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Prologue - Dar'Krinn: "The Fall..."


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From the dry earth the ancient spire rose from the sandy, rocky surface of Florrum's dry, dusty surface. Atop the spire rested a great dome and within were the hidden, the silent, the Jenssarai. Decades ago, they were one of many splinter groups of the relatively new, by Force traditions standards, that scattered themselves across the galaxy in the hopes of hiding from the evil Sith Emperor as hid forces decimated worlds and subjugated star systems.

Months ago, The last Jedi, Leia Organa-Solo has approached the Jensaarai, pleading for them to assist her on one final onslaught that would spell the ruin of the Empire and free the people of the galaxy from Sith oppression. It was not their way. The Jensaarai were not galactic defenders. They were insular and protected their own and their own ways, and it was for the best that they didn't get involved as the results of that assault against the Empire were known readily throughout the known systems. It was a failure. The Empire irradiated the Resistance and were the Jensaarai involved they too, would have been destroyed.

At least that was the talk that Dar'Krinn had been hearing in hushed whispers throughout the halls and chambers of Dar'min-Ja Spire. He was young, an apprentice, not even given the entry lessons of Force training or lightsaber combat, but he knew that in time he would have his opportunity. Older than most apprentices when he was discovered and brought before the Saraai-Kar, who, graciously allowed him to be trained.

Slowly, over the years, Dar'Krinn had learned that, like the Jedi, the Jensaarai were also adherents of the Light Side of the Force, but instead of being 'keepers of the peace' in the galaxy, the Jensaarai were warriors and guardians of the planets upon which they established enclaves. Usually on small, uninhabited worlds, free of native species as to not get involved with planet-wide politics but by and large, the Jensaarai simply wished to left to their own, free of the troubles of the galaxy, and free to go on about their business. Needless to say this Imperial business of late was placing quite the damper on those ideals.

Florrum was a dry dusty world with nothing but pirates, cartel cantinas and smugglers dens. The Jensaarai, and by proxy Dar'Krnn, blended in easily enough. This day, he blended with the shadows of the dimly lit passageways, passing up impressive Defenders in their traditional armor, even a few offered him a modulated "boy" or "apprentice" as he passed them. His footsteps slowed to a silent step as he heard voices from his Defender's chambers where he'd been summoned.

"...do you honestly believe that?" asked a modulated voice that he was unfamiliar with. "Had we gotten involved we'd be extinct too."

"Perhaps." Replied Dar'Krinn's Master, Birma. She was a wise and patient Farghul woman with as many years of knowledge as she has menial tasks to for her Apprentice to perform throughout the day. "Yet, I consider it nonetheless. Perhaps we were could have done more than nothing. We hide away on this planet of thieves and mercenaries training new Defenders, but for what, Merkis? To simply swell our numbers and train more, and still, do nothing?"

"It is our way, Birma." Merkis replied. Dar'Krinn recognized him now, the man was a powerful and respected Defender, a warrior if ever there was one, but a strong adherent to the ways of the Jensaarai teachings. When it was time for him to learn the lightsaber forms, Merkis would be the man he would need to impress to receive permission to construct his own. "We do not involve ourselves in the troubles of the galaxy, lest they appear at our threshold."

"Been outside recently, Merkis?" Brima said with musingly with that penchant for wit and sarcasm nearly all Farghul possessed. "The troubles of the galaxy are practically at our table supping with us. Which brings me to my current troubles." She paused for a moments then continued. "Which we may return to at a later time. It would appear my Apprentice has finally arrived. Come in, Dar. I know you're lurking."

It had been a few years, and Dar'Krin still hadn't mastered the art of stilling his thoughts and presence in the Force, to appear as transparent as glass and avoid the keen senses of his Master - or indeed even other apprentices. It was a holdover from a youth spent training in a different way, the Nagai way: to imprint on the moment, a philosophy of dominating through force of personality and skill at arms which Master Brima had spent patient hours, months and years breaking down and helping him to unlearn. Reticence did not come easily to him even in his first days when, despite recovering from a near-fatal wound, Brima had to talk him down from taking up his Tehk'La and going forth to seek honorable bloodshed. Perhaps, the wise Farghul had suggested, the fact that the Force was so strong with him suggested that honor might be served in other ways, deeper ways.

The ways of the Jensaarai.

It wasn't easy, for Dar'Krin or for the enclave. Brima had come back from her wanderings with a fierce, half-tamed young bloodhawk in tow, and it was a blessing that his previous life had instilled the value of discipline as well as ferocity in him. It had been hard to be commanded to set aside his Tehk'La and armor, to don the soft cloth robes of an apprentice, and kneel in lessons with other apprentices - most of whom were Dar'Krin's junior in years yet his superior in the Force - yet he had persevered, stoically and with surprisingly few outbursts.

He wasn't the finest of scholars, but he was diligent, and put himself to tasks set with little grumbling. Curious, Brima had once asked him if he ever wondered why she set him certain exercises, or seemingly random chores that were little better than make-work, and the slender Nagai had shrugged and replied "Of course I wonder. But if you wanted to tell me, you would." Whereupon Brima had realised, fighting the urge to clap her hand to her forehead, that there was more for him to unlearn than she had first imagined. For a Nagai warrior, to question the orders of a clan superior was not done unless you were prepared to challenge them, but to learn the ways of the Force required an open, questioning mind, for the student to seek aid from their mentor in comprehending the lessons where possible. Dar'Krin had been approaching his training with the stoic self-sufficiency of a blooded warrior of his culture, not as a child learning his first lessons. Since that hurdle had been addressed, he was starting to grow a little faster under her tutelage.

He still felt naked without his knives: though he was allowed to practice with them there remained the restriction on his wearing them at all times. The reason for that being two-fold: firstly, and initially, to prevent 'accidents'. Nagai were proud, prickly, and quick to draw weapons. Secondly, even when a modicum of trust had been built between him and his master and the other Jensaarai, it had been to impress on him that he was no longer a warrior of the Nagai. He was an apprentice to the Jensaarai, and should not forget that fact.

"Masters." he said quietly as he stepped in, showing little diffidence or any sign he was embarrassed at having been caught eavesdropping. "I did not wish to interrupt." There was a wry modulated snort from Defender Merkis, and Brima just raised a feathery brow in his direction. "My apologies for keeping you both waiting." Dar'Krin bowed respectfully.

"Nonsense, Apprentice," Merkis extended a hand to ease the boy and usher him into the room. Dar'Krinn had seen Defender Merkis out of his armor and the man was nothing more than an unassuming human, middle-aged and honestly rather unimpressive. In his armor however, he was a juggernaut. While average in height he was broad shouldered and the pauldrons on his armor locked tightly to a billowing cloak made from the hide of some beast whose skin was a strange pattern of stripes not unlike a nexu. The deep crimson armor was accented with a sealed, carbon fiber mesh, of silvery gray keeping all of his vitals protected with hardened red, flexible plates.

"No interruption, we have no secrets here. Only lessons learned in time." His modulated voice carried the tone of a teacher this day, not the harsh weapons master tone Dar'Krinn was used to. His crimson helmet was smooth and unadorned, there was no visor only a smooth, solid plate of red. Dar'Krinn knew the plate was set with thousands of micro imaging recorders and was displaying, on the inside of the helmet, perfect peripheral vision and a host of targeting data. "Please, join us."

"Dark," as his master had grown to calling him. It wasn't the most flattering thing to call an Apprentice of Light Side Force users, but for whatever reason his whimsical Farghul master, enjoyed the irritation it gave her peers. "Defender Merkis and I were discussing your future."

"I believe you are ready for the next step in your training." Merkis added. "However as you are not my apprentice." His helmet shifted to look at Master Birma. "I believe you are ready to begin your lightsaber training."

"However," Defender Birma folded her arms like a mother, furious at her child for something he had nothing to do with. Her glare was stern at Defender Merkis and she let out a heavy breath to further punctuate her disapproval. Dar'Krinn was pretty sure there was something going on between them. "I am not."

Defender Merkis produced from under his cloak a lightsaber, simple, elegant, and from the looks of it, used frequently by apprentices before him. "So, don't make me look like a fool, eh, boy?"

