By Colleen Winters
The cantina was crowded and noisy, filled with travelers, many of whom were on Wynnye for the famous solstice festival. The establishment was also full of the usual run of merchants and spacers passing through the busy port city of Telei. Humans, humanoids, and other aliens rubbed shoulders as they ordered food and drink. Space was at such a premium that many patrons had to share tables with strangers. A table in the back of the cantina was one of these, occupied by three small humanoids, a Rodian - a tall green creature with scaly skin, antenna and a proboscis, and a tall, broad-shouldered human wrapped in a dark hooded cloak. The green alien was occupied with poring over a data pad containing the accounts receivable for his business.
The tall human nursed a beaker of green liquid and listened to the conversation of the three other human-like occupants of the table. The man was a keen observer. These three looked very much like human children except he had noticed that they had bushy tails growing from their posteriors. They did not seem to be traveling with adults so he was left to wonder if they were the adult form of their species or if they truly were children. The man's name was Kir Kanos. He was the last survivor of the crimson-clad Imperial guards who had served the late Emperor Palpatine. A year ago, he had taken a vow of vengeance against the group of conspirators who had helped to engineer the death of the Emperor. An iron code of honor and obligation bound him to his lonely and deadly path. He had slain the ringleader of the group, leaving behind him a broad swath of destruction and earning him the enmity of some of the warriors of the Rebellion. None of this deterred him from his course. He was determined to finish serving justice upon all those who deserved it, at which point he hoped to have earned his fondest wish: a warrior's death. He had stopped at this cantina while his starship was undergoing maintenance. In his dark cloak he attracted little attention and was content to be ignored. For some time the small people's conversation washed over him, a meaningless babble of sound. Then, little by little, he began to listen to the words. Their speech was outlandish but if he listened closely he found that he could understand it. He decided after some moments of eavesdropping they were indeed children.
"Two down and one to go." The child with blue hair, who might have been a girl, said. "I can't believe what we had to go through to get these things." Here she held out a small pouch to her red-haired companion. "I hope King Gwyddno is pleased when we return with this stuff."
"I sure hope so. He was certainly mad enough to throw us into the dungeon for a century or two. Returning these things to him should calm him down," said the boy.
"He always was kind of hypersensitive. After all, the Queen's palfrey looked so much better with orange fur," said the one with curly black hair.
"I think it was the green mane and tail that really got him angry," said the second boy. The others chuckled ruefully.
"All we need now is the Cauldron of Ceredwen. I hope Kuro can find it." Blue Hair chipped at a stain on the table with the knife from her table setting.
"Hey, don't worry. This's Kuro we're talking about. If anyone can find anything, he can." Black Hair spoke in an encouraging tone.
Red Hair took the pouch and clinked the contents, then passed it to his friend Black Hair. This child opened the pouch and drew out a length of black cord. Attached to the cord was a smooth, flat ring that appeared to be made of a pale green stone, which stood out in high contrast to the brown skin of his hands. He let the ring dangle for a bit, then he lay it on the table. "The Ring of Semmile, which weighs truth in the heart of the wearer. It don't look like much."
"Yeah, but I don't think I would care to test its virtue. Still, I think our other prize is far more dangerous," said Blue Hair.
"What, this?" Red Hair rolled what appeared to be a large marble out of the pouch and into the palm of his hand. He held it up. It looked like a cheap child's toy of clear glass filled with glitter. The Rodian glanced up, flicked an antenna at it, then returned to his accounts.
"The Beast Stone, which will turn the holder into whatever beast he or she has been growing inside. I never even heard of such a thing until the King told us to go and find it."
Blue Hair answered him. "I've heard about something like that from the Grandmother, about people growing a beast inside them. She had a way to fix up your hands so that you could feel the paw of the creature a person was becoming. As I recall, you had to put your hands in her fire to make it work. I don't ever remember a magical article that would actually change someone into the beast they were growing. But King Gwyddno has been around an awful long time. He already has all sorts of strange stuff in his treasure house."
"Could be, but I wonder if it really works? I mean, I always thought this
would look like some kind of huge impressive rock. You know, the sort of stone
you would find in a temple." Red Hair held it up and turned it so that
the light sparkled off the glitter. "Look at this, it doesn't look like
anything but an ol' marble."
Blue Hair glared at her friend. "Quit waving that thing around! You know it's dangerous!" She grabbed the object out of Red Hair's hand.
"I've never seen children take a treasure-hunting game so seriously," Kir Kanos said. The small group suddenly noticed him.
"What game?" Blue Hair gave him a sharp look. "We're on a quest for the King of Avaw Avanc. Who are you?"
The man looked at them strangely. His face was lost in the shadows of his cloak, but his hazel eyes shone out from the gloom, bright and direct. "I am called Kir Kanos." He cautiously waited a few moments and when his name caused no reaction among his listeners he continued. "I have not heard of your king nor have I heard of the planet Avaw Avanc, and I have knowledge of nearly every world in the Empire which is inhabited by sentient beings. I therefore conclude that you are playing a game. Where are your parents? It can be dangerous to travel alone."
"Dangerous, ha!" Black Hair said. "You don't know the half of it! We vowed never to go back to this crazy dimension ever again!"
"Our 'parents' don't know anything about this," said Blue Hair, ignoring her companion. "With any luck, we'll be back before they even notice we was gone. I'm Tip." She indicated the two boys who sat beside her. "This is Toddy." She nodded at the one with red hair. "And this is Kon." The boy with black hair saluted.
Kanos frowned at the children. He himself was unfamiliar with the raising of youngsters and his own childhood seemed a remote lifetime away, but he could not believe that their parents would allow them to hang out in spaceport cantinas. He threw back the hood of his cloak, revealing a craggy, lean face marred from forehead to chin by a lightsaber scar. Kanos spoke sternly. "I want you to pick up your toys and leave this place now. Your parents will be worried about you."
The two boys groaned at this while the one called Tip waved her sparkling marble at him. "What toys? This is the Beast Stone, a magical talisman of great power." Tip had forgotten that the language translation spell they used when they traveled not only enabled them to understand the dialects of the people here, but that they also were understood by those listening. This had its disadvantages.
Kanos leaned toward the children across the table. The Rodian gathered up his
data pad with a huff of annoyance and moved to an empty seat at a quieter table.
"I heard what you said earlier about this stone." Kanos favored them with a fierce scowl, intending to intimidate them into obedience. This technique usually worked very well on adults who had good reason to fear an Imperial guardsman. "I have never heard anything so ridiculous! This is just a child's toy. There is no way this could turn anyone into anything." With a sudden fluid movement he snatched the stone from Tip's hand. At once the children leaped at him, shouting warnings and grabbing at his hand. He stood up and held the thing on high far out of their reach. They acted as if the stone were really magical.
"Give it back! Give it back!" they shouted. "You'll turn into a beast!" Some of the other patrons looked at them with expressions ranging from amusement to irritation. Kanos gripped the stone tightly in one hand while he fended off his small agitators easily with the other. None of them had anything he could consider a real weapon, so he did not feel the least bit threatened. He was amazed at how much import they gave their game. His hand tingled slightly.
"You are being foolish. How can you say this causes people to change when
you have been holding it yourself with no effect? Be reasonable. This stone
cannot change..." The tingle grew stronger. With a twitch Kanos took his
eyes off the children to look at the stone. It was glowing brightly. The glow
and the tingling sensation which came with it ran quickly up his arm and in
a moment had swept through his entire body.
As if from a long distance away he heard Tip say, "Uh-oh! It's too late now!"
The tingle became a maddening fire. For a moment Kanos could not see. He blinked his eyes hard, trying to clear away the gray cloudiness that marred his vision. Finally sight returned, although it seemed oddly distorted, as if he were viewing the world through strange lenses. The Beast Stone slipped from his hand and he tried to grope after it, but without success. It fell onto the floor and skittered away. His fingers refused to work, having stiffened into immobility. He raised his hand into his field of view and saw a cloven hoof instead.
"Well I'll be darned! He's turned into this universe's version of a unicorn," Kon said, staring with wonder at the large creature which now sat on his haunches across the table from them in Kanos's place.
"Actually, he looks a lot like some of the sculptures I've seen of the
Chinese Ki-Lin," Toddy said, "Only I thought the Ki-Lin were the size
of deer. He's about as big as a medieval charger."
The kitsune was correct; Kanos made an impressive sight. His horse-like body was large and powerfully muscled, his ebony coat was spangled with tiny scales which gleamed with red iridescent highlights. Strong legs terminated in cloven hooves. From his equine forehead grew a long, curved horn that shone as if made of steel. This horn swept upwards like the blade of a scimitar and looked to be as sharp. The large eyes burned with hot golden fire. A long, generous mane and tail of brilliant crimson hung down like the folds of his vanished cloak. His legs were also crimson up to the knees. With a lunge and shake, Kanos got up onto all four legs. Arching his neck he stared out over the heads of the crowd in the cantina. The mirror behind the bar caught his attention and he moved forward a pace or two for a clear view of his reflection. His ears shot forward as he took in his altered appearance. Then they plastered flat to his skull in anger and he turned back toward the table.
