Knights of the Old Republic: Outcasts
Chapter One: Kara
The glorious feeling of freedom, the spiraling grace of nature's beauty and the smell of clean mountain air. Kara Tao Vanden absorbed them all as she raced through the long wild grass of the valley above her home.
Kara was barely more than a girl of seventeen years. Her shining green eyes and youthful smile blazed in a somewhat round face with a slightly upturned nose that she was truly sick of having called "cute". Her sun-colored hair was pulled back in its usual high ponytail, leaving only a few rebellious strands free to wave just above her eyes in the breeze of her passage.
This fine afternoon was to be HERS. No more chores, the harvests were all in and the crops stored against a winter that this unusually clear and warm autumn afternoon seemed to deny was coming. Her father, Sten, was mending some bit of apparatus of another and her mother, Mairi, was finishing up the winter storing. They'd told her quite firmly to get out from underfoot and enjoy herself after their weeks of labor.
Kara's family lived and worked a small farm in the valley north of the village of Highrock. The farm was remote enough that Kara had rarely met anyone not in her own family. In all her life, Kara had been to the village only a handful of times. They had enough food to sustain themselves, and the town was far enough in their battered old cart to make trips there for the few supplies they needed a long and rather unpleasant prospect.
Life on the farm was hard, but not unduly so. Kara's family eked out a comfortable life. They worked in the daytime, Kara in the fields with her mother and father or tending the bovines as they were let out to graze every few days.
She didn't mind the hard work of tending the fields, but she preferred watching over the animals. She could rest against a tree, the sun on her face, or practice engaging mock opponents with the staff her mother had taught her to use as a weapon. There weren't many predators about the area, but it wasn't uncommon for a hungry lupus or two to venture up from the valleys below. An old blaster rifle hung over their fireplace at home, but her mother insisted that Kara be able to defend herself without resorting to firearms.
In the evenings they would gather, just the three of them around the hearth, and sing. The songs were special, not just because of the family bonds, nor the comforting aura of home, but because they had the Music.
Not everyone could hear the Music, Kara's mother had told her from infancy. Her father couldn't unless the three of them sang together. Then he could hear the special Music that came from all the life around them, his own rough, bass voice along with his wife and daughter's.
Kara could hear the Music. Her mother said it made her special. She told her, too, that it was important to not tell anyone. Not a living soul. Because the Music was special, and some people wouldn't like that Kara could hear it and they could not.
And sometimes, she would hear about her grandmother. Her grandmother, who Kara had never known, who first came to this valley to hide from those who wanted her Music for themselves.
Kara listened to the Music now as she pelted through the grassy valley, towards a very precipitous drop. She seemed uncaring that in a few short yards, the ground would stop and she would fall.
Indeed, she did not slow as she drew near, she launched herself bodily from the cliff and felt the wind kiss her face even as her feet left the land for the sky.
In a sudden flurry of soft white down, Kara was neatly astride the back of a great bird-like creature, a gliderwing.
The Music changed as she knew it would, and a new singer added a growling, frustrated note. A melody that might have been, 'Kids... This one will be the death of me...' had it been said aloud.
Kara merely laughed and rubbed her cheek affectionately into the feathers of her friend as he swam effortless as a fish in water through the cold blue currents of the mountain sky.
Gliderwings were semi-sentient native creatures that nested higher in the mountains than any human could comfortably go, but often they could be found in the verdant grassy valleys lower down, sunning themselves and enjoying the warmth.
It disturbed Mairi somewhat, when her daughter had reported to her that she could hear Music from the gliderwings, and that she could answer the avian beings the same way. That said however, it soon became clear to her that the local gliderwing population considered Kara one of their flock and that they would allow no harm to come to her.
High over the grasslands they soared, merged as though of one mind. They dove and wheeled, reveling in the shared sense of freedom, the ultimate expression of joy.
Finally, the setting sun touched the highest peak and the valley descended into the cool purples of evening. With regret, the last bit of brilliant white dropped to the firm ground and Kara reluctantly slid off her friend's back. She stroked his muzzle with affection and deep in his chest he rumbled contentedly.
The Music thrummed within her, asking if she would return tomorrow.
She sang back her affirmation. And with one look over her shoulder as the gliderwing launched himself into the sky, Kara jogged home.
