Camaraderie. Zhaira knew what it meant but she had never really understood what it actually was. Two weeks of training with Nema had improved more than just her competency with a lightsaber, although she had to admit her skills were still relatively amatuer; it had actually given rise to something resembling a social life. She did not know, even now, if the walls that surrounded her were involuntary or self made but she did know that they were starting to crumble away. It was a little thing, really. It came in the most modest of expressions. A quick nod from someone when she was walking down the hall, a curt "Hey Zahira" as she sat down in the classroom.
Acknowledgement. That is what it was. Recognition that she was, indeed, part of something larger. Most people probably knew her as "That smart, quiet girl who was friends with Nema Taylant" but Zahira did not mind at all. For the first time in all of her studies as a Jedi, she felt a sense of connection to her fellow students outside of the reality that were all a part of the Force. It was a sublime catharsis, marked by a wider understanding. There was more to reality than to merely exist in it and that was to share in that experience with others. It was the difference between simply subsisting and thriving. Zahira wanted to thrive.
Zahira gave a barely noticeable exhale of breath, the most polite expression of annoyance that she could allow. Maybe 'thriving' would have wait. She gave a forced smile, shaking her head. "Close, but not quite. C'mon Harlanis, we've been over this. You know the answer."
Across the study table from her, Harlanis Thrialo narrowed his eyes in deep thought. Zahira could almost see the servos spinning in the young human boy's mind, processing and shifting through the contents of the repository that was his brain. Confusion reigned on his handsome face as he mentally wracked himself for the answer. Harlanis' mental datacards appeared to not be properly filed by any system of classification. To be fair, Zahira had only been tutoring her fellow Initiate for three days now but she could certainly see why Nema had referred him her way to begin with.
They sat in silence for a moment at their table, the Library's glowlamps casting their warmth down from the high ceilings, Harlanis' admirable features accentuated by the perfectly and presently distributed light. Neither spoke. Finally, she took it upon herself to rescue the poor boy from his predicament.
"Galia. Queen Galia. Don't worry, Harlanis, you'll get it all straight. Here, it's simple if you think of it this way: Galia starts with a G and she was queen of Onderon during the Great Sith War, right? Talia starts with a T and she was queen of Onderon during the Dark Wars, which included the climatic battle of....?"
She left the statement hanging in the hopes that her struggling student might have a chance to redeem himself but it was to no avail. Instead, she was treated to another dull stare. This time, she did sigh. "Telos IV. There was a huge battle at Telos IV. Like really big. T for Telos. T for Talia..."
Harlanis rubbed his face. "Couldn't we just say that grek come before trill in the alphabet? That seems easier."
"Umm..I suppose you could. But it's important you know all the details too" Zahira explained. "Now come on let's try this one more-"
A quick motion caught her eye, a small flash of movement from behind a bookcase over Harlanis' shoulder. Less than a split second of displacement in the air. Very deliberately, a Kiffar girl had shot her head around the corner, a surreptitious grin adorning her face. It was Nema Traylant. She did not say anything, she gave her head a half tilt. A flash of curiosity hit Zahira through the Force. 'Well?' it seemed to say. "Hmmm?'
"Actually, Harlanis...you've been working really hard tonight. Why don't we call it an evening?" Zahira said.
The boy's eyes grew wide with gratitude. "R..really?!"
"No need to sound so excited about it." Zahira scolded, somewhat hurt. She looked over Harlanis with an assiduous gaze before softening. "But yes, really. Get some rest and look over your notes before we meet again tomorrow. I'll know if you've not done it so no slacking."
Harlanis rose from his seat and gave her a quick nod. "Thanks, Zahira!" he spoke, his voice approaching something of a shout, before turning to rush down the nearest aisle.
"Library!" she hissed back, though the boy was half way out of sight. Turning to the bookshelf that Nema was hiding behind, Zahira was somewhat flummoxed to see that her friend was not there.
"He was kinda cute. " Nema said from her new position sitting on the study table, cross-legged. "Do I spy the start of a new Force bloodline?"
