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She was being followed.
She paused and wiped a damp wisp of yellow hair from her forehead, touching in passing the scars that marked her as a member of Domain Kwaad. Her green eyes scanned through the many-legged gnarltrees, but her stalkers weren’t yet showing themselves to the usual senses. They were waiting for something—reinforcements, probably.
She hissed a mild shaper’s curse under her breath and started off again, picking her way over moldering logs, through sluggish mists and dense brakes of hissing cane. The air was a wet fever, and the chirps and trills and bubbling gulps from canopy and marsh were oddly comforting. She kept her pace the same—there was no reason to let them know she was on to them, not yet. She did alter her path subtly—no point in going to the cave until this was dealt with.
Or I could lead them there, she mused, attack them while they deal with their inner demons . . .
No. That seemed somehow like sacrilege. Yoda had come here. Luke Skywalker had, too, and so had Anakin. Now it was her turn. Tahiri’s turn.
Anakin’s parents hadn’t very much liked the idea of her coming to Dagobah alone, but she’d managed to convince them of the necessity. She believed that the human and Yuuzhan Vong personalities that had once shared her body had become one seamless entity. It felt that way, felt right. But Anakin had seen a vision of her, a melding of Jedi and Yuuzhan Vong, and it hadn’t been a pretty vision. She’d thought at first, after the joining that had nearly driven her mad, that she had avoided that outcome. But before she moved on, before she put those she loved at risk, she had to consider the possibility that the fusion of Tahiri Veila with Riina of Domain Kwaad was a step in the fulfillment of that vision.
Anakin, after all, had known her better than anyone. And Anakin had been very strong.
If the creature he had seen was lurking in her, the time to face it was now, not later.
So she’d come here, to Dagobah, where the Force was so strong it almost seemed to sing aloud. The cycle of life and death and new birth was all around here, none of it twisted by Yuuzhan Vong biotechnology, none of it poisoned by the machines, greed, and exploitation all too native to this galaxy. She’d come to visit the cave to explore her inner self and see what she was really made of.
But she had also come to Dagobah to meditate on the alternatives. What Anakin had seen was all of the worst of Yuuzhan Vong and Jedi traits bundled into one being. Avoiding becoming that was paramount, but she had a goal beyond—to find the balance, to embody the best of her mixed heritage. Not just for herself, but because the reconciliation of her dual identity had left her with one firm belief—that the Yuuzhan Vong and the peoples of the galaxy they had invaded could learn a lot from each other, and they could live in peace. She was sure of it. The only question was how to make it happen.
The Yuuzhan Vong would never create industrial wastelands like Duro, Bonadan, or Eriadu. On the other hand, what they did to life—breaking it and twisting it until it suited their needs, wiping it out entirely when it didn’t please—was really no better. It wasn’t that they loved life, but that they hated machines.
There had to be some sort of common ground, some pivot point that could open the eyes of both sides and end the ongoing terror and destruction of the war.
The Force was key to that understanding. The Yuuzhan Vong were somehow blind to it. If they could actually feel the Force around them, if they could feel the wrongness of their creations, they might find a better path, one less bent on destruction. If the Jedi could feel the Yuuzhan Vong in the Force, they might find—not better ways to fight them—but paths to conciliation.
She needed more than that, though. It wasn’t enough to know what was wrong—she also had to know how to make things right.
Tahiri had no delusions of grandeur. She was no savior, no prophet, no super-Jedi. She was the result of a Yuuzhan Vong experiment gone wrong. But she did understand both sides of the problem, and if there was any chance she could help Master Skywalker find the solution her galaxy so desperately needed—well, she had to take it. It was a role she accepted with humility and great caution. Those trying to do good often committed the most atrocious crimes.
They were gaining on her, getting clumsier. Soon she would have to do something.
They must have followed her to Dagobah. How?
