R0-N1 chirped a question at Stretch, who gave him a shrug as he readied his weapon. “You’re on your own, R-zero. You can either wait here, or I guess try to find the Inquisitor.” He jogged into the courtyard to join the fray.
R0-N1 watched the trooper depart, then picked what seemed like a safe path and headed down it. There must be some way I can be useful, he thought.
R0-N1 searched his memory for the last time he had been on Ryndellia. Things like “how to unlock doors” were always kept handy, but recalling events beyond that took more effort. Especially when it had been…yes, hundreds of years since he was here last. What could Morek have found that would still be relevant after all that time? The beings on Ryndellia were not particularly long-lived, not like Wookiees or Hutts, at any rate. They had above-average lifespans for humanoids, but they lived decades, not centuries. It seemed unlikely that Morek was after any particular person, no matter what she had told the Seventh Sister.
Is there some resource here she is looking into? R0-N1 inventoried what he knew of the city of Alqassar itself and the surrounding planet more generally.The images of Ryndellia that first came up didn’t match his current experience at all. There was no unending acidic drizzle, nor was the atmosphere corrosive. Instead, the sky was blue and the area surrounding Alqassar was lush and green. R0-N1 began to wonder if Morek had made a mistake. He cross-checked his information, and confirmed that nothing was faulty.
Digging deeper, he found the answer. Ryndellia had previously been a planet full of life, but a mining accident in the southern hemisphere had cracked open the planet’s crust and caused a cascading series of chemical reactions, poisoning the atmosphere. That’s when R0-N1 had last been here, as part of a Republic rescue mission. His master at the time was here working with a team of Jedi and planetary officials to help coordinate a global airlift, getting citizens off-world before the effects of the disaster spread around the planet.
Except the population around Alqassar refused to leave. R0-N1 replayed a conversation between his master, the local governor, and man dressed in a simple brown embroidered tunic known as Baohu.
“There you are, Master Dalie. Maybe you can talk some sense into these people.” The governor gestured at a group of people clustered near a cave entrance, which would eventually become the airlock R0-N1 had just helped everyone get through.
Master Dalie nodded to both in silent greeting, and stared in the direction of the cave entrance for a moment before responding. “Perhaps. Am I to understand that the residents here are reluctant to leave?”
“If by ‘reluctant,’ you mean are they more stubborn than an unbroken Ronto, yes. I have explained to them repeatedly that this planet is eating itself alive, and unless they want to choose between dying of starvation and having their flesh stripped clean off their bones, they need to pack up and get on the nearest transport as soon as possible.”
The Jedi nodded calmly. “I’m sure they understand the situation, governor. What’s happening on Ryndellia is clear, and hardly a secret.” He turned to Baohu. “Perhaps you would care to explain? You do know that this planet will soon be incapable of supporting life, yes?”
“Yes, Master Jedi. We are aware. However, we believe that this location can survive the calamity if given a chance. Moreover, I believe that it is my duty to protect this space. If we could just have—“
The governor interrupted in exasperation. “Do you hear yourself? This is madness. You want to protect a hole in the ground?”
Baohu pursed his lips, but stayed calm. “You know perfectly well, governor, that what is inside that cave is sacred and life-giving. You should want to protect it as much as I do.”
“I am trying to protect you, you thick-headed fanatic. Forgive me for valuing humanoid life over some pile of rock. If you weren’t such a—“ She stopped short at a gesture from the Jedi.
“Governor, I think it would be useful if I could see for myself what is inside that cave. I sense there is more here than ‘some pile of rock,’ as you put it.”
The governor stared at Dalie dumbfounded, then threw up her hands in disgust and stormed away. “Fine, do what you want. I wash my hands of you all.”
Baohu bowed slightly to Dalie. “Thank you, Master Jedi. If you will follow me?”
R0-N1 followed the two men down a slight hill and into an enormous cave. A path wound through it, closely following the natural contours of the rock. Glow globes hovered over the path, providing just enough light to illuminate the way. In the center of the cave was a large depression, forming a natural amphitheater. A low wall had been built around it, beyond which were a series of benches arranged in concentric rows. All of this surrounded what appeared to be an enormous glowing urchin.
In a low voice, Dalie said, “Is this it?”
Baohu nodded. “Yes. This is the Parantua Stone, though the stone itself is hidden. What you see is a layer of bioluminescent lichen that grows on it.”
Dalie reached out a hand towards a small patch where the lichen was thin. He closed his eyes in concentration.
“You may touch it if you wish,” said Baohu.
The Jedi opened his eyes and looked at the Ryndellian as if to say, “are you sure?” When Baohu nodded, he stepped forward and put his palm flat on the stone. The lichen around his palm appeared to dim slightly, then pulsed even brighter than before. He closed his eyes again. “It’s remarkable. I have never felt the Force so strongly in something that is not alive.”
Baohu smiled. “Life can take many forms, Master Jedi. Now, do you understand?”
The Jedi removed his hand from the stone, and the light subsided back to normal. “Perhaps. Can you not take it with you, though? Surely, it would still be better to escape Ryndellia.”
