1. Falling Down
Malachor is a barren planet. On its surface, one can see nothing but perfect flatness for hundreds of miles, populated only by strange black monoliths. From a distance, the monoliths look almost migratory, strangely alive. Up close, they look like tombstones of giants.
Naturally, they rather appeal to Maul’s tendency towards the dramatic.
The Sanctum - the only city that exists in this strange and featureless expanse - is tucked away in a vast, underground cavern. The Sith that had once resided here had been in hiding; no doubt fleeing from their archrivals, the Jedi. They tucked themselves away from the light, safe and sound in the belly of the depths.
The surface that covers the Sanctum is thin and delicate, like the shell of an egg. Maul’s metal legs are far too much for it to bear, and his first trip into the Sanctum is a fall.
The city itself feels enormous at first sight. In actuality, it isn’t big at all, but the pressure of the cavernous ceiling makes all those within it feel small. He’s certain that is by design - that sense of religious awe; that dread. Maul remembers coming here once, with his master, when he was very young. Back then, the city had seemed even larger. The shadows swallowed up the ill-defined edges of its space, making it appear both claustrophobic and strangely infinite.
He remembers being terrified, because he was always terrified of his master and the brutal lessons Sidious sought to teach him. He remembers, too, the visions he experienced - the generations of hatred he inherited from the dead Sith of Malachor. Those visions had been so profound and so visceral that he still finds himself struggling to untangle his own grievances from those of ghosts. It’s yet another reminder that most of his impulses are not his own, only the product of Sidious’ machinations. But there’s nothing he can do about that.
The evidence of Malachor’s death throes are revealed in the ashen sculptures frozen in their moment of their final decimation. There are hundreds of such figures scattered before the city; the frozen bodies of Sith and Jedi alike, impossible to distinguish between one or the other.
They’re almost like dancers, Maul reflects.
In the right light, the figures appear eerily beautiful, bent into graceful shapes. But up close, the faces are distorted with agony, rage, terror. Maul cannot get too close to them without hearing voices, and he fears them superstitiously. He observes them only from a distance, where they are beautiful and simple.
Many sabers are strewn in the ashes of their masters. Most of these weapons are still perfectly operational. Maul finds this to be the case when he picks one up and a noble green blade cuts through the darkness. He turns the blade over in his hand, wondering at the permanency of the crystal within. It seems no less itself than before. Time does not degrade the Force.
Once I die, thinks Maul, it’s possible no one will ever see this place again.
But Maul doubts this is true. It has always been impossible (in his experience, at least) to run from the universe. He has hidden in darkness many times; folded himself into the most forgotten spaces of the galaxy… but that hardly matters. Being powerful in the Force means that you are always tethered to all others who are themselves powerful in the Force. Maul can pull against that line all he wants, and his enemies pull in kind. At some point, their strength gives way and they rebound into one another.
Like dancers. Or prisoners, I suppose.
It is a strange and bitter thought. Maul cannot escape that tether, no matter how he wishes he could. It’s a permanent fixture of him, a cruel irony. Maul would never truly be alone, yet he would always hate those who were bound to him.
We can’t keep meeting like this, he hears Kenobi jest, the memory so vivid that he almost hears it for real. People are going to talk.
(Maul has encountered Kenobi on the field of battle so many times in his life that he cannot precisely remember when Obi-wan had said that, or what precipitated the joke in the first place. He only remembers being so infuriated that he had tried, and failed, to cut off Kenobi’s head.)
Of course, the number of people pulling on that thread had diminished considerably in the preceding years. Maul feels just how few there are left now. Yes, of course, Force-sensitive children will always be born, just as they always have been… but without training, their presence is only a faint and distant star in the blackness of his mind. Their powers will never be realized.
That is for their own good.
Maul only knows of a handful of (competent) Force-users left. Sometimes he sees them in his mind’s eye; in a swamp; on the bridge of a Star Destroyer; in the sands of a vast desert; at the edges of an ocean expanse; in a field of grass that stretches into a lonely horizon. They reside in forgotten and remote places… like this one. And no doubt, the others will dream of dark tunnels and a dead city. They will feel Maul’s bitterness as keenly as he feels their own.
Maul is hiding, but he is not alone. In the darkness, he finds himself studying the web that binds himself to the others. He sees himself as an insect. He thinks of them all as insects; every Force user still living and breathing in this black universe. They are trapped together, utterly, inescapably. And they are terrified, for his master is the spider in the center of that web, waiting patiently for them to quiver.
Days turn to weeks, weeks to months, months to years.
Maul maps the layout of the city in its entirety. All that he can access is known to him; every building, every room, every tapestry, every corpse. He finds the chamber where bodies were once ceremoniously cremated. The stone pyre still feels hot to the touch, full of memory. The sensation brings him to the edge of tears and he doesn’t know why, and he never goes back.
Malachor does not change in the way that Lotho Minor does. Things do not move unless Maul moves them. The stillness is absolute, and Maul often feels like a ghost haunting this world. Sometimes, the feeling is so powerful and so tortuously lonely that he’s certain that he will turn to dust on the spot.
Of course, he doesn’t.
There are ghosts, though. He sees them often, but they are benign and only exist at the edges of his periphery. There, they can be dismissed as mere shadows, or a trick of his bored and lonely mind. He hears them more often than he sees them: whispers and footsteps and distant, plaintive cries.
The Sanctum is recalcitrant. Every secret he does uncover is frustratingly slow to reveal itself; every insight is yielded with deep reluctance. Most doors remain shut… but Maul had expected this when he came to Malachor, and he isn’t surprised. He is only one Sith, and a single Sith cannot exercise the full breadth of their power, no matter their training, no matter their hate.
Even so, he’s disappointed.
Maul speaks, of course. The silence bears down too heavily for him not to speak. He spends most of his time in the caverns, where there are small, blind creatures to hunt, and clean water to draw from underground reservoirs. His movements and voice carry in these narrow corridors and he feels less alone than he does in the city itself, where even his own footsteps are muted by ash.
At first, when he is very lonely, he tries speaking to Savage… but he finds that he has very little to say, and his apologies are too raw to prove a welcome distraction from his solitude. He gives up, and cycles through a number of other people over the years.
He discovers quickly that there are very few people that he had ever enjoyed speaking to. The novelty of these conversations are quick to dry up. There is only so much verbal sparring he can indulge with Bo-Katan, and there’s only so much mockery he can spare Pre Vizsla. Sometimes, he speaks to his mother, but she’s the only one he might expect to reply for real. The thought of the Nightsisters’ dark magic disturbs him, and he stops.
In truth, he doesn’t know these people - none of them. He only knows the part of them that exists in his memory, and all of them were but brief diversions. They are woefully incomplete as companions.
In the end - and perhaps to no great surprise - he finds himself speaking to Kenobi the most.
At first, he indulges himself with sharp rebukes to old insults he’d failed to respond to at the time. This is satisfying and frustrating in equal measure. Often, he finds himself repeating the words he spoke to Kenobi just before he killed Satine (which were, in Maul’s mind, perfect and unforgettable).
It was I who languished for years, thinking only of you--
But the meaning of the words begin to evolve, little by little. He finds himself reliving that scene so many times in his mind that its context cannot help but change. At first, he relishes in the mastery of his own words.
I never planned on killing you, but I will make you share my pain.
…but his mind drifts, eventually, to Kenobi’s words.
I know where you're from. I've been to your village. I know the decision to join the dark side wasn't yours.
It bothers him more than he cares to admit. He had never allowed himself to turn those words over in his mind before, but he has nothing but time now. His boredom is poisonous; he obsesses endlessly over that which hurts him most, and Kenobi’s words still cut. Maul knows very well that many decisions were not his, and he has long made his peace with that truth.
Or rather, he has long indulged his lust for vengeance in recognition of that inevitability.
