Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away

The Road to Rediscovery
Part 23 - Attack from the Shadows

“I think I now understand why Master Epiere came here to do her research on the Sith,” Snow observed to Bastila as they walked down the grand corridors of the Onderon Royal Palace in Iziz.

Raising an eyebrow, Bastila asked her padawan, “And why is that?” Although she kept her voice low, barely above a whisper, Bastila's words echoed down the vaulted hallway and reverberated off the high, stone ceiling. Their guide, a soldier in a crisp brown uniform with a beige sash around his shoulders, pretended not to hear the Jedi's conversation.

“The Dark Side echoes here, within these walls,” Snow replied, as if relishing the sensation. In moments like these, she worried Bastila, but Snow quickly returned to dry analysis, “There is not a strong dark presence here now, but it is as if the Dark Side is calling out, wishing to return this place to a past where its grip was stronger. I am sure you feel it too.”

Bastila nodded. “As you know, the Dark Side leaves its scars on places as easily as it does on people,” she replied as they walked, “Master Anika came here to meditate and research, in hopes that such an old Dark Side nexus as this would give her clues or glimpses into what is causing this dark veil we have all been sensing, growing in the last year.”

“But she has not been heard from in over two weeks,” Snow stated.

“And that is why we were sent here,” Bastila nodded.

“Attempting to connect with the Dark Side through any means is dangerous,” Snow cautioned.

“But let's not jump to any conclusions,” Bastila warned, “Assumptions can cloud our observations. Anika Epiere is a member of the Jedi Council and understood her mission here. Research of this kind is hardly dangerous.”

“Or shouldn't be,” Snow replied. “Something happened to her out here.”

“Onderon is a world not without its dangers,” Bastila responded.

The soldier before them stepped aside and halted crisply at the doorway ahead of them, heels clicking on the stone floor. “The Royal Archives,” he announced.

“Thank you, sir,” Bastila nodded to him and then crossed under the arched, stone doorway, Snow following after her.

Towering shelves held an impressive collection of holodisks and books, interspersed with antique-looking tables for studying. It was like the Jedi Archives on a smaller scale, though decidedly dustier. Afternoon sunlight filtered through long slit windows near the ceiling.

“You must be the Jedi from Coruscant,” a slender woman approached them from the shadows of the book cases. She wore baggy pants gathered in at the ankles and a long tunic, all in warm tones of gold and orange. “Welcome,” she said.

“We are. Thank you,” Bastila replied with a curt bow. The woman, who she had at first taken to be one of the archivists, stepped out in streaming sunlight. The rich silks of her clothing, her proud bearing, and the gilded, boxy cap on her head caught Bastila's attention. “Your Highness,” she corrected her internal assumptions, “I am Jedi Knight Bastila Shan and this is my padawan Seno'vwannin, called 'Snow.' The Jedi Council sent us to investigate the disappearance of Master Anika Epiere.”

“I am very sorry for all this, Jedi,” the woman, Queen Talia, apologized, “We thought she had finished her research and left long ago. We were unaware of her disappearance until we received the message from Coruscant announcing your visit. Had I know, my own security forces would have done more to locate her.”

“We already appreciate your concern and hospitality, Your Majesty,” Bastila replied, “Anything that can cause the disappearance of a Jedi Master is something to be considered very seriously and acted upon with care and caution. It is best that your people stayed out of the search for as long as they did. I would hate to risk them in what may be another Jedi squabble.”

Snow shot her a cautioning look.

“You suspect the Sith may be behind her disappearance?” Talia looked aghast, “Here on Onderon?”

“I suspect nothing,” Bastila replied coolly, “But it is one of many possibilities that could have caused one so in tune with the Force as Master Anika to disappear.”

“For all we know, one of your jungle beasts could have carried her off,” Snow suggested, but her theory did not seem to reassure the queen.

“In hopes that it would help you in your search, my archivists have assembled all the material she was studying two weeks ago for you,” Talia began, smoothing over the tense, unsettled posture that had risen up momentarily. “If you will follow me this way,” she gestured back between the two tall shelves.

