T. D. Larson
The walls were a dark gray, typical to the granite bedrock the architects had cut the foundation from. The corridors and passages were narrow and lit dimly with torchlight—with the exception of commons and the cafeteria, currently buzzing and bustling with activity as thirty students and their instructors danced about each other in the hopes of not spilling trays of hot food all over one another. As typical with many small academies, the Order of Saint Elsa was not without a sense of camaraderie among the students. This extended, for the most part, to their teachers who ate with them and shared the sentiment that everything was as it should be.
At present one of the founding members of the Order, Coram Deo, filed through with grim determination to get through this meal without incident. Unfortunately, it was unlikely to turn out as such, for, no matter how hard he tried, he could not convince Bit that the students couldnotcook. The Cathar sighed as a young female human ladled a heap of foul-smelling vegetable sludge onto his tray.
Despite his non-human appearance, Coram was as easy to read as the Order's archives. His leonine features and thick mane ruffled every time he spoke or made the slightest sound so that anyone who had been in his company for more than a few hours might pass for a telepath. Out of the three original founders, he was by far the most passionate of them—one of the reasons that he and the others decided to remove themselves from the Jedi.
With Coram being so expressive, the girl who had served him muttered a brief apology as Coram left. The throaty reply was unintelligible, but courteous in tone, so the student went happily back to her work, not bothering to watch the blob of tan fur bobbing among the crowd trying to find its proper table.
Finally, he found his seat in between two odd looking aliens. They were anomalous by any standards, he supposed. One of them was a multi-faceted crystal installed into a droid body, who sat expressionlessly without food or drink save for the odd creature by his side and its bowl. The gray-haired mutt, who unabashedly despised Coram, was nevertheless steadfastly dedicated to the droid-encased Bit Hantoff, and therefore looked at Coram's presence as a nuisance to be tolerated only as long as his master saw fit. Fortunately for Coram, Bit found the presence of the furry alien to be extremely valuable.
The other, whom Coram considered far more peculiar than anyone who he had ever encountered, also sat without food or drink. He preferred to take his meals in private. Being made up entirely of tightly bundled nerves, Nokturne tended to be the quieter type, speaking only he could contribute to the resolution of a problem; he kept himself tight and trim with his robes neatly gathered around him and his faceplate—a relic of some sort—rarely left his face.
Neither of the two said anything as he sat, eyeing the jostling mass of individuals below them. He sighed and dropped his tray to the table with a clatter. "We should teach them to cook," he said. "This slop looks like it belongs in the garbage compactor."
Bit turned his head and blinked—if he could blink, Coram thought. "No one is stopping you from it. And I am sure that Dees'l would take kindly to it." The canine perked his ears with a grunt. Coram only continued shoveling around the slop. "Do remember, though, that this is a training facility, not a home economics school."
"You are the one who said we needed to instruct them in all areas…" he replied, testily. He glanced back at the kitchen area and sighed. "My mouth cannot take it anymore. The vegetables are mushy and the smell gives me headaches." Bit said nothing, but Coram had the feeling that his fellows were quietly sharing a joke behind his back. "Fine. Then I will do something about it myself." With that, he stalked off, dumping his still full tray in the garbage compactor.
The metallic rap at his door told Coram that he had company—not that he wanted company that particular night. But the door latch clicked nonetheless and in strode the visitor. Coram could not help but feel a particular affinity for his compatriot—probably due to an aura of self-important humor Bit cloaked himself in.
"Greetings," the droid said. Coram snorted, annoyed, but waved him in regardless. "I wanted to remind you that Nokturne and I will be leaving in the morning. Try to keep the building in one piece."
Coram rolled his eyes and sighed, exasperated already with the conversation. "I know how to run this place." Bit closed the door behind him. Coram would have sworn he cocked an eyebrow at him as well. Yet the droid's face remained as expressionless as it had at dinner. He decided that he must have imagined it, and tried to blink the thought away, along with the nagging feeling that he had missed the joke, again.
"If you will recall, we have discussed the day to day operations several times," Coram reminded his colleague. "And there are several masters around to help keep the students from running amuck." Not that he needed their help. Coram had been able to hold his own plenty of times in worse situations—the Geonosian hydra for instance. But, he thought, that had been somany years ago…
Suddenly he felt very old. Gray had begun to creep into his mane in the past few years. Coram looked up at Bit, who suddenly looked as though he were leaking compassion like a rusted pipe. "I'm getting older, comrade. I wake up in the night and I find myself looking to the stars again."
Bit said nothing. Inwardly, Coram wondered if he was making sense to the droid, who would never know the feeling of growing old. Growing old, and dependent upon others—useless as if he were an infant—it made him angry. All the while, as if adding insult to injury, he spent his days around young, vivacious children, teaching them and watching them go off across the galaxy to fight wars and make peace… all the things he used to do.
