Through Power, I Gain Victory
The terrain was proving even more difficult than expected. A twisting patch of canyon narrowed to a point that was nearly impassible. Canderous looked at the imposing cliff before him, checking it over for handholds.
"It's going to take me longer to climb that than it will you, and more climbing gear, too. If you can go on ahead, I'll meet you at the rendezvous point. That way, you can scout ahead a little more as well."
She raised an eyebrow. "You would trust me not to run off?" It wasn't very serious, Canderous knew. Still, he was a fool if he knew she was completely comfortable around him.
He sniffed. "You're braver than that. And we're away from the ship, why pass up the chance to stab me in my sleep or something?" Not like she would – too much a Jedi to take him up on it, and too much of a warrior not to want a fair fight if it ever came to blows between them – not that she could admit the latter as it violated the Jedi notion of honor.
"The rendezvous point. I will meet you there. And if I am not there, track me by the beacon."
"Juhani..." He could not believe he was stooping to this, but she was vod and maybe he was getting soft. "Be careful"
She nodded, and began scaling the cliff, making use of the Force and Cathar climbing abilities to reach ledges and footholds he could not. He took a step back and pulled out the grappling hook and rope he had taken from the dead candidates earlier.
Tonight, he figured. Tonight, he would tell her about the Wars, Cathar, Althir...Maybe it would earn him a blade in the ribs. Maybe she would have something to meditate over other than dull Jedi dogma. Still, she more than earned the right to hear it, if she was willing to listen.
Juhani had scaled the cliff quickly enough, checking the datapad another time for the best route, and taking a look back to verify Canderous was still climbing, making slow progress with his hook and rope.
As much as she hated to admit it, she could tolerate this Mandalorian. His people she still thought of primarily as brutes and savages, interested in nothing but warfare. Was Canderous an exception? He would not think of himself as such, but the evidence seemed to point otherwise.
No question; he was dangerous. He had burned and destroyed, waged war and did not apologize. He had also worked for the most detestable man on Taris before betraying him. Juhani wasn't about to shed any tears for Davik. The child of Taris's slums wanted to congratulate Canderous for leaving that twisted monster to die. The Jedi chastised her for thinking so.
He had once said that he was primarily interested in a good fight, but had something changed? The strange ritual in the Kashyyyk woods, the fact that he took charge of the crew while they licked their wounds on Yavin. He had no real reason to go out of his way to respect Jedi and Republic sympathizers, but did so anyway.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. The only thing she could conclusively say for the situation of working with Canderous; it had to be the Force's will to throw a living embodiment of all that she feared and hated at her. This was a test of her own strength. In her heart, she could never truly forgive the Mandalorians, but perhaps understanding them was not beyond her.
Catching her breath, she scrambled over some more steep hills, taking a more direct route than Canderous would be able to follow. Stopping on a ridge, she glanced over the barren surface of this cursed world, and allowed herself to be still for a moment, falling into meditation stance.
"I'd advise you to leave. You're too far from Dreshdae to be a hopeful, and there are Mandalorians scouting the area."
Juhani broke stance and turned around. He was dark-complected and medium height for a human male, which meant he stood just a whisker shorter than her. He wore a dark coverall, and carried a pack, but there was a lightsaber on his belt. A Sith. There was something odd about him that she could not quite place.
"I was unaware of a Sith expedition in this area." She kept her voice neutral, but her hand moved for the vibroblade, preparing to draw. If he sensed she was Jedi...
"It's just me for now. The name's Dak Vessar, and I'm here on a research mission. What's your business here?" He seemed to be sizing her up. "Wait a minute..."
Dak Vessar? Air and Water, it had been years. Of course, the fact he was on Korriban. "Dak? That is you, isn't it?" She pulled down her veil. "I...hardly recognized you."
He blinked and shook his head as though there were dust in his eyes. "Juhani? It's been a long time."
"Yes. Dak, what are you doing here? Did...did you fall to the Dark Side?" His Force aura didn't seem all that dark, but if he were on Korriban with a lightsaber...
He crossed his arms. "I didn't fall, Juhani. I had my eyes opened. Besides, I could ask you the same thing. Last I recall, you had your own doubts. What are you doing here?"
"You could say I am here to seek my own knowledge," she said. "Korriban is a world that tests you."
"You're right about Korriban, but the rest? You're a lousy liar. Have it your way, Juhani, like you always do." Dak waved her off with a brush of his hand.
How easy it would be to start an argument, and how little she wanted one right now. There is no passion...
"You're not sporting robes or a saber. You finally leave the Order?" he asked.
Juhani wasn't sure if she could give an answer and not endanger herself or him. "It's a long story," she said.
"Did you leave to become a mercenary? That's a viable option, especially with the war going on." He shrugged. "I can't see you going for the Academy. You never liked being caged or dealing with politics. Half the reason I went into field research was to stay away from there. Too many knives in too many backs."
"So, you are not a Sith?"
"I'm not a big adherent to the Code, but technically I am. While Uthar Wynn has his students plundering the Valley of the Dark Lords, I'm heading out to find artifacts from more recent history, but I've run into a complication."
"Is it anything you need assistance with?"
Dak crossed his arms. "That's entirely the wrong attitude for Korriban, but yes. Mandalorians – lots of them. This was their main base during Exar Kun's War. They're probably after whatever they can salvage. Those barbarians can't actually appreciate anything."
"You are a historian, a digger. Somehow, I am not surprised."
"I am," he said. "Wouldn't mind a partner, but I know you – always running your own agenda where I wasn't included."
"I'll forget I saw you if you forget you saw me," he said. "Mind the Mandos. Skewer a few on your vibroblade in revenge for our homeworlds if you find some, but I'm going back to my work."
As suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone again, vanished into the maze of canyons and valleys, the inherent darkness of Korriban obscuring her Force vision so she could not track him.
What she did find was a small pebble of an odd grey-green left behind. She did not recognize it, but she picked it up and put it into her belt pouch.
While the trio left to guard the Ebon Hawk knew that they were safer on the ship than in any part of Dreshdae, the long weeks of waiting were starting to grind on them.
On top of it, the uneasiness he was feeling had little to do with being cooped up with a pair of younglings (while Zaalbar was technically a bit younger than him, Wookiees needed a full century to come of age). The Shadowlands was polluted enough with the Dark Side, but this place was so choking thick with it, that it made his nostrils burn.
One of the techniques he picked up during his self-imposed exile was the ability for his body to stay in one place while his sight went elsewhere. As it was self-taught, it wasn't perfect, and he had limited range around the academy. The Dark Side shielded the place so much that he couldn't actually penetrate it. However, he had taken care to memorize the Force aura of the crew, all the better to be discreet about this.
He didn't like what he was sensing. Juhani and Canderous were safe for the moment. Kairi and Carth...
There hadn't been a good way to break the respective news to them, and he reluctantly admitted to dragging his feet on the matters. He told himself there wasn't any evidence, or that the ship had ears and no good would come of it. Besides, they weren't in any danger at that point. They certainly were in danger now, and the ex-Sith Lord was in less danger than her partner, hard as that was to believe.
