The newest test his master had assigned to Maul was perhaps the strangest. Assassinations, murders, intimidation, bribes, seduction--he was long ago immune to them all, sometimes nearly bored with the mendacity of another political plot. This new assignment, this "task" as his master called it, seemed almost too simple, too easy for his advanced skills and intelligence.
"Open this box, my apprentice," Sidious had commanded as he took Maul's lightsaber. "You shall not eat, nor drink, nor sleep until you do."
It had seemed simple, but it wasn't. The box itself was nothing special, nothing extraordinary. A perfect cube that fit Maul's palm, gold-gilt decorations spidering across a space-black finish, so unmarked and smooth that he could just make out his twisted reflection snarling back. His fingers left no prints on the finish, and though he turned it and touched it, he couldn't make out the seams or mechanisms that would cause the box to open. When he probed it with the Force, he felt nothing--a void, as though it didn't exist at all.
A task he thought would take minutes stretched out across hours, long into the night. Only his keen senses marked the passing of time as he caressed the object, trying to coax the slightest reaction from it. He felt no boredom in the task--he was soon consumed by it.
When he was again caressing every inch of every side for the slightest hint, he chanced upon the correct stroke that started some chain reaction in the box. There was a click, and with the twinkling of some discordant musical notes, a portion of the box broke open. The piece lifted and turned of its own accord, settling back in a new, open position. The musical notes continued in a tuneless manner, and somehow Maul sensed that it was not open enough. His task was only beginning.
The next piece came easier, and the next, the box unfolding to reveal the smooth, glittering darkness of its viscera. The obsidian core seemed to consume the sparse light of the room, reflecting only a distant shadow in its depths. Each piece added new notes to the song until it was something complete, something Maul was sure he'd heard before. The metallic music made him think of blood on a lightsaber, or metal peeling like flesh.
As each new piece moved, making the perfect cube into something twisted and unrecognizable, Maul became aware of a new tone added to the simple song of the box--a low tolling of a bell. The sound ebbed and flowed like a heartbeat. It echoed in his chest, rumbling in his lungs until it seemed that the slow, steady noise came from his own body. Finally, he stopped unmaking the box and looked up to search for its source.
He caught a glimpse of the walls outlined in blue, of shapes moving impossibly within the steelcrete, and then the lights went completely out.
Maul's fingers clenched around the box, his only weapon in the sparse room. He rose to his feet, but remained crouched, ready for any attack. His eyesight was useless in the profound dark, so he concentrated on the Force and stretched out his senses.
He felt... nothing.
It was as though he'd been cast into a void, a place where the Force did not flow. Strange, because he was in his room, which was rich with the dark aggression of his training. It was as if opening the box had wiped away all trace of the Force from the room, or somehow transported him to another place. Not a current of air passed over his flesh. Not even his own breath make a noise. The song of the box had ceased. He could see and feel nothing.
There was no such thing as panic within Maul, and fear had long since been turned into an ally. Baring his teeth, Maul faced the darkness, ready for a fight.
So starved were his ears for any sound, that he almost missed the pat pat pat of flesh on metal, like the bare feet of a slow-moving child. He strained his eyes to see, facing the approach. Colored lights flashed on his retinas, the sight-hungry nerves feeding on the memory of light, and yet he could still make out a faint bluish glow, blurred like the aftermath of a lightning bolt.
The louder the noise, the easier it was to see the figure, but it wasn't until it was almost to Maul's feet that his mind could make sense of what he was seeing. Crouched as he was, he was nearly eye-level with it. It had once been humanoid, Maul was sure. Its white skin was twisted and scarred to nearly obliterate the facial features. Mere dark slashes served for eyes. No ears. A skinfold for a nose. Its lips were pulled impossibly back, skin held taut with small metal screws fixed directly in bone. Too much pink-red showed above and below the bared teeth, the overtaxed inner flesh giving way to create an over-exaggerated smile.
It seemed to be almost suspended in shadow, the illumination not reaching the floor upon which its hands were spread. Its arms were powerful, bending wide to hold up the weight of its torso in lieu of legs, for indeed it had none. The darkness of the room began where the white flesh of a horribly disfigured stomach ended. There was no swell of buttocks, no curve of hips. Simply nothing.