Dar'Krin worked hard to keep his excitement and eagerness off his face, though part of him was reasonably certain that both Defenders could tell he'd been awaiting this chance for a long time. He'd used the mocked-up practice sabers - constructed with a dense fluid core inside the padded cylinder to represent (as close as was possible) the shifting balance of an actual lightsaber. They were tricky weapons, the young Nagai knew, their center of gravity constantly in motion as the weightless energy blade exerted strange gyroscopic effects on the heft. But that had been practice - harmless toys used as meditative aids. This was the real thing that Merkis had just placed into his hand, capable of slicing through durasteel.

He nodded in response to Merkis's injunction, his silvery eyes intent on the weapon as he held it before his eyes, taking a moment to examine it before lowering it and stepping back from Merkis and Birma. Raising the silvery cylinder to a two-handed guard position, he took a deep breath to center himself and, with a flick of his thumb, switched it on.

The snap-hiss of the weapon's activation sent a small thrill down his spine as the blue-white beam of harnessed energy sprang obediently to life. And life was an apt term - more than the ultrasonic vibrations of his Tehk'La, the lightsaber seemed alive in his hands, the way it softly pulsed and crackled as he swung it gently to the left, then the right. He felt the shift in the weapon's weight and instinctively altered his own grip fractionally to compensate. It wasn't exactly like the training weapons, unsurprisingly.
Aware that the Defenders were watching him, he raised his eyes over the glowing blade to them. They remained still, no clue in their faces or postures to indicate what was expected of him now - but he got the sense that there was some manner of watchful expectation. He nodded once, respectfully, and began.

He had not received training in the Forms yet, or indeed in anything beyond the most basic of stances, cuts and parries to be used with the practice sabers. But he was Nagai, born to combat, and in sparring with the other apprentices his quickness of hand and eye compensated well for his relative lack of experience. He'd also taken to the study of Rek'Dul, the martial art developed by the Defenders from ancient teachings to be used in conjunction with the lightsaber, exceptionally well. He started with the practice moves he'd been shown, essaying solid, two-handed slashes and blocks that were hesitant for the first few moments but swiftly transitioned to becoming more fluid, his own native grace more apparent now as he stepped, ducked, cut and turned, defending himself from two, then three imaginary opponents. His two-handed grip became one-handed, then two-handed again as he shifted and altered his stance with the flow of the illusory battle.

The saber thrummed and coruscated, cutting lines of blue light in the air as he began to extemporise, blending some of the lightning-quick spinning, whirling attacks of his people with the principles he'd been shown here as his confidence handling the weapon grew. He dropped and spun, lashing out with a foot to sweep the ghostly opponent's legs, then threw himself bodily backwards, landing on the floor before arching his whole body in a sine-wave motion and flipping back onto his feet, switching from one-handed to two-handed grips and going on the defensive. For fifteen more heartbeats he filled the air around him with a web of light, a profound sense of centered joy and contentment in the exercise filling him before with a spin dispatching the last imaginary opponent and, turning to his masters, flourished them a salute before once more thumbing the switch. The quiet after the humming of the lightsaber was almost deafening, disturbed only by Dar'Krin's breathing as he held out his hand with the saber resting atop his palm, offering it to his masters to take back from him if they saw fit.

"Well done," Merkis nodded in appraisal of the young, pale apprentice's form. "My argument with your Master does not seem unwarranted at this point. You are a warrior and you need to be schooled as one. Locking you in stuffy halls and studying all the hours of the day away do nothing but make you irritable, yes? Your blood needs to pump, your heart race."

"So I have agreed to a compromise," Master Birma said to her apprentice. "You will still take your study hours, although lessened somewhat, and you will spend those cut hours with Defender Merkis, learning the various fighting styles and forms."

She approached Dar'Krinn and pressed the lightsaber back towards him. "It belongs at your side and as an apprentice it is only to be ignited with the permission of myself, or another Defender of the Order. Understand the honor that we have given you this day, Dar'Krinn. Even amongst your peers who already have their training sabers, you are to be an example in both restraint and integrity. For those who who have not yet started their training you are a to be someone they can look up to, a leader. No more brooding in shadows. You will called upon to do much in the coming weeks, prepare yourself."

Defender Merkis dropped a heavy hand on Dar'Krinn's shoulder. "With that at your side, boy, your actions speak for all of us, not just yourself. You're doing well, apprentice. Keep it up and you'll have your armor in no time. Tomorrow, after dinner, meet me on the training pad on the roof and we'll get started." Dar'Krinn could almost see the smile under Defender Merik's helmet. "Let you really cut loose. What'dya say? Eh?"

Master Birma cut in and began pushing Defender Merkis out the door. "I say he's still my apprentice and you've corrupted him enough for one day, out with you. Go on." Her apprentice hid his expression of amusement as his Master kicked Merkis out of the room. She returned a moment later and gave her attention to her student. "Now, today's lesson..."

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Dar'Krin ascended the steps to the roof with an eagerness not even his carefully regulated pace could hide, pausing as he always did upon clearing the stairwell to look out over the canyon valley that led to the Spire, his home for the last few years. He often came up here when it was free, to practice with his blades and retain his skills, and every time he would stop and gaze down at the valley floor, following the dirt track away until it fell into the deep distance, then letting his silver eyes sweep up to the skies over Florrum, cyan by day and a curious deep dark violet at night. The view was part of his daily ritual, whether he came up before breakfast or later in the night, and as always filled him with a certain serenity.

"A pleasant evening." Dar'Krin turned towards the training pad as the figure of Defender Merkis approached from the other side of the dome's roof, the instructor's modulated voice carrying in the twilight air. "Are you prepared, apprentice?"

"As I can be, Defender." The young Nagai answered with his customary wary stoicism. Merkis inclined his head.

"A good answer. We shall begin with the re-learning of the basics - however..." Merkis brought out a face-shield from under his cloak. "You will wear this." Dar'Krin took the item, turning it over in his hands as he examined it, then glanced at the Defender questioningly.

"Without my eye to guide my blade, my strikes and parries will not be as sure." he said doubtfully - a quiet doubt, but noticeable. Merkis nodded once more.

"You will have to feel the blade's arc - not with your admittedly excellent reflexes, but with the Force. When a Defender is in battle, they cannot always rely on their eye to be everywhere, but when you let the Force guide your senses it does not matter where your gaze is directed. A Defender surrenders to the Force - allows it to flow through them and, thus, become capable of precision and speed that no normal combatant can match. That is how we block blasters, or strike so carefully that we, not the lightsaber, determine whether an opponent lives or dies." Merkis motioned with a hand. "Put it on."

Obeying the element of command in the instructor's voice, Dar'Krin nodded and fitted the face-shield to his slender features, feeling it adhere through some electrostatic charge. Following Merkis' instructions, he took his saber from his belt and, hesitantly, began the first steps of re-learning to fight.

"Take a moment boy," Merkis said. "Remember yesterday, for just a moment. We are warriors, you and I. I'll never forget that feeling when I activated my lightsaber for the first time and felt it humming in my hands. You will never feel that sensation again, Dar'Krinn. It was on of those beautiful moments in our lives where, despite getting to experience it over and over, there never any feeling quite like that first time."

Dar'Krinn listened to his instructors voice and Merkis, although Dar'Krinn could not see his face to tell was quite impressed that he held his saber hilt ready, but did not ignite it, just as he was instructed. "First kiss. First broken heart. None that ever come after ever seem to match up, but none are ever any less intoxicating. Unlike Jedi we do not forsake our emotions, nor, like the Sith, do we give into them. Excess in either direction leads to corruption, and denying ourselves the simple enjoyments of life is, by and large, just plain boring." He said with a tone that caused Dar'Krinn to grin under his mask. Merkis was a good teacher, he amused as much as he instructed. "But in seriousness denial of our emotions, forsaking love, attachment, togetherness, these lead to a corruption of a different sort. A numbness. A pride that fell over the Jedi as they believed themselves to be the penultimate force of good and authority on the Force in the galaxy. I ask you boy, where did it get them?"

"Extinct, Defender." Dar'Krinn said calmly with tone of pride to his answer.

"The Order, yes. Not the Jedi, however. They are still out there, I feel them." He could hear his instructor taking steps, pacing back and forth as he offered his sermon.

"So, the Jedi and the Sith are wrong." Dar'Krinn posited.

"No," Merkis laughed softly. "Nor are they right. No mroe than we are wrong or right. We are all Force Sensitive, Dar'Krinn, we just view it differently, and our petty squabbles over who is right and wrong, has been going on for millennia and only the people of the galaxy seem to suffer for it. You will protect others. We do not have Jensarrai marauders or juggernauts. We train Defenders. I train Defenders."

