Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 32

Ravas vanished. That didn’t surprise Ayli. Despite what Nix had done, Ravas was still a ghost, and pulling away from Nix had seemed like an overpowering and involuntary reflex.

“Woah,” Nix said and wobbled a bit before Ayli caught her.

“What was that?” Sali asked. Her blaster raised again and scanning around the small cockpit for an attack which wasn’t in danger of coming.

“Sorry,” Nix said. “That was the other Force ghost I’ve spoken with.”

“The other? Does that mean there are only two of them?” Zindiana asked.

“Two’s two too many,” Sali said, remaining wary as only a pirate could.

“This one sounded like she was Jedi?” Zindiana asked.

“I think so? A contemporary of Ravas too, obviously,” Nix said. “She’s not usually as ‘present’ as that though.”

“What does she want?” Zindiana asked.

“What do both of them want,” Sali asked.

“In case anyone cares, I have no idea who you all are talking about,” Goldie said. “Also if you could please put the blasters away. If they go off, you’ll definitely be shooting my insides, which isn’t all that pleasant even if I lack pain receptors.”

Sali and Zindiana glanced at each other, shrugged, and holstered their blasters.

“I think they were at odds when they were alive, and I think they still are, though not quite how Ravas imagines,” Nix said.

“You know their history?” Zindiana asked.

“It’s mostly intuition,” Nix said.

“I’d prefer nice solid facts,” Sali said.

“You can trust Nix’s intuition,” Ayli said. “It’s more than just fuzzy feelings. It’s…”

“It’s the Force,” Zindiana said. “You were right about the Jedi not being completely exterminated by the Empire. One of the Sisters in my order was a Jedi stationed at a creche along the rim. She saved a lot of kids, mostly because a bunch of random people joining my Order is a pretty typical occurrence, especially back when the Empire was coming to power. Sister B’Kallu taught the Sister who had potential what she could, and the rest of us how to recognize a Force user, and how to  deal with them.”

“I’m surprised the Empire didn’t make your Order a higher priority target?” Ayli said, wondering what impact a group of Special Forces Nuns could have had on the Rebellion if they’d stepped up.

Or had they? Ayli knew the Rebellion had survived because of a lot of allies who could never be formally acknowledged.

“Oh the Empire hated us. They eradicated my Order five times. Once even the safe house was actually one of ours,” Zindiana said. “We still have warrants out for the leaders of that particular Imperial garrison.”

“Why weren’t you with the Rebellion then?” Nix asked.

“Some of us were,” Zindiana said. “At least after we got rid of the leaders who wanted to side with the Empire. We had something of a schism, but it all resolved well enough.”

“Peacefully?” Nix asked.

“For those of us who were left? Yes, it was quite peaceful when the Imperial sympathizers were dealt with,” Zindiana said. “I suppose it was peaceful for them as well. We do still pray for them you know.”

“So what’s the deal with all this Jedi nonsense then?” Sali asked.

“That’s for them to tell us, I think,” Zindiana said. “What I know is that the Jedi, and other Force users can do far more than move objects around with their mind. Sister B’Kallu described the Force as being alive itself, and aware.”

“Alive and aware, but it doesn’t care how it’s used?” Sali asked. “I mean, there were bad Jedi too right?”

“It’s more complicated than that?” Nix said. “And, honestly, I have no training in this. I’m just going by what I’ve experienced and what feels right.”

“That might make you a better source than most,” Zindiana said. “The Jedi had their teachings and that would have colored their views of things. Being able to compare what you’ve discovered with what they believed would make for an excellent thesis.”

“How it is more complicated?” Sali asked.

“You’ve heard about the ‘Dark Side of the Force’, right? I mean if you watch even one bootleg vid with Jedi in it, there’s always some evil witch, or fallen master, or some stuff like that were someone ‘fell to the Darkside’. The thing is there’s an element of truth to that, but it’s not the Force that got a ‘Darkside’. It’s us. We’re “dark” and “light” and all sorts of mixed up bits in between.”

“I thought the Force was alive and aware though? Are you saying it’s all good, or is it just like an animal? Like it depends on how you treat it?” Sali asked.

“It’s…I wish Kelda was still here. She would definitely have the words to explain this,” Nix said. “Not that she would though. Okay, so, my take on it? The Force doesn’t have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. It has ‘harmony’ and ‘disharmony’. Like a jump drive. All of the pieces need each other – and the ‘engine’, or the Force, is really just the synthesis of those pieces. No one piece is an engine, and no one person is ‘the Force’, but all together, we are.”

“So we’re all just cogs then?” Sali asked.

“No, that’s why this is hard. And my metaphor sucks. We’re so much more than that pieces of a machine. And that’s why the Force is so much more than an engine. We don’t have one preset purpose for existing and so neither does the Force. But there’s still a flow to it as we create it and are created by it. “Dark” or “Light” if you do something with the Force, you’re altering that flow. I try to work with it, but from what Ravas has said, her master taught her to compel what she wanted, through anger, and fear.”

“That’s not healthy from what Sister B’Kallu described,” Zindiana said. “According to her, using the Force in anger let the Dark Side take hold of you and once you started walking that path, you would just get worse and worse.”

“You have to figure the Jedi weren’t entirely wrong about that,” Nix said. “They had a lot of experience with people making mistakes with the Force after all.”

“But you’re not wrong either,” Ayli said. “I know what you’re saying about using anger to make the Force give you what you want. It’s really easy to demand more power when your afraid or enraged. You feel so right in what you want, and I think the Force responds to that, even if what you want is to destroy people.”

“And when getting angry and smashing things becomes a viable answer…” Nix said.

“Then a lot of problems look like ones that are worth smashing,” Ayli said. “Because it works. To a point. But you pointed out that it’s still a choice. You can still walk away. When we fought the specters, well, I didn’t win, but I remembered the work we’d done.”

“And you didn’t give in to your fear, or your anger,” Nix said. “I could feel that. And I think it saved us. If you’d reached for power with your hate, I think it would have drawn on the Ancient Specter’s power.”

“And then I would have been possessed by two ghosts,” Ayli said. “Though maybe not for long. Ravas made pretty short work of the specter.”

“She did more than that,” Nix said. “When she destroyed him, she tore out the knot the Force had been twisted up into there.”

“Wait, what had happened to the Force?” Zindiana asked.

“Back when she and her master were setting up their Immortality scheme, they needed a nexus in the Force where they could work easily, so they created, for lack of a better term, a Dark Side nexus. The Force flowed there still, sort of, but it was bent and twisted and wrapped in on itself. It was miserable and horrifying, and by ripping the heart out of the Ancient Specter she also tore the blockage in the Force that they’d created free. There’s all kinds of other twists and snarls there, but with the main one gone, it’s possible the Force will be able to unravel those on its own.”

“Why would she destroy something she created?” Zindiana asked. “That’s her legacy.”

Ayli glanced at Nix who nodded to her.

“I don’t think she’d happy with her legacy,” Ayli said, trusting to the impressions which had been building in the back of her mind since Lednon Three. “She’s been trapped by that legacy for centuries. The Children of the Storm, woke her because of it and tied her to it even further.”

“It’s kept her from her rest,” Nix said. “And from someone she loved.”

“Someone who she still thinks betrayed her, it’s worth pointing out,” Ayli said.

“She might be coming around on that,” Nix said. “I think she wouldn’t have left like she did if Kelda’s words hadn’t hit something deep inside her.”

“So why did you say she was going to be our enemy then?” Zindiana asked.

Because she’d existed for longer than they’d all been alive and had never expressed an interesting in changing who she was even once? Ayli wondered if there was a universe where they ever could have met where Ravas wasn’t their enemy.

“Not the Ravas we saw here,” Nix said. “That was her spirit, or whatever essential element in us is in communion with the Force.”

“I thought there were some blood bugs that did that?” Sali asked.

“You’ve studied the Jedi too?” Zindiana asked, openly surprised.

“Not for real,” Sali said. “This was in one of the bootlegs Nix showed me.”

“You remembered that one?” Nix asked.

“You wouldn’t shut up about it for a week, how could I forget?” Sali said.

“It was a good vid,” Nix said. “And I looked up the ‘blood bugs’ thing. It turns out the Empire destroyed most of the facilities that made tests for them, but from I read they weren’t how you used the Force, they were just a life form which multiplied strongly when someone used the Force a lot. Basically like plants growing when there was a lot of good soil, sunshine, and rain. So correlation, but not causation.”

“That makes sense,” Sali said. “If it was like the movie, someone would have bottled up blood supplements of the bugs and everyone would be Jedi Masters or something.”

“I’m pretty sure the who ‘master’ thing takes training and effort,” Nix said. “I’ve been using the Force since I was a kid, I just didn’t realize, or wouldn’t let myself realized, what I was doing.”

“Wouldn’t let yourself realize?” Ayli asked.

“While there’s a mountain of evidence to the contrary, I have usually tried to keep myself safe,” Nix said. “Observing things, listening to them, knowing what people are feeling? Those are all pretty hard for anyone to spot. And pretty easy to play off as just natural character traits. Lifting heavy objects? If you keep your hands on them and they’re not too large, it’s pretty easy for that not to draw any attention either. Anything beyond that though? It never felt right to try more stuff, even when I’d just caught a good vid. Which I think was the Force warning me to not even consciously acknowledge what I could do or else one of the Inquisitors would help me down. Assuming they actually existed that is.”

“They did,” Ayli and Zindiana said at the same time with Zindiana adding. “Did in the past tense, and the galaxy is better off for it being the past tense.”

Ayli had never met or even seen one of the Imperial Inquisitors, but she’d heard the stores in the Rebellion. The cells which had been utterly destroyed. The ones which had been compromised. The ones that had sold other cells out. Zindiana was right, the galaxy was a much better place with the Inquisitors having been removed from it.

“Which brings us to the problem of Ravas,” Nix said. “I don’t think she is ‘past tense’. I think the Immortality treatment is why she’d so much more present than Kelda is, or even can be. When we get to Praxis Mar, I think we’re going to find the piece of her the Immortality treatment worked on. The part that’s holding her here.”

“The part she wants to destroy,” Ayli said.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 31

Making a woman disappear was a classic piece of misdirection and stagecraft performed all over the galaxy. Conjuring one from thin air however was rather less common, especially when she truly had not been there a moment earlier.

“Who the hell is that?” Sali asked, on her feet and with a blaster in her hand faster than Nix could blink.

“Stowaway?” Zindiana asked. She’d also seemingly materialized a blaster in her hand.

Seeing the two of them so rapidly and menacingly on guard should have been frightening but, to Nix’s relief neither of them were pointing the weapons at her, which spoke to a level of trust in her she’d hoped they felt but hadn’t been entirely sure of.

“What is this?” Ravas asked, trying to pull her hands free from Nix’s.

Nix held on firmly enough to indicate she didn’t want to break contact yet, but not so tightly that Ravas couldn’t have pulled free if she chose to.

“Sali, Zindiana, may I introduce Ravas Durla,” Nix said, without taking her eyes off the increasingly more confused Zabrak woman.

“Ravas Durla has been dead for centuries,” Zindiana said.

“She still is,” Ayli said, rising out of the pilot’s chair to examine Ravas more closely.

“What am I seeing here Nix,” Sali asked. “Is this a ghost? Are we haunted now?”

“No,” Nix said.

“Yes,” Ayli said at the same instant.

“I am not a ghost,” Ravas said.

“You are looking rather solid for that,” Zindiana said. “You’re also looking rather too young to be a woman who lived over a thousand standard years ago.”

“Nix what are you doing?” Ayli asked.

“Helping Ravas project herself more than she usually does,” Nix said, feeling the Force flowing through her like an eager river, delighted to be reunited with a long dry stream bed. 

“Why?” Ravas asked, apparently too confused to try to retreat.

“Because we’re heading to the final trial,” Nix said. “Your tomb. That you know nothing about.”

“I feel like we missed something,” Sali said. “What did you discover in that Spire?”

“We got the coordinates for the last planet,” Ayli said.

“And we know what’s waiting for us there,” Nix said.

“You do not,” Ravas said.

“Of course we do. You’re there waiting for us,” Nix said.

“Two problems with that,” Zindiana said. “First, if this is Ravas Durla, she seems to be here now, not there, and second, Ravas Durla is long dead. This can’t be her.”

“She was working on an Immortality treatment,” Nix said.

“And your master killed me before we could complete it,” Ravas said.

“Did she?” Nix asked. “Tell us exactly what happened.”

