A Growing Hate

"Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life." -- Eric Hoffer

Maul couldn't see the hole in the wall, rather he sensed it.

His home for the past number of years had been a ten meter by ten meter cell in an abandoned factory deep in the bowels of the city planet Coruscant. Maul had no definitive idea what had been the room's original purpose, but he guessed it had something to do with the production of starcraft. In one corner lay a rusting mountain of rivets, screws, bolts, meter long aluminum ailerons and the like. There were also some small, mostly unopened, boxes of buttons, toggles and switches at the base of the mountain. Maul had searched through the rubble years ago, and had left it untouched for months. In the opposite corner, near the only entrance (locked from the outside) to the room lay the remains of an assassin droid Maul had dismantled only days ago. Maul had been weaponless while the robot had been armed with two vibroblades for hands. Maul's wounds weren't serious, but he had retreated to the adjacent corner where he found a little refuge behind an impressive stack of sealed crates. He felt at least that if another droid appeared, he'd have a moment to collect himself before the inevitable fight ensued. It was also in this corner where he could faintly sense the occasional coming and goings of sentient beings on the other side of the wall. It was here that he could focus on the Living Force and heal himself most expediently. It was here that he found the structural weakness in the wall that he now so anxiously probed.

Maul realized after a couple of kicks to the durasteel wall that his efforts may have yielded little more than a broken toe.

But the Sith were not weak. Failure was not an option for Maul.

Instead, Maul ran to the other side of the room, and picked through the metallic mountain of debris until he found a rusty but sturdy spike. He returned to the "hole" and started to chip away at what he sensed was the weakest part of the wall.

Almost a day passed before Maul saw any real progress. He had stopped a couple of times when he sensed a presence of something nearby, but he was never interrupted for any length of time by another assassin droid, or worse still, his master.

His master.

Maul had a brief moment of panic as his fingertips caressed the dampness of the outside world through the widening fissure. What if his master caught him doing this? Darth Sidious had tormented and tortured his apprentice for much less than this. Maul wiped his hand across his bright red forehead, and took a step back from his work. His master's visits were infrequent if not painful. Maul felt a flash of white, hot anger rise up in him as he considered one of Sidious's last visits. It had left Maul with a set of broken fingers.

Maul flexed those same fingers in front of his eyes. He knelt down again, and furiously tore at the wiring and insulation visible in the half meter-wide hole he had managed to open. He flayed his knuckles on a serrated edge, but the pain did not deter him from his goal. Instead, he stood up, and delivered some powerful kicks to the durasteel plates around the hole until one of them clattered to the ground. He continued his assault on the wall for hours, stopping only once when he had felt movement from the other side of the opening. Finally it appeared large enough for him to squeeze through.

Again, he hesitated. Not out of fear though, but rather out of uncertainty. He had not been outdoors in many years. A rare emotion flickered across his face: wonder.

XXX

Maul's hips popped through the opening, and he gracefully tumbled onto the ground some two feet below. A nearby scavenger, a small Chadra-Fan who had come to see what had been making the racket, screeched and fled for the nearest shadows. Maul grunted as he watched the creature go. He then leapt to a standing position, and took in all that was around him.

Coruscant's belly rarely saw any natural light. Maul squinted in the pitch dark to his left, and, using the Force, felt that it lead to a dead end. As he turned to look to his right, he shivered. He was not used to the cold, damp air of the out of doors, and shook his head to ward off the creeping sensation that he was starting to freeze. He clamped his black tunic tighter around his neck with his left hand as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness around him. He found it more convenient to use the Force to "see" for him in this instance, but was curious about the faint light he could see in the distance. He could feel the presence of the little Chadra-Fan kneeling behind what looked like the battered wing of a Z-95 Headhunter. He stomped towards the dented metal so as to scare the beast away. The Chadra-Fan skipped out into the Coruscant streets without so much as a squeak. Maul heaved the wing into position in front of his "exit" and turned back to his investigation of the distant light. Before long, he was under it.

"Onkkle Mothask: Duracrete Slug Exterminator."