Baohu shook his head. “We don’t think so. In years past, visitors used to come here and chisel the stone, in the hopes of being able to take some part of its healing powers with them. This never worked, and they were left with nothing but lifeless slivers of rock. Not knowing where the Parantua Stone ends and Ryndellia begins, we fear its removal would destroy it.”
Master Dalie considered this for a long moment, then looked around the cave. “You realize there is no guarantee that what is happening outside won’t eventually penetrate here, yes? I can arrange for this to be sealed off and transformed into a livable space, but you will have to maintain it yourselves. You will be trapped, and any breach…”
Baohu smiled. “Yes, we understand. We just want to be given a chance.”
“I’ll see what I can do, then.”
Inquisitor Morek swept through Alqassar, her cloak billowing behind her. She ignored the chaos developing in the underground city as stormtroopers took control of it. The few citizens who dared approach her froze when they got close, and only watched her go by, fear and uncertainty in their eyes. More than one held a loved one against them protectively as she passed.
As she entered the amphitheater surrounding the Parantua Stone, a woman called out to her. “What is going on? Why are you—“
Quickly taking in the woman’s garb, Morek cut her off. “Are you the local priestess?”
“I…I suppose so, yes. Can I help you? What’s going on?” Her eyes darted around the periphery of Morek’s helmet, uncertain where to look.
Morek commanded, “Come with me. What’s your name?” She proceeded onward, without waiting for a reply.
The priestess half jogged to keep up. “Althea. But I don’t understand…”
Within moments, the two women were facing the Parantua Stone. Morek unstrapped her prosthetic arm, letting it fall to the ground. Staring at the bioluminescence, Morek spoke to Althea without looking at her. “How does it work?” she demanded.
Althea looked from Morek to the stone, her eyes finally settling on the Inquisitor’s mangled stump. She sucked in her breath. “Is that what this is all about? You could have just—“
Morek barked, “How does it work, priestess?”
Althea’s voice caught in her throat for a split second, then she replied as if the words were being ripped from her. “You touch it. It feeds us, and it feeds from us.” She shook her head as the immediate effects of Morek’s will on her wore off. Her gaze drifting back to Morek’s arm, she said, “But it takes time. And it’s not a miracle worker…”
Althea continued, but Morek had stopped listening. She stuck her good hand between her knees, using them to remove the gauntlet she wore on it. She took a half-step forward, and planted her hand on the stone, smashing and tearing the delicate lichen, until fragments of it fell through her fingers in dry clumps. The remaining lichen around her hand glowed more intensely as she held her hand on the stone. She pressed harder against it, staring at her good hand. At first, the lichen appeared to grow again, replacing what Morek had crushed.
A grunt escaped from Morek, as she shifted her gaze to the amputated stump of her other arm. In a husky voice, she said, “Yes, that’s it. I can feel it inside me. Good…” The raw flesh on the stump of her arm began to heal. It scabbed over, and then those dry scabs fell off revealing healthy green mottled skin, butted up against the black and red coloring at the elbow. At the same time, the healthy lichen around her hand turned dark as the life ebbed from it.
And then, something changed. The Inquisitor’s arm began turning dark again. She screamed in pain as the hand on the stone began to smoke and stink of cooked flesh. She yanked it away, leaving chunks of skin behind, fused to the stone. The reddish glow of her visor shone brighter than ever. She held the stump up to her face, examining it closely even as the flesh returned to its prior state, albeit without the oozing sores. She turned on Althea, demanding, “What did you do?”
Althea blinked in surprise and confusion. “I didn’t do anything! What did you do? I’ve never seen the stone do that before.”
Morek growled, “Do not play games with me priestess. Why didn’t it work?”
“What are you talking about? It did! Just a moment ago, your arm looked like it had been gnawed on by a rancor, and now it’s…well, it’s better, isn’t it?” She gestured helplessly at Morek’s arm.
“Not better enough. Does it look like I can hold a weapon?”
“A weapon?” Althea’s eyes grew round as saucers. “You want to regrow your arm?”
Morek stood straighter, but didn’t respond to the question. She only waited for Althea to continue with her train of thought. It didn’t take long.
“But…forgive me, I don’t know what you are under all that armor. Is that something you, or your species can do?”
“There is nothing I cannot do, priestess.”
Althea pursed her lips. “Well, then I suppose the stone may be able to help, but there is only so much it can do. As I said, the stone feeds us, and it feeds from us. We give as much as it does, and the effects are small, but perhaps given enough time…?”
Silently, Morek picked up her gauntlet, stuck it under her armpit and wriggled her hand into it. She gestured at her prosthesis, which slapped into her waiting hand. As she strapped it on, she said, “I don’t have time, priestess.”
Turning away, Morek marched out of the amphitheater. She flagged a pair of troopers near the entrance, and gesturing towards Althea and the stone, she said, “Bring that stone up to the ship. The priestess, too.” Pausing to reflect for a moment, she added, “And the Ryndellians.”
“All the Ryndellians, Inquisitor?”
She looked around, taking in the size of the underground city. “No, not all of them. Enough of them.”