Chapter 1: Everything Starts Somewhere
10 ATC, 30:8
The shuttle descended at a brisk but deliberate pace, the sky starkly blue beyond the windows. In their seats, acolytes fidgeted or argued or just stared ahead. Ahene watched the ruined pillars rise up towards them, hands clasped tightly in her lap. Her fingers wanted to tremble; she stubbornly refused to let them.
There was a whisper in the back of her mind, wordless and insistent, and it was getting clearer by the moment as they descended towards what had to be the Academy.
It was nervousness edging into terror, the echoes of a thousand acolytes who had reached for a lifeline that wasn’t there. It was the knowledge that the dead would not be mourned, the survivors would not be the same—and the sands would never, ever care.
Ahene took a breath, and let it out again. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. I will survive.
The whisper, dust and frost on her skin, welcomed her to try.
Eventually, there was a dull thud as the landing gear met the landing pad, and then a hiss as the door unsealed. It opened with a blast of chill, dry air, and one of the acolytes laughed nervously. “I thought it was going to be hot,” she said, and then everyone was clambering out of their seats in a crowded rush. Ahene was one of the last to step out of the shuttle, ahead only of the predatory figure that had been lurking at the very back. He had spent the entire ride glowering at the seat in front of him, which had unfortunately been hers.
The ramp led down to a smallish landing pad, out of place among the worn stone structures that surrounded the Academy—not to mention the structure itself, where it rose up in the distance. Things chittered below, the faint sound mostly blending into the dull rush of the wind. Ahene shivered slightly under her thin tunic; Verios had never really had seasons, and it was colder here than it usually got even at night.
She paused on the walkway to glance around, trying to get a sense of her surroundings. This task was almost immediately interrupted when the lurker decided—completely unnecessarily—to walk into her.
He pushed past her with a rough shove. “Watch yourself, slave girl,” he hissed, with an accent that was pure Dromund Kaas. Under his hood, he was a pureblood, red and ridged and sneering. Sirue would probably have described his face as ‘punchable.’
To Sirue’s imagined disappointment, Ahene just set her jaw and continued on behind.
She was the last of the group to fall into place—a perfect position to just catch it as the pureblood walked right past and into the small building attached to the landing pad, but what else did she expect? Governor Rannes had his post because of his sister more than anything else; Sith were obviously prone to favoritism.
The man waiting for them—probably an instructor of some sort—bit off the end of a sentence as she joined the group. He couldn’t be said to be particularly imposing. The lightsaber at his belt was the only clue he was Sith at all; he was pale and veiny, but not in an obviously unnatural way, and his eyes were blue.
He somehow oozed pettiness. It seeped into the air around him in a nauseating fog, writhing and viscous even as it dissipated. He didn’t hate the people standing in front of him—they disgusted him. He looked at them like he would look at scum on his boots, and the wordless whisper was taking up his disdain and carrying it back to the acolytes.
Ahene blinked the strange almost-afterimages out of her eyes and noticed, with a sinking feeling, that he was staring right at her.
“Well, well,” he said. “The last one to arrive is finally here, I see.” His sneer had a crude sort of artfulness to it. He’d clearly practiced it. “I hope you don’t think you’re special.”
“Definitely not,” Ahene murmured. The quiet laugh in her ears agreed, in an almost-voice like crumbling stone. The electric memory under her skin bristled at the thought. She left them to sort it out among themselves and kept staring straight ahead, eyes locked on the instructor’s. “Ah—sir,” she hedged, rather unsure of whether he was supposed to be her lord or not—and over-deference seemed dangerous in itself, somehow.
He studied her gaze for a moment longer, apparently trying to decide whether she was mocking him. “Good,” he eventually said, taking a step back from his scrutiny. “It would be a shame if freedom went to your head—or if you somehow got the idea that you didn’t need to pass your trials to become Sith.” He turned his attention back to the group as a whole. “I am Overseer Harkun, and Lord Zash has tasked me with sorting through you refuse to find one worthy of being her apprentice.” Sneer deepening, he swept a glance across the assembled acolytes. “I intend to do just that, however impossible it may seem.”
Ahene opened her mouth to ask a question—Lord Zash?—but was beaten to it by one of the other acolytes, the one who had thought it would be cold. “Who is Lord Zash, overseer?” the other girl asked, with a little anxious movement she cut short almost immediately.
“She is a Dark Lord of the Sith,” Harkun said, with a sniff and a strange little flicker in his aura, “and far more important than any of you gutter trash will ever be.” He took a step towards her, and she shrunk back. “Especially you, worm. I’ll be shocked if you even make it back from the Tomb of Ajunta Pall, much less through your trials.” His eyes narrowed. “I would not ask too many more questions.”
The girl swallowed. “Understood, overseer,” she said, bowing her head.
“Good.” Harkun stepped back again, his mouth thinning out into a little self-satisfied smile. It quickly turned back into a look of disgust. “Your first trial will be this: there is a hermit named Spindrall who lives in the tomb of Ajunta Pall in the Valley of the Dark Lords. He’s a lunatic—but in Lord Zash’s eyes, he’s some kind of prophet. Each of you is to find him and be tested, and he will test you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Am I understood?”
Ahene joined a ragged chorus of yes, overseers, stiffening slightly as Harkun paused to glower at her specifically again. She revised her earlier assessment—he was merely contemptuous of the other acolytes. Her, he already despised.
“Then go,” he snapped. “It would be unwise to keep Spindrall waiting.”
Ahene could still feel his eyes boring into her back as she slipped out behind the others. She did not shiver.
A little ways out into the arrival port, the other girl fell back. “Hey,” she half-whispered, “are you okay? I could see how he was looking at you—gave me the creeps, if I’m being honest.”
“I’m fine,” Ahene murmured back. “He hasn’t done anything yet. When he does, then I’ll cross that bridge.” She glanced away, lifting one shoulder in a slight shrug. “Until then, he’s just another petty power-tripping supervisor.”
“That’s the spirit,” the girl said, with a sharp, nervous laugh. She bumped her shoulder against Ahene’s. “It’s nice to see I’m not alone here,” she admitted, grinning sheepishly. “Ah—I’m Kory, by the way.”