Maul had no idea what an "Onkkle Mothask" was, but he felt sure he had heard about duracrete slugs from a training session he'd had with his master.

However, he certainly recognized the wave of emotion that tickled his Force abilities.

Fear.

But not his own. Someone or something nearby was struggling for its survival; its very existence. The fear Maul felt was both cold and hot at the same time.

Maul took four more steps toward another darkened alley just beyond Onkkle Mothask's place of business, which save the blinking lights appeared to be closed anyways.

Before Maul proceeded into the alley, he took stock of his situation. He was dressed only in his lightest garb, and the chill was really starting to bite into him. He was no more than a minute into his first full expedition into the Coruscant night. He was weaponless, and the surging emotions emanating from the alleyway convinced him that he would need some sort of weapon in case of danger.

It was the perfect time to see what was going on.

As Maul emerged from the glow of Mothask's light, he heard for the first time that he could remember a voice other than his master's.

"Please. Please stop. I'll get you the credits. I just need a few more days."

Maul was surprised to hear so much fear in the voice. He was accustomed to hearing his master speak; his master never sounded so frail and desperate. He could stop himself from walking farther into the black void of the alley, but didn't.

Not ten meters from where he stood, Maul saw a blue-green skinned figure laying at the feet of three large humanoids. The being on the ground was curled into a protective ball; its knees near its face so as to conceal its chest from attack. The clothes the figure on the ground wore were dirty from the filth of the planet, but Maul noticed little of this. Instead he focused on the being's face.

This scared, desperate life was female.

Maul tried to remember if he had ever seen a real live female before, but couldn't. Maul was certain that he had had a mother, but Sidious had told him that she had died giving birth to her only child.

This female, though, was not of Iridonian heritage. Maul wasn't sure what she was, but he did feel strangely attracted to her. He noticed how her long tresses wrapped around her face like a black wreath. Her eyes, he saw, were equally dark, and against the light hue of her skin, looked like onyx. The only imperfection Maul could see on her face was the growing dark blue welt on her left cheek where surely she had been struck by one of the three men around her.

In the seconds Maul spent staring at the girl, the three animated pillars turned to face the newcomer.

"What you want?" shouted the smallest of the three assailants. The green skinned Rodian spoke broken Basic, but Maul understood perfectly well that the alien didn't really require an answer.

The other two men, both Klatooinians, each took a step closer to the nearest walls to block Maul's view of their victim.

"Well", hissed the Rodian.

Maul spread his legs apart, turned slightly perpendicular to the group in front of him, and drew his arms up to his chest in a distinctive fighting stance.

"Get him," ordered the reptilian humanoid.

The large dog-faced Klatooinians charged at Maul, but the Sith apprentice leapt between the two creatures to deliver a powerful, if unexpected, flying kick to the stationary Rodian's chest.

The Rodian barely managed a grunt as he landed next to the prone girl.

Maul, meanwhile, let the Force guide his actions. He hadn't properly landed before he executed a flawless one hundred and eighty degree spinning heel kick to the first Klatooinian who had turned to watch the Zabrak's jump. Maul's heel caught the beast square in the jaw, and the bone snapped like a flimsy datacard.

As Maul followed through with his kick, he shoved the second Klatooinian into the wall with a violent Force push. The monster's head bounced off the brick, but he somehow remained standing. Maul was on the dazed humanoid in an instant, raining down blows to his head and body until it too was laid flat.

Maul turned to face the Rodian who had by now gotten to his knees. He pulled a vibroblade from his orange vest and waved it at Maul.

Maul grinned. He pulled the blade from the Rodian's grasp with a quick flick of his wrist and the Force he wielded with it. The blade hung in mid-air for a moment or two before Maul flung it to his left where it plunged deep into the chest of the Klatooinian with the broken jaw. The dying creature howled as best as he could with his useless mandible and slipped to the floor of the alley.

Maul physically forced the Rodian to his feet by grabbing onto his slippery, sweat soaked throat.

"Get out of here." Maul didn't recognize his own voice because it had been some time since he had used it to say anything besides 'Yes master'.