But such was his obligation. He had come here with the knowledge that eventually he would settle down to a routine like this. But Coram had never thought it would be so confining, or so frustrating, or so—dare he say it—downright boring! Nights would pass where he would do nothing but look up at the stars, picking out systems he knew, and had visited. And he would long to be out there again, going on adventures that would seem like pure fiction to those who had not witnessed them.
The Cathar once again became aware of the other presence in the room, and the reality of Mynersha came crashing down upon him. He sighed, and tried to put on a good face for the droid. "I'll make sure the Order is still in one piece when you get back. Arbitrating trade agreements is not exactly my strong suit anyway. You and Nokturne have a good time, though, and bring me back a souvenir."
Bit nodded slowly, turning toward the door. "Remember that the students depend on you for more than just your knowledge." The door closed softly behind him, leaving Coram nothing to do but try to get some rest. This he did, pulling up the covers and extinguishing the oil lamp at his bedside.
Something sinister pricked at the edges of Coram's senses. It was heavy with the air of malevolence and wrapped itself in shadows, undetectable by both direct observation, and through his trained—and unique—perception, almost as if it were a gap, or blind spot in the Force. It was with spine-tingling clarity that that he realized it was only by the entity's own will that its presence was made known.
How long it had been lurking there, he tried not to think about.
There were places, he knew, on Mynersha that were considerably stronger in the dark side than any sane being would have preferred. They were places so strongly tainted that they altered the parameters of known physics, drawing heat from the body, or shrouding one with a sense of vertigo, as if looking down from the edge of a great precipice.
Coram and the Elsan Masters had carefully sealed many such places and forbade students and members of the general public from going near them. One could be consumed by the darkness that resided there, even by remaining only a few minutes. Or worse, one would feel the power permeating his body, feeling the temptation with every fiber of his being—the sweet, supple taste of youthful power flowing from his fingertips.
He could be young again, if he wanted. Dancing from system to system, free from the obligations of his rank and title, throwing caution to the wind and disregarding the consequences. If only he would head the call…
Coram felt himself come awake very suddenly, aware of his shallow breath, and the gentle glow of his light saber, which he had summoned without thinking. He was numb, and cold, heart racing in his chest.
Lighting the lamp at his bedside, he threw off the shadows that had been plaguing him as light flooded the room. Nothing seemed to be out of order. It was all just as he had left it the previous evening. Not that he felt any better about going back to bed. Something still felt out of place; it was nothing physical by any means, but a general feeling of disquiet told him that there were things amiss.
A presence lurked somewhere, stalking the halls of his home, weaving discord at every turn. The cold returned again and he drew up the blankets once more and tried to calm the sense of impending doom that saturated him.
This was ridiculous, he chastised himself. Impending doom, his furred foot! Mynersha had been safe and sound for decades, the surrounding sectors of space quiet. Nothing could possibly be the matter, and this was no more than a childish fear of the dark. Coram almost laughed at the sheer absurdity of it: a master of his caliber, afraid of a nightmare? Preposterous! He snorted once, contemptuously at himself, before settling into a pleased smile, and then went back to bed.
But he left the light on.
The next morning was much the same as any other, aside from the noted absence of Masters Bit and Nokturne. Breakfast consisted of runny eggs and burnt toast, much to Coram's dismay. He opted for the selection of assorted fruits, most of good quality—others not so much. Sitting down, he felt relieved that he would have at least one meal that was palatable today.
Upon his first bite of breakfast, though, two things came to his attention. First, there were ominous undertones to the chatter among the students this morning. Typically, he would catch snippets of conversation that were about that day's upcoming classes, or a particularly exciting field exercise that was scheduled in the near future. Today it felt as though a tide of some thick, gooey, and very deadly sludge had rolled in and was threatening to drown them.
Second, there was a chill in the air, not common to Mynersha. He briefly remembered the same sensation from the last night and involuntarily shuddered with the memory. It was just a dream, he told himself, and tried to place it out of mind. He must concentrate on the day ahead.
He pawed at his breakfast, nibbling here and there without thinking until the chimes sounded and students began scrambling every which way to get to their classes on time. It had passed him by without notice, his mind preoccupied with the murmurings of a specter from a distant past.
Onward, though. There were things to do, many of them. Day to day operations, of course, took up an extraordinary amount of time, and all the trifles and trivialities that went along with them. At least, though, he would have his cooking lessons to look forward to. On his way to the intercom system, he wondered if the students would look forward to it as much as he was. It would have been hard to imagine otherwise, knowing how blatantly awful the food was.
The collective sound of questioning "huhs" was almost audible as Coram rattled off the list of names he had prepared. All of them were from the East Wing of the student halls, and most of them showed exceptional resourcefulness and creativity. He had instructed many of them in one of his myriad classes at one point or another. And despite the murmured groans he received as he ushered them into the kitchen, the day's chill was rapidly thawing.
