Duel of the Shadow Sith (PG)

By : Nevarion

Archived on: Monday, April 18, 2005

There aren't always just two Sith...

Sitting on the bare wooden floor of his darkened hut, Zeraii meditated, reciting the Sith Code?

There is no fear, there is power.

There is no death, there is immortality.

There is no weakness, there is the Dark Side.

I am the Heart of Darkness.

I know no fear,

But rather I instill it in my enemies.

I am the destroyer of worlds.

I know the power of the Dark Side.

I am the fire of hate.

All the Universe bows before me.

I pledge myself to the Darkness.

For I have found true life,

In the death of the light.

He found solace in the words, though not peace.

For the Sith, there is no peace. Peace is weakness, the absence of power. I am the Shadow Sith. I am power.

A tone sounded on the small comm unit sitting next to him in the darkness of the primitive hut. Moving immediately to a kneeling position, Zeraii answered the call, his heart thudding. Even though it was an audio-only connection, he bowed his head, eyes closed. A voice that inevitably made him think of rocks being scraped across a permacrete floor arose from the tiny speaker without preamble.

?You know the role of the Shadow Sith.? It was a statement rather than a question, a ritual that Master Terannor liked to play.

?Although the Sith Code decrees only one master and one apprentice,? Zeraii responded immediately, ?there can be another apprentice in training, if the Master so desires.?

?What is the role of the Shadow Sith??

?To destroy the primary apprentice in a Duel, and to take his place.?


?To ensure that only the most powerful survive to perpetuate the Sith legacy.?

Master Terannor paused, changing the ritual.

?My apprentice will arrive shortly. Destroy him, if you can.?

?Yes, Master Terannor.? Zeraii covered the surprise in his voice with quiet confidence, which seemed to irritate the Sith Master.

?Do you not remember that no Shadow Sith has ever defeated the primary apprentice?? Terannor sneered. ?We shall soon see if you will survive your Duel, Apprentice Zeraii.? The Sith Master?s gloating was evident, even from across the galaxy, as he abruptly cut off the transmission.

Zeraii exhaled slowly, licking his lips. Five generations of Sith apprentices had faced the Duel of the Shadow Sith since Lord Darth Renden had broken from the tradition of Darth Bane. Master Terannor himself had boasted on more than one occasion of his own victory over the Shadow Sith. Zeraii did not know the reason for the complete failure of the Shadow Sith. The primary apprentice supposedly knew nothing about the Shadow, but it seemed to him that either that was a lie told to the Shadow Sith, or the primary received more comprehensive training. Regardless, he looked forward to his own Duel as the fulfillment of his purpose, one way or another ? a transition to either full Sith or destruction.

Zeraii didn?t crave violence ? it was simply one of his more frequently used tools. Violence was the answer to the simple question of power: whoever held the least power died, usually in a violent way. That truth permeated Rahzhian Prime, especially the primal jungle in which he lived ? all creatures on this uninhabited planet lived or died according to it.

Zeraii exhaled again to contain his excitement, purging all thoughts of light and weakness in favor of the crackling energies of dark Force power that radiated all around him. Though his eyes were closed, Zeraii didn't need his cranial sensory ridges to feel the swirls and eddies of violence throughout the jungle surrounding him - the Force described in excruciating detail the searing pain of jaws in flesh, the frenetic flight for survival, the final exhalation of breath. To be alive was to be threatened, and to survive meant violence. And the Sith were exceptionally gifted at violence, even the Shadow Sith.

Attaching one of his two lightsabers to his belt, Zeraii rose and stepped to the darkling panel of his monitoring station, throwing the activation switch with a thought. The scanner flickered once, then settled into a steady pulsing rhythm: a ship was already approaching.

Master Terannor didn?t give me much warning, Zeraii thought. I?d better get to the landing area.

He emerged from the darkened hut into the steamy jungle air, stepping into the clearing that insulated the adjacent Sith shrine ? the only unnatural structure on the planet aside from his hut ? from the living foliage around him. The clearing was barren ? the jungle seemingly would not approach the ancient structure. Zeraii paused and stared at the intimidating monument. Its pinnacle was situated exactly on Rahzhian Prime?s equator line and soared to exactly 37 meters above the jungle floor, descending in widening layers until the pyramidal form gave way to a perfectly square base three meters above the ground. An obelisk pillar at each of its four corners matched the height of the central structure, with each obelisk facing one of the cardinal points of a compass. The entire monument was seemingly constructed from a single piece of shiny black stone - Zeraii had not been able to find any evidence of separate building blocks through his years of study there. Open doorways in the center of each wall provided entrance into the single chamber inside the shrine where he typically meditated.

If the jungle of Rahzhian Prime was a constant swirl of dark energy, the Sith shrine was a pinpoint maelstrom of fury. Zeraii had spent considerable time studying and meditating in the shrine over the past five years, but each time he approached it he felt a strange combination of dread and exhilaration, as if he was at once repulsed by and addicted to the power it contained. On more than one occasion, Zeraii felt the structure almost calling to him, invading his mind with malevolent intent. Today was no exception; if anything, the calling was perhaps even more pervasive than usual. With an effort, Zeraii shook his thoughts free and hurried around the shrine to the far side of the clearing where a rough path wound through the jungle to a small glade, the only place for kilometers around where a small starship could land.

After living and training in isolation on Rahzhian Prime for five years, Zeraii could negotiate the twisting and overgrown jungle pathway with practiced ease. He had an innate control over the more physical aspects of the Force, which had been sharpened by the wilderness of the deadly jungle in which he lived. Zeraii was confident in his abilities; his acceptance into the Sith Order despite being a non-human was evidence enough of that. But, the fact that no previous Shadow Sith had ever succeeded to assume the title of Darth worried him. Shaking his head, Zeraii returned his focus to the source of his power, the Sith Code, reciting it as he flipped easily over a tree trunk that lay across the path.

