Devil’s Due: Part 2: First Step

Couldn’t sleep, took a look at this chapter, discovered it was nearly complete, completed it.

Part 1: The Old Machinations

 

Part 2: First Step

He woke to find himself in some tiny room on the ship, dimly lit, bare. Whether it was locked or not, he didn’t know, and it hardly mattered – this Sith he could not fight, was in no state to fight. His blood-soaked robe was stuck to him in a most disgusting way, his injuries ached and throbbed, and the shock collar was heavy failure on the back of his neck.

His stomach was grumbling. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since he ate, even the slop that his former masters had deemed sufficient for a day’s work. When he lifted his head, his vision swam. He crawled like a wounded animal into the darkest corner of the room and huddled there.

It wasn’t long before the door slid open and his newest imprisoner, Darth Lachris, entered. He glared weakly at her.

“Are you ready to discuss your future like a civilized creature?” she asked carelessly, hardly even glancing at him. “Or are you going to keep lashing out like the subhuman nothing you have been to this point?”

He wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted him to say in answer and stayed silent. But his stomach did not.

She sighed. “Come along, then. You need to be washed and fed and dressed appropriately. You really are an infant, aren’t you? And you’re sure to be completely uneducated. I’ll have to at least begin to remedy that before we arrive on Korriban.”

He lurched to his feet with a spinning head as she beckoned, though he didn’t leave his shadow quite yet. “Korriban. The ancient Sith homeworld, a barren wasteland of tombs, resting place of Ajunta Pall, Marka Ragnos, and even the disgraced Ludo Kressh. Its discovery by Republic explorers triggered the Great Hyperspace War. Lord Revan came there on her travels, though she did not claim it in her conquest against the Republic. It has been settled, fought over, abandoned, lost, and resettled time and again. That Korriban?”

She looked more directly at him now. “Well now, I suppose you’re not utterly hopeless. In fact, one might almost say you’re a huge nerd.”

“I can read,” he shot back sarcastically. “Shocking, I know. What’s a nerd?”

“Honestly, it is,” she said. “Most sentients in your circumstance can’t even manage that. Come along. Do you know how to work a shower?”

“Yes.”

The shower was like no shower he’d had before – the water was hot, the pressure was strong, and the tiles were smooth. He left the mysterious bottles around the refresher alone, left the cloths alone in case he tainted them by his touch, but dressed in the new robe the woman had given him, plain and black. It absorbed what water was left on his body fine. It had a hood. And to wear well-made boots instead of wrapped sandals… his feet felt funny, but safe and secure like they never had before.

“What do I do with the old clothes?” he asked.

“Dispose of them,” she answered impatiently, gesturing to the waste receptacle.

She’d prepared food, some sort of noodles in a sauce rich enough to have meat in it, or so he guessed, as he’d never had meat before. While she turned her nose up at it, he couldn’t get enough. He nigh inhaled the first bowl, and while he didn’t dare ask for more, she handed him the ladle telekinetically with a contemptuous look. “Take responsibility for yourself, fool.”

When he was feeling… sated, for the first time in his life, she produced a datapad and handed it to him. “Now, I really don’t have time to teach you how to interact with society, so I hope your interest in reading holds.”

He was certainly interested in learning that there was an entire Empire of the same brush as Netokos and Lachris. An entire Empire to hate. The poison curled up in his stomach and got comfortable.

 

The last thing Lord Lachris did before kicking him unceremoniously off the yacht was to remove the slave collar. “You’ll be an acolyte or dead soon enough.” Neither needed a collar. She gave him a Force-push towards the loading ramp and went back to the cockpit.

He stumbled out into a small, shady hangar bay, but when he turned to look back at the yacht as it took off and flew away, he had to squint and shade his eyes against the brilliant desert light outside. The air was hot and dry, so arid he almost choked. Nothing like Commenor. His neck felt light without the collar, and he reached up to touch where it had been. There were marks in his skin from its weight, scars from when it had been attached years ago.

He turned his attention the other way and saw a short human man with red markings on his face, glaring at him with an air of authority. He approached him warily.