"You!" His voice came out as a low growl. The kitsune looked at him with various expressions of alarm.
"Not only is he bigger than an ordinary Ki-Lin but he's got big nasty teeth!" Toddy yelped.
"And he's having an off day!" Kon added.
"You see! I told you so! I told to not to touch it!" Tip shouted at him, waving her finger like an angry schoolmarm.
Behind them, the patrons of the cantina had now become aware of the creature which had arrived unexpectedly in their midst. People leaped to their feet, pointing and shouting.
"Great gods of space! It's a Kerynn! The holy beast! They're incredibly dangerous! They bring judgment on sinners! Run for your lives!" cried a native human dressed in the clothing of a businessman. Quite a few of the patrons began to do exactly that, fleeing out of the various doors of the establishment, screaming in panic. Kanos chose to ignore them. Raising a foreleg he brought it down sharply and smashed the table into flinders. "This is your doing!" he snarled. "Return me to my normal body. Now." When he spoke he revealed jaws armed with sharp predatory teeth.
Tip made soothing noises at him. "Take it easy, it's all right, we'll
figure out some way to fix things."
When Kanos showed no immediate sign of calming down, the kitsune decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Changing themselves into foxes, they dove onto the floor and quick as roaches they vanished under the tables.
"Everybody scatter! Find the Beast Stone!" Tip hissed in an urgent whisper. They scrambled about desperately. From the back of the cantina came the sounds of demolition as Kanos smashed his way among the tables and chairs. The few brave patrons who had lingered now ran for the doors.
Meanwhile, several of the panic-stricken people had come across a squad of
storm troopers and began to describe loudly, and with varying degrees of accuracy,
what had been happening in the cantina. The storm troopers, who represented
the forces of law and order in that part of the Empire, hastened off.
"I don't believe it. Kerynn are rarer than Hutt teeth! I'll just bet that old Rucible has been trying to sell engine fuel in place of his usual and half the patrons are having hallucinations!" snorted the squad leader, who had lived on-planet for several years. He hastened down the street with his comrades toward the scene of what appeared to be a mass panic in the spaceport district. Perhaps, he thought, some traveling confidence man slipped drugs into people's drinks in hopes of robbing them. A little Imperial justice would go a long way toward fostering a respectful attitude among the local population. He brought his blaster up into a ready position and the rest of the squad did likewise.
Tip ran as fast as she could under the cover of the furniture, looking for a telltale glitter. Her front paw squelched onto a cat-sized pinkish amoeba.
She drew back with a shudder and the amoeba rebounded unhurt. From somewhere to her left she heard Toddy shout "Hey! There's a mynock flopping around down here!"
"It's the Stone! People are trying to grab it! Follow the critters, we're on the right trail!" she called back, watching as something six-legged and porcine ran by, uttering a birdlike chirping. "Whoo, looks like lotsa bad karma here," she muttered. The smashing noises drew closer as Kanos homed in on the sound of their voices. He seemed to have adjusted to his new body because his movements, which had been slow and cautious, were now fast and considerably smoother.
Tip scuttled cautiously, moving as quietly as possible. She was almost to the front of the store when a soft sparkle caught her eyes. Returning to her human form, she grabbed up the object; which was indeed the Beast Stone, and thrust it into her pants pocket. Peering around an overturned table, she caught the eye of Toddy and gave him the OK sign. He returned a thumbs up gesture and crawled off to pass the news to Kon. Tip raised her head slowly to look over the edge of the table.
Kanos stood approximately in the center of the establishment, flicking his long red tail and glaring about the depopulated room. The host and hostess of the cantina cowered in terror behind the bar. The husband was anxiously reading a copy of his insurance policy to see if he was covered for damage caused by alien animals brought in by patrons. Kanos ignored them, looking about instead for signs of small humanoids with bushy tails. Tip drew a deep breath and stood up. "Hey there!"
Kanos' fierce equine face snapped at once in her direction. Tip noticed that he had an off-kilter white blaze running diagonally down across his face in place of his scar. "Stop breaking stuff and talk to me. We ought to be able to figure out a way to change you back." He took a step toward her and actually seemed to be thinking about it when a squad of storm troopers burst in the front door. They took one look at Kanos and swung their blasters around at him. Unfortunately for them, he was no longer where he had been standing. Scarcely had he seen the glimmer of white armor than he had launched himself toward them like a crimson missile. During the ensuing mayhem Tip collected her friends and they exited the cantina via a window. Taking shelter in the street they listened to the awful sounds coming from inside.
"You know, I don't think he likes those guys," Toddy said, flinching as a chest plate of armor hurtled out into the street like the peeled carapace of a crayfish. The interior of the armor gleamed wetly.
"No kidding! Most people don't like them, but he really seems to have a problem with 'em. I wonder if he's with the Rebellion?" Tip wondered.
"I dunno, I thought the Rebellion at least let people surrender. This guy sure don't look like he's taking prisoners," Kon said.
"He's a different kind of person - feels almost like a Jedi, only not quite. I don't know of too many people in the Star Wars universe who run around in red and black," Tip said. She cocked an ear. The level of noise coming from inside the cantina had diminished somewhat.
"Only people I know of who wear that particular shade of red are the Imperial guards," Toddy answered thoughtfully, crunching some snacks he'd swiped on his way out of the cantina. He was their resident expert on Star Wars. There was a long moment of silence while the three kitsune looked at each other, then in unison, they all slapped their hands to their cheeks in an imitation of The Scream.
"Aaugh!" shrieked Kon.
"Oh no!" Toddy cried.
"Oh yes, what else could it be?" Tip said.
"Holy Moley! What are we gonna do? We can't just let him run around like that, and you can bet those storm troopers will have a whole bunch of their little friends coming down here right quick, and things will get even worse." Kon said. "Why is he fighting with them storm troopers, anyway? They're all Imperials. I thought they were on the same side?"
"Religious differences? War of succession? Family feud? Who knows? Who cares?" Toddy snorted, waving his hands in annoyance.
"Maybe we need a little help?"
"We could really use a cowboy right about now," Tip said.
"How about a Jedi?" Kon pointed up the long and narrow street. Tip could see a young blond man in suspiciously familiar robes approaching. He was perhaps two blocks away, moving at a rapid walk toward the cantina.
"That's all we need I'm sure," Tip growled, "If he finds out Kanos is an Imperial guard things will get Really Interesting."
"So what? We grab 'im, tell him our story, he whacks Kanos, end of problem." Kon shrugged and looked carefree, at least until Tip boxed his ears.
"Bakka <idiot>! Are you forgetting we're responsible for his condition?" she hissed fiercely. "If we get him killed to weasel out of our obligation Carrick will kill US, and none too gently!" Carrick was a Terran were-unicorn and often acted en loco parentis to the kitsune. He could be counted on to provide moral guidance - and consequences - when necessary.
"But he's an Imperial, they're the Bad Guys!" Kon protested. Tip silenced him with a glare.
"He could be the Emperor himself, we'd still have to get him back to normal!" Thinking quickly, she said,
"Kon, Toddy, you guys go and keep tabs on Kanos. Follow him if you have to, but be careful. I'm going to intercept our favorite Jedi and see if I can't get him to help out."
"Awright, awright, let's do it." Kon gave in.
They slapped hands and broke up. Tip dashed up the street toward Luke. Kon and Toddy lurked near the cantina. The two magical foxes murmured spells of concealment.
Inside the cantina, storm trooper third class Ran Martyn removed his damaged helmet and looked about cautiously. He was a young clone who had survived to the grand old age of five. His future longevity seemed doubtful. From his prone position he could see the terrible red-maned creature that had attacked his squad standing not too far away. An overturned table lying on its edge provided some meager cover, but Ran was all too aware of how quickly the fierce animal could move. He had been knocked down in the initial onslaught and had lost all of the armor which had protected his right arm and chest. He was bleeding heavily from two blaster bolts that had penetrated the muscles of his upper arm as well, but he could not blame the animal for that, since it was a result of friendly fire during the melee. His overwhelmed comrades had been neither prudent nor careful about where they had been aiming and their mis-timed efforts had cost them a number of casualties.
A low groan from nearby caught his attention. After a search by feel he found his wounded squad leader lying under two other bodies. Carefully Ran rolled over and extricated the man. A quick check found wounds that would require medical attention, but that would not be immediately fatal. Ran decided that the best place for both of them would be outside the cantina - preferably somewhere far away from the dangerous animal, where he could bind up their injuries and seek medical aid.