“Ahene. It’s a pleasure.”
They were lagging several paces behind the other acolytes by the time they stepped out into the sunlight. It was still uncomfortably cold, and the air smelled of blood and dust. At one end of the valley, the Academy proper loomed. The only route to it that didn’t have a keycard checkpoint went through the closest tomb.
Clearly, that was half the test.
The chittering was louder here, and the culprits visible down the ramp into the valley—sand-colored, many-legged insectoids of some sort, ranging from about a quarter Ahene’s height to over twice it when they reared up.
There was a red-armored sentry watching from the edge of the platform, arms crossed on the railing. She dug a hand onto her belt pouch, withdrew a crumbled quarter of a ration bar, and tossed it down below. An insectoid lunged for it and snapped it up in an instant, its maw almost comically large compared to the standard-issue provision. The sentry chuckled darkly and looked back at the acolytes collecting around her post. “K’lor’slug hunting time,” she said, waving a hand towards the valley. “You poor sods got here just late enough to see it. Certainly wouldn’t want to be traipsing through the tombs myself at a time like this.”
One of the others—human, brown-skinned, with paler hair shaved into lines—stepped closer to the sentry. “Is that the Tomb of Ajunta Pall?” he asked.
The sentry’s face wasn’t visible, but something in her voice implied that she was rolling her eyes. “Fresh acolytes. Feh. Don’t they give you people maps?” She shook her head. “Yeah, that’s the place—and good luck if you’ve got to go in there. If the ‘slugs don’t get you, the looters will.”
“Wonderful,” Ahene muttered under her breath. She gave the sentry a wry look and added, more audibly, “Thank you for the warning.”
“Yeah, sure,” the sentry said, with another sharp bark of laughter. She glanced back at Ahene. “Just try not to die before you get in. It’s depressing when we have to haul kids back to the morgue.”
Ahene’s lips twitched with an almost-smile. “I’ll do my best,” she said, and then turned and started descending the ramp. Behind the prefab fencing, a few more scattered sentries watched the k’lor’slugs to make sure they didn’t get over, occasionally firing off a shot or two to scare them away.
Kory fell in behind her. “How are we going to get through there?” she whispered.
It was already we. Ahene didn’t know whether to be reassured or worried.
Worried, voted the whisper she was beginning to think of as the voice of Korriban. She continued to ignore it.
“I suspect waiting until their hunting time is over isn’t an option…” Ahene frowned at the long stretch of sand between the prefab fence and the entrance to the tomb. The k’lor’slugs weren’t thick over it, but there were enough of them to overwhelm anyone they converged on. They skittered erratically across the sands, one or another occasionally burrowing halfway into the ground and coming up with a purplish grub.
The other acolytes collected behind the fence as well, trickling down the ramp mostly one by one. The pair of towering brothers were the last ones down, twinned wariness on their faces. Ahene gave them a nod; after a moment, one nodded back.
Obviously, no one else was sure how to get across either.
Ahene considered the k’lor’slugs. “I wonder,” she said, “if they would eat each other.”
“Not a bad idea—” Kory said, and then cut herself off with a sharp hiss of breath as Ahene grabbed a rock and started clambering up the prefab.
The fence had been dug into the ground far enough that it only wobbled a tiny bit as Ahene reached the top. She scanned the ground ahead of her until her eyes stopped on the closest of the creatures. She rubbed the tips of her fingers against the rock for a moment, grimacing. It’s hardly a worse plan than trying to ambush a Sith Lord, at least.
And she’d survived that. Barely.
She hurled the rock right at the flesh around the k’lor’slug’s maw.
It turned and was rushing the fence faster than anything should have been able to move, splitting the background chittering with an unholy screech as it lunged forwards. Ahene dropped down with a quiet thump and unhooked her practice saber from her belt. It was strange in her hands—too light to be an effective club, without the emitters activated, just a bit of machinery in a hardplast shell—but it was a weapon, and a weapon she could understand. One she knew she could control; not at all like the lightning she could still feel humming in her veins.
She clicked it on, and it worked. “Swarm it!” she yelled, backing up just in time for the k’lor’slug to slam itself against the gate. The doors rattled, and then it was coming over the fence and the sentries were drawing back with muttered curses and her mind was twisting, seething, boiling—
Ahene bit down hard on the inside of her cheek and swung the saber. Just the saber.
It connected with a thump and a crackle as the emitters met a mouth with far too many teeth. The ‘slug screeched again, reared back, and surged forwards over the fence. Its landing kicked up little puffs of sand where its legs hit the ground.
The k'lor'slug twisted and flung itself at Ahene again, Kory managing to score a line across its carapace as it moved. Ahene tried to keep her practice saber between her and the ’slug, but it jabbed and snapped its way towards her just a bit faster than she could scramble away, and in moments it was nearly on her.
It wasn’t hard to call the lightning back into her hands—it knew her now. It knew her fear. It knew her desperation. She thrust her free hand towards the ‘slug and the almost-electricity arced out, as fast and vicious as the creature bearing down. The bolt slammed into its chest—was it even possible for it to miss?—and the 'slug jerked back again, twitching and spasming.
One of the brothers took the opportunity to give it a good whack to the side of its head, and it reeled sideways into a jab from Kory. Ahene took the opening and launched herself forwards, bringing her weapon down sharply on the thin join where the k’lor’slug’s head met the rest of it. There was a hiss of burning flesh, another terrible shriek—and then the creature went limp.
Breathing hard, Ahene stepped forwards and prodded the corpse with the tip of her training saber. It didn’t move. She nodded to herself and glanced around at the others. “Someone help me move this thing,” she said, flicking the saber’s power off. She clipped it back to her belt and hauled one end of the k’lor’slug’s long body up into her arms. “Possibly multiple someones. Kory?”
Kory went to help brace the thing’s middle. “Got it.”
“Are you really sure they’ll take the bait?” The acolyte who’d first spoken to the sentry stepped forwards, arms crossed and brows raised. “And who put you in charge, anyway?”
Of course they’d take the bait. Ahene had no doubt about that, anymore; Korriban was still whispering in the back of her mind, and it would gladly eat its own.
