I was glad I had brought my desert work clothes with, loose fitting trousers with pockets everywhere, lace up boots so broken in they were more a part of me feet than my socks were and a light long sleeved fitted shirt. I had a small satchel slung over my shoulder and had tied my hair back in a tight braid which had them been knotted up so that the hair would not pull or catch on anything. Thrawn had wordlessly looked me up and down and nodded then handed me a long dark, hooded cloak with sleeves, made from a material that despite its looks was surprisingly light weight.
“You will need this.” Was all he had said.
He had woken exactly four hours after he had gone to sleep and over breakfast he had told me what he thought might happen, all the scenarios and none of them sounded appealing to me. Then we had gone over hand gestures. Bone Trader’s hunting gestures to talk to one another without words. There were not too many and I was a quick study.
The data pad that Ormante had given him contained the co ordinates to a small landing site, one of the few that were close, relatively speaking to where Thrawn hoped the creatures he was looking for could be found. It was more like a tiny hole carved out of the massive rain forest than a actual landing pad. I took a deep breath as I piloted us in and with some pretty interesting manoeuvering managed to get us down in piece.
It was early. Dawn had only just broken and the air still held that crispness that comes with night. The light was filtered and hazy as the sun began its slow climb to reach above the high canopy of the forest. Down on ground level the air was still, moist and for the moment cool. I breathed in deeply trying to sort out the various scents that hung all around us.
Thrawn consulted a small tool I had never seen before and after a moment’s consideration he motioned with his head to follow him. I glanced backwards at the ship and with a deep seated feeling of dread I trudged after him. While I had not voiced it, I had a very bad feeling about all of this in the pit of my stomach. It amazed me how swiftly and how silently he could move. In difference to yesterday, he was not wearing the long almost elegant ceremonial robes that swept about the floor and seemed to shroud him in even more mystery. Now he wore long boots that went over some sort of leg wrap that covered the leggings or trousers he was wearing. Over the fitted shirt he wore a tunic, made from the same elegant fabric as those he had worn yesterday but shorter, more practical, split at the sides to just below the waist, cinched with a leather belt that also held a wicked looking blade of some sort hidden in a wrapped sheath and goodness knew what else. Over this he wore a satchel and a water canteen criss-crossed over his chest. I had no idea what was tucked inside of the satchel and didn’t ask. Over all of this he wore a similar hooded cloak with sleeves and the bone mask. Like mine, his hands were gloved and he held the culling staff in his left hand.
We looked a right pair, I thought. Just before we had disembarked he had come at me with a black, greasy, smudge stick and had painted my face with it. In the mirror I could see that the painted on mask resembled a skull somewhat but the additional markings gave it an eerie otherworldliness. With the hood up it would be difficult to actually see my face and, he had said, the darkness beneath my eyes would help from the sun glare should we come across clear patches in the forest. I had nodded sometimes desert travelers will do the same thing. I still thought it looked damned creepy though.
We walked for almost an hour before he raised his hand and we stopped. He stood cocking his head from one side to the other, like an animal on alert, listening. I ,too, listened with all my senses. I calmed my breathing down and concentrated on the living energy that surrounded us. I could reach out and feel that secondary world around us. There was something there, lurking at the edge of my abilities. It made me shiver involuntarily. He consulted the small tool again and then with two swift hand motions I knew we were being followed. He changed the direction of our trek through the forest and the path, that had up until now been fairly easy, was filled with shrubs and obstacles. I suddenly realized what he had seen all along, that path had been cut especially for us and cleverly designed to look old and not well used. Now Thrawn, as The Honourable Za’ar, had moved off track and we made our way through the dense underbrush. It amazed me how silent he could be and I felt like a thundering Krayt Dragon in his wake, loud and clumsy.
