A Penumbral Path
Arc 1: Inauspicious Initiates - 26 BBY
He knew he could defeat her, but he didn't want to.
Deflecting the sweeping green blade with his own blue lightsaber, Jorel Drettz was content to keep the sparring session going. If asked, he'd say it helped him focus, but really it let him ignore everything else. He took his time, not going for the openings his opponent left in her strikes, and enjoyed the rhythm of the fight.
His partner, Anaïs Vand-Ryssa, did not share his sentiments. She was focused, actually focused, on defeating him, though it didn't matter. While they both had learned the first lightsaber form, Shii-Cho, like every initiate had, they both had drifted towards other techniques. The blond girl in front of him, expression tight with concentration, favored Form III: Soresu. She was skilled in it, but that was a defensive form, and he wasn't attacking.
When he did, to keep the fight going, she blocked him with a minimum of motion, conserving her endurance, but her own broad strikes were sloppy, telegraphed, and easily blocked. Jorel's own preferred style, Form V: Djem So, had no such weaknesses, strong at both attack and defense. It took more effort to pull off, and could be physically draining, but he wasn't trying to outlast a dozen opponents, he was sparring with one.
Another strike, this one a slash to the head, came, but it was obviously a feint. He waited for her real strike, to parry and counter, ignoring the move which was meant to draw attention and not actually going hit him.
It was actually going to hit him.
Realizing this at the last moment, he called upon the Force, infusing it into his body to let him push past the normal limits of flesh and bone. Pulling backwards, nearly bending parallel to the ground, the speed granted to him through Force Control allowed him to miss the buzzing blade by inches. Her blade was only set to training mode, as was his, but he wasn't going to allow himself to be hit.
Spinning around, away from the strike as it lowered to hit his new position, he came back with one of his own, Force-enhanced strength ready to batter away her block like it wasn't even there. The other abilities of the Jedi, such as telekinesis, he struggled with but this, this he excelled at.
Anaïs fell backwards, dodging the blow as she tried to move back to a defensive stance, but he followed her. Before she could fall fully back to a neutral position, he came in with a rising strike that was set to slash her in half, if fully powered, ending the spar.
She threw up a Force Barrier, her specialty, but while his fellow initiate could block simulated blaster fire with ease, a lightsaber was not a blaster. However, she wasn't blocking his blade, but his hand.
Enhanced as his body was, he punched through it, though his bones groaned at the sudden impact, but the momentary slowing that strike took gave the half second she needed to deflect the slash upwards, opening him up completely to a fatal counterstrike, his lightsaber high and out of position.
A fatal counterstrike, that is, if he was still holding his weapon.
Taking another step forward, moving inside her guard, he grasped her hands with his left, trapping her blade, as he brought his other, now empty, hand in as hard as he could in a palm strike to her face. She tried to turn her saber, but his superior strength locked her in place as his 'fatal' strike stopped an inch from her nose, the blast of air created by his Force enhanced palm strike pushing her bangs back.
They both stood there for a moment, her features calm but still determined, while his own carefully blank, to note the win. Letting her go, he stepped back, and bowed, a move she returned as she deactivated her lightsaber.
Walking over to get his discarded blade, which hadn't even scored the ground when it'd hit, he heard her sigh behind him. "I almost had you, Jorel," she commented, voice the picture of Jedi calm.
"Almost," he agreed, equally mild, deactivating and holstering the blade, his muscles pleasantly warm underneath his initiates tunic.
Turning around, he saw she'd taken a seat and was fixing her long blonde hair, some of which had fallen out of the loose ponytail she wore it in. "If you were just a bit more distracted, I would've won," she commented idly.
His stride paused, mostly in self-recrimination. Anaïs Vand-Ryssa was many things, he reminded himself. Unobservant wasn't one of them. She wasn't chiding, though, as his instructors always were. She just pointed it out. The sky was blue, temple food was bland, and he was distracted. While she was right, he wasn't going to admit why he was distrac-
"It's because we haven't been picked, isn't it?" she asked, without judgement.
"Yeah," he admitted, hanging his head slightly. "I'm worried we won't be chosen at all. It's not like we're like Master Tyvokka or Master Yoda, with decades left before we're adults. We're the only ones left from our clans, Ana." And hadn't that been fun, watching as every other member of the clan he'd grown up with, the ones he'd saved, had all been picked, off to become padawans while he was left behind.
"You know what Master Lhimis would say if she heard you talking like that?" she reminded him, and he sighed, sitting on the bench next to her and leaning up against the cold training room wall.