It’s Kenobi’s other words that he finds most intriguing. He finds himself wondering why Kenobi had chosen those words, at that moment. I know the decision to join the dark side wasn’t yours.
Was it to save Satine?
To save me, thinks Maul, and he laughs as if it’s a joke.
But those words, once uttered (even in the privacy of his own mind) are simply impossible to destroy. They weave themselves into the fabric of his memories of Kenobi; a bright and resplendent thread, impossible to ignore. Those words plant themselves into the very context of Maul pain and blossom into something poisonous. The memory of his vengeance - once a source of hateful and perverse satisfaction - becomes confused and complicated. Satine’s death circles his mind like a carrion bird. He feels no pity nor remorse for what he did, but even so… his victory begins to sour.
“Even dead, you still vex me,” he says to Kenobi (often).
Sometimes, Maul’s frailty leads to be a quiver in the Force he is certain his master will detect.
He is so lonely he can barely breathe. He cannot sleep. When he does, nightmares wake him. Or… his dreams do, anyway. Can tenderness be a nightmare? He isn’t sure.
He dreams of hands, usually; delicate fingertips flowing like cool water between the spaces of his horns. He feels the warmth of a campfire spill over him, chasing out the chill of the night. He sees a dune expanse that is as silver as an ocean in the moonlight.
Sometimes, he touches his own face, lingering against his jaw and his mouth and his throat with gentleness he has never been given by anyone before (not even himself). When he lays on the cold ground in the quiet misery of his solitude, he threads his fingers together and closes his eyes, and he feels like someone else is holding him.
It’s so pathetic he could cry, but he doesn’t. There are some indignities that he simply will not suffer - not even in the dark.
These dreams are supposed to be a comfort, but they feel like a violation. They humiliate him.
These dreams pass, eventually. But they always come back. Eventually.
“Who killed you, I wonder?” Maul asks one day. “Was it a clone? My master, perhaps? Or was it your apprentice?”
Oh Maul, laughs Kenobi, feigning injury. You think so little of me! Who says I died at all?
That voice sounds very real sometimes, but it isn't. It’s just Maul’s mind making sounds to fill the empty space around him. The years drift out into the darkness like untethered satellites, and the emptiness only grows. It’s a silence so deep that Maul can hear his own hearts beating, drumlike. He has to fill the space with something, even if it’s the voice of his most hated enemy.
You never did find out for certain if I was dead, Kenobi points out.
Maul hates it when Kenobi says that.
“If you were alive,” says Maul, “your bleeding heart would not permit you to hide away in the dark. Not while the Empire reigns. You are dead.”
Kenobi’s voice remains sunny. Are you certain of that?
He wishes that Kenobi would say something different, one of these days. Make up a lie. Say he was killed by a clone; a shot to the back. Maul snarls and grows sullen. He feels injured enough to give the voice inside of his head - the voice he created - the silent treatment.
It never lasts, of course.
The question comes back to him. Again and again, he finds the words leaving his mouth.
“But who did kill you?”
And if the machinations of revenge are itching to begin their grind, Maul does not allow himself to reflect upon that impulse. Not if he can help it, anyway.
Maul awakens to a gust of cold air so sudden and so sharp it frightens him.
Malachor is a world without seasons; without change. The air here is cool but not cold… and it is always perfectly still, like the vacuum of space. The bite of ice makes his skin twitch and tingle, as if sharp fingernails are drawing ticklishly down his spine. He leaps to his feet so fast he nearly over balances, the impulse to run as sudden and sharp as a bite.
He stops, forcing air into his lungs. Calm yourself, he rebukes. Perhaps it was just a dream.
Maul tips his head, and listens. He hears little noises. The remote scratching of insects and rodents in the gloomy cave. The trickling of water from the reservoir. Above that, he feels the silence pressing in from the city. He feels buried.
But… there is another sound. Something remote, so faint that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s real (at first). Maul is no stranger to auditory hallucinations. He remains completely still for a long, long time.
The noise grows.
It sounds like a scream; a scream without a breath’s pause to soften it. Maul feels an icy sensation descend down the back of his spine like droplets of water.
It’s a TIE Fighter, he realizes.
Maul has nowhere to run. He knows the secretive places of this city well, but he knows hiding is pointless. He’s been waiting for the chance to either kill an enemy or discover an ally, and that choice is upon him now.
The worst that can happen, he tells himself, is my death. And what a relief that would be!
He knows that isn’t true, but the lie emboldens him. He runs through the tunnels, through the familiar maze of caverns and burrows, until he reaches the grate that ascends from the lower intestines of the Sanctum.
He can see immediately that the TIE Fighter has broken through the shell of the city above. There is a stream of hazy, silver daylight descending upon the temple. After so long in the darkness, the daylight is offensive. It’s presence here feels like a desecration of sacred ground, and Maul feels his hearts twist with unexpected anger. His eyes narrow as the pain of the fresh light stings them (for Maul never goes above ground; not anymore).
The TIE Fighter is no longer announcing itself with a shriek. It is hovering perhaps ten meters above ground, strangely quiet. The shape of this TIE Fighter is unusual to Maul; more pointed and sleek than he remembers TIE Fighters being. It doesn’t surprise him, though.
This one is different, he thinks. It’s obvious why.
The hatch opens. Maul sees only the silhouette of his enemy as he descends to the ground, his fall cradled by the Force. The cold that Maul had sensed before comes again. It saturates him like rain. Maul narrows his eyes, his body crouched low (defensively, pathetically) to the ashen ground. He watches silently.
This is the first time that Maul has seen Lord Vader. He knows it is him, because of the power he exudes… but also because of the respiration. If there is one thing that people always mention when speaking of Lord Vader, it’s that. The sound of him. Maul hears the mechanical rise and fall of breath; the eerie, subtle grind of metal components; the dull, insectoid buzz of electricity. There is no part of Vader that seems alive.
Maul stays perfectly still. His fear is so deep that he doesn’t even breathe. Vader has not turned to face him yet. He is standing patient and still before the strange panorama of twisted bodies. When Vader moves, it is with heavy footsteps and a strange, masculine grace. The movements are shockingly - unexpectedly - human.
Vader kneels down in the ash and picks up a lost saber. He activates it. A red light blossoms from the hilt, flickers wanly, and dies with a low, sickly hum. Vader turns the saber over in his hand before discarding it again, where it will surely lay for another millennia.
Maul creeps through the shadows, weaving his way through the outstretched limbs of corpses. In the darkness, he knows that he will appear to be one of those twisted, lifeless shapes… or he would, to the naked eye. But Maul has no idea what Vader sees from that helmet. Thermal imaging? Motion detection?
Does he see at all, or does he navigate only through the Force?
Maul isn’t sure. He isn’t attempting to know in earnest, either. Maul draws his own power into himself and hides it away, trying to make himself small and unthreatening as he can. He silently watches the Sith Lord. He doesn’t know what he’s waiting for, but he is not yet prepared to reveal himself.
Vader, for his part, still does not look at him. Maul is almost convinced that his hiding place is working. He allows himself the luxury of breathing again - softly and slowly, of course. When Vader’s head turns toward him, Maul closes his eyes to hide their reflective shimmer.
Vader walks past him, almost in arm’s reach. He doesn’t stop.
Maul feels a shiver run down his spine, and he lowers his hand to the saber hanging from his belt. He carefully unlatches it, slow and soundless. His muscles coil with anticipation as he looks at Vader’s back, his predatory gaze settling on the vulnerable space between those broad, unarmored shoulders.
Maul does not entertain any thoughts of honorable combat. He is too afraid for that, and too aware of his own limitations, which have only grown more numerous with each passing year. The only thing that Maul is certain of is that he can rely on his own speed and dexterity. Vader is large and heavy; tank-like. Maul cannot imagine the Sith lord being light on his feet.
He digs his heels into the dust and lunges, activating his saber in the same moment he thrusts it forward. His intent is to impale Vader cleanly through the spine - or through whatever metal components that serve that function.