Or maybe they had known where she was going before she left. Maybe she had been betrayed. But that meant Han and Leia—
No. There was another answer. Paranoid reflexes were a survival trait growing up in a crèche, but even deeper instincts told her that her friends—adopted parents, almost—could never do such a thing. Someone had been watching her, someone she hadn’t noticed. Peace Brigade maybe. Probably. They would imagine they could curry a lot of favor by turning her over to Shimrra.
She twisted her way through a maze of gnarltrees and then clambered quickly and silently up their cablelike roots. They had once been legs, those roots, as she’d learned when she came here less than a decade and more than a lifetime ago. The immature form of the tree was a sort of spider that lost its mobility in adulthood.
She’d been with Anakin, here to face his trial, to discover if having the name of his grandfather would bring him the same fate.
I miss you Anakin, she thought. More now than ever.
About four meters off the ground, she secreted herself in a hollow and waited. If she could simply avoid them, she would. At one level her instincts cried out for battle, but at a deeper level she knew that her Yuuzhan Vong fighting reflexes had inevitable connections with fury, and she was here to avoid becoming Anakin’s vision, not embrace it. There was a part of her plan that she hadn’t told Han and Leia about—the part where, if the cave confirmed her worst fears, she would cripple her X-wing beyond repair and spend the rest of her life on the jungle planet.
Perhaps, like the spiders, she would sink her limbs into the swamp and become a tree.
She reached out with the Force, to better assess her pursuit.
They weren’t there. And she suddenly realized that she hadn’t felt them in the Force, but with her Vongsense. It had come so naturally she hadn’t even questioned it.
That could only mean her pursuers were Yuuzhan Vong, maybe six of them, give or take one or two. Vongsense wasn’t as precise as the Force.
She reached for her lightsaber, but didn’t unhook it, and continued to wait.
Soon she actually heard them. Whoever they were, they weren’t hunters—they moved through the jungle clumsily, and though they pitched their voices low enough that she couldn’t actually understand what they were saying, they seemed to be gabbling almost constantly. They must be very confident of their success.
A dark shadow glided soundlessly through the undergrowth, and she snapped her gaze up in time to see something very large blot the fragments of sky not occluded by the distant canopy.
Native life, or a Yuuzhan Vong flier?
Pursing her lips, she waited. Soon the distant muttering became coherent. As she’d thought, the language was that of her crèche.
“Are you certain she came this way?” a raspy voice asked.
“She did. See? The impression in the moss?”
“She is Jeedai. Perhaps she left these signs to confuse us.”
“But you think she is near?”
“And knows we are following her?”
“Then why not simply call out to her?”
And hope I answer the battle challenge? Tahiri thought, grimly. So they did have a tracker with them. Could she slip around them, back to her X-wing? Or must she fight them?
Moving very slowly, Tahiri shifted in the direction of the voices. She could make out several figures through the understory, but not distinctly.
“At some point we must, I suppose,” the tracker said. “Else she will think we wish her harm.”
What? Tahiri frowned, trying to fit that into her presuppositions. She couldn’t.
“Jeedai!” the tracker called. “I think you can hear us. We humbly request an audience.”
No warrior would do that, Tahiri thought. No warrior would use such honorless trickery. But a shaper . . .
Yes, a shaper or a priest might, a member of the deception sect. Still—
She leaned out for a better view, and found herself staring straight into the yellow eyes of a Yuuzhan Vong.
He was perhaps six meters away. She gasped at the sight of him, and revulsion jolted through her. His face was like an open wound.
A Shamed One, despised by the gods. He dared—her hand went to her lightsaber.
Then the shadow was back, and suddenly something sleeted through the branches, shredding the leaves and vines around her. She snarled a war cry and ignited her weapon, swirling it up to send two thud bugs burning off through the jungle.
Above her, through the now open canopy, she saw a Yuuzhan Vong tsik vai, an atmospheric flier, huge and ray-shaped, and from it snaked long cables. To each cable clung a Yuuzhan Vong warrior. One passed less than two meters from her, and she braced for the fight, but he went on past, oblivious to her presence, striking the jungle floor and uncoiling his amphistaff in the same motion.
