Part 16b “The cries of the terentatek seem to be growing more distant,” Maphis observed. “I think we can safely climb down, now.” Alina stirred in Maphis’ arms. She’d begun to doze at some point during the day and was momentarily alarmed at her incaution. The man beside her was Sith, after all, and thus her enemy. The fact that he’d been unexpectedly accommodating since the cave, had even risked his life to help her and Yuli, didn’t change that fact. Did it? Alina touched fingers to lips as she pondered the second kiss. And what had that been about? She found her mouth involuntarily curling into a faint smile at the recollection and cursed under her breath, the smile quickly inverting into a vexed frown. What’s that bloody Sith playing at? Alina leaned forward, loosing herself from Maphis’ grip, shimmied along the branch a few centimeters, folded her arms, and stewed. Maphis bemusedly stared at the pilot’s back, eyes lingering on the strands of auburn hair that had come loose from her regulation braid, then shrugged. He glanced down at the forest, which spread out beneath the great tree like an emerald ocean, waves gently rippling across the canopy with each lazy zephyr that touched its surface. Here and there, the sea parted as upthrust rock pierced the canopy, or coursing water cut channels through the crowding growth. The Sith scanned the vicinity, searching for the place where he’d parked his fighter. There! Perhaps 1,600 meters distant: the uppermost step of a stone terrace, mottled with greenery, down which fell a complex sequence of waterfalls, at the base of which sat the lake where the crashed Republic shuttle had come to rest. Maphis cursed his luck. The circuitous route he and the pilot had been forced to take to evade the terentatek had cost them significant ground. Six hundred meters in a forest crawling with monsters might as well be 1,600 kilometers. Maphis glanced at a chronometer discretely woven into his sleeve. He and Alina were critically short of time. The fighter would self-destruct in only a few hours. To compound their troubles, the sun was already dipping toward the horizon. It would be dark soon. The Sith extended his hand and gently placed it on Alina’s shoulder. “Come,” he insisted, “we really must go. There’s no time to tarry.” She surprised him by not shrinking from his touch. Maphis heard the pilot sigh, watched her shift on the branch to face him. Her face resolute, Alina drew her blaster and looked down. “All right,” she replied, “let’s go.” Maphis smiled appreciatively at the pilot's doughtiness. Then he tilted sharply to one side and slid off the branch, eliciting a startled gasp from Alina, who reached for him as he fell. Black robes billowed around the Sith as he plummeted toward the earth. At the last possible moment, Maphis arrested his fall with a cushioning kinetic blast that sent leaves and twigs scattering. Alina gawped, then shouted some indiscernible rebuke from high overhead. “Jump!” Maphis replied, unperturbed by the faint abuse raining down on him. Alina said something unintelligible. “Come on, jump!” Maphis repeated. “It’s all right, I’ll catch you!” There was a long pause. Maphis watched as Alina shimmied toward the tree’s axis and gazed down with an obvious look of trepidation on her face. Slowly, carefully, she stood, bracing herself against the trunk, closed her eyes, muttered, and leapt. Alina screamed as she fell. “You damned, bloody Sith, if I survive this I’ll kill–” She yelped as her descent abruptly slowed, then stopped a few meters above the ground. Maphis stood nearby, his hands outstretched, gingerly handling her with invisible fingers. “–you!” Alina angrily finished. Maphis released the pilot, and she struck the ground with an undignified oof.