He could practically hear the old Cathar now. "'Worry is just another form of fear, boy. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, blah blah darkside. Push away such petty concerns and trust in the force and the wisdom of your elders.' Like I'm not trying to do that already!" Glancing over to her, he asked, "Aren't you worried?"
She stared right back, "A Jedi is above such things." At his unamused look her icy demeanor cracked as she started to giggle, an almost musical sound. "A bit, Jorel, but it's not like we can do anything about it. And if we aren't picked, there's always the Service Corps. We might not be Jedi, but would you say no to seeing what's out there in the Exploration Corps? I could see us going to new places, meeting new people, and discovering things no Jedi has ever seen, together."
"That sounds nice," he agreed wistfully. "But that's not where I'll be going."
She blinked, once, then smiled, interested, "Then where do you want to go? I know you, Jorel, I very much doubt you'd like to teach in the Educational Corps. You hate doing it now."
"'Hate is unbecoming of a Jedi', he parroted. Having completed his Initiate training, his instructors would only give remedial lessons, leaving the continuation of his education to his master. With nothing else to do, he meditated, sparred, and was forced to help teach those 'farther back on the path of the Jedi'. "I strongly dislike having to teach the younglings. Especially when they easily pick up in a day what took me a kriffing month. 'Is that all there is to it, Initiate Drettz?'"
She thought for a bit, before nodding, knowing exactly who he was talking about. "Right. The Miralukan boy? Oksim? He's not that bad." He gave her another dry look. "No, really, you just needed to smile and ask him to help the others. Tell him that he'll learn more teaching than he does learning."
"You just needed to smile at him," Jorel corrected. "Doesn't help that he literally sees with the Force."
"Exactly," she agreed. "But, if I remember right, he's even worse at Force Control than I am. But that doesn't matter. Why don't you think you'll join the Exploration Corp?" She didn't ask about being a healer, as neither of them had gotten the knack of mending the wounds of others through the Force. While in theory it was a basic power, along with techniques Force Confusion, which could trick the minds of others, very few were capable of healing.
"I have been informed, by the esteemed Master Halrol, that if I do not have a master by next year I will be joining the Agricultural Corp," he revealed. He'd talked with the member of the Council of Reassignment last week, and it'd been eating at him ever since. He hadn't wanted to bother Anaïs, but she'd been the one to bring it up. "It will be my place to 'toil in the soil, to better direct my chaotic energies towards nourishing the bodies of others.' So, can you see why I'm worried?"
She just looked at him, puzzled. "But. . . you hate working with plants. Animals, I could see, but the Agricorps doesn't have ranches." She looked down, mouth moving silently, as she always did when tackling a problem. Shaking her head, she continued, "He told you where you'd go? When I asked, I was just told they didn't make decisions until they needed to, and to trust in the will of the Force."
Now it was Jorel's turn to be confused. "Wait, you asked to be reassigned? Why?" He knew he wasn't the best Jedi; it'd taken him four tries to get through his initiate trials, but she'd finished them on her first go. As much as he complained about Oksim, Anaïs had been just as good at that age, though less smug about it. While he could best her in a duel, Jorel had no problem admitting that combat was the only field where he bested her.
She shrugged, looking out over the small sparring area. "I'm the last member of my clan left, and I'm seventeen," she said simply, echoing his earlier complaints. "It only makes sense that my fate is not to be a Jedi. The will of the Force seemed clear. I've been a potential padawan for longer than you have, Jorel," she pointed out, without malice, just quiet acceptance.
He wanted to say something to that, but the words wouldn't come. Words that weren't more than empty platitudes, the kind that he'd told himself over and over again, each repetition feeling more hollow than the last. "We've got a year," he finally announced. She looked at him, confused, and he repeated, "We've got a year. I looked it up in the archives. The Order has an age for every species where they're 'involuntarily reassigned'. If we were Twi'lek, it'd be sixteen. If we were Herglic, it'd be twenty. Heck, if we were Hutts we'd have until we're seventy!"
That got a laugh out of her. "But then we'd be Hutts," she observed. "Are there even any Jedi Hutts?"
"One. Knight Beldorion, assumed lost when he and Knight Taselda investigated something in the Outer Rim a couple centuries ago, never to return. I looked it up when I saw there was an age for Hutts," Jorel admitted. "Turns out they made the cutoff age for Hutts because of him. So, there's that. We've got a year. Who knows what the Force will bring us until then." He knew what the Force was going to bring him, and it likely involved tubers, but he was just as sure she wouldn't share his dirt-filled destiny.
As if summoned by his words, the door opened, revealing a youngling. "Initiate Vand-Ryssa?" the small boy asked.
