The Plaza -- Tier City: Valentine's World
The sheer, vertical face of a great mountain soars from the gently rolling, golden plains, overlooking the city of Tier nestled into the valley below. Its towers, marked by graceful curves and elegant architecture, are the same hue as the pale rock of the steep slopes that gleam in the sunlight, seeming to have been carved straight from the face of the mountain itself, and are capped by colorful domes that in turn mirror the azure of the sky. Through a grand archway carved of shining white stone lies a broad plaza limned on one side by a languidly drifting river fed by cascading waterfalls and glittering rivulets that follow the sharp drops in terrain from the mountain's crest. Organic designs and patterns are carved decoratively into the walls of most of the buildings, and in the plaza itself are larger-than-life statues of lithe figures in elegant and supple poses. On a typical day the plaza is busy with pedestrians, droids, and speeders that whizz past the passersby.
A young human female of average height who appears to be in her teens. Her face is rounded with youth, yet the large hazel eyes flecked with green and gold that dominate her features are intelligent and confident. She has long, wavy dark hair that's worn unbound, allowing it to fall to her waist. A white, cowled cloak covers her shoulders and falls to her polished brown hide boots. A pair of layered tunics in contrasting earthen brown tones are covered by a rust-hued tabard that's cinched at her narrow waist with a broad obi and a leather belt lined with pouches for storage. A holster for a blaster hangs at her hip, while the hilt of a lightsaber is clipped to her belt. A pair of white, tight-fitting trousers are worn on her long legs and tucked into her boots.
A few fingers below the average height of a human male, Malideus still makes for an imposing figure, with his broad chest and workman's muscles. Carrying himself with a stalker's grace, Malideus appears lithe in spite of his pronounced musculature. At a glance, he leaves an impression of health and fitness, save for his eyes, which glisten red, likes tears of unshed blood.
Every centimeter of Malideus is covered in leather, once black but now faded gray. Boots rise to his knees, secured with thick, primitive laces, tied and retied. A well worn coat with a broad collar adorns the upper half of his body, and articulate leather gloves cover his hands. A hood and mask cover his head and face, leaving none of his skin visible, save for a narrow band of flesh around his eyes.
With slow, measured steps, the man in worn black leather visits the city. His entry into Tier is that of a cautious swimmer entering unfamiliar, cold water, one toe at a time, measuring the temperature. An alien in truth to this world and this environment, he proceeds with quiet, patient deliberation.
He would not describe it as skulking.
At the edge of the river, the man stops and dons the qualities of a true tourist. He looks up at the building tops, his moist red eyes glinting in the Valentine light. He lifts a hand in the air like a navigator testing the wind. Then he glances at the statues in the plaza, his gaze too low to be lingering on the figures in stone, but instead those that move at their feet like unobservant insects crawling around the picnic.
It is a beautiful day in Tier City and the locals know how to take advantage of it and often do. Colorfully clad Nahrahm mingle and converse in glad tones as they cross the plaza, and any speeders that make their way through the plaza are careful to do so slowly lest any passing errant child dash into the way.
At the base of one of the great statues is a dark-haired girl somehow set apart. She's decided to turn the foundation of the ancient piece of art into a picnic spot, and sits cross-legged upon it next to a small droid who careers about on a single narrow wheel. A cone-shaped head tips back and forth assessingly on its mechanical neck as it hums and speaks in its electronic voice to the young girl. "I promise we'll get your circuits checked. After lunch, okay? I promise you won't overheat anytime soon," she says, and then stuffs a mouthful of bread into her mouth. Her hazel eyes, flecked green and gold, lift to take in the surroundings as she chews, and they light upon the strange man in the black leather garb. He definitely does not look like one of the Nahrahm. Curious, she watches him as she takes another bite.
In his left hand, the man in black carries a walking staff, little more than a cane. The ground end is uncapped, smooth wood which gives way into ornate carvings of plant life and impossible animals entwined around the rough dowel. The cane's top ends in a wicked knot which has been worked into the crude shape of some kind of snarling dog.