“The last one to arrive is finally here,” the human said, his voice smooth and devoid of warmth. “I hope you don’t think you’re special. It would be a shame if freedom went to your head, or if you somehow got the idea you didn’t need to pass your trials in order to become Sith. I am Overseer Harkun. Lord Zash has tasked me with sorting through you refuse to find one worthy of being her apprentice, and I intend to do just that. Most of your ilk will die immediately and save the galaxy from your clutter.”

“Don’t get all sentimental on me,” Murlesson muttered. “We’ve only just met.”

“I won’t,” the human hissed. Apparently he had even less sense of humour than Krznaf. “Your first trial, slave, begins immediately. Take this training weapon and go to the tomb of Ajunta Pall. A hermit named Spindral lives there. He will test you. Spindrall’s a lunatic, but Lord Zash sees him as some kind of prophet. You will do as she wishes.”

“Fine. I will seek the insane hermit in the incredibly dangerous tomb and take his little test,” Murlesson said, taking the training sword. There was nothing to gain by refusing.

“Don’t appear in my office until you’ve completed this task, slave, or you’ll find yourself wishing you were back wherever you came from.”

Gods, Murlesson hated him already.

 

Being an acolyte on Korriban was, surprising to him, not terribly different from being a slave. At least at first. As a newcomer, he didn’t know who to watch, didn’t know who might be manipulated. And for trusting… he trusted no one. Under Netokos, the slaves had a loose understanding that they had to stick together against their masters, for there was no hope for change. Here, the acolytes were firmly at the whim of just about everyone, but they all had the hope of upward mobility; everyone was for themselves. He had more autonomy, was less watched, but the crimes were the same, the punishments just as harsh. He didn’t dare steal here. Though he was pleased to find that he could sneak almost as well as before, though he didn’t use it to pry. Not yet. Not until he had a purpose to.

So he lurked in the library or in the tombs or in the back halls of the Academy, and did his assigned tasks, and stayed away from Ffon. And most of all he watched. He needed a shield, someone to hide behind, as he and many of the others had hidden behind Tenkobu. Being unimportant-seeming would only help him for so long. He needed someone strong to always stand before him, just a little bit more important-seeming, so he could work unwatched.

He almost bumped into the perfect candidate the day after he arrived. Murlesson was curled up in the library, devouring yet another text that he’d only caught glimpses of in his past life, when he felt a presence approaching and looked up. A human stood at the end of the shelf, bearded, older than him, with a proud, self-confident bearing and dark, calm amber eyes. The human cleared his throat and flicked his gaze to a holocron on the shelf above Murlesson. Silently, the redhead scooted out of the way so the man could get his reading material. “Thank you,” the man said quietly, and left. But Murlesson’s attention was only partly on the description of Ajunta’s Pall’s rise to power now. That man had a strength in him, a core of willpower and determination that would be hard to reckon with.

He saw the man again at the evening meal, and watched him surreptitiously. Murlesson wasn’t the only acolyte to hope for shadowy corners to lurk in, as much as could be found in the Sith cafeteria, but he’d been successful at claiming a favourable spot, and he intended to use it. The man’s name was Aristheron, Murlesson heard, a noble-born Sith from Talcene, only arrived as recently as Murlesson himself. He was surrounded by a bunch of other acolytes, and Murlesson gauged them in the Force and with his eyes: they feared him as much as they admired him. He only spoke to them if absolutely forced to, but not from any shyness; it looked more that he was here to succeed at the Academy, and anything else was a distraction. He was above their petty bickerings. Despite that, he seemed to follow a code of justice and honour that many of the others did not. It could make him readily manipulable, once his trust was won, and if done subtly enough. He was a perfect target to ally with.

But Aristheron holding himself aloof gave Murlesson a problem, as he discovered over the next few days. The human despised sycophants and sucking up, it was clear to see, and he was competent enough that arranging a situation to place him in Murlesson’s debt would be extremely difficult without arousing suspicion. Nor would he notice Murlesson if he arranged to put himself in Aristheron’s debt; he would only dismiss him as weak as the rest. Only a situation that was mutually beneficial to both of them would show Aristheron that Murlesson was a useful ally. For Murlesson was certainly not going to become a slave or a servant again. He might pretend to, but only if he had no choice about it.

