“Be careful,” Knol warns, the flickering hologram the only light in the tunnel. “Whatever the Republic’s fancy new army is doing here, they're not going to give a damn about keeping the old city systems intact.”
A distant explosion shakes the ground, sending dirt raining down on Jon's head, and he winces. “I doubt they even know about them,” he says, pulling his hood forward a little further. “No one here would talk to a Republic official, even if they were bleeding out.”
Knol snorts, and Jon can see a flicker of movement beyond her, Fay's distinct figure and a cloaked, hooded form that’s most certainly Nico, their heads bent together. Plotting, likely; Sidious caught wind of something that made him start poking his nose into matters, and though Knol is confident he hasn’t found anything yet, they're going to need to be exceedingly careful for the foreseeable future.
“Just keep your eyes open,” Knol says, folding her arms over her chest. “Most of my contacts got run out the city with all the shelling, so if you get into trouble I’ll be hard-pressed to know before it’s too late.”
“I’ll be fine.” Jon ducks as another explosion shakes the tunnel, raising dust, and grimaces. “We need that lightsaber.”
Knol's breath is rueful. “We need someone who can use it, too, you vagrant, so keep yourself in one piece. I'm better with Force manipulation than a lightsaber. Fay wouldn’t even know which end is the dangerous one, and Nico's too predictable to fight a Sith Lord.”
“Thankfully,” Nico says, pointed, from beyond her, “I can take care of his apprentice perfectly well.”
Knol rolls her eyes. “You just want an excuse to kick Dooku in the ass,” she says, unimpressed, and there’s a definite lack of argument in response.
Jon snorts quietly, picking his way along the tunnel. There's a split, one path heading right and down and the other left and back towards the surface, and he pauses for a moment, listening. The Force is a steady, watchful presence, the fabric everything else in reality is stitched to, and Jon's always had a talent for knowing where he needs to be in the weave of it.
“Those wild animal instincts serving you well?” Knol asks, amused.
Jon scoffs, but turns right, following the slope of the floor down into the earth. “I’ll find it,” he says, a promise, and Knol sighs.
“You’d better,” she says. “But if you can't, Fay and Nico have about ten other plans that should be able to get us killed equally well, so come back and we’ll regroup.”
It takes a moment for Jon to find his words, and he keeps his eyes fixed ahead of him, on the pale blue flickers of light disappearing into the unbroken shadows. “I could find Dark Woman,” he says quietly. “Of all of us, she—”
“No,” Knol says flatly. “Not unless you want me to tear her pretty little head off. An’ya isn't getting anywhere near our planning.”
“Shut your mouth, vagrant, it’s not up for discussion.” Knol tosses her mane with an irritated flick, feline features curled in an expression of clear disgust. “We avoided the war because the lesser of two evils is still an evil. Using one evil to beat another is exactly the same.”
Jon grimaces, trying his best not to let his relief show. “Fine. But if I can't find this—”
“We’ll figure out something else.” Knol glances away, then grimaces as the holo flickers harder. “We’re losing the signal.”
“The tunnels are deep here.” Jon comes to a halt, ignoring the next rain of dirt that hits his hood. “You're fine holding the Sith?”
Knol's grin is all teeth, just a little too sharp. “Maul? He’s like a kitten. You just have to shake him by the scruff sometimes to get him to listen.”
Kitten is not the term Jon would use to describe a cast-off Sith apprentice who spent the last eleven years running around a junk planet, half-mad and full of rage against a Jedi. He snorts quietly, watching Knol's face in the flickering light, and asks, “Fay's going to see to him?”
That, at least, makes Knol's expression slide into a grimace. “She should at least be able to get his prosthetics working better,” she says. “And Nico's been fixing whatever’s wrong in his head. It’s a work in progress, though.”
Knol's leaving out the way she’s connected with Maul, Jon thinks, a little wry. She’s very skilled at that.
“Well,” he says quietly, “you’re good at getting half-crazy apprentices to find a better path. I would know.”
Knol scoffs, but her smile is fond. “Not your fault that things were done to you by bastards,” she says. “Either of you. We’ll work it out.”
Jon's throat feels tight, but he inclines his head. “Don’t tell Maul that Kenobi is here.”
“I'm not reckless, unlike certain idiots I could name,” Knol retorts. She turns her head, catching something, and then says, “Fay says there should be a spring somewhere on the planet, supposedly near you, that should be able to heal pretty much anything you do to yourself. It’s underground. You should feel it in the Force once you get close.”