Then he was off to the kitchen, where burners waited to be lit and refrigerators hummed happily as they went about preserving perishables. The room was decidedly very different from the rest of the praxeum. Slick chrome-plated metal lined the walls and dull bronze doors marked both the dry storage area and the massive bubble-shaped refrigerators on opposite sides of the kitchen. Three rows of countertops and burners took up most of the space, but still left plenty of room for the students to move about and get settled into their customary groupings of two and three.
He ignored the pointed looks of annoyance from some students, expecting to be able to sleep in that day, and ignored the equally relieved looks from those who might have had examinations that same morning. The role-call was swift for the most part, until half-way through when there came no answer.
"Tara Selah?" Coram peered over the edge of his list questioningly. Several of the students looked at each other with disconcerted expressions. He caught a sense of worry from them and his ill feelings returned momentarily. Clearing his throat, the Cathar said, "Has anyone seen her?"
"Um…" one student, a male of some species he did not recognize, said. "No one has seen her since last night, Master."
The master suddenly felt ill. He knew the missing student as a disciplined and talented youth, almost ready for knighthood. Not only were her powers of perception exceptional, but her abilities to use her surroundings to advantage far surpassed her peers. She would not have left the praxeum without good reason, nor without permission from one of the praxeum's authorities.
This matter would definitely have to warrant an investigation. But until then, he had other matters to attend to, and one missing student—while still a priority—did not compare to the welfare of the other members of the Order. That included, somewhat unfortunately, the teaching of their classes. So it was that Coram proceeded to reassure the young people in his charge, and get on with their lessons, all the while Tara Selah's absence tugging at the back of his mind.
Throughout the rest of that morning, and late into the afternoon, Coram pondered the missing student. He became distracted constantly, from his administrative duties—the slushy mess of paperwork that cluttered his office, among other things—to the point where he retired to his room to meditate. The first step, he reasoned, to solving this perplexing problem, was to clear his mind as to be able to concentrate.
Pulling out his personal focusing crystal, he drew the blinds closed and dimmed the lights. He made a sweep of his cell, gazing steadily at each likely hiding spot for an intruder. Nothing. Other than him, only the familiar smell of lamp oil hung about the room, and Coram took comfort in that. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the sparsely decorated room, he closed his eyes and retreated into the vast inner recesses of the Force.
Shadows hung loosely around him, seeming to change shape at will. They never quite coalesced into any solid pattern, for as soon as Coram turned to look, they once again returned to an amorphous blob. The specter taunted him, always just a moment ahead of his wandering eyes.
Try and catch me.
All of Coram's training could not help him detain this intruder—this thing that had invaded his home. All of his arsenal of weapons had become useless in his old age. Had he diminished so much? Is that why the others had relegated him to perform just the administrative duties of the praxeum?
You shouldn't blame them. They only want what is best for the Order.
Coram turned, following the stranger with his senses outstretched. Even at his quickest he was no match for this entity. Was he even a match for the students anymore? Soon Coram would be tending to the archives, the place of the retired Force user, too old to be of use anywhere else. And then what, after that?
The days of his gallivanting across the galaxy were long over. He felt his joints creaking with every turn he made to follow the creature's movements, suddenly stopping. He almost screamed at the sight before him. A grizzled, wrinkled muzzle stared back at him, hairless and toothless with dead eyes, skin sagging from its bones. He stepped back, growling, lightsaber at the ready. Coram pounced on the image, savagely attacking the threat to his person, shouting in his native language prayers to ancient gods to banish the demon back to wherever it came from.
Coram! it shouted, before the Cathar removed the head from its body. The body crumpled and shattered upon impact with the ground. Coram! it shouted again, the severed head rolling to a stop at his feet.
Coram, I'm always with you.
His eyes snapped open as he realized he had fallen asleep. Two things came to him almost instantly. The first of which was that he had been screaming; the second, that his cries had drawn the attention of a large crowd outside the now open door of his room. The students, gawking at the unexplained behavior of their mentor, hushed instantly as they realized Coram had woken.
"Master?" one of them ventured tentatively, "Are you alright?
Coram sighed and stood, straightening his tunic and trousers, and took a second deep breath to steady himself. He glanced at the chronometer on the wall; he had been there for nearly three hours, well into dinner. "I am fine, padawan. Go back to your meal."
There were murmurs among the students, and a few sidelong glances at Coram, as they dispersed back into the commons to finish their suppers. But no one questioned him further as he closed the door behind them. No one, that is, except Coram.
How had he come to this? A side door led to his private refresher, where he washed the sweat from his hands and face. The mirror above the sink reflected an image, though Coram was doubtful if it were actually him. Tired eyes gazed back at him, graying mane framing a sad looking face.
