sound it made triggered memories of hot Kasthir sand and the smell of sweat and fumes.

But Master Bel’dor’ruch was waiting. Aronoke forced himself to drop into form one, but his movements were jerky and off-balance. He went through the forms once. He should have known them perfectly after so much practice and training, but he found himself struggling to make the transitions smoothly.

Master Squegwash was right; the lightsaber changed everything.  It was a dangerous weapon, a threat to the wielder as well as to his enemies. Only someone practiced in the Force would be able to wield such a blade effectively.

He was glad to deactivate the lightsaber. Glad to pass it back to Master Bel’dor’ruch when he had finished. He felt he had not done well at all.

“You will manage,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You will have time to learn when you are assigned to your new master as a padawan. Remember that to be an initiate here in the temple is an artificial role, designed to keep young force-sensitives out of trouble while they are children and not yet physically grown. You are very close to fully grown. Almost a mature adult. You are fourteen years old, which is an age humans were once considered too old to send out as padawans. They would be shipped off to serve in the Jedi Corps if they had not found a Master by that age. That we now keep initiates so late is a sign of the order’s increasing decadence and over-burgeoning influence. You are not human. It is ridiculous to keep you here in the temple when you have reached full growth.”

“But there are so many things I haven’t learnt yet, Master,” protested Aronoke. “There are lots of topics my clan has not even touched upon yet, and although I read widely, I haven’t had time to cover everything. I have only been here somewhat over two years. Even if I’m fully grown I can’t absorb ten years of lessons in two years.”

“Yet you were acting as an adult before you ever came here,” pointed out Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You learn differently as a child than you do as an adult. You learn in a different way.”

“Yes, that’s true, Master,” said Aronoke, remembering Master Squegwash’s lesson. “When do you think my tests will be held?”

“I do not know exactly,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You will be given some weeks notice. I expect it will be a good deal sooner than you would like, and a good deal later than I would.”

“I will do my best, Master,” said Aronoke, making a respectful little bow, and she nodded in return and made an abrupt gesture to indicate that he was dismissed. He left her rooms feeling overwhelmed and uncertain.

“Don’t worry, everyone feels that way after talking to Master Bel’dor’ruch,” said the Twi’lek padawan breezily, meeting him at the door. She seemed pleased to have a Master that everyone thought was scary, Aronoke thought. “Though I thought perhaps it would be different for you because you are a chiss too. I thought perhaps all chiss were like her.”

“Master Bel’dor’ruch is the only other chiss I’ve ever met,” Aronoke admitted.

“Really?” said the Twi’lek padawan. “That’s very weird.”

Very weird, that’s me, thought Aronoke sadly.


“You’re so busy all the time,” said Draken mournfully a few days later. “I expect they can’t wait whisk you off somewhere. You’ll be the youngest Padawan ever, and we’ll still be stuck here doing lessons for years and years.”

“I wouldn’t mind being stuck here for years and years,” said Aronoke carefully. “I’m not in any hurry to leave. I would much rather stay here with you and take my time. But you’re right. Master Bel’dor’ruch wants me to be sent out in the field as soon as possible, partly because of all the strange things that have happened to me, but also because I’m a chiss and I’ve grown up so much faster.”

“But it will still take a long time for you to know everything you need to complete the tests, won’t it?” said Draken. “Months and months? At least a year?”

“The Council has decided I should sit for my tests as soon as I reach level six in lightsaber training,” said Aronoke. “Master Squegwash says I am level four now. Master Bel’dor’ruch says that I will probably sit for my tests a good deal sooner than I would like, and a good deal later than she would.”

“Oh,” said Draken, crestfallen.

Aronoke shrugged. “I can see Master Bel’dor’ruch’s logic in hurrying me through. Even if I do have to leave, we are still clan mates you know. Like you said. Nothing is going to change that. One day you and Ashquash and all the younglings will finish your training and will probably be better Jedi because of your time in the temple.”

“Yeah, but you get to have your own lightsaber and see new places now,” said Draken enviously.  “I wish we could swap places – then we would both be happy.  I’m tired of training.”

“I’ll still be training,” Aronoke reminded him.  ”It will just be with a Jedi Master instead of here.  Padawans train to be proper Jedi, remember?  And even Jedi Masters train in new things sometimes.”

“Yeah, but that’s different,” grumbled Draken, and Aronoke was left thinking that Draken and Master Bel’dor’ruch had certain things in common.


“Why didn’t you tell me about you leaving?” asked Ashquash one night.  She was lying in bed, one arm flung over her eyes, while Aronoke was sitting up studying.  It was late, and he had thought she had been asleep for ages already.

“I didn’t want to upset you,” Aronoke said gently.  “I knew you wouldn’t like the idea, and there didn’t seem any point telling you if it wasn’t going to happen after all.”

“But it is going to happen,” said Ashquash crossly.  “You’re going to go away, and leave us all behind.  Well, maybe when that happens, I’ll go away too.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash turned away towards the wall, pretending not to hear him.

“It’s not like I want to go away,” he added.  “I’d rather stay and train with you and Draken. It’s something that Master Bel’dor’ruch decided.  If Master Altus were here, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

“Can’t you tell them you don’t want to?”

“I have,” said Aronoke.  “But there are good reasons for me to go away too.  Reasons that you already know about.  Maybe there won’t be any more hassles, and you’ll be able to finish your training in peace.”


“I know it seems like a long time,” said Aronoke, “but it’s not as long as it seems. One day you’ll be a Jedi in your own right, but not if you leave. Don’t you want to be a Jedi?”

“Sometimes I don’t know,” said Ashquash, her voice muffled.  Her back was still to Aronoke, so he couldn’t see her expression.  “I’m not like you, Aronoke.  Not so powerful in the Force.  I’m Force-sensitive, but I struggle with most of the lessons we do – even things most of the little kids find easy.”

“It takes time and patience,” said Aronoke.  “And we’re all different. We find different things difficult. Master Skeirim brought you here, even though you were just as old as I was.  He must have thought you were worth training, enough to convince the Jedi Council too, or you wouldn’t be here at all.  They would have sent you somewhere else, to be trained as a pilot or a mechanic or something like that.  They wouldn’t bring you to be trained as a Jedi just because they wanted to help you. If they think you can become a Jedi, than it must be possible.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course I do.”

“But what if I fail?”

“Then you’ll probably be sent to join the Jedi Corps, and there’s no shame in that either.”


There was a long silence, long enough that Aronoke decided that Ashquash had finally fallen asleep.  He picked up his datapad again, and started reading from where he had left off.

“I still don’t want you to leave,” said Ashquash, in a sad sleepy voice.


The weeks passed quickly. There was still no progress in locating Master Altus, and Aronoke felt depressed. He had always imagined that Master Altus would be there when he performed his tests. He was still finding it difficult to progress in his lightsaber training. He practiced the standard forms during free time every afternoon now, over and over again, determined to make progress, but he seemed to have reached a plateau in his abilities.

Then when Aronoke came back from training one afternoon, there was an official looking message waiting for him.


“It says I have to sit for my trials in one month!  But I’m not level six in lightsaber training yet!” protested Aronoke to Master Insa-tolsa. “I’m still only level four!”

“That is what the council has decided,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It does seem very soon. I suspect Master Altus would not have agreed with how your training is being handled.”

Aronoke knew the green man would have preferred him to take his time, to linger in the temple in peace instead of being hurried back out into the field. He remembered a conversation they had once.


“Sometimes I don’t feel very much like I can really become a Jedi,” Aronoke had confided. “We learn all these moral lessons, and I can see the idea of them, but I can not truly believe in them. All the things the Jedi do in the histories and the fables seem separate from real life to me, because that is so unlike how anyone would behave on Kasthir.”

“You need to give yourself time,” Master Altus said. “These lessons will take time to become part of yourself. The longer you spend here in the temple, the more deeply you will be able to accept them.”

“That is all very well while I am in the temple, Master. There is little to confront me here. But I am worried that when I step outside into the real world, all these lessons will fall away, and I will be who I was once again.”

“You will never be who you once were, Aronoke,” said Master Altus, smiling. “You have already learned too much. You can only be the product of what you were and what you have learned since. You should not fear your past.”

“Well, I suppose I have learned a lot,” said Aronoke, who did fear it. “But I might still act in a similar way.”

“By the time you go out into the real world you will be better prepared to deal with it,” said Master Altus. “You will be able to remain in the temple for a long time, if the Force is with us. That is one of the reasons the Temple is so isolated from the outside world. You can learn in peace, with few outside influences to disturb you. You can learn about yourself before you have to confront everything else. Once you are ready, you will move beyond these walls to learn different, more challenging lessons.”

Aronoke nodded reluctantly, unconvinced, and made a non-committal noise.

Master Altus smiled patiently.  “You can trust yourself, Aronoke.”


Aronoke could not help but wish that Master Altus was here now, but that was pointless, because if Master Altus were here, everything would be different. He knew that Master Altus would not have supported his hasty advancement to Padawan status. It was not just a matter of being fully grown, of knowing how to physically wield a lightsaber or argue the minor points of Jedi philosophy.

No, it was a matter of inner confidence and stability. Aronoke tried hard to stay under control, to be a real Jedi, but he was still plagued by those same roiling emotions. There were deep insecurities, residual damage from Careful Kras’ tortures, from his too-hasty childhood. From being small and vulnerable in a world of harsh realities. From being the only one of his kind. From being bioengineered.

He knew the words to describe what his problems were and also the techniques he should use to deal with them.  He thought with time and effort these troubles would fade, but he did not know how successful he would be at coping in a stressful situation in the real world. What if his fear rose to panic and his control over the Force crumbled?

But as long as he remained here in the Jedi Temple, the persecutions would continue, and those did not just affect him, but also the others around him. Look at what had happened to Ashquash. Master Altus had disappeared, and it seemed likely that was because of Aronoke too.

It might be safer for everyone else to have him gone from here. But if Aronoke could not be completely protected from such things here in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, than where else could he possibly be safe?

He must be strong and calm, trust in the Force. No matter what happened. That was what Master Altus would say now.

“You know yourself the reasons for this decision,” Master Insa-tolsa was saying.

“I know, Master, but it seems so soon,” said Aronoke. “How can I possibly learn everything I need to know in just one month?”

“It does seem like a lot, but Master Bel’dor’ruch is correct in that most of a Jedi’s training comes from the years spent as a Padawan,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I believe myself that your abilities are adequate and that you will pass the test.”

“You really think so?” asked Aronoke.

“Yes, I do, but you must not be complacent either,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You must use the time available to you to best advantage.”

“But there is no more time to fit anything else in, Master!” Aronoke objected. “I get up earlier than anyone else in my clan to start training and I stay up late in the evenings reading and studying. I have sparring practice with Clan Ryllak, extra lightsaber training with Master Squegwash…”

“Let me see your schedule,” said Master Insa-tolsa, and Aronoke obligingly passed over his datapad. “There is little benefit to you in continuing these few remaining physical training exercises with your clan, so we will cross those off. Also, you will probably do better individually studying those areas where your knowledge is lacking, rather than continuing in morning lessons.”

Suddenly Aronoke’s schedule looked a good deal emptier. He was relieved. Everything seemed a little less impossible.

“Thank you, Master Insa-tolsa,” he said. “I will study hard.”

“That is all you can do, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “If you do your best and fail, then so be it.”

“What happens if I do fail, Master?” asked Aronoke. “What happens to me then?”