He paused there and said nothing until finally Dar'Krinn caught on to the point of the lecture. "I understand, Defender Merkis."

"Good. Now, guard your emotions." He said.

"Lest they control you." Dar'Krinn replied.

Merkis's modulated raised it's tempo, demanding more bass from his student. "Guard your kin!"

"Through unity we are strong!" Dar'Krinn offered, pushing back with his own voice.

"Guard our knowledge!" Merkis pumped his fist in preparation for what was about to happen.

"Or the truth will be forgotten!" The apprentice tensed up, feeling a change in the air.

"Guard your life." The GUI within Merkis's shut off, leaving him to gaze completely into the darkness of his helmet.

"From it flows the Force." Dar'Krinn's last response was soft and calmer that his others as the ignition of his teacher's lightsaber screeched to life and hummed violently as it came bearing down upon him. The dazzling orange-white blade clashed with a crackling hiss as it met the blue-white hue of Dar'Krinn's own blade that had risen to protect its bearer. He tried not to allow himself to swell with pride in his accomplishment, for the battle was still unfolding around him.

Elsewhere in the Spire...

Nas, a young apprentice himself, ran hurriedly down the halls, the human boy spun around corners and slid between the closing doors of the turbo lift that would take him to the residential levels. Like zeypher he shot through the doors as they opened, nearly knocking over a Defender who cursed something in his native tongue as others around yelled at the boy to slow down.

Around the bend and through the dorms he sped off down the hallway, sliding past the doorway that led into the mess hall, where supper was being had my the second tier apprentices. His hand reached out and grabbed the jamb of the door way, pulling himself back on track to enter the mess hall before he slid too far past.

Crazed and out of breath he stood in the doorway while several of the apprentices closest to him just looked at him like he was mad. After a breath or two to get his lung straight he excitedly proclaimed, "Defender Merkis is dueling Dar'Krinn!" He added, as if it were almost unheard of in the history of ever: "With face shields!"

An eerie silence fell over the apprentices and their meals. They paused long enough to share a glance at their peers before dropping their utensils and storming for the doorway like an unruly heard of nerfs. Within moments, only five Defenders remained, shaking their heads or burying their face in their palms. One of the defenders, a hulking devaronian man named Hahuk, grunted.

"He's going to lose." Hahuk said flatly. Never one for nicities it was well known that he didn't care for Dar'Krinn one bit, believing his race to incapable of mastering the balance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. "And he will do so spectacularly, I'm sure." He grunted out a laugh.

"No," Defender Birma replied calmly as she made her way to the spectacle. "He will do so honorably. It is his way. Now, shall we go see how this plays out?"

The two coruscating blades of light crossed, leaped apart, then came together again in a crackling clash of energy that caused the onlookers - at least those without helmet photo-dampening - to squint or shield their eyes. Both hands on the hilt of his saber, Dar'Krin pushed away Merkis' blade and brought his own around in a lightning fast left-to-right cut that would have opened a less adept opponent from shoulder to opposite hip. It never got close to Merkis though, despite the Defender seeming to only catch it mere inches from his shoulder.

"Fast and sure. Good." The blademaster's modulated voice carried past the hiss of their weapons as he launched his own attack sequence, whipping his lightsaber through the air, noting with satisfaction how his young pupil intuitively turned the momentum of his own deflection into a riposte which Merkis in turn caught with an apparently random spin of the blade of his weapon before once more counter-attacking. The two stayed locked in that give and take for long seconds, Dar'Krin's warrior focus and youthful talent striving to overcome his master's superior experience and training as their blades flickered and filled the air between and around the pair with webs of light. It was entirely different to sparring with vibroblades or practice sabers - Defender Merkis had been right on that score. He could feel the vibrant life of the energy blades - his own and his master's - as well as the sense of Merkis' intended actions. Not that it did him much good - the Defender was so practiced that he barely needed thought or considered intent to control the dance and whirl of his saber. This deadlock would end only when Merkis decided that it should, and every heartbeat it went on the advantage shifted more to the Defender. Dar'Krin cut high, then dropped low and swept his foot at Merkis' ankles, causing the instructor to take a half step back, a pause in the flow of combat that Dar'Krin exploited to propel himself back in a tuck and roll followed by a hand-spring, landing agilely several meters away.

Merkis nodded as though approving, his hand dipping below the cloak he wore and producing two small spherical remotes, tossing them into the air. Immediately they trained on Dar'Krin and swooped around him, firing sting-blasts. The apprentice let the Force flow through him, guiding his reflexes as he spun and stepped, weaving his lightsaber's blade around himself in tight arcs that caught the sting blasts out of the air, batting them harmlessly aside. Focusing tightly, he batted one, then another of the blasts at Merkis, who chuckled as he caught each with a casual motion of his own saber. Not that a sting blast would have much effect against Defender armor, but he approved of his student's mindset. With a wave of his hand, the remotes backed off and Merkis once more closed with Dar'Krin.

Their blades hummed ferociously, sparks and flares of light illuminating both the combatants and the watchers as Merkis pressed the apprentice hard. For all of his reflexes and innate talent, Dar was unable to hold the Defender back, giving ground out of necessity rather than choice as the Defender ruthlessly closed off avenues of attack, herding Dar to the edge of the practice platform. The agile Nagai tried to break left, only to find Merkis had closed down that path. Then he tried to make distance, only for the Defender to unrelentingly follow up and allow him no space. Though he'd fought with all that he had, because to do otherwise would be an insult to himself and his teacher, the young warrior had stoically accepted that the conclusion to this practice bout was foregone, and as his heels touched the edge of the platform he sighed under the face-shield.

"I am bested." he declared, thumbing the switch of his saber and extinguishing the blade, lowering the weapon as his other hand removed his face shield. His pale skin gleamed with sweat as he bowed to Merkis, only now noticing as he straightened that he and the Defender had an audience.


Miles away, atop a ridge watching the saber battle take place was an armor clad female with a score of black-armored storm troopers behind her. Glossy black plates were bonded to synthetic leather giving optimal protection with minimal loss of mobility. About her shoulders was draped a thick black cloak that came up over head, leaving a crown-like impression underneath, revealing her iridonian heritage. Her face was uncovered, showing attractive features across pale, ritually scarred and tattooed skin.

One of the black armored commandos lowered his hand from his helmet where he'd been adjusting the macrobinoculars built in to his kit. He looked to the woman, then looked back to the Spire, then drew his attention back to her, knowing she could see them just as, if not more so, clearer than he could without any aid.

She seethed. Her face was a scowl as she looked upon the Spire's roof where the Jensarrai's Weapon's Master was training a new apprentice. For what? So he could hide away from the galaxy and hone his skills to become a nothing more than a 'Defender' who trained other Defenders? All she saw was wasted potential and squandered youth. The Jensarrai needed a new direction, they needed to be the Vanguard of the galaxy, not hiding away in their Spire while worlds burned around them... worlds like Iridonia and it's numerous colonies.

"Ma'am," the Storm Commando looked to the hateful woman, not realizing the the sheer power of Rage she was channeling to accomplish the task ahead. "On your order."

Beneath her cloak her had rested on a hilt. She scowled. "Wipe this pathetic enclave from the face of the planet. Spare the younglings, I want them alive." She shrugged slightly. "Well, those that don't die resisting, that is." From the shadows of her hood the whirring of her armor could be heard as her armor automatically operated and a sealed mask constructed itself around her nose and mouth through a series of folding and sliding pieces, like a puzzle solving itself. It covered her eyes in a solid metallic visor with a triangular breath mask now filtering the dusty Florrum air. Her voice was now like her Commando's, modulated and sounding a bit ominous. "Begin the assault."

The Spire...

Merkis chuckled under his helmet which echoed in a mechanical tone. "You are educated," his saber slid away with a hiss and he patted the young man on the shoulder. "You will take this lesson onto the next, and so on, and so on, until you become the teacher and a student finds a way to expand your lessons. You did exceptionally well, you have more training with combat than any other apprentice here. A vibroblade has weight, a lightsaber is nothing but hilt. Once we acclimate you to the difference in weight and handling, I think you'll might even impress yourself. We'll go over the wrist work tomorrow, perhaps." He couldn't see the smile under Merkis's helmet, but he knew it was there.