The Sith Code was the basis for the entire Sith methodology, the focus of Zeraii's meditation, his power, his life. As long as he held true to the Code, he feared nothing and no one. If the primary apprentice destroyed him in the Duel, so be it. He would be destroyed while at one with the Code.

A sudden fleeting swirl of dark Force energy made him pause. Something he'd mastered during his time on Rahzhian Prime was discerning malicious intent directed specifically at him from amidst the general malicious intent that embodied the savage jungle in which he lived. He calmly considered the nature of the imminent threat as the jungle sounds around him ebbed into silence. He suspected it came from a creature that bore a striking resemblance to a Sileronian derkolo ? vicious temperament, and lots of sharp fangs. On Rahzhian Prime, they had adapted to become symbionts with a creature Zeraii called quill-crabs, which were small misshapen lumps that sat motionless on the back of the derkolo, hiding in plain sight. When the derkolo stalked close to its prey, the quill-crab would hurl a cloud of quills to injure the prey, providing the derkolo with an easy kill, which would then be shared with the quill-crab. They were a deadly combination, but Zeraii was unconcerned ? the power of the Dark Side of the Force was with him.

Within moments, a pair of brown-furred creatures stepped out of the jungle on the far side of the clearing, a low growl rumbling from their throats. He stood in the middle of the path, staring at them. The derkolo on the left took a long step forward as the quill-crab on its back twitched, sending a hail of quills toward him. Zeraii called on the Dark Side of the Force and raised a hand. The barely visible cloud of quills abruptly halted a few centimeters in front of his hand before he flung them into the jungle with a thought. As the quill-crab on the second derkolo?s back twitched in its own attack, Zeraii twirled a finger in a small circle. The creature?s quill arm swept past its normal release point, sending its quills into the first derkolo, which yelped in surprise and pain.

Zeraii watched as the first derkolo snapped at the second. The two creatures leaped at each other in a churning, slashing blur of brown fur and fangs. Quills filled the air as the quill-crabs joined the fight. The initial injury proved to be the difference as the second derkolo finally clamped its jaws on its adversary?s neck. With its host animal dead, the first quill-crab detached from the carcass and scuttled away into the underbrush. The victorious derkolo stood over its former companion, shivering with exertion and bleeding from numerous cuts and bites, glaring at the Sith apprentice as if it knew he'd caused the skirmish. As the animal took a step toward him, Zeraii cocked his head to one side and twitched another finger. The grip of the Force abruptly crushed the derkolo?s heart to the size of a fingertip, dropping the creature to the ground with a strangled gurgle. The second quill-crab bounced off and followed the first into the underbrush.

Zeraii sniffed and gestured, carelessly hurling both of the derkolos? broken bodies into the jungle. The power of the jungle of Rahzhian Prime was deadly, but compared to the power of the Sith, it was trifling.

He resumed his jog down the path toward the landing glade, forming and discarding various plans of attack for the upcoming duel. The logical assumption was that Master Terannor had told the primary apprentice simply to travel to this location on Rahzhian Prime for a final test. His eyes narrowed as he thought how to best twist that assumption in his favor. The isolation and secrecy required by the life of the Shadow Sith could easily be seen as negative, but Zeraii had chosen instead to view such things as benefits. Tactically, isolation and secrecy could be used in a surprise attack that could destroy a superior enemy. Strategically, they had given him a finely developed understanding of the potency of deception ? one of the best disguises was to hide in plain sight, like the quill-crab.

Zeraii reached the landing glade and sat down on the grass to wait.

One of the first skills Terannor had taught Zeraii ? one that he maintained almost constantly ? was to hide his presence in the Force, and that skill would serve him well now. He would pose as a messenger sent by Master Terannor to conduct the primary apprentice to his final test. Under the assumption that there was only one Sith apprentice, the primary should accept his presence without question. Zeraii would lead the primary back to the Sith shrine and kill him, sacrificing him on the central altar as a sign of his devotion to the Sith Code. Applying the hiding technique, his presence in the Force shrank to virtually nothing. Zeraii waited for his final test, the Duel of the Shadow Sith.

Zeraii mentally recited the Sith code again as the sensory ridges crowning his head tingled, signaling the approach of a repulsorlift-powered craft. Looking up through the small opening in the broad-leafed trees surrounding the clearing, he hid his lightsaber in one of the deep pockets of his rough tunic. A small one-man ship circled the area before dropping smoothly to the grassy floor of the clearing. The descending whine of the repulsorlifts powering down drowned out all sound in the clearing other than the puff of released steam from the ship's hydraulics. The sleek ship's black hull beaded with moisture as it adjusted to the steamy humidity of the jungle. As the sounds of high technology faded from the primal jungle clearing, a boarding ramp at the base of the ship descended to the grass. Zeraii rose, hands clasped in front of his sternum, waiting with a placid face for the ship's lone passenger to approach him.

Heavy footsteps announced a long stride as the primary apprentice descended the boarding ramp and stepped onto the wild ground of Rahzhian Prime. Not surprisingly, the apprentice was human. He was very tall, at least a head taller than Zeraii, with broad muscular shoulders. A full length black hooded cloak with a decorative silver throat clasp covered him from crown to heel, making him seem to float over the ground. As he approached, Zeraii glimpsed the man's face inside the hood: a full mustache and pointed goatee surrounded smirking lips, and strong cheekbones suggesting nobility supported a pair of blazing dark eyes. More than the physical intimidation, Zeraii could feel an aura of vibrant power radiating from the man.

Zeraii bowed deeply. "Welcome to Rahzhian Prime. How may I address you??

