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Hunters of the Dark Side

Chapter Text

Cover art by xtinethepirate


Chapter One


Dean Winchester waited in dim silence, looking out the transparisteel viewport at the twinkling lights of Nar Shaddaa far below.  The cockpit of the Iriaz Dream was still and comfortable around him, her familiar sleek lines and contours the only real home Dean had ever known.  On the night side of the smuggler’s moon, with the bulk of the planet between the Dream and the system’s sun, the running lights and engines off, and the other systems running on standby, the shiny, black ship was near-invisible in the night sky.  The blackness of space was interrupted only by the twinkling of distant star light and the cool, greenish glow of the control panel’s backup lights.  It should have been soothing, peaceful.  Normally, it would have been—Dean loved looking out on the vastness of space, feeling powerful and free among the stars. But… But there it was, the niggling doubt, the nagging pull of aloneness, the taunting voice in his head saying “Dad should have checked in by now,” keeping him from relaxing or being at peace. 


He let out an explosive sigh, stretching his arms high over his head and cracking his back, the well-worn, buttery nerf hide of his jacket giving a groan of protest as it separated from his seat.  Yes, Dad should have made the rendezvous, and failing that, he should have at least found a way to send word that he wouldn’t make it, but Dean had a schedule to keep—responsibilities to meet—and he couldn’t wait here any longer. He’d already postponed his scheduled trade meeting with Bobby, and he couldn’t put off the job on Tatooine any longer. 


What had started as rumors of a frightening, but benign, ghostly apparition of a woman along the edge of the Eastern Dune Sea had turned violent.  Now the apparition was attacking traders and travelers and was encroaching on the outskirts of Mos Eisley.  Dean had done the research, and it sounded like the apparition might be the spirit of a hunter that had gone missing about a decade ago.  Why she her spirit would become restless now, when all previous indications had suggested her spirit had crossed over—become one with the Force or however you wanted to describe it—Dean did not know.  But restless she was, and getting dangerous, yet the problem was far to small for the Jedi to respond to—they tended to ignore ordinary souls that didn’t understand dead—and Dean was the closest hunter to the Outer Rim by far—other than Bobby who didn’t generally work this kind of gig—at least as far as he knew based on what he knew of other hunters’ territory and the recent comm chatter.  Still… He wished he wouldn’t be going alone.  He wished Dad would just get here already, because the longer he went without hearing from John Winchester, the more likely it was that something had gone wrong.  Maybe it was just a run in with planetary authorities—after all, John’s travel plans had taken him into the Corellian Sector, and the Corellians were notorious for their touchy security forces—but something was telling Dean that wasn’t the case.  In his gut or the back of his mind there was that … itch … the little tickle that always told him when things weren’t as they seemed, and right now the little tickle was looming into an obnoxious irritation that was practically screaming that John was in serious trouble.  Something bad had happened; Dean knew it.  He just didn’t know what to do about it, but try to shove down the feeling and go about his business, even if it did mean heading to Tatooine alone.


Resettling himself in the pilot’s seat, he began flicking on the switches that would begin the preflight sequence, warm up the engines, and calculate the quickest vector for escaping the system’s gravity well so that he could make the jump to hyperspace.  S8V1, or Chevy, as his little brother Sammy had affectionately named the astromech, made an inquisitive trill that drew Dean’s attention.  Knowing the droid’s moods well enough to eschew checking the translation that scrolled out across the monitor, Dean croaked out an answer.


“No, Chevy, no word from Dad, and yeah, we’re heading to Tatooine.  Gotta figure out what’s going on with that restless spirit.” Dean’s voice cracked with disuse, underscoring just how long it had been since he had last talked to anyone.  With Dad missing…  But Dean pushed down that thought along with the bittersweet memories of his younger brother that threatened to bubble over anytime Dean spent too much time alone with the droid his brother had named.  Swallowing carefully, he continued, “You wanna double check the Dream’s navcomp, make sure she’s got the most efficient calculations to get us to Tatooine?  We shoulda left days ago, and I don’t want to take any longer than necessary getting there.”


Chevy chirped in the affirmative, but Dean thought he detected a hint of melancholy in the little droid’s voice that matched Dean’s own grey mood.  Dean’s thoughts started to drift again, this time to the smiling face of a lisping four year old in much happier, less lonely times, so that he almost missed Chevy’s swooping whistle.  Giving the display a cursory glance to see what the droid had said, Dean couldn’t help but chuckle.  It had to say something about a guy when his astromech droid was telling him not to worry.  What that said was a different question.  “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he added, giving the droid an affectionate pat on the top of her pewter grey dome, “Dad can take care of himself, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t worry.” Dean finished with a wistful smile.  Chevy rotated her dome towards Dean, orienting her sensors at Dean and tilting her body forward in a way that suggested she missed them both too… but Dean’s musings were interrupted when the navcomp chimed to inform him that the exit trajectory and hyperspace path had been plotted and the engines were ready to be engaged.


Giving Chevy another nod of understanding, Dean turned back to the console and punched in the sequence to bring the systems fully online.  The ship whirred and shuddered in response as Dean quickly brought the slender craft into a sharp arcing turn, while powering the sublight engines up to their full capacity, shooting away from the glittering moon and heading towards the galactic plane. 


Sure enough, the telltale blips of Hutt patrol craft—or possibly something more sinister and even less desirable—turned their attention towards the Iriaz Dream as she lit up against the shimmering blackness of space.  No worry though; before the pursuing ships could close half the distance between their starting place in mid orbit around the smuggler’s moon and the Dream, the counter on the navcomp scrolled down to zero and Dean engaged the hyperdrive, smoothly sliding the lever forward and watching the stars blur into lines and then the dancing, soothing blue of hyperspace.  The Dream was one of the fastest ships in the Galaxy—maybe the fastest, thanks to the mechanical genius of Dean’s father and the artificial intelligence expertise Dean’s mother had lent to the ship’s computer—a quality which came in handy more and more these days as everything and everyone from the Hutts to CorSec to the Trade Federation to Republic Intelligence seemed to be after her.  Still, it was cold comfort against the pressing, cloying loneliness Dean felt every day he spent alone.



Chapter Two


The coldness and blackness of the Dark Side had been all-encompassing.  Being one with—and wrapped inside—a blanket of fear and hate and rage.  But yet so isolated … the energy—he—had hated it, loathed the detachment from mortal civilization. Being one with the Dark Side of the Force wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  He missed the power, the control, the influence—the ability to warp and mold and manipulate weaker minds.  But the blackness had consumed him.  His energy had dissipated, spreading him and stretching him throughout the Force until he had almost lost his sense of self.


But … not quite.  Because somewhere in the flow of energy, the eddies and currents of the Force, the knowledge existed.  It came to him from time to time, like little voices on the wind, reminding him of the Prophecy, begging him to hold on, to bide his time, to wait.  And so, the centuries passed, turning into millennia, slipping by like water between the fingers of time.  Until…


All the creatures and agents of the Dark Side, everywhere in the universe—even the Force itself—became alive with the knowledge and cried out that the time was now—the events of the Prophecy had been set into motion, and he had awakened at last, congealing, coalescing back into himself.  The time had come to act.


It didn’t take very long for him to find the perfect host.  Strong body.  Weak mind.  Easily manipulated, twisted, overpowered.  Almost no will of its own.  And for the first time in five thousand years, he acted.  The thrill of power rushed through him once again.  Darth Azazel was back, and it was only a brief matter of time before his vision of the universe was realized.  The mortals kept on inching inexorably towards their destiny—their doom, his victory.




Almost thirty-two standard years had passed since Darth Azazel had first awakened.  It was barely a blink of an eye in the scheme of his existence.  Since he had taken the first actions to set in motion the chain of events that would bring about a new era for the galaxy and a new direction for the Force, he had spent most of his time hiding, hibernating, flitting from one host to the next, keeping watch, and keeping out of sight.  Aside from the moments right after he had been awakened, most of the first ten years had been spent biding his time and waiting for the next landmark—the birth of the Chosen One.  He was repulsed at the thought of the weak-minded, overcurious fools whose existence he had shared during that time.  He had more or less haunted the University of Coruscant catching up on history, technology, and galactic events, gleaning the information he would need to achieve his ultimate goal. 


Then the Chosen One had been born, and he had set the first glorious fire.  He couldn’t help but gloat at that memory.  The Jedi hadn’t suspected a thing.  His actions were spelling their undoing and the complete and permanent downfall of their precious Republic, but yet they had no clue.  It was just as the Dark Side had whispered to him.  Like the prophecy said, the wraith’s actions would go undetected until life itself was on the brink and the balance was shifted to the Dark Side.  Only then would they figure out, and then it would be too late.  After the Chosen One, other fires had followed.  Fun, yes, but not nearly as fulfilling.  They were part of the ritual and served other purposes, but mostly they just passed the time.  Then he had gone into hibernation for most of the last twenty-one years.  He had gone so far as to spend much of that time existing without a host, haunting Sith relics and living in computer systems where no one would look for him.  But now the time had come, the Force had nudged him, told him it was time, and so he would take the final steps towards fulfilling the prophecy.  Soon he would rule the Galaxy with a legion of the most fearsome Sith to have ever lived fighting by his side.


Darth Azazel stretched and blinked his eyes.  They were really the host’s eyes, but he was getting quite comfortable being alive and corporeal once more.  The company of a computer core or the cold embrace of the Dark Side paled in comparison to the glory that was controlling a body.  The host was still in the body with him.  Darth Azazel could have expelled the weak-minded fool from the body at any time.  A thought and the poor nerf herder would be flying from the mortal coil, off to whatever pathetic place those who couldn’t touch the Force went.  But, there were good reasons for keeping the host’s spirit around.  For one, it allowed Darth Azazel to hide beneath the surface.  If he occupied the body alone, his eyes could give him away.  Eyes were the windows to the soul after all, and like any soul consumed and corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force; his eyes were a glaring yellow, the color of putridity and decay.  He doubted any modern Jedi would even know what yellow eyes meant, but he was not about to take any unnecessary chances.  So, Darth Azazel stayed hidden, the clear, pure, blue eyes of his confused and terrified host all the world could see.


A songbird twittered somewhere overhead, its joyous, carefree song in stark contrast with Azazel’s brooding thoughts.  His host’s consciousness perked up at the sound, but Azazel tugged back, feeling his host’s mind shudder with dread.  Now Azazel was smiling; it was nice to be able to exercise his power over others so readily.  He could exercise power over the songbird too, but he would not, because hate this tropical hothouse as he might, he didn’t want to give himself away.  Still, he was enjoying this host.  All too soon he would have to find another, if only to keep his prey off his trail.


His prey was near.  The human didn’t yet realize the part he played in the Prophecy, in Darth Azazel’s plan.  For now, the human thought that he was the hunter, not the hunted.  Azazel would not disabuse the human of that notion, yet.  The human’s feeble efforts would not be enough to derail or interfere with the important work Azazel was doing.  To the contrary, the human seemed to have figured out just enough to ensure he did exactly what Azazel wanted. 


Still, the closeness of the one that was the Key to unlocking the Prophecy was tempting.  Azazel could almost taste the human’s destruction, he could sense how powerful he would be if he took the human’s life, what that victory would bring to him.  Azazel had to restrain himself, to resist jumping forward in the plan now.  But the time was not yet right.  He would wait, and weave his trap broader and wider until he could let it snap.


Chapter Three


There it was again, the telltale disruption in hyperspace that usually signaled the presence of a Sith artifact.  John Winchester knew he wasn’t imagining it, but the erratic pattern and mysterious tendency the “artifact” seemed to have to jump from ship to ship, always staying in-system for precisely six standard days before jumping to hyperspace again…  He’d never seen or heard of anything like it.  If he hadn’t run the sensor logs on the Hunter’s Folly backwards and forwards a dozen times, he wouldn’t have believed it. 


Of course John doubted few would believe what he did for a living—if you could call it that.  Even the Jedi didn’t seem to be aware of just how many Sith relics, artifacts, and other dark objects and creatures were lurking about.  Even the Jedi Shadows didn’t really seem to have a clue.  They investigated, but they seemed blinded by the present, not enough aware of the past that still lived around them. 


John shifted in his chair and got up to pace back and forth around the bridge, absentmindedly running his fingers over the edges and contours of the ship’s bulkheads and computer terminals.  Right now, he really missed his sons—both of them, he’d admit it.  He even missed the son he’d kicked out four years ago.  John had never wanted this—separation, distance—all he had ever wanted to do was watch out for his sons, keep them safe, protect them from all the evil in the universe.  Raise them to become men their mother would have been proud of. 


For the last four years he had had to watch over one son from afar, but at least Dean had been close.  A friend.  A hunting companion.  The only family he had left—well that spoke to him anyway—but now he had left even Dean behind.


“It’s not safe,” John said aloud, trying to reassure himself.  He shuddered, turning away from the viewport as if turning his back on the world below would help push the images from his mind. 


John had started tracking the mysterious hyperspace distortions almost six standard months before.  He hadn’t mentioned the case, or possible case as it was, to Dean because it was too vague and uncertain.  Or at least that’s how John justified it to himself now.  Looking back, it was honestly just a feeling—it felt unsafe, dangerous, to mention the mysterious readings and their incomprehensible pattern to his son.  Something about it seemed to scream out “not safe.”  Plus, it wasn’t even clear that there was a case, the kind of case hunters would work on anyway—something that would fall outside the interests of the Jedi, yet involve powers and entities beyond the ken of planetary authorities and be dangerous to the galaxy’s inhabitants. 


John had started tracking the distortion and trying to see if it he could tie it to a ship or its cargo.  There was no common inventory between the various ships that were entering or leaving hyperspace when the distortion showed up.  It could be that a Sith relic was being smuggled and transferred from one ship to another, but the hyperspace distortion had shown up when passenger transports were leaving a system, when a Republic military ship was arriving, and in conjunction with Kuati luxury liners—vessels that rarely had smuggled cargo.  It was as if the source of the distortion was itself a phantom or ghost or that its source wasn’t a relic at all—John shuddered to think—but a person.  But that made no sense.  There were no passengers in common between the various ships, and confirmed that by pulling strings and calling in favors to run copies of the ships’ passenger manifests through the Republic’s best datanets to check for possible aliases.  If the best slicer John knew (that wasn’t either of his sons) couldn’t find any leads, then there probably weren’t any. 


It was possible that the source of the distortion was something small, small enough to fit in a suitcase or pocket—something that could be passed from passenger to passenger, so that it could move around from person to person and ship to ship.  Something that wasn’t tied to any of the usual smuggling rings or ships or personnel.  He’d had the computer running models and simulations combining holovids of passengers leaving the ships, stated itineraries, and passenger manifests (the sliced versions), and so far had found nothing that explained how even a small artifact was moving from one ship to the next.  If that was the source of the distortion, then whatever it was had to be changing hands between trips, possibly getting passed on more than once.  And if that was the case, John certainly hadn’t been able to figure out any sense of pattern.  It was as if the Sith relic was moving of its own accord.


Then, three weeks ago, he’d received an encrypted file from a fellow hunter, his old friend Bobby, suggesting that John personally investigate a mysterious fire on Commenor.  John had nearly collapsed when he read the files and saw the holorecording of the fire’s improbable remains.  He visited the scene—seeing a family’s home burnt and twisted and melted beyond recognition, the smell of charred flesh and melted plasteel burning his nostrils and turning his stomach.  It was just like the fire that had taken Mary and destroyed their home on Dantooine almost twenty-two standard years ago.  His heart went out to the family that had lost a mother.  There was no way John could resist investigating something that might hold a clue to who or what was responsible for killing Mary and destroying his family.  If not for the sinister circumstances of Mary’s death, John would be a happily married father, retired from the Jedi Support Corps and running a successful mechanic’s shop on Dantooine.  He owed it to Mary, to his sons whose childhoods he’d sacrificed to learn the truth and keep them safe.  He had to take the job.  Solving this mystery might bring him peace.


Then came the second fire—even more improbable than the last.  A durasteel luxury apartment in a tower on Coruscant had burned so hot it melted part of the superstructure, yet the homes and apartments around it remained untouched.  The details were almost too much for John to bear—another family destroyed.  But then John found the eerie correlation between the timing and location of the fires and the movements of the mysterious Sith artifact.


Shaken, John had started digging.  Sure enough, in each system in which the hyperspace distortion appeared, at some point during its sojourn some poor family’s home had caught fire and a child’s parent had died.  The fires were all unexplained and many should have been impossible.  At every fire there were trace readings of energy disturbances—similar to the hyperspace disturbance—that could only be caused by someone or something using the Dark Side of the Force.  John was faced with the inevitable conclusion that the mysterious Sith artifact and the fires were linked.


Now, John stood pacing, looking down at the world below.  Soon the Artifact would depart.  Soon he would have a new destination, another chance to save a family, another chance to piece together what this meant for his own family—for his own son.


The computer chimed, breaking John from his dark thoughts.  Sure enough, a ship, this time a passenger liner, that had just departed the system on a course for Corellia was giving off the telltale hyperspace distortion of a Sith relic.


He punched the coordinates into the Folly’s navcomp and prepared to follow the Sith artifact into hyperspace, hoping it would pull him one step closer to understanding, one step closer to the truth, one step closer to revenge.  With a long sigh, John resumed his seat in the captain’s chair.  The Folly’s computer trilled an alert that the hyperdrive was ready to engage.  John pushed the lever forward and watched the stars blur into starlines and dissolve into the blue tunnel of hyperspace.


Chapter Four


Sam Winchester stood staring at his reflection in the mirror in the ‘fresher in his apartment.  His apartment!  The thought made Sam smile.  His reflection smiled back at him showing a clean, responsible adult, not the dirty, bedraggled “freighter captain’s” child he used to be.  Sam Winchester had two degrees from the University of Coruscant, a prestigious internship with the junior Senator from Dantooine, and if everything went well at his scholarship interview next week, he would soon be accepted to the University of Coruscant’s law school.  In a few years, he would be well on his way to being the next great counselor, maybe eventually working his way up the Galactic Republic Senate’s legislative staff to be a chief legal advisor, or perhaps even advisor to the Chancellor!  Sam dared not enter the political arena, no matter how much encouragement he received from professors.  After all, normal, respectable citizen that he now was, Sam had no illusions of ever completely shedding his “colorful” past. 


“Sam,” a light soprano voice called from somewhere in the apartment.


“Coming,” Sam replied.  He and Jess—probably the best thing about his new, normal, life—were supposed to be going to a costume party with friends from the University where Jess was in the last year of her degree.  Sam was supposed to be getting ready, but instead he was contemplating his life in the ‘fresher’s mirror.  He did hate costume parties after all.  They reminded him too much of his childhood and all the disguises and lies he was forced to assume, not to mention the things his father hunted.  Sam really didn’t feel comfortable with people taking monsters and mythological figures and creatures (many of which weren’t so mythological) so lightheartedly.  If they had any idea… but that was just it; they didn’t have any idea, and Sam wasn’t about to disabuse them of the notion.


Sam!” Jess’s voice shouted.  “Ven is here.  We’re going to be late!”


Sam gave one last look, smoothing his longer-than-absolutely-proper hair down behind his ears as he did so, then stepped out into the hall, letting the ‘fresher door slide shut behind him.


“Is that your costume?” Ven asked, incredulous.  The dark-skinned Twi’lek was dressed in black robes with a black cloak over his shoulders, its hood just visible under his tastefully arranged lekku.


“I’m not wearing a costume,” Sam sighed, exasperated.  He was wearing a very nice formal suit that he had recently purchased with his hard-earned internship money.  It was probably silly to wear it to a costume party, but then again, Sam hadn’t quite gotten over the feeling that wearing a suit was a costume, so he thought it was fitting. 


“Don’t you know, Sam hates costumes,” Jess added teasingly.


“What are you supposed to be?” Sam asked Ven.


“A Darth,” Ven said, nonplussed as if it should be plainly obvious.


Sam shook his head in disbelief.  Of all the things, of course Ven would pick one of the most ironic and woefully inappropriate…  If Ven had any idea how dangerous Sith really were or how much trouble their blasted relics caused, he surely wouldn’t find it entertaining to dress up as one.  But for normal people, Sith were just the villains of history and legend and were romanticized accordingly.


“What do you think of my costume?” Jess’s amused voice broke through Sam’s musings.


He turned to look at his girlfriend properly for the first time that evening.  Jess was wearing what appeared to be an imitation of a Jedi Support Soldier’s uniform, only cut far more provocatively, so that it clung to all her curves.  It also had the added benefit of a plunging v-neckline that temptingly drew the eye away from Jess’s face and to her rather generous assets.  The material seemed to be some sort of very high quality wool that was so finely woven it was smooth, almost silky to the touch.  Sam realized he was staring at Jess’s cleavage and absentmindedly stroking her sleeve.  “It’s, um, really nice,” Sam flustered, blushing.


“Uh-huh,” Ven snorted noticing Jess’s equally rapt expression as she flirted with Sam.  “Are you two sure you’re OK coming out tonight—you wanna stay home, get a room, or something?” he added teasingly.


Sam and Jess both turned to Ven with expressions of mock annoyance.  Jess made a “tsk tsk”ing noise and Sam punched Ven in the arm.


“All right, all right.  Let’s go,” Sam said, gesturing to the apartment’s front entrance.


Jess led the way out with Sam following, holding her hand, and Ven bringing up the rear.  They left the dim, cozy confines of the apartment, walked along their level’s entry corridor, and stepped out into the bustling Coruscant night.  Sam and Jess’s apartment wasn’t a luxury suite by any means, but thanks to Sam’s internship and Jess’s affluent parents, they were in a better-off neighborhood not too far from the University’s main administration complex in the Fobosi district.  Their apartment was high enough up that they had a good view of the Galactic City’s starry sky, glittering spires, and opulent skyhooks without much obstruction by overhead walkways.  They were close to several major skyways and had convenient speeder docking access, yet their neighborhood was constructed with pedestrian footpaths and gliding walkways every few levels, so they could also just step outside and walk about the city without having to spend lots of time in turbolifts.


The three walked along the sidewalk going up several levels to reach the wealthy classmate’s house where the party was taking place.  The chatted about school, life, and work, and generally had a good time.


None of them noticed the somewhat sickly looking figure following them, lurking in the shadows about fifty meters back.  And certainly none of them saw the figure’s eyes flash a glowing yellow. 


If Sam had been honest with himself at the time, he would have admitted that he knew the tickling, itchy feeling on the back of his neck and in the corners of his mind was the sensation of being watched, but he was far too intent on being normal—and honestly had nearly convinced himself that the prospect of a costume party had him freaked out for no real reason—to acknowledge it.  So, Sam didn’t even sneak a glance over his shoulder.  Instead he pulled farther inside himself, wrapped his arm tighter around Jess’s slender shoulders, and entered the party.




Darth Azazel followed the Chosen One and his whore and their friend as they meandered and weaved through the causeways of Coruscant.  They were intoxicated now.  They’d partied and danced and acted like careless fools all evening long, and now they were going to the Chosen One’s home.  The chosen one sensed him; he knew it.  Azazel could feel the Chosen One’s mind so strongly.  He vibrated with the power of the Force even through the block Azazel had placed on him twenty-two years before.  Darth Azazel didn’t know whether to be pleased that the boy was so powerful even though the block had not yet been lifted, or enraged because the boy was letting his talents go to waste—not just not using them, but actively ignoring them.  Well, soon enough that problem would be solved.  Azazel knew how to force the boy out of his shell, how to make him use those talents.  Azazel pulled his host’s face into an approximation of a maniacal leer.


This host wasn’t as well suited as the last—the teenage, ruffian spice-addict he had possessed was trying to fight back against his will and seemed more disgusted than horrified by Azazel’s presence.  Still, he needed to shake his prey for a while.  The prey was doing too good a job of playing the hunter.  After the fire on Thyferra, John Winchester had nearly figured him out.  The hunter had dismissed it as preposterous of course, but Azazel certainly couldn’t take the risk of tipping John off.  Besides, he really needed John out of the way for this part of his plan.  His prey wouldn’t be expecting him to return to Coruscant so soon after the last fire, and Azazel doubted the prey would think his precious estranged son would be a target now...  Sam wouldn’t fit the pattern the prey thought he was following.  Silly, simple-minded hunters and their fascination with patterns.  They so seldom dealt with anything sentient that they made for very nice pawns on those rare occasions their prey could plan back. 


The Chosen One and his companions were slipping around a corner and out of sight, forcing Azazel to leave his hiding place inside the arched doorway of a closed tapcaf.


He was so intent on following the Chosen One he nearly walked into a tall, blue Kaminoan woman who was gliding along in the opposite direction.


She skirted around Darth Azazel’s host with a look of disdain.


Annoyed, he flashed his real eyes at the woman in response, smiling at her reaction of mixed shock and fear.  Yes… yes… the Jedi of this era might not take the Sith seriously, but the people, well, there were enough children’s stories warning of creatures with yellow eyes to ensure they feared a Dark Lord of the Sith when they saw one.


Mmm… Tonight would be a delicious victory—just a little longer and he would act, moving one step closer to ultimate victory.  He could almost taste it now.  Soon he and his comrades would be reunited and together, they would make the galaxy burn.  The Galactic Republic would crumble at his feet, and the Jedi would tuck their tails and run before he slaughtered every last one of them.  Soon the tide of the Dark Side would wash over the galaxy and change it forever.


Chapter Five


Dean threw down his nerf steak sandwich in frustration.  He felt like an idiot.  Scratch that, he was an idiot.  He let out a long sigh and took a longer sip of lomin ale.  Leaning back in his chair he surveyed the crowd around him.  Dean was grateful he had found an outdoor tapcaf near Sam’s apartment complex that allowed droids. 


The job on Tatooine had finished up quickly, but it was weird.  There had been a Jedi’s Force-ghost—not a hunter’s—roaming around, but as soon as he’d showed up she appeared to him, muttered something about wounds and healing and “your guide will come soon,” and then she’d left.  Shimmered off into a bright warm glow and gone to be one with the Force again.  Being a Jedi who had crossed over, there was no body to salt and burn, no remains over which to perform rituals to set her soul at rest.  So, he’d stuck around for an extra two days—made sure she was truly gone and not going to bother anyone again, and then he’d hightailed it to Coruscant.  And of course, he’d been avoiding Bobby the entire time, not wanting to talk to his father’s friend until he knew where Dad was.


Chevy let out a swooping whistle and rolled closer to Dean’s chair.  He patted the top of her domed head with affection.  The little droid was trying to reassure him, and Dean really did appreciate it.  Still, he wasn’t sure of himself, and he felt lost, adrift.  John was missing.  He had been out of contact for too long for this to be just another hunt gone wrong.  Either John was in trouble or…  Or what? Dean asked himself.  Whatever the cause, it was pretty clear that everything was not OK.  He could look for John himself or just continue on his own and wait for John to contact him whenever—  Whenever what?  Whenever Dad was safe?  Whenever it was safe?  Dean was an adult and didn’t need to go running to Daddy for reassurance, but he honestly hated being alone.  And he was worried.


Technically, Dean had Chevy to keep him company, and he was thankful for that, but they couldn’t really talk, at least not without the help of a datapad, and the long, dark journeys through space got really lonely with no one to talk to.  So, here he was, on blasted Coruscant of all places, trying to work up the nerve to talk to a brother he no longer knew. 


Sithspit!  Dean hated the super-urban planet with its globe-covering cityscape.  He supposed it might be thanks to the first four years of his life spent as a farm boy on Dantooine, but big cities always made Dean uneasy.  He wasn’t sure if it was the billions of sentient beings crammed into tight spaces with no room to spare, the lack of natural features and vegetation, or the depth of the planet—too many places to get lost. 


It was funny though, Nar Shaddaa, the smuggler’s moon, was crammed full of people and nooks and crannies with very little open space, but Dean always felt ok there—perhaps it was because there the people who were lost and hidden, for the most part, wanted to be.  Plus, there were plenty of Pazaak games (or if you fancied a more high-tech scene like his father did, Sabacc games) to get caught up in; pretty, willing bodies eager for companionship; and scoundrels and smugglers a plenty, so that Dean fit in perfectly.  But here on Coruscant, it was all perfect and normal on the surface, but that surface was stitched together and pulled over the lost and forgotten masses of the world below like skin sealed over an infected wound.  And that made Dean twitchy, edgy, and he hated it.


Returning his attention to his meal, Dean picked up his sandwich and chewed a few more bites.  He caught sight of a curly-haired blond on the arm of a very, very tall, dark-haired man.  Dean’s stomach made a funny lurch that had nothing to do with his sandwich.  Sam.  Not just Sam, but Sam and his girlfriend.  Dean felt awkward watching them as they walked by arm-in-arm, heads leaning together, smiling, laughing, enjoying themselves like normal people.


Dean wanted nothing more than to see Sam happy; he was even thrilled that Sam had finally gotten the normal life he’d always wanted.  But Dean missed Sam, missed having his little brother at his side, knowing his best friend would always have his back.  But Dean didn’t fit in Sam’s normal world, and Sam had made it perfectly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with Dean’s (John’s really, but the end was the same) world.  Sam wanted museums and senate halls and libraries.  Dean lived for card games, smuggling, slicing, and hunting.  But like it or not, Sam needed to know Dad was missing.  And, like it or not, Dean needed Sam, at least for a little while.


Chugging the last of his lomin ale, Dean rose, throwing a few credits on the plasteel tabletop as a tip, and motioning for Chevy to follow.  He needed to see Sam, and now was as good a time as any.


As Dean followed Sam and his girlfriend, he tried to ignore the jostling press of people of all species and descriptions that pushed and shoved their way around him.  Dean knew what building Sam lived in, but he was still hesitant to actually talk to Sam considering his younger brother hadn’t answered his holonet calls or messages in almost two years, and had actually suggested it would be better if Dean didn’t call.  So, for now, Dean held back and followed.


Sam had changed a lot.  Part of it was growing up—he’d been barely eighteen when he’d left home.  Sam had grown a few extra centimeters, making his height all the more dramatic.  He was probably now at least ten centimeters taller than Dean.  He had filled out and bulked up too.  Sam wasn’t built like a guard or soldier might be, but he had developed a tasteful athleticism that suited him.  It probably would have infuriated their father with its civilian-ness.  Dean snorted at the thought and felt the concern and loneliness that had plagued him since John’s disappearance all the more acutely.  The sharpness of the pain took him by surprise.  Dean didn’t really know what to make of it.  Maybe it meant John was in even greater danger? 


Forcing the feeling to the back of his mind, Dean returned his focus to Sam.  Sam seemed happy, he fit with his girlfriend and looked comfortable and confident and hopeful in a way Dean had never seen before.  As much as Dean missed his brother and was still angry about the circumstances surrounding Sam’s departure from the family, he felt guilty intruding on Sam’s new life and disturbing his newfound happiness.


Dean followed Sam all the way back to his apartment complex, being extra careful to avoid detection.  Sam had been excellent at detecting threats back when he was hunting, but if Sam had even an inkling that he was being followed he didn’t show it.


All evening, Dean watched from afar, using Chevy’s surveillance enhancements to keep watch over Sam and look for a good opportunity to approach him.  Dean hoped that maybe Sam’s girlfriend would leave so that he could talk to Sam alone.  He felt like he was really waiting for a good opportunity… to shatter his brother’s world.  But, the opportunity never came.  It soon became clear that Sam and his girlfriend were preparing to go out.  When a tallish, dark-skinned Twi’lek showed up wearing Sith robes so convincing Dean nearly jumped out of his hiding place and charged in blasters blazing.  But when Sam’s girlfriend came to the door wearing an interpretation of a Jedi Support Corps uniform that Dean was pretty sure he’d seen in a really low-quality pornographic holovid, it became pretty clear they were going to some sort of costume party.  Sam, he was pleased to see, did not wear a costume—at least there were some things about his brother that hadn’t changed. 


When Sam and his friends left, Dean was torn between following and staying at the apartment.  Chevy gave him a sarcastic whistle that helped Dean decide he would be better off waiting at the apartment.  Why torture himself with seeing more of Sam’s new life than he absolutely had to?


But, as Sam and his companions were nearly out of sight, Dean got the distinct feeling they were being watched.  Dean wondered if he might have been tracked by one of the obsessed smugglers he had tangled with on his last job, or if possibly whatever bad thing had resulted in John’s disappearance had come after him too, but then he noticed a subtle shift in the way Sam carried himself that signaled that Sam sensed it too—he was doing his best to ignore it, but he sensed it.  That’s when Dean felt the tickle of being watched go away.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t watching him, but it might be watching SamDefinitely not good.  Dean had almost resolved to go after Sam anyway, when Chevy let out a low, chirping whistle that got Dean’s attention. 


The little droid was anxiously rocking back and forth on her treads, which usually meant they had received a high-priority message.  Sighing in frustration (and concern for his younger brother), Dean resolved to find a secure place to let Chevy play him the message in private.  Sam would just have to take care of himself for a few hours.


Dean looked around.  There were several recessed alcoves at the entrances to the nearby apartment buildings, but all were fairly well lit.  It was a good neighborhood after all.  There were other spaces off of the walkway, but they offered poor enclosure and little privacy from anyone walking by.  The walkway was lined with trees, but they were ornamentals and would offer little in the way of concealment. Also, looking at the way colors were playing across the trees’ bark in ripples and waves, noticeable even in the dimmer evening light, Dean was pretty sure they were in fact Ch’hala trees from Cularin, which were sensitive to sound and vibrations and—with a little bit of cleverness—could be used as nearly undetectable recording or surveillance devices.  Definitely not something he wanted to expose a sensitive message to.


Dean continued surveying their surroundings.  He had half a mind to lower them both down into the courtyard garden he could see about a level down.  It was clearly a communal garden for Sam’s building, the three cylindrical towers that made up his complex were arrayed around it in a U, with the forth side bordered by the walkway.  Looking up, Dean could make out other similar structures about every seven levels above.  He was willing to bet that the levels below had similar gardens as well.  The garden was not lit at the moment and had several larger trees and shrubs—some of them were Alderaanian, Dean recognized—perfect for concealing a man and droid and probably even blocking most of the light from the holorecording.  But, the garden was clearly intended to be a private space for the complex’s residents, designed to be accessed from the inside, only, and with a three-meter wall separating the garden from the walkway on the level below.  The obvious privacy features also meant it would be impractical for Dean to slip in and out of with an astromech droid in tow.


“Chevy, wanna see how good Sammy’s security system is?” Dean asked his droid.


Chevy responded with a whistle-bleep that could only be described as snarky.


Dean snorted in reply, “Sounds like you’ve got even less faith in him than I do.  Did you get a recording of the electronic keypad signature?” 


Chevy’s response was a bleating whine that was the droid equivalent of a human eye roll.


“All right then,” Dean said with a smile, his fear for Sam’s safety temporarily forgotten, as he gestured for Chevy to roll on ahead of him.  “Lead the way.”


In the dim evening light, it was relatively easy for Chevy to slip into the entry alcove of Sam’s building without being seen by the building’s security holocam.  Dean didn’t bother avoiding the camera, instead he stepped up to the door with confidence like he had every right to be there, keeping his head down so his face wouldn’t show up on the camera.  Making sure his gloves were securely on his hands so as not to leave any DNA or fingerprint evidence behind, should he have any problems with Sam or his building, Dean listened over the miniaturized comlink earpiece as Chevy translated the door control sequence she had recorded as a series of numerical clicks Dean could easily translate into the proper code.


The doors slid open with a quiet swish, revealing a simple-but-elegant interior hallway with blue stone flooring and lighter blue-grey walls.  The ceiling was arched and had inlaid lighting running along the curve between the arch and walls that cast a comfortable glow over the hallway.  Dean assumed the décor was designed to be soothing to a wide range of sentient species.  Dean strolled inside, careful to block the camera’s view as Chevy slipped in ahead of him.


Doors lined each wall of the hallway, their dark wood surfaces and wide spacing denoting the relative luxury and opulence of the quarters within. 


Chevy let out a low, barely audible trill, which Dean interpreted with a glance at the small datapad he kept stored in his jacket pocket. 


“I know, Chevy, hard to imagine our Sammy living here,” Dean murmured in reply.  “The security on this place is pretty crap too, but maybe Sammy’s apartment is better.”


Chevy made another quiet chirp, and Dean saw his datapad update with a wireframe schematic of the building.  On it, one corridor on a level midway up the building was flashing.  The display zoomed in on the corridor and then showed a door and accompanying apartment unit nearly halfway down on the left side blinking.


“You sure that’s where Sammy and his friends were coming from?” Dean asked.


This time the little droid was silent, but words scrolled across the display below the schematic.  I tracked their voices going in and coming out.  Building isn’t completely sound-proofed.  Used hunter subroutines and sliced Galactic City housing records.  Unit A-113-8 is registered to Samuel Winchester and Jessica L. Moore.  Cross-referenced housing records with University of Coruscant student records and confirmed ident.  The words were followed by smiling 2-D images of Sam and his girlfriend, the kind used on ident cards and accompanied by some basic student information.  Dean noticed that Sam’s record showed he had graduated with a dual degree in Mythology and Pre-law the previous school year and was now employed as a senatorial intern. 


“Huh, Sammy has a degree, and he didn’t think to tell us,” Dean added, trying not to feel the burn of betrayal and longing that cropped up whenever he thought too much about the rift between Sam and the rest of their tiny family.  He noted absently that Jessica was in her last year of a degree in Galactic History and Pre-Reformation archeology.  No wonder why Sammy liked her!  The geeky relic stuff was always Sam’s favorite part of the family business, or rather the only part he didn’t hate.  Maybe Sam wasn’t completely glad to be rid of his family after all.


Dean was drawn from his musings as Chevy stopped in front of an apartment.  Dean looked up and noticed the unit number A-113-8 was listed on the door in clear, raised lettering. 


The display on Dean’s datapad changed again.  I have been passively scanning for all security and sensor systems.  The camera outside the main entrance and the camera outside the turbolifts are the only cameras on this level.  A section of the schematic a little farther down the hallway blinked on the display.  No other active monitoring devices detected; no alarms.  Unit door has a modified Sienar Systems security system.


“Modified?” Dean asked, looking from his datapad to the little Droid. 


It appears that someone has enhanced the sensitivity of its monitoring and triggering systems and interlaced it with a variety of Czerka Arms weapon systems.  The droid’s words scrolled across the screen, updating the display with a schematic for the system’s layout and specifications.  The system appears to be run by a droid brain.  There are also runes.


“Runes?” Dean asked, his right eyebrow quirking in surprise. 


Of the sort John taught you as children to use to ward off lost spirits and Sith relics.


“I’ll be damned,” Dean whistled.  “I guess Sammy hasn’t forgotten everything after all,” he added, feeling a swell of pride knowing his younger brother hadn’t been running around completely naked and exposed.  “Can you slice it and get us in, Chevy?”


This time the droid let out an amused snort.  Sam used the standard CampbelTronics programming algorithms and the security codes you taught him.  I am in communication with the droid brain that runs the system. It is waiting for you to answer the password query and the door will open.

“Password query?” Dean asked.


Iriaz.  Press your hand to the chime, Chevy replied through the datapad.


Dean did as instructed and was unsurprised when the chime panel lit up revealing a touch screen keypad.  Dean typed in “Dream,” and the door slid open.  “After you, Chevy,” Dean said.


The datapad scrolled out one more reply.  Have asked droid to raise lights 14% and darken windows so that I can display the holomessage.


“Sounds good, Chevy,” Dean replied following the droid into Sam’s apartment.  He was anxious to see the message, but almost more intrigued by this glimpse into his brother’s new life.  Of course, his curiosity would soon be forgotten as the message would prove to be more cryptic and alarming than Dean could have imagined.


Chapter Six


John knew something was wrong the moment he Folly dropped out of hyperspace and into the Corellian system.  The Tarisian Queen, the large passenger liner on which the Sith artifact had left Thyferra was nowhere to be found.  John had plotted his hyperspace route to match speed with the slower passenger liner so that he would arrive in system just after it did.  He was hoping to get a lock on the distortion again and then wait for the ship to shuttle passengers down to the surface.  If John got close enough, he might be able to pick up the more subtle, real-space distortions that Sith objects always gave off.  If he got lucky, he’d be able to tell if the relic or the person(s) who had it were indeed going to Corellia or shuttling to one of the other four inhabited planets in the system. 


Instead, John emerged to see a system free of the Queen and free of any large passenger ships of any description.  “Sithspawn!” he cursed aloud.  Something was very, very wrong, he could feel lit. 


The Folly’s computer let out a low whine and began displaying words across the screen.  Tarisian Queen dropped out of hyperspace three standard hours after entering hyperspace.  Sent hypercom message for help.  Repair crew responded from Coruscant.  Engines had been sabotaged and hyperdrive motivator damaged.  Completed repairs.  Queen resumed course and will be in-system in eighteen standard hours.


Repair ship from Coruscant? John pondered.  “Did the repair ship stay with the Queen as an escort or return to Coruscant?”


Returned to Coruscant.  Scheduled to land in twelve standard hours, the computer supplied.


“Blast!” John sighed.  It was a diversion.  The Sith thing had probably transferred to the repair ship and hitched a ride back to Coruscant.  He could wait and confirm, but that would mean cooling his heels in the Corellian system for eighteen hours while the Sith artifact could be arriving in the Coruscant system six hours before he could even make a confirmation, and then—if his hunch was right—he’d still have to make the long hyperspace journey to Coruscant while the Sith thing was off exerting its influence on anyone and anything it wanted.  Even if he left Corellia for Coruscant now, he wouldn’t make it to Coruscant before the repair ship, meaning artifact would still be in the Coruscant system for at least half a day before he could get there. 


The computer chimed again and began displaying more information.  The Tarisian Queen contacted Corellian port authorities and indicated that they believed their ship had been sabotaged while in the Polith System.  Suspected pirates might be arriving in Corellian system ahead of Queen to intercept and raid as it arrived in system.


“What?” John asked aloud, incredulous.  “Why would they think that?  Better yet, why would the Corellian government listen—”


CorSec has orders to intercept and detain all ships inbound from Thyferra on suspected sabotage and piracy.  CorSec fighters incoming now, the computer disclosed hurriedly.


“It’s a trap!” John said, falling back in his seat.  That was the only possible conclusion.  But how could it be a trap?  Somehow the Sith—thing must have known John was following it.  It must be sentient or influencing something sentient.  That was the only explanation.  But why would it lure John to Corellia?  Well, CorSec was the best planetary defense force in the Galactic Republic.  Some thought it was even better than the Republic forces, save for the Jedi.  Rumor was CorSec had a few of those working with it too.  If John didn’t act fast, he’d be stuck in a Corellian jail until he could figure out how to bust out—with all the special modifications to the Folly, not to mention the less-than-legal hunting paraphernalia he had on board, they’d have enough to bring him up on charges worthy of a stint on Kessel.  And he sure as hell didn’t want to be stuck in any Sithbegotten spice mine!  Meanwhile the Sith would probably be on Coruscant, where it would have a head start, free to—


“Sammy,” John gasped.  It was after his son.  In twenty-four standard hours it would be the twenty-second anniversary of Mary’s death.  Like he’d long feared, it looked like Sammy was its target after all. 


A klaxon started blaring and red lights began flashing all over the console. 


“Sithspit!” John exclaimed.


The computer informed him three CorSec fighters had already been scrambled and were on an intercept course.  Two more were coming in from aft, where they had been laying in wait farther out in the system.


“I can see that, thanks!” he snapped sarcastically.  The ships were coming in so fast he could already make out their checkered pattern against the black backdrop of space.  They were trying to box him in, cut off his exit vector.  John hastily began flipping levers overhead and punching in a sequence of numbers on the console in front of him.  The Folly looked like a relatively sluggish, small freighter, but she was anything but.  John had modified her himself, upgrading shields, engines, repulsor lifts, and hyperdrive.  Using Mary’s droid designs and Dean’s expert help, he had modified the computer core so it functioned as an investigative droid, a standard ship’s computer, and a ship-based forensics lab.  He could match speed with the CorSec fighters, but he lacked their edge in maneuverability and couldn’t do much at all if he had to take the ship into atmosphere.  Still, he could flip end-to-end faster and in less relative space than the fighters could.  Plus, those fighters didn’t have onboard hyperdrive, and his navcomp was faster at calculating hyperspace paths than any ship in CorSec’s fleet, so if he could get outside the system before one of the big frigates caught up with him…


John looked out the starboard viewport and sure enough, one of the larger, needle-nosed ships was definitely heading his way.  If he could get enough distance on the starfighters and get far enough outside the system’s gravity well, he just might have enough time to get away.


Quickly formulating a plan and running calculations in his head, John muttered, “Here goes nothing.”  He pitched the Folly forward, angling down at a ninety-degree angle from the system’s orientation plane.  He pushed the sublight engines all the way to their maximum.  There were no good exit vectors on this course, but that didn’t really matter just yet.


He checked the console’s display.  Sure enough, the fighters were already reacting.  Their behavior had turned from polite and respectful intercept-and-escort mode to full alert.  They were streaking after him now, sending a slew of hails and repeated warnings that John steadfastly ignored.  On the up side, the frigate still hadn’t changed course.  Good.


“Start the chameleon protocol and jam all comm frequencies,” he barked at the computer, receiving a short tweet in the affirmative.  The chameleon would send out false transponder data randomly cycling through a list of fake ship IDs, models, and registrations, making it that much harder for pursuing ships to determine the Folly’s true identity, while also making it difficult for any ship outside visual range to track the Folly, get a lock on her, or accurately anticipate her movements.  The fighters were too close for it to have much of an effect on them, but at least it would make sure they wouldn’t identify her.  John was grateful he hadn’t dropped his guard enough to enter the system broadcasting the Folly’s real transponder data, or they would be in a lot more trouble.  “Keep track of all IDs we’re broadcasting,” he told the computer, “make sure to reserve a few to use after we get out of here.”  John checked the pursuing ships positions.  He had gained a few klicks on the closest of them, but at that moment, the fighter shot a warning volley that sprayed bright green laser light just off the port side of the Folly’s bow. 


Good enough, he thought, wrenching the controls, and pulling the Folly through a corkscrew, emerging with the ship pointed at 180 degrees to his entry vector, but several klicks below that plane.  Dialing a few controls on the navcomp, he guestimated a short in-system hyperspace jump that—if it worked, would pop him back at the point he’d reverted to realspace.  He would be far enough behind the pursuing ships to avoid them and jump out of system.  He was close still close enough to the system’s multiple massive gravity wells that he couldn’t plot a jump, but he was far enough out that if he turned the safeties off and engaged the manual override, he should be able to force the ship into a blind jump for a second or so, which—barring hitting anything along the way (like one of the pursuing ships)—should get him completely clear enough so that a few more seconds travel at sublight would have him completely outside the grav shadow and free to plot another jump.  Still, even with the Folly’s super-fast navcomp, he wouldn’t have time to plan a course that was both safe and would adequately cover his tracks, so he would have to make another semi-blind jump to take him outside the system.  Then, he could revert to realspace one more time, and plot an actual course that would take him back to Coruscant swiftly, while also covering his tracks from any would-be pursuers.


Thinking of Mary, John pushed the lever forward to engage the hyperdrive.  The ship lurched horribly, and the stars blurred to starlines before the ship shuddered back into realspace.  Several alarms were blaring—lovely, he thought, noticing the micro-jump had knocked the shields out of alignment.  Still, with five more seconds of flying, he would be completely free of the gravity well, and his pursuers were now tiny specks in the aft viewport. 


John adjusted his trajectory again, aiming on the clearest vector out of the system that should be safe for a blind jump.  He engaged the hyperdrive again, punching the lever forward and watching the stars dissolve into the swirling blue of hyperspace.  John held his breath, watching the console’s chrono tick of one minute, then two.  At two and a half, John had had enough, and quickly pulled the ship back into realspace, much to the warbling relief of the computer.


It had worked.  The ship was in one piece—he hadn’t hit any other ships or flown into a planet or through a black hole.  And there were no signs of his pursuers.  Hopefully CorSec would follow protocol and call in Republic help before following him outside the system.  Even if they could track him, that would at least buy him more time.  Now John just had to figure out where he was and plot a trip back to Coruscant with enough stops to throw any belated pursuers off his trail.  He just hoped he could save Sammy from whatever it was the Sith had planned for him. 


John’s stomach lurched with the fear of losing his son.  He had already driven the boy away from home… yes, he was willing to admit that.  But he had only wanted to keep him safe; instead, John seemed to have driven him into the waiting maw of the enemy… and he didn’t even know exactly who or what that enemy was.


Ten minutes later, hands shaking with adrenaline and sweat pooling on his brow from the exertion of making quick repairs to the ships shield generators, the navcomp had calculated a three-part course to Coruscant, and John was ready to get underway.  As he punched in the hyperdrive one more time, he just hoped he could get to Coruscant in time.


Chapter Seven


Sam knew the moment they reached the apartment building that something was wrong.  Even through the haze of inebriation thanks to too much Whyrren’s Reserve and Lum, he could tell that the place had been disturbed.  Half-hating that his instincts were still so keen, half-grateful that it meant he wouldn’t be walking in on a possible burglar unawares, he put his hand on the access panel to open the door, making sure he was between Jess and Ven (who was returning for a “nightcap”) and whatever or whomever was on the other side of the door.  He didn’t say anything though, didn’t want to alarm them in case it was Mrs. Tanaka’s cat from upstairs having somehow slipped her way in from the balcony again.


With a moment’s hesitation, Sam opened the door to find the last thing—ok make that the second-to-last thing—he had ever expected to see.  His brother Dean was seated on Sam’s couch, looking comfortable, with Dean’s droid Chevy standing by his side.


Jess gasped and Ven exclaimed from behind him, but Sam ignored their momentary shock.  “Dean, what are you doing here?” he demanded.


“Sammy, long time no see, is that any way to greet your brother?” Dean asked with a smile, but Sam could tell it was fake.  Even after over four years without seeing his brother and more than two since their last awkward holocom conversation in which Sam had suggested Dean not call him anymore, he still knew his brother.  And something was very, very wrong.  Dean was worried, tense.  Sam could almost feel the stress and concern rolling off of Dean in waves.  Chevy seemed nervous too, not quite staying still, instead fidgeting, almost vibrating, making barely perceptible little twitches on her treads while she struggled to stay in place.


“Wait, Dean, your brother?” Jess asked, surprised, stepping around Sam and into the apartment. 


Dean turned a surprised leer towards her, and Sam remembered that Jess was still in that ridiculously cut Support Corps uniform.


“Brother?” Ven added, slipping in around Sam on his other side.


Dean stayed on the couch looking adorably innocent (or make that infuriatingly innocent).  “So, Sammy, you gonna introduce us?” Dean asked.


Clearing his throat and trying to maintain composure, Sam stepped forward, letting the door slide shut behind him.  “Jess, Ven, this is my brother Dean; Dean my girlfriend Jess and my good friend Ven,” Sam concluded.


Dean did stand then, Sam was almost surprised to see, and shook Jess’s and Ven’s hands in turn.  “Pleased to meet you both,” Dean said.  “I just need to borrow Sam for a moment.”


“Dean, why ever you’re here, just say it.  If you’re going to have the nerve to break into my apartment—into Jess’s and my apartment—and disturb our evening and our friend, then please have the decency to tell us all why you’re here,” Sam said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.


Jess turned to him and gave him a kind of funny look, but he squeezed her hand in reassurance, trying to shoot her a glance that said “my brother is such a pain.”  As long as they didn’t come out of this situation with Jess or Ven understanding just how abnormally dysfunctional Sam’s family was, he’d be thrilled.


“Ok,” Dean said, “Dad’s missing.”


“So?” Sam said.  “He’s not exactly fine, upstanding Republic citizen of the year.  And his job’s not exactly stable,” Sam snorted.  “You sure he didn’t just make an unexpected pit stop somewhere for a Sabacc game, or pick up a new gig and not tell you?” Sam suggested, trying to avoid talking about the specifics of his father’s work in front of his friends as much as possible.  As far as they knew, his dad was a freighter captain with a gambling habit and a less-than-stable employment history.


Dean gave Sam a frank, assessing look, then let out a long sigh.  “I haven’t seen Dad in a month, and I just got a priority message from Bobby that you need to see,” Dean explained solemnly.


Feeling a resurgence of the panicky wrongness he’d felt when he’d first seen Dean sitting on the couch, Sam dropped all pretense and turned to Jess apologetically.  “Babe, this could be serious.  I don’t really get along well with my family, but I think I need to hear this out.”


“It’s ok,” Jess said, leaning forward to capture Sam’s mouth in a kiss. 


Sam could almost hear Ven’s eye roll, and was surprised to not hear a catcall coming from his brother. 


“How about I get us some of that hot chocolate you like so much.  Ven can give me a hand,” Jess said affectionately.  “Right Ven?” she added, turning to face their friend, her eyes apologetic for the excessive PDA.


“Sure,” Ven said.  “Nice to meet you,” he said to Dean again, and then walked with Jess the few meters over to their kitchen. 


Dean was looking at Sam expectantly, and Sam let out a sigh.  Bad thing about an open floor plan was there weren’t many places you could go for privacy ‘cept the ‘fresher and the bedroom.  “Dean, you and Chevy care to join me on the balcony?” Sam asked.


“Sure,” Dean said, rising to follow. 


Chevy stopped twitching in place and trundled after them.


Sam led his brother and droid down the hall away from the kitchen, passing the guestroom, ‘fresher, and bedroom doors and unlocking the door at the end which led to the balcony.  There was access to the balcony from Sam and Jess’s bedroom as well, but he didn’t feel comfortable taking his brother through his private space.  It was weird enough having Dean here in his new life.  It felt strained, forced, like pieces of two different puzzles being jammed together and made to fit even though they really, really didn’t.


“So what’s going on,” Sam asked Dean, when they were on the balcony and the door had closed behind them, worry seeping through in his voice.


Dean shifted his weight from foot to foot clearly uncomfortable under Sam’s scrutiny.  Finally, leaning back against the exterior wall of the apartment—the solid durasteel panel, Sam noted, not the transparisteel of either of the sliding doors, probably because that would make him feel too exposed—Dean let out a long sigh.  “It started a while ago.  I’m not sure when, exactly, but I got the sense that Dad was working on something, something really big and not telling me,” Dean began.


“I thought it might just be because we’ve been working separately a lot recently,” Dean admitted.


Sam felt his eyes go wide with surprise.  When he’d last been part of the “family business,” as John Winchester so fondly called it, neither he nor Dean had ever been allowed to hunt alone.  But then again, that was when Dean was a few months younger than Sam was now, so it figured that things had changed.


“Yeah, dude, I hunt alone.  I also play cards alone.  Smuggle alone.  Get mechanic gigs alone.  I’m twenty-six, in case you didn’t know.  There’s a hole lot of being alone,” Dean said with a hint of bitterness.


Chevy gave an offended squeak.


“Sorry girl, not totally alone.  You’re always there, and I appreciate your company,” Dean said affectionately, patting the little droid’s domed head.


Sam felt really shitty in spite himself.  He really didn’t want to think about his brother and Chevy out there in the universe all alone.  Part of why he’d left (a small part, if he was honest, but it was there) was that he really thought his dad and brother would get along much better as a family of two without him there.  Huh, maybe he should have listened to Dean a little bit more.  Still probably wouldn’t have changed his mind.  Sam was proud of his degrees, and thrilled with the opportunity to study law and work with Senators, but it just might have made him keep in touch a little more… or at the very least think twice about telling his brother to stop contacting him.


“Anyway, I hoped it was just because it was an ongoing thing—something that would take awhile to solve—and he didn’t want to tie up both of us in case something came up.  But,” Dean twisted his fingers together nervously, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else Dad wasn’t telling me.


“Then about a month ago, Dad and I split up.  He got a message from someone, I wasn’t sure who, and said he had to go investigate something, and we set up a rendezvous on Nar Shaddaa.  I finished up the job I was working on.  Went to Nar Shaddaa, played a few Sabacc and Pazaak tournaments and waited for Dad to show.  First he was a day late, then a week, then two.  I skipped a meeting with Bobby to trade parts for the Dream, I put in holocalls to the Folly.  Nothing.  Finally, I had to leave to take a job on Tatooine that I couldn’t put off any longer.  I wrapped that up, and came here.  It’s been a month since I last heard anything from him.”  Dean paused as if to let the words sink in.  “Then today, just before I let myself in,” Dean said with an admiring tone that suggested Sam’s security measures—standard and supernatural—had met with his approval.  “I got a priority message from Bobby. 


“Turns out, he’s the guy who sent Dad the original message that sent him went running off, and then after the fact, Bobby put two and two together and figured out the other thing Dad was hiding from me was related.  He tried to call Dad, couldn’t reach him, realized it might have to do something with why I missed our appointment and didn’t stop by when I was on Tatooine—”


Sam let out a surprised gasp.  Dean had to be freaked if he’d go all the way out to Tatooine and not say ‘hi’ to Bobby.


“And so he sent me a message to fill me in on what Dad’s been hiding from me.  From us,” Dean said, voice hitching.  “It’s fires Sam.  Like the one that killed Mom.  And they’re happening all over.  One even happened on Coruscant.  And it gets worse.”


“Worse?” Sam croaked.  He had no memory of his mother.  She’d died when he was a baby, but he’d always been terrified of his father’s and brother’s descriptions of how she’d died—when they were drunk enough or sad enough to share it with him, it wasn’t a topic their family discussed easily.


“Let me show you,” Dean said.  Then to Chevy, “Chevy, you mind showing Sam Bobby’s message?”


Chevy hooted in agreement, and powered up her holoprojector, the blue-ish projection beam springing to life in front of her.


Sam was greeted by the one-quarter size image of their old family friend and surrogate uncle, Bobby Singer.  Sam hadn’t seen Bobby in a little over four years, but he looked pretty much the same.  Maybe a few more gray hairs, but mostly just tired and weighed down, like the burden of his message was almost too much to bear.


Dean, Bobby’s image began, his voice solemn.  He was standing still, facing the holocam, the seriousness of his demeanor coming through even at this diminutive size.  I’ve got to tell you something about the hunt your daddy’s on, he sighed.  I shouldn’t have kept this from you, but—and I know it’s no excuse—at the time I didn’t know the whole story.


About a month ago I got word of a fire on Commenor.  Bobby’s image sighed again, hanging his head, unable to face the camera.  A fire like the one that killed your momma.  Damn thing started in the ceiling of a kid’s nursery, the night the kid was exactly six months old, and the mother died.  Everything burned—too hot; stuff that shouldn’t’a melted did… it was just like on Dantooine.  I thought it might be the same thing that killed your mother, that John might want to follow up on it himself.  So he took the job and went and investigated.  I didn’t hear anything from him until I hear about another fire.  Same circumstances; this one on Coruscant.  Then John called me up again and started asking questions about all these other systems on specific dates.  I don’t think he meant to, but he let slip something about a hyperspace disturbance he’d tracked.


Bobby raised his face to meet the camera again as he shook his head.  I did the search he wanted, found evidence of fires going back six months.  I passed it on, asked him what he wanted it for, and he didn’t say. 


That was a little over two weeks ago, right before you postponed our meeting, Dean.  I haven’t heard from him since, and I’m guessing since I haven’t seen you, you haven’t seen or heard from him either.


Dean, I’m really sorry.  I never would’a sent the information to him or asked him to look into that blasted fire if I’d known he’d go off on some damn fool crusade.  What I’m trying to say is, after I checked the dates and places for fires, I checked up on hyperspace disturbances.  Turns out two of my contacts were able to confirm that there were strange hyperspace readings—the kind that usually accompany Sith artifacts—right around the dates of those fires.  I think your Daddy was tracking it before I ever sent him after that fire.  Whatever it is, it’s big, it’s burning lots of people, lots of homes, it’s been doing it for at least the last six months, and it’s related to the Sith, and I think your daddy’s gone after it on his own.


Bobby’s image fidgeted with something in front of him, probably the controls on the holocam before he said, I’m really sorry Dean, just please, give me a call.  I’m worried about your dad, but I don’t want you running off alone after him too.  If we put our heads together, maybe we can figure out where he’s hiding.


The recording came to an end, and Chevy powered her holoprojector down.


For a few seconds, all Sam could think of were the nightmares he’d been having.  Nightmares of fire.  That vague sense of impending doom hanging over him the way it used to whenever a hunt was about to go really bad.


“Thanks, Chevy,” Dean said to her affectionately, before looking up at Sam.  “Sam, Dad started tracking something six months ago.  He didn’t tell me what it was, and I didn’t ask because I… trusted him.  Now it sounds like whatever killed Mom,” Dean’s voice hitched, “is back, and it’s killing other people.  And Dad’s after it, and no one has seen or heard from him in over two weeks.”  Dean let out a big sigh.  “I know you don’t want to have anything to do with us, but this affects you too.  Dad’s missing, and there’s something out there… it came after us once, could come after us again.”


Part of Sam was shocked and terrified.  Dad’s missing; the thing that killed Mom is back, kept running through his head, triggering the same paralyzing fear Sam had felt every time his father disappeared or left on a hunting trip when he was a child.  Each and every time, he’d felt vulnerable, frightened, never sure if he was going to see his father again, or if well-meaning Republic officials were going to snatch him up, and he’d never see his family again.


The other part of Sam was angry, resentful.  This was exactly, why he’d left!  He wanted freedom from all the damn waiting and worrying, the constant living in fear.  This was the kind of bantha fodder that gave him nightmares about his girlfriend dying.  And now Dean had gone and dragged him back into it against his wishes. 


Unfortunately, the angry side won out, at least initially.  “Dean, what the hell do you want from me, huh?  I’m not exactly part of the family anymore.  Hell, I don’t even remember Mom.  Dad doesn’t consider me his son anymore, so why should I care about him?  He goes missing ‘cause you’re too chickenshit to ask him what he’s researching, that’s your problem, not mine,” Sam spat, angry.  “What are you even doing here anyway?”


Dean’s emotions flashed across his face in rapid fire.  For a split second, Sam saw the pain and rejection, the isolation and self-loathing, the feeling of failure and disappointment, the burden Dean carried on his shoulders, color draining from his face. Dean pulled his mask back in place almost as fast, assuming a blank, disinterested guise. 


“Fine Sam, if that’s how you feel, you know, I’m sorry for bothering you.”  Dean’s words were measured, even, the only give-away the flare of his nostrils.  “I just thought you might care that your family’s in danger, ‘cause last I checked, we don’t have much family.  I also thought you might want to know, ‘cause this thing could come after you or me or anyone.  And I also didn’t want to do this alone.  Thought you might still care enough about me to help me out, help me find Dad,” he continued.  “But, you know what,” he gave a sarcastic laugh. “I guess… I don’t know what I was thinking.  Sorry for wasting your damn time, Sam,” he said with finality and turned back towards the balcony door, reaching to open it with one hand while beckoning to Chevy with the other.


Sam felt his adrenaline drain and a blush of shame wash across his face.  “Dean, wait.”


Dean didn’t stop.


“Dean,” Sam said, reaching out to pull his brother off the door, and flipping Dean around with more force than was probably necessary, slamming Dean up against the durasteel panel on the other side of the door with a reverberating ‘bang.’  “I’m sorry,” Sam said, shaking.  “That was … I’m an idiot.  I do care about you.  A lot.  And Dad’s still Dad. But, I… I went to college so I could get away from this stuff, have a normal life, I just…”


“Didn’t expect for it to show up on your doorstep,” Dean finished eyes downcast.


“Yeah,” Sam agreed.  “Dad still pushes my buttons sometimes.”


“Ya think?” Dean snorted, finally meeting Sam’s eyes.


It was Sam’s turn to hang his head in embarrassment  “Yeah.  Look.  I’ve got an internship, working for a Senator, I can’t just up and leave,” Sam explained.


Dean started to wriggle out of his grasp, clearly tuning out, expecting to get another rejection, just more polite.


“No, wait, just hear me out.  I can’t up and leave, but you and Chevy are welcome to stay here for a while if you want, use the University’s libraries or the other archives, maybe it will help you find a lead.  And I can probably finagle a couple of days off, maybe take a long weekend and help you out if you do find something,” Sam offered, partially to his own surprise.


“Seriously?” Dean asked warily.


“Seriously,” Sam said, stepping back and releasing Dean.  “Why don’t you and Chevy come in and have some hot chocolate with Ven and Jess.  Good to see you, man,” Sam added, opening the door to head back inside.


“You too,” Dean answered.  As they walked back towards the living room and kitchen area, Jess and Ven’s slightly drunken voices drifting back towards them, he asked, “So, what did you tell them Dad does?”


“He’s a freighter pilot with a gambling problem,” Sam said.


“And me?” Dean said. 


Sam smiled.  “Freelance systems designer,” Sam admitted.


“Gee, thanks, Sammy.  That’s not entirely a lie, and you didn’t make me out to be some kind of scoundrel,” Dean said with genuine appreciation.


“Just be glad it explains why you’d be able to break in and show up on our couch,” Sam muttered as the rejoined Jess and Ven.


They sat down on the couch, drinking the hot chocolate Jess and Ven had prepared and sharing stories. 


Sam did his best to explain to Jess that he might have to leave for a couple of days to check out someplace his Dad had disappeared to, finding it hard to develop an excuse that would mesh with the falsified history he’d created, periodically sending glares in Dean’s direction to get him to keep his mouth shut.


It was a light-hearted, fun, playful conversation, and in spite of Dean and Chevy being there, it felt normal.  Sam felt like the spectre of doom that had been hanging over his head while on the balcony had receded, and he was a happy, carefree, normal guy again.


Until Chevy gave off the alarm that would change his life forever.  Sam never did remember what happened after that, but that was the last moment of his life as he’d known it—as a hunter or a normal guy.


Chapter Eight


Finally, after so long, so much waiting, he was here, revealing himself to the Chosen One, planting the seeds of what would grow into a beautiful relationship.


Yes, he could feel the Chosen One’s anger, his wrath and hatred for Azazel as the apartment began to burn.  Beautiful, beautiful wrath, and the Chosen One was so full of it; it came naturally to him, lurking inside every injury and insult and trial and tribulation of his life. 


Ahh, the plan was working so well.  Azazel hadn’t counted on the Chosen One meeting someone whose area of study could be so… dangerous to this plan, to the prophecy, but no bother.  Lord Azazel could kill two birds with one stone, or two threats with one fire, he thought allowing himself a gleeful chuckle. 


Now, if only he could figure out what to do about that pesky, ordinary brother.  Azazel felt the fire build within him, looking at where Dean Winchester was cowering near the window.  Yes, yes this was going to be so much fun!




“Jess! Jess,” Sam screamed in anguish as Dean pulled him from the blaze.  “Jess, Nooooooo!”  He could still see her hair billowing in the vortex that swept the inferno higher and brighter.  It was as if the flames emanated from her, yet her body was as yet untouched.  He could see her frozen in place, pinned to the ceiling, blood dripping, face caught in a wide-eyed plea for salvation, rescue, but he couldn’t reach her.  He hadn’t been able to move, he couldn’t get to her no matter what he tried.  The man with the yellow eyes had frozen him.  He was using the Force, Sam’s brain supplied, but he couldn’t really comprehend what that meant.  


Sam could feel the heat distantly.  He knew that he should be burned, they should all be burned standing this close, the fire was so hot the air shimmered, and Sam could see the walls melting around them.  That was impossible.  The apartment was made of durasteel.  There were (true) stories of smugglers hiding ships built from durasteel in the outer layers of gas giants or flying them so close to a star that the gravimetric forces nearly tore them apart, but even then the ships never meltedHow was this possible?  We should be burned alive.  We should all be burned alive, like Jess.  Then maybe this would be OK


Sam’s thoughts grew morbid again, and he felt himself resisting the hands that pulled relentlessly at him, dragging him who knows where.  All he knew was that his future, his lover, the woman he was going to ask to be his wife, was on fire, dead, lost, crumbling to dust and ash in front of his eyes, and he wanted nothing but to join her.  He had been wrong.  So wrong to think that he could escape his past.  He had known deep down that it would catch up with him. 


The dreams and the fears had been growing stronger, he had known, but he had dismissed them.  Ignored them.  Acted like his past was a bad dream.  And for his arrogance, his future had paid the price.  Jess had paid the price.  She was innocent; she loved him; she trusted him; and he had killed her.  Sam was certain that he was responsible for her death just as sure as if he had set the fire himself.  What will I tell her parents?  How could they ever forgive me?  Why would anyone forgive me?  Why would I want to forgive myself?


The fire in front of him gave a sickening popping, sputtering sound, and the building groaned.  He was vaguely aware that someone was talking, it sounded like Dean and Ven.  But what they were saying didn’t register.  Sam couldn’t care.  He heard something whirring and the smell of ozone, closer and then something clattering to the ground.  But Sam’s attention was riveted by the scene in front of him.  One more sputtering pop, and then suddenly Jess was turning to flame, flame so bright it seared his retinas, and he was sure he would have the after image of his lover on fire whenever he closed his eyes for days to come… if he survived that long.  Then she was turning to ash. Crumbling until there was nothing left, big chunks of her sloughing off, leaving black, charred, jagged holes where her features should have been. 


Over the sound of the flames could hear something making a horrible wailing, keening sound that reminded him vaguely of the death throes of a mortally wounded kath hound on Dantooine.  His throat felt raw, almost bloody, and only then did he realize the cries were his own.


Through the flames he saw yellow eyes meet his, then turn away, turn towards someone over his right shoulder.  He realized now that the hands had left him; there were figures behind him moving, desperately shifting things, trying to figure out how to get them all out of the conflagration through what had once been one of the floor-to-ceiling transparisteel windows overlooking the apartment complex’s communal garden a level below.  He understood it all without really hearing; he didn’t know how. 


And just the same, he knew with terrible, absolute certainty what the man with the yellow eyes was going to do.  Sam sensed the figure’s intent a second before he acted, and that was all it took.  The man was going to burn Dean.  Not Dean.  No.  Never.  Sam had lost Jess, and regardless of whether he cared for his own life, he wouldn’t let the one remaining person he truly loved die.  Not because of him, and not for any reason. 


“No,” Sam said aloud, his voice blank, neutral, but certain.  He felt his right arm lift up, straight in front of him with his hand raised upwards, palm facing out.  His body was moving of its own accord, instinctively knowing what to do. 


Three milliseconds before the flames burst forth Sam understood that they wouldn’t hurt him.  Two milliseconds before, he realized he didn’t care; he was going to protect them all.  One millisecond before, he felt something unlock in his brain and then deep within his soul, lock after lock opening, walls falling, and then suddenly something was rushing through him, gathered in from all around, from the building, from the air, from the garden below, it came to him and left him, through the palm of his hand thrusting inexorably outward to form a giant, invisible, impenetrable wall.  The next millisecond, the fire surged out, rushing forward in a wall, with two tendrils whipping out like an advance guard to strike at Sam’s brother and friend behind them, while at the same moment, Sam felt Dean and Ven turn from the now-open window to see the fire and gasp out in shock and throw themselves to the floor in a desperate bid for protection.  Then the fire hit Sam’s invisible wall and arced outwards, up and around, burning and melting everything in its path, but unable to push through. 


“You can’t have him.  You can’t have either of them.  I won’t let you,” Sam said, his voice cracking from his abused vocal chords in a dark, threatening growl.  He sensed surprise and then pleasure from the yellow-eyed man who stood still, untouched in the fire.  Then he realized that the figure was not a man.  It was something old, dark, evil, Sith an unnamed voice in the back of Sam’s mind supplied, sending involuntary shivers down his spine. 


The invisible wall shook when Sam shook, and he strengthened his resolve to not let the fire through.  Realization rushed through Sam and he was filled with disgust, bile rising in his throat and nearly making him choke.  Snippets of his childhood lessons came to him in his father’s voice.  Sith were almost pure evil, an order of dark Jedi and their acolytes who followed the teachings of some old extinct race that had once ruled the galaxy with an iron fist.  Millennia ago the new Sith had risen up and nearly destroyed first the Republic and then the Jedi order itself.  A Sith had just destroyed his life and killed his girlfriend and was now trying to kill his brother. 


Rage rose in Sam, boiling like acid and burning like fire through his veins.  Without realizing it, the wall changed, instead of protecting them, it curled inwards, surrounding the vortex and starving the flame of oxygen while pushing in, squeezing and crushing the flames back in on the yellow-eyed figure. 


Sam felt the figure’s fear, or maybe it wasn’t the yellow-eyed thing’s fear, but the fear of whomever had once owned it’s body and who was still trapped inside.  Sam stuttered in his resolve, not wanting to harm an innocent even if the man’s body was currently playing host to pure evil.  But then the Sith laughed, and pushed out again, using the oxygen that had returned to the flames when Sam relaxed his grip, and thrust the fire forwards with even more force than before.  Sam sensed the painful death the Sith wanted to inflict on Dean, realizing it had been the same unfathomable pain Jess had experienced just moments before. 


At the same time, Sam thought he heard a desperate plea from whomever had once controlled the Sith’s body, begging Sam to make it stop.  The rage and anger returned anew, burning hotter and stronger than before.  Feeling no conflict this time, Sam pushed out with the wall again, bringing it around the Sith and forcing the flames in on it.  The figure began to burn, flames glowing nearly as bright as Jess’s had before she had turned to ash. 


Then the fire was sputtering out, wind rushing in to fill the vacuum Sam had created, and Sam was lost, collapsing from the exertion of what he had just done, every muscle screaming in agony at the raw power he had channeled through it, his brain starving for oxygen, but all the while feeling glee at watching the thing that had destroyed his lover—his life—crumble to ash.  But just before he blacked out, Sam felt something twisted and evil—the Sith—gloating in triumphant glee, and Sam swore that out of the corner of his eye he saw a dark, smoky shadow separating itself from the charred ash-pile and flowing out a distant melted window on the breeze.  Then the blackness consumed Sam, and he knew no more.


Chapter Nine


Dean wasn’t really sure what had happened.  He, Sam, and Chevy had returned from their conversation on Sam’s small balcony and had taken their seats on the comfortable nerfhide couch.  Dean was still trying to convince Sam to come investigate one of the mysterious fires that Dad might have been investigating—the one on Coruscant since it was relatively close by and wouldn’t take Sam away from his life for too long.  Jess was being very nice, but seemed very confused as to why Dean would want to take Sam with him to investigate somewhere their father might have been, and Sam’s friend was still hanging around, apparently shocked to meet someone from Sam’s family. 


Dean was getting annoyed and planned to have a talk with Sam about what stories about their family he had been telling his friends.  Dean didn’t know when that conversation was going to take place though, because right now, Sam and Jess were having an argument of sorts (Sam was trying to insist that Dean could sleep on the couch while Jess was insisting they could actually use their guest room) while their friend Ven looked on in amusement.  Dean was looking for an opportunity to interrupt them so that he could suggest sleeping on the couch.  Normally he would just end the argument by agreeing to sleep on his ship, but Dean still hadn’t forgotten the strange sense of being watched, or rather of Sam being watched from earlier in the evening, and he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his little brother alone, even if that little brother was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. 


Dean was about to try to engage Ven in conversation when Chevy let out a warbling bleat of alarm.  Dean knew that sound, and felt his blood turn to ice in his veins.  “Sithspit!” he said aloud.


Sam and Jess stopped arguing.  Sam turned to Dean, his eyes wide with shock.  Even four years of living in the normal world couldn’t break the conditioning to that sound.


“What is that?” Jess asked, sounding somewhat nervous.


Dean already had the datapad out of his pocket and was watching Chevy’s words scrolling across the screen at a frantic pace. Energy distortion detected.  Field parameters consistent with Sith artifact.  Distortion is mobile.  Eight meters from front door and closing.


Dean’s eyes went wide as he stroked his hand over his dropped jaw.  Sam was elbowing past Jess and Ven to get a look at the datapad.  Dean turned it so that Sam could see. 


“Blast!  What the hell?” Sam asked.


“What’s going on?” Jess asked again, her voice shaking, clearly understanding that something serious was happening.  She snuck a glance at the datapad over Sam’s shoulder. “What does it mean ‘Sith artifact’? Eight meters and closing?” Jess’s asked in alarm, her blue eyes showing confusion and maybe a hint of betrayal.


Dean felt horrible for Jess and for Sam.  There was every chance she was about to get a very unfortunate introduction to the supernatural, and not the fluffy, cuddly, lightsaber-wielding Jedi variety.


“Jess… I—” Sam started as Ven simultaneously said “Sith!?”


“No time,” Dean said, feeling his senses pique and tweak, sliding into hunter mode, attuning to the approaching danger.  “Something carrying a powerful Sith artifact, or maybe a Sith Lord itself is coming toward that door.  We need to get out of here.”  He turned to Sam, who was still trying to explain to his girlfriend that monsters were real and that he had lied.  “Sam.” No response.  “Sam!” Dean said more firmly.


Sam turned his face towards Dean, his arm reassuringly squeezing Jess’s shoulder.


“I need to know right now if there is another way out and if your runes are going to hold,” Dean said, trying to project confidence in his voice, but pretty sure his underlying terror and shock were broadcasting through nonetheless.


“Um, we could try to climb to another level from the balcony or cut through the windows over the garden,” Sam murmured after a moment.


Dean gauged the distance.  The bedroom and hall access to the balcony were clear across the apartment all the way to the back.  They would have to move closer to the front door to get to the hallway that led to the bedroom and balcony, and then they would be trapped on a narrow sliver of space while they figured out how to get off the balcony without plummeting to their deaths.  He looked back at the floor-to-ceiling windows.  “Those transparisteel?” he asked, pretty certain he knew the answer.


“Yeah,” Sam replied. 


Dean vaguely registered Jess making some alarmed comment about transparisteel being impossible to cut through and Ven gasping about something glowing, but he remained focused.  “Chevy, do you have the upgrades on your laser cutter calibrated?”


The responding chirp was a clear affirmative without Dean needing to spare a glance at the datapad. 


He stuffed it back in his pocket. “Start cutting,” he said over his shoulder to Chevy.  Looked like he’d have to figure out just how impractical it was going to be to get a droid in and out of that garden after all.


“Sithspawn, no!” Sam shouted, snapping Dean’s attention back to the front of the room.  “That shouldn’t be possible!”


Dean didn’t need to ask what.  The entire front wall was illuminated, glowing red and gold in the outline of various runes Sam had etched and painted there under the room’s regular wall paint.  But something was clearly wrong, the outlines of the runes were sparking and popping.  One second more and a few glowed extra bright and then seemed to explode out of existence. “Blast! Move!  Towards the windows, now!” he shouted, pushing Ven’s arm and directing him around the couch. 


Ven got the idea pretty quickly and nearly tripped himself running towards the window where Chevy had pulled out her laser cutters and rotary saw. 


Dean looked back, but Sam seemed transfixed by the apparent failure of his runes, and Jess was leaning into him.