Nas ran up to Dar'Krinn as the young apprentice seemed to suddenly have quite the following. "Wiz! Dar, that the longest any apprentice has lasted against Defender Merkis! That was awesome!" Suddenly Dar'Krinn was surrounded and being mobbed by younglings. It was more attention than he was used to, that was certain.

Dar didn't feel the shift in the Force, but Merkis and the other Defenders present did. Dar didn't need to, he watch them their movements, their shifts in expression and the way the joy and mirth of the moment was suddenly stripped away told him something wasn't right. They were too late, however. By the time Defender Hahuk yelled for everyone to take cover it was already raining green turbo laser blasts from the heavens. Orbital bombardment. A safe tactic soften up Force Users.

Only a few actually struck the Spire's rooftop, but the two of the blasts exploded, sending Defenders and apprentices all over the place. Most didn't get up. Several more were blasted clear over the side of the safety rails, where they struggled for grip on the smooth red stone of the Spire's surface. Their screams as the plummeted thousands of feet to the planet's surface seemed louder than the rain of laser fire.

The armored woman smirked under mask as she mounted her STAP. "They are scattered and confused. Move in before they regroup. Surround them, and remember your training. Remember, their armor is designed to resist lightsabers, not blasters."

"Yes, Ma'am. Ground forces, hold at entrance, eliminate any attempting to escape. Raven Squadron, prepare for any shuttles attempting to flee." The commando squad mounted their STAPs and followed their Commander.

Merkis rolled around in pain. A large chuck of rubble had slammed against him, had he not been in armor, he'd have been dead. Birma screamed for the younglings to get up and head below. Defenders were helping anyone they could to their feet with one hand while an ignited lightsaber was ready in their other. It was chaos. More green bolts rained from the sky, scattering even more of the defenseless Jensarrai as they struggled to seek cover and escape the bombardment...

Dar'Krinn's day among the Jensarrai had crumbled into dust and ash and fire...

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The shock lasted for precious seconds as the thunderous after-clap of the orbital turbolaser bombardment rang in his ears. In a heartbeat, the situation had changed - the warm acclaim of his fellow apprentices, the quiet pride at his instructor's praise and the approval in the eyes of Master Birma swept away by emerald fire and explosions that shook the Spire, bringing in their wake screaming and fear and death. As Dar'Krin picked himself up from the floor, wiping blood so dark it was almost black from a cut to his brow caused by flying rock shrapnel, he was aware of the ringing in his ears and the haze of dust and smoke swirling about him. Dimly, as if through immersed in water, he heard Birma shouting to get below, but there at his feet was Defender Merkis, clutching at his shattered shoulder, moaning in pain through the modulator of his helm.

Kneeling, the Nagai apprentice cast an inexpert eye over the visible injuries, but his rudimentary 'slap a bandage on it' training was no help here. What was certain was that he could not leave Merkis up here. Putting an arm under the Defender's uninjured shoulder, he struggled to get both of them to their feet.

"Come on, master." he urged, the moaning armored figure leaning on him as the two of them staggered to the stairwell leading down, even as another blast rocked the Spire and nearly toppled the pair of them. Birma appeared from the swirl of dust.

"Get him to the infirmary, and stay with him." she told her apprentice, a resolved light in her feline eyes. "We're under attack."

"Master. I can fight." Dar'Krin protested as the three of them made it down below the roof. "Maybe not as a Jensaarai. But as a Nagai, I can fight."

"I know you can. War is in your blood, and that is why I have a special task for you. There are injured younglings and Defenders in the infirmary already." Birma told him patiently. "I want you to defend them, not attack our enemy." Her voice was firm but gentle as she regarded him. "You were born with a knife in your hand, like all your proud people. But you have to learn a better way, to preserve life rather than deal death. Even at times like now. Especially at times like now." She stepped forward and lightly grasped his face in her hands, her eyes on his. "It is easy to speak of harmony and preserving life when the days are slow and peaceful, here in our remote Spire. Living it in the world outside, in times of war, when confronted with suffering... That is the true test. Do you understand?"

Silently, somberly, Dar'Krin nodded. Birma smiled, patting him on the shoulder. "Good. Now get Merkis to the infirmary, and grab what you need from your quarters. You and some of the other older apprentices will be on guard - but you are the only one that has seen real battle before. Keep your head on straight until we come for you."

With that, she turned and hurried down the corridors. Dar'Krin, his thoughts conflicted still despite his acquiescence to his Master, helped Merkis to the bustling infirmary, where those Jensaarai with healing skills were already tending the wounded. Dar helped the blade instructor to a bed and stood back as an old medical droid ran a scanning device over the armored figure, feeling momentarily helpless before remembering his Master's instructions. Leaving the infirmary, he ran, fleet-footed and swift, to his quarters and opened the simple chest in which were stored the relics of his old life. His Tehk'La, his blaster, his sword... and his armor. He paused for a moment. It was the armor of a Nagai, an electromesh suit, designed to maximise agility and using an intrinsic energy deflection field to allow a warrior to close with an enemy, to fight them toe-to-toe. He'd hoped one day to use it as the foundation principles for his Defender armor. Strange it was, to think that perhaps that day would not come now. Perhaps he would die, not on the soil of Nagi where his Master had rescued him, a casualty of a clan war for pride or territory, but here, defending strangers not of his blood and unable to defend themselves. A few years ago, he would have found the mere thought ironically amusing.

A lot can change in a few years he mused as he swiftly dressed, pulling on his armor and fastening his weapons belt around his lean hips. As an afterthought, he hooked his lightsaber onto his belt as well. He might not be fully a Jensaarai, but they were his family now, and he would defend them. Turning, he raced from his room and headed back towards the infirmary.


The bombardment ceased as the STAPs flew in with a whir of repulsor engines and within moments onyx armored Storm Commandos were on the rooftop by the score. Their tactics were near flawless in their execution, teaming up the Defenders from all angles and sacrificing only a few to distract the Defender enough to riddle them them with blaster fire. Diffusion smoke limited the casualties among the Commandos but by being so outnumbered the lower impact of the Commandos' blaster rifles against the Defenders didn't mean much when it being piled on so extensively. Unlike Stormtroopers, Commandos were accurate all the time, not just when when shooting at stationary Jawa Land Crawlers.

One by one the Jensarrai fell, their lightsabers extinguishing as they fell. Several fled to the lower levels leading and guiding as many of the younger apprentices as they could. Defender Hahuk, however, was having none of it. His armor was badly damaged, a few blaster marks already smouldered on its surface. Sweat already poured down his brow as he winced in pain, using very ounce of his energy to stay upon his feet. The commandos raised their blasters and one by one bolts of heated gasses were reflected back the commandos. In a vivid yellow arc three commandos fell dead, their blackened armor sizzling and glowing with embers of the lightsaber's passing.

The blade swiftly moved about for another passing STAP of the woman in armor came in at a break neck speed. She launched herself from the STAP with the grace and power that only a Force-User would be capable of and landed on the rooftop with a roll. Gracefull she didn't slow her momentum at all, rolling to her feet she was in a full sprint and the excited hiss of her red shoto ignigted. She spun once, twice, three times and each surgical movement slaughtered a victim in her path. She threw her shoto and it 'vwooomed' through the air in a crimson circle, hitting Defender Hahuk's own blade aside before it could slice a commando in half. Before he could process what had happened she slammed into him, his eyes bulged in pain and surprise. Blood filled his lungs as the woman's mask disassembled itself, the triangle mouth piece lowered itself to rest upon her chest, smoothing out to appear as an amulet-like addition to her polished black armor. Haruk stared into the eyes of his murderer and fell to his knees as she slid the long, thick black out from the softer, carbon fiber mesh betwixt the plates of his armor.

"V-Varina?" He gasped in shock as familiarity for his killer darkened his final moments. He rasped and choked on blood. "Why?"

Haruk's blood seeped into the dark metal of her sword as Dark Side energies consumed the his ichor. Shimmering red symbols lit up the side of the blade decorating it in ancient Sith lore as the evil blade hummed like a vibroblade. "A question I have asked myself for so many years." She gripped the back his head almost compassionately and cradled him as he lay down upon the warm Florrum stone. "Why did we do nothing as my people burned? Why do we hide from the galaxy when it needs us most?"

Her former master swallowed hard as he choked on the last breaths of his life. Varina took his light saber from his hand and rest his hands upon his chest, setting the hilt with them. "I no longer hide, my former Master. The galaxy needs me, and I will train a new Vanguard for the Empire." The triangular breather folded up from her armor and rest itself upon her face as the interlocking plates formed her mask. Her corrupted yellow eyes narrowed and her voice was now mechanical and cold. "As soon as I destroy your precious Saarai-Kar."

