Book 2 Chapter 23

"Okay," Anaïs grudgingly admitted. "This was worth it."

They'd moved quickly after their escape, pausing only long enough to store the fire melons in their bags, pushing themselves to make it to the base of the mountain range which pierced the skies above the forests, chalk-white stone almost like enormous bones.

In another of Senara's safe-houses, the last one the girl had, the chain of them setup over the course of a couple years, they'd sat down, secure, as night fell and the forest slowly woke up. Taking out the Force-imbued fruit, the Force Adept had taken the first gourd and, moving carefully, sliced the very top of the of the oval melon, yanking her hands back as it caught fire.

Not just in front of her, but in the Force as well, it had burned, flaring to prominence in a way that, even hidden, made some of the animals outside pause, and quickly scurry away.

Senara, with a smile, had waited a few moments before she cut into the sides, smaller vents of flame opening up, even as the smell of sizzling meat filled the space. Working carefully, the white-skinned girl had carved off pieces, depositing them, rind-side down, on the wooden plates as the juices burned, but didn't actually set anything on fire.

Offering a plate to the Jedi, the Force Adept had taken a piece from her own plate and, closing her eyes but otherwise without care, lifted the still burning melon slice to her face and took a bite, heedless of the orange flames that brushed up against her cheeks, but didn't seem, to burn her.

Anaïs' reaction could be distilled down to a single word.

What.

Hesitantly, and ready to heal if need be, or divert the energy of the flames, the Jedi had trusted her friend and had taken a piece of melon, closing her eyes and taking a bite herself.

And it had been delicious.

It had been, of all things, spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, the fires very warm, like the air from an open oven, but not burning hot, and almost pleasant in the cooling air of the forest. More than that, though, the Force presence of the fruit had opened itself up to her, ready to be consumed as well in a way that had uncomfortably reminded her of the Dark Side on Uphrades, after she'd killed the Ember-Drake, and its life-force had been there, for her to claim, if she so wished.

However, while that had been an energy soaked to the core with Death, this had been the opposite, unquestionably of the Light. Anaïs had looked to her friend, to her Presence in the Force, and saw the woman's wooden self clearly, interweaving white branches that now held glimmers of Fire, not burning, but lining Senera's Presence in a way that almost seemed symbiotic.

"Every use of the Force I've seen, with some key exceptions, is neutral, with Dark and Light manifestations," she had remembered Master Lucian saying, on the first day of her training, what felt like years ago. If that was the case, was this okay? she had thought, trusting that, if it wasn't, her Master would be able to help her.

Hesitantly, she'd accepted the offered bit of energy, but, instead of consuming the melon's Force Presence, it had flowed into her, a thin river of Flame that was hard to describe, embers spreading out to dance amidst the mist of her Presence, a few small fires forming at the tips of her deeper self's crystals, not changing her, but. . . adding to her, in ways she couldn't describe.

Taking another bite, she'd found she had to take a metaphorical 'bite' of it in the Force as well, the energy only intertwining itself with her Presence when she allowed it, in direct contradiction to the Dark's insidious, poisonous nature, and it was only by the third piece that she tasted it, the fruit's flesh somehow the same texture and flavor of perfectly cooked steak.

Which had, in turn, had provoked her statement.

"Vell worth the risk, wouldn't you say?" the Force Adept grinned. "And zese vill help us in our coming hunt."

That caused the Jedi to frown. "But, the Dreadwing is air-aligned. Wouldn't something earth-aligned be better, to cancel it out?"

Senara nodded, taking another bite, ethereally flaming juices trickling down from the corners of her mouth. "It vould be," she readily agreed, "but if zere are any earth melons growing nearby, I do not know of zem."

"Earth melons," Anaïs repeated, deadpan, having to shake her head. "I've heard of watermelons, but, what, is there an air, wood, and metal melon?" She meant it sarcastically, but the other woman nodded seriously. "Wait, you mean the, what, 'Elemelons' are a thing?"

