Part Four A New Day
Two days later, Tahiri finally left the forest behind her striding down a grassy slope into the morning light, rubbing a cramp out of her buttocks after a night spent sleeping rough in the rough cradle of a roka tree's branches.
But was hard not to smile with the sun in her eyes, her cheeks rosy with the glow of the dawn. Fragile flowers and long blades of dewy grass bent beneath her feet with every step, and she could see startled thumpers bound away into the undergrowth, rainbow-winged insects dancing from bloom to bloom, songbirds larking in the sky.
Heaven was a blue vault above the folded green slopes of the valley, the scent of spring was on the air, and in the Force, the whole world seemed to sparkle with young life. Below her, in the cleft of the valley, a small silver stream wound southwards towards the coastal plains and the distant shimmer of the sea.
Even the soreness she felt every time she kneaded the palms of her hands across the curves of her glutes felt good after five years spent living with the Yuuzhan Vong, she had learnt to savour that sort of pain.
And in the back of her mind, Anakin.
He smiled at her trying unsuccessfully to hide his worry. He figured that they had probably been detected the moment they stepped back into the tamed landscape where Sekot's vast guiding consciousness presided 'garden country', she called it. What he didn't know yet was what sort of proxies Sekot would send against them, what rules the living world was playing by.
He wanted to know that. He wanted to be ready for them.
So, in the absence of a better turn of phrase, he was keeping his eyes peeled.
He knew he wasn't the most natural of field scouts, and the Sekotan countryside was more Tahiri's territory than his own, but Aunt Mara had tried her best to teach him the basic skills, and with Tahiri focusing on the immediate practicalities of her hike across the slopes, he could observe unobtrusively.
"You give the orders, then," Tahiri whispered, their thoughts dancing around each other. "It's good to have you back."
You keep saying that, he answered, with a star of happiness that served as silent shorthand for the grin that she remembered.
You keep giving me new reasons to know it, she grinned in reply.
He flashed his delight back at her, and they fell into one of the contented silences that seemed to suit them so well now. Anakin did his best to keep alert to danger, but it was hard not to slip into symbiosis with her thoughts and movements as she continued on her way over steepening slopes and rocky shoulders, scrambling and clambering up ravines, and increasingly cliffs.
Once, he saw a hawk circling around the sun, high overhead. And, half-way up a red rock-face a hundred-foot bulk of sedimentary cinnamon, thrust up from underground during one of the planet's hyperspace transits, which she'd decided to scale for the sheer fun of it he was distracted from his wordless admiration of her athletic strength by the sight of tufts of grey grass in a gritty crevasse, the tiny, blood-coloured ants crawling out from the dark across the craggy surface. He felt a strange tickling sensation as a few of them found their way onto Tahiri's tanned skin.
But if it was Sekot watching them, he felt no danger in the Force.
Then, they were onto the jagged edge of the ridge, and they could see the valley falling away below them towards the dusty grassland of the plains. And there, nestled in the cool hollow where the river sparkled out of the hills, the settlement of Middle Distance.
Wow, Anakin breathed, grinning in delight. Nice view.
Yeah, Tahiri agreed, stealing the smile and swinging her legs over the ridgeline. Welcome to civilization, Sekot style.
Shame I don't have time to get to know the place, he thought and then starred with surprise as he realised that he did already know the place, that her memories came to mind as easily as his own.
Perhaps more easily.
How much do I remember? he wondered, as Tahiri stood up and started down the scree path.
Middle Distance established by the first colonists led to Zonama Sekot by the Jedi exile Leor Hal a century earlier, it had quickly grown to become the largest settlement on the planet. Twice since then, it had been reduced to rubble by the seismic upheavals as the living planet spun up its massive hyperdrive and raced across the galaxy first just before the Clone Wars, scarred by the weapons of a Yuuzhan Vong advance party and scared by the aggression of the Old Republic, and then, five years earlier, when it had come to Coruscant to assist in the Alliance in bringing the war with the Yuuzhan Vong to an end.
But both times, the town had been rebuilt, as near enough to its original site as the transformation of the terrain allowed, and although Tahiri had never seen Middle Distance in either of its previous incarnations, she had watched the place grow again after the living planet's return to the Sanctuary system, developing from a compact cluster of houses adjacent to a rudimentary spaceport, until the settlement curled in a loose curve around three sides of the enlarged complex of launch pads, landing strips and docking-bays.
As she hiked down the hill towards the town, she could see the latest changes the town had spread away from the spaceport, new sprawls of roads and houses spilling out onto the edge of the plain and climbing the steep slopes behind what the inhabitants were already beginning to call the Old Quarter. Most noticeably, the damutek beside the silver river, which had been on the edge of town when she last visited, more than a year earlier, had trebled in size, its massive bulk now looming over the narrow streets and low slung houses that surrounded it on all sides.