In the void of local space, a long slender blade of warship slid through the night, its dagger-like profile aimed directly for the world beneath it.
The ship's Captain was well past middle-aged. Thirty years he had served in the navy of his Master, thirty years he had fought in one war or another, as his Lord bade.
"Captain," a junior nav officer said. "Sir, you wanted to know when we were in position."
"Yes," the older man waved this aside. "Thank you. Naris," he indicated his executive officer, "the bridge is yours. I am going to report to His Lordship." He didn't even see the salute Naris made as he turned and departed the bridge.
Striding briskly, the Captain went directly to a turbo lift and descended three levels, a hundred yards down the hallway two elite troopers stood flanking a door. They glared frostily at the Captain as he approached. They were His Lordship's men, his own personal guard.
Malak had not bothered with such trappings. Surely, Revan had not. How the great Sith had fallen. He was still loyal to the Dark Lord of the Sith, even if he had little enough respect for the current Lord. "Captain Hyridan to see Lord Venaar, at HIS request," he addressed the two. They snapped to attention and the door slid open onto a brightly lit chamber filled floor to ceiling with books.
At a desk in the center of the room sat Kirennan Venaar, Dark Lord of the Sith. "Ah, Captain Hyridan, come in. I take it we are finally ready?"
Snapping to strictest attention, Hyridan saluted. "Sir! We stand prepared, My Lord. What are your orders?"
Venaar was a tall, graceful man. His smooth face was so handsome the word beautiful was nearly appropriate. His dark hair framed a chiseled face that needed no adornment, though his robes were ornate, worked with gold and jewels. His strong hands were as accustomed to a lightsaber or the controls of a fighter as they were his collection of ancient writings. His right hand rested on a page of the book before him now, caressing it reverently.
"Today, today will be remembered as the day it all began," he whispered. "I promise you that, my Master." His eyes closed and his fine lips flattened into a thin line, but only for a moment. "I sense you disapprove of this action, Captain."
"It is not my place to approve or disapprove, My Lord, only to serve you."
Venaar laughed. "Well said, but I do not want droids for officers, Captain. I value your judgment. In private, you may speak your mind."
Venaar's tolerance further lessened Hyridan's respect. That said, he followed his Lord's command. "I do not understand the significance of this world," Hyridan said simply. "The fleet is spread so thin we cannot even effectively blockade the world for another three days and yet you want us to strike now. I know you must have a reason. It is simply not clear to me, My Lord."
"You are a military man, Captain. You deal in facts and figures. Armies and opposing forces. What you can see and touch. What we hunt down there are not rebels, nor enemies. What we look for on this world is information."
"Information, My Lord?"
"Yes, Captain. This world holds a secret treasure, of a sort. When we have it, we will hold the galaxy by its throat."
Unsure about any of this, Hyridan nodded. "As you say, My Lord."
"Launch the landing parties, Captain. Bring me what I seek."
The older man snapped another salute. "As you command, My Lord."
The sun shone bight through the curtains of Kara's window. She pulled the pillow over her head to block it out but then a pounding on her door woke her beyond all recovery.
"Kara!" Her mother called. "Get up, you need to eat quickly and help us load the wagon."
Sitting up in bed, Kara called back through the door. "Wagon? Are we going to town?"
"Yes, hurry up." her mother headed towards the kitchen.
Damn! She thought. Going to town meant at least two days away from the farm and the flock. Two days in a jouncing wooden wagon pulled along by a dour old beast that couldn't be hurried if you lit his withers on fire.
Dressing sullenly, Kara dragged herself through the house to the kitchen and slumped into her place at the table.
"Now," her father said glowering across at her expression. "What's all the huff for?"
"I don't want to go into town," Kara admitted. "I know we need to, and I'll go, I just don't have to like it."
The sun-darkened skin of her father's face split in a wide grin. "Now who told you that you HAD to go? I just need you to help me load up the wagon in the first place, and after that I don't care what you do."
Her face lit up. "Really?"
He nodded. "Really. You're a big girl now. It's time we admitted it."
She lunged across the table and threw her arms around him. "Thank you!" she cried.
"Here now!" her mother chided. "You spill over my table and get my eggs all over the floor and you'll spend the day cleaning in here instead of romping about on the back of that great beast!"