However, one crisis at a time. After meditating on it for the better part of the day, he came up with a plan to get exactly what he needed. Mission was wearing yet another hole in the floor behind him, and the incessant footsteps were Making his tracking difficult, but it did give him an idea. He cracked an eye open.
"Hey, Mission. I'm getting cabin fever here. I'll bet you're having the same."
"I'm bored out of my head-tails. You got an idea?"
"You're pretty good about getting into places you oughtn't. I need to get something that's common enough, but highly illegal to possess without proper licenses filled out in triplicate."
"Okay, grandpa. What's really going through that head of yours?"
"Perceptive. Well, part of it is the cabin fever, but part of it is to run an experiment. There's something I've always been curious about, but I can't confirm until I get my hands on a scanner."
"Like what, exactly?"
"Mission, you've been with the crew the longest. Have you noticed any changes in some of them, personality-wise?"
She scowled. "Sure, but I just figured that having to work together brings out the best in us. Canderous was cracking heads for Davik and he was miserable. Of course, working for a crime lord, I'd figure that would come with the territory. He seems calmer now. I wouldn't call it 'nicer' directly to his face, but he's happier, I'd guess."
"And Juhani having to work with him...With her background, I'd figure she wouldn't want anything to do with him."
Mission shrugged. "I just chalked it up to her being Jedi. Aren't they trained to ignore things like that and go 'there is no emotion?'"
"Trained, yes, but a little thing called sentient nature tends to throw a wrench in that part, and I never bought that line much anyway," Jolee pointed out. "And has Carth always had those 'gut feelings' of his?"
"Long as I've known him, yeah. Guess he wasn't just being paranoid when he said things didn't add up with Kairi's story. Of course, he's taking the whole thing about her past pretty hard. It's not like she can remember it or anything, so I'm not seeing the big deal."
"Carth's been with her the longest, though." He drummed his fingers against the floor, thinking. "And have you noticed anything else about him, aside from those gut feelings that turned out right? Strange luck? Coincidences working out in his favor?"
Mission looked incredulous. "Not sure what you're driving at, but he had those thing even before he really knew Kairi. They met when their ship got attacked by the Sith, and they made it on the last escape pod out. Well, Kairi was hurt by a plasma shock – that's why she can't remember anything. Carth was able to land their pod in the Upper City, haul her out of there just as the Sith patrols were marching in, and found a hiding place in some dump where the landlord was completely ignoring the law and renting to aliens."
Oh, kriff. "That's an awful lot of coincidences and longshot odds."
"Worked in their favor, didn't it?" Mission said with a shrug. "I know you Jedi don't buy the idea of luck, but I guess Carth just lucked out that time."
"Maybe he did," Jolee said. "Anyway, I'm up to shamelessly ripping off the Sith to restock our medical supplies, and I have just the plan to do it. Interested?"
Mission smiled. "Oh, I'm always ready to cause trouble."
"Oh, trouble's not hard to find on Korriban. The challenge is being able to get yourself out of it."
Uthar's position meant that he had to interact with Upper Tier students, so he made it a point to have an office in hid private suite and regular hours for appointments. He wasn't exactly surprised that "Kairi" was the first to bring him an artifact from the valley, and even less surprised when she brought back a scroll from the library to explain what it was.
"It took me a while to cross-reference it, but I believe this holocron is from Sorzus Syn, one of the eleven exiles that became the first Sith Lords. Or the maker was an apprentice of hers at the least.
"Go on, explain how you came to that conclusion."
"It is heavily damaged, but what little I have been able to obtain from it is incomplete instructions on Sith Alchemy, with a particular interest in bio-shaping..."
He studied her – formal stance, deferring (not much like a true Sith, but certainly appropriate for a student), very few words spoken as she placed it on his desk and gave an academic analysis of what little she could salvage from it.
Uthar scrutinized the holocron after she gave her dissertation. "From the belly of a tukata queen, you say? How ironic, considering her specialty."
"Yes," she said. "It has been badly damaged, but some effort at it may result in at least a partial recovery of its contents."
"Indeed," Uthar looked it over again before putting it to the side. He picked up the scroll. "This is High Sith, young one. I wasn't aware you knew the language."
"Linguistics is a talent of mine," she answered.
Inwardly, he breathed a sigh of relief. Revan had been quite the language scholar, cautioning her armies not to over-rely on the Force when it came to communication. Still, he would have to make an effort soon to discern how much of Revan's power and knowledge remained. "I should like to hear the story of how you learned it, however. It's not a common sight in the galaxy."
She froze. Was this a glitch in her programming? Uthar hoped so. One of the better ways to break a Force compulsion was to start making the affected one question it, instill doubt in the illusions the caster wanted to maintain.
"I asked you a question," Uthar said, assuming his best professorial demeanor. "The Jedi do not teach High Sith, nor have your instructors been teaching you. Even Yuthura doesn't read it as well as you apparently can. So, where did you learn it?"
She seemed to be contemplating lying. Uthar supposed the Jedi might take some of her talents and try to rebuild a persona that used them, along with their equally false explanations. Either that, or she would make up a lie and try to hide it. Instead, she took a surprising option.
"I do not know," she admitted. "I suppose if you ran my brain through your medical droid's scanners, they would have an interesting puzzle. Several months before coming here, my mind was damaged in a battle. I had to re-learn everything, including my name. I suppose I learned it before my accident. I can't tell you the specifics of where or when, because I no longer know them myself."
"Interesting." So, she told him the truth instead; albeit, one that left out the bigger picture.
"The Order claimed it would help me. Instead, they took advantage of a chance to reshape me to their liking. From a tactical point of view, it's quite brilliant, but I did not appreciate the manipulation. That's why I am here." Again, mostly true.
Uthar was definitely pleased. Revan was in better shape and more intact than he thought. All he would have to do is push on the right fault lines. "The Jedi's peculiar ideas about 'truth' send many to these halls. You're hardly the first, and probably not the last. And what of Lashowe? She mentioned going to the valley to recover an artifact matching this description. She never returned."
"She is buried in a cairn in the Valley. We argued, we fought. She did not guard her back sufficiently," she answered curtly.
"Elimination of a rival is a credible means of advancement, but not worthy of prestige in itself. That was Jorak's Uln's mistake."
"Jorak?" She asked.
"My former master. He isn't dead, but he's in no position to challenge me, either. While life must compete in order to flourish, there is more to being a Sith than cutting down rivals. This is an institute of learning; not a mere combat arena. So, you had killed Lashowe. Why did you not leave her body for the tu'kata?"
"I said that she is dead because she failed to watch her back, not that I killed her. Dustil was the one who saw an opening during our duel. I dueled and defeated him afterward. As for burying her? She fought well, and I suppose I still feel I owed a last respect to a worthy opponent. I managed to convince Dustil of my opinion."
Uthar raised an eyebrow. An interest in the Onasi boy? That was an interesting turn, but not unexpected, given his father's presence on her ship and on the planet. "Why did you not kill Dustil as well?"
"There was nothing to gain from it. You said it yourself; eliminating another student is not an act of worth. Lashowe only died because she failed to yield."
"Ah, interesting," Uthar said. He knew it wasn't the full truth; the real reason was no doubt some residual loyalty to the boy's father. "However, neither you nor Dustil are fully committed to the Dark Side. You both waver on its edge, certainly. In the end, the victor will have to commit fully – with your blade in his back or his in yours. Are you ready for that?"
