CHAPTER TWO: SPIDERS
My sons, such as they are, are returning to the embrace of Malachor. I can feel it in my bones, when I let the Force slip from me. The Force. This place stinks of it, its every stone and brick of duracrete saturated with the reeking, unholy aura of the Dark Side. Or so the Sith have said, over the centuries. But I, as I walk down its echoing halls, know better. It is not the Force that has twisted this place. The Force is a leviathan, an idiot behemoth flying dull-eyed and monotonous between stars it can never truly comprehend, sliding serpentine through minds too weak to channel its alien will. The Force drowns in the banality of the universe, choking on the reality it defines.
No, it is not the Force that has poisoned Malachor.
It is I, and those who came before me. It is Revan, who walked here when she was young and cold. It is Malak, who dogged her like a jealous shadow. It is the ghosts of the past, cruel Naga Sadow and mad Marka Ragnos, and it is the specters of the future. It is Vader who will one day give in to his rage in the heart of this place. It is Sidious, who will be greatest of us all, whose master will bring him here to walk the halls as I now walk them. The walls are etched deep with the acidic scars of the ambitions of the Sith. The air is rife with their rage, their lust, their jealousy and determination. Great men, all of them, in their own way. And yet, for all their power and vision, they will never see beyond the thunder of the Force as it coils behind their eyes. They are like my sons, my apprentices, clinging to power like children to the teat. Not one of them has ever stopped to think, to truly think. For if they had, they would have realized that even at the height of their immensity, even with the universe cowed and mewling at their feet-
-that they are being used.
I move out into the darkness of the Trayus Core, my robes hissing over dusty stone. The tall claws of the Academy Panopticon rise up from the gloom, bathed in the watery green reflections of the planet's dying heart. I lift my eyes and senses to the open sky above, to the soaring stonework of the Core sunk deep in its protective shaft. The Ravager is there, hanging in orbit. I can feel Nihilus watching me, struggling to hide the rudiments of his thoughts from my scrutiny. But he, for all his world-devouring power, is weak. I see to the stillborn and wretched center of his self, past the petty and self-imposed torment of his hunger, and I discern what has driven him back to me. The Miraluka.
"Really, Nihilus," I say to the dark, to the gloom beneath the planet's shattered surface. "That was all it took?"
Sion's thoughts are as they have always been, alive with wrath and self-loathing. He defiles himself with every waking thought, laying waste to his mind and body both. Such a fragile boy...
Both of them, so weak, so desperate and blind. If only Nihilus had been stronger, had fought his hunger. If only I had come to Sion sooner than I did, had found him before war and agony had done their damage. But no. There is no use in dwelling on what might have been, and besides...I have found a replacement, one worthy to walk in Revan's footsteps. Even now she lies dreaming on far-away Dantooine, a wound in the Force that no healer's hands can close. My last great hope, and perhaps the only person I have loved since the wars began. I smile. I am growing sentimental in my old age, and soon my time will be over.
Soon, I reflect as the shuttle falls from the Ravager above, as my traitorous sons return to Malachor's loveless embrace, as I mount the steps to the red crystal eye at the center of the Panopticon and see all there is to see on dead Malachor...soon it will all be over.
They join me in the Core an hour later. Sion wears the marks of his defeat on Korriban like brands of shame, and I see in his eyes that he has lost whatever rags of himself he clung to. The Exile is in his eyes now, and he will die of love for her. Nihilus slinks robed and hooded like some hollow lion at scarred Sion's side, his masked face turning from side to side as he surveys the once-familiar Core. He no longer moves like a man, and his thoughts are cold and slow. He has fed his hunger too readily and too often. Now it turns upon him, devouring all that is left beneath the robes.
I fold my arms and wait, expressionless in the shadows of the claws of Malachor. Appearances are everything among the Sith, and as Sion and Nihilus approach I know they remember two masters. One imperious and cold, the dictator of their lives for a brutal and demanding decade. The other old and broken, lying at their feet with drool on her chin and blood gumming her grey hair. I must be the former if I am to gain their fragile and self-serving trust. And so I stand straight-backed and heartless in the cold green light, and I ignore the pain that itches at the stump of my right hand and the ache of my old, brittle bones.
"You LYING WHORE!" roars Sion as he nears the Panopticon, striding along the dark stone bridge joining the Core to the rest of the Academy. His unlit saber is in his hand, his flayed mouth twisted in bitter rage. I can see four of his teeth through the rotting flesh of his lips. Nihilus halts at the foot of my dais and laces his gloved hands together, waiting in alien silence.
"I have told you," I say to Sion, "you wound only yourself with your brute violence. Do you seek to impugn my honor? I left shame lying dead in the dust forty years ago. Do you seek to frighten me? I have seen the mind of the Force laid bare before my eyes." I meet his eyes and let disdain curl my lip. "You have learned nothing."
"You called, Kreia," snarls Sion. He paces now, afraid to join me in the true heart of Malachor, afraid to show his fear. He moves in and out of shadow, a beast prowling at the edge of the fire's glare. "You called, and I have come. We have come. We cast you down once, old woman. We can do it again. Speak. Now."
