Initiate (Aronoke - Book 1)

Trials and Errors

Aronoke ran down the hallways of the Jedi temple, drawing irate glances from Jedi masters and curious comments from the younger initiates he passed. All that running practice had paid off, and Draken had fallen considerably behind by the time Aronoke reached the elevator bank that led up to the Jedi Temple’s higher towers.

“Aronoke! Wait!” came Draken’s breathless voice. It would have been plaintive enough to be a wail, except he was far too out of breath. The younger initiate doubled over wheezing as Aronoke punched the elevator call button impatiently.

“Where – are – we – going?” wheezed Draken as the elevator made a noise to show that it was on its way down to them.

“Ashquash,” said Aronoke grimly. “She’s trapped up there somewhere, on a ledge. I have to help her.”

“I hate to say this, Aronoke,” said Draken, “because this is much more interesting than going to morning lessons, but you have a test, and wouldn’t it be better to tell someone else instead of going up there ourselves?”

Aronoke hesitated. He had thought of calling for help, but then he had remembered how sad Ashquash had sounded when he had spoken with her about him leaving. And then there was the rising impatience Aronoke felt with the Jedi Council, recently fuelled by Master Bel’dor’ruch’s words about their incompetence; he was tired of waiting for other people to rescue his friends, tired of long worrisome inactivity. He wanted to go and find Ashquash himself.

“I think she might be out there because of me,” he said at last.

“Because of you?”

“Because she’s upset about me leaving.”

“Even so, how are you going to get her down from in there?” asked Draken nodding up at the ceiling towards the tower that lay somewhere high above them.

“I don’t know – there must be a window or something,” said Aronoke.

“The windows don’t open,” said Draken, “and I don’t know about you, but I seem to have left my lightsaber in my other set of robes.”

“The windows don’t open?” asked Aronoke incredulously. “Are you sure?”

Draken nodded. “I looked at the schematics back when I had that idea about climbing… oh, never mind that, but I’m certain they don’t.”

“How can we get out there then?”

“Son,” said Draken seriously, “I have spent years of intensive investigation attempting to discover a convenient way out of the Jedi Temple, but as yet, I have found nothing. Apart from the front door.”

Aronoke’s face fell. “The speeder pool?” he said at last. “We could borrow a speeder and fly down from the outside. Or perhaps you’re right – I should tell someone I know where she is… Master Skeirim…” Aronoke had promised Master Skeirim that he would help look after Ashquash. He pulled out his holocommunicator and keyed Master Skeirim’s connection, but was greeted by a holographic recording asking him to leave a message. Aronoke remembered belatedly that Master Skeirim hadn’t returned to the Jedi temple yet, but was still away, investigating Master Altus’s disappearance.

“I said I hadn’t found a convenient way,” said Draken impishly. “I know of plenty of inconvenient ones. There’s this shaft for the droids that do maintenance on the outside of the building that opens somewhere up there. It has an emergency ladder, but it’s a long climb.”

“How do we get to it?” asked Aronoke, putting his holocommunicator away.

The maintenance shaft was long and narrow – it was an impossibly long way down, even at the point they entered it, and after the first unguarded glimpse, Aronoke kept his eyes firmly focussed on the rungs of the ladder above him. The shaft was almost narrow enough for him to touch both sides at once. It seemed an impossible distance to climb, although Draken assured him that it was no great haul up to the hatchway compared to the overall height of the shaft. Aronoke’s shoulders and legs ached from the effort of pulling himself up the rungs.

“Aronoke?” Draken’s voice echoed up from some distance below. “I don’t know that this was such a good idea. I don’t know how much further I can go.”

Aronoke paused. “Use your control, Draken, like they taught us. Use the Force to control the pain and the tiredness.”

“I don’t know,” said Draken, dubiously. “I’ve tried that already and I’m not sure it’s helping. What if we get too tired before we get there? What if we can’t make it any further?”

“Then I call for help on my holocommunicator, and we sit on the ladder until someone comes and gets us down,” said Aronoke reasonably. “It surely can’t be much further, Draken. Stop worrying about what might happen and concentrate. I’m sure you can do it if you try.”

There was silence for a few moments, presumably while Draken tried to calm his thoughts, and then Aronoke could hear the steady progress of Draken’s feet on the rungs below him.

Finally they reached the hatchway, and Aronoke was relieved to see that there was a small balcony where they could rest and not merely a hatch opening onto the outside of the Temple. Draken sat down wearily, while Aronoke examined the inside of the hatch.

“I can’t see how this opens,” he told Draken after a moment. “There aren’t any of the usual controls.”

“That’s because it’s usually only opened by droids,” said Draken knowledgeably. “There should be an emergency control panel. Let me look.”

Aronoke obligingly moved aside, while Draken climbed to his feet and spent a few minutes prodding and poking at the door panel. He brought out a peculiar gadget from his pocket, which made a slight zapping noise, and then suddenly the hatch was sliding open. Aronoke and Draken both hastily grabbed at the balcony railing as cold wind blasted in from outside, pushing them physically backwards.

“This is why the windows don’t open up here,” yelled Draken in Aronoke’s ear.

Outside there was no railing but merely a ledge that led out around the curved edge of the building. It seemed very similar to the ledge that Aronoke had sensed Ashquash clinging to, although it was wider, about as wide as a maintenance hallway, and sloped slightly down towards its outer edge. It would have been easy enough to traverse, were it not for the gale-force winds that were blasting across it.

