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Darkest Knight

Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

To Skip Shayotovich, whose enthusiasm knows no bounds

Acknowledgments

The usual round of thanks to Lillie E. Mitchell and her fast fingers for transcribing our dictation; Lucy Autrey Wilson, Sue Rostoni, and Allan Kausch at Lucasfilm for their helpful suggestions; Ginjer Buchanan at Berkley/Boulevard for her wholehearted support and encouragement; and Jonathan MacGregor Cowan for being our test reader and brainstormer.

1

The Massassi trees that towered over Yavin 4’s jungles were smaller than the enormous wroshyr trees on the Wookiee home-world, but Lowbacca considered them to be the next best thing. Especially when he needed to be alone, in a place where he could sort out his thoughts.

As twilight descended on the jungle moon with a blanket of colors deepening in hue, Lowie ascended one of the thickest, tallest trees in the vicinity of the Great Temple, the site of Luke Skywalker’s Jedi academy. With his retractable Wookiee claws and muscular arms, he grabbed on to branches and hauled his lanky body up one level after another, increasing the distance between himself and the ground. It seemed that if he kept climbing, he might almost be able to reach the stars … and be closer to home.

Stopping to rest momentarily, Lowie reached out to grasp a hairy green vine, tugged to make sure it would hold his weight, then used it to climb even higher. He had to reach the top. The top was the best place.

The best place to think.

It had been a long time since he had been back to the Wookiee world of Kashyyyk. He hadn’t seen his immediate family since departing for Yavin 4 to begin training as a Jedi Knight. Although Lowie loved tinkering with computers—as did his sister and his parents—he wanted more than anything to make use of his special, undefinable talent, a potential for using the Force that few Wookiees in his family line had ever exhibited.

When Lowie first arrived at the Jedi academy, uncertain and alone, his uncle Chewbacca had given him a T-23 skyhopper as a gift, so he could cruise far out into the jungle. Sometimes he brought his friends Jacen and Jaina and Tenel Ka. At other times, though, he just needed to be by himself, far from everyone. And this was one of those times.

He missed his family very much, especially his younger sister Sirrakuk. A very dangerous time in her life was fast approaching….

With a great heave, Lowie used one long arm to draw his body up to a leafy nest of branches, where he disturbed a shrieking horde of the voracious tree rodents called stintarils. Stintarils normally ate anything in sight, anything that moved—but when Lowie treated them to his best Wookiee roar, the cluttering rodents scampered away through the trees, kicking up clouds of broken twigs and leaves.

At last, surrounded by the dimming colors of dusk, Lowie parted the final blanket of leaves overhead. He braced his broad, flat feet on a sturdy branch, pushed his head above the treetops, and stood there, drinking in the distance. He looked across the sprawling jungle that spread all around him like an ocean of greenery, occasionally broken by the protruding ruins of temples. He smelled the damp scents of approaching evening: night-blooming flowers from vines that curled through the leaves, the rich moistness of the Massassi trees themselves, a fine mist rising above the canopy as if the forest itself were exhaling in its sleep.

The looming coppery gas-giant of Yavin shimmered low in the sky like a dying ember, a huge sphere of swirling gases. Not far from the orangish planet, though invisible to Lowie’s eye, orbited GemDiver Station, Lando Calrissian’s mining operation that retrieved valuable Corusca gems from the gas-giant’s core.

Lowie looked away from the planet setting on the horizon, though, as deeper night seeped into the sky. Specks of starlight dusted the midnight blue canopy.

Finding a comfortable spot to lean against the outspread crown of the Massassi tree, he remained still, breathing deeply, drawing comfort from the sight of the endless trees … and thinking of Kashyyyk.

He should be calm, but he was very worried about his sister. He could do nothing to help her, and she had to make her own choices—and face the consequences of those choices. Even so, Lowie understood the dangers she intended to face deep in the underlevels of the rain forest on the Wookiee planet.

He ran his long, strong fingers over the pearly strands of his fiber belt, woven from threads harvested from the deadly jaws of the carnivorous syren plant. It had been quite an ordeal for him to obtain those strands, but he had succeeded. Alone.

