Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Part 8- The Shadowlands

“Well, someone has to stay with the ship,” Bastila argued, “I know you're all anxious to help out on this important mission, but it just important that our ship doesn't get stolen or dismantled while we are out.” The entire crew, including their astromech droid and newly acquired droid remote, clustered around the lowered cargo ramp, eager to disembark.

“T3 can,” Mission offered, “He's a pretty competent little guy.”

“T3-M4 is an astromech droid,” Bastila replied dryly.

“With blasters,” Mission replied optimistically, pointing her finger into the air to accentuate her idea.

“At least let everyone off the ship for a little while for a stretch break,” Ev suggested, “I don't know about you, but I've never been to Kashyyyk before. I want to get a good look at those woshyr trees.”

“Fine,” Bastila threw her hands up into the air, “But before we leave the port, someone needs to volunteer to stay behind.”

“Since you're so eager to find a volunteer,” Canderous pointed out, “Why don't you do it yourself.”

“This is my mission Mandalorian,” Bastila snapped at him, “I cannot stay with the ship.”

“Ours,” Ev put in sourly, but Bastila didn't seem to hear her.

The young Jedi strutted off the Ebon Hawk, the rest of the crew, save for the droids, followed. They stepped out onto a huge wooden platform with sturdy looking braided wicker rails. The docking platform narrowed into a rather wide path and the whole structure wrapped around the trunk of one massive tree. Not far off, more of the same landing platforms clung to the bark of the giant woshyr trees. Giant wooden support structures suspended the platforms and walkways up so near the leafy canopy. Birds and other creatures called through the humid night air. The very air seemed alive. Carth had seen amazing works of architecture before in glass, stone, and steel, but never anything so impressive as this, hanging leagues above the ground.

Despite the early morning hour, even the area around the landing platform was already bustling with activity. Most of the people present, however, wore the orange and green Czerka Corporation uniforms. Not a Wookiee was to be seen, aside from Zaalbar. One of them Czerka employees approached them from across the landing platform. “Welcome to Edean, trade designation G5-632,” he said professionally, with only a hint of actual welcoming warmth. Prodding over a datapad he glanced up at the Ebon Hawk, “Your ship isn't on our list of expected arrivals for today. As such, you will have to pay the 100 credit docking fee.”

“100 credits!” Mission exclaimed quietly from the back of the party, “That's crazy. Are you trying to cheat us.”

Bastila shot Mission a steely cold glare then politely answered the docking officer, “Certainly. We will be allowed to stay as long as we need?”

“Of course,” the man said nodding, “You will also have access to our refueling station and be admitted to our supply store.”

“Fine,” Bastila said nodding, and dug the credits out of one of the leather pouches that hung at her belt. She handed they over quickly and gazed expectantly at the man.

“Thank you, travelers,” he said, “You may now be on your way.”

Bastila started forward, the others trailing behind her. Mission stopped suddenly and called after the officer who was already walking away, “What! What did you call this place?”

He pivoted half way around again, not quite facing the young Twi'lek. “Edean,” he answered, “It was the name selected on a ballot by Czerka stockholders.”

“That's not what this planet is called,” Mission argued, “It's Kashyyyk, right Big Z?” Zaalbar grumbled in agreement. Even Carth could detect the anger in his voice.

“Ah, that would be the local name for this planet,” the man said dismissively, “A hardly sentient bunch, if you ask me. Czerka has given it a much more pronounceable and civilized name.”

Zaalbar growled wordlessly.

“And what gives you the right to rename a planet without the consent of its native people?” Ev demanded fiercely. She too drew up by Mission's side, Zaalbar looming behind both of them. By this time, Bastila, Carth, and Juhani stopped to watch as well.

“The Wookiees are nothing but primitive brutes,” he scoffed, “You must know that it's true, having purchased one yourself.”

Simultaneously, Zaalbar yowled angrily and Mission screamed over him, “Take that back, you stupid specieist womp rat!”

“I don't have time for this,” the dock officer spat and walked away. Over his shoulder he called, “If you have a complaint about the Czerka designated name of this planet, take it up with Janos Wertka in the Czerka administration office.”

“What a bunch of...” Mission grumbled angrily, trailing off into unintelligibly.

“Come along,” Bastila urged, “We need to get moving.”

Ev quickly strode up to walk along side of her, but Mission took some urging from Zaalbar to continue after them.

“You know, Bastila, I think I would like to stop by that corporate administrative office on our way out,” Ev said succinctly. Although her voice was deadly calm, Carth could see a familiar fire in her eyes. The group continued down the walkway from their ship. They passed a number of other Czerka employees. Some carried crates, some carried datapads, some strutted around without any kind of burden, and some dragged drugged looking Wookiees.

“What is all this?” Juhani marveled, horrified, as she watched three men pull along a Wookiee that was bound at the wrists, neck, and even around the ankles.

“A slave trade,” Ev replied, just as stunned and horrified, “Alive and well.”

Juhani's expression darkened as she fought back waves of fury.

Zaalbar rumbled forelornly.

“What do you mean, Big Z, not ready to come back?” Mission asked, “You should have said something about that sooner, you know.”

What he said caught Ev's attention as well. She stopped and stared back at him and Mission. The rest of the group came to a stop around them again.

