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The Jasserak Highlands of Tanlassa,
Near the Qarohan Steppes
Year 2 A.B.O.G.
In the moment, there was little time for thought. No real space to let the conscious mind judge action and reaction, no time for decisions about form and flow. The mind was far too slow to defend her in this life-or-death situation. She had to trust muscle memory, had to let go of any connection to past or future concerns. She had to be totally and completely in the now, if she was to survive this battle.
Even these thoughts passed in the space of no more than a heartbeat.
Barriss Offee cut and slashed with her lightsaber, whirling and twirling it, her movements weaving a shield of luminous energy before her, stopping blaster bolts, arrows, swords, even a few slung rocks, without reflecting any directly back toward the attackers. That was of vital importance, and the hardest part of the battle—don’t kill any of them. Master Kenobi had been adamant on that. Do not lop off arms or legs or heads; do not thrust through the bodies of their attackers. Not those of the Borokii, nor those of the Januul.
It was much harder to fight and disarm or wound than to maim or kill. It was always harder to do the right thing.
Next to her, Anakin Skywalker was displaying a fair skill with his lightsaber, though his technique was still somewhat rough. He had come into training much later than had most Jedi Padawans, but he was managing quite well. She sensed through the Force that he wanted to do more, that he wanted to strike them all down, but he held himself in check. She could feel the difficulty he was having in doing so, however. And that slight smile on his face as he wove a defensive energy web before him bothered her just a bit. He seemed to be enjoying this far too much.
To her left, Master Kenobi’s buzzing energy blade stitched an ozone-scented tapestry of blurred light, knocking blaster bolts into the ground, blocking incoming arrows, and shattering durasteel blades almost too fast for the eye to follow. His expression was set, grim.
Moving with that incredibly supple grace that was her hallmark, Master Unduli danced her defense, deflecting the attacks with ease. Barriss stood beside her tutor, her blue blade moving in perfect synchronization with the pale green shimmer of her Master’s lightsaber. Separately, each was an opponent to be reckoned with; together, merged by and in the Force, they were a fighting unit far stronger and faster than the sum of its two parts. So thoroughly and completely did they complement each other’s feints, parries, and blocks that many of the wild Ansionian plainsfolk stared in disbelief even as they pressed their attack.
When the howlpack had first advanced despite her practiced skill, Barriss had felt a surge of fear; there were so many of them, and to control without killing was much, much harder. But now, as she leapt and parried and swung her weapon, the Force guiding her every move, the initial panic was gone. With the four of them together this way, she had never felt the Force flow as strongly as it did now. She was with Anakin and Master Kenobi, nearly as completely as she was with Master Unduli. It was an unbelievably powerful, heady sensation, intoxicating, overriding, filling her with confidence: We can do it—we can defeat both armies—!
Rationally, she knew this could not be, but the conviction was a thing of the heart, not the mind. They were invincible. They batted death from the air: full-power particle beams, needle-tipped arrows, swords sharp enough to shave the Ansionians’ long manes …
It seemed to go on for a long time—hours, at least—but when it was at last done, Barriss realized that the entire encounter had taken perhaps ten minutes or less. Dozens of shattered weapons lay at their feet, and the surprised combatants surrounded them, plainly in awe of the fighting skills of the Jedi.
As well they should be …
Barriss smiled at the memory of the encounter on Ansion. She had felt the Force many times, before and since, but never had it been that … compelling. Even when they had demonstrated their “spirit” for the Alwari—she with her compass dance, Anakin with his singing, Master Obi-Wan Kenobi with his storytelling, and Master Luminara Unduli with her Force-sculpture of whirling sand—she had not felt so alive as during the battle, fighting alongside her Master and the others. Fighting alone was one thing, but fighting in tandem or in a group? That was much, much more.
But that was the past, and if she had learned nothing else from her years in the Jedi Temple, she had learned that the past could be revisited, but not relived. She was no longer on Ansion now, but on Drongar, that humid hothouse of a world, and even though her mission to find the thief who had been stealing the valuable bota crop grown here was over, she had yet to hear from her Master as to the next step in her training.
Even as she felt frustration rising again within her, her desktop comm unit warbled. She activated it, and a small holoproj image of her teacher shimmered into view in the warm air. The comm unit was small, and it seemed to have a slight malfunction; aside from the usual blinking and ghosting common when communicating across many parsecs, some element in the power amplifier seemed to be emitting a too-warm-circuit smell, so subtle that she was uncertain if she was actually sensing it or simply imagining it. It was a not-unpleasant odor that reminded Barriss of roasted klee-klee nuts.
