A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away...
19 BBY... also known as Year 16 after the Great ReSynchronization, and Year 981 after the Ruusan Reformation. It is a time of great strife, a fledgeling Galactic Empire had seized control of the galaxy, annihilating all who stood in its way.
Including the Jedi.
The directive known only as Order 66 was only the start of what would called the Great Jedi Purge. Many of the defenders of the peace were slaughtered, betrayed by those they believed to be their allies. And in the center of it all, a single mastermind who played his pawns well, and won.
The balance of power had shifted. And evil had won.
At least for the moment.
But one must keep in mind that despite the aura of hopelessness, there is one constant.
You cannot have hopelessness without a thread of hope.
The lower level of Coruscant's Uscru Entertainment District provided good cover for those that didn't want to be found, especially in these trying times. However, that didn't prevent business from being performed, though usually the business done there was less than legal, and had to be done quickly for fear of Imperial involvement. Still, the area offered good cover for the rejected, the lowly. The people considered outcasts among society.
In the shadows, a figure waited patiently, patient as it watched for an opportunity. Sneaking into those shadows was a portly humanoid alien with dark brown skin and red eyes. Without a word, he set a container by the figure's feet, then rushed out, apparently for his own safety. And slowly the figure... a young feline girl, her normally white robes dirty, her fur a bit mangy, emerged on all fours. Brushing back her blonde mane, she gazed down at the container, opening it. Inside for her was a small gathering of food scraps. Enough to nourish, but just barely.
She smiled softly. "... thank you..." she said quietly, just before reaching down to eat.
While she ate, a scene began to unfold in front of her. A woman, species undeterminable by the hood she wore, was being surrounded by a group of burly men, and the woman looking worried. The feline girl blinked, watching the scene unfolded as her ears twitched, picking up their speech as she investigated.
"Where's the credits you owe the boss?" one of the men asked. The woman whimpered, shaking her head, seemingly not able to answer due to fear paralysis. One of the other men laughed.
"That's all right. I'm sure that the boss will find... other... means of payment." he said, putting a hand on the woman's hip.
The cat-like girl frowned. Slowly she got on all fours, sitting on her hands and feet as she waited once again, expressive green eyes focused on the scene as she waited to pick her spot. The woman struggled, but the men were rough, and shoved her onto the ground, one of them holding her down while the others began to strip at her. The feline girl looked quickly. Quickly moving to the shadows, she gestured with a hand, and the container she ate from suddenly rushed forward, clunking one man in the head. Then bounced off, hitting two more of them precisely in the skulls. The remaining man, the one holding the woman down, looked around. "What in the...?"
With no more visible objects around, the feline took a deep breath, and waved her hand, staring at him. "There's a terrible misunderstanding..." she whispered.
The man froze, blinking. "This is a terrible misunderstanding..." he repeated.
"I'm sorry to have troubled you..."
"You're sorry to have troubled me..."
"..." The feline girl blinked. Then sighed. "I'll be leaving now," she finished.
The first man nodded... however the other three, freshly recovered, were not pleased. "What are you doing?" one asked the other. "Snap out of it and get her ready for the boss!"
"Pssst!!" the cat-girl whispered to the woman, gesturing for her to leave quickly. "Go, go!!"
The woman nodded, and ran off. However, the cat-girl gave her position away, and the men began moving towards the shadows she was in.
"Oh... uh... hi..." she waved at the men, smiling nervously. "And... uh... how're you this fine night?" She asked as she sweatdropped.
The men grin. "Let's get her," the leader said. "I'm sure her fur will sell for high prices these days."
"Sorry... I don't want to fight..." She turned, and quickly dashed away on all fours.
The four men, not willing to let her get away, began to run after her. Not caring about any commotion they caused, they began to pursue the cat-girl. She skidded around a corner, and stood still for a second, concentrating... then with a single bound, leapt high into the air, landing to one of the taller buildings in the district, and quickly hiding in the shadows. There was a commotion among the men, as they began to argue about where the girl they were chasing went to. They split up, and started to spread out across the section of the city. The cat-girl waited for a moment. Then smirked as she dropped back down to the street.
"That should be enough to shake them. She then turned around. And promptly froze, her eyes wide; she was staring down the barrel end of a few blasters.
"Don't move, Briarra Caalb..." a voice said. The voice belonging to the leader of the Clone Troopers that had aimed at her.
She raised her hands in surrender, fear in her eyes. "... don't hurt me... please..." she said softly. "... I'm just a child..."
"Too bad for you," the Clone Leader said, as they surrounded her, ready to gun her down. Suddenly, a silver cylindrical device flew up from her robes, into her hands. An all-too familiar clickhiss sounded as her lightsaber ignited, the blue blade of energy slicing off the barrels of all the guns as she spun around, and then jumped up over the Troopers as she ran for her life. "Follow her!" the leader told the troops, as they stormed towards her. Briarra extinguished her lightsaber, keeping her weapon in her mouth as she ran on all fours, looking behind her at the pursuing Clone Troopers.
Briarra blinked, hearing the voice in her head. But she nonetheless heeded it, as she kept going straight, down into an alleyway.
The troopers started firing at her as they rushed down the street, trying to nail her as she ran.
*To your left, quickly!*
Briarra swerved, turning left, diving under a sewage drain and scampering back up to her hands and feet.
*To your right, now!*
And Briarra followed hastefully. But then skidded to a halt, seeing herself run into a dead end.
"... no..." she gasped out of dread. And the troopers reached towards her location, reading their weapons once again towards Briarra, who turned quickly, igniting her lightsaber once again. "... back off... I don't want to kill any of you, but I will if I have to..."
"We're not the ones who are going to die today," The Clone Leader said, and the troopers all began to open fire.
Briarra winced, shutting her eyes. And as she did, her ears picked up the sounds of another lightsaber igniting. Sounds of Clone Troopers screaming. Sounds of them dying. Sounds of the lightsaber moving... then extinguishing.
"Briarra..." she heard the voice in her head speak in the real world. "Open your eyes, padawan..."
Briarra paused. And slowly, she opened her eyes, seeing before her a figure dressed in brown and black leather, a deep blue skin tone under her clothes, a pair of lekku hanging down her shoulders as a hood attached to a leather jacket hung over her head. The Clone Troopers who had advanced on Briarra were all dead, cut down by her savior's lightsaber.
"... your scent... it... it's familiar..." Briarra said softly. "... no, it... it can't be you..."
"Can't it?" She pulled down the hood, showing kind light brown eyes, her head adorned with a black headdress.
"... m... master secura...?!" Briarra gasped, her eyes wide as they began to brim with tears. "... you're alive...?!"
"It's nice to see you're alive, Briarra..." Aayla said softly, approaching Briarra as she knelt down, hugging the shocked cat-girl. "... the Force always was strong with you."
"..." Briarra remained prone for a moment, disbelief still in her eyes. Finally, she flung her arms around Aayla's neck, crying in joy on her shoulder, whimpering happily as she sniffled. And Aayla smiled gently, caressing Briarra's mane lovingly.
"It's okay, little one... it'll be okay..." she whispered in Briarra's ear. "... shhhh... shhhhh... it's all right..." She then turned her head, towards the alleyway. "... Briarra..."
"I-I know... I can smell them..." Briarra took a step back, wiping her tears away. "I'm ready."
"We can't afford a full-out conflict..." Aayla reminded, igniting her lightsaber. "We cut a path through and run. No looking back."
"Yes..." Briarra agreed, igniting her own lightsaber. "I'm with you."
Five more Clone Troopers had arrived at the scene, pausing to see their fallen brethren on the ground, and seeing before them their target, plus one.
"... impossible..." one Trooper remarked. "... she can't be..."
Aayla smiled confidently, and dashed through two of the Clone Troopers with unerring precision, twisting to Force push another into the alley wall. The remaining two quickly opened fire on Aayla, but the twi'lek effortlessly deflected the blaster bolts with her saber, and Briarra leapt up over her, roaring as she dove down on one Clone Trooper, cutting him down, before turning towards the remaining one, hissing hatefully at him. He paused only for a moment, before aiming his rifle at Briarra, but abruptly finding him without his rifle... or his arm... as Aayla swung her saber down upon it. The Trooper cried out in pain, but was quickly silenced as the saber was buried in his throat.
"There will be more..." Aayla reminded Briarra. "Make haste, young one."
Briarra nodded, extinguishing her blade as did Aayla with hers, and the two Jedi Force jumped out of the alley to a nearby building.
One of the thugs who Briarra had stopped earlier stared up at the departing Jedi, his eyes wide as he stared down at the Clone Troopers laid out before him in cauterized pieces.
"... poodoo..." he said in a hushed awe, before looking back up at the buildings where they disappeared. "... hey... that was that dead twi'lek babe...!"
"... and that's how I survived this long..." Briarra stated, as she washed herself in a fresher inside a hotel room Aayla had rented under an assumed name. "... if it weren't for the premonition I had... I would have been amongst the many in the Temple who had died that day... though I wish I could have done more... I wish I could have at least found Shaak Ti..."
"... it wasn't your fault..." Aayla said, her back turned away from Briarra out of modesty as she sat in a bench next to the fresher. "Things are bleak at the moment... but at least it does my heart good to know some of us survived Order 66."
"What about you?" Briarra asked. "... the last I heard, you had died on Felucia with Master Offee! And... I had heard that you and Master Offee were both executed, because you were plotting to poison Felucia's water supply... all lies of course, but..." Briarra shook her head. "How is it that you live?!"
"That's a bit of a story in itself..." Aayla said, recalling the events on Felucia.
"You do have time to tell me..." Briarra stepped from the fresher, grabbing a towel to dry herself with. "... please, I beg to know..."
Aayla smiled sadly at the young Padawan. "All right, all right... well... I had felt a void open within the Force while I was on patrol with Commander Bly and a few of the 327th. It distracted me slightly as I looked to see where it came from..." Aayla sighed softly. "... it came from Kit..."
Aayla nodded. "... I couldn't feel him anymore... later I would discover he was cut down by Palpatine when he, Master Windu, and others came to apprehend him on charges of treason..."
"So it wasn't a Felucian bird that distracted you... like what the reports said."
"No... no, it wasn't..." Aayla reached over, mussing up Briarra's wet mane playfully. "... distracted... I asked Bly a question..."
"It got quiet suddenly..." Aayla said, glancing around the wild Felucian jungle. "... Bly, do you think it's droids?"
"..." Bly raised his blaster rifle in Aayla's direction. "No."
Aayla blinked, turning to see the Clone Troopers she had trusted for years, trusted with her life, now aiming their weapons at her. Her first thought was to grasp her lightsaber, but her body was not quick enough to act on that thought, as Bly opened fire, and Aayla gasped as she felt the blaster bolt strike her in the back, between her lekku. Quickly the other Clone Troopers gathered around her, opening fire on her prone body.
The Troopers stopped, stepping away.
"Check her," Bly instructed to one Clone Trooper, as he turned towards the communications officer, drawing a thumb across his neck. As commanded, he switched off the audio comm-link. The Clone Trooper assigned to check Aayla's lifeless body placed two fingers on her neck, waiting.
"She's going to make it," he replied. "She'll be out for several hours. It'll fool the rest of the company, Commander. But she won't make it past Medical. They'll pick out the stun setting burns easily."
"We won't need to get her past Medical. We only need to get her away from here..." Bly said. "We'll tell them the Separatists hit us and the body was incinerated when a Roller peppered the area with nape missiles." He turned to another trooper. "You got the spare armor handy?"
"Get her into it. Stuff the head tails down her collar, cram them in if you have to. We'll sneak her into cryo and keep her chilled for the ride home."
"Yes sir..." The Clone Trooper approached Aayla's body, opening a case with the white and gold armor of the 327th inside. "... we're taking a huge risk disobeying Order 66, sir..."
"Some things are worth risking, soldier..." Bly replied simply.
"Bly chose friendship over duty that day..." Aayla concluded. "He always did have a penchant for independent thought... he weighed his options... he didn't want to kill me. So he didn't. He had my death faked, disguised me as a fallen Clone Trooper, and sent me to Kamino, where I rested in a bacta tank for about a week. He was there when I woke up... he filled me in on what had happened... I'm still trying to wrap my head around it all. A part of me still can't believe the Jedi are all but extinct now."
"... where is Commander Bly now?" Briarra asked, as she wrapped the towel around her chest.
"Still in the Empire..." Aayla answered. "He sends me reports every now and then on the state of the Empire in an encrypted wavelength. Just a day ago he sent me a holocron of the Battle of Kessel..." Aayla sighed. "... eight Jedi confronted Palpatine's new apprentice... none of them survived..."
"..." Briarra blinked. "... n... none of them...?!"
Aayla shook her head. "The Sith are too powerful to attack right now... it kills me to admit it... but the Battle of Kessel is proof that to face them now would be virtual suicide."
"Is there ANYTHING we can do?" Briarra asked meekly.
"... I'm afraid not..." Aayla responded. "... but I'm not going to just disappear into the shadows. I have to do something..."
"... like what?"
"... I'm not sure yet..." Aayla looked towards the Cathar padawan. "Briarra, you're the first Padawan I've seen thus far. Everyone else I've tried to track down are dead... I fear for your safety if you stick with me."
"But you're the first Jedi I've seen since..." Briarra sighed. "... can't I stay with you? At least for a little while?"
Aayla sighed softly, then nodded. "... all right. But it would be best if we parted ways eventually... for your safety..." Aayla then glanced up at a flashing beacon on a console. "... Bly's calling..."
"Oh..." Briarra pulled back, letting Aayla go to the console and pressing a button.
"Cerulean. How did the hunt go?"
"It went well, Commander..." Aayla replied. "I caught quite the feline prize. I think I'll keep her for now."