“I was in one of the Chrysalis Pod,” Ravas said. “Before the transformation could commence though, she was there, your master. She saw what was happening, what we were doing and she demanded that we stop. When we didn’t, she destroyed the Immortality Engine and me along with it.”

“How,” Nix asked. “What did she do. Exactly.”

“I…I do not know,” Ravas said. “I was fully immersed in the Pod. But I could hear her clearly. I heard the curses she spat at us.”

“At ‘us’?” Nix asked. “Or at your master? You were in a Chrysalis Pod. If you couldn’t see her, are you sure she could see you?”

“She called my name,” Ravas said. “I was the first one she commanded to stop.”

“And was she cursing then?”

“Jedi do not curse. They run from such power.”

“I thought you just said you heard the curses she spat at you?” Sali asked, not hosltering her weapon but relaxing her posture and grip a bit.

“My master fought her,” Ravas said.

“She was alone?” Nix asked. “I thought Jedi usually worked together?”

“They did?” Ayli asked.

“Yeah, or at least in all the bootleg vids the Empire didn’t manage to get rid of,” Nix said. “There was usually an older foxy one and a young idiot.”

“They were all idiots,” Ravas said.

“But did they actually work together?” Nix asked.

“They…hmm, were the others silent?” Ravas asked herself, answering Nix’s question in the affirmative through her confusion.

“So Jedi work together. But could Kelda have come alone then, not as a Jedi, but as someone who cared about you?” Nix asked.

That drew a bitter laugh from Ravas.

“She never cared for me,” Ravas said. “For all their talk of the connection of all things, the Jedi were quite insistent that none of their numbers ever be allowed to form bonds with one another. And when they demanded that she leave me, your master was all too eager to comply.”

“So why did she come after you?” Zindiana asked. Unlike Sali she had not relaxed her guard or changed the point of her aim.

“Our work was an abomination in the eyes of the Jedi,” Ravas said. “Eternal Life is not the way of the Force they said. They have slain those who sought it before, and did so again in the centuries that followed.”

“Seems pretty harsh,” Sali said.

“They are as unyielding as they are unforgiving,” Ravas said.

“Maybe that’s what got them all wiped out,” Sali said.

“The Jedi are not gone,” Ravas said. “They stand here before you.”

“Nix?” Zindiana asked.

“Can’t be,” Sali said. “She’s a mechanic. She’s not a Jedi. No offense Nix.”

“None taken,” Nix said. “I like being a mechanic.”

“She pulled a woman here from no where,” Zindiana said. “And that’s far from the only thing she’s done that had to have been using the Force.”

“Yeah, but she’s just Nix,” Sali said. Her blaster wasn’t pointing at Ravas anymore. To Nix’s relief, it still wasn’t pointing at her either. 

“She’s a nuisance is what she is,” Ravas said.

“I was hoping for ‘an aggravation’ or ‘an annoyance’, but I’ll take what I can get,” Nix said.

“Jedi are all of those things,” Ravas said.

“Were you trained? As a child perhaps?” Zindiana asked.

“By who? The Jedi were all wiped out,” Sali said.

“Not all of them,” Ayli said. “There were a handful or more in the Rebellion. At least.”

“Yeah, but she wasn’t in the Rebellion. She was too young for that,” Sali said. 

“Age didn’t really matter. Not to the Imperials anyways,” Ayli said and Nix felt the ache of an old pain lingering in those words.

“She’s right though. I wasn’t in the Rebellion. And I haven’t been trained by anyone. All the stuff I can do now, I figured out on my own,” Nix said, knowing Ravas wouldn’t believe her anymore this time than last.

“Jedi also lie,” Ravas said. “Often with every breath they take.”

Nix heard a distant laughter at that statement and felt a wave of approval ripple over her heart.

So Kelda was happy with how Nix was handling things.

That was comforting to know, if not particularly helpful.

“You know when I’m lying,” Nix said, making sure to star directly into Ravas’ eyes. “You’re far more attuned to the Force than I am. I couldn’t lie to you if I needed to.”

“That should be true,” Ravas said. “But I don’t believe it is.”

“You took that Ancient Specter apart with ease,” Nix said. “The one who was spinning me around like a drive wheel.”

“Indeed. Because you refuse to embrace the destructive side of your nature,” Ravas said. “But perhaps…”

She looked away from Nix and Nix had to fight the urge to reach up and turn Ravas head back so that Ravas would be forced to confront the truth’s she’d spent centuries running.

But coercion wasn’t going to pull Ravas out of the pit she’d fallen into. Nix couldn’t compel Ravas to understand why Kelda was still waiting for her. That was something Ravas had to see for herself, had to accept in spite of all the misery her life had been filled with.

“If this is Ravas Durla, and you’ve been talking to her for a while now?” Zindiana phrased it like a question but didn’t need anymore than a nod of confirmation from Nix to continue. “In that case why did we need to go Lednon or Dedlos? Why couldn’t she just tell us where the final temple was?”

“We picked her up on Lednon,” Ayli said. “When I got this.” She waggled the unlit lightsaber blade.

“Okay, so why didn’t we skip Dedlos then?” Sali asked.

“They did not trust me,” Ravas said.

“Should they have?” Zindiana asked.

“Of course not,” Ravas said. “Trust is for fools.”

Nix bit back a rejoinder to that. They were all fools. She knew that and she suspected Ravas did too, but reminding her of that fact was not going to convince her to see the world more clearly. If anything each little pushback against her worldview would only drive Ravas deeper into her beliefs.

“She also, like everyone who relies on astrogation droids to get them where they need to go, doesn’t know astrogation coordinates,” Ayli said.

Everyone on the bridge shrugged at that. Nix included, since it wasn’t like she’d memorized the jump coordinates for more than a handful of systems.

Which, she supposed, was a handful more than most people bothered with.

“Speaking of trust,” Zindiana said and glanced over at Nix. “You said, she’s waiting for us on the final world. I think we could all use an explanation with a bit more detail.”

“I’m guessing, sort of,” Nix said.

“Well that’s comforting,” Sali said. “We’ve had such good luck on the first two planets. I’m sure going into the last one with a guess to back us up will turn out just great.”

“We can drop you off any time you like,” Ayli offered, her tone friendlier than it would have been a week earlier Nix thought.

“You’ve deprived me of one fortune,” Sali said. “I’m getting my share of this one, or I’ll sell you back to the Klex’s for real this time.”

Which was, of course, not at all the reason Sali had stayed with them, but Nix was fine with letting that bit of self-deception stand. Working on Sali’s issues was Sali’s problem. And maybe Zindiana’s. Nix was sure where the two of them were in relation to each other.

“What are you guessing?” Zindiana asked.

“Ravas is a ghost,” Nix said. “Sort of. She doesn’t feel like Kelda does though.”

“Could that be a Jedi vs. non-Jedi thing?” Zindiana asked.

“Partially,” Nix said. “But I don’t think I could do this with Kelda. I think there’s something special about Ravas, something that’s kept her bound to this world more strongly than a ghost should be.”

“So you too believe I am an abomination,” Ravas started to pull away, disappointment plain in her voice.

“Not in the slightest,” Nix said, locking her grip tighter. Ravas was free to break the connection between them if she wanted to, but Nix wasn’t going to let it be over a misunderstanding. “You’re not an abomination. You never were.”

“You have no idea the things I did in my life,” Ravas said.

“They might have been abominable. Actions can be. Not people though. If you did something bad, that doesn’t mean you are bad. It means you did something bad. And you have to accept that, and, ideally, choose differently next time.”

“Once the Dark Side claims you, your destiny is forever bound to it,” Ravas said.

“Bullshit.” Nix wasn’t entirely sure that she was the one who’d spoken that word. It felt like it had come from far, far away, but on consideration she felt she could stand behind it.

“You don’t know…” Ravas began.

“Neither do you,” again the words were coming out Nix’s mouth but they didn’t feel like hers. “You’ll see though. If you can believe in these people for the two seconds you couldn’t believe in me, you’ll finally see you daft old fool.”

“K-Kelda?” Ravas stammered.

“It’s not much longer now Ravy,” Kelda said through Nix. “Just a little further my beautiful, beloved idiot.”

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 30

Fleeing from a battlecruiser tends to go poorly for freighters. Indeed the last time Ayli had tried it, they’d been scooped up by a tractor beam and been forced to spend time with Ulno Klex.

“Take the helm,” Sali said. “I’m going back to the guns with Zin.”

That wasn’t what Ayli had been expecting to hear when she arrived in the Goldrunner’s cockpit but she gratefully slid into the pilot’s seat and ran through the briefest of flight checks she could.

Yes they were under fire.

Yes the Goldrunner had just been flying ten seconds prior.

Ayli could still hear her old flight instructors bark about none of that being an excuse to skip a flight check.

“Hold on,” she said after she confirmed the state of all the critical systems as being at least vaguely within tolerances.

“Zin, Sali, how are the targeting systems on those guns?” Nix called out from the co-pilot’s seat.

“Twitchy,” Zindiana called back. “I’m having better luck with them off.”

“Good. I’m disabling them then,” Nix said. “Also buckle in cause I’m taking the arti-grav offline too.”

“Wait, we can’t jump without that can we?” Ayli asked, knowing for certain that jumping to lightspeed without being in control of the gravitational forces affecting the ship was a fine recipe for cooking up a cloud of dissociating particles were your body used to be.

“How do you feel about lightspeed skipping?” Nix asked.

“Hate it,” Ayli said without hesitation. 

The strain on a ship when it jumped to lightspeed in space was considerable, but it occurred in predictable amounts, ones which all ships with jump engines were designed to withstand across thousands of jumps without maintenance.

Jumping to lightspeed within a planetary gravity well on the other hand was specifically on the “void the warranty” list for every jump engine and ship that could mount one. In most places it was a felony as well, though usually one prosecuted posthumously for the purposes of determining liability for damages.

“I’d ask you to marry me if we weren’t already married,” Nix said before calling back to the newly installer gunners stations. “Sali, how well did you wreck their tractor beams? Are they going to have them back online yet?”

Ayli didn’t hear the answer because Darsus Klex and his support ships caught up to them at that point and all of her attention went into navigating through the barrage of fire they rained on the Goldrunner.

“Forget the cruiser, Darsus’s fighter group’s got a targeting lock on us,” Ayli said, spinning the Goldrunner to give Sali and Zin an open field of fire at the still distance fighters.

“Sorry there Wensha, thought we’d given them the slip for a little longer that this,” Sali said.

“You did fine,” Nix said. “The deflectors are running at 220% power for the next two minutes. We can shrug off their direct fire just fine for at least half that time.”

Ayli felt a hungry smile creep over her face. If she didn’t need to make the Goldrunner dance through a mad flight pattern, she could focus on making things easier for Sali and Zin. Much easier.

“My target,” she called out and selected the nearest ship in Darsus’s fighter group, feeding that to Sali and Zin’s firing reticles. 

Distant plasma bolts and laser blasts crashed against the Goldrunner’s deflector shields and scattered away. The same was not true for the refurbished Tie-Fighter nearest to them. It tried to break off as Zin’s shots arced in towards it, but Ayli barreled the Goldrunner right through the incoming fire and held a deadlock on the Tie’s path.

Dead being the operative word a moment later as Zin’s shots found their mark and the fighter exploded in a shower of debris.

Ayli was grimly tempted to repeat that trick with the rest of the fighter group. With each one they took down the return fire would lessen after all.

Except a minute was not a long time, and the expanding debris cloud in front of her was an excellent opportunity for escape if she used it properly.

“How close is the battlecruiser?” she asked, trusting Nix to have the navigation data handled.

Unexpectedly, it was Ravas who answered though.

“They will not block you,” she said. “Slay these enemies…”

Ayli glanced over her shoulder at Ravas going oddly silent.

“Slay them or not, your path is clear,” Ravas said and sank back into the seat she didn’t actually need to sit in.

How Ravas knew that when she claimed to never use the Force for future seeing was something of a mystery but Ayli decided to trust the ghost this time and do what she’d been intending to do anyways.

Looping the Goldrunner up, she dove downwards into the rapidly falling cloud, intent on making it look like she was going to ride it down to the frozen surface and escape from it into the cover of the fissures and canyons around the Spire.

“I need arti-grav back in 2 seconds,” she said and felt the ship’s gravity reassert itself almost instantly.

“No problem,” Goldie said.

From within the plummeting debris cloud, Ayli had no view of the planet or the sky above, so she had to rely on nothing but sensor data. 

Which was being scrambled by the debris around them.

