SW: TOR: DARK DESCENT
Part Seven of an Old Republic Tale by MsFicwriter
(Author's Note: I have taken machievelli's suggestion and removed the reference to stealth generators in my last installment. I didn't know that they weren't part of the official Star Wars canon--only in the KOTOR games. Thanks for giving me the heads-up, and I've given my Warden Elindra a special solution to the problem of how not to antagonize the kognath.)
CRYSTAL CAVERN, FIVE DAYS AFTER THE DUEL, 1000 HOURS
"Check." I saluted Master Karos, then inhaled and exhaled through it slowly.
Master Karos' copper-colored utility droid answered. Her name was I3-Q9, if you could deem machines to be female.
The stolid Jedi Guardian snuck a quick peek at her chrono. "Where's Yun?"
My face reddened. "He had to take another call on his comlink, Master."
Her thin, dark eyebrow twitched. Even though I'd never been her Padawan, I could tell she didn't suffer fools. I could also tell that when she appointed a time for a meeting (or spelunking expedition), she expected everyone to be punctual. What were these interruptions that kept plaguing my own Master?
We three--Master Karos, the droid and I--waited in silence for the next few minutes. I let the chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects nearby soothe my fraying nerves. I didn't speak of Tamara, because if I did, Master Karos would know that I wasn't minding my own business. Also, Qyzen Fess had warned me not to mention her. It was strange: We Jedi believed in honesty and transparency, and yet there were some truths even we kept hidden. Still, how was this beneficial for either Tamara or me? I hadn't spoken to my reticent opponent since our duel five days ago. Where was she?
"Tamara has been demoted, awaiting trial. For now, she is not my Padawan."
Master Karos' words were soft and subtle--so much so that I had a delayed reaction to them. Shivers crawled not only up and down my spine, but throughout my entire body. I noticed that my armpits were already sticky.
"You're scared, aren't you?"
"Yes," I said. I didn't even want to pretend that I hadn't heard the question. "I never wanted this."
"Neither did I." Master Karos let out a slow sigh. "She was a good student."
Tamara sounded dead, and not merely demoted, in that context...
Suddenly, Master Yun sprinted up toward us, with the full power of the Force propelling his body forward. "Sorry I'm late," he stammered quickly, not even seeming out of breath. "I know you wanted this excursion to start promptly at 1000 hours," he conceded, pronouncing the numeral as ten hundred,
"but there's trouble. A Galactic Senator, one I know well, has requested my presence at complex and detailed negotiations with the Sith Empire." He took my hand, gazing at me apologetically. "I'm sorry, Padawan, but I must leave tonight. After we're done here, I must prepare to go to Coruscant. I don't know how long the negotiations are going to take." He looked pained.
"I understand." Something felt terribly wrong, but I couldn't quite place it. "Is this why you've been getting all these comlink calls?" Master Yun nodded. "I--apologize, for I thought they were about something less urgent. I'm also sorry that this had to happen. We're in a cold war, and I know that the state of the Republic comes first, but--!" I shook my head. "I don't know what to say."
"Me, neither." He squared his shoulders then, shaking off this fateful news. "Let's get going. Perhaps after we've found whatever we're meant to find within this cave, I'll have a clearer perspective on this whole situation."
He means that the exercise and exploration will do him good,
I thought, and yet there's something more. Or maybe not. I'm overanalyzing again!
Feeling a bit disgusted with myself, I donned my safety gear. As I was doing so, the Temple naturalist Warden Elindra came with steel spray canisters for each of us. They contained a cool, astringent liquid of a pale green color.
"This is kognath scent," she explained. "I've been trying to authenticate it for some time now. Only today have I ascertained the right concentrations of chemicals. These insects are almost sentient, and so it's almost impossible to duplicate the pheromones that make them recognize one another. Not to worry! I was able to synthesize this from the scent glands of the drones that--the Trandoshan had killed before," she added uncomfortably. "It was still hard." With a smile, she added, "Just spray this under and between your various appendages." Pause.