“Perhaps you’d better wait here,” Aronoke yelled to Draken, and the younger boy nodded. The wind caught in Aronoke’s outer robes in an unpleasant way, so he stripped them off and passed them to Draken. His tunic and trousers flapped wildly, but didn’t balloon in the wind the way the robes did.

“Be careful,” yelled Draken clutching the balcony railing in one hand and Aronoke’s robes in the other. “I don’t want to have to explain to that scary Master Bel’dor’ruch how I let the only other chiss Jedi get blown off the Temple.”

Aronoke nodded and made a brief gesture of farewell, and then he was moving out on to the ledge, the wind rushing by him with unrelenting fury.

Aronoke was grateful now that it had always been windy on Kasthir. His body remembered the way the wind played tricks with his balance and intuitively adjusted itself to the unpredictable gusts. He had never had much to do with heights there, but they didn’t bother him much, certainly not the way water did. At least the wind here was not full of sand. Aronoke’s hair whipped about his face, stinging his eyes, and he remembered anew why he had always kept his hair shorter before he came to the temple.

Slowly, one foot after another, he edged his way along the ledge, grateful that the surface was less slippery than it looked. On one side the bulk of the tower stretched above him, the slope of the wall not vertical, but so steeply angled there was no practical difference. On the other side was a yawning void, echoing down, down, down, to the bulky mass of the main part of the temple. In the distance beyond, lines of traffic streamed inexorably across the sky, far enough away for Aronoke to be indistinguishable to the vehicles’ occupants, masked as he was against the tower. If he fell from here, Aronoke thought, perhaps the wind would snatch him away from the building and he would tumble all the way down to the real surface of Coruscant, a mile or more beneath him. He wondered how long it would take to fall that far. It was unlikely that would happen though; he would have to be blown a vast distance. No, he would probably fall straight down, to impact on top of the temple with enough force to render him unrecognisable. A fully-trained Jedi might survive, but Aronoke doubted he had the necessary skills to slow his fall. His training in alteration techniques had been minimal.

There was no use thinking of that. It was far better to focus on finding poor Ashquash, who had presumably been out here for hours, since the middle of the night. Aronoke could sense she was nearby, around the curve of the tower a short distance away and slightly below him.

A sudden fierce gust snatched at Aronoke, so fiercely that he lost his balance and staggered forward several steps. He plastered himself to the wall for a moment, while the wind blew furiously, seemingly trying to pry him off and fling him out into the void. As soon as the gust abated, he hurriedly continued forward, hoping to get further into the lee of the tower before the next one commenced.

Much to Aronoke’s relief, the wind grew less fierce as he neared the side of the tower where Ashquash was. From here he could see down to another ledge, several body lengths beneath him. It looked narrower than the one Aronoke was on - about half the width - and in the middle he could see a bundle. It was Ashquash, her body pressed against the side of the building, her legs dangling over the edge, like she had fallen over sideways while sitting on a bench.

“Ashquash!” screamed Aronoke, hoping she would hear him over the wind. He called again and again, and on his third try he was relieved to see the bundle stir and come to life. Ashquash’s pale face peered up at him, the tattoos on her face distinctive even at this distance.

“Aronoke!” Ashquash’s voice sounded weak and croaky and was snatched aside by the wind. “I don’t know if I can sit here much longer! I’m so cold. I’m going to fall off.”

“Just wait there, Ashquash!” called Aronoke. “Just sit still. I’ll be there in a moment.”

He travelled along the ledge a little further, so as to be more out of the unpredictable wind gusting around the tower, and then looked down at the ledge beneath him. It was a difficult jump, although not so far below. Aronoke knew he could handle the distance easily enough, but it was treacherously narrow. If he bounced when he landed, or overbalanced, he might easily topple over the edge.

There would be only one try at this. It was something Aronoke knew Master Altus could do easily, but for him it was a different matter. He thought hard again about calling for help. It would be the sensible thing to do.

“Be careful, Aronoke!” came Ashquash’ voice, sounding weak and trembly.

It was Ashquash’s pinched face and desperate tone that decided him. What if she fell while he waited for help to arrive? Aronoke would never forgive himself. He would call for help once he was down there and she was safer from falling.

“I’m coming down,” he called. He closed his eyes and steadied himself for a moment. When he felt as calm as he felt he could manage, he drew upon the Force to find that perfect balanced place inside him, just as Master Squegwash had taught him to do during lightsaber training. He put aside his fear regarding the outcome, concentrating solely on the moment of action. The drop, his body, the ledge. The way his knees would have to bend to take the impact of his landing. The way his arms would spread to help keep his balance. Exactly where his feet would land. It all became connected in Aronoke’s mind, forming a simple series of motions - a small jump to the side, a brief fall angling slightly inwards, and a perfect landing.

It seemed to last forever, that moment in the air, and yet Aronoke felt no terror, only an exhilaration as his body perfectly expressed the pattern in his mind, like a musician feels as he plays a familiar and well-loved piece of music. A few steps along the narrow ledge, and there was Ashquash, looking sick, tired, and even paler than usual.

“Aronoke, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened -”

“Shh, it’s alright,” said Aronoke, sitting carefully down beside her. “Don’t worry about that until later. Are you okay? I’ll call for help in a moment, when I’ve got my breath.”