Several times he paused and consulted the small directional tool, changing our pathway each time. After what seemed an eternity to me he finally stopped. With quick gestures I knew that what ever it was had been tracking us was near by. I tried to reach out with my weirding ways but I encountered nothing. It was as if somewhere up ahead there was barrier to my senses. Za’ar looked at me, asking me with his eyes what I could sense. I shook my head. After a moment he made a stay put get down gesture and I crouched down as low as I could in the under brush and watched as he vanished into the greenness as silently as if he had never been there. From where I hid I could see nothing, all around was thick, lush vegetation. The sun had now rises high enough in the sky that its light slowly began to filter through the high canopy in long dancing fingers of light. The temperature was also rising and along with it the humidity. Sweat beaded on my body and dribbled down my back. Crouching became a strain so silently I shifted into the meditation pose I had been taught by Master Kjestyll. I do not know how long I sat like that for but I do know that the world about me became sharper, clearer. I had a much better sense of the boundaries of where the force stopped. There were pockets of nothingness all around me but I was not in one of them. I sensed rather than heard when Za’ar returned. With silent hand signals he told me what I needed to know and we began to move again, at last coming a clearing that had not been made naturally. In the center of the clearing was a small ornate table and upon it a holo transmitter. I glanced at Za’ar and was about to ask what the heck that was but he shook his head and laid a finger on my lips. He took a small ball like object from his satchel and programmed it to do something then he tossed it in the air. A seeker of some sort, it hovered for a moment and then it began to flit and fly hither and to. There was no direct direction in its flight. Silently from our hiding place we watched as the seeker moved closer to the table and the holo transmitter. The erratic pathway hid the seeker’s origin and just as well because just as it got within touching distance of the table something shot it out of the sky.
The crack of the gun echoed all around us and the sudden noise coupled with the angry screeching of what ever bird and wild life was near us was suddenly silenced. I held my breath afraid that what ever had shot down the tiny seeker could hear us and shoot at us as well.
Nothing happened except the holo transmitter suddenly came to life. It was Ormante.
“Greetings most Honoured Za’ar.” The holo said. “By now you will have guessed that the hunt is on, except that it is you and your witch that will be our prey. Yes, we knew of her weirding ways just not the extent of them. But, no matter she will not save you here. The weirding ways of the Force do not always work in one’s favour here on Myrkr. I also know you tried to sabotage my headquarters but we found that as well. You are not as clever as you think, it seems.” Ormante was gloating. I looked over at Za’ar but he did not move and I could read no reaction from him.
“But enough banter, from one hunter to another, it is time to see just who the better of us is. I look forward to hanging that elegant mask of yours next to my other trophies, as for your witch, she will learn in time to respect me and my men and service us in every manner befitting such a creature.”
I shuddered and Za’ar laid a steady hand on my arm.
“So without further ado, the hunt begins now. I have given you a lead start of course and feel it only fair to tell you that not only do we out man you three to one that there are also traps laid out before and behind you should you try to return to your ship.”
He was boasting and I knew that foolishly he had not lied about the number of men out there after us.
“May the better man win.” He concluded and with the holo transmitter switched itself off. Za’ar signalled the move now and we left the area as swiftly as we could. The blast from the exploding transmitter would have knocked us flat had we stayed where we were.
This was a mess and I had no idea how we would get out of it. I had never been on any sort of a hunt before, and I had certainly never been hunted. I was scared. Za’ar must have sensed this and gestured for me to come close to him. He laid his masked face against the side of my head and whispered in Old Mandalore.
“Be a spirit, swift and silent, like the wind. Trust your instincts, trust mine.” He stroked my face with gloved fingers and calmed my rising panic. “Breathe.” He whispered and I did. When I had found some semblance of calm he let go of my arm and with a quick glance at the direction tool he signalled and we were off. We moved as ghosts.
It was, surprisingly enough, not Za’ar who found the first trap but me. I almost fell into it. At the very last second the skin on the back of my neck prickled and I twisted, cat like, purely out of instinct as the ground beneath my feet began to give way. Za’ar grabbed my flailing arm and with a strength that took me by surprise yanked me back from the edge. I stood, shaking, and looked into the deep pit that had been lined with razor sharp vibro-blades. Za’ar took out the data pad he had brought with him and the directional tool and made some notes and adjustments. I reigned in my fear and breathed deeply to try and find that tenuous thread of the force that was the eyes in the back my head, that sixth sense with which I lived with my whole life. It was there but it was broken and discontinuous. I had never felt a pattern like this in my life before, as though there were dead zones all around us. Despite the oppressive damp heat, I shivered. We were being watched, I could sense that but I also had the distinct impression that the eyes which followed us about were not human.