“You will continue with your training here at the temple,” said Master Insa-tolsa steadily. “You may retake the tests at a later date. That would not be the case if you had already spent your complete allotment of years at the temple, but you have not.”

“Oh,” said Aronke, relieved. That did not seem so bad.  Desirable even, although he would not consider failing the tests on purpose. Better to refuse to attempt them at all. “That is not so terrible. Thank you, Master, I feel my path is much clearer now.”

“May the Force be with you, Aronoke,” said Master-Insa-tolsa.


Despite the extra time, there was only so much physical training Aronoke could productively do in one day, and his lightsaber skills did not make much headway during the first two weeks of the remaining month.

“I believe you are not yet comfortable in your own body,” said Master Squegwash one morning. “You are at an age where you have been growing very quickly, and your mind is not perfectly aware of your limits or the way your limbs move. To rectify this, I will teach you some meditative techniques that will assist you in becoming better aware of yourself.”

“Yes, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. “I will do my best.”

The meditative techniques were not dissimilar to some of the Force exercises Clan Herf had been learning, although they required a good deal more focus.  They demanded control of the body while performing acts of balance and other physical activities, and demanded an awareness of physical self that Aronoke had never attempted before. Aronoke had to focus hard to perform to Master Squegwash’s exacting standards.  He found it difficult to maintain the control necessary to contain his motions, but once he did, he found the rest of the process came easily.

“Good,” said Master Squegwash.

Afterwards, they ran through some basic exercises, and then Master Squegwash had Aronoke duel with one of his other students, a talented rodian by the name of Kwidor.  Kwidor’s abilities far outclassed Aronoke’s own, and it was obvious from the start that Aronoke was going to lose. He struggled again and again to block Kwidor’s effortless blows to no avail.  It was like being humiliated by Clan Sandrek all over again.

“Clear your mind,” said Master Squegwash from the sidelines.  “Forget about the outcome, and seek to isolate every moment of the fight.  “Seek the connection between your movements and the Force, just like we practiced this morning.”

It seemed impossible amidst the confusing whirl of action.  Even though Kwidor was obviously not putting in full effort, he seemed to everywhere at once.  Aronoke struggled to control his movements, struggled for awareness of every muscle, every bone, every tendon of his body, and suddenly, everything swung into balance and the world seemed to snap into ultra-clear perspective. Aronoke’s mind and body no longer felt like two different things. His connection to the Force welded them together inexorably and connected him to everything outside in an undeniable bond.  It was just one moment of clarity, but Aronoke seized the feeling in his mind and tried to remember what it felt like.

“You’re doing very well for level four,” said Kwidor, bowing graciously as Aronoke admitted defeat.

“You felt it, didn’t you?” asked Master Squegwash, coming over and looking pleased.  “Go away, practice the exercises I showed you, and try to find that place again.  Once you have achieved that balance, you will have passed the greatest hurdle in lightsaber combat – the difference that lies between the even the greatest of mundane fighters, and those who wield the Force.”

After that lesson, Aronoke felt invigorated instead of exhausted. Lightsaber training had become a trial in itself, a nightmare he refused to allow himself to wake from, but now he felt his perseverence and Master Squegwash’s lessons had paid off.

He practiced all that week with new enthusiasm, feeling like he had been fighting blind through all his previous lessons. Now when he managed to maintain this new and as yet tenuous balance, it was like he existed in a nexus of calm while his mind and body acted in unison in response to the stimuli his Force senses fed him. He worked towards achieving this new state consistantly and was rewarded accordingly.

“I believe you have made the step you needed to make, Aronoke,” said Master Squegwash appreciatively during the next lesson. “There is nothing to prevent you from proceeding to the higher levels of training, given time and practice.”

“Thank you, Master Squegwash,” said Aronoke. He was pleased to be told he had reached the standard of level five by the end of that week.

The summons for Aronoke’s first test arrived then. There were to be three tests in total, but this summons only dictated the nature of this first test – that and a stern reminder that candidates would be considered to have failed their trials if they revealed the nature of the tests to anyone who had not already passed them.

The first was to be a written examination upon Jedi lore. Four topics would be randomly selected from amongst a list of a hundred possible questions, and he would be expected to write an essay upon each of them.

An essay? How did you do that? Aronoke had never done anything of the kind. Presumably this was a skill his clan had not yet studied. There was plenty of information on that sort of thing available on the holonet, however, and he relaxed when he saw it was a relatively simple standard form of writing.

Aronoke’s heart quailed when he saw the list of subject matter. One hundred possible topics! At first glimpse the questions looked terrible. Discuss Master Amn’s hypothesis of galactic spontaneity of cultural forms.  He didn’t know anything about Master Amn, let alone what spontaneity meant. Or this one: reflect upon the moral quandaries presented by the Hypercaspelian Conflict and suggest three ways in which the Jedi Order might have mitigated its intervention for a more beneficial outcome.  Urgh.  But upon closer examination, when he looked beyond the long words and the formal style of the questions, he realised that he actually knew a reasonable amount about more than half of them. Certainly he didn’t know as much as he would have if he had remained at the Jedi temple for the usual duration, but enough, perhaps, to get by. He spent most of his study time covering those things which his studies had not touched upon, and by the time of the examination he was feeling moderately confident.

The morning of Aronoke’s test finally arrived. He awoke trying to feel ready for anything, but could only sense that something was wrong. He looked about the room in confusion and realised that Ashquash was not in her bed. That was unusual. Ashquash did not like to get up early in the morning. She got up as late as possible, when the chime for breakfast went.

“Do you know where Ashquash is?” he asked Draken who was outside in the common room.

“No,” Draken said. “But Razzak Mintula went away somewhere in the middle of the night because of it.”

That, of course, didn’t help at all.  Aronoke felt sick, thinking about something having happened to Ashquash.  Something terrible, and he hadn’t noticed at all.  Could she have been drugged again?

What should he do?

“Razzak Mintula said you weren’t to worry, on account of you having to do your test,” said Draken, as if he knew exactly what Aronoke was thinking.

“How can I possibly do that?” said Aronoke, his voice sounding higher pitched than usual, even to himself.

Before he could convince himself that it was not a good idea, Aronoke let his habitual control over his senses drop away, opening himself up to the Force and sending his mind out looking for Ashquash. Out to the extents of the Jedi Temple, out to test the limits of the great shield that both protected the Temple from outside influences and prevented him from seeing beyond. No, Ashquash was not inside the temple – he was immediately sure of that.  But wait…no, she was there, not inside exactly, but clinging to the very edge, her tiny Force-presence blurred by the influence of the great shield.  Aronoke had a sudden impression of Ashquash perched up somewhere very high indeed, clinging tenaciously to a narrow ledge.  She was frightened and dizzy, and something was blurring her perception in a horrible nauseating way.

Aronoke was dimly aware of Draken saying something, of Draken clutching at his sleeve and shaking his arm.

“Aronoke?  What are you doing?”

“I have to help Ashquash!” said Aronoke, ignoring Draken’s increasingly frenzied questions.  He snatched himself free of Draken’s grasp. He ran off through the door of Clan Herf’s rooms into the hall outside.

“Aronoke!” cried Draken, and ran after him.

The next day, a message was waiting for Aronoke on the group viewscreen telling him to report to the Jedi Council immediately after breakfast.

“Why do you have to report, Aronoke, and not the rest of us?” asked Yeldra, crinkling up her little face thoughtfully.

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke.

“It’s probably because Ashquash is Aronoke’s room-mate,” said Razzak Mintula, coming into the clan room just then.  “The Council probably wants to ask Aronoke a few more questions about what happened to her. Do you know how to get to the meeting room, Aronoke?”

“Yes, Instructor.”

“Good.  Make sure you are not late.  You should probably leave as soon as you have tidied yourself.”  Razzak Mintula’s gaze lingered on Aronoke’s crumpled robe and unbrushed hair.

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that she hadn’t ordered him to shower.  He hurried off to put on fresh robes and make himself presentable.

It was not difficult to find his way across the Jedi temple.  Now he could read, the signs were much more helpful. The meeting room was in the most formal section of the Jedi temple where initiates did not usually go.  The hallways were grander, the decorations more looming and impressive.  People spoke in hushed tones unless they were very important people indeed.

Aronoke was relieved to find that the meeting room was not an immense council chamber like the one he had entered with Master Altus upon his arrival at the Jedi temple.  It was relatively small in comparison, although still much larger and grander than anything in the primary training centre.

“Ah, Initiate Aronoke,” said Master An-ku when Aronoke peered around the edge of the open door, debating whether or not he should go directly inside or wait to be fetched.  “Come inside and close the door.”

Aronoke obediently did so, and went to stand in front of the three Jedi Masters, who were seated on curved single-legged chairs on one side of the chamber.  Apart from Master An-ku, the togrutan master he remembered from his arrival, there was a green-skinned duros and a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned human man accompanied by a protocol droid.  “These are Masters Kordu-molh and Rosfantar,” Master An-ku said, and Aronoke bowed politely to all of them, like he had been taught.

“The council wishes to know more about the unusal events that have occurred to you since you entered the Jedi Temple, Initiate,” said Master An-ku smoothly after Aronoke had made his bow. She looked very tall, serene and somewhat fiercer than Aronoke had remembered.

“I told Master Altus and Master Insa-tolsa everything there was to tell, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke uncertainly.  “I don’t know if I can add anything to what I said then.”

“Nevertheless, I would like you to repeat your story,” said Master An-ku.  “Master Insa-tolsa has reported that these events are upsetting to the initiates in your clan and have proved disruptive to your training.”

Aronoke nodded, and obediently began outlining all the events that Master Altus would have labelled unusual.

“Most preposterous!” huffed Master Kordu-molh indignantly, when Aronoke had finished. “It is ridiculous that our training centre can be plagued by such interruptions!  The education of our younglings is a serious matter and any interruption to their routine can only be viewed to be of extreme detriment!  How can they learn proper meditative techniques and to perfect their control under such conditions?”

Aronoke suspected that Draken would put Master Kordu-molh into his category of people who never had any fun at all.

“It is true that these incidents should be given serious consideration,” said Master Rosfantar.  His voice was deep and melodious and echoed around the chamber.  “It is important that no one should influence our initiates so early in their training. But we must remember, Master Kordu-molh, that we are educating Jedi who will one day be mostly sent out into the field, where interruptions and incidents are something they will have to learn to cope with.”

“Coping with such things is beyond the scope of primary students -” said Master Kordu-molh, but subsided as Master An-ku held up her slender hand.

“We can debate this matter later,” said Master An-ku. “There are a few other questions I would like to pose to Initiate Aronoke first, before he returns to his studies.”

“Of course,” said Master Rosfantar. “Please, continue.”

“Initiate Aronoke, Master Altus has reported upon the conditions under which he encountered you on the planet Kasthir, and has detailed his reasons for bringing you to the Jedi Temple as a candidate.  Your candidature has been accepted and is beyond reproach.  Is there anything in your past to suggest why you in particular should be made the target of these attacks?”

“I don’t think so,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. There was, of course, the map on his back. Had Master Altus told the Jedi Council about that?  Aronoke assumed that he had, back when Aronoke had been too scared to be examined by the medical droid, but on the other hand, Master Altus had suggested it was safer to keep the map secret.  Before Aronoke could decide whether he should tell the Council about the map or not, Master An-ku was prompting him with more questions.

“It says in Master Altus’s report that you are an orphan with no known relatives.  Do you know anything about who your family were?” asked Master An-ku.