As the man in black watches the people move about him in their joyous, garish colors, he lightly taps the stone at his feet with the wooden instrument. Tap. Tap. At the sight of the speeders, the tapping takes on the properties of a heartbeat, with one more forceful tap followed quickly by a lighter. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. To these people and their festivities and technology, the man in black wastes no words.
Red eyes return to the statues and the girl. Tap. And the girl's droid. Tap-tap.
The man in black approaches, stopping several paces away.
"You." His voice rough, even with just one syllable. "I'm looking for someone."
The wind catches the banners and awnings in a brisk embrace, and the girl's long dark tresses dance in the air as she squints against the sun and the strangely clad man with the cane silhouetted against it. The little droid makes a small whining sound and rolls backwards on his wheel, but she glances over and gives him a reassuring pat on the head. "Don't worry, Vee-Four." Remembering her manners, she swallows her food before she brushes her hands over thighs. In a lithe yet adolescently awkward move, she hops down from her perch and shields her eyes with her hand. "Someone in particular? You're gonna have to be more specific, mister."
The wind, which plays with the fabric of the banners and lifts the girl's hair, passes over the man in black. Neither his leather hood which shields his masked face nor his impractical dark coat are stirred. Under the constant shine of the sun, a light breeze might offer comfort to one dressed such as the man in black, but he makes no acknowledgement of it. He does acknowledge the girl.
"You're right." More of his rough voice. As he continues, there's a softness to the consonants, a sing-song rhythm to his speech which is in conflict with the sounds his throat produces. "A man. Taller than me. Thin. Scar across his cheek. May have a mustache. May not. He would stand out from this crowd, the way you stand out. The way I stand out. Have you seen him?"
Before the girl can respond, the man in black points his cane at the droid and says, "Do you have a leash for that thing?"
A chirrup of fear erupts from the little droid and he whizzes behind the girl for protection. "Hey! Vee!" Laughing as if it is nothing, she looks over her shoulder and shakes her head. "You're fine. Just stay outta trouble, 'kay?" A sigh makes her slight shoulders rise and fall as she twists back and makes eye contact for the first time with the man, and her long lashes blink several times in seeming response to... something. But then, she smirks and puts her hands on her hips, looking the black-clad stranger up and down as she takes a bold but cautious step forward. "And how exactly do I stand out?" she asks, her eyes narrowing.
The man in black raises his cane and gestures towards the Nahrahm in a broad arc.
"See how they move. Like fish that have lived in the same pond all their life. The current of this place is familiar to them. The sights, familiar. This is their home."
Matching the girl's earlier boldness, the man in black takes a step forward. Within arm's reach, now, but still distant enough for propriety.
"You are like the puddle jumper of my home. These were not your waters. Maybe they are now, but they have not always been. And also..."
The man in black's eyes remain fixed on the girl's, but he raises his head, sniffing the air. "You do not smell of this place."
Glancing around at the gesture of his cane, the girl frowns as she watches the now familiar movement of the crowd in the plaza. When she'd arrived here it had been wonderfully overwhelming, so many strange new people in one place, but his words remind her once more of her outsider status, and she cuts him a sharp look as he sniffs the air. "You don't smell like you've hit the 'fresher recently, if you don't mind my saying," she retorts with all the offended vanity of a lovely girl on the cusp of womanhood. "But no, I haven't noticed a tall offworlder, with a scar, and with or without a moustache. Any other distinctive... features?" She takes a step back now and leans nonchalantly against the base of the statue again, her arms folding over her chest.
The man in black scrutinizes the girl. With the mask covering his face and the hood casting his eyes into shadow, it is difficult for some to tell his intentions, but there is something in his stance that is more clinical than lustful. His gaze pauses at equipment at her waist.
"He's probably armed. It is said he has the death sentence on twelve systems. Murder. Disfigurement. A man like that has an air about him. Like I said. He stands out. I mean to take him in. You should point me in his direction, if you've seen him."