A terrible wail went up from her pursuers. She could see them now, all horribly disfigured, all Shamed Ones. They raised their short clubs and faced the warriors.
They didn’t have a chance—she saw that immediately. For an instant, the tracker held her eye, and she thought he would give her away, but instead his expression went grim.
“Run!” he shouted. “We cannot win here!”
Tahiri hesitated only an instant longer, then made a series of steplike leaps to the ground. The first of the Shamed Ones had already fallen when her feet touched the spongy soil.
A warrior caught her motion from the corner of his eye and turned to meet her, snarling a war cry. His face transfigured in surprise when she answered it in his own language. He whirled his amphistaff toward her, a lateral strike aimed at her scapula. She caught the blade and cut toward his knuckles, but he parried with distance, pulled his weapon free of the bind, and lunged deep with the venomous tip. She caught it in a high sweep and stepped in, cut to his shoulder where the vonduun crab armor shed its fury in a shower of sparks, then dodged past, reversing the weapon and plunging its fiery point into the vulnerable spot in the armpit. The warrior gasped and sank to his knees, and she whipped the weapon around to decapitate him even as she launched herself at the next foe.
Combat was a blur, after that. Eight warriors had dropped from the flier. Seven were left, and fully half the Shamed Ones were bleeding on the ground. She had an image of the tracker, his arms knotted in a neck-breaking hold. She saw another Shamed One strike a warrior on the temple with his club only to be run through from behind. Mostly she saw the lightning-quick amphistaff strikes of the two warriors trying to flank her. She cut at a knee, smelled the scorch of flesh as the blade severed through armor. An amphistaff whipped toward her back and she had to roll beneath the blow. Parry, thrust, and cut became her entire existence.
Spattered with Yuuzhan Vong blood and bleeding from several cuts of her own, she suddenly found herself back to back with the tracker. He was all that remained of the six who had initially been following her, but there remained only three warriors.
For a moment, they stood like that. The warriors backed away a bit. The leader was massive. His ears were cut into fractal patterns; great trenchlike scars stood on his cheeks.
“I’ve heard of you, abomination,” he snarled. “The one-who-was-shaped. Is it true what they say? These pathetic maw luur excretions worship you?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Tahiri said. “But I know when I see a dishonorable fight. They were not only outnumbered, but poorly armed. How can you call yourselves warriors, to attack in such a way?”
“They are Shamed Ones,” the warrior sneered back. “They are outside honor. They are worse than infidels; they are heretic traitors, not to be fought but to be exterminated.”
“You fear us,” the tracker rasped. “You fear us because we know the truth. You lap at Shimrra’s feet, yet Shimrra is the true heretic. See how this Jeedai has laid you low. The gods favor her, not you.”
“If the gods favor her, they do not favor you,” the warrior snapped.
“They are delaying us,” the tracker told Tahiri. She noticed he had blood on his lips. “They delay us while another tsik vai arrives.”
“Quiet, heretic,” the war leader bellowed, “and you may yet live to snivel a little longer. There are questions we would ask of you.” His expression softened. “Renounce your heresy. This Jeedai is a great prize. Help us win her, and perhaps the gods will forgive you and grant you an honorable death.”
“No death is more honorable than dying by the side of a Jeedai,” the tracker answered. “Vua Rapuung proved that.”
“Vua Rapuung,” the warrior all but spat. “That story is a heretic’s lie. Vua Rapuung died in disgrace.”
For answer the Shamed One suddenly bolted forward, so quickly he took the leader by surprise, bowling into him before he could raise his weapon. The other two turned to help, but Tahiri danced forward, feinting at the knee and then cutting high through the warrior’s throat when he dropped his guard to parry. She exchanged a flurry of blows with the second, though it ended the same, with the warrior flopping lifeless to the ground.
She turned to find the tracker impaling the leader with his own amphistaff. For a moment they stared at each other, the Shamed One and she. Then the Yuuzhan Vong suddenly dropped to his knees.