Loading the cart was several hours of heavy lifting, but finally they got all the barrels and assorted bales tucked into the rickety old thing. Her father rested against the side breathing hard. "Figures, you and I are done and Mairi is still in there getting ready."
"Don't mock mother," Kara said, imitating her almost perfectly, "It's not her fault you're in such a rush." Then she laughed. "Besides, she's probably in there cooking for you two AND me, so I don't burn down the house while you're gone."
"How did you know?" her mother asked sarcastically, emerging from the house with a large wrapped bundle. "I put some food away for you down in the cellar. Just warm the stew over a fire." Then she imitated Kara. "And try not to burn down the ENTIRE house while you're at it?"
"Just the kitchen," Kara promised, hugging her mother.
Her father, already on the wagon's bench, reached a hand down to help her mother up. "Now you be good," he admonished.
She promised and her father twitched the reins, the plodding bovine hitched to the wagon grunted, and they slowly rolled towards the gate.
A hour later, Kara walked serenely up the valley towards where the flock nested. She paused on the path for what must be the tenth time and looked back down towards her home. She couldn't see it from here, but she still could not shake the feeling that something was wrong.
She began to fret that maybe she should return when she saw a brilliant streak, high up in the sky. Shading her eyes with one hand, Kara peered up into the blue and saw a silvery gleam that she couldn't identify. She'd never seen anything like it, it certainly wasn't a bird.
It had to be a ship. She'd heard of the metal vehicles that flew between stars, of course. She may have led a sheltered life, but her parents made sure she was at least educated about the wider world. As to what it wanted here, she had no idea. Never in her life had Kara actually seen one.
Suddenly, the feeling of dread within her crystallized. At the same time, she felt the swell of urgency reflected in the Music as a thunder of wings beat the air towards her.
Before she had time to protest, several gliderwings had landed around her. They butted at her legs with their soft heads until she had slipped astride the largest of them, the one she had ridden yesterday, then they all leapt into the air.
She tried to learn why they were so strangely insistent but all they would sing back to her was an incoherent "Away! Escape! Fear! Egg-smashers!".
They flew far that day, farther away from the Farm than Kara had ever been. The wind whipped fiercely at her face and she buried it within her arms, trying to make herself small against the gliderwing's back. She knew she had to return; whatever was wrong screamed in her mind that she had to get back to the farm, to her parents, but she couldn't make her abductors understand.
At long last, she finally managed to break through the incoherent chorus of their fear. She managed to tell the gliderwing she rode that she couldn't run away like this. He sang back his regret, but that he could not let harm come to his fledgling.
As the sun shrank away, the cold became too much for Kara. She felt herself numbing. Tears that had stung her face before were freezing there now. The flock consulted and wheeled, circling slowly to land near a mountain cave.
Inside, they made a wall of their own bodies and wings to warm her against the chill. She was too weak to fight anymore and as she was covered by the protective wall of her friends, she fell into a fitful sleep.
Her dreams were disturbed by the experiences of the day. She saw her parents wave from the wagon as it trundled off into the sky. She saw the flock high in the air suddenly burst into flame, and she saw... someone. The most handsome man she had ever seen. She had never seen his face before, but she was drawn to it. She felt a connection there, something she couldn't understand. Even as her soul drew her to this man, her heart warned her to flee from him.
She finally woke. Her body was stiff from the flight and her rocky bed, but at least she wasn't chilled to the core anymore. The feeling of immediate panic and wrongness of the previous day was gone, but in its place, a knot of cold dread lay twisting within her.
The flock stirred as she did. After some tricky footwork, they let her out of the cave. As she stumbled into the sunshine, she realized she had no idea where she was. She knew she was high in the mountains, but she was unsure even of which direction to take.
"Great," she muttered aloud. She would have to convince them to take her back. It was the only way.
She found the head of the flock gazing steadily down at her from a perch near the cave entrance. He hopped down to the ground as she called to him and she stroked a hand through the feathers at the crown of his head. She knew he'd always liked that.
She begged, she pleaded with him to take her home.
In the Music, he sighed. He'd seen her resolve, but only sadness would await her there, he sang.