"Good, good. Glad to hear things are going smoothly for you, Cerulean."
"How're you holding up, Commander?"
"You wouldn't like it, Cerulean. You should take your pet and tread sand."
"... I see. Wise advice. Good luck, Commander. Hear from you soon."
"And you too, Cerulean."
Aayla shut off the comm-link, and turned to a very confused-looking Briarra.
"Uh... what was that all about?" she asked.
"We're going to Tatooine..." Aayla responded. "... I guess Bly wants us to lay low for a while, and what better place to do just that then on Tatooine? We'll just need to rent a ship and fly on over there."
"How're we going to do that?" Briarra queried. "I'm a wanted fugitive and you're legally dead."
"Oh, don't worry..." Aayla said. "I'll find a way."
Commander Bly stood patiently as he watched Darth Vader gaze upon the goings on in the observation deck of the Star Destroyer, watching the fleet of Star Destroyers float by in the vacuum of space. He had been called to meet with the Sith Lord on deck, and while it wasn't entirely explained why Vader wished to speak with the veteran Clone Trooper, Bly had his reasonings.
The Clone Commander remained waiting, clad in full battle armor; hearing Vader's synthesized breathing kept Bly slightly on edge.
Finally, Vader turned around to face Bly.
"I've heard some rather unsettling reports, Commander..." Vader said. "... it pertains to your former general."
"... that's unusual," Bly replied, not missing a beat. "Aayla Secura died. I helped kill her myself."
"Even so... a lowly criminal on Coruscant reported that a Cathar padawan was rescued from a small contingent of Clone Troopers by a Rutian female twi'lek Jedi. And how many female twi'lek Jedi do YOU know of?"
"Two, sir..." Bly answered immediately.
"And one of them, if my memory serves correct, perished before Order 66 was given... the Siege of Saleucami."
"I believe so, sir."
"So how do you explain this appearance, Commander? You were one of the last to see Aayla Secura alive."
"I was, sir."
"So how is it that she lives?"
"Perhaps it was a Jedi mind trick, sir? She could have made us believe that we killed her, when in fact she manipulated our memories."
"..." Darth Vader approached Bly, towering over him as he stared down, mask-to-mask. "... if you're lying to me, Commander..."
"I don't lie, sir. I'm a Clone Trooper."
"... yes..." Darth Vader turned away, returning to the window. "... I keep you around so that you can train the new Stormtroopers, but make no mistake... despite your experience, you are still as expendable as the rest of the Clone Troopers."
"I understand, sir."
Bly stood at attention, then turned and left the observation deck as Vader watched on. As the door slid shut, Vader glanced over to an adjoining door as it opened, a Stormtooper exiting from it.
"Gather your best men," Vader instructed. "Apprehend CC-5052... shoot to stun only, I wish to interrogate him."
"Yes, sir..." the Stormtrooper turned and exited the deck, leaving Vader with his thoughts. He had remembered the few missions he had with Aayla Secura, back when he was once Anakin Skywalker. Back then he had admired her strength of character, her skill with a lightsaber, as well as her words of wisdom. Even now, a part of him still respected her, at least for her fighting prowess.
But if she had indeed survived somehow, she was still an enemy, a traitor the Empire. What's more, Vader reasoned, she could know the whereabouts of Obi-Wan Kenobi as well.
His memories shifted slightly to the Cathar padawan that was mentioned; the only one he recalled was Briarra Caalb, a cute, spunky, and promising padawan who had yet to find a master at the time. And he remembered their first meeting...
Anakin Skywalker waited until he was far enough out of Yoda's meditation chamber to not be easily noticed before he allowed himself to storm off angrily. He was in no mood for a lecture about controlling his temper, especially after the "advice" the old prune had given him. Let go of those you fear to lose... what utter nonsense. The greatest Jedi in nearly 900 years, and his only advice to give about saving a life was just to let the person die? Jedi were supposed to SAVE people, weren't they? Anakin struggled to keep the anger he felt from turning into an ugly glare... The others always stared at him enough as it was.
"... Master Skywalker?" A young voice called out.
Anakin gave pause, for it was rare that he was addressed as "master" except by ignorant civilians... or padawans. Slowly he turned, trying to ease his anger. It wouldn't do for some random Jedi Youngling to wonder why he was so angry. "Yes, Padawan...? Forgive me, I don't know your name... I've been away from the Temple for so long..."
Looking up at Anakin was a cute thirteen year old feline girl... a Cathar... her mane and the hair on her tail blonde, and dressed all in white, rare for any Padawan or Jedi; only Anakin and Aayla Secura were allowed to wear different outfits from the others. "Briarra Caalb, Master..." she bowed politely. "I just became a Padawan a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to meet you at least once." She smiled... a stark contrast from Anakin, who was angry; Briarra was very cheerful, a bright and happy personality, despite these dark times.
"Congratulations on your promotion, then," Anakin said, giving a genuine, if sad, smile now. "With any luck, you will not have to fight in this war before tutelage with your new master begins... when General Grievous is captured, we'll be able to end this war..."
Briarra nodded, as she touched the lightsaber that was hanging by her belt. "... I've heard the stories about him. The Jedi killer... like Aurra Sing he takes fallen Jedis' lightsabers as trophies..." she sighed, then looked up at Anakin as she smiles. "But, if anyone can stop him it's you... you're the Chosen One. Even so, I imagine it must be a pretty big burden to live up to such a responsibility."
Anakin's eyes fell. "Sometimes I wish people would not call me that. I don't know if I truly AM 'The Chosen One' sometimes..." His bionic hand curled up into a fist... "Would The Chosen One not have found a way to bring Dooku to justice without killing him?"
"If there truly was no other way... then it can't be helped..." Briarra said softly. "... all that matters is to do the best you can, and look towards the future as a new hope."
Anakin felt his ears burn at Briarra's assurance of his innocence. He knew that he had murdered Dooku in cold blood, when the Sith Lord was already subdued. Palpatine's encouragement of the murder didn't make it any less of a burden on his conscience. Nevertheless, he placed his hand on Briarra's shoulder. "More Jedi should have your optimism..."
"Thank you, Master Skywalker..." Briarra blushed a little, evidenced by the slight reddening of her ears. "... it's... selfish of me, but I hope I have you as a true master... I would love learning as your Padawan..."
"I'm sure your new master will make you a better Jedi than I could," Anakin smiled. "Stars' end, I've lost the time... I'm late for war briefings... Forgive me, Padawan Caalb... I must make haste..." He bowed quickly, and then started off to the Conference Chambers.
Briarra bowed back as he left, then let out a soft sigh, turning as she covered her face. "Eeee, I hope he didn't notice my blushing..." she said softly, embarrassed.
Darth Vader lowered his head, clenching his fists as he remembered Briarra's bright and cheerful feline face. Then quickly turned to exit the observation deck, before he felt the urge to put his fist through the vacuum-proofed glass window of the deck.
Bly made no haste in walking towards the second cargo bay, for fear of arousing any suspicion. Nevertheless, he realized that if Darth Vader himself was asking questions about that fateful day on Felucia, then action would be taken against the Clone Commander.
As he reached the cargo bay doors, he heard the all-too familiar clicks of blaster rifles readying behind him.
"CC-5052, designation 'Bly,' you're hereby under arrest, under the charges of suspicion of treason against the Empire."
"..." Bly sighed, raising his hands in surrender, and slowly turning around to face three Stormtroopers before him. "... I suspected as much..."
"Stay where you are, Commander. No sudden moves." The head Stormtrooper glanced to his fellow officer, nodding to him. "Disarm him."
Bly made no attempts of resisting as the Stormtrooper removed his twin laser pistols from his holsters, and then removing the blaster rifle from his back. "There's only three of you..." he noted.
"Yes sir... three of us should be enough to take you into custody."
"Perhaps..." Bly said, as the cargo bay doors opened, revealing four more Clone Troopers behind him, dressed in the white and gold of the 327th, leveling their blaster rifles at the Stormtroopers. "But what about five of us?"
"Damn it..." the lead Stormtrooper quickly pulled his blaster rifle out, but a clean shot from a Clone Trooper to his shoulder caused him to cry out, staggering to his side.
"No one has to die..." Bly said, pulling his helmet off to reveal the face of Jango Fett that all Clone Troopers wore; Bly's showed the tell-tale signs of aging, the temples of his short black hair graying. "You know how good we are... so I suggest you stand down. It's in your best interests."
The other two Stormtroopers looked to each other, then hesitantly, did as Bly requested.
"... my brothers and I are hereby resigning from the Empire. Nothing personal..." Bly tossed the helmet to the ground next to the fallen Stormtrooper. "... but the cost of loyalty was too high."
Bly turned around, entering the cargo bay as the four Clone Troopers at his side kept their rifles aimed at the Stormtroopers, backing up from the door before it slid closed.
"This isn't good..." the lead Stormtrooper staggered to his feet, holding his injured shoulder. "... alert Lord Vader..."
"All right, vode... no turning back now... it's time to get out of here..." Bly looked around for a suitable craft, and smirked as he spotted a Theta-class T-2c shuttle on hand. "... that'll do. Everyone on board."
The four troopers boarded the shuttlecraft, one of them getting behind the pilot's seat, quickly switching on the consoles. "Where're we headed to, Commander?" he asked.
"Tatooine..." Bly answered, walking on board the craft. "We're reuniting with the General there."
"Yes sir..." the pilot nodded.
"You two, man the communications and the guns. The moment we leave the Star Destroyer, hit the hyperdrive and get us to Tatooine, A.S.A.P."
The two Clone Troopers in question did as Bly asked, as the shuttle craft began to lift off, and Bly looked back to see Darth Vader himself arrive, watching him stop to watch the craft leave the Star Destroyer.
"If he finds out where we're going, he may follow..." the fourth Clone Trooper stated. "We'll be putting ourselves and the General in danger."
"She can take care of herself... and so can we..." Bly replied. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it... let's just concentrate on getting to Tatooine in one piece."
And Darth Vader watched as the shuttle left, immediately going into hyperdrive.
"We're following them..." he growled. He turned to the lead Stormtrooper, immediately seizing him by the throat. "You were SUPPOSED to apprehend him. NOT let him escape!"
"M... m-my lord..." he gasped. "... w-we could... follow them... f-find out... where they're going..."
"I was already planning that scenario. Without your help." Vader's cybernetic grasp crushed the Stormtrooper's neck vertebrae effortlessly, and he released the lifeless soldier as he looked to the remaining two Stormtroopers. "... we're going."
"Lord Vader, wait."
Vader turned, seeing another Clone Trooper, dressed in the white and red of the 212th. "... you are CC-2224..." Vader recognized. "You were Obi-Wan's Commander."
"Yes sir, I am..." Cody acknowledged. "With your permission I want to field lead this retrieval mission."
"May I ask why?"
"... I had my suspicions that Bly wasn't being too truthful in his reports on what happened on Felucia. Now that I've learned my suspicions were justified..." he pulled his helm off, showing the determination in his eyes. "... with all due respect towards you, Lord Vader... I respected General Kenobi and I even considered him my friend. But I still followed Order 66 to the letter because all in all, that's what we do. We follow orders. Bly chose to disobey Order 66. He chose friendship over duty and in that line of thinking, he placed the rest of us in danger. Bly's a coward in my eyes, sir. And it's only fair that a Clone Trooper takes this rogue down."
Vader pondered Cody's words for a moment. Then nodded. "Fair enough, Commander. I'll allow you to lead this operation. Do not fail me."
"The thought never crossed my mind, Lord Vader..." Cody confirmed, placing the helmet back on.
With that, Darth Vader, the two Stormtroopers, and Commander Cody boarded a second Theta-class T-2c shuttle, preparing to depart to pursue Bly and his fellow rogue Clone Troopers.
"It was nice of that smuggler we met to let us hitch a ride on his ship..." Briarra mentioned, as she and Aayla sat in the cargo hold of a BFF-1 Bulk Freighter. "... it's good that there are people out there who don't believe the lies the Empire is telling."
"We can't let our guard down though..." Aayla said, leaning against the wall. "Yes, it was nice of him to take us to Tatooine, but he could easily sell us out as well. The moment we land, we leave. No goodbyes, no noise. It'll be as if we weren't ever here."
"Yes, master Secura..." Briarra nodded. Then she sighed. "... master...?"
"What is it, Briarra?"
"... I can't help but... admit I'm a little scared of the future..."
"... so am I..." Aayla rested her head against the wall. "... fear is not supposed to be something we should allow to rule over us. But considering the circumstances it's difficult... come here, Briarra..."
Briarra approached Aayla, hopping up onto the bench Aayla sat upon and curled up next to her. "... everything just feels so empty now..." Briarra admitted sadly. "... I know there's a few of us left... but... there's just so few of us..."
"I know..." Aayla placed a hand on the Cathar's shoulder, stroking her blonde mane with her other hand. "Don't worry about it right now... just go to sleep. By the time you wake up we'll be at Tatooine."
"... I don't want to sleep..." Briarra said softly. "... if I close my eyes I'll see them... the younglings and padawans, I... I don't want to dream about their deaths."
"Then dream about their lives..." Aayla picked Briarra up onto her lap, hugging her gently. "... dream about how they touched you. How they inspired you and how they loved you. Don't focus on the bad things that have happened, Briarra... focus on the good things that they have done."
"... I'll try..." Briarra said softly. "... master Secura?"
"... can I be your padawan? I... don't want to be alone..." "..." Aayla sighed. "... I'll... consider it..." "... okay..." Briarra yawned. "... going to sleep now..."
"Good girl..." Aayla let her curl up on her lap, and gently stroked her exposed fur and mane. And Briarra purred softly from the caresses, and gradually her eyes closed, finally falling asleep on Aayla's lap. And Aayla smiled warmly, watching her sleep, her leg kicking slightly. but the soothing caresses from Aayla's gentle hand kept her dreams from turning to nightmares, a small smile on her fur-lined face.
