Two years after winning the Duel of the Shadow Sith, Darth Zeraii faces an opponent never before seen by the Sith along his path to mastery of the Dark Side of the Force.
"Your next assignment should be simple enough, even for you."
Fury blossomed yet again in Darth Zeraii's gut, made ever more potent by the cumulative frustration of two years of vicious insults from the man - no, the monster - who was supposed to be his mentor and guide on the path to mastery of the Force. But, as quickly as the emotion materialized, Zeraii clamped down on it. It would not do to have the Sith Lord Terannor angry at him. His cruelty knew no bounds when he was pleased with Zeraii's progress; the slightest failure proved near fatal. Still, he betrayed no sign of the internal storm as he knelt on the cold floor.
"Yes, my Master."
Terannor chuckled gleefully from his stark and forbidding throne. "You cannot hide your hatred from me, neephong."
Zeraii's jaw involuntarily clenched in irritation. Several months ago, his Master had somehow managed to learn the local dialect of Zeraii's non-human upbringing, and was apparently delighted to discover the word neephong, which was a common way that adults of his kind referred to very young or silly children. Terannor did not spare its use.
"Yes, my Master."
"Your hatred is what makes you powerful," Terannor lectured for what must have been the thousandth time. "Release your hatred of me and use it to harness the power of the dark side of the Force. Only then will you be powerful enough to control your destiny. Until then, you serve me."
"Yes, my Master."
Terannor hissed. "Is that all you have to say for your ineptitude and weakness when the Force offers a pathway to such unimaginable strength?"
"Master, I do not believe the Force is simply a possession to be controlled," Zeraii said quietly. "In my time on Rahzhian Prime, I sensed it as more of a guide..."
"SILENCE!" Zeraii was startled by the sudden force of his Master's usually thin and raspy voice. A trick of the Force, no doubt. "I am the Master, neephong, and you are but a pitiful babe in comparison. I will not suffer you to prattle on about what you believe or think. Let me be clear: I care nothing for your thoughts! You will do as I command, or you will be destroyed."
"Yes, my Master."
It was an increasingly more common exchange between the two of them. Whereas the two Sith lords both strived to achieve greater mastery over the dark side of the Force, their motivations ended all possible unity of purpose. Zeraii's experience as the Shadow Sith had taught him to respect the Force, almost as a tangible entity, giving to it as much as taking from it to achieve his purpose. Terannor, however, seemed bent on pure control, enslaving the power of the Force to achieve his own desires, treating it like a casual plaything or cheap tool to be carelessly thrown about. Zeraii knew his tendency to rely on the dark side of the Force rather than to command it irritated his Master. He had no doubt that it was only a matter of time until Terannor decided to kill him simply out of sheer annoyance. Until that day, he was determined to learn as much as possible from his hated Master to give him the best possible chance of surviving the encounter.
"How may I serve you, Master?"
Terannor stared at him and licked his cracked lips, as if tasting the sincerity of Zeraii's words. Finally, he replied, "Osgood Palladen is the governor of Retrion, a totally insignificant planet in the Braxtant sector. He petitioned me for some assistance with the Galactic Senate on some appropriations measures some time ago, and supposedly sent me several Tumanian pressure-rubies for my help. I have not received them, and Palladen claims they were stolen in transit. He's lying."
Zeraii covered his surprise. A Tumanian pressure-ruby was extremely rare, easily worth millions of credits. It was a handsome payoff, to be sure, but he knew that Terannor had more resources than he could possibly spend - a freighter full of jewels would be little more than a hiccup on Terannor's account balance. No, the surprise was the fact that Terannor would send him - even though Terannor held him in such low esteem, he knew his Master only assigned him to critical missions that required great skill with the Force - to handle the situation in person. That meant one of two possibilities... "Do you wish to recover the payment, or simply make an object lesson out of him?"
"Both, I think," Terannor said. "To make a vivid example of such an insignificant worm will go a long way in teaching certain others what it means to attempt to cheat the Sith."
"As you wish, my Master."
"Palladen apparently believes he can somehow survive my wrath, so be wary," Terannor cautioned. "There may be more to him than it appears." Grinning ferally, he added, "I only warn you because you have absolutely no skill with Foresight, and I believe you may need the extra caution."
Zeraii grimaced. Of all the abilities that the dark side of the Force offered, Foresight was the one that had escaped him completely. Unfortunately, it was also the one that Terannor prized most.