The man in black's eyes narrow as he studies the girl's face. "Unless you are helping him. Perhaps with you he has already struck a deal."
She seems unfazed by his inspection of her. Instead her gaze lifts upwards to the sky where gently wafting clouds obscure the giant discs of the two moons hanging tranquilly in their orbits. She seems in fact bored with his pronouncements, rolling her eyes as the list of the man's crimes is given.
But the last suggestion -- or accusation? -- straightens her spine, and her hands drop to her sides as she looks into the shadows obscuring his features. "I know you don't know me," she says with a toss of her head. Her hand goes to rest briefly at the instrument clipped to her belt that had caught his attention, but more in a gesture of reassurance than threat. "However, I can assure you, I do not make deals with or harbor murderers. I haven't seen anyone like you're describing, but if I do, I daresay he will come to justice."
Though the man in black does not flinch or recoil at the change in stance, there is a stillness in the air around him as the girl's hand moves towards the equipment at her waist. His grip on his cane shifts ever so slightly, two fingers moving to coil behind what would be the neck of the rough-hewn wolf's head. This was not the first time someone went for their weapon while he asked them questions.
When her hand hovers over the unfamiliar rod rather than the more obvious blaster at her side, the man in black's eyes narrow. Curious.
"The words of a marshal coming from a girl barely old enough to get her True Name." The man in black's are delivered in a quiet voice, more as an observation than an insult. "If you see him, do not approach. He might kill you. He might not. Either way, he'd slip away. And his bounty is mine."
As the air stills between them, the girl seems pleased with his reaction, however unintended it may be, and she watches his hand gripping the staff with a wary and ready stance. Her hands clench and then relax, falling away from any potential weapons she might have in her arsenal, and she rests back on her heels. "True Name? I'm Sarna Valios Starker," she says with a perceptible swelling of pride. "Collect your bounty if you will, hunter. But I assure you that your quarry will not bring me to harm. Do you require assistance bringing him in?"
There is a pause before the man in black speaks. Not a long pause, but enough space between the girl's words and his own to mark a missed step. A moment of registering. Not long enough to contemplate, but perhaps long enough to memorize.
Again, red eyes take in the full measure of Sarna from the foot to brow. Another assessment. He marks the moment by tapping his cane on the ground once more.
From the looks of the man in black, the imposition of his garments and mannerism, one might expect the bounty hunter to dismiss the girl's offer out of hand. Perhaps with a derisive laugh. What could a waif of a girl like her possibly have to offer a seasoned bounty hunter?
"10 percent," the man in black says. "If you want to assist in the hunt."
The scoffing laugh comes from the girl instead. "Try again," she says, arching a delicate brow. Behind her the little droid wheeps plaintively, and she shushes him with a wave of her slim hand. "I'm not going to do all the work for ten percent," she says in a reasonable voice. "I can make that much playing cards in the cantina, without any risk to myself."
"You're bold." The compliment is offered with ease and sincerity, quickly ruined by the words that follow. "A less generous assessment would be foolish. Besides. You can't know if you'd make more gambling. I told you 10 percent. Not 10 percent of how much."
The man in black closes his eyes and lifts his head as if sniffing the air again. He turns ever so slightly to his right, away from the tall statues. "You would not do all the work. A less generous assessment would be to say that you have slowed me down already while the trail is cooling. And I do not know if you will be an asset or a liability, though I will give you the former as you are both brave and armed."
He opens his eyes and gestures with his cane towards the droid. "Besides. I would have offered you 15, but you are going to insist on THAT thing coming, too. That makes it 10. Because that thing makes ME a lot less generous."
A glimmer of irritation crosses Sarna's delicate features, but it only lasts for a moment. Her full lips purse thoughtfully, and she ignores the doleful dings and bleeps coming from Vee-Four. "I get it, you don't like droids, get over it." There is a pause then, and she takes a few steps away from the strange black-clad man. "But the trail is not cooling," she murmurs in a distant voice. Sarna lifts her chin, her lids lower over her vivid eyes, and inexplicably one hand lifts in a strange gesture, turning in the air near her cheek as her attention shifts out into the crowd. A thrum of power fills her and radiates from her small form. "Your prey is not far... " In one corner of the plaza, a vendor of speeder rentals converses with another, and a faint smile crosses her face. "But not for long. There." She points and then steps beside the hunter with a satisfied expression. "Twenty-five percent."
