Kelta Rose reached out and grasped the Force, gripping it as she would the hilt of her lightsaber. With every bit of strength she could muster, she wielded it like a weapon, bringing it to bear against her terrible, unseen, unfeeling foe. Her attack did nothing, like a lightsaber blade fizzling away from the touch of cortosis ore. The Jedi wanted to scream in frustration, but instead used it to fuel yet another futile attack against her enemy.
With the sensitivity she had always possessed, she could feel the damage the disease had done to Halyn Lance. She could feel the frayed nerves, the damaged senses, and the battered mind and soul. The Zabrak warrior had been as brilliant as a star throughout the long siege of Iridonia, burning as brightly as a Force-user, but now she could sense only the faint embers of his life slipping away from her grasp.
She attacked the disease, a creation of the Yuuzhan Vong, with everything she could muster, but her attacks seemed to slide over it, away from it, no matter what technique or approach she used.
She didn’t know if hours had passed, or minutes; time seemed to travel at its own pace when she was so deeply entwined in the Force.
Kelta reached for the Force again, but before she could renew her assault against the disease, a vision flashed into her mind.
“A Jedi Knight uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never attack,” Master Skywalker said to the class of potential Jedi.
Kelta sat cross-legged on the ground, feeling a trickle of the Force—a sensation she had intentionally avoided since before the birth of her child, Adreia. Now, on Yavin IV at Kativie’s urging, she reluctantly listened to the Jedi Master’s words, sitting amidst a group of students all younger than herself.
“But Master Skywalker, you participated in attacks against the Empire, even as a Jedi. You participated in attacks at Endor, at Bakura, at Mindor, at Wayland, and a lot more places that I don’t remember,” a younger student spoke up. “Did you not use the Force during that?”
“I did,” Master Skywalker acknowledged. “I used the Force while participating in those actions, but those attacks, as you call them, were in the defense of free sentients everywhere.”
“Isn’t that just semantics?” another student asked.
Kelta plucked a small white flower from the ground next to her, studying it as she listened to the discussion.
“Yes it is, and no, it isn’t,” the Jedi Master replied. “To some degree, yes, it is semantics. On another world, if you were to lift a blaster and kill someone, would it matter if you did it for cold-blooded reasons, or in defense of a victim?”
“Yes,” the first student said, “and I already know where your point is going. But…”
“The person who died at your attack would say you took offensive action, particularly if he had not yet threatened a life,” Master Skywalker said smoothly. “And yet, as a Jedi, the Force showed you his intention—did it matter if he had not yet acted upon it?”
The student leaned back with a troubled look on his face.
“The difference is in your intent,” Master Skywalker explained. “Do you raise your weapon in defense of another life, or to exhibit dominance?”
Kelta studied the flower closely, turning over the Master’s words in her mind. It was a familiar argument to her—she was all too-acquainted with the nature of the dark side. Her first master had tried to subtly corrupt her; her second had warned her and showed her the dangers of the dark side, and the importance of defense.
“Does it matter?” another student, a Twi’lek girl, asked quietly. “The results are the same.”
“To act in the defense of another is to allow the Force to guide your actions; to dominate is to slip into the shadow of the dark side,” Master Skywalker warned.
Kelta shook her head at the vision, unsure of what the Force was telling her. She reached out for the Force again, and another memory assaulted her.
Kelta stood over her first master, blade in hand, looking down at the broken woman with no small amount of contempt. “Your dominion over me is over,” she said harshly.
“You have been slow to come to this point,” the old, old woman said, her face far younger than her years. “But you have finally arrived. You will be a capable weapon.”
“I’m not a weapon for you to use,” Kelta warned. “You have no control over me. I am my own woman.”
“Don’t I? We all serve a master, young Listener,” the woman said. “The Jedi Knights of old served the Force, or so they believed—they have always been servants of the Republic. The Sith Lords serve their own base desires, and trade their humanity for their power and become slaves to the dark side. It is the nature of existence to serve something greater than yourself.”
“I’ll never serve you,” Kelta declared. “You’re a monster. You tried to turn me into your tool so you could rule Nam Chorios, because you don’t have the strength to overthrow the Hutt yourself.”
“Then what do you serve, Kelta Rose?” the dark woman asked her.
“I serve no one,” she snapped. “If I find a cause worthy to support, I will serve it, and the Force will guide me. But I’ll never let someone manipulate me. Not again.”