She straightened. "If it is what I must do to accomplish my goals, Master."
Uthar smiled. "The answer I expected. I'll add an additional allotment to time with the training droids as well as the prestige. You are dismissed."
After she left, Uthar picked up the holocron and turned it in his hands. So, her skills were still mostly intact, especially her linguistic talents. Her Force abilities were not yet as prominent, but that probably could be attributed to the shackles of Jedi dogma and brainwashing. And her alliance with the Onasi boy played right into the overall plan better than he'd hoped.
Uthar checked the clock – time to work on the second half of the equation. He already sent a note via the alleged "protocol droid" to have Carth meet him in the instructor's training room. That way, they weren't going to be subject to prying eyes. No sense in giving too much away just yet.
An old man in a worn garment that may have once been robes walked the streets of Dreshdae. On his belt were the distinct bulge of lightsaber, and a control for a slave collar. Walking the regulation meter behind was a Rutian Twi'lek girl who was starting to develop the hourglass figure that her species were renowned for, covered in an unflattering tunic and leggings. Perhaps the old man had use for her beyond the conventional uses for a female Twi'lek slave, but this was Dreshdae, and when a stranger walked through with robes and a lightsaber, people tended to back away slowly and keep questions to themselves.
Their first trip was to the Drunk Side Cantina. Unlike most cantinas on the planet, who subscribed to the Sith's human-centric philosophy, the Drunk Side was popular with the few aliens of Dreshdae; the oenwe having figured that credits were credits, no matter the race who spent them. The old man sat in a back corner and watched for a while. Like a million other sleazy cantinas, a Pazaak shark had set up court, refreshing himself with drink while fleecing the patrons. This one was a Rodian with dusty clothing ten years out of date. Perhaps he had fallen on hard luck, or he had been chased out of the galaxy's more reputable establishments.
The old man nodded to his slave, and she walked over with a Pazaak deck.
"Greetings, sentient. Are you willing to engage in a hand of Pazaak? I am afraid there are few takers on Korriban... it would be good to have a little fun, for once."
"My master sent me over. He likes to watch me play Pazaak..." she dropped her voice conspiratorially. "Mostly because he's bad at it himself."
"Ah, the classic spectator – those who cannot like to watch those who can. Did he give you credits to play with? If you must know, I am quite proficient at Pazaak. I would not wish to begin a game under false pretenses, and he might be most unhappy when you lose."
That's when the old man came over. He had his face wrapped up in rags, and a hood pulled low. Besides, to the Rodian, most humans looked alike anyway. He put some credits on the table and sat at the third seat, to watch the game. "Start at a hundred, girl."
Cards were dealt, and the game began.
Another run through the obstacle course just outside the academy walls, another round with the training droids. Stripped to nothing more than a thin bodysuit, Kairi ran the gauntlet. It was cold on Korriban, despite the region being technically in summer. The planet had a far enough distance to be on the colder end of life-supporting worlds, but not enough to be an ice planet.
Nothing less than perfection...Drawing on the Force in a life-or-death situation like her duels with Lashowe and Dustil didn't take as much effort as it did to manipulate it when the stakes weren't life-threatening.
One of the shots barely missed her, and she swerved out of the way. Almost got me. Why didn't I see that?
She ran through the sand trap, trying to will the Force through her legs for additional speed. Instead, her movements felt clumsy and slow. This meant she wasn't able to dodge an incoming shot, and had to deflect it with her lightsaber. Damn!
Staggering through the sand trap, she made it as far as the wall of rock. Since her attempts to increase her speed with the Force hadn't worked, she wasn't going to bother trying to leap the wall. The best she could do was to throw out a unwieldy jolt of telekenesis that sent a pair of the droids smashing into one another, sending them both off-course long enough for her to scramble up the handholds.
It's getting harder all the time to draw on the Force. Of course, I start failing when I'm in the most danger. Serves me right to have it abandon me.
One of the shots was close to her hand for her to feel the heat as it scorched the rock. Pay attention, you fool. She jumped over the wall and began another full-tilt run for the finish, jumping over the gauntlet of sharpened blades swinging across the finish line's path.
Barely dodging the last one, she nearly collapsed as soon as her feet crossed the finish line, but she heard the sound of applause. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Yuthura, wearing a similar bodysuit.
"Impressive. The Force serves you well."
"It doesn't," Kairi answered sharply. "It doesn't feel like I'm at my full strength at all."
One of Yuthura's arc tattoos arced in a good impersonation of a skeptical eyebrow. "If that's not your full strength, I'd like to see you when the gloves really come off." She walked up to Kairi. "It's common to fallen Jedi, what you're experiencing."
"It is?" she asked skeptically.
"One who is recruited as a Sith doesn't have to unlearn a lifetime's worth of 'there is no emotion, there is peace.' It's like learning to walk without having your legs shackled together by a meter-long chain and cuffs around your ankles," Yuthura said. "You'll be a bit clumsy for a while."
Still breathing heavily, Kairi made her way to the bench next to where Yuthura was standing. "You speak as though you have experience in that regard."
"I do," she said. " I am originally from Sleheyron, if you must know. I was a slave to a cruel master, Omeesh the Hutt, but I harnessed my anger and that's why he is dead and I am not. That is all you need to know for now. We can exchange niceties once Uthar is gone, if you desire."
"About Uthar," Kairi said. "I heard a rumor he has hired a new servant to take his meals with."
Yuthura shrugged. "Yes, his new toy. Uthar's like that. He rarely leaves the academy, much less the planet. So, if he goes to Dreshdae and finds a spacer or mercenary that can attract his interest, he invites them to stay a while. If they are fortunate, they're rewarded with some credits and other trinkets of appreciation before Uthar lets them go. The unfortunate ones, he will kill himself or send to the dueling room as practice for the students. It's a good thing he's found a new plaything; it will distract him."
Perhaps Carth's not in immediate danger, then. Of course, when – not 'if' Uthar makes the connection between him and Dustil...
"As for you, I heard Lashowe is dead. I told you she was too trusting. Looks like it was the end of her."
Kairi shook her head. "I didn't plan to kill her. We fought some tu'kata to get a holocron. When we finally obtained it, I sensed she planned to take all the credit for herself instead of taking it back together as agreed. We quarreled, we fought, she died."
Yuthura shrugged. "One less opponent is a good thing, no matter the circumstances. Were I you, I would focus on Kel next. The boy burdens himself with doubts and anxieties. It is sad to watch, really, for he does possess a certain flair with the Force, and he is an excellent scholar. He will not survive long, however. Someone will betray him soon enough, and he will be dead. If you are smart and you know something, that person should be you."
Kairi sighed and tried to pass it off as trying to catch her breath. There is no salvation; there is oblivion. "I'd think Shaardan would be a better target. He's talented, but he's lazy."
"And he's afraid of you. Whatever happened when you ran across him in the colony...Well, I would have loved to have seen it." She had a wicked grin on her face.
Now it was Kairi's turn to raise an eyebrow. "He was the reason I was less than impressed with your students. He made a poor first impression."
