“Well done, witch, well done.” Ormante said. “Those creatures are damned hard to kill, lucky he was traveling alone. They usually travel in pairs or packs.” He spoke in a calm voice of a man who knew he had won, all the while walking towards me slowly with his blaster trained on my heart. As if it could not get any worse, the sky suddenly opened up and the rain poured down upon us. I raised my face to it and hoped that if he was going to shoot me he would get it over with fast.
In the center of this dead zone I neither felt nor heard the second creature but in the blink of an eye it was on me. From behind me it had leaped and pounced on my back. The blow sent me sprawling onto the ground. The culling staff flew out of my hands. I struggled against the weight of the creature and rolled over unbalancing it enough that I could at least get to my knees. It had righted itself and turned to face me so swiftly I had time to shield part of my face before the tail whipped around and caught me on the left side of my jaw. The pain was agonizing and I could feel a certain numbness begin to creep its way along my face. Welts rose up on my skin. I shook my head to try and fight off the dizziness and unsteadily got to my feet. The wound on my leg was still bleeding and I was beyond tired. All the while Ormante watched from his place of relative safety with a lazy smile and a certain disinterest. He had lowered the blaster and folded his arms together as though watching me die at the hands of what ever creature this was, was far more entertaining than anything else he could have imagined.
Suddenly, I was furious and in some sort of stupid move I flew at Ormante at the same time the creature flew at me. In a strange threesome we moved and tumbled as one. The animal trapped between two humans was snarling and wild. There was a dreadful struggle until the noise and the fight were broken by the sound of pistol fire. The animal arched and then fell heavily on top of me. I struggled to get it off me and tried to get up. As I managed to get to my knees Ormante grabbed me and wrapped his arm around my throat dragging me to a standing position. I fought against the grip he had on me but he was, despite his fat appearance, stronger than I was. I felt the muzzle of the blaster against the temple of my head but I didn’t understand what it was at first. I was so disorientated. I looked at the dead animal that lay at our feet and then looked at the direction the shot had come from. My eyes locked on Za’ar’s and suddenly filled with tears.
“Do not move or I will kill her.” Ormante said shoving the blaster’s muzzle even tighter against my temple.
The Honoured Za’ar did not move and the pistol he had trained on Ormante did not waver. “Stay as still as you can.” He said to me in old Mandalorian. There was no time to blink. The pistol fired, the blast shot past by my head and Ormante fell backwards. He had not known what had hit him. I sank to my knees in the now sodden ground. Za’ar made certain that Ormante was dead and then knelt at my side. All I could do was stare at him. I had been so certain that he had been killed that even now with his hands on my arms and his voice asking me if I was alright I could not be sure this was real. I could not sense anything from anywhere I was head blind and in pain. Everything seemed to move in slow motion.
“How did…?” I began when I finally found my voice but he placed a gloved finger to my lips, always his way of silencing my questions.
I watched him inspect the various wounds that bled and hurt, paying special attention to the welts on my face where that creature had swiped me with its tail and the long, deep gash in my thigh. He did what he could with bandages he had pulled out of his satchel. The rain that had poured down on us had now become a heavy drizzle that was some how soothing.
I stared as he went to where the first creature lay on the ground, the one I had fought and killed. He sliced off part of its tail, wrapped it in some sort of cloth and tucked it away in his satchel. Then he opened up the creature’s chest and cut out its heart. I watched with a cold detachment that scared me. He came back and knelt before me. He held the creature’s heart in one hand and with the other he drove his forefinger deep in to the core of the heart and began to paint my face with the blood. I instinctively pulled back from him but he hissed and shook his head giving me a second to calm down. Three strokes upon my forehead and one straight line from the dent above my lips to the hollow at my throat. He laid the heart before me on the ground and in a language I did not understand he began to speak. The words he spoke were full of ceremony and meaning. He took from around his neck one of the strange amulets he had been wearing, one had been carved from some porous bone and was shaped like a human skull. As he placed the amulet around my neck he whispered, “A te’ka Akiana’myshk’apavjäska.”
I did not understand the words but that they were somehow important was not lost on me. I licked at the rain that dripped on my lips without thinking and in doing so tasted the blood he had laid there. He smiled when he saw that and then stood up. He offered me his hand and pulled me to my feet. The wound on my thigh was now throbbing. I watched as he pulled back his hood and removed the bone mask, shedding the persona of Za’ar and becoming Thrawn once again. It astounded me how he could so easily make this transition.
“We have what we came for.” He said speaking basic. “We should head back to the ship. It is not far from here.” He picked up the culling staff from where it lay and cleaned the blade.
“What do you mean ‘we have what we came for’?”
He pointed to the creature that lay near by. “They hunt through the force, do they not?”
I nodded. “It was me they were stalking and I think Ormante knew that, I think he used it but how did you know?”
“I saw it as it went for you.” He said. “I was watching you all along.”
I glared at him, “You watched that whole fight and did nothing?”