I stood still as Za’ar, cocking his head from one side to the other listened for the sounds of the forest. There were none. Everything, including the air was silent as if holding its collected breath waiting for the next knife to slice. The hand gesture meant follow, so I did. Slowly, almost painfully we made our way through the thick underbrush until suddenly Za’ar stopped and gestured to crouch. I strained with all my sense to learn what it was that had spooked him, but I could feel nothing. He took another seeker from his satchel, smaller than the last, programmed it and set it free. It traveled in a very low zigzag path and then there was a small popping sound and a tree branch which had been tied back and taut suddenly swung with all the power of a missile in the direction of the path we would have been on. The branch had been stripped of bark and twigs but laced with hundreds of deadly looking metal spikes. I was certain they had been coated with something poisonous. My own suspicions were confirmed when Za’ar took a leaf from the ground, wiped some of the needles and then wiped the blade of the culling staff with the same leaf. The blade glistened now. He stopped to pick up the small seeker he had let loose, shut it off and slipped it back into his satchel.
Za’ar pointed with two fingers and when I looked at what he was showing me I saw what he had seen, small broken branches, almost too tiny to perceive and a single heel mark in the ground. I shuddered. Ormante was sick in the head and I was betting he was somewhere watching all of this somehow. That very thought made me look up into the high canopy of trees. How could he be tracking us? Was there a heat seeker droid somewhere above us? It had to be a top of the line one to break through all the moisture and the humidity of the forest. Za’ar touched my arm and with two fingers gestured for me to watch his eyes. I nodded and he looked slowly upwards to his left. I did not move but let my eyes follow the line of direction and there, lurking just out of view was a small, well camouflaged tracking droid but of a design I had never seen and it was silent. I wondered what Za’ar was going to do about it and as if he had read my mind he simply shook his head, brought his face close to my ears and whispered. “Wait.”
I nodded but I didn’t like it. This was taking forever and there were still at least six men out there just waiting to shoot us in the back or worse.
We continued onwards. We had been traveling, if my watching the sun’s direction had been correct in slow circles. I wondered why were not just going in a straight line but kept quiet. It was arduous and exhausting. Stops were few and far between and we drank our water conservatively. The sensation of being watched had not lessened with the discovery of the droid but had increased. It was making me even more edgy than I already was. Za’ar had picked up the pace and we traveled close together, almost touching on another. The third trap was clever and would have maybe gotten at least one of us had it not been for my weirding ways. I had felt it rather than seen it. A terrible sensation of danger surged through me for no reason and without thinking I pulled Za’ar’s arm sharply down ward and we both flattened to the ground as the large scythe like blade swept in a graceful arc above us slamming and sticking into the tree across the way. Had we been standing it would have decapitated me and sliced him nearly in half. I just lay there on the ground for a moment. There had been no trigger, I had felt no pull of some sort of line to activate the traps so what were we setting off? From my place in the damp, loamy ground I looked around me and then I spotted it, a state of the art, infrared switch breaker. We would never have seen it even if we had been looking for such a thing. Ormante, for all his traps and talk about being the better hunter, was using the top of the line technology to track and trap. This was not about hunting this was about winning at any cost. He had no soul and no honour. I tugged on Za’ar’s sleeve and pointed to the breaker. I felt something in Za’ar shift, an anger perhaps that had not been present before but now managed to surface. I guessed that Ormante was now pissing him off as well.
Za’ar pulled me close to him and spoke in my ear. I nodded that I understood. Za’ar got up slowly and went to the scythe blade. He looked at it carefully and then using the blade as a mirror he located the seeker droid that had been following us. Before I even had a chance to see what he was doing he had pulled something else out of his satchel and it was in the air, flying at the droid before I could even tell what it was. A few seconds later the droid simply fell out of the air it had been hovering in. Za’ar found it in the underbrush and removed what ever it was he had thrown at it from the droid’s surface and slipped it back into his satchel. He then did something with the droid and before I could think to guess what the droid was back up in the air hovering, seemingly fully functional.
