The corpse pitched forward, hitting the floor with a low meaty thud. Above him, the bloody liquid of his super-heated entrails sprayed outward, cloudy droplets floating almost weightless and then, ever so gently, the mist began to drift down, glazing all in greasy-brown. The coppery taste of death was everywhere.
And, for just a moment, it was quiet.
One shuddering breath broke through the wall of stunned silence as Qui-Gon Jinn stared at the carcass. The battle had been short, tainted with gore and completely unexpected. And yet he remembered it all...
The vibroshiv gleaming abruptly in the madman's hands, the off-pitched whine of the blade screeching upward, discordant and shrill, and then down as the Jedi tried desperately to parry. The attacker's delusions had only fueled his rage.
And Qui-Gon could do nothing but fall back in defense even as the frenzied assault pushed him towards the roaring hearthfire and retreat's end. The vibroshiv wailed close, a jittering promise to rend flesh and skin into bits of steaming meat. Yet Qui-Gon struggled to keep from hurting the man, to disarm him before it was too late. But, even as his lightsaber sliced through the metallic vibroblade, green flame arcing gracefully, the man suddenly turned into the searing light. And screaming in pain and obscenities, Crion of Telos died.
It should not have happened, not like this.
When Qui-Gon and his Padawan first arrived, Crion duCrion, Absolute Ruler of the First House and Monarch of the Telosian people, had met them with warm welcome, all bureaucrat's smiles and cooperation. He made it known that he was ready to do whatever was necessary to end the destructive conflict between the Rebel Coalition and the government of Telos.
That war had been savage, long-standing and exceptionally costly in both credits and lives. The Treasury was depleted; the regime was on the verge of collapse. And the grisly death of untold numbers and the rabid environmental catastrophes that followed the grappling of the power-mad brigands had been devastating. But when the conflict escalated beyond even the Senate's willful blindness, the Republic had bowed to the inevitable and finally sent the Jedi to investigate. Accepting the reality of intervention, duCrion, with much elaborate fanfare, welcomed them with open arms.
It seemed then that the city was alive with hope. When the Monarch moved out onto the balcony and bowed to the representatives, the crowds cheered wildly. Everywhere was the sound of blaring trumpets and the sweet song of flutes, the buildings festooned with expensive garlands of white caleotrope and the exotic fragrance of tapava petals, the melodies of deliverance filling the air. And the Ruler of Telos was ever grandiose in his gestures of friendship.
Standing there before the milling crowds, at first duCrion only glanced at the tall, black-haired apprentice. But he gave no sign of recognition. After all, Xanatos duCrion had been taken more than 20 years ago to be raised in the Jedi Order and it was not likely that he would ever see his son again.
But when he was finally introduced, the politician's smile turned genuine, then hungry for a fleeting instant before oiling back into polite. Bowing with a formal sweep of his hand, all courtier-gallant, he welcomed the Jedi but then, deliberately, unexpectedly, he had grabbed Xanatos and enveloped him in a showy hug. The people roared with delight. A moment later, he let Xani go but continued to whisper sweet words of welcome and joyous family bonds to the young Learner. As Qui-Gon frowned with concern and silence, they were swept into the opulent palace.
After that, it was all honeyed phrases and sumptuous feasts. Greasy bureaucrats and voluptuous women courted their opinion, flattering and cajoling them to side with duCrion's increasingly savage war.
With each day, there were more expensive gifts offered to the Jedi, trinkets from across the Galaxy to tantalize the eye and please the palate. Then further temptations: the use of women for their pleasure, credits enough to satisfy even the most elaborate of desires, and above all, power. Power over the lives of others, power to control, to corrupt, to brutalize at their whim. They all came with their subtle and not so subtle price - turning a blind eye to duCrion's plans for the total obliteration of the Rebel forces.
It had sickened him. The maliciousness that always accompanied the offers of pleasure and pain, the ruthless use of people for the gain of a few, the casual inhumanity with which they were offered, was almost too much to bear.
However, Xanatos seemed to be overwhelmed by it all - the wealth, the women, power that could be used for many things. Qui-Gon had known that he should have spent more time with his Padawan, discussing the potential for corruption, but he was deep in mission imperatives with negotiations and study, working far into the night and usually exhausted by the time he reached their quarters.