Kelta turned her back on the woman and walked away, leaving her alive. In hours, she knew she would be off the planet in a “borrowed” little Z-95 Headhunter, even if she wasn’t much of a pilot. All her life, she had been manipulated and controlled—from the Elders to her ex-boyfriend and now Taselda, they all tried to turn her into something to fit their needs. But she was her own woman now, with the Force at her back, and the galaxy would burn before she would submit to someone else’s machinations again.
The Jedi Knight staggered from the vision, a flood of old emotion overwhelming her. She remembered the horrors of her first apprenticeship, her flight across the Outer Rim, the Headhunter giving out in that forsaken little starport, only to be “rescued” by a Zabrak flight instructor looking for someone to run the books at his flight academy—which directly resulted in Kelta joining the Rebel Alliance, and serving for the next two years as part of a Rebellion starfighter wing.
She tried to grasp the Force again—she needed its power if she were to save Halyn’s life—but instead of responding it struck her with another vision of the past, the history that had hurt her so many times, over and over, in spite of her best efforts.
Kelta sighed as she descended into the seedy little bar. She had stopped at several of them across the Outer Rim as she had fled from place to place, and she noted wryly that they all seemed to be alike. As her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, she reflected that trying to find work was difficult given her skills.
She had been raised in relative isolation, prepared to be a figurehead for a people she had rejected. She was a mediocre pilot and had never spent time farming or ranching. She’d never picked up a hydrospanner to fix anything herself, and she’d never even had a chance to perform physical labor. Her education had been limited—she could read and write Basic, of course, and knew her basic math, but so much of her youth had been wasted on the traditions and history of her tribe of Listeners. That knowledge was worthless in the wider galaxy.
So as she sidled up to the bar and ordered a very mild drink she had learned she could tolerate, she wondered what profession she could find for herself. Her options were very limited, she reluctantly concluded. She could try to get on with a freighter crew and do manual labor, or find someplace where she could learn to farm. The brief possibility of selling herself crossed her mind for a second, but she firmly banished that from the realm of possibilities.
Of course, the state of the Z-95 Headhunter made her options even more limited. She didn’t know if the little starship would hold out through another hyperspace jump or two; she didn’t have the funds to properly maintain it, and the stresses were starting to show. The idea of another hyperspace jump gave her a deep sense of forboding.
“Need to find work,” Kelta muttered to herself. Someone to serve, a little voice treacherously added silently. Someone who will use me and protect me and…
Shut up, she told the little voice firmly. Just shut up and go away.
“C’mon, I haven’t had a chance to say anything yet,” a deep male voice said in her ear, allowing Kelta to realize she had said the words aloud.
“Sorry,” she said, throwing the stranger a little smile. Her eyes were drawn upward to the top of his head—instead of hair, he had a vestigial array of horns.
“I’m a Zabrak,” the male said.
Kelta blushed. “Sorry.” I really sound like a backwater girl. Of course, I am a backwater girl.
“Did I hear you say you’re looking for work?” the Zabrak asked.
Kelta nodded. “My Z-95 is about to give out,” she said to the stranger. “So I’m looking for a job on a freighter. Know anyone looking?”
“Yeah,” the Zabrak said. “Me.” He smiled at her, and Kelta noted for the first time he was rather striking with his dark tattoos and easy smile. “I run a little flight academy on the Outer Rim—training rookies on Z-95 Headhunters. I’ve got some positions open, Miss…?.”
“Kelta Rose. I doubt I’d be much of a flight instructor,” Kelta said, her smile failing her. “I’m not much of a pilot.”
“I’m actually looking for someone to take care of the logistics of the flight academy,” the Zabrak said. “Someone to take care of the books, ensure we have supplies requisitioned in a timely fashion, have the necessary staff for cleaning, maintenance, cooking, and so forth.” He looked deep into her eyes. “Huh. I’ve never met a human with violet eyes before.”
Kelta’s mind raced. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” she said casually. “I’d be willing to give it a shot, though.”
“Excellent. My freighter is here, the Starwind. I’m parked over in Docking Bay Eighteen. I’ll be leaving here in twelve hours. If you’re not there by then, I’ll assume you turned down the job offer.” The Zabrak laid down several mismatched coins and waved to the bartender. “This should cover my drink and hers.”
As he turned to go, Kelta asked, “Wait, what’s your name?”
“Halyn Lance,” the Zabrak said with a smile before he walked out the door.