Silently he went back to the scythe blade and with an ease that frightened me he reattached it to its original position. He motioned for me to come to him and I watched as he reset the trigger breaker. The droid hovered in the air behind us but in difference to before, this time it did not follow us. It was not long after that we both stopped to listen as the scythe knife sliced through the air again and this time the scream that went with it made bile rise in my throat. Za’ar made a ‘one’ gesture with his forefinger. And I shuddered. I did not need to ask how he had known He had told me that there were at least four men tracking us from behind and at least two somewhere in front of where we wanted to be. I had so wanted to ask why, if he had known this was going to happen in this way, were we here? But I was certain now was neither the time nor the place for that discussion and if we made it out in one piece I was going to have to hurt him.
Now we moved at a swifter pace, the sun high in the sky the heat and the humidity oppressive and hateful. I was angry at being dragged along into this mess. I knew why he wanted me here but it did not justify the risks. The anger I was feeling flooded through me, allowing me to touch that place Lord Vader had goaded me into reaching. It was not a good place to be. I needed to be clear headed not riled up in fury, acting without thinking. I steadied my breathing as much as I could and tried not to let my bitterness and sudden hatred of Ormante and his men best me. I could not think straight with the anger that clouded my mind. It was one thing to use that energy in a physical fight but it had a whole other feel to it when I was trying to concentrate and use my weirding ways as a guide. I could still not shake that dreadful sensation of being watched. We moved onwards until Za’ar suddenly stopped and gestured for me to hide under the brush. He motioned for me to stay flat and hidden and then as ghost like as it was possible to be he simply vanished into the forest. I heard the sound of the culling staff and the sick, wet thud of the body hitting the earth. I had not seen what had happened nor felt the closeness of the man tracking behind us and I was grateful I did not have to witness what ever nasty end he had come to. When Za’ar came back he motioned with his fingers ‘two’.
I felt rather than heard the next attack and before Za’ar had even time to react I had moved. The reflexes taught and beaten into my body and a brain that now worked on automatic and before the man dressed in clever camouflage had time to reconsider his next move I was on him. One of Ormante’s hunters blind without the tracker droid had made a rash move and decided to try and jump us. I had felt his presence as a ripple and wondered for a brief moment if this man was not at least in some was force sensitive. I could sense him but I had not felt the others. It was confusing to me. I was in his face before he had time to react to me and had caught him with a sharp cat’s paw blow to the chin. While he stumbled I crouched down and swept my leg around sending him down to the ground. He recovered faster than I thought he would and was up and facing me as I considered my next move.
“Witch.” He hissed.
I gave his taunt a slight shrug and we circled about like Jaxes fighting for territory. I just watched his eyes and knew a split second before he made his move that he would do it. He took the kick to the leg better than I had hoped and came at me with a lunge that sent me on my ass. I grinned as I got up. Fighting him seemed somehow sadly easy when compared to the last round I had gone with Lord Vader. His moves were predictable for the most part. His training had been rudimentary in the style of fight I had engaged him in. I figured him more for the blaster type. I was somehow glad to be finally doing something other than just skulk around this dreadful forest in fear. Not for the first time did I silently thank the Emperor for sending me to Master Kjestyll and for Lord Vader’s impromptu training sessions. That did not mean Ormante’s man did not get in a few good blows of his own but I had experienced worse. The fight would have gone on a while longer had Ormante’s man not pulled out a blaster and pointed it at my chest with a malicious grin. I stood stone still, wild eyes feigning fear and drew a deep breath. I kept my eyes on his all the while seeing behind him what he could not and at the very last minute ducked as Za’ar swung with the culling staff and neatly ended the man’s life.
‘Four’ said the fingers he held up and now we were looking ahead no behind any more.