Besides, Xani was about to take his Trials. If his apprentice could not handle something this simple, he was not ready for the missions he would be assigned as a lone Knight. So Qui-Gon stepped back and allowed him to make his own choices. He was confident that his apprentice would make the right ones. After all, he was brilliant, a powerful and skilled Force-sensitive, and totally committed to the Jedi Order. He had an extraordinary future ahead of him. Of that, Qui-Gon was very certain.
Yet he continued to be concerned at the amount of time his young Padawan spent with duCrion. It bubbled beneath the surface, much like a wound that continued to fester under the healed flesh. It pulled at his subconscious. It was a subtle warning that refused to be ignored.
But Qui-Gon had put the doubt aside. He was determined to finish this mission as quickly as he could and he knew that Xani would do the right thing, when all was said and done. Besides, there was much to do...
He had hoped that he would be able to turn this war into a peaceful settlement with justice for all the inhabitants of Telos. And somehow coerce duCrion into returning the Treasury's funds that Qui-Gon had discovered were funneled into the Monarch's own private accounts...
But it was not to be.
Finally, after weeks of negotiations, Qui-Gon had had enough. With his Padawan off on a self-appointed fact-finding mission, he set up a meeting with just the two of them, the Jedi Master and the Ruler of Telos, in duCrion's private office.
He stood there, looking about him as he waited for duCrion to appear. The richly-appointed marlwood walls and ornate gilded carvings of mythological creatures gave off the aura of old decay and excess. And the monumental fireplace with its failed attempt at grandeur and obvious indifference to taste that so characterized the rest of the palace spoke of a torrent of credits - Treasury money that should have been spent on the people of Telos. Qui-Gon felt chilled. Even the cheerful blaze singing wood music could not warm the space. Or perhaps it was the owner of all this wealth that was stealing life from the very air.
As soon as they were alone, Qui-Gon tried to reason with the Ruler. He had hoped to stave off the complete collapse of the negotiations and try one last time to push the tyrant into a just settlement. But duCrion would have none of it. A derisive half-smile played across his autocratic face as Qui-Gon spoke.
His demands, it seemed, had only produced amusement and an absurd kind of contempt for the Jedi and his own dying people.
As Crion stood by the roaring fire, he barely glanced at the settlement conditions before he began to snicker. His sapphire eyes were hard with satisfaction and secrets, glittering with the scorn of one who had planned far ahead for such foolishness and was now seeing it play out.
"You're too late, Jinn. Your pathetic attempts at reconciliation have only aided me in my war against the rebel scum."
Qui-Gon stilled at that. Seeing the traitorous triumph in duCrion's face, an icy sense of impending disaster frosted across his skin. With a shivering rumble of apprehension, he breathed disquiet, "What have you done?"
The man looked at him as if he were some filthy beggar from the streets - Jedi rabble in his worn homespuns. He brushed at his own overtunic as if to rid himself of such trash; the coat was ablaze in finely-cut gems and encrusted embroidery blinking in the firelight and it only emphasized his place in the grand scheme of things - absolute Ruler of Telos. A froth of lace lay at his wattled throat.
With supreme indifference, duCrion replied, "More than you ever would with all your talk of balance and the common good."
Smiling, enjoying the discomfort and increasing alarm in the Jedi's eyes, he drawled, "I've ended the war with your unwitting help."
The air thickened with concern. "Explain."
"Really Jinn, you should know better. It was never about the rights of the people. It was about power. Absolute power. Over everything in my domain." His hand began to play with the fireplace mantle, smoothing over the elaborately-carved stone as though caressing a lover or stolen treasure. The ruthless smile grew rancor-ominous. "And I have the power. Over those insignificant fools that trusted me... and over my own son."
"Xani? What does my Padawan have to do with this?" Sharp, worried, Qui-Gon's voice carried all of his apprehension. The Force seemed to sing with discord.
"Your Padawan?" Flicking his fingers across an imagined speck of dirt in the marble design, he gave a bark of derisive laughter. "He is mine, Jedi. To do with as I see fit."
Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed in disgust. "He is a member of the Jedi Order. He is none of yours."
The Ruler turned suddenly, folding his arms across his chest in marked contempt. "He is a duCrion. He was made to rule. Power, women, credits. You forbid him all these things but now he's tasted it. Tasted the power. He would deny it but I've seen his eyes. He wants more than the Jedi can give him."
"You are lying, duCrion."
"Am I? Have you seen him lately?' Leaning against the exquisite stony carvings, his tunic brilliant in the flickering light, his smile widened with victory. "He's been helping me. Did you know that?"
Qui-Gon lowered his eyes in thought, frowned with growing realization that he did not know where his apprentice was at the moment or what he might be doing.