How had it come to this? He had missed something, somewhere, a long time ago. It had affected his life afterward profoundly. The students had seen him in the throes of a nightmare, in a moment of weakness. From then on, he would catch snippets of conversation, halting murmurs as he passed by students.
Coram had always been a strong believer that dreams had meanings behind them. But he found himself doubting if it were true. Had the Force given him a vision, or had he been possessed of the dark side for ever such a brief moment? He had encountered such emanations before, as a young man founding the Order. But never had they pervaded him so deeply.
Then again, there was a third possibility. Inwardly, he shied away from it, fearing more deeply that than any foreign invasion, more than any presence or shadow in his dreams. Once again he looked into the odd reflection that was not him and wondered: AmIold?
He went to bed that night without eating.
The next morning, the chattering of students filled the halls of the commons with an unusual aura anxiety. Coram passed them, sitting, hunched over the wooden tables with their trays of food; he with his ears perked and listening for any tidbit of information he could gather. Once more, the usual gossip was replaced by ominous misgivings about the whereabouts of certain students.
The news of yesterday's disappearance had circulated quickly through the praxeum and made up the bulk of the conversation. Judging by the hushed tones, many of the students felt exactly as Coram did—uneasy. The missing student, Tara Selah, had not yet been found, though Coram had had the local authorities scour the entire planet for her. Neither had there been any unauthorized departures from orbit.
However, it was what Coram found laying on his office desk that made him wary more than anything else. Now, not only was Tara completely unaccounted for, but also the security footage for a period of exactly fifteen minutes. Maintenance had performed diagnostics at the behest of the praxeum, and found the cameras functioning perfectly.
The Cathar stared uneasily at the report, pondering the next course of action in his investigation. So far, he had been woefully ill-equipped to handle the situation at hand; he needed help, and he knew just where to find it too.
The central boulevard of the capital was a welcome change, if a crowded one. The fresh sea breeze coming in off the beach played a delicate balancing act with Mynersha's hot, tropical sun, maintaining an ideal temperature for a stroll. And between the scores of tourists bartering with street vendors, the residents and their mundane conversations, and the sweet melodic tunes of songbirds, Coram found it an easy task to speak unobserved with his old Master, Vrash.
The pair thus far had ambled on for nearly a mile catching up with each other, Coram thankful for the reprieve, having his burdens forgotten for a while. Vrash had been surprised to have Coram come calling on him. And, Coram suspected, the old human knew he wanted to talk about more than just the weather.
So it was that his reprieve was cut short as the grey haired human slowed, stopped and finally took a seat on a bench near the promenade. Coram took a seat next to him, folding his robes neatly about him.
"There's more to this visit than meets the eye, isn't there?" he said, eyeing his non-human companion out the corner of one eye. The human appeared calm and relaxed, leaving Corm to wonder if he sensed the growing danger as much as himself. He must have, Coram decided. The news of the missing student had been wide spread, as the praxeum had procured the help of the local authorities in mounting a search effort.
Vrash nodded as if Coram had asked a question. The human was always a reliable source for advice, and even encouragement every once and a while. "Have the search parties turned up anything yet," he asked.
Dejectedly, Coram shook his head. "No…" His breath caught, coming to a slow realization. "I... I think she may have gone to the ruins, Master." The ruins… Forbidden by all of Mynershan law, by the Order of Saint Elsa especially, and by good common sense most of all. "To tell the truth, master, I've had a terrible sense of foreboding ever since Bit and Nokturne left. I wonder if it might be connected."
Surely it must have. The shadows looming over the Order, missing security footage, a mysterious disappearance in the middle of the night—it all seemed to add up perfectly. No one had ever done a thorough investigation of the ruins. The dark side energies that were present at the location prompted the Mynershan ruling council and the Order to seal them off and forbid trespassers.
Vrash's gray eyes narrowed at the comment. "I've sensed it, vaguely, as well," he said. The other nodded imperceptibly. "A darkness emanating from somewhere deep within the ruins… And you believe your missing student has gone there, against regulations?"
"Lured, there, master," Coram corrected.
He grimaced, leonine teeth glinting in the harsh sunlight. This was not the reason he had come to Vrash; the missing student was important, but it was his own involvement with the presence that he felt was important. If Tara had gone to the ruins, the likely result would have been her demise at the hands of whatever had made its home there. No, he decided. Tara Selah was only the bait for a much more valuable target: himself.
That much was obvious. But why wait for the other founders to leave? Becausetheyarestillintheirprime… Coram was getting old, succumbing to the idea that he had outlived his usefulness.
"It's me that it wants, Master Vrash." Vrash only cocked an eyebrow, as if to ask why he would make such a presumption. Coram sighed. "I have been having doubts as of late, as to my value to the Order. It has manifested itself in nightmares over the past few nights, about the time that Tara went missing."