She’d anticipated that, and knew that with enough time picking the true readings out of the chaff was easily possible for a decent nav computer. “Enough time” however was easier to find when there was an atmosphere to slow the descent of the cloud one was hiding in. With Dedlos being a frozen world with a frozen atmosphere, they were descending substantially faster than she’d hoped.

Which meant they were going to crash.

Ayli took one calming breath and reached out.

Her hands danced over the controls, finding a true vertical orientation for the Goldrunner and lighting the engines up as bright as they could go.

Darsus’s fighter group, veered upwards as well, but two other exploded for making the mistake of taking too direct a course behind the Goldrunner, leaving themselves perfectly lined up for Sali and Zin’s counter fire.

“Do you have a jump mapped yet?” Ayli asked.

“I’ve got two,” Nix said. “We can jump to the Praxis Mar if we can get to the hyperspace lane, or we can jump to Velkos Eridini in about thirty seconds,” Nix said.

Praxis Mar was the location of the last trial, a destination which Ayli was simultaneously growing completely uninterested in pursuing any longer and certain that she would have to visit.

“What’s Velkos Eridini?” she asked, hoping for some surprise better option.

“An abandoned Outer Rim farming colony according to the charts,” Nix said.

“Abandoned sounds good, shouldn’t be any Klex forces waiting there for us,” Ayli said.

“Coordinates loaded then,” Nix said.

Without an atmosphere there wasn’t the transition to space of the stars coming up that usually accompanied leaving a planet, but right before they hit the mark Nix had plotted for their jump, Ayli saw the Klex battlecruiser, still off in the distance, venting bright gasses and slithering towards them like an angry Hutt after a weekend of debauchery.

And then the stars reached out and the blue of hyperspace claimed them.

“You survived,” Ravas said, disbelief clear in her voice.

“We did better than that,” Nix said. “We’ve got a jump on them now. Thanks to you.”

“I did not aid you in this,” Ravas said.

“Uh, you very definitely saved our lives down there,” Nix said. “I won’t forget that. Especially since that command center held the coordinates for Praxis Mar and where to find the Third Trial on it.”

“My tomb,” Ravas said. “They built their grand shrine on my tomb.”

“You have a tomb?” Ayli asked. “Or is it just ‘the place where you died’?”

Ravas chuckled at that.

“The tomb was there before the Children of the Storm ever violated my halls,” Ravas said. “Though, they too had not expected that. I think they believed me to be a myth, or a bed-time story to scare naughty Jedi Padawans.”

“Wait, they never talked to you?” Nix asked.

“They spoke about me often,” Ravas said. “Some of their inventions were delightful. Others, less so. None of them could see me as you do though.”

“Backing up a second here,” Ayli said. “If they didn’t build a tomb for you, then who did?”

Ravas was thoughtful for a moment.

“I do not recall,” she said. “I have slept across greater spans of time than both your lives put together. Someone in those early intervening years managed it. One of the acolytes who was spared from the purge I imagine.”

“Maybe one of the predecessors of the Children of the Storm?” Nix asked.

“Unlikely,” Ravas said. “Had my master’s teachings lived on, the cult which sprang up would have been less interested in base, worldly power and more focused on perfecting the means of cheating death which we researched.”

“You two learn where we need to go in there?” Sali asked as she and Zin made it to the Goldrunner’s cockpit.

“We’ve got coordinates for the final trial,” Nix said.

“Excellent,” Zindiana said. “How long till we get there.”

“We’re not going there,” Ayli said. “Not directly anyways. We’re jumping to an abandoned system now. We can get out bearings from there and find a path to the last trial that doesn’t involve running into the Klex battlecruiser again.

“The battlecruiser won’t be a problem,” Sali said. “Didn’t you hear what we said?”

“They patched the ion drives output into the tractor beam’s manifold,” Nix said with a malicious sort of glee.

“So no more tractor beams?” Ayli asked.

“No more main drive at all,” Nix said. “They were moving on backup drive power only. And their tractor beams will be done for. There’s not repairing that. Full replacement only, no warranty coverage.”

Ayli let out a sigh of relief.

“They can’t chase us then?” she asked, looking to Nix for a professional opinion.

“They’re lucky they’re not stuck in that system forever,” Nix said. “A refit of a battlecruiser takes time and money too, so even if they got towed out rather than limping back themselves, they’d still need a station capable of repairs on that scale. And a crew familiar enough to do it on short notice. We could go vacation on Ryloth for a month and we’d still be ahead of them.”

“How would they even know where to go next though?” Sali asked.

“Assuming that Darsus didn’t manage to wreck the command room with all the shooting he did, the coordinates were right there in one of the ledgers. With what we did to the main trap, it would be simple for them to send someone down who could get into the place by taking a better path than the one we used.”

“I want to know how they showed up when you needed them,” Ravas asked. “You couldn’t have reached out to them through the Force.”

“How did you folks know to come for us?” Nix asked, passing along Ravas’ question indirectly even though it looked like she already knew the answer.

“I heard the call come in from Darsus that you’d broken his ship and he needed support,” Goldie said. “I figured that meant you did too.”

“We had most of the charges in place by that point,” Zindiana said.

“Just couldn’t get any bombs close enough to Ulno to fix that problem before it comes up again,” Sali said.

“Not for lack of trying,” Zindiana said. “Unfortunately he’s smart enough not to have major air ducts anywhere near his quarters.”

“That fine,” Nix said. “It’s not him that we really need to worry about.”

“Yes, a far greater danger awaits you at the Third Trial,” Ravas said.

“That’s not what I meant,” Nix said, drawing confused stares from Sali and Zindiana. “I meant I’m concerned about what will happen to you when we get there.”

Rising from her chair, she clasped Ravas’ hands and Sali and Zin both gasped.

They were able to see ghost.

Who was no longer a ghost.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 29

Time had an unpleasant habit of marching on no matter how much Nix wanted to linger in a moment and process everything that had just happened.

In this particular case, lingering was contraindicated by the rhythmic thumping of a starship’s heavy laser batteries blowing chunks out of Spire on a faster cycle time than they were supposed to be run.

It was the misuse of what were very delicate weapon systems that bothered Nix more than the fact that Darsus Klex was intent on killing them and in a position to accomplish that feat before anyone could intervene.

“What do you mean she killed you?” Ayli asked, her lightsaber still in her hand as they raced down the ancient stairway which lead to the secondary hangar bay.

“Your wife’s master slew me and killed my master,” Ravas said, appearing in front of them and disappearing as they ran past her. “It is not particularly complicated.”

Nix laughed at how the Force moaned at the deep, deep inaccuracy of that description,  but doing so hurt her ribs. Being spun around like a child’s toy was not a pleasant experience it turned out, and hadn’t been without a fair bit of bruising and pain. That Ravas had destroyed the Ancient Specter wasn’t something Nix thought she should feel gleeful about. That didn’t stop her from feeling gleeful though. The Ancient Specter had been a jerk in addition to being an unnatural abomination that the Force was glad to see destroyed, and Nix had no reason to disagree with the Force on that.

“She’s not my master,” Nix wheezed out as they ran. Between her and Ayli, she was, normally, in far better shape for physical exertion but human stamina had its limits and the beating she’d taken had exhausted most of hers. Nix could rely on the Force to give her strength but that was only going to hide the additional damage she was doing to herself which seemed like a dangerous idea even under the somewhat dire circumstances before them.

“She taught you how to manipulate the Force,” Ravas said. “Whether you acknowledge her or not, she holds mastery over you, through the power she holds and the power she can grant you, if nothing else.”

Kelda hadn’t taught Nix anything. Or at least nothing specific. And from Nix could see, Kelda didn’t have any power to grant, or any desire to empower Nix at all even if she could.

But arguing with Ravas was only going to drive a wedge further between them. Probably? Nix wasn’t sure she could get a good read on the Zabrak woman’s ghost. Which might be a trait of Dark Side users, or it might just be a Ravas thing.

“She cares about you still,” Nix said instead, hoping to break through the ghost’s perpetual detached distain and was rewarded to see Ravas miss her next flickering teleportation appearance. Nix knew Ravas was still around, but she’d managed to fluster the ghost, which in turn said Ravas still had feelings she could connect to. 

The trick was maintaining that connection.

“She knew we’d find you,” Nix said. “She didn’t warn me not to, or tell me that you were dangerous. I think she wanted me to help you.”

Ravas’ laughter was short and bitter.

“You presume much,” she said. “To think that you could be of value to me when you were too weak to save yourself or one you profess to care about.”

Which was true, and stung, but Nix didn’t let the hurt linger. How could she. It was true. She hadn’t been able to protect Ayli or herself. Even if she got stronger, there would still be people and situations that would be beyond her ability to manage. 

But that was where friends and allies came in.

“Every part has value,” Nix said, drawing on the lessons she’d picked up rather than trying to explain things in terms Ravas would gravitate towards. “You just need to know where they fit in and what they can do.”

The tower shook with a particularly close explosion and Nix had to grab onto Ayli to steady herself.

“It’s not much farther now,” Ayli said. “Can you keep going?”

“Yeah,” Nix said. “That was just a lucky shot, he’s firing blindly because doesn’t know where we are.”

“He does not need to locate you. Not when he has sufficient firepower to reduce this spire to rubble. As you are, you cannot escape this place,” Ravas said. “Your enemy has you boxed in.”

Nix reached out with her senses, casting them to where her intuition guided her and was rewarded to find things in motion that she hadn’t requested or dared hope for.

“Is that the future you see for us?” Nix asked, knowing she was doing a poor job of baiting the trap she planned to lay.

“I do not look to the future,” Ravas said. “Even your master would tell you that the Force only offers lies to doom the weak willed and unwary. You should know to deal with your present as it is.”

That was not at all how Kelda would have described things, Nix knew. From how tangled Kelda had been trying to express even simple concepts, Nix guessed an explanation of the visions the Force could offer would have been accompanied by an hour of caveats and exception warnings for every minute of solid lecture. 

That aside though, she was still glad to hear Ravas’ answer.

“Kelda didn’t mention any of that,” Nix said, using the name to diffuse some of the shock Ravas seemed to feel on hearing it. “Honestly, I think you’ve taught me more than she has by an order of magnitude at this point.”

“I’ve watched you,” Ravas said. “You’ve learned nothing from me.”

“Maybe we need to speak more then,” Nix said, ignoring the distrust and disgust in Ravas’ voice. There was an undercurrent to it which whispered all too clearly that Nix wasn’t the source or target of Ravas’ distress. 

Like an angry, hissing Growler Cat, if you wanted to get past her defenses, you couldn’t pay the unhappy noises too much attention. They needed to be respected of course. Pushing Ravas too quickly would likely result in similar bloody slashes to trying to pet a Growler Cat could produce. Given time, and space, and understanding though, Nix suspected that both Growler Cats and Ravas would grumble themselves into a begrudging acceptance of their associate.

“I think not,” Ravas said. “You can no more change what I am than she could, and I have no patience to entertain the arguments of the dead.”

“Maybe I just want to listen,” Nix said.

“You will not accept what I have to say,” Ravas said. “You do not see the Force as it truly is.”

“I can only accept what I believe to be true,” Nix said. “But I can promise to listen. Your story deserves to be heard.”

“She’s right,” Ayli said. “As a historian, one of my most important functions is to preserve and present the past as the people who lived it saw things. What we know of your life and the cult who sprung up in worship of you is so fragmented that it paints a picture which cannot possibly be accurate. Your story won’t be accurate either. None of us can relate the full history of our lives, but that doesn’t mean our stories aren’t worth preserving.”

Ravas missed another teleport appearance, but at the next landing she appeared in front of Ayli, halting their passage.

“I will not be able to tell you anything if you perish in this Spire,” she said. “Let me in. Only till we are free of this place. I can save you both. As I did in the control center.”

“You’d give me your word that you would set me free once we’re safe?” Ayli asked, though Nix could tell she wasn’t really contemplating accepting the deal.

“You would accept my word?” Ravas asked.

“Yes,” Nix said, knowing that Ravas had probably never been in a position where she felt any compunction about breaking a vow or a promise. “But in this case we don’t need to put you or Ayli to the test.”

“You will die,” Ravas said. “He will kill you. It is in his nature, as I have seen in countless others.”

“Yeah, I hate that you got put through that,” Nix said, catching glimmers of the myriad of complete monsters Ravas had to deal with during her apprenticeship under her Dark Side master. 

Ravas laughed again.

“You would hate more what I did in return.”

