Former stormtroopers all, the Marauder legion considered themselves now bound to no man and swore no oath but to one another. After decades of Imperial directives, they now found themselves free. And poor. They had surplus weapons and Imperial equipment, though. And a lifetime of training in the art of killing. Here at the far end of the galaxy, their skills were for hire. Now they were taking time to sharpen them.
Their speeder bikes cut slices in the air over the dimly visible trails. This was the region of Voss of what were once known as the Nightmare Lands. In ancient times, this was an area rich in the lore of the Mystics and the stories of the wars with the competing races of Voss. Superstition kept these lands free of native eyes. This made them the perfect training and staging ground for the Marauders.
Three speeder mounts, each with two riders, whined as their repulsorlifts bullied aside gravity and shot them forward like bowcast bolts. The pilots leaned hard to their left sides as they pushed into the turn of a wide parabola against each target location. Behind each rider, a single gunner sat back, aiming at the targets along this wide arc. They rained plasma bolts on a stationary bulls-eye in the center of the arc, which the targets laid out much as huts would be laid out in a typical Vossik village.
They made several laps this way around the target area without bothering to count. After several minutes, and the targets mostly burned down, a single figure at the edge of the target range waved them down with a red Imperial flag. The speeder pilots straightened up their course and came in. The bikes whined down now, shuddering as gravity once again brought them to a stop, steaming from the friction of the air they had cut through on the run. Intan, former sergeant, held the flag, and stood to greet them.
The bikes were Imperial issue, but they had been customized by the Marauders to fit their new, independent status. Pinstriping in varying greens and reds had been added to the sides. One of the bikes was decorated with an Ewok skull at the forefront of the frame. The Marauders were from the regiment long forgotten by a flailing Empire on the far side of an Endor moon. Left to fend for themselves, they had spent the last years of the war cut off from Imperial directives, and it was only too late that they were informed of the final fall. By then, they had managed to fend for themselves enough to prepare for their privatized endeavours.
Intan lifted his helmet. His braided beard twisted in the breeze. His face was frozen in a scowl, pepped as it was by the scars that wrote the story of his life as an experienced, professional killer. He grinned, terrifyingly. He walked up and punched the arm of the pilot of the lead speeder, nearly knocking him off his mount.
The rider was dressed in scout armor, but it was blasted and burned in places, and seams had been visibly patched up with salvaged durasilk. The armor, like the speeders, had been decorated with green and red pinstriping as well. The rider removed his helmet, revealing dark complexion, and shaking out a large mop of sandy brown hair. His eyes narrowed as he formed his face into fury. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
“Varak,” Intan shouted, “your team hit them all! Ride and shoot like that, and we’ll be richer than Hutts.”
Behind Varak, his gunner passenger was dressed in a repurposed engineer’s trousers and an Imperial flight jacket and helmet with most of the breathing apparatus missing. The rider removed her helmet, uncoiling a pair of green tentacles. The Twi’lek female grinned and lifted her blasters upward as she dismounted. She holstered one, racking the slide on the other to release the smoking plasma coil she’d used up, then re-holstered and repeated this with the other blaster. She smiled, crookedly. She was an excellent shot and knew it.
“The rest of you did fine as well!” Intan walked down and shouted to the other bikes. “You’ve learned well from this pair.”
Varak and Varo were the best team in the Marauders. Varak had been the lead biker scout for years in the dead-end station of the far side of Endor’s moon, where they had little to do but conduct retaliatory raids on the Ewoks who had a tendency to string rope across the path of the speeders.
Varo had been a ship’s mate when she was captured by pirates who intended to sell her off to military units long bereft of female companionship. When the ship touched ground, Varo made use of a hidden plasma torch to ignite the entrails of her captors, delighting in the surprised final looks on their faces. She greeted the curious stormtroopers at the Endor base who opened the cargo bay. They were expecting it to be merely a mundane merchant with goods and slaves to sell, and they instead found her standing before a pile of the slavers’ heads. She asked if they wouldn’t be troubled by giving her and her fellow slaves sanctuary. At that point, long cut-off from the Empire, which had already incubated their sense of anarchy, the stormtroopers of the base saw these resourceful, would-be slaves as far more valuable as companions to their group than chattel.
