Knights of the Old Republic: Outcasts
Chapter Six: Venaar
The escape pod settled to the deck with a dull thud.
The vibration didn't penetrate to the panicked young girl within. Her heart was hammering far too loudly. She had failed, and now it was all about to end. Well, she had one chance, one final chance, to make things right.
She looked to the Holocron, lifeless and inert. The Sith vessel's gravity held it on the floor of the pod. She couldn't destroy it. She'd tried, and failed. But the tool next to it, now that was another matter. She COULD use it, she hoped.
Hefting her lightsaber, she waited.
There came a light tapping, as if someone were knocking on the door of a house. She listened in the Music, but she heard no one. No song of life in the entire bay.
Igniting both ends of her lightsaber, Kara exploded from the pod. She expected a horde of Sith troops. She expected to find the monsters who killed her parents. She expected to die.
She was totally unprepared to see a single, solitary man standing just out of striking distance.
She knew this man. His face was burned into her mind with more permanence than stone.
The man was breathtakingly handsome. His features were perfect, his frame tall and lithe, graceful as a waterfall and powerful as a bull. His robes were splendid, the color of rich wine and seeded with glittering gems about the yoke and shoulders. When he spoke, his voice was like cool shade after a hot day. "I am Kirennan Venaar. Welcome aboard the Dragon, Kara Tao Vanden."
"How do you know my name?" she demanded, so distracted by his appearance that she had only now noticed that, in the Music, he was utterly, completely silent. Everyone had a part in the Music, a song they constantly sang. Everyone, it seemed, except for Venaar.
"I have learned much about you recently," Venaar explained. He took a short half-step towards her and Kara flinched.
Venaar sighed and suddenly sank down in a low bow before her. "I am sorry we did not arrive sooner. My incompetence cost you greatly. I hope you can find it in you to forgive me for not preventing the death of your parents. I shall never forgive myself for the dereliction of my duty."
The fear gave way to boiling, frothing anger. Her lit blade blazed and she charged, weapon high for a killing stroke.
Venaar straightened, but he did not move, except to extend his arms wide, as if welcoming the fiery embrace of death.
Kara stopped, stock frozen by the gesture. Venaar exerted no power over her; she simply could not move.
She studied the man anew. He was crying, those perfect dark eyes streaming bitter salt tears across his face.
"Strike!" he hissed at her. "Kill me. It is your right and duty. I have failed you, Lady Vanden."
"Lady?" she echoed weakly.
"You are the granddaughter of Selene Bladedancer. She who was Master to my own, she whom he had sworn to protect and I in turn. She who was his mother."
It seemed forever before the Wanderer came out of hyperspace above the planet of Tenalp. Its crew seemed to be numb. None of them said a word until the ship dropped back to real space above the arid planet's surface.
Liana was the first to speak. "We have to find a way to free her."
"No," Aeron replied. "We should not."
She turned to stare at him. "We can't just leave her there!"
Aeron's teeth ground together. "You do not understand the situation, do you? Assuming you could penetrate the Sith defenses and recover her, then what? Do you know what Sith do to their captives? Particularly if they are Force Sensitive?"
"Then you would just abandon her to them?" Her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"There is nothing of 'her' to save," he bit out through clenched teeth. "She went to them willingly. Don't you understand? If they have not killed her by now, they have reshaped her. They have destroyed the girl we knew and made her into a being of evil. You should pray, Liana, that she is dead. It would be a mercy."
Liana moved faster than either of them expected. One hand struck him across the face, her other hand tangled in the front of his tunic. "Then we are going without you, Jedi. But we are going. I will not leave her."
Three thin lines of blood appeared on Aeron's cheek, testimony that Liana's claws were out in a literal sense as well. "You will not know her when you find her." His voice was resigned, sad.
She let go of Aeron in disgust. "I won't give up on her. She is one of us." She turned to look at her partner, expecting some disagreement, but Renn was being surprisingly quiet through all of this. He seemed to be concentrating on his console, not looking in her direction. She knew better than that. She growled under her breath. "We're landing. You can find passage there back to your Academy, Jedi."
Aeron nodded. "For what ever it is worth, I hope I am wrong. I hope you do find her."
Soon, the ship touched down and Aeron, waiting by the gangplank, disembarked, a small bundle slung over his shoulder. He turned when he was clear of the ship and waved his farewell up to the cockpit. He could see Renn up there, and he saw clearly as the man turned away from him.
The darkness surrounded Kara. It choked her with airlessness, but still she held on. It tried to force its way past her defenses, and when she could hold out no longer, she retreated.
Pushing up, she broke the surface of the bath with a gasp.
Stunned by Venaar's revelation - if it was true - Kara had woodenly dropped her lightsaber and fallen to her haunches in a heap of confusion. Venaar had summoned a young female attendant and ordered her to see to Kara's comfort.
The young woman, maybe two or three years Kara's senior, stood by now, waiting for Kara's least request. Really, all she wanted was for the obvious watchdog to go away. "I can do this myself," she said briskly.
The woman bowed. "Begging your pardon, Lady Vanden, but Lord Venaar commanded me to see to your needs. He fears you may cause an... incident... due to misunderstanding your current situation."
"What misunderstanding? I'm a prisoner."
The young woman looked aghast. "No, Lady, you are not a prisoner. You are an honored guest, but you may leave at any time."
Kara snorted. Renn would have been proud.
"My Lord commands, as a gesture of good faith, that you keep these with you." She gestured to a shelf near the dressing rack, on which sat her lightsaber and the holocron.
