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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.”

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

The first thing Sirue had done was sell the stolen Fury. The buyer might have been working for the SIS, but she was trying not to think about that too hard. It just reminded her of conversations she’d had, back in another life that wasn’t too long ago, and—

She shook her head and finished punching in the room-code. She’d managed to get herself a cheap hotel room, as far from the spaceport as she was willing to walk—being conveniently located drove prices up.

Where am I going to go? she wondered, as she slipped inside. What am I going to do?

Petty crime would have been fine, if Ahene had been with her. Street begging would have been fine, if Ahene had been with her. They’d have found some way up.

The ship had been worth enough money that neither was necessary right now, but every credit she spent chewed into the money for a new ship, for her ship, and if finding it took too long, she’d be stuck here forever.

The room was tiny and cramped, but that wasn’t why it felt like a trap.

Sirue sat down on the bed—the only available seat—and unhooked her datapad from her belt, scrolling through job listings she didn’t come close to qualifying for. There were probably a thousand things to do, preparations to make, uncountable credits to scrape up wherever she could find them—but instead she was here. Doing this.


That was still the sticking point. They’d had a plan, damn it. And it had been going well, too, right up until that horrible moment when it wasn’t anymore. It had almost worked, that was the worst part. It had almost worked…

Hold on, what’s this?

Sirue stopped on a want ad registered through what could only be called one of the unofficial sites, studying it carefully. The pay was basically nonexistent, depending on how you looked at it, but room and board wasn’t bad. Room and board would keep her alive, and at least her wallet would stop leaking. And they weren’t asking for skills she didn’t have, just someone who could unload cargo and watch the autopilot when the ship’s owner—and only crew member—was asleep. Of course, he was committed to a job his previous partner had quit over, which was a red flag roughly the size of a moon, but there weren’t very many captains desperate enough to want her.

And a slaver probably would’ve been pretending to pay, so there was that.

Sirue sent a message, and got a message in response, and went off to take her chances. She doubted she had very many left.

Corellia was full of spaceports. Some would probably say that it was mostly spaceport, and that its chief export wasn’t the ships themselves but the bright-eyed people crewing them. That those ships carried hopes and dreams, when they flew out, not just cargo and passengers. That they carried faith. Spacers had a mythology of their own, and every port was a temple.

Sirue didn’t believe it, not yet, but she could feel it in the air. Even the most cynical, hardbitten-looking people here had a Look to them, the kind that you had to spell with a capital L—they believed, every single one of them. Once you spent enough time in space, you brought it back with you.

She wove through the crowds, trying not to bump into the mercenaries or the scoundrels or the loading droids, and eventually came to one of the big bays that held several small freighters at a time. This one was holding three, which filled it to capacity.

The first two ships were clearly in better condition than the third; it was all scraped up, and less than half of its original paint job was intact, but at least it looked like it would keep the air in. Probably. Anyway, a pretty ship was its own kind of untrustworthy, if only because of the passengers it would be carrying. Her father had liked pretty ships…

It came to her attention that there were two people standing in front of the beat-up freighter. One of them was holding a gun.

She edged a little closer, listening carefully.

“—haven’t touched nothing, I swear,” said the weaponless figure, a twi’lek who clashed stunningly with himself, as he lifted his hands in innocent surrender. One of them was cybernetic, bare of synthskin and heavy on wiring. The other was an unfortunate safety-orange, which at least matched the rest of him. He probably could have directed traffic, provided that he was willing to take off his shirt and stand on a rooftop.

“See, and if I cared what you swear, I’d be a priest.” The goon—he couldn’t be called anything but a goon, his behavior was so clearly goonish—took a step forwards, leveling the blaster illustratively. “But I’m not a priest, and I’m not a judge, so I don’t need a confession. You see?”

“Oh, I see, definitely,” his victim assured him, eyes fixed on the barrel of the gun. “And I promise, I was three city sectors away when the theft happened.”

“‘Course you were,” said the goon. “Got any proof of that?”

Sirue did some very simple mental arithmetic, decided that it would be a terrible shame if her new captain got shot before he could hire her, and pulled the fire extinguisher off the wall.

The goon still wasn’t looking at her. His attention was all focused on the captain, and the captain’s attention was focused on the gun.

“Well—” the captain began, and then Sirue pointed the nozzle at the goon, pressed a button, and shouted.

As the goon whirled around to look, Sirue squeezed the lever. Things happened very fast after that. She was fairly sure he got a face full of pressurized firefoam, and then the gun was pointing at her, and suddenly there was a strange sound—

The captain stepped over the goon’s body, holstering his blaster. “Sorry, Vess,” he muttered, and then finally glanced over at Sirue. “Why don’t you grab his blaster? He won’t be needing it anymore, poor idiot.”

“Sure,” Sirue said, from a long way away. She did so, feeling like she was in a dream, and then straightened up again. “What just happened?” she asked. “And who was that? Why’d he want to shoot you?”

“I see you have a lot of questions,” said the captain, grinning broadly. “Good! I like that in a crewperson. But I should answer them on the ship, I think.”

She followed him up the ramp, utterly bewildered. “Do you at least have a name?”

“Several!” he said, cheerily. “On the ship!”

“Right,” Sirue said. “I bet they’d go all over the place if you let ‘em out.”

He opened the door, punching in the code with the speed of someone who was used to leaving in a hurry, and the ship opened up before them. It was as shabby on the inside as it was on the outside, with missing wall panels displaying the freighter’s guts and a taped-together couch encircling what was probably the only actual table on board. The captain didn’t waste any time before sealing the door up again, and then he was scrambling towards the bridge. With nothing else to do, Sirue trailed along behind.

The bridge was tiny and cramped, but more clearly functional; the rest was in poor repair because all it had to do was be airtight, but everything in here had a purpose. Lights blinked mysteriously on the console. Their particular significance was unclear, but the amount of green was reassuring.

Sirue sat down in the co-pilot’s chair, which squeaked. Purpose was no substitute for a good oiling. “So, about my questions—”

“Hold on,” he said, “I’m getting us a flight path. You ever flown before?”

And then she was in the pilot’s seat, all sleek metal and black leather. She’d put fear behind her, and grief was still looming ahead, and in between them was clarity, cold and bright, and nothing had ever felt so right as the moment she pushed the throttle forwards…

“Once or twice,” she admitted.

“That’s all? Pity.” The captain frowned at a tiny display, apparently dissatisfied with the proposed flight plan. “You’ll learn, though. Fifteen minutes until our launch window.”

“Is that bad?”

“Busy spaceport like this? It’s great, actually.” He sighed and leaned back. “And it will take them a bit ‘til they realize what’s happened to Vess—yes, it should be alright.”

“So you’ll finally tell me your name?” Sirue suggested, in case he’d forgotten.

“Void alive, you’re hung up on that. Call me Arrel,” he said, extending his biological hand over the bit of console between them. “Unless we’re in public. Then call me Ras.”

“Uh, sure,” Sirue said. She shook it. “Do I need an extra name too?”

“If you like,” Arrel replied, shrugging. “It’s not a requirement, exactly. But it comes in handy.”

And he really was on to something, though she suspected he didn’t know what. She was free now; she could reinvent herself if she liked. Nobody knew who she was. Nobody knew who her father had been, either.

It was a nice thought. “I’m Sirue Dalta,” she said, the false surname rolling off her tongue like a new era. “And I’d like to stick to the one, if that’s okay.”

“Lots of people do,” Arrel said, though he sounded like he couldn’t fathom why. It was getting clearer and clearer how he’d ended up with a blaster in his face. “Stay in the business long enough, survive, and you might even get something added on the end. Like the man we’re working for. Rogun the Butcher, he’s called—I assume you’ve heard of him?”

“A bit,” Sirue lied. “Sounds like a great guy. Lots of fun at parties, I’m sure.” She paused, considering the questions that hadn’t been answered yet. “What is this mystery job, anyway? All I know is what you told me, and, uh…” She waved a hand vaguely. “You don’t seem very good at telling people things.”

“No, giving people more information has never been my strong point,” Arrel admitted, lekku coiling sheepishly around his neck. “Causes me no end of trouble, but I’m sure it’s saved me even more. And, of course, normally I’d talk in circles for a bit until I was sure you weren’t plansec, but in the circumstances—I don’t really think that’s necessary, do you?” He flashed a quick, nervous grin that shot past ‘lovable scoundrel’ and landed squarely in ‘kicked puppy’ territory. “Last I checked, not many people get infiltrated by the fire department.”

“You sure?” Sirue said, glancing around theatrically. “Because I’m pretty sure this thing counts as a fire hazard, if it comes down to it.”

“It’s rude to insult somebody’s ship,” Arrel said, faux-sternly. “Lots of people would get mad about that.” His eyes glittered with mischief, turning the faint flicker of the lights into something oddly charming. “Not me, of course, but lots of people. She’s not actually a fire trap, though. Can’t have that when you’re in space. Just looks like a heap of trash.”

“And now you’re going to tell me that she actually flies like a dream, right?”

“Well—not exactly,” he said. “She does need some fixing up. But I’m used to her, and she’s safe enough.”

Sirue caught herself just before she offered to put some of her precious credits towards repairs, and felt awful for doing it. It seemed like letting someone down. Not Arrel, who was probably used to it, but—the ship? Void alive, it’s already got me too…

“So, about the job,” she said, shoving that odd sense of guilt into the back of her mind. There was already a teeming mass of the stuff there, for far better reasons. Maybe it would get crushed. “You didn’t think you’d distracted me,” she added, “did you?“

“Ha, you got me,” Arrel said, spreading his hands and his lekku. “We’ve still got—oh, seven minutes to launch? I’ll fill you in.”

The job seemed simple.

Simple didn’t mean easy, and it definitely didn’t mean safe. But it did seem simple. Boil it down to its component parts and it was just a delivery—of weapons, to a war zone, and for someone who wasn’t called ‘the Butcher’ ironically. Arrel was nervous for a reason, and his old partner had left for a pretty good one themself.

And, yet, Sirue felt like there was something to look forward to. Why wouldn’t she? She was finally getting off Corellia, after all, when just a couple hours before she’d been wondering if it was worth it to keep trying. The circumstances didn’t matter. They were going to fly.

“So,” Arrel said, breaking her reverie, “what’s our route?”

Sirue blinked numbly at him. “What?”

“You’re in the co-pilot’s seat. Co-pilot navigates.” His grin was surprisingly gentle. “Traffic control’ll connect us up, and there should be a flight plan popping up here”—he indicated a small screen—“and then you’re gonna walk me through it, okay? It’s not hard, practically automatic, but it’s easier when I don’t have to look away from the viewport. And then when we get out of atmo, you’ll do the astrogation.”

“Right,” she said, automatically. “I can do that.” And probably she could—or, at least, she knew how to plug in coordinates, and the rest sounded like procedures and talking. The other family tradition, she thought, with a familiar edge of contempt. Whatever people said about her—and she hoped that they would, eventually, have something to say—she hadn’t turned out like her father, that was for sure.

The comm crackled to life, voice-only and a bit fuzzy. Fifty-Fifty Chance, this is traffic control,” said a low, smooth voice. “We have a flight path for you now. Transmitting.”

“Got it, traffic control,” Sirue said, feeling an even older grief twist in her heart. How had it gone, up in her mother’s ship, back before everything went to hell? She couldn’t remember. “Let me make sure we’re ready.” She pressed the mute down. “Okay, we’re gonna head straight up until this bit here… goes bing? I think it’s gonna go bing.”

“It’s going to go bing,” Arrel said, hiding a laugh behind one of his lekku.

“Right. So it’s going to go bing at, uh, three hundred meters.” Sirue sighed and slanted a wry look in his direction. “I can’t say I feel like I’m really helping here.”

“I know what I’m doing, don’t you worry.” Arrel pressed a button, and the hum of the engines ramped up a few notches. “Tell traffic control we’re ready.”

Sirue took her finger off the mute. “We’re ready, traffic control. Sorry ‘bout the delay.”

“Acknowledged, Fifty-Fifty Chance. Launch countdown at sixty seconds.”

The countdown began. Sirue checked the readout. “Okay. So at three hundred meters we’re gonna, uh…”

“Didn’t you say you’d flown before?”

“I wasn’t paying attention to traffic control at the time.” Sirue glowered at the readout, with all its tiny blinking lights. “Look, I know what it’s telling us to do,” she said, “but not how to tell you to do it. I don’t want to confuse you—”

The timer reached zero (“Lifting off, traffic control,” Sirue informed the comm) and Arrel kicked them into motion, the ship rattling a little as it rose up. “How about you plug in the coordinates to Ord Mantell, then,” he said. “I can give you the flight console grand tour in hyperspace. Blame all this on me jumping the gun, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Sirue said, swallowing bitterness. “Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll do that.”

The circumstances didn’t matter. She was going to fly.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

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.

And then—

“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—

Screw it.

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.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576
Dromund Kaas

There was something to be said for rain.

Something profane, if you asked Zahoin—he’d grown up on Ziost, as he’d muttered to an umbrella-bearing droid more than once, and would never be used to this constant miserable drip—but Orinara had only ever been encouraged by her father’s distaste for it. It sank into her skin with a cold, wet unpleasantness that was burned into her mind as part of the lead-up to just about everything exciting she’d ever done; all the days she’d been sent to handle something for her father and all the nights she’d slipped out of the estate alone blurred together out here in the storm.

Besides, she could watch the lightning.

It came screaming down from the sky to split against the Kaas City shields, flashing feral-angry-unnatural through the Force. Trying to follow it down only ever garnered a burst of mental static about as subtle as a brick to the head, and Orinara, unsurprisingly, loved it.

The first shout was indistinct under a crash of thunder. The second was, as Leykta had poked her head up over the lip of the roof, somewhat clearer. “Orinara, really? Get off your ass, vina, and get over here!”

Orinara pushed herself up and half-leapt to her feet, twisting slightly in the air to show off. She landed just in time to catch Leykta’s eye-roll, and laughed as she sprinted towards the edge. “Missed me?” she asked, looking down at Leykta with an unrepentant smirk on her face.

“I shan’t say,” Leykta replied, drawing herself up primly—or as primly as someone standing on the outside rim of a window could muster, anyway. “You’re insufferable already, and your ego doesn’t need any more encouragement.”

“Like you weren’t born with your nose in the air,” Orinara said, bending down to prod the thick red braids delicately piled atop Leykta’s head. The other girl was a pureblooded Sith of nearly impeccable breeding, with ridges along her cheeks that looked knife-sharp and a tongue sharper than that; Orinara was almost tawdry next to her, a human from an old but undistinguished line—and technically from the wrong side of the sheets, besides, though her obvious aptitude in the Force more than made up for that in her family’s eyes. The Izaraes had their share of family legends and minor historical figures—every longstanding lineage did—but they weren’t power players. They were competent and loyal and remarkably unified for a group of Sith, and they knew their limits.

Orinara hadn’t scraped hers yet. Privately, she almost wondered if they might not exist at all; they seemed so very far away from where she stood now. She was a kind of prodigy her family hadn’t had in generations, the kind that might be meant for more than minor, everyday sorts of glory, and—

Her thought process was interrupted by Leykta leaning forwards and kissing her, the other girl’s hands going to Orinara’s shoulders to brace against the threat of gravity. It was the sort of kiss that said, very clearly, shut the hell up, which Orinara decided meant she was winning.

Leykta’s presence pressed in against her, all sandpaper and blood. “Jealousy doesn’t suit you,” she whispered as she broke the kiss. It would probably have sounded suave, if she hadn’t already turned into a prickly little sea creature under Orinara’s fingers.

My, she’s easy to rile up sometimes. Lips pulling back into a grin, Orinara tugged Leykta over the rim of the roof and into her arms. “And what,” she asked, unable to resist pushing her luck a little further, “could I possibly have to be jealous about?”

The look Leykta gave her could have melted durasteel, but the sea creature’s spines bristled in a vaguely amused fashion. “That’s the most transparent bait I’ve seen this week,” she said, sneering, and draped her arms over Orinara’s shoulders. “I’m terribly insulted you thought I’d fall for it.”

“Insulted enough to kiss me again?” Orinara asked, hopeful.

“That doesn’t even make sense, you complete fool.” Leykta was unable to hold back her smile, though she was clearly making an effort. “I shan’t—shan’t reward—” She cut herself off by collapsing into laughter, dipping her head down towards Orinara’s chest. “Damn it,” she choked out, “can’t believe you…”

Orinara considered sweeping a bow, but couldn’t entirely figure out how to manage it without dumping Leykta unceremoniously onto the roof. She settled for planting an extremely smug kiss on Leykta’s forehead. “I take pride in being unbelievable,” she said, her grin returning in force.

“Among other things,” Leykta muttered, punctuating the comment with an undignified snort.

“Among other things,” Orinara agreed. She gently disentangled herself from Leykta, garnering a delicately arranged pout. “Now, is something going on, or did you just need to see my handsome face?”

“I just thought you might like to do something interesting before my ceremony.” Leykta’s composure settled back around her as if it had never left, her fingers making little flick-flick motions to brush imaginary dust from her shoulders. “But if you’d rather spend my last night here lying around and staring at lightning…”

That barb was tipped with just a trace of poison. Orinara laughed again anyway, louder, and started moving back towards the edge. “It’s not my fault you were late,” she said, with an exaggerated shrug.

Leykta sniffed haughtily. “I had work to do.” She followed, walking like the roof was hers and hers alone—which it definitely wasn’t, considering that the entire estate had been in Izarae hands for over a century—and reached up absently to nudge one of her braids back into place.

They’d barely gotten away from the edge in the first place; Orinara strolled right off it without missing a beat, smirking into the rain. It turned into a tight smile as she dropped, knowing she wouldn’t hit the ground any faster than she could handle.

She landed with a gentle thump, turned, and made an expansive gesture towards the roadway. “Shall we?” she asked, as Leykta touched down gently beside her.

Leykta took Orinara’s arm and wrapped it delicately around her waist. “Let’s.”

They made their way to the back of a small cantina, lit by a low and intensely purple light that washed out most details. Shadows clung to every surface that they could, pooling underneath tables and nestling into the grooves in Leykta’s skin. Some of the more mundane patrons threw them furtive looks; one young private whispered something to their companions, got up, and slipped out the door.

Leykta laughed and pulled Orinara closer. “You’d think the poor creatures had never seen Sith before,” she murmured, barely audible under the pounding music. “Really, we’re not here to trash the place.”

Orinara feigned a pout, then broke back into a grin. “You sure about that?”

“Yes. Now hush, I need to find Vanyas—” Leykta cut herself off with a frown, scanning the room for the other pureblood. She spotted them, after a couple moments, and somehow managed to pull Orinara along beside her without breaking stride or dignity.

Vanyas had entrenched themself in a corner booth, surrounded by datapads, floating holo-screens, and empty glasses. They were slouching enough that they were barely taller than Leykta, and, stunningly, appeared to be stone-cold sober.

They were also planning something.

Leykta reclaimed her arm from Orinara’s hands and laid both her own flat on the table, smiling like a nexu. “So,” she said. “I assume you have the floor plan.”

Vanyas, huge and hulking and the best Sith slicer most people would ever meet, handed over one of the datapads. “See for yourself,” they said, with the kind of accent that only the old old families had. The ones that spoke Sith more than they spoke Basic, at least in private, and wouldn’t respect anyone who couldn’t debate philosophy in the oldest form of the tongue. How a family like that had produced someone like Vanyas, who had little use for politics or anything that didn’t have wires to fiddle with, was the sort of mystery that could keep Intelligence’s best analysts up at night.

Leykta carefully accepted the datapad, looking like she’d rather have snatched it. Her eyes flicked back and forth across the screen. “Okay, second floor, built-in security…”

While Leykta poured over the schematics, Orinara leaned against the booth. “So,” she asked Vanyas, “why am I here?”

“Ah, one of life’s great questions.” Vanyas sighed theatrically. “You must decide that on your own, my dear—”

Orinara lifted a hand and launched one of the empty glasses at them.

They caught it. “You’re no fun at all.”

“I get that a lot,” Orinara said, crossing her arms. “Now talk.”

“There’s some kind of party going on at the Vetracaelis estate,” Leykta said, idly tapping her fingers against the table. “Should have invited us—well, me and Vanyas, anyway—but they didn’t, because apparently we’re not important enough for them.” She slid the datapad back over to Vanyas. “So we’re going to go anyway.”

Orinara snorted. “Really,” she said drily. “You want to go to a party? I thought we were going to be doing something interesting.”

“I want to crash a party, vina.” Leykta chuckled. “There’s a difference, you know.”

Void alive, Orinara was tired of this. All these petty, inconsequential games—it was a politics for children, and there was no real challenge in it. But she shrugged and said, “Fine, then,” because while what she and Leykta had wasn’t exactly love, it put an edge against their little excursions.

They were worthwhile, for that. For tonight.

“Excellent,” Leykta said, wrapping an arm around her once again. “If things go wrong, we’ll need some muscle.”

“Oh, yes,” Vanyas said, “and what am I, then? Chopped liver?”

“She can lay you out on the floor, Vanyas, and you know it,” Leykta pointed out, with an amused little smirk. “Our delightful prodigy, destined for great things. Don’t you worry, though.” She leaned in against Orinara, practically draping herself over her, and somehow angled herself to smile up at the other woman. “I’m sure you’ll still need a backup team when you make us all proud, vina.”

“We all know you’re the leader here, Leykta.” Orinara didn’t bother disguising the boredom in her voice. “I somehow doubt that’s going to change.”

Leykta giggled like the innocent she wasn’t. “Oh, Orinara, where’s your ambition?”

“Closed up somewhere in your chest, I expect.”

“Excuse me,” Vanyas said, “but I’d prefer not to witness the pair of you either killing or fucking each other in the middle of a cantina.” They heaved a sigh. “Again.”

“I’ll have you know,” Orinara said, drawing herself up primly, “that we have never killed each other.”

“Or caused such a public scene,” Leykta added.

“And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t start now.” Vanyas wrinkled their nose. “We have an actual goal, in case you hadn’t noticed, and less than the entire night to complete it in. Shall we start?”

“‘Goal’ is a strong word,” Orinara said. “Maybe ‘petty diversion.’” She laid a hand on the table, leaning forwards. “What’s the plan?”

The hovertruck wove its way through the edges of the jungle, bobbing up and down erratically as its automated systems—which had been designed for city airspace—attempted to figure out where the ground was, and possibly why the buildings were all so flimsy and close together. Rain spattered down in bursts, hitting the roof with a metallic spla-thunk whenever it passed under a lighter section of canopy.

“This,” Orinara said, crammed sullenly between Vanyas and a crate, “is a terrible plan.”

“Really? And how do you think I feel about it, my somewhat more compact friend?”

“I think this is going to ruin my suit.”

Leykta poked her head over the top of a large, squat box. “Keep it down,” she hissed.

“Why?” Orinara asked. “It’s not as if we’ll be overheard.”

“Because I don’t want to listen to this.” Leykta slid a comlink across the crate, flicking it into Orinara’s lap as it reached the edge. “Now get this on. You did leave yours at home, yes?”

Her disposition was a lot less attractive after thirty minutes in the back of a shipping truck. “Yes,” Orinara said, voice shading towards a growl. “I did.” She hit a button on the comlink, connecting it to the slim ebony earpiece masquerading as half of a matched set, and then slipped it into a pocket. “I do understand operational security, Leykta. Stop mother-henning at me.”

“Just making sure.” Leykta waved a hand diffidently. “I want this to go perfectly, after all.” She smiled, thin and dangerous. “A sendoff worth having.”

“Right.” Orinara closed her eyes and leaned back as best she could, little snippets of understanding flitting at the edges of her consciousness. “You make it sound like you’re going to die.”

Leykta laughed, and somehow it was clearly forced. “I am headed to Korriban soon,” she said. “I’m good, yes, but anything’s possible. The trials don’t screw around.”

No, Orinara thought, that’s not what this is about. There was something else going on. It felt—did she dare to hope?—like real politics, where the stakes began to matter and the risks were worth taking.

Maybe this would be fun after all.

They came to a stop just where the treeline gave way to the grounds of an estate that was almost a compound, walls concealing all but the very tallest of the buildings within. Inside, it would sprawl out like the smaller, newer ones didn’t—Vetracaelis wasn’t one of the oldest names, but they were old enough. Old enough to have amassed wealth, power, and family members, and insular enough to keep it all as close together as possible.

Breaking in would take a miracle or a person on the inside. Orinara pointed this out, and Vanyas grinned.

“I am a miracle,” they said, with a deep, absolute certainty that a Sith twice their age could have been proud of. “Back into the truck, my dear, and try to look like a crate of spice. Or other miscellany, I suppose; we have options.”

Orinara fixed them with a flat stare. “Spice.”

“For the party, of course,” Leykta said, coming up behind her. “Smuggled in under the watchful noses of their elders, well-disguised as more innocent supplies. We only subverted the Logistics officer they bribed, borrowed her truck and her credentials, and—”

“And you’re going to let me do the talking,” Orinara said. Her voice left no room for argument.

Leykta tipped her head, the hair beneath her braids following like an unusually well-behaved waterfall. “You,” she said. “You are going to do the talking. Orinara, vina, fire of my heart, tell me something.” She paused, letting the words linger dramatically in the air. “Have you gone mad?”

Something was simmering in the back of Orinara’s mind, spurred on by the kind of boredom that eventually went snap. Certain people might have called it madness. Mostly Jedi, she decided, because her head had never felt clearer.

“Think,” she said. “You don’t need to wander around mind tricking servants. I just have to go up there and tell them—I was checking up on things for my father, you know who Zahoin Izarae is, that’s right and here’s my price of admission.” She bared her teeth. It wasn’t exactly a grin. “It’s plausible. I play his enforcer all the time.”

That was how it worked, after all. Young soon-to-be-Sith assisted their parents until they were old enough for Korriban or the internal academies or one of those disgraceful little arrangements that ended in someone taking an apprentice without all the fuss. The trials were still important, but the Sith who made such bargains administered them themselves, and that was—not good enough, perhaps, but the paperwork tended to be in order, and Laws and Justice had better things to do with its time than chase down vaguely corrupt lords and execute their students. And most well-bred young Sith, survivors of whatever tests they had been given, would continue on in whatever sphere their immediate family worked in.

Most, but not all.

Zahoin Izarae was firmly in the middle of Production and Logistics’s hierarchy, and he carried out his duties with competence and efficiency. There was about a snowball’s chance in hell that Orinara would follow in his footsteps.

The look Leykta gave her conveyed that last thought quite well, possibly with a bit of profanity mixed in. “If you want to do the mind tricks,” she hissed, “then just say that.”

Rage flickered in Orinara’s chest, raw and violent. “I’m not trying to be subtle here,” she snapped. “No, I’m going to go in there and be myself, Leykta. I’m going to be stubborn and petty and obvious until they shove me through the doors themselves, because the alternative is kicking up a commotion their elders will notice, and they’re not going to do that.” Her expression turned into a real grin, shrouded halfway by the flipped-open side of the hovertruck. “They do that, and the Dark Lord will find out that zir precious, dignified scions are doing Nar Shaddaa street drugs. Nobody wants that, least of all them.”

“I suppose that maybe—”

“I’m going,” Orinara growled, “to be your bloody diversion.” Her eyes were fixed on Leykta’s; she felt like they were turning to durasteel in her skull. “Shut up and let me do it.”

Leykta opened her mouth, ready to protest—and snapped it closed so quickly that it almost put Orinara off balance. She’d seen something, and she hadn’t been expecting it.

A few moments passed. Lightning flashed across the sky.

“Fine,” Leykta eventually said, with what might have been a very grudging sort of admiration. “Let’s go.”

Someone let the truck in. Orinara was in the driver’s seat by then, much to the annoyance of Vanyas’s horrible little astromech, and she drove through the loading gate with a smile that could have cut glass. A couple of armored guards—private security, not Imperial army—waved her towards the central building. It was five stories high and probably more underground, with windows lit on the first three floors. A warehouse sat alongside the wall, long and comparatively low, and that was where a real shipping truck would have unloaded—which meant that they’d at least cleared the first bar.

Orinara dared to press down on her comm-button. “I need a name,” she murmured. “The Logistics officer’s, preferably.”

“Specialist Resa Tonn,” Leykta’s voice whispered back. “Some girl who takes too many bribes from too many people, and that’s all I know about her.” There was an irritated little puff of breath, which almost managed to be a sigh. “This had better work.”

Orinara’s smile threatened to stretch into a grin. “Don’t doubt me,” she said, and let the button go.

Vanyas was still chuckling in her ears as she pulled up to the large building’s servants’ entrance. There was a weedy zabrak in a shock collar leaning against one wall. He didn’t seem surprised to see the truck, which was a good sign.

He did seem surprised to see the driver. The threatened grin arrived, wide and feral, as she rolled down the window. “Evening,” she said, leaning an arm along the top of the door. “You here for the pickup?”

He stared at her. “I, you—yes,” he stammered. “Yes, sir. My lord?”

Nobody’s lord yet, but he didn’t need to know that. “Did the outfit give me away?” Orinara asked, with a deliberately awful attempt at mildness. “I’m sure they didn’t tell you I was coming.”

“No, m’lord, they didn’t,” the man said, and then, because he had a working sense of self-preservation, “I’m sorry about that. Should I, er, go on and unload?”

“Oh, no, not yet.” With a flicker of power, the order sheet was in her hand. It was printed on waterproofed flimsi—thankfully, because the moment she dangled it out of the window it became sopping wet. “Go get whoever put you up to this,” Orinara said. “We have a few things to discuss.”

Immediately, my lord,” said the man, who was quite aware that this meant escaping her presence. He slid in his keycard, almost dropping it in the process, and was sprinting before the door had shut behind him.

Orinara leaned back in her chair, settling in to wait.

Zet was having a bad day.

Go out and get the spice, they’d told him. And so he’d done that, because he wasn’t stupid enough to think the Dark Lord would reward him for tattling to zir like an offended toddler, but then instead of the spice he’d gotten a Sith, and now—according to that Sith—he was supposed to go back inside and get more of them.

There was a blissful span of time where there were no Sith in his life at all, marked only by his rapid footfalls, and then he reached the large ballroom and saw about twenty.

None of them were paying attention to him, of course. Panting a bit, he slipped into the room and started looking around for one in particular—the least threatening of the group, actually, which was a lot like being the smallest nexu in a rabid pride.

It could have been worse. But it also could have been a lot better, which felt like the important part.

He—unfortunately—found the person he was looking for nearly in the center of the room, gesturing cheerfully with a half-empty glass of something vividly, unconscionably purple. Her grin was a little too broad, and her eyes were a little too wide, but the expression was as close to friendly as he’d ever seen on a Sith.

Screwing up his courage, Zet approached and bowed deeply. “Excuse me, sir…” he ventured, and—well, they were definitely looking at him now, damn it. Nothing to do but keep going. “Excuse me, sir,” he continued, shivering under her sudden focus, “there’s a—a Sith at the kitchen entrance. Asking for you, sir.”

She blinked. “That’s… odd,” she said, demonstrating a great capacity for understatement. “Well, then, I suppose I should see what’s going on—don’t the rest of you have too much fun without me, alright?” She favored her conversational partners with a winning smile, waggled her fingers a little, and immediately began striding off towards the kitchens.

At least she knows where they are, Zet thought glumly, following in her wake. That’s got to count for something. And she hadn’t reacted badly to the interruption, which definitely counted for something.

“Who was it?” the Sith asked, after a few moments. “Or—what did they look like, at least?”

“I don’t know, sir, she didn’t give a name.” And it had been pouring rain out there, but Zet squinted through his memories and tried to remember the woman’s features. “Human, not pureblood,” he said, because he was at least sure of that. “Black hair, sort of a round face, and her eyes—weren’t glowing, but they glimmered a bit.”

The Sith beside him groaned. “That could be no less than five people I know,” she said, apparently despondent, but suddenly she looked thoughtful in a way she hadn’t before. “How did you say she got here, again?”

“Logistics truck, sir,” Zet said, feeling increasingly cornered. He was stumbling blindly through the night, and soon he was going to stumble into a trap…

“Damn,” the Sith said. “Damn. So either it’s some apprentice who I’ve never met in my life, here as some kind of milk run-shakedown-training exercise, or it’s—ugh. Just my luck, isn’t it?”

More context did not seem to be coming. “Yes, sir,” Zet said, hoping that agreement would be enough.

“But why would she be here, anyway? No one really cares about a little spice, not so long as the smugglers pay their ‘taxes.’”

Zet shrugged, as best as he could while walking. “Sorry, sir.”

“You should be,” she said with a sniff. “But it’s alright—we’ll sort this out, now won’t we? Everything will be fine.”

“Er… yes, sir.”

“And if it is my cousin, I know how to handle her.”

That sounded vaguely promising, if she was right. “Yes, sir!”

Time inched by. Orinara felt like she should have been squirming in her seat, alive with energy, but instead she found herself oddly still. Her mind was moving, turning the situation over and over like a particularly obstinate puzzle box. And she was still grinning.

Who says I don’t like parties?

The door slid open, revealing the zabrak from before—followed by a very familiar woman.

“Alsair,” Orinara purred, delighting in the disgusted look she got in response. “What a pleasant surprise.”

Alsair sighed. “Hello, Orinara,” she said, with an absolute lack of enthusiasm. She was Orinara’s cousin—her great-uncle’s daughter’s daughter, to be precise—and younger by only close to a year, so they’d been forced to suffer each other’s presence at every family event that either could remember. Their relationship couldn’t be called a rivalry, because there was no real competition; Orinara was far more powerful, and Alsair had a reputation in the family for being, to be blunt, a frivolous child with little chance of making it to apprenticeship. They loathed each other like only family could.

“It’s nice to see you.” Orinara lifted her chin, feeling like a predator stalking its quarry. Adrenaline was turning her bloody-minded, even more than usual, and she would have savored it if she’d had time. “I think,” she said, “that you know why I’m here.”

Alsair’s face twisted with annoyance. “No, actually, I can’t fathom why you would be here. I certainly didn’t invite you, not that you would have come if I did.” She bared her teeth for a moment. “You’re the most boring, straightforward Sith I’ve ever met,” she hissed, “possibly excepting your father, so kindly spit it out and let me get back to my party.”

Orinara leaned out the window, arms crossed on top of the door. “I missed you, Alsair,” she said, conversationally. “Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite cousin?”

“Go sit on a lightsaber, Nara.”

“Ugh.” Orinara grimaced. “You know I hate that nickname, Allie.”

“You called me ‘Airhead’ for five years! You don’t get to talk!” Alsair gestured violently with her glass, then drained it and shoved it into the zabrak’s hands. “Tell me why the hell you’re here, Nara! Or I’m going to—”

“Going to what, cousin?”

“Going to,” Alsair said, “think of something.” She stepped back from the window, leaning back against the wall. There was an overhang wrapping all around the building, angled upwards so as not to turn the rain into a pouring sheet. Somewhere, the attached drains were doing their best. “Look, I know you’re enjoying this.”

“I am.”

“Right. Well. Get on with things anyway, would you? I don’t have all night, and I’d like to think that you don’t either.”

A number of clever quips crowded Orinara’s mind, mostly regarding the fact that Alsair did, in fact, have all night, considering that she had chosen to waste it here. But Leykta and Vanyas were still in the back of the truck, carefully closed inside crates that should have held, respectively, a few months of ration bars and a replacement cooling system. She’d make sure those got where they needed to, later, but for right now… “Fine,” she said. “I want you to invite me in.”

This produced a brief, stunned silence. “You want what?”

“The holonet ate my invitation, see,” Orinara explained, with a mobster’s sense of subtlety. “So I had to take measures. But now I’m here, and—how would you put it?—fashionably late.”

“No,” Alsair said, “and no, and no, and also no. Inviting you in would be like releasing a rancor into the middle of the Citadel. I won’t be responsible for that.”

“Or anything else?” Orinara asked, and chuckled horribly. “I didn’t come this far to be turned away at the door, cousin.”

“I don’t care! Even if you did waylay the delivery somehow—we can live without it.” Alsair glanced over at her empty glass, whose bearer was attempting to, against all logic and several laws of physics, hide behind it. “Right, it’s all—anyway.” She turned her attention back to Orinara, full of misplaced indignation. “Clear out, Nara. You don’t want to cause a disturbance here. The Dark Lord is in residence, you know!”

“Oh, don’t I?”

“Force. You can’t think you could beat zir. Even you aren’t that reckless.” Alsair suddenly froze, her expression going carefully and uncharacteristically blank. “You… aren’t here to kill zir, right?”

“What? No.” Orinara made a face. “Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “But I know zie’s one of the hardliners. Petty physical indulgences are beneath a Sith, et cetera—”

“Yes, zie reminds me of someone.”

“—and if zie found out about the spice, zie wouldn’t be happy.”

“Neither would you,” Alsair pointed out, crossing her arms. “A party isn’t worth that, Nara. You’re bluffing. Badly.”

“Try me,” Orinara hissed. “Find out what happens if you kick me out, because I’ll go. I’ll go back to Resa Tonn, and I’ll dig up her shadow ledger, because I know she keeps one. They all do. Otherwise they’ll miss something, and a discrepancy will come out, and then they’re up on charges or in front of an angry customer’s lightsaber.” She stared into Alsair’s eyes, deadly serious. “And you’re the one that bought the spice,” she added, making an educated guess. “I know you are. Latsenn wouldn’t have a clue how to source it. But poor Resa has been earning a steady paycheck from you, I’ll bet, or she wouldn’t be so keen to deliver…” Making a show of it, she pulled the sheet in and glanced at it. “Two Vacaste Mark IIIs. You have expensive taste in training droids, apparently. Ordered the ‘good stuff,’ have you?”

Alsair blinked at her, slowly, with the distinct expression of someone who had just been bashed over the head with bureaucracy and didn’t quite understand how it had happened. It was an expression Orinara had seen before, mostly on people her father had talked to—but she could do it too, now couldn’t she? Oh, yes…

“It was me,” Alsair admitted, and defeat with it. “Why are you here, Orinara?” She held up her hands. “You can come in, of course, we’re all friends here, I’ll tell them about your lost invitation. But you owe me an explanation in return.”

No, I don’t. But the important thing was ensuring that the others got in safely, and that meant allaying suspicions. “Something big is about to go down,” Orinara said. “Or might go down, at least, and I will be there if it does.” That was nearly the truth, sliding off her tongue with an air of willful believability. She turned to the zabrak. “You,” she told him, “start unloading the crates. We’ve wasted enough time.”

“You mean you have,” Alsair said, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it anymore. “Ugh. Latsenn’s going to be furious, you know that? And she’s not nearly as nice as I am.”

“I’m counting on it,” Orinara said, her grin returning. The snap was coming, sure as the endless roll of thunder, and it was going to be electric.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

There was a thunk of landing gear as the shuttle touched down, officially and finally delivering the Mission of Mercy’s six initiates and presiding master to the birthplace of the Jedi Order. This was met with a rush of murmured enthusiasm from the initiates in question. They had all been waiting for this for quite a while, and patience was a Jedi virtue, but—it wasn’t seeing. And Jedi, as Master Liv’trai was fond of saying, had to learn to see things for themselves. To find the place where they could both study what others taught and evaluate without prejudice.

And, to stretch the metaphor: this was that place.

The youngest of the initiates was Vallec, a devaronian boy who was ‘about fourteen,’ according to him, and probably barely thirteen according to the medical droid on Mercy. He was also the newest. They had found him half a year ago, fending for himself on the streets of a mid-sized colony—a kid who had grown up too fast in his own head, walking alongside a power he didn’t understand. Liv’trai had said that they were very, very lucky to have found him when they did, and every single one of the other initiates had filled in the rest on their own.

The oldest was Thara Colpos, who was twenty-five and had spent the first twenty living on a refueling station. She was a human woman, medium-skinned and dark-eyed, strong in the Force but perpetually embarrassed to be learning alongside children; everyone was fairly sure that she was going to be Master Liv’trai’s own padawan, after the Council gave out their assignments. She hadn’t been the best fellow student, a lot of the time, but she was probably going to make a very good assistant teacher.

The others were spread out in the middle, mostly on the cusp of adulthood or just beyond it. Velnira herself was barely eighteen, third-youngest by a few months, and she was smiling to herself as she looked out the window. This is Tython, she thought, though it didn’t make the fact feel any more real. This is Tython, homeworld of the Jedi. And now we’re here.

It felt like coming home. Like something gentle and warm and bright, and kind in some undefinable way, and despite all that, not quite safe. And that made sense, too—being safe had never been the same thing as being good.

Outside the window, Tython was a tableau of gold and green and blue, all sunlight and sky and grass and water that seemed to run together in a harmony you had to unfocus your eyes to see. Inside the shuttle, Velnira took one last look at it, fixing that memory of arriving in her head like a holopic, and then unbuckled her safety harness to join the others.

She was almost the last one out, but Vallec and Master Liv’trai both came down the ramp behind her, the former thumbing the latter’s robes like he was thinking of holding on. Nervousness swirled around him, a whorl of what-if-I’m-not-good-enough; Velnira hastily pulled back her senses, embarrassed at invading his privacy. Ahead, Thara and Hallen were talking, the former listening with quiet interest while the latter chattered excitedly, and Dennel and Jekk had wandered forwards in companionable silence. Their auras seemed to glitter in the sunlight.

Velnira came up alongside Hallen, slanting the other girl a quick smile. “Would I be interrupting?” she asked, quietly.

“Huh? Oh! No!” Hallen grinned back immediately, half-rocking on her feet with enthusiasm. “We were just discussing who our masters are going to be—I mean, who we think our masters are going to be. For the ones who are old enough, I mean.”

“Master Liv’trai has already offered,” said Thara. “I… haven’t decided whether to accept.”

“Everything’s easier if you do, though,” added Hallen. “Like, Master Wettle contacted me, and we’ve been exchanging holonet mail, and he says the Council will probably just approve it without all the—you know!—the fuss and the evaluation period.”

“A Jedi should be thoughtful,” Thara said, clasping her hands in front of her.

“Yeah,” said Hallen, “but not so thoughtful her master gets someone else assigned. Anyway! What about you, Vel?” She grinned again and attempted to elbow Velnira, which didn’t entirely work with the way they were walking. “I bet you’ve got, like, three.”

Velnira ducked her head, her cheeks going warm with a distinct, hard-to-define embarrassment. “I can’t have three masters, Hallen,” she said, “that would be too many. They’d—have to work out a schedule, or something. It would get silly.”

When Hallen laughed, it spilled out in a shock of exuberance, like it had been surprised it out of her; no matter how often she laughed, it always sounded like she was discovering it for the first time. She reached up and tweaked one of Velnira’s pigtails. “I meant three offers, silly,” she said, “or it would get silly.”

“Ah.” Velnira smiled. “No, then. None yet.”

They walked along the long bridge in silence for a moment or two, heading towards the secondary pad where speeders would land to take them to the Jedi Temple itself. Then Thara said, voice lowered to a whisper: “I know I should be grateful for Master Liv’s offer. But…” She made a tiny gesture. “I don’t think I want to be a crèche-master, or wrangle older initiates for the rest of my life, even if I’m good at it. Her path isn’t mine. You see?”

Velnira glanced back, but their initiate-master was still lingering behind, talking to Vallec. She tipped her head towards Thara, considering, and asked: “Have you told her?”

“I don’t want to disappoint her…” Thara pressed her lips together. “I also know that’s absurd of me, thank you. Don’t lecture me about it.”

Velnira grinned, a little bit sheepishly. “Would I do that?”

“Galaxy’s tiniest Jedi Master,” said Thara, unimpressed, while Hallen seized the moment to try to ruffle Velnira’s hair. “Maybe I should offer you in my place—don’t you want to herd initiates?” She suddenly broke into a smile, putting the lie to her annoyance. “I’ll miss you, Velnira, you know I will. Once you learn to pick your battles, you’re going to be a damned good Jedi.”

Hallen abandoned the understated game of keep-away to sling an arm around Thara’s shoulders. “Now who’s being a tiny master?” she asked, giggling in that bright broken-dam way. “I swear, we’re almost outnumbered. I’m going to need to end up in the river again just to keep you two from, oh, from spontaneously morphing into—you know!” She made a series of quick gestures, indicating a person wearing long, heavy robes and possibly an almost-equally-long beard.

Thara pressed her lips together, puzzled. “Into… was that supposed to be Master Nor?”

Velnira laughed quietly. “Oh dear,” she said. Master Nor had been one of the other small temple-ships’ presiding masters, about ninety-five—which in a Jedi meant he was just thinking about retiring to the Temple permanently—and reportedly possessed the rare talent of Force stealth, which he mostly used to sneak up on initiates who weren’t entirely behaving themselves. The Mission of Mercy had met up with his ship so their initiates could practice against new opponents for a couple weeks, and then, on the very last day, Hallen had looked at the chokepoint that had stood between them and the other team’s flag and suggested something she had called an ‘air support maneuver’…

Landing in the water had been termed a disqualification by the referee, who had been much too delighted to have an initiate nearly dropped on him.

“Are you sure that would encourage him not to show up?” added Thara.

Hallen stuck her tongue out. “Don’t ruin the joke.”

“You know I’m too old to understand humor, Hallen.”

Awful. You’re being awful again.” With another laugh, Hallen dramatically draped herself over Velnira, nearly knocking both of them down. “Vel, save me, our sister-initiate is being awful again. You’re my only hope—”

“Hope,” declared Velnira, steadying her, “comes from within.”

“Noooo,” Hallen protested, with an exaggerated slump of her shoulders. “You’re both awful.”

“We are servants of the light,” said Thara serenely.

“And we’re almost there,” Velnira added.

“Oh hey, yeah!” Hallen sprung back into her usual cheer. “They made this bridge really long. I wonder if that’s for, like, meditative reasons, or if the river bed wasn’t stable enough—it’s just a smooth curve, no pillar things—did you know I’ve been reading about the planetary profile? It’s fascinating! I think the surveyors had such a headache, from what they said about the seasons and weather patterns and tectonic activity and whatsits. What was it? The low presence of natural decay, I think it was—that means things take longer to rot.” She waved her hands back and forth. “And they didn’t know why! Isn’t it great?”

“That’s fascinating,” said Velnira quietly, and she meant it. “I think… I understand, even without the statistics. Being here, seeing sunlight that looks like the idea of sunlight, it’s—not unreal, exactly. Maybe more real.” She looked away, up at the sky, so bright it almost made her eyes ache. But only almost. “Like a whole world that’s a thought as well,” she whispered, “and better for it.”

“Poet,” Thara said, affectionately.

Velnira smiled. “I try.”

The secondary pad was thinner and longer, leaving space for multiple speeders or aircars to land. There were three of the latter waiting, all simple open-air vehicles, each with space for four. One had just touched down, its passengers only now exiting: a heavyset, golden-skinned twi’lek man; a tall rodian in colorful, many-layered clothing; a middle-aged mirialan woman leaning on a pair of forearm crutches; and a gray-haired, physically unassuming human man who wore an elaborate open-faced robe in brown and cream and rose. The rodian beckoned Jekk over, their aura and posture emoting something equivalent to a broad smile, and then turned to say something to the mirialan. Hallen was already beaming at the twi’lek man, who was almost certainly Master Wettle; behind them, Master Liv’trai and Vallec were catching up.

The human man approached, spreading his hands in greeting. “Master Liv’trai,” he said, bowing his head. “Let me welcome you and your initiates to Tython.”

Liv’trai bowed in return, her lekku gesturing respect. “Thank you, Master Bakarn,” she said. “We’re all looking forward to seeing the Jedi Temple at last—especially young Hallen here.”

Master Syo Bakarn—one of the Jedi Council, widely reputed to be a kind man and a skilled diplomat—chuckled to himself. “I can see that,” he said. “Welcome, Initiate Hallen; Master Wettle has spoken highly of you.”

Hallen’s eyes practically sparkled. “Master Bakarn! I mean, thank you, master, I hope I live up to it, I’m honored—”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Please,” he said, “don’t worry. I promise, initiate, I’m not that scary.”

Her aura flickered, but she laughed again—just a tiny bit nervously. “Sorry! Sorry, Master Bakarn.” She wrung her hands. “Um, thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, initiate.” There was a teasing glint in Master Bakarn’s aura, one bright sharp note against the rest. He radiated a soft warmth, as gentle as the instant before sleep; it suffused the air around him.

Velnira wondered which of the initiates he’d come to meet. If Vallec hadn’t been too young for a training master, he would have been her first guess, but a padawan was expected to face their trials over the next few years—and the trials were sometimes dangerous. Not Hallen or Thara, who would have mentioned an offer from him. Jekk had gone to stand beside the rodian master. Which left Dennel—who had almost certainly been assigned to the mirialan woman, in keeping with long tradition—or her.

Or perhaps none of us, Velnira thought, and he’s here to speak with Master Liv’trai. That seemed more likely. More reasonable. Less like something she would have to feel strangely about, in that nameless bittersweet way; it would be a high honor, but one she couldn’t know if she deserved.

(She knew she was powerful; how could she not? And she knew that it didn’t make her a better Jedi. She just had to hope that it didn’t make her a worse one.)

He stopped to say a few words to the initiates’ master, briefly vindicating her assumption, and there was a hushed exchange. Beside them, Hallen broke away from Master Wettle and made her way back to where Velnira was standing by the edge, bouncing gently on her heels every couple steps. “Hey!” the zabrak girl stage-whispered, grinning wildly. “Hey, guess what?”

“Um,” said Velnira. “Should I say something ridiculous?”

“No, no, don’t,” Hallen said, the words spilling over each other. “I’m really excited, he said—Master Wettle said the Council already approved us! I’m going to be a padawan as soon as we get to the Temple! I mean, there still needs to be the ceremony and all that, but he says we can do it tonight!”

Velnira clasped her hands. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “I bet you’ll be a knight before the year is out.”

“You think? Well, that’ll make two of us.” Hallen winked and tried to elbow Velnira again, which worked much better while they were standing still. “And if you try to be humble about this, I’ll bite you.”

Velnira hadn’t met a huge number of zabraks, and sometimes wondered if social biting was common, or if Hallen just thought it was a properly silly thing to threaten. She twisted her hands, looking sheepish. “I wasn’t going to do that.”

“Lying is not becoming of a Jedi,” Hallen intoned, and then collapsed into giggling again.

Putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder to steady her, Velnira smiled again. “Perhaps not,” she agreed. “I’m willing to be patient, though. Diplomatic missions can take a long time, and I don’t know when my future master—whoever they might be—will be able to return to Tython.”

“You and Thara!” Hallen said. She ran a hand along her hairline, absently rubbing the base of one horn. “I mean, I know patience is a good thing, but—there’s so much to see and do. How can you be willing to just… wait?”

Velnira tipped her head thoughtfully to the side, considering. “I don’t know,” she admitted, after a moment. “I think it helps to be certain there’s something to wait for, even if I’m not sure what it looks like.” Her lips twitched upwards at one corner, and her voice turned a little bit teasing. “Or maybe it’s just good practice for diplomatic meetings.”

“Oh! Ha! I forgot you were signing up for those. Maybe you’re right, then.” Hallen slung an arm around Velnira’s shoulders. “You’ve got to be patient,” she said, “or you’d fall asleep or something. That’s what happened last time I tried to watch the Annual Coruscanti Geo-Survey Conference feed. It was supposed to be interesting, but then they were just—talk talk talk, you know?”

Velnira smiled. “I like talking,” she said. “And listening, too.”

“Then you are already ahead of a great many diplomats,” said Syo Bakarn, having come up seemingly from nowhere. He bowed, as all Jedi did to all others, and smiled softly at them. “Initiate Velnira. I understand you petitioned to be matched with one?”

Her reservations seemed to vanish in the face of him, standing there and radiating warmth into the Force; it was fine to worry sometimes, but she knew when to let go. “I did, master,” she said, clasping her hands as she bowed back. “I’ve felt it to be my calling for—” She cut herself off, laughing quietly. “Hallen.”

Hallen stopped mouthing ‘told you so’ at her and attempted to look innocent. “Yes?”

“You didn’t tell me so,” Velnira pointed out.
Hallen remained the picture of sincerity. “I thought it really hard.”

“Initiates,” said Master Bakarn, holding up a hand. He wasn’t laughing, but his aura gave the impression of it. It was suffused with humor, a metaphorical chuckle hidden behind a metaphorical palm, showing that the interjection was anything but a rebuke.

Velnira ducked her head. “Our apologies, master,” she said, despite the distinct lack of sheepishness from her fellow initiate. “What was I saying?”

“That diplomacy was your calling, I believe,” said Master Bakarn, unable to suppress a smile. “A calling I wish, for my part, that more initiates pursued. One that requires the patience and compassion to listen, and the confidence not to bend too soon. Even some Jedi find difficulty in those qualities.” He extended a hand. “Your trials will help you develop them further, I’m sure—but first, I’d like to hear the thoughts behind your request. I believe Master Wettle and I have space for one more?”

Master Wettle, hearing his name, grinned over at them. “Exactly correct,” he said, with an expansive sweep of one lek. He moved to open one of the aircar’s front doors, gesturing for Hallen to follow and take the passenger seat. “Come along, initiate—or padawan, should I say?”

Velnira took Master Bakarn’s hand. “I’d be honored,” she said.

They took the rear seats, her behind Master Wettle, him behind Hallen. She pulled her legs up beside her, arranging herself so she could twist towards him without awkwardness. For his part, he just refrained from strapping in. Master Liv’trai would not have approved.

“Ready?” asked Master Wettle, glancing back over his shoulder. “I hope so, because here we go!” He pressed a button, and the aircar began to rise.

The initiates’ crèche-master looked over, the Force flickering in surprise and faint alarm around her, and then she hurried over. “Wettle!” she called out. “Don’t you think you’re being a little hasty?”

The engine seemed to purr with his laugh. “Aren’t I always, cousin?”

“You are setting a bad example,” Liv’trai said, amused. She gestured with her lekku—Velnira, with only a shaky grasp on the language, made out know better and authority-modifiable and bird.

He flapped one lek in response. “We’ll meet you at the Temple,” he said, “don’t worry.”

And they began to move forwards, Master Liv’trai waving at them in fond exasperation as they left the landing pad’s bounds. Hallen was peering over the open-roofed vehicle’s sides immediately, leaning over her door in a way that only her straps prevented from being distinctly unwise. Master Wettle’s aura—a bright winged thing—seemed to suffuse the whole aircar, every thrum a heartbeat.

“So, initiate,” said Master Bakarn, quietly, “I’m told you want to be a diplomat.”

Velnira inclined her head. “For most of my life, master. Since before the Sacking.” She didn’t offer the always-healing pain that word carried, the grief that could only be accepted and sat with, but she didn’t need to. Every Jedi who had been with the Order then knew what it felt like. “I was one of the younglings they got out,” she admitted. “I know some people say it proved negotiation impossible, but if the next war is coming—maybe we can make the next peace better than the last.”

He smiled, and there was sadness in it, but also the warmth of someone who had seen exactly what he wanted to see. “Then I will tell you this, Initiate Velnira: a diplomat doesn’t begin to concede their terms at the opening. Speak clearly, and speak politely, but speak confidently. Every negotiation must be sincere and unashamed.” He made a small, encouraging gesture. “Would you like to answer again?”

She nodded, and centered herself in the Force, holding awareness—of her body, her surroundings, the life around—in her chest like an anchoring point. Like a breath, taken in and let go. “We are peacekeepers,” she said. “And peace-makers, when we can’t find enough to keep. We may need to fight, but wars can’t be ended by force alone. I can serve the galaxy better with my words than my weapon.” She broke into a small grin. “Better, master?”

“Yes. Hold on to that, initiate.” He laid a hand on her shoulder, just briefly, moving easily despite the rush of air around them. “A Jedi’s humility should come from thought and meditation, from their knowledge of themself as a part of the Force—not from insecurity.” His voice dropped softer. “You wouldn’t be the first powerful student to feel a need to compensate.”

Velnira caught the implication. “You…?” she asked, trailing the question off at the edge. She wasn’t certain it was polite to ask.

“In my youth,” he said, with a laugh that was lost under the wind. “Corellia still has a vestigial aristocracy. I was very dedicated to proving that I wasn’t like that—that I did not consider myself better than anyone else.”

A tiny grin tugged at her lips, only half-nervous. “Did you succeed?”

“Mostly in annoying people,” Master Bakarn admitted, ducking his head with self-aware chagrin.

The aircar dipped gently down, lowering itself to skim the treeline. Master Wettle hummed cheerfully to himself as he flew, pushing the throttle—it was the throttle that sped them up, right?—forwards to the next notch. The wind got faster. They followed the river, clear and blue as the sky, as it wended its way towards the first and newest Jedi Temple.

Master Bakarn edged along the bench to the side of the aircar, looking out in almost the way Hallen had. “Wettle,” he called over, pitching his voice to be heard, “is this the usual route?”

“Nope!” Master Wettle replied cheerfully. “Can’t take the usual route—there’s fighting around the roads. But we can’t do anything about that, eh?”

Master Bakarn didn’t wince, but he lowered his head, pressing his lips together. “We must all follow the will of the Senate,” he said, sounding like he didn’t actually want to believe it. “History shows what happens when we do not.”

“And I suppose history won’t mention the Pilgrims at all,” said Master Wettle. His voice was blithe, but the serenity in his aura had become very pointy.

Regret met it, their presences brushing together in the most central language of the Jedi. “This is an argument for the Masters’ Hall,” said Master Bakarn, “not an aircar full of padawans.”

“Initiates,” said Velnira, automatically.

“Thank you,” replied Master Bakarn, equally automatically. “An aircar full of initiates.”

There was no change in Master Wettle’s aura—just that faint sharpness, clinched tightly by a deep span of calm—but his lekku signed vague affirmation. “True enough,” he agreed, banking the aircar towards a higher, thickly forested section of ground. “It was a moment of weakness, that’s all. Won’t happen again.”

“No,” said Master Bakarn, “you had the right to say it. But not here and now.”

The flight continued in silence. They rose again. Velnira gave Master Bakarn a questioning look, flickering curiosity-faint-concern at him through the Force, and got a small shake of his head in response. She nodded back, reluctantly, resolving to ask more when they arrived.

Hallen had no such qualms. “Masters?” she said, hesitant but undeterred. “Could you, uh… explain what that was about? I mean, if I’m not supposed to know, I understand, but—you know?”

“Order politics,” said Master Wettle immediately. “Not yours to worry about, Hallen, don’t worry—or not for a few years, ha.” His chuckle was unconvincing. “‘There is no emotion, there is peace,’ but there is also a little flex around the edges, and all that.”

Hallen made a small, unsatisfied noise, but slouched down in her seat instead of pushing the issue. Velnira sent sympathy towards her, a gentle glimmering coil brushing the edge of her aura. (Both colorless, prismatic, green and blue and gold and white at once—and if one was more green and the other more gold, neither was a certainty yet.) In response she got a small flash of hurt, self-chagrin, others-chagrin. Disappointment like a shallow cut, hurting more for the knowing that it was an overreaction.

No. It’s alright. Velnira squeezed Hallen’s hand, her fingers alongside the Force’s alongside her fellow initiate’s, two interlaced and pressed to one. “We can ask at the Temple, where it won’t try the masters’ patience,” she said. Her aura glittered with a very faint mischief. “We can save that for our lessons.”

“Ah,” said Master Bakarn, with concern.

Relief-without-closure. Wry acceptance. Hallen’s shoulders relaxed, and she turned back to watch the ground go by. Velnira did the same, smiling faintly despite herself and despite the wind pinning her loose bangs against her eyes. Someone might have compared the sun and sky and trees to the commonest colors of Jedi sabers, etched vivid and abstract in the Force and underweaving the surroundings—but it would almost hurt to compare Tython’s glow to a weapon, even a weapon in service of peace.

The forest rippled like water below them. Velnira curled her fingers over the rim of the door, struck by the opposite of homesickness—the overwhelming sense of this is where you should be, of being reached out to by a thousand thousand hands.

And then something else reached up; a taut cord of tension, ready to snap…

Master Bakarn hastily buckled himself in, and then Master Wettle pushed something all the way and pulled something else and the aircar dropped. It swung to the side as it plummeted, flinging itself out of the way of danger danger danger (was that air defense fire?) just in time, and the tension wove itself around Velnira’s hands and tugged her towards focus. Entirely unsure what to focus on, she hunched down beside the door and tried to think. Something was shooting at them (on Tython? why?) and she didn’t know what (bad) and all their luggage had already been loaded onto a supply shuttle so there was nothing to throw (also bad), and—she flung her mind into the Force, looking, feeling—there was no hostile intent to be found. Automated? Were they being attacked by an abandoned structure? Why?

The aircar lunged upwards again just before they hit the treeline, springing forwards almost like a living thing, moving with stomach-twisting momentum. Velnira did her best to soothe her body, to convince it that it didn’t need to be dizzy or sick, and clung to her straps like it would help. She oriented herself on the danger, eyes wide open but watering—found it in sharp bursts of spiking not-pain-yet, knew Master Wettle was listening too, felt the aircar weave to avoid them all. A hard left turn. A bob up and down. Then up and up and up and left-right-left-left as something fought to predict them and Master Wettle predicted first, and she was strapped into a metal box she couldn’t control, this was why she hated flying

Velnira caught the panic before it could build, cradling it in the quiet place in her mind. She looked to Master Bakarn. He was sitting with his eyes closed beside her, his body as loose as a ragdoll’s, utterly calm. Hallen, in the passenger front seat, was flipping from worry to excitement and back to worry every moment, all energy waiting for a chance.

Trust the Force. Trust the masters. And Velnira did, focusing on the flow of life through her and the pulse of her heartbeat, as Master Wettle made the aircar dance and the wind stung her eyes. Gravity pressed her hard against her seat.

“Go up,” Master Bakarn suddenly urged, eyes still shut. “Up further, Wettle, this isn’t enough—”

“I’m trying!” said Master Wettle, calling back over the roar of air. “G-forces! Yes?”

Master Bakarn made a frustrated expression, but his aura barely flickered. His hand went to the latch on his harness.


The aircar couldn’t turn quickly enough. It dodged one shot, still trying to climb, and then something slammed into the bottom of the vehicle and Velnira felt the straps lock as she was flung forwards and the loose humming tie between Master Wettle and the aircar snapped like cheap plastic.

And then, in a horrible instant of stillness, they weren’t flying anymore.

Master Bakarn said a word that was not encouraged in front of initiates and disengaged their harnesses.

The car dropped out from under her as Velnira came loose, flinging her limbs outward like they had all once practiced, with the air whipping around her and no time at all and her thoughts racing ahead of gravity like they never had before. And then she twisted, feet towards the ground, fingers brushing the edge of the outward span, and she reached out and—focused.

Using the Force was like standing in the center of a sphere of light. It was the silent downbeat between each pulse of her heart, the tiny thread of gravity that pulled the ground up towards her feet instead of the other way around. The knowledge that everything was connected, and every connection went both ways, and the only thing to fear from vertigo was the decision to let yourself drop.

Gravity wasn’t a choice. But not every landing had to be a fall.

She caught herself in her own aura, Tython’s well damping to a gentle tug. Her awareness swirled, expanded—there was Master Wettle, a shining comet with Hallen wrapped in his arms and clinging to his chest—

Master Bakarn’s fingers closed around her wrist, his aura flowing seamlessly through hers like mist, and then he pulled and danger howled towards the space she had been in and they were plummeting again—but this time with purpose, with direction, like a current that knew exactly when it would need to slow.

Velnira pressed herself in close against him, sunlight on the surface of the water, and somehow it was her that pushed them just out of the way of the next bolt. It passed within a meter of them, crackling madly. Then they hit the treeline, already slowing in a reverse of terminal velocity, and there were too many branches and leaves and all of them wanted to be in her face. She wrapped the long tail of her robe around her stomach and pulled her hood over her head, pressing her forehead into her arms for good measure. The branches still hurt. They stung and scraped and bruised, lashing at her and her concentration, and she felt Master Bakarn’s hands on her back and the Force like a second skin around her, and the pair drifted down to the leaf-caked earth to collapse there.

There was no danger there, no threat. Velnira lay on the ground with her eyes closed, trying to gulp air and smooth out her breathing all at once, and Tython held her muddily to it like a lost child. Its compassion was an enormous graceless thing, both impersonal and overwhelmingly personal, reaching towards her with all the same gravity that could have killed, and she pushed her forearms down into the leaf litter and tried not to laugh. You big silly thing, she thought, regarding the ancient homeworld of the Jedi with a ridiculous, adrenaline-dizzy fondness, you only know how to care about people like physics…

It didn’t answer back, and she hadn’t expected it to. Planets, places, objects, anything that beheld life so strongly but didn’t quite have its own—they could only speak with the voice they found in your own head, and initiates were trained early not to try to give them one. It was a bad habit to have outside the galaxy’s places of light. And the gravity didn’t hold her any closer. But the Force’s brightest touch—the love that was a synonym for life—glowed beneath the ground, and she felt its steadiness there.

“Initiate Coris,” said Master Bakarn, his palm resting lightly on her shoulder. “You seem to be handling this well.”

For a moment, she was gripped by the irrational worry that she’d done something wrong. But when she looked up, his expression was just as warm as it had been, and she broke into a shaky smile. “I’m glad you’re alright, master.”

“And you, initiate.” He extended a hand, and she took it, and they hauled her up to her feet together. “We have a long walk ahead of us, if we want to get into comm range of the Temple. Can you manage that?”

“Don’t worry,” said Velnira. “I’m only bruised. I might regret it tomorrow, but I’ll regret it at the Temple.” She tried fruitlessly to rub some of the mud off her pants, but only succeeded in rubbing it in. And I once wondered why we wear so much brown, instead of walking around in all the colors of the rainbow…

Master Bakarn nodded, almost to himself. “Good. Take strength,” he said, “and remember that the line between your Trials and the tests of life is not a clear or hard one.” He inclined his head slightly, pausing to regard her thoughtfully, his fingers stopping partway through unhooking his saber. “And know that there may be more danger yet. Air defense turrets—as we apparently encountered—are not the only hostile thing in these woods. Some of Tython’s ruins still have guardians.”

Her hand went to the training saber that hung awkwardly from her belt, less her weapon and more her shield. No amount of training had ever made it feel right in her hand. She drew it anyway, snapping open the clasp and raising it, not into the opening stance of the Niman form, but into something close enough to slip into it at need. “I understand,” she said, twitching the point of the blade. It remained an object, rather than an extension of her arm, and she had the self-awareness to admit that she might have preferred it that way. “If I can ask something…?”

“A Jedi should always question,” he said, with the faint glint in his eye of a master deliberately menacing a student with proverbs. “How else will we know? After all—”

“—there is no ignorance,” she finished, and had to laugh quietly at his expression. It was half amused, half affronted: the expression of a master denied an opportunity to menace a student with proverbs. “Thank you, master. Who is fighting around the roads? Master Wettle mentioned pilgrims, but—they can’t be fighting us, can they? Are they fighting each other?” The question was almost unthinkable, but she could think of no other option. Even the Senate surely couldn’t compel the Jedi to fight a group of religious pilgrims.

“Ah. Yes.” He raised his comm in his off hand, frowning at it, and then set off in a direction with a gesture for her to follow. “When the Jedi returned to this world,” he said, “so did a group of twi’lek devotees—or perhaps heretics, if you ask those they were fleeing. They sought absolution here, saying it was a world holy to their Goddess; the Senate disagreed, and denied them the right to settle. They came anyway. And when they did, they found that this planet was as dangerous as the one they left.” Master Bakarn’s expression was impassive, his lips pressed together in a mask of—something. Even his aura was too quiet to read. “Partly from the wildlife, partly from the ruins. But mostly, initiate, from those we found here when we arrived. Did your crèche-master truly not tell you?”

She didn’t stop walking, but blinked at him in confusion. “Tython has a native species?”

“No,” he said, without looking back, without pausing, with something grimmer in his voice. “Tython has an abandoned weapon. And we have a problem.”

“But they’re sapient.”

“Some debate that.” He didn’t sound like he agreed, but also not quite like he disagreed. If he had any true opinions on the matter—he wasn’t sharing here, or now, or with her. Twigs crunched under his boots. “They do not speak to us, or to the Kalikori, who call them Flesh Raiders for what they do with their kidnapped victims. Or perhaps only what they are rumored to do.” He blew out air in a quiet, sharp sigh and checked his comm again, then the compass on his datapad. “This should be the right direction…” he muttered. “Yes. Anyway. The Senate became aware of the frequent conflicts, and has strictly forbidden the Jedi to assist the Kalikori. They came of their own free will, without sanction of the Republic, and so the Republic withdraws its—and our—protection. Do you see?”

Velnira glanced, instinctively, towards the sky. No less light filtered through the leaves, diffuse and golden. No warmth left the air. But she did see, and there was something quiet and cold and broken in the picture she was being shown, and she had no idea at all what she could do about it. “I don’t know,” she said, voice soft. “I don’t see how this accomplishes… whatever the Senate wants it to accomplish. If the Kalikori aren’t going to leave, withholding help isn’t anything but cruelty.”

“Mmm. Perhaps you are right, initiate.” Master Bakarn glanced back at her, the Force like mist around him, a teacher unwilling to influence his student. “Do you think we should exterminate the raiders, then?” he asked. “The option has been proposed. Pretend you are me, for the moment, and sit on the Council in your mind. Would you take it?”

“No,” said Velnira immediately, “of course not. Are those the only two options?” She knew they weren’t. Knew, like she knew the Force was forever alongside her, like she knew there was a point to being a Jedi at all. To doubt that would be to threaten to turn her back on everything she believed in.

“I hope not.” He tapped something into his comm, and it made a noise like an astromech. An angry one. He frowned at it in response, and shook it slightly, and started moving again. His gaze slid back to her, watching. “You want to be a great diplomat,” he said. There was a hint of sympathy in it, slipping through some tiny crack in the teacherly persona. “Give us another option, then. Tell me how you would make peace.”

Velnira took a breath, and let it out, and felt the Force as the sun against her skin, and held the unfairness of the problem in her head until she knew the words that came out of her mouth wouldn’t be shouldn’t you know? or but I’m not a master of the Council! She wasn’t angry, not really; she was confused and hurt, and there was a difference. “I don’t know,” she said, without shame or sheepishness. “Maybe I could answer, if I had all the information the Council did. Maybe not. But I’ll think about it, master, I promise.”

“If you had all the information the Council did, then I would be proud to call you Master Coris.” Master Bakarn stopped, smiling faintly at her as he turned, and there was mud on his very complicated robes and sun moving across his skin as the leaves stirred, and the Force around him was something close to gentle again. He extended a hand. “But for now,” he said, “perhaps I could call you ‘padawan’—if you would let me.”

Velnira almost took his hand without thinking, and forced herself instead to leave it in the air above his, hesitating at the edge. She wanted to say yes, for the wrong reasons and the right ones—to show it could be done, if only it wasn’t being done alone, and that had to be both. She almost wanted to say no, too, for what felt like no reason at all. It was a leap of faith almost anyone would have taken.

“Is that the Council’s answer?” she asked, quietly, before she could stop herself.

He was silent for just a moment, and then his smile turned almost amused. “No, Initiate Coris. It was a question.”

She took his hand. “I’ll think about it,” she said, again.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

It was hard to tell how much time had passed by the time they had to stop and rest. They hit one dead end, then backtracked and eventually discovered another, and found themselves in that tablet-lined chamber over and over again. Eventually they gave up for the moment and paused there, sabers glowing like a warning as the pair leaned back against the wall.

Ahene pushed her arms together in her sleeves and pressed them tight against her body, still shivering. She felt like she should have been numb to the cold by now.

“I don’t think we should sleep here,” Kory said, breaking the silence. She looked tired enough that it was a concern, though it was difficult to tell in the low light of their weapons. “But if we don’t find him soon…”

“We will.” Ahene grabbed her saber and shoved herself away from the wall, suddenly more restless than tired. There was an energy alive in her, and if she could just properly tap into it—

She felt like she could do anything.

That was what scared her, though. More than the tomb, more than the test, nearly as much as dying—the Force was clearly something she could lose control of. And what had happened with Gerr had felt like losing control.

What’s my alternative, though? She frowned and started to pace, wandering back and forth in a little puddle of light. Korriban had stopped guiding her after she’d sent Gerr packing, and she’d wanted it to pull back. Just not like this. She’d hoped for restraint; it had given her silence.

Its dubious wisdom filtered into her thoughts: same thing.

Ahene sighed. “Fine, then,” she murmured. “You think I’m too hesitant for you, you’ve made that clear.” She ignored the weird look Kory was giving her, spun on her heel, and started walking purposefully towards the far wall. “But I’m not giving up. That’s simply not an option.”

“Um, Ahene? Is talking to yourself really going to help?”

