AN-11 was a dying world. It was a subtle death, hidden in dried grass and baking stones, in a breeze that promised only dust and heat. Yet among the sprawling plains, in the shadow of a lonely crag that offered refuge from the hellish sun, a single spring still flowed down into a shallow pond. A rusty hovel sat on its bank, cleaved from the hull of a ruined starship.
In a high place, undisturbed by the touch of metal or machine, Jacob Brenner laid the best friends he’d ever had to rest atop their funeral pyre. Though his weathered face had no more tears to shed, and though he could hide the pain tearing at his heart, he could not still his shaking hands.
A struggle for life had taken root here beneath the mountain’s shadow, where the years wore footprints through the tall-grass down to beaten paths. This place held memories for those strong in the Force; echoes of suffering no different than the pages of a book. Framed beside the figures on the pyre, the scene resembled the embodiment of futility. In life, those bodies had been Jalex and Marissa Kavon. Long ago, they were war heroes, Jedi Knights, true friends who had saved Brenner’s life more times than any man could remember. He’d searched for them for thirty years, but in the end he’d been too late.
Brenner broke the ground with his feet and dug the rest with his heart. With each breath, fatigue that could no longer touch his body settled about his spirit, reminding him that he was still human. A labor droid would have finished in minutes, but a droid couldn’t care about what it was doing, or why. It was important that someone suffered these final moments.
Hot, stifling wind scoured Brenner’s cheeks as he pulled himself free of the grave. It was time to light the pyre. Stormclouds were already massing on the horizon, dark and heavy with rain. Soon the storm would be strong enough to douse the pyre.
So why was he hesitating?
The first peal of thunder crashed across the empty plains as Brenner stared up at the unlit plinth. Though it was impossible, he couldn’t shake the feeling of lifeless eyes watching him from beneath the shawls. The image pierced him like the accusing finger of an angry god.
“I’m sorry,” Brenner whispered, his voice choked with regret. “It should have been me. It should have been me before any of you.”
The dead did not reply.
Faces of fallen comrades flashed through the back of Brenner’s mind as he approached the peak. Their war wasn’t over, but he was the only soldier left. That knowledge brought both purpose and pain; those faces that deserved life so much more than him had shouldered a responsibility that now rested with him alone. Evil ran rampant through the galaxy. He would press on.
The old man closed his eyes and let the Force stream through him. It existed even here, on this stifling hell of a planet, flowing like a river from the web that connected all living things. His grief fueled it, but it was more than him; it was those who came with him, and before him. It was the grass between the stones, the pumping of fresh blood, the reflection of the sun within the waterfall. All of this and more gathered within him, and Brenner’s raised hand erupted in emerald flame.
Fire was tame in Brenner’s hands; it did not burn or scorch his skin. It was still in his palm as he lowered it to the pyre, like a piece of smooth glass. Even spreading across the plinth, it looked more like a slice of an aurora than open flame. As it rose to the sky like a beacon, Brenner knelt and spoke a prayer in the High Tongue.
|“Through the Force all things will come to pass. There is a time for everything; as we are born, so too must we…”|
The words rang hollow in his throat. He felt not acceptance but horror, offense at the cruelty of the fates before him. No Jedi teachings could put those feelings to rest.
“Hell with it!” The withered Jedi lifted his head to gaze into the flame, where the bodies had already begun to fade away. “You deserved better. A shot at real life, or at least a death with dignity.”
The only sound was the crackling of the fire. Brenner covered his mouth and took a deep breath.
“We were heroes. All of us. We were the ones who carried the burden, who stood by the right thing even when the Council abandoned us. Without us, the entire galaxy would be ruled by the Sith! We all deserved better than this. The ‘Will of the Force’ be damned.”
The first drops of rain broke from the sky as Brenner stood, tucking his hands into his coat. His eyes wandered to the urn that sat at the foot of the plinth.
“We were the last of the Jedi. And the first of the new.” A flick of the wrist and it flew to his hands. “Master Kastel was right to dismiss the Council. Her ideals – our struggle – will carry on in the order that my students create.”
Brenner tucked the urn under his arm and beckoned gently towards the fire, stirring the ashes. Bit by bit they rose towards him in swirls and spirals, the embers sparkling like fireflies beneath the thunderheads. As the pyre dwindled down beneath the rain, the urn filled itself to the brim and two lovers were united forever in death.