"I shall be mindful, my Master."
"Do that, neephong," Terannor sneered. "It would be such an inconvenience to have to find a replacement for you so soon."
Zeraii knew that Terannor would love nothing more than to see him die. It seemed that having a non-human Sith apprentice was an embarrassment and an irritation to the Sith Master, and the only thing that kept him from killing Zeraii himself was the fact that he apparently didn't have another candidate ready to assume Zeraii's duties yet.
Zeraii bowed wordlessly, and left the chamber.
"Welcome home, Governor."
"Thank you, Saren," Osgood Palladen smiled, eyeing the voluptuous curves of his personal assistant through her skin-tight uniform. "Have all communications been re-routed here?"
Osgood Palladen's private getaway from the stresses of his planetary governorship was an extravagant station in low orbit over Retrion. When the petty bureaucracy and mindless minutiae of his office threatened to drag him down, he shuttled up to his personal retreat, where he had all the communications infrastructure he needed to run the planetary government, but with a completely loyal staff and luxurious surroundings to cater to his needs.
"Very good," Palladen nodded. "Inform the rest of the day's appointments that I had some pressing business to address, and I will be linking in via holovid as I am able."
"Already done." She handed him two data cards.
Palladen smiled again. Stunning looks and superior efficiency. He slid the first data card into his reader and scanned his remaining appointments while walking down the softly lit corridor. Business as usual, nothing critical. His smile grew as he checked the second data card. "It looks like this will be a very profitable day."
"Yes, Governor," Saren nodded. "I have to admit you were right. It looks like your benefactor bought the story."
"I know you weren't happy about it, but I knew it would work," Palladen said. It had been a risk, but one worth taking. Security on his station was tighter than an airlock, and a distortion field kept long-range eyes and ears from learning too much about his personal activities. As such, the station was the perfect place to run his side businesses - private "shipping" crews were refueled and outfitted from the moon-ward docking bays, which were in perpetual deep shadow, and their offloaded cargo was re-packaged and distributed to Retrion or other nearby systems. Now that the Republic's piracy laws had a few choice loopholes in them, his profits were soaring. The shipment coming this afternoon, however, required his personal attention.
"Cancel my last official appointment so I can personally oversee the delivery."
Palladen paused at the door to his quarters. "Actually, cancel my last two." With a poignant look at his assistant, he added, "I have some...forms we need to go over before that."
Saren smiled, understanding. "Of course, Governor."
Palladen licked his lips as his shapely assistant departed to carry out his orders. Yes, it was good to be Governor.
It wasn't the sleekest entry he'd ever made, but its subtlety had to be admired. Zeraii had flown his stealth fighter into the Retrion system and left it in orbit around the nearby moon. Using a containment suit with a jet pack, he rocketed toward Palladen's station, cutting the engines halfway and coming in cold. Such an insertion by a normal soldier would require a second - very detectable - burst from the jetpack to prevent the soldier from splattering himself against the station's outer shell.
Darth Zeraii was not a normal soldier.
Using the Force to decelerate, he alighted smoothly. He began the trek around to the rear docking bays, the Force holding his feet to the metal structure more surely than the magnetic boots built into the suit. Arriving at the lip of the largest docking bay, he scanned space immediately around him. A battered transport was lining up for final entry half a klick out. Zeraii kicked, floating silently and invisibly against the backdrop of deep space to land on the meteor-scored skin of the transport. He flattened himself against the top hull.
A prickle of energy washed over him, trying to scrape him off the hull as the transport floated through the magnetic containment field of the docking bay entrance. His control of the Force proved stronger, and the warmth of the docking bay washed the cold of deep space from his containment suit. He quickly peeled off the cumbersome suit as the transport perched on a wide expanse of smooth black floor plates. Crews down below readied storage racks by the hatchways, then moved to the belly of the craft to unload the cargo.
Clipping his two lightsabers to his belt, Zeraii peeked over the hull and saw his primary target enter the docking bay through the center-most of three hatches, surrounded by a dozen armor-clad bodyguards. Combined with the pairs of guards already stationed at each entrance to the docking bay, that made a total of eighteen armed men, along with the dozen or so additional crew members unloading cargo, who were undoubtedly also trained to fight.
It would be tricky, but possible for a Sith.
Palladen spoke into a comlink, and Zeraii's Force-enhanced hearing picked up the end of the transmission. "...here now. Where are you?"