No, his plan was coalescing, or at least his goal was. He would fall in line here, kill his rivals, survive however he had to, and then once he’d gained a master who would take him away from here, use them until he could kill them – and then their master, and their master, and spread his threads of instability through the entire Empire, until he could bring it crashing down on the head of the Emperor himself.

The irony was not lost on him. In order to destroy the thing he hated most, the Sith, he would have to become the best at what he hated most. He would have to lie and murder and steal and manipulate; he would use people without remorse, without honour, without any consideration beyond how they could serve his goal. He’d tried not to care about Netokos’s other slaves; if nothing else, Darth Lachris had shown him why that was a mistake. She’d manipulated him, but she’d known what she was doing. And now he would follow her example, even while he plotted her death with more vengefulness than the Dark Council. He was vaguely concerned that the power would seduce him until he only desired more power instead of destruction, but if that happened… His future self wouldn’t care, why should he?

And all this he would have to conceal with all of his strength, not just from patriotic Aristheron, but from every being around him, for the rest of his life. His life was not likely to be long, but he didn’t care. Just as long as he could hurt the Empire that had hurt him…

 

“Now, slave…” Harkun said, “you think yourself pretty clever getting that holocron, don’t you?”

“I don’t really think about it one way or the other,” Murlesson answered sarcastically. He’d always had a sharp tongue, but it had always been tempered before. Experience here had taught him that Harkun had no power to wound or kill him just for talking back, however, so he exploited it. An angry overseer was a clumsy overseer. And the additional duties weren’t that hard. “I did as I was told.”

And truth be told, he didn’t think this holocron had been particularly clever to obtain. It was impossible that others had not considered his solution, wasn’t it? Perhaps he was simply the right person; the texts were full of strange ‘chosen one’ examples like that. In which case, he had to wonder what was so special about him.

“You’re lucky Lord Zash finds you useful. But the final resting place of the dead lord is not easily trespassed. You will not be the first to die there.”

Murlesson shrugged carelessly. “Yes, yes, yes… you send me into a tomb to do the impossible, hoping I die, and I come back and prove you wrong.” It wasn’t the first time. He was almost enjoying it. He wondered if that was weird.

Harkun snarled audibly. “Shut up, slave. I’ve had about enough of your mockery. Do not come back here until you’ve gotten the text from Tulak Hord’s tomb. Out of my sight!”

 

That assignment took him some time. Tulak Hord’s tomb was wide and sprawling, elaborate beyond reasonableness, and the stone tablets with the text he sought were scattered. But there were other artifacts, too, other secrets. Occasionally other acolytes. When they saw him, they attacked him; he took to lurking in the shadows, moving as silently as he could, and slashing them first. All in all, it was a very educational experience.

He’d returned on the evening of the fourth day, dirty, hungry, exhausted. Which slightly concerned him, but as long as he kept to the main halls, no one could sneak up on him.

He was nearing Harkun’s office, datapad in hand, when a blonde woman in red robes walked up to him, stopping him with a gesture. He’d never seen her before, and was immediately wary as she walked around him, inspecting him from head to foot. It would have been slightly creepy, but he was used to people looking at him that way, when they looked at him at all.

“Yes… yes. Remarkable. Magnificent. You, slave.” She started and blinked, correcting herself. “Wait, no… acolyte. You’re the one who brought me this magnificent holocron from the tomb of Marka Ragnos, yes?” She smiled disarmingly, hefting that holocron in her left hand.

Murlesson would not let down his guard. “Yes, my lord. I found the holocron.”

She shook her head, still smiling. “Unbelievable. One thousand years, buried in that tomb. Sith Lords passing it by. And then… the most unlikely person comes along. Tell me, how did you manage it?”

In a ridiculous way. “That’s my little secret.” Hard to believe no one had just cut it out of the rock with their lightsaber already.