Varo chose Varak as a lover, in the Twi’lek way of the female choosing, and the two had been an inseparable team ever since. Seven other females of differing races were part of the crew, as well as three males. They had integrated with the Marauders now, and together they formed a crew that was also a small clan. The former slaver’s merchant vessel made handy inconspicuous transportation for this strike team of twenty and their speeder bikes. The rest of the former slaves were left with the Marauder’s home base, carved out at Endor, and Varo was so far the only non-trooper who was fully integrated for this merc mission. She had a knack for killing that the stormtroopers admired. Which in turn earned Varak their respect and everlasting envy for sharing Varo’s bed.
The fall of the Empire meant that the old order was in chaos. Without Imperial patrols, while the independent worlds were dizzyingly prattling on about forming up a new republic, there were plenty of lucrative mercenary contracts for scores that needed settling. They had happened upon this most recent opportunity after discreet contact by a Mandalorian looking just for their kind of skills. A Rebel pilot who fancied himself a new Jedi was digging through some ruins where Darth Vader had reputedly hid treasure. This was a potential score of a lifetime, and Intan wasn’t taking the job lightly.
They gathered around, now, checking their weapons, wiping the dust from goggles and dented armor. Intan had pulled out a barrel of ale procured from the sellers at the Vossik settlement. He touched a Correllian gang tattoo on his face for luck. There would be time enough to repair their coils and tighten the repulsors. Now, they gathered to toast the memory of fallen comrades and a dead emperor. And most importantly, the promise of wealth to come.
::: | ::: | :::
Jafan personally thought stormtrooper helmets looked slightly ridiculous with the plasma lights fashioned to their sides, but they did the trick. The Centopt of the garrison nonetheless kept his opinions to himself as he led his men into the darkness below the Keep. The reflective orange chevron of rank on his shoulder was conspicuously visible with the slightest reflection in that darkness that swaddled even the polished finish of their armor.
Likely, Vader himself had come down here. He had taken this castle as a gift from Palpatine, but it was more than mere coincidence. He chose to spend time here during the Empire’s height, and he resided in the passages above in the old Keep. If he was meditating on the Force, or guarding treasures, then he had taken his secrets into the Force. But the ancient Voss Mystics had felt the Force strongly with this place. They had mixed Light and Dark with reckless consequences, and had once considered this place sacred. The unusual crystalline structure of the castle itself lent evidence that they had sought to channel those powers. To what end that was, even the current Mystics no longer knew.
Vader’s son, the would-be Jedi, was in the front of Jafan’s troops, walking with his hands out to feel into the darkness. He held his gloved right hand on his Jedi weapon, but kept the blade still sheathed, as he held a plasma torch in his left. A blue and white astromech droid bumped next to him, keeping only minimum lights on as it rolled. Jafan and the garrison held their weapons downward and at the ready as their helmets lit their path.
At the very front was Jafan’s wife, the Voss Mystic, Tylo-Ko. She wore the ceremonial robes of her order, holding out her arms to sense the waskaja as she made her way through the corridor. She was in the very forefront of the light from the troopers, drifting in and out of Jafan’s vision. He was terrified seeing her disappear into the darkness again and again. But he also knew her Mystic path was one that was particular to the arts of the Voss. He knew she could, in these trances, somehow see through darkness in a way he found difficult even with a properly fitting HUD. Certainly, as he had meditated on the Force himself, there was a great deal of existence in play beyond the world he could see.
For now, he was determined that if it made itself known here in this world, he would be ready.
The stony passages gave way from the shiny basalt crystals to the far less polished bedrock as they descended into the foundation of the castle. They were leaving the very bottom levels which lay under ancient service passages, past what may have been cellars or dungeons, heading into a tunnel cut into the mountain itself. It was clearly not well traveled. No plasma torches lit the wall, and the moisture down here seemed to condense and drip slowly, as no gutters had been cut. Only the tiniest, crawling creatures made their presence known, with spiders having spun their circular webs in the corners, occasionally snaring their insectoid meals. Besides the footsteps, the steady grind of the Astromech rolling, and the breathing each stormtrooper heard in his own helmet, the only other constant noise was a distant scurry of what must have been womp rats.