?You may call me Girion,? came a surprisingly soft but authoritative bass voice.

?Greetings, Girion,? Zeraii rose from his bow. ?Master Terannor sends his regards on the completion of your trials and bids you luck in your final test. I have instructions to conduct you there." He held out a hand, indicating the rough pathway behind him.

Girion's piercing eyes assessed and dismissed Zeraii instantly, seeing only a poorly dressed non-human peasant being properly obsequious. With a tolerant nod, he moved in the direction indicated as Zeraii fell into step beside him. Apparently, his plan of hiding in plain sight was working perfectly against this arrogant human. Girion's foolishness at dismissing Zeraii on the basis of his rough clothing and physical characteristics would doom him to destruction at Zeraii's hand, and the revenge would be sweet.

"Where are we going?" Girion asked as he eyed the jungle on either side of the path.

"Rahzhian Prime is the location of an ancient and powerful Sith shrine," Zeraii replied reverently. "That shrine is our destination."

Girion grunted. They walked in silence for a few steps until Girion used a Force push to toss a large tree limb out of the center of the path. He asked, "What does an ancient shrine have to do with my final test?"

"I am forbidden by Master Terannor from speaking to you about the test," Zeraii said. "However, knowing what you will face, I will say that I would rather be in my position than yours," he added.

Girion barked a haughty laugh. "Do you have any idea who I am, peasant?"

"As a guest of Master Terannor, and a patron of the shrine, I presume you are a student of his with some degree of power," Zeraii replied, forcing his voice to remain steady. He might not have the patience to wait until they arrived at the shrine to kill this self-righteous and insultingly bigoted braggart.

"More than a degree," Girion stated. "I am more powerful than you can imagine. If you knew half of the things I've done..." He trailed off, clearly expecting his back-woods guide to be impressed.

Zeraii appeared to be paying attention, but a swirl of dark Force energy had briefly caressed his mind before dissipating like a vapor, causing him great concern. With his Force-hiding technique in place, Zeraii couldn't fully decipher the nature of the intent, but it seemed likely they were being hunted. The question was: hunted by what? He needed more focus, which meant less attention on the arrogant Sith apprentice striding next to him.

"Please, sir," he began with what he hoped was the proper amount of curiosity and eager enthusiasm. "I'm sure you can understand that I don't receive much in the way of news of the great deeds of the galaxy. If you don't mind, I'd like to hear some of your exploits as we walk."

Girion flashed him a smile. "Of course, peasant, I would be happy to share some of my accomplishments. The most notable of my many deeds happened just half a year ago..."

Girion prattled on in self-congratulatory effusiveness as Zeraii furtively frowned in concentration, but the tendril of Force intent eluded him. He glanced to the side, looking for any sign of attack, but if his suspicion was correct, he would get little if any warning before the attack came.

The creatures Zeraii had dubbed dark beasts ? both because of the color of their thick bony hide and because he was rarely able to detect their intentions toward him through the Force until they began their headlong charge ? were about half the size of an adult bantha. Strangely, they somehow passed through the dense jungle foliage soundlessly while stalking their prey. After drawing close, the dark beast would charge, literally flattening anything in its path, including shrubs, small trees, and prey. While it was possible to kill one without using a lightsaber, Zeraii knew it was difficult, and he certainly wouldn?t be able to do so without revealing his Force abilities to Girion. As the two Sith apprentices rounded a bend in the path, Zeraii?s sense of impending danger heightened.

Before he could come up with a viable plan for dealing with the dark beast, it attacked.

The relatively foliage-free path provided a clear approach for the dark beast, and the bend also provided visual cover for its headlong rush. Fortunately for the Sith, it also required a brief slowdown and direction change, and the animal's hooves scraped the soil as it skidded around the corner. That sound was the only warning the two Sith received.

Both apprentices sensed the attack and leaped in opposite directions. Girion leaped up and away from the dark beast, moving stiffly and barely in time to avoid a collision. The beast flashed past and whirled with astonishing agility for such a large animal. It tossed its head in an effort to gore Girion with the three vicious horns protruding from above its eyes, but Girion managed to twist away in mid-air. In the same movement, he grasped a thick tree branch and swung himself up to safety.

Zeraii's reflexes were much quicker as he rolled out of the dark beast's path and into a clump of thorny bushes. His rough clothing turned most of the thorns, preventing injury. A non-Force user could not have moved fast enough to get out of the way of the dark beast, so his abilities were now revealed to Girion. Zeraii?s strategic advantage was gone, but he still maintained the tactical surprise advantage since the dark beast had pursued Girion off the path.

Zeraii drew his lightsaber and whipped it through the air toward the human Sith, who had just swung onto the top of the tree branch above the dark beast. As the weapon arced through the air, a red blade of light snapped out of one end, creating a spinning scythe of death.

As Girion turned to face the dark beast below, he belatedly saw the second threat spinning toward him. He twisted and threw up a hand, trying to divert the lightsaber's trajectory with a Force push. Unfortunately for him, the dark beast rammed a bone-armored shoulder into the trunk of the tree, throwing off his balance and concentration.

The two separate but equally vicious assaults were too much for Girion. He fell backward off the tree branch, barely avoiding Zeraii's spinning lightsaber, which flashed past before sailing back to its owner's hand. Arching his back, Girion managed to get his feet beneath him before landing on the ground, but his right ankle buckled as it landed crookedly on the jungle's uneven terrain. The human collapsed to one knee as the dark beast charged him again.