Looking between Ev and Mission, Zaalbar began to explain something.

“Yeah, you said you were running away from slavers...” Mission started but Zaalbar interrupted her and continued.

“You were exiled twenty years ago?” Ev commented, “Just for attacking your brother with your claws?”

“I guess that kind of thing is a huge deal,” Mission added.

Zaalbar nodded and continued.

“Why didn't your father believe you?” Ev demanded, “That you brother made a deal with the slavers, that's terrible!”

Zaalbar continued sadly.

“You father was the chieftain...” Mission observed.

Zaalbar growled out another few phrases before falling silent again.

“Well, we'll deal with it when it comes, Big Z,” Mission said encouragingly, “Maybe they've all forgotten anyway.”

Zaalbar didn't look hopeful.

“Come on,” Bastila urged, “We don't have the time to waste.”

Rounding to the opposite of the giant tree they had landed next to, they finally came to the office. As they neared it, they saw that another heated argument was already taking place inside.

While most of the office staff hung back and tried to look busy, one tall but fairly young looking girl argued adamantly with the Ithorian in a Czerka uniform behind the main desk. She had platinum blond hair tied in a low ponytail and, by her attire, she looked to be some sort of pilot or trader. Beside the girl stood a bronze and silvery black protocol droid that struck Carth as oddly familiar.

“What do you mean, restricted trade?” the girl demanded, “Rinnh Imports had held and maintained trade relations with the Wookiees of this region for almost a decade. You can't just block us from our own contacts!”

The Ithorian, in his own low and rumbling language, he patiently replied.

“No, that doesn't satisfy me,” the girl shot back, slamming her palm onto the desk in front of her, “I have a shipment that is expected in Rwookrrorro tonight. And those Wookiees have a shipment of produce that is bound for Coruscant, Teta, and Corellia.”

The Ithorian argued back again.

“I expect complete financial compensation for this,” the girl demanded, “Or you'll have Gad Rinnh himself on your doorstep, understand?”

“Mistress Kionee, don't you think that's a bit—” the droid next to her protested mildly.

Saying something, the Ithorian waved her off. He turned to go.

The girl's green eyes narrowed. She rattled off something angrily in a language Carth didn't understand. The Ithorian Czerka executive turned back and stared at her, startled. In her light, high voice, the girl had just spoken Ithorian. It was one of the strangest things Carth had ever heard. “And I mean it,” the girl added threateningly. “I'm taking this to the Galactic Trade Union.”

The Ithorian mumbled something in retort then retreated into another room.

“Come on, Emtee, let's get out of here,” the girl gestured to her droid and headed back out of the office. Seeing Carth and the others waiting behind her, she said darkly, “Good luck getting any business done with them.” With that, the girl stomped out of the office, protocol droid tottering after here.

Carth glanced over at Ev, who only raised an eyebrow in response.

One of the employees, a man who had been cowering in the corner until only moments ago, stepped up to the desk and addressed their group.

“Please come in out of humid morning,” he urged welcomingly, “And don't mind that quarrel. We have only had a minor dispute with one of our previous contractors.”

“Oh?” Ev commented, making it clear by her voice and stance that she didn't believe his story.

Shifting uncomfortably, the man asked, “What can I do for you? Our administrator, Janos Wertka has stepped out for a few moments.”

“Make this quick, Ev,” Bastila whispered out of the side of her mouth.

Ev tilted her head in acknowledgment. “Were just a group of travelers up for some sport and adventure,” she said neutrally, “What can you tell us about the local establishment and the area around it?”

“Czerka is engaged in trade activities with the nearby Wookiees,” the man explained, “While our scientists investigate the local flora and fauna. This almost entirely untapped wilderness could prove to supply herbs and medicines that the galaxy at large has only dreamed of.”

“And, you're trading in slaves?” Ev observed, pointing to a long cage on the ground near the wall that Carth hadn't noticed before. By their reactions, evidently, neither had the rest of their group. A Wookiee lay curled up in the cage that was far too short for him. He looked unconscious.

Zaalbar growled angrily. Carth could have sworn he heard Juhani hiss something in her own language from where she stood beside him.

“It is not against will of the locals,” the Czerka representative said quickly, “The chieftain, what was his name, Chuundar, I think, not that it matters... Anyway, the local chieftain gladly supplies us with a stream of healthy young Wookiees in exchange for weapons and other useful technology. He has even instructed all of his people in understand Galactic Basic so that they can become more effective laborers.”

“And you see nothing wrong with this?” Ev asked dangerously.

“Why, no,” the man responded. Absently, he loosened his collar between his fingers. The man's eyes flicked between Bastila, Juhani, and Ev. He had seen their lightsabers and recognized their robes.

“Slavery is illegal in the Galactic Republic, you know,” Bastila chimed in, surprising both Carth and Ev.

“Edean isn't a full member of the Galactic Republic, having no representatives in the Senate,” he started to point out.

“Kashyyyk,” Mission butted in.

The man continued carefully, “It is under the jurisdiction of Czerka Corporation.”

“Slavery is still slavery,” Juhani hissed, “And it is an ugly thing no matter where it is found. It demeans all sentient life and exposes the rot of people such as yourself.”