“Sam, come now!  We don’t have time for—” But Dean didn’t get to finish his thought because, at that moment, the door burst inward, popping from its frame and falling to the floor inside the entry way.  Behind it stood a man, he looked like a strung-out teenager really, but the important thing was the man had yellow eyes


In an instant, Dean was transported to his childhood.  He was four years old watching his mother stuck to the ceiling bleeding, her blond hair spread out around her like a halo, her white nightgown seeming to float around her, making Dean think of an angel, but all around her was fire, burning so hot and so fast, the entire room was engulfed and the walls were melting.  His father was trying to reach her, but something was keeping her pinned there, and that same invisible something was keeping him back.  He held baby Sammy in his arms. Sammy had blood on his face, but Dean was pretty sure it was from Mommy, not that that was any better.  His father let out an anguished, blood curdling scream—“Mary, no!” as she started to glow and the flames started to lash out of her from within.  His father had turned to him, placed Sammy in his arms and said “Take your brother outside as fast as you can.  Now Dean!  Go!” And Dean had turned and ran, but not before he saw the man with glowing yellow eyes on the other side of the flames, laughing manically.  The sight had scared him so much, he had nearly blocked that part of the incident from his mind, until now.


“Sam,” Dean croaked.  “That thing killed Mom,” he said with bitter, icy certainty. 


Sam jumped, seemingly released from the shock that had kept him transfixed.


“Go now,” Dean said, tugging on Sam’s arm.  Sam and Jess both took a step back, moving as if to follow, but then it spoke.


“Leaving so soon, I don’t think so,” it said, the voice grating, ominous, twisted, and ancient, even though it came from the mouth of an eighteen-year-old.  With those words, the man raised his hand, and Dean felt Sam freeze in response.  Then he felt a terrible tug and watched as Jess was ripped from her feet, her hand pulled out of Sam’s and hurled across the room and turned until she slammed, back first, into the wall next to the door.


“Sam! Help me!” She screamed.  Eyes wide with shock as she started sliding up the wall lifted by an invisible force.


Sam tried to leap forward, almost diving to go after her, but he too seemed held in place, unable to move forward, as if some force was blocking him.


Sith.  Force.  It’s an actual Sith, and he’s using the Force! Dean finally computed.  He shook with the realization.  They were probably all going to die.  But he wasn’t going to let Jess die the way Mom had.  No, he couldn’t let that happen to Sammy.  But as Dean thought it, it was already too late, Jess was on the ceiling, and a split second later, with a maniacal laugh, and an even bigger leer from the Sith, her belly was cut open and she was bleeding. Then the fire started.  Not a little at a time, but in one big rush that seemed to erupt out and all around Jess, shooting out like a fireball licking across the ceiling, shooting down the walls, across the floor, climbing up the furniture, in less than a second the entire front of the apartment was engulfed and with it their access to both the main door and the hallway to the bedroom and balcony blocked.  It was too late.  There was no saving Jess now.  Their only hope was to get out through the window into the garden.  Maybe then they would have enough time. 


“Sam, we have to go, it’s too late,” Dean said, pulling on his brother’s arm.  “I’m sorry,” he added, voice cracking.  He tugged on Sam, pulling him backwards, half tripping, half falling over the couch until they were on the other side.  Dean was relieved to discover that whatever Force powers the Sith was using, they weren’t keeping them from retreating towards the window.  The cynical part of Dean’s mind knew there was something very wrong with that fact, but the more pragmatic part was not about to question small favors.  Still, it would be easier if Sam would help.  The fire was already reaching the couch, and the room was so hot, Dean was pretty sure they would get first-degree burns even without touching anything.  They needed to get down, on the ground, before the smoke and toxic fumes filled the room and doomed them further.  But Sam was still not cooperating.  His eyes seemed locked open, staring at Jess and the yellow-eyed Sith.


Dean managed to pull Sam most of the way to the window, keeping him out of the flames.  Confident that the Sith’s Force barrier was keeping Sam from going any closer to the fire, Dean turned and crouched down in front of the window next to Chevy.  Ven was already there, clearly in shock, trying to steady the droid as she used her laser and rotary saw to cut through the transparisteel.  The fire and the Sith weren’t their only enemies, in addition, there was a strong wind blowing through the apartment, sucking the flames around and around and a round up and up until they formed a vortex.  It was also threatening to pull Chevy and her organic companions off the floor and toss them into the maelstrom. 


The bottom and lower sides of the panel were free and Chevy had rocked forward on her treads, utility arm extended, trying to cut the panel high enough so that the larger humans and Twi’lek could fit through. 


A second or two before the panel finally came loose, Dean sensed a shift in the fire behind him; he saw it suddenly surge out, shooting right for them!  It was too late, there was no time; Jess’s body had turned to char and ash, and tendrils of flame were shooting right at him and Ven!  But then the flame seemed to stop, slamming up against another invisible wall and curling back around.  A horrible sucking sound accompanied it.  Dean turned to Sam who was standing wide-eyed and transfixed, but focused, and Dean knew.  The new barrier was coming from Sam!  Somehow his little brother was using the Force and turning it back on the Sith.  Dean didn’t know how that was possible, and honestly thought he might be hallucinating it.


“Is Sam doing that?” Ven asked, shouting in his ear to be heard above the sucking sound, his voice stuck between shock and awe.


Not a hallucination then.  “I think so,” Dean shouted back, realizing at the same time what the sucking sound was.  It was getting hard to breathe.  Somehow whatever Sam was doing was sucking all the air out of the room, smothering the fire, but not before it burned the Sith to an ashy, charred crisp.  The only air in the room now was the air coming in from the window that Chevy had just cut and it was rushing in so fast, that any loose objects in the apartment that hadn’t yet been charred were swirling around and around, threatening to pummel them.  Dean looked up and saw the charred, melted durasteel behind the now-vaporized ceiling shaking ready to collapse.  Sithspit!  They had to get out now.


Dean turned away from Sam and looked out the window.  There.  Throwing his hand to his utility belt, he pulled out his grappling gun.  It had an adjustable-strength hybrid magnet/suction end, instead of the traditional hook, and was fueled by a small-but-powerful cell in the grip.  If Chevy rolled out the window, and turned on her repulsors about 2/3 of a meter above the ground, she should get enough lift to more or less skip and bounce and land roughly in the middle of the garden.  If he held the gun with one hand and Sam with the other, and Ven held onto him, then—Dean did a few quick calculations of mass, angles, and inertia—if he released the grappler at bottom of the swing, they should only have about a two meter drop (which was far better than the five meter drop they were looking at now or the bone-crushing force that would be the three of them slamming into the garden’s wall if they held on too long. 


“Chevy, roll out the window and hit your repulsors point six seven meters above the ground.  I’ll help you get sorted out if you fall over,” he shouted to the droid over the cacophony.


She trilled out a concerned warble.


“We’ll be right behind you, now GO! I promise we’ll be OK.”


Without further protest the Droid did as instructed.  Ven was frozen again, looking on in shock at the droid who had just hurled herself out the open window.  Dean ignored him.  He needed to get Sam before he shot the grappling gun, or he wouldn’t be able to reach Sam, and he didn’t think he could count on Ven to grab him.  Turning to Sam, Dean realized that the Sith’s body was almost completely reduced to ash (Dean wasn’t naïve enough to think the monster was gone though, he’d seen enough Sith relics over time to know that they had ways of preserving themselves).  More importantly, the flames were almost, but not quite out.  However, Sam was suddenly wavering.  He was going to collapse, and if he collapsed and whatever barrier he’d erected, that was now starving the flames would fall, and the flames would…  Sithspit!


“Ven!” Dean screamed over his shoulder.  “We’re going out the window, and we gotta go now, or we’re going to die.  Grab onto me when I jump and don’t let go.”  Without checking for a response from the dazed Twi’lek, Dean reached for Sam with his left arm and pulled, feeling Sam collapse into Dean’s arm as the last vestiges of strength left Sam.  At the same time, Dean took two running steps to the now-open window, silently hoping the opening was wide enough.  He felt Ven slam into him, throwing his arms around Dean’s waist as Dean fired the grappling gun at the walkway with his right hand and leaped.  The gun caught and they swung-fell from the open window as the flames exploded outwards from behind them.  Dean could feel the heat searing the hairs at the back of his neck, but then they were falling swinging and just as he felt the grappler go taut, he released the trigger, interrupting the magnetic field and allowing them to all fall a little over two meters into a very painful heap on the grass.  They rolled in a tangle of limbs and appendages down a slight slope to stop next to where Chevy had ended up.  She was more or less upright, which was more than Dean could say for any of the organic members of their group.


“Sithspit! What was that?” Ven said shakily after a few minutes.  He sat up from where he had landed on the ground, looking himself over for signs of injury.  His palms looked a bit burned, and there were some singed-looking spots on the tips of his lekku, but those looked to be fairly superficial. 


At least one of us seems to have escaped relatively unscathed, Dean thought bitterly pulling himself to a sitting position.  His hands were burned, not badly, but there was a painful blister forming on the palm of his right hand from handling the transparisteel window.  The apartment had gotten that hot that just moving the transparent metal had burned his hand.  His cheeks felt raw, almost like he had a sunburn, and he could feel his ankle rapidly swelling in his boot from where he had landed on it.  It was difficult to fall properly when dropping from a grappling line with two other people, one of whom was unconscious.  Dean tried to move his ankle and wiggle his toes, but he could feel and hear the tell-tale grinding and stabbing pain of a broken bone.  Just great; he’d had worse though.  Probably not in worse circumstances though.  Dean doubted he’d ever been in circumstances this bad, except maybe when he was four and Mom died… but even then Dad had been there.  He was twenty-six standard years old, and all Dean could think of was how much he wanted his father.  John would know how to make everything all right.  But this, this was not all right.  He had just watched his brother’s girlfriend burn in front of his eyes.  The apartment was melted, his brother had just used the Force, despite never having shown any force sensitivity at any other point in his life, the yellow-eyed Sith was probably still out there—although its host was dead—and now Dean was sitting with a broken ankle in a garden in a nice apartment complex on Coruscant with his unconscious brother, his brother’s traumatized friend, and a droid that might or might not be damaged.  He heard a faint wailing whine floating in on the breeze.  And yep, sure enough, the authorities were on their way to investigate.  Oh, and the whole thing with Bobby’s mysterious message, and his Dad missing—


Dean could feel himself shaking.  He just wanted to STOP.  But right now, that wasn’t an option.  He had to pull himself together, starting with answering Sam’s friend.


“Um, that was a Sith,” he replied at last, trying to gage the best way to give the “demons and ghosts are real” speech without sending the young Twi’lek any further into shock.


“Seriously, my friend just died.  Force bless us, my friend DIED, burned.  What happened?” Ven was trying to stand up, but he was shaking so badly he wasn’t doing very well.


“Sit,” Dean said, his voice firm but not stern.  “That was Sith.  I don’t know who or what exactly, but it was using the Dark Side, possessing someone.  The yellow eyes, they’re a sure way to tell…”  Dean let his voice trail off, struck again by the painful familiarity of those yellow eyes.  “The same thing killed our mom, when Sammy was a baby,” he added, trying to keep the lump from his throat.


“You are serious,” Ven realized, looking at Dean with wide-eyed understanding rather than fear or suspicion.


Dean nodded.


“Is this what you do?  I mean, how do you know this stuff?  Is this why Sam never talks about his family?” Ven started rambling.


“Pretty much, yeah,” Dean said with a sigh.  “Mom died.  Dad used to be Jedi Support Corps.  He knew something caused the fire that killed her, I mean getting burned on the ceiling isn’t natural.  But even the Jedi investigator didn’t find anything, so he started looking and found out about all the things that go bump in the night.  There are other hunters out there like him… like us.  There’re all kinds of relics and artifacts and ghosts and animals that are strong in the Dark Side of the Force, and the Jedi—they either don’t know, or don’t care, so the hunters go after them, stop them.  Try to protect people.  Keep them from going through what happened to us.  What happened to my mom,” Dean added with a sigh, his voice cracking slightly.


Ven just kept staring at him from his position in a half crouch.  “Ok.  I get it.  Sithspit!”


By that point, Chevy had somehow managed to right herself and was trundling over to the group small group of panting, injured sentients, looking a little banged up—she had a vine tangled around her dome, and soot had settled in splotches around her chrome exterior—but not looking much worse for the wear.  Apparently her repulsor lifts had worked just like Dean had hoped they would.


Satisfied that the droid and Sam’s friend were ok, Dean turned to Sam to see how his brother was doing.  Dean stilled.


Sam was still unconscious.  A thin sheen of sweat covered him, and his skin was clammy to the touch—clammy, not hot and dry like Dean’s and Ven’s and definitely not burned.  Whatever had happened, the fire had not touched Sam at all.  Dean wanted to be thankful for that, but worried it was more a bad sign than a good one.  Sam’s nose and ears were bleeding or had been bleeding, the blood was quickly drying, and it looked like he’d just been in an explosion of some sort.  Dean didn’t really want to think about why Sam would be bleeding from his orifices, but he had a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with his baby brother using the Force.  Other than that, Sam looked ok.  Dean crawled closer to him, so he could check Sam’s body for other injuries, like his own broken ankle.  He found none.  Relieved, Dean collapsed back.  It appeared his body had cushioned Sam’s fall. 


He lay there still, just breathing for a few moments.  The pain was bad; he could feel it seeping in around the edges of the adrenalin as it receded from his system.  His left shoulder felt pulled, strained too, but Dean couldn’t let it get the better of him.  He had to get them, all of them, out of there and fast.  Authorities would be swarming the place soon, and they’d want to ask questions, questions they couldn’t afford to answer.


Dean rolled himself to a sitting position, being careful of his injured shoulder.  “Ven… Ven?” he asked, trying to get Sam’s friend’s attention.


No response.


“Ven, listen, do you know a way out of this garden, I mean, without going back through the building?”  Dean tried again.


“Uh, uh…”  Ven looked at Dean with dazed eyes.


“It’s important.  There are security forces, investigators that are going to come—try to put out the fire and figure out what happened, and we can’t be here when they do.  We need to get out of here,” Dean explained.  He beckoned to Chevy with his hand and drew the little droid closer.  She rolled over to them without too much effort—luckily the ground was fairly firm and even.  Under more pleasant circumstances, Dean would be worrying about her chewing him out for taking her where grass could get stuck in her treads.


“Why don’t we want to be here?” Ven asked, suddenly confused.  At least he was pulling himself to his feet; he might be arguing with Dean, but he did seem to be following directions.  “I mean, we’re victims here right?  We’re hurt… they’re supposed to help us.”


“You wanna try explaining what just happened to them?” Dean asked.


Ven’s mouth opened and closed like a fish several times before he finally spoke.  “They’d never…”


“Exactly, which is why we have to get out of here, get patched up, and figure out our story,” Dean said rolling to his knees.  He could feel his ankle shift as he did so.  There was no way that he could walk on it without doing more damage, so he was just going to have to risk a little damage.  He put his hands on Chevy’s domed head, and levered himself to his feet, careful to keep almost all his weight on his left leg.  “Thanks Chevy,” he said, patting the droid where his hands rested.


Chevy chirped her equivalent of “you’re welcome,” and followed with a much more insistent sounding bleat. 


Dean dug the datapad out of his pocket and read the translation.  “Sithspit!”  He looked up at Ven, “Chevy’s been monitoring dispatches and communications, and they’ll be here in a few minutes.  We’ve gotta go now.”


Ven stared for a moment, wide-eyed before dropping his Jaw in a silent “oh.”  “I know!  There’s a door not far from here.  He looked around as if trying to reorient himself.  Over there,” Ven gestured at a stand of trees about ten meters away from their present location and a couple of meters from the wall.  “It’s a private door that I think Sam said building residents have a code to get in from the outside, but we should be able to get out…”


“Without a code,” Dean finished nodding.  “Good! Now, can you help me get Sam out of here?


“Uh, yeah,” Ven said, stooping to the ground again and pulling on Sam until he was able to hoist him into a rescue lift.


Dean gave Ven an impressed nod.  Not the kind of behavior he was expecting from Sam’s near-perfect friend.


“I trained to be a wilderness scout a few years ago,” Ven explained.


“Bet you’d never thought you’d use your training like this,” Dean responded.  “By the way, where’s the door.”


“It’s,” Ven waived his hand, “behind the trees.”


“Got it,” Dean said coaxing Chevy forward and sticking to her side for support.  They covered the ground in about a minute, and by then, Dean could actually hear the sirens in the distance.  Dean was able to unlock the door from the inside and lead them out into the fresh, less smoky air of a warm Coruscant night.


They quickly roused Sam, who seemed distraught and exhausted, but otherwise unhurt, and exited the garden.  Scurrying down the walkway as quietly as they could manage with Ven and Sam both kind of out-of-it and Dean unable to put weight on his ankle, and found a small patio about twenty-five meters down the walkway from where they had exited the garden.  The patio was concealed from view of those passing by on the walkway, and at that time of night, there was almost no one to see them.  It was the perfect place to patch up injuries, lick wounds, and decide on the next course of action.


Using the medkit Chevy carried (and Dean had never been more grateful that he always made sure the droid’s kit was well stocked), they were able to patch up Dean’s burns with Bactane and analgesic cream, even smearing a little of the salve on Dean’s cheeks, which were slightly burned.  Unfortunately, the burns on his hands were much more significant and would take longer to heal, given anything short of Bacta immersion. 


Then Ven helped Dean slap a steriplast splint and lots of Bacta patches on Dean’s ankle.  For good measure, Dean showed Ven how to inject a small amount of Bacta into his ankle to help speed the healing process.  Dean was a little dismayed that his right ankle was broken, since it was his dominant leg, but then again, that probably explained why he’d landed on it so hard in the first place.  Until it healed, he’d just have to avoid getting into any fights where he had to do a lot of kicking.


Ven looked at Dean nervously, as Dean tended to Ven’s burns. 


“Here,” Dean said, holding up a pack of dark-tinted synthflesh. 


Ven just stared back blankly. 


“This is synthflesh,” Dean said shaking it in front of Ven.  I need to put it on the burned spots on your lekku and then slather our strongest Bactane on both your hands.”  Dean reached out and grasped one of Ven’s shaking hands, gently turning it palm up.  The burn wasn’t as bad as it had first looked.  “Good,” Dean said, letting out a sigh.


“I… I don’t understand,” Ven stuttered out, looking over at Sam, who was slumped somewhat dazedly against Chevy’s side.


“We need to get you patched up and quick.  The only way Sam and I are gonna get out of here alive, and the only way you’re not going to get connected to this whole mess, is if you can cover for us to the authorities.  And to do that, you can’t look like you just came out of a fire,” Dean explained as he reached forward to meticulously seal thin strips of the synthflesh over the two pink burns on the tips of Ven’s lekku. 


Ven flinched at first, but then acquiesced, giving Dean better access. 


“There,” Dean said examining the lekku from different angles.  “You can’t tell there’s anything wrong.  Chevy?”


She bleeped in response and swiveled her dome towards Ven, scanning him before bleeping out an answer. 


Dean consulted the datapad in his pocket and nodded.  “Chevy says that even a Jedi should have a lot of trouble detecting it, so, you should be ok.  Now let me treat your hands.”


Ven complied without question, sighing at the cooling, soothing feel of the salve against his injured skin.


Dean followed up by covering the salve with more synthflesh.  “Just don’t take that off until your hands stop itching,” Dean cautioned, “Otherwise it’ll be pretty obvious you got burned, and trust me, that won’t be good.”


“So what do you want me to do?” Ven asked, looking down in awe at his apparently healed hands.


They soon decided that Ven would approach the police explaining that he had returned home immediately after the costume party.  Later, he had received a strange call from Sam summoning him out only to find Sam apparently dead and the place crawling with law enforcement.


Chapter Ten


“Wait,” Sam exclaimed from where Ven had settled him when they stopped to treat their wounds, surprising Dean.  Sam had seemed still mostly out of it, so Dean was surprised to see his brother protesting so forcefully.


“What?” Dean asked, cautious.


“Jess’s research,” Sam started, turning his eyes to Dean.  They burned with grief and shock but also something else—determination.


Dean was somewhat surprised that Sam was even coherent enough to think about Jess’s research, but he supposed it might be Sam’s attempt at hanging onto something of Jess’s.  “Sam, I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure everything in the apartment is gone…” Dean let his voice trail off, uncertain of how to continue. 


“No, you don’t understand.  She told me she found something, something strange in some stuff from a dig.  It was here on Coruscant, in one of the pre-Civil War excavation sites near the Maranai mountains, I think.  It was some sort of written record talking about a lost prophecy and some other strange artifacts.  I remember… I remember she said something about a wraith of the Dark Side, something about a spirit that was the embodiment of evil and could move from person to person, deceiving loved ones and such.  I need that research!”  Sam said in a rush.  He swallowed and looked at Dean wide-eyed.  “I think Jess found something and it’s important, and I think that might be part of why it … killed her.”


“But Sam,” Dean said, trying to get to his feet so he could help Sam.  The broken ankle definitely didn’t want to cooperate.  “How are we going to get it?” Dean asked.  It would be just typical Winchester luck to discover that there had been some bountiful source of information, only to discover it was already gone.


“Jess’s research wasn’t at home,” Sam exclaimed, voice only catching slightly on the word “home.”  He shifted slightly, attempting to sit more upright and let out a longish, winching, sigh at the pain the movement apparently caused.  “I mean, she had copies of it at home, but most of it, like the scans of the artifacts themselves, are all stored at the University.  We just need to slice into her accounts to get them.”


Dean cocked his head to the side looking closely at Sam.  A small part of him wanted to scream and ask “why didn’t you think of this before when we were figuring out what to do!”  But Dean held back—he understood—not exactly, after all he’d never had a lover die, pretty much never gotten as close to someone as Sam was to Jess, but all he had to do is think about how it felt to lose Mom, how it would feel if Sammy died or if he knew for sure Dad was dead, and he knew there was nothing Sam could have done to think of this sooner.  But still, that didn’t solve the technical problem they faced.  “Can we slice into these files of hers from any computer terminal?  Or does it have to be one on Coruscant, or at the University specifically?” Dean said, letting out a long breath.


“Well…” Sam began, but that was all the answer Dean really needed.


“Aww… sithspit!” Dean groaned.




As it turned out, they could get into Jess’s account from pretty much anywhere—either by using her ID information, which Sam had, or by slicing into the University’s good, but-not-super, security system.  The problem was that the holorecords of the relic Jess had found, along with the research and analysis she and the other students and professors on her team had done so far, were stored in her department’s central computers and not accessible from remote locations, presumably to stop would-be thieves from doing exactly what they were about to attempt.  Worse than that, only certain computer terminals at certain University buildings were able to access the servers on which the records were stored.  Lucky for Sam and Dean, the University probably hadn’t been expecting a desperate former student who was one of the best slicers in the galaxy to be attempting the break in.


They had toyed briefly with the idea of having Ven use his student ID (or using it for him) to get them into the University, but a few blunt, candid whistles from Chevy showed them the flaw in their plan.


If Ven was at the University at two hundred hours Central Coruscant time, he wasn’t going to be free to throw the authorities off their trail, and worse, he would probably shift suspicion to himself.


Sam’s ID was no longer valid, since he was technically not a student at the moment.  Slicing into the University’s student database was certainly an option, but it would take too much time and present more opportunity to get caught, something they definitely did not need. 


So, in spite of Dean’s concerns about what it might do to Sam’s mental state, they decided to use Jess’s ID.  With it, they wouldn’t have to do that much slicing.  Sam was pretty sure Jess had access to most, if not all, of the files associated with the find.  They would still need to override the University’s security feed and cover their presence.  If possible, they would also alter the access logs to conceal or at least delay discovery of their presence.  But at least, if they were eventually discovered, authorities would likely conclude that either Jess was alive or—more likely—that she had been killed for her ID or in conjunction with her research.  Which—if Sam was right—wasn’t that far from the truth, or at least part of the truth.  Neither brother wanted to talk about it, but they both knew Jess’s death also had a whole lot to do with their family and who they were.  They just weren’t sure why.


About fifteen minutes after Sam’s revelation about Jess’s research, the Winchesters were parting ways with Ven, having used Chevy to link them to the Dream’s computers so that they could plant a false comlink call from Sam’s comlink to Ven’s and modify the security logs at Ven’s apartment building, showing he had returned home not long after the party and left again not long after receiving Sam’s call, which was timed so that it appeared to have been placed at about the time the fire started.  Dean was relieved he’d had the foresight to remove the record of his entry into Sam’s building earlier that evening, because by that point it was clear the authorities had arrived, and messing with the logs would be too noticeable.  Hopefully, they wouldn’t find the alteration (he’d been careful, but he still worried), and if they did find it, hopefully they wouldn’t trace it back to Dean in the process.


He would really hate to be blamed for the death of his brother’s girlfriend, or his brother, since their best option was having the authorities believe Sam had died too.


With much sadness and trepidation, they bid Ven farewell and wished him luck.  He seemed to understand it was unlikely he’d ever see Sam again, but seemed equally grateful to be able to help his friend. 


Dean found himself in awe that Sam had been able to make such true friends, while equally blaming himself for ever intruding on Sam’s happy life.  Was it just earlier today he had followed Sam, marveling at his happiness?  Already that felt like a lifetime ago.  So much had changed in just hours.  Dean couldn’t help fearing that somehow he had lured the Sith here to find Sam, somehow it was all his fault, but another part of Dean knew that had he not been there Sam (and probably Ven) would now be dead.  Taking a long, steadying sigh, pulling strength from the world around him and expelling his concerns and fears with his breath, Dean prepared himself for the task ahead.


Chapter Eleven


“Are you sure you’re up for this, Sam?” Dean asked with concern.


Sam gave Dean a scathing look.  “Of course I’m not sure if I’m up to this. I’m probably not.  I just lost my girlfriend and used freaky Jedi powers to take out some Sith thing that was trying to kill you too.  My apartment was on fire.  So no, Dean, I’m not in any shape to break into my old university and steal my girlfriend’s research, but I don’t really have a choice, ‘cause we need this!” Sam said bitterly, looking down at Dean as he paced.  They were camped out in a deserted tapcaf with laughable security not too far from the University’s Auxiliary Library, which was their target building for the break-in—closely, fully linked into the University’s central servers with a terminal that could access the archeology servers, but not so high profile as to be too exposed or have the most robust security systems.


“I could go, you could stay here with Chevy and walk me through,” Dean suggested. 


That earned another scathing look from Sam.  “Dean,” he began matter-of-factly, “your ankle is broken badly, and you can barely walk on it.”


Dean shrugged. Sam was right; it was a pretty bad break. Thankfully, the fracture was closed, but the break was a lot worse than a simple crack.  Something was definitely out of place, and the Bacta patches he’d slapped on it weren’t doing much.  He’d have to run a full diagnostic when they got back to the Dream and hope he had the supplies on hand to treat it  He could slap a Perigen patch on it—he had those in Chevy’s medkit at least—but Dean knew from experience the drug would mess with his concentration.  He shifted in the tapcaf’s molded duraplast chair, testing his ankle where it lay propped up on the table.  “I’ve had worse,” he said with a shrug.  It was true. 


“Dean.  You don’t know your way around, or the setup of the system, or what you’re looking for.  Sure, I could walk you through, but it would take longer, and we’re kind of out of time.  Not to mention that at least I’m a former student there.  I’m familiar with their security droids, and I might be able to come up with a passable excuse in a pinch if they catch me.”  Sam finished with a sigh.  “Look Dean,” he said throwing up his hands and turning to face his brother again.  “It sucks, but we don’t really have another option.”


Sam was right, Dean thought with a sigh, but that didn’t mean he wanted to admit it.  Dean racked his brain in frustration trying to come up with some solution that might work better.  He was probably making a face, he knew it, but damn it, he just didn’t want to have to put Sam in that situation.  Of course, if Sam did run into a security droid, it wouldn’t take long before the authorities would figure out Sam wasn’t dead, and then only a little longer before Sam was the prime suspect in Jessica’s murder.  Dean hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  “I’m a better slicer,” Dean said half-heartedly as a last retort.  He really didn’t want his brother going into danger where Dean couldn’t protect him.


“You know I’m at least as good as you,” Sam said with a rueful grin.


“Yeah, but at least I’m not out of practice,” Dean snarked back, shifting again in his chair, still unable to really get comfortable.


Who said anything about out of practice?” Sam challenged, a glint, a spark of light and life returning to his eyes for the first time since the fire. 


“Sammy, you sly dog you, what have you been up to?  I thought you were busy playing the model student?” Dean asked with genuine interest underneath the teasing surface.


“You wouldn’t even imagine,” Sam deflected with a smile before his expression sobered.  “Are you sure you’re going to be OK?” he asked.  “This isn’t the most defensible location,” Sam added with a sweeping gesture that encompassed the cramped room.


Old habits die hard, Dean thought as soon as Sam mentioned a defensible position. He was half-expecting Sam to cringe when he realized what he’d said, but Sam didn’t.  Maybe his brother hadn’t been quite as much of a law-abiding, up-tight drone while he’d been on Coruscant as Dean had thought, or maybe Hunting really did run in their blood like John had always said.  Either way, Sam was still waiting for Dean’s response.  “This is good, Sam.  I’ll be fine.”


Sam didn’t look convinced.


“Look, it’s close enough to the library that I can back you up or help out if you need it.  It’s got a table for me to set up on.  Chevy and I are concealed here, and if we need to, it’s quick to get out.  Not to mention I can have Chevy call up the Dream, and she’ll be here in one minute, tops,” Dean added, grateful he’d found a docking berth close by.  Sensing that Sam was still unconvinced Dean added, “I can set her down in the plaza outside the library, Sam, there’s no one here this time of night, so we should have plenty of room.”


“OK,” Sam said, letting out a long sigh.  “I’m just worried about you.”


“Duh,” Dean answered, relieved when his comment got a strained chuckle out of Sam.


“I guess I should get going then,” Sam added hesitantly. 


“Got the camera headset?” Dean asked.  The whole plan would be for naught if Sam forgot it.  Dean was just relieved he’d had it with him.


“Yeah, it’s right here,” Sam said holding up a fighter pilot–style headset complete with mounted comlink and camera.  “And before you ask, I’ve got the tracking beacon turned on; I never actually stopped carrying it—it’s always been tuned so Chevy could follow me,” Sam added sheepishly.


Chevy gave a little trill of acknowledgement.


So, that’s why Chevy was so sure where Sam was coming from earlier, Dean realized.  He felt himself getting a little choked up.  He had designed the tiny locating devices as a child after nearly losing Sam in a crowded marketplace on an unfriendly planet.  The tracking beacons were small enough to tuck in a pocket or boot and were passive transmitters, so active scanning devices wouldn’t detect them except under very rare circumstances.  They were specifically attuned to Chevy’s electronic signature, so that only she had the decryption packets necessary to interpret the wearer’s whereabouts.  Of course the range was limited to approximately the radius of an average star system, which was why Dean had been unsuccessful in tracking John, so far.  All he could tell was that his dad wasn’t in the same star system (or he had turned off the device).  That Sammy hadn’t ever stopped carrying his—through all his years on Coruscant—was a testament to how much Sam still did care about his family.  Dean’s heart swelled at the thought.  “Awesome, Sammy,” he said smiling.


Sam looked for a moment like he was going to say something, but instead swallowed his thoughts.  Reaching out, he squeezed Dean’s hand.  “It’ll be OK, Dean,” he said, and then he was turning and slipping out of the tapcaf’s door into the night.


Chapter Twelve


Getting into the library had been pretty easy.  Sam had simply walked up to the side entrance, scanned Jess’s ID, and entered her code on the keypad that extended from the wall.  This building was old enough and low priority enough that it didn’t have bioscanners or fingerprint recognition, and once the code was accepted, the doors slid open with a quiet swish and let him inside. 


Sam looked left and right along the corridor, visually confirming no security droids were in the vicinity. “Chevy, can you confirm my route to the archive kiosk is clear?” Sam said quietly into his headset comlink.


He received an affirmative chirp from Chevy followed by Dean’s voice.  “Chevy says it’s all clear.  There are guard droids two levels up and one level down from the archives kiosk, but your level and the level where the kiosk is are both clear.  Chevy says she’s tracking the guards’ movements; she’ll let you know if anyone gets too close.”


“Sounds good,” Sam answered, setting off quickly, but silently down the corridor to his right.  He stayed close to the right wall, trying to stay out of view of the security holocams.  Pausing at an intersection of corridors, he asked, “Do you have the security feeds sliced?”


“Uh, yeah, Sam,” Dean said, sounding a little wounded.  “Don’t worry, you’re not showing up on any holorecordings.  As far as the droids or the records know, there’re bare halls all around.”


“Thanks,” Sam replied, taking the corridor branching off to the left.


“I wish you had Chevy with you,” Dean said through the comlink.


Chevy trilled in agreement.


“So do I, Dean, but she’d be really hard to explain if I get caught,” Sam added resignedly.


He heard Dean Chuckle through the comlink, “Not to mention it would be a damn sight trickier to keep the cameras clear if Chevy was with you.”


Sam smiled even though Dean couldn’t see his face (the holocam on his headset was directed out in front of Sam).  “I’ll be careful,” Sam added in reassurance.  He stole along about ten more paces in the dim hallway before coming to a recessed doorway near the end of the corridor.  “Dean, I’m at the turbolift,” he whispered into the comlink.


“Ok, hold there, just sit tight; I gotta sync up with their systems so I can mask the lift’s movements.”


Sam crouched down in the shadows just short of the lift’s door; he turned his head back the way he’d come, looking up the hallway and using the holocam to send the image back to Chevy, helping the little droid watch his back. 


“Ok, got it,” came Dean’s reply.  “The lift is rising to your level and should be there in three, two, one.”


Sam heard a faint chime over his shoulder and turned back to face the turbolift. A light at the top now glowed blue, and as the doors slid open with a muffled whoosh, Sam crossed the threshold and threw himself inside.


He heard giggles through the headset.  “Did you just throw yourself into the lift, Sammy?” Dean asked incredulously, clearly amused.  “You know, when I said I had the cameras covered, and I was masking the lift’s movements, I meant it.”  His voice sounded more amused than hurt, so Sam wasn’t too worried.


“Uh, yeah?” Sam responded sheepishly.  “I believed you; it just seemed like the thing to do at the time?”  He chuckled and picked himself up from where he’d landed.  The lift was sizeable, with a dark grey metal interior that looked slightly brushed, giving it a sheen somewhere between matte and polished.  The lights were off, so the only illumination came from the faint blue glow of the control panel.  Sam had never really gone to this library when he was a student, and the décor of the elevator made him regret that.  It seemed like it would have been a nice, soothing place to study.


“So, Sam,” Dean’s voice crackled over the comm, getting a little interference from the lift.  “When I say that the cameras are covered and you can get out, you know it’s OK to step, right?” he teased.


“Yeah,” Sam replied.  The lift slowed to a stop, and Sam waited patiently for the doors to open.


“Uh-oh,” Dean said, sounding surprised.  “What the hell.”  That sounded more like Dean was muttering to himself.


Sam heard Dean hiss some orders at Chevy and vaguely heard Chevy trill something in reply, but they weren’t speaking into the comm, so Sam didn’t know exactly what they were saying. 


“Sam, just what was your girlfriend working on?” Dean’s voice cut back in with a mix of surprise, concern, and awe.


“I told you,” Sam said, feeling the ever-present burning ache that was where Jess was supposed to be flare up again.  “Some artifact that mentioned Sith and a lost prophecy.  They hadn’t finished translating it or something, but they estimated it dated about 1000 years pre-Civil War, at least I think that’s what Jess said.  Why, what’s going on?”  Sam felt his pulse quicken and unconsciously pulled himself into a fighting stance.


“Well, it looks like someone more than our Sith friend is interested in it, well, that or something else down here,” Dean said ruefully.


“Meaning?” Sam said with a gulp.


“Meaning this level has a ghost system on it that would rival the security they’ve got on the Senate or the greediest, most paranoid Hutt’s stronghold.  I’ve got systems popping up all over the place and it’s gonna take me a minute or two to lock them down so I can actually get you in.  You know of anything else down there that could be that sensitive?” Dean asked, his voice sounding a little stressed and a little gruff.


“Uh, um, no,” Sam stammered.  “But then again, I didn’t ever come here, I didn’t study here, so I have no idea what might else they might store here.  Maybe the security has nothing to do with Jess’s research?”  He hoped his voice sounded hopeful, but he knew that Dean was probably right. 


They’d picked this kiosk for a reason.  There were only low-security archives on the servers accessible from this terminal, and next to nothing of any interest on the level besides the terminal.  The rest was rooms full of climate-controlled flimsi-based records and some offices.  It was possible that something more sensitive was actually housed down here, but given the probable connection between the Sith and Jess’s research and the content of Bobby’s message… chances were, it was probably the research that was pulling in the extra security.  Most University and Government buildings that housed sensitive records had permanent, fixed systems that were readily apparent if you got into the security schematics. A ghost system signaled security that was usually temporary and set up on an ad hoc basis, usually when an unexpected need arose and the officials didn’t want to draw attention to a sensitive item or person’s presence.  On that front, the artifact’s records also fit the bill. 


Sam realized he was clenching his hands into fists so tight that his fingernails were drawing blood from his palms.  He took a deep breath to calm himself, and another, and then another.  He couldn’t freak out now.  Dean could get around the system, and he could get in and out with what they needed.


“Ok,” Dean said, sounding a little pained.  “I’ve got good news and bad news.”  Sam wasn’t surprised when Dean didn’t hesitate, just plowing right through to tell Sam what was going on.  “Good news is I got into the ghost system, and I’ve managed to loop the camera footage.  I’ve also bypassed the security codes that are linked into the lift door, so I can open it without it sending up any red flags.  Bad news is the level is crawling with security droids.  They’re not showing up in the building, but once you get into the ghost, they start popping up.  I’m going to trigger a failure in the climate control on one of the archive rooms and open a few doors down the other end of the floor.  That should send the maintenance droids swarming and get the security droids to follow.  But watch out, you’re gonna have to be fast, and I can’t guarantee there won’t be more surprises when you get to the terminal.”


“Got it,” Sam said with a nod.  “I’m kinda surprised you don’t want me to turn back.”


“You kidding?  With this kind of security that shit must be important.  I wanna get a look at what all the fuss’s about,” Dean said with amusement.  “Ok,” his voice was now serious.  “I’ve set off the decoy, and the droids are moving that way.  One’s hanging back, but if you cross the hall and head immediately to the terminal, you should stay out of its line of sight.”


“Ok,” Sam said, feeling a surge of adrenalin and feeling his pulse speed up.


“Opening doors in five, four, three, two, one...”


The doors slipped open, their faint hiss raising the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck.  He leapt across the hallway, landing silently, and pressed himself to the wall.  The floor was dark save for the eerie glow of green security panels every couple of meters down the hallway.  He felt the cool stone of the wall at his back and pressed himself tighter to it.  He could just barely make out vaguely human shape of a Mark II sentry droid standing guard in the shadows further down the hall where an access corridor to one of the archive rooms branched off.  Sam tried to call up the image of the floor’s schematic in his mind.  He’d looked at it only briefly when they’d been planning this out in the tapcaf, but he’d always had a good memory, and his father had worked at making it sharper, more reliable—a skill he’d grudgingly appreciated upon beginning his studies at the University.  Now he relied on it to begin his stealthy trip down the hall towards the droid.  He moved the entire time with his back pressed to the wall, so that he could keep an eye on the droid at all times.  Luckily, the swish of the lift door didn’t seem to have attracted its attention. 


When he felt the absence of wall behind him, that signaled the presence of the alcove where the kiosk and its terminal were found, Sam quickly and silently slipped inside, keeping his eye (and the holocam) trained on the droid’s shadowy form until the last possible second.


“I’m there,” he breathed, hoping the comm would pick it up.  He tried to orient himself in the dim light.  He could feel the dataport where he plugged in the small datapad Dean had given him.  The terminal whirred to life, and Sam held his breath hoping the faint noise hadn’t gotten the droid’s attention.


“You’re ok, droid isn’t moving, and the others are still down the other end of the level,” Dean reassured quietly, as if reading Sam’s thoughts.


“Ok,” Sam whispered as he pulled Jess’s ID free from the pocket where he’d stored it and swiped it by the sensor.  The screen lit up prompting Sam to enter a pass code.  Sam entered it, and the terminal welcomed him.  “I’m in,” he said.  The glow on the screen was bright, and it faced the opening of the alcove.  Sam could block some of the light emanating from it with his body, but it still might attract a wary or overzealous droid.  “Can you do something about the brightness on this thing?” he asked over the comlink.


“Working on it, Sam,” Dean said, voice tense. “Ok, how about now?”


The screen suddenly dimmed, and Sam’s eyes took a moment to adjust.  When they did, he could just barely make out the interface and the light was no longer so bright that it would project a noticeable glow into the hall.  “Perfect,” Sam whispered.  “Ok, I’m going to try to find the records for her project.”


“Be careful,” Dean hissed.  “I’ll watch for spikes, but we might not have much warning, don’t do any more poking than you need to.”


“I won’t,” Sam answered through clenched teeth and began hunting.


The next minute or two was silent, with Sam searching and finding the records for Jess’s department and then getting into their directory of recent projects.  He didn’t find anything matching the description of the excavation Jess had told him about, so he tried a new tack and pulled up Jess’s personal files at the department.  These would have been accessible from any computer terminal, but anything linked to the department’s archive servers would be inaccessible.  Here, on this terminal, with its access to the servers, Sam should be able to get in.  At first, he didn’t find anything on Jess’s account either, but a little more hunting showed an unnamed folder marked “secure.”  When he tried to access it, it prompted him for a password.


“I think I might have found it, Dean,” Sam whispered, but it’s asking me for a password.


“I can try slicing it for you,” Dean suggested.


“No, wait,” Sam said, getting an idea.  It wasn’t just an idea, it seemed to pulsate and grow in Sam’s mind with a sense of definiteness and certainty that Sam had rarely, if ever, felt before.  He would ponder about it later, right now he had to act.  “I think I might know what it is.” 


“Sam, wait,” Dean protested, alarmed.


Without further hesitation he entered “SamWinchester” into the password prompt.  The screen blinked for a moment, and Sam held his breath, then the file opened.  “Thank you, Jess, I love you,” he whispered.


“What?” Dean asked. 


“I’m in; password was my name,” Sam supplied.


“Risky testing it like that,” Dean scolded.  “You wanna bet what would have happened if you’d been wrong?”


“Nah, I wasn’t really worried.  I know—” Sam swallowed, pushing back the swell of tears that came to his eyes, “knew, Jess really well.  Plus, the password felt right.”


“This some uh, Force, thing?” Dean asked, sounding uncertain. 


“Maybe,” Sam murmured, “Ok, I’ve got the files.  I’m going to try opening one and make sure these are what we’re looking for.”


“Careful, Sam,” Dean replied.


The files had no names, but were instead listed in a series of date-time stamps.  He picked the earliest and opened it.  An image of a document in a strange language appeared in one half of the screen accompanied by a document in Galactic Basic.  Sam couldn’t keep a gasp from escaping when he saw the seal at the top.


“Sithspit!” Dean cursed.  “Sam, whatever you opened, it’s trying to ping some offsite computer, and it’s setting off red flags and alerts all over the security system.  Chevy and I are trying to delay them… but they’re going around us.  Don’t know how long I can hold them.”  Dean’s voice sounded strained.


“Dean, are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Sam asked, his voice shaky.


“Kind of busy… oh I’ll be a Hutt’s cousin, is that?”  Dean’s question broke off.


“Yeah, that’s the seal of the Jedi Council,” Sam affirmed. 


“Fuck, no wonder I can’t stop these alerts, I don’t have the Jedi encrypt/decrypt codes.  The alerts are gonna get through, and when they do, that kiosk is gonna be crawling with Jedi, Planetary Defense, security droids, you name it.  You gotta get out of there fast!”


“How much time?” Sam asked as he scanned the document.  Sith Wraith, lost prophecy, this looks like the right records, he thought.  He selected the entire contents of the folder and copied them to his datapad; now he just had to wait for them to download.


“Well, whatever you just did, it really didn’t like that.  I’ve got twice as many flags going up,” Dean complained.


“I just copied the files, dude, they’re definitely the ones we want,” Sam hissed back.  It was all he could do to keep from tapping his foot as he waited for the files to download.  He settled for murmuring “come on, come on, come on,” under his breath over and over and over again instead.


“Uh, you got maybe two minutes.  I’m slicing as fast as I can, but without the codes, I can’t really get into the root of the system.  I’m just trying to cut off their means of communication, but that’s sending up flags of its own.”


“Fuck,” Sam swore, looking down at the annoying little bar that signified how much more of the files were left to download.  They weren’t even a quarter of the way done, and had already been downloading for close to a minute.  “Is there anything you can do to speed this up?”


“Dude,” Dean said, sounding annoyed.  “I’m trying to keep the powers of the Jedi from smacking down on your ass.  You’re a slicer, and you know the University’s systems better than I do; see if you can divert some bandwidth to speed up the transfer or compress the files or something, but Chevy and I don’t really have any resources to spare.”


“Ok, ok,” Sam said, dropping to his knees in the confined space to get better access to the terminal.  At waist height, was an access panel; when he flipped it open, he let out a sigh of relief.  It had a simple toggle switch that allowed the terminal to be flipped over to administrator use, in case a library employee needed to use it.  He flipped the switch, and pulled out another pad from his pocket.  Sam was never more grateful he had kept his slicing skills well-exercised while at the University.  He’d sliced their system configuration protocols years ago, and if they hadn’t changed much… ah, there it is, he’d be able to do as he’d just done and shift extra resources to this terminal to speed up the transfer.  It was probably one more thing that was going to set off red flags, but at this point, it was only a matter of when, not if, he authorities were going to be notified.  So much for their simple in-and-out and undetected get away.  Chances were, by morning, he’d be wanted for his girlfriend’s death.  If they didn’t wind up in a detention cell first.


He stood up, and glanced back at the monitor, the transfer was almost done, just a dozen or so more seconds.  He dropped back down, disconnected the second data pad, counted to ten, and flipped the switch back to non-admin use.  When he stood back up the file download was complete.  He quickly backed out of Jess’s account, while simultaneously disconnecting the first datapad.  He stuffed both datapads securely in his pocket, and finished logging out of Jess’s account.  When finished, he turned around so that he was facing the opening of the alcove.  “Dean?” he asked, worriedly.


“I’ve got Chevy calling up the Dream,” Dean said panting, his voice tight.


“Are you running?” Sam asked, surprised.


“Well, it’s more hobbling than running, but yeah, we’re out of the tapcaf and heading towards the plaza.  You done?” 


Sam could hear more noise and interference over the comlink now, which corresponded with Dean being outside.


“Yeah, so where are we, and what’s my exit strategy look like?” he asked worriedly.  He wanted to inch out into the hallway, but without knowing the status of the various alerts or even where the droids on his level were, he wasn’t going to risk it.


“Well, I’ve managed to hold the alerts so far, but they’re going to get through any moment now.  But on the other hand, the droids are all returning, your area’s going to be crawling real soon,” Dean replied.


“Is the lift still here?” Sam hissed.


“Yeah,” Dean said sounding hesitant.


“Just trigger it to open in fifteen seconds, I’m making a run for it,” Sam said determinedly.  If he could stick to the shadows, and make it back to the lift, he could get on it and maybe even to a level with an exit before the alerts reached their destination.  If the droids caught him first—well, they’d never work out a distraction before the droids were alerted anyway and Jedi or who knows what else descended on the building.  Poking his head out of the opening and glancing quickly to his left, he could still see the sentry droid and hear others approaching, but there were no others in range yet.  Without further hesitation he pushed himself out of the alcove and stole along the wall to the right, not bothering to check behind him again.  His best bet was making it into the lift and then figuring out what to do from there.  He counted down from fifteen in his head, and pushed himself a little faster to catch up.  He got to 1 and leapt across the hall, exposing himself for as brief a time as possible.  As he flung himself at the turbolift’s doors, they slid open.  Simultaneously, Sam heard the alarmed whistle of a droid over his shoulder; he’d been spotted.  He threw himself into the lift once again, and hissed over the comlink “I’m in!”


The doors slid shut behind him as he heard and saw the red glow of a stunbolt hurl itself down the hallway to where he’d just been.


“Ok, I’m taking you up to the main entrance level.  You’re in the main turbolift shaft, so you should have a more-or-less straight shot out to the entrance, but it’s crawling with droids.  You’re just going to have to make a run for it and try not to get shot,” Dean said with regret.


“Gee thanks,” Sam said sarcastically, as he felt the lift rise rapidly—faster than usual he noted—but there was no real heat to his words; he knew Dean had his hands full, and if he could make it out of here alive, it would be a near miracle.  They’d known it was risky going in after the files, but the never imagined there would be this much security around them.  No, that’s not quite true, Sam thought, I knew there was something off about the whole thing, it was like I could feel the importance of those files.  It occurred to Sam that might be more of the Force talking, but he pushed it out of mind again.  He’d have time to deal with what his apparent newfound ability to wield the Force meant when he didn’t have a pack of angry security droids breathing down his neck and a swarm of alarmed Jedi ready to descend on the building. 


“Sithspit!” Dean cursed through the comlink.  “Ok, the first alarm got through.  I can’t read what it said, but it looks like it went somewhere at the Jedi Temple.  And now it’s triggering security systems all over the library,” Dean said with concern.  Sam could hear him panting and hear a shuffling, pounding sound in the background, which was probably Dean running on his broken ankle.  If Dean got hurt because of this, Sam would never forgive himself.  “They just locked down the turbolifts,” Dean said added, sounding seemingly unconcerned.


Sithspit! Sam thought, but then realized he was still moving—a little faster, if that was possible.  “But I’m still moving,” Sam said aloud.


“Yeah, that’s the problem with using a ghost system,” Dean said, and Sam was pretty sure he could hear the wicked grin on Dean’s face.  “It’s linked into your main system, but it’s dependent on everything the main system tells it.  So, if you’ve got a flaw in the main system, it can still be exploited.  The main system’s thought these lifts were locked down the whole time, while all the while I’ve had these babies at my beck and call.”


Sam let out a strained laugh.  “Awesome, Dean,” he said honestly.  Harass his brother as he might for being too trusting of their father, for not being normal, but he always appreciated his brother’s sheer mechanical and programming genius, especially when it saved his ass.


“Ok, you’re going to be stopping in five, be ready to get out and run. Straight shot ahead to the doors fifty meters.  At least ten droids in the area and counting,” Dean announced.


Sam leaned towards the door, and bolted the second they shot open.  It was strange, it was almost as if he could sense the danger as it approached, he dodged to the right to avoid a blaster bolt—not a stun bolt, he noted—that shot by him a moment later.  He just got a feeling that something was coming around the corner of the intersecting hallway on his right five meters ahead, so he dove and slid across the space, as a cylindrical hoverdroid floated by overhead.  Sam scrambled to his feet and kept running.  Maybe it was the Force letting him know what was going to happen, or at least giving him vague impressions. 


“Sam, I’m in the plaza and the Dream’s touching down.  I’m opening her ramp and me and Chevy are going to get inside and get her ready to take off.  Where are you?” Dean said, panting. 


Sam realized he could hear the hum of repulsor lifts up ahead through the cacophony that was all around him.  Funny, he hadn’t even realized until now, but there were alarms and claxons blaring and wailing all around him.  The security panels were all flashing red.  And, he thought as he flung himself to the floor and rolled, just missing another blaster bolt that singed the wall just inches from his hair, he could feel the charge left in the air in its wake, and smell the ozone. 


“Sam!” Dean shouted through the comlink again.


Sam realized he hadn’t answered Dean’s last comment.  “Um, uh, I got about fifteen meters the exit, maybe fifty more to the Dream,” he said pushing to his feet and sprinting.


Dream’s in preflight.  Chevy says there’s a vehicle approaching from the Jedi Temple, and the main entrance is going into lockdown; I can’t stop it,” Dean said, brokenly.  “You gotta get out of there now.”


“Got it!” Sam shouted.  The light was still dim, but he could see the rosy light of dawn breaking through the windows of the front entrance.  He dove again as he sensed the danger of another blaster bolt zoom through the air where his head had been.  He tried to tuck into a roll, but he slipped on some blasted debris and managed to smack his face on the edge of the reception desk on his way down.  Ahead of him there were security barricades—two layers of them—that were surely sliding into place.  Sam pushed on slipping through the first as yet another blaster bolt whizzed past.  He could hear the frustrated squawking of a droid behind him as the barrier slid shut with a clang, blocking the droid’s advance.  Almost, too late, he sensed another hover droid approaching on his right.  He dove, just as the second barrier was slipping shut.  He avoided the droid and managed to get through, but slammed his chest hard on the durasteel barrier as it pushed closed.  Oh sithspit that hurt!  It knocked the wind out of him, and Sam could hardly think.  Breathing or not, he needed to get out now; so, lungs burning for air, he drew himself up and darted to the door.  It was locked, and even swiping Jess’s card wouldn’t open it.


“Dean!” He croaked, when he could get enough air.  He was right there, just inches from freedom and he couldn’t get out.


“I see you; now get down!” Dean commanded.


Sam dropped without question, as he heard weapons fire and the glass in the door shatter overhead.  Huh, glad it wasn’t transparisteel, he thought absently.  He pulled himself to his feet and darted through the wreckage of the door and across the plaza to the waiting, open ramp of the Dream


He was still about ten meters from the ramp when he felt the Jedi approach.  It was like a needle piercing the bubble of his consciousness, or maybe an arrow or a wedge; a presence pushing its way in getting closer and closer, looming larger and larger.  Sam knew that the Jedi could sense him, and could tell he was Force-sensitive.  Sam wasn’t entirely sure how he knew, or if those were his thoughts or the Jedi’s, but he also knew that if the Jedi reached him, he would be able to stop them.  Stop Sam.  Stop Dean.  Stop Chevy.  Take the prophecy.  Because that’s what they had—not just some relic or artifact.  The reason the Jedi were so upset was because those documents of Jess’s—what she had found—was something huge.  Something ugly and bad, but also really important, that the Jedi didn’t want found.  They were ashamed, and they were worried, and Sam could also tell that his presence had them particularly freaked out—or at least, it did this Jedi. 


The knowing, the awareness came to Sam in a moment, a flash, and it was all there.  As he sprinted towards the Dream’s waiting ramp he turned and pushed with his mind, thinking you can’t reach me, you can’t reach me, you can’t reach me over and over.  Like back in the apartment, during the fire, he could feel the barrier spring up, blocking the Jedi from reaching him and holding the Jedi back.  Sam almost tripped as he stepped onto the ramp, running sideways so that he could keep his focus on the Jedi, but he made it in, and gave one last push with his mind.  He could feel the Jedi get thrown across the Plaza, momentarily stunned.  Sam felt winded and drained, the aches and pains of his escape making their presence known.  They had to get away now; he wouldn’t be able to do that again, block a Jedi like that, not for a while.  Not until he’d rested.  And there were more of them, dozens more, maybe the every Jedi in the Temple, coming this way.


But Sam needn’t have feared.  He was only a few steps inside, and the ramp was already lifting, almost rolling him back into the Dream, which was herself lifting with a lurch and then rising gracefully, almost as if the ship felt as torn about leaving as Sam did.  He just lay there, at the top of the ramp in a heap, trying to catch his breath and trying to figure out what to do next.  Like it or not, Sam was back in the Family Business, and it seemed like the entire universe was out to get him.


Chapter Thirteen


The Dream took off from the plaza with a sickening lurch.  Ever since he had noticed the camouflaged signal emanating from the artifact’s files, Dean had felt an overwhelming sense of foreboding.  Even before Sam had noticed the Jedi Council’s seal—and Dean had figured out that was why he couldn’t stop the signal—he had realized that something was very, very wrong.  Well, at least finding the Council’s seal on the documents, and judging from their response, pretty much confirmed that the artifact had something to do with the Sith, moreover, their Sith.  Of course, the Council would try to keep anything Sith-related away from prying eyes.  Still, that didn’t quite explain why Dean felt there was something much wore attached to the presence of that seal.  That had been a Jedi after Sam in the plaza.  He had seen it from the Dream’s bridge.  Sam had stopped the Jedi, and everything was a mess.


“Where are we going?” Sam asked, shaking.  Dean wondered how much of that had to do with the Sith encounter, how much was from Sam’s frantic escape from the library, and how much was just due to frustration with the situation.


“Bobby’s,” Dean said quietly, as he transmitted the coordinates to the Dream’s navcomp, turning his seat to face Sam. 


“That’s kind of far,” Sam remarked, but there was no criticism in his voice.  Sam looked exhausted, drained, haggard, really. He had dark circles under his eyes and looked thin and drawn.  It was remarkable, considering that just hours ago, Sam had looked happy and free and vibrant.  Sam had a bruise blossoming across one cheek where he had collided with something in his escape from the library.


“What’s that?” Dean asked raising his hand to touch Sam’s cheek. 


“Reception desk,” Sam answered with a shrug.  “You didn’t see it on the camera?” He asked. surprised.


Chevy made a soft trill from her position to Sam’s right.


“Chevy was watching you.  At that point, I had my hands full with trying to remote pilot the Dream so we could get out of there,” Dean explained.  He felt a little ashamed, he should have been watching Sam, but it just wasn’t possible.  Maybe he should have tried harder.  With a gesture towards the passenger compartments he added, “Now, why don’t you go get some sleep?”


Sam looked at Dean suspiciously.  “What about you?”


“As you pointed out, it’s a long trip to Bobby’s.  As soon as I get us into hyperspace, I’m going to come back and join you, see if the medicomp can sort out my ankle.  Chevy’ll be ok up here,” he said with a weak smile.


Chevy chirped her agreement, rocking forward in a nod. 


Sam stiffly stood and walked to the rear of the bridge, looking back over his shoulder worriedly.


Dean gave him a nod of encouragement, and Sam finally wandered into the passenger compartments.  When Dean was sure Sam was out of sight, he slumped back into the pilot’s chair, letting his guard drop slightly for the first time in hours, maybe weeks.  Dean ached.  His hands stung where the analgesic cream had worn off, although they didn’t hurt as badly as he would have expected.  His ankle throbbed, and he could tell that the break had gotten worse; the bone was more out of place since his tapcaf-sprinting, ship-landing heroics.  His shoulder still felt wrenched, and his hand was slightly numb and tingly.  Dean desperately needed to rest, to give in and just heal, but he couldn’t let go enough to relax, at least not until he knew Sam was safe.  He tried to find as much comfort in the chair as possible.  Sinking in, letting his body’s stress flow into the seat.  It helped a little, but it wouldn’t do for long.


The navcomp chimed, signaling it was ready to take the Dream to hyperspace.  Warily, checking the Dream’s sensors for what felt like the thousandth time since re-boarding, Dean confirmed they were not being followed before engaging the hyperdrive.  With a wary sigh and an affectionate pat to Chevy, he stood and walked towards the passenger compartments.




Dean found Sam sitting at the table in the ship’s mess cum clinic.  Sam’s hands were shaking where he gripped the round edge of the table—as was everything else in the cabin. 


He must have sensed Dean’s presence.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me Dean, but ever since Jess—it’s like I feel everything Dean.  And I don’t know how to make it stop,” he said, voice wavering.


“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” Dean said, doing his best to suppress fears to the contrary.


“Don’t lie, Dean.  I can feel your mood, and you’re all tense and jumpy,” Sam gritted out.


“I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” Dean answered softly, moving towards the table and trying to put all the love and affection he felt for Sam into his voice.  Sam looked at him skeptically.


“I’m just worried for you, that’s all.  Scared ‘cause we don’t really know anything about you using the Force, and apparently you can and there’s a Sith after us, and now Jedi too, and Dad’s missing, and I’m just worried ‘cause that’s a lot to handle.  But you’ve got me.”  Dean sat down across from Sam and squeezed his hand.


Sam’s eyes finally met Dean’s, and they exchanged a real, genuine smile.


“Ok,” Sam said shakily, releasing his death grip on the table.


The cabin stopped vibrating around him, and Dean couldn’t suppress a sigh of relief.  Some cooking implements rattled back into submission at the cabin’s food prep station.


“Let’s get you patched up,” Dean said with another squeeze to Sam’s hand.


Sam’s gaze darkened, his brow knitting together.  “What about you?” He asked sternly.


Dean cared much more about making sure Sam was ok than he did about how he felt, but at the same time, he needed to be in top form—or as close to it as his injuries would allow—and he really didn’t want permanent damage to his ankle.  Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t take care of Sam first.  “I’m going to take care of myself, but I want to make sure we take care of you first.  I’m not the one who just held off a Jedi and busted out of a library crawling with droids.”  (He didn’t dare mention I’m not the one who just lost everything, but Dean certainly felt that.) 


Sam hesitated, for a moment it looked like he was going to put up a fight, but he acquiesced.  “Ok, but I’m sticking around to make sure you actually patch yourself up.  ‘M not sleeping until I’m sure you’re ok.” 


Dean wanted to wring his hands at Sam’s stubbornness, but really, he wasn’t asking for that much.  And come to think of it, he really probably would need some help with his ankle.  “Ok; Deal,” he said at last.  “Now you sit tight, and I’m going to go get the supplies.”  Dean stood, wagging his finger at Sam and patting his hand, but not giving him much of an opportunity to talk back.  He knew Sam wanted to protest, since Dean really shouldn’t be on his ankle, but Sam resisted, and Dean was grateful.  He needed to feel like he could do something for Sam, and this was it.


He hobbled over to the array of cabinets and drawers John had set up as a mini clinic.  It wasn’t quite as well equipped as a military ship’s sickbay, but it came close.  It didn’t have any medical droids, but there were a few droid extensions of the ship that John had put in, not to mention it came complete with a portable holoscanner and diagnostic unit, Bacta patches, Bactade, and several other forms of Bacta, along with some good drugs, skin sealants, and the works.  Pretty much everything short of a Bacta tank. 


Dean slipped open drawers and cabinets gathering up the supplies he would likely need, letting the smooth, cool, feel of the alloy metal drawers calm and ground him.  When he had everything gathered, he reached over to the small sink, and filled a bottle with water.  He took that, a basin, and the supplies back to Sam at the table. 


It might be a more old-fashioned, frontier form of medicine than you’d get in a big, fancy hospital, but it worked well enough.  Dean really couldn’t imagine what his life would be like if his father hadn’t been trained as a medic (among other things) in the Jedi Support Corps.  Dean smiled wistfully at the thought of his father.  He missed him; he desperately wanted to know where he was, but right now, the supplies, the ship, everything around Dean was soothing and comforting, all reminding him of his father, giving him strength.  The Dream had had some form of a clinic even when he was a kid, when Mom was alive.  John had said it was because he couldn’t chance anything happening to his family—and wanted to put his wife’s gadgetry to work.  Dean supposed it was for the best.  When John had started hunting, “anything happening” seemed to happen an awful lot.  Now Dean was just grateful to have the resources at his disposal.


“Ok, Sam,” Dean said, sinking painfully into a seat, this time in the chair immediately to Sam’s left.  He made a turning gesture with his hand to get Sam to swivel his chair so that Dean had better access to him.  “Tell me where you’re hurt, and please don’t even think of hiding anything, or I will give you a full examination.


Sam cringed, but then smiled.  It appeared he too took comfort from old routines.  Many times when they were children it was Dean who’d tried to hide an injury, and Sam had practically had to climb his then-taller brother like a tree to give him a once-over.


Dean started with the obvious bruise on Sam’s face.  He cleaned it to make sure there were no cuts or damage to the skin that could lead to infection and spread Bactane on it to help speed the healing process.  Dean then inspected the rest of Sam’s face, head, and neck, finding a few cuts and scrapes where Sam had been hit by shrapnel from various sources—including one sizeable splinter of glass from the library door that was stuck in Sam’s scalp. 


Sam gasped as Dean removed the debris.  “I didn’t even feel that,” he groaned.


“Well, that’s kind of why I need to check you over, Sam,” Dean murmured as he cleaned and dabbed Bactane on yet another small cut.  “I don’t want you running around hurt and not knowing it.”


They soon realized that Sam’s shirtsleeve was torn, burned, and his arm underneath actually singed by a blaster bolt.


“Didn’t feel that either,” Sam admitted sheepishly, flinching as Dean disinfected the burn.


When all of the wounds on Sam’s exposed skin were cleaned to Dean’s satisfaction, he had Sam stand—carefully—and strip to his undergarments.


“Sithspawn!  What did that?” Dean asked, pointing at the angry stripe of purple-red bruise that had already blossomed over Sam’s chest. 


“Barrier; hit me.  Almost didn’t make it out,” Sam admitted.


Dean slid forward on the swivel chair so that he could touch the bruise.  It was at least foot long, and stretched from just under Sam’s right shoulder across his chest and diagonally down his ribs on the left side.  Dean touched it, gingerly, and just the barest pressure made Sam flinch and gasp.


“Bantha dung, Sam,” Dean hissed.  “At least some of these have got to be broken.”  Dean’s assertion was confirmed when he felt one of Sam’s ribs give under his fingers.


Sam coughed weakly.  “I couldn’t really breathe after it happened, but I had to get out.  That was right before you shot out the door…”  His eyes lost focus momentarily, but then snapped back.  “Probably when I got hit by the blaster, too.”  Sam said, shrugging his now-bandaged right shoulder.


“Ok, well I’m grabbing the holoscanner,” Dean insisted.  “I don’t want to find out the hard way that you’ve punctured a lung.”  Dean rose from the table to pull over the portable diagnostic machine, and quickly set about scanning Sam, who—thankfully—gave no further complaint.


“Three broken ribs, bruised sternum, and a hairline fracture to your clavicle,” Dean read out as the holoscanner displayed its findings.  “Blast, Sam.  You really need a Bacta tank.”  They didn’t have one of those onboard.  “At least nothing’s badly out of place,” he sighed, sitting on the edge of his seat so that he could help pop the one rib that had moved back into place.  A little pressure to Sam’s front and side, a bitten-off gasp from Sam, and a sickening pop, and it was all done.  Dean let out a sigh of relief.  He pasted Bacta patches up and down Sam’s chest, across the bruise, and made Sam drink some Bactade—much to Sam’s dismay—to help speed the healing process.  Lucky for both of them, a quick inspection of Sam showed no other injuries beyond a skinned knee and one more splinter in his left forearm.  Cleaning both, Dean gave Sam a pat on his uninjured shoulder.  “Ok, you’re all done.  You want anything for the pain?” he asked.


Sam cleared his throat, standing with a wince.  “Let me just get some clothes on and then we can check you out.  I’ll take something for the pain once we’re sure your ankle’s set.” 


“Ok,” Dean conceded. 


Sam returned to the table wearing baggy leggings and wrapping a loose robe around himself, and carrying another robe and leggings for Dean.  “You’re gonna go sleep after this too, so you might as well do it in something comfortable.”


Dean grumbled.  He hated this.  Anything that made him unprepared, relaxed, guard lowered, made him nervous, tense… which kind of defeated the whole relaxation point.  Dean needed to be ready to go, ready to protect them no matter what.  Still, Sam had a point.  So, Dean gingerly lifted himself to his feet, and slipped into the robe.  The leggings would have to come later once his ankle was sorted out. 


Once they were both changed, Sam motioned at Dean’s empty seat.  “Ok, sit.  I’m going to get that ankle checked out now.”


Dean sat and permitted Sam to lift his ankle.  Dean’s boots were still on, so he allowed Sam to remove them and gently poke and prod his ankle—which drew a pained gasp from Dean.


“Sithspit, this is bad, Dean,” Sam murmured, flinching in apparent sympathy as he carefully removed the boot, sock, and splint.  The splint had shifted so that it was no longer supporting Dean’s ankle. 


Dean felt a bit dismayed that he hadn’t even noticed.  It was so swollen—and swelling faster now that his boot and splint were removed—that he honestly hadn’t been able to feel where the splint was, everything was just an undifferentiated, pounding, throbbing ache.


Sam fiddled with the holoscanner and its attached medicomp, letting out a hissing sound when the machine beeped with its result.


“How bad is it?” Dean asked, honestly wary. 


Sam looked up with pained concern.  “It’s broken in three places, and there’s a bone fragment that’s way out of place.  If you’d kept walking on it any longer, you could have…”


I could have cut off the blood supply and lost my foot, Dean realized with a gulp.  He really didn’t want to think about how needing a cybernetic or biosynthetic limb replacement would complicate their already-nightmarish situation.  “Shit,” he sighed aloud.  “Ok, well, can you get it set?” he asked Sam encouragingly.  He knew Sam hated to cause him pain just as much as he hated feeling like the cause of any of Sam’s pain.  But, like it or not, his ankle needed to get back more or less in position or he would be in a lot more pain. 


Sam looked away, grimly consulting with the medicomp.  “Brace yourself,” he said, voice brittle.


Dean grabbed onto the edges of his seat, thankful they’d had the time to properly patch up his burned palm earlier.  He could feel that the ointment and Bacta patch were doing their jobs, and the skin was already healing nicely, otherwise, gripping the chair as hard as he did when Sam pulled on his ankle, snapping bones back into place with an audible snap would have probably caused him to black out.  Even with the effects of the analgesic wearing off, his hand only added a subtle, itchy throb to the fiesta of pain.


“Oww,” Dean gasped, amazed at his own understatement.


Sam was already running the scanner over Dean’s ankle again.  “Well, good news is the major break is back in place and the fragment is about 90% lined up.”


“Ninety percent?” Dean asked, embarrassed at the squeak in his voice.  That didn’t sound too good. 


“Dean, I told you this was bad…” Sam started to protest then seemed to think better of it.


Yes, they both knew it was a bad break, but that didn’t mean that they could have avoided the injury or that Dean could have avoided running on it.  Not if they had wanted any hope of leaving Coruscant alive and with the information they needed. 


“The top portion is still off by about three degrees,” Sam explained.  “You really need Bacta immersion for this,” he added grumbling.  “But since that’s not an option…”  Sam let his voice trail off and stepped away to rummage through the supply cabinets until he’d gathered what he needed.  He turned back to Dean holding what Dean thought could only be described as a “giant fucking needle.”  “If I inject the Bacta into the area around the break, it will stimulate the bone to realign and mesh properly,” Sam added, sounding almost clinical.


Dean gulped.  This was nothing like the quick, tiny, almost pain-free Bacta injection Ven had given him back on Coruscant.  Which was probably why that didn’t manage to do much of anything.  Knowing he had no other choice, Dean nodded, giving Sam permission.


Sam didn’t hesitate beyond consulting with the medicomp for the correct angle and depth at which to stab the needle into Dean’s ankle.


Dean tried to breathe through it, sucking in gulps of air when the Bacta was in his ankle and the needle removed.  He did his best to focus on breathing while Sam slapped more Bacta patches, on the outside of his ankle along with an anti-inflammatory patch. 


Seeming satisfied with his handiwork, Sam pulled a more substantial steriplast splint out of a nearby supply cabinet and worked it around Dean’s ankle.


Dean spoke when he heard the device’s pressure seal snap into place with a hiss.  He tested his ankle.  He couldn’t move it at all, but he could wiggle his toes, and between the Bacta and the anti-inflammatories, he could feel the pain abating somewhat.  Better yet, this splint should be reliable enough to let him walk on it without re-injuring the break. 


Sam was still hovering though, running the scanner over one more time.


“Are you done yet?” Dean asked, a little more snappy and whiny than he had intended. 


“Just making sure I didn’t knock anything out of place,” Sam said exasperated.  “Looks good.”


Dean started to stand.


“Whoa, whoa, where do you think you’re going?  You said I could check you over,” Sam said concerned, gingerly reaching out to hold Dean in his chair.


“You fixed my ankle, now I’m going to sleep,” Dean said stubbornly.


“What about your hands?” Sam asked nodding at Dean’s bandaged palm. 


“They’re ok, honestly,” Dean added at Sam’s skeptical glance.  “Already feel like they’re healing up fine.  Sure, he could probably use another dose of Bacta ointment and the analgesic, but he really didn’t feel like being poked or prodded any more.


Sam checked them over anyway, tutting as he went.  He was apparently satisfied with the healing on Dean’s left hand, dabbing just a drop of Bacta ointment on the now-shiny, pink skin and re-bandaging it.  Dean’s right hand got a little more attention.  The blister was gone, but the burn wasn’t quite healed, so it got more of both the Bacta and the analgesic cream.  “Ok, how ‘bout your shoulder?  You were holding it funny before,” Sam asked when he was done with Dean’s hands.


“It’s fine, just a little sore,” Dean said, ignoring the tingly feeling in his fingers that he knew meant there was probably a pinched nerve.  He knew Sam wouldn’t be placated.  Sure enough, Dean was forced to sit twitchily in his chair for another minute or so while Sam prodded the shoulder.  He seemed satisfied that nothing was out of place and didn’t scan it. 


“Here,” Sam said, slapping another Bacta patch on it.  “It’s obviously sore.  In case there’s anything I didn’t see, that should help make sure it heals.”


Dean nodded leaning forward again to stand.  This time, however, he was met with Sam holding a greenish patch that definitely wasn’t Bacta.  “What’s that?” Dean asked, although he knew the answer.


“Comaren patch,” Sam said, moving to slap it to the side of Dean’s neck.


“Aw, Sammy c’mon, you know that shit fucks me up,” Dean whined.  Comaren was a pretty strong narcotic painkiller, and while he knew he could definitely benefit from its effects, he also knew that it would pretty much knock him on his ass for the next twelve hours.


“Dean,” Sam began matter-of-factly, “Perigen makes you spacey, and it’s not even a strong painkiller.  I’d give you some of that, but it wouldn’t even take the edge off.”  Sam smiled apologetically.


Dean hated that it was true.  As exhausted and shaky as he felt, the pain was bad enough to keep him awake.


“Just take this, and it will knock you out,” Sam protested.


Dean looked from the patch to Sam and back to the patch again.  “Ok, just,” he put up his hand again as Sam started to move toward it again.  “Put that on me when I get in bed.  I still need to send a holocom message to Bobby, and…”


“And what?” Sam asked, stepping back, scrutinizing Dean. 


“And send a message to Dad,” he added, hating that his throat caught.  “He needs to know we’re ok.  If he’s out there, and—and he’s not dead, then he’s gonna hear about Coruscant, and he’s…”


“Ok, Sam said,” dropping his hands to his side, and hanging his head.  “I’ll,” he looked around, probably realizing that Dean would want to send his transmission from the kitchen area.  “I’ll go wait for you in the bedroom; are you ok cleaning up?”


“Yeah,” Dean nodded.


He waited for Sam to exit before standing, testing his weight on his ankle.  When confident that he could hobble a few steps (although it was incredibly painful), he finished changing out of his pants and into the sleep leggings Sam had supplied.  Dean then quickly straightened up and readied the holocom.


He sent the message to Bobby first.  He probably could have gotten him online for a live call, but Dean really didn’t want to have to talk to anyone (other than Sammy) in person right now.  It was just too emotionally draining.  He sent Bobby all the information they had gathered, including Jess’s files, and explained when they would be arriving.  Having received a transmission from Bobby only hours before, he was confident that Bobby would be at home on Tatooine when they arrived.


Then Dean steadied himself, drawing on all his reserves, and placed the call to his father.  He didn’t know whether to be relieved or distraught when he didn’t get through, but it took every ounce of strength he had left just to leave a message; so, on the whole, it was probably good that John didn’t answer.  When he was done, Dean wiped the tears from his eyes and headed to the sleeping compartment.


Sam greeted him with the Comaren patch, but thankfully didn’t comment on Dean’s red, puffy eyes. 


Dean crawled into bed, almost immediately knocked out by the strong narcotic, and hoped he’d get to sleep the rest of the trip.


Chapter Fourteen


John got a terrible sinking feeling when the Folly popped out of hyperspace in the Coruscant system.  Somehow, he just knew he was too late.  Too late for what?  It didn’t take long for John to figure it out as he negotiated his way through Coruscant’s planetary security and docking control system (at least the Chameleon program had worked because he was able to get clearance through one of the Folly’s reserved alternate IDs and had absolutely no problems).  That was the end of the good news though.  There had been another fire at what he knew to be Sam’s address.  Authorities—including Jedi he noted—were onsite now, and it was believed that there were two fatalities.  John’s heart rose in his throat, and his stomach twisted terribly as he thought about what that might mean.  He’s not dead; he can’t be, John thought.  No matter what they were saying, he felt he’d know if Sam was dead.


About an hour after arriving in the Coruscant system, he had docked and landed the ship and was making his way along Galactic City’s crowded walkways towards Sam’s building, Republic Intelligence ID carefully tucked in a pocket, appropriate attire donned.  Posing as a Republic Intelligence agent was definitely riskier than some of John’s other fake identities, but with a Jedi on sight—a Jedi Shadow no less—and Coruscant’s state-of-the-art security and investigative techniques, it was a risk he’d have to take, otherwise he’d never get anywhere near the place. 


When he was still a few blocks, and levels, away, he could smell the horrible, choking, acrid stench of smoke, charred flesh, and melted chemicals.  Already, the walkways were thinning out.  It was midmorning, normally a busy time in this part of Galactic City, but John got the feeling people were avoiding the area as much as possible.  Then he saw the barrier, a full block out from the building.  Or, it could be that, too.  Apparently, the Jedi or the regular authorities didn’t want anyone getting too close.


Pulling out his badge and dropping into his official, standoffish persona, John approached the barrier.


“I’m sorry, you can’t pass here, there’s been a fire, very destructive,” a young Rodian in a Fobosi District Security uniform said nervously.


John just flashed the badge, barely looking at the youth.


“Oh, I’m sorry sir, please enter.  Master Shran is in charge here, and he’s just over that way,” the Rodian said, lifting the gate so John could enter and pointing off at a place in the distance where a stern, tall, dark-skinned, human Jedi was standing, arms crossed in front of him.


“Thanks,” John grunted in the Rodian’s direction.  As he took off in the Jedi’s direction.  John was still picking his way through techs and reporters, over charred bits and remnants of things that had once been his son’s life (but not Sam) that had been pulled out of the melted, twisted hulk of the apartment.  The fire had left a gaping hole in the side of the apartment, the durasteel structure bubbled and bloated and twisted from the incredible heat.  It was just like the others, just like the other fire on Coruscant, just like Mary.  John struggled to keep the bile from rising in his throat.  He was still a dozen or so meters from the Jedi, picking his way around some techs running a holoimager over the charred and melted hulk of what might have once been a couch or table, when he heard the Jedi speak.


“Civilians aren’t allowed in this area, you should leave,” the commanding tone projected.  John was sure the Jedi was using the force to enhance his voice, adding with it an extra layer of persuasion and making himself sound more pompous in the process. 


Luckily, John’s training, both in the Support Corps and as a hunter, had rendered him essentially immune from those trying to use the force to control others.  “I’m not a civilian,” he said, turning towards the Jedi and flashing his Republic Intelligence badge.  He could almost feel that the Jedi didn’t believe him, so he held the badge out longer, giving the Jedi ample time to examine it. 


“This investigation is under the auspices of the Jedi Council; there is no need for Republic Intelligence to get involved,” the Jedi said with a huff, glaring at John with stern, determined, brown eyes.


Well, if this was going to turn into a pissing contest, at least John was taller.  He pulled himself up to his full height, and stepped closer to the Jedi, close enough that a Jedi, with their enhanced senses and need to control everything, would be decidedly uncomfortable.  “Listen Jedi—” John began and paused, intentionally picking the lower ranking title to irk the guy.  If the intel he’d been able to gather upon arriving was any indication, there was no way in hell the Council had sent an ordinary Knight to oversee the investigation, plus the Rodian had just indicated he was a Master.