Within the Spire...

Defender Merkis collapsed up a table, lying on his back as he gripped his side. His crimson armor was scorched and blackened from where he took nearly the entire brunt of the laser blast. It was anarchy in the halls and through it all Dar'Krinn wasthe only one who seemed to be remaining calm, or at least faking it really good. Blaster fire filled the hallways as Commandos moved room to room exterminating everyone in their path.

Defender Birma wasn't behind them, she'd been lost in the commotion and combat in the halls. Merkis gripped Dar'Krinn's sleeve and pulled him over and down where the boy could hear him. "Boy. Listen." He winced in agony as the visor of his helmet split apart and opened vertically, parting so his face was exposed and Dar could hear him clearly. "You... you must flee. Th-the Saarai-Kar... she must know what has happened here. S-Spira. She hides on Spira. She must know. She must be warned that the Empire attacks us... you're the only one I trust with this, boy..."

His breathing was raspy and he was fading out. The pads within his armor were doing what they could, but at the moment he needed rest, something he couldn't afford. He placed a flat disk in Dar'Krinn's palm. "In Defender Birma's chambers is a hidden turbo lift, it will take you to the base of the Spire. C..." he coughed. "Cut a hole in the bottom and escape through the waste tunnels and water filtration. Find Hando Ohnaka. Tell him Merkis is calling in that favor."

The old Defender rolled off the table to his feet, one arm hanging limp at his side. He plucked his saber hilt from his belt. "Go. I will buy you the time you need."

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Questions and protests rose in Dar'Krin's throat, but Merkis turned and stared hard at him, as if sensing his reluctance, and repeated one word in a tone of command. "Go." The young Nagai backed away, conflicted between the desire to stay and fight as a warrior should and the desire to honor the blademaster's last command. Honor won out, and the slender alien turned at the doorway and raced away, heading through the smoke-wreathed corridors to his Master's quarters. Distantly, he could hear the high pitched sound of blaster bolts and the thrum of lightsabers, but he had his orders. To find Hando Ohnaka - whoever that was - and then get to Spira and warn the leader of all Jensaarai.

He skidded into Birma's quarters, hitting the door controls and sealing them from the inside as he entered. It would not slow enemies down for long, but would at least give him warning that they were there. Turning away from the controls, he scanned the room. A hidden turbolift... A hidden turbolift. How in the name of the ancestors was he supposed to easily find a-

He paused, calming his racing thoughts and emotions. Harmony - the balance between the drive to do something and the focus required to accomplish it. It would not be impossible to find, merely difficult. And he was a Jensaarai - at least, that was what he had been trained as - for the Force, there was no such thing as impossible. He took three deep breaths as he had been instructed, shutting aside the distant sounds of violence, and focused his senses. Birma had shown him how he could examine a single grain of sand, or hear a whisper from rooms away, or track by scent if need be. The young Nagai felt the Force flow through him and moved along the walls, passing a hand over the carved stone...

Here. Behind a section of the wall he could feel a faint vibration, as though of power conduits or a generator. He turned his eyes to the wall and scanned it minutely, swiftly finding a button cunningly worked into the sculpting. He pressed it and with a hiss the panel slid back, revealing a small, one-person turbolift. Casting one last glance over his shoulder, Dar'Krin stepped into the turbolift and thumbed the 'down' button.

The ride was swift, and smooth, and once at the bottom Dar ignited the lightsaber that had been entrusted to him and cut a circular hole through the base of the lift and the lift shaft, the blue-white blade sizzling as it cut through plasteel and rock with equal ease. Shutting off his saber, he folded his arms over his chest and dropped lightly down into the hole, ignoring the stench of the waste as he landed in knee-high... well, best to think of it as 'water'. Orienting himself, the Nagai began to move with care up the tunnel. Pangs of guilt assailed him - he was running away from the fight, hiding in filth like a dishonorable scavenger. He stilled the qualms with the assertion that Defender Merkis had been correct: for the good of the order, the Saarai-Kaar must be warned. This was the honorable path, despite the appearance of it. Dar'Krin firmed his resolve and expelled his doubts, at least for now. He had a task to accomplish, and only death would keep him from it.
The door slid open with a hissing squeal as the dark armored woman, Varina, entered the room where Defender Merkis and the apprentices were hiding. The old defender stood tall, despite his injuries, and greeting his unwelcome guest. The apprentices all huddled up behind him along the back walls of the chamber, the youngest clinging to the eldest for support.

Defender Merkis' helmet whirred and snapped closed, sealing with a click. He pressed a button on his belt. "Varina Sett. I have to admit, kid. You were not the one I expecting. Why?"

"Why, Defender Merkis, long time," she cooed behind her mechanical breather. "Have I come at a bad time?" She slid the ancient blade from it's scabbard at her side. It was almost the perfect tool for hunting and killing her Jensaarai brothers and sisters. It was imbued with the Force and could not be cut by lightsabers, and it bypassed the natural construction of the Jensaarai armor that protected from lightsaber attacks. She could see behind his helmet but she noted the shift in Merkis' posture as he gazed upon the ancient blade with shimmering red runes glowing up the side of the blade.

"Oh, child," he said with pity in his tone. "What have you done?"

"What have I done?" He could almost see the contempt in her expression under her mask. "When I pleaded for my brothers and sisters, for just handful of us, to go to Iridonia and help my people you and the others voted to stay here. To stay hidden. To stay safe. I begged you for an answer. I begged you tell me why you would abandon my people and the people of the colonies. Our people. Living, breathing, conduits of the Force upon which we have sworn that we are Defenders of... and what was your answer? 'I did what I had to do to keep us safe, the galaxy is at war, and it's not our war.' So here I am Defender," she let the title seep through as a mocking sneer. "I did what I had to do. Tell me? Is it your war now?"

"No, Apprentice Sett," it was his turn to let a few words pass his lips laced with ire and venom. "The war is still yours and yours alone. Only the people fighting on both sides are you... and you. This assault means little, your victory hollow. We have enclaves all over the galaxy."

"Oh, I know. When I find your precious Saarai-Kaar, the whole of the Jensaarai will be mine. To lead as I see fit. Is that not our way? You were very wise to hide her from me, but all you've done is delay the inevitable." Her other hand slid from the folds of her cloak and her red shoto ignited with a screech.

"You've bled your crystal?" Merkis ignited his own lightsaber and the room was suddenly aglow with an eerie blueish-white and reddish-white hue that reflected off their armors. "Foolish girl."

She lashed at him and their blades locked with a crackling hiss as his blade scored the edge of her durasteel sword and didn't do so much as dull it's vibro-sharp edge. "This will be a good, proud death. It's the least I can offer you, 'father'."

In the waste tunnels...

The waste ran through the pipes, being filtered and procesed through massive machines at various way stations throughout the sub-level of the complex. Dar'Krinn had no idea the lower levels existed, let alone how vast and impossibly confusing the passages all were. The waste water pipes came to an end at a four way intersection where two of the pipes were waste and the other two were fresh water. In the center of the intersection was a pit the went on into blackness. All four pipes flowed like waterfalls down into the bottomless pit.

Through the rushing of the water he barely heard the beeping at his side. The device Merkis had slipped into his palm, a holo projector. He raised it up and activated it.

"Varina Sett. I have to admit, kid. You were not the one I expecting. Why?" The image of Varina Sett appeared on the holo device, showing her in her polished armor, like she'd gone through all of the Jensaarai without breaking a sweat. Her image wavered and distorted a few times as he watched the dialogue between the two. "This will be a good, proud death. It's the least I can offer you, 'father'." The holo zoomed in on her visor and mask. Merkis must have been broadcasting from his helmet, the sly old dog, but then that was it. The transmission ended... Dar'Krinn was left with sounds of rushing water and with a silent leap he spanned the gap to the cleaner, fresher water.

Alone with his emotions, and his thoughts, he pressed on until he passed a section where water rushed in from the top of the pipe but still continued on both ahead of him and behind him. Soaked to the bone, after another three hundred meters the water flowed out of an exit, where he saw sunlight. Moments later he knelt at the mouth of the pipe and looked before he leapt.