The left-most entrance opened and a man strode quickly to Palladen's side. "I apologize for my tardiness, Governor."
Palladen nodded, never taking his eyes from the unloading crewers.
Zeraii studied the newcomer. He was average in every way: light brown hair, soft brown eyes, medium height and build, wearing a plain black utilitarian jumpsuit. He was the type of man who could blend into any crowd on any planet, with no distinguishing marks of any kind visible, except one.
A lightsaber hung from his belt.
Zeraii's eyes narrowed. Terannor's foresight had once again proven to be accurate. No matter, he'd defeated Jedi before; this one would be no exception.
Palladen suddenly grinned and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Bring it here, quickly!"
A crewer handed Palladen a case about the size of his head.
Palladen and the man turned and, escorted by the armored bodyguards, headed toward the central hatch.
Zeraii ignited and threw one of his lightsabers, sending it scything down over the hull. With the other hand, he gestured and toppled several storage racks onto the guards at the side hatches, crushing them. As the racks crashed down, Zeraii directed his lightsaber through the Force, arcing it around the belly of the transport to slice through its landing struts. Leaping off the suddenly unbalanced transport, he ignited his second lightsaber as he spun to the ground and snatched the first weapon out of the air. The transport smashed to the decking behind him with a thunderous screech of metal, mercilessly crushing the unloading crewers and improving his odds greatly.
To their credit, Palladen's bodyguards reacted very quickly, spinning around and creating a wall between Zeraii and Palladen, filling the air with blaster fire. To their detriment, they faced a Sith Lord with two lightsaber blades to bat their blaster shots right back at them.
One teaching that Zeraii had readily absorbed from Master Terannor was to allow each attack directed at him to fuel his rage. Every blaster bolt was a grievous insult to his superiority, every attempt to harm him was an action punishable by death. Rage blossomed, cold and hard, in his chest.
Zeraii leaped into their midst, his flashing lightsabers severing limbs, deflecting blaster bolts at point-blank range, snuffing out life with surgical precision. It was over in seconds.
He knew that there were times Jedi had to mow down groups of attackers, but Zeraii doubted the Jedi got the same kind of satisfaction he did out of such carnage. A pity.
Though the bodyguards now lay in a heap, they had done their job, giving Palladen the few seconds needed to escape through the hatch.
Cursing, Zeraii raced to the hatch, wrenching it open with the Force and leaping through. A fresh volley of blaster fire met him as he rolled into the corridor beyond. He deflected the storm of bolts and pushed forward, crimson blades flashing. Directing most of the bolts back into the pack of guards in vengeful retaliation, the incoming fire soon withered away to nothing. Zeraii reached out with his senses as he stepped over the smoking bodies. Somewhere close, directly ahead, was his target.
He burst the next hatch straight out of its frame and back into the corridor, crushing the cluster of guards waiting beyond. Zeraii sensed his quarry had stopped moving, trapped in the interior of the station. Oddly, Zeraii didn't sense much concern coming from the man. Rounding a corner, the Sith Lord glared down the corridor into a wide furnished lobby, at the far side of which was a single hatch. The plain man who had accompanied Palladen from the docking bay was standing alone in the middle of the lobby.
Zeraii probed the man through the Force as he approached. He detected absolutely no Force sensitivity from the man, yet his body language and sense in the Force were glacially calm. Wary of a trap, Zeraii stretched his senses to the corridor around him. Nothing.
It was generally considered extremely foolhardy for a non-Force user to engage in any kind of lightsaber fight. To do so against a fully trained Jedi - or Sith Lord - was considered a good way to commit suicide quickly.
"Give me Palladen and you will live," Zeraii warned, stopping a few paces from the man.
"Ah, but he pays me very well not to do that," the man said mildly as he unclipped his lightsaber and ignited it. A green blade shimmered to life and added its hum to the lobby. "Aren't you going to at least do me the honor of attacking with only one blade?"
Zeraii arched one eyebrow in amusement. "My Master pays me very well to not trifle with things like honor."
The man shrugged.
Zeraii lunged forward, crimson blades flashing; he knew one blade would surely be blocked, but the other would end this diversion quickly. The man stepped forward, raising his lightsaber in a classic defensive pose, batting away Zeraii's first strike. He immediately spun, reversing his grip and parrying the second strike before stepping back out of range.