"... I promise, Briarra..." Aayla said softly. "... you're the future... and I'll protect you... I'll keep you safe..."
The freighter arrived at Tatooine without incident, and Aayla and Briarra slipped out without a single afterthought. The two Jedi, dressed in hooded robes to help disguise their appearance, entered into the town of Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, as the old stories go.
"Stay close, little one..." Aayla instructed, as the two walked down the dust covered streets, keeping their distance from passers by. "... we'll use what credits we have to buy provisions then find a place where we can live in peace."
"... master..." Briarra whispered, sniffing the air. "... I smell plastoid armor... Clone Troopers are nearby..."
"Keen nose, Briarra..." Aayla smiled. "They could also be Stormtroopers... in any case... go, leave us away from them."
Briarra nodded, taking the lead as Aayla followed, the Cathar using her acute olfactory senses to move away from the Imperial soldiers. "... okay, I think we're safe now..." Briarra said, just before she paused, sniffing the air again.
"More trouble?" Aayla asked.
"... no, it..." Briarra blinked, turning her head. "... I just caught a familiar scent...!"
"..." Briarra's eyes widened, and she immediately rushed away, much to Aayla's surprise.
"Briarra, wait!!" Aayla shouted. "... damn it all!" Aayla quickly made haste in following the padawan, realizing all too quickly that the feline girl was much faster than her. Doing her best to evade attention to herself she weaved through the crowd, then skid to a half as she saw Briarra, standing only a few feet away in a clearing from two other hooded cloaked figures, who had yet to turn around to face Briarra.
"... it's you!" Briarra said. "... I can't believe it, you... you're alive...!"
"Guh-haaaaah!" Bink Atauna yelped, jumping from the Cathar padawan in fright. "Um. Who are you?"
Tag Greenly nervously looked around. "We are but humble, um, orphans, scraping our way through this, um.... Bink where are we again?"
"... Tag, Bink... it's me..." Briarra smiled. "Briarra Caalb?"
"..." Bink's eyes went downcast. "How'd you find us?"
"I caught your scents..." Briarra giggled, and hugged both Tag and Bink happily. "It's so great to see you two again!!"
"Do you know these two, Briarra?" Aayla asked, her hands on her hips.
"... Woo-wow..." Tag whispered, looking at the twi'lek up and down. "She's almost as hot as Master Aayla..."
"Tag, you said that out loud."
"I AM 'Master Aayla,'" Aayla replied with a smirk, crossing her arms now. "And judging by the 'master' tag I can guess the two of you are Padawans also... so you should be reminded of the Jedi Code..."
"... They didn't kick you out because of the Rishi Maze deletion, did they?" Briarra asked, as the four entered a cantina.
"..." Tag stared, dumbfounded.
"Who ELSE knows about that?!" Bink groaned, throwing his hands into the air in dismay.
Everybody in the cantina raised their hands.
"Oy. No WONDER we agreed to give up the life of Jedi so quickly," Tag said.
"Don't worry about it..." Aayla said, sitting down at a booth. "The Order is more or less in a state of disarray anyhow..."
Briarra nodded sadly. "... it's good that you're no longer Padawans, Tag and Bink..."
"...Er, why, what happened?" Bink asked.
"... the Sith defeated us..." Briarra answered softly. "... the majority of us were wiped out..."
"Briarra and I are here to lay low..." Aayla added. "I'm going to train her underground, away from prying eyes."
"No..." Tag gasped. "Wow. We're really lucky Anakin found us when he did. We might be dead if not for him."
"He really saved us at the Temple," Bink nodded solemnly. "He must have known the danger, and went to get as many of them out as he could..."
"Anakin?!" Briarra's ears perked up. "You saw him?! He's alive?!!"
"Well, that's welcome news, at least..." Aayla nodded.
"Er... actually, we're not supposed to talk of him," Bink hastened to add. "Not supposed to talk of the Order at ALL."
"Yeah," Tag said. "Anakin said it could get us killed. We're just gonna forget we were ever Jedi. Those were his words."
"... maybe it was his way to protect you from the Sith..." Briarra said. "... hiding your roots would help you survive."
"Briarra and I don't have the luxury..." Aayla muttered. "... all right, we won't keep the two of you then. Go on and go..."
"It's nice to see you two again..." Briarra smiled cutely. "Stay safe!"
"Yeah... uh... it's nice not seeing you two either," Tag smiled a little at his little joke. "Bye now!"
As Tag and Bink left the cantina, Briarra smiled softly. "... it's nice to know those two are okay. They're... funny."
"A little clueless, but yes, quite funny..." Aayla agreed with a smile of her own. "Well... now we should do the same and be on our way. We'll have to find a remote part of the planet where we can be in secrecy and where I can train you."
"Yes, master..." Briarra nodded.
The two proceeded to exit the cantina, passing another hooded robed figure as he walked by the two. He paused, turning to face Aayla, as if recognizing her. He hesitated to approach her as she and Briarra walked from him. But then he sighed, coming to a decision, as he moved towards her.
"...?" Briarra's ears perked up, hearing the cloaked man's footsteps. "... someone's following us..."
"I know... keep walking..." Aayla advised. "Follow my lead."
Aayla and Briarra turned a right, into an alleyway. Aayla looked to her, pointing to a crawlspace. Briarra nodded, ducking into it, hiding herself, as Aayla turned to face the cloaked figure who approached.
"I'm not here for a fight..." Aayla said simply. "State your business or move on."
"I should certainly hope you're not here to fight... master Secura..." the figure said in an accented voice. "We shouldn't draw attention to ourselves, after all."
"..." Aayla blinked, recognizing the voice. "... agreed..."
"We should talk somewhere more secluded. I have a place outside the town... care to come with?"
"Certainly..." Aayla turned back to face Briarra. "Briarra, it's all right. There's no need to hide..."
"There isn't?" Briarra poked her head out, sniffing at the air in the general direction of the cloaked figure, then blinked, recognizing the scent. "... there... there isn't..."
Aayla smiled. "Come, Briarra. Let's go."
"I have to admit..." the cloaked figure said, as he, Aayla, and Briarra entered a small but adequate cave dwelling. "... I knew I'd eventually run into a survivor, but I never expected to see you, especially after what I've heard..." he lowered the hood, revealing the familiar bearded visage of a Jedi Master, who looked weathered and weary from his trials and tribulations, but he still managed a warm smile as he looked to Aayla. "... you look rather well for a corpse."
"You can thank Commander Bly for that..." Aayla replied, sitting down upon a worn pillow.
"Rather interesting, there..." Obi-Wan Kenobi stated, as he began to prepare a stew in a makeshift oven. "... Clone Troopers were made to obey any orders, despite their personal feelings about them... I wonder what made Bly disobey Order 66 like that, when the majority of the other Troopers didn't?"
"I don't know the answer to that, master Kenobi... neither does Bly, I think. He just chose to disobey."
"... perhaps a kind of 'glitch' in his programming, then... oh, and we can forgo the titles, Aayla..." Obi-Wan turned to face the twi'lek. "... I think we're beyond them now."
"... perhaps so..." Aayla nodded softly.
"And who might the young one be?" Obi-Wan turned to face Briarra, as he handed her a bowl of the stew.
"Briarra Caalb, sir..." she answered, graciously taking the bowl. "... I... I heard a lot about you! You're a hero!"
"... well... I suppose so. Though lately I hardly feel like one... but all in all, thank you for the praise."
"..." Obi-Wan paused upon hearing Briarra's question. "... he's dead."
"..." Briarra blinked. "... d... dead? But... we just... how can he..."
"We heard from somewhat reliable sources he isn't," Aayla said in place of Briarra. "... Obi-Wan, tell us. What happened?"
"... all right... I suppose I can tell you the truth of what happened, then..." Obi-Wan handed Aayla a bowl of stew. "... Anakin has fallen to the dark side of the Force."
"W-what?!" Briarra's eyes widened, then she lowered her head, eyes downcast. "... b-but... how..."
"From what I've gathered... he did it in order to protect Senator Amidala... she and Anakin had a forbidden attachment... one that lead to her pregnancy."
"..." Aayla sighed softly, remembering her feelings towards Kit Fisto. But remained quiet as Obi-Wan continued.
"Anakin lead the charge on the Jedi Temple... he slaughtered nearly all the younglings and padawans there, even the Jedi that were there at the time." He glanced towards Briarra. "Except for you , it seems."
"... I had a premonition..." Briarra explained. "... that a dark force was coming... that would kill us all... I... tried to save the closest I could... Shaak Ti... but... I couldn't find her..."
"There wasn't anything you could've done, child... you made the right choice in fleeing, trust me..." Obi-Wan sighed, continuing his explanation. "... we went to Mustafar to confront Anakin over what he did... Padme was the first... but Anakin cast her aside... I had no choice but to fight my former padawan... one of the most... no, THE most difficult battle I ever had to endure. In the end, I defeated him... and I left him... I incapacitated him, so he wasn't able to avoid the lava's searing heat..."
"... so Anakin IS dead..." Aayla said.
"... the man we knew as Anakin Skywalker is no longer with us, that's true..." Obi-Wan said. "... but in his place is the Emperor's apprentice. Darth Vader."
Aayla and Briarra were dumbstruck, quickly piecing together the pieces of the puzzle.
"... Anakin... IS Vader...?!" Briarra gasped.
"... Damn it all... damn it!!" Aayla clenched her fists. "No wonder his fighting style looked so familiar on Kessel!! Now it makes sense!! No wonder they were all..."
"... and... Padme?" Briarra asked, trying to hold back her tears. "... is she..."
"... I'm afraid so, Briarra..." Obi-Wan answered. "... Anakin's betrayal had shattered her spirit. She died of a broken heart... but not before she gave birth to her children... her and Anakin's children. One of them is here on Tatooine, in fact. And that's why I'm here as well... to watch over the boy. I feel in time, he may very well save this galaxy from his own father."
"... I see..." Aayla finished her bowl of stew, then stood up. "... I understand then... Briarra, we can't stay here."
"We can't?" Briarra queried.
"... we'd compromise Obi-Wan by staying... this is important, more important than anything we have planned. It's best that we leave this planet so that Obi-Wan can continue what he's doing."
"I appreciate it, Aayla... thank you..." Obi-Wan stood up as well. "... but I think it would best if you stopped being Jedi altogether."
"..." Aayla blinked. "... ah... what?"
"For your continued safety, and the safety of your ward, I think it would be in your best interest if you disavow Jedi knowledge... stop practicing the usage of the Force..." he sighed. "... you're alive only because someone decided you were worth more as a friend than a memory. But Darth Vader won't see it the same way... regardless of how you may feel about him, he's no longer who he was. He's different now... and he will not hesitate in ending your life, or the life of young Briarra here."
"But Obi-Wan, I--"
"It's for your own good, Aayla..." Obi-Wan reinforced. "The Jedi Order is dead... let it stay dead. Live your life the way you should have... the way you feel you should have."
"..." Aayla lowered her head. "...I..."
"Your feelings DO betray you, Aayla. I don't need the Force to read it in your eyes... there was someone you cared about... someone you were attracted to."
"... it doesn't matter, he's dead now..." Aayla looked to Briarra. "... we should go now..."
"Uhm... okay..." Briarra quickly finished her stew, setting the bowl down and standing up as Aayla left the cave. But the Cathar padawan politely bowed to Obi-Wan, before turning to follow Aayla out the cave door.
... my apologies, master Vos... Obi-Wan thought to himself. ... I know how spirited your former padawan is. I know she wants to fight... to defend, because that's the kind of person she is... it's hard enough for her to ignore the suffering the Empire is causing. But to be asked to stop being a Jedi altogether...
Obi-Wan sighed deeply, feeling bad for suggesting the idea to Aayla.
... she won't stop though... she is a Jedi, mind, body, and soul... she'll continue being a Jedi until she dies... sadly... that day may come sooner than later...
Aayla and Briarra remained quiet, as the two re-entered Mos Eisley, heading into a spaceport. Briarra could tell that the twi'lek was deep in thought, perhaps over what Obi-Wan had to say. With a soft sigh, she reached out to place a hand on Aayla's shoulder. "... master...?"
"... yes, Briarra?"
"... is Obi-Wan right?"
"..." Aayla closed her eyes, pulling away from Briarra's grasp. "... about letting go of our ways as Jedi? I don't know... maybe..." she paused, turning to face Briarra. "... things are more dangerous now than they ever were during the Clone Wars. I still say it is best if you did surrender yourself to a normal life... return to your colony, live out the rest of your life in peace, as Tag and Bink has done. But for me..." Aayla sighed. "... this is all I've known... this life, helping people, defending what I know is right... this is who I am... I could easily portray the identity of a smuggler, or a slave girl, or a spoiled princess, but those are just facades. They aren't me... they never will be me..."
"... master..." Briarra looked up at Aayla. "... what are you..."
"... Briarra..." Aayla placed a hand on Briarra's shoulder now. "... we should part ways right now. You can board a ship heading to your colony, and live in peace."
"... what about you?" Briarra asked.
"... I have plans... I'm planning to go to Geonosis, to build a secret underground training facility for Jedi... the Emperor can kill us, but he can't prevent us from being born. Force-sensitive offspring are born every day... maybe I can rebuild the Jedi Order, somehow... it'd be too grandiose to make it as big as it once was... but just a small faction will be enough."
"... I want to help..."
"Are you sure?"
Aayla let out a soft sigh, and hugged Briarra. "... you're a brave one, Briarra... I'm proud of you."
"Thank you..." Briarra smiled.
"... but I must advise against it..."
"I'm staying... I don't want to leave your side."