Zahira rolled her eyes at her friend, although her face felt a little warm at the question. She walked over to the other side of the table. "First, would you get down from there please?" she asked, dismayed at Nema's lack of formality. "And secondly: uh...no, you don't."
Nema hopped down from the table, a small chuckle escaping her lips. "A remarkably eloquent and unexpected denial. Before we know it, you'll be petitioning the Council for approval to..well, you know."
Zahira burned scarlet at this. Grabbing her history book from the study table, she tucked under her arm. All the while, she cast an austere look at Nema. "Please. The writings of Master Atris are very clear on the matter. A Jedi has no time for such things. Their only duty is to the Force."
"Bookworm: you've got a long way to go before you understand sarcasm." Nema remarked. "C'mon. Let's go."
Nema took off through the Library, running with a spritely bound to her steps. Trailing behind her friend, Zahira scurried to keep up. Her eyes darted around the Library, searching for anyone who might see her. Particularly, she was praying that Master Gnost-Dural did not catch her rushing through the Library with Nema, frantically racing towards the exit from her far hidden study spot in the building's deepest regions. She should have been paying more attention to the actual and not the possible, though. A small misstep and her foot caught on the low hem of her robe. Stumbling forward, her history book fell out of her hands right to the dusty stone floor of the Library.
However, either by reflex or by virtue of her continued training, she regained her balance and kept moving forward. Nema had not seemed to notice, still bolting towards the exit like a flash of lightning. With an almost wistful glance, Zahira looked back toward her fallen book. She was seized by a desire to run back and grab it so that she could place it in a collection bin but resisted against all her overwhelming compulsion. Finally, she passed through the high arc of the Library's entrance and stopped beside her friend.
"Would it kill you to slow down for a second, Nema?" Zahira asked, catching her breath and taking Tython's evening air into her lungs. "What's the rush? We're just heading to the training grounds."
"Not tonight!" a small voice said to her side.
Zahira had been so distracted that she had not noticed that she and Nema were not alone. Genti stood beside her, looking quizzically at Zahira. The Zabrak's midnight colored skin shimmered with the new moon's basking light, blanketing him with a glow as cool and welcoming as his sanguine demeanor. Zahira, still out of breath, took a step back when he spoke, taken aback by his sudden presence.
"Hi, Zahira." he said, his childlike face luminous with high spirits. "Nema didn't tell you, I guess. Why? Is it supposed to be a surprise?"
Nema ran a hand through her raven hair in an uncharacteristically chagrined fashion. It was clear that she hadn't wanted Genti to say anything. Forced to elaborate to her cohort, Nema offered a hasty reply. "Well, not quite. But, y'know, I thought it would be a bad idea to make such a fuss about it."
"About what?" Zahira chimed in, struggling to follow their conversation. She was caught somewhere between two extremes. On one hand, she was somewhat indignant that she was being left out of the conversation. On the other, she felt like a child on their birthday. "Where are we going?"
Nema hesitated for a moment, as if she was about to reveal a deep, personal secret. When she spoke, her voice was excited, if somewhat apprehensive. "Master Traless is having a meeting tonight and well, Genti and I wanted to go but I didn't want you to feel like I was ignoring your training so we sort of thought that we'd bring you along, Bookworm."
"I suppose that I can't see the harm in listening to a Master." Zahira concluded. She had heard of Master Traless and his impressive progression through the ranks of the Jedi during the Great War. Only Master Satele Shan could claim to have a more meteoric rise. Zahira had never met him in person however, though she had seen him wandering the Temple grounds, handing out advice to students or engaged in deep discussion with his fellow Masters. If he was speaking, it must be worth hearing. Any wisdom was.
"Well, then." Nema began. "I guess we best be going. Stay close."
The trio set forth through the Temple ground, Nema leading the way. They cut straight through the training grounds, heading straight towards the the dark edge of the outlying forest. Zahira pouted. The forest was dangerous enough for a well trained Jedi during the day thanks to the Flesh Raiders; at night, it was almost suicidal to enter. Why weren't they going to the Master's Retreat or even towards the Gnarls Outpost? What would possess Master Traless to hold a meeting in the middle of Tython's wilderness at this hour?