Bastila bowed her head in acquiescence and the queen led the way to a broad wooden table in a bright patch of sunlight. Maps, old books, and a few dusty data cards were arranged in neat piles on the near end of the table. “It seems that, near the end of her stay,” Talia summarized, “Master Epiere spent a significant amount of her energy focusing on research of some old Nadd Era ruins just outside of Iziz.” She drew a finger over a clump of building-like scribbles on the map nearest to them.

Snow's red eyes flicked meaningfully between Bastila and the map.

The stone walls of Iziz seemed to keep out not only the wild of the jungle but also the incredible humidity. Bastila had hardly parked their borrowed speeder in the ruins of the old keep, and she already found herself drenched in a shower of her own sweat. Snow seemed to fare much better, even if the humidity made her uncomfortable. Twi'leks, from their arid planet, always seemed to take heat far better than their human companions. Meanwhile, Bastila tried to keep a look of disgust off her face as her damp robes clung to her skin.

“Master Epiere rightly associated this place with the Dark Side,” Snow observed. She did not need to. Bastila felt the call of the Dark Side in these ruins as clearly as her Padawan.

“They were built during the reign of Freedon Nadd, it seems,” Bastila replied, “A powerful Dark Jedi.”

What was left of a once grand keep amounted to a pile of overgrown stones, somewhat resembling a tower. The jungle was not kind to history.

“But what I find harder to understand is why she thought a place like this would have something to do with the growing darkness in the galaxy,” Bastila observed, picking her over the mossy stones towards what appeared to be a crumbling doorway, overgrown with hanging ferns and vines.

Snow scrambled after her. “Maybe she was hoping that a nexus like this would open her up to the greater ebb and flow of the Dark Side and give her some clues as to where it is coming from?” she suggested.

“We don't even know if she came here at all,” Bastila cautioned.

“Though the signs seem to point that way,” Snow argued.

The first thing that Bastila noticed as she pushed through the greenery and into the dim interior of the keep was the stench. All the smells of the jungle could do nothing to mask the humid scent of rot and decay. Bastila took a few more steps across the uneven flooring and squinted deeper into the ruins. The source of the odors seemed to be a heap of something at the food of a broken reptilian statue near the center of the floor.

“What is that smell?” Snow exclaimed and immediately clamped a hand over her nose. “It smells like something died in here.”

As Bastila's eyes adjusted to the lower light, the pile on the floor resolved itself into a more familiar shape.

“Is that a lightsaber?” Snow suddenly observed, taking two quick steps forward towards a silver cylinder that glimmered in a ray of light. She had not seen the heap by the statue.

All that was recognizable in that heap was a pair of polished, gnawed upon Jedi boots. What was left of Anika Epiere hardly resembled the elderly Arkanian any more. Bastila's eyes widened with realization as bile rose up her throat. She quickly turned away and hunched over, fighting back the urge to vomit.

“Oh Force!” Snow saw her too. She clapped a hand over her mouth, almost retching as well. When she had recovered, she started, sounding forced, “One of the predators here must have gotten her.”

Bastila, knowing that she must be almost as pale as Snow, swallowed back the sour taste in her mouth and tried to asses the scene without really looking at the chewed corpse in the middle of it all. There did not seem to be room enough in the crumbled keep for any particularly large predators, like a boma. Anika's lightsaber, moreover was on the ground at Snow's feet, several meters from where her body seemed to have fallen. That alone pointed to the idea that she had been using it to defend herself when she died. Something had attacked and killed her, knocking the lightsaber from her grasp. The statue behind her showed signs of lightsaber scoring. One appendage had been sheared cleanly off.

As Bastila studied it all, the hairs on the back of her neck began to prickle and the tips of Snow's lekku started to twitch agitatedly. She became suddenly aware of the darkness rising around them. An odd shimmer in the air behind Snow caught her eye. “Snow...” she started in an urgent whisper.

Snow was already tensed, hands on the hilt of her lightsaber. Slowly, she turned, looking over her right shoulder. She sensed it, whatever it was.