Girion planted his uninjured left foot and dove to the right, trying to roll out of the way of the beast. One of the beast's horns snagged the hem of his cloak, abruptly snapping him out of his roll and throwing him to the ground like a rag doll, where he narrowly avoided another slash from the dark beast?s horns. The animal's momentum carried it headlong onto a patch of wet leaves. Its hooves scrabbled for purchase but found none, and the animal crashed down onto its side. Girion rolled to his knees again, drew his own lightsaber, and shrugged out of his cloak.

Zeraii watched as the human squared his shoulders toward the dark beast, which quickly regained its footing and charged again. The human was ready this time. Girion used the Force to propel his cloak into the dark beast?s face, then leaped up and somersaulted forward to pass over the animal?s armored back. Igniting his weapon, the human Sith gracefully lopped off the animal?s tail as he passed over it. He landed on his uninjured leg just beyond the flopping tail, tucking into a roll to absorb the rest of his momentum. The dark beast thrashed furiously behind him, tossing the cloak away from its face.

Zeraii had simply watched the last charge, gauging the human against the dark beast. It now appeared that Girion might be able to kill it, which meant it was time to become actively involved again. He cocked back his arm, timing his throw with the injured and enraged dark beast's next rush. The beast surged forward, as did Zeraii's arm.

Girion threw a smirk in Zeraii's direction and touched another control on his lightsaber. The red blade narrowed and lengthened to almost double its original span as the human easily parried Zeraii's blade before leaping out of the dark beast's path again. This time, the tip of Girion's lengthened lightsaber blade sliced open the thick hide on the dark beast's neck. The human again landed in a roll behind the thrashing dark beast.

The animal roared in pain and fury, then charged again. Zeraii knew from experience that this would likely be its final charge - it was bleeding profusely from the gaping wounds Girion had inflicted on it, and its rage would drain the animal's blood quickly.

Girion seemed to sense this as he squared off against the dark beast again, grinning. Zeraii recalled his lightsaber, then threw it as the dark beast again charged with a howl. Girion vaulted over the animal once more, but this time Zeraii's flying blade intersected with his, preventing a killing blow to the dark beast. After the blades separated, Zeraii used the Force to guide his lightsaber down in front of the dark beast's nose. It jerked to the side to avoid contact with the weapon, shifting its massive bulk through the trajectory of Girion?s landing. The human was slammed sideways and skittered across the ground into the foliage. Zeraii, still maintaining a mental Force grip on his lightsaber, sank the red blade deeply into the dark beast's forehead. It collapsed immediately, the impact shaking the ground.

Zeraii recalled his lightsaber to his hand and strode over to where Girion lay face up, panting heavily. He felt the dark swirls of power boiling around him, almost rejoicing with him in his imminent victory. With a gesture, the human's lightsaber, now extinguished, leapt into his hand.

"Interesting toy," Zeraii commented, examining the cylinder. "I've heard of dual-phase lightsabers before, but I've not seen one."

Girion laughed mirthlessly and struggled to prop himself up on his elbows. "I'm not surprised. I wouldn't imagine you see much of anything out here." He spat blood onto the ground. "I presume you are the final test to which Master Terannor was referring?"

Zeraii smiled wickedly. "Brilliant deduction. I'm surprised he even wasted his time on you."

Girion sank back onto the ground, swallowing hard. "As you can see, my skills with the lightsaber and the more physical aspects of the Force are nothing extraordinary." Zeraii nodded in whole-hearted agreement. "However, Master Terannor saw one or two other abilities in me that he felt were critical in becoming a Sith lord."

Zeraii's eyebrows arched at the statement. The scenario that Girion had faced, both his own deception and the dark beast, was an impossible task for a non-Force user, but a fully trained Sith apprentice should have performed much better. Zeraii was surprised at how easy his victory had been, and a touch disappointed in Master Terannor for sending such an easy opponent. "Oh? Such as?"

"This," Girion said with sudden vehemence as he sat up abruptly, fingers outstretched.

Tendrils of crackling blue lightning leaped from the human?s hand, blasting into Zeraii like a tidal wave, hurling him backward across the path. He tumbled roughly into the underbrush until his back thumped against a gnarled tree root curling across the jungle floor.

Zeraii?s vision danced with bright spots as residual electrical currents played over his body, causing his muscles to twitch violently. Gasping for breath, he felt an echo in the Force surrounding him, like the after-shock of an earthquake ? a monumental shift of dark energies had occurred, cycloning into the human and channeling through his outstretched arm, his fingertips creating focal points where the intangible Force coalesced into raw physical power. And it had happened so fast that Zeraii hadn?t even sensed it coming.

Zeraii rolled onto his hands and knees, coughing and trying to rise. He glanced over at Girion who, although a bit wobbly, had regained his feet. The human raised a hand in Zeraii's direction and unleashed another vicious barrage of Force lightning. Now that he knew what to search for in the dark currents of the Force, Zeraii sensed the attack coming, but was physically unable to move out of the way as the new assault slammed into him and pinned him against the tree root.

The lightning was raw Force power, tearing through his mind and body with ravaging devastation. Living in this jungle, Zeraii had experienced all manner of animal bites, broken bones, poisoning and sickness, but nothing compared to the excruciating physical and mental pain storming through him now.

Girion ceased his assault, leaving the jungle strangely quiet. Zeraii?s body twitched violently, bleeding freely from rents in his blistered and cracked skin. He struggled to raise himself off the ground, but his muscles gave way and he collapsed. Girion stepped closer and leaned down conspiratorially.

"Your parlor tricks are no match for the true power of the Dark Side of the Force," he intoned softly. "You may have the advantage over me in the physical aspects of Force control, but I have mastered techniques you cannot imagine."

Smirking, he stood and called to his hands both of the lightsabers that Zeraii had dropped after the first Force lightning attack. "Even more useful than the Force lightning is the skill of Foresight, which a Sith Master must possess. With it, I have foreseen all that has happened so far. You were destined to lose." Girion fastened his own lightsaber to his belt and examined Zeraii's weapon briefly, turning it over in both hands before hanging it next to his own. "I have foreseen your destruction, and it shall be so."