She nodded now, approvingly. “Good. You guard your secrets well. This is a credit to you and a source of power. Though I personally prefer to be more open.” Did that mean she liked to brag, or that she wanted him to be more open with her? Of course she would the latter. She wouldn’t get it. “Your work so far – in bringing back this holocron and now the text from Tulak Hord’s tomb – has me intrigued. I am watching your progress eagerly.”

“Who are you?” he asked, though he had strong suspicions. Between the holocron, and the fact that she’d been watching…

She seemed startled again. “Oh! That. My apologies, acolyte. I am Lord Zash.” She offered him a gracious half bow. No one had ever bowed to him before. It seemed ill-fitting for a Lord to bow to a slave without any acknowledgement, so he bowed even more deeply in return. She seemed delighted. “What was your name again? Murgeson? Marteson?”

“Murlesson,” he said. “It’s an unimaginative Zabrak name that means ‘red-head’.”

She chuckled. “You certainly are. Well, I shouldn’t keep you waiting. I have high hopes for you, acolyte. Sky high.”

“Harkun seems to favour Ffon,” he said, curious if she knew about the blatant favouritism going on.

She made a dismissive gesture. “Harkun’s only purpose is to weed out the weak. Beyond that, his opinion means nothing. Good luck, acolyte. Good luck.” She smiled again and walked off.

He couldn’t help a bit of an un-servile swagger as he entered Harkun’s office. Harkun grimaced ferociously at him. “I was just about to send Ffon off. What delayed you, acolyte?”

Murlesson allowed himself a thin smirk. “Well, first Lord Zash stopped me to tell me how amazing I am, and then we got talking and I suppose I lost track of time.”

Harkun’s lip curled. “Just like a slave to make up stories. Lord Zash would crush you like a gizka if you ever crossed her path. You’re not worthy of her presence. You have the text? Give it here, quickly. You probably damaged it.”

 

He was in the tomb of Naga Sadow, and despite his general hatred and loathing of all things Sith, being in the actual tomb of the actual Naga Sadow, his source for scheming and tactics for most of his short life, filled him with a sort of awe. Almost reverence. Sure, it felt like all the other tombs, and there was no lack of things trying to kill him, and he had a headache from not having slept in 36 hours, but he was still here and that was something.

There was a vast chamber filled with lightning. A long way away, he could see a beam of light and a bipedal creature of some sort suspended in it. Was that the Dashade? The cavern walls were sheer, with no way to climb over to the creature, but surely that hadn’t stopped the Sith before. He could think of twenty different ways to reach the place, even if it was booby trapped. Why did he need the four rods strapped to his back? He’d collected them throughout the tomb at Zash’s insistance, but Force rituals seemed unnecessary when technology would suffice. Yes, yes, technology was insignificant next to the power of the Force, all the books said, but any Sith who favoured the Force at the expense of technology was a rank fool in Murlesson’s eyes.

Why hadn’t some greedy Sith Lord just built a bridge?

Unless… Unless the Force itself was so potent in this place that only a Sith of sufficient power could pass through. Could that be it? He reached out with his senses, grown increasingly strong over the last month, and felt nothing particularly special. This entire planet was strong in the Dark Side of the Force, the tombs especially strong. This spot was not more than any other tomb.

Could it be that the all-powerful high Lords of the Sith cared more for testing their apprentices on ridiculous challenges than in acquiring power? That was illogical to the extreme. They were all crazy, completely crazy, and he was going to eradicate them from the galaxy. But first he had to pass this challenge of his own. He turned away from the silly chasm and went down the next corridor carved into the rock.

He came to the room required for the ritual; there was a great sealed door which bore a few minor scratches on it. No doubt Ffon had already come and gone. He planted the rods in the four corners, returned to the centre of the room, and waited.

Power coursed through him, Force lightning the likes of which gave him unpleasant flashbacks to Lord Netokos’s torture chambers. Crying out in agony, anger, and frustration, he fell to his knees – unconsciously mimicking the prostrate statues around him.

The door before him gave a great flash of light and grumbled open, revealing the Dashade.

Murlesson sat up, breathing hard, his hands and knees firmly planted on the ground. Gods, he hated the Sith. They never stopped using him as a punching bag, even when they were dead.