With a hiss and a hoarse yell, something lunged. Snow let out a startled yell of pain, and the illusion was shattered. A figure materialized out of the shadows, stealth field generator failing as he attacked.

Bastila leaped protectively forward. She did not remember consciously deciding to take her lightsaber and turn it on, but she whirled in with it, getting between Snow and her attacker. Snow herself fell back, blood rapidly darkening her burgundy sleeve near her right shoulder.

As the Force moved Bastila from each strike to each block, the rest of her consciousness assessed her foe. He was average height, robed in gray and black with a tight hood and full mask. Eerie red goggles covered his eyes. Without the cues of flickering eyes of decided attention, Bastila had to rely more fully on the Force for each move she made. He deftly swung a long, spindly Force pike, which awarded a sharp shock to her skin each time it connected, even when she managed to deflect the pointy ends.

Snow yelped again. For a moment, Bastila allowed a slip in her focus to look over her shoulder, earning a stinging blow from her enemy. Two more of the attackers, identically armed and dressed as the first, materialized out of the shadows and bore down on Snow. Biting her lip, Bastila returned her attention to her own fight. She hated to leave Snow alone to the two attackers, but she had little choice for the moment. Snow was a far better duelist than Bastila often gave her credit for. She stood just as good a chance against two attackers as Bastila did.

Bastila found herself being pushed in towards the center of the room, where more rubble littered the floor, threatening her sure footing. Closer to where Anika lay dead. She tried not to think about it. Moment by moment, Bastila became more certain that these shadowy attackers were responsible for the death of the Arkanian Jedi Master and not the beasts of the forest.

While, at first, Bastila had assumed that her attacker was a Sith, now she was not so certain. Neither he nor the other two wielded lightsabers, but they were clearly trained in at least a few of the more aggressive lightsaber forms. None of them used tricks of the Force to fight them. Yet, he managed to resist most of Bastila's subtle attacks of the Force against him. There were none of the cocky, self-assured taunts of the Sith coming from their mouths; only bestial grunts and hisses. As the fight wore on, Bastila felt herself grown weary far more quickly than she should have.

There was a gargling exclamation of pain and a body slumped to the floor, sliding along jagged rocks. Snow let out a small, satisfied grunt, but that was all.

Bastila fought to keep focused as weakness began to overcome her. She leaped backwards, assisted by the Force, and landed lightly on the head of the reptilian statue at the center of the crumbling room. She Pushed violently outward with both of her hands. Even Snow was thrown from her feet. Bastila winced as her padawan hit the uneven floor hard. At least the Push disentangled her from her attacker, who landed even worse. Unfortunately, the two remaining assassins scrambled more quickly back to their feet. As the battle drew on, they seemed to be gaining more and more energy.

This needs to end quickly, Bastila thought grimly. As one closed in on Snow, who stiffly pulled herself up off the floor, Bastila leaped off the statue and brought her lightsaber down in a heavy, over-handed strike. The yellow blade sliced him clean through, shoulder to navel. With a gurgled hiss, he collapsed. Bastila shot a reassuring look at Snow. There is only one more left. If possible, Snow looked paler than usual. She smiled back weakly.

With no more exchange, Bastila whirled back towards her attacker. She opened the floodgates inside her, grasping at all the Force she could muster. It seemed to siphon away almost as quickly. She felt dried out inside, heavy, and clumsy. Each defensive block she made seemed to make it just in time with barely enough strength.

Suddenly, Snow screamed. It was not like her first scream, but brimming with pain and terror. Bastila Leaped back and turned towards her padawan. The end of a Force pike protruded through Snow's chest. Another assassin stood behind Snow, grasping his weapon. There was a fourth one? “Snow!” she shrieked. Snow's wide red eyes shifted from the shaft sticking out of her chest slowly up to Bastila's face, as if wordlessly pleading for Bastila to somehow release her from her pain. The rolled back in her head and her body fell limp. Her attacker let out a hiss of satisfaction, and kicked her down, freeing his weapon from her torso. All at once, Bastila felt the power of the Dark Side surge with strength around her. Her own power felt infinitely more distant.