“It’s Master Shran, Gariq Shran,” the Jedi said automatically.


“Master Shran,” John echoed.  “I’m agent John Rand, Republic Intelligence,” he continued just barely tripping over the last name, grateful he had thought twice about putting a more typical alias with his Republic Intelligence ID…  Usually John picked aliases that alluded to major figures, often Jedi, Generals, and famous entertainers—all of which would be blatantly obvious to a Jedi.  The last name he’d chosen was at least common enough that he wasn’t likely to arouse suspicion.  “This is the second spacescraper fire like this we’ve had on Coruscant in the last few months, and there have been others like it all over the Republic.  It’s the subject of an ongoing RI investigation, so if it isn’t too much trouble, it would be most appreciated if you could share with us what you’ve found so far,” John finished smoothly.  He had checked, RI was looking into the fires, they seemed to have gotten peripherally interested during the last Coruscant fire as the family that had been … affected … was the family of a fairly high-ranking bureaucrat.  However, if Republic Intelligence followed their standard response time complete with excessive paperwork and a fair amount of foot dragging, John should have approximately three hours to spare on his investigation before a real RI agent showed up.  The Jedi might be surprised to see an RI agent here so early, but it wasn’t completely unheard of for RI to move at a faster-than-glacial speed from time to time (he just hoped they didn’t actually move fast this time, or he’d be bantha fodder).  He’d just have to make sure he had what he needed and was clear of the planet before they showed, or the Jedi would definitely be suspicious.


“This is a Jedi, matter, Agent Rand,” Master Shran replied acerbically.  “We do not require RI assistance.”  The Jedi turned away and resumed consulting a datapad.


Huh, so that was their attitude towards RI; John doubted RI would be eager to hear that, after all, they tended to think of themselves as above the Jedi.  Dang egomaniacal spooks, John thought.  Aloud, he said, “So, what makes this fire different than the last one, from the data we’ve seen so far this seems almost identical to the other fires and equally unexplained.”


The Jedi raised an eyebrow in surprise.


“FDS, they’re always eager to share their information,” John said in explanation, referencing Fobosi District Security, which incidentally did have a reputation for being overly cooperative with all Republic agencies higher up the food chain.  It probably had to do with housing the University’s administration and main campus—too many rich, powerful people worked or sent their children there, if the local security force didn’t cooperate, things could get politically ugly very, very quickly.


The Jedi gave a rueful chuckle.  “Well, FDS may love to chat, but what they don’t know is that there is evidence that the Force was used here—either in starting the fire or at some point in time close to the conflagration.”  He looked down condescendingly at John, stylus poised above the pad, “Don’t worry, we’ll include it in the report we send to your superiors.”


“Are you sure that the force wasn’t used at the other fires?  ‘Cause funny, but I don’t remember seeing any Jedi there investigating.”  John had swapped stories and posed as various security forces at enough of the fires and gone back through the records of the others to know that the Jedi were definitively not investigating them, which sickened him when he thought about the obvious Dark Side signatures he had detected at each and every site.  That was part of why John resented the Jedi so much, all their talk about keeping the galaxy safe, and they didn’t even seem to know about half the dark objects and Dark Side users wreaking havoc under their noses.


John’s words seem to have struck a chord, because Master Shran looked humbled for a moment before regaining his composure and stating more gently, “Someone caused a great disturbance in the force.  It was felt at the Jedi Temple and by many Jedi in other systems.  It is very alarming. and we are investigating, but please, we would like to keep that information confidential until we know more.”  The Jedi’s expression was serious and concerned, his posture had softened.  John might finally have an “in” with him.


“Don’t worry, RI isn’t in the business of sharing information; we collect it,” he added.


The Jedi responded with a curt nod.


“So, about that, do you mind sharing what you’ve found so far?  We only know what FDS has told us, and at all the other fires there have been fatalities.  RI has been trying to establish some sort of pattern, looking for connections among the victims, that sort of thing.”  The words came easily since they were essentially the truth.  So, John wasn’t working for RI, but RI was poking around, and he sure as hell wanted to figure out what was going on, especially since this Sith had set a trap for him and now his son…  John pushed down the fear, schooling his emotions so as not to trip the Jedi’s suspicions.


“Well, if you can follow proper protocol and don’t mind following me while I do some examinations, I will share what I am able,” Master Shran responded, holding his hand to the side and gesturing to the path that had now been cleared into the apartment proper. 


“Fair enough,” John replied.


John spent the next hour following Master Shran around while Master Shran filled him in.  Two fatalities.  One Jessica Moore, twenty-one years old, a student at the University of Coruscant, resident of the apartment, and Sam’s girlfriend, John thought sickly.  The other was suspected to be Samuel Winchester, twenty-two, legislative intern to a Senator from Dantooine, graduate of the University of Coruscant, the apartment’s other resident.  At least they haven’t confirmed that it’s Sam!  John let the information bolster the feeling of knowing Sammy wasn’t dead, and calmed himself.  The doubt still lingered though.


As for the apartment, almost everything was a melted, twisted, charred, bubbling mess.  The fire appeared to have started near the entry way, with the ceiling looking like it was the flashpoint for the conflagration.  John’s heart sunk.  Just like Mary… John was surprised to hear that there were two fatalities, everywhere else there had been one…  He assumed Jessica had burned on the ceiling, maybe Sam had tried to get her down, and he had gotten caught, burned… Not Sam.  John thought, trying to press the tears from his eyes.  Or it could have been Sam that burned and Jessica that wouldn’t leave.  He pondered, trying to reassure himself that they hadn’t identified the second victim—not that there was much to identify, just stray bits of DNA and the occasional charred bone fragment.  John had seen incidents like it, and worse a hundred times, but it never failed to turn his stomach.  The Dark Side was evil, pure and simple, and it seemed hell bent on tearing families apart and ruining lives.  Squeezing his eyes shut tight, John just hoped Sam’s hadn’t been one of them to lose his life.


Most of the wreckage in the apartment didn’t yield much information.  Sure, there was Dark Side energy everywhere—John was trying to surreptitiously scan with his self-designed DED (dark energy detector—he hadn’t come up with the name, that’s what all hunters called them), but he thought Master Shran might be able to sense it, so he kept the scanning to a minimum.  It was ok though, it didn’t take much to confirm the presence of Force energy.  The place was positively screaming with Dark Side energy—Light Side energy too, which was a surprise, definitely not something John had expected or seen at the other fires.  It didn’t do anything to ease his concern, just made him all the more sure that somehow this Sith thing had tricked him, tried to trap him, and seemed to be specifically interested in killing John’s family.


He carefully picked through the wreckage, trying to piece together what had happened.  Apparently, there was a witness of sorts, a friend of Sam’s who had been with him at a party the night before and then returned home, only to receive a strange holocall from Sam a few hours later telling him someone was there, something was wrong.  The kid had come out to meet Sam only to find the apartment had just gone up in flames.  The Jedi had interviewed and debriefed the kid, who was apparently very shaken up, but something didn’t quite sit right about the story to John.  He didn’t get the sense that the kid was responsible in any way, but it seemed almost too rehearsed.  They’d checked the kid’s message and the time stamp conveniently was timed right before when the fire was supposed to have started.  There was nothing wrong with that, and the Jedi definitely didn’t seem to suspect anything.  To John, it seemed like the kind of cover story he would come up with if he was trying to conceal something else.  He filed that information away and saved it for later—later, when he knew that Sammy was ok; later, when he better understood what was going on and could properly digest and analyze what it might mean.


Just over an hour into their search, two things happened that changed the course of the investigation, for John anyway.  Unfortunately, he got the feeling they changed the situation for the Jedi too, and not in a way that was going to help the Winchesters. 


John had made his way over to the wall of the apartment that had been completely destroyed.  Looking out at the other apartments in the building showed that it had once been a bank of floor-to-ceiling transparisteel windows.  Down towards one end of the room, the windows still partially existed in what looked like a melted blob partially exploded outwards.  But down towards the other end, the transparisteel was gone, but the durasteel window frame looked almost untouched, like it had been spared much of the heat.  Then John saw the panel of transparisteel that was lying on the charred floor, lying underneath the rubble of furniture and ceiling supports.  It was in one big rectangular piece, almost like the entire window had been removed, mechanically. 


John looked over.  The Jedi was taking a comlink call and was looking more irritable than ever.  John would have to be sure to find out what the call was about, but in the meantime, he was happy to use the Jedi’s distraction to get a better look at the window.  He crouched down in the charred debris, moving the unrecognizable pieces around, until he could get a better look at the transparisteel, shuddering when he noticed how warm the wreckage still was.  There!  Sure enough, along the edge was a super-sharp line, so sharp John almost cut his finger on it.  Checking over his shoulder to make sure the Jedi was still distracted, John reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a hand magnifier.  He turned it on, quietly, and dialed in the magnification.  Hah!  Sure enough, the edge bore the telltale striations of a rotary saw, the sort some droids—like Chevy were equipped with.  John checked as many of the edges of the windowpanel as he could without making too much noise.  They all bore the same striations.  The window had clearly been cut out and removed by someone, probably a droid.  Could his older son have been here?  Maybe he came to tell Sammy that John was missing?  Could he have gotten out, rescuing Sammy?  Even if Dean and Chevy were there, where did they go?  And what was that other body? 


John hastily rose, brushing soot from his hands and knees, and walked over to the open space where the window had been.  Someone had taken the time to put up some reflective plast-based tape in the opening, warning of danger, but aside from that, the space was just open.  He stepped to the edge.  There was a communal garden about a level down.  It would be a long drop for anyone save a Jedi, possibly fatal.  At the very least most sentient species would be badly inured.  A droid equipped with repulsors, like Chevy, could probably make the drop without injury, but unless the repulsors were modified (and Chevy’s were not) the added weight of an adult human would cause a crash landing.  For a split second John had the horrifying fleeting thought that maybe Chevy and Dean had been here and it was Dean that was dead, soot across the floor, and Sam had been taken by the Sith and only Chevy had escaped, but John realized that Chevy would never abandon her boy—and if both were in danger, she’d do everything within her power to save Sam too.  The kid had named her after all.


The Jedi had another loud, heated exchange with whomever was on the other end of the comlink, and John sensed the call would soon be coming to an end.  He didn’t want to draw the Jedi’s attention to what he found, if the Jedi figured out that another person or droid had been there they’d get suspicious and soon one or both of his sons could be in trouble.  So, he hurried to finish his investigation.  He looked down in the garden scanning for any sign that someone or ones had landed there or otherwise disturbed the garden.  He had almost given up when sure enough, there were some crushed looking bushes, a few flattened flowers, and a strip of scuffed grass, and not all together, but somewhat spread out over a smallish patch of ground in the middle of the garden.  Huh?  Calculating various possible scenarios for escape he again used the magnifier and scanned the surrounding area.  He found what he was looking for when the magnifiers picked up a slight magnetic distortion on the durasteel on the side of the walkway one level up and directly across from the window.  Dean’s grapple gun… he thought, but his musings were cut off when he heard the Jedi approaching.  Rather than try to hide the magnifiers, he covered, asking, “Were there any other witnesses, from the surrounding apartments,” he gestured to the walkway, “maybe pedestrians?”  John turned to face Master Shran.


The Jedi looked at John quizzically, but answered, “No, none we’ve found yet.  It looks like the fire started at about two hundred hours.”


“Eh, well it was worth a try,” John said feigning disappointment.  “Any signs of a break in, any strange visitors?”  John knew it was fishing, but those were the kinds of questions an RI agent would ask, and he knew that FDS hadn’t included any details in their reports so far.


“Well, the data on this unit is unsalvageable, but there was an energy surge that overloaded this level’s security system about two minutes before the fire began.  Nothing else unusual though…” the Jedi Master said hesitantly.


The overload was probably the Sith.  If Dean had been here and arrived before the Sith, he would have wiped any record of his presence from the building’s security system.  If he arrived after, well… if the system was completely overloaded he wouldn’t need to conceal his presence because there would be no system to detect it.  Still, there was more the Jedi wanted to say, and John needed to know.  “But…”


“I just received a call from one of our chief librarians,” Master Shran began, stepping closer to John and turning out to face the garden below, he kept his voice low so they would not be overheard.  “There was a disturbance at one of the University libraries early this morning.  Records of an artifact in their servers were accessed and copied.”  He paused as if uncertain of how much to trust John.


John was finding the conversation a little bit tangential, but judging by the Jedi Master’s apparent frustration on the comlink, John was certain this information was important, maybe even vital to unraveling what had happened, so he remained patient, put on his best “serious agent” face, and waited for Master Shran to continue.


“This artifact is under Jedi care and is very… sensitive.  We had placed several seals and tracers on the record that alerted us when it was accessed.  Someone entered the library using Miss Moore’s codes and then viewed and copied the files.  A Knight of the Order responded, but whomever accessed the records must have been tipped off to our presence because they eluded the security droids, fled the building, and left in a ship as our Knight was arriving.” 


John wracked his memory looking for something he was missing.  “Miss Moore was an archaeology student, wasn’t she?” he asked.


“Yes, she was, and she was part of the team that discovered this artifact.  However, the records were accessed at approximately three hundred thirty hours this morning,” Master Shran said significantly.


“After she was dead,” John supplied.


The Master nodded.


“Do you think the theft of these records had something to do with her death?” John ventured.


“It is possible,” Master Shran answered.  “Especially since our Sentinel caught a glimpse of the thief leaving the library.  The description matches that of the other resident of this apartment, Mister Winchester.  The individual was accompanied by a droid.  Our Sentinel did not get a good look at the make of the ship, but we will be carefully testing the bio residue to determine the identity of the second victim.  We believe Mr. Winchester might be responsible for this… tragedy.”


John was caught between joy that his son was probably still alive, and quite likely with his brother and Chevy, and fear that now the Jedi suspected him.  Plus, he could tell that there was something more—a lot more—that Master Shran knew, but wasn’t going to share.  John was just going to have to figure it out on his own, starting with finding out what the artifact was and how it was connected to this Sith presence, which he knew it must be.  Of course, it was just possible that Sam had tried to access some of his girlfriend’s research to have something to remember her by, but… John seriously doubted that.  His son might be estranged, but he doubted Sam would do something as risky or irrational as using his dead girlfriend’s access codes to enter a library archive an hour after she died with out a good reason, a really, really good reason.


“That’s a Shame,” John murmured.  “But at least that sounds like progress in the investigation.”  He checked his chrono.  An hour and a half had passed, which meant he had about an hour and a half, two hours tops, remaining before he had to be out of the system.  He needed to go now.  John held out his hand to shake Master Shran’s.  “Pardon me, Master, but I need to report this information to my superiors and cross reference it with the information we have already gathered.  Someone else from RI will probably be in touch with you shortly.”


“We’ll keep you informed,” Master Shran said cagily, but at least shaking John’s hand.


With a slight nod, John turned and began picking his way out of the remnants of his son’s apartment.


Chapter Fifteen


John was halfway back to the Folly’s berth when the comlink-equipped datapad he kept in his tunic pocket began vibrating.  He pulled it out and found it flashing a priority holomessage that had been routed to the Folly’s comm.  Not wanting to take a priority message in public, and desperately hoping for word from his sons, John doubled his speed, jogging down moving walkways and darting around strolling families, going as quickly as he could without arousing suspicion.  He breezed through port security, grateful to have avoided any unwanted surprises, and had the Folly’s boarding ramp lowered and raised again in record time.


By the time John had decrypted and displayed the holomessage, the Folly was already running through her preflight sequences, and her computer was negotiating with docking control.


The holo sprung to life, and John found Dean’s face filling the image, behind him the familiar setting of the Dream’s galley.  The holorecorder clearly poised in front of him on the table.  He noticed that Dean’s face looked pink, burned he thought, but not badly, and his forehead was furrowed with the telltale lines of pain.


“Dad,” Dean’s voice began, shaky, his eyes clearly tearing up. 


For a moment John feared the worst, Dean almost never cried, but his fears were soon allayed as Dean continued.


“I’m ok, Sammy’s ok, but you need to know what happened.  I don’t know where you are, or what you’re doing, but I hope that you’re ok.  Please let us know,” Dean’s tearful face continued.


John’s heart ached.  His son sounded like a frightened child, his voice lost and overwhelmed in a way John hadn’t heard in at least fifteen years.  He hated to think that he had helped put that fear there.  John had only wanted to keep his son safe away from whatever it was that was burning families.  Of course, in doing so, he had left both his children woefully unprepared and unknowing and alone while this thing hunted them.  They have each other, he tried to reassure himself, but it did little to ease the ache in his chest.


“Dad, I think you might be hunting this Sith,” Dean continued, doing his best to clear his eyes without touching them much. 


John noticed bandages and the glossy look of Bactane on Dean’s hands—more burns.  He cringed with sympathy. 


“Bobby sent me the message he forwarded to you, and Chevy and I showed it to Sam.”  A wave of emotion washed over Dean’s face surging from hurt to angry to grieving to shocked to lost and back to determined before he continued.  “You may have heard this by now, Dad, but the Sith, it came after Sammy.”  Dean lowered his voice and leaned closer to the holocam so that only his face was visible.  “It got into his apartment—through runes Dad.  Nothing should have been able to get through that, but they just shorted out I guess, and then it came and it… it was in someone… possessing them, using them, and it killed…”  His voice cracked, and tears returned to his eyes.  “It killed Jessica, Sammy’s girlfriend.  Pinned her to the ceiling and made her bleed, then burned the entire apartment before burning her.  It was just like—”  His voice broke off, and Dean leaned back, wiping more frantically at his eyes.


“It was just like Mom…”  He sniffed.  “I’m sorry I’m crying Dad, it was just—  And Sammy, it couldn’t touch him, or it didn’t want to.  He, he stopped it somehow.  Stopped it from burning me and Chevy and his friend Ven.”


Ahh, that must be why the friend’s story sounded so… scripted, John realized.


In the holo, Dean continued speaking.  “Dad, Sammy… I think he used the Force.  I don’t know how, but he did.  He swirled the fire up and directed it at the Sith.  The body the Sith was in… Died… but the Sith got away.  I know it.  And then Sammy collapsed.”  Dean paused looking shaken.  He shifted in front of the holocam, pain crossing his face as he moved.  “Please Dad.  You’ve got to talk to us.  Let us know you’re all right.  Sammy’s feeling the Force, and I don’t know what the hell, and this Sith thing is after us.”  Dean looked pleadingly at the holocam for another moment before he schooled his features, like he was trying to “get down to business” or “power through” what ever he had to say.  “There’s more.”


More? John wondered, already feeling shaken by Dean’s revelations.  Sam touching the Force… that was a new twist and added another layer of fear to the situation.  That must have been the light side energy back at the apartment, he realized.


“Dad, Jessica, Sam’s girlfriend,” Dean said nodding, “she was an archaeology student, and she found something.  Sam remembered it after the fire—that it was some kind of artifact about a prophecy… some… record.  He got the feeling it was important, so we had to go into the archives at the library to get to a terminal to access it,” Dean added hurriedly, his face growing brighter still as if he was blushing with embarrassment at having pulled so risky a stunt after essentially fleeing a crime scene.


John blushed back, that was just so like Dean.  He was proud of Dean though, proud of both of them.  From the anxiety in Master Shran’s demeanor, they had stumbled on something big and important that the Jedi didn’t want them to know.


“We got the records, and copied them, but not without tripping some Jedi security protocol.  Sam dodged the droids, but we think a Jedi might have gotten a glimpse of him when he was escaping.  Don’t think they saw the ship enough to ID her though.  So, he’s probably going to be a suspect,” Dean sighed, running a bandaged hand through his short hair. “I was really trying to avoid that.  Anyway, the records deal with some kind of Sith prophecy.  It sounds like it’s related to this Sith thing that’s been starting the fires and came after Sam.  It’s incomplete though.  Sam told me that they weren’t done with the excavation, and that the dig site is somewhere near the Maranai mountains.  I’m sending you an encrypted copy of everything we got.  It’s embedded in this message; I trust the Folly can help you extract it.”


“Good boy,” John said with genuine appreciation at his son’s ingenuity and foresight. 


“Anyway, I hope this helps.”  Dean paused, his resolve cracking, and the hurt little boy from earlier coming out again. “Sammy’s shaken up, but he’s ok.  I’m gonna make sure he sleeps now, but I’m worried he’ll have nightmares—like when he was little.  I don’t want to have to sedate him.”


John paled at the image of his younger son shaking with fear and ached for him to be ok, to not have to suffer this loss and grief.


“We’re heading to Bobby’s.  So far, we’re not being followed, but I don’t think it’s going to hold out.  I’ve got a feeling either the Sith or the Jedi are going to be coming after us.  We’re hoping Bobby can help us with the records, see if we can uncover anything about this prophecy that might help us.  I’ll send you another encoded message when we’re there, just please Dad, I’m begging you.  Even if you won’t talk to me, just let us know you’re OK.” 


The pleading look in Dean’s eyes said “was it something I did?” and John felt like bantha fodder for whatever he had done that would lead Dean to think that John was staying away because he was disappointed in his son.  Far from it.  Right now he couldn’t be prouder.


“I’ve gotta go.  Get some rest,” Dean said, the exhaustion in his voice pouring through for the first time.  “Talk to you soon, Dad.  Take care.  Bye.”  In the holo, Dean’s image leaned forward and then cut out as he switched off the holocam.


John just sat, absorbing what he’d learned, trying to take it all in.  He felt alternatingly encouraged and enraged, grieving and proud, but most of all he was just relieved that his sons were both alive, and more or less ok.


Finally, the Folly’s computer chimed, drawing John out of his contemplation.  The Folly had managed to get them cleared for departure, and it needed John to tell it where to go.  He looked at the chrono.  One hour.  He had one hour before he needed to hightail it from the system or risk getting caught for impersonating an RI agent—not something he wanted to chance.  “OK then,” he said aloud as he punched in the flight sequence and opened a comm channel with the Coruscant transit authority.  “Let’s see what we can dig up on this mystery prophecy in the next hour.”



Chapter Sixteen


He looked out at his prey through the eyes of his host.  Their ship looked so small and fragile in the dark expanse of space.  He didn’t want to kill them, at least not the Chosen One, he just wanted to scare them, delay them.  They were getting far too meddlesome, and he had very, very important work to do—work that couldn’t be rushed.  There was a time for every thing, and right now was not the Chosen One’s time to come to him.


So, it was with some regret that he had forced himself into the terrified fighter pilot and forced him to follow the Iriaz Dream to the Tatoo system.  He knew the Chosen One would be injured—but if he had his way, not badly.  And he didn’t much care what happened to the other one; killing him would be very nice indeed.  It would have to happen eventually; now would be a bonus, but if he couldn’t pull it off, later would work fine too.  Just as long as he disabled their ship.  He had anticipated this to be a simple battle—quickly disable the Dream and move on, but the Chosen One was proving to be very surprising; very surprising and most impressive.


He tapped into his host’s knowledge and used the fighter’s weapons to shoot again at the glistening, black ship.


“Ah hah!” There went her sensor array!  They would have to set down for repairs now.  The Chosen One’s ship had armed her weapons and the blaster turrets had all swiveled to track his ship.  He reached out with the Force to bend the bolts away, sending two astray, and bouncing two more harmlessly off the ship’s shields, directed away from sensitive spots where they could do damage.  He fired back at the ship, hitting her shield generator and causing it to light up with a small explosion that snuffed as soon as the oxygen around it was consumed.  He could see icy ribbons of coolant flooding out into space.  He was almost, almost at his victory.  Just one more hit, and he could force them down. 


The host flinched and strained against him, trying to assert himself.  Azazel pushed his will through, clamping down on the host, not caring if he caused permanent damage or not.  He certainly didn’t need the host’s soul alive in its body to control it, and he had no intention of sticking with this host any longer than necessary—it was not a good match; chosen solely for its knowledge of and access to this fighter.


Darth Azazel could sense the host’s terror and pain—it was already anguished over abandoning its unit and firing on an “innocent” vessel.  Azazel let it know his full intentions, let the quivering, pathetic excuse for a sentient being see a glimpse of the destruction he would bring.  Let it feel his hatred, his glee at tearing innocent souls from their bodies while inflicting the maximum amount of pain.  Let it see the true purpose of the Chosen One.


The host’s mind cried out in anguish and he collapsed, releasing control of his body.  Lord Azazel felt a surge of sheer, unadulterated glee as he took control and lashed out with the full weapons capabilities of the ship and struck the Dream


The joined turboblaster bolts punched through the unshielded hull, vaporizing the durasteel into a cloud of metallic vapor that quickly cooled and congealed into a metallic blob free-floating in space.  Gasses and debris exited the hole explosively until the glow of an emergency forcefield flashed into place.  Wonderful, wonderful!! He delighted at the result. 


Growing bored with the capabilities of the weapons, he needed to make absolutely sure that the ship would not follow him (though unshielded and damaged, he realized he did not know where its hyperdrive motivator was, nor how to take it out).  Azazel used the Force to push the ship, flipping her end over end and tossing her into a spin.  When he let go, the ship was disoriented and quickly approaching the desert planet’s atmosphere.


Lord Azazel was not afraid, though, as he sensed the flicker of awareness onboard the Dream.  She was wounded and would take time to repair, but the Chosen One was still alert, aware, and would make sure to land safely.


Satisfied with his work, Lord Azazel released his control on the host, amused when the fool actually tried to make a decision.  The host’s mind was broken, disconnected, and afraid.  Vital pathways damaged or destroyed, his thoughts a jumble.  With a leering laugh, the Sith lord pushed and nudged the host to go back to the hyperdrive ring and take them to Onderon.  Onderon, and then Naboo.  He had one last, little detail to tie up and then he could begin the next step of his plan.  Once he reached his next destination, he could abandon this broken host for a better one.



Chapter Seventeen


Dean was sleeping, really sleeping, almost relaxed for the first time in weeks.  At first, he thought it was the hyperspace proximity alarm going off—Dean had it set to wake him a quarter standard hour before they reverted to realspace.  But then, he realized that it was a voice, saying his name over and over again. Something warm and soft and human was shaking him.  Sammy…


“Dean, Dean, wakeup,” Sammy said again, shaking Dean’s shoulder.


Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and rolled back on the bunk so he was on his back looking up at Sam, eyes blinking and filled with sleep grit.  As he wiped the grit from his eyes, Sam spoke again.


“I think there’s something wrong; I had a dream a … I think we’re being followed.”  Sam’s eyes were wide and desperate, his voice hollow and scared like Dean hadn’t heard since they were children.


“It’s just a dream, Sammy,” Dean tried, pulling himself into a seated position, tucking his uninjured ankle under himself.


“No, Dean, it’s not,” Sam replied, sounding terrified.


Dean could see tears forming in his brother’s eyes.  Sam’s hands were clasping and unclasping over and over again, wringing with uncertainty.


“What do you mean, Sammy?”  Dean asked, nervous.  He knew his brother wasn’t too fond of the old nickname, but it seemed to soothe and comfort them both, so Dean stuck with it.


Sam seemed to deflate, crashing to the bunk next to Dean as his legs gave out from under him.  He landed next to Dean, facing him, though luckily avoiding sitting on Dean’s barely healing ankle.  “I dreamt about Jess’s death, about her burning on the ceiling, about the man with yellow eyes—days before it happened.”  Sam’s voice was deadly serious and filled with what Dean gathered to be guilt, overwhelming guilt at what had happened.  “I dreamt about it for nights on end, and I did nothing, kept telling myself it was just a dream, a nightmare.”


Dean cut him off, not able to bear seeing his brother beat himself up so much for something he couldn’t possibly have controlled.  “You didn’t know, you couldn’t possibly have known, Sam,” Dean pleaded, gripping Sam around the shoulders and holding his gaze.  “You didn’t know about using the Force, and if you’d known it was really going to happen, what could you possibly have done?” Dean asked.


“Maybe a lot, maybe nothing,” Sam admitted, looking down t his hands.  “But the point is, I do know now, and I can’t ignore this vision.”


“Vision?” Dean asked, trying to get up.


Sam scooted back to give Dean room, again, very careful of Dean’s injured ankle.  “I think the dreams are like, Force visions or something,” Sam explained.  “But whatever they are, I know this is going to happen, and we can do something about it—”


“What did you see?” Dean asked, pulling himself to his feet.  He wanted to comfort Sam, to tell him it would all be ok, but he believed his brother, trusted him, and felt like the best way he could help would be to do what Sammy asked even though that meant affirming the danger and not soothing it away.


Sam shifted his shoulder under Dean’s, stooping to help Dean keep his weight off the broken ankle.  “When we get out of hyperspace, above Tatooine, the Sith is waiting.  It’s following us right now.  It’s in some sort of fighter ship, the kind with a hyperdrive ring, and it’s going to shoot at us as soon as we get into realspace.”


“How much time do we have?” Dean asked wearily, leaning his head and hand against the doorway between the bedroom and the kitchen clinic.


Just then the audible repeating chime of the ship’s chrono repeating they were due to emerge from hyperspace in fifteen minutes sounded. 


“Not much,” Sam said grimly.


They continued to walk to the bridge in near silence, Dean thinking over what Sam had told him, really wishing his brain didn’t still feel so muzzy from sleep and the aftereffects of the painkillers he’d taken.  As he lowered himself into the pilot’s chair, he asked, “What happens during the attack, Sam?”


Chevy trilled a concerned tone from her position next to the co-pilot’s seat.


“Sammy had a vision that we’re going to be attacked, ambushed,” he explained.


The little droid stilled, swiveling her dome to face Sammy, and waiting patiently for his explanation.


“He, the Sith, is going to near-wreck the Dream, Dean,” Sam said, pained.  “I think he wants to delay us, delay me from doing something.  He wants, he…” Sam’s voice trailed off.


“He wants you dead, Dean,” Sam sniffed.  His eyes were now moist with unshed tears that he swatted at and tried to rub away with the backs of his hands. “I saw you die, where you’re sitting now; the ship was hit so hard part of the overhead console fell and crushed you!”


Dean swallowed hard, but otherwise showed no sign of outward emotion.  He’d sensed it back at Sam’s apartment.  The Sith did want him dead.  More disconcerting though, it seemed to just want Sam.  Dean shuddered at the thought.  He hated thinking his brother had dreamt—had a vision, whatever—of his death, but that paled in comparison to his fears.  What would a Sith want with his brother?


“What about Chevy?” Dean asked, with a fake chuckle, trying to lift the mood.


Chevy whined in agreement, clearly wanting to know the answer.


“I don’t know, didn’t really see Chevy; I think she was ok, but I get the idea the Sith isn’t really interested in her,” Sam said, scrunching up his face in concentration.  “But he wants you dead; he’s gonna kill you; you’re, you’re…”


“Sam, Sammy, look,” Dean said, sliding forward off the edge of his seat and going to his knees in front of Sam, earning a painful jot in his ankle for his efforts.  He reached up to put his hands on Sam’s shoulders, steadying him.  “Sam, I’m still here.  That hasn’t happened yet.  Come on, maybe we can change what’s going to happen; isn’t that why you told me this?”


“I don’t know,” Sam cried, voice broken; his confidence and urgency from earlier gone.  “I don’t know how any of this works!”  He threw up his hands in frustration and dropped them when Chevy and everything else that wasn’t tied down started to rattle.


“Let’s just start at the beginning,” Dean suggested.  He glanced at the ship’s chrono.  “We’ve still got seven minutes until we hit realspace.”


Sam looked down t Dean uncertainly.


“Come on,” Dean prodded, cautiously levering himself back into his seat.


Sam blinked, furrowing his brow and then turned to face the console, punching in the controls to bring up the holomap of the Tatoo system.  “Ok, this is where we’re supposed to come out of hyperspace, right?” Sam said, gesturing at the approximate point in the system where the Dream should revert to realspace.


“Yeah,” Dean nodded.  “We’re coming in on this line of approach,” he added, outlining their trajectory with his finger.


“Ok,” Sam said, nodding.  “Well in the vision, the ship emerged from hyperspace right behind us and fired before we could get our shields up.  It damaged the hyperdrive and took out the shield generator before we could raise our shields.  We tried evasive maneuvers, but the Sith damaged the sensor array and the ship wasn’t responding fast enough because of all the damage, and before we could get into atmo, the fighter took out the port turboblaster and that’s when…”  Sam’s voice faltered and he dropped his hand from the holo image, looking mournfully at Dean.


“That’s when I get crushed to death?” Dean supplied.


Sam nodded tearfully.


Dean took a minute to take in and process the information Sam had given him.  His heart ached at the idea of his brother being forced to witness his death—at the revelation that Sam had endured dreams of Jess’s death.  Dean shut his eyes and forced the images ack.  He was still half asleep, pain meds still circulating through his system.  It hadn’t really gotten any better since he’d sat down on the bridge, and he could really go for a cup of caf, but with only—five—minutes to figure out a way to save their—his—necks, he knew he didn’t have the time.  “Ok,” did you see anything else?” Dean asked.


Sam looked up, searching his brain for any elusive details.  “Um, the ship was a fighter, one of the small ones with the detachable hyperdrive ring.  It was already de-docked when it attacked us, and the ring was over… here,” he recalled, pointing at the spot on the holoprojection.  “Oh, and I think I remember floating—the hit that uh,” he nodded at Dean, “also knocked out the grav generators.


“Ok,” Dean said, taking in the new information and looking at the relevant points on the holo.  “good news and bad news, we’re flying into Tatooine, which means super-lax flight control, no customs to speak of…”


“We’re not that likely to attract any unwanted attention if we get into a dogfight or take a nonstandard approach, but we’re won’t get any help, either,” Sam concluded.


Dean squinted at the holo for a few more seconds.  “What if we came out of hyperspace four seconds later?” he asked, tracing the trajectory with his fingers.


“It would be close,” Sam admitted with a pained shrug, the bruising across his chest still obviously hurting him.  “We’d be really close to the planet.”


“But we should have enough time to get our shields up and get the aft turbolasers charged and aimed before the Sith can get a shot off.  Plus, our trajectory will be readjusted so we’ll line up perfectly with the suns’ worst glare, so he should lose us for a few seconds,” Dean said, smiling.  His encouragement, however, was short-lived.  Oh crap! a thought occurred to Dean, and he felt his smile falter.  “Can this Sith like track us in the force?  I mean will he know in advance that we’ve changed course?” Dean asked worriedly.


“I have no idea,” said Sam, frowning.  “Dean, I really don’t know how this works—”


“Don’t worry about it,” Dean interjected before Sam could get any more worked up.  He put his hand out to still Sam.  “We’re doing it differently; it’s not what you saw, so this may be our best chance.”


Sam still looked uncertain, and Dean would give anything to wipe that overwhelmed look from his brother’s face.  “Come on, we’re good at evading capture, or at least I am, maybe you’re too out of practice?” Dean goaded.


Sam’s face scrunched up in a half-smile.  “In your dreams,” he shot back.


That’s more like it, Dean thought, mentally preparing himself for what they had to do next.  He was worried, very, very worried, but struggling not to let I show.  He had to keep Sam moving, had to keep him positive and not drifting in that dark pit of despair he saw every time Sam thought about Jess or the Sith.  He could do this.  Their lives were in danger all the time, this was just like any other hunt (except it wasn’t).


“Sam, go double-check the aft turbolasers; make sure there are no kinks or surprises in the remote firing hookup,” Dean ordered without any heat.


Sam nodded and stood quickly making his way to the rear of the ship.


“Chevy, can you take the hyperdrive off auto and let me pull us out manually?” Dean asked the droid, his tone gentle.  He knew she had been listening to their conversation and was worried.


Chevy responded with a blurt-tweet that clearly expressed her annoyance with being asked to do something she should have understood from the conversation.


“Just asking nicely,” Dean said sheepishly, smiling fondly at the droid.  “Oh, and strap yourself in,” he said as he swiveled his seat back to face the main bridge console.  “Just in case we do lose gravity.”


Chevy’s whine could have been affectionate, but Dean didn’t have time to analyze it.


“Turbolasers are armed and ready to fire.  Remote firing connection is good,” Sam shouted ahead as he jogged back onto the bridge, taking his seat in the co-pilot’s chair and strapping himself in.


Dean didn’t know where Sam was getting the energy from—maybe pure adrenaline—but he was grateful for it.


“Trigger control transferred to bridge; ready to fire,” Sam added.


“Good!” Dean said as he strapped himself in.  “I’ve got the hyperdrive controls on manual, and I’m readying shields now.”  He glanced at Sam, catching his eye and giving a reassuring smile.  “We can do this, Sammy.”


“Ok,” Sam said.  “I’m training the sensor array on the approach vector the Sith should be on given our adjusted heading.”  Sam paused and turned to Dean.  “Assuming he doesn’t know we’ve adjusted our heading, that is.”


Dean nodded again, but his attention was quickly stolen by the blaring alarm that signified their approach of the Tatoo system.  Watching the chrono carefully, Dean counted out four and exactly four seconds past their prescheduled exit point and pulled back on the hyperdrive lever, watching the blue of hyperspace resolve to starlines and then stars.


Dean brought the shields up immediately and not a moment too soon.  He saw blaster bolts playing just wide of the transperisteel viewport as he brought them about so that they could land on Tatooine and not fly into its twin suns


“I got him!” Sam called out.  “He’s right where I saw he would be,” he added, turning his head to Dean, voice incredulous.


“That’s great!  Try to keep him busy while I try to get us out of here!” Dean replied, flipping the Dream into a corkscrew.  “Chevy, put a call in to Bobby.  Let him know we’re gonna be landing at his yard and we may have damage.”


“Shit!” Sam exclaimed, dismayed.  “Make that definitely going to have damage.”


Dean raised an eyebrow and cocked his head in Sam’s direction all while pouring on as much speed as possible.


“I just got a read on what he’s flying,” Sam said in explanation.


“And?” Dean demanded.


“And it’s a brand new Jedi Fighter—one of the ones the Support Corps Navy is using.  The Dream’s fast and has good shields.  You’re a great pilot, and I’m a good shot, but that thing’s being flown by a Sith and it’s designed to disable and intercept Hutt smuggling frigates.  It’s got top-of-the-line Czerka Arms quad turboblasters!”  Sam’s voice was both awed and shaky.


“Ok, ok, I get the point, we’re Bantha Fodder if we don’t land this thing—Crap.  How do we know that he won’t follow us down?” Dean wondered aloud, his voice and mood sinking with the realization as he juked and rolled the Dream to try to avoid any shots from the fighter’s super-charged weapons.


“I don’t,” Sam admitted, voice tight with concentration as he squeezed off shot after shot at the agile fighter.  “But I told you, it felt like he wanted to disable the Dream—do something to slow us down so we can’t follow him.  Shit!” Sam broke off as Dean felt the ship rock hard with the impact of a blaster hit.  “Sithspit! He’s targeting our sensor array,” Sam panted out, punching at the controls.


Dean knew he was probably trying to shift shield power to compensate for the hit and to add extra protection to that sector of the Dream.  Dean did his bit to help by twisting the Dream into a looping barrel roll that should give Sam a better shot at the fighter’s weak spot—if the rumors he’d heard about these new fighters were correct, then the ship should have weak spots in its shields on its underbelly on either side where the fighter docked with it’s hyperdrive ring. 


“Like I was saying,” Sam continued, “I don’t think he’s trying to kill us—or, uh, kill me.”  Sam was straining against the momentary disorientation caused by viewing the looming planet tumbling outside their viewport.


Dean heard Sam squeeze off a few more shots as they streaked under the pursuing ship and set up to approach Tatooine from a slightly different angle.  Dean saw their turbolasers hit close to the rumored weak spot, making colorful flashes against the shields, a few more missing just wide.  Dean noticed the bolts’ distort slightly and the fighter dart even more slightly, almost imperceptibly, as the shot hit…  He couldn’t help thinking that Sam’s shots would have been successful if not for the Sith using the Force to avoid them.


“Then what’s this about?” Dean asked, returning his focus to getting the Dream out of there as quickly as possible.  He transferred as much power as he dared to the engines and gunned it towards Tatooine’s atmo.  “Is he just trying to kill me?” he added, not waiting for Sam’s response as a sick feeling twisted in his gut.


“I don’t know if he’s trying to kill you, or if he just doesn’t care if you live or die,” Sam answered frustratedly.  “I didn’t read his mind, Dean, I just know that in the vision there was this incredible sense of concern about stopping us.  Slowing us down so we couldn’t follow him.”  Sam squeezed off more shots, doing his best to track the fast-juking fighter.


Dean’s stomach twisted further.  “So, he’s probably going to go do something really bad or important,” he said grimly.  Like set another house or family on fire or worse!


“It certainly seems that way,” Sam gritted out as a particularly strong blast rocked the ship slamming them forward against their restraints.


Chevy gave an annoyed bleep in response and followed by scrolling a message across the bridge consoles.  “Bobby acknowledged our message.  Says shipyard is ready for Dream.  Asks if ‘Winchesters are involved in the space battle that’s entertaining Hutt traffic controllers?’”


Dean chuckled in spite the direness of their situation.  That sure sounded like Bobby, always keeping an eye and an ear open to what the local Hutt crime lords were doing and saying.  That and having impeccably awkward timing.


“Tell Bobby ‘thanks’ and ‘yes,’” Dean instructed Chevy as his attention was diverted yet again by the ship rocking even harder.  The console almost stuttered and died, and lights and alarms all over the Dream started flashing and blaring.


“That was the sensor array,” Sam added grimly over the din.  “He punched through.  I don’t know how he’s, shit—”


Dean saw the problem just as Sam did, twisting the Dream into an evasive roll, but not fast enough.  Blaster fire from the fighter clipped the shield generator and damaged it, causing all the shields to blink out and fail.  Oh, this was not good; really, really not good!  Dean frantically scrambled to transfer power from every system he could conceivably spare (not that there were many he hadn’t already tapped into)—including power that had been going into the shields, at least the power that hadn’t been lost when the shield generator was hit and overloaded—and pour it into the engines, sending them racing towards Tatooine far faster than was advisable.


“Hang onto something!” Sam cried out suddenly.


Dean didn’t have time to ask what had caused Sam’s remark.  The reason was immediately obvious. A blaster bolt from the fighter hit the now-unshielded Dream and punched through the hull causing a breach and damaging the grav generator in the process.  Dean found himself launched against his restraints fighting the overwhelming nausea that always accompanied weightlessness for him.  At the same time, he heard the hiss and felt a breeze created by the decompression.  Dean numbly realized that his left shoulder was throbbing, and heard more cursing coming from Sam.  He carefully turned his head, trying to avoid the even less pleasant experience of vomiting in zero-g.


“Emergency force field is in place!” Sam announced victoriously at the same time the hiss and breeze stopped.


Well, at least that was still working.


“Something’s wrong,” Sam said alarmed, his hands stilling on the controls.  “He’s not firing,” Sam added turning to Dean, his expression wide-eyed and scared.


Dean was about to remark that maybe they were damaged enough to meet whatever sick purpose the Sith had in mind, when his thoughts were abruptly cut off.  Something slammed into the starboard side of the Dream with so much force it overwhelmed the inertial compensators and sent Dean slamming hard against his restraints, even with the lack of gravity.  Then it was like something was holding the ship and then shaking it before giving it a sickening push and spinning it end over end. 


Dean heard Sam gasp with what sounded like pain and heard objects collide hard.  Chevy made a terrible squealing sound, but Dean couldn’t look over to see why because he was transfixed by the all-too-large image of Tatooine looming in the viewport and then disappearing again as they tumbled towards its atmo.  Dean lost his battle against the nausea and found himself vomiting unceasingly into the weightless environment.  Finally, he stopped, but it still felt like his stomach was going to turn itself inside out.  Then something slammed into the back of his head, and the blackness consumed him.


Chapter Eighteen


When the Sith slammed into the Dream with the Force, Sam wondered why he hadn’t seen that coming—or rather why he had taken so long to process the feeling of acute danger that had come over him the moment their hull was breached and the Sith didn’t immediately fire again. It all made sense now.  Sam’s musings were abruptly cut off as the full force of the Sith’s actions caught up with the Dream.  Sam was thrown so hard into his restraints he felt the harness on his chest cut in, tearing fabric and flesh, biting with fire-hot pain into his badly bruised torso.  He felt himself cry out with the pain, only to have one of the bolts holding the restraints tear free, sending him forehead-first into the console.  He was dazed, but conscious, knowing immediately he was also concussed.  Stars still bursting before his eyes, his vision blurry at best, he reached up and felt blood and broken skin over his right eyebrow where it had collided with one of the sliders on the console.


All the while, the ship still tumbled and lurched and twisted.  The Sith must have struck the ship where he sat, intentionally causing a painful (and momentarily disabling) injury, but not one that would kill him or threaten his life, in order to teach Sam a lesson. 


He wondered why the restraint had torn free, Dean was usually so god about maintaining the Dream that it seemed strange, only then Sam realized that Dean likely hadn’t had any reason to use or test the co-pilot’s seat in years.  Sam felt sick inside, and it was only partly from the concussion.  He heard Chevy squeal, but couldn’t look over right away, because he was distracted by the sudden smell of sickness.  He wondered for a moment if he could have puked without knowing it, only to realize that hey, look at that, he was floating.  Right, the grav generator was out, and the ship was tumbling, and the vomit over there hanging in midair was Dean’s space-sickness rearing its ugly head. 


Sam then felt with it enough to spare a glance at Chevy, determining she was all right.  A loose datapad had slammed into the emergency release for her restraints, nearly sending her flying.  But she had managed to use her utility arm to grab onto the console while she magnetized her treads, leaving her more or less stable; although, he noted, she was still gripping the console, probably to avoid sliding across the deck if the Dream was hit again.


Sam looked back at Dean to see how he was doing, alarmed by his brother’s quietness.  He gasped and icy dread gripped his insides when he saw Dean hanging limply in his restraints, a trail of blood floating behind his head and a free-floating hydrospanner drifting away from what was obviously the point of impact.


For a moment, Sam was lost in the images of his vision, Dean crushed dead beneath the console, but then he sensed that Dean was live, ok even, just knocked unconscious, and not badly so.  Sam looked up and checked the overhead console, relieved to see that it was firmly intact, undamaged, and showing no signs of going anywhere.  He could see Dean’s chest rising and falling and was relieved to notice that the bleeding showed signs of stopping all on its own. 


He felt something, like the sudden absence of a presence at the edge of his mind, and realized the Sith ship had left the system.  He was sure if he could get a visual or get the Dream’s backup, short-range sensors online (those not affected by the loss of the sensor array), he would find that the Sith had rejoined with his hyperdrive ring and left the system, leaving those telltale hyperspace distortions in his wake. 


But right now, Sam was in too much pain to check—his head and chest throbbing, blood soaking his shirt, his breathing getting tight, the image of Tatooine filling the viewport every time the Dream tumbled its way, an orange glow tinting the viewport’s edges more and more with every tumble.


Sam felt his eyes open wide in alarm, the warning of the Force shooting through him like a bolt of lightning, pushing everything else from his mind, and filling him with a sense of urgency and action.  Out of control.  Crashing.  Atmo. No grav.  No shields.  The concepts flitted through Sam’s mind, instilling him with an intuitive sense of what needed to be done.


“Chevy,” Sam called out, alarmed at how hard it was to speak and at how weak his voice sounded.  Punctured lung, his brain supplied, recognizing the symptoms and effects of the injury from past experience.  He would need to treat himself soon, but first he had to get them safely landed at Bobby’s without any further injury to the Dream or him or Dean (or any harm to Chevy).  Taking a carefully measured breath, he continued.  “Get the backup sensors online and get a read on the Sith’s trajectory and probable destination.  Then get a hold of Bobby again and tell him we’re coming in hot and wounded. Shields, grav, and long-range sensors out.”


Chevy trilled an affirmative followed by a mournful sound.


Sam recognized it for concern that she wasn’t strapped in.  Reaching out, trying to ignore the horrible grating of bone on bone in his chest, he meant to grab her and try to pull her back the twenty-five or so centimeters she needed to move to reengage her restraints. But Sam found himself stopped, held back by his restraint harness which was still hooked around him, and still firmly attached to his chair on the left side.  Still, much to Sam’s surprise, Chevy moved!  She was sliding back to the spot where she could hook into her restraints. 


Sam looked down at his hand, then at Chevy, then at his hand and the gap between them.  Oh! he realized.  Apparently, his newfound Force sensitivity came with some instinctive use of telekinesis.  It then dawned on him that he had been using the Force to sense that Dean was ok and that the Sith had left.  He wondered, as he took an even more difficult and shallow breath, if he could also use the Force to heal himself, only to realize that he didn’t want to risk it. 


He knew healing was a particularly specialized area of Jedi training.  Sam didn’t want to try using himself as a guinea pig, especially not when everyone was depending on him to land safely. 


He let out as much breath as he could as Chevy clicked into place and released her death grip on the console.


She made a series of bleeps that he understood to mean she was thankful and doing as he asked, but still rather alarmed by how she had wound up back in her restraints and at the still-uncontrolled, tumbling descent of the Dream.


“I’m working on it,” Sam managed to choke out, pushing off against the seat and swinging himself forward while gripping the restraints with his left hand to ensure the part that was still attached to his seat would stay attached to him.  He could feel the webbing bighting and shifting against his wounded skin, but pushed the pain to the back of his mind and ignored it so that he could focus on the task at hand. 


A quick systems check showed that the inertial compensators and repulsors were still functioning at near 100% capacity—meaning that the Sith’s Force toss of the Dream had only temporarily overpowered the stabilizers.  Sam sighed with relief because landing with either or both malfunctioning or out would mean near certain death, especially with the shields also out.


Sam flipped through the controls with his right hand, double-checking the shields.  Sure enough, the Dream’s computer was reporting that the generator itself had been damaged, the circuits on the generator were pretty much fused and melted, if the Dream’s self-diagnostic was to be trusted (and it was), so there would be no way for Sam to bring even the auxiliary shields online.  He cursed under his breath and moved on.


The grav generator wasn’t too badly damaged, surprisingly.  It looked like the majority of the damage was caused by a peripheral graze.  The generator itself could probably be easily repaired with a few swapped-out circuits when (if) they ever made it to Bobby’s.  The breach had happened in the mercifully systems-free patch of hull adjacent to the grav generator.  Still, there would be no way to get the grav field back online without doing repairs to the generator, repairs which Sam definitely couldn’t accomplish with a punctured lung, no shields, and the Dream hurtling ever-closer to the planet’s surface.


Back to the landing.  Landing without shields was totally possible, but less than ideal with a ship the Dream’s size.  Without the shields to protect her from atmospheric friction, the hull would superheat.  Durasteel and transparisteel could usually withstand several such unshielded reentries without incident, but it was still risky. 


What worried Sam the most was the hull breach.  Small though it was, the emergency force field might not be enough to withstand the head and friction, and if it failed, the ship could depressurize or catch on fire.  Especially catch on fire, and worse, the fire would move inside the ship or through the ships systems just inside the Dream’s hull.  Normally, one would patch a breach with a durasteel patch and at the very least, magnetically seal it to the hull before entering atmo or landing. 


However, with Dean unconscious, the grav generators out, and the planet’s surface fast approaching, there was no way to fly the ship and attempt a repair.  Even Chevy with her magnetized treads couldn’t safely make it to the location of the hull under these conditions.


Sam instead shunted all the power he could find into reinforcing the emergency shielding, bleeding it away from the engines now that they didn’t need to go so fast (or rather really, really could use to slow down).  Now he just needed to fix their tumbling descent and align them for a smooth trajectory and landing at Bobby’s.


“Chevy, can you give me a hand here?” Sam asked weakly.  “I need to get the Dream under control and lined up for a landing.”


Chevy immediately responded, using her utility arm and computer jack to adjust and interface with the controls.


Sam reluctantly gave up his grip on the harness to take the yoke with both hands.  The Dream had a good auto pilot system, but it would simply take too long to correct their current spin.  Together with Chevy, Sam managed to pull the ship out of her haphazard spiral and straighten into an even descent.  The exertion made Sam’s head throb while the harness cut into his chest and black spots appeared in his vision; he wasn’t getting enough air, he realized, feeling his breaths growing steadily shallower.  His lungs felt like they had a pile of bricks steadily crushing them, and they were growing weaker and weaker against the strain.


He managed to stay conscious, his need to make sure they would be all right keeping him alert.  Thankfully, Bobby’s home was on the dayside of the planet and Sam’s approach would have Tatooine’s twin suns at his back as they landed.  He throttled back to just short of cutting the engines and braked hard, slowing the Dream to a normal rate of descent, the deceleration and the reemergence of the planet’s gravitational field causing some unpleasant Gs onboard the grav-less ship. 


When he had the landing pad in view, colorful lights twinkling in the afternoon sun against the windswept monochrome of the desert below, Sam asked Chevy to drop the landing gear, while he brought the repulsors online and cut the engines, bringing them in for an anticlimactically smooth landing.  Sam’s unrestrained harness didn’t even cause a problem, as the smoothness of the landing combined with Tatooine’s own gravitational field settled Sam gently against his seat.


He glanced over.  Dean was still out cold.  Sam felt the adrenaline rush start to recede and realized his breath was now coming in short, shallow, pained gasps.  He had to treat his quickly collapsing lung and fast.  “Chevy,” Sam wheezed, getting the droid’s attention.  “Get Bobby in here, quick.”  He reached forward to release Chevy’s restraints, and punched in the controls to lower the boarding ramp.


Chapter Nineteen


Bobby Singer, descendent of freed Hutt slaves turned moisture farmers, operated a shipyard salvage and repair business on Tatooine.  He was out in the inner edges of the Eastern Dune Sea, not too far from the towns to make it dangerous or inconvenient to reach him, but not so close that the Hutts and their cronies were scrutinizing his every move. 


The business provided him with a home; a steady, legal income; and both great resources and contacts that came in handy when hunting.  Plus, people loved the opportunity to deal with a mechanic and parts supplier who was neither a Hutt nor a slaver.  They trusted both Bobby’s work and his prices a lot more than the competition (which was, incidentally, composed mostly of Hutts and slavers).  As a result, Bobby always had a steady stream of business.


He was relieved, however, to be having a particularly light day—a few people scheduled to come by and pick up parts later in the afternoon and one long-term repair job that was due in three days—when he got a message from Dean Winchester’s droid saying the Dream was coming in damaged with wounded.  Well, that would have been easy enough to explain to customers—people knew him to be a trained medic with a reputation for helping out those who needed it, if not for the spectacular space battle between the Dream and what appeared to be a lone Republic fighter that had grabbed everyone’s attention, lighting up the sky with blaster fire and making people run for cover when it looked like one of the ships might crash.  (Bobby was really, really glad the Dream hadn’t crashed.) Thus, he was glad he didn’t have customers milling about.


The battle had gotten the Hutts’ attention, and if that really was a Republic ship after the, the Winchesters were bound to bring a world of trouble with them—more than what usually followed them around, and more than they’d been in even last he’d heard from them.


Bobby had known John and the Winchester boys since the boys were kids.  Bobby’d gotten into hunting after his wife was struck ill and died from a Sith artifact she’d accidentally picked up while examining salvage on a Jawa sandcrawler.  The object had possessed her with Dark Side energy, causing her to attack people around her, only then leave her drained of all energy and fatally poisoned. 


The Jedi had gotten involved—a rarity out her in the Outer Rim—sending a Shadow and a Healer to investigate.  The Shadow had confiscated the artifact for examination, but wouldn’t answer any of Bobby’s questions as to why or how it had wound up on Tatooine.  The Healer hadn’t been able to stop the poison from claiming his wife’s life, either.


Frustrated and distraught, Bobby had started researching, and found out about a secretive group of non-Jedi that hunted all the things the Jedi either couldn’t or wouldn’t handle.  They all had different backgrounds and styles (some were downright dangerous, others thought the Force itself was evil, still others were more sane and rational).  They weren’t particularly well organized (or even civil with one another), but over the years they had more or less welcomed Bobby into the fold and saw to it he had opportunities for training and hunting.


Over time, Bobby had developed somewhat of a reputation for being an expert in possessive entities and artifacts, and about ten years after his wife’s death, he’d agreed to train up an up-and-coming hunter named John Winchester.


Winchester had arrived with his two- and six-year-old sons in tow.  The two adults had bonded over losing their wives; butted heads over John’s militaristic attitude that seemed to be his default whenever he felt frightened, threatened, or lost; and formed a lasting love-hate relationship that continued to this day.


Now Sam and Dean were like nephews to Bobby, surrogate sons almost, and he would do anything to help them, but he couldn’t help thinking that this time they seemed to have stepped in a Krayt Dragon–sized heap of trouble, and he wasn’t sure he could help them get themselves out of it.  Although, come to think of it, the circumstances of this current mess combined with the info the boys had sent him from Coruscant suggested that maybe this one had always been hanging over their heads, just waiting for the right time to strike.


He was relieved to see the Dream come in for a smooth landing, settling herself gracefully onto the landing pad he’d cleared for her arrival.  When he’d received Chevy’s latest message about the shields being out, he had been very worried.  Tatooine had bad sandstorms that could tear the hell out of an unshielded ship’s surface if one was unlucky.  Still, they appeared to have avoided any such storms, and the repulsors were clearly working, so the quick and agile little ship had set down smoothly.


Bobby could see the missing sensor array and the damage to the shield generator.  He moved towards the aft and the boarding ramp and blanched when he saw what looked like a hole in the hull with the telltale pinkish shimmer of an emergency force field in place.


Sithspawn!  Things must be really bad if Dean or Sam had landed without patching that breach.  At least it had been on the aft dorsal section of the ship where it was most shielded from atmospheric friction, otherwise they might not have made it in one piece.


The ramp started to lower, and he expected to see either Dean or maybe Sam coming out greet him and let him know what the hell had happened.  Instead, he was greeted by a truly frantic-looking Chevy, the little droid tweeting and whistling so fast he knew exactly what she meant without need for translation—Emergency!  Injuries!  Come quick!


Grateful he’d had the foresight to grab his medkit when he’d received their message, he rushed onboard, hopping up onto the ramp before it had even lowered all the way to the ground.  He stuck his head into the sick bay/kitchen compartment (the boys affectionately called it ‘the clinic’) as he rushed past, relieved to see that it appeared undamaged. 


A few datapads were scattered on the floor, probably from not being strapped down when the grav went, but all the cabinets were still closed and there were no liquids oozing or leaking from under the cabinet doors.  That probably meant everything was still nicely snug and restrained in their storage places—John might be a stubborn, militaristic bastard at times, but at least it came in handy with things like proper care and storage of medical supplies, and he’d trained his boys well.  In less-conscientious hands, the precious contents of the clinic could easily have been destroyed in the zero-g transition or during landing.


Bobby filed the information away as he reached the bridge.  He was met immediately with the sweet-acidic smell of vomit and saw a tell-tale puddle of it lying on the deck, but it was a good distance from the pilot and co-pilot’s seats.  Perplexed, he then remembered Dean’s tendency towards space-sickness in zero-g and ached in sympathy for the boy.


Then he took in the occupied pilot and co-pilot seats.  Sam seemed to be hanging half out of his seat, his restraints clearly broken.  Sam wasn’t speaking or really moving, so Bobby started towards him, only to halt when he noticed that Dean was slumped, lifeless in his seat, a gash on the back of his head and a small pool of blood not too far away on the floor.  Bobby’s heart jumped into his throat, his blood rushing in his ears as he leapt forward, fearing the worst.


He stepped around the front of Dean’s seat and pressed his fingers to the boy’s neck, sighing audibly in relief when he felt a strong, steady pulse.  Prodding hastily at Dean’s eyelids, he found the pupils somewhat reactive to light—maybe a little sign of concussion—and even heard a weak moan, as if Dean was thinking about coming around. 


Just knocked out then, and not too badly, he thought.  The boy would probably have one hell of a headache, but he’d live.


Bobby’s relief was short-lived, however.


“Bobby?” Sam’s voice called, sounding incredibly breathy and weak.


Bobby froze, turning his head to face Sam, chilled by the sound of his voice.  The younger boy was struggling to free himself from his restraints where they were still attached to his chest.  Bobby could see his fingers weren’t working too well, and blood was soaking his shirt around where the harness still hung.


But that wasn’t what had Bobby darting to his side so fast he didn’t remember moving.  Sam’s lips were blue, and his breath was coming in short, rattling gasps. 


“M’lung’s punctured … collapsing,” Sam wheezed out.


Yep, exactly as Bobby had feared.  Shit, Sam needed Bacta immersion and a while ago, but there was no Bacta tank onboard, and none back at Bobby’s house.  He’d been meaning to get one someday, but had never gotten around to it—those things weren’t cheap, and it wasn’t easy to explain why a mechanic who ran a salvage yard would need one.


“I can see that, Sammy, hang on.  I’m gonna get you sorted out,” he murmured, hoping his tone was soothing and reassuring and didn’t betray the terror that lay underneath the surface.  Thank the Force he’d brought his kit!  As he spoke, he wrestled Sam’s near limp and semi-compliant form back onto the co-pilot’s seat and managed to untangle and unbuckle the harness fro his chest.


Ignoring the blood as best he could, he quickly tore Sam’s shirt open, exposing a rainbow of bruises and cuts underneath.  The boys would have to do some explaining when they were well enough to, because he doubted Sam had suffered all that just in the space battle.  Not with the Dream sustaining as relatively little damage as she had.


He could clearly see the indented spot on Sam’s right side where two ribs were out of place, skewering the lung beneath.  Bobby’s fingers flew into his kit, finding what he needed by feel, keeping his eyes on Sam the whole time.


“Sam,” he started, cringing as Sam jumped a little in his seat, giving off a pained moan—the boy had obviously been drifting towards unconsciousness.


“I’ve got to cut, I’m sorry,” he stammered, hating what he was going to have to do.  It felt so crude and primitive, but it was the only way without a Bacta tank on hand.


“I know… the drill,” Sam wheezed.


And didn’t that suck?  Poor kid had already experienced this once before at least.


Bobby quickly sprayed the skin with antiseptic and adjusted his laser scalpel to the right cutting depth.


Sam caught his eye and gave him a little nod of permission.


Hating himself for having to cause the kid more pain, he quickly made the incision into Sam’s chest and wiggled the tube into place as soon as the scalpel was out of the way and safely switched off.  He checked to see that its self-sealing flange was snugly secured to Sam’s skin (it was).


Bobby remained kneeling at Sam’s side, waiting to see how the boy fared.  When Sam’s lips started to lose their bluish tinge, and his breaths were deeper and less labored, Bobby breathed a sigh of relief.  They’d still have to set the ribs and repair the lung, but Sam could wait until they got back to the Dream’s clinic.  Bobby injected some Bacta in next to the chest tube to start the healing process.  He then quickly cleaned off the cuts on Sam’s chest and forehead, glancing over at Dean every half-minute or so, to make sure he was still ok.  He quickly applied Bacta and bandages to the cuts on Sam’s chest and ran a Bacta-laced skin sealant over the gash on his forehead to minimize scarring.


“Sam, I’m gonna go check on Dean, you ok for now?” Bobby asked gently.


“Yeah,” Sam said a little easier.  He took a few deep breaths, apparently relishing the ability to get more air.  “A hydrospanner hit his head,” Sam supplied.


“Ah,” Bobby said nodding and stood, carefully making his way over to Dean.


“Careful,” Sam warned, “his ankle’s broken.”


Bobby nodded again in acknowledgment and set to work on triaging Dean.  He quickly cleaned and sealed the cut on the back of Dean’s head, pleased that it had already stopped bleeding on its own.  He moved around to Dean’s front, careful of his obviously injured and splinted ankle.


Bobby began unbuckling Dean from his harness, but paused when he noticed that Dean’s left shoulder was hanging at an awkward angle and was swollen, stretching his shirt around it.


“He hurt his shoulder too?” Bobby asked Sam.


Sam looked confused, then angry.  “Not that he would admit.  I thought it was bothering him—that he might have wrenched it, but he said it was fine.”  Sam’s anger abated.  “Nothing was out of place when I examined it, but I didn’t scan it,” Sam nodded, his expression now suggesting he was mad at himself.


“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Bobby said quickly, hoping to head off any self-flagellation on Sam’s part.  “We both know how stubborn Dean can be.  He probably strained or tore something and didn’t realize it, only now it’s dislocated.”  Probably from hitting his restraints hard during the battle, Bobby thought.


Sam let out a bitter-sounding snort that turned into a coughing fit.  Sam tried to stifle it with his hand.


Bobby saw Sam’s hand come away bloody and cringed.  Looked like the Bacta injection wasn’t doing enough fast enough.  Carefully easing the harness around Dean’s injured shoulder, he stood, lifting Dean’s dead weight in his arms, mindful of the boy’s injuries and staggering only slightly under the strain.  “Sam, d’ya think you can make it to the clinic with me?” Bobby asked, encouragingly.  “I’m gonna take care of that lung and get Dean’s shoulder sorted out, see if we can rouse him, too,” Bobby added.


Sam nodded minutely, careful of his injured head, and stood stiffly, slowly, wobbly making his way around his chair towards the aft compartments.


“Chevy,” Bobby said softly to the droid, who had been standing nervously inside the bridge doorway, obviously worried about her boys.  “Can you make sure Sam gets himself in there and seated ok?” Bobby asked.


Chevy whistled an affirmative and trundled to Sam’s side, offering him support if he needed it.


Bobby waited for them to clear the doorway before starting after them.  He paused to look at his med bag, which was still on the floor between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats, but decided to go back for it later.  He’d have everything he needed in John’s well-stocked on-board clinic.


Careful not to jostle Dean, Bobby followed Sam and Chevy aft.




Once inside the clinic, Bobby strode purposefully to the bulkhead that he knew housed the emergency exam beds.  Nudging the panel with his elbow, he stepped out of the way while one bunk extended, and carefully laid Dean on it.  He pulled out the diagnostic holoscanner attached to the bed’s side, and programmed it to scan and catalogue Dean’s injuries.  He was pretty sure he knew what he was dealing with—and unfortunately, without Bacta immersion, there wouldn’t be much he could do for a concussion except painkillers once the boy was alert enough again—but he wanted to make sure there was nothing more serious.  He also needed to know the best way to reduce that shoulder, and where to inject the Bacta to heal whatever tears or breaks were obviously inside.


Satisfied that the scanner was making progress, he turned not to Sam, but to the cabinets he knew housed the supplies he would need.  He was unsurprised, but disappointed, to see that the supplies had been recently picked through.  As he had suspected, the boys had been injured before this most recent space battle.  Gathering what he needed he returned to kneel next to Sam’s side pulling along the mobile holoscanner so that he could see what he was doing.


“Sith followed us,” Sam wheezed out from where he sat at the table, Chevy by his side, and seat swiveled out away of the table to face Dean. 


“Sith?” Bobby asked alarmed as he ran the scanner over Sam’s torso.  He knew Dean’s message had mentioned a Sith, but surely that wasn’t following them, was it?  Hadn’t the message said something about destroyed in the fire?


“Yeah, we think it’s possessing people,” Sam explained.  “Don’t know quite how it works, but it’s the same thing that killed… Jessica,” Sam said, pained. 


Sam flinched as Bobby ran his hands over injured ribs, but Bobby was pretty sure that at least part of that flinch was due to the mention of what his girlfriend’s death.  Bobby was very grateful that Dean had included that information, or he might have just stuck his foot in his mouth.


“Well, you’re gonna have to tell me all about it, but after we get you on the mend,” Bobby murmured.  He held up a Bacta nebulizer.


Sam rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “Do I have to?”


“Sam, we don’t have a Bacta tank, and your lung’s still bleeding,” Bobby explained.


“I hate the taste of Bacta,” Sam whined, but took the breathing apparatus from Bobby without further complaint, and with Bobby’s assistance, secured the mask to his face.  It would allow Sam to inhale the healing liquid deep into his lungs where it could repair the damage. 


While Sam was distracted by the device, Bobby swung the medicomp over to Sam’s side, and readied its suction arm which would help Sam’s ribs get back into place without surgery or Bacta immersion.


Sam noticed the machine and muttered something incoherent, but Bobby got the gist.  Yeah, this particular treatment sucked even more than the Bacta injection. 


Bobby snugged the machine up to Sam’s side, and on the count of three, Bobby activated the machine.  It took about four heart-rending seconds, but finally Sam’s ribs had snapped back into place and the medicomp was reporting success.  Sam whimpered in pain, but stayed still, working hard to deeply inhale the breathing treatment.


“Sorry kiddo,” Bobby said.  “I’m gonna go check on your brother now, will you be ok?”


Sam managed a weak nod.


Bobby ruffled Sam’s hair affectionately as he stood and returned to Dean’s side, noticing for the first time that while Sam had been properly dressed, Dean was still in his sleeping clothes.  He shook his head in disbelief.  Dean really needed to take better care of himself. 


The bunk’s attached holoscanner had completed its work and was proclaiming Dean’s concussion mild.  His shoulder should be easy to reduce, but unfortunately Dean had torn a ligament and pinched a nerve.  Bobby shook his head in disbelief.  Dean must have done a number on that joint to have it pop out so easily, especially if it had been superficially “fine” earlier as Sam had said. 


Slapping a muscle relaxant patch on Dean’s neck, Bobby followed the medicomp’s directions for easing Dean’s shoulder back in place.  He was relieved to see the scanner indicate the nerve compression was easing and no bones were chipped or broken.  A Bacta injection, three Bacta patches, and a carefully slipped on sling later, Dean was stable and treated to Bobby’s satisfaction.


It took a little more effort to rouse Dean.  After a few minutes of trying, ending with a threat to scratch the Dream’s paint, Bobby was finally able to wake him, but the boy was clearly loopy from the muscle relaxants. 


Chevy trilled, catching Bobby’s attention.  She had plugged herself into one of the dataports, so that her words were scrolling out on the kitchen’s computer terminal.


Bobby’s eyes widened, taking in her message.  “Comaren, huh?” he asked the droid rhetorically.  “Well, that would certainly explain it.  Poor boy.”


Bobby was familiar enough with Dean’s extreme sensitivity to medications, especially painkillers.  With Chevy’s added information, Bobby wasn’t surprised when Dean quickly slipped back to sleep—his snores further alleviating Bobby’s fears.  Satisfied that he wasn’t slipping into a coma, Bobby let Dean fall back to sleep.  Poor boy would probably be grateful he wouldn’t remember any of this when the meds wore off.


By the time Bobby returned to Sam’s side, about twenty standard minutes had passed, and Sam’s breathing treatment was just about done. 


“Here, lemme help you,” Bobby said, aiding Sam in removing the mask.


When it was off, Sam started scratching at his side, fingers inching towards the chest tube, as if set on removing it.


“No,” Bobby said firmly, stilling his hand.  “That stays until the computer says your lung’s healed enough.  And I estimate you’ve got at least two more Bacta treatments before that’s done.”


Sam groaned, but dropped his hand, he looked forlorn and dejected, but it was for his own good.  Then he shivered.


Bobby cursed himself for being so thoughtless.  He’d left the injured boy sitting shirtless in the relatively cool room.  Sure, Tatooine was hot and dry, but in here the ship still carried a hint of the coldness of deep space.  Bobby darted to the appropriate cabinet and removed another of the loose-fitting robes that Dean wore.  “Here, let’s get you into this,” Bobby murmured as he helped Sam slip on the robe.  Searching his brain for anything else he might have forgotten, Bobby added, “Want something for the pain?”


“Not yet, not if you want me to tell you what happened,” Sam croaked, his voice already stronger, his breathing steadier.


Bobby nodded.


Sam gave him a glance and eye-roll that said “now what?”


“D’you think you can make it back to my house if Chevy helps you?  I’m gonna carry Dean so we can get him into bed,” Bobby started.  “Then you can tell me what happened—but let Chevy tell it if it’s too much for you—and we’ll give you another treatment and give you some pain killers and get you to bed.” 


“I think I can manage,” Sam said standing.  He immediately wobbled, and Bobby caught him, steadying.


It took almost a quarter hour, but they finally made it back to the house.  Bobby got Dean tucked away, rousing him again, and finding the boy still spaced out from the meds.  He opted to slap a monitor on the boy instead.  It would let Bobby know if anything went wrong or if Dean’s condition changed and would save him the trouble of having to wake the heavily medicated and exhausted Winchester again.  Bobby hoped that by the time the meds wore off the concussion would have resolved itself enough to take the edge off the pain.  He really didn’t want to have to dose Dean up on more painkillers, ‘cause that would just knock the boy out all over again.


When Dean was settled, Bobby joined Sam at the table in his crowded, but well-appointed kitchen.  The room was rounded with earthen walls, the home set up in a series of domes connected by rounded tubes all dug deep into the ground, shifting sands held back by earthen retaining walls.  Inside it was cool and comfortable, even without turning on the climate controls.


Bobby poured them a pitcher of water and linked a datapad up to Chevy so that she could chime in or take over when Sam tired.


To Bobby’s amazement, Sam managed to slog through three-quarters of the story, tiring only when he got to the start of their voyage from Coruscant to Tatooine.  All the while, Sam’s voice sounded hollow, numb, which worried Bobby.  He knew a good bit about what Sam was going through, feeling the ache over losing his wife renewed at Sam’s tale.  But he hated how closed-down the boy seemed.  He hoped it was just the exhaustion and injuries talking, leading Sam to conserve energy.  But something about the burning, bitterness and drive for revenge to stop—kill—destroy the mystery Sith that snuck out in Sam’s otherwise robotic tone, reminded Bobby far too much of someone else—John, to be exact.  He sincerely hoped the younger Winchester son wasn’t gearing up to follow in his father’s footsteps. 


When Sam couldn’t go any further, Bobby helped the boy set up another Bacta treatment, and read along on the datapad as Chevy continued the story.  He was shocked to learn of Sam’s vision, and of how accurate it was.  Even more disturbing was Chevy’s reiteration that it was indeed the Sith that had been in that Republic fighter.  She showed Bobby the readings from the hyperspace distortion that he’d seen too many times before. 


At least they knew the Sith was headed to Onderon, although, Bobby doubted the boys would be up to running after it.  He wondered, assuming Sam’s sense of the situation was correct, if Onderon was where the Sith was trying to stop the boys from following, or if there was somewhere else, further down the line that was important, perhaps it was just trying to throw the boys off its trail? 


Bobby put his pondering aside to dose Sam with some painkillers and help the boy to bed, smiling when Chevy took up a post inside the bedroom the two boys now shared, keeping watch.


Between the materials Dean had sent to him earlier, and the new information he’d gleaned from his conversation with Sam and Chevy, Bobby felt like he had a pretty good idea of where to start with his research.  So get started he did.


Chapter Twenty


John had finished up at the dig site with minutes to spare. 


The entire site had been flooded with Dark Side energy.  It looked like most of the relics had been removed, and indeed, considering the materials Sam and Dean had sent to him, that seemed about right.  He did find a drawing of sorts—just faint lines traced on the stone wall of a cave in the foot hills of one of the mountains, one of the few natural places left on Coruscant.  It seemed to depict four small squares placed at compass points around a dark shadow in roughly the shape of human.  Bars of some sort seemed to radiate from the squares creating a cage.  He wasn’t sure what it meant, but its proximity to the excavation suggested it might well be related, and he had a hunch that the shadowy form at its center might just be this Sith that was making their lives hell.  He had quickly snapped a holocam shot of it and continued looking. 


John couldn’t find much else without physically digging, and given that his time was ticking away, he opted instead to scan the place with a DED.  Sure enough, it was teeming with Dark Side energy, and in certain spots like the drawing light side energy.  He then hurried back to the Folly and got clearance to leave orbit under a different ship ID with about three minutes of his estimated hour left.


He had a decision to make.  Follow the Sith again, or try to get answers.  Answers meant going to Miss’Ouri, the Caamasi woman who’d first opened his eyes to the world of dark relics and hauntings after Mary’s death.  He didn’t have much time.  Fidgeting long enough to get a reading that the Sith had indeed left the system, he punched in a course for Dantooine.  Miss’Ouri’s it was.  He just hoped he didn’t regret the decision.




It was already midmorning the next day by the time Dean woke up properly, the concussion and painkillers (and exhaustion) doing a number on him.  He felt muzzy and groggy when he finally opened his eyes, finding himself in a familiar bedroom—twin beds, white sheets, no blankets, sloping curving walls of the dome-style buildings so often found on Tatooine.  I’m at Bobby’s, he realized, but how did I get here?  The last thing he remembered was.  Oh.  Puking in zero-g and feeling something hit his head. 


He found a tender, raised lump under hair, when he touched his fingers to the back of his skull.  He momentarily panicked, worrying about Sam and Chevy, but if he was alive and on Tatooine, then clearly someone had landed the ship.


Sitting up and getting to his feet, Dean realized his left shoulder was immobilized.  He looked down and took in the sling, noticing that at least his fingers weren’t numb and tingly.  Must have finally dislocated again, at least getting it back in had decompressed the pinched nerve.  He wasn’t going to argue with small favors.


He stood, walking carefully on his splinted ankle.  It already felt a little better.  He checked his chrono determining the time.  Sithspit!  He’d better have only lost the better part of one day.


“I see someone’s decided to rejoin the land of the living,” Bobby’s voice called, relief evident as Dean rounded the corner into Bobby’s kitchen. 


He smiled and felt the last vestiges of fear recede as he saw Sam and Chevy at the table.  Chevy looked unharmed—she had a knack for avoiding damage—but Sam looked a little pale.


“Hey Dean,” Sam said quietly, “how’s your head?”


“Still hurts, but not too bad,” Dean admitted.  “’Least I’m not seeing double.  What happened?”


“Sit down, and get your weight off that ankle,” Bobby ordered, and Dean found himself complying.


Bobby—with Sam and Chevy’s help—recounted the previous day’s events.  Dean thought it was a little lame that he’d gotten taken out with a hydrospanner, but it sure beat getting crushed to death by a console.  He felt sheer panic rise in him again, when he heard about Sam’s punctured lung (and how close he’d come to not making it).


“It’s ok now,” Sam said, trying to project strength into his voice.  “Finished my last breathing treatment an hour ago.  Bobby shot my lung up with more Bacta, and we finally took the tube out, see?” Sam said, lifting his shirt hem to show the Bacta-salve–covered and bandaged skin where the incision had been made.  “Bobby already started repairs on the Dream—don’t worry she’s not bad.  So far, he fixed the co-pilot seat restraint.  If I’m feeling up to it, I’m going to try helping him out with repairs on the shield generator this evening, once the suns go down and it’s cooler.”


“Take it easy, Sam,” Dean commanded.  He was worried Sam seemed so eager, too eager really.  Then he understood it for what it was—Sam was trying to keep busy, do anything to stop thinking about the crushing loss, the gaping wound that Jessica had left.  Dean thought about Mom, and opted not to pressure Sam too much.


He caught Bobby’s eye, sharing an understanding glance.  “Just don’t let him do anything too strenuous,” Dean said.


Bobby nodded in acknowledgment.


“Same goes for you, Dean,” Sam said with a sigh.  “I’m not resetting that ankle again.  So just stay off your feet for the rest of the day.”


Dean started to protest, but Bobby raised a hand to stop him.


“I’ve got some custom sensor arrays I just brought in for some restoration jobs, I’ve got lined up next month,” Bobby explained.  “If you’d be so kind as to run through their specs, I’ll let you have your choice for the Dream.”  Bobby added.