She frowned and pushed the feeling down. “I did,” she said, “by virtue of having an actual plan. If you have another suggestion, feel free to let us know.”
He snorted. “Fair enough,” he said, slipping his arms under another segment of the dead k’lor’slug. “Just don’t expect me to trust you.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Ahene said, moving towards the actual gate. “Though a name would be helpful.”
“Niloc,” he said, after a moment. “And that’s all you’re getting from me, you hear?”
Well, you’re certainly a paranoid one, Ahene didn’t say. She thought it, though, with a wry little smirk aimed down at the sand. He was probably right to be. This was obviously some sort of competition, and it would be a mistake to trust the others very far at all.
For the moment, though, they needed to have strength in numbers. They had precious little else going for them.
“We go through, we drop this, we run as a group,” Ahene said. “Got that?”
There were various nervous murmurs of assent. The brothers took the other end of the k’lor’slug, holding its head carefully between them.
“Good,” Ahene said, and shifted to hit the gate button with her shoulder.
It swung open immediately, and Ahene darted through sideways. The other k’lor’slugs began skittering towards them before they’d all cleared the gate (which clicked closed again behind them—no going back), drawn by the smell of charred flesh. A strange nervous tension was humming up and down Ahene’s spine, intensifying as the insectoids drew closer.
A few more steps, as far as they could get before they had to run… “Now,” Ahene hissed, and dropped her end of the ‘slug. She turned and sprinted for the tomb without looking back at the others, half-stumbling where the fine sand slipped under her feet. A faint thump behind her told her that the other acolytes were probably following; that was enough. She tore across the ground, little pinpricks of heat spread out behind and out of sight.
She felt it immediately when she crossed into the tomb’s shadow—it was even colder there than in the sun—and finally dared a quick glance back. The others weren’t far behind, which was definitely a relief. Kory was closest and came up beside her nearly as soon as she slowed; Niloc was just a few more steps away, the brothers just at his heels, and the tall, broad, quiet boy in the back was bringing up the rear with training saber in hand.
Ahene gave the group a small, sharp nod and started moving forwards again.
The entrance to the tomb of Ajunta Pall had been fenced off at one point. It evidently hadn’t lasted. The entire middle of the hex-link fence had been torn open, and the sides bent heavily inwards. Ahene slipped through, stepping over the picked-over shell of a k’lor’slug, and peered down the staircase into the depths.
Down a long series of steps that were barely wide enough to serve their intended purpose and tall enough to make slipping a truly unwise prospect—there was the distinctive dim light of travel-lamps.
Ahene threw one last look over her shoulder. “Ready?” she murmured.
“Ready,” Kory whispered back.
Mouth curving into a small smile, Ahene put a hand against the wall to brace her on the way down. “Then let’s find ourselves a hermit.”
Chapter 2: A Maze of Twisty Little Passages, All Alike
10 ATC, 30:8
There was a tension hanging in the air as Ahene descended the steps. The whisper—Korriban’s strange voice—was stronger here. Louder. Clearer. More insistent. As she got closer to the end of the staircase, the light at the bottom barely seemed any brighter, and it wasn’t just the haze of freshly disturbed dust.
It took just a few seconds longer than it should have to get there. She stepped into the low lighting, training saber held tightly in one hand—though she couldn’t quite remember drawing it. It was on, the buzz of the emitters mixing into the background noise of k’lor’slug chitters and echoing footsteps.
The room at the bottom of the steps was tall, perhaps stretching almost to the surface, and cavernous. The walls were lined with passages into other parts of the tomb. Statues that had gone nearly featureless from age loomed out from alcoves, unidentifiable weapons in their hands. A small prefab tent was set up in one corner, surrounded by more fencing, with another pair of sentries standing guard over a small collection of objects.
When she didn’t think about it too much, she could feel the others drifting down the steps behind her. They were a dim, ragged constellation—little glowbugs in a deep, dark void.
Shoving down the feeling that the tomb intended to swallow her up—It’s a building, she told herself, not a monster—Ahene looked over her shoulder at the others. “Alright,” she said. “We’re looking for an area that’s been lived in.” She frowned. “So… somewhere the sentries could be bringing food and water, or where Spindrall could be finding it himself. Somewhere where waste could be easily disposed of—I doubt tombs generally come equipped with ‘freshers.” She wandered forwards a few steps, sweeping a glance over the various tombs. “And if I were a tomb-dwelling hermit of dubious sanity, I still wouldn’t want to be attacked by k’lor’slugs while answering nature’s call.”
“Translation: go where the ‘slugs aren’t,” said Niloc. “Guess it’s a place to start, at least.”
“No complaints here,” Kory agreed, with a slightly lopsided smile. Her expressions were all just a little bit lopsided; the brand down one side of her face made sure of that. “Which tunnel, do you think?” she asked, sidling a bit closer to Ahene.
The closest passages had signs set out and lights stuck along the walls. It wouldn’t be them. That would be too easy, too tame—Korriban didn’t work that way. Ahene could almost feel the presence in the back of her mind shaking its head. It would undoubtedly be a terrible mistake to trust that presence too far, but she didn’t think it was lying, either.
It seemed to approve of that line of thought.
So where do I go, then? Since you’re feeling helpful.
An answer came, though Ahene hadn’t actually been expecting one. Her stomach twisted at the feeling—Korriban kept its secrets close to its chest, and it was pulling her down with a nauseating gravity.
She swallowed and put a hand against the wall to steady herself. “Do you feel that?” she asked, daring a look over at Kory. The ground was not going to drop away from her if she took her eyes off it, no matter what her mind was trying to tell her.
“I, ah, don’t know which ‘that’ you mean,” Kory said, ducking her head. “I feel a lot of things right now.” She grinned nervously. “Terrified, for one—but that’s all of us, isn’t it?”
“The planet, it’s…” Ahene shook her head slightly, trying to think of a way to explain that didn’t sound ridiculous. After a few moments, she decided that there wasn’t one. She sighed and stepped back towards the others. “Something’s been getting into my head,” she said. “As odd as it sounds, I think it’s Korriban, and it seems to be giving me advice.”