He had lost his blaster early in the fight. Weakened by his wounds, Ran had no desire to continue combat with a creature that seemed to thrive on it. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder and spotted the dark animal with the blazing mane standing near the large and broken front window. Moving as quietly as possible in a low crouch, he half-carried, half-dragged his injured companion toward an exit in the side of the establishment that faced an alleyway. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached the door and managed to pull himself and his squad leader through it. Gently he pushed the door shut, praying to the gods of space that the animal would be unable to break it down. When he heard no sounds of immediate pursuit, Ran allowed himself a breath of relief. Hoisting his squad leader up in his arms, he staggered the short distance to the main street fronting the cantina. He found it difficult to focus as he stared up the road in the direction of the Imperial fortress, hoping to see reinforcements on their way. He saw nothing except a few groups of curious onlookers who were careful to keep at least a block away from the action. No one seemed inclined to come and help two injured storm troopers.
A warm puff of air brushed his cheek and he turned his head to stare into the hot golden eyes of the horned beast, which had somehow managed to leave the cantina and come up on him in utter silence. Ran felt his heart sink in dismay. The long, metallic horn that grew from the head of the animal hovered dangerously close to his neck. A twist of the creature's own neck would have served to part Ran's head from his body. He clutched the limp form of his squad leader, heedless of the pain in his arm, feeling the blood roar in his ears. There was no way he was going to be able to fight. He did not have a free hand to reach for a weapon, nor could he have outrun the animal, burdened as he was. To his credit, the thought of abandoning his squad leader did not cross his mind. After a moment's consideration he did the only thing he thought he could do. Holding the injured man tightly to his chest, he turned his back on the creature and pressed up against the wall of the building, using his body to shield his commander. Ran held his breath, squeezed his eyes shut and waited, expecting at any moment to be sliced open. His heart pounded painfully somewhere under his ribcage as he pressed his forehead against the rough wall.
Kir Kanos breathed heavily down the back of the man he had cornered, somewhat puzzled by his uncharacteristic behavior. Imperial storm troopers were not known for patience or calm deliberation, and to have one eschew combat in favor of protecting a wounded comrade was most unusual. He knew this from experience, since Royal Guards such as himself were taken from the ranks of the best storm troopers. He pushed his muzzle against the trooper's neck, inhaling the scent of blood mingled with sweat gone tangy with pain and fear. Familiar enough to him, those smells and under that, something else, something different.
Curious, Kanos searched the man, pushing against him roughly, breathing deeply all the while. The trooper made no attempt to either flee or fight; he simply braced himself against the shoving. There it was, that elusive scent, part of the man himself, Kanos decided. The smell and the feeling it imparted was somehow soothing to his nerves. The trooper was missing a good portion of his upper body armor; the cuirass, as well as the pauldron and vambrace that normally protected the arm. Kanos ran his sensitive muzzle down the man's neck, over his right shoulder and upper arm, and felt him twitch with pain as he found the blaster wounds, which were still oozing blood. Ugly looking, but he'd seen worse. Still, they were hurting. Kanos could feel it. On instinct he began licking them, cleaning away the external clots and then pushing his tongue in to where the flesh had been burned.
Ran discovered when you are frightened enough, it is almost impossible to make a sound, even if you want to. The rough inspection had been scary. When the animal began licking the blood from his arm, and then started on the wounds themselves, he thought he would simply faint from fright, convinced the creature was preparing to devour him piecemeal. The animal kept on working, showing no sign of wanting to tear at his arm, merely continuing to lick firmly at the exit wounds. An odd sensation began to fill them, spreading slowly down his arm and up into his shoulder and chest. Ran began to feel lightheaded. He wondered if the creature's saliva contained some sort of poison or natural drug. He swayed where he stood and the squad leader slipped gently from Ran's arms to lie at his feet. An awareness of the creature's even breathing and slow, steady heartbeat grew in him. That slowness tugged at him, pulling his own heart into syncopation. His fear faded and his breathing evened out.
The animal ceased licking for a moment and nudged him, pulling his shoulder away from the wall. "Turn," said a man's voice quietly in his ears. "Turn around." The deep tone was that of someone used to command and Ran obeyed it at once, facing outward. Strange, Ran thought as his view of the street was restored. There wasn't a human about who could have spoken to him.
Now that he had exposed his front, the horned animal proceeded to clean the
entry wounds on his arm with the same thoroughness. The lightheaded sensation
spread faster and Ran closed his eyes and sank slowly to his knees. The animal
didn't seem to mind, simply bending his long neck to follow him down. He was
making a low, rumbling noise that rose and fell with his breathing. The sound
was wonderfully calming.
Kanos ceased his efforts on the storm trooper's injuries. The bleeding had stopped and his condition felt much more stable. He raised his head and looked up and down the street, his own murderous mood having mysteriously abated. A knot of curious bystanders had gathered a block away, while two Jawas lingered across the street, whispering between themselves. Of the bushy-tailed youngsters there was no immediate sign. They can't hide from me forever he thought, moving away and tasting the breeze. The Jawas stank. With a curl of his nostrils he turned away, lifted into a long-striding canter, and moved off toward the center of town.
After some time, Ran felt someone touch his cheek and opened his eyes. Even with his eyes shut he had been able to feel the man and his smaller companion approaching. They felt different from the other people milling about. The man might have been close to his own physical age, but was smaller and of lighter build. Sun bleached blond hair fell across blue eyes. He wore the robes of a traveler. "Well, well," the man said quietly, "You've had a busy day." The girl beside him looked at Ran with concern.
"Strange animal," Ran said. "Fought us, then spared my life. Licked off my wounds. Feels better now." He squinted at the blond man. "You're very bright to look at. Why?"
"Bright? What do you mean?" Luke asked.
"You have a bright light around you. So does the girl. Yours is greenish. Hers is more blue." Ran looked at the few people staring at them a safe distance away and gestured at them with his good hand. "They all have light around them, too, but it's much softer. Yours is very bright."
"The Force - you have the Force," Luke said quietly. "I knew there was a reason the Force drew me to this world."
"Not possible," Ran protested, somewhat offended. "Force-users were all condemned by the Empire. There's no way my original template would have been cloned if he'd had any sort of power like that. I'm only a storm trooper."
"And could you see lights around people before?" Luke asked.
"No - not 'til today, not 'til after that wild animal cleaned my wounds." Ran looked at his arm, flexed it cautiously and found he could move it with almost no pain.
Luke touched Ran's head with his hands and made that subtle diagnostic push into his mind with the Force that he had learned to do. He was immediately rewarded by an instinctive return push from Ran. "He truly does have the Force," Luke said with some surprise.
"It's the doing of the unicorn - or kerynn - all right," Tip said. "On my home world they are beings of magic and power. They're kind of like the Force given a physical shape. They hate evil and have a thing about purity."
"So what did he do to him?" Luke asked, indicating Ran.
"He's full of unicorn spit. He must be really pure of heart, 'cause otherwise he'd be dead. That stuff's poison to evil beings," Tip said. "I'll just bet that's what caused him to suddenly have the Force."
"A creature that can awaken the Force in people?" Luke asked wonderingly. He had seen the red-maned animal gallop off as they had arrived. Now he wanted very much to see it close up. He could feel the echo of its Force-derived energy not too far away, moving toward the center of town. It no longer felt angry, which was a good sign.
"I told you they're magical. On my world they can even raise the dead."
"This one heals, at least," Luke said, running his hands gently over the now-closed wounds on Ran's arm. With some assistance, the storm trooper struggled to his feet.
"He kills, too," Ran added gruffly. "The cantina is full of our dead and I've got to get my squad leader to the medical center."
"Wait here a moment," Luke stepped away into the street and flagged down a cargo floater piloted by a small, hyperactive being with large, dark eyes and even larger ears. After an exchange of quiet words, they were able to send the injured squad leader in the direction of medical aid.
"We ought to be going after What did you say his name was?" Luke asked Tip.
"Kir. His name's Kir." Tip thought it wise to not mention the man's entire name. She wasn't sure if the Imperial guardsman had a rep, but decided it was best to be cautious. Luke is no dummy, she thought. He might figure it out eventually, but I'd rather he not twig to Kanos' former occupation too fast. The werefox did not want to think about what would happen if the two of them were introduced "properly".
"Well, given what happened here, we ought to find him as soon as possible. The local garrison will be sending out more squads, I assume." Luke looked at Ran, who nodded in agreement.
"Almost certainly. My own communicator was broken early in the fight, but as soon as they get any further reports, I'm sure they'll send out more squads." Ran frowned unhappily and ran a hand through his unkempt brown hair. "I should be reporting to the garrison now."