It looked like a creature in great pain. Some wounds--artistic, looping cuts--were still bloody and oozing. It was tragically damaged, and yet it was very much alive. In fact, it almost seemed to be enjoying the pain. As it stopped half a meter away, it kept moving, writhing, twisting on the solid muscles of its arms, worrying the wounds open, pulling against the bolts that held its skin taut. Its mouth opened and closed just a little, the teeth separating by a centimeter or two before they quickly clacked back together. Clackclackclack.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Maul realized that the sound didn't echo, that the light by which he saw the creature was coming from itself, that even though it may have been humanoid, he could sense no humanity within it. In fact, he could still sense nothing.
Slowly, Maul began to move out of his defensive crouch. The creature hissed through its clenched teeth, writhing just a bit closer like an animal about to strike. He froze, looking for any clue of attack in the clear movement of muscle beneath pallid flesh, but the creature abated, staring back at him through eyeless lids. He moved to the right, testing its boundaries, but the creature followed him. It kept its distance, but wouldn't let Maul get more than a step away without moving with him.
Unable to use the Force, faced with a strange creature, Maul was cautious, trusting his instincts that it would be better not to fight until he knew more about his opponent. Without letting a sign of his intention seep through his skin, Maul gathered his strength. In a burst of speed, he dashed to the left faster than most beings could see. He headed in the direction he knew his door to be, using his innate sense of distance to stop before he ran into the wall. He planted his feet, letting his muscles absorb his momentum to come to a sudden and complete stop.
His hand brushed darkness and shadows; the door was not where it should be. Instead, the glowing, legless creature was hissing at his feet, staying that same distance away. Maul bared his teeth again, nearly copying the creature's facade. Tensing his arm, he prepared to throw the misshapen box at the creature's head.
A sharp, jerking pain tore through the muscle of Maul's forearm, stopping him in mid-throw. Despite his attempts to hold on, his seizing nerves forced his hand open, and the box dropped from his numbed fingers. His eyes broke away from the creature to see a dark metal hook threaded into the meat of his arm, gleaming and wickedly barbed as it passed through one side of his arm and out the other. A long, thin chain was attacked to the hook, coming straight out of the darkness at a steep downward angle. Even as he tugged experimentally on it, he could feel the tension growing, pulling back. He fought against it, feeling the thick muscle begin to tear as it gave way under the pressure.
One good yank, and it pulled free, carrying a small hunk of flesh with it. Maul felt the pain rip through his arm up to his spine, his brain splitting with the sudden terror of it. His body instinctively folded around his arm, cradling it to his chest as he shivered convulsively. He fought to keep his focus even as his control shattered amidst the agony. All he could think about was the pain, and so he concentrated on it, directing all his thoughts on how much it hurt, how the damage would take weeks to repair, how furious he was to be caught with such a simple weapon. He fed upon the pain until it was no longer pain but power--a power he could use, and control.
In spite of the damage, Maul could feel strength returning to the limb. His fingers could move enough to claw, though his hand hung at an odd angle. He was damaged, but free of the trap. Weakened, but still strong enough to fight. He let the wound bleed free and slowly straightened, his senses more keen than ever before.
Maul lunged back, jumping out of the way as another chain snapped at the spot he had previously occupied. It curled in the air like a beckoning finger, twisting above the unmade box before turning back on itself and disappearing back in the darkness. He was cleverer now and kept moving, knowing to listen for that slight noise of metal on metal as the chain stretched. He listened and waited for the next, but it didn't come.
Maul had thought the legless creature would attack with the chains, but, strangely, it seemed to no longer notice him at all. Its sightless eyes were fixed on the box as it lay on the obscured floor, focused completely on it even as Maul circled closer. The creature approached the box warily, with the steady steps it had used to stalk Maul, and it stopped a half-meter away, tracking it by some unknown sense. It bent near, its chin nearly touching the floor as it chattered towards the box, like a hunting animal scenting prey just out of its reach.
So entranced was the creature with the box, that Maul didn't even see the other lifeform enter their space until it was there, suddenly, beside the creature. It disturbed him to be so blinded, unable to sense the presence or the movement of these things. His nerves were on edge, singing with the strength of his pain and hyper-sensitive to any clue as to what they were going to do.
The new lifeform was more humanoid and complete than the legless torso. It stood taller than Maul on two legs, its face obliterated much like the first creature. Its skin was orange-brown, as though tanned, and like the creature its mouth was stretched to its widest by wired hooks. Even the slitted lids of its eyes were gone, the face remade into a massive wreckage of barely identifiable features. Its body was covered with dark leather--or perhaps it was merely its own skin burned black and resewn over and into its body. There were flashes of orange-brown between the textured black, but otherwise its body was a total neuter, undistinguished and unrecognizable.