Zeraii couldn't keep the shock from his face, but the man's composure remained calm, impassive. Growling, Zeraii attacked again, his blades whipping through the air. Again, the man deflected one, two, three strikes and danced back out of range. Again, Zeraii felt not the slightest ripple of the Force coming from the man.
Zeraii was very familiar with the skill of diminishing one's presence in the Force to hide from other Force users - he had used that skill himself many times in the past - but he had become so attuned to the ways of the Force that not even Terannor could completely hide his presence from him. This was different - this man's presence in the Force was quite plain; he simply didn't appear to exert any influence over the Force whatsoever.
Howling in rage, Zeraii launched a sustained barrage of lightsaber strikes. He struck again and again, whirling and spinning, faster and faster. Both of his blades hissed and snapped like cornered fleek-eels as the man's green blade met each and every blow.
Spinning out of range yet again, the two combatants regarded each other. The man was sweating and slightly out of breath, but otherwise completely in control. Over time, Zeraii was confident he could wear the man down, but a nagging pressure in his mind told him he was running out of time - beyond the hatch, Palladen's sense had shifted to anticipation.
Zeraii called upon the reservoir of fury deep within him and lashed out with a Force wall that would flatten the man against the hatch behind him. The blast of energy decimated the lobby furniture, leaving little more than a pile of dust on the floor against the wall.
But the man still stood, looking at him, unconcerned.
The Force called to Zeraii - Palladen's sense had abruptly shifted to relaxation, and suddenly started moving farther away. Zeraii focused on his target and realized from the speed and direction of his dwindling presence that Palladen must have launched away from the station in an escape pod or shuttle.
His mission had failed, on both counts. Terannor would not be pleased. Frustration gripped his chest, and fear tickled his spine. Would this be the incident that finally brought his doom when he returned home? Perhaps, but if he fled, Terannor would undoubtedly track him down and skin him alive. He didn't have any choice but to return to face his Master's judgment, and trust the Force to guide him.
He closed down his lightsabers. His opponent remained ready, still maddeningly calm. "Very impressive," Zeraii grated.
The man nodded an acknowledgement.
"You know I will come again," Zeraii said.
"And you know I will stop you again."
Zeraii half turned to leave, then paused. "How do you do this?"
"The Force is not the only path to enlightenment."
For some odd reason, the man's impassive facade finally cracked ever so slightly as confusion briefly touched it. "I'll explain when you disarm me."
Zeraii nodded. "Very well." He strode down the corridor away from the man. "Keep your men away from me if you want them to live."
Before turning the corner, Zeraii probed the man's mind one last time, searching for his secret. He found only one word: Ar'krai.
Master Terannor was, not surprisingly, apoplectic at Zeraii's failure. In fact, Zeraii barely survived the lightning storm he unleashed on his apprentice. Zeraii had become intimately familiar with his Master's Force lightning during his two years of direct tutelage, but never before had he come so close to joining the Force.
When Terannor finally tired of the punishment, Zeraii was too weak to even crawl away, so Terannor commanded a droid to inject him with a stimulant and drag him back to his quarters. Zeraii didn't even bother to move from where the droid deposited him; he simply curled up in a ball on the floor and entered a healing trance. He awoke three days later with another droid-administered shot.
"Your orders are to retrieve the jewels and Palladen's head." Even the droid's monotone voice was sufficient to deliver the underlying threat if he failed. The droid scuttled out after dropping a data card on the floor.
Zeraii rose, calling on the Force to wash the stiffness from his limbs. He was still tired and sore, and his skin was still puckered with numerous burns, but it was nothing he couldn't bear. He would enter another healing trance en route to Palladen's new location.
Stepping to his terminal, Zeraii keyed a search of Terannor's extensive information database. He programmed the computer to send the results to his ship, then turned and left for the dock.
He had neither seen nor heard anything from his Master by the time he entered hyperspace, and the silence was deafening.
Darth Zeraii was awakened from his healing trance by a soft tone coming from his control board. Feeling almost normal again, his fingers flew over the controls. An incoming message scrolled across the screen - his search results. He leaned forward to read. The information was regrettably scant.
Ar'krai was a religious sect that originated three thousand years ago on the planet Krai. Very few active practitioners had spread outside that system, and those few had more or less disappeared into the mists of time. The details of the religion were sketchy at best, and centered around being in perfect balance with something called the "Now", but he couldn't find a definition of exactly what that meant. The few specific accounts of notable Ar'krai Adepts spoke of gentle men and women blessed with long life and considered to be very wise. Nothing about warriors with the ability to combat Force-users.