"... as you wish... but now, let's get to a ship..." Aayla and Briarra reached a cargo bay, but as the doors opened, the two Jedi hesitated, seeing a small contingent of Stormtroopers and Clone Troopers leveling their blaster rifles at them, at the center a Clone Commander in white and red.
"Nice of you to drop on by," Cody said. "Briarra Caalb... Aayla Secura... you're hereby placed under arrest under the charge of high treason."
Briarra gasped, quickly reaching for her lightsaber, but Aayla stopped her, placing a hand on her arm.
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way, Aayla..." Cody continued. "... rest assured, NONE of our weapons are set on stun THIS time."
"..." Aayla stared at Cody. Then sighed in defeat, raising her hands in surrender. "... do what you will with me... but let Briarra go... she's only a child."
"I sympathize, really I do..." Cody said. "But I have my orders. And contrary to what you may believe... we follow them, to the letter."
"Why go through all this trouble, Cody..." Aayla asked, as she was shackled from behind by the Clone Commander, Briarra already restrained by the Stormtroopers as their lightsabers were also confiscated. "We both know this will end with our executions."
"True..." Cody replied. "But you see, there are still people out there who believe the Jedi are still good... if we killed the two of you now, well... a martyr is just as strong as a Jedi, maybe even moreso."
"So... you're taking us away?" Briarra asked.
"To the Star Destroyer orbiting this planet. Lord Vader's waiting... for some reason he didn't want to set foot on Tatooine, so he sent us down."
"... bad memories here, I assume..." Aayla noted.
"... you seem to know more about Vader than most people should... all the more reason to kill you, then..." Cody walked around, taking his helm off and looking Aayla in the eyes. "... off the record, though... you ARE a good person, Aayla... you earned the respect of a lot of Clone Troopers. I read a report from one of them, hoping that when you die, it'd be a quick death."
"... I appreciate the respect, then..." Aayla said softly, keeping her gaze on Cody.
"... I hope when the time comes to execute you, Lord Vader will give me the opportunity. I promise... one blaster bolt to the head is as quick as they come."
"And Briarra? Will you grant her a quick death as well?"
Cody looked down at the padawan, seeing the look of defiance in her expressive green eyes. "Why not? If you ask for it, then I promise her death'll be the same as yours."
"If you respect us so much then why kill us?!" Briarra spat. "If you know we're good then why execute us for being good?!"
"Don't get me wrong, kid..." Cody said. "For us Clone Troopers, it's not about good or evil. It's about following orders. It's what we live for. Simple as that."
"Nothing is ever that simple."
Cody turned his head, as did the Stormtroopers, Aayla, and Briarra, seeing Commander Bly and his four 327th Clone Troopers, their weapons aimed towards the Stormtroopers.
"Sorry I'm late, Aayla..." Bly said.
"Better late than never..." replied Aayla with a smile.
Bly managed a small smile, and glanced to Cody, his smile fading. "... you have a choice to make, Cody. You can walk away. Or you can die. And I'd rather not kill one of my vode this day."
"I'm the same way, Bly... but you made this personal..." Cody trained his weapon at Bly. "Mir'osik!! What makes you so different from the rest of us?!! We followed Order 66!! TO THE DAMNED LETTER!! We respected the Jedi!! But we STILL followed that command!!"
"... you wouldn't understand, even if I told you..." Bly said. "In any case... we're at an impasse. What's it going to be?"
"I think we both know the answer to that."
"I think so too..." Bly took a step back. Then swiftly swiveled about, shooting the Stormtrooper that held the Jedis' lightsabers in the shoulder. Immediately Aayla acted first, jumping over her bound arms and holding her hands out, willing her lightsaber to fly to her hand and igniting it, at the same time swinging it around, severing the chain of the restraints before the dangerous blade could ever touch her, then swerving around to slash apart the restraints holding Briarra, who quickly called for her lightsaber, switching it on instantly.
"Damn it!!" Cody cursed. "Shoot the Jedi!! Don't let them get the advantage!!"
"It's not the Jedi you should be worried about!" Bly said, opening fire on two of the Stormtroopers before diving for the cover of a landspeeder, the remaining Stormtroopers and the Clone Troopers on Cody's side firing on Bly and his Clone Troopers, as well as Aayla, who deftly reflected the blaster bolts with her lightsaber, redirecting a few of them back at two Clone Troopers and a Stormtrooper. Briarra swiftly ran on all fours, lightsaber in her mouth as she charged at the enemy fearlessly, pouncing at one of them and neatly bisecting them across the abdomen. Releasing her lightsaber from her mouth she caught it, leaping backwards to slash at a Clone Trooper across the chest, vaulting off his shoulders and jumping to Bly to take cover. Aayla quickly joined them as Bly's Clone Troopers also took cover behind walls and cargo boxes.
"They got us pinned..." Bly said. "Getting past them is going to take a little work."
"Briarra, how many are left?" asked Aayla.
Briarra turned her head, her ears twitching as she sniffed the air. "... Three Stormtroopers... four Clone Troopers, including Commander Cody..."
"Cody's mine..." Bly said. "He and I must settle things."
"Fair enough... I'll take the Clone Troopers," Aayla offered. "Briarra, you take the Stormtroopers."
"Right," Briarra nodded.
"Your troops can supply the cover fire?" Aayla asked Bly.
"You can count on them," confirmed Bly.
"All right..." Aayla said. "... on my mark..."
Briarra gripped lightsaber, muscles tensed as she prepared to pounce from her shelter of blaster bolts. Bly nodded to Aayla, ready to step outward. And Aayla smiled back at Bly, turning her head towards the opposition.
Aayla was the first to leap outward, twisting around to reflect two blaster bolts as she Force pushed two Clone Troopers into each other and against a wall forcefully. Briarra was next, flanked by Bly's Clone Troopers as she leapt out, pouncing on one Stormtrooper and Force pushing him into the line of fire of the incoming blaster bolts, igniting her lightsaber to cut down another Stormtrooper across the knees, as Bly helped cover his Jedi allies, firing suppressive fire with his brothers. Cody grimaced, quickly getting to cover of his own as his troops were being felled by lightsaber and blaster bolt respectively. Quickly he turned, emerging from his cover and quickly fired on Briarra as she defeated the last Stormtrooper, but she quickly turned around, sensing the danger, as she deflected the bolt with her lightsaber, and she glared at Cody angrily, hissing.
"Easy does it, Briarra!" Aayla shouted, spin kicking the last Clone Trooper to the ground, dazing him. "... remember, Bly wants him."
"That's right..." Bly said, standing up. "Stand down, everyone..."
"... so what now, Bly..." Cody said. "You and your Jedis have beaten my troops..."
"You and me, Cody..." Bly dropped his blaster to the ground. "... hand-to-hand, no excuses. You want to settle things with me, we do this the right way."
"..." Cody smirked, dropping his own rifle. "... all right, that's good enough for me. And your troops and Jedi won't interfere?"
"They won't..." Bly looked to Aayla and his Clone Troopers. "Will you?"
"This is your fight, Bly..." Aayla replied, extinguishing her lightsaber. "Briarra and I won't interfere."
"We'll be rooting for you, sir..." one of Bly's Clone Troopers added.
Bly smiled. "Thanks."
And right after saying this, Bly got the fist of his "brother" Cody right into his jaw. He jerked back, and turned to glare at Cody. Without another word, the fight began as Bly threw a retaliatory punch at Cody's jaw. Bly winced as he was hit, no longer wearing the armor of the Clone Trooper as Cody's weight, combined with Cody's armor, knocking the wind out of him.
"He's in trouble...!" Briarra said. "Master Secura--!"
"Let him fight, Briarra..." Aayla reminded. "This has to be."
Cody grinned, and started to repeatedly drive his elbow into the face of Bly, who turned his head, trying to weather the attacks as best as he could in spite of the added hardness of the armor. He managed to get his feet up against Cody's stomach, pushing off of him, and both Clones kippuped to their feet simultaneously, staring at each other.
"Not bad..." admitted Bly.
Cody just nodded, and went into a fighting stance, all business. And Bly went back into his stance as well, slowly stalking around Cody, who made his move suddenly, quickly moving in the opposite direction before charging in. Bly anticipated however, as he sidestepped, letting Cody rush through and then charging in himself, throwing a forearm shot to the back of his head. Cody's momentum and the force of the forearm was enough to knock Cody to the ground. However, he was moving to get up already, in time to see Bly charge in, throwing a spinning kick towards Cody's head. Cody was knocked to the ground, but grinned, and grabbed the helmet he was wearing that was near the ground, swinging it right into Bly's face, and he jerked back, sprawling out to the ground.
"Bly--!" Aayla shouted.
"... I'm okay..." Bly assured, standing up. "... I'm tougher than that... try harder, Cody."
Cody went to put his helmet on, hiding his face and expressions now. "If you insist." he said, getting back into stance.
"... Master Secura..." Briarra looked to Aayla, worried. "... how is Bly going to fight him now?"
"... he'll find a way..." Aayla assured. "... have a degree of faith..."
Cody walked up right into Bly's face, staring him down, before going to slug him right in the jaw again. Bly staggered backwards, but retaliated instinctively with a punch to the gut, wincing as all he hit was the plastoid armor. Cody acted, grabbing Bly by the neck, and giving him a hard headbutt. Bly faltered, staggering to the ground as blood poured from his nose, his hand touching something metal, and he looked to see his hand on a blaster rifle halved in two by either Aayla's or Briarra's lightsaber. Taking the opportunity, he gripped the barrel, jumping up and swinging it like a club to Cody's helmed head, and his helmet flew off as he was knocked back. Bly capitalized, spearing down his younger brother as he began to deliver an elbow to his jaw, then rolling over and pushing him off into the hangar wall nearby. Rushing forward, he grabbed him by the neck, fist raised to strike.
"Are we done yet?" Bly asked in a monotoned voice.
"Not yet," Cody replied, and went to jab Bly into the eyes. He grimaced as he jerked back, releasing his opponent, whose face was bleeding but was still determined as he went to kick Bly in the face again to knock him down. Sprawled out onto the ground, Bly struggled to get to his feet. "Age is getting to you, Bly..." Cody taunted. "I am younger and in better shape than you are. And, I am not corrupted by emotions like you have become."
"... Emotion... can sometimes be a very powerful weapon..." Bly stood his ground, wiping blood from his nose and lip, as he gestured Cody to come at me. "... as is experience..."
Cody smirked. "You've become soft, Bly." he said, as he charged in for a shoulder tackle on Bly. But he caught Cody, grabbing his arm and tripping him to the ground, yanking on his arm as hard as he could, dislocating his shoulder. The scream that came from Cody at this reverberated through the hangar, and he winced in pain, looking back to Bly hatefully. "Go on... do what you were trained to do. Kill me."
Bly stood up, and stared down at Cody coldly, before shaking his head.
"... there's too much death going around lately, Cody..." he said. "Clone Troopers, Jedi... too many lives lost... I'm done."
And with that, Bly turned around, walking towards Aayla and Briarra as Bly's troops joined the three, heading towards the Theta-class T-2c shuttle they arrived in. Cody grunted, standing up and glaring as he held his injured shoulder. "This isn't over, hut'uun..." he said to them. And as the group boarded the shuttle, Aayla stopped just short of the door, and turned to face Cody.
"... if you truly respect the Jedi as you say you do... let this go, just once..." she requested, her soft brown eyes showing compassion towards Cody. "... you're alive... I'm alive. Let's leave it at that."
Cody glared, spitting angrily and walking away from them. And Aayla sighed, turning to board the shuttle, looking towards Bly. "Let's get going. To Geonosis."
"You heard the woman..." Bly looked to his pilot. "Geonosis, don't spare the hyperspace."
Darth Vader quietly watched from the bridge of the Star Destroyer, as the Theta-class shuttle left Tatooine airspace, immediately launching into hyperspace. Feeling the presence of two Force-sensitive beings aboard, he glanced over to the helmsman.
"Follow that shuttle."
"But sir, Commander Cody is still on Tatooine..." the helmsman said.
"Leave him," Vader commanded. "We'll retrieve him later for punishment. Right now, following and executing the two Jedi is top priority."
"As you command, sir."
And the star destroyer left Tatooine's orbit, shooting into hyperspace after the shuttle.
"It is YOU who will die!"
Aayla turned her head a second before Darth Vader's scarlet lightsaber burned through Sia-Lan Wezz's breast. It was the tenth time she had seen it. The tenth time she avoided seeing one of her fellow Jedi die so quickly. The holocron Bly had sent of the Battle of Kessel, of Darth Vader in action as he fought the Jedi who stood against him, was difficult for Aayla to watch, as she knew many of them. Some as acquaintances, some as friends and comrades in arms. But ultimately, as she sat at the table watching the graphic footage, she steeled her emotions, trying to study Darth Vader's fighting style, searching for any possible weaknesses in the Sith Lord.
Aayla sighed softly, and stopped the holocron before Shadday Potkin was slain. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, standing up and stretching, fighting a yawn that threatened to escape from her lungs.
"Well, that oughta keep them off our back for a while," Bly said, limping into the passenger bay. "Just before hitting hyper I sent off decoy tracking beacons in 17 different trajectories... they won't sift through them until we're near to landing in Geonosis..."
"Good..." Aayla replied, before sitting back down, staring at the paused holocron image. "... Bly... I have to let you know something... given that we should be past keeping things from each other at this point..."
"I'm listening," Bly said.
"... I have a very bad feeling that the days may be numbered for us..." Aayla lowered her head. "... knowing what we know now about Vader... Tatooine would have been the best refuge from him... but now..."
"We can still abort this mission," Bly said softly. "Take the long way back 'round to Tatooine... Vader wouldn't suspect that, I think... We could lay low. I could lose the egg-shells, trade in for a moisture farmer's shawl..."
