Fear was the only thing Varman Hale could remember when he awoke in the smoking ruin of a Jedi transport. Fear is not the Jedi way,
he thought as he recalled the words of his offworld master, but still fear suffused Varman as he came to, sinking deep into his bones and clouding his connection to the light side of the Force. The crash only came to him in fleeting memories: the shimmering pieces of an unfinished dejarik game, the cold ground against his stinging hand as Varman broke a sudden fall, and then—deep in the Force—a vision of great cairns bursting asunder as the earth shook, their stones spilling out never to be remade again.
Now the Jedi Knight sat in darkness, too fearful to feel for others in the Force and trapped under a safety belt that would not come loose no matter how much he struggled against it. He reached for the tool that had rarely failed him when he could not rely on his hands or the Force around him—and in an instant the blue blade of his lightsaber flashed bright before him, thrumming with power as it came to life. In a single stroke he destroyed the safety belt and then staggered to his feet. As he raised his lightsaber high and looked behind him, Varman gazed upon the wreckage of the belt and the chair he had been in, the newly-exposed faces still glowing orange where his blade had bisected the assemblage of support and cushion and restraint. He stared dumbly at the moment of swift carnage until he could look no more on that destruction he had wrought, turning as he noticed a Jedi Master revealed by the glow of his lightsaber: Master Nikdoris.
He had been playing dejarik with Master Nikdoris, Varman recalled, when the ship rocked in hyperspace and something terrible—though he did not know yet what—made the ship hurtle first into realspace and then to whatever far planet they had landed on. Now Nikdoris, the dejarik grandmaster, was pinned beneath the chrome hologame table, its pedestal leg pinning him to his chair and its massive projector face stained with blood where it had mangled his leg. The hologame table itself had been a luxury insisted upon by Master Nikdoris because the Twi’lek loved to dare young Padawans to defeat him in the game, lulling them into a false sense of victory before revealing the gambit he had planned all along. A part of Varman hoped that the injury was the same sort of trick, that Master Nikdoris was not as injured as he appeared, but he knew this was only wishful thinking.
Unable to pierce the fear that overwhelmed his senses, Varman did not trust in his connection to the Force—so he felt instead for the Twi’lek’s pulse. Injured and unconscious but alive. Thankfully.
Not willing to waste the time to still his pounding heart before helping, Varman stowed his lightsaber away and wrapped his arms around the table’s leg, taking a deep breath before heaving it off of the Jedi Master by force. It took all of his strength to pull the table free and cast it to the floor with a heavy clang, careful that neither he nor the unconscious master touched the broken electronics that threw sparks at the table’s foot. As blood continued to gush freely from Nikdoris’ leg and pool on the floor, Varman made a split-second decision to slice off the master’s leg above where the bone had shattered to cauterize the wound and quell the bleeding. The Jedi Master cried out in pain as he awoke only to slip back into unconsciousness once more—thankfully without losing more blood.
Dim red lights flickered in the wreckage of the ship as Varman passed through the broken ship, cutting through debris he could as he searched for others and counted up the living and the dead. He called out as he moved from compartment to compartment, searching for his fellow Jedi, only to find death all too often. They had left Ilum with fourteen including the pilot; after the dead were cremated, there would only be seven left—and that was if they were lucky. Master Nikdoris still hadn’t woken up again and Master Yen was still unconscious after a panel had detached from a central bulkhead and slammed into her skull. In the blue light of his lightsaber, he had recoiled slightly from the two—their faces seemed half-dead already, as though they were ancient masters of the Jedi Order long-since dead and only seen now through holograms. But as he searched, he found too many truly dead. He committed their names to memory, struggling in the fog of his fear: The pilot Sodi, a lighthearted member of the Jedi Service Corps and a friend of many Padawan learners; Master Kaltic, a confidant and sparring partner of Varman’s on Coruscant when the two had both been knights; Master Taspul, a proud champion of the Republic who gave his all across frontier planets to ensure the equity of all its members; their young Padawans Sukti and Guf, whose untimely deaths dredged up the bitter memory of his own late Padawan; and Master Welck, a scholar and spiritual healer whose death now left his former student Quillow masterless. After first gathering together the five Jedi living with what stores of food and other supplies they had and helping them bear out the injured and the dead, he led the way out into the open air.