"So you think you're a relic, eh?" Vrash sounded amused at the idea. The human took a deep breath and continued smiling, pulling a pocket book from a fold in his robes. "My family, Coram, has grown to include three great-grandchildren. I have lived my life to its fullest, despite the pain I endured before I came here—probably it inspired me to live to the fullest. I am old, no longer having the physical ability to remain at the praxeum."
Flipping through the pocket book, he found a photogram of his family. Coram knew them well—he had trained two of Vrash's children, and his oldest great-grandson was set to join the Order the very next year. Why could he not have been like Vrash?—living, content with the knowledge that he had passed on something valuable to the next generation?
"But I haven't yet outlived my purpose," Vrash continued. "You're coming to me is proof of that. I have a wealth of experience that I draw upon to continue teaching my children and their children. And they will pass on what I have taught them to generations further on down the road."
Coram opened his mouth to speak but was promptly cut off again. "I know what you want to say. 'I have no family to pass my legacy on to.'" And here the elderly Master snorted, brushing away an imaginary piece of dust from his lap. "You have taught four generations of students—some who have gone on to become great Force-users, others who have returned to teach at your side. Your legacy will live on for centuries to come—I foresee millennia even. Far longer than you could possibly imagine."
He knew this already. So far, Coram had not learned anything he did not already know. That was the reason he had sought out Vrash: to protect his charges, his legacy. What he passed on to them would help shape the future of the galaxy at large. And yet it lacked substance to it, in Coram's eyes. He needed something more. He needed to do something.
The aged Force-user shook his head. "I haven't gotten my point across, I see." He stood, and from the expression Coram caught in the man's eyes, he was not about to try and make that point again. His face registered sad resignation; the lips were drawn to a deep frown and the deep-set eyes looked down at Coram tiredly. "Stop this nonsense. The universe does not revolve around you. And whatever inhibitions you're dealing with, get over them. You have to remember that as an Elsan, your responsibility is to everyone but yourself."
The words carried weight with them; much more weight than he would have imagined. He felt as if he had suddenly been exposed to the vacuum of space, breath seared from his lungs. The Cathar only stared after as he watched Master Vrash walk away from him, the frustration emanating from him clear as daylight.
Youpoor,stubbornchild. Coram sucked in a deep breath. Vrashthinksheissosuperiortoyou,admonishesyoulikeachild. And what did he do about? He just sat there, taking it like a good little puppet. He felt an unreasonable anger welling inside him.
But what if Vrash was right? Coram felt the flames dissipate somewhat. Had he been acting selfishly? Had he mixed up his priorities? Of course, the protection of his students was paramount, but the nagging feeling that he had somehow missed something along the way had been niggling at the back of his mind for some time now.
Puppet.Youspoiledlittlebrat. He heard it in Vrash's voice, the anger returning. All he had wanted was a little adventure…
…A chance to relive the glory days…
Without even realizing, Coram had begun moving. Something about that last thought was unnatural; twisted in a way that left him shivering in the tropical heat. He hadn't thought it, though. It was that thing again, that presence that had attacked his mind so many times in the past few days.
Ever since Bit and Nokturne had left, he had been inattentive to the needs of the students, his Knights, and the other Masters. Vrash had been right. Edging out everything from his consciousness but his own desires, Coram had been leaving himself vulnerable to temptation, and worse: leaving the Order open to them.
Someone, in the early days of his training, had once remarked that where a leader goes, so his followers will follow. He realized, then, where he was headed. Growling, he felt anger rise in him again—anger at himself that he had allowed this thing to use him, to tool him to its own warped ends.
No more! he told himself, striding with purpose toward the ruins. He brushed passed the crowds of people on the main thoroughfare, taking no notice of the awe on their faces as the commanding presence of the Force-user marched passed them. The gold-yellow collar of his tunic glimmered in the sun, mirroring his leonine features; robes billowed behind him, and the lightsaber at his side clicked and clamored anxiously against his belt clip, waiting for a call to action.
There was his legacy! The Order of Saint Elsa flourished—students were learning the ways of their predecessors, teaching others, protecting the galaxy. Had he not been a part of this phenomenon… He shook the thought from his head. Yes, he thought, somehow invigorated by the pride he felt in his students.
How brave they must have been, watching one of their Masters crying out in terror in the darkness before dawn, sensing the utter fear coming from him. And then, by the Force! They had carried on as dutifully as ever, looking to him for leadership in the midst of crisis, still having complete faith in him. Now was the time for him to show courage—to face his fears like they had faced theirs.
Coram left the small capital behind now, and made for a thin strand of scraggly beachhead. The bright, earthy gold of the tropical island gave way to dull browns and muggy grays where no plants grew and no animals dwelled. Even light from the sun, still high above him in the sky, was only a sickly glowing orb over a tainted landscape.