Years of living in the savage jungle of Rahzhian Prime had given Zeraii an almost subconscious ability to connect to the Force swirling through the wilderness, and while Girion spoke he had managed to do so, clearing his mind enough to think. The human's words were almost more painful than his attack as Zeraii realized the full irony of his own mistake. Zeraii had fallen into the very trap he had set for Girion - using assumptions to disguise a reality that true reliance on the Dark Side of the Force could easily have shown him. Girion was indeed arrogant, but his foreknowledge of Zeraii's plan allowed him to play up that arrogance and persuade Zeraii to drop his guard, preventing him from seeing Girion's own special powers. He'd been fooled, utterly and totally. His bitterness and frustration blossomed into an intense rage that momentarily cleared his mind and body of pain.

Reaching out with the Force, Zeraii mentally grasped every loose object he could sense, hurling them against the human Sith. Girion became the center of a Force storm as a rain of leaves, rocks, tree branches, and even small animals converged on him in an inescapable barrage of debris.

The human flinched and covered his face with his hands, attempting to erect a Force shield against the storm of nature pounding his body, but was unable to do so. Zeraii stretched out a hand and clenched his fist, ripping a limb as thick as his thigh from a nearby tree. With a howl of fury, Zeraii mentally wielded the limb like a club, striking the tall human in the gut. Girion doubled over the limb with a loud crack and flew backward across the path, skidding into a thicket of shrubs.

Zeraii rose and staggered over to Girion?s unconscious form, still curled around the tree limb. He knew this was his best chance to kill the human, but both of their lightsabers were still attached to Girion?s belt, pinned beneath the tree limb. After a brief and futile struggle, Zeraii realized he was too weak to move the limb, both physically and with the Force. The physical exertion required to throttle the life out of someone ? even if they were unconscious ? was significant, and Zeraii?s remaining strength ebbed further with each labored breath. He was certain his injuries were fatal, and that time was of the essence.

In the end, there really was no choice.

Hoping Girion would stay put, Zeraii turned and crawled down the path toward the shrine - it called to him; it was the focus of Sith power on Rahzhian Prime, and his sanctuary. If he could just reach it, he could meditate and use its connection with the Force to heal and regain his strength before coming back to end this Duel.

Zeraii fell to his knees in one of the open doorways of the shrine, supporting himself on the cool black stone as he gathered strength from the physical contact with the Sith monument. The physical and mental damage done by Girion's Force lightning was soothed, and Zeraii breathed easier by the moment.

He?d read of wielding the Force in powerful manifestations like the blue lightning, but only by Sith Masters of great experience. The fact that this apprentice had already mastered the ability indicated he was truly powerful, regardless of his more basic deficiencies with telekinesis and the lightsaber. Zeraii needed to finish the Duel before Girion woke up. Feeling distinctly better but far from recovered, he rose to his feet.

At the same moment, a distinctive snap-hiss sounded behind him.

Zeraii's head snapped around in surprise to see Girion standing at the path's entrance to the clearing around the shrine. The human's tunic was hanging open, his muscular chest only partially covered by the loose material. One hand held his dual-phase lightsaber, the other held the dented metal plate that had protected his midsection against Zeraii's tree limb attack. Zeraii?s lightsaber was still hanging on the human?s belt. Girion tossed the metal plate on the bare ground.

"Once again, peasant, my foreknowledge has defeated your trivial Force abilities," he taunted. "I will grant you one chance to surrender to me."

Zeraii kept one hand on the cool black stone, continuing to drink in its power. "And if I refuse?"

"You die," Girion said simply.

Zeraii did not feel normal, but much of the damage from the human's previous attack had been repaired through his Force-channeled contact with the powerful Sith shrine. He knew that regardless of whether or not he surrendered, Girion would seek his death, which left him with only one option. Hopefully he had the strength to execute it.

Zeraii's preferred choice of weapon was not one but two lightsabers. He'd mastered the techniques of combat with two blades, though he normally carried only one with him. He typically left the second in its niche above the door of his hut ? on the far side of the Sith shrine from where they were currently standing ? in the event of the loss or damage to his primary weapon. As Zeraii pretended to consider Girion's offer of surrender, he mentally called his second lightsaber from its niche. At the same time, he rolled a sizeable rock from the path behind Girion into the grass.

The human involuntarily flinched at the noise and half-turned to glance behind him. Seeing nothing, Girion realized the subterfuge and limped forward with a snarl, his extended lightsaber waving in front of him.

Zeraii's second lightsaber arced over the pinnacle of the Sith shrine and plummeted down into his waiting hand, flashing to life just in time to parry Girion's savage horizontal blow. A look of surprise twisted the human's features as his lengthened blade was driven down into the ground, spitting a cloud of dirt up into the air. Zeraii mentally directed the cloud up into Girion's face, causing him to step back, momentarily blinded.

Zeraii called his primary lightsaber from Girion's belt as the human backed away. Confidently armed, he fell comfortably into the stance of a seasoned two-blade swordsman. Girion took another step back and blinked the last of the dust out of his eyes.

The two Sith apprentices coldly regarded each other.

Although Girion's dual-phase lightsaber gave him the advantage in range, both knew that Zeraii's expertise with a lightsaber ? as well as his command of telekinesis ? would more than counter that advantage. And, as lethal as he was with a single lightsaber, he would be doubly so with both weapons. For Girion to succeed, he had only one alternative, and they both knew it.

Extinguishing his lightsaber, Girion unleashed a powerful Force lightning attack from an outstretched hand.

