Chapter Five: The Welcoming Committee
Disclaimer and summary found with Prologue.
Morning was fast approaching the mountainous area, yet the valley for the most part remained silent and cold. Bits of sleet and rain poured down from the low hanging clouds that slipped over the ridges like waterfalls of mist. Small icicles hung from a few branches, but most were still bare of ice due to the earliness of the season. In a month’s time, they would all be covered by the hard winter that the older generation had whispered of since the first early snow a few weeks prior. On the river, a foggy vapor drifted up from the warmer water and made it almost appear as if the river itself were boiling.
It was a morning like any other for this time of year: cold, calm, and serene. Much like the ice itself.
The high pitch of a swoop bike shattered the quiet of morning. It screeched as it cut through along the old valley path, startling the forest creatures that had come to the river for a drink. The water splashed up as the rider took it right across the river. Specks of the water clung to his boots and leggings, but he paid it not mind as he directed the bike. Shifting his weight, he made a sharp turn on the opposite bank and narrowly avoided a large tree.
To a casual observer, the driver appeared reckless. To those who looked closer, they would see the precision in his movements; the way he shifted and moved with bike as he banked turns and accelerated and then shifted down at just the right moment. He knew the bike. He knew the path. He knew where he was going.
He still wasn’t expecting the explosion that shattered the low hanging branch however.
The bike banked hard to avoid the falling object, which threw the rider from his mount. Tucking into a roll, the driver tumbled over the muddy, wet ground for several seconds before being stopped by a mossy tree trunk. Twenty meters or so ahead of him, his bike exploded as it smashed into a bolder.
He swore softly to himself as he pushed himself up. Pain stabbed at his side and his lungs burned with each breath, but he’d live.
Or he would if he got himself up and moving.
Glancing backwards, he couldn’t see the people who had shot him yet. They were too far away to send the ground forces, or it had been just a lucky shot. Either way, he could afford to stick around and find out. Making sure his backpack was secure, he looked at the wreckage that was once his swoop bike. With any luck, they would think that whoever had been on the bike was killed in the explosion. If there was one thing that he had learned in his life, however, it was that luck or the Force or whatever really didn’t like him that much, so he wasn’t holding his breath on that one.
So he did the only thing he could do.
The third moon had not fully set by the time the sun began to lighten the morning sky. Cool gray clouds, all that was left the storm that had been threatening them from the west the entire night, drifted along the mountains edge and through the ridges. They smelled of rain and snow, but they did little more than drizzle now. An occasional clap of thunder would grumbled in the early hour, but the bite the storm once had had long since lost its teeth.
Sitting in a meditative position on the ridge edge, Qui-Gon watched as one cloud passed through the narrow valley. It was slow moving, crawling along at a snail’s pace and obscuring his view of the valley, but he didn’t mind. There was nothing there now that he couldn’t see if he wished. All he had to do was reach of it.
A smile graced Qui-Gon’s lips as a warmth greeted him like a dear old friend. The Living Force swirled through him and around him like the wind that blew through the mountains, only it was far more welcomed than the icy air. He reached for it and let his feelings guide him to his friends. Qui-Gon had always had a vague sense of their force signatures back on Earth, but the way they shined now was like seeing sveral small beacons of light. Each was different and easily identifiable now that he was looking.
There was Giles, who was sitting at the table inside the motor-home and tiredly reading over the book that had brought them here.
Xander and Anya were curled up together and peacefully sleeping.
Tara asleep in the captain’s chair, while Willow opened cabinets in search of something to eat.
One signature practically hummed to him, but it always had to some degree. It was brighter than the others and practically called out to those who were willing to listen. Perhaps it was just him, though. He had been trapped on Earth for so long with little contact with the Force and no other Force sensitive beings aside from this small one. Perhaps that was what made her stand out to him so much, or perhaps it was because he knew what to look for and had always hoped that it was there. Whatever the truth was, the portal closing had left little doubt in his mind about her and what he had always suspected. He didn’t even need a blood test to confirm what he knew, though he was sure that the other Masters would.
Particularly for one Knight, he suspected. Though for other obvious reasons, of course.
This bright spot was also currently toddling towards him.
Cracking open his eyes, Qui-Gon turned and watched as Dawn moved towards him on her still unsure legs. Her steps were wide apart from one another, as if she were scared she would trip over herself (which had happened on more than one occasion), but the determined look on her face showed that she would not let that slow her down.
“Ki-Gun,” Dawn cried happily as she ran into his arms.
“Hello, young one,” he said as he lifted her into his lap. “How are you this morning?”
“Bouncy and full of way too much energy, which means I‘ll probably be breaking out the kid leash pretty soon.”