Dean knew he was being placated, but the option of getting a new custom array for the Dream…. “Won’t your customers mind?” he asked.


Bobby smile.  “Well, if you hadn’t missed our meeting a few weeks ago, I was going to offer you your choice then.  I haven’t specified to my customers which arrays their getting, just that I’ve got some beauties for them to choose from.  Wanted you to have first crack at ‘em.”


“Thanks Bobby,” Dean added, grateful.  If a homicidal Sith was going to shoot up his ship, getting a new sensor array out of the deal wasn’t such a bad result.


Bobby then served them roast gornt sandwiches and ginger water—food specifically chosen to be easy on the stomach, Dean noticed with approval—and discussed what they’d found about the Sith and this lost prophecy.


Bobby and Sam had managed to get more detail on the details from Jess’s research and finishing the translation of the relic and documents she had found, giving them a more complete picture.


The materials referred to a dark time in the Jedi Order, when the Masters on the Council ordered many of their number, as well as many other masters and nights to betray their vows and use the Dark Side.  Not only use it, but use it to kill, to create the ultimate evil—a Thought Bomb.  Some of the details were still fuzzy, but in the fallout, it became clear that the Sith Lord against whom they fought had had many followers and was immensely powerful.  When he sacrificed himself, he vowed to come back as a wraith, when the Chosen One would allow him to cement his control of the galaxy once and for all, shifting the force permanently to the Dark Side.


Dean shuddered involuntarily as Sam finished the recap.


The translation was still incomplete because there were still missing pieces in the information—but they had discovered two things.  Or rather discovered one and received a message about the other.


“Your daddy,” Bobby said hesitantly, “sent me a few files last night.  Didn’t tell me where he was or where he was going mind you, but it looks like he got a message you sent, Dean, and investigated the dig on Coruscant.”


Dean felt a flood of relief that finally someone had heard from his father followed by the pang of absence.


Bobby continued, “He scanned the cave where the excavation was and found Dark Side energy readings off the charts.  Some light side readings too.  One of them was next to this,” Bobby added, displaying a holo of a shadowy figure surrounded by a cage apparently coming from four square stones? on his datapad.  “I don’t know what it is and haven’t found anything in my books that correspond, but if you boys agree, I’d like to send it out to some of my contacts—I know a few people who have a lot more experience with folklore and art…  I’m hoping one of them will have an idea.”


“Sounds ok to me,” Dean said.


Sam nodded his consent.


“Also, I found this,” Sam said holding up what looked like a poem sketched on flimsi.  “Or rather Jess had this scrawled across her translation notes,” he explained, handing the poem to Dean.


One hidden by the force.  One hidden from the force.  One hidden inside the force.  And one in plain sight, it read. 


“Huh,” Dean said.  “Any clue what that means?”


Sam and Bobby both shook their heads.


“I promise you, Dean, and you too Sam,” Bobby said, catching their eyes in turn, “I’m going to find some answers for you.”


Chapter Twenty-One


On their third morning at Bobby’s, Dean was finally up to helping with the repairs on the Dream.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Bobby, Sam, and Chevy in their work, it was just that she was his ship, his baby, and it made Dean remarkably uncomfortable to think of anyone else having their hands on—or more likely in—her.  Maybe it was silly, but Dean often felt like he had a bond, and understanding with the ship, and he needed to uphold his end of the bargain, which meant personally taking care of her when she was wounded.


Dean was standing on top of the Dream, the blazing light of Tatooine’s twin suns beating down on his shitless body, breeze blowing sand up and around and all over, so that it stuck to his sweat as certainly as if he’d gone rolling in it.  Dean had covered himself in sun protectant and made sure Sammy did the same, but even if he knew he wasn’t being burnt to a crisp, he still felt like he was; nothing short of a blast chiller would be comforting at this point.


The black surface of the Dream was almost burning hot to touch, and he’d rather be working at night, but time was of the essence, so heavy gloves and boots would have to suffice. 


Plus, burns made him think of fire and the inferno that claimed Jess was still too recent.  He shuddered at the thought.  Still, they needed to get the repairs done yesterday, so there could be no waiting for ideal conditions.


Dean bent and then crouched so that he could get down into the “innards” of the Dream to attach the new sensor array.  His head still swam a little whenever he bent over too fast.  Dean reached out to grab the power coupling he was trying to weave into the Dream’s electrical system, his shoulder giving a little twinge of protest at the movement.  It was really a great sensor array—top of the line, even newer and better performing than the one that had been blasted off in the battle with the Sith.  Dean had to hand it to Bobby; he had access to all the best parts, and always came through when it really mattered.


Dean tried reaching with his right hand and finally wiggled the coupling into place, only to feel an annoying pull in the skin on his palm.  Come to think of it, his ankle was starting to ache again, but he really couldn’t risk sitting to take the pressure off of it, not unless he wanted to toast himself.  It almost made Dean regret the individuality he gave the Dream by painting her black instead of the more common white or grey.


There!  Part one connected; now he just needed… the hydrospanner he’d left down on the ground next to the ship.  Great! he thought sarcastically.


Scrambling up from his crouch and ignoring the accompanying aches and pains, Dean walked over to the side of the ship.  “Hey Sam,” he called, “could you hand me that hydrospanner?”


Sam looked up with a glare and huff from where he was working on re-plating the Dream’s hull.  “Hmpf,” h let out an annoyed sigh and stepped over to the tool box where Dean had left the hydrospanner in question.


“What?” Dean asked, wiping sweat out of his eyes with his forearm.


Sam squinted up at Dean, the expression making him look even pissier than he was acting.  “Look, I just want to get going, and this is taking forever—well, it’s taking long,” Sam offered, holding up the tool so Dean could grasp it.


“It’s not taking that long, Sam,” Dean replied, taking the hydrospanner and standing back up, carefully stretching to work out the kinks in his spine without aggravating any injuries.  “We’ll be up in the air again by morning at the latest.  Besides,” he shrugged, hating to admit it, but it was true, “we could both use the rest.”


Sam stepped back from the Dream and started pacing in a kind of awkward oval.  Dean watched him, trying to figure out what was going on—Sammy was clearly gearing up for some big outburst.


“The Sith is out there,” Sam gesticulated, sweeping his arm wide, “doing who knows what, probably killing more people and starting more fires.  And we’re sitting here, tinkering with a stupid ship!” Sam exclaimed, kicking in the direction of the Dream’s landing gear and stirring up a cloud of dust in the process.


Whoa!  Sam did not just say that, did he?  Had he insulted the Dream?  Dean was shocked—he poured his heart and soul into the ship, so any attack on her—  He took a deep breath and calmed himself.  Sam was distraught and rightfully so; the Dream—Dean was tempted to reach out and caress her to ease the sting of the comment, but he really didn’t want to test the heat resistance of his gloves that much, and he didn’t think she’d appreciate having his skin grilled on her hull—was just a convenient target.  Composing himself, Dean turned back to Sam and said, “Sam, come on, we need to finish these repairs or we won’t be going anywhere.”


Sam looked up at Dean, stopping his pacing.  “Bobby has other ships that are spaceworthy—some are even fast—I could be borrowing one of those and up there, following that Sith before he disappears or kills someone else.”


“You think I’d let you go up there, go after him, by yourself?” Dean gasped, voice rising to a squeak.


Sam crossed his arms.  “Last I checked, I’m an adult, and you don’t let me do anything.  If you wanna come, fine; you wanna stay and putz around tinkering, fine.  But I,” Sam jabbed his finger at his chest, “want to be up there,” he jabbed at the sky, “following the monster,” he spat, “that killed my girlfriend.  The same thing that killed our mom, or don’t you care anymore?” Sam taunted.


Dean was livid.  Apoplectic.  Sam knew how to press Dean’s buttons, and he had just pressed all of them in rapid sequence.  Rational thought flew out the window, and he dropped the hydrospanner on the hull in disgust, feeling a belated twinge of guilt for letting the Dream fall victim to his frustration.  “You know what, Sam, you’re right!” he spat.


Sam looked up, wide-eyed, shocked at Dean’s apparent agreement.


“I don’t control your life; hell!  If you look back at how you left for college, I think it’s pretty clear I don’t have any control over you at all.  Sometimes, I’m not so sure you even care about me or consider my role in your plans and your life,” Dean continued, panting, as he stepped to the edge of the Dream, looking down on Sam, feeling the blazing fury burn in his eyes and flush his face.


“And you know what, yeah, Jess wasn’t my girlfriend—I haven’t lost a lover or a wife—”  ‘Cause I never had one.  “—but I did lose Mom, and I miss her more than you will ever know.  Or understand.”  Dean’s voice cracked, but he didn’t, couldn’t, care.


Sam made a move like he was going to protest, twitching a little in place, but Dean held up a hand to stop him.  He wasn’t anywhere near done.


“And don’t you dare insult the Dream or suggest that we leave her behind.  She might not mean that much to you, but she’s saved your ass—your life—so many times, I can’t count.  She’s my home.”  The only one I’ve known.  “And Mom worked on her.  She designed the Dream’s computer, so you insult her, and you insult Mom’s memory!”  Dean paused to take a breath.  “Besides,” he continued, his tone softer.  “Bobby’s ships are good, but you’re not gonna find one as fast or as agile or as well equipped.”


“Dean—” Sam started, stomping his foot and sending up another cloud of dust.


“No, I’m not done yet,” Dean said firmly.  He took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, squinting in the light of the twin suns until he had calmed enough to continue. 


“Dad is missing.  We don’t know where he is, but we know he was hunting this thing, and we know it wants you.  But we don’t know why, and we certainly don’t know how to kill it.  Or stop it.”  He looked down at Sam again, eyes deadly serious.  “I lost Mom.  I might have lost Dad.  I don’t want to lose you too.  So, can you just please hang on, help me finish fixing the Dream, and then we can go after this thing together, so I can watch your back, and you can watch mine, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll come out of this in one piece?”  Dean knew his tone was pleading, but he was desperate for Sam to just listen.  Not go running off half-cocked.


“I want him dead,” Sam said coldly.  “I want revenge, OK?”  He begged for understanding, raising his eyes to meet Dean’s, clenching and unclenching his fists.  “I get it now,” Sam continued, “why Dad was always so—dedicated—so… hell-bent on hunting this thing.  He’s pure evil and he needs to be stopped.  He needs to be kept fro hurting anyone ever again!”  Sam’s voice rose at the end.


“Yeah?” Dean said, half questioning, resting his knuckles on his hips.  “Well, how’re you gonna stop him?”


Sam rolled his eyes as if the answer was obvious.


Catching his meaning, Dean protested.  “No, no, Sam.  That’s why I’m worried about you going off half-cocked.  You don’t know how to control it or even if it could kill him.”


Sam looked over at the tool box and raised his arm, palm out.  The tool box shuddered and rattled and then slid away as if pushed by a—well—unseen force.  “I stopped him from hurting you when the apartment was on fire, and I destroyed his host,” Sam said tritely.


“Yeah, you killed his host, Sam.  There was probably a person in there!”  Dean voiced the issue that had been bothering him since Sam had first manifested his Force abilities.


“You rather I have let him kill you?” Sam asked, incredulous.


“No,” Dean said, shaking his head.  How to make Sam understand?  “But you don’t know if that would work again; you don’t know what you’re doing; and did you ever think maybe he wanted you to lash out at him?”


“What?” Sam asked, shocked and confused.


Dean ran his fingers through his hair, feeling the sand stuck in the short spiky strands.  “I’m just saying, he wants you for something.  The whole ‘Dark Side’ thing—that’s supposed to be all anger and hate and stuff.  Maybe he’s trying to—”


“What, push me into using the Dark Side?” Sam scoffed.


“Uh, yeah,” Dean answered, nodding.


Sam was silent for a minute.  Contemplative.  Then he seemed to deflate, collapsing in on himself, all energy leaving him.  “I’m sorry, Dean; I don’t know…” he broke off.


Dean sighed, letting his adrenaline leave him and feeling all the sicker for it.  His ankle throbbed!  He shifted his weight to his left leg and bent over to be closer to Sammy.  He wished Sam was still a little kid, who he could scoop into his lap and rock until it was all better.  Instead he struggled to catch the eye of the troubled man in front of him.  “It’s ok; I’m sorry too.  I know you wanna get out there, but let’s just finish up the repairs as fast as we can and see what Bobby’s figured out and go from there.”


Sam nodded, hair flopping in his face, either sweat or tears moistening his cheeks.


“Maybe we can find someone or somewhere to help you with the, uh, Force-thing, so we can figure out how to use it and what the Sith wants,” Dean added.


“Ok.” Then louder, more resolute, “Ok,” Sam said.  “I’m gonna go finish up fixing the hull breach.”


“’Kay,” Dean agreed.  He turned to head back to the sensor array only to pause and turn back to Sam.  “Get Chevy to help you with the wiring inside; she should be finished re-soldering the grav generator by now,” he added before stooping to pick up his dropped hydrospanner and returning to the sensor array.


They worked in semi-awkward silence for the rest of the day.  Not angry, but their disagreement not forgotten, either. 


By sundown, their repairs were complete and the Dream was good-as-new and ready to go.  Now, they just had to sort out what happened next.


The answer came much more simply than they would have imagined.  It accompanied the mynock stew Bobby served them for dinner.


Chapter Twenty-Two


John was standing in the doorway to Miss’Ouri Ot’Kla’s kitchen.  Her home was like many on Dantooine, sprawling but low-to-the-ground and partially built into the side of one of the farming planet’s many grassy dunes, windows set high in the walls where the building peeked above the bluff.  It hadn’t changed since the last time he’d stood here over twenty years ago.


“John Winchester,” the Caamasi woman’s voice singsonged, her tone somewhat melancholy.  “Just what do you think you’re doing here?”


Miss’Ouri, short and stout for a Caamasi, was standing at her gasser with her back to John.  The kitchen was set on the side of the building that was away from the dune, so it was light and airy with high ceilings and a row of tall windows that ran above the line of appliances and the sink.  The windows were tilted open, and a light, dew-scented breeze was blowing through them.  It was possible she had seen his reflection in the window or possibly heard his near-silent footsteps, but John thought it more likely that she had sensed him approaching, perhaps even known of his impending arrival for hours or days.  Miss’Ouri was, after all, a trained Jedi, even if she no longer saw eye-to-eye with the Order, and she was renowned for her gift of prophecy and Force-sight.  She was stirring something that smelled like yot bean stew.  John stilled for a moment to inhale the aroma.  It reminded him of Mary and home.  He wished he had cooked better for the boys over the years, hell, he wished he cooked better for himself.  But then the pain and loss, the anguish of Mary’s death rose anew in his chest, and he remembered why he had not.  Sometimes reminders of home and the happy life he’d had were too much.


“Please, Miss’Ouri, my boys….  It’s after my boys,” John begged, finding it hard to figure out where to start.  He leaned into the door jam letting the cool duracrete take his weight.  He felt like he had learned and deduced so much over the past weeks, the pieces were starting to fall together in his mind, clicking into place, snapping and locking, like parts of a children’s toy.  Yet there was so much John knew that he didn’t understand, pieces that were blurred or missing.  And one wrong step could mean everything falling apart, everyone…  I will not lose my son!  Not like I lost Mary!  He couldn’t control the desperation that spilled from his mind, desperation he knew Miss’Ouri would have to understand.


“Your boys are on their way here,” Miss’Ouri replied, tapping the wooden spoon against the rim of the pot and placing it on the work surface, while holding back a flinch at John’s emotional overflow. 


John tensed, almost ready to run.  He wanted his sons protected, but he couldn’t see them, not here, not now, it was too risky.  If the Sith got them all together…


Turning to face him at last, Miss’Ouri took in John’s skittish appearance.  “John, I said they’re on their way, they’re not here yet.  Now sit down before you pull something… or give me an even bigger headache.”  Miss’Ouri held out her hand, gesturing at one of the sturdy chairs that surrounded her table. 


John noticed she seemed almost playful, teasing, not upset, so he allowed himself to relax a moment, and only a moment.  He immediately tensed.  Why is she playful?  Doesn’t she realize how serious this is?  Isn’t she taking me…


“John!” her voice broke through his thoughts loud and clear.  “I’ve told you a thousand times, you think too loud.  I do take you seriously, just…”  She took a deep breath.  “Let go a little bit right now.  The Universe is just gonna keep on ticking along, and you need to start by telling me what you’re thinking, and what you think you know, one little step at a time rather than letting it all come tumbling out in one big painful psychic jumble.  Take deep breaths, I know you can do that.” As she spoke, she sat at the table and scooted forward in her chair.


Hesitantly, John stepped into the room, approaching Miss’Ouri with trepidation.


She nodded, her expression still a little scolding.


John took a few more steps and stiffly folded himself into a chair facing Miss’Ouri.


She brought her right hand forward to rest on John’s, and he gasped at the touch.  Caamasi were naturally telepathic among their own species and experienced emotions acutely.  Couple that with Miss’Ouri’s Jedi training—even if she no longer considered herself to be a member of the order—and you had one talented and formidable woman whose touch felt like an electric surge, at once grounding and purging John, forcing the overwhelming thoughts out, making him refocus.  He sat breathing, just looking into her eyes, still, existing, for several minutes until his thoughts and emotions coalesced into a more salient, linear strand. 


“Good, John,” she said, lifting her hand away.  “Here now, have a cookie.”  As she spoke, she reached across the table to the cylindrical jar at its center removing a puffy little blob.  “Baked them myself.  Besides, you could need some more meat on your bones.”  She placed the cookie in John’s hand, and closed his fingers around it.  “Now, tell me.”


John looked at the cookie in his hand like it was a key that would unlock the mysteries of the universe.  He took a tentative bite and began.  “The thing that killed Mary, it’s a Sith.  I’m not sure how or why or who, but it is, and it’s after my boys… or at least it’s after Sam,” John began tentatively.


“Go on,” Miss’Ouri said with a nod that made John think all too much of counselors and medics and sterile environments—all the threats and encouragement he’d received twenty-two years before when he’d found Miss’Ouri and she pointed him on the path to hunting.  She scrutinized him, eyes narrowing, “John, I am not going to rip the thoughts from your head, so you had better tell me.  I know this makes you uncomfortable, but…”


“Ok,” John sighed.  “It… I think it’s possessing people.  I don’t know how that works, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.  It keeps changing ships, and there’re never the same two people on them.  I checked aliases, I thought it might be smuggled goods, but then I had a friend slice the scanner logs a Hutt did on one of the passenger vessels, and they couldn’t find anything.  I thought I might have just missed something, but then…” John stopped, swallowing.  Just thinking it mad a chill whip through his body.  “It tricked me.  Like it was aware, intelligent.  Sent me off on a wild Iriaz hunt, tried to get me caught by CorSec.  And while I was tied up, it went and killed Sam’s girlfriend.  Burned.  On the ceiling.  Just like Mary.” 


Miss’Ouri squeezed his hand again.  John realized, belatedly, that they were shaking, crumbs falling from the cookie.  Miss’Ouri’s touch calmed him enough that his was able to take his hand still, taking another bite.  This time he actually tasted the puffy, chewy texture.  They were flavored with something sweet and earthy and a little spicy—chocolate John thought, if he remembered right.  He recalled Miss’Ouri once telling him that chocolate was an ancient food that many Jedi found soothing.


“And so you came to me.” Miss’Ouri said, more statement than question.


John blinked, taken aback, Well of course, I came to you, he thought, but really, why was that?  Miss’Ouri was trustworthy, because she was a Caamasi, and because she was a Jedi.  But John knew that sometimes Jedi lied… Scratch that, actually he found Miss’Ouri to be so trustworthy because she had left the Jedi order.  He had always been suspicious of the Jedi’s isolationist, attachment-phobic tendencies, and somehow Miss’Ouri’s separation from the order had always signaled to him a rejection of those less-than-trustworthy aspects of the Jedi.  But more than that, Miss’Ouri was the person who set John on the path to begin with, the person who had helped him to figure it all out, to understand that he really hadn’t imagined his wife burning on the ceiling, hadn’t imagined the fire lashing out at him like it was alive, and for that reason alone, he would always see her as his most trusted advisor… but for that same reason, he had resisted coming to her when he first got word of the Sith, because telling her, waiting for her answer would make it real.


Miss’Ouri hadn’t moved.  She was studying John, her eyes soft and reassuring, yet coaxing, looking at John like she knew what he wanted to say (and maybe she did), but needed him to say it aloud.


“I thought you would know.  I think I know you know… something about this.  And now maybe you can tell me?” John said, hearing the uncertainty in his own voice.


Miss’Ouri let out a long sigh, pulling her hand back from John’s and tabling her fingers together.  “I know you don’t particularly care for the Jedi, because of how they take children away from their families.”


John nodded, swallowing another mouthful of cookie, inherently understanding that he would not be getting a quick or straightforward answer. 


“Well, that is not the only reason I left the Jedi.  In fact, I joined the order as a child knowing that I would one day leave because of a secret about which my people know, a secret that has been passed down from generation to generation, the memory of it shared to chosen children in the bloodline for over five thousand years.”  She paused, as if waiting for John’s reaction.


John felt his eyes widen, but remained silent.


Miss’Ouri continued, a triumphant look passing through her eyes as if John had passed some sort of test.  “It’s a long story,” she said, glancing over at the pot of stew that was boiling away on the gasser.  “You don’t mind if I keep with my cooking while I tell it to you, do you?”


John shook his head.


“All right then,” Miss’Ouri said, rising, her hands running over the fabric of her robe lightly, smoothing it as she stood.  She puttered over to the stew and stirred a moment in silence, before turning to her food prep station and beginning to chop some vegetables. 


“You see, there are some secrets, some prophecies if you will, that even the Jedi fear.  They don’t like them because they challenge the precise order with which the Jedi control everything.  Order is a huge part of the Jedi order...” She looked over her shoulder at John her features quirked in the Caamasi version of a smile.  “Jedi fear the Dark Side, yet they know fear leads to it, so their solution to the conundrum is to follow rigid protocols and strict routines.  They sort everything into little boxes and categories and expect it to stay there, try to hush it up when it doesn’t.  Of course that doesn’t always work.  Life doesn’t fit into neat categories, and neither does the force.” 


She paused again, glancing back, her eyes piercing John, and through her look he knew, he knew that one of these secrets had something to do with his sons.  John’s heart flipped in his chest, thumping against his ribs, making it hard to breathe.  He almost didn’t want to hear, but at least now he might know…


Miss’Ouri turned back to her vegetables, her knife making a rhythmic thumping sound on the prep surface.  She tossed some of the yams she was slicing into the stew pot and resumed slicing, this time chopping tatoes into precise cubes.  “A little over five thousand years ago, before the Jedi Civil War, before Kun… there was a Sith Lord who rose to power.  He had many, many followers, and for a time, it seemed like he would defeat the Jedi, and thrust the galaxy into an era of chaos.  He rose to power so quickly and so fluidly, because the Jedi under estimated him, doubted that he could do what he said.  He plumbed some of the deepest depths of Sith lore, scouring for ideas, and he was smart too.  Creative.  Came up with a fair number of tricks no one had ever seen or heard of before.”  She tossed the tatoes in the pot and stepped away from the prep station, clearly hunting for something.  “Ahh, there it is,” she murmured, bending over to retrieve a large, broad, curved pan John thought was used for sautéing greens. 


She stood with the pan, turning towards John again.  “Mind you, back then, not many knew of the Sith,” she added, shaking her finger at John.  “The legends weren’t as ripe and ready in the imagination, and it had been a long, long time since anyone had really had to face a Sith threat.  The Jedi wanted to keep it that way, so they kept it mostly silent, not letting the people know what was causing all the trouble,” she added with a sigh, setting the pan down on the cooking surface on top of the gasser.  She turned to the conservator and began rummaging inside for more vegetables, continuing her story as she did so.  “They hid it from themselves—many members of the order didn’t even know what was going on.  For all their preaching, Jedi have always had problems with arrogance and secrecy.  They think they know better than everyone else, and sometimes, that means we pay the price for their mistakes.”  Miss’Ouri emerged from the conservator, bundles of greens and good-sized block of soypro stacked in her arms.  She paused, a far-off look in her eyes, her features momentarily tense, as if she was trying to figure out how much to tell John or how best to tell him.


“What happened,” John asked, finally, his breath shaky with anticipation.


“The Jedi were appalled at how many of their own were following him, how many younglings they had missed or rejected were falling under his thrall,” she said setting the ingredients on the prep station, and resuming her methodical slicing and chopping.  John found her cooking soothed him, lessened the shaky, prickly feeling her words gave him, made him almost able to believe it really was just a story.


“This Sith Lord he appealed to the rejects so to speak, those society—especially the Order—had rejected; he was willing to take and accept those that the Jedi had cast aside.  So they made a choice.”  Her voice was cutting, cold, strained as if the words she was speaking hurt to form.  “They decided to use a weapon, the worst weapon, one only Sith had used before.”


John shivered.  The air in the room seemed to get colder, as if sensing the darkness of Miss’Ouri’s tale.


She set down her knife, and rested her hands against the counter.  She didn’t turn to John, instead looked up and out of the large window, seeming to take strength and peace from the breeze as it wafted into the house.  “It was called the Thought Bomb.  It’s a weapon that uses the Dark Side to vaporize any force-sensitive individuals within its blast radius.  It rips clothing from flesh and flesh from bone, and kills, sucking the living souls of its victims into a sphere of Dark Side energy where the souls are trapped and tormented by the Dark Side for all eternity.  Of course, by employing this most vile of weapons, the Jedi themselves had to use the Dark Side, open themselves to it, commit an unthinkable wrong.”  She paused again, turning, her expressive eyes piercing John’s.


He shuddered at the description, but remained silent.  Somewhere in this story might lie the key to explaining the suffering his family had been forced to endure.  John swallowed the last of his long-forgotten cookie and shifted in his chair uncomfortably.


“Creating a Thought Bomb requires a very complex ritual and the efforts of several Sith Masters.” Miss’Ouri explained, wiping a hand across her forehead.  “Of course, that meant that it similarly took several Jedi, sworn to secrecy, and pledged to violate the sacred vows of their Order to use the Dark Side.  They justified it, said it was for the greater good—using the Dark Side against the Dark Side, defeating evil with evil—just this once would be OK.”


John nodded, he’d heard other hunters echo similar sentiments from time to time, hell, some of the people in his unit had shared similar sentiments when engaged in one of the particularly bad inter-system feuds they’d been deployed to settle.  It was an appealing thought. Appealing, but flawed.  Because once you start down the dark path…  There was always the problem of when to stop and where to draw the line.  And every time after that, it was just that much easier to do it again.


Miss’Ouri cocked her head at John before turning back to her cooking.  She laid the neatly shredded greens in the sauté pan and added the soypro to the stew pot.  “Of course, a normal Thought Bomb wouldn’t be enough.”


“Why?” John couldn’t stop himself from asking.  He couldn’t think of anything much worse than being trapped in the Dark Side of the force.  What more could the Jedi have wanted?


“A Thought Bomb is a sphere of Dark Side energy with the souls of its victims trapped inside.  It’s a tangible, corporeal, physical object that, given the right training and enough skill with the Force, could be torn open to let the souls escape.”  Miss’Ouri explained.  “The Jedi saw The Sith Lord and his followers as such a threat that they wanted to get rid of them for all time.  No chances, no risks.  No dark souls speaking to young Force-sensitives in their dreams.  No accidentally getting freed farther down the line.  So, the Jedi experimented and researched and studied the forbidden Sith texts and came up with a way to send the Thought Bomb to the other side, to actually trap it within the Dark Side of the force, like a dark soul that has crossed over.  Of course in order to do so, it would cost one of their own.  A Jedi would have to sacrifice himself and allow himself to be killed by the Thought Bomb, for only such a sacrifice could destabilize the force enough to allow the others to force the Thought Bomb into the Dark Side.”


John gulped. “That sounds pretty horrible.  But what does that have to do with now?  Are you saying that this The Sith Lord has somehow figured out a way to work himself free of the Dark Side?  Is that…”  His voice trailed off.  “Is that what’s after Sam?”  John’s heart leapt in his throat, his pulse racing, his breath shuddering.  Even thinking that such a dangerous monster could be after his boy was enough to terrify his very soul.


“The Sith Lord was not killed by the Thought Bomb.” Miss’Ouri continued calmly, deflecting John’s question, stirring her greens intently.  “The story goes that the Jedi’s efforts to manipulate the Dark Side caught his notice.  He captured one of the Jedi, tortured him, and found out the plan.  He engineered the situation so that his followers would be caught in the bomb’s blast radius, but he would not.  When the Jedi found out what had happened, they tracked him down and engaged him in a duel.”  She shuffled the pan around on the gasser’s cooking surface, focusing intently on the movements.  “The Sith Lord was killed, but not in a fair fight; he sacrificed himself in order to set the final piece of his plan in motion.  He had wanted his followers to be caught and allowed himself to be trapped so that he could later return and free his followers, ushering in a new era of the Force, an era where the Dark Side would reign supreme, unbalanced and unopposed.”  Her voice grew pained and cold, “what The Sith Lord either did not know or did not care about is, if the Force is unbalanced too much or for too long, all life will perish.  The Jedi, they talk about light and dark and good and evil as if they can exist on their own.  But what is good without evil to measure it against?  How can you appreciate the light without the dark?  So is it with the Force.”  She removed the greens from the heat returning her spoon to the stew, stirring with mesmerizing rhythm.  “It must be balanced, light and dark together, in order for life, for the universe to exist.  Shift the balance too far to one side or the other, and you get death, annihilation, suffering.”


“But what does this have to do with my son!” John exclaimed in frustration, rising explosively from his chair.


“Patience, John Winchester, or I will smack your ass with this spoon,” she retorted, turning around and sounding much more like her usual, sarcastically sassy self than the sage philosopher of a moment ago.  She took a deep breath.  “John, you know that my people the Caamasi can share memories with members of their bloodline, memories complete with sensation and emotion, so vivid it’s like you actually lived it.”


John nodded wordlessly.


Miss’Ouri scowled at him, waving her spoon threateningly. 


John took a step back and sat, deflated.


“Why don’t you make yourself useful and set the table for us to eat, John,” Miss’Ouri said much more gently.  “Plates are in the cupboards behind you,” she added, pointing with her spoon. 


“Ok,” John managed to choke out, once again thrown by Miss’Ouri’s somewhat unpredictable mood.  He rose stiff and shaky and walked around the table to the cabinets and reluctantly began looking for the place settings.


“Don’t worry, John, I’ll keep talking,” Miss’Ouri said, chuckling.


John relaxed minutely.


“One of my ancestors was a Jedi at the time of the Sith Lord’s rise.” Miss’Ouri continued.  “He found out about the Jedi plot and tried to stop it, went to the Council, wanted to reveal the plot to the rest of the Order.  It was against the Code to use the Dark Side.  But they wouldn’t have it.  The Council was so scared that they nearly kicked him out.  Instead they just forbade him to talk.” 


John could hear her puttering around behind him as he started pulling down plates and bowls to put on the table.


“He suspected that the Sith Lord might have something even more sinister was planned, and next he tried to physically stop the Jedi from carrying out the ritual.  He did not get there in time, and only narrowly escaped the Thought Bomb’s blast radius.” 


Missouri stopped speaking, and John froze.  The air seemed to chill further, and the kitchen was silent but for the subtle bubbling of the stew.


“He witnessed the Sith apprentices’ deaths, the misguided sacrifice of a once-noble Jedi master,” she said, her voice cold and anguished, hoarse like she’d been screaming.


John looked up to see Miss’Ouri shudder, the pans, windows, and cabinets rattling in response.  John tried to still the plate he had just set down, chasing it as it rocked over the edge of the table, catching it, only narrowly prevented it from falling to the floor with a clatter.  John looked up.  Miss’Ouri was regarding him, her eyes filled with tears, a profound sadness possessing her features.  “You saw that,” John said, surprised at the roughness of his own voice.  “I mean, it was a, a memnis, passed down to you.”


Miss’Ouri nodded solemnly, but no tears fell from her eyes.  “And I have experienced what happened next.”


John returned the plate to the table and fell back into the seat he had stopped next to.


“When he realized that the Sith Lord had escaped, he followed, traced the Sith to his ultimate encounter with the Jedi assassins the Counsel had sent for him.  He witnessed the Sith Lord allow himself to be killed, felt the—corruption—of the force, the wrongness and unbalance of it when he crossed over,” Miss’Ouri said, reaching out and clasping her hand into a fist, as if she were reliving the battle or watching it play out before her eyes. 


John realized that perhaps she was.


“The Sith Lord, promised to the Jedi who killed him, that he would be back, not now but when the time was right, and that he would free his followers from their tomb and together they would rule the galaxy, bringing a new Order to the force, wiping the Jedi from the face of the universe for ever,” she continued, her voice almost possessed.  With a shudder she seemed to snap back to the here and now, catching John in another soul-piercing glare.  “His words,” she added, turning back to the now-finished stew, “became the so-called Lost Prophecy.”  As she spoke, she walked back to the tale, the pot of stew in her hands.  “John, be a good boy and fetch the greens, we should eat.”


John scrambled to obey, but couldn’t quite stop himself from asking, “but what was the prophecy?”


“We’re getting to that,” Miss’Ouri said, gesturing to the spot on the table where she wanted John to set the greens.


He complied and took his seat.  Miss’Ouri wielding a wooden spoon was definitely a force to be reckoned with; John was not about to risk upsetting her.  He raised his eyes expectantly to Miss’Ouri, and found he was filled with an almost eager trepidation, desperate to hear more, yet terrified of what he would learn.


“The Sith Lord proclaimed that in time there would be a Chosen One, a child especially strong and talented in the force, a child he would mark as an infant, mark and bind, limiting the child’s access to the force until the Chosen One was ready,” she continued, ladling out the stew into bowls for John and herself.  “The Sith Lord claimed to have bound his soul to a relic so expertly hidden that only a Jedi of incredible talent, cunning, bravery, a Jedi dedicated to the hunting of the Sith would be able to find it, when such a Jedi found the relic, it would signal the coming of the chosen one, and wake the dark lord from his slumber.”


John waited, mouth half-open, attempting to enjoy his yot bean stew, but shocked by Miss’Ouri’s words. 


She glared at him.  “Haven’t you learned not to chew with your mouth open boy?”


John shut his mouth with a click, and hastily gulped down the soup.  “What do you mean ‘wake the dark lord from his slumber?’”


“Well,” Miss’Ouri answered, seeming to choose her words as she savored her own sip of stew, “those of us dedicated to studying the lost prophecy believe that the relic was meant to act as an anchor for the Sith Lord’s soul.  When it was found and activated, it would somehow pull the Sith Lord’s soul out of the Force and back into the mortal world.  It is believed that this Jedi would lead the Sith Lord to the Chosen One, and that when the Chosen One reached a certain point in his or her life, the Sith Lord would release the bindings, allowing the chosen one to touch the Force for the first time as an adult.”


John shuddered, the Force was so powerful, he’d known a fair number of Jedi during his time in the support corps, and the way they talked about the Force and learning to use it, he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly have that power as what, an adult?  Still, something else about Missouri’s story bothered him…  “What did the Sith Lord want with the Chosen One?” he asked at last.


Miss’Ouri got a strange, strained look on her face, her features pinched as if she was stuck in a particularly tight spot and trying to wiggle her way out.  She set down her spoon and leaned back.  “The Sith Lord was to use the Chosen One to free his followers from the Dark Side.”


John froze.  He felt like there was something she wasn’t saying, but it was hard to remember what.  “Use” could mean manipulate or kill or both or a million other terrible things, and more and more John was beginning to think that the Chosen One could only be Sam.  His dear, beautiful, son.  “This Chosen One, it’s Sam isn’t it?” John asked, bitterly.


“John,” she started.


“No, don’t ‘John,’ me.  This is my child we’re talking about.  My child who just lost his girlfriend and might have used the Force.  My child who is under suspicion of the Jedi Council and is being investigated by a damned Jedi Shadow.  Tell me if it’s him!” John spat, rising from he seat.  He could feel all the rage and frustration and fear, everything that had piled up since that first fire, since the first inkling of the Sith relic coalesce into a searing flame inside him.  John wanted to explode.


“John, sit,” Miss’Ouri said calmly, nonplussed by his outburst. 


Sagging, John collapsed back into his seat, noticing that his plate seemed to be rocking slightly on the table.  Miss’Ouri raised a furred eyebrow at him, but said nothing.  John didn’t have energy to spare thinking about what that might mean.


“I’m going to tell you a secret that comes with centuries of wisdom and lots of bad experiences,” Miss’Ouri said picking up her spoon and taking another sip of the stew.


John regarded her with confusion.


“One of the many memnii that were passed on through the generations to me as part of my preparation,” she added by means of explanation.  “You see, John, I joined the Jedi Order knowing I was going to leave them one day.  I’m the last in a long line of Caamasi Jedi who have been bred and trained to fight the prophecy.  Don’t worry, we’re part of a larger plan.  And if there’s one thing we’ve learned,” she said, sighing, “it’s that you can’t fight a prophecy.”


“So, is my son just doomed? Is that what you’re saying?” John said bitterly.


Another raised furry eyebrow.  “No John, not at all.  I have no idea what Sam’s future will hold.  To paraphrase the wise Jedi Council member, “the future is always in motion.”  Miss’Ouri pushed back from the table.  “I’m just getting us some Chulaberry juice, you just keep your butt in your seat,” she threatened. 


“But the prophecy…” John tried again.


“We believe the prophecy refers to Sam.  I was sent here shortly before he was born to watch for him.  We knew that the Sith Lord had been summoned, and that soon he would mark the Chosen One,” Miss’Ouri admitted returning to the table with a tall stoneware pitcher and two large glasses.  “We did not know how he would be marked or even if he was, but when your Mary died, we were pretty sure,” she added, pouring the deep purple juice in the glasses and passing one across the table to John.


“So, what, you’ve been watching me?  Setting Sam up!” John exploded, furious.


“No John, I was here to guide you,” Miss’Ouri said, her calm, melodic voice a sharp contrast to John’s increasing agitation.


“But why don’t you do something?  Does this prophecy just say you have to let Sam die to save the Republic or something?  Are you just letting my son die as a noble sacrifice?” John pleaded, his voice caught somewhere between hysterics and rage.


“The thing about prophecies is that we never know what they mean.  Many Jedi over many centuries have had Force visions about the lost prophecy.  They have seen snippets of the Sith Lord’s rise.  Some have seen different futures, different possibilities.”  She paused letting her words sink in.  “What we’ve figured out is that prophecies always ‘come true,’ just they don’t always mean what we think they mean.  In fact, they may mean many different things, precisely because the future is not predetermined, so even if we could pinpoint exactly what they meant, we wouldn’t know which meaning would be triggered by which actions.”


John looked sullenly into his juice, taking a sip.  “Ok… Ok, but can’t you do someth—”


“Far wiser people than I have tried to manipulate events, change their actions to try to avoid a prophecy, or to try to bring one about.  Trying to dodge or fight or direct a prophecy is like trying to fight a sandstorm.  Your actions get picked up and swirled around and around mixed up so that they never do what you expect them to do, and in the end, reacting to the prophecy often brings it about.  The best thing we can do is prepare, and then act like we don’t know about it.  You can’t let this prophecy run your life, and neither can Sam.  You need to make your own decisions for your own reasons, not try to fight of the 'what if's of a prophecy!” Miss’Ouri scolded.




“No, no ‘buts’ John.  You mess with this, and you could make things worse.”  Her face softened.  She reached across the table again to pass the greens to John, her hand brushing his and again sending soothing calm through his body.  “I know I can’t stop you from trying to hunt this Sith Lord, trying to keep him away from Sam.  That’s what you do regardless of any prophecy.  But you need to realize that your son is going to need you, you can’t just run away and think you can trick the Sith Lord into a fight.  It’s too smart for that.”


John thought of the sickening feeling he’d experienced when he realized the Sith had led him astray and set a trap for him.  He let out a long, shaky sigh.  “I hear what you’re saying, but I’m—”




“Yeah,” John added.  “Feel like this is my fault.  I must have somehow…”


You didn’t do anything to bring this about, John,” she replied.  “But that’s another story.  Your boys will be here soon.  I know you think you need to stay away from them, but I’m begging you, don’t run far.  They’re hurting, and they’re going to need their father.”


“I’ll think about it,” John said, his resolve wavering.  He was filled with an overwhelming need to see his sons—fear that they might not have much time left.  He still felt like if he stayed away, or just tried to tack the Sith, it would somehow protect the boys, but the way Miss’Ouri had described it, it didn’t sound like that plan would work for long.  The Sith Lord was either going to come after Sam or he wouldn’t and there was no way John could guarantee that his actions would stop that from happening.


“There’s more to the prophecy, John,” Miss’Oui said, smiling.


John looked up, feeling the dread on his face.


“It tells of a Guide who will come from the light side of the Force, and like the Sith Lord, will be called to rejoin the living.  The Guide will find the Healer, a powerful Jedi that does not know his worth.  It says that the Healer will have the power to vanquish the Sith Lord once and for all.” 


“Huh…” John croaked out in surprise.  “That sounds kind of hopeful.”

“Yes it does,” Miss’Ouri said, reaching over to give John’s hand a reassuring squeeze.  “Now drink your juice.  It will put your mind at ease.  I think we’ve had enough discussions of doom and gloom and prophecy for one day.”


John burst out laughing much to his surprise.  “When you put it that way…  Can you tell me one thing though?”


“Maybe,” Miss’Ouri responded.


“Did this Sith Lord have a name?” John said (OK, so warned or not, he was still going to find out everything he possibly could about this Sith, after all, Miss’Ouri had said they should be prepared).


“I doubt you’ll find much about him,” Miss’Ouri answered.  “After all, the Jedi did try to keep his uprising, the war, his death, his very existence, a secret.”  She resumed eating, and John had pretty much given up any hope of getting an answer out of her when she responded.  “Azazel… Lord Azazel, was his name.”


Chapter Twenty-Three


Bobby entered the dining area carrying a deep pot of mynock stew.  Mynock might be an acquired taste, but he had mastered preparing and serving the pesky animal, and hoped that a hot, home-cooked meal—rather than whatever prepackaged rations they could find or the local tapcaf’s cheapest fare—would be exactly what the Winchester boys needed to calm down enough to talk some sense into.  He had overheard their argument earlier in the day (it was damned near impossible to miss!) and had mostly given them a wide birth since then, opting to spend his time on research instead.


Research he had, and he came bearing bad, worse, and hopefully not-so-bad-maybe-even-good news.  Right, ply the boys with food and get them to listen.  It was only one step above actually drugging them, but they were running out of time. 


“So, you two decide to stop fightin’?” Bobby asked, setting the pot down in the middle of the round table, two sets of equally guilty eyes glancing up to meet his.  “Thought so,” he murmured, taking his seat and pulling the chair in closer to the table.


“So, Bobby, d’you find anything?” Dean asked helping himself to a steaming bowl of stew and pulling a piece of fresh bread from the basket on the table.


“Yeah, did you?” Sam echoed, eyes far too eager for the hunt for Bobby’s liking.


“Well,” Bobby started, scratching his head.  “I’ve got bad news, worse news, and some news that might actually help.”


“What’s the bad news?” Dean asked cautiously around a mouthful of stew, slurping the strip of marinated mynock between his lips and spraying broth on the table.


“Watch yer manners boy; I know your daddy raised you better than that,” Bobby scoffed, in semi-disgust.


Sam tossed a napkin at Dean’s head.  Luckily he caught it before it landed in the stew or Bobby would have had harsh words for Sam too.


Bobby let out a sigh.  “Bad news is there was another fire.”


Sam’s spoon clattered to the table.


“On Onderon,” Bobby continued.  “Hasn’t hit the holonet or the news vids yet, I’ve had a friend of mine in the area running scans for anything along those lines, and I just got a call about it.  Just happened.”


“Shit,” Dean muttered letting out a sigh.  “Wait, there’s worse news?”


Bobby gave a rueful chuckle and held out a datapad filled with a criminal alert and warrant notice.


Leaning forward to take a closer look, Sam realized what it was first.  “Oh crap,” he sighed. 


On the alert was a recent picture of Sam, probably one from his school or work ID and an older, blurry picture of Dean, probably snagged off a security holo sometime when Dean was a teenager and managed to actually slip up enough to get photographed.  Their real names were listed underneath along with a list of crimes for which they were wanted.  Dean’s included grand theft, burglary, slicing, destruction of Republic property, treason, and accessory to murder, while Sam’s included the same list plus arson and murder swapped for the accessory charge.  The warrant bore the seals of both the Jedi Council and Republic Intelligence, and posted a hefty five million credit reward each for information that would lead to the Winchester’s capture.


“They think I killed Jess,” Sam murmured incredulously. 


“We knew it was a risk, Sam,” Dean said gently, trying to appear interested in his soup but looking sick.


“I hate to rub it in, but a lot of people saw your little battle with the Sith, and they think you were firing on a republic military vessel,” Bobby started.


“Oh, right,” Dean said.  “That’s what the ‘treason’ is.  I was wondering what the hell was up with that.


“So far, these are just going out to people who are looking for them.  There haven’t been any newsvids about you two, but you can rest assured the slimy Hutts that run this planet are gonna see that credit figure and roll like the worms that they are.  You boys gotta get out of here, and fast, or you won’t be able to leave at all,” Bobby said sadly.


“Well, the Dream’s fixed,” Dean said with a weary sigh.  We can leave now, or first thing in the morning.


“But where are we going to go?” Sam asked.


“Ah, that’s the good news,” Bobby answered with a smile.  “I checked in with an old contact of mine on Dantooine.”


Dean flinched at the mention of his home planet.


“Just hold on, she’s an ex-Jedi, Caamasi, very trustworthy, and she knows a bit about the Sith.  I told her what was going on, and she said for you two to come right there,” Bobby added.  “I also heard back from one of my contacts about that drawing your daddy found.  Turns out there’s a legend on Myrkr about some Force Rune or Rune of the Light… it’s supposed to be some kind of weapon against the Sith.  I mentioned it to Miss’Ouri, the ex-Jedi I told you about, and she says she thinks she knows something about it.  Was very cryptic…  What?” he asked, noticing the strange, pinched expression Dean had on his face.


“You said her name was Miss’Ouri?” Dean asked.


“Yeah, Miss’Ouri Ot’Kla,” Bobby confirmed.


“We know her,” Dean said cryptically.


“We do?” Sam asked, sounding confused.


Dean shrugged, taking a sip of ginger water.  “When you were a baby, right after Mom died, Dad—when the Jedi didn’t help and couldn’t tell him what had happened—he went looking for answers and talked to Miss’Ouri.  She lived not that far from us…  I think we’d actually talked to her a few times when Mom was alive… but it’s kind of foggy.  She’s the one who got Dad into hunting.”


Sam looked almost murderous for a moment, and Bobby knew he was probably cursing Miss’Ouri for introducing his father to the profession.


“Sam,” Bobby said gently.  “She’s offered to train you.”


“Train me?” Sam asked, not understanding.


“To use the Force, control it at least,” Bobby explained. 


Sam started to protest, but Bobby gave him a scathing look.


“She left the Jedi Sam, so I think you’ll be safe from any of their unsavory doctrines,” Bobby said.


“Sam, I think it’s a good idea,” Dean said hesitantly.


With a resigned sigh, Sam agreed.


“Good,” Bobby proclaimed.  “While you two are on Dantooine, I’m actually gonna get out of here myself.  Don’t want to be around if any of those Jedi come searching this way.  I’ve managed to reschedule my work, so don’t you two go worrying about me,” he added to preempt Dean’s concerned apology.


“Where are you going to go?” Sam asked.


“Myrkr,” he said.


“The planet with the uh, Runes?” Dean asked.


“Yeah, turns out my contact says they’ve also got these lizards there… ysalimiri I think they’re called, that supposedly repel the Force or can hide from the Force or something.  Think those would be damn handy to have if we’re up against some Sith, or Jedi, so I’m going to check them out.”


“Thanks Bobby,” Sam said.


“I’m going to head to Carida after I’m done there.  And if I find anything for you, we can rendezvous there.  I can stay semi long-term, and at least keep off the Hutt radar.  Until and unless the Jedi or RI goes wide with those warrants, you boys are probably ok as long as you avoid Hutts and the Jedi and RI themselves,” Bobby concluded.




Sam, Dean, and Chevy left on the Dream before dawn the next morning, and not a moment too soon.  Sure enough, as Bobby was packing up his own ship, the Womp Rat, he caught spaceport traffic chatter reporting that a Jedi Master Gariq Shran and some Republic Intelligence confederates were landing at Mos Eisley and had an audience with one of the Hutt crime lords in residence there.


Bobby knew that within an hour there’d be Jedi knocking on his door, so taking advantage of Tatooine’s almost non-existent customs process and his own landing pad, Bobby took off and headed out of the system, being sure to lay in a multi-jump hyperspace trail to throw them off, and slowly made his way to Myrkr.


Chapter Twenty-Four


He looked out at the conflagration, basking in the warming heat brought by the flames.  They had spread down the walls now, and were licking at the floor.  He was holding them back, tugging on the leash a little so that the woman stayed alive until her family member came.  He was protecting the child and the doorway from flames, keeping clear a path between them, otherwise, this little effort wouldn’t reach its maximum effect.


It was always so exciting, so—enjoyable waiting to see who would come—there were so many possibilities here.  Three husbands, a nearly grown child, several younger children.  All might come and check on the strange flickering lights or notice the flames.  But it was taking so long this time… and he was so very curious.  He could feel the window starting to melt, not transparisteel then.  That always took much longer.  Destroying this home was far too simple.  At least it was pleasurable to make the sandstone melt and crumble.


Foolish, foolish Jedi.  Or not-Jedi.  Force-sensitives, whatever they wanted to call themselves now.  The current heirs to the Protectorate—what a conceited, self-important name, as if they could protect anyone from his plan.  They were weak, rejecting both the Sith and the Jedi Order.  And thanks to the tapestry of the Force, so many interwoven threads of life and destiny, all it took was a few simple tugs and everything had fallen so neatly into his lap.  Every Marker he had found had a child born this year….  All nicely spaced out so that he could visit each on their half-birthday.  Kill the current Marker, anoint and bind the heir, all while confusing the Chosen One and his simple brother and their too-cautious ex-Jedi guide, and best of all, making the Key jump through all his hoops—running in Circles until he was right where Azazel wanted.  Until they were all where he wanted.


And the little ones would be so useful to him down the road.  He could almost taste their power.  Beautifully strong, yet completely untrained, unaware.  When they were combined with the power of his faithful…


He wondered what was taking so long.  Well, it had only really been a minute or two, but still, he was impatient!  The fire wanted to burn and Lord Azazel so desperately wanted to unleash it.  This Marker had seemed to know he was coming.  Perhaps she was more skilled than he had thought.  Perhaps she had heard of the other’s deaths, after all, she was the last…  Soon the childish scheme the Protectorate had put in place would be gone and then he could gather the hosts.


Lord Azazel was so deep in thought, both he and his current host—a member of the Palace Guard and much more suitable than his last—missed the family member’s approach.  Azazel came back to himself as the young, almost-grown girl stepped into the room.  She must have finally heard the Marker’s pitiful broken pleas.  She had caught sight of him though!  Summoning the Force to himself, Lord Azazel used it to move his host away from the house, giving the appearance that he had disappeared in a dark shimmer. 


He held back the fire just long enough for the girl to “rescue” the little one, unknowing its fate was already sealed.


He watched the blaze grow and consume the house from afar, the Dark Side melting and twisting everything in sight.  The broken family gathered in grief and shock. 


Lord Azazel was disappointed that there was no rending cry in the Force, no signal that another of the foolish runes had been destroyed.  Three fires ago on the Bacta planet, he’d felt such a cry.  It was pure power and filled him with glee.  Still, there was nothing left of the Marker or the house, so if he was correct, there would be no way for the Chosen One to find the Rune this one had concealed.


Still, as Azazel steered his host back to the spaceport, he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the girl had recognized him, or understood what he was.




John knew his sons were en route to Dantooine, and for a good thirty-six hours after his conversation with Miss’Ouri he was honestly sincerely planning on sticking around for them to arrive rather than running.  He spent the night at Miss’Ouri’s instead of the Folly, bringing his datapads and notes on flimsi along and set up at her spare console and comm unit doing research.  It was frustrating and nerve-wracking, especially the prospect of seeing Sam, considering that last time they’d been in the same room, they’d shouted so loud the walls on the Dream had rattled, and he’d wound up giving Sam an ultimatum: Walk down the ramp, you can never come back.  “You’re not a part of this family if you’re not going to act like it.”  He’d actually said that.


And then Sam had hitched his shoulder bag a little higher, given Chevy an affectionate pat, called out a “bye” to Dean who was still stunned, and walked out the door to attend the University of Coruscant, and they hadn’t spoken since.  That was almost four-and-a-half standard years ago.  John didn’t know if their reunion would be happy or sad.  He didn’t know if Sam had forgiven him, or if he still blamed him, or worse if somehow he felt like Jessica’s death was John’s fault.  But John was willing to face the music and find out.


At least, he was until lunch time, when sitting in front of his console with a bowl of leftover yot bean stew he saw a newsvid about a tragic fire on Onderon.  Mysterious circumstances.  Burned too hot.  Mother dead.  Baby’s nursery.  He called up the Folly’s computer, did a little fact checking and sure enough, it looked like the Sith thing, this Darth Azazel had struck again this time on Onderon.  “Blast!” John exclaimed aloud.


If only he’d followed the Sith rather than running to Miss’Ouri for answers, maybe he would have gotten there in time to stop him!  Maybe he could still get there in time to catch Azazel.  He always stayed in-system for six days, after all, or he had every time but when he killed Jessica.  John had the notion that was special circumstances though.


So, quickly dismissing his resolution to stay and reunite with his boys, John quickly and hurriedly packed up his belongings, sheets of scribbled flimsi and all and within fifteen minutes was ready to go.


“John,” Miss’Ouri said sternly, warning.  “Don’t go.  You won’t be able to do anything now.  It’s too late.  The mother’s dead and you don’t have any weapons to use against Azazel,” she pointed out.  “Stay here.  They’ll be here within a day, at least see them, hug them, let them know you’re all right.


“I can’t Miss’Ouri.  I can’t let the trail get cold.  Offer the family comfort.  Sam and Dean ‘ll be just fine without me.  You, you teach Sam, you hear?  Please?  Make sure he learns what he needs to.  Keep them together, keep them here, and keep them safe.  Don’t let them go anywhere until they’re ready.  I’ll see them, just later.  When it’s safer.  When I know more,” John begged from Missouri’s front hallway.


“They’re grown men, John, not little children.  Not that Dean has been a child in over twenty years, of course, but he’s not just an adult now, he’s all grown up, too,” she tried.


John just fiddled with the strap of his shoulder bag with his hand on the doorknob. 


“John, they need to know you’re all right.  Otherwise they’re gonna come looking for you,” Miss’Ouri warned.  “Please, just stay a little longer.”


“No,” John said stubbornly.  Jaw set.  “I’m keeping them safe by going after this Sith.  You do your part and see they don’t follow,” he said gruffly, opening the door.  “Please?” he called over his shoulder when he thought better of his gruffness.


“Just take care of yourself, John!” Miss’Ouri called after him. 


And so, John’s resolution was broken.


Chapter Twenty-Five


It was late when Sam and Dean Winchester arrived on Dantooine.  So late that Miss’Ouri knew they’d already eaten.  But she still prepared a pitcher of chulaberry juice and a plate of cookies for her living room table.  She knew they’d be there talking for a while.


“Why Sam and Dean Winchester, as I live and breathe!  It is so good to see you all grown up,” Miss’Ouri said as she opened her door to reveal John Winchester’s two tall sons.  “Sam, I am so sorry about Jessica,” she added upon seeing Sam’s tortured eyes.  “I know you need answers, and I’m going to do my best to give them to you.”


“H-hi,” Dean said shyly.  Miss’Ouri had to stifle a laugh.  If she knew anything about this boy by the presence he left in the Force, it was that he certainly wasn’t shy… or rather that, he usually played at being confident and full of bravado.  It certainly was refreshing, if not a little shocking, to see him so… naked, honest, stripped of his usual defenses.  “I remember you,” Dean added.


“Glad to see you’re talking again, properly,” Miss’Ouri added.  “I was always telling John he just had to give it time.  Can’t rush healing,” she added.


Sam turned to his brother, and my Sam was tall!  “You didn’t talk?” he said, confused.


Dean hung his head embarrassed.  “I had trouble talking after the fire,” he admitted.  “You didn’t know that?” he said, somewhat surprised.


“I don’t ever remember you not talking to me,” Sam said, “and Dad certainly never said anything.”


“Boys, boys, come in,” Miss’Ouri interrupted, not wanting them to get into it standing in her front doorway.  The wood door was growing heavy in her hands, and she could tell days of exhaustion, injury, stress, and confusion had them both wound so tight they were ready to snap—at each other if she didn’t intercede and quick.  She stepped aside so the two Winchester brothers could enter and led them into her living room directing them to take a seat on her couch and help themselves to the cookies and juice.


Dean gave her a funny look that suggested he thought the instructions more appropriate for a six-year-old than a twenty-six-year-old, but he had enough sense not to say it out loud.


“Where’s Chevy?” She asked.  Surprised that Dean’s droid and constant companion wasn’t hot on their heels.


“We weren’t sure if you liked droids,” Dean said shyly.  “She’s waiting outside, uh, just off the road.”


“Boy, I remember when you and your momma built her, you get that little droid in here before she gets sick with worry about you,” Miss’Ouri insisted.


She used the time Dean spent calling in the droid on his comlink—which Sam spent looking around her living room at the spare walls and simple, but comfortable furniture—to prepare herself for the conversation to come.  When they were all seated around her living room table, she said, “I’m gonna tell you boys the same thing I told your daddy.”


“When?” Sam interrupted.  “When did you tell him, was he here?”


Surprising.  She expected that from Dean.  She reached out and nudged Dean’s Force-presence, pulling back immediately when she sensed the overwhelming loneliness and inadequacy and abandonment she felt there.  He’s resigned himself, she thought.


“He just left yesterday.  I told him you boys were coming, but he got word of he fire on Onderon, and I couldn’t make him stay any longer.”  She shook her head.  “Fool, I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to get accomplished, except maybe run into Jedi.  But you know how he is when he gets… he’s like a Rancor who’s smelled dinner… he’ll go running after it no matter how stupid or dangerous it is, and nothing’s gonna stop him.”


Sam twitched in his seat.


“Sam, don’t you dare think of running after him.  You’re untrained, and that’s dangerous.  Wouldn’t know what to do if you run into Darth Azazel or the foolish, misguided Jedi who’s on your trail.”


“Darth Azazel?” Dean queried. 


Ahh, good, Miss’Ouri thought, noticing that moment Dean heard the name, his mind snapped away from dwelling on his father’s absence.  “That’s the name of the Sith Lord who’s after you,” Missouri confirmed.


Sam protested, indignant, “I did ok when he killed my girlfriend.  He was trying to kill Dean, and I…”


“You reached out with your anger and hatred and toasted his host, that’s what you did,” Miss’Ouri said.  “Which was very, lucky and showed a damn bit of insight on your part, but it was dangerous.”  Taking a deep breath she told the Winchester boys everything she had told their father.  Word by word, line by line, explaining Azazel’s rise and fall and how the Lost Prophecy came to be.  Only, she noted with pride, they knew how to listen, sitting with rapt attention, not interrupting her until she was good and done.  John might have a problem holding his tongue, but he sure had raised his boys right.  They knew how to give their undivided attention.


“I’m the Chosen One,” Sam murmured his mood somewhere between relief and horror—relief that he finally understood why his life had been turned upside down since he was six months old; horror that he was marked for death or corruption.  “That’s why he’s after me.”


“I’m afraid so, Sam,” Miss’Ouri answered.


“How come I was able to… do what I did with the Force.  These visions, why am I suddenly able to understand them?” Sam asked, curious.  Miss’Ouri could tell he was itching to stand up and pace around, impatient that he felt he still didn’t understand.


“I’m not sure, Sam.  I think it has something to do with however he bound you.  He kept you cut off from the Force, or at least not able to realize your full connection to it.  When that either snapped or he released you… I think maybe because you were bound, your abilities have been coming on stronger and faster than they otherwise would… to catch you up,” Miss’Ouri said, giving her best estimation.  Even with all she knew, she still wasn’t sure exactly how Azazel worked.


“But wait, you said that the Jedi don’t understand, that the Force is about balance,” Sam argued.  “Why would it be bad or dangerous or whatever, that I was angry when I defended us against Azazel?  Even if that was the Dark Side, wouldn’t it be OK.”


Oh that boy is stubborn, and he’s going to be trouble, Miss’Ouri couldn’t stop herself from thinking.  She really should guard herself more.  Untrained didn’t mean deaf to screamingly loud thoughts.


Miss’Ouri let out a long sigh and turned towards Sam, thinking better of it, she stood.  If he was so close to getting up and pacing, then maybe she could vicariously ease some of his nervous energy.  “The Dark Side isn’t inherently evil and the Light Side isn’t inherently good…” she started hesitantly.  “But if you use power that’s too much to one side or the other there are risks.  Using the Dark Side—when you let yourself be ruled by hate or anger or passion, it makes you vulnerable to the influence of others; the power it gives you can cripple your judgment.  You don’t want Darth Azazel getting control over you or tricking you into doing something that helps him, but draw on the Dark Side too much and that’s exactly what you’ll do.  Go too far the other way, focus only on the Light Side, shun any sense of balance, you lose sight of the big picture.  You risk becoming too judgmental and detached, out of touch with the universe by valuing certain aspects of nature above others, for seeing purposeful evil where only chaos exists.  You become so attached to the how that you forget about the what.”


Using her hands to illustrate, she continued.  “The Force needs balance to continue to exist, and when it goes too far out of balance, it tries to balance itself.  Think of the Light as two continents rubbing against each other.  The Light Side is calm, passive, and slow, so it takes a long, long time for anything to happen, and no one much notices it when it does, but over time, the Force gets more and more unbalanced to the Light Side.  When it goes too far, when the Force is too unbalanced, the fault lets go, causing massive destruction in its wake as it swings back to the Dark Side. 


“The Dark Side is angry, active, and fast, and when it breaks out it sweeps across the universe like wildfire suddenly and ferociously.  It all culminates in a confrontation between the Dark and the Light, in which the Light is able to triumph, barely, because ultimately the Dark Side burns too quickly to sustain itself for long.  But the balance has been restored.  But because the Jedi are blind to the balance, they start the process all over again, building pressure more and more until the cycle repeats, not realizing that if the respected the balance—allowed Light and Dark to co-exist, staying in the middle, not straying too far to either side—then the Dark Side wouldn’t periodically rise.”


She paused letting that sink in.  “Azazel is trying to tip things so far that the universe is going to shake itself apart, so anything we do that tips the balance in his favor is dangerous because of the circumstances.”


Sam seemed to get it.  He nodded at least, and she felt dawning realization mixed with confusion rolling off of him.


As Miss’Ouri sat back down, Dean blurted out, “Who is this Healer, and when are they supposed to arrive.”  He blushed, embarrassed at his insistence.  “I’m sorry, Miss’Ouri, it’s just we’re tired, wounded, running on fumes.  I want to protect Sam, but I don’t know anything about the Force, and I can’t use it, and all I want to do is keep Sam safe, but I don’t know how.  So, if there’s something or someone out there who can help make that happen, I just want to know if they’re really going to show up.”


Miss’Ouri let out a small sigh, her features pained and tight.  Dean’s frustration and desperation were palpable, she almost wished she could give him more of an answer.  “The Healer will come in good time.  I don’t know when, but the Healer cannot awaken until needed by the Chosen One.  And the arrival of the Healer signals the beginning of the end.”  Miss’Ouri answered.  It was the truth, after all, but saying any more would be dangerous.  She couldn’t risk manipulating the Prophecy. 


Dean let out a sardonic snort.  “D’you mean the beginning of the end of the galaxy, or the beginning of Azazel’s reign?”


Miss’Ouri explained that she didn’t know—couldn’t see.  She had her hunches, but they were just that.  Because the future was always changing, there could be no definitive interpretation, and it could be very dangerous to try to manipulate a prophecy.  Better that they act on instinct, conviction, and their own plans and common sense.


She could tell Dean was frustrated, that he didn’t quiet believe her.  Pre-destination and pre-determination went against everything the boy believed.  He wanted to be master of his own life, to have confidence that he could shape or change an outcome with his actions.  But at the same time, he feared that the prophecy was true, and didn’t want to act in way that would doom them, or the galaxy.


“Miss’Ouri,” Sam asked, taking a bite of his third chocolate cookie.  “Bobby found this legend about Runes that are weapons against Azazel.  He said you knew something about it?”


“Yes,” she replied with a nod.  “The Protectorate—that’s the original group of Jedi who vowed to fight Azazel’s prophecy—worked and researched on ways to stop him.  They developed a set of Runes that, if placed at the four compass points around Azazel when he was in spirit form, would trap him and keep him from resurrecting his comrades.”


“Where are they?” Sam asked.  “Do you know how to find them?”


Dean’s expectant eyes matched his brother’s as he looked hopefully at Miss’Ouri.


Miss’Ouri sighed, “The Protectorate set up their network as cells.  No one knows more than their mission and no cell knows more about other cells than they absolutely have to.  I know that there are or were Runes or people who know something about them on Thyferra, Coruscant, and Onderon, and I know that the Runes are supposed to call out to the Chosen One through the Force.  I know that because I was sent to be your guide, but beyond that, I know no more.”


“Thyferra, Coruscant, and Onderon…” Dean said, with alarm.  “Those are all planets that have had fires!”


Miss’Ouri nodded.  “I think Azazel may be targeting the Rune Markers,” she said.  “People who have knowledge about individual Runes,” she clarified, when Dean and Sam met her with twin blank looks.


“Does that mean those Runes are just… gone?” Sam asked.


Miss’Ouri shook her head.  “I can’t be sure, but I don’t think so, Sam.  I think they would still call out to you if you went to those planets and looked… but not while they’re crawling with Jedi gunning for your head, and not while you don’t have a clue what you’re doing,” she added with a wag of her finger.


When their questions finally paused, Miss’Ouri stood, stretched, and yawned.  “Well, boys, it’s late.  I’m going to turn in.  Why don’t you two rest up.  You need to recuperate, heal.  I need you both strong and sharp… especially you Sam, if you’re going to start training.”


The Winchesters grudgingly agreed and she showed them to her spare room with its two beds and a power charger, where they and Chevy could spend the night.


Chapter Twenty-Six


“What do you think?” Sam asked Dean when they were both in sleep clothes and climbing into bed.


Dean paused to think about it.  How did he feel?  “I feel like she’s almost a little too… teasing or jovial or something, but that reminds me of how she talked to me when I was a kid, and it’s soothing.”


“She frustrates me because I want to go after Azazel right now.  I wanna meet this head on,” Sam began.  “But, I think I understand where she’s coming from, and if she’s going to teach me, train me, so I have a better chance…”  He shrugged.  “I think I can be patient for that.


Chevy let out a trilled coo denoting her agreement with Miss’Ouri’s attitude towards Sam’s overeager attitude, which made both Sam and Dean laugh.


Sam soon started to drift to sleep, but there was one more thing Dean wanted to ask her.  So, once he was sure Sam’s snores were genuine, not faked, he crept out of the room and found Miss’Ouri in her kitchen, probably expecting him to come looking for her.


“Miss’Ouri?” Dean asked.


“Yes, Dean?” she replied.


“Why…  Why did Lord Azazel come after us?  Why our family?  I mean, why did Mom die, and what made Sam the Chosen One?” Dean finally asked.  It was a question that had been bothering him every since his mother died, and again since Azazel showed up on Sam’s doorstep.  If it was all tied to some prophecy was it just random?  Was there some reason?


Miss’Ouri gave a long sigh and met Dean’s eyes.  I think you already know that, Dean,” she said. 


Dean wasn’t so sure what he was supposed to know, but he knew a dismissal when he heard one, and he took the cue and returned to the bed room, Miss’Ouri’s words tumbling over and over in his mind.  What did he know?




Finally, both Winchesters were asleep.  Now Miss’Ouri could address the other part of the Prophecy that had been hanging around all evening.


“I can sense you, you know.  Don’t have to be hiding in no shadows, boy.  Show yourself,” Miss’Ouri’s voice demanded of the darkness.  She crossed her arms across her chest and tapped her foot in impatience.


In the far corner of the kitchen the air shimmered and a translucent, barely there figure glowed into existence.


“Hmphf!  It is you,” she added with disapproval.


“You know of the prophecy?” the figure’s echoing voice asked.


“Boy, I left the order because of what I know of the prophecy.  Damn fool Jedi and their uptight procedures, not trusting in the Force when it speaks to them.  Doubting the past.  Of course I know of the prophecy.  That’s why I’m here, but then again, that’s why you’re here too.  And you don’t need to hear me talking about them damn Jedi,” Miss’Ouri sassed back at the figure.


“As you said, that is why I am here.  Against Jedi protocol.”  The figure’s voice held a hint of amusement. 


“Well then, if you don’t mind, I’m going to have a seat.  You can sit too if your translucent little ass desires.”  Missouri wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw the figure crack a smile as they both took seats in the rough hewn wooden chairs at either end of the rectangular dining table.


“Do you really have to do things this way?  That boy is hurting… both of them are,” Miss’Ouri said with a sigh, looking over her shoulder towards the bedroom where the Winchester brothers were sleeping.


“The time is not yet right.  The healer has not yet awakened.  We cannot force the awakening it has to happen of its own accord.  So says the prophecy.”  The figure’s voice radiated strength and conviction.  He lifted his translucent eyes to meet Miss’Ouri’s.


“Are you so blind a follower of the prophecy, that you do not question?” She asked, voice hard, demanding, drawing herself up in her chair and leaning forward over the table.


“No,” said the figure, deflating slightly.  “But you know as well as I that trying to interpret prophecies leads to disaster.  The Force conceives of the universe in ways different from our own.  Any Jedi foolish enough to try to avoid a prophecy will only ensure that its ends are brought about,” he said softly, eyes downcast.  “But that is exactly why I cannot act, if I interfere now—”


“Because you might trigger the prophecy in ways you cannot anticipate,” Miss’Ouri finished with an understanding nod.


The figure nodded in reply. 


“I do not want to see the child fall,” she added cryptically.


“Nor do I,” the figure admitted.  “But the child is touched, tainted, like the prophecy said.  Lord Azazel has had his way so far, stepping in now…”


“I understand,” Miss’Ouri said, closing her eyes, taking a moment to feel the breeze floating in through the open window.  She let it bring her peace, the balance she had always sought from the Force, the balance that had always been just out of grasp when she was a member of the Order.  Wise though they were, the Jedi seldom understood the Force.  They tried to harness it, control, it channel it, bend it to their will—but in doing so they failed to see how easily the Force would come… they failed to understand that without balance both light and dark were wrong… not evil or good, but wrong.  The universe could not survive on light or dark alone, but even after millennia of wars and struggles, that simple truth still eluded them.  She opened her eyes and used the Force to look through the figure seated across from her, to see the truth in his being.  “If we intercede now, reveal too much, we risk further unbalancing the Force.  A step to try to bypass the prophecy or tip the odds in the boys’ favor—”


“Could swing the balance to light or dark, defeating everything we have waited to achieve,” the figure finished solemnly.


“Yet you don’t trust completely?” She added voice rising in question.


“That is why I am here.  Waiting on the sidelines feels too much like the old Jedi ways.  Fifty centuries of existing in the Force, and I am still not certain that we got it right.  The stakes are too high, if we fail… we must not fail.” he admitted.


Miss’Ouri nodded again.  A smile breaking over her face.  “You will serve the healer well.  With your help, maybe he will save the child,” she added solemnly.


“He is our only hope… the Universe’s only hope,” the figure added.  “You are helping him too.”


Miss’Ouri chuckled and shook her head, her loose robe shifting around her shoulders as she did so.  “He doesn’t trust me.  Sweet boy, he can tell I’m keeping things from him.”


“It’s for the best.”


“Yes, yes it is,” she agreed.  “But you and I both know that, explain as we might, there’s no way he’s going to understand that, not yet anyway.”  She flipped her palms up and out in a gesture of surrender.  “He’s so astute.  Sees through things.  I hadn’t expected that,” she admitted.


“Nor had I,” the figure added.  “And I have had far longer to speculate on his personality than you.  He is truly strong with the Force.”  The figure shifted and then rose.  “I must be going now.  The future will be unfolding quickly.  Their destiny will not wait much longer, and I still must find a host.”


“You won’t be hijacking no bodies now, will you?” She asked, already knowing the answer.


“I am not a Sith,” the figure hissed. 


Missouri nodded in agreement.


“Besides, the Force has had eternity to prepare.  The host is nearly ready.” 


The figure quickly began to fade away, and soon Miss’Ouri could feel that his presence had left her home.


Miss’Ouri remained seating for a few minutes longer, meditating in the silence.  He is well chosen, wise, she thought.  Still there were a few tricks she had up her sleeve that could help the Winchesters without involving the prophecy at all.  Sharing a secret smile with the cool night air, she stood, reaching for the wrap she kept on the cabinet near the window.  Years of living in Dantooine’s cooler climate and she still hadn’t adjusted to the temperature.  Wrapping herself in the soft, woven fabric, she made her way silently to her own bedroom, sneaking a peak at the Winchester brothers on her way by.


They looked so peaceful in sleep.  Grief finally absent from Sam’s face, the boy looked so young, like a child.  The tension that seemed ever present in Dean’s body had also washed away, but having the weight of the weight of the world on his shoulders for so long had taken its toll.  In addition to the healing ankle, which was currently propped on cushions at the foot of the bed, he had dark circles under his eyes, cuts and bruises were scattered across the left side of his face and down his torso, and his bandaged hands were clawed tightly around the blankets which were pooled around his hips.  Even in sleep he wasn’t fully relaxed.


Looking back at Sam, she wished she could promise them both a dreamless, restful sleep, but she knew that she could not.  There was one thing she could do though, turning back to Dean, she reached out with her hand in front of her and focused, her eyes closing and brow furrowing in concentration.  The Force flowed through her and out, settling around Dean’s sleeping form.  The boy let out an audible sigh and relaxed, his hands unclenching from the blankets, and his features going slack.  It wasn’t much, but at least this way the boy might actually rest.  Opening her eyes, pleased with her handiwork, Miss’Ouri left the room and entered her own bed.  Settling down for the night and hoping the two boys sleeping in the next room would have the strength to endure what the universe was about to ask of them.

Chapter Twenty-Seven


There were flames all around him.  The room was on fire, everything burned, he should be burning too, yet the flames did not touch him.  He looked up and overhead Jess was burning, beautiful, beautiful Jess, on fire, surrounded by flames that were first blue, then red.  She called to him, asked him why?, the betrayal in her voice searing him to the core, burning hotter than the flames could ever hope.  But Sam had no answer, and he could do nothing.  Nothing to change the past.  Paralyzed by what the future might hold.  So he stood there and stared, tears falling down his cheeks unable to answer.


Sam woke with a gasp, or so he though, he knew it had been a dream, but now he didn’t understand where he was.  He was seated on the edge of some sort of landing pad, his legs dangling down over the edge, but rather than floating in the air or in space, it was situated above a mesmerizing blue-green ocean.  He was dressed in unfamiliar robes that looked rough but felt soft, and vaguely reminded him of what Jedi Knights wore.  He noticed that the lacerations, bruising, and tightness in his chest were gone and his head wasn’t aching.


Sam looked around taking in the pristine, smooth, grey-white of his surroundings.  He was in some sort of floating city, but it seemed to be abandoned.  He didn’t recognize the planet or the constellations he could see in the night sky. 


“Samuel,” a woman’s voice called to him, echoing strangely. 


Sam jumped.  He thought he was alone, but now he could see a woman approaching.  She was dressed in white Jedi robes and appeared to be walking on across the water to him.  He was trying to figure out whether the Force would actually allow someone to do that, when he noticed that she was glowing, and actually sort of transparent.


Spirit he thought.  But not the sort of spirit his father and brother hunted.  Not the sort of spirit he had tried to put to rest as a child.  This was the spirit of a Jedi.  Sam had heard stories that some Jedi chose to stay around after death to watch over those they cared about, to transmit messages, to act as conduits to the other side.  They weren’t trapped though, and usually left the mortal realm when the right time came, letting go to become one with the Force.  Still, hearing stories about such things and actually seeing one were completely different. 


Still, there was something familiar about the woman.  As she came closer he noticed she had soft, green eyes and long, blond hair that seemed to float around her like a halo.  A small, silver-hilted lightsaber hung from her belt.  Somehow he knew that if the blade was extended it would glow soothing purple.  He recognized her… from pictures.  “Mom?” he asked, his voice uncertain.  Sam had no memory of his mother, but he knew that this was her. 


“Yes, Sam,” she said, smiling, “it’s me.”


“Am I dreaming?” he asked, uncertainty creeping into his voice.  This was impossible.  His mother had been a droid programmer and engineer on Dantooine, not a Jedi Knight.  He remembered his father saying something once when he was drunk on lum about Mary having done a stint in the Antarian Rangers before moving to Dantooine, but Sam was certain John had meant that his Mom had been a Ranger, not one of the Jedi they supported.  “You’re not a Jedi, how—”


“I’m sorry, Sam,” she said, her smile faltering.  Her eyes looked Sad. 


“Sorry?” He asked even more confused.


“This is not a dream, not really.  This is a vision from the Force.  I have been waiting for this time, to come to you to say goodbye and to apologize.”


“Say goodbye?  Wait, Mom, you just got here.  Don’t go.  I don’t understand?” Sam started to panic, scrambling to his feet so that he was standing on the edge of the landing pad, facing his mother’s spirit that was floating on top of the water just over the landing pad’s edge.  He was taller than her, he realized.  She looked so much like Dean, or rather, he understood now where his brother got his more delicate features and piercing green eyes from.  Sam was still panicking, but somehow facing her, standing so close, she radiated a sense of peace that washed over him and calmed him.


“I do not have much time, Sam.  I have waited for this moment, and when it passes, I must leave to become one with the Force.  I have been watching over you, and now my task is complete.”  Her voice was sad, but resigned and yet loving, accepting.


Sam started to protest, but Mary lifted a glowing finger to her lips.


“There is much I must tell you before I go.  I was a Jedi, my companion was a ranger who died.  I am sorry for the deception, but in time, I hope you will understand.  You too have the Force.  It has awakened in you after all these years, and you must be careful.  The call of the Dark Side is strong, stronger than anything you’ve ever imagined, and you must not fall…” her voice trailed off tears coming to her eyes.


“Dark Side?  Use the Force, Mom, please, I don’t understand…” Sam stuttered around the growing lump in his throat.  “Please, Mom, don’t go, don’t leave me again.”


“My son.  I love you.  I will always love you.  Do not cry,” she said, smiling though her own eyes sparkled with unshed tears.  She lifted her transparent hand and pressed it to Sam’s cheek, wiping away the tears. 