The saber pierces the fabric of Vaber’s cape, but impossibly, another saber deflects the blow. The blue blade flashes so bright against the darkness that Maul is disoriented. He stumbles back, as pitiful as a child, as he tries to understand how Vader could deflect a blow from behind him - and with a blue saber.
The blue lightsaber is not Lord Vader’s. Maul has the barest moment to consider this fact before every saber lying buried and forgotten in the dust around them bursts into life. The darkness blossoms into a riot of color and excruciating light. Some sabers flicker and are discarded; most do not. Maul is vulnerable on all sides, blinded and already lost. His sensitive eyes water and refract the blaze.
“At last we meet,” comes Vader’s voice, deep and resonant. “The former apprentice.”
Maul spent years considering what he would say to Vader in such a confrontation; taunts and sly insinuations and cruel truths. Maul remembers none of those words now. There are no thoughts left in his mind, and language eludes him. He is only aware of his own helplessness, and his terror - a terror he had told himself that he would never allow again, never in his life… yet here it is.
Maul trembles. He closes his eyes against the neon, trying to find refuge from it. He activates the second blade of his saber. Maul plunges himself into the familiar well of his own hatred, and breaks through his body’s deadlock. It’s a blessed relief when he throws himself at his adversary, so viciously angry that even the thought of his own demise does not quell his desire to attack.
Of course, Vader is ready for him. Maul is accosted by the gauntlet of sabers at Vader’s disposal. A vicious and angry part of him knows - just knows - that Vader is exploiting a particular weakness of Maul’s: fighting on multiple fronts. It’s not something he can’t do, but his style (the chaotic explosion of energy best suited for dueling) is taxing and difficult to maintain over time. Maul likes to end fights quickly, ideally before his body succumbs to exhaustion. The sabers - one, five, eight, then ten - are just too many. Maul cannot pierce the barrier that Vader forms around himself. All Vader has to do is stay still.
Maul snarls with rage, his vision kaleidoscopic with imprints of neon light. He can only see Vader’s silhouette beneath them; a towering specter, a ghost… yes, a ghost; intangible, ethereal, dead (but not dead). Vader is a spectator, curiously uninvolved in the hellish, grinding war of attrition that Maul has suddenly found himself fighting.
It can’t last forever. Maul feels his strength begin to deplete. His body moves through willpower and muscle memory alone. His mind begins to slide out of focus, and the colors become meaningless patterns against a backdrop of twisting shadows. He hears the whispering again - deafening, so deafening! - and he feels the icy caresses of ghostly fingers. He feels memories in the fragments of ash disturbed by his frantic movements.
The Force carries his reluctant body through the motions, but the Force does not love him and it does not overburden itself with his survival. He feels his own sloppiness. He knows he is only still fighting because he is being permitted to do so. He knows when a predator is toying with its prey.
Eventually, Maul’s metal foot slips in the ash. He falls. He is weak, drenched in sweat and tired; tireder than he can remember. He can barely breathe. He tries to climb back to his feet, but he has no balance. His legs do not suffer the frailty of muscle, but they are mostly guided now by the Force - and the Force has slipped away from him. Deserted him.
“I hate y--”
“You know the secrets of this temple,” says Vader.
Maul’s head snaps upwards, and he stares. His mind scrambles to make sense of those words, but they might as well have been in a different language for all the sense they make now. Maul’s fear of Vader - his fear of that vile, booming voice that feels louder for being so deep - is making it difficult to translate sound to meaning. He only feels animal confusion.
Suddenly, Maul is wrenched to his feet, and just as quickly let go. He stumbles, but somehow finds his balance. He suspects Vader is using the Force to steady him. The help is unnervingly gentle.
“You will reveal them to me.”
Maul’s mind struggles to untangle the words. He begins to understand (slowly, tenuously) the purpose of Vader’s coming to Malachor. It is not only to kill Maul. It is, instead, to find answers to riddles that Maul himself has spent countless years trying to solve.
He needs me.
And unfortunately, Maul also needs Vader. It cannot be one; it must always be two.
There are so many doors that have long been shut to Maul, because he is a singular, solitary person. Sith are jealous, possessive, needy creatures. They do not fare well alone… nor are they meant to. So much of their power is precipitated by the bonds they form.
“You don’t intend to kill me, then,” says Maul, when he eventually finds his voice.
Vader doesn’t reply. Maul feels an unbidden laugh bubble up in his chest, uncontainable. The euphoria of this absurdity crashes down upon him, and he laughs breathlessly. He presses a hand to his face, and the throb of many injuries reaffirm that he is somehow, somehow still alive.
Maul knows just where to go.
There are many doors that are closed, but only one that calls out to him. It’s a door he dreams of often. It is plain stone, and has no handle. It doesn’t look particularly impressive when contrasted with the grand temple and the vast obsidian monoliths dotted upon Malachor’s surface… but it is not the door that matters. There is something hidden behind it - an object that Maul has long desired. The call is so powerful that he has often roused himself from meditation to find himself standing before that door, with no recollection of walking there at all.
With Vader at his side, they can open it. They will open it.
“You can sense it, can’t you?” hums Maul. “The Sith holocron.”
Vader presses his hand to the stone for a moment. There is no doubt that he can feel the holocron’s presence within. It’s a beacon. It preys upon their desire.
“You have been here for some time,” accuses Vader. “Yet you never obtained it.”
“Do you forget our code so easily, Lord Vader?” purrs Maul, who is far more willing to test his luck now that he is necessary. “Only two. No more, no less.”
Vader says nothing. His metered breathing is the only answer. He is deep in thought, feeling out the passage before them with his mind. He will understand in a moment why there must be two, not one.
“It is solid stone,” says Vader. “I assume you do not intend to deceive me.”
The threat is mild. Maul detects a stir of curiosity in Vader. The anger he expresses is instinctive and obvious, but Maul knows that Vader does not disbelieve him (even if he does not trust him).
“I do not deceive you,” is Maul’s response. He speaks with far more humility than he perhaps intended, but there’s no helping it. He feels afraid enough to be subservient. “There are breaks in the stone; places where it can be lifted. But alone, anyone attempting to pass will surely tire and be crushed. Lift the first stone, and I will lift the second. And so we will continue, until we reach the other side or are killed. Whichever comes first, I suppose.”
Again, a heavy silence greets him. Vader lowers his hand… and lifts it again, conducting the stone slab to rise. A rain of dust is disturbed by the motion, and the stone grinds with painful slowness as it ascends.
Lifting the stone reveals a space that is not particularly large. Maul is conscious of his own tiredness, and he realizes that there is a chance that this will end in death. But there is nothing to be done about that now. Vader will not stop now that he has started.
Maul can appreciate that, if nothing else.
“After you,” purrs Maul, his smugness hiding his fear.
Vader does not hesitate, which Maul resents and envies. Vader walks under the threatening weight of the stone slab with the calmness of a man boarding an elevator.
“And you,” says Vader, displeased by Maul’s hesitancy.
Maul steps forward. He feels his insides writhe like insects as the shadow of the corridor falls upon him. He is tired, and he is afraid… but he is also too proud to fail. Pride is a useful tool for a Sith; perhaps one of the greatest.
Maul lifts the second stone with the Force. It is heavy, and his body protests every inch… but he manages all the same. He and Vader walk forward in tandem into the newly revealed space.
Vader lets the first stone slab drop behind them with a deafening crash; he does not lower it gently. Maul feels his own attention stutter, and his fear rises like bile… but he does not lose his grip. His focus is sharp and alert, perhaps more so now that he feels so painfully tired. He cannot grow complacent.
He growls. “Hurry!”
From Vader, Maul senses no fear. But Vader does not fear death, he thinks. That would require him to be alive in the first place.