"The time is ripe to move against the Jedi," I say, and as I do I recall the deaths of the Council in the wreckage of the Enclave on Dantooine. There are few Jedi left now, if any. "There is a secret academy on Telos. Atris has kept its location hidden, has raised up a new order..."
"Lies," growls Sion, but already he is convinced. His milky left eye glints as he paces in and out of shadow, in and out...
Nihilus makes his horrible sound, a parody of speech even I find disgusting. He gestures with one elegant hand, drawing himself up to his full and impressive height. I hear nothing, but I see his meaning. He asks how many, and where. I see Telos burning behind the eye-holes in his mask. I see Atris dying naked in midair, her life torn out through her nostrils, through her eyes and her mouth. I see the Exile writhing on the deck of the Ravager, her robes aflame, her flesh consumed by his hunger.
A look of pure fury flickers over Sion's ruined face, then vanishes beneath his usual belligerent facade. Nihilus does not notice. His eyes, or what is left of them, are trained on me.
"At the pole," I say. My voice echoes from the claws, from the walls of the Trayus Core and the depths of the planet's heart. "Hundreds of them. They are strong, but their training is...unfinished. Atris weakens them with her paranoia. Strike now and they are yours."
He says nothing. Sion has ceased his pacing and now watches both of us, his broken flesh obscured in shadow. At last Nihilus draws his lightsaber. It is smooth-hilted, curling into a spiral like the shell of some oceangoing creature. It is perhaps the only beautiful thing I have ever seen in his possession. He activates it. The blade throws blood into the darkness, glowing dully. Its tip throws up sparks where it brushes the floor, and I feel him struggle to form thoughts.
The question resounds in the silence, echoing in my mind. I gesture with the stump of my hand, calling on the currents of the Force that run beneath my feet. The Panopticon comes to life around me, throwing up great sheets of light. "The Republic chokes on its own corruption," I say, and the lights of Coruscant appear all around me on the eyes of the Panopticon. Senators argue in the Senate Chamber. The Jedi lurk in hidden halls, skulking as they wage their hypocritical war against the Sith. "You care nothing for politics, my apprentice. You care for nothing at all, except, perhaps, for poor sweet Visas. She warms the Exile's bed now, I believe."
The transformation is instantaneous and terrifying, but ultimately pathetic. Nihilus explodes, his robes billowing around him as though in a windstorm as he slashes the air with his lightsaber and gurgle/howls in his horrible voice. Sion holds his ground, but he is unnerved. I merely stand, saying nothing, until the cuckold's tantrum has run its course. Nihilus deactivates his lightsaber, cold fury pulsing around him. I can feel the malice behind his eyes.
"Is that why you took her from dead Katarr?" I ask, letting scorn and cruelty color my voice. The more Nihilus is goaded the less need there is to convince him of anything. His instincts, and his hunger, will do my work for me. "Did your hunger take on another edge in your long years of wandering, Nihilus? Did you long for sweeter meats? A pair of thighs. A mouth. Breasts. All the weaknesses of the great Sith Lords, of men throughout the Galaxy. How predictable. How mundane. I always thought you had some deeper purpose in rescuing the girl. It troubled me, Nihilus." I allow myself a dry chuckle. "And imagine, all this time you only meant to...fuck her."
"Enough talk," snarls Sion, but Nihilus silences him with an outflung arm. In deadly quiet the taller of the two climbs the steps, robes shifting like layers of dead skin around the aching absence of his body. His mask hides nothing but the memory of a face, yet for all the too-fluid motions of his body he is tied to the mannerisms of the man he was. He sets foot on the red crystal of the Panopticon and the images of Coruscant and its Senators die, plunging the Core back into darkness. He circles me, sniffing the air. When he is behind me his hands come to rest on my shoulders. I feel his mask beside my ear, hear air pulled into it by some queer inhalation that is neither of the throat nor the nostril.
"Yes," I say. "Yes," I lie. "Atris is there, waiting to strike against us. Go to Telos. Kill it, and then return here to me. We will have to move quickly to cement our victory in place once the Jedi and their allies are finished."
His hands squeeze my shoulders, then release them. He moves away, sweeping down the dais steps and past miserable Sion. He crosses the bridge, a shadow in amongst the shadows. He will die in orbit over Telos, a sad and confused wreck of the man he might once have been. I never knew him before his hunger, and it is with an air of melancholy that I watch him go. Sion, still below me, glances between Nihilus and myself until the former is gone.
"Master," comes the man's cracked, rasping voice. "Why did you call me here?"
The rage is half-hearted, the real question unspoken. Do you want me here, with you? Am I your favorite? You would betray Nihilus, but never me. Never me.
I look down at him, at the anguish etched into his mangled features. "The Exile and her companions will arrive soon," I say. "When she lands on Malachor, she will try to seek me out.
"You will stop her."
I believe he knows that I have sentenced him to death, but beneath the constant current of his hate I feel a wash of relief. He is glad of the chance to save the Exile from my machinations, from the web of lies and manipulation he knows he will never himself escape. Sion, saddest and most broken of all my wretched children. I descend the dais to where he stands, and as he kneels I put my hand on his scarred and pitted cheek. "Together," I say, because I know it is a word he longs to hear, "we will make her see the error of my ways." Double-talk delights him, but only when he senses it in the words of others. He has no talent for it in himself.