He could feel the warmth the glow and power of his mother’s hand against his skin.  He leaned into it, wondering if this is what it felt like to be cradled by your mother.  The long standing ache of loss ignited in him again, pulling with it his grief over loosing Jess.  For a moment, he had almost forgotten.  He was so wrapped up in his mother’s presence that he had forgotten that his lover had burned before his eyes just days before.  He felt the telltale wave of rage at the Sith that had caused her death, murdered her.  His mother’s hand stilled.  Sam looked down, her eyes were filled with worry.


“Sam, I am so, so sorry about Jessica.  But you cannot give into your hate.  That’s what he wants from you.  You must be strong; you must resist.”


Sam nodded, not really understanding what his mother meant, but not wanting to see her upset.  Resist what?  Revenge was justice, after all, wasn’t it?  Wasn’t that why his father had hunted after his mother’s killer for all these years?  And now Jess’s killer was one and the same, shouldn’t he want to destroy the monster that had killed her?  Not the same thing as revenge, a quiet voice in the back of his head pleaded.  Listen to your mother.  But he ignored it, pushed it aside for now.  He had so many questions; he could figure all this out later.  “I’ll be strong, Mom,” he said, reassuring.


Her eyes regarded him, and for a moment he knew she saw inside, saw the way his soul was twisting and turning, lost, but she just murmured, “I’m sorry,” again.


“What is this place?” he asked, partly wanting to change the subject, and partly filled with honest curiosity.


“The Force is showing this place to you.  Something will happen here.  Something important.  The Force wants you to know.  To be prepared,” she answered, her eyes staying locked with Sam, burning with an intensity he had only seen before in his brother.


“What will happen here?” he asked, nervous.  It was his first Force-vision involving a Jedi spirit after all, not to mention his first—and probably only—conversation with his mother.  Sam was generally feeling a bit out of his depth.


“I cannot tell you.  That is not yours to know, not yet.  All will be revealed in time,” she said, finally breaking eye contact and looking away, glancing over her shoulder staring off over the water at some unseen, distant point.


Sam felt a sudden leap of fear, knowing, but not knowing how, that his mother’s time was almost up.  “Please, Mom, I love you.  I’ve missed you.  Tell me about yourself.  I want to know.  I want to know what it’s like to have a mother… don’t go.  Stay.  We need you…” his voice hitched and the words caught in his throat.  He knew he was crying again.  “Dad’s missing and Dean’s hurt and Jess died, and I don’t understand!”


She looked back at Sam, her smile growing, warming him, seeming to warm the air around him.  “I love you too, Sam.  I am sorry that I couldn’t be with you, but you’ve always had a mother…  Even with me gone, you’ve always known the feel of a mother’s love.” She rose on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around Sam, drawing him into a hug and kissing him on the cheek.


It wasn’t quite like hugging a live person, but it was much more substantial than hugging air.  For a moment, Sam felt like he was surrounded by love and peace.  All fears and concerns were gone to his mind, and he just basked in his mother’s embrace.  Then all too soon, her arms were leaving him, and she was pulling away.


“Be strong Sam.  Your brother loves you.  Never forget that,” she said, her words seeming to echo, as she turned away and headed back over the water.  She stopped one more time and looked over her shoulder, “Tell your brother and your father that I love them.”  The water seemed to shimmer underneath her, and then the air glowed bright in front of her and she seemed to step through an invisible doorway and disappeared.


“Mom?” Sam called after her, knowing she was gone.  He felt so confused.  The sense of peace she had instilled in him, was still flowing around him, but already his mind was awake, overwhelmed with questions, trying to take in his surroundings.  Trying to figure out and understand.  Then all too soon, the world was fading from around him.


Sam’s eyes popped open, and again he awakened with a gasp.  This time, though, he felt the sting and pull of the wounds on his chest.  His head ached and throbbed with the residual concussion, and he could hear Dean’s light snores from the bed next to him.  He was clearly back in the spare bedroom in Miss’Ouri’s house on Dantooine.  What did Mom mean?  Why was she sorry?  What is that place? He wondered.  But mostly, he felt the renewed surge of hate towards the yellow-eyed Sith for killing his mother, for killing Jess.  Somehow, he would make it up to them.  He would find that thing and stop it once and for all.


If only Sam understood just what that meant.




“Dean… Dean,” a familiar voice called softly in Dean’s ear.


Dean twisted in the bed, careful of his injuries, rolling towards the sound of the voice.  He opened his eyes, smiling at the glowing figure in front of him.  “Mom,” he breathed.


“Yes baby, I’m here.”


Dean shifted, turning his head so that it was almost in her lap, or where her lap would be if she were a real flesh-and-blood person.  He felt the soft touch of her hands running through his hair. “You were a Jedi,” he realized aloud, wheels were turning in his mind, and suddenly it was like a lock had clicked into place.  “That’s how you’ve been able to visit me.  That’s why Sammy…” he shuddered at the thought of his brother controlling the fire.  It had saved his life, but the aura of hate his brother had exuded when he burned the Sith’s host chilled Dean to the core. 


“Yes baby,” Mary answered.  “Your brother can touch the Force.  That’s why it’s time.  Time that I go.  You’re ready now,” she said sadly.


Somehow Dean had known the words were coming.  His mother had come to him from time to time over the years, he’d never told his father, because well… John was just so sad at any mention of Mary, and Dean feared that if John knew he was talking to a spirit, he’d either want to take Dean for psychological evaluation or hunt the spirit, and then again, it was also just Dean’s special time with his mom.  But the visits had been fewer and farther between, and she’d always said she could only come while he still needed him.  “Please don’t go?  I need you.  I don’t understand what’s happening with Sammy, and I feel so lost,” he pleaded.


“I know baby, I know,” she cooed.  “I’d love to stay, but you are ready now.  It’s time for me to move on.  The Force is calling.  I don’t belong here any more, but I’ll always be with you here,” she said, resting her glowing fingers over Dean’s heart as if he were still a small child. 


Dean let out a shaky sigh.  “I’m scared.  I don’t want to do this alone.”


“Don’t be afraid.  You won’t be alone.  I promise.  You just have to hold on.  Trust your instincts.  Soon, soon you will understand.”  She leaned down and kissed his forehead before standing.


Dean immediately felt the loss of her touch.  Where there was warmth, everything felt cold, everything, except the place where she’d touched his chest still seemed to glow and tingle with warmth.  He focused on that, trying to hold on, keep his mother with him longer.


“Good-bye, my child,” she said softly.


“I love you momma,” Dean sniffed in reply.


“I love you too.”  And then she just faded away.


Dean let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and gingerly rolled onto his back, letting his eyes drift closed, mulling over his mother’s words.  So, that was to be the last of her visits.  Moreover, she’d been a Jedi, well that did make sense.  He’d suspected it for a while, but never really thought about it.  Maybe that was why the Sith had come after her?  The idea felt partly right, but Dean knew he was still missing something.  Soon, his mother had said.  He hated feeling so lost.  He just hoped soon really was soon.  Right now he felt like he was failing everyone.  He should be strong not lost, yet here he was, a grown man crying for his mother, and missing his father.  His brother needed him, and he didn’t even know what to do to help.


Dean felt the tingling in his chest again, reassurance where his mother had touched him.  He focused on that and allowed himself to drift back to sleep.  If he’d stayed awake a few moments longer, he would have seen his brother awaken, would have sensed his rage… but instead, Dean drifted into some much-needed rest.  The last rest he would get for a long time.  If he had known what would await him when he next awoke, he might have just held onto sleep a little longer.


Chapter Twenty-Eight


The next morning, Dean awoke, remembering his dream.  He sat up in bed, looking over at where Sam slept to find his younger brother already awake, looking haunted and twitchy.  Getting to be a regular thing with Sammy, Dean thought.


They brothers exchanged glances, both had knowing eyes, but if Dean had to guess, he figured his were even more haunted than Sammy’s right now.  He was still shaking with the realization that he’d never see his mother again.  He hadn’t realized how much he cherished her visits until he knew there would be no more.


“So…” Sam started, seemingly unsure where to begin, swinging his legs nervously, anger or frustration bubbling just under the surface.


“Mom came to you too last night,” Dean answered.  It was a statement not a question.  Starting off with the obvious seemed like the best option; he’d get to the bottom of Sam’s mood later.


Sam nodded, looking down at the floor.  “She’s visited you before?”  Again, his voice seemed caught somewhere between sadness and anger.


“Yeah,” Dean croaked, turning on the bed so he could elevate his ankle.  It was finally starting to itch more than ache, which meant it was mending at last.  He tried to use the itch to distract him from the sucking emotional loss he was feeling after hearing his mother’s words.  “But she won’t be visiting me again.  It… she’s gone to cross over,” he added sadly, forcing the words out past the lump in his throat.


“Cross over?” Sam asked, uncertain; his voice now more confused than angry.


“Become one with the Force,” Dean explained.  She hadn’t said it in so many words, but he understood what she’d meant.


“Oh,” Sammy responded, looking down at his feet again.


“It’s hard for spirits to hang on here like Mom’s did,” Dean started.  He realized he’d always known that, even before Miss’Ouri had given them her little lesson the night before.  “You heard what Miss’Ouri said, Jedi are supposed to join the Force.  It’s why that Sith, Lord Azazel, is so bad,” Dean offered.


Sam nodded, sullenly.  “Still makes me sad, like I miss her more now…”


Dean could hear the gulp and sniffle that meant Sam was holding back tears.  Sam’s voice sounded so small and young.


“Me too, Sammy, me too,” he comforted, the conversation reminding Dean distinctly of many similar exchanges when Sam was a child.


Sam’s forehead scrunched up.  “Did you know Mom was a Jedi?” he asked.


Dean felt his own brow furrow in response.  That was a question he had been trying to answer since Mary’s visit.  “I don’t know,” he admitted at last, raising a hand to quiet Sam’s burgeoning protest.  “I mean it’s hard to explain.” He sighed.  “When I was little, I didn’t know.  I didn’t tell Dad, ‘cause I worried that he’d think I was crazy or cursed—besides, I really thought I was just dreaming her, at least at first.  Then later, I understood it was really her, she sounded the same, smelled the same, knew things I didn’t… I think I just thought she was special….  Then later,” Dean shrugged, “I guess I learned enough about Jedi to figure it out, but I didn’t really think about it, what it meant.  I figured that if she was a Jedi, she wasn’t one anymore when she met Dad, and she must have had her reasons.”


Sam nodded, “makes sense.”


As much as any of this does, Dean thought bitterly. 


The two brothers proceeded to exchange the details of their dreams.  Dean felt somewhat alarmed when Sam told him about the location of his dream and how he knew that something involving Darth Azazel would be happening there.


“Do you know what?” Dean asked as he hobbled around Miss’Ouri’s guest room, getting dressed in a loose-fitting shirt and pants that were particularly suited to Dantooine’s warm climate.


“What, what?” Sam asked frustratedly.


“What’s going to happen there—the place you saw with all the,” Dean made a rippling gesture with his hands, “water.”


Sam sighed.  “It’s got something to do with Darth Azazel and his plans.  Something important, but I don’t know what!  It felt final?  Like it was a major step in bringing back his followers or something.”  Sam finished off sounding unsure, but Dean hadn’t missed his brother’s outburst. The pissy ire was returning to Sam’s voice and body language.


Ah, a clue, Dean thought.


“Can you give me all the details you remember about what it looked like?”  Dean asked.  He had an idea, and he wanted to see how far he could get with it.


“Yeah,” Sam answered.  He was already dressed and was trying out stretches, probably seeing what he could and couldn’t do with his still-healing ribs.  Dean knew Miss’Ouri planned to teach Sam some Jedi training exercises today.


“Good, I’m gonna ask Chevy to record your description,” Dean responded, fixing his hair where it was rumpled from pulling on his shirt.


“Why?” Sam asked, pausing mid stretch.


Dean couldn’t help laughing at Sam’s pose.  He was half bent over with one arm in the air, legs spread wide, long hair flopping in his face, and his torso twisted sideways.


Chevy trilled her inquiry, snapping Dean from his amusement.


“Because Darth Azazel is planning something there and if you’re right, whatever it is will be close to the end, and I want to know where there is!” Dean said, surprised by how emphatic his voice sounded.  “That way, if he goes there—”


“We’ll know we’re almost out of time,” Sam finished.


“And we’ll know how to get there,” Dean said nodded solemnly.  He let the silence hang between them for a few moments.


Miss’Ouri chose that moment to enter, seeming to know the mood could use some interrupting.  Come to think of it, she probably did know.  She came bearing a tray of fresh fruit and bread as well as a pitcher of the chulaberry juice she’d served the night before. Miss’Ouri suggested the brothers take their time and eat in their room if the liked.


After setting the tray and pitcher down on the table between the two beds, she turned to exit, pausing in the doorway to give Dean a knowing look.  “There’s a computer terminal in my study that you can use if you like, Dean,” she said.  Then just as suddenly as she had entered, she was gone, leaving the two brothers and their droid alone together again.


It really was disconcerting how much the woman seemed to know about Dean’s thoughts without him saying a word.


After another awkward pause, Sam and Dean decided to eat.  They wound up sitting on Dean’s bed with the food carefully spread out between them.  Sam recounted a detailed impression of the place he’d seen in his dream, while they ate, Chevy dutifully recording all the while.


When Sam was done, Dean took the plunge.  It was time to find out the source of Sam’s earlier anger.


“So, Sammy,” he paused, taking a bite of bread while he searched for the best words, “What’s got you so upset?”


Sam blanched, and for a split second, Dean thought he’d either read Sam wrong or Sam was mad at him and was now primed to blow up.    But then, Sam opened his mouth, and Dean had his answer.


“I’m so angry at Mom!” Sam started, his voice loud and carrying.  “She never talked to me—came to me—before, and when I finally get a chance to talk to her, she’s all cryptic.  She knew something Dean, she knew about the Sith, and she wouldn’t tell me.  She just kept telling me the place was important, but she wouldn’t say why.  She said the Sith wanted me, and that I had to resist, but she wouldn’t say what for or what to resist.  And I’m just so mad!  But I don’t want to be mad, ‘cause she’s Mom, and now I’m never gonna see her again and—”


Sam had burst into full-fledged tears, his voice broke off when the sobs were too strong to talk through. 


Dean responded by snaking his arms around Sammy and pulling him to him, careful of Sam’s injured ribs, holding him and rocking him like he’d don when they were younger.  “Maybe she doesn’t know everything Sam, or maybe she can’t tell you.”


“What, ‘cause like Miss’Ouri was saying, there’s some things you have to learn for yourself?” Sam sniffled skeptically into Dean’s shoulder.


Dean took a moment to think about it.  The ex-Jedi’s words had sounded as preposterous to him as they apparently had to Sam when she’d said them, but now, he was starting to see the truth behind them.  “Maybe, maybe something like that,” he settled on finally.


Sam let out a long, ragged sigh, his body shuddering against Dean’s.  “I just feel all bad for being mad at Mom.  ‘Cause it’s Mom, and she’s dead, and this blasted Sith killed her too,” Sam admitted.


“It’s ok, Sammy, feeling angry doesn’t mean you don’t love her,” Dean soothed, but in the back of his mind sat a nagging, niggling worry, triggered by Miss’Ouri’s explanations about anger and hate and how they made manipulation through the Dark Side so easy.


Sam composed himself, wiping snot and tears with his hands like he had as a young child.  “D’you think Mom might be the ‘Jedi of immeasurable strength’ that the prophecy talked about?” he asked, voice wobbly.  “Maybe she found whatever it was that uh, woke Azazel up?”


The thought sickened Dean, but it had occurred to him too.  “I think maybe, Sam; I mean if this prophecy stuff is really real, it would make sense.  But that doesn’t make it Mom’s fault.  She couldn’t have known…”


“It’s ok,” Sam sniffled, holding up his hand to stop Dean.  “I’m not going to blame her for that.  I feel guilty enough for getting mad at her about the whole place, thing.”


“I’m going to see if I can find that place, today, while you’re working with Miss’Ouri,” Dean added.


“Great!” Sam said.  “Uh, I’m gonna go use the ‘fresher and then see what Miss’Ouri wants me to start on,” Sam said, standing, clearly still embarrassed about his breakdown.


“Good luck, little bro,” Dean replied with a smile, pleased when Sam returned it.


Chapter Twenty-Nine


Sam spent the rest of the morning, afternoon, and into the evening training with Miss’Ouri.  She started out with some Jedi meditation techniques and had him practice using telekinesis, tracking objects through the Force, and blocking and protecting objects through the Force—all skills he started to master quickly. 


The first thing Sam learned was how to mask his presence in the Force.  Miss’Ouri explained how easy it was for one Force-sensitive to detect another, and demonstrated by having Sam stretch his mind and perceptions just a little.  He was shocked when he could immediately feel Miss’Ouri’s presence. 


“It’s that easy?” he said, surprised.


“Yes,” she said with a sage nod.  “And if you are not careful to close yourself down, pull your senses close to your body, try to make yourself as small as possible, then that is what any Force-user will ‘see’ when you are near.


Miss’Ouri had Sam try again, this time minimizing her presence in the Force.  Sam was surprised to find that he couldn’t sense her.  After a few minutes of struggling and then relaxing to let his perception stretch out more naturally, he finally picked up that there was a sentient being there, but got no sense that it was a fellow Force-user.  “That’s amazing,” Sam said.


Then Miss’Ouri had him practice masking his presence in the Force over, and over, and over again, until she was satisfied.  “Good!  You have learned quickly, Sam.”


They moved on through other exercises—sensing thoughts without being detected, meditating, telekinesis, Force pushing (essentially just using telekinesis to push or knock people and objects away). 


Miss’Ouri’s main criticism of Sam was that he got frustrated too easily and was prone to slipping into anger when he thought about Jess, their father, or stopping the Sith.  She reminded him that anger was a quick way to open himself to Azazel’s influence.


Sam tried to control it, but it was so difficult!  He wanted revenge so bad he could taste it, and it was hard not to ‘go there’ mentally when he thought about the purpose of his training.


Explaining this to Miss’Ouri, she suggested he practice emptying his mind, letting go of his emotions. 


At first that was hard and frustrating, but eventually, Sam got the hang of it, and discovered that accessing the Force while in a neutral emotional state made his control much better.  When Sam could pull Chevy too him and then push her away at will, without jerking her or pushing too hard, Miss’Ouri called their lessons to an end for the day.


“What about lightsabers?” Sam asked.


“A lightsaber is a very difficult weapon to control, and its making is a ritualized process that can only be completed when a Force-user as achieved control similar to that of a Jedi Padawan.  We have neither the time, nor the resources for you to craft a lightsaber, and I can assure you, if you are to confront and defeat Darth Azazel, it will be mind to mind, not blade to blade.”


Sam felt a bit disappointed, but tried to hide it.


Miss’Ouri let out an amused laugh.  “Sam, there’s a lot more to being a Force-user than having a fancy sword.  But if you’ve got your heart set on learning the lightsaber, I would be happy to teach you some day.”


Sam tried to take that as encouragement that Miss’Ouri thought he’d live to see ‘some day,’ but he wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t just wishful thinking.




Dean spent the day pouring over planetary data at Miss’Ouri’s console while Sam trained, searching planet after planet after for places with lots of water and white curved docking bays that floated on the water.


It took hours and over one hundred separate searches in the Planetary Database, but finally he had an answer!


After Dinner that night, he pulled Sam aside to show him what he’d found.


“Sam, does this look like what you saw in your dream?” Dean asked, displaying a photo of a blue planet entirely covered in ocean with a solitary, white floating city with a curving scalloped shape gracing the surface. 


Sam scrunched up his brow.  “Maybe…  Are there any holos from its landing bays?  I was in one that was right in the water.”


Dean flicked through a few more holos, with Sam shaking his head in frustration, until finally Dean found one taken from inside a docking bay looking out over the water.


“Yes, that’s it!” Sam said excitedly. “I think that’s exactly where I was.  Where is that?” he asked cocking his head to the side to try to get a better sense of the planet.


“Ahto City,” Dean replied.


“Never heard of it, where is it?” Sam asked.


“On Manaan.”


“Isn’t that an all-water planet?” Sam asked confused.


“Yes, but,” Dean said bringing up another file on the console, “Back during the Civil War and before, it was a big trading hub, and the native Selkath set up a floating city on the surface to cater to trade with land-dwelling sentients.  They abandoned it a few millennia ago, but it was built to last, so it’s still there on the surface, just… empty,” Dean explained.


“Now we know,” Sam said.  “If we track a hyperspace distortion on a route to Manaan…”


“We know it’s time,” Dean concluded.  Time for what, he really didn’t want to think about.


Chapter Thirty


Too late again!  John Winchester couldn’t hold back his fury any longer.  He was angry.  At himself, at the Sith, at Miss’Ouri, maybe even a little at Mary, rest her soul, as he was starting to realize she might have not been only the innocent, droid-designing ex-Antarian Ranger he thought he’d married.  No, Miss’Ouri’s explanation of the prophecy suggested it all tied back to Mary  If she had been a Jedi, well, then she probably had more reasons, more understanding, than John of why the Jedi were so—destructive.


Most of all, John was desperate for a way to save his younger son.  But right now he couldn’t seem to save anyone, as yet another family had been destroyed. 


John had rushed to Onderon—a place whose security he dreaded—after the Folly had picked up on the report about the fire.  There’d been a chance, a slim one, depending on exactly when Azazel had arrived there, that John might be able to catch the Sith Lord’s trail and confront him before he left the system.  Now, John had wanted to curse himself for not following the Sith from Coruscant.  He had rushed off to Miss’Ouri hoping for answers, and what had it gotten him? A confusing, nightmarish prophecy and another child motherless.  John still had no way to save Sammy.  No chance of stopping the Sith, this Lord Azazel.


He was standing in the center of what had once been a nursery, now just another melted, twisted hulk, open to the elements, like every fire before it.  His DED in hand registering dark energy off the charts, but nothing else.  Frustrated, John shut off the device and slipped it back into his jacket pocket. 


He really wanted to talk to the family.  But so far, the Onderon Security Forces were clustered too tightly around them, shielding them from nosy neighbors and those passersby who couldn’t help gawking at the ruins.  The authorities were asking questions, offering formal comfort, making sure everyone who approached had the proper credentials and everything verified in triplicate.  It had taken John half a day skulking through Iziz and working on the Folly to get all the documents together just to pose as a fire inspector, and another three hours of filing the paperwork and then convincing the guards on-site just to get in.  There was no way he could get to the family until later, until the security forces had gone home for the day and the family had returned to the temporary structure that had been erected on the front corner of their lot.  Even four days after the blaze, there were more officials with more questions.


One of the children—the oldest, not that much younger than Sam—had looked at him with such big, haunted eyes that John was desperate to talk to her.  She must have seen something.  John felt like if maybe he could talk to her, he could figure something out.  Some clue he hadn’t yet unearthed. 


As John carefully picked his way back through the still-smoldering ruins, he noticed a commotion stirring up a little way down the broad street.  That’s odd, he mused.  The security forces usually had everything so firmly under control, there was hardly a squeak out of order once they’d arrived.  But sure enough, a crowd had gathered in the street, blocking it.  He could hear surprised and awed gasps coming from the crowd and saw a nervous-looking lieutenant scurry over to the troops who were guarding the family and the colonel who was currently questioning them.


The colonel looked up from his datapad, stylus in hand, and acknowledged the lieutenant’s presence.  The lieutenant leaned forward on tiptoe to whisper something in the taller colonel’s ear.  The colonel pulled back, shocked, clearly asking “What?”  The lieutenant repeated or clarified the information, whatever he said, though, it was too far away to hear or try to lip read—not that John was particularly good at that.  The colonel asked something else, and the lieutenant turned to point in the direction of the crowd.  At that moment, the crowd parted, and John had an answer.


A tall, dark-skinned human in Jedi Master’s robes flanked by two uniformed RI agents stepped into view. 


Sithspawn!” John cursed aloud.  Master Shran and the real Republic Intelligence Agents were here.  There was no way John could stick around.  He’d posed as an RI agent to Shran, so he certainly couldn’t interact with him now as a fire inspector!  If his deception on Coruscant hadn’t yet been detected, it soon would be.  He had to leave and leave fast, or he wouldn’t be leaving at all—especially not with the platoon of Jedi Support Corps troops who had followed Shran and the RI agents through the crowd and the two dozen or so Onderon Security Forces personnel milling about.


John carefully changed direction, heading off the lot away from the temporary structure, careful to keep the family and their guard between him and the Jedi the entire time.  When he reached the street, he turned his back to the Jedi and walked down the street away from the gathered crowd until he reached the other sentry manning the entrance to the area around the fire site that was sill electronically cordoned off.


“Leaving so soon, sir?” the sentry queried.  John’s work order stated he would be there for another half-hour, damn bureaucratic government.


“Yes, I’ve had a little equipment malfunction with one of my sensors.  Just heading back to headquarters to see if I can get a replacement,” John explained, gesturing to the shoulder bag of tools he carried, as the sentry signed him out.


“Ok, sir.  If you get your equipment replaced, please come back and check in through me, and I will make sure you get the time remaining on your work order,” the sentry answered with forced politeness, probably seething over the extra paperwork John’s exit and expected reentry would cause him. 


“Will do,” John said with an even faker smile, holding his inspector’s badge out for scanning.  “Thank you for being so accommodating,” he added as he stepped around the sentry and left.


If the sentry had a reply, John didn’t notice, he was too busy focusing on making a speedy-but-unobtrusive get away.


It ended up taking John over an hour to get back to the Folly, since the spaceport was in the same direction as Shran’s approach.  That meant going several klicks out of his way and then doubling back, but of course Iziz had lots of twisty, windy streets that seemed to end or run into walls in several random places, and—since he hadn’t bothered to consult an area map in his haste to escape—translated into several wrong turns and backtracking.


Then, as luck would have it (really, John should have known something like this would happen), RI and the Jedi had landed their ship at the same spaceport, which was now, consequently, crawling with uniformed RI agents (and probably scads more un-uniformed ones).  John hadn’t thought to check the warrants and criminal bulletins yet, so he was unsure if his description or likeness might be on one for his little RI impersonation gig on Coruscant. 


As a result, he wound up waiting (more like skulking) in the shaded side of a nearby open-air tapcaf, while stripping out of his inspector’s gear and calling up the Folly to stage a diversion.  Thanks to the ship’s unique computer system, he was able to slice into spaceport security and cause an alarm to malfunction on the other side of the spaceport. 


Sure enough, all the uniformed personnel (and several people not wearing uniforms) scurried away to investigate, and John seized the opportunity to approach the security desk.


The hassled, harried-looking woman behind the counter didn’t look pleased to see him, but a gracious smile and eager, concerned story about wanting to check on his ship because of the alarm, combined with his presentation of the correct claim ticket and pass code had him waived inside long before the alarm shut off and RI made it back.


Once inside, he avoided the lifts and opted to jog up the stairs and across the moving walkways until he reached the Folly’s landing pad.  He arrived out of breath and more than a little paranoid.  Checking over his shoulder, he punched in the access code to lower the security forcefield and enter while simultaneously signaling for the Folly to lower her boarding ramp.


A minute later, he was on board on the bridge starting preflight and on the comm. With Iziz ground control and Onderon customs to get clearance to leave.  Good.  No red flags, no hesitation, no non-routine questions or strange delays.  Either he hadn’t been spotted, or Shran and the RI were letting him get away; either way, he was grateful.


While the bureaucrats were crunching numbers and running through procedures, John was trying to find a destination.  He queried the Folly’s computer to see if it had found a trace of the Sith Lord or had probable destination for Darth Azazel.  Sure enough, the hyperspace interference tracked with a diplomatic passenger transport headed for Naboo. 


When Onderon customs queried him for his exit trajectory, he had his response ready.  John only hoped that maybe he could get to Naboo on time.



Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One


Miss’Ouri had been training Sam religiously; dawn to dusk every day, and Sam was getting stronger, more relaxed, more in control, calmer than Dean had seen him in years.  But Dean was going restless.  He had poured over every piece of research they had on the so-called Lost Prophecy, checking and re-checking the translations, remote searching archives and libraries, looking for any clue he could find.  He did manage to find two sources that mentioned a Force Rune or Rune of the Light, but neither was particularly helpful.


The first was a myth in ancient Neti—the language of the original inhabitants of Myrkr, but considering he didn’t read Neti, and it was almost a dead language, he wasn’t having much luck.  The second was a dialect of the native Vratix language from Thyferra, but again, Dean didn’t really understand it.  He set the two sources aside to give to Sam later, in hopes his brother might know more about the obscure languages.


It seemed that the more research Dean did, the more frustrated he got.  Sam was learning to use the Force; he was learning how much of a help he was not.


On their third morning on Dantooine, Miss’Ouri approached Dean in his and Sam’s bedroom while Sam was eating breakfast.  “Dean, can I talk to you for a minute?” She asked.


“Sure,” he sighed in frustration, figuring he was about to get chewed out; his tense, frustrated mood was probably spilling over and interfering with Sam’s training…


“Dean, I’m not upset with you,” Miss’Ouri said with a smile.  “I just have a suggestion.  Something you can do, somewhere you can go that’s not just research.  I think it will do you a lot of good, and maybe find some answers.”


“What?” he said, eager.  There had to be some catch, if there was something that profitable that he could do…


“I think you should visit your old home, Dean,” Miss’Ouri said softly.


There would have to be a catch, or Miss’Ouri would have already suggested it.  “No, Miss’Ouri, I don’t want to go back there.  I swore myself I never would—”  he could feel the panic rising in his throat.


Miss’Ouri reached out and grasped his hand, squeezing it tightly.  Immediately, Dean felt a sense of calm wash over him, chasing away the panic. “Dean, I knew you as a boy, and I knew your mother, and I know you never really had a chance to heal after she died.  You know she was a Jedi.”  It wasn’t a question.  “I think she may have left something behind for you.”


Dean caught Miss’Ouri’s eye, his expression incredulous.  How could that be?


“Just trust me, Dean, you need to do this,” Miss’Ouri said with a reassuring pat on his good shoulder.


Which was why Dean found himself outside on a fine Spring day, heading towards a place to which he swore he’d never return.


The tall waiving grasses and steep arching bluffs of Dantooine stretched out around Dean in all directions.  Trees dotted the landscape, their meandering roots and broad, gnarled trunks a testament to their age.  A cool breeze ruffled the countryside bringing with it the scents of tilled earth, fresh-cut grasses, and wildflowers, while the babbling of nearby streams and the happy calls of songbirds soothed his ears.  It was all the hallmarks of home—well all but Mom—and everything he’d done his best to avoid and ignore since she’d died.  The call and feel of a home that could never be reached again, leaving Dean an orphan of space.


And yet, here he was, strolling down the ill-used road that skirted the edge of town, ringing the settlement of mostly farmers and small business owners—everything needed to keep the place running—separating low, sprawling homes from the wild, untamed grasslands where kath hounds roamed and the beautifully graceful Iriaz with their long, delicate, curving, pointed horns and sprint-fast gate could be found grazing, hoping to avoid kath hound and hunter alike.


Dean had forgotten how far out they’d lived, probably because he spent as much time at Dad’s repair shop or Mom’s droid shop as he could.  He felt a warm surge of love and nostalgia at the thought of sitting on Mom’s counter, learning how to repair astromech droids, and how to craft new programs and install new circuits and chips and … he just wanted to bask in it, feel the memory soaking into his skin like the sun in the clear green-blue sky.  Just the joy and happiness and love, not the tearing, burning, ripping, crushing, empty void of everything that came after.  He struggled, holding it back, trying just to feel home.


At twenty-six years old, Dean understood for the first time that he had never really healed after his mother’s death.  Never had the option—it had all be torn away so fast and then he’d just been thrust into the role of an adult before he’d even turned five.  Now he knew what—who—to blame and the realization that it had all be pre-ordained by some fucking prophecy from five thousand years ago, and maybe nothing anyone had ever done or could do would have made a difference… and Sammy was Force-sensitive, and his mother was a Jedi, and Dad was missing, and… and…


Dean stopped and took a deep breath, surprised to hear a rumble of thunder overhead, a solitary storm cloud—cumulonimbus, his memory provided, recalling Sammy’s childhood joy at learning the names of things like clouds and birds and repeating them out loud whenever he saw them—lightning stretching out from it in tangled, zigzagging patterns.  It seemed to match his mood; looming out of no where, spoiling pastoral joy and bliss, big fat drops of rain falling on his shoulders at the same time the tears rolled from his eyes down his cheeks.  It was too much, too much, all of it.  And Dantooine was so much the same—unchanged by the passage of time, just like it had been for thousands of years, always a haven for those looking to escape faster paced life, or just escape, especially Jedi.


Dean wiped his eyes dry as the rain stopped and the cloud began to blow away, disappearing as quickly as it had come.  Dean looked up and out again and realized his dark musings had taken him all the way to their old house, or rather the empty spot where it once stood.  He’d often wondered if someone had rebuilt it, no calling it their home.  Miss’Ouri said that some dark acts left marks, scars in the Force, and apparently, this was one of them. 


The foundation was still there covered over for safety , but otherwise it was just a grassy patch next to another moderate-sized, non-farming house with a reasonable-sized yard backed up against a tall bluff.


“You look just like her,” a woman’s voice said quietly, her words snapping Dean from his reverie.


“Excuse me?” Dean asked, uncertainly, turning towards the sound of the voice.


“Sorry, didn’t mean to say that aloud,” she said with an embarrassed smile, blush breaking across her cheeks.  She was tall, thin, and strawberry blond, maybe five years older than Dean, wearing a loosely flowing tunic and pants, which were blowing around her ankles in the breeze.  She was standing in front of the house next door, well the house next to the scar left by Dean’s home, leaning against the hip-height sandstone and brick wall that ringed her property.  “You remind me of the woman in a holocube my daughter found a few years ago when she was playing in the lot,” she explained with a nod of her head towards the remains of Dean’s house.  “Oh, are you the little blond boy all grown up?” She asked, with a hint of awe and excitement.


“Sorry, holocube?” Dean asked, not following.


“I’m sorry,” she apologized again with a laugh, walking over to the gate in her wall and stepping through, letting it close with a gentle whisper behind her.  “I’m Jenny,” she added, offering her hand.


“Dean,” Dean answered, shaking her hand and clearing his through, which was inexplicably tight.


“I saw you looking at the old foundation, and I wondered if you might be related to the people who used to live there.  I never met them, but my daughter goes playing over there sometimes even though she’s not supposed to, and she found some things, holocubes mostly.  They fixed the foundation cover again after that, so I don’t know what else is still there, but I kept the pictures.  Sorry, I’m rambling,” she said with a nervous giggle.


“Oh,” Dean responded, surprised, not having quite processed everything Jenny had said.  “I, my family used to live here before the fire,” he said, much to his surprise, gesturing over at the lot.  “My mom died and my dad moved me and my brother off planet…  I’d never been back until now.  Miss’Ouri, the, ah, friend of my fathers I’m visiting suggested I come,” he rambled, nervously scratching the back of his neck.


“Miss’Ouri’s a wise woman,” Jenny said, knowingly.  Then with breaking realization, “So you are the little boy in those pictures!  Come, let me show you.”  She tugged on Dean’s arm, and Dean found himself following her through the gate, across her yard, and into the house through the heavy wood door.  Once inside, she led him through the entryway, down a hallway to the kitchen, which had windows looking out on the lot.


Dean felt himself drawn to the sight, pressed up against the window frame looking out, without even knowing how he got there.


“I’m so sorry about what happened, the fire, your mother,” Jenny said sadly from behind Dean’s shoulder.


“It was a long time ago,” Dean said automatically.


“Doesn’t make it any better or make it any easier,” She replied, her tone causing Dean to turn.


There it was, the ghosted, haunted look of understanding in her eyes, and Dean knew she was a kindred soul.  He wondered who she had lost—a lover?  Husband?  Wife maybe?  She’d mentioned a daughter, but no one else.


“Everyone really does come here for a reason, huh?” Dean said with a pained smile.


She nodded sadly.  “But some stay and build a life for themselves.  Others watch.  The planet always heals.”


“You watch the house for Miss’Ouri,” Dean understood.


“Yes, but I also have a good life here all my own,” She added, tone a reminder to Dean that life couldn’t only be dwelling on the past.  “Come sit,” she said, leading Dean to the table.


He sunk down into a cushioned chair, amazed at how tired he felt and how good and comfortable the chair was.


“I made some iced berry tea this morning from the berries in my garden,” Jenny added as she placed a pitcher filled with a cool, blue liquid and a glass in front of him.  “Now you just sit tight while I get the holocubes.  Don’t worry, my kids are at the school in town, so they won’t bother you with any uncomfortable questions.”  She added, assuaging a fear before Dean had even vocalized it.


Jenny left, slipping out a door at the far end of the room and disappearing down another hallway.


Dean poured a glass of the tea and drank.  It was fruity and flavorful, a little pungent, and not too sweet, but very relaxing.  He was still sipping it, staring across the table and out the window at the remains of his home when Jenny reentered, carrying several smiling holos of the Winchesters.


It was a shock to see them.  They’d had a few pictures, but only whatever had been saved in Chevy’s memory or loaded onto the Dream’s computer at the time.  Over the years, Dean had started to think those were the only images of his childhood that were real, that everything else had just been some far-off dream, a mirage.  But here was Mom’s face smiling up at him from next to his dad, a tiny Dean carrying baby Sammy; Mom and Dad dancing on their front lawn; pictures of him and Mom constructing Chevy; Dean leaning against one of the landing struts of the Dream  and hugging it, smiling at the camera; even a picture of him and Mom at CampbelTronics deep in concentration as they assembled some other droid.  Dean was speechless, he hadn’t known these pictures existed, but as he looked at them, he could remember some of them being taken, the events springing to mind with vivid clarity, suddenly real again in Dean’s memory.


Jenny spoke from her seat across from Dean, “They were in a durasteel box under the floor in what might have been a basement or—”


“A smuggler’s hold,” Dean said, awed.  Sure, his Dad had taught them all about smuggling—both for purposes of concealing themselves and things they didn’t want authorities to find and also to know where to look for relics others tried to hide from them, but… had Mary as a Jedi maybe known about smuggling also?  Dean couldn’t explain why he was so certain that’s what it was, the compartment that had held the box the photos were in, but he knew it was.


“There may be more over there, town officials come out here every once in a while to check on it and make sure it’s not a hazard but beyond that, they don’t disturb it,” Jenny suggested. 


“I didn’t know much about you or your family when Miss’Ouri asked me to watch the place,” Jenny added to fill the silence as Dean drank in the lost pieces of his childhood he’d never thought he’d see again.  “It doesn’t take a Jedi to know when something’s been touched or destroyed by the Dark Side,” she added sorrowfully, reconfirming Dean’s earlier assessment, “so of course, I said ‘yes.’  Miss’Ouri just said someday someone would come looking, and I should help them find what they need.”  Her voice was gentle.


Dean looked up from the pictures, awestruck by her kindness and filled with gratitude.  Jenny was so genuine—he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe hunters needed to do more of this work—making sure to look out for the victims of the Dark Side, making sure the harm and injury and suffering stopped when the relic or object or ghost was dispatched.  But they were always so focused on revenge and eradication and prevention, not the follow up.  It was as if once the thing was gone and done, there was nothing more to say.  But Dean understood more now about Miss’Ouri’s lecture about balance, and he couldn’t help wondering if hunters needed to find some balance themselves.


“Could… would you… can you help me find if there’s more?” Dean asked at last.


“I’d be glad,” Jenny said with a smile and a squeeze to his hand, and Dean knew she’d been waiting for him to ask.  “Do you have somewhere safe to put these?” she asked, indicating the pictures.


“Uh, yeah,” Dean said, pulling his shoulder bag from where he’d forgotten it on the floor when he’d stat down. 


“Let me get you…” Jenny started, standing and rummaging around in her kitchen drawers until she found what she was looking for.  “Here!” she said, turning around, producing an appropriately sized flimsiplast bag what would protect the holocubes from any unwanted damage from anything else Dean had in his bag.


When the pictures were carefully stowed, they continued out of the kitchen and down the hall to exit through a side door made from the same wood as the front door.  Standing in the small side yard, Dean could now see Jenny’s garden, a thin strip of land concealed behind a portion of the house not built into the bluff.  Next to the garden was another gate that led directly onto the Winchester’s old homestead. 


“Lemme show you where Sari, my daughter, found those, and we can go from there,” Jenny said, leading Dean out through the gate and across the empty lot, through the knee-high grasses to the edge of the foundation.


Dean felt an odd chill at entering the property and couldn’t help flashing back to that night—Sammy’s nursery in flames, Mom bleeding on the ceiling (he’d never told Dad, but he’d seen, and that’s why he couldn’t talk afterwards, months of silence because he just didn’t know how to say what he’d seen), Dad thrusting Sammy into his arms and telling him to take him outside, the heat on Dean’s back, the roaring of the flames, the smoke so think he couldn’t see, the groaning of the building, then Fresh air and Chevy squealing at him in a panic from where she was waiting outside.  Of course, back then, she’d been S8 or S8V1, before Sammy rechristened her with her nickname.  Then, like someone had flipped a switch, Dean was back, standing next to Jenny and overcome by a sense of peace.


“You all right?” she asked.


Dean nodded.  “Yeah,” he said with more confidence than he expected as the breeze blew the scent of spring blossoms—a scent he’d always associated with Mom—his way.  He looked up and noticed a flowering vine running the length of the bluff behind the foundation along what would have been the earth-reinforced rear wall, and knew with certainty the vine had been there when he was a child.  He was encouraged to see it had survived and flourished after Azazel had left his mark.  “Just a lot of… emotions,” he added.


Jenny nodded and proceeded to show him where Sari had found the holocubes.


The foundation had been recovered, but not in something particularly hard to remove or permanent.  Instead, they’d fitted thin duraplast cap, rubberized at the edges and shaped to slip down over the edges of the tops of the stone base.  As a result, it wasn’t very heavy, especially since the cap was formed in segments connected by rubberized flanges that overlapped at the seams. 


Together, Jenny and Dean lifted the cap on the left rear corner—what was his Mother’s study if he remembered correctly, and what was also the portion of the rear of the house that was not built into the ridge.  Sure enough, underneath they found textured durasteel panels that would have laid side-by-side as part of the floor without visible seams.  If Dean recalled correctly, there had been a rug woven from brightly colored woolynerf sheerings covering them.  The panels had a lot of carbon scoring, and one had been knocked or pried ajar so that it was laid over its neighbors at an angle, a dry, protected space deep enough to fit  few people lying down along with several small safes and boxes revealed underneath.  To the uninitiated, the panels would have looked like a few random durasteel floor planks that had been disturbed and nothing more.  To Dean, it was obviously a smuggler’s hold.


He recalled John telling him that Mary had already owned the house when John had returned to Dantooine after finishing his stint in the Corps.  Dean couldn’t help but wonder if the home had already contained the compartment at that time, or if Mom had built it after marrying Dad or perhaps after he and Sammy were born—Dean just knew that she had built it at some point because it still felt like her.  Had she maybe built it to hide them?  Keep them safe if something happened or someone came looking for her?


“It is a smuggler’s hold,” Dean confirmed to Jenny, who again was standing by his side, not pushing or prodding, just being there as support, allowing Dean to take the lead (retain control).


“Can you help me move these?” he asked indicating the panels.


“Sure,” Jenny agreed, stopping to help Dean lift the panel that was already ajar.  As the panels were quite thing, they were not too heavy, and soon they had moved all three panels and stacked them on the solid textured durasteel covered duracrete floor they had also exposed when removing that section of the cap.


Peering down to survey the contents of the hold he was both disappointed and relieved to find it mostly empty.  There were three sealed durasteel safest and one open, empty one that appeared to have had a defective latch and likely had housed the holocubes.  That box was easily accessible from the space uncovered by the ajar panel, while the other three were tucked away against the far wall of the hold.  Were they the oldest?  The most securely guarded and hidden? he wondered.  Or was it just chance the panel over the holocubes had been loosened?  Maybe that wasn’t the part of the hold Mom had used most or most recently?


Not chance; the Force, a voice in the back of his mind supplied.  Jenny needed to know what you look like.  And if anything was for certain, the holocubes had confirmed that Dean did look a lot like his mother.


“Can I—can I take these somewhere—inside, to try to open?” Dean asked when they’d hoisted all four boxes (none of which was particularly large, and only one was at all heavy) out of the hold and placed them on the grassy ground outside the foundation.


“Of course,” said Jenny, not questioning Dean’s need to open the items away from the possibility of prying eyes.  “Do you want to search the rest of the house?”


Dean hesitated to think through the answer that was already on his lips.  “No.”  It felt unnatural to say—he was here, shouldn’t he look at everything?  “I think this is what I’m supposed to find … but, I need to see…  I need to see Sammy’s nursery too,” he realized.  Whether for closure or to remove any lingering doubt that Darth Azazel had been involved, or both, it just needed to be done.


“No problem,” Jenny indulged, wiping soot and sweat off her brow where it had accumulated there from the exertion of moving the panels.  “Let’s just put this back first,” she suggested.


Dean agreed, and soon the panels in cap were back (the panels realigned so the void beneath was camouflaged), the safes were temporarily hidden in the tall grass next to the foundation, and they had rounded the side and front of the former house to remove the cap on the opposite corner, the right front corner of the house where Sammy’s nursery had been, where the fire had started (whether by chance or fate or the Force, that was also likely the reason why the smuggler’s hold had been essentially undamaged).


The cap here had hard duraplast sides underneath the rubberized covering, because the foundation had mostly melted or charred and crumbled away.  Dean gasped, gaping at what was underneath.


The floor—which had been the same textured durasteel plank over duracrete had flowed and pooled in places as if it had achieved a molten state.  The two materials near indistinguishable they were so badly melted together.  There was carbon scoring everywhere, and piles of rubble that looked like they could have once been walls, as well as a sickening charred bob in one place that Dean knew had been part of the ceiling—where Mom had died. 


Suddenly sick, he darted aside and puked into the grass, knees shaking, healing ankle suddenly throbbing and overwhelmed by the strain of his weight.  It was all Dean could do to not collapse into a heap on the ground.


It wasn’t just that it was where his mom had died—that was a part of it—but something much more insidious.  Looking at the blob had felt—evil, cold dark, suffocating despair and pain seemed to emanate from it.  On a hunch, he flipped open his bag and retrieved his DED, switching it on.  There was a small reading of Dark Side energy at the edge of the rubble, but as he ran the DED over the rubble and approached the blob, the readings got higher and higher until right over it, the detector let out a sickening sustained wail as the reading jumped off the charts. 


“Shit!” Dean exclaimed in shaky awe, returning the detector to his bag, noticing a charred, slightly melted transparisteel panel, once a window, that had mostly gone permanently dark, probably from the sustained extreme heat and light of the fire.  Definitely Azazel’s doing.  It reminded him of the transparisteel window of Sammy’s apartment growing so hot it had nearly melted his hand.  Dean flexed his now-healed palm at the memory.  “I wouldn’t even begin to know how to cleanse this,” he admitted.


“I don’t think it can be done,” Jenny said with a shake of her head.  “Miss’Ouri’s been out here because it was so bad, so strong, and she said it wasn’t worth trying.  Scars like that need to stand as memorials to what happened, plus they’re good for making people stay away, probably protected your mom’s stash,” she added.  “Besides,” Jenny said, gently stroking Dean’s shoulder in reassurance, “these things can be damn useful.  After all, why do you think your mom came here in the first place?  There are spots like this all over Dantooine, well, most not this strong, but they have the same effect.”


“They mask the presence of Jedi,” Dean realized.


“Jedi or anyone who’s Force-sensitive that tends more towards the light or balance, or so Miss’Ouri says,” Jenny agreed.


No wonder why Miss’Ouri was so eager for them to come after Bobby had contacted her.  The dark spots masked Sam’s presence too, so he could train and Darth Azazel likely wouldn’t know he was there!  It made Dean feel a modicum of relief, lifted a tiny weight off his shoulders, and he staggered to reestablish equilibrium.


Looking down one more time on the place his childhood had ended, Dean realized it was time to go.  He was done here.  He needed to gather up his mother’s safe boxes, see what was inside, and go back to Miss’Ouri’s.


Communicating this to Jenny, they re-covered the rubble, walked back around the house to gather the boxes, and slipped back through the gate and into Jenny’s house.


Once inside, she led Dean to her study, gave him the pitcher of blue tea, and shut the door, promising to check on him in a few hours before her kids got home.


Dean had expected to have to use his slicing gear to open the three locked boxes, but much to his surprise, the first box clicked open the moment he ran his thumb over the catch—DNA recognition, he realized, marveling at his mother’s ingenuity and foresight, wondering if she’d actually programmed in his (and likely Sammy’s and Dad’s) DNA, or if it was running at DNA regression program set to admit anyone within a specific degree of relatedness to Mary’s blueprint?


Inside the first box, the middle-sized one of the three locked boxes, he found a series of coins stamped with a Woman’s face.  She bore a resemblance to his mother, but was clearly not Mary.  One of the coins was on a chain that could be worn like a necklace.  Also inside was a battered, folded up bomber jacket of the sort favored by Antarian Rangers and a holocube of Mary standing beside another woman with dark hair and olive-toned skin.  Mary was wearing the robes of a Jedi Knight and the other woman was in traditional Antarian Ranger jacket, cargo pants, and boots.  They had their arms looped over each other’s shoulders and were grinning out from the holo and giving a thumbs up.  The picture was happy, but yet seemed drenched in sadness almost as if some later tragedy had imbued the image with a sense of impending Doom.


Underneath that was a pile of brown fabric Dean soon realized were his mother’s robes.  Touching them made him feel closer to her and her past and eased some of the ache he’d felt in his chest since her Force ghost had said farewell.  He thought of the spot where she’d touched him, and it tingled with a renewed warmth.


After carefully replacing the items and closing the box, he opened the second, unlatching it in the same manner as the first.  Dean couldn’t hide his audible gasp of surprise when inside he found a shiny silver tube inlaid with blue stones around the base and pink stones ringing the top just under a brushed pewter-colored flared disk and bearing a button made of the same metal half way down it’s length, all carefully cradled in green velvet.  Mom’s lightsaber, he realized.  If the dreams and photo hadn’t been enough, here was tangible, definitive proof of her Jedi-hood right beneath his fingertips.  Dean didn’t dare touch, but stared in awe knowing the blade would be green like Mom’s—and his—eyes when extended.


Closing the box and turning to the third, Dean got his biggest surprise yet, for inside was a holocron, a simple, green hexagonal prism.  The Jedi used holocrons for teaching, making them interactive storing lessons, allowing students to learn from masters long dead.  But they also used them for recording personal memories, almost like waking, living diaries reciting out events that had transpired, projecting the image of the storyteller as if the person was in the room telling the story to the listener directly.


Dean was almost afraid to activate it, but knew he had to see what his mother had recorded, what messages or lessons she might have left.


With equal excitement and trepidation, Dean set the device on Jenny’s desk and activated it, sitting back in the cushioned chair as the image of his mother dressed in a beige work shirt and pants, looking far younger than he had known her, sprang to life before him.  Her face was solemn, haunted, but determined, and her figure was seated, cross legged on the floor.  He recognized the position as one of his favorites for contemplation, and felt just a little bit closer to his mother in that moment.  Without hesitation, his mother’s holo began to recite a story…


My name is Mary Campbell, daughter of Deanna and Samuel of Toprawa.  I was identified as Force-Sensitive as a child much like my paternal aunt before me, and left home to train at the Academy on Coruscant, where I was later apprenticed to Master Antilles as a Padawan.  I passed the trials just after my sixteenth birthday.


As a knight, I specialized as a Jedi Shadow—trained to seek out, investigate, and dispatch all threats and uses of the Dark Side.  As part of my further training, I returned to my home planet and was partnered with Knella Voss, a skilled member of the Antarian Rangers who had been my early childhood friend. 


I’ve decided to record this in a holocron to tell the true story of her death and to explain why I left the order, and maybe make sense of it all.  The true story isn’t going to get out any other way, and it needs to be heard.


Shortly before my twentieth birthday, Knella and I were dispatched Courkrus to investigate a strange energy reading.  People had been getting sick and exhibiting strange, enraged behavior whenever they spent too much time near a particular cave.  Two Jedi teams had investigated in the last twenty-two years, but neither had found anything.  When the readings and behavior cropped up again, the Order decided to send a Shadow, and they Knella and I were ordered to investigate.


At first, I found nothing, just the same thing everyone else had found.  But then I started to feel a pull, a presence in the Force, drawing me farther in. I followed it deeper into the cave.  There, I found a strange stone that did not match the others around it.  The stone was jammed into a crevice in the cave wall.  I tried to reach it, but discovered there was a Force barrier in the way.  I entered a trance and asked the Force to guide me through the barrier.  After a day and night of concentration, during which Knella remained at my side and guarded me, I penetrated the barrier.


I reached into the crevice for the stone, intending to remove it from the cave to see if it could be destroyed or contained, but as soon as it passed the place the barrier had been, I felt a surge of dark energy pass through me, testing my Will and almost knocking me over.  At the same time, the stone glowed red with what I now believe are Sith markings.


I felt something, like an overwhelming dark presence stretching from the stone, and a bright purple light reached out of it and tried to wrap around me.  It felt like death, cold and , and I tried to drop the stone and draw my lightsaber, but as soon as it touched the ground, the light reached out stronger and tried to pull me in.


On the holo, young Mary was obviously distraught, the calm demeanor and composure she’d maintained beginning to crumble.  She wiped tears from her eyes and stared back, resolved.


Knella pushed me out of the way.  I think she was trying to save me, and it worked, the connection broke, and I was knocked to the ground.  But—


Her voice broke.


But the stone locked onto her.


She made a gripping movement with her hands.


And it was like the stone had gotten what it wanted.  It started to drain her life.  I could feel it slipping away, pouring from her and entering the stone.  I tried to get to her, but she told me not to touch her, and, and I listened.  I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t done what she said, but anything, almost anything would be better than watching her die. 


As she grew weaker, a strange black smoke started to coalesce from the stone, and when she dropped to the ground dead, it let her go and the smoke—came together, like some kind of Force-wraith.  Then the stone stopped glowing and the wraith swept from the cave.  It was coming right at me and I ducked, but it flew over my head and out the cave entrance. 


There was a great echo in the Force, like the Dark Side was screaming out with all of its strength, and that night there were three strange fires on Courkrus forming a triangle with the cave at its center.  The fires burned too hot to be possible.  Over the next week a half-dozen people seemed to go momentarily mad, like they were possessed by an evil spirit. 


Then the Jedi came, and I thought we were going to get some answers.


Mary shook her head ruefully.


Boy was I wrong.  They declared the cave cleaned and Knella’s death a tragic accident.  I told them what I saw, what had happened, and they said I was mistaken, or crazy.  They tried to say the stone was just a relic that had discharged some energy and hit Knella and not me, said it was a natural manifestation of the Dark Side. 


I told them about the writing on the stone, and they said there was none.


At first, I thought they were serious, that they thought I had lost my mind, or that maybe I really had.  But when I got back to Coruscant to “heal and meditate,” I realized that wasn’t so.  The Force flowed naturally from my memories, while their assertions were sometimes layered in deceit.  Some of the Jedi that spoke to me were sincere, but others were—scared.  Terrified of something.


I did some research in the archives, supposedly on meditation techniques, but I was able to slip around in the system and finally sliced into the files from the investigation of Knella’s death.  I found images of the stone, and they did have writing.  I scanned further and discovered the symbols were Sith.


It was difficult keeping my research from the others, but I knew if it was discovered they would make me stop.  I could only get a partial image of the language on the rock, but I tracked some of the sigils to a prophecy about a Force wraith.  It was so deeply hidden, I know the Council doesn’t want anyone to know about it.  I doubt some of them know the prophecy even exists.


In the prophecy, it talks about a Sith Master who hid himself in the Force and vowed to return as a wraith.  It talked about a Jedi of unparalleled skill and strength who would be the only one who could awaken him, and when that Jedi did, the Jedi would lead the wraith to the Chosen One, a special, powerful Jedi marked by darkness, who would help the Wraith unleash the Dark Side on the galaxy.


I was scared it meant me.  That I had awakened the wraith and would lead him to the Chosen One.  I realized that the Council was covering up what had happened, lying about Knella’s death to her own family.  They weren’t interested in truth or justice or giving answers to the people on Courkrus whose homes had burned or whose family members had gone insane.  That’s not what I trained for.  That’s not My Jedi Order.  So I left.


I stopped on Toprawa to tell Knella’s family what really happened, and gave them my condolences.  I think they believed me. 


Then I came here, to Dantooine, ‘cause I know it’s really hard to find Force-sensitives here.  I hope—


Mary broke off and looked down, fidgeting where she sat.  When she looked up again it was with such profound sincerity it took Dean’s breath away.


I hope that if I don’t use the Force or associate with any Jedi, then if the prophecy is true, I won’t be able to lead the wraith to this Chosen One.


The holocron entry ended, and Dean found himself stunned and breathless at his mother’s words.  She was trying to save everyone! he realized.  Mary had given up everything of her old life to try to protect the galaxy from a prophecy she feared was true.  All on her own, with no help.  Yet, like Miss’Ouri had warned, prophecies don’t always mean what people think they mean, so instead of the Chosen One being some trained Jedi she met, the Chosen one turned out to be her own son.  No wonder she’d been so sad in most of her visits to Dean.


He sat back and played the other entries—some talking about Miss’Ouri, and how Mary thought Miss’Ouri had been a Jedi too; about how since Miss’Ouri wasn’t a Jedi anymore, maybe it safe for Mary to be friendly with her without risking the prophecy; about John and having kids, and how happy she was programming droids; about how she still worried about the prophecy and needed to record everything for her sons in case anything ever happened to her. 


The last entry was from just a few days before the fire, and Mary talked about how proud she was of her sons and how it had been almost ten years since Knella’s death and so far, nothing had happened.  She mentioned how she thought Sammy might be Force sensitive, but at least out here, on Dantooine, he’d be safe from the searching minds of the Jedi and could grow up nice and normal and safe with a family who loved him.


When the holocron finally shut off, Dean was speechless.  There it was so clear:  his brother was the Chosen One, marked and bound in the fire, and now this Sith was trying to use him to destroy the very source of life itself.  And Dean was at a loss.


He nearly jumped when Jenny knocked on the door to check on him.  She said her kids would be home soon.


Dean looked at his wrist chrono and realized almost three hours had passed.  He should be getting back.  He’d tell Miss’Ouri what he’d found, but wasn’t so sure he should tell Sam, at least not about the contents of the holocron, not yet.


Dean packed up his boxes and carefully placed them in his bag, returning the holocubes Jenny had given him to their original box.


Finally, he hugged and thanked Jenny for all she had done.


“Now that I’ve come, will you still watch the house?” he asked, genuinely curious.


“Of course, there’s lots more to watch out for,” she explained.


With another grasp of hands, they said their goodbyes and Dean set off towards Miss’Ouri’s with a little limp, feeling a both lighter and heavier than when he’d come.




That night at dinner, Dean told Sam and Miss’Ouri about Jenny and the house and the Dark stain he’d felt at their old house.  He showed Sam the holocubes, thrilled to be able to put a smile on his brother’s face.  Sam was seeing a side of his family as “normal”—a side he’d never had proof existed until now.


He also mentioned the holocron, and said it confirmed their suspicions about Mary, and left it at that.  He felt bad keeping a secret from his brother, but he just wasn’t ready to share it.  He had some suspicions and theories that had started to form and percolate, and he didn’t want to mention anything until he was sure.


He did, however, approach Miss’Ouri about the other items he’d found—the strange coin, his mother’s lightsaber, and her robes and her partner’s jacket.


“Ahh,” Miss’Ouri said when he showed her the coin.  “That’s a Jedi Credit—minted on Corellia when a Corellian Jedi reached the rank of master.  That looks like Master Campbell… I think she may have been related to your mother’s father,” Miss’Ouri explained.


“I also found her lightsaber,” Dean said, presenting and opening the box to reveal the delicately ornamented weapon.  “Do you, uh, want it?” he asked.  “I wasn’t sure if I should give it to Sam… I know he’s not trained on these.”


“Oh Dean,” Miss’Ouri sighed.  “Your mother left that for you.  She would have wanted you to have it,” Miss’Ouri said, pressing it back into his hands.  “Same with her robes and Knella’s jacket.”


“Are you sure?” Dean asked.  “Is that why you sent me…”


“I didn’t know what was there… I just knew she kept things, for you, and she would have wanted you to have them, when you were ready.  And now you’re ready,” Miss’Ouri assured cryptically.


“But why me?  I can’t possibly use…” Dean protested.


“It’s a part of her past, of your past, of who you are, Dean.  Now stop worrying about it and go get some rest.  I know you’re working on theories now.  You need your mind fresh to think about them.”


Chapter Thirty-Two


Lord Azazel took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet, fragrant air through his host’s lungs while puffing out his chest.  The extravagant robes, knickers, tights, and boots of the Minister he was possessing were almost comical, but he felt dignified and worthy of attention none the less.  This host was trim, tall, but not too tall, with close-cropped white hair and a clean-shaven face, strong jaw and cheekbones creating an almost dashing appearance. 


The trip to Naboo on the diplomatic shuttle had been most entertaining.  He’d allowed the host to have control, unable to alert his companions to Azazel’s presence, of course.  Darth Azazel had relished in their naïve, welcoming nature, as they allowed him into their most inner sanctum, allowing him access to their Queen (the real queen , not her decoy), all the while unaware of the monster in their midst.


Over the last week or so, he’d attended meetings, held court—or whatever it was Ministers did when they sat in a throne-like chair and people came to them with their problems, and worked in his office.  Apparently, his host was the Minister of Interspecies Relations—a trying job that headed up diplomatic relations between the humans on Naboo and their aquatic counterparts (as well as dealing with other species on other planets).  It would have been dreadfully boring if not for the joy of interacting with such patently racist, hateful, angry people of both species airing out their petty disputes.


Now it was time though.  Time for the penultimate phase of his plan to begin.  Today, the Queen was hosting a public reception in the palace square, due to give some great and memorable speech about the state of Naboo or some equally ridiculous drivel—it was all vote mongering, after all.  But it was perfect for his plan.  The Palace Guard would be there along with all the Queen’s handmaidens, the planet’s senators in the Republic Senate, the cabinet (including himself), and about one hundred thousand residents from all over Naboo. 


As he stepped farther out into the warm spring breeze, pausing at the top of the palace steps and looked down over the crowd gathered below, neatly boxed in by marble facades and water, he couldn’t hold back a smile.


There, at the opposite end of the square was the Queen’s personal transport.  Fast, large enough to accommodate a sizeable crew and passengers, it was the perfect fit to carry out this phase of his plan.  Oh yes, this speech would be most memorable, but not for the reasons the queen intended.




By the time John arrived in-system at Naboo, he realized, of course, it had been five standard days since Darth Azazel’s ship had arrived and no record of any fire.  Frustrated, John had rented both a berth for the Folly.  John could have stayed on the Folly, but since residents of Naboo didn’t do much in-atmo flying and newsfeeds couldn’t be reliably accessed from the spaceport, he also booked a room in the least-opulent hotel he could find near-ish to the capital city, Theed, (which had the best news holos) and waited for any sign. 


He had then sliced the planetary vital statistics registry and logged the name and location of any child he could find who would reach the age of six months in the next standard day.  He had the Folly track and monitor all five hundred and sixty children’s homes, looking for any of the tell-tale electrical or weather disturbances or strange energy fluctuations that accompanied the Sith’s attacks.


Belatedly, John prayed Azazel wasn’t going after some poor Gungan child, because due to poor relations between the Gungans and the humans on Naboo, he had no remote access to Gungan vital statistics, nor any practical way to get in-person access (the Gungans were almost as paranoid as the Onderonians were militaristic and bureaucratic).  He then wondered briefly if Lord Azazel could burn an underwater dwelling, but then figured if the Sith could burn ferocrete, durasteel, damp jungle homes, stone, and everything in between, water shouldn’t be that much of a stretch. 


So, he had the Folly watch the oceans for any unusual electrical activities, tides, currents, salinity changes, storms, earthquakes—anything that could conceivably indicate the Sith’s presence.


Then John sat on tenterhooks at his mobile comm unit… and nothing happened.  The sixth day came and went and yet, there was no hyperspace distortion indicating the Sith had left the system, and—after checking and rechecking—no record of any fire.


John was alarmed and wary.  This broke pattern from everything the Sith had done as long as John had been tracking him.  Sure, the Darth’s second trip to Coruscant had broken pattern too, but Sam’s fire and Jess’s death had taken place within mere hours after his arrival. 


Now, the Darth had been on Naboo for eight days and still no fire. 


John was getting increasingly anxious.  Had the Sith arrived too soon?  Had he changed ships mid transit (no, the arrival distortion had been present)?  Had someone stopped him, and all this worry was for naught?  Yeah, if only I could be so lucky, John thought ruefully. 


He was pacing back and forth in his hotel room, which, being on Naboo, was far larger than he was used to.  His research was spread out all over the room—datapads strewn on the bed and table, holoprojections running from a holoprojector stashed on the couch.  Notes scribbled on bits and sheets of flimsi were tacked to the walls, on the floor, even on the ‘fresher door.  His hands were running through his hair tugging at the strands in frustration.  John was sure he had twice as much grey now as he’d had only weeks before.


Think, damn it Winchester, think! He berated himself.  He had to be missing something.  He turned, having reached the wall and an image caught his eye on the comm unit.  He’d turned on a local news bulletin earlier and had left it on with the sound off.


John rushed to the controls and turned on the sound.  The reporter was mentioning some big royal speech that was taking place at the Palace Square today.  He could see a crowd of tens of thousands gathered behind the reporter as she talked about all the officials and dignitaries who would be present.


John’s heart sank.  Azazel had left Onderon on a diplomatic shuttle, what if… He scrambled to the in-unit computer console quickly drawing up the passenger manifest for the diplomatic transport Azazel had used.  John had sliced the file upon leaving Onderon.  The ambassador to Onderon, the chief of Naboo’s Planetary Defense forces, several members of the palace guard, the Queen, half a dozen hand maidens, the Minister of Commerce, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of State, and the Minister of Interspecies Relations had all been secretly on board along with a couple dozen staff and crew.  All of whom would be at the Queen’s speech today along with most of Naboo’s other important government officials, many military officers, and one hundred thousand civilians.  Sithspit!  John wasn’t sure what exactly Azazel had planned, but the twisting in his gut made him certain whatever it was, it would happen there.

He took off at a run to hail the first transport he could find to the Palace Square.


Chapter Thirty-Three


By the time John arrived—by wheeled transport, the Naboo were way too fond of their rustic aesthetic—the Queen had made her grand entrance and begun her speech.  She was talking about commerce and opportunity and new plans and something about personally taking her proposal to the Senate, while standing at a podium at the top of the palace steps, flanked by the planet’s senators and various cabinet members.


John was rushing along the outside of the crowd, in some places squeezing between people and building walls, tripping and shoving his way through.  He expected to draw attention, especially the closer to the palace he got, but the people were so enthused, on their feed and jumping and cheering with approval, that his progress went unnoticed. He got the impression that nothing short of rushing the queen or making a grab for her ridiculously elaborate garments, coiffure, or jewelry was going to attract any attention.


After at least ten minutes of jostling, clambering, and pushing, John had made it three-quarters of the way to the palace and was now only 50 or so meters from the steps.  He paused to pant as he reached a spot where the exterior wall of one of the buildings that ringed the square jutted out so he had to squeeze his way through the crowd.  He had just started moving again when everything changed.


“People of Naboo, it is my pledge to you that we will get these new trade routes approved and together with our new agreement with On—” the Queen was saying when her voice suddenly cut off.


John looked up, squinting to get a better look at the Queen.  She seemed to be opening and closing her mouth and trying to gasp, pulling at the high collar on her dress.


Murmurs sprang up throughout the crowd, and someone could be heard yelling “she’s choking!”  John resumed his shoving, trying to get closer.


Suddenly, just as suddenly as she had been cut off and as she started to waiver—confused and nervous aides and guards swooping in to support her, she gasped, shaking as if a giant unseen hand had unclasped from her throat, falling forward on the podium and sucking in air in giant gulps. 


Oh fuck! John thought, recognizing the Sith Lord’s handiwork.  Whatever Azazel had planned was happening now.


“People of Naboo,” an unnaturally loud voice boomed, not as if amplified, but as if it populated the air—somehow coming from everywhere at once.


John looked up at the palace steps, focusing while the rest of the crowd gasped and then entered stunned silence.  There!  The Minister of Interspecies Relations—if John recognized him correctly, was walking towards the Queen and as he descended the steps.  Ok, so that’s who Azazel had hijacked!


“I am a Dark Lord of the Sith, and I have come to exact revenge on you for an injury perpetrated on me by one of your Jedi five thousand years ago,” Azazel continued, eyes turning to yellow if what John thought he saw and the cries of several children at the front of the crowd were correct.


“Silence!” Azazel demanded with a wave of his hand, and those who were talking were silenced.  Apparently, not strangled, just muted, as the horrified silent screams of several people indicated.


John ducked down and started shoving through the crowd.  Around him people were either starting to cower, making like they were going to flee, or seemingly silently wondering with very confused expressions if this were some kind of elaborate joke.


“I will take twenty-two of your number in equal trade for my loss.  The twenty-two I choose will come with me and leave on the Queen’s Yacht.  Anyone who tries to interfere will suffer my wrath!” Azazel proclaimed.  He had now bypassed the Queen and was standing about half-way down the steps.


As John worked his way through, he saw people start to move, a few handmaidens, a senator, one of the other cabinet members, then pilots, soldiers, men and women from the crowd of all species present—no children, John noticed with mixed relief—all began moving apparently much to their surprise and against their will toward the broad center aisle of the square that led from the steps to the ship and was still otherwise clear of people.


“No, no, not my wife!” Someone who had apparently not fallen under Azazel’s earlier silencing trick screamed.  John saw a man across the aisle holding onto a woman’s arm and tugging as the woman—who looked shocked, miserable, and distraught—forcibly marched towards the ship.


Azazel held up his hand, and the man was silenced and stopped moving, still struggling, as if held by an unseen force.


At that the crowd erupted.  There were a handful of seconds of sheer pandemonium—people trying to rush the aisle, others trying to shove and trample their way to the back of the square towards the exit, officials scrambling up the steps away from the Sith trying to retreat into the palace.  Everyone, absolutely everyone who had not already been silenced shouting and screaming.


“He’s using the Force!”  “We’re all gonna die!”  “Someone shoot him!”  John heard the words echo around him.  Then just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.  Everyone who had been screaming was silenced.  Everyone who had been rushing the aisle had been held back.  Those rushing for exits were now struggling against unseen bonds.  John saw silently wailing babies and adults with eyes wide with terror and shock.  And all the while, the twenty-two hostages moved steadily towards the ship whose boarding ramp had now lowered.  John had to do something!  He had to stop Azazel!


John realized that he was still moving, perhaps because he was trying to reach Azazel rather than running away, he didn’t seem to be affected by whatever Force-tricks the Sith was using on the rest of the crowd.  Now only five meters or so from the foot of the stairs where Azazel stood, John acted without thinking.


Pulling his blaster from its concealed holster inside his jacket, he screamed “No!” and leapt forward over the crowd, firing at Darth Azazel.  The bolts hit one , two, three, but Azazel didn’t seem to notice.  His body seemed to take damage, then start to heal.  After the first few, Azazel held up his hand towards John’s blaster, sending the bolts careening wide, redirecting in all different angles—some hitting the buildings that surrounded the square causing chunks of marble and dust to rain down on the crowd, others slicing dangerously through the cowering audience, others angling harmlessly at the ground or sky.


“Mwahahahahahaha!” Azazel laughed maniacally as John finally ceased shooting (he did not want to give Azazel any more ammunition, and besides, his blaster had nearly overheated!).  “Why John, you fool, fancy seeing you here!” Azazel sneered, speaking directly to John.


John was really not surprised that Azazel knew his name, but the lack of surprise unnerved him


“Azazel, let them go!” John commanded grittily, surprised he could still speak.


Azazel seemed nonplussed that John knew his name.  “Trying to get power over me by using my name, by telling it to them?” he asked, sweeping his arm over the frozen crowd.  “It’s wise, wise, but it’s not going to work.  I want them to know who I am.  Their precious Jedi have done so well to try to erase my legacy from the universe, but you know that hasn’t worked.  Now they know it too!  Maybe they’ll learn why this has happened to them,” Azazel smiled, “and understand.”


Great, John thought, just what I wanted, make the psychotic Sith Lord happy.  “I won’t let you take them!” he exclaimed, finding he could still step forward and taking three more steps towards Azazel.  “You won’t kill anyone else!  Take me instead!  I’m not letting you have them and you can’t have—”


“Your son?”  Azazel cut him off.  “Really, John.  You don’t let me do or have anything.  I am taking these people and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.  And while your self sacrifice is—cutenow isn’t the time.  All in good time, John, but not now,” Azazel continued, amused, almost affectionate, as he stepped forward and started towards the ship. He paused and turned to face John again.  “Even if more of your shots had hit me rather than giving me delicious,” he gave a pleased, giddy, almost orgasmic shudder, “creative ways to inflict pain, the blaster bolts wouldn’t hurt me, they’d just hurt my host.”  He leaned towards John who was now frozen in place out of shock, not the Force, “and my host doesn’t need to be alive for me to use it.  Besides, this isn’t the one I want anyway.” 


Azazel started walking again and John made to run after him.


“Weren’t you listening when I mentioned wrath?” Azazel asked.


And then John was shoved, hurled, picked up and tossed by the Force sailing backwards through h the air until he slammed head to toe into the marble façade of the palace, head cracking with a sickening thud as he blacked out.


Chapter Thirty-Four


Sam closed his eyes and concentrated on levitating again.  His control was getting much better.  Miss’Ouri had told him so.  They had already practiced meditation and projecting thoughts and images into others’ minds—a skill Miss’Ouri said would come in handy with hunting in general—and now it was levitation.  Sam was reaching out in the Force to connect with the presence of other objects and entities and moving them, feeling the connection grow between them in the Force.


Chevy, who had been hanging around, pleased to know that Force users couldn’t affect droids’ minds, cooed warily from somewhere off to Sam’s right as two medium-sized rocks next to her lifted off the ground.


“Good, good Sam,” Miss’Ouri encouraged.  “Now lift yourself also.”


Sam reached out with the Force and envisioned himself becoming lighter, light as a feather, so easy to hold in the air… and then he was floating, still in his cross-legged position, he felt himself drifting closer to Chevy.  Sam tried to stabilize himself, stilling, staying in one place.


Sam was so, so open to the Force.  And that’s when it hit him, the images slamming into him, sending spikes of white-hot pain through his brain.  He knew what was happening, even though it had never happened while he was a wake before.  A vision.


Sam gasped aloud, and then he wasn’t on Dantooine any more.




A fire burned all around him, white hot and melty.  The smell of sulfur and ash thick in the air.


He could feel how humid it was, taste the tang of Bacta on the breeze, see the mud-brick traditional dwellings of the Vratix, the insectoid sentients known for inventing Bacta.


Thyferra, he was on Thyferra… and he was seeing the past.


A man was pinned to the ceiling over an infant’s crib.  Terrified.  He was so scared that his death would mean failure and doom, and not just in his mission, but for the entire galaxy, universe maybe.  He kept hoping there was another way, but he was doubtful.  He knew he was going to die.  The pain was terrible, but nothing like the terror of knowing the Chosen One would be there soon… and there would be no Marker to show him the Rune, and likely, no Rune at all to find.


On the edge of the dying man’s pain and awareness, Sam felt the pressing glee of another mind, a dark mind… a dark mind that was overpowering someone else, someone who was not really aware, a host.  The dark mind was creating the fire and he was … pleased, so pleased.  At last, he had found one of the weapons the foolish Jedi had set against him.  He knew they wouldn’t be able to keep it from him forever!


Sam gasped as he felt Darth Azazel reach out with the Dark Side and touch something.  It was small and square and stone, and it was buried in the foundation, hidden.  Azazel tried to move it, but the object pushed back.  It was strong with the light side, refusing to let the Sith lord move it.  Azazel sensed—and so Sam knew—the stone was imbued with Cortosis ore, so it would be almost immune to a lightsaber’s blade.  Clever.  Very clever.  No bother… Azazel could still destroy it with fire and… pressure—given enough heat and pressure, even the hardest stone would be transformed.


Sam saw a jet of flame fly out from Azazel’s hand, pressing through the floor into the foundation, crushing and melting the stone.  Azazel pushed harder and harder, all the while, holding the dying man on the ceiling transfixed and in agony, forcing him to watch.  Watch as Azazel destroyed the Rune.


And with a sickening tearing sensation that produced an echo in the Force, Sam saw the Rune implode into a crushed, melted blob, its effectiveness destroyed.


The dying man felt horrible grief and… failure.  At last, Azazel let the flames consume him…


Sam got the sense someone else had entered the room and Azazel disappeared, but Sam was already being tugged away.




Then Sam was falling, falling back into himself from the inferno on Thyferra, and physically falling to the ground.  He landed with a pained thud, half on top of Chevy, who gave off an injured-sounding squeal followed by a concerned whistle. 


The whistle must have been enough to alert Dean, because as Sam regained his perception of the outside world, he was acutely aware of the pounding splitting, nauseating pain in his head and Dean.


“Sammy, Sammy, what’s wrong?” Dean asked worriedly, voice frantic, hands skimming over Sam’s body checking for injury.


Sam could feel Dean’s body behind him, supporting and Dean’s hands on his face, trying to get him to open his eyes.


“Had…” Sam started, but couldn’t concentrate on forming more words as his stomach rolled.  It was all he could do to fight the nausea, holding himself as still as he could manage and waiting for it to pass.


“He had a vision,” Miss’Ouri explained.


“While he was awake?” Dean asked, alarmed.  Sam felt Dean’s body tense and turn behind him.


“It can happen,” Miss’Ouri answered, and Sam could hear her robes rustling as she walked over to him.  “Let’s get you inside,” she said gently, voice quiet and soft.


Sam finally managed to open his eyes to the world swimming behind him; Dean’s eyes looked back at him, wide with concern.


Dean helped Sam to his feet, and with Miss’Ouri’s help, guided Sam inside.


When Sam was seated on the couch with a Perigen patch at his neck (Dean had insisted, and since Sam hadn’t mastered any Jedi healing trances, he gladly acquiesced), Sam said, “I saw the past.”  He related the details of the vision to Miss’Ouri, Dean, and Chevy (who was thankfully unhurt). 


When Sam was done, Miss’Ouri scrunched up her face, reaching out with the Force.  “I think you saw the truth, Sam,” She said “I can feel the echo where the Rune broke.”


“So, what does this mean?” Dean asked from his seat next to Sam—he was hovering, but Sam didn’t mind; Dean’s proximity was soothing.  “Does this mean the Runes aren’t an option?  One’s gone?”  Dean sounded desperate.


Miss’Ouri closed her eyes again, searching.  “I don’t think so, Dean, I…  I’m not sure, but I think there may have been more than four Runes, just in case something like this happened.  All those fires…  If Azazel really was going after Rune Markers, that could mean a lot of Runes, and I haven’t felt this echo anywhere else,” She confirmed.