“This is all perfectly legal, I assure you,” the man responded quickly, backing into the counter. “Wookiees are little more than beasts. Certainly, they have a crude language, but that isn't enough to call them sentient.”

Zaalbar suddenly burst into an angry roar.

“Control your slave or we'll be forced to tranquilize and bind it!” the man said fearfully, waving to two guards by the door.

“You will do no such thing!” Ev barked, “Zaalbar is no slave. He owes me a life debt and is our friend.”

“A life debt,” the man laughed nervously, “Now that's difficult to arrange but far more effective than shock collars.”

“Just keep digging your hole,” Mission murmured angrily.

Ev took a deep breath and glared up at the man. Glancing over to Carth and Bastila she said professionally, “Lieutenant, Jedi, crew, we're done here.” With one last glance at the Czerka officer, she turned on her heels and walked back out through her friends that had clustered behind her, saying “This establishment won't last.”

“What do you mean?” the man sputtered after her, “We have...”

Not stopping, she said coldly over her shoulder, “It won't last, even if I have to see to it myself.”

“Ev,” Bastila scolded.

As stunned as everyone else, Carth followed Ev out.

“You're not about to abandon our mission to save these Wookiees are you?” Bastila hissed once they were out of hearing distance of the office.

“No,” Ev shot back, “I know what's most important. But if I get a chance, on the way, I'll take it. Otherwise, the senate is hearing of this once our job is done.”

“This is horrific,” Juhani burst in ranting, “Just when humanity had begun to redeem itself in my eyes, these Czerka humans expose just how terrible humans can be!”

“Juhani, humans aren't all...” Ev protested, putting a hand on her shoulder.

Breathing in sharply, Juhani looked Ev up and down. “Yes, you're right, I am sorry for my outburst,” she apologized, “There are exceptional humans as well. I think... I think I should be the one to stay behind with the ship. I need to meditate and calm myself. I cannot let my hate for slavers overcome me.”

“Yes,” Bastila agreed calmly, “I think that would be best.”

Bowing slightly to the crew, Juhani trotted back off down the walkway towards the landing platform.

“We've spent enough time here already,” Bastila said impatiently, “We need to get moving.”

“Just where are we going, Bastila?” Carth asked.

“Ev and I shared another vision upon our arrival,” Bastila answered crisply, “It seems that there is another star map not far from here on the forest floor.”

“I hate to break it to you, Bastila,” Canderous said, “But the forest floor is a long way from here.”

“I know that,” Bastila responded haughtily, “But the Wookiees are climbers, are they not? We should be able to enlist their assistance in reaching the forest floor. Perhaps they even know where it is already. Zaalbar can be our guide.”

Zaalbar growled something that sounded full of uncertainty.

“Wait a nanosec!” Mission exclaimed, “That Chuundar slime that has been selling out his village is your brother?”

Zaalbar rumbled in confirmation.

“Zaalbar did say that he was exiled,” Ev pointed out, “Maybe he knows the area. Although, the local Wookiees may not be so friendly to him.”

Zaalbar again growled his agreement.

“Well, we'll just have to deal with that when it comes,” Bastila said quickly. “Let's move along.”

“After you,” Carth said, sweeping his hand forward when she looked over at him.

Bastila proudly took the lead, Ev, Carth, Mission, Canderous, and Zaalbar falling into step behind her. Soon they reached a large wooden gate on the walkway, guarded by three armed Czerka personnel.

“Where do you think you're going?” the head of the guard asked as they approached.

“For a stroll,” Ev answered nonchalantly.

“A stroll?” the guard laughed, “The Great Walkway is no place for a pleasure walk. The place is crawling with myrkal and kinrath.”

“We're armed,” Ev replied simply, “And we want a better look at a the local wildlife.”

“Oh, you'll get a better look, alright,” the guard on the right laughed wryly.

“Well, I'm not going to stop you,” the head of the guard said warningly, “But we don't send search patrols out for lost tourists.”

“Fair enough,” Ev nodded, “Now are you going to open that gate or not?”

The two other guards, seemingly laughing at the stupid travelers they saw before them, scrambled to push back the two halves of the door, leaving a narrow gap in between.

“Thank you,” Bastila said shortly and headed through the doorway ahead of even Ev.

The Great Walkway was even more spectacular than the landing platform. Much wider, it extended far enough to touch the trunks of trees on either side.

“Amazing Wookiee craftsmanship, isn't it?” Ev said, slipping up to him.

“The Wookiees built all of this?” Carth marveled as they walked.

“Of course,” Ev laughed, “You thought Czerka had the genius to construct suspended platforms like this?”

“Well, no,” Carth admitted.

“The Wookiees have been here a long time and they really know the trees like no other people does,” Ev commented. Without waiting for Carth to respond she hurried up to join Bastila at the lead of the group.

As they rounded around the first woshyr's immense trunk, Zaalbar roared out a warning. Skittering down the tree's coarse bark and across the walkway towards them were a swarm of giant, pale bugs. They stood as high as mission on four spiny legs. Hissing and yelping, the creatures attacked.

“Kinrath!” Bastila cursed and drew out her double bladed lightsaber.

The group had hardly fought together enough to work flawlessly as a team, but they all quickly fell into formation. The two Jedi aggressively took the front while Canderous, Carth, Zaalbar, and Mission fired round after round of blaster shots into the fray. Carth found it an interesting challenge to shoot around the two Jedi, who moved more quickly and unpredictably than he had ever seen any soldier fight.