The way became somehow easier and I did not think that was coincidence. There had been no more traps and we moved with a steady swift pace. The forest was silent and strange. I knew that the lack of natural sounds, animals, birds was a bad sign but I had no idea why. It felt to me as though the entire forest was holding its breath awaiting the outcome of this hunt. The day was slowly starting its decline and the sun that had been high in the sky was beginning its way back down and slowly being shrouded in the clouds that had begun to gather above us. The air felt heavy and oppressive. It did not surprise me to hear the rumble of thunder far off in the distance. We continued our way in silence. It was the very worst part of the trek so far. The terrible sensation of being watched itched between my shoulder blades and I could not scratch it. Try as I might to reach out with my weirding ways I could not touch the source and that only made me more nervous. That peculiar pattern of dead zones was becoming more and more prominent, as if someone had punched great black holes in where the force should have been. More than once Za’ar stopped to listen and consult his tiny directional tool, we would alter our course slightly and continue on in silence. The Dantassi may well have been among the best hunters and trackers in the galaxy but they were not very comforting or forthcoming with information. I had the distinct impression I was missing some vital piece of the puzzle and it annoyed me to no end.
I suppose I should have seen it coming and perhaps in my own subconscious way I did but at the time it was a mass blur of motion and fear. We reached a small clearing, natural not man made and there, at the edge of this space, Za’ar stopped. He had handed me the culling staff to hold while he removed the blade that was sheathed at his waist. It was as deadly looking as it was beautiful. Carved from some sort of bone, etched with more of the symbolic patterns that marked the mask and my face it truly was a work of art, but the gently curved blade was honed to an edge so sharp it was almost invisible. I wondered what sort of bone, what sort of creature was strong enough to create a weapon such as this from.
Za’ar made several short movements with his hand and I knew that what ever was going to happen to us would happen soon. The forest was too still, too quiet. The darkening sky was ominous and the first flashes of lightening only served to make the whole scene even more dramatic. Ormante had known that late afternoon it would cloud over and the rains would come. We had been drawn to this spot for a reason but for the life of me I could not figure out what it was. I stretched out with my senses. What ever had been stalking us, watching us was close by. It had an alien feel to it. I knew it was not human and I knew it was not friendly. With a quick hand gesture, we were on the move again moving around the perimeter of the clearing.
I did not understand until it was too late what was happening. We had moved forward from the edge into the clearing and suddenly I was blind, completely and utterly head blind. The sensation unbalanced me and I stumbled. Za’ar reached out to grab my arm and at that moment Ormante attacked. Instinctively I flung myself back from Za’ar’s reach and rolled on the ground to come up onto a battle crouch, the culling staff still in my hands. I had not sensed the shot but heard it. I looked over to where Za’ar had been and my heart caught in my throat. He was lying on the ground still and silent. I watched in horror as Ormante and the man I recognized as the bar tender came out from their hiding places. They gave me a cursory glance and headed straight to where Za’ar lay, face down on the ground. Ormante nudged Za’ar’s body with his boot and grunted. Then the two of them looked at me.
“Boss, can I have her?” the bartender asked with a grin that made me shudder. He hefted the vibro -blade combat staff from hand to hand.
Ormante shrugged. “Try not to break her, Reg.” and he folded his arms to watch.
I took a deep breath. This was not going to be easy or fun. Unlike the last of Ormante’s men that I had tackled this one, Reg, moved with a grace that told me he knew exactly what he was doing and more to the point what I would probably do. I moved slowly backwards until we were in the center of the small clear space, more room to move more chances for me to see what might be lurking beyond. While I was head blind and could not use the force at all, I had very good peripheral vision.
We circled each other. He was good. He did not once take his eyes off mine. I let him move first I needed to gauge his strength. When he came at me it was not straight forward and without the force to help me I was on the defensive right away. Still, I saw in his eyes a measure of surprise that his attack had not sent me flying and that blow for blow I had matched him. I had never held a culling staff before and I was surprised at its elegance and perfect balance. The vibro staff was heavier more clumsy and I could tell by the way Reg handled it, that it was also a little bit top heavy. He swung at me hard and I dodged backwards, letting the force of the carry through unbalance him, swept the culling staff around and down to knock him off his feet but he jumped it at the last minute and we were back to circling around one another and staring into each other’s eyes. All the training I had done, all the rounds I had gone with Jyrki, Master Kjestyll and Lord Vader had not prepared me for combat where my life was truly on the line and I was scared. This man who faced me was out for blood and if the weapon did not kill me what they would do to me afterwards would.