Anaïs nodded, getting up, face placid and tone polite. "Yes, little one, that is I. What do you require?"
"You've been called to mediation room F-12," the child informed her. "Master Er'izma wishes to speak with you."
Jorel had to bite back bitter laughter. He recognized the name, having hoped that the Knight who'd summoned the closest thing he had to a friend might be the one who'd come choose Jorel as his padawan, to show that the Initiate was worthy of being a Jedi, no matter what his instructors liked to hint at. It seemed he'd been correct in his statements, like a Jedi Seer, both in his statements out loud and in his thoughts to himself. However, he couldn't find it in his heart to be jealous of Ana, like he'd been of his own clan who'd left without a word of goodbye.
"Do you know where I can find Initiate Drettz?" the youngling continued. Wordlessly, Anaïs pointed to her left. "Ah, thank you. Initiate Drettz, you've been called to meditation room F-12," the child repeated. "Master Er'izma wishes to speak with you as well."
Jorel didn't think he'd ever used a refresher so quickly in his life, having changed out of his sweaty clothing and cleaned himself so fast his hair was still damp. He hesitated, though, and waited for Anaïs. Some part of him wanted to rush ahead, to get there first and make a good impression, but that wouldn't be fair to her.
He didn't have to wait long, as she ran out so fast she almost hit him, grinning as she spotted him, though she schooled her features and forced herself into a calm-purposeful stride which he matched. "You seemed to recognize the name?" she asked quietly.
"I was looking into knights and masters that took pe-padawans," he told her, almost saying 'people like me'. "Knight Er'izma has a pattern. He takes a padawan, and leaves for the Rim. Five years later, he returns, and they pass their Knighthood Trials. Always. Two years after that he takes another padawan, without fail."
She glanced over at him, not breaking stride. "For how long?"
"Just under three centuries."
That did cause her to misstep, though she recovered quickly. "Race?"
Jorel shrugged. "His record said 'near-human'. His last padawan, Knight Aures, passed her Trials two years ago. You're saying you didn't look him up?"
"There are nearly ten-thousand Jedi Knights and Masters," she defended. "I was looking into other areas of knowledge."
He couldn't help himself. "Like Force Control."
"Like Force Control," she agreed, shooting him an amused look. "Not enough time, apparently."
Jorel racked his brain, trying to think of the details that might help her. "He tends to pick Padawans that others have overlooked." That was more true for him than her, but given that she, somehow, hadn't found a Master yet, she might fall into this Knight's patterns.
"He's classified as a Consular, so he prefers using the force to a saber, and was listed as a Diplomat, so likely prefers a peaceful approach," he advised. That alone had dropped this particular Knight down the list of potential masters for Jorel, though the Knights he made his Padawans into had no particular bent. Normally Consulars produced Consulars, and Guardians produced Guardians, so Jorel had hoped, with his own Guardian leanings, he'd still be chosen. "A lot of his file is restricted, but there was something about a Senate ruling that he had to come to Coruscant with no more than five others, which didn't make a ton of sense."
He shrugged at her inquisitive look, not having tracked the source of that note down, as this Knight had been one of over five dozen that might've chosen him, so he hadn't gone more in-depth than that. Wish the Force had given me a hint, he thought darkly. He could use the ability known as Force Sense in battle, predicting the moves of his opponent an instant before they happened, but the feelings about the future that other Jedi received from time to time had never come to him.
Before they could say more, they were at the door, one of a long row down the hallway. Pausing, the two Initiates looked over themselves. Jorel straightened his tunic, while Anaïs flattened out her pants. Noticing her hair sticking oddly, he reached over and straightened out her ponytail, getting a quick smile of thanks in return.
They both took deep breaths, calming their presence in the Force, though he wondered if they were at the right door, as the aura on the other side seemed faint, more like a Padawan than a centuries-old Knight.
Stepping forward, the door opened to reveal a darkened room. A figure stood at the far end, medium height, but broad shouldered, his back to them as he watched the sun setting over Coruscant's endless city. Shadows stretched across the space, oddly thick, only the center area a pool of orange light.
Jorel hesitated, but Anaïs strode in without pause. He joined her in the center of the space, and they both stood, the cushions that served as seats all pushed against one wall. Even from behind, the man, Knight Er'izma presumably, did not wear a Jedi's robes. While his shirt was the same brown, contrasting with his light brown skin, the material was finer, almost shiny. If it weren't for the small handle of the shoto blade clipped to the man's tunic, he wouldn't look like a Jedi at all.