“Advice?” Niloc asked.
“A little tug in what I very much hope is the right direction.”
The brothers exchanged a glance. “If it’s all the same to you, girl,” one said, “I think we’ll take our chances.”
“Fair enough,” Ahene said, with a wry look. She spent a moment watching them make their way towards one of the tunnels, then glanced back at the remaining acolytes and folded her arms. “Anyone else?”
They looked at each other. They looked at the tomb around them, with all the little entrances set into the walls. They looked at her.
“I’m with you,” Kory said, and the tremor in her voice was somehow resolute. “All the way.”
The acolyte who’d been trailing along in back—and for all his height and muscle, Ahene thought he might be younger than her—gave the brothers one last long look. “I… I’ll stay with you. Stronger all together, right?”
Ahene gave him a small nod. “That’s the thought, anyway.”
A few more seconds passed.
Eventually, Niloc sighed. “I don’t have a better idea,” he admitted.
“Then I believe we have a plan,” Ahene said. She gestured vaguely towards the yet-unintroduced acolyte at the rear. “Have a name?”
“Oh! Uh, Gerr. I’m Gerr.” He attempted a grin. “And I—I feel it too. If that helps.”
“Actually,” Ahene said, giving him a small, thin smile, “I think it does.” She started towards the far wall, even the too-light weight of the training saber reassuring in her hand.
One of the exits led down, descending in a steep slope that seemed to go on forever. They quickly left the expedition’s lamps behind, leaving them with only the light of their training sabers against shadows that pooled like ink. A different cadence crept into the whispering at the back of Ahene’s mind, the feral callousness gradually replaced by something far more focused.
It was getting harder and harder to keep her hands from shaking. The training saber shook too with each little tremor, sending ominous ripples through the shadows on the walls.
Beside her, Kory shivered and edged in a little closer. Her breathing was fast and shallow, coming out in little puffs backlit by her own unsteady saber, and the look on her face was stomach-twistingly numb. “Do you think…” she began, the whisper barely audible even in the near-silence.
It was a welcome distraction from the hungry presence lurking behind the gloom. “Do I think what?” Ahene asked, drifting in slightly closer herself.
“Do you think we’re getting close?”
No. Ahene frowned. “I’m not sure,” she said. “If it’s too far into the unexplored areas, he’ll have a hard time getting food and water…”
“Good! Good.” The relief in Kory’s smile left Ahene just a bit ashamed. “That’s good. That means we must be almost there.”
“Maybe so,” Ahene said, unconvinced, and they fell back into silence.
The descent continued for what seemed like another several minutes, the chill slowly seeping into Ahene’s bones. It clung to her fingers with an aching stiffness, leaving her hands sore from their grip on her training saber, and she caught herself sniffling in a fruitless attempt to stop her nose from running.
Eventually, though, the hall leveled out and widened into another room. There was a lamp hung off one wall, far dimmer than the expedition’s lights above; this one had obviously been here for years or decades, if not longer. And just underneath that lamp—
That wasn’t a promising sign.
“Is she—?” Kory asked, taking a couple steps towards the acolyte slumped against the wall.
Ahene put a hand on Kory’s arm, stopping her. “I think so.”
“Oh,” Kory said, not looking away from the apparent corpse. “Oh, damn.”
The acolyte—a twi’lek girl, with chain-scars crossing her lower jaw—seemed to have crumpled in on herself, curled around the kolto patch pressed to her stomach. Her hands had slipped down to rest in her lap, no longer able to hold the training saber leaning against her legs.
“Not like we could do anything for her anyway, but…” Niloc shook his head. “It’s a pretty bad omen, running across her like this.”
“That’s one way to put it.” Ahene cautiously approached, then knelt down beside the acolyte. “A fairly good way, even.”
The supposedly dead acolyte opened one eye. “Wh…?” she rasped, fingers twitching faintly.
“Force,” Gerr breathed, flickering with awe. “How’s she alive?”
The acolyte’s mouth twisted into a horrible, strained grin. It was the grin of someone who would have laughed, really would have—except for the fact that trying might have killed her. “T-that’s how,” she managed, before cutting herself off with a hiss of pain and a shudder.
“Maybe don’t speak,” Ahene said, gently covering the acolyte’s right hand with one of her own. “It doesn’t seem to be helping.” She tried to think. What could be done for this person?
The answer was brutally obvious: Not much.
They didn’t have any medical supplies, and even if they’d had some, they didn’t have the skills to use them. The sentries were too far behind, and Ahene had a terrible suspicion that they wouldn’t care anyway. That they couldn’t care, even—were ordered not to care.
‘Try not to die before you get in,’ the one up near the landing pad had said. ‘It’s depressing when we have to haul kids back to the morgue.’
Kid or not (and she didn’t look any older than the rest of them), still alive or not—the injured acolyte was probably just k’lor’slug food now.
Ahene could feel the acolyte’s hand trembling underneath hers. She tried not to shudder. “Tell me your name.”
“Thought y’said… shouldn’t,” the acolyte whispered.
“Never mind that,” Ahene said. “Better that somebody knows.”
That brought the smile back, weak and knife-thin. “Aleeleti.”
“I’ll remember,” Ahene promised. It was probably a lie, but it was the most comforting thing she could think of.
“Mgh.” Aleeleti’s lekku twitched, and she tipped her head back a bit. “Okay.”
Ahene gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ll remember,” she repeated, because I’ll keep the k’lor’slugs from eating you probably wasn’t the right sort of thing to say. “Ah…” She thought for a moment, trying to remember things she’d heard from twi’leks on Verios. “Goddess keep you well.”
The eye closed again. “Okay,” Aleeleti mumbled, clearly only half hearing her.
Looking at the world out of focus, Ahene could see the little white sun caged in Aleeleti’s chest beginning to fade out. A strange wave of tiredness washed over her; something told her it wasn’t her own.
“Wait,” Kory said, voice full of urgency. “Wait! Aleeleti, I—stay. Please stay. There’s something I can do.” She knelt down beside them. “It’ll hurt—hurt me, I mean—but, er. I can do it.” Eyes wide with desperation, she looked over at Ahene. “Please.”
