The Twi'lek assassin left the Korriban Academy an hour before dawn, her passing detected by only the strongest Sith instructors. She pulled her low light goggles over her eyes and ran to the base of the ridge that circled the Valley of Tombs. In jumps of three or four meters, she scaled the ridge and reached the top just as the sky turned gray. She ran along the ridge with practiced silence, leaving no tracks, not even a wisp of dust, to prove she'd been there. She stopped across from the tomb of Naga Sadow and searched for a point that gave her a clear view of the path from the tomb to the gates of the Academy. The acolyte assassin laid down, pushed the goggles up, and took macrobinoculars from her belt. She rested the binoculars on a convenient stone and waited for her target.
She had watched the other acolyte for five years, in visions or from the shadows, but had never risked such a close approach. He might sense her at this distance, especially if she focused on him, but she couldn't help it. For five years, her visions of him were the same, darkness and death and war. For five years, his future remained a rigid, blood-soaked path. But that had changed. A new path had appeared the night before, it's future gray with occasional hints of warmth. The original path remained a possibility, but the new path demanded a response, even one as dangerous as this.
The acolyte focused the binoculars on the gates of the Academy and hunted for her target. She sensed him before he appeared. The sky was bright with the new day, but the Academy gates were still in shadow when the dark blue Twi'lek warrior emerged. He'd grown since she'd seen him last, and was probably as tall as his brother. Half a galaxy away, and they still competed. The hard muscles beneath his shirt showed he trained as much as ever. And, he hadn't removed the scar; a long, deep cut down his right eye from forehead to cheek that somehow avoided damaging the eye itself. She expected arrogance in his eyes, confidence at the least, but found irritation almost to the point of rage.
Another Twi'lek walked at his side, a girl dressed as a slave. She wore a shock collar on her neck and handcuffs, as if the collar weren't enough. She was pretty, but she tried to hide it. She might be beautiful with the right clothes and some meat on her bones. Slaves were usually better fed than that, suggesting she was a former slave recaptured. She spoke to the warrior as she walked, and, with every word, his irritation deepened.
The assassin zoomed in on the face of the girl. One of the Sith instructors had told the assassin to cultivate mundane skills. People expected force sensitives to use the Force for everything. If they were right, the advantage was theirs. If they were wrong, the advantage was yours. Knowledge was power. To that end, the assassin had learned lip-reading.
"—a scarf?" the slave said.
"A what?" the warrior replied. His lekku twitched. A line of spots, like the scales of a serpent, ran down each tail from base to tip, and their movements mimicked a wary snake.
"A scarf," she said. "So my lekku won't burn. Or lotion, if you have any."
"No." He closed his eyes and took a breath. "We won't be outside very long, and you're dark skinned. You don't burn easily anyway."
The girl looked around and saw a group of k'lor'slugs squirming over a fresh kill.
"Are those things in there?" she asked.
"I thought you were in the tomb already," the warrior said.
"I was caught at the entrance," the girl replied.
"No, they're not in the tomb." he said. "The walls are shielded."
"Does that mean it's safe?"
He shook his head. "Failed acolytes hide in there."
"It's safe from the k'lor'slugs."
"Why not go back to the Academy?" she asked.
"They'd be killed," he said.
She stopped and stared at him. "You people are nasty."
He closed his eyes again and took a breath. "We don't want weak Sith Lords."
"Do they just live there?"
"No," he said. "They can be reinstated if they kill a current acolyte."
"What about me?" she asked.
"They'll kill you too, just in case."
"Oh." She looked down at the k'lor'slugs again. "Could I get my guns back?"
What? the assassin thought.
The warrior spun toward her and started yelling. He faced away from the assassin, but she could guess his words. She expected the slave to shrink away. The warrior was nearly a head taller and probably weighed twice as much, but the girl stood firm and glared at him.
When his tirade ended, she yelled, "I'm the only one that can get you into that tomb! You don't just flip a switch! It's four combinations, and you turn them blind! If you get any of them wrong, they cut your hand off! If you want that artifact, you need to find some way to keep me alive, or give me back my guns!"
"I will keep you alive," he said. The assassin could only see half his face, but he spoke the words slowly enough.
The slave sneered like she didn't believe him and looked away.
He nodded at the k'lor'slugs. "I've killed a group of six of those by myself."
"The larvae or the big ones?" the girl asked.
"The big ones."
"Oh," she said. "The acolytes in the tomb can't do that?"
He took another breath. "They're failed for a reason."
"Fine," she said. "I think it'd be better if I had my guns, but fine."
"You're a prisoner!" he yelled. "You don't get guns!" He panted at her through gritted teeth.
"Do it!" she said.
"Shock me! That's what you Sith do!"
"I can't," he said. "I didn't bring the controller."
"You forgot it?" she said with a laugh.
"I chose not to bring it," he said. "I don't hurt women that way."
"How do you hurt women?" she asked.
He grabbed her arm suddenly, and she gasped in shock. He looked at his hand, let go, and stepped away.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Did I hurt you?"
"No." She watched him cautiously. "Sorry I said that."
He nodded and said, "Let's go."
When he turned away, the slave looked at his back.
Was she checking out his ass? the assassin thought. No, she was looking at his food pack.
Sure enough, the girl said, "Could I get something to eat?"
The warrior turned toward her, facing away from the assassin again.
"They didn't feed me very much," the girl said.
The warrior stepped back and looked her up and down.
She scowled at him and said, "What was that?!"
He responded and the girl said, "That was not 'verifying my claim'!"
The assassin turned away and laughed. She forced down the laughter and refocused the binoculars.
"Don't worry," the warrior said, turning back to the path. "I don't want to cut myself."
The girl glared at him again. "Does that mean I'm right?"