Soon, all that remained of the pack of kinrath were oozing thoraxes and severed limbs.

The Jedi solemnly retracted their lightsabers, but neither clipped them back on their belts. The hilts remained readily in their hands. While the others stowed their blasters, Carth followed Ev and Bastila's lead, keeping his drawn. His fingers floated lightly over the triggers.

Rounding the other direction around another woshyr trunk, Carth was suddenly glad he had his weapons ready.

Three men in black hoods and gray robes stood waiting for them. Carth hardly had time to realize who they were when the foremost one stepped forward and said eagerly, “Lord Malak was most displeased when he learned that you had escaped Taris alive. He has promised a great reward for whoever captures you.”

“Force!” Ev cursed quietly, bringing her lightsaber up again, “If this isn't just one warm welcome after another.”

The three men in black leaped forward, red lightsabers in their hands.

“Fall back!” Bastila ordered as she and Ev leaped into the fray.

As Carth positioned himself at a better angle to target the Dark Jedi and not Ev and Bastila, he wished Juhani hadn't stayed back. Three Sith against two Jedi wasn't odds he liked to see, even if Ev and Bastila did have the support of the rest of the crew.

Fortunately, Bastila's two yellow blades and Ev's single purple one kept the Dark Jedi busy. Somehow, the two of them managed to hold the Sith off.

Carth soon dove for cover behind a fallen branch. Nearly all the shots he fired returned back in his direction as they reflected back off of one of the red lightsabers.

In a flash, Ev took a opening and thrust her saber through one of the Sith's chests. He went down, gasping. Ev wasted no time and turned on one of the Dark Jedi that had driven Bastila down the platform and away from her. Ev caught one of them by surprise, slicing off his saber hand. As the hand and weapon clattered to the walkway, the Sith started at Ev, wide eyed. Ev deftly swung up and cut off his head. In that moment of confusion, Bastila whipped her double bladed lightsaber around. The Dark Jedi before her dodged the first blade but didn't see the second coming. It caught him right through the chest. He crumpled to the ground in pieces.

Ev immediately crouched down, searching through their fallen enemies' clothes.

“What was that?” Carth demanded of Bastila as he rushed over to her. The others were not far behind.

“Dark Jedi sent by Darth Malak to find and capture me,” Bastila answered distantly. “So, the Dark Lord has not given up on me yet.”

“And you thought he would?” Ev asked, standing up. There was something in her hand.

“They knew we were coming here!” Mission exclaimed fearfully.

“But how?” Carth stammered. Could there be a leak in the Jedi Council?

“I don't think so,” Ev cut in calmly. She was scrolling through something that looked to be a tiny black datapad. “These three were assigned to wait here and watch for us. From the looks of things, they've been here for weeks,” Ev assessed, “I bet Malak stationed his lackeys at every place he thought we might head to.”

“Do you suppose he knows about our mission, then?” Bastila asked quietly.

Ev shook her head, “I hope not. But, all the same, we should be extra careful wherever we land. If he sent Dark Jedi to some place as remote as Kashyyyk, I'm sure he sent them to our destinations as well.”

“I hope you're right, Ev,” Bastila agreed.

“I do too,” Carth sighed, “Or this could be one really short trip.”

Although they saw no more Dark Jedi on their trip across the Great Walkway, there were plenty of kinrath to contend with, as well as the pinkish flying creatures called myrkal. The group suffered no serious injures, but the forest creatures did prove to be an unavoidable nuisance that slowed their progress.

Before long, they came to a fork in the walkway. To the left, it continued on just as wide as before, but a somewhat narrower walkway broke off to the right.

“Which way, Zaalbar?” Bastila asked, gazing alternating down the two.

Zaalbar growled something thoughtfully.

Bastila glanced at Ev. Evidently the younger Jedi didn't understand Shiriiwook either. Ev straightened herself up and translated, “He says that a lot has changed since he left this place twenty years ago, but this at least seems to have remained unchanged. Along the path to the left is Rwookrrorro village, his old home. To the right, however, is a path to a lift that could take us into the Shadowlands.”

“What are the Shadowlands?” Bastila inquired.

Zaalbar reverently rumbled his reply.

“It is a sacred name for the forest floor,” Ev replied, “I think.”

“Let's head for that lift then,” Bastila said decisively, “The forest floor is our goal, after all.”

Not far down the path to the right, they encountered a small group of Wookiees hunters, battling with a swarm of ferocious looking kinrath.

Bastila motioned for the group to stay back. Either Ev didn't see her or she chose to ignore her. Instead, she leaped into the battle to help with Wookiees. Once Ev was in motion, it was impossible to control the torrent of battle that followed her. Zaalbar, Mission, and Canderous put themselves in position and shot down the kinrath that they could. Shrugging, Carth joined the battle as well. Bastila alone continued to hang back.

In moments, the kinrath were all dead and the Wookiees measured up those that had come to their rescue.

The apparent leader of the group growled at Ev and Zaalbar. Ev growled back. The four Wookiee hunters looked startled.

“Today I've seen a girl speaking Ithorian and a woman speaking Shiriiwook,” Carth murmured, “What's next? A singing Wookiee?”