It raised its hand over the creature's head, and instantly the torso's chattering teeth stopped. It stretched up, like a pet, into the outstretched hand, arms not long enough to let itself be caressed by its master. It whined, but settled, the hand like an invisible leash. The new creature didn't move towards the box, but Maul could tell its attention was fixed as well.
The quaintly disturbing tableau did not distract Maul from the swish-click rush of another hook. He moved to dodge it, leaping quickly out of the way of one, then another, then another. He used the back of his injured hand to bat a hook away, but it twisted in midair, burying itself into the thin flesh and gripping bone. Thus tethered, he could not avoid the other chains as they shot out from the formless dark to hook into his skin and muscle. Arms and legs were held tight, and even his back and chest were scored with their barbs. Pinpricks of agony added strength to his struggles, but he could not break free. Every movement seemed to embed them deeper in his skin. His clothes were shredded from the fight, falling off in chunks to bare his skin to the whims of the chains' master.
"Technology has never improved upon the simple pleasure of metal and flesh. Magnetic restraints are so...impersonal." The voice was cultured, solicitous as it praised the simple chains that held him. The metal chimed as blood-rouged fingers traced them down to touch Maul's bared arm. They outlined the gaping wound left from the previous attempt to hook him. The pinked-ash fingers were startlingly bright against the creamy darkness of his skin, the red-black of his blood, the stain of shadows. "It is far more satisfying to use your hands, to bend flesh through will alone."
Maul felt it, like a ripple in the Force, like a tidal wave at night. With just the softest touch, Maul's veins were on fire.
And then there was nothing at all, not even the sensation of the hooks through flesh, the feel of air leaving his lungs. It was horrifying, the nothingness, even vision fading to black.
"The subtleties of torture. How quick you long for numbness, how soon you ache for sensation."
The pain returned, a muted echo more close to normal than the unnatural agony the touch first brought. The ominous voice was given a face to match as a figure came into focus before him. Dark eyes in a sea of pale flesh. A perfect gridwork of carved lines crossing beneath jeweled pins nailed straight through the skull. He was an elegant monster next to the other two twisted creatures, but he was no more normal. His clothes were sewn through his body. Flaps of skin on his chest folded back to reveal the glistening dark-red of bare muscle beneath. His feet and lower body were concealed behind a sweeping skirt of black leather, making his every step a stately glide. While the other creatures seemed to be a study in abstract, in untamed excess, this creature seemed a study in control.
And power. Maul had only felt such strength in a single being once before, in the man he called his master.
Maul hated to speak, but he was entranced, unable to keep from asking, "Who are you?"
The man--more recognizable as human than the two chattering creatures--smiled a little, the movement making the pins shift in his skin. When he spoke, his mouth carefully formed the words, as if he had to speak through great physical effort, though his words remained smooth, his voice low and seductive with power. "Some have called us lovers, tormentors, priests. To others we are gods."
With a coy look, the man stepped away, turning his attention to the other two. They clacked their teeth in a welcome, moving away to let him approach the unmade box. Even as he stooped gracefully to pick it up, it started to remake itself. The various pieces responded to his outstretched hands, coming together until it was almost a box once more. His long fingers wrapped around the slick gold-black surface, and the room seemed to sigh.
Carefully he stood, holding the puzzle delicately between his fingers. Carefully, he rubbed a single blood-tipped finger over the smooth, ornate circle decorating the top. The section of the box rose to his sensuous touch until it nearly detached from the whole. Maul couldn't deny the eroticism of the deliberate movement. With a flutter of his fingers, he twisted the piece into alignment, and carefully pushed it down into place.
The box was closed.
The man held it on his palm and approached Maul once more, the others following him. He stopped very close to Maul, holding the box up between them. The legless creature settled by his side, and the tall one slipped behind Maul.
The man's shadow-black eyes were trained on Maul's face. He balanced the puzzle in his hand, and asked in that low, cultured voice, "You opened the box?"
"And yet you know nothing of it? Or us?"
"My master said only to open it."
One elegant finger traced the gilt edging, drawing his attention. "Lemarchand's Configuration. Few have dared to use it. It is a doorway through which we Cenobites can enter your world. Tell me," the man's eyes roamed Maul's body, his horns, before fixing back on his face. "What city is this?"