This time Zeraii was ready for it, easily rolling out of the path of destructive energy. The blue bolts of crackling Force energy splashed into the black wall of the Sith shrine, writhing across the surface of the dark stone until they were dissipated by some unseen force. Girion clipped his lightsaber to his belt, using both hands to try to track Zeraii's movements with rapid bursts of Force energy. Zeraii leaped and spun, evading each attack, to the corner of the shrine, where he whirled around the black obelisk out of sight of the human.

Extinguishing his own lightsabers, Zeraii leaped up to the lowest level of the pyramidal structure on the top of the shrine. He ran along the roofline away from Girion's position, hopping up to a higher level where he could round the corner without being blocked by the massive obelisks rising from each corner. Zeraii didn't know the range of Girion's Force lightning, but he surmised that it was only accurate at fairly short ranges. Moving about halfway up the pyramid of the shrine's roof structure, he crept around another corner, watching the ground below for any sign of Girion. Drawing on his anger and frustration, he clamped down on his Force presence.

From his high vantage point, Zeraii spotted Girion in the same place, kneeling with his eyes closed. Given Girion's boasts about foreknowledge from the Force, Zeraii supposed the human Sith was trying to glean some information about the conclusion of the battle. Exasperated, Zeraii ground his teeth. How could he possibly combat someone with knowledge of his future actions? That question burned into his mind, paralyzing him with indecision. He couldn't attack Girion openly - the human had clearly foreseen his attempted subterfuge at the clearing, as well as the tree limb strike in the subsequent battle on the pathway. Yet, he didn't have time to set up anything complicated enough to fool his opponent. He could run and take his chances in the wilderness of Rahzhian Prime, but he refused to throw away the last five years of his life and training on such cowardly actions. But, to confront the human Sith was to court an almost certain death. The realization of his lack of options sparked the first twinges of fear in Zeraii.

Seemingly unbidden, words flowed through his mind:

There is no fear, there is power.

There is no death, there is immortality.

There is no weakness, there is the Dark Side...

I know no fear,

But rather I instill it in my enemies.

As he pondered how to instill fear in Girion, he watched the human stand up and step backward to the edge of the bare ground surrounding the shrine, gingerly favoring his injured ankle.

Whether provoked by the Force or his own observation, Zeraii suddenly experienced a flash of inspiration. If Girion was limping, he clearly hadn't foreseen every detail of the events he would face on Rahzhian Prime. If he had, he wouldn't have landed wrong when evading the dark beast.

As Zeraii mentally reviewed the events since Girion landed, he realized there were other details that indicated the human apprentice did not possess complete knowledge: Girion had lost his footing as the dark beast hammered his tree from below; he had been unable to avoid Zeraii's Force storm on the path, and the dirt cloud at the shrine; he had been surprised at the appearance of Zeraii's second lightsaber. All could have been prevented easily if complete foreknowledge had been present. While he might have been able to divine the major points of the conflict, Girion still missed details.

When considering Girion's strengths and weaknesses, it came down to this: Girion had a good idea of what Zeraii was going to do, but was far less competent with his lightsaber, or with Force manipulation of objects. The question facing Zeraii now was how to utilize that weakness to his advantage.

"Come now, peasant," Girion jeered from the ground below. "You don't think you can still win, do you? I command the Force to show me the future, and it obeys. How can you possibly defeat me?" Girion searched the outline of the shrine for any sign of his opponent. Seeing none, he continued, "Are you such a coward that you would not face me in open combat?"

As he spoke, Zeraii had dropped silently to the ground on the other side of the shrine and made his way a few meters into the jungle. Keeping Girion's voice as an anchor point, he traversed the perimeter of the shrine's clearing. He soon found his way to the path connecting the landing area and the shrine. Girion still stood facing the shrine, still taunting Zeraii. Silently, still suppressing his Force presence, the Shadow Sith crept along the path, readying his lightsabers for a quick strike. He knew Girion would sense him at some point, but he wanted to be as close as possible before that happened. Breaking into a sprint, he leaped into the air with Force-enhanced strength.

As if expecting the attack from behind, Girion spun aside, holding both hands out toward Zeraii's leaping form. Blue Force lightning erupted from his fingertips again, catching Zeraii squarely in the torso. The energy bursts battered into Zeraii's mind and body, redirecting his leap away from the human Sith to slam into the bare ground of the clearing. He rolled to a hard stop against the base of the shrine.

But, as he had leaped, Zeraii had hurled his lightsabers spinning to either side, mentally directing them into two parabolic paths converging on Girion's chest from almost opposite directions. Although the Force lightning had totally disrupted Zeraii's mental control over the weapons, their unguided trajectories still forced Girion to abandon his own attack to avoid being cut down.

The human lurched back away from the two spinning weapons, igniting his own lightsaber just in time to deflect one of the crimson blades to the side. The other burned a deep slash across Girion's back as it flashed past him. He cried out and fell to his knees.

Zeraii stood shakily, reaching out a hand. The lightsaber nearest him leaped into his palm. Under his mental control, his other lightsaber twitched in the dirt, then spun up off the ground and shot toward Girion's face. The Sith apprentice batted it away with his own weapon, but lost his balance and fell hard onto his side. Zeraii hesitated. He knew he could easily kill Girion in a lightsaber duel, but his body was still shaking from the last Force lightning attack, and he was reluctant to get close enough to allow another.

Zeraii's indecision almost killed him as Girion rolled over and unleashed his most powerful blast of Force lightning yet.