Next came the grave.
This time there was nothing graceful about the flame the old soldier conjured. The sound of it rumbled over the plains like the breath of a dragon. Each blast conjured a shower of crackling, hissing sparks and eerie green smoke that clung to the skin, and blistering heat blasted the sweat from Brenner’s brow. As the sands began to glow and shift, his eyes were drawn from the dead to the living, to the figures under the mountain.
Two women stood beside the shack, where routine had been carved into the very rocks by the touch of a lightsaber. At first glance, it seemed they could not have been less alike.
Tall, with golden locks and a set of kingly horns at her brow, the noble figure of Noelle DeWytt did not belong among the wastes. She bore the face of her mother Vivienne, who Brenner had fought beside and loved as fiercely as a man can love. But Vivienne was dead, and it had fallen to Brenner to train her daughter. Noelle had been his apprentice for fifteen long years before he had deemed her worthy of the title of Jedi Knight. On that day he had recognized the woman who would one day eclipse him in power and judgement, had given her the title of Grandmaster of a Jedi Order of two. Since then their numbers had grown to seven, and now Syra Kavon made eight.
Syra was small, so small next to the clean, foreign hull of the Jedi ship. Her wildly braided hair bore the mark of a warrior, but her sickly frame was symptomatic of a different sort of battle. The mechanical hiss of a respirator completed the picture; the same wasting disease that had claimed her parents had doomed Syra to agony, entombed alone in a prison without walls. She had been there a very long time.
“Forgive me, Marissa,” Brenner murmured as he moved to the cliffside. “I know you hate when I smoke.”
The old craftsman fished a cigar from his coat and lit it with the tip of his thumb. The oaken taste soothed his nerves as he pondered Syra from on high. He could not read her heart beneath the crushing weight of the planet’s misery, but the time he’d spent with her was troubling. He had offered her a spot beside him at the burial, a chance to say goodbye. She turned him down so curtly that Brenner’s first fevered impulse was to grab her by the shoulders and shake her for the disrespect. Yet the expression in Syra’s eyes stopped him in his tracks, sent the hair crawling on the back of his neck. The mere mention of her parents had turned her gaze hollow, like the eyes of a corpse.
Now, as the old master watched Syra tear apart the pieces of her home, she showed more grief for those rusty scraps than she had for her family. Brenner knew that she had not looked at the pyre, not even once. It was a terrible thing, he thought, that he should have lived to be surprised at how different two orphans could be. Lost in thought, he watched her until his cigar dwindled and was finally snuffed out in the rain.
Despite his fears, Syra Kavon would be a Jedi Knight. That was the one apology Brenner could grant to the friends he had failed; his oath and his solemn vow. Noelle would be her master – and there was no one better, no one more qualified – but he would always be there, ready to do what must be done.
Flicking the stub of his cigar over the peak, Brenner turned back to the slab of simmering glass.
There were two lightsabers clipped to his belt that did not belong there, even though he knew them as intimately as his own. They too would be chambered within this monument. Carefully, so carefully, he let the remains float from his hands and rest within a small hollow. Through the Force, Brenner willed the glass to rise and take shape, to cradle its treasures with delicate care. At last a great pyramid stood tall among the sands, shining brilliantly with its own inner light.
Satisfied with his work, Brenner began etching an inscription in flame. This small thing was the most crucial; properly cooled the monument would last forever, even after the star above had burned away. It would be eternal.
Upon the glass, these words appeared:
Jalex and Marissa Kavon
Although they walked a lonely road
Each step was taken hand in hand
When darkness fell upon the land
They gave us more than we were owed
True cause and spirit can’t corrode
This spot marks now their final stand
Yet child a legacy makes grand
Their names live on, unbound, unbowed
His task complete, Brenner knelt before the monument, bowing his head until the inscription had cooled to match the faint glow within. Even with his eyes closed, the flame stayed in his mind.
“It will be alright,” Brenner spoke to the slab and to himself. “She’s still your daughter. And she’ll make you proud. I promise.”
At last, all his goodbyes were spent. The elderly Jedi rose and slowly picked his way back down the rocky trail. The wind howled and the skies thundered, but he did not look back. Then the monument stood alone, the final mark of man among those vast and empty lands.