Scowling, Zeraii deleted the search. There had to be a way to defeat the Ar'krai Adept guarding Terannor's target, some small chink in the armor that could be exploited. He just needed to find it.
Frustration nibbled at the edges of his consciousness - despite the insinuations of his Master, Zeraii had never been so attuned to the dark power of the Force. The fact that he'd been so easily rebuffed by a non-Force user had driven a dagger into the heart of his confidence. He'd never heard of anything else remotely like Ar'krai, and by the scant evidence available, it was apparent that very few others had, either. Still, just because an answer wasn't widely known didn't mean it didn't exist. Questions chased each other through his mind, only adding to his frustration. Could the Jedi possibly know about Ar'krai? Had they secretly squelched the religion in the hopes that it would not become a wide-spread competitor? Was the Force really not the only path to true power?
Zeraii forcibly wrenched his thoughts back to the present, pushing away all distractions. For now, he only needed to focus on one thing - defeating the Ar'krai Adept that guarded Palladen and the jewels. According to Master Terannor's instruction, he had only to harness his hatred and anger to sufficiently control the Force to do his bidding, then victory would be his.
Still, he could not banish the questions from the far corners of his mind. Seeking answers, he meditated.
Zeraii's fighter winked into real space on the fringes of the galaxy, so far out that few stars were visible. Reaching out with the Force, he pinpointed a locus of emotion off to one side. He soon closed the gap and saw a small structure built into the surface of a large stationary asteroid. His sensors registered two weapons emplacements powering up as he approached. He threw the fighter into a rolling dive as a pair of green turbolaser blasts flashed out, passing so close their glow lit his cockpit. As he spiraled between blasts, a second pair of turbolasers added their fire, forcing him to abort his attack run. Fury exploded in his mind.
Corkscrewing down through the asteroid's ecliptic plane, Zeraii used the asteroid's bulk as a natural shield. His fighter skimmed just meters above the jaggedly uneven surface as he circumnavigated the huge rock to approach the base from behind. His sensors pinged, indicating the base was approaching on the horizon, but he'd already felt its presence through the Force. He immediately launched four concussion missiles, ignoring the computer's screeching warning that they lacked proper target locks. Using the Force, he nudged each missile toward the base of one of the turbolaser emplacements, destroying all four within a fraction of a second.
Zeraii landed inside the main hanger unchallenged. He reached out with his senses as he floated to the floor. Now in close proximity, he could sense only a handful of life forms - most of them extremely anxious - throughout the base, but the subsonic hum of machinery indicated a well-kept high-tech facility. Focusing on the one he wanted, he made his way down the well-lit corridors.
Zeraii moved slowly and cautiously, not only to sniff out any traps, but to give himself more time to come up with a plan. His meditation had been physically rejuvenating, but the Force had not provided any answers to his questions, which only added to his frustration. He made his way deeper into the facility, following where his senses urged. No one approached him, and if it weren't for his Force senses, he would have thought the entire place was empty.
Stepping out of a turbolift on the bottom level, he looked down one final corridor. The plain man was standing quietly in a small open space in front of a door, eerily similar to their first encounter. Beyond that door, Zeraii could sense his target. Striding forward, Zeraii appeared more confident than he felt.
"I'm impressed with your tracking ability," the man said. "This facility isn't on any map or resource list in the galaxy."
Zeraii shrugged. "The Force illuminates pathways that would otherwise remain dark."
"Undoubtedly. But it didn't help you much in our last encounter, did it?"
"This time will be different. The Dark Side of the Force cannot be denied."
The man cocked his head to one side. "You lack confidence. You'll fail like all the others, even the Jedi."
"You've faced Jedi before?"
"Once or twice."
"The Sith are far more powerful than Jedi," Zeraii said with contempt.
"You both rely on the Force," the man shrugged, as if that statement nullified the vast differences between the mortal enemies. "It is all the same to me. I have found the Force to promise much and deliver little, especially compared to true enlightenment."
Zeraii paused, just steps from the man. He fingered his two lightsabers but left them closed down. Frustration and confusion swirled through him, warring for control of his thoughts. Desperately searching the dark currents of the Force, Zeraii sought the key to victory against this new foe, but the Force remained mysteriously silent.