Outside, the planet’s air was breathable but thick with a pink mist that blanketed the purple canopies of the jungle surrounding them. Their ship had crashed through the trees into a field of flat rocks, their towering white trunks bent and broken beneath their vessel’s keel splayed out now like the phalanges and metacarpals of a disarticulated skeletal hand. It was humid and sweltering beyond the ship, Varman’s robes already drenched with sweat from the effort of gathering the others and now exacerbated by the planet’s sun. It could have been a fine place in a different time,
Varman thought to himself, but now it might spell our doom.
It was daytime, at least, with a few standard hours left till nightfall by his judgement. The ship could be repaired given the proper equipment—given that he hadn’t sliced through anything important in his way—but that required a repair station on this planet in the first place.
“We’ll leave the dead behind for now,” Varman said, “but we should look for help if there’s any to be found here.”
The Jedi swiftly built coffins for the dead and stretchers for the injured, their blades shining through the mist as they lopped apart the jungle’s trees their ship had felled and lashed them with yellow vines that glowed bright even after they were cut. Many of the trees were white-barked but red on the inside when they were split, filled with a thick jam-like sap—but in the moment Varman could only think of Nikdoris’ blood. The sap burnt like hard candy against the lightsaber blades in a way that disconcerted Varman though he said nothing of it. The sun was going down and the Jedi needed two more important things than assuaging his mind: guidance and shelter.
“Meditate with me,” he bid the others after laying the injured Jedi Masters into their makeshift stretchers. “The Force will show us our way to safety.” He was saying it to himself as much as he was saying it to them.
It felt dutiful to lead and only fair given that Varman had been relatively unscathed by the crash—but in truth, when Varman reached out into the Force he saw precious little save those around them. When he peered into the long valley of the Force, he saw nothing save those few directly around him—he felt nothing from the jungle teeming with life or from any inhabitants there might happen to be. In truth, he spent the most of his time centering himself as the others searched, trying to find calm in the case of danger and trying to hide the feelings of shame which his weakened connection to the Force brought on. At last one of the others spoke up about civilizations eastward with a massive ruin at their heart—and Varman let out a sigh of relief, letting them show the way as he marched onward, the other four carrying the injured masters as Varman cut a path before them. The forest grew dim as they passed into the dark shadow of the jungle’s canopy, until the only light to be had was from the Jedi’s lightsabers and Varman could not tell whether it was night or if the sun had been blotted out by the trees entirely.
Varman hewed through the local vegetation with perfect form as he led on, careful to damage only what was necessary with precise and measured cuts, but still they splattered his clothes, a dark purplish-red against the white of his robes and his old boots. Tired but persistent, he trudged on into the strange jungle filled with a myriad of species: amongst the bleeding trees and yellow vines were plants among the underbrush with strangling tendrils and hungry maws, huge insects with a thousand eyes beating great wings as they moved from tree to tree, and in the underbrush thorny plants. He did not think; all he focused on was the march through the thick vines and heavy brush of the forest, staining his boots and the bottom of his robes with purple splatters as he trudged with the other Jedi deeper into the jungle, helping the others fend off the creatures which they had disturbed and cutting a way forward until at last they found a path into the jungle—civilization at last, he hoped. As they moved onward and darkness gave way to the dim light of filtered sunset. A singular mantra burned into Varman’s mind as he pushed forward: We will repair the ship. We will heal the wounded. We will bury the dead.