When he was feeling less shaky, he crawled to the side of the room and ate, drank, and simply rested for a while. The creature was sleeping, locked in stasis, but it was an angry being, he could tell already. Harkun had mocked him, saying if he even reached it, it would probably eat him. He would have to beat it into submission to survive and obtain its cooperation.

When he was ready, he got up and strode boldly towards the imprisoned creature. His approach must have triggered something, for the creature’s eyes opened, red slits in that ugly pale face. It blinked a few times as he studied it, and eventually it focused on him. When it had taken his measure, it gave a short bark of laughter, then began speaking in a gravelly language that somehow he understood.

<Ha! All the world conspires to mock me! Haha!> It looked about, as if expecting someone else. <Tulak Hord! I waited for you. I did everything you said! And this is what you send me?> It looked at him again, growling. <Ha! Fate is cruel to me, little one. But not as cruel as it is to you. You have made a terrible mistake.>

Murlesson shrugged. “These were the instructions Zash gave me. I am to free you and you will take me to the map in the final chamber of the tomb.” An ally of Tulak Hord, hmm? He knew Tulak Hord had been a great warrior, strong both in melee combat and the Force, a conqueror. He was short on specifics and tactics, however, so Tulak Hord was less of an inspiration than Naga Sadow.

The monster lifted its head proudly, reciting: <I am Khem Val, servant of Tulak Hord, who was called Lord of Hate, Master of the Gathering Darkness, Dark Lord of the Sith. Together, Tulak Hord and I devoured our enemies at the battles of Yn and Chabosh and brought the entire Dromund system to its knees. And now I await his return.>

“I hate to be the one to break it to you…” Murlesson said, only a little sarcastic, “but Tulak Hord is dead.” How long had Khem Val been locked here? Centuries, at least.

If he didn’t know better, he would have thought the creature was showing emotion. <Dead? My lord, why didn’t you come for me? I would have died with you… no, I would have slain death itself… As for you, you should not have come here. For I hunger – and I will devour you!> It broke free of its stasis, dropping down to his level, advancing with sharp teeth and claws outstretched.

Even having been warned multiple times, it was a terrifying situation to face: a scrawny boy with a sharp stick, taking on an enormous killing machine of a monster. It was quick, and strong, but still disoriented and clumsy from its long imprisonment. He had a chance, and took it, ducking and weaving, throwing the Force between them in unrefined blasts as powerful as he could muster, knocking the creature back with his own lightning.

Claws lashed out at him and he jumped to the side, not even trying to block. He rebalanced and lunged for its chest, but it lashed out, gripping the training blade with its clawed paw, heedless of the hissing burns to its skin. His only weapon was ripped from his hands and cast away, back towards the door, and the monster jumped at him. Frantically, he reached out a hand and snatched the blade telekinetically from the air, blocking with all his strength. The monster’s weight crashed down on his guard and knocked him backwards head over heels; he sprang to his feet more quickly than it could recover, smacking it about the head and shoulders. It stumbled to its feet, swatting at him, and he jumped aside again, smacked it on the other side. Singed welts were appearing in its leathery skin.

The monster fell to its hands and knees; he raised his training sword to continue the beating, but it raised a hand in surrender and let out a disgusted laugh. <Ha! Defeated! Defeated! Why did you not come for me, Tulak? Why have you allowed your servant to be reduced to this?> It struck its hands on the floor once, then slowly stood, head bowed in submission – but those red eyes were fixed on his with venom. <Fine, little one. In my great weakness, you have defeated me, so I must serve you. This is the law that binds me. But you are not my master.>

Murlesson shrugged. “Fine. Then let’s go.” He wasn’t going to offer medical treatment, either. The beast had to earn that; keeping it weak enough to defeat again was in his best interests at the moment.

<As you say, little one. But someday I will regain my strength.>

 

Ffon was pacing back and forth in Harkun’s office; Murlesson stopped just outside the door, cloaking himself in the Force, listening silently in amusement. “I’m telling you, overseer, it cannot be done. I went into the tomb, I saw the Dashade across the chasm, but I could not get to it.”