Kara leapt up, streaming, from the tub, nearly slipping on the tile floor in the mad dash to recover them.
As she reached them, she felt a large towel, soft as breeze, draped about her as the attendant began to dry her.
Kara whirled on the woman, shoving her backwards. "Don't touch me!" she growled.
Mortified, the woman bowed low. "I am sorry, Lady. It... it is part of my duty to see to your comfort...."
Felling surges of honesty and mortification roll off the woman in waves, Kara's tone mellowed. "I'm sorry for my over-reaction. I was raised on a small farm. Such comforts... are totally alien to me." She set about drying herself and then wrapped the great sheet of cloth about her. "Where are my clothes?"
"Being cleaned. Lord Venaar commanded you be dressed as befits your station." The attendant motioned to a shimmering silken gown on the dressing rack. "He mentioned this specifically."
The clothing was all sky blue silk, shimmering with darker tones and far, far beyond Kara's taste. "I, uh... no. Is there something plainer?"
The attendant looked bemused. "I am afraid this is the simplest garment we have for a woman of such high station, Lady Vanden."
She emerged half an hour later, devoutly hoping she did not trip over her own hem. Kara had worn dresses before, but only a handful of times in her life.
The attendant, whose name she discovered was Seni, escorted her to a chamber on the same deck. The door was flanked by two men in ceremonial armor. They came to stark attention as Kara drew near and then saluted her. One of the men punched a sequence into a key pad and the doors opened into a vast library.
"Hard to believe this is a warship," Kara breathed as Seni led her past rows of books, some obviously ancient.
"Lord Venaar is most learned," Seni responded. "He believes that we cannot avoid the mistakes of the past if we do not fully understand them."
Kara frowned. "And so all the killing and blood is for our brighter future, huh? What kind of future is purchased with lives?"
"The future has always been bought with the blood of the innocent," came a new voice. Venaar was seated at a large desk in a sort of circular court within his library. "I hope to end all that."
Again, the man's inner silence sucked at Kara's mind. Seni sang an inner song of life and loyal service, the guards outside sang of pure devotion to duty to their Lord, even the men she had killed in battle sang harsh notes of anger and violence; but here, in the center of his power, the core of all evil sat silent as stone.
"The future I want for us all is not one of endless war, greed and ultimate destruction," Venaar said. "I serve the vision of order, peace and unity."
"Under your boot, of course," Kara added dryly.
Venaar laughed, a rich bubbling sound in the echoing vast room. "Hardly. The old ways are too ingrained in me, in the Sith, the Jedi. We have no place in the new utopia."
"So, you're telling me you DON"T want to rule the galaxy?" Kara arched an eyebrow. "Somehow, I rather doubt your sincerity."
Seni drew in a shocked hiss of breath, but Venaar raised a hand. "No, Lady Vanden is correct to doubt me. She has no knowledge of us beyond what the Jedi agent poisoned her mind with."
"Agent?" Kara echoed.
"Yes, Aeron Rhade." Venaar actually sounded amused. "What lies has he told you of us?"
She went over in her mind everything Aeron had actually said about the Sith. It was a very short perusal. "Aeron didn't need to poison me against you. After all, your men killed my parents."
"No, he said flatly. "They did not."
Kara's lightsaber was in her hand and lit before even she was aware of it. The crimson tip burned bare millimeters from Venaar's throat, and yet the man did not flinch.
"Give me one reason I shouldn't burn you down right here and now."
"Because you do not know the reasons for this, the full story of Selene Bladedancer, what she found, and why the Jedi are racing to control you."
"And you will tell me these things? Why should I believe anything you say?"
"Because you are still in a position to ask that question. Do you truly believe you would survive killing me here, in the core of my own flagship?"
Then, for just a be instant, the Music swelled with a new voice, faint, as if fighting to be heard. A note struggled up from the depths, close and quiet, as though it were buried beneath her feet. It carried one, brief, desperate message.
It came from deep within Venaar, and then it was gone.
"Suppose I don't care?" she asked, flicking the blade just a hair closer.
Venaar shrugged. "Then you will die ignorant, and the universe will continue in darkness, forever."
Kara considered. "Speak then," she said finally, though the blade did not move.
"I will begin where the story does," Venaar said. "Selene Bladedancer was one of the few Jedi Masters to join Revan when she called for the Jedi to enter the Mandalorian Wars. When the council refused, Revan went anyway, taking as many of her allies with her as would go. Selene and her Padawan, a young lad named Jhoral, were among them. Together, they shared the deep secret that Selene was, in actuality, his mother. When Selene went with Revan, Jhoral followed."
Kara listened in silence.
"They fought together through the wars," Venaar continued. "At some point, the carnage began to turn Revan and those who'd followed her towards the dark path, towards the Sith. Selene came to her son during that time and said she feared the direction the war was taking, and what it could mean for the Jedi. It was then that Jhoral swore that he would follow and protect her from whatever came.
"Soon thereafter, the war ended. The Mandalorians were defeated and peace restored. Revan, along with most of her Jedi followers, retreated deep into the outer rim and were not heard from for a time. When they returned, only Jhoral was among their number. He gave no reason for his Master not accompanying him.
"Jhoral rose through the Sith ranks, and in time, he took me on as his Apprentice," Venaar explained. "I learned Selene's story from him over the years. I came to love my Master greatly. That is, I'm told, most unusual among the Sith. After the eventual downfall of Revan and her apprentice, Malak, the Sith began to fight amongst themselves. My Master and I made a small world in the outer rim our home, and gathered what loyal forces we could. While we stayed out of the battle for control of the Sith, we managed to amass a sizeable number of ships and soldiers, so it was inevitable, I suppose, that we were attacked anyway." He paused again.