“What's the problem?” Bastila asked.

“They just called Big Z a mad-claw, that's what!” Mission snapped. Her hands were balled into fists.

“It seems that we aren't welcome here,” Ev added. She turned back to the Wookiees and uttered in plain Basic, “Zaalbar owes me a life debt and my journeys bring me here, therefore, he goes with me.”

The Wookiee leader howled something warningly.

“We are not members of your village,” Ev replied evenly, “We don't need permission from your mighty leader Chuundar. Our travels are our own concern.”

The other Wookiees muttered and growled among themselves, but they did not move out of the way.

“We are on an important mission from the Jedi Council,” Bastila put in impatiently, “Let us by.”

The leader drew up to his full height, and glared down at them. He roared something unintelligible.

Suddenly, the violet blade on Ev's lightsaber ignited. “We go where we want to, understand?” she said threateningly, “Or did you not see what we did to those kinrath you were fighting? We can take care of ourselves.” She let her threat hang in the air for a moment before continuing, “And we can take care of you.” Behind her, Canderous leveled his blaster rifle at the leader.

The leader grumbled something and finally moved aside. Striding by him with her lightsaber still out, Ev said curtly, “Thank you.” Once by, she turned and watched as all of her companions passed through the cluster of Wookiees. The moment they were all safely beyond the hunting party, Ev extinguished her lightsaber and strode after them.

“Ev, what do you think you're doing?” Bastila scolded when Ev caught up with her.

“Getting us free passage,” Ev retorted huffily.

“Such means of persuasion through fear can lead to the Dark Side,” Bastila lectured quietly, “You know that!”

“And how else would you suggest getting past a pack of angry Wookiees?” Ev demanded, “They respect power.”

“That was wrongly used power, Evrue Pell,” Bastila snapped.

“Don't call me that,” Ev retorted angrily and stalked out ahead of the group.

Bastila put a hand to her forehead in frustration. “She isn't ready for this or for the trials ahead,” Bastila murmured, “She should have a Master watching over her. It's too dangerous...”

Carth looked up ahead. Ev walked alertly ahead of the group, still clutching her lightsaber hilt in her hand. He had never seen two Jedi disagree so much before, or get so close to all out fighting. This was no way to start a secret mission that both women had insisted could change the whole coarse of the war. Not that Carth was anyone to step in between two Jedi and mediate peace. They'd have to do that themselves. He hoped that they would soon.

As they walked, the walkway grew narrower and narrower until finally they came to the end of it. Another Wookiee waited by what must have been the lift Zaalbar mentioned. A wide wooden platform without railings hung on a thick rope and pulley system from a crossbar over the top of it.

The Wookiee eyed them warily.

“We wish to descend into the Shadowlands,” Bastila said politely.

The Wookiee refused, yowling at them.

“We are on urgent business from the Jedi Council,” Bastila urged, “It is necessary that we travel below.”

The lift operator still refused.

“Look here,” Eve said dangerously. She strode defiantly close to the Wookiee and stared up at him. “We're going down below and you're going to help us.”

Carth couldn't tell if she was using some kind of mind trick on the Wookiee or was just spouting threats.

Suddenly, the Wookiee drew out his vibroblade. Whatever she had done, it didn't work.

“Ev, look out!” Carth cried.

Ev, however, reacted faster on her own. Before Carth's warning was out of his mouth, Ev's lightsaber was up and had sliced the Wookiee's weapon clean in two.

“You'll let us down then?” Ev asked, still holding her weapon between her and the Wookiee.

He growled angrily but backed away and gestured to the lift.

Ev turned back to the others and asked, “What are you waiting for? We've got a lift to catch.”

The others silently loaded onto the lift. Bastila came last of all with a sour look on her face. All except Zaalbar and Ev clung to the wooden supports and crossbars, being careful not to rock the lift platform.

“You know how to work this, Zaalbar?” Ev asked.

Zaalbar replied noncommittally, but set to work. Soon, the lift was slowly descending from the canopy into the dimness below.

Bastila slowly and cautiously worked her way over to where Ev stood, “It troubles me to see you behaving this way, Ev.”

Ev, who seemed much calmer than before, replied, “We are on our way down to the Shadowlands, just as you wanted Bastila. What's the matter?”

“The ends do not justify the means, you know that,” Bastila lectured, “You have behaved in a way that is characteristic of a Sith, not a Jedi. You must not give into the temptation to use your powers in the Force for evil.”

“What we're doing is good,” Ev protested.

“But how you did it was not,” Bastila argued. “In that moment of intimidating the Wookiees into getting what you want, the Dark Side could have taken hold of you.”

“Did it?” Ev asked, tilting her head to the side.

“Well, not that I can tell,” Bastila admitted, “But the path to the Dark Side is a slippery one. At first, the steps are small, but soon your fall could be great. Watch and discipline yourself carefully. So much rides on our mission. The way of the Light is difficult to walk with serenity, but we must do it for the sake of the Republic and all living things.”

“Fine, I get it,” Ev said, not convincingly. She looked away, gazing at the huge woshyr trunks that passed by. Quietly, she added evenly, “And you, Bastila, need to work on that anger problem of yours. Anger and frustration can also lead to the Dark Side.”