"I gathered that. Well, he's a good alternative. Not terribly popular, either. The only down side is that he'll be on his guard should you approach. Kel? Well, he's a lot like you in some ways. That will get him lowering his guard."
Kairi took another deep breath, pulling on youngling tricks to try and reduce her heart rate. "Uthar said that merely killing my rivals is not an act of worth."
"Kill all of them, and you force his hand," she said. "But you have a point. It seems you got double the points out of your expedition; one for retrieving the holocron, and a second for demonstrating that you can read High Sith. Seeing as even I haven't learned that, I'd say you have quite the future here."
"I could teach you," Kairi offered, rising to her feet and looking Yuthura in the eye.
"You have odd notions for someone hoping to become a Sith," Yuthura said. "An apprentice isn't supposed to be the one imparting a skill."
"The writing in Naga Sadow's tomb would be in that language. Uthar knows the language and you don't. That gives him the edge in discovering the temple's secrets. However, between your connection to the Dark Side and my linguistic talents, Uthar's outmatched." Despite herself, Kairi found herself smiling. "And wouldn't learning those secrets for yourself under his nose be quite the victory?"
Her other Force abilities took more effort, but her empathy was as clear as ever. Yuthura's emotions were easy to sense – the citrus taste of delight and the electric thrill of temptation. Mixed in with it was the orange flame of curiosity and the musk smell of attraction. One purple finger reached under Kairi's chin, and she felt a strange pull. In another life, another place, she would have been glad to be Yuthura's; to learn with, to crave power, to fight as one until the time when their bond ended in death at the hands of each other.
"Now that's what I like to see... the flash of ambition in a young human's eyes. Your species has such remarkable retinal coloring, did you know that?"
Kairi forced herself not to break eye contact. "I did not, milady."
Yuthura lowered her hand, and the overwhelming jolt of emotion muted to something more curious. "Let's try going through this course together, shall we? I want to see more of what you're capable of."
By contrast to the outdoor training course used by the students, the instructors' training room was in a sub-basement. Like everything else reserved for the instructors, it was locked down tight, and off-limits to students. When Carth arrived, Uthar was in a simple shirt and drawstring trousers, using a strange type of sword against a group of training droids. He seemed to avoid slashes and cuts, focusing on pointed jabs and thrusts to strike the droids with precision, despite the awkward-looking blade.
As soon as the last of the three droids collapsed in a smoking ruin, Uthar seemed to notice Carth's entrance. "Greetings, Mr. Antilles. I always appreciate your punctuality."
Uthar was like swimming with a firaxa shark. It was going to bite him eventually, but his curiosity and fascination were enough to almost forget what he was dealing with. Perhaps learning the underpinnings would make him better able to fight his enemy. This was the kind of opportunity most in Republic Intelligence would kill or die for.
What was that Kairi (Revan – never forget that) was always going about? Learn how they think? "What is it this time? Another race through the obstacle course?"
"We can get to that later, I think. Actually, I need a bit of practice other than the droids. Open that box over there. There will a second blade like this one."
Carth did as he was asked, but that itchy feeling crawled up his spine again. He ignored it as he pulled out the weapon. "This is more like a club than a vibroblade!"
"They're a rarity for Sith; something designed merely for sparring. Vibroblades are effective, and everyone ought to know how to duel with them, especially as Echani cortosis means that some fools think they can duel a Force User and win." He paused. "And mind the blade. It's lined with pelko barbs, and they'll cripple your limb for several hours should it prick the skin. A strike on the torso has a small, but not insignificant chance of being lethal should it be too close to a vital organ."
"I'm...supposed to spar you? No offense, but I don't stand a chance."
"Only at this time," Uthar said with a dismissive wave. "Who knows? Someday, you might be the one to kill me."
Carth raised an eyebrow, convinced that Uthar was completely out of his mind, joking or both. He swung the strange weapon using a basic slash attack and was shocked by the recoil.
Uthar seemed not to notice. "You've practiced sparring drills with a vibroblade, correct?"
"Yes, and I...I uh, picked up a few different ones when traveling. Smuggling boats tend to attract interesting mixes of crew."
"All the better not to adhere yourself to a single style or tactic. Practice your own style until you can perform it in your sleep, Mr. Antilles, but never be afraid to learn or push yourself. Now, I will go through the most basic drill. Follow my movements until you get used to that blade."
The actual drills weren't much different than what he practiced on the Ebon Hawk with the wasters – the points of attack; head, left shoulder, right shoulder, back, left leg, right leg. Followed by the five basic blocks – forward parry, head parry, lower right block, lower left block, torso sweep...
Uthar was carefully assessing the movements. He's picked up some Shii-Cho, it looks like. It's not entirely unreasonable that that Bastila and Revan would want the non-Jedi to be able to carry their weight in a melee battle. And since the form was originally designed for blade combat, it's not surprising, either.
They practiced the drills for hours, until Uthar's arms felt an ache and his younger "sparring partner" was sweaty and obviously tired. But he had not complained or questioned the entire time. What a good sign.
"Thank you, Mister Antilles. This has been a satisfying workout."
"Glad...glad you think so." Carth was breathing heavily. "This still feels...strange."
"Well, it's not a common vibroblade. Your muscles will get used to the gyroscopic kick in time. And to hold stance with an unfamiliar weapon is a good tool, should you find yourself needing to improvise in combat."
"Uthar...why are you doing this? Not that I'm ungrateful, but it's a little odd that you're bothering with me. I'm just a normal guy. I don't carry a lightsaber, and I'm not able to wield the Force or anything like that. It just seems a little odd that you're...well, that you'd hire a guy just to keep you company for a while."
Uthar took the training blades and hung them up. "Power and position are double-edged blades, Mr. Antilles. My own apprentice is hardly trustworthy, and I'm surrounded by eager and foolish younglings that I must take responsibility to shape into Sith. For example, it's been ages since I practiced with these blades. I'm used to a lightsaber. It's easy to lose perspective in the isolation, but few would be brave enough to sup at my table and speak of the wider galaxy, so I can appreciate it when one accepts the challenge."
"So, it's lonely at the top?"
He truly has no idea, does he? Uthar pushed outward with a little jolt of the Force, just enough to cloud Carth's mind a little bit more. He was nowhere near as gifted as Lady Revan had been with this technique, but it was enough to deflect Carth's suspicion. Ah, sleepers. All the disadvantages and few (if any) of the benefits. He wouldn't have to keep this tactic up much longer if he played his cards right. "Exactly, a challenge to one's perspective forces one to have to explain it, defend it, teach it. One must be challenged in order to grow."
"So, with the Sith, it's all about challenge?"
"Very much so. One must always be seeking knowledge and power, to walk in the places others fear. That is our task in the Force. Evolution, my friend. The strong rise and the lesser fall behind."
"The more you talk, the more you seem to make sense. Never gave much thought to the Sith aside from staying out of their way."
"Few will," Uthar said. "In the meantime, visit the fresher. My servant will send down suitable clothing. I will see you at dinner."