“No,” said Aronoke.

“You were born on Kasthir?”

“I don’t think so,” said Aronoke again.  “I was brought there when I was very young, by a Twi’lek whom I called Uncle Remo.  I don’t remember anything about where we came from.”

“And on Kasthir?  You worked in the service of a crimelord called Careful Kras, who controlled a sizeable amount of territory out in the wilderness?”

“He didn’t like me,” said Aronoke softly, remembering Careful Kras.  “He… had me taken from the Grinder and brought back to Bunkertown.  He punished me…sometimes… for… for being… different.”

“Different?” asked Master An-ku.

“There is no reason to suspect that this Careful Kras would have any influence here on Coruscant,” interjected Master Rosfantar.  “A crimelord from the desolate reaches of a backwater planet like Kasthir would certainly not have the contacts or resources to operate here.”

“Besides which,” added Master Kordu-molh, “some of these events suggest that whoever wishes to manipulate Initiate Aronoke has power in the Force, suggesting that it is a Jedi Master who is responsible.”

“Yes, those are both valid points,” said Master An-ku.  “I think we have taken up enough of your time, Aronoke.  You may return to your studies.”

“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke, bowing politely.  He was relieved that he hadn’t had to tell them about the thing on his back, although at the same time he felt guilty.  Like he was hiding the truth from people who needed it to help him. Still, he had told Master Altus about the markings on his back.  Surely that was enough.


Ashquash returned the very same day, and when she arrived, she looked at Aronoke sitting on his bed in their shared room for a long moment, saying nothing. To Aronoke it was obvious that she was pleased, although she did not smile.

“I’m sorry for nearly drowning you, Aronoke,” she said gruffly.

“That’s alright,” said Aronoke. “Perhaps you were right, that merely looking at the water was not enough, but I had to try something. Didn’t want to give up.”

Instead of Ashquash going and sitting on her own bed, she came over and sat next to him, something she had not done before. Aronoke was not certain how he felt about it.

“I’m sorry I went away,” he said awkwardly. “I didn’t mean for you to feel that we weren’t friends any more. I just didn’t want you or the others to be hurt.”

He was suddenly aware that Ashquash was a girl, despite all his previous self-conditioning to not think of her that way. There was something in how Ashquash held herself that made him think she would not resist at all if he put his arms about her and gave her a reassuring, but most un-Jedi-like, hug. It was not something he had ever done to anyone before. Knew it was not allowed.

“It’s all right now,” she said shyly.

He could see a look in her eyes that was not at all appropriate.

Oh, Aronoke thought stupidly. She likes me. In that sort of a way. No wonder she pushed me in the water.


“Shall we go and see if Draken wants to come and spar?” he said too quickly, standing up.

“Yes, lets,” agreed Ashquash, and the moment was broken.


Months rolled by, incident free, and Aronoke began to think that whoever had been trying to influence him had been scared off by the Jedi Council’s investigation.  There was plenty to keep him occupied; more and more he was being encouraged to read ahead and around the material in the lessons that Clan Herf studied. He seemed to make great advances in all things. It was like he was blossoming into himself.

“You’re growing up so fast, Aronoke,” Razzak Mintula said one day and he found himself feeling miffed instead of fearful and reluctant about the future. Surely he was quite grown up already!  His rapid escalation towards maturity meant that he had grown taller and had filled out substantially.  When he looked in the mirror in the clan bathroom he no longer saw an uncertain boy, but a shyly smiling young man.  He looked taller. Rangier. New robes had arrived for him at regular intervals, but still the clothing struggled to keep up with the changes in the proportions of his limbs. He had perhaps not reached his full growth yet, but he already looked down on most fully grown humans. His chest had broadened too and he felt stronger and more capable.

Ever since Ashquash had returned, Aronoke had to struggle with temptation more regularly. The current between them was often palpable, and although Ashquash never said anything, never referred to it, never did anything inappropriate, Aronoke knew that any move he made would be completely reciprocated. It was lucky that he had never been especially attracted to Ashquash, or resisting might have been completely impossible.  Aronoke always made sure that he kept a careful distance.  After all, he had once promised that he was Ashquash’s friend, that he would never think of her as a girl.  When he began to feel that current working between them, he was careful to make himself absent. It was easier to go off to the meditation rooms, or to suggest a group activity that included Draken or the little kids.

Luckily, with each passing month, Ashquash also seemed to grow smaller and more childish. Soon Aronoke could think of her as something like a kid-sister. Someone with a hopeless crush on him, who was too young to take seriously.  Someone who it was easier to treat like a friend.

Master Insa-tolsa’s excursions started during this time, and they were more fun than Aronoke had hoped. Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash were the ones who went, and they were accompanied by the ithorian master, and his colleague, Master Parothis. The excursions visited a variety of locations about Coruscant. The first one was to a meditation garden. Draken had been disappointed when he found out where they were going, thinking that it would be very dull, but when they got there, Master Insa-tolsa suggested that he and Master Parothis take a leisurely stroll together while the initiates explored together. It was nice to be out in the sunshine, even if Aronoke could see the faint curve of the dome high above them. It was nice to be left to their own devices, out from under the watchful eye of the Masters. He was well aware that were still being supervised from afar, and also that the Jedi were shielding him from the full impact of the Force so that he should not be overwhelmed.

The garden had an odd effect on him. Despite the familiar reluctance to take off his robes, he had the sudden urge to strip buff naked and lay on the grass in the sun. He did not do any such thing, of course, but the urge was there and it was most peculiar.

The other excursions visited different locales.  They explored a great emporium in the Bezdrilian sector. It was a huge market, a three dimensional maze of little clothing stores, and the initiates were accompanied to one of the booths which Master Insa-tolsa claimed made very good quality robes to measure. They were all measured for new robes by the spindly arconens that worked inside.

The third expedition was to a biological gardens. Draken was very excited by that trip. Aronoke had to admit that looking at all the different kinds of creatures was exciting. It was even more interesting to see the habitat-spheres that the creatures were presented in. It was like looking at tiny samples of many different planets.

The fourth expedition was to the spaceport. Aronoke was less interested in this because he had seen it before on his arrival with Master Altus.

He was fourteen in standard galactic years now, and had been at the Jedi temple a little more than two years.  He knew now that it was more his home than Kasthir had ever been. Felt a completely different person from the boy who had arrived there.

It was during this time too that he was called in one day to speak to Master Insa-tolsa, down in the main courtyard.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I have some bad news. Please, sit down.”

“Yes, Master?” said Aronoke, seating himself on a bench. He knew at once that it had to be something to do with Master Altus and Hespenara. They had been away for so long now, without any news.

He hoped the investigation of the map on his back had not led Master Altus into trouble.

“We have received news that a Jedi frozen in carbonite has been advertised to be auctioned by a crime lord on Kath’lor,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “The Jedi in question matches Hespenara’s description.”

“Oh no,” said Aronoke, shocked. “That’s terrible.”

“Obviously something must have prevented Master Altus from interfering, as he would not easily allow something of this nature to befall his Padawan,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely.

Aronoked nodded, feeling sick. What could possibly be powerful enough to strike down someone as strong as Master Altus? And poor Hespenara…

“The Jedi Order will of course do all it can to retrieve the Jedi in carbonite before she can be auctioned, and to try and find out what has become of Master Altus,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We must trust in the Force that these things can and will be achieved.”

“Yes, Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke mechanically. His mind felt numb and confused and he went through his lessons distractedly the next few days. He hoped that news of Master Altus and Hespenara would arrive soon, but it was weeks coming, and when it came, none of it was good. The Jedi Order’s efforts to prevent the auction had failed and Hespenara had been sold, it was thought, to someone in the Primtara sector. Master Skeirim, amongst others, had been sent to investigate. None of the attempts to locate Master Altus had been successful.

Aronoke did his best to maintain a jedi-like attitude about Master Altus’s disappeareance, but he found it difficult. He burned with the need to do something, although there did not seem there was anything that he could do. Surely a fully trained Jedi like Master Skeirim was far more likely to achieve results than an initiate only in the third year of his training.  The matter was already in capable hands and Aronoke knew exactly what Master Altus himself would say he should do.  He must continue his training as if nothing had happened and not worry pointlessly about his missing mentor.

That was something Aronoke was not capable of doing.  Even though he threw himself into his lessons with dogged vigour, he found himself worrying about Master Altus and Hespenara all the time.  Thoughts of them crept in to disturb his meditation and sometimes prevented him from sleeping.  Something had gone wrong and Aronoke suspected that it had something to do with him.  He often felt if he could just reach out through the Force, unobstructed by the great shields that protected the Jedi Temple, he would be able to find the missing Jedi Master and his padawan.

It was no use to discuss these thoughts with Master Insa-tolsa.  Aronoke was well acquainted enough with Jedi ways to know that the Master would only repeat what he knew himself.  That he should continue his lessons and leave rescue attempts in more competent hands.

Meanwhile, the excursions to interesting places on Coruscant continued, although Aronoke found it difficult to relax and enjoy them.  They visited the senate plaza to see the great building where the galactic senate sat. It was a popular destination for tourist groups visiting Coruscant from across the galaxy, and Aronoke and his colleagues were stared at a good deal by the other tour-groups who had come to see the sights.  It was like the Jedi were part of the attraction instead of visitors themselves.

The sixth excursion was back to the Bezdrilian sector for more new robes. This time the initiates were directed to locate the tailor shop and order new robes by themselves. Aronoke was glad – his arms were already outgrowing his current sleeves by a few inches.  Afterwards, they were allowed to explore the shopping complex further.

While Aronoke was waiting for Draken and Ashquash to come out of a shop, he noticed a droid was watching him.  As soon as it saw he had noticed, it began trying to get his attention. Its limbs waved exaggeratedly, making what it obviously thought were covert gestures. Aronoke studiously ignored it. Chances were this was another unusual incident, and he didn’t want any strange messages from his supposed friend. The droid was insistent however. When Aronoke did not move, it reached inside one of its compartments and produced a cylindrical device. Waiting until there was a space in the crowd, it rolled the device across the floor so that it fetched up against Aronoke’s foot.

Why do these things always happen to me, Aronoke thought.  Now what am I going to do?

He didn’t want to kick the cylinder away across the floor in case it hurt someone. Remembering how the previous message-droid had exploded, he wouldn’t put it past his mysterious assailant to do such a thing. Instead, sighing, he picked it up and looked at it. The droid seemed satisfied with this and scuttled off into the crowd. The cylinder seemed to be a message device. Aronoke did not want to activate it in such a public place – again, it might be dangerous. Instead he dropped it into the pocket of his robes.

As soon as they had returned to the Jedi temple, he brought it over to Master Insa-tolsa.  They had just dismounted from the speeder, and the other Jedi in their party were standing a short distance away.

“Master Insa-tolsa,” he said, “There was a droid watching me while we were off by ourselves.”

“A droid?” said Master Insa-tolsa. “As happened to you before? Did it give you a message?”

“Well, perhaps,” said Aronoke. “It gave me this.” He took the cylinder out of his pocket and passed it to Master Insa-tolsa. “I didn’t look at it,” he began to say, but as he did so, the cylinder began flashing with a red light.

It was a good thing, Aronoke thought later, that Master Insa-tolsa had the foresight to act so quickly. Aronoke was still thinking stupidly that the flashing light didn’t bode anything good, when the cylinder was suddenly whisked some distance away, where it exploded violently. It raged brutally for a moment, a great ball of surging energy spectacularly contained by an invisible spherical shield, and then slowly died away. Aronoke could hear the astounded gasps of Draken and Ashquash from where they waited for him to finish speaking to Master Insa-tolsa, a short distance away.