He sighed and gave her his canteen and two food sticks.
"Eat slowly," he said. "Maybe it will shut you up."
"Thank you," she said, obviously trying not to sneer. She nibbled on one of the food sticks as they walked. She looked at the handcuffs, and said, "Could I get these off?"
The warrior turned and stared at her.
"I need them off to open the tomb," she said.
"We're not there yet."
She scowled again and returned to the food sticks.
When they reached the tomb, he told her to wait while he checked the entrance. "And, remember," he said. "That collar has a tracker on it."
"I know," she said.
Once he was out of sight, she shoved the rest of the food stick in her mouth, chewed fast and washed it down. She bit off half of the second food stick and was still chewing ravenously when he returned. She paused, swallowed slowly and started nibbling again. The warrior sighed, said something the assassin missed, and motioned toward himself. The girl held out her hands, and he removed the handcuffs and gave her his remaining food sticks.
"Don't eat so fast you'll choke," he said. He motioned toward a boulder, and she sat down.
After the third food stick, she looked at the tomb and said, "You're going to kill me in there, aren't you? That's what you do, right?"
"No," he said. "I don't punish good behavior."
"I thought you were Sith."
"There's more than one kind of Sith." He watched her eat. "If you do a good job, I'll buy you dinner. Something really good."
She narrowed her eyes at him.
"I'm serious," he said.
She shrugged. "It's not like it matters. The Empire will kill me for what I did."
"Why did you do it?" he asked. "I'm sure you could find easier targets on Nar-Shaddaa."
"Reputation," she said. "I'm one of the best thieves you'll meet. I mean that. But, people on Nar-Shaddaa see a Twi'lek girl. Former slave. Should be a slave. Whatever. Stealing an artifact from Korriban would make my reputation. I could maybe sign on with a smuggler. One of the good ones. There are decent smugglers, you know."
He hid a smile from her and said, "I know."
"It's a chance to see the galaxy, and get enough money to... do stuff."
"What kind of stuff?" he asked.
She looked away.
"Personal stuff," he said. "I get it." He watched her a little longer. "How did you do it?"
She looked at him, considering her answer, and seemed to realize it didn't matter anymore. "I dressed like a slave. That was easy to do," she said. "I found a guy selling an Imperial toolbox. On Nar-Shaddaa, you don't ask how they got it. I sliced past the security at an Imperial base. Once I was inside, I was another slave. If anyone asked, I told them I had to pull something dead out of an engine. I found a shuttle headed here, and snuck into the storage bay."
"No one noticed?" he asked.
"I told you. I'm good. I sliced the scanners to play on a loop and settled in."
"What was the toolbox for?"
"My guns," she said. "Armor. Zero waste food packs. Urine recyc." She made a sour face. "And here, I was a slave again. I made it that far." She pointed at the ground in front of the entrance.
"That was your mistake," he said. "Slaves don't go into a tomb alone. You should have dressed like an acolyte."
"Different rules," she said with a shrug.
"Impressive," he said. "But, you're right, they would kill you for that. It begs the question, why are you helping me?"
"I went through a lot stealing that map," she said. "And spent two months learning those combinations. I want to see what's inside that tomb. I want to see the artifact before I die."
He considered her, and his eyes softened. "It's the lightsaber of Naga Sadow, one of the most powerful Sith Lords ever," he told her. "Valuable to a Sith Lord or a collector. Not something you could sell easily."
"No," she said. "But think of the reputation."
"Very true," he said. He turned away, obviously thinking. "I won't let them kill you."
She looked up. "How are you going to do that?"
"I'll tell Baras you're useful to me."
She looked at him sideways. "What does that mean?"
He watched her for a moment. "It means, do a good job."
She thought about it. "You could be lying."
"Possible lie or definite demise. Which do you pick?"
She bit into the last food stick. "I hope the dinner's not a lie."
He turned away from her and scanned the valley as if looking for something. The girl looked him up and down and returned to her food.
The assassin smiled. That was checking out his ass.
"We're being watched," he said without turning.
"We are?" she said.
"I might have noticed earlier, if I hadn't been distracted."
She rolled her eyes. "Do you know who it is?"
"Probably an ally of Vemrin's. He's another acolyte. He thinks he's my rival." He continued to scan the valley.
"They're probably on that ridge," she said. "It'd give you the best view."
He looked at her, and she pointed to the ridge where the assassin laid. He examined the ridge and nodded.
The assassin smiled again. I like this girl.
The warrior said, "Tell me about the locks."
"Four combination locks," the girl said. "They're hidden behind statues or pedestals, recessed into the stone. They have photo receptors, so you can't use a light or a camera."
"Was that part about the blade true?"
"Yes," she said. "That's why I spent two months practicing." She finished the last food stick. "I need to do them in a specific order, and they're on a timer. I have thirty minutes from the time the first combination is done to finish all four and open the door to the tomb. Otherwise, the system resets, and we wait half an hour to start again."
He smiled. "And, you thought I was mean."
"Do all Sith go through this for a lightsaber?"
"No," he said. "We build our lightsabers. This is my last trial before becoming an apprentice. It will prove my worth, and Baras can say he has the strongest apprentice."
"In other words, reputation."
He smiled again. "Yes. Reputation."
She stood up and brushed away some crumbs.
"Do I get a cut?" she asked.
He stared at her for a while.
"How do you go from 'happy to be alive' to 'getting a cut'?"
She shrugged. "I was just asking."
"You're getting dinner instead of execution. Appreciate it."
She shrugged again. He motioned toward the tomb. When she walked past, he held back, checked out her ass, and followed her in.
The assassin turned away and laughed, as if she might be caught. Something had definitely changed. She stood and stretched and thought, You may have just met your match.