But duCrion just snorted at the sight. "No. Of course, you didn't."
He stared to saunter towards the stunned Jedi. "He's helping me because I am his father. And because the love my son bears for me."
Another grating snicker. "You Jedi have played right into my hands. Forbidding attachment is incredibly naive. It made my son long for a father figure, a guiding light to help him see how the universe really works. And I showed him. Oh, yes, I showed him..."
He stopped next to Qui-Gon and stared into his troubled eyes. "Xanatos is arrogant, of course. He is a duCrion after all. And I'll grant you that you have taught him well the uses of power. But the young fool needed a father's guidance almost as much as he needs air." Shrugging his disdain, he muttered, "Even more than credits..."
"Xani would never help you." His voice held the icy chill of growing concern.
But duCrion did not notice. He was too busy gloating, the smooth condescending words flowing, base coin from a treasure chest. "Oh, but he has. Even now, he has gone to make final preparations. One last battle and the rebels will be crushed."
Qui-Gon's protests fell on deaf ears. The Ruler of Telos was enjoying this too much to care what a mere Jedi would say. "How staunchly you defend him."
Thrusting his sneering face into Qui-Gon's vision, duCrion began to chuckle, twisting the poisoned words like a frenzy of razored knives rending bloodied flesh. "You have no idea how easy it was to corrupt his bright promise. He needed someone to show him how to use power for his own ends. All under the guise of a loving parent, of course. Someone who would love him without reservation. As you do not."
"I do lo.." He could not say it, not to this consummate manipulator who even now was trying to pillage his own people for the obscenity of control and credits. Frowning with thunderous indignation, he stepped back sharply and stared at the power-hungry tyrant. Loathing what he saw, his dark eyes hardened to grey durasteel.
"The Code is clear. Attachment is forbidden by the Jedi Order and my Padawan is well aware of such restrictions. And accepts them."
But, even as he was growling out the standards by which all Jedi were expected to follow and obey, Qui-Gon could feel the half-truth lodging in his gut. A flash of regret and acceptance of what he had known all along. He could not deny it. The Code may have been enforced for a thousand years but Xanatos was the son of his heart. And he would be damned to an eternity of regret if he left his Padawan to this tyrant.
"Ah... see, you cannot admit it." duCrion clapped his hands thrice, one slap of flesh against another in slow derision, his sapphire eyes glowing with contempt. "You make it so easy to manipulate the boy. He believes that he is doing the right thing even now, the young fool."
Moving to his desk, the Absolute Ruler of Telos looked down at his papers, then brushed at the delicate lace cravat as if he was discussing tea ceremonials with a pauper and feared contamination. The derision in his voice was absolute and diamond-clear. "He thinks I love him, you know. Oh, he is useful for ferreting out my enemies with that Force magic of his but love... he's a duCrion. He should know better."
"I will not allow you to hurt him like this." Qui-Gon's fury was rising. It was obvious that this man had manipulated the war for his own ends and now to include Xanatos in that conflict was beyond belief. He stepped closer, his eyes cold as he stared at duCrion.
In that moment, duCrion seemed to realize that he might have gone too far, scorning the obvious regard that the Jedi had for Xanatos. But his face hardened with stubborn tenacity. After all, he was Ruler of Telos, not some simpleton that could be shouted down. "Allow it? He is already mine." He tried to push the Jedi aside, "Now, if you will excuse me, I believe I have a war to win."
But Qui-Gon would not be ignored. He towered over the man, willing him to remain. "You have used a Jedi to further your own ends."
Lip curling slightly in distaste, duCrion backed up as if to avoid getting dirtied. Blindly reaching for a handhold, he pulled himself closer to the back of the lovely, ornate desk, trying to put some distance between him and the Jedi. "Why do you think you are still here if not to act as a diversion?"
Qui-Gon's voice plummeted into ice and inky night. "You used our presence as Senate's representatives to make the Rebel Coalition think that they were safe enough to negotiate. So that they would come out of hiding. These last weeks... it was all a trap."
"That is how the game is played, Jedi. I would think you would know that by now."
Qui-Gon was stone and steel. "duCrion, I will overlook your blatant attempt at suborning my Padawan. He is of age and may choose to stay or leave the Jedi at his own discretion."