He’ll use you like the others have, the little voice told her. Don’t trust him.
But as she weighed her options, she reached out to the Force and could sense no ill intent from the Zabrak. There was plenty of secrecy—his mind seemed locked up like a safe—but his intentions toward her were decidedly benign. With the Headhunter on the verge of giving out, she decided it was worth the risk.
“No,” Kelta growled aloud to the Force. “I don’t have time for this. I have to save him first.”
The Force ignored her protestation, though, and when she tried to grasp the power again yet another vision flooded her senses.
She was on Rori, in the swamps outside Zephyr Base. Her master—her first true instructor in the ways of the Jedi—knelt in meditation a half-dozen meters away. Kelta mirrored his pose, feeling a trickle of Force-energy floating through her, like water dripping from a leaking faucet.
“To be a Jedi Knight is to be committed to the defense of everyone,” Master Sprint intoned. “It is not a profession—it is a way of life. It is total: every day, every hour, every minute, every second, you are a Jedi. This is not a commitment you can walk away from.”
“So I just wander around the galaxy, looking for evil to smite?” Kelta snarked.
Korris chuckled at that. “The Force guides us to where we are needed,” he answered her. “How else would you have found an instructor now, when the Jedi are all but extinct?”
Kelta did not have an answer for that.
“To be a Jedi is to surrender control of your destiny to the Force. The Sith believe they can control the Force and thus control their own destiny. To be a Jedi is to control your own desires—your will must be subjugated to the Force, or you will fall into the trap of the dark side.”
Kelta gasped for breath. The visions were coming too suddenly, too intensely for her to handle.
Then the Force showed her Luke Skywalker, a conversation only a few months ago.
“Kelta, you’ve been with the Jedi for a long time now. You have secrets that you don’t share, and I understand that. But…” the Jedi Master uncharacteristically hesitated. “Something limits you. Your potential lies untapped because something in your past still shackles you. And the Force has indicated that you are the one who needs to do this. I believe this, Kelta Rose, is what is needed not just for the Jedi or for the New Republic, but for you personally. I have no evidence…only what the Force has led me to believe.”
The Jedi Knight found herself lying on the floor staring upward, breathing hard. She began to reach out for the Force yet again, but stopped before she made contact with the energy flow. Think, Kelta. Halyn is dying, and everything you spent hours doing didn’t work. Now, whenever you reach out for the Force to try again, you’re confronted with visions. What’s the common factor?
She considered that for several long moments. Control. It’s always been about control. People have tried to control me for my talents, and I’ve sought to control myself, to control the Force. I’ve not fallen to the dark side and become a Sith, but maybe I’m going about it wrong. I’m trying to use the Force; the masters have always told me I need to allow it to control me.
The solution was deceptive in its simplicity. It can’t be that simple. To allow the Force to control me would mean I’d have to let down my defenses. Every time I’ve done that, the pain I feel from others through the Force overwhelms me and cripples me. If I try this, in a war zone, even if it doesn’t kill me it may cripple me to the point that I can’t help Halyn.
She dragged herself up to her knees and laid her hands on the Zabrak’s chest. She could feel his hearts beating oh-so-slow, too slow for any living sentient. I can take the risk, because the alternative means he dies.
With Halyn’s life in her hands, Kelta prepared herself for several long moments, breathing deep and cleansing away her fear, her pain, her anxiousness. When her mind was settled, she dropped her hard-built defenses against the Force.
The Force struck her with the impossible strength of a hurricane, sweeping her up in its energy. She thought she heard herself scream as the energy flooded all of her senses, blinding and deafening her. It seemed to overwhelm her, threatening to rip away her very identity and leave her a mindless shell.
Her instincts screamed at her to slam her walls up, to push away the Force. If I do that, Halyn is lost, she found the strength to tell herself. If I hang on, there’s a chance…
Almost as abruptly as it begun, the storm subsided, and Kelta sensed she was in the eye of the proverbial storm. She found herself there, floating in a sea of warm power, energy that strengthened her, comforted her, gave her insight.
With the Force came the familiar anguish of the citizens of Rak’Edalin—the pain of Zabraks who had lost friends, lovers, children, parents, and homes in the bloody invasion. But for the first time she could ever recall, it didn’t debilitate her. She could sense their pain with the absolute clarity she always experienced, but it was separate from her, and it was not hers.
She marveled in the clarity the Force granted her, but not for long.