Turning to face the pair, the man's clothing showed itself not to be a knight's tunic, but a military uniform, with small smattering of medals on his breast. Before Jorel could ask if he was actually talking to the right person, he felt a ripple in the force and suddenly felt the Knight's presence.
Each Jedi had a force presence, each unique. Master Yoda's was vast, yet comforting, like a gentle rainstorm that cooled you off and quenched your thirst on a hot day. Master Ti was an apex predator, strong, ferocious, but one that considered you one of its pack. Master Halrol was harder to sense, but always gave Jorel the sense of cool superiority, the hawk-bat that flew high above you, but would strike if displeased.
Jorel could sometimes get a sense off Knights, of fluidity or rigidity, of warmth or coolness, but never more than that, and the most he could sense of Padawans was that they were present, the only exception standing beside him. Anaïs presence was like a crystalline fire, full of energy, and rigid, but a source of warmth when all else felt cold.
The man before him, however. . . he hadn't mentioned it, but the records noted that, as an initiate, Er'izma barely made the cut in terms of strength in the force. Jorel wondered what else the records got wrong about this Knight.
Looking at the man was like being stared down by a battalion, a hundred battle-hardened men looking upon you and finding you wanting. It was intimidating in a way that few others, with the exception of those like Master Ti and Master Windu, achieved. This was the man who turned out Knights like a production line? And with his presence, he was only a Knight himself?
"Initiates," the dark-skinned man spoke, his voice like an iron hand in a velvet glove. Seemingly gentle, but with steel underneath. "I have come to take an apprentice. That Padawan will be one of you. Tell me who you are."
Jorel glanced towards Anaïs, who shared his confusion, even if it didn't show on her carefully calm face, and she went first. "I am Anaïs Vand-Ryssa. I am seventeen years of age, human, my strengths lie in information gathering and investigation, and my most proficient technique is the Force Barrier."
"I am Jorel Drettz," he said, copying her. "I am seventeen years of age, human, my strengths lie in starship piloting and lightsaber combat, and my most proficient technique is Force Control."
Knight Er'izma cracked a smile, his severe features softening slightly. "If I wanted that, I'd've read your files. Which I have," he stated without real reprimand. "I want to know who you are. Who are Jorel and Anaïs? What are your likes, your dislikes, your hopes, your dreams? If we're going to be spending five years together, I'd like to know going in if you love Pazaak or hate the taste of Chyntuck, which would mean there'd be more for me." He smiled fully at the two, eyes crinkling with just the beginnings of age.
"I wish to become a Jedi Sentinel," Anaïs offered. He could tell she was unsure, though only through long practice of being around her, her emotions tightly controlled. "I want to go out and see the universe, helping others and bringing evil to justice. I enjoy learning new techniques, but sometimes struggle with more philosophical and theoretical subjects, though through the gaining of knowledge I find greater harmony."
Er'izma nodded at that, responding with a single word. "Noble." The Knight's approval was clear as day, and Jorel could see why. It was a perfect Jedi answer, even quoting Master Delmor at the end, but it left Jerol with a decision. He could try to follow suit, giving an equally Jedi answer, or he could be honest. His first answer had already been a strike against him, he was sure. Given the small sword at the Knight's hip, obviously more of a token than a real weapon, this Jedi likely didn't put much stalk in lightsaber combat.
With the Knight's attention on him, the time to decide was done. "I wish to become a Jedi Guardian," Jorel stated with confidence. "I enjoy fighting, and strongly dislike teaching."
"And what is it that you want to do?" the Knight prompted, turning to face the Initiate directly.
With his back to the light, the Knight's expression was inscrutable, but it didn't matter. Jorel knew it wasn't going to be him that was chosen, so he had no reason not to be honest. "Slavery, Master Er'izma. I want to end it."
"Slavery is legal on quite a few planets," the other man pointed out. He wasn't challenging the Initiate, just pointing out the obvious flaws, like Master Yoda would. "Ryloth, Zygerria, and Hosnia all come to mind. All planets of the Republic. Are you saying their laws are. . . wrong?"
"Yes." The answer was immediate, and he'd said so without even thinking. He'd stand by it though.
The Knight regarded him for a moment, off-handedly commenting, "Quite ambitious." Jorel winced at the damning indictment. Jedi were not supposed to be ambitious, with the passion that entailed. It was a key part of the code. Well he knew he wasn't going to be chosen, and he still had nine months to find another master.
"And you Ms. Vand-Ryssa," the man before them asked conversationally. "Do you have any ambitions. Likely not on your friend's scale, but the stars are the limit. What is it that you truly, deep down, wish to change about the galaxy?"