"I've had an air melon," the Adept noted. "Its inside vas made of little sacks filled vith vapor that was quite refreshing. The others, not yet," she shrugged. "Ze problem is that zey go 'bad' as it vere, very quickly, losing potency in mere days."

Once they'd finished the first fire melon, Senara had cast a small 'spell', the same 'wind mantle' one that let her glide, only now the air around her shoulders seemed to shimmer with heat. "Iz not a perfect defense, but it vill blunt wind attacks, and iz something that vill not drain me of my magick. You try," she directed.

Lifting her own hand, Anaïs concentrated, forming a disk-shaped Force Barrier, surprised as the fire wrapped around her Presence reached out with her, a disk of solid flame appearing, the heat surprising, though, reaching out to it, the heat twisted around her hand, letting her touch the base without burning herself.

Letting it dissipate, she tried Force Control instead, the internal use of body-reinforcing Force making her gasp as it felt like liquid fire was poured through her veins, but not in a bad way. Her skin started to wisp with vapor, and, moving her arm, she found herself a good bit stronger than she was before, hesitantly picking up a bit of discarded rind, the hard material came apart under fingers like it was wet clay.

"Don't use it all," Senara warned, and the Padawan looked inwards, realizing that the bits of fire in her core were slowly diminishing as she kept the technique up. "You'll need it for later."

Dropping the reinforcement of her body, the drain stopped, and she could get a vague sense of how much 'firepower' she had left. "What happens when it's gone?" the Jedi questioned, recalling tales of Sith Alchemy that Jorel had dug up, where, once the power was spent, it exacted a price.

"Nothing," the tattooed woman remarked, giving the blonde an approving look as the Padawan looked back incredulously. "You are vell travelled," she remarked to herself, but shook her head. "No, zis is no potion, but a natural aid. Ze Mages use them as 'performance enhancers'," she smirked, "or, like I have, zey use them to better understand new uses of Magick. After having ze air melon, I better understood my flight spell, improving it. Maybe zis will help you with your own elemental problems," she shrugged, and Anaïs blinked, not having thought about it that way. "You can experiment a little. Ve did take three of zem."

Smiling at her friend, and the woman very much was her friend, the Padawan settled in to meditate, pulling just a little on the Force, creating a small Force Barrier, half inch across, in front of her as she looked inwards and tried to truly understand what was going on. The Force construct should have been nothing but solid, well, force, but the symbiotic Force Presence of her dinner was reaching out and doing something to it, transmuting it instead to fire. Solid fire, which, from her elementalism class at the Circle she knew, while a higher end use, was still considered 'summoning fire'.

And she had no idea how it was doing it.

Oh, it seemed simple enough, she willed the barrier into being, and the stuff in her Presence went 'okay, but fire', but it wasn't that simple. Furthermore, cycling through other uses of the Force she'd learned, the flames in her Presence changed all of them, in ways she couldn't really understand.

Telekinesis also heated what she was moving, even setting it alight if she wasn't careful; her ability to perceive things in the Force seemed clearer, as if everything's Presence was well lit; even taking her survival tool and making a slight cut in her arm, something that got her a raised eyebrow from her friend, made Force Healing practically ignite her flesh as spectral flames sealed the wound in seconds, and she felt that, were she sick, it'd burn it out of her.

And none of it made any sense.

Feeling her reserves dwindling, she stopped, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, it's, it's not helping."

To her surprise, Senara laughed at her. "My friend, you have only been at it for a few hours. I thought zat you Jedi were supposed to be patient!"

Blushing in shame, and not realizing just how long she'd been meditating, her friend just laughed harder at her.

"But, you said-" the Padawan tried to argue.

"Zat it vould help. Not zat you would instantly understand," the Force Adept laughed. "So serious, you Jedi. Relax. Have another melon. We should eat two before ve go on the hunt."