Harkun struck his desk with a fist. “But the map! The map! Lord Zash is adamant – she will not take an apprentice without the map!”

Ffon shook his head dispairingly. “I’m telling you, Lord Zash wants the impossible. No one is ever going to get that map!” Had Harkun even told Ffon about the bonus tip Murlesson had been given? Or had he not, to spare his prized pupil’s precious feelings?

He stepped forward, affecting Aristheron’s confident stride. Khem followed, looming behind him. “You don’t mean this map, do you?”

Harkun stared and recoiled. “The map! And – the Dashade! G-get that monster out of here this instant! And give me the map.” He jumped forward and snatched the datapad from Murlesson’s hand, checking the contents.

Ffon’s jaw dropped, his expression torn between disgust and curiosity. “No, it’s not possible! You wretch, you filth – you must have cheated somehow. How did you do it? How did you release the monster?”

<I am not a monster,> Khem Val growled ominously. <I am Khem Val, servant of Tulak Hord, devourer of the rebels at Yn and Chabosh, consumer of the Dromund system. And I am hungry.>

“R-right,” Ffon stammered. “You… you must have cheated, you must have. You’ll pay for this.”

“Ffon!” Harkun snapped. “Patience. You will have your chance at this whelp – after you personally deliver this map to Lord Zash.” He handed it to Ffon, who nodded and turned to leave.

Murlesson snarled. “Eat them both, Khem!” No one would know. He had the power. Finally, he had the power.

<With pleasure.> Khem stomped forward, and Ffon backed away in fear, drawing his blade. Harkun stepped toward him protectively. So Ffon’s boastfulness was all show.

“Keep your pet at bay for just a moment, Murlesson,” Lord Zash said placidly, entering before Khem could attack. “I would have a word with Ffon.”

Ffon blinked at her, suddenly even more afraid than before. He could smell it. “Lord Zash?”

She smiled at him, yet somehow her smiles were not as welcoming as the ones she’d given Murlesson. “Yes, Ffon. Now, where’s my map?”

“H-here, Lord Zash. R-right here.” He handed over the datapad quickly.

You found it for me, Ffon?” Zash cooed. “How wonderful.”

He could tell she didn’t believe it, yet he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “As if he could find his own backside…”

“Silence!” Zash snapped, the first harsh word he’d heard from her. He didn’t jump. She went back to gentle and coaxing. “Ffon will tell me what happened, won’t you, Ffon? You wouldn’t dare lie to me, would you? Because it would be a shame for me to discover that you lied to me. Now, one more time – did you bring this map back from Naga Sadow’s tomb?”

Ffon stammered, shaking. “I-I- n-no. No. I didn’t. I didn’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He gulped audibly, sweating; Murlesson was suddenly struck by the fact that both he and Ffon had red skin, though they were different species.

Zash whirled on Harkun, flawless skin creasing into a contemptuous frown. “Harkun, you fool. In any other group for any other lord, this young man would have torn the other acolytes to shreds. What were you trying to prove? That you could outsmart me? That you knew better than me what kind of person I wanted for an apprentice? Fool!” As she spoke, she raised her hand, and though Ffon held up his arms to shield himself, it did nothing to block the powerful bolt of lightning that struck him. He screamed, thrashing, and fell to the floor where he twitched until finally falling completely still. Murlesson stared. Had Ffon not been part of the original pool of apprentices? He’d thought Harkun had simply picked the one of the lot he liked best. How naive of him. “There’s your pet, Harkun. Clean this mess up. Apprentice, meet me in my chambers upstairs.”

He inclined his head gravely. “As you say.” Zash swept out of the room; if it had a hinged door, she might have slammed it.

Harkun glared at Murlesson with greater fury and hatred than he’d even shown to that point. “This is not the end. Without Lord Zash to save you, you’re nothing. I have connections that will hunt you wherever you go.”

Murlesson sneered back. “If they’re as clumsy as your pet was, I have nothing to fear.” His gaze drifted to Khem. Yes, he’d made an enemy here. But Harkun was, as they all said, nothing in the grand scheme of things. A little dangerous, but not even worth the effort to eliminate.