It had been a long time since he had been anywhere near the ruins. The pebbled beach where stood the portal to the cavernous underground still bore the marks of battle—the battle where Coram and the others had fought to fend off hordes of mutated beasts. Time had stood still here, preserving the area as a memorial to its dark and tattered past.
Even now he could feel the luring invitation, the enticing attraction from the dark aura hanging in the air. It had been the same all those years ago. He had felt his mind fog over with lust for power, longing to throw himself headlong into an ocean of bloodlust and power. Coram paused, then. He must tread carefully, and steel himself against that same temptation. The others had been there last time, each one strengthening the other.
Now he was alone, climbing down the tunnels into the darkness without the benefit of even a glow rod. Ancient footholds allowed him to descend freely, if slowly, looking this way and that for his next precarious step. A jolt of fear seized him momentarily when his foot could not find solid purchase. He squashed it down, recognizing the entrance he sought.
Coram swung down, landing firmly on both feet. The way before him held an air of malevolence rivaled only by the pitch black that swallowed up any light that dared to creep in from outside. Drawing from the Force, he reached out with his senses, closing his eyes. There may not have been light, but Ashla was far brighter than any mere mortal source. When his violet eyes opened again, a finely crafted sphere of energy crackled about him, casting a bluish-white glow all about the tunnel walls.
From there he pressed on, determined and stoic, concentrating hard on maintaining his protective shield. The familiar smooth stone of the island bedrock sloped downward even further until at last it opened into a cavern of titanic proportions. Here, open flamed torches lined the walls at irregular intervals, illuminating a workspace cluttered with vials and instruments.
"Tara!" Coram exclaimed suddenly, spying the unconscious form of the girl, lying upon a cold stone slab. Running to her, he checked the girl's pulse and found her, much to his relief, alive, though barely. It confirmed his suspicion, however, that Tara was merely bait for a larger fish.
Coram's spine tingled. This was what he had come here for, to rid his home of this spirit. Its dark energy penetrated the whole of the subterranean expanse, infusing every solid object there with a menacing hatred only barely contained by a veneer of civility.
"I would have gladly taken her as a host," the now audible voice said, "but she is too weak." The disgust in its voice was palpable. Coram turned to face the entity, finding only a vague shadow where the voice had originated.
"She is not weak," Coram stated. "And you will not harm her or any of my charges ever again." He drew his lightsaber, its azure blade snapping to life. He felt a low rumble in the pit of his stomach, and felt the sardonic laughter of the shadow echo in the recesses of his mind.
"She is weak. And that human, Enturra… He was pathetic." Enturra? Baron Enturra, the source of all the strife that had plagued Mynersha those many years ago. "He stumbled across my laboratory and set me free, but lacked the Sith training to use it properly. As for the power I sought, he failed miserably, creating mindless beasts instead of the armies of darkness that I would have commanded. But you, my dear CoramDeo… You are just what I need."
Realization was coming to Coram. It was bigger than him, reaching back through the ages. This lab had been ancient when Enturra had found it, a relic from times long past. But here—here was the source, the creator of the unholy alchemy that had tortured the citizens of Mynersha for so long: a Sith Lord.
"Who are you?" he asked, trying to steady his breathing.
"I am Darth Forment… I have bided my time, waiting for the moment in which to strike. Now, with your body, I shall complete my work."
Not likely. He gritted his teeth and leapt for the shadow, lightsaber ablaze with furious thrusts and swipes. Forment laughed as the blade passed through him, turning solid and igniting a semitransparent crimson blade. The Sith Lord whirled around and brought his foil to bear on Coram, who managed just barely to parry the incoming blow.
Forment struck again with a force that threatened to knock the wind from him, before vanishing in a puff of smoke. It caused the other to lose his balance, overstepping and stumbling forward into a table. The Sith appeared again, solid once again, and struck for Coram's neck. He ducked, managing to kick the shadow's legs out in a sweeping motion.
The specter vanished again, appearing seconds later, transparent except for his blade. Coram lunged again, aiming to disarm his opponent. The cobalt lightsaber failed, meeting no resistance but a wisp of smoke as the spirit's limb reformed. Vulnerable to attack, the evil Lord sought to spear the Elsan again. The scarlet sword stopped against Coram's saber, flashing and crackling angrily.
The Cathar found himself yet again at risk, his body twisted to a clumsy position, arm tiring quickly from the strength bearing down on him. He had to move quickly before his strength gave out entirely. Forment had become completely solid again, blocking any attempt to escape, leaving his prey with few options.
Coram thought quickly, though. The table behind Forment was cluttered with equipment. He reached through the Force and hurled a bottle at the Dark Lord's head, distracting him long enough to escape. The vial shattered against its target and Coram felt a release of the pressure above him. He head butted the Sith, forcing his unyielding body into the same table.