He then flipped the Rodian over his shoulder and into the second Klatooinian who had yet to move from where Maul had planted him. The two humanoids cracked skulls and slid into unconsciousness.

A small hand grabbed at Maul's fingers. Maul wheeled around to land a sharp right hook, but stopped short of connecting with his intended target when he realized it was the female who he'd seen earlier on the ground.

"Come on. Let's go before more of them come."

At full height, the female was considerably shorter than Maul, but her voice now betrayed little of the weakness it had earlier. Instead, she sounded determined and strong. Maul followed without question.

As the two zigzagged through the maze of streets of Coruscant's industrial wasteland, Maul felt for the first time in his life…happy. He was just realizing that he had never struck another being before. His master's tests had always involved droids or non-sentient beasts like womp-rats and, one time, a tusk-cat from Naboo.

"Almost there."

Maul noticed a clearly defined ridge down the center of the girl's back that started abruptly at the base of her neck. Her coal black locks occasionally blocked it from view, but Maul strained to see the intricate pattern of her spine as she ran in front of him leading him farther away from where he'd left the Rodian and Klatooinians. The whole effort was hypnotic.

"Here."

Maul stepped into what looked like the same hole from which he had crawled out of, only larger. He hadn't noticed it earlier because, like his own "hole", this opening was partially concealed by a strategically place holo-poster from some time ago asking the citizens of Coruscant to report crime to the local authorities. The frozen image of the former Chancellor Kalpana stared out at Maul as he slipped behind the view screen.

The girl led Maul down an increasingly smaller tunnel. After moving slowly on his hands and knees for the last ten meters, Maul found himself in a unused hangar with no windows to the outside world nor, as far as he could tell, a door. To his right was an ancient starcraft of unknown origin. Despite a thick layer of dust covering most of the craft, it looked to be in good condition. The ship was relatively small, but took up considerable space in the mostly empty room. Maul figured it to be about twenty meters long, but barely able to carry many more than two people: a pilot and a gunner. The ship sported two laser cannons, one of which was clearly inoperable, and two concussion missile tubes.

"The tubes are empty, if you are wondering. The lasers don't work either, I've tried."

Maul nodded absently.

"Have you ever seen one of these before? Probably not, I guess. This old datacard was in it." The girl picked up a flimsy datacard from a nearby table. "It says little about the ship except that it is called a Miy'Til Bomber. It's in really old Basic too. Centuries old at least. Still, the thing is in good shape."

Maul finally spoke to the other. "It flies?"

" Not really. I mean I haven't tested it yet. It's missing a piece or two. Besides, I don't know how I'll get it out of here even if I do get it moving." She gestured around the hangar until her hand pointed towards the tunnel through which they had come. "Whoever built this place didn't add a very wide door."

Maul stood silent.

"I'm Xora by the way."

Maul had been training in the ways of the Sith, but it did not include an education in the niceties of everyday humanoid conversation. He merely continued to look at the girl before him.

"Xora," she repeated. "That's my name. Xora. I'm a Falleen…from the planet Falleen. What is your name?"

Maul had to think about that for a moment. He had so rarely heard it really since meeting his master. Sidious called him many things, but not his true name.

"Maul."

"Maul. Just Maul. Well, Maul, thanks for the help back in that alley there. I'm sure Gardulla the Hutt's thugs don't normally take such a beating from one man, but you," Xora stroked Maul's chin, "are something else, aren't you?"

Maul looked strangely at the girl. He was sure that her skin color had deepened in the past five seconds, but the scarce light made it hard to tell. He felt nothing in the Force from her, but the warmth of Xora's hand did not need a Force sensitive to register as being tender and loving.

It did, however, need someone who had experienced that sort of touch before. Maul had not, and he found himself slowly backing away from the Falleen. In his confusion, Maul almost lost his balance as he retraced his steps back to the tunnel.

"I must go," he stammered.

As he turned to make a full retreat, Xora called to him.

"You'll come back though, won't you…Maul?"

The Sith stopped before he entered the passage out. "Yes," he managed as he slipped out into the now inviting damp Coruscanti night.