The troop had grown restless over the last week as they awaited orders for this expedition. The fact that the garrison had been so diminished had reduced their ability to effectively keep up much of the usual military discipline. Womp rats had been appearing in the barracks much to Jafan’s dismay. The troops, however, found that Skywalker’s Trandoshan servant was adept at hunting and eating the rats, and they were soon clearing space in the barracks to create a small arena in which they dropped some of the rats for him to pursue as sport. They gathered around hooping and hollering, betting on which rats Drrsala would catch and devour first.
Jafan was of two minds for such things. For one, anything that brings together troops in entertainment that doesn’t end with them fighting one another usually was a net positive. Then again, he also worried what this kind of bloodlust might portend. They had been idle for some time on Voss, guarding a Dark Lord as an almost ceremonial gesture. Surely now, with bounty hunters and galactic disruption making appearances at the borders of their otherwise tranquil garrison, their well-rehearsed skills in killing might yet come in handy. Stirring bloodlust was a reminder of their skills.
Behind Jafan was newly-promoted Corporal Vancil, with the comm gear on his back, joined to his cyber implants. Behind him was Heff, the lanky, studious Chiss Corporal. Rikka and Balia, rough and ready, were directly behind, carrying long-range rifles on their backs as well as their standard blasters. Reliable Desek, monosyllabic and monolithic in his density, guarded their rear with a heavy gun.
When Jafan gave the briefing to the troop that morning and asked if there were any questions, Heff spoke up.
“Centopt, are we expecting to find resistance down there? Some living entity?”
Jafan had ground his teeth. He himself wasn’t sure. It made no sense that anything was in the darkness down there that could pose a threat. But if there were, Vader left no warning behind.
“We don’t expect anything down there. But we don’t prepare only for what we expect. Keep the comms low unless you see anything, or something comes up on the scopes. There could well be passages down there. That could mean that there are traps waiting to be sprung. Or dormant droid guardians.” He had to assume that there was nothing that was able to get past the deflector shield. But he didn’t rule out secret passages, or that Vader somehow had resident guardians down there all along. Anything else Jafan could think of didn’t belong to be considered by a rational trooper trained in the science of war.
The material around them now had changed. The rocks had converged together, and it appeared that they had come to a wall. Lights from the helmets darted up and down the the old rocks as the troop searched for where the seams were in this boundary. The rocks were more solid, and looked more worn than the passages thus far. The ground itself was also flat. They had found the base of the castle itself, and what itself had been the flat summit of the mountain, once likely a Mystic sacred place, long before the Keep was even built.
The lights across the stones now converged at a gap in the wall. This was an opening that may have been an original gate from before the castle itself was erected around it. This was the boundary to the sacred Mystics’ space.
Tylo stood at the gate. She turned and slowly lowered her hood, revealing her skin’s colorful patterns. She beckoned to the Jedi and her husband the stormtrooper commander. As they approached, she spoke softly.
“We are deep in the castle now. This is the entrance to a very old chamber of Mystics. I can sense that much. Beyond that wall’s gate the Mystics have left a boundary strong with the Force.”
Her look was serious. “Do not draw or brandish your weapons. What is beyond there will only be what we bring with us.”
Jafan saw that Skywalker’s nostrils flared with recognition of those words. That troubled him. He was out of his league in the Mystics’ and Jedis’ worlds. He didn’t know at all what to expect here.
As they returned to their respective positions in the line, Jafan found his nerves growing slightly on edge. If he were sensing danger in the Force, he preferred not to dwell on it. His untrained instincts might yet betray him. He had long learned to rely on cool reserve and a well aimed blaster as better assurance than old religions. Despite his respect for the Jedi, he knew that this hadn’t changed in him.
Tylo walked through the gate with her arms up, disappearing into blackness. Searching dots of light from stormtrooper helmets followed Skywalker, the droid, and Jafan as the troop entered one-by-one. The ground beneath them now was much different than the passageway. It was a soft, very fine dust. It was the bare ground that had been brushed and flattened eons ago. Perhaps also it was also covered in ashes from bonfires. Or maybe even pyres. Dust swirled in the searching dots of light from their procession.
Their lights now were now the sole illumination without anything solid nearby to reflect them. The darkness was otherwise complete this far down in the Keep.
Luke paused. He held up an arm to order a halt. Jafan repeated the signal which was repeated down the line by the rest of the troop. The astromech made a quizzical chirp, spinning its dome. In the darkness, Skywalker put his left hand against the small droid to calm and quiet it.