It’s not a sentiment that Maul shares. He is struggling, panting wildly with the effort it takes to hold the stone aloft. Vader lifts the third slab, and they step beneath that one together. Maul nearly collapses from exhaustion when they cross the threshold. The second slab falls behind them; another deafening slam! His vision blots… but he cannot stop now. There is still a long way to go.
Maul hesitates. Any attempt to delay is worth a try, if only to give himself a chance to breathe. “Why do you want the holocron?”
Vader looks down at him, and Maul expects the Sith Lord to order him to continue. Vader’s respirations are less even now; they sound slightly diseased. This task is not simple or easy for him either… but it is easier for him than it is for Maul.
Vader allows the delay.
“The holocron is an artifact of great power,” says Vader tonelessly.
It’s a prescriptive answer; something rehearsed and meaningless. Maul allows himself to feel frustrated, which has the added benefit of helping him regain his strength.
“And you seek that power to what end?” he asks. “To gain control of the Empire, perhaps?”
To this, there is no response. Only breathing. Deep. Slow.
Not in his wildest dreams can Maul imagine that Vader would relinquish the holocron to Lord Sidious. Like Maul himself, Vader must surely hate his master. That is simply the reality of what it is to be Lord Sidious’ apprentice. It is the fuel that keeps you strong, yet servile. Sidious feeds vampirically on the hatred of those he controls.
We are simply fuel.
“I would not expect you to give it to our dearest master,” Maul tries. When there is no response, Maul’s voice turns from a supplicating lilt to a resonant growl. “Vader. You surely do not intend to give the holocron to Sidious.”
There is still no response. Vader’s breathing remains thin but even, and he only looks at Maul with that dreadful, expressionless mask.
Vader says, “Sidious is my master.”
Maul snarls. The rage slides into the pit of his gut, molten and immediate. He reaches out with the Force, winding it around the stone slab held above them like a lasso. He pulls with all his might, and in that wild moment he is blind to his mortal peril. For that moment, he is willing to be crushed.
“You would die to prevent it from falling into his hands?” is the stoic response.
“I think the more pressing question is whether you would die to deliver it,” sneers Maul.
The stone begins to fall. Maul cries out in surprise as both he and Vader are forced to hunch down into the rapidly shrinking space. Maul’s hands press flat against the cold surface of rock, trembling wildly. He feels weak, so weak.
The true question reveals itself to him, carried (as always) in Kenobi’s smug and irrepressible voice.
Who is less interested in surviving, Maul? Who hates himself the most?
“Oh, shut up,” snarls Maul through his teeth.
If Vader is perplexed by this sudden exclamation, he does not remark upon it.
They remain in stasis for a little while, both wrestling with suicidal disregard for their own lives. They are trapped in that small, crushing space for so long that Maul’s fear begins to turn to numb impatience. He realizes that this is obviously not a battle he is going to win. He doesn’t want to die. For some ungodly reason, he isn’t ready. He isn’t certain what revolts him more; the thought of death, or the thought of living.
One certainly frightens him more.
Maul snarls, and he pushes upwards against the stone with renewed vigor. At first, Vader resists him, and succeeds completely in terrifying Maul… but angering him, as well. The anger swarms like a fire. The heavy stone slides upwards and allows them to stand again.
They do not speak. The relay begins in earnest, and they move down the long hallway for what feels like hours. In actuality, it’s less than fifteen minutes. When they finally breach the last door, Maul stumbles out and falls flat on the cold floor, completely undignified and unable to do anything about it. He can only lay there, trembling and sweating, while Vader stands impassively beside him.
When Maul looks up, Vader is little more than a blurry, darkened silhouette.
“You look remarkably like the monoliths,” says Maul. “The ones on the surface.”
It’s an impulsive observation, and just a touch delirious. He is euphoric to be on the other side of the corridor now.
Vader doesn’t answer at first. He doesn’t even acknowledge him. He is, instead, looking out across the room that they have entered.
“I believe we may be inside one of those monoliths now,” says Vader.
It’s not unlikely. The chamber above them rises high into the air, and it feels more than tall enough to pierce the surface of the planet. It may not, though. The geometry of the Sanctum is strange and sometimes difficult to parse. The cavern is surprisingly deep, and the true height of the ceiling is difficult to contextualize when it’s so deeply hidden within the darkness.
This monolith - or chamber, or temple, or whatever it is - is deep in both directions. The pinnacle of the ceiling is distant, and the entrance platform is set at the edge of a sharp drop. Maul crawls to the edge of that cliff. He gazes down into a deepness devoured by a dark infinity. He cannot possibly begin to guess how deep it really goes, although the hieroglyphics on the walls glow in dull crimson light… so he can see rather far.
Miles, he thinks with a shiver. It seems an impossible distance.
A Force-user can survive a long fall by using the Force to cushion the final landing, but there are limits to that power. And in this temple, Maul is almost certain no one could survive. It’s not designed to be survivable for a Force-user. What purpose would the test serve, otherwise?
Across this sheer drop there is another platform set at the center of the room, wreathed with thorn-like structures. There is a pedestal. Above that, there is a floating holocron. Like the temple outside, the holocron is in the shape of a pyramid. It glows eerily, and Maul can almost hear it… although to describe the sound is nearly impossible. It’s like an insect is delicately tickling his eardrum.
The gap between themselves and the platform is too far to make in one bound, even for a Force user. Maul sees the nature of the challenge well before Vader gives it voice.
“Jump,” he orders Maul, in a tone that very much implies that his orders are always expected to be followed. “I will catch you.”
Maul wets his lips, tasting sweat. He climbs to his feet, his hands clenching and unclenching wetly at his sides. He cannot fathom going back through the trial they just passed, and he has no choice but to suffer this trial as well.
It isn’t even unfairness that elects Maul to have to jump. He knows there is no way that Vader can leap the distance he needs to, and there is no way that Maul is strong enough in the Force to catch him. If Vader fell, then Maul would be trapped on this ledge to die of thirst.
So really, either option is perfectly deadly. One is less immediately deadly, but far more unpleasant in the long run.
If Maul were younger, perhaps, then maybe he could catch himself in time, without Vader’s help… but to levitate one’s self was difficult and exhausting magic. It’s hardly a reliable means of reaching the other platform, even for the fittest of Sith. And Maul isn’t the fittest of Sith.
Just convince yourself you can make it, says Kenobi. Maybe you can. After all, there’s no depths of self-delusion you can’t sink to, are there?
“If you let me fall,” warns Maul, his voice more of a sigh than a threat, “then you will die here. You can’t go back without me, or the holocron.”
Maul frowns. He runs his knuckles over his damp brow and exhales, backing up as far as the platform will allow. Maul turns his attention to his artificial legs, the Force coursing through the metal components like blood through veins. He winds each of the components good and tight, preparing them for the single, desperate burst of power he will need to make any significant sort of leap.
He ignores the cold feeling that creeps down his back. He knows it is Vader’s hand; or rather, Vader’s Force. He also knows that if he delays, Vader is going to throw him.
Unwilling to allow the Sith Lord to take that choice from him, Maul lunges forward. He only had a few meters to push himself into the full, powerful stride of a sprint. He is going too fast to stop, and he can only follow through with his intention. He jumps.
It’s been many years since Maul has jumped like this, and he is astonished by how far he makes it. And yet, even so, the effort is futile. His jump falls laughably short, and he feels the pit of his stomach make its way up into his throat. Gravity snakes its way around his body and begins to pull.
He feels the cold hand on the back of his neck tighten painfully, so tight that Maul also fears that his spine is going to be broken. Vader throws him carelessly, and Maul slams into the side of the pillar, wet fingers scrambling blindly to catch the lip of the platform. He nearly doesn’t manage it.
Somehow, he finds his equilibrium. He clings for dear life, and he finds himself thinking of Kenobi (again). Maul doesn’t have the strength to throw himself onto the platform in a flourish like his archrival had, though.
That thought makes him feel unspeakably depressed. He feels old.