“What about your test?”

“It’s not that important,” said Aronoke. “Don’t worry about it. It’s more important that you’re safe.” He put one arm around her and pulled her snugly against him, holding her tightly to make sure she wouldn’t slip. She clutched at him almost as desperately as he had grabbed her when he thought he was drowning.

“Shh, sit still,” said Aronoke calmly. “You won’t fall, I’ve got you. You’ll feel warmer soon. Just try to stay calm and relax.”

“I’m so glad you came,” murmured Ashquash, burying her face in his shoulder. He could feel her body trembling with cold and fatigue. The icy chill of her face bit through the fabric of his shirt. Once he was sure she was settled, he went to get the holocommunicator out, and then he suddenly remembered it was in the pocket of his robes which he had left behind with Draken.

Aronoke’s heart sank. How could he have been so stupid? It might be ages before Draken noticed the holocommunicator and decided to call for help. The wind was far too fierce for Draken to hear him, even if Aronoke yelled as loudly as he could. Perhaps if Aronoke climbed around the ledge to the other side of the building – but the wind was too fierce on that side of the tower. Aronoke didn’t know if he could keep his balance on a ledge as narrow as this one.

No, it was best to sit and wait. Draken knew where they were. As time passed, Draken would grow alarmed and fetch help. Aronoke doubted he would wait very long to do so. Perhaps Draken could set off some sort of alarm from the panel near the hatchway and have them rescued that way.

He said nothing of this aloud to Ashquash and was debating how to tell her what had happened, when he suddenly felt her straighten beside him.

“Aronoke! Look! A speeder!”

Sure enough, a bright yellow speeder was flying cautiously around the tower towards them. Draken must have called for help already, Aronoke thought gratefully. The speeder held two occupants – one was a droid, who was flying it, and the other was a tall dark-skinned Jedi.

“Are you injured?” called the Jedi.

“No, we’re unharmed, Master,” Aronoke called back.

“I’ll have you down in a moment – just sit still.”

It was impressive how easily he managed it, Aronoke thought. He did not pause to collect himself or find his balance, but merely stood in the speeder while the droid manoeuvred it close to the building. As it drew close, he leapt with casual grace, akin to Master Altus’s effortless strength and agility, over to the narrow ledge.

“Take Ashquash first,” said Aronoke, edging over to give him space. “She’s very cold, and stiff and tired. I haven’t been here very long.”

“Just close your eyes and stay calm, Initiate,” the Jedi master boomed to Ashquash, his deep voice familiar to Aronoke now he was closer. “It will be over in a moment, and then you will be safe.”

He gathered her easily in his arms, and Aronoke felt an odd pang of jealousy. Jealous of his easy heroism? Jealous of him rescuing Ashquash, when all Aronoke had done was get himself in trouble alongside her? Aronoke didn’t have time to decide. The Jedi leapt across to the speeder, now positioned a short distance away and slightly below them, where he lowered Ashquash carefully into the back seat.

“Your turn now,” the Jedi called to Aronoke. “Do you think you can jump across, Initiate?”

“I think so,” replied Aronoke. The jump was nowhere near as difficult as the one down to the ledge had been. He climbed cautiously to his feet, no easy task on the narrow ledge.

“Take it steady,” warned the Jedi Master. “I’ll catch you if you misjudge.”

Aronoke took his time and jumped across. The speeder bobbed alarmingly as he landed, but the droid pilot steadied it skilfully. He gratefully sank into the front seat and fastened the straps.

Now Aronoke had a chance to look at their rescuer more calmly, he recognised him from his last meeting with the Jedi Council. Master Rosfantar. Aronoke’s heart sank. Being rescued by a member of the Jedi Council limited the chances of this all being quietly set aside.

“You initiates have some explaining to do,” said Master Rosfantar sternly, as if he could hear Aronoke’s thoughts, settling down into the back seat beside Ashquash. His gaze settled primarily on Aronoke, perhaps because he was the biggest, perhaps because they had met before. “Aronoke, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Master.”

“You’re lucky I happened by when I did,” Master Rosfantar scolded him sternly. “Fooling around on the outside of the tower spires goes beyond a prank. You could have both been killed.”

“That’s not what happened,” Ashquash protested weakly. “It’s not Aronoke’s fault. He just came to rescue me.”

“Draken didn’t call for help, Master?” asked Aronoke.

“There’s another one of you?” Master Rosfantar asked, sounding exasperated.

Aronoke gave directions, and T-3QV, Master Rosfantar’s protocol droid, piloted the speeder around the corner to where Draken was waiting, worried, wind-blown and very firmly clutching onto the balcony railing.

It was not long before Draken was also squeezed into the back of the speeder and they were all travelling back to the Jedi Temple.

“What about your test, Aronoke?” asked Ashquash. Her voice was little more than a whisper washing out from the back seat.

“It’s not important,” said Aronoke firmly. “Don’t worry about it. I can do it again some other time.”

“There’s still time,” said Draken. “You can make it if we hurry. That is, if you think he should still go, Master?”