"No, actually you should be going to my ship in docking bay 104 and leaving with me as soon as I get that animal caught."
"What?! Desert?! Whatever for?" asked Ran in some alarm. He had the awful feeling that his nicely regimented life was about to undergo a complete change. The prospect was horrible.
Luke threw an arm around Ran's shoulders and steered him along. "You know you can't go back to the Empire now that you have the Force. Walk with us for a bit while we follow Kir. While I'm at it, let me tell you a little about the new Jedi academy I've been forming on Yavin " Luke's voice was earnest and persuasive and Ran listened with an innocent, open expression that was a match for Luke's own.
Behind the two men, Tip rolled her eyes heavenward and muttered, "Kami-sama!
Amida have mercy on fools, madmen, and Jedi!"
Kir lifted his head. The brief time he'd spent with the wounded storm trooper had made him feel good, very good indeed. He was happily ignorant of the intoxicating effect that the pure of heart had on Terran unicorns. Movement further down the street caught his eye. People were trooping in bunches by an intersection some three blocks away.
Mingled among the taller forms of the adults were the shorter bodies of children. What better place to hide? Kir thought. They won't be able to avoid me for long. I'm too good at uncovering the hidden. With a cheerful internal chuckle, he hastened his pace toward his new goal.
The two Jawas that had been trailing and watching him now spoke to each other.
"Phew! That was close!" muttered Kon.
"Thank Epona and our own glamour for keeping us safe. I don't really want to tangle with the likes of him. Did you see how he moved? Like a blessed tiger!" Toddy spoke in awe.
"Well, there's no help for it. Let's go keep him in sight. If you kin think of any clever way to grab him, I'm sure Tip would be grateful." Kon said as he shrank into fox form and began to run up the street.
"The only plan I can think of, me boy, is us finding a really big net and..." Toddy joined Kon on all fours.
"Never mind!" Kon sighed. The two foxes sprinted after Kir, who had nearly vanished ahead.
In short order, Kir reached the intersection and without pausing, boldly trotted out into the crowd, which parted to admit him. These people were unaware of the fight at the cantina, and while his size and coloring earned him curious stares, no one seemed frightened by his presence. Slowing his pace to a long-legged walk, he moved with the people, who as he took time to observe, were gaily decked out in bright robes and gowns. Ribbons and garlands of flowers graced the heads of young and old. Some participants were dancing to the music of marching bands. Others were throwing flowers and trinkets into the crowds. Belatedly Kanos remembered that this was the time of the solstice festival. Much of the local population turned out for parades and open-air religious ceremonies. The celebration also attracted plenty of outworld visitors who came to enjoy the pageantry. Kanos snorted and shouldered his way through the throng, traveling with the general flow of traffic. Although his height gave him a good view over the pedestrian crowd, he saw no sign of his quarry. Pressing through a band of adult musicians he found himself in the middle of a group of children all marching in tidy rows. They were dressed in spotless blue pinafores with contrasting sashes which read 'Amanti Girls Academy' in Basic. The neat lines of marching children bent to accommodate his bulky body, then all order was abandoned as the girls turned about and lost step, staring with wondering eyes at their fantastic visitor.
"Ooo!" came a collective sigh of admiration.
"Pretty, pretty!" cried at least ten girls.
"Feel how soft!" called one of the bolder ones, stroking Kanos' powerful shoulder as high as she could reach. At once he found himself being petted by many small hands. He quivered for a moment, fighting with some minor remnants of his normal caution. He was an Imperial guard - people did not normally touch him, at least not voluntarily. He moved along with the group, tolerating the petting, and decided after a little while that it felt rather nice. He could scarcely remember the last time he'd been touched by a friendly hand. His breathing eased and he noticed that scent again, that same wonderful, elusive air that had clung to the storm trooper he had healed earlier. Lowering his head into his entourage of children he drew in a deep breath and was rewarded by a lungful of fragrance so strong as to be almost overpowering. His trepidation evaporated. In a daze of delight he followed his herd of girls up the street, marching in time to the music of the band which followed them.
"Can you believe that?" Kon asked Toddy. In their fox forms, the two boys had managed to shadow Kanos without attracting his attention. They slunk along through the legs of the parade watchers, keeping pace with the marchers.
"Look at 'im, he's gone like old Carrick," said Toddy.
"What do you mean? He doesn't look anything like a Terran unicorn."
"Aye, but it seems like he's got the same weaknesses for the pure of heart. Remember what happened when Carrick was found by that group of Girl Guides?" Toddy asked.
"Oh, yeah! He was higher than a kite! Lucky for him we found him, they might have brought him home as a souvenir."
"True enough, so I think it's the same for Kir. He didn't seem like the sort to go frolicking in the streets, but look at him now! He's forgotten all about us, at least for the moment." Toddy watched their objective and his long muzzle showed a grin. "Here, you stay with him, and I'll run and fetch the others up. We ought to be able to approach him easily now that he's in such a good mood."
"All right, off you go," Kon replied, "I'll hold down the fort here, he doesn't seem to be wanting to go anywhere else." Toddy vanished and Kon glanced over at Kir, peering around the forest of legs to do so. The saber-horned kerynn was prancing majestically along, almost in place. Several girls were braiding sections of his tail, while others were festooning his mane with flowers and tiny little sparkly objects, giving the animal a brightly festive air.
"Oog," muttered Kon, "Too bad I don't have a camera, that's blackmail material!" The thought of the Imperial guard's probable later reaction to such photos gave the kitsune considerable merriment. He was almost close enough now to touch Kir. It was a measure of the extent of the kerynn's intoxication that he did not perceive Kon's presence. I bet I could jump up and ride on his rump an' he wouldn't notice! Kon thought with a smile. The animal's eyes were half-closed in relaxation and he was purring loudly, a feature the girls seemed to think was perfectly wonderful.
Luke and Tip jogged briskly down the spaceport access road. Not a speeder or floater was to be found for rent. The visiting crowd of tourists had taken everything available. Luke had managed to get Ran safely hidden away in his ship for later transport to the Jedi academy on Yavin. The two of them made quick time until they hit the celebrants clogging the main streets of the town. They paused for a moment, and Luke closed his eyes
"This way, I think," he said, pointing toward the city center. Luke wrinkled his brows, "I can still feel him, at least I think it's him. Strange, he feels different. Calmer, almost happy?" Before Tip could ask him about his impressions, Toddy came galloping up, tongue lolling.
"We found him!" he panted. "C'mon, he's this way! Kon is keeping watch. Kir's marching with the solstice parade."
"The parade?" Tip asked. "He's in the parade?!"
"Yeah! It's so funny! He ran into a group of little girls and got blitzed on purity."
"Purity?" said Luke, turning to follow Toddy.
"That's right, unicorns or kerynn have a weakness for the pure of heart like Ran. Little kids can be a really good source of that stuff, an' kerynn get kind of drunk on it. It doesn't hurt 'em, it just makes them feel real happy and relaxed."
"Well, that sounds good," said Luke. "Let's catch up to him and see what we can do."
"Hopefully before anything else happens," said Tip, moving into a quick trot.
The noise of a distant uproar washed over the group.
"Oops. We're too late I think," sighed Luke. He broke into a run
toward the sound of the disturbance.
Kir Kanos marched nicely along with his troupe of schoolgirls. A harsh shout intruded rudely on his peaceful state of mind.
"You there! Halt! You're under arrest!"
Kir raised his head. A new squad of storm troopers pushed through the crowd of celebrants, causing a rippling stir of fear and unease. The troopers barged out into the parade, brandishing their weapons. The schoolgirls shrieked and scattered in all directions.
In milliseconds Kir went from tranquil good humor to thunderous rage. His splendid little band of admirers was threatened and he knew precisely what to do about it. The marchers around him broke and ran, leaving the storm troopers alone in the street with the furious kerynn.
"Well, now there's no doubt where Kir is located, at any rate," Tip said. She pointed at the groups of fleeing people running toward them, filling the street. Sporadic blaster fire echoed from somewhere nearby.
"Let's take an easier route," said Luke. He caught Tip under one arm and Toddy under the other and with a springy leap upward, he levitated himself onto the flat roof of a three-story building.
"Wow, cool!" said Tip. Luke put them down and motioned for them to follow.
"This way. He's not far."
"No kidding," Toddy grunted, flicking an ear at the familiar noises of death and destruction echoing up from the street.
Tip snatched up a coiled remnant of rope someone had left near a stack of paint cans by a rooftop access door. They hurtled across a narrow gap between buildings to arrive at the side of the street from which the sounds of battle had been coming. Cautiously, they looked over the edge of the rooftop. Kir was indeed below, ramping about in pursuit of the few storm troopers remaining. While he appeared to be unhurt, the same could not be said of the troopers.