Why are you asking me? Ahene didn’t say. She frowned faintly. “Go,” she said, and hoped she wouldn’t regret it. “Do it.”
Without further hesitation, Kory grabbed Aleeleti’s free hand, pressed her other palm to the patch covering the wound, and—something twisted.
There was a rush of air that should have been deathly still, a strange image of stars colliding flashing behind Ahene’s eyes, and Kory whimpered and slid to the ground.
Distantly, Ahene decided that she already regretted this.
When Aleeleti’s eyes opened again, though, they were far more alert. “What—?” She glanced over at Kory, lekku coiling in alarm. “What did you do?”
Shakily, bracing herself against the wall, Kory managed to sit up again—Ahene tried not to sigh in relief—and flashed a tiny grin. It was easy to tell it was forced. “I, hh,” she began, and cut herself off to pant. “I healed you.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you did. It still hurts, a lot, but… I think I’m going to live?” Aleeleti sounded like she was marveling at the idea. She put a hand on Kory’s shoulder. “There’s really no way I can thank you enough for this,” she said, “but thank you. You saved me. You saved me.” She shook her head. “Here. On Korriban.”
“I’m sorry to ruin the moment,” Ahene cut in, “but how?”
“Could the rest of us do that?” Gerr added.
“I don’t know,” Kory admitted. “And I don’t know. It was—it was how I ended up here? But I don’t know how I do it.” She shrugged one shoulder. “I just… wanted to save her. Like with Lym.” She chuckled weakly. “Except this time I didn’t pass out.”
“I’m glad.” Ahene stood and extended a hand. “I’d rather not have to carry you.”
That got a genuine laugh. “I’d rather not make you,” Kory said, taking the offered hand.
Ahene hauled her up, frown deepening as she noticed how unsteady Kory still was. “I appreciate the consideration. Though—” She slipped an arm under Kory’s shoulders. “I think a bit of leaning would be alright.”
Kory gave Ahene another of her lopsided smiles. “I’ll try not to make a habit of it.”
“I’m glad.” Ahene looked back to Aleeleti, who was struggling to her feet as well. She held out her other arm. “You too—for the moment. I don’t believe we’re going to the same place.”
After a second, Aleeleti grabbed the arm and dragged herself up. “Thanks,” she said. “And no, we’re not. I finished my trial—it’s just the getting out that went wrong.”
“Up that tunnel should get you out,” Ahene said, “if they’ve given you identification, anyway.” She carefully moved a little bit closer to the hallway in question. “Be careful. It may still be feeding time up there.”
“Yeah. I—I have an ID chip.” Cautiously, Aleeleti let go of Ahene’s arm and attempted to take a step by herself. Wobbling somewhat on her feet, she managed to get to the wall unaided and brace herself there. “I’ll be cautious. I’d better be, after—this.” She grimaced. “I’ve definitely learned my lesson about being overconfident.”
“Do try to avoid dying twice in one day.” Ahene slid a glance Kory’s direction, and tried not to worry about how long the recovery would take. “I’m not sure we could manage a second rescue.” Or take one.
Gerr wavered, looking between the place they’d entered and the room’s far wall. “Should I… go with you?” he asked.
Ahene didn’t wince. Oh, Force, don’t.
Aleeleti shook her head rapidly. “No, I—no,” she said. “Don’t. Please, don’t.” She lifted a hand. “I appreciate the help, I really do, but… it’s bad enough I got injured. If they see me needing help?” She shuddered. “I’m dead all over again.”
Gerr nodded. “Right, okay,” he said, “that makes sense.” He stepped back towards Ahene and Kory. “In that case, we should probably get moving. Yeah?”
“I’d wave, but I might lose my balance…” And, with that, Aleeleti ducked through the exit and was gone.
Ahene bit back a profanity as she realized Aleeleti wasn’t the only one. “Team?”
So named, the team looked at her.
All two of them.
“It seems,” she said, “that Niloc has wandered off.”
Niloc―unsurprisingly enough―wasn’t immediately behind any of the doors set along the walls. There were four of them; of the four, two opened out into side-rooms that contained little but statues and cobwebs. The others led into hallways, one leveling out and snaking around to the right. The second continued to descend, and it gave Ahene a terribly uneasy feeling.
From everything she’d seen so far, that probably meant it was the right path.
Kory was still leaning heavily on her as they began to head downwards, and if she was improving, it was slowly. Her steps would become more sure and then falter again; whenever it seemed her grip on Ahene’s arm's was finally loosening, she would tighten it a moment later. Gerr threw them a couple worried looks at the beginning, then spent the time gazing uncomfortably at his feet.
Ahene kept her back straight and her eyes forward, and pretended not to notice when a stumble sent Kory clutching at her tunic hard enough to yank the neckline tight against her throat. She could still breathe, and the moment passed quickly, and addressing the bantha in the room—was pointless, really. There was nothing she could do about it, unless she suddenly figured out how to share whatever toll the healing had taken on Kory, and that…
The temperature seemed to drop a few degrees.
That, Ahene decided, would be a very bad choice.
As if in response to that thought—no, she realized, it probably was in response—the chill withdrew slightly. But it was still colder than it had been, seeping into Ahene’s skin on a faint and unnatural wind, and she stilled an urge to look behind her.
A moment later, she carefully glanced back after all. Don’t panic, she thought, but it’s only rational to be afraid…
When she saw a shadow slither away out of the corner of her eye, she didn’t wish she hadn’t. It was better to see it than to not see it. But something twisted in her stomach, and Ahene wondered briefly if throwing up on an ambulatory shadow would deter it.
Probably not. Which was just as well—it had been nearly a full day since she’d last eaten, and there was no telling when she’d have the chance again.
“Hey,” Gerr said, breaking the silence, “didn’t you say he’d probably be near the surface?”
“I’m starting to think I may have been wrong.” Ahene regarded the path before her, chewing gently on the edge of her lip. How far down had they gone? The slope was fairly shallow now, but it had been steeper before. And when she tried to mentally retrace her steps, it started to feel like they’d been walking for hours—or maybe just a few minutes? Either way, that couldn’t be right.