Yet. Someday he’d destroy every last Sith, even the insignificant ones.

Harkun jabbed a harsh finger at him. “Get out of my sight, slave. Your new master is waiting for you upstairs.”

Once in the hall, he turned to Khem. “Find somewhere to stay out of sight until it is time to leave this place.” There wasn’t anything to be gained by intimidating Harkun further, and maybe something to be lost by advertising to the other acolytes that he had such a powerful servant at his command.

<As you say, little one,> Khem said, and left without further acknowledgement.

He climbed the stairs to the second level and headed for her office. He entered without knocking, standing quietly in the corner until she bothered to notice him.

Which was immediately. She paused in gathering datapads and holocrons into a carrier and smiled warmly at him. “Ah, my magnificent new apprentice. Congratulations are in order, I believe.”

He bowed his head. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity.” He actually mostly meant it, too.

“You’ve earned it, my apprentice. Now, I was just looking over this astonishing map you brought back, and I can tell we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“What is this a map of, exactly?”

She glanced meaningfully towards the door. “We can’t talk about it here – too many unfriendly ears. You must meet me on Dromund Kaas, in my chambers in the Citadel in Kaas City. There we can speak more freely of the work ahead. Ah, but first, I have a gift for you.” She opened a drawer on her desk and withdrew a long cylinder with curved spikes on each end. “This is the lightsaber I had as an apprentice. I want you to have it.”

He hefted it, tried the on button. It was a crimson double-bladed lightsaber. “Thank you.”

She smiled some more. “Excellent. I am glad you like it. It served me well.” He powered it off and found where to hang it from his belt, and then she wagged a finger at him. “Now, remember. My chambers. The Citadel. Dromund Kaas. It’s imperative that we get to work on this as soon as possible. I will be returning tonight by my own ship; you will take the shuttle to Vaiken tomorrow morning. Understood?”

“Yes, master.”

“Good. Oh, I am excited, Murlesson. Good night.” She waved cheerily at him and left the room at a brisk pace, the carrier hanging from her shoulder.

He lingered, looking around, trying to process the day’s events. His new lightsaber was heavy at his hip, and he wondered how long it would take to learn to use it. At this point it was just another Sith liability, and he was more likely to cut himself in half with it than kill the enemy. He would have to go out into the tombs for a while and slaughter shyracks.

As he trailed out of the office after Zash, he saw three approaching Sith and knew that he wouldn’t get the chance. “Stop right there, alien scum!” commanded their leader. “Darth Skotia has a message for you.”

Murlesson glared, easing into a battle-ready crouch, hand on his saber but not drawing it yet. “Darth who?” He’d become so focused on the Academy’s internal politics he’d almost forgotten there was a larger galaxy out to get him.

The Sith smiled unpleasantly. “Darth Skotia is Lord Zash’s superior and your worst nightmare. The message is this: You will not go to Dromund Kaas. Everything you’ve done here, everyone you dealt with – Lord Zash included – is insignificant. Darth Skotia has eyes and ears on Korriban. He knows what your master is up to, and he is displeased to say the least. On Korriban, she may have had her way. But on Dromund Kaas, it’s a different story. So you see, you have to die.”

They weren’t on Dromund Kaas yet, they could stuff that. “If I ever meet him, I’ll try to remember to tremble,” he said insincerely. “And pass on condolences about your deaths.”

The unpleasant smile turned into a grin, and three lightsabers buzzed into life before him. “Oh, slave, I’m going to enjoy tearing you to bits.”

He thumbed his own saber on in response and backed up a step. The weight was completely different than the training sword he’d been using, and it had two ends. He’d have to be careful where he stepped, he couldn’t fight more than one at a time. If he could hold them in the narrow doorway, he should be able to survive.