He grunts painfully as he drags himself up, inch by inch, his metal feet scrambling ineffectively at the perfectly smooth surface of the pillar. The pillar is as soft as marble, and it takes him nearly a minute to throw himself inelegantly over the edge, panting wildly with the effort.
Maul is… exhausted.
For a long time, Maul just lays on his face… but not too long. He feels a tug at his ankle, and he looks across the abyss to see Vader waiting impatiently, arms crossed over his chest. He doesn’t need to read mind to know that Vader is threatening to throw him back into the abyss out of sheer pettiness.
Shakily, Maul grabs onto the edge of the center pedestal with numb, aching fingers. He drags himself to his feet, imbalances, and nearly kisses the holocron as he careens nauseously forward. He narrowly avoids this indignity by slamming face-first into the pedestal instead.
Maul lingered there for a moment, face pressing to cold stone. In the back of his consciousness, he hears Kenobi chuckling. Not laughing; chuckling. Maul isn’t certain whether he’s more insulted that his indignity earned a chuckle, or that it earned only a chuckle.
He moves a hand to blindly take hold of the holocron, the glass as warm as flesh against his fingertips. He lifts his eyes, staring into the prismatic refraction of crimson light. His thumb slides over the holocron; a tender caress.
Years and years and years, he thinks. And this is what I have to show for it.
The holocron doesn’t look powerful at first glance. But it is lovely , so perfectly symmetrical that it seems strangely unreal. Now that he holds it, Maul can no longer sense the Force within it. The holocron reveals nothing of its true nature to him.
Maul breathes deeply, turning back to Vader. He feels a weary anger climb up his spine, but it's mingled with depressing resentment. He knows that this holocron is not just his; it never belongs to just one person. It belongs to all of the Sith.
Even the ones he hates.
The holocron is not only an object of knowledge. It is also a key, the key Maul has been missing all this time. There is a panel beside the doorway for the holocron to slot into, and it opens the passageway back to the city. The stone slabs lift to reveal the corridor in its entirety, which seems very short now that they are not forced to endure the trial again.
It is enough of a blessing that Maul feels almost faint with relief.
They walk together down the corridor, unspeaking. Vader walks just slightly ahead like a black storm cloud. Maul is turning the holocron over in his hands, staring down at it with wonder. This doesn’t feel real. He keeps waiting for Vader to take it, but he’s certain that he will not do so until they exit the corridor itself. Even if the corridor is open now, neither of them are comfortable with those heavy stone slabs over their heads. They walk quickly.
When they reach the exit, Maul stops. He looks up at Vader, aware of his own tired panic. He knows he won’t be able to stop the Sith Lord from taking the holocron from him… but he also has a damnable overdose of hope.
He might help me.
“We can open it together,” tries Maul. “We can--”
Vader only fixes him with a placid look (somehow, even his expressionless mask has expressions). He lingers in silence for a moment as if to speak… but he doesn’t. He walks away. He doesn’t take the holocron.
It seems to me that he wants you to follow him, says Kenobi.
“You don’t say,” is Maul’s answering grumble.
“What?” booms Vader, annoyed.
Maul follows Vader back to the plaza. The silence hangs between them, as heavy as the darkness of the deepening night. The Sanctum is entirely dark now. The silence feels even deeper than usual, like a held breath.
With unintended flourish (the cape is dramatic on its own, even without intention), Vader turns to face him.
“I have never possessed a Sith holocron,” says Vader.
“No,” agrees Maul. “Why would you? They’re rare.”
“Our master knew of this one,” says Maul, holding up the holocron before them. “Our master even brought me to this planet once before, yet we did not seek out the holocron then. I’d imagine that you could guess why.”
Vader is quiet and ponderous. Eventually, he says: “I can.”
Sidious did not, and would never, trust his apprentices enough to open a holocron with them. It is not surprising to Maul that Sidious would rather stunt his own power than take full advantage of the Rule of Two.
Lord Sidious would never share power - not with anyone.
He’s afraid of you, says Kenobi softly. Both of you.
Maul shakes his head angrily. You’re delusional, Kenobi.
“If you take it back to him--” starts Maul, with sudden desperation.
Maul quiets, and he is humiliated to find himself stepping back from that powerful command. He is submissive. He is, above all else, scared. It isn’t the raw power that he fears; it isn’t the possibility of torture. It’s the hope that digs its dreadful claws into his skin; the hope that together, perhaps, something can be done.
Together, they can fulfill the Rule of Two, and open the holocron. Together, they can find the answers they seek. Perhaps together, they can destroy their master.
But he is afraid, because he has no choice but to put himself at the mercy of his greatest enemy.
They don’t say anything.
Maul feels the weight of the holocron in his hand; a pressure greater than gravity weighing down his palm as he reluctantly lifts the object to Vader. He might as well have bared his throat.
Don’t take this from me, he pleads silently.
Kenobi doesn’t even mock him. His imagination remains somber in the wake of his desperation; his fragility. He can feel Kenobi’s presence still, lingering in the back of his thoughts. My imaginary and eternal companion. My ghost.
Vader reaches out. A gloved hand rests over the holocron, curling around the point of the prism. His breathing is metered, and his posture is devoid of language; he is unreadable to Maul. When Maul reaches out with the Force, he only feels the terrible cold, like the void of space.
Vader doesn’t take the holocron. They hold it between them in silence, and wait.
The holocron does nothing. Maul looks down at the object glimmering between their hands, and he feels… confused.
Holocrons are strange objects with stranger keys. Only two Sith can open a Sith holocron, just like only one Jedi can open a Jedi holocron.
(Incidentally, Maul is extremely envious that a singular Jedi can open a Jedi holocron, but that frustration isn’t relevant now.)
“...nothing’s happening,” says Maul, bemused.
“We are still searching for the key,” says Vader, so calm and so level that Maul can only assume he anticipated this. “Holocrons will only reveal their true power when their rules are fulfilled.”
“There are two of us,” says Maul.
Maul feels dread wash over him. Yes, there are two of them; they are both powerful in the Force. On the surface, the holocron should yield itself to them… but it doesn’t. And Maul feels a biting misery at the thought that it is him, somehow, that is incomplete. He is the reason that this cannot work, and will never work.
I’m not a Sith anymore, he thinks. Formerly Darth… now just Maul.
“There are two of us,” insists Maul, his voice rising. He slips into the comfortable, stubborn rage of denial. “It should work!”
“And yet, it does not,” says Vader, his voice low and resonant; full of an apathy so cruel that Maul almost feels physically wounded. “Nor did I expect it would, for you are not a true Sith Lord. You are my master’s failure, and your power is insufficient - as it has always been.”
Maul snarls, but it's a half-hearted threat at best. After all, it’s not like he believes Vader is wrong. Maul is such deep and old friends with bitter self-loathing that the pain of the insult feels familiar. The abuse is strangely validating.
Maul stares down at the prism between them, and he concentrates. He reaches out with the Force. He searches for some sort of weakness in the metal framing the glass edges… but he feels nothing. Every edge seems smooth and perfectly fit together; unmoveable.
You’re being too literal, Kenobi comments flatly. You know you can’t just open it.
“Silence!” barks Maul.
Vader looks at him steadily. He does not for a second entertain the notion that Maul had been speaking to him, and Maul is annoyed at himself. It’s obvious enough that a few years alone have taken a toll on his already dismal social skills. He’s quite clearly talking to an imaginary voice in his head.
Vader isn’t kind enough to let it go unremarked.
“Who are you speaking to?” he demands.
“No one alive,” mutters Maul, who is too annoyed to be embarrassed. “No one real; just a ghost of sweet memory, of course. I’m certain you have plenty of your own.”
Vader withdraws his hand from the holocron, which remains closed and stubbornly unchanging. Maul still feels nothing at all. He feels that he is in freefall. The disappointment of his failure is an ocean, and he is powerless to do anything other than sink.