Her head would probably hurt less if she just focused on walking.
The next room they came to immediately distinguished itself from the ones prior. It was smaller, for one, with no light at all save from their training sabers—but the biggest difference was the smell. The door had long since been sliced open and left to crumble into rubble, leaving nothing to impede the odor of rotting flesh from spilling out and assaulting unwary noses.
And then there was something else, like a flash of blood behind Ahene’s eyes, and she moved.
A quick shove sent Kory stumbling, confused, into Gerr’s arms. Then Ahene’s ears were full of that damned chittering, and she was swinging her weapon at a k’lor’slug she hadn’t even seen yet—and then oh, she realized, oh, there it is and the weapon connected with a sharp crack and a flash of chitin-shine. The k’lor’slug scuttled back on its hind legs, screaming. She could feel its muscles tensing, could feel exoskeleton layered over sinew, heard its screeches resolve into a rhythm of teeth, teeth-wanting, of blood-flesh-pain—
There was a twist of thought, desperate and—stars, it was getting familiar. Electricity surged out past her skin, the k’lor’slug gleaming purple under the crackle of lightning. She didn’t pull back quickly enough; she could feel it frying in its shell, the flesh twisting and warping against a suddenly-constraining exoskeleton.
Oh, Force, Ahene thought, wavering under a rush of nausea. And I’d just decided against throwing up, too.
She knelt down, took a breath, and reconsidered her decision. Messily.
The hallway didn’t smell notably worse when she was done.
“Are you okay?” Kory’s voice drifted down from behind her, whisper-quiet. Then there were hands on Ahene’s shoulders, steadying her. “Here,” Kory murmured, “it’s alright, I’m here…”
Ahene looked up. “I’m fine,” she said, reaching out to put a palm against the wall. “Don’t worry about me—there, go back a step.” She hooked her fingers around a likely brick, feeling them tremble just faintly. No time to waste having the shakes, though. She attempted a smile, even knowing how wry it looked. “I don’t want to unbalance you standing up.”
“Oh. Oh, right.” Kory scrambled back a couple steps. At least she was finally beginning to recover, then; that was a relief. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—I hope I didn’t make it worse?”
Ahene braced herself against the stone, grimaced in anticipation, and hauled herself back to her feet. “You’re fine,” she muttered. “But my nose is on thin ice.” She shifted her weight carefully from side to side, testing her balance.
Good enough. She stepped back from the wall, and—gratifyingly—didn’t topple over. Raising the training saber to act as a lamp once again, Ahene turned towards the others. “Shall we keep moving?” she asked, pushing a false nonchalance into her tone.
“If you’re sure you’re alright,” Kory said. There was a painful sincerity to her expression, eyes wide with worry.
Gerr scrunched up his face, his free hand covering his nose. “I don’t want to stay here any longer than I’ve got to.”
“That makes all of us, I expect.” Ahene started walking again, heading into the overrun room with her shoulders set and her hands shaking. It was, she told herself, only physical; just the aftershocks of the fight. Not terror. She would not give this place the satisfaction of her terror, she decided in a flash of spite—if it wanted more than wariness, then it would damn well have to work for it.
In the light of the training sabers, it became clear that the room—whatever it had been before—was now a k’lor’slug egg chamber. The saber-glow cast a dull shine across the thick, greenish slime that surrounded and protected the eggs. Discarded exoskeletons littered the area, left from countless moltings. Ahene gently pushed one aside with the tip of her weapon as she entered, trying not to wince at the faint rustle of carapace against stone. There was nothing here for the noise to wake.
But why not? Just because it was feeding time, and they were all aboveground? Or was there something else?
All the questions in the galaxy wouldn’t summon a field biologist from nothing. Ahene filed the information away in the back of her mind and kept walking, once again lifting the training saber to chest height. “Perhaps he’s down past ‘slug level,” she muttered to herself, thinking aloud to drown out the static-edge worry still trying to creep into her head. It was probably relatively safe to; there were no more reddish coils of heat lurking like afterimages at the corners of her vision. “The tomb could have more than one entrance.” She pressed her lips together for a moment. “If another is lower, or keeps the ‘slugs out another way—doors too small, maybe?—then the way we’re being pulled may still make sense.”
“The way you’re being pulled, you mean,” Gerr said.
Ahene shot a sharp glance his way. “You said you felt it too.”
“Yeah?” He moved like he wanted to cross his arms, but didn’t dare lower his saber to do it. “And now I’m saying I don’t anymore.” Gerr shook his head slowly. “Look, I—there’s something wrong with this. With this whole place. I don’t think this is the right way, not anymore.”
“I hope you’re suggesting that my senses are misleading me,” Ahene said, raising an eyebrow, “and not that the walls have been moving around when we’re not looking.” It would be extremely inconvenient.
“I don’t know what I’m suggesting,” Gerr hissed, “but there’s something else down there. Something bad. I know it.”
Ahene spread her free hand in a sweeping gesture, indicating the surrounding area. “We’re on Korriban, Gerr,” she reminded him drily. “There’s something bad everywhere.”
He flushed, leaving her with the afterimage of a tiny star burning redder. “That’s not what I mean,” he protested. “If we keep going the way we are, we’re going to—we’re going to die.” His voice had gone hard with conviction, pushing out his earlier timidity. He was clearly telling the truth as he knew it.
Which was disturbing, because Ahene sensed nothing of the sort. An increasingly-familiar hum of wariness, yes, against a terrifying background noise she wasn’t inclined to focus on for long, but nothing that felt like certain death.
Considering how she got here, she rather thought she would know. The memory hit in a spike of phantom pain—
Her free hand tightened into a fist. No. Thinking about how she almost got fried by lightning was not the priority right now; her team was already dwindling, with Niloc gone and Kory drained, and she didn’t want another loss.
“Do you think we’ll live,” Ahene snapped, “if we start wandering around aimlessly?”
“We might at least have a chance,” Gerr said, taking a defiant step towards her. He wasn’t going to back down, was he?
Neither was she. “Gerr,” she said, “we’re in a horrible tomb that’s probably haunted up to its hopefully metaphorical ears.” She managed to cross her arms, despite a bit of awkwardness, causing the light from her training saber to swing around wildly. “What if you’re wrong? What if this place just wants you running away from your own tail?”