It allowed him to put distance between the two. Coram needed to evaluate the situation before he attacked again. Forment could keep this up for as long as he needed, but Coram was weary from nights of unrest and unease, tired and not in his peak condition. The last time he had fought a Sith Lord, he was with the others, fighting as a team and lending suppressive fire from a rocket launcher.
There was no hope of that here. He had to keep Forment on the defensive until he could figure out a way to destroy him—or lock him away. Yes. He had said he was set free… So the spirit had been locked away. Coram smiled; while seething in his anger, the Sith Lord had given away priceless tactical information. But where was the vessel which had contained him?
Forment dissolved again, cutting off the thought, and rematerialized inches from Coram, sizzling energy blade slicing at his body. Coram almost dodged it, taking a shallow wound to his side. He clamped down on the urge to scream at the searing pain and smell of burnt fur. He would deal with that later, and he thanked Ashla that lightsabers also cauterized wounds.
Ashla. How did one combat darkness? With light! He mentally chided himself with such an obvious answer staring him in the face. By now his Force light bubble had dissipated, but he did not need it now. Coram danced away from the thrusting laser sword, and called on Ashla again. The air suddenly crackled with blue-white sparks of electricity, and he made for the ghost, his lightsaber even brighter than before.
Coram swiped at his foe, which suddenly turned transparent again. It was to no avail this time as Forment caught the brunt of the light-augmented saber. He screeched in terror and pain as the Light coursed through him. His body faded out momentarily before appearing again, several meters away.
"What did you do?" Forment cried. The hatred in his voice made Coram grin wide. Dark and light were constantly at war, and the revulsion the Dark Lord had for the light side of the Force was his weakness.
However, it was only a means to an end. Coram, though constantly searching when he could spare a glance, had still not found the vessel which previously contained the dark spirit. It had to be close by, somewhere near the entity's person. Coram had learned never to underestimate the intelligence of an enemy, and Darth Forment was an exceptionally intelligent being. His use of baiting tactics, and adaptability to fighting conditions were testament to that fact. He would be guarding that weak spot, or else be keeping Coram away from it at all costs.
"I will have my revenge!" the Sith roared, jerking Coram back to his senses. Summoning sparks of dark energy from nowhere, it shot from his hands like violet lightning at the Elsan. In a flash, Coram had mustered his own defenses in rebuke of the oncoming storm. The pulse of energy collided with his hand and he sent it careening into the far wall of the cavern, splitting and shattering the granite bedrock.
Coram's saber crackled with energy again and he lunged at the phantasm, stabbing as the blade left a blue-white afterglow to mark its path. He hit his mark, eliciting a screeching explicative from his foe.
"You aren't as invincible as you seem," Coram taunted, stepping back once more to view his opponent. The lightsaber had left a gash in Forment's side, leaking a thick, acrid substance that stank of decay and ate through the floor.
"And neither are you!" He sprang at the alien once again, vanishing out of existence only to wink back in mere inches from Coram's face. "You cannot win this battle. And when you have collapsed from exhaustion, your mortal form weary and broken, I will have my revenge…"
Coram wheeled out of the way, slicing at the robed figure once again. He breathed deep, watching the twisted features of Forment's face deepen in hatred, and cleared his mind. He must concentrate, lest the villainous presence tear at his mind again.
No,Coram thought, glancing at the unconscious form of Tara. As tired as he was, as old and as weary as he may have been, the Elsan master had to find a way—had to find that vessel. He stole a glance behind his foe. Work benches, more equipment, and then bedrock… but wait! The Cathar blinked, squinting his eyes and peering through the flickering semi-darkness. A shape, cut into the rock—or was it blasted from the rock?
He grunted, smirking. That was his target, where the evil baron had somehow sensed something, however faintly, calling to him. A faint glimmer of hope dawned in the dusky, hidden laboratory. He switched to an offensive stance, steeling himself against the saturating lure of Forment's presence.
He kicked off the ground, jumping high and far to the right, landing neatly on a table covered in glass instruments. Coram then kicked at the beakers, sending them flying toward Forment, who winked in and out of invisibility, inching closer to Coram. With a Force-augmented burst of speed, the leonine hero leapt for his foe's far side, summersaulting over his head and striking with his saber.
Forment dodged the incoming attack, narrowly avoiding having his head sliced open with the Force-light charged saber. Winking back into existence a moment too soon, though, Coram brought down a second swipe as he landed, hacking a gash in the specter's front. The laceration spewed black, acidic carnage, forcing Coram to step back.
But that was all he needed. The wound was enough to force his opponent to retreat, however briefly to tend to the wound. Forment shrieked again at the Elsan, loathing and animosity turning any intelligible words into mindless blathering. Coram paid it no heed, however, as he made straight for the hole that Enturra had blasted from the rock forty years prior.
And there it was—a holocron, shimmering in its own pale light, shrouded in an intense aura of the dark side. Coram snatched it up, thumbing the controls and saturating it with the light side, forcing the container open.