When Tahiri had come to Middle Distance in the past, it had been to meet with the Alliance personnel, the scientific missions and the Shapers but most of the town's inhabitants were still self-sufficient Sekotan colonists, and the basic appearance of the town remained the same as it always had the same as it had since the first colonists arrived, it seemed. Duracrete runways, prefab houses made of local laminates, a few more robust and important-looking buildings of stone and seasoned timber in the Old Quarter and down by the docking-bays.
At the spaceport, there looked to be perhaps half a dozen ships most of them off-world designs with two more on approach vectors, glinting in the morning sky above the plains. Moving at the slow speed that Sekot insisted on for atmospheric traffic, they seemed to hang in the upper air like silver stars, while the cargo airships crawling in from the other settlements drifted steadily past.
Tahiri heard a call, and glanced up to see someone waving at her from the gondola of the nearest airship. At that distance, she couldn't make out who it was it could have been anyone, just being friendly but she grinned with delight, and waved cheerfully back.
It all seemed reassuringly familiar.
But by now, Sekot surely knew where they were and Anakin was sure that trouble was on its way.
How long? he asked, hearing her stomach rumble hungrily.
"In time for a late breakfast," she grinned. "I don't know about you, but I could eat a bantha."
Five minutes later, Tahiri slipped back into the alley, silent and light on her feet, wolfing hungrily at the pastry they had filched from the tray outside the baker's door, leaving a loose handful of low-denomination credits from her pocket by way of change.
What's that for? she giggled, feeling a susurration of pleasure from Anakin as he wiped the last crumbs from her lips with the back of her wrist.
In reply, he smiled silently, and nodded towards the tinted clearsteel windows of the shop on the corner opposite the local Green & Gold outlet, not yet open this early. Just an empty shop, the interior dark behind the subtly-smoked glass.
He had caught sight of her reflection, she realised the first time he had seen her properly since he woke up in her mind not simply her face in the mirror, or her reflection in the rippled surface of a stream, but her whole body, head to toe.
You like what you see? Tahiri answered, pausing to look at herself, preening slightly in the morning warmth, and feeling a grin curl across her face a smile that it took her a moment to realise wasn't her own.
We have to stop this, he sighed.
It's okay, she answered, smiling herself now, scratching the back of her head absently. I like it.
It's all right for you, he answered, still grinning for her, looking her reflection up and down. You're ... even more beautiful than I remember, and able to torture your dead, disembodied ex-boyfriend ...
Not dead any more, she reminded him. And stop calling yourself my ex-boyfriend, Anakin. We're stuck with each other now, in case you hadn't noticed. You'll just have to adjust. I'm sure you and Kaeer could accommodate yourselves around me quite comfortably. And anyway, dummy for your information, that's your body you're looking at as well, temporarily, at least.
I think you just proved my point, he said, sighing.
"Come on," she said, turning away from her reflection, laughing back. "We might be safer in Middle Distance than we would out in the garden country, but it's not as though we can hide from Sekot here like in the woodland ..."
She had made it half-way down the alley when she heard the hunters drop from the rooftops behind her.
"Jeedai!" a harsh voice growled, and she turned, reluctant to have to face them. Eight warriors, all tall and strong, even for Yuuzhan Vong all with the rich, steely darkness in their complexion that came from healthy outdoor living.
All favouring them with predators' hungry smiles.
She felt Anakin's thoughts go quiet, cool and hard as he weighed up the cadre sexy and scary, warrior-calm.
Make a break for it, he suggested, his voice quick in her mind.
You think? she asked, grinning. I can take them ...
Trust me, he whispered.
They turned and ran, sprinting barefoot along the alley, splashing through the puddles, dodging spills of trash and breaking stride as they saw a second cadre appear in front of them, blocking their escape.
"Don't stop!" Anakin yelled.
The warriors growled, reaching for their weapons.
But Anakin's lightsaber was already in her hands.
"So much for Sekot playing nice!" Tahiri yelped, batting aside two stun-bugs, then vaulting ten feet into the air as the warriors opened fire with their stingers.
She landed feet apart in front of them, 'saber slashing down slashing the second salvo of burn-bolts away to the side, slicing the muzzles from their weapons, severing the hands from their wrists.
She darted through the line, shouldering a warrior twice her size and three times her weight out of the way with a physical, Force-strengthened shove.
And she ran.
Anakin watched, awed. Tahiri had always been tough and capable, but the girl she had grown into was a true warrior, with a fluid command of the Jedi Arts and her own strong body bright in the Force, with a deadly edge.
Like a living lightsaber.
Grinning together, they skidded round the corner and straight into trouble.
Anakin saw the elbow slam out of nowhere, felt the crunch as the impact snapped his jaw back, and flailed as he skidded back on the dew-bright cobbles, the lightsaber sweeping wildly in his hands.
Tahiri! he yelped.
It's okay, she said, springing back to her feet, and lunging. I enjoy this.