“Test? Yes, you’re sitting for your trials, aren’t you?” said Master Rosfantar, eyeing Aronoke with some interest. He looked thoughtful for a long moment and then seemed to come to a decision. “I see no reason why I should detain you,” he said. “Initiate Ashquash obviously needs to visit the medical bay, but I don’t see why either of you others need be involved, if you can assure me that you won’t do anything as foolish as this again. Taking action is laudable, but best left in the hands of fully qualified Jedi. Next time, ask for help.”

Aronoke felt very uncertain. What was Master Rosfantar suggesting? He felt confused, having expected to have to justify his actions, if not to the Jedi Council, than at least to Master Insa-tolsa and Razzak Mintula.

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke uncertainly. “Shouldn’t we come along and explain things?”

“If you wish to come along and explain things, then of course you may do so,” said Master Rosfantar smoothly, as the speeder angled in to make a landing in the bay atop the Jedi Temple. “However, in that case you will almost certainly miss your scheduled test, and the Council is very intolerant of absenteeism or any lack of punctuality. I am sitting on the Jedi Council, and such an incident will almost certainly result in extra paperwork and quite possibly a meeting to discuss if you were at fault or not. Thus, in the interests of all concerned, I suggest the following scenario. I will escort Initiate Ashquash to the medical bay while you two initiates get back to whatever it is you are supposed to be doing. She can explain how she came to be on the outside of the Jedi Temple, and how I happened to fly by and spotted her clinging to a ledge. It is, after all, completely true.”

His expression was stern, but Aronoke could see an undeniably mischievous gleam in his eye.

“Yes, Master Rosfantar. It’s very decent of you to help us out like this,” said Draken meekly. He took Aronoke’s arm and practically pulled him out of the

speeder as it completed its landing.

“But -” said Aronoke stupidly, looking at Ashquash.

“Go on, Aronoke!” Ashquash hissed. “You can make it if you run!”

Here I am, Aronoke thought, as he drew to a ragged stop in the corridor outside the examination room. He bent, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath and compose his mind. It was not how he had planned to arrive at his examination. Dishevelled, tired, and only just in time. He spent a moment steadying himself before he walked through the door.

“Ah, Initiate Aronoke,” said a human Jedi Master waiting in the room. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it. I am glad to see that you are - barely - on time. I am Examiner Nethlemor, and I will be overseeing your trials. Today you will be undertaking a written examination upon Jedi history and philosophy. Please proceed into the next room where the examination droid is waiting with your test.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke and he passed through the door into the next room. The door slid shut behind him.

The droid was waiting for him as expected. The examination room had a single chair, a desk with a datapad in the middle of it, and nothing more.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the droid. “I am examination supervisor RT-39A. Please be seated. Your task today is to complete the written examination which is contained upon the datapad in front of you. You have four hours.”

Aronoke sat down, and activated the datapad, his mind spinning at the enormity of the task ahead of him. Three years ago he could not read. Now he had to write four essays on topics full of people and places he had never heard of then. On the sorts of things he had overheard Master Altus and Hespenara talking about. All those conversations that meant nothing.

When he saw the four chosen topics, he felt sick. They were none of the questions he had hoped would be chosen; none of the things he felt happily confident of answering well. On initial inspection they were all things he knew nothing about. He couldn’t even remember seeing these topics on the list provided. Was that part of the test?

Be calm. Focus. There was plenty of time to do this in. Aronoke closed his eyes for a long moment, and performed his favourite meditative exercise for a few minutes and then began again, feeling less panicky. He read all four questions through again, carefully and slowly, and picked the one which seemed least impossible to start with.

Consider the Eye of Zakarthrun from the perspective of Master Kendroh’lahn’s thesis on the Morality of Force Persuasion Techniques.

He had read a little about the Eye of Zakarthrun. It was some sort of evil sith mind-control artefact that had caused the Jedi Order an immense amount of trouble half a century ago. Force persuasion was also a kind of mind control – mind tricks like Hespenara had tried to use on him - although he didn’t know what Master Ken-whatsit’s perspective on it was. He guessed that Initiates would probably not be taught much about Master Ken-whatsit’s thesis if it didn’t somehow agree with the modern view on such things. He forced himself to begin writing an essay that followed the theme of “Mind Control: Bad but Sometimes Preferable to Violence”.

He had not got very far when suddenly the ventilation duct in the corner of the room began making a peculiar clanking noise. Aronoke glanced at it and saw nothing amiss other than the annoying sound and brought his attention back on his writing. A few minutes later, he noticed that the room was becoming very cold, enough to make him shiver through his robes.

As if he hadn’t been cold enough already this morning!

Doubtlessly this was part of the test, Aronoke thought. It was not simply a written examination after all. He had been taught how to regulate his body temperature to cope with extreme heat and cold, and now he used the Force to maintain his temperature at a comfortable level while he continued writing.

The second topic was more difficult than the first.

Consider the rise of the intraorder collective known as the Jedi Covenant and discuss the events that culminated in the Padawan Massacre of Taris.

Aronoke did his best to write an essay that attempted to demonstrate his sparse knowledge of the history of that period. He was close to the end of the time he had set aside for it when a maintenance droid came into the room and began tinkering with the ventilation ducting, making loud mechanical noises and operating a welding torch. Aronoke eyed it suspiciously, hoping it was not some strange attempt by his harasser to manipulate him, but the droid seemed quite intent upon performing its maintenance duties.