He gave me a slight and cold smile. “You seemed to be doing just fine on your own.”
“I thought you were dead.” I said my voice quavering slightly. Emotions I did not understand catching in my throat.
“I am not so easy to kill, but I needed everyone to think that was so, even you, especially you.” He said. He went over to a spot near the edge of the clearing and there I saw the boots of another man. Za’ar picked up his bone knife and wiped it clean of the blood which coloured the pale white blade crimson.
“Six men plus Ormante, this one would have shot you had I not taken care of him.” He said.
“I saw you on the ground. I heard the shot.”
He smiled. “And thought exactly what I wished everyone to think. A dead man is no threat and Ormante’s arrogance allowed him to believe he could actually best me. His man’s shot went wide, typical for this type of terrain. A standard mistake for men who hunt using only the best technology has to offer and do not rely on their instincts and training.” Thrawn paused. “Ormante believed what he read on your face. That left me free and clear to deal with their sniper. You were not in any real danger.”
I nodded but the anger I felt did not die so easily. “Well,” I said after a moment. “You are wrong about what we came here for.”
He gave me a look that said ‘explain now.’
I looked upwards to the trees we were almost standing under. “There are two creatures at work here.” I said. “Those things,” and I pointed to the dead animals on the ground. “And these ones.” And I pointed to the slender furry creatures that clung to the branches of the trees above. He looked to where I pointed but I could tell he didn’t understand and how could he have. He did not sense the force and so he had no concept of what I had felt.
“What ever those things that attacked me are, they use the force to hunt with. They are as aware of it as I am, as anyone who is sensitive to it is. They are aware and they hate.” I told him my observations. “These things in the trees have the opposite effect. What ever they are they have the ability to shove back the force, being near them is like being in a dead zone. Here, right now I am as head blind as you are. I sense nothing. That is why I could not sense the men behind us, they were traveling under the shelter of these strange dead zones, although I don’t believe they knew that either. All along I knew someone or something was watching us, I just didn’t know what it was. My guess is you are looking at this planet’s version of us today. Myrkr’s very own hunter and hunted.”
Thrawn stared at me for a moment. “Well, Miss Gabriel.” He said quietly. “You are full of surprises and you certainly do have your uses.”
“Can we go now?” I asked after a long silence.
He nodded and led the way back to the ship. The direct route he took brought us there much faster than I could have hoped for. We ran into no more traps and I refrained from using any of my force powers for fear of stirring up more unwanted attention. It was a painful and difficult enough walk back with the wounds I had been dealt, I didn't feel like collecting any more.
Without changing clothes, I got the ship into the air but before I could set an orbital course Thrawn told me to fly over Hyllyard. As we did so, I watched as the cantina where Ormante had lived and kept all his precious trophies suddenly exploded. I looked at Thrawn.
“I thought he said he had found your sabotage.”
Thrawn smiled. “He found what he was supposed to find.”
I shook my head and set a course away from the planet, running the autopilot on.
“You are really very scary sometimes, you know that?” I said as I got out of the pilot’s seat.
He gave me a very feral smile.
“Do I have permission to get changed and wash this gunk off my face?” I asked him.
He nodded. “But you should be aware, Miss Gabriel, that gunk, as you so eloquently put it, has a meaning that will stay with you for as long as you live.”
I paused to look at him. “What did you say to me down there, when you were painting me with blood?”
“That was the first time you have ever hunted much less kill a living creature in such a manner.” He stated. It was not a question it was a simple fact. It was true but how he had known this was beyond me all together. “You fought with great courage. I watched how you took the life of the animal you wounded to spare it further pain. That marks you far above people such as Ormante.” He spat the name out with such utter contempt that it made me shudder. He got out of the co pilot chair and moved to stand in front of me. His fingertips traced the remnants of the bloody markings he had made earlier on my face and he spoke in the voice I would forever associate as that of Za’ar’s.
“I honour you this day with the blood of a fierce heart, for you have fought valliantly and well. You have proved your worth to kin and clan and you are no longer a child. I name you Akiana’myshk’apavjäska.” He said softly and then he kissed me gently on the lips. I stared up into those strange red eyes I could so rarely read and tears welled up in mine. I could no more stop my tears from tumbling down my cheeks than I could stop a herd of stampeding banthas. He stroked them away with his thumbs.
“What does it mean?” I asked when I could find my voice.
He gave me one of those secretive smiles and shook his head. “Not for you to know yet, Akiana'myshk'a.” He said. He caressed my face with gentle fingers and stopped before he touched where the tail from the force hunter had slashed me. He regarded it carefully and then stepped away from me, the tenderness vanishing as suddenly as it had come.
“Go wash. I will tend to your wounds when you are done.” He said coolly and I wondered what had brought about the sudden change of mood. I stared at him for a moment, reminded that he was not human, that he was more different than anyone I had ever met. An alien from very distant planet with ways I could never hope to understand. I sighed and with a shrug left to find comfort in the ‘fresher.