Suddenly, a blaster shot blared in the air and two figures stepped out of the pale mists. One was a male Twi’lek wearing a dark blue sarong and a cybernetic implant glowing yellow in his left eye, a gilded lever-action blaster rifle in his hands; the other a Human woman with a girded dress and a similar implant, brandishing a bowcaster of gleaming silver. Both of them were tattooed from head to toe in a series of symbols that Varman only later recognized as Aurebesh, though they did not seem to make any words the Jedi could recognize. They called out in a language Varman could not understand, but their intent was clear enough when they motioned towards the lightsaber in Varman’s hand. Thrusting their fingers at the band’s lightsabers, the woman blew a horn that echoed through the rainforest. Varman immediately dropped his weapon, jerking his head toward the two injured Jedi Masters until at last the indigenous shooters lowered their own weapons.
Urging the Twi’lek to go first, the woman collected the Jedi weapons and walked behind the Jedi as they finally made their way out of the wilderness, crossing vast aquaculture fields and entering a city of over a hundred dwellings of wooden walls and durasteel roofs, many people peering out at the Jedi as they came but retreating as soon as they were noticed. A diverse collection of species were gathered together in the village, many in the same dark blue as those who had captured them but a sizable minority clothed in red and yellow patterns. At this hour, none were working, the majority of the people primarily gathering together over meals or drink or games that looked like Shah-tezh, but the evidence of their work was everywhere, from communal kilns to skinny water nerfs to a steaming parcel of leaves a cook dug up from the ground, strong and fragrant spices filling the air after hours of cooking a snake. All of the local people, from Human to Twi’lek to Selkath were tattooed from head to toe—save the Wookiees and other species whose skin would not take to ink among them, who wore Aurebesh markings upon their clothes instead. Even Sunao with his markings of Mirial stuck out without the markings each member of the indigenous population wore, Varman noted.
At the largest dwelling in the city, the Human shouted to its guards, bidding them to step aside as the Twi’lek ushered in the Jedi with the butt of his blaster rifle. It took a moment for Varman’s eyes to adjust to the darkness, revealing the walls lined with rich hangings and neon designs as well as drying meats and herbs hanging from the roof’s durasteel frame. A dozen of the locals joked and told stories to each other all around the room, falling quiet for a moment as they watched the newcomers before returning their attention to their friends. Around a roaring fire squatted two untattooed women in utilitarian jumpsuits typing into datapads—the first a tall Twi’lek woman with blue skin and bright eyes, the second a female Abednedo with a cheerful if haggard expression. After a short conversation in the same language they had heard earlier, one of the younger locals, a Selkath boy, returned the Jedi’s weapons to them by placing them on the floor and then scurrying back out the hut.
“Well,” the Twi’lek with a datapad said as the Jedi entered the dwelling, “it’s not every day we have the pleasure of meeting Jedi.” She spoke in soft tones with a faint trace of a Rylothi accent beneath her Coruscanti delivery.
“To be curt, we’ve got trouble on our hands,” Varman interjected as he stepped aside to reveal the injured Masters in the wider building’s entrance. “We need parts for our ship to get offworld and medicine for two of our own—and proper burials for those of us back on the ship. We crashed here and I don’t know how long we have. Can you help us?”
“I—I’m sorry for your loss,” the Twi’lek replied, her expression faltering as she stood up to properly greet the Jedi. “I’ll fetch the healer and they’ll look after the wounded. Don’t have bacta or juvan and kolto’s in short supply but… as guests, the locals will help you as is your right. You—can you come with me and tell me how to prepare the dead? I’ll translate to the priest of the Force. I’m vaguely familiar with the practices from articles by some of yours, but… best to get them from the source, right? My wife will take care of the others.”
“I know them by heart. I’ll help,” Varman quietly agreed, leaving the hut with a solemn expression and without another word.
They were a pair of anthropologists from the University of Bar’leth, the female Abednedo explained to the rest of the Jedi—the Twi’lek was Dr. Lamenk’srey, conducting fieldwork with a special interest in the native religious practices of the people of the village—the Onethi, robed in navy blue; the Abednedo woman was her wife, Dr. Mapur Astulli, with an academic focus on the economic and social structures of the neighboring Shenai, those locals the Jedi had seen in red and yellow. The planet itself was called Bunum, she said, though she joked darkly that the local governor—Selaré Prem—might have plans to rename it given the way that she’d been treating it.