'The memory is painful for him,' Kara realized, but still she kept her lightsaber trained on his throat.
"Several other Lords had banded together. They formed a death squad of over a hundred Force adepts and sent them to slay my Master and I. We were ambushed on our home world and soon, in the battle, Master Jhoral fell." He took in a breath and dropped his eyes to her blade as if to collect his thoughts. "I felt something unknown well up within me, and when the power subsided, our enemies were quite literally ash. I rushed to Master Jhoral's side. He was still alive. With his dying breath, he told me to open his secret chamber and read the journal therein." Tears flowed from his eyes.
"The journal," he said slowly, "was written by Jhoral, but the early entries spoke of his mother, Selene. They said she had settled on a remote world, to protect something - something so powerful, she feared it could destroy the entire universe."
"And you seek it, do you?" Kara retorted.
"No. The Jedi do."
"The Jedi have been in decline ever since the end of Revan's war with the Republic," Venaar explained. "Indeed, for quite some time, it appeared their fire had been truly extinguished. The remnants of the order still doggedly cling to existence, but soon they will fail, through attrition and natural death if nothing else. They seek this horrible power to restore themselves to glory."
"So to protect it, my parents had to die?!" Kara retorted.
"The Jedi sent an agent to find you, did they not? It wasn't until my spies within their order reported that a Jedi sought you, Bladedancer's kin, on Derra IV, that I realized the answer to the riddles of Selene's story."
"The Jedi killed my parents?" Kara asked. No, it didn't sound right. The Sith... the Sith had blockaded Derra IV, and they had tried to have her killed. Aeron wasn't a murderer. Was he?
"I do not ask you to believe me," Venaar said. "As I told you, my own incompetence led to their deaths as much if I'd slain them myself. I deserve your wroth, Lady Vanden, no more."
Kara's mind filled again with the confusing fog. No, it was a lie, a self-serving lie... Or was it? She remembered the look on Aeron's face when he found her and Liana with the Holocron. Was it concern for her welfare, or that she may learn the truth?
Her blade lowered and the crimson fire died. "I... I need time alone, to think."
"Of course," Venaar motioned to Seni. "Your attendant will show you to quarters. We will speak again, Lady Vanden."
"Yes... Yes, we will," she said woodenly, then left.
Even after they landed on the planet and the Jedi had disembarked, Renn stayed up in the cockpit where it was relatively safe, rather than get in his partner's way. Liana was too angry, too determined to find a way to rescue Kara. Frankly, Renn agreed with the Jedi - something he was loathe to admit - but he knew better than to say as much to Liana right now. He'd given Kara the transmitter because he knew his partner would want to go after her. But there was no way they were going to be able to do this alone.
He sent an encrypted message to Gaman again. He needed to know if the man was still alive. If he was, his information network might be the key to finding a vulnerability in the Sith.
It didn't take long for the comm to chime, signalling a response. Renn hesitated. Either Gaman was still alive, or they'd just given whomever killed him a line back to the Wanderer. Finally, he opened the channel.
"Falani? I'm surprised you're still alive. What do you want?"
Renn frowned, forgetting his original request for moment. It was Gaman, but... there was something wrong with this. Cold realization made his stomach ache. "So, why'd you sell us out, Gaman?"
The voice sounded amused. "Your favor only covered the brandy. The Sith were paying well for information about your whereabouts. You've made me a rich man."
"You sent us into the Bottleneck so they'd be able to interdict us on the way out. You... backstabbing son of a schutta."
"You managed to escape, though, didn't you? I assume you must have, if you're still alive to curse me."
Renn's fingers flew across the console, but of course Gaman's transmission was protected from his best tracer programs. Bastard. "If I ever find out where you're hiding, you'd better run."
"Is that a threat, Falani?"
"No," Renn said coldly, "it's a promise." He cut the comm with a savage jab. No more favors. He couldn't trust anyone else, not in this.
The Wanderer's crew was on their own now.
Renn found Liana sitting on her bunk, staring at the other bed that had so recently been occupied. Kara had left most of what little she owned behind, as if she'd just gone out for a minute and was coming back at any time. Her new clothing was even still wrapped up in bags and bundles. He frowned at it. "Liana?"
Her ears flicked, so he knew she heard him, but she didn't answer right away. Finally, Liana spoke again. "What if Aeron is right, Renn? What if the Sith hurt her so badly that she is broken?"
Renn hesitated before answering her. "Then we hurt them back."
"What did you find out?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
"Gaman... he sold us out to the Sith."
After her reaction to Aeron, he'd been expecting an explosion. Liana's calmness almost frightened him more. "I'm not surprised." She paused, then said, "We're truly alone in this, aren't we, Renn? Even the Jedi has given up."
"It's never stopped us before. It might be tougher without a Jedi backing us up, but we'll figure something out."
"You agree with him, don't you?"
Renn sighed. "I don't want to leave her there any more than you do, but frankly, we don't have the firepower to take on a single Sith cruiser by ourselves, not to mention the nightmare it'll be if it rejoins the fleet from Derra IV. Hell, we'd need a few dozen Republic warships just to get close..." His voice trailed off.
He barely heard her. "Oh. That might work."
"You have a plan?"
"I might, but I need to test a theory first," he answered her, distracted by the direction in which his mind was already racing. "We're only gonna get one shot at the real thing, so I need to be sure."