They were grinning as they advanced. They thought they could take him easily. He felt his hatred surge, black and cold, and flicked away the first saber that stabbed at him, following it with a blast of lightning. That apprentice hissed, shaking his stinging hand, and the next one dove at him, grinning a little less than before. He blocked the strike with one of his blades and kicked that one in the groin, but the lead Sith stepped in before he could capitalize on it, attacking so fiercely he had to give up precious ground. The enemy’s saber clipped his robes and he flinched, spinning his saber like a staff in a desperate attempt to keep his arms attached. His gift was aiding his reflexes, but he was distracted by too many things.

He was considering how much he was in over his head and wishing he could summon Khem Val with his mind, when he heard a feminine giggle. “Care to share?” A young woman stood at the entrance to the corridor behind the Sith, a heavy training blade over her shoulder, smiling cheerfully.

“Come then, acolyte, kill this slave, and Darth Skotia will reward you,” said the lead Sith, backing off for a moment.

“Oh, I wasn’t talking to you,” she said, and her smile grew to a smug grin. “What would be the fun in that?”

“You defy him, then?” demanded the Sith.

The woman laughed outright. “I’ve never heard of him. If he can touch the daughter of Count Volkov, I’ll be very, very surprised.”

“You will die, then! You, deal with the alien. I’ll take her.”

“Ha!” She sprang forward, psychotic glee in her eyes. Murlesson took advantage of the distraction to swing at his closest enemy, who blocked; he hadn’t attacked with enough force. Didn’t know how to apply the correct force. But speaking of the Force… He ducked low under the other Sith’s attack and made a leg sweep and a Force pull: the first Sith was taken off balance and stumbled forward, right into the second Sith’s lightsaber in his chest, offcentre. He shrieked, and as he did, Murlesson stabbed his own lightsaber through his throat.

One down, one to go. This one was shocked by the demise of his partner, and was taking Murlesson more seriously than before. He watched the man warily, stretching out his senses, hoping to know what the other was going to do before even he did. The Sith crouched warily, his eyes cautious and ugly now, sizing him up again.

When the attacks came, they were fast and hard; Murlesson’s spray of lightning went wild, burning a spot on the wall, and then he needed both hands for his lightsaber, letting his hatred carry him through the assault, hardly thinking, only reacting. But he couldn’t stay on the defensive forever. He couldn’t let fear hold him back. He gave way suddenly, stepping far back, regaining his own balance and forcing the Sith off his. He gave a flick of his saber upwards, and cut his opponent’s face in half. The Sith fell to the floor, and Murlesson focussed his attention on his unexpected aid.

She was fast, very fast, even though she wasn’t as well armed as her opponent; her feet moved like she was dancing, and she twirled her body and her blade with practiced ease. But the Sith’s attention was all on her, and none of it on Murlesson. Did he even realize his underlings were dead? Had he not heard the screaming? Murlesson crept up quietly behind him and plunged his lightsaber through the Sith’s back, killing him instantly.

As the Sith pitched over at her feet, she lowered her heavy training blade and grinned at him. “I suppose I’ll have to be faster next time. You stole my kill.”

“What happens now?” he asked warily. “Why did you help me? Who are you?”

She tossed her head. Her hair was white, unusual for a young human. Did she colour it? “I am Akuliina Volkova of the Volkovs of Kuat. I heard a fight; I joined in on the challenging side. It doesn’t matter too much who dies at the Academy, after all. What do you mean, what happens now? Did you want me to kill you, too?”

“No.” He snorted. “Really? That’s the only reason?”

She shrugged, leaning on the blade like a walking stick. “I just got here. I’ve been itching for action, to test myself, to prove myself. I’m not sure my overseer’s trials will be up to my standards. But it would be dishonourable to kill you too. Unless you want me to. What’s your name, then?”

She would be a perfect shield if only he wasn’t leaving Korriban tomorrow and she was just starting. She was probably even more manipulable than Aristheron, too. He’d have to keep an eye out for her in the future, though even if she survived it could be months before she became someone’s apprentice. He knew he had gotten lucky. He shrugged. “Murlesson. I’ll remember this.” Although luck wasn’t even part of it. Zash had some ulterior purpose in her purported kindness. He still wasn’t properly trained. Even a Sith didn’t just get good at something by reading about it and then being blindly thrown at it.

“Good,” she said, and walked away.

 

Part 3

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