Was this a nightmare? That had to be it. It was just a nightmare, a bad dream brought on by something he had eaten or by something he had seen on the HoloNet. The war was taking it's toll on everyone, on every Jedi and every youngling who worried that the people they admired most might never come back to the Temple. This wasn't real. This couldn't be real.
So why did the sounds of screams and the smell of ozone seem so real? Why did the thumping of his heart and the burn of his lungs hurt so much? Why did the sight of the clone troopers, people he'd once viewed with respect, and the rumor that the youngest of children had been slaughtered right there in the Temple by a lightsaber instill so much fear in his breast?
Caleb sprinted past a doorway where two troopers took aim at an older Padawan. He didn't see when the shots found their marks, when the older child fell to the floor, when the hum of the other's lightsaber went silent. What could he do against seasoned military men? Where could he go that they wouldn't find him? He foolishly wished that Master Kenobi were here; he would have known what to do. He would be able to take on the troopers that had turned against the Jedi. He would have been able to protect everyone.
Caleb forced those thoughts away. They weren't any help here. Master Kenobi had his own troubles to deal with on the battlefield right now. Caleb and the rest of those left behind in the Temple were on their own.
Fear and disbelief had so clouded his mind that he hadn't realized when he'd come to a dead end. He looked at the walls as if they'd sprung up from the ground just to spite him. A ripple went down his back. His lightsaber was in his hand and lit before he completed the turn to face the same two troopers he'd passed earlier. His weapon may have just been a practice one, but it was all he had. And if these clones wanted to put him down, he wouldn't let them without at least trying to fight back.
Neither said a word. There was a cold efficiency in their postures, in the way they lifted their rifles that was more chilling than anything Caleb had experienced before. He didn't understand how they could so quickly and effortlessly turn on the Jedi, but in that moment he didn't care. He gripped his lightsaber tighter as he waited for the right moment to strike...
Neither trooper had the chance to fire. One helmeted head hit the floor, then another, followed closely by armored bodies. Caleb stared at them in stunned wonder. He hadn't even moved. How...
The answer to his unfinished question stood right in front of him. Dripping wet and laboring to breathe was Jedi Master Depa Billaba. Although she only barely resembled herself before the tragedy that befell her on Haruun Kal, there was no mistaking those eyes. Caleb held his breath, only the sounds of their lightsabers and her ragged breathing filling the silence. There had been a time when he had looked upon Master Billaba with awe and hope that she might one day officially take him as her Padawan. Now, knowing what little he did of her fall to the Dark Side and her subsequent insanity, he didn't know what to expect. Would she cut him down like she had the clones if he so much as twitched?
They stared at each other for long moments, Caleb at a complete loss at what to do. Master Billaba's gaze was wild, confused. Recognition suddenly flared in those brown eyes, snapping them into clear focus. “Caleb,” she whispered shakily.
He flinched involuntarily, shrinking back a half-step. “M-Master?”
A smile worked its way onto her face; the action seemed to tire her even more than beheading two troopers. Her lightsaber dropped, pointing at the floor as she tried to step forward. “Are you...alright?”
Those three words made Caleb forget his apprehension, forget the bodies that lay between them. He rushed to her, dropping his lightsaber, and wrapped his arms around her waist. Right now, he didn't sense any evidence of the Dark Side in her, and even if he did, so what? She had just saved him from execution, had spoken to him in that familiar voice, struggling and broken as it was. So many emotions swirled through him in that moment; all he wanted to do was cry out the confusion and frustration until there was nothing left.
The touch of her hand on the back of his head made him tighten his grip on the Jedi Master. “Caleb,” she called softly, raspily. “We have to go. S-Stay...behind me.”
He didn't argue. He furiously wiped the tears from his face, picked up his lightsaber, and followed Master Billaba. “Master,” he whispered as they slowly made their way through the Temple, sticking to the shadows. “What's going on? What's happening?”
“The clones have taken the Temple,” she said without looking back at him. “The Jedi Order...has been breached. The Sith...have ta-taken...control.”
Talking seemed to be almost too much for her. Even standing looked painful. Caleb tried to stay quiet, but her answers only brought about more questions. How had she woken from her coma? Had she felt the Force shift as he had just before the slaughter had started? How had she made it from her bacta prison all the way to where he had been when he'd been cornered? How many other Jedi, Knight and Master alike, had fallen? Who was behind it all? “You're thinking too loud again, Caleb.” Now she looked back, a pained smile on her lips.
“Sorry,” he said instinctively, ducking his head as if that would hide his thoughts.