That certainly wasn’t in any of the records Jon or Nico found. He raises a brow, but inclines his head, and says, “Thank you. Be careful with Maul.”
“You be careful with the warzone,” Knol retorts. “We’re too far away to bail you out, Antilles, so keep your head down.”
“Always.” Jon inclines his head to her, and Knol blows him a kiss that’s only a little mocking, then closes the transmission. The blue light winks out, and for a second there’s nothing but complete, utter darkness pressing in on Jon from all sides. Another shell hits, somewhere above, and the tunnel trembles—
And then, slow, steady, a light kindles, brightens. Jon smiles faintly, watching the veins of crystal in the tunnel walls begin to shine, and then reaches out, running his fingertips lightly over one of them. They're warm to the touch, craggy but smooth beneath his fingers, and they branch out like lightning through the dark earth, curled in fractal patterns that the natives have never tried to disguise.
The shelling above won't break through to the tunnels. They’ve already survived centuries and plenty of other wars, and the Force is strong down here. Jon has faith.
Of all the things Dark Woman gave him, his faith in the Force is the one he’s most grateful for.
By the light of the crystals, Jon keeps moving, following the branching patterns down into the earth. The tunnel loops and curves, leading steadily south and down at a steep angle, and Jon tries to calculate how close he’s gotten to the front. He must be right underneath it by now, but he can't feel the shelling anymore, and the Force is bright here, particularly strong. The battalions above are stars against a supernova, in comparison, and Jon has better things to focus his attention on, regardless.
Maul gave them Sidious’s identity, his plans. Between the inside knowledge and the whole galaxy thinking they're dead, they have an advantage, but—not enough so to defeat a Sith Lord as powerful and cunning as Sidious.
The legends of a weapon from the beginning of the Order promise more of one.
Fay remembers the stories, at least. She was able to find the first thread, and Jon and Nico unraveled it from there, drew out the tales and hunted down the facts, and they led Jon here, right into the middle of a battlefront, but—if he can find where the old Jedi Temple once stood, he might be able to find the weapon supposedly hidden there as well.
The sound of water rises as Jon descends, and the path opens, arches across a wide, slow-moving river whose bed is made entirely of crystal. Jon pauses at the edge of the drop, looking down, and grimaces faintly, but the tug of the Force is clear. He vaults the railing of the bridge, dropping down into the river, and winces as icy water washes over his knees. It’s bright, at least, and he wades downstream, moving with the current through the high arches of stone and crystal. The glasslike glow turns everything eerie, washes over the earth in a hundred different shades, but Jon can't feel anything down here that’s a danger. There's little animal life, most of the native creatures having fled the fighting, and everything is silent except for the burble of the river, the air warm despite the freezing water.
Ever since he left Dark Woman, Jon has always followed the Force, always let it guide him to where he needs to be. The pull of it is strong right now, a steady course unspooling from his feet, and he follows it, something prickling at the back of his neck. Not a threat, but…awareness. An urge that usually means someone in need of help, and Jon is here for the lost Temple, but—that doesn’t mean he isn't still listening to his instincts. If there's someone down here that needs him, he’ll help that. That’s a Jedi's duty.
It takes a long while, almost an hour of wading through the warming water, before Jon finally hears something. A voice, low and desperate, and he pauses, trying to track it. Off to the side of the river, where a small stream trickles away through a narrow break in the walls, and Jon makes for it, hauling himself up out of the water and onto a ledge of crystal. The crystals on either side of it grow out of the earth like twisted plants, fractal structure turning them into twisting, strangely inorganic blooms of color, and Jon minds his steps as he picks his way through the arch and into the secondary room. The ledge cuts along the wall, the crystal forming a natural canal that carries the branching stream high above a sandy cavern, and—
Down on the cavern floor are two men. Clone troopers, by their armor, which is dirty and scorched but painted with a jewel-bright blue. One is flat on his back, with the other leaning over him, and that desperate voice is his, frantic as he tugs at armor catches.
There's blood on the sand, a tumble of stone that shows where they fell from the surface. Through the bottom of a blast crater, maybe, Jon thinks, and without pause he leaps the edge of the canal and drops onto the sand with a thump.