He leaned forward, staring directly into the wary sapphire eyes of the Absolute Ruler of Telos. There would be no mistake in this. "But as for the rest, I cannot. Crion duCrion, as Republic Representative to the Telosian Government, I arrest you for the theft of the planetary treasury for your own gain, for attempted bribery of a Republic official, for the deliberate murder of thirty-five innocents in your employ, the further murder of several thousand of your planet's citizens in a genocidal war of your choosing. The Republic Senate will decide if there are to be other charges."
While Qui-Gon was talking, duCrion was angrily sputtering his excuses, his furious face turning chalky and then crimson as he fumbled further back from the Jedi. His hands were active too, seeking something. "You won't get away with this. I have friends in high places."
Qui-Gon's frown was deep and cutting, his face set in cold durasteel. "You see, duCrion, you are not the only one who has been busy. While you were trying to tempt my Padawan into joining you, I was uncovering the deceits and traitorous actions of a murderer and thief."
"You have no proof."
The slightest smile of satisfaction flicked across Qui-Gon's face before it morphed back into stone. "Oh, but I do. A Jedi would never arrest someone without evidence, especially one of your prominence." He reached for duCrion, bringing out a set of stun-cuffs. "You will have ample opportunity to contact your solicitor."
"You have no right." The panicked eyes grew angry, desperate as he looked away, searching for something among the florid imprints on his desk. But Qui-Gon was there first.
He grabbed duCrion's arm, drawing his hand down in an attempt to set one stun-cuff on the lace-covered wrist. The Monarch was furious, struggling in earnest, his tunic pulling this way and that, fine-gold embroidery fraying fast as he tried to wrestle himself free. But Qui-Gon only tightened his grip. "Let me go, Jedi."
It was said so calmly that duCrion stilled for a moment and then went mad, kicking and shrieking at him, grasping at his arm even as the manacle clicked into place. He pulled backwards, throwing all his weight toward the ornate floral design and pressed. With that, a hidden compartment opened and an array of vibroshivs and other weapons were evident. The Monarch reached for the blaster but his hand slipped and instead, a long shiv began to hum in his fingers.
He thrust the vibrating blade towards Qui-Gon, stabbing blindly in fury.
Blood blossomed then on Qui-Gon's sleeve even as he backpedaled away and he let duCrion go. He realized that he had little room to maneuver near the desk. And he did not want to hurt the Ruler, only bring him to justice. But with the sharpened knife flailing in the air, he needed to be cautious. Moving into a clear space for battle, he pulled out his lightsaber and ignited it. He hoped that would be enough to bring duCrion to his senses.
It did not. Instead, the Ruler screamed, the frenzied cry of blood-lust echoing off the rich walls and carved statuary. As duCrion leapt toward him, vibroshiv sweeping across the space in a fury, Qui-Gon could do nothing but defend himself. Stepping back, he parried one last time, slicing through the vibroshiv, thinking it was over.
With incredible speed, duCrion turned the broken weapon toward Qui-Gon and swung recklessly. But his balance was off. As he jerked forward, the elaborate lace nestled at his wrist caught on the desk edge and he was pulled sideways. Now stumbling wildly, he fell directly into the path of the lightsaber and, in an instant of light and heat and torment, the green blade thrust through his body, impaling him.
He screamed then, tearing at his stomach in a vain attempt at holding in his smoking entrails even as he collapsed to the floor. As he hit the ground, the cauterized wound burst open and there was a spray of red, coating everything. For a few moments, duCrion grunted in agony and then gagging on his own blood, he glared one last desperate entreaty at his killer and died.
The Force wailed its regret.
Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Master and Republic Representative to the people of Telos in their hour of need, stood there, blinking in disbelief. He had not been fast enough to prevent this, not fast enough to turn off his blade, not fast enough. With one shuddering breath, he stared at the smoldering corpse.
He did not see the hearth's firelight shimmering rich color into the room, bright flickers dancing across the ornate walls and lavish furnishings; he did not hear the merry sizzle-pop music of the cheerful blaze, singing of life and wealth and conversation or acknowledge the comfort of woodsmoke in the air.
He only gazed at the sprawled body, one lifeless hand flung wide as if in entreaty, the other clutched at cooked guts.
It was a tragic end to the duCrion's reign of terror. But Qui-Gon knew it was not over. There would be explanations and a full inquiry into the demise of the Telosian Ruler before all was said and done.
And, if the man was telling the truth, his apprentice might react badly to his father's death, even take duCrion's side in all this. ... unless Qui-Gon could get to him first and explain.
With that very thought hounding his conscience, he turned toward the door just as his Padawan, Xanatos duCrion, hurried into the room.