'We can't... Jedi reasons..." Aayla said. "... I've been studying the holocron you sent me, trying to pin down any weaknesses Vader may have. The emotional ones I can guess easily... the physical ones a little more of a challenge. But even if I do devise a good strategy against Vader that's no guarantee of a victory..."
"Aayla, you're not going to win this fight," Bly said. "Even if you do convince the handful of survivors to join you... they aren't going to be enough. The Purge at Kessel has shown that much. Even if you manage to defeat Vader, the Emperor has the entire galaxy eating out of his hand. The defective troops like me are few and far between. I think Kenobi might have been right."
"..." Aayla sighed. "... Briarra... if the worst case scenario does occur, it would be best if Briarra was nowhere near me. If she were killed... it'd just be another regret to add to an already growing pile."
"What do you mean, 'another' regret?" Bly asked.
Aayla looked to Bly. "... it's..." she sighed once more, a deeper sigh, as she leaned her head back, staring up at the ceiling. "... the Jedi Code prohibits attachments because we fear that it would lead towards dark side. But... I've seen proof that a Jedi CAN have an attachment... provided he knows what he's doing... and he makes the right decisions... I've seen love flourish... give a Jedi strength..."
"You want to know what I think?" Bly said, sitting down next to her. "I don't think there is a dark and light. I think people make choices, better or worse. Where people go wrong is dealing with the consequences of their choices... It's easy to make choice. Admitting that it might have been the wrong choice, that's where people darken, as you might put it."
"..." Aayla lowered her head, smiling sadly. "... I've felt the allure of the dark side of the Force before... there were wrong decisions made that brought me there... but... that's not the regret I speak of..."
"You let your code prevent you from following your heart," Bly said.
Aayla nodded. "... it's funny... in a tragic sort of way. Only after I feel his life pass on, do I realize I cared a great deal for him. And now... I'll never be able to tell him in person how I feel..." Aayla's eyes closed. "... the damned war... it's taken too much from all of us..."
"... It doesn't have to take anymore," Bly said. "You still have your life. Briarra. My brothers and I..."
"... I still don't know if I should allow Briarra to stay... I want so much for her to go back to her colony where she'll be safe..." Aayla looked to Bly once again. "... I don't want to fight Darth Vader. But if I have to... I will. I can't stop being a Jedi, Bly. If I have no choice to fight, I'll fight..."
"Have you been listening to me at all?" Bly asked her. "You don't have to do this. HIDE, Aayla. Hide somewhere that the Empire can't find you. We spared you for a reason, Aayla. LIVE. Briarra needs you. If you get yourself killed for your damned order, you aren't helping her."
"Bly, I... I want to hide... but at the same time I can't just do nothing about this!" Aayla stared at the paused holocron image. "... I don't like being helpless... like a slave girl on a chain, I'm above all that. I won't fight the Empire. I know it's too strong... but Vader IS looking for us. We can't ignore that. That's why I'm preparing, in case it happens. Until then... rebuilding... forming an underground conclave of Jedi... training them in secret... it's the only thing I can think of to deny the Empire their victory. To make me feel better about this... than just rolling over and admitting defeat..."
"I hate to tell you this, Aayla... but there is no denying the Empire its victory," Bly sighed. "They've won. They've beaten the Jedi down, and they won't allow them to stand back up. It's too soon. Please. Listen to me. The best you're going to hope for, reviving the Jedi Order, is doing it in secret. One Padawan. One Master. In secret. Attracting more is only going to shine a big holo over your head, and the Empire is going to rain down upon you."
"..." Aayla nodded softly. "... so... I follow an example from the Sith, then. One master, one apprentice. And Briarra's the only Padawan available... even though I don't want to put her in any more danger..."
"Why not? It worked for the Sith, didn't it?" Bly says. "Train Briarra until she's ready, and then she can train her own apprentice... until the time comes. It might not be for years. Maybe decades. Maybe longer."
"All right..." Aayla relented. "... I'll tell Briarra my decision when she wakes up..." She stared at the holocron image. "... I still have to be ready though... just in case..."
"... You'd be foolish NOT to be prepared," Bly said with a smile. "Just don't go LOOKING for that fight."
"Don't worry, Bly..." Aayla says, staring at Shadday's face, frozen in abject terror. "... I'm smart. Not suicidal."
"... master Secura?"
Both Bly and Aayla turned to see Briarra standing by the doorway, still waking up, but judging by the look of absolute joy in her expressive, tear-filled eyes, she had overheard Aayla's plans for her, due to her enhanced hearing.
"Yes, Briarra..." Aayla smiled at the Cathar. "... from this moment on, you are my padawan."
"... thank you..." Briarra's lower lip quivered, and then she leapt into Aayla's arms, hugging her tightly. "THANK YOU, MASTER!! I--" she quickly stopped herself, and let go, doing her best to regain her composure as she stood up straight, though her excitement was still too easy to see. "Th-thank you master, I promise I will do my best to make you proud."
Aayla laughed softly. "It's all right to be happy, Briarra. You have every reason to be happy. Your training will begin as soon as we establish ourselves on Geonosis."
"Y-yes, master..." Briarra wiped her tears from her eyes, and smiled brightly at Aayla. Bly shook his head with a smirk, placing a hand on Aayla's shoulder.
"At least she's eager to learn, isn't she?" he said.
"And that's always a good thing..." added Aayla, petting Briarra's mane softly, causing a soft cute purr to emanate from her.
It wasn't too long afterwards that the group arrived on Geonosis, after waiting for a radiation storm to pass over. Landing in a clearing surrounded by a small mountain range, Aayla was the first to leave the ship, pulling the hood of her jacket over her head to shield her vision of the sun.
"... there," she instructed, pointing towards the mountains. "That area's uninhabited. We shouldn't worry about Geonosians finding us there."
"A cave?" Bly queried.
"Best place to be. We'll make a home of it yet."
"You heard the woman, vode..." Bly said. "Let's get moving."
"Now then..." Aayla turned to face Briarra. "I have a mission for you."
"I'm ready, master!" Briarra said, confident.
"Learning by doing, Briarra... that's how I'm going to teach you. So then... Bly?"
Bly nodded, approaching Briarra. "There's reports of a Geonosian war room close by. There's a set of holographic projectors there, and your mission is to retrieve them."
"There could be Geonosians there who may not appreciate a rogue padawan stealing their equipment."
"This is a stealth mission, Briarra..." Aayla said. "Use the Force to hide yourself."
"Force stealth? Like what you can do?"
"Precisely. It's not an easy technique to master, but I think you already have all the potential needed to pull it off." Aayla smiled at Briarra. "Are you ready, little one?"
"Here you go, then..." Bly handed Briarra a keypad displaying a map. "Follow the coordinates and good luck."
Briarra nodded, and bounded off away from Bly and Aayla on all fours towards her destination. And Aayla looked to Bly with a smirk. "So... are you going to be my co-master, then?"
Bly smirked in turn. "I'm no Jedi. But Briarra could stand to use training outside the Force."
"She could at that..." Aayla nodded. "... these are turbulent times after all... she'll need all the training she can muster."
"Well, I'll scout around the cave, see where I can install any security systems," Bly suggested.
"Sounds good... I'll go in the cave myself and see if I can't select separate rooms for us." Bly nodded to Aayla, and proceeded to part ways with her as Aayla entered the cave, the four Clone Troopers following her in. Aayla looked about, pulling down the hood of her jacket as she inspected her surroundings. "Hm... well, at least there's room enough... three separate tunnels, too."
"We'll have to make sure they aren't inhabited, General..." one Clone Trooper said.
"It's Aayla now, soldier..." she corrected. "... I'm done being a General... and yes, you're right. We'll take one tunnel at a time. We'll drive out whatever's there, try not to kill anything if we can help it."
"Understandable, Gener... I mean Aayla..."
Aayla chuckled softly, walking in front of the four Clone Troopers as she entered one of the caves. "Are you that on-edge about calling me by my first name?"
"No, it's just-- AAYLA, LOOK OUT!!!"
Aayla blinked, feeling the immediate danger as she unhooked her lightsaber, igniting it as she swerved around, deflecting a blaster bolt fired from a rifle; two of the Clone Troopers had opened fire on Aayla, putting the twi'lek Jedi on the defensive. The other two Troopers fired on the traitorous duo, causing them to take cover into the cave.
"What's going on?!" one of the loyal Troopers shouted. "Aruetii!! Why're you firing on her?!"
"You have us mistaken for your REAL comrades!" one of the traitorous Troopers answered. "We're from Cody's contingent! We took them out and assumed their identities... now wise up and complete Order 66! Kill the Jedi!!"
"You're making a mistake!! We--AAIGH!!!" The second loyal Clone Trooper jerked back as he caught a bolt directly in the chest. Aayla swiftly jumped to his aid, deflecting more bolts in her direction.
"Quickly!! Get him to cover!!" she shouted. "I'll handle this!!"
"Yes ma'am!!" The remaining loyal Trooper grabbed his fallen brother, dragging him behind as Aayla charged Cody's Clone Troopers, deflecting the bolts, and she leapt forward, slashing one Trooper across the chest, twisting around to face the other, quickly dodging a bolt that would've struck her precisely in the breastbone, instead it caught her in the shoulder. Ignoring the pain, she pressed on her attack, slashing the blaster rifle in half and kicking the Trooper in the head, knocking his helm off.
"Aayla!!" Bly ran in, rifle in hand. "I heard blaster fire, what happened..." he paused, seeing the blaster burn in Aayla's right shoulder. "... you're hurt..."
"Better than being dead..." Aayla extinguished her lightsaber, staring at Cody's Trooper. "We were infiltrated. Two of your Troopers were replaced with Cody's. Check on your remaining troops, one of them was badly injured."
Bly nodded, as Aayla placed a foot on the downed Trooper's chest, lightsaber ignited and aimed at his throat. He began to sweat, feeling the condensed heat of Aayla's weapon pointed at him. "... so... now you'll kill me?"
"... in all honesty I don't want to kill you..." Aayla said softly. "... but if you're here..."
"You're right..." the Trooper nodded. "I already reported to Lord Vader of your whereabouts. Your days are numbered, Jedi..."
"..." Aayla glared at the Trooper, and waved her free hand. "SLEEP."
The Trooper paused, and promptly passed out from the Force-induced command. Aayla then turned around shutting off her lightsaber to approach Bly and the other Trooper. "... how is he...?"
"..." Bly looked up at Aayla. "... he's dead."
Aayla stared sadly at the fallen Trooper. "... damn it all... I'm sorry, Bly..."
"It's all right... he died trying to protect you..." Bly consoled. "... it's his way of redeeming himself for all the other Jedi that his brothers murdered because of the Empire."
"... it doesn't make me feel any less sad..." Aayla whispered, turning to walk away. "... Vader's sure to come here now... as soon as Briarra returns with the holo-emitters we have to work hard to get ready..."
"We could just escape..." the remaining Trooper suggested.
"... we could... but he'd just search for us again..." Aayla lowered her head. "... how many days do you think we have, Bly?"
"... counting the tracking beacons we placed? I'm guessing three to four days."
"Plenty of time to plan..." Aayla looked to Bly. "... do you trust me?"
"Do you have to ask me that?" Bly stood up. "... I implicitly trust you with my life."
"Then I'll trust you with mine..." Aayla said, smiling at him. "... with both of your help, and Briarra's too, we may be able to pull it off."
"... in the meantime, maybe we should treat your wound..." Bly said.
Aayla nodded, looking to the burn in her shoulder. "... definitely not 'stun' setting..."
It is a dark time for citizens of Geonosis. Officially, the common Geonosian is not held accountable for the misdeeds of their leader, the late Archduke Poggle the Lesser.
Unofficially? It's every Geonosian for themselves. Pitpitpit'chuk and Ooon'dekit'totuk are two such souls, frantically scraping through the remains of what was once Geonosis's heralded "War Room." Count Dooku and Poggle saw the beginnings of the Clone Wars at this very holotable. Perhaps now, their ghosts might be watching Pitpit and Ooon searching for something... ANYTHING... that they might be able to sell to bribe away the ruthless Governor appointed to their system in the name of the Emperor.
Unbeknownst to them, another was present; in the shadows at the moment, Briarra watched quietly, waiting for her moment, then once the two Geonosians had their backs turned, she scampered into the War Room, taking to the shadows as best she could, what with her white robes.
["Do you hear something?"] Pitpit clicked and popped to his partner.
["I hear your incessant whining. Shut up and grab anything that isn't bolted down. And hurry. The Empire could land ships at any time. If we don't have the 14,000 cred for the bribe, Governor Boka will hand our shells to the Emperor."]
... I knew I should've learned Geonosian... Briarra thought to herself, as she let out a quiet sigh. ... all right... Force stealth... Master Secura did it once when she faced Aurra Sing... if I can do it... Briarra closed her eyes, concentrating.
["To the wastes with Poggle the Lesser,"] Pitpit moaned, going through data-tapes. ["Had not been for his taking up with Dooku, Geonosis would be all and well."]
["So the Emperor and his droid-pet Vader shall fry our wings if you don't shut up and get us cred!"] Ooon snarled. ["I don't know about you, but I shan't be chained and worked like a wingless peasant! I aim to get off this rock. Tatooine 'tis naught but a parsec from here... we can set shop there, the Empire cares naught for it... And 'tis close enough to our mother sands, we dig far enough into the ground..."]
... okay... I think I'm ready... Feeling the Force flow around her, she focused it upon hiding her physical form, and hoping it worked, slowly stood up from the shadows, in plain sight of the two Geonosian scavengers.
["Junk,"] Ooon muttered, tossing aside a broken holoprojector. ["Ah... sonic pulse rifle."]