Toll Apkar knew he was up to his antenna stalks after the third round, but a cross of gambler's pride and a Rodian's appreciation for a struggle kept him in. Worse, the skifter cards in his side deck never seemed to come up, no matter how sneaky he was planting them in the deck, and the flipper device he had hidden in his sleeve developed an odd quirk. Every time he used it, it seemed to deliver exactly the wrong card. Soon, he looked over his cards and the stack of credits that had gone from a thick pile to a thin wad. "It seems I have been bested at my own game. Fair enough, sentient... you are the superior player and here is your reward. I do not think we need to play any more games to continue proving the point."
The old man sitting next to her pocketed the funds. "This will do nicely. She pays her own upkeep this way."
"Must be a really good slave. You watch, old man. She will pocket some of that and buy her freedom if you let her!"
"'If,'" he said. "Now, we need supplies for my ship. Where would one get things like food and medical supplies?"
Toll shrugged. "Czerka has the good stuff, but they know it and overcharge. Food? Not sure what you eat, but Czerka would probably stock that, too. Their employees practically have a town to themselves. Just head a kilometer east of Dreshdae, and you'll see it. Hard to miss."
"Thanks," he said, throwing a pittance of Toll's lost winnings back on the table. "For your trouble."
Toll watched as they left and pulled the cheating devices he had out. He really had to get those darned things fixed, and maybe he had just enough credits to do so.
"Were you using the Force back there?" Mission asked after they left city limits and were heading for Czerka's compound.
Jolee shrugged. "Just a little telekenesis to short out the methods he used to cheat. He probably got so used to playing with those toys that he relied on them. When someone gets used to a crutch, all you have to do is kick it out from under them and..."
"Do I want to know how much you've won and lost on Pazaak that way?"
"No, because I never kept score. I always play an honest game, even if I have to 'force' it to be honest. No sense in playing it otherwise."
"No offense, 'master,' but you probably made a better smuggler then a Jedi." Mission started to rub her neck. The false slave collar didn't have the shocks or the explosives that one would normally have, but it was still itchy, heavy, and unfomfortable."
"I probably did. Always liked it better, too. The pay, for one. Now, the next part of the plan will be tricker. Credits always work to grease palms, but your talents for not being seen will be useful in the warehouse." He looked over. "And don't pick at the collar. Enough of that, and they'll know it's fake."
Mission pulled her hand away. The prospect of having to fight when outmatched was a lot more uncomfortable than an alleged collar. "You just work your mojo on the guards, and I'll get what you're looking for. But what makes the scanner you're looking for better than the scanners we have on ship?"
"Only a very high-end scanner will have what we're looking for, Mission. And I hardly call what we have on ship adequate for much else than weighing spice. The only thing that saved our butts was that we took advantage of Manaan's cheap supplies. Besides, if you're going to steal, steal big. First, you slice a terminal and send me a list. From there, I can guide you to the model we'll need."
Czerka's compound was almost a completely enclosed town unto itself, complete with city walls and guards at the gate. A little hand wave and Jedi Mind trick from Jolee got them through without showing ID or paying a bribe.
The company apartments weren't too different than the ones they say on Tatooine or Kashyyyk – utilitarian, and made of duracrete. The ones on Kashyyyk had been constructed of local wood, but the charmless, boxy appearance was the same. Workers in company coveralls and uniforms flitted through the streets, as did the handful of spacers who had business here.
One of the technicians looked up. "Pardon me...uh...Master? But it's rare to see a Sith come to the Cerza facility. May I ask what your business is here?"
"Medical supplies," Jolee said. "And there's no law about where I can spend my credits, is there?"
"Of...of course not. If you're looking for those, the supply office is along the east wall. However, this facility is mostly for mining and for show. As it's commonly known, Czerka's board of directors have contracts with the Sith Empire. A facility here, despite the low profit margin, is necessary for appearances, especially considering how important this world is to the Empire."
"Well, then, I don't suppose they would have any issue in selling me some equipment, then."
"Do you have business with the Academy, then?"
"My business and credits are my own, boy. Stop bothering me."
The technician grew very pale and backed away. "I...I meant nothing by my question. East wall, just past the border of G sector."
Jolee motioned for Mission to follow and was on his way again.
A minor corporate officer saw the exchange and pretended to watch with only mild interest until the old man and his so-called "slave" had vanished into the crowd. Looking around a second time to verify they were nowhere to be seen, she pulled out the comlink she had hidden up her sleeve and walked into the nearby alley on the pretense of taking a personal call.
"Lord Bandon, I believe I have spotted two of the Republic agents you told us to watch for – the old man and the Twi'lek. They're in the Czerka compound to buy supplies."
"Good, but are there more of them?"
"No, just the pair."
"Then I'll make certain they don't get back to their ship. Your credits are being transferred."
"A pleasure doing business with you."
Kairi was ordered to take the rest of the day to rest, which meant she had a small opportunity to perform the clandestine check-in. She sent the signal via T3-M4, verifying the heavy encryption.
T3 chirped, and after a few seconds, a miniature holo of Carth appeared in the droid's projector. "Yes?"
"I'm ahead of the pack as far as prestige points," she said. "And the final test this year is getting the Star Map."
"Not surprised," There was still that pointed tone to Carth's voice.
Kairi took deep breath before delivering the next bit of news. "I've also found Dustil."
Now, it was Carth's turn to take a long pause. "You have? How...how is he?"
Should she tell him about Dustil, and their alliance? Not yet, she reasoned. If Dustil knew about the existing alliance between her and his father, it could cause the boy to do something stupid and force her into an untenable position. Furthermore, Uthar might be able to pick up on any information, however slight, and it would blow their covers. Their promise to one another – no secrets – would have to be suspended. Still, conscience gnawed at her.
Carth's heart must have stopped beating for a few seconds after she said those words, because time stood still and he could perceive nothing else. It was one thing to hear that he might be alive, but to know he was so close and that Kairi had confirmation...
"You have? How...how is he?"
"He's as safe as he can be for now," she said. "But he is formidable, Carth, and dangerous. He is in Upper Tier with me, and has had to fight every centimeter of the way. He...he's a lot like you."
Carth pinched the bridge of his nose. Funny, he always thought his boy took after his mother.
"Carth, something isn't right with you. It hasn't been since that incident in the shop," she said. "What is Uthar discussing with you, and what kind of tasks is he assigning?"
Should he tell her? After all, they did promise "no secrets" and so far she had kept up her end of the bargain. However, considering they were in the middle of Korriban, she was the ex-Dark Lord, and probably was going down a greased slope to old habits, it might be better to keep quiet and give out information on "need to know" basis only. Besides, it wasn't like Uthar's eccentric games and tasks were anything serious...were they?
"He likes books. And history. You and he had some great dinner conversation back in the day, apparently, and he's bored out of his mind. He sends me out to pick up supplies for him, mostly errands into Dreshdae or taking care of things like cataloging the contents of the armor room - busywork."
She got that little frown on her face, which meant she didn't entirely buy his story, but was going to let it slide. Carth half-wondered if Revan had that tell, or if that expression was Kairi's alone. (Did it matter?)
Partly to steer the subject, Carth mentioned, "He's not thrilled with his apprentice, though. It's probably part of the job description."
"She's not thrilled with him, either. Do you think he intends to kill her soon?"
"Can't tell. I'll ask."
"If he is, then we might be able to trap both of them. Keep your ears open. Maybe he'll get careless over dinner conversation."
