Moraband was nearly identical to Korriban in many ways, but there was a sense of spirituality here that didn’t exist quite as much on the other planet. The Force pulsated with tangible energy and the winds carried whispers of Sith Lords past. This was where the tomb of Andraste and others from her family stood, though reportedly they had all been looted and cleaned out over the years.
It had been years since Emryc had taken on an apprentice. With how far Tiamat had come over time, he considered her training completed and successful a while ago. He had allowed some time to pass before he finally felt prepared to take on another acolyte. Despite his reserved nature, teaching was something he thoroughly enjoyed. He was rather selective about who he chose to train, and this specific Sith had caught his attention. He knew about her curious connection to Korriban, which is why he asked her to meet him on Moraband instead. Here her powers were untested.
The half Sephi was adorned in his usual armor that presented him as Darth Raze. He had asked her to meet him near the ruins of an ancient temple that had been constructed to honor Sith Lords of the past. He was seated on an intact part of the ancient marble, poised in mediation as he mentally tapped into the natural energies of the planet.
He was a patient man by nature, and he would allow the acolyte to make her way over as she pleased. He preferred when others displayed curiosities about the world around them and he wouldn’t fault her for stopping here and there to investigate on her journey.
Zoya had spent most of her girlhood staring up at Moraband hanging like an oversized moon in Korriban's skies. Back then, she delighted in being frightened by tales of the ancient Sith Lords buried there. Her mother used to warn her that if she disobeyed, the slumbering Lords were watching and would punish her in the dead of night. After that, she had feared Moraband the way all children were afraid of graveyards. But that old fear belonged to a different person.
Now, Zoya took her time to inspect the ancient structures. She could faintly sense the power that thrummed within them, old and asleep, yet potent if disturbed. It was a different power that coursed through her veins; but she hoped in time to understand it the way she did her homeworld. Just as she hoped to understand the dead Lords that were resting in this valley and those beyond it. This world was a thick with history as it was with sand, and, given enough time, she hoped to turn over every stone, uncover every secret.
As she neared the temple that was to be her rendezvous with her new master, she stopped briefly at the remains of an obelisk jutting out from the dunes. The top of the structure had long since crumbled, and had either been pillaged for a museum display or was laying beneath the sands somewhere waiting to be uncovered again. But the base of the great pillar was still intact, still bearing the etchings of the old Sith tongue that was now mostly forgotten thanks to the efforts of the Jedi Order.
She traced the runes with the pads of her fingers, committing each word to memory.
Here thins the Veil,
Here bleeds the Void.
Here the Dead watch forever.
Zoya's thoughts wandered to her sister. Did she too watch from Moraband? Or was that curse only laid upon the Lords whose remains lay beneath her feet? She banished the thought. Her sister was gone. If the dead did stand vigil over this valley, she was not among them. She never would be.
Zoya made no further detours after that, finally arriving at the foot of the marble steps upon which an armored Sith Lord presently meditated. Even with her meager training, Zoya could immediately tell he was not like other men. The sheer pressure of his presence in the Force robbed her breath. Still, she bowed. It would not do to have a Lord of the Sith's first impression of her be disrespect.
He watched her quietly as she approached, surveying her from behind his helmet. She took note of her surroundings, tracing her fingertips along surfaces. The walls and pillars hummed with energy long forgotten, and there was the sense of always being watched though there was no one there. She showed him the expected amount of respect, but he noted she wasn’t immediately unnerved by his presence, at least not that he could see. Confidence was something many acolytes lacked. Zoya expressed more curiosity than she did fear, and that alone piqued his interest.
A few moments of silence passed after she spoke, a gentle gust of wind picking up the sands and layering the marble. Emryc rose from where he was sitting, allowing her to see him at his full height.
“Would you have come here if I hadn’t?” He asked simply. He didn’t appear interested in her answer, glancing away for a moment towards the obelisk she had passed earlier.
“Tell me,” He said quietly through that modulated voice, “Is this a path you chose of your own volition or one that you were compelled to take? Is this a path you stepped into from your own interests or as a result of escaping a past? If you have any vengeance to take or any reason for your teachings to simply be a means to an end, I am not the right Master for you,” He stared at her for a long moment, “Be true to yourself and speak.”
Zoya held her bow a moment, less out of respect and more to guard her expression for the fleeting moment it flickered with consternation. His questions invited... thoughts. The first two were easy enough to answer. But the third he posed as a statement, a challenge, and she pondered the answer. Was she intending to use his training as a means to achieve her ultimate preponderance? No. Once, that might have been the truth. She might have sought his power as a means to resurrect her dead family, or contact them beyond the Veil. But if those means existed, Darth Raze did not have them for her, and she would be foolish to make her sole reason for training under him the pursuit of those answers. Not when there was so much else he could teach her.
Her eyes flicked to his mask and she wondered momentarily how much of this she should divulge. In the end, she decided he was not the type for long-winded answers and settled on the abridged version. "I have come of my own free will," she said, her thick Korriban accent bleeding into her words. "And none have yet had the displeasure of being objects of my vengeance."
These last words she suspected would lose their meaning as her ascent through the Sith progressed. Few who followed the dark path were without enemies. She would not be exempt. But for now, she felt some solace at being able to answer his question truthfully.
"As for my purposes," she continued, cocking her head slightly to the side, so that her red hair fell like a curtain across her shoulder. "Everything is a means to an end. But if you are asking whether I consider your teachings a means to solve the riddles of my past, I do not. I am here to learn from you the ways of the Sith. Nothing more."