Sam shuddered, recalling the feeling of failure that had coursed through the victim when the Rune collapsed.  “Why am I seeing this now?” Sam asked.


“Perhaps now you are ready to know,” Miss’Ouri suggested.  “Rest, Sam, take a break.  We can resume your training this afternoon, when you are feeling well.”


“I’ll stay with you,” Dean offered.


“Thanks,” Sam accepted gladly.  He really didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts right now.


But as he rested, Sam couldn’t shake the feeling that something more was coming, that the reason for his vision would soon become clear.


Chapter Thirty-Five


It didn’t take John long to remember what had happened when he woke up lying on the too-soft white sheets of what was obviously a hospital bed, the smell of antiseptic an immediate give away.  What did surprise him was that he was not strapped down, tied down, or otherwise restrained.  He had assumed opening fire mere feet from the Queen and a hundred thousand onlookers would be a certain way to windup restrained in law enforcement or military custody.  Instead—if the young statements of the young nurse who was currently fussing over his bed were anything to go by—he was being treated as some kind of hero for braving the danger and trying to defend Naboo.  The Queen wanted to honor him.


John was also surprised that, beyond the lingering taste of Bacta and a vague scab on the back of his head, he felt fine, and was otherwise unharmed.


“You spent twenty-four hours in a Bacta tank,” nurse number two explained as he checked on John and brought him what was probably supposed to be lunch.  “We’re sorry it wasn’t one hundred percent of the recommended time, so you may have a few lingering scrapes and aches.  There were many people with strangling injuries, others trampled in the stampede, so we have been keeping people in only ninety percent of recommended time to ensure we can treat them all, he explained.


That’s how John found out he had no memory of the last twenty-four hours—not uncommon with Bacta, but it had been so long since he was at a proper hospital, he had forgotten how forgetful it made him—and that Azazel’s stunt had injured even more after the Sith had left.


“What happened,” he asked the third person who came through his room, a doctor.


“Some people actually think it was a Sith Lord,” the doctor said, sounding entertained and amused.  “But there haven’t been any of those in what, five hundred years?  Others think the Minister just lost his mind and everyone’s made up all the stuff about people getting strangled without anyone touching them.  They seem to think the injuries are all just from people panicking,” he gossiped merrily.


John raised an eyebrow.  Oh yeah?  Then how do you explain my injuries or all the strangled people?  I suppose the crowd turned on each other and strangled in their haste to escape?  Typical, civilians would make up all kinds of crazy, inconsistent stories and believe them, just to avoid facing the truth.  If they could face the truth, maybe then their precious Jedi wouldn’t be so revered!


“Others are saying the kidnapper was an imposter trying out some new weapon,” the gossiping doctor continued.  “Personally, I don’t know if it was an imposter or not, but I think the weapon bit might be right.  Otherwise you just can’t explain all the crushed and bruised tracheas,” the doctor blabbered, adding an affected shudder.  “But between you and me, I really hope we don’t see any more of this weapon, ‘cause those injuries are hard to treat fast enough,” he added.


Fat chance of that! John thought bitterly.  If Azazel had moved to kidnapping, and what had he said, something about exacting revenge and taking a number in even trade, this was probably going to happen again.  The number of people taken and the whole thing itched at John’s memory, as if it wanted to be significant but just wasn’t quite there.  Hopefully, once the Bacta hangover cleared it would come to him.  Instead, he just nodded, and said aloud, “That sounds really terrible.” 


He waited a few more minutes until the doctor had concluded his exam—it was only a formality anyway, the meddroids and Bacta tank’s scanner would have already given him a complete physical and diagnosis—the doctors just looked people over to comfort those who didn’t trust droids.  “So, doc,” John said kindly, “how soon can I get out of here, I really want to check on my family.  I have kids off-planet and they’ll be worried,” he explained honestly, even if he had been avoiding contact with those kids for a while now.


“Well, medically, you are set to go.  We’ll just have to see if the Queen is going to give you an award, although, I suppose it’s fine if you check out, just as long as we know how to reach you.  Oh, right, the Jedi have actually sent a delegation to investigate, a Master Shra or Shrin, Shran that’s it.  They’re trying to quiet the people’s fears, show them there’s no scary Sith,” the doctor said with a nervous laugh.  “They’ve been interviewing everyone who was there, just to get the facts, so they’ll probably want to talk to you and then you can go.  I’ll go get them now!” the doctor blabbered in a rush before promptly disappearing out of the room before John could protest.


Great, John thought bitterly.  Hyper gossipy doc probably things he’s doing me a favor.  Not to mention that of all the times he’d cursed and begged and wished the Jedi would take Dark Side relics more seriously, the one time their presence is a big problem—and no doubt if the information he and his boys uncovered is true, attempting a cover-up—they decide to get involved!


John sat up, throwing off the thin sheet that covered him, pleased to find no pain or kinks in his back, and full feeling in his legs.  He stretched, testing his shoulders and ankles, then quickly, carefully, quietly slipped to the floor.  Aside from a split second of wooziness, he felt fine.  Not bad for having had a fractured skull and who knows what else the day before.


John was dressed in thin, loose-fitting, lightweight pants and a wrap robe top—pretty standard for patient wear.  Only, it would look a little unusual if he just waltzed out of the hospital wearing it, and it would certainly attract attention and make him easy to spot.


Just then he heard voices in the hall, one of them clearly Master Shran’s.  They didn’t seem to be getting any closer, yet, but he couldn’t waste any time.  He scanned the small room—and it was a room, not a cubicle or communal med bay.  White walls, bright lights, shelves, holoscanner, meddroid (shut down), cabinets of supplies, and there—a larger, unlabeled cabinet.  He darted to it and sighed with relief as it opened. 


It was a patient property cabinet.  Inside, he found his jacket and boots, no shirt or pants (they’d probably cut those off), and all his gear—datapads, forged ident card, credits, beckon call for the Folly, comlink.  And there, underneath the in a transparent safe, were his blaster, holster, and the blade he’d been carrying. 


A first, he was shocked to find them there in his room (he’d expected they would have been confiscated and taken as evidence), but then he recalled the nurse and doctor’s words.  They thought he was some kind of hero (which stung, because John had never felt like a bigger failure).  The queen wanted to honor him.  They didn’t see him as dangerous or a threat, but instead probably wanted to put his blaster in a museum or something.  It was probably locked up to keep it safe as well as for general safety. Lucky for John, whoever had locked it up hadn’t taken too close a look at his datapads.


Within thirty seconds, John had his slicing pad hooked into the lock and the lock opened.  He quickly removed the contents and relocked it.


Then, John hurriedly slipped on the jacket, holster and boots, discarding the wrap robe first as the jacket wasn’t long enough to conceal it.  He tucked his knife into his boots and then tucked in the pants as well before slipping the blaster inside the jacket and closing it over his bare chest.  Without his pants, he didn’t have room for all his datapads, so he held the stack in his hands and hoped he could pass as a visitor immersed in some interesting reading.


He took five seconds to check his appearance in the over-sink mirror.  He looked ok, rested even, thinner than he had when he’d last taken time to look at himself, but not injured or frightening.  His graying stubble had lengthened into a short beard, but thankfully, facial hair was fairly common on Naboo.  The hospital pants were very white, but with the waist covered by the Jacket and the bottoms tucked into his knee-high boots, they looked passably like the puffy knickers that were so popular among the Naboo.  Satisfied that he would blend as much as possible, he crept to the door and glanced in the direction he’d heard Master Shran’s voice.


Just two doors up in the sanitized white hall was Master Shran, another Jedi, and the same two uniformed RI agents he’d seen on Onderon.  Sithspit! They had their backs turned to him and seemed immersed in conversation with the doctor who had been treating him, the doctor’s arm just visible around the side of Master Shran’s contingent, Shran’s imposing form towering over him.


They seemed to be debating about interviewing John  Shran was trying to assure the doctor they would be with him shortly, but needed to finish interviewing a young woman first (probably the patient whose doorway they were blocking).  The doctor was making lots of noise about John’s heroics and his need to check on his family.  By the sound of things, the two were no having a sort of standoff and would likely be at it for at least another few minutes.


Pulling himself in as deeply as possible, and doing his best to project an air of disinterested confidence and normalcy, John slipped stealthily out of the room and headed in the opposite direction of Shran, keeping his back to the Jedi contingent at all times.  It was felling disturbingly like his exit from Onderon.


Well, he’d seemed to avoid getting on the Jedi’s radar so far, but considering he was now a “hero” running off and disappearing—a hero whose likeness had no doubt been captured on countless security holos both at the palace and the hospital, and whose fake ID had been scanned, his luck was undoubtedly about to run out, and he was going to wind up in an RI holding cell on some backwater planet unless he got out of there right now.


Rounding a corner, he spotted a reception station staffed by a young human woman and a shiny new protocol droid.  Putting on his best endearing smile, John made a beeline for the station and walked up to the woman.  “Excuse me, miss,” he said, smiling and getting the woman’s attention. 


“Hello, how can I help you?” she asked, looking up from her console and returning his smile.


“I’m here visiting my mother,” John began, relieved that she didn’t seem to recognize him—he had no idea what news vids or holobulletins might have circulated while he was floating in Bacta.  “And I’ve gotten myself a bit lost.  I need to get back to my hotel to retrieve a gift for her, and I’m completely turned around,” he lied seamlessly.  “What’s the quickest way for me to get a transport?  I want to hurry back,” he added.


John listened attentively while she gave him directions, keeping an ear attuned to any sign of disturbance.  Sure enough, when as she finished, he heard an uproar in the direction from which he’d come.  Sounded like his absence had been spotted.  Ignoring the sound of arguing voices, he thanked the woman, gave her another endearing smile, and headed in the direction she’d pointed him, which thankfully took him through the nearby waiting room and away from the commotion. 


He slipped into a waiting turbolift just as the commotion reached the waiting room he’d just strolled through.  John had the prickling feeling on the back of his neck that told him someone in Shran’s group had seen him enter—whether they’d recognized him from the back of his head or not, he didn’t know, but it was a safe bet that their interest had been piqued enough to go looking.  He reached up, rubbing his head, remembering the scab he’d felt there, relieved that it seemed to be concealed by his hair.  One small favor. 


As the lift descended, he thought about getting off a level early and taking the utility stairs, but since he didn’t know where those were, it probably would cost him precious time and render him more likely to be captured.


He exited the lift on the designated floor and broke into a light job down the tall, wide, bright, airy corridor.  It seemed to be some mid-level concourse, decorated with pink and green and white marble like so many buildings in Naboo, tall transparisteel doors opening at both ends to what appeared to be landing pads.  One seemed to be for employee and service traffic, the other—the one he was heading towards—clearly a guest and patient entrance with taxi stands and unloading spots.  The ceiling arched high over head, and his made light echoes as he moved.  He could see a hovercab terminal on the other side of the double transparisteel doors straight ahead.  John skillfully dodged around other patients, visitors, and doctors, slowing only when he’d closed the doors behind him. 


Oh thank goodness they had hovercabs here and not just wheeled transports!  The hospital was apparently one of the tallest buildings on this part of Naboo if his breathtaking view of the surroundings was any indication, its tower jutting high above the treetops.  Even though he’d descended a dozen levels from his room (which, looking up, clearly wasn’t at the top of the tower by any means), he was still at least eight levels off the ground.  Hovercabs made perfect sense here.


John quickly hailed the lead cab, stepping inside the enclosed passenger compartment.  He hurriedly spouted off his hotel’s name and address to the blue-skinned Rodian driver, and after checking his pockets, offered the cabbie a hundred extra credits to step on it.


The driver eagerly complied, darting from the curb and sending John sprawling against the seat.  The scenery passed in a green and pink blur.  John marveled that they hadn’t attracted any police attention.  Twelve minutes later, the cab was descending on its repulsors to the street in front of John’s hotel.  John waved in thanks as the cabbie quickly ascended and flew back towards the hospital at a much more leisurely pace.


John estimated he had probably twenty minutes until the driver returned to the hospital, which, giving the guy five to get questioned and maybe ten for the Jedi to speed back here, gave John just over a half-hour to get out of here, maybe less if the cabbie got summoned back en route or was particularly forthcoming with information.


Thinking fast, John strode into the hotel and to the hotel’s side door to his room (which he had selected for it’s proximity to the exit and ground floor location) and scanned his ident card.  Risky, yes, but the room was already registered in that false name and deducting credits from that identity’s account.  It might tip the Jedi off a little faster, but the alternatives (slicing the lock, forcibly breaking in) would cost him too much time. 


The door slipped open with a hiss, and John darted inside, simultaneously relieved he’d rented the room for two extra nights and cursing himself for making such a mess.  “Lights,” he called, watching the glow grow around him as the door snicked shut behind him.  John quickly checked the chrono—27 hours had passed since the Queen’s speech the day before, and immediately fired up the beckon call and opened a secure channel on his comlink, instructing the Folly to run through preflight as fast as possible, giving her instructions on spaceport queries, and programming in a flight path that would have her setting down in the small landing area across the broad street from the hotel—one other advantage to being on the outskirts of the city.  John was sure the hotel would probably not appreciate the unscheduled landing, but he’d be in and out of there fast enough they wouldn’t have time to complain.


Then John was scrambling, collecting scraps of flimsi by the fistful and shoving them into his bag—remembering to check the ‘fresher and grabbing the flimsi there as well.  He didn’t want to leave any clues behind for the Jedi to find, well, any more than absolutely necessary.  He quickly changed, taking the hospital pants with him, and stuffed the rest of his clothes and gear into his travel bag as quickly as he could, relishing the feel of his own (soft, reliable, familiar) clothes against his skin. 


By the time he had called up the auto checkout on his console (being sure to pay for the full reservation plus a little extra to hopefully ingratiate the hotel ownership, it was almost time for the Folly to land, and twenty minutes had passed since the cabbie had left.  John flinched seeing the transaction total.  That was a lot of credits.  He’d have to be sure this ID’s account was drained and transferred to one of his other aliases as quickly an untraceably as possible.


He’d need more funds soon, but he’d have to worry about that later, as he didn’t really have time for a smuggling run or a Sabacc tournament right now.  He had just finished erasing his terminal’s holonet and holocom records when he heard the familiar whine of the Folly’s repulsors.  Shutting off the terminal and slinging his bag over his shoulder, he stepped out of the room, and called “lights off,” darting toward the exit and across the empty street to the Folly’s lowering ramp before his room’s door had even finished closing behind him.


Fifteen minutes later, when the Jedi would likely be arriving at his hotel, he was already in space, the Folly having gotten clearance under a different ID (hopefully the Jedi would waste lots of valuable time investigating one John Idanian, the fictitious persona he’d been using on Naboo), and headed after the Sith’s apparent exit trajectory.


Chapter Thirty-Six


“Sam, Miss’Ouri, come quick!” Dean called out as he ran out of Miss’Ouri’s house into the stone-paved courtyard where the Caamasi ex-Jedi was training Sam.  Dean saw that Sam was levitating in a cross-legged position with his eyes closed, using the Force to deflect various small objects Miss’Ouri hurled at him with the Force.  The glinting orange glow of sunset over the golden plains in the background made the scene almost surreal.


Both Miss’Ouri and Sam looked up, carefully stopping what they were doing.  The objects neatly retreated into an organized pile, and Sam carefully descended, uncrossing his legs and standing.  Wow, Sam’s control has really improved, thought Dean as he noticed both pairs of eyes turned towards him.  “Something’s happened on Naboo—I think it’s Azazel, but it’s not another fire,” he explained beckoning to them. 


Sam broke into a run, and Miss’Ouri followed at a brisk jog, hiking up her robes to move faster.


Dean turned and hurried back inside, rejoining Chevy at the holoprojector.  Chevy had been hiding indoors ever since Sam had half-landed on her after his vision that morning.  Dean still blanched and shuddered at the thought of Sam having waking visions.


They gathered around the projector, sitting on the simple-but-comfortable seats of Miss’Ouri’s living room, and Dean replayed the news vid he had just watched.  The group of them, including Chevy, watching with rapt attention in stunned silence as the reporter recounted the events of yesterday.  There were no images, just descriptions and a handful of interviews with unidentified purported witnesses.


“To repeat,” the attractive Bothan newscaster spoke in an evenly modulated voice, “the Naboo Queen and her audience were attacked yesterday, and twenty-two individuals, including Senator Parnsk were kidnapped when Minister of Interspecies Relations Corvan Iblis turned on the crowd and attacked them with an as-yet unidentified weapon.  The Minister later escaped with the hostages in the Queen’s personal Yacht.  Port Authorities are still unsure exactly how Minister Iblis was able to get past planetary security and take the ship out of orbit, but sources have confirmed that the ship did leave the Naboo system and jumped to hyperspace.  The Yacht’s whereabouts are currently unknown.


“One brave bystander somehow commandeered a blaster and managed to fire on Minister Iblis, but the Minister was reportedly unharmed.  Witnesses speculate he was wearing a personal shield.  That heroic individual, the Queen, and several hundred bystanders were injured and later treated at the Royal Hospital.  Five people were killed, whether from the Minister’s weapon or the stampede that followed his exit is unclear.  The Republic News Service tried to contact the brave bystander, but hospital authorities have reported he disappeared earlier today, no word yet on whether or not he might have been kidnapped.”


“That’s Dad,” Sam said, awed, his wide eyes turning towards Dean.  “That was Dad.  He was there.  He tried to stop it!” Sam murmured.


Dean knew from Sam’s tone that Sam was certain.  Probably getting insight through the Force, Dean acknowledged.  A quick glance at Miss’Ouri and her agreeing nod, confirmed that.  At least that meant their father was still out there, still on the Sith’s trail.


“Reports from other bystanders have been unsettling,” the newscaster continued, “some saying the Minister claimed to be a Sith Lord,” she said significantly, “and that he had used the Force, others saying the Minister appeared unwell and had yellow eyes.  Authorities confirm at Jedi delegation is investigating this event and will release a report to the public once their investigation is complete.  Until then, we will not have any footage of the tragic events.  Queen Alinara has released a statement confirming that she and her staff are well and expressing her condolences to the families of those kidnapped and killed.  She has postponed a diplomatic trip to Coruscant and is focusing all her efforts on helping the Jedi and local authorities with their investigation.  Unconfirmed reports have suggested the Jedi investigators are accompanied by members of Republic Intelligence,” the newscaster concluded as Dean switched off the holo.


“Miss’Ouri, what does this mean?” Sam asked, frantic.


Miss’Ouri stood and closed her eyes, assuming the pose Dean now recognized as reaching out to feel the Force. “I don’t know, child,” she said, shaking her head, eyes closed.  “The Dark Lord’s actions are shrouded in shadows, and I cannot see his intent, only a feeling.”  She shuddered.  “It’s bad, very, very bad.  A step closer to his plan,” she said, voice distant and mournful, before coming back to herself and opening her eyes.


Sam turned to Dean expectantly, as if his brother would surely have an answer.


Dean felt a pang of guilt that he had no such answer.  He was just as lost as Sam.  He couldn’t help feeling that he had failed in his role as a big brother as he shook his head. 


“We’ve got to do something,” Sam exclaimed, standing and clenching his fists in frustration.  The contents of the room began to shake ominously around them as Chevy made a wary trill and rolled back to a “safe” distance.


“What, Sam?” Dean found himself asking, feeling a renewed surge of uselessness—sure, he’d been researching everything he could, pouring over records and ancient texts, but since finding their Mother’s holocron, he felt like he hadn’t found anything that productive… or maybe that was just the feeling of doom that had followed him since hearing the prophecy confirmed in his mother’s own voice.  “You’re still learning how to control the Force—” he added gently.


“Yeah, I’ve learned enough,” Sam half-snapped.  Then, more gently, unclenching his fists.  “What about those Runes Bobby mentioned?  We could go after them—” Sam continued.


“We don’t even know where to look!” Dean exclaimed, voice escalating.  “Miss’Ouri said she knew about three possible locations.  We need four if Bobby’s source is right, and all three locations have had fires, and one Rune’s been destroyed, you saw it in your vision,” Dean protested.


Sam seemed to deflate, collapsing back onto the chair he’d been seated in before he started pacing.  He opened his mouth to say something else, but Miss’Ouri interjected.


“Boys,” Miss’Ouri exclaimed in a commanding tone that got both Winchester brothers’ immediate attention and silence.  “Sam has a point,” she continued more sweetly, solemn.


Dean wanted to object, but didn’t dare.


Miss’Ouri seemed to sense this and turned to Dean with the Caamasi version of a smile.  “You have a point, too, Dean.  Sam is largely untrained, and he still needs to work on controlling his temper,” she turned to Sam, leveling a stern glare, “and his impulses, or he will be open to influence by the Sith.  But,” she said, holding up a hand to silence any protests, “there is only so much preparation a teacher can give.  Students must test themselves, rise to the challenge in unfamiliar waters, or they will never grow.  That is something Jedi often fail to understand.  They try to keep so much, even their trials, controlled, but that is not the way of the universe, the way of the Force,” she added solemnly.


“I would love for Sam and you, Dean, to stay, but I sense the time has come to act, or we may not have a chance.  And I trust you, Dean,” she said smiling at him, a hint of sadness in her eyes, “to see that Sam is ok.”


“But how?” Dean asked.  “I mean, where can we look?”  He wasn’t going to touch the keeping Sam safe topic.  That was his duty, and Jedi or not he would see that his brother was all right, even if he did feel like he’d been failing at that as of late.


Miss’Ouri looked expectantly at Sam, whose brow was furrowed in concentration.


“Onderon,” Sam said with wonder. Then a smile spread across his features and his eyes lit up.  “We can start on Onderon,” he said with more confidence.


Dean felt perplexed and knew it showed on his face, as he looked fist to Sam and then to Miss’Ouri for direction.


“Miss’Ouri said that the Runes or possible links to them are on Coruscant, Thyferra, and Onderon,” Sam explained, looking to Miss’Ouri for confirmation. She nodded, and Sam continued.  “We can’t go back to Coruscant, because we’re wanted there, and it’s crawling with Jedi and RI.  We know the Rune on Thyferra was destroyed.  But I bet if we check , the Jedi have left Onderon.  We can go there.  If the family that Azazel attacked was one of the Markers,” he said tripping over the unfamiliar use of an otherwise ordinary word, “then maybe I’ll sense something.  It’s worth a try,” Sam concluded, looking at Dean for approval.


“All right,” Dean said, resignedly, getting a nod from Miss’Ouri and a wary whine from Chevy.  “Onderon it is.”


Chapter Thirty-Seven


Since arriving on Myrkr, Bobby had been stunned with the planet’s wildness.  He knew that humans had only recently settled the place, and that a large number of the planet’s original sentient inhabitants had died out when their off-world colony was obliterated centuries ago, but the planet still felt shockingly untamed.


Sure, there were settlements and a few small cities, and even one or two places that were clearly trying to be proper resorts, but much of the planet was covered by vast jungles filled with lush greenery, wild animals, undergrowth, and hostile plants to thick and prevalent that it was unwise to enter without a guide.


The strange lizards his contact had told him about lived in that jungle, so he had a meeting today with a guide to discuss collecting to of these ysalimiri as he learned they were called.  Bobby was just relieved the planet was more or less outside Republic space and didn’t have any overzealous officials, complex tariffs, or excessively burdensome restrictions on export or trade of native animals.  Otherwise this helpful act he was doing for the boys would become an unmitigated nightmare.


He met the guide at mid day outside on of the few trails that led into the dense jungle.  The path was narrow, and the guide was covered from head to toe in clothes made from a finely woven material.  “To keep off pests and plants,” she had explained in accented Basic.


Her name was Rela, and she was carrying a strange frame-shaped backpack and wearing another.


“What are those?” Bobby asked, curiously pointing to the two frames.


“Nutrient frames for the ysalimiri,” she explained with a smile.  “They are mostly sessile, you see, and this,” she gestured to the backpack, “gives them nourishment.”


“Ahh,” Bobby said feeling a little lost.  “Mostly sessile you say?” he asked curiously, as he took the proffered frame from Rela and slipped it onto his back.


“Well, you don’t see it often, but they’re capable of moving, even being fierce, especially if their predators, the vornskrs, somehow manage to find them,” she explained.  “Mostly they just stay embedded in the Olbio trees, and we have to be very careful removing them or they could die.”


Olbio trees made sense, but, “And vornskrs are?” he asked.


“Those,” she said, pointing to a four-legged, long-snouted, dog-like animal with fierce looking teeth and claws that was hunkered down just inside the tree line.


Bobby shuddered involuntarily.  He had seen several of the vornskrs leashed as pets in town, they’d looked kind of cute then, but seeing one in the wild and knowing they hunted what he was after made him feel rather… unsettled.


“They say they hunt with the Force.  That is why the ysalimiri generate a bubble where there is no Force, it is an evolutionary adaptation,” she elaborated.  “Shall we enter?”  Her hand swept to the side and along the entrance to the path.


“Uh, sure,” Bobby agreed, following carefully after the tall agile guide.  “So, Rela,” he asked after a few minutes, the path growing narrower and harder to follow, al kinds of dangerous-looking, brightly colored plants pulling and catching at his pants and boots.  He only hoped his clothes were up to the task of withstanding anything the jungle threw at him.


“Yes,” she responded.


“Are the rumors true; do they repel the Force?” he asked, “and how would that even be possible.  I mean, I’m not expert, but isn’t the Force supposed to be in all life? Necessary?”


Rela did not stop walking, but seemed to contemplate for a moment.  “As for how it is possible, I do not know,” she shook her head.  “One biologist I took through here explained it as how the animal interacts with the Force.  All of its Force energy and presence is pushed outwards to the outside of a sphere around it.  If you were to search for an absence of the Force, you could find the edges of its bubble, but not the animal in it.  And if several of the animals are together…”


“All you see is a big bubble,” Bobby finished.


Rela nodded as they walked.  “Jedi have come here and confirmed or studied many times over the years.  There’s even a legend left by the original inhabitants of Myrkr that says the Jedi came for the first time about five thousand years ago, and they’ve been coming back ever since to see if it’s still true, so I believe the stories.”


“You don’t say?” Bobby said absently, thinking of the timing of the Jedi’s legendary visit and the story about the Runes he’d found at the same time he’d learned about the ysalimiri.  Perhaps there was a Rune here ant that was how the Jedi had learned about the lizards?  Dean’s latest message said Miss’Ouri had told the boys three other locations the Runes could be, but maybe there was one here as well.  Bobby kept walking, but wasn’t really paying attention to where he was going, lost in thought over the Runes and their possibilities.


“Stop!” Rela said, holding up her hand and physically blocking Bobby’s path.


He stopped with a lurch.


That plant,” she said, pointing to a plant that was no more dangerous looking than many others that they had passed, but had spines on it that were sort of purple in color.  “That plant causes a bad allergic reaction in many people,” Rela added, pointing to a spot on Bobby’s wrist where he had unwittingly brushed against the plant.  Bright purple pustules with black centers had risen up on the skin and were just now starting to itch furiously.


“Got it,” he hissed, reflexively reaching forward with his other hand to scratch at the inflamed skin.


“Scratch, and it will spread,” Rela warned.


Frustratedly, Bobby returned his hands to his sides.  “I’ll be more careful,” he swore.


“Good,” Rela said resuming their trek.


“So, how much farther to the ysalimiri?” he asked, trying not to sound whiny.


“A ways,” she replied.


Great, Bobby thought, rededicating himself to avoiding any more plant encounters.  He just hoped the lizards were worth it.


Chapter Thirty-Eight


“So what are these Runes called again?” Dean asked, preparing the Dream for landing.


“It’s called something like a Force Rune or Rune of the Light,” Sam said focusing on his datapad. 


“You don’t know?” Dean said, sounding half-incredulous.


“Gimme a break here Dean, the two sources we’ve found that talk about these things aren’t exactly in Basic.  One’s in a regional dialect of the Vratix’s native language and the other is in something that seems like ancient Neti, except if it is, it’s an different dialect than anything I was able to pull up on the University’s remote access library.  It’s possible there’s something out there that would help me translate this better, but if it exists it’s probably in the Jedi Archives on Coruscant, and there’s no way in hell we’re going there,” Sam said with frustration and slight annoyance, running his hand through is bangs for what must have been the twentieth time in as many minutes.


“Ok,” Dean muttered, “no need to get so snappy about it.”


Sam ignored him and went back to his datapad.  Sam had transferred all of their combined research—transcriptions of Miss’Ouri’s lessons, Bobby’s translations, Jess’s journal entries, the translated portions of both the Coruscant relic and their mother’s holocron recordings about—onto the one datapad and was trying to cross reference it. 


Or at least that’s what Dean hoped he was doing.  If Sam was still obsessing over the so-called Lost Prophecy and what Darth Azazel might want him for, Dean was going to smack him… or maybe not, but he sure felt like knocking some sense into Sam.  Dean had really hoped Miss’Ouri’s training would calm Sam down, make him feel like he had some control.  Instead, it seemed only to have intensified Sam’s paranoia and concern over his role in the prophecy.  Dean kind of wondered if Sam had actually been listening to Miss’Ouri at all, considering that Dean hadn’t been paying that close attention and he had picked up on the whole “fear is bad; obsessing won’t fix anything” notion.  Still.  They needed to focus on the task at hand.  If they could find this mysterious weapon, it might help them get to the bottom of Darth Azazel’s attacks or possibly even stop him, destroy him for good. 


Dean distracted himself by finalizing the details for the Dream’s approach and landing.  They were flying under an alias, Ranger’s Prize, one of the old IDs John had set up in honor of their mother.  It felt particularly ironic considering both that they’d just learned their mother was actually a Jedi and not an Antarian Ranger and the nature of their mission, but of all the Dream’s many alternate identities the Prize had the cleanest-cut history, was—due to its age and use background—the least likely to be tracked by the Jedi, and was the most likely to get them in the good graces of the planet’s authorities so that they would have the freedom to do the investigating they needed. 


Dean got them cleared for landing and secured a birth on the outskirts of Iziz, the planet’s walled capital city close enough to the walls for easy access to the jungle, but still inside and protected and with ample access to the city’s many amenities and research facilities.  It was only a few klicks from the site of the most recent fire, so they could go investigate that too without much trouble… not that either of them was looking forward to the prospect.


“Chevy, do you mind taking the controls for the landing?  I wanna talk to Sammy for a minute,” Dean said to his droid. 


Chevy whistled an affirmative and wheeled herself up to the console, swiftly interfacing with the Dream’s computer. 


Confident that they would have a smooth landing, Dean shifted his attention to the issue that was really eating at him, it had been nagging at him ever since Miss’Ouri had concluded that this was their best bet.


“Sam, do you have any idea where this Rune of the Light or whatever might be?  I mean specifically, not just what planet it might be on,” Dean started swiveling in his chair to face Sam and dropping his elbows to his knees, hands clasped.  “Or how we find it?  ‘Cause we’re about ten minutes from landing on Onderon, you know, the planet where pretty much every Sith leader in history has stopped to hole up or have a battle at one point or another, the planet that’s got it’s own blasted military force that Dad says makes the Support Corps look like a bunch of Chadra Fan, the planet that’s all freaking jungle except for the one walled city where the military and the government are, the planet whose jungle has more freaky-ass carnivorous super-hunter animals than pretty much any other system in the Republic.  And I don’t know about you, but I don’t really feel like going poking around aimlessly under those circumstances, especially with my ankle not really healed and a crazy murderous Sith with a timetable on the loose and gunning for us.  So, please, Sammy, tell me you’ve got something?”  Dean realized he was being petulant, but sithspit, he hated jungles.  He was allergic to almost everything that lived or grew in them, and that was just the ordinary ones.


“Well, Dean, you heard what Miss’Ouri said,” Sam grinned sheepishly.  “Darth Azazel is probably targeting families that were set up as Markers for the Runes when the Protectorate first came into being.  Miss’Ouri doesn’t know all their identities, neither does Azazel, but it’s likely that he’s trying to kill whomever has knowledge of the Runes’ whereabouts.  But…” Sam paused, eyes dropping to his hands, which were absentmindedly turning the datapad over and over again.


“But?” Dean asked, unsure of where Sam was going.


“Miss’Ouri thinks I’ll be able to feel the Runes.  They’re supposed to call to the Chosen One, something about how the Jedi who opposed Darth Azazel decided to use his strategy against him so the weapons that could destroy him would call out to his anointed.  At least I think that’s what the translation said.  That was the gist, Miss’Ouri told me,” Sam said shrugging.


“Meaning?” Dean prodded, suppressing the shudder he’d felt at the mention of the “anointed.”


“Meaning I’m hoping I feel something when we land, and if not, then we go check out the fire site and see if I get something there.  After that, I was going to look for wonky hiding places like the one Mom mentioned,” Sam explained hurriedly.


Dean couldn’t stop himself from letting out a long, pained sigh.  “Great, just great, we gotta go down on freaking Sith beacon central and poke around another crime scene and then maybe go wandering in the jungle,” he spat bitterly.


“Dean, we don’t really have much choice, this is the only thing anyone knows about that has a chance of stopping Darth Azazel.  We need four Runes.  Miss’Ouri only knew the locations of three and we can guess where others might be, only those are all places where Azazel’s started fires, meaning several of the systems are impossible to access—they’ll pick us up before we can even think about looking—and then the others, like we tried with Thyferra, have given off the Force echo that shows the thing’s been destroyed.  We don’t have the time to turn this down just because Onderon kinda sucks.  I mean, really man, it could be worse,” Sam said shaking his head before meeting Dean’s eyes.


Sam was right about the systems being impossible to access.  Since the second fire on Coruscant, Jess’s fire, the Jedi, RI, and local authorities had been going back to the locations of all the earlier fires and picking over them for missed clues.  But wait, what had Sam just said?


“Worse?” Dean scoffed.


“We could be going to Dxun?” Sam added with a faux smile, his voice rising with mention of the planet’s even more wild, overgrown, Sith-attracting moon.


“Good point,” Dean sighed.  “Of course, knowing our luck the blasted thing will end up being on Dxun after all.”


“Yeah, yeah,” Sam teased affectionately.  “Let’s worry about that when we get to it.  For now, let’s just figure out what we’re going to do first and go from there.”


Chapter Thirty-Nine


They left the Dream about mid-day Iziz time and headed towards the location of the fire.  They decided to depart on foot with Chevy in tow, since inside the city everything was paved and easy to get around.  They walked down a broad, wide promenade paved in white stone that wended its way about a half-klick inside the perimeter wall.  This was the “lower rent” area of town, but it was still beautiful, imposing marble spires and other cut stone buildings cool and bright against the hot jungle sun. 


The location of the fire stood out against the pristine, white and coral backdrop, its blackened edges a scar upon the landscape, looking almost like a black hole, a spot where everything just stopped—no more buildings, no more life, just death, emptiness.  Sam could see where the stone was melted and twisted around the edges—thick ropey blobs of carbon-coated rock that more resembled freshly cooled lava fresh from a volcanic eruption than the formerly white sandstone.  Fire like that just shouldn’t be possible.  Onderon was a damp, humid environment, and their common method of building construction just didn’t have that many combustibles in it to render a blaze of that size.  Sam was at once horrified and awed by the power of the Force, that a Sith could draw that much power to himself to mimic the transformative power of a geologically active planet’s core.


Their cover this time was remarkably simple and so close to the truth it kind of scared Sam.  They were posing as victims of a similar fire on Dantooine a long time ago who were passing through on business and had heard about the Onderonian family’s plight and wanted to share their condolences.  It was essentially their life story.  Dantooine was far enough out on the rim (and had had more than its fair share of tragedies over the years) that no one was likely to check the details and figure out just how long ago the fire had happened or how similar the details were, and even if they did, they’d be even less likely to trace that fire’s victims to Sam and Dean Winchester, dangerous fugitives wanted by Republic Intelligence and the Jedi Council.  It was easy to keep the cover since it was essentially the truth—just with a lot of details omitted—and by posing as fellow victims and not another branch of the authorities, they figured they’d have a better chance getting to know the family and maybe find some answers (or clues).


From the holobulletins, they had figured out that the family was a small Sullustan warren-clan that had settled on Onderon a generation or so ago.  Their matriarch had been killed in the fire, leaving behind three husbands, and a number of children including one young adult woman who was almost old enough to start her own warren-clan.  They had just finished with the complex Sullustan burial and funeral rites, otherwise Sam and Dean’s visit would be wholly inappropriate.


“Sam,” Dean said pausing just short of the temporary shelter the government had set up for the family to live in while the fire was being investigated and their home reconstructed.  Sam was kind of surprised they’d stayed this long and weren’t already trying to get as far away from the painful memories as possible.  “Sam, base to Sammy?” Dean tried again turning to face Sam and waving Chevy to his side.


“Yeah?” Sam asked in reply slowly dragging himself out of his thoughts.


“There’s something I don’t get about this,” Dean said, shifting to take his weight off of his healing ankle.  “We think Azazel’s killing the family member who knows something about where the Runes are hidden, right?  But he’s leaving everyone else alive.  Wouldn’t one of them know something?  I mean, maybe this won’t be so hard and we won’t have to rely on you doing your Jedi feelings mojo thing?” Dean suggested hopefully.  “I wish you’d at least let me bring the DED,” he grumbled half-under his breath.


“I don’t know,” Sam replied hesitantly, thinking back to what Miss’Ouri had told him.  “Miss’Ouri said that she didn’t know the methods each of the Marker Jedi used to pass on the knowledge.  It’s possible that some of the Markers might not even know that they knew about the Rune and that the knowledge might only be triggered under the right circumstances.  Even if they were aware, they likely wouldn’t have shared the information with anyone else… unless it was someone who was tapped to be the next Marker.  But we don’t know.  I suppose we could get lucky, but this stuff is all super-secret, you know cell-based counter-terrorism if you will.  The Jedi opposition of Darth Azazel’s time was trying to set up a way to stop his rise and resurrection without anyone knowing, not even the mainstream Jedi, so there’s not exactly a lot of records or information sharing that we can draw from.  I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Sam admitted.


“Ok,” Dean said uncertainly.  “Well, I guess here goes nothing.”  He gave a wry, lopsided grin and turned back to face the shelter.  Without further pause he walked up to the door and pressed the chime.


“Hello,” said a young Sullustan woman with long braided hair trailing out from under her head covering, down her back and over her shoulder.  She was standing in the structure’s main doorway, leaning against the white plasteel archway.  She had big, dark eyes, well all Sullustans had big eyes, but hers were somehow bigger and more welcoming than most.  If not for the direness of their situation, Sam had no doubt Dean would be hitting on her in a matter of seconds—then again, under normal circumstances Dean tended to hit on pretty much anything and everything sentient.  As it was, Dean just shifted, hesitantly raising his head to meet her eyes.


“Hi,” Dean began, his voice a bit scratchy.  “My name’s Dean and this is my brother Sam and our droid Chevy,” he said gesturing first to Sam and then to Chevy.  “We’re mechanic’s merchants just stopping in the system on business and we heard about what happened to your family and wanted to offer our condolences.  You see, our mother died in a really similar fire on Dantooine several years ago, and we remember what it was like with everyone prodding and asking questions and no one there to just… uh listen, so, we wanted to offer you our support?”  The words tumbled out of Dean’s lips with hardly a breath or break in between.  He sounded awkward and nervous, so different from Dean’s normal confident bravado that Sam was taken aback.  He was pretty sure it was real and not an act too.


The girl looked from Dean to Sam and over to Chevy and then back to Sam, surveying them.


“Hi,” Sam said, with a half waive.  “I’m Sam, so sorry about the fire,” he stammered.


The girl nodded at him, her eyes seeming to bore into him, inspecting, what for, Sam couldn’t fathom.  Then she seemed satisfied about something and gave a little nod after which her face broke into a wide Sullustan smile.  “Come in, pleased to meet you Sam and Dean.  Your offer of empathy is most welcome.”  She stepped aside bringing her arm in a long sweeping motion, and beckoning them to enter. 


Dean followed up the ramp to the door followed by Chevy.  The girl nodded, indicating that it was ok for Chevy to enter.  Finally, Sam entered bringing up the rear. 


Sam was really glad that the population of Onderon was about ninety-nine percent human, because if this temporary home had been designed by and for Sullustans, the doorway would probably come up to his mid-chest.  As it was, he had to duck slightly as he crossed the threshold stepping into the cooler, dryer, dimmer climate controlled interior. 


The girl stared at him again, wide-eyed as if looking for something.  Sam didn’t really know how to respond, so he gave a nervous smile and stepped past her, joining Dean and Chevy in the somewhat more open foyer.


“My name is Sian Nunb,” the girl said when they were all inside.  “I will go gather my father and my mother’s husbands and tell them of your generous offer,” She added in slightly accented Basic.  “Please wait here.”  Giving Sam another lingering glance, she exited the room, her long blue robes swishing after her, the color accenting the pink hues of her skin.


Sam took a moment to take in the space, the room was dark, much darker than he had expected.  But then again, Sullustans were originally cave-dwelling due to the inhospitable nature of their home planet, and they had famously acute eyesight able to see in much less light and for much farther than any human (or at least any non-Jedi human), so it shouldn’t have been that surprising.


Within a minute, they heard voices approaching, and Sian returned followed by three adult Sullustan men, one of whom was carrying a very young baby.


Sam couldn’t suppress his gasp when he saw the young child—just past six months, just like he had been when his mother had died.  Did Darth Azazel want this innocent child for something as well?  Or was it all just a terrible coincidence or possibly a decoy to distract them from what Azazel was really doing?  Lure them and trick them as he had their father?


“Fathers,” Sian began, “This is Sam and Dean and their droid.  Their mother died in a similar fire on Dantooine, and they’ve come to offer their condolences and support.”


The men nodded, introducing themselves and shaking hands with Sam and Dean.  Sam could barely keep attention, and promptly forgot their names.  He wasn’t trying to be rude or disrespectful, he was just—searching, desperately thinking, feeling, reaching out to see if there was some way that he could sense some echo of the Rune.  He didn’t even know what he was felling for or if it would be there, but he had to know, so his senses kept creeping out, stretching like Miss’Ouri had told him, looking in the Force for some clue.  As a result, his grasp on the more mundane and closer by was a bit dampened.  Something Miss’Ouri had warned about that he’d have to work on for sure, but for now, it was probably ok.  Azazel had already been here, as had RI and that Jedi Shadow, so it should be safe.  Plus, Dean was on high alert and he was doing the talking. 


The next thing that registered for Sam was that they were being led to a round living room of sorts and seated on low, white nerf-hide couches.  Sam let the leather surround and comfort him, just sinking in and drifting with his senses.  He piped into the conversation at a few key moments, when Dean mentioned him, and was pretty sure he responded in all the right places, but mostly he was just searching, searching, and getting more and more frustrated, because he couldn’t feel anything!  He also got the sense that Sian was looking at him, and that was very disconcerting, though he wasn’t sure why.


“Have you been back out to the wreckage, I mean the house?” Dean asked sheepishly.  “I had stayed away from our old house for years because of the memories, but I just recently visited it with a friend’s encouragement, and it was a very… uh, healing experience,” Dean stammered, his voice sounding oddly hollow, like he was caught somewhere between acting and telling the truth.  Sam hadn’t asked Dean too much about what had happened at their old house—a place he had never really known—aside from the contents of their mother’s Holocron.  He got the idea now, and felt bad for realizing so late, that whatever happened, it must have been pretty profound for Dean.


Sam’s attention was snapped back to the conversation when one of the men, Tevv, he thought his name was, said, “Yes, we have been back, we keep going back searching for clues.  We are shocked that our Seba has entered eternal sleep so young.  But more than that there is something so strange about this that none of the authorities have noticed, it seems like we’re missing something like they’re missing something, there is some map or plan here at work, that we cannot see, and to us as Sullustans that is most difficult to except.  Sian especially,” he said glancing at the Sian who was seated to his left, “seems to think there is something more at work here, and I trust her judgment.”  He turned his eyes on Sam and then Dean, “would you like to see it.  If the fire that took your mother was so similar, maybe you will see some clue or find some answer that they did not.  Maybe you can find us all some peace.” 


“We, we would be honored,” Dean said, his voice catching in surprise. 


Sam was silent and then felt a sharp jab to his calf where Dean had kicked him.  “Oh yes, honored, we will take a look at it,” Sam stammered.


“Sian and I will accompany you,” Tevv said, standing.  “The Onderon government says it’s safe, melted so that it won’t collapse, but it’s still… dangerous.” 


Sian stood as well and gestured for Dean, Sam, and Chevy to follow.  They rose to their feet, a little stiffly since the couch was so low, and followed Sian and Tevv through a narrow hallway towards the back of the structure where Tevv opened another sliding door and led them outside into the sticky afternoon heat.


“That was a close to an engraved invitation as we’re ever gonna get, Sam,” Dean whispered gruffly in Sam’s ear.  “So don’t fuck it up.  I know you’re doing your Jedi whatever, but pay attention, please?  These folks seem nice and they’ve just lost their wife and mother and I do not want to act like a dick around them, OK?”


“Yeah, got it,” Sam muttered back.  He tried to reign in his senses a little so that he could keep better touch with what was going on around him.


It was working too.  Sian and Tevv led them into the melted hole that had once been a sliding transparisteel door and into the charred, soot-covered interior of the once-brilliant home.  Sam let his fingers ghost over the surfaces, feeling the cool, smooth lines of the melted stone the flaky, sticky texture of the soot; the ragged edges in the less-melted places where interior walls had torn and buckled and their sharp innards were exposed.  He could feel echoes and eddies of the Dark Side, kind of like what he’d first felt when Darth Azazel had come to his apartment, but nothing crisp or clear, nothing that might signify a way to a Rune.


“Over here, is where they say it started,” Tevv said sadly.  In little Tian’s nursery.  Only… they said it looked like the ceiling melted first, which makes no sense.”  He led them through another melted arched doorway and past more charred debris into a smaller, pleasantly round room that seemed largely open to the elements, probably because it had once had large picture windows looking out on the small courtyard outside.


Sam managed to take two steps into the room before the vision struck.  Counting the vision he’d had while training with Miss’Ouri, this was only the second he’d had while awake.  Familiarity didn’t make suck any less.  It struck at him from the blackness, slamming into him with the force of a charging Ronto, stars bursting in front of his eyes, white knives of pain stabbing into his brain.  He had let out an anguished gasp and was on his knees before he could register what had happened.


“Sammy?” he heard Dean’s alarmed voice call, followed by “I’m sorry, my brother, he gets bad headaches, he should be ok in a few minutes,” hastily explained to their hosts.  Sam was vaguely aware of a flurry of movement and something firm and familiar that smelled like Dean swooping in to catch him, before he lost all touch with reality and got lost in the vision.




He was seeing it, the last moments of Seba Nunb’s life playing out before his eyes.  The baby was wailing in her crib, little fists balled in terror as Darth Azazel used the Force to her up the arch of the sandstone wall and onto the ceiling.  He couldn’t see what had happened before; there was no rewinding the holo or moving around for a better angle.  Darth Azazel’s eyes flashed yellow, and he seemed to be saying something to Seba Nunb, who was remarkably still alive, but his words were swallowed over her screams of “No, no!!  Not my baby…  You’re not getting it!” and then the roar of the flames drowned everything out, erupting around Seba and flowing outwards.


Darth Azazel seemed to sense something, twisting his host’s head towards the doorway from which Sam was seeing the events.  In an instant he vanished, disappearing as quickly as he had come—impossibly he just seemed to be there one second and gone the next like a shimmer in the Force.  Then someone was running from where Sam watched, running towards the crib and screaming.  He recognized it was Sian from the long braids.  She rushed through the flames and grabbed the squalling baby, crying out in shock and dismay as she saw Seba burning on the ceiling.  Sian seemed torn, she was screaming something at Seba’s form, it seemed questioning, disbelieving, but he couldn’t make out the words over the roar of the flames.  Then Seba turned to where he was standing and closed her eyes.


Sam was jolted from the scene of Seba’s death as the vision swallowed him up in blackness and took him.  He was flying through space seeing star charts and holoprojections of different systems.  Certain hyperspace routes and planets seemed to glow green in his vision, and then it was as if he was flying along one of them, whizzing through space (and maybe time) towards one of the planets or moons that had glowed green. 


He seemed to land, materialize, somewhere, somewhere unfamiliar.  It was jungle.  Tall green trees and colorful flowers and shrubs all around.  The world seemed to breathe with life.  There was so much, so many, beings of all sizes scurrying—routing through the soil, flying through the air, swimming and basking in pools, tearing through the underbrush.  Life was fierce, fighting, killing, hunting—cyclical.  Each being a link in the food chain, every breath, every existence connected in the Force.  He seemed to be carried along a path that wended its way between the trees until reaching a clearing.  The clearing seemed to be filled with rubble—the remains of a wall and maybe some shelters—something that would suggest a settlement or camp, but one that had been abandoned for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  Jedi had been here had treaded this ground.  He knew it, as whisper on the Force.  It spoke to him and told him the way.  Through the clearing and the rubble almost to the jungle again was a particular pile of rubble.  Nothing spectacular about it, by appearances sake, but the Force flowed through it, a symbol visible in blue light emanating from beneath.  He knew the sigil was there only for him.  A Marker.  Left for the Chosen One to find. 


He felt himself shudder somewhere inside, still unwilling to accept that the Prophecy was real, that it was meant for him, about him.  But in the vision, he—or rather the disembodied awareness that he was—kept on moving.  The rubble could be cleared with the Force.  He knew it with absolute clarity and then the rubble was moved, showing a hidden door, camouflaged and concealed by tricks of the Force.  The Force had been at work here for thousands of years, and he would be the first—and only—since those who had created it to see what it held. 


He knew somehow that pressing his hand to it, the door would know him and would disappear.  In the vision the door vanished, laying open a series of dusty stone steps that led down into a dark, damp tunnel, a hallway.  “In there,” it told him.  “In there and only the Chosen One can free it,” the Force seemed to whisper to him. 


How will I know where to go?  How to find it? His mind asked. 


“Map,” was the Force’s only reply.


Then he was falling, dropping, crashing back into his body, the universe sucking and reeling away from him—his soul dragged back through time and space—and then he was in his body, shaking, shivering, collapsed on the melted floor of Seba Nunb’s burned out home, Dean’s arms wrapped securely around his body, his voice whispering reassuring nothings in Sam’s ear.


The pain, the pain was almost too much to think through.  Stabbing through is mind with even greater intensity than when the vision had begun.  But he knew.  He knew!  “I know where it is,” Sam panted, groaning the words out in pained breaths. 


He heard a gasp from across the room, and felt Dean moving, turning probably trying to come up with an explanation for Sam’s bizarre behavior.  The pain was too bad for Sam to really care.  Well, that and the thrill of victory, or near-victory.  He could almost taste the power of the Rune, the promise of it.  Now that he knew where it was, it was calling to him, and he needed to go.


“It is you!” Sian exclaimed.  Sam recognized the tone and realized she must have been the person to gasp.


“Look, I’m sorry, sometimes when my brother has these headaches he’s disoriented afterwards, says things that don’t mean anything.  We’re sorry to have bothered you,” Dean said hurriedly, the nervousness patently obvious in his voice. 


Sam felt a hard elbow nudge him in his still-tender ribs, making him suck back a hiss of pain.  That was Dean’s universal signal for “get your shit together we need to get out of here now!


“No wait,” Sian exclaimed.


Sam heard movement, shuffling feet coming towards him, he wished his head would stop pounding so that he could open his eyes and see what was going on, but he knew from experience that light, would make him sick.


“Mother told me about this.  Sam is the Chosen One,” Sian continued sounding incredulous. 


“What?” Tevv and Dean said in unison.


Huh, Sam thought, maybe Dean’s theory about family members knowing something was right.


“Before the fire, before the man with yellow eyes who vanished, before she died… Mother told me that a man would come, that he would look like you, and that he would be the Chosen One that the Prophecy warned about, that I must show him the map for it would be the only chance for defeating the Sith,” Sian explained, her voice touched with emotion.


“Say, say again?” Dean stuttered.  “You know about the prophecy?”


“What prophecy?  What is this Sian?”  That was Tevv’s voice, sounding somewhat lost. 


“Mother said that it was only for my ears that I was her heir, that she must prepare me,” Sian explained.


Sam finally then managed to open his eyes and took in the room around him.  He was on his knees in the exact center of the charred nursery.  Dean was seated on the floor against Sam’s back, his arms wrapped securely around Sam to keep him from falling.  Sian was standing about two meters away, looking like she wanted to approach Sam but was afraid Dean might bite, and Tevv was still standing near the melted far wall looking utterly lost and perplexed, his big eyes open even wider than normal, and his cheeks scrunched up in a show of confusion.


Sian’s words finally percolated through the fog in Sam’s mind, and one phrase stuck out.  “You have a map?  It said I was supposed to find a map?”


“Yes, I have a map, in my head, for ruins, it shows where to find the Rune, how to avoid traps.  Mother shared it with me.  She said that I would be able to share it with the Chosen One, but I do not know where the map belongs,” Sian added sadly.


“It’s on Dxun,” Sam said, with absolute certainty.  That was the place so full of life that he had seen in his vision.


“Oh blast!” Dean muttered.  “So much for ‘it could be worse.’”


Chapter Forty


Half an hour later they were seated in the Nunb’s temporary living room once again.  Somehow the soft white nerf-hide couches didn’t seem so inviting this time around.


Dean was stretched out with his arm along the back of the couch, Sam seated next to him in easy reach.  They had slapped a Perigen patch on Sam to help ease the headache and one of the husbands had brought them a pitcher of some chilled fruit juice that was supposed to help Sam relax, but Dean was concerned.  His little brother still seemed to be in a lot of pain.  Sam was hiding it well, though, currently by having an animated conversation with Sian, sorting out the details and planning on how they would go after the Rune which was apparently located somewhere on Dxun, but Dean could see the telltale furrow in Sam’s brow, could tell from the way Sam held himself very carefully, that the pain of the vision hadn’t abated.


After Sam’s vision, Sian had led them back to the temporary dwelling.  She and Tevv had had a hushed conversation with the other two husbands while Sam and Dean waited in the living room.  Soon thereafter, their refreshments had been provided and then the other two husbands had left them alone with Sian and Tevv, presumably to go care for baby Tian and the other young children.


Sian had proceeded to explain what her mother, Seba, had told her.  Seba was the descendant of a long line of Markers set up by the original Protectorate.  She had some latent Force abilities as did Sian.  Seba’s line had strategized to make sure that their descendants always had enough Force sensitivity to maintain their role, while also keeping their talents secret so that they wouldn’t attract the attention of the mainstream Jedi.  Of course, that had meant occasional liaisons with Jedi and purported Force adepts over the years, but Seba and her lineage had come through, holding their duty to the utmost importance.


In each new Marker’s lifetime, he or she (usually she) would identify which of her descendants would replace her and share the story.  Along with the story of the prophecy and the Chosen One, they also kept a map, or rather an image of a map at all times, taking advantage of Sullustan’s perfect memory and intuitive sense about maps.  Each Marker used their latent Force sensitivity to share a vision of the map with their successor, the successor need only see the image once to know it perfectly and be able to reproduce it if necessary. 


Along with the map and the stories, the Marker performed a ritualized set of incantations in her dwelling that called upon the Force to act as a beacon for the Chosen One.  It could only be triggered by the Chosen One, and that was apparently what Sam had triggered when he walked into the burned out dwelling.


Sian was winding down her story and Dean could sense that Sam was starting to get twitchy, whether due to his desire to get out there and find the Rune or something else, Dean wasn’t sure.


Tevv on the other hand was sitting with rapt attention, obviously awed by the complex story that had been going on behind the scenes in his family without his knowledge.  Rather than acting shocked or betrayed, he seemed reverent. 


“How did you know that I was the Chosen One?” Sam asked somewhat abruptly suspicion evident in his voice.  “I mean, specifically you said that you recognized me, and how did they, the Markers… your mother, I mean, know what I looked like?”  He explained.


Dean shifted closer to Sam squeezing Sam’s shoulder to calm him down.  Yeah, it was an unanswered question, but Dean was alarmed by just how suspicious Sam sounded.  He missed the trusting, caring Sammy that had existed before the fire, or at least before going to the University. 


“My mother had a vision, not like yours, but a Force-dream,” Sian explained, no hint of offense in her tone.  “My mother had never had one before, but her mother had told her of these dreams, so she knew what it was.  In it she saw you and sense that a great danger was coming.”  Sian paused, her expression pained.  “That was why she told me,” Sian continued.  “Normally she would have waited until I was Ready, um mature as you would say, before revealing my heritage.  She shared her vision of you with me when she showed me the map,” Sian concluded.


“Oh,” said Sam, sounding contrite, face flushed red with embarrassment.


The lull that followed gave Dean the opportunity to ask the question that had been gnawing at him since he’d read the Nunb’s family history.  Dean slid forward on the couch, dropping his hand from Sam’s shoulder and bringing his hands together between his slightly spread knees in what he hoped came across as a casual gesture.  “Sian, Tevv, your family has only been on Onderon for a few generations, right?  Pardon me for asking, but it was in the story about Seba’s death.”


“Yes,” Tevv replied, “before that our ancestors lived on Sullust for many generations.  We moved here when Seba married us, she had lived here before that and I believe her mother moved here to take up a post as liaison between SoroSuub and the Onderon government, a post Seba took over upon her retirement, when her mother returned to Sullust.”


“Mother said that many, many generations ago one of her predecessors lived here, on Onderon, but then returned to Sullust,” Sian piped in nodding.


Sam immediately perked up, all signs of tension and strain gone, “but the whole time the Rune was on Dxun, right, I mean you haven’t moved it or anything?” Sam asked excited.


“Well I assume,” Sian said with another nod.  She took a sip of the chilled fruit juice and continued.  “We’ve only had the map but we didn’t know there where it was tied to, but that was so no one could find it, no one but the Chosen One.”


“So, presumably, your mother’s predecessors would have performed the same ritual wherever your family lived, even if it was on Sullust or somewhere far, far away from Dxun?” Dean asked.


“Yes,” she replied.  “The ritual is supposed to create a link through the Force between the Rune and the Chosen One, so the Rune will reveal its location.”


Sam and Dean shared a knowing glance.  The Markers needn’t live in the same place as the Rune and might not know exactly where the Rune was, which meant that Azazel’s attacks might have killed the Markers but not destroyed their Runes… which would explain why Sam and Miss’Ouri had only felt the Force echo on Thyferra. perhaps that was one place where the Marker actually was guarding the Rune directly.


“You know,” Sam said to Dean, “That still doesn’t solve our problem.  We’d still have to go back to those planets for me to sense this Force connection, and they’re still crawling with RI and Jedi,” he added with a sigh.


“Yeah, but Sam, now we know what we’re looking for and what we have to do.  It might make risking the trip worth it.  We wouldn’t have to go in and poke around, we’d know exactly what we, well you, were looking for.  Besides, maybe there’s some other clue to the Rune’s locations.  Maybe this one will lead you to the rest, or at least three more,” Dean hissed back.


Sam gave him a look that said, ’we’ll see.’


Encouraged for the first time since Miss’Ouri had discussed the Runes with them, Dean grudgingly returned his attention to their hosts, who were—thankfully—still waiting patiently and unperturbed, while the Winchesters had their little discussion.


After a few more minutes, it was decided they would proceed to Dxun immediately with Tevv and Sian accompanying them and providing the latest in SoroSuub speeder bikes and a speedy shuttle for transportation on and to the jungle moon.


Dean wanted to wait until morning.  Scratch that, he never wanted to set foot on Dxun at all, but given the choice of going or letting Sammy go by himself the answer was clear.  But he’d get to ride on a cool, superfast speeder bike while he did it.  At least he’d convinced them to stop by the Dream to stock up on weapons before they departed.


Chapter Forty-One


The flight on the Nunb’s shuttle was uneventful.  They found a small clearing in which to set down—one Sam directed them to; Dean wasn’t sure if Sam had seen it in his vision, or was just getting some kind of message from the Force to land there.


Once on the ground, they paired up on the speederbikes with Sian and Tevv driving and Sam and Dean riding behind.  Sam and Sian went first followed by Tevv and Dean. 


“Think maybe I can drive on the way back?” Dean asked Tevv as they zoomed along, the pleasant thrill of speed and attractive green blur of foliage almost making Dean forget that he was on the dreaded “Demon Moon” Dxun.


“Sure,” Tevv said, and began describing the control system to Dean en route.  There definitely were some perks to working for a major ship manufacturer Dean soon discovered.  The speeders were really fast and had enhanced precision handling, allowing for quicker snap turns and 180s and a great repulsor range so that pilots could take the bikes up and down as well as side to side fluidly, smoothly, and with great ease. 


Tevv was following Sian and Sam, who were apparently getting some additional guidance from Sam’s vision or the Force, and as a result, the two bikes were following a sort of meandering path of less-dense forest that allowed for higher speeds and greater maneuverability.  Far too fast for Dean’s liking (after all, the bike was the only thing about this scenario that he didn’t hate), they were stopping at a larger clearing that was dotted with crumbled walls, and strategically placed rocks.  It looked vaguely familiar, like he’d seen it in school or something.


“There was a really important Mandalorian base here during the Jedi Civil War,” Sam explained after they’d parked the bikes and dismounted.


“Wait, like the famous Mandalorian base.  So you’re telling me Jedi were here, like right here and they never picked up on the Rune?” Dean asked incredulous.


“Yeah, seems like,” Sam said.  “I recognized this place as soon as I saw it in the vision.  Well, that and the Force was kind of screaming its location, so it was hard to miss,” Sam added as an after thought.


Sam began walking across the ruins stepping surely and confidently even though there were lots of hidden holes and rocks and other pitfalls strewn throughout the landscape as Dean discovered twisting his bad ankle in a hidden hole and landing on his hands and knees and letting out an undignified yelp.  Sithspit!  That hurt.  He really didn’t want to think about what additional damage he might have done to the ankle, but was relieved that it didn’t feel like it had re-broken, it just throbbed a little as he walked.


“You ok, Dean?” Sam called back over his shoulder, concerned. 


“Peachy!” Dean replied.  Luckily it was actually feeling like the kind of pain he could walk off, and he didn’t want Sam worrying about him.  He wanted Sam to find this Rune and get them out of there.


When it seemed that Sam had walked all the way across the clearing, just about ten meters shy of the woods on the other side, he stopped in front of a small pile of rubble.  Closing his eyes and reaching out with his hand he used the Force to levitate it all piece by piece into a neat pile about three meters from it’s current position.  Underneath was what appeared to be an innocuous, flat stone.


Turning to Sian, Sam said “Ok, I saw this in the vision, but this is where the Force started telling me there would be a map.  I know that the door disappears and there are steps underneath, but I don’t know what to do.”


“Stand here,” Sian said, gesturing to a spot about .67 meters in front of Sam’s current position.


He stepped forward and, like magic, Dean watched as a series of blue and green sigils appeared in front of Sam.  They seemed alive, symbols hovering in the air, appearing out of nothing, rotating slowly in a circle above the stone door.


“It’s a lock,” Sian said, her voice awed.  “I saw this when Mother shared this with me.  She said you would know the combination.”


Dean held his breath as Sam closed his eyes and seemed to reach out in the Force again.  One by one, the sigils glowed bright and then moved, leaving the circle to form a straight line.  The sigils, Dean realized were actually Futhark characters, the formal alphabet of Naboo if he was not mistaken, and Sam was using them to spell Chosen One


When the last character left the circle and flew into place, the entire phrase glowed bright and then swirled together, bright green-blue light shooting downwards towards the rock and seeming to disappear into it.  Dean could what sounded like a series of locks clicking and clanging open, only there was no physical reaction from the rock, and the noise was somehow too big like he was feeling the locks release rather than just hearing them.


“It’s ready,” Sam proclaimed as he reached out with the Force again, hand extending outwards. 


The rock seemed to hinge on edge, flipping up to reveal a strange, narrow staircase leading into the ground below.  Dean thought strange, because it didn’t look damp or earthen or even dusty.  And the air around the newly-revealed entrance wasn’t stale or musty either, he discovered, as he stepped over to Sam’s side and walk down.


“What now?” Dean asked, looking to Sam and Sian for guidance.


This time Sian closed her eyes as if visualizing the map before her.  “Forty-nine steps down the ceiling will glow to guide you.  When you reach the bottom continue down the narrow hall.  Ahead of you will be a pedestal.  On it lays the Rune surrounded by a Force field.”


“A forcefield?” Dean asked.  Surprised, wondering how something like that would get powered way out here.  Not to mention, what was that about the ceiling glowing?


“Not exactly,” Sam said, smiling at Sian.  “It’s actually a forcefield made from the Force,” Sam said with dawning realization.


“Yes, and it glows pink.  When you get there, it will only allow you or your agent to pass through.  It will test you,” Sian explained.


“What else?” Sam asked to Dean’s surprise.  After all, they were here for the Rune, right? What else would there be.


“Beyond the pedestal the hall continues.  The left wall bears a smooth black panel in the rock.  It glows bright with the stories of its sisters,” Sian concluded.


“Whose sisters?” Dean asked, not following.


“Sister Runes,” Sian explained, her eyes now open.  “Green, blue, and red, it will glow.”  She added somewhat mysteriously.


“I guess we go have a look?” Sam said sounding suddenly nervous. 


“Your call, Sam, but I’m all for getting this Rune,” Dean said reassuringly.  He couldn’t really imagine what it would be like, seeing something in a dream or waking dream and then actually living it out.  He shuddered a little at the thought.  Dean had never really liked the idea that the Force could prescribe one’s actions, that things could be preordained decades or centuries in advance (or even minutes, hours). 


“Ok,” Sam said, stepping forward onto the stairs and starting his descent.


“You and Sian follow,” Tevv said as Dean reached the tenth steep step down, “I’ll stay here and stand watch.” 


Dean looked back and saw Tevv sit down on one of the top steps, so that he could be concealed by the trap door if he wished, or hold it open—as he was doing now—and maintain watch on their surroundings. 


Dean thought briefly of all of Dxun’s indigenous predators and shuddered, deciding it was an excellent idea.  “Thanks,” he called over his shoulder, giving Tevv a nod of gratitude before resuming his trek down the stairs, going deeper and deeper into the ground, trying to catch up with Sam and Sian. 


The roof of the passageway sloped with the stairs, so it was always comfortable to stand, but one couldn’t see very far in front of one’s face.  Which was why, when Dean finally reached the bottom of the forty-nine steps, he let out a gasp of surprise as the ceiling opened up in front of him, revealing a tall arched passageway with a soothing blue-green glow coming from above.  He couldn’t tell the source of it, it just seemed to exist there in a broad line running down the exact center of the ceiling.  Ahead of him, the passageway widened somewhat, so that three people could easily stand abreast.  About fifteen meters ahead, Sam and Sian had paused on either side of a strange stone pedestal that rose out of the floor.  It seemed to be perfectly smooth and pure black, but yet blended flawlessly into the textured brownish stone that made the floor.  Hovering above it, suspended about three centimeters off the pedestal’s flat top, was a square stone with a swirling blue and green design at its center.  Surrounding that, sure enough, was a glowing pinkish forcefield, that surrounded the square Rune in a perfect sphere, the pedestal a tangent at its base.


“It’s going to test me?” Sam asked nervously to Sian as Dean approached.


“Yes,” Sian said.  “But I don’t know what that means.  I just know that it is supposed to let you through.”


Sam turned his eyes warily to Dean, looking for reassurance or guidance, Dean was not certain.


He didn’t particularly like the sound of the word test, but he also got the feeling Sam was supposed to get this Rune, and that the forcefield or Force-field wasn’t going to hurt him.


“I think it’s ok, Sammy,” Dean reassured.


With a nervous nod, Sam turned back to the Rune and stuck his right hand out, until his fingertips were just brushing the sphere.  Sam gave a little gasp, and Dean saw the pink glow of the field shout out and envelop Sam, traveling up his fingers and outstretched arm and then up his body closing over his head and traveling down until he was completely surrounded then seeming to blink out of existence.  It happened so fast Dean could barely follow it, and when the pink glow around Sam was gone, Dean realized his finger tips had passed through it, and Sam’s hand was now closing around the stone square inside.


Carefully and slowly, Sam closed his fingers around the Rune, and just as slowly pulled it out of the pink sphere, which parted and flowed around his hand, allowing him to remove the Rune.  When he was done, Sam was holding the Rune in his hand, and the pink sphere, now empty, still rested on the pedestal.


“What happened?” Dean asked, concerned about Sam’s gasp.


“It felt like it was reading me.  The Force… it knew who I was, and then it just let me in,” Sam explained seeming to search a little to find the word to describe what had happened.  “I’m ok,” Sam added.


Dean smiled, realizing his concern was probably spread across his face.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  That wasn’t so bad after all.  He walked closer to Sam, squeezing up to his side and brushing shoulders where they stood in the cramped space between the pillar and the rough stone wall.  “That it?” Dean asked, tentatively reaching out a finger towards the Rune.


“Yeah,” Sam said with awed certainty.  “This is what I saw, and I can feel it.  It’s connected to the Force, the Force is almost flowing out of it,” Sam added.


Dean looked to him for permission, and Sam offered the Rune to him.  Dean let his fingers close around it. 


It felt cool, but not cold, and he could feel the textured of the stone, smooth, but not flat, little ridges and details giving it texture, the green and blue at its center not painted on, but somehow formed from other minerals that were completely integrated into the rock, no boundaries or seems visible.  It was as if the Rune had sprung into being fully formed in exactly that shape or pattern.  “Wow, so three more of these and we’ve got a Sith-trapping device?” Dean murmured.


“Assuming we can get them all and get the Sith out of his stolen body, yeah,” Sam said.


Dean passed the Rune back to Sam, who carefully slipped it into his inside Jacket pocket, and zipped it shut, patting the jacket to make sure it was securely tucked against his chest.


“The panel with the sister Runes?” Sam asked.


“Right ahead,” Sian said, then, after pausing, “if it’s ok with you, I will join Tevv in keeping watch.”


“Yeah, thanks,” said Sam with a smile.


Dean nodded his appreciation, and watched as Sian returned back the way they’d come, quickly disappearing as she ascended the stairs.


Sam started walking down the passageway past the pedestal and Dean followed. 


“Look,” said Sam pointing to the backlit 2D display that ran along the wall.  “There we are now.  Those coordinates point to Dxun and that’s the panel in the ground and the passage.  And look, see, it’s lit up green because we have the Rune!” Sam exclaimed excitedly, fingers running over the square of stone with the blue-green design at its center, as Dean followed his pointing with open curiosity. 


Dean hadn’t the faintest clue what the panel was made of or how it was lighting up because for all intents and purposes it just seemed to sprout clean and smooth from the surrounding rough-hewn rock.  It was just one of the many things that was strange about this place, this Rune Ward, like it not being cool or damp even though they had to be at least twenty meters underground, like the faint glow that seemed to emanate from the roof of the cave without any visible source or fixture, like how this place could exist at all considering there was no power here, no generators, no wires, no nothing, and yet it was perfectly preserved and undisturbed even though they were underneath the ruins of an ancient encampment where one of the most famous Jedi heroes of the Civil War had tread about thirty-five hundred years ago and on a moon that other Sith lords had used to stage attacks, and somehow, none of them had known this place existed.


“Dean!” Sam exclaimed again, oblivious to his brother’s quiet contemplation.  “Look at this.  Doesn’t that look like an insect and that’s jungle, and the coordinates!!  I’m pretty sure that’s Thyferra!  And look, it’s turned Red, probably because Azazel destroyed it.”  Sam was pointing to another set of images that were offset down by the left end of the panel, closest to the entrance.


“Huh, why is that one down there, and the other four over there?” Dean asked stepping forward.  He reached up to run his fingers along the panel and let out a gasp of surprise when the panel glowed further to life, writing appearing beneath the symbols where he had touched it.  The writing had appeared as suddenly as had the colorful symbols outside the entrance when Sam passed over it, and like those symbols,


“Maybe it was a decoy?” Sian suggested from somewhere behind them.  She must have returned from standing guard with Tevv.  It wasn’t difficult to be stealthy in here, Dean realized, one of the other oddities of the passageway or whatever it was, this place didn’t have an echo.


“A decoy?” Sam asked, turning to regard Sian, eyes wide in the dim light.  “Did your mom tell you there were decoys?  Do you know about the other Runes or their Markers?” he pressed.


Dean felt almost taken aback by Sam’s persistent questioning, but Sian seemed to take it in stride.


“I don’t know much.  My mother only told me what she knew.  And she only knew that there were others or were supposed to be, not where they were or who the Markers were or even who they were descended from.  But,” she stepped up to the panel next to Dean, running her fingers over the words that had appeared where he had touched it.  “She said that the plan was woven through the Force so that it wouldn’t fail.”  Sian pulled her fingers back and clasped her hands in front of her chest, turning towards Dean and Sam.  “If the Force is in on this, and it was planned over a period of thousands of years, maybe that means there were decoys… people set up as Markers who weren’t really guarding Runes, or extra Runes that were made easy to find and destroy to trick Azazel,” she suggested, her voice taking on that same knowing tone it had when Sam had had his vision back at the ruins of their burned out house.


“But that doesn’t make sense,” Sam protested and shook his head.  “I had the vision of that Rune, the one on Thyferra being destroyed.  And the man who died, he was so worried—terrified when he felt Azazel find the Rune, when it broke, he thought he’d failed, that we would be doomed—”


“Sam,” Dean interjected.  It still felt weird to be talking about the Force and Jedi and Prophecies in connection with his family and their future, but in a certain level, it was just like all the Hunting they’d been trained to do all their lives, every bit of information is like a puzzle piece or the tumbler on a lock, and like locks and puzzles, if you keep flipping them and jiggling them around, eventually they’d fall into place and you’d have the picture or open door you were looking for.  And Sian’s comment had acted just like that, the puzzle piece or decryption key that gives you the clue to let all the pieces or tumblers fall into place.  “Remember what Miss’Ouri said?”


Sam turned to him eyebrows raised in question.


“She said the reason she didn’t know where all the Runes were was because the Protectorate set up their plan using cells.”  Dean paused, letting the words sink in.  “Well, with cells, you don’t tell them any more than they absolutely need to know.  Miss’Ouri knew what she did because it was her job to start you on your path.  The guy you saw die, if it was his job to be a decoy, if it was his job to make Azazel think he’d destroyed the weapon or thwarted the plan.  He wouldn’t need, hell, he couldn’t know if he was a decoy, ‘cause that would throw the whole thing off.  If he had any doubt, if he didn’t think his Rune was essential or the real deal…”


“Azazel would know,” Sian finished for Dean meeting his eyes before they both turned to face Sam.


Sammy looked stricken.  His mouth was doing that open-close, open-close fish-without-water thing that made Dean sick to see.  He wanted to wipe that look off Sam’s face, but he got the sense that Sam was coming to a realization, something big that while painful was absolutely necessary.  It was like Dad had always said, you can’t shield people you love from life, or loss, or growing up, no matter how much you might want.


“But all that pain, for no reason?  I mean, he didn’t have to think that his death was going to doom the universe.  All those generations of preparation and passing on knowledge, and the whole time, they were set up to die?” Sam squeaked, voice hitching in his throat.


“Sammy,” Dean said again, putting as much comfort and affection as he could into his brother’s nickname.  He stepped towards Sam, facing him and squeezed his shoulder with his uninjured right arm (his left shoulder was still a little too sore to hold his arm straight out unless he absolutely had to).  “It’s war, and everyone the Protectorate entrusted with information were the soldiers.  Sometimes you have to send people on suicide missions.  And sometimes, sometimes you can’t tell them,” he said sadly, secretly hoping that he and Sam weren’t on such a mission themselves. 


Sam stilled, nodded, and his expression seemed to clear, as if like that—poof—he had assimilated the information and accepted it, or as close to accepted it as possible.  It was something Dean had seen more and more since Jess’s death, like Sam had just gotten too used to receiving blows to resist them anymore.  Instead he just accepted it, sucked it up, and moved on.  That was never what Dean had wanted Sam’s life to be like. 


Dean let out a sigh, as Sam turned back to the display.


“Ok, so if that’s a decoy, then that means these four,” he pointed to the other four sets of images, starting with the images depicting their location on Dxun, that followed after a large gap on the display, “are the real deal.  The ones we need to find.”


Dean nodded contemplatively.


“Man, I wish we had Chevy here, she could get a recording of this for us, make sure we don’t miss anything,” Sam whistled.


Sian stepped forward to get a better look.  “Sam, if I get a good look at this, I can draw it; it would be exact.”


Sam thought about the directions and description she had given them to depicted the exact spot he had to stand on the ruins of the camp, the exact sigils that would appear when he stood over the entrance, exactly what he had to touch, and then perfectly depicted the Rune Ward below from the entrance down the long, steep stairs, the Rune on its pedestal, surrounded by the hazy pink Force field, even the continuation of the corridor where they’d found the panel.  “I thought that was just a mental map, like something you could see in your head,” Sam said surprised.


“Well, yes, but some Sullustans are also skilled at reproducing maps, and I happen to be one of them,” she said with a shy smile.


“That would be awesome, Sian, thank you,” Sam said, giving her a smile.


Dean had an idea.  He stepped forward and touched the images depicting Dxun.  Sure enough, writing appeared beneath this one as well, this time green to match the image of the Rune.  He looked at it more closely.  It was in Basic.  The first line underneath Dxun’s coordinates gave Sam’s full name and the date, today’s date on the galactic calendar, beneath that was a riddle of sorts:  The Chosen One shall find the Marker. The Marker will provide the Map.  The Map will lead the Way.  Under the ruins of a future war then past lies the door only the Chosen One can see.  The Rune waits underground, guarded by the Force.  Invisible to all but the Chosen One and his Agents.


“Well, would you look at that?  It’s like frigging instructions,” Dean quipped.  Yeah, instructions written by a Talz poet high on spice


He walked over to the red images of the destroyed Rune.  Sure enough, the writing there began with Darth Azazel’s name and the date of the Rune’s destruction.  The sacrifice of a faithful soul never forgotten.  Hidden on the planet of healing, a ruse and a key.  Distract the Sith and guide the Chosen One, read the inscription.


“So, we should look at the other three,” Sam pointed to the three sets of images that were blue, probably meaning they had neither been destroyed nor found, “and see what it tells us.”


The first of the three sets of images showed a giant, gnarled tree, branches twisted and forking, spread wide to create a canopy.  It seemed to have an aura or sphere around it, like a bubble, denoted on the image by an area of fainter blue.  At the tree’s core, one square spot—the shape of a Rune—glowed darker, deeper blue.  Underneath the picture were coordinates.


“Huh,” Sam said.  “I think those are the coordinates for Myrkr,” he murmured.


Dean took a closer look.  “I’d have to confirm when we get back to the Dream, but that sounds right.  He touched the display, and sure enough, words sprang into being beneath the image.  There was a blank space where the name and date had been on the other two, blank, presumably because the Rune was still undisturbed, neither found nor destroyed. 


Hidden by the Jedi where they so often hesitate to go, the Forceless Tree holds the Rune in her grasp, for she knows the souls of all who visit.  The Guardian will only reveal the Rune to the Chosen One and his agents.  When the agent comes, he must speak exact and clear to prove his worth:  Guardians of the Rune, I come to you on behalf of the Chosen One.  Please give me the Rune you conceal so he may defeat the dark wraith.  And the Guardian will reveal it.  May I take it?  And the Forceless Tree will release it.  Will the guardian of the Rune please guide me and give safe passage?  And the agent will have safe passage through the wilds.


