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10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

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, 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.”