Kara awoke to sumptuous smells wafting through her chamber from a tray on a nearby table. At first, she wanted to resist the aroma, ignore the rumblings of hunger within her, but finally she gave in. Rising from the bed, she lifted the lid of the tray to find fruit, cheeses and some sort of prepared egg dish, in addition to a decanter of juice and something she suspected was a type of tea.
She devoured it quickly.
Seni entered as she was finishing the tea. It made her feel a bit tingly as it washed her breakfast down. "My Lady?" Seni asked tentatively. "Lord Venaar asks if you are ready to receive him?"
Kara froze. The revelations of the previous day still swam in her mind as well as a feeling of... what? Anticipation?
She shrugged a plain robe on over her shoulders. "I suppose I must." Barefoot, she padded out of the bedchamber.
Venaar stood respectfully with his back turned to her, examining a tapestry that hung in the main room. It depicted in great detail a titanic beast, whose wings blotted the sun from a strange world's sky.
"You wanted to see me?" Kara asked. Venaar turned smoothly.
"Yes, Lady Vanden. Are these chambers to your liking? Is there anything we can do to make your stay with us more pleasant?"
"You could let me go?" she suggested.
"Ah, no. I'm afraid that letting you go in the middle of hyperspace is not conducive to your survival. When we arrive at our destination, however, you are free to go where you will."
"As long as I leave you the Holocron," she remarked acidly.
Venaar laughed. "You really must shed these doubts about us. The Holocron is yours. You can take it with you if you wish. While I admit, I would prefer that it and you remain in our protective custody, I will not force you to do so."
Kara's eyes narrowed. "Protective, eh?"
"Of course. If you choose to leave us, you are free to do so. However, the Jedi are still pursuing you, and I doubt you will find one of their 'Academies' as easy to depart."
"You really expect me to believe that, do you?"
"Believe as you like. Go ahead, view me through the Force. Do I lie? Do you detect the slightest hint of deceit?"
"From you, I hear nothing."
"I was not trained in the Force like most people are, I guess. I was raised to always listen to the Music, the song sung by all life. From you, I hear nothing whatsoever, and it scares me," she admitted.
Venaar looked insightful. "Yes... Music. A most apt analogy. Thank you for sharing it with me. As for my 'silence,' as you put it, that is easily explained. I have gone far into what the Jedi call the Dark Side of the Force. I keep myself under firmest control at all times."
Venaar sighed. He motioned Kara to a comfortable looking divan and settled himself into a chair near it. "The differences between the Sith and the Jedi began in philosophical terms only. We pursued knowledge that had a tendency to corrupt lesser minds, turn them into monsters."
"I think that's more than a philosophical difference then," Kara said flatly.
"However," Venaar continued, "it was believed that, with time, we could conquer our own inner darkness and find a still center, a place where we had access to all the Force has to offer, and would not be swayed by the mortal failings that doom so many Sith." He leaned forward and captured her eyes. "I am the first to accomplish it."
Kara's eyebrow lifted to underline her skepticism, but she changed the subject. "You want me to believe you? Then you have to explain a few more things."
"Very well, ask," he responded evenly.
"First, why did you kill Daj?"
Venaar's brows crashed together. "Daj? Oh! The person who let your ship launch at Derra IV? I did not kill him. He was alive, well and strong when I left him."
"He's dead now," she said.
Venaar's face grew troubled. "I swear to you, I only looked into his mind for information about your vessel. I did nothing that would harm him. There were no drugs used, nor did we employ torture. Both practices are forbidden. Beyond the fact that they are cruel, they also tend to yield false information." He paused. "Lady Vanden, forgive the impertinence, but are you sure he is dead?"
"One of my companions was informed of his death."
"I see, could they... forgive me, but could they be lying? Or, let me be kinder, could they have been lied to?"
She considered Renn. No, the news had disturbed him too much, He wasn't lying. Gaman however... Renn's contacts were shady at best. It was possible. Particularly if he had later sold them out, as seemed only likely.
"Possibly," she admitted. "I believe the source of the information was pursuing the bounty you put on my head."
"I do not use bounty hunters," Venaar returned icily. "Those scum have no place in my organization."
"And yet we were attacked by a person who had proof an enormous bounty was placed on our ship and everyone aboard."
Venaar shot to his feet and reached into his sleeve for a small comlink. "Captain Hyridan, was there a bounty placed upon Lady Vanden or the ship she was a passenger on?"
Now, just a slight flicker of song leaked through Venaar's lauded control. A note of fiery, deadly, anger.
A moment later and his comlink responded, "Yes, my Lord. Intelligence had one posted after their escape on Derra IV."
"Captain," Venaar's voice was deadly calm, "would both you and the head of the Intelligence section report to the guest quarters at once?"
"On our way, sir," the voice responded, then the connection was broken.
"I will get to the bottom of this at once, Lady. My abject and humblest apologies if this is the case. My predecessors may have operated in this manner, but I flatly refuse to."
A moment later, an older man and a middle-aged woman, both in stark military uniforms, were admitted to the chamber.
"Commander," Venaar addressed the woman, "explain to my honored guest and I why you placed a bounty on her head?"
"My Lord?" she responded, confused.
"This is the Lady Kara Tao Vanden," Venaar explained. "You placed a bounty on her. Who ordered you to do so?"
"No one, My Lord. I just assumed that, when they escaped, we would follow established protocol and spread as wide a net as possible to find them."