Now is not the time to worry about it, Aronoke told himself firmly. Even if it is unusual, you should attempt to complete the test. A droid doing maintenance is no threat, only a distraction. He forced himself to concentrate on the datapad and ignore the droid working around him. It was more difficult to ignore the changes in temperature. First the room became even colder, then unbearably hot and stuffy, and then there was a horrible oily smell that made him want to cough.

It’s part of the test, Aronoke told himself, and did his best to use the Force to counteract the unpleasant temperature swings and to help him breathe shallowly.

The third essay went badly.

Rate the importance of the major works of Master Aiiohn Jahr, Master Bashiboru and Master Kligh, and discuss how they affected Jedi doctrine within their respective eras.

He really did not know anything about those Masters or their works at all. He had heard of the writings of Kligh Botu, but was that even the same Master Kligh? Aronoke felt very despondent, but forced himself to write a detailed speculation to show he was concentrating. It was better, surely, to write something than to write nothing at all.

Part of his mind was thinking of how he would write the fourth essay, which he had deemed the hardest and had saved for last.

Relate the most historically significant action taken by Padawan Reloo Sey and discuss its importance and value within Jedi teachings.

Suddenly, while he was still trying to think of things to write for the third essay, a memory popped into Aronoke’s head. It was back when he and Ashquash had been studying together, when Aronoke had first realised how much they both had changed.

“Do you understand what they mean us to learn by this?” Aronoke had asked. “Why does he just walk off into the desert, instead of helping the villagers or killing the Sith? I don’t understand how he can just do nothing.”

“It’s because neither is a good decision,” Ashquash had said. “He chooses consciously to make no decision, rather than to make a bad one.”

They had been talking about Padawan Reloo Sey. It was a trick question in a way – Reloo Sey’s most significant action, as recorded by history, had been to choose to do nothing.

When he started the fourth essay, Aronoke found it much easier to compose than he had dared hope.

By the time he had finished, the temperature in the room had returned to normal and the droid had finished its work and removed itself as if nothing had ever happened.

“Your time is up,” said the examination droid, presenting itself. “You may leave now.”

Aronoke’s mouth was dry, his head was aching from the aftereffects of the dreadful smell, and he felt a little dizzy, but all in all, he decided he had not done badly. He had written four essays and had known something relevant about three of them. It would have been unimaginable to his eleven-year-old self when he had arrived at the Jedi Temple.

In the outer room, Examiner Nethlemor was waiting for him.

“Very good,” Master Nethlemor said. “You will be informed of the results of this first test after you have completed all your examinations. Your next examination will be held in one week’s time. You will be informed formally by message regarding the details. It is expected that you will not discuss these tests with other initiates. You may tell them if you thought you did well or poorly, but nothing regarding the nature of the test itself. There are harsh punishments for doing so.”

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke. He hesitated.

“Is there anything else?” asked Master Nethlemor.

“Just... the maintenance droid, and all the distractions. They were intentional, weren’t they?” asked Aronoke.

“Yes,” said Master Nethlemor. “The test is designed to test your control skill, to see if you can ignore the distractions while writing your essays. The written examination is not the solitary focus of the exercise.”

“Yes, of course,” said Aronoke, reassured. “I thought as much. I wanted to be certain.”

He went back to his room wondered what the next test would be like. If it would be just as tricky.

He was called into Instructor Mintula’s office shortly after his return.

Instructor Mintula looked very tired. “I have some bad news for you Aronoke,” she said. “It’s about Ashquash.”

Aronoke’s mind fled back to the events of that morning, which, dramatic as they were, had been set aside in his determination to focus on the examination.

“I’m afraid she was drugged again,” said Razzak Mintula wearily. “She was walking through the temple last night, unable to sleep, when she was overcome by dizziness and fell unconscious. We suspect she was subjected to some sort of tranquilliser. She awoke in a dangerous place high up on the outside the Jedi Temple, but was fortunately found by Master Rosfantar before she could come to any harm. She is in the medical facility recovering. She was in quite a bad way. I must ask, although I am sure you would have told someone, if you noticed anything last night.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t even wake up,” said Aronoke truthfully. “It’s terrible that something like that could happen to her again.”

“It’s unforgivable that something like this could happen to a student under my care,” said Razzak Mintula. Her composure was slipping, Aronoke noticed. He could tell that this new attack on Ashquash had made her angry, and it was showing despite her efforts to control her temper.

“I’m sorry, Mentor,” said Aronoke. “These things would not happen if I was not here.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Razzak Mintula shortly.

“I know that,” said Aronoke. “But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. That is why I agreed to do my tests early when I would really prefer to stay longer. I don’t want anyone else to suffer because of me.”

“I swore to myself that I would not let it happen again,” Razzak Mintula said. “It makes me feel very ineffective.”

“You might try meditation, Instructor,” said Aronoke. “I find it very helpful.”

“Yes,” said Razzak Mintula a little wryly. “Perhaps I should. Thank you, Aronoke, that is all.”

“You are looking very tired, Instructor,” said Aronoke. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, there really isn’t,” said Razzak Mintula.

Aronoke bowed respectfully and left.

The details regarding the next examination arrived the next day. There was not much information regarding what sort of test it would be. Aronoke suspected that it would be a physical trial rather than a written examination like the last test. It stood to reason that if there were only three trials in total, at least one of them would evaluate physical training. Perhaps, he thought, there would also be a test specifically of his Force abilities, or maybe that would be incorporated into the other tests like it had in the first.