Thirty minutes later, Maul found himself back in his cell. He struggled to move one of the nearby crates closer to the opening in an effort to conceal it from his master if and when he chose to visit again. Maul then lay in the only unoccupied corner of the room, but he could not sleep. His mind would not allow it because it was too busy thinking about the Falleen girl.

About Xora.

XXX

Maul met with Xora two more times before seeing his master, Darth Sidious, again. During his time with the alien girl, he had learned a great deal about the noble houses of Falleen, about how Xora was in exile for a crime she claims she did not commit, and about her plan to return to Falleen to reclaim her position of power. He also learned that she very much missed her home planet even though its citizens had punished her so unfairly. Maul didn't understand her affection for the people who had mistreated her, and wondered if he'd ever feel that way about his master. He decided that her emotions were her greatest weakness, and yet he admired the passion with which she spoke of them.

"What troubles you my young apprentice?"

Maul stepped forward from behind the crates were he now spent most of his time when he wasn't destroying his master's assassin droids. Sidious stood at the door, his black cloak hiding most of his face from the Iridonian. Maul said nothing as he approached his mentor.

"What is it?" Sidious rarely had to repeat himself when in Maul's presence.

Maul said nothing, but instead focused on erasing the memory and images of Xora he had stored in his mind. He feared that his master would figure things out on his own.

Sidious, however, smiled at his charge. "Good," he cackled. "Excellent. Keep your petty secret from me if you so choose. Let it twist in your heart, and in your soul like a hungry serpent. Let it bring to a boil the fear that still finds a place within you, and have it rot it out."

Maul steeled himself for what he sensed was coming.

"But do not let it steal your resolve to be a mighty warrior; a warrior of unparallel strength and power. Do not let this secret give you any hope."

"No, my Lord."

Sidious nodded then made his way back out into the hallway beyond Maul's view. In his place stood a large droid equipped only with a large mallet-like instrument. Instantly, Maul made to fight.

"Not this time," called his unseen master. "You are to allow this droid to do what it wishes to you, and you must submit to its every blow. You will not keep your secret long from me."

The door behind the machine slammed shut, and the assassin droid moved towards the helpless Zabrak.

Forty-five minutes and countless blows later, Maul collapsed onto the floor. The last thing he saw before succumbing to the pain was the steel plated mallet being driven into his chest. The rest was blackness.

XXX

Two weeks went by before Maul ventured to Xora's hangar again. Some of the puffiness and swelling around his eyes and mouth were still visible, but his body had healed up pretty well with the help of a couple of short bacta baths his master had permitted him. It was also natural for his kind to be able to tolerate and withstand great harm, but Maul's recuperative abilities were impressive even for an Iridonian.

Xora was sitting in the cockpit of her bomber. She was covered in an oily sheen of sweat and grease, and had been obviously working for some time on the vessel, but jumped down to the ground when she saw Maul.

"Where have you been? I've missed you." She gingerly touched his face and traced her fingers around the remaining bruises. "Gardulla finally catch up with you?"

"Something like that," he offered.

She led him by the hand over to her craft. "So what do you think of the Mauler?"

"The Mauler?"

"Yeah. I named it after you, my hero."

Maul didn't know what offended him worse: the 'hero' comment or having a dilapidated ship named after him. He crinkled his nose at both.

Xora sensed his displeasure, and quickly added, " It won't matter soon enough. I'll have the money to get back to Falleen, and reclaim what is mine." Xora turned away from Maul, but continued to talk. "I'll show them that it wasn't my doing."

Maul had heard Xora's story from a previous visit. Xora had been accused of killing her older sister, Jzora, so that she could gain the title to her family's riches. A poor artisan claimed to have seen Xora murder her eldest sibling, but Xora's version of the story had less malice in it. She says that they had merely argued on the day in question. Xora had recently discovered through an associate of Gardulla the Hutt that this same, struggling artisan had come to a neighboring planet very wealthy. He boasted that one of Xora's younger siblings had paid him well to remove both Xora and Jzora from inheriting the family's good fortune and reputation. It was for that information that Xora owed credits to the Hutt, and why Gardulla's hitmen had accosted her those many weeks ago.