"What are you waiting for?" the man asked, almost conversationally. "The Sith haven't gone soft on the use of aggression, have they?"
Zeraii's face remained stony. "Are you so anxious to die that you would insult a Sith Lord?"
The man grinned. "You don't believe that will happen any more than I do."
Zeraii took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, searching for an answer one last time. Nothing. The Force had never failed him before, and he refused to believe it would do so now. He would just have to make do on his own. "I don't have to believe it; I just have to believe in the Force itself."
The man chuckled but said nothing.
Zeraii leaped forward, both blades flashing. The man neatly parried both strikes and side-stepped out of his path. Zeraii growled and lunged forward again with a vicious horizontal slash, but the man calmly moved forward to block one blade and slide inside the second to jab him the sternum, staggering him back.
Zeraii howled in frustration and sent three vicious Force waves at the man, but the man simply stared at him as the waves passed harmlessly by. A trickle of fear wove its way down Zeraii's spine. How was this man - a non-Force-user - able to thwart the Force so completely?
Leaping into the air, Zeraii somersaulted within centimeters of the ceiling. He kicked out as he landed, but the man easily blocked and spun away. Zeraii lashed out repeatedly with his crimson blades, but the man parried each one as he backed across the center of the room's open space. As they reached the opposite wall, Zeraii finally succeeded in batting the man's white blade to one side. He eagerly leaned into a vertical cut that would have bisected the man from crown to crotch, but the man deftly followed his deflected weapon, sliding sideways along the wall and ducking into a roll that brought him well out of lightsaber range. Zeraii hurled one of his lightsabers across the room, but the man calmly knocked it out of the air.
"You might as well give up," the man said mildly. "You will not defeat me."
Zeraii stood panting, grating his teeth in impotence - it was clear he was unable to penetrate the man's defenses. Through all of his experiences, he'd never before encountered any obstacle such as this. It was as if, for the first time in his life, the Force was turning its back on him, casting him away to die in humiliation and defeat. Was this what happened before a Sith Lord was destroyed? Should he flee to save his own life, even if it meant living the rest of his existence an utter failure?
He took some small comfort in calling his second lightsaber back to his hand, but the man's pure white blade mocked his weakness.
"If you persist, you will die," the man said.
His tone was not that of a taunt, but rather a statement of absolute truth. Even worse.
Zeraii's thoughts were a raging storm of emotion. His success as a Sith had been built upon channeling that emotion into attacks that obliterated his opponents, but that clearly would not work here. Shuddering at the near heresy of the act, he deliberately calmed his thoughts while still letting the tide of dark power of the Force wash through him. As he stared at his opponent, the words of the Sith Code flashed 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 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.
And in a flash of insight, a moment of triumphant epiphany, Zeraii found his answer.
He'd been facing his opponent while wallowing in fear, confusion, and weakness. Instead of asking the Force to answer his questions, he'd actually been questioning the Force itself. The Sith were called to live as a companion to the Dark Side, intertwined so thoroughly as to be inseparable. By questioning the Force on how to defeat the Ar'krai Adept, he had actually been clouding his connection with the Force, subverting his own ability to utilize the Force to find the answer he sought. The key he'd been searching for all along was to simply let the Force dictate his actions, and trust it to guide him to his destiny.
So be it. If it was his time to die, he would die in the glory of battle, in the full embrace of the power of the Dark Side of the Force.
He'd only experienced such a moment of clarify one time before, back in the jungle on Rahzhian Prime, but he knew with absolute certainty that this moment was even more critical to his mastery of the Force than that one had been.
He plunged headlong into the Dark Side of the Force, letting the dark power crash through him in wave after inexorable wave. Sensing a huge crest flowing into him, Zeraii released every iota of his pent-up frustration and fury - at the man before him, at the cruelty of his own Master, at the universe in general - seizing the wave with his mind and bending it to his will. Rather than thrusting the Force wave directly at the man, Zeraii projected it outward in all directions.
Wall plates down the length of the corridor buckled and ripped away from their housings; glow panels burst, plunging the corridor into the eerie semi-darkness of the red emergency lights; shards of transparisteel rained down from the ceiling fixtures. Every piece of loose debris swirled around Zeraii, then rushed headlong toward the man, clutched in the invisible fist of the Force. Zeraii surged forward, following the debris cloud.