He made himself take things easy that week, taking up a relaxed schedule of running, lightsaber practice and meditation. He continued with his reading, although not so intensely. He tried not to worry about Ashquash.

But the attack on her had made him angry and it was difficult to forget. There was only one good way he knew to deal with his anger and that was to release it. He knew better than to use it to power an attack against his enemies - that was the Dark side and how Vark had tried to corrupt him. He must instead let it dissipate and step back into a place of calmness, from which he could strike with balance and foresight when his enemies presented themselves.

It was most frustrating that there was nothing he could do now. His enemies were mysterious and ephemeral, remaining as stubbornly hidden as ever. Their intentions were incomprehensible. Had the attack on Ashquash been intended to ruin Aronoke’s chances to pass his trials? Or was there some other hidden purpose?

They had done these things to hurt him through Ashquash. He would do something demonstrating his control over his anger and fear, something to strengthen himself. Something that Ashquash had wanted him to do.

He would go swimming.

He asked permission first. “May I go down to the pool this afternoon to practice swimming, Instructor Mintula?” Aronoke asked. He was gratified to notice the expression of surprise that crossed her face, although she recovered quickly. “I will be careful not to interfere with the other classes.”

“Uh… yes, I expect that will be fine, Aronoke. I will just send a request to the pool staff to let them know that you are coming. But perhaps it is better that you do not go alone.”

“Can I take Draken with me, Instructor? I’m sure he would like that.”

“Yes, that seems like a good idea,” said Razzak Mintula.

“Swimming? Really? Just us?” Draken was very cheerful and surprised when Aronoke told him. “Let me get my things!” he said, rushing away tumultuously.

Together they rode the elevator down to the pool and traversed the long hallway where Aronoke had encountered the exploding droid, and Ashquash had run away.

“You’re really going swimming?” asked Draken as they walked. He looked sideways at Aronoke with some wariness as they walked down to the pool. “No one’s forcing you to? Or is it something that you’re going to have to do on your test?”

“I don’t know what will be on the test,” said Aronoke. “It’s just something I want to do. I can’t go on being scared of it forever. I won’t let myself.”

Draken looked a little awed. He knew how much Aronoke had always hated water. How he didn’t like dressing in a swimsuit either.

Aronoke had anticipated a struggle when it came to the moment, expected his courage to fail, but his control was gratifyingly firm. It was like the day when he had visited the water purification plant. Swimming was not the point. It was incidental. This exercise had another point. Distraction was a powerful tool.

He could feel the fear was still there, but he accepted it and that robbed it of its power. He did not like the feeling of the cold water kissing his skin, but he thought of Ashquash spending all those hours cold and alone on the side of the tower.

It was easier than it had ever been before. Aronoke focused on maintaining his inner balance. He made the physical act of swimming a form of meditation in motion, like his running often was. Like his lightsaber fighting had become. A way of using his mind and body in unison, while the Force served to direct both.

He swam across the pool and back, several times. He wasn’t a good swimmer – his movements were awkward and splashy – but grace would only come with practice.

“Wow,” said Draken, when he finally climbed out. “Congratulations. You really did it.”

“Yes,” said Aronoke, smiling. “I don’t expect I will ever be as good as you are, but at least I have learned a little.”

A recorded message came from Ashquash that evening, a stilted, awkward message.

“I wanted you to know I’m alright,” Ashquash said, although she looked terrible, Aronoke thought. “I wanted you to know that I hope you do well in your tests. You should try your hardest, Aronoke, and not let anything interfere.”

Aronoke felt proud of her. Maybe she was really going to make it after all.

“Master Skeirim is returning to the Jedi Temple and they’re keeping me in rooms near his chambers for the time being, until your trials are over,” said recorded-Ashquash.

Until he was safely off-planet and the persecutions might stop, Aronoke thought.

“I hope we meet again before you leave, but that might not be possible,” said Ashquash. “I’m sure you’ll pass. Sure you’ll get snapped up by a Master too.”

“I’m sure we’ll meet again,” muttered Aronoke to himself aloud, feeling sad that Ashquash wasn’t coming back to Clan Herf, and that they mightn’t study together ever again.

He sent a return message, trying to sound upbeat and encouraging. He told her that he thought his first test had gone passably well, and that he had gone swimming today. He knew she would understand what that meant and why he was telling her.

The time of the second test came all too quickly, and Aronoke was careful to present himself to the examination room in a timely fashion this time. He was greeted by Master Nethlemor as before, and this time when he walked in, he was presented with an array of practice sabres.

“You may choose a weapon,” said the examination droid, presenting a number of blades for his inspection. Aronoke took his time, weighting several of the weapons in his hands before choosing one as close to his own practice blade as possible.

“Please proceed through this door,” said the droid, and Aronoke walked through. On the other side was a medical chamber. He was surprised to recognise the same medical droid who handled all his medical treatment.

“Hello, D2,” said Aronoke. “What are you doing here?”

“Greetings Initiate Aronoke. It is a pleasure to serve you as always,” said the droid. “This examination requires that you wear special lenses in your eyes and I am here to administer them. If you would please sit here?”

Aronoke submitted to the lenses being placed under his eyelids. They were momentarily uncomfortable and blurred his vision slightly, but he soon adjusted to the feel of them.