"Captain Hyridan," Venaar turned to the older man, "as of right now, bounty hunters are not to be employed by our military in any capacity whatsoever, is that understood? Any outstanding bounties we offer are to be cancelled."
"Yes, Lord," he saluted.
"Commander," Venaar continued, "contact your second. You are hereby relieved of duty, pending reassignment."
The woman looked about to argue, but then saluted as well. "As you command, Lord."
"Dismissed," he said.
They turned smartly, and left.
Venaar's shoulders sagged as the door shut. "Again, Lady Vanden, my apologies. I find myself in the position of having to countermand orders given by men who are years dead. The task of reaffirming positive discipline has been enormous."
The anger felt real to her, was it a genuine crack in Venaar's emotional shell or was the entire thing an act? Kara decided to move on, to press him while he seemed off-balance. "All right, the big question: why do I still have the Holocron?"
Venaar flashed a heart-melting smile. "I suppose the you could say that it is a sign of good faith. I am asking a lot of you. The least I can do is show my trust in you."
"You trust me?"
"Of course." He returned to his study of the tapestry. "What's more, you are Selene's direct descendant. It should be yours by right. While I would be happy to keep it safe for you, we both know it will only function in YOUR hands, not mine."
Kara was silent a long while. Finally, she said, "You've told me much, but still, assuming I believe you, why do you care? Why not simply take the holocron and be done with it?"
"Beyond the fact that I do not want the Jedi securing whatever power Selene found, I am bound by the oath of my Master. You are of Selene's line. It is my duty to protect you, whether you believe me or not."
"Protect me?" she echoed.
"Yes. I failed to save your mother and father. I bitterly regret that." Coming to her divan, he sank to one knee and stared hard into her eyes. "I will not fail in my duty again, Lady."
Kara felt the depthless pools of his dark eyes pulling at her, and slowly, inexorably, she felt herself giving way. "But why...?"
"I know the story of your past," he interrupted her. "Please, let me show you the way to your future."
Something in her rebelled, something fought for one second to stem the tide she felt pulling her away, but then it dissolved. Lost in the fog, she breathed a single word, "Yes."
Venaar smiled and leaned towards her. His lips were cool against hers, and though she didn't care, a solitary singer wept gently for her beneath layers of unfathomable silence.
"What is this?" Liana asked curiously, bending down beside the device that Renn was tinkering with on the floor of the main hold. T5 rolled over and dropped something beside him. The device he was working on was a vaguely-oval-shaped capsule that looked almost like a miniature escape pod. She was a good pilot, and she knew enough about ships and computers to make impromptu repairs and run diagnostics on her ship, but Renn.... sometimes Renn operated at a level she could barely fathom.
"Well, in theory, with this transmitter relay-" he held up the part that the droid had brought him "-this little thing ought to be able to spoof the transmission signals of a Republic warship." When Liana blinked, Renn continued. "We drop a bunch of these far enough out, and the Sith should be so busy scrambling to defend against the incoming invasion that we can slip in."
Still crouched by him, she touched the device again. "What is to stop them from just jumping out ahead of this fake fleet of yours?"
"We put them right in their way. They won't be able to jump to hyperspace if they think they way's blocked. If we need to, we plot their vector and drop the transmitters in front of them. Good old pirate's interdiction," he smirked.
Liana nodded. She knew that much about his theory. Navi-computers on hyperspace-capable ships could take into account all natural factors that would impact faster-than-light travel. What they couldn't possibly predict were artificial reasons; namely, other ships in one's flight plan. That was why navi-computers were tied to scanners that would detect the ID transponders of other ships, plot their positions and if a collision was imminent, drop the ship from hyperspace. Less noble travelers would use this fact to their advantage, and the tactic had become known as 'pirate's interdiction' for obvious reasons.
"You think they will just allow us to get close enough to dock?"
"If you can get us close enough, fast enough, it won't matter."
"We'll still have to fight our way to Kara, though."
His expression grew grim. "Well... that's where my brilliant plan falls apart. We'll have to hope we get real lucky or this might be the shortest run we ever make."
Kara and Venaar sat at a small table within Venaar's cavernous library. As had become her custom these past few days, Kara's lightsaber was clipped to an elaborate belt that didn't look too out of place with the blue silken gown, even if the weapon itself did. On the other side of the belt was a pouch where the Holocron rode.
"The problem with the Sith over the past decades," Venaar was explaining, "is that they were ruled by people with weak minds. Even the great Revan, I fear, could not find the center. She could not get past the inner turmoil that is the core of the so-called 'Dark Side.' Of course, Revan's destiny was to be a tragic one. Did you ever hear the story of her disappearance and the end of the Jedi Civil War?"
Kara enjoyed the rich timbre of his voice; she could listen to him for hours. "No," she replied. "All I knew was that the Republic defeated the Sith after being driven to the brink themselves."
Venaar nodded. "That is the basic gist, yes. The truth is far more interesting. Revan, you see, had severed all ties with the Jedi when she left to fight in the Mandalorian Wars. With her went several Jedi. This you know. Revan was not the first Sith lord, but she took the remains of her command after the war and reformed them, along with new war material from a then-unknown source, under the banner of the Sith.
"The new Sith military easily stormed across the still war-torn Republic. Finally, in desperation, a Jedi death squad was sent to kill Revan. Unfortunately, Revan's apprentice, Malak, chose the moment of his Master's battle with the Jedi to turn on Revan. He obliterated her flagship, killing her... or so he thought."
Kara smiled dreamily, lost in the tale.