"Embarrassing, but absolutely necessary."
As we snickered, we followed Warden Elindra's directions. Our armpits, the undersides of our knees, the napes of our necks, and our--nether regions--received the spray. As for I3-Q9? The nooks and crannies of her durasteel frame were soon scented. Thus prepared, we ventured into the cave.
Carefully, and wearing our breath masks for good measure, we searched among the crystals for those which were definitely contaminated, and those which only might be. How far had the "infection" spread? None of us knew, or could even hazard a guess. Thus, we let I3-Q9 collect them gingerly. From the outside in, we worked our way into twisting tunnels which were so dark that we had to turn on the lights of our surveyors' headbands. We heard several kognath scurrying about, but none of them bothered or attacked us. "Good work, Warden Elindra," I whispered. She flashed me a sign of victory!
Master Yun's command was soft but firm. "Drop-off ahead."
"How do you know? I can't see it." I was bringing up the rear with the droid.
"I do, through the Force. We're going to have to rappel. Carabiners out."
All of us followed Master Yun's lead as he hooked himself to the sheer rock face he had sensed. This was no mere "drop-off"--it was a cliff. Painstakingly, step by step and centimeter by centimeter, we climbed our way down the nearly-vertical stone formation. Why was it wet...?
"A lake below," I suddenly blurted out, my voice reverberating in the midst of the cavern's walls. "Breathe carefully, now. Its vapor's absolutely toxic."
This time it was Master Yun's turn to ask, "How do you
"The kognath queen. She doesn't come down here. We would have seen or sensed her by now. The kognath are not only dying because of the contaminated crystals,
but this contaminated water.
Which came first? I don't know, but the queen planted a Force vision in my mind..."
"Why didn't you tell us this before?" Master Karos' voice, a quick reprimand.
"I--didn't think it was important." No, no, no--
"That's not what I mean. I doubted it myself, and wasn't completely certain of what I was 'seeing,' and so I didn't want to tell anyone. You Masters always say to trust our feelings, but you also say to rely on ourselves as well. Which one to do here? I chose the second, however unwisely." I shut my eyes. "Once again, I'm sorry."
"Keep moving. This cliff face is slippery." Apology accepted?
I wasn't sure...
None of us humans were prepared when I3-Q9, in her specialized rappelling basket, let out a series of trilling wails. What did "she" see down there, in the vaporous, caustic depths of the lake? When I braved my natural acrophobia and dared to look down, I caught my breath. The lights on my surveyor's band illuminated a monstrous object shimmering with slime: insectoid. Also, dead.
"The queen!" I cried. "She's either drowned, or been poisoned by the water!"
Master Yun, above me, reached down and squeezed my hand. "Let's go see her. We're wearing advanced breath masks, after all, and so the vapor coming off the lake probably won't harm us. Perhaps if we examine her body, we'll be able to find out what killed her. Right, Warden Elindra?" After the naturalist confirmed his theory, we lowered ourselves toward the lapping waves of the water below. I grew more and more afraid by the second, even though I was trying to hide it. No emotion. There is peace. No emotion. Only peace...
"Aha." His exclamation should have sounded triumphant. Instead, it was sad. The kognath queen lay supine on the lake's surface, clutching a single crystal. "I3-Q9, would you please collect it?" The droid beeped and obeyed him. "One gem. One lone piece of rock took down a kognath queen. I can't believe it."
In the silence of the cave, I bit my lower lip and tried to hide my sorrow. It didn't help when Warden Elindra added, "Those of her species give their lives for one another. Unlike the hierarchy of a traditional hive, the queen is prone to sacrifice herself if her colony is in great danger, rather than the other way around." She sighed. "Rest in peace, great matriarch. Be one with the Force."
It's so senseless...
"Kriffing crystal!" I spat, feeling hot and furious.
Master Karos peered closely at the formation that I3-Q9 held in her "hand".
"That's not a crystal," she said. "It's a Sith holocron, used and discarded..."