All of Florrum was spread before him in all it's rocky, bland, sulphorous glory. Below him were two speeder bikes, and their owners, white armored scout troopers. It was a ten meter jump from the end of the pipe to the ground below where the water flowered into a wild stream the forcefully pushed the paddles of a hydroelectric power station a few kilometers away. He could barely hear the battle still going on and he noticed green bolts rain down from the sky high over head. He must have been maybe a kilometer or two from The Spire by now.

"Hey, you get a chance to fly one of those T-18s?" Dar'Krinn looked down as the two scout troopers paced about directly under him. Through the rushing of the water and higher ground, neither of the Scouts seemed to take notice of him, yet.

The second shook his head. "Nah. You? I hear they're superior to the T-16s, but, I'm nostalgic. T-16s are classics."

"Yeah, I agree. Stabilizers on the T-16s were way better, the new 18s are choppy at top speed." They both looked to the sky as another stream of green bolts barraged The Spire behind the cliff side Dar'Krinn was escaping through. "Why do they get to have all the fun? Commandos aren't really so special."

"Yeah?" Asked his partner. "You pass your weapons qualification? What was your score?"

The other scout shrugged. "I did okay. 97 our of 230. That's not bad, right?"

"That's why they're having all the fun," his partner answered. "That's all I'm saying."
Dar'Krin observed the pair of white-armored figures from his perch ten feet above them, his hands slowly and smoothly moving to the hilts of his Tehk'La knives and getting ready to draw them. Where once his blood would have sung at the prospect of action, only a trace thrill remained to quicken his heartbeat. Birma and the other Defenders had impressed on him that battle for the sake of battle was irresponsible and worse, a sure path to falling to the Dark Side. Where once the young Nagai had lived only to fight and find glory in the battle, the lessons of his teachers made him consider the why of the fight. Was it necessary to harm others, or take a life? Was it the best solution?

These questions danced in his head along with the slow simmer of anger and grief he'd felt since Merkis' holo-transmission. He knew that the Defender had given him valuable information: now there was a name for the person who would hunt Jensaarai - a rogue called Varina Sett. To the last, Merkis had placed the good of the order in the forefront of his thoughts, even wounded and facing death. Dar'Krin pushed aside his drive to strike back somehow, to avenge in some small way the death and pain of his fellows, and considered his options.

The scouts were obviously placed here to report on and possibly chase down anyone fleeing. Varina Sett perhaps suspected an escape tunnel, or perhaps it was just Imperial procedure - who could tell? Right now, they were unaware of him, but if he tried to slip by that would not last. And all it would take would be a single comm transmission to bring the rest of the hunters down on him. Slowly, he eased his breathing and relaxed his muscles.

Guard your emotions, lest they control you. He acted out of necessity, not lust for battle, but when battle was necessary he should not shrink from it.

The scout troopers were unaware of the figure lurking above them, and so were completely caught off guard when the Nagai warrior, as lean and dangerous as a katarrn, dropped to the ground behind the first of them. The soft subsonic humming of his Tehk'La became a faint buzzing whine as both serrated blades came around to bite point-first into the scout's plasteel armor: the first in through the junction of arm and breastplate under the armpit, the other point taking him in the small of his back, pinioning him between Dar and the other trooper.
The other scout trooper was taken completely by surprise as his companion trooper was impaled by the nagai warrior. Needless to say, one didn't expect to die today, and neither were expecting to be attacked. The blackened mesh under the light plasteel scout plates began to run sticky with blood as the vibrations of the warrior's Tehk'la continued to ravage the corpse's insides.

"Where'd you...!?" The living scout took a single step back as surprise and fear left him momentarily stunned. He reached to his side to grab his blaster.  Dar'Krin didn't bother to speak, choosing instead to maintain his focus as he propelled himself and the dead man forward in a dive, pulling his blades from the inert form of the scout trooper as they both hit the floor and rolling smoothly over the corpse to his feet in front of the second enemy. The blood-stained durasteel blades, custom-made and balanced for him on his assumption of warrior status, swept through the air towards the Imperial as he reached for his blaster. One sliced at the mesh between the white plates covering the chest and abdomen while the other stabbed at the shoulder of the man's weapon arm. In the rush of combat, Dar'Krin was reverting to old training somewhat - Nagai struck most often to disable and defeat an enemy's ability to fight before moving for the kill.
The second scout fell backwards, blaster falling from limp fingers as his other hand clutched at his stricken stomach. Dar'Krin followed him down, making sure the Imperial was dead with a precise final stab, the coup de grace stilling the man's thrashing as though turning off the power to a conduit. The young warrior took a deep breath.

"N'Gi j'zakra." He whispered, the old words surfacing in the halls of his memory, a victory cry and a mantra taught to all younglings as they learned their first blade. It was an affirmation that a foe had been met and defeated this day. Loosely translated to Basic, it would mean I am Nagai, and I am alive.

He did not linger, stripping one scout of his utility belt before pushing both limp bodies into the water, watching a moment as the white-garbed forms bobbed and submerged in the fast-flowing river. Briefly he considered the speeder bikes, but decided against it. He was a clumsy pilot at best and besides, a repulsorlift was noisy and Imperial vehicles may be traceable. The scout trooper's belt contained supplies, water, survival gear - everything he would need to get to Hondo Ohnaka's camp.

He briefly consulted the holodevice, studying the map Merkis had given him before setting off into the desert. He pulled his hood up to shield his head from the sun and moved as swiftly as common sense allowed - he needed to get as far from the Spire as he could before Varina Sett and her troops finished their butchery and began to call in their scouts. Dar'Krin T'Vaan, Nagai warrior and apprentice to the Jensaarai, did not look back as he made his way across the sandy waste. His eyes instead were focused on his path, on the task ahead of him, and the salvation of his new family.
A few hours later...

Only twelve apprentices remained as smoke and fire consumed The Spire. They stood on the roof of the massive saucer of rock that, until just hours ago, served as their home. The black armored Storm Commandos hauled the bodies from the interior up to the roof and lined them up for a head count and to purge any possible survivors 'playing dead'.

The twelve stood in two rows of six, their hands bound in front of them. The woman in black, Varina Sett, approached them as her mask unraveled itself and affixed itself to her armor's breast plate. She pulled back her hood revealing her crown of horns and set her gaze upon them with her yellow eyes that served as a sign of her corruption by the Dark Side of the Force. Silently she paced back and forth, appraising her newly captured apprentices. They ranged in ages from five to seventeen yet despite the discrepancy in age they all had one thing in common at the moment: fear.

"The twelve of you were spared," she began, stopping amid the center of the first row with her hands clasped firmly behind her back like she was drill sergeant at an Imperial Academy. "You now have a choice. You may choose to learn from me, to bend knee to the Empire and serve loyally as the Jensaarai Vanguard of the Emperor. Or die."

She paced back and forth a few times to allow them time to make their choice. When the small group remained silent, she looked upon them as she assessed them she continued to pace. "There is no shame in death. You are, although distant, still my family. My brothers and sisters, and will see to it there is no suffering. It is a great honor to sacrifice yourself instead of your principles, I will respect our ways and see to it you go quietly to the Force."

A Commando approached in a hurried pace. "M'Lord," he said as he came to a halt and posted.

"I am not a Lord," she sneered, visibly perturbed by the comparison of her, a 'Vanguard' of the Jensaarai to be nothing more than a power mad, psychotic, religious zealot that spent years taking over a galaxy so that they could blow up all the planets. "I am not Sith."

"Uh," the Commando's posting faltered a bit as he came to realize he had no idea what she was and from a command perspective, he really didn't care. "My apologies, I uh... have no idea what the proper form of address is for a Jiseer-, Janisar... uh, whatever you guys call yourself, ma'am."

Her thumb and middle finger massaged her temples. "Ma'am is fine, now, what is it?"

"The count, it's off, minus the one we left where you struck him down. We believe one may have escaped." The commando said through his helmet's modulator. "We have a scout team that hasn't reported in. Their speeder bikes are accounted for however."

She moved with the Commando, leaving her new apprentices to consider whether they felt their short lives had been well lived or they desired to live on still. The two approached the corpses lined up and she gazed upon her former family with seething disdain. Her eyes scrutinized the bodies, then they narrowed in recollection as something was missing. She turned to face the Commando. "Where is the Nagai?"

"The what?" He replied, looking at the bodies.

She sighed. "The Nagai. Pale, pasty, long ears?"

The commando nodded, "The one dueling before the attack. We assumed the first barrage blew him apart. If he took out those scouts and left the speeder bikes, he on foot. We'll find him. He can't have gone far."