“I don’t think I need to,” Nix said, the near bottomless well of loathing Ravas possessed seeming to hold all the hate that could ever be needed for the things she’d done in life. “Just like I don’t think we’re going to die here.”

“If you would listen to nothing else I say, listen to this; the future is uncertain. It is always changing, and here, of all places, what you see coming to pass will be a trap. The Dark Side does not grant you life or freedom freely. You must earn it, and here you are sunk deep into its embrace. Here you must fight, must kill, to survive. Any visions which tell you otherwise are tests to winnow out those who cling to rosy dreams because they are too weak to face the terribly reality before them.”

Nix smiled, warmth wrapping around her heart at the sentiment behind Ravas’ words. The ghost cared. Ravas couldn’t admit that. Not directly. But she cared.

“Oh we definitely need to talk more,” Nix said. “I could get drunk on how refreshing it is to hear someone explain this stuff directly.”

“Then let me fix this,” Ravas said.

“You don’t need to,” Nix said. “I’m not saying we’re going to be safe because I’ve seen a vision of a future where we’re safe. I can’t even feel the usual flow that tells me where I should go. It’s like the Force has just been silent, or mostly silent, since I got here. So, yeah, I know I can’t rely on that. Which is why I’m relying on something far better instead.”

“And that would be?” Ayli asked.

Nix held up here hand and slowing closed her fingers into her palm until her index finger remained for one moment longer.

“Wensha, Lamplighter, do you copy!” Sali yelled over the comm unit Nix was carrying.

Nix dropped her hand to punctuate that this was the moment she’d been waiting for.

“We’re here Goldrunner, can you see the secondary landing bay?” Nix asked.

“Sure can Mom!” Goldie said. “Just need a moment though.”

A large explosion reverberated through the spire. 

“Got ‘em!” Goldie said.

“Got who?” Ayli asked.

“Wait. Dang it. Got the wrong one,” Goldie said.

“What is happening out there?” Ayli demanded.

“We’re escaping,” Zindiana said. “Thought you might like to come along.”

“Thought you might have a decent hiding spot,” Sali said.

“We’ve got a few Klex fighters following us,” Goldie said. “And Darsus’s ship. Sorry, I thought I hit him but one of his escorts intercepted the particle beam.”

“Particle…are you dogfighting with the Klex’s?” Ayli asked. “Where did you get a particle beam cannon from?”

“The same place she got a Quad Turbo Laser batter and two torpedo racks,” Sali said.

“As parents you really need to be careful letting your kid hang around with a pirate,” Zindiana said.

“I don’t…what is happening?” Ravas asked, looking as dumbfounded as Nix had ever seen her.

“You were right that on our own, we’d be dead here,” Nix said. “But we’re not on our own. All this exploration stuff? It’s been a fantastic cover for Sali and Zin to do the real work of getting us out of here.”

“Coming in for a landing right now,” Goldie said. “Don’t be in the hangar.”

The roar of starship engines on the other side of the door told Nix that Goldie had scanned the hangar before arriving. Also, if any of the Klex forces had been waiting for them there, well, those unfortunate souls were now free floating plasma. 

“We’ve got maybe thirty seconds before they start firing into the hangar. Let’s be flying out of here before then,” Nix said and dashed into the hangar and towards Goldie’s open ramp, happy to let the Force give her the strength she needed for this one critical moment.

Behind them Ravas stared is disbelief and consternation.

This wasn’t how things would have gone in her world.

This wasn’t a world she knew how to deal with.

Or that she’d ever imagined could be real.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 28

Ayli was glad she already had her lightsaber in her hand. It didn’t feel like it was going to be enough, but it was a damn sight better than being unarmed. That thought sent her stepping in front of Nix, who, notably, did not have a lightsaber to defend herself with.

“It’s always adorable when one of them volunteers to die first,” the Ancient Specter said.

His appearance suggested that he was the shade of a departed human, tall and fair haired, in the prime of his life.

Except that what stood before Ayli was not and never had been human. She wasn’t even certain that she was really seeing it. It felt more like a projection from the Force rather than anything that held memories of breath and blood.

“If you’re so eager for the dying to start, why don’t you come a little closer,” Ayli said. The lightsaber could hurt the specter. It’s blade wasn’t magical, or imbued with the Force, it was simply very good at disintegrating things and for all the specter’s incorporeal creepiness, it’s presence in the world as anything more than a patch of bad feelings was dependent on the ectoplasm it seems to be composed of.

“The food thinks it’s not worth playing with,” the Ancient Specter said, rising from the chair it had been lounging in to pace across the control room. “Do not worry food. We will not rush your suffering. We know you cannot linger here as long as we have, but we have much time together.”

The lightsaber could hurt the Ancient Specter but Ayli could feel the power radiating from the monster. A part of her wished she hadn’t been training with Nix, hadn’t been honing her awareness and senses. Without some ability to sense the Force, she wouldn’t have known anything about the Ancient Specter, wouldn’t have had any sense of just how overmatched she was.

“You don’t want to do that,” Nix said. “You don’t even want to try.”

Ayli risked a glance back, expecting to see Nix offering her hand in peace to their adversary.

Nix did not look peaceful.

Her features were cast harder than durasteel, and any traces of mercy were hiding too well for Ayli to detect them.

“Oh, we assure you, we have spent countless time desiring nothing more than this day when we may feast once more,” the Ancient Specter said, pausing at one of the desks to pick up a ceremonial ribbon with a phrik disk medallion hanging from it.

“You won’t,” Nix said, her voice flattened into a knife edge.

“But we will let you live, or whatever you’re doing, if you find someplace else to be,” Ayli said, knowing the bluff wouldn’t work but surprised by why it failed.

“No we won’t,” Nix said, spoiling a negotiation which hadn’t ever held any real chance of success.

“How delightful,” the Ancient Specter said. “Descension in the ranks. Perhaps we shall start with the one which thinks it knows how this will turn out?”

Before Ayli could react, she heard a gurgle from behind her and spun to see Nix floating two feet off the floor, clutching at her throat.

“Fear not, at least not yet, we promised to take our time and so we shall,” the Ancient Specter said.

That was enough for Ayli. Remembering the things Nix had taught her, she charged forward, letting the Force guide the stroke of her blade.

And she missed.

The Force was so snarled within the specter that  it only needed to casually wave one hand and Ayli was sent tumbling off course into one of the walls. Blood burst from her nose as an unseen hand ensured that she smashed face first into the wall and then bounced hard off the ground when she fell back.

She felt a growl building inside her and shot back to her feet in time to see the Specter rotating Nix in the air like a pinwheel tool.

Movement wasn’t as easy as it had been the moment prior but Ayli pushed herself forward, keeping her steps careful and centered.

It didn’t matter.

The Ancient Specter waved its hand again as Ayli flew back into the wall, impacting it like a fall from orbit.

“Don’t give up,” the Ancient Specter said. “It’s ever so boring when they lose hope soon into the proceedings.”

Ayli had not lost hope, but her control over her rage was definitely starting to slip.

Which wasn’t helping Nix, who was still gulping for air.

“If you want me to fight, then leave her out of this and I’ll give you the fight you’re looking for,” Ayli said, hoping that if Nix got free for even a moment she might be able to escape.

Escape to where was an open question, but anywhere that wasn’t near the Ancient Spectre had to be an improvement.

As Ayli fought to move forward, Nix was fighting too. As she spun around, NIx dragged one of her arms painfully forward. She’s raised it no more than a hand’s breadth before flew backwards, crashing into a wall of her own. 

Nix rose with fire in her eyes, and Ayli saw it hadn’t been the Ancient Specter who threw her away. Nix had done that to herself in order to break free.

“How very clever,” the Ancient Specter said. “Keep it up. Keep looking for trick that will save you. That will let you escape. That will buy you one more breath.”

Nix collapsed to her knees, driving downwards by a terrible blow to her back.

Desperate to do something, anything, Ayli hurled the lightsaber at the specter.

The blade froze in mid-air and began slowly twirling, as under the specter’s control as everything else in the room was.

“How sad, now that one’s disarmed,” the Ancient Specter said. “Here, let us give the food its tool back.”

Ayli barely had time to duck as the lightsaber shot towards her, point first. At the speed it was going it should have struck the wall and shattered into a million tiny fragments. Instead though, it dropped down lightly to clank on the floor beside her.

“Go on,” the Ancient Specter said. “Take it up again. You might get closer this time. Maybe you can distract us. Maybe the other food can. Maybe we will peel the skin off of her and stew you in a marinade of her suffering. Or does her agony not touch you?”

Ayli’s fight against the emotions swirling within her was as losing a battle as the one against the specter. She could feel the yellow rings Nix had spoken of starting to cloud her vision.

You’re still you, and you still get decide who that is, no matter how strong the temptation to be someone you don’t want to be gets. Nix had said those words while they practiced together. Had believed in her. 

Still believed in her.

Ayli drew in a deep breath and thought of the calm she’d felt working with Nix. Thought of the calm she felt flying, even through the tightest of scrapes. Thought of the peace she would feel again in the future that waited for them.

It wasn’t much, and it didn’t drive away the rage and the fear that was threatening to overwhelm her, but it was enough for her to rise to her feet again and call the lightsaber to her hand once more.

“Yes, yes, try again. Try harder. Give us everything you have and more,” the Ancient Specter said.


It wasn’t Nix or Alyi who had spoken, and for a moment Ayli didn’t recognize the voice, charged as it was with an unnamed and unfamiliar emotion.

“They are not yours. They’re mine,” Ravas said, her voice disembodied and echoing from all the points around them.

“I beg to differ progenitor,” the Ancient Specter said, it’s voice filled with an all too nameable and familiar anger.

“Good. You’re begging. Now leave them. They’re mine.” Ravas said, her voice closer than it had been, though still without a particular location.

“You hold no sway here, progenitor. Your time is past. You are weak and we shall feast!” the Ancient Specter roared, turning left and right ever more frantically.

Ayli jerked backwards as a hand burst through the specter’s chest, carrying a mass of pulsing purple slime that had been its heart.

“I said, they’re mine.” Ravas shoved the specter forward, it’s body crumbling to dust as she crushed its heart into a bright gemstone.

The overwhelming pressure from the Force faded and the sense of snarled wrongness diminished as well.

“Thank you,” Nix said, through a choking cough. “Thank you for coming.” She grasped onto the nearest console to steady herself as she rose to her feet. “I didn’t know if you would.”

A series of complicated emotions raced across Ravas’ face too quickly for Ayli to catalog or sense, before the dead Zabrak woman school her features back into their usual vaguely-annoyed expression.

“I came to protect my legacy,” Ravas said, turning to Ayli. “You can still be of much use to me.”

Ayli wondered about that.

On the one hand, she clearly was not in Ravas’ league when it came to manipulating the Force. The ease with which Ravas had dispatched the specter aside, there was also the small issue that Ravas seemed to have discovered how to live on indefinitely after she died, a trick which Ayli was certain she could not replicate.

“What did that thing mean by calling you ‘progenitor’?” Nix asked. “I got the feeling that it was a lot older than you are, wasn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Ravas said. “It had existed through millenia long before I trapped it here.”

“You brought that thing here?” Ayli asked. “Why?”

“My master commanded it,” Ravas said. “It was not our intention to capture a creature such as that specifically, merely to sanctify this location and enhance the energies which it naturally gives rise to. The arrival of the specters was both of a result of that process and a boon to it.”

“Killing that one isn’t going to break the hold the Dark Side has on this place, will it?” Nix asked, sounding like she already knew the answer.

“The Dark Side’s shadow will be weakened,” Ravas said. “Over time it may even fade back to its natural levels.Or perhaps one of the other specters will consume enough of its fellows to rise as the new Ancient. I never studied how a Dark Side nexus might be cleansed.”

“Would Kelda know?” Nix asked.

A tremor ran through Ravas’s body, but again, she reasserted control over herself.

“The Jedi were arrogant fools who would tell you they knew everything of how the Force worked,” Ravas said. “In her case however, maybe.”

Ayli had roughly one hundred thousand questions she wanted to ask, at least half of them hanging on the tiny wistful note at the end of Ravas’ words. With too many of them to sort through though, a silent moment passed before Ravas continued.

“She was always a good student,” Ravas said. “The attentive one. If anything in the Jedi texts had anything of actual value to say about this place, she might have known of it.”

“Thank you,” Nix said. “She’s not here. She’s almost always distant,” Ravas snorted at that but didn’t interrupt. “But this place feels like a world apart from the rest of the universe. It feels, is ‘cut off’ the right way to say it?”