“Real specific on this one,” Dean murmured.


“And look at the instructions for the ‘agent,’ it’s like the Protectorate, or whoever set this up, knew that I wouldn’t be there in person,” Sam said, awed.


Dean turned to face his brother, “Yeah, and I’m betting there’s no way anyone would know to say these words unless they came here, and since only you can find this place, and the Tree apparently can see inside people’s soul, I’m betting any imposters would have a real nasty shock if they tried going after that one.”


“Yeah,” Sam agreed.  Turning to Sian, who was studying the detail of the Dxun images, he said, “Can you get this one too—I want to make sure we get the words exactly right, so we can send it too our friend.”


“Sure,” Sian said, stepping over to the images as Dean and Sam stepped out of the way.


“Those coordinates don’t look too specific, I mean, it looks more like just the general planetary coordinates, not a specific spot,” Dean said worried.  “Do you think you’ll have a vision or something to show Bobby where to go?”


Sam blanched at the suggestion of having a vision, and Dean felt like a bastard for having forgotten just how painful those experiences seemed to be on Sam. 


Composing himself, Sam spoke.  “I don’t know.  Bobby found a legend there that spoke of the Runes or we wouldn’t have even known to ask Miss’Ouri about them,” Sam said.  He shrugged.  “Maybe he won’t need more information.  If we give him that, maybe he can talk to his connections or people on the planet and figure it out from there.”


“We’ll have to give it a try, I guess,” Dean agreed.


Dean, Sam, and Sian stepped on towards the next grouping of images.  This one depicted two tall pitchers facing a tall rock face.  A figure stood between the two pillars facing the rocks and a curved pathway seemed to lead from the figure to a shadowy crevice in the rocks.  Next to the first image was a display of what seemed to be a large cavern with a glowing pool at its center and something shimmering over head—the blue light behind it actually modulating and fluctuating to create the effect.


Looking to Sam for permission, and receiving an affirmative nod, Dean reached out his hand and touched the display. 


All three of them let out a collective gasp at the sheer breadth of text that appeared.


“Those look a lot more specific than just planetary coordinates,” Sam murmured.


Sure enough, following the planetary designation, were what looked like latitude and longitude for a very specific point on the planet.


After the blank for the name and date, the panel read:  Fleeing the dark wraith the runner finds solace from the burning sun.  Between pitchers of stone, facing the cliff, a shadow cast, the path revealed to the hidden cave.  The Chosen One and his agents must enter walking into the black when it seems they can walk no more, they follow to left then right until a pool of shimmering stars with a core of light.


“Huh,” Sam muttered.


“What?” Dean asked.  “That sounds pretty specific, can’t be too hard to find with all that detail.


“It’s just that it sounds familiar, that’s all,” Sam murmured.  “Like I’ve heard a story about something like that somewhere.”  They walked on to the next and final set of images.  “Maybe it’s nothing.  Maybe it’ll come to me…”


“What?” Dean asked.


“Ven!” Sam exclaimed.


“Ven?” Dean asked turning a raised eyebrow to Sam.


“Yeah Ven,” Sam darted back to the image, double checking the planetary coordinates.  “I’m not sure, but that could be Ryloth, right?”


Dean paid them a closer look.  The numbers looked fairly close to those for Tatooine, which would be right.  “Yeah, I think.”


“Ok, well, Ven is an anthropology major, kind of like Jess,” Sam’s voice hitched every time he said her name, “but he’s studying cultural anthropology, like folklore of sentient species and stuff like that.”


“Ok,” Dean nodded, not quite seeing where Sam was going, but assuming it might have something to do with why the story had sounded familiar to Sam.


“Well, he loves to talk about his major, and he was constantly telling Twi’lek myths and children’s stories, and there’s this story about a lost rycrit who gets chased by a dark spirit and almost runs into the burning brightlands, where he would certainly die.  But before he gets there, he finds two pillars of rock shaped like pitchers and they show him a way into a hidden cave where he finds a pool of shimmering stars, and the core of light at the pool’s center keeps him safe and destroys the dark spirit.”


“So, maybe not a made up story for kids then,” Dean assessed.  “Can you find a copy of the story?  It might supplement these instructions, make it a little easier to figure out.”


“Yeah,” Sam said, hesitantly.  He looked like he was going to say something else, but hesitated.


“What is it?” Dean asked, face falling, worried by his brother’s sudden silence.


“I… I kind of want to call Ven, he’s got family on Ryloth.  They might be able to help us out, but…” Sam sighed.


“But what?” Dean asked gently.


“I don’t want to get them in trouble; I don’t want to ask Ven to put his family in a position where some Jedi or RI agent’s going to show up and haul them off for questioning or arrest them for helping us,” Sam concluded.


Dean sighed.  “You’ve got a valid point Sam, but, if you think he’d help, that his family might be able to make it easier for us, I say ask him.  We can send him a message with instructions on how to contact us on a secure, encrypted channel.  That way it’s up to him.  Ball in his court.  If he doesn’t want to risk contacting us, he just doesn’t have to respond.  If he does, then great, we maybe we’ll get some help navigating Ryloth, ‘cause otherwise, it will be tricky.”  


The Twi’lek homeworld wasn’t exactly an environmentally hospitable place, given that most of its civilization was underground, and they were searching for something that clearly had to be entered from the surface—from a dangerous part of the surface from the sound of things, as much as Dean hesitated to have to rely on someone outside the family or burden an innocent civilian in any way, he knew they were going to need all the help they could get.  Besides, Ven had been touched by the Dark Side now; he knew what was really out there, and he’d helped Sam and Dean, and done an admirable job by all accounts.  After all, no arrest warrants had been issued for them until after their little library-burglary stunt.  Ven was ‘good people,’ and Dean felt instinctively like he could trust him and his family.


“I’ll send him a message when we get back to the Dream, Sam agreed.”


“Um, Sam?” Sian said hesitantly, probably hoping to avoid interrupting their conversation. 


“Yeah?” Sam asked.


“I’ve got these three and the Rune that was destroyed.  Are you ready to look at the fourth?” she asked. 


Dean sensed Sam’s hesitation, surprised that his brother really did have to think over his response.  “It’ll be ok, Sammy,” he reassured.  He knew Sam was afraid they’d find something impossible—an image of Coruscant or Tatooine, someplace that was closed to them, instructions impossible to decipher.  If there were coordinates for Coruscant or Tatooine then they’d figure out a way to get there.  This was too important, too vital to abandon just because the authorities wanted them captured or dead.  And if it was indecipherable, then damn it, they’d call in every favor, spend every credit, and break into every library in the republic if they had to.  If this was their only weapon, their best shot and only chance to face Azazel and come out alive, then they were going to make it work—because there were no other options.


Hesitantly, Sam walked towards the final image on the panel, Dean and Sian following close behind. 


Sam let out a frustrated grunt, and Dean could see why.  Unlike the detailed, multiple images of Dxun, Ryloth, and Thyferra, the final display consisted of only one image, and it was even simpler than the one depicting the Rune on Myrkr.  A near–life-size depiction of a Rune that looked very similar to the one Sam had clutched in his hands, only rendered entirely in monochrome, backlit in blue, and surrounded by what appeared to be a large rectangular frame, ripples radiating out from the Rune to what looked like raised edges on the border of the frame.  It didn’t seem to be much to go on, but yet, Dean felt a sense of déjà vu when he looked at it. 


Getting an impatient nod of permission from Sam, Dean stepped forward and touched the console. 


Very sparse words populated the display sprang to life beneath Dean’s fingers:  a simple set of planetary coordinates, followed by the blank line for name and date, and a simple caption.  The caption read:  Displayed in the land of unspoiled beauty only the Chosen One and his agents will know it’s true worth.


Sam gave a pained cry when he finished reading it, and Dean could see his lips moving over reciting the line over and over and over again.  “How… what?  Dean, see this is what I was afraid of.  It’s impossible.  There’s.  There’s no way…”


But Dean was only paying partial attention, instead he was scrutinizing the image closely, arms crossed, right hand lifted to stroke at his chin.  Yes, this definitely reminded him of something.  He tried stepping back, then to the side, trying to view it from different angles trying to see if he could recreate the partial image in his head that kept triggering an elusive memory.  It was almost like an itch, an itch that he knew he should be able to scratch, but just couldn’t seem to hit the right … spot.  Oh, he realized.  He checked the ripples fanning out around the Rune, tried to imagine them actually appearing to move, slipping from color to color in green-gold-blue and back again ending in a seamless frame of bronze-red wood.  Crap, it couldn’t be, could it?  He looked at the coordinates.  Looked again, double checking.  Yeah, those were definitely the planetary coordinates for Alderaan


“I don’t believe it,” Dean said aloud with a little chuckle.  “That’s not gonna be hard to find, but, Sithspit, how are we gonna get it?”


“Dean?” Sam queried.  “What the hell are you talking about?”


“I know where it is, Sam,” he answered.


“How?  There’s not exactly anything to go on there,” Sam complained.  “I mean, how are we supposed to search a whole planet for a Rune in a squiggly frame?”


“You don’t recognize it?” Dean asked, surprised.  After all, Sam was usually the academic, not him.  He was surprised Sam hadn’t figured it out before he did.


“Recognize it?” Sam responded blankly.


“Have you ever been to the Royal Museum on Alderaan?  Or read any books on art history?” Dean asked.


“Uh, no,” Sam said annoyed.  “I studied law and politics on Coruscant, Dean; I didn’t really have time for off-world museum fieldtrips.  And what, you gonna tell me you have been there?”


“Yes, actually,” Dean admitted.  “Dad and I worked a job there three years ago.  Haunted painting,” he added.


“Ok,” Sam said, “well, are you going to fill us in?”  He turned to Sian who was wearing an equally confused look.  “Or are you just going to gloat?”


“That,” Dean said, pointing at the image, “is Guardian of Souls by Anna Angelia,” Dean explained.


Sian gasped, “By the Force it is, you’re right!”  She said, awed.


“Wait, what?” Sam asked.  “You mean that sculpture made of stone and wood that moves and changes color and no one knows how it works?”  He looked perplexed.  “I mean it’s a…” he broke off.  “It’s a five-thousand year-old sculpture by a Jedi Master…”  His jaw dropped.  “And it’s on display on Alderaan…”


“Which is famous for it’s unspoiled beauty,” Dean concluded.  “And only we know what it really is.”  He let out a huge chuckle. 


“And you’ve actually seen it on display?” Sam queried.


“Yes,” Dean reconfirmed.  Rolling his eyes; of course Sam would have a hard time believing that, but he’d actually spent a fair amount of time in that museum.  “The haunted painting was on display across the hall from it.  I must have spent eight hours within two feet of that thing and never had a clue.”  Dean smiled.  “Wow.  That’s brilliant, it’s hidden in plain sight.”


“Wait, did you just say ‘hidden in plain sight?’” Sam asked.


“Yes?” Dean said, not following.


“You remember that poem that was scrawled across Jess’s research notes?” Sam asked.


One hidden by the Force.  One hidden from the Force.  One hidden inside the Force.  And one in plain sight.  The words of the poem sprang into Dean’s memory.  “Oh, oooh,” he realized.  “Guardian of Souls is obviously the one in plain sight, and I’m willing to bet Myrkr is hidden from the Force.  After all, they’ve got Force-repelling lizards there, the display says it’s in the Forceless Tree.”


“Yeah,” Sam agreed with an emphatic nod.  “I think Dxun is hidden by the Force.”


“Ahh,” said Sian.  “The sigils on the concealed door, the Force-field around the Rune,” she agreed.


“Yeah, that and Jedi and Sith being right here and never finding it.  The Force was hiding it from everyone but… me, I guess,” Sam finished. 


“So, Ryloth, that’s going to be hidden in the Force?” Dean postulated.  “What does that even mean?”


“Beat’s me,” Sam said, shaking his head.  “But I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with the ‘pool of shimmering stars’ and the ‘core of light.’”


“Yeah,” Dean agreed, but something was bugging him.  He had just gotten a nagging sensation that something was wrong.  Looking around him at the Rune Ward, nothing had changed.  There were no obvious dangers, nothing to trigger that feeling, but it was the kind of gut instinct he’d had enough times over the years while hunting that he had learned to trust it without question.  “Uh, guys, there’s nothing else we need to do here right?” he said stepping back and starting to back towards the exit.  He had already reached the empty pedestal where the Rune had sat before Sam and Sian looked back at him.


“What’s wrong?” Sam asked, suddenly attuned to his brother’s mood.


“I’m not sure,” Dean said, honestly, “but I’ve just got a feeling that something’s really wrong here, or about to go wrong.  He swallowed and closed his eyes, to steady himself, his original discomfort for the ‘Demon Moon’ and its myriad carnivorous predators and dark energy spots returning at full strength.  “If we’ve got what we need, I’d really like to get back to Chevy and the Dream,” he added.


“Sure,” said Sam.  “Let me just…”  He stopped and closed his eyes, probably extending his senses like Miss’Ouri had taught him.  “Blast,” Sam sighed.


“What?” Dean asked.


At that moment, Tevv came running down the stairs from where he’d been keeping watch at the entrance.  “There’s a zakkeg outside.  It just meandered into the ruins and spotted me.”


“A zakkeg?” Dean asked, shuddering, “as in a giant, armored predator that eats other predators for breakfast?”


“That would be the one,” Tevv said solemnly.


“And the speeders are still at the entrance to the ruins?” Sam asked, as he and Sam walked up to Dean and Tevv were now standing.


“Yes,” Tevv affirmed. 


Sam pulled out his blaster and checked the power cell.


“A blaster’s not going to do crap against one of those things.  I’ve heard it can be hard to inflict damage on them with a lightsaber.  You shoot it, you’re only gonna piss it off,” Dean admitted, thinking wistfully of his mother’s lightsaber safely tucked away in its case in his and Sam’s cabin on the Dream.  Not that he, or even Sam, who was, as-of-yet untrained in lightsaber combat, would be likely to be able to control it or do much with it, but it might have at least given them a chance.  But like Chevy and the Dream herself, it was now out of range for a rescue, boxed in at the spaceport on Onderon.


“I’m not going to shoot the zakkeg,” Sam explained.  “I’m going to try a diversion.”


“A diversion?” Dean asked.  “With your blaster?  What are you gonna do, blow up a bunch of trees and hope that’s more interesting than a group of nice, juicy sentient mammals?”


“No,” Sam said, seriously.  “I’m going to blow up a few trees and then use the Force to create a diversion.”


Chapter Forty-Two


Fifteen minutes later, the four of them were crammed at the top of the stairs that led down into the Rune Ward, crowded beneath the hidden trapdoor that was disguised as a flat rock from above. 


Sam was poised at the very top, eyes closed and blaster in hand, and Dean was crammed in next to him, similarly armed, with Sian and Tevv immediately behind them.


“Ok,” Sam said, opening his eyes at last.  “I’ve located the zakkeg in the Force.  When I open the door, I’m going to project an image that nothing has changed.  There’s a tree at nine o’clock right behind a low rubble wall.  Dean and I will shoot that together on the count of three.  Three blasts, no more.  That should do enough damage to make the tree fall, and should grab the zakkeg’s attention.  Then I’m going to project an image of a maalraa running into the forest.  When the zakkeg goes for it, you three run for the speeders.  I’ll do my best to cover your scent,” Sam explained.


“Wait, what about you?” Dean asked.  “I don’t like this there’s an awful lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘maybes’ here.”


Sam shrugged.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the plan either, but their alternative was sitting in the Rune Hold with no food or water and hoping that the zakkeg left and nothing else took its place.  When he had reached out in the Force to find it, he had sensed it’s primitive brain, so strange and different from touching another sentient’s.  It was hungry and had smelled food.  He got that much.  And Sam knew with a sickening certainty that the “food” the beast smelled was them.  No way the thing was going to wander around on its own now, even if he did mask their sent.  The creature would just wait until the smell returned.


“Look, I know it’s risky, but we don’t have a lot of options, unless you want to just sit here and hope it goes away,” Sam said.  “As soon as it’s far enough away, and you guys are at the bikes, I’m gonna run and try to catch you.  Not sure if I can maintain the illusion while I’m running, so be prepared to step on it.


Dean gave him a threatening look. 


“Dean, I’ll be careful; I promise,” Sam placated.


Dean seemed to settle down and re-checked his blaster.


Taking that as a signal, Sam steadied himself and reached out in the Force again.  Eyes still closed, he reached up with his left hand and touched the trap door above them, right hand shifting his blaster into a ready firing position.  There it was, the little glimmer of hungry consciousness that was the zakkeg’s mind.  Carefully, carefully, he grabbed its attention and thought hard about the image of the trap door as it looked from the outside.  Just a rock.  Nothing interesting.  Nothing moving.  Then Sam listened to the Force in himself and his three companions and gently tuned out perception of their smell, presence, and movement from the zakkeg’s awareness.  When he felt confident he had a grasp on all that, he spoke.  “On the count of three, one, two, three!”


Smoothly, Sam lifted the trap door, maintaining his grasp on the zakkeg’s mind, opening his eyes, only when he and Dean were both clear of the hatch, blasters aimed and firing at the tree. 


Sam felt the zakkeg’s awareness shift to the loud blasts and explosion, and watched it turn its armored head in fascination as the tree splintered and crashed to the ground under the combined Force and heat of the blasts, sending chunks of rubble falling off the crumbled remains of the wall as the tree landed on it.  The zakkeg was interested, and there, Sam planted the image of a startled maalraa, a toothy, round-headed cat-like predator, and the only zakkeg food source with which Sam was sufficiently familiar to possibly pull this off.  Sam didn’t know what a maalraa smelled like to a zakkeg, so he did his best instead, to give the zakkeg an image of the maalraa moving, starting to run, but slowly enough that the zakkeg could catch it.  Catch it and feast on it.  He sensed the primitive hunger want increase in the animal’s mind and fed the Force into that as much as possible.


When the zakkeg started to run after the phantom maalraa, Sam whispered, “Go!”


Dean, Sian, and Tevv, streamed out of the hatch and began to sprint across the open field, dodging around rocks and piles of rubble towards the speeder bikes.


Sam tried to dampen the sound of their feet, their smell, their heartbeats, working double time to keep those sensory cues out of the zakkeg’s mind as it chased its perceived prey.


Dean and the others were running fast, and had almost reached the bikes.  He just had to hold onto the zakkeg a little longer. 


His attention slipped just a moment as he checked on Dean’s whereabouts.  As he watched his brother carefully climb onto the bike and beckon after him, he failed to make the maalraa dodge fast enough, and the zakkeg’s teeth swiped through where the maalraa should have been.  Sam tried to project the sensation of teeth hitting furred flesh, of tearing and stopping, but it came a little too late, and wasn’t accompanied by the taste of maalraa. 


The zakkeg stuttered, confused, still seeing the maalraa, as far as Sam could tell, but disinterested from the hunt.  It felt not right.  Sam tried to make the maalraa run again in front of the zakkeg, but it seemed disinterested.  A little too late, Sam realized that in his haste to mask the others and keep the zakkeg interested in the maalraa, he had let his grip on his own presence slip.  The zakkeg could smell him, and it was coming his way.


“Sithspit!” Sam cursed, as he flung himself from the hatch, hearing the door slam shut behind him.  There was no way he could levitate the rubble that had concealed it back into place, not unless he wanted to be zakkeg chow.  He sure hoped the Force would keep the Rune Hold invisible to everyone else, ‘cause he really didn’t have time to check it.  The zakkeg was coming after him and closing fast.


“Dean!” he called.  “Tell Sian and Tevv to go!  We got incoming!”  Sam saw Sian and Tevv fire up the repulsor on their SoroSuub speederbike and whiz off into the distance, as Dean mounted the bike and looked over his shoulder at Sam.


Sam didn’t need the look of shock and terror on Dean’s face to know how close and how fast the zakkeg was coming.  It was moving much faster than Sam had thought possible.  He could hear the animal in the Force and feel it growing nearer just fine.  Sam kept trying to throw distractions at it, even once sending it the image of an enormous boulder in it’s path, but the zakkeg just dodged and kept on coming.


Giving up on masking himself or the others from the zakkeg, Sam put all his Force energy into making himself faster, willing his body to just get to Dean.  He didn’t teleport or anything like that, but he did move a little faster, and with a flying leap jumped onto the back of the speederbike behind Dean as he fired the engines and opened the throttle just as the zakkeg’s teeth would have gnashed through his neck where he had just been.


Sam’s landing was awkward, and it took most of his concentration just to stay on, wrapping his arms around Dean as the acceleration threatened to throw him off the back of the bike. 


Sam looked over his shoulder.  The zakkeg was coming.  It was pissed and it was picking up speed, pacing the speederbike.  Sam could feel its mind had identified him as the source of frustration, as the obstacle that had taken away its food.  And Sam smelled good to the zakkeg, way better than the scent-less maalraa. 


“Can you go any faster?” he called to Dean through the roaring breeze.


“Not unless you want to go splat on a tree,” Dean shouted back.  “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re taking the direct route.”  He pointed at a little blip on the bike’s display that Sam could just barely make out over his shoulder.  “More direct, but the foliage is a little, uh dense this way.  Otherwise I’d go up and get out of chomping range!” 


As if to illustrate the point, a series of low-hanging branches and tangled vines, zoomed into view, causing Dean and Sam to duck to avoid having their heads taken off.


Sam reached out in the Force and tried to push the zakkeg away to no avail.  The animal looked a little dazed for a split second, but didn’t lose much speed.  Blast!  Miss’Ouri had warned him that some objects and animals were harder to control (or move) than others, especially if you were tired.  And tired, he was becoming.  The series of illusions he’d fed into the zakkeg’s mind had taken most of his energy.


“Sam?!” Dean called warily, as Sam started to slip in the seat, “Hang on!  We’ll be back to the ship soon.”


Sam tightened his grip around Dean’s waist to try to hold himself on the bike.  He could sense the trees and foliage whipping and pulling and snapping all around them as Dean cut as direct—and therefore not as fast—a path through the jungle as possible, with the zakkeg picking up speed behind them.  Damn those things were fast.  As yet another branch slapped hard against Sam’s cheek, leaving an angry pink welt in its wake, an idea struck him.  Maybe I can’t throw the zakkeg, but that doesn’t mean I can’t…


Reaching out with the Force one last time, Sam grabbed a small tree as they whizzed past.  He held on it, pulling, and pulling, bending the tree from it’s normal position until, just as the zakkeg was about to pass it… Sam let go.  The tree whipped back into place with springy Force, smacking the zakkeg clear across its low-to-the-ground chest, and whipped it off its feet, sending it careening into another tree.


As Sam had hoped, the zakkeg lost interest.  No prey was tasty enough to make up for breaking a tree with your back, even if your back was armored.


With a sigh of relief, Sam turned back to lean against Dean, and collapsed against his brother’s solid weight, the shape of the Rune that was zipped carefully in his jacket’s inside pocket pressed between them.  That was a close call, but at least they’d gotten what they’d come for.  Now they just had to do it three more times—or two if Bobby could find the Rune on Myrkr—and they’d have a chance at defeating Lord Azazel. 


“I think we’re clear now,” he called to Dean.


“Awesome!” Dean shouted, throttling back just slightly.


They weren’t great odds, but right now, they were odds Sam was willing to take as they continued at a fast, but not suicidal, pace back to the ship.


Chapter Forty-Three


After reaching the Nunb’s shuttle, they had returned to Onderon, stopping briefly at the Nunb’s temporary residence for Sian to draw the console and its pictorial map on a datapad, and exchanging thanks and saying their good-byes.


Once aboard the Dream, Dean placed a holocall to Bobby, who was thankfully still on Myrkr, and convinced him to go looking for the Rune.  He’d seemed pretty incredulous about the “Forceless tree,” but he’d said “yes” and agreed to look at the figures Sian had drawn from the display in the Rune Ward, and that was all that really mattered. 


Before Dean ended the call, Sam came in and insisted on going over the instructions for getting the Rune again, emphasizing to Bobby how vitally important it was that he say everything exactly right. 


Sam’s insistence was almost amusing, but Dean wasn’t going to say that out loud.


“So,” Dean said to Sam meaningfully when they finally ended the call.


“So,” Sam responded.


“Did you send the message to Ven?” Dean asked expectantly.  He’d placed his call to Bobby from the Bridge so that Sam could use the comm unit in the clinic in privacy.


“Sent the message, and got a call back from him about three minutes later,” Sam said with a surprised smile.


“Really?” Dean said.  He’d been pretty sure Ven would come through, but that was fast, he must have been sitting at his holocom to even read a message that fast.


“Apparently, Ven was worried about us when he found out the authorities were looking for us.  So, he didn’t even read the message, beyond the instructions for how to make the secure call to us,” Sam explained.


“And?” Dean prompted.


“And apparently he and his family are really, really thankful for saving his life—kind of glossing over the whole fire because of me in the first place thing,” Sam sighed, “but he seemed really sincere, and said if there’s anything they can do to help us, they wanna do it.”


“Wow,” Dean said, wishing Sam would stop blaming himself for the fire.  He could understand where Ven’s family was coming from.  Even as a hunter one didn’t expect to have their home or ship turned into a deadly flambé courtesy of a five-thousand-year-old-Sith-Lord with an axe to grind.  “So, are we headed there next?”


“I guess so.  Ven said he was gonna call his parents and tell them to expect us,” Sam replied, standing from the co-pilots seat where he’d dropped when he joined Dean on the bridge and stretching. 


“I’ll set coordinates for Ryloth,” Dean said, punching the information into the navcomp.  “You gonna go get some rest?”  He hoped Sam would say “yes”; his brother had been looking like death warmed over ever since they’d gotten back from that forsaken moon.


“Yeah,” Sam said.  “You?”


“I’m gonna get this set up and send the info we found to Dad… just in case,” Dean added that all-too familiar feeling of danger creeping up on him when he thought of his absent father.  They knew Dad was alright as of when he’d fled Naboo, but that was already several days ago, and Dean had never gone so long in his life without talking to his father in person.  The weeks were piling up and it was draining him.  He just really wanted to talk, get some guidance.  He couldn’t help hoping that maybe if they sent John the info about the Runes, they’d run into him somewhere.


“’Kay,” Sam said, stifling a yawn and walking off toward the passenger cabins.


“Night, Sam,” Dean called after him.


“’Night,” was the mumbled reply.


“Ok, Chevy, let’s get us up in the air and headed to Ryloth while I send Dad another message,” he said to Chevy.


Chevy gave an affirmative trill, and Dean got to work, hoping that maybe this time his message would result in contact.


Chapter Forty-Four


“Forceless Tree?”  When Bobby had received the holocom transmission from Dean and seen the attached file (the drawing of the map their Sullustan friend had made), he didn’t know what to make of it… for about ten seconds.  Then he looked over at one of the two lizards who was lounging, for lack of a better term, on its frame across the room, and he had his answer.  Some big tree where a whole bunch of ysalimiri lived that created a big bubble in the Force.  That was a “Forceless Tree.”  That was where he would find the Rune.  He was overjoyed!  Then, with sinking spirits, he realized he’d probably have to go back into the jungle and deal with all those awful plants and vornskrs and every other nasty species on the planet… again.  He shuddered, looking down at his still-puffy-purple wrist.


But, he owed it to the boys, maybe the galaxy.  So, he called Rela again and asked if she knew of a place where ysalimri congregated, a tree probably, that would be very, very old and exist in a large Force-bubble.


It took Rela a few minutes, during which Bobby was practically jumping up and down with anticipation and impatience, but at last, Rela said she knew of such a place.  But she sounded very hesitant.


“Can you take me there?” Bobby asked, almost too eagerly.


“It is a most sacred place,” Rela explained.  “According to legend, the first Jedi to visit Myrkr and brave the effects of the ysalimiri went there.  Today, some people go there to meditate, we do not harvest ysalimiri from that tree.”


“The Jedi went there?” Bobby said, dumbfounded.  “You mean the tree’s five thousand years old?” he asked.


“Yes, and the tree is actually older than that,” Rela answered.  “Botanists think something about the ysalimiri makes the trees age more slowly.


That was it, it had to be.  This Rune was for real, he knew Sam and Dean had supposedly found one, maybe two, of the others, but he hadn’t quite believed that he would find one here yet.  But now he did.  He was sure it was out there, but what could he do to assure Rela that it was ok for him to go there?


“I, I don’t want to harvest its ysalimiri, there’s—the Jedi that first visited it, I think they stored a Rune there, called the Rune of the Light.  My friend, he’s, there’s this Prophecy and this Chosen One, and he got instructions from a hidden cave on Dxun, and I need to get the Rune for him.  I swear, I don’t want to hurt the tree or the lizards,” Bobby stammered in spite himself.  Way to go Singer; make yourself sound like a frigging psychopath why don’t you?


“You know of the Rune of the light and the Prophecy?” Rela asked, surprised.


“Yeah,” Bobby said, equally shocked that she had heard of it, but then again, if his hunting contacts had been able to pick up on the legend, it made sense that someone on the planet would have heard of it.  “That’s why I needed the lizards, I’m trying to help my brined,” he affirmed, hoping this was a sign he would get in her good graces.


“We thought it was just a story.  Wanderers have tried to find something in the tree.  They come every once in a while, maybe even started coming before humans settled here.  But none have succeeded.  They have not found anything,” she answered.


“If you can just take me there, I’ll try,” Bobby said, pleading.  “Just let me try, and if there’s nothing there, we can leave.  I’ll pay you, of course,” he added graciously.


“Ok,” Rela said with a curt nod.  “If you find it, you don’t have to pay me, just don’t harm any lizards.”


“Deal,” Bobby answered, extending his hand.  They shook, and Rela smiled obviously curious to see what would happen


“So, when do we leave?” Bobby asked, anxious to get going.


“Tomorrow at first light,” Rela said.  Then, picking up on Bobby’s obvious disappointment, “the Tree is very deep in the jungle, and as you know, we must go on foot.  If we get there and back before sunset, we will be very lucky.  I will pack camping gear should we need to spend the night.”


“Spend the night?”


“Trust me, you don’t want to try navigating the jungle in the dark,” Rela said.


That had been yesterday.  Bobby had talked to Dean, found out they’d found a second Rune, and let Dean know that he’d have a third in a day, maybe two.  Dean had seemed melancholy, distant even, which was surprising, because finding a Rune should have been good news.  Bobby wondered what was up, but pushed it to the back of his mind.  If all went well, in another week or two tops they’d have all four Runes.


That had been yesterday.  Now they were will into their trek—about seven hours in—about half of their daylight gone, and they still hadn’t reached the tree.  Bobby hoped they got there soon, because he really didn’t want to have to spend the night in the jungle. Not to mention, the boys needed the Rune as son as possible.


“Just a little farther; we will reach the tree soon,” Rela assured, sensing Bobby’s flagging spirits.


“Good,” he murmured, following carefully behind her on a narrow winding path, picking his way over tree roots and around creeping vines, this time covered from head to toe—gloves and a hat added to hopefully allow him to avoid any further entanglements with toxic plants.


After five more minutes of walking, they came to a small, rushing stream with very, very blue water.  As they crossed it, Bobby noticed a marked difference.  Everything on this side of the stream was quiet, tranquil, serene.  Even the air felt stiller.  The normal jungle sounds were conspicuously absent.


“That’s one of the bounds of the tree’s influence,” Rela explained. 


Bobby nodded.  If he’d had any doubts about the effect of the ysalimiri up to this point, they were gone now.


After another fifteen minutes of walking on relatively clear, fat ground, they reached the tree or rather where you could clearly see the tree.  It was huge, very broad, maybe thirty meters around, but not that tall by comparison, maybe only twenty or twenty five meters tall.  Most of the tree was made up of thick, forking branches that spread wide over the Jungle creating a dense canopy and creating a broad ring of empty space around it. 


As they approached, Bobby could see the ysalimiri, hundreds of them, lounging on every available branch, blending into the wood and hiding behind the leaves.


Up close, Bobby could see a large split, a fork between two prominent branches that reached out about three meters up.  A particularly old-looking lizard was draped over the junction between the branches.  Recalling the map and instructions Sam and Dean had sent him, he stepped up toe the trunk, carefully balanced between its sprawling roots, and touched it, trying to lever himself up to see into the join underneath the lizard.


Immediately, a loud growling, hissing sound arose from all around.  Shocked, Bobby stepped back to see that seemingly every lizard on the tree had turned its head his way.  They seemed to be expressing their distaste for his actions, looking like they were ready to withdraw their claws from the tree’s thick bark and pounce at any moment.  He remembered what Rela had said about them being mostly sessile and took another step back.


Rela chuckled in amusement, apparently finding the show of him foolishly trying to disturb the tree to be worth the effort and risk of taking him there.


Wait, there are things I’m supposed to say so the tree will reveal the Rune, Bobby remembered.  Of course, he’d thought it was ridiculous at the time, but now he was starting to take the instructions seriously. 


Stepping up to the tree again, Bobby spread his arms wide, palms upturned in supplication.  Sam had said he needed to get it exactly right.  Here goes nothing, he thought nervously.  “Guardians of the Rune, I come to you on behalf of the Chosen One.  Please give me the Rune you conceal so he may defeat the dark wraith,” Bobby proclaimed, bowing his head and dropping to one knee as he finished speaking.


Suddenly, the hissing and growling stopped, and he heard a strange scraping, slithering sound.  Bobby waited until that sound stopped as well, and then very, very slowly looked up.


“Oh my!” Rela exclaimed from behind him.


The ancient-looking lizard had moved from its perch over the split in the branches, and was now more or less standing, hesitantly, on the left branch of the fork, revealing a carved stone Rune with blue and green design at its center placed in a shallow carving in the bark.  Miraculously, the bark had not grown up or healed over it in all the time it must have been there.  He could see that the Rune would pry out easily. 


Recalling the other lines Sam had told him he beseeched, “May I take it?” directing the question to the old lizard.


The lizard blinked slowly and purposefully, and Bobby understood that as a “yes.” 


Wary of the lizard’s claws, Bobby hesitantly stepped forward and reached up to touch the Rune.  As he did so, he had to press against the trunk of the tree, and he felt a strange sensation pass through him, as if someone was reaching inside him to learn his intent.  As soon as the sensation passed, the Rune fell free into his fingertips.  Huh, guess I passed, he thought as he stepped back again.


The lizard was still watching him warily, and Bobby recalled the third line of the ritual.  Tentatively reaching his arm out to touch the left branch where the lizard now stood, he said, “Will the guardian of the Rune please guide me and give safe passage?”


The lizard then blinked again and stepped from the branch to Bobby’s arm, walking along it, mindful of its claws, not scratching or cutting, stopping only when it was perched across Bobby’s shoulders, tail draping down over his right shoulder.  It was surprisingly soft and warm, furry, not at all cold or scaly like he’d expected.  Bobby hadn’t bothered to touch either of the lizards they’d brought back from his first trip into the jungle, because he’d been vaguely unsettled by the things, now he realized they were actually quite nice, cute even.


Rela gave out a little chuckle at the sight.  “You weren’t lying?” she said, surprised.


Bobby turned to her with an incredulous glare.


“Ok, ok, and don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone, I don’t think the ysalimiri or the tree would approve,” she promised with a hint of irony.


Bobby nodded, trying not to jostle the lizard.  “Thanks.” Turning back to look at the tree one more time, he noticed an image of the Rune carved into the cavity where it had been, covered in some shiny sap or lacquer, announcing the purpose of the tree to any who knew what it meant. 


Slipping the Rune carefully inside his jacket pocket, he added to the tree and its lizards, “Thank you.”


Then, they resumed their trek back to civilization.  When they got to the river, Bobby realized why the lizard had to accompany him.  The Rune was imbued with the Force, which meant if, if the stories about the vornskrs were true, the Rune would be like a homing beacon or dinner bell to the predators any time they passed through an ysalimir-free portion of the forest outside the tree’s sphere of influence.  Instead, the guardian lizard gave the Rune, and Bobby, a bubble of protection for which he was grateful.


I’ll be damned, Bobby thought as they hurried as quickly as the Jungle would allow, trying to beat nightfall.  A five-thousand-year-old lizard guarding a Rune on a five-thousand-year-old tree that can read your mind.  If the Rune wasn’t tucked against his chest and the lizard draped over his shoulders, he never would have believed it.


Pushing their speed as much as possible, Bobby and Rela made it out of the jungle just as darkness fell.  Rela helped him transfer the guardian lizard to a nutrient frame and bid Bobby farewell, refusing his offers of payment. 


Still overwhelmed, Bobby retired to his hotel room, where he was now surrounded by three ysalimiri.  He dispatched a quick holomessage to the Winchester boys letting them know the Rune was in hand and that he would be headed to the rendezvous point in the morning.  As he drifted off to sleep, Rune tucked close to his chest, he could only hope it all worked in the end.


Chapter Forty-Five


The “hunt” on Ryloth was going almost eerily smoothly.  So smoothly, in fact, that Sam really started to believe that there was something wrong.


Ven’s family had met them at the landing pad just like Ven had promised, greeting the Winchesters with kindness and affection.  Sam was worried that they would be hesitant to house wanted fugitives, but they were anything but.  Ven’s father, the clan’s ranking warrior, was very appreciative of Sam for saving his their son and keeping him out of trouble.  Sam had tried to protest, pointing out that if not for him, Ven never would have been in trouble in the first place.


“Nonsense,” Ven’s father said.  “Ven talks about you all the time.  You are a good man, and from the sound of it, a good warrior.  We will be happy to help you on your quest,” he had said, grasping Sam’s upper arm firmly.


After their welcoming, they had followed the story in the children’s tale about the lost rycrit that ran into the hidden cave to escape the dark spirit and found a glistening pond of stars. 


Using the coordinates and landmark shown in the passage on Dxun and the map Sian Nunb had so carefully transcribed from memory, they found the hidden crevasse without much trouble.  Ad they had hoped, once the landmarks were known the entrance was visible to all, not just Sam.  It seemed that their theory was correct, either the Nunb’s Marker and the Rune on Dxun were some sort of key, or the system was set up so the Chosen One need only visit one Marker to learn the locations of all the Runes.


The entrance was a barely visible crevice in a vertical wall of red rock in the face of a mountain not far from where the habitable land gave way to the uninhabitable permanently sun-facing brightlands. Just like the story said, and precisely at the coordinates indicated on Dxun, the crevice was between two tall, pitcher-shaped rock formations.  When standing exactly in the middle of the two pitchers and level with them on the same line, with the sun at one’s back, the crevice in the rock cast a shadow that resembled a curved walkway, inviting one in. 


Sam was amazed that it had worked.  Most of the habitable parts of Ryloth were below the surface and those not were filled with shadows, since it was the semi-dark, semi-light areas along the permanent day-night terminus that were inhabitable, so any location where a shadow could be that obvious and precisely described was almost unheard of, and probably a big part of why no one had discovered the story was real until now.


Up close, the crevice seemed to dead end just inside, but if one walked all the way in and touched the wall, then stepped forward into the blackness, there was a passage, of perfect size and perfect height for one averaged-sized bipedal sentient (or a lost rycrit) to slip through.  The narrow passage continued for twenty-five meters and took a right turn, just like the story hinted and the map on Dxun had said, then continued for thirty more and opened into a large cavern, a bioluminescent pool at its center and large multi-colored crystals adorning the cave ceiling, reflecting and refracting the light back down at myriad angles making the pond glisten and shimmer like a pool of stars.


“Wow,” Said Dean, sucking in a surprised breath at the sight.  “The story really wasn’t kidding.”


“No, it wasn’t,” Sam agreed, awed the breath-taking display of light.  He looked around the cavern, which seemed to be ringed by solid stone.  Ven’s father and cousin had accompanied them and were now exploring, seemingly equally awed, lekku alive with emotion.


“Any idea what the bioluminescence is from?” Dean asked, crouching down to get a better look at the pool, running his hand back and forth over the surface, watching the light play over his hand, but not actually touching it. 


“There are some bacteria and algae common to our Ryloth’s caves and caverns that are bioluminescent—neither is harmful to Twi’leks or humans,” Ven’s cousin supplied, trying to assuage Dean’s hesitance.


“Anything else they might be?” Dean asked looking up at the three other figures.


“No way of knowing without doing a spectral analysis,” Sam said with a shrug.


“I wish we’d brought Chevy,” Dean muttered rising to his feet.  “But,” he said, looking directly at Sam.  “I know there’s no way she’d have fit through the tight turns in that passage, so it’s probably good we didn’t bring her, plus she’s watching the Dream and if there’s any way we can receive transmissions in here, if someone comes looking for us we’ll know,” he added walking over to the nearest wall and running his hands along the rough surface.


Sam didn’t bother to add, but there was no way either of them was unnecessarily risking Chevy’s wellbeing on Ryloth’s harsh, unforgiving surface.  They’d both be much more comfortable if she was safely aboard the Dream or ensconced deep inside the local cavern complex Ven’s family called home.


Sam noticed that the rock Dean was touching didn’t look carved or smoothed by water or wind or sand.  There was no evidence of quarrying or burrowing or melting or blasting.


“What do you think created this place?” Dean asked, his tone almost reverent.


“Maybe whatever’s in the pool?  Maybe Jedi?  Maybe the Force?” Sam posited.  He didn’t know, but those were his three best (and only) ideas.


Ven’s father and cousin both shook their heads “no,” indicating they had no clue either.


“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Ven’s father.  “This place was just supposed to be a children’s story,” he added, lekku twitching.  “I don’t know what could have created this.”


“I don’t think it’s harmful,” Sam said.  “It doesn’t feel evil,” he added significantly, stepping towards the pool.  “The story said that the pool of shimmering stars protected the rycrit from the dark spirits for it had a core of light that shut away the dark, and the pool kept the rycrit safe until the darkness was destroyed.”


“And the map on Dxun shows a shaft of light in the center vertically linking the crystals and the pond,” Dean added, consulting a copy of the map on his datapad.  “So, the Rune is probably the ‘core of light,’ but do you think it’s in the ceiling or the pool?” Dean asked.


“I think the only way to find out is to stand in the center of the pool, be the beam of light and see where the Rune is,” Sam said, sliding his left foot into the pool.  It was deeper than it looked, but the edge sloped down gradually, so he did not trip.  It was also strange, the pool did not feel very wet, its temperature was the same as Sam’s skin, and the consistency of the fluid was not exactly like water.  It was slightly more viscous and flowed around Sam like liquid silk, yet the surface showed no ripples or other signs of displacement as he moved.  After the first two steps, the bottom leveled out so that Sam was immersed in the pool up to about his knees.


“Does that feel as strange as it looks?” Dean asked.


“Yeah,” answered Sam, glancing back over his shoulder at Dean.  Looking back ahead of him towards the center of the pool, he could see something square-ish with a blue-green design at the center that looked a lot like the Rune they’d found on Dxun.  Ok, Sam thought, what I’m seeing could be a reflection from something on the ceiling or it could actually be under the water.  If I go there and I can’t see it any more, then it’s on the ceiling, because I would be blocking the reflection…


“Sammy, you see something?” Dean called out anxiously.


“Uh, yeah, just give me a second,” Sam yelled back.  One, two, three more steps and he was there.  Ok.  He looked down and sure enough, he could still see the Rune on the bottom, more or less between his feet where he stood.  “I think it’s on the floor!” Sam called out.


Sam crouched and then bent, hovering his face over the surface of the pool and reaching into it.  The fluid parted for him, seemed to welcome him in, lapping and caressing at his skin gently.  He knew he was supposed to be here, that he was touching a manifestation of the Force, a pool composed of the very Force of life itself.  Sam gasped at how its energy seemed to surge through him, encouraging him, strengthening him.


“Y’all right there?” Dean asked, a hint of worry obvious in his tone.


“Ye-ah,” Sam gasped, the sensation nearly overwhelming him.  “It’s the Force, Dean.  This is the Force making all of this,” he continued, voice breaking in awe.  Just then, Sam’s fingers closed on the rounded edge of something smooth and powerful, he traced his fingers around it so that he was grasping the Rune on two if its four sides.  As soon as he applied pressure to it, it came free in his hand, lifting easily from the floor of the pool.  Underneath a soft white glow began to emanate, and as Sam stood with the Rune and stepped back, he could see a shaft of white light reaching upwards from the pool and reflecting off a large, flat crystal on the roof of the cavern.


“Huh,” Dean said, face scrunched in confusion over the sight, which now perfectly matched the image on the Dxun map.


“Maybe the pond always has the ‘core of light’ so that it will protect wayward rycrit even after the Chosen One removes the Rune,” Ven’s father said from his position on the far side of the pool, applying the bits of the prophecy the Winchesters had told him to the children’s story.


“I think so,” said Sam, looking back at the opalescent gleam as he walked back to the pool’s edge.  He wished he could stay longer.  It was so beautiful and the cavern seemed to radiate peace, peace that Sam had not felt at least since before Jess’s death if ever.


“C’mon, Sammy,” Dean said gently, snaking his finger’s around Sam’s arm gently, getting Sam’s attention without startling him into dropping the Rune.


“It’s so…”


“I know,” Dean whispered, leaning towards Sam’s ear.  “I can feel it too, but it’s time to take the Rune and go.”


And so they went, leaving the cavern single file back the way they’d come.  Walking outside into the oppressive heat that existed this close to permanent daylight, they hurried to Ven’s father’s landspeeder, moving quickly to return to the more humane temperatures of the darker land where Ven’s family made their home, where Sam and Dean were invited to spend the night.


As on Dxun, their exit from the Rune-ward was uneventful, and without a Zakkeg to chase them once outside, rather anticlimactic.


They agreed to stay the night even though Sam’s continued anxiousness to stop Azazel and make him pay, had him itching to get back in the Dream and fly off after the next Rune.  Dean pointed out that they really should repay Ven’s family’s hospitality, and if that meant leaving eight standard hours later in order to share a meal and some stories in order to garner the most good will (and thus the greatest likelihood the Ven’s would protect them from any prying authorities), then they should do so.


Chapter Forty-Six


By the time the Folly emerged from hyperspace at Chandrila, John knew he was too late. The Folly’s computer picked up the tell-tale hyperspace distortion immediately upon arrival, and the comm unit was buzzing with emergency transmissions from Hanna City warning people to stay away or stay calm.


Blast!” John cursed in frustration.


Azazel had already come and gone taking with him exactly twenty-two more hostages.


The Folly’s computer calculated Azazel’s destination.  Well, that was funny.  Alderaan?  That was where Dean’s message said one of the Runes was.


Looked like he was headed to Alderaan one way or the other.  What he did there, he’d decide when he arrived.




After finding the Rune on Ryloth, later that night, Sam was sitting by a ringed fire deep in the local cavern system.  The ramparts had long been closed to keep out predators, and the lights dimmed aside from ambient fires like theirs, to allow people to sleep.  It was probably time to turn in and enjoy the comfortable room Ven’s relatives had prepared for them, after all, Ven’s family had gone to bed long before, but Sam was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.


Dean walked over, approaching silently from where he’d excused himself to go use his comlink in semi-privacy. 


“Any more fires?” Sam asked warily, looking up at Dean as he lowered himself to the ground next to Sam.


“Nope, no more fires since Onderon,” Dean answered.  “however, I did hear from Bobby, and he’s been making good progress.  He’s got some of those ysali— lizard things to help us create a Force-free bubble of protection from Lord Azazel should we encounter him.  And,” Dean added, flourishing his hands, “he’s found a guide to take him to the ‘Forceless tree,’ and may have the Rune as soon as tomorrow, probably within two days.”


Sam raised an eyebrow.


“Apparently, you have to go into the jungle on foot, ‘cause some of the predators respond to the resonance and noises made by engines and crash ships.  Speeders too,” Dean added with a hint of amusement.


“Daaamn,” Sam whistled, scootching up into a sitting position.  “That all?”


“That’s all for now,” Dean answered, leaning back on his elbows and turning so his body was parallel to the fire.


“So, I was wondering, d’you think the children’s story…” Sam started.


“Was started by a Marker, or part of their scheme to pass on knowledge?” Dean suggested.


Sam nodded.


“Makes sense.”  Dean shrugged.  “It’s a pretty sneaky way to make sure the information is out there and lots of people know it, should the Chosen One or his friends need it,” Dean affirmed.


“But isn’t that kind of risky?” Sam asked.  “I mean stories can change over time; some important detail could have been left out.”


Dean chuckled.  “You’ve obviously never tried telling a story to a little kid, have you?” he asked rhetorically.  “Try it some time.  Tell a kid a story once, and then tell it to them again and change a detail—ninety-nine percent of the time they’ll turn on the pouty face and whine ‘you’re not telling it right!’ and go stomp around until you fix it,” Dean said, a big smile stretching across his features.


Sam knew Dean was referring to Sam as a kid, and he couldn’t resist the grin that lightened up his features.  He gave Dean a playful shove on the shoulder.


“Hey, hey, ow…” Dean protested, “Watch it, that’s still healing.”  They were silent for a moment before Dean continued.  “Besides, I’m sure if some detail did get changed, the Force could fix it; and there were clearly other ways to find the info, like the map on Dxun, the coordinates, maybe even one of the other Markers.”  Dean hesitated, turning onto his left side and leaning on his arm, being very careful of his shoulder.  “You really think the Force did all that?”


Sam thought for a moment.  “It felt that way.  I think the Jedi in the Protectorate might have used the Force or enlisted the aid of the Force to create it,” Sam concluded.


Dean seemed skeptical.


“Well, after all, if Miss’Ouri’s right, stopping Lord Azazel would be a way for the Force to protect itself; maintain balance,” Sam explained.


“It just seems so… extravagant, but I guess if you have five thousand years to prepare…” Dean agreed.


Finally, Sam plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been bothering him since their arrival on Ryloth.  “So, what do you think Darth Azazel’s up to?  Why did he kidnap those people on Naboo, and what is he doing?  Why does he want me?  And if we do find our four Runes, where are we going to find him?” Sam asked, questions tumbling from his lips without pause as he looked into the flames and flinched at the memory of all the fires the dark Lord of the Sith had caused.


Dean carefully sat up and crossed his legs.  “I’ve got a theory about that,” he began.


Sam looked up at him expectantly.


Dean took a shaky breath, “Just remember it’s a theory at this point—I don’t have enough evidence yet,” he cautioned.


Yet, Sam thought.  Hmpf.  If Dean was risking sharing it with someone, even Sam, that meant he had to be pretty damn sure, theory or not.


“OK, well, we know Darth Azazel is supposed to be trying to free his followers somehow, and we know they’re stuck in a Thought Bomb, right?” he said, voice low and quiet.


“Right,” Sam nodded.


“Well, I did some research—I’ve been doing a lot of research actually.”


Yeah, Sam had noticed that.  His once research-phobic brother had been surreptitiously (and sometimes obviously) pouring over texts and holos and anything he could find on the holonet ever since he’d started researching Sam’s vision about Manaan.


“And,” Dean continued, “with a normal Thought Bomb, freeing the souls trapped inside isn’t actually all that difficult, comparatively speaking.  You need a decently powerful Force user and you need to know where the thing is—which is usually the hard part.  After that, it’s pretty simple.  You can use the Force to hold open the sphere of dark energy, maybe use a lightsaber to help open it, and then the souls can just float out,” Dean explained, making a floating gesture with his hands as he leaned closer to the fire to be closer to Sam.


“That easy, huh?” Sam shuddered, “That doesn’t sound so secure….  Wait, you said Normal?”


“Yeah, see, that’s what was so wrong about what the Jedi did, or part of it, anyway,” Dean hissed.  “Not that creating a Thought Bomb is so not bad in the first place, but you see they hid the Thought Bomb in the Dark Side, sealed away for all eternity so no one could possibly free the souls of its victims.  That—” Dean held up a finger to illustrate his point, “is what created the unbalance in the Force that let Darth Azazel set up the rest of his plan.”


Sam shuddered, a chill creeping through him that no fire in the galaxy could warm.


“The Force wants to push the Thought Bomb back into our dimension, but it needs something to open the door.  I think what Azazel did to allow himself to come back from being one with the Dark Side, was that he tied himself to something here—imbued a hidden relic with a part of himself before he died.  That and his self-sacrifice acted like a tether.”


“Could he do that?” Sam asked incredulous.


“There have been accounts of Jedi separating their souls from their bodies while still alive, either transferring to other vehicles if you will or vacating their bodies and crossing over, without their body first dying.  I think it’s possible that a trained Force user could do that with some of themselves, like separate a tiny hint of their Force energy and put it in something else.” Dean explained.


Sam was impressed, his brother was sounding more like Miss’Ouri every day.  Whatever doubts or discomfort Dean had about Sam being Force-sensitive seemed to be gone, or were deeply buried.  Either way, Dean seemed to have embraced the idea that Sam could feel the Force and that it was going to be a part of their lives, like it or not.  Sam thought it might have something to do with what Dean found on their Mom’s holocron.


While Sam’s thoughts started to wander, Dean continued.  “The part of himself that was attached to the relic was essentially sleeping…”  Dean broke off suddenly, looking down at his crossed feet.


“Is that even possible?” Sam asked.  He knew, having met both his mother’s Force-ghost and numerous ‘ordinary’ lost souls he’d met over the years while hunting, that sometimes a person’s essence lingered after death, but separating a part of yourself from your body while still alive, he’d never heard anything like that.


Dean gave him a crooked smile.  “Well, I’ll admit separating a part of himself, and only a part, would be a bit of a new trick, but given what else we’ve seen about Azazel, I’d say that shouldn’t be too surprising.”  He lowered his eyes and cleared his throat.  “But yeah, there’s lots of accounts of well-trained Force users actually separating themselves from their bodies before death.  Apparently it’s not that easy, but it can be done, and then the Force user’s non-corporeal form can inhabit other things—droids, computers, other people…”  Dean let his voice trail off.


Sam nodded.  That was exactly what Azazel had been doing, after all, hopping from body to body, essentially living in other people and using their bodies as if they were his own. Sam wanted to hear more , was eager to hear what Dean thought had happened, but he waited patiently for Dean to continue, not wanting to interrupt Dean’s flow.  If he had stopped, it was for a good reason.


“I think that’s what Mom found, what triggered his awakening,” Dean said at last.  “In her holocron…”


Sam was now on tenterhooks, as Dean still hadn’t shared much of what he’d found, and Sam had been too preoccupied with first his Force training and fears about his role in the Prophecy and then with the Rune quest to ask.


“It…  Mom was a Jedi Shadow,” Dean continued with a gulp.  “She had a partner in the Antarian Rangers.  Her partner… died, because of some relic they found.  I think it was the relic Azazel had tied himself to, and that’s how he got called back, woken up.  She saw something like… dark energy, smoke coalescing… a ‘wraith’ she called it.”


Just like the prophecy Jess found, Sam thought.  It was OK, they had suspected for a while now (and it sounded like Dean had known) that their mother had triggered the Dark Lord’s return.  Sam was surprised.  He didn’t feel betrayed in the slightest.


“It sucks, Mom was one Jedi taking her job seriously, trying to get rid of dangerous dark relics and disturbances, and she fell into a trap.  Betrayed by the Jedi who hid the information about the prophecy that could have told her it was a trap, and then screwed over after it happened and she got suspicious,” Dean added bitterly.  “She went to Dantooine because she was trying to avoid leading the wraith to the Chosen One, she thought if she got away from Jedi…  But that’s not my point.  See, her story, it gave me an idea.  From Mom’s recount, it seemed like the wraith didn’t fully manifest until her partner was dead.  The partner tried to jump in to save Mom, and then the relic sucked the life out of her.”  Dean let the words sink in.


Sam thought, the Sith had died and returned by a mirror of the same act… sacrifice… he’d allowed himself to be killed, then was called back when Mom’s partner sacrificed herself.  “So, you think the kidnap victims are going to, what, fuel a Thought Bomb?” Sam asked, shocked.


Dean gave a pained expression, sitting up straighter, as if he wished it were only as bad as that.  “Well, unless those twenty-two people he kidnapped were all Force-sensitive, there’s no way they could fuel a Thought Bomb.  Thought bombs only kill those who touch the Force—it was a weapon of Sith against Jedi, after all.


Sam felt his stomach flip nervously, the blood turning to ice in his veins.  He shivered in spite of his proximity to the Fire. “What then?” he asked.


“there were sixty-six followers of Lord Azazel killed and trapped in the Thought Bomb.  There were three Jedi who actually performed the ritual and made the bomb.  One was from Naboo,” Dean let the words hang in the air.  “I think he’s taking twenty-two people from each of the Jedi traitors’ home planets to serve as hosts for his followers when he frees them.”


“Do we know what other planets the other two Jedi were from?” Sam asked.


“One was from Alderaan; the other, I don’t know,” Dean shook his head.  “But there’s more.  I think I know why he wants you.”


Sam stilled and chilled further.


“To power the Thought Bomb that will bring them back,” Dean supplied, voice quiet and sad.


Sam felt sick.  He wanted to run.  To hide.  To get away, scream ‘no it isn’t true!’—But he couldn’t; he was frozen in place, jaw slack, eyes wide, not remembering how to breathe.  Power a Thought Bomb meant death.  His death.  Then something occurred to him, a tantalizing detail that seemed like it might fix everything.  “But wait, I thought that wasn’t possible.  I thought you needed lots of Sith to make one, that’s what Miss’Ouri said!” Sam protested somewhat stupidly.


“Sam, I talked to Miss’Ouri, and she thinks that a talented Sith with a lot of experience could modify the ritual so that the Sith could make a Thought Bomb that it would only be strong enough to kill one, but that, combined with copying the modifications the Jedi used, would be enough to open a tear, a rift or passage into the Dark Side.  The followers’ Thought Bomb’s natural state is not to be in the Dark Side.  It’s even easier than what Azazel did to bring himself back—his natural state was to be part of the Force, but the Thought Bomb doesn’t belong there.  It would be drawn out while the other…” Dean swallowed. “The other would be drawn in,” he finished, voice almost a whisper.


Not just killed, but trapped in the Dark Side for all eternity, actually inside the Force, Sam realized.  “What can I do?  What do I do?  I promise I won’t go with him—maybe I can use the Force to find him?  Kill him!” Sam suggested, pleadingly, springing to his feet.  Thankfully, Ven’s family had gone to sleep or surely he would have drawn their attention.


“Sam, no.  You need to be able to destroy his Soul.  Even Miss’Ouri doesn’t know how to do that.  Plus—plus, I worry that I might lose you to the Dark Side if you tried,” Dean admitted, sadly. 


“You heard Miss’Ouri too!  The Force needs to be balanced—” Sam started.


“If you go after this Sith fueled by hate and fear, don’t you think that’s going to give him an edge on you?  Aren’t you worried that if it does work, if you can kill him, that you’ll be tempted to just use the Force—the Dark Side—for everything?  Throw it out of balance?”  Dean shook his head.  “No Sam, it’s too dangerous, and there’s no guarantee you going after him wouldn’t just create an opportunity for him to kill you.  It’s too risky, and I’m not going to lose you, not you too.  I told you before—”


“Ok, Dean,” Sam reassured, realizing that Dean had a point.  He reached out to squeeze his brother’s arm in comfort.  “We’ll keep going after the Runes then.  If we can get the one on Alderaan and Bobby gets the one on Myrkr, then we go after him?”


“Yeah,” Dean said, shakily, still clearly worked up from his outburst.  “If he takes more people—we’ll know.  The kidnappings on Naboo made the news.  When he gets all sixty-six…”


“That’s what he’s going to do at Ahto City,” Sam realized.


“Yeah,” Dean answered solemnly.


“Well then, let’s get some sleep so that we can head to Alderaan in the morning,” Sam reasoned.


Chapter Forty-Seven


The hyperspace journey from Ryloth had been long and anxiety ridden.  Upon leaving Ryloth, they’d learned that Azazel had kidnapped  twenty-two people on Chandrila.  In hyperspace they had no idea if Azazel had struck again, had no way of knowing if they’d be too late when they arrived.


As the Dream descended into Alderaan’s atmosphere, Dean let out a relieved sigh.  Alderaan was famous for its “no questions asked” policy of allowing any and all incoming ships to land, but then again, it was really close to the core, really close to Coruscant and Jedi and RI headquarters, which just raised the chances that they would encounter interference from federal authorities who recognized the ship, even if the Dream was landing under the alias Freedom’s Bounty.


“So,” Dean said turning to Sam as Chevy took over the controls, bringing the ship down to a landing pad at a spaceport on the outskirts of Aldera, Alderaan’s capital city, and home of the Royal Museum.  “Do you think we should find a room some place or stay on the Dream?” he asked.  Dean had a feeling this hunt was going to take at least a few days to pull off.  It wasn’t like they could just stroll on into the Royal Museum and ask for them to hand over Guardian of Souls, or at least the stone at its center.  Well, they could, but they certainly wouldn’t be successful, and would likely wind up riding out the apocalypse from the inside of a holding cell or in a spice mine on Kessel.


“I don’t know,” Sam said, swiveling in the co-pilot’s chair and dropping his elbows to his knees, hands clasped loosely in between.  “This is a little far out, but maybe it will work?” Sam suggested.  “Maybe we should wait until we figure out a plan on how to retrieve the Rune and go from there.  Besides, this is Alderaan,” Sam said significantly.  “Would we even be able to afford a place any closer to the museum than this?”


“Of course we could, Sammy,” Dean said with a smile.  “After you left for school, Dad got took some of your advice.”


Sam looked at Dean blankly, confusion playing across his features.


“We set up some long-term aliases, gave them credit accounts, histories, ident docs, the works.  It took a few credits, a bunch of favors, and a lot of time, but it’s much more stable.  Any money we make from playing card tournaments, smuggling, doing repairs, or programming, it all goes into one of the ID accounts or into our general account that we use for short term IDs.  That means a lot less outright fraud and stealing, and a lot easier time renting a room or getting a legal job when we need it,” Dean explained.


“What?” Sam asked.  “You mean my…”


“Tirade about the unnecessary risks of frequent identity theft and credit skimming made an impression on Dad,” Dean admitted with a nod.  “I told you Sammy, he does care about you, and he can listen.  Just doesn’t always know how to show it.”


“Ok then,” Sam said, surprise still playing across his face as he struggled to process the new information.  “We wait to decide if we get a room, but what’s our first step.”


“Well,” Dean said, running his fingers over the console’s controls to fire up the holoprojector.  “Guardian of Souls is on display in the Pre-Civil War Art wing on the third floor,” Dean said, as he keyed at 3D wire-frame map of the museum to display on the holo.


“When’d you get that?” Sam asked.  That kind of map wasn’t normally available on a museum’s holonet page.


“Called in a few favors the last time I was here,” Dean said absently (not that he was going to tell Sam what kind of favors those had been anytime soon).


Sam snorted, “I can imagine,” he said, sounding vaguely disgusted.


Ok, so maybe the embarrassment showed a little bit and Sam had figured it out.  Sometimes the job required a little charm to pull off, and if that charm led to bedding one of the tour planners, he wasn’t going to say no, especially if it got him some favors after the fact.  Anyway, that kind of situation couldn’t be farther from the present, so Dean pushed ahead, shrugging off the embarrassment as quickly as possible.  “The painting I was dealing with was located right—here,” Dean said, pointing to the inner wall at the start of a long hallway just before the hallway opened up into a large rectangular gallery with vaulted ceilings.  “So Guardian of Souls is on the wall across from it, right here,” he pointed to the appropriate location a spot on the wall the outside of the display room shared with the hallway.  “It kind of straddles the space between the hallway and the gallery… something about the light being best for viewing it there,” Dean explained.


“You sure they haven’t moved it?” Sam asked, concernedly.


“Yep,” Dean replied, as he keyed up the museum’s holonet page, displaying a listing of famous works housed in that floor and wing, a picture of Guardian of Souls, the Rune now patently obvious at its center, hanging in the location Dean had described was featured on the page.  “Checked it on our way in.  No major construction projects in the last three years any where near that wing, so the map should be good too,” Dean added.


“Well, how’d you pull it off last time?” Sam asked expectantly.


Dean gave his brother a scathing look.  “Sam, I was cleansing a haunted painting, not defacing and stealing one of the most famous works of art in the galaxy.  All I had to do was stand there and admire the painting for long enough to get all the incantations done, draw a few strategically placed sigils in invisible ink when the droids weren’t there and the holocams were blocked, it wasn’t really that hard.  Especially since people were kind of distracted by the piece behind me.”


“Ok, ok,” Sam said, holding up his hands in surrender.  “I get your point, so what then?”


Dean switched off the holo and the holonet connection.  “We case it.  Tonight right before closing.  Just show up as tourists, spend some time appreciating the art, and stay a little after we’re supposed to, see what they’re security’s like, response time, procedures, you know the drill.”


“We either pretend we didn’t realize they’d called closing or we say we’re lost,” Sam supplied.


“Yep,” Dean agreed. 


“What’s the local time?” Sam asked as Chevy chirped to let them know the ship engines were set down and their berth was secure and paid for the next week.


“Sixteen twenty,” Dean said checking the chrono.  “Museum closes at eighteen hundred.  Best go put on our best tourist clothes and head over there.”


Chapter Forty-Eight


An hour and thirty-five minutes later, Sam and Dean were standing on the third floor of the Pre-Civil War Art wing wearing near identical clothes—trim-fitting pants tucked into knee-high boots with button-up shirts and military-cut jackets.  Sam’s hair was carefully parted, smoothed, and tucked behind his ears the way he’d worn it for work, back before the fire… before everything went to hell. 


It wasn’t exactly tourist wear, but then again neither Sam nor Dean owned any obnoxiously colored floral-print shirts or baggy shorts.  Plus, they were probably more convincing and non-threatening if they looked like non-descript, clean-cut young men.  Dean called it “standard undercover gear,” and Sam was pretty sure that was an accurate description, considering he’d seen some people on Coruscant he knew were Republic agents wearing pretty much the same thing while undercover.


They were unarmed or mostly unarmed anyway.  The museum had active scanners at all entrances that would detect blasters as well as most scanners, cameras, and metallic knives.  Sam was surprised at how naked he felt.  After years of walking around nearly unarmed on Coruscant, Sam had fallen back into the swing of strapping blasters to his person quite easily.  The lack of holsters under his jacket and on his thigh was making him itchy. 


At least he knew they weren’t completely defenseless.  Dean had a small ceramic knife in his left boot.  It was undetectable by most weapons scanners and therefore was very, very illegal (not to mention lethal).  Dean also had a passive scanner designed as a personal listening device.  Since those were allowed into the museum, they’d been able to smuggle it in.  They also both had modified comlinks.  Sam’s carried a detachable coated duraplast cylinder of pressurized sleeping gas, while Deans had a similar cylinder filled with camo gas.  Sam also had a slicing pad should they need to do any hasty lock-picking.


It would have been nice to have Chevy there, but the museum had a no droids (other than their own) policy.  At least she was available on a secure channel and could fly in and rescue their asses if necessary.


“I’ve counted six holocams with line of sight on the Rune,” Sam said under his breath to Dean.  They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder front to back, Sam appearing to be studying the formerly haunted painting of a young Jedi Knight (clearly Corellian if the green robes were anything to go by),while Dean was facing the mosaic of the Maranai mountains at sunset that hung to the left of Guardian of Souls


“Seven,” Dean corrected, quietly.  “There’s one in Guardian’s nameplate that I found the hard way last time I was here,” Dean said.  “I double-checked and they haven’t moved it.”


“You get picked up?” Sam asked.  ‘Cause if Dean had already had a run-in with security here and he got recognized that would be a big problem.


“No, I just had to explain why I was so enamored with a portrait of a Jedi that’s been dead for over four thousand years,” Dean said uncomfortably.  “Turned out the security guard’s daughter was studying Jedi history at the university.  I had to talk my way through a thirty-five minute conversation with no prep…  Apparently hunters make really convincing history grad students,” Dean added.


Sam couldn’t restrain a snort.  “Yeah, I stopped taking history at the University after I got into an argument with one of the profs about the accuracy of his description of the events leading up to the Ruusan Reformation,” Sam chuckled.  “That was how I met Jess,” he added, feeling the cold tug of loss pulling at his heart, but willing it away, pushing it down.  He couldn’t afford to break down or wallow in the past.  Not here and not now.


“Droid rotation every five minutes,” Dean added.  “I ran a passive scan on those MSEs,” he said referring to the small service droids that scurried among people’s feet periodically, carefully dodging patrons and displays.  “They’re modified, equipped with stunners.  Same with the protocol droids.”


“Just stun?” Sam asked quietly, surprised and relieved that they didn’t have anything more lethal.  Not that getting hit with a stun blast wasn’t likely to land your ass in custody, but at least it wouldn’t kill you.


“We’re on Alderaan, Sam,” Dean almost whined.  “What were you expecting, an enclision grid?  They’ll defend themselves if pushed, but they’re not gonna be aggressors, and they’re sure as hell aren’t going to go around shooting museum patrons, even if they do have sticky fingers,” he muttered.


“Point taken,” Said, allowing the flow of people to shift him to the side a few feet so that he was now sort of straddling the corner between the gallery and the hall.  “What’s the theme of this gallery anyway?” he asked, commenting at last at the seemingly eclectic collection of art.  There were sculptures, painting, wood carvings, mosaics, mixed media, even glass and light art, and aside from it’s age, he hadn’t been able to discern any commonalities.


“Jedi art,” Dean said, sounding a little surprised that Sam didn’t know.


“Oh,” Sam said, taking a closer look at the glass sculpture that sprawled along the gallery wall in front of him resembling a forest of seaweed.  Looking down at the caption, he recognized the name of a fairly well-known Jedi Master who had fought in the Jedi Civil War.  “Huh,” I didn’t know so many Jedi were artists,” he admitted, thinking of the amazingly detailed map Sian Nunb had drawn for them.  He had crap for artistic skills; guess it wasn’t something that went along with Force sensitivity.


“You feeling inadequate, Sammy?” Dean quipped quietly.


Just then a quiet, soothing chime sounded, followed by a pleasant alto female voice reciting in Basic, “The time is now sixteen hundred hours, and the Royal Museum is now closed.  Please make your way to the nearest exit.  Thank you for your patronage.”  The chime sounded again, and the message repeated in a handful of other common languages.


Sam and Dean allowed themselves to be buffeted a little ways along the hall leading away from the gallery by the press of other patrons exiting, but they stayed close to the walls, not so close they would press against paintings and set off any alarms, but enough so that they somewhat inconspicuously stayed out of the way.  Sam pretending to take frantic notes about the art on a piece of flimsi, and Dean appearing to consult a holo map he had loaded onto an ordinary datapad.


“You timing?” Dean asked, brushing shoulders with Sam.


“Yeah,” Sam said, chancing a quick glance at his wrist chrono.  “You?”


“Yep, let’s make sure our times match,” Dean responded.


Sam shifted from foot to foot, trying to keep Guardian of Souls in sight.  They really needed to know what motion or pressure sensors there were on the art.  Were there bio-tagging systems that would track anyone who touched the artwork or who lifted it off the wall?  Did the pieces have individual tracking devices that would announce their location to some centralized security system?  Sure, they could find out, but it would take time.  Days, maybe weeks of surveillance, research, strategic slicing… and Sam wasn’t so sure they had that time to spare.  What if? He thought.


Sam stepped about ten centimeters from the wall and bent his knees a little, bringing his height level with Dean’s. Dean’s body now blocked Sam from a few of the cameras and his distance from the wall made brought him out of the Guardian’s camera’s line of site.  He was probably still showing up on at least two cams, but hopefully what he was doing wouldn’t look too alarming.


Surreptitiously he checking to either side to make sure no one was watching him.  Nearly all the patrons were gone at this point, just the occasional straggler walking through, looking lost or walking slowly, trying to admire more art on their way out.  Sam closed his eyes, let out a long slow breath and listened.  He could hear the quiet thrum of the air recirculators, the rhythmic exhale of his own breathing, the steady thump of Dean’s heart, then more, the buzz of the electric lights overhead, the pulse of the wiring in the walls, the silent whirr of the holocams.  Then, reaching out like Miss’Ouri had trained him, he extended his senses to take in the room around him. 


There, he could sense a pressure sensor in the painting across from the Rune and knew it would send off a silent alarm if the contacts were pressed together for longer than point oh-three seconds or if the painting was jostled with more than five dines of force.  There was a tracking device too, embedded in the painting’s frame, he could feel the signal it gave off, reporting the painting’s location.  He couldn’t sense anything that would tag someone if they touched the painting.  He also was surprised to note, that the hallway had no active laser scanners although the gallery had a pair of variable grids with emitters at point five and one-point-five meters off the ground.  The emitters were not turned on yet, nor were they charging up.  Interesting.


Turning his attention to Guardian of Souls, Sam was disappointed to feel the same sensors and tracking device the other painting had had.  But then he felt something else, a funny tickling tug in the Force that grabbed his attention.  It seemed to center at the Rune itself, and Sam soon realized that while it appeared to blend perfectly, the Rune was indeed separate from the rest of the piece.  Of course, Sam said.  It made perfect sense.  The other Runes had been surrounded by various Force-based sensing devices, and while they appeared to be held securely in their environments, easily released when his hands had touched them. 


He could sense the same with this Rune.  It would scan him with the Force when he touched the Rune, and if he passed, it would simply fall free into his hand.  So, assuming they could get in here when people weren’t looking, avoid the laser grid in the gallery (or… all the galleries, Sam realized as he stretched his senses out further), divert the cameras, avoid the droids, and not trip the sensors attached to the parts of Guardian of Souls that weren’t the Rune… they’d be home free.  That might actually be doable.


Sam was reeling his senses back in and was about to tell Dean what he’d figured out, when he sensed a presence approaching.  Sithspit! Sam thought.  He could tell it was a guard.


“Dean, we got incoming,” he murmured opening his eyes, and casually shifting his body so that he was now looking intently at the same map as Dean.  He could hear the guard’s footsteps approaching from the gallery.


“Excuse me, gentlemen, are you aware the museum is closed?” A male voice boomed, almost making Sam jump.


They both started to turn towards the voice, Sam turning a little faster, his best ‘innocent’ smile on, his eyes big and wide, “Sorry, sir, my brother and I seem to be a little lost—” Sam’s voice broke off when he got a look at the guard.


Dean raised his head too, surprised by Sam stopping, but smoothly picking up the slack. “We came in by the Modern Republic wing,” Dean said, referring to the wing farthest from their current location, “and we were trying to figure out how to get back—” Dean broke off as well when his eyes met the guard standing before him.


There, dressed in the simple, insignia-laden gray jacket and matching pants of the Royal Museum’s security Force, hair trimmed and clean shaven stood…


“Dad?” Sam asked not believing his eyes, shocked at how small and child-like his voice sounded.


“Dad,” Dean whispered, sounding more sure of himself.


Sam started to take a step towards his father.  Bad blood between them or no, he was going to greet his father properly, but then he remembered the cameras at the same time John mouthed the word and Dean tugged on his sleeve.


“What are you doing here?” Sam asked instead.


“Well, I got your brother’s message,” John said quietly.  “And I finally thought it would be a good time for me to try to help.  I … uh, was tracking…”


“Darth Azazel?” Dean supplied quietly.  He was standing stock still at Sam’s side, and Sam could feel the conflict, the tug of war between relief and desperate frustration rolling off of Dean.


“Yeah,” John said.  “It wasn’t going well, so I decided to try go help out here.  Figured getting this one wouldn’t be easy.”


“So you’re posing as a security guard?” Sam asked, incredulous.


“No, actually I am a security guard.  Started last week.  Get off at nineteen thirty tonight.  Great thing about being the new guy, they put you on all different shifts.  Good opportunity to check out the security at all different times of day.  Damn handy to have keys and passwords and controls for everything, too,” John added quietly.


There was a moment of silence, as the three Winchesters took in each other’s presence.  It had now been four and a half standard years since they had all been in the same place, and back then, Sam recalled, everyone but Dean had been screaming.  The juxtaposition was striking.


“Sam,” John sighed, features contrite.  “I’m sorry about our fight, I… I only wanted to protect you, and I thought giving you an ultimatum would make you stay.  It… this was exactly what I was afraid of.  Something coming after my boys…” he said voice haunted.


Sam felt torn, part of him still feeling the burning frustration and hostility towards his father, anger for kicking him out, for forcing him to choose, for not understanding who Sam was or why he needed to go to school to be normal… something he now realized he never had been nor could be.  But there was also the relief.  The security, sense of home, sense of family, that John’s presence triggered in Sam.  And after so long of drifting, searching, listing to finally be together… Sam felt safe for the first time in so long.


“Dad, I’m sorry we fought, but I needed to go…” Sam started.


“Uh, guys, this reunion is great and all, but shouldn’t we be having this conversation somewhere else, like when Dad’s off-duty and we’re not standing… here… in… oh shit…” Dean’s voice trailed off.


Sam sensed the reason for Dean’s reaction a moment before the man spoke.


“Mister Cade,” a deep male voice called from the direction of the gallery, “is there a problem?”


Sam watched with awe as his father’s presence transformed from that of a world-weary, relieved father to that of the consummate professional security guard.  John turned from Sam and Dean to face the man who had spoken.  Sam saw the man was tall and white-haired and was wearing a similar uniform to John’s but with an additional patch of insignia.  Probably some sort of superior great, Sam thought with apprehension.


“No problem Mister Retrac,” John said with a broad smile.  “These two boys are just lost and I was trying to help them figure their way out.  They came in over by Modern Republic and got turned around.  Wanted to know if they could get back over there easily from the outside if they went out one of the exits over here,” John lied smoothly, his demeanor amused, relaxed pleasant.  “I would have been escorting them back out to Modern Republic, but this one,” he hooked his thumb over his shoulder at Sam, “was freaking out that they were going to be in some kind of trouble for not exiting fast enough,” John added with a chuckle.


The white-haired man, Mr. Retrac, presumably, gave an amused smile, and said, “Ah, kids.  Well, ok then, John, you go ahead and escort them back to Modern Republic and I’ll finish the walk-through of Pre-Civ.”  He gave John a pleasant nod, and smiled at Sam and Dean.  “If you don’t mind doing the checkout over at Modern Republic, why don’t you just leave from over there, it’s ok if you clock out a few minutes early.  Winters is already here to relieve you.”


“Thanks, sir, I appreciate it,” John said with a sincere smile to Mr. Retrac’s retreating back.  Turning back to Sam and Dean, still in character, he added, “this way, gentlemen,” holding out his hand in the direction of the gallery and motioning for them to follow him.


They walked through hall after hall gallery after gallery, up one floor, and down two, over a glass-encased sky bridge that spanned a sprawling garden complex, and then down another two floors to the exit.  Neither Sam nor Dean dared speak until they were entering the wing that announced itself as “Art of the Modern Republic.”


“So, Dad,” Sam started quietly, still wary of any listening devices that might be recording their conversation.  “Can we meet up with you somewhere after this?”


“Sure, Sam.  If you boys don’t mind waiting outside for me, I just have to do a few things in here, and I should be ready to go in a quarter hour.  I can take you back to my place.”


“Your place?” Dean asked. 


“Rented a one-bedroom with a big living room halfway between here and the spaceport,” John explained.