Expecting another Force wave, the plain man's eyes widened in surprise at the attack. He leaped aside, tucking into a roll and coming up onto one knee. Most of the debris cloud pelted the wall and door where he had been standing, but several pieces of shrapnel bit into his left side. Gasping in pain, he barely managed to ignite his lightsaber in time to deflect the first blow from Zeraii's crimson blade.
Zeraii attacked with reckless abandon, slashing and thrusting with both blades, simply following the flow of the Force. The man staggered under his assault, barely deflecting the rapid blows. Zeraii struck faster and faster, fueled by bloodlust and an insatiable thirst for victory.
The man ducked and spun, trying to disengage, but Zeraii pursued him relentlessly around the room. His attack was as vicious as it was mindless. He didn't think, he didn't strategize; he just let the Force flow through him, directing his movements. He was a spectator in his own body.
The plain man's white blade barely deflected a particularly savage thrust, but Zeraii's blade sliced through the man's tunic, burning a line across his ribcage. The man twitched away from the pain, right into Zeraii's second thrust. The tip of Zeraii's blade pierced the casing of the man's lightsaber and slid cleanly through it and the man's hand beyond.
A shower of sparks erupted from the lightsaber's handle, and the white blade sputtered out of existence. The man cried out in pain and dismay, and Zeraii drove a knee into his gut. Spinning, Zeraii slammed his heel into the man's knee, snapping the joint and dumping him to the floor.
The man cradled his useless hand against his ruined knee, gasping. "Well done, Sith," he winced in pain. "It is apparently my time to die."
"Not yet." Zeraii shook his head. "Tell me about Ar'krai."
The man's shock was quickly replaced by hopeful disbelief. "Wh-What?"
"You said you'd tell me when I disarmed you."
"You're not going to kill me?"
"I need to understand Ar'krai."
The man swallowed hard in disbelief. "You are different..."
Zeraii twitched a lightsaber closer to the man's head.
"Yes, yes," the man said quickly, glancing at the door behind which Palladen waited. "Very well. Ar'krai teaches that enlightenment can be found by living balanced in the Now. When that is achieved, one can tap the wisdom and energy of the very cosmos itself."
Zeraii frowned. "What is this 'Now?'"
"It is not a thing, as you're trying to conceptualize it," the man licked his lips. "It is simply the present moment. By banishing all thoughts and concerns of the past and future, one can focus on the Now."
"And remaining there will open the power of the cosmos?"
"Spoken like a Sith, but that's idea, yes."
"That sounds like a Jedi platitude."
The man snorted, wincing in pain. "Hardly. The Jedi are always looking to the past, always seeking to reproduce the feats and techniques of their ancient Masters. They fail to be flexible enough to change when it becomes necessary. It will be their downfall, eventually. But the Sith aren't much better."
"Where the Jedi look to the past, the Sith look to the future, to a day when they'll achieve the power they so crave. They fail to recognize their own weaknesses, and become fixated on bending others to their will. That will be the downfall of the Sith."
"Will it?" Zeraii's automatic defensiveness surprised even himself. "Strong words from someone who was just defeated by a Sith!" Underneath his bluster, however, he was distinctly aware that the Adept's words hit very close to the mark for the Sith, and mirrored almost exactly what Master Terannor had said of the Jedi more than once.
"True enough. I anticipated your next attack, and - looking to the future - failed to maintain my balance in the Now." He lifted himself shakily onto his good leg. "Your prize awaits you inside that door; I cannot stop you now."
"Of course not," Zeraii said. "The Force is a power that can't be matched."
"True enlightenment is, as my teacher said, almost impossible to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain." He turned toward the shredded corridor and began limping toward the turbolift. "Apparently, I still have much to learn."
Zeraii stared at the man's back, feeling the Dark Side of the Force flow through him, whispering seductively in an almost audible voice; he was not about to deny it now. "Yes, you do."
The Ar'krai Adept's head rolled to a stop just centimeters from the turbolift as Darth Zeraii ripped open the room where his target waited in terror.
The abyss of hyperspace swirled outside the cockpit of Zeraii's stealth fighter. His eyes snapped open as he abruptly came out of meditation. The Force had shown him with startling clarity a vision - his first one - of the future. He had not sought it, but the Force had brought it to him. He sensed the absolute truth in the vision, and had no doubt that it would come to pass. Unfortunately, the vision had had two possible endings...