Instantly, the conscious trooper leaps to his feet, whirling around. His blaster comes up, fires, but Jon raises a hand, deflecting the bolt into the sand where it splinters out, glass crackling in its wake from the heat.
“Peace,” Jon says quietly.
The trooper’s breath shakes like a strangled sob as he exhales. “You're a Jedi?” he asks. “I can't—we fell, and Fives—”
“I can help,” Jon says, and he’s not as skilled at memory manipulation as Fay, but that’s a thing to worry about afterwards. At the very least he can put them both to sleep when he’s done and simply leave, and no one will connect this one act of kindness to a Jedi Master thought two years’ dead at this point.
“Thank you, sir,” the clone says desperately. “He got hit by one of the mortar rounds, I don’t—our medic was with the general—”
Jon crouches down over the bleeding trooper, gently pulling off his helmet. The other clone drops to his knees, quickly pulling off his armor with the ease of practice, and Jon gets a hand on the trooper with the goatee, feels for a pulse in his throat, and finds it easily. Steady, even if it’s weakening, and that’s a good sign.
“Your names?” he asks, joining the trooper in tugging off the last few pieces of torn, scorched armor.
“I'm Echo,” the clone says. “He’s Fives. We’re with the 501st, under General Skywalker.”
The one Sidious has so many plans for. Jon grimaces, but brushes his hood back to be able to see more clearly. There's blood soaking Fives's black thermal undersuit, a wide gash where shrapnel must have cut through, and the flesh beneath is equally torn to the point where Jon is sure that he sees bone. But—
Fixable. Dark Woman made sure he could heal, if only so that he could keep himself moving no matter what.
“I can fix him,” he says quietly, “but it won't be pleasant. You’ll have to hold him down.”
“Yes, sir,” Echo says, relieved, and shifts around him, half-pinning Fives to the sand. “More than this?”
Jon eyes Fives, who’s shorter than him but has a broader build, all muscle, and at least four weapons within easy reach. His healing hurts, unlike Fay's, and if Fives wakes suddenly, it won't be pleasant. Deliberately, he swings a leg over Fives's legs to sit on his knees, pinning his legs down, and then leans forward, framing the deepest part of the wound with his hands.
“Hold,” he says, and closes his eyes.
Healing has never come easy, but—it’s worth the effort. Now especially. Jon drags the wounds closed with invisible stitched, seals the flesh, burns out infection. It’s delicate work, but Jon has had concentration and focus drilled into him since before he can even remember, and he blocks out everything thing else, ignores the surge of panic and pain in the body beneath him, the struggles, the cry. Grits his teeth, shuts out the rise and fall of Echo’s voice and Fives's sounds of pain, and—
For Jedi, the how of getting to a goal matters just as much as the goal itself. Or—it should. The Order has been losing sight of that in the war, been overlooking warning signs. Jon knows why, understands the choices, but it puts him far too much in mind of Dark Woman’s methods. Brutal, and objectionable, and wrong, but producing wanted results and therefore acceptable in the long run. Like the healing she taught him. Like the way she trained him.
Jon can't be that kind of person, though. There's enough darkness in him already, enough moments when he’s faltered. If he starts believing that the ends justify the means, he’ll stop seeing a reason why he shouldn’t fall, and Jon refuses. He’ll never let himself go that far.
The only healing he knows causes pain, but Jon won't let it be something that’s justified by the good it provides. He eases it as best he can, lightens his touch, adds warmth. Lets the pain fade from nerve ends beneath a wash of heat, and Fives's next sound is a strangled whimper of relief. He shudders, and Jon lightens his touch, lets thin tendrils of power curl through his mind, and finds the chip. A thought and a moment of will is all it takes to crack it, making it inoperable, and he sits back, lifting his hands.
“I'm sorry,” he says softly, and Echo laughs, ragged in his throat.
“You—that’s amazing,” he says, tugging the turn blacks out of the way to show a long, thin scar, faded like it’s years old. When he glances up, his eyes are wide. “You're—a Healer?”
“No,” Jon says. “Nothing even close.” He slides off Fives's legs, settling on his knees in the sand, and leans over him, checking his pulse again. There are dark eyes on him, but Jon ignores them, a tight knot in his chest that feels like guilt. He hates causing pain in the innocent; healing himself is fine, but inflicting it on someone else makes his stomach turn.
“You?” he asks Echo, who shakes his head.