"He's not far. Search west," She sneered.

"Uh, west, ma'am?" The Commando asked, a bit confused at how she'd know.

"Yes, west," she turned to face west and looked off into the horizon. "My fool of a father gave him a lightsaber recently. My lightsaber. Blast shields down is always the first lesson." Her words seemed nostalgic as she stared off over the Florrum's orange, setting sun. She shook away the distracting thoughts and focused on the moment, on her task and her devotion to seeing her goals be met. "Find him. Now."

"Scouts are on their way," He lowered his hand from his transmitter button on his helmet. "We'll have him within the hour."

"He is Nagai," she smirked. "I'd send the scout troopers you don't care for overmuch."

Within the hour...

The scout trooper fell quietly to the ground, he never saw or heard his comrades fall and it was only as the blade slid between his ribs and micro-vibrations ruptured his heart did he realize that his quarry was Nagai. Hondo's base was a ways away, he knew, three days on foot at least, but the speeder would make him too easy of a target.

Darkness stretched across Florrum and the warrior continued his trek.  He rationed his water. Though he had the combined survival rations of several scouts plus the initial two it would not do to be careless, not when he couldn't afford to waste time foraging or deviating from his course to find more. As the sun rose on the first day, Dar'Krin pulled the hood of his shabby dusty cloak over his head to ward off the worst of the sun's rays and moved on.

He was still being hunted. Now and then he heard the distant whine of repulsors as scouts criss-crossed the rocky, sandy wastes in search of him. When they drew close he would find a rocky outcropping or tumble of stones and merge with it: crouching, drawing his cloak around himself and remaining motionless until the trailing whines sped away and receded to insignificance again. Then, and only then, would he break cover and move.

During the hottest part of the day he bellied up in a shallow crevasse, taking a sip of water and a few bites of the foul-tasting nutritional paste before squatting in the shade and resting lightly. He wanted to meditate, to slip into the empty-soul state of deep Force meditation, cleansing and peaceful - but he did not dare. He was not yet practiced enough to readily awaken from such a deep state should danger threaten, so he catnapped instead, now and then opening an eye to scan the heat-shimmering wastes beyond his shelter, to cock an ear for the sound of repulsors or stealthy footfalls.

As the afternoon wore on to dusk he emerged from the shelter and set off once more, taking a swallow of water and a salt tablet to restore the vital substance the heat had sweated from his body. He ate as the moons rose high without stopping his steady trek, squeezing the paste from the tube it came in, only washing it down with water when he had finished.

Dar had plenty of time to think, to brood, as he travelled. Varina Sett. The renegade. She who had turned on her family, on her own blood. What would make a person do such a thing, save utter corruption? And now she had taken his family from him.

Guard your emotions, lest they control you.

The words of the Code were simple, easy to interpret. Unlike the Jedi Code his mentor had somewhat scornfully relayed in it's flawed nature. 'There is no emotion, there is peace'? No. Acknowledge the emotion, accept it, but do not let it dictate your action. He was angry at Sett, angry at the Empire. But he had a task to complete before he could begin to think about striking back at them for their offences, and when he did so strike, he would be mindful not to descend into monstrosity. A Jensaarai was a guardian, not a soldier.

But did the galaxy not need guarding right now? Could the Jensaarai protect life by hiding in monasteries? These were troubling thoughts - easy to dismiss when the world was quiet and safe inside the Spire, not so much when death and fire were flung from above. Perhaps Master Birma had a point, too. He wondered if she had escaped, wondered if he would ever know what had befallen her.

For two more days he trekked, through the night to mid-morning, then resting, then moving on when the sun started to fall. The second day he heard no whine of repulsors, detected no signs of pursuit. Had they, then, given up? Assumed the desert had swallowed him? Perhaps, he mulled with wry amusement, they did not consider him worth spending too long hunting down, especially as they had already lost several of their number in doing so.

On the dawn of the third day he stood on a rocky ridge overlooking a small settlement: little more than a camp, really. The holomap indicated that this was the place, though it looked quite frankly as though a Th'saas using it as a privy would be an improvement. Readying himself for what came next, the young Nagai found a trail down from the ridge and started down into the camp of Hondo Ohnaka.
Edited by Shiv
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The noise and merriment were the fisrt clue that Dar'Krinn was on the right track as he entered an enclosed ridge filled with all manner of scrap from ships and vehicles, most of it quite dated. At the back of the ridge, bolted to the side of the cliff face in massive aurebesh script was 'Hondo's Salvage'. It looked like what started as a salvage yard blossomed into a small settlement. The residents of this makeshift, ramshackle, shanty-town all offered him wary looks in greeting as he made his way past them in search of something he might be able to use to identify this 'Hondo' character.

The lanes and alleyways gave way to what could only be a market place. Rusted metal sheets provided roofs for open air stalls of all manner of merchants plying their trade and Dar'Krinn quickly realized that none of the merchandise was legit. Blasters, armor, spices and all manner exotic ingredients and textiles were on display as alien merchants lured residents as best they could promises of low prices and no questions asked. It dawned on Dar'Krinn that he was not in a settlement, he was in a pirate's den, a way point for space pirates looking to lay low with their families and dodge Imperial or other legal entanglements.

"There we were!" Dar'Krinn turned his head in the direction of a loud, boisterous voice. Sitting out in an open air cantina was a weequay, old by the looks of it, judging by his impressive horn growths along his jawline. He was standing up and holding the attention of several patrons and even random people who were passing by and stopped just to see where he was going with this story. He was expressive and animated as he continued "Surrounded! The Mandalorian woman was shooting, pew, pew, and stabbing and breaking the guard's bones in many and varied interesting ways. Imperial soldiers everywhere! We were trapped in the mines of Kessel and, obviously, I knew it was up to me to save us-"

"Whu'd y'do boss?" Asked one of the weequays to the man's left.

The man stopped, sighing. With hands on his hips he shook his head and looked to who had interrupted him. "I was sort of getting to that when you cut in with the opposite of shutting up! Now-"

"Sorry, boss." The man replied.

He sighed again, shaking his head. "Are you done?"

The man nodded. "Yeah, boss."

He gestured between the two of them, waving his hand between them. "I can continue?"

"Well, of course boss." He looked to the story teller nodding with a confused expression on his face like he didn't understand where the disconnect was coming from.

"You're sure?" The story teller asked with polite sarcasm lacing his tone. Dar'Krinn realized that the man telling the story was the man who matched the holo he'd been tracking. The story teller was Hondo Ohnaka. With interest, Dar'Krinn slowly began moving in that direction, having located his quarry.

"Pos'tive." He nodded, eager to her the rest of the tale.

Hondo took a deep breath and prepared to press on. "Now-"

"Oi, boss!" the man interrupted him again, pointing as Dar'Krinn approached the cantina, looking out of place amongst the residents of the scrap yard.

"Oh, for for the love of," Hondo raised his hands and stepped a few paces away in pure frustration. "You know, like my dear mother used to say, rest her soul: two things are infinite, the galaxy and stupidity. Right now, I'm not to sure about the galaxy..." He noticed the man pointing and with a raised eyebrow greeted the brave nagai warrior. "Welcome to Hondo's Salvage, you are here about the tanning pods, I assume? Please jo-"

"Wh'is it boss?" The man asked, eyeing the suspicious looking nagai with a nervous hand close to his blaster.

Hondo pursed his lips and his face made a variety of movements indicative to someone using every ounce of their willpower not to throttle someone. "Obviously some for of Imperial probe. Why don't you go get the ship warmed up in case we need to make a hasty retreat. Hmm? Go, hurry, I will distract it!"

The man sped off, tripping once as he refused to take his eyes off of the nagai. Through the clamor and the comedy, Dar'Krinn managed a slight smirk at the fool's antics as he bolted down the path to the massive cave in the back of the canyon easily large enough to use a hangar for transports. Hondo cleared his throat. "Now, if one more person inturrupts me, I'm going to blast them. Hmm?"

He looked around him, from left, to right, then shrugged and gestured with his hands. "Excellent, now, you." He motioned to Dar'Krinn. "If you were a bounty hunter, we'd already be shooting at each other and exchanging witty repartee, so, come. Sit down. We will talk about those tanning pods you're interested in." Dar'Krinn knew that look in the weequay's eyes. He had years of experience and a lifetime of narrow escapes and skin of teeth escapes that educated him to the point where he was in enough control of this situation to allow Dar'Krinn the opportunity to explain his business there before his men perforated the white warrior with blaster scorches. "Drink? You look... thirsty for something."