I drew a deep breath and steadied my nerves. If I could survive Lord Vader’s bad temper I could survive this. I pulled everything I had learned into my center and shifted my weight. I feigned a movement to the left and then swung hard to the right, going from a high, riding bantha stance down into a deep dance lunge. I was pretty sure they didn’t teach this in any academy and it took Reg by surprise. The blow caught him mid thigh and he went down. I watched his face and saw him blanch with pain and then bite it back. Tough guy. This dead zone had started when I had stepped into the clearing with Za’ar and so slowly I began to shift my weight and edge back out towards the peripheral. It was as though someone had turned a light on and suddenly the world became bright and full. I reached out with all that I could, touched that hidden world all the while defending myself against the onslaught of attacks that came from Reg. We parried and ducked, attacked and retreated. It was dance full of fury and hate made all the more difficult by the fact that we were not longer clear from brush and bush. I used everything I had ever been taught including my connection with the force and fought him back as hard as I could. Twice he had managed to cut me with the vibro-blade on the staff he wielded and I was bleeding but I gave as well as I got and he too was marked and his clothes stained red. It was darker now and the lightening close. The chaos of thunder and the rising wind over shadowed our own voices and the sounds of the combat we were engaged in. I could no longer hear Ormante shouting words of encouragement or goad his Man into more action.
I had no warning, perhaps, because I was already stretching my abilities to the maximum while trying to stay one step ahead of Ormante’s man. While in the middle of a swing that might very well have been my undoing something shot out of the underbrush and savagely attacked him. Something large and vicious looking, with a whip like tail that it used in just such a manner, snarled behind Reg and clamped onto the arm that held the vibro-blade staff. The crunch of bones was sickening and I was, for a moment, stunned watching the sheer power and agility of the animal. Reg screamed as the grey beast that looked something between a sand panther and a katarn, among other things, tore him to shreds. It was over in a matter of moments and then the thing turned its eyes to me. My blood ran suddenly cold. It knew. Somehow it was aware of me and my weirding power. Slowly it turned away from the corpse of Ormante’s man and snarled. The deep throated sound made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle and I knew without question this was what I had been sensing all along, this creature was what had been stalking us, hunting us, not only Ormante’s men. I began to back away slowly. I did not take my eyes off it and knew there was, without a doubt, no way I could avoid the battle that was coming. Already tired from the long day and the fight with Reg I also knew that I would probably die here. Fighting a man who was not even force sensitive was one thing, facing off against this creature that had tracked us efficiently and easily through my force abilities was another. What ever this thing was, it hated. I knew I had reached the clearing because once again there was a moment of complete disorientation as I descended once more into head blindness. The creature stalked me but it too stopped for a moment when it entered the clearing and I knew what ever it was that affected me and my force abilities also affected it and suddenly the puzzle fell together. I did not have time to contemplate the revelation as the animal hurled itself at me. This time I did not think about next moves and what my foe would be doing, I simply fought. Its tail caught me on the arms but the long sleeved coat that Za’ar had given me protected me from what ever poison was in it. Judging by how quickly welts and a red rash had sprung up on Reg’s body where ever he had been slashed by the tail, I was certain that was this animal’s main defence. The animal leaped at me again and managed to rake me with its fore claws. While it was leaping a second time, I went low on one knee and swung high with the culling staff, catching its under belly with a full sweep. The creature screamed mid air and fell to the ground writing in pain. It lay on the ground panting and snarling, blood pouring from the wound in its gut. I felt such a terrible sadness well up in my heart and I knew I could not leave it this way. With a deep ragged breath I raised the culling staff high and brought it down upon the creature’s neck. The blade was sharp and true and the blow killed it instantly. I stood and stared at the carnage. I leaned heavily against the staff and caught my breath, too tired to jump when I heard the sounds of someone applauding. I turned around slowly to see Ormante standing behind me holding a blaster in one hand. I could not compete against a blaster and I was too tired, too sad to care any more. He had killed the Honoured Za’ar and now he would kill me. I just stared at him.