“I wondered if something like that might happen,” said Aronoke, stunned.

Master Insa-tolsa also looked shaken. “If I did not know you so well, Aronoke,” he said wryly, “I might suspect you of playing pranks.”

It was a gentle admonishment. He had just saved all their lives, Aronoke thought belatedly. He had suspected the cylinder might blow up, although he had not imagined it happening so violently. He had trusted that Master Insa-tolsa would deal with it without thinking about the possible consequences – his faith in the big ithorian had solidified that much during their association.

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely, making an apologetic bow of respect. “I did not think. I would not do something like that as a joke.”

“It is insufferable that these attacks continue unabated,” said Master Insa-tolsa, and then to Master Parothis and the other acolytes who were coming over: “There is no need for concern. Everything is fine. Initiates, you may go back to your clan quarters now.”

“What was that?” asked Draken, wide-eyed and excited as they made their way down the lift.

“It was a message cylinder a droid gave to me while we were in the bazaar,” said Aronoke.

“A droid? What droid?”

“You were in the shops.”

“What did the message say?” asked Ashquash. It was good perhaps, thought Aronoke, that she had seen what had happened. Proof that what he had told her was true.

“I don’t know. I didn’t look at it. Thought it was best to give it to Master Insa-tolsa without looking, and then it blew up.”

“That was sure something though,” said Draken. “The way it all raged and seethed, and how Master Insa-tolsa held it back like that! I’m glad that I saw that. It was amazing!”

“It’s probably best not to talk about it too much,” said Aronoke gently. Draken was still so young in his ways, it was difficult to remember that they were about the same chronological age. He wistfully thought that it would be more fun to be like Draken, without the weight of mysterious problems. If Aronoke had not been growing up so rapidly all the time, he would have spent a great deal more time getting into trouble with Draken, he suspected. “It’s better that the little kids don’t know.”

“Oh of course,” said Draken. “I won’t go blabbing the whole story in front of the little kids. Why would I go and do a thing like that?”

This from Draken who was the primary source of gossip, not only within their clan, but probably amongst many of the surrounding clans as well.

Aronoke and Ashquash both looked at him and Aronoke laughed.

“What?” asked Draken looking bewildered and holding his hands up questioningly.


The weeks fled by, and there was still no good news about Master Altus and Hespenara. Being frozen in carbonite was dangerous if it was not done properly, Aronoke knew, but Hespenara would not be aware of the passing of time. She would be in no pain or torment as long as she had not been released. Aronoke did not know why someone might want a live Jedi to experiment on, but he was certain such projects existed, and he hoped that Hespenara had not fallen into the hands of one of them.

Perhaps an experiment like that was what he himself had been created for.

As time went on, with no good news forthcoming, Aronoke grew more and more impatient. It seemed that the Jedi Council was useless, despite all their amazing powers. Were they too couched in caution to achieve anything? He felt strongly that Master Altus was still alive and was even more certain that he would know at once if the green man were dead.


“Master Insa-tolsa?” asked Aronoke one day.  “It seems I have been learning a great deal about the Force, and yet every time we go out on our excursions, you and Master Parothis still shield me from it.  Do you think I might go unshielded?”

“Are you sure you are ready?” asked Master Insa-tolsa thoughtfully. “It is for your own protection that you are shielded. Full exposure to the Force can be risky for one with your unusual balance of powers. From your lessons, I know that your control is progressing well, but your sense abilities continue to advance apace.”

“I can’t be certain, of course, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I feel I will be alright. I want to learn. I want to know what it is like. I will not learn to control myself if I do not try.”

“Hm, well, you have practiced hard, it is true,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “On our next expedition you may attempt to go unshielded.”

Their next expedition was to the water purification subsystems on the lower levels of Coruscant. At one time Aronoke would have been worried about all that water. He was still disturbed by it, seeing it lying in great sweltering pools and thundering by in torrential cataracts, but being exposed to the full strength of the Force was a new experience for him. It demanded a lot of his attention. Coming out of the temple had not been as shocking as that first time. He had been expecting the sudden great cacophony of the Force thundering through the great city. His attempts to dull its impact resulted in the construction of his own personal shield to counteract it.

It was not so difficult, but it did require a certain degree of concentration, and so, for the first part of the excursion, Aronoke was happy to wander along with his group mates. To stare in fascinated horror at the vast pools of water and listen to the explanations the tour droids gave of the processes involved in filtering it. Here at last was how Coruscant maintained its water supply to provide for all its billions of people, but Aronoke found it hard to pay attention. He felt curiously divorced from what was happening around him, partly absorbed in the new task of shielding himself, while another part of his mind was thinking about how he was going to achieve his secret goal, to look for Master Altus. Great columns of water thundered down around them, although never so close that they got wet by the spray, yet Aronoke found himself hardly thinking about them at all. He would once have been terrified by such a thing.

Distraction was a powerful tool.

Aronke waited until Master Insa-tolsa and Master Parothis fell deep into conversation together, as they were often wont to do. They stood debating some distance away. Draken and Ashquash were over by the railing, looking down at a great suction pool that lay below. Aronoke took advantage of the moment and went to sit upon a handy bench against one wall

He calmed his mind by means of a simple meditative exercise and carefully let his shields fall away.

He had tried once before to reach out through the Force to find something. It had been a minor thing, a missing datapad left behind on one of their excursions, but he had been unable to reach past the great protective barrier that encircled the Jedi Temple.

Now there was no barrier. The Force was like a great living network that reached everywhere, even between the worlds of the galaxy. Everything was interconnected. Distance was nothing. Aronoke reached out towards Master Altus, knowing that he was out there somewhere, knowing he was not dead and seeking some confirmation of it. Wanting to know where he was.

What came was no more than a fleeting glimpse. Master Altus was in a dark place, alone and in pain, but still very much himself. He shielded himself against the forces that beset him. He was obviously a prisoner, but he was still alive.

Aronoke had no time to tell anything of where Master Altus was. Like a piece of stretchy rubber he had reached his limits of expansion and was suddenly snapped back into himself in a painful oscillating way.  He felt too loosely anchored afterwards, like his mind had been overstretched and was unable to contract fully. He sat a few minutes, feeling dizzy but relieved. Master Altus was alive, although he was being held prisoner somewhere.

Everything felt strange and disjointed.  The world was too bright and strangely too wide and not high enough.  It reverberated around him, and Aronoke forced himself to sit still and focus on a meditative exercise.  It did not seem as effective as usual and he felt if he moved too quickly he would lose control of his body and start to shake like a leaf.

“Are you okay, Aronoke?” asked Draken, coming over. “You look a bit sick. Is it all the water?”

“I’m okay,” said Aronoke, climbing to his feet and following the others back over to the masters, hoping he didn’t look too peculiar. Merely thinking that was too much. His hands began to tremble uncontrollably as they made their way over to rejoin the tour.

Master Insa-tolsa must have noticed Aronoke looking strained. Suddenly the Master’s shield snapped around Aronoke, blocking out the vast bulk of the Force. Aronoke felt more secure. He was happy to remain quietly near Master Insa-tolsa for the rest of the trip, although his mind was anything but still.  He was so very grateful that Master Altus was not dead or horribly changed.

He knew that keeping this information to himself was the smart thing to do. He might get in trouble for having attempted to see Master Altus.  Master Insa-tolsa would certainly not be pleased.

But he didn’t care if he got in trouble. That was of no importance whatsoever.  If what he had seen was even of the smallest assistance in locating Master Altus, it would be worth it.

“Master Insa-tolsa, can I speak with you a moment, before we go back?” asked Aronoke when their speeder arrived at the temple.

“Yes, of course,” said the ithorian. “Although I hope it is not a surprise like last time. Draken and Ashquash, you can go ahead back to your clan rooms. There is no need for you to wait.”

Draken and Ashquash were curious, Aronoke could see, but made no protest, making their bows, and thanking Master Insa-tolsa for taking them out.

“I saw Master Altus,” said Aronoke, once the others had gone. “I could sense him through the Force. I could not see where he was, but I could tell that he was alive. He seemed to be a prisoner, and was in some pain, but he was still alive and still himself.”

Master Insa-tolsa paused a moment, an unreadably alien expression crossing his face. “That is good news,” he said at last. “I am relieved to hear that Master Altus is alive, but you have been very foolish Aronoke. To attempt to seek him out in this way is a task that experienced Masters would hesitate attempting. Your training is very far from complete and you risk yourself greatly by attempting such a thing.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, but he was not. He was entirely unrepentant. “But I would not be here at all if it were not for Master Altus. I might be something else entirely, or probably dead. If I can do anything to help him, then any risk to myself is unimportant.”

“If you risk yourself heedlessly now, untrained and impatient, Initiate,” said Master Insa-tolsa sternly, “then you may well not be here later, when your skills really are needed. You might rob us of a resource that might help many people. Or even worse, corrupt that potential good into something that could do us harm. Master Altus himself would advise you to refrain from taking such risks on his behalf. Although I am relieved that he is still alive and will see that this information is passed on to those investigating his whereabouts, I am disappointed that you would do a thing like this during one of our excursions. I trust you to behave in a proper manner while in public and to be a good example for Ashquash and Draken. I took your request to go unshielded in good faith, yet you have purposefully manufactured this opportunity for your own purposes.”

“I am sorry for that, Master,” said Aronoke, more contritely. “It was not my intention to deceive you or to be disobedient. You are right. I did not consider that aspect of my actions. I have always felt that Master Altus was still alive. I felt I could contact him if only I tried, and it is difficult not to try when no one has made any great progress towards finding him and Hespenara.”

“You must be patient and trust in the Force,” said the ithorian. “All things happen in their own time.” And he went on to recite several platitudes that emphasized this point and required Aronoke to contemplate them at length, as a penance.

Aronoke did this, but he was still unable to regret trying to find Master Altus. The fact that the green man was still alive was a comfort to him during all the days that followed.


One evening, Aronoke was called to the library by Master Insa-tolsa. They had not met there before, but Aronoke thought little of it, because they often met in different places. When he arrived, it turned out to be a meeting room, set out with chairs and tables, with a reference library of datacrystals stored along the walls.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, more formal than usual. “There is someone here whom I would like you to meet.” He gestured across the room, and Aronoke’s gaze followed the motion to settle upon the woman who stood there.

She was a chiss. A tall, stern looking chiss with silver hair, almost as tall as he was. He found it strange to look into her glowing red eyes, so much like his own in the mirror.

“This is Master Bel’dor’ruch,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

Aronoke had been told once about Master Bel’dor’ruch, the chiss Jedi who had come through the Jedi Temple a quarter of a century before he had started his training. He had been told he might consider her a good example of what he might achieve. He had expected that one day he might meet her, due to their shared race, but had not expected it to be as soon as this. Speechless for a moment, he realised he was staring at her, and attempted to hide his confusion by making an awkward polite bow under her flashing red gaze.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “You have nearly reached your full growth.”

Aronoke wondered how she could tell how fully grown he was, just by looking at him.

“Yes, Master,” he forced himself to say. He felt returned to his old monosyllabic insecurity, she was so very stern and frightening. Her direct manner seemed impossible to avoid, while her voice was hard and demanding, indicating that she would brook no nonsense.