"How?"

She snapped out of her distant reverie, and turned to Maul.

"You could help me, right?"

Maul winced inwardly. He'd felt her laying this mental trap for him, but wandered into it anyway.

"Yes. Who needs to be hurt?"

Xora's skin color deepened, and she smiled evilly.

"Have you ever heard of the Twi'lek Tallorr Tanabay? He is associated with the Black Sun crime syndicate. According to the information I got, he isn't a Vigo, yet, but he acts like one. Anyway, he's known as the "Collector". He collects things." Maul wasn't following her. "He collects stolen, valuable things. Stolen valuable things like…" She looked around as if she and Maul were in the middle of a crowd. "…like a krayt dragon pearl. A rare black krayt dragon pearl."

Xora finally had Maul's attention.

Krayt dragon pearls were valuable the galaxy over. Essentially, they were nothing more than colored stones taken from the gizzard of Tattooine's greatest predator. Maul's master had once mentioned that krayt dragon pearls could be used in the construction of a lightsaber. Maul had only recently begun to consider what type of saber he would construct for himself, and the idea of a black blade excited him immensely.

"Where is this 'Collector'?"

XXX

Maul and Xora had kept to the shadows as they made their way to the little known warehouse of the Twi'lek collector. Xora hadn't revealed the source of her information, and Maul wondered how accurate the info had been. Then again, he thought, a dump like this place may be the least obvious choice for a cache of valuables, and thus, the perfect place. Tanabay's building was shaped like many of the pyramid-like structures all over Coruscant, but its exterior was rusty and worn. The grounds around the structure looked empty, but Maul closely scrutinized the area with the Force and discovered several hidden cameras.

"He is there."

Maul mentally ran himself through the rough but simple plan to obtain the pearl. Using the pyramidal walls as a ladder, Maul would climb to the seventh, and top, floor while timing his ascent perfectly so as to not be detected by the constantly roving cameras. Once there he would wait for Xora's diversion: a short assault on the front door with a pulse wave blaster. The blaster would have no effect on the building, but it would certainly entertain, if only briefly, any of the guards that were inevitably inside. Maul would use the diversion to slip in, steal the krayt dragon pearl, and escape unnoticed. Xora, for her part, would flee before the guards could apprehend her. The two had planned to meet back at her hangar when they each felt sure that they had shaken any pursuers.

"I'll be quick, so don't waste your time putting too many shots into their front door. Fire a few times than leave."

Xora looked into Maul's red and yellow eyes.

"Be careful." She wiped away a tear before it fell onto her cheek. "I still don't know why you are doing this for me?"

Maul shrugged, afraid of what he might say. The truth was he didn't know why he was doing this for her. He had never acted kindly to anyone else before Xora, and wondered if he would again.

XXX

Maul scaled the inclined walls with ease. He stayed clear of the transparisteel windows and the view of the humming cameras. Xora had indicated that the dragon pearl was on the seventh floor, but knew little besides that. Maul stretched out with the Force and found the unique object in the center of the room connected to the third window from the right of the building. It would have taken a regular person minutes to discover the pearl; minutes he didn't wish to waste. Maul had done it in seconds.

As he sat perched next to the correct window, he flipped a vibroblade out of his tunic. Xora had given him the weapon in case of emergency, but Maul wanted simply to see the blade before he tucked it back in its sheath. It was poorly crafted, and had not been used or cleaned in some time. He didn't figure he would need it at all for such a simple assignment. So, he waited for Xora's distraction from below.

A full minute later, Maul heard three quick blasts echo off the nearby buildings. He used the Force again to unlock the window, and slipped inside.

Maul was not surprised when the building's alarm screeched at him. Xora had told him to expect that the moment she fired her blaster. Instead he used the blaring noise to pass unnoticed to the center of the room where his prize lay. He hoped the alarm would ring long enough to also mask his escape.