Walking towards him, Buffy crossed her arms and held her jacket tightly around herself. The cold wind pushed at her hair that had fallen loose from her twin braids, while the temperature itself caused her pale cheeks to color slightly.
Once more Qui-Gon found it difficult to pinpoint her signature in the Force. In fact, he noticed that it seemed even harder to detect now than before, which was rather remarkable. Buffy signature had always been obscured, but he had always known how to find her. One simply had to look for her emotions, and there Buffy would be. Whether she meant to do so or not, she always ended up projecting what she felt. It was the only way that most of the Masters had known she was around. Aside from that, only those most familiar with her or very powerful with the Force were be able to find her exact signature.
Now, however, it was different. She felt closed off. Smaller.
Qui-Gon adjusted his grip on Dawn and pulled her closer. She snuggled into the warmth of his robes -- which he had not wore in nearly two years -- and held tightly onto them as he rose to his feet.
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Qui-Gon said. “Has Giles or Willow found anything?”
“Not so far,” Buffy said with a shrug. “But since you and the Force are on speaking terms again, this should be the place, right?”
He didn’t ask how she knew that he had reconnected with the Force. Somehow, he felt like he didn’t want to know the answer.
“Yes,” Qui-Gon agreed.
Coming stand beside him, she looked out over the ridge as the sun finally peaked from over the mountain. Soft, yellowish-red light spilled out over the tops of the white clouds, but neither felt any extra warmth from it.
From somewhere below, several grumbles of thunder echoed up towards them.
“So we took the right exit off to Gythontown, only…” Buffy gestured towards their peaceful surroundings. “No Gythons. Got to say, not really enjoying the whole deserted-planet vibe going on here.”
“I highly doubt it’s deserted, Buffy.”
As if to prove his point, the Force screamed a warning. Reacting quickly, he grabbed onto Buffy’s arm and forcefully pulled her away from the ridge’s edge.
“Get down!” he yelled as he leaned over to protect a very startled Dawn and surprised Buffy.
A hundred meters or so below them, the ridge exploded from a powerful blast as dirt, rock, and bits of trees kicked into the air. Qui-Gon felt several bites against his skin as the debris rained down on them but nothing that would cause much damage. However, he hardly had time to reflect on it before two more blasts hit, only this time it was further to the left as if they had bounced off a shield.
Dawn’s screams could barely be heard in the thundering din, but her shocked terror hit him hard. He held the child close, but it hardly comforted her.
Glaring up at him, Buffy asked, “Have I mentioned lately how much I hate it when you’re right?”
Willow grabbed the side of the table as the Winnebago suddenly shifted underneath her with a thunderous roar. The bag of chips she had just opened fell to the floor, and one of the books that Giles had stacked on the table slid after it. Willow managed to hold herself up, even though her foot had slid into one of the lower cabinets. She winced from the awkward angle her ankle had landed in but had to ignore it for the moment.
Out of instinct, Willow said a quick protection spell. Not a moment too soon, either. She had barely finished speaking before a second and then third explosion reverberated through the Winnebago. The tinkling sound of small pebbles and rocks hitting against the roof like hard specks of rain could scarcely be heard through the din roar of her own ears.
Willow looked up at Giles. He was lowering the arm he had thrown up to cover his head while his other hand had reached for her as if it would been some sort of protection. His eyebrows were knitted, and his lips were parted in a small frown. He clearly had no idea what had happened.
Not that she did, either.
“Are you alright?” Giles asked.
“What was that?” Xander exclaimed as he stumbled in from the bedroom with Anya. “What happened?”
Giles may have replied or may not have. Willow wasn’t sure, for it was at that moment that she turned to the front of the Winnebago.
Spider web cracks had spread across the windshield, which made it impossible to see through. Willow could see several small holes from where some debris had managed to smash through, but somehow they had not broken the entire windshield out. The passenger side window, however, was scattered across the front dash and captain chair.
“Tara!” Willow shrieked.
Weakly, Tara rolled to face them but held the side of her face. She then drew the her hand away and looked down at the fingers that were covered in sticky blood. There was a dazed look in eyes but she forced herself to sit up a little and look at them.
“Tara, baby, can you hear me?” Willow asked as she pushed her hands over Tara’s forehead and smeared blood into her blond hair.
She nodded and blinked several times before she asked, “What happened?”
“The welcoming committee’s finally arrived,” Buffy said as she stomped inside. She glanced at Tara but quickly turned her full attention to Giles. “We need to leave. Now.”