“I knew something like this might happen. The Jedi have fallen under the sway of Darkness. They have lost their way from the Light, and left themselves open to attack from within.” Her voice seemed far away, as if she were talking about something that had happened centuries ago or was going on on the other side of the galaxy instead of all around them.
“What do you man 'within'?” He knew he should have been focusing on their surroundings in case they ran into any more troopers, but what she was saying...it was too incredible to be true. “Are you saying a Jedi is responsible for this?”
“No longer a Jedi, Caleb. He has fallen. He is now Sith.”
It killed him to not fully understand what she was saying. “Who?”
Long, wet hair that had once been set in meticulous, precise braids danced down her back as she shook her head. “I don't know.” That was all she would say. He didn't press.
Hours seemed to pass before Master Billaba's steps suddenly quickened. She had led him to a part of the Temple he'd never been to before; this section deep under the ziggurat had been off-limits to younger Jedi. Caleb kept one eye on the way they'd just come, and the other on Master Billaba. She was running her hands over the wall as if expecting to find something. There was nothing around that he could see; the nearest feature was a locked door they'd passed about twenty meters back. What could she possibly be looking fo-
He cut off the thought mid-stream when a faint rectangle took shape in the formerly solid wall. It became more defined as the seconds went by until what was very clearly a doorway stood before him. He didn't have time to marvel at the unexpectedness of its appearance when Master Billaba stiffened. Caleb followed suit when he felt it: the prickling of the back of his neck, the tingle as the hairs on his arms stood up.
Blue and yellow fire erupted from the Jedi's saber hilts as they turned to face the danger. Three clones, the white armor of all painted with red markings designating them as shock troopers, had their weapons raised. How had they gotten so close without either Caleb or Master Billaba noticing? The newly-awakened Master moved as fluidly as Caleb remembered when she stepped between him and the troopers, blocking and redirecting laserfire so effortlessly he wondered if she even had to think about it.
Caleb tried to move forward to help as much as he could, but a firm push with the Force kept him behind her. That only stopped him for a moment, then he lunged forward again. And again he was shoved back by an invisible wave. Only this time he went past the wall, into the now-open doorway that Master Billaba had found. “Go!” she called to him without looking back, sending a streak of red back to the trooper who had fired it. “Run, Caleb. Don't stop for anything. Don't look back.”
“Master!” The door began to slide shut. He raced for it in a panic, but Master Billaba turned her head to look over her shoulder as she put down the last trooper, more coming down the hallway.
“Stay hidden,” he heard her say faintly. “Never come back here. Stay alive, young one.”
The finality in her broken voice kept him rooted to the spot. The realization that he couldn't do anything made his stomach churn and his heart sink to the bottom of his gut. It was like watching a holofilm when he saw the tiredness in her clear gaze as she turned back to the troopers, when she raised her lightsaber one more time, when the first bolts of traitorous red energy struck. He didn't see when she fell, when the last remnants of life began fading from her as the doorway grew smaller and smaller. But he did see her hand hit the floor, saw her lightsaber roll away from suddenly-limp fingers. And he did see the blank, dead eyes of a trooper's helmet look right at him just before the door slid shut and locked into place.
Caleb stood there for a long time, the only sound in the darkened alcove the hum of his now-useless lightsaber and his heavy breath. Had all of that just happened? Maybe this really was just a bad dream. Yes, yes that was it. He would wake up in the dormitory in his own cot, terrified for the just the briefest of seconds before another kid would tell him what the breakfast menu was.
A sharp buzzing sound cut that thought apart as swiftly as a lightsaber going through a tree branch. The troopers were trying to cut through the door. Master Billaba's words resounded in his head in the darkness. Run, Caleb. Don't stop for anything.
He wasn't even aware of running until his throat and chest started to burn. It turned out the alcove was actually the beginning of a tunnel. A very long, winding one. The fact that he didn't know it had existed until today probably meant no one else knew about it, except maybe the Masters and older Knights. A spike of impetuous anger went through him at the thought; how could no one else know about a secret escape route in just such a case as a breach of the Temple? Had the Jedi Order truly become so complacent and sure of its safety that the tunnel had just sat here, abandoned and forgotten? Or did the Council now about it and simply chosen not to inform younglings and Padawans in order to keep them from using it as a hiding place for games and when they were in trouble?
Caleb shook the thoughts away; they weren't helpful, and he knew in his heart they probably weren't true anyway. He stomped that rash anger down and reached out into the Force. It was more painful than he'd anticipated: waves upon waves of agony and disbelief crashed over his psyche before being snuffed out like a candle flame. He refused to think about what those sensations were. Instead, he focused on finding the right path to go...wherever was safer than the Temple. Other paths branched off from the one he ran on, but none of them felt right . They must have been decoys for anyone that managed to get inside.