“I prayed it was you!” he said.
Tahiri opened her mouth, but heard the stir of treetops that could only be another flier arriving.
“Come on,” she said. “We can’t stay here.”
The warrior nodded and bounded to his feet. Together they ran from the clearing.
An hour or so later, Tahiri finally halted. The fliers seemed to have lost them for the time being, and the tracker had been gradually dropping behind. Now he staggered against a tree and slid to the ground.
“A little farther,” she said. “Just over here.”
“My legs will no longer bear me,” the tracker said. “You must leave me for the time being.”
“Just under this shelf of stone,” she said. “Please. It may hide us from the fliers if they sweep here.”
He nodded wearily. She saw he was clutching his side, and that blood covered his flank.
They scooted up beneath the overhang.
“Let me see that,” she said.
He shook his head. “I must speak to you first,” he said.
“What are you doing here? Did you follow me?”
His eyes widened. “No!” he said, so vehemently that blood sputtered from between his lips. Then, more quietly, “No. We thieved a ship from an intendant and came here to find the world of prophecy. We saw you land—is this the place, one-who-was-shaped? Is this the world the Prophet saw?”
“I’m sorry,” Tahiri said. “I don’t know what you mean. This is Dagobah. I came here for . . . personal reasons.”
“But it cannot be coincidence,” the tracker said. “It cannot.”
“Please,” Tahiri said. “Let me see your wound. I know a little about healing. Maybe I can—”
“I am dead already,” the tracker gruffed. “I know this. But I must know if I have failed.”
Tahiri shook her head helplessly.
The tracker straightened a bit, and his voice strengthened. “I am Hul Qat, once a hunter. Or I was, until the gods seemed to reject me. I was stripped of my title, my clan. I was Shamed. My implants festered and my scars opened like wounds. I gave up hope and waited for dishonorable death. But then I heard the word of the Prophet, and of the Jeedai Anakin—”
“Anakin,” Tahiri whispered. The name twisted a blade in her.
“Yes, and you, whom Mezhan Kwaad shaped. And Vua Rapuung who fought—you were there, were you not?”
A deep chill ran through Tahiri. She had been Riina, then, and Tahiri, and she had nearly killed Anakin.
“I was there.”
“Then you know. You know our redemption belongs with you. And now the Prophet has seen a world, a world where there are no Shamed Ones because it will redeem us, where the true way can be—” He coughed violently and slumped again, and for an instant Tahiri thought he was already dead. But then his eyes turned toward her.
“My companions and I wanted to find the planet for our Prophet. One of us, Kuhqo, had been a shaper. He used a genetic slicer to get access to an executor’s qahsa and steal its secrets. He found intelligence gathered about the Jeedai, and evidence that there was some connection between you and this world. Some of your greatest came here, yes? And now you. And so please, tell me. Have I found it?”
He shuddered, and his eyes rolled. “Have I?” he begged again, so weakly this time it might have been no more than a breath.
Tahiri reached out and took his hand. “Yes,” she lied, not even knowing exactly what lie she was telling. “Yes, you’re right. You found it. Don’t worry about anything now.”
His eyes filled with tears. “You must help me,” he said. “I cannot take the news myself. The Prophet must know where this world is.”
“I will do it,” Tahiri said.
This time she was not lying.
Hul Qat closed his eyes, and even without using the Force, Tahiri felt him leave.
Tahiri glanced at the opening of the cave, so near, and she knew that was not what she had come for at all. This was why she had come. The Force had brought her here, to meet this man, to make this promise.
She rose. The fliers would find her if she remained still for too long. She hoped they hadn’t discovered her ship yet, but figured the odds were against it, since they hadn’t been looking for her and she had concealed it pretty well. Even so, she might have a little trouble getting out of the system, depending on how many and what sort of ships were orbiting overhead.
It didn’t matter, though. She had a promise to keep.
Even if she could figure out exactly what she had promised.