The young Nagai cast a glance over the assembled thugs, eyes of featureless silver grey narrowing as he appraised them. They seemed undisciplined, unpolished - scavengers rather than predators - and he had few doubts that he could handle any three or four of them if it came to it... But there were many more of them than there was of him, and their blaster hilts were well-worn. So he kept his movements slow and friendly as he settled into the chair across from the elderly Weequay.

"Water would be fine." Dar'Krinn answered in his melodious voice, studying Hando as Hando in turn studied him. The pirate snorted, waving his hands as some of his men laughed obligingly.

"Water? You don't want to drink the water in this hole. Here." He poured a cup of brown, foaming liquid from a pitcher close at hand. "Best Lum." Dar'Krinn raised a brow as he brought the cup to his lips, sipping the oddly sweet brew politely, then taking a slightly deeper drink when he found it palatable.

"My thanks." he said, lowering the cup. It was similar to the Nyissk of his homeworld, only lighter. Ohnaka nodded as though approving, then raised a brow as the slender Nagai leaned forwards him and said, simply. "Merkis is calling in that favor."

"He is, hmm?" The pirate answered inscrutably. Dar nodded slowly, then glanced around meaningfully at the hangers-on.

"He asks that you help me in getting somewhere. More than that, I will not say here." With that, the tired warrior leaned back in his chair and took another sip of the lum, watching the other for their reaction.

"Does he now," the elder weeguay's tone lost it's mirth. There was a pregnant pause until the grin returned to his face and he stood up. "Come, walk with me. Bring your drink, if you like."

The two men moved through the crowded avenues of the scrap yard and it didn't escape Dar'Krinn's notice the small pack of pirates that were following him and Hondo several paces behind. The place was built from the parts salvaged ships and old scrap from the various heaps from all over the large canyon. It looked as if this place had been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the years and the surplus of current and older Imperial as well as pre-Imperial Republic scrap told the young nagai that there were a lot of stories hidden within these canyon walls. Hollowed out on the far side of the 'town', under the old Hondo's Salvage sign the cliff face was hollowed out into a large, expansive cave that had been converted into a hangar for a variety of smaller transports, about four, maybe five, except the last one didn't look like it was operational. There were few people back here, save a few technicians making sparks fly up from the landing gear of a distant transport that appeared so weathered and beat up that functioning landing gear was the least of its worries.

Hondo crossed his arms and leaned against the landing gear of the closest craft. "So, here we are boy. Away from the ears and eyes of all that you are suspicious of. I am assuming that all that commotion a few days ago was Merkis and the rest of you lot, eh? I swear, you Jeni's were always such good neighbors. Tell me, what manner of trouble did the old man find himself in this time that he would send you to run for his groceries?" It didn't escape Dar'Krinn's notice that he referred to Merkis and the others, as Jeni, pronouncing it like 'Jedi'.

"The Spire has fallen." Dar'Krinn leaned against a power converter module propped against a sheet of hull plating that was half-buried in the sand. Despite his conditioning and stoicism, the last two days had been trying for the young apprentice and he felt weary beyond belief now that he was out of immediate danger - he hoped. He looked at the impassive, wrinkled face of Ohnaka, then down at his half-empty mug of Lum. "And Master Merkis and the others are likely dead."

Saying it, speaking the words aloud and considering them for the first time since his flight had begun brought a fresh wave of weariness to the young warrior. Twice now he had been orphaned. His blood-kin, slaughtered in one of his homeworld's constant clan wars, and now Master Birma, Master Merkis, the apprentices... Everyone he knew was dead or worse, captured and facing slavery and torture. He felt a flood of grief and then a sudden rage fill him as he stared down at his drink, an urge to kill those responsible, to look into their eyes and see the light fade from them and for them to know he had avenged his surrogate family.

But that was the Nagai upbringing speaking. The way of the blood feud, the endless eye for an eye that had orphaned him in the first place. Guard your emotions, lest they control you. He repeated the mantra over and over, fighting back the urge to shed blood that was his birthright..

...and finding that he was now sitting, slumped against the power converter and still staring at the cup in his hand, the wake of his anger leaving behind only fatigued emptiness. He glanced up at the pirate, who was watching him with that same inscrutable expression. Or at least, it was to Dar'Krinn. He wasn't sure how to read the Weequay's face.

"I have to go to Spira. It was Master Merkis' last order to me." he said simply. "Can you help? Will you help?"

"Did you see their bodies?" The elder weequay asked. It was as much an inquiry as it was a statement, a veiled phrase that told the young man that it wasn't truth until it was true. He let that question rest in the air for a moment before he pressed on.

"Spira?" He said softly, repeating the destination as he began to pace around. "Spira... Spira. He walked back and forth, tapping his finger to his chin. Finally he stopped and faced the young nagai warrior. Spira? No."

"No?" Dar'Krinn asked, honestly not expecting that answer.

"Yes. No." Hondo reiterated.

"Fine, then I'll find-"

"Tut, tut, tut, listen to me boy. Half of the troubles of life can be traced to saying 'yes' too quickly and not saying 'no' soon enough." Hondo waved a finger a the younger man. He grew expressive in his gestures to accentuate every point he was about tt make. "Spira is Imperial controlled, it's a resort planet where rich Imperial nobles go to gamble and sun bathe and f-," he gave Dar'Krinn an appraising look and calmed down considerably. "Well, other things, too."

"Even if I got you there, we would never be given permission to land. Plus, you are not Imperial. A real problem when wandering about an Imperial resort planet. No," he paced some more tapping his chin again. "A straight line will serve you no good here. Fortunately, I know someone who might be able to help you. She's good at sneaking into Imperial places. I will take you to her on Nar Shaddaa, and while you handle your business there I will see what I can find out about this Spire business, hmm? For Merkis." His eyes traveled somewhere distant and he slowly nodded his head.

He regained focus and smiled, hiding his more serious thoughts with a mask of jovial whimsy. "We will leave tomorrow. Until then you are welcome here, boy. You will be same here amongst my men," he head bobbed from side to side as he considered that thought. "Weeell, as safe as one can be among my men. Until tomorrow, rest. Get some food and recover your strength, yes? You're no good to anyone half exhausted."

He'd sat and eaten in the makeshift mess hall at the back of the scrapper's work hall. The pirates, salvagers, fringers and rough-edged scum of Hando's crew had given him a wide berth, noting his pale skin and silver eyes as well as the Tehk'La blades sheathed cross-draw fashion across the back of his armor. The Nagai were rare, and tales about them were sporadic, yet a common thread was that they were known to be free with the use of those blades, and Hando had welcomed the stranger into their midst, so there was more prospective trouble to be found in trifling with the lean alien than even the most belligerent pirate felt like handling.

The food had been rich and filling, a surprise for the young warrior until he mulled it over. Of course a pirate crew would not be willing to scrimp on rations, or drink, or other fleshly pleasures - at least whilst ground-side. A captain who tried to make his crew live like monks when not in space would likely face revolt. They were, after all, largely criminals, driven by gain and the desire for wealth and satisfaction of such vices as they possessed. That said, Merkis had been a friend of Hando... so perhaps there was more to the Weequay than that, Dar'Krin was willing to allow.

After his meal, he'd retreated to the quiet berth Hando had provided on the vessel they would be taking on the morrow. He was tired still, the meal making him sleepier yet, but nevertheless there was a strong desire in him to honor what he had been taught, to honor those who might be dead. And so he had sat on the floor of the small cabin, facing the door, and taking six curious circular breaths in the way Birma had taught him slipped into a meditation, his first in days. He focused on the feelings and the tumult of the attack and his flight across the desert, extricating them from the stoic prison he'd kept them in and examining them each in turn, confronting those feelings of anger and, yes, hate towards those who had taken a family from him. And in so examining them, as Birma had taught, he robbed those sensations of their immediate power. Emotions were considered necessary and useful amongst the Jensaarai, but they were not to control and steer a Defender's actions. There would be a time for reckoning, and so he stored the focus and intensity that his feelings provided against such a day when, under the direction of his rational mind, they would drive his saber-arm.

When he rose from the meditation he was still tired, but the tiredness was merely of the body, rather than the soul. Removing his armor, but leaving his weapons close at hand, Dar'Krin flopped onto the bunk and sank into dreamless sleep.

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