The shift in power and the drawing upon unseen forces is not lost on the man in black. He stiffens, a corresponding response drawn from his heart and mind, the core of his being alight like a torch on the darkest night. The warm rays of gentle sunlight. The prickling chill of a dark shadow. The stirring. The curse. The True Source.
He does not move as she places herself beside him, save to follow her with his unfortunate, bloody eyes. Her smile is a shock, like a bow and a curtsey after an act of blasphemy. It is a smug smile, but there is joy in it, nonetheless.
He allows himself to be filled with The True Source, more than the mere trickle he uses to keep himself alive. He fills himself to buy time to think. There is clarity of purpose in The True Source. A clearing of the mind. A way to step aside from the complex churn of emotions and be truly in the present. One with the verdant grass, the reaching trees. Even the minute space between the stones of the statuary. At one with the moment and with the place.
Enough time to re-reach the core of his pragmatism.
"You're back up to 15 percent." There is a hitch in his rough voice. Even finding his core of pragmatism, it is difficult to clear himself of all the emotion that comes from being in the presence of someone else so cursed. So wretched. "I think you would do it for less for one simple reason. You're bored."
For all her youth, the girl seems self-assured and relaxed in her abilities; after all she has been trained in the Jedi arts since an infant, and they are nothing if not second nature to her. The quiet seething of the hunter's emotions are not utterly lost on her, and she gives him an askance look as he makes his offer as well as his assessment of her situation. The irony brings a reflexive smile that brightens her expression and makes her seem somehow even younger than she is. "Oh, but you're wrong! How could I be bored here?" She gesture toward the plaza, reveling in the beauty, the commotion, the life and joy that seems to emanate from the people here. "They are fascinating, are they not? So many of them, too. And not just the people, but --" Turning in a graceful pirouette, she laughs aloud and lifts both her hands. "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful as this world? Seeing a holo is nothing like being on the real world."
She shakes her head and turns back to the strange man. "Fine, we can do fifteen, but only because you're going to lose him if you don't hurry, and we don't have time to haggle."
"It's a deal." Without so much as a nod or a handshake, the man in black trods in the direction Sarna indicated, moving more quickly than he had when approaching the statues. He continues to hold the cane in his left hand, no sign of a limp.
Confident she's moving with him -- he sensed a certain level of pragmatism in her to match his own -- he speaks without looking at her. "I have not spent much time on this world, but I can tell you that it does compare to where I am from. There is beauty in this place, but this city... it's like finding a rodent swimming in your broth."
As the pair leave the shadows of the statuary and enter the stream of pedestrian traffic, a boy half Sarna's age tracks the hunter with eyes as large and blue as mountain ponds. In one hand, the boy holds a credit stick. The other, a simple com unit. The boy rubs a thumb across the cred stick as he brings the communicator to his lips.
Indeed, without hesitation Sarna moves to keep up with the black-clad hunter, her own white cloak fluttering at her shoulders. His assessment of the place is perplexing, and she glances at his strange profile as they hurry through the plaza. "The city is beautiful," she protests as if it would be illogical to say otherwise. "It's certainly better than living on a ship. And have you ever seen a more content people?" Nothing of this place reminds her of the chaotic tales she'd heard of her own far-off home.
Behind them, Vee-Four ramps his way along in an attempt to keep up, bleating his woes as the trio pass by the boy with the communicator. The tiny droid backs up on his wheel and points his ocular sensors at the boy, his beeping growing adamant enough to get Sarna's attention, and he wheels deliberately into his legs. The girl turns, gasping, and starts off at a run in their direction. "Keep going, he's got a buddy!" she instructs the bounty hunter. "Hey, you! Kid!" she shouts at the child.