A dull red light pulsed at the far end of the treasure room, and Maul quickly noticed how everything around him lit up when the light flashed; everything that is but the krayt dragon pearl. It absorbed the light, and remained solidly black. The pearl looked to be completely unprotected, sitting openly on a granite pedestal. Maul knew better, and felt the invisible beams that crisscrossed both above and around the valuable object. Maul expected the beams, if broken, would simply set off the alarm, and seeing how it was already wailing, Maul reached across the threshold to –

"Stop right there, thief."

Maul whirled around to see who had spoken.

A corpulent, aqua blue-skinned Twi'lek stood a few meters away. He absently stroked one of his two lekku, or brain tails, while the other hung limply over his left shoulder. He was far from imposing, but the six humanoids who barreled out of the now-not-so-secret entrance into the room supplied the Twi'lek with all the intimidation he usually needed. The Sith was trapped, but not intimidated.

Maul silently chastised himself for not sensing the secret antechamber before entering the building. He was more concerned, however, about how they knew so quickly that they had an intruder. The Twi'lek seemed ready to provide some answers.

"So you're the one who left one of Gardulla's guys dead, and two more wishing they were. You don't look like much. In fact, you seem too young for this kind of sport, but a fortune for your hide is still a fortune."

Maul's face betrayed the question he wanted to ask the Twi'lek Maul assumed was Tallor Tanabay.

The Twi'lek acted as if he was psychic. "You've been had, thief. Your Falleen friend sold you out to Gardulla in exchange for a small debt she owed the Hutt and one of my lesser collectables: the hyperdrive motivator to an ancient Hapes Bomber. A Miy'til, I think it was called. The useless thing was over three thousand years old, and probably didn't work anyways. It was worth nothing here in the Republic as no one has seen anybody from the Hapes Consortium in three millennia. It certainly wasn't worth what Gardulla is paying me for you." The Twi'lek sneared at Maul.

Maul clenched his teeth in rage. Xora had set him up. The growing anger was so clearly etched on Maul's face that the Twi'lek couldn't resist mocking him further.

"Did you love her, thief? You poor, silly creature. Did no one ever tell you that the Falleen can't be trusted. Especially the females. The females and their Falleen pheromones."

Tanabay spit the repeated "f" sounds at Maul.

Maul recoiled at the idea that he had loved Xora. Loved her. The Sith knew nothing about love except that it was an unpredictable and useless emotion. Maul realized it was a lesson he had learned too late.

"Nothing to say, huh? Gardulla will make you talk, thief. She'll make you scream. She'll have no mercy on you, silly boy." Tanabay turned to one of his associates. "Seize him, Dardo"

Maul let his body go loose. He thought about Tanabay's words: No mercy. No mercy here tonight at all.

The Rodian who had been ordered to apprehend Maul came forward tentatively. He had an old pair of durasteel manacles held out in front of him. Maul offered his arms to the Rodian in an apparent show of surrender, and the dark green alien visibly relaxed and strode closer to the Iridonian.

Maul struck without warning.

He head-butted the Rodian in the face. One of his vestigial horns pierced the Rodian's left eye, rendering the orb useless. The humanoid squealed in pain, and stumbled back a step before Maul tackled him around the waist. Rather than force the Rodian's body to the floor, Maul pushed the alien ahead, and used him as a living shield.

Tanabay's men hesitated to fire because they didn't want to hit the Rodian. Their hesitation was all the time Maul needed to gain the upper hand in what would quickly become a one-sided affair.

Still holding the Rodian tight in his arms, he charged Tallor Tanabay like an angry reek. The Twi'lek and the Rodian crashed into another granite pedestal as Maul pushed them both with the Force. The hundreds of, presumably valuable, crystal shards on the pedestal clattered to the floor around the tangle of blue and green limbs. Maul took the momentary confusion to access the situation.

Two humanoids to the right.

Three more on the left.

A squealing Rodian and an irate Twi'lek in a heap in front of him amid a sea of bright red crystals.

Bright red, sharp crystals.

Maul snapped both of his arms out to his sides. The crimsom shards on the ground followed his command, and flew into the heads, chests, legs, arms and throats of the astonished gangsters surrounding Maul. Moans, screams, and cries soon followed.