Darth Zeraii placed the two boxes on the floor before Master Terannor's throne, then stepped back two paces and kneeled, head bowed. Silently, Terannor used the Force to burst the locks and lift the contents up into the air. One was a cluster of Tumanian pressure-rubies, the other was the severed head of Osgood Palladen. Terannor cackled with glee.
"This pleases me greatly!"
Zeraii knew his Master was pleased by the results rather than his own actions. He had achieved the ends that his Master had commanded, but his effort was once again completely ignored. Frustration again gripped him, but he quelled it in anticipation. The Force urged him to remember his vision. "Yes, my Master."
"I confess to more than a little surprise that you were able to succeed in your second attempt, neephong," Terannor said. He seemed quite conversational, almost giddy. "I had foreseen many futures in which you failed."
Not knowing what to say, Zeraii remained silent.
"But, there were enough futures where you survived that it amused me to take the chance," Terannor continued. "I suppose I shall have to delay my search for another apprentice for a while. In any case, what has this mission taught you?"
"My Master, the Ar'krai Adept explained the root of his abilities," Zeraii began. "I believe it can be incorporated into the arts of the Sith, making us stronger than ever before."
Terannor hissed. "Pah! This Ar'krai is insignificant next to the power of the Dark Side of the Force."
"Of course, my Master," Zeraii agreed quickly. "But I believe I have found some merit to its basic teachings. It could prove to be an enhancement..."
"Perhaps what you found was that your own incompetence in the Force almost killed you," Terannor cut in. "If you had but a fraction of the Foresight of a true Sith Lord, you wouldn't have failed in your first attempt."
"As you say in your wisdom, my Master," Zeraii bowed even lower. "Still, I meditated deeply during my journey home, and I beg your indulgence for just a moment."
Terannor's stare attempted to pierce his soul, but his silence was tacit permission to continue.
"My Master, the Force has opened up new avenues of power through my meditation on the teachings of Ar'krai. I believe we would be foolish not to pursue them." Zeraii knew he was treading on dangerous ground. Terannor was fiercely protective of his knowledge of the Force, and counted all other things to be less than garbage by comparison. What Zeraii was proposing would be tantamount to heresy in Terannor's eyes, but it was what the Force had shown him. He took a deep breath and submerged himself into the flows of dark power emanating from the Force. His entire future - his very existence - rested upon what happened next.
Terannor leaned forward, all mirth vanishing from his face. "Is that so?" he asked softly.
Inwardly, Zeraii sighed. Terannor's response was inevitable, even without Force-guided foresight. "Yes, my Master."
Terannor slowly stood, a scowl twisting his face. "You petulant little ingrate! I give you a second chance to prove yourself worthy of more than destruction, and this is how you repay me?"
Zeraii inclined his head, defiance radiating in his eyes. He stood, facing his master boldly.
"How dare you! I did not give you leave to rise!"
"I do not need your leave," Zeraii said. "I have nothing more to learn from you."
Terannor sputtered, his body shaking in barely controlled fury. Zeraii spoke quickly now.
"Your quest to bend the Force to your petty and selfish whims has caused it to abandon you. Instead of controlling the Force, the Sith are required to commune with it, giving as well as receiving, listening as much as commanding. Our true enemy isn't Ar'krai, or the Republic, or even the Jedi. It is ourselves. By controlling the Dark Side of the Force, we can enslave billions; by communing with it, the whole universe lies under our boot. You ignored this truth, and you now have a choice - succumb to me as your Master and learn the true ways of the Dark Side of the Force, or be destroyed." He dove deeper into the Force, dismissing memories of the past and thoughts of the future, focusing only on the moment...
Howling like a bantha on fire, Terannor's fingers curled into claws as brilliant blue bolts of lightning flashed out, reaching for Zeraii's skin...and passing through him like a vapor.
Zeraii had never seen surprise on Terannor's face before. The old Sith Master's eyes grew wide in disbelief. He unleashed a second volley of Force lightning, then a third. Zeraii stood unmoving as the lightning passed straight through him.
Terannor paused, quivering in shocked confusion.
Zeraii heard the Force's whisper and obeyed instantly, without question. Channeling the rushing torrents of the Dark Side of the Force, he reached out with a hand as his mind grasped Terannor's presence in the Force. Violently clenching his fist, he crushed his Master's presence, obliterating it from the universe. Terannor's empty, lifeless body flopped to the ground, a hollow shell.
Stepping over his former Master, Zeraii situated himself on the throne. The Sith had a new Master, and a new mission.