She took a depth breath, centering her mind and trying to sense the world around her only for her concentration to be shattered like a fragile crystal as a deep yawning roar erupted from the brush far beside her. She rushed forward to Nema's side, keeping as close to her fellow Initiate as propriety would allow. Genti trailed behind, unphased and oddly enamored with a lazily glittering firefly that flew before him.
To her side, Nema gave a whisper. "Uxibeast." she identified the sound. "More afraid of us than we are of it. All animals are, really."
It may well have been true for Genti and Nema but Zahira still stayed close to her friend. Turning to Genti, she whispered through the dark. "Genti! Stay close!"
His silhouette just visible through the firefly's speck of illumination, Genti did little more than to give a non-committal shrug. "Don't worry, Zee." he said. "I'll see any trouble before it get close thanks to Jedi Master Sparkles here."
"Don't call me Zee." Zahira ordered. "Also, did you just name that firefly 'Jedi Master Sparkles'?"
"We're here." Nema announced, cutting off Genti's reply. Turning back around, Zahira was amazed to see the gaping mouth of a massive cavern, light sneaking out from its depths. The three descended down into its caverns, crisps of ancient rock pressing against the bottom of their soles. The steep slopes led further and further into the cave, giving way to a large chamber with a roaring fire in the middle.
Zahira gasped. The cave was positively full of Jedi. All ages and ranks, they sat around the fire, intensely looking towards a young man who stood before them all. Tall and well proportioned, the man's face held an almost ferocious determination, measured only by a exuberant pride. It was hard to tell which burned brighter: the fire before him or the fire in his eyes.
His gaze fell upon Zahira and her friends as they stepped into the natural antechamber of the caverns. "Who is that?" he asked with a heroic voice.
"Nema Traylant." Nema answered, her voice echoing softly off the cave walls. "I've brought guests as well. Forgive us for being late, Master Traless, my friend had an obligation to attend to."
An infectious chuckle fell from Jedi Master Oric Traless' lips. "No apologies, Nema." he stated, speaking to the girl as if they were the best of friends. "We're only about to start right now."
Nema gave a nod. Grabbing Zahira by the hand, she dragged her friend down towards the front of the crowd, Genti following behind. Assuming seats only a few feet away from Master Traless, they only managed to get settled when the young man began to speak.
"Friends, Jedi: you all know why were are here tonight. We are here because, even now, the Sith hold countless planets in their grasp, oppressing lives and making a mockery of not only justice but the Force itself. We are here because no matter what the politicians say, no matter the whispers that float around the galaxy, and certainly no matter what the council might want us to believe, we are not beaten. Defeat comes only when there is no one left who is willing to fight! And we are here because we are still willing to fight!"
Suddenly, the secrecy of the meeting took on a whole new light. A round of applause rang through the cave as the gathered Jedi were enlivened by Oric Traless' speech. Nema pressed her fingers to her lips and whistled loudly. For her part, Zahira did feel inspired as well. The war had been a tremendous blow to the Jedi's image and it was hard to consider what had occurred to be "just" or "right" by any stretch of the imagination.
But inside, Zahira also felt uneasy. The Jedi had helped to broker the Treaty of Coruscant and were obliged in their duty to abide by it and the edicts of the Council. Now was a time to rebuild and reconnect with the Force, was it not?
Apparently, she was not alone in her thinking. "But what recourse do we have?" a voice said from the back of the room that she knew belongs to Raan Laos, one of the Order's preeminent weapon masters. "The Council is clear on the matter. The Treaty must be maintained."
"It is the will of the Force that we act!" a voice shouted from the other side of the antechamber. "We need not wait for the Council's permission!"
Master Traless raised a hand, silencing the voice as quickly as it has risen up. He shook his head, his expression stern. "That line of thinking led our Order to the brink of extinction. I will not condone a course of action that will split this Order in two. If we are to face the Sith, we must do so united."