There was no breath to warn him, no sensation of bodyheat as the toothy creature pressed up against his back. He could feel every centimeter of the hard, textured leather of its body against his bare back. It pressed several hooks deeper into the flesh of his back, striking up the symphony of aches covering his nerves. The chattering mouth settled in the curve of his neck. It nipped lightly at the sensitive skin at the base of his skull, nuzzling there with a confusing sensuality. The hooks trembled in his skin as Maul shifted slightly away, sending another jolt of agony through his skin.
It was maddening, the way the creatures--the Cenobites mixed the little bit of pleasure with an overload of pain. Lord Sidious could possibly learn a few more tricks from them.
"Your master is quite skilled in the art of manipulation."
Maul's attention snapped back to the Cenobite standing before him. "You know my master?"
The coy smile curved the man's lips. "Oh yes, we know him."
The legless creature hissed. Maul felt the Cenobite reach around from behind him. Its hand stretched down to the creature, far above its head, and instantly it was near, rubbing against Maul's leg, nosing its ruined face into his skin. Thus leashed, the chattering Cenobite ran his hand up Maul's chest. It rubbed his skin, leaving quivering trails of feather-ghost sensation behind it. The motion was slick, heavy, and his spine liquefied under the pleasure.
When Maul looked down, he could only watch in confusing as the Cenobite's hand shifted INSIDE his skin. Dark blood seeped from a long gash, lubricating the glide of those fingers rippling under his dusky flesh like a creature burrowing under sand. His mind couldn't quite grasp the pain that wasn't there.
"He brings us such things to play with." The chuckled laugh was deep, melodious for the brief second it lasted. "But his desires did not open the box. What is it that you want?"
"Power." The word was drawn out of him by the force of the Cenobite's voice.
"You want to be worthy of your master, to be the greatest warrior..."
"You've trained so hard, learned so much. There is nothing beyond your comprehension or mastery." The Cenobite was so close, the jeweled pins decorating his face teased smooth lines of ice over Maul's lips. Maul's eyes drifted close, lost in the sensations overwhelming his senses. "You long to be as powerful as your master. More. The power to defeat the Jedi, to be greater than any Sith ever alive, to revive the glory of your tradition."
"We know much of power. Everything you ever wanted..."
"There are conditions of the nerve endings, ways of evoking suffering with a thought..."
"What do you want?" the Cenobite breathed against his mouth.
Maul opened his eyes to see that night-dark gaze dominating his view. "Teach me."
"Ah, the eagerness of flesh..." His blood-stained fingers reached out, just touching the skin of Maul's cheek. The scent of dried flowers filled his nose, tickling his sinuses. "We have such sights to show you..."
The soft touch became a burn, and the burn became a tear, and Maul could feel the skin of his face peel away like a mask under those bloodied fingers. The sensation drew out, until he could feel the skin and the naked flesh beneath as distinct divisions--the duel sensation of two parts being separated, of coming undone.
Maul was just beginning to learn what true pain was.
As he approached Maul's room, Sidious could smell the sickly-sweet scent of decay--the passing of the hierophants, the ones called Cenobites, through this dimension. His apprentice had succeeded at part of his test, then. Now to see how much of him was left.
The door activated under his touch, sliding open without a protest. The room was dark, warm and humid, and the air was hard to breathe, like in a poorly filtered space transport. Sidious stepped into the room and passed his hand over the illumination bar. Lights built into the ceiling came to life, spreading a soft yellow-white glow over the entire room. It was sparse, unfurnished, merely a storage area for when his apprentice was not training or on a mission. He never needed more.
In the center of the room, Sidious found Maul. He was huddled in a ball beneath the shredded remains of his clothes. For a moment, Sidious thought him dead. He could still glimpse shimmering red and burned black between the fabric strips. They would not have healed him if Maul were dead. They would have left their mess for him to clean up.
But, no, he wasn't dead. The shredded bundle moved, and with jerky movements Maul uncurled. His appearance was shocking. His skin, which before had been a milky brown, was now a sharp relief of red and black. At first glance, he looked naked, skinned to muscle and sinew, vein and bone. He was otherwise unmarked, to the apparent surprise of the man as his newly colored hands felt over his arm and face, running over imagined or remembered wounds and finding nothing but the smooth, colored flesh.
Sidious chuckled warmly. "You have passed." With weighted words, he added, "Welcome back, Lord Maul."