"I sure hope so. I'm off to meet him in an hour. Carth out."
After the transmission cut, HK-47 swiveled his head toward the door. "Analysis: Gaining prestige in a Sith Academy is the means by which students advance over others. It it earned by acts like combat prowess, academic cleverness, or by retrieval of artifacts."
"Statement: One Upper Tier student, designation 'Lashowe' was last seen with Mistress designation Kairi, and has been reported deceased. Analysis: It would seem that one point of prestige was awarded on that basis."
"One less Sith. I'll let that slide."
"Analysis: In the end, only one Upper Tier student survives the final exam eighty percent of the time. Out of the top two scorers, only one survives the final exam ninety-nine point eight percent of the time. Conclusion: It is very likely that Mistress R-. Correction: Mistress Kairi will likely need to eliminate meatbag designation 'Dustil' in order to advance."
That stopped Carth cold. He never thought of that before now, and a combination of horror and rage shot through his chest. Damn her! She was already to blame for Dustil being in this mess in the first place. She was to blame for everything!
"Then I guess we find a way to pull him out of the running – like it or not."
The Czerka liaison officer was a thin, balding man who looked to be under far too much stress and far too much paperwork.
"I'm afraid your slave will have to stay outside. We've had to tighten the guidelines about slaves in Czerka buildings since that awful mess on Edean."
"Edean, you call it?" Jolee said.
"Our corporate outpost there has been destroyed by the Wookiee savages. The few who made it out were reassigned to here for the most part. We've heard all about how those brutes literally beat some of the extraction personnel with their own arms." He shuddered. "Perhaps it was a mistake thinking we could make any use of those beasts. Now they are doomed to remain savages forever... or possibly become extinct. Very sad. I can set her up with an escort of security guards if you don't want her running off..."
Jolee had to sigh inwardly. Ah. He never did bother to learn what Czerka tried to call his home. The fellow wasn't evil, but he was ignorant and believed what he was told, which was just as bad. He nodded to Mission and gestured to the door, holding up the remote. "She can't go too far."
He winced at the slave collar's remote, but didn't say anything overt. "Of course."
Mission played the part of obedient servant and trudged out the door, her lekku twitching. Jolee had to suppress a chuckle. His master back in the old days was a Twi'lek, so he knew enough of head-tail gestures to recognize an obscene one. Kid will make a damn fine smuggler. She's got the right attitude.
Jolee pressed a blue button on the collar remote. On a real slave collar, it would activate an explosive that would literally blow the head off a slave that got out of range. On their fake collar, it engaged a microphone so Mission could hear the conversation. "
The Czerka officer sat behind his desk, hands folded, and posture attentive. "Now then... was there something you needed? Normally, when we do business with a Sith, it's through the official channels at the academy – bulk orders."
"I'm not with the academy. I'm just passing through. I'm interested in stocking up for my ship. Medical supplies mostly. My scanner's broken past repair, and I need to find a high-end one."
"Well, this outpost is mostly for mining, and accidents happen, so we do carry those. There aren't many orders for those supplies outside the mining operations, however. The Sith are a rather secretive lot, and they don't allow Czerks employees into the academy, even for supply runs. If we have to fly supplies out to their digs, the men aren't allowed to leave the supply vessels."
"The Sith have their reasons. You'd do well to keep your men on those ships. This is a very dangerous planet."
"Is it true that Korriban was inhabited long ago by other Sith? Our aerial surveys have found what looks like ruins out in the wastes. The Sith have marked off whole areas as off-limits to mining." Sensing he was reading into potentially dangerous territory, he backpedaled a bit. "I don't really care about those ruins unless they pose a danger to my men. I'll leave them to their business and try to run mine."
"Smart," Jolee said. "Now, what I'm looking for is a scanner capable of midi-chlorine analysis. You wouldn't happen to know that term."
He shook his head. "Once or twice, but it's not a term I'm familiar with, aside from a midi-chlorine scanner requires authorization papers signed by Uthar Wynn – he's the headmaster of the academy. And it's a guideline he set up himself, so it would be a good idea not to get on his bad side."
"I'll go and talk to him then," Jolee said, lying through his teeth. With a slight hand gesture and a push of the Force through his voice, he asked. "I'd just like to see the catalog so I know which one to request."
"Of course, I'll pull up the catalog, so you know which one to requisition. I can't let you buy it, but I don't see any harm in seeing our models." The Czerka officer reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a datapad, handing it over.
"Ah, good," Jolee said. "Model Eighty-five delta looks like a beauty..."
Outside, Mission knew an implied order when she heard one. Checking to make sure no one was looking at her, she ducked behind a recycling crate, reached under her shirt, and engaged the stealth belt.
The trick to stealth fields in a crowded area was to not get too close to anyone, lest they see that the air around them was distorted slightly. Unfortunately, being in a stealth field also distorted your vision, like you were looking through thick fog or or smoke. That's the reason why one had to move only as quickly as one dared. Griff taught her the basics, mostly to steal from less-than attentive shopkeepers and the occasional Upper City apartment that left their door encryption unlocked or easy to slice.
Fortunately, she was able to get off street level using a fire ladder and the rough surface of the crude buildings to climb onto the roof. The warehouse was only a block over, built into the compound walls. The only thing between her and it was a long jump...and a longer way down if she missed. Deep breath, back up. Take a pause before you start to adjust your eyes...run!
Reaching the edge of the roof, she launched off into a long jump, but instead of her feet meeting the neighboring roof, they caught only air! She had a split-seconf of panic before her fingertips clawed out and grabbed duracrete. She was clinging to the roof's edge.
Phew! Pulling herself up slowly, and ignoring the screams of protest from her shoulders, she pulled herself up onto the roof, kneeling for a second to catch her breath. Check her inventory – annoying collar, security spikes, hold-out blaster (hidden in a jacket that was thick enough to pass for light armor), single stun grenade in case they ran into trouble – everything was intact. Crawling on hands and knees to compensate for the poor field of vision, she inched her way across the rooftop, looking for an entrance.
The worst time Mission had with stealth was when she was hiding out in the sewers after Griff left. Too many gangs and troublemakers saw an unaccompanied Twi'lek girl as prey, and Mission was trying not to be prey. She knew her crude belt couldn't hide her for more than an hour at a stretch, so she went looking for hidden places and tunnels to catch a wink of sleep. One of those tunnels turned out to have a nest to rakghouls sleeping. It would have been a fast and nasty way to die if she was noticed, but she had engaged the belt and took her chances because some Vulkars were in hot pursuit and looking to make her their next "trophy girl." She had barely made it across and sliced a terminal to close the door behind her when her pursuers entered the tunnel she had just left. As she disengaged stealth and ran away, the last thing she heard were screams.
Shaking her head to bring herself back to the present, Mission found an escape hatch on the roof and was able to slice the lock to get it open. Climbing down the fire ladder, she entered the warehouse. It was stocked floor to ceiling with crates, most of them labeled only with droid code – stickers with a seemingly-random black and white pattern of overlapping lines and boxes. Anything other than a droid with the proper scanner wouldn't be able to decipher the stickers.
How am I gonna find anything in this mess?