Then Jafan heard. Almost indiscernible at first. It seemed like it might be wind whistling from a passage. But it came much clearer to him as he drew himself into the Force. In his steady, calming repose, his senses warmed. It was a child’s voice they heard. Faintly. Echoing slightly. It was softly sobbing.
Under his armor, no one could tell Jafan’s hair follicles were rising as his skin tightened. His pores opened with a cold sweat. His overskin suit was now compensating, changing the ambient temperature against his skin, eating his clammy perspiration in a mechanical attempt to steady his body’s stress. His vat-grown heart pumped heroically, as it was itself only a third of the age of the rest of his body.
The rest of the searchlights passed over the walls as the troops now must have heard the voice and were looking through every angle for where the sound was coming from. Jafan kept his light on Tylo, far in the lead. She was spreading her arms and turning, like an antennae dish adjusting to find a signal. He wondered if she felt the panic that he had at the child’s voice. As a parent, he wondered if this weren’t digging in to him especially hard.
Skywalker whispered into the comm-link.
“The Force is strong here. And the Dark Side is especially so.”
“Commander,” Jafan hoarsely whispered, “you hear the child?”
“I do, Centopt. But I don’t think that is coming from a real child. It’s through the Force.”
“Can the rest of the troop hear it as well, Master?”
Luke whispered again to his wrist. “The Force doesn’t just touch the adept, Jafan. It touches every living thing. Some are just more sensitive to that touch.”
Vancil spoke up on the comm-link. “We can hear it, Sirs. But the sound is not registering on the microphones or HUDs. It’s as though it’s a sound we’re all imagining at once.”
The lights converged on one of the corners of the curved wall barrier. There was nothing visibly there. Yet the sound seemed to be echoing from that location. Jafan motioned the troop to follow him as he approached the source. They moved slowly and smoothly, not wanting to make more noise than necessary. This was more instinct than strategy, as they had no sense of whether their noise made any difference at all to objects in the Force. Skywalker walked cautiously alongside them. The astromech remained still, but bleeping a protest. Tylo stood in her place, still turning, communing with the Force remnants of the Mystics. With the lights off her, she fell back into complete darkness. Jafan worried about leaving her out of his sight, but he ground his teeth hard and told himself to trust her abilities as a Mystic.
As they scanned the wall, a figure began to materialize into view. Small and hairless, it seemed to be a human boy dressed in rags. He sat with his head down. The troopers halted in their steps. Not a word was said as they all were speechless.
Jafan cleared his throat. He found his mouth was almost too dry to open. “Boy,” he said, “who are you? What is your name?”
The ghostly boy looked up. He wiped his tears. “My name is Dessel. I’m hiding.”
“Hiding from who? Who are you afraid of?”
“My father. He beat me for spilling the amphora. I hate him!”
The stormtroopers were still for a moment. Unsure what to do. There was tension apparent in each of them as they held their weapons, with fingers off the triggers, pointing toward the ground, even as all their instincts told them to be on guard.
Centopt Jafan whispered into the comm-link. “Easy, troopers. No sudden moves. Do not point your weapons at anyone.”
The blue astromech droid had been silently rolling backward in the darkness. It stopped, bumping into something on the ground. Instantly, bright panels of plasmo-fluorescent lights mounted on poles burst to life, flooding the entire ring with a blueish, blindingly bright light.
Instinctively the stormtroopers whirled around and held their weapons aloft in defensive positions.
Jafan screamed. “NO!”
Even as he had his own weapon holstered, he held up his hand to warn the stormtroopers off. Checking his perimeter, he turned his head and could no longer see the boy. If he was ever there.
They could see now that inside the wall they were in a circular ring, maybe no more than 40 meters in diameter. There were seven stone plinths, each larger than a man, spread out among the ring. They seemed to be marked with petroglyphs. Tylo stood in the middle of the ring, blinking in the sudden light. The plasmo-fluorescents had been placed around the ring much more recently than this place had been built. Perhaps by Vader himself for his own purposes.
Jafan could see that the Jedi’s face was strained. He held on to his lightsaber, but he still had not ignited the weapon. He shouted now, even though the room was nearly silent, with only the slightest hint of moving air and the distant hum of the lights.
