There was a growing sense of dread that dampened the Jedi's spirits. Hassha wrenched open yet another tightly shut door.
They entered a long room, 12 meters wide by 36 meters long, with the chamber forking to the right about 20 meters in. Leaning against the smooth walls were cases containing fascinating and rare artifacts and weapons that were of interest to the Jedi. Most of them seem untouched. The most glaring features of the room were the far wall and floor, which had crumbled away to reveal a cavernous opening that led into a dark tunnel.
"That wasn't part of the original room's design," said SevenAy from Hassha's back. "It appears to be a consequence of the orbital bombardment."
The crumbled floor and wall revealed a tunnel. It sloped downward into utter darkness, and the rocky ground was made slippery by the natural spring that ran across the second sublevel of the academy.
"What is this place?" asked Jak.
"This chamber was forbidden to Padawans. It was where the Jedi Masters kept their most precious Force artifacts."
"So the holocron must be here!" shouted Aeryn excitedly. He ran over with his lightsaber to inspect a meter-high statue resembling a gargoyle in one of the corners. It flinched, raising one claw to fend off the light.
"Uh oh--" was all he got out when six of the monstrous little things leaped from their perches with knives.
Hassha clawed at one, who leaped onto SevenAy's shoulders and was attempting to stab her in the back. The other Jedi were occupied, flinging the little beasts off of them only for them to attack from another direction.
As the chaos of combat ensued, Jak couldn't help but notice that the frightening faces of the squat warriors looked like they may have been inspired by the armored mask of a certain Sith Lord—or vice-versa.
"Use the light!" shouted Talath. As one, the Jedi made a cone of their lightsabers, lifting them overhead.
The concentrated light as the sabers touched brightly illuminated the room. The little gargoyles shrieked in pain, stumbling backwards. Hassha took the opportunity to discourage further attacks with her blaster, sending them scurrying off into the darkness beyond.
When they made it to the bottom, Valin Draco was waiting for them.
A figure in a flowing scarlet robe of septsilk, Inquisitor Valin Draco was flanked on one side by a stern-looking female whose lightsaber gave a red tint to their surroundings. There is a glint in Draco’s eye and a chilling smile on his lips, as if he already knew more about them than the Jedi knew about themselves. Just behind Draco, an incandescent object floated in the air, seeming to grow out of a small cube strapped to Draco’s forearm.
"That object would be the holocron gatekeeper of Darth Rivan," said SevenAy.
Draco greeted them with a single word: “Crant?”
The Jedi paused. They were expecting a fight, not a dialogue.
“Crant—my companion," Draco added. "Have you come to tell me that my nighthunter is dead?”
Jak dangled the tag of the nighthunter from one finger. "Oh, you mean this belonged to your pet? Too bad. I'm afraid we had to put him down, which is more mercy than you showed Master Thorla."
Draco betrayed no emotion, though the glint in his eye dulled. He gathered his composure.
“I am Valin Draco, and, like you, I once thought myself a hero. During the Clone Wars, the brave men and women I commanded called me the ‘Valiant Dragon’ as we fought in epic conflicts for the corrupt Republic." While Draco spoke, the sinister blot hovering behind him pulsed and seethed with rage. "But after I was left for dead on the battlefield of Parein II 4, flattering titles lost their meaning for me. These are dark times, and I know that you’ve suffered great losses, that you wrestle with the same concerns of virtue and compromise that I did as a Jedi, the same concerns that have plagued the conscientious since time immemorial. Surrender yourselves to the Empire. I promise your treatment will be gentler, and you might even be given the chance to serve me. Surrender yourselves—or face your destiny.”
"If you treat your apprentices like you treat your pets," said Jak, swinging Crant's collar around his finger, "then I think we'll pass."
The disquieting glint in Draco's eye returned. "You will pay for that. And in exchange for Crant's death, I will turn all of your padawans to the Dark Side!"
Draco ignited his lightsaber, the red haired Raik Munn took up a protective position in front of him.
"You had to get your girflriend to protect you, huh?" said Aeryn defiantly.
The fire-haired woman stalked towards Aeryn, clad in a dark version of the Inquisitor’s attire. She appeared Human, but something about her said otherwise. Where Draco’s gaze showed ruthlessness and calculation, this Dark Jedi’s entrancing, green-slitted pupils harbored only murder and dementia. With the flick of a thumb, the red blade of her lightsaber streaked into existence, casting her body into a bewitching vermillion glow. Each syllable of her death sentence tumbled like wisps of smoke from her lips. “Come at me one at a time or all at once. All shall pass from this world.”