“I’m not talking to myself,” Ahene said, waving her free hand vaguely. “I’m talking to Korriban.”

Kory wrinkled her nose. “I… think the point stands.”

“Probably. I don’t know.” Ahene stopped short of the wall and glanced back. “I just need to figure this out,” she said, “that’s all.”

Kory retrieved her saber and followed. “The tablets?” she guessed. “I can’t read them either.”

“No, the—I don’t know.” Ahene pressed her lips together. “All of this. Korriban. The Force.”

“Heh.” It was more a puff of breath than a laugh. “Might take a while, you know.”

“I know.” Ahene shot a tiny grin in her direction. “But we don’t have a while, so I’ll try to be quick.”

Kory reached out, hesitantly, and squeezed one of Ahene’s arms. “If there’s anything I can do to help,” she whispered, “tell me.”

For a few moments, the tomb was silent.

“Sit with me?” Ahene asked.

They arranged themselves side-by-side on the cold stone floor, again leaning back against the ancient texts. Kory fidgeted nervously, each small motion jostling Ahene slightly. She’d moved closer than Ahene had meant for her to; for a moment, she almost expected Kory to lie down with her head in her lap.

Ahene wasn’t sure she’d mind. If she closed her eyes and put some effort into it, she could almost imagine that it was Sirue with her—but, of course, it wasn’t, and that was a good thing. It would be terribly foolish to, having sacrificed herself, immediately wish Sirue back into danger.

Not that wishing would change anything, either way. But it was still foolish.

She took a breath, and let it out again, and laid one hand down on the ground. The tile was still cool and unpleasantly dusty, but—more importantly—it was solid. Just the illusion of stability, of course, but it might be enough.


She didn’t open her eyes. “Yes?”

“Be careful, alright?” Kory squeezed Ahene’s hand. “I don’t want you going all weird like Gerr did.”

“I’ll be fine.” Ahene smiled reassuringly. “I promise.”

Kory’s laugh was quiet. “I’m going to hold you to that.”

Ahene didn’t respond, but she didn’t pull her hand away, either. She just tipped her head back, eyes squeezed shut, and imagined the space around her.

Empty. Echoing.

Was she supposed to let her thoughts wander, or—?

No. That was how Gerr had gotten lost. She was quieter and cleverer and more deliberate; she knew exactly where she was going. All she needed was to go through with it.

Hello, Korriban, Ahene whispered into the privacy of her own skull. I’ve come to bargain.

Silence pressed in. She started to feel as if she’d had entirely the wrong idea of how this worked, that she was small and insignificant—a child flailing about with powers she didn’t understand—

Who was she, really, to negotiate with something so ancient and grieving? She couldn’t handle its strength. She couldn’t handle its clarity. She had come looking for some petty piece of information, but it knew things that would shatter her.

Ahene tightened her grip, nails digging into—something. Somebody’s flesh. Is that your price? she asked, clinging desperately to the thought.


Her head spun. She bit down on her tongue, fumbling for some sort of anchor. Where is Spindrall?

It couldn’t show her. Not really. But she could show herself, if she was willing.

I’ll do it, she thought, wanting more than anything to shove the presence away. She felt like the planet was trying to fit its whole self into her skull. There just wasn’t enough room, and that was that, but she clung grimly to the knowledge that she needed it, needed this—

She broke through bone and into sharp lucidity, shaking with adrenaline and relief. Her breaths were short and ragged, but she was there. She could see. Korriban hummed around her, as vaguely proud as the malign presence could seem, and every life burned like a sun. Kory was the brightest, so close beside her, but the others… oh, yes. She understood now. The k’lor’slugs and the raiders, everything that was out for her blood down here—they would be her map. If they were stars, then she could astrogate with them.

Ahene spread her free hand, reaching forwards to push her boundary further. She could feel a gravity somewhere out there, calling her in, and if Spindrall was down here—it had to be him. Her fingers pressed into that border, willing it further and deeper with all the strength she could muster, and she dug her teeth harder into her tongue until she tasted blood—come on, she thought, just a little further—and then all at once her stomach plunged downwards with the floor of her sight. She dropped too, or her awareness did, dizzy and exhilarated and wondering, in some small part of her mind, why this place was so absolutely determined to make her nauseous.

The normalcy of that thought was reassuring, but it nearly flung her back into her own head, and that was something she couldn’t afford. So she discarded it—the nausea and the fatigue, the gnawing hunger, all of it—and dove even deeper, letting the lesser stars fade away in her search for something larger and darker.

She was so close. She could almost see it, dim and red and roiling, pressed right up against the edge but she could almost touch it—

And Korriban, in its infinite sorrow, pushed her over and into the endless pit.

(Hyperspace, she could call it. Or maybe the Maw?)

Heedless of metaphor, her world went black.

Here was the price: there would be no more trust, not really.

She must have pushed too far, she decided, burned away something she needed, and that had been an opening for this world to teach her a very clear lesson. Her free hand slammed into the wall behind her, and her eyes opened, and that should have helped but somehow it didn’t—somehow she was still there. The world looked like a paper-thin painting, compared to what Ahene could see behind it; the chill stone and Kory’s hand on hers felt like nothing, caught like this between the Force’s crushing gravity and a delirious freefall.

What have you done? she wondered, touching the planet’s will and shivering at it. But she knew the answer: nothing. This had all been in her already; Korriban had only given her a shove.

This was the real test, wasn’t it? Endure or let go completely, and lose either way—stars alive, she felt like she was drowning.

A thought came to her, in Sirue’s voice: Air is for suckers.

It was still only her, of course. The Force could do a lot, but it couldn’t fling Ahene halfway across the galaxy and into the arms of someone who thought she was dead. But that didn’t mean she was wrong—after all, the Force could do a lot.

Maybe it would let her use this feeling, and drown without drowning.

Maybe, just maybe, it could turn pain into power.

“Alright, then,” Ahene whispered, the words thick and heavy in her mouth. Somewhere far away, her tongue was aching. “Let’s keep going.”

Kory jerked her head up. “Are you sure?” she asked, looking at Ahene with the bone-deep worry of someone who knew she couldn’t make it alone. “If you need to rest…” She frowned and squeezed Ahene’s hand. “We can wait. We don’t need to be the first ones there.”

Rest sounded lovely. “I don’t,” Ahene lied. “And we can’t.” The stone seemed to warp under her. Gravity again, and maybe even hers. “Just—help me up. Please. And I can keep going.”

Kory didn’t want to. She really, truly didn’t want to. That was as clear as the look on her face. But she did, letting Ahene brace herself against one hand and tucking the other under one of Ahene’s elbows, and—somehow, together, the two of them managed to get Ahene on her feet again.

She took a step. The floor didn’t crumble under her, which she decided was a good sign. “See?” she murmured. “I’m fine.”

Like hell you are, Kory’s expression replied, but she didn’t push it. She didn’t take away her arm, either, which Ahene quietly appreciated.

“I know where we’re going now,” Ahene said, after a few moments.

“Really, this time?”

“I deserve that,” Ahene muttered. “But yes.” She attempted another step. It seemed to work. Emboldened, she kept going, resolutely ignoring the fact that her mind was absolutely sure that the floor was not, in fact, the floor, and was in fact a giant pit.

Did all Sith go through this, she wondered, or just the ones who were evidently supposed to die down here? This was, allegedly, part of the Sith Academy’s training program; perhaps there were classes about it.

The pair eventually reached the room’s exit again, far more slowly than the last time they’d done so. Ahene hesitated before the archway, fingers twitching. Somewhere in there, Kory had evidently taken the training saber away from her—which, given the circumstances, was probably admirable good sense.

“What’s wrong?” Kory asked, still the picture of concern.

Rather than answer, Ahene frowned and put a hand on one of the tablets. There was something odd about it—which was saying something, considering everything else—and that likely made it important, in her very limited experience with these things. It felt faintly… bloody, perhaps, like the echo of a deep crimson sun.

The connection was obvious, but she felt clever for making it anyway. It was hard to think, after all, with her head spinning like this. A little bit of self-satisfaction was surely warranted—or would be, when she figured out how to get the thing open

In a surge of frustration, she hooked her fingers into one of the inscriptions and shoved the tablet sideways into the one beside it.

Behind the space where it had stood was a hallway, far less impressive than the main chambers of the tomb. Workers’ access, Ahene thought immediately—she was intimately familiar with the principle, if not this specific design. Most people just put in side doors; dead Sith apparently had more particular aesthetics. Either the architects had been offended at the thought of anyone traversing their creation quickly (and therefore hidden the mechanisms the real builders used to do so), or the place had actually been built for the purpose of absurd Sith tests—or, Ahene supposed, the tomb was just screwing with them however it could. The possibilities all seemed about equally likely.

“Observe,” she said, waving her hand in a gesture that might have been dramatic if it hadn’t been so dizzily haphazard. “The answer to our problems. Hopefully.”

“Wow,” Kory breathed. She laughed, sudden and quiet. “Hopefully.”

“Hopefully,” Ahene repeated, forcing herself to grin back. “Shall we find out?”

Kory nodded and helped her in.

The hallway was large enough for the smallest real construction droids—or mining droids, which seemed more applicable down here—but the Empire was the Empire and the Sith were the Sith, ancient or not. It was unlikely droids had done anything but the initial tunnels.

No one had bothered decorating the passage, which confirmed Ahene’s initial assumption nicely. The tiles and walls were both plain, and the latter strung with lights that had long since burned out. That was definitely a pity; she had no idea how long the power cells in the training sabers would last, but they clearly weren’t intended for constant use. The alternative was fumbling around in the dark, though, and that was what they’d been hoping to avoid.

(There was nothing that could light these halls for long, and Ahene knew it, but she just kept going…)

She took a deep breath, which might have helped if she didn’t still feel like she was suffocating, and clung to Kory like a damned lifeline as they made their way around a corner and towards a stairway down. They were lucky that it wasn’t a hatch, or such—though there was, of course, no railing, because why would anyone put in a railing? It might make things easier on the workers, and that obviously couldn’t be borne.

“Still sure you should be walking?” Kory asked, from what appeared to be very far away. She was right there, and yet on a different planet entirely.

“No. But—give me a moment. I can still make it down.” Ahene extracted herself from Kory’s grip, braced herself against the wall instead, and slid back down to the floor. She stayed there, carefully descending the first couple steps backwards on hands and knees. Something in her twisted up at being so close to the ground, knowing like she did that it wouldn’t hold her, but she kept going. She had to keep going.

The stone scraped her knees. She saw Kory descending beside her, and kept going.

Her knees stung like hell by the time Ahene got to the bottom, which was truly unfair on top of everything else. The pain felt distant and terribly close all at once, first blending into the ache in her stomach and the tiredness in her limbs, then taking a knife to it all—blood on these stones meant something, or it would if she survived. She wasn’t supposed to survive.

She intended to survive.

Kory dragged her out of that circular mantra by trying to drag her back to her feet, free arm hooked under one of Ahene’s shoulders. “C’mon, Ahene, I’m not leaving you here,” she said. “Up and at ‘em.”

Ahene fumbled to brace herself against the last step. “Give me a moment. I’m not a sack of potatoes.”

“Sure. Potatoes?”

“Tubers. Not too purple.” Standing up was easier than before; she was apparently getting used to this. Not as used to it as she’d like—or possibly far more than she’d like—but focusing on the goal seemed to help. Ahene leaned against the wall and started walking herself forwards again. Finding Spindrall was the important thing now, not what was happening inside her head. “I think they’re cheap filler in ration bars,” she added, to get her mind off her mind. “Or something like that. I wasn’t a food worker.”

“I wasn’t, either.” Kory grinned sideways at her, looking some mixture of sad and nervous and punch-drunk. “Construction. Worked on some Sith’s statue, until all the shooting started. You?”

“Lots of things,” Ahene said. “Mostly involving shovels. The governor had me putting in lots of useless little plants, before—well, before.” Before she’d escaped, or hadn’t escaped, or whatever this was. “Finicky ones. Probably ridiculously expensive. At least his estate was near the spaceport, for all the good that did.” Which was actually quite a lot, if Sirue had gotten away. She hoped Sirue had gotten away.

“You said you attacked a Sith…”

She traced a bloody glimmer with her footsteps, following it into a passage that branched off the first hallway. “Not very well.”

“I don’t know,” Kory murmured. “You’re still alive.”

Ahene resisted the urge to say something like how observant of you. “Yes, I am.”

“I think you did great, then,” Kory said, without bitterness or reservation. “Even if it was just the Force that saved you. You survived something that—well, I don’t think I could have.” She looked away, suddenly, and feigned a terrible interest in the floor, but her eyes were still fixed on Ahene. “If you wanted to talk about it…?”

“I don’t.” The words came out flat and final. Ahene felt Kory flinch rather than seeing it, tried to suppress both a wave of irritation and the urge to comfort her—and sighed, because it wasn’t Kory’s fault. None of this was Kory’s fault. “I did something stupid and reckless to save somebody I cared about,” she explained, and at least attempted to soften her voice. “That’s all.”

Kory didn’t seem to know what to say to that. “Oh,” she tried, and because that obviously wasn’t going to cut it, “I’m sorry.”

Ahene frowned and carefully slid past a door that had been wedged half-open by some enterprising prior acolyte. “You don’t have to be,” she said. “There’s just not much to say.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I get that.” Kory was quiet for a couple moments, and then suddenly she looked back up at Ahene. “Except that—it matters how we got here, doesn’t it?” Her free hand found one of Ahene’s, fingers threading through in one quick motion. “That we got here saving people. That matters, right?”

She was scared. She was—terrified. That was very clear, even if it seemed like it had come out of nowhere. Feeling blindsided was entirely unreasonable.

Ahene did the only thing she could think of, and pulled Kory in for a hug.

It was an awkward, careful gesture, especially since keeping the still-lit training saber extended at arm’s reach required the same of the arm in question. Ahene did her best anyway, holding Kory firmly against her. She murmured something indistinct and hopefully soothing, fingers pressed at the base of Kory’s neck, and reached to unhook her own weapon from Kory’s belt. “Here, it’s alright,” she whispered, “I’ll light the way, if you like.” She managed to get the saber free and clicked it on, the hum comforting against her hand. “We’ll get through this together. I promise.”

The platitudes didn’t seem to help. Kory made a strangled noise and pressed her face into Ahene’s shoulder, which definitely wasn’t any kind of good sign, especially in a dangerous ancient tomb where they both needed to be keeping an eye out. These might have been maintenance tunnels, once, but that didn’t make them trustworthy.

Pointing this out seemed counterproductive.

Ahene reached over and pressed the button to turn off Kory’s saber, then wrapped her free arm around Kory’s whole body. “It’s okay,” she lied, because that was what you said when things weren’t. “I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“That,” Kory began, and then her voice cracked, and she squeezed her eyes shut and choked down a sob. “That’s the problem,” she mumbled, burying the words in Ahene’s collarbone. “You’re not supposed to be here. We’re supposed to be alone. And I can barely look at you now, it feels like you’re going to, going to hurt me—”

“I’m not,” Ahene promised, more firmly than she’d meant to. It came out like the sort of promise that people fought and bled for, not the kind they whispered without really meaning it—without knowing if they meant it, at least. She wasn’t sure if it was wise to mean something like that, here. Probably not.

“I know,” Kory said, with the level of abject misery usually found in injured birds. “I do know that. But it’s hard to believe it.”

Ahene stopped, one arm still wrapped around Kory. “Do you want me to go?”

“No!” Kory said, frantic. She hunched her shoulders. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“I’d rather not leave you alone down here,” Ahene said, “but—”

Gravity shifted again, out of nowhere, and she tackled Kory to the ground an instant before the shooting started.

Somehow she kept the lit blade up and away from their bodies. Somehow she twisted and surged up again almost as they hit the floor, flinging herself towards the enemy on pure instinct. Somehow the next shot slammed into her weapon instead of her shoulder, which might have been luck and might have been the Force, and she had no time to wonder which—

—and the emitters overloaded, plunging the hallway into darkness—

—and the droid’s next shots lit it up again—

—and then Ahene was at the droid and grappling with it, hands sparking, using the damaged training saber to keep the gun away. That little bit of leverage was almost enough to give her an opening. Almost. Maybe if it had been a person—but droids didn’t feel strain, and it could push back harder than bone and muscle could match. Ahene found herself shoved towards the wall and made a split-second decision, stumbled with the motion, touched the Force as heat tore past her leg, flung lightning back in crackling desperation.

It missed, answering a question Ahene was in no position to consider now. She dug down deeper, threw herself towards the floor, threw another bolt of energy that tore through the air and won.

The droid toppled over, and she slammed back into the ground.

It wasn’t a good landing. It was better than getting shot would have been, and Ahene didn’t feel anything break, but—it wasn’t a good landing. The saber ended up under her somehow, its inertness suddenly a mercy, and after a moment or two she decided she was alright with that. She could just lie here for a little bit. That would probably be fine.

Light returned to the hallway, dim and yellow, and a second later Kory appeared in Ahene’s field of view. “You really need to stop ending up on the floor so much,” she said, kneeling down. “This is getting to be a habit.”

“A bad one,” Ahene agreed. “Clearly, I should… should stay down here a little longer.” There was a strange heat clinging to her leg, too distant to be pain. “Until I’m certain I can stand up.”



“Give me your leg.”

Ahene tried to move it, and—oh. There was the pain, then. She had been wondering. “I would prefer not to,” she said. “Could I interest you in the other one?”

“And… you definitely got yourself shot,” Kory muttered. “Great.”

“Did I?” Ahene shoved herself into a sitting position and peered down at her legs. There was indeed a bad burn right along one knee, where a blaster bolt had apparently grazed her. That was…

Logically, that was probably a death sentence, unless Kory was up to healing again. People didn’t survive down here if they had to limp around. But it didn’t feel like she was about to die now, after surviving Lord Rannes and so much more. It just felt like—another obstacle. An irritating one, to be fair, but not something that would stop her.

“Well,” Ahene said. “It seems I got myself shot.” She felt dizzy. Normal dizzy, not the kind that came with being flung mentally into space. That was all still there too, of course, but it didn’t feel nearly as important now. “Go ahead and give me the news, doc.”

“It’s not—I’m not a doctor, okay?” Kory frowned and set aside her saber. “But you’re alive, so it’s not as bad as it could be.” She put her hands on Ahene’s leg, spaced wide on either side of the burn. “I… can try to heal you,” she said, sounding reluctant. “If you can’t keep going like this. But it’s going to be hard on me. Maybe not as hard as before, but I already did that, and—look, I don’t want to ask you to walk on that leg. But if you can…”

“You can’t protect me.” It wasn’t an insult, just a statement of fact.

Kory winced, expression somewhere between hurt and determined. “I can try.”

“You can’t protect me, but you can heal me. And I can protect you.”

“You just got shot protecting me.”

“And if you get shot protecting me,” Ahene asked, “who’s going to patch you up?”

“Maybe I should leave you like this,” Kory muttered. “Makes you a lot less scary…”

It was an empty threat—no, a joke, Kory was too nice for even empty threats—but Ahene felt something catch in her throat anyway. “Please don’t,” she whispered.

“Fine.” Kory flashed a tight smile. “But if this kills me, you’re gonna have to live with the guilt forever.”

“Oh, I doubt I’ll live forever,” Ahene said, forcing herself back to dry nonchalance. I just don’t want to die right now.

Kory laughed. “Bastard,” she said, fondly. She took a deep breath and leaned down, fingers pressing in against Ahene’s thigh and ankle. She brought them towards the center of the leg, inch by inch, until they met the wound in a searing flash of pain.

A strangled whimper escaped Ahene’s lips as the seconds passed, time slowing to an absolute crawl in the haze. She could feel the emptiness pressing in, drawn to her current state like a scavenger bird—it’s just pain, she thought, desperate. She could get through this, she could, she’d survived worse and would again, and—

The burn tore itself out of her in one horrible moment, her vision going white-hot, and then she plunged into cool, clear relief.

Kory put her face down on Ahene’s leg and made a decidedly concerning noise.

“Well,” Ahene whispered. “Thank you.” She leaned over and laid a hand on Kory’s back. “Still there?”

“Mmngh,” Kory said.

“Good to know.” Ahene sighed and pulled Kory a little closer to her, fingers tangling in Kory’s ruined ponytail. “We need to get up,” she said, slanting a glance towards the corner the droid had come around. “As soon as possible. Are you up to that?”

Kory made an attempt. Not a very good one, mind you—but she did try, bracing herself against Ahene’s shoulders and shoving herself upwards. She wobbled on her feet, and Ahene scrambled to brace her again.

This was, Ahene decided, apparently how it was going to be; one of them half-carrying the other through a dangerous ancient tomb, all the way to their destination.

Letting out an exasperated little puff of breath, Ahene managed to finagle an arm free and grab Kory’s discarded weapon. She left her own now-useless saber lying where it was. She could worry about acquiring a new one when she’d gotten out of this alive; at worst, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d needed to sneak something out of a storeroom.

“It’s kind of ironic,” Kory mumbled, once they’d returned to their cautious trek down the hall.


“You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”

Kory recovered faster, this time. That only made sense; there had been nothing immediately deadly about the blaster burn, and so it stood to reason that the cost would be correspondingly lesser. But it was slow going, even so. There was a fine line between pulling guidance from the Force and drowning in it, and—to extend the metaphor—Ahene hadn’t even gotten her head back above water. Every time she thought she might finally have her senses under control, something inside her roiled dangerously and proved exactly how wrong she was.

She had something like the proper track, though, even if she had to wrestle it into place. If she followed that, then they might just make it where they needed to be.

That was the important thing about slow going: it was going. The pair of them were moving forwards. Carefully, gradually, and somewhat unsteadily, but forwards.

Ahene’s leg still ached, in the way healing muscles ached. She could almost appreciate that, however odd it sounded; having the wound undone entirely would have seemed wrong. Like it was cheating, somehow. And while she was hardly averse to cheating—it was a survival strategy, and whatever got her through this was fine with her—she had the feeling that there was a very large difference between cheating the Sith’s trials and cheating Korriban’s.

She closed her eyes, occasionally. It may even have helped her focus. And she thought she might be able to watch for danger better this way, suffused in her disquieting starscape—there were flickers of it, behind doors she didn’t open and down pathways she didn’t take. It buzzed in her skin like electricity.

The conversation had lulled, Kory mostly silent beside her. She was all roots, winding around and around—it was hard to tell where the world stopped and they began, the way it encroached on her—and riddled with gaps. Sunlight shone through those holes, completely unlike anything else here—a glow that didn’t burn, whispering safety. It was faint and pale, even so close, but still comforting.

Ahene noticed immediately when it vanished.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576
Dromund Kaas

It wasn’t only Sith at the party. The Empire had a small but distinct caste of secular nobility, drawn from the aristocrats of subject planets, and they were hardly sterilized upon entry. The three youngest Ssotirak dukes lurked near a window, chatting quietly as they sipped their drinks. Serving droids circulated through the room in semi-random patterns, offering pastries and suspiciously colored beverages to anyone they came across. Any poisoner would have to be willing to sicken half the partygoers, not that it was likely anyone would try; nobody here was the right kind of important for that. Kidnappings, perhaps, but not assassinations.

Still, good practice was good practice. Some of tomorrow’s rising stars were in this room; they would hardly be children forever.

Much of the ballroom had been given over to various small tables, none of which were particularly populated. Some of them had sculptures on them, in gleaming dark metal—mostly Imperial logos or the Vetracaelis house crest, generally surrounded by flowers or decorative fruit. They looked like terrible weapons; Orinara promptly ignored them.

She turned to grin at Alsair, and got a grimace in return. “I assume you’re going to introduce me to your friends,” she purred. “Latsenn I already know, of course…”

“Yes, we did agree that I would,” said Alsair miserably. Her gaze drifted over to the young woman in question, who was currently managing to claim most of the open central space for herself and her dance partner. They spun and twirled, somehow sketching the motions of a duel while engaged in nothing of the sort. “I think she’s a bit busy right now,” Alsair added, sounding disgusted. “With Ceresca, too—oh, sure, his father is a Darth, they’re great little heirs together, but he’s such a twit. It’s a karking tragedy, Nara. She could do so much better.”

“But not with you.” Orinara laughed at her cousin’s outraged look. She draped an arm over Alsair’s shoulders, smiling in faux sympathy. “Come on, I’m not numb. I can sense your envy. She’s out of your league, Allie, don’t say she isn’t.”

“Shut up. Leykta’s out of yours.”

Orinara shrugged. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, cousin.”

“You know it’s true,” Alsair grumbled. “I mean, she’s a pureblood, and they’ve got a few Dark Lords in the family. We’ve only got Great-Grandmother.”

Yes, and ask me about that in—oh, twenty years. Orinara’s lips twitched at the thought, and she shook her head. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I know Leykta and I have an expiration date, and I’m not going to go pining around when it’s over.” A droid went wheeling by, and she idly snagged one of the pastries off its tray. “Besides, I’m far more powerful than Leykta. It evens out.”

“But she’s cleverer. Void, you’re a kriffing rancor in a glassware factory, she’d have to be—”

“Alsair!” A lanky almost-pureblood came weaving through the tables, gown swirling in a way that was very nearly dignified. His skin was orange and lightly ridged, his hair bound back in a loose crimson queue. Orinara decided he was rather attractive, though his eyebrows looked a bit odd—mostly because purebloods generally didn’t have them. “I believe you promised a delivery,” he said, raising one in elegant skepticism. “Did this person, ah…?”

“Yes, I brought the spice,” Orinara said, delighting in the twin winces she got in response. They were playing at subtlety, and she was ruining the game. But I have a better one, she whispered into the back of her mind. There’s an art to this artlessness. Just you wait.

“Wonderful.” He pushed one hand up against his hairline, making a face. “Alsair, who is this?”

“This is, unfortunately, my cousin.” Alsair pronounced each word like it tasted of solvent, face nearly scrunching up despite Sith dignity. “Orinara Izarae, only daughter of Lord Zahoin Izarae, and the greatest pain in the ass ever to walk the face of this planet. Nara, this is Dulsu Atell—”

“Third child of the Dark Lord Nemeress Atell,” Dulsu finished smoothly. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Charmed,” Orinara replied automatically. She’d sat through way too kriffing many parties, where everyone went around in circles and introduced themselves very politely and there was no actual challenge to be found. She could pretend this was another one. “She’s under Military Strategy, right? Received her title after the Siege of Gettel IV?”

“That would be my mother, yes,” Dulsu said, voice hovering somewhere between wary curiosity and that tiredness Orinara knew so well. “Why do you ask?”

“My father tells the story of how he opened the supply lines planetside whenever he gets the chance. He’s insufferable, really.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Alsair said, clearly lying, “but I need to go sort through those crates. The servants should have unloaded them by now.” She smiled winningly. “You’ll show my cousin around, right, Dulsu? Excellent! Then I’ll—”

Orinara caught her by the arm. “Then you’ll also show me around,” she said, with the brazen cheer of someone who knew that what she said was going to go, whether it particularly wanted to or not.


“Because I don’t like you, Allie.” Orinara’s expression was nothing short of beatific. “Do I need another reason?”

Uncoiling like a serpent, Leykta stepped delicately out of the shipping crate and onto the black tile floor of an unused room. Standing in front of her was a very surprised zabrak, who, from the number of opened boxes in the area, had decided to go through every crate in the truck until he found the one with the drugs in it. Unpacking a Sith hadn’t been a possibility worth considering, before this very moment, and he was clearly wishing for a return to that blissful time.

Leykta gave it to him. “We were never here,” she said, pressing the statement into an all-too-willing mind. “You will turn around and leave.”

“You were never here,” echoed the zabrak, apparently untroubled by the idea of speaking to someone who didn’t exist. “I’m going to turn around and leave now.”

“Go ahead,” said Leykta, waving him away.

He made good on his word.

She laughed to herself, turned, and opened the largest crate, the lid removing itself at a gesture. “Come on out, Vanyas,” she said, “we’re alone now.”

Vanyas muttered something and carefully extracted themself, keeping a hand on the crate to stop it from tipping over. “Right,” they said. “Then I suppose we should get to it. You remember the way to the ballroom, yes?”

“Of course,” Leykta said. “My memory is impeccable. Though—well.” A smile tugged at her lips. “I have something I need to do first. You understand how it is.”

Vanyas rolled their eyes, which was as good as a yes. They probably still thought they’d kept their own agenda hidden, poor fool; when it came to technology, they had a rare talent, but they would have been served well by the acquisition of a mask. “Fine,” they said. “Just don’t make me bail you out afterwards, my dear, and I’ll happily ignore whatever nonsense you’re up to now.” They took a couple steps towards the door, then glanced back. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll go and insinuate myself into the security systems. Cee can only do so much from the outside.”

C-F763 was an absolutely wretched excuse for an astromech, in Leykta’s opinion, but Vanyas doted on the thing. She couldn’t fathom why. “Be quick about it,” she grumbled. “I don’t want your beloved trash can getting caught by the security systems.”

“It won’t,” Vanyas assured her, sounding offended at the very notion. The door swished open in front of them, and, with a quick glance back and forth, they slipped through.

Leykta followed, strolling out into the hallway like she belonged there. Which, as far as she was concerned, she did—after all, this was where she was, and that was all it really took. Nevermind that she had snuck into the family estate of a sort-of-rival; it was all about confidence and frame of mind, and Leykta had both in spades.

There was a side entrance to the grand ballroom just down the hall. She strode towards it, moving through the servants’ section like the danger she was, paused to throw a grin in the direction Vanyas had gone, and then turned and stepped into the turbolift instead.

The lift didn’t go all the way to the top floor, which contained the Dark Lord’s personal residence and a bit too much security, but Leykta only needed to get to the second. There were rooms there, but they’d be mostly empty now—the current lot of Vetracaelis cousins who slept in them were all either at the party below or avoiding it entirely, possibly excluding a couple poor fools who were trying to rest. And, more importantly, nothing on that floor was sensitive enough to have its own security. Locks, yes, but students’ quarters and exercise rooms and meditation chambers and cafeterias—none of those were worth special attention. No one cared about what was inside.

Who was inside, though…

Leykta’s smile grew thinner and meaner. This was it, finally, after spending her entire life until now preparing. This was the moment where everything would begin. She could see power, in her mind’s eye, and glory, and a time when all this would seem like some childish game. And it was. But it was also the threshold before something greater, if only she pulled it off.

The turbolift doors swished open again. Leykta stepped through and set off to meet her new master.

Eventually, after circulating the room in an increasingly disgruntled spiral, Orinara and her unwilling guides came to Latsenn. Orinara was beaming, while Dulsu and Alsair bore nearly identical grimaces. Averaged out, the three of them were more annoyed than not, though only just.

Latsenn wasn’t annoyed, quite—being annoyed would require admitting that there was something worth getting annoyed over. She was contemptuous. She wore the most picturesque sneer imaginable, tugging at the structure of a soft-featured but sharply ridged face. And she was unmistakably beautiful, would have been beautiful even without all the dark beads and darker silk and lightning-violet makeup. Her skin—a misty, desaturated purple—was nearly otherworldly under the light. Obsidian statues would have envied her.

“Alsair, dearest,” Latsenn said, the endearment coming easily and envenomed, “what is this?”

“My cousin.” Alsair’s voice was flat.

Latsenn looked at Dulsu.

He shrugged. “Don’t ask me.”

“Right,” said Latsenn. Her gaze stopped on Orinara, looking down—both literally, since Latsenn was only a bit shorter than Vanyas, and figuratively. She looked thoughtful. “The little Izarae scion. Last time I saw you, you were losing the semifinals.”

Skill in the various games of swordplay popular among the Sith was an imperfect indicator of actual combat ability, but truly standout performances could attract the attention of powerful lords. The acolyte bracket’s champion rarely went long without a master. “Against one of the Korriban Academy’s final-year students,” Orinara pointed out, acerbic. “And he won the tournament afterwards. It wasn’t the poor showing you’re implying.”

“Excuses, excuses,” Latsenn murmured. Her voice was almost a purr, low and rough at the edges, but it was just a bit too dignified to take that final step. She laughed, suddenly, and shook her head. “You take yourself so seriously, Orinara. Whyever would someone like you come play gate-crasher?”

“And I’m certain I placed higher than you did,” Orinara added, out of general contrariness.

“My parent isn’t sending cute little overtures to half of Offense. Now, won’t you answer the question?”

And how do you know what Father is doing? Orinara wondered, a little embarrassed despite herself. While some spread was inevitable, he was generally far too careful to let things slip into the wider rumor mill—unless Latsenn had been reading Darth Arnsadirsi’s holonet mail, of course, which was exactly the kind of petty escapade Orinara expected out of her peer group. “I’m not gate-crashing,” she said, with a glower and a note of mostly-feigned petulance. “I brought the spice, didn’t I? I feel that’s worth an invitation.”

Latsenn considered this for a moment. “Alsair,” she said, “dearest…”

“This is not my fault,” Alsair snapped. “The damn officer blabbed, that’s what happened. Or took too many bribes and got stupid about it, so Zahoin’s little baby enforcer here got on her case, or—I don’t know, she didn’t explain it.” She glanced over at Orinara. “Do you take lessons in obstinacy? I feel like you do.”

“Our dear Specialist Tonn got careless,” said Orinara, shrugging. “And I got bored. We agreed that it would be best if neither of these continued.”

“Really,” Latsenn murmured. Tall and broad, she took up a lot of space just in herself; she suddenly took up much more, stepping towards Orinara at the head of a deep, flickering storm. The others moved half-reflexively to let her approach. “Alsair’s told me all about you, you know. How badly you want to fit a mold I’ve spent far too much time being shoved into—courtesy of my beloved parent.” Her smile was equal parts compelling and disdainful, silver piercings glittering at the base of her philtrum and below her bottom lip. “She seemed to think parties bored you. So why come here?”

There were two tricks to lying, at least if your shields weren’t impenetrable. The first was to drown out your tells, burying them in the constant roil of your emotions. The second was a corollary to the first: and, whatever you do, don’t get smug about it.

A bit of self-satisfaction had been acceptable and warranted while making an annoyance of herself, of course—it was only what people would expect. Now it wasn’t. Orinara plunged herself into the deepest memories of embarrassment she could muster, times her father had caught her being as impulsive and small-minded as she’d ever feared to be, and said: “It was this or punishment duty, ryaeste.” She practically spat the last word, scowling like she was ready to throw a gauntlet here and now.

Latsenn let the insult pass. “Was it, now?” she asked, leaning slightly forwards. Glass-sharp interest glittered in her eyes. “Do tell.”

Orinara crossed her arms. “I’m not humiliating myself for you,” she said. “Do you want the spice or not?”

“At this point,” Dulsu cut in, “I’d have to say no.”

“She didn’t ask you!” Alsair hissed, fingers digging into his upper arm. “Don’t listen to him, Latsenn, I’ve been through far too much for the stuff already.”

“Fine. The pair of you can go get it, since for some reason you haven’t already.” Latsenn stretched out a hand, fingers nearly brushing against Orinara’s shoulder. “And then I have a captive”—she paused briefly, so clearly flirting with some grave insult—“audience to enjoy, now don’t I? At least you won’t be bored.”

“Don’t count on enjoying anything,” growled Orinara, shoving Latsenn’s hand away. “But I welcome the attempt.”

Alsair’s fingers closed around one of Orinara’s wrists. “Come on,” she said, through a smile so strained it barely met the definition. “You can waste time later. Somebody else’s time. I’ll show you where I had the servants take the crates…”

Alsair walked quickly, with a frantic little bounce in her step—she’d spent way too much of tonight going at her cousin’s painfully leisurely pace, getting dragged back and forth to talk to half the people at the party. Well, it was time to do some dragging of her own! And then she’d shove Orinara off on someone else, somehow, she could still have her one perfect night—

“She’s even more of a pain than I remember,” Orinara said, cutting off her train of thought. “Latsenn, I mean. I don’t know how you put up with her.”

Alsair looked over at her older, shorter, and so very much more powerful cousin. “Shut up,” she said, wishing the words were as poisonous as they tasted. “How did you piss off Zahoin, anyway?”

Orinara snorted. The way her shoulders shifted, she seemed almost sheepish—it was the first time Alsair had seen her ashamed in years, and it didn’t look right on her at all. “I was… myself,” she said, going so far as to frown thoughtfully. “You know. Impulsive and hot-headed. He said I needed a lesson that would force me to cultivate my anger instead of unleashing it prematurely.”

Alsair laughed. “Are you actually feeling sorry for yourself, Nara?” It was ridiculous in the extreme. Orinara was indisputably the most powerful of their generation of Izaraes, and possibly had some of the older ones beaten too. Her father was a little bit overprotective, maybe, but she had nothing to complain about. And screw her to the Void for trying, Alsair added, privately. It’s like she doesn’t even realize she’s the golden child. Too kriffing self-absorbed to consider where the rest of us are standing.

“I don’t do self-pity,” said Orinara, in a warning tone that told Alsair she was lying. Badly. Void alive, she was an asshole.

But it wasn’t worth pushing. It usually wasn’t, with Orinara, and this time it wouldn’t even be fun. “Right, sure, I get it,” Alsair said. “Just count yourself lucky Latsenn didn’t throw you out and keep the spice. She was being pretty forgiving, you know, considering what you called her.”

“She tries that, she’ll set off the detonator I put in there.”

What?” Alsair hissed. “Emperor’s crimson fucking pajamas, Orinara, tell me you didn’t—”

“Of course I didn’t,” Orinara said, with that insufferable grin of hers. “I’m not stupid. I was serious about the shadow ledger thing, though.”

“Oh, that. Right.” Alsair sighed exaggeratedly, infusing the notion with a well-practiced sense of theater. “I suppose I should have paid more attention while you were blackmailing me, hm?” She laughed again, false but convincing. “That approximation of guile was just so unlike you, Nara, I found myself preoccupied. You understand.”

Orinara’s lips twitched. “I understand that you’re still an airhead.”

That had sounded almost affectionate. Which was the worst part about Orinara, really—you knew where you stood with her, and she enjoyed her fights, verbal or physical. She rarely seemed to take it personally. It lent her an odd air of sincerity, one that would have made Alsair like her if it wasn’t so disgusting. That kind of openness should have seemed like naiveté, but instead it was just…

It was just Orinara, throwing herself into everything she did, and she always came out seeming like the better Sith. Even when she shouldn’t.

“It really is funny, you know,” Alsair found herself saying, to her own private surprise. Void alive, it would make things so much worse, but she couldn’t stop herself—“My parents only do the half-day ceremony. I could be on my way to Korriban by this time tomorrow.”

“Is that funny? I hadn’t noticed.”

She paused for the doors to swish open, then stepped through. There were more opened boxes strewn around than she’d expected, even realizing that she hadn’t said which box to check. One was labeled for a cooling unit, for some inane reason—why would anyone have thought that was the right container? And why was it empty? That wasn’t how smuggling was supposed to work… “Well,” Alsair said, stubbornly pushing her confusion aside, “I have to assume you didn’t get your father angry with you in the middle of proving you were ready to enter the Academy.”

“It continues to be a sticking point with him, yes.” Orinara bent down and opened a small box that was marked for medical supplies. She frowned at the contents, pulled out a baggie of neon-colored pills, and shook it thoughtfully. “Certainly don’t seem appealing,” she muttered, apparently to herself. She lifted it up. “Is this what you were looking for?”

“Give me that!” Alsair made a grab for the bag. Orinara held it away from her, because apparently she was fucking twelve and had never learned when to quit. “Nara, come on—oh, damn it—”

“Hold on,” Orinara said, holding up a finger on her free hand. “I’m trying to understand what you see in this stuff. I suppose it might improve Latsenn’s disposition…”

“Kriffing take one, I don’t care,” Alsair spat, and this time managed to snatch the bag out of Orinara’s grip. “It would certainly do something for yours. In fact—here!” She fished one of the pills out and flipped it in Orinara’s general direction. “The first comedown’s vicious, of course, but I’m sure someone like you can handle it. Or at least that you deserve the hangover.”

Orinara held up the little capsule and squinted at it, as if expecting it to glint in the light. “An intriguing offer,” she said, “but I’ll have to decline. I’d prefer to have my wits about me.”

There was something odd about her smile. There was something terribly wrong with this whole situation, even by the standards of what Orinara had implied. She’d said it would be big, but ‘big’ covered a lot of things that could go down at a Sith party…

Don’t know, don’t care, Alsair told herself, pulling out a couple more of the capsules and popping them into her mouth. She swallowed them dry, shook her head, and stepped towards the box. “Right. Okay. Fine. There should be another bag in there, so I’m just going to grab it, and then maybe I can finally enjoy my party. Try not to ruin everything, would you?” She chuckled. It was a horrible, hollow sound. “I think, for this one night, I might just be more interesting than Ceresca.”

Orinara’s eyebrows went up, vague amusement curling through her aura like smoke. “You know,” she said, “I don’t have to drug myself in order to tolerate my girlfriend.”

“Ugh,” muttered Alsair. “Yes, yes, I get it, you’re better than me. Give it a rest, already.” The drugs couldn’t cut in fast enough. She wouldn’t be so damned small and bitter when they did. “Your ego is getting unbearable, you know that?”

“I’m aware.”

“Well, that’s all right, then.” Alsair stepped around Orinara, picked up the box, went rifling through the contents—

“But you still shouldn’t allow her to walk all over you.”

“How many times today have I told you to shut up?” Alsair asked. She felt like it was a lot. She felt like the night had already been endless, like it was slipping through her fingers too fast—and Void, she was tired of babysitting her cousin.

Orinara’s face was disdainful, unconcerned. “Clearly,” she said, “not enough. Come on, Alsair, you’re supposed to be Sith. Where’s your spine?”

“We’re not Sith yet.” Alsair finally found the second bag and pulled it out, then tossed the box haphazardly aside. “Or did you pass your trials while nobody was looking?”

“You’ll be on Korriban within forty-eight hours, you said it yourself.” She looked Alsair in the eye, skin burning with anger, with strange conviction, with fucking worry, worse than all the contempt Alsair had rightfully earned. “I don’t see how you intend to manage yours, acting like this.”

“You and me both, cousin,” Alsair snapped. She moved like a serpent, drawing speed out of her desperation, and grabbed Orinara by the collar of her matte-black suit. “All I want,” she said, “is one good night.” The words were bright and venomous, staining her lips and her teeth and her tongue. She didn’t care. “One perfect night, where I get everything I want and some of what I deserve, before the family ships me off to Korriban to die.”

There was a pause. It hung, like a pane of glass, waiting to be broken.

“Alsair—” Orinara began.

“I’m going back to the party,” Alsair said. “Follow me or don’t.” She stalked towards the door, briefly glancing back to add, “And if you see that zabrak, tell him to get back here and clean this mess up. Skiving alien.”

And, without waiting for a response, she turned and left.

Orinara considered going after Alsair. She really did. But she would see her cousin again soon enough, she decided—because she was going to be on that shuttle to Korriban, no matter what her father thought about it.

And, tonight, she had a mystery to unravel.

She squished the capsule between her fingers, squeezing out ultra-refined spice and unknown chemicals in a fine neon dust, and flicked it unceremoniously onto the floor.

Her heel came down onto it as she walked out, heading in the opposite direction.

“As if I would ever,” she muttered.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

Kory was gone.

It wasn’t clear how. There was no obvious side-route, and even if there was an inobvious one, there was no reason for Kory to have turned down it. Especially without her weapon, when they both understood how dangerous this place was.

Ice sinking into her bones, Ahene stopped—she tried not to think of it as stopping dead—and pressed herself against the wall. It was easier to think when she knew nothing was coming up behind her.

Under her skin, dread roiled.

Don’t panic, Ahene told herself, analyze. Panic just gets you killed. But it was hard to evaluate a situation that had never made sense in the first place, that played by its own rules, and—she’d thought she was figuring those rules out, damn it. There had been a logic to them. And this broke it somehow.

Ahene found herself grimacing. Like anywhere. You obey its rules or it kills you, but of course Korriban cheats… And then another thought stuck in her mind, so she amended that to Spindrall cheats. She was getting close to that dim red star, and felt like she was far nearer than she had been a few moments ago.

“A queue would have worked too,” Ahene muttered into the darkness. There was no answer; sighing, she peeled herself away from the stone at her back and considered her options.

Did she have more than one? She’d probably find a side passage, if she looked. But she wouldn’t find Kory.

She’ll survive, Ahene assured herself, knowing damn well that it was an empty promise, and she crept forwards into the endless black.

Past one of many nondescript doors, the access tunnel opened up into a wide and empty chamber. Statues lined most of the walls, but small ones, and there were only two obvious ways out. Ahene stepped through the third, hidden exit, and winced as a statue clicked back into place behind her. No going back.

At one end of the room, a tunnel led upwards and out of her weapon’s flickering light. At the other…

She’d been looking for that archway.

It felt like there should have been another door, or a curtain to push aside. Instead Ahene just walked in, training saber held at the ready—and stopped, because Spindrall wasn’t alone. Other acolytes were scattered around the room, wearing battered Academy uniforms or huddling beneath grubby black robes. A couple of them looked up as she entered, but quickly returned to meditating and trying to repair a training saber, respectively.

The far third of the room was two steps up from the rest, with a carved stone altar at the back. Standing before the altar was a figure who had to be Spindrall, human and gray-bearded beneath his hood, and for a moment the world burned dark and bloody, runes shining in the black—

“Come, acolyte,” Spindrall said, in a voice that cracked like dry desert. “Come closer. My ears aren’t what they used to be.”

Head bent, Ahene approached as she’d been bidden. She flicked her training saber off, as an afterthought; there were survival lamps stuck to the walls here. “My lord,” she murmured, bowing low.

“Hmm. Polite and proper, aren’t you?” There was no sign of approval, or anything else, in Spindrall’s eyes. He was as impassive as the tomb itself, and something told her that he was just as deadly. “Some acolytes aren’t,” he said. “Some acolytes come down here proudly, sure of themselves and their bloodlines, and greet a tired old man with disrespect.”

“I assume they don’t make it back, my lord?” The words slipped out before Ahene had properly weighed them, too much of her real self’s humor coming through. She cursed herself for it, in the back of her mind, and hoped that an acolyte was permitted a little more personality than a slave.

Once again, Spindrall didn’t react. The red sun was closed up behind something blank and smooth, and Ahene had to fight down a flash of envy as she realized how badly she wanted that for herself. “A few do,” he said, after a moment. “But not with the mark of my approval. Only with their lives, and some overseers believe that’s enough.”

Harkun won’t, Ahene thought. She wasn’t that lucky. “I understand,” she murmured, “my lord.” Her gaze flickered across his body, taking in all the small details—stance, movement, twitches of expression—that might hint at displeasure. “What must I do to earn your approval?”

The blow came without warning, at a twitch of his fingers, shoving Ahene backwards over the steps. Oh, Void, she thought, very clearly, and then, Landsoftlandsoftlandsoft—

—and she did, hitting the stone like she’d fallen in slow motion. She stayed there for a moment, staring numbly up at him, gears spinning in her mind. Clearly she’d made a mistake, but how could she fix it? Was she supposed to stand up again, to prove her strength, or would that just be taken as insolence?

The weight of Spindrall’s blood-drenched will pressed down into her chest, forcing her to fight for breath. “Earn your life first,” he said, “and then we may talk about approval. Cotan!”

One of the uniformed acolytes looked up. “My lord?”

“Your opponent has arrived,” said Spindrall.

The acolyte, presumably Cotan, smiled unnervingly. It wasn’t a smirk, wasn’t sardonic at all—he seemed genuinely excited, in some bloodthirsty way. “Thank you, my lord,” he said, with a stiff bow. He took a step towards Ahene. “Are you going to let her up? It’s hardly a fair fight otherwise.”

“Hmm. Perhaps.” Spindrall’s gaze lingered on Ahene, calculating and intense. “What say you, acolyte? Do you ask mercy, so that the fight may begin?”

The way he says it—he’s not going to start things, Ahene realized. Not while I’m down here. And, knowing that, there was only one correct answer—“No, my lord,” she whispered, sucking in air between each word. She would need it.

He nodded, slowly, and she knew she’d been right. “Then I will permit you the struggle. For now.” The weight didn’t lift, but it shifted slightly, no longer quite so ready to push down harder.

Ahene found some kind of center underneath it, did the mental equivalent of taking a deep breath, and dove.

The darkness came up around her. She’d plunged a couple meters into a river, once, flinging herself into freefall and icy water; this wasn’t anything like that. Korriban’s abyss had never heard of an ocean, disdained the surface lakes, turned wells to mud and salt. It took her like the black gravity at the end of a bad jump and filled her up with itself, all death and potential.

She waited, holding herself steady, for that brief moment where Spindrall would be confused by her lack of movement, and his concentration would waver before he bore down again, and—

Ahene flung herself back upwards with all her strength and some of something else’s, slamming into the minute weakness and—yes, press the advantage—continuing forwards nearly into Cotan. His training saber was between them in an instant, blocking her wild swing, and for a split second she saw the skeleton beneath his skin.

It grinned at her.

Then he was flesh again, though still grinning, and he shoved her back. She stumbled, caught her footing, remembered to turn her training saber on, and then scrambled out of the way of a much more practiced strike. Cotan had been not only an acolyte but an actual student, one the overseers had deemed worth teaching, and he burned poisonously as he lunged towards her.

She dodged. She dodged, and dodged, and nearly threw herself into one of the watching acolytes, who chuckled nastily as she picked herself up in the nick of time and dodged again. Green fire danced behind her eyes, telegraphing strikes in a way she couldn’t begin to understand, and her body moved to avoid them almost on its own. Survival instinct, she thought, in the small fevered part of her mind that could still think. The rest of her tumbled out of the way of a slash.

Need a plan, she thought, and made an attempt at a return strike. Cotan parried it.

They circled each other, Ahene panting harder than she wanted to admit to. It had taken a lot out of her, getting down here, and she was beginning to think she didn’t have very much left. Any time now, she thought, scrabbling for something to focus on. Something to analyze. Anything, anything she could use. Dodging forever would just wear her out, and then she’d be done for…

“It’s alright,” Cotan murmured, voice pitched low but strange under the high ceiling. “You can give up. You made a good try, you really did.”

The words scrabbled at Ahene’s skull, venomous. They felt true. They felt right. She had no hope, really—but when had that ever stopped her?

“Give up,” he crooned, pushing harder.

She fought through a haze. It cleared, and then, quietly, her mind froze over.

“No orders,” she whispered. “Not from you.”

He surged forwards. She was faster, fear and outrage turning into live-wire energy—how dare he—and she tapped it and flung crackling lightning at him. It was, some part of her observed, a very helpful ability.

Cotan leapt out of the way.

Ahene blinked, once, and swung her weapon like a club. She’d been aiming for his stomach, but instead their blades collided with a sound like a cooking stove being murdered.

He was still grinning as they pulled away. It was an easy, loose expression, and also, the analytical part of her observed, entirely false.

“Oh,” she said, from a distance that seemed nigh-orbital. “You’ve given up, haven’t you?”

That got a twitch and an attempt to cave her skull in. She parried and stepped back, unwilling to keep locking blades. He was stronger than her, physically—only physically, said the voice that, if she considered it, might have been hers—and he could push harder, for longer.

She wasn’t sure what her own advantage was. Maybe she didn’t have one, behind in reach and muscle and training, but she was very certain that, when it came down to it, she didn’t want to die.

Was that enough? She threw lightning at him again and thought, Oh, yes.

Cotan managed to twist out of the way of that bolt, too, but it at least kept him away from her. He slunk in a half-circle around her like a disgruntled cat, looking for that perfect opening that would let him take her down without getting zapped. Venom-green almosts shadowed him, twisting this way and that; Ahene stared into them, a foul phantom taste lingering on her tongue, and searched for an opening of her own.

Seconds dragged on, slow and crystalline in their clarity, and then everything connected up at once. Ahene felt, rather than saw, the images come together into what could only be called an opportunity. Cotan wasted an instant deciding which way to dive and then didn’t have any way at all. Lightning hummed around Ahene’s hands even as she swung her saber, adding its viciousness to her strike. And she struck—

Energy surged across her weapon and then through his, overloading them both, and he whacked her in the stomach, and the pair went down in a writhing tangle of limbs. His fingers scrabbled at her, trying to find their way to her throat; without thinking, she grabbed them and twisted. There was a horrible snapping sound, and then Cotan was somehow all knees and shouting against her. He tried to press her down, tried to get his legs around hers—she tried to call the lightning back, nearly did it, and then had to stop him from slamming her head into the stone.

He’d gotten on top of her, and it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d just been able to zap him. All she had to do was focus, and the fight would be over.

It was hard to focus with the Force, serpentine and toxic, wrapping itself around her throat.

Below her, within her, Korriban’s inky deepness roiled. There was something oddly reassuring about it, though she wouldn’t have been able to explain why—that there were worse things lurking, and that they were occasionally even helpful. That Cotan was one of the small monsters. That her desperation had teeth.

And Cotan’s good hand, making little squeezing motions above her neck, was nearly in range of them.

In a burst of adrenaline, Ahene managed to close the distance and bit down. Hard.

The pressure stopped. The panic she’d been trying to ignore died down a bit, shading back into the kind of fear she was already thinking of as useful. And Cotan wasn’t stupid, wasn’t bad at this, and of course he made another try at slamming her head into the ground—it was attached so firmly to his hand, after all—but she brought a fist down on the fingers she’d broken, let go of his palm, and shoved him to the side while he was reeling.

His pain was a red haze at the edges of her mind, a feeling she had no name for. It should have been unpleasant. It probably would have been, if she’d still had room in her head for unpleasantness. Instead it just was.

She came down on top of him with a viciousness, reclaiming the injured hand almost as fast as he’d yanked it away. It was cruel, but if he was hurting, then he couldn’t focus on trying to choke her. The math was simple.

As he tried to push her off again, she managed to break another of his fingers.

And, seeing the opportunity, put a palm on his chest.

And focused…

It was a strange, manic energy that hummed through her—the feeling of being alive and here, but knowing that could change in an instant, and knowing it from very far away. Clarity so sharp she could cut herself to ribbons on it. And it was hers, somehow. All hers.

Ahene poured it into him without hesitation, even when he started to writhe under her hand. His nerves were rebelling, white-hot in the Force’s eye, and then they seemed to fail all at once, and the world went green.

For a moment, everything was venom. She sucked in air that tasted like poison, like something to choke on, and urged the lightning forwards anyway. Even if he was beaten. Even if he was dead. She wasn’t sure she could stop, and only half-thought she wanted to.

Then Korriban rose up and swallowed him, and the only thing in her hands was a twitching corpse.

Trembling, Ahene sank down until her face was nearly buried against Cotan’s chest—against the body’s chest. Being so close to it was revolting, but she was too exhausted to really care. And she needed to catch her breath.

“Acolyte,” said Spindrall’s voice, cutting through the silence.

Ahene lifted her head. “My lord,” she whispered.

“Get up. And come to me.”

Oh, kriff you. Ahene shoved her protesting body upwards, getting to her knees and then her feet in unsteady jerks. Her breathing was quick and ragged, her chest heaving with the effort of it—she would have been dizzy from hyperventilation, if she weren’t already. And, slowly, one foot in front of the other, she made her way up to stand before Spindrall. “My lord,” she repeated.

Finally, finally, Spindrall smiled—if it could be called a smile. It was a cold, barren expression, and barely worthy of the name. “You have performed… adequately,” he said, as if this was a great conciliation. “I expect you will do far better in time.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Hm.” He gave her a quick once-over. “The sacrifice of your weapon for his left you at an advantage, but it was sloppy work. I assume it won’t happen again.”

Numbness was settling in, but that still stung. Ahene tried not to show it. “No, my lord,” she said.

“Good. See it doesn’t. And take the broken blades when you go, as I’ve no use for them.” Spindrall held up a hand, just in case she’d been thinking of turning to leave—which she hadn’t. “But don’t go yet, acolyte. You’ve earned your lesson.”

“Lesson, my lord?” It felt like a stupid question. It probably was a stupid question. But Harkun hadn’t said anything about a lesson, just that she would be tested, and she certainly had been. She could only hope the lesson wasn’t euphemistic.

Spindrall was quiet for a moment, allowing her to stew in her worries, and then his eyes narrowed a dangerous fraction. “The lesson you came for,” he said. “Surely you didn’t sneak down here to hunt rogue acolytes, and deprive me of my students for nothing? No, I know the Academy well. There is always something to learn.”

What was she supposed to say to that? Could she make something up? No, she didn’t know enough to make it seem plausible. “A lesson in survival, then,” Ahene murmured, hoping grimly that she could at least make the truth sound suitably dramatic. “That was the only goal I was given—though I’d welcome any knowledge you have to share.”

His gaze held hers, compelling in its sheer steadiness. “I didn’t ask why you were sent, acolyte,” he said. “I asked why you came.”

Because I didn’t get the choice. “For training in the ways of the Sith, my lord.”

“Your true desire, acolyte. I will not ask again.”

Something reached into her throat, into her head, and pulled. “What do you want me to tell you, my lord?” Ahene asked, barely managing to shove the honorific into the stream of words. “That my overseer hates us and would just as soon teach a gizka, and I don’t even know what he isn’t telling us? That I really do just want to survive?” She felt like she was spitting blood. “And close my mind up,” she found herself adding, voice on the edge of pleading. “The way you do.” She gritted her teeth and forced in something she couldn’t mean—“My lord.”

“That would be a start, yes.” Was that a hint of dry amusement? He still looked deadly serious. “I will give you some of what you ask, for that show of… respect. The code, perhaps, if your teacher would not show you what it truly means to be Sith.” Another mirthless smile tugged at his lips. “And for that display of false humility, I will tell you only that you cannot hide your will behind your will. Subjugate yourself, and you make yourself an open book.”

And if I don’t, my ‘betters’ will kill me. “I see,” Ahene said. “Then I’ll work harder. My lord.”

The long look he gave her was, perhaps, the equivalent of quirking an eyebrow. “Mm. You’ll learn.” Spindrall turned and gestured for her to kneel down in front of the altar. “Now sit there,” he said, “and focus. Commit what I say to memory, and in time you’ll live by it, as all Sith do—if live you do.”

Ahene did as ordered. It was an effort not to sink down onto herself when she touched the floor, her head feeling like so much sludge. She kept her back straight, though, and her gaze fixed ahead.

The altar was just an old block of stone, but when she closed her eyes, she could see it ornate and bloodstained.

Better not to close her eyes.

The lights seemed to dim, a red haze staining the air. It wrapped itself around Ahene like an odd shadow, darkening her senses without touching the room. A barrier between her and the rest of the galaxy—and a show of force from Spindrall. She was trapped with him now, alone despite the presence of the other acolytes. She could barely even feel them.

It was worse than being choked. She could deal with pain, and even with the animal panic of suffocation. But reaching into her head and interposing himself between her and the world, tarnishing the Force crimson inside her skull—that was unbearable, in a quiet sort of way. Her mind was supposed to be hers.

“Listen, acolyte,” he whispered, voice terribly soft and terribly sharp. “Hear the Code of the Sith. Know what we are, and what you will become.”

Ahene bowed her head. “I’m listening, Lord Spindrall.”

“Peace is a lie,” he intoned. “There is only passion.” The words came from everywhere at once, burning and bloody. “Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power.”

Through power, I gain victory, Korriban whispered, slipping through the cracks like a serpent.

“Through power,” Spindrall said, oblivious to his forward echo, “I gain victory.”

The voice wound its way around Ahene’s limbs, older than the tomb, older than Spindrall, older than anything that called itself Sith now. Through victory, our chains are broken.

“Through victory,” said Spindrall, “my chains are broken.”

The Force will set us free.

“The Force shall free me,” he finished. And he was so much smaller than the planet, so fragile beside it—but its presence drew back, suddenly, and slithered up to coil around him. Not a pet, not quite a guardian. Something else. Something possessive.

Ahene realized she was staring up at him, and quickly dipped her head again. “Thank you, my lord,” she murmured. “I am honored to learn.”

“Hmph. To hear, perhaps. Whether you’ve learned… remains to be seen.” Spindrall frowned to himself. “No. No, I think it will take time. When your servility fails you, and you can stay a slave no longer—perhaps then. But you have passed this trial nonetheless, and may return to your overseer with my approval.”

It was a strange sort of spite that kept her expression blank. “My lord.”

The red haze receded. So did the wall around her senses. “Remember your fear is a weapon, acolyte,” Spindrall said. “Now go!”

Ahene stood, bowed stiffly, and staggered towards the archway. The abyss followed.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 30:8 / 28 Adast, 1576

Ahene barely remembered to gather up the broken swords as she left. She was bruised from hitting the ground too many times, shaking as the adrenaline began to drain from her body, tired in ways she couldn’t explain—but she forced herself not to lean on them as she lurched back out into the tomb. Don’t show weakness, she told herself, don’t give them a reason…

She spared a glance towards the survival lamps before leaving Spindrall’s camp behind, longing to snatch one off the wall, but she didn’t dare do it. That would be pushing her luck to the breaking point, and she’d pushed too much already. She’d just have to find her way back in the dark.

The thought made her shudder. It was still true.

Up through the slanted hallway was her best bet; if she could get back to the better-explored segments, then she could at least get herself a lamp, even if she wasn’t lucky enough to find the way out up there. It would probably be difficult, it would certainly be unpleasant, but it was a plan. If she had a plan, she had a chance.

She was using the training sabers to brace herself as she reached the lip of the slope. It didn’t help all that much. Hours in these catacombs, the trial at the end—better not to think about the trial—and the worse journey staring her in the face had all come together to sap her energy. And Ahene walked into the shadowy hall anyway, because there was nothing else to do, and kept walking as the last of the light died away behind her.

Here goes, she thought.

This time, she didn’t turn to the planet, with its sucking abyss and cruel attempts at affection. She called on herself, desperate and hollow—dragged her mind through the exhaustion and into that place of blood and energy. Where she’d broken through in lieu of death, delirious with pain and stolen lightning. She’d found her best new weapon there, she’d immersed herself in Korriban’s aura more than once now, but she’d shied back from wrapping herself completely in that expanse of her own mind. For very long, anyway.

If she was being honest, it scared her. But she wasn’t going to find help anywhere else. Korriban ran on self-reliance.

Ahene pulled the fabric tighter, a storm crackling in her skull. Focus. Focus. I need to look for a path. She bit down on her poor abused tongue. Or make one.

Could she make one? The tomb’s structure didn’t change. Not for her, not for the others, not even for Spindrall. But the Force flowed through it so heavily that perceptions could become reality, the physical world blending seamlessly with some half-shared dream. If her will was strong enough, maybe all she needed to do was believe in a way out.


It seemed like arrogance, expecting the world to bend… but, no, that wasn’t what she was doing, was it? She knew there was an exit; she’d seen it on the surface. She just expected herself to find it. That was all. That was nothing.

She’d faced worse than a bit of darkness.

Ena adjusted her helmet, frowning as the bits of grit that had gotten into it failed to dislodge. “Damn tomb,” she muttered. It was a high honor to be here, one of the guards of the Sith Academy, but honor didn’t warm her up, or keep the k’lor’slugs from tearing down the lamps, or get the damn sand out of her damn bucket.

Sergeant Talles glanced over at her. “Look alive, Private,” he muttered. “Something’s coming.”

“Not more ‘slugs, sir?” Ena asked, a pleading note in her voice.

“Might be. Blasters ready.”

It definitely wasn’t a k’lor’slug that came staggering around the corner. In the month she’d been here, Ena had seen more dead acolytes than she cared to think about; this one looked most of the way to joining them, to the point that it was almost astonishing she was still moving. The tomb had clearly done a number on her, and she didn’t look like she’d been in the best condition when she arrived. Malnourished, badly dressed for the cold, hair just a black tangle. One of the slave acolytes.

“Oh, good,” the newcomer rasped, looking between the pair of troopers. “Civilization.”

Ena almost laughed. Not so’s you’d notice, she didn’t say, because acolytes were almost Sith, and you didn’t go around talking to them like normal people. They weren’t. Even if you thought you knew them, you didn’t, and this one was a stranger. “Is there something we can do for you, sir?” she asked instead, keeping her words carefully even. And polite. It was important to be polite.

“You can tell me where to find the way out,” said the acolyte, shifting her weight. She kept almost leaning on one or the other of her training sabers, then pulling herself unnervingly straight again. It was like watching one of the ‘slugs trying to decide how to turn.

“It’s through the end of this hall and up the ramp, sir,” Talles said. “You’ve almost made it. Congratulations.”

The acolyte blinked muzzily at him, like she couldn’t quite believe it. Then her lips pulled back in an odd grin, too small and too strained and somehow deeply unnerving. “Thank you,” she said, with what could have been a bow or another almost-stumble. “Then I’ll leave you to… do what you’re doing.”

She walked away. Her movements were slow and uneven, and some part of Esa wanted to offer her a hand, but trying to help was probably a grave insult to a Sith. The only thing they hated more than showing weakness was having it acknowledged.

When the acolyte had vanished through the hall’s final arch, Esa leaned back against the wall again. She spent a moment debating whether to take her helmet off, then turned to Talles, grinning behind it. “Think the pirates will show?” she asked. “Maybe we got lucky and our friend out there took care of ‘em.”

“We’re not that lucky, Private.”

“Yeah, probably not,” she admitted, sighing. “Still. It’d be nice…”

If Korriban in the daylight had been uncomfortably cold, it was frigid now. Even the stars, white gemstones in the night sky, seemed to burn chilly and faint. There was less light pollution than on Verios or anywhere else with real cities, and yet—Verios’ constellations had been comforting. An escape route. Here, they gleamed like eyes.

“Hello again,” Ahene muttered. “Yes, I know you’re watching me. I can feel it.”

No response.

That was probably for the best. She kept walking.

It was a long road between the tomb and the tall structure of the Academy, lamps dotting the side at sparse intervals. Once she got to the main path that wound through the valley, she could tell where others broke off towards other tombs, and eventually passed a well-maintained metal street leading up out of the valley and to what looked like a settlement of some kind. There could have been a spaceport there, and at least a few troop barracks, and whatever other innumerable buildings supported the planet’s sparse population. Nothing worth trying to flee to.

The cold sank in, blending with her soreness until it was all a single full-body ache that reached down to her bones. Ahene trudged grimly forwards, arms wrapped into as much of her tunic’s thin fabric as she could manage, broken sabers hanging from her belt. She shivered—or shivered more, anyway, because she wasn’t certain she’d ever stopped. Her skin had to be at least ninety percent goosebumps, she decided.

She could only hope it wasn’t cold enough for frostbite. The concept belonged to some half-forgotten lesson, buried in her memories of the time before everything went to hell, and she’d never had a reason to worry about it before.

A patrol of four red-armored sentries paused as she passed them, their apparent leader snapping off a quick salute. “Sir.”

Ahene nodded and watched them continue on, caught by the surreality of it. If you get through this, the back of her mind whispered, it’s going to be ‘my lord.’

Somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. Oh, she could survive, none of this mattered if that wasn’t true—but the idea that survival meant becoming Sith? As if it was some kind of reward? No. No part of that felt real, no matter how many times she turned it over in her mind.

By the time she reached the Academy, Ahene had slipped into an almost mechanical state, putting one foot in front of the other without really feeling any of it. She wasn’t exactly numb—could not have been numb, would perhaps never be numb again—but she felt oddly disconnected from herself. She supposed she’d run out of energy to care about being exhausted.

The doors were closed.

Of course they were closed.

It was night. Most of the Academy was probably asleep. And, of course, the galaxy was going to take any opportunity it could get to screw her over; that was clear by now. She’d have to sleep somewhere else—sneak into the spaceport she hoped she’d spotted, claim a bench…

There were sentries stationed at the first landing, halfway up the steps, blaster rifles held at a loose kind of readiness. She stared at them for a long moment. The others had been almost deferential—no, had been deferential, even if it was oddly uncomfortable to admit it. What if these two were only there to stop the ‘slugs?

Maybe, if she asked, they would let her in.


Ahene took a breath and let it out again, watching it curl from her mouth like smoke. Her throat ached. She set her jaw and approached, taking the first set of steps carefully.

The sentries raised their weapons, but—she could feel—had no intention to shoot. They were cautious. A bit impatient, a bit concerned. The suns pulsing in their chests were tiny, dim, almost diffuse. “Academy’s closed, sir,” one said.

So much for maybes. “For how long?” asked Ahene. She didn’t have much hope, but she could still get lucky. After everything she’d been through, she deserved some luck.

“Another six hours. Sir.” The sentry sounded vaguely sympathetic, though it was hard to tell through the helmet’s vocoder. “We just closed them an hour ago. The ‘slugs will be out again soon.” There was a flicker of something in his aura, too. Faint pity.

“I don’t suppose you could make a brief exception?” Ahene attempted a winning smile. “I’m clearly not a k’lor’slug.”

The second sentry tried to stifle a snort. It didn’t work very well. “You’ve got a point there, sir,” she said, “but the rules are the rules. The Academy doors are to remain shut between 2400 hours and 0300 hours. If we break them, we’d almost certainly be executed—an emergency override would be noticed.” She shifted, canting her head just slightly. “Sorry, sir.”

“An emergency override,” Ahene repeated, feeling her stomach drop out from under her. “Yes, of course. I understand.” She just didn’t want to. She wanted—well, wasn’t it time people listened to her for a change? Wasn’t that what this was about? But, she reminded herself, there was no reason to be rude. “I don’t suppose there’s somewhere to sleep up in the city? A bench or something would do fine, I’m not exactly picky.” She waved a hand diffidently. “Just so long as I don’t end up using a k’lor’slug as a pillow.”

“In Dreshdae?” The first sentry shrugged one shoulder. “Only if you can pay, unless you have a barracks allotment. Or a way to borrow one.”

Well, she could try. Ahene hardly had anything to bribe somebody with, but she could still threaten, cajole—could offer something unspeakable, if it came to that. She didn’t have the looks for it, generally speaking, and yet some people found desperation appealing…

Too grubby for you after a day in the tombs? Let me use your shower, then. I promise I clean up nicely. Her lips twitched as she imagined the scene. Very, very nicely. Here, let me show you.

She sighed.

“I take it they’ve got the usual anti-loitering ordinances?” she asked, and tried not to grimace at the nod she received in response. “Of course. Not your fault. What about the Academy?”

The second sentry glimmered with bemusement. “It’s still closed, sir.”

“Drat,” Ahene said, deadpan. She crossed her arms. “No, I mean, does it have the ordinances?”

“We’re more about ordnance,” the first sentry muttered, garnering a quick, undoubtedly sharp look from the second. “Not really, no. Why?”

Ahene spread her hands. “I did say I wasn’t picky.”

The pair looked at each other, each weighing some shifting concept.

“I wouldn’t recommend—” the second sentry began.

Her compatriot cut her off. “You’re planning to sleep on the steps?” he asked.

“Do you mind the company?” said Ahene.

“No,” he said, “but—well, Tasen’s right, this is a horrible place to try and sleep. If you’ve got nowhere else to go, though, I’m not going to try to stop you.”

“Trust me, I’m not out here from a love of camping.” Ahene’s lips drew back in a very deliberate semblance of a grin. Invoking pity wouldn’t do her any good if she wasn’t charming too—enduring her situation with grace and dry humor, not desperation. Nothing that made her a target. “It’s not my first choice, obviously,” she added, blithe, “but I’ll live, don’t worry. You’ll hardly notice I’m here.”

The second sentry, now identified as Tasen, slowly shook her head. “Emperor’s watchful eyes,” she muttered. “Look, normally I wouldn’t say this, but it’s only going to get colder, and you clearly don’t have the gear for it. Or even a hot drink, for that matter.” Her aura seemed to heave a sigh, resigned, though her shoulders didn’t move. “Listen closely, all right?”

And there we go, Ahene thought, with a tiny flicker of satisfaction. “I’d be stupid not to,” she said, “considering.”

“Yes. You would.” Tasen looked away, gaze lingering on the Academy for a moment. “Well. Consider yourself not reminded that some of the acolytes’ bunkrooms have windows. Or that occasionally said windows get left open by acolytes sneaking in and out. You understand?”

“I do.” Ahene inclined her head politely. “Thank you. I really do appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Tasen. “Seriously, don’t. The patrol team is technically supposed to make sure the windows stay closed, but—well, I’m sure you know how it is. Sir.” The last word was added as an afterthought, in the apparent realization that she’d been forgetting protocol as well as ignoring it. “Honestly, I don’t know how the acolytes keep getting the things open in the first place, but I’m not a slicer.”

“A mystery for the ages, I’m sure,” Ahene said. “And thank you again, even if it is unmentionable.” Raising one hand in the vaguest impression of a salute, she turned to make her way back down the steps.

She wasn’t quite out of earshot when she heard the first sentry hiss, “And I’m the soft-hearted one?”