Maul realizes he’s shaking. He’s so tired he could die.
“You’ve opened holocrons before,” Maul says bitterly, because he knows the Jedi once had many. “So tell me, former Jedi - how did you open a Jedi holocron?”
There is a sudden pressure in the air; a little burst of anger, like a gust of rainy wind. Maul squints against it, bracing himself for violence; for fury. But Vader is as collected as ever; unmoving. He simply breathes, his chin tipped down to his chest as they both look at the holocron between them, as if waiting for it to speak.
It doesn’t, of course. Maul sighs.
“Jedi holocrons are opened through meditation,” says Vader flatly. “It is not unthinkable that the same is true of this holocron.”
“Oh, wonderful,” says Maul. “Then shall we meditate?”
He isn’t excited by the idea. Meditation is a vulnerable process; something quiet and slow and unhurried. But if they are to open the holocron together, then there’s no avoiding it. They have to give it a try.
Vader looks at the temple, quiet and contemplative. He begins to walk, and Maul drags his feet as he trails after him. He’s reaching a point of tiredness that is quickly diminishing both the excitement and the fear of what is to come.
Right now, his greatest fear is that this will take much longer.
Now you’re being hyperbolic, says Kenobi.
Maul doesn’t answer. He just sighs, rubbing a weary hand over his face.
They reach the foot of the temple. There is a set of steep stairs that lead up to the pinnacle; the uppermost point of the city. Maul had made the arduous journey up these stairs before, and found a strange, bleak throne room near the top of the pyramid. It had two thrones, carved crudely in stone. They were still occupied by the corpses of the two who had once ruled this city, hand-in-hand.
Vader doesn’t climb the stairs. He sits on one of the steps, his posture perfectly erect. Maul wonders if it’s painful for Vader to kneel.
“Sit,” instructs Vader.
Maul does as Vader bids, settling on the step next to him. Beside Vader, he feels incredibly small, like a child.
After a moment, Maul moves up to a higher step and sits back down.
“So we meditate,” says Maul. “And the holocron will… open.”
“The key will reveal itself.”
“So it won’t open.”
Vader does not answer. Maul exhales bitterly and turns to face Vader, metal legs pulled to his chest. He holds the holocron out, and Vader rests his hand over it again. Maul can feel heat emanating from those gloved fingers, but it doesn’t feel like natural body heat. They feel more like the residual heat of a starship engine. Something that, in its natural state, is cold and inert.
The holocron remains quietly impassable. It shows no sign of yielding its secrets to either of them. When Maul reaches out with the Force, it does not react. It remains stubborn and secretive. Even so, Maul senses more life from that small object than he does from Vader himself.
They both slip into meditative silence. Maul lets his thoughts turn inward, following the beat of his hearts. He lets his eyes flutter and drift closed, his breaths deepening and his muscles unwinding. After such tension, relaxing proves to be quite painful - to a point of distraction, in fact. There’s nothing peaceful or comfortable or calm in this circumstance. Maul quickly finds himself deeply engrossed in his own misery and bitterness. Meditation - true meditation - seems about as unlikely as Sidious dropping dead from a latent heart condition.
The biggest risk, as it turns out, is falling asleep. Maul feels his own exhaustion begin to settle in his chest, pulling him down like a physical weight. More than once, he finds himself jerking awake, and hoping very much that Vader hasn’t noticed how deeply useless this whole affair is proving to be.
It doesn’t appear that he has. Vader is in precisely the same position that he was before, unnaturally still. Maul wonders whether or not it’s likely that Vader is also nodding off.
This doesn’t seem to be especially constructive.
Think, Maul, he hears Kenobi say. What are you missing?
“I’m not missing anything,” he mutters, and it’s completely untrue.
Vader doesn’t stir at Maul’s words. Maul frowns, reaching his free hand up to wave in front of Vader’s mask. Vader doesn’t react. Maul’s hand moves instead to the saber at his belt.
“Do not try your luck, Maul,” says Vader suddenly, without moving a millimeter.
Maul sullenly settles back, his attention fixed again upon the holocron. He stares down at it, initially accusatory… and then pleading.
The holocron is indifferent to his suffering. Maul grits his teeth, willing himself into a state of calm. He is so desperate that he is on the edge of consulting the voice in his head for ideas, but he has never disgraced himself by asking for Kenobi’s assistance before.
Today, it seems, is a day of many disgraces.
Tell me what I’m missing, he grouses.
He hears Kenobi laugh; sweet with delight. Maul instantly tenses, because the laugh sounds so real (and so kind) that he’s almost sick with longing. It’s a burdensome feeling: longing. It’s something carried at all times, a physical pressure that pushes down on the eyes, the mouth, the spine, the stomach. One never truly stops feeling it once it’s there.
Kenobi’s voice is as gentle as a Nubian dawn. Why did Sidious never open this holocron with you, Maul?
Maul bites back a sharp retort. He is so tired and so desperate that he actually does himself a favor by not fighting back against the help he asked for… despite his impulse to do so.
I already said that he didn’t trust me.
Right! Maul hears a sharp sound, as if Kenobi had clapped his hands together. And so what does that mean for you now, Maul?
What do you mean what does that--
Maul stops. He feels something cold and unpleasant sink into his belly, and he can’t stop the bitter, angry sigh that escapes him then. He thinks he knows the answer, but he hesitates because he doesn’t want it to be the answer.
If I’m right, then we’re never going to open this holocron.
The holocron is obsessed with the Rule of Two… and Maul can only expect that the Rule of Two has connotations of trust and brotherhood (and love) that simply were never part of Sidious’ training. Maul and Vader are both cursed with the ancient grievances of the Sith, but Maul knows that neither of them follow the old traditions. Sidious never shared them, and will never share them. Why would he?
For Sidious, the Rule of Two is merely a means to an end, he tells Kenobi. It’s little more than a necessary key to a greater power; one that he had no intention of sharing. He has followers, not brothers. He has slaves.
For a split second, Maul sees something; a little flash of light that is too bright and too real to be merely a product of his imagination.
Two lights, thinks Maul. Two separate lights; as white and as blinding as stars.
Maul has no idea what it means. It feels like communication, but the lights are gone as quickly as they came. The holocron remains silent and stubborn once again. Maul is so startled that he isn’t certain what he needs to replicate to coax out that response again.
You’re getting closer, Maul, says Kenobi. You almost had it.
Maul chews on his lower lip impatiently, and he tries to recall the thought that had triggered that reaction. His exhaustion doesn’t help matters in the least, and he can’t quite remember what words (or word) had passed the forefront of his mind just prior to the flash.
It’s not the words, says Kenobi. Not exactly. It’s more of a feeling, Maul.
You’re wrong, thinks Maul. After a moment, he scoffs. And now I know you aren’t real. The Jedi would never encourage anyone to have feelings.
Another laugh, sweet and fond. Oh, Maul! You know nothing of the Jedi.
“I know enough,” growls Maul.
Vader doesn’t react to the outburst this time, and Maul is grudgingly thankful for his discretion. He grumbles and falls silent again, focusing his mind inward again. This time, meditation comes to him with blessed ease, no doubt aided by his gut twisting weariness. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight against his own vulnerability any longer. Longing carries him to a place he desires; a place that exists in the constructs of his own imagination. The infinite expanse of silver desert, and the humble campfire under a star drenched sky.
Relief washes over Maul like the softest of sands. He finds himself slipping into the dark ocean of his inner universe; a place where thoughts flow unhindered, unanchored by hateful feelings and old grievances. Kenobi exists in this space of his mind, where his own loneliness is so consuming that he cannot feel anything but gratitude for his presence there.
Maul breathes slowly. He carefully matches the pace of Vader’s mechanical respirations, although he isn’t entirely conscious of it.
Kenobi, he says, and his tone is gentler now. Tell me what I’m missing.