Master Unduli was lightyears away now, back on Coruscant, albeit her image was close enough to touch. The three-dimensional likeness was insubstantial, though, and it would be like trying to touch a ghost.
Barriss sighed, feeling tension loosen within her. Here on Drongar she had felt the separation from her instructor keenly. Just the sight of Master Unduli, even in a flickering, low-res holocast, was enough to help center her. And she badly needed centering. What with the Rimsoo’s recent forced relocation, some fifty-odd kilometers to the south to avoid being destroyed by Separatist battle droids, along with Zan Yant’s death and the nonstop batches of incoming wounded, she felt badly in need of the calming, centering influence that her teacher always brought with her.
After a mutual greeting, Barriss said, “So, I suppose my mission here on Drongar is finished.”
Master Unduli cocked her head. “And why would you suppose that?”
Barriss regarded the image, suddenly uncertain. “Well … I was sent here to find out who was stealing bota. The ones responsible for that, the Hutt Filba and Admiral Bleyd, are no longer doing so, being dead. The military has dispatched a new admiral to command Med-Star and the Rimsoo facilities planetside—he should be here shortly, and I expect he’s been selected for his honesty, given the value of the bota crop.”
“That was only part of your mission, Padawan. You are also a healer, and there are still people there in need of that, are there not?”
Barriss blinked. “Yes, Master, but—”
There was a pause as her teacher regarded her. “But you don’t think that sufficient reason, do you?”
“With all due respect, I seem to be making very little difference here. It’s like trying to move a beach full of sand one grain at a time. I could be replaced easily by any competent physician.”
“And you think that your talents would be better utilized elsewhere.” It was not a question.
“Yes, my Master. I do.”
Master Unduli smiled. Even in the flickering projection Barriss could see those intensely blue eyes twinkle. “Of course you do. You are young, and your desire to be a shining force for good has blinded you somewhat to things all around you that still need attention. But I sense that you are not done there yet, my impatient Padawan. There are still lessons to be learned. Spirits require healing, too, as much or more than do bodies sometimes. I will contact you when I think it is time for you to leave Drongar.”
Master Unduli’s image winked out.
Barriss sat on her cot for a time. She reached for calmness of spirit and found it difficult to acquire. Her Master’s purpose in keeping her here eluded her. Yes, she was a healer, and yes, she had saved a few lives, but she could do that anywhere. There seemed little on this fecund planet that would help her become a fully fledged Jedi Knight. It seemed to her that her Master should be looking for some place to properly test her, to challenge all her skills, and not just those of a healer.
But instead, Master Unduli had decided to leave her on this soggy dirtball, where battles were fought as they had seldom been fought in the last thousand years—on the ground, between armies fielded to wage war cautiously to avoid damaging the valuable bota plant that grew thicker here than anywhere in the known galaxy. Bota—a miraculous adaptogenic growth from which a variety of wondrous drugs could be made—was easily prone to damage, and even a mild concussion from an explosion too close could kill an entire field of it. Sometimes even the thunder from a nearby lightning strike—of which there were plenty, this being a young and volatile world—could damage the fragile plant. Neither the Republic nor the Confederacy wanted that, so the weapons and tactics of the war here were primitive in the extreme. Battle droids fought clone troopers mostly within hand-blaster range, in small numbers, and without much in the way of artillery or large power beams. When the plant over which both sides battled for control was worth its weight in precious gems, nobody wanted to shock it to death or set it on fire—which was all too easy to do in the high-oxygen environment, despite the swampy territory. While it was true that both sides had on occasion fielded heavier weaponry—witness the recent Separatist attack that had required moving the entire base—for the most part the infantries fought, and bled, for each precious centimeter of ground, all because of the kid-glove approach that bota required. Not for the first time Barriss wondered how an indigenous plant that was so fragile had managed to cling to its ecological niche for so long on such a tempestuous world.
Such questions did not matter now. All that mattered was that the bota thief was dead—and yet, Master Unduli still bade her stay. Why? What was the point?
She shook off the thoughts. Clarity of mind did not come with too much thinking—quite the opposite, in fact. She needed to empty herself, to allow the Force to provide the calm and serenity it always did—when she could reach it.
Some days, it was a lot harder than others.