“I didn’t screw her, Dake.”

“I’m never going to live that down, am I…?”

Their voices faded away as Ahene began to make her way along the side of the enormous structure. Her gaze flicked across the walls, scanning for a likely point of entry, and she grimaced at the realization that there were no windows on the ground floor at all. Maybe the first two floors; she wasn’t sure how high the ceilings were inside, and it really didn’t matter. And it stretched up to a towering height, built onto itself in layers of stone. It had to have been chemically hardened somehow, or parts of it would have long since crumbled to dust. Some of the carvings might make decent footholds, or could if she found an open window, but every one she saw was small and thin and entirely closed. It was a surprise they slid aside at all, really.

She kept moving. That was all she could do. Just another step closer, just a little bit longer, teeth chattering in her skull. She could think about rest when she got there, and not before; the moment she gave up on getting in would be the moment she lost momentum, and momentum was all she had.

Momentum. Spite. The dubious blessings of a half-dead planet. She’d have compared it to running on hot air, if she hadn’t been so damned cold.

Eventually, skirting an inner corner as the Academy stretched our lengthwise, past a pair of sentries who had done nothing but stare at her for one heart-stopping moment, she saw what she was looking for.

She also saw Kory.

The other acolyte was curled up against the wall, each shallow breath curling through the air in a puff of smoke. She looked half-dead. Maybe more than half. Her hands were shoved into her sleeves, her face pressed against her knees, her knees pulled up to her chest. She shook like she was crying, though shivering seemed just as likely.

Ahene spared one last longing glance towards the open window, about four stories up, and then knelt down beside her. “There you are,” she muttered, wrapping an arm around Kory’s shoulders and nearly reveling in even that clammy excuse for body heat. “I’ve been looking for you.”

It was, she realized after a moment, a lie, but Kory seemed cheered by it. She lifted her head, anyway, and tried to grin. “Ahene,” she said, breathing the name like—Void, who knew? Like something soft and reverent, as if she expected her fellow acolyte to save her.

Her fellow acolyte could barely save herself. It was a hell of a responsibility to have, out in that ocean-deep night, but someone had to take it. Might as well be her. “Yes,” she said, “it’s me. I’ve been worried, you know.”

You’ve been worried?” There was a little more energy in that question, rhetorical as it was. “I’ve been worried. You disappeared, Ahene.” Kory put one hand over Ahene’s, squeezing it like she wasn’t sure it was real. She probably wasn’t. “You were there,” she said, “and then you just—weren’t.”

“I went to see Spindrall, apparently. And I didn’t mean to vanish.” Ahene frowned. “Here, come here. You’re even colder than I am.”

Kory did so without hesitation, shoving herself into Ahene’s arms and shivering there. It felt a bit like holding a malfunctioning droid. She rattled. “You went to see Spindrall? But I saw…” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter what I saw. You’re here now. Gods, I’m tired.”

“Well, you certainly can’t sleep out here,” Ahene said, ignoring how recently she’d been planning to do it herself. “What do you say? Shall we try and make it to Dreshdae, or do I lower you a rope from the window?”

“Dreshdae has…”

“Anti-loitering ordinances, I know. Just trust me.” Void alive, she was turning into such a liar.

“I won’t make it.” Kory closed her eyes, leaned back her head. “Not sure I can climb, either. But I’ll try. If—if you think it’s worth it. If you can get up there.”

“The acolyte who slipped out isn’t relying on a grapnel hook.” Ahene only hoped that part was true. “If they can do it,” she said, with another mirthless smile, “then so can I.”

“Be careful, alright?”

“Always.” Ahene looked the wall up and down, straining to make out the shape of the carvings and ridges that lined this segment of the Academy’s stone shell. The angle of the moonlight kept them fuzzy and indistinct.

She wasn’t going to get better than that, but she might give herself a headache trying. Better to start climbing and hope for the best. Her fingers clawed the stone, searching for a hold—and there it was, and there was a higher one, and then she could press the toe of her boot against the wall and start hauling herself up…

Ancient runes became a ladder as Ahene dragged her screaming body towards the window. One centimeter at a time. She steadfastly kept the remaining distance out of her thoughts, focusing on nothing but the next place she could jam her fingers into for leverage. Her feet found whatever little ridges they could, and stayed braced against the wall when there weren’t any. Her soles were just the vague promise of rubber; even that would probably be worn smooth by the time she got up.

Ahene’s fingertips stung, bled, went numb. Then they kept hurting anyway, against all logic. Her shoulders did their best impression of iriet jelly. And eventually she reached up and found a thick rock stringcourse, jutting out—further than she’d like, paradoxically. Enough that it was hard to reach around and get her first hand on top of it, too thick to hold and terrifyingly smooth on top. Weak leverage. And unavoidable.

She hesitated for a painful moment. It wasn’t as if she had other options, but transferring most of her weight to the hand already there and getting the other up—well, it seemed nigh-impossible. And, even so, there wasn’t a choice. She had to do it.

Ahene took a breath, inched her feet a tiny bit further up the wall, and shifted her weight. Her fingers found new ways to hurt, clinging desperately to the too-slick stone. As quickly as she could, she pulled her lower hand away from the space she’d jammed it into—


—and suddenly she was fighting gravity, wrestling the air. Her will against the pull of the ground.

It wasn’t a pleasant contest.

Screw you, Korriban, she thought, fervently, and flung her arms out as if there was something to catch herself against. And, damn it all, there was—she’d done it in Spindrall’s chamber, she could do it again.

She landed in an explosion of sand. It plumed out around her like Korriban’s own breath, and she watched it sprinkle back down as she lay there catching hers. The ground was dry, dusty, and oddly soft. Maybe she could just stay down here…?

Right. Kory.

Ahene groaned and shoved herself up. “Alright,” she muttered, “call that a practice run…”

She tried again.

It was maybe ten, fifteen minutes later when Ahene finally managed, in some frantic Force-aided blur of motion, to get her arms onto the stringcourse. She clung there with all her body, knees pressed up against the bottom of the ledge. Her hands were raw and bloody, and she was fairly sure the rock had scraped holes in her thin clothing, but after five or six tries—she was losing count—she would have gladly arrived naked. Just so long as she arrived.

She dared a glance upwards, and her heart leapt to see the window just a couple meters above her. If she could just get up onto the ledge…

Her arms, much abused, steadfastly refused to pull her further with so little leverage. She’d need to turn herself sideways, cling with an arm and a leg each above and below, and then haul herself up—and it was barely large enough for that, even if she managed to rearrange herself without slipping.

She briefly considered dropping down. Making another try, seeing if she could get up in a better position next time. But, Void alive, she’d barely even gotten this far; she wasn’t sure better was physically possible. Whatever acolyte had gotten the window open had a lot more experience than her. If they had been planning to come back tonight at all… or maybe they had an accomplice, ready to lower a rope. Void.

Ahene twisted her head, carefully, to try and catch a glimpse of the ground. She couldn’t stay where she was for much longer. “Kory?” she called down, as loud as she dared.

She felt, rather than saw, Kory’s attention come onto her. Her response was a near-inaudible, “Yes?”

Muscles trembling from the effort, Ahene willed herself to hold on. “Give me a push!”

“What? I—I can’t—”

“You can!” Ahene urged her. “You want to live? Then do it! Trust me!”


Then, “I’ll try—?”

“Now!” she snapped, with a futile attempt to heave herself upwards. Come on, come on—

The push came. It was weak, weighed against Spindrall or Talvara’s inexorable gravity, but by all of space, it was working—she felt lighter by half, got a knee onto the ledge like she was lighter by half, found another finger-hold in the carvings above… oh, yes, there was that odd energy again. She had long used up her second wind, but some part of her still seemed to feed off the danger, if she had the momentum to wake it. Her muscles yielded to that spark of mania, letting it carry her into the final span. They would exact their price tomorrow. And tomorrow, beautiful and distant, wasn’t now.

Her head sang with grim triumph as she clawed her way up, a bloody haze staining the edges of her mind. Oh, she knew it was a small victory, but small victories were everything. Small victories kept you alive.

And she, as her hands closed viselike on the window-frame, was going to live another night.

A face appeared in the window, belonging—though it took Ahene a moment to process its appearance—to a very confused human. “The hell?” they said. “You’re not Tamek…”

“No time to explain,” she said, trying to wriggle her way through. The acolyte kept staring. “Just… let me get in here.”

“No?” they said, and fumbled to block her. “I mean, no! What are you doing?”

Hanging halfway through, Ahene pushed their hand away. “I wasn’t asking,” she said. “Let me in.”

They looked for a moment like they were going to try shoving her back out, but at the final instant backed away instead. “Who are you? I was sleeping, you know!”

Bracing herself against the wall and floor, she managed to pull herself through the window. She clambered into the room on her hands and knees, stood, and dusted herself off with a grimace. “My friend needs help,” she said, ignoring their question. “And I’ll need some rope. How was Tamek going to get back up?”

“Not sure she thought that far ahead,” they muttered, and then shook their head violently. “Wait, what? I don’t do charity work. This is Korriban!”

“Ah? Right.” Ahene reached out, and, very calmly, grabbed them by the front of their Academy-issue shirt. “Let me put it this way, then,” she said. “Help me with this, or I’ll turn your corpse into the galaxy’s most morbid heating pack. Is that clear?”

They bared their teeth. “Within the Academy walls? You wouldn’t.”

Her free hand began to crackle. “Do you think I’m bluffing?” she asked, softly. “I’m not. I don’t do that. Work with me, here…”

They stared at her for a long moment.

She stared back.

Looking at them, they didn’t cut a very impressive figure. Short, pale, and more worn down than she was, with branding running from the side of their lips to their chin. They were stockier than her, which had to be an advantage in the freezing desert, but one that would probably keep them on this side of the tiny window. That was something to keep in mind, if she had to run.

“Yeah, alright,” they eventually said. “Fine. Just let go of me, you absolute, obscene… ugh, Emperor’s teeth, what is this even about?”

Ahene stepped sideways, away from the window, and opened her hand. “My friend needs help,” she repeated. “We were locked out. I’m going to bring her up here. Again, do you have any rope?”

“No.” The other acolyte sighed. “Seriously, what do you think this is? A quartermaster’s office?”

Ahene ignored them and eyed the beds. There were six in the room, and all but two of them were neatly made. “How many people live here?” she asked.

“Two, right now. There used to be more.” They shrugged. “A whole bunch of people just went into their trials a couple weeks ago, though, and… well, you know what that means.”

“Mm.” Ahene stopped beside one of the unused mattresses, bent down, and began pulling off the blanket. Then the sheet below. She prodded the bed, trying to figure out if there was anything else she could strip. There wasn’t, unfortunately; the lower sheet had been stitched around the mattress. The whole thing sat in an indent, on top of a low metal slab—or had, until she’d pulled it halfway out trying to find more loose cloth. She gathered up the coverings and moved on to another.

“And more will be coming in again over the next week,” the acolyte added. “Coming-of-age for the Sith kids and all that. That why you’re here?”

Ahene glanced back at them and shoved one sleeve up. Underneath, a complex brand stretched from her forearm down to the base of her wrist, geometric outlines crawling across the cool tan skin of her arm. “What do you think?”

“I figured you were one of us. The precious little Sithlings know when the Academy closes, and they don’t really understand desperation until they’ve been here a while. Some still don’t.” They grinned at her, nexu-like. “You’ve clearly been through a lot, and I mean that as a compliment. I figure you’re someone not to fuck with.”

Ahene’s lips twisted in vague amusement. I recognize that approach, she thought. “Are you trying to flatter me?”

They gave her a flat look in response. “Is it working?”

“No.” She threw a pillow in their general direction. “If you think I’m useful enough to flatter, then help me strip the beds.”

“Sure.” They moved to do so. “Just not mine. Or Tamek’s. Er, I’m Kaljan, by the way—if that matters to you, oh unsettling invader of bunkrooms.”

“Ahene.” She finished denuding the second mattress and started on a third, shoving her findings along with a foot.

“Thank you.” Kaljan paused. “I still don’t like this, just so you know. But I would like to sleep tonight, not hide a body, and certainly not get gutted like some sort of horrible fish. I hope you and your friend intend to behave yourselves?”

“We intend to sleep.”

They tossed a blanket at her. She caught it, though it flopped over her face anyway, and dumped it into her pile. It was starting to look like a respectable amount of material, to her semi-practiced eye. This certainly wasn’t going to be her first time creating a makeshift rope.

“Is that everything?” she asked, as she finished up with the third bed.

A sheet was dropped on top of the pile. “Everything you get to take.”

“Fantastic.” Ahene began straightening the covers out into something she could roll up properly, then, when that was done, set about knitting them together. She worked quickly, but not haphazardly. She knew the price of being too hasty, and it involved a failed escape and a shock collar.

But that was the past, too grim to be worth thinking about; in the present, she finished her work, threw the rope over her shoulder, and started walking back towards the window. She paused just in front of it to glance over her shoulder. “If you push me out,” she informed her unwilling ally, “I will survive, and then I’ll find you again. Keep it in mind.”

“Tempting thought,” said Kaljan, spreading their hands, “but no. I’m not an idiot.”

“Good,” Ahene said. She began letting the rope down through the window, leaning her head and hands just barely through it. “Kory!” she shouted down. No response. “Kory!”

She spent a few seconds in panic—what if she’s unconscious, she’s not going to wake up—and then there was a tug on the rope, and then more of one, and she could feel the knots holding. Void, it was a relief. All she had to do now was play the anchor, which might not have been ideal, since Ahene was basically a sack of bones and all the muscle her duties had managed to coax out of her, but it was easier than climbing had been. She still pulled as best she could, hoping to cut the effort of Kory’s ascent. The pain stayed locked behind her humming inward storm.

And then, after what seemed like far too little time and an eternity besides, the movement at the other end ground to a halt. Ahene looked down and saw Kory on the wall, struggling to get over the same stringcourse that had repeatedly stymied the first ascent. Oh, come on, she thought, in some uncharitable part of her soul. A rope would have made that easy. It wasn’t true, but at the moment she was too annoyed to care. Her head turned back again, her gaze alighting on Kaljan’s.

There was a moment of recognition.

“Oh, no,” they said. “Lift your own minions.”

Ahene narrowed her eyes. “Do I need to threaten you again?”

Kaljan’s expression was pure smugness. “You can’t zap me, you’re holding a rope.”

“I’m creative. Come here.”

By some miracle, they did, holding out their hands with a heavy sigh. “Fine. But you owe me, like, three.”

“As soon as I have a comm code, I’ll pass it to you. Here.” Ahene thrust the end of the rope into their hands as quickly as she could, unwilling to stop pulling for long, and immediately leaned forwards again. Kory’s star was tiny and stuttering, nearly flickering out every time she faltered. Ahene felt her chest tighten in mixed sympathy and terror. “You can do it,” she hissed, too quietly to be heard, “come on. Kaljan, start pulling!”

“Emperor’s teeth, you’re needy.” But they acquiesced again, still chasing their chance at rest. And they were fairly strong. There was motion again, down at the bottom of the line…

Ahene sucked breath in between her teeth, ignoring the frigid burn in her throat, and hauled on the rope as hard as she could. Come on, Kory. You can do this. I swear it.

With the both of them pulling, she turned out to be right. Kory made it over the stringcourse, up the final stretch of wall, and—after a less-than-graceful entrance through the window—into Ahene’s arms. It was less a heartwarming embrace and more an awkward production that threatened to send them both careening into a wall and/or the floor, but it was the thought that counted. Probably.

The thought didn’t hurt, at least.

“You done?” Kaljan asked, when the pair had finally managed to disentangle themselves—thankfully, without quite falling over.

“Quite done,” said Ahene. “Thank you for all your help.”

“You broke into my bunkroom, threatened me at least twice—in somewhat graphic detail, might I add—and started giving me orders.” They crossed their arms. “Oh, and you threw a pillow at me.”

“So you don’t want a thank-you?”

“There is no thank-you that could possibly be sincere enough.”

“I’m sorry I tried, then.” Ahene turned to Kory. “How are you doing?” she asked, voice soft. “I’m afraid most of the blankets need to be untangled. Possibly with scissors. Those knots aren’t designed to come out again.”

“Um. Not good?” Kory pressed in closer to her, looking sheepish. “I mean, it’s warmer in here than outside, and there’s no wind, but the window is still open, and…” She squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s not just the cold. The tomb was, well, bad. It was bad, alright? But I’ll be okay, I think. Just—stay with me.”

“Alright, but I feel like you’re using me for my body heat.” Ahene gave her a tiny, skewed smile. “Here, let’s go sit down on one of the beds… Kaljan, do you have a knife?”

“Do you really want me to say yes?”

“Well, I’d definitely like to relieve you of it.”

“Stop taking my things!” Kaljan stalked over to the chosen mattress and snatched the trailing rope. “Just give me the damn stuff, I’ll cut the knots, you keep your grubby, demanding little hands off my knife. Okay? Okay.”

“Okay,” Ahene echoed, and set about gathering pillows. She piled the four unclaimed ones in a little semi-circle on the bed, coaxed Kory into the center—though she didn’t actually need much coaxing—and watched as Kaljan produced a survival knife from under their own pillow.

The blankets were cut free of each other with a ragged sort of precision, then unceremoniously flung across the room. (Ahene had, of course, picked one of the beds across from Kaljan and Tamek’s. She could get further from the window that way.) Shortened as they were, the sheets were still long enough to wrap around Kory. Their chosen bed began to look like some bizarre sort of nest. Soon the knife vanished again, this time into Kaljan’s boot, and the other acolyte curled up balefully on their own bed. “Since that’s all done,” they said, “I’m going to sleep. Unless you have more bantha shit to drag me into.”

“Lovely mental image,” said Ahene. “I don’t.”

“Great! Then you and your hanger-on or girlfriend or whatever aren’t my problem anymore. Not until morning, anyway, and that’s good enough for now.”

Protesting clearly wasn’t worth it, but Ahene sighed quietly to herself at Kaljan’s interesting reading of the situation. Were those really the only conceivable reasons to care about someone? Maybe on Korriban, they were.

Sitting cross-legged on the mattress, Ahene turned to the shivering acolyte next to her—whatever Kory was to her. Nothing like Sirue, certainly. But, Void, probably her only chance at a friend here. “You should sleep if you can,” she murmured, putting a hand on Kory’s shoulder. “We can figure out our next moves in the morning—”

Kory wrapped her arms around Ahene’s waist.

“What? Oh.” Ahene allowed herself to be pulled in closer, accepting her role as a heating pack. “Move over, then. I’m not lying down on top of you.”

Across the room, Kaljan chuckled. It was a dry, ominous sound, drifting through the night.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 31:8 / 29 Adast, 1576

“…doing here? You! Get up!”

That sounded like it was aimed at her. Ahene reluctantly clawed her way back to consciousness, opened her eyes, and saw that there was a training saber in her face. She stared at it.

At the other end of the sword was a lanky pureblood Sith, sunset-red and adorned with little golden piercings. “Up!” she demanded again, jerking the point of the blade illustratively.

“What?” Ahene managed to rasp out, throat protesting the effort. Nothing quite seemed to compute. She’d clearly slept, but it was still dark outside…

“You’re in my room,” said the pureblood—who, Ahene realized, had to be Tamek, the previously absent roommate. “Wandering around, stinking of blood and ‘slugs—”

“Stealing things,” supplied Kaljan’s voice.

“—and stealing things,” Tamek finished. “Out of the bed, now.” Her accent was as indisputably Kaasi as the pureblood from the shuttle, but brighter and crisper and far less sneering. She held herself like some officers held themselves, with commanding stillness. It was a posture that seemed vaguely at odds with her outpouring energy, and it was a posture that expected to be obeyed.

Ahene chose, in a lightning-fast moment of evaluation, the better part of valor. “Come on, Kory,” she said, half-dragging the other acolyte with her as she slid off the bed. “We’ve worn out our welcome.”

“Eeh-wha?” Kory mumbled. She shook her head violently. “I mean, I can see that. Huh?”

That last word was in response to a movement of the training blade, coming around to block their path. “I didn’t say you could go,” Tamek said, voice edged durasteel-hard. “Stand and account for yourselves, you intruders.”

With great bemusement, Ahene paused as instructed. She didn’t exactly have much experience with Sith, when it came down to it. Talvara had been a nightmare, but a petty one, sailing through Verios every so often and wielding entitlement like a physical force. Darth Kelshrin had been a distant presence, until suddenly he hadn’t, and then he had been as cold as a statue. He’d saved Ahene’s life and discarded it almost with the same breath, and still had left her with the impression that he’d seen something of value in her—and that he intended, one day, to collect. Spindrall had been a terrible enigma. Harkun was the overlord of his low domain, at least in his own mind.

And Tamek had to be the scion of some noble line, because every pureblood was, but she didn’t seem to fit any of those limited molds. Whatever reality she lived in… was just a few paces left of the one Ahene knew, full of unknown expectations, clearly larger-than-life.

Ahene attempted to translate. “Are you… challenging us to a swordfight?” she asked, eyes fixed on the other acolyte’s blade. It seemed, in that moment, like the only logical assumption.

Tamek made an expression that implied someone had dosed her rations—though, come to think of it, she probably didn’t eat rations—with cleaning fluid. “What? No.” She narrowed her eyes; they were an orange rarely seen outside construction sites. “I am asking you,” she hissed, “why you are here.”

Kory shot Ahene a panicked look, but took it upon herself to respond. “We were locked out,” she said, “that’s all. We didn’t know who lived here.”

“And you did leave the window open,” Ahene pointed out.

“For myself!” said Tamek, gesturing sharply with her weapon. “I stand on the verge of becoming Lord Cavess’s apprentice. I spent the last day-span slaughtering rebels in the tombs”—off to the side, Kaljan winced almost imperceptibly—“and some of the night-span before that translating carvings. I have not slept in thirty hours.” She bared her teeth, looking ferocious. “I’m not happy to see you.”

“Then it might cheer you up to learn we didn’t use your bed,” Ahene said, waving a hand towards the mattress in question. She wondered if the fried training sabers could take a hit from a live one. Probably not. They were at the foot of the bed she’d made a nest of, anyway; grabbing them would be a lot of risk for an uncertain reward. “We don’t actually want to start trouble,” she added, “and I’m definitely not about to try and stop you from sleeping.”

The look on Tamek’s face got sourer every moment. “You broke into a dormitory reserved for the noble-born, you complete idiots, what did you think you were starting?”

Kory tilted her head. It was a quick, sharp motion, putting Ahene in mind of some cute little bird. “But Kaljan is—”

“Devious,” said Kaljan, with great self-satisfaction. “And I had an accomplice. An accomplice who belongs in here, not some nut who scales walls and invades random dorms.”

“An accomplice who is not smuggling out two more people when the doors open,” added Tamek.

Ahene did some quick mental math. Her weapons were broken, she’d barely slept, and the dehydration and the hunger were taking their toll—but that energy was still in her, waiting to be tapped. It promised her it was limitless. (It was lying, of course, but it was still useful…)

But her potential enemy had an actual weapon, and she didn’t—and that was without taking Kaljan into account. Those weren’t attractive odds.

“We’ll leave,” she said, squeezing Kory’s arm reassuringly. I don’t want to kill anyone anyway, she mentally added. She tried not to grimace; it shouldn’t have been an afterthought.

“Without a fight?” Tamek asked. “I suppose you’ve broken enough Academy rules already, but I didn’t expect someone like you to care.”

“They’re not all me,” said Kaljan, laughing.

“Shut up,” Tamek said, without even a glance towards them. “What if I want to fight?”

Then I’m probably dead, Ahene thought grimly. “I assumed you wanted to sleep.”

Tamek’s sneer was artful, but not entirely sincere. “I can’t imagine it would take long.”

The rush of anger—of something like pride, in its wounded form—had become familiar. Ahene was used to having to bow and scrape and take whatever hits were thrown at her, but her new power gave voice to all her suppressed frustration. It wanted, badly, to turn the tables. She wanted it to quiet down and let her work. Neither one of them was going to get their wish. “Then I can’t imagine we’d be worthy of the effort,” she said, voice soft. Even cut with all the humility she could muster, it came out like some odd sort of threat.

“How, ah, pathetic,” said Tamek, her theatricality faltering under a blanket of confusion. “Perhaps I should cut you down now, and spare your overseer the trouble…”

Ahene had never actually seen an actor forget their lines, since she’d been at least a class below a stagehand’s skilled-labor position, but she imagined that it would look like that. She smiled and bowed as deeply as she dared, which was fairly shallowly—she didn’t want to unbalance herself. “Or you could let us go,” she said, edging towards the window, “and have a favor to call in later.”

“Is a favor from you really worth anything?”

“You have nothing to lose by not killing me.”

“Unless you’re working for my competitor.”

“By sleeping in your room? If they thought that would get in your way, they wouldn’t be competition.”

Tamek scrunched up her face. Exhaustion was obviously getting to her, too. “A valid point,” she conceded. “But beating you to death might be fun.”

“After being awake for over a standard day, is anything fun anymore?”

“Well, no, but I could take my frustrations out…”

Ahene again gestured towards Tamek’s bed. “Or you could actually solve them.”

“You drive a hard bargain, slave girl.”

Her smile stayed fixed. “Do I?”

A pillow launched itself at her. “Get out of here.”

“Gladly,” Ahene said, sweeping another bow. “I wish you luck—now come on, Kory, let’s do as she says.”

For a moment, Kory looked like she was going to try for a blanket, but she just grabbed the weapons and followed. “Right behind you.”

It turned out, thankfully, that Kory could slow her fall decently well—enough that she didn’t injure anything landing, though Ahene winced at the size of the sand plume she sent up. They stayed close together as they hurried back around the building, sharing each other’s body heat, trading off the telekinetic effort to break trail. Kory was actually better at it, and she was wiping away their footsteps quite neatly by the time they neared the entrance.

Ahene felt a bit bad for being surprised, especially considering that she seemed to be absolutely awful at it herself. Lightning, she could wrap her head around. But moving a bit of sand? Maddeningly difficult. Her gentler shoves were far too weak, and summoning up more effort—resulted in some rather embarrassing overkill.

“I don’t think zapping it is going to help,” said Kory, a bit too cheerfully.

Ahene’s lips twitched. “You’re probably right.”

There were other acolytes lingering near the steps now, and a few on the first landing. They were talking quietly, or working on their datapads, or—in one case—attempting to shove a near-larval k’lor’slug back into a shaking, chittering crate. Some were lucky enough to have a coat or thermal blanket to huddle under, and all were dressed in the Academy uniform. All glowing, to some extent, in the Force. All waiting for the doors to open.

Ahene approached an acolyte who looked to be alone and unoccupied. “How long?” she asked.

He barely glanced at her. “Half an hour, probably. Idiots at the guardpost inside must’ve opened ten minutes late last time I was out here.”

“How terrible.”

“Yeah, yeah, see how you feel when it’s you.”

Not like complaining, she thought. She shrugged and moved on, pacing back and forth alongside the road. The stars gleamed overhead; the wind had died down, but the night was still clear and cold.

Too clear. Too cold.

Ahene tried to hold that feeling in her head, ice against the constant burn of energy. It didn’t really help. Her mind was still her own, but none of the ways she’d coped before seemed to work anymore—she kept having to shove down feelings she’d long ago boxed away.

Some people would have taken that as a reason to open the box. She took it as a reason to try harder. Better to beat her head against the metaphorical wall than to end up like—well, like any of the Sith she’d met. They were all their own unique flavors of completely awful. The last thing the galaxy needed was for her to invent a new one, down here on this horrible planet.

Yes, Ahene found herself thinking, you are a horrible planet. Screwing with my head, eating at my self-control… She let the thought trail off, vaguely concerned that Korriban would respond. It was her distinct impression that most acolytes did not carry on running arguments with the planet—that she was, in fact, quite odd for doing so—and that she probably shouldn’t do it in public, in case she started reacting.

She sighed.

No one had seen fit to install a clock on the front of the Academy, cementing her theory that whoever ran it was wildly impractical, which meant she only had her pacing to mark the time. Kory was still nearby, though she wasn’t trying to follow the tight little circuits Ahene was making. Either she was feeling warmer, then, or she was just too polite to object. Which… kriff.

Defeated, Ahene slunk back. “I’d say we should plan,” she said, quietly, when Kory had reattached herself, “but I doubt either of us knows what to expect.”

“I hope we can expect a uniform.” Kory’s laugh was soft and breathy. It was, Ahene was beginning to realize, the kind of laugh you got from someone who’d been beaten down too hard to hope for better. Everything about Kory was like that, hopeless but trying anyway—she was someone who stood up to fight, again and again, even though it always ended the same way. Half weakness, half weapon.

“Kaljan had one,” Ahene said, “so maybe we’ll get lucky. There’s a first time for everything.” She slanted a look down at Kory, watching her thoughtfully. “What did happen after you disappeared? I didn’t mean to leave you without a sword, but…”

Kory waved her free hand. “It’s not your fault, don’t worry about it. I didn’t actually fight anyone, anyway.” She made an odd expression, wry and gentle. “You did, huh?”

“I killed someone.” The words slipped out. They sort of had to; talking around it would just be awkward and depressing.

“Oh. I… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not the one who died.”

“I just had to steal some things. From the pirates in the tombs. Tools, if I could find them, and weird little medallions.” Kory shifted uncomfortably. “And food.”

Which reminded Ahene exactly how hungry she was, after throwing up the ration bar she’d eaten at the station. And that had been almost a full day ago—as far as she could tell, at least. Korriban’s rotation seemed slower than Verios’s. “I don’t suppose he let you keep any of it?”

“No. He said to deny it to the thieves—that we needed to starve them out—and then he took it away.” Kory broke away, frowning. She looked like she was searching for something, out in the black shapes of the tombs, but she clearly wasn’t finding it. “I should have eaten some first,” she said, suddenly and uncharacteristically bitter. The star in her chest roared hotter. “I feel bad about that, starving anyone, but I didn’t have a choice, and if I couldn’t keep it…”

“I understand,” Ahene said, and she did. “You want to survive. Both of us do.” She reached out a hand and caught Kory’s arm, trying a smile that she didn’t actually feel. “It’s not like you did anything wrong, anyway. The pirates chose to come here. We didn’t.”

Kory grimaced. “I’m not sure that helps.”

“If it’s them or you,” Ahene whispered, fervent, “I don’t want you thinking there’s even a contest.”

And Kory gave her that look again, fixed her with all that heavy, dangerous reverence—

And then, like a miracle, the deep call of a claxon split the night.

The Academy doors were opening.

Even relief came in an overwhelming wave, but a welcome one. Ahene towed Kory the first few steps towards the enormous stairs, let go, and started hurrying forwards at a pace that threatened to become a full-on run. She didn’t know what was waiting in there, but it was better than out here. It had to be.

And she could save the uncomfortable conversations for later. Maybe even after she’d eaten, if she was luckier than she had any right to expect.

The steps went up, and up, and then up some more. Ahene passed the first landing, nodding absently to the guards—one nodded back, confirming that it was probably the same pair—as she continued on. There was a second landing, dividing the remaining half into two halves of its own. Four more sentries were stationed along it, though it had been empty earlier; she wondered if any were actually needed, during the lockdown period, or if the pair she’d met were just there as a deterrent. Half the acolytes could probably snap their necks, but wouldn’t if there was a chance they’d be caught.

As Ahene approached the towering final doors, now standing open to allow acolytes in and dim ruby light out, she wondered what kind of security cameras the Academy had on it. There had to be some. She hadn’t even been thinking of that when she’d gone climbing around, more fool she—but Kaljan and Tamek hadn’t acted like it was a concern. So were there no watchers, or did the watchers just not care? Either was possible, the latter more likely.

She had to pause on the last step, other acolytes drifting in around her, because Kory had fallen behind. Or, rather, Ahene had gone ahead. Her current partner in crime moved a bit slower than she did, conserving energy when it was possible. There was an efficiency about her. Ahene would have studied it, once, in the hopes of adding to her toolbox, but now she seemed to run on momentum alone.

Maybe that would change—it had been less than a month since she’d broken through, and only about a day since she’d arrived on Korriban. There wasn’t much of a now to evaluate. But that brief now felt so much more real than everything she’d experienced, so tangible and alive that her memories seemed to fade into shadows. Like she’d spent her life tasting sawdust and then licked an energy cell, and possibly even enjoyed it.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Kory said, as she came up beside Ahene. “My legs kinda hate me after what I did to them—yesterday? Let’s call it yesterday.”

That was all they needed. “Don’t worry about it,” Ahene said, to cover for the fact that she was worrying about absolutely everything she could, and the pair wandered into the Academy together. The entrance was obviously intended to evoke a sense of awe and terror, with its high ceiling and bloody lighting and grim, brooding statuary. Mostly, though, it seemed like more of the same. A dramatic atrium for a dramatic building for the most dramatic kriffing people in the galaxy. Sirue would have pointed out how silly it all was, hushed and defiant, poking fun at—oh, the way the lighting turned the statues into shapeless blobs. It was hard to be scared of shapeless blobs.

But Sirue wasn’t here. Kory was, and her admirable qualities—while numerous—didn’t include that glib, nervy sense of humor. She took in her surroundings with an eerie calm, face and hair stained nearly the same crimson hue. It was like she was a statue herself. One that moved, making her way cautiously past her frozen kin, jaw set against the fear pulsing through her. She was the one who led the way in, through one of the two channels the antechamber split into. They passed another set of guards, whose only similarity to the sentries outside was that they both wore red; where Korriban’s troops were just above-average soldiers under those helmets, these had an inescapable air of menace. They wore armored robes, capes hanging behind, and their helms were crested and predatory. Ahene would have assumed they were Sith, just from the sheer theater of their outfits, but something told her they couldn’t be. Their stars didn’t burn hot enough, or bright enough, or something like that. But they were dangerous, even if they were playing honor guard.

They had no reason to stop the pair, but Ahene still felt an irrational flash of relief when she’d passed them by. She filed that thought away as useful information, though she didn’t have any idea why she might need it—learning something was learning something, and the presence of the caped guards told her something about the Academy. She could figure out what, and if it was relevant, once she and Kory had settled in.

If they settled in. She certainly hoped they would, because she really didn’t want to spend every single night breaking into random bedrooms.

The antechamber rejoined itself and opened up into an enormous multi-story room, with walkways all around the second level and a towering obelisk in the center. Acolytes wandered through it, heading into or out of every possible exit, and every so often a probe droid drifted along overhead. Ahene suspected it was tracking the students.

As she watched the flow of traffic, trying to figure out which direction was most likely to lead her to a cafeteria, the tide changed. Acolytes hurried for the sides of the room in a wave of nervousness; Ahene pulled Kory closer to the wall and fought the urge to run. Nobody else was running, and the last thing she wanted was to stand out.

The nervousness intensified, then broke against something else entirely—a swell of battle-clarity as hard as a dreadnought, a wall of descending durasteel, a single terrible presence that split the night—

Across the room from the entrance, a set of double doors swished open. The presence walked through.

Every single acolyte in the room stood to attention. Ahene did the same, pulling herself taut like a string, straining to make out the person at the center of this—because it was a person, and not the entire invasion force her subconscious had been expecting. The way he walked, though, it was hard to tell the difference. He towered over the gray-haired overseer at his side, forcing them to jog to keep pace; if he even noticed their plight, it was entirely unclear behind his mask. There was very little sign he was anything but a pillar of Force energy in a suit of armor.

“—subterranean defenses?” the overseer was saying, a hopeful note marking it as a question.

“Adequate,” said a voice that not only could have commanded legions, but undoubtedly did. It wasn’t unusually loud, even against the sudden silence, but it had a deep, iron-hard resonance. “I expect a report when the second-round construction is complete.”

“Yes, my lord!”

“Good. Continue.”

“Yes, my lord. I’ve compiled a list of twenty acolytes ready for off-world trials…”

The pair turned down a hallway, and their conversation faded into unintelligible noise. Soon after, the oppressive weight began to dissolve, leaving a rush of whispers in its wake.

Ahene turned to Kory. “Who the hell—” she hissed.

“I’m not sure. I know I’ve seen him on public broadcasts.” Kory frowned. “Posters, too. I… I think he might be one of the Councilors.”

It made sense. That overwhelming presence couldn’t have belonged to anyone else—or shouldn’t have, at least. “One of the twelve most powerful Sith in the Empire just walked through this room?” Ahene murmured, in a kind of awed horror. “Alright, then. You don’t think they live here, do they?”

“Don’t know. We were building a big statue of one on Dromund Kaas, so maybe that one doesn’t? I figure he’d like to see it all the time.”

“Undoubtedly,” said Ahene, who hadn’t yet met a Sith that wasn’t rampantly egotistical. She made a face. “We should get moving, though. There’s no point in standing around gossiping.”

“Yeah. Yeah, good thought.” Kory glanced around the room, which was beginning to return to a more normal bustle. “I wonder if those droids know where the cafeteria is,” she mused.

“I almost hope they don’t.” It was fairly common for oceans to have some form of jellyfish; the Academy probe droids looked like the absolute most nightmarish form of such, with their bulbous camera-head bodies mostly a visual reprieve from their many, many spindly metal legs. Not a rare design, but the ones on Verios had looked less like torture devices. These probably were torture devices.

“Come on, you can’t be scared. Not you.”

Ahene made a derisive noise. “More like unnerved,” she said. “No, it’s a good idea, you’re right. Let’s go talk to a torture jellyfish.”

Kory scrunched up her face. “I feel like you’re making fun.”

“Of the torture jellyfish, yes.”

That got a laugh out of her, short and sharp. “That sounds like a bad idea, Ahene. Don’t make fun of the torture jellyfish. They might, you know”—she wiggled her fingers menacingly—“torture you.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“I… don’t think I want to hear that story.”

Talvara,” Ahene said, grimly, and left it at that.

They decided not to try and flag down the droid floating around the Academy concourse, since it seemed quite happy to make its rounds just out of their reach, and instead picked a hallway at random. The doors along it were marked with numbered signs, starting with one-dash- and counting up from thirty. Classrooms. Only a couple acolytes were still wandering through, the others presumably having gone to class, but they were being watched closely by another of the disturbing droids. It stayed in one spot, bobbing up and down.

Kory gave it a wave, then approached. “Er, hello,” she said, shifting awkwardly from side to side. “Do you know where the cafeteria is? We’re lost.”

It swept its scanner across them in a cascade of blue light. “Acolytes identified,” the droid whirred. “Kory Dessit. Ahene. Group 357-B, assigned to Overseer Harkun. No rooms allocated. Status: on trial. Please repeat query.”

So Kory had a last name. Ahene had never given her own, out of some odd possessiveness, but she suddenly felt a bit bare without one. “We need directions to the Academy cafeteria,” she said. “Can you do that?”

A holographic map appeared in front of them, projected from the lens beside the droid’s pseudo-eye. There was a blinking red dot at what had to be their current position, and another at their presumable destination. A line drew itself between them.

“Thank you,” Ahene said, holding the turns in her mind. “Did you get that, Kory?”

“Got it. Thanks, jel—er, droid.” Kory shot Ahene a look, apparently blaming her for the tongue-slip. “Let’s get going.”

And they did. The cafeteria was down a different hallway entirely—not the one that the Councilor and attending overseer had gone down, thankfully. An image of the towering armored figure attempting to eat a ration bar flashed through Ahene’s mind, entirely unbidden, and she stifled a hysterical noise. “Is it just me,” she asked instead, “or was that droid oddly polite?”

“Maybe it can’t tell it doesn’t need to be,” said Kory. She shrugged. “Construction droids are like that too. They know who’s a ‘sir’ and who isn’t, but nobody bothers programming them to be ruder to us.”

“That’s… strangely reassuring.” At least the galaxy hadn’t been entirely upended.

“I always liked the things,” Kory admitted, with a small smile. “They weren’t very smart, but there was something kind of sweet about them. Maybe it was just because they were helping us.” The smile crept upwards at one corner. “Especially after Lym hijacked three of them. She was the best mechanic on our team.”

“You mentioned her before, I think. The person you healed.” Ahene found her voice going soft. “I hope she made it.”

Kory’s gaze drifted away. “Yeah,” she said. “I hope so too.”

Right. She had passed out, hadn’t she? She wouldn’t know. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s fine. No point in worrying until this is all over, right?”

“Right.” Ahene continued in silence for a few moments, then sighed quietly. “I could stand to take that advice myself.”

The Academy cafeteria was massive and mostly empty, with only a few scattered acolytes eating their rations. Not the portable bars Ahene was used to lining up for every morning, but the kind that showed up in enlisted canteens—a shelf-stable stew, in this case, made out of vat-meat and a type of genetically altered mushroom that could grow on nearly any world suitable for humans. Right now, it smelled better than anything ever had.

And it was served by droids. Not probe droids, thank goodness, but vaguely humanoid ones plated with the same easy-to-clean metal that topped the tables. Their presence was its own kind of unnerving, though—cooking in the Verios military canteens had always been done by slaves, with the kitchen droid just making sure no one got creative with the food. But Ahene hadn’t seen a single servant inside the Academy walls. Acolytes with brands on their faces, yes, and surely more with the scars hidden under their uniforms, but none of the class-ones that seemed ubiquitous in every large installation. And while she obviously wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere class-ones didn’t go, it was starkly strange for a building as large as the Academy to have none at all. Why were there no cooks? Where were the janitors, the runners, the myriad people who were ground down for the comfort of those who mattered?

Were the Sith actually rational enough to realize their servants would pick a side? That the slave acolytes might find friends there, that it could give them an edge no golden scion would even think to imagine?

Was there concern the Republic would slip its spies into the lot?

Or did the Academy just drive unprotected minds insane?

Answers weren’t forthcoming. Ahene went over to the droids, waited for them to find her ID chip in their scanners—it was under her skin, a mark harder to erase than her brand—and politely thanked them when they informed her of her allotment and handed over a bowl and cup. Void alive, how long had it been since she’d eaten anything but a ration bar? Years. Maybe even before the invasion. Stealing better food would have been a stupid risk, so she had lived on what she’d been given and forced herself to like it out of spite. But she was looking forward to this.

Don’t get used to it, she told herself, sternly. Ration bars were efficient.

Not bolting the food down was… difficult. Some misplaced instinct tried to convince her that it would be alright, that the stew really wouldn’t come right back up again, but she wasn’t willing to risk making herself sick. Drinking too fast would be almost as bad. She drummed her fingers desperately on the table as she ate, restless for far too many reasons to count.

Eventually she looked across to Kory, who seemed almost calm. Ahene had no idea how the other acolyte was doing it, but she envied the skill—she’d have to at least learn to fake it. Staying collected in a crisis was important, and she was fairly good at it, but staying collected afterwards had apparently gotten harder. “We still do need a plan,” she said, to fill the space. “We’ll have to find a ‘fresher—I’d rather not use the sand again, there are k’lor’slugs out there—and then uniforms. And a room, maybe. It depends on how long we have before we’re called back. The droids might know how the process works…”

“Mm. I think that about covers it, Ahene.” There was a bit of amusement in Kory’s voice, but her expression was painfully gentle. “I’d like to figure things out better too, but—well, I mean, our rebellion was a rebellion. With shooting and things. Plans don’t last, I’ve seen it, and we don’t know much more than we did on the outside. There’s no point in worrying.”

Ahene quirked an eyebrow. “Are you trying to reassure me?”

“Yes. I hope you don’t mind.”

“It’s sweet of you. But I need to put my thoughts in order somehow, whether the plan survives or not. At least there will be one to rework on the fly.” Ahene lifted another spoonful of the ration-stew to her mouth, barely tasting it against the ache in her throat. Mostly thirst, she thought, but her brief experience with strangulation definitely hadn’t helped. “I admit that it’s hard to imagine you shooting someone, though.”

“Really?” The roots in Kory’s aura twisted uncomfortably. “I mean,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine you killing someone. I… didn’t like it, but we had to fight. It was easier before I could feel things like this.”

The idea that her new senses could have made it harder to fight and kill hadn’t crossed Ahene’s mind, and it really should have. She was starting to feel like something was a bit wrong with her. “I think I understand,” she said. “As much as I can. Rebellion was never really on my radar.”

Kory paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth. “I thought you attacked a Sith.”

“I did.” Ahene took a sip of her water. The burning ache was beginning to recede. “But two people isn’t much of a rebellion.”

“Right. Right, you were saving… somebody.” Kory’s expression was hard to read, but her emotions hummed and twined around themselves. “I guess I assumed it was more like what happened with me and Lym. That you were—combatants.” She let out a quiet sigh, then smiled again, sharp and sad and wry. “Sometimes it’s difficult to believe anyone would try, otherwise.”

“It’s not like that. She wasn’t being punished.” Ahene scraped her spoon along the bottom of the bowl, collecting the last dregs of its contents. “We stole the Sith’s ship. Or, at least, she did. Once Talvara showed up early, someone had to stay behind.”

“It worked?” The question was nearly a whisper.

Ahene’s lips thinned out into something that was almost a smile, all spite and grim satisfaction. “Yes.”

“Your friend got away.”

“She did.”

Kory let out a breathy laugh. “When this is all over,” she said, “I want to meet her. We can pick up Lym and Kasson and Gielle and the others, and then let’s go find your ship thief.”

Now you almost sound like her, Ahene didn’t say. It hurt too much even to think. “How many people are you putting on our imaginary starship?” she asked instead, arranging her face into a mask of skepticism. “I don’t think we can smuggle a whole rebellion.”

“Only a few!”

Ahene stuck the spoon into her mouth. “Mhm,” she said, and swallowed. “Likely story.”

“How many friends do you think I have?”

“I don’t know. You’re a friendly person.” Ahene stood up, took her tray, and set it in the proper place. “So,” she said. “Uniforms?”

That got another laugh. “You have a one-track mind.”

“I don’t like wasting time.”

“Were we wasting time?” Kory flashed her a tiny grin. “I didn’t notice.”

Ahene matched the expression, just for a moment. “Then it’s a good thing I did.”

They headed for the doors, with occasional furtive glances around—which were hardly necessary, but anyone would have been jumpy after what they’d been through.

The probe droids continued to be eerily helpful, directing the pair to a commissary—also run by droids—that issued uniforms and weapons. Ahene slid her hands along a training staff that had been bolted to the wall, admiring its reach, wondering if she dared to ask for one. If the mechanical quartermaster would give her anything at all, for that matter. Breaking the weapon she’d been issued was more likely to earn her punishment than a new one.

But she had no reason to be honest. “I’ve been ordered to train with the staff,” she told the droid, sounding vaguely bored. Like this was just a bit of routine. “And my friend with a second saber, yes?”

Kory’s aura lit with realization. She put a hand on the training sword now hanging from her belt, formerly Cotan’s—where the very first one had gone, only the Force and the tombs knew. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s right.”

The droid watched them impassively. “I have not received a requisition.”

Ahene lifted her eyebrows. “Are you saying I should chase a Sith around waving paperwork?”

It paused for a moment, apparently considering the question, and she could only pray that the average Sith was as bureaucracy-adverse as she’d assumed. “There’s supposed to be a requisition…”

“Well, I’ll fill it out, how about that? It will probably be a learning experience.”

A datapad was shoved into her hands. Maybe the lie hadn’t been necessary at all, and she could have just asked for the proper form to start with, but she’d cling to whatever vague outside legitimacy she could invent. Ahene filled out as many boxes as she could, scribbling the answers down in shaky block lettering. The last time she’d done much writing, she’d been a kid. She’d been going to school. She was, she supposed, going to school now—if you stretched the definition of ‘school’ to the breaking point, anyway—but she doubted that handwriting was on the curriculum.

When she was done, the droid took back the datapad. It looked over the form. (She imagined it disapproving.) It pressed a button on the side, glanced back to her, and said, “Requisition accepted. You may take weapon B6 from storage room two.”

Ahene didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. Didn’t give the droid any sign that she’d expected anything else. She just nodded, face still, and headed towards the back door.

Behind her, Kory began filling out the datapad herself. In front, the door swished open, revealing a hallway set with several more. Ahene made her way to the second, slipped in, and spent a moment just standing there, trying not to think of all the ways everything could have gone wrong. What if the droid had demanded a signature from Harkun? From Zash? But it hadn’t, and she was safe. Actually safe, for the moment. She wanted to stay here for a bit, finding refuge in the silence like she’d done the very first time she’d run away—though hopefully without the nasty shock at the end. At least the damned collar was off her neck, now; if there was nothing else good about this situation, there was that.

But there wasn’t time to waste. She enjoyed a bit of silence, but she enjoyed efficiency more, especially when her life might be depending on it. Ahene went to locker B, which was tall enough to hold a staff uncollapsed, and—yes, it was holding several. They were labeled with little sheets of flimsi, sticky on one side. She grabbed the sixth, slid it out of the locker, and tried to work out how to collapse it. There was a button she had to hold down, and then she just had to fold it in half, and it clipped easily to the other side of her belt.

She loved the thing immediately. It was a real weapon, not just a bunch of emitters shoved into a too-light shell. Training sabers could be rendered useless if their power burnt out—as she had, unfortunately, already found out at least one time too many—but a big metal stick was always a big metal stick. It didn’t stop being a big metal stick because somebody zapped it too hard.

Cheered immensely by this thought, Ahene wandered back to the office. Kory had apparently been faster at getting her new weapon, since she had twice as many sabers as before, and she waved as her friend returned.

“Uniform requisition is processing,” the droid informed them, sounding vaguely put out.

“I told it the spaceport didn’t outfit us,” Kory added. “I guess it thinks they should have.”

“Measurements on file. Fabrication proceeding.”

“Good,” Ahene told it. “Thank you.” She looked at Kory. “And thank you.”

The sound Kory made could only be called a giggle. “Any time.”

It was some number of minutes later when the uniforms arrived, ferried by, yes, another droid. This one was about a meter tall and similarly long, with wheels and a single spindly arm. It looked exactly like someone had, decades to centuries ago, realized that barring slaves from the Academy meant that someone else would have to do the hauling, spent a few minutes being horrified by the idea of doing it themself, and then had ordered their least enthusiastic engineer to put together a solution. The result had been a cross between a crane and a particularly mobile table. Besides the uniforms draped over the droid’s chassis, it also carried a number of boxes that were, in Ahene’s estimation, highly unlikely to be for them.

She reached out a hand, eying the droid. It beeped at her.

“I hope that was a good noise,” she told it.

It beeped again.

Ahene sighed and snatched up the uniforms. The droid didn’t try to stop her, which was unsurprising, but there was still something gratifying about its acquiescence. She was so obviously not a real acolyte that it was continually baffling to be treated like she was—but droids weren’t very smart outside their programming, and the social distinction was clearly beyond them.

Once she got the uniform on, though, in a locker room not far from the commissary… she looked like a real acolyte. A grubby, underfed one, with matted hair and bruises on her throat, but there was a case to be made that the tombs could have been at fault for all of that. As far as the bruises were concerned, it was even true. And when it came to the rest—she didn’t have a knife or a shower, no matter how much she wanted either, and they would both be more trouble than they were worth to get. She smoothed her hair down as best she could, spent one more moment fantasizing about cutting it off, and left the mirror behind.

Kory wasn’t waiting, this time—she was still trying to wriggle her torso into the clinging gray fabric. Ahene averted her gaze politely, taking a strong and sudden interest in a wall.

It was a nice wall. Full of lockers. Not many walls were so functional; most just held up the ceiling and left it at that.

“You can turn around now,” Kory said, after a few moments.

Ahene did. Mercifully, her fellow acolyte was now decent. “You look… clothed,” she said, on the grounds that it was unwise to veer too hard into the realm of compliments, especially when neither of them could be said to look nice.

That got a snort of amusement. “Thanks,” Kory said drily. “You too.”

“I wonder if they’d let us into the library. There must be one, with computer terminals…” Ahene shook her head. “We’ve covered everything else, except rooms, and I don’t even know how to begin covering rooms. We need information. Yes?”

“I don’t think you’re wrong,” said Kory. “Though—how well can you read?”

“I was ten when the Empire invaded. My memories from before may be hazy, but I know I got the basics.”

“That’s something. That’s—I’m no good unless it’s construction diagrams, myself. I’m glad you’re better.”

“When this is over, I’ll help you branch out. If you like.” And it was difficult for Ahene to imagine that future, harder to believe in it, downright impossible to convince herself not to try—she needed it, in some sudden visceral way. She and Sirue had only had each other for so long, she’d almost forgotten that it wasn’t enough.

“You want to show me something,” Kory said, “I’ll listen. Any time.”

There was still something painful in that soft smile, something that made Ahene homesick for a place and time that had never existed. If she’d been a different sort of person, she would have resented Kory for making her feel that way, and she wasn’t sure how much better it was that she resented herself instead. “Well,” she managed, “we’d better find another droid, then… and speak of the spirit.”

Outside the door, a probe droid bobbed gently up and down. It continued to be creepier than any droid had any right to be. “Acolytes identified,” it chirped. “Kory Dessit. Ahene. Group 357-B, assigned to Overseer Harkun. No rooms allocated. Status: recalled—”

“Recalled?” Kory asked, before it could continue.

“Notification: by order of Overseer Harkun, all acolytes in Group 357-B must report to room 1B-34 for debriefing.”

“Recalled,” Ahene said. She grimaced. There was something wrong with returning—willingly!—to someone who clearly wanted her dead, even knowing she didn’t have a choice. It felt like a sin against survival instinct.

Kory’s expression was thoughtful. “That will be a sublevel,” she said. “Can you tell us where the lift is?”

The droid displayed a location. Ahene glanced at Kory. “You ready?” she asked.

“Er, no, not really.” Kory ducked her head, a tiny grin on her face. “Does it matter, though?”

“No. But it seemed like a nice thing to ask.”

Room 1B-34, while undoubtedly trying its best, was too sinister to be an office. The lighting was low and bluish, coming from electric sconces set into the walls, and the ceiling‘s attempt at vaulting was credible enough. It seemed like there should have been statues, or spooky wall carvings, or something besides a stark metal desk with a datapad lying on top. Unfortunately, aside from the assembled acolytes and the utilitarian furniture, the room mostly seemed to be taken up by the sheer disdain radiating off of Overseer Harkun.

He was sitting behind the desk, sneering at them. It was unclear whether he was capable of any other expression. “So,” he said, “that makes all of you lot. For now.” He snorted. “I suppose you think you’ve accomplished something by surviving this long. I assure you, that feeling won’t last. Wydr!”

One of the enormous brothers stepped forwards. Taken together, the pair had a single scraggly goatee between them; this one had the bottom half, and someone had apparently tried to slice open his lips rather than his whole face. They both would have looked ancient if they’d looked older than twenty, but instead they just looked like walking corpses, like their eyes should have been glowing bright red to justify the deep corruption staining their skin. “Ready, overseer,” the brother said, chin tilted up in false bravado. He looked like he was equally ready for a commendation or a slap across the face.

Harkun gave him neither. “Your family feeling does you no credit, and even that fool in the tombs knows it,” he said, face screwed up with disgust and something less readable. “But you have, somehow, passed the trial. Stand over to the side and be silent. Niloc, come forward.”

Niloc did as ordered, still grim and nervous underneath. His aura had taken on the faint cast of a whirring mechanism—gears that spun, spun, spun, with nowhere to go. “Overseer,” he said. “I have the idol Spindrall said to bring you.” He took a small, obsidian-black statuette out of a pouch on his belt and offered it over.

The air around the object seemed somehow colorless, and Harkun hesitated for a moment before snatching it. “A worthless trinket,” he muttered. “Go stand beside Wydr.” He slipped the statuette into a desk drawer, which did absolutely nothing to help, and stood from his chair to approach the line of acolytes. “Kory.”

Though her nervousness was palpable, Kory stepped towards him. “Yes, overseer.”

There was a moment that seemed to hang in the air, all horrible violent revulsion, and then Harkun closed the distance and backhanded her.

She dropped.

Ahene didn’t realize she had moved, but suddenly the tip of Harkun’s saber was centimeters from her face, close enough for the heat to be unbearable. Nearly close enough to burn. She stared at it, fury draining to cold fear, and wondered what the hell she had just done.

“Are you challenging my authority, slave?” Harkun snapped, voice dropping to an icy hiss. The point of his saber stayed there, fixed in the air, and suddenly the galaxy was only that tiny distance wide and she was alone.

“No, sir,” she whispered.

She had never seen such an awful smile. The muscles of his face jerked like they didn’t quite know what to do, then twisted into some sort of terrible upturned grimace. “Good,” he said. “Step even a toe out of line again, slave, and I will gut you like the frothing animal you are. As for you—” He turned to Kory, gesturing sharply with the saber. “Get up and account for yourself. I’ve never seen such a miserable performance.”

“Yes, overseer,” Kory said again, picking herself up. She sounded entirely defeated.

“You completed the task set before you—barely—but that does not mean you are suited to be Sith. You wouldn’t even be suited to scrub a Sith Lord’s boots.” Harkun scowled again, apparently personally offended by her existence. “I should make an example of you right now, but your next trial will undoubtedly save me the trouble.”

“Yes, overseer.”

“Is that all you can say? Get out of my sight.”

Kory pressed herself against the wall the debriefed acolytes were standing along. She shot Ahene a quick look, radiating a very targeted concern. Ahene gave a slight shake of her head—don’t worry.

Gerr was called forwards next and dressed down for a lack of willpower, which seemed almost fair. Then the other brother, Balek, leaving Ahene by herself in her original place. Harkun got partway through castigating him for his reliance on Wydr, flinging insults that were almost as unimaginative as they were vitriolic, before the door slid open again.

Every head in the room turned automatically, watching as the pureblood from the shuttle slipped in. All the other acolytes were uniformed now, but he was still wearing the same matte black robes he’d arrived in—and the same sour, sullen expression, for that matter.

Harkun’s mood brightened immediately, to everyone else’s faint bewilderment. “Ffon, come in. Meet your alleged competitors—they’re a miserable lot, to be sure. I’m certain you’ll make quick work of them.” He de-ignited his saber and made a sweeping gesture with the hilt, indicating the assembled acolytes. “The rest of you, take a good look at a real Sith-to-be; it’s the closest any of you wretches will ever get. He will be Lord Zash’s apprentice, not some piece of filth they dragged out of an alleyway, and don’t forget it.”

With you to remind us, I’m sure we won’t. Ahene didn’t say it; she wasn’t stupid. She had pushed her luck far too far already to show anything but perfect obedience. Instead she kept quiet, watching the newcomer with all the impassivity she could muster.

“What absolute trash,” Ffon muttered. It was a familiar mutter. It was the mutter that came from privates psyching themselves up to hurt somebody, from soldiers who opened fire because everybody else was doing it. “What’s my trial, overseer? Take these vermin on in the arena?” He grinned toothily. “They won’t last long against me.”

“I would love to unleash you, Ffon,” said Harkun, “but Lord Zash has taken an interest in the trials’ direction. You’ve gotten Spindrall’s blessing, I know—next you will show your facility in the interrogation room.” He suddenly seemed to remember the debriefed acolytes existed, and turned to them again. “That goes for the rest of you too, not that you have any facility to speak of. Report to the jails; the inquisitors will have assignments for you. Fail, and they’ll save me the trouble of frying you. Not you!”

Ahene froze again. “Sir,” she said, carefully.

“Have you been debriefed? No? Then stay where you are.” The horrible smile attempted a comeback, pulling his sneer into a wide-eyed smirk. “We have a lot of ground to cover.”

The other acolytes filed out, Ffon’s gaze burning into her senses before he chuckled and followed them. Ahene stayed rigidly still, willing her face still and her presence quiet. Someone like Harkun would kick at anything—but she’d make it harder, if she could. “Sir.”

Harkun’s expression didn’t change. Unfortunately. “Taking a leaf out of your friend’s book, slave?”

“No, sir,” Ahene said, quietly. “Just… returning to the proper library.”

“Cute,” he said. “I suppose you think you’re in this together? That there should be solidarity between the slave acolytes? That, perhaps, the pair of you can both complete your trials?”

She had been hoping, yes. Damn. “No, sir.”

“And you intend to agree with everything I say, no doubt.”

Ahene lifted her gaze, meeting his. “Shouldn’t I, overseer?”

“Shut up, slave. Your act didn’t work on Spindrall, and it certainly won’t work on me.” Harkun stepped forwards—not quite close enough to smell his breath, but close enough to imagine that it would be terrible. “He seems to think you’re salvageable. I know better. His opinion does not carry weight in this academy, do you understand? You’ll have to do better than impressing a mad hermit, and you won’t. You’ll slip up, filth, and then you’ll die.” His presence pressed in against her, in all its dangerous pettiness. “Is that clear?”

“Crystal clear,” she said. And thought: It’s not you I have to impress, is it? It’s Zash. It had to be. If the threats weren’t an act—and they definitely weren’t an act—then someone else had to be keeping him from making good on them. The rules of the Academy wouldn’t protect someone like her, and Kelshrin would have claimed her himself if he cared that much.

She just needed to figure out what Zash actually wanted, then. Easier said than done.

“Good,” spat Harkun, finally settling back into his usual sneer. “I’ll look forward to the expression on your useless friend’s face when she realizes you can’t protect her anymore—or did you think I don’t know how she survived the tomb? It’s no skin off my nose, slave, if you want to haul around dead weight. Just don’t blame me when it gets you killed.” He snorted derisively. “Off to the jails with you, then. We’ll see what Inquisitor Zyn thinks of your soft heart.”

“Of course,” she said, with a bow that was far more ironic than it looked. “I’ll head there immediately.”

He made a vague, disgusted noise, and she turned and scurried out before he could find a reason to stop her.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 31:8 / 29 Adast, 1576

There was a probe droid in the interrogation chamber, because of course there was. Ahene eyed it dubiously. The droid bobbed sedately up and down, as placid and serene as an inflatable ball in the galaxy’s gentlest lake. She had known the things were torture devices.

At the other end of the room, an acolyte was strapped to a raised metal slab, held at something approximating a ninety-degree angle. His skin was a deep tan—or would have been, at least, if so much of it hadn’t been bruised red and purple and vaguely greenish. Someone had already put him through the wringer, to the point that she wasn’t sure there was much left to wring.

Not that she intended to do any wringing, of course. But she was clearly expected to.

Carefully, Ahene approached the poor sad figure, who at least seemed to be conscious. “Hello, Alif,” she said, voice soft. “The inquisitors sent me in here. They tell me you know something important. But I don’t want to hurt you, alright?”

Alif blinked muzzily at her. “‘Quisitors are wrong,” he slurred, stubborn even in his current circumstances. “Didn’t see anything. Don’t know anything. Don’t trust you, so y’can go ahead and use the stupid droid now. Everybody else did.”

“Yes, I can see that,” said Ahene. She didn’t look back at the droid; she didn’t need it. “I’m sure they knocked everything you saw right out of your head. But I have to put it back in. That’s my trial.” She spread her hands. “Help me, and I can get you out of here.”

“You—you think I want to get out of here?” Alif tried to laugh and promptly choked on it, lapsing into a coughing fit that sent red spikes of pain through his aura. “Emperor’s teeth, damn it…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “No. No. Why would I want out of here?”

Ahene made a show of glancing around the room, regarding her surroundings with a critical eye. “I’m sorry—why wouldn’t you want out of here?”

“If I wanted out, I’d have to make something up. Something that got somebody in trouble. Something…” He had enough range of motion to shake his head, though not to keep the movement from looking slightly absurd. “Lying wouldn’t save me. No one believes the truth. Safer in here, no matter what you do t’me.”

“Well,” she said. “You’re right. Lying won’t save you.” The words sounded almost sympathetic. “But the truth just might, if you work with me. You have to know they won’t hold on to you forever, Alif, not if you don’t make yourself useful. Do you think they’ll let you go when they’re done?” Ahene let a frown ghost across her face, just for a moment. “They’re Sith. They’re not that nice.”

“You’re almost Sith. You’re not that nice either.”

That hurt. It shouldn’t have, but it did. It made the situation just that little bit more real, drove the point just a little further home. There was a price to pay. There was always a price.

“Maybe not,” she said, quietly. “But I’m nicer than the inquisitors.”

“Yeah? Then prove it. Believe me. Tell them I don’t know anything, that it really was just—I was bragging, okay? I wanted to, to seem mysterious, like I knew things. Didn’t realize somebody was going to go snitch about it.” He cracked one eye open, staring hopelessly into her, and some instinct had her pull her presence tighter. “Please,” he said, “if you want to help…”

“Not at the cost of my trial,” Ahene said, acerbic despite herself. “I’ve been told to find out who killed the apprentice. If I walk out there without that information, I’ll have failed, and then they’ll kill me. My overseer is already looking for an excuse.” She straightened, trying to shut out his fear and indignation—succeeding, at least in locking it out of the deeper parts of her mind. “I want to help you, Alif, but I need to pass, too. You understand.”

“You don’t understand. If I knew something, if I told you, I’d be dead too. Or worse.”

Ahene folded her arms. “That really sounds like you know something.”


“Oh, yes, if. That ‘if’ is doing a lot of work.”

“Nngh,” muttered Alif. He laid his head back against the slab and closed his eye, defeat drifting off him like a waft of loose sand. “Already said too much, haven’t I? ‘S how it goes, I guess—‘There’s Alif, always running his mouth.’ Maybe I should just tell you, yeah?”

“That would be nice,” said Ahene. But there was no change in his presence, no lessening of reluctance…

“Eylen. A final-term acolyte named Eylen. He’s, he’s probably started his trials by now. Nearly skewered me last time we sparred.”

There was a pause. There was a terrible, empty pause.

“You’re lying,” Ahene heard herself whisper. The words felt about as real as smoke.

“You wanted an answer. That’s…” He trailed off, stubbornness breaking to confusion, as she turned away from him. “That’s my answer. What…?”

She ignored him. She felt like she’d throw up just looking at him, looking at him and knowing that he was lying to her, that she couldn’t convince him that she could protect him from the mysterious murderer—and, of course, she probably couldn’t.

He had run his mouth, he’d said. He had gotten himself into an untenable situation. She just didn’t have the power to get him out of it. That was all.

It had to count for something, that she would have tried.

(there’s nothing I can do I’m so sorry I don’t want to die—)

Her hand was already sparking as she turned.

Outside a different interrogation room, on her own trial, another acolyte stood for debriefing. Kory’s shoulders were set rigidly, her hands shoved behind her back to keep from fidgeting. Her cheeks were raw and bloody inside. Her eyes were fixed on the inquisitor pacing along the middle third of the wall—a zabrak woman with the physique, tattooed countenance, and charisma of a skeleton.

“Healing,” muttered Aze, lips pursed. “An… interesting decision, acolyte. I suppose it worked.”

Kory shifted her weight, trying not to show too much relief or worry. “My lord.”

“It’s not the worst bargaining chip, no—release from pain, so often begged for. So rarely given.” Aze’s grin showed teeth. They were pointy and diamond-white, filed even sharper than a zabrak’s normally were. “But information is not the only currency we deal in, acolyte.”

“It was what you asked me for, my lord.” Kory’s voice was soft, though not quite gentle—she couldn’t be gentle here, even if she wanted to. She had to be strong. To seem like Sith material.

Aze shook her head, slowly. “Yes, yes, I suppose it is. Considering how you got it, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t explain the importance of fear. Of… the deterrence we inquisitors provide. We are that which comes down on Sith who veer into heresy, acolyte. When the once-mighty fall, they fall into our hands.” She chuckled to herself. “We remind the reckless and arrogant that things can always get worse. Our great Empire turns on a law built from fear and pain and the knowledge that there are consequences for stupid greed, for guileless ambition, for ego that does not stem from ability. That is the cold secret. Do you understand?”

In one sense, not at all. In another, Kory could see why Sith would believe that—why they’d want to believe that the galaxy had to work that way, that loyalty had to come from terror. To stand together, you had to sacrifice. “I understand,” she said. “Fear is a useful tool; I’ll remember that, my lord.”

A sigh. “Good enough, I suppose. Your talent gave you leverage in there, healer, so learn how to use it. To extend the use of those who assist you, and make your enemies beg to be allowed to die.”

That was about five different kinds of disturbing, and Kory couldn’t bring up any of them. “Yes, I—I see. Thank you.”

Ahene didn’t stagger out of the interrogation room. Her body had turned droid-automatic, disconnected entirely from her mind, and its numbness was nothing but a relief. She felt—

(like she’d been ruined, like she’d ruined herself)

—it was better not to think about how she felt. She’d done what she had to, if she wanted to get out of this alive. That was it. She wouldn’t allow herself another opinion on the matter.

Inquisitor Zyn, tall and pale and heavyset, was waiting in an office off the room the interrogation chamber connected to. Ahene bowed to him from the doorway, then slipped inside. “My lord,” she said.

He smiled. His lips were split by glossy red tattoos at several angles, like the spokes of a wheel, and the smile couldn’t really help but be ominous—but it looked oddly sincere, even so. “Ah, acolyte,” he said, with apparent delight. “I’ve been watching on the security cameras. Well done! Not perfectly, of course, but you got there eventually.”

“Thank you, my lord.” She inclined her head again, face still and voice quiet. “It was a learning experience.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure! It’s often difficult the first time, don’t you worry—it doesn’t mean you don’t have the aptitude.” Zyn reached a hand out, and, out of some horribly mistaken instinct, patted her on the shoulder. “Do you know,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “most acolytes just use the droid? Which is all well and good, of course, but there’s no substitute for hands-on practice. Though I have had to reprimand the occasional overenthusiastic student for frying their subject…” He shook his head. “Never mind that. I’m quite aware that you have a name for me, so let’s do this properly, hm? The ability to give an accurate report is quite an essential skill, in this area of study and most others.”

“Esorr Kayin. The murderer’s name is Esorr Kayin.” Alif gave—“The acolyte gave another name, Eylen, but he was lying. I sensed his lack of sincerely, which is why I needed to…” How would a Sith put it? She would, could, had to play that role. “To break him.”

Here is the price, little acolyte: you will shatter your fingers against your ribcage, trying to tear out your own heart.

“He’s been in there a while,” said one of the junior inquisitors—human, young, with dark skin and tight curls. “Think there will be anything left for us?”

Her companion—passably pureblooded, though the red in his eyes was dull—snorted derisively and leaned back against the wall. “We weren’t getting the damn rebel anyway.”

“Ten credits says the acolyte comes out covered in blood.”

“Just because that happened once…” The pureblood shook his head. “Nah, he talked a big game, but I don’t think he’s that hands-on. Twenty-five credits, unless you’re feeling broke.”

“I have plenty. I’m shocked your family hasn’t cut you off yet, though.”

“Oh, fuck off, Yumes.”

“Say that again when you lose the bet. It’ll be satisfying.”

Ahene gave her report. After the name had come details, laying the murder out in a jumble she had then reassembled into a near-coherent statement. She’d sent the probe droid for a datapad and actually gotten one; she referred to it often as she talked, anchoring herself in the only thing that currently mattered.

Eventually, Zyn held up a hand, stopping her. “That will do, acolyte,” he said. “That will do—though, I have to say, I wish it had been Eylen. An acolyte kills an apprentice, and the politics of it become easy.” He frowned deeply, staring past Ahene into a middle distance that seemed distinctly troubling. “Kayin, though… his master is one of the Councilors. Any testimony against him is worse than useless. Best to sweep this all under the rug, I think, demands for justice aside; I’m sure that you’ll agree that Alif didn’t know anything conclusive.”

It took her a moment to comprehend what he’d said. “This was all for nothing?” Ahene asked, something twisting deep below the numbness. It wasn’t as if she’d expected justice, but the cruelty should have had a purpose. She could live with a horrible necessity. With knowing that it might, at least, be deemed worth the cost.

She—would have to live with a lot of things, it seemed. If some of them were hollow and empty and pointless, then at least she’d live to regret them.

And then, after a few moments of thought, Zyn spoke: “Publicly, yes, all for nothing. There are lords, some even of the Council, who would be glad to be notified if their apprentice transgressed against the laws of the Sith—but Darth Ravage’s reputation has never suggested him to be one.” He sighed and shook his head, lips twisting into a wry smile. “Privately, of course, Lord Necus has been just a bit more persistent than I can ignore. He’s not a stupid man, stubborn as he is; he will see it as more than nothing, and more importantly, he won’t make any moves before our connection to this little matter has been forgotten entirely.”

He couldn’t be throwing her a bone, however relieved she felt. He’s Sith, she reminded herself. He doesn’t care if it’s all for nothing or not. He’s just trying to keep his mailbox from being filled up by an angry lord. But the politics were potentially important, and a tram-wreck kind of fascinating. “Do you want me to pass him my report, my lord?”