"Could. . . could we get some more on the way back?" Anaïs questioned, to which the white-haired girl shook her head. "Why not?"

Senara sighed, "Ve got in close because zey did not know who ve were, vhat we wanted. Now zat we have snatched their treasures, ze only way ve will get more iz if we slaughter our way through them, and I vould rather not do zat."

"O-Oh," the Padawan replied, considering that. That meant that Senara had exactly one shot at going after the fruit, and that had been it. If I'd known, I would've taken more, Anaïs thought, only. . . after getting them, the two women only had seconds to escape, and taking more would've only slowed them down. Heck, she'd almost not made it, before. . . something had happened, and she'd escaped. Were she still an Initiate, she would've said it was the Will of the Force, but now? Now she had no idea.

And she was getting to know her friend, so while this was a defense against the Dreadwing, these Force Presenced fruits were far more, and had obviously been a way that Senara had tried to help her friend overcome the stumbling block in her studies the Padawan been stuck at for weeks.

Now getting the other woman to admit to her help? Well, that would be nearly impossible, but Anaïs appreciated it all the same.

"Should we leave soon?" the Jedi questioned, night well and truly underway.

With a thunk-hiss, the Force Adept cut open the second fire melon. "As soon as ve're done with this," she smiled.


SWPP


Climbing the mountain was. . . surprisingly easy. At first Anaïs was worried, as her Master's training meant she was almost constantly using Force Control at a low level, only now she had a limited resource she didn't want to spend, but, when she first started the ascent, strengthening her body to do so, and her flesh started to heat, she'd tried to separate it out and the Flames had, in turn, immediately pulled back, letting her use the base technique without issue.

Light side of the Force, she had to remind herself, that side of things was all about being cooperative and helpful, so of course something that used it would be easy to work with.

Thus, they were able to scale the mountainside, including a few sheer cliffs, with relative ease, Senara using her wind mantle to assist, while Anaïs tried to figure out a kind of climbing Force Jump, which was a bit of a work in progress, but when she accidentally pushed herself away, hanging hundreds of feet up, it was easy to reach out and pull herself back in, much to her friend's fond exasperation with her 'wastefulness' of her 'Magick'.

Cresting another ridge, they came across a wide, flat area, a gaping hole in the side of the mountain on the far end of the clearing, and the white-haired woman sighed in relief. "I thought it vould be lower," she admitted groaning and stretching, taking off her backpack as she walked over to the far wall, casting a spell that caused roots to grow from the solid rock, making a small enclosure she dropped her equipment in, with space for Anaïs to do the same, safe and out of the battle-zone, the pure-white wood of the construct shot through with burning embers.

Slowly taking off her own pack, the last of the fire melons left behind in their safe-house, Anaïs stowed her own pack, taking out her saber and igniting it, freezing as the solid blade of green light was now covered with similarly shaded flames, lighting up the night.

"But, but I'm not using the Force," she said to herself, staring at her weapon.

"Vhat?" Senara questioned, taking out the small piece of white wood that was the woman's focus, growing it out into a staff in seconds, only unlike how it normally looked, it now appeared to be internally burning, just the same as her summoned roots were. "Did you not think dat your focus would be affected?"

Focus? "Jedi don't use Foci," the Padawan replied absently, turning her weapon over, examining how the flame in her Presence was affecting the weapon, tracing its path down her normal use of the Force, frowning as she saw that she was running the Force through her saber, just as she was enhancing her own body. "Do we?"

The Force Adept chuckled. "Of course you do, just not ze same way dat ze Mages do. Did you not build it vith Magick? Is it not part of how you fight?"

The other girl wasn't wrong, but Anaïs hadn't ever thought of that, and there were Jedi that didn't even have lightsabers, but. . . they were few and far between, many using something else, like Knight Kalrune. Only, he had his walking stick, which he'd wielded against their sabers, in a lesson he'd given them in the Temple, with ease. At the time, it'd been amazing, but, looking at her friend, leaning on a burning staff, it was almost banal.