“Just some scrapes,” he says.
Fives, still flat on the ground, scoffs loudly. “Your wrist is broken, asshole,” he says, voice rough, and Echo pulls a face.
“It’s fine,” he says, but Jon holds out his hands in offer, and Echo looks at him for a long moment before he sighs and lets Jon take his arm.
Thankfully, the break is just a fracture, easily fixed and with minimal pain, and Jon repairs it, then slips a thread of power up to break Echo’s chip as well before he lets go again.
“Can you get back up the way you fell?” he asks quietly.
Echo grimaces. “No,” he says. “I tried, but even with rappelling gear we wouldn’t make it. The edge is unstable, and there's about fifty feet of loose rock ready to come down on our heads. Plus the Seps left unexploded mines all over the crater even if we did make it out.”
Jon hesitates, looking up, then back the way he came. The crystal channel is high above them, but not so high that Jon can't pull two troopers up with him, and wading upstream should get them to the tunnels without any chance of getting lost. Them getting back onto the bridge will be a problem, though, if he’s not there; it’s too high to jump without the Force, and there are no handholds for climbing. Without rappelling gear, they’ll be stuck. This detour has already used up most of Jon's spare time, too. The crystals stop glowing with the sunrise, and it will take another month for the planet’s moons to be low and close enough to activate them again.
He could leave the troopers here, technically. There will be people sweeping the battlefield after the fighting, looking for survivors, but—
If they don’t get found, or if the people above can't get them out, their deaths will be on Jon's head. That’s unacceptable.
“I can get you out, but I have a mission,” Jon says, careful. “I don’t have time to get you back to the surface right now, but—afterwards, I will.”
Fives sits up and looks at Echo, who looks back for a moment. “You're a Jedi,” Echo says. “If you have a mission, we’ll help.”
Jon grimaces, not fond of the reminder of why the clones were created in the first place. A trap for the Jedi, one that was executed perfectly, because the Jedi's power as an organization has been fading for decades. Because they couldn’t say no, not with other innocent lives on the line, and they were trying to minimize damage. But all it did was leave them vulnerable.
“All right,” is all he says, and he rises to his feet. “It may be dangerous.” The lightsaber he’s here for was hidden for a reason, after all, the whole Temple buried to keep it out of enemy hands during the last days of the Sith Empire, and he doubts the ones who did the burying would have left it unprotected.
Fives gives him a grin, twisting to his feet like he’s testing his range of motion. Apparently satisfied with it, he rolls his shoulders, then starts picking up the pieces of his armor. “We’re ARC troopers,” he says, and it’s cocky. “We can handle a little danger.”
Echo rolls his eyes, slower to stand, and when he looks at Jon his expression is thoughtful. “Are you sneaking behind enemy lines?” he asks.
“No,” Jon says shortly, looking up at the ledge above. “Going deeper underground. There’s something old buried here that I need to find.”
Echo and Fives exchange looks again, but either of them argues. “Well,” Echo says after a moment. “I'm glad you found us.” His voice wavers, and Fives automatically steps closer to him, reaching out. He grips Echo’s forearm tightly, and Echo gives him a wan smile before he looks back at Jon. “Thank you.”
Jon ignores the way his skin prickles, looks towards the river instead. “I'm glad I was in time,” he says simply, and then, “I need to lift you up there. Is that all right?”
Fives squints at the canal for a moment. “I'm game if you are,” he says with a shrug, and Echo nods. “Is there actually a place to stand up there, or is it weird Jedi floating stuff only?”
Jon snorts, and with a touch of control he leaps up, landing lightly on the ledge. Raising both hands, he breathes out, then lifts, and lets Echo and Fives rise up slowly until he can set them on the crystal.
“That wasn’t nearly as traumatic as I expected,” Echo says, catching his balance. He eyes the bright glow of the river through the crack in the wall and asks without much hope, “What are the odds that’s a well-lit road?”
Jon huffs in amusement, slipping back through the gap. Echo and Fives follow with a scrape of armor, then pause, but Jon doesn’t hesitate to leap back down into the river.
“It’s just water,” he says, glancing up at them. “The crystal is harmless.”
“Ugh,” Fives mutters. “Wet boots for days.” He slides down gamely, though, and offers Echo a hand. Echo takes it, jumping down as well, and then casts a look up at the roof of the tunnel, a high arch of stone veined with bright crystal.