Another cry assailed Coram's ears, this time one of terror, for Forment had caught sight of the holocron in his furred hands. He sped toward Coram, blade whirling and swirling in crimson arcs, attacks desperate to force the fragile talisman from his fingers. And once again, Coram paid no attention to the despairing cries of his enemy, setting himself against the noise and focused all his attention on the object in his hands.
The holocron crackled with energy now, space physically warping around the thing as the Force concentrated around it. Coram looked up, just as a burst of lighting arched toward Forment. His eyes steeled over, jaw set firm, he said, "Your revenge will have to wait." The spirit wailed as the lighting struck him once, twice—again and again, each dissolving the ethereal form little by little and dragging the ashes into the interior of the blood red crystal container.
"No! No! This can't be…" Forment shouted, his voice fading rapidly into only a mere fraction of its booming power. The evaporating phantasm searched hopelessly his lab, desperate for anything to tether him to the outside world, dreading being trapped again. Nothing came to his aid, though, and spent his last moments scowling angrily at Coram.
With that, everything was still once more. The flickering torchlight played intricate shadows on the walls, shining through equipment that may or may not have still been intact. Coram sighed, and then grimaced. He had forgotten about the wound in his side and held it tenderly. But he would have to deal with that later.
Tara Selah still lay unconscious, but alive, near him. He checked her pulse, made sure she was stable enough to move, and lifted her in a fireman's carry. He moaned, tired and aching, blood beginning to seep from his side and stain his tunic.
But he continued, step by step, inch by inch toward the opening at the mouth of the tunnel. He arrived there and took the grappling hook from his belt. Tying one end around Tara in a harness and securing the hook at the top of the well, he began lifting the two of them out, climbing and pulling up Tara's body slowly but surely.
A dimly lit night sky greeted him at the top, and the cool air was a welcome change from the dank of the Sith's laboratory. The journey into the capital was equally slow, Coram gritting his teeth with each step. From there he took Tara to the local medical center where doctors greeted him in shock at his grievous wound and the unconscious girl in his arms.
"Just take care of her…" he panted. "I'm fine." There, he collapsed, relinquishing himself to the exhaustion that now overtook his body.
A rap at the door interrupted his meditation, eliciting a sigh from the leonine master. His wounds were healing, and he needed a clear mind to induce a healing trance of his own. But judging from the insistent sound of it, and the blinding presence in the Force, it was Bit come to wish him well.
Verywell,then, Coram decided. He could use a break, and his legs were going numb from the awkward position anyway. He called for Bit to enter and the door unlatched and swished open, its more modern construction a notable difference from the creaky doors of the praxeum's older cousins.
Bit strode in, beaming, carrying a small package. "For you," he said, holding out the object. "From our friends on Borosk." Obviously, he and Nokturne had met with a variety of successes.
"I'll have to send them my thanks," Coram replied, taking the package and unwrapping carefully. He smiled, seeing a model spacecraft, neatly fashioned after a citadel class shuttle, right down to the smallest details. "Reminds me of the good old days," he said, holding it up for Bit to inspect.
The droid leaned in closer to inspect the model, and Coram sensed the flood of nostalgia his compatriot felt. "It is of fine craftsmanship," Bit commented. "Even the licensing number is there." Coram had not noticed, but he would not have doubted his friend's optical sensors. "Did anything interesting happen while we were away?"
"I taught them to cook," Coram answered, satisfied. "The East Wing is now responsible for meal preparation. It's an exercise in creative thinking." He glanced out the window, ever so briefly; the stars were just starting to break out into the night sky.
"I noticed. The students seem to be liking this arrangement fairly well." Bit jabbed a metal thumb back toward the praxeum. But it was a gesture of approval, by all means impressed. "You were able to derive a useful lesson from their lessons.
"But we were distressed to hear you had been laid up in this hospital room for these few days." The concern somehow etched on the droid's face almost made Coram laugh. "Vrash told us what had happened. What did you do with the holocron?"
"I threw it into the deepest pit I could find," Coram said, shivering suddenly. "That way no one could ever find it again. Forment will not be bothering us, or our Order, ever again." He nodded in finality and was taken aback when Bit did not share the sentiment.
"I hope you're right, my friend. I hope you're right…"
"I'll give you a full report, though, as soon as I'm cleared to return to the praxeum," Coram told his counterpart, yawning. Bit nodded, sensing that the organic was in need of rest. The droid turned, wishing Coram farewell, and the door to the medical suite slid shut silently behind him.
Coram yawned again, mumbled a reply that Bit did not hear. He rubbed his eyes and drew up the blankets, ordering the computer to dim the lights. The stars were out fully now and he looked up at them, happy that he would be going home to his Order soon. And with that, he closed his eyes slept soundly through the night.