With a scream of rage, Bastila lunged at the man who had killed Snow. She let her rage fuel her, drawing all the darkness around her into her limbs. The power surged through her and out the palm of her hand as she Shoved the attacker against the wall. It fueled her leap across the rubble towards him and gave force to the swing of her saber as the humming yellow blade sliced through his Force pike like a twig and then clear through his mid section. He did not even have time to utter a cry before his top half separate from his bottom.

Bastila hardly gave his death any thought as she spun back across the chamber with one great leap, a whirlwind of golden yellow. The last remaining assassin fought back fiercely, his own strength increasing, but he was no match for Bastila's rage. Soon, the wrist that held his pike was severed from his arm followed by his head severed from his neck. Bastila yelled out again as he fell.

She stood there panting amid all the blood and carnage, gripping fiercely at the hilt of her lightsaber and waiting for another attack. It never came. Her anger faded away and Bastila gradually became aware of the world around her again. Insects drones and birds whistled and screamed outside the ruined keep. Heat and humidity pressed down on her and drenched her clothes and hair with sweat. Six dead bodies lay around her. The sour stench of death filled her nostrils.

Bastila felt weak, like a deflated balloon. She dropped her saber, the blades going out as it fell to the stone floor with a clatter. Her gaze fell on Snow, who lay at an unnatural angle across a pile of stone blocks from a collapsed section of the wall. Her unseeing red eyes still stared at Bastila, begging for help.

Bastila took one heavy, dragging step towards her and then another. She felt to her knees at Snow's side and threw her arm over her in a desperate embrace. Sticky blood from the wounds on Snow's chest and shoulder soaked into Bastila's clothes and mingled with her sweat. She slumped down over her padawan's body, her forehead falling against Snow's tattooed brow. Salty tears came to her eyes. She made no attempt to hold them back. Sobs racked her shuddering body as she held onto to the soulless body of the Twi'lek who had been both her student and friend, only moments before. Every last trace of her in the Force was utterly gone. There was no bringing her back now. Bastila's hoarse cries drowned all other noises of the jungle until she had no voice left to cry out.

Heat blasted at Bastila from the blazing funeral pyre of Anika Epiere and Seno'vwannin. It only added to the oppressive heat of the jungle, but Bastila was beyond caring about her own comfort. She had collected downed limbs for the fire in a depression in the rubble outside the keep. Placing Snow's body and what was left of Anika upon the wood, she doused it all in fuel siphoned from her speeder and lit it. Now, she could barely make out the shapes of the two fallen Jedi amid the hungry, roaring flames.

It would be completely infeasible to take the bodies back to Coruscant with here, or even back to Iziz, but she still wanted to give them a proper Jedi funeral. Bastila attended as the only mourner.

Bastila watched the flames dance with dry eyes. She had no more tears to cry. First she lost Ev and Juhani, and now Snow was forever gone from her life as well. There was no one left for this growing darkness to take from her. Even on the day that her own master had died, she had never felt this alone.

In the nearly two years since the day first met Snow and began her training, Snow grew from an eager student and companion to close friend. When Ev left with Juhani, Snow provided the support and stability in Bastila's life that she had so desperately needed. Though she knew deep down that no one could ever replace Ev, Snow filled that hole in her life that Ev left gaping wide open with her sudden disappearance.

Bastila knew that Ev was still alive, even after all this time. There bond was never severed, but each day, it seemed, Ev's presence in the back of her mind grew more and more distant. Although she and Snow did not share any kind of Force bond, Snow's presence close by to her every day since Ev's departure had been reassuring. Now Snow was gone too, leaving Bastila's soul alone again.

Snow's cool logic complimented Bastila's at-times-passionate compulsions. The two grew together in the military planning chambers on Coruscant and on their quests chasing down Sith in the far reaches of the outer rim. Snow never once let Bastila give up hope that they would see Ev again.