She had surrendered herself to the Force with a purpose, and she could sense time was critically short. Kelta did not reach out with the Force for Halyn, however.
The Force reached out with her.
Excruciating pain. Pain flowed from his fingertips to his shoulders, across his chest, down his abdomen, all the way out to his toes.
Pain. Pain that made a man want to die; pain that debilitated and crippled. Pain felt only by dying men, by those burned head to toe, of a sort that could only be felt by breaking every bone in the body.
It had been over a year since Halyn had felt pain, and he wondered if he had finally died and been sent to a galactic hell. Maybe it’s a hell reserved just for Iridonians, he thought distantly—Iridonians who have done horrible, unforgiveable things. Maybe I’ll see Arsani.
In the course of a year, he had forgotten just how painful simple physical pain could be.
He found the strength to open his eyes, and light stabbed him like vibroblades. He immediately shut them again, grimacing. Abused cheek muscles added their protest, and Halyn felt for a moment like every part of his body was informing him, with great detail, what a horrible person he was.
But for all his faults and all his mistakes, there was one thing that Halyn wasn’t: a quitter.
He opened his eyes again, rode out the shock of pain and light. His eyes refused to focus, but he persisted. He tried to swallow, his mouth and throat impersonating a desert, but still he persisted. He blinked, again, and again. Slowly moisture formed on his eyes, teardrops providing a protective shield. After long minutes, his eyes quieted their protestations enough for him to focus on the ceiling above.
I’m in the Cathleen’s med bay, he realized. And I’m still alive. And I’m feeling pain again. Unless this really is hell.
He tried to raise his arm; his muscles, filled with lactic acids, promptly told him no.
But his eyes had eventually yielded to his demands, so he kept up, slowly working his arms. He began by lifting just his fingertips, then his hands, then his forearms.
As the pain faded from harsh intensity to dull throb, he realized that two hands were laying upon his chest—hands smaller than his own, feminine but hardened.
He slowly turned his head to the side to see the hands’ owner. His neck opined that it was very likely broken, but he did his best to ignore it like his other treacherous limbs. Halyn’s eyes focused on a sweat-stained and greasy mass of red hair, elaborately braided like always.
It took him several attempts to open his mouth before he croaked, “Kelta…”
The Jedi looked up at him, amazement in her eyes. She was exhausted, he could tell, but her violet eyes burned with a new intensity, a new power he could not recall seeing there before. “Halyn,” she whispered. “Halyn, you’re going to be okay.”
“Dying,” the Zabrak managed. “Sorry I didn’t tell you. You deserved to know.”
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “You’re going to live. The Force healed you.”
“Liar,” Halyn said. “Not a healer.”
“I didn’t heal you, Halyn. The Force has healed you.”
Halyn tried to sit up, but Kelta felt impossibly strong when she pushed him back down. “No. You need to rest.”
“The war,” Halyn said stubbornly as he tried to push himself up again. “Still fighting…”
“I can feel what you’ve done to yourself,” Kelta told him. “More than even you know. You really couldn’t feel anything, could you? That’s how you kept up with the Vong. You never felt your own exhaustion, you couldn’t feel your own ripped muscles or torn tendons. You pushed yourself literally past a living being’s breaking point because you couldn’t feel it. You’re paying the toll now.”
The Zabrak pushed up against her hand again. “No time to rest. Not until it’s over. Even if I’m going to live.”
“You need to rest.”
But Halyn had pushed himself up to sitting and was swinging his feet off the medical cot. Pain flared from his joints as they bent; inflamed tissue felt like fire. But he persisted, refusing to be held down or coddled. “I need to rest,” he rasped, “but afterward. There will be time then.”
Kelta sighed. “I would’ve thought being taken to the edge of death would have made you smarter than this.”
“What’s happened since I collapsed?” Halyn asked. “I remember giving the order to fire. Then nothing.”
“The Cathleen leveled Rak’Edalin,” Kelta reported. “I don’t know anything after that, because I came down here with you.”
Halyn nearly collapsed when he slid off the cot, but the red-maned Jedi caught him until his abused legs found their strength to stand. “Who’s in command?”
“I told you, I don’t know,” Kelta said with tired exasperation.
“We need to find out,” Halyn said, his voice coming back. “It’s not too late for the Vong to reverse our gains.”
“You need to rest, Halyn,” Kelta said.
The Zabrak felt the pain fading all across his body—not away, unfortunately, but to a tolerable level. Strength was returning to his limbs. “Afterward,” he repeated.