Bastila looked like she was about to argue again, but she took a deep breath and thought better of it. Shifting to the edge of the lift, she sunk against the supports and held on.

The descent on the lift seemed to last ages. For a while, all they saw were the massive woshyr trunks with occasional flocks of birds gliding through the trees. Light filtered down from above, but it did little to illuminate the forest so far below. Gradually, Carth began to see a change in the scenery. Mosses and strange glowing fungus, as big as a cath hound, clung to the sides of the trees. The damp smells began to change, as well as the sounds. Cries of the treetop birds were far away while other stranger calls and roars echoed dimly among the trees.

The lift finally touched down with a dull thud onto the mossy forest floor. Carth couldn't guess how long they had been riding it for. Very little sunlight made it this far down, but the giant luminous fungus clung all over the massive roots of the woshyr trees, giving enough light to see by. The roots themselves and the earth that covered them made small but steep hills all around them. It felt more like a valley than a forest floor.

Carth and all of his companions slowly stepped off the platform, taking in their surroundings. A few small gray monkeys hobbled into the clearing to stare curiously at the new arrivals. They chattered and shrieked then bounded away.

“Tachs,” Mission said, “At least I think so. They look just like the tachs that some people kept as pets on Taris.”

“I think you may be right,” Bastila agreed, “But I'm sure there are far bigger beasts down her than those little monkeys. Everyone, be on your guard.”

Bastila took up the front with Zaalbar while Ev and Carth fell into the rear. Canderous and Mission stayed to the middle of the group, remaining just as alert as the others.

From their clearing, there seemed to be only one easy way out between the root hills. That is where Bastila led them. Between the roots their path twisted and turned. Carth was no tracker, but it seemed that where they tread was used at least occasionally by travelers, or perhaps just by creatures larger than the tachs.

Finally, they came to a sort of clearing between a cluster of the massive trees. Slightly more sunlight shone down on that spot and the flat ground in the middle gave way to many other paths through the roots. There was no telling, however, which would lead to a dead end and which would not.

“Bastila, how do you know where you're going?” Ev called up to her, “I'm not getting any more visions.”

Bastila seemed to be listening for something distant, hardly paying attention to those around her. She stood stiffly and breathed deeply for a few moments.

“Bastila?” Ev asked again.

“I'm sorry,” Bastila said slowly, “I am trusting in the Force to lead us.”

“That seems like an awfully big trust in something invisible, sister,” Canderous chided.

“To you perhaps,” she replied shortly, “But Ev, do you remember how those ruins on Dantooine felt? The Dark Side was thick in that place. Revan and Malak had not yet completely given in to the dark side at that point, so they could not have left that taint themselves.”

“So you think that star map generated all that Dark Side energy?” Ev asked, catching on.

“I think so,” Bastila nodded, “And I can faintly feel the same sort of dark power here. I felt it as soon as we landed and it has been growing stronger the farther we travel.”

“So you're tracking the Dark Side then?” Mission put in.

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Bastila replied. “Open yourself up and feel for it, Ev. You will realize it's there as well.”

Beside Carth, Ev simultaneously straightened up and relaxed. She closed her eyes and fell into a meditative rate of breathing. After a few moments, she breathed quietly, “Yes, I can feel it. It does have the same sort of flavor as the last star map too.”

“The Force has flavors?” Carth asked in spite of himself.

“I'm not sure what else to call it,” Ev shrugged as she opened her eyes again. “It's like, when I hear your voice, I know it's Carth. When I sensed this power, I knew it was a star map or something like it.”

“We call that resonance, Ev,” Bastila said knowingly.

“I didn't get that far in Jedi vocabulary lessons back at Dantooine,” Ev made excuses, “But I know what it is, with or without a name.”

“Well, that's what it's called, at any rate,” Bastila replied.

“So does this flavorful resonance of yours tell you which path to take in this maze?” Canderous asked.

“Well, no,” Bastila replied, trying not to seem incompetent, “But we do know what direction it is in.” She pointed ahead and slightly to the left.

“I'd say even a little farther westward,” Ev put in.

“Well, it's the general direction,” Bastila replied defensively.

Zaalbar howled something.

“Zaalbar is right,” Ev said, “Standing her and yapping gets us no closer and may even attract some of the larger predators down here. Let's try that one directly ahead to start.”

“Fine,” Bastila agreed and started picking her way across the forest floor once again. The others fell into step behind her. Ev's suggestion took them to a dead end at the base of a woshyr tree. This corner happened to be a nest for a clan of katarn, large quadrupedal beasts with sizable teeth and tusks. By the time they realized their mistake, the creatures woke out of their lazy stupor and closed in around them.

While the two Jedi leaped into action, the ranged fighters found that they could not take the same strategies they had used before. Those katarn that weren't busy with Bastila and Ev charged at them instead. Zaalbar immediately climbed up to the crest of one of the roots before unslinging his bowcaster and firing down on them below.

Mission, Canderous, and Carth didn't have the climbing claws that the Wookiee had. This left them to be constantly on the move, alert of their surroundings. They had to keep from being pinned into corners or backing into other katarns as they fled one. For Carth, it was exhilarating. Of all the battles he had accompanied Ev and Bastila into so far, the only challenges were those of marksmanship. Here, it was totally engaging.