Hours seemed to pass. Had he truly gone anywhere? Was he just going in circles? Were the troopers just behind him, readying their blasters to cut him down like they had Master Billaba and every other Jedi in the Temple? Or...had Master Billaba fallen back to insanity and used his trust in her to lead him into a trap?
He stopped dead in his tracks. No. No. That was NOT what had happened. He didn't know what horror she had suffered on Haruun Kal, but her eyes had been clear and responsive when she found him. There had been no malice or brokenness in her presence in the Force. The Master he had known before this great betrayal between the clones and the Jedi was still in there. The same Master had saved his life (twice) and sacrificed herself so that he could have a chance to escape, to live. He wouldn't dishonor that act by doubting her intentions.
Don't stop for anything. With renewed vigor, Caleb started running again.
The air began to change, so faintly at first he didn't catch it. It became slightly fresher, less stale. He picked up his pace at the scent. He had to be getting closer to an exit. Now the question was: what awaited him on the other side? Eh, he'd deal with that once he got there.
It was only because of the light from his still-lit lightsaber that he didn't run into the wall that suddenly appeared in front of him. His fingers found the edges of another doorway, but it wouldn't budge. Maybe it, like its counterpart in the Temple, couldn't be opened with mere physical force...
Caleb took a deep, calming breath to refocus his mind for the moment. He stretched out through the Force and found the locking mechanism hidden in the wall. A simple gesture with two fingers and a soft click cut through the still, quiet air. As small and insignificant as it was, Caleb couldn't help but smile at the success; at least one thing went right today.
The darkness of an alleyway sandwiched between low-scale bars and restaurants awaited him on the other side of that doorway. Shadows and muffled noise and the stench of rotting refuse, but not clone troopers. Caution and unease dominated his thoughts, but not fear. There was no time for that. He had orders to follow: Run. Stay hidden. Never come back. He could do that. He would have to if he intended to follow Master Billaba's final order: stay alive, young one. And he certainly intended to do just that.
He walked slowly through the maze of alleys, trying to get his bearings and sticking as close to the shadows as possible; he was still in his Jedi robes, an easy target even in the best of times. A tattered cloth hanging from a garbage bin became a smelly makeshift cloak. His lightsaber remained in his hand under the fabric. Everyone he passed became a potential enemy. Every noise he heard was a clone trooper closing in on him. His senses were so highly tuned it was almost painful. But it was better than being caught off-guard and killed.
Caleb repeated Master Billaba's last words in his head over and over again until they became his new Code, his new mantra. Run. Don't stop for anything. Stay hidden. Never come back. Stay alive. As much as he repeated the words, there was one part he couldn't quite make himself obey. A soft glow from his left caught his attention. Night had fallen and although Coruscant never slept, this glow was unlike the neon and phosphorescent lights that illuminated nightlife hot spots.
He looked back, towards the glow.
The Jedi Temple was burning. A choked sound escaped his mouth at the blasphemous sight. That was his home, the only one he'd ever known. What had once been a sanctuary was now the most dangerous place in the galaxy. And it was on fire. It was that physical representation of the betrayal that made his heart break; he could have handled it if the Temple simple stood as it always had. But not like this. The flames rose higher and higher to the sky, a deliberate grasp for the attention of everyone within sight of the structure. Whomever was behind this heinous slaughter of Jedi wanted everyone nearby to know that the Order had fallen. They wanted a visualization. Powerful, yet simple. Effective .
Caleb blinked hard and looked away. His head wouldn't lift back to the ruination of the Temple. His eyes burned with tears that his teenage stubbornness refused to let fall. In one day, his entire life had been turned upside down and shaken beyond recognition. No longer was he a student of the Force. Now he was a fugitive. He hoped desperately that others had escaped. Perhaps they would find each other, sooner or later. But how would he even go about finding-
No. It was too soon for thoughts like that. He had to get away, from the Temple, from Coruscant, maybe even from the Core itself. He could play the pitiful street urchin; maybe he could coerce his way onto a freighter or a cargo ship and put some distance between him and the ruins of his childhood. That was something. Hardly a plan, but it was better than nothing.
Caleb took a deep breath. The pain in his chest didn't abate, but it did harden along with his eyes. Don't look back. When he turned away, he finally obeyed that order. Now, he had to obey another: stay alive. Aye, he could do that.