She saw her opportunity when a couple of Czerka employees working a supply terminal got into a conversation. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, but it seemed to be a good natured talk between friends. One of them slapped the other on the back, and they walked away, leaving the terminal unguarded. Using the girders to cross the distance and stacks of crates to scramble down, she got to the terminal and had to roll her eyes. The chuba-brain didn't even log off! It was easy tnough to punch up the code for the medical scanner Jolee wanted and summon one of the many hovering cargo droids and bring the device to a spot near the fire escape before dropping it on the floor.
When she got there, the scanner was waiting. It wasn't very impressive looking – greenish plastic and a monochrome display, but it was the model Jolee specified. Pocketing that, she climbed back up the fire escape ladder, onto the roof, and back down the building's side.
She disengaged the belt and made it to the door just as Jolee was walking out. "You got it, kid?"
"Oh, I got it, grandpa. I got it."
"All right. And here's our delivery..." An automated hover-sledge with several crates aboard pulled up in front of the building. "We just take this to the Hawk and the programming will send it back to base once we've unloaded."
Juhani had the campsite set up before Canderous arrived, exhausted by his climb. He gladly took the ration bars and cup of caff she had made before sitting on a rock and looking into the fire. When he glanced up, he saw her playing with a strange lump of material. "What is that in your hand?"
"I am not certain. It is obviously artificial, but beyond that..." She handed it over and he examined it.
"Detonite with a low-quality binder. I'm not surprised that it's easy to find around here. But I am surprised it's held up to the elements for forty years."
Juhani scowled. "An explosive? Unfortunately, I doubt it is a relic from Exar Kun's War." Canderous handed it back, and she put it in her belt pouch. "Remember the bodies we encountered, dead by lightsaber? There is a fallen Jedi at work in this area. I know very well his hatred for the Mandalorian people."
"You know this Sith?"
"It's closer to say he is a Dark Jedi, and those are more dangerous. Sith have a code and philosophy. He appears to operate on his own codes and compass. But, yes, I know him."
"What are we dealing with?" Canderous said warily. "Old enemy like Xor?"
Juhani shook her head sadly. "Old friend."
"Those can be worse," Canderous said. "Poisoned friendships produce the worst foes."
"Speaking from experience?" Juhani asked.
"Yeah. Jagi's my mother's brother's son. Same age, meaning we went through most of our rites of passages together. Of course, I was always a little better than him, so he became my second when we went to combat."
"Was it jealousy that poisoned your bond?"
"No. Althir. It was supposed to be an easy target, despite being on a good hyperspace lane. It was sparsely populated, the government dysfunctional, and the rocky rings around the main planet made a great place to hide a small armada. But while their government was lazy and corrupt, their fighters were anything but. They'd held us off for three days, and we took heavy losses. Even Brax Selha was thinking of calling it off, but we made one last move. My squadron was supposed to trick the Althiri into thinking the main attack would come for their flank and scatter them, then have the bulk of the fleet swoop in behind to mop them up, but things didn't go as planned."
"Something went wrong?"
"No, the opposite. In the confusion, they left their command ship wide open. I broke formation and charged. It worked. The command ship couldn't respond in time, and was destroyed within seconds, sending their fleet into disarray. However, there's no such thing as a clean victory."
"Jagi was captured."
"He was. We anticipated high casualties, and took fewer than expected, but he was still among those we thought dead." Eager to change the subject, Canderous asked. "So, who's this ex-Jedi we have to avoid?"
"Dak Vessar. He and I were both Padawans, joined the Order at the same time. His world was a farming planet that had the misfortune of being in the way of your people's crusade."
Canderous never thought he would wince, but he did. "Damn."
"The Revanchists found him, as they did me, and he sought out the Order, as I had. I remember him as kind, and an excellent student of history, but he was also... frustrated. He felt the Jedi were too controlling, too limiting... more so than I did."
"He wanted a fight."
"Looking back? I suppose he did. He burned with anger about the Mandalorians, and wanted to be out among the Revanchists fighting your people, though it would never be allowed by our masters."
"Long memory, short fuse."
"Very long memory, and very short fuse. When he decided to leave the Order, he asked me to come with him." Her voice choked. "He... he said he loved me."
Canderous shook his head. "And you being dosh'kar'tay, that couldn't have ended well."
"I did not know how to explain what I was to him at the time. My grasp on Basic is still imperfect. The most I could tell him was that he was a close friend, but nothing more. He was angry at my refusal. I... assumed that he would get over the hurt in time, both my rejection and the resentment of the Mandalorians, but I suppose such feelings can fester and darken, and they never go away." She poked the flames with her vibroblade, stirring up the embers. "He reminds me of what I had been when Kairi found me in the grove. I... feel sorry for him."
Canderous had made up his mind to discuss the thousand-ton rancor in the room, but he couldn't think of the words to actually begin the tale. Having the subject of a dar'jetii in the area hunting Mandalorians out of revenge brought up just made the topic even more difficult to discuss.
"I wasn't at Cathar," he finally said. "In case you ever wondered about that."
Her hands curled tighter around the crude mug and she peered up at him, silently asking him to continue.
"I was out past charted space, my clan scouting new hyperspace routes around the Rim. It wasn't battle, but it was still risking oblivion in service to Mandalore. Our ships came after it was over, after the seas had boiled and the land burned. In the end, Cathar damned us. Malachor just finished us off."
"What do you know of what happened there?"
Canderous shook his head. "Cassus Fett was like Demagol; nothing more than brute force and blood-thirst. He's dead, thankfully. Back in the bad old days, I was idiot enough to idolize him. I believed in the Crusade, Juhani. One galaxy united, not under the sabers of jetii ra dar'jetii, but under our banner. We would all be strong and united, children of a single father." He sniffed and shook his head. "The foolishness of youth, but there was no honor to what Fett wrought on Cathar; no challenge, no risk to his men. The Cathar fought well, but we cheated them of facing us as equals."
"I do not understand how Cathar could have doomed your people," Juhani said, uncertain about where the tale would lead.
"You wouldn't, because I found out from the Revanchist Jedi we'd encountered that your Council lied to them. They felt our bloodbath in the Force, all right, but they tried to play it down, hide it from their Padawans and allies. They kept their silence for nearly a decade."
Now, it was her turn to be unable to meet his eyes. "I heard that myself. Quatra...used that as part of her plan to goad me to rage. It succeeded."
"I won't understand your Code and Council any more than you'd comprehend the Resol'nare," he admitted. He paused to take a bite of his rations, and continued. "Anyway, Revan came to Cathar, looking for the truth the galaxy tried to hide. Now, from what I understand, it was there she found her mask."
"I would have thought that she made it. I saw her on Taris, when she still wore ivory robes. Back then, she wore a veil which covered all but her eyes. I assumed it was a leftover custom from her forgotten homeworld or something similar."
"Perhaps, but it has nothing to do with the mask. You see, the Mandalorians took few casualties, and when the Cathar surrendered, Fett still pressed the attack. The Cathar were herded into the sea – hundreds, thousands of them. And that's when a lone Mandalorian – a woman from a clan so obscure its name has been lost to history – stood between the defeated Cathar and Cassus Fett."