By Canderous' whooping and war cries, Carth could guess that the Mandalorian was feeling similarly.

Carth was almost disappointed when the fight ended and all of the large beasts had either died or fled. He had been in too many battles to let that feeling get the better of him though.

“So,” Ev panted, “Let's try another path then.”

They regrouped into a similar order as before and trooped back out towards the clearing. This time, Bastila insisted on choosing the path. She picked the next one of the left and down it they went. This one turned into a dead end much sooner than the last, but was only inhabited with a swarm of tachs that crowded around them, squawking noisily. One was even so bold as to poke one knobby finger into a tear in the back of Canderous' pants. Canderous yelled in surprised and whirled around, reflexively putting the gray monkey in the sights of his gun. It scurried off chattering merrily. Everyone else, even Bastila, laughed heartily. Canderous grudgingly chuckled with them.

Once back at the clearing, both Bastila and Ev stood in silent meditation. Finally they came to a silent agreement and pointed towards the path to the right of the one they first took.

This one twisted and turned along between the trees, never leading them to a trunk or impassible tangle of roots.

They met a lone bull katarn on two occasions. The first, they easily took down, and the second they managed to scare off without much of a fight. Otherwise, only the curious tachs harassed their path.

“For all the talk of this place being dark and dangerous, it's not so bad,” Ev commented. She slowed her pace and fell into step beside Carth.

Carth shrugged, “It's better than wading through a valley of Sith. Though anyone who would want to live down here would have to be crazy.”

Ev laughed lightly, “Though, with all the wildlife and moisture, it wouldn't be that hard, even if you were a vegetarian.”

“What, are you considering giving up meat?” Carth asked playfully.

Ev laughed. “So, how are you doing with this whole not being on the front, thing?” she asked. The two of them began to fall a significant distance behind the others. It was enough to mostly be out of earshot, thanks to the squawking tachs, but not far enough to worry about.

Carth shrugged. He didn't really have an answer. “You and Bastila keep saying how important this is, and I want to believe you. It feels good to finally be doing something that could really make a difference and stop the Sith for good,” Carth tried to put into words what he felt, “But we have hardly done anything yet. We came here, you 'tasted' the star map, or whatever, and we're wandering between big trees.”

“We did fend off three Dark Jedi up on the Great Walkway who wanted to take Bastila,” Ev pointed out, “And that's something.”

“True,” Carth admitted. “Though, even already, I feel so useless to you and Bastila.”

“What do you mean?” Ev asked, surprised. “I saw what you could do on Taris and getting off of it.”

“I mean, sure, I can fight and I can fly your ship,” Carth said shrugging, “But you've already proven yourself at least a decent pilot, and a lightsaber is more than a match for any blaster. Bastila has made it pretty clear that she doesn't need my advising any more.”

“Carth, what are you talking about?” Ev asked sincerely, “Of course we need you. This crew needs a drop of your sanity now and then, or haven't you noticed the eclectic group we've picked up. Not that they aren't fantastically versatile themselves and that I'm not glad they came along.”

Carth chuckled, “Are you sure I'm the best person to look to for sanity?”

“In this group, yeah,” Ev grinned, “I'm no beacon of peace myself. Bastila and the Jedi Masters made sure I was well aware of that at all times.”

“You're not so...” Carth started.

“Don't try to lie to me, Onasi,” Ev laughed. “There is a woman that lives inside my head with me and she, of all people, should know the details of my inner peace.”

“Inside your head? You lost me,” Carth commented.

“Yeah, that bond Bastila and I have,” Ev reminded him, “It's in the Force, and it means that I can sense her all time. I know what she's feeling and sometimes even what she's thinking. It's the same for her, I assume.”

“That's so hard to imagine,” Carth marveled, “It's enough to have my own thoughts to fight with.”

“I got lucky,” Ev said wryly, “If I want a good fight, I not only have myself but Bastila at the whim of only a thought.”

“No wonder you two get so worked up when you argue,” Carth observed.

Ev laughed nervously, “Probably shouldn't do that so often, but it just keeps happening. She was raised a Jedi and I wasn't. It's hard to have a complete change of mindset in just six weeks. I'm just too stuck in my old self.”

“It seems ridiculous to completely get rid of your old self,” Carth found himself speaking with a bit of regret, “You have changed a lot since Taris. The Order shouldn't need to totally remake you into a new person. You did well for yourself back then too.”

“Thank you Carth, but,” she reached up and rapped him gently on the forehead, “Are you have memory troubles now too? I remember just about as many lectures from you then as I get from Bastila now. Granted, can't remember what you told me...”

Carth laughed. “Maybe you're a little less frustrating now,” he offered.

“I appreciate it, Onasi,” Ev replied with a grin. “You know, that reminds me, what about what's-his-name?”

“Who?” Carth asked.

Tapping her own forehead, Ev strained to remember. “That guy in the ship above Taris,” she ventured.

“Saul Karath,” Carth spat his name angrily.

“So I take it he's still out there,” Ev commented lightly.

“Yes, and tearing apart Republic fleets in his path,” Carth said bitterly. “He's been on the move since Taris. Since he's got Malak with him, the Leviathan has been a primary target of the Republic forces.”

Ev listened patiently.