He lunged forward with her, but he couldn't see any enemies in the short sidestreet ahead of them only cobbles, plump trash-sacs, and the back walls of small-town shops, blurred by movement.
He felt the invisible blade come towards him just a heat-haze of motion and a whistle of air and weaved out of the way of while the 'saber twisted in Tahiri's hands, and the tip of the blade disappeared into nothingness. He saw the air ripple around the snarling shaft, he could feel the tug and suck of tissue against the blade and then he went wide-eyed in surprise as the head of the blade thrust out into view again.
A Yuuzhan Vong roar split the air, and the silver-skinned cloaker tore from the hunter's body like a scalded cat.
Voylith cloakers, he thought her memories, again. The ripple of the bodysheath sliding over skin, cilla hooking into pores, flowing over the short blades in her hands as well, leaving only the microfilament cutting edges naked to the world.
But there was no time to worry about that now.
Grunting, Tahiri tugged the blade back out of the hunter's belly, kicking him back to the ground with a boot-heel and pulling her own 'saber from her pocket igniting the thrumming purple brand and stabbing the point of the weapon into the sizzling mass of the cloaker. She ducked back a step, and switched both blades to catch a flurry of sting-shots from the rest of the cloaked warriors closing in behind the downed cadre-leader.
She glanced quickly at the body on the ground by her feet, her blades switched across her body in an echo of a warrior's salute.
One down, three to go.
How about the way we came?
She glanced sideways down the alley. Fourteen warriors. Two down behind them.
She caught a thud-bug on the tip of her blade, flicked it overhead, and heard the snarl of the blast, the howls of the four warriors who had been waiting to pounce in the rigging of the stairwell.
That's one way, I guess ...
Tahiri turned, sweeping back his blade in her right hand, slashing forward with her own in her left and then there was only the combat, and the Force. Anakin could barely follow the flurry of stabs, parries, slashes, kicks and punches, amazed as Tahiri fought off a dozen enemies at once.
He felt the sudden twist in her wrist tendons, the blade of her Yuuzhan Vong 'saber caught in the tough belly plate of a cadre-leader's cuirass. His armoured hand snapped closed like a trap around her slim forearm, and she turned to face him in surprise, bringing Anakin's 'saber round in her free hand.
As she turned, Anakin saw the warrior's scar-slashed face. There didn't seem to be any malice there, just skill, determination, and a humanity in his deep-set eyes.
She turned straight into the spiked knuckles of his right fist.
Tahiri staggered back, whip-jerking her wrist free from the warrior's grip, but dropping her own blade as she did. She yowled no, that was him. She seemed dazed, rocked into a pattern of stumbling backsteps.
The warrior's tsaisi snapped straight in his hand, and sang towards them.
Without thinking, Anakin leapt springing, landing, and slashing low, scything the legs from under the warrior.
Ugly, he thought, staring at the boot-high legs standing in front of him. Something toppled overhead, a slow-moving, broad-bellied shadow across the sunlit sky, like a Star Hauler coasting into land. Instinctively, Anakin ducked his blond-mopped head and brought up his shoulders in a shrug-push, catching the falling Vong on his back, shrug-rolling his corpse away.
Oh, Tahiri nodded, still fuzzy in his mind.
She'd sensed danger on his left, he realised, numb himself but he was already turning, dragging her dazed thoughts with him, skewing the blade to catch two final stinger-shots, sending the bolts back to hit the hunters in the neck and belly messy, but survivable.
Honourable kills, he thought, wondering at the ambiguity of the word he'd chosen. Kills.
He glanced at the toppled cadre commander. No, he wasn't quite dead, but his legs were stumps, his eyes closed.
His gaze jinked left. The last of the Yuuzhan Vong were pulling back up from where she'd knocked them down, turning towards them but Tahiri was already rolling away, gasping for breath as she pushed back up into a crouch.
She took two deep breaths, raising his blade in a one-handed guard, staring at them over the bright edge, while Anakin fumbled for her lightsaber with her left hand, trying to work out how to activate it. After the fluid ballet of the close-quarters combat, their thoughts had been jarred apart though not by much, he figured.
"Don't make me angry," she growled though it struck both of them as bravado.
For a moment, the three surviving hunters stood in a loose line across the exit of the alley, bouncing uncertainly from foot to foot as they stared at her then turned and fled.
"What was all that about?" she muttered, clambering back to her feet, and scooping up her own lightsaber where it lay in the gutter, steam rising from the puddles where it had flash-boiled the water before it cut out. Anakin smiled at the momentary warmth of the water on her knuckles, but she just shook her head, and ignited the weapon.
For a moment, she stood with one lightsaber held low and loose in either hand, the shimmer of their twinned blades reflected off the puddles.
Trouble, Anakin warned, as a long shadow slid down the lane. Together, they turned to face the figure rising, 'sabers ready.
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