"Revan was only injured, and the surviving members of the Jedi attackers took her back to a Jedi Academy on Dantooine. There, Revan underwent horrific torture. Oh, they repaired her body, but they also destroyed her mind. They unmade her at the most basic level and reconstructed her as they saw fit." Venaar reached over and covered her hand with his. "I fear it is the same fate that awaits you, if you should fall into Jedi custody. That is why I wish you would remain with us, but I digress."
Kara's eyes grew a bit wide, a bit fearful, but then she remembered where she was, who she was with, and relaxed. "Please, continue your tale."
"Revan, under the guise of a false identity, was cleverly led again along her early path by a Jedi overseer, Bastila Shan. Bastila was to ensure that Revan's true identity did not re-emerge, and kill her if it did."
"Why? Why not just imprison or destroy her outright?" she asked.
Venaar chuckled. "Remember, the Jedi and Republic were nearing defeat, and the Sith seemed to have unlimited numbers of ships, weapons and war droids. The Jedi hoped that Revan could help them identify that source and destroy it. If she was successful, we do not know. All that is certain is that the war ended soon thereafter and the Republic was victorious. But Revan, well... The generous say she disappeared, fled into the Unknown Regions, but I think, rather, that she was killed to ensure that the Dark Lord would not resurface."
Kara's face grew thoughtful, she dropped her eyes from his and looked instead to the holocron in its pouch. "And the Jedi intend the same for me, you say?"
"I am certain of it," he replied levelly.
"It sounds worse than death. I don't want..." Tears formed in her eyes. "I don't want to die, I don't want my mind destroyed."
He rose and took her shaking frame in his arms. "You are safe, Lady. I will protect you. I will always protect you."
"But I don't want to be a prisoner either," she said. "I don't want to live forever with them lurking just beyond my vision. How can I be rid of them?"
"There is a way, but it may be worse."
She brought her face up to his, bare inches away. "How?"
He released her, but his hands moved to her shoulders. "Use the Holocron."
Kara recoiled. "But the Holocron says the power is too dangerous to use."
Venaar smiled. "I do not want to use it. I want to deny it to the Jedi. I will destroy it to keep it from their hands, but to do so, we must understand it first."
She looked unsure.
"The first axiom of Sith lore is that power understood is power controlled. Power denied for the sake of misunderstanding is all the more dangerous."
Kara objected, "But..."
"You asked how best to remove the Jedi interest in you. If you choose not take that path, you can remain here forever. I will keep you safe as this ship moves from system to system, one step ahead of their menace."
Spend her entire life on this ship? Unbidden, a memory of the snow-capped mountains, the green fields and the bright, warm sunshine of home filled her mind. How long had it been since she had even seen a blade of grass?
No, she couldn't endure it. The existence he offered was as much death to her as what the Jedi offered. But she couldn't keep such a secret with her and run and hide elsewhere. The Jedi found her on Derra IV, they could find her anywhere....
"Yes," she said in barely a whisper. "Yes, I will use the Holocron."
Venaar led Kara into a softly lit chamber. It was a small room, but it reminded Kara of a museum, with various artifacts standing about in glass cases.
"These were all Selene's or my Master's," Venaar explained. "I hoped to learn more about them through items they deemed important. I come here often to meditate and draw strength from their presences." His face grew regretful. "I can almost feel Master Jhoral near me when I am here. I thought it might be more conducive."
Kara nodded and looked about her. A pair of perfectly matched gleaming crystals caught her eye. Next to them stood a suit of golden battle armor.
"Those were Selene's," Venaar explained. "The armor was a gift form a Mandalorian general who thought her a worthy foe. The crystals... they are the most intriguing item here. They are the original core of her lightsaber. Some Force users, it is said, bond with their core crystals in a deep and not completely understood manner. Selene was one such Force user. It is part of why she was so gifted with the blade. However, she abandoned her cores when she left the Jedi Order. You carry her weapon, but the cores are different. Why she did so is just another of her many mysteries."
Kara nodded. Something... something about the core crystals called to her. She felt some strange connection running between them and her, something she could not explain.
"Very well, shall we begin?" Venaar asked.
With great effort, Kara tore her attention from the display cases. She settled cross-legged into the center of the room, Venaar settling across from her, and took out the Holocron.
The small pyramidal crystal felt hot and heavy in her hand. She set it in the center of the circle described by her and Venaar, and focused her will upon it. The Music swelled and roiled, sinking deep into the stone.
Almost immediately, it glowed crimson, and the presence of Selene erupted from it. She took one pitying look at Kara, but then her eyes grew wide and she whirled to find Venaar looking greedily at her.
"So, you have her, do you, Avatar?" Selene asked Venaar. "It has come to this?"
Kara felt her will freeze. She could no longer speak, she could no longer fight, or stop fighting. Everything that she was became crystalline.
"I seek to persevere," Venaar said in a voice oddly not his own. It sounded deep, dark, like the rumble of a ground quake beneath one's feet.
"Do you?" Selene answered. "You seek to thrive, I fear."
"Blast you, foul shade! Give unto me your key and begone with you!" it roared back.
"You seek the means to open the gateway, do you?" Selene smiled then, a small, knowing smile. She glanced fondly at Kara, and then her face grew stern. She spread her ghostly arms wide and opened herself to Venaar. "Then strike. Bite hard and true, Avatar."
Claws of pure shadow stuff, tongues of black fire, leapt from Venaar's body and tore into Selene's ghost.