And for the most advanced Jedi Masters. . . she remembered her meeting with Headmaster Draconis. If Mages could internalize their 'circles', and slowly shifted to be more like their Foci's source, then, after a certain point, would they even need them anymore?

A rumbling broke her out of her thoughts, as Senara worked a spell, and a large one, calling upon the spirits of her ancestors, whose Force Presences were clearer than before, lined with fire, as the other 'women' took places around the Force Adept, who, at the end of a long invocation in a language the Jedi didn't understand, slammed her staff down, and a solid wall of branches, like a dozen trees packed tightly together, all of them burning with inner fire, sealed the cave entrance.

"Zere, now ve wait for our prey to return," the white-haired woman remarked, looking a little tired, leaning on her staff as she recovered. "Are you ready, or vould you like to play with your weapon a bit more?" she teased.

Turning off her saber, Anais nodded, looking around. "How soon will they be here?"

Senara shrugged. "Maybe five minutes, maybe five hours. Ve don't know zeir habits, and something could happen dat vould send them back early. Maybe you could use dat famous Jedi foresight and tell me?"

"It doesn't work like that," the Padawan replied, "And I'm not that good with it. Not as much as my master is."

The Force Adept shrugged, moving to go sit by the entrance, and settling in to wait. Following her lead, Anais took a kneeling position, saber held loosely, reaching out in the Force, trying to listen for any warning of oncoming danger. The Forest below was a mass of Presences, all of the life awake and struggling against each other in a way that, with the death, should be Dark, but was instead just. . . there.

The mountain was a great deal quieter, though she could still feel Presences below her, under the rock, likely in more cave systems entrance they'd blocked off likely one of many. Eventually, if they didn't kill it, the Dreadwing would leave and find another way back to its home, but when it came here it would be tired, and confused by the blockage, which would let them fight it.

Going through the meditative exercises Master Lucian had taught her, she stilled her own Presence, idly cloaking herself against the rock like she'd figured out that morning, focusing on tamping her own desires down, trying to eliminate the conflicting ones, until all that was left was her current task. It wasn't easy, as 'eliminate' was the wrong word entirely, more like. . . deprioritize?

She wasn't trying to remove her own emotions, that was how a Sith would do things, according to Master Lucian, though she'd heard Jedi speak of doing the same thing, which was worrying. No, she was merely trying to order them, so that one took prominence, and when her own desires were reflected back at her in the Force, they'd be the desires she consciously wanted to achieve, instead of the ones she emotionally wished for.

It wasn't easy, but, as Master Lucian kept telling her, most things worth doing weren't.

She stayed that way, trying to balance on the edge of heart and head, directing herself without controlling herself, until, finally, she felt the faint sensation, a thought that was not her own that told her Beware.

Eyes snapping open, she stood, her saber extending as she warned, "It's here."

Senara got to her feet, looking around. "I don't hear it, but it vould be foolish to argue," she commented, casting her Wind Mantle, this time shimmering with heat.

Cycling up Force Control she tried to set her priorities as protecting herself and Senara first, then killing her opponent, though keeping them set in the middle of battle was something she still had trouble with. That said, she didn't care nearly as much about getting the bounty as she was on making sure she and her friend survived, so they'd naturally go there anyway.

Distantly, she could see dark shapes in the night sky, black voids highlighted against the multicolored backdrop of the heavens, and she tried to see the possible futures, just like she had on Noonar. A faint blue mist seemed to spread out, safety, only for a thin trail of dangerous red to stretch out from the darkness, right for her, and, following her instincts, she swung her flaming saber forward, setting her feet, to intercept the incoming bright white death.

Invisible to the naked eye, a crescent of compressed wind, ready to cut her in half, came shrieking in, only to meet her saber and explode, the detonation, tinged with flames that were somehow hers, harmlessly parting around her even as Senara swore, "By ze Mother!"