"Guess these guys weren't pure of heart, eh?" Toddy asked no one in particular. The red fox resumed his more human-like shape and placed his hands on the parapet.
"I'm glad Ran didn't come with us," Luke said calmly.
Tip hefted the length of rope in her hands for a few seconds, then she murmured a spell. The rope shimmered and changed into a soft Arabian-style hackamore bridle, of some woven material that seemed to shift color as one looked at it. "Here," she said, handing the thing to Toddy. "You're the great horseman, ol' Irish. Go put this on his head and it'll calm him down."
Toddy took the bridle and looked at it, feeling the soft cords tingle in his hands. "What sort of bridle is this? It feels alive!"
"It is, kind of. It's made from some material native to the planet Alula. It helps transmit feeling and intent. It worked on Flame, it'll work on Kir. Now go put it on him."
Toddy looked down into the street below to where Kir Kanos was now worrying at the armored remains of the last storm trooper with all of the enthusiasm of a starving German Shepherd. "That guy must've been really impure," Tip said. Her expression was one of thoughtful interest.
"Ow, looks a bit risky to me. I don't much fancy being eaten."
Tip slapped him on the back encouragingly. "Don't worry, I'll go with you and help to distract him. Besides, he ought to be full by now, so he won't be wanting to eat much more!" The red-haired kitsune gave his companion a dubious look. Although the magical creatures could regenerate from most injuries, he did not think reconstituting from being torn apart and swallowed would be much fun.
Toddy felt the bridle being lifted from his hands. Luke now held it, coiling the reins neatly. "I'll do it. I've bridled and ridden tauntauns. They weren't too bad."
"Okay by me," said Tip. "Just remember that tauntauns were vegetarians, and this fellow ain't! Drop this part over his horn, slip this part around his nose and pull the rest up over his ears. The fibers will stretch, then close up when you're done. The whole thing transmits feelings. If you can hang on and think calm thoughts, he'll eventually settle down and then we can talk to him."
"Right," said Luke, looping the bridle over his shoulder. "You're sure he was a human being once?"
"Quite sure, and this isn't his fault, exactly. He's just pissed because he got turned into a kerynn without being asked about it first. Try not to get him hurt, but keep yourself safe too."
Luke took a deep breath and appeared to center himself. "Everyone ready?"
He asked quietly. "Let's go!" Leaning forward he leaped down and out,
turning a somersault in midair to land gracefully in the one spot which offered
some modicum of safety - the kerynn's sturdy back. Kir flung his head up in
surprise. At once Luke dropped the bridle over the kerynn's head and horn, looped
the caveson around his nose, and pulled the headstall
over his ears. The bridle, which seemed so loose as to be in danger of falling
off immediately, tightened to fit as soon as Luke grasped the reins. The Jedi
felt the animal's surprise shift into indignant anger. Some instinct made him
sit back and wrap his legs about the barrel of the kerynn. A heartbeat later
the creature exploded upward in a great buck-jump, kicking and thrashing. Luke
got a glimpse of the astonished faces of his small companions as he came nearly
level with the rooftop he had left moments before. Having reached the apex of
the parabola, the two of them plunged back into the street.
The kerynn hit the ground running, rocketing forward like the Millenium Falcon with Han at the controls. They charged at near lightspeed into the Merchant's Quarter, a part of town composed of a crowded hodgepodge of buildings linked by a tangle of narrow streets. The streets were narrowed further by the displays of sale goods stacked out in front of the shops. The buildings flashed by at an appalling rate and Luke grabbed a double handful of the red mane for a minor measure of security. At the same time, he gripped the reins of the strange bridle and tried to think calming thoughts. This was easier to say than do, however, especially since his wild mount punctuated his gallop by bucking and performing amazing, twisting leaps. Somehow Luke managed to hang on, but the effort left little room in his mind for calming thoughts. The reins burned hotly in his hands. They arrowed through alleyways, the kerynn's horn cleaving cleanly through any awnings that hung down in their path. Barrels and boxes of merchandise burst open in their wake, flying about as if blown by hurricane winds. Luke could hear the wrathful cries of the merchants echoing behind.
"You'll hear from my lawyer!" Luke heard in several different languages.
"Sorry!" he shouted over his shoulder as they charged on. "No brakes!"
A strong feeling of peril made Luke look ahead. A keyhole archway loomed before them. It looked far too narrow for them to fit, but Luke felt no lessening of the animal's speed. Ducking down, he tucked himself as tightly against the kerynn's neck and back as he could, remembering to pull in his elbows at the last instant. He felt the cold whisper of stone just above his neck as they shot through, Kir having stretched his head and neck down and out to lower his profile. The archway let them out into a broad plaza. A veritable canyon of stone steps opened before them.
"Oh no! Whoa!" Luke shouted, tugging in vain at the reins. Kir accelerated, careening fearlessly onward. They jounced their way down in long, plunging leaps. Luke discovered his mount had an uncomfortably sharp backbone. This is not what I had in mind when I longed to leave Tatooine for a life of adventure, he thought as he hung on grimly. They hit the bottom of the steps and the kerynn surged ahead, aiming toward another crowded stretch of city street. This one looked to be populated by solstice celebrants, who were packed shoulder to shoulder to hear a priest give a homily.
"No you don't," Luke muttered. Taking a double wrap of the reins about each hand, he braced one hand against the kerynn's neck and pulled as hard as he could with the other. At the same instant, he reached out along the reins with the Force, thinking calmly and firmly, Turn, Turn! The reins burned and pulsed, and as if by magic, Kir turned away down a nearly empty side street. Luke sat alertly, letting him run. He had decided the best tactic was to let the kerynn gallop until he tired, and with that in mind he used the bridle and the Force to push him down streets that led toward the outer edges of town. Fortunately, their route was so random that they encountered no more storm troopers. The buildings gradually became lower in height and farther and farther apart as they left the center of the city. Shrubbery and trees were more numerous. They charged onward without slowing, Kir's hooves ringing loudly on the roadway. Finally, open land appeared, some of it under cultivation, and some of it park land. With another pull on the reins, Luke turned his mount off the road and onto the sward.
Now this is definitely more enjoyable, he thought. The grassy footing made for easier galloping and the open space meant there was almost no danger of killing innocent bystanders or knifing their way through speeders. The animal under him surged along with an exhilarating sensation of power. Luke relaxed both himself and his clutch on the reins a little and enjoyed the sheer speed of their flight. In response, the reins pulsed coolness and tranquillity. Little by little, the kerynn began to slow his headlong pace. The blazing run became a fast gallop, then a slower, steadier gallop, then slower still to a canter, then a jog-trot, and finally a walk. Luke sat perfectly still, careful not to think of anything alarming. The kerynn walked along with his head down, breathing heavily and seemingly content to rest, but Luke did not want to risk setting him off again. He could feel the animal's ribs moving steadily between his legs as he sucked in great gasps of air. Although Kir was somewhat winded by what had been over an hour of running at top speed, Luke could feel no sense of defeat in the kerynn's mind.
"View-haloo!" cried distant voices. Luke looked to see several long-legged quadrupedal animals approaching rapidly. Before they came near enough to alarm the kerynn, they slowed and walked up carefully, one at a time. Although he watched them closely, Kir did not seem threatened by them.
"Who are you?" Luke asked when they came within easy speaking distance. They were animals or aliens of an unfamiliar sort. Each one was different, but they all seemed to be non-violent. One was blue, one brown, and one red. The colors rang a bell in his mind.
"It's only us," said a blue gazelle, shrinking into the form of a human girl with a bushy blue tail. "We had to change into something fast to even keep you guys in sight! What a run!"
"Absolutely marvelous!" cried the red antelope as he likewise changed into human shape. "Were he on our world, he'd win the Grand National!"
"Oh, but we'd best not go back through town. The lawyers will sue the pants off us for all the damage." The seal brown pony stood on his hind legs and shrank into the form of Kon, who dusted off his worn clothing thoughtfully. "I won't even mention what the local forces of law an'order think of us right now."
Kir gave a cracking snort through his nose. "They should stay out of my way." He turned his neck to glare at Tip and her friends. "You people again."
"Yes, us. Just hold on to your hair for a minute and lemme say my piece. If you don't like it, you can always kill us later, OK?"
"Don't kill children," he grunted in a reluctant admission. For a long moment he glowered at the kitsune. "Speak."
"We've got a way to turn you back into your normal shape." Tip pointed at the horizon where the sun was beginning to set in a haze of golden light. "Our friend Kuro has been seeking the Cauldron of Ceredwen. He'll return to us soon. That will undo the change at least we're pretty sure it will."
"When?" Kir pawed the ground restlessly.
"Soon, another day or so at most. Can you wait that long? I swear we'll fix you up!" Tip looked nervously over her shoulder at her friends. "Our, um, parents, wouldn't let us leave you stranded. If they found out we messed you up, they'd have our hides!"