Kara gasped as a flood of images and feelings flowed into her. Venaar's face also grew ecstatic, as though he glimpsed the countenance of the universe and it smiled on him.
When finally it faded, the fog in Kara's mind whipped away like scudding cloud. It was over, and now she crumpled and lay like a defeated and broken thing.
Dimly, she was aware of Venaar's cry of glee and his rapid departure. Dimly, she was aware that the Holocron now lay, a twisted, molten mess, before her.
Starkly, she knew all was lost.
Light years away, on the planet Solara, Aeron Rhade started up from deep meditation. He felt the stab of pain, the echoing hollowness of despair. He crumpled and wept.
The knowledge that every moment they spent on Tenalp was another that Kara was at the mercy of the Sith made them work quickly, but Renn still needed time to build and test his devices. While her partner was busy, Liana did not sit idle. The Sith had seen her ship; an ID change might not be enough to keep them from being recognized. She had a fresh coat of paint applied to the ship's battered hull. Then, she went out into the shipyards of Tenalp and purchased the newest -albeit temporary- addition to their ship: a pair of detachable cargo containers that, when affixed to the sides of the Wanderer, helped to disguise the ship's form. Of course, as soon as Renn had seen those, he'd come up with another idea, a surprise for the Sith, and asked her to go out for more supplies.
Liana stood gazing up at the ship. Her preparations done, there was nothing left for her to do but wait, now. Suddenly, she felt a surge of sadness. Without knowing quite why, she staggered up the ramp and fell into a seat in the darkened cockpit. There, she buried her face in her hands and tried to keep the feelings of desperation at bay.
Slowly, perception returned to Kara. She was aware she was lying on the floor of the museum chamber. She smelled the crisp acrid stink of the remains of the Holocron and sat up.
For the first time in days, the swirling mist that held her mind had fled. She was herself now, and she wept at what she had done. She had believed him. She had surrendered all she was to Venaar and done so gladly. She fell to one side and retched violently. She had failed. Failed her parents, failed her friends, failed herself.
It was then that she heard the faint whisper of Music. A sweet crystalline note of pure, bright light. It drew her to her feet, it pulled her across the room and it brought her hand to her weapon, which smashed the glass case containing the two core crystals.
Yes, she sang back to them. I have not lost all, yet. There is still a chance. We shall take that chance, we will seize it, together.
A few moments of simple work later and she felt ready, but something still nagged at her. She considered the other case, containing Selene's golden armor, and grinned.
The door to the Museum opened and the two guards looked into the darkness. Suddenly, two spars of golden light erupted and pierced them.
Others charged into the hallway and a figure armored in gold and wielding blades of pure sun-fire fell on them with dreadful efficiency.
The figure was not Kara Tao Vanden, or at least, not entirely her. Some vestige of Selene strode with her now, some hitherto unknown part of her had found a home within Kara's soul, along with the memories of her parents, of Renn, Liana and even Aeron.
The figure walked slowly, with purpose and clarity, towards the core of the ship.
Wracking sobs turned to blazing, brilliant fire.
Aeron Rhade fell again, this time in stunned wonder. It was clear, it was all so blessedly clear.
Shooting to his feet, he sought a comm station within the Academy. There he punched in the tracking code for the Wanderer, beginning with the systems around Tenalp.
Liana looked up as the console alerted her to an incoming message. Who could be contacting them now? Could it be...?
She stretched for the button. "This is the Wanderer," she said cautiously.
"Liana," the voice at the other end was garbled, but undoubtedly Aeron. "Before you cut the connection, listen to me. I was wrong. If you are planning anything in the way of a rescue... now is the time."
"Are you sure?" she asked quietly. She heard Renn come into the cockpit behind her and looked over her shoulder at him. From his expression, he'd heard the message.
"We're ready enough," her partner said. "I've just been fine-tuning the devices."
"Am I sure? Kara sent a wave of presence through the Force so powerful that every Force-Sensitive person here has a migraine. Whatever Venaar did to her, she threw it off."
Liana nodded to Renn, who slipped into his chair to activate the tracking device he'd placed on Kara. "Got her," he said, starting to calculate a hyperspace vector with rapid keystrokes. "You coming to the party, Jedi?"
"I have a ship prepping now. Where is she?"
Liana shook her head. "You're too far away," Renn said aloud. "If we don't get her out, I doubt the Sith will stay where they are long enough for you to arrive."
Aeron's sigh of resignation was clear through the speaker.
"We will send you the frequency for our tracking device," Liana said. Renn looked like he was going to protest, but he backed down at her expression. "If we aren't able to get her out, you must find her, Aeron."
"I won't fail you," he promised. "May the Force be with both of you, and Kara."
Lord Venaar was striding onto the Dragon's bridge as the report came in.
"My Lord," Captain Hyridan began. "Lady Vanden is slaughtering her way towards the docking bay. The security cam footage shows she is wearing the battle armor from your museum and is wielding a golden lightsaber."
Venaar was taken aback. His first reaction was to confront her, to end the charade and simply dispatch her with minimal loss to the crew, but something stayed his hand. He remained rooted to the spot. No, the time was not right for that encounter.
"Captain," he said crisply, "evacuate all personnel from the sections between Lady Vanden and the landing bay. Instruct the Elite guard to engage her, but from a distance. Do not close with her. If she reaches the landing bay, she is to be allowed to leave the ship. Is that clear?"
The look of confusion on Hyridan's face showed it was not, but the man obeyed without question or hesitation.
Suddenly, the Dragon lurched and reverted to real space. Alarms blared and techs scrambled to gather data.