“How long have you been here at the Jedi temple, Aronoke?”

“Something over two years, Master,” said Aronoke.

“I have heard about these incidents that have plagued you,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch. “I find it an affront to our shared species that the only other chiss to train to be a Jedi in my lifetime should have his training botched in this way. It is hard to believe that such a matter has not been effectively dealt with by the Jedi Masters after all this time.” She gave Master Insa-tolsa a scathing look, as if he were personally responsible for these failings, but did not give him time to reply.

“The question that I find myself asking,” she continued, pacing back and forth, “is why you have attracted this unwanted attention. It seems unlikely that it is due to your race alone, although I suppose it is possible. Your records show that you are a dedicated student, but certainly no more talented than many others. Many students are different in one regard or another – merely being unusual does not seem enough reason for you to warrant such unusual attention.”

She regarded Aronoke with her piercing red eyes.

“Your Master Altus recorded in his report that you were being provoked. His words indicate that he recognised that there was a reason for this happening and did not question that it was valid, but he did not see fit to record exactly what it might be.”

Aronoke could feel the heat rising in his face, a side-effect of the old shame and fear that were rising unbidden inside him, when he realised where this conversation was leading.

“Now Master Altus has disappeared as well,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch pointedly. “He has obviously met with a disaster great enough to overwhelm even one of his power and experience. I can’t help but think that these things are potentially related.”

She stopped still, fixing Aronoke with her stare and let him stand there a moment, sweating and trapped by his own ancient terror. He forced himself to focus, to bring his fear under control.  He swallowed uncomfortably.

“Is there any reason you know of, Initiate, which you revealed to Master Altus, which might explain why you might be singled out in this way?”

“There is one thing, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “There is not really any explaining it. I can only show you.”

“Then show us,” demanded Master Bel’dor’ruch. She waited expectantly, willing to accept no delays.

Aronoke made a small bow of acquiescence. His heart thudded in his chest despite his effort to maintain control and he felt hot, heavy and sick, like he had been struck down with a sudden fever.  With fumbling hands that felt swollen and slow, he took off his outer robe and hung it on a chair. Nausea washed over him in waves as he unfastened his shirt with fingers that shook slightly.  He felt helpless as a child again, naked, tied face-down on a rack, bound to his fate, as he took the shirt off.

You are not there, he told himself firmly, hanging the shirt over the robe. This is not Crazy Kras. That will not happen here.

And then he turned around.

They came forward to peer at him, turning up the lights to see better.

“And Master Altus knew about this?” asked Bel’dor’ruch.

“He took a picture of it,” said Aronoke unsteadily. “Recorded it on his datapad. He was investigating it here at the temple, but found little. Said there was a lead he might investigate while he was away.”

“And now he has disappeared,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch thoughtfully. “You can get dressed, Initiate.”

Aronoke hastened to put his shirt and robe back on while she continued speaking.

“A detailed record should be made of those markings. We must try to replicate Master Altus’s research, so we might find out what this lead was. It might give us some insight into where he went.”

Without further deliberation she turned to Master Insa-tolsa.

“Why is he still an initiate here in the temple?” she said, speaking as if Aronoke was not there. “He is obviously almost fully grown. Both you and I know, Master Insa-tolsa, that the role of Initiate is an artificial one, brought into existence to keep young Force-sensitives out of trouble until they are fully grown and a Master can be found to mentor them. It is only in recent decades that they are kept here as late as they are, shipped in batches like livestock to Ilum because there are so many it is the only way to deal effectively with them all. They used to be sent out much sooner, and certainly have been sent out with less training in times of war. He is young by today’s standards, it is true, but we chiss are not like humans, are nothing like humans in this regard. There is also his unusual background to consider. He was already performing in an adult’s role before he was inducted, according to Master Altus’s reports. He would never have been allowed to train at all, if not for Master Altus’s sponsorship. He is far too old. He should be given his trials and made a Padawan, placed out in the field where these harassments will be more easily avoided. It is the obvious solution.”

“But he is not ready for such pressures,” objected Master Insa-tolsa. “Aronoke has only been with us for a short time and although it is true that he has learned very quickly, there is still much that he does not know. Surely his unusual background means there is more reason, rather than less, that he requires time to complete his training.”

“Much that a Master can easily teach him out in the field, as it is meant to be. Don’t you agree, Master Insa-tolsa, that it was from your Master that you learned all the most important aspects of your training? Not as an initiate wasting time in the temple?”

Aronoke thought Master Insa-tolsa did not like the temple labelled as a waste of time, but the ithorian said nothing of this.

“You do make some valid points, Master Bel’dor’ruch,” he said stiffly. “In regard to the harassments.”

“What about you?” said Master Bel’dor’ruch suddenly, turning back to Aronoke. “Do you feel ready to go out to train with a Master in the field?”

“I…I don’t know, Master,” said Aronoke uncertainly. Part of him leapt at such an idea – to be out doing instead of practicing, to be able to make some difference in the world. To learn new things through experience rather than carefully considered repetition. But part of him did not want that responsibility. He liked having a safe place here in the temple, with people who could help him. The incidents were difficult and annoying, it was true, but they were nothing compared to the difficulties he had faced before he had come here. Those were the only two types of existence that he had known.

“I feel there is still much I have to learn here,” he said. “But I also feel it would be safer for my clan mates if I was not here, because then they could not be targeted by these attempts to get at me.”

Master Bel’dor’ruch was not satisfied with this hovering.

“Let me put it another way,” she said. “If you were given the opportunity to attempt the test to become a Padawan, would you be willing to do so?”

She made it sound like a challenge.

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke immediately.

“Well then,” she said, turning back to Master Insa-tolsa and shrugging. “Let it be so. I don’t believe there is anything else we need to discuss that requires your presence, Initiate. I will contact you later as I would speak with you further about these incidents and those things that we have in common. You are dismissed.”

“You look rather shaken,” said Draken, when Aronoke got back to the clan rooms. “Did something strange happen to you again? More exploding messages?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “I had to go and see Master Bel’dor’ruch and she is scary.”

“Oh,” said Draken, a little sympathetically. Aronoke refrained from telling him more about the meeting. He didn’t tell Draken that he had met another chiss. He felt like Master Bel’dor’ruch had taken his world, firmly shaken it and then set it back in place upside-down. He had finally met someone of his own race and she was not at all like anything he had expected. She had ruthlessly extracted his secret in just a few minutes. Then she had abruptly decided that he should be taken from the temple and sent out into the galaxy. He did not know how to explain these things to Draken and thought perhaps it was best not to.

Everything would be revealed in time, regardless.

Aronoke was left by himself with a deluge of disturbing thoughts to contend with. How could Ashquash be drugged? How could anyone do such a thing to her, here in the middle of the Jedi temple? Why would anyone want to?

And then the truth hit him. It was a punishment. Not a punishment for Ashquash, most likely, but a punishment for him. He had reported the strange message, reported all the odd things on his datapad. Ashquash was his friend and had been attacked in order to convince him that this was not a good idea.

He slept little for the rest of the night; would have liked to go running, but knew that was not wise. That Razzak Mintula would not have liked him to go alone, not just then. So he meditated instead. After a long time he was able to calm his thoughts enough to fall asleep.

He awoke quite late the next morning, but Ashquash was still not there. Razzak Mintula was not there either. Mintaka, the instructor who sometimes stood in for her was there instead.

“Razzak Mintula will not be here today,” Mintaka announced at the start of their first lesson. “She was up very late tending to Ashquash, who is sick. Ashquash has been taken to the medical bay, and she is fine, but she will not be back for a few days.”

Aronoke could feel the weight of Draken’s eyes and knew that Draken wanted to ask him all sorts of questions, but he refused to meet the other boy’s eye and firmly concentrated on his lessons.

“What happened to Ashquash?” Draken asked as soon as they went off to the refectory for the midday meal. “She seemed fine yesterday.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “She woke me up in the middle of the night, and Razzak Mintula took her to the sick bay. That’s all.”


Aronoke did not want to tell Draken about Ashquash being drugged.  Draken was his friend, but inclined to gossip with people from other clans.  Aronoke thought that if he were Ashquash, he would feel ashamed and wouldn’t want the real story spread about.

But a few days later it became apparent to everyone that there was more to the story than merely Ashquash falling ill.  Razzak Mintula was back by then and had reassured Aronoke that Ashquash was fine and was being decontaminated. Aronoke sensed that she was angry that something like this could happen to a student in her care.  He felt the same sort of powerlessness himself.

“Today our schedule will be a little different from usual,” said Razzak Mintula as they gathered in the clan room after breakfast. “We will be having our first session in here today, so it will almost be like a kind of holiday. An investigator will be coming to ask some questions about Ashquash. He will want to know if you noticed anything the day before she was sick, because there is some concern that it might have been done on purpose.”

“On purpose?” asked Draken, his voice rising in his surprise. “Ashquash was poisoned?”

“That’s bad,” said Andraia, one of the smaller humans. “I don’t want to be poisoned!”

“It is bad,” said Razzak Mintula. “But you don’t need to worry. There is no reason to think that any of you will be poisoned, but you must be sure to answer the investigator’s questions carefully.”

“Yes, Instructor Mintula.”

When the investigator arrived, he was a man who looked largely human except for his skin, which was marked like that of a spotted cathar.  He was accompanied by four droids and Aronoke wondered why he needed so many of them.

“This is Investigator Rythis,” said Razzak Mintula to Clan Herf, who sat cross-legged on the floor.  “He has set up his office in our usual classroom, and will want to ask you all some questions, as we have previously discussed.”  Even while she spoke, three of the droids began cruising about Clan Herf’s rooms, scanning everything.

The investigator was a dour looking man for a Jedi, Aronoke thought.  Either he was of a naturally sombre disposition, or he was not pleased at having to interview a bunch of initiates.  Perhaps though, to be fair, thought Aronoke, the Investigator judged the situation was serious enough to warrant such an attitude.

“This is a serious matter,” said the Investigator sternly. “I intend to determine how your clan-mate Ashquash was drugged, so we can find out who is ultimately responsible. I will take you one at a time to ask you questions. I want to know if you noticed anything unusual about Ashquash or anything else, so you should think about that while you are waiting for your turn.”

The way he spoke was very intimidating, and Aronoke noticed several of the smaller clan members edging closer to their fellows.

“Which one of you is Initiate Aronoke?” asked the Investigator.  “I would like to speak to him first.”

He pronounced Aronoke’s name wrong, which hadn’t happened in some time.

“I’m Aronoke,” said Aronoke, by means of correction as he climbed to his feet.  He met the man’s intense gaze steadily. This was just a Jedi investigator, here to help Ashquash, and Aronoke hadn’t done anything wrong.  Besides, he wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as Careful Kras, and Aronoke was determined to show the smaller ones that they need not be afraid.

“Come this way,” said the Investigator, gesturing towards the door that led outside.

“Yes, Investigator,” Aronoke said.

He followed the man across the hall into the classroom on the other side of the hallway.

“You are Ashquash’s room mate?” asked the Investigator, and Aronoke agreed that this was so.  “This whole situation seems somewhat irregular,” grumbled the investigator disapprovingly, and Aronoke wondered what he meant.  Because Ashquash was a girl?  Because they were different species?  Because both he and Ashquash had unusual backgrounds and had come late to the Jedi Temple?