“You may proceed through this door to undertake your examination,” said the droid. “Good luck.”

Aronoke walked through the next door. He found himself standing in a corridor as the door slid shut behind him. A distance ahead stood what looked to be a four armed Trandoshan wielding a vibroblade in each hand. It seemed to be waiting for him.

Well, here goes, thought Aronoke, stepping forward without thinking.

His foot passed straight through the floor.

He found himself falling through the air. His body automatically moved to minimise his impact, but the drop was not sheer. Large padded blocks swung across the well, and Aronoke had to twist to avoid being smacked by them. He managed to avoid the worst of it, but was slapped firmly across the side of his head by one. He landed at the bottom a little disoriented and dizzy, but mostly unharmed.

That was stupid, he thought as he picked himself up. You knew they put lenses in your eyes for a reason! So you can’t trust your eyes! He took a deep, steadying breath and slowly released his grip on his sense abilities. His Force senses would not lie to him.

“Some Jedi you’ll make, running blind,” he snorted at himself derisively. He was so accustomed to shielding himself, it had not immediately occurred to him to actually make use of his hyperacute senses.

He firmly set the matter aside. If falling meant he had failed already, that was too bad. Time to concentrate on getting out of here and finishing the test.

The corridor at the bottom was relatively short, punctuated with several traps that were glaringly easy to spot with his Force senses, although invisible to his doctored eyes. It led to a small chamber from which there was no exit save for a shaft stretching upwards. Aronoke could see that it was a climbing test, a complicated tangle of handholds and angled surfaces. There were other traps up there too - fake handholds, sliding panels and other tricks to upset the unwary.

With some effort he began making his way up the wall, concentrating on making it from one position to another, avoiding the traps easily enough now he knew what to expect. He was careful to look ahead to plan his route. Didn’t want to manoeuvre himself into an untenable position.

He was halfway up, in the middle of swinging from one handhold to another, when suddenly everything winked into darkness.

Cunning, he thought, steadying himself for a moment, but he trusted his Force senses to see him past this new difficulty. He pushed them out a little further to more clearly sense the next section as he reached for the next hold…

…They snapped out. Out, out, out. Far further than he had ever reached before. The enormity of the distance his mind stretched made him feel microbially small, because it was so mind-bogglingly huge. He had never been able to reach through the shielding of the Jedi Temple before, but now it was simply not there. He was simultaneously aware of four different scenes, instantly and intimately familiar, with dazzling clarity. Knew with absolute certainty that they were real things.

In one place bone-sucking worms coiled and writhed, buried deep below the ground on Kasthir. Aronoke knew it was Kasthir, even without the bone-sucking worms, from the heat and the familiar smell of fumes. The floor was loose red sand. A statue stood there, a simple monolith that seethed with barely restrained Dark Force energy.

In another place Hespenara stood in carbonite, frozen in place, her face captured in a moment of intense concentration. It was a garden filled with red trumpet-shaped flowers, and around her alien sentients played frivolous idle games. The aliens were small, furry and quick moving, and they paid Hespenara no attention while they cavorted.

In a third place, it was dark and smelt of fear, but the familiar shape of Master Altus was there, in both body and mind, reciting platitudes to hold back pain. Above lay a great immensity of water in which an unfamiliar sentient species swam. Nearby there were machines, great robotic platforms that floated in the water. Aronoke could sense a woman wearing a uniform, a cruel expression twisting her pretty face.

In the last place, there was a narakite who looked a lot like Ashquash, although Aronoke knew that it was not her. It was an artificial place, a ship or a station deep in the reaches of space. The person was wearing manacles and she was being pushed out an airlock.

The lights came on again.

He hit the ground very hard and screamed involuntarily as he felt his collar bone snap along with something else in his chest. He lay still for a long moment, stunned. So much time seemed to have passed, yet he had experienced all that in the tiny sliver it had taken to fall down the shaft and hit the ground.

Great, it had to happen in the middle of a test. He had failed for certain. All he wanted to do was to lie there and wait until someone came to pick him up, but he knew that would be giving up. He refused to give up without a struggle.

Pain is nothing, Aronoke told himself. Is this as bad as what Careful Kras did? As bad as all those things that happened on Kasthir? No. Pain was something he was well acquainted with, an enemy so old it almost felt like a friend. It couldn’t beat him.

He began to slowly get up. Agony sliced through his chest.

I don’t need to do this the hard way, he thought dully. I’m a Jedi. Jedi can deal with things like this. Like Master Altus in that vision. He sat still, willing himself to be calm, and gathered the Force to control his pain to a bearable level. It was a lot better, but he still didn’t know if he could climb with a broken collar bone.

There was a click and a sliding noise near the floor, and something tumbled out from a panel in the wall. A medpac. Aronoke had seen those before and knew how they worked, although he had never had to use one on himself. It was relatively simple – there were even instructions. The pain receded further as the drugs kicked in.

He could climb now, he thought. He hoped that wouldn’t cause further damage.

In some ways, it was easier the second time. He knew how to move from handhold to handhold and was expecting the darkness to wink in, although it didn’t happen at precisely the same time. He had his Force senses ready for it now. Nevertheless he was very glad to reach the top and swing up over the edge. He wanted nothing but to lie there and recover, but he had not forgotten the Trandoshan waiting there. He tried to get up quickly, but his injuries made him slow, and a practice blade slammed into his arm while he stumbled to his feet, hard enough to bruise thoroughly.