Maul feels a touch against his face; cool fingertips from a soft, living hand. A ghost’s caress.
The very thing that Sidious has always used against you, says Kenobi, his voice somber. The thing he has always used against Anakin.
And what is that? Maul finds himself considering the question in earnest, soothed by the imagined hand pressing to his cheek. He leans into it with greedy, catlike desperation.
We’re both alone.
Afraid of being alone, yes, says Kenobi. He does not sound victorious or humorous now. He simply sounds sad. Sidious uses that loneliness to trap you, and he kills anyone - everyone - who tries to fill that void. Am I wrong?
Maul doesn’t acknowledge the question. They both know that Kenobi is not wrong.
Your own power has always been crippled by that kind of isolation, hasn’t it? As far as I can glean, Sith are not meant to be alone.
That was why you could never win, Maul. Not against me. No matter how you tried to take away the people I loved, no matter how you tried to isolate me… just as you were taught by your master. I am never alone. I see now, Maul, why you did those things. You wished to do to me what your master did to you. To make me dependent on you, the same way you were dependent on him.
Maul is unguarded enough to admit to it. Yes.
But you never succeeded.
In his mind, Maul can see Kenobi’s eyes, blue and lined with wrinkles that he never lived long enough to have. Maul reaches up, his fingers touching the crow’s feet with almost childlike fascination.
…Only air greets his fingertips, of course.
Kenobi isn’t here, no matter how real he might seem to be. He exists in the part of Maul’s mind that allows himself to be lonely; the part of his mind that remembers Savage and his mother, and even his master (when his master felt like a father, which he sometimes did).
Why, he wonders, do I project age onto my memory of Kenobi?
Do you feel less alone now? With Vader beside you, I mean.
Maul exhales, rolling his eyes at the question. Obviously not.
Kenobi smiles at him. Why?
We don’t trust one another, answers Maul, because it’s obvious. We can’t.
That, of course, is the moment where the puzzle clicks into place. The whole path to the holocron itself had been a trial of trust… and Maul and Vader had failed completely, hadn’t they? They had made it through the corridor unscathed, but simply surviving wasn’t the purpose of that trial. The lesson had been utterly lost on them both. They were selfish and bitter and hateful, and they had both nearly died because of it.
We failed at an ancient Sith team building exercise, realizes Maul grimly. How droll.
Maul feels a groan escape him. He lifts a hand, pressing it to his face in miserable exasperation. He wishes dearly for respite from this nightmare. He can feel his meditation begin to disrupt in light of this realization.
In light of his own annoyance, really.
“This isn’t going to work,” he says abruptly, sleepily rousing himself from his meditation. “Vader.”
Vader’s head turns just a little. After so much time spent utterly still, the sudden movement seems bizarrely threatening. Maul flinches.
“No,” agrees Vader. “Your power is--”
Maul snarls, but it’s half-hearted at best. He mostly just wants a nap. “This isn’t about power.”
“Only those who lack power would postulate such a thing,” is the flat response. “But I will indulge you. What is it, if not power?”
Maul rolls the holocron over in his hand, his thumbs moving over the sharp edges. He thinks of the bright flash he saw before - the lights. He remembers now the word that had come to him then, the insight that had opened the holocron’s power to him… if only for the briefest of moments.
For a little while, Maul isn’t certain how to answer the question. He can feel Kenobi in the back of his mind, nudging him forward like a shy child. Speak, he seems to say.
Maul wishes he could bite him.
“I don’t-- know,” he growls, sullen and ill-tempered. “But power is not the only facet of the dark side. We are respectively the second and third most powerful Sith in existence, and yet, we cannot open it.”
“You assume there is something to open,” says Vader. “I had a vision.”
Maul frowns with open, petulant annoyance. “A vision is not the same thing as opening a holocron. I had a vision too, but that’s--”
“Of Master Kenobi.”
Maul feels his nose scrunch up in annoyance. He fixes Vader with an irritated stare, one that he hopes is more threatening than pathetic. “What makes you say so?”
“Because from your perspective, there are only two people in this universe: Kenobi… and all others. Both are your enemies. Do not disrespect me by pretending that this is not so.”
Maul sneers, but he’s uncomfortable with the sharpness of the insight. Vader is perceptive - more so than Maul might have otherwise anticipated. He supposes that even computers have learning algorithms. Vader is no different.
No, it isn’t human intuition that makes him so perceptive. He isn’t human.
“You’re wrong,” says Maul.
“I find that unlikely.”
“Obi-wan Kenobi is dead.”
Vader looks at him. Maul can feel his eyes now; the pressure of his gaze. He fights the urge to turn away and put distance between them. Before long, he hopes there will be a few lightyears between them.
“I had a vision of Master Kenobi as well,” says Vader.
Maul narrows his eyes, grimly unsurprised by the stab of possessiveness he feels. He knows (intellectually, at least) that Vader has as much reason to obsess over Kenobi as Maul does. Vader has a list of grievances that outweigh Maul’s tenfold. But Maul isn’t fair and reasonable. He’s angry to see his own hatred mirrored in Vader. He’s angrier still to know that Vader is undoubtedly Kenobi’s murderer, and that Maul himself has never been able to discover the circumstances of that doom.
“It is a vision I have had before,” says Vader, with a religious graveness that both frightens and intrigues Maul. “A prophecy; a natural conclusion. I foresaw Kenobi’s death by my own hand.”
Gravity seems to give way. Maul feels like he’s falling, even as he sits perfectly still - as still a prey after catching the gleam of reflective eyes in the shadows. He feels cold. His hands are numb. His fingers tingle.
He breathes out a laugh. Disbelieving. Frightened. “Foresaw.”
Maul’s voice rises with anger. “Foresaw.”
This time, Vader doesn’t answer. He climbs to his feet and begins to walk; a steady, unhesitating stride. The perfect silence is only broken by his heavy footsteps and his respirations. It grows quieter with every step that he takes from Maul, who remains frozen at the base of the stairs.
Let him go, Maul, whispers Kenobi, his tone gentle and supplicating. Just let him go. He decided not to kill you. Don’t change his mind.
For a long time, Maul cannot break the gridlock. His body remains unresponsive. His fingers twitch; the first movement he manages to make. It’s a desperate, fearful little motion; his body trying to claw Vader back to him.
All at once, he can feel again. It hurts.
“Aren’t you going to ask what I saw?!” demands Maul, launching himself to his feet. “Aren’t you at least curious?!”
His voice is bitingly dry; hoarse. Surely, this could not be for nothing! There have been so many disappointments and dead ends in Maul’s life. So much he has strove for and lost utterly.
He has to believe that there is some meaning in this, and that this road will not come to nothing. If it does, he might just go insane.
“Well?!” presses Maul, chasing the steps Vader leaves in the ash.
For a long time, there’s no response. Vader seems to be thinking… or rather, calculating. Maul can hear the subtle mechanics of the suit - the soft, resonant pulse of fluid, the static buzz of circuit boards. Maul can smell metal and coolant and electricity, but not flesh; certainly not blood.
“The holocron is worthless to us both,” says Vader finally. “The question we ask lacks an answer. That is why it will not open.”
Maul shakes his head in denial. He does not feel any sense of victory that Vader has acknowledged - however subtly - that he also seeks to kill Sidious. That has always been a given. The nature of their power is so deeply rooted in their resentment of Sidious that it is only natural to desire his death.
For Maul, that hatred feels more like a habit than a sincere wound. His natural state of being. But it’s all he has left. It’s the only thing he’s had left, since Kenobi’s… death.
Maul shudders. Hope feels a little like sticking his hand into an open flame. He recoils from it.
“We are two pieces of a single whole!” insists Maul. “The holocron needs us to fulfill the Rule of Two, and then it will open. We can kill Sidious! You need me, Vader!”
“I do not need you,” says Vader, so perfectly indifferent that his tone injures Maul more than his words. “No one does.”