The man in black quickens his pace, and The True Source is with him. Anxiety, fear, and anger wash away as the bounty hunter pushes forward. He is one with the moment, a part of him feeling the brief burst of pain in the child's knee when the droid rams him. He is there with Sarna as she runs to intercept the little spy before he can get away. And he is ahead of them near the vendor where his prey -- their prey -- is reacting to the words of the boy in his ear.
The prey is a man much as the bounty hunter described. Tall, thin to the point of gaunt, with a ragged scar running up his left cheek that twists his mouth into a permanent sneer. No mustache adorns his upper lip, perhaps an attempt to throw off pursuers. Perhaps he might have even made it to the next system if Sarna hadn't pointed him out. Spotted and cornered, the scarred man draws his blaster, turns, and fires.
The man in black responds almost as fast as the blaster bolts fly. The cane whirls in his hand. Just before the red beams of energy strike, the wooden weapon crackles and hums with power. For a split second, it takes on the qualities of the sun, a golden hue surrounding it. The blaster bolt strikes the glowing rod with a boom and glances off harmlessly into the sky.
The bounty hunter's weapon loses its halo of golden light. He continues his pursuit of the prey.
Sarna comes skidding to a stop in front of the boy, realizing it's already too late to prevent him from getting the word out, and she swears under her breath. He takes off running and Vee-Four is in pursuit until the young girl lfts her voice to stop him. "Let him be, Vee. He's just a kid." Swiveling on a heel, she evaluates the situation, and gasps as their objective begins firing blaster shots at the hunter. There are screams as people leap or run for safety in the sudden panic, but Sarna is riveted by the way that seemingly ordinary wooden staff in the hunter's hands became something else entirely. Something new and different, as most things are, and her curiosity is piqued. Certainly the Force was in use here, for the first time by someone other than herself, and she jogs after them until coming to a gradual stop, extending her hand and summoning the Force.
The blaster in the fugitive's grip is ripped away by an unseen hand, and a moment later he finds his feet are unable to reach the pavement. Sarna's eyes are all but shut as she stands stock still, keeping the would-be escapee in place a meter above the ground.
If there had been any shred of doubt about the girl and her connection to The True Source, it evaporated when the scarred man's feet left the ground. But had there been any doubt left? The ironic will of The All-Mother knew no bounds.
The scarred man's eyes are wide with terror. He begins to search himself with his hands, looking for the rope or apparatus trapping him in the air. Panicked sounds escape him, and a brief breeze rushes past him, carrying to Sarna and the bounty hunter the unmistakable scent of fresh urine.
The man in black closes the distance to the scarred man. He raises his cane like a club. One quick blow to the head and the struggling, scarred man would be knocked out. Easy to scoop up and carry off to the ship.
But no. There was a wrongness to this the man in black could not let pass.
"Put him down. We will not take him like this."
It seems for a moment that the girl will protest. She sputters, glancing at the black-clad man, but something about the terror in the fugitive's eyes washes over her senses and takes the joy out of the hunt. Sarna does not argue, but instead gives a firm nod of her delicate chin, and as her hand lowers to her side, their prey is allowed control again of his own legs and mobility. "Very well. You're welcome, by the way," she says, relinquishing control of the situation to the hunter.
Her tiny droid companion comes rolling up behind the girl, stopping at her heels, and she crouches down next to him and pats his head as if they are old friends in need of consolation.
Freed from the invisible bonds, the gaunt man stumbles when his feet hit the ground. He catches his balances, glares at the two people hunting him, then turns to run. There is no dignity in his movement. Whatever crimes he may have committed in the past, in that moment he's just a scared man trying to get away from forces he can't understand.
So too is the bounty hunter freed from whatever held him back. Before his prey can take more than a single step away, the cane whistles through the air in a downward arc, striking the scarred man on the back of an ankle. Something breaks with a loud crack. It is not the wooden cane.