“That exactly,” said Zyn, spreading his hands. “Necus is one of the instructors, second floor, I think—oh, yes, he teaches dueling case law. Not my area, of course, but improperly executed duels are a thorn in all our sides; there wouldn’t be half so many title disputes if more people paid attention in those classes, I swear.” He chuckled to himself. “But you’d better get on with it. I’ll send my mark of approval to your overseer, to what I’m sure will be his great disappointment—he’s made no secret of his disdain for the experiment, and while it’s quite true that some of the former slaves don’t have the stomach for the higher arts… I believe you have potential, more than it might have first seemed. Do try not to get killed, hm? It’s always a pleasure to watch a student find their aptitude, and it would be a shame for that to be wasted.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Ahene’s lips twisted into something that could have been a smile, dark and wry as it was. “Believe me,” she said, “I’ll do my best to survive.”

He’d been planning to leave the whole time, of course.

It was a simple decision; Ffon’s arrival had only moved up the timetable. This planet was drastically more dangerous than Niloc could ever hope to be, and it was going to eat him alive if he let it. The only solution was to not be there.

No one questioned him until he got to Dreshdae, and then—well, the soldiers there weren’t as good as the ones around the Academy, and he was finding himself to be a very persuasive person these days. He sat himself down in some out-of-the-way place, flouting at least one local ordinance in the process, and wondered what it would take to fry the chip in his arm. Lightning? He’d seen it from their stubborn little would-be leader, before she and the others had vanished in the tomb. And if she could shoot it from her fingertips, then he was feeling desperate enough to call it up under his skin. He would do whatever it took.

It would hurt. But what was a little pain, next to freedom?

Freedom, he thought, tipping his head back. No more ID chip. No more probe droids knowing where I am. Void, that sounds nice.

That was, of course, when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

Niloc managed not to jump out of his skin, with some effort. He turned to look at his mystery accoster, and—frowned.

It was the twi’lek from the tomb. She’d seemed much deader before, which made her appearance more than a little unnerving. “Skipping out on your trials?” she asked.

“No. Why would you think that?”

“I’ve been shadowing you for the past twenty minutes. You’ve been avoiding droids like your life depends on it.” She grinned crookedly. “Mind if I sit down?”

If he refused, she could easily snitch on him. “Go ahead,” he said. “Clearly, I wasn’t doing anything important.”

She stepped around the bench and sat down on the very edge, her stubby lekku—they barely brushed her shoulders—wiggling with what he thought was amusement. “There are places rogue acolytes go, you know.”

“Spindrall takes them in. I know. I… hells, you’ve made it clear you see through me, I guess there’s no point in lying. Yes, I’ve considered it.” Niloc sighed. “But that’s still Korriban. It doesn’t seem like there would be much point.”

“You’re right, there wouldn’t. But there are other places.”

He slanted a glance in her direction. “I’m listening.”

“Better places,” she said. “Better things to believe in. My new master has a ship—let’s talk there, hm?”

It could have been a trap. It probably was a trap. But he didn’t have any real way of getting himself off the planet, so why not? He didn’t have all that much to lose. “Alright,” he said. “Sign me up. Did your master tell you to walk around looking for random acolytes, or…?”

“He represents, oh, let’s call it a mystery cult. No one would believe you or me if we said its name. And he’d rather leave here with two apprentices than one.”

“That doesn’t really answer the question.”

“It’s the only answer you need right now,” the twi’lek said. “Now come on. Follow me, and follow my lead.”

What else could he do? Niloc shrugged and did as she asked.

Lord Necus’s class schedule and room number were, to Ahene’s great relief, easily available at a wall terminal. She moved briskly through the halls, glancing at the classroom doors every so often to check that she was still going the right way, passing probe droids and acolytes and the occasional poster. (Every school, from the long-repurposed building in Verios’s capital city to the ancient Academy of the Sith, needed a way to advertise various electives and extracurriculars to its students. The latter’s were merely far more disturbing.) Eventually she made her way to the proper section, slipping by a trio who were arguing precedent outside a closed and locked door.

The room she needed was also locked. Ahene frowned at the panel, briefly, and buzzed the door. She waited for a few seconds, the temperature under her skin dropping by the moment—but it opened, eventually, and revealed a tall human man she could only assume was Lord Necus.

“Yes, acolyte?” he said, in a sharp not-quite-Kaasi accent. “What’s this about?”

“Inquisitor Zyn sent me to… break the news, my lord.” She bowed her head respectfully. “May I come in?”

“Bad news?” asked Necus. At her nod, he pressed his lips together. “But you do have a name, yes?”

“The evidence was inconclusive,” Ahene said, the lie coming out as smoothly—and regretfully—as the truth would have. “I can’t give you a name, my lord. But I do have a report. If you’d like to review the evidence yourself, that is.”

Necus’s eyes lingered on the acolytes loitering outside his colleague’s classroom, and his frown deepened further. “Fine. You’d better come in, then.”

Ahene followed him through the door. There was a single short row of chairs, with podiums set up in front of them and a desk beyond. It looked—from her hazy memories, at least—oddly like a normal classroom, though one set up for fewer students than the one she had attended so very long ago. For a single disorienting moment, though, it was like standing in the past, back before everything had gone to hell.

(she couldn’t go back, of course, only stand here and drown—)

And then Necus broke the mirage when he turned back to her, golden eyes grim and steady and intent. “We’re alone now, acolyte, and no one is listening. Report.”

Ahene seized on the order like a lifeline. “The murderer was Esorr Kayin,” she said. “I have an account of what happened on my datapad, my lord. Ah—here.”

He took it, aura lighting with a faint, hollow amusement. “So eager. Have inclinations towards Justice, do you?”

That was, she remembered, one of the spheres. Had Harkun ever said which they’d be entering? She suspected not. “I’m training under Overseer Harkun,” Ahene said, sidestepping the question, “on the orders of Lord Zash.” And she was starting to suspect that Zash was, in fact, ‘just’ a lord; Harkun seemed like the sort who would inflate someone’s title to scare the acolytes.

“Zash, Zash… I’m sure I should be able to place that name.” Necus shook his head, and those disturbing eyes suddenly seemed to be looking very far away. “Pity, though,” he muttered. “I have, after all, recently lost an apprentice.”

“I apologize for my unavailability, my lord.” Not that she really wanted to fill a dead man’s shoes anyway. Or be stuck on this horrible planet, learning who was and was not allowed to legally murder each other, and under what circumstances. An instructor’s apprentice was probably looking at years before they were allowed to leave; she’d rather take her chances with Harkun and Zash.

“Don’t be. I will find another soon,” said Necus, and it was a terrible vow. “Your report is appreciated, acolyte. Go, now, and leave me—and know, should your report give me what I need, that I pay my debts. I think, yes, that I will take a new position before the opening of the next term…”

“My lord.” Ahene bowed again, and then hastily left him to his plotting. Whatever he did next, she didn’t want to be involved.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 31:8 / 29 Adast, 1576

Something in Ahene’s chest tightened the moment she stepped into the Academy’s enormous central library, sharp and dizzy and bittersweet. She would have loved to see this archive once, Void help her; somewhere in the back of her mind the remnants of a quiet, focused child were stirring. Maybe she was trapped somewhere horrible, maybe—if she was luckier than she would ever be—she wouldn’t be on Korriban long enough to scratch even the surface of the information found here, maybe she was unlikely to have the time either way, but all at once she was remembering the way she had wanted to know. To see, to learn, to understand. And then it had all been useless, and she’d forgotten at least half of the inconsequential facts she’d filled her head with, but now…

Knowledge is power, said her wiser instincts. Knowledge is a tool that you can use to survive.

She found her way to the textbooks, Kory at her heels, and dug up something that purported to be a history of the Academy itself, and then began to go through it with the hunger of someone who had, after years defenseless in the shadows, finally been given a knife. Only a knife—only the information that the real acolytes already had, and in among a lot of useless (though mildly fascinating) discussion of ancient records, but enough to find a faint sense of the Academy’s workings. And a history of the Academy was a history of the trials too, laying out the guidelines this new hell was built on.

This led to a detour, stemming from the writer’s insistence that understanding the trials required frequent reference to Kittât—an incomprehensible, squiggly script that apparently served as the written form of the High Sith tongue. Not having known there was a High Sith tongue, much less how to read it, Ahene and Kory split up to look for a translation dictionary. (Or, as a lesser prize, even a regular dictionary; these datapads were dedicated to their texts, unlike the ones in her vague memories, and lacked a built-in one.) Sith cruelty, it seemed, was matched mostly by Sith snobbery and Sith long-windedness.

The shelves loomed at her. They rose up a good story and a half, ending just beneath the ceiling formed by the encircling interior balcony, and glowed softly where the datapads were slotted in. It was an impressive display; one felt like one might fall through the floor, squinting at the highest labels for too long. And it was maddeningly difficult to navigate. Finding the textbooks had taken long enough without a side expedition, but the promise of information was too alluring to ignore.

And, as it happened, not quite distracting enough to let Ffon sneak up on her. There was a flicker of wounded cruelty at her side, and Ahene turned fast enough to see him approach. She pressed her lips together and watched, waiting for her new competitor to speak.

Ffon hesitated for just an instant too long, taking in an expression she hoped was unreadable, and then broke into a sneer. It was a very deliberate sneer. Perhaps he had practiced it in the mirror as a child, painting just the right shade of contempt onto his face. “You,” he said. “I admit, I’m surprised to see you here. I wouldn’t have thought you could read.”

“No, you wouldn’t think that, would you?” Ahene made a vague gesture with one hand. “The old crèche had ideas. Blame it on my wild youth.”

“Oh. You’re from the conquests.” He snorted. “It figures. They never do a good enough job.”

“Worried about some competition, Ffon?”

“You’re not competition for me,” he said, voice dropping dangerously low as he stepped forward. “You—should leave now. You’re not fit for the knowledge contained here, subjugate. It’s for Sith. And you’re not Sith, are you?”

“Neither are you, yet,” Ahene pointed out, twitching her fingers—yes, the energy was still there. “You’re merely red.”

“Me being red,” Ffon drawled, dragging the word out like he intended to knife it in an alley, “is a sign of my birthright. I was trained to be Sith from the moment I came into this galaxy. You can’t even claim bastard’s eyes.” His own flickered, poisonously crimson. “It’s an insult to me that you’re here at all. It’s an insult to the Academy!”

He sounded like he was trying to psych himself up. Ahene kept herself carefully still; no one knew what to do with stillness. “Back off, Ffon,” she hissed. “You’re not going to try something. Not here.”

“Oh, really? Do you actually think the Academy rules will protect you?”

“I think,” Ahene said, quietly, “that you’re not sure.”

There was a pause.

“I think I’m going to kill you,” he growled, “just as soon as we get into the tombs again. We’ll see which one of us is right.”

And, with that, he turned to stalk away. She felt a brief impulse to fling some cutting parting shot after him, but wrestled it down; there was a fine line between provoking him to keep him off-balance and doing it for ego, and that would be crossing it. Besides, she didn’t want a fight.

(Except that she did, and she knew it. But she didn’t want the consequences.)

Ahene sighed and set off to continue her search.

“Oh, look,” Kaljan said, grimacing pointedly at the newest entrants to the trash acolytes’ dorms. “It’s the lunatic and her shadow. Couldn’t find a window?”

The lunatic—Ahene, they remembered—shrugged, vague amusement on her face. “Kaljan. You’re where you’re supposed to be.”

“Yeah, well, my final trial is sometime tomorrow.” They lifted their hands. “When a droid comes to drag me out of my bed, I’d rather it be my bed. Well, a bed I’m allowed to be in. These beds aren’t owned so much as occasionally defended.”

“Fantastic. No paperwork.” Ahene shot her hanger-on a wry look, and got a quiet laugh in response. There was definitely something going on there, though Kaljan would have been hard-pressed to say exactly what. “I assume this place fills up when it gets dark?” she asked. “I—have to think we outnumber the little heirs. There have always been more of us.”

“Even on Dromund Kaas,” murmured the hanger-on.

“Generally, yes. Don’t get stupid ideas about solidarity,” Kaljan said. “There are more of us than there are bunks, sometimes, when a new lot comes in before enough of the old lot’s died. If the pair of you don’t mind sharing a bed, I’d do it.” They waggled their eyebrows knowingly, delighting in the wisps of exasperation they got in return. “More advice than you deserve… right, well, might as well, you’re still better roommates than the Balmorrans. Which, by the way—don’t mess with the Balmorrans, you’ll regret it.”

The hanger-on tilted her head. “Balmorrans?”

“Pair of kids from a conquest world. Broke through together, showed up here together, and they’ve been terrorizing the rest of us trash ever since.” Kaljan shook their head, recalling Vemrin and Dolgis’s arrival and subsequent path of destruction; this pair had a bit of the same air to them, come to think of it. Less malicious, but Korriban would probably take care of that. “Just… don’t do anything stupid, alright?” they said. “And don’t expect help from me if you do. You’ve gotten more than enough already.”

“Thank you for the warning,” said Ahene. “Kory—”

“Still right behind you,” the hanger-on said, smiling.

“And if you two are planning to do anything but sleep,” Kaljan added, “then by the Emperor, do it somewhere else, would you?”

Ahene made an odd, uncomfortable expression. “We’re really not.”

Fantastic. Keep it that way.”

10 ATC, 32:8 / 30 Adast, 1576

Morning found the cohort herded into a mid-sized, open-air arena somewhere in the midst of the Academy complex. The sunlight came down too red and too slanted, providing far too little relief from the chill in the air. At least the uniforms were well-insulated; Ahene was cold, but not bone-cold like she’d been. With enough exertion, the temperature might almost be pleasant—though she was sore enough that she wasn’t looking forward to finding out.

Harkun didn’t stay longer than ten minutes, and spent most of them lamenting Zash’s insistence on combat training. The assembled acolytes were, according to him, too sorry a lot to grasp even the basics. (Ffon was not in evidence, presumably having learned them already; neither was Niloc, with no explanation.) He then turned the group over to an assistant overseer who wasn’t much better, the younger man explaining forms with the dry boredom of someone who’d rather be anywhere else. “You will start,” the new instructor said, distaste in every word, “with the first of seven, the foundation for the others since the invention of the saber. Perhaps some of you will even grasp it. I doubt it, but occasionally miracles do happen. You, the big one—come over here so I can demonstrate a proper grip. That’s not a vakking club you’re swinging!”

Gerr approached, a bit sheepishly. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Though, I mean, it kind of is—”

“It’s not weighted like a club, you idiot,” snapped the assistant overseer. “Give me your hands! This one goes here, this one here, put your right foot back…” He maneuvered Gerr’s limbs like the acolyte was a posable toy, jerking them harshly into the proper positions. “There. That is, at least, a passable imitation of the aggressive opening stance. Now, if the rest of you trash would copy him—ugh, of course one of you would have a staff. Who even gave you that?”

Ahene, suspecting that he didn’t actually care, shrugged one shoulder.

Ugh. Fine. I suppose I have to show you the basic staff form, don’t I?” He stalked over and began repositioning her, yanking her around and proving that it was exactly as painful as it had looked. “I swear,” he muttered, “there wouldn’t be enough credits in the galaxy to make it worth teaching the trash, and yet…”

With a good deal of grumbling, he went around between the five acolytes present, putting each of them in order, and then started them in on the basic strikes and parries—more the strikes than the parries. Ahene had a suspicion she knew why. Somebody was going to get smacked around as a ‘lesson,’ and it would make Markan look ridiculous if one of them countered him. As she familiarized herself with the staff in her hands, a part of her stayed on guard.

Body zones. Proper angles. If he struck, would it be best to dodge, or just to take the hit?

The hit didn’t come while they practiced the motions. They were split up to spar, though, brother against brother and—sweet Void, no—Kory against Gerr. But there was no time to worry, and even less for Ahene to tell herself there was nothing she could do, because that left one acolyte without a sparring partner. Damn. She had been hoping it wouldn’t be her, this time; probably the staff had done it. It was too distinctive. It set her apart. She should have considered that when she chose it, but it was too late now.

“Don’t think I like this either,” Markan said, and the so I’m going to take it out on you went without saying. But that was—not alright, no, but manageable. The threat of Zash’s displeasure, real or imagined, seemed to hold Harkun back, and there was no reason for that not to hold. (Except that your luck never holds, whispered a part of her that was cynical and doubting and far too sensible for its own good.) The practice, she had to believe, would probably stay practice. Brutal, painful, but still only practice.


Unless she was so stupid as to win.

Markan started with the basic strikes he’d shown the cohort, but he was far too smug behind that bored scowl to mean them. Ahene parried each one, and tried to make it look like it was… a task that required effort, rather than an admittedly-not-quite-restful break from people trying to kill her. Like she was paying attention to what he wanted her to pay attention to, and not the way his feet slid into another stance as he feigned a swipe at her stomach, and certainly not—

he’s shifting forms, he’s left himself open, duck back use your reach smash his ribs on that side

—she pulled away and let him catch her on the shoulder, because fully taking the hit would have left her concussed and a concussion would be death, but her instincts were still screaming at her to move faster retaliate show him you won’t lose. Which was wrong. She had to lose. She had to remember that.

The training saber burned, and the noise that came out of Ahene’s mouth was some kind of strangled hiss. Lightning sparked in her head, threatening to leap from her fingers, but she held it down—she felt like she had grabbed a live wire, in a way she didn’t entirely hate—and swung the staff at an angle that would never have hit anything but Markan’s blade. A novice’s mistake (but she was a novice, even with the Force howling in her mind like a promise she couldn’t believe) to help her sell this, to show him what he wanted to see. The collision made an almost-satisfying thunk, and then he stepped back and swung his blade around and slammed it into her legs with a strength and heat she didn’t need to fake stumbling from.

She would have gotten up, though, if she hadn’t been trying to lose. But only one of them could afford to indulge their wounded pride, and Ahene would not give him a reason to. She bowed her head, panting just a bit more than she needed to. “Sir.”

“What a miserable performance, acolyte!” Markan sounded downright gleeful; it had clearly been quite a good performance, then. “I knew training you lot was a waste of my time,” he said, and beamed sadistically towards the others. Gerr looked very embarrassed to be caught helping Kory off the ground, but by some miracle Markan didn’t see fit to comment. “We’ve still got this arena for another fifteen minutes, though, so I suppose I might as well make use of it. You certainly don’t deserve a break. Perhaps some laps—”

“No, ah—Markan, was it? Do wait a moment.” And that voice was both new and distinctive, cutting smoothly through the air like the edge of a knife.

Ahene twisted to look at its owner, and refused to grimace. Of course, she thought. Of course this would be how I’d first see Lord Zash.

There wasn’t anyone else the woman could be, with Harkun trailing so sourly behind her. She looked strangely young, with her large dark eyes and wide smile and what was probably very fashionably bobbed hair, but her presence was so terribly sweet that Ahene nearly shivered. It was honey under her skin, poured out into human form and poisoned with something slow and lethal. The sort of presence that made you shudder to close your eyes. Danger.

It was odd, realizing that there could be an aura more deeply terrifying than Kelshrin’s. An icy void didn’t pretend to be anything but itself.

The other acolytes began to bow. Ahene picked herself off the floor and followed suit, while paranoid and perceptive parts of her picked up things like the way Harkun was suddenly smiling, like the odd little gesture Markan made, like the fact that this trap had no right answer.

“Assistant, report,” Harkun said, still making an expression that did not in any way agree with him. It was on the edge of turning into a grin, which would undoubtedly be even worse. “How are these miserable sods doing? No doubt they’ve been”—and the grin appeared, small and horrible and aimed directly at Ahene—“tripping over their own feet.”

She could feel herself dropping back into that grim, distant place; the insult passed through her without landing. Ahene’s eyes stayed on Zash, watching for… it was like fighting, wasn’t it? Watching for the opening that would let her save herself from this conspiratorial little shell game.

“Oh, they have,” said Markan, his face matching Harkun’s almost exactly. “The twins swung their sticks around at each other like the incompetent cowards they are, the big one put the little one down on the ground, and this fool practically whacked herself with her own staff. I recommend she be put down.”

Harkun’s grin, refusing to quit while it was behind, actually broadened. “Well, well. I knew you couldn’t actually use that thing.” He took a step towards Ahene, one hand straying towards the saber at his hip. “Do you want to do the honors, Lord Zash, or shall I?”

Harkun,” Zash almost-snapped, voice sharp with warning. “This is sparring, not a trial—haven’t I told you my guidelines?”

“Yes, Lord Zash, but—”


“…My lord,” he gritted out.

Zash’s smile looked far more natural. “Do make it a trial.”

“Gerr. Ahene.” Harkun looked between them; it was a good thing that looks alone couldn’t kill. “Only one of you pieces of filth is going to survive this,” he growled, “so fight for your miserable lives.”

Oh, Ahene thought. An opening. And she swung the staff.

Here was a fact: Gerr was a lot bigger than her, and built like a construction droid made flesh.

Here was another fact: she had already beaten him once.

Lightning surged along her weapon as she spun, and she realized somewhere in the back of her mind that she was doing it on purpose—that subconsciously didn’t preclude deliberately, and she was still rather annoyed with Gerr for losing control and attacking in the tomb. And she was still faster, and now she had the longer reach.

He was far enough away to duck the first swipe. He was far enough away that he couldn’t retaliate without changing that. And she had the range advantage, too, sparking under her fingertips and along the metal rod in her hands.

“Ahene,” he said, raising his weapon defensively, “back off. Back down. I don’t want to kill you!”

It was easy to push his will aside, leaving him scrabbling for purchase in something blank and smooth and cold. “Good,” she snapped. “I don’t want to die.” She made a sharp jab with her staff, and the lightning shot from it like a feral animal released, hitting Gerr square in the shoulder. He cried out and stumbled, but didn’t drop; she repeated the trick and narrowly avoided singeing one of the brothers. The other acolytes scurried to get out of the way, after that, and even Harkun took a surreptitious step back.

Zash had been standing out of the way the whole time. She tapped her lips thoughtfully, still smiling.

Gerr ducked and wove, circling Ahene with his saber held in a position that certainly hadn’t been covered in the (somewhat alleged) lesson. He couldn’t get to her, and he couldn’t stay away, and he knew it. Watching him know it should have turned her stomach. It didn’t. Nothing quieted a guilty conscience like desperation, and her desperation crackled through the air with a vengeance.

(this time, this time she wasn’t sorry—)

He caught the lightning on his saber. The results were predictable, a mirror of what she’d done to Cotan’s—and her own—down in the tomb, for survival and the favor of a different enigmatic watcher. Gerr practically flung the sword away, hand twitching from the burn, and then he turned and tried to run.

It should have felt like something to lunge forwards, staff already sweeping towards him. It should have felt like something to crack his skull open on the end. It should have, but it didn’t, because it was him or her and she had already made that decision. Zash was watching and Harkun was watching (and Kory was watching, but she couldn’t let herself care about that) and Korriban itself was watching, and as soon as Gerr hit the ground she slammed the end of the staff into his throat to make sure.

And then Ahene turned towards Zash, weapon in hand, and did the only proper thing she could.

She knelt.

“Rise, acolyte,” said Lord Zash. Her honey-poison presence swirled around her, intrigued and approving. “And might I commend you on that excellent display. Do keep it up, acolyte; I’ll be watching your future trials with great interest.”

“As you say, my lord.” Ahene rose, and tried not to let the distance fade just yet. “I’m glad not to have disappointed.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. That was far from disappointing.” Zash turned a sharp grin on Harkun, who was fuming beside her. “Really, Harkun,” she practically cooed, “you wanted to throw this one away? And here I would have thought you’d be delighted to have two prodigies in the cohort.”

While she appreciated the lord’s faith, Ahene really wished it were being expressed in a less provoking manner.

“Her ability was certainly… unexpected,” Harkun said. His aura roiled like a particularly murderous stormcloud. “She’s not at Ffon’s level, of course.”

“Really!” Zash laughed. “Then I truly look forward to seeing what he can do, as well. Try not to have them kill each other before the list runs out, hm? It would be such a shame.”

“I’ll do my best, Lord Zash. Of course, the tombs—”

“I know, I know. The rules are waived, acolytes will be acolytes, you can’t stop them there.” She waved a hand, unconcerned. “Still, I have more than enough work for both of them, and if they take that sort of initiative—which I’m sure either of them would, I’ve no doubt—they’ll just have to get creative about it. Isn’t that right, my dear acolyte?”

Ahene bowed her head. “As you say.”

“Wonderful! Now, Harkun, let’s talk back in your office; I’m sure the acolytes are terribly bored listening to us chatter.” Zash made a vague gesture, which somehow managed to imply the concept of her hooking an arm around his. “I have some very precise instructions for this next set of trials…”

Harkun was towed away, if mostly implicitly, in a state of bewildered rage. Zash was still talking as the doors swished shut behind them.

“What are you lot standing around for?” Markan demanded. “Showers, trash. Now!”

Zash kept smiling all through her meeting with Harkun, as he tried so desperately to appease her—and went on hating her, of course, for all the wrong reasons. He hated her for being blithe and talkative, for seeing use in the wrong sort of people, for outranking him despite all her obvious weakness.

Her ‘obvious weakness’ was a weapon beyond compare, when so few Sith understood soft power as anything but softness. No sphere ran without its tens of thousands of low-level lords, petty and frivolous and riddled with flaws the true power players exploited; to go overlooked among them was not such a terrible thing as all that. For now, at least.

She didn’t stop smiling as she slipped out, either, to make her way back to the landspeeder that would take her to Dreshdae. She did sprawl out in the passenger chair as the droid started the engines, arranged so deliberately that anyone would have thought it a charming bit of drama. (No one was watching, but there was such a thing as dignity.) And if Zash’s breathing shallowed, if her fingers twitched a little bit wrong—

Well, the droid wouldn’t talk. She wiped its memory every evening.

“I think,” Ahene informed Kory, “that I like these showers.” It was easier than thinking about what she’d done, or what she might have to do, or whether she should be hating herself for it. Cold water was an excellent antidote to introspection, and it had kept the adrenaline around a little bit longer.

Kory didn’t laugh. She looked like she might, for a moment, but instead she frowned and leaned her head back against the wall. “You… didn’t hesitate,” she murmured.

This was not a conversation Ahene wanted to have. “Of course I didn’t,” she said, quietly. “He would have killed me.” Even she wasn’t sure if she meant Gerr or Harkun.

“I know. I know you didn’t have a choice, but—” Kory cut herself off, combing a hand furiously through her hair. “Ugh, I feel like I’m back home, except colder. Just when I was getting used to the dry, too.” She sighed. “Ahene, I’m not trying to tell you I hate you, even if that was disturbing. I’m trying to ask if you’re okay.”

And Ahene wasn’t sure how to say please stop being gentle with me without making everything worse. “No,” she said instead. “Of course not. I’m not going to be okay until we get off this horrible planet.” She hadn’t been okay when she got here. She hadn’t been okay since the alarms had woken her up minutes before they went off and she’d pulled some poor twi’lek girl three years her senior into a storage closet and a stray missile had killed half the people she’d known (but not her never her how hadn’t she realized why), and she was probably never going to be okay again.

Kory pressed her fingers against Ahene’s arm, just for a moment, and attempted a smile. “Please don’t break,” she said.

She meant break like a rebel would, Ahene realized. Not don’t snap but don’t turn. “Trust me,” she said.

It was a promise she at least intended to keep.

10 ATC, 35:8 / 33 Adast, 1576

Ahene paced back and forth on the raised metal prefab, eying the galaxy’s most stubborn lock. She had tried coaxing, pleading, rational debate. She had dripped blood on the thing, and only had a stinging cut on the heel of her palm to show for it. She’d been down here for hours trying to commune with the damned thing, reaching out to the holocron inside it, pouring every bit of rage and pain she had into that horrible little pyramid—

But any Sith could do that. And no Sith had opened the monument in at least a millennium.

She closed her eyes again, sat down before it, and… tried another approach. One that might have eluded a millennium’s worth of Sith, it it came down to it.

(The darkness shifted under her, as cold as a warning. Korriban knew what she was doing, and it did not approve.)

There had not, as it happened, been much peace in Ahene’s life. Not after her breakthrough, and not before. If there was a light to match the shadows beneath her, a calm that could run as deep as the terrible energy in her veins, then it didn’t belong to her. Safety was a lie and hope was only what you could make yourself, and Ahene took a slow, deep breath and put a palm flat against the stone and tried anyway.

She wasn’t sure what to imagine, except all the plans she and Sirue had known were lies. She tried anyway.

Be calm, she told herself, and breathed like it was possible. Be quiet, and be gentle, and remember what it was like to believe everything could still work out. To think the galaxy could be made better by small children who dreamed of spy work.

Somewhere in there, she started to choke up. The holocron did not seem any more responsive to tears than it had been to blood.

I can be calm. I can be patient. Please, just open.

Her thoughts slid off without purchase, and she slumped. The cold sank in again, settling around Ahene’s shoulders like a heavy cloak, leeching away all imagined sense of warmth. What had she expected? Nothing worth knowing would lock itself behind the light.

“Thank you, Korriban,” she muttered. “What is it waiting for, then?”

You, whispered the part of her that might also have been Korriban, in all its perpetual unhelpfulness.

Ahene sighed and pushed herself up to resume pacing. An impossible task, designed to give Harkun a reason to kill her… but was he the one assigning the trials? Was he really? And she had no reason to trust Zash’s bewildering congeniality, but Zash didn’t have a reason to pretend that she found Ahene useful, either. So—an improbable task, assigned by a lord who had nothing to lose by having her try. Which was only slightly better, in that it meant Harkun hadn’t sealed the damn holocron in there himself.

Maybe a real acolyte would have known what to do. But she wasn’t a real acolyte, raised to this deadly serious nonsense from birth, she was just some nobody who’d suddenly zapped back, and if this thing wouldn’t open anyway it’s not like it would hurt the damned monument

(the chamber flashed purple)

—there was a click. Ahene shook the sparks from her fingers, already partway through chiding herself for venting her frustration like that, and carefully reached out a hand. Her fingertips brushed against the point of the holocron, ready to pull away if the unfolded-transparisteel tip of the monument snapped back.

It didn’t.

She picked it up, expression twisting with something between bemusement and disgust. “Lightning,” she said, flatly. “You have been down here for over a thousand years, sought after by generations of Sith, and you were waiting for somebody to throw lightning at you.”

The holocron did not offer a response to this extremely logical line of questioning. Proverbs about gift fathiers and mouths came to mind, and Ahene shook her head and began to descend the prefab structure. Better not to ask.

She got to hit a number of shyrack on her way out. It was surprisingly cathartic.

Kory lifted her hands as she approached the waist-high barricades, uniform stuffed—unfortunately—into the same satchel as her scanner. “It’s alright,” she said, quickly, “I’m an acolyte. I just, I was blending in with the rebels—for my trial, since they control the, ah, tablet rooms.” The troopers did not lower their weapons. “You can scan me?”

Her weapon was clipped to her belt, not in her hands. One of the soldiers decided she was a small enough threat to risk pulling out a scanner, and blue light washed over her. “She’s telling the truth,” the soldier announced. “Sorry about that, sir—you’re free to come through.”

“You don’t need to be sorry,” said Kory. Her stomach twisted uncomfortably; the rebel slaves and rogue troopers deeper in the tomb were short on supplies, and the soldiers here had more than enough to wait their enemies out. She should have been finding a way—no, but she couldn’t.

(She was still too small, too scared, too soft-hearted. Lym would have been disappointed in her.)

It was hard not to let her gaze linger on the crates of food and water as she passed. Maybe the rebels would assault the camp. Maybe, if the galaxy was more just than it usually seemed, they would win.

Harkun stared the two brothers down, watching the Force gutter in them as a disgusting cocktail of fear-shame-resentment. Their nascent and threadbare bond twitched like a worm between them. If they’d had the power, they would have been worse than the other stubborn pair; lucky, then, that their strength was mostly physical. “You are telling me,” he bit out, “that you do not have the journal.”

Balek ducked his head. “Yes, sir. I’m—I’m sorry, sir.”

“It wasn’t there,” said Wydr, setting his jaw with something that was even more infuriating than real defiance. As if he thought he was being heroic. “We looked, and we looked, but someone else got to it first. If you know who, I can—”

“You can refrain,” Harkun snapped, “from telling your overseer that you intend to break Academy rules. You idiots thought you could still become Sith? A failure is a failure, filth, and failure means death. If you didn’t have the skill to track down the acolyte who took it, the discretion to get it back before you came in here begging for mercy—you’ll only get what you deserve.” He let his words linger for a few moments, allowing the brothers time to sweat, and then grinned wickedly at them. “Of course, if you’re so willing to kill for your pardon… perhaps the two of you would like to go home to Nal Hutta, instead of dying on my floor like the miserable animals you are.”

“We’ll do anything,” Wydr promised. “I swear.”

“Good. You had better.” Harkun looked from one to the other, taking in their enormous frames. Perhaps they had a chance, and either way he’d be rid of them soon enough. “Kill one of your fellows, and you can go home. A specific one, mind you. I think you know which.”

“The lightning girl?” Balek guessed, looking pathetically nervous about the prospect. “Wydr…”

“She’s not worth dying for,” said Wydr grimly. “Besides, you saw what she did to Gerr. She wouldn’t stop to mourn.”


Harkun slammed a hand on his desk. “Enough!” he said. “Get out of my office, worms. You know your task—either complete it, or scurry into the tombs to rot. I don’t want to hear your pointless arguments.”

They looked at each other. “Yes, sir,” said Wydr.

And, finally, the pair left him alone to plan. He grimaced down at his datapad for a moment, waiting to see if any other interruptions presented themselves, and then sent the droids to find Ffon.

Kory had almost gotten used to the cold and dry, or at least told herself she had. It was so different than everything she’d known, entirely opposite the sticky bug-infested jungle that had defined her life, and so it had to be adjustment that the chill just stung and sapped her instead of feeling like death. She still ended up with her uniform draped around her shoulders, shivering as she trekked through the valley. It would be hours until k’lor’slug feeding time, she reassured herself, they’d timed things as best they could, but she still found herself seeing them in every vaguely suspicious lump of sand.

The desert was less dangerous than home had been, if you knew the right times—which she did, now. And she was still jumpier than she’d ever been.

Ahene’s right, she thought. This place gets in your head.

There was a yell from somewhere off to the side. She squinted towards it, and saw—oh, the brothers. It looked like one of them was waving her down.

Kory had been here long enough to feel suspicious, but not quite long enough to break and run on principle. She made her way warily towards them, feeling the swing of the training saber on her belt.

Ahene and Kory had set up a little meeting spot, like so many acolytes before them. They’d claimed a niche between two sections of crumbling wall, barely big enough for both of them at once, but out of sight and out of the wind. It had been agreed that they would meet there when they’d completed their respective trials.

Holocron in her hands, leaning back against one rough ‘wall,’ Ahene was trying not to fret. Her internal clock was nothing to live by, and nutrient stew kept the gnaw of hunger at bay longer than a ration bar, but she estimated it had been at least three or four standard hours since she and Kory had left the Academy. What if—?

But Kory wasn’t dead. She could know that, somehow. So Ahene waited, trying not to fret and failing completely. There were a lot of ways not dead could intersect with needs help. Maybe it was time to go looking, and hope she wasn’t already too late.

And then a familiar presence twined its way through the air, gentle and bright, and Ahene sighed in relief as she set the holocron down and stepped out of the alcove. “Kory. I was getting worried—”

(she’s not alone)

—and it didn’t matter that Ahene could feel that, because she could also see that. The brothers were standing right there in front of her, Wydr’s training saber pressed like a bar across Kory’s throat.

“Ahene,” he said, stony-faced. “It’s time we talked.”

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 35:8 / 33 Adast, 1576

Here was the price—

But that didn’t matter.

“You want to talk?” Ahene said, in a voice that was as cold and quiet as the whisper in her mind. “Fine, then. Start talking.”

“I’m sorry,” Balek blurted out immediately. “I didn’t want to do this—it’s not personal, it’s not. We have to do it. It’s not personal.”

Wydr shot him a look. “Quiet. You’re not helping.” He took a step forwards, nudging Kory’s ankle with his foot to keep her in time. “Acolyte. This is a competition. You know that—yes?”

Ahene very carefully did not reach for her weapon. Her hands barely twitched. “I am familiar with the concept, yes.”

“Then you know what this is about.”

“Obviously,” she said. “But go ahead and tell me anyway. I might be surprised.”

It was Kory who spoke, eyes still closed, face still much too calm. “They want to kill you. They want to hold me hostage so you’ll hesitate. Ahene, don’t worry about me, just—”

“Quiet!” snapped Wydr, pressing the saber chokehold-tight for a moment. “I’ll offer you a deal, acolyte. Your life for hers. Best you’ll get; say no, and you both die.”

“Oh, really?” whispered Ahene. “And how do you figure that?”

An exchange of glances ensued, in varying degrees of bewilderment. “It’s—it’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Balek. “You’re outnumbered. And we liked you, we really did, but… Harkun gave us orders. We kill you, we get to go home.”

“You realize he’s lying?” Ahene said, holding Wydr’s gaze. “You’ve met him, Wydr. Why do you think for a moment that he would keep his promises?”

He grimaced. “It doesn’t matter. It’s our only chance.”

“It’s not,” said Kory, suddenly; he must have eased up on her throat. “You could go to Spindrall. He—he takes in failed acolytes.”

“And uses them as cannon fodder.”

Ahene lifted one shoulder in a minute shrug. “So? And Harkun isn’t now?”

“He’s offered us a way home,” Wydr said. “To let us leave the planet. That tomb is just a slower death.”

“I see you’ve thought all this out,” said Ahene drily. “Except for the obvious issue, of course.”

Curiosity won out. “What obvious issue?” he asked, wariness flickering under his Force-scarred skin.

Ahene smiled, thin and slow, doing her very best to make it look like Kelshrin’s. She needed Wydr to hesitate, no matter how much she hated bluffing. “It’s simple,” she said, with all the distant composure she could fake. “You don’t have a sapien shield. You have a large, awkward object that will stop you from getting the first strike, and you”—she took a step forwards—“have severely underestimated what I’m willing to do.”

He hesitated.

There was a fury that burned like ice, high and deep and nameless. It didn’t snarl. It didn’t lash out. It saw, and chose.

Ahene’s fingers closed around the training saber like a vise.

Things happened very quickly after that. She yanked, hard; her fingers erupted in burning pain; Kory put an elbow in Wydr’s gut; Balek swung his weapon. Ahene spun, parried with the saber—lit saber, held by the wrong end, oh Void she should probably let go of that—and followed up with lightning as the ow hot bad idea went flying. Behind her, Wydr was trying to get an arm around Kory’s throat, and Kory ducked and pulled back and his weapon came to her hand, and then he was staggering back with a long scorch along his arm.

Ahene dodged to the side, keeping out of the way of Balek’s very correctly angled strikes, her burned right hand twitching and sparking, and—yes, she could use pain, couldn’t she? She caught it in her mind and twisted it back on itself, distraction into determination, and another crackle of energy surged through the dry air. It caught Balek in the chest and dropped him, sand coming up in a cloud around his body.

Back where Kory was keeping Wydr at bay, there was an eruption of red raw fury, and then Ahene slammed into the wall.

A moment later, Kory slammed into her.

“I’m going to kill you,” Wydr said, as Ahene wondered why the stone had to be so hard, and what exactly broken ribs felt like. “Both of you. Doesn’t matter if I get back to Hutta. I’m going to kill you for this.” He held out a hand, and his brother’s saber shot towards him—

And Ahene held out her left, begging it to come to her instead—

Wydr caught it without issue, eyes glittering yellow in the shadow of the wall. “You killed my brother,” he said.

Ahene lifted her injured hand—pain is power is a tool is survival—and met his gaze. “You took Kory hostage.”

He charged. She and Kory dove to either side as if they’d practiced it, and he slipped in a way that should have sent him sprawling but didn’t—somehow he threw himself towards the wall and caught it, and then he was up on the wall for a moment, nearly sideways, and then he pushed away again and launched himself towards Ahene. Fast. Too fast. She managed to dodge anyway, drawing him back towards the path, but it was a near thing. He moved in ways that nobody should have moved. Like Talvara had, on the other side of that shattered-glass before-and-after.

It occurred to Ahene, as she wove out of the way of his slashes, that she was doing it too. Her speed came from something besides her muscles, which was obvious, but meant—

She could be faster.

(A swing came down towards her.)

She could try harder.

(She flung herself to the side, and it missed.)

Instinct was a good start. Instinct wasn’t enough. Not with Wydr after her, swinging with crushing force—keeping her moving instead of throwing lightning at him. Sand swirled around them as he pursued her across the path, shifting ground going to hard metal and then back again. The dust was choking, eye-stinging, whirling through the air even before it was disturbed…

He’s causing a sandstorm. It was only a small one, but it was building quickly, and it moved with him at its center. Ahene had been leading him away from Kory and the wall and the holocron—now he was pushing her towards the guardrail bordering one of the Valley’s smaller cliff-faces. She gritted her teeth and drove herself to the limit, throwing herself under a strike and hitting the ground and popping up behind him, hand screaming from the force of her brief landing, but oh, it was better than taking her chances with the drop.

The air still howled past her, trying to shove her back towards him. It was getting worse. And Wydr wasn’t tiring, wasn’t slowing, was here with her in an ever-tightening circle, and taking out the blade wouldn’t be enough or even close. Instinct told her he’d shatter bone with his bare fists, right now. Instinct told her he’d keep going past his heart’s final beat. Instinct told her—Korriban was laughing. Here is the price.

Ahene took her instincts into her hands like a burning brand, shoved through the sandstorm and into a shadow that might have been a valley, and told them—

Blind him.

The Force pushed back.

Blind him, Ahene thought, with all her desperation and clarity. Hide me. Put out his eyes and leave him in the dark, hide me in this dark, I will not be seen

And the shadows wrapped around her like she had always known they would.

Something was looking for her, terrible and angry and filled with a dread she couldn’t name, and she hid.

Someone was chasing her, wearing a uniform she feared almost like death itself, and she fled—and hid.

Sirue was beside her, pressed into a spaceport alcove as boots clicked past, and—somehow—she hid.

Escape would have been easy, if only she’d understood.

Slowly, bit by bit, the sandstorm dropped. Wydr knelt at the center of it, eyes squeezed shut, draped in an unbearable, hollow grief. His enemy was gone beyond his sensing. If he had the will to wonder how or where—he didn’t show it.

A shadow came down beside him, hand ghosting along his back, and drove a bolt of lightning into his spine.

He twitched a few times as he died.

Ahene sighed and leaned back on the ground, injured hand lying palm-up beside her. She felt drained and numb. And… guilty, maybe. It was hard to blame them for trying so hard to survive.

(She would have done worse.)


Her lips split with a grin. “Kory. Have a seat.”

“I thought you weren’t going to make a habit of this, Ahene.” A strained laugh escaped Kory’s throat as she crouched down, fingers reaching towards—but not quite touching—Ahene’s burned palm. “Needing healing, I mean. You promised.”

“Well,” Ahene said, “if you really want to complain about me saving your life…”

“Again.” Kory’s smile was gentle, sincere, bittersweet in a way that couldn’t be explained. “Saving my life again. Ahene…”

“I do my best.”

“Yes. You—you’ve done so much for me. Your ship thief, I hope she appreciates…” Kory shook her head. “Girl’s lucky to have you,” she murmured. “And I—I wish you’d gotten free, like you said you were trying to. But I’m lucky to have you, too.”

“Hand,” Ahene reminded her, proffering it.

“What? Oh! Oh, yes, right. Sorry.” Kory looked sheepish. “Here I was, babbling on while you were hurt—I’m lucky you put up with me. Um, you know the drill…”

It hurt. Less than before, maybe less than being burned in the first place, but there was still an instant of white-hot agony as Kory pulled the burn from her skin. Ahene found herself panting, after it was over, curled around the space where Kory was sitting. There was sand in her boots. She made a wry, strangled noise—on top of everything else, she was going to need to wring out her clothing again. “Thanks,” she said, pushing herself into a sitting position. “How are you feeling? Able to walk?”

“Yes. It’s easier than it was. I’m a little wobbly, but I’ll be fine. Though”—and Kory took both Ahene’s hands in hers—“I wouldn’t mind leaning on you.”

“Pff. Come on, then.”

They made their way back over towards their meeting spot. The holocron was untouched, to Ahene’s vast relief. If it had been damaged in the struggle…

But it hadn’t. She would survive this.

“You got the scans?” Ahene asked, trailing a finger along the artifact’s surface.

“I did,” Kory said, with a tiny grin. There was a gentle rose-red nervousness beneath her skin. “But I—I don’t want to talk about the trials. If that’s… okay?”

It was. It wasn’t. It was a question Ahene didn’t know how to answer, on this planet and in this situation and without Sirue here to say go ahead, spark or don’t you dare. When Sirue was the only person she’d come to love, slowly and hesitantly and without any consumptive fire, and this was just a maybe someday she wished the three of them could have been choosing together, and—she swallowed. “What do you want?” she asked, quietly.

Kory kissed her.

It… wasn’t unpleasant. It was something she could want to want, or else wish she hated enough to pull away from. Something she should have had strong feelings about. Most people would have.

Instead it was just—happening.

“I’m sorry,” Kory said, when they broke. “Was that—wrong?”

Ahene ducked her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’d… I’d like for it not to be.”

“If. If you don’t feel the same way—”

“I could,” said Ahene, putting a hand on Kory’s arm. “When we get out of this. When we find Sirue. I don’t think she’d mind. But I…”

“You don’t need to pretend,” said Kory, voice soft, eyes down. “You don’t. If you want to step back, to act like this never happened, then I will too. I was—I was being stupid.”

“No,” Ahene whispered. “I want to build something. It only… isn’t built, yet.” She slid her arms around Kory’s back and pulled her in, fingers threading gently through the other acolyte’s hair. “I’m sorry.”

Kory made a small noise. “Please don’t be.”

“I am,” Ahene said, gently. “You’ve been here with me.”

Kory mumbled something incomprehensible into Ahene’s chest and went quiet. They stayed like that for a few minutes, roots twining through the dusk, and—there were still corpses in the sand, and the air was cold and dusty, but they could ignore all that for the moment.

Could have this little bit of time to themselves, being something that wasn’t built yet.

Ahene caught a glimpse, at the edge of her vision, of a dark-robed figure vanishing over the guardrail.

Ffon landed in a cloud of dust. He waved it away with one hand, coughing quietly, and wished his alchemically-inclined forbearers had seen fit to sand-proof the insides of their throats.

Evening found Ahene and Kory back within the Academy walls, turning over their respective prizes to an unnervingly delighted Zash. Harkun fumed the entire time, shouted at them for a good ten minutes after Zash had left the room, and then flung the pair at Markan to practice saber forms until they could barely hold their weapons. (This was fairly normal; in fact, the shouting sometimes lasted even longer.)

Markan, for his part, made a passable attempt at working the acolytes past their limits, decided he’d rather go to bed at a reasonable hour than prolong their suffering, and declared that they were no longer his problem.

Ahene considered sleep. It seemed like a lovely idea. Staggering back to the trash acolytes’ dorms—alright, the underclass dorms, but absolutely no one seemed to call them that—was less appealing, after everything. But sleeping in the hall was a profoundly terrible idea, so she flashed Kory a tired sort of smile, and they started heading towards what passed for home. The Academy was a bit less active than it was in the daytime hours, but other acolytes still hurried by on their way to night classes or strange trials. Or just loitered in hallways, conspiring quietly with each other. Occasionally an overseer or blue-robed inquisitor would head past, possibly in search of loiterers to conscript. And the floating droids were omnipresent.

(A woman swept past, skin and hair chalk-white, eyes gleaming red. Her aura was bloodlessly final.)

The dorms were in one of the underground segments; climbing out a window was a privilege reserved for the children of Sith and citizens. There was no room that Ahene and Kory called theirs—they found a room with empty bunks and hoped for the best. It wasn’t as if they had very much to guard, or to steal.

There wasn’t anywhere convenient to ditch a corpse, either. Someone had left it lying right in the middle of the hallway.

“Ahene—” Kory hissed.

“I see it.” It was difficult not to. The unfortunate was—thankfully—no one they knew, but he was definitely one of them. He was human, just past a slave’s middle age (which was decades before a citizen’s middle age, if the citizen didn’t die in service) but not quite old, with skin that had probably been pale even before someone had throttled the life from him. His weapon lay beside him, untouched by the small crowd that had gathered around.

The mood was clearly readable: it wasn’t me. And if a droid hadn’t seen it—the droids were much less numerous here—then nobody had done it at all.

Ahene knelt down, spurred on by the kind of quickening dread that knew, and reached out a hand—

The scion glared, proud and scared and empty like a hole in the dirt was empty, and he wrapped all his anger loss sick loneliness around the man’s throat. “Useless,” he muttered. “I’ll find them tomorrow.”

The man hoped he did, in the part of his head that wasn’t screaming for air air air, because if his will couldn’t hold off this bastard then maybe the actual targets could feed the horrible little pureblood his own spine—

Ahene yanked her hand back and wished, fervently, for a way to scrub the vividly violent fantasies of a dying acolyte out of her brain. They had only been there for a moment, but that had been several moments too long. She shook her head vigorously and stood, turning to Kory as she did.

“I think,” she said, “that we should head to the library.”

There were no good places to sleep between the shelves, but a couple of determined acolytes could get a few hours each there, switching off watches. The lights had been dimmed for the night-cycle, leaving the enormous chamber dark and cool and echoing. Ahene sat against a shelf with a hand on her staff, Kory curled up against her other shoulder, and let the background noise of the Force filter in through her senses. A thousand heartbeats pulsed in the night, danger all around—but not here, yet. Not immediate, yet. Something powerful crept through the datashelves on an upper floor, impatient and annoyed.

With little else to do, Ahene practiced. She took slow, quiet breaths, pulling the shadows around her and letting them go again, stilling the animal terror that said she’d vanish forever if she stayed too long. Her grip lasted only seconds, at first, outside the endless now of desperation. With patience, she turned it into minutes. She watched the clock on a datapad she’d pulled out; by the time she woke Kory, she could spend a quarter-hour in that deep, silent place before the panic overwhelmed her. It was at once terrifying and oddly soothing. Lightning was energy, hers all hers but too alive for her to fully control. Her little shadow-trick was nothing but control.

The power of being no one. The art of stepping beneath the surface and refusing to drown.

“It’s time,” she murmured, giving a gentle shake to Kory’s shoulder—and prodding her presence, waking the heartbeat-warmth in among the roots.

10 ATC, 1:9 / 34 Adast, 1576

Ffon didn’t let his gaze drop, no matter how much he wanted to look away. “I tried, overseer,” he said, not half so petulantly as he felt, knowing his father still would have called it a whine. (He had never been good enough, cold enough, for the family name. But now the family name was dust and ash, and he was here.) “I just—couldn’t find an opportunity. The wretches were just too good at sticking together, and staying near the probe droids. But”—he wouldn’t glance down, he wouldn’t show weakness—“I did learn some interesting information.”

Harkun stared at his hands like he wanted to plunge his face into them. He undoubtedly did. “At least it’s not a total loss,” he grumbled. “Tell me.”

“The subjugate disappears. Into the Force.” Ffon bared his teeth in a mirthless grin. “But she was willing to grab a practice blade for her little healer. I—I know her strength now, overseer. And her weakness.”

Harkun was quiet for a long moment, arms crossed on his desk. “Good enough,” he eventually said, grudgingly. “She’s a feral animal, but a dangerous one—you’ve done well enough observing her. And I’ll make sure you can put that knowledge to use soon enough.”

Ffon bowed his head. “Thank you, overseer.”

“Don’t thank me. Just prove your superiority.” Harkun grimaced. “Otherwise I’ll soon be drowning in more wriggling, Force-using maggots who haven’t a clue what it means to be Sith.”

A terrible fate, but one Ffon couldn’t bring himself to care about; if it came to pass, he’d already be dead. “Yes, overseer. I’ll make them regret challenging us.”

“You wanted to see me, my lord?”

Zash smiled at the acolyte, who watched her with studious blankness in return. “Yes. Yes, do come in.” She stepped out from behind her desk, trailing its edge with a finger. “I’d like to speak with you about that fascinating holocron you found for me. Entombed over a thousand years, the greatest of the Sith passing it by, uncountable attempts to claim its secrets… and an acolyte opens it, with only the barest of training.” It was terribly unfair, but the mystery it raised—no, she could hardly be too upset, especially when destiny had delivered her exactly the tool she needed. “Tell me, acolyte,” she said. “Tell me, how did you do it?”

Something flickered in Ahene’s muted aura—fear, or discomfort, or a mix of the two. She was harder to read, now, than she had been; some Sith would have been troubled by that. But not everyone needed to be read, when all their relevant needs and wants and motives could be inferred, when the situation could be arranged such that they would act only within the plan’s reasonable limits. “I… threw lightning at it, my lord,” she admitted, finally, with such a lack of plausibility that it could only be the truth.

And yet it was plausible, if you only knew what it meant. “Remarkable,” Zash purred, and watched that careful blankness twitch inside her skeleton key. “So simple a solution, to go untried for so long—so simple that we assumed, in all our attempts, that it had already been done.”

(And it had, of course, at least once—by a lord just out of apprenticeship, before she had learned what destiny truly meant. Before she’d realized her visions were the greater tool, the key ring to open all locks in time.)

She made an airy gesture, smile softening in a veneer of kindness. “You’ve done well, acolyte. Better than I—than anyone—could have anticipated. The trials aren’t over yet, but I truly hope you won’t disappoint me.”

“I won’t, Lord Zash. I swear it.”

“Good,” said Zash. “I have high expectations, acolyte, but I don’t doubt you can meet them. You certainly have the power.” A power that scared Harkun, she was quite sure, but people like Harkun were so terribly easy to scare. You just had to find the tiniest crack in their authority, and you could provoke them into anything you liked. “Don’t look so surprised,” she added, though she doubted the acolyte in front of her would look surprised for anything short of a catastrophe. “I sense potential in you. Perhaps, indeed, the makings of a Sith. Is that truly surprising? Don’t tell me you thought dear Harkun was a good judge of such things.”

Ahene clasped her hands behind her back. “I wouldn’t tell you that he wasn’t, my lord.”

“No. No, you wouldn’t, would you?” Zash laughed quietly. “But that’s all beside the point. I didn’t just call you here about the holocron, delightful as it is; I’d also like to speak with you about your, ah, associate. The girl—Kory, that was her name. You’ve been working together closely, I’ve heard?”

“It’s better to have allies than not,” said Ahene. She was trying so hard, really, but she was still only saying the words. The Sith mindset clearly didn’t come naturally to her; if she was the right acolyte, and it looked nearly certain now, then that would need some work. It would be terribly inconvenient if the wrong people noticed the poor child’s flaws.

But those flaws could be useful, too, with the right sort of pressure and relief. “I must tell you,” said Zash, watching the acolyte’s eyes intently, “I only intend to take one apprentice.”

A flicker of pain, of worry—but no shift in expression. “My lord.”

“And, all the same… acolytes may be released into a lord’s service, if it is so requested. I am willing to consider such a thing—provided the pair of you prove the use of it, of course.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Good. Good. That’s all, my dear acolyte.” Zash waved a hand, dismissing her. “Oh, and—acolyte? Good luck.”

With a bow and a few steps backwards, Ahene was gone. The door swished shut behind her.

Zash laughed again, fished a painkiller out of a belt pouch, and got back to work. Such a fascinating holocron deserved all the study she could give it, surely.

Ahene fled into the hallway with far more composure than she actually felt, left with the intense need to scrub out the inside of her soul until it was hers again. Zash’s presence lingered in her mind, venomous and cloying, coating everything it touched. She’d be lucky not to taste honey on her tongue for the next three days; she could push out the aura, but the phantom sensations lingered.

Her first thought, days ago, had been that Zash was worse than Kelshrin—that her terrifying false kindness was harder to bear than his pure and empty cold. Her second thought, in that room, had been that Zash was at least easier to deal with. Zash wouldn’t kill her without warning for some minor mistake. Kelshrin might. She’d heard rumors, eavesdropping on the archaeologists back home, about what happened to officers who failed to make sufficient progress. None of them had implied that the man had anything like fair standards.

Her third thought: Zash was still worse, because Zash was here.

She didn’t get the chance to come up with any more thoughts, because she turned the corner and came face-to-face with an unpleasantly familiar presence.

“Ffon,” she said.

“Subjugate. Where’s your pet?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.”

Ffon crossed his arms. “I asked you a question, subjugate. Answer it.”

“Why?” said Ahene, keeping her worry balled up very tightly behind her shields. There was no hint of smugness in him, only annoyance—yes, Kory was probably safe. “I’m not her keeper. She can go where she wants.”

“So you don’t know?” He snorted. “You must be terrified.”

“Believe that if you like,” Ahene said. “Now, are you going to get out of the way, or are we going to stand here like idiots until a droid shows up to collect us?”

“Meet me outside the tomb of Tulak Hord at 2600 hours.”



“I’m not stupid,” she snapped.

Ffon shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t give you the option.”

“Threat received,” Ahene said, voice as dry as the endless vakking sand outside. “I’m going to walk around you now. Don’t try to stop me.”

“You’re going to regret this,” he told her, conversationally, but didn’t move to hinder her. “We could have settled things like Sith. One-on-one. A duel, like it’s meant to be.”

She shrugged, not looking back at Ffon. She could sense him just fine; if he tried something, she didn’t need to see him to dodge. “I hear there are laws about that.”

“Not in the tombs. And never, if you don’t get caught.”

“Either way, I don’t like walking into traps.”

She could feel him sneering, wounded pride seeping from him like water from a cracked basin. “You think I need tricks to beat you?” he said. “You’ve had days of training, subjugate. I’ve had years. I had a saber in my hands before I could walk. How could you possibly think I would need to cheat?”

Ahene glanced back over her shoulder. “Then I’d be even stupider to come,” she murmured, “now wouldn’t I?”

For a moment, it seemed like he might slap her. He wanted to, deep under his veins. But he wrestled the impulse down. “Fine,” he said. “Fine! You want to do this the hard, painful, bloody way—we can. But you won’t like it.”

“I’m sure I won’t.” She started walking again, her senses coiling behind her in case he tried to follow. He didn’t. There was a yell—

“It’s going to cost you, subjugate!”

—and then silence, save for the constant dull hum of machinery in the walls.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 3:9 / 1 Ragnost, 1577

It was three days of harsh training before a probe droid floated into one of the underclass dorms, reached a spindly manipulator into the bunk Ahene and Kory had been sharing—there had been a massive influx of acolytes the previous night, as the turn of the new year had apparently brought with it deadlines—and jabbed the end of its arm sharply into Ahene’s chest.

About half a minute later, Ahene was off the bed, most of the room was awake, and a mixture of complaints and laughter was beginning to drift out from the various bunks. Ahene ignored both, and—with some effort—did not shove her right hand behind her back. She looked down at the droid.

Slowly, it wobbled back up into the air.

“You really don’t have a survival instinct, do you?” she said.

“Notification: by order of Overseer Harkun, acolyte identified as Ahene must proceed to room 1B-34 immediately,” it informed her, apparently unperturbed by the little sparks spitting from its shield generator.

“Just me?”

“Notification: by order of Overseer Harkun, acolyte identified as—”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Ahene.

“Zap it again!” suggested one of the assorted acolytes.

She made a face. “Absolutely not.”

“What did I wake up for, then?” The acolyte pouted outrageously and twitched her lekku in what Ahene thought was faux irritation, then flopped back down with a sigh.

Ahene turned to Kory. “You’ll be careful?” she murmured.

“Yeah. Public places, stay near droids, make myself too much trouble to attack.” Kory reached out and brushed her fingers against Ahene’s. “Don’t worry too much while you’re gone, alright?”

“No promises,” said Ahene, with a small, wry smile. She took her staff from where it had been wedged between the mattress and the wall, batted a thrown pillow (“Get a room!”) out of the air, and made her way towards the door.

“This is a room…” Kory was pointing out, and someone was suggesting that perhaps they wanted to find a different one—and then Ahene stepped out into the hallway, and the autodoor cut off the fading conversations behind her.

She took a deep breath. Everything was practice, if you looked at it right. She knew the way to Harkun’s office; by the time she got there, she would be able to walk it halfway in the shadows.

Ahene lingered outside room 1B-34 for a few moments, just beyond the autodoor’s sensor range, forcing her breathing back to normal. Her little trick was harder while walking, calling back that initial feeling that the floor would drop (had dropped) from under her feet. The galaxy in muted nameless colors, and her out of sync with it—but, alone in all this, it didn’t feel like a negotiation. She wasn’t brokering a compromise, letting strange energies pull at her in exchange for the tools of survival. It was just… her own fear, bound and controlled, and with no price she hadn’t paid already.

When she could pass for calm again, mind wrapped tightly around itself, she moved towards the door. It opened to admit her, revealing the familiar office; Harkun sat behind the desk, frowning at his datapad. He raised his head at her entry, expression deepening into a scowl. “You’re late, slave.”

She stared levelly back at him. “My apologies. Sir.”

“Don’t try to act like some decent military sort,” he snapped. He seemed to be in an even worse mood than normal. Lovely. “If Lord Zash didn’t think, for some unfathomable reason, that you were useful—well.” Harkun chuckled nastily. “She has another job for you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you screw it up.”

I’m sure you are, thought Ahene. Even knowing what she knew now, that Harkun wasn’t actually the arbiter of her fate—she wanted to deny him the satisfaction of an argument. He’d yell at her all the same, but it would at least leave him feeling pathetic. “I stand ready, overseer.”

“Ready? Not likely.” And suddenly he was smugging at her, pettiness staining the air like dye that wished it was acid. “No, even your luck had to run out eventually. Lord Zash wants a translation of the ritual text in the hidden chamber beneath the Tomb of Marka Ragnos. Perhaps she thinks you have a way with that place. Perhaps she’s just as tired of you as I am.” With a horrible grin, he shoved his chair back and stepped out from behind the desk. “No one’s found that chamber yet, slave. But I suppose you enjoy impossible tasks, don’t you? Another chance to prove your betters wrong about you, so you can gloat behind that oh-so-obedient act of yours. And who knows? Maybe you’ll happen upon a secret key before you starve to death.”

You still think you’re going to kill me. You still think

Ahene cut the thought off before she could complete it. Pride was dangerous. Pride was a stupid kriffing flaw, and Harkun was just as capable of getting her killed now as he’d been at the beginning. “Maybe I will,” she said instead. Nothing’s assured, she told herself, so win anyway.

“Then I’d suppose you’d better get to it,” said Harkun, his face settling back into, yes, his customary sneer. “Wouldn’t want to get locked out again, would you, worm?”

Had the droids logged that, or was he just guessing? It didn’t really matter. “With your leave, overseer.”

“You couldn’t get out of my sight fast enough,” he growled, and that was all she needed.

With a slight bow, Ahene slipped out again. Back into the hallway, where she could consider her options, and theoretically be as bitter as she liked about it. Back into the hallway, where perhaps only the droids would see her, if she made an effort—and she thought about making an effort. But she had better things to occupy her mind with. Plans she had to make. Finding a hidden chamber didn’t sound like a single day-cycle’s work.

Her first thought was to go find Kory. Her fellow acolyte (and friend, and partner in survival) had said she could read architectural plans. But Ahene had been called down to that office alone. If Kory was going to be given another trial, if they’d already left the Academy then—if they hadn’t, and Harkun found out Ahene was still within the walls—

Her feet were heading for the library, even if the rest of her hadn’t made up her mind. With a very quiet sigh, Ahene followed them.

There were terminals in the library, but they hadn’t responded to Ahene before and they didn’t now. She only had the map in her mind to rely on, the information she’d managed to glean here from the time she’d managed to spend here—but that might be enough. It was possible that could be enough.

She had found some information on the tombs. If she headed to that section, looked hard, skimmed fast…

Ahene plucked more texts from the shelves than she was probably supposed to have, then found herself a nice depopulated section to read in. There were so many more people everywhere; most of them were probably getting actual training, and therefore had textbooks and things to acquire. Assigned readings, maybe. All those mundane things that lived beside the Academy’s blood-drenched horrors.

Envying the real students was a distraction. Ahene couldn’t stop herself from doing it anyway, deep inside her skull. With proper information, with proper instruction, with an overseer who was only trying to kill her whatever the normal amount was—how much better at this would she have been?

And what was she thinking, anyway? Void alive, that would have trapped her here for years; didn’t she want to get out?

It was better to focus on the task at hand. If there was a secret chamber with a ritual tablet inside, and if people knew about the tablet and the chamber, then there had to be something pointing the way. And Zash seemed to actually want the artifacts she was demanding, so it probably wasn’t only the holocron. Probably.

Ahene wished, fervently, that she wasn’t depending on the practicality of a Sith Lord.

She scanned through the texts, scrolling back every time she thought have missed something useful, and every time she was entirely wrong. There were a few hastily sketched maps, no two of which were quite alike. There were pages of theories on why, written by a decidedly long-winded researcher, who had eventually concluded that the tombs rearranged themselves beneath the sands—he claimed Korriban was alive enough, Force-powerful enough, that reality was mutable when unobserved. Remembering her first trial, Ahene found she could believe him. But no secret chamber was mentioned. Not anywhere, not by anyone. And she didn’t know if that meant Harkun had sent her after a lie, or if she was just looking in the wrong books.

One arm pressing an array of datapads to her chest, she went to put them back. They had, on the whole, been a waste of a good couple hours; she had a bit more background knowledge, but nothing to help her with the trial. Which left her with the same options she’d had: find or steal as many supplies as she could, let Kory know where she was going, and head down nonetheless, or make an attempt for more information.

She could try to ask Zash.

The possibility seemed ridiculous. If the trial was real—and there was only thin evidence against it—she’d undoubtedly be looking at a painful punishment. Even death, if she’d misestimated the lord’s capriciousness. Unless the problem wasn’t the trial, but that Harkun had been withholding information? Zash might well want to know about that, if only because she wouldn’t get what she wanted otherwise. And yet…

It was the same problem both ways. Two options, neither obviously correct, and if she picked the wrong one she’d probably end up dead. (Or hurt, humiliated, and still without information, but Ahene didn’t want to depend on Zash’s good nature.) If she didn’t want to trust her fate to a coin-flip, then what she needed was another option.

Ahene took a deep breath, pulled all her fears icy and sharp, and dove back down into the shadows.

Here was, against all odds, a truth: Ffon had tried. He’d given that feral little conquest-child the chance to settle things correctly, quick and clean and brutal like it should have been. He would have won—surely, he would have won—but she could have earned a more dignified sort of death. Now it all tasted of politics. Of Harkun cheating for him, and him letting it happen, because he knew better than to give up an advantage. Wounded pride would heal; stupid, honorable pride was fatal.

But these were petty, petty politics, for all that Harkun sold it as the pair of them against the long rot of time. A child with no training wasn’t a worthy opponent, no matter how hard she struck. It wasn’t what it should have been. None of it was what it should have been.

While the little healer roamed the Academy, presumably searching for her oh-so-doomed protector, Ffon stepped out into the cool daylight. Horuset was still low in the sky, having only just crested the steep sides of the valley; it gleamed like a disapproving eye over one of the bowing statues’ heads. With an unnecessary little flourish, Ffon drew his training saber, imagining what it would be like to finally wield a real one.

It would all be worth it in the end. These indignities seemed harsh and aching now, but in a year? Two?

When he looked back on this, would he care at all?

But right now he had a final trial to complete and a valley full of k’lor’slugs to traverse. And, as it so happened, he was looking forward to taking out a few frustrations on the way.

Vertigo nibbled at the edges of Ahene’s hold on herself, as she once again lurked outside Harkun’s office. She clung grimly to the feeling, pressing the dizziness and panic and pain into the sharp hum of adrenaline, and waited.

He couldn’t spend his whole day in there. Eventually, he would leave. And then she would slip in and discover whether he’d remembered to log out of his terminal.

A lot of people didn’t. She’d taken advantage of that before.

There was no easy clock to go by, but it felt like half an hour or so before the door finally slid open. Harkun stood just behind it, holding a datapad and grumbling under his breath about glitchy holonet mail. The moment seemed to stretch on for far too long, Ahene pressing herself back against the wall and thinking don’t see don’t see don’t see—and then he stepped out, and moved to go past her, and she half-threw herself through the door with a speed that threatened to tear her out of her shadow-cloak.

There was a terrible, frozen moment—oh Void please just let this work—and then the door clicked shut behind her.

The cloak slid away. Ahene just sat there on the floor for a few moments, panting. Her head was pounding, and her bruised arms were complaining about the impact, but she was alone. Alone and uncaught. She almost laughed at the sheer relief at it, back on nearly solid ground and a step closer to survival.

This was a horrible, terrible situation she’d found herself in, and it had no right to make her feel this alive.

She took a slow, deep breath and focused. Yes, defiance felt good—Void alive, how could it not?—but she had a goal to pursue, and every moment she spent wheeling in place in her head was a moment she didn’t have to look through Harkun’s files. If she could access Harkun’s files. If this hadn’t been for nothing.

Let it not be for nothing, Ahene thought. She pushed herself up, grimacing, and went over to his desk, and felt her breath hitch as she tapped at the computer terminal bolted to one corner. She’d never seen him use it, and he’d taken his datapad with him, and there were so very many ways this could go wrong—

But it lit up, after a moment, and it didn’t ask her for a password. He’d left it sleeping, logged in. He was a kriffing idiot, and Ahene wasn’t sure she’d been so glad for anything before. Sirue’s escape, maybe—that should have outweighed anything—but she’d still been more than halfway dead, and that made it hard to remember fondly. Smirking to herself, smirking despite herself, she opened up his mail folder and started looking through it, because nothing would be so conclusive as a message from Zash.

(She hoped she could find one. Harkun’s personal files were probably full of philosophical texts, or nigh-unreadable journal entries, or Sith gossip magazines. While the idea of a Sith gossip magazine held a certain kind of morbid fascination, it seemed decidedly useless in her current situation.)

Her luck didn’t last. Oh, she found mail from Zash, but it was a request for a status report. And before that, it was a response to one, acknowledging the completion of the prior round of trials. The rest of Harkun’s inbox was filled with intra-Academy correspondence, at least a third of it with another overseer named Tremel. She opened the most recent of those, curious; there was always a possibility she’d find something useful.

…It was slightly amazing how many ways Harkun had found to insult her.

Grimacing in something between annoyance and secondhand embarrassment—he was not a compelling writer—she closed the file. Alright; holonet mail was probably a wash. Personal files were still a distinct maybe. Droid network system? Not particularly interesting at first glance, but when she thought about it a little more—the Academy ran on those droids. Whoever security was, it wasn’t him, so he probably wouldn’t get video or audio, but he could clearly put requests into the system.

And, as she’d hoped and suspected, a log of his requests popped up at her input. He had ordered the droids to deliver her a few hours ago now, and then, within the current hour—he’d sent for both Kory and Ffon, and recorded the three of them as ‘on trial.’

Kory. The thought sat in her stomach like a block of ice.

She couldn’t go rushing out. She couldn’t. If someone saw her leaving—if one of the droids did, when she still didn’t know if they could see through her cloaking…

(But if she didn’t go now, if she was too late—)

Ahene, breathing carefully, sent the terminal back to sleep. She stepped back out from between the chair and desk, hands clenched so tightly the ragged edges of her nails bit into her palms. Panic is useless, she told herself—but that was wrong, wasn’t it? Panic was a tool. But it was a tool that needed to be focused.

From beyond the door, from somewhere down the hallway, she smelled a whiff of honey.

Panic was a tool like any other. Ahene pressed herself against the wall, and hid.

Moments passed. The door slid open.

After another too-long instant, Zash stepped through it, talking animatedly at a scowling Harkun. “—just have to order them back, then,” she was saying. “There’s nothing else to be done about it.”

“On what communicators?” asked Harkun, sounding almost plaintive.

“Ah? That is a good point, yes.” Zash pressed her lips together thoughtfully, then snapped her fingers, flashing a grin that would have made a nexu shudder in envy. “Perhaps, dear overseer, you would get them for me? You’ve been here long enough; surely you know the tombs. They can’t have gone too far in an hour.”

Lord Zash—”

“I suppose I could go looking myself, of course, but I’m so terribly busy.” She laughed, quietly, like this was all a private joke of hers. “And I have always believed in the importance of delegation.”

There was a pause. Ahene tried not to hold her breath.

“…You win,” Harkun eventually said, defeat rising under his skin. “I’ll send one of the new final-term classes into the tomb. I’m sure we’ll have Ffon back within the evening.” He made a derisive noise. “I’ll be shocked if they find the two wretches alive.”

“Oh, Harkun. Dear, pessimistic Harkun.” Zash shook her head and glanced away from him, her gaze wandering across the room at a painfully leisurely pace, taking in the walls and the sparse furniture as if they were the most fascinating things in the galaxy—

And then stopping, impossibly, on Ahene.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Zash, clicking her tongue.