“It is just the opposite,” Ravas said, in a far more pedagogical tone than Ayli would have guessed the ghost would ever adopt. “This is a nexus of the Force. It is more connected to the universe than almost anywhere else.” There was pride in her words, but it faded as she continued. “Those connections are not ones which would speak to you though. They are bound within and around themselves. Strong. Unbreakable.” Pride leaked out leaving only sad regret. “Inescapable. And limiting.” She turned and paced away. “It was not the working we should have made.”

“Why didn’t you undo it then?” Nix asked.

“Time. It ran out of us,” Ravas said. “When she killed me.”

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 27

Nix had not expected to drive Ravas off as easily as she had. Part of her had assumed the ghost was going to be a permanent fixture in her life so long as she was with Ayli. If she was feeling honest with herself, she would admit that more than a few plans had crossed her mind for how she might exorcize Ravas, even if only for a day or an hour.

“Who was she talking about? Who did you speak to?” Ayli asked.

It was not the most important question before them at the moment, but it did suggest how much Ayli trusted Nix, given that Nix was the only thing standing between them and drowning in what was becoming a swiftly flowing river of liquid nitrogen. 

“It has to be Kelda,” Nix said. “There can’t be anyone else who would freak Ravas out like that after all the centuries she’s been dead.”

“She knows you’ve spoken to her old flame though, doesn’t she?” Ayli asked, uncertainty frosting her words more than the freezing river could.

“You know, I don’t think she does, or did I guess,” Nix said. Holding the bubble around them wasn’t as difficult as she’d imagined it would be, but that was because she wasn’t doing most of the work.

The Force wasn’t a muscle, or a battery. She didn’t have a giant reserve of Force energy in her. That wasn’t how it worked. Or it wasn’t how it worked for her. Ravas’ arguments suggested that some Force users did use their own reserves of strength to dictate how events would play out, but Nix knew that would never work for her.

What felt right to her was harmony. All her life she’d reached for that. She had memories of being just a wee little thing and feeling pulled by a flow beyond anything else in size. It had saved her life then. Not in a grand gesture but simply by coaxing her tiny feet onto the side of the hover platform that hadn’t collapsed due to bad rigging. No one else had considered the path of her steps significant. She was just a little child randomly running around an air concourse who’d gotten lucky. Nothing mystical about it. But the moment had stuck with her. She’d listened to the flow and it had carried her to safety, and so she’d grown up with at least one ear tuned for it, learning to follow where the Force led her without being fully aware that it was at all unusual.

She wasn’t unique in following the Force where it led her. Everyone felt its push and pull. When it went against their desires though, most pulled back or pushed on through it. Nix couldn’t claim she hadn’t done the same, more than a few times, and so she hadn’t thought she was particularly special.

Even standing amidst a river of death, she still suspected she wasn’t. 

She could feel the Force passing through her, could feel the liquid nitrogen parting because while it weighed far more than she could ever lift, it was so very small compared to the what the collective life of the universe could handle.

Not that she could call on the entirety of the Force. Only what she needed. And only as much as needed her.

“There’s enough coolant in this tunnel to reach the shuttles, isn’t there?” Ayli asked.

“More than,” Nix said. “Which the shuttles will not be happy about. Darsus isn’t going to be flying back to his daddy any time soon.”

“That raises certain problems for us too then,” Ayli said.

“I’m hoping we’ll find something at the end of the tunnel that’ll help with that,” Nix said.

“Hoping or you’ve had a vision of something?”

“Just hoping,” Nix said. “I can’t hear too much with all this rushing past us.”

It wouldn’t have been impossible for the Force to give her a clear view of where to go, but it seemed to prefer to leave things unspecified as much as possible. What bits of precognition Nix had experienced seemed to be limited to short bursts centered around moments of extreme peril.

Which suggested it was good that she wasn’t seeing what was to come.

“How much longer can you hold this bubble up?” Ayli asked.

“Long enough to get us to the far end,” Nix said. “There’s got to be a hatch or something we can use to get to safety. Especially if the candidates were following a tradition like Ravas where they’re burning their own reserves to use the Force.”

There was not, it turned out, a hatch at the end of the hallway.

There was a lift.

“This thing is a hundred years old, right?” Ayli asked.

“At least. It could be a lot older if the Children of the Storm found one of Ravas’ old bases to put to use for their scheme.”

“And it’s been exposed to extreme coolants, probably more than once.”

“Given the wealth the Children put together? I’m guessing hundreds of time? Maybe thousands?”

“And no one has been maintaining it?”

“I don’t see any droids around, so, yeah, probably not.”

Ayli flicked a switch on the lift’s control panel with her gloved hand.

The lift started rising instantly leaving the half filled corridor behind them.

“How is it still working? I can’t get a Kaf machine to last more than month and the Children have a death trap that lasts centuries?” Ayli demanded.

“Kaf machines are meant to break. They want you to buy new ones,” Nix said. “No one’s buying replacement death traps though, so they make those with extensive self-repair functions. The energy budget is probably pretty high but until the magma cools they’ve got a nice reliable geothermal source to tap into.”

“Should get one of those for the Goldrunner,” Ayli grumbled.

“Wait, did you think I didn’t build that into Goldie’s skillset?” Nix asked. “She can repair and modify herself however she wants, well within the limits of the components she has available.”

The lift finished ascending to reveal a room of long faded opulence. Small plasma torches burst to life on their arrival, illuminating a grand stage which they stood in the center of. Rising rings of seats flanked the stage on one side while on the other a huge red curtain hung, framing a view of empty wasteland outside the spire.

“I feel like there’s supposed to be an audience waiting for us here,” Ayli said.

“I think there is.” Nix gestured to the far back seats where spectral forms were flickering in and out of existence. 

“I don’t…” Ayli started to say and then drew her breath in sharply. Her lightsaber was in her hand and blazing with light an instant later. “Those aren’t ghosts.”

Nix watched and listened, trying to understand what she was seeing.

Ayli was right.

There were no ghosts in the theater chamber.

There were only the things which had eaten the ghosts.

“Oh. This was not a good place to come to,” she said, understanding the danger they were in. 

The Spire was a place where the Force had been cast out of balance and twisted into an ugly, tangled mess. Pain and death was baked into the foundations of the structures and the designers ill-intent had been preserved as well as lift had across the centuries.

The spectral creatures who inhabited the Spire had been drawn to it like moths to a flame and were caught in its web of hate and malice as surely as the ghosts of those who’d failed their tests had been.

“We should leave,” Ayli said, stepping in front of Nix as the spectral forms began to flicker closer.

“Darsus is still down there,” Nix said. “And the shuttles will be frozen to the floor for a while.”

“That is a problem,” Ayli said. “But it might not be as bad a problem as this one.”

“We might be able to talk to these things,” Nix said. “We know that’s not an option with Darsus.”

“They don’t look like they’re interested in conversation,” Ayli said, brandishing the lightsaber in a clearly threatening gesture.

“Hey!” Nix yelled to the specters. “We’re not the ones who did this to you. We can fix it though.”

“We can?” Ayli whispered.

“We can blow up the Spire if we can get out of here,” Nix said.

“As a historian, I find that idea abhorrent,” Ayli said. “As a sapient being with breath in my body still I am all for it though.”

The specters did not seem concerned with either Nix’s plan or Ayli’s lightsaber.

They should have been though.

As the first one flicked within range, Ayli lashed out, the red blade searing through whatever ectoplasmic substance the specter was composed it.

It screamed and Nix could feel it dying.

The others surged forward at that.

Some of them charged towards the stage, holding back only as far as the circle Ayli spun in to ward them off. 

The others turned to the wounded specter and devoured it, drawing fresh screams from it which seemed to energize all of them.

“Killing them makes things worse,” Nix said.

“Glad to hear any alternatives,” Ayli said.

Nix raised her hand and tried to shove the lot of them back as she’d held back the liquid nitrogen. When the Force she called onto the shield them reached a specter though it twisted and buckled, warping in on itself. 

The specters didn’t have material bodies to grasp onto but the long simmering rage within them had carved channels which carried away Force projections.

“I think these things are evolved to eat Force users,” Nix said.

“Maybe that’s why Force people carry lightsabers?” Ayli said.

“Good luck that we’ve got one then,” Nix said, noticing that even in this dire situation there were still threads of luck working in her favor.

“It’d be luckier if we had two of them,” Ayli said.

“Can you hold these things off if we try to get out of her?” Nix asked.

“I think so,” Ayli said. “They’re so, I don’t know, snarled? Makes them easy to get a read on even when they’re flickered out.”

“Let’s try to get up there then,” Nix said, pointing to the booth at the back of the theater where a variety of machinery was visible.

“I don’t think there’s a spaceship up there,” Ayli said.

“If there is, it’s a really small one,” Nix said. “What I’m looking for are the controls to this place, and the comms.”

“That could be useful,” Ayli said. “Stay close okay.”

Staying close turned out to be far easier said than done. Their dance on the Goldrunner had been at least partially under Nix’s control and she’d held back from moving as fast as she could to give Ayli a chance to get used to sensing the distance between the two of them. Fighting against the specters required just a bit more speed and precision than that.

They were halfway up the stairs to the back of the theater when the first specter slipped past Ayli’s guard. Nix could sense them too and managed to get her right hand in front of the specter before it struck.

Cold deeper than the liquid nitrogen flashed through her hand and up her arm. It was reaching into her chest to freeze her heart when she rallied and used the Force to move her own hand, casting the specter away.

“Nix!” Ayli had sensed the damage Nix had taken but there wasn’t time to deal with that.

“I’m fine,” Nix said. “I can keep up. Go all out. You won’t hit me.”

Ayli hesitated for a moment and wound up narrowly slicing a specter in half before it could barrel through her chest.

Nix laughed at the indignation on Ayli’s face and that broke the last bit of hesitation that was holding Ayli back.

Together they spun through a dizzying series of steps, slicing another two specters who were torn apart by the hoard before the growing melee reached the doors at the back of the chamber.

Nix opened the doors with Force, allowing them to dance through before she slammed them shut again.

Despite their incorporeal nature, half the specters didn’t seem to be able to follow them. They lost another half of the horde when they dashed into the stairwell leading to the control room, and the last few dropped away step by step as they rose to the top of the Spire.

Nix wanted to believe that meant they were moving towards safety.

But she knew they weren’t.

That feeling was confirmed when they entered the control chamber.

“It has been so long since anyone came here to die,” the most ancient of the Specters said.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 26

Darsus did not trust them. He was an fool but not quite that big of a fool it seemed.

Which was perfect.

If he’d been more reasonable then he wouldn’t have walked into Nix’s trap.

Whatever that was.

Ayli was going almost entirely on faith that there was a plan, a trap, or some scheme in Nix’s mind to deal with the problem Darsus, or more precisely Darsus’s six armed retainers, posed. They hadn’t had time to work out any contingencies for a situation like this, in part because it was such a perfectly stupid situation that only Darsus could have been responsible for it.

Kicking herself for not thinking of that wasn’t going to help Ayli at all though, especially not when she had Ravas ghosting around ready to snipe at whatever real or imagined failings she could find. 

Oddly however, Ravas was being quiet. 

Ayli cast a quick glance over at the ghost and found her watching Nix in turn.

Nix was humming a jaunty little tune as she tinkered with a small rod with a trio of glowing lights on its end.

It wasn’t a blaster. Ayli was familiar with a lot of different kit-bashed blaster designs and Nix’s little device was lacking a bunch of key elements – like a focusing muzzle to start with.

“What in the hells is that?” Darsus asked, shoving past one of his bodyguards and into near perfect range for a lightsaber swipe to the throat.

Or she could just shoot him. For as flashy as the red lightsaber was there was still a lot to recommend a good old blaster.

Either option would get her or Nix shot full of blaster bolts from the bodyguards of course. Unless Ayli was fast enough. Which she suspected she might be. 

Or she could let Ravas ‘help’ her. She’d kept the ghost out so far, but she could sense beyond the boundary of that choice the power that waited for her if she was able to draw on Ravas’ training and Ravas could work with a real living being’s connection to the Force.

Ayli wasn’t that desperate yet though. 

She would never be that desperate. She swore that to herself. Or was it a promise? A hope? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to give herself over to some millenia old witch. She’d fought too hard for the life she had to lose it to anyone or anything at this point.

Which was not a good sign for Darsus or his goons.

And Nix would know that. So what did she have in mind?