Four of Tanabay's men fell to the floor dead or dying. One, the lone human in the room, had managed to avoid most of the crystal shrapnel by pure luck. As it was, he had been standing next to a Gamorrean whose bulk shielded the thin man from Maul's initial assault. The one shard that had struck the human had caught the man high in the shoulder, but he was far from dead.

For the moment.

Maul came at him with a ferocious kidney punch that doubled the man over and caused him to drop his Merr-Sonn Model 44 Deathhammer pistol. Maul followed with a vicious elbow to the man's head. The man went to his knees, then fell face first onto the floor. Maul, standing directly over the human's head, plucked his vibroblade from its hiding spot, and rammed it into the back of the man's neck.

No mercy at all tonight.

Maul's attention turned to the two remaining survivors of his attack: the Rodian and the Twi'lek. The Rodian lay on his stomach, both hands over his now dead eye, moaning softly. Maul ignored him for the moment, and instead made for the Twi'lek. Tallor Tanabay was crawling over to the fallen pedestal. Maul stalked him like a feral nexu. Tanabay was so frightened by what he had just witnessed that he failed to notice Maul straddling his fat legs as he hauled the upper half of his body onto the overturned slab of granite.

Tanabay mumbled, "What are you?"

Maul responded with a powerful kick to the Twi'lek's lower back. Tanabay's spine splintered. The cracking noise was enough to make the gangster retch. He then shuddered violently, and lay still

No mercy at all tonight.

Maul looked over at the blinded Rodian, but sensed the presence of several others racing up the stairs towards him.

He considered the wounded Rodian, but realized he had little time to waste if he didn't want to tangle with the guards just on the other side of the far door. He would have, in fact, relished the challenge, but he had something else now he had to do. He trotted to the still open window and vanished into the ink black streets below. The krayt dragon pearl remained untouched.

XXX

Maul hurried back to Xora's hangar. He understood now why she had been working so furiously on her ship earlier. She had been preparing it for departure. Maul's anger spurred him on even faster. He turned a final corner before skidding to an abrupt halt.

His heightened sense of rage allowed him to stretch out into the living Force so well that he instinctively dove behind a large garbage container a split-second before a tremendous blast would have annihilated him.

Apparently, Xora's craft wasn't completely unarmed. She'd fired a concussion missile into what should have been the door to her hangar; an opening that was now wide enough for her escape.

The Miy'til Bomber, the Mauler, eased its way out of the hangar, and slowly rose into the air.

Maul leaped onto the disposal unit that had shielded him from the missile's blast, and jumped towards the bomber's right wing. Maul landed squarely in the middle of the wing, but his weight shifted the craft's balance. The Zabrak came crashing back to the earth below.

Undeterred, Maul leapt again onto the garbage container. He judged the increasing distance to be some thirty meters. He crouched down, setting his legs like pistons. Maul then channeled his rage into a focused Force leap that rocketed him into the air.

Maul's splayed fingers caught the rusty end of the Miy'til's laser cannon.

It promptly broke off at its base, and again sent Maul to the ground. The fall winded the Sith apprentice, and allowed Xora to gain more distance between her and her pursuer. Maul sat up in disgust as the Miy'til sped up and away into a distant sea of stars.

He entered the abandoned hangar in hopes of finding something that would oblige Xora to return, but there was little left in the room. Maul shuffled through some debris scattered about on a rickety table, and discovered a new datacard there.

Maul's eyes widened as he read the slim instrument. A contract had been ironed out between Gardulla the Hutt, Tallor Tanabay, and Xora which released the Falleen from any debt she owed the Hutt in exchange for "the foolish boy who meddled in other people's affairs". Tanabay's role had been as he had said: bait for Maul. Xora had written that she "believed the red skinned oaf was a dumb half-mute" and that she, a Falleen, "could never care for such pitiful example for the Zabrak species".

Maul hurled the datacard across the room were it crashed against the wall and went dark.

XXX

Maul's flesh sizzled.