“What if you’re wrong?” he countered, annoyingly cogently. It was entirely possible her senses couldn’t be trusted; she hardly knew what she was doing. “What if it’s luring you into a trap?”
But if she didn’t have her senses, she’d be left with nothing. Just her wits and someone to protect, and those wouldn’t get her very far at all in a place like this. “What if I’m not?” was all Ahene could think to say. It sounded weak and unconvincing even to her, but she couldn’t start doubting now. So she forged ahead—”What if taking this risk is the only chance we have?”
Kory groaned quietly, her annoyance a little starshine flicker. “What if everyone stopped arguing?” she muttered, just loudly enough to make it clear she wanted to be heard. “We have enough problems without putting each other on the list.”
“I’ll stop arguing if she agrees to turn around!” Gerr said, voice rising.
“Be quiet,” Ahene hissed, “you’re going to attract something—”
“Stop giving me orders,” he cut her off—but quietly, thank the Force. “You’re not the vakking leader here.”
She needed to calm down, get a hold on things, de-escalate, but there were sparks flashing in her head and it was so hard to think. “Someone has to be,” Ahene found herself saying, the words coming out in a sardonic drawl. It was better than snarling them, like the tomb wanted. It saw too many animals, feral and half-rabid from its influence; there wasn’t very much difference, in its eyes, between an acolyte and a k’lor’slug.
She was better than a k’lor’slug—which should have gone without saying, but somehow didn’t. Not here. Not now.
Gerr was silent for a few moments, but Ahene could almost feel him weighing his options. (Or maybe she could feel it. She wouldn’t be surprised, at this point.) He shifted from side to side, set his shoulders—not a good sign—and finally said, “Alright, then.”
That didn’t sound good either. “So is this settled?” Ahene asked, trying to push away a sinking feeling.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think it is.” Gerr narrowed his eyes, something fiery flickering in the brown, and he moved as if to turn. He didn’t, though—instead he lingered like that, making sure she knew he was about to leave. “Go get yourself killed if you want, but I’m not sticking around for it.”
“Head off alone if it suits you, then,” Ahene said, alongside another flash of annoyance. She didn’t want him to go, but she didn’t have time for this. Not when he clearly didn’t intend to listen.
“Gerr, please wait—” Kory began, at the same time as Gerr said, “Not exactly.”
They paused, looking at each other.
“Er, go ahead, Gerr,” Kory said after a moment, grinning sheepishly.
“Look.” He ran his free hand through his hair. “Kory, come on. There’s no point in you dying too, not when she’s just too stubborn to admit when she’s wrong—”
“I know what I’m doing,” Ahene snapped, despite the fact that she observably did not.
Gerr, perhaps rightfully, ignored her. “So let’s just go,” he continued. “We can find a better way down.”
Kory glanced back at Ahene, then at him. “I…” She frowned. “I don’t think I should do that.”
“Oh, druk—Kory, please,” he said, an urgency creeping into his voice. There was, Ahene suddenly realized, something wrong about the way Gerr was talking. About the way he was moving. “We have to be quick,” he added, eyes flicking towards the tunnel back. “And I don’t—I’d rather not go alone.”
Kory squeezed her eyes shut. “Don’t make me do this,” she whispered. “I can’t—” She shook her head vigorously. “I can’t do this, Gerr. Don’t force me to choose.”
He flared up all at once, in a rush of heat like something boiling over. “And I can’t believe you,” he hissed, jerking his free hand sharply. “You want us all to get killed, just because you’re scared? Screw that!”
Kory backed up a step. “No!” she protested. “I mean, no. That's not what I’m saying!”
“Then what is?” he demanded. “What’s going to be good enough for you two, anyway?” He stepped towards her, shifting his grip on his training saber—danger, something whispered. And danger flickered through his hands, sharp and burning.
The threads winding through Ahene’s mind were smoldering too. She tried not to flinch at the wireframe bite as they tightened, and then they twisted and pulled and she dug her heels into the stone and stood her ground. Force, she stood her ground. She had to stand her ground.
She could not afford to slip. Not here. Not now. Maybe it was inevitable, but—not today.
Kory backed up further. The burn didn’t stop. Gerr—who didn’t seem to be very much Gerr at all right now—took another step.
He wasn’t just going to shout and threaten, was he? He was going to—
He was going to kill Kory.
It would be very nice, Ahene decided, if she actually knew what she was doing. If she didn’t do something, though—no, that would be worse. But she didn’t want to kill him…
Then press him into line, suggested a thought that could not have been more than twenty percent hers.
That didn’t seem right. She moved anyway, though—stepped between them just in time, caught his training saber on hers, fought back the glower trying to make its way onto her face—
Gerr, who had no such qualms, practically snarled at her.
“Enough,” she told him, quietly grateful for the adrenaline pushing out her thoughts. “Leave off, Gerr. Whatever’s gotten into you, this isn’t going to help.”
“You don’t understand,” he said, and was thankfully correct. “I won’t—”
Ahene never found out what, exactly, he wouldn’t do, because that was when he lunged at her and took an elbow to the gut.
He stumbled backwards with a look of entirely unwarranted shock on his face, coughing incredulously. “You,” he spat. “You can’t…”
He was right. She couldn’t kill him here—not even if she felt like she could, should, was going to—and she needed a better idea, quickly.
“Have I told you yet,” she said, in a flash of inspiration, “how I ended up here?”
Gerr wasn’t expecting that; he paused. “That’s… not important,” he attempted to protest, but there was a faint gleam of bewildered curiosity peeking through the haze around him.
“I attacked a Sith Lord,” Ahene explained, slowly and with faux nonchalance. “And I lived to talk about it.” She neglected to mention how near a thing that had been. Instead she took a step towards him, summoning up what she hoped was an air of menace. She could feel the tomb responding, certainly—could feel the presence at the back of her mind taking an interest.
I’ll worry about that later, she thought, and lifted her chin to look Gerr in the eye.
“Go on,” she said, “and tell me exactly what I can’t do.”