"I know," she said aloud. How she knew, even she could not say. I have to return to my family. I have to see, she sang back to him.
Then, he sang with all gravity, I shall carry you. Stooping low, he allowed her to scramble onto his back.
The rest of the flock remained at the cave. Just Kara and her friend made this trip back to their meadow. Despite her turmoil, they did not hurry as they soared through the morning. They rode high on the thermal currents of the sky, Kara keeping a sharp eye for any sign of change in the landscape beneath them.
The gliderwing was the first to spot the smoke. A greasy trail of blackness against the sky.
It rose from the farm. The house and the barn were both burned to the ground, the few animals they kept slaughtered and left for scavengers.
Her companion sang a question to her, wanting to know if they should land.
Kara wept for her home, but she knew it was not the worst she'd find today. No, follow the road. Find my parents.
Gliderwings did not often approach the village. They feared human hunters who did not understand their singing. But for the spirit-wounded young human singer on his back, this gliderwing would go through fire. He bowed his head and they went on.
Halfway down the track to the village they saw it: the charred remains of the wagon.
Child, the Gliderwing sang sadly.
Land! She shouted back, ready to leap from him if he would not.
Circling twice, the great beast landed and Kara leapt lightly to the ground, pelting towards the ruined thing, hoping against hope that she would not see them. The bovine lay dead and half-burned at the head of the overturned wagon. She could see no sign of her parents in the wreckage. Allowing herself a small hope, she began to circle the scene, calling out their names.
The words died within her. They were there, pinned to the other side of the cart by strange metal bands. They had burned with the wagon, their bones blackened.
Kara stood transfixed by the sight, the sheer horror of it washing over her in waves of anguish, anger, and sorrow. She collapsed to the ground and howled her loss to the heavens.
The gliderwing brought her to the outskirts of the farm. He'd agreed to help Kara bury her parents by returning them to her home.
She took their bodies, one at a time, to the rough hewn graves she'd dug for each of them. They were on a little rise facing south, so they could see the glorious sunrises and sunsets that her mother had always loved.
When it was done, and marker stones were placed at each grave, Kara sat between them. The labor had taken most of the day. The sun was now dropping towards the eastern sky and dark clouds gathered to the west, against the mountains. Rain was coming. She'd need shelter. Beside her, the gliderwing stirred. It gently butted its head against her shoulders and back, giving what comfort it could.
Finally, she dragged herself to her feet. She wrapped her arms around the gliderwing's head and buried her face against its cheek. She cried anew, but somehow, she felt the pain changing; not lessening any, but changing from a sharp jab to a dull ache.
Gliderwings' heavy down was meant to keep the cold of snow out of their bodies, but it would absorb rain like a sponge. If he stayed with her, it would mean he couldn't fly until it dried out sufficiently, and that could take days by the look of the storm clouds. Regretfully, she looked around and found no shelter sufficient for her friend.
Kara laid a hand on his beak. "Return to the others," she said aloud, her voice creaking. I will be fine for the night, she sang as well.
Clearly torn, the gliderwing hesitated.
Go, she told him insistently.
Draping his neck over her shoulder one last time, the gliderwing launched himself into the sky, circling overhead and finally flying off to rejoin the flock.
The house itself was burned beyond use, its roof having fallen in, and the barn was totally gone, but the cellar still seemed sound. Climbing in through a small opening the fire had left, Kara found a clean, dry place among the sacks of vegetables from the harvest, and collapsed there.
Kara woke the next day, sat up and rubbed at her eyes. The basement room still reeked of smoke, the smell stabbing through her and reviving her anger.
Her parents were dead, her home lay in ruins. What was there for her now?
The anger grew. It turned inside of her like a coiling serpent and blossomed from blazing heat to cold, certain hatred. The frozen gem within her pulsed and fed on her hatred, on the pure, unadulterated power of her fury at the death of her family, at the abrupt end of what had been her happy life here in the mountains, all gone now.
Ah, said the gem, but there is always revenge, isn't there?
Yes, she could find those who did this, she could make them pay. She would track them, she would find them and when she did, their screams would pave the way to her future.
Yes, exulted the gem of cold fire within her, they could not merely die for their transgressions. No, their pain must dwarf Kara's own. The agony of their end would be spoken of with fearful shudders for generations to come.