Zeraii moved a split second too slow to avoid it, and was pummeled backward into the shrine behind him. Zeraii's shoulder grazed the open doorway of the shrine as he fell backward, twisting his body as he fell roughly in the doorway. The black stone wall absorbed some of the energy issuing from Girion's fingertips, but great damage was still done, re-opening partially healed wounds and further scrambling Zeraii's mental control. He barely managed to crawl completely inside the doorway to hide. His connection to the Force was scattered, but he still sensed Girion's unfettered rage as the human approached the doorway. Desperate to get away, Zeraii forced his convulsing muscles to obey, crawling toward the center of the dark chamber.

Slabs of the same black stone covered with carved Sith inscriptions and histories hung from the ceiling in staggered concentric circles, each terminating about half a meter above the ground. At the heart of the chamber was a raised dais, the center of which was a one meter square of slightly recessed stone. Inscriptions and sigils of Sith power circled the stone, which was the nexus of power in the shrine. Zeraii crawled shakily under the hanging slabs toward the dais a few meters away, leaving a bloody trail across the floor.

Girion's frame filled the shrine chamber?s doorway, dimming what little light there was inside. "Where are you, peasant?" he spat. "Come back and finish this!" Receiving no answer, Girion lurched into the chamber with a growl, following the circular barrier of hanging stone slabs around the perimeter of the chamber to its first opening. He limped into the next ring and continued around the circle, his own lightsaber and Zeraii's second weapon clinking faintly from his belt. "You are a coward, and a disgrace to the Dark Side of the Force! That is why you will be destroyed - the Force does not suffer weakness! To be Sith is to control the Force!"

Zeraii ignored the human's posturing. He was intent only on reaching the dais at the center of the chamber. He'd never before touched the square at the center of the dais, feeling somehow that if he did he would be either destroyed or totally consumed by the Force; either way, his current identity would cease to exist. Now, however, he sensed that nothing else could help him. Finally reaching the dais, he dragged his weakened and twitching body up the steps as Girion limped around the last ring of hanging stone slabs.

Their eyes locked.

"You...the Force doesn?t..." Zeraii wheezed.

"The Force is mine to command!" Girion retorted. "You know nothing of its power! You are a weak fool, and you will die!" Girion grinned in triumph as he loosed another burst of Force lightning from his fingertips. The attack brutally assaulted Zeraii, intensifying his mental and physical pain, shattering his concentration and destroying his tissues. His lightsaber fell from his limp fingers to leap into Girion's waiting hand. Zeraii collapsed onto the top of the dais, head and chest sprawled across the central stone.

Immediately, Zeraii felt an almost physical buzzing sensation as the Dark Side of the Force surged through the stone?s inscriptions into his body. He channeled that power, healing his damaged mind and body and fueling his rage - rage at Girion, his opponent, and at Master Terannor, who had pitted him against Girion despite knowing the human possessed a greater understanding of the Force. The rage built inside him, consumed him, temporarily healed him.

I know the power of the Dark Side.

I am the fire of hate.

Zeraii gathered his anger and hatred into a single command, and his lightsaber snap-hissed to a fiery red life in Girion's hand.

It should have worked.

If the universe had been fair, it would have worked, but whether through a specific leading of the Force or as part of his general foreknowledge of the battle, Girion was ready. With a deft twitch of his hand, he neatly directed the red blade to one side, where it passed only through air. With his other hand, the human Sith unleashed a final torrent of Force energy at Zeraii.

As the scintillating energy burned into Zeraii's mind and body in an irresistible onslaught, he struggled to focus his thoughts one last time. Although he did not fear death, Zeraii regretted the fact that he'd relied too much on his own assumptions and plans, rather than the Sith Code and the Dark Side of the Force. And, for that transgression, he knew would die. But if he was going to die, he would at least die in unity with the Sith Code.

With his last remaining mental strength, he focused on the Code, ignoring all physical sensation, the smell of his burning flesh, the uncontrollable twitching of his limbs, the sound and feel of raw power cascading through him...

There is no fear, there is power.

There is no death, there is immortality.

There is no weakness, there is the Dark Side...

A strange sensation overcame Zeraii. Time slowed to a crawl around him, and he felt as if his entire being was being stretched thin for examination. An even more strange sensation followed, and he suddenly understood that he'd passed his final test without even realizing it: when all else failed, he?d turned to the Sith Code, to the Force: the battle with Girion was not the test, but the fulcrum on which his true test was balanced. His decision had been made without conscious knowledge, but it was all the more powerful because of that fact. Now, however, he understood that true power was in understanding the Force, not controlling it. He'd been right about touching the central stone - he, as he had been, would cease to exist. However, he would be far more powerful in the ways of the Force, so it was a trade-off he made gladly.

Though Girion?s Force lightning continued its assault, a sudden twinge of coolness and relief blossomed in Zeraii's mind, coalescing his fractured thoughts and relieving the driving pressure of Girion's attack, allowing him to concentrate on his recitation.

I am the Heart of Darkness.

I know no fear,

But rather I instill it in my enemies.

Zeraii did not question the sudden surprising clarity flushing through him. Instead, he opened himself fully to the hatred he harbored against Girion and thrust forcefully through the barrier between his mind and his body, directing the increasing flood of the Force through his body.

I am the destroyer of worlds.

I know the power of the Dark Side.

The flow of the Dark Side of the Force filled Zeraii, repulsing the destructive tendrils of Force lightning. He could feel the dark power of the Force repairing damaged tissue, sealing bloody rents in his skin, re-connecting severed neural pathways. In moments, the physical and mental damage done by Girion's repeated attacks had been completely reversed.

I am the fire of hate.

All the Universe bows before me.

I pledge myself to the Darkness.

The power of the Force pulsing through Zeraii pushed Girion's attack away from his body, the blue Force lightning dissipating into thin air before touching his skin.

For I have found true life,

In the death of the light.