Kir considered their offer in silence. Since their earlier story about the power of the Beast Stone had proven to be disastrously true, he decided that they were most likely telling the truth about the thing called the Cauldron - whatever that was. They did not have the feel of people lying. His instincts were quite good about that. The blond man who had ridden him out of town stirred on his back, catching his attention.
"What do you want?" Kir snorted gruffly. Turning his head on his long neck, he sniffed at his rider's knee.
The young man, like the storm trooper and the girls, held something of that elusive attractive scent. It had become apparent to the guardsman as soon as his blood had cooled. Kir tried not to be drawn in by it, but it was very difficult to fight the instinct to get his nose as close as possible and just breathe deeply.
"Actually, I was hoping I could leave now. If you think these young people will put things right, I need to take my ship and go as soon as I can. I have a student that needs his training started." Luke did not want to leave Ran alone for too long, thinking it probable that he might start worrying about his situation.
"Go then. I will stay with them." Kir indicated the fox-people with a sweep of his head.
"All right, I will." Luke looked toward the distant city lights beginning to twinkle in the dusk. "I don't feel any pursuit, so I think you'll be safe for now."
"The authorities are all busy back in town," Tip said.
"That might be just as well." Luke kicked his legs over the back
of his mount and leaped off gracefully, hit the ground, and staggered with a
stifled gasp of pain as the stretched tendons and strained muscles in his hips
and legs weighed in with their opinion of horseback riding. His erstwhile steed
produced a noise through his nostrils that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle,
but could have merely been a deep exhalation.
"Here." Luke gave the reins to Tip and tarried a moment to rub Kir's sweaty neck. The kerynn closed his eyes and purred in a low rumble.
"You want me to give you a ride to the spaceport?" Kon asked. "I
can change and carry you - no problem."
Luke shook his head. "No, no thanks. I'll just walk to the road and catch a transport." Giving Kir a final pat, he began to move away, then looked back at the crimson-maned creature. "I teach at a school for people with special abilities. Once you are back to normal, if you wish, come and find me. These folks can give you more information if you want it. Actually, from what I have seen, you are all welcome." With a cheerful wave, Luke walked carefully away, trying not to limp too badly.
"Bye-bye!" Toddy called.
"Sayoonara," said Tip.
"Next time you're in Philly, look me up, we'll do lunch!" Kon added.
Luke waved at them a final time, then disappeared over a small rise in the landscape.
"Filly? What planet is that? One of the fringe worlds?" asked Kir, looking at Kon in some perplexity.
"Probably ought to be a separate planet, but it ain't. It's just a large city of our homeworld of Earth."
"You named your homeworld 'Dirt'?!"
"I didn't name it anything! An' it isn't called Dirt, it's Earth!"
"Same, same," said Kir stubbornly.
Tip laughed at Kon's expression. "You forget how that sounds in this language - we ain't exactly speakin' the Queen's English right now."
"You speak Basic very strangely, it is true," Kir observed.
"Our world has many names, these days, most of the people who live there call it Earth, or Terra. Kuro's people called it Chikyu, while the philosophers of Chuugoku - or China - called it 'The Turtle Who Swims in the Eternal Sea'."
Kir snorted at the flowery name. "Dirt will do."
"Actually it does, you should see the place." Tip furled the reins of the bridle, then reached up and removed it from Kir's head. "There. Feel OK?"
The kerynn shook his head, then his entire body, much as a wet dog will. "Yes. But now I require water."
"And you should be hungry too, I'll bet. I saw a stream on the way in. Let's get us a drink and then we'll see what we can scare up for dinner. We're going to have to spend the night out here while we wait for Kuro to catch up with us. I hope you don't mind?"
Kir followed the kitsune as they led the way through a small forest. In the distance he could hear the trickle of water. A few minutes of walking brought them to a clear brook chattering its way over a bed of polished stones. The forest air was sweet and moderated the summer heat. To the Imperial Guard, survivor of harsh training under terrible conditions, the scene looked like some sort of poet's description of a mythical paradise.
"Think this'll be all right?" Tip asked.
He stood and listened, extending his heightened senses into the woods. Moving soundlessly, he made a circuit of the area. The trees concealed no hidden dangers or lurking human enemies. Kir returned to their group and sighed deeply. "It will do." He strode to the stream's edge and drank slowly, pausing every few seconds to lift his head and listen.
Tip sent the two boys off in search of food. While they were gone, she groomed
Kir as best she could with a curry magicked from a handful of the springy grass-like
vegetation that grew on the ground. This was not an easy task, since the guardsman
was about as tame as a wild mustang and at least twice as nervous.
"Will you quit dancin' around? I can't hardly reach your withers if ya won't hold still!" Tip complained as Kir rotated around her with nervous side-steps.
"My what?" He did stop moving, at least for a moment.
Tip stood on her tiptoes to groom the crusted salty sweat and dried foam from his neck and back. "Withers - the upper part of your shoulder blades - here." She patted the curving ridge of bone and muscle that marked the juncture of neck and back. "Guess they don't have real horses in this galaxy?" She stepped back to check the job and decided that it would have to suffice for now.
"Never heard of them," Kir said. He switched his tail, then started at the soft jingle from behind. "What's that?!"
"Hold still and lemme see." Tip took a grip on the crimson hair and gently pulled his long tail to the side, deciding it would be asking far too much to stand behind him and risk getting kicked. "Oh, it's only little stuff from the girls in the parade."
"What sort of stuff?" He glowered over his shoulder at her.
"Bits of kids jewelry, some flowers, and little medallions made out of colored metal. Here, take a look." Gently, she unwound a few of the items from his hair and walked to his front to show him the little trove. He sniffed at it and eyed it suspiciously, but nothing seemed to be the least bit dangerous. Tip held up a medal and read the inscription aloud. "'Blessed Goddess Hykan'ya protect the Traveler'. That's a nice one. We got things like this back on my homeworld. Here's another, 'Prayers of Success for Your Life's Journey', that's good, too."
Kir groaned deep in his chest. "I can not stay like this! I must complete my mission!"
"Huh? What mission? You're free, ain't'cha? I thought the Emperor's dead."
"The Emperor is dead. And the members of the Imperial Council, who conspired in his death, still live. They are all traitors. I will ensure they each receive justice." Kir Kano's golden eyes burned hotly as he stared off into the dark forest. He pawed the ground as he considered his schemes of destruction.
"What, all by yourself?"
"Yes. I have already meted out punishment to Carnor Jax, the chief conspirator, and a Royal Guard like myself, more shame that. I will destroy the entire Council, no matter how long it takes, and perhaps at the end I will have at last a warrior's death."
"OK, so you want to go the way of the 47 Ronin." Tip sucked her front teeth and chinked the medals in her hand as she thought. "I think I'll just put these back on your person. You're gonna need all the help the gods can give."
The evening meal consisted of a thick grain porridge, the ingredients found by Kon, while Toddy had procured the large metal pot 'borrowed' from a farmstead. Kir Kanos gave it a try, being hungry enough to eat almost anything. It was rather mild and somewhat pasty, but filling, and the strange alien children knew enough about creatures like himself to prepare a generous quantity. They each ate their portions without complaint, then the children curled themselves up under the trees to sleep.
"Aren't you setting a watch?" he asked. Kir's night-sensitive eyes could see them plainly in the dim glow of the embers of the tiny firepit they had made.
"Huh? Whaffor?" groaned Tip, gazing up at him through a slitted eye.
"To guard against intruders!"
"Hmmf. Don' need no guards, we got some already."
"Where?!" he growled.
Tip pointed straight up with one arm. Kir followed her gesture with his head. "See them birds, way up in the top of the tree?"
"I spoke to them earlier. They got a good nose for danger and they can see in the dark. If anybody strange comes near, they'll scream bloody murder."
"You spoke to birds?" Kir said in unbelieving tones.
"Sure, why not? We're all wild animals, yourself included. You oughtta be flattered, being a human is a sucky deal most of the time."
With a grunt for an answer, Kir stalked off into the gloom. Tip returned to
her interrupted nap. The Imperial guard wandered silently through the woods,
keeping watch for the dangers which he knew lurked abroad in a hostile universe.
Although he lacked his normal human weaponry, he had no doubt that he could
deal with almost anything by using the natural weapons he now possessed. When
no obvious menace presented itself, he returned to a place near the camp and
rested for a time, then after an hour or so, repeated his circuit. His four-legged
body seemed to be capable of dozing on its feet, a fact that he found helpful.