The Investigator did not explain himself, but lots of questions followed, concerning what had happened the night Ashquash was drugged. Aronoke did his best to answer all of them. How had Ashquash woken him up? Had she ever done so before? Did she usually touch him like she had when she had shaken him? How did she usually behave around him? What sort of sparring did they do? Did they ever go sparring together alone? Did they go out in the middle of the night?

Aronoke began wondering if initiates did all these strange sorts of things more often than he realised. He also found himself questioning exactly what it was the investigator was investigating.

“Do you have any idea why someone would want to drug Ashquash?” the investigator asked.

“I thought it might be part of the unusual things that sometimes happen to me,” said Aronoke hesitantly. “I thought it might be a punishment, because I did not do what the message in one of them told me to do, because I knew it was wrong.”

“Unusual things?” asked the investigator. “What message?”

Aronoke was surprised, thinking that the investigator would have known about all that.

“I reported all of them, either to Master Insa-tolsa, or Master Altus, or Razzak Mintula,” he said. “Unusual things happen to me sometimes. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I thought what happened to Ashquash might be a punishment because I refused to do as I was directed.”

“These incidents will have to be recovered from any reports that were made by your superiors,” said Investigator Rythis primly, his fingers flickering over his datapad. He seemed annoyed with Aronoke, like this information was not helpful at all.

Aronoke shrugged. He tried to explain everything in detail, but by the end of it he still felt that the investigator was not pleased with him. Whether the investigator had expected to find a connection between Aronoke and the drugging, or thought Aronoke was purposefully concealing things was not obvious.

“What was it like?” Draken asked, he face alight with anticipatory relish, when Aronoke returned. “Was he scary?”

“No, not really,” said Aronoke calmly. “He just asked me lots of questions.”

“What about the droids? They didn’t torture you did they?”

“No, of course not!” said Aronoke. “There was one taking notes. The others seemed to be off scanning things.”

Draken was caught between relief and disappointment.

“He can’t be much of an Investigator then,” he muttered, “if he’s not as scary as he seems.  Really it’s an affront to Ashquash to send somebody so tame.  How can he be a proper investigator?”

“You can’t have it both ways you know,” pointed out Aronoke. “It’s either scary and then you’ll be scared because he’ll probably want to talk to you next, or it’s not scary and it’s boring.”

“Hm, I guess,” said Draken, unconvinced.


The investigation did not result in any great revelation that Aronoke ever learned of. No culprit was brought to justice, although eventually it was revealed that Ashquash’s toiletries had been tampered with, and that this was how the drug had been administered. Aronoke looked at his own toiletries with new distaste. He had never been fond of them – the water was bad enough by itself – and now he was even less inclined to use them.

It was difficult to relax and be calm after that. He felt angry and unsettled. More and more it seemed that what had happened to Ashquash was his fault, if only indirectly. If he had not been here, than would this have happened to Ashquash? He didn’t think so. It wasn’t fair. She only had this one chance to succeed at being Jedi, like he had, and because she was Aronoke’s friend it was being taken away from her.

It would be better, Aronoke reasoned, if he had no friends. He knew this was not right. After all, clan-mates were supposed to work together to solve problems. But most of Clan Herf was so small. What good would it do to involve the little kids in his problems? What if one of them was hurt next? That thought was unbearable. He wished Master Altus was here to talk to. That in itself was pointless, because it seemed likely that none of this would have happened if Master Altus was here. Aronoke knew he should try to be brave and independent, even if he felt out of his depth.

Ashquash came back a week later, quiet, withdrawn and grumpy, in many ways reverted to the angry uncommunicative person whom Aronoke had first met. Aronoke took care to behave like he had done then.  He sat quietly and did his lessons nearby, not ignoring Ashquash, not paying undue attention to her, but focusing on his reading.

Ashquash sat on her bed and did nothing for a long time.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” she said finally. Sadly.

“Don’t say that,” said Aronoke, shocked. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t make it.  You’re smart and strong as anyone else.”

“Someone doesn’t want me to,” said Ashquash. “It’s obvious. They don’t want me to succeed, so they did this to me. And right now, it’s only the stubborn, angry bit of me that wants to stick it through, just so that they don’t get what they want.”

Aronoke was overcome with remorse.

“That’s not necessarily true,” he said. “It is possible that some Jedi masters think that you shouldn’t be an initiate, but that doesn’t mean they would go so far as to sabotage your efforts. And for every one that thinks you shouldn’t be given the opportunity, there must be even more who think you should, otherwise you wouldn’t be here at all.”

“Hrm,” said Ashquash, unconvinced.

“And it might not be because of you at all,” said Aronoke, ploughing on despite his better judgement. “Strange things have been happening to me practically since I got here. Especially since Master Altus left. Weird things keep appearing on my datapad. A strange holotransmission was delivered by a droid, trying to manipulate me. I reported them all, and it seems to me that this attack on you might have been a sort of punishment. I mean, you are my room-mate, we are friends, right? Maybe you got hurt so that next time I listen to what it says.”

Ashquash looked up at that, warily.

“I reported those things to Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke. “He said they are trying their best to fix them. I really hope it won’t happen again.”

“Why would they want to manipulate you so badly?” asked Ashquash critically. “To do what? Because you’re so special?”

“Because I’m different,” said Aronoke. “I…there are some different things about me.” He thought for one wavering moment that perhaps he should tell her about his back, but it was too frightening, too strange. Too much to burden Ashquash with.

“I am different too,” said Ashquash.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Aronoke. “I don’t know why they would want to manipulate me specifically,” he continued, semi-truthfully, for although he knew it was almost certainly something to do with his back, he didn’t know why his back was so important. “But it’s obvious that they do, because of the message and the other things that have happened.”

“Huh,” said Ashquash.

“I was thinking,” Aronoke said, “that if it’s true that you were hurt because of me, than perhaps it might be better if you were not my room-mate anymore.”

Ashquash looked up at him. Her complexion darkened like a sandstorm was rolling across it.  Her eyes darkened and her young face settled into hard, tense lines that made her look much older.  Her anger was a tangible, frightening thing.

“I just don’t want you to be hurt because of me,” he explained hurriedly.

“Maybe it would be better,” said Ashquash tightly.

“We could pretend that we had argued,” said Aronoke. “That’s not true of course. We would know we hadn’t argued. We haven’t argued, have we? But it might be enough to keep you safe.”

“How will we decide which of us should change rooms?” said Ashquash flatly, suddenly looking drained and tired instead of angry. Aronoke felt sick, because he didn’t want to travel this path. Wouldn’t the voice have won a victory if he did? But the alternate path seemed impossible. He wanted to protect his clan-mates from this mess, not get them further involved. They were too small to have to deal with such a big problem, he reasoned.  Or had too many problems of their own, like Ashquash.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind changing,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to do anything – it’s because of me that this happened, so I should be the one who changes.”

Ashquash said nothing for a long moment.

“Alright, go then,” she said, bitterly.

Aronoke nodded, got to his feet, and went to Razzak Mintula’s room.

“Yes, Aronoke, what is it?” asked Razzak Mintula wearily.

“Razzak Mintula, can I change rooms?” asked Aronoke.

She looked at him for a long moment, studying his expression. “Perhaps that mightn’t be such a bad idea,” she said, finally. “I am reluctant however, to swap you with anyone else at this time. There is an empty room across the hall, not within the clan rooms, that you can use. Although it doesn’t have the same facilities that your current room has.”

“That doesn’t matter. It will be fine,” said Aronoke.

It was a small matter to move his stuff across to the new room. The isolation of the chamber made it easier to think of himself as being separate. It was the perfect opportunity to divorce himself from his clan-mates, at least in appearance. He must be strong, must not let himself be made miserable or angry by this self-imposed distance, because then the voice would have won. He had to be calm and resilient.  He had to be a Jedi.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

It was difficult. There was an undercurrent of sadness that Aronoke found impossible to erase entirely. He could control it while he was meditating, but every time that Draken asked him to play a game, or any of the little kids were particularly forthcoming, he forced himself to be friendly but stand-offish and it came back. Draken seemed puzzled and hurt, and the little kids looked at him oddly like he had been replaced by someone who was not really him.

Just when he had felt he could really belong, Aronoke thought, something happened to force him apart again.  Was that what it was always going to be like?  Eternal isolation?

Nevertheless, Aronoke persevered in his self-imposed solitude for a couple of weeks. Buried himself in his lessons. Increased the amount of time he spent running and meditating and did a great deal of extra reading to pass the time. Walked down to the pool regularly to look at the water. It was difficult to occupy his mind with enough things to keep himself from feeling depressed, although all the meditation helped a lot. He felt he was getting on top of it most days.

One day he was down at the edge of the pool looking down into the deep water introspectively when suddenly Ashquash was there with him.

“Why do you always look at it like that?” she asked. She seemed tense, irritable.

“Because I don’t like it,” said Aronoke immediately. “It makes me feel uncomfortable, so I look at it to help me get used to it.”

He was going to say something else, but all at once, Ashquash gave him a sharp push. For an instant he thought there was a chance he could regain his balance, but in actuality it was hopeless. Windmilling wildly, he toppled into the deep pool.

The water closed over Aronoke’s head, green and smothering. The world of air was abruptly cut off and he could hear nothing except the rising bubbles around him. Even then, he did not immediately panic, but restrained his fear with barely tethered threads of will. He held his breath and repressed the urge to scream.

But he was sinking. Running out of air with every passing second.  His terror was rising uncontrollably.

Kick off your shoes, countered the trying-to-be-calm voice in his head. Undo your belt, slide out of your robe. You can’t swim in all these clothes.

He tried, but his gestures were too jerky, too hurried. The robe came half off and rose over his head so he could not see. One arm was twisted somewhere behind him, caught in his sleeve. He was stuck.

Sinking further, faster. Couldn’t move, couldn’t swim in all these clothes.

What if Ashquash was standing up there, angry and cold, dispassionately watching him sink? What if Ashquash had planned this all along?

His fear exploded, unrestrained. Aronoke panicked completely, thrashing and struggling. He only succeeded in tangling himself more thoroughly and disorienting himself so he no longer knew which way was up. He gasped in half a mouthful of water. Coughed it out. Couldn’t breathe.  Reflexively he gasped again and burning water flooded his lungs.

He was drowning, a tiny detached part of him realised.  This was how it would ignominiously end.  This death seemed a lot worse than being decapitated by a lightsaber.

Something grabbed his shoulders none too gently, tugging at him, dragging him through the water. Irrationally he fought, but the hands were strong and insistent. Then his head broke the surface, and he gasped for air, spluttering and coughing. Thrashing uncontrollably.

“Be still!” said Ashquash crossly, but Aronoke was still caught in the blind throes of panic and struggled wildly. She slapped him hard across the face. He subsided a little in shock and found himself pushed towards the edge. He clawed at it and clung to it, wheezing and gasping.

“What are you doing?” came an irate voice from far across the pool. “Stop that immediately!”

Aronoke struggled to climb out, but floundered ineffectively, unable to find the strength. Then Ashquash was there at the top, holding out her hand, and with her assistance he rolled up over the side and knelt there for long moments, coughing and gasping, retching up great gouts of water.

“You initiates are not supposed to be in the pool,” said someone closer now, an Aqualish instructor, coming over in the company of a warden droid. “It has been reserved for Clan Vequish’s use for the entire afternoon.”

“Yes, we know,” said Ashquash petulantly.

Aronoke could not speak, was too busy coughing still.

“You had better leave and return to your quarters at once,” said the instructor.