(Here is the price…)

“My lord,” Ahene said, and she dropped—smoothly—to one knee. “I am at your service.”

Silence hung in the air.

It was the peculiar kind of silence, thick and terrible and empty, that came down around people who were about to die.

You,” snarled Harkun, and it disintegrated.

Ahene knew she should have been afraid. And, technically, she was. She was so mind-numbingly terrified, in fact, that she’d come out the other side, and her fight-or-flight response had abandoned her to sob messily in a corner.

“Me,” she said. It was all she could think to say.

They stared at each other for a moment, and then Zash stepped between them—almost nonchalantly, as if she hadn’t realized she was doing it. “Well,” she murmured, with another small laugh. “Well, then. I suppose we’ll have to call off the search party, now won’t we?”

“What?” said Harkun, and then the realization hit and his aura flared red. “Lord Zash, this piece of filth broke into my office! Violated the rules of the Academy! You can’t possibly still want—”

“—this clever, determined little student?” Zash smoothly interrupted. “You’re right. After all, she doesn’t have the map yet, and I really do need it. But I’m quite certain she deserves a chance.”

“But the others aren’t here!”

“Really, overseer,” purred Zash. “When has being Sith ever been about being fair?”

Harkun stared at her, simmering with rage. There was, very clearly, nothing he could do—and he obviously knew it. “It’s not about fairness,” he said anyway. “The traditions of the Sith…”

“The traditions of the Sith can be taught, Harkun. Ingenuity? Determination? Those are harder.” Zash turned towards Ahene, smiling. “My dear acolyte,” she said. “Are you ready for your final trial?”

Ahene bowed her head. “Completely, my lord.”

“Fantastic. Listen closely, then. Deep in the Tomb of Naga Sadow, there is a central vault, long unbreached by any hand that sought it. In that vault is a map—not unusual, for the Tomb of Naga Sadow, but this one is terribly important. Just outside the vault itself is a prison containing an ancient assassin called a Dashade.” Zash cleared her throat, and added, “That’s both species and occupation, and possibly religion as well. The texts don’t make a strong distinction. You will need its help to retrieve the map, but it will be a uniquely dangerous creature, so tread carefully.”

“As you say,” Ahene murmured.

“Now, the part I just finished translating—the prison and vault are sealed behind an elaborate lock. The key is in certain Force-active rods scattered around the tomb; I’m afraid I don’t know where they are, but once you’ve found one, it should lead you to the other three. When you have all four, you must follow their pull towards the center of the tomb, place them in the altars surrounding the door, and electrify them with Force lightning. After that, the door should open to you. Do what you have to in order to win the Dashade’s aid, find the map, load it onto… ah, here, I have a datapad prepared.” Zash unclamped it from her belt and passed it to Ahene, after a hasty check to make sure it was the right one. “Load it onto that, make sure it’s been properly transferred—it will be terribly inconvenient to access when you’re done—and then run the program I have installed on the datapad. The vault may remain open behind you, so it’s important we cover your tracks. Do you understand?”

“I do, Lord Zash.”

“Good. Wonderful. Harkun?”

Harkun glanced over. “Yes, Lord Zash?”

“You will not interfere with the outcome of this trial.” There was a hard edge in Zash’s voice, commanding attention like only the unexpected could.

“Yes, Lord Zash.” Harkun glared at Ahene; she could feel him wanting her dead. “I understand you completely.”

Excellent. Acolyte, I’ve authorized two days’ provisions for you at the commissary. Do try not to take that long—I have something of a schedule to keep—but I would far rather you not need to backtrack halfway through.”

Pragmatic as that was, it was far more than Ahene could have expected. (The very fact that she was still alive was far more than she could have expected. Her expectations were currently very low.) “Thank you, my lord,” she said, with another deep bow. “I won’t let you down.”

“I’m sure you won’t, acolyte. I’m sure you won’t.” With another winning smile, Zash waved her towards the door. “I’m afraid your overseer and I still have a great deal to discuss, however”—behind her, Harkun seemed halfway sick with his anger—“so you’d best get going. A great deal is riding on this, more than you could know.” Her voice dropped, going just a bit more serious. “I wish you luck—and caution.”

Caution was a luxury Ahene had rarely been afforded. She didn’t like thinking of herself as reckless, but when the odds were so far against her either way—audacity often seemed to be her only option. “As you say,” she replied anyway, and bowed yet again, and then—at another dismissing gesture from Zash—she finally slipped out the door.

(Poison. Fear. A knife wrapped in silk.)

Not my problem, Ahene thought, firmly. Whatever Zash did to Harkun was richly deserved, but there was no time to stand around and spectate. She had to get to the commissary. To head out to the tomb. To find Kory.

If Ffon had so much as touched her, then he was going to die.

“Hold still,” said Kory, tightening her grip on the zabrak acolyte’s arm. “I can’t heal you if you—if you jerk around, come on.”

“I’m trying,” he snapped. “Whatever you’re doing really hurts, so—”

Ahene didn’t writhe like this. Ahene just gritted her teeth and stayed there, pain spiking underneath the shadows, until Kory was done. Working on Ahene was apparently a delight and a treasure, because most people didn’t endure like willpower alone was keeping them alive. Most people thrashed.

“If you ask me to leave you here,” Kory hissed, “I will.” The words came out like a threat she hadn’t quite meant, or at least hadn’t meant to mean. Her anger had only ever simmered quietly. But it was simmering now. (It was the tomb, maybe. The tomb, not her…)

She sighed. “Just hold still, okay?”

“Urgh. Fine.” The acolyte proffered his broken arm, roiling with trepidation, and she tried to touch her fingers to it as gently as possible. He still winced, nearly pulling it away again. “Kriffing bantha shit, ow,” he muttered. “Be careful. Ow, ow, fuck, I said be careful, you’re the galaxy’s worst medkit…”

“I’m a very nice person who’s putting up with you,” Kory said, primly, and finally worked her way into the places where the bones could join (wanted to join) (didn’t know how) (screaming screaming screaming this is very wrong)—and she wrenched the arm back into place (it told her what that was) and sealed it. The bones howled defiance and vindication into her skull as her power poured in, and everything went dizzy and gray at the edges, but she barely wobbled. Her first healing had drained her half to death, and this time she barely wobbled.

Even if this was easier than a deadly injury, she was still getting better. Kory took a quiet joy in that.

“Huh,” the acolyte said, flexing his hand experimentally. “I think it worked. Also, ow.”

“Does it still hurt?” she asked.

“No, I’m just not done complaining yet.” He bared his teeth in something that might have been a grin. They were sharp and not particularly clean, and his face was heavily branded, and for a moment he reminded her so much of Lym that it hurt. “Good job, medkit. Now I can—ugh, must have bruised my ribs—go after that fucker who stole my tablet. I mean, some ancient Sith’s tablet. But I took it first. She wants to hide down here in another tomb, she can reap the kriffing consequences.”

“Bad place to hide,” commented Kory. Slowly, carefully, she stood up. There was a faint rush of vertigo, but it was one she could handle. She could handle this. She could.

There was still no sign of Ahene. Reaching into the Force, looking for her—was about as easy as trying to find a toolbox blindfolded. Her presence had been getting quieter since she’d killed the brothers. Like a young vine cat, maybe, growing into stealth and silence.

“I was chasing her. Guess she wasn’t thinking.” The acolyte laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh. He sounded bitter and angry and a little bit hollow, like everybody else who was on Korriban too long. “But I don’t have the supplies to wait her out, and some asshole is wandering around fighting everyone who looks at him a little funny, so…” He waved a hand vaguely. “Well. At least he let me run off with my life, if not my dignity.”

“Some asshole?” A horrible thought struck Kory. “He—wouldn’t be a pureblood, would he? Wearing a robe instead of the Academy uniform?”

“Void. Someone you know?”

She grimaced. “Yes. Unfortunately.”

“Huh. Sucks to be you, I guess.” The acolyte patted her on the shoulder in a not-unfriendly way, grinning again. “Well, I’d ask if you wanted to hunt together for now, but it sounds like you’ve got an enemy I don’t want to run back into. You survive, though, maybe we’ll meet again someday.”

“I—yes, I understand,” Kory said, smiling to disguise the way her stomach twisted. She hated this place in ways she could barely have imagined before. The opaque mysticism, the pointless brutality, the way everyone only looked after themselves—how did the Sith stand it? How was it that so many seemed to like it? “Maybe… maybe we will,” she added, more quietly. “You try not to get killed too, alright?”

“Ha! Yeah, dying isn’t on today’s agenda, don’t worry.” With a dismissive gesture, he picked up his training staff and started towards one of the exits. “Killing, though…” He chuckled nastily. “That, I could do.”

That makes one of us, Kory thought, and wondered if it was wishful thinking. She gave him a little wave and recovered her training saber, then headed—where else?—deeper into the tomb.

The lights burned low and purple, torches lit with something that could not possibly be flame. The shadows were long, and Kory felt terribly like they wanted to eat her. But she kept going, because if she waited too long for Ahene—Ffon was going to find her. And she couldn’t fight Ffon. Avoid, yes, and maybe she could even outsmart him, but when she looked at him she saw danger and power that she couldn’t match. Her only option was to find the vault, find the map, and…

And then she could go looking for Ahene, she told herself. Because Ahene would be looking for her, by then. Because they were going to finish this together. Because Kory had to believe that, or she wouldn’t be the person she was.

The Sith can have their paranoia, Kory thought, with all the fervency of a cornered wrat. I have someone who cares about me.

She crept through the tomb, ignoring the carvings on the walls, ignoring the way the lights seemed to dim further and further as she got deeper in. Her mind searched every corner for danger, tendrils of thought and will becoming her metaphysical whiskers. But there was danger everywhere. This place was ancient, hollow, hungry; she was suddenly glad she couldn’t hear the things Ahene did. She really didn’t want to know what the Tomb of Naga Sadow had to say.

It was horrible to be alone here, with terror writhing in the back of her skull like the worst possible headache. Her footsteps echoed. The edges of her world seemed to distort; everything she saw remained normal and static and physical, but the parts in her mind’s eye twisted whenever she turned her attention away. And yet—Kory found herself moving beyond the fear, because she couldn’t escape it and couldn’t turn back and refused to curl up into a ball and cry. It was liberating, in a way. If she had no choice but to deal with whatever threats came, then there was almost no need to be scared.

She was small, and weak, and worthless—the tomb was showing her this, drowning her in it until she believed—but she would keep going anyway.

Eventually the halls got shorter and tighter, with less distance between the rooms. High antechambers, either unfilled or already picked over, gave way to closer spaces filled with statues or altars or tablets, their walls lined with carvings of grand battles and obscure rituals. Kory’s fingers passed briefly over an odd staff, held out by one of the faceless stone figures that represented the servants of the honored dead. A power flowed through the rod, at once painful and strangely compelling. Maybe—

(—predator’s eyes, she was being watched—)

—she turned, looking back at the entrance to this dead-end alcove of a room. A familiar figure was standing there, red skin stained the color of a malevolent twilight by the not-torches lining the walls. His eyes still burned crimson, though, leering out from the deep shadows of his hood.

“Hello, little wrat,” purred Ffon, with far less bluster than he usually had. “I hope you know that’s not a weapon you’re holding.”

Kory let go of the staff, raising her training saber into the opening stance Markan had beaten into her. It seemed woefully inadequate. “Hello, Ffon.” Her voice was quiet. “You… don’t actually have to do this.”

“Wrong as usual,” he said, stepping down into the room proper. He moved with an exaggerated lack of concern, his training saber swinging back and forth in his hand. “We’re competitors, after all—if a filthy little animal like you could be said to be competition.” Ffon barked a laugh, terribly angry and just a bit broken, like he’d gone numb from the sheer intensity of his feelings. “Do you even realize what you’ve cheated me of?”

“No?” she said, edging backwards.

“Of course not. You’re not Sith. You’ll never be Sith, and both of us know it.” Ffon squeezed his free hand into a ball, and she braced for an answering pressure on her throat—but the pressure didn’t come. “You think you’re clinging to some kind of light,” he spat. “But you’re not a Jedi, either. Not some dead-eyed droid made flesh, ready to die and kill and burn us all for a lie you’re too dispassionate to believe in—no, at least a Jedi would be worth killing. You’re just scum. Too weak to be a challenge, too pathetic to test my power, degrading me by forcing me to cut you down. Bringing me down to your sand-sunk level.” Teeth bared, he advanced. “A Sith is only as good as his enemies. You’d know that, little wrat, if you had even a fifth the training I did—if you were anything but a stain on my sacred journey. If you had any sense of justice, you’d fall down and rot!”

“There’s no justice. Just what you do.” Kory’s feet slipped into the proper stance, almost unbidden. She felt calmer than she’d been since she arrived here, unbound from any what-ifs or uncertainties. Maybe it wasn’t the Force that freed you; maybe it was the knowledge that the worst was upon you, now, and you couldn’t do anything but face it. “You can still walk away,” she said. “You don’t have to make me force your hand.”

Ffon paused for a moment, untangling that statement. “You already have,” he finally declared, gesturing expansively with his blade. “Just by being here. By being in my way like this, when I’m so close to being Sith. Do you have any idea what it’s like, having to earn the right to your own species’ name?”

“I was a slave!” she snapped. “Blame Harkun for cheapening your birthright, Ffon. I just wanted to live without a shock collar!”

“A shock collar was all you ever deserved,” he said, sneering.

Kory stared him down, expression even. “You could never have endured it.”

He shouted, wordlessly, and charged. Somehow, she was ready for him. Her blade came around smoothly to block his, the emitters sparking and hissing as they collided. And she smiled.

“Why,” Ffon bit out, “are you looking at me like that?”

“Because Ahene is right behind you,” she lied, and kneed him most serenely in the stomach.

The weight of the pack strapped to Ahene’s shoulders was oddly grounding, keeping her anchored in the here and now instead of the tomb’s whispers. And it did whisper to her—less deliberate than the Tomb of Ajunta Pall, but with its own hollow malevolence overlaid on Korriban’s terrible and grieving spirit. A tomb, empty without its primary resident. Jilted. Hungry.

(Terribly, terribly hungry, and was that really just the tomb?)

Tied to the back of the pack were three of the four rods, power humming in each rune-carved length, seeking out the last with a pull that was almost inexorable. Ahene followed it, stepping into and out of the shadows as stealth or speed took precedence. She passed a zabrak acolyte, unseen, as he picked over the body of a tall pureblood woman. She walked right by a golden-eyed human, leaving them to the carving they were studying. She went deeper and deeper in, until the staves’ link was a fishhook in her skull and she was on the end of the line. Until she wasn’t sure she could have resisted it if she’d wanted to. Until she was certain she could, with a bloody-minded defiance that the tomb couldn’t shake.

Until danger howled in her head, horrible and raw and final, and she broke into a run.

The tomb was a maze, but there was no risk she would get lost. The endpoint of the staves and the focus of her sudden terror were the same place. She could have been running with her eyes closed. Her chest rose and fell with the effort, and somewhere in there her feet started to sting, and she felt like she had been sprinting forever or for no time at all—but she knew where she was going, even if she felt like she would never get there. Everything was now, horrible and frantic and icy clear.

If everything was one single now, you couldn’t get there too late. You couldn’t get there on time, either, because there was no time to be on—but you couldn’t get there too late.

(Here is the price…)

The problem with the present was that it did, in the end, keep going.

Ahene stepped down into the last shrine, staff hitting the ground with a sharp thunk. Haloed against the final statue were Ffon and Kory, both cast in black shadows and purple light, both screaming their auras into the Force.

One was standing, blade raised towards the unseen sky. One was kneeling, braced against the effigy for support.

There was absolutely no question which was which.

“Hello, Ffon,” Ahene hissed, and threw lightning as he turned to look.

He flung himself at her. The bolt slammed into the wall behind him, missing the statue and rod by inches, and she hit him sharply in the chest with the point of her staff. Kory was still on the ground, panting, bleeding, aura gone to pain and broken roots. Ffon did not have the decency to break his skull open on the floor, and instead staggered and half-fell and lunged forwards again in a burst of power.

Ahene felt something in his hand crack with her next strike, and he dropped his training saber. The galaxy blazed. She stepped forwards.

“Emperor’s—ugh,” Ffon cursed, grabbing at his weapon with his other hand. It helpfully leapt up for him, and his fingers closed around the hilt. He brought the blade up in a defensive stance. “I’m ambidextrous,” he growled. “In case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t,” said Ahene.

“Right.” He hurled a bolt of his own, which she sidestepped, and laughed horribly. “This is your fault, you know. I gave you a better option. If you’d only taken it—”

She swung her staff, sending him scurrying backwards. “Rot in the Void.”

“Can’t take the truth, subjugate?”

It was nothing she wasn’t already thinking. If she was thinking. Everything seemed to have come together as a single point, clean and terrible and dark. “Stop talking,” she snapped. A swing, and then another, driving him towards the wall. Lightning crackled along her staff. He retaliated, injured free hand doing something, and somehow her parry didn’t overload his weapon.

“Remember the first time we talked? In the library?” He leaped back, out of the way of one of her jabs, and landed next to Kory. “Still think I’m not sure?”

Ahene stared at him, and thought—this could not be how Kelshrin saw the galaxy. Kelshrin would never be so enraged by an attack on someone else. Kelshrin wouldn’t care.

This was only her.

Lightning poured from her hands in a torrent, howling through the metal of her staff and leaping towards him, and there was nothing in the galaxy but her and Ffon and Kory and this unbending black hatred—

And she missed. Ffon ducked down just in time, panic flaring in his aura, and his saber clattered to the ground as he pointed his good hand straight at Kory. “She—she’s still alive,” he gasped out. “Barely. She’s still alive. But I can change that.”

“You’ll die,” said Ahene. This wasn’t how Kelshrin saw the galaxy, but her words came out with a certainty that rivaled his. Not a threat. Not a promise. Just an unmistakable truth.

“No. You’ll let me go.” Ffon was looking up at her, desperation clear on his face. “I’ll fry her if you don’t. And you won’t come after me, because the little wrat will die without help. She needs you. And you—you want her alive…”

It was an effort to wrestle back the lightning. Some part of her was utterly, horribly convinced that she could refuse, that her bolt could hit before his was even formed, that he would lie dead before her and she would save Kory—and she couldn’t take that risk.

No matter how much she wanted to.

“Go,” she said, not lowering her hand. “Go back and tell Harkun you failed.”

He backed out of the room.

Ahene waited until she was certain he was gone, then dropped her staff and knelt down next to Kory. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, the words spilling out. “I’m so sorry. I should have found you—I should have made sure you were safe—”

“Ahene. Stop.” One of Kory’s hands closed around her wrist. The other was pressed against a seeping gash, entirely inexplicably, training sabers were blunt—no, there was a bloodstain on the wall, from where Kory had been shoved against a sharp-edged carving. “It’s alright,” she said. “Harkun… said you wouldn’t be coming. I could guess the rest.”

“Harkun lied to me. He gave me a fake trial.” Ahene put her hands against the wound, fighting back a swell of fear. It was bad, she could feel it, and getting worse… “But that’s not important,” she said. “I can explain after I’ve saved your life. Again.”

Kory chuckled weakly, and then clearly thought better of it. “Ow,” she hissed. “Ahene, you—hh—can’t heal. And shouldn’t. You need your strength for the trial, and I’m—I’m probably almost as far gone as that twi’lek girl, back on that first day. It would be too much.”

No,” Ahene snapped. Electricity crackled in her skull. “I won’t allow that. Not now.”

“Woo, and there’s the spooky eyes again,” muttered Kory. Her aura had gone delirious, but her own eyes were bright and clear, and she was—for some incomprehensible reason—smiling. “You shouldn’t do that. It makes you look… I don’t know. Sith-y.”

“Forget about my eyes,” said Ahene, desperately trying to think back to the times Kory had healed her. There was a secret to it. There was a secret to everything, if you looked hard enough. There was always another option, even if it seemed out of reach.

She did her best to focus. There was an energy in her, and it went—somewhere

“You can’t, Ahene. It’s okay,” said Kory. Her free hand was bloody too. She patted Ahene’s shoulder with it, leaving a faint red smear. “It hurts, but it’s okay. Lots of things hurt. This is just… this is just one of them.”

“Fine.” Ahene’s expression went harder as she found her other option, and she threaded her fingers through Kory’s. “If I can’t heal you,” she said, “then you’re just going to have to heal yourself.”

There was a brief pause, while Kory just looked at her. “Ahene, no—I’ve told you how it works. I heal by draining myself. I can’t heal myself by draining myself.”

You can’t hide your will behind your will, Spindrall had said. But Ahene could, and did, every time she stepped into the shadows. “No,” she admitted, slowly. “But you can heal yourself by draining me.”

“Oh, Ahene…” Kory briefly looked like she was going to try to laugh again. “You know, I think I could? It would be like healing. Like healing in reverse.” She dragged herself forwards, laying her upper body in Ahene’s lap, and grinned up at her. “But I won’t,” she said, quietly. “Sorry.”

“No. No, you don’t get to do this.” Ahene’s grip tightened. She squeezed Kory’s hand like a precious lifeline, gritting her teeth against the damned useless tears threatening to sting the corners of her eyes. “I’m going to save your life, you bastard, and then we’ll figure the rest out. Together. Like you keep promising we will.”

“No one keeps those promises,” said Kory, her grin softening into something broad and sad and horribly serene. “No one ever will. It’s okay.”

“It’s nothing resembling okay, and you know it. Bastard.”

“Ahene—can you really fight a Dashade if you can barely walk?”

“Harkun told you about that?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he did. Ngh.” Kory winced, and then shuddered violently, and then she was back to smiling again, even though her hands were shaking. “Listen. Listen, Ahene. I’m alright with this.”


“Because now the worst has happened,” said Kory, with nothing but light behind her eyes. “And I’m not afraid.”

(Here is the price, acolyte—)

“I understand,” Ahene lied, choking on her own voice, and pulled Kory into her arms. “Be… be free.”

(—all you love will burn in fire.)

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 3:9 / 1 Ragnost, 1577

Opening the door to the ancient prison was easy, in the end. It only hurt. The four rods took the lightning she threw at them and flung it back with a vengeance, and Ahene—endured.

She was good at that.

Slowly, teeth gritted, she stood up. Held the lightning and the pain. Redirected it towards the center of the door, each rod burning in its place in her mind. And the lock glowed, and spun, and finally opened to her.

Ahene felt numb, and sick with the numbness. She walked in anyway, staff at the ready, because there had been nothing to do but keep going, and there still wasn’t. She would survive. She had to survive, or else the sacrifice would have been for nothing.

(She could barely think Kory’s name, now. She wondered how much worse it had been for Sirue after their half-doomed escape. It was a terrible thing Ahene had done, sacrificing herself, though she refused to regret it.)

Beyond the door was a prison that was, bewilderingly, mostly chasm; the Dashade was visible across the pit, at the end of a narrow path along the sides of the chamber. A scattering of combat droids patrolled the path, still active after untold centuries.

Ahene shoved the first off the side with her staff, ducked a couple of blaster bolts, and hurled lightning at the pair shooting at her. They sparked and collapsed. She pushed a few strands of hair back out of her face, ignoring (oh Void her hand still had blood on it), and stepped onto the path.

There was no railing. Sith architecture was like that. But the drop didn’t bother her, not even in the back of her head where she should have kept some instinctive caution about heights. The idea that she might slip and fall seemed unimaginable.

Sith didn’t stumble.

(She would be Sith, soon.)

The Dashade hung suspended in mid-air, at least two and a half meters tall and composed mostly of muscle and strange cyberware. His skin was off-white, save for a few darker markings, and it wrapped his body with a closeness that bordered on unnerving. On top was a head too small for that body, a large section of it taken up by a triangular maw filled with a great many teeth.

Hunger, said the Force around him.

Ahene looked at the stasis chamber. She looked at the console. She paused for a moment, bracing herself—there were so, so many ways for this to go wrong—and then pushed the release button. Let’s get this over with.

As the Dashade sank down towards the bottom of the chamber, he laughed. It was a deep, horrible, rumbling sound. “Ah, yes. All the world conspires to mock me.”

He spoke words she didn’t recognize, but something about them made sense. They stuck to the inside of her head. She could feel the meaning.

“Tulak Hord, my master. My ally, who I served loyally. I waited for you. I did everything you said! And this is what you send me? This child, barely a morsel to slake my hunger? Ha!” He shook his head, or rather swung it from side to side; it wasn’t entirely clear where his head ended and the thick muscle of his neck began, but actually shaking it seemed physically improbable. “It is an insult. Fate has been cruel to us both, little one—I, left in this state, and you, sent to rouse me alone. But you have made a terrible mistake.”

“Several. But I won’t die for them tonight.” Ahene’s fingers tightened on her staff, grip shifting in case he attacked. “My future master sent me here to find a map, honored Dashade. And claimed that you would assist.”

“Do you think you can defeat me, little one? Placate me?” The Dashade drew the enormous sword strapped to his back—it was almost more club than vibroblade, for all that it hummed like the latter. A brutal weapon. Most people would probably go down with the first blow. “I am Khem Val,” he said, “servant of Tulak Hord, he who was called Lord of Hate, Master of the Gathering Darkness, Dark Lord of the Sith. Together, we devoured our enemies in the battles of Yn and Chabosh. Together, we brought the entire Dromund system to its knees. I have awaited his return for time unknown, and you should not have interfered. For if my master sent you down here, it was only to feed my hunger.”

Ahene considered this statement. “I think,” she said, “that I haven’t properly explained the situation.”

“You stall, small thing. It will not save you.”

“Your master, to the best of my knowledge, is buried elsewhere in this valley.” She delivered this information with less sympathy than she usually would have; if she had any sympathy left, it was locked somewhere she couldn’t reach. “Mine has sent me here to honor—”

“Dead?” the Dashade demanded, cutting her off. “No! My lord, why did you not come for me? I would have died with you, had you asked—no, I would have slain death itself…” His eyes, beady and fire-orange, narrowed. “But if I cannot serve my master, I will serve my mistress Death—and my own appetite. I will devour you, little creature, and then your master, and any others who dare set foot in the valley—”

Ahene hurled a bolt of lightning at him.

He took it on the chest. “A pitiful offering,” he said, and leaped down onto the bridge.


Khem Val swung his sword. Ahene threw herself backwards, jumping a sliver of open space to land back on the path. She didn’t quite have the reach advantage, damn it—she had been getting attached to that—on account of her opponent being an entirely unreasonable size. He also appeared to be resistant to lightning. This was as far as her analysis got before he was on the bridge too, still swinging; she ducked and scurried backwards, trying frantically to think of something, think of something, think of something

Ahene tried a jab at his stomach. His sword came down to knock it away, and she half-circled around it to jam the staff’s tip into his chest. He barely seemed to notice. If she’d had more momentum—but she didn’t. She danced back towards the entrance, every moment eating up more distance. Leading him back into the rest of the tomb was an option, but was it a good one?

But the bridge leading to the stasis chamber—did stick out.

An idea struck her.

It wasn’t that far.

When the next blow came down, Ahene ducked like she’d been doing, rushed forwards-sideways like she definitely had not been doing, and used her staff and all the power she could bring to bear to give herself an extra bit of push.

And then, for a single endless moment, there was only air beneath her.

It should have been dizzying. It should have been terrifying. It should have been a thousand things, and it didn’t have time to be any of them before her boots hit the long metal bridge with a force that should have done more than hurt.

But her bones were more than bones, right now. Her flesh was more than flesh.

Ahene got the tip of her staff onto the stasis chamber’s base—a bit over half her height up—and used it as a lever, scrambling up onto the platform with improbable speed.

When she turned, the Dashade was watching her from below. “You run too much, little one.”

Ahene lifted her chin, expression cool and steady. Somehow, in this adrenaline-distant place, she felt like herself. Horribly, brutally herself. “Surely,” she said, “you’re not scared to face someone your own height.”

He paused for long enough that she was quite sure he understood what she was doing—which was a low bar, of course, it was obvious—and then he charged anyway.

His confidence was her opportunity. She held the staff pointed loosely upwards, looking ready to bring it down hard on his head, and when he swung to knock it away—she lashed it around, instead, swapping ends fast enough to strike him hard in the chest. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, his slab of a vibroblade coming down to guard his torso.

That was when she lunged forwards and hit him in the head.

Her staff slammed down, and this time he staggered back and toppled. She followed him down—she didn’t really have another choice—and hit the ground with him. He clawed at her with one hand, and she jabbed the other wrist sharply, and he nearly gashed open her shoulder, but he dropped the sword.

Ahene batted it out of reach and scrambled back to her feet, panting. He was still down. She raised her staff—

“Enough!” Khem Val lifted his hands, and there was a feeling like a bolt snapping into place. “You have defeated me, little one, in my great weakness—ha! Tulak Hord’s greatest servant, reduced to this? Bound to a child? But it is a law I cannot disobey.”

Ahene stared at him for a moment. “…You’re surrendering,” she said.

“No. Never.” He rose, but made no effort to attack or go for his sword, and the Force around him had changed. Still that endless hunger, just—controlled. “But I must follow you now, though you are not my master.”

“You’ll help me find the map?”

“I have no choice.”

“And if I give you back your weapon…?”

“I will not attack. Not until I have regained my strength.”

Ahene nodded slowly. That felt true, somewhere underneath her skin. “Take your sword, then,” she said. “Let’s get this trial over with.”

Khem half-bowed, stiffly. “Yes, little one.”

The pair of them dispatched the remaining droids easily, past the now-smashed hollow wall. The shyrak, too. And then they came face-to-face with the great beast guarding the map—because of course there would be a great beast guarding the map. Why wouldn’t there be?

It was too large to leave the room. Ahene stood just behind the threshold, summoned up another bolt of energy, and… frowned. The bolt splashed against the creature’s hide, leaving only a superficial burn.

“Is everything immune to lightning down here?” Ahene asked, waving her free hand in abject annoyance.

“Not immune, little one,” rumbled Khem. “Not me or it. But it would take greater than you to do more than sting.”

That was useful information, but she wasn’t really in the mood to appreciate it. Ahene sighed and told herself, grimly—this is a lesson. She had been relying on her lightning far too much, when she knew damn well that anything beyond her own body and will would let her down.

That didn’t make it less of a weapon, but it was a weapon she should have been prepared to lose.

“Fine,” Ahene said, finally. “But I doubt my staff will do any better against those plates. Give me a couple minutes.” With that, she turned and walked away, stepping almost seamlessly into the shadows. (Into tension into grief into shaking fear but she was better than this—)

When she returned, Khem was still staring the beast down. It didn’t seem inclined to bash its enormous head against the archway leading in, but it was watching him—and then the both of them, as she reappeared—with a deep malevolence.

Khem looked back at her. He wasn’t particularly expressive, and his emotions were impossible to read beneath that endless hunger, but she imagined it was a look of disgust. “That is not a Sith weapon.”

Ahene shrugged one shoulder, but kept the blaster pointed firmly at the floor. “No,” she said, “it’s an ancient droid’s weapon. I don’t have a Sith weapon. Unless you’re hiding a spare lightsaber under that loincloth, I’ll work with what I’ve got.”

“It will bring the tomb down on us, little one, if you stand here and shoot.”

This was, admittedly, a good point. “Then by all means,” she said, eyes fixed on the beast’s, “distract it.”

“Hmm. Yes, little one.” Khem raised his sword. “I will do as you say.”

And he rushed in. Despite his size and the power behind his blows, he was surprisingly light on his feet. It hadn’t been apparent earlier, with so little room to maneuver, but now he wove around the beast’s attempts to bite and claw and stomp like he had been made to do it. For all Ahene knew, he had.

She hung back, wishing intensely that she had some idea how to use a blaster—her experience in that matter was limited to overhearing the things the ruin camp’s guards were chewed out for by their COs, over a year ago—but not knowing what she was doing hadn’t managed to stop her yet. The basic principles were clear, anyway: you pointed it at the enemy and you pulled the trigger. The creature wasn’t exactly a small target.

It wasn’t a soft target, either, but a blaster was better than trying to bludgeon it to death. Ahene fired, and fired, and fired, shooting as quickly as she could pull the trigger. Most of the bolts just scorched the plating, or put charred dents in it, but one managed to hit the flesh between two of the jagged bone slabs. The beast roared in pain, lashing its head at Khem. He dodged to the side, moving fluidly, and brought his sword down with a force and ferocity that splintered the plate on its leg. There was a horrible, horrible noise, and Ahene shot at its face, and it turned to snap at her and—she remembered the wall issue just in time—she dove forwards, rolling underneath its strike and somehow managing not to fire the gun off as she did. Then she sprang up behind it, snapped off another shot, backed towards the staircase.

She had clearly caught its attention. This fact did not speak highly of its intelligence, but it was still inconvenient.

Combat-predictions thrumming inside her head, Ahene started ascending the stairs—backwards, but she still couldn’t imagine she’d trip—and fired at one of the beast’s eyes.

She missed, despite her senses, but Khem’s sword didn’t. All weight and no edge, the electricity that came closest sparking against the plates, it descended like a club and smashed through the creature’s overgrown skull. There was another, worse, noise, half dying scream and half the distinct and terrible sound of bone-melting vibrations fulfilling their purpose.

The hunger beneath Khem’s skin swirled out, pulling something incomprehensible from the corpse in a bloody motion, and then it returned to its newfound cage.

“You use the Force?” Ahene asked, a flash of curiosity breaking through the numb, resigned determination that had been carrying her forwards after—after.

“I devour,” Khem said. He seemed to think that was an answer.

Ahene accepted it as one, for the moment. She could press for further information later, or not, depending on whether she had the opportunity and whether she needed to kill him when this was over. The thought probably should have disturbed her, but whatever bond she’d accidentally forged was apparently breakable, and he wanted to eat her. If she had to do it, it would be preemptive self-defense.

(Something in her—no, in Korriban, or maybe the difference wasn’t as distinct as all that—wondered why she was so concerned with justifications, with tracking all the ways her moral compass was no longer quite in sync. No one here would care if she slipped. Kory was dead; no one here would care if she slipped…)

I would care, Ahene thought, with the same burning resolve that let her tell the galaxy she was insignificant and make it listen. Her cloaking was a contradiction in terms, and still real and true and hers; this was the same. Sirue would care, if I came back to her thinking like Talvara. Or Kelshrin, Void forbid. She reached the top of the stairs and carefully set the blaster down, barrel pointed firmly away from her. Her staff joined it, and she unslung her backpack so she could fish out Zash’s datapad. I’ll do what I have to, she swore to her own self, and that’s it. I won’t die here. I won’t despair. And I won’t lose myself, either, no matter what I’m forced to do. Choke on that.

There was a cost, Korriban whispered, to choosing the path of most resistance. Maybe a higher one, in the end. One that could become too high to pay.

“You’ve shown me that,” Ahene hissed, under her breath. She didn’t care if Khem thought she’d lost it; he talked to Tulak Hord. “I’ll try again. I’ll pay until you’re drowning in whatever it is you think you need. And you still won’t win.”

There is no winning, said Korriban, in her own voice and her own fear. Only what you have at the end of the game.

Ahene finally connected the datapad to the ancient map, with the help of the fourth adapter from the bag the commissary had issued her. “I don’t care,” she said, staring into the holographic starfield like she was holding the planet’s gaze. “If I can’t win, then I’ll cheat.”

The room filled with laughter. It started as a whisper and grew louder and louder, overlapping itself and echoing through the vault, a hundred thousand voices in chorus. Hers was quickly lost in the cacophony, as small and insignificant as she had ever claimed to be. This was Korriban, as old and terrible as the darkness itself, and she was nothing against it.

She had always been nothing. That was her wound and her weapon.

And Korriban, hooks buried deep in the back of her skull… smiled.

Ahene returned to the Academy before the sun had sunk back below the edges of the Valley, Khem following her like—no, not a shadow. She was the shadow, and he was well over two meters tall. The other acolytes stared at him as they passed each other in the hallways. But he was trailing behind her, ravenous, as if she held him on a leash, and she felt it looked far too much like a triumphant return.

The datapad was in her hands, so light and so very important. The blaster, she had left back in the tomb—she’d been fairly sure shoving it into her backpack wasn’t safe. She hated leaving a weapon behind, but she wasn’t about to risk it going off. No one bothered her as she made her way through the Academy, because any acolytes stupid enough not to understand that Khem was bad news had probably already gotten themselves killed. There were a lot of eyes on the pair, though, and whispers that Ahene felt more than heard. She kept her expression carefully blank as she walked; nothing they said would matter to her soon.

The door to Harkun’s office slid open in front of her, revealing an argument that had clearly been going on for a while.

“—another way,” Ffon was saying, gesturing illustratively. “One that doesn’t involve fighting her. Emperor’s eyes, I think she was turning nova right then and there—do you think Zash will wait long enough for her to burn through?”

“Worthless slaves don’t turn nova,” Harkun snapped. He was staring at the wall, out of some Sith sense of drama, and Ffon was watching him closely. “They try, and then somebody with an actual mind cuts them down. That wound shouldn’t be giving you trouble, not against the likes of her, but I’ll authorize you a medkit if it will get you out of here and back into the tomb.”

“Fine. Fine!” Ffon gripped the desk with his good hand, his aura flaring around him. “Send me back into the tomb to deal with the kriffing nova-ing trash. And because she is going nova, she’ll kill me, and nobody is ever going to get that damn map!”

“As the resident nobody,” Ahene said, stepping forwards, “thank you for the vote of confidence.” She couldn’t quite hold back a thin smile—apparently Sith drama was catching. “Hello, overseer. Hello, Ffon. I found the map.”

Ffon turned a hair faster than Harkun, indignation turning into horror. “You! You’re not—of course. Of course, Zash helped you, she’s cheating me just like everyone else—”

Sith drama, or possibly the frigid anger coiling in her gut, demanded she cut him off with a blow to the face. Ahene did nothing of the sort. “I don’t know what ‘turning nova’ is,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it.”

Harkun was staring at Khem with an expression that could have curdled milk. “That’s because you’re an idiot,” he said, almost absently, before turning to her. “Give me that map. And get the monster out of here! N-none but Sith may set foot on Academy grounds!”

It was, objectively, an absolutely inane time to stand on regulation.

Khem seemed to agree. “I am not a monster,” he said, looming menacingly towards Harkun. “I am Khem Val, last servant of Tulak Hord, devourer of the rebels at Yn and Chabosh, consumer of the Dromund system. I have driven Jedi and Sith before me. And I am hungry.”

Harkun paled. “Acolyte,” he snapped, “I ordered you to send it away!”

“I can’t,” Ahene lied, with a shrug. Her staff shifted, her backpack pressing it uncomfortably against her shoulders. “Or do you think someone like that listens to nobodies?”

He stared at her for a few moments, radiating rage and disgust. “Give me that,” he finally hissed, and he snatched the datapad from her hands before she could stop him. “Ffon!”

“Overseer?” said Ffon, still looking nervously between Ahene and the Dashade.

Harkun strode brusquely over to him and shoved the datapad into his hands, ignoring a hiss of pain as it became acquainted with Ffon’s broken fingers. “You’ve completed your last trial,” he said. “Do not disappoint me.”

Ffon shifted his grip so that he held the precious object in his good hand alone, eyes fixed on it like he thought it would turn to smoke. Honey-sweetness lingered on Ahene’s tongue. If Zash saw—but if he handed over the map, she wouldn’t just die, she’d die having backed down.

In one single, smooth motion, she stepped forwards and had her palm on his chest. “Khem,” she said. “Cover me.”

“No,” said an all-too-familiar voice, in all its silken confidence. “No, not just yet, I think.” Zash strolled into the room, smiling like the proverbial nexu who had eaten the proverbial avian, hands clasped loosely below her waist. “I’d like to talk to them first, acolyte; it would be a terrible shame if I didn’t get to. Don’t you agree, Harkun?”

“Lord Zash!” Harkun went through far too many emotions in the space of a moment—worry, relief, that petty bitterness that clung to him like a second skin. “Of course, my lord. This wretch was just being a sore loser—”

Zash held up a hand. “I’m not interested in explanations, overseer, just my map. Acolyte, do please take your hand off your competitor.” She flashed Ahene a decidedly amused look, and this time it felt like being let in on a private joke. “The poor thing looks like he’s been through quite enough already. What was your name, again? Right, Ffon, that was it.” She snapped her fingers. “Do come forwards, Ffon.”

Ahene stepped back, wary, and lowered her hand. Zash didn’t want Ffon, and that was brutally obvious. Even Ffon saw it, but he had too much hope and desperation and festering pureblooded entitlement to admit it to himself—he might have gotten out of this, if only he’d been able to do that. He could have ignored her parting taunt and sought out Spindrall, maybe. He could have tried to make an alliance, down there, instead of brutalizing the one genuinely good person on this wretched, dusty rock.

He could have, and he hadn’t.

And now he was standing before Zash, dripping with nervousness. “My lord,” he said, shifting his weight awkwardly.

“That’s right, Ffon,” she cooed. She was nearly all poison, now, even if the sweetness lingered. “I’m told you found my map.”

“Y-yes, Lord Zash,” said Ffon, passing her the datapad. His aura looked downright nauseous.

Fascinating. However did you do it?” Zash paced a half-circle around him, forcing him to turn to keep his eyes on her. Her presence was coiling actively through the room, a deliberate flaring of power that pressed in against Ahene’s mind and drew flickers of panic from Ffon and Harkun. “The texts were very specific, Ffon. They laid the key out perfectly. But I know you didn’t have the benefit of that, because I translated them myself.” She laughed and reached up a hand, trailing two fingers along his cartilage-ridged jawline. “To open a lock like that without knowing the key… oh, Harkun said you were a prodigy, but that really would be something else entirely. A talent like that, Ffon, would have you called the next great ritualist in the making.”

“Ah,” Ffon said, with a gratifying lack of eloquence. “Ah, yes, well—”

“Or did you, perhaps, take it from your competitor?” Zash waved a hand vaguely. “There are no rules in the tombs, after all—you would hardly be the first to win in such a way. It would be a bit of a disappointment, but… perhaps not disqualifying, hm? Ambush and treachery are fine skills to cultivate, even if they aren’t so drastically impressive.”

Relief washed over him in a great wave. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, my lord, that’s—that’s what happened. She broke my hand, but I got away with the map.” He dared a glance at Ahene, a sneer beginning to evidence itself. “And this uneducated filth came in here thinking she could fight me for it here. As if the rules of the Academy were nothing but a joke!”

“Really,” said Zash, voice suddenly frigid. “And I suppose you defeated both her and the Dashade?” She turned without warning, the Force coiling around her like a serpent. “Harkun, you fool, did you really think you could play me? That this would accomplish something? He had potential—no, you were never wrong about that—and you squandered it on some ridiculous game. As if I wouldn’t notice!”

Harkun took a step back. “Lord Zash, I—”

“—thought you knew better than me, no doubt,” Zash snapped. “I indulged your little game, Harkun, when you first brought him in. A bit of competition can do an acolyte nothing but good, after all. But this?” She swept a hand in a wide arc, indicating the room at large. “What were you trying to prove?”

“My lord—”

“Be silent,” said Zash, cutting him off. Finally, quietly, she turned her attention back to Ahene. “Such a waste,” she sighed. “Wouldn’t you agree—apprentice?”

It took a moment for that to sink in.

It’s over, Ahene thought. It’s over, and I won.

She didn’t feel like she’d won. Or maybe winning felt like exhaustion. But she bowed low, all the same, right hand pressed against her chest. “Yes, my lord,” she said. “As you say.”

“I suppose he killed your dear little ally?” asked Zash. At Ahene’s nod, she clicked her tongue sympathetically. “I thought so. He’s yours, apprentice, but do be quick—we have a great deal of work to do.”

With that, she strode off towards the doorway, leaving the four to sort things out on their own. Harkun was speechless, for once, mixed rage and terror sitting like a lead weight in his throat.

And, at last, Ffon seemed to realize.

He looked at Ahene, expression empty of hope. His aura had all but gone out, as numb as she’d been when she had at last closed Kory’s eyes and stood, but without any of the determination. He had lost. He was lost.

“Khem,” said Ahene, suddenly too disgusted to meet Ffon’s gaze.

“I am here, little one.”

Her voice was flat. “Eat him.”

Zash was in the same office she had used before, sitting on the front edge of the desk, apparently transfixed by the datapad in her hands. Her presence had returned to apparent normal, the venom once again an underlayer to the sweetness. Excitement glimmered inside it, only fading slightly as she turned off the datapad and looked over at the door. “Ah! My most magnificent new apprentice.” The purr had come back into her voice, even less trustworthy than before, and it took a slight effort for Ahene to keep from shivering. “And her Dashade, of course. Fresh from feeding, I do believe—but there’s no point in dwelling on such an unpleasant topic.” She slid off the desk and clipped the datapad to her belt, smiling broadly. “Congratulations are in order, I believe. On your victory, and your revenge. How did it feel?”

Empty. Unsatisfying. But it had needed doing. Ahene kept her expression carefully blank as she approached, stopping to bow about a meter away. “My lord,” she said, quietly. “It was… liberating.”

“Was it? Excellent.” Zash strolled forwards, entirely ruining Ahene’s efforts to keep a respectful distance. “Few things end with that sort of closure, apprentice; savor it when you have the chance. You will surely have more enemies soon, and they’ll prove harder to crush—especially the ones we now share, the damned cockroaches.” She shook her head, laughing quietly. “Yes, my dear apprentice, I do have enemies, despite my charming personality. They’ll know of you by the time we reach Dromund Kaas, and likely sooner. You’ll need to be wary, perhaps warier even than you’ve been. They wouldn’t have survived so long if they weren’t clever, after all.”

“I understand,” said Ahene. “I’ll be cautious.” Cautious of these enemies, cautious of Zash, and cautious of Khem. It would be a wonder if she ever slept with both eyes closed again.

“I’m certain you will. I wouldn’t choose a reckless apprentice—rather, one who knows when she must take risks. But Dromund Kaas will be a decidedly different battlefield, if admittedly a bit easier to escape prying ears. I held a meeting in the desert once; never again, and certainly not about this.” Zash put a hand on Ahene’s upper arm. “No, specifics will have to wait until we’ve arrived, once I’ve had time to debug my office in the Citadel. Leave for a couple weeks, and half the Empire starts getting ideas, I swear—Intelligence is bad enough without all the hobbyists throwing their hats in the ring.”

Ahene was beginning to get a handle on the way Zash spoke—shifting between excited and languid at the drop of a hat, never using one word when she could use three, and with the particular charm that came from being so obviously untrustworthy. It would be easy to think that you could stay on her good side forever, if you were useful. That this person was just as much Zash as the serpent had been, and that it mattered if she was. “As you say, my lord,” Ahene murmured, dipping her head. “Will I be traveling with you?”

“My ship only has room for one, I’m afraid,” said Zash, with a speculative glance up towards Khem. “Especially since your new acquisition is so very sizable. I’ve authorized you a shuttle out of Dreshdae, and then at the station a place on a transport—it will be a bit slower, but that will give me time to finalize my preparations, so don’t worry too much about that.” She waved a hand diffidently. “Before you go, though, there are a couple things I’d like to give you. First, a holocom, of course.” She gestured towards one lying on the desk, and it came to her hand. She tossed it to Ahene, who snatched it out of the air almost frantically—Zash did not need to know about her telekinetic deficits. “The second… let’s see. I know it’s here somewhere.”

Ahene watched in mild bemusement as Zash went to the desk and searched through various drawers, eventually pulling out a plain metal cylinder that—


“You may, of course,” Zash said, sauntering back towards her, “construct a saberstaff later—I’ll even teach you how—but do indulge me here. I would so love to see my old saber used again.”

Ahene took the hilt cautiously, when it was offered to her, feeling its strange lightness and stranger gravity. Something hummed under the metal shell, not powerful so much as attuned. It had a resonance in the Force. A history, in flashes she didn’t have time to reach for.

She pointed the weapon to the side and pressed the button down.

A red blade sprang into existence, terribly bright but not quite painful to look at, buzzing with energy. The hilt was nearly vibrating in her hand, eager to fight to learn to seek out

Releasing the button caused the blade to wink out. Ahene clipped the saber, carefully, to a previously-unused fastener on her belt, then bowed again. “I am honored, my lord. I’ll use it well.”

“I know you will, apprentice.” Zash’s gaze seemed a hair sharper, suddenly. A fraction more intense. “Harkun may not have bothered preparing you for a real lightsaber—whatever lessons that assistant had time to give you hardly count—but I can remedy that. Instead, I want you to think of the things he did teach you.” She smiled, slow and broad and thin. “Ingenuity. Audacity. Resolve. The true power of being cornered, but skills that can be honed even outside those desperate circumstances. Don’t forget them, now that you have a ‘proper’ weapon.”

Ahene didn’t intend to. “As you say,” she replied, and for once she almost meant it.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 4:9 / 2 Ragnost, 1577
Dromund Kaas

It was almost noon in the city’s time-band when Ahene stepped out of the spaceport and into a wall of suffocating humidity. There was a lightsaber on her belt, a staff slung across her back, and a ration bar shoved into each boot. Khem loomed at the world in general, always just behind her. She did not, in fact, feel ready to take on the galaxy, but it was going to happen whether she liked it or not.

The land of glorious shadow,” Khem rumbled. His tone was still hard to read, invariably low and steady and absolutely gravid with gravitas, but there was something faintly nostalgic about it. “We made war here, once. Now I can only walk it, bound to the least of the Sith.

The least of the Sith. The lowest of the high. It was a messy, gray sort of space to be in, and Ahene almost shivered despite the awful heat. “This wasn’t my first choice, either,” she said, unsticking a few strands of hair from her forehead. Her insulated acolyte’s uniform was already proving to be a mistake; she should have discarded appearances and worn her old clothes instead. “But unless you’re willing to part ways without eating me, I think we’re just going to be stuck with each other.”

These indignities will not go unanswered, little Sith.

“I’m going to take that as a no,” said Ahene. She hooked her fingers into one strap of her pack, feeling the weight of it—which was very little, considering how few possessions she had, but it was a minor miracle her shoulders weren’t twinging anyway. They felt a bit stiff, but after the stunt she’d pulled with her staff, she had been expecting a good deal more pain.

Lightning flashed overhead; there were answering sparks behind her fingers, always and ever ready to be called. The whole planet flickered with energy. But Dromund Kaas didn’t have that strange will that Korriban had—nearly as powerful and old and dark, but no one had made a person of it. There was a lot of relief in that thought, and a little bit of loneliness, and Ahene rolled her oddly quiescent shoulders and headed deeper into the urban sprawl.

Except for the horrible wet heat—admittedly a very sticky sticking point—Kaas City didn’t seem particularly awful. Imperial, and therefore terrible by default, but… there was a soothing patter of rain, even if it was accompanied by a constant thundering. Whatever part of her mind produced grief had shut itself off in self-defense. Harkun was, presumably, somebody else’s problem now.

Ahene didn’t want to feel okay, but she kind of did anyway.

The streets were largely bare until she passed into a different section of the city, at which point the distant snatches of music and voices resolved—to her bewilderment—into a very shiny street party. People were talking, laughing, shouting; people were wearing metallic cloth ponchos and scarves and things; people were celebrating, with cheer that drifted out into the Force in a great glittering cloud. It was all immensely gaudy.

Pulling her shields tighter around her—bad enough she’d been betrayed by her own emotions—Ahene glanced towards Khem, sharing a moment of contempt. (The fact that she was sharing it with Khem went deliberately unregarded.) They were only at the edges of the celebration, but it was all so…

The right words didn’t come. She imagined what Sirue would say, instead: Imperial decadence, drawled out in a sharp, sarcastic voice. And that proved, if nothing else, that she still had enough of a heart to miss Sirue with; it might have run out of room for grief, but the living lost were harder to put out of your head. You would need them back, eventually.

Frivolous children,” grumbled Khem, who was definitely still standing there, even if she’d forgotten him for a moment. “They cavort like gizka. And there are Sith among them! I smell it—though no Sith who finds worth in this could truly be a meal.

“It’s the Founding Days,” said Ahene, with a faint, horrified fascination. The soldiers on Verios had thrown parties and set off fireworks and generally carried on, but this was something else entirely. “It must be, or else the Emperor has awoken and declared an end to—I don’t know, boot inspections. Triplicate paperwork. Whatever the banes of a soldier’s existence are.”

Jedi.” This was both an answer to her implied question and a comment on the current goings-on; someone was, in fact, dragging a chained-up paper-maché Jedi down the street. The someone in question was not wearing very many clothes, and seemed rather too happy about this state of affairs.

Ahene found herself slightly envious—it looked a lot cooler than what she was wearing—but only slightly. She’d never liked the idea of displaying her body. “Right,” she muttered. “I’m going to find someone who can give us directions to the Citadel. Navigating this alone does not look fun.”

Khem’s posture shifted as he moved to follow; somehow this conveyed an understated kind of amusement. “The crowd will part.

The crowd did not need parting, though Khem could have done it easily. Ahene approached someone who didn’t appear to be eating, drinking, or participating in any specific revelry. “Excuse me,” she said, which got first an annoyed look and then a double-take. “Are you busy?”

Her unfortunate victim—a young woman in a crinkly gold shawl—blinked at her, then put on a smile. “No, my lord!” she chirped, and somehow hearing those words, directed at her, was even worse than saying them. “What can I do for you?”

Please don’t look at me like that. Oh, Void, please don’t look at me like that. “I need to get to the Citadel. One of the droids showed me a map, but…” Ahene waved a hand at the general situation. “This isn’t really on the map.”

The woman made a noise, like someone who wasn’t sure whether she was allowed to laugh. “I can—try to guide you,” she said. (She didn’t want to. She wanted to stand here and stare indecisively at the party, not be dragged away from it by a Sith. But duty fear grudging loyalty spun in her like a wheel.) Her fingers twitched, a nervous fidget for a moment when nervous fidgeting would be inappropriate. “If that’s what you’re asking, I mean. My lord.”

It was stunningly uncomfortable, Ahene realized, for the average Imperial to have a Sith treating them like an equal. Sith behaving abnormally was very rarely a good thing. Unfortunately, she had never given an order in her life—unless threatening other acolytes counted—and did not particularly want to start now. “I’m asking for directions,” she said, which would have to be good enough.

“Directions? Oh!” There was a small flurry of street names and relevant instructions, which the woman assured her would probably take her to one of the Citadel’s entrances, and if there was anything else she needed of course it was an honor to assist…

Ahene held up a hand. “That’s all I need,” she said, “thank you. I’ll leave you to the party.” And, without waiting for a response, she stepped around the woman and started walking away. It wasn’t any less polite than Sith usually were, after all, and they would both be happier without any more awkwardness. Surely.

Behind her, Khem gave a snort of derision. She ignored him.

The buildings got taller as the pair drew nearer, but the Citadel towered over them all. It wasn’t only larger than any building on Verios, but stood on a scale that begged to be romanticized. People had probably written poetry about the way its shadow fell across the latticework of streets. Metaphors undoubtedly got involved.

Ahene, who did not have the mind of a poet, categorized it as ‘unreasonably big’ and headed for the nearest entrance.

There was a scanner just before the door. It verified that she was in fact a Sith and that she was not in fact carrying any secret explosives, and thus let her through despite her weaponry. She could feel a minute shift in the ambient Force as she entered; this was a working space, filled with thoughts of work. The hallways were sleek dark metal, high and wide and set with an unnecessary quantity of banners. There were offices everywhere, name-plates proclaiming this to be the fifty-third floor, with door numbers in the hundreds.

Other people made their way through, soldiers and slaves ignoring her except to give her an unconscious berth. A Sith—another apprentice, she thought the simple robes meant—gave her a brief glance, then made a face as he wandered off down another hall. She supposed she looked… well, like she’d just left Korriban, and not gotten the chance to shower or change clothes since. At least her clothing was more wearable inside, if not much more presentable. Though the problem might have been Khem, so obviously some obscure alien species, and hardly properly dressed himself…

Zash’s office was a couple levels up and quite a lot deeper in; the Sith offices apparently existed in a central subsection, spread out over two rings. The outer ring, past a bridge that repeated every few floors—and had no guardrails to prevent a dizzying drop, if you slipped—contained the offices of several thousand lords. The inner ring, according to the map console, contained the offices of the Dark Lords. Possibly all of the Dark Lords. (Were there really that many? Were there really that few?) Ahene walked across that first bridge without trouble, still a little bit too certain in her movements.

You’re still a person, she told herself. You could still slip. But the fear stubbornly did not materialize.

She twisted to look at Khem. “I bet they lose people this way,” she said, conversationally. “One wrong move, and”—she made an evocative gesture—“splat, I suppose.”

That is the way of the Sith.

“The way of the Sith must be hell to clean.” Ahene kept her voice carefully light, though she couldn’t stop herself from grimacing at the thought. She’d cleaned a lot of messes, after the ruin teams had been pared down to the experts, but corpses had never been involved. Certainly not corpses of people she knew and worked with—and it wouldn’t be the Sith who tripped.

It was… such a tiny, pointless thing to die for. And she knew, somehow, that people had died for it.

Deliberately, with great care, Ahene locked the knowledge out. “Anyway,” she said. “The console claimed there’s an elevator a few degrees to the left—I probably could have downloaded that map, couldn’t I?” She shook her head and started walking. “Next console, I guess. I’m not really used to having permissions…”

Thankfully, Khem didn’t respond. The elevator was about where Ahene had thought it would be; they took it in silence, and she paused at another console to make good on her word. It was only a few more minutes before she found Zash’s office, on the inner edge of the outer ring. She buzzed the door, folded her hands behind her back, and waited.

(Zash was clearly there, her presence a curl of saccharine poison even among so many others. But the others, less familiar, blended into a single seething background.)

The door was opened by a droid. It stood at about Ahene’s height, or slightly taller, and despite its sleek look it was emoting anxiety like it could thereby ward off some terrible fate. “Come in, please, Apprentice Ahene,” it said, nervously. It led her in, nervously. If there had ever been a droid more nervous than this one, it had probably overloaded its capacitors on the spot.

Zash’s office was smallish by colony standards, but probably a decent size in the Empire’s tightly packed urban center; she had filled it with things, crowding the walls with datashelves and the floor with rugs. On her desk sat the holocron Ahene had retrieved, next to a sheaf of flimsi and an actual leather-bound paper book. There was a small door set in the far wall, presumably leading to a ‘fresher, slightly overlapped by a vivid tapestry too large for the space.

A deep gray candle sat in a dish in the center of the desk, burning odorless and crimson. As they entered, Zash snuffed it between two fingers and rose from her chair, smiling broadly. “Ah, my lovely new apprentice. Wonderful.” She glanced over at the droid. “2V, do be a dear and stop recording to memory, would you?”

“Yes, my lord!” said the droid, with a deep and terrified bow. “All memories of this meeting will be cleared afterwards, my lord—you don’t need to turn me off, I swear—”

“That’s quite enough, 2V.” Zash turned to Ahene, looking her over with a critical eye. “It’s good you got here so soon, apprentice; I’m afraid we have a great deal of work to do. I don’t suppose you served someone of rank?”

“No, my lord,” Ahene said—forced herself to say. The wound comprising most of her life shouldn’t have been so raw, but it burned with intensity. As if she could only really feel it in retrospect. “Not directly. Most of it was at the ruin camp, until they found the right building and sent off everyone who wasn’t Service or one of their class-twos. Then—well, the governor liked a tidy garden.”

“Mm. You’ll be flying blind at first, then. Pity.” Zash shook her head, her good cheer returning almost as fast as it had vanished. “Still, I have faith you’ll pick things up quickly—though I do wish we’d had more time to prepare.” She stepped out from behind the desk. “2V, get her cleaned up, would you? The refresher should allow for it.”

“Right away, my lord!” The droid approached Ahene and stopped (nervously) just short of touching her, arm extended. “If—er, if you would?”

Ahene looked at 2V. Then she looked at Khem. “Someone here is going to wait in the hallway,” she said, with the firmness of someone who absolutely was not going to undress in front of a sapien-eating monster, no matter how little said monster seemed to care about decency. The droid would be bad enough.

Khem’s permanent glower intensified. “I am not an animal, little Sith.

“Which is why I don’t want you seeing me naked,” said Ahene, meeting his stare. “And I don’t think my lord wants you breathing down her neck?”

Zash chuckled softly. “Very considerate, apprentice.”

Hmm.” Khem bent, slightly, at the waist, with exactly as much sincerity as Ahene had when she bowed. “As you will, then. But I do not forget.

Theater performer. Ahene didn’t say it; she had some sympathy for his objection. But she also had… maybe it was a prudish streak. An irrational one—she’d spent her life sharing ‘freshers, and it still bothered her to have other people see her body like that. “Fine,” she replied, and headed towards the door, letting the droid trail in her wake. “I’ll try to be quick.”

But cleaning up was not, in fact, destined to be quick. She did have to strip down, and she set the acolyte’s uniform over the chair sitting beside the sonic shower. (It was mildly absurd that there was a sonic shower, but apparently Sith had Expectations of their office ‘freshers.) There was a tight curtain around it, but before she could draw it—2V followed her in, taking the vibrational emitter in one hand.

“What—?” Somehow, Ahene stopped herself before she could actually shove the droid away. “You don’t need to do that,” she told it. “Really.”

“I don’t? Ah, I mean, I apologize—my master ordered me to ‘clean you up,’ so I assumed…”

“Lord Zash’s orders aside, I’m not going to make you scrub me down.” Ahene raised an arm, half-consciously, to make an attempt at covering her chest. “It would be embarrassing for both of us,” she said, feeling desperately ridiculous.

“Oh, no, not at all—I am programmed for a wide array of functions, including personal assistance such as an attendant might provide.” The droid paused, saw she wasn’t responding, and added: “Truly, sir, it’s no trouble. My model was designed to attend important personages, especially Sith—”

“Unlike the average Sith,” Ahene snapped, “I am capable of caring for myself.”

2V recoiled as if struck, dropping the emitter. “Of course! I apologize, er, sir—I shouldn’t have made assumptions. Please don’t deactivate me! I’m useful!” It lifted its hands. “Lord Zash couldn’t get a replacement on such short notice, I’m sure!”

Anger pulsed in Ahene’s head, fighting out an equally sudden nausea. She felt furious and sick and guilty, and she wanted to take it out on the poor droid, just this once, which… was exactly what the average Sith would do.

“Kriff,” she muttered, dropping her head into her hands. “No. I’m sorry. Just—get it over with.”

It was emotionally excruciating, to stand there and let 2V peer at her and skim the vibrational emitter across her body. She felt like the skin would burn as it passed over her brand, the thing that had bound her to Verios—to Kelshrin—

But eventually it was over. Ahene stepped out of the sonic shower, and 2V guided her—gently—over to the mirror above Zash’s sink.

She looked awful.

Her hair was basically one big black mat now, strands clinging to her forehead, and exhaustion had put deep circles under her eyes. There were healing bruises at the base of her neck, and she honestly couldn’t remember if they’d been put there by Spindrall’s acolyte, or somebody else she’d fought, or maybe even Markan. Korriban felt like a lifetime ago. Everything before that felt like a raw and incoherent hell.

Don’t. She bit down on her cheek, reaching for bitterness like a lifeline—she could get through this, so long as it kept being real. Going numb was nothing but a trap, just like lashing out was, and she had to be better than that.

“Can you cut it?” she asked, quietly, her fingertips brushing against the edges of her hair. “It’s only going to get like this again.”

Reflected in the mirror, she could see 2V nod and raise the comb. “Of course, sir. How short do you want it?”

“Short enough it doesn’t do this anymore.”

“I do not believe my lord wishes me to shave your head,” admitted 2V, picking up some clippers, “but I can remove a large body of the hair. Perhaps slicked back?”

Ahene closed her eyes. “If that will do it,” she said. And she submitted to the de-tangling. It was slow and painful, 2V tugging her head this way and that, but eventually it met the droid’s standards such that the snipping could begin.

That went faster. The droid worked with brisk efficiency, scissors going snk-snk-snk, and then it hummed like an organic might have cleared their throat. “I will need you to look,” it ventured, after a moment.

She looked. Her hair was no longer a nest made for rodents, and it didn’t hang down around her face either—Ahene hadn’t seen it particularly straight since she was a child, but it had been straight before she’d given up on untangling it. (A surrender that had taken a little over a month, with not much else to cling to.) 2V had cut it back to the top of her neck, then combed it away from her face, and looking at herself came with the strangest twinge of relief. As if there was something there to like.

Her features looked sharper, without her hair framing them. It was a distinctly welcome change; a bit less like a girl, a bit more like a weapon.

“Thank you,” she said, and meant it. “Is there clothing as well?”

2V passed her a folded tunic and pants. They were made of a slick, tight fabric, red and dark gray like the robes Zash wore, but mostly in big solid blocks. There was a red tube wrapped around the red sleeve, and another around the neck, sitting on top of a hood that was mostly for show. A belt lay across the pile, and black fingerless gloves beside it. The Academy commissary had clearly kept her measurements filed somewhere, and someone—probably 2V itself—had apparently requested them.

Ahene dressed in grateful silence. There were several oddly placed pockets inside the shirt, she noted, though she couldn’t fathom what they were for. And next to the Academy boots, a new pair; she slid her feet into them, feeling them to be solid. “Thank you,” she said again, and then took a shot in the dark—“You work fast.”

2V brightened immediately. “Thank you so much for noticing, sir! My lord had quite specific instructions, and I must say I’m proud to have fulfilled them so quickly. Oh—just one more thing?” It reached into the sink cabinet and withdrew a makeup kit, which it waved at Ahene hopefully. “It’s generally expected…”

She gave him a skeptical look. “What, exactly, are you about to put on my face?”

“It would be difficult to explain verbally—ah, something simple. And red.”

“Red.” Ahene quirked her lips. “Alright, then. I suppose you can put red on my face.” She attempted a small smile, tilting her head at the droid. “Just—not too much?”

“Noted and understood, sir. Could you, er, turn around completely? Yes, like that, thank you.” The brush skimmed into a pad of makeup of a similar tone to Ahene’s skin, then was put to the task of coloring certain parts of her face with it. The utility of this was unclear. Then, after that, a dusty red was painted above her eyes, and similar onto her cheeks; 2V stopped short of applying a gloss to her lips, holding the tube thoughtfully before her. “Er,” it said. “Perhaps it would be best not to use this. If you aren’t practiced, it’s easy to smudge eating or drinking… yes, I think this is enough anyway. I do hope you like it?”

She turned to see herself in the mirror again. If the haircut had made her look like herself, the makeup made her look like the person she was supposed to be—a Sith apprentice stared back at her, gold-brown eyes made harsh and distant by the droid’s efforts. It was amazing how much a bit of coloring could change her expression.

(…unless it wasn’t the makeup at all.)

“It’s—effective,” she said, slowly. She turned her head one way, then the other, committing her new face to memory. “I hope our lord will be pleased. For whatever it’s worth, I certainly am.”

2V all but preened; it occurred to her that the droid wouldn’t remember this, and whatever points she’d won with it would be lost into the Void. Still, Ahene would remember. “I think she will—oh, I do hope she will,” said the droid. “You look quite polished and deadly now, if I do say so myself. Ah, and the cooling packs are in the second drawer, by the way. You’ll find that there are several cleverly hidden pockets in your shirt; just tuck the packs in and apply a bit of pressure, and the temperature should be far less, er, bothersome.” It stepped back away from her and went to where she’d set the Academy-issue boots. “Let me just take these for cleaning. I’m sure they’re—full of ration bars?”

“Don’t touch those!” Ahene snapped, before she could stop herself. Void, she thought, her inner voice reflexively chiding, now it’s going to know. Now Zash is going to know, probably. But she couldn’t take back her reaction; she owned it instead, stepping briskly over to the boots. “I, ah, need them,” she said, dropping her voice lower, letting a note of embarrassment creep in. “Call it an organic failing.”

Let Zash think I’m a nervous wreck. She’ll be surprised how little it rules me.

2V quickly moved away from the boots, wringing its hands. “Yes, of course, I’m terribly sorry,” it babbled. “Could you, um…?”

Ahene retrieved the ration bars and slid them, hurriedly, into the new boots. She transferred her saber to her new belt, reslung her staff, and grabbed her backpack up, and then and only then nudged the Academy boots closer to 2V with one foot. “Sorry about that,” she said—Sith probably didn’t apologize, but she did, out of contrariness if nothing else. “Here.”

2V took them. “Thank you, sir,” it said, pressing the pair against its chest with one polished arm. “I can take the backpack too, if you’d like—my lord has let me know where you’ll be staying, so I can ensure your belongings are there when she dismisses you for the night.”

A room random droids were free to invade. Another way to get at her, but she was so utterly in Zash’s power that it hardly mattered. It would be somewhere to sleep, and neither 2V nor Zash herself had much reason to throw out Ahene’s ratty old original clothes, and even if they did—it was only clothes. “Appreciated,” she said, dipping her head politely, and she handed over the backpack.

This was accepted with nervous satisfaction, and Ahene was very politely shooed out the door to present herself to Zash again. The Sith Lord was now pacing her office, datapad in hand, staring at her shelves with the intensity of one who had been sorely denied.

And then she turned, and looked at Ahene, and smiled broadly once again. “Ah, apprentice! There you are! Excellent.”

Ahene dropped herself into a deep bow; some part of her was tempted to kneel outright, but getting on Zash’s nerves was not the point of this exercise. “My lord,” she said, with all the deference she could fake.

“No, no, there’s no need for that,” said Zash, waving a hand. “Stand up and let me get a good look at you. Yes, that’s right.” She stepped forwards, into what Ahene would have liked to call her personal space. Her eyes roamed like she was inspecting a prized racing animal. Somehow, her smile widened even further, and she clapped her hands together as she moved back again. “Oh, you do clean up well, apprentice—I was so hoping. And you seem quite capable of polite obedience…” Her voice was teasing in a way that tore at Ahene’s shields and self-control; there was no appropriate response to that tiny, petty assertion of power that Ahene would dare think in her presence. “That should see you through tonight, at least. There’s no reason you should have to be alone, or speak more than a few words—I am loathe to say it, but it is probably best that you don’t.”

“Of course, my lord,” said Ahene, blank-faced. “Where will I not be speaking?”

Zash laughed at that, aura alight with humor. She gave the impression that she was laughing at herself, just a bit, but in such a way that the joke became hers in the process. “One of the Founding Days parties,” she said. “There really are so many of them, everyone wandering around drinking sparkly things and conducting the dullest possible politics, but I have to at least make an appearance. At this one, anyway.” She heaved a theatrical sigh. “Most of the Knowledge lords in Kaas City don’t exactly get out much, and I’m afraid dear Luccra has somehow managed to collect nearly all the others.”

The idea of a crowd of Sith wandering around drinking sparkly things was rather surreal, and Ahene was not looking forward to encountering it. “As you say, my lord.”

“They have some fascinating theories about some lesser-known lords from seven hundred years ago. Entirely bunk, in my opinion, but Luccra is a valuable ally all the same. And they’re one of the better alchemists I’ve met.” Zash resumed pacing, this time cheerfully. “I would almost enjoy their parties,” she continued, “if they didn’t insist on inviting so many people. Half the guest list hates each other, apprentice; it’s going to be absolutely horrid.”

Ahene considered this information. “Should I be glad I’m armed?” she asked, thumbing the hilt of her saber.

“Only as a general rule, I think—I sorely doubt anyone will try anything tonight. Too many witnesses, and all of them terrible gossips.” Zash bounced her datapad idly, never quite letting it touch her hands, and then with a sigh she slid it back into the shelf. “Useless thing,” she muttered. “If the writer weren’t a hundred and fifty years dead, Emperor’s watchful eyes, I’d want to kill her myself. Apprentice?”

“Yes, my lord?”

“We’ll be leaving in just over two hours. I believe 2V has ordered something for your Dashade to wear as well—do try and get him into it, would you?”

About two hours later, Ahene sat beside Zash in the middle section of a long aircar, ramrod straight despite the reclined nature of the seats. It was a very comfortable vehicle; she was inclined, at this point, to treat that as a challenge.

Zash had been making small talk for the first several minutes of travel, discussing a wide array of people Ahene neither knew nor particularly cared about, all of whom seemed to be completely awful. Then, out of nowhere, she turned to Ahene and said: “I understand Kelshrin of all people found you, apprentice?”

“Yes, my lord,” said Ahene, with a credible attempt at hiding her surprise. It was somehow very strange to hear his name away from Verios; she couldn’t imagine him outside his domain, interacting with people not broken to his will. “He… put me back together, at least.”

“And yet he didn’t keep you,” mused Zash. “Interesting. Very interesting—the man’s had enough apprentices to fill a shuttle, though I’ve heard most die quickly. But you, he didn’t want to hold onto.” Her smile turned briefly strange, intense in all the wrong ways. “I wonder—what sort of potential did he see?”