The medbay door slid open to admit a new figure. Halyn turned and saw the huge, unmistakeable form of a Wookiee berserker. “’Ello, Anishor,” he said with a pained smile.
The Wookiee stopped dead in his tracks. <Halyn?> he growled, his voice quiet and disbelieving. <Halyn?>
“Kelta had a Jedi trick left,” the Zabrak said.
The Wookiee roared in delight and bounded across the medical bay, wrapping both the Zabrak and the Jedi in a hug that lifted their feet clear of the floor. <Halyn! Kelta!> he laughed. <You’re alive!>
Halyn’s head swam as the Wookiee spun them around the room. “Easy, Anishor,” he wheezed. “I’m still trying to live here.”
The Wookiee chuffed with laughter as he set them both done. Halyn staggered a bit, but his legs held. “What’s going on? Who’s in command?” he asked breathlessly.
The Wookiee was still grinning, his lips peeled back in a smile that would have been intimidating to anyone else. <How did you save him, Kelta? I can smell the difference on him now—the scent of death is gone!>
“Who’s in command, Anishor?” Halyn repeated. “What’s going on?”
The Wookiee finally sobered, his eyes shifting from the exhausted Jedi to the revived Ul’akhoi. <Your sister has taken command. The Vong have landed reinforcements from their fleet, but they’re not much—our forces outnumber theirs by a good margin. The fleet stays in position to threaten Iridonia.>
“Let’s get Kativie down here to talk strategy,” Halyn rasped.
The Wookiee hesitated, and Halyn knew in a heartbeat that something was wrong.
<Your sister has accepted a duel with the Yuuzhan Vong commander,> he said slowly. <She left orders for the inevitable battle and left the Cathleen with Senator Alari as her second, not ten minutes ago.>
“Where?” Halyn demanded. His legs protested again as he started to walk toward the medbay door.
“Halyn, you’re in no shape…” Kelta began.
“Where?” Halyn demanded again with all the strength he could muster.
<The site where the Council stood,> Anishor said.
“Raise her on comlink,” the Zabrak said as he continued his persistent line toward the medbay’s portal.
<She left it behind, intentionally,> Anishor told him. <She said she didn’t want any distractions.>
The door slid open at Halyn’s touch. “So what aren’t you telling me, furball?” he muttered. “There’s something else, or you wouldn’t have hesitated before telling me where she’d gone.”
<Kativie is on the edge of the dark side,> Anishor said bluntly. <I don’t know what will happen to her if she fights this duel.>
“Then I guess we have to stop it,” Halyn said as he slowly walked out into the corridor, his stride becoming steadier and stronger with each step.
The turbolift door slid shut around the three of them before anyone spoke again, though Anishor and Kelta exchanged looks that Halyn pointedly ignored.
“Halyn,” Kelta said quietly, “I know better than to think I can stop you. But please, you need to live.”
“Not at my sister’s sake,” he said bluntly.
<Your death will not help her. Your demise is what sent her to the brink already.>
The turbolift stopped near the quarters where Halyn maintained his private armory. His motion was almost fluid by the time he reached the door—the pain was largely under control now, though to himself his motions felt sluggish.
He shrugged his duster into place as Kelta and Anishor watched him, both their eyes pained. He slung a zhaboka across his back and, after a moment of hesitation, reached for the simple sword he had found in the Starwind’s hold.
“For the hope of Iridonia,” he murmured as he slung the blade from his belt, under the big duster.
“Halyn,” Kelta said wearily, “I don’t have the strength to go with you right now, and I know I can’t stop you. Well, I could, but you’d never forgive me if something happens to Kativie. So here.”
She handed him an object with a small smile. “Think of it as a token of my affection.”
Halyn took it with a raised eyebrow. “A token, huh?”
“Yes. I love you, Halyn,” she said. She stepped forward and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
Halyn’s eyes widened, but he embraced her in return. If I really am alive, and I’m going to live, then this is what I want, he told himself. More than anything. But I have to finish this first. He could read in her eyes understanding, and when their embrace ended, he said, “I love you too, Kelta.”
He turned reluctantly and looked up at Anishor. “I’m going to need a second.”
Anishor’s eyes widened. <You’re crazy.>
<If it doesn’t kill you.>
“It’s a distinct possibility.” Halyn shrugged. “Are you in or out?”
<You are my honor brother,> Anishor answered.
“Then let’s go.”