“Saul's the same genius as he ever was, maybe even better now,” Carth sighed angrily, “I learned so much from him. I looked up to him, and he had to take it all and throw it against the Republic he used to love. When he ordered the fleet that destroyed Telos, he must have known... he knew...”

“He knew the blow that it would be to you,” Ev finished for him, “He knew you had family there.”

“If we have Darth Malak on our tail, undoubtedly Saul is too,” Carth started, “If we get another chance to face him, I need to take my revenge. I know it won't bring my wife and son back, but I have to do it. It's all I have left.”

“I understand,” Ev replied quietly, “Unless it jeopardizes our entire mission, I won't stop you.”

How can she possibly understand? He wondered bitterly.

As if reading his mind, she amended, “I can't pretend to understand what it feels like to loose your home and family. Juhani and Mission would be better at that. But I have seen your face every time the word “Telos” or “Saul” comes out of anyone's mouth. I have felt the pain and anger roll off of you in waves. You broadcast your emotions in those moments more clearly than anyone I have ever encountered since finding the Force. In a way, I can feel what you feel. It makes me want to help you get to Saul almost more than I want to help Bastila get to Malak, but we both know what is most important.”

“You're right,” Carth nodded, taken aback by Ev's sincere clarity, “Malak has to be stopped above all else, but trust me, if Saul gets in the way, I won't hesitate.”

“Of course not,” Ev nodded.

Cart started to form another thought, but it fled from his mind as the came around a bend between tower woshyr root hills. Glowing vibrantly violet between durasteel pillars, a giant force field blocked their way at a narrow point between the roots. The roots on either side were steep and high, polished slick. The rest of their party already stood in front of it, baffled.

“What is this thing?” Ev asked, dashing up to them. Carth followed at her heels. “It's not Builder technology, that's for sure. I don't feel any dark power.”

“It's blocking our way,” Canderous said, “It doesn't really matter who built it.”

“Big Z could climb over the roots and to the other side,” Mission pointed out.

“And then what?” Bastila asked.

“I've seen things like these before,” Carth said slowly, “No amount of blaster fire will get it to come down, short of an ion cannon.” This one was easily three stories tall, at least, and as wide as a small house.

“I'm certain what we're seeking is beyond this thing,” Bastila said pensively, “We have to find a way to disable it and get past.”

“Beautifully subtle, isn't it?” an unfamiliar voice, raspy and old, spoke from behind them.

All six members of their group whirled around. A balding man with skin only a few shades lighter than Ev's and wearing loose brown robes stood in the path not three meters beyond Ev and Carth. He measured them up with a look of amusement.

“Who are you?” Ev demanded.

“How long have you been following us?” Bastila asked warily over her.

“Hey, hey, no need to get all worked up,” he waved his hands lazily in front of him. “You lot make about as much noise as a whole family of tachs. When a bunch of newcomers tramp through my back yard, I get curious.”

“Your back yard?” Carth asked skeptically.

“I have a nice little camp that I call home under a fallen log back that way some distance,” the man replied, “Yes, I live like some burrowing rodent.”

“Well, here's our crazy old coot that actually lives here,” Ev whispered to Carth. He choked back a laugh and tried to keep a smile from his face.

“What do you want?” Bastila persisted. She moved up next to Carth and Ev.

“What do I want? I think it's more of a question of what you want,” he replied with a half smile through his snow white goatee.

“Who are you, old man?” Bastila demanded.

“Jolee,” he replied, “Jolee Bindo. I may be well past my prime, but I've lived her a long time. Maybe I can be of some help to you.”

“Our business is our own,” Bastila snapped.

“Oh, well then you found a way around this barrier Czerka put up, did you?” Jolee asked.

“Well,” Bastila stammered haughtily.

“And why would you be wanting to get past this barrier, I wonder,” the old man mused out loud. The crew of travelers made no move to respond. They all eyed him warily. “You know, the Wookiees have their legends that they weren't always here. Kashyyyk has its deep secrets. If Czerka knew, well, they'd have long turned this place into a strip mine,” Jolee chuckled as he rambled, “Who knew that even the trees were strangers.”

“What are you getting at?” Ev asked, “Are you offering to help us or not?”

“Ev, we don't know who he is,” Bastila hissed.

“You're here for the star map, aren't you?” Jolee guessed, “What else would a pair of Jedi and their friends be doing deep down in the Shadowlands? The problems of the Wookiees and Czerka are nothing compared to your own agendas.” He seemed somewhat disapproving.

“You know about the star map?” Ev blurted.

“Of course I do,” he replied plainly, “You'd get to know your neighborhood well too if you stayed in one place for twenty years at a time.”

“Where is it?” Bastila asked eagerly.

“Beyond this barrier,” Jolee answered, lazily pointing to the luminous violet force filed behind them.

“And you know how to get past it,” Canderous observed.

“What do you want?” Ev asked shrewdly.

“Woah, who's jumping to conclusions?” Jolee said, “I never said I wanted anything.”

“You may as well have,” Ev observed.

Jolee chuckled. “I was here when the Czerka engineers installed this thing, so yes, I know how to get past,” he replied wryly. “I'll bring it down for you on two conditions. First, you take me with you. Second, you take care of a little poaching problem I have.”

- Next Part -

 

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