Ahene kept her back very, very still, hands tightly folded in her lap. “I tried to steal his apprentice’s ship,” she admitted, and did not admit to any other part of that endeavor. “It might have put a damper on things.”

“Mm. Perhaps. I know him mostly by reputation—terribly powerful, terribly odd, obsessed with a certain persistent legend—so I could hardly say.” She chuckled. “Frankly, apprentice, I’m curious.”

He’s terrifying. He lives his life like a black hole, like it’s only a matter of time before the galaxy revolves around him alone. Everything he says sounds completely calm and rational, but I once heard a Service officer who slipped up say he broke their hand without ever looking at them, and I believe it. “There’s not much to tell, my lord.”

“Now, apprentice,” cooed Zash. “I’m sure you don’t expect me to believe that.”

Ahene shrugged, just slightly. “He’s icy cold, expects to be obeyed without question, and then in the next breath he’ll flat-out tell you to hate him. I am extremely glad he’s not my master.”

“Ah, and now I know where your sabacc face comes from,” said Zash, voice teasing. “Rest assured, my dear apprentice, that I am hardly threatened by a bit of personality—in fact, I would encourage it. Self-control is a perfectly fine tool, but there are rather too many Sith who spend so much time plotting out their games that they forget the part about passion.”

In a single fluid motion, she stood from the seat and brought herself around, and suddenly she was crouching down in front of Ahene. It was surreal and uncomfortable and vulnerable, and Zash wielded the strange reversal with the precision of a knife. Before Ahene could think to stop her—before Ahene could force herself not to—Zash reached out and took one of her hands, silken gloves against skin. “My greatest hope for you, my student,” she said, soft and fervent and deadly serious, “is that you will show me those passions; that you will allow me to guide you in their use, and in doing so bring us both to glory. Do you understand?”

Ahene did not understand in the slightest, and wished intensely that she was just about anywhere else. Her hindbrain was screaming at her to run, which wasn’t an option; the only thing she could do was double down, and do it as hard as she possibly could. “Yes, my lord,” she whispered, holding Zash’s gaze, and the hand that had been taken—she squeezed. “You saved me from Harkun; you chose the trash acolyte over a pureblood scion.” Her voice was durasteel. “I will not make you regret it.”

The party was being held in some big event hall, not far from the line where the city gave way first to suburbs and then an overgrown sprawl of estates. The buildings were shorter and further apart, the air traffic less dense; in around the standard huge Imperial banners, flimsy gold decorations hung from most available surfaces, fluttering in the wind. There were still a lot of people in the streets.

The droid-piloted aircar touched down on a wide landing pad, allowed its passengers to exit, then flew off to find parking elsewhere. Ahene looked to Zash, who flashed a grin and gestured for her to follow.

An anteroom later, they made an entrance. This was mostly the fault of Khem, who was—to his grave displeasure—wearing what appeared to be a long crimson drapery. (It was supposed to be a cloak, the sort that hung all around one’s body, but Ahene had thought initially that it looked like a curtain and been unable to unsee it since.) He trailed behind Ahene, who stayed a half-step behind Zash, and a large number of eyes flicked towards the Dashade as if on cue. The conversation didn’t pause, but its tone briefly shifted.

And Ahene looked, for the first time, upon a room full of Sith. Real Sith, not the dimmer suns of her fellows at the Academy. At least fifty auras—maybe more—blazed through the space behind her eyes, their aspects blurring together in a cacophonous jumble. Picking out any single one, save Zash’s, was plainly impossible; if she focused and let them intermix, though, she thought she could sense the mood of the crowd at large. Pleasure. Contempt. Tension. At the edges, where people were still watching Khem, there was a distinct air of surprise, but the rest was the same all through. Sith enjoying themselves, and not enjoying each other.

Zash radiated smugness like a star radiated heat, though their grip on the room’s attention was extremely short-lived. She led Ahene (and therefore Khem as well) into the crowd, where the assembled Sith were clustered around delicate little tables made of black metal and draped with golden tablecloths. At one end of the hall was an empty stage, curtains drawn, and before it was a large space that was probably meant for dancing—though no one was dancing yet. The center of the room, however, was taken up by a much larger table, and that one was filled up with food: finely sliced meats, spongy little cakes with gold icing flowers on them, weird little maybe-also-cakes that looked like they might have been made of fish, shelled creatures glazed in something shiny (despite their presence on the table, Ahene was unconvinced they were even edible), and cut slices of unidentifiable fruit. There were also a lot of glasses full of sparkling liquid, arranged artistically around. As the group approached, one of the potential cakes lifted off and came to the fingers of a pureblood man, who bit into it with gusto.

Fury crackled in the back of Ahene’s skull, for reasons she knew but couldn’t afford to think of; she shoved it down, half-frantic. Not here.

Standing near the table of food, somehow managing to project the idea that they were lounging outrageously, stood a dark-skinned, golden-eyed Sith. They seemed human at first glance, but had sharp ridges on their cheekbones and their neck—the latter shown off quite well by the plunging neckline of their robes, which were made of a Void-black fabric and shone like a river under moonlight. “Zash!” they exclaimed, apparently delighted; any shift in their aura was unreadable under an oozing wall of self-satisfaction. “How lovely to see you—I wasn’t sure you’d make it, you’ve been such a recluse.”

“Oh, Luccra, it’s only been… what, two months?” Zash clicked her tongue. “I’m sure you’ve hardly noticed my absence.”

“Well, yes, but it would be rude to say it.” Luccra laughed, and touched the back of their hand briefly to Zash’s. “I suppose I must ask about your work. Still taking orders from the droid, my friend?”

“As he doesn’t seem to have been executed for the Dark Temple incident, I am afraid so,” said Zash, with an exaggerated sigh.

“Pity. Is that your new apprentice?”

Ahene knew a cue when she heard one. She bowed exactly to the degree Zash had shown her, apprentice-to-lord but not implying fealty—there was a whole language of it, and she did not want to know what she’d been saying before her pre-party crash course. “Lord Luccra,” she murmured, eyes cast low.

“She’s polite,” observed Luccra, in about the same way one might observe that it was raining outside. “Where did you find her? Well, Korriban, obviously, but she doesn’t stand like a soldier, and she’s obviously not one of us.”

“Am I from a Sith family now, Luccra?” inquired Zash.

“I wouldn’t know! You never tell anyone anything, Zash, you’re a closed book from a musty secret library.” Luccra plucked one of the flutes from the table, took a sip, and then gestured evocatively with it. “And not the one filled with fake genealogies, either. Eight separate versions of the same family tree, all just slightly different…”

This caught Zash’s interest. “Really!”

“Oh, yes. My theory is that they were trying to drag extra claimants into an inheritance—there would have been cousins coming out of the woodwork, if the right people had ‘found’ each of those papers. Cousins for days.”

“Yes, two or three I could see, but eight?” Zash shook her head in wonder. “That kind of audacity really has to be admired.”

“I would agree with you, except I’m the one reading reports about it. We need the real one, if we’re going to trace Lord Adannil’s lineage, and instead—well, we have eight. An embarrassment of riches.” Luccra took another sip from their glass, with a sharpness that suggested their drink had personally offended them. “Destiny is punishing me,” they declared, the flute of alcohol raised in an ironic salute. “Two years ago I said I’d take a forgery over a full-on barrenness of information—we never did identify that holocron, damn thing’s probably still a paperweight—and now the Force has seen fit to give me eight of them.”

From there, the pair lapsed into talking shop; Ahene did her best to follow the conversation, but it quickly developed too many buzzwords. The Reclamation Service was mentioned several times, sometimes favorably and sometimes as the undefined People who should have Handled It. What it was had become entirely lost by that point—the pair didn’t stay on one topic for long—but Ahene felt a vague, grudging sympathy for the archaeologists.

Eventually, at the close of an entirely unuseful—and unrelated—anecdote, Luccra looked at Zash and said, very seriously, “You know what you’re doing, of course.”

“You haven’t the slightest idea what I’m doing,” said Zash, voice still light but suddenly knife-sharp.

“The same thing you’ve been doing since our masters first tried to kill each other.” Luccra took Zash’s hands in theirs, just briefly. “In light of that long acquaintance—the droid RSVPed.”

A pause. A flicker of surprise in Zash’s aura. “You didn’t invite him, surely!”

“Never. I am a sybarite and a serpent and a liar, but I have my honor. He merely put two and two together, and came out, regrettably, with four.”

“You sell yourself short as always, Luccra,” said Zash. She smiled with the radiance of Dromund itself, squeezed Luccra’s shoulder, and added, “I am most grateful for the warning; I know there’s nothing you could have done. Don’t you worry about the droid. He’s hardly difficult to handle, once you get to know him.”

“I have never sold myself short in my life, Zash, and you know it.” Luccra wrinkled their nose, sighed, and drained the remnant of their glass. There was somehow no showmanship about it at all. “Don’t ruin my party, alright?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Zash reached out and carefully took one of the unidentified drinks, and with a tiny flick of Force energy set the liquid swirling. “Of course, if Da’at sees you’ve invited dear Oroches after all, that will be another story—but you did always enjoy watching a good trainwreck.” She laughed quietly. “No. No, it’s not me you have to worry about; not tonight, in any case.”

“I have never worried about anyone but myself, and I do not intend to start now,” said Luccra, in the tones of someone who meant the exact opposite of what they were saying. “But I also do not intend to let ‘dear’ Oroches run into his ex before she’s had at least two more glasses. Excuse me, Zash; I would say to give my regards to the droid, but maybe don’t do that. Best of luck.”

And, with that, they vanished into the crowd. Zash turned back to Ahene, shaking her head. “Thank the Emperor that’s over with,” she muttered. “I’m curious. What did you get out of that, apprentice?”

Ahene’s good sense—which was telling her to play dumb—warred with her desperate perfectionism, and somehow won. “I think I understood the occasional word,” she said, looking faintly abashed. “Who is ‘the droid,’ my lord?”

Skotia,” said Zash, grimly. “One of the Dark Lords—he’s mostly cybernetics and alchemy, and far too powerful. The rest… no. No, I’ll explain in private, when all this is over.” She raised her glass to her lips, but ran it along them instead of drinking; she looked like she wanted to bite down. “Just keep in mind that he is very dangerous, apprentice, and under no circumstances should you speak to him yet. Oh, and take something from the table, it’s rude not to.”

Ahene eyed the table dubiously. She knew her hesitance was ridiculous—and more than a little bit pathetic—but it felt like acknowledging her change in station, in a way she couldn’t quite bear. She was a Sith now, and she never had to eat a ration bar again.

That should have been a vakking relief. Instead, it made her want to eat a ration bar out of spite.

I hope this burns, she thought, and picked up one of the debatably-food shelled things in a napkin. I hope this whole hall burns, and the survivors walk home damply; I won’t light it, because I’m not that good or that stupid, but I hope it burns anyway. She wound her shields tighter, before the fire could think of escaping, and gave her lord a small, unpracticed smile.

Then she popped the inedible little thing into her mouth, and immediately regretted it.

It was some kind of marine life, probably, but candied; it was both unbearably sweet and unbearably spicy. In lieu of burning down the hall, she had apparently decided to burn down her own tongue. With a terrible effort, Ahene chewed and swallowed, though she thought her eyes were watering.

(She was, somewhere in the back of her head, secretly relieved the thing tasted revolting. She couldn’t have handled it being good.)

Zash was watching, doing a deliberately poor job of hiding her laughter. “Those are for the purebloods, generally,” she said. There was a bit of sympathy in her voice, but it was mostly drowned out by the amusement. “Come along, apprentice, and don’t reach for the drinks—if you’re going to make that mistake, the only thing to do is own it.”

That had been Ahene’s plan already. “Yes, my lord,” she said, pronouncing the words carefully; she couldn’t entirely feel her tongue. “I apologize.”

“And don’t apologize,” Zash said, chuckling behind her hand. “Sith never do, unless they’re forced—or so secure that it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Zash led her out into the crowd, circulating the room in a disjointed spiral. She knew a lot of people. She possibly knew too many. It certainly felt that way, as she wandered between tables and had a large number of relatively short conversations about nothing in particular. Ahene paid close attention anyway, just in case any of it was relevant later—though she doubted she had any reason to care that Lord Cineratus preferred to be called Jevan, or that Lord Da’at always drank too much at these events, or that Lord Nicoro’s last report had proved that a Darth five hundred years dead had faked a legendary ritual by inventing a new form of Force illusion. (Force illusions did sound interesting, but pretending to devour someone’s soul seemed like a very niche skill.) More people arrived as they cycled through; the party was apparently nowhere near full swing. There were occasional faint noises from behind the stage’s curtain, and if Ahene focused, she felt she could sense people moving around behind it.

Eventually, the lights dimmed slightly. Zash flashed another brilliant smile and gestured for Ahene—and, therefore, Khem as well—to follow her to one of the tables.

“The performance is about to start,” whispered Zash, her tone implying this to be a delightful occurrence, “at least if Luccra can restrain themself from making a twenty-minute speech about it. I suspect I will be diverted shortly in; Skotia hasn’t shown up yet, and the wretched man always did like making an entrance. When that occurs, apprentice, just do your best—by which I mean that you should stay here, watch the show, and speak to no one.” She tipped her head briefly to the side, her expression turning wry for a moment. “Much as I would love to give you the chance to mingle, I haven’t had the time to prepare you for it, and releasing you to these shark-infested waters would not reflect well on either of us.”

“I understand, my lord,” said Ahene, who did not want to mingle anyway.

“And I believe you do,” Zash murmured, in that same soft and terrible voice she’d used in the shuttle. It burned to hear. “That is one of your skills, my apprentice—you listen, and you understand. Many Sith forget that particular talent; many more never learn. But I know it will serve you well.”

A low, clear chime rang out, cutting through air that had turned honey-thick, and the curtain rose. Arrayed behind it were performers, costumed like Sith and spirits and a few beige, blank-helmeted entities that were probably meant to be Jedi. They carried fencing swords and had gold trim on their outfits; apparently the holiday celebrations included stage-fighting. In front of them all stood Luccra, an elegant microphone in one of the Sith Lord’s hands. They raised the other in a grand gesture, and their aura—called out. It was like a firework going off, without the sound or light.

“Ahem,” they said, unnecessarily. “Do I have everyone’s attention now? Excellent.” The room’s attention was almost palpable, fixed on Luccra like a burning spotlight, and they were very clearly reveling in it. “As we all are aware, this second of our glorious Founding Days is not merely an excuse to enjoy ourselves—I know, I know, don’t pout like that—but it is also a day of triumph. Of victory won and victory anticipated, of victory hungered for, of the glory and the thrill and the vindication of it.”

“I see my hopes were unfounded,” Zash murmured, with a perfectly theatrical wince. “Perhaps I should have brought a timer…”

“It is the just celebration of our military,” they continued, their voice rising with impressive fervor. “From the junior cadets in our schools to the Minister of War, they are united by a common goal—and united under our guidance. For the odd and the ancient and the esoteric are not distractions from our Empire’s mission; they are the heart of it.” Luccra paused for a moment, letting their words sink in. Their aura glittered orange-gold. “We are the power and the wisdom…”

Ahene tuned them out as they continued, letting her gaze wander towards the various exits that an angry Dark Lord might arrive through. The service entrances she dismissed out of hand; while she could think of reasons to slip in through them, they mostly relied on her little trick. (Perhaps they were an escape route, if she needed it.) But there were numerous others, probably opening on hallways that led to conference rooms and refreshers. There could be more entrances down any of them.

And yet Sith were Sith, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to step through that grand double door at the hall’s far end.

The speech went on. Zash muttered a couple more pithy comments, then busied herself actually drinking from the glass she’d snagged. She didn’t look towards the exits at all, apparently content to rely on her senses. Unthinkable confidence, if you asked Ahene, but who would?

“…through our victories,” Luccra eventually concluded, “we are all set free.” This was met with applause, the room flickering with intermixed anticipation and boredom; evidently, Zash wasn’t the only one tired of speeches. Luccra took a graceful bow, raised the microphone again, and said, “Thank you, my friends—and now I urge you to enjoy my hospitality, and enjoy the show.”

Ahene glanced towards the door at the end of the hall, but Zash’s unseen superior—presumably not hearing any of this—did not throw them open at the most dramatic possible moment. Not even Sith could have perfect timing all the time; an oddly comforting thought.

“Thank the Emperor that’s done,” Zash whispered, laughing. “They do this every time, apprentice—give them a microphone, and they go on and on and on. But they do throw lovely parties.”

And do you have any allies that you actually like, ‘my lord?’ Ahene kept the thought closed up in the back of her mind, pouring all her desperation into the barriers keeping it private. “I… think I gathered that,” she hedged.

Another laugh. Ahene wondered which of the lords here would first know her as Zash’s absolutely impossible apprentice, an uneducated subjugate not worth subverting, and how many would believe it—not that she particularly wanted to be subverted. “I thought you would,” said Zash, eyes alight with amusement. “Ah, look, the performers are taking their places—I believe I recognize the company, too. The Ziost West Equatorials. I’m surprised they weren’t hired off to entertain some of the Dark Lords; perhaps losing that last competition put them out of favor. I swear, apprentice, their politics are almost as cutthroat as ours.”

One of the performers, wearing grey funeral wrappings and heavy golden jewelry, glided out to the center of the stage. A deep bell tolled. They raised their hands, and the lights dimmed; the room tamped back down to silence. “Hold!” cried the spirit-actor, a microphone in their mask giving the word resonance, and a spotlight lit on them. “Show yourselves to me, Sith of this age, and bow your heads to listen; it has been a thousand years since I have walked this world, and I bring with me a story.”

“Is it a true story?” called Luccra from offstage, pitching the line as perfect rote.

“All stories are true,” the spirit-actor intoned. “All stories are lies. But this is a story of victory, and the victorious make truth what they make of it.”

Ahene glanced to Zash. “I didn’t realize this would be a play,” she whispered, voice barely a breath. “Is that how Sith parties go, my lord?”

“No, but it’s not a play. Soon they’ll stop talking and fence instead, and then there will be a break for the music and dancing, and—really, saying it, it sounds dreadfully dull.” Zash spread her hands, pantomiming a sigh. “There’s only so much our sphere can do with today’s theme, of course, and Luccra has done their best, but I’d rather circulate the crowd.” Amusement crept back in, and she made a conciliatory little gesture. “Though I admit I say that mostly because I’ve seen this performance, oh, probably five times.”

Ahene nodded, a picture of attentiveness. It was very, very clear that Zash liked to talk, and apparently would—within some unknown bound of patience—tolerate and even appreciate questions. “I’ve… never seen anything like this,” she said, allowing a note of false fascination to slip into her voice. If she were the kind of apprentice Zash wanted, she would be captivated by the display. Hungry for what it symbolized. She tried to channel that in the way she looked at the stage, watching it like it had some kind of allure.

(Like there was not a ring of lightning burning in her mind, locked up in the darkness.)

The performers fenced in some sort of ritualized style, far more dance than combat. Music swelled as the first two faced each other, crossed blades, traded steps and strikes like credits. They moved fluidly, with speed and grace; they were as beautiful as anything here could be.

And, as it happened, they were professional enough not to falter when the doors flew open.

The crowd looked. Only some of the Sith turned their heads, but the crowd—as a whole, as a presence of its own—looked. And there at the end of the hall was a tall, large man, bald and dark-skinned and mostly cybernetics. The Force moved with him, tracing his wires, baying at his heels like a hound; a pair of trandoshans, armed like bodyguards, followed close behind. It seemed as if the assembled Sith were getting out of his way without moving whatsoever, their auras drawing back from his—deliberately, it seemed. A gesture of deference to a Dark Lord.

Zash sighed, so quietly it was barely audible. “Stay here, apprentice,” she said, not looking away from the stage. “Be quiet, be careful, don’t stare, and when he drags me off—which he will, because he’d seem terribly weak having to threaten me in public—stay here and watch the show. Do not, under any circumstances, go anywhere without witnesses. Skotia doesn’t have true reason to kill me, but killing you… would be seen as a warning, I’m afraid.”

Ahene inclined her head. “As you say, my lord.”

There was no time for further instructions, but far too much time to wait for Skotia to approach. It was like holding a live explosive, watching the timer tick down…

No, Ahene thought, pushing his presence out of her head. That’s how he wants you to feel.

Zash didn’t turn until he was nearly on them. “Yes, do you need—Lord Skotia!” Her eyes widening with feigned surprise, she gave him a quick, shallow bow—theoretically acceptable, but informal, if Ahene was remembering the crash course correctly. “To whatever do I owe this pleasure?”

Skotia set his jaw, aura crackling with irritation. “Do not be familiar with me, Zash.”

“As you wish, Dark Lord.” Zash bowed again, more deeply, a hand pressed to her chest. She made submission look like a power play. “How may I serve you?”

Ahene definitely did not exchange a glance with one of the bodyguards.

“A conference room,” said Skotia, indicating a side hall at random. “Now.”

“Of course, my lord,” Zash half-purred. “I believe there are several set up; Luccra is terribly thoughtful like that. Just this way.” She made a gesture that stopped just short of taking him by the arm and led him away—not, Ahene noted, towards the hall he’d waved a hand at. His bodyguards followed, sharing a quiet, resigned irritation, and then the group was gone.

Ahene waited a few more moments, just to make sure, then turned towards Khem. “So,” she murmured. “Thoughts?”

That one is more machine than man,” he said, voice lowered to a quiet rumble. “Bad for the digestion, I think.

“Not really what I was asking,” said Ahene, “but I’ll keep that in mind.”

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 4:9 / 2 Ragnost, 1577
Dromund Kaas

The performance continued.

Back and forth the company danced and fought, music setting the tone. The assembled Sith began to quietly converse again, occasionally moving between groups or retrieving food and drink from the communal table in the center. One or two of the Sith were getting louder than they should, auras fuzzing at the edges. Ahene strangled her disgust, pushing it down like everything else—it didn’t matter that some of these people apparently felt secure enough to get drunk here. It didn’t matter that she had enough contempt in her head to fill a thunderstorm. She couldn’t let it keep on like this, bowling her over at random intervals, until something finally got through the cracks.

I’m better than this, she told herself, holding her body still and her face expressionless. (On Korriban, there would have been a rebuttal. She almost missed it.)

Eventually, as time dragged on, one of the Sith sidled up to the table Zash had left her standing at. He was a slim young human in fairly simple robes, pale-skinned and dark-eyed, and he threw a nervous glance towards Khem—but flashed a grin at her anyway. “Hey,” he said, voice low. His accent was impeccably Kaasi. “Mind if I join you?”

“I might,” she said, crossing her arms. “What do you need?”

The stranger laughed. “A less boring party?” he suggested. “Honestly, I was beginning to think I was the only apprentice alone here. Your master ditch you too?”

The existence of Sith parties logically gave rise to Sith small talk. This was an extremely regrettable fact, Ahene decided, especially when it was happening to her. “That’s not the word I would use to describe it,” she said, dry.

Another laugh, like she had become the funniest person in the galaxy at some point when she wasn’t looking. “No, you wouldn’t, would you?” He leaned an arm on the table, lips twisting into a sharp smile. “I’m Cotan, by the way.”

The name hit her like a jolt of electricity. “Ahene. I… knew a Cotan,” she said, trying not to think of skeleton-grins or fingers snapping in her grasp.

“Tell me about it,” he said, with a groan. “There were three in my Early History of Korriban course. I think the instructor started punishing us at random.”

Ahene wondered, through a pane of glass, if one of them had made a murderer of her. Not that he hadn’t probably deserved it, or that she wouldn’t have killed someone soon enough anyway. “I suppose,” she said, “that I did you a favor, then.”

He blinked, and then—she was getting tired of his laugh. “Really,” he breathed, leaning forwards. His free hand slipped into a fold of his over-tunic, and he came out with an empty flute glass and a small bottle. “I know Academy gossip isn’t free, but seeing as the drinks at this party are awful…”

“Have you been carrying that around all night?” asked Ahene, lifting a bemused eyebrow.

“I was planning to get drunk in some corner of our compound. Maybe a stairwell.” Cotan raised his hands in an overwrought shrug. “My master had other ideas.”

Prattling creature,” muttered Khem. “If he is Sith, then the trials have not served their purpose.

“I see,” said Ahene, ignoring Khem. She took the empty glass, which Cotan had proffered to her, and turned it in her fingers. “Who is your master, by the way? I don’t believe you’ve said.”

“Lord Adarvous. He’s wandered off to take a holocall somewhere. And you’re Zash’s, right?” Before she could object, Cotan uncorked the bottle and poured a vivid red liquid into the glass. “I’m sure she’s off snogging someone in a hallway,” he said, a faint huskiness slipping into his voice. “Having more fun than the rest of us, probably.”

Something in the back of Ahene’s mind went entirely blank. “Is that an… invitation?” she managed to ask, keeping her tone neutral.

Cotan grinned again, electricity-bright. “Do you want it to be?”

“No,” said Ahene. “Not particularly.”

That threw him off. He blinked at her, once, and then slipped the bottle back into his tunic. “Don’t—be like that,” said Cotan, with a brief glance towards the frontmost tables; someone was yelling. “Aren’t you bored? Ah, we don’t even have to hook up. Emperor’s teeth, we can talk saber forms, I am dying to talk saber forms with someone who isn’t my master.”

Ahene also slanted a look at the shouting; a tall, orange-eyed man appeared to have gotten into it with a wiry, overdressed pureblood woman. She didn’t dare take her eyes off Cotan for longer than that, though, and gave him her most forced smile. “Excuse me,” she said, “I need to go powder Khem’s makeup. Come on.”

Khem made a disgusted—or maybe amused—noise, and followed. Unfortunately, so did Cotan. “Wait!” the latter protested. “Don’t leave me alone here, I’ve seen this performance three times—”

She stalked towards the argument, determined. Surely he had enough sense not to kick up a fuss near a pair of angry Sith Lords—and some people were already edging closer, even as others began to give the pair a berth, so she hopefully wouldn’t be too out of place…

Fingers brushed her wrist.

Ahene bit down hard on her cheek (didn’t turn didn’t lash out didn’t ruin everything) and jerked her arm away, trying to quicken her pace and fuzz her aura at once. She couldn’t just disappear here, but—she could be beneath the lords’ notice, maybe. (But Khem wouldn’t be. He was a liability now—what was she doing? How could she get out of this?)

(She could have done nothing, and let the apprentice hit on her.)

But that wasn’t an option anymore. Ahene pressed down on the panic, smoothing it into a forced, fragile clarity. She changed her pace, changed her body language, moved towards the diffuse and gathering crowd like a subservient shadow. And she listened.

“—reasonable, Oroches,” someone was saying, “she isn’t going to pick a fight in the middle of this hall just to ruin your night.”

“Like the Void she isn’t!” protested the orange-eyed man.

“Like the Void I’m not,” agreed the pureblood, her voice a low and icy hiss. “I hope I ruin every night you have, Oro, you oathless fool—”

Ahene nudged Khem and gestured quickly towards the nearest exit—not the one Zash and Skotia had gone through, thank the Force. “Go,” she whispered. “Wait for me there.”

Yes, little Sith.” There was a glimmer of interest in his eyes as he moved to obey. Then his face was turned away, and she looked back to Cotan.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” the apprentice murmured, “but I’m fairly sure it’s an overreaction. Look, we’re going to attract attention, you know?”

And a few people were looking in their direction—mostly his, but still. Ahene bowed politely towards one of the curious Sith, her face arranged into a study of obedience. “I apologize,” she said, quietly, “I’m looking for my master—”

“Are you two Sith or animals?” a new voice demanded, apparently belonging to a shortish, middle-aged human. “Lord Da’at, Lord Oroches, the pair of you should know better by now—and in front of all these witnesses?”

“Ah,” Da’at said, lolling her head to the side. “I see the police have arrived. When did you get handed to Laws and Justice, Ekkero?”

“Ekkero, don’t listen to her,” said Oroches, “it’s lovely to see you. I think we can all agree that my ex-fiancée is—”

No one had the chance to agree or not, because that was when Da’at reached out, and—with an aura like ice—dumped an entire flute of sparkling gold liquid onto his robes.

The scattered crowd erupted—in chuckles, curses, attempts to hold one or the other party back. And Cotan made a terrible, terrible mistake: he took his eyes off of Ahene, just for a moment.

She stepped forwards into the shadows without missing a beat, striding towards the exit with her will set against the familiar airless panic swelling around her. It was like freefall, like walking through the Void—and as grimly satisfying now as it had been on Korriban, if not more. Her greatest skill and weapon, hers and hers alone.

She hadn’t realized a day would be long enough to miss it.

Now, with her options thus expanded, Ahene paused near the exit and considered—how would she get out of this? Staying hidden until Zash returned was theoretically possible, though it left Khem conspicuous and exposed, and there was something terribly wrong with all this; if she left him alone entirely, someone might get eaten. She really should have just let Cotan flirt…

But she hated being flirted with, she was deciding, and she loathed letting a situation go on being terribly wrong. It sat poorly with her survival instinct.

No, she wouldn’t just be hiding. Using Khem as bait was also a subpar option; only stupidity or desperation would lead someone to jump him, and she didn’t know if attempted murder was the wrongness of the night. But, as the darkness hummed around her, Cotan gave up on looking for her—and began moving towards another of the exits.

Ahene allowed herself to smile as she followed.

Cotan hurried through the halls, tailed by a shadow. He was clearly on edge, glancing around like she might strike from any direction, at any moment—but his eyes never lingered on the place Ahene really was, two or three meters back, and he never paused for long. The building was evidently designed for conferences and similar events; there were a lot of meeting rooms, speaking rooms, rooms for storing equipment. Finally he reached an apparently unmanned weapons check, where attendees at an event might have left their sidearms and uniform caps, and stuck his head through the window. “Hey! Ortosin!”

There was a faint stirring in the Force, back out of sight. “What?” said another voice. “Don’t tell me you lost her.”

“Fine,” said Cotan, irritation skittering across his skin like lightning on a wire. “I won’t tell you I lost her. Now get out here and give me a hand!”

“Oh, kriff,” muttered the voice, allegedly Ortosin. “You really did lose her. Cotan, you incompetent, what have you done? This should have been the easiest mission we’ve accomplished.” A broad human man walked into view of the window, giving Cotan a shove out of it as he went by. The door to the weapons check slid open, and he stepped out—taller than she’d realized, to the point it might have spoken to far-back pureblood heritage. “You had to bait one pitiful slave acolyte. One! What did you do to tip her off?”

“Apprentice. She’s an apprentice. And it’s not my fault—the Dashade was with her for some reason, and she wouldn’t come with me, and…”

“I said what I said,” snapped Ortosin. He raised one hand, dragging it down the side of his face, and heaved a sigh. “You tried to flirt, didn’t you? Of course you did.”

Cotan spread his hands helplessly. “And what else was I supposed to do? I didn’t hear you offering better suggestions, Orty.”

“If you call me that one single more time, I’ll dump your body with hers.” Ortosin began to pace, back and forth across the width of the hallway. “I don’t know. You could have offered her a smoke, or something. Anything except seduction, Emperor’s teeth.”

“Not everyone likes those filthy rotten-perfume things you buy,” groused Cotan. “Me, for example. I hate the damn stuff. It makes the aircar smell like the death of a Ziosti rose garden, Ortosin, no matter how many windows you open.”

“My vices are not up for discussion—”

“And mine are?”

Ahene grimaced to herself as the back-and-forth continued, stilling a shiver of panic. They were dragging on far too long and distractingly, and had told her everything useful anyway. She backed away a few steps and turned on her heel, heading off the way they’d come.

(The urge to fling herself back into existence came in waves now. This was the first, so many minutes in, and she took a bit of pride in that as she fought it down.)

It was only a few turns, easy to remember, and she’d always had a head for directions. Soon she was back at the great hall, where things had miraculously calmed enough that the aggrieved parties were ignoring each other frostily rather than throwing things. Ahene skirted the edges of the room, heading for the place she’d left Khem waiting.

He was still there, thankfully, just beyond the first turn—arms folded, eyes hungry. She lingered behind him for a few moments, a few steps back out of his reach—just to prove that she could hold onto this—and then she faded back into view. (The world became brighter, louder, more colorful.)

“Khem,” she said, quietly.

The Dashade turned, looking not at all surprised by her appearance. “Little Sith. What have you found?

“The, ah, ‘prattling creature’ wants to kill me. So does his friend, assuming they don’t kill each other first.” Ahene gestured with the still-full glass in one hand, indicating which way she’d found them. Her lips twitched; it wasn’t a smile. “Fancy a hunt?”

Always,” he rumbled.

“Good,” said Ahene, moving to take another route; it seemed like it should lead her to the right place. “Follow me. I don’t know how long we have.”

The building was laid out in a gratifyingly sensible manner—an extreme relief, after the Korriban tombs. There were very few people in the hall; a servant carrying a large instrument case went past, but didn’t do anything more than blink in terror at Khem and move faster. Ahene didn’t pause until the man was out of sight. Almost as an afterthought, she dumped the glass out into a trash can.

“Here’s the plan,” she said, softly, “such as it is. We find an unoccupied room—which should be relatively easy—and you wait there. I’ll bait them in, since they can’t exactly refuse to chase me. You take the big one; he can’t out-big you. I’ll take Apprentice Overly Friendly.” Anticipation glittered in her skull, difficult to deny, but she tried anyway. This is to remove a threat, she told herself. Not for bloodlust. I do not have bloodlust. “After all, that’s what he was hoping for, isn’t it? We’ll see if he can handle it.”

A petty task,” Khem grumbled, though he followed. “What do you reduce me to? A mere weapon, settling conflicts between apprentices—but they will give me strength, Sith child.” He loomed at her back, his hunger gnawing at her gut, and she could feel a deep and terrible amusement through it. “Your hold is tenuous enough.

She almost turned on her heel to face him. She almost snapped something; her voice was quiet and sharp in her head. Instead Ahene set her jaw and kept walking forwards, fingering the hilt on her belt, until the shadows wrapped themselves back around her.

(like a predator, stalking through the night)

She tapped her knuckles against a storage room’s button, somehow almost shocked it didn’t shake her out of her cloak—even though it made perfect sense. She touched the ground, after all. Then she spun, tugged on Khem’s cape—that almost did it, her head swimming with contact contact contact—and strode forwards without another word. Her hand shook as she drew the saber, shook as she refused to push down the button.

Ahene gritted her teeth. I am in control.

She found the apprentices loitering a bit down the hall from where they’d been, discussing their options. “…quarters Zash assigned?” Cotan was suggesting, hopeful.

“Are you a slicer, Cotan?” asked Ortosin. He crossed his arms. “I had not realized.”

“Well, no, but—look, where else are we supposed to find an invisible apprentice? Any ideas?”

Ahene bit down on a manic-edged urge to lunge at him, forcing herself to stop a few meters away. Her feet shifted into the stance Markan had so grudgingly showed her. It felt like there was a live wire in her lips; a smile jerked at the corners, forcing her to press them together. “Hello, gentlemen,” she said, letting her cloak slide away. “Looking for me?”

(Note to self, she thought: apparently dramatic entrances are habit-forming.)

The pair exchanged a glance. Ortosin stepped forwards, one hand going to his saber; Cotan stepped back, raising both hands defensively. That second reaction was the interesting one—he was probably going to start throwing lightning, when this long moment shattered. But it was Ortosin who spoke first: “Fine. Maybe my co-apprentice wasn’t so useless after all.” He looked like he was going to snap on his lightsaber, and Cotan was shaking his head like no no no, and he glanced back and—made a face. “We’re not going to get in trouble, you twit.”

“Yes we are!”

“We have permission.”

“Does our host know that?”

Ahene cleared her throat. “Should I go away and let you two settle this?”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Ortosin, advancing. She backed up a couple steps, and he grinned mirthlessly. “Darth Skotia has a message for your master, scum—and you’re going to be the messenger. Or your body is, at least.”

“Oh, yes, tell everyone,” muttered Cotan.

“Shut up, coward,” Ortosin snapped, almost absently. He finally lit his saber, slipping into his own opening stance as he did. “You, slave child—stand and fight or die running, it’s your choice.”

“Or!” said Cotan, hastily. “Or! Or you could turn. Dead or on our side, those are the options; sabotage Zash’s plans, and maybe you could have a place with our master when it’s over.” He grinned brightly, spreading his hands. “What do you say?”

“I say: interesting offer.” Ahene took another step back, eyes still fixed on the saber. “Want to make it somewhere less conspicuous?”

“No! No, let’s not,” Cotan said. “In fact—back to the hall? I think soon they’ll start the dancing…”

“Cotan, have you lost your mind?” demanded Ortosin, waving his free hand incredulously.

Cotan made a conciliatory gesture. “I think someone who came looking for us is hiding a zero-two-three up her sleeves, Orty.”

“She has her master’s new bodyguard up her sleeves, that’s all. Stop overthinking it.”

“Someone has to,” said Cotan, his voice dropping into a half-growl. “Look, hey—Ahene. Your master is… well, we all know how she is, right? You never know where you stand with her. You never know what she really wants. She’ll use you up and hang you out to dry and smile while she does it.” He stepped around his co-apprentice, towards her, and extended a hand. “I can offer you stability, if you help us out. And”—he winked—“I have to admit, I am dying for company that isn’t Ortosin.”

Ahene bared her teeth, just slightly. “Obviously,” she said. “Tell me, have you ever flirted with someone who’s allowed to say ‘no?’”

Anger flashed across his face, all out of proportion—and then he smoothed it to mere indignation. “Are you saying I’m not charming?”

Entitled little Sith brat. “I’m saying,” Ahene said, “that you are not convincing me.” Another step back, and she fanned her senses out behind her, seeking for any hint of witnesses—none yet. The pair had picked a good spot to wait. She worried, somewhat belatedly, about cameras.

Cotan scrunched up his face. “Alright then,” he finally said, with a shrug. “She’s all yours, Ortosin.”

“I expect you to help—”

But Ahene was already moving, turning and running and putting her life in the hands of her senses by doing it. (Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea—why was she doing this? Why had she thought she could handle it?) There was a flash of red behind her eyes, a movement not made yet, and she flung herself forwards before Ortosin could bisect her. Then she was up again, slipping on the floor, never quite falling. Facing him again, hilt in one hand and useless glass in the other.

“Fight me,” he commanded, like he expected her to obey. And she—

(how dare you how dare you how dare you)

—resisted the way his anger wormed into her head, pushed away his desire for war. Shoved down whatever damned part of her couldn’t remember what she was and where she stood, and vanished as she stepped back.

(falling, with nothing beneath her)

Ahene reappeared a moment later, a couple meters further towards her goal, hands trembling but feet steady, ducked and wove as he swung and—there was the lightning she’d expected, but she was just a hair faster, and she was still moving back. She just had to keep moving. Ortosin stabbed at her, swung at her, nearly took off her head in a single terrifying moment; she held fear in her head like a weapon and dodged. Again and again and again, dodging him and ducking the lightning, and then she finally found the right turn and threw herself sideways into it.

He swung again.

She could feel the heat of the saber on her face as she forced herself to shift mid-motion, slamming into the wall harder than she’d meant to. Her expression twisted. “Stay back,” she panted, allowing lightning to spark around the glass she was somehow still clinging to. “Stay back, or you’ll regret it.”

Ortosin’s lips curled up in a terribly nasty sort of smile. “No,” he said. “I think I won’t.” His saber flashed downwards.

Ahene finally ignited hers, feeling it spring into life in her mind, and caught his blade just in time. The collision was strange and horrible and fast, plasma fields tangling and then repelling each other. She stumbled backwards and—oh, Void, finally—found the right button and hammered on it so hard she thought the glass might shatter, and the door slid open behind her like an opportunity. “Khem!” she called out, ducking through it. “Little help—nngh!”

Cotan was laughing, back behind the red wall of fury that was Ortosin. Ahene hit the ground hard on one knee, trying to fight down the pain of (her shock collar had activated) him hitting her with that last bolt of lightning, the bastard. Her breathing was ragged as she parried again, as Ortosin bore down on her—and then Khem was there. He slammed the butt of his oversized sword into Ortosin’s shoulder, and the apprentice staggered away.

“Up her sleeves,” commented Cotan, snapping his fingers. “Perhaps I should be going—”

Ahene returned his earlier favor, two fingers pointing out on her saber hand, and bared her teeth as he scrambled to dodge. She shoved herself upwards, though the leg he’d hit screamed at her for it. “Don’t,” she said, in that cold faraway voice. “We’ve only—hh—just started.” Pain is a weapon

Cotan twisted around the next bolt, grinning like he thought he was sadism itself. To the side, Khem was trying to push Ortosin towards the wall, electricity field meeting saber again and again. Ahene took a step back, brushing against a large metal box, and wished fervently for a weapon with reach. Her staff was useless here.

“You talk big,” said Cotan, “but you really should have just let me run. Or taken my offer. Or, well, anything but this—” He cut himself off as she threw lightning again, sidestepping it, and then finally drew his saber. “Screw it,” he spat, and charged her.

Not the worst move on his part, because her leg hurt and she thought she could probably out-zap him, but there was no time to think about that because she had to duck down to surge forwards to win anyway

Saber hit saber. Ahene hit Cotan. They went down (this time just like last time) in a crash of momentum and instinct, blades pressed together and fighting it, each weapon pulsing like a heartbeat. (They were always going to end up on the floor.) The glass broke against the ground and she stabbed at him with it, scrabbling to draw blood like he scrabbled to get a hand on her wrist. And then there was blood, and glass in the wound and pain like a memory of pain and lightning lightning lightning and


she was not going to lose. Ahene let the broken ruined thing slip from her hand and tore her wrist away from him, shoved at him, kept his saber away from her face. Clawed for clarity in her own mind. Felt a crunch far to the side, a twisting of hunger she could not pay attention to, and somehow—somehow!—pressed Cotan down another centimeter. His desperation howled, almost as deadly as hers. She angled her body just right, teeth bared, and made a decision before she knew she was making it.

Her saber flicked off, and she stabbed down.

His weapon flailed out past her for a moment. Then the sense of heat pain fire screamed down her spine, a split-second warning, and her saber came on again against some part of his torso and he screamed, and she rolled away to the side in almost the same motion. Hunger flowed towards him, like a predator scenting blood.

The screaming stopped abruptly when Khem’s sword crashed down on his head.

The pain did not stop. Ahene made a small, horrible noise and curled in on herself, clinging to her weapon like a lifeline. She had made a lot of very bad decisions, she felt, and she wanted them to end so that she could go home.

(She did not think too hard about where “home” actually was. Not a place, maybe, but a person…)

Get up, little Sith,” said a voice. It was full of contempt. (And hunger. And—ow.) “Or I will consume you where you lie.

Everything hurt. Everything felt numb, too, which shouldn’t have been possible. Ahene groaned and pushed herself into something resembling a sitting position, leaning against the wall for support. “I’m alive,” she forced out. “Don’t eat me yet.”

Pathetic,” Khem growled, looming over her. “A Sith’s flesh should not deny them until the point of death. But your body fails you. Your mind fractures.” He bent at the waist, leaning down to examine her more closely, their bond humming with tension. “This is weakness, little Sith. And you should not have brought me here to see it.

Ahene raised her head, gaze as steady as the rest of her wasn’t. “You think you’re going to break free.”

He reached a hand towards her throat. “Yes.

She felt the bond, so tight in her chest that it could snap, and for a moment she was so tired she thought she might let it—but she clung to that fragile thread anyway, teeth bared in battered determination. “No,” she hissed, though what she meant was I haven’t died yet and I will not now, that everything she’d survived hadn’t been for nothing, that she would fight for as long as she had will to do it.

Claws brushed the sides of her neck, attached to a hand that could bring terrifying strength to bear. The force in his grip could have snapped her neck—if it had been able to close.

His fingers trembled with the effort, but they didn’t close.

“No,” she said again, as quiet as a breath.

You are a weakling,” Khem spat. “I would have killed you in my prison, if I had known what time had done to me—if I had realized that all I’d consumed had leached away. You defeated me once, with luck and circumstance; you are not my equal, little Sith, much less my master. How can you think that you can keep me bound?

“Because”—and in a sudden painful motion Ahene had a hand around one of the metal tubes attached to his chest—“I have been bound.” Her voice was as hard and sharp as a durasteel edge. “If I was going to choke on it, I would have choked. If I was going to break, I would have broken. If this was enough to kill me, we would never have met—and I don’t want to set you free quite enough to die for it. Do you understand me?”

No, little Sith. There is nothing to understand.” His hunger swirled around them both, endless and terrible. “The chains around me may have been forged from your own, but they do not have the power to hold me long. This bond will break, and when it does—I will devour you.

“By the time we are done,” she whispered, all her weight on that white-knuckled grip, “you will have fed to excess.”

We will see about that,” said Khem. “My hunger cannot be sated—and every taste brings me closer to freedom, Sith child. Remember that.

(And, for a moment, she understood—there was so much empty space in them both.)

“I don’t think I’ll forget,” Ahene said. She forced her fingers to open and slumped back against the wall, knees trembling to hold her up—but she flashed something that was almost a smile, grim and hard-edged as it was. “We have bodies to deal with,” she added. “Unless you can eat bones and clothing as well as flesh. In which case, knock yourself out, I suppose.”

Khem watched her for a long moment, then turned towards the corpses. “I am not a garbage disposal,” he said.

“Right.” Ahene clipped the hilt to her belt, then unslung her staff and leaned on it as she made her way over. “I’m going to need to move them, then. Except—I still don’t know if cameras can see me.” She frowned. “Maybe we can get one of these crates open…”

By which you mean that I can do so. Yes, little Sith.” He sighed. “I will obey, though it demeans me.

“I suppose the cameras would have seen me already,” she muttered, as he went to do it—but she was glad enough not to be dragging a corpse around anyway. Her leg still felt wrong. It didn’t quite want to take her weight, and her hands and arms tingled madly from the second hit. Idly, she prodded Cotan’s body with the tip of her staff, looking at her handiwork, wondering if she regretted it.

She was fairly sure that she didn’t. If not for the issues in cleanup, of possible retribution—she would probably have been glad to see him dead, unable to harm her or worm under her skin.

Okay, Ahene thought, maybe I do have bloodlust. Just… something to be careful with.

Grimacing, moving slowly, she bent down to pick up the corpse. Doing it one-handed was awkward-to-impossible; she grabbed him by an ankle, trying not to think about it too hard, and sort of shuffle-limped over to the open crate. “Alright, Cotan—ugh.” She was going to hate that name forever. “I swear, I had better not have to collect the set… in you go, come on.”

In the end, she had to drop the staff and ease him in with both hands, kneeling down so she didn’t stumble. Cotan came to rest on top of a multitude of packages of napkins; a few had to be pulled out to make room. She set them on top of the lid, once he was closed in, and stepped away. Took a breath. Considered the blood. Ortosin lay with his torso crushed, but Cotan’s skull, and that meant—a lot of it. How was she going to deal with that? Come to think of it—

“Khem,” she said, “how much blood is on my back right now?”

A noticeable amount, little Sith.” He sounded amused.

“Ah. Damn.” She raised a hand to comb it back through her hair, but thought better of it; at best, it would mess up the gel 2V had put in, and at worst it would get more blood in it. “Fine. If there’s no point in cleaning up the crime scene—give me that drapery you’re wearing.”

Yes. I will do that. But it is not clean either.

“I can fold it in.”

If you say so, little Sith.

Ahene took it, and tried, and—sighed in defeated frustration. “No, stupid idea, I’m drowning in this.” She handed the cape back to him, disgusted, and began to pace. “Damn, damn, damn,” she muttered. “What was I thinking? I should have risked the ambush. Now I’m… going to need Zash’s help, aren’t I?” Her expression twisted. “I suppose the punishment really will be a lesson.”

But there was nothing to help it now; waiting around here wasn’t going to do any good. She forced herself to breathe carefully—not to calm down, because then the adrenaline would fade and the pain would come back, but to consider the situation. To think instead of panic. To take full stock of her surroundings.

She turned on her heel and approached the body that hadn’t left a great bloody trail across the floor. If she thought about it objectively and unsqueamishly… he was wearing a closed red jacket, a shade that wouldn’t look out of place against the clothing Zash had given her. And he certainly wasn’t using it now. The end of her staff hit the floor with a sharp tik, and she braced herself against it as she lowered herself down. Then she laid the weapon against the wall and set about doing what needed doing.

Ahene undid the jacket carefully, trying not to touch the corpse more than she had to, and shrugged it on. It was a bit too long for her, and much too broad—but it would cover most of what needed covering. If she could find a ‘fresher, she could wash her hair…

On an impulse, she picked up the fallen lightsabers and slipped them into her new acquisition’s inner pockets. “There we go,” she muttered. “Khem—”

Do not tell me to stay behind, little Sith,” growled Khem. “Not again. I am not a tame creature. I do not sit beside the door like a waiting hound! If you wish me to follow you, child, then know that I will follow. Is even that small price too much for you?

“Any price is too much when you have nothing to pay with,” said Ahene, gesturing sharply with her free hand. “I’m an apprentice, Khem, I can’t go around doing whatever I want. I can’t wander around visibly with blood in my hair and who knows where else. If you want to follow me everywhere, you’re going to have to get a lot more… hideable.” Her voice turned very, very dry. “And I can’t say I really see that happening.”

There were those that could have done it, in what you say are ancient times.” Khem snorted derisively. “But, then, they were far greater than you.

“Are you trying to bait me?” Ahene asked, and immediately thought better of it. If it was possible—“Wonderful. Let’s try it.” She stepped towards him, still braced against her staff, and wrapped her free hand in the side of his cloak. At the look he gave her, she tilted her head in a pantomime of a shrug. “I assumed you wouldn’t want to hold hands. Now think sneaky thoughts; this is not going to be easy.”

No. But perhaps amusing.

She bit back a frustrated retort, and instead clung grimly to the feeling—to the defiance of something too insignificant to be noticed. The shadows tightened around her slowly, resistant from proximity, fighting her control. But she pushed, even so, and kept pushing. Held the bond between her teeth like a dire secret. Thought: I am small, and quiet, and irrelevant, and I will not be seen. We will not be seen. The taste of blood filled her mouth, and her head pounded like her heartbeat, and it was like trying to shove a tuk’ata into a matchbox, impossible—

But she was nothing, and there was more nothing than anything else in the universe. She just had to make it believe there was a little bit more.

Her cloaking wrapped them both, still strained to the breaking point, and Ahene turned and pulled Khem behind her into the hallway.

Each moment was an effort. Each second was a little bit more endless than the last. Making it to a ‘fresher was clearly a losing proposition, but Ahene kept going anyway, because she was stubborn and full of spite and giving up on anything wasn’t in her nature.

They found Zash at the first turn. She saw them before it broke—and then, at last, it broke.

“Apprentice!” Zash said, as Ahene’s knees buckled beneath her. She stepped forwards and caught her by one shoulder; it would almost have been better to fall. “Wherever have you been? Skotia left, oh, a quarter hour ago now.” She blinked in exaggerated realization. “And what are you wearing?”

Ahene forced herself not to tense at the touch—because she had to be a good little apprentice, because Zash’s good little apprentice would be relieved—and bowed her head as far as she dared. “My lord,” she said, quietly. “Skotia’s apprentices felt… left out. They attacked me. There was a lot of blood, so I had to, ah, improvise.” She closed her eyes. “I apologize, my lord.”

“Oh, dear. Oh, dear me. Yes, I expected as much, but—” Zash shook her head. Her grip tightened near-imperceptibly, wrapping her fingers into the too-large sleeve. “Whatever happened to get you out of the event hall, my dear apprentice? They should never have been able to get to you in the first place.”

Flinching would give away too much. Ahene instead averted her gaze as much as she dared, showing her terror as mere abashment. “I made a mistake, my lord,” she admitted, voice soft as a whisper. “One came to me, acting suspicious, refusing to leave me alone, and then the lords Oroches and Da’at…” She swallowed the disjointed recollection, and added: “The pair of apprentices were plotting to ambush me at the quarters you assigned—but I know there’s no excuse, my lord. I’m sorry.” And she waited for the you’re right, there’s no excuse, the yes, apprentice, you will be sorry, the appearance of the Sith beneath the honey-sweet shell.

It didn’t come. Zash smiled instead, terribly magnanimous, as if her control hadn’t been denied at all. “I believe I understand,” she said, with an odd little laugh. “I assume they attacked first, at least?” At Ahene’s nod, her smile broadened. “Wonderful. I’ll be able to smooth things over with Luccra, then; it was self-defense, after all, and Skotia is hardly going to take responsibility for a breach in hospitality. Especially during the Founding Days! Overzealous apprentices, he’ll say, trying to go above and beyond, currying favor—yes, it should all turn out just fine. But we do need to discuss this, apprentice. Just not in this hallway, and not with you so… disheveled.” Another chuckle, clicking her tongue at the end. “I’m afraid you’ve given poor 2V a lot more work to do, dear—though of course that’s what 2V is for. I’ll call the aircar back, hm?”

The uncertainty was almost worse. Ahene bowed her head again, willing herself to obedience. “As you say, my lord.”

“Good. Let’s go, then—really, I’d be sorry to miss the party, but it’s going to be a horrible mess anyway. They always sound so interesting, and then people just talk and talk…” Zash pulled out her comm with her free hand, fumbling to tap out a message, but her grip on Ahene’s shoulder didn’t loosen. “I’ll just tell 6Z,” she muttered, steering her towards the door, “and sort things out with Luccra over the holocomm. Maybe next time they won’t play around so much with the classics. Or, for that matter, the guest list. I swear, they’re lucky Justice didn’t have to break us up—though the night’s still young, at that.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Ahene, trying not to falter against Zash’s pace. “Ah—may I ask a question?”

“What? Oh, yes, certainly. Do go ahead.”

Is there a Lord Adarvous?”

Zash blinked at her. “Certainly not at this party,” she said, with a surprised little laugh. “I don’t think he’s left his lab in a decade. Whyever do you ask?”

“I was just wondering if they’d bothered coming up with a plausible lie, my lord.”

“Oh. Oh, my dear apprentice,” Zash said, with an undisguised grin. “They were all too happy not to, I would think, all too smug about their superior knowledge—there are many Sith, I think you’ll find, who would rather gloat over presumed advantage than play the game well.” Her smile turned venomous, finally, suddenly. “And that, apprentice, is why we’re going to win.”

Outside the convention hall, outside the quarter of the city chosen as the day’s Gold Court, people were beginning to return home. Citizens trailed back from the street celebrations in ones and twos and small groups, drunk troopers waving companionably to their patrolling counterparts. Class-threes and occasional class-twos hurried back ahead of the curfews set for them, their hours of faux freedom quickly slipping away. And probes drifted through the air, along the streets, putting the Empire’s eye on everything. Intelligence didn’t take the night off.

As the evening’s celebrations wound down, with the late night’s yet to truly start, a factotum droid hastened through the upper streets, panicking. It was a sort of building low-grade panic, the kind 2V-R8 really prided itself on; Sith seemed to feel a reaction like that increased efficiency, and it was certainly not about to contradict them. Especially when Lord Zash [currently designated: owner, master, she on whose sufferance factotum unit 2V-R8-7736’s existence depends] had seemed so pleased with it so far. True, it couldn’t remember most of its time serving her—and that might have been concerning if 2V-R8 hadn’t already devoted every cycle it could to worrying about other things—but she had seemed pleased so far.

But that, 2V-R8 was uncomfortably aware, could easily change. Sith were notoriously capricious.

[Message received - DU-6Z-332: designation Lord Zash has updated orders slash flight path, update attached, response priority medium high]

2V-R8 considered the new orders. This required a fraction of a second. Composing a response required slightly longer. [Message outgoing - recipient DU-6Z-332: Orders received and understood. Factotum unit 2V-R8-7736 will carry them out high priority immediately, trust it!]

An acknowledgement ping returned, but no further messages appeared in 2V-R8’s internal inbox. It stood where it was for a few more moments, allowing for communication from organics on the other end, with further null result; satisfied no further information would be immediately forthcoming, it shifted the box under its arm and plotted a new route.

Really, it decided, it was a terrible shame that it would first meet Lord Zash’s new apprentice at a medical station.

Ahene sat on the edge of the examination table, head tipped back, eyes closed, hands lying loosely in her lap. A droid had been in and out, wrapping her arms in bandages spread with some sort of medical gunk; the furious itching probably meant it was working. Zash was elsewhere, allegedly speaking to Luccra over the comm. Khem—looked out of place in the examination room, lurk-sulking near the door.

He wasn’t trying to fill the silence, though. He at least had that going for him.

Are you proud of me, Sirue? That’s two more down… No, that thought wasn’t going anywhere good. Ahene pushed it down, under all the numb exhaustion, and tried to focus on something else. On the fact that soon the med droid would come back and wrap her leg up too, maybe, and finally bring her some vakking relief—even if it itched like hell. On the fact that Zash had helped her, and she needed to figure out what to do with that. Zash held power over her, but didn’t use it sadistically; Zash oozed possessiveness one moment and spoke to her like a friend the next. It left her without ground to stand on. It left some part of her wondering if, maybe, that was just the only sort of kindness Zash knew.

And Ahene throttled that part of herself ruthlessly, because she knew what a collar looked like when she saw one.

Powerful people didn’t care, she reminded herself; if they cared, they wouldn’t be powerful. Even if Zash truly thought possessiveness was kindness—which was terribly, terribly unlikely—it was a ‘kindness’ she would abandon the moment it suited her. That was obvious. That was how the galaxy worked. That was how the galaxy would always work, at least within the Empire’s bounds. The Empire demanded it, taking and taking and poisoning everything and everyone it touched, from the Sith to the Service to every class-three hoping for citizenship, and the moment you forgot that was the moment it became terminal.

And I’m poisoned too, of course, Ahene thought, wry and tired, but maybe not too badly yet…

There was a click as the door opened, shaking her out of that black-edged spiral, and the med droid entered with the wrapping for her leg. She gave it what she hoped was an encouraging look and held her leg out, wiggling the toes. “Here, I’m ready,” she said. “Will I be able to walk on it?”

The medical droid managed to emote disapproval without the ability to change its expression or make more than a minute shift in its body language, which was really quite impressive. “It is medically inadvisable, sir, but Sith do often evidence such capabilities. Lord Zash tells me you will likely be healed in a few hours, despite my database’s guidelines on the matter.”

And she had been healing faster, hadn’t she? Ahene felt vaguely discomfited by the confirmation, even if it was drastically useful, even if she’d all but known already. “I’ll try not to push it too far,” she promised, wincing as the droid tightened the wrapping. “Thank you.”

“Are you thanking the droids, my apprentice?” said another voice, honey-sweetness curling into Ahene’s mind in advance of Zash’s entrance. The Sith Lord was smiling, as usual, with a fondness that Ahene could only think of as hungry. “Delightful. It does always fluster them so.” Zash wandered over to the examination table, nodding to the medical droid as she did. “How are you feeling, apprentice? I’m informed the damage was mostly superficial—by the time you arrived here, at least, I’m sure it might have been worse at the time—but I do want to be sure you’re in a condition to train, and to fight if it comes to that. I would hate to have to put our work on hold.”

“I’m fine, my lord,” Ahene lied, dipping her head respectfully. “Battered, but fine.”

“Excellent. Marvelous.” Zash reached out and put a hand on Ahene’s good knee, fingers resting there gently. “In that case,” she said, “I can debrief you as the droid finishes up. I do hope that’s alright, ah, what was your… medical unit?”

“N-34562, my lord,” said the droid. “Your presence should not impede functioning.”

“Wonderful. Ahene, my dear apprentice, I must ask you again: what happened in there?” Zash’s expression became a mask of concern. “I know you wouldn’t disobey my orders without a reason—no, don’t look like I’m about to punish you, this isn’t that kind of debriefing. I only want to know.”

“My lord. I… I told you the truth, earlier. I made a mistake. They were planning to kill me, and I thought it would be better to fight them there than to let them ambush me later. They were going to try my assigned quarters, if they could.” Ahene grimaced faintly. “They would have kept trying, until I was dead or they were.”

“You could have waited, mentioned it to me—oh. Oh, yes, I see. No, apprentice, you didn’t make a mistake.” Zash’s hand came up, not quite touching Ahene’s cheek, and her smile turned a little bit crooked. “I did. I assumed… but that would have been right and proper, on Korriban. To think society gives no protection, that one’s enemies must always win or die. That they’re all as desperate as you believe yourself to be.” She shook her head. “But a pair of apprentices would, I think, have been sorely out of luck breaking into a residential building filled with young Sith and officers, and you are not so alone as you think. I don’t bite, apprentice, and you’re too imaginative to come to me frivolously; if the situation changes, it is perfectly permissible to keep me apprised.”

Ahene felt like she was choking on cloying sweetness. “That’s… very gracious of you, my lord. Thank you.”

“Yes, yes, of course—really, it’s best for both of us to have a good working relationship, you don’t need to look at me like a battered hound.” Zash chuckled quietly, waving a hand. “And I suppose this is as good a time as any for your first lesson, hm? Perhaps not the one I had planned to give you, but a lesson nonetheless.”

The droid finished its careful work and stepped away, bowing but not daring to interrupt, and Zash waved it out the door. Ahene was kind of glad that her arms had been wrapped first; it kept her from scratching. “What lesson, my lord?” she asked, quietly, desperate to put the itching out of her head.

“In healing,” said Zash, pronouncing the word with a weight that fishhooked the ear. Her eyes glittered. “No, not the way your little friend did it, not that particular talent—but the kind we all do. I’m sure you’ve noticed that, hm? That your wounds fade faster now, that you can recover from injuries in hours that should have left you sore for days. That your flesh follows the lead of your will, not the other way around.”

“It’s… hard to miss,” admitted Ahene. She should have been grateful for it, and on some level she was—it had undoubtedly saved her life several times over. But it was another way that she was better, now, than she’d been; more endurant, more graceful, stronger and faster and able to ignore her limits, and it scared the hell out of her not to know her own body. Without understanding her capabilities, how was she supposed to understand her weaknesses? (Without understanding her weaknesses, how was she supposed to remember they existed?)

Just slowly enough for her to stop herself from flinching, Zash leaned forwards and pressed a thumb against Ahene’s throat. “It stems,” said Zash, “from the flow of the Force through your body—which is why most alchemists are also healers of the stronger type, but that has little bearing on what you need to know.” The thumb skimmed a line down Ahene’s chest, pausing at the join of her ribs, and then was pulled away.

Zash quirked another smile as she stepped back, rubbing her thumb against her gloved palm. “That line there, apprentice, that’s what you need to feel; the place where your heart pounds in your throat, drawing blood and power up from your chest. Hold that feeling as I explain, yes? Good. As a Force user, life flows in you more strongly than most, and you bend it instinctively to your will. But instinct does not need to be enough. Should not be enough, my dear student, because contentment and incuriosity are your enemies. Do you understand?”

Ahene closed her eyes, and found she was imagining her bloodstream as a red raw cord behind them—and reminded herself that it was hers. “Yes, my lord,” she said, quietly.

“Excellent. Excellent. Now,” said Zash, “I will warn you—doing it this way will make you ravenous and exhausted, and you should only ever do it in a safe place, and never for a truly debilitating wound. But it’s the only place to start, unless you have a particular talent for its refinements.” Yet another laugh, as soft as all the rest. “What you’ll be doing is drawing on your own power to heal yourself, consuming the energy it would take on its own—which is why you can’t do it with major wounds, by the way, until you’ve learned to take in energy at the same time—but all at once, and mostly from the ‘extra’ all Force users have. Still with me, apprentice?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Excellent! Now take this hand”—and Zash did, lifting Ahene’s right arm at the wrist—“and consider it. Feel the form it has, and the form it should have, and the slow trickle of energy bleeding to it from your core. Understand the way it diverts that energy. And then, when you’re ready… push a bit more through. I’ll watch, and if you try to push through too much, I’ll intervene. But I really, truly don’t expect that to be a problem.”

Ahene let out a breathy sound that wasn’t quite a laugh, wasn’t quite relieved, wasn’t quite a lot of things. “My lord,” she said, and reached her thoughts down into that crimson web.

Thump… Thump… Thump…

Her heart beat in its bone cage, keeping perfect time. But it wasn’t the core of her body anymore, and she thought it almost knew that. Now it was her will that most kept her alive, against all laws of nature, and it wound through her bloodstream like a thrumming vine. Maybe she was Zash’s, owned in every legal sense but the terminology, but her body was more her own than it had ever been, and Ahene could feel it working. It wanted to heal itself. It wanted that because it wanted to live, and she happened to agree very strongly with it.

She only wanted it to hurry up.

There was a tap of lightning in the back of her skull, tucked away with every secret thought she’d held, a weapon in her hands and veins. But the tap went further than that. There was more to the Force than the shadows she hid in, than the live-wire energy that begged her to wield it, than the senses that stained the galaxy in color and metaphor. There was—the Force. A raw power that was not its applications, but that ran through her all the same, giving life, being life…

Ahene had never touched it quite so deliberately before. Her instincts had guided her, desperation giving form to her will, letting her bypass the shaping. She had been scared to go deeper than that.

She had been right to be.

It wasn’t like calling on Korriban. It wasn’t like calling on herself. It was something better—something worse—something glorious and terrible, like she had expected a power cell and gotten the heart of a star. The thing on the other side of her connection was the universe itself, and she had grabbed her end of it like a burning brand, but she had never thought to change the flow. Now she had to. Now she wanted to. But first she had to figure out which part belonged to her, because the answer wasn’t all of it, no matter how much she ached for it to be.

Focus, Ahene thought. Just focus. She pulled herself back, with a great effort, from the bare intensity of it. She swallowed the strange hollow hunger that took its place. She realigned herself, refused to follow the connection out, dragged herself along the sharp edge of it instead. Here was the place the power entered her; here, in the dead center of her chest, was the place it all flowed through. And there, splayed along the lightning burns, was the faint drain of almost-natural healing…

Her thoughts skimmed the surface of the flow, tracing it like a finger on a map. There.

She coaxed the energy out from her chest, and with some difficulty managed to remember to be careful about it. Her skin and nerves and muscles received it with gratitude. The drain was noticeable but endurable; some instinct told her she had a good bit more to give. She did not use that as an excuse to push her luck. Let’s see, what’s most important…? The muscles, probably. Ahene charted her bloodstream down to her fingers, restoring function without worrying too much about pain, one hand after the other. She was breathing hard by the time she was done, physical exhaustion setting in to replace the emotional numbness of the adrenaline crash.

“Keep going, apprentice,” murmured Zash’s voice. “You’re almost done—I can feel it.”

Ahene nodded, unable to spare the focus to speak. And she did keep going, though her leg was harder; her concentration was shakier, now, her reserves more drained. It hadn’t quite come naturally at the start, and even less so as she continued. The urge to brute-force it was nagging at her, needing to be ignored, needing to be shoved down, and—eventually her focus broke. Her eyes opened, blinking at the light. And if her leg wasn’t entirely repaired, it was better than it had been, and her body could damn well do the rest itself.

Zash was smiling at her, aura glittering with faint amusement and faint satisfaction. “Not bad,” she said. “Not perfect, no, but not bad. How do you feel?”

Like I’ve learned something about myself. Something I don’t think I wanted to know. “Tired, my lord. And hungry.”

“Yes. Yes, I expected that. Don’t worry, I’ve ordered 2V to pick up dinner for both of us on its way here; eating at the party is, after all, no longer an option.” Zash stepped back from the examination table, making another dismissive little wave of her hand. “And 6Z should be ready to pick us all up, by then, but in the meantime—I needed you in fighting condition for tomorrow for a very good reason, I’m afraid, and there’s no reason not to brief you now, hm?”

“As you say, my lord.” Ahene pushed herself off the exam table, slipping her foot back into her boot as she did. The muscles twinged painfully, but held her. “What do you need me to do?”

“Well,” said Zash. “Out in the jungle, quite a ways from the city proper, there’s an enormous unfinished monument…”

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 4:9 / 2 Ragnost, 1577
Dromund Kaas

Ahene wasn’t sure exactly what she’d expected—perhaps to be dismissed with her portion of the food 2V had brought, because that would almost have made sense—but being brought to a private-public park in a Sith-only district had not been on the list. It was a dark, wet, well-groomed place, a hexagon of green grass and carefully-arranged trees, hanging vines looped like curtains along the stonework paths. In the center was a pavilion of pale wood and black metal, with tables and chairs arrayed beneath the roof.

Zash led her over to one of the tables, next to where 2V was undoing the ties holding the boxes closed, and gestured towards the opposite chair as she sat down. “Go on, apprentice. How is your leg now?”

Ahene lowered herself onto the edge of the chair, wishing—a lot of things. That she was somewhere else, that 2V and Khem weren’t here, that at the very least Zash would stop the constant low-level probing at her shields. “Functional, my lord,” she said, dipping her head, and remembered to try to smile. “It still hurts, but that’s just a reminder not to get hit.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose it is.” Zash laughed. “I commend your priorities, my dear apprentice—I doubt I need to tell you how many beginners overexert themselves trying to stop all the pain. But pain is a warning, and a lesson, and a source of power that many don’t have the discipline to use.” Her smile turned a little bit wry, and she waved a hand. “Of course, sometimes it’s actually inconvenient, too. The trick is knowing which is when.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Ahene, carefully not looking over at 2V. Another smell was cutting through the general scent of wetness, sharp and savory and nauseatingly enticing. She didn’t want to want something Zash gave her, not now and not ever—not when she knew that it was an attempt to lure her in like a feral dog.

Unfortunately, 2V came into view anyway, a disposable wooden tray in each hand. It set down Zash’s first, the utensils—also wooden—already arrayed beside the meal. (And if Zash had been the only one eating, that would almost have been better; Ahene knew how to hold that envy.) But it served Ahene too, letting her have a tray and a meal and a set of utensils that practically itched to be used on somebody’s eye. (It was hard not to see everything as a weapon, right now.)

The meal on both trays was identical. In a gently curved plate—or very shallow bowl—lay strips of probably-fish over fine-grained rice, covered in a translucent orange-gold sauce and sprinkled with unknown spices. Beside the bowls were cups, filled with a dark, sweet-smelling drink that she truly hoped wasn’t alcoholic. If Zash wanted to get her tipsy, there wasn’t much she could do, but the idea of having her wits yanked away like that still terrified her. Her wits were all Ahene had going for her.

“That will do, 2V,” said Zash, flashing a winning smile at it. “Cease all memory recordings for the next hour. And stand off to the side, would you? My apprentice and I need to have a chat.” It went to stand at the opposite edge from where Khem lurked, and her smile broadened. “Wonderful.”

Ahene’s eyes lingered on Khem’s for a moment, exchanging what might have been a glance. “My lord,” she said, “do you need me to send away…?”

“No. No, I think not.” Zash glanced towards him, and for a fraction of a second her smile turned distinctly appraising. Someone less used to watching superiors might not have noticed the flicker of expression at all. “He’s hardly going to talk, I think—even if he found someone to listen, that magnificent bond would prevent it. Such a fascinating natural Force quirk!” She spread her hands. “If you ever doubt that I would teach you well, my dear apprentice, then at least know you are my only window into that; into the subjective mechanics of it, the pieces one has to feel to understand. We will make such a study of it, after we’ve found what I’m searching for…”

An image flashed through Ahene’s mind, of a Sith who could bind anyone they defeated in combat. Of Zash weaving that power with her as an instrument, then pulling the thread out the way Kelshrin dragged out thoughts—of dying as a crucible. She forced herself to smile instead of shuddering. “It sounds fascinating, my lord,” she said, and pushed down the sheer relief of having found an angle. You don’t know if it’s true. “I admit that I’m curious about—a lot of things. About the way this can all work.” She took a breath, hoping it looked like normal nervousness, and added: “I’ve always liked knowing how things work, my lord. It’s just been a long time since anyone thought I was worth an explanation.”

Zash’s ever-present smile broadened, sly and warm at once. “And curious you should be, dear apprentice,” she said. Her aura smoked and curled across the table, taking Ahene’s hands without moving a muscle. “Knowledge is power. We know that far better than anyone—oh, the other spheres call us librarians and laboratory recluses, Mysteries calls us reckless tomb-botherers, but we understand the strength of curiosity. Though, I admit, your bond with the Dashade is a bit of an advanced subject yet.” She cleared her throat in plainly feigned embarrassment, and the effect broke. “No, we will have to start at the beginning, however marvelously you’ve done so far. Your use of the Force has been mostly spontaneous, the glorious efforts only possible before you learn what a handicap not knowing can be—but you will need that lesson, to learn anything outside your true affinities. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord,” Ahene breathed. And she would never, ever fully trust anything Zash gave her, but she wasn’t lying when she said she wanted to learn. She could sort tool from trap on her own time.