"Report!" Hyridan bellowed.
"Captain! Sensor contact!" a tech reported. "It looks like a large Republic fleet directly in our hyperspace vector!"
"Damn, they must have known our vector somehow..." Hyridan muttered. "Tactical! I want readings on all the warships now!"
"Too much jamming," the original tech cut in. "All our sensors are fuzzy and the comm system is jammed. The emergency transponder scanners are all that kept us from colliding at light speed."
"They'll be on us before we can compute a new course," Venaar mused.
"Launch fighters! All crew to battle stations!" Hyridan thundered.
This... now this was going to be the tricky part, Renn thought, watching from the Wanderer's postion behind the larger ship as fighters shot from the Dragon's bay. They were going to have a very limited window to slip in; as soon as the fighters found his decoys, that was going to be the end of the deception.
Liana kept the ship on a direct course for the Dragon, but moving slowly until the fighters had launched. As the smaller ships moved off in the direction of the alleged Republic fleet, the Wanderer's captain poured on the speed. If they were challenged by the Dragon's commanders, Renn had a story about being a damaged Sith supply freighter ready to go, but they'd both agreed not to use it if they could help it.
The pair watched the Dragon get closer through the viewport. Liana aimed straight for the landing bay as the ship accelerated. A couple of fighters seemed to notice them, but the ship was past them before anyone could react. As they got closer to the gaping maw of the bay, Renn reached over his head and ejected the extraneous cargo pods. They were just extra weight, especially with the little surprise packed in them, and they'd serve as an extra decoy for now.
Renn's eyes locked straight ahead as he braced himself in the seat. He fancied that he could see individual deck hands diving for cover now.
"Make a hole, boys, we're comin' through," he muttered.
Kara had cut her way clear all the way to the hangar bay. There seemed to be remarkably few people about. Aside from the armored Elite Sith troopers, the corridors were deserted.
It wasn't until she burst through the final set of blast doors onto the flight deck that she realized the foolishness of her tactic. She couldn't fly a ship. She'd need to secure a pilot.
Berating herself, Kara cast about for anyone who looked even remotely like they could fly a ship. People scattered from her path like seeds in the wind.
Suddenly, an immense roar announced a ship forcing its way into the bay from space.
Kara spun, and gaped.
It just was not possible....
With a whoop of joy, she tore off towards the Wanderer.
The freighter careened into the bay and made a spectacular dent in the rearward wall. Its obviously new paint job was now completely trashed and there were more than a few blaster burns decorating her hull, Kara noticed as she ran and pounded on the hatch.
The gateway to salvation swung open before her and she sprinted up it so fast she surprised the alarmingly armed T5 coming down it.
Hauling the droid along behind her, Kara halted at the main hold intercom and slapped the talk button. "Liana! Renn! I'm on. Go!"
Liana's Trianii reflexes got the ship turned around fast as soon as she heard Kara's voice over the intercom. "Aeron was right. She must have been waiting for us."
"Hold on, Captain, we got their attention," Renn said as the Wanderer sped back the way she'd come. A few turbolaser near-misses underscored his remark and rattled the freighter. "I think they've discovered the transmitters."
"We're far enough away," Liana announced.
Renn gave her a little triumphant grin. "I hope they like their present." He targeted the cargo containers they'd jettisoned with the pivoting turbolaser battery on the Wanderer's belly, and fired.
The first pod, and its cargo of liquid fuel, exploded in a fireball that quickly consumed the second. Not waiting around to see the extent of the destruction, the Wanderer rocketed away into hyperspace, leaving the fiery wreckage to send its own message to the Sith.
On the bridge of the Dragon, all was sheer chaos. The Sith fighters were reporting negative contact with the ships and fighters their scanners said had to be there. The rampage of Kara Tao Vanden had ended with untold losses in a docking bay penetrated by a rogue ship that appeared from nowhere and left in a fireball that had severely damaged the ship.
Through it all, Captain Hyridan watched Lord Venaar out of the corner of his eye, remembering the fate of those who failed Malak and Revan before him.
But Venaar showed no outward emotion. He merely turned on his heel and calmly left the bridge, pausing only to tell Hyridan that he would be in the library and to set course to Derra IV.
The Sith naval officer watched his Lord leave and found his hand trembling as he reached to wipe his brow.
Kara had collapsed into herself following the Wanderer's departure from the Dragon, shedding the helmet of Selene's golden armor, which made a ringing thud on the durasteel plating of the ship's hold. She felt a lurch as the ship safely entered hyperspace and fell against the wall for support. She was safe; they were away.
Liana and Renn found her like that when they came back to the hold not long after.
Kara looked up as they approached. She saw their faces and felt something give. She dropped her deactivated lightsaber, staggered towards them. Without a word, she collapsed into Renn's chest, and started to cry.
Renn made a startled sound as he found himself suddenly supporting her armored weight, not to mention a crying female. Hesitantly, as if he wasn't sure what to do, he put an arm around her to support her. Liana came over and laid her hand on the girl's head, stroking her hair in a gentle petting motion.
None of them spoke for a long while. Then, finally, Renn said, "Don't you ever make us do something like that again, Kara."
She blinked. It was the first time he'd ever called her by name. Not "Kid" or "Farm Girl", but her name. No one called her that anymore except the people here.
Here, now, in the warm presence of these two, she was safe. They had come through fire and death for her, because they knew she would do the same for them. Because this was something far more important than camaraderie.
This was family, this was home.
-End, Chapter Six