Giles scrambled towards the driver’s seat as Qui-Gon hurried inside. Dawn clutched to his robes as she continued to cry, though what had sure to been loud screams had now changed over to soft sobs and whimpers. Qui-Gon was about to hand Dawn over to Willow until he saw Tara. Instead, he gave her over to Anya as Giles finally made it into the driver’s seat.
“Are you alright?” Qui-Gon asked as he knelt in front of Tara.
She did not get a chance to answer before Buffy was moving past them to get to the windshield, with a broad sword at her side.
“Heads up,” she said just as Qui-Gon stood to cover both Willow and Tara.
“Good Lord,” Giles said as Buffy struck the hilt of the sword through the windshield.
Larger holes appeared as she pushed the broken glass out, but several pieces fell around her hands. Buffy didn’t seem to notice, however.
Once she was done, Buffy said, “Let’s go.”
Knowing an order when he heard one, Giles cranked the vehicle and shifted gears. The mountain path they had landed on wasn’t exactly made for Winnebago travel, but Giles was going to have to manage. However, he had only built up a little speed before Qui-Gon stiffened.
“Giles, wait!” he snapped before another explosion erupted further up the path.
Giles turned the vehicle sharply, which threw Willow against his seat. The tires spun in the mud as the breaks squealed, and the Winnebago slid towards the burning crater. Willow sucked in a sharp breath as she waited for the vehicle to tumble over, but the Winnebago finally came to a shuttering halt. Glancing out the broken windshield, Willow could see a clear blue sky that was partly obscured by dusty smoke. They were close to where the crater. Way too close.
“Everyone out!” Buffy snapped as she practically dragged Willow off the floor.
Things got a little blurry after that. Willow remembered helping Tara up, grabbing some of the books off the table, and then being outside in the cool, crisp air that smelled like fire and snow. The next thing she knew she was being pulled behind a large boulder and thrown to the ground as the Winnebago erupted in flames and went to Winnebago heaven.
Tara laid on the ground next to her, while Xander crouched protectively over Anya and Dawn. Giles was leaning against the boulder, having just sat up from the time honor duck-and-cover position, while Qui-Gon and Buffy knelt on the other side of him.
Buffy leaned on the broad sword she still held, looked at the wreckage, and said mainly to herself, “Why is it every time I come to this stupid dimension, I end up loosing all my clothes?”
Dawn’s loud cried echoed around them. Buffy’s eyes narrowed at the Scoobies’ looks.
“That was so not what a I meant, and you know it.”
The young swoop driver peered over the ledge of a small cliff at the group of strangers. His legs ached from the long run and protested when he stretched them in order to see, but he had to get a better look at them. Their chatter had caught his attention as he tried to make his way through the mountain’s ridge. Anyone with the least bit of sense knew to avoid the paths since they were well-marked. These people, however, seemed to had missed the message.
At first, he had wondered if they were the resistance come to find him, but he dismissed the thought. For one thing, the resistant fighter knew better than to put themselves out in the open. Whoever these people were, they obviously hadn’t been in too many battles to make such a rookie mistake like that. It was a mistake that most only made once before they ended up in the presences of gods, and their friends learned never to do that.
He watched as the male with the long brown hair and beard said something to the angry-looking blond. She said something back to him, but they were both to far away for him to be able to make out what they were saying.
That was another thing that told them that they weren’t the resistance. They were all humans. Any humans that had been unfortunate enough to be planetside had disappeared soon after the droids showed up. No one asked what happened to them, mostly due to the fact that no one really cared. Their own species had enough to deal with without having to worry about another that didn’t even belong on their planet in first place.
Of course, that begged the question of where did these stupid humans come from?
Whoever they were, they were on their own. He had enough to deal with at the moment, and since the Separatist seemed to have themselves a new target…
A sharp slicing sound thudded next to his head as a nasty looking sword embedded itself into the tree trunk. His eyes widened as he took in the fact that the very sharp blade had missed his neck by only a fraction of centimeter or so. A soft clearing of the throat drew his attention away from the weapon and to the very tall human that now stood over him. It was the same one that had been speaking with the blond just a few moments before. His face was almost serine as he looked down on him: the picture of pure control. His fingers curled up to hid in the bottom of the long sleeves of his jacket before he brought his arms together. He wasn’t quite crossing his arms, but they were folded over one another, which allowed the young swoop driver a nice view of the deactivated lightsaber that hung at his waist.
Feeling his jaw drop slightly, the blood drained from his face and his pale blue skin lost a few shades. After all these years, the Jedi had finally come to held the people of Gala.
And apparently they had sent the stupidest one.
If he had ever needed proof that the gods did hate him and his people, Melo was pretty sure this was it.