“Excellent. We will need the distraction of the Founding Days far too much to begin immediately, of course.” Zash made a diffidently apologetic gesture, waving a hand. “But around that and after that,” she said, “we will build your foundation. Meditation first, I think, yes—your shields are good, apprentice, but they couldn’t hide the way your heart rate spiked when you reached out into the Force’s current. But the first taste, in this one case, is not the best. Someday, you will be able to immerse yourself entirely in it, and not lose yourself into it in the process, and you’ll at last understand what it truly means to be Sith… ah, but I’m getting off track. Permission to eat granted, by the way, as I’m certainly not going to stop talking soon.”

“Thank you, my lord,” said Ahene, bowing her head respectfully. Her hands didn’t want to move, despite the grim and pressing knowledge that you do not ignore the lord’s generosity. It felt like a trap. (It felt like it had to be a trap, for the universe to keep making sense.)

She reached for her utensils anyway, and knew—knew—that it would taste of nothing but honey on her tongue.

Zash watched her for a moment, still smiling; always smiling. It might have been a poisoner’s smile, but Ahene refused to think of it that way and make an opening—her mind wasn’t that easy to slip into. (She wouldn’t let it be.) Then Zash picked up her own cup and took a small sip, so deliberately that it had to be an unreadable message. Her dark eyes seemed to glitter in the dim, pale light. “What was I saying?” she murmured. “Oh, yes—meditation first. I will show you how to explore your connection to the Force, but also how to stoke your connection to yourself. The things you feel must drive you, apprentice, and you must drive them too, until there is no difference between you and your will. Until you are as absolutely yourself as you can be.”

Ahene realized, in a place far behind her shields, that the hypnotizing cast in Zash’s voice and gaze was the lord’s aura bearing down. Not as unsubtly as it had in Harkun’s office, and if it was even deliberate, she couldn’t tell—but it was more than natural charisma. She swallowed, still tasting nothing (only honey, worse than venom), and let Zash hold her stare. “I understand,” she whispered, “my lord.” She tried to look at least a little transfixed.

“No. No, I don’t think you do, yet. But, oh, apprentice—you will.” Zash breathed the last word more than she spoke it, her voice commandingly soft. Her aura swirled around her, a pyrite glitter on the wind. “Every experience is a tool,” she said, “including this one. Especially this one.” She clasped her hands loosely on the table. Her smile didn’t falter. “I expect this is the first real meal you’ve eaten—we’re hardly counting that little error at the party—in a very long time. Consider how you feel about that, my apprentice. Even if it’s anger, even if it’s shame. You don’t even need to tell me. Just feel.”

It was difficult not to flinch. Instead, Ahene went still—too still, she knew, and her expression too fixed. But if she obeyed that order, it felt like something inside her would crack apart; oh, it was anger and shame, but it was also something larger and deeper and far harder to contain. Feeling it in her core would cost too much. All she could do was watch it from the edges, holding it back with her will and her fingers alone, and hope.

Anger was too weak a word. She couldn’t sit here and be faced with the unsubtle benefits of being Sith—the unsubtle benefits of being not a slave—and want anything but to see this place die. Anger was too weak a word; what she felt was rampant contempt, a suppressed pyromaniac urge, a bloody-minded defiance.

Better not to touch it.

Zash laughed softly into the silence, the intensity of her aura fading back into a quiet glimmer. “You see?” she said. “Watch the present moment, apprentice. Always, always be watching it, and experiencing it, and burning it into your mind. The more you practice that, the easier it will be to call up what you need.”

The concept did not appeal. Not in any way that Ahene wanted to listen to, at least. “Yes, my lord,” she whispered, bowing her head. But what she thought was: There’s a way to stay on top of this. To call on what I need without having to soak myself in it. She wasn’t certain how to forge that into something stable, yet, but she refused to believe that there wasn’t a way. She would make it herself, if she had to.

She’d promised herself that already, on Korriban. Now she would need to do the work, deep under the surface of her skin, and find a way to make it look like the work Zash expected. Now she would keep being tested.

Zash paused again, this time to take a bite of her food. Her eyes still flicked back to Ahene almost immediately—intent, observing. It was the sort of look that seemed to peel you bare, that made you feel like you had no secrets; if that was true, though, Zash was putting much more effort into hiding it than Kelshrin ever would have, and had a way of making the intrusion feel like nothing at all. Rationally, she had probably just practiced it, and her trick of seeing through the cloak was something else entirely.

Besides, there would be no point in playing that level of mind game. Zash had all the cards, all the power, and no reason not to use whatever she knew.

Another moment passed. Zash took another bite, and swallowed, and began to smile again. “I’m afraid the less urgent lessons will have to wait, however,” she said, “until Skotia has been removed. Then I will teach you the art of Force persuasion, my dear apprentice, and the attunement of crystals, and… oh, so many things. But we will have little time before that. He’s already tried to have you murdered once, after all—we must focus on the skills that will keep you alive through this.”

Ahene held back the gnaw of hunger, the sense of envy at Zash’s ability to enjoy the meal, and tilted her head minutely. “How soon are you planning to kill him, my lord?”

“Apprentice!” Zash laughed, looking mock-scandalized. “What a transparent question! Really, now, we’re going to have to work on that.” She clicked her tongue. “I won’t take offense, of course, but I’m afraid most people rather would. To answer, though—I’m not, apprentice. Everyone would be quite sure it was me; there’s simply no way I could get away with it.”

Ahene did not protest that Zash had asked her—no, ordered her, because there was no such thing as a request from someone who owned you in all but name—to trust her that way. It wouldn’t help, even if the rebuke stung. (Stung more than it should have. Didn’t she know better?) Instead, she just attempted to look properly sheepish. “I’m not sure I understand,” she admitted. “If you’re not going to kill him, my lord, who is?”

“Why, my dear apprentice.” Zash’s smile broadened, as sharp as the edge of a knife. “You are, of course.”


Ahene felt her mind try to blank out, grasping for purchase in a smooth white terror. Not here, she thought desperately. Not now. Her hands tightened. “My lord…?”

“It’s considered bad form to kill your superiors too brazenly,” said Zash, waving a hand blithely. “It makes the Dark Council nervous. Even if Darth Arctis has gone rather in absentia, he would hardly let that pass. But it would take far too long to lure Skotia into some hidden mistake, when he has such powerful friends—make no mistake, our Lord Councilor’s days are numbered now—and I’m afraid we don’t have that kind of time.” She turned the cup in her hands, and a purring smoothness crept into her voice. “But no one will ever believe that you, my dear apprentice, could kill a Dark Lord. You are, after all, only just off Korriban, and a former slave at that, and Skotia is—however much I hate to compliment an enemy—a master of the dark side. Who would dare say such a thing was possible? Who would dare believe it? The mere implication would be regarded as slander on his memory, and not even believable slander at that; between that and your particular talent, you surely won’t be caught. It will be the perfect crime, apprentice—committed by someone who couldn’t possibly have done it, and its chief suspect in possession of a durasteel alibi.”

“I’ll do whatever you ask,” Ahene said, quietly, knowing there was nothing else she could do. “But I don’t know how I can. I’m not an assassin. I never killed anyone before Korriban. You said stealing the tablet would neutralize his guards, but—” A thought sparked in her mind, and she grasped at it like a lifeline. “Do you want me to smuggle in a bomb, my lord?”

“No, apprentice. You might get caught in the blast, and then where would I be? Besides, it must look like he was killed with Force and saber—that’s the only way to ensure our audacity hides us.” Zash spread her hands broadly. “But it was a good thought,” she said. “It shows a willingness to think outside the box. To find other weapons than the Force, when needed. Yes, a very good thought, and on the right track—though I’m afraid I can’t reveal my plan just yet.” Her smile twitched at one corner. “Just trust me, apprentice, for a little while longer. Until I can be sure that your shields will hold against someone like Skotia. His attempts would not be nearly so gentle as mine.”

Ahene remembered Kelshrin dragging his fingers through her mind, remembered Spindrall wrapping his will around her, and wondered what it would feel like when Zash tried. With panic itching at the edges of her mind, she couldn’t guess whether she’d be allowed to turn the intrusion back. She was surprised to find that she didn’t quite care; either Zash would hurt her until she opened her mind, or she wouldn’t, and until that moment Ahene would swear up and down that she couldn’t let anyone in. That she didn’t know how. “Of course, my lord,” she said, again dipping her head. “I just don’t want to be—a disappointment. Or dead. They’re the same thing, aren’t they?”

The attempt at humor was weak and forced, but Zash chuckled anyway. “You will be neither, I’m certain,” she said. “I did not choose so carelessly as that.”

“Thank you,” said Ahene, voice still quiet. She twisted her hands into the new, clean tunic 2V had brought to the medical station.

“Do you feel uncomfortable eating in front of me, apprentice?”

Ahene couldn’t stop herself from flinching. “No, my lord,” she lied.

“I could dismiss you for the night, you know. It is getting rather late.”

It was. The evening felt like it had come on early, after Korriban’s twenty-eight-hour cycle, but Ahene felt horribly tired. “That’s not necessary, my lord.”


Ahene looked up.

“I don’t want to do this dance with you,” said Zash, somehow both soothing and rebuking. “I ask you something, you tell me what you think I want to hear—no. Perhaps that’s how the game is played, but I have never followed a rule that doesn’t serve me, and neither should you.” She clicked her tongue. “And I truly hope you don’t think so little of me as that, apprentice, as to think this is serving you.”

There were very good reasons that the game was played that way, and Ahene knew them to the wordless centers of her bones. A master was a master, whether you were a slave or a Sith, and owned whatever loyalty your body could give them. But Zash wanted more than that. Zash wanted to win her over, and so she had no choice but to be won. Zash wanted to own her soul. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her hands were shaking, where she had hidden them, and she couldn’t make herself wish it was with fear. “Kelshrin was… not a good master to serve, my lord. I suppose his people took it out on us.” Please believe that’s all.

Zash tipped her head, considering this. “Yes,” she said after a moment, “I suppose they would.” She raised a hand, twitching her fingers in a particular gesture. “You’re dismissed, apprentice. Do take the food with you—2V will guide you to your assigned quarters. And, apprentice?”

“My lord.”

Zash’s smile returned, small and thoughtful and a little bit lopsided. “Do think about what I said. I desire your assistance, not your… humiliation.”

“I will, my lord,” said Ahene, with as much quiet gratitude as she could fake. “Thank you.”

“Good. If I ever need to punish you, apprentice—and you surely don’t seem inclined to force my hand—I swear that I’ll tell you. I don’t need you to do it to yourself.” Zash shook her head, looking somewhere between sympathetic and sad, and turned to look at the factotum droid. “2V!” she said. “Come over here, would you—yes, there’s a dear. Do take my apprentice and her food to the lodgings I acquired for her. Call a taxi if you must; I don’t know if she should be walking on that leg, and I certainly don’t want anyone trying to ambush her in the streets.”

“Yes, my lord! At once!” 2V collected the tray into its hands, head turning audibly to glance between them. “If you would follow me, sir?”

Ahene bowed towards Zash as she stood. “My lord,” she said again, and at another wave of Zash’s hand, she followed 2V. Khem slipped into step behind her without needing to be asked, the droid leading a silent train out into the rain-drenched night.

Say the word,” murmured Khem, “and I will devour her.

“No,” Ahene said, not looking back. Not yet.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 5:9 / 3 Ragnost, 1577
Dromund Kaas

The statue rose up high above the treeline, implying that some very interesting things had been done with lightning rods. It was just the internal structure in a lot of places, with none of the durasteel plating on top that made it a statue and not just an abandoned framework, but the grinning pureblood depicted didn’t seem to mind. He eyed the city speculatively, wearing an expression that was at once sly and manic, looking up from an unfinished squarish object held at chest level. Inside the chest in question, a makeshift sniper’s nest sat watching the Imperial camp’s lines.

The full picture was decidedly surreal. Ahene stared up at it for a few moments, feeling vaguely haunted. So this is what you were working on, Kory? I can’t blame you for rebelling, but I have to think I’m looking at a last stand…

She shook her head, just slightly, and turned back to Khem with her lips pressed together. “Well,” she murmured, “I have a plan. But you’re not going to like it.”

His eyes gleamed with something she was starting to recognize as rage. “You will not leave me behind again, little Sith.

“No, I won’t. But you’re going to need to stay out of sight.” Ahene tapped her fingers together, throwing a glance in the direction of the rebels’ unseen camp. “Skirt the edges. Evaluate their defenses—without attacking the camp, I mean. We don’t want to be caught alone in there.”

Better to break the rebels before us… but I suppose that is beyond you, little Sith. Yes. And what do you intend to do?

She hefted her backpack, not quite allowing herself to smile. “I’m going to talk to my comrades.”

It was simple enough to commandeer one of the Imperial tents; the soldiers playing cards inside weren’t particularly inclined to argue with a Sith apprentice and a two-and-a-half-meter-tall brick wall of an alien. (Ahene found it somewhat disturbing how easy it was to get them to clear out, really, but she also didn’t want to change in the middle of the jungle. Especially in front of Khem.) Privacy thus secured, Ahene wriggled out of the clothes Zash had given her—actually one of three identical versions of the outfit—and reached into the backpack for what she actually needed: the tunic and pants she’d arrived on Korriban wearing.

They were a bit worse for the wear after the first tomb and several days stashed in a crack in some wall, and at the same time far too clean—2V’s fault, but something that could be fixed. Carefully, feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, Ahene pulled the tunic on, rolling up the worn sleeves to cool her forearms and expose her brand. It felt almost like being naked, like the moment she walked out there they’d realize she’d never been Sith at all…

If worst came to worst, of course, she could still shock somebody. But that was a terrible habit to start.

Ahene adjusted the pants, noting how poor a fit they were compared to her new clothes, and smiled thinly. At least this was someone she knew how to be. Someone with no power except desperation, who would never have to kill for anything but survival.

She reached up a hand and mussed her hair, privately quite glad 2V hadn’t showed up to try more gel and makeup on her; it would have been annoying to get it all off. Then she slipped her boots back on, stuffed her Sith clothes into the backpack, and stepped back outside with staff in hand. “I’m done,” she said, nodding to the waiting soldiers. “You can get back to it.”

This was met with nervous confusion. “…Yes, my lord?” one of them ventured, turning her helmet in her hands.

“Terribly sorry for the trouble,” said Ahene, not glancing back. “Khem! How do I look?”

The Dashade, standing by a prefab wall with his arms crossed, turned towards her. “Like an indignity walking, little Sith.

“Fantastic,” she said. She snapped her fingers. “Now I just need to get some mud on me.”

And thus make a mockery of us both,” rumbled Khem, sounding more resigned than anything else. “But I must accept my fate, and laugh at it. For now.

The expression she slanted him was something like a smile. “Better this than decadent and glittery,” she said softly, “isn’t it?”

Either is unbecoming of a Sith. But you more easily discard your dignity.

“Dignity is the wrong weapon here,” said Ahene, moving towards an exit. Then, unable to resist, she added: “And you wear a loincloth all day, in case you missed that.”

Khem made a noise of almost-amusement as he followed. “I am not Sith, little one.

Getting into the camp wasn’t the hard part. They had patrols, they had walls—good walls, even, because they had made their stand out here with a whole lot of construction supplies—but they didn’t have cameras or any droids except the large loader units. (And it was still unclear to Ahene whether or not cameras could see her.) They were set up to hold out under siege, for now, not keep out one single invisible apprentice. Especially not one who would look like she belonged there, when she allowed the cloak to drop.

(For now, though, Ahene was nobody surrounded by nobodies, a shadow in the shadow of the statue. And she observed.)

The sky drizzled insistently as Ahene made her way through the sprawling camp, gaze darting back and forth in an effort to take in everything. It was a tense, grim sort of place, none of the rebels milling about very much or stopping very long. The guards posted near the exits seemed like they had been on duty for a while, having settled into a sort of exhausted watchfulness. There were plenty of places to dip out of their sight, though, and she took mental note of as many of them as possible.

She paused near the center of the camp for a few moments, just in case the people gnawing on ration bars there were discussing anything useful—which they weren’t, unless you wanted to dwell too much on burial rights—and then moved on. At the end nearer the statue were a lot of big tents; Ahene was hoping one of them would be serving as a planning center, and furthermore that she could figure out which before she had to let her cloak slip.

Architectural plans, she thought, clambering carefully over a railing. If I was running a rebellion, I’d keep those wherever I was doing it—wouldn’t I?

The familiar panic was setting in, rising up from whatever instincts warned people away from cliffsides and made you fight the current when you were drowning. Ahene did her best to ignore it, sucking too-humid air in between her teeth, as she slipped around the side of one of the larger tents. It was difficult to sense anything like this, but if she reached out very, very carefully…

Many people, quiet-minded. A sleeping tent. Ahene sank into a crouch, biting her tongue to stop a strained little noise from escaping her throat. Her focus buckled and hummed, almost snapping, only almost snapping, and she stayed there and put her hands over her head and thought very hard about silence. About stillness. About being unseen.

(And the thought crept into her head, that if Kory had been with her, she could have just walked in…)

After a few moments, she shakily raised her head and snuck away again, towards one of those out-of-sight spaces she’d noted. With closed tents, doing this completely hidden wasn’t an option. Slowly, carefully, she made her way behind one of the old internal walls, looked around for witnesses, found none, and released herself from the shadows.

It was like undoing a pressure-release valve. The background noise of the Force, muted and underwater beneath her cloak, came clamoring back in a rush. Ahene looked around again for sheer paranoia’s sake, then leaned back against a wall and fished one of the ration bars out of her boot. She unwrapped it there, broke it in half, and re-wrapped the lower portion to stow once again. It was important to be doing something if people noticed her, and everybody had to eat.

She chewed thoughtfully on the ration bar as she wandered back into the wide open spaces of the camp. It tasted, entirely unsurprisingly, like every other ration bar; you knew what you were getting when you opened one. The variants commonly found in the Empire could replace one to three meals for a reasonably active adult human, depending on the variety and the human, were small enough to be bolted down quickly in an emergency, and tasted like the most inoffensive piece of cardboard you could imagine. Ahene’s relationship with them was vaguely masochistic.

The people eating at the welded-together table glanced over at her, and one raised his fingers in a vague wave. Ahene nodded back, not smiling, because there would be a lot of people in this camp who didn’t smile, and a smile as awkward and forced as hers would make people wonder why she was forcing it.

But the waver was, to her misfortune, feeling friendly. He waved again, and this time it was a waving-over kind of gesture. Ahene lifted a hand in response and made her way over, an odd self-consciousness chewing on the back of her mind. And she was usually thinking about how she looked from the outside, because that was a survival skill—but suddenly she worried that she wasn’t getting it right. That her hindbrain had not only stolen some body language from all these damned Sith, but that she had only thought she could turn it off again.

What if, the worry asked, you can’t pass as yourself anymore…?

Which was a fairly stupid thing to worry, because she had been a Sith for about two days, and an acolyte for around a week, and her time in Kelshrin’s alleged care wasn’t worth thinking about. The Sith did not actually subvert you that quickly, not unless you had jumped at the chance to subvert yourself. Ahene sat down at the table with another small nod, mouth full of ration bar, and held up the remaining part of the half as an explanation. “‘Lo,” she muttered, swallowing.

She could feel a wisp of pity drifting off one of the others—a reedy, dried-out chagrian whose lek-horns had been cut halfway down. It wasn’t a surprise. Pity was the natural reaction to someone who had closed up on themself, even one who’d done it functionally, and that was the impression Ahene was giving; maybe it had even been true once. (Except she and Sirue had closed up on each other, and therefore never been alone…) The chagrian attempted a smile, which only looked a little bit more natural than when Ahene did it. “Hello, quiet one,” they said. “Don’t mind Telk, he’s friendly.”

“Hey!” said the waver. He was a big human man, medium-skinned, with the dented-barrel look of someone who should have had more than just a hint of a potbelly. His job here had undoubtedly involved a lot of large heavy things.

“Well, you are.”

“It’s alright,” said Ahene softly. “I don’t have a problem with friendly.” She would need to come off as at least a bit likable, after all. Having a problem with friendly was not a good way to do that.

“Do you have a problem with dead bodies?” asked the chagrian. “Because that’s what we’ve been discussing.”

Ahene’s feelings on that matter probably would have taken half an hour and blowing her cover. “Depends on whose they are,” she hedged. To the side, the third person—human, blond—shoved the last of his bar into his mouth and slipped off.

“Someone after your own heart, Kasson,” said Telk, with the slightly-manic cheer of someone who was trying very hard not to be sad. Something nagged at Ahene’s subconscious. “You know how to use that staff, then?”

“Do any of us?” said Ahene, finally letting her lips twist into a smile. “I’ve hit people with it.”

“Good,” said Kasson, with a meaningful flick of their tongue. “Looks like a solid weapon. Not as good as a blaster, but what is? Fine. You have a name, quiet one?”

“Ahene,” she said. She didn’t have any reason to fake one.

“Hm. No one I know. No one I’ve heard of. We’ve got people watching every way in, but…” Kasson looked her up and down, something terribly hard in their expression.

It was an effort, somehow, to shrink inward under their gaze, but not reacting would have been more suspicious, and Ahene wasn’t about to start snapping at people. It would be too Sith a thing to do. “You don’t know everyone,” she muttered, nipping at her ration bar with the edges of her teeth. No tidy explanations, because someone who belonged wouldn’t need one. Just kicked-canine wariness.

Kasson flicked their tongue again, twice. “No,” they said. “I don’t. And a lot of people scattered in the last couple assaults. But we don’t need… scatterers, you see? Not now.”

“Let up on her, Kasson,” murmured Telk, putting a hand on their shoulder. “I know we’re all on edge—”

“Damn right we’re on edge,” snapped Kasson, “we’re trapped in here with the killer! You know it’s not the Imps, we both know those people weren’t shot while stealing supplies—you saw that body. And apparently all we can do is bury them and forget, because this has gone from glorious revolution to let’s not cause a panic, here, Kasson.”

“Well, don’t accuse some random kid of doing it, that’s not going to help.” Telk shot Ahene a sympathetic glance. “Sorry about this.”

Good cop, bad cop, Ahene thought, though she knew that was a bit too cynical. “Don’t apologize,” she said, with a small shake of her head. “You can yell at me all day if you’re saying something important. Ah—people are lying about deaths?”

Telk pressed his lips together, a slight nervousness diffusing into the air around him. “Well…”

“Yes,” said Kasson, who was not nervous so much as angry. “Someone—some group—has been beating lone patrollers with shock-sticks and then sticking a knife between their ribs. And after we bury poor Jemec, I’m going to find out who and why. You want to help, quiet one?”

Ahene’s gaze flicked up towards them. It was an opportunity to win trust, allay suspicions, be seen doing something productive—and, yes, to protect Kory’s friends, even though no one could really save them now. “Yes,” she said, a hard edge slipping back into her voice. “Just tell me how and when.” The inevitable, she thought, was something to fight…

Kasson blew out a breath of air, approximating a snort. “That’s not the answer I expected,” they said. “Not busy? Not scared?”

Kasson,” said Telk.

“Busy and scared,” Ahene said, “and I don’t want to get ambushed when I’m sneaking off to steal the Imps’ supplies.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Is that cynical enough for you? Or are you going to accuse me of trying to get you alone now? Sorry, I don’t talk to people very much—I’m sure it’s perfectly reasonable to assume everyone you haven’t met is a murderer.”

Kasson ducked their head, a grim almost-smile on their face. “No,” they said. “I asked you. But you seem to have the spirit of things.” They chuckled quietly, approving. “Now, I wish you had a blaster as well, but we’ll start with the spirit of things.”

She should have felt bad. She kind of did feel bad. But she had a mission to complete, and feeling guilty about the route to it that didn’t involve killing a whole lot of people who hadn’t made any worse decisions than she had—was entirely counterproductive. “I wouldn’t know how to use one,” Ahene admitted. “Just the staff. You hit people with it.”

“Ha,” said Kasson. “You’re lucky they don’t seem to have guns. And no one they’ve killed had one, I’m pretty sure—though you’d have to ask our fearless leaders, of course, and they don’t seem inclined to tell.”

Telk shook his head. “We knew it was probably impossible,” he murmured, almost more to himself than to Kasson, and his presence fuzzed at the edges with that same horrible acceptance Kory had shown at the end—the peace of knowing, and having nothing to lose. Even feeling it secondhand made Ahene want to shiver.

Kasson looked like they wanted to hit him for saying it. There was a red burn simmering under their skin, desperate and angry and still clinging to some shred of hope. “Maybe we did,” they growled, “and maybe that’s why they should trust us.”

He laughed. “Yes. I was agreeing with you.” He swung his legs back over the scrap-metal bench. “So I’ll go get the shovels, then? Jemec isn’t getting any less dead, and you know I’ll be a sobbing mess again soon.”

Kasson shook their head, slowly. “Maybe you should bury him,” they said, “and say we all did it. I think that would give us time.”

Alone?” hissed Telk, his head snapping up in fury. “I’ll give you a pass for suggesting it, Kasson, once. But he was your friend too!”

“So I’m going to catch his killer. It’s the best opportunity I’ll get; it’s not like we have a lot of fucking free time, you know.”

“That’s—cold. Probably accurate, but damned cold.” Telk sighed and pressed his lips together. “I thought I was going to help you.”

“I changed my mind. Someone needs to know where we’ve gone.” Kasson bared their teeth. “If we’re not back by the end of next patrol, tell Gielle. I think she’ll listen.”

“Just her?” asked Telk. He frowned. “I can’t believe I’m even agreeing to this,” he said, “but I think it should be more people, if it comes to that.”

“No need to go higher. She doesn’t—they don’t want to hear it.”

Telk made a face. “You’re going to need to make up someday, or you’re going to die mad at each other.”

“That’s the plan,” said Kasson, with a terrible bitter grin. “Come on, quiet one. We have work to do.”

Ahene stood too, moving to follow them. “Right,” she said, swallowing the last of her ration bar. “Let’s solve a murder, I guess.”

Probably a quarter-hour later, Kasson had led them deep enough into the jungle that the camp was no longer visible and the guards and patrols had faded into the constant hum of the Force. Kasson paused for a moment to stick their face into the river that ran nearby, made a satisfied noise as they pulled away again, dripping, and turned back to Ahene. “This isn’t far from where Jemec was posted. He was scouting around, looking for Imps doing the same thing—shouldn’t have been alone, but shouldn’t have is just the way this whole damn month’s been going—and someone came up to him, someone he thought was one of ours, and next we saw him he was ritual-fucking-sacrificed near the east chokepoint. Which is, aheh…” They pulled something out of a pocket and held it up with a feral smirk. “About twenty minutes away, according to this nice fancy chrono I took from a captain’s bloody corpse. Up for a walk?”

“Do you expect to find them nearby?” Ahene asked, one hand tight around her staff. The surface of her injured leg still stung, her nerves not quite mended, but she had walked for longer on worse.

“No. Not really.” Kasson spread their hands. “But it’s the only starting point we have, isn’t it? So let’s get moving.”

“Sure.” A thought struck Ahene as she fell back into step, and—it was a risky thing to say, but the certainty gripped her like something cold and sharp. She let the silence drag on for a few seconds, then added: “There is something I’m curious about.”

Kasson shoved a large, wet frond to the side. “What?” they asked, not looking back.

“When were you planning on telling me,” said Ahene, voice unreadably soft, “that you intend to stake me out as bait?”

They froze for just a moment too long, and Ahene knew she had been right. “Suspicious bastard,” they muttered, finally turning. “Aren’t you, quiet one?”

“Look who’s talking,” said Ahene. There was a hint of a sardonic drawl to her voice, suddenly closer to whoever she was now than to the person she’d been a month ago—and oddly unbothered by that, without the need to be Sith as well. “Call me a fast learner,” she continued, and would have crossed her arms if she hadn’t been holding her staff. “So was it going to be you or Telk, originally? Or was someone else always going to be dragged in?”

“Me,” Kasson half-growled, though from their aura they weren’t sure they believed it. “I’m not a monster. That’s their job. But, nothing personal, I’m going to take care of me and my friends before some too-quiet kid I know hasn’t been contributing like she should.” They jerked their chin up, daring her to argue. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Of course not. How could I? We’re the same kind of person, aren’t we, Kasson… Ahene held their gaze for a tense few seconds, and then she smiled thinly and lowered her head. “No,” she admitted. “I don’t think I do. But you’re a stranger to me too, remember—I needed to know what you’d say. I hope you understand that.”

She watched them consider that, watched the gears of you-would-do-that-for-a-stranger turn in their head, watched them realize—wrongly—that the person in front of them was more selfless than they were willing to be. “Yes,” they eventually said, voice softer than before. “I won’t apologize, but—well. Maybe I should have asked.”

Ahene shrugged. “Probably.” And I would have said ‘no,’ if I was really just another rebel. This isn’t the kind of thing two people—normal people—can solve alone. But she’d fought other Force users; she wasn’t too worried about a bunch of ordinary twits with shock-sticks.

And if they were working for someone less ordinary, and the ritual killings were some Sith’s hobby—no one but Zash had been able to see through her cloak yet. When it came to losing a pursuer in the jungle, those weren’t bad odds.

The pair made their way soggily through the undergrowth, the perpetual drizzle getting harder as time passed. They were following a trail of permacrete blocks, spaced in semi-regular intervals along a path that was cut just clear enough to traverse; idly, Ahene wondered how many people would get lost forever if those blocks were rearranged. You could always just see the next two in the path, and there was probably no one who could know the jungle well enough to correct them…

If Ahene had been alone, she would have stretched her senses out then, testing how far she could push her reach, discovering whether she could sense the lives back at the camp—or the lives of the murderers. Trying to do that while following Kasson would be a good way to end up muddier than she actually needed to be. “What do you know about the other killings?” she asked. “You said this wasn’t the first.”

“The third. First two, I only heard about. All after the last attack.” Kasson paused for a moment, scanning the area for the next marker, and then made a face and kicked a fallen branch away from it. “The first, one of our sneaks. Never came back from stealing Imp supplies. The second was Covo, he was the last of Gielle’s original team—she’s not the one who told me, though. I think she didn’t know. Always people who were alone, always in the east part of the jungle, and I’m told always the shock-stick bruises and the heart wound.” They sighed and rubbed at the side of their head. “It’s got to be one of us. Intel wouldn’t be able to get the duty roster out of the statue; we’d see the doors open, at least. And sapien sacrifice doesn’t seem like their thing.”

“Sapien sacrifice isn’t very many people’s thing,” Ahene noted. She followed Kasson over a makeshift fallen-log bridge, feeling damp wood beneath the soles of her boots. Her steadiness was another reminder that this wasn’t real, that she’d soon be leaving these people to their hopeless cause—and, perhaps more pressingly, that she was barely on the correct side of moving wrong. The right body language had come back to her almost immediately, but there was a grace and a sureness and a stillness lurking behind it, and anyone who saw that would know that she didn’t belong.

“Mm.” Kasson rolled their shoulders as they walked, glancing back and forth to keep their eyes on the trail. “The bodies all showed up at night,” they added, holding to the subject at hand. “But the later two had been dead for hours. I don’t know about the first. So I think we have a chance at catching them out here.”

“I assume,” said Ahene, “that you aren’t having everyone pull back from the chokepoint so I can stand around alone. Or send me to randomly wander the jungle. Whether I found them or not, I don’t think you’d ever hear about it.”

“I’m going to send you to patrol the jungle between here and the chokepoint. That route’s markers have orange stripes.” Kasson glanced back, briefly, to flash her a toothy and mirthless grin. “I don’t think they lead where they should anymore.”

“That’s what happened to Jemec, you think? Alright.” Ahene resisted the urge to nitpick the theory—she could see flaws, mostly involving patrols of more than one person, but the murderers were self-evidently not perfectly rational. “Where will you be?”

“I’m a chagrian. Where do you think? Just lead them towards the river if you find them.”

Flashes of memory jabbed at her: Remember when you stole the controls for your collars? Remember how you got away? Remember what it felt like, thinking you’d drown? Ahene pushed them into the back of her head, suddenly missing Sirue so much it ached. She had only needed to be one half of a whole, then, and they had promised to go together or not at all. (And go might have meant escaping, and might have meant dying, and there was only one way she could keep that promise now.)

“I’ll do that,” she said, after what was probably a little too much of a pause, and she very much did not wince at the recurrence of that faint pity. Even if Kasson wasn’t looking back at her, it would have been bad form.

A shadow stalked the jungle like a predator in the night.

It was not night. And the shadow was no predator native to this world. But it was a predator all the same, and the sky on Dromund Kaas only ever truly lit for lightning.

Reduced and humiliated as he was, testing the slack in his bindings—Khem Val hunted.

Ahene walked the same jungle, uncomfortably exposed. Kasson was hiding now, as per the plan; she was debating with herself whether to lead the murderers to the river or not. Her Force abilities were very, very useful, and she had been left to contemplate precisely how much she didn’t want to fight without them. She’d thought she was prepared to do it, but—

But the idea scares me, she forced herself to admit. There. Now she couldn’t tuck that thought back into her subconscious, where she didn’t have to see it, and it was honestly only rational. Even if she would still have her new reflexes, her new endurance… it was riskier than she would have liked. But she didn’t think Kasson would be satisfied by seeing a body or two, which meant that zapping one and ditching that corpse somewhere off the trail wasn’t an option. And if her enemies had information that could cause discord, she had to assume they would use it.

Which meant she had a perfectly reasonable objection, and a perfectly understandable reason that she had to go through with it anyway. Ahene didn’t enjoy situations like that; they had comprised far too much of her life recently. And, if she was being honest, she also hated the reminder that she liked having the Force—that she now had something it would hurt to have taken away. That was a place in her heart reserved for people, and not very many of them.

With a bit of effort, Ahene forced herself to stop pacing. She slowed her breathing, bringing it back to an even pattern, and told herself—you cannot possibly do this every time you’re left alone. That’s not sustainable. She had the vague suspicion she’d thought that at least once already, but the reminder did somehow help. And if she thought it enough times, it might actually stick.

Having a day or two to process everything might also have helped, but she doubted she’d be getting that any time soon.

Ahene sat down on the almost-certainly-misplaced marker and tried to look like she was resting. She closed her eyes, tipped her head back, and—staff propped loosely in the crook of one arm—she let the awareness come.

The jungle, so full of life that it turned somehow bittersweet in her head. A stronger, sharper sense of Kasson’s rage and grief than she would have expected, even if the bit of river they had chosen was close by. They felt as keenly as the blade of a knife. And there was something else, too, but not sadism or hate or self-disgust, not what she had expected of the murderers—just blind, heart-pounding terror. The sense of being prey. And, not far behind, a flash of hunger.

Ahene’s eyes snapped open.

That was about when the screaming started.

She was up and moving before she had time to think about it, which was thankfully exactly the decision she came to once she did. The noise was still far off, through the jungle; she used her staff to bat away thick, dark leaves as she sprinted towards it. It came naturally and fluidly to jump roots, stones, little breaks in the ground. She barely noticed half the impediments in her way, until she reached a denser section of foliage and suddenly very much did.

The rain was coming down harder now, the thunder more than a distant endless roll. Ahene pushed her way into the foliage, face grim. Her running attempt at risk-assessment had just flipped the other way; now she would be very lucky if all the murderers were dead before Kasson showed up. The chagrian would probably consider screaming to be their cue.

Soggy leaves dragged across Ahene’s face, arms, legs. There was a crack of lightning. The sounds were getting closer, and she was settling back into the too-welcome distance of adrenaline. With a final bit of shoving, her free hand brushing leaves away from her eyes and mouth, she broke out of the thick knot of ferns and into—not a clearing, exactly. But a vaguely open slash in the forest, where the ground was too rocky for more than a few trees to take root.

The screaming had stopped, but she could sense someone approaching, and quickly. (Not Khem. She thought he might have paused, somewhere further behind, but his focus had faded slightly, and it made him harder to track through the teem of life.) Ahene stopped where she was for a moment, considering that, and made her way into the foliage on the other side.

It was very, very easy to fade into the trees. The shadows they cast seemed to bend around her, lending thickness to the ones she called up herself. And she waited, still and silent, for the murderer to arrive.

It didn’t take long. But she had misjudged, in the blur of trees and animals and the lightning-crackle of the planet; three people emerged from the bushes near one of the almost-clearing’s pinched ends. One was limping heavily, the other two pretending not to take notice. They were all human, all big, all carrying shock-sticks. The one in the lead was the biggest of all, his terror (as she dared a look) slowly fading to something odd and red-stained. It would have reminded Ahene of some of the Sith she’d seen, except his aura was too thin for that, and the emotions were all wrong—not angry, not entitled, but the sort of calm that lay on the far side of madness. The place people went when reality became so terrible that they built a new one up inside their own head, deliberately, so that they could finally have something to control.

“Did we lose it?” asked the one who was neither leading nor limping, jerking her chin illustratively towards the trees.

“It looks like it,” said the leader. “Go check the markers. We’ll wash out our trail at the river.”

The tall woman nodded, and went off to scour the ragged edge of the foliage.

Ahene resisted the urge to make another dramatic entrance, considering the circumstances, and followed carefully. The ground was littered with leaves and sticks and stones; she did her best to tread on the quieter-looking parts as she moved. She succeeded well enough that no one reacted to her approach.

Her lightsaber was in her pack, being useless, and she wasn’t willing to reveal herself that far anyway. Ahene shifted her grip on her staff, stepped into a position where it was vaguely plausible she could have been hiding, and then lunged out of it again. She hit the woman hard in the stomach with the end of her staff, Force-aided strength letting Ahene carry the momentum through and drop her. The woman yelled and grabbed for her shock-stick. Ahene hit her with the staff again, hard enough to do something nasty to a rib, and used the opening that gave her to bring her weapon down on the woman’s head.

The dim light in the woman’s skull faded into a dizzy, sick unconsciousness. Ahene pulled back before she could feel more than that, turning to face the remaining pair, her staff already coming around into a defensive stance. The injured one wasn’t much of a threat, without a blaster; the leader seemed like too much of one to fling herself at immediately.

However much of a threat he was, he had barely raised his shock-stick. There was approval in his gaze as he looked her over, and then his lips drew back in a nasty sort of smile. “Well done,” he said, in all apparent sincerity. “If you were a new initiate, that would have done us proud. In fact…”

“No,” said Ahene, flatly. She already knew more than she wanted to about what was going on in his head.

“You’re strong,” he said. “You’re quiet. You have the instincts of a predator. You could be one of us, if you made the choice.”

As if the ability to kill was some kind of special virtue, rather than a particularly bloody survival skill. “Really,” said Ahene, voice full of soft contempt. “You sound like you think you’re a Sith.”

Which was too much. Which was definitely too much. But instead of lighting up in realization, he raised his chin and grinned at her, as if she had given him a high compliment. “You understand, then.”

“I’m fairly sure I don’t,” she said, though she was beginning to. That was, after all, the one sure way out—the only chance he or any of the rebels had. She’d gotten it, after all. Why not him?

(Because whatever spark he had was small and weak, guttering in him like a dying fire. And, more importantly: because she was going to kill him first.)

“I can explain it to you. But we have to go to the river—there is a great beast prowling, and we need to wash off our scent. Keep up, Daxash!” He jerked his hand at his injured follower, then walked purposefully off towards the trees, stepping over the unconscious woman without breaking stride. Ahene followed, hoping that Khem had some sense of her position, that he would stay away. “When the captains back at camp first came preaching,” said the lead murderer, “I could not believe them. When they took their stolen weapons and claimed we were free, I laughed. You know the rebellion is doomed. Only Sith are really free.”

I think that’s far too optimistic of you, thought Ahene, ducking under a branch. “And this is why you’ve been murdering random people?”

“Yes! You doubt me, but it is true.” She could feel his amusement, twisted around itself, flickering under his skin. “My strength grows with every kill. Soon I will be ready to leave this place, and I will take my followers with me. To Korriban,” he added, in case she somehow hadn’t realized. “To train as Sith ourselves.”

It was a horrible, horrible effort to keep her face still. Anger was rising in the back of Ahene’s skull, slow and deep and far too much hers. Not like the crackle of lightning, not like the push of the Force, not in any way she actually wanted to fight—just the cold, clear knowledge of what he had done, and what he had convinced desperate people to do to themselves.

You told them they’d survive, she thought. You told them that if they didn’t kill their fellows, they’d all die together. You gave people hope, and you gave it through blood, and not a bit of it was actually going to matter. Not to anyone but you.

Her hands were shaking. He was walking into a trap out of his own free will, but—if Kasson saw her fight like this, they would surely know. And Khem was on his way. And it would be nothing short of rational to kill the death-preacher now…

That thought even tasted like poison. Ahene took a sharp breath and flung herself mentally forwards; why lash out when she could double down? “Fine,” she said, “why not? I have nothing to lose, after all.” She slipped back into step, fingers tightening around her staff like she expected it to ground her—like anything could. “Go ahead. Initiate me.”

He had slowed down, almost pausing completely; now he grinned again and returned to his earlier haste. “Later,” he said, “after the river. Then we will find you your first kill, and you will join the Unchained.”

Kasson had said three deaths. There had clearly been a lot more, less obvious, that had vanished into all the other reasons a rebel slave might not come back from a patrol. Ahene’s lips twitched, and she would have swept a bow if she hadn’t been walking behind him. “Good name,” she said. “Fitting. Which reminds me—what’s yours?”

“Traga un-Vhol. But I won’t ask the same, initiate—it won’t matter until you can wash it in blood. That is our ritual.” He made a difficult-to-read gesture, jerking a hand. “The first real choice you will make, unforced by Imperial overseers or the momentum of the rebellion. Your first step into freedom, and into strength.”

It was all just close enough that Ahene wondered—did everyone in the Imperial core know what the Sith believed, even those no one would bother to teach? Or had Traga encountered a Sith somehow, and lived, and come away with all of this in his head? “I see,” she said, mostly on automatic. Was that stalking-predator hunger getting closer…?

(Was Kasson, in the life-crowded jungle? Had they heard those shouts at all?)

Daxash was starting to fall behind. He still didn’t say anything, face set grimly as he limped forwards. His hair fell around his face in a pale, tangled curtain, and his mouth moved with silent profanities—but he didn’t speak. Ahene kept glancing back, occasionally, but didn’t offer a hand. Instead—even knowing how badly the man had been lied to—she started walking just a hair faster. Just enough that he might notice, if he was watching.

These people wanted to be Sith? She’d show them what they could expect.

Ahene came into step beside Traga, cold knowledge still crawling across the inside of her shields. She attempted a smile, allowing it to be unsettling—unsettling would probably just endear her to him. “That great beast you encountered,” she said. “What was it?”

“A thing the Sith made,” said Traga, as certain as he had been this whole time.

“No,” bit out Daxash behind him, finally breaking his silence. His aura hummed with pain and desperation and a fractured, determined will to live. “It was an alien. A… we thought it was one of the haulers, that it was just big and strong. And then it drew its sword. And it—said things in some weird language. And…”

“Enough,” said Traga, over his ragged breaths. “The dead will be replaced, and we will hunt again. That is the only truth.”

Daxash bowed his head. “Yes, teacher,” he murmured. There was far too much respect in his voice, even now, injured and ignored and with very little hope—but then, without hope, Traga was all he had.

(Revealing herself, Ahene thought, would be extremely satisfying. This was just another reason not to do it.)

“We’re getting closer,” Traga muttered, brushing a branch away from a marker with the back of his hand. He pushed his way into a thinner tangle of growth than Ahene had come through, grumbling vaguely dire things to the trees. Her eyes came to rest on the broad target of his back…

And, somewhere in the base of her skull, she became aware of Khem’s presence.

The sense of rising hunger was undeniable. The faint rustling in the foliage behind them, even more so. And then a noise like an electroblade sparking up, the deep sinister hum of a vibrosword, a laugh she could feel echoed inside her head—

Daxash died quickly, without ever seeing the weapon that did it. Khem stepped over his body, hunger barely flickering, and leveled his weapon at Traga. “I said I would find you, pretending creature.

Traga didn’t hesitate before swinging his shock-stick at Ahene’s legs. She caught it on the end of her staff and (did not fry him) stepped back and to the side, setting her jaw against the live-wire viciousness in her head. Her weapon came up again, and she kept moving, circling her way into a flanking position. (But why was she holding back?) She could feel the fear under his skin, scrabbling for ground against his certainty. (It was the least he deserved.)

Ahene ground her heels into the leaf litter and thought—because I can salvage this still. “Khem,” she said. “Sword off. I need to make this look right.”

I have killed one already, little Sith—but I will obey.” The sound cut off abruptly, and Khem shifted his grip, trading—she thought—a little bit of strength for precision.

Traga’s eyes flicked between them, clearly not understanding. “You…”

I’m Sith, she didn’t say, because she refused to make that a point of pride. “Speak his language, yes.” She shrugged. “Surprise.”

“You’re some of their servants,” he said, voice full of something strange, aura full of something stranger. “You are! I ask you, then—do not attack. I have something in my pack. My plea to the Dark Lords, that we can serve them, that the Unchained will embody their ideal—”

Ahene jabbed at him, forcing him a step closer to Khem. “And don’t damage the datapad,” she said.

Yes, little Sith.” And he moved.

Traga was a huge, strong man, but Khem was bigger and stronger and took the shock-stick hit with nothing but a grunt of annoyance. Ahene didn’t wait for the pair to sort things out alone, darting in with another jab, tripping Traga up like he’d tried to trip up her—‘I just have to outrun you,’ right? He shoved at her with his free arm, and she drew back again as Khem’s sword came down. Nowhere to run to now.

In the end, it wasn’t much of a contest. Khem wrenched the shock-stick out of Traga’s hand, growling in pain, and while he was trying to shake off the numbness Ahene swung her staff at the man’s head, and he was fast, he was uncommonly fast, but not fast enough

The crack of her staff against his skull might not have taken him down. Khem’s sword, on the other side, definitely did. Traga toppled, head a swollen bloody wreck, and landed in the dirt.

Ahene bit down on a flush of satisfaction, of vindication—this had been too personal, and felt too right, for her to want to hold those feelings anywhere she could look at them. Instead she drove the tip of her staff into the wet earth, bending down as if to examine the body. “You dealt with the others?” she murmured towards Khem, after a moment.

Yes. Five of them, preparing for some false ritual—and not a true meal among them, little Sith.” He made a derisive noise and flexed his fingers again. “That one had only the barest taste. Even consuming his flesh would give me little more.

“Next time I get hijacked into solving a murder,” Ahene said, “I’ll try to find you a more powerful culprit.” She poked Traga’s corpse with her staff. “Alright. I can work with this. Take Daxash—that’s the one whose head you practically smashed—back along the markers, and drop him with the one I left unconscious. If anyone finds them before they get eaten, they’ll probably assume Imperials did it, or that this one started sacrificing his own cultists, or… it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be long gone by that point.” Shaking her head slightly, she stepped back away from the body. “Then wait in the woods near the edge closest to the Imperial siege. Got that?”

You are learning to give orders, little Sith. But do not take my obedience for granted.

Ahene let out a quiet, breathy laugh. “I don’t,” she said. “Trust me on that.”

We will see,” rumbled Khem. He bent to pick up Daxash’s body, then carried it off through the trees and was gone.

Ahene watched him go, then let her gaze slip down to the shock-stick. Even on a high setting, they could leave fairly superficial burns if they hit at a poor angle, and she was suspiciously uninjured. It would be inconvenient if the rebels thought she was too good to be true—or wanted to put her on their front line.

She grimaced and picked it up. “It’s only pain,” she muttered to herself. “Void, I hate these things, but it’s only pain…”

It was several more minutes before Kasson appeared. They were soaked even past what the rain could do, leaves clinging to their skin, a large survival knife held in one hand. They had come cautiously instead of running, and their gaze darted around warily. Then they frowned. “The hells happened here?”

Ahene was sitting against a tree, eyes half-closed, staff laid across her lap. She lifted a hand in greeting. “I was just going to come get you,” she said, her lips curving up in a lopsided, adrenaline-drunk smile. “Once I can feel my arm again, I mean. And my thigh. What took you so long?”

“I wanted to ask you that, quiet one.” Kasson knelt down in front of her, stretching out their free hand. “How bad are your injuries? We don’t have the kolto to help unless you’re dying, and it’s back at camp anyway.”

“I’m not dying. I just… feel like I got on a supervisor’s bad side.” Instead of taking the offered hand, Ahene slid Traga’s datapad into it, jerking her chin towards the tablet in a vaguely friendly manner. (She hoped they could read.) “And I found the murderers. And their—whatever that is.”

“A datapad,” said Kasson. “Alright, let’s see what we’ve got—” They cut themself off as it lit up, making a face. “What the fuck.”

“Sith-wannabe cult. Just fascinating, isn’t it?”

“This makes less sense than the Huttese maintenance manuals,” muttered Kasson, with an apparent conviction that everyone knew what had happened with those. “But it’s—you definitely found the right person. And killed him all by yourself? Good work.”

“Thanks.” Ahene pressed her knuckles against one of her self-inflicted burns, wincing at the pain, willing herself not to let it fade yet. “Think that’ll be enough,” she said, “that our fearless leaders will want to track down the others?”

“Sure. Why not?” said Kasson, in a tone that meant they’d better.

“Then let’s get it back to them.” Leaning on her staff, Ahene levered herself up. “This has taken too long anyway—I have work I should be doing. Assuming I can still do it, hah, but I intend to.” Her lips twitched. “Before the soreness sets in.”

“Alright, alright, let’s not have the adrenaline babble,” said Kasson. “You need something to brace on?” They waved an arm vaguely in her direction. “Go ahead if you do. I don’t need you tripping over a root and knocking your skull open.”

It would probably help with the trust-winning, but Ahene very suddenly did not want to be touched. Especially not by someone she was lying to. “I’m fine to walk,” she said, “I promise. This isn’t the worst I’ve had.”

“Suit yourself.” Kasson rolled their shoulders and turned to head back, swinging the knife in one hand. “Telk should have things mostly managed by now, but—I’ll see. Ask him where he put Jemec, figure out whether I’ve got time to say my goodbyes.” They looked over their shoulder, a grin splitting their face. “You probably shouldn’t come.”

“No. I wouldn’t know what to say.” And that, at least, was true—she had never known what to say. People died, and words didn’t make it better. They were just something to put into the empty space, to cover up the lack of closure, and maybe make it feel like there was a reason for it all. Like there was an eulogy out there that wasn’t just you fed the Empire, and then it ate you.

“He was a clan-adopt. Believed in the Goddess as much as any twi’lek I’ve met.” Kasson laughed, quiet and bitter. “Figure I’ll ask him to put in a good word with her. Not like anyone real is looking out for us.”

Why would you tell me that? It wasn’t a nice thing to think, Ahene knew, but—she could not possibly carry the memory of this place. “It couldn’t hurt,” she murmured, voice almost inaudible beneath the rain. It had only leveled off a little, during the time it had been too distant and unimportant to notice.

“There’s not a lot that could.” Kasson shook their head and shoved a branch off the path. “Telk would want me to apologize for being cynical, but he thinks we need hope to keep going. I think we don’t have another option. I think we’re in this until the—rapidly approaching end—” Their voice broke in their throat, a horrible black grief strangling it like a vine. It had been in their aura the whole time, despair and airless rage, but now it stained the air around them and choked the glow of life in their heart.

Ahene reached out a hand, brushed it against their arm. “Kasson,” she said, softly.

“Get off, quiet one. I’ll… I’ll apologize for that.” They shoved halfheartedly at her. “You shouldn’t have seen it.”

She pulled back. “It’s alright. Really.”

“No, it’s not,” said Kasson. “You understand why, I think.”

Ahene thought of Sirue, alive but far away. She thought of Kory, who had come from here. And all the kids who had died in the invasion, and the ones who had died in the compound afterwards, and the list of names that had vanished in the places her memories had pulled away from. “Maybe,” she said.

“You see.”

“I do. Maybe.”

The pair didn’t talk very much more as they walked. They both knew it wouldn’t help.

Kasson waved Ahene away before the pair quite stepped out into the space around the camp. “Go on,” they said. “I’m going to find Telk, and then I’m going to menace somebody with this datapad, and dragging you in will be awkward to explain.”

This was far more accurate than Kasson knew. “Right,” Ahene said, and then: “Good luck.” And she headed back towards the barricade built out of panels and bits of statue.

The guards, standing beside a section of prefab and a section of ornate robe, had seen her leave earlier. Presumably on these grounds, they didn’t try to stop her from going back in. She nodded as she passed them, moving like she had somewhere to be. (But not with authority, or palpable confidence, or any indication that she intended to take up space on her way there. Just the briskness of someone doing a job.) There were more people moving about inside, now, than there had been, most crowding around that central area. Ration bars were being divvied up.

Ahene barely gave it a glance. Winning Kasson’s trust had been necessary—and, alongside that, very much what she had wanted to do—but it had only kept her from getting caught, and she had plans to find.

She didn’t bother with the shadows, this time. She just walked over towards the tents, pushed down the part of her that insisted that this couldn’t work, that it was too damned simple, and pulled back the flap.

Another sleeping tent.

So was the next. And the next. Then an attempt at an armory, where a rodian man sat trying to clean a blaster rifle. He looked over at her, and she lifted a hand apologetically. “Sorry,” she said, “looking for someone.”

“S’okay,” he said, only half paying attention to her, “the damn thing’s jammed anyway. Good luck.”

“You too.” Ahene stepped back and moved on. She wondered, idly, if there was any way to make the looking easier; if she was missing out on some Force technique to lead herself towards her goal. It was probably best if there wasn’t. There had to be some things the Force couldn’t do, or her attachment to her old self was going to become harder and harder to justify…

(And yet she still found her mind trailing through the camp’s presence, feeling out the echoes of blood and fire and desperation. Of the kind of screaming hope that said this is worth dying for. Of a weakness that wasn’t weakness, as thin and bright as a band of sky.)

For a moment, it felt like someone was standing beside her.

Ahene staggered forwards, jolted by an indefinable panic, and yanked the next tent’s flap open much harder than she should have. It took a moment for her to process what she was looking at, to tell herself that her hindbrain was screaming for no damn reason at all and focus.

“Yes?” said the gray-haired human woman who had been marking crates. “What’s the crisis this time?”

“I’m sorry,” said Ahene, on automatic. “I was—elsewhere in my head—”

“Ah,” the woman said, shoulders sagging in relief. She crawled forward a couple steps, then pushed herself up to her feet. “I was ready to worry we were under attack. What do you need, kid? And don’t try to tell me you lost your rations.”

“What? Oh. No, I haven’t.” Ahene ducked her head, doing her best to look embarrassed; it wasn’t particularly difficult. Even she wasn’t quite certain what had gotten into her. “I was just looking for someone,” she said, with a vague gesture.

“A medic?” suggested the woman who was probably a rebel quartermaster. “You look a bit worse for the wear. Not that we have the supplies to do much, of course…”

“No.” And then, knowing she couldn’t leave it at that—“I’m looking for Lym.”

The quartermaster blinked. “Is she not up in the statue?”

Ahene counted herself very, very lucky; that answer could just as easily have been but she died last week. “I thought she wasn’t,” she said, grimacing. “I’ll check around here a bit more, I think? I don’t want to climb up and down on this leg if I don’t have to.”

The quartermaster nodded. “Alright,” she said. “And… steady on, kid. We need you in the present, not whenever your head wants you, alright? Take care of yourself.”

I intend to, Ahene thought. “Thank you,” she said aloud. “You too, and—sorry again.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said the quartermaster, waving a hand. “Don’t worry about it.”

And Ahene slipped out again, peeking into various tents on her way towards the statue. None seemed obviously helpful. One appeared to be a medical tent, with an injured woman lying on a bedroll inside as a man bound her wounds, and Ahene excused herself and moved on faster than she truly needed to. She had already seen enough people die today.

A few more tents. A few more minutes. Another couple excuses. Then Ahene headed for a staircase, her staff tapping against metal flooring with each step.

The statue stood on a huge raised plinth, with more temporary-looking platforms built up around it, and there was a large hole in the base of his robes. In front of that hole someone had hung a tarp, which a bored-looking cathar was guarding. He looked miserably damp, and seemed to be trying to fit as much of himself under the shadow of a fold of ‘cloth’ as possible.

Ahene gave him a small wave. “Is Lym in there?” she asked.

“Hm? Oh.” The guard shrugged one shoulder, apparently unprepared for intruders who came up and asked for people by name. “I think she’s out making a hole in the woods. Ruusi and Khollo are around, though. You need to make a report?”

“Afraid so. Could I…?”

“Yeah, sure. Head on in.”

She did. The statue’s framework had become a tower, with platforms welded down to make floors on and in between the network of metal poles that kept the whole thing from collapsing. Ladders made of rope and metal stretched between levels, going upwards in a disorienting line. There was the occasional sound of voices, echoing strangely.

The rope ladder would shake, but there was nothing to be done about that, and if anyone noticed they would probably assume it was the wind. More than enough wind and rain were coming through through those holes in the side, after all. So Ahene glanced back at the tarp door, to make sure the guard wasn’t looking in—which he wasn’t—and wrapped the shadows around her again, and began to climb.

(It was strange how suffocation could feel so much like relief.)

The first couple of floors were empty of people, and unfortunately also of useful information. One was obviously too open to the elements, with the plastifilm wrap that had been taped over the wide hole in the statue’s surface half-loose and jerking around like an overexcited flag in the wind. Ahene checked under the tarp in the room’s center, and found a collection of disassembled weapons. She quickly hid herself again and moved on, in case someone intended on returning with more tape. The one after that was fully closed, lit with a glowstick-type survival light that had been adhered to the wall, and contained a tarp that had a map of the base drawn on it and random small bits of junk strewn around on top. A planning room. The Imperial camp would have been interested, but Ahene had neither the knowledge nor the inclination to make use of the information shown.

The third was somewhat shorter than the others had been, and on that floor a group of people were playing dice, apparently to decide which unlucky soul would be repairing a particular construction droid this time. Someone said something in Huttese—far beyond anything Ahene had picked up, but it sounded vaguely technical—and elicited a few chuckles and a lot of overwrought groaning. Vaguely interesting, but entirely irrelevant to the mission. She waited to make sure no one was paying attention to the ladder and carefully climbed on.

The fourth floor wasn’t a real level so much as a semicircle of wall around bare framework, empty crates stacked up around the ladders to keep a bit of rain away. The fifth, though…

There were more than two people in the room; maybe the two the guard had named were only the ones who took reports. But it was clearly the command center. Around a low fold-out table sat a group of five—three humans, a twi’lek, and a rattataki, none younger than middle-aged. The rattataki was leaning against one of the humans, grimacing at a datapad. Everyone else was carrying on a quiet conversation, occasionally gesturing at the other datapads strewn around the table.

“—killed a team of five trying to sabotage the water pumps,” the twi’lek was saying. She was a thin, sharp-featured woman, with yellow skin and even thinner lekku. “But we lost six people in the process. I’ve drawn up a plan to fortify the area, but I’m not sure we have the manpower to defend it as we build. We only just have the materials to try.”

“Can we do without those water pumps?” asked the human who was being leaned on. He reached for one of the datapads.

The rattataki held up a hand, stopping him. “We can’t,” he said.

“We might be able to soon,” said one of the other humans darkly. They were pale and balding, with a sallow sort of look to them.

The last human put his hands on the table. “Nas, don’t talk like that. Gielle—our contacts can get us more materials. Food, water, maybe even better weapons. If you and Lym can keep the other engineers on task, if Khollo and Ruusi can work out the defenders we’ll need, we can work this.”

“Can you get us more defenders?” said the rattataki, presumably Khollo or Ruusi. “Because that’s what we actually need.”

The leaned-on human, presumably Ruusi or Khollo, cleared his throat. “Your contacts aren’t reliable anymore, Jann.”

“That too,” said the rattataki.

“They will be,” said Jann, baring his teeth. “If we go down, they’ll go down too—I swear you all that.”

Nas laughed hollowly. “I know who your contacts are,” they said. “They’ll get away with it.”

“Well, I don’t,” snapped Gielle, one of her lekku twitching annoyance in Jann’s direction. “Someone want to enlighten me? Anyone?”

Awkward glances were exchanged. “Haven’t you been working alongside Lym for, oh, two months?” asked the leaned-on human.

Gielle crossed her arms. “And what about it, Khol?”

Khollo cleared his throat and slid an arm around Ruusi-by-elimination. “I don’t think I should be the one to say this,” he said, slanting Jann a meaningful look.

“Sometimes I forget you’re not original command team,” Jann muttered. He was quiet for a couple moments, staring down at the datapads on the table, and then he lifted his chin and met Gielle’s eyes. “No,” he said. “Need-to-know. I’m sorry.”

“Well,” said Gielle, “I can’t make proposals based on contacts I don’t need to know about, so let me amend my report. We are kriffing screwed. That do for you, Jann?” For just an instant, her lips pulled back in a wide parody of a grin. “Or do you want to let me actually do my job?”

“I want to wait for Lym to get back,” said Jann. “And for you, Gielle, to go get the other commanders from lunch. Is that clear?”

She stared at him for a long, long moment. Then she stood, saluted him in a way that probably would have made a soldier wince, and started heading towards the ladders.

Ahene hastily stepped out onto the floor, keeping a hand on the ladder to steady it for a second longer. She was trembling slightly with the strain of staying hidden, but—she could keep the panic locked in the back of her mind, for now. As Gielle vanished down one of the ladders, Ahene walked further into the room, trying to think of a way to get the rebel commanders out.

No—she could think of several ways. But without hurting anybody? Without getting caught? That was the hard part.

Nothing here was flammable enough to cause an evacuation. Kicking the crates on the fourth level over probably wouldn’t distract the commanders very long, and she would need to get off the ladder again too quickly. Somewhere much further up, there was the sniper nest; she could attempt to cause a commotion up there, somehow, and hope the commanders appeared to give orders… but it was vanishingly unlikely that they would all go up.

(She could dig her lightsaber out of her pack and abandon this pretense. She could betray a dead acolyte she probably owed her life to, and get what she needed, and leave this camp to die. But that wasn’t an option Ahene was willing to take.)

(Not unless she really had to.)

As the meeting devolved into an argument, Ahene paced a semi-circle around the table. She was thinking about this the wrong way. She didn’t have to get the commanders out of the room. She just had to stand where Gielle had been sitting, to lean over the table, to see which datapad was displaying a set of plans—yes, that one—

(she needed air, needed ground that would hold her)

—and snatch it into her cloak with her.

There was a moment of silence as the commanders stared at the place the datapad had been. Ahene used it to hurry towards the ladders, one hand stuffing the datapad down her shirt, her cloak flexing and shuddering around her. She clamped down on that thought of stealth, of survival, clinging to that single thread so hard she could swear it tasted like blood, and got a hand onto the ladder. Behind her, there was a clattering of chairs, and someone was yelling something about stealth belts, and she was going down down down as quickly as she dared. Maybe faster than she should have dared, so high up.

She was partway down the fourth level when somebody cut the rope.

There wasn’t time to think or panic or consciously try anything at all. Ahene’s cloak snapped around her, survival instinct screaming in her head with something far beyond fear, and her will dug into her flesh and skin and the air around, and with every bit of power she could muster it said no.

Her fingers brushed one of the other ladders, but didn’t close. Her other arm pressed the datapad against her chest, and her knees bent, and she curled against an impact that she knew would not kill her, that she would not let kill her—

There was nothing between the falling and the horrible jolt and the roll forwards. All three seemed to come together in a single moment, and then Ahene was just rolling. Her mind informed her of things she was noticing, in no particular order: she was alive, she probably needed to get up, she still had the datapad, her lower body felt very strange—and someone was poking their head in, weren’t they?

Ahene’s thoughts lined themselves up again, properly, and she stared up into the hard-edged face of a zabrak woman.

“I heard,” said Lym, “that you were looking for me.”

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 5:9 / 3 Ragnost, 1577
Dromund Kaas

Lym stood tall and broad, a blaster held level in one hand. Her expression was—odd. It was hard and distant and intense, showing an emotion Ahene had only ever felt; her eyes, blood-deep red against the dull gold of her skin, were fixed and focused. She was clearly ready to fire, even if she gave off no desire to.

It was the kind of mindset where you grabbed the training saber, stepped into the river, raised your hand to someone who could kill you without a thought. Wanting was never something that came into it.

Please wait, Ahene didn’t say, because nothing would shatter that delicate tension so fast as giving her something to defy. She knew that, one cornered rat staring down another. Instead she raised her head, calmly, and said: “Yes, actually. Could we talk?”

Which was not, generally speaking, the sort of thing one said while being held at gunpoint. Lym blinked at her, not entirely startled out of that sharp, distant place—but there was the distinct sense that she had taken a step back from the edge. “What the hell,” she said, in a voice that fuzzed like industrial smoke. “Convince me you have something to say.”

Ahene swallowed, and opened her mouth, and nearly froze up for the first time in what felt like more than a lifetime, because—

(—because Kory is dead, and I don’t know if she was anything to me but desperation, but I think we could have been friends, and if Sirue had liked her we might have fit that old pre-invasion role, and I know how she looked at me and how she talked about you, and Lym? I am very, very worried I’m about to have to kill you.)

And. And yet.

No one was going to die because she couldn’t make herself speak. No one was going to die because the words choked in her throat, because they were doomed anyway, because she didn’t know how to confess that she had failed the second person who had ever depended on her. It didn’t matter. She was better than that.

“Kory told me she saved your life,” said Ahene, looking steadily up into Lym’s eyes. “I think she saved mine, too.”

It might not have been the right thing to say. But it was, just perhaps, the closest it was still possible to get. Lym’s resolve unmade itself, even as she kept the blaster level, and there was a moment of long silence, and then Ahene’s explanation was interrupted before it could begin when someone on the floor above fired a stunbolt at her.

She rolled to the side, avoiding the tight little ring, and Lym’s fingers closed around her wrist.

“Come on,” hissed the zabrak woman, hauling her up nigh-expressionlessly. “Don’t struggle. This is for your protection.” She followed this mildly confusing proclamation by putting her gun to Ahene’s head.

“Thank you,” whispered Ahene, feeling very grateful for the awareness that Lym had become a blur of honesty-grief-bittersweetness. That this was, against all odds, the least dangerous place in the room to be. She hoped that meant the blaster’s safety was on.

There was a moment of stillness. The door guard from outside was fretting, all uncertainty at having been blocked at the doorway. Then the rattataki from the meeting climbed down one of the remaining ladders, dropping the last half-meter, blaster rifle hanging on a strap slung across his chest. “Lym,” he said, with a nod of acknowledgment. “You’ve got her?”

Lym nudged Ahene’s ankle with the side of her foot, then maneuvered them to the side so that the guard could finally enter. “I’ve got her,” she said, voice flat and unreadable. Her aura was still a disjointed whirl, in contrast, flickering through emotions like a broken holoemitter. “And I’m keeping her. For the moment. What happened?”

“Stealth belt,” said Ruusi. “Grabbed a datapad right off the meeting table. Probably Intelligence—they’ve been snooping around. How’d she get this far, Tyrru?”

The guard let out a breath like a hiss. “Ask the wall crew,” he said, “not me. She just showed up and asked about Lym—I thought she was reporting. What was I supposed to think?”

“Ugh,” Ruusi said, plainly disgusted. “We’ll talk later. Get the belt off her, Ty, and the datapad if it’s intact, and thank your lucky stars Lym was here.” He turned back towards the other two, leaning in to inspect Ahene critically. “And how in the Maw are you standing? Cybernetics?”

Ahene kept herself still and held his gaze, trying not to think about the blaster pressing in against her temple. It wasn’t important right now. “No,” she said, and nothing else.

“Tyrru, hold off,” said Lym, twisting to glower at the cathar man. “Ruusi, don’t make that face. That was true. She’s…” Lym trailed off, the next word going so dead in her mouth that Ahene could feel it. It sucked at the air like a black hole. “The last big attack,” she said instead. “Do you remember?”

“Not really making sense,” said Ruusi, crossing his arms. “Try again, please.”

Lym was forcing herself to breathe evenly, her chest rising and falling and only shaking a very tiny bit. Her free arm pressed in against Ahene’s torso. “What I’m trying to tell you,” she said, “is that she knows what happened to Kory.”

“And that’s supposed to mean she isn’t Intelligence how, again? I need you to think clearly, Lym.”

“I need you to think clearly,” she snapped, “for maybe one fucking moment. Just shut up and think about what I am actually say-ing, would you?” Lym’s voice wasn’t really equipped to go sing-song, but she made a credible try at it, her annoyance taking on a rhythmic edge. “Yes? Maybe? Thank you.”

Ruusi pressed his lips together for a long, long moment. “No,” he said, at last. “You cannot possibly be telling me what it sounds like you’re trying to tell me. You’re going to have to spell it out better.”

Ahene cleared her throat. “Not to interrupt,” she said, “but I can’t actually explain anything while you two are arguing.”

“Explain, then,” he said, waving a hand. “Who sent you, and why?”

“And what happened to Kory?” added Lym, quietly.

“But the first part first,” said Ruusi.

Outside, thunder rolled. There was no such thing as silence. “If I explain your first part first,” Ahene said, with an edged sort of humor, “it won’t make any sense. And then you’ll probably shoot me. I’d prefer you not do that.”

Ruusi looked unimpressed. “Consider that before breaking in, did you?”

“No, actually, I was more worried about having to kill anyone else.” Ahene closed her eyes, briefly. “Call it overconfidence,” she said. “It’s not important. You all know that Kory was taken by the Sith?”

“Yes,” Lym murmured. Her voice was far too soft.

Ruusi twitched his weapon sideways in an almost-gesture. “I think,” he said, “that I don’t like where this is going.”

“And do you think that I do?” asked Ahene, so mildly that it turned sharp again on her tongue. The danger felt easier and easier to dismiss. “It’s been two days. I got off Korriban two days ago, and I will swear down to the Void that I could have saved her—call that overconfidence too—but she had to be brave and selfless and self-sacrificing about it. Lym, I’m sure—” She twisted without warning, ducking her head and shoving up her hand, and her fingers closed around the barrel of Lym’s blaster and wrenched, and it was already clattering across the floor before she’d consciously realized why.

A flash of desperate shock, not noticed so much as reacted to. An overwhelming need to make her shut up. But she had been faster. And now there was just revulsion-horror-anguish, spinning in place like a wheel.

“Don’t… don’t do that,” said Ahene, lowering her hands. “It’s not your fault. Please don’t take it out on me.”

“No,” muttered Lym, still in that blank horrible place. “No, no, damn…” Her hands squeezed Ahene’s wrists until they hurt, clinging to the closest lifeline available. “She was so good,” she whispered, face nearly pressed into Ahene’s hair. “She was—she deserved better. She was the best of us. She deserved better.”

“Lym,” said Ruusi, carefully. He clearly didn’t know what to do with her now. “Lym, that’s still a… Sith, apparently. If I shoot the Sith, are you going to be mad at me?”

Lym raised her head. “Yes,” she said. “I am. Keep going, Sith. Keep talking.”

“There’s not much more to say, unless you want me to recount how it happened. I would—rather not.” Ahene’s gaze slipped, for a moment, towards the discarded blaster. “But I did break in here and inconvenience you all,” she said, “so if you ask me to, I will.”

“You’ll tell me later,” said Lym, turning to wipe her cheeks on the back of Ahene’s head. “Just—oh, Void and Maw. Someone else?”

Ahene twisted, trying to get a look, but didn’t try to pull herself out of Lym’s grip. Tyrru was leaning half-through the opening, attempting to explain at a whisper why the person on the other side couldn’t come in. This was being hindered by his inability to actually provide the explanation, instead insisting with increasing urgency that the people inside were busy.

“I don’t care,” snapped a voice that—even muffled—sounded like Kasson’s. “I’m coming in.”

Tyrru made a token effort to stop them, but a moment later, the chagrian shoved their way through the flap and stopped short. They stared at Lym, who had been turning. Lym stared back.

Ruusi sighed heavily. “Tyrru,” he said. “We are now on lockdown. Don’t let anyone else in, even if they’re from the camp, even if they say they have a report, and even—especially—if they try to push. Is that clear to you?”

“Yessir,” said Tyrru, radiating sheepishness. “But what if it’s Gielle?”

“You had better let Gielle in,” growled Kasson. “And can I add, what the kriff?”

“Long story,” said Lym. Her aura was starting to change, softening in some ways and hardening in others, making herself back into something like a leader. “Very long story. Look, it’s not—I won’t say it’s not important. But it’s not important right now. Was there another one?”

“No. No more murders, no thanks to you,” said Kasson, “except apparently the person who did help is now our prisoner. So—someone want to tell me what’s going on here?” They bared their teeth, as behind them the twi’lek woman from the meeting slipped in. “What about you, quiet one?”