The scarred man falls. He catches himself on his hands and knees, but it's no use. Before he can make any further attempts at escape, the man in black steps forward and cracks him on the head with his staff. The world in the eyes of the prey collapses into a long dark hallway before consciousness fully escapes him. A merciful escape from the pain of a broken ankle.
The man in black bends down and hoists the scarred man onto and over one shoulder. For the first time that day, he uses the cane to push himself up, the tool used at last for what might be its most obvious purpose.
"Good. To use The True Source to harm someone is a perversion. You should know this."
The crowd has fallen away, gasping and murmuring in shock at the display before them. The rarity of a Force User is certainly evident by the reaction of the people in the plaza who are either frozen in place or fleeing in fear. As the hunter's great staff comes cracking down on the hapless fugitive, Sarna flinches at the sound of broken bone, but is only momentarily troubled, and she straightens back up to her full height, her shoulders set squarely and brow furrowing. "I don't think that I'm the one who did any harm," she says in a flat tone as the hunter hefts his now-unconscious prey over his shoulder. "If you're talking about the Force, in any case. Is that what you mean by the... True Source?"
The man in black hefts his captive, adjusting the weight of the unconscious man into an easy carry. He shifts the cane to his right hand, which for the moment offers a greater range of movement.
"The True Source of All Souls from which all life carries but a piece. Borne from the All Mother, blessed by the strength and wisdom of the All-Father, we carry with us a piece of a common whole, nurturing and strengthening it by the righteousness and purity of our body and our actions." The words are delivered in the same coarse voice, but there is a quality of resignation to it. He could have been describing a cloud formation or the mating habits of the Telgossian Spike Beetle. Certainty without passion. "Everyone should know this, Sarna. Everyone."
The man in black begins the march back the way they'd come. He gestures for Sarna to follow. "Come. I owe you 15 percent. I will give this to you as well as a choice."
The crowds part to make way for the girl, the hunter, and his quarry, and most seem relieved that the commotion is over, and the normal routine of the day can resume. There is a moment's hesitation before Sarna falls in behind the bounty hunter, her curiosity winning the day in the end. Another philosophy of the Force? Even if different from hers, he's the only person from this galaxy she's met who even knows of the existence of the Force. Her youthful enthusiasm seems to burst from her, the light of her Force-essence a flaming candleglow that refuses to be diminished, a stark contrast to the lukewarm recital he just offered of his own beliefs. "I'm coming, I'm coming. And exactly what choice are you talking about?"
It takes the man in black several steps to form a response. It isn't that the words are difficult to find. He's not distracted by occasional shocked glances of passers-by, and the weight of their quarry is light compared to other burdens he carries. No. It's the streak of pragmatism forcing him to speak carefully. If he presented his case incorrectly, Sarna Valios Starker would flee and he would not be able to chase after her.
If she fled, he wouldn't be able to give her the currency he owed her. Agreements must be kept.
"This connection we have to the True Source." Careful. Gentle. "It is rare. It is dangerous. Some of us with this connection are given a sacred duty to go forth and offer the peace and mercy of oblivion."
The man in black seeks the peace and calm of The True Source. In connecting, there is steadiness and balance. His voice, harsh as a tree bark, smooths and steadies. "My Selas name is Malideus of the Wood. There will come a time when I can not continue with my duty. I am going to give you the choice of taking up my cause with me. With training, you will know peace as I do. This choice, I will give to you."
It's to the man's advantage that while confident and independent, the girl is callow, young, and eager to impress. She takes in the bounty hunter's words as if they are a lesson, and behind her, Vee-Four gives a lamenting wheep and whistle that she ignores. "Malideus of the Wood. That's a different sort of name." She has questions, too many to count, but the first virtue of a Jedi is patience, and she calms her mind and her spirit, letting the familiar flow of the Force fill her with its assurance that answers would come in time. "I already have a Master," she admits. "But I do want to hear more. And you never did tell me what fifteen percent of the reward is even going to be..." Her lilting voice fades as the group disappears back into the crowd of Tier City.