“As you can see, the path forward has a pretty simply impediment,” Nix said as they all gathered in the small entryway.

In front of them the atmo-barrier flickered and popped, holding the tide of beyond-freezing coolant at bay like an aquarium’s viewing window. Bubbles and contaminants fizzed in the flood, rendering it effectively opaque, but Ayli had seen how long the corridor was so had a sense of  the sheer volume of coolant they were looking at.

“So find a different door to go in,” Darsus said.

“There isn’t one,” Nix said. “I checked the schematics on the terminal over there,” she gestured to a small pad beside the door. “This place is built with one opening in or out. I guess they wanted to be able to defend it easily, and, you know, kill people who were too weak to pass the test.”

“What test?” Darsus demanded, shaking his blaster, though not yet at Nix.

Lucky for him that meant he got to keep his hand attached to his wrist.

“This is the site of the Second Trial, right?” Nix said. “Well, here it is. The test is ‘get past enough liquid nitrogen to freeze a herd of banthas.”

“That’s impossible,” Darsus said.

“Not if you take your time,” Ayli said. “When it warms up it evaporates.”

“How long does that take?” Darsus asked.

“Could vary a lot,” Nix said. “I think this one would take at least a week, and that’s with the trap being designed to be cleared out. I guess there might be an option to clear it in a day or maybe even an hour, but the controls for that are definitely on the other end of the corridor.”

“We’re not waiting a week,” Darsus said.

“I agree. We’ve got a better option after all.” She brandished the device she’d been working on. “Unlike the people they brought here when the Cult was a public thing, we don’t have to care about passing their tests how they intended us to. All we need to do is get through using whatever tools we can.”

“That thing?” Darsus asked, pointing towards Nix’s device with his blaster. That was almost close enough to justify separating his arm from his  hand but Ayli held her ground. 

Nix was working, interrupting would be rude. 

And probably fatal.

“The actual applicants wouldn’t have had personal forcefield generators. All we need to do is push the liquid nitrogen away as we walk though and we’ll be fine.”

“Wait, that’s a forcefield generator?” Darsus asked, looking to his goons for confirmation.

“Well, not a full one,” Nix said. “The power drain for a real forcefield generator would mean something this size could only put one up for about a tenth of a second. I don’t need to screen high intensity things like blaster fire though. Just the liquid gas. Which is much easier.”

“Why did you have something like that on you?” Darsus asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion. 

“I didn’t. I built it,” Nix said. “Well, cobbled it together. I had the parts in my toolkit but it took a little work to make it so they would work how I want. Should work. I haven’t tested it yet. Might need a few tweaks.”

“Should work?” Darsus asked.

“Will work,” Nix said. “This will definitely work. A few tweaks and it will be safe as anything. We should all be able to fit inside the bubble it makes with no problem. We’ll want to be careful about touching the walls of course, those will be super cold, and disrupting them could pop the bubble, but that’s simple avoid, so we will definitely be safe.”

“What happens if the power on that thing dies,” Darsus asked.

“It’s not going to lose power. I build good stuff,” Nix said.

“But what if it does?”

“Well, that’ll be fine too. We won’t feel a thing. We’ll freeze and probably crumble to ice cubes faster than our nerves can process the signal.” Nix didn’t look concerned about that. In fact it sounded like that would be an excellent result in her book.

“We’re staying here,” Darsus said. 

“You don’t have to,” Nix said. “There’ll be a lot more of the complex to explore once we pass the Trial.”

“Only one entrance and exit though right?” Darsus said.

“Yeah. They were pretty paranoid I guess. I mean we could try to blast a new entrance in but until we know where the coordinates for the Third Trial are kept, there’s a decent chance we’d be erasing them and making the real treasure impossible to find.”

“We’re staying here,” Darsus said. “If you’re not back in an hour, we blast the place to rubble and let the bots work out how to put it back together.”

“They don’t work like…you know what, never mind,” Ayli said, forcing down her irritation before it could ruin the scheme Nix so clearly had in mind.

“Can we have two hours?” Nix asked. “There might be a lot to explore in there. And I might have to build a different gadget for the next trap.”

“One hour. That’s it,” Darsus said.

“We’ll just have to work quick then, I guess,” Nix said. “Suppose we better get to it. Sixty minutes. Sheesh. I better make sure this thing doesn’t overheat.”

With that she stepped forward and raised the device she was carrying to be level with her eye line. Beyond the atmo-barrier, a dimple formed in the coolant.

“Let’s get going,” Nix said, holding her free hand out for Ayli to take.”

“No,” Darsus said. “She stays here.”

“I need someone to come with me,” Nix said. “They’ll need to hold this device while I work on the control mechanism at the other end of the hall. It’s simple work, so maybe you want to do it instead?”

“I wouldn’t mind staying here where it’s nice and warm,” Ayli said.

She watched the conflicting emotions war in Darsus before he finally came to a decision.

“Fine. You go. But you’ve got an hour. And the clock is already counting down.”

Ayli took Nix’s hand and let herself be pulled into the bubble that formed in the coolant.

They’d taken no more than two steps into the flood before Nix stopped.

“Do me a favor,” she said. “Stab the atmo-barrier’s projectors here and here.” She gestured to two spots on opposite sides of the corridor at about head height.

Ayli flicked the red blade to life with glee in her heart and struck exactly where Nix had indicated.

The sound from beyond the barrier was delightful.

It didn’t fail all at once. Instead it began to flicker and spring leaks. One after the other. Each jetting out a stream of super-cooled liquid. Darsus got clipped by one in some unfortunately non-fatal part of the anatomy and began swearing and calling for his goons to open fire.

Which they did.

The blaster bolts were not especially effective against the meter or so of coolant shielding Nix and Ayli, but they were quite excellent at accelerating the damage to the atmo-barrier.

“Think they’ll run in time?” Nix asked. “I was figuring they would but now I’m not so sure.”

Darsus’s scream of panic rose over the sound of blasterfire and began rapidly retreating.

“Yeah, they’ll be fine,” Ayli said. “How long will your gadget really hold out though?”

“Oh? This?” Nix said and stuffed the device back into her waistbelt. “This is a loop verifier with a grade B cycle adjuster. Looks pretty though right?”

“Wait. What’s making this bubble then?” Ayli asked.

“I am,” Nix said. “And we should get going because I’d really like to be gone by the time they come back here to see what happened to us.”

“How are you…?” Nix started to ask.

“She’s trained with someone,” Ravas said.

“Yeah. You two,” Nix said.

“That’s not possible,” Ravas said. “You have skills it would take a Jedi a lifetime to master.”

“Maybe they were really lazy?” Nix said. “Or there were other things they had to work on? I’ve been moving stuff like engine components around for a long time though. This isn’t all that different. Except for the part where I don’t have to touch the things I’m moving.”

“No. The Force…you can’t be that strong in the Force. You don’t have any anger to drive your power.”

If Ayli didn’t know better, she would have sworn that Ravas was having a crisis of faith right in front of her.

But shouldn’t ghosts be beyond that sort of thing?

“I don’t need anger. I’m not making this happen,” Nix said. “The Force wants this as much as I do. I’m just…I don’t know, here to help it focus in this moment? Wait, do you have to demand that it do things for you?”

“That’s what focus is!” Ravas said. “Honing your mind to project your will into the world. Making the Force obey your desires. Having the strength to claim the power to make things as you wish them to be.”

“Take my hand,” Nix said, offering her other hand to the ghost. “Feel what I feel. It’s not like that at all. It doesn’t have to be. It’s not a battle. It’s a partnership. We’re together. Ayli and me. And the Force too. Even you. All of us.”

Ravas looked at Nix’s hand like it was the most venomous of serpents, the stark terror of recognition repelling her with the force of a gale wind. 

“You’ve spoken to her,” Ravas said, fear drenching every word, and vanished completely.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 25

Being dunked in liquid nitrogen was not a typical hazard for a starship mechanic. The cooling lines to various components tended to be better behaved than that, and most didn’t carry anywhere near as much of the liquified gas as the trap which had dumped its contents on Nix’s head.

It hadn’t been foresight which saved her, or not exactly foresight. As she stepped across the threshold, the Force had spoken with perfect clarity to let her know that she was in danger from literally every direction.

So she’d pushed it away.

All of it.

In every direction.

The effort had driven her to her knees but with both arms extended she was able to maintain the bubble of space that the liquid nitrogen was flowing around.

It was still really damn cold though.

“NIX!” Ayli yelled from only a few meters behind her, and a new warmth entered Nix’s heart.

“I’m okay!” she yelled back, adjusting to the weight of the freezing liquid and struggling back up to the her feet.

“She doesn’t have the strength for this,” Ravas said, her voice carrying through the barrier between them without any of the muffling that Ayli’s had.

A spark of irritation lit in Nix’s heart at Ravas’s claim and with it the load she was carrying seemed to lighten.

That wasn’t what she needed.

She could feel the whole spire around her was suffused with memories of loss and pain. It was tempting beyond measure to snap back at it, or to cut it off.

I tried to turn away from it, a familiar voice whispered in her mind from a place more distant than the stars, Which worked to a degree. It was what I’d been trained to do, to rise above, to find clarity by creating emotional distance.

Is that what I should do? Nix asked, feeling that wasn’t the right answer somehow.

Which was all the answer she received.

She listened for a long moment, hoping Kelda might speak to her again. In the distance, Ayli and Ravas were arguing but Nix wasn’t listening for them. She was focused on the brighter, more hopeful side of the Force. 

Which was almost as drowned here as she was.

This was not a place where good things happened.

This was not a place where people had been kind to one another.

This was not a place where people had even lived. It was built for a purpose and that purpose was as mechanical and unbalanced as its engineers could make it.

Nix noticed that the liquid nitrogen was not getting any lighter. The sensible action was to go back. They could wait for the flood to warm up and evaporate as gas. In the worst case, the rebreathers in their masks would prevent them from suffocating in an all nitrogen environment and they could explore at their leisure.

Except, if Nix was making a trap like this, she would definitely make sure it was able to recondense a fresh supply of liquid nitrogen in the time one flood’s worth was able to evaporate.

By that logic, she should move forward. She took a few steps in that direction and felt the liquid nitrogen sloshing around her. She could keep going. A corridor full of liquid was heavy but she had this. She could keep going.

But did she want to?

Ahead of her, the first ice covered statue awaited. The figure was humanoid, but so covered in ice, Nix couldn’t tell what species it was supposed to be beyond that broad description. It’s pose was one of supplication and terror, fallen to it’s near with one hand raised in despair to ward off the doom which had clearly claimed it.

That was what awaited Nix if she failed. She knew that as certainly as she knew she would not fail.

Ayli sounded so far away, but that was due to the muffling effect of the liquid between them.  And because Nix was still moving away from her.

Nix stopped.

The creators of this trial had engineered it to isolate the applicants. It drowned you and it was only through your own strength that you could win through to the far side, emerging reborn from the cruel baptism or left behind like the statue as a frozen testament to those who dared challenge a trial they were too weak for.

Nix wasn’t too weak. Even as drenched in the Dark Side as the spire was, she could still feel the Force flowing through her, life sheltering life. The original engineers had envisioned that but they hadn’t counted on putting another engineer to the test.

With a contended smile, Nix reversed her course and walked back to where Ayli was waiting.

“You’re alive!” Ayli said and grabbed into a fierce hug the moment she was through the atmo-barrier that was keeping the liquid nitrogen out of the entry chamber.

“And running away,” Ravas said, though neither woman paid her any attention.

“Come on, you knew that,” Nix teased, guessing more than knowing that Ayli had been able to sense her presence.

“Don’t do that to me again,” Ayli said, parting from Nix and giving her what passed for a stern look.

“I won’t. In fact I think this will work better with if we both go in there,” Nix said.

“Imagine that. Just like I’d said?”

“Yes, but this time I have a plan for what we can do.”

“Is this a plan I’m going to hate?”

“I don’t think so,” Nix said. “It involves stabbing things with the lightsaber.”

“I’m listening.”

“There’s no one in there to stab though?” Ravas said.

“We don’t need to stab someone,” Nix said. “We need to stab something. Specifically the delivery nozzles for the liquid nitrogen.”

“Won’t that mean they’ll dump more liquid nitrogen on us?” Ayli asked.

“Right now the tunnel is still pretty full,” Nix said. “There’ll be vents to let the gas escape as it warms up, otherwise this whole place would explode the first time the trap was triggered. If we lightsaber the nozzles, the machines that condense the gas will be stuck permanently refreshing the supply. Since it’s probably not designed for extended duty, it’ll probably fry itself in a couple of days or so. Then we can wait a bit, let the the flood in there evaporate completely, and walk around at our leisure.”