"If I may, Master," Nema began from her spot on the dirt caked rock. "They must know of the reputation you hold with all of us."
"We campaign for your appointment to the Council, then. Master Kaedan is already sympathetic to our cause but that is not enough." Master Raan Laos finished, seeing Nema's point immediately. "Our voice, your voice, cannot be ignored if you are amongst them. If the Council truly thinks that we must lick our wounds..."
"Then we lick our wounds." Zahira managed to spit out, the words escaping from her lips before she had realized what she'd said.
The cavern fell silent. Only the crackling of the fire broke the heavy air. Zahira was acutely aware how long the next few moments were. It seems as though universes were born, lived, and died in what was actually seconds. At her side, Nema hastily stood. "She doesn't mean that." she attempted to convince the gathered Jedi.
"Of course she does." a cool, stygian voice answered from the crowd. "Why else would she say it?"
Standing to meet Nema in front of the crowd was another young student. Tall and gaunt, with snow pale skin, the boy assumed a position of authority before the gathered Jedi as if doing so was no more natural than waking up in the morning. It was Cenak Niaka. Zahira recognized him immediately. There was only one Umbaran amongst the Initiates. And besides that, he was one of the few who was older than she, being a handful of years her elder. Cenuk, looking composed and unflappable, gazed at Nema reasonably.
"She was just joking. She has quite the sense of humor." Nema lied.
"Forgive my boldness, Master Traless." he apologized, turning to the Master and offering a curt nod. "But if there is something to be discussed, perhaps Nema's friend should speak for herself. Discussion should not be discouraged in this matter."
"There is truth in those words, Initiate Niaka." Master Traless conceded. "And who better to discuss our future than those who will rise up to inherit it? I give the floor to you and Initiate Traylant's associate."
Nema made her way over to Zahira and before she could protest, pulled the young Mirialan to her feet and shoved her out before the assembly. Cold terror filled Zahira's gut. Why did she say that? Stupid, stupid, stupid!
"What is your name?" Master Traless asked, jarring Zahira out of her frozen state. He did not appear angry but Zahira feared him more than any other Jedi she'd known.
"Z...Zahira." she muttered, her voice little more than a whisper. "Zahira Talu-Song."
"Well, Zahira," the polarizing Jedi Master began. "You have reservations about what we are discussing. That is understandable. Please, speak your mind."
"If I may begin," Cenak cut in. "I would actually like to pose a simple query to my fellow student. What is the duty of a Jedi?"
Zahira paused for a moment. It was not because she did not have an answer. She did. But that would not be enough. In the library of her mind, she searched for a reputable source to quote. Rifling through her archives, she finally decided. "That is easy enough. A Jedi's duty is to the Force. Odan-Urr makes this clear in his commentaries when he states that a Jedi should mediate on this each and every day."
"And the Force is manifest in..."
She blinked. She honestly hadn't really expected a question like that. Somewhat taken aback, she hastily replied. "I, well, um...I suppose that it makes itself known in life itself."
"Okay." the Umbaran said, speaking just as much to her as he was to the audience before him. "So, a Jedi's duty is to the Force, which is made known through the phenomenon of living things. Is that correct?"
"Yes." Zahira stated plainly.
"Ah." Cenak mused. "Yet what of the Dark Side? Does a Jedi have a duty to this as well? After all, it is the Dark Side of the Force."
Some hushed murmurs rose from the crowd. Cenak's question was dangerous, to say that least. Zahira scoffed out loud at it. "What? Of course not! The Dark Side corrupts life."
"Exactly!" her fellow debater exclaimed. "A Jedi's duty is to life! One does not simply let a tumor be. It is cut out because it is a perversion of life. Our duty is to life itself because that is how the Force exists. The Sith, with their love the Dark Side, infect the galaxy and kill off life. The only option is to rip them out and cut them down!"
A spattering of applause rang in the cave as he finished. Zahira struggled to regain composure. "Well, yes. We must protect life. But the Council...I mean, we've seen this before, have we not? Master Traless pointed it out himself. Recall the lesson of Revan. Recall our history. War isn't going to protect life right now. We simply don't have the numbers. We would all be killed."