“There’s a mineral called Sparstite—You’re familiar with it, Master Quillow?—that grows here in these big beautiful crystals. Lovely, really, especially when the light catches them. It’s good for producing Vratixian barley—and would, by the estimates of Prem’s people, astronomically increase bacta production and help them get out of the aging juvan market. Only problem is that they’re right underneath the stupas that the Onethi and every other one of the indigenous peoples here put the bones of their ancestors in—yeah, they’re not kyber, but they’re sacred. Lamenk’srey mentions something about the Force but I’ll let her talk about it—isn’t my expertise. Don’t get it twisted—I get the importance of the bacta. But… it’s not all that republican if a Republic doesn’t listen to the people it represents, is it? We are
all the Republic,
as the saying goes.”
Dr. Astulli continued to discuss the local peoples at length: the Bunumi believed that they came from an ancient temple, the Tower of Senlev (where the stupas were), whose eponymous master had in ancient days become a father to the Bunumi in the days before there was any distinction in tribe or clan. They were not ruled, she explained, by senators or by nobles, but rather by elders who made decisions unilaterally with the consent of each of their peoples save in times of war. Where irreconcilable disagreements between elders arose, new clans were found on the basis of descent from differing followers of Senlev, but all Bunumi recognized their descent from the patriarch Senlev, consequently always making peace to bury their honored dead beside the temple, even in times of war.
After Dr. Astulli offered a black bittersweet fruit with a bitter rind (a local delicacy, she said), Varman and Dr. Lamenk’srey returned with both a promise that their Masters would be brought back and an elder in tow, a wizened man leaning on a cane with clothes much like those the rest of the Onethi wore save that where others were merely woven of different colors, his sarong was richly brocaded and the respirator mask he wore was decorated with glittering beads. He began to speak, his eyes turning between each of the Jedi as he spoke.
“Thuda says he can help repair your ship,” Dr. Lamenk’srey translated.
“‘I can repair your ship if'—’ no, if and only if ‘—you convince the Republic’s people to stop mining the sparstite. Those stupas are holy to my people; the golden spines of that mineral are formed from the bones of our ancestors and it is through them that we are connected to our shared pasts, not only as Onethi or Shenai or Eskan, but as people of Bunum.
“‘It is as though your mighty temple on Coruscant were uprooted, as though that place which had been holy and sacred to you for millenia was broken—as though you were to walk through a home that has been built over and all that remains of the former home is the memory of what was, a memory that may all too quickly fade away. The souls of our people are there; the origins of our people are there. Please, Jedi—I have heard that you are keepers of the peace, that you are servants of the Force. We are bound by the same Force, are we not? We exist here in peace, do we not? I ask of you—I beg you—if you are half as noble as I am told you are, then you shall help.’
“And he says… that you should come with him while you consider.” With that, Thuda smiled warmly and leaned on his cane hobbled out.
“Come on,” Dr. Astulli said, “let’s show you what we’re looking at.”
After checking in on the healer’s hut where the two masters were still unconscious but slowly recuperating, they trekked with the two anthropologists and the elder Thuda to the highest point in the village, a metal tower atop a tall tree that was invisible from below, its shape shadowed by the dark fingers of a thousand trees. There, Thuda pointed out different landmarks, starting first with the place where their transport had broken through the rainforest. Then, the shining pillar demarcating the western boundary of the Republic’s encampment—and beyond an endless stretch of jungle, the Tower of Senlev, that ancient temple which Thuda had spoken of perched high on a mountaintop. Pointing out his respect for the dead, Thuda mentioned that he had honored Varman’s requests by sending swift runners in the morning to retrieve the bodies and cremate them in Jedi fashion.
“Well,” Varman said as he regarded each of his companions in turn, relinquishing the role of leadership he had taken on their journey to the village, “what are our plans?”