“Won’t that much coolant take a long time to evaporate though?” Ayli asked.

“Typically, yeah, but that can vary a lot based on the materials its interacting with. Also, unless I miss my guess, they’re venting the waste heat from the compressor underneath the floor of the corridor,” Nix said. “I don’t think you’d want to have a trap like this and then not be able to get into your base for a month or more.”

“Or you could just perform the trial as it’s meant to be performed,” Ravas said.

“You mean, rush right into the trap and stumble on the second trap which is obviously waiting for us before we clear the first one?” Ayli asked.

“Your strength is great enough to overcome all of the obstacles in here,” Ravas said.

“And my intellect is sharp enough to know when to listen to my wife,” Ayli said and threw an accusatory glance at Nix.

“The Klex’s won’t be happy,” Nix said. “But I think that’s a good thing. If Darsus gets bored enough he might either leave, or do something stupid.”

“Which could be bad for us,” Ayli noted as that it were by far the most likely outcome.

“It could be, but there’s not a lot of ‘good for us’ options in how this ends,” Nix said.

“Unless Sali and Zin are able to do something about that battlecruiser,” Ayli said.

“They’ve got Goldie to help them,” Nix said. “She’s not built for cracking battlecruiser command systems but she should be able to keep them off the Klex’s scanners unless they do something really loud.”

“With Sali I’d say ‘loud’ would be the most subtle we could hope for, but Zin’s got a better head on her shoulders than that.”

“So, you’re okay with this plan then?” Nix asked.

“It’s going to annoy the Klex’s so it seems like a perfect one to me,” Ayli said. “We should comm them as soon as we’re done though. Days without a message from us will yield very different actions than if they know we’re stuck here, waiting.”

“Maybe we comm them first?” Nix suggested. “Giving them the impression that they get a say in what goes on here might increase their patience a bit.”

Ayli grumbled and shrugged. “You’re probably right. Let me do the talking through. Better if they think of you as just the ship’s mechanic.”

Raising the Klex battlecruiser meant venturing out of entrance chamber and into the disguised hangar where they’d left their shuttle.

Which was how they saw that it hadn’t taken long at all for Darsus to grow bored enough to do something stupid.

“I knew you’d run away!” he said, from behind the safety of six of his father’s armed guards.

“Oh good, you’re here. That saves us a comm,” Ayli said, refusing to break her stride towards their shuttle. “Let your father know that there’s a trap, which we expected obviously, and that we’ll be dismantling it. Looks like it’s going to take about a week to get past it.”

“I’m not your message boy,” Darsus said. “And you don’t have a week. Get by it now.”

“The tunnel to get through is filled with freezing coolant,” Ayli said. “It’s going to take a week, at a minimum for it to evaporate.”

“Not my problem. Get through it.” Darsus stepped in front of his goons, his blaster already in his hand.

“Don’t taunt your enemies,” Ravas said, walking directly behind Ayli.

“Really Darsus?” Ayli said, not bothering to reach for either her blaster or her lightsaber. “What’s your play here? You’re going to shoot me for calling your father?”

“I might shoot you just because I feel like it,” Darsus said, blaster shaking just a little in his hand.

Nix could feel the Dark Side rising. This was not the sort of place to have tense standoffs. It wanted violence and it needed death.

How do I stop this? she asked, hoping Kelda, or anyone might have the answer.

I usually used a lightsaber to deal with situations like this, Kelda said. Can’t say it was a great option then, not sure if it’s a great option now.

Which was as helpful as Nix had expected.

If a lightsaber wasn’t the solution though what other tools did she have to work with?

She breathed in and tried to draw the possibilities to herself.

If she tried to interrupt, Darsus would shoot her. For certain. And then Ayli could cut him in half. Possibly she’d carve up the rest of the guards too. Possibly they’d fill her full of blaster bolts before she could manage it. That would depend on how much aid Ravas provided. Nix might survive – dodging a blaster bolt at the range they were at would be difficult but moving enough not to get hit anywhere too vital was theoretically possible. The other guard though would fire far too many blasts for her to avoid given that there was no cover to work with.

Alternatively, she could try to force push Darsus and his minions out of the cave. The Spire was definitely happy with that idea. It wasn’t quite as visceral of a slaughter as it would prefer but all those bodies dashed to pieces at its base would add nicely to pool of Dark Side energy which wreathed the Spire.

Most other violent solutions ran to the same end, through either more direct or more subtle means.

What I need is some way to turn this place against itself, she thought and received and feeling of approval from Kelda in the far distance.

Which was, of course, the answer.

“Hey, Ayli,” she called out. “Why don’t we deal with the trap now? We don’t want Darsus to get too frosty on us.”

Ayli’s hand had dropped to her side where the lightsaber hung, but she paused and met Nix’s gaze before nodding. She didn’t know what was coming next, but that was okay. Neither did Darsus.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 24

Dedlos was, if anything, even less tolerant of living beings infesting its surface than Lednon Three had been. Where Lednon had been wracked by a mega-storm which only threatened to electrocute would-be interlopers, Dedlos was a bit colder in its menace.

“It’s so cold there the atmosphere has frozen,” Nix said. “We’re going to need special gear to even attempt the Second Trial.”

“No you won’t,” Ravas said. Ulno Klex, Darsus and their bodyguards couldn’t hear her, but Ayli and Nix could which made it all the more infuriating when the ghost failed to provide any follow up information since asking her for clarity would have made them both seem too unhinged for Ulno to continue working with. As a method of getting booted out an airlock went, speaking to people who weren’t there would have been an undeniably effective one, so Ayli settled for glaring briefly in Ravas’ direction.

“The Children of the Storm set these up to con their marks,” Ayli said. “If people felt they’d passed the tests because they were wearing a lot of tech, they would have been less invested, both emotionally and financially. There must be a hidden base on the surface somewhere that we could dock with.

“I have this sneaking suspicion that the Children conveniently never mentioned anything about that when they told you we’d be arriving in this system, did they?” Nix asked, turning away from the 3d projection table of the planet to look at Ulno Klex.

“Quite surprisingly they did,” Ulno said. “They even provided coordinates for the ‘sacred site’ you were intent on looting next.” He spun the globe and tapped his finger on the center of a landmass in the northern hemisphere. “It is, as you might imagine, an empty shell and quite clearly a trap.”

Ayli spun globe so the ‘sacred site” face her and then gestured to zoom in for a ground level view.

“Oh yeah, that is a great place to kill people,” she said, which Ravas sniffed at. The ghost had clearly been looking forward to pointing out how foolish it would be to go there, but in Ayli’s line of work, picking through the ruins of ancient civilization wasn’t something you got to do more than once if you weren’t observant for dangers they contained.

“Is that an atmosphere dome they have setup over it?” Nix asked.

“That’s the first part of the trap,” Ayli said. “Any permanent installation on a world like this would be built into permanent atmosphere enclosures. Powered domes are for temporary camps or if you want to be able to turn them off an expose everyone inside to the native atmosphere with the flick of a switch.

“So we would need suits to explore it anyways, great,” Nix said.

“Not just suits, powered suits,” Ayli said. “The frozen atmosphere is partially liquid. It will steal heat a lot faster than vacuum will.”

“And powered suits can be detected, which will set off the other traps,” Nix said with resigned understanding.

“Also, that place is visible from space. A simple scan of the surface would pick it out a hundred times out of a hundred. On a planet they erased from the galactic nav charts.”

“That does seem a little sloppy,” Nix said, continuing to study the globe.

“You’re the ones who seem sloppy,” Darsus said, pacing around the outskirts of the room. “We should be sending them in now. Is the point that they’re expendable?”

“You really have no idea how to get the most out of your investments do you?” Ayli asked, without really thinking about it.

She’d run into Darsus a few times before the whole debacle with the Goldrunner started, and repeated exposure had only solidified her opinion that he was two brain cells short of having a pair of them.

“She’s correct,” Ulno said before Darsus could open his mouth and make the situation worse somehow. “There’s no point sending our guests to explore a location of no value. If we wanted to kill them, we have plenty of options here, and none of those incur fuel costs or the potential loss of a shuttle.”

“We could send them in their shuttle.” Darsus’ objection was the whining of a five year old who really wanted to break one of his toys.

“I thought you’d claimed the Goldrunner as your own?” Nix said. “I guess this means we still own her?”

Darsus growl of rage was held in place by Ulno’s chuckle of amusement. The bodyguards didn’t move or make a sound in either direction but Ayli noticed one of the fighting to suppress a smile too.

“We have an advantage in searching for the right place,” Ayli said, dragging the topic of conversation away from humiliating Darsus. 

“The liquid atmosphere?” Nix guessed. “It would prevent them from building anything in the lowland areas. And the seas are all frozen solid.”

“You can carve things into ice,” Darsus said, as though Nix was an idiot for not considering that.

“Under ice bases would need tunnels to the surface,” Ulno said. “And the gaps in the ice would be both unusual and detectable, though not without some effort.”

“Also, if the planet every goes through a warming phase, your ice walls would flood into the base. Or you could use regular walls and hope the extreme temperature changes don’t create cracks in them,” Ayli said. “So, they’re not in the oceans. And they’re not anywhere too low.”

“I do hope you’re not going to propose a full geological survey of the planet’s mountain ranges?” Ulno asked.

“If I thought I could get you to pay for one, I absolutely would, but given that the portable treasure here is going to be minimal, I assume that’s not in the budget?”

“It is refreshing to deal with a professional,” Ulno said.

“Well then in my professional opinion, this is where we want to look,” Ayli said, pointing to a small island that was covered in mist with a single spire rising from it.

“Seems rather isolated, on a planet where there’s nothing in particular to be isolated from?” Ulno said.

“That’s one draw, though there are at least fifty places that are about as isolated,” Ayli said. “The mist is the real pull though.”

“There’s mist all over the place,” Darsus said.

“Yeah, in scattered patches, here and there, with one commonality to all of them except this place,” Ayli said.

“They’re all in deep crevasses? Huh, why is that?” Nix asked.

“They aren’t crevasses, or at least not natural ones,” Ayli said. “Someone fought a war here a long time ago. Those cracks are from Mantle Breaker bombs.”

That she’d seen the effects of far more recent detonations was a fact she didn’t intend to share with anyone in the room. The sight of the ancient aftereffects of ones brought back enough unpleasant memories as it was, the last thing she needed was to dwell on those thoughts any further.

“It’s why this planet is so strong in the Dark Side,” Ravas said. “Even a thousand years later, the ones who died here still call out in rage against their fates.”

“What’s causing the mists then?” Darsus asked. “No one’s dropping bombs on it anymore.

“Mantle Breaker bombs cause massive seismic shocks to a planet. You can destroy most infrastructure with them, and you will definitely leave scars in the crust that extend down to the magma layers if the planet is still geologically active.”

“So the magma is boiling the atmosphere back to a gaseous state?” Nix asked. “Sounds unstable.”

“It is, but on geologic timescales,” Ayli said. “In the meantime, I’m guessing the view from the top of that spire is breathtaking.”

“And a perfect sales tool for the cult’s scheme,” Nix said. “We’ll still need to wear suits when we go down there though.”

“Do a quick scan. I’m betting we’ll only need breathing masks,” Ayli said, wishing for a moment that Zindiana was able to back her up on that. She could sense the nun, as her pirate queen, had secreted themselves in the duct work nearby, but conversing with them would be even worse than talking to Ravas.

Ayli wasn’t sure how Zindiana had convinced Sali not to come into either the throne room or the war room with guns blazing, but Ayli was glad they’d worked that out. The last thing she needed was more chaos in a situation where they were already dancing on a knife’s edge.

“You knew?” Nix asked as the scan completed.

“With the frozen atmosphere melting in the magma at the base of that mountain, you’ll have gas ascending and thinning out until it refreezes.. If it was going to be useful as a base, you’d want to pick a spot on it where the air pressure was close to galactic nominal.”

“There’s got to be a lot of places like that though,” Darsus said.

“Probably, but none of the others are setup so you can watch snow fall upward,” Ayli said.

An hour later, Ayli landed of the Klex shuttles through what she refused to call ‘snow falling upward’.

“That was a damn blizzard!” she yelled to be heard over the howling, icy winds.

“WHAT?” Nix yelled back, not a square inch of her visible with the heavy parka and face mask she was wearing.