“It’s alright! The lights… they must have been placed here! Artoo bumped into a floor line that must have triggered their switches. They’re… they’re just mechanical.”
On that, the humming ceased and the lights were suddenly cut off. Once again, the troopers found themselves huddling in darkness. Even worse, now that their corneas had widened in the light, the darkness was even more oppressive to their senses. Inside their helmets, the soft lights of their HUDs began to glow again, changing to the holo-real view, making them once again feel isolated inside their shells. The silence in the room now seemed to only amplify the booming of the pulsing blood Jafan could hear in his head.
The astromech turned and made sounds like a nervous song. Footsteps were heard in the darkness. Tylo stood tall and put her hands together in a trance. Skywalker stood at the fore of the troopers and steadied himself. He held his weapon, but still did not draw the plasma blade. The footsteps were heard in a steady cadence crunching the dirt as something seemed to walk towards them.
They heard the sound of a mechanical rebreather. A figure cloaked nearly entirely in black came forward from the darkness, impossible to clearly distinguish in the lack of light. But there was movement. And reflections gleaming from the angles and curves from contoured armor.
Darth Vader emerged. The gait and the height was unmistakable. He continued to move forward to the group. Still breathing, he extended an arm and ignited a red light saber.
The troopers still held their weapons. But were otherwise paralyzed. Half in fear, half in sheer disbelief. Each found it was impossible to breathe. Vancil and Desek both collapsed to their knees in shock. Jafan’s mind exploded: was Vader choking them? No. It was his own shock — their own shock — that had seized their bodies and halted their breath.
Skywalker still stood in front, still facing Vader. He had yet to move. His right, gloved hand still held the saber. Skywalker’s blade was still not ignited. His hand was shaking slightly though. The young Jedi stood still, seeming to fight any fear inside himself, facing down the vision before him.
Impossibly, Jafan watched as Skywalker carefully holstered his weapon. He held up his open hands in surrender. He bowed to one knee. Jafan found himself more fully shaking now. He looked to Tylo. She remained unmoving: still in a trance to the side, with her hands together and her eyes shut.
Vader stopped before Luke. He raised his lightsaber, the hum cutting through the air. Almost ceremoniously, he sheathed the blade and replaced it in his own belt hilt. Looking downward, his hands reached up and clutched at his helmet. Without a sound, now, the helmet was unlatched and removed, and Vader placed it on the ground.
His face was not the face of the old man. It was young, with a full head of brownish hair not unlike Luke’s himself. Skywalker remained on his knees, peering at the ghostly image of what was his father.
Vader’s face was human. But pale. Even as the eyes were open, they were opaque. Jafan could clearly see it now: this was an illusion. His tempered practical senses told him it was a hologram. But his inner eye told him it was something else entirely. Something that was slipping in from another world.
Vader knelt toward his son. He stopped there. He leaned in as though speaking to the kneeling Luke. Slowly, he stood up and turned his back. The helmetless Vader walked back into the darkness, his weapon still sheathed, still leaving his helmet on the ground.
The lights returned suddenly, and once again Jafan was blinded. In the brightness of the light, once he had blinked several times and his eyes adjusted, there was no trace of Vader or his helmet. Luke rose up, looking pale. He exhaled with a great relief, shaking slightly. The troop relaxed and returned to their feet, their breathing slowly returning to normal, although each of them felt their nerves practically vibrating. Jafan was at a loss as he looked around. His mind was battered with what he had seen. But his discipline and training snapped together. He shouted to the troop.
“Holo-recorders! Those plinths which are in this room need to be recorded! Get a 360 of them.”
The troops were relieved to be given the mundanity of orders to follow. They each were still trembling, even if only slightly, and known only to themselves, hidden by their armor. The Astromech rolled into position. Vancil handed out the holo-recorders, and the troopers followed the blue droid’s lead, each taking an individual perspective shot. Each recorder was set to a different spectrum which would be processed once they were back at the base.