“Can you give me the address?” Dean asked.  “I wanna have Chevy meet us there.  She’s on the Dream,” he added.


“Five twenty-seven Aldera Way southwest, number T4,” John muttered under his breath as he opened the now-locked door to the outside.  “Just wait on the park benches a block southwest.  I’ll meet you,” he added.  Then, in character with a smile, “good day to you boys, thanks for your patronage.”


Chapter Forty-Nine


Exactly seventeen standard minutes later, John was locking the exterior door to the Royal Museum of Alderaan’s main entrance in the Modern Republic wing.  Having just run a bioscan of the wing and set the programmed randomized laser grids protecting each gallery in the wing after confirming no personnel other than authorized security were in the area.  Then he’d exchanged pleasantries with Winters, a blond-haired woman in her early thirties who always had swing-shift, and possessed far too much energy, in John’s opinion, clocked out, changed into his street clothes, and locked the door behind him.


He took too deep gulps of air and steadied himself.  He’d known by coming here, by deciding to hunt the Rune instead of staying on Azazel’s tail, he’d run into them.  He knew it was important too.  Hope and pray as he might, even with the Runes, there was no guarantee they would stop Azazel.  And even if they stopped him from bringing back his followers or comrades, or whatever he wanted to call the sixty-six Sith souls currently trapped in the Dark Side, there were no guarantees the Runes would kill him.  He’d translated the Neti legend Dean had sent him, and it suggested the Runes would trap him if he was not possessing a host when the Runes activated.  Even if he was trapped didn’t mean he wouldn’t still break out later, figure out some way to come after Sam.


Like it or not, John wasn’t feeling very confident of his chances of long-term survival, and he knew he needed to spend some time with his sons now, mend fences, set aside old differences—or there might not be any time left.


Collecting himself he walked the tree-lined block to the benches where his sons waited.  “Com on,” he said, motioning with his hand for them to follow.  “It’s this way,” he said pointing down the broad avenue that led up to the museum and had a dedicated elevated walkway for pedestrians.


Sam and Dean rose silently and followed him up the spiraling ramp to enter the walkway and head south towards John’s apartment and the spaceport.


“You call Chevy?” he asked, trying to make conversation.  This was a lot more… awkward… than he had expected, which was saying something.  He knew his behavior had been trying, so he thought it would be difficult.  But this was worse than he’d expected.  Sam couldn’t seem to decide if he was pissed off or thrilled to see John, and Dean looked hurt, abandoned, like he was not sure if John was really there.


“Yeah.  She’s en route.  Any droid detectors or problems or shit she’s gonna have to deal with that I should warn her about?  I don’t like making her run around unfamiliar cities by herself when it’s not an emergency,” Dean answered.


“Nope,” John said with a sigh.  “I specifically got a place that’s droid friendly.  That and sound-proofed walls were pretty much all I looked for, which is why I’m about a twenty-minute walk away.”


“Why, did’ya get a droid while you were missing?” Dean asked sardonically.


Ouch!  Ok, I deserved that, John thought.  With a sigh, slowing his gate to keep pace with Dean (who was probably intentionally walking slowly to prove a point), John said aloud, “No, I just came here planning to run into you boys, and I wanted to make sure I have a place where we’d all be welcome.  That’s why there’s a pull out couch in the living room and two beds in the bedroom,” he added hastily, wanting it to be clear he didn’t expect the boys to have to fight over who got the couch and who got the floor or both try to cram their nearly two-meter tall frames into one smallish bed.


“Then how come Chevy hasn’t picked you up tracking beacon?” Dean shot accusingly.


“’Cause I’m an idiot and forgot to turn it back on,” John admitted sheepishly, catching Sam’s eye as he did so.  Sam seemed amused and maybe a little relieved to see John getting shit from Dean.  He knew Dean had a tendency to follow him too blindly, although that had changed a lot over the four years Sam had been away at school.  This interaction, while stinging, was probably good for Sam to see. 


“Well, Sammy left his on,” Dean added.


Sam shot John a look that was just short of sticking out his tongue.  Resisting the urge to reprimand him for is behavior, John said, “Good for you, Sam.”


Sam let out an audible snicker.  It was the first sound John had heard his younger son make since they’d left the museum, and it felt good.  Good to know that after all this, after loosing his lover and his home, after finding out he was probably doomed by a prophecy that just might spell annihilation for the entire galaxy, after learning that he was sensitive to the Force, that Sam could still be a normal, happy person.  Still laugh.  John hated the weight that had been placed on his son’s shoulders—on both his sons’ shoulders, and evidence that it hadn’t broken them yet, was about the best kind of reassurance he could find.


After walking in more companionable silence, they arrived at John’s building, and took the lift to the twentieth floor.  As expected, there was Chevy looking particularly perturbed, waiting—actually trundling around in long ovals back and forth up the hall, pacing essentially—for the human members of her family to arrive.


“Hey there, Chevy,” John said, reaching out his hand and patting Chevy’s rounded dome.  It felt good to see her.  Marry had designed her and built her with Dean’s help, after all.


In response, Chevy made a noise that sounded a lot like a purr, followed by an angry bleat-stop, a sarcastic whistle, and a series of trumpeting hoots that expressed just how pissed she was at John.  She concluded by extending her dataport arm and discharging energy through it, giving John a harsh shock near his right knee.


“Ow, shit, that hurt!” he yelped in spite of himself, hopping around on one leg.


That started Sam and Dean laughing.  First one of them would snort and snicker and then the other, and they just kept on going, both triggering each other to laugh harder for what felt like minutes.


“All right, all right, I deserved that.  I’m sorry I fell off the grid, boys, now, if it’s OK with you, shall we enter?” he asked, when their laughter finally died down.


“Yeah, ok,” Sam answered, turning a nervous smile to John.


Dean gave a silent nod, but John was happy to see much of the anger and desperation from earlier was gone.


John quickly keyed open the door, punching in his security code.  The door slipped open, revealing the ubiquitous protective salt-line (protection from lost spirits) that John had been putting in every doorway of every room he’d stayed in since he’d first talked to Miss’Ouri after Mary’s death.


“So, you’re Cade, now?  What happened to Idanian?” Dean asked, as the door closed behind them.


“Jackets on the hooks by the door, boys,” John said gesturing to an array of hooks to the left of the door before answering.  When Sam and Dean followed his example, John answered, “I was Idanian on Naboo.  Figured he needed to disappear for a while.  I cleaned out and wiped his accounts, and…”


“Cade was the next ident in the rotation,” Dean answered with a nod.


“Idanian?  Cade?” Sam asked, confused.


“They’re two of the long-term aliases we set up that I was talking about,” Dean explained.


“You have aliases too, Sam,” John said, hoping the revelation would soothe Sam, whose temper seemed to be flaring again.


“Why, ‘cause Dean insisted?” Sam started.


“No, ‘cause Dad insisted,” Dean answered, solemnly, his head hanging.


“Not that Dean didn’t want to,” John said, hoping Dean would stop looking like a kicked puppy.  He knew his son felt guilty because he hadn’t insisted John set up the IDs for Sam that John wanted to set up in the first place… he really had fucked up.  He never wanted to see either of his children that twisted up inside.  “I just insisted before he could push the issue,” John explained.  “I’d realized… my mistake, in how I approached the issue with school, and I wanted to make sure you had options even if you weren’t hunting with us.  Figured something supernatural could come after you, and you might need it whether you were hunting or not.”


“Yeah,” Sam said with an attempted sarcastic snort, and John saw that there were tears in his younger son’s eyes.


Without hesitation, John stepped forward and enveloped Sam in a hug.  Immediately, John felt himself soothed, the nagging ache, the sense of irreparable loss he’d felt since his child had left—since he’d said those stupid, awful words, and realized a second too late he’d made the wrong call (and was too stubborn to take it back)—start to recede.  This was his son.  His flesh.  His blood.  His genes.  His family. The kid he’d loved and raised and would sacrifice himself for a million times over.  How could he have let his fear send Sam away.  John felt whole in a way he hadn’t in years.  His hopes and dreams for the galaxy had been pinned on his sons since he’d first held their tiny squalling bodies in his arms, since before, since he’d first seen the blip of their heartbeats on the holoscan, since he’d found out Mary was pregnant, since they’d made love… and that glimmer of hope and pride and everything good was right here, back in his arms again, and for a minute, he could comfort and protect Sam as if he was a child.  Family meant everything to John, and somewhere along the way, he’d forgotten how to show that.


And at the same time, he felt the strength and accomplishment of the man before him.  Sam was grown.  No longer a gangly boy.  Built and strong and muscular.  A man.  And a good handful of centimeters taller than John now.


Sam was sobbing quietly, breaking under the strain of too much pressure for too long, and John just held him, letting him quiet down.  “I was so scared you wouldn’t want to see me.  That you were staying away because I disgusted you because I… I can feel the Force,” Sam admitted sadly.


“No, Sammy, no,” John soothed, horrified that his actions had led his son to that conclusion.  “I wanted to see you and Dean so bad.  I was so scared…” his voice hitched, “when I visited your apartment and they didn’t know if you were dead or not.  Knowing that it didn’t feel like you were gone, that I’d taught you well, that you are strong and stubborn… that was all that kept me going while I was talking to that stupid conceited Jedi.  I just… I was afraid I would lead Azazel to you.  Or that if I let him out of my sight, if I stopped following him, he’d just go take you and kill you, and I’d have no way to stop him,” John admitted shakily.  “I’ll admit, I came here because I got to Chandrila too late.  I saw Azazel was headed here too, and I remembered your message about the Rune… I wasn’t sure what I was going to do until I got here, and I figured a chance at stopping him was better than waiting for him to kidnap more people and not being able to do anything about it.”


Sam looked down at him with an expression that said John was extremely stupid. 


“It made sense in my head, Sam.  Just like the stupid ultimatum did,” John admitted.


“Ok,” Sam said, giving him another squeeze, “ok,” and then he stepped back, calmer.


John turned to Dean.  His older son looked lost, hesitant.  John stepped forward and hugged him too, trying to slip a little more tenderness into the embrace than the normal crushing, back-slapping hug they usually shared, and was surprised when it felt like Dean was clinging to him. 


Dean squeezed tight and then pulled back, looking up at John.  “Dad, don’t ever do that again.  I was so scared you were dead, or that I’d never find you,” his voice rose to a squeaky whisper, “and I’d be all alone, just me and Chevy with no one.  Don’t… don’t sacrifice yourself, Dad.  I miss Mom, too, but it’s not worth it…” Dean tried.  “I mean Sammy’s worth it,” he added with a smile at his brother.  “But we’re stronger as a family.  This Sith is hunting us, we should hunt him, together.”


“Ok,” John said, not entirely sure he believed himself.  “I’ll try.”


“We can start by figuring out how to get that Rune,” Sam said, flopping down on John’s couch without asking permission.


“Sam, when you were uh, exploring with the Force,” Dean said sitting down on the arm of the couch so he was facing both John and Sam, “Did you find anything?  I mean maybe Dad knows about the alarms and sensors, but…”


John froze, still surprised to hear ‘Force’ and his son’s name in the same sentence.  It didn’t really make sense that he would be upset considering he knew Sam had been training with Miss’Ouri and had a Sith Lord on his tail, but still, John’s old phobia of Jedi that had grown out of his time in the Corps was still threatening to rear its ugly head, but he tamped it down, and met Sam’s equally nervous expression with a smile.


“Well,” Sam began.  “There’s a pressure sensor attached to a silent alarm and there’s a tracker in the bulk of the piece itself, but the Rune is actually separate.  It’s just held on by the Force, so if I can touch it, let it scan me without tripping the sensor, it should just come off in my hand,” he explained.  “The question is, how do I do that without getting caught, or showing up on the holocams?” Sam asked.


“Well, I have an idea that might work,” John began.  It felt great to be reunited with his sons, even if the fate of the galaxy was hanging over their heads.


John explained that on the night shift, there was only one guard per Wing, and the night shift overlapped only ten minutes with the day shift (but thirty-five with the swing shift), and the end of the night shift coincided with the recharge rotation for the MSEs (so there would be fifteen precious minutes between batches of droids roaming the halls).  John also had keys to each wing and security codes to shut down the cameras and laser grids to move around.  The laser grid alarms would only go off if the grid was interrupted for more than five minutes.  The scanners at the entrance were turned of at night, so Chevy could come along, and they could bring all their equipment.


In two days, John would be on the Day Shift.  The plan they formulated was for John to let them into the Pre-Civil War Art Wing thirty minutes before the end of the night shift, giving them twenty minutes before the day shit arrived.  Dean was going to slice the laser grids and the cameras, and make sure both were reporting back normal, empty halls and properly functioning grids.  Sam was going to use the Force to stabilize Guardian of Souls while he removed the Rune to avoid setting of the alarms.  John was going to stand guard and use his knowledge of the museum and the guard and droid rotations to lead them out, just before he himself was supposed to show up for the day shift.  While Chevy was going to run an active scan for approaching humans or Droids (in case Sam or John missed anything.


“So, after we get the Rune,” Dean explained.  “That will be three.  Bobby’s en route from Myrkr with the fourth.  We’re supposed to call him and meet on Carida when we have it.  After that, whether or not Azazel’s come and collected his twenty-two hostages, we should go to Manaan because that’s where he’s headed next.”


“Manaan,” John asked, surprised.  “Isn’t that a water planet?”


“That’s what I said,” Sam laughed.


“Well, there’s an abandoned floating city where Azazel’s taking his hostages.  It’s twenty-two from each of the three worlds the traitor Jedi were from.  We think he’s going to use them as hosts for his followers when he frees them,” Dean explained.


But John wasn’t really listening.  He was basking in the joy of having his sons around him, reunited as a family.  For the first mysterious hyperspace distortion or possibly since Mary’s death, he actually thought they might be ok.


Chapter Fifty


They crept through the deserted halls of the Royal Museum, the rosy glow of dawn just beginning to send glowing shafts of light through the museum’s windows.


Dean had spent the last two nights sleeping on the softest beds he’d ever felt, and being a family again with Dad, Sam, and Chevy.  It felt too good to be true, and even though they had a solid plan that was currently unfolding smoothly, he kept getting a nasty, twisting feeling that something was wrong.


The plan was in action.  Dean was crouched in the corner of the Pre-Civil War Art Wing’s third floor gallery with a datapad in each hand monitoring the status of the holocam and laser grid systems.  Chevy had come along since the scanners were turned off, and was monitoring the museum for any approaching droids or humans.  John was standing guard on the far end of the gallery, and Sam was standing in front of Guardian of Souls, fidgeting.  Or it looked to Dean like he was fidgeting, but Sam was probably prepping himself.  The pressure sensor really didn’t give Sam much leeway to work with.


“Sam, how’s it coming?” Dean asked, keeping his voice quiet.  Their recon and John’s intel about museum security hadn’t returned any evidence of audio recording, but Dean didn’t want to take and unnecessary risks.  He was nervous.  Getting through the security on the laser grid had taken two minutes longer than expected due to a ghost program that had given him a bit of a fight.  If Sam didn’t hurry up, they might not get out before the guards came back on duty or the droids started their rotation.


“Just getting ready,” Sam said before slipping his eyes closed and slowly, carefully extending his hand toward the Rune.


Dean held his breath even as he kept one eye on the systems monitors.


The moment Sam’s fingers touched the Rune, Dean could tell that the Force was scanning Sam again, much like it had on Dxun with the Force-field, only here, without the pink glow.  Sam froze, trying to stay stock still and not react to the probe.


Then, as Sam let out a sigh and visibly relaxed, the scan completed, and the Rune fell forward into his hand.


Dean watched Sam open his eyes and look down at the Rune.  It was free, in his hands, just as square and blue-green centered as all the rest. 


Where the Rune had been at the center of Guardian of Souls, Dean saw there was now a slightly recessed image of the same design.  It still looked like the Rune, but it was indented, so the color-changing ripples around it curved in gracefully to meet it.


“Ok, let’s go,” Sam said at last.  “I can feel someone coming,” he said.


“What?” hissed Dean and John at almost the same moment.


Chevy gave a soft blurt of disagreement. 


“No one’s coming on your scanners girl?” Dean asked.


Chevy trilled in the affirmative.


“They’re not here yet, but they will be,” Sam said.  “We need to go now.”


“Hey, no disagreement from me,” Dean said, raising his datapad laden hands in surrender.


John nodded.  “Let’s go,” he agreed, slipping down the hall past Guardian of Souls towards the far end.


When everyone including Chevy had cleared the gallery, Dean carefully extricated himself from the laser grid system, and watched it spring back to life behind him, as he let out a sigh of relief, jogging silently down the hall after his father, brother, and droid.


Now he only had to worry about the cameras on their way out.


They almost made it.  They had reached the ground level and were about ten meters from the door when all of a sudden Sam exclaimed “someone’s here,” at the same time Chevy let out her emergency squeal (quietly of course).


In front of them, unlocking the main door to the Pre-Civil War Wing was the curator and director of the museum himself.  Dean recognized him from his holo was prominently featured on the Royal Museum’s holonet page.


“What is the meaning of this!?” he exclaimed upon seeing the Winchesters.  They hadn’t even had time to hide.


“I was just escorting—” John began.


“Nonsense!” The curator said with alarm.  “There are no alarms.  You do not have them in restraints.  You are helping these thieves rob the museum, and this our most precious—”


“Please, sir, I can explain,” Sam said, stepping forward slowly, hands held in front of him, the Rune still firmly grasped in his left hand, not in surrender but in placation. 


The Curator looked very intently at the small stone square and then at Sam and at the square again.


For a moment Dean thought Sam might try to use the Force to convince the curator they weren’t thieves.  Instead, Sam cocked his head to the side as if sensing something.  He went for the truth.


“This Rune, is one of the four Runes of the Light the Jedi Protectorate hid around the galaxy five thousand years ago.  This one was hidden in plain sight at the heart of Guardian of Souls.  The Force released this to me, without damaging the art or setting off any alarms, because I am the Chosen One of the Lost Prophecy, and I need this to defend the galaxy from the plot of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Azazel.  Azazel is here, now, on Alderaan, and he is going to kidnap twenty-two people—”


“By the Force!” the Curator gasped eyes wide, almost comical.  “So the Prophecy is real?”


“Wait, wait, excuse me?” John asked stepping forward to put himself between Sam and Dean and the curator as if to protect them.  “You know about the Lost Prophecy?” 


“Every curator of the Royal Museum has been asked to view the holocron of Anna Angelia,” the curator started, his tone still shocked.


“She left instructions, an explanation,” Sam finished, giving a nod of understanding.


The curator nodded quickly, his head almost bobbing on its shoulders.


Dean looked towards the transparisteel doors over the curator’s shoulder and could see people approaching, it looked like the security team for the day shift.  They were still over a hundred meters out, but…  “Um, not to interrupt, but could we take this to your office, perhaps?  Or could you let us go, maybe out the side door?  Right now, we’re not showing up on the holocams, but the security detail is on their way to the Wing and…”


“Right, right,” the curator said, hurriedly, his eyes flicking from Sam to Dean to John to Chevy in rapid succession.  “This way,” he said, motioning for them to follow.  “You could have just asked,” he added smiling at Sam.


“I would have, if I had known you knew of the prophecy, sir,” Sam said solemnly.  “Thank you for your understanding.”


Dean didn’t get exactly what was going on with Sam and his oddly formal interactions with the curator, but he had a feeling it had something to do with information Sam was getting through the Force.


“Yes, yes,” the curator said.  “Follow me this way,” he added as he finally glanced over his shoulder and noticed the security staff approaching.  “I’ll tell your boss, Mr., uh, Cade,” he added, looking at John’s nametag, “that you called in sick.”  He added as he led them down a narrow service hall and around a corner, unlocking a door that led them out into a large courtyard that ran between the Pre-Civil War Art Wing and the next building over.  Tourists were already gathering as they waited for the museum to open. But they didn’t seem to pay the Winchesters any heed as they were let out.  “The piece, can it still be displayed?” He asked.


“Yes,” Sam said seriously, giving the curator a funny little bow.


And just as suddenly as their near detour into detention had begun, it ended.  Dean was reeling with surprise as the doors closed behind them, only remembering to back out of the holocam system as an after thought, hoping no one had noticed themselves not showing up on the monitors.


“What just happened?” John asked, a giddy smile spreading over his face.  “Did we just get the Rune with the blessing of the museum’s curator?”


“Looks like he was another Marker of sorts,” said Sam.  “I figured it out when he stared at the Rune, his mind was searching for someone to say it was about the Prophecy,” Sam explained.


“So, wait, what, this is our third Rune, and we know Bobby picked up the one on Myrkr,” Dean asked, not really able to believe his own counting skills.


“As soon as we meet with him we’ll have all four!” Sam confirmed with a tone that bordered on actual joy.


It was great news!  So why was Dean’s heart beating fast?  Why was dread clutching in his gut?  Thy did he have that horrible sinking feeling that everything was about to get very, very, bad?


The wind whipped up around them suddenly, the air crackling with static electricity, at the same time John’s comlink chimed with the Folly’s alarm code and the DED in Dean’s pocket began to squeal.


There was a loud popping sound from behind them as something came flying out of one of the transparisteel windows on the third floor of the Pre-Civil War Wing, sharp shards of transparent metal raining down around them. 


Dean threw himself to the ground pulling John and Sam with him as Chevy quickly trundled out of the way, dodging the projectiles.


Beside him, Dean saw Sam reaching out with the Force to direct the shards away from them and the museum patrons who were gathered in the courtyard.  Probably no one else noticed, but Sam had just likely saved their lives.


“What was that?” John asked, his voice shaky and uncertain, a gruff, tense undercurrent seeping in as he climbed to his feet.


Dean watched the long silvery, cylindrical shape that had burst out of the museum and was now arced over the crowd and falling into the waiting hands of a man with yellow eyes.  Well, that would explain the bad feeling he’d had all morning.


“Looks like Darth Azazel just collected his lightsaber, or someone’s lightsaber,” Sam answered tightly climbing to his feet as the crowd began to scream at the sight of the new arrival.


“We have to do something,” said John. “I can’t let him take those people.”


Dean chilled.  He had heard that voice before, on every ill-advised hunt he had never been able to talk his father out of undertaking.  He could see the Darth Azazel start to pull people towards him.  He knew there would be twenty-two.  He could hear the whine of repulsor lifts now as a large shape began to descend into the far end of the courtyard, just barely squeezing between the museum’s buildings.  It was the Queen’s Yacht Azazel had stolen from Naboo.  He must have the pilot under his thrall or be controlling it with the Force, Dean reasoned.


“Dad,” Dean said, sensing his father’s determination building, “Dad, let’s take the Runes and go.  We can meet with Bobby then catch Azazel at Ahto City on Manaan.”


“Yeah, Dad, let’s go,” Sam agreed, turning to his father and tugging at his arm.  “Please, don’t disappear on us again.


Dean could hear Azazel begin to shout over the crowd, but he couldn’t really make out the words.  It didn’t matter, he knew what Azazel would be saying.  He could see the people being dragged by invisible bonds to the ship, which was now lowering its boarding ramp.


“Sam,” John said, turning to face his younger son and gripping him by the shoulders.  “I can’t let him hurt you.  If he’s taking these hostages, and you’re sure they’re the last ones, then I’ve got to stop him.  He’s going to kill you.”  He turned back to face Azazel, continuing with his voice tight and stern, “Go to Carida.  Meet with Bobby.  Get the fourth Rune and meet me on Manaan.  I’ll hold him off, buy us time.”


“No, Dad,” Sam pleaded, expression stricken.  “Don’t go.  Let me try and stop him!”


Before Dean could speak, Sam was striding through the crowd, towards Azazel, and reaching out with the Force, trying to do what, Dean wasn’t sure.


He saw Azazel or his host flinch, frozen momentarily, then turn, slowly, to face the Winchesters.


“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the Chosen One,” he said with a sickening chuckle.  “Nuh, uh, uh,” he said teasingly, reaching out with the Force to shove Sam back sending him sprawling.  “None of that, Sam.  It’s not quite time yet.”


“Azazel,” John shouted, projecting his voice over the screams of the crowd and the whir of the ship’s engines.  “Let them go!”


“We’ve been over this, John,” he sneered.  “I don’t take orders from you.”  Shoving his hostages towards the waiting ship faster, Azazel turned to Sam and said, “see you soon,” and turned to join his hostages on the ship, lightsaber, grasped firmly in his hand.


Dean watched his father shudder as he heard Azazel’s words.  No, there’d be no deterring John Winchester now.


“Dean, take your brother to Carida and get the Rune; don’t follow me until you have it.  That’s an order, son, are we clear?” John snapped at Dean, his earlier affection gone, hidden behind his shield of military precision.


“Dad, please,” Dean pleaded trying to catch John’s eye.  “Don’t do this.  You have no way to stop him.”


“I have to try,” John said solemnly, smiling sadly at first Dean then Sam.  “Now take your brother and go.  I’ll see you on Manaan.”


John turned and began jogging in the direction of the spaceport where the Folly was berthed. 


“Dad!  Dad, come back!” Sam yelled.  But John did not stop or waver.  “Dean, Dean,” Sam pleaded, pulling himself back to his feet.  “Stop him.  You gotta stop him.  We need him.  He can’t sacrifice himself for me.  You can’t let him.”


“I can’t stop him, Sam.  He won’t listen,” Dean said sorrowfully, feeling the crushing weight of failure descend upon him again.  They had been so close, but now…


Chapter Fifty-One


When they had set up the rendezvous on Carida, Bobby and the Winchesters had primarily looked for a place where Bobby could dock his ship long-term if need be that would be reasonably close to Myrkr.  As it turned out, the place they’d picked was also reasonably close to Alderaan and made a good staging location for a run on Manaan. 


Bobby had counted on lots of complications and things going wrong (after all, they were hunting a five-thousand-year-old Sith and he was working with the Winchesters).  He worried about the boys not finding all the Runes in time, Sam getting taken by Azazel, problems with planetary authorities, more damage to the Dream, Jedi interference, injuries to himself or the boys or Chevy.  He thought if he could take care of himself, the three lizards and the Rune now in his possession, he’d have the bases covered.  Of course, he’d thought wrong.


He got the message from the Dream that she was incoming from Alderaan two days after he arrived.  Bobby carefully gathered up his medical supplies, a selection of tools and spare parts he’d had on the Womp Rat, and made sure the Rune and ysalimiri were ready for transport by the time the Dream was scheduled to arrive.  Everything seemed ok when Chevy contacted him on a secure channel from orbit. 


It was a little worrisome that Chevy, and not Sam or Dean had placed the call, but there was no emergency message attached, so he figured maybe Sam and Dean were just busy.


He really should know better.


The real clue was the Dream’s landing.  She was coming in hot and reckless.  Dean would never treat his beloved ship that way if there was any way he could avoid it.  When her boarding ramp lowered before she was even on the ground, Bobby snapped to attention. He had the three lizards on their frames and his bags of supplies on a repulsor sled he had picked up shortly after arriving on-planet.  Things were damn useful.  The Rune was still tucked safely in his pocket.  He activated the sled’s controls and began moving it and himself toward the ship. 


Dean came careening into view at the top of ramp looking frantic.  “Those the ysalimiri? You got the Rune?” Dean asked rapid fire running down to meet Bobby and help him maneuver the sled onto the ramp.  At least the boy looked physically more healthy than when Bobby had seen him last.


If Dean was already at the top of the ramp, that meant…  “You let Sam fly?” Bobby asked, surprised.  Normally Dean didn’t let anyone fly her unless he was, well, unconscious.  Dean fiddled with the sled and didn’t answer.


“Wait, that is Sam, up there right, not just Chevy?” Bobby prodded, worried that maybe something had happened to Sam.


Dean just looked at Bobby questioningly, jaw set.


“What? Yes, these are the lizards, and I have the Rune!” Bobby snapped.  “Now, you gonna tell me what’s going on?” he called after Dean, who was now pushing the sled up the ram. By the time Bobby reached the top the ramp was closing behind him.


“Need anything else?” Dean asked, gruffly.


“Huh, no?” Bobby shook his head, still waiting for Dean’s reply.


“We’re good, loaded,” Dean called into his comlink, which was clipped to his collar.  The Dream immediately ascended and fast.  By the time Bobby had collected his thoughts to press the issue again they were already out of atmo.


“Dean, what the hell is going on?  Who’s flying?” he tried again, voice firm, as he trailed after Dean, who was pushing the sled towards the cargo hold, the aft-most compartment on the Dream.


“This ok for them?” Dean asked, turning to Bobby acting like he hadn’t heard Bobby’s question.  “Do they need special light?  Food?  Water?”


“That’s fine.  The frames give them everything they need,” Bobby answered somewhat testily.  “Here,” he said holding out the Rune to Dean.  “The old ysalimir is its guardian, get’s cranky when it’s not close by.”


“Oh,” Dean said, surprised.  “Let me go get the others, maybe the ysalimiri should guard them all,” he added, turning distractedly and hurrying out of the cargo hold towards the passenger cabins.


Bobby looked after him, pensive.  He could just go up to the bridge and look, see who was flying the ship.  But he was also afraid of what he’d find there.  And something was clearly wrong with Dean!  He felt determined to drag it out of him, almost certain Dean needed that, to have to see, to face, to say, whatever it was that had him so spooked.  “Dean,” Bobby called after him when he felt the faint shudder and tug of the engines that signaled entering hyperspace.


“Here they are,” Dean said quickly, rushing back towards the cargo hold, three near-identical squares of stone with blue and green patterns at their center clutched tightly, too tightly, in his hands, like the cost to get them had been too steep or the need for them to work and be real was paramount.  Dean almost flinched as he placed the three Runes next to the fourth, but calmed again when he looked down at the four together.  His eyes seemed to be dancing over each one in turn counting, counting, making sure the number came up the same each time.


The lizards seemed calmer too, relaxing more onto their frames if that was possible, soothed by the reunion of the Runes.


Four.  So they had gotten the Rune from Alderaan.  But what had happened?


“Dean?” Bobby asked again when Dean was still staring at the Runes thirty seconds later.  “You wanna tell me what’s wrong?”


“Let me get your bags stowed,” Dean said, bending down and scooping all three of Bobby’s bags—repair, medical, and personal—off the sled.  Before Bobby could protest, Dean had darted out of the room, taking the bags with him.  So, not doing this the easy way, then, Bobby thought with a sigh, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.  He’d known the Winchesters long enough to have seen Dean like this before.  Maybe not quite this bad, but close.  The boy got spooked, really, really spooked, or got stuck with some call he thought he’d made wrong, some responsibility he thought he’d screwed up and he’d do this.  Just clam up, not be able to talk about what was happening, do absolutely anything and everything to make himself useful, all the while just running, fleeing, trying to get way from having to confront the truth.  Sometimes, he could be pulled out of it with a little gentle prodding.  This was not one of those times.  Which left option B.


Bobby followed Dean, not able to stop the boy before he ran into the engine room and carefully deposited Bobby’s bag on the work bench.  Next, Dean twisted around and ran into the clinic.  Catching up with him at last, Bobby did something he’d done only once before n all the time he’d known the Winchesters, once when the boys were little and John was hurt real bad and Bobby hadn’t wanted them to see.  He slapped the wall control and closed the door to the clinic.  It shuddered shut with a click of finality, effectively shutting them off from the main corridor and the rest of the ship.


Dean looked up, eyes wide with surprise and fright.  He tensed and twitched and looked for all the world like a deer caught in the headlights.  “Bobby?” he asked, dumbfounded, almost pleading for release.


Bobby strode forward and took his bags from Dean, quickly popping the med bag on the counter between the rows of supply cabinets and tossing his personal bag—just clothes in it after all—by the door before taking Dean by the shoulders and steering him into one of the fixed swivel seats that surrounded the table.  Dean looked scared, timid, his eyes darting around the room, searching for escape.  Bobby was tempted to slap him to get his attention, but opted for stern words instead.


“Dean.  I am here.  We are in hyperspace.  You have all four Runes.  Now, tell me, who is flying this ship?” he demanded.


Dean’s eyes fixed on Bobby’s finally, the green shiny and glistening with tears.  “Sam’s flying,” he stuttered.


“Oh,” Bobby said, momentarily relived.  He was tempted to think that everything was all right, but this was the Dream, and well… “Dean, why is Sam flying?”


Dean was silent for a moment and then the floodgates broke, weeks, maybe a lifetime, of tears and stress and regret finally pouring out, rolling down Dean’s cheeks as his shoulders shuddered and his body shook.  He looked about six, not twenty six.  “It’s Dad,” he began.  “We ran into him on Alderaan.  He was trying to get the Rune too, he’d gotten our message and was after it, and everything was good.”  He smiled weakly. 


“We were hunting together, staying together, and we got the Rune and then Azazel showed up—he’s, he’s been gathering people, hostages, he’s going to use them as hosts for his followers, and I think he’s gonna use Sam to make a Thought Bomb to bring them back.  And we tried to stop him, but we couldn’t.  And Dad was losing it, because he’s so scared of losing Sammy.  Especially ‘cause Azazel turned to Sam and said ‘see you soon.’  So Dad—went after him.  He took the Folly and left and ordered me to keep Sam away, to get the four Runes together so we could stop Azazel—and I let him.  I let him go Bobby…” Dean trailed off, breaking into shuddering gasps.


Stunned, Bobby pulled Dean to his chest, crouching in front of him so Dean could stay seated.  Unsure of what he could do to really help, he started patting Dean’s back, trying to soothe him like he was still a small child.  “You couldn’t have stopped him, Dean,” he said.  “John gets it in his mind he’s gonna do something, he does it.  You know that.”


Dean froze, pulled back, rigid.


Wrong answer.


“Bobby, I think he’s gonna sacrifice himself, try to take Sammy’s place.  I mean, he’d have to be Force-sensitive for that to work, but I think he might be… enough anyway… and either way, he’s gonna get himself killed.  And we won’t get there in time.”  He shuddered again.  “I can feel it in my gut, Bobby, like doom baring down on me, I’m gonna lose one of them—” his voice cracked, tears returning anew, “maybe both… and,” he was barely audible over his own gasps at this point, “and Sammy didn’t want to let him go, tried to stop him, said we were stronger together, and Dad said he had to save us, and, and I agreed.  Said he could go…  Sam was so mad. He’s furious and anxious and wants to get to Manaan so fast, he’s pushing the Dream, Bobby, and doing stuff with the Force, and I think I fucked up, and they’re my family, and I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want to fail!” he sobbed and pleaded, allowing himself to fall forward onto Bobby.


“Shh, shh,” Bobby tried, hating himself for being so trite.


“I c’n feel something bad is gonna happen; I just know it,” Dean protested, around heaving sobs.  “Miss’Ouri said there’s a Healer in the prophecy who has the power to stop things, who can help the Chosen One resist, who will come when the Chosen One needs ‘em, but I think that’s just made up.  Not gonna happen.  It’s there to make us think this isn’t futile, but it is, and I’m gonna lose Sam, and Dad, and the whole universe is gonna die…” Dean carried on.


“I don’t put much stock in prophecies, boy,” Bobby growled into Dean’s ear.  “And I thought neither did you,” he let that sink in, feeling Dean calm a little.  “You just gonna give up without a fight?”


“N-no,” Dean admitted, pulling back to wipe at his eyes. 


“Here,” Bobby said, rising and returning with a cloth.  You get yourself cleaned up here, and I’ll go see if I can pry Sam off the controls before he huts her.”


Dean nodded, “ok.”  Then, sheepishly, “Thanks, Bobby.”


“Welcome,” Bobby said.  He stopped at the door, turning over his shoulder as it opened, “You want this open or closed?”


“Open,” Dean affirmed.


Bobby nodded and headed to the bridge.  Sure enough, there was Sam in the pilot’s chair, looking wide-eyed and angry, levers moving and displays changing on the console without him even touching them. 


Chevy was over in her usual spot just to the right of the co-pilot’s chair looking afraid for her life.


“Sam,” Bobby said gently, flinching himself when Sam didn’t flinch at his sudden appearance.


“You got the Rune and the lizards?” Sam asked, voice somewhere between cold and fearful.


“Yes,” he confirmed.  “Now, how ‘bout you turn over the controls and go sort your head out,” he added sternly.  “You’ve got your brother terrified and upset, and I know you’re pissed off and scared, and afraid for your daddy, but you gotta let it go.  You can’t blame this on your brother.  They’re both just scared and trying to protect you.”


“I don’t need protecting,” Sam said tightly.


“Sam, we all need protecting,” Bobby said as he eased himself into the co-pilot’s chair, sliding his hands over the console.  “Everyone does.  And the people who care about us need to protect us.  I know you feel like you should handle this yourself, but the people who care about you feel the same way, they’re trying to handle things themselves too, and it’s not easy to let someone you love walk into danger.  That’s all your daddy was feeling.  And your brother, well, you two damn fools have gone and put him in the middle again, so he feels like he’s gotta protect everyone and nothing he does works.”


Sam finally gave out a deflated sigh.  “I just want to get there in time!  If he’d just waited…”


“We have no idea what would have happened.  Did ya ever think maybe the Sith lord wants you pissed off and chasing after him like this?”


“No,” Sam admitted with a defeated sigh.


“Well, don’t beat yourself up over it.  Why don’t you and your idjit brother go get some rest so you’ll be worth something when we do get there?” Bobby suggested.


“Ok,” Sam agreed, starting to rise from his chair. “I’m gonna go see if the lizards work, first,” he insisted before storming off toward the rear of the ship.  “Cargo hold, right?” he asked.


“Yep,” Bobby nodded, sharing an exasperated look with Chevy.  He could have said he knew they worked, ‘cause of the Rune, or just suggest it might not be wise for Sam to try popping into a Force-free bubble when he was so worked up, but Bobby knew there was no reasoning with Sam right now.


Sure enough, about thirty seconds later, Sam came tearing around the corner from the cargo hold and darted into the ‘fresher next to the clinic, Bobby observed.  The sounds of retching immediately followed. 


Dean popped out of the clinic door, looking a little less puffy-eyed, but now completely alarmed, and rushed to Sam’s side in concern.


Sam emerged a minute later, Dean in tow, and turned to Bobby where he was still watching from the bridge.  “They work,” Sam said, blood still drained from his face.  “And I don’t think I’m gonna be trying that any more than necessary… felt like they took part of me away,” Sam said, greenly.


Dean was looking him over with concern.


“Why don’t you two go rest?” Bobby suggested again.


The brothers nodded in agreement, and headed forward to their cabin.


Bobby watched after them wistfully.  “Let’s just hope we can get there in time,” he said softly to Chevy, and she gave a low whistle in agreement.


Chapter Fifty-Two


As the Folly emerged from hyperspace in the Pyrshak system, John couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he’d made a mistake.  Maybe he should have listened to Sam and stayed with him and Dean on Alderaan, met up with Bobby on Carida, and then come here together with the lizards and the four Runes and played their best hand.


But that was just it, if he’d stayed with his sons, that was their only hand.  And it felt way, way too risky.  Like betting everything because you had Pure Sabacc and finding out house rules say the Idiot’s Array trumps all, and the slimy Hutt bastard lounging across from you’s got one.  At least this way, if he failed, Sam and Dean would still have another shot.  And maybe, just maybe, he could save all those people Azazel had taken.


He wasn’t particularly surprised to see empty space around him.  The Queen’s Yacht was simply a faster ship, had access to top-of-the line parts and newer modifications with which even John’s skill and connections couldn’t compete.  For all John knew, Darth Azazel was using the Force to make the thing fly even faster.  But sure enough, the Folly picked up the hyperspace distortion within moments.  Azazel was already here. 


Figuring out where wasn’t particularly difficult, either.  Manaan was a water planet, and its amphibious sentient inhabitants, the Selkath, lived in cities on the ocean floor.  The only structure or land on its surface was the long-abandoned Ahto city, a relic of an earlier age when Manaan had been one of the most important trade hubs in the galaxy, fought over in wars, coveted like a prized trophy.  But times had changed and when Manaan’s precious kolto fell out of favor for Bacta, the Selkath had abandoned the city, which had been maintained solely for the benefit of their visitors.  Now, it stood like an isolated beacon on a stormy sea, blinding white and pure both literal and figurative—that had taken up residence within it’s borders.


Circling the city, John could see the yacht had been set down on one of a number of landing pads.  Figuring the Sith Lord knew he was coming, and not wanting to waste any more time than was absolutely necessary, John set the Folly down one landing pad away. 


“Keep her prepped and ready to leave,” he called over his shoulder to the computer as he paused at the top of the boarding ramp waiting for it to finish lowering, suddenly hit by a pang of nostalgia that made him want to run around the ship and take her all in—every strut, every bolt, every wire and spring, every chip, all maintained and improved and put together by him and his sons.  He didn’t know why it happened, but as he heard the chime of acknowledgement from the bridge, he ran his hand lovingly over the bulkhead before stepping out into the unknown.


The landing pad felt strange.  It was quiet, and the air felt stale with disuse even though the pad itself was open to the atmosphere and looked out over the sprawling ocean.  There were no clerks, no customs agents, no working computers visible anywhere.  Just curving, arching white walls, and the dead echo of emptiness.  It was everything a landing pad or spaceport should never be.


John was relieved when he found the door leading from his landing pad opened without too much protest admitting him into a long, white, curved corridor with an arched roof and smooth walls.  He followed it in the direction of the Queen’s Yacht, and paused before pressing the control to open the door.  Taking a deep breath he pressed the control… and the door opened to reveal an all-but-deserted landing pad.  The yacht was there all right, but she was empty.  It was just too quiet for anyone to be there.  John could have entered and checked it out, after all, the boarding ramp was still extended, but he knew there was nothing for him to find there, so it wasn’t worth the waste of time or energy.


Feeling the let-down of a small adrenaline crash, he hit the control to close the door and continued down the corridor.  They had to be here somewhere, didn’t they?  He’d test every door in the entire abandoned city if he had to (he really hoped he wouldn’t have to).  There was nothing in the next two doors either, and John recalled not having seen anything on the landing pads that corresponded to those doors on his descent.


However, come to think of it, next to these landing pads had been a covered pad, really more of a hangar, open at the mouth so small ships could fly in and out, but with a roof overhead for most of the structure.  He hadn’t noticed anything there while he’d been landing, but then again, he really couldn’t see very far into it.  Somehow, he knew this is where he would find Azazel and his hostages.  Steadying himself, John hit the control—and was greeted with one of the most disturbing sights he had ever witnessed.


Darth Azazel stood near the open mouth of the hangar-style docking bay, back to the water, arrayed around him in six arcing rows of eleven each, the sixty-six hostages knelt faces upturned towards Azazel, expressions ranging from blank terror to hateful grimace.  It was a pretty safe bet they weren’t kneeling of their own accord; some were clearly trying to strain against the Sith Lord’s presence, but weren’t doing more than tensing some tendons and causing themselves a lot of pain.


“John, how nice of you to join us!” Azazel’s voice broke out over the crowd.  He was still possessing the same Minister he’d been in since he’d escaped Onderon with the diplomatic task force from Naboo, but he’d swapped out the pompous ministerial garb for military cut pants and jacket augmented by a long, sweeping cape.  “We were waiting for you to get started, couldn’t have you missing the preparations for the main act.”  Azazel leered, his yellow eyes piercing John, unsettling him.


“Let them go, Azazel.  They didn’t do anything to you.  You want to enact your sick prophecy, do it without them.  They’re just civilians,” John pleaded, taking a few hesitant steps into the hangar. 


The rows of hostages were arranged so the path between him and Azazel was clear.  He was flanked on both sides by uncomfortably kneeling faux-devotees, but nothing blocked his path.  He was so close, maybe he could stab Azazel, or strangle him, or try to get off another shot…  John pulled himself back together, recognizing an uncomfortable tickle at the edge of his awareness that he’d felt a few times before.  The Sith was trying to manipulate him, lure him into doing something stupid.  Well, John wasn’t going to play that game.  He stopped in his path and held up his hand in supplication.  “Stop.  Let them go.”


“Ahh, you’ve started to learn, John, only not fast enough.  Your older son figured it out a long time ago.  He told you.  What they’re for, why they’re important.  You didn’t listen to him, did you?” Azazel taunted, turning a nauseating smile on John.  It was too big, lips spread so wide it looked more like a sick caricature than an expression of pleasure.


“I suppose you’re going to tell me?” John guessed, standing his ground.


“Well, as you know, about five thousand years ago, sixty-six of my followers were killed and their souls were trapped in at Thought Bomb that was subsequently hidden in the Dark Side, and there were three Jedi who broke their vows and used the Dark Side, became aggressors and perpetrated this heinous and unspeakable act.  At their superior’s bidding, of course,” Azazel began.


“Well, as it turns out, in order to get my faithful, my comrades, out of their eternal tomb of torment, I have to make another Thought Bomb, but since there’s just one of me, instead of the three or more it usually takes, I have to take some extra steps to make it work.  Nothing much, just a little mass human sacrifice, a little chanting, some rituals.  These sixty-six guests are going to give up their life force to kick it all off, and,” he said holding up his finger in triumph, “as an added bonus their bodies will make lovely hosts for my faithful.  Not to mention, there are twenty-two taken from each of the three planets those traitorous Jedi hailed from, but then again, if you paid any attention to your son instead of always thinking about yourself, you’d know that, John.” 


John felt sick.  Dean had told him.  He’d just used that as justification to rescue the hostages, he hadn’t really thought about what it meant in the big picture.  Like how was he planning on getting the hostages to safety?  How was he planning on convincing a Sith Lord to abandon his five-thousand year old grudge and not exacting revenge, when half or more of John’s motivation for being here was revenge?  How did he think he was going to convince the Sith to just skip some important parts of his plan and let these people go, not do the rituals he needed?  Honestly, John hadn’t.  He’d only been thinking of what he could do to save and free Sam.  And if he’d been thinking a little more clearly, he would have realized that even if he offered himself in Sam’s place, that wasn’t gonna do squat for these civilians.


“Ahh, good, John.  Now you begin to understand.  You never had a clue how you were going to save these people.  Oh, but you gave some of them such false hope!  You just thought you could offer yourself up and I’d jump.  You never thought about where you fit in all this, so you just stormed in, and now I get to reap the rewards.”  Azazel concluded his rant and raised his hand higher. 


The air around John began to buzz and seemed to take on a purple-ish hue.  In front of him the Sith Lord began chanting quietly, then gaining in volume, in some language John did not recognize.  Around him, the people began to wail and moan, their bodies stretched and distorted in agony as the life seemed to drain out of them.  That was exactly what Darth Azazel was doing, John realized.  Draining the life out of the hostages.  Not zapping them with bolts of lightning or crushing their bodies by slamming them into the walls with the Force.  Just taking away their essence, sucking them dry, forcing their souls to leave, and taking in all of their energy, making himself more powerful in the process.


John rushed a young woman he recognized from Naboo and dropped to one knee beside her.  He tried to open her mouth wider, see if he could help her breathe.  Breathing wasn’t the problem, apparently.  She was panting, but all the oxygen in the world wouldn’t save her.  He tried tugging on her, pulling her from the room, but she seemed rooted to the spot, stuck at the knees to the floor of the hangar, unable to move or be moved.


“I am so sorry.  Sorry I failed you,” John said to her, as she collapsed to the floor.  Never had he felt like a bigger failure.  All around him, the sound of sixty-five more flops echoed, adding perverse, sickening sound to the otherwise silent city.


Still on one knee, John turned to face Azazel.  He seemed brighter, bigger, somehow, full and puffed out like a fly after a particularly satisfying meal.  The air around him seemed to shimmer with power, with the Dark Side.


“Ahh, that’s better,” Azazel quipped.  “So much more efficient than lightning bolts or some of the other foolish tricks we try.  Just take their life.  It gives you a boost and doesn’t leave any nasty marks or injuries on their bodies.”  He stopped speaking again and instead closed his eyes.


John couldn’t tell what was happening at first, an seeing the semi-opportunity (temptation) of the Sith with his eyes closed, he began to rush him, drawing his knife from it’s hilt on his thigh—it was engraved with sigils that offered protection against the Dark Side—and running forward.  For a moment, he tasted victory, he was only a step from Azazel, when a gust of wind slammed into him like a duracrete wall, sending John flying across the room and slamming into the far wall. 


He struck high, almost hitting the curved junction between wall and ceiling before sliding to the ground with a sickening thud.  He struggled to his feet, relieved that nothing felt broken—bruised and bloodied, he’d even cut his leg with his knife as he’d been tossed, but not broken—but discovered he couldn’t get far.


Gale-force winds were swirling around the room now, funneling through the open mouth of the hangar, whipping up salt water from the ocean, and pulling in stale air and debris from inside the abandoned city and sending it spinning, slamming into everything, swirling like a cyclone, around and around and faster and faster and up and up crating a maelstrom of the Force around John. 


He managed to stagger a few steps at a time, but even dropping to his knees and trying to pull himself along the floor towards Azazel hand over hand, didn’t work well.  Every few seconds, something—a datapad, an old rusted cleaning droid, a body, a shoe, a brick, anything and everything not bolted down was being hurled at him at top speed.  Impact after impact leaving bruises and knocking him to the deck.  Still he struggled on.  He was going to stop Azazel.  Somehow.  Maybe if he could interrupt the ritual or get Azazel to decide to kill him before he was done, maybe that way John could win, even if it would be a pyrrhic victory.


Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.  The projectiles dropped, the bodies settled, the winds stilled, and the howling stopped.  The landing bay was left littered and strewn with bodies, chunks of wall paneling torn away curled up and discarded like waste paper exposing cavernous scars and twisted wires underneath.  Azazel’s chanting stopped, and he looked even more powerful than before.


John had to do something now, or he’d never have another chance.


“Take me,” John gasped, panting through the pain.  “Let Sam go.  Let my SON go.  Take me instead.”  He staggered to his feet feeling every blow Darth Azazel’s Force storm had hurled at him.  John tried not to look at the crumpled bodies of Azazel’s innocent captives that were strewn around him… sixty-six innocent people killed to fulfill this monster’s sick plan.  John felt for their families, he wanted to give them all proper funeral rights, make sure their souls were at peace, but he had a feeling there was no real hope of that given Azazel’s intentions.


“So, you think that sacrificing yourself, giving yourself to me, is going to save your son?” Darth Azazel said with a growling leer.  His host’s face contorting into a grimace that sent shudders down John’s spine.


“That’s what you need, right, you need someone to power your damn Thought Bomb so that you can bring your friends back into the mortal realm?  Well, take me.  I’ll suffer for eternity.  Just let my son go.  Let both of them go,” he spat, his voice wavering with the mention of his sons.  John recognized he was pleading, begging a Dark Lord of the Sith, but the pain he felt, the fear of losing his sons, of seeing them die while he still lived, the thought of failing Mary—  It was too much.  He would do anything.  Anything at all if he thought it would save his sons.  Consequences be damned!  He wasn’t going to let the Sith take everything in his life from him.  He spat, blood and phlegm that had dripped into his throat spraying against the pristine, grey-white wall.


“You realize you have to be Force-sensitive for a Thought Bomb to work on you,” Azazel said coldly.


For a moment, John froze, all this time he’d wondered, he was pretty sure, no he was absolutely sure.  He knew what fueled those “hunches” and “feelings” he got that had made him such a good hunter over the years.  He knew that it was him that had rattled all that silverware at Miss’Ouri’s, not her.  He’d hid it; kept it secret.  He didn’t trust Jedi—ironic yes, since he’d spent time in the Support Corps—but taking kids away from their families, raising people without family ties, teaching them to eschew attachment, John just couldn’t accept that as being right or good, no matter how much they were supposedly champions of the light.  But still, if his being Force-sensitive could save his sons, no matter the torment and torture that would follow thereafter, he would acknowledge it, accept it, use it as a defense.  Drawing himself up to his full height, right arm releasing his battered, screaming, broken ribs, he said, “I know.”


“So be it, Jedi,” the Sith Lord spat.  John got the sense that he wasn’t the first man to hear those words while about to suffer at the hands of a Dark Lord of the Sith and he certainly wouldn’t be the last.  “I should let you know,” Darth Azazel continued, “that this is exactly what I was hoping for, you sacrificing yourself, it’s the key to me opening the door, and I’ve wanted to open that door for so, so long.  You, John are the Key.  Always have been, you just didn’t know it.  You’ve been playing into my hands the whole time.  You should have listened to your boys.”  Azazel let slip a maniacal chuckle.  “And this way, I get to use Sammy for other things.”


John’s eyes went wide.  He could sense the truth in Azazel’s words, but at the same time, Mary’s voice and image flashed into his mind, calming him, soothing him.  The words from his dream drifting through his mind, Keep the boys alive and together John and the universe will work itself out as it should.  She had such faith, such confidence and surety.  He had never doubted his wife, and he wasn’t about to doubt her now.  Whatever Azazel thought he was going to do by taking John’s life, maybe it would work, but maybe the universe had other plans.  He did not show fear.  He met the Sith Lord’s unnatural, glowing, yellow eyes and held his gaze, daring the Sith to do it already.


“Well, too late for you to change your mind now,” Azazel sneered, raising his hand. 


John felt a momentary flash, and then searing pain as his body (and probably half the wall around him was vaporized.  He prayed his boys were well outside the radius of the blast, and then his soul was trapped, drifting, twisting, drenched in the terrors of the Dark Side.


Chapter Fifty-Three


The Dream was just entering the Pyrshak system coming out of hyperspace when Sam nearly passed out. 


“NOOOO!” Sam cried, falling to his knees, eyes wide as if watching some unspeakable scene unfold before him.


Dean was about to ask what was wrong, Bobby was already dashing to Sam’s side, and Chevy was trundling over to investigate, but at the same moment a huge distortion wave burst outward from the surface of Manaan, the force of it tossing the Dream around like a leaf.  Dean was almost thrown from his seat, his death grip on the console the only thing keeping him upright.  Chevy was tossed to the side slamming against the bulkhead with an undignified squeal.  Bobby almost fell onto Sam, who seemed to have momentarily completely lost control of himself, but managed to fall in such a way that they were both protected from the worst of the jostling.


“What the hell was that?” Bobby croaked from the floor, where he was still cradling a shaking Sam.


“Dad, he killed Dad.”


Dean’s blood froze.  He turned from the Dream’s viewport to face Sam despite the danger the Dream faced by being tossed off course.


“The disturbance in the Force… it was a Thought Bomb!  It was meant for me, and now Dad’s dead, we’re too late.  It’s all too late,” Sam babbled, his voice hoarse and lost, tears flowing from his unseeing eyes.


Dean’s stomach turned and he nearly fell from his seat.  His mind was screaming, No, no, it can’t be, it’s not real, just a dream; Sammy’s just having a dream, but he knew, knew with a bone-chilling certainty, that Sammy was sure.  Sam hadn’t just felt the disturbance in the Force—which had apparently been strong enough to physically toss their ship around—but Dean knew that Sam had actually seen their father die in a vision before his eyes.  Thought bombs vaporize people, rip their skin from the bones and turn them to dust before trapping their soul in a ball of dark energy for all eternity, Miss’Ouri’s words returned to him. 


Dean leaned forward over the side of his chair and vomited, the meager contents of his stomach forming a pool of sickly yellow on the Dream’s bridge.  Under other circumstances he would be cringing for defiling his baby, his dear ship, but right now, all that he could think about was that his father was dead.  Not just dead, but vaporized and being tormented by the Dark Side.  And his brother had seen it.




He ignored the gentle voice calling his name.  His eyes were swimming with tears and his hands were shaking.


Dean,” Bobby’s voice said again, this time more insistent.


Dean raised his head to look at Bobby, who had now pulled himself up to his knees.  He looked shaken, was shaking, and was holding Sam more or less in a sitting position.  Sam still seemed to be lost in his vision. 


“We need to get down there.  Can you still fly?  Is the Dream OK?” Bobby inquired gently. 


“What?” Dean was going to ask, how can you even think about that?  My father just died!


“We have a job to finish, your father would want you to finish it,” Bobby said, obviously choked up.


Dean looked at Sam, desperate to go to his brother, to hold onto the last surviving member of his family.  But Bobby just shook his head.


“I’ve got him, Dean,” Bobby said.  “Land this ship.  Take us in safe.  We’ve got a big fight ahead of us.”


“OK,” Dean said, shakily, nodding.  “Chevy, wanna give me a hand,” he said to the little droid who was hovering on the sidelines, turning her dome from Dean to Sam and back again.


She trilled a mournful whistle, and rolled to Dean’s side. 


His hands were shaking so badly he could barely punch in the necessary corrections to get the Iriaz Dream back on course and headed for the docking port of Ahto City.  But soon they were lined up for the approach.  He could see smoke rising from one of the causeways on the abandoned floating city, That’s where Dad just died, he realized with a shudder.  He could do this, he had to do this.  The universe was depending on them.


As the Dream was touching down on the landing pad, Sam began to stir from the near-catatonic state he had been in since they entered the system.


“Dad, he’s gone,” Sam choked out, sitting up under his own steam at last.  He turned his big, mournful eyes to Dean.  “He was trying to protect us.  To save me,” Sam sniffed.  “And I didn’t deserve it!  If he’d just listened, waited…”  “But Azazel, he’s using the Thought Bomb to tear open the Force.  It’s just like you said Dean, he’s using this Thought Bomb to pull the other one out.  He’s trying to let out all of the old Sith… it’s an army!  And Dad’s soul is going to take their place!” Sam shouted, scrambling to his feet. 


“I’m sorry Sammy,” Dean said, feeling like he’d failed his brother, failed his father, for not getting them there soon enough to derail Darth Azazel’s plan. 


“We have to go now Dean, there’s still time.  We might not be able to save Dad, but we can still stop him.  Stop him from opening the rift.  If we don’t…”


The Sith will cut across the galaxy with the full power of the Dark Side at their backs, the universe will be shifted out of balance, and we’ll all die, Dean’s mind supplied.  “Ok, we’ll go, but Sammy, are you sure you’re OK?  I mean, he’s a Sith Lord, and you’ve never been trained…” And you’re all I have left, Sammy, I can’t lose you too!


“We have to go Dean, it’s like Dad taught us.  We have the knowledge, we’ve got to use it to save people,” Sam said with a sad half-smile.  “I’ll be OK, we’ve got to at least try.”


The determination in his little brother’s voice, stilled Dean’s fears.  He could do this.  They could do this.  Deal with the fallout, the pain of losing Dad later.  Now he had to be strong for his brother.


Chapter Fifty-Four


Sam tiptoed along the silent corridors of Ahto City.  Dean, Bobby, and Chevy trailed along behind him, all equally silent.  Dean and Bobby each carried an ysalimir in a special backpack on their shoulders.  The old guardian lizard had stayed behind to guard the ship, partially masking the presence of the Dream.  Dean and Bobby were trying to stay far enough back so that Sam wouldn’t feel the effects of the lizard’s Force bubble.  It was working, mostly.  If Sam slowed down too much, just the slightest hesitation could close the gap and put him under the ysalimiri’s control.  Considering how badly he’d reacted to the disorienting effects of the ysalimiri on his first encounter, he didn’t want to risk a repeat performance.  Not to mention, stepping inside the lizards’ Force-bubble would block his access to the Force.


As they trundled along, Sam realized that if he wasn’t so tense, he might have been reacting in awe to just how good his brother’s upgrades to Chevy had been.  Since their reunion on Coruscant, his only opportunity to be with Chevy someplace eerily silent had been Alderaan, and well… Azazel’s appearance had pretty much short-circuited his assessment of that experience.  Even in the deserted city, Chevy was able to roll along whisper-silent. 


Sam did his best to mask his presence like Miss’Ouri had taught him.  He concentrated on keeping his mind contained and bound within his body, holding himself tight inside, and not letting anything leak out.  It felt strange to be so cut off, in the last few weeks Sam had realized that he’d always been a little Force sensitive—it wasn’t just something that burst out of him when faced with Jessica’s death.  All those years hunting, he’d always had a keen sense of intuition, he could tell things about people, moods, impressions, sometimes he’d even know things a split-second before they happened.  He realized, sorrowfully, that John must have been Force sensitive too, otherwise the Thought Bomb wouldn’t have killed him.  Sam wondered when his father had figured it out.  He wondered if his mother had known.  Sam felt the loss of his parents so acutely he almost stumbled again, and feared that his mental shields might have wavered.  There was so much about his family that he had never known, never understood, and now it was all too late.  Maybe if they had just been honest with each other this wouldn’t have happened…  Or, maybe it’s all preordained, my Destiny, proclaimed by a prophecy thousands of years ago, and set in motion by the Force, and nothing we ever could have done would stop it.  Sam certainly hoped that wasn’t so, if they were to have any chance of succeeding.


He came to the end of the corridor.  There was a door and on the other side, Sam knew was a big, open landing pad.  The same place his mother had come to him in a vision.  The same place his father had died.  The same place Lord Azazel was now, with sixty-six dead bodies around him and the Thought Bomb containing his father’s trapped soul.  Any minute now, he would tear open the rift, and the condemned souls of his Sith brethren would be pulled into the world.  Sam had to stop it. 


Dean crept up behind him and tapped Sam gently on the shoulder.  “What’s the plan?” he asked. 


Sam noticed Dean had left the ysalimir on its frame a few strides behind, where Bobby was, an action for which Sam was seriously grateful.  Dean still seemed wary, but he had been following Sam’s plan more or less without question since they landed.  Sam was honored that his brother seemed to have so much faith in him, but feared that he would still fail; fail, and they would all die.  Vaporized like their father.


Sam forced the image of John’s death, his throes of agony, from his mind, and focused on Dean.  “As soon as we open that door, he’ll know we’re here, if he doesn’t already.  I can use telekinesis, I’m sure it will work when I see him, to hold him back, or hold back the Thought Bomb, he has to bring the two spheres together.  He used a special ritual to create the second Thought Bomb—I felt it.  Azazel’s using it, and the power from it and Dad’s death,” Sam’s voice caught slightly, “as an anchor to pull the old Thought Bomb out of its hiding place in the Dark Side.  If he can get the two spheres to touch, he can get them to swap places.  The old Thought Bomb will stay here, and the new will be pulled back into the Force.  Then he’ll slash the old with his lightsaber to release his followers’ souls.” 


Sam paused, realizing just how clearly he could see now what Dean had began to suspect sometime between finding Mom’s holocron and his confession on Ryloth.  He’d hoped Dean was wrong, but it wasn’t to be.  Pulling himself back to the present, he continued, “If I can keep them from touching, or pull his lightsaber away from him, we just might have a chance.  He’s only got so long before the old sphere is pulled back into the Dark Side.  It’s already been almost a half hour, so it’s got to be now, or he’ll lose his chance.”  Or he’ll just have to kill someone else with a Thought Bomb, like me…  He pushed the thoughts from his mind and continued.  “Now, Miss’Ouri told me that making a Thought Bomb this way takes a crazy amount of Force-strength, so he’ll be tired, plus, he’s possessing an unwilling host, so he’s not as strong as he could be to start with.  If I get in there now, I’ll have a chance.  You and Bobby and Chevy need to skirt around the edges and place the Runes.  Once they’re placed, it will trap him.”


“So, we just gotta get the Runes placed at the four compass points and chant a few words and he’ll be stuck?” Dean said sounding doubtful and gesturing to the four Runes of the Light that now hung from a small sack on his utility belt. 


The idea was that the Cortosis ore in the Runes would make them resistant should Azazel try to attack or destroy them with a lightsaber, while the ysalimiri on backpacks would allow Bobby and Dean to move about the room without getting the brunt of any of Azazel’s Force attacks.  But Dean was right, given at how troublesome the Runes had been to find and collect, it almost sounded too easy.  But he’d spent hours on the Dream pouring over the original legend Bobby had found discussing the Runes while they’d been en route to Manaan, and between that and the map and inscriptions from Dxun, the instructions seemed to be clear.


“Well, in theory.  We know it will force the rift to close, and keep any more souls from coming out…” Sam said.  It will also trap Dad… he thought sadly.  There would be no way to free John without freeing the others.  Maybe there would be a way to pull his father out, Sam thought.  If Sam could get in there and slash open his father’s Thought Bomb, or let Azazel slice them both the Thought Bombs… but of course that would mean allowing Azazel to let the Thought Bombs touch if he was going to cut the old Thought Bomb open in the first place…


“What about the Rune he destroyed,” the decoy, Dean asked.


Sam shook his head.  “He crushed that with the Force and melted it with fire.  He’s got the hosts for his followers in there, he’s not going to risk burning them up, ‘cause that would kind of trash his whole plan.  Besides, the longer the Runes are in the ysalimiri’s Force-bubbles he won’t be able to get anything anywhere near them using the Force.”


“Ok, got it,” Dean said curtly.  “I just want to get this over with,” he muttered.  Turning to Bobby, he asked, “You ready?”


Bobby nodded.  “As I’ll ever be.”


Dean walked back and picked up the ysalimir and its frame backpack, hoisting it onto his back and over his shoulders.


“Is Chevy ready with the distraction?” Sam asked Dean, feeling a bit awkward talking to his brother about the droid when she was in the same room, but well, they couldn’t risk Chevy making any noise and Dean had the datapad.


“Yeah,” Dean said, while Chevy tilted forward on her treads in an approximation of a nod.  “As soon as the door opens she’s going to overload the electrical systems in the docking bay.  The lights should arc and hit Darth Azazel, and that should take enough of his power to momentarily weaken him, give you the opportunity to act.”


“Are you sure that’s not going to,” Bobby gestured, “make him stronger?”


“Dad,” Dean’s voice wavered, “Dad told us that he deflected the blaster bolts Dad fired at him, not that he absorbed the energy.  And none research I’ve done on Azazel has suggested he has that ability.  An electrical shock of that magnitude with no warning… he shouldn’t be able to deflect it.  It should injure or distract him, not make him stronger,” Dean reassured.


Sam nodded in agreement.  “From what Dad said about Naboo, I think if we hit him, it will damage the host more than Azazel himself, but that should slow him down even more, maybe even knock him out of the body, which will make it easier to use the Runes on him.  I think that’s going to work to our advantage,” Sam added.  He hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to do next.


Dean caught Sam’s eye, and they exchanged a look that said I know, I love you, thank you, I’m sorry, I don’t want to die, I don’t want you to die, and pretty much summed up a lifetime of brotherhood.  Awkwardly, Dean stepped forward raising his right arm to pull Sam into a hug. 


Sam ignored the shock of the Force bubble and leaned into his brother, wanting for a moment to just be a little kid again, protected and loved.  He didn’t want to have the fate of the universe resting on his shoulders.  Careful not to put too much pressure on Dean’s recently healed left shoulder, Sam gave his brother a quick squeeze before pulling away.


Bobby patted them both on the back in affectionate reassurance. 


Once both Dean and Bobby had stepped back a safe distance so that Sam was no longer under the lizard’s influence, Sam took a deep breath and turned to Chevy.  “Ok girl, let’s go.”


What happened next would be a blur in Sam’s memory.  The door slid open, lightening arced into the room ahead of him illuminating Darth Azazel and the two pulsating orbs that hovered in front of him.  Sam slipped through the door, dropping his mental shields and feeling the Force-voids that surrounded Dean and Bobby slip into the room behind him.  He wished them well, and turned his focus to Azazel.


The Dark Lord had staggered when hit by the lightning, but he was now cackling with glee.


“Hoping to catch me unawares, boy?  Silly fool, I knew you were coming centuries ago. This moment has been written in the Force since long before you were created.”  Darth Azazel stood poised at the front of the room, on the edge of the landing pad.  It was the same spot Sam had visited in his dream where his mother had spoken to him.


Unfazed, Sam stood strong, stepping towards the center of the room.  He focused on Azazel, lifting his hand trying to stop the Sith Lord in his tracks.  The second Thought Bomb was had fully emerged from the Force now, and the two were only centimeters apart, so close to touching.  Vaguely, Sam felt the voids around Dean and Bobby move and realized the first of the Runes had been placed.  The air seemed to be humming now, hinting at the trap that would soon be set.  If only he could buy them enough time…

 Sam and Azazel fighting with Thought Bombs--Scene Illustration by Ashlan

Azazel struggled against him, pulling and tugging against Sam’s telekinesis to draw the spheres closer together.  You want to free your father, don’t you, if you let me open the spheres, maybe your father can slip out, yes, you want that…


Sam flinched as the Sith Lord’s thoughts floated into his mind.  It was true, he wanted to free his father.  The thought of John suffering forever, a prisoner of the Dark Side made his heart ache.  He didn’t want that.  He’d spent so many nights dreaming about facing the same fate ever since Dean confessed his suspicions to Sam on Ryloth.  He hadn’t been sure he could face it himself, but how could he possibly leave his father to it? 


Sam knew he could free him and still stop Azazel.  If he let the spheres touch, he could pull Azazel’s blade, make it open John’s sphere too, and Sam was confident he could get John out before any of the Sith spirits spilled forth.  Dean and Bobby would get the Runes laid and the chant finished before…


Azazel’s laughter slammed into Sam in waves, reverberating aloud and through his mind. 


While Sam had been thinking about freeing his father, his focus on the spheres had slipped, and the spheres had slipped closer together, they were now touching, just at one point, but that was all it took. 


Sam reached out with his hand, trying to use the Force to pull them apart, force space between them, but it was too late.  With inhuman speed, Darth Azazel drew his lightsaber, extended its blood-red blade and slashed across the spheres. 


“No!” Sam cried out.  He could tell that Dean and Bobby were not yet done laying the Runes.  It had been a trick, and Sam had allowed his desire to please his father, his need for approval, for praise—his need to not let his father not suffer his fate for him—to cloud his judgment, and now they were all paying the price.


He saw the first shimmering, dark form slip from the old sphere.  At the same time, the air in the docking port began swirling and spinning, picking up bits of debris from the earlier explosion, and tugging at the bodies that lay strewn across the floor. 


“Sam!” Dean shouted from behind him.  “Hold on, just hold on a little longer.”  He could sense the Force-void that was where Dean should be moving behind him, clinging to the wall.  Out of the corner of Sam’s eye he saw Dean pulling himself along, struggling to place the last Rune. 


Sam felt guilty that his brother was reassuring him, but it gave him strength.  With new resolve, Sam focused on the newly opened spheres.  He could see something bright trying to slip from the sphere on the left, he found it in the Force and pulled.  Now way was he letting his father get pulled into the other Thought Bomb.  Sam tugged with all his strength and threw, threw his father’s soul out over the edge of the docking port, over the water near where he had seen his mother’s spirit cross over in a vision.  He thought he saw the spirit flash bright for a moment, got the sense of his father’s smiling face, and then blink out.  He hoped his father had found peace, but didn’t have long to dwell on it.  While he had been trying to pull John free, one of the black figures had managed to slip out of the old sphere.  He could see it floating towards one of the bodies on the ground.  He felt sick thinking of the poor innocent whose body was about to be possessed, but he stayed focused on closing the rift.  If he could hold Azazel back and pull the tear in the old sphere closed and pull it apart from the new sphere, the old would slip back into the Force.  He just had to give Dean and Bobby enough time to finish the incantation.  He felt the air shift as Bobby placed the last Rune.  The Runes were designed to adhere to a surface after they were placed, so Azazel’s maelstrom couldn’t pick them up and toss them around the room.


Sam tugged with all his might, trying to pull the rift closed and separate the two spheres, but Azazel was tugging back.  Sam could feel himself weakening, tiring, but he was determined.  Another figure slipped from the rift and moved even more quickly to a body.  Sam couldn’t split his attention among so many targets, he just didn’t have the skill or training yet.  He remained focused on Azazel, recalling how it had felt to face him when Jessica died.  He remembered the feel of knowing that the host was vulnerable, could be separated from the body.  If he could tug Azazel’s spirit free, then it would be trapped here as soon as the incantation was finished.  Sam narrowed his concentration to too points, to tugging the sides of the rift closed and to pulling Azazel free from his host’s body.  He could feel the maelstrom weakening as the connection between Azazel and his host weakened.  In spirit form, Azazel was Force, but he couldn’t channel the Force very easily.  Sam felt a surge of victory as he heard Dean and Bobby chanting behind him, he used that joy to pull the sides of the rift closed, effectively stopping anyone else from getting through.  They were so close, they could really do this!  He held the rift closed, and focused harder on Azazel, unable to stop the hint of hatred that slipped through.  This man, this thing, had killed his parents, his girlfriend, and now Sam would destroy him.  Stop him, trap him forever from being able to finish fulfilling the prophecy.  He was so close, Azazel’s soul was almost free from the host’s body. 


But as the hate flowed through him, Sam could feel glee in Azazel’s spirit.  Belatedly remembering Miss’Ouri’s warning, Sam tried to stifle the hate, instead focusing on the joy he had felt moments before, but his concentration slipped, and the soul slipped fractionally back inside the host’s body.  Undeterred, Sam kept pulling.  He only had to hang on a little longer.  “This stops, now,” he grit out, aloud.  “I’m not letting you kill anyone else!”


“Sorry Jedi, but that future’s not in the cards for you,” said a harsh, feral female voice, and the body of a young Cathar woman stepped into his line of vision, her eyes growing bright with the unnatural yellow of a Sith.  While Sam’s attention had been focused on Azazel one of the escaped souls must have settled into a host.  Settled into a host and grabbed Azazel’s lightsaber…


Sam saw the blood-red blade snap-hiss to life a split second before he felt its burning blade stab through him, catching him high in the gut and quickly stabbing through, severing his spine.  Sam felt like his insides were on fire, which heh they probably were, he struggled to breathe, feeling his lungs filling with fluid, and his sensation-less legs dropped out from underneath him, dropping him to his knees.  He caught sight of Dean out of his left eye, and smiled.  He’d tried.  They were so close, at least he’d freed their father and closed the sphere…  As life left Sam, he could feel it flowing away like the Force.  He was becoming part of the Force, flowing outward, expanding, sensing everything around him, feeling the life of the planet below.  He hadn’t really understood what the power was, where it came from and now… now it was too late.


Chapter Fifty-Five


“Nooooooooooo!” Dean screamed as he saw the Sith woman stab Sam.  He could smell the singed flesh and the ozone from the blade, and it was choking him, making him sick.  He swore he could feel an echo of Sam’s pain.  Sam caught his eye, and the look he gave Dean made Dean’s heart leap.  Sam was so close, they had been so close to finishing.  It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.  Sam couldn’t die, he couldn’t.  He was all Dean had left.  He couldn’t lose any more.


“Dean, no!  Finish the incantation!”  Bobby yelled, his voice anguished.


Dean looked down, without realizing it, he had been moving from his station by the Rune, unconsciously stepping towards Sam.  His lips had stopped moving, the incantation only lines from being complete. 


“Finish it, and the sphere stays sealed and goes back to the Force.  Finish it, and Sam didn’t die in vain!” Bobby pleaded.


Numbly, Dean returned his focus to the Rune.  He belted out the last two lines of the incantation, shouting to be heard over the wind that was increasing in strength again as Sam’s grip on Azazel had faltered.  He spat out the last words and turned, crawling on hands and knees, instinctively shedding the ysalimir and its nutrient frame as he struggled across the docking bay.  Scrambling until he was by Sam’s side.  The woman with the lightsaber was still there, but he didn’t care.  He needed to be with his brother.


She made a move like she was going to strike at him, but Dean turned to her and glared. 


“Get back, bitch!” Dean spat, “You aren’t touching me, and you’re never touching my brother, again.”  He threw himself over Sam’s crumpled form and waited for her blow to end it, but it didn’t come.  He sensed her moving away, distantly, joining with her fellow escapee and Azazel.  Dean felt the Thought Bomb that had housed his father pop out of existence now that it was emptied, and the other rejoin the Force, as there was no longer a second Thought Bomb to take its place and anchor it here.  He felt Azazel’s rage at the failure.  He felt the three of them turn to flee—with their hosts, they could escape the trap—but Dean didn’t care.  He felt it all, and all that mattered was Sam in his arms.  Sam, his brother.  Sam, his best friend.  Sam, who he rescued from a fire when he was only four years old.  Sam, who he promised to protect.  Sam, the only family he had left… 


The rest of the world slipped away.  Sam couldn’t die.  Sam couldn’t be dead.  All that existed was him and Sam.  Together, here, now.  He thought absently that there wasn’t even any blood, but of course there wouldn’t be, lightsabers cauterized wounds.  He noticed how light and yet how heavy Sam felt in his arms.  He was aware that he was draping himself over Sam, his right hand hovering over the wound, pulling Sam onto his lap, but he wasn’t really conscious of what he was doing.  He could feel something opening inside him, pouring out of him with his love for his brother, something that had always been there, but that had been dormant, waiting, waiting until he was ready.  His mother’s voice came back to him.  He felt the spot in his chest where she had touched him, felt it glow, he felt the life around him, from the oceans, felt it start to flow into him, channel through him and out into Sam, and he held on, understanding his mother’s words at last.  He could hold on, and he wouldn’t be alone.


The Force slammed into him from all sides, moving through him and out into his brother, mending blood vessels, reconnecting nerves, stitching together bone, sealing skin...  Dean didn’t know how long he was there, but he held on… until.


“Dean?” Sam gasped.  Coughing.  “Dean?  What happened?  Am I alive?” His voice was shaky and quiet and uncertain, but there, alive, real.


“Yeah Sammy,” Dean said, looking down and meeting Sam’s eyes, tears obscuring his sight.  “You’re alive.  We’re alive.  The Thought Bombs are closed.”


He helped Sam to sit, aware that Bobby was hesitantly coming closer, no doubt confused by what had happened.


“Azazel?” Sam asked.


Dean realized he wasn’t sure and turned to Bobby for confirmation.


“He got away, took two of his little friends with him,” Bobby answered shakily.  “But you did it Sam, you closed the rift.  Got your Daddy free too,” he added.  “I saw John cross over,” he admitted.


“But how?” Sam asked.  “How did I?”  He looked to Dean with wonder.


“I don’t know,” Dean started, hesitant to say what he thought had happened.


“You are the Healer,” a gravely voice said, coming from the edge of the landing pad, where Azazel had been.


Dean turned in sync with Sam and Bobby to find the source of the voice.  A tall man dressed in simple Jedi robes approached.  There was something familiar about him, like somehow Dean had known he would be coming, but he couldn’t place it, where the familiarity came from.


“What?” Dean asked, his tongue thick in his mouth.


“You are the Healer, and I am your Guide,” the figure said.  “My name is Cas Tiel.  I was a Jedi five thousand years ago and helped form the original Protectorate.  I know of the prophecy, and it is my job to help you in your Destiny, Dean.”


“But we won, it’s over,” Sam protested.  “I mean Azazel got away, but we stopped him…”


“You have won this battle, Samuel, but there will be many more battles in the war.  I am here to ensure that Dean is trained to do his part,” Cas responded regarding Sam with a solemn expression.


“Me?” Dean asked, but somehow he knew. This was what his mother had been preparing him for.


“Well Dean,” Sammy said, still somewhat shaky.  “I guess we’re both Force freaks now.”


Dean snorted.  “Yeah Sammy, I guess so.”  Right then, he didn’t care what the future held or how many more battles were ahead of him.  All that mattered was that he was alive and Sammy was alive and their Dad’s soul was free, and for the moment at least, the balance of the Force in the Universe was safe.


 ~~The End~~ (Sequel Coming Soon!)