To each other, they were a reminder that the shadow of the Dark Side in their pasts could be conquered and moved beyond. It did not need to taint their destinies for the rest of their lives. And yet, the moment Snow fell, Bastila embraced the Dark Side through her anger as easily as if that had always been her path. She hated herself for that lapse. It was an insult to Snow's memory.

She stared at the raging flames, emptying her mind. Her spirit felt numb.

Is this why the Jedi Code discourages attachments? No sentient can handle attachments being severed without anger, hurt, or violence. Is loving someone worth all that when one day you will lose them?

With a sigh, Bastila tore her gaze away from the pyre and turned back to the keep. She scrambled over the rubble and back through the crumbling arched doorway. She desperately wanted to forget about what had happened in there, but she had her duty to the Jedi, above all else. Though now, it seemed, her duty to the Jedi was all she had left.

The four assassins still lay right where they had fallen, undisturbed except for the small clouds of hungry, buzzing insects. Bastila had to find some kind of clue about their attackers. She approached the body that had lost the fewest parts to lightsabers and knelt down beside her. Numbly, she felt all over his body for pockets that might hold some kind of identification or clue, but there were none. There was only his weapon. It was an anonymous extending Force pike with no detailing or identifying marks on it. Still, she took it.

Taking deep breath, Bastila swatted the flies away from his head and slowly removed the goggled mask and peeled back the hood. Beneath it was the face of an average looking human male twisted into an angry grimace. His head was shaved and his skin was the sort of pasty white color of someone who had not seen the sun in years.

Then there were the eyes. They were a shock of yellow in his pale face. Human eyes did not come in that color naturally. It was a clear sign of extended exposure to the Dark Side. These men may not have been Dark Jedi, but the Dark Side was with them all the same. She sat back on her heels and sighed. That was all she could glean from the corpse, however. Dead men tell no tales.

The light inside the ruined keep flickered as a large shadow passed over. She heard the whooshing of large wings outside. Springing to her feet, Bastila stumbled out of the keep and into the sunlight.

A bury Onderonian man sat perched atop a huge gray-green drexyl beast. “What's going on here?” he asked himself out loud. He had not yet seen Bastila.

“A funeral,” Bastila replied to his question, her voice hoarse and low, “for two fallen Jedi.”

The Best Rider flinched, startled, and stared down at Bastila. “Jedi?” he asked, then a look of realization dawned in his eyes as he saw her blood-stained robes and lightsaber hanging from her hip. “Your pardon, Master Jedi,” he said with a bow of his head from his saddle, then, clicking his tongue in a quick pattern to his beast, swung down to the ground and approached Bastila.

“I am the Jedi Knight Bastila Shan,” she introduced herself. Her raw throat grated painfully as she spoke. “Guest of the queen. I came here with my padawan to investigate the disappearance of one of our fellow Jedi who had come to Onderon for research.”

He glanced meaningfully at the pyre. “You found her?” he observed. It was almost a statement.

“And her killers,” Bastila nodded numbly, “And lost my padawan.”

The Beast Rider stared at her, waiting for a further explanation.

Bastila took a laborious breath and continued, shrugging in the direction of the keep. “There were four cloaked assassins waiting in there for us,” she explained, “They may have been connected with the Sith, but there is no way of knowing now that they are dead.”

The Beast Rider glanced at the keep, then back at Bastila. “I am glad I saw this smoke and came to investigate. You don't look well enough to pilot your speeder back to the city right now,” he observed with more gentleness than Bastila would have attributed to a brute like him, “If you will allow me, I can take you back to the palace myself, Jedi Knight.”

She nodded slowly. “Once ashes are all that remain,” she replied. She would stay with Snow until the end.

“Alright then,” he nodded respectfully.

“Thank you,” Bastila replied and turned back to the flames. As she stared, she emptied her heart of anything that was still left. She was aware of the Beast Rider entering the ruins to take a look for himself as he grew restless from watching the funeral pyre with her. When she returned to the palace at Iziz, she would have to contact the Jedi Council and give her report. She dreaded having to relive the day again through her words, but it needed to be done.

She would move on, just as she had when Ev left. Only, this time, she had no one to support her through it.

- Next Part -

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