His fellow Padawan froze at the completely un-Jedi question. "I. . . I want to help people," she reiterated.
"Yes, yes, you said that, but how?" the Knight pressed.
Anaïs hesitated, mouth working for a moment without sound. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as her presence in the force, which had started to churn, reformed back into crystalline hardness, flaring brightly with warmth and energy. "I want to explore. I want to help people by seeing what's out there. I want to leave the Core, and help those who've never seen a Jedi in their lives. I want to find new techniques, new ideas, new technologies, and help spread them to make everyone's lives better. Knowledge shared could help those who don't even know they need it, because they lack the knowledge to know so."
"There are over a trillion souls residing on this planet alone, don't you wish to help them?" the man countered, tapping his foot. "Do they not deserve your help?"
"There are several hundred Jedi in this building, they can help them," she countered, waving behind her towards the rest of the Temple. "Those outside the core have none nearby to help, while those in the Undercity can just go up. Those in the Outer Rim have no such option. That's why you work out there, isn't it? I want to help them."
Knight Er'izma chuckled, a deep, almost soothing sound. "I can see you did your research. It's not just helping the needy and exploring, Padawan Vand-Ryssa, but I'm sure you'll do a good bit of both in the years to come."
Jorel felt the familiar sting of disappointment, having not been chosen once again, but he paid it no mind. He had a feeling this was going to happen, and he was at peace with the outcome. "Then you've decided," he sighed.
Waving towards the wall, telekinetically turning on the light as the last bit of Coruscant's star dipped below the metallic horizon, the Knight's face was illuminated, showing a broad, relaxed grin. "That I have. My decision has been made, and for my apprentice, I have chosen Padawan Jorel Drettz. I believe I have a great deal to teach you, and likely a good bit to learn from you as well."
Beside him, Anaïs froze, her presence oddly brittle, before she nodded slowly, turning a somewhat hurt, but honestly happy, smile his way. "Congratulations Jorel. You deserve it."
"No!" he cried out, completely taken aback by this turn of events.
"No?" Er'izma echoed, grinning wider, before suppressing a laugh and looking upon Jorel with interest. "Why shouldn't I take you as my Padawan learner?"
"You're a Counselor, and, and I like to fight," Jorel argued. It was so obvious, how did he miss it? "She's better at force techniques than I am. She's got the barrier down to a Knight's level, but she's halfway there on three other techniques. All I've got is Force Control!"
The Knight who'd chosen him, wrongly, nodded, "I'm aware of what the Council has decided to classify me as, yes. And I am aware that your talents currently lie in a more physical realm. That is why you are my Padawan, to learn what you are not good at. Yet."
"It's okay," Anaïs added. "He's made his choice, and it's our place to accept the wisdom of our elders."
Except it wasn't okay. "See?" Jorel asked. "She's the better Jedi! She'd accept your teachings better than I!" He knew he shouldn't, but he was honestly feeling angry, and he wasn't even sure why. Wasn't this what he wanted, after all? To be chosen as a Padawan, to show that he wasn't being left behind, that he was worthy of his blade?
Not like this, he thought. Not at her expense. "You called her a Padawan," he pointed out, when instead of chiding him like his teachers here in the temple would, instead of commanding him to control his emotions like they always did, like it was just that easy, the Knight before him let loose a hearty chuckle, as if this were all some sort of grand joke. "Were you lying when you called her a Padawan? Jedi aren't supposed to lie!"
In the face of this accusation, the Knight just shook his head sadly. "A Jedi's promise must be kept, but as such one should take careful consideration before giving one's word, my Padawan. Whoever told you that such a thing meant a Jedi can never speak an untruth was, in fact, lying. It's the kind of statement, so blatantly incorrect, that it can only be spoken to, and believed by, the very sheltered, and the very young. Of which you are both, both."
"Then why did you call her Padawan?" Jorel asked, out of arguments to make or ways to demonstrate how wrong this Knight was. "With why we're here it just seems needlessly. . . mean."
"Because she is a Padawan, just not mine," Er'izm responded.
Jorel stared at the other man, not comprehending. "But if not yours, then who's? Some other Knight's? 'With her ability as a Jedi, someone else will obviously choose her?'" he asked, imitating Er'izma's voice. "Is that what you're thinking? Because no one has, for years, and she deserves it. More than I do."
"I hope you know, you're doing nothing but showing me how right I was to choose you," the older man stated. "But no, I wasn't speaking of some far-off day. Ms. Vand-Ryssa is a Padawan, but not mine."
"Then who's?" the newly minted Padawan asked, waving around the empty room. "She's not your Padawan, so who will be her master."