She stood on the brink of the gem within her, gazing down into the infinite blackness of its crystalline depths. Its beguiling words lulled her senses; the siren call of its power whispered to her. Yet, she paused. For she was only a farmer from Highrock, a young girl against whatever forces had razed her family's holding to the ground.
She clenched her fists angrily at her sides. What could she do against such a power as that?
With an agonized scream, she slammed a fist into the stone wall behind her. The gem within her gave a titanic thrum of power at the pain and it all fell away from her, leaving Kara an empty, vacant husk of herself.
She fell back to her knees, leaning her head against the wall she had just struck. A puddle of rain water from above began to sift down through the ash and char above her. A few black rivulets pooled about her, washed from her face only by her own fresh tears.
She was called back to herself by a glimmer of red light from across the room.
The light spilled from a small gap in the stone. She made her way to it and tugged at the crack, a chunk of the basement wall falling away in her hand.
Inside the small hole in the wall, a red crystal pyramid the size of Kara's fist pulsed with light. As she took it from its hiding place, the pyramid's light increased and coalesced into an image projected in the air above its peak.
The image was of a woman. She had proud features and wore robes of deepest night. Kara recognized some of her mother's features in the woman's face, though it was clearly not her.
The image spoke. "It was my greatest hope that this holocron would never again be found, or used. But it seems that my will has been thwarted, and that you have come to seek my council. Know that only one of my line can activate this device, and that means I welcome you, though I wish this had not happened."
Kara blinked at the image. Who was this woman? Was she related to her family?
"My name is Selene Au Vanden, though most know me as Selene Bladedancer. I served under Revan in the Mandalorian Wars as a young Jedi. I was witness to Revan's fall, and followed her into the ways of darkness, but that tale is for another time. As you accept your inheritance from me, take also my weapon. May my lightsaber serve you well. Use it to guard this holocron with your life. Many will search for it. None should be allowed to use it for evil, not ever again. It was my hope that it could remain hidden on Derra IV, but fate it seems will not allow that to happen. Guard it well, my kin, or all will suffer from my knowledge."
The image faded. Kara set the crystal down and took out the other contents of the small hole. One was a metal cylinder, about a foot and a half in length. She saw what looked like activation studs at either end. When she cautiously touched them, one-meter-long blades of crimson light erupted from the ends of the hilt. This must be the lightsaber Selene had mentioned. She also found what looked like a bandolier in the hole, which included a clip that would conceal the hilt behind her back.
Closing down the blades, she also took out a small pouch. It held several small crystalline gemstones and a few coins.
With the same dread certainty that had guided her back to the farm, Kara knew that this holocron thing was what the murderers were after. She knew she had to keep this safe. Even if it was the only vengeance she could wreak upon those who'd slain her family, she would see it done.
She tied the pouch to her belt and put on the bandolier. The lightsaber felt right as it clipped into place, easy to reach but concealed beneath her cloak.
With new conviction, Kara rose and made her way out to the sunshine. She paused upon seeing her parents' gravestones. She knew she had to go, but she would never forget this place that had been her home. She would never forget those who raised her, who she had loved. She would never forget what had been her entire life.
Deciding to venture to the village, she thought she might find a ride to the only spaceport she knew of on the world, the city of Othani. She was making plans from there when she felt a trill of Music and her friend dropped from the sky before her. He gleamed in the morning sun and his eyes sought an answer of her. Where are you going?
I am leaving, she sang to him. I go to hunt those who harmed me.
I will accompany you, he declared. Together we shall...
No! Where I go, you cannot follow. Kara could feel the conflict ripple from her friend as he tried to reconcile the desires within him. Stay, she told him. Protect the flock and grow strong. I will return when I am done.
Drawing near her, the gliderwing again draped his head over her shoulder. My brave featherless fledgling, he sang. Go with our good will and go with my love.
Tears stung her eyes once more, but she banished them. Reaching up, she embraced her friend, swearing to herself it would not be the final time. Then she stepped back from him and continued on her way.
The gliderwing remained there, watching her go until he could no longer see her, nor hear her song in the Music. Finally, after she was gone from him completely, he threw his head back and sounded a roar: a comfort to her flock, her family... a warning to her enemies.
-End, Chapter One