["Any charge to it?"] Pitpit asked.
["Some good 10, 15 pulses, I think,"] Ooon said, inspecting the weapon. ["Seen one of these kill a Jedi Master or two, I have. Might keep those egg-shells back a bit, things get rough."]
... it works! They can't see me! Briarra smiled, and then proceeded to search freely for the holo-emitters Aayla needed, the Force masking her appearance, scent, and the sounds she made while moving.
["We maybe should test the rifle?"] Pitpit asked. ["Better we know now if it doesn't work then to maybe need it against an egg-shell if Governor Boka welshes on the bribe."]
["First USEFUL thing I've heard from you this day,"] Ooon clicked and popped. With that, he pointed the pulse rifle in a random direction and pulled the trigger.
And Briarra eeped, ducking as the blast shot above her. Fortunately, her concentration remained strong, as she let out a sigh of relief, continuing to search for the holo-emitters. That was close... let's see... She paused, seeing a holo-emitter on the ground. Oh, here's one...
["See about getting some of those holo'mitters,"] Ooon pointed to one of the corners. ["Should fetch some good prices with the scavenge."]
Uh oh... Briarra turned, then reached for another holo-emitter, then another.
Then she froze. Her eyes widening. She shuddered, tears beginning to fill her vision. "... no... please no..."
["Who are you?"] Ooon demanded. ["Stupid furball peedunkie! This is OUR salvage!"]
Briarra gasped, then turned to see the two Geonosians, realizing her concentration was broken. "... s-sorry... I need these more than you!" She seized two more emitters before leaping over one of the Geonosians, landing on the other before running out the door.
["Filthy thieving brat!"] Pitpit clicked. ["Give back our salvage! Shoot her!"]
["You IDIOT! If this alien is here, there are others! Likely the egg-shells are here already! Take what we have and go now! Furball peedunkie is no concern to ours!"] Ooon argued. ["Furthermore, I shan't--URK!"]
Ooon'dekit'totuk gurgled and toppled over, a scorching hole in his chest. His brother Pitpit stared past Briarra to see his brother's killer. An egg-shell trooper, and behind him, nearly a dozen more. Briarra quickly skidded to a halt, going back to the shadows as she quickly put all the holo-emitters she salvaged into a pouch, then closed her eyes tightly. No... come on... hide me hide me hide me... I can't be spotted... not by them...!
"Pitpitpit'chuk, you are under arrest for stealing Imperial property," the Stormtrooper snarled at the Geonosian. "Lay down your stolen goods and stand down."
One of the trooper glanced at Briarra, and with a startled grunt, leaned in for a closer look. "What in the rains of Kamino...?"
Briarra's eyes widened, scooting up into the corner as she held her breath. No... no no no no NO!! He spotted me!!
"It's ghastly," the trooper muttered, poking a withered, dried out husk of a dead Geonosian in the shadows. "They're even uglier when they're dead."
"Enough of that, Spec-One. Detain the thief."
"Yes, Sarge." The trooper looked away from Briarra, and slapped the dried out corpse from it's hidden grave. It landed on Briarra, and she let out a startled gasp, covering her mouth to prevent herself from screaming in fright, knowing her concentration was broken, but staying still until the Stormtroopers left.
"... Did you say something?" one trooper said, looking at another.
"Sorry. A cough. My air-filter is faulty. Can't even breathe without getting a lungful of that noxious dust," the trooper standing beside him grunted. "Hopefully they'll revise these buckets and soon."
Briarra remained still, watching as the Stormtroopers left, and once they were gone, quickly pushed the dead Geonosian off her her, coughing, almost gagging as she stepped out from the shadows. "... disgusting...!!" she remarked quietly, before looking into the pouch. "... still... mission accomplished... now I have to head back..."
"Let's see here..." Aayla searched through the cave, looking around inquisitively; her low-light vision as a twi'lek helping in maneuvering around as she studied one area. "... I think this would make a good training area for Briarra, don't you think, Bly? Plenty of room for her to jump and move around..."
Bly, for his part, seemed more concerned with security issues. He was looking over security cams and inspecting potential "security hazards." His only response to Aayla's question was a half-distracted grunt.
"Now... sleeping quarters..." Aayla turned. "I think we passed a couple of branches in the caves that would work for you and Silas, and one for Briarra and myself--" she paused, turning to the entranceway. "Ah, and speaking of Briarra..."
"Su'cuy, Briarrika!" Bly softly called out over his shoulder. "How many holo-'mitters you fetch?"
"Su'cuy..." Briarra greeted back with a soft, albeit sad smile, handing the holo-emitters to Aayla. "I think I got about five or six."
"That'll be enough..." Aayla smiled at Briarra, taking them and looking them over. "... perfect, they're the right make, too. I can program them to fit the exact specs I need." She then paused, looking to her padawan. "... your feelings betray you, Briarra... what's the matter?"
"... They're here, aren't they?" Bly said, but it was not a question. He KNEW. "We hide."
"..." Briarra sighed. "... it's not only that, it's..." she turned her head, eyes closing. "... master Secura... I had a vision..."
"A vision?" Aayla knelt down, looking into Briarra's sad eyes. "... tell me then, little one... what did you see?"
Bly pulled Aayla to her feet and grabbed Briarra's wrist as well. "Talk while we walk. Staying out here in the open will not do us well if the Stormtroopers arrive."
"Briarra... what did you see?" Aayla repeated, as Bly escorted the two Jedi further into the cave.
"... I saw you... and... and... HIM..." she answered, tears beginning to gather in her eyes. "... master... he's... he's going to kill you!!"
"..." Aayla stopped herself, looking to Briarra and her anguished state, then to Bly.
"Fierfek," Bly muttered. "I don't dare try to raise Silas on comm-freqs; the stormtroopers will undoubtedly pick up anything we try to broadcast. If they've followed her here, they'll be announcing themselves shortly... If not..."
"N-no, it's okay..." Briarra said. "... they didn't follow me, I made sure of it... they didn't see me at all... I managed the Force stealth technique okay..."
"... well... that's good..." Aayla said, looking to the holo-emitters. "... I'd better get to work then."
"I'll talk with Briarra then," Bly said, letting the Twi'lek Jedi get on with her work. "Tell me of this 'vision'... where did it take place?"
"... it... was here..." Briarra said, as Aayla left to work on the emitters. "... in the cave..."
"Time for us to leave," Bly said, immediately turning to Aayla and grabbing her arm. "Leave the holo-'mitters, leave anything that isn't essential. We need to leave this place behind us."
"The holo-emitters are important..." Aayla retorted, pulling away. "I knew this would happen, so I'm preparing a plan of action."
"For all we know, Lord Vader could be on the planet already!" Bly protested. "If we aren't here, then her vision can't come true, right? We should leave Geonosis."
"Vader's not here..." Briarra said.
"She's right..." confirmed Aayla. "If he were here, odds are we'd know already. Besides... leaving Geonosis won't guarantee the vision won't come true."
"I don't like this," Bly scowled.
"Neither do I..." Aayla said, before turning to sit down onto a boulder reaching into the bag to begin programming the emitters. "... believe me..." She looked to Briarra. "... go to the right branch of the cave, Briarra... meditate on your victory and this vision. We'll train later."
"... o-okay..." Briarra nodded, doing as Aayla instructed.
"Keep your eyes open," Bly said. "I'm going off to fetch Silas."
"... all right..." Aayla nodded, continuing to work on the emitters. "... we'll get through this ordeal... I know we will, somehow..."
"We've finally cleared the tracking beacons, Lord Vader..." one of the helmsmen of the Star Destroyer notified the Sith Lord, as he surveyed the starscape before him on the bridge.
"Excellent," Vader said. "... set a course now for Geonosis. I can feel through the Force that they're there."
"As you command..." The helmsmen proceeded to set a course to the planet. "Estimated arrival should be within one parsec."
Darth Vader nodded, crossing his arms across his chest as he remained silent, save for the haunting synthetic breathing from his life support.
Aayla sat upon the boulder, having finished programming four out of the six holo-emitters. She had worked without sleep, trying to get the emitters ready before it was too late, though she had stifled a yawn or two throughout the work. Finally taking a break, she set the fourth emitter aside, standing up and stretching out her arms and back, as Silas sat, chewing a ration cube, looking over security holos. The cracked ident-plate from his fallen brother's armor were laid out across the flat of the table. "Maybe they were lucky," he said morosely.
"Who?" Bly asked.
"Kex and Jaing," Silas said. "Booster. Maybe going out in battle is preferable--"
"Stop," Bly shook his head. "Booster we'll honor, but until we know for sure, Kex and Jaing might still be okay."
"... then you should come back for them..." Aayla said softly. "... Vader's on his way... I can feel him." She went back to the emitters and started on the fifth one. "... retrieve Kex and Jaing and then go to Nar Shaddaa..."
"Not yet," Silas whispered. "If they ARE alive, they'd want us to do our duty. They'd never forgive us if we saved their shebs and let you and Briarrika to that hutuunla dar'jetii Vader and our other brothers..."
"...He's right," Bly said with a hesitant sigh. "If they're alive, they'll find their way."
"No..." Aayla said, closing her eyes as her lekku curled around her neck, concentrating. "... you take Briarra with you. I'll fight Vader myself... hold him off, try to survive as best I can..."
"If you die, our sacrifice is meaningless," Bly insisted. "We smuggled you off Felucia because you were good to us... If you have any hope of preserving your Jedi Order... you're no good to them dead. And we can't train Briarrika as Jedi."
"I'm not going to fight Vader to the death, Bly... I know what Briarra felt, but knowing that..." Aayla paused for a moment in programming the fifth emitter. "... I know my game plan facing Vader. I should be all right if I play my cards right... in any case, there's a specific reason I want you to go to Nar Shaddaa."
"What does Nar Shaddaa have to do with this? That's Hutt territory. Fat lot of good it'll do us if some greedy slug decides some traitorous clones and furball Padawan are worth some cred turned over to the Imperial Governor..." Silas spat out.
"My reasons are that Khaleen is there, soldier..." Aayla interjected. "Quin told me she would be there waiting for him while she was waiting for their child to be born." She sighed, lowering her head. "... she deserves to know the truth. That Quin isn't going to be there for her..."
"With respect, Aayla, if we leave for them now, with the Empire hot on our shebs we'll only be putting Khaleen and her baby in danger," Bly said. "Who knows what Palpatine would do with a Jedi baby. We need to shake Vader and the 501st before we run off and try to save the galaxy. We need to make a stand."
"..." Aayla sighed softly. "... I honestly don't want Briarra involved in this, Bly... she's exceptionally gifted in the Force but she's nowhere near Vader's skill... and I don't want either of you killed... especially you, Bly... but I can see what you mean..."
"Silas and I will work on keeping you clear of the 501st, then," Bly said. "It's suicide for us to open fire on him with that lightsaber of his... but we can keep our brothers off your back so you can deal with Vader."
"... I want to help..." Briarra emerged into the cave, a look of determination on her lightly-furred face.
"Briarra, no..." Aayla shook her head. "You're not ready..."
"Neither were the other padawans and younglings..." Briarra retorted. "... Serra... Zett... Bene... Sors... and the others... they never had a chance..."
"You can help us set traps," Bly said, ruffling Briarra's mane, causing her to giggle softly. "That way you can accomplish helping your master AND staying relatively safe."
"I'd feel better with a Jedi by my side when our brothers start firing at us," Silas nodded. "We need your help, Briarrika."
"There we go then..." Aayla smiled. "That'll be your goal. Stay by Silas and Bly's side and help defend them. Before that..." she finished with the fifth emitter and proceeded on the sixth and final one. "... I'll need you to help me place these about the cave before Vader arrives."
"Master Secura..." Briarra approached her, cocking her head cutely. "... you never said exactly why you needed them..."
"I'm sure that will become clear to us in time," Bly said, tugging on Briarra's wrist. "Come along. We have a lot to do, and little time to do it in."
"Okay..." Briarra nodded, before looking back to Aayla. "... Master... you'll be okay, right?"
"Of course I'll be..." Aayla said with a smile. "... I haven't lasted this long to die now."
"... Hopefully those won't be famous last words..." Bly muttered to himself, as he, Silas, and Briarra left the cave to prepare.
"... everyone... this is it..." Aayla announced, as she stood at the entrance of the cave, facing Bly, Silas, and Briarra. "... both Briarra and I can feel Darth Vader's presence approaching, and we know he can feel us. A confrontation is inevitable now... but luckily we've planned ahead for this. Still... there's the good chance that one of us... or maybe all of us, may not survive this. So I want to get this out in the open right here and now..." she smiled warmly at the three friends before her. "... thank you for being there for me..." she walked to Bly, placing a hand on his shoulder. "... thank you, Bly... and you too, Silas... if it weren't for you I wouldn't even be here now. In these dark times, I consider the two of you to be the closest friends I have right now... your insight and your opinions hold great value to me. And I hope that when this is all over, we'll continue on, together."
"We won't let you down, Aayla..." Silas vowed. "We may only be two Clone Troopers but we'll show the 501st what it REALLY means to show undying loyalty." And Bly nodded softly, words escaping him for the moment.
"... Briarra..." Aayla turned to face her Cathar padawan, who leapt up into her master's arms, hugging her tight. Taken aback slightly, Aayla giggled, hugging her back, feeling the child purr cutely deep within her chest.
"... I'm still scared for you, master..." Briarra said softly. "... you could die today..."
"I know, little one..." Aayla replied, scratching behind Briarra's ears. "... if that happens, I'll die with no regrets... I'll be one with the Force. And even in death I'll watch over you..."
"No... that's not good enough..." Briarra pulled away, her expressive emerald eyes gazing into Aayla's brown. "Master... AAYLA. Promise me. Promise me you'll live long enough to see the Empire fall."