“This is under the battlefield?” he asks. “None of our scans picked it up.”
“Too deep,” Jon says simply. “You won't get a comm transmission out, either.”
Fives snorts, bringing his blaster around so it’s in easy reach. “You get that that sounds like something a murderer in a bad holo would say, right?” he asks in amusement.
Jon hesitates, a little startled, and Echo and Fives exchange glances again. This time, though, they're amused, and Fives shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Oh, hey, got a name?”
“Jon.” He debates over whether to add his last name, but—they serve with Skywalker, who’s Kenobi's old padawan. And out of all the Jedi who could recognize Jon by description alone, Kenobi is at the top of the list. He leaves it off, wading downstream and ignoring the two troopers, and after a moment he hears a resigned sound from Echo and a splash as they follow.
“Calling you General Jon sounds kind of weird,” Fives points out.
“Then just call me Jon. I'm not a general.” It was one of the more convincing reasons to work with Knol, Fay, and Nico to fake his death, too; Jon isn't suited to have other people under his command. He’d hurt them, and he refuses to risk that. Knol and the others are safe, because any one of them could contain him if he did fall, and Fay at least wouldn’t hesitate to wipe his memory entirely if it happened, but padawans or clones—
He can't risk them like that.
“Undercover Jedi?” Echo asks, sounding interested. “Like with the yellow lightsabers? General Kenobi was talking about them with Commander Tano. A Jedi Sentinel, right?”
“Not quite, but close enough.” Jon pauses where the river branches in three directions, listening. The Force is stronger here, heavy with age and watchful intensity, and he breathes through it, feeling the muffled tug. One step south—
The bottom of the river drops away, and he goes under.
The cold water is an unpleasant shock, and Jon instantly kicks for the surface, feels hands grab his cloak and pull. He breaks through the water into air that’s practically balmy in comparison, cursing, and Fives mutters an oath, getting an arm around his waist and hauling him back up onto solid ground. Echo, one hand anchored on a jut of stone, the other hooked in Fives's belt, drags them back until he can grab Jon's other arm, and together they pull him up to standing.
“With all due respect, sir,” Echo says, raising a brow at him, “maybe you should watch where you're going.”
“The riverbed all looks the same,” Jon tells him, a little offended and feeling far too much like a loth-cat dropped in a bath. “Because of the crystal.”
“So you can toss around two grown men in heavy armor and heal mortal wounds, but you can't tell that you're about to step in a sinkhole?” Fives asks, judgmental.
“You serve with Skywalker,” Jon says, mildly annoyed. “I'm sure he’s told you that’s not how the Force works.”
Fives grins at him, and it’s bright and full of teeth. “Yes sir. I think that puts us in the perfect position to judge.”
Jon snorts, easing his arms out of their grasp to straighten carefully. He still can't see the edge of the drop in the riverbed, but knowing it’s there is helpful enough. Not that it matters now, seeing as he’s entirely soaking wet and lost his hair tie. He sighs, scraping some of the strands out of his face, and looks ahead of them, trying to see a way forward without swimming.
“There's a Jedi Temple in that direction,” he says. “We need to reach it.”
Echo hesitates. “We could swim, sir,” he says after a moment. “But we’d need to leave our weapons and armor here.”
From the slant of Fives's mouth, that’s the last thing he wants to do. Jon casts a glance at them, at the markings painted on their armor, and feels an uncomfortable twist in his gut. That would be like taking away their identity, in some small way, and therefore it’s unacceptable.
“No,” he says. “You don’t have to. We’ll find another way.”
“Thank you, sir,” Echo says, and there's a strange note to it. When Jon casts him a veiled look, though, he just smiles a little and turns to look down the other path of the river. “Maybe they connect again further down?”
Nothing down here is mapped; even what paths are marked, Jon left behind at the bridge, so he has no idea. With a grimace, he casts a look left, then right, and—
He can still feel that tug, sharp beneath his breastbone. The Force wants him to go left, and he takes two careful steps forward, right up to the edge of the drop, and stops there, closing his eyes. They can't swim, and they can't go back, but…surely there's a way.
“How many hours until sunrise?” he asks.
“About…two, probably,” Echo says. “What happens at sunrise?”
“The crystals go dark again,” Jon says grimly. “And we either find somewhere to wait for a full month until they reactivate or we get lost without a path to follow.”