Jafan walked to Tylo. She stopped her trance and inhaled. She exhaled after a moment, opening her eyes, looking less like the serene Mystic in that moment, but truly like a self-conscious creature overwhelmed by her surroundings. Jafan put a gloved hand to her face. He saw the contours there, and the combinations of red and blue patterns, that had captivated him with their beauty. She did not quite smile, keeping her composure as a Mystic, but she put a hand against his gauntlet and held it to her face. Her eyes met the unchanging stormtrooper visage of her helmeted husband, and she gave a knowing look as her mouth was still agape, as she was breathing heavily, overwhelmed with the rush of events happening around them. Jafan gave the slightest nod in affection as he held his hand against her cheek. The moment they shared was minimal, but well rehearsed from years of their acquaintance.
He turned then, focusing back on his command. It took not even a minute for the astromech and the troopers to circle the plinths, recording as they went. The Centopt turned toward Commander Skywalker, who still stood shocked, surveying the pit and the surroundings, a vein throbbing in his throat as he seemingly contemplated the events.
“Master…” Jafan addressed him now not as a commander, but came to Luke as a Force adept learning the ways. “… was it the Force? Was it truly Vader?”
Luke nodded and spoke hoarsely. “It was a piece of Vader. And of Anakin. But he was pushing through something very dark to reach me. This place is strong with the Dark Side. Our lives and our presence in the Force is drawing it out. That’s what he told me. As a warning. I now understand what he was doing here.”
Luke seemed to Jafan as if he was now just waking up. “When the troops are done, we should move on. We’ve seen enough here.”
Jafan whistled to the troop and spun a finger in a circle to signal them to rally. They attached the recorders to their belts and clanked forward. Swiftly, they took up their squad positions in defense as Tylo and Skywalker went up ahead. They disembarked, walking backwards. One back in the dark corridor, their helmet lights fired up once more, pushing against the darkness. Behind them, the lights in the ring detected that they were no longer needed and shut off automatically. Or so they assumed.
They now were then back to being blanketed by a darkness only intermittently punctuated by their helmet lights. The sound in Jafan’s helmet was now once again his own breathing and pulsing heart, and the crunching of their feet on the dirt, soon giving way to the scraping sound as they reached the stones of the passage.
Softly, like it was itself no more than wind, a voice was audible in the distance. To Jafan, it was the softest sound he could imagine, coming almost jarringly directly through the Force and just touching the back of his mind. It was a laughter, much like the phantom child’s crying, but turned deeper and adult. It was disturbingly joyless laughter. Then it spoke as a voice no more than a whisper.
“We will meet again, Skywalker.”
Jafan was lightheaded. His body was feeling the strain of the periodic bouts of terror that had pumped adrenaline through his system. He pushed out the animalistic fight-or-flight instincts that clouded his mind and focused on the task at hand by centering himself with the Force; he thought only of leading his troops, and escorting Tylo and the Jedi to safety. Back into the the haven of the surface and the garrison. Back into the light.
::: | ::: | :::
In the canteen of the Imperial barracks, Tylo leaned her head against the plasteel wall. The utilitarian structure supported her back without much comfort. The bench itself at least was more yielding and sank slightly under her exhausted body.
The pre-fabricated structure was made from interlocked fibrous panels: smooth, curved, and bone-white, simply assembled from prefabricated kits per the needs of the Imperial posts. The interior of the structure was lit by fluoroluminous panels in the ceiling, with pipes connecting power and airflow throughout the structure. How efficient; how like the Empire, she thought. Even here, in the wilds of Voss, far from central control, in a landscape mostly unbroken from its natural state, the organized, symmetrical and antiseptic lines of Imperial order had been imposed.
She had spent much of this day in a ritualistic trance as they descended into the lower part of Vader’s Keep, focusing on what her order of Mystics called in their language the waskaja; the “unknowable true” in direct translation, and what the galaxy had long called “The Force.” She had felt the utter darkness that lingered there under the Keep. A feeling being near to the darkness tickled her nerves in an unsettling way like being devoured by a thousand shivering shadows disappearing into her flesh. In the time of the tyrants and the fights against the ancient Gormak, the otherwise benevolent Mystics would draw wrath and fury from there as they saw fit. They had learned the deliverance of destruction on loan from the Dark Side, and they soon also learned its price with their own corruption and demise. The Mystic orders had ever since been fanatical about searching for balance.
As the Jedi had found out during their own time, the dark path had a tendency to dominate the destiny of those who thought they could pull only delicate sips from its power.