“INSIDE!” Ayli pointed towards the richly ornamented door hidden at the back of the shallow cave they’d discovered.

“It might be trapped,” Nix was still yelling but it was easier to hear her as they moved away from the winds.

“Save your time, it’s not,” Ravas said. “No one want to fumble for their keys with all that going on out there.

Ayli smiled in appreciation as Nix gave the door a quick inspection nonetheless. Trusting Ravas would have been an easy habit to fall into given that the ghost had been consistently helpful lately. Easy and probably also fatal, so Ayli was pleased to see Nix was still taking the implicit threat of Rava’s presence seriously.

“She’s right. No one has set anything up on it recently,” Nix said, which stopped the impending ‘I told you so’ Ravas had been preparing.

Inside they were greeted with a long, mural covered corridor.

“This is the test,” Ravas said.

“Walking down a corridor doesn’t seem like much of a test,” Ayli said, knowing it would not be that simple.

“A corridor? Are you inside already then?” Ulno Klex asked over the small holocom Nix was holding.

Part of the condition for sending the two of them to the planet had been that they stay in constant contact with the Klex Cartel’s battlecruiser. Ulno had promised that he would glass the planet’s surface if required to prevent their escape, and Ayli had no doubt that he would keep his word on that.

“You should be seeing what we’re seeing,” Nix said. “Let me adjust the feed to get through the rock and atmosphere.”

The device squeed in her hand and then snapped into perfect clarity.

“Looks safe enough,” Darsus said. “Send ‘em in.”

“No,” Nix said. “It’s not safe.”

“We are well aware of that Ms, Lamplighter,” Ulno said. “May I remind you that is why we have allowed you to undertake this endeavor?”

“She means walking in there blindly is stupid,” Ayli said. “This place looks simple because its a puzzle.”

“They’re just afraid to go. Or they’re stalling,” Darsus said. “Maybe hoping some will swoop in and save them.”

No one ever swooped in to save anyone. Ayli knew that, and she certainly wasn’t waiting for it.

“Okay,” Nix said. “Let me go in first.”

“We go together,” Ayli said.

“We work the problem together,” Nix said. “That doesn’t mean we have to march in lockstep. Let me go in first and you can bail me out of whatever trouble we find. If we go together there’ll be no one on the other side of the trap to free us from it.”

Ayli discovered she hated it when Nix was both reasonable and right.

“I should be the one to go first then,” she said.

“Yeah, except I called dibs,” Nix said and skipped into the corridor.

And an instant later an avalanche of liquid nitrogen filled the passage.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 23

Nix had been right. In general terms. If she’d had more specific information available about what waited for them when they dropped back to regular space, they might have avoided being captured at all. Ayli had certainly made a game attempt at evading capture but once they got stuck in a tractor beam there wasn’t much she could do that wouldn’t tear the Goldrunner to pieces.

“So very nice to make your acquaintance at last,” Ulno Klex said as Nix and Ayli were marched into his throne room. Which was to say, the room he’d outfitted on his battle cruiser to impress those who were easily awed by the scenery. 

Nix had never met Ulno Klex before, and hadn’t expected to meet him at all given that he was supposed to be dead, but she’d run into enough people with towering egos like his that she knew how their encounter was going to go from the moment they stepped in the room.

“You are surprised I am the one who captured you?” Ulno asked, rising from him throne and pacing on the dias it rested on. 

Behind him six guards with blaster rifles at the ready were doing their very best to look menacing and dead serious, despite the absurdity of their boss trying to impress a historian and a mechanic and, apparently, failing for unknown reasons.

“We did meet a couple of bounty hunters who seemed to think your next of kin had put a price on our heads,” Ayli said.

She did not have her lightsaber.

They’d agreed that while she’d made a lot of progress with it, carrying one would send exactly the wrong sort of message to their captors.

“Indeed, very fortunate that the galaxy was so easily convinced of my demise by a paltry few credits,” Ulno said. 

Nix had expected him to be outwardly grotesque somehow, but apart from the implied threat of the faux-military regalia he wore, there was nothing terribly remarkable about the man. Human, like an outsized portion of the galaxies population. Moderate height and build. Blonde hair shading to gray. Even his features were bland. It was as though someone had shaken together the least interesting qualities the galactic community possessed and poured them into a bag of ego problems that liked to hear itself speak.

“Isn’t it a bit embarrassing to let people think you’d been killed by nobodies like us?” Nix asked. She didn’t want to be Ulno’s friend. A part of her wanted to shove him through enough bulkheads that he popped out into the vacuum of space. And then just popped. That, however, was not an option. Nor was it a particularly wise idea given what channeling the Force with such hate-filled intentions could do to her.

“Oh, not in the slightest,” Ulno said. “You see you are among the galaxy’s premier assassins. No on has heard of you before of course because that is the mark of a premier assassin, is it not?”

“Did you pay off the real assassins?” Ayli asked.

“Pay?” Ulno sounded offended. “Why would I pay for people when they already work for me?”

Ayli closed her eyes and shook her head in disbelief.

“This can’t get any stupider,” she said.

“I assure you, this whole stratagem has been quite brilliant,” Ulno said. “With my untimely demise, over a hundred warrants on almost as many worlds have gone null and void. Not to mention how easily it allowed me to smoke out those who thought to they were in a position to usurp my throne. Tell me, how is my dear Saliandris?”

“You’re the one who’s got her.” Ayli’s lie held exactly the proper tone of resentment for the loss of a friend who was also a major aggravation. “Don’t pretend like we’re not supposed to have figured that out.”

Ulno stopped pacing.

He was puzzled.

Mostly because he definitely did not have Sali, and yet Ayli sounded so certain in her accusations that even he had to wonder at that for a moment. The guards behind him glanced at one another as though trying to work out which of them might have captured the pirate queen and not told their boss.

“Alas,” Ulno said. “You are our only guests at present.”

“So, you’ve spaced her already,” Ayli said. “Probably what she deserved. The jerk.”

Again, sadness lingered behind Ayli’s words just long enough that even Nix had to force herself to remember that neither Sali nor Zindiana had fallen into the clutches of the Klex cartel, thanks largely to the Goldrunner’s unadvertised smuggling modifications and some cleverly timed fake battle damage Nix had arranged.

“She…I’m afraid you are supposing scenarios which have yet come to pass,” Ulno said. “We have not apprehended your friend yet. Rest assured we will though.”

Ayli chuckled, and Nix used the distraction to reach out with her senses, searching for Sali and Zin.

They’d left the hidden compartment at Goldie’s signal. Both were in good health still, and neither had been spotted yet despite being quite close by.

Too close by.

Nix grimaced. Sali was not in a pleasant or forgiving mood. Zindiana wasn’t in any sort of mood at all. Together the two of them were committed to mayhem and murder, though not necessarily in that order.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to lie,” Ayli said. “She wasn’t much of a friend. If you spaced her, I can’t really blame you.”

Nix felt a flash of annoyance from Sali, who was apparently close enough to have heard Ayli’s comment.

“Seriously, she interrupted so many of my deals, I was probably a couple of days from spacing her myself before your goons got to her,” Ayli said. She’d felt Sali’s presence too and was performing for two audiences.

“And which goons would those be?” Ulno asked, suspicion radiating from every pour.

“The one’s at Galvus Station,” Ayli said.

“You escaped from Galvus,” Ulno said. “Quite cleverly I might add.”

“They weren’t that clever,” Darsus Klex said, strolling into the room from the door behind Ayli and Nix. “They fell right into our trap.”

Ayli laughed again.

“This was your Dad’s trap,” she said. “You had nothing to do with it.”

Nix caught feel the surge of anger boil out of Darsus even without turning to see him. Darsus’s anger didn’t lessen at all when his father burst out laughing.

“This one has your number little Darcy,” Ulno said. “And of course you are correct,” he added with a nod towards Ayli. “The galaxy is already under the impression that I was foolish enough expose myself to an assassin. We don’t want to foster even the smallest doubts of my capabilities when I reveal my survival.”

“Little Darcy?” Nix whispered with a suppressed laugh, just loud enough to be certain that Darsus would be able to hear it.

She felt rather than heard him draw his blaster.

“I don’t think you want him to do that,” Nix said. Her hands were locked in restraints but she was still able to waggle a couple of fingers towards Ulno. She wasn’t pushing him away physically, and she knew she didn’t need to gesture with her hands to use the Force even if she had been trying to fo that. Nonetheless, it did feel right to toss a bit of persuasive energy behind her words with a physical gesture. Irrational. Probably useless. But her hindbrain liked it and who was she to argue with ancient instincts.

“I don’t want him to shoot you?” Ulno asked, the mildest hint of confusion in his voice. “And why would that be?”

“If you wanted to shoot us, you could have just blown up the Goldrunner,” Nix said. “Or shot us and threw us out an airlock instead of wasting your time.”

When they’d exited hyperspace, Nix had been pretty certain that’s how things would play out, but a tiny part of her had been worried that her certainty might have stemmed from wishful thinking more than accurate premonitions that Force was providing.

“You are most astute, Miss…erm, Mechanic?” Ulno said.

Because why bother learning a mechanics name? She clearly wasn’t anyone important.

“It just made sense and I figured you didn’t get to be where you are without being pretty smart,” Nix said.

“Not like you,” Darsus said. He was still holding his blaster but Nix could sense that he was cowed. To shoot now would be a defiance of his father, and Darsus wasn’t ready to make that play yet.

“I’m guessing you want us to explore Dedlos for you?” Ayli said.

“And why would I want you to do that I wonder?” Ulno said, clearly pleased that people were working out his scheme.

“Lednon Three was a nightmare of traps and ancient guardians,” Ayli said. “I’m guessing your fond enough of Little Darcy there that you’d prefer to send someone more expendable to risk the dangers of the Second Trial.”

“I do so love my boy, that is true,” Ulno lied.

“My only question is what’s in it for us?” Ayli asked.

“You get to keep breathing,” Darsus said, raising his blaster and placing the barrel against the back of Ayli’s head.

Nix wasn’t sure she could manage any sort of fine control with the Force yet, so crippling the blaster was out of the question. Shoving Darsus’s hand aside the moment he thought of tightening his finger on the trigger however was quite definitely in her wheel house. If Darsus and the gun happened to be slammed through one of the bulkheads that would be a real shame. Nix thought she might even lose two to three whole minutes of sleep over it.

“Breathing’s nice,” Ayli said. “Treasure’s nicer though.”

“And what sort of treasure do you imagine we would let you keep?” Ulno asked.

“The best kind,” Ayli said. “The stuff you don’t care about.”

“I don’t care about you,” Darsus said.

“Oh, good, then you won’t care if I go back to my ship and never bother being in the same system as you again?” Ayli said.

“That’s my ship,” Darsus said. “You stole it.” 

“Did I?” Ayli asked. “Most have taken it from a real idiot then, cause I’m a pretty talentless thief.”

Darsus decided to shoot her and acted on that instinct in a heartbeat. Nix had felt any warning of danger though because his finger never got to tighten on the trigger. 

“Don’t taunt your foes,” Ravas said to no one except Ayli and Nix. “Kill them or avoid them. Making them angry only gives them resolve and strength.”

And entices them to make hasty and thoughtless decisions, but Nix didn’t have the luxury of speaking freely like Ravas did.

“I’m impressed. Most people who taunt Darcy like that wind up as disagreeable messes for the staff to clean up,” Ulno said as Darsus dropped his blaster to his side and shook his head to clear his thought from the static Ravas had filled his mind with. “He must see something useful in you.”

“We can be useful to each other,” Ayli said. “We’ll figure out how to bypass the Second Trial like we did the First. You can take all the treasure you want from the temple, and the location of the Third Trial. Leave us the facility, intact please, and I’ll have a historical site that I can write a thousand papers about. It’ll make my career.”

“And if you fail?” Ulno asked.

“Have you lost anything if we do?” Ayli asked.

“Our friends among the Children of the Storm will not be pleased to have their sacred sites raided,” Ulno said.

“The Second Trial doesn’t have much of value at it, aside from the location of the Third Trial,” Ayli said. “And I know they’ve kept that a secret from you.”

“Do you now?” Ulno asked.

“That’s where their treasure really lies,” Ayli said. “Without that, they wouldn’t have any means of paying you for the supplies and services you provide them, and if you knew where it was, why would you bother bartering for the loot when you have a battlecruiser and can just go and take it?”

Ulno laughed, and there was no kindness in it.

“I like how you think,” he said. “We are going to have a most profitable relationship.”