“You were right about me,” admitted Ahene, with a bit of actual chagrin. “Sorry.”

Black-shot anger roiled under Kasson’s skin. “Shove it somewhere that hurts,” they said. “I guess you wrote that damn datapad yourself?”

Ahene swallowed a horrified laugh. “Absolutely not,” she said, “and if you think that I could ever even fake that nonsense, I’m insulted.”

“Be insulted,” said Kasson.

Gielle cleared her throat. “Excuse me—”

Everybody stop talking,” said Lym, at a volume just below ear-shattering.

Everybody stopped talking. Thunder crashed in the distance. There was still no such thing as silence.

“Good,” Lym said. She looked over at Ruusi. “Go back up to the war room. Tell Jann I’m here, and that Kasson and Gielle are coming up with me. So is our prisoner. You don’t get to argue about that, and neither does he.” Her grip tightened again, chewed-ragged nails digging into Ahene’s wrist. “Isn’t that right, Sith?”

“My name is Ahene,” said Ahene, who was getting very tired of her current nickname. “Are you threatening me, or threatening them with me?”

“Haven’t decided yet.” Lym glowered steadily at Ruusi. “Now go.”

“If you wanted to overthrow the war council,” muttered Ruusi, with an exasperation that was only almost fond, “you should have told me.” With that, he turned, snatching up the discarded blaster as he moved, and vanished back up the ladder.

It took several minutes to get everybody up to the war room, and several more before they stopped talking over each other. While Jann and Lym and Kasson yelled at each other—mostly about each other—Ruusi took up guard duty, sliding his free hand around to thumb the datapad Ahene had shoved down her shirt. She gave him an impassive look, lips pressed together.

“You weren’t going to get to keep it,” said Ruusi, shrugging, as he relieved her of her stolen goods. “It’s ours. And we do actually need it.”

“So do I,” said Ahene. She would have leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, but Ruusi seemed like he would object. Instead she learned, in a disjointed way, that Gielle had gone to find the other commanders and instead found Kasson, who had insisted on finding Lym, and apparently this was both highly unimpressive to Jann and—somehow—something Lym and Kasson were willing to snap at each other about. They probably would have snapped at each other over stew recipes, at this point.

After a few moments, Khollo made his way over, his own weapon out, to stand on her other side. He and Ruusi exchanged an unreadable look. Their auras were far easier: fondness, worry, determination. The feeling chewed at her gut, too close to what she’d felt with Sirue beside her. They loved each other like people who accepted that they’d die for it.

Ahene was far less nervous than she should have been, with two blasters pointed at her head. It felt a lot like looking over that bridge in the Citadel, trying to believe that she could fall.

“You still haven’t told us who sent you,” said Ruusi, suddenly. He was barely audible under the noise of everyone talking at once.

“I don’t want to explain twice,” Ahene muttered back. Her knees twinged at her, protesting the earlier landing and the way she was standing now. She’d had enough practice, at this point, to know that the pain would fade out as quickly as the burns had, and she certainly hoped she wasn’t going to fight anyone immediately. Her lightsaber was still in the backpack that had been pressing into her spine, first against Lym’s stomach and now against the wall. She had arranged it very carefully so that it couldn’t point towards her; she hoped the fall hadn’t jostled it loose. Where her staff had gone, she wasn’t entirely sure, but she suspected it had rolled away from the bottom of the ladders.

Eventually Jann slammed his hands on the table, bringing the room to a brief silence. “Enough! One at a time!” he said. “You two bring her over. We’re going to discuss this like a command team, not a sack of wet cats.”

“You haven’t discussed anything like a command team in your life,” Kasson snapped. This got them glared in nigh-unison by the others. Rather than faltering, they closed their mouth, lifted their chin, and glared back.

Ahene felt, oddly, almost like she was in her element. Even as Khollo nudged her with his gun, as Ruusi put a hand on her shoulder and steered her forwards, something about this seemed more right than anything had in a while.

She was, in some senses, currently a prisoner. That would have been hard to deny. But she had chosen to be here, determined not to do what a Sith would—and for a brief, heady moment, she felt like she was free.

The look Jann gave her was long and steady. He left her with the sense that he wanted to dismiss her out of hand, but that he couldn’t make himself do it. His aura was strangely reserved. “Well,” he said, “you’ve certainly caused a lot of trouble so far, Sith.” He bared his teeth in something that might, possibly, have been a grin. “I hope you’re not expecting me to call you ‘my lord.’”

“I’m an apprentice,” said Ahene. “I have been an apprentice for two days. I’m not anyone’s lord.”

“Pity,” said Nas, somewhat cryptically. They looked even paler and sallower up close, and the flow of life inside them had a worrying flicker to it.

Jann set his jaw. “Nas,” he said, in warning.

“Can we get on with this?” asked Gielle. “Before Lym and Kas start yelling at each other again? Because I didn’t like being in the middle of that the first time, and I am not jumping at the chance to do it again.”

“Yes, Gielle, that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Jann impatiently. “And it would be easier if you and Kasson weren’t here.” He pressed his lips together. “Any contact with outside sympathizers is need-to-know, you all know that. We don’t need Imps in stealth belts crawling all over trying to nab people for interrogation. Not more than they already have. Are you an outside sympathizer, Sith?”

Ahene’s lips twitched, trying to twist with something helpless and unnameable. “Outside?”

Kasson chuckled in disgust. “You’re not one of us—quiet one.”

“I’m not one of them, either,” said Ahene. “What does that make me?”

“A good liar?” suggested Kasson.

Off-track,” said Jann. He slapped his palm against the table again, this time more quietly. “No chatter. We’ll do this one by one. Lym, your thoughts?”

“Kory knew her,” said Lym, without hesitation. “Kory liked her. That’s all I need to hear her out.”

Ahene hadn’t expected that faith. Her gaze flicked towards Lym, who was standing as unmovable as the statue itself. The woman’s eyes were flint. Her aura was solid and determined.

Jann seemed vaguely taken aback. “Fine. Khollo and Ruusi?”

“Too dangerous,” Ruusi said. “Say the word, and she hits the floor.”

“Seconded,” said Khollo. He tapped the barrel of his blaster against Ahene’s shoulder. “Sorry, girl.”

Jann nodded to the pair. “That’s our security captains. Nas?”

“I say listen. She could be helpful.” Nas’s smile was sharp and mirthless. “And it’s not like you can really dig us any deeper, now is it?”

“That problem is not up for argument, Nas.” Jann’s voice went hard. “Now. If we had the other commanders, this would be taking much longer—but, to be honest, I’d rather have this over and done with before anyone else has to know.” He sighed heavily and turned towards Lym. “Lym, please get your friends out of here before Nas says something we’re all going to regret.”

“I think if I do,” said Lym, strangely amused, “then they’ll never want to speak to me again.”

“Good of the rebellion, Lym. That’s more important than any of us.”

Kasson’s fury and grief, festering in their chest, tipped over into life. “No,” they hissed, leaning over the table with one palm flat on it. Their anger didn’t taste like Sith anger—didn’t burn like Sith anger—but it was still a pyre, and they were still going to burn. “No more lies, no more let’s-keep-this-quiet, no more pretending we might be winning. If one of you bastards has found some fucking spine, then let her talk. Or I’m going to find out how fast those two shoot.”

There was a brief silence. Jann cleared his throat. “I’m not sure you’ve thought this through—” he began.

“Give me something to think through, Jann.” Kasson stared him down, as steady as anyone with nothing to lose. “Show us the firebrand we thought we were following.”

“Really? Is that what you want?” Jann’s voice was dangerously light, his presence dangerously calm. “Because that firebrand is pointed at the enemy, and if there’s an enemy here”—his gaze lingered pointedly on Ahene—“then I would rather there not be two.”

“Kasson, stop,” snapped Lym. “If there’s someone else who could lead this rebellion, it isn’t you. Stand back.”

“Don’t you mean ‘stand down?’” Kasson half-snarled, turning to look her in the eye.

“No. I mean stand back.” Lym turned to her suddenly-embattled leader, arms folded across her chest. “Don’t be a hypocrite, Jann.”

“I’m not being a hypocrite,” he said, slowly standing from his folding chair. “The point of having a leader is that everybody else isn’t trying to lead. We can’t survive that way. And I don’t want to have to shoot you, Kasson, because—in case you haven’t noticed—that would mean taking those guns off the Sith.”

“And you’re right,” said Lym, holding up a hand to forestall Kasson’s retort. “But. Just because you’re right about the security part doesn’t mean you’re convincing anyone. And you are being a hypocrite.” Her eyes were locked on his. “Or are you the only one who’s allowed to talk to Sith?”

Something terrible flashed across Jann’s face. Every muscle in his body was tense with the urge to lash out; it was radiating out from him. He didn’t. Instead he stared straight across at her and said, very evenly, “That’s enough.”

Ahene stayed quiet. Interfering would only give them all a common enemy to aim at, and she had no desire for it to be her. But she felt very certain of what her objective would be, if a fight broke out, and she couldn’t pretend to herself that it was the datapad. She had failed Kory already. She wasn’t going to fail the people Kory had been so desperate to save.

Gielle’s lekku came up under her arms, wrapping around her shoulders. “Your contacts,” she said.

“Yes,” said Lym.

“You’ve made your point,” said Jann. “Sith, if you have something to tell us, tell us. Don’t just stand here watching us fall apart.”

“My name is Ahene,” said Ahene, again. “I was sent to find architectural plans, or survey reports, or something else my honored master could use to find a buried secret facility. I suppose she expected me to murder anyone who got in the way of that, if she bothered to think about it at all.” She spread her hands, vaguely indicating how well that had worked out. “And I did stop the murderers. For what that’s worth.”

“I have no idea what that’s worth,” growled Kasson, who had fallen deadly silent after Lym’s confession, “but I don’t really care. Jann, did you know?” He gave them a confused look, and they hissed in frustration. “That the murderers had been inspired by the Sith. Is that something these ‘contacts’ set up, Jann? Did you know?”

Jann didn’t flinch, but his aura did. “Asteroid gods,” he said, horrified. “Do you really think I’d—what, give some Sith free rein to take sacrifices?” He put a hand on the back of his chair, expression hard. “Yes,” he admitted, “I’ve made arrangements. And I’ll tell you that we’re alive because of those arrangements. But I wouldn’t do that.”

How do I know that?” Kasson demanded, their voice rising. “How do any of us know that? What the hell have you done to earn our trust, Jann?”

“Saved every single life here,” Jann finally snapped, leaning forwards, “that’s what. Or would you have rather died for this damn statue? Let them work us all to death?” He slammed his hand onto the table one final time, his palm meeting the thin metal like a crack of thunder. “There would be no rebellion,” he hissed into the ensuing quiet, “without my contacts.”

Kasson stayed very, very still for a few moments. Then they lunged at him.

Their knees hit the table as Lym grabbed their upper arms, dragging them back, hissing at them to calm down while they clawed at the air and swore and tried to pull free. Khollo jerked like he wanted to help, but caught himself before he took his gun off of Ahene. Jann shifted, putting a hand on the blaster at his hip, and pressed his lips together. Nas, still sitting at the table, leaned back in their chair and frowned at the scene.

As Kasson finally gave up and slackened, Ruusi cleared his throat. “Are you done?” he asked. “Because, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s still a Sith in this room. Maybe that’s the bigger threat?”

“I think they disagree,” said Ahene, mildly.

“Oh, screw you,” Kasson growled. They were half-limp in Lym’s grip, panting slightly, less desperately angry and more desperately sad. It was a familiar post-adrenaline emptiness.

Ahene tipped her head minutely, accepting the insult as her due. “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” she said.

There was a cough. “Out of respect for the dying,” said Nas, “could you hurry it up? I don’t have forever here.”

“You’re not dying, Nas,” said Jann, automatically. He sounded like he’d been saying it a lot. “But I agree. Lym, if you won’t get them out of here, at least keep holding them back. Sith—you want to get into a secret facility?”

The way he asked the question would have set Ahene’s teeth on edge even if she hadn’t guessed where this was going; obviously, the rebellion had agreed to keep Skotia’s bunker a secret, rather than him having secretly moved in at some point. And, obviously, that was going to be an issue. She set her jaw. “How much is he offering you?”

“For you? Enough to hold out a few weeks longer, probably. We’ll find out.” Jann sounded faintly disgusted by his own proposal, but his aura was resolute. “Stun her,” he ordered.

And then Lym shoved Kasson bodily into Khollo.

Ahene flung her arm out, trying to push Ruusi away and duck under his blaster at once, as Khollo hit the ground and Kasson staggered into the wall and Jann’s own blaster came out, and then could only barely catch herself against the table as a wave of head-splitting dizziness washed over her. She’d never been stunned before. It didn’t feel like a shock-stick, or like being hit with lightning; instead of pain, it felt like someone had tried to turn her brain upside-down. The places she’d left the burns tingled madly. She was almost annoyed with them for not hurting more, which was entirely ridiculous, and the small distant part of her that wasn’t consumed by vertigo seemed to be laughing at the rest of her for it.

There was an itch of danger behind her, and Ahene decided that the floor was probably a lovely place to be after all. She shoved herself forwards, hitting Ruusi in a clumsy tackle he hadn’t seemed to expect, and grabbed at the gun as gravity and momentum did the rest. Her hands felt strangely disconnected from her body. Her fingers felt like they might have been made of bad synthcotton. She scrabbled for the sharpness in her head while she scrabbled for the blaster, because the Force was too big and too foggy and didn’t fit in her skull but she could do this, had come too far to get done in by stupid overconfidence and stupid sympathy—

And she had tried, hadn’t she? Hadn’t she tried? Wasn’t this a betrayal?

Wasn’t she such a fool?

Lightning locked behind her teeth, she twisted and rolled, dragging her senseless body with her. Ruusi started firing almost as soon as his hand was free, and she turned a stagger into a lunge upwards and grabbed the table and kicked at his stomach. She couldn’t quite remember why she was trying not to kill him. She held back the energy anyway, fingers burning with it, and then suddenly Lym’s hand was tight around her shoulder.

“Stand down,” hissed Lym—to Ruusi, to Khollo with his hand against Kasson’s throat, to Jann aiming from behind his chair, and somehow barely to Ahene at all. “Every single one of you, stand down.” Ruusi’s blaster moved, and her voice rose to a shout. “Now!”

It felt like a miracle that it worked. But Khollo let go of Kasson, both of them confused and panting; Ruusi cautiously lowered the gun, watching her warily as he did.

Jann was the only one who didn’t move. “Lym,” he said, “you’re the one who started this. You stand down, or we’re going to have to stun you both and deal with it later. Do you understand me?”

“Oh, you’re going to stun me?” Lym’s laugh was as harsh as her voice. “Me, who convinced more than half the engineers? Who works the droids better than anyone else here? Who’s been with you from the start?” She snorted and glanced back. “Khollo, Ruusi, are you going to stun me?”

“I’m going to stand up and wait for you two to stop being idiots,” said Ruusi. Making good on the first part, he slowly began rising to his feet.

Khollo pressed his lips together. “I’d do a lot of things for the rebellion, Jann,” he said, “but I don’t think we can afford how this’d look. If we don’t hang together—”

“It wouldn’t be anything so nice as hanging,” said Kasson, rubbing their throat.

Jann’s expression became even more fixed. “Right,” he said, in a tone that implied he was chewing glass. “Let’s call that a vote, then. Which I’ve apparently lost.” Slowly, carefully, he stepped around his chair and lowered himself back into it. “If you all have a better idea, I’m still waiting to hear it. Void knows I don’t want to trade somebody to Skotia’s lot. But we’ve got to do something with her, and we need the supplies.”

“Sure,” Lym said, “give me a second.” She glanced down at Ahene, loosening and adjusting her grip. “I’m going to let go in a second, Sith. Try not to fall over unconscious, alright? It’d be difficult for you to make your case.”

“I have no idea why you did that for me,” Ahene rasped, too dazed to be withholding, as she fumbled to once again brace herself against the table.

“That’s because I did it for Kory,” muttered Lym, her voice low and rough. “And for myself.” She raised her head, suddenly grinning with something mirthlessly, mercilessly sharp. “And you, Jann, because maybe now Kasson isn’t going to slit your throat where you sleep. Or did you not think about that?”

Kasson snorted loudly. “You’re assuming I care,” they said, though Ahene could sense that—for some astonishing reason—they did care. They cared like the jagged edge of a razor, without wanting to, and they were nearly as confused as she was about the why. Had killing the murderers really won her that many points? Had knowing Kory?

Jann looked between them, lips pulled back in a grimace. “I still don’t hear an idea,” he said. “Going back on a deal for some poor kid who’s been a Sith two days—it’s not a good trade, no matter how you want to look at it.”

Nas slipped out from under the table, putting an arm on it to lever themself up. “There’s always my friends,” they said, with all the dignity of someone who couldn’t care less about how they looked. “Our messenger might be stone dead, but there’s people at one of the cargo spaceports. People who’d help some of us. Maybe carry some of us. Get us to some of the sympathizers…”

“It’s a long shot,” said Jann.

“So’s getting anything out of your contacts,” said Nas, with a horrible snicker.

Jann shook his head. “They’ll turn on us, if we do this. Or that particular lot will. Can we risk that?”

Ahene leaned over the table and pressed a finger down on one of the datapads’ edges. “Capturing me would be worse,” she pointed out, her tongue only a little bit thick in her mouth, “since you don’t actually have a gun to my head anymore.” She flashed something that was almost, but not quite, a smile. “So maybe don’t keep trying to talk them into it.”

Jann didn’t flinch, but did go still for a moment at the realization. It was mildly gratifying to watch him remember, after she had been so willingly taken prisoner and so restrained in defending herself, that she was dangerous. “Point taken,” he said, a bit more quietly. Then he turned. “Lym. You have to know that you won’t be welcome on the command team anymore, and we’ll need an explanation for it. I think you can guess what I’m suggesting?”

Kasson laughed bitterly. “Going to lie to more people?”

“Yes. They shouldn’t know what happened here.” Jann made a gesture towards Lym. “I think you should be the one to go. Take Kasson. Take Gielle—she’s hiding under the table still, isn’t she? Never mind that, take her anyway. Go to the sympathizers on Nar Shaddaa. Ask for their help. And go, because I can’t trust you to follow me anymore, and we can’t lead at each other’s throats. For the good of the rebellion.”

“For the good of the rebellion,” echoed Lym, lifting a hand in salute. “Alright, Sith, we’ll get you into that facility. What do you need to do in there?”

“We haven’t agreed to this yet,” said Kasson, jerking their chin in stubborn defiance.

“You don’t need to agree!” snapped Jann, with a sharp gesture towards them. “You signed up to leave when you tried to put Khollo in a headlock! Lym is one of my commanders, Lym has pull with the engineers, but you don’t, Kasson—and you were on thin ice already. You’ve made your choices, and one way or another, there are going to be consequences.” He shoved a black strand of hair out of his eyes, breathing like someone who was trying not to shout. “You’re going to go,” he said, “or you’re going to go up before the command team. Those are your options. Those are the only paths we have left. And I certainly hope you’re not going to stick around to drag me down with you.”

Kasson gave him a look that should have cut bone, but couldn’t argue. They knew he was right.

Gielle crawled out from under the table, brushed herself off, and stood. “I wanted to be sure the shooting wasn’t going to start again,” she said, brusquely. “Yes, I’ll go—you all clearly need someone to take care of you. Little clan-sibs all, if I still had one.”

Ahene took her hand off the datapad. It wasn’t the one she needed. “And I’ll get you all out,” she promised, though she had no idea how she’d do it. “Just get me into that bunker.”

“It’ll be a short walk,” said Nas. “Given that it’s right underneath us.”

Under the watchful eyes of the three rebels, none willing to let her far out of their sight, Ahene went and retrieved Khem. He was less than impressed with the plan; she shrugged aggressively and gestured for him to follow. They drew a lot of stares traipsing back into the camp, but at Lym’s word, the guards waved them in without more than a few dazed looks. The eyes of various rebels followed them closely as they walked. Ahene’s footsteps felt surer every moment, the aftereffects of the stun fading to a faint headache.

Eventually Lym led them back to the base of the statue, and around it, and to a hatch that led down into what should have been construction tunnels. One by one, they descended. The space beneath was dark and empty, all dirt and prefab structures, with survival lamps glowing on the walls. “Here we are,” said Lym, waving a hand towards what looked like one of a few prefab doors meant to keep out wildlife. “The bunker’s entrance is behind that door. It’s been down here since before we started, Void alone knows why. Skotia’s people showed up about a month after we rose up.”

Ahene nodded. “Thank you,” she said. Her lightsaber, retrieved from her pack, hung loosely from one hand. Her staff, retrieved from the floor, was again strapped to her back. She wished she could have stuck the former on the latter and had some reach again. “You’ve been—a great help,” she added, with a small, grim smile. “Even if you’re not doing it for me.”

“What, not leading us into battle?”

“Of course not,” said Ahene, surprised at the thought. “I can’t protect you in there. I can barely protect me in there.” She made a tiny gesture with her free hand. “I have no idea why you’d even offer.”

“I didn’t say it was an offer,” said Lym, grinning. “Good luck in there, Sith—Ahene. We’ll be waiting behind the fourth door over there.” She put a hand on Ahene’s shoulder. “Don’t kark this up.”

“I won’t.” Ahene’s voice was low and entirely sincere. “Trust me.”

Kasson snorted. “That’s a lot to ask, quiet one.”

Ahene gestured acknowledgement. “Trust me to not die.”

“Even harder,” said Kasson, wryly.

Ahene tipped her head in their direction, unable to argue.

“Goddess’s endurance, Sith,” added Gielle from the sidelines, apparently feeling left out. She pressed two fingers against the tip of one lek. “That’s not a blessing. But you’ll need it.”

Raising her free hand in salute, Ahene stepped back towards the unassuming prefab door. “Thank you,” she said again. “If you hadn’t vouched for me…”

“You would have killed us all, we know,” said Kasson, with an awful little chuckle. “Don’t rub it in.”

That wasn’t what she had been about to say, but it was—on some horrible, uncomfortable level—also difficult to argue with. However determined she had been to avoid that outcome, it had always been there on the table, waiting for her options to run out. And there would have been no point in sacrificing herself for a set of doomed strangers, as she and Kasson both knew without saying.

“Rude,” she said, quietly, and nothing else.

Kasson grinned at her. “Make sure you get them all,” they said, “or the rebellion will be paying for it.” The implicit meaning—that they knew she cared—also went unsaid. Kasson would probably have gargled knives before admitting it outright. But the meaning was there, with all its sharp-edged trust, and Ahene couldn’t be anything but grateful.

She raised a hand and waved it towards the door Lym had picked. “Go on,” she said, “you all get out of here. I’ll come find you when it’s over.”

“I see we’re dismissed,” said Lym, with a sharp, challenging smile. But it was a smile she meant, too. She made the same vague salute she’d given Jann, strange emotions swirling under her skin, and then turned to enter the door-code.

Gielle followed her in, and then—after a long, calculating look—Kasson stepped over the threshold as well. The door closed, and locked, and Ahene was left alone with Khem once more.

He turned from watching them to watch Ahene instead, regarding her with his steady hot-coal gaze. “Pointless chatter, little Sith.

“Pointless?” she said, quirking an eyebrow. Her shoulders itched, warning her to slip back into more Sith-like body language—into the kind of stillness that held space—before she was caught out. It was a good instinct. It wasn’t the one she needed.

Khem was silent as she forced herself to relax again, then to draw in on herself—just slightly, like an old habit that was dying hard. Like a rebel going to the people who used to hold her collar. (And was that entirely wrong?) She brought herself back into that place and mindset, feeling like the walls were closing in on her, and then raised her head to inspect Khem. Everything about him was wrong, really, but all they needed was a first impression, and most Imperials would find him too alien to read anything at all. It wasn’t as if she could correct him anyway; trying would just frustrate them both.

She thumbed the rim of the lightsaber, feeling its weight. It was thin and cool in her hand, more utilitarian than most would have expected out of something Zash made, and she could never have mistaken it for anyone else’s. The crystal hummed with Zash’s honeycomb aura, sweet and sly and wanting. Holding it and focusing, Ahene could feel an ache in her ribs that wasn’t her own, an unsated hunger even emptier than hers. Even unlit, the saber burned in her mind.

She wrapped the shadows around it before she could doubt herself. The ache died in her chest, suffocating like a fire without air. Good. Barely daring to breathe, holding her focus like a lifeline, Ahene stepped forwards and began to type in the code.

The first door split open. She moved through it briskly, Khem just at her heels, and allowed herself to wince when it shut behind them—that was perfectly in-character. The second door was larger and more secure, with a retinal scanner rather than a keypad. She pressed the button beside the scanner in with the knuckles of her free hand, and waited.

It was unexpectedly difficult to keep the saber shrouded. Something so small should have been much easier, but with her on the other side—it felt like she was holding air, and the moment she tightened her grip to check, it would break the spell. But she couldn’t let her concentration slip, either. She wished she had practiced before, but the thought had only occurred to her on the way down, at which point she had been unwilling to consider the possibility of failure. Self-doubt mixed with the Force about as well as the vacuum of space mixed with a kitchen fire. So Ahene stood, and concentrated, and tried not to doubt.

Eventually, the second door began to slide open as well. There were people behind it, and that was all she could tell with so much of her focus elsewhere. It ground slowly against itself, with grit in all its tracks—and then, with a shudder, the main panel pulled back into the wall. On the other side was a group of five: four soldiers in full standard armor, spread out in a fan behind what looked like another Sith apprentice. The apprentice was pale and freckled, whipcord lean, dressed in a charcoal-and-red almost-bodysuit with the look of a uniform to it; he eyed her with obvious distaste.

Ahene bowed, warily. If there was a proper courtesy for this—and there might have been, in the Imperial urban center, where some Sith probably owned class-ones directly—then she was getting it deliberately wrong. Even if there somehow wasn’t, she was still getting it deliberately wrong. (Talvara hadn’t cared about precise angles, so long as it looked suitably obsequious, and the one time Kelshrin had appeared at the ruin personally, he had ordered every person there to their knees.) What she gave the apprentice was insolently shallow, like a rebel trying to make an ill-advised point.

She saw his expression darken, distaste turning into outright contempt, and wondered if she had actually been faking.

“What do you want?” he demanded, voice tight and clipped.

Her head was beginning to hurt worse. She did her best to ignore it and picked her words carefully, fishing for more information: “I have a message for your boss. Milord.”

“Lord Ogathu has better things to do,” the apprentice snapped, giving her what she needed. There was at least one other Sith here, more experienced than her—she would need to be careful.

“I see,” she said. And then, “I apologize.” And she lunged forwards.

He wasn’t prepared for that. He stepped back, just a bit off balance, the glow of her saber reflected in his eyes as his hands went to his own. One of the soldiers fell to Khem’s sword before any of them could fire. Ahene let momentum carry her forwards, lightning sparking in her free hand, and her blade slammed into his at the very last instant. They locked for a moment, both weapons resisting the pressure, and then she sprang back again and lashed electricity at him like a whip.

He caught it on the edge of his blade and advanced. Khem took a blaster bolt to the shoulder and shrugged it off, taking the next soldier down with another crushing strike; Ahene twisted away from another shot, feeling the heat on the back of her neck as she moved. She wished again for the reach of her staff. Then the apprentice was surging towards her, as fast as she could move, and she had to parry and parry and avoid being backed against a wall, and at some distant edge of her mind her ankles considered that they might not be feeling quite right after all, and she gritted her teeth and kicked him in one of his ankles and pulled back again, moving into a hallway she could feel was empty. Her arm and thigh tingled where she’d burned them. It wasn’t—would not be—enough to impede her.

He charged again. She pivoted on her better leg, letting him be carried past her, and flung lightning at him again with all the viciousness she’d been holding back. He had to twist to block it, swinging himself around too far, and opportunity keened in Ahene’s mind as she struck. He tried to parry, but her saber burned into his leg, and she threw herself forwards before his returning blade could catch her. The landing was jarring—her saber hissed and bit into the floor—she scrambled up and around again—

As she watched, Khem pressed his foot down against the final soldier’s prone chest, his sword coming down on the man’s head with a horrible crack of durasteel against plasteel against bone. The apprentice was half-slumped against the wall, bracing himself with one hand, the other raised in a ragged guard. His leg was nearly severed below the knee, only a thin stretch of flesh holding it in place; the wound howled pain into the Force like a dying shyrack.

Ahene’s stomach twisted at the sight, but she approached anyway, tensed to dodge. The leg was very, very bad to look at, and equally difficult to look away from. She forced herself to watch his face and hands, to keep at least a vague sense of his aura. “Give up?” she suggested, quietly.

He raised his free hand, and for an instant she thought he was going for his comm, but then he clenched it into a fist and wrapped his thoughts around her throat.

Ahene almost threw herself towards him, desperate to make it stop now now now—and caught herself just in time, remembering over the panic that he still had a saber in his hand. She fought his hold instead, struggling to tear away the collar of will and Force, her own free hand hovering near the base of her throat. In a single great push, she shoved her presence outward, flinging her thoughts against his like a durasteel hammer, and suddenly she was free again and gulping down ragged gasps of air. The apprentice wobbled and slid a few centimeters towards the ground. His wound was a red burning thing in her mind. Without thinking, she jerked her hand forwards, lightning striking him before he could recover enough to parry. He struggled for a moment against it, and then his pain—and life—guttered out.

She knew she didn’t have time to waste. More people would be there soon. Ahene closed the distance, keeping her eyes averted from the place his leg had fallen out at an angle, and took his saber to clip to her belt. Then she put a hand on Khem’s arm and dragged him into the shadows with her.

For the first few moments, all she could do was breathe, leaning against him as much as she dared. Every rise and fall of her chest threatened to break the cloak, stretched paper-thin around them. But she set her will against the feeling and took a step forwards, and then another, steering Khem with her centimeter by centimeter as they made their way into the bunker proper.

Skotia had apparently weighed defense against resupply difficulties and decided to leave only a token guard to back up the facility’s Sith. The second apprentice Khem and Ahene found was alone, watching a security console. She was less skilled than the first, and Khem’s sudden appearance occupied her well enough for Ahene to skewer her from behind. Unlocking the facility’s doors from there was fairly simple. Ahene committed the security map to her mind as best she could, then pulled her cloak back around the pair of them and slipped out of the room.

They caught the two soldiers heading for the entrance—and the vibrosword-wielding, gray-suited acolyte with them—from behind, shortly after. Khem remained unsettlingly resistant to blaster fire, and the acolyte’s instincts failed him outright; Ahene went from standing in shadow to having her saber through his chest before he could properly react.

It was over very quickly. Ahene sank to a crouch beside the acolyte’s corpse, trying to catch her breath. Shrouding Khem was exhausting, and she just kept having to fight, and all the adrenaline was starting to go fuzzy in her head. How many is that now? she thought. I can’t quite recall…

She strongly considered throwing up.

She didn’t have the time to indulge in squeamishness. Her breathing was still uneven as she forced herself back to her feet, trying not to wince at the final twist of hunger beside her, but she stood anyway. Being tired was not an option. Stopping for too long was even less of one—she was going to be all but dead on her feet the moment she let her momentum slip.

“Done?” she asked, quietly, as Khem straightened.

For now, little Sith.” He was amused again, in his stark barely-perceptible way. “But this was petty and unsatisfying—and you have a long, long way to go before you will have fulfilled your promise.

Oh, yes, her promise. She still wasn’t sure why she had made it, wounded and shaking and hanging from him on the strength of her will alone; it certainly didn’t seem like the kind of thing she would say. Even worse, she had—in that single endless moment—entirely meant it.

“Well,” she said. “We do still have a long way to go.”

Nevertheless,” he rumbled, “I have seen little to impress me. You sneak around like a wrat. You fight like one, as well, cornered. And I suspect you are prouder of that, little one, than you would admit.” There was a hint of laughter in his eyes, bitter and contemptuous. “But wrats make poor Sith. And when they are not beneath notice—they die.

Ahene let out a small, breathy ha. “I get it, Khem,” she said, “I’m a terrible Sith and I should feel terrible. This isn’t the time or the place. Come on.”

Little Sith—”

She could feel the bond against her fingers. “Khem,” she said. “Come on.”

He bowed mockingly. “Of course. I will obey.

Ahene reached out her free hand to pull him into the cloak again, but then thought better of it. If she spent much longer trying that, no amount of adrenaline would keep her on her feet. “If you don’t want to sneak around,” she said, “then maybe you want to distract our main enemy. I doubt any of those people were Lord Ogathu.”

Hmm. Perhaps.” He took that as the order it admittedly was, turning back to investigate the hall they’d been searching.

She stepped forwards and was in shadow again, hands trembling with the repeated effort, jaw set against the familiar creeping fear. She had better things to be scared of. Like the fact that she had no idea how she was going to fight a Sith Lord, like the fact that trying to attack one had gotten her into this mess in the first place—like the fact that she kept feeling that moment under her skin, again and again, as if there was no other way audacity like that could end.

But Zash wants me to kill a Darth, she thought, slipping through a locked-open door. So it will surely be good practice.

A few meters ahead of her and around a turn in the hall, the sounds of blaster fire erupted, shortly followed by the sounds of smashing metal. Very carefully, Ahene glanced around the bend. Khem was already striding forwards again, the caved-in chasses of droids scattered around him, neatly avoiding the question of whether their cameras could see her. She supposed she was glad not to find out just yet.

The droids had been guarding another opened door to another hall, this one slanting down in several great long stair-steps. Khem was descending, sword ready. Ahene followed, staying one of the long steps’ lengths behind, keeping her back towards the side wall. Each of her breaths felt cold and shallow in her throat. Her free hand went to the two new hilts clipped to her belt, tracing a finger along each one’s edge. Zash had mentioned the concept of a saberstaff, though Ahene hadn’t seen a real one yet; she wished she had one anyway, something to give back her reach and leverage.

(She was small, and scared, and beneath anyone’s notice, and that made her dangerous. She still wasn’t sure she would ever be dangerous enough.)

And Ahene wished, even more, that she could think of something clever to try. That there was a thread of advantage somewhere in this situation for her to pull free. But she couldn’t seem to extract one, and it was making her nervous—especially here, with the shadows pressing in, and nothing below her feet that could ground her. All she had was what she’d brought in, unless she wanted to draw an extra saber and try something reckless. (She didn’t.)

There was another door at the bottom of the hall, sealed shut despite the unlock command at the security console. Presumably, it wasn’t linked to the others.

Ahene put a hand against it, frowning, and let her cloak slip again. “So much for the element of surprise,” she murmured. It was an unpleasant thought, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

She spent another moment standing there, considering the situation, and then ignited her lightsaber.

Lord Ogathu was a large man, heavyset and loomingly tall, and almost certainly past middle age—though the dark-veined corruption on his face made it difficult to tell. Unlike most of the vaguely important Sith Ahene had seen so far, his clothing was extremely utilitarian. He was facing the blast door as they cut in, lightsaber drawn and glowing purple.

Ahene was gone again before Khem finished shouldering the door down. She dove over the falling slab of metal, hit the ground, rolled. The space where she’d been erupted in electricity as she touched down. She shoved herself up and kept moving, saber now unlit in her hand, and trusted that throwing lightning at Khem wouldn’t work any better for Ogathu than it had for her.

Ogathu’s eyes didn’t follow her as she circled—whatever allowed Zash to see her, he didn’t seem to have it—and instead darted around sharply. He looked far more annoyed than nervous, like he was searching for a missing datapad and not an invisible threat. Ahene could only hope that was underestimation. His saber came up into a guard, loose but precise, ahead of Khem’s inexorable approach. “You’re up the wrong tree,” he said, faux-conversationally. “Whatever Lord Qet found down here is long gone—if he found anything at all. Emperor only knows why any of that lot do anything, eh?”

Am I supposed to turn around and leave? Ahene didn’t say, because she wasn’t stupid enough to be baited. But she thought it very sarcastically, creeping around the far edge of the room. She could see the tablet Zash had sent her for laid out on an altar, an obscure heresy Skotia had made into a hostage; it was definitely too large to grab and run, even if that wouldn’t mean leaving the rebels to deal with an angry Sith.

Khem moved all at once, lunging forwards with the same deceptive speed that had almost killed her on Korriban—or was he even faster now?—and slammed the electric edge of his sword into Ogathu’s blade. Ogathu didn’t move fast enough to fully keep his balance, stumbling just slightly as he backed away. Another bolt of lightning leapt from his free hand, hitting Khem in the shoulder—again to no visible effect. Khem swung again, and Ogathu sidestepped, unwilling to take another hit. Their fight became a spiral, a whirl that sped with every step, until Ogathu’s saber seemed to leap and dance like a live wire and even Khem was starting to struggle keeping up. Disgust gnawed at Ahene’s stomach, twisting through their connection and dragging a claw across her focus, because this would have been easy, once, before the centuries drained away his strength, before he lost his lord and purpose and self-respect

She launched herself out of the shadows like a streak of red light, saber burning in her hand.

Ogathu was faster. He parried smoothly, though his footwork was getting ragged, and ducked back and slashed his saber at them in a way that made it look like a blazing purple whip. He was grinning now, golden sparks dancing in his eyes, the Force spinning around him like a wheel off its chain, and it didn’t look like Talvara’s grin but that barely seemed to matter, and Ahene stabbed at him and stabbed at him and only ever caught him on the blade. Khem dodged around him, sword descending overhead, and Ogathu went from a blade-lock to something halfway between a crouch and a dive, forcing Ahene to scramble back or be crushed.

The fight turned more and more frenetic. Khem wielded his sword like a hammer or a battering ram, his frustration always at the edge of Ahene’s consciousness. She tried to use speed, but Ogathu was faster; she tried to use precision, but Ogathu was more skilled. Her ankles burned, a sharp bite of pain shooting through each step, and—she had more endurance than this, she knew she did, but he just kept pushing

Pulling back wasn’t really a decision. Neither was wrapping her cloak back around herself. It was instinct, cool and certain, and the shadows caught her like an old friend even as they sucked the air from her lungs. Ahene staggered backwards towards the altar, panting down an icy breath, and watched.

Khem showed no sign of slowing or faltering. If it was up to him alone, he seemed more likely to win—but there were no guarantees, and Ahene didn’t know where his limits were, and the idea of letting him win a fight alone filled her with a creeping dread. A sense of here is a rule, and you are breaking it. But she very much could not fight Ogathu on his own terms, even with Khem’s help. So what were hers, if she could pick?

Khem had told her himself that he wasn’t immune to lightning—but that hers couldn’t hurt him.

She aimed at Ogathu’s feet.

Her cloak had torn before, with exertion or movement or desperation, but her lightning shredded it. With a flick of her wrist and a rush of vicious satisfaction, Ahene lashed a spike of electricity into that frantic whirl of footwork, forcing Ogathu to twist and stagger to avoid it, and then she stepped to the side and did it again, and again, and again

Overbalanced and overextended, Ogathu spun and hurled a return bolt at her. She let her ankles have what they wanted, and dropped.

When Khem’s sword came down, so did he.

It took a few moments, panting for breath and staring at the prone body, for Ahene to register that Ogathu wouldn’t be standing up again. She lifted her head. “Good work,” she said.

Then she turned to the side and tried not to throw up.

Chapter Text

10 ATC, 5:9 / 3 Ragnost, 1577
Dromund Kaas

Leaning on her staff for relief, Ahene raised her free hand and knocked on the door the rebels were waiting behind. There was a brief pause. Somewhere above the tunnels, the rain came down in a muted patter. She knocked again, harder.

There were more people on the other side than she had expected. Ahene quirked an eyebrow. “Four will be more difficult, you know.”

Kasson had a hand protectively bunched in Telk’s shirt. “No one else gets left behind,” they half-snarled, daring her to argue.

“They went and got him,” said Lym. She didn’t sound—or feel—entirely thrilled, but any debates had clearly been settled already. “You took a while in there.” Her gaze swept over Ahene, looking her up and down, and a smile tugged at her lips. “You also look like the scruffiest Sith in the galaxy.”

After deliberately covering herself in mud, changing back into her clean new clothes had only been able to do so much. Ahene shrugged. “The operative word in that,” she said, “is ‘Sith.’”

That got a quiet snort. “So it is,” said Lym. “Are we all ready?”

If any of them owned something they didn’t have with them, and cared enough to want to bring it—they didn’t say anything. They just looked between each other, and then at Ahene, in a ragged sort of sync. Regret coiled around and through them all, and determination. And Kasson’s deep, hopeless spite. And Lym’s worry and guilt, wondering if she’d done the right thing.

And the space Ahene was standing in, she was suddenly very aware, was meant for someone else. Someone made of growing roots and thin slivers of sky, who had hope and compassion and not just the stubbornness to keep trying. Someone who knew what to do with a wound. The grief was thick enough to choke on.

(There were so many griefs to choke on. There were so, so many ways to drown.)

“I’m—” The word came out wavering, and Ahene swallowed. Don’t falter. You’re in Sith clothes again.. “I’m going to take that as a yes,” she said, forcing herself to drawl it out, shifting her staff to the crook of her arm. “Hand me your weapons. I need to pretend you’re prisoners, and that would be difficult if you’re waving lethal arms around.”

She had expected protest, but Lym only grimaced for a moment before unhooking her belt and handing it over, blaster still in its holster. “Here,” said the engineer-leader. “In for a credit, in till the end. Don’t look so blank at me—we’re not stupid, we knew we’d be leaving through your camp.”

“It’s not my camp,” said Ahene, taking the belt and fastening it around her waist. It didn’t look very Sith-like, but her backpack now had enough lightsabers in it that she was loathe to rearrange things again—especially with the tablet as well. There were only so many weapons her clothing could keep safely packed and separated.

“This is really damn weird,” said Telk. “Just so you know.” He held out his hands, showing that they were free of weaponry; whatever he had, he’d left it behind.

Ahene lifted a hand to her temples. “Trust me,” she said. “I know.” She took Gielle’s belt as well, which definitely looked a bit ridiculous, and then turned to Kasson. She opened her hand, palm-up. “I know you don’t like this,” she murmured, “but…”

Kasson held out their enormous survival knife, blade-first, looking Ahene in the eye with an expression that made it clear they knew exactly what they were doing. “Here, quiet one,” they said. “Take it.”

She did. Slowly, without breaking eye contact, Ahene slid her palm under the flat of the knife and—gently—pressed the blade down with her thumb. She tugged at it, once, and it came free from Kasson’s unresisting grip. “Thank you,” she said. They made no move to hand her the sheath; after a pause, she shrugged one shoulder and bent to slide it blade-up into her boot.

“Kasson,” said Gielle, with quiet exasperation. “You two are being ridiculous. Just give her your belt.”

Ahene paused, blade pinched between her fingers, as Kasson considered this directive. They didn’t quite follow it, instead detaching the sheath and holding it out. Anger and embarrassment fought inside them, the feelings of someone who knew they were being childish, that they were only wasting time, and who still couldn’t stop themself. She couldn’t be upset; Void knew Kasson had enough reasons to test her.

She took the sheath and slipped the knife in. “Thank you so very much,” she said, with a tiny, ironic sort of smile. Maybe she was testing, too.

“We should get moving,” said Lym, crossing her arms. It was an impassive posture, but her fingers dug tight into the space just under her shoulders, and there was grief tightening in her chest. “Gielle, Kasson, Telk—I’m not going to ask you if you want to back out. You’d tell me it’s an insult, or at least think it. And I’m not going to make a speech. This is not a speech kind of moment.” The ghost of a grin tugged at her mouth. “Get in line, all of you. We’re moving out.”

Ahene slung her staff back over her shoulders, unwilling to let the Imperials see her leaning on it. “Aren’t I supposed to say that?” she asked, a hint of amusement in her voice.

“Oh, Sith,” said Lym. It was a real grin now, thin and toothy. “Did something give you the idea you’re in charge?”

Ahene ate the other half of the ration bar on the way back to the Imperial camp, having dumped all the weapons but the knife at one of the early markers, as a gnawing in her stomach gradually replaced the pain of walking. No one talked very much. If she concentrated, she could feel the flow of life through her, the Force repairing the damage she had done to herself. She didn’t try to speed it up. The previous night had brought home more than one lesson, and it would be too easy to reach her hands into that flow and forget everything else.

That feeling might have explained the greed of the Empire, with the Sith at its heart. But the idea of touching it without revulsion—the idea that she could ever want the power of it without revulsion—was impossible to imagine, even as she was terrified that it would draw her in anyway. It was difficult to conceptualize that it could be compelling, without that terrible layered edge.

Which was all a way to say that—even if she knew she couldn’t blame the Force for all that had been done to her—the ability to watch without touching felt like a victory over it, and over what she was expected to be.

Eventually, they passed from the stone-marked rebel paths into thinning open jungle, crossing the Imperial lines without passing any of the ‘chokepoints’ the soldiers held. There was no way to cut off the rebels’ movements entirely, only to block them off from crossing the cliff the Imperial camp sat on—and the chokepoints were, admittedly, the only route a lot of people would be able to move through quickly. Lym explained some of this, barely audible under the constant spattering of the rain. The rest could be filled in: that the path they were using was usually walked by scouts and supply thieves, and even if an attacking force could be moved along it, there would be no point. The Empire would always have more people and better weapons and new supplies coming in. Even if the camp was destroyed, there would be nowhere to go on the other side.

Lym had picked up the last few markers on the trail. She tossed them all into a bush as the group neared the Imperial camp, neatly cutting off the path for further use. There was a tight, grim smile on her face as she did it.

“Places, everyone,” murmured Ahene, looking back over her shoulder. Everyone was arranged in a line, Lym just a pace behind her and Khem bringing up the rear. “You know what to do.”

“My lord,” said Lym, bowing, with an irony no actual lord would have heard. Ahene allowed herself to make a face in response. Further down the line, Telk squeezed Kasson’s hand and let go; there were shifts in posture, and subtler ones in mindset and aura. Tension and wariness asserted themselves. Gielle ran a hand down one lek, coaxing it into going limp, as the other slithered into a coil around her neck.

Ahene ignited her lightsaber. She didn’t want there to be any doubt about who—or, at least, what—was approaching. Kory’s death was already on her hands, which was unforgivable enough; she wouldn’t let some trigger-happy soldier add more losses to the list. (And in the back of her mind, she wondered how Sirue was ever coping with losing her, when a far lesser grief could gnaw at her like this. Everything was a chain back to that guilt, if she let it be.)

She bit down on the feeling, holding it like a weapon in her teeth, and led the way forwards.

They came into the clear space before the bridge not long after, behind the first line and in front of the second. A few troopers guarded the area, crouched behind prefabricated half-walls or leaning on them. The latter straightened immediately as they caught sight of her. Panic, the Force whispered. Trepidation. Not bodily terror, at least once they registered that she wasn’t an enemy, but the mental flinches of people who expected her to shout at them for slacking.

“Don’t get up on my account,” said Ahene, snapping off her saber. She could feel their eyes crawling over her, searching for some sign of the mood she was in; she kept her face impassive, neither able nor fully willing to offer them reassurance. It still wasn’t entirely pleasant to watch them squirm, despite what they were here to do—the way they watched her was too familiar. “I have four prisoners for my master,” she told the closest of the soldiers, letting some of the affected drawl slip out of her voice. “I came in a two-person aircar—which has, I think, gone home anyway. Who can solve this problem for me?”

The soldier saluted, aura coloring with wary relief at the out. “Milord,” she said. “That’d be the transport officer. He’s probably in the officers’ shelter with the outpost commander and Lord Drowl, over near the landing beacons.”

“Right. Thank you.” Ahene clipped the hilt to her belt and stepped forward, gesturing for the rebels to follow. “Come on, then—let’s get this over with.” She strode past the waist-high barricades, shoulders squared, eyes fixed on the path ahead. The bridge was long and narrow, the river too far down to see or hear. At least this crossing had railings—designed for function rather than intimidation, unlike the Citadel’s inner layers.

Her boots squished into the soft ground as she stepped off the anchoring platform on the other side. The cooling packs were doing their job, at least; she was still absolutely soggy, and the air was oppressively humid, but she felt less overheated than she had in her much thinner old clothing. Ahene wondered, cynically, if her relief at that was a sign of weakness—but she thought she was grateful to 2V anyway. (She would certainly not be grateful to Zash.) Her gaze passed semi-randomly across the camp until she found what she was looking for, eyes stopping on the single yellow landing beacon visible from where she was standing, and she set off again without a glance behind her. A proper Sith wouldn’t need to look to know the others were following.

Neither did she, for that matter. But she liked to see things for herself.

It became clear, as they made their way into a proper line of sight, that the transport officer wasn’t inside the officers’ shelter. There was a decent-sized Ministry of Logistics hover-truck set down at one edge of the cleared landing area, with a number of crates arrayed in front of it. The logo on the crates didn’t match the one on the truck, but it wasn’t one Ahene had seen frequently, and it was hard to make the lettering out through the rain. From the way the scattering of soldiers in the area were treating the crates, though, the contents were clearly fragile. Directing the unloading was an older human man in a white uniform jacket, an umbrella clutched grimly in one hand. He gestured exaggeratedly with the other as he called out orders.

Their emotions were a jumble. Stressed, strung out, exhausted—that seemed to be the transport officer. The soldiers unloading were varying degrees of nervous and annoyed and uncomfortable. There might have been a driver inside the hover-truck, as well, but it was difficult to tell, and maybe a few people in the nearby building, and that acrid tang in the Force meant that Lord Drowl was probably around there too. Ahene didn’t mind that flow of information—even liked it, so long as it was useful, so long as it was something extra. Not a replacement for her other senses, but an enhancement. A tool to use.

She came up a bit behind the transport officer, walking softly, and cleared her throat.

He turned. “Yes, what now—oh, my lord. What can I do for you?” He waved a hand vaguely towards the byplay. “Lord Drowl has ordered all this lab equipment, so you’ll have to speak with him if you’re looking for that, of course. Apologies for the trouble.”

Ahene knew she shouldn’t ask. There was absolutely no satisfying answer to the question, and she had things to do. “Why,” she found herself saying anyway, “is Lord Drowl ordering lab equipment to the middle of the jungle?”

The transport officer looked very, very tired. “You would have to ask him that, my lord.”

“Noted,” said Ahene. She ruthlessly quashed the urge to apologize, however well she knew his expression—no one would be happy if Sith started recognizing the language of put-upon subordinates. “I need to move myself, the Dashade, and four prisoners for my master. Will you need that truck when you’re done unloading?”

“The truck? Oh, no, that should be fine—I’m sure the driver won’t mind,” said the transport officer, with a remarkably straight face. “I don’t suppose you’ll sign for those prisoners? I’m certain I have the paperwork around here somewhere…”

“I’m rather late already,” said Ahene, who did not want to sign for anything if she could help it.

“Ah. Yes, of course. Excuse me—” The transport officer glanced away. “Goren! That says ‘handle with care,’ do you understand me?”

Her instincts itched to help with the unloading—she had unpacked survey equipment a thousand times, it would be so much faster than letting the soldiers flounder around wishing their loading droids weren’t all in the rebel camp. They were the wrong instincts. “I will leave you to that,” Ahene said, suppressing a grimace. “Thank you for the assistance.”

“Of course, my lord, happy to help,” said the transport officer, barely looking towards her. He cleared his throat sharply at his team and adjusted his grip on his umbrella. “Hear that? There’s a Sith waiting on you lot to finish! Hurry it up—carefully, for the Emperor’s sake!”

As promised, Ahene left him to it and started off towards the door of the driver’s compartment, the rebels following in a nervous cluster at her heels. It was a small pod at the front of the vehicle, only big enough for one—not ideal, but it would at least spare her from leaving Khem alone with the rebels. She raised her hand and knocked loudly on the side.

The driver, who had been reading a datapad in her lap, looked up and scrambled to roll the window down. “Milord!” she said, snapping off a salute—thankfully, she didn’t seem inclined to try to bow inside her less-than-roomy cabin. “I hope everything’s to your master’s satisfaction?”

“I’m not Lord Drowl’s,” said Ahene. She tapped her fingers against the sheath of Kasson’s knife, awkwardly shoved into her belt. “Look, I’m already late—I need to get to the East Commercial District spaceport, meet up with my master’s driver, and get this lot off my hands. Can you take me there?”

The driver very conspicuously avoided making a face. “There’s no passenger compartment, milord…”

“I can see that,” Ahene said. She didn’t snap at the woman, despite feeling tempted, even if it might have sped things up. “I’m asking you to take us in the cargo compartment, not produce a passenger shuttle from nowhere. I’m covered in mud—do you think I’m the picky kind of Sith? Don’t make it more awkward than it already is.”

“Of course,” said the driver, relenting. “As soon as the chemicals and equipment and things are offloaded, milord, I can get you back into the city. Just to the spaceport?”

“Just to the spaceport. I have an exceptionally anxious droid to meet.”

“Understood.” The driver lifted her hand in another salute. “Pleasure to serve, milord.”

The East Commercial district’s spaceport was an indoor-outdoor sprawl, heavy on the outdoor. Cargo transports ranged from the small (and small-time) to the enormous, and it was set up to take all of them, as well as the pointy-nosed midsized crafts Ahene recognized as slave haulers. Around and between the landing pads was a network of buildings and gates and fences. Most of the structures looked like little warehouses, probably storing fuel and tools for maintenance, but the long pathways all eventually led into the main street-side building or out to the loading bays. She didn’t truly know spaceports—not the way Sirue had needed to learn them, after they’d been moved from the ruin expedition—but she thought this one was too large for even the probe droids and security workers to watch all at once. It was definitely bigger than the port at Verios Landing, and it hadn’t been security that caught them there.

Ahene watched for a moment as the hover-truck vanished into the skyline, then gestured for the rebels to come closer. She leaned in, trying to make it look like she was inspecting the lineup. “Stay with me,” she murmured—quietly, unnecessarily. “I’ll wave you off when I can, once we find one of the contacts, and they’ll take you from there. What I’m planning to do… no one should notice.”

“What exactly are you going to do?” whispered Telk. “Look, I’m going along with this, but, uh—I would like more than ‘by the way, the kid was a Sith apprentice, and she’s helping smuggle us to other rebels off-planet.’ You understand?”

“I’m going to act like a Sith,” she said. “Void help me.”

He didn’t look particularly enlightened, but actual explanations would have been too difficult. She flashed, just for a moment, what she hoped was a reassuring expression, and then she turned sharply and gestured for them to follow.

They made a ridiculous line. The rebels couldn’t pass for proper personal servants, not really; even the engineers were probably former class-ones, like her. Most personal servants were class-twos, and the class-twos’ supervisors and other such trusted slaves were the rarer and less restricted class-threes. But she was an inexperienced apprentice, and one who looked like she’d been tromping through almost as much mud as the rebels had. An apprentice might take a team of dig-workers to do the physical work, she hoped, and might drag that team with her on an errand for her master. There were thousands of apprentices in the city, and they clearly terrified people—had authority to pull people into their missions, and perhaps to hurt or even kill the low-ranking—but they weren’t, generally speaking, particularly important.

If she was right, that would work to her advantage, and no one would expect her to seem like someone with an image of her own to maintain.

Ahene strode into the spaceport not like she owned the place—which would mean having to ensure that papers were in order and messes cleaned up afterwards—but like she could make trouble for the people who did. She didn’t try to emulate Talvara’s languid swagger, which wouldn’t suit her at all, and she knew she couldn’t pull off Kelshrin’s icy, malicious authority, but she reached deep inside herself and pulled up something else. The part of her that would make so much trouble—burn so many things—if it could. That said how dare you when people tried to worm their way into her mind, grimly delighted by a phrase she would never allow herself to speak. That kept her alive and not hating herself, too, because there were no hard lines between hope and pride and hunger in the end.

She wrapped herself in it like a very different kind of cloak, and led her little group off to find their accomplice. There was a hard edge in her eyes.

The spaceport wasn’t crowded—it didn’t take passenger ships, or not many. The people who were there moved quickly, though, rushing to get things where they needed to go before the continuing Founding Days celebration ran out of anything. As the group made their way into the arrival concourse, a woman hurried out with five overfilled float pallets following her, too frantic to give even a Sith apprentice more than a brief glance.

Purple banners hung beside the Imperial flags on the walls inside. In the middle of the concourse, a pair of officers in Logistics’ white jacket were discussing some urgent matter—Ahene caught firefoam shipment and unexpected demand and should have been here hours ago—while a similarly dressed private scrolled frantically through a datapad with their stylus clutched in their teeth. Beside a rest area’s benches, a well-dressed man was arguing quietly with a droid that looked a lot like 2V. Troops patrolled back and forth, providing security.

Ahene had gotten descriptions of the potential contacts. A yellow twi’lek woman, working as a janitor and general hauler of things. A skinny, seafoam-pale rodian man who did mechanical maintenance. A blonde-haired human girl, somewhere into her teens, learning at the heels of one of the other slave mechanics. The last was the worst option—she’d be hardest to get alone, and her fellows would worry more if a Sith pulled her away. Not to mention how strange it would look to the people who could do something about their suspicions. She ignored the people in the concourse for the moment and headed towards the landing pads, ignoring the sign that marked it as being for authorized personnel only.

I am Sith, she told herself, trying—for this moment alone—to believe it. The least and the lowest, but still Sith. Let them try to make the rules apply to me.

Most of the walkways were only open at the sides, tall posts holding up a roof that kept off the majority of the rain. The people here were less likely to be wearing Imperial uniforms, and more likely to be wearing baggy gray jumpsuits and shock collars. Ahene’s gaze slid over each of them, trying to evaluate them without looking like she particularly cared, and idly she wondered if this would be easier holding a clipboard—though, no, then they’d probably think she was conducting an inspection, which would almost certainly result in people trying to tell her debatably-accurate information about things she didn’t need to know, wasting everyone’s time and keeping her from carrying out her actual plan.

She moved like she knew what she was looking for, knowing that it had to be enough. Her planned course—risky, haphazard, flawed—burned with a double-edged warmth in her head. She was increasingly familiar with how it felt to push herself to move faster, but now she pushed herself to see faster, and was not sure whether it was working. But eventually one of the potential contacts caught her eye anyway: the rodian, seen through one of the large square archways into the warehouses. He was checking a line of tools, looking for something specific, lost in thought.

Ahene mentally apologized for what she was about to do—namely scare him out of his wits—and slipped in. He didn’t notice her until she was at his shoulder, one hand already closing loose around his wrist, bending to whisper into his ear. “Don’t yell,” she hissed, before he could react. “I know who you are, I know what you do, Nas says hello, I need your help.” She took a breath and added, at a more reasonable pace: “You can talk now. Quietly.”

His eyes, large and dark, were full of fear. “Sith?” he whispered, and she could feel the whimper he strangled in his throat.

She should have been afraid too, of getting caught. But the opportunity for defiance felt liberating. “Yes,” she said, “but not right now. Maybe in a few minutes. Will you help us, or not?”

“I don’t know anything.” He was not trying to be convincing.

“Wonderful. I do.” Ahene’s voice stayed low and even, never faltering. “I know that if you don’t get these four people to whatever captain smuggles escapees off-planet”—and she could only hope they actually did, instead of selling them all to Intelligence or the Sith who’d backed the rebellion—“then they’ll die, probably after being tortured horribly. You think you can’t trust them not to be spies. Spies would not have been sent with a Sith, because that would be stupidly obvious. I’m on your side.” She didn’t let her breath catch. “As much as I can be on anyone’s.”

The rodian was silent for a few seconds, emotions wheeling. “There are five people with you,” he eventually said.

“Khem—the tall one—stays with me. He’s my…” Accomplice? Bodyguard? Those were the nice words. “Associate,” she finished. “We’re stuck with each other. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” he said, sick with regret and sincerity both. “Yes. The captain is in dock—I’ll tell the people you brought where, but not you. Not personal, just security, so no one knows too many names. Deal, ah… my lord?”

“I’m not anybody’s lord,” she said. Her grin was very small, very brief, and very sharp. “But if I was, it would be the Imperials’.”

Ahene walked into the office of the port-master’s second-in-command, entirely ignoring the secretary in the outer room, and put a hand down on the desk. “You have a records problem,” she said.

The woman sitting there—black-haired, just a tiny bit paler than Ahene, alike enough they could have passed for cousins—seemed to notice her for the first time, her mind nudged away from the entrance itself by a half-deliberate aura of quiet. “Ah,” she said, distantly. “My lord. What seems to be the matter?”

Ahene had practiced this part in her head on the way back, running through a thousand variations on what she intended to say. “My master sent me for a historical relic she had shipped,” she informed the woman, whose holographic nameplate read First Lieutenant Toradasa Izarae-Dannar, Inventory Overseer. The name didn’t seem to suit her. “Your consoles, however, tell me that no such shipment exists. Do you see my problem?”

“Yes.” Toradasa didn’t sigh, but there was a heaviness in her presence as she turned off her terminal and rose. “I will see what can be done, my lord.” A slight uncanny curiosity flickered in her. “May I ask your name?”

Not giving it would, once again, be far more suspicious. And it didn’t seem like Zash’s enemies had an interest in spaceports. “Ahene.” She was beginning to feel naked with only a first name, here in the heart of the Empire, but she’d kept her last name out of its mouth this long. She didn’t know who had given her Coris, or what had happened to them—surely nothing good—and had never more than idly cared, and yet it had once been her only secret and petty spite. The thought of giving it up made her feel vaguely sick.

Toradasa, entirely unaware of what her perfectly reasonable question had sparked, frowned at the datapad she had picked up. “Ah—and your master’s name, my lord? Assuming it was placed in hers, that is.”

“I serve Lord Zash.” Ahene was fairly sure no one would call a Sith Lord to say they didn’t have her nonexistent artifact. “And I have no idea why she would place it in anyone else’s.”

That got a flicker of expression, an attempt not to smile. It worked, but the emotions still showed in the inventory overseer’s presence. “Then she has an admirable sense of honor, my lord.” Toradasa paused, briefly, to tap something into the datapad. She sighed and tucked her stylus behind her ear. “I’m afraid you’re correct—we don’t have any shipments listed labeled as historical artifacts, nor anything for a Lord Zash. The easiest solution would be for us to run a manual enter/exit check, my lord, lasting the rest of the day; we would comm the ships as they land and before we assign them an exit window. Or we can try to contact the captains where they are—though I can’t promise that would be any faster.”

“The rest of the day?” Ahene made a deliberate grimace at that, lips pulled back just slightly from her teeth, but inwardly—oh, she couldn’t have asked for a better opening if she’d tried. “I might as well check them all myself,” she said, putting an edge in her voice, moving as if to do just that. Come on…

Toradasa took the bait, or maybe—from the edge of wry satisfaction in her presence—decided that Ahene had taken hers. “I’ll accompany you, my lord,” she said, coming into step as the rebels moved to keep behind. “If I started conducting extra cargo inspections myself, I’d be drowning in complaints, but they won’t argue with your presence.”

“I should hope not,” said Ahene. It was, despite the faux irritation, completely true.

Ahene didn’t put her plan into action immediately. She walked beside Toradasa for the first few ships, occasionally making some small comment, never quite letting her feigned annoyance fade. Most of the vessels, the inventory overseer explained, were unlocked for maintenance and unloading—the guards at all exits and the air defense tractor beams were sufficient to prevent theft of cargo or ship. The small-item transports that weren’t were required to keep crew on board. Same with the slave ships, though of course they didn’t carry nonliving cargo at all.

Discussion of the slave ships got a flash of disgust from Kasson; deadened anger from Lym; something diffuse and hard-to-pin from Gielle and Telk. Ahene wondered, somewhere in the back of her mind, if she would have still loved the idea of space after being transported on one. She hoped she would have. There was too much of it out there to hate.

At the fourth ship—closing in on thirty minutes in—Ahene let her expression deepen into a frown. “I assume you can’t pull any more people for this?”

“We’re very short-handed getting things to the festival, my lord,” said Toradasa apologetically. “I was coordinating some of it, but of course my secretary can handle that for the moment—Sith business comes first. It would have been disrespectful to pawn you off on somebody else.”

There was no hint of a double message in the woman’s presence, but Ahene understood it anyway. Her expression softened, and even she wasn’t sure whether it was with real sympathy or fake—or which was worse. “I’m sure your people appreciate that,” she said, quietly, voice lowering to something almost sincere. “I didn’t come here to disrupt their work. But we have to move faster, or my master will be unimpressed with me.” She tipped her head in acknowledgement of this inconvenience, looking wry. Then she straightened and snapped her fingers soundlessly. “Can the probe droids look? They can check the loading bays, in case someone set it aside to report later.”

“That’s… a good idea, my lord,” said Toradasa. She seemed taken aback, though it didn’t show on her face—she probably wasn’t used to Sith showing sympathy. Or having good ideas, for that matter. “I’ll send them an order. That reminds me—I assume you don’t have the crate’s serial number?”

“If I did, would we be doing this?”

“You might be surprised by some of the complaints we get, my lord.” Toradasa tapped the order into her datapad, smiling faintly. Ahene had to say this for her—the inventory overseer was a lot less terrorized than any of the other Imperials she’d seen since Korriban. It was something of a relief. “There we go. Droids ordered to the first six.”

“Hm.” Ahene held out a hand. “Let me see that?”

Toradasa turned the datapad so Ahene could see the map. There were twelve bays, and the little dots marking the probe droids that patrolled the premises were indeed heading towards one half. If the rodian conspirator had said which bay—but he hadn’t, so there was no point in dwelling. Ahene studied it for a few long moments, then gestured for Lym to come forwards.

“See the other set?” she said. She could taste the moment of truth on her tongue, even knowing she’d be here an hour or two yet, even knowing she would never know if it worked. “I want you four searching those bays yourselves—make yourselves useful while you’re here. If you find it, you have my comm. If anyone gives you trouble, you have my comm. Otherwise, I’ll have 2V take you back to the excavation when I move on.” Ahene’s lips twitched with a smile she couldn’t give them. “As tempting as it is to have you paw more boxes for me, someone might as well get work done today.”

“My lord,” murmured Lym, bowing. Her emotions were noticeably bittersweet.

“Go,” Ahene said. “Get moving.” And good luck. I’ll do what I can, I promise…

“Yes, my lord.” And, without further comment, they did.

(So did something else, like sunlight vanishing over the horizon. Something that was faint, and then gone.)

Ahene turned back to Toradasa, stomach twisting with hope and dread and lack of closure. “Right,” she said. “Let’s keep going, shall we? I am entirely capable of opening a few crates myself.”

There was no time for anything else.

The secretary appeared with tea about an hour and a half in, during a brief interlude where Toradasa’s comm had gone off twice and Ahene had waved her away to deal with the crisis—something to do with the firefoam shipment finally arriving, not just hours late, but with half the ordered product. Ahene leaned against the wall, eying the tea thoughtfully, as Toradasa chewed out the freighter’s captain for—apparently—making an unauthorized stopover to try to get the rest, not calling home, and thinking that the situation would be better if they explained in person instead of calling home.

She took a sip. It tasted like plants and bitterness, and almost entirely unlike her foggy memories of tea at the city-crèche. Maybe they had been kids about it, and dumped in enough sugar to keep themselves up all night, and somebody had let them—that was the sort of thing that made a good story, something to tell yourself when you got homesick for the past. More likely, Ahene thought, she just couldn’t remember very well, or Verios used very different leaves.

It didn’t taste bad, really. She kind of liked it.

The call didn’t take long—less than ten minutes, agitated frustration flashing inside Toradasa’s presence like a broken streetlight. She snapped an order for the captain to report to someone—not her—and shoved the comm in her pocket, striding back to where Ahene stood. “I apologize for the wait, my lord,” she said. “Some people have just never heard of sunk costs, I swear. Where were we?”

“I was wondering if you were somehow storing an infinite number of ships,” said Ahene, with an entirely straight face. “Are you? It would be quite the advantage, I’m sure.”

Toradasa had the discipline not to laugh, but she considered laughing hard enough that it showed. “Not to my knowledge, my lord. Which is for the best, because I don’t think anyone wants to catalogue an infinite number of ships.”

“That would be an issue,” Ahene agreed, still far too pleased by the woman’s general—boldness, perhaps, though putting it that way felt fundamentally wrong. Like admitting that it actually was dangerous to be bold with her, rather than everyone being under the collective delusion that she was a real Sith.

“We’re getting close to done, anyway. Most of the ships here have already gone through inspection, so we know they’re not carrying any relics.” Toradasa raised a hand to her head, running her fingers through her hair. “And I hope that means we’re getting close,” she said. “I really do want to find this thing for you, my lord, for the sake of duty and for the sake of having something go right today. It’s been—but you don’t need to hear about that. Should we move on?”

“Let’s,” said Ahene, straightening. She led the way out to the next landing pad, half-forgotten tea in hand.

More time passed, in the particular way it does when you want to be done with something; each second somehow appeared to be several seconds standing on each other’s shoulders. It didn’t help that Toradasa continued to be likable, and only mildly appalled at a Sith helping her open crates. She didn’t deserve the wild gizka chase she was being dragged around on—not any more than any other Imperial did. Not even knowing that this port processed slaves. Some poisons couldn’t be escaped, and trying to hate everyone they touched would only drive you rabid.

That was a betrayal and a justification. It was also true.

It went without saying that neither of them found a relic that didn’t exist. Certainly Khem didn’t, barely helping—“He watches for my master,” Ahene murmured, remembering the other apprentices’ assumptions, when Toradasa’s eyes started to linger on him. He let her say it, silent and impassive as he had been while she escorted the rebels. And when the search was over, Toradasa sighed and led them all back to her office, nodding to her secretary as they trudged past the first desk.

“I really am sorry, my lord,” said Toradasa, when the door had slid shut behind them. “If you’re going on to check other ports, the Southeastern Commercial District’s gets mixed up with us most often, for the obvious reason. They take the biggest ships—the ones we don’t—so they might’ve overlooked it, or not gotten to it, or decided they were too busy to contact the recipient. Would that I could do more, but…”

Ahene shrugged with her free hand. “I hardly expect you to produce something you don’t have, Lieutenant.”

“And I’m very grateful for that.” Toradasa set the datapad down on her desk and threaded her hands together, almost—but not quite—wringing them. Then she paused, apparently making a decision, and took a small hard-flimsi card from a holder. She held it out. “Here, my lord,” she said. “My holomail address. If you can’t find it—contact me. I know more than a few of the Logistics people around here, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to ask around a bit.”

Ahene took the card, wondering if she should have been feeling more guilty or less. “You’d go out of your way like that?” She allowed a small, thin smile. “I didn’t think I was that scary.”

“You weren’t, my lord—you’ve been very understanding, in fact. My personal higher powers would work me over if I didn’t show some appreciation for that. And I would deserve it.” Toradasa smiled in return, and there was something faintly wistful in her aura. “They spend far too much time sorting out other people’s apprentices, I’m told.”

That was bewilderingly familiar, coming from someone who didn’t seem to work directly for a Sith—and maybe would have been more so from someone who did, though Kelshrin and Talvara might not actually have been representative. Ahene inclined her head slightly, letting it pass; even if she’d wanted to admit ignorance, she didn’t have a clue what to ask. “Well,” she said, “I appreciate it, no matter the reason. You’ve been a great help.”

“Always an honor.” Toradasa raised her hand in salute. “And—good luck, my lord.”

“I’ll stop dripping on your carpet now,” said Ahene, who was truthfully no longer all that damp. She lifted her own hand in an extremely vague mirror of the gesture and slipped out, Khem at her heels.

There were still people hurrying through the main concourse, though the Logistics officers were now sitting and drinking their own tea, with their assistant nowhere to be seen. They exuded tiredness. No one came up to Ahene to point weapons at her, or ask unsettling questions, or tell her that the slaves she brought had been caught trying to escape. It was the last option that terrified her the most—that she’d be forced to be seen punishing them, maybe even lethally, and get the mechanic and his contact killed besides. But she walked out freely, with only the glances that a Sith and a Dashade could be expected to attract.

As she stepped out the front door, she felt almost giddy. With relief, with something that had gone through exhaustion and come out the other side, with—she had done it, hadn’t she? Surely she had, if no one had stopped her. Even if she could never know for certain. Surely she had done it.

Ahene looked out at the scattered crowd, in their purple shawls and hats and badly-made feather boas, and made a decision. “I think,” she said, turning to Khem, “that I owe our friend back there a gift. Don’t you?”

He radiated disgust. It was an active, deliberate thing, pressed through the bond like he thought he could punish her with it. “That was treason, little Sith.

Ahene raised the plastifoam cup to her lips, and found that the tea had gone cold. She took a sip anyway. “I am aware,” she said.

You took a great risk for such insignificant allies. They cannot reward you, little one.” Something flickered in his eyes, staring at her with level intensity. “Do you not fear me knowing?

She stepped back off the curb and spread her hands, wearing a blank expression more provokingly than a smirk. “Who would you tell?”