Maul believes that - or, rather, believed that. But there’s a difference now. Kenobi is alive, somewhere. Maul has a focus for his hatred, his vengeance. He has a purpose more fulfilling than the helpless and futile desire to destroy Lord Sidious.
Maul, says Kenobi. Please, don’t do anything stupid.
Maul is entirely prepared to be stupid. He is beyond sense. He knows that if Vader leaves, he will remain trapped and useless on Malachor. He must force some sort of solution.
Must I submit myself to speaking Jedi platitudes regarding freedom?
Maul isn’t excited at the prospect, but he must try. There is only one word that garnered any kind of response from the holocron, and he is more than ready to manipulate any leverage he has left to him.
“Slave,” he hisses out. “You are a slave, ‘Lord’ Vader. Are you truly so quick to surrender yourself to that fate? Are you truly content to allow Sidious to continue using you?”
These are useless questions, of course - utterly childish. Maul feels humiliated to speak them, to give voice to the fundamental truths that they both already know. Vader is many things, but he isn’t stupid. Sidious has never made a secret of his feelings towards his apprentices. Once he had them dependent on him, he is content enough to call them slaves right to their faces.
Maul remembers perfectly well what that had been like.
“Yes. I am a slave to Lord Sidious,” says Vader. “Just as you are, Lord Maul. Just as we all are. There is no other path. If he were to die, would our slavery vanish? He is not our only master.”
Maul scowls. “You speak of the Force.”
“The power of the Force is absolute. We will be slaves to it forever. It is eternal.”
I don’t think it’s working, says Kenobi helpfully.
Maul rolls his eyes. He can feel Vader slipping through his fingers. He can feel Vader’s impassiveness, his perfect apathy. Maul envies him. He wonders why Vader came here at all, but he suspects that he already knows the answer. It’s hardly satisfying.
Vader chose to seek Maul because he believed it would be interesting. Maul was a diversion worth committing a few days to. There was the potential of a satisfying fight. The potential for some insight in the holocron, perhaps. But Maul has exhausted Vader’s intrigue, and the Sith will likely leave and never think of him again.
Don’t, says Kenobi. Maul, don’t--
Maul draws his teeth back in a snarl. He lunges. He doesn’t know what he intends; perhaps suicide. He is too weak and too worn down to fight Vader. His body feels like it’s unwinding as he walks, like the old hinges and screws holding his durasteel legs together. He’s coming apart, little by little. His muscles and bones are slack and old. He feels it now more than ever.
But he still attacks. Maul doesn’t know what else he can do, except throw himself into the impulses of his own hatred and hope it does something. It has to.
An unseen hand grips Maul’s throat and lifts. The grip is so tight that Maul can’t even gag. The weight of his artificial legs drag his spine down from his skull, whitehot pain lancing from his neck to the small of his back.
Maul, being so tired and so fundamentally unprepared, can do nothing. Fear is a useful ally, but panic is not. He cannot break free of Vader’s grip, and he claws fruitlessly at the unseen hand holding him. He can taste blood in his mouth as his jaw is forced painfully closed, his tongue caught between sharp teeth.
“You would die to save Kenobi from me,” says Vader.
The intrigue is back. Maul isn’t in a position to celebrate, though.
Vader holds him like that for what seems to be an eternity. He is practiced in torture, and he releases a little bit of pressure - just enough time to let Maul drag in a breath - before closing his grip again. He allows enough blood to flow to stop Maul from blacking out, allowing him just enough to suffer the pain a little longer.
He’s going to kill me.
The thought is terrifying… or should be, at least. In the midst of such pain, Maul can do nothing but invite in the inevitable darkness. He has danced with this shadow many times before. He has felt death wrap its icy, sensual arms around his suffering, whispering sweet promises of relief. He imagines his being will flutter like ash and disperse into the current of the Force. He will forget himself.
But Maul is stubborn. He fights and fights, driven always by the deep conviction that he isn’t done. Not yet. He sees the splattering of stars and the silver desert.
You’re alive, he thinks. You’re alive! You’re--!
No amount of euphoria, determination, or hatred can stop him from blacking out.
He isn't dead. He’s aware of himself in the sticky darkness of exhaustion and pain. His eyes flutter open again, and the swollen agony in his throat is quick to prove that he is, indeed, still living. He feels like he’s swallowed molten metal.
Maul rasps, choking on ash. His eyes water. He’s on the ground. He doesn’t remember falling. He becomes aware, albeit slowly, of black boots in front of his face.
“Get up,” says Vader.
The holocron, bizarrely, is still in his hand. Vader did not confiscate it. Maul can’t imagine why. He doesn’t understand why he’s still alive, either. He feels like he’s pressing his luck, like a rodent terrorizing a snake.
Maul would be just as humiliated remaining slumped on the ground as he would be following Vader’s orders. He weighs his options, and decides the best way to prevent more damage is to do what Vader says.
Maul is unsteady. His metal legs are old and damaged. To use them effectively, he has to channel the Force through them at all times. He only narrowly manages to do so, and he’s humiliatingly unsteady.
But he is standing.
He feels small and weak and cold, so cold, but there is a spark in his chest all the same - the little pinprick of light that tells him that there is some purpose in all this, and he’s getting closer to the conclusion he’s been searching for.
Maul cradles the holocron against his chest. He’s gripping it so tightly that he’s certain his fingers are going to bruise.
“I am leaving Malachor,” says Vader, without being prompted. “When I return, you will show me how to open the holocron. Do you understand?”
Maul doesn’t understand at all. Not at first. Vader sounds far away from him now, like the most distant edge of an echo. Maul realizes that the damage to his throat is worse than he’d realized. The shock had dulled his awareness of the injury. He reaches up, touching his swollen jugular. It feels hot to the touch.
He wants you to show him how to open the holocron, Kenobi reiterates to him helpfully. Tell him you will, Maul.
Maul wants to say something smart; something disdainful. He only coughs, and the pain is so immense that he staggers, dizzy.
But Maul doesn’t get the chance to finish his sentence. He feels Vader’s gloved hand touch his head, fingers splayed carefully around his horns. It has been so long since Maul has been touched at all that he finds himself sinking into the touch like a pleading stray.
Maul collapses to his knees, and his vision blots out again. He feels Vader’s power coil inside him like a snake - a cold, scaly beast weaving its way through the sharp edges of Maul’s consciousness.
Maul, like any paranoid Force user, has many defenses against such intrusions; many barbs to catch the unwitting thief. But Vader does not recoil. His power is just as abrasive, and every cut coaxes out rot and death and decay, like millions of corpses rotting in the desert sun. Maul can feel Vader’s pain wash over him like the tide, and he knows that Vader is unmoved by Maul’s attempts to deny him.
Vader doesn’t feel real, even though he is. There is a mechanical quality to Vader’s power, the Force like metal tendrils that poke and prod into the edges of Maul’s thoughts. They move with the precision and delicacy of a spider.
Get out, thinks Maul. But it’s a weak and dithering attempt at privacy. If there is one thing that is true of Maul - and has been true since the hour of his birth, no doubt - it is the pervasive desire to share his pain with any other who would bear its burden.
Maul can feel Vader holding his thought in the palm of his hand. He turns Maul’s consciousness over again and again, as if admiring a stone. Eyes the color of cinders glisten from a pale, corpselike face. Maul can see him, in his mind’s eye.
Skywalker, thinks Maul. I always forget how young you really are.
There is an expression of cruel curiosity. Like any good apprentice, Vader is seeking out the most tender and vulnerable places in his victim; the deepest and most pathetic fears.
The fears at the bottom of the ocean.
The heavy stones cast into the deepest trenches of Maul’s soul.
Maul waits for Vader to unearth those fears, to trawl the seabed of Maul’s mind until he finds precisely what will hurt him most… but he doesn’t. Vader merely observes. When he is satisfied, he gives a single command:
And Maul sleeps.