"Yes, Master," he grates through bared and broken teeth. His one good eye burns.
I catch him in the Force before he has a chance to react. He is ripped away from me, flung back along the bridge to slam into the ground with bone-crushing force. He rolls, limbs flopping, and strikes the wall beside the arched entryway. "Show her no mercy," I say as he gets unsteadily to his feet, rage smoking again in his heart. "Fail me, Sion, and I will end you."
His lip curls, pretension and bravado taking over. "You cannot-"
"Silence," I snap, and he is silent. "Do as I say."
He stares at me across the gulf between us, longing and murder blending in his eyes, and then he turns and leaves. I watch him go, and then I sit cross-legged on the warm crystal and let the weariness of plotting and old age take me. I am exhausted, and soon I will bear witness to the deaths of my first children, my greatest failures. She will kill them both, though it will bring her no pleasure. She may even regret Sion's death, and it is for this that I love her. And yet as I sit in the darkness of this place, it is not her story that comes to mind. This is, in spite of her crime, not her place. It is ours, and in the shadows I remember how we came to be. Before the wars, before Revan and Malak, before Malachor began to die its long, slow death...we were Sith.
It was in the early days of the Mandalorian Wars that the Senate first took an interest in my former Padawan, my pride and joy. She was the darling of the fleet and of the media, a Jedi who had defied the Council to join the war effort. The troops loved her, the young Knights imitated her. The politicians saw the future in her precious victories. They spun hope out of her tactical genius and ruthless cunning, revitalizing the war effort in a matter of weeks. Twice, after she joined the war, she came to me. Once after the Council had chastised her, and then again after the Battle of Duro. The first time she came in tears and I comforted her as best as I knew how. The fragile emotions of young women have never been my forte.
The second time, three years later, she was changed. She had returned to Coruscant on leave and had sought me out in my apartments in the Temple. I saw the coldness in her eyes, the purpose in her walk, and I was proud. At last, at long last, she had outgrown the petty strictures of the Order. It was a day I had dreamed of, but she took no joy in it. There was a weight on her shoulders, a dark cloud over her thoughts. As she sat by the window in my small study, I sensed the shadow of the Dark Side on her. I was curious. Revan was a pragmatic woman, not a hypocritical philosophizer, but to have touched the Dark Side and then returned to the Temple itself... The risk of discovery was monumental. I asked her what had happened.
She told me of a planet called Malachor V.
The next day she left to rejoin the fleet. A month later she, and half the navy, abandoned their victory in the void above that same planet and fled beyond the edge of the Galaxy. I watched the holovids of the battle, the detonation of the Mass Shadow Generator and the end of the Mandalorian Crusade. I, standing with my fellow Jedi in the great atrium of our Temple, felt the screams of the dying through the Force and knew pain for my brothers and sisters. Even then, though, I had little of the compassion others in the Order clung to so dearly. I knew, when Malachor died, that Revan had made the right choice. And when she deserted, when she took with her into nowhere and nothingness the greatest minds and blades of her generation of Jedi, I had faith that she had acted correctly.
My teachings were not those of the Order.
When Revan returned, when the killing began and the Order split down its center, I was called before the Council. Callous old Master Vrook cursed at me until he was blue in the face and tears ran down his grizzled cheeks. He said I had ruined the best of them, that Revan was my mistake and the crime was on my head. He shouted and raged until Master Tokare, frail and dying, told him to sit. It was Master Tokare who sentenced me after the Council's vote, and for that, I suppose, I was grateful.
They cast me out from the Order, the narrow-minded fools. Unwilling to face their own failings they turned instead to me and said, "There is the monster in our midst. There is the Dark Side." Their eternal excuse. The Dark Side, warm-blooded and seductive. They loathe it almost as much as they covet it. Alone, I left the Temple and went to walk in Revan's footsteps.
I was on Rodia, walking the killing fields of the Mandalorian Wars, when I learned that Darth Malak had turned on his Master, that he had tipped Revan into a Jedi trap. The genius, the monster, my Padawan, was dead. It was perhaps the first time I had experienced true loss, and it cut me to the very center of my self. Only later, much later, did I discover the truth and the depth of the Council's crimes, their violation of Revan's beautiful mind. It was then, I believe, that I lost what little respect I had for the Order. Tokare was dead. Vrook's and Atris's bristling paranoia controlled Council policy. The era of the great Jedi was over. The Order was left in the hands of idiots and historians, all those who had survived the wars by virtue of hiding in their dank libraries or meditating in stubborn pacifism. The weak and the stupid of the Order pitted against Darth Malak, a pitiless and jealous snake of a man.
When I learned the truth of Revan's rape, of the Council's deprivations, it was already too late. The Starforge was broken, the hero of the Mandalorian Wars fled once more beyond the rim. Alone, exiled and forsaken, I went to Malachor.
I walked upon its surface.
For the first time, I knew the Dark Side.