"In front of every gathered crusader, she looked Cassus in the eyepiece and said the battle was over, that no further honor could be gained by pressing the attack. She was right. We had the planet, we defeated its people. Instead, Fett ordered the missile strikes, and she burned with those she tried to save. The only thing left intact was her mask. Revan found the mask later, and always wore it into battle, reminding us at every turn that we had a chance to turn away...and failed to take it."
"When did you learn the story?"
"In bits and pieces through the war. But after Malachor, after what remained of us were put in chains and forced to watch as our war droids, weapons, and the very bes'kar from our backs were destroyed, Revan spoke to us and reminded us that our choice had been made on that world." Canderous stared into the fire, remembering more distant flames.
"But you still made your choice."
"And until recently, I never had chance to regret the ones I made. But this...this traveling with everyone, having to see through the eyes of those who were once foes...seeing what's left of my people, including myself, turn their back on honor to earn credits or become nothing more than bandits. And this thing with Jagi...It's made me question my choices, wonder if there is a better path to honor." He looked away from the flames and into the stars. "I've no family left, Juhani. Jagi curses my name, and the rest - siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins...even my wife – were lost to the war. You know as well as I do that Taris was nothing more than living death. When Revan came along, I was willing to take the risk, however small, of regaining my dignity and honor."
"It would seem that she has shaped us both, no matter what name she calls herself."
"She has," he acknowledged. "The Ebon Hawk is my home, and her crew is my family. It's mere fact, now. Whatever regrets I have with my path, I won't regret that it's taken me here. "
"I do not regret it, either."
"You path or..."
"My path and your mark," she answered before Canderous ducked into the tent to rest. She would take first watch.
They'd showered, Uthar sending a servant with an appropriate change of clothing for supper. Because of their exertions in the training room, it was simple fare; bread, cheese, and a broth-based soup with a water pitcher to share between them.
"So, with the kids you teach, how do you tell which of them go on to become Sith?" Carth asked.
"The training itself or the other students weed out the weak. Out of those, a handful who have earned distinction get to be the Upper Tier. Six of them this year, though we're down to five since Lashowe met her end. They compete in more intensive tests of academics and combat prowess, as well as being sent to retrieve artifacts like that vexxtel crystal, or raiding the tombs in the Valley."
Carth rubbed the back of his neck. "Don't you worry about the kids damaging artifacts or things like that?"
Uthar shook his head. "Those who cannot defend what they have deserve to lose it, and that includes the dead. Besides, the tombs are full of traps – anything from old battle droids to acidic pools. Before I waste an army of ordinary diggers, I might as well send a student to prove their worth by clearing the traps."
"Makes sense." Carth dipped the tough, stale bread in the broth to try and soften it. "So, the students earn their points, and then what?"
"Then, we take the top two and find a suitable test. This time, I choose the tomb of Naga Sadow. I recently found a way to undo the seal on the door, and had a chance to investigate it for myself. I'll take the candidates and place them in the tomb to retrieve a relic from its treasures. Of course, only one will be able to succeed. The other will die." Uthar said it with the matter-of-fact way one would explain docking protocol.
Carth frowned. "Why?"
"It is our way. There are no such thing as equals. There are those who have power and those who crave it. Those craving power must prove their willingness to grasp it. In the end, one will want it more than the other, and the one who is least ambitious can be cast aside."
"Sounds like it would consume itself in the end," Carth pointed out. "Power, but no longevity. Keep turning on each other, and you'd think the whole system would collapse."
"The galaxy is never short on volunteers willing to try, so the point is irrelevant," Uthar said.
"So, who are the lead students, or should I not ask?"
Uthar leaned back in his chair. "Well, there's a fallen Jedi Yuthura's fond of. She currently leads the pack in prestige, despite arriving only a short time ago. The one in second place is a young man named Dustil; someone I never thought would advance as far as he has..."
Carth tried to hide his reaction, but couldn't stop his blood from freezing. It wasn't a surprise Kairi was top of her class, but Dustil...
Uthar was going to send Dustil to fight her? She would have to kill his son to get that Star Map. The Maps were key to saving the Republic, but doing so meant that he was as good as sending his son to death! Fear started to snake its cold tendrils through his heart.
"And that's the only way. One wins, one dies."
Think, Onasi, think! "Why not send Yuthra instead? Have her be the one that gets killed in the last test."
Uthar raised an eyebrow. "Interesting idea. What's your logic?"
"You've told me a few times that she doesn't have what it takes. So, take care of it. You take the winner, put them through the maze to get the relic, and then have them off your apprentice? You get a new apprentice that's worthy of your time."
Uthar considered that. "That's quite inventive, actually. I like it. Had you been a student, I'd award you points for that idea. I'll consider it. Either way, the Upper Tier still have a long way to go. And I have another assignment for you, one you can start in the morning."
"What is the assignment?"
Uthar steepled his fingers. "It's a more difficult task, but I think you and your droid might be up for it. Normally, I would send a student to accomplish this. It's in the tomb of Ragnos – on the west side of the valley, high up. One of the academy's security droids malfunctioned and holed up in there. Destroy it, and bring me the memory core so that our technicians may examine it for the defect."
"You want me to go into a Sith tomb?" That strange itchy feeling began to crawl up Carth's spine again.
"A tomb that has been plundered already for the most part. Students last year broke through most of the traps and brought me relics from it. We were set to let the ordinary diggers have a go through it when this happened. And a man of your fighting experience should have little trouble with a rogue guard droid. Should you fail and perish, I can always send a student."
Now, a sense of insult and annoyance bubbled up and that itchy feeling started to burn. If he really gave it any thought, Carth would have realized his reactions hadn't been quite right since landing on this rock. However, he was only focused on doing whatever he had to to get that damn Star Map and dragging his son out of here – willing optional. Self-awareness wasn't a critical mission component.
"Take your droid, and you'll leave in the morning."
As soon as Carth left, Uthar pulled out the holocron. It was mostly useless, but what little he had been able to analyze of the contents fit with Revan's analysis. Even as "Kairi," Revan was off to promising start in reclaiming the Dark Side, hunting artifacts, reading the language, and eliminating a rival.
Her choice to spare the Onasi boy was troubling, but he wouldn't interfere so long as it served the greater plan. Alliances were never a good long-term strategy among Sith. She would have to kill him eventually, and that would no doubt cement his father's fall. Unless Dustil and Carth were placed in a position to kill one another and then she would have to kill the survivor – which would no doubt reawaken the Dark Side within her. From there, she would need his help in regaining her lost power, and bringing the Sith back to a policy of rational conquest. While Sith Lords tended to have short and brutal reins, a man behind the throne could live a long and comfortable life while still benefiting the Sith as a whole.
And if one of the Onasi men got lucky and killed her? Well, then Malak and Bandon both owed him a favor. The surviving Onasi would have no other place than at his side, all the better to get that foot-dragging Twi'lek out of his way. Yuthura wasn't without her wiles or skill, but she wasn't quite strong enough to actually take up the mantle of shaping the Sith's future. Dustil was more of a sure bet, but Uthar wasn't willing to count out the elder Onasi. What was the saying? "Experience and treachery will conquer youth and talent?"
No matter how any of this played out, Uthar calculated, he came out ahead.