He did his best to parry and block the incoming blows with his own saber. To make his own attacks using nothing but his Force senses to guide him. He didn’t know that he did Master Squegwash’s training any justice at all. The wrongness of the grinding bones in his chest made his movements clumsy, even if he could ignore the pain.

Then the bout seemed to be over. The world blinked back into light, and he could see the Trandoshan making a formal bow to him, which he returned.

A door opened at the other end of the corridor.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Nethlemor. “You gave us quite a scare there. You are going to require some medical attention. Please come through and see the medical droid immediately.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke automatically, his mind racing. He had to tell them about the visions but now the trial was over and he had stopped concentrating so fiercely on finishing, his injuries were distracting in a way that had nothing to do with pain. He could tell he was seriously hurt, even though he mostly felt numb. Blood leaked internally from the damaged tissues surrounding his broken bones. The rush of cells hurrying to attempt to alleviate the damage was deafening. Without really noticing, Aronoke allowed himself to be ushered into the medical bay and helped to lie down.

D-2 removed the lenses from his eyes and began scanning him. Aronoke was happy to lie there, hyperaware of his body and replaying the visions he had seen in his mind. He remembered them with absolute precision, unlike if he had seen them with his eyes.

“You are going to require treatment in a kolto tank,” said the droid. “Your collar bone is broken, and you have one broken rib and several fractures. Some of the surrounding tissues have also suffered damage. If these injuries are treated promptly, they will be repaired very quickly, but any delay will cause an exponential extension in the healing time required.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke, “but I need to talk to Master Insa-tolsa first, before I go into the tank. It’s important.”

“Any further delay is inadvisable,” objected D-2, but Aronoke was adamant. “Can you speak to Master Insa-tolsa by holocommunicator? That would be faster.”

“No,” said Aronoke. “It has to be in person.” He had to tell Master Insa-tolsa what he had seen before he went in tank. It might be important. Might help Master Altus and Hespenara.

His request was relayed to Master Nethlemor.

“Master Nethlemor has agreed that you should be allowed to speak with Master Insa-tolsa before I continue your medical treatment,” said the droid reluctantly. “On the condition that you allow yourself to be prepared for the tank in the interim.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” said Aronoke wearily. Submitting himself to the indignity of being helped to undress was unpleasant, but he could not bring himself to care. Having various injections applied to him was a strange distraction, because Aronoke could sense exactly what the drugs were doing inside his body. It seemed hardly any time at all before Master Insa-tolsa appeared. At one time Aronoke would have felt terribly threatened by having the ithorian master see him in his underwear, but now that was secondary amongst his concerns.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “I’m sorry you have been hurt. You should really be in a kolto tank already, so I will be brief. You wished to tell me something?”

“I had some strange visions during the test, Master,” said Aronoke.

“It is common for students to have strange visions during this examination,” said Master Insa-tolsa, but Aronoke shook his head. “Maybe, Master, but this is important. I was trying to extend my senses during the test and perhaps I pushed a little hard. They suddenly snapped out and I saw these things without meaning to. That’s why I fell off the wall.” He went on to describe the four scenes, in as much detail as he could, while Master Insa-tolsa listened attentively.

“I will be sure to record and consider these visions,” said Master Insa-tolsa reassuringly, “and to report them to those seeking Hespenara and Master Altus, but now you must go into the kolto tank, Aronoke. We can speak again when you come out.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, suddenly feeling profoundly tired. He let himself relax back against the bench as the droid pressed another injector against his arm.

He didn’t remember Master Insa-tolsa leaving the room or anything else. He must have passed out. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in the green strangeness of the kolto tank, feeling confused about where he was. He felt mildly fretful about being submerged, but was too lethargic and momentarily weak to do anything about it. Then he was raised out of the tank, helped to clean himself off and get dressed.

He felt fine. A little weak and tired still, but nothing to cause him concern. His chest ached mildly, but he had been told this would pass. That he should take things easy for a few days.

“You are free to go, Initiate Aronoke,” said the medical droid, after running a final scan. “Please return if you suffer any further symptoms from your injuries.”

“Thank you, D-2,” said Aronoke, glad to be returning to his clan.

“Aronoke's back!” yelled Giscardia, as he came in. It was late afternoon, he realised belatedly, and the whole clan was enjoying its free time.

“Aronoke!” said Draken. “How was your test? We heard you were hurt. What happened?” He hesitated a moment. “Oh, I suppose you can’t really tell us, because the tests are all secret.”

“I had an accident,” said Aronoke. “Broke a couple of bones, but it’s all better now. They put me in a kolto tank and I’m fine.”

“What about the test? Did you still pass?”

“I don’t know yet,” said Aronoke. “Mostly it went well.”

“Well, I hope you passed,” said Draken. “Not like I’m looking forward to getting rid of you or anything.”

“One more to go,” mused Aronoke. “I can’t say I’ll be sorry to have it out of the way.”

Draken nodded gloomily. He seemed to have little doubt that Aronoke would pass and be spirited away as a Padawan. His faith was heartening and made Aronoke feel guilty that Draken was doomed to be left behind.

He told himself again that Draken would doubtlessly be a better Jedi for getting to spend so many peaceful years in the Jedi temple, even if it wasn’t what Draken himself wanted.


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