The Mystics had long known of the darkness in the castle, long before Vader took it as his own. She had moved back to Voss after her travels through the galaxy because others had asked her to return here and finish her Mystic training. Because they also wanted to know: what would the Dark Lord of the Sith be interested in with the castle on a backwater mountain here on their tiny world? Trained as she was as a Mystic in the Voss tradition, she had technically not fallen under the rules against studying The Force in the Empire. The Mystics in the hills here were simply too insignificant to the rest of the galaxy for Palpatine’s inquisitors to bother. But she had made a promise to others that would she would do her part and watch what Vader was doing.
But that was a long time ago. She had seen the galaxy on her own, from the Correllian shipyards, to the pleasant Alderaan highlands that were, and swimming in the tides of the oceans of Dac in the Calamari system. She remembered visiting the moons of Yavin and the city of Jedah as well. This small world and tiny outpost in Voss, far even from the city of Voss-Ka, was just a dot on the far edge of the galaxy. The weight of the darkness she’d seen this day made her feel more vulnerable than she ever had before, and brought home the burden she had once sworn to bear.
The door slid open and Jafan appeared. He was out of his armor and wearing the loose, gray Imperial fatigues he favored off duty. He was by himself, no longer keeping his martial bearing in front of the men. He came over with the wry smile in his otherwise lumpy head that always endeared him to her, in the way she thought of as a brutal handsomeness. She stood up and embraced him, letting herself relax and be held by his arms. He held her for several heartbeats while she leaned into him, resting her head in his chest. She held it there as he ran his hands on her back.
In all their time together, there were truths she hadn’t told him. The fear of what that truth could have meant to him, and what the consequences could be for him, had always halted her tongue. Even in moments as close as this, after all these years, she had stopped herself from speaking about what she had sworn to in that city far away. She felt that she could speak the truth now, but still it could mean danger. Jafan was still Centopt. The words dissipated before they left her mouth.
She long could tell he could sense the Force more acutely than most people. Had circumstances been different, had there been no Palpatine, perhaps he would have been a Jedi. Or a temple keeper. Although the thought of Jafan as a passive monk filled her with a sense of mirth.
Jafan’s jaw tightened like he meant to speak, but he hadn’t found words yet. He exhaled strongly, and in all his strength, there was a slight tremble of emotion she sensed in him. She put the other thoughts out of her mind, and thought only of what they had experienced that day. She spoke first.
“The Jedi may have found what he was looking for. It seems certain that Vader had come here to commune with the artifacts of the ancient Mystics and their hold on the Dark Side.”
Jafan sighed. Tylo would never have spoken of such spiritual things in the time before Skywalker had come and encouraged him to develop his nascent Force sensitivity. He had been all about duty and routine and verification of every aspect of life to an absurd detail. But he also was true to his word, and for that, she always felt safe in his arms. He never had much to say about what it meant to him that she was a Mystic. But he asked for her insight now.
“That thing that looked like a child? Was it Vader somehow? Part of his ghost?”
“No” she said firmly. “It was something else. Vader had communed there. He had used the tower as a beacon to the Dark Side. He came here to study it. I believe he must have thought that the ancient Voss had learned to control the Dark Side. He had opened a hole, and the Dark Side had punched through. That’s where that thing that appeared like a child came from.”
Jafan spoke in a slightly hushed tone. As usual, when he had come to a decision, he was clipped and to the point. “Skywalker said he thinks he has what he needed. I think we should consider leaving with him. I ran over all the possibilities before I came to this decision.”
“You always do.” She spoke without raising her head from his chest. “I will speak to Skywalker. He has one last task to complete here on Voss. He needs to go to a sacred place of the Mystics, and commune with the waskaja. This is to see through the Dark Side that is strong with the castle, and to see through Vader’s ghost.”
She paused and inhaled again before she continued.
“Yes. The children are at risk here. Too many scavengers will come for what Vader left behind.” She knew she was agreeing with him to now betray something to which he had given much of his life. They were discussing abandoning his post and leaving the corps for good.
“The Empire is over, Jafan. It’s time to get away from the Keep. It’s time to leave behind being a stormtrooper. Worse things will come here for what the Dark Side left behind here. They will be drawn to it.”
“Even worse…” Jafan’s jaw tightened as he tried to imagine the things that could mean.