"... Briarra, I..."
"PLEASE. I can feel it... can't you?! The Empire can't last forever! And with what Master Kenobi said! When the time comes we'll know! And then we'll be safe! All the Jedi who'll survive up until the end! Please, Aayla! You MUST be one of those Jedi!! PROMISE ME!!!"
"..." Aayla sighed softly, and then hugged Briarra close to her chest. "Ohh, Briarra... you're so hopeful... so good and innocent... all right, I promise..." she released her, lowering her to the ground as she looked into Briarra's eyes. "Somehow, someway, I WILL survive this fight. And I will see Anakin's son lead the charge and defeat Palpatine once and for all."
Briarra smiled, sniffling as she wiped her tears away. "... thank you, master..."
"... Aayla..." Bly spoke up. "... in case one of us doesn't survive this, I want to tell you something... I--"
"I know..." Aayla interrupted, a smile on her face. "Believe me, Bly. I know."
"..." Bly blinked. Then managed a small smile. "... you Jedi... it's hard to keep secrets from you."
Aayla laughed softly, then looked towards the sky, her smile fading as she saw an Imperial shuttle descend from the sky. "... they're here."
"That's a Lambda-class, T-4a shuttle..." Silas observed. "It has a crew of six, 20 passengers standard. We'll be dealing with nineteen 501st soldiers, and Vader himself."
"All right, everyone... places..." Aayla commanded, as Bly and Silas readied their blaster rifles, Briarra gripping her lightsaber as she stood ready behind Bly, and Aayla herself turned around, looking to Bly. "... let Vader pass, no matter what..."
"I hope you know what you're doing, Aayla..." Bly said.
"... believe me... we'll know soon enough, the both of us..." she replied, as she entered the cave.
"Sir, we've touched down on the surface..." Subcommander Aow reported to Darth Vader, turning to face the Sith Lord. "Awaiting your orders."
"Kill everyone..." Vader commanded. "The traitors and the Jedi. Those are my orders."
"Understood..." Bow turned to his brothers. "You heard him, let's do this!"
The nineteen 501st soldiers disembarked from the shuttle, with Darth Vader taking the lead. The Sith Lords focused his control of the Force, glancing to a cave. "... there. That's where they are. I can feel them. Onward."
"Yes sir..." Aow readied his blaster rifle as did the others, but then paused as he noticed Vader's hesitation. "Sir? Is something the matter?"
"..." Vader lowered his head, the eyes behind the mask narrowing. "... be on your guard, Subcommander... something does not feel right."
The 501st continued on cautiously, the desert winds of Geonosis beginning to pick up a bit of speed, adding to the mystery surrounding them. "... I don't have any Force but I'm starting to think there's something wrong too, sir..." Aow remarked. "... this is starting to feel like a--"
Suddenly a V-1 thermal detonator exploded around them, killing two of the Clone Troopers and scattering the others back. "Osik!!" shouted Aow. "It IS an ambush!!"
A hail of blaster fire rained down on the 501st as Silas and Bly opened fire on them, the two Clone Troopers, despite being outnumbered, fighting harder than they had ever fought before. And a third joined the fight, dashing over and under her allies' blaster fire, igniting her lightsaber and leaping at one 501st soldier, impaling him through the chest with her weapon, and bouncing off of him, backflipping to her hands and feet, turning her head to face Darth Vader, a look of scorn in her eyes.
"... Briarra..." Vader recognized, his own crimson lightsaber igniting with a clickhiss. "... I missed you at the Temple, young one."
"You'll pay for all the younglings and padawans you've murdered!" Briarra hissed.
Vader advanced towards the Cathar, but Briarra leapt back, twisting around to behead another 501st, dashing around him with Force-enhanced Cathar speeds to take two more soldiers by the legs, then leaping up as Silas tossed another V-1 thermal detonator into the air, catching the weapon and throwing it with an added Force push, sending it into the breastplate of a soldier just before it exploded.
"Kandosii!!" shouted Aow. "I hate to admit it but they're good... they were planning for this!!"
"..." Vader didn't pay attention as he watched Briarra drop down to the ground, making his way towards her. But the Cathar padawan grinned, standing up to her feet as she extinguished her lightsaber.
"You want me? You're gonna have to come and get me... Ani."
"..." Vader froze, recognizing the abbreviated version of his real name. "... how... how do you..."
"Come and get me and find out!!" Briarra jumped back, and rushed away on all fours into the cave. Inscenced, Vader followed her, ignoring both Bly and Silas as they continued their focused attack on the 501st, doing as Aayla instructed by letting the Sith Lord pass.
Vader looked around inside the dark cave, focusing the Force in searching for Briarra, but the Padawan had seemingly vanished from both sight and Force sense. His synthesized breathing slowed as his fists clenched in anger, realizing he was baited, and turned to leave.
"Don't go yet, Vader... or should I call you 'Anakin?'"
Vader stopped, hearing Aayla's voice echo through the cave. Turning back, he searched the area for the Rutian twi'lek woman. "... so... you know as well..."
"I had a feeling... watching you fight on Kessel, courtesy of a holocron... it was only confirmed recently..."
"Who told you?"
"My little secret..." Aayla dropped down in front of Vader. "... and I know why you turned, Anakin... you did it for her, didn't you? You did it for Padme."
"..." Vader stared daggers at Aayla, his breathing beginning to quicken.
"I don't hate you for following your heart, Anakin..." Aayla continued. "... I almost envy you, actually. You and Quin... you both followed your hearts and damned the Jedi Code and you both fell in love... the only difference is that Quin made all the right choices. You made all the wrong ones."
"You don't know anything about love..." Vader growled.
"Kit Fisto, Anakin..." Aayla retorted with a name. "... Since Kamino I felt a growing attachment towards him but because of the Code I didn't follow up on it. Now he's dead... this pointless war killed him. It killed Padme... aren't you tired of fighting, Anakin?! All it leads to is death and sorrow!!"
"... it does..." Vader agreed, slowly stalking around Aayla, the twi'lek Jedi following his movements.
"I've tasted the Dark Side, too... but I broke free," Aayla said. "I know you, Anakin. You're a good person! You made the wrong choices but you don't have to let them rule your life! All I'm asking is to let me, Briarra, Bly, and Silas go! Let us leave and don't hunt us down... all we want is to be left alone!"
"I cannot do that, Aayla..." Vader replied, igniting his lightsaber. "... the Jedi must die... that includes you... and Briarra... and it includes the traitors as well."
"... so we're really going to fight then... aren't we, Anakin?"
"Anakin Skywalker died on Mustafar, Jedi Secura... I am Darth Vader."
"... so be it..." Aayla said softly, taking a step backwards. Vader advanced towards her, lightsaber ready to thrust forward--
Vader froze suddenly, hearing the familiar voice he thought he would never hear again, turning around to see Padme Amidala standing before him, glowing with a faint blue color, almost ghostly in appearance. "... Padme..."
"I love you, Anakin! It doesn't have to be this way!"
"... Padme... I..." Vader paused, and turned back around towards Aayla, who was gone from his sight. Turning back around, he saw that Padme was gone as well.
"... what is this..." he muttered to himself.
"Maybe it's your conscience finally speaking up..." Aayla replied from the shadows.
"You dare mock me?" Vader seethed.
Vader turned, seeing the ghostly image of Padme once more, and he faltered only for a moment. And then felt the burning pain of a lightsaber slashing into his back, slicing his black cloak from him as he groan in pain. He swung his lightsaber outward, but caught nothing but air. "... is this how a Jedi fights now? Attacking and running from your opponent... it isn't entirely noble..."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures, Vader..." Aayla replied. "... I'm good with a lightsaber... both Quin and Tholme taught me well, but against a student of Obi-Wan? I know I'll be cut down just the same as the other Jedi you've slain... he taught you well."
"... that he did..." Vader muttered, loathing to admit the truth. "... and you... using these tricks... using Padme's image and voice against me... you are only fueling my rage--"
"YOU'RE BREAKING MY HEART!!"
"Stop this!!!" Vader lashed out, slashing into the image of Padme but doing no damage to it, then let out a startled cry as a slash of blue severed his right arm.
"I studied that holocron very intently..." Aayla reflected. "... your limbs... they're all mechanical now, aren't they? So if I take them from you, this will be won."
"..." Vader glared into the darkness ignoring the loss of his arm. "... and then you'll kill me?"
"It's tempting, I'll admit... exacting vengeance for all the Jedi... my friends and allies... that you've helped murdered... but then you wouldn't learn a thing... no, I'd leave you laying in this cave, your 'conscience' speaking to you... it would be a humbling experience for you, Vader... knowing that even with the Dark Side of the Force... your augmentations and your skills as a Jedi... you can STILL be defeated."
"I will cut you into so many pieces... you will regret angering me..." Vader hissed. "And I'll start with those lekku of yours..."
"I love you, Ani..."
"SHUT UP!!!!" Vader slashed at another image of Padme, this time destroying one of the holo-emitters that was attached to the cave wall, and the ghostly appearance of the deceased Naboo senator flickered, static appearing over her figure. "... violating Padme's image like this, Secura... I will take great joy in making you die slowly by my hand for this... I vow to you, your death will be anything BUT merciful."
"Were you always this psychopathic even BEFORE Palpatine subverted you?" Aayla sighed. "... I thought I knew you... we all thought we knew you... sure, you were brash and impulsive... arrogant, but you were one of the best."
"I woke up... the Emperor opened my eyes and showed me the truth."
"Which was just another lie... Palpatine manipulated you. He manipulated ALL OF US."
Vader turned towards the flickering image of Padme. Then swiftly swiveled back around, slashing behind him. Aayla gasped stopping short of the crimson blade and bending backwards, the blade almost searing through her chest as she landed on her back, backflipping away from Vader and landing to her feet.
"I see through your tricks, Jedi..." Vader said, staring down Aayla. "... a sound strategy... I will admit to that... but in the end, futile."
Aayla's brown eyes narrowed, staring back at Vader as she gripped the hilt of her lightsaber, standing straight and assuming her Ataru fighting stance, her weapon raised above her head as she stood ready.
... forgive me, Briarra... she thought. ... I don't think I can keep our promise...
"Briarrika!!" Bly shouted as he and Silas were pinned down by the suppressive fire from the remaining 501st soldiers. "We need more of those soldiers taken down! Go get them!! We'll cover you!!"
"Gotcha!!" Briarra leapt up from her cover, lightsaber ablaze as she deflected as many blaster bolts as she could, ducking and weaving from the others, then rushed forward, pouncing on one Clone Trooper and impaling him in the chest, then bouncing from him, throwing her saber at another, taking his head and directing her weapon into another's abdomen. Force pulling it back into her grasp, she dropped to the ground, letting out a high-pitched, but prominent roar towards the remaining ten 501st.
"Hold your fire..." Subcommander Aow commanded, staring at Briarra. "... I'll give you credit, Padawan. You fight like a Knight.
"I got a great master," Briarra replied with a smile. Then suddenly--
Vader parried a strike from Aayla's lightsaber, and in one masterful thrust, plunged his crimson blade deep into her chest, between the twi'lek's breasts. Aayla gasped out in shock, dropping her weapon and grasping Vader's remaining arm.
"You fought well..." Vader complimented. "Truly worthy of a student of both Quinlan Vos and Tholme... but in the end, you were no match for a student of Obi-Wan Kenobi..." he spoke the name as if it were a curse, glaring at Aayla as he whimpered softly in pain, a look of defiance still set within her brown eyes.
"... one of these d-days..." Aayla gasped. "... your precious Empire w-will fall... I regret... I-I won't be there to see it... physically..."
"You're too optimistic, Aayla..." Vader chided. "... but I can quickly fix that."
And Vader yanked his lightsaber from Aayla's chest, twisting around and slashing across her neck, her head tumbling away from her body in a separate direction.
--Briarra let out a startled gasp, seeing the premonition of Aayla's death once again, feeling it to happen in a matter of moments.
"No... no... no no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!" Eyes wide and brimming with tears she quickly turned tail and dashed into the cave on all fours, passing Bly and Silas in a white and tan blur.
"What the...?!" Aow blinked in surprise. "... this is the break we've been looking for... MOVE IN!!"
"Damn!!" Silas cursed as the 501st renewed their attack. "What's gotten into Briarra?!"
"Think about it!! You saw how spooked she got!" Bly shouted. "It can only mean one thing!"
"... Aayla's in danger!!"
"Fall back, Silas!! If there's a chance we might be able to help Briarrika save her!!"
"But the 501st--!!"
"We'll try to lose them in the caves!! NOW!!"
Bly and Silas fell back into the caves, firing on the Clone Troopers who were firing on them, then quickly turned and entered, the darkness enveloping them.
"Hold your positions!" Aow commanded. "... all right... Spiel, Luc... go back to the shuttle and get the detonation packs, get... let's see..." he turned back towards the cave. "... ten of them. That should be enough to blow the cave."
"What about Lord Vader?" asked another Trooper.
"I'll get him... wait ten minutes. If we haven't returned in time, blow the cave anyway. Vader wants the Jedi dead, so we'll deliver."
Both Spiel and Luc nodded, and headed back to the shuttle as Aow headed into the caves, the remaining seven 501st waited patiently.
"... wayii... meg Jetii Cattani atiniir sa adenn verd."
And the other Clone Troopers nodded in agreement towards their brother's words.