As Zeraii came to the end of his mental recitation, he opened his eyes. Girion stood over him, arms hanging limply, staring at him in utter shock and disbelief. Zeraii called on the Force and floated to his feet, recalling his lightsaber out of Girion's hand.

"Didn't see that one coming, did you?" Zeraii challenged, his eyes blazing in fury.

Girion's mouth worked soundlessly.

"You want to know your mistake?" Zeraii asked pointedly.

Bellowing wordlessly, Girion's hand shot out and launched another barrage of Force lightning. Zeraii calmly raised his own hand, drawing the blue tendrils of crackling power into his palm. He stared at the tight ball of blue lightning swirling almost serenely within his fingertips, awed by the power he now understood and possessed. With a sadistic grin, Zeraii glanced up at Girion, who backed up a step, fear trickling across his face and into his Force presence.

Zeraii thrust out his hand, hurling the Force lightning contained there into Girion's chest, propelling him back into the stone slab hanging behind him. Following the Force's cruel and greedy urging, Zeraii sent a second vengeful blast into the human, crumpling him to the floor. He reached out his empty hand again, this time recalling his second lightsaber from Girion's belt. Brandishing both crimson blades, he squatted next to Girion's wheezing form.


"Your mistake," Zeraii said conversationally, "was that you thought the Dark Side of the Force was yours to control. While control is a part of the symbiosis of Force and Sith, it works in both directions. You simply failed to acknowledge that." His tone took on an accusatory edge. "You are the fool! You had potential for so much power, but you were blinded by your own aggression. Your lack of respect for the true nature of the Force was your undoing."

"But...I foresaw..." Girion wheezed.

"The future is always in motion," Zeraii cut him off. "You of all people should know that, but you saw what you wanted to see. Now your eyes must be opened to the true nature of the Force."

With a deft twirl of both hands, the Shadow Sith reversed his grip on his twin lightsabers, plunging the crimson blades of light down into Girion's eyes.

Standing, Zeraii closed down his weapons and hung them on his belt. He briefly considered taking the human's dual phase lightsaber but decided against it - he did not need it. Quietly, reverently, he walked to the nearest exit through the maze of stone slabs, one hand outstretched, his fingers trailing across the cold black stone.

Zeraii quickly gathered his meager belongings from his hut, sensing he would never return to Rahzhian Prime. Walking toward the path back to Girion's ship he paused, looking at the shrine's imposing structure and opening his senses to the Force. The malevolent power he'd always sensed radiating from the shrine had become just a whisper. Either that power had passed into him, or it was somehow being withdrawn until the next Shadow Sith arrived. Either way, it didn't matter to Zeraii. The shrine had served its purpose, and he knew it had nothing further to teach him, no further power to impart.

As Zeraii settled into the padded dewback hide seat of Girion's ship ? now his ship ? he quickly familiarized himself with the controls. Satisfied that he could fly the ship without difficulty, Zeraii keyed in Master Terannor's private comm frequency. After a moment of static, the aged Sith Master's face appeared on the screen.

"What?" he scowled.

Zeraii bowed his head. "Master Terannor, I wish to report that Apprentice Girion is dead."

The Sith Master?s face revealed the same shock that Girion?s had moments before. Regaining his composure, Terannor cocked his head to one side as if listening to an inner voice. "I see. I had foreseen this possibility, but I did not find it likely." His eyes narrowed. "You must have progressed much since our last meeting."

"I have, Master Terannor," Zeraii agreed softly.

"Girion was convinced he had foreseen your destruction," Terannor continued as if Zeraii hadn't spoken. "I myself had seen the same outcome. I wonder how you were able to defeat him...?" he left the question hanging menacingly in the air.

"With all due respect, Master Terannor," Zeraii began carefully, "I believe Girion put too much trust in his own visions. The Dark Side of the Force is an ally, but not one that can be controlled solely for one's own purposes. It not only gives power, it is power, and as such it uses us as much as it is used by us. The Sith Code is the core of the Dark Side of the Force, and must be the heart of all Sith uses of Force power. I came to realize that; Girion did not. He died for his failure."

"Beware of your words, Zeraii," the Sith Master said darkly. "You approach accusing me of the same failings."

"That is not my intent, Master," Zeraii stated apologetically but firmly. "You are much wiser in the ways of the Sith than Girion, and I have much to learn from you. When you pass on, I will be powerful enough to have earned the title of Sith Master."

Terannor's unblinking stare bore into Zeraii's eyes as if reading the currents of the future surrounding him. Finally, the Sith Master nodded once. "So be it. Return to me, and I will give you your first mission, Darth Zeraii." Without waiting for acknowledgement, Terannor broke the connection.

Zeraii sat back, mentally replaying the conversation. It was clear that Terannor had expected Girion to defeat him, which wasn't terribly surprising ? in retrospect, Zeraii realized that the entire concept of the Shadow Sith was perhaps as much for the Master?s cruel amusement as it was for the purpose of selecting the strongest apprentice. The disturbing thing was why Terannor had been so convinced Girion would succeed - he seemed to suffer the same obsession with self-affirming foresight that the apprentice had. In fact, his philosophy was probably the reason Girion had centered on the ability. While it was admittedly impressive, Foresight seemed to remove much of the reliance on the Force at any given moment, and he couldn?t imagine how that was beneficial to a Sith lord. It was something Zeraii himself would never give up - he literally owed his life to his total reliance on the Dark Side of the Force through the Sith Code. It was his core, and the true source of his power. If Master Terannor refused to acknowledge that power, the Force would turn against him as it had against Girion. If Zeraii proved to be the agent of that change, so be it. Perhaps his path to Sith Master would be shorter than he'd anticipated.

I am no longer Shadow Sith; I am Sith, thought Darth Zeraii. For the Sith, there is no fear, there is power...

Original cover by obaona. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.