Upon his return to his cell, Maul had destroyed what little there was worth destroying. The Zabrak's rage was so great that it had poured out in the form of wild Force pushes and high voltage blasts of Force lightning that Maul had never before conjured up. The mountain of metallic debris had been scattered all over the room during one particularly violent outburst, and some of the normally indestructible crates near his "hole" had been ripped open at their seams. Finally exhausted, Maul had collapsed to the ground in a spent heap of strained muscle. His master had arrived moments later, alerted to scene by the disturbance in the Force Maul had created in his madness.

Maul then told Darth Sidious everything, and the unforgiving Sith Lord punished his apprentice for it.

"The pain you feel now is the sensation of weakness leaving your body, and there is much weakness in you, my young apprentice."

Sidious blasted Maul with another dose of Force lightning. It tore through Maul's body, and ripped muscles that Maul didn't know he had. Another focused blast made Maul's body jerk so suddenly that he broke three ribs in the process. Maul's skin smoked and blistered, his teeth blackened, but he never once cried out for mercy.

No mercy at all tonight.

Sidious knelt down next to his charge. "The power of the dark side of the Force is strong in you, but you still have much to learn about the weaknesses of the light. You know this to be true." Sidious stood, and made a quick motion with his hand. Two droids marched into the room and picked the inert body of the Iridonian up off the floor.

"Take him to our facility near the Orowood Medcenter. Ready the needles there. My young apprentice needs some lasting lessons in pain and suffering."

The two droids struggled under Maul's dead weight, but managed to get him into the large storage compartment of the Dark Lord's modified Seraph-class landspeeder. Sidious followed closely behind them and waved them off as he entered the vehicle himself. As he settled into his seat, the Chagrian driver indicated that he had a message for him.

The hologram of one of Sidious' many subordinates flickered to life atop the small, but secure holo-projector in Sidious' car.

"Yes, Sate. What is it?"

" It seems, my lord, that our spies have tracked a Hapan starcraft to the planet of Corellia. It would seem that the pilot is following the Corellian Trade route straight to Falleen. Your predictions for the girl's actions have, of course, been accurate."

"You're sure it is a Hapan bomber, a Miy'til?"

"Yes, my lord. Quite sure. Shall I order some of our Corellian contacts to eliminate her, sir?"

Darth Sidious mulled it over for a moment.

"No. She did everything that was asked of her: the faked story of her sibling's murder, the trap at Tanabay's museum, even the discarded datacard at her hangar. She may continue to live, for now"

"Excellent, my lord."

The Sith added, more to himself than to his underling. "I have foreseen that she will cross paths with the Sith again someday. Perhaps then, I won't be so generous."

Sate Pestage's image zipped out of existence.

Sidious motioned for his driver to leave. Mere seconds after their departure, Maul's home, his cell for as long as he had been the apprentice of Darth Sidious, erupted into a fiery ball and toppled in onto itself.

XXX

Maul couldn't see the hole in the wall, rather he sensed it.

The Sith apprentice had been in his new chambers for some 18 months now, and he'd never noticed the structural weakness in the west wall before. He stood motionless, staring at the one spot, the weakest spot, where he could, if he so chose, gain his freedom.

Instead, he turned back to the task before him.

"Your energy and determination in building this dual bladed lightsaber has been admirable, Lord Maul. Do you believe you are ready to wield such a weapon?"

Maul did not look up at Sidious. "Yes, master. I have been studying Jar'Kai."

"Good, good", crowed the hooded Sith as he strolled behind his apprentice, and sidled up to him on his right.

"It will be a tremendous blade. You will be an unstoppable opponent." The Sith hesitated. "Will it make you stronger? More powerful?"

Still Maul refused to look at his master. "It is merely a tool. The true power in the universe is the dark side of the Force. This tool, in truth, is merely an extension of my hatred and my acceptance of the dark side."

"'Truth', you say. What do you know of 'truth'?"

Maul's glowing eyes finally settled on his master's face. The fearsome black tattoos etched on Maul's face looked wet.

"I know that there is no truth in love, and that there is no love in truth. I know that my hatred is true." Maul's head dropped to the workstation again as he delicately placed a focusing lens into the hilt of his lightsaber. He was so intent on his task that he failed to notice his master's evil grin.