Lowie sat still as the air cooled and the noises of the jungle grew louder. Evening insects and predators stirred and went about their business.

At his side the miniaturized translating droid, Em Teedee, remained silent—switched off, so that Lowie could ponder his concerns without being interrupted by synthesized chatter. He sat back, and time passed. He would be late for evening meal back at the Jedi academy, but he didn’t mind.

He had more important things to worry about.

By the time Jaina Solo finished her meal inside the Great Temple, most of the other Jedi trainees had left the eating area. Preoccupied, she slurped the last morsels of roasted crab nuts and salted boffa fruit, dabbing up the juice with a chunk of fresh bread.

Beside her at the table, her twin brother Jacen had only half finished his meal; a droplet of greenish syrup ran unnoticed down his chin. Jacen spoke excitedly, his brandy-brown eyes blinking as he ran a hand through his tousled brown hair.

“And I did manage to catch that stinger lizard down in the hangar bay. It’s taken me weeks to coax him out of hiding. He’s all by himself now in that new cage you built for me, but I’m not sure what he eats.” He paused briefly to stuff some food into his mouth.

Jaina nodded, only half listening. She was concerned that Lowbacca hadn’t shown up to eat. Their Wookiee friend had been reserved lately, keeping to himself, speaking little even to his closest friends.

“Not to mention that several of the cocoons for my beetle moths are about to hatch!” Jacen continued. “I think I’m going to let most of them go, but I want to keep two as specimens, to see if they’ll lay eggs in captivity. And you should see the fascinating blue fungus I found in a crack between some stones down by the river.”

He gulped more juice, then suddenly held up a finger as he remembered something. “Oh yes, I’ve been meaning to ask—could you check the cage for my crystal snake? I think he’s up to some mischief, maybe even trying to break out again—and you know what trouble that would cause.”

Jaina couldn’t help indulging in a quick giggle, remembering the pandemonium the nearly invisible snake had caused the last time it had gotten loose: the serpent had bitten the uppity student Raynar, sending the boy instantly to sleep. Not all of Jacen’s pets caused trouble, though. Another crystal snake had helped to divert the lost TIE pilot Qorl from his attack on the Jedi academy, shortly after the twins had found Qorl living in self-imposed exile deep in the jungles of Yavin 4.

Jaina had hoped the old TIE pilot might have a soft spot for them after their efforts to help him, but Qorl had chosen not to become their ally. Instead, the Imperial brainwashing he had undergone resurfaced and became even more deeply entrenched. The pilot had returned to the remnants of the Empire, where he had fallen in with the Shadow Academy.

Jaina nodded to her brother, shaking herself from her reverie. “Okay, I’ll take a look at the crystal snake cage.”

She whirled as she heard the tinny mechanical voice of Em Teedee saying, “Master Lowbacca, I must urge you to ingest a wider variety of nourishment than that. According to your species’ nutritional requirements, those foods are insufficient for a growing Wookiee to maintain a healthy level of energy … though I must admit you have been sulking lately instead of engaging in physical activities. Your diet should consist primarily of large quantities of fresh meat, which is substantially higher in protein than those fresh fruits and vegetables you’re presently consuming.”

Lowbacca answered with only a halfhearted growl as he carried his food into the eating area. Without even looking for his friends among the other Jedi trainees, he sat by himself at a small table against the stone wall.

“Lowie!” Jaina got up and hurried over to the ginger-furred Wookiee. “We were worried about you. You didn’t come join us for the meal.”

Lowie grunted something too brief for Em Teedee to translate.

Jaina pulled up a wooden chair across from their Wookiee friend and straddled it. Tucking a long strand of straight brown hair behind her right ear, she looked with concern at Lowie’s shaggy head. The Wookiee turned his golden eyes down and studied the fruits and greens on his platter.

“Lowie, will you please tell us what’s wrong?” Jaina said. “You can talk to us. We’re friends, remember? Friends help each other.”

Em Teedee spoke before Lowbacca could respond. “He won’t answer you, Mistress Jaina. Even I can’t get a response out of him. I’m afraid I’ll never understand Wookiee behavior. Do all biological creatures ...