Draco shook his head. “As you die, rest assured that I reflected on you as on all enemies: despising that you must be wrong and I right, but reveling in the triumph of my convictions while whatever species of maggot indigenous to this world expedites the transition of your carcasses from this existence to the next.” The wraith behind Draco transferred some of its dark energy into the Inquisitor, wreathing the Zelosian in shadows. Draco’s eyes acquired a sickening gold hue, and his voice plummeted in pitch as he gave a command to the woman. “Raik—kill them.”
"Oh dear, we appear to be surrounded," was the only warning SevenAy got out before blaster fired peppered the Jedi from behind. It was an ambush!
Four shadow troopers, visible only by their scarlet T-visors, gave the impression of demonic silhouettes. Titus and Zane spun to block deflect the blaster fire as Raik surged towards Aeryn, eyes blazing. Hassha spun and unleashed a cavalcade of blaster fire against the shadow troopers, but that left Draco free to do as he pleased. Talath and Justyn focused, hands outstretched with the Force.
Draco laughed and, with a wave of his hand, turned their Force powers against them. They were tossed aside like ragdolls. Before Jak could react, crackling green lightning sparked from Draco's free hand. "Did you think you could defeat me five younglings and a Trandoshan?"
Jak writhed in pain, struggling to retain his grip on his lightsaber.
Aeryn was taken aback by the powerful rage of Raik's attacks. "I will kill you all, younglings," cackled Raik, "and thus I will singlehandedly end the Jedi legacy!"
Freed for the moment from shadow trooper fire, Titus and Zane stepped in, forcing Raik to defend herself against multiple blows. Talath and Justn leaped to their feet and switched targets just as Jak had taught them -- they waded into combat with the shadow troopers. Hassha spun and, her heavy blaster whirring at high speeds, unleashed a new wave of blaster fire at Draco.
That got the inquisitor's attention. The first blaster bolt missed, but five more stopped inches from his outstretched palm. The lightning that was burning through Jak's skull stopped.
Gasping, Jak leapt to his feet and charged forward. He was no match for Draco at this distance, but first they had to deal with Raik.
Raik pressed the attack, viciously hacking at all three of the young Jedi. It was all they could do to keep her at bay. Jak caught her by surprise with his sudden arrival, slashing her torso. That was all the opening the Jedi needed, as they slowly forced Raik backward, tagging her with each blow.
Hassha swung her heavy blaster to keep the shadow troopers at bay. Zane and Titus were making short work of them.
Draco sneered and turned his outstretched palm into a fist. Jak gurgled as he was lifted into the air, clawing at his throat.
Talath joined Titus and Zane to engage the remaining troopers, freeing Hassha to resume firing at Draco. It was enough of a distraction that the inquisitor didn't see Justyn's attack.
The young Jedi launched himself several meters, hacking downward with his lightsaber with both hands. It was all Draco could to do raise one arm in defense, using just enough of the Force to stop the attack but not before it struck the device on his forearm.
The gatekeeper projecting from Draco's forearm howled in rage as it was stripped from the device. As it dissipated, the device began to overload, and Draco ripped it from his arm and hurls it at Justyn.
Jak was released, gasping from the Force choke attack. Draco retreated onto a natural rock overpass bridging a wide chasm that appears as bottomless as it was black.
Draco made a stand midway on the overpass traversing the black gulf. A red lightsaber hisses in his right hand, angled down and away from him, while he extended the precious holocron over the abyss in his left. Then a sound like rolling thunder caused the caverns to shudder, as if the planet itself were growling in fury. Abruptly, as if the sky had been turned upside down, two blue bolts of lightning the size of starfighters exploded from below. One of the seething electrical masses smashed into the ceiling high above, producing a shower of man-sized boulders. The other mammoth blue bolt sideswiped the bridge, missing the Jedi by meters. On the heels of that familiar, unnatural lightning came a monster straight out of nightmares—200 meters of red and blue sinew and obscenity, led by two gaping maws lined with teeth bigger than the tallest Wookiee.
"And here, at the end of all things, you die!" shouted Draco. The twin lightning strikes surged in an X formation toward the Jedi.
"Scatter!" shouted Jak. The huge two-headed beast was between them.
"Only one way through!" shouted Aeryn. He took a running leap and launched himself into the air...
Only to be snatched by one of the beast's massive jaws. Aeryn was saved from complete disembowelment thanks to Zane and Titus, who used the Force to keep the beast's jaws pried open, but the damage was done.
"He's right," said Jak, looking desperately at the young Jedi he had led to this moment. "But it should be me."
Jak backed up and took another running leap. The other Jedi Force-pulled Aeryn to safety as he sailed through the air -- there would be no one to save him from the beast's slavering jaws.