The Force Adept started casting, drawing her mantle tight around herself as she leapt to the side, small bits of wood emerging from around her before the burning splinters were fired up into the night sky, coming down like a meteor storm as they tore into the near-invisible swarm of bats that was quickly approaching.

From within their masses came a single enormous creature, the same size as the Ember-Drakes she'd fought before. But while the flying gas-sacks on Uphrades had been dangerous, they'd been ambush predators, slowly gliding around on the planetoid's lesser gravity, while this thing was tightly compacted muscle, dark green fur barely hiding its bulk, and large, membranous wings that flapped as it distanced itself from the others. Its head, a bit like an owl's, beak and all, glared at her, as if it was enraged that she didn't die in its first attack, and, behind it, two smaller ones rose up as well, each both still three times the size of either of the women fighting them.

We were only supposed to fight one, the Jedi thought, but let out a deep breath, ready. Watching the flow of possibilities, she saw several attacks coming for her, the first one from the largest Dreadwing, but two more from the others, to take her down after she'd blocked the first, but she was already moving, the trails of death broadening a little into cones as they tried to track her, but, while she preferred the defensive lightsaber form of Soresu, Master Lucian had made sure she had a firm foundation in the mobile Ataru, which let her leap to the side, darting back and coming around wide as the attacks skimmed past her, tearing rents into the earth, while, behind them, the burning wooden shrapnel slowed mid-fall, before accelerating back towards them as Senara chanted, almost a swarm of its own, tearing into their wings and forcing them forward, closer to the pair of Force users.

With a leap, Anais rose to meet them, flipping herself up and over another wind blade, saber coming down on the wing of one of the smaller bats, and while it didn't cut through as cleanly as it should, the animals supernaturally tough, just as she'd been warned, it still cut deep, sending the creature plummeting to the ground, where a rising spike of burning roots impaled it through the shoulder, causing it to scream in pain.

Suddenly, danger bloomed outwards from the largest Dreadwing, and Anaïs read its pattern, even as Senara yelled, "Get to cover!" growing a barrier of fiery roots in front of her. Only, looking at the incoming attack's pattern, that wouldn't be enough.

The Jedi reached deep, allowing the flames within to burn brightly, and threw out a hand covered in ethereal fire, which shot forward in a lance of white incandescence, grasping the ground and pulling herself to it, rocketing down as her push to the opposite side created a burst of flames that moved her even faster. Hitting the ground at an angle, she rolled, sliding, leaping for Senara, throwing a hand out to hook into the top of the girl's wall, twisting around to land beside her, throwing up a burning Force Barrier behind them to match the wooden barrier in front, a half second before the Dreadwing SHRIEKED, the pulse in the Force full of the promise of death, the front wave hitting the Adept's barrier, tightly packed wind exploding into an inferno, but the second part, bouncing off the mountainside and coming for them from the rear, hit Anaïs' own protections, creating a matching blaze instead of tearing the white-skinned girl apart.

"Wha'? Oh!" Senara gasped, understanding what'd almost happened to her.

Another sense of Danger screamed to the Jedi's senses, and, without thought, the Padawan grabbed her friend with her free hand and leapt to the side, landing dozens of feet away as the Dreadwing bodily plowed through their defenses like so many burning twigs, a dark rage possessing it.

"I think ve made it mad," the Force User commented blandly. "Maybe this vas ill-advised."

"You think?" Anaïs replied, but. . . "No, we can do this," she stated with conviction, the Force showing her it was possible, though not easy. If it wasn't, it would be screaming at her to run, but, as it now whispered suggested strategies, trying to help her accomplish her goals, that meant such goals were accomplishable. "But only if we do this together."

Senara looked at the Jedi like she was crazy, before she shook her head, clearing it. Standing a little straighter, she took a single breath, a fire burning in her gaze that was only barely metaphorical. "Alright zen, my friend. Let us do this together."