Despite only having one arm, Darth Vader was holding his own quite well against Aayla strikes and thrusts, the two Jedi fighting near a crevice in the cave. Aayla switched between her primary skills in Ataru and her limited knowledge in Djem So to attempt to throw Vader off of his game, but Vader had still managed to avoid her slicing off any more of his limbs, and she began to grow concerned in the back of her mind. He's better than I realized... she dreaded. He knows both Djem So AND Shien... but he's only using his one arm... it's like my taking his other arm had no effect!! Aayla ducked a swipe from Vader's blade, then leapt away, twisting in the air and thrusting her hand outward, Force pushing Vader backwards, almost into the crevice behind him. But Vader had managed to stop himself, staring at the descending Aayla, his synthetic breathing at a fast pace.
... as I feared... Aayla realized. ... I can't win against him...
"I see you know the truth now, Aayla..." Vader said. "I may be less of a man than I was before Mustafar... but I haven't rested. Against the likes of you, I can never relax in my skills with a lightsaber."
"Neither can I..." Aayla retorted.
"You do know... you should never have attempted to fight me..."
"And now it's too late to run."
"I know that too."
"Then prove your bravery, Aayla Secura... end your life in the way of a true Jedi Knight!"
Aayla grit her teeth, and rushed Vader, feinting an Ataru swing, but twisting into a Djem So thrust towards Vader's chest plate, but he parried the strike, and in one masterful thrust--
Aayla was suddenly shoved out of the way by a powerful Force push at the last second. Aayla blinked, and watched as Vader's crimson blade was plunged into Briarra's torso. The Cathar padawan let out a pained gasp, and as Vader pulled the lightsaber from her she collapsed in a heap, unmoving.
"BRIARRA!!!" Aayla rushed to her padawan's side, then looked up to see Vader staring down at the two of them.
"... a noble sacrifice..." Vader said quietly, raising his lightsaber upward. "... but all in vain."
"DAMN YOU!!!" Aayla suddenly lashed out, thrusting her palm outward in a Force push so strong it seemed like getting hit head-on by a rampaging bantha would be less damaging, as Vader's chest plate shattered upon impact, sending the Sith Lord spiraling out of control into the crevice behind him.
Aayla closed her eyes, trying to keep her anger in check, letting out a deep sigh. Then she turned towards Briarra, picking her up into her arms and turning her over onto her back. Much to her relief the lightsaber wound she sustained was only deep into her left shoulder, just narrowly missing a lung.
"Oh, thank the Force..." Aayla whispered. "Briarra? Briarra, wake up!"
Briarra moaned softly, her cat-like eyes fluttering open as she weakly looked up at Aayla. "... m... master...?"
"Briarra... you did it," praised Aayla. "You prevented the premonition. You saved my life."
"... good..." Briarra smiled softly. Then frowned, cocking her head. "... I'm not going to die, am I?"
Aayla chuckled. "No... no, it's a nonfatal wound, Briarra. You're going to live."
"... you're not just saying that, are you?"
"No, I'm not."
"Oh... okay, good... my shoulder still hurts, though..."
"A good turn in a bacta tank will fix that up..." Aayla said, picking Briarra up gently and standing. "Let's get going."
"Aayla!" Bly shouted, as he and Silas rushed to her side. "... Aayla, you're okay... Briarrika, is she..."
"She'll be all right... what about the 501st?" Aayla asked.
"They didn't follow us in..." Silas said. "They must be planning something."
"... master..." Briarra muttered.
Aow exited the cave, turning back towards the entrance, then to his troops.
"Subcommander!" Luc approached him. "What is it, what's wrong?!"
"Lord Vader... he's been defeated!! Blow the cave, now!!"
Luc, Spiel, and the other 501st soldiers seemed shocked at Aow's words, but quickly ran from the cave towards the cover of nearby boulders and cliff faces. Luc then readied the detonator.
"Re'turcye mhi, aruetyc Jetti."
"I feel it too..." Aayla agreed. "Bly, Silas, we must--"
Suddenly the entire cave was rocked by a series of explosions from the outside, and the cave began to crumble, rocks falling from the ceiling as Aayla, Bly, and Silas staggered, the ground rumbling under their feet.
"OSIK!!" cursed Bly. "They've blown the cave!!!"
"We better get out of here!!" Silas shouted.
"There's a back exit a ways away from here!" Aayla exclaimed. "We can get out through--" A rock the size of a medicine ball suddenly struck Aayla in her back, causing her to stagger forward, and Briarra fell from her grasp, the injured Padawan tumbling towards the crevice.
"B-BRIARRA!!!" Aayla pushed herself forward in spite of the pain in her back, lunging forward and seizing Briarra by her left arm. The Cathar yowled in pain as the burning pain in her left shoulder shot through her body, which dangled over the crevice. "Hold on Briarra... I-I got you!!"
"Help her!!" Bly grabbed a hold of Aayla, as did Silas. But both were also pelted mercilessly by the rain of rubble. "Ah--!! Dammit!! Help her up, quickly!!"
"Hold on, Briarra-- OW!!" Aayla winced as another rock struck her shoulder. "We... we almost got you!!"
Briarra stared up at her three would-be-rescuers, seeing them suffer from the barrage. She smiled sadly, looking to Aayla especially.
"... Aayla..." she said softly. "... I'll catch up."
Briarra extended her claws, and swiped at Aayla's arm quickly. The Twi'lek Jedi instinctively, involuntarily, let go and stared in horror as Briarra fell, plummeting into the depths of the crevice below.
"BRIARRA!!!!" Aayla screamed. "NO!!"
"... Aayla, we can't do anything now, we have to go!!" Bly shouted.
"NO!! I CAN STILL SAVE HER!!"
"It's too late!!" Bly retorted, as he and Silas pulled her to her feet. "You heard her! She'll find a way to us! But she won't if we're all dead!!"
"We have to go now!!!" Silas yelled.
"..." Aayla stared at Bly and Silas. Then shut her eyes, holding back her tears as the stones and boulders continued falling. "... let's go then..."
Aayla limped away from the crevice, Bly and Silas following, as they strove to reach the exit before the cave fell.
But everything went black nonetheless.
"Keep searching!!" Aow shouted, as he and the remainder of the 501st soldiers sifted through the rubble. "Lord Vader has to be around here somewhere..."
"Yes sir!" Spiel shouted, lifting some of the rubble away as best he could. "... osik... what a mess..."
Soon, the rubble started moving on its own... a mechno hand, shorn of it's synth-leather gauntlet, burst from the rock and sand, clawing at the air. Soon, the tattered figure of Darth Vader launched himself free of the rubble, the synthetic breathing indicating while his chestplate was destroyed, his life support was still operational.
"Lord Vader," an arriving squad of troopers assist him. "The Emperor has informed us of your victory..."
Aow blinked, surprised upon seeing Vader alive. Nonetheless approached him. "Lord Vader... somehow I knew you'd survive..."
"Lord Vader's victory was never in question," came a voice from behind them. "Troopers. Leave us." Darth Sidious singled out Aow, Luc, and Spiel. "Save for you three. Remain, I would have an account of the situation."
"Emperor..." Aow blinked, quickly bowing to one knee before Palpatine, as did Luc and Spiel. The other 501st soldiers did as was told, returning to the shuttle.
"Tell me, Subcommander," the Emperor said softly, "of the battle between Vader and the Jedi traitor..."
"Sir..." Aow looked up at Sidious. "... I only saw the closing moments. Lord Vader was about to strike the Twi'lek down, but the Cathar padawan took the attack instead... she then shoved him... a powerful show of the Force... knocked him into the crevice. I followed Vader's commands afterwards... I had Luc and Spiel place detonation charges earlier, and I had them blow up the cave. The Jedi and our traitorous brothers couldn't have possibly survived, my Emperor."
"Indeed they have not survived," the Emperor said. "I feel their absence in the Force. Subcommander Aow, you will tell no one of this account. Swear it."
"..." Aow nodded. "Yes, my Emperor. I understand. The Jedi, her Padawan, and the two Clone Troopers are dead. That's more than enough."
"Mission accomplished, then..." Spiel remarked.
"Not quite," the Emperor said, and raised his hands toward them.
The world of Subcommander Aow, Luc, and Spiel became blue fire. In convulsing heaps of Force lightning, they were all dead before their bodies hit the sand.
"You looked surprised, my young apprentice," Darth Sidious remarked, looking upon the shattered mask.
"... I... can understand Aow..." Vader said, his voice modulator damaged, fluctuating from the synthesized baritone voice and his normal damaged voice. "... but... Luc and Spiel... weren't present at the time..."
"He told them you were defeated," Sidious hissed. "You must never tolerate weakness or incompetence, Lord Vader. We are Sith. We do not fail. Aow's account could well tarnish your reputation. Injured though you were, I have full confidence you could have put Secura to your lightsaber, were it not for their interference."
"... of course..." Vader glanced at the stump where his missing arm once were. "... it would be wise to invest in something more... protective against lightsabers next time... Secura's strategy was sound, Emperor..."
"I am becoming disturbed at this trend, Lord Vader," Sidious scolded. "You do, of course, have full resources at your disposal to make upgrades... but your saber technique should take higher priority. And... this will be the LAST unauthorized Jedi hunt, Lord Vader. I've told you before, those that remain are inconsequential. You will forget them, until I tell you differently. We are Sith. Our concerns are with greater things than the Jedi. They are no more."
"... my apologies, master..." Vader said, nodding to him. "... I will have much to reflect on during my recuperation in any case..." He walked past Sidious, but stopped just behind him, his head bowed. "... using HER image against me... was unforgivable. It's good that Aayla Secura is dead, master... I would have taken great joy in torturing her..."
"That energy will be put to better use in the days and months ahead, Lord Vader," Sidious said. "Certain citizens still refuse Imperial security and safety. We have remnants of the Separatists that must be... persuaded..."
"Yes, my master..." Vader agreed, as the two Sith Lords made their way towards the shuttle. "It shall be so."
Six standard months later. Tatooine.
"I'm sorry to say Kex and Jaing were indeed killed by the 501st," the hooded man told her. "I haven't heard from Briarra, however... there have been rumors of a Cathar girl on board with... merchants. Smuggling medical supplies to worlds that the Empire summarily ignores."
"I see..." Aayla nodded softly, as she sat in a cantina with the hooded man. "... I need to find a stationary place to stay so that she can finally reach me." She sipped her water as she looked back, reflective. "... Bly, Silas and I have plans to head to Nar Shaddaa, once things die down... I need to tell Khaleen about Quin." she lowered her head sadly. "... she deserves to know... but... the last thing I want to do is to put her and her child in danger..."
"I shouldn't be telling you this," Obi-Wan Kenobi pulled his hood back and looked into Aayla's eyes. "Quinlan Vos lives. His light is flickering, weak... but it still shines faintly."
"..." Aayla blinked. "He's... he's alive..." she let out a deep sigh of relief unable to suppress the smile on her face. "... thank the Force... but... how? I mean... I swore I felt him die when the Order was given..."
"You must tell no one what I am about to reveal," Obi-Wan sighed. "Not even Bly or Silas. This MUST remain in our confidence."
"Understood..." Aayla nodded. "... the imbalance of the Force must have broken our link. He must think I'm dead, too... I guess it will have to remain that way for now, then... Quin will find his way back to Khaleen, I know he will... I'll let the two of them live in peace with their child."
"Quinlan has made his peace with your memory," Obi-Wan said. "Be at peace with his. The Force will guide him and his family on their path. Yours lies along a different path. Wait for Briarra to find you... and disappear."
"I will... I'll find the exact ship she's on and I'll wait for her there. She's especially acute to the Force and once she senses me she's sure to home in on me immediately... thank you... Ben, is it now?"
"Ben it is," he agreed. "You'd do well to find alias for yourself... I'm sure Briarra already has hers."
Aayla nodded, finishing her water and standing up. "I'll think of something... oh... there IS one more thing, if you don't mind my asking... how do you know about Quin and Khaleen, I mean... only myself... Tholme and T'ra Saa knew..."
Obi-Wan smiled. "First I must tell you of Qui-Gon... and lessons that you and your Padawan can take with you..."
Palisade, the planet Kabal
"Are you Ariel Caalb?"
The young Cathar, dressed in a dingy white tank top, black leather pants, and sandals, a DC-15S blaster at her side, looked up, ears twitching from her blonde mane as she heard her name called by a nurse; she had been waiting in a medical facility with a bag full of supplies, and she stood up to face the cute human nurse, smiling. "That's me. I have the medical supplies you need."
"That's wonderful! Thank you..." the nurse smiled back, taking the back from Ariel. "A lot of patients will be very grateful to you for this."
"You're welcome," Ariel replied, turning on a heel to walk away.
"Wait!" the nurse called out. "... aren't you going to receive your payment?"
"..." Ariel paused. Then turned back around, scratching the back of her head as she blushed, her ears reddening. "OH... right, payment, of course... ha ha ha, silly me... what was it we agreed on?"
"25 thousand credits."
"Right... right, of course... sorry, must've slipped my mind..." Ariel reached out, accepting the credits. ... though if it were up to me... I'd do this for free, she added in thought.
"You're such a sweet child..." the nurse smiled at Ariel. "Well, I'd better get these supplies stored now... again, thank you!"
Ariel bowed to the nurse, taking her leave, exiting the hospital. She looked around for a moment, then gazed up at the sky, brushing back her hair as she smiled hopefully.
... like I said... I'll catch up, she thought to herself. Remember our promise, Aayla... stay alive. We'll find each other again in time, it's inevitable...
Ariel... Briarra... closed her eyes, feeling the ocean breeze upon her fur. Then grinned as she headed back towards the spaceport, towards the ship that found her on Geonosis, towards the small band of smugglers who she entrusted her life to, hoping that the next planet they go to will be the one where she would be finally be reunited with her master, the cerulean beacon of light that not once, but twice, refused to be snuffed out so prematurely.
Briarra knew that even these Dark Times, there was one constant.
You cannot have hopelessness without a thread of hope.
And Briarra, as optimistic as she was, had all the hope in the entire galaxy.