Jak tucked his arms and legs in and pirouetted. The beast's first pair of snapping jaws gnashed the air a meter behind him. He slipped sideways through its second maw, covered by its saliva as he fell through the gaps in its massive fangs.
And then he was upon Draco, landing with his lightsaber first. Draco blocked the blow with his own red lightsaber, and sparks crackled everywhere.
The inquisitor regained his footing, pressing his lightsaber against Jak's. "Your master was no match for me," snarled Draco, "and neither is his apprentice." Jak teetered over the abyss...
When suddenly Draco spun, dropping the holocron to block a fusillade of blaster fire from Hassha. Jak pressed his advantage and Draco lost his balance, slipping off the edge of the bridge. Rather than grab the ledge, he caught the holocron, plunging into the darkness.
"The holocron dies with me!" he shouted.
Jak used the Force to yank it from his grasp. It floated into his hand. "Not today!"
As Draco plummeted into darkness, the Force lightning stopped, and the two-headed dragon descended into the abyss once more, one head diving after the body of the Inquisitor.
"Time to go!" shouted Jak.
The giant dragon caused major tremors, and the academy’s foundations, already weakened by a major bombardment and several years of misuse, started to collapse. The tremors had freed up some of the rubble that blocked the ways out prior, and the Jedi took full advantage of the shortcut.
"But Master Thorla!" shouted Talath.
Jak grabbed Talath by the arm. "There's no time. We have to leave him."
Talath caught a glimpse of rocks falling all around the cage that held the Jedi, before it was obscured by rock and dust. He was in the same sorrowful position of supplication they had left him.
They ran. As they ran through the ruins of the academy’s ground floor, the remaining walls of the fountain room and the columns in the entry hall collapsed around them, showering the Jedi with dust. As they leaped for the exit out of the academy, huge clouds of dust billowed into the air, obscuring their view as the ground quaked and devoured the ruins.
"Oh dear," said SevenAy from Hassha's back.
"What?" panted Jak, legs pumping hard.
"I suggest you run faster, Master Jak. The extent of the collapse appears to be catching up to us."
Jak looked backward and immediately regretted it. Several cracks in the ground were snaking their way towards them. The Academy wasn't just collapsing, the dragon's flailing caused the entire city to tumble downward into a sunken pit.
"Captain Moro has good news and bad news!"
Jak was never so happy to hear Moro's voice. "GOOD NEWS! GOOD NEWS FIRST!"
The Second Chance roared overhead and spun in a lazy circle, boarding ramp opening like a mouth toward them as the cracks began to outpace the Jedi. "He has made the necessary repairs!"
The other Jedi Force-jumped onto the Second Chance. Jak gave Hassha a Force-assisted leap and then jumped himself, just as the ground gave way beneath him. He lay on the deck as the boarding ramp slowly snapped shut.
"What's the..." Jak tried to catch his breath, "what's the bad news?"
"There are two Imperial ships overhead," shouted Moro over his shoulder from the cockpit. "One of dem is a Star Destroyer. Captain Moro could not detect the ships on the way in because we still have not invested in a sensor array. Priorities, eh?"
Jak got to his feet and made his way to Moro in the cockpit. "What's the ID of that star destroyer?"
"The Assiduous," said Moro. "The other is a Lictor-class dungeon ship named Revelator."
Jak recognized the Assiduous from the battle over Bespin.
"Have they spotted us?"
Moro grinned. "We're not going to give dem the chance!" He punched the hyperspace drive seconds after they left Almas' atmosphere.
* * *
When they left the Cularin system, the Second Chance reached the last known coordinates of the Resurgence. When they finally approached the Nebulon-B frigate, the Second Chance received a receive a communication from Captain Verana asking if their mission was successful.
He greeted them as they docked underneath the large ship and walked them to the briefing room. There, they explained what happened to Master Denia and handed her the holocron.
At the mention of Draco’s name, Denia displayed a brief look of shock and became very pensive, as if distracted by something far away. She struggled to gather her compsure.
"This sounds like quite an ordeal you experienced, and whether you follow the Jedi ways or not, you have contributed greatly to the enlightenment of the Force. With this item, I will seek answers about the slaves that you rescued at Bespin, and hopefully some clues about the Empire’s Sarlacc Project. I am also curious about the creatures and evil forces that you encountered in the academy, and if I find information about them, I will advise you. But now if you’ll excuse me, I must meditate.”
"Master?" asked Talath. "Do you think Master Thorla survived?"
Jak pursed his lips. "Anything's possible for a Jedi."
"That means Draco could have survived too," said Justyn.
Jak didn't answer.