"There is no death!" a voice spat from the crowd.
"Indeed." Cenak agreed. "Duty is duty, Zahira. We don't act for any other reason than the fact that it is right."
"That is not for you to decide! Or anyone else here!" Zahira scolded. "We must abide by the edicts of the Council. Duty to the Force also comes from following its will. And the Council is in the best position to know what that is."
"Why would the Force not will us to protect life?" Cenak retorted. There were some heartfelt answers from the crowd: "Of course not!" "The Council has ignored its duty!"
"I..." Zahira stammered, anxiety pressing in on her heart like a vice. "But..."
No. No. They're all staring at me! she suddenly thought, terrified. She could feel their disapproval stabbing her soul like pin-picks. It was too much. Instinct broke down her Jedi training as emotion flooded to her. Tears welled in her eyes, barely contained. She ran. Barreling through the crowd of gathered Jedi, past Nema and Genti, she rushed up and out of the cavern and into the forest. Cloud cover muted the moon's glow as she passed deeper and deeper into the wilds.
She ran until her lungs, emptied of air and unable to go on, pitched her exhaustedly to the forest floor. She gasped, lying on the dirt alone. How could she have been so foolish? Why did she just sit there and nod quietly? Instead, not only had she been made to look like a fool but she had embarrassed Nema as well. She's going to kill me. Zahira thought, imagining her friends demeanor.
A low growl emitted a few feet away from her. "Not if I kill you first." it seemed to say, dripping with murder. Zahira shot to her feet, peering through the darkness. Just barely, she saw it. A grown manka cat's eyes glared at her through the night. The beast bore its teeth, a crooked lattice of sharp bone.
Winded still, Zahira stood her ground. She could not hear anything through the banging of her heartbeat in her ears. Desperately, she focused and immersed herself into the Force, focusing on a tree no more than two or three feet in front of the manka cat. She may not have been an amazing lightsaber duelist but that was not the only way that someone who knew the Force could defend themselves. It was as simple to her as flicking her wrist.
The tree crashed down falling towards the violent animal, who darted back into the darkness. Thick foliage hide the beast's form as it slinked through the night, angered. Zahira could her the rustle of bushes and the cat's eager purr as it circled her for a moment and then stopped right before her. She could see its eyes, cunning and pleased.
Without warning, there was a roar behind her as a second cat lurched from the night and leapt at her, its claw slicing the air. There was little time to react and though she twisted to provide less area, the cat's sharp daggers edged right across her stomach, digging deeply into her flesh.
She gave an awful scream as she tumbled to the forest floor, the cat melding back into the dark around her. She could hear the two beast encircling her, moving in closer and closer as she struggled to get up. They were toying with her. It would be over soon.
The sound dominated the night as a stark emerald glow beamed down upon Zahira. A lightsaber, its master obscured in shadow, stood above her. The manka cats screamed with furious rage. She heard the rustle of foliage as they darted out, saw the single fluid motion of the blade, and felt the hard thud as the cats fell to the ground, smelling of ozone and burnt fur.
"Are you alright?" a deep, bass of a voice asked her. It sounded as if it was coming from all around her. "Can you stand?"
"I...I think so." she said, slowly rising to her feet, pressing her hand against her wound. Her gaze was brought upwards and she saw her savior. A hammerheaded figure toward above her, beedy black eyes examining her just as she was analyzing them. He was an Ithorian and judging by the wispy bread beneath his massive mouth, quite old. Zahira couldn't help herself from thinking, rather absurdly, that he looked like Nature itself.
"Who are you?" she asked, unsure if what she was seeing was truly there.
"Jedi Master Ixeh Pol." the Ithorian spoke in his surround sound voice. "I am honored to meet you."
"Zahira Talu-Song" she replied, grimacing through the pain of her wound. The words felt superfluous as they left her lips. Introductions felt completely unneeded as Zahira looked upon her rescuer. She did not know why but it felt like she had known him all her life.