Can’t he see that I’m half drowned, thought Aronoke. His fear had been replaced by anger. Anger at Ashquash, anger that she had done this to him, anger that the instructor was berating him when none of this was his fault. Was this Ashquash’s repayment for what had happened to her? She thought it was his fault?

“Yes, yes, we’re going,” said Ashquash insubordinately. Aronoke made a brief sign of acquiescence, but still did not want to speak. He was too angry. It was only when they were moving off down the hallway that lead to the elevator banks that he felt he could talk.

“What did you want to go and do that for?” he snarled.

“It seemed to me it wasn’t helping,” said Ashquash defensively.

“Wasn’t helping?” Aronoke had lost it, he realised. Heard the anger in his own voice.

“All the looking,” said Ashquash.

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean you should push me in.” Aronoke could feel his hands were shaking badly. But he was alright, he thought. He wasn’t dead. He had fallen in and panicked, and he wasn’t dead. That counted for something. Maybe Ashquash was right. And as angry as he might be, he was also relieved that she had pulled him out, was not part of the conspiracy, but had acted, it seemed, through a misguided impulse of her own.

He took calming breaths, interrupted by more coughing. Recited a platitude in his head. Slowly felt like he was coming back under control.

“Just don’t do it again,” he said firmly.

Ashquash stopped, looking wild and a little fey. “I should never have said for you to do it,” she said.

“What?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“For us to argue,” said Ashquash. “I shouldn’t have said it.”

And she turned and ran away.

Aronoke stood there dripping a long moment, confused. Was that was this was all about? She was angry with him for leaving? But he had explained beforehand that it wasn’t real…

Feeling more confused and upset than angry now, he made his way back to his room and changed into some dry robes. He had not yet put the wet ones in the laundry chute when Draken rang the door. When Aronoke opened it, Draken’s eyes immediately travelled to Aronoke’s hair and the puddle of wet clothes on the floor.

“Your hair’s wet,” he noted. “And, um, your robe. But I guess you know that. Do you know where Ashquash is? I can’t find her.”

“She ran off,” said Aronoke wearily. “I expect she just needs a bit of breathing space, and she’ll be back.”

“What?” said Draken. “What do you mean she ran off?”

“I was down by the pool, looking at the water, and she pushed me in,” said Aronoke. “Then I was angry, and told her not to do it again, and she ran off.”

“She pushed you in?” asked Draken. He looked at Aronoke stupidly and stared again at the wet robes. “I hope she comes back soon,” he said finally.

“I expect she will,” said Aronoke.

But Ashquash had not returned by the evening meal and when Aronoke went to ask Razzak Mintula about it, he found Mintaka was in the office instead.

“Razzak Mintula’s been called away,” she said, and Aronoke immediately assumed it was something to do with Ashquash’s disappearance. He hoped Ashquash had not done something too crazy, or gotten herself hurt.  He spent the rest of the evening sitting in the common room, studying his reading tasks, but Razzak Mintula and Ashquash did not return. Finally he composed his thoughts and went to bed, hoping everything would be cleared up by morning.

But in the morning he was woken up very early by Instructor Mintaka. “Do you know anything about where Ashquash might be, Aronoke?” she asked. “She is not in her room this morning, and it does not look like her bed has been slept in.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke stupidly. “But Instructor Mintula… I assumed…” he stopped to organise his thoughts and began again.

“I argued with Ashquash yesterday,” Aronoke said, “when I was coming back from the swimming pool. I was angry because she pushed me in. I am… scared of the water. And I didn’t say much, only that she must not do it again. But she was upset and ran off. I assumed that Razzak Mintula had gone off because of her, but… I am stupid,” he finished awkwardly, beset with self-loathing.

“You are not stupid, Aronoke,” said Instructor Mintaka. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

“No, I have no idea,” said Aronoke wretchedly. Ashquash missing, wandering around the streets of Coruscant by herself? Surely she couldn’t get far with all the security. “I’m sorry, Instructor Mintaka. I should have said something yesterday.”

“I’m sure everything will be fine,” said Instructor Mintaka. “I must go and report her disappearance. You should go back to your regular schedule.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

After that, Aronoke decided that he should talk to Master Insa-tolsa about the whole affair and called him by holocommunicator to make an appointment.

“I have just been talking about you, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa enthusiastically when he answered. “I am here with Master Parothis and we were discussing the possibility of taking you and several older members of your clan on some excursions to various parts of Coruscant, rather like Master Altus did with you. We think such excursions might be of considerable benefit to your education.”

“I’m sure that my clanmates would be very excited to undertake such a thing, Master,” said Aronoke, “but…”

“Excellent. It will be several weeks before the arrangements can be properly made, of course. Master Parothis has several interesting ideas for locations we can visit. Well, thank you for your call, Aronoke. I will be in touch with you as soon as everything is organized, to let you know the details.”

“Yes, Master, but…” said Aronoke, but the ithorian had already closed the connection.

He could have called back, but Master Insa-tolsa was probably still speaking to Master Parothis and he did not want to be a nuisance. Instead he left a recorded message asking for an appointment, and later the confirmation came back that he could visit Master Insa-tolsa the next morning in the Master’s chambers.

The next morning, however, there was a new item on Aronoke’s schedule, a request from a Jedi Master Skeirim.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the message. “I request that you come and speak with me after the conclusion of your evening meal today. I will arrange for you to be collected from your clan rooms. Please be aware that your Instructor has been properly informed regarding this meeting.”

Though that would be easy to say and not do, thought Aronoke. He sent back a message saying that he would, of course, be available to attend. A mere initiate did not deny the request of a Jedi Master. Then he went to check that whoever was currently in charge was aware of the meeting.

“Yes, I received the proper request,” said Razzak Mintula, who had arrived back.  “By all means, go and speak to Master Skeirim.  I assume he wants to ask you some questions about Ashquash.”

“Ashquash?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“Yes, Master Skeirim is the Jedi who brought her here,” said Razzak Mintula, “much like Master Altus brought you.  He is not always stationed here at the temple. He is a colleague of Master Altus’s, involved in researching and retrieving artifacts from distant parts of the galaxy.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Instructor.”

The next morning, Aronoke went to see Master Insa-tolsa.  He had not visited the ithorian master’s chambers before.  They were dim and green, a tribute to the forest world that he came from.

“Your chambers are very peaceful, Master,” said Aronoke, looking around.

“I find them so,” said the ithorian. “These chambers are supposed to be transient, not personalised. But the Jedi Council has not seen fit to station me anywhere else for many years, so I feel that I may take some liberties.”

“That seems quite reasonable to me,” said Aronoke.

“Master Parothis and I have decided that the first of your excursions will take place in a few weeks time,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We are considering a number of different venues and I will tell you where we are going closer to the actual day.”

“I am sure it will be very educational, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I would like to talk to you about something else.”

“Of course,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

“You remember I told you about the droid with the holotransmission, Master?” said Aronoke. “And then there was another strange article on my datapad, which Razzak Mintula reported to you?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely.  “Has something else happened?”

Aronoke related the events surrounding Ashquash’s drugging, surprised that Master Insa-tolsa didn’t already know about them.

“It is unfortunate I was not made aware of this,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I should have been informed.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely.  He had assumed Master Insa-tolsa would have been told by someone else.

“It is not your fault, Aronoke.  It is obvious that there has been some breakdown in communication within the temple, either accidental or intentional.  In light of the other incidents you have reported, this one could be seen in a different light.”

“Yes, I thought at once that it might be a sort of punishment. Ashquash is my room-mate and my friend. She is not very social, but we do a lot of things together, like studying and sparring. I thought she was getting better recently, much better than when she arrived. But then that happened…”

Aronoke could hear the emotion creeping into his voice. He found Ashquash’s drugging affected him more than any of the fights or deaths had back on Kasthir.  Now, those scenes were distant and disjointed like dreams, as muted as if he kept those memories sealed in an air-tight box. He swallowed and tried to speak more calmly.

“I decided it might be better if I changed rooms. So whoever is trying to manipulate me might think Ashquash and I were not friends any more. So she would be safe. I know, Master, that I should be able to share my problems with my clan-mates, because that is part of being a clan, but most of them are so little, Master. I don’t want them to get hurt. So I thought that maybe separating myself was a better way. Then yesterday, I was at the swimming pool looking at the water, and Ashquash came and pushed me in.”

“You don’t like the water,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, Master.  Ashquash pushed me in. I got tangled up and thought I was drowning. Then Ashquash pulled me out again. I was angry with her. I did not say much, only that she should not do that again, but she was upset and ran away. I thought she would come back, but now she has gone missing…”

“Oh dear,” said Master Insa-tolsa with some concern. “That is worrying, although I am sure that efforts are being made to find her and that she will be recovered soon.”

“Yes, Master, but I don’t know what to do. I separated myself to keep people safe, and now Ashquash is, if anything, less safe. I think she was unhappy that I left. I did explain the reasons to her beforehand. But maybe because of the drugs, she was not able to cope very well just then.”

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “You have only been here a very short time, and as you know, your unusual biology has put you into an awkward position amongst your clan mates. You should not have concerns like these at this stage of your training. It is too much.”

“But these things keep happening.  How can I not be involved?” asked Aronoke.

“You should do as you have been doing.  You must continue to report these things when they happen. You should not attempt to deal with such difficult issues yourself,” remonstrated Master Insa-tolsa gently. “You should not have the burden of such a great responsibility.  These things are not your fault, and you must trust us to deal with them on your behalf.”

“But nothing seems to work!  They just keep happening!  What if next time something even more terrible happens?” asked Aronoke fretfully.

“You must not think that the Jedi Council is doing nothing to attempt to alleviate these problems,” said Master Insa-tolsa calmly. “A great deal has been done, that you, as an initiate, do not see from your protected place in the training halls.  Neither is it appropriate that you are burdened with all the details, as you should be free to concentrate upon your studies.  Unfortunately everything that has been done thus far has been of little avail.  The perpetrator of these deeds must be someone of considerable power, cunning and influence, or they would not have been able to remain at large for so long.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, humbled by the thought that his problems had stirred up so much trouble.

“Now I suggest that you go back to your clan and attempt to continue with your training as if none of these things had happened,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will make new efforts to see that the person who is manipulating you is discovered and an end put to these provocations.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “Thank you.”

Nevertheless, he did not feel very comforted when he returned to his clan rooms. Either the Jedi Council was incompetent, or his enemy was as powerful as Master Insa-tolsa suggested. Neither option was at all reassuring.

Master Skeirim’s padawan was a sleek human girl who arrived to collect Aronoke very promptly after the evening meal. Aronoke had only just got back to his room.

“Initiate Aronoke?” said the padawan. “I am Padawan Telarfani. I am supposed to show you to Master Skeirim’s chambers.”

“Yes, Padawan,” said Aronoke, and followed her out along the hall.

“I was not expecting you to be so tall,” said Padawan Telarfani smiling and looking up at Aronoke. He was taller than she was, he realised belatedly, and he was still growing. He would be taller still some day. It seemed strange. “I have some good news for you,” continued the Padawan. “They have found your clan-mate, Ashquash. She will be brought back to the Jedi temple soon.”

“Oh, that is good news,” said Aronoke, relieved. “Is she alright?”

“She is unharmed,” said Padawan Telarfani. “I thought you would like to know before your meeting with Master Skeirim, since I am certain you and your clan-mates must be worried about her.”

“Yes, we have been very worried,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Padawan.”

She smiled, making a minor gesture of respect, which Aronoke returned.