At midnight, a faint noise startled him awake out of a light sleep. A quick glance confirmed that none of the children had produced whatever sound had alerted him. The fire was entirely out. Not an ember glowed to give away their position. The trees screened out much of the blaze of starlight above, so the forest itself was in deep darkness. Something had been watching them since nightfall, of that he was certain, and had been creeping slowly closer as the night wore on. That something was now almost close enough to scent, were the wind at all favorable. In utter silence, Kir Kanos melted away through the trees, following some sense other than that of scent, sound, or sight. A minute of soundless walking brought him to the eaves of the woods. Hanging back under the cover of the foliage, he strained his attention outward.
The many bright stars gave plenty of light, turning the wide field of green
and amber grass into a softly waving sea of silver gilt. Kir stared sharply
out into the open looking for... There. A movement-that-was-not-grass. He focused
on the spot. Another fractional movement. Standing barely a spear toss away
was a tall creature similar in nearly every respect to himself, except for the
coloring. Where he was black and crimson, this kerynn was silver and dun, with
an ebony mane and tail, legs dark to the knees, and a body of brushed platinum.
It might have been a statue, so still did it stand. The wind ruffled its long
mane, producing the movement that had drawn his eye. The horn that grew from
its forehead was long and curved. Kir breathed in deeply and caught a scent.
She, definitely, the not-human part of his brain told him. What did she want?
he wondered. She smelled - nice. Not like the schoolgirls or the storm trooper,
but nice nonetheless.
He must have made some tiny noise, because the she-kerynn, who had been gazing fixedly into the forest now turned her head and looked directly at him. Her golden eyes widened momentarily. With a soft annoyed sound, as if irritated at being found out, she reared gracefully up, sprang away sideways, then cantered off toward the open grassland with her tail curled over back.
"Wait!" he called. The command emerged not in Basic, but as a deep, husky cry. The she-kerynn cast a backward glance at him, kicked up her heels, and leaped away into a full gallop. Something wild and inexorable woke in his blood. Throwing caution to the wind, he sprang away in pursuit, running flat out. The two kerynn thundered over the rolling hills, outpacing the wind.
The birds, or the local equivalent, were singing - or gargling - in the trees when Tip opened her eyes to the slanting rays of morning sunlight. She yawned and stretched, working out the kinks that came with sleeping on the ground. Someone's missing, she thought as she rose to her feet.
"Hey!" She nudged Toddy with the toe of her boot.
"Yeah?" he grunted, sitting up and squinting at her. "Morning already?" He got up and moved toward the ashes of their fire.
"Where's Kir Kanos?"
"Whatever do you mean, where is he? He was right here when I fell asleep." Toddy pointed to the right of the cold firepit. By this time, Kon was up and awake, scrubbing at his eyes with his knuckles in lieu of washing his face.
"You don't suppose he's run off and left us, after all that fuss yesterday?"
"Run, yes, left, no," said Kir Kanos, who had come up soundlessly as they chattered and wandered about.
"Well here you are! Thank goodness, I thought you'd gone ahead and got lost," Tip cried, trotting up to him. She stopped short to stare. "What have you been doing?! Look at you!"
The kerynn was a sight: grey with dried foam and sweat, spattered with mud where he'd plunged through streams, his mane and tail tangled with bits of weeds and burrs. He looked as though he had been through a minor war, his body marked here and there with shallow cuts.
"Been r-r-racing," he replied in pleased tones. He let his head and neck droop in exhausted relaxation.
"Racing what?" Tip asked sharply. The others gathered around to exclaim over Kir's condition. Toddy coaxed the kerynn to stand in the stream to cool his legs while he and Kon splashed water over his filthy body. Kir tolerated this very well, accepting the attention with half-closed eyelids.
"The kerynn who was watching us last night. I could feel it. Later in the dark I went searching. I found Her. We raced for a long time." Now that he was rinsed, Kir waded out of the stream, shook off vigorously, yawned, turned around several times, and lay down like a large cat. He stretched his neck and head along his forelegs and closed his eyes.
"You raced a kerynn mare? And then what?" Tip asked.
"We raced. I won. We both won." Kir exhaled a deep purr that turned into a contented snore. The group of kitsune stood near him and looked down at the sleeping guardsman.
"D'you really think he managed to find a mare? I thought kerynn were rare." asked Kon.
"More like she found him. Mares ain't dumb. He's probably a good stud fer a mare to catch. He'd be an outcross, an' that's even more desirable to a female looking to produce strong offspring."
"Ha! He's a quick study, too, isn't he?" Kon chuckled, giving Tip a familiar wink.
"Will the foal inherit his sterling disposition, d'you think?" Toddy wondered.
Tip smacked her forehead. "Ack! Kuro better get back here soon, or this planet is gonna be overrun with little four-legged hellions!"
Fortunately for the future peace of Wynnye, Kuro returned the following afternoon, covered with sparkly green dust which he washed away in the stream. Kir Kanos was sleeping off the effects of a second night of steeplechasing, oblivious at first to the newcomer. The kitsune took the time to bring their packmate up to date on the events of the preceding days.
"Saa, so he held the Beast Stone, did he?" Kuro murmured, looking at the black and red equid stretched at length on the soft forest duff. "He makes a splendid ki-lin, are you sure he isn't better served by staying in this shape?"
"He says not, at least he did yesterday. So, did you get it?" Tip had to ask when Kuro did not seem to be forthcoming on the success or failure of his part of their mission.
"I hope he did," said Kir Kanos, raising his head and neck to look at them. A moment later he rose fluidly to his long legs. Stepping forward a pace, he sniffed at the new one, who seemed to be a child with a white-tipped black tail, ivory-tan skin, and straight black hair. The boy held a whiff of that attractive scent. "You must be Kuro."
"I am Yoshitsune Kuro, doozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu <pleased to meet you>," he said as he bowed politely. "Tip tells me you are ronin samurai - a warrior on a sacred quest of vengeance."
"Yes." Kir was strangely pleased by the way Kuro had stated his situation. "I must return to my proper shape so I can finish my mission." He looked away toward the open grasslands. "I have found it - pleasant to be here, but I must go soon, or I shall forget that I was ever a human being."
"Would that be so bad?" Tip asked.
Kir thought about that for a time. "No, it would not," he replied. "But I must go anyway. I have a duty to perform."
"Oh gods, the duty thing!" She threw up her hands in defeat.
"It will be well, I think," said Kuro. "I have brought the Cauldron." He reached into the sleeve of his kimono and drew out a small silk pouch. From this he took what looked like a very small bowl of blackened metal edged with tiny, opalescent beads. He held it out in his cupped hands. This time Kir was a bit more cautious and made no effort to touch the thing. It looked old and fragile, but then, so had the Emperor.
"Into this Cauldron you must dive. If Ceredwen favors you, she will restore your human body."
"Leap into that little thing?!" Kir snorted in disbelief.
"It is as large as it needs to be. Look!" Kuro tossed the bowl gently away. It struck the ground of the clearing and immediately expanded to the size of a small pond. Kir shied away in surprise at the sudden transformation.
"How does this work?" Kanos asked, eyeing the much-enlarged Cauldron suspiciously from a safe distance.
"You just jump in." Tip mimed a diving motion at the Cauldron.
Kanos approached and peered over the rim, which was edged with pearls, and snorted at the mirror-smooth surface of the liquid inside. In its tiny form it had seemed empty. Now it was nearly brim full. The fluid had no smell and could have been plain water. The bottom was covered with pale sand and the water looked to be only a few inches deep. "This is so shallow it would barely cover my ankles. What is the point of jumping?"
"Just do it, it'll be OK," Tip encouraged. "Or are you scared of drowning in shallow ponds?" she twitted him.
The thought of being unable to carry out his self-assigned mission to avenge the Emperor while trapped in his current shape finally tipped the balance of his decision. Being dead was preferable, in his opinion, to being unable to act as a human being. With a grunt of annoyance, Kanos sank back on his powerful hindquarters, balanced a moment, then launched up and leaped into the Cauldron. At the apex of his dive he braced his forelegs, expecting an immediate impact with the floor of the Cauldron. His hooves sliced the surface of the pool and almost instantly afterward the water closed over his head as he plunged into what was suddenly a vast depth.
Startled, he thrashed about with his forelegs, but this only caused him to turn end-over-end. In moments he had utterly lost the ability to distinguish up from down. The water was as dark as ink, pressing in on him as he tumbled, and drowning seemed to be a real danger, especially since he had lost sight of the surface. He passed through a layer of liquid as hot as fire, another layer as cold as ice. Visions sparkled before his eyes. Kir could no longer remember the last time he had drawn a breath. His eyesight faded, he had ceased to try to swim out of the Cauldron.
"The Emperor's heir lives. Seek that one, when you can." The warm, female voice sounded in his head.
"What?!" His shout emerged into air as his head abruptly broke the water's surface. He struck out hard to balance himself and realized that he did so with human arms. The sun was lower in the sky and the four alien children were lined up at the Cauldron's edge, anxiously peering into the water. Now they jumped about, cheering.