He appeared to consider this.
“I’ll take my chances,” he said, and swung his saber.
She ducked under the swipe. Well, I tried—and then there wasn’t time to think. His attacks were wild and erratic, but the power behind them was obvious. (The word ‘bonecrushing’ would have come to mind, if she’d currently had time for words.) A solid hit would probably take her down, barring a lot of luck that she undoubtedly didn’t have.
Duck, weave, parry—and then another swing almost sent her tripping over a pile of eggshells. He was too tall and had too long a reach, and he was faster than he should have been. And she was holding back, which was a distinct disadvantage. A disadvantage she couldn’t afford…
No. She wasn’t going to kill somebody. Not even if she could suddenly see an opening, not even if she knew exactly how—
The next few seconds were a blur of adrenaline and spite. Ahene was vaguely aware of sidestepping a strike and kicking him in the knee hard enough to produce a decidedly unpleasant noise, and she felt herself lunge at him with an uncharacteristic viciousness, and then he was on the ground and her training saber was at his throat and there was lightning filling up her bones—and she pulled herself back at the very last moment, remembering that she didn’t precisely want to pump electricity into his heart until it stopped beating.
Even if it did seem like it would be cathartic.
Catharsis, Ahene reminded herself, was a damned poor excuse for murder.
Korriban—or the tomb, as it was both hard to tell them apart and unclear if there was actually a distinction—seemed rather disappointed in this sentiment.
Oh, stop sulking, Ahene told the presence lurking at the fringes of her mind. You’re a big planet. She leaned carefully over her training saber, staring down at Gerr, and pushed down a faint thrill of victory. “Well, then,” she said, to fill the silence.
He glared at her.
She sighed. “Look. Here’s the deal. I’d like to let you go.” It would certainly remove the temptation to finish the job. “But, if I do that, I need to know that you’re not going to come back and attack us again. Do you see the problem here?”
Ahene gave him a mirthless, knife-thin smile. “I’m going to stand up now. If you make any hostile moves… you know what I did to that k’lor’slug.” And if I throw up again afterwards, then you’ll still be dead.
His eyes looked a bit more like his own. She hoped that meant something. “Fine,” Gerr said. “I’ll—I’ll walk away. I don’t want to die. I don’t want—” His own or not, he squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed.
That definitely sounded like him. Carefully, hoping it wasn’t a trap, Ahene pushed herself off him and to her feet. “Go,” she said, already feeling sick and numb.
He scrambled up, lingered for a terrifying moment—and went.
When he had vanished back up and around a corner, Ahene let out a shallow, ragged breath. “There, that’s done,” she said, and turned to Kory. “Are you alright?”
Kory looked equal parts relieved and worried. “That was…”
“Almost Sithlike?” Ahene suggested dryly.
Kory didn’t answer, but she didn’t need to. Her expression said it all.
“Right,” Ahene muttered. “Let’s just go.” She gestured towards the archway at the other end of the room, waving her training saber vaguely in its direction. “We still have a hermit to find.”
With a nod, Kory fell into step alongside her again—though perhaps a bit more warily than before. They walked in silence for a little while, still descending in a slow but steady incline. Eventually they left behind the k’lor’slug… goop, for lack of a better word, and when the path forked Ahene picked a passage half at random. Korriban did not deign to tell her if she’d chosen correctly.
They were partway down the new hallway—one almost wide enough to be a room instead, the walls lined with tablets in a language Ahene couldn’t recognize—when Kory suddenly said, “Do you think we’re really here?”
The question, on its face, didn’t make much sense; there wasn’t really anywhere else they could be. On another level, it made far too much sense, and Ahene wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
“I prefer not to philosophize,” she said, with a sour glance towards the tablets. They weren’t anything out of her imagination, that was certain.
“Not like that,” Kory said, not taking the hint. “I mean, all of this, there’s something—” She waved her free hand around illustratively. “It gives me a headache. Makes me feel like I want to run.”
The realization hit in a shock of ice. “You think Korriban’s trying to separate us.”
“Hadn’t quite gotten there yet,” Kory admitted. “But it makes sense.” She shook her head. “I was thinking that—well, maybe we couldn’t find Niloc because we weren’t in the same place anymore, not really. Maybe Gerr’s somewhere else too, now. Maybe—” She bit down hard on her lip, cutting herself off.
Ahene didn’t point out that they hadn’t looked very hard. There was a time for skepticism, and this wasn’t it. “Maybe what?” she asked instead.
“Nevermind,” Kory said, flashing a pained smile. “It was just—a thought I had. It was silly.”
Ahene stepped in closer, ignoring it as Kory’s expression got even more fixed. “Tell me anyway,” she said, voice low. “This place doesn’t exactly run on reason and sense.”
“Alright, fine, but it’s going to sound—”
“A little while ago, I told you Korriban was in my head,” Ahene pointed out, with something that only resembled a grin. “Don’t let me be the only one to make a fool of myself.”
“Alright,” Kory said, laughing. “Alright.” She took a deep breath, and asked, “What if Spindrall doesn’t exist at all?”
That was, to put it lightly, a horrible thought. Ahene told her so.
“You did ask,” Kory pointed out.
“I don’t know why,” Ahene said, pressing the palm of her free hand to her forehead. She pushed her fingers up into her hair, sighing quietly. “And I think I regret it.”
Kory shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. You could be right.” Ahene let her hand drop again, trying to push the anxiety down alongside it. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it, I suppose.” She glanced over at Kory again, checking almost automatically for any lingering unsteadiness. She didn’t find any, thankfully; when Kory noticed her looking, she smiled comfortingly. “I’ll figure something out.”
“We,” Kory said, with a sudden vehemence. “We’ll figure something out. Together. Right?” She grinned again, more genuinely. “Unless you’re planning to ditch me…”
Ahene almost sketched a small bow, but wasn’t sure she could pull it off while walking. Tripping over a bit of loose rubble would give entirely the wrong impression. She put a hand to her chest instead. “I could never,” she said, and thought she meant it.
Kory smiled again. “Good,” she said. “I’m not planning to ditch you either.”
And, whatever Korriban thought of that sentiment—they kept walking.