Padawn Telarfani led Aronoke to a door which opened, not into a chamber, as he had expected, but into an elevator. She gestured him inside but did not get in herself. It was a long ride up to the top, and Aronoke wondered where it was going.

When he got out, it was immediately apparent that he was in one of the Jedi Temple’s towers. The walls of the chamber were lined with banks of data crystals, although one was given over to a large curved window showing the dark cityscape beyond. Ablaze with lights, streams of traffic seethed constantly past.

Jedi Master Skeirim was outlined against the window, a tall and imposing dark-skinned human man.

“Initiate Aronoke,” he said. “Come in. I am Master Skeirim. You will probably understand better why you are here if I tell you that I am the one who sponsored Ashquash’s initiation at the Jedi temple.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.  “Instructor Mintula told me.”

Master Skeirim nodded and continued.

“As I am sure you have realised,” he said, “you and Ashquash have certain similarities which led to your being placed together. You are both unusual students. You have had atypical backgrounds and you are older than the majority of initiates who are accepted into the temple. You suffer unique problems and difficulties that other students do not encounter.”

“Placing you together was something of a risk that I hoped would pay off. There are obviously many ways in which this could have gone awry, but, to be honest, there was no one else who was deemed suitable to share a room with Ashquash because of her problems. I was hoping that here in the Jedi Temple she would be able to adapt to her new situation, that she would come around to the teachings and philosophy and learn a new path which might lead her through life. It has always been uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that she would succeed, and yet thus far the experiment has continued.”

“Now, however, she has run away. She has been recovered and will be returned to your clan rooms shortly. I am hoping that you, as her room-mate, might have some insight to offer as to why she left. I am worried that we are losing her, and should that be the case, her future is dark and bleak. I do not wish that to happen if there is any way in which it might be prevented.”

Aronoke listened to this speech with some relief, glad that someone had such a positive interest in Ashquash’s affairs.

“I think Ashquash was doing a lot better,” he said, when Master Skeirim looked at him expectantly and gestured that he should speak. “When she first arrived, when we first became clan-mates, she was very angry. I know about spice addicts, because I was brought up by one when I was quite small. So that didn’t worry me much, because I knew it was just the drugs. At first, Ashquash was very quiet. We didn’t talk much, just a bit, but before long she began to do things with me. To sit and study, to come and practice sparring during our free time. Later we did a lot more things together. We would go over our lessons, discuss some of the moral stories that we had trouble understanding. Things like that.”

“That is what I hoped would happen,” said Master Skeirim. “Do you know anything about what happened to upset that?”

Aronoke nodded. “I don’t know if this is all true,” he said, a little shyly, “but it’s what I immediately suspected when Ashquash woke me up and wanted to go sparring in the middle of the night. I thought she was drugged right away, because I’ve seen people behave like that before. I thought it might be to do with the strange things that have happened to me here in the Jedi Temple, practically since I arrived. Master Altus knows about them, and so do Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula. I reported everything to them. Strange articles appear on my datapad. I got a holotransmission message from a droid trying to feed me information. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I reported the holotransmission message shortly before Ashquash was drugged. I thought she might have been targeted as a way of punishing me. Because she’s my friend. It seems an obvious way to get at me. To hurt my room-mate.”

“I see,” said Master Skeirim. “I will have to talk to Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula and see if they can share their knowledge of these incidents. Aronoke, do you know why Ashquash ran away?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. He related in some detail all the events that had led up to Ashquash’s disappearance, up to the incident at the pool.  “I did not say anything much,” he concluded, “only that she should not push me in again, but she was upset and ran away. I think she was angry that I had left her alone.”

Master Skeirim was nodding. “Thank you, Aronoke. I can see it is not easy for you to talk about these things, but they will be of great assistance to me in helping Ashquash. I would ask a favour of you. I would ask you to help Ashquash as much as you can, like you were doing before things began to go wrong. It would be best, I think, to put these incidents behind us and to try to make things just as they were previously.”

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke warmly. He would have done whatever he could to help Ashquash anyway. It was also reassuring that Master Skeirim’s words meshed so well with what Master Insa-tolsa had said. “I think you are right, that she will be alright if we make things just as they were, and pretend that nothing has happened without making a fuss.”

“Yes, that is it exactly,” said Master Skeirim. “Thank you, Aronoke. I expect we will speak again at some time in the future.”

“You’re welcome, Master,” said Aronoke, making a small respectful bow in return. He felt a good deal happier and more purposeful as he returned to his rooms. It was good to have something to work towards, a way by which things might be made right. As soon as he arrived, he went in to find Razzak Mintula.

“Can I change back to my old room, Instructor?” he asked. “The new one is too draughty.”

Razzak Mintula stared at him for a long moment. “That would probably be more convenient,” she admitted. “There are some difficulties in having you in a different place from everyone else.”

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that no further explanation or persuasion was necessary. He felt his spirit was lightened when he moved back into his old rooms, like he was arriving back in his proper place again. It was a relief to not have to distance himself from Draken and the little kids any more.

It is much easier for me to simply list the few characters of mine that *have* reached the level cap.  Most of them are not at the level cap now, as games have a strange custom of raising level caps every few years.

In World of Warcraft I had one character at 60 and another nearly at 60 when they decided to raise the cap to 70; Sacacorchos made it there in the final weeks that we played the game.

Not many screenshots survive from Sacacorchos' eventful undead career.


In Age of Conan I again only got one to 80, which is still the level cap now. Poor Arthes the Bear Shaman is on level 79.


At one time I had four at the level cap in LOTRO: but they moved it twice, and all of them are currently scrambling to catch up.



Her last name is 'Addanion'.


Her last name is 'Ennorath', from the poem.


And finally there is Jord, in SWTOR.
Not Thor's mum.

It does seem that most of them are girls. This was never a habit of mine when I was young; I think it developed in RPGs and later MMOs in response to Am&a (almost) always playing boy characters. No commonalities in terms of character role in the game leap out at me. Generally, I would be happy – or at least, I say I would be happy – if all the mechanics were hidden and the character experienced the game purely as a story.

When it comes to MMOs, and largely RPGs as well, I have dreadful biases against playing certain sorts of characters.  Although I try to challenge my own trends, typically the characters I create that don’t fall in a certain set of characteristics don’t make it through to maximum level.  Although there are occasional exceptions to all the rules.  So I thought it would be amusing to make a list of the top five qualities that make my character more doomed to fail.


Five types of character

     I probably won’t play to max level

          (with pictured exceptions)


1)  Height-challenged races.


I don’t like playing the short weird ones.  I am quite willing to play a short human character.  I played the short human male model in Star Wars: The Old Republic quite a bit.  But when it comes to other races I admit to having tried gnomes, dwarves, tarutaru, hobbits, and those cutsey animal things in TERA – popori, I think it was, with limited success.  (I wouldn’t even touch an Elin). My hobbit burglar got to level thirty-something, admittedly, but that was because I played him with a group of other hobbits that were made up to play together.  It wasn’t my choice.  An exception to this are the Asura in Guild Wars 2.  I like the Asura, maybe because although they are short, they have huge egos…. I like the way they move, which is always important – how they nearly fall on their faces every time they jump. I didn’t expect to like them, but I do.




2) Oversized characters.

The big square fat guys and the big muscly male types in SW:TOR were too big and square for me.  It also disturbs me that the female variants of these models could only be called voluptuous by asian teen-fashions standards.  Not that I want to play chunky female characters, but if there are chunky males, there should be chunky women too.  The Norn in Guild Wars 2 are too big, and so were the Tauren in World of Warcraft, the Galka in Final Fantasy XI, the Aman and Baraka in TERA.  Mostly the slow running-animation of large characters disturbs me. They feel like they’re going slow, even though they run the same speed as everyone else.





3. Female characters.

Okay, so that’s a pretty big chunk of the toon-population.  I’ve always been inclined towards playing male characters.  Perhaps on some deep subconscious level I want to collect a whole stable full of heroic toy-boys…or maybe I was warped by reading too many old-fashioned adventure novels while I was growing up, in which the girls had to stay dully at home because it was safer.  In the “earlier days” of MMO gaming, playing male characters was a good way to avoid getting hit on.

Admittedly my male characters have been hit on once or twice, which is always amusing.  Occasionally, in the ‘old days’, people were highly surprised if they found out you were not a guy.  No matter what gender character you played.  “OMG!  You’re really a gurl!!!!”  My earliest incidence of the “OMG!  You’re really a gurl”-phenomenon was in a chat room when I was fifteen (it was a pre-proper-internet chat room on an online service called Viatel).  I had an identity with a name  most people assumed to be male.  Then a guy I regularly chatted with admitted to me that he was gay (more of a big deal socially back then).  He felt he should tell me because we talked together a lot, he said, and he didn’t want me to be misled.  When I guiltily admitted I was fifteen-year old girl, he accused me of lying and never ‘spoke’ to me again.

But anyway, I tend to dislike the way female characters are animated.  They run funny, flinging their handses out to the sides, and lifting their feet too high behind them.  They often have arms like pipe-cleaners, despite wielding huge heavy weapons.  They are often underdressed.  I don’t mind this so much, but if the female characters are underdressed, then the male characters should be too.  If they are not, I find this annoying.





4. Pure ranged-dps classes.

I suppose I prefer my combat up-close and personal, although I am also a big fan of the “crowd control” mage type.  Classical “hunter” types often have crowd control as well, but true glass-cannon style dps is my least favourite class to play.  I much prefer a hybrid of dps with something else, such as the DPS-plus-off tank style of the champion in LoTRO, or the DPS-plus-healing-plus-CC of the Imperial Operative in SW:TOR.  The addition of a pet to this type of class (like the Hunter in WoW or the Ranger in Guild Wars 2) adds a little more interest, but not usually enough to drag me through the level grind. I am far more likely to play a pure tank or healer than a pure dps character.





5. Characters who don’t look cool.

Aesthetics goes a long way towards heightening the playability of a character.  Although I am not as inclined to play what I call “dress-up-dolly” with my characters anywhere near as much as some people I might mention, and I am largely inclined to throw away old gear rather than keep it for cosmetic purposes, the way my character looks and moves is still very important as to whether I will continue to play it or not.  As mentioned above, large, small and female characters often fall into the category of “awkwardly animated”, and then there are character models that are just plain ugly.  Those male humans in WoW with the huge arms…. immediate put-off.  The Charr in Guild Wars 2 are perhaps the most popular non-human race, but their cat-faces are too inexpressive for me to really warm to them.  And then there’s hair… I have remade characters on numerous occasions because I didn’t like the way their hair looked when I got in game.  Or because their skin-tone was slightly off.


So there you have it.  I’m sure most altaholics have “doomed-to-fail” categories just as I do.  Please feel free to comment!

Too many good MMOs have come out in the past twelve months and I am feeling swamped.  Swamped, and grateful that Guild Wars 2 is free-to-play and has no attached subscription.  I splashed out and bought a lifetime subscription to Secret World, so that is now relatively “safe” from long-term ongoing costs, but then the next LoTRO expansion will be coming out very soon now, I haven’t finished with SWTOR, and…and…well, there just isn’t time for it all.  Especially since I haven’t been playing as much as usual, since I have gone into writing-binge mode, and either edit things all day or churn out 4000 or 5000 words.  By the time I’m done with that, my eyes have turned to paste, and it’s time to get off the computer.

Restraint?  What is this thing you speak of?

Helecho, my Sylvari thief