"All right! It worked!" they shouted. They reached to help him out of the water as he splashed his way to the rim.
"Cool armor!" Kon cried admiringly as he helped to pull Kir Kanos onto the shore. Under the long, nondescript travel cloak he had been wearing at the cantina, his guardsman's armor glittered crimson and black. The water from the Cauldron sheeted quickly off, leaving him nearly dry. Kir felt about his person - all the gear and weapons he'd been carrying at the cantina before his change had been restored to him.
"Why didn't I sink?" he asked, staring down into the placid surface of the Cauldron. Of his former body there was no trace.
"It's probably not really water," Tip said. "This is often called the Cauldron of Rebirth, so who knows what's in it."
"Rebirth?!" Kir felt his skin crawl under the familiar weight of his armor. The Emperor had possessed an ancient device that he had used to move the spirits of his servants into cloned bodies - usually because he'd had them killed in a fit of pique. It was not a wholesome technology. Still, he felt like himself.
"Yeah, the old sorcerers used to toss dead people in there to get more warriors. The results weren't very good, since the spirits that entered those bodies were those of hungry ghosts, and not those of the original owners. The Cauldron has its own opinion about who should be in what body. We figured you'd be OK since you were alive to start with."
"I feel much better, knowing that," he growled. Kir was left with the uncomfortable question of what his fate would have been had the Cauldron not seen fit to restore his human body.
"Well, if it turns out you really hate being a human again, you can always come back here and wish yourself into kerynn-shape again. That should work for you on this planet," Toddy offered helpfully.
"If that is the case then I should leave now," Kir said, looking in the direction of the city and its spaceport.
"Right. Fine. Goddess forbid you should learn anything from this experience," Tip snorted.
"There's nothing to learn. I have my duty to the Emperor. I cannot think of anything else until that is completed."
"One-point meditation," said Kuro. "You know the type. He is samurai. We have met them often enough."
"Yeah, I do know the type, more's the pity. I give up." Tip made a 'who cares' gesture, then spoke to Kir, who had been waiting almost patiently. "C'mon, we'll see you to the spaceport. If nothing else, you really oughtta learn not to touch other folk's magical stuff if they give ya fair warning!"
The band of magical foxes watched the small, unremarkable ship lance skyward from its dock. Without thinking, the entire group uttered a collective sigh of relief.
"Well, that actually went better'n I thought," Tip said. The ship
dwindled quickly and was soon lost to sight in the glare of the setting sun.
"Yeah, considering what-all happened," Kon added.
"No kidding! We had Luke Skywalker and an Imperial Guard practically occupying the same space with neither one the wiser," said Toddy.
"If it wasn't for those idiot storm troopers, there wouldn't have been any fatalities." Tip led them out of the spaceport. "Luke got himself a new Jedi student out of that, so it evens out. I just wish Kir Kanos would have chosen to stay here an' just be a kerynn. He'd have been much happier."
"A samurai is to have no concern for his own happiness," said Kuro gravely. "He is called to service and nothing more."
"It'll be all right, don't you know," Toddy said. "You saw the visions in the Cauldron while he was in it, didn't you?"
"I did," Tip replied.
"I did not," said Kuro, looking at his two friends curiously. "What did you see?"
"Yeah, what?" Kon seconded Kuro's request.
Tip shrugged. "If Kir's life continues on its present course, he'll come back as one of Luke or Leia's grandchildren."
Kuro stared at her with wide eyes. "You... you didn't tell him that, did you Tip'sempai, Toddy'kun ?"
"Uh-uh," Toddy grunted, giving his head a negative shake.
"No way was I gonna tell him! He'd have had seven kinds of a fit, an' you don't wanna torque off a guy who carries a vibroblade-tipped naginata under his cloak! At least, not while he's in range."
Kuro breathed a bit easier. "That was wise of you, I'm glad you didn't."
"However," Tip continued. "I did leave him a note in a pocket of his cloak about how it was Luke Skywalker who wants him to join his Jedi Academy on Yavin Four." She smiled happily. "He'll find it eventually, I'm sure." Her three packmates stared at her in horror. Tip rubbed her hands gleefully. "Payback time for grabbin' the Beast Stone an' causing us all kinds of grief!" Tip was aware that the Jedi on Yavin were quite capable of defending their world from the wrath of the Empire.
"He'll freak," said Kon.
"One of the Emperor's Chosen, becoming a Jedi? When he'd really rather see Luke and company in little pieces?!" groaned Toddy. "The Pope will sit down with the Orangemen before that happens!"
"Stranger things have occurred before," added Kuro. The small samurai kitsune turned his eyes skyward.
"However, for now, Kir Kanos is certain to be rather angry with us for withholding the full truth."
"Maybe we should get to spellcasting and haul butt for home?" asked Kon, now also nervously looking upward.
"Maybe we should before anything else happens!" Tip agreed.
"A strategic withdrawal is always an excellent tactic," said Kuro.
With his ship safely in hyperspace, Kir Kanos began to pull off the outer layers of his armor in preparation for a decent night's sleep in something resembling a proper bed. He was doing his best to forget the surreal experience he'd had during his stop on Wynnye, especially since it had nothing to do with furthering his plans for the Council. He had almost managed to convince himself that the whole adventure had been some sort of fever-dream.
While he was removing his breastplate and pauldrons, a sudden soft jingling around his neck made him pause. Feeling around, he found he was now wearing a long necklace of some sort under his armor. Curiously, he lifted it into his range of sight. Tip had carefully removed all the good-luck medals from his hair and had braided them into a necklace using some of the long crimson hairs from his tail. From the kerynn's tail. From a creature that no longer existed. For a moment he felt a cool chill down his spine and he grabbed the necklace with the intent of tearing it off. In his head he heard Tip's voice say again, "I think I'll just put these back on your person. You're gonna need all the help the gods can give."
Gently, he released his grip on the necklace and left it where it was. "Perhaps I do," he said soberly.
Pietr Dol watched the droid-powered tractor plow the fields of his farm. Spring had come early this year to the lands surrounding the spaceport town of Wynnye. The air was sweet with the scent of new growth. It promised to be an auspicious year; kerynn had been seen in the countryside - his own little daughter had seen one earlier in the winter. Plus, half of the city had seen (or claimed to have seen) the big red and black stallion who had appeared out of nowhere to grace the solstice celebration with his holy presence.
Auspicious indeed, that one, who slew storm troopers and let the civilians
alone. The priests had been up for many nights after, debating the auguries
of all the exciting events. The general opinion was that it was going to be
A Very Good Year. Except for the local merchants, who had had to file insurance
With a chuckle at the memory, Dol leaned down to pluck a handful of dirt from the furrow and examine it in the morning light. The farming droids could test the soil far more effectively, but he had to look for himself. He froze, the warm dirt clutched in his hand.
Standing on the verge of the plowed field was what must be the kerynn his daughter
had seen, silver-dun with a long ebony mane and tail. She looked at him with
a tolerant expression. Something on long fine legs moved around her to stare
at the farmer. It was a colt, only a few days old by the look, his horn a tiny
button on his forehead. His body was gunmetal pewter and his short little mane
and tail were a brilliant crimson, which left no doubt as to the sire. He gazed
at the farmer with bright golden eyes. An instant later the two of them were
Dol clapped his hands with delight at the unexpected vision of wonder. It was
going to be A Very Good Year indeed!
Comments? Feedback? Email me.
Various Star Wars characters ©1999 Lucasfilm. The original
Kir Kanos was created for the comic book Crimson Empire by the folks at Dark
Horse Press: Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley, Paul Gulacy, P. Craig Russel,
and Dave Dorman. If you haven't read the graphic novel yet, do so! Crimson Empire
2 is also out and continues the adventures of our favorite Guardsman.
Tip, Kuro, Kon, and Toddy are © 1999 C. Winters & are all my fault.
The magical bridle was borrowed from Flame, who is the equine hero in The Island Stallion Races, by Walter Farley.
1) The Amida Buddha - Buddha of compassion and mercy. Praying to the Amida three times before your death: "Namu Amida Bhuttsu" enables the worshipper to get into the purifying levels of heaven. The Buddha of choice for ninjas and others with risky occupations.
2) Epona - the Celtic goddess of horses.
3) Caveson - the noseband of a horse's bridle.
4) The Story of the 47 Ronin - (also called "Chuushingura") a classic Japanese tale of samurai honor and vengeance.
5) Sempai - senior, a form of respectful address from a younger Japanese to an elder classmate. Kun - an affectionate honorific used for young male friends.
6) Naginata - a Japanese pike consisting of a long pole armed at the end with a short sword blade, sometimes the blade is curved or hooked.