This, she decided, was the most honest answer she could give without boring him with the details. @Sreeya
Emryc began to walk and gestured for her to walk with him. She would note he purposely slowed his stride to allow her to keep pace. They had a bit of a ways to go for where he intended. It wasn’t the tomb of a well known Sith, but it had relevance to the ruins where he waited. Unlike in the past, Emryc was genuinely curious about a student this time. He had spent the entirety of Tiamat’s training without knowing her true name. It hadn’t occurred to him back then, but he had since learned how tiny, insignificant details always mattered in the end.
“Why can the Jedi not give you what you seek?”
The half Sephi was curious about the answer. The Jedi was not a topic most Sith ever brought up, especially not Masters with their new acolytes. His gaze remained trained forward as he walked, the outline of what appeared to be a cave built into a canyon slowly materializing before them.
Zoya kept pace with her new master, scanning the ruins as they passed until the structures became desert and desert became a cave. She wanted to ask him where they were going, but he kept her mind busy with another slate of questions. These were easier to grapple with than the previous flurry.
"The Sith embody power," she replied. It was something her mother had told her before she died. The woman had revered the Sith, hoped that her daughters would become one some day. But only one had the ability to walk that path now. "They see the true nature of the Force and embrace it. They do not bend as the galaxy changes around them. They are the agents of that change, imposing their will on the Force and shaping it rather than letting it shape them."
She spared a brief thought for the Jedi. Truthfully, she had very little opinion about the robed monks. She had never met one and the HoloNet was awash with their failures. The only thing meriting true disgust was the way they bemoaned the galaxy's continued scolding of them. Endlessly they sought the approval of politicians who only ever saw them as a means to an end. It was painful to watch, so Zoya frequently didn't.
"The Jedi," she continued, "are weathered stones in the Force's current. They are eroded by it, even as they allow it to drag them place to place. Were I to have approach them, they would let this power sleeping in me die on the vine in favor of having me join their grotesque tour of groveling at the feet of any politician that will forgive them of their perceived sins."
She made no attempt to hide her revulsion. The Jedi did not deserve her respect or her pity. Far more interesting was the cave they had arrived at. Once more, Zoya's curiosity got the better of her. She stopped to examine the walls, searching for runes like the ones she had seen on the ruined obelisk. She found none, but something about this place was calling out to her. It was more than an ordinary cave. @Sreeya
Emryc paused for a moment, stopping short of the entrance. He turned to regard her in silence, considering her words.
“The first Empress rose to prominence as a politician,” He said calmly, “She gave the illusion of ‘groveling at the feet’ of politicians far more powerful than her without them ever realizing they were dancing to her tune. Without them ever realizing that they spoke, but they parroted ideas she had planted within their minds like seeds. Ideas that they didn’t know she had left there.”
He regarded her in silence for a few seconds, “The Jedi are weathered stones, but they survive. They wouldn’t survive if there wasn’t a strength and resilience that allowed them to do so. The Force is a fickle thing,” Emryc had experienced this with Raze, “When you make it obey, it always looks for the first chance to betray you. The Jedi have the Force as an ally, as something that stands with them.”
He paused for another moment, letting her mull over his words, “Do not dismiss them so easily for even the first Empress and some of the most powerful beings in the galaxy began as Jedi."
Emryc turned and hunched to walk into the cave. Almost at once they would be hit with a sense of uneasiness. The ruins had levels that went several layers underground. He hadn’t explored this particular tomb, but reportedly it contained Pureblood artifacts that could tie to ancient alchemy practices.
“Do you feel the Force here as you do on Korriban?”
Zoya paced the outer walls of the cave as Darth Raze imparted his wisdom. She had crossed her arms across her chest midway through the lesson, not out of disrespect but because of the cold. They had not advanced far into the cave, but already the temperature had dropped dramatically. But even as she continued to search the walls for runes that might explain why, she pondered the meaning of the lesson he was trying to teach her.
In her summation, the Jedi survived like roaches. They were difficult to stamp out and multiplied rapidly if you left them to scurry about the cracks long enough. She had never attributed their survival to their strength, so it gave her pause to hear a Sith Lord do exactly that. Perhaps there was more to the Jedi Order than she had originally believed. Certainly it was true that the Sith rose out of them, so maybe in that way they were deserving of some meager scraps of her respect, even if she refused to outright admire them.
At his question, she answered bluntly but honestly. "No," she said. "Where others feel only coldness and death on Korriban, I feel the heartbeat of an entire planet. Here," She touched the smooth stone of the cave wall and closed her eyes, searching for a sensation, "I feel only the distant echo of that power. It is almost as if I can hear the Force whispering through a screen, but it takes some effort to pull it through to the other side."
Up until now, Zoya had refrained from asking Raze a question. He was the teacher, she the pupil, and yet this question would not simply die in the back of her mind like all the others. "What do you feel from this place?"
The second part to that question was buried in the subtext. Can I learn to feel the Force as you do?@Sreeya
Emryc could tell she hadn’t considered the Jedi to be a respectable group. It was a mistake most Sith made and they repeatedly underestimated their enemies. Part of Emryc’s endless search for holding off the impacts of corruption was to walk a thin line between respecting the Force enough for it to be an ally and making it obey. Raze was vengeful and oppressive in nature, and that side of him grabbed it by the neck and made it heel.
Moraband and Korriban were very similar, but the way her powers worked here were different. Outside of Dathomir and the nightsisters, Emryc hadn’t come across other cases like hers. The attachment and almost symbiotic relationships Force users like her had with planets was a fascinating concept.
“I feel as if I’m being watched,” Emryc stated flatly after a moment of silence. He was historically not in the habit of answering questions, but he entertained them when he found them interesting. The curiosity around how he perceived this place was something he noted.
Up ahead of them there were two tunnels. Both led to different directions and there was nothing but darkness beyond both arched entrances. Emryc gazed ahead for a moment before crossing his arms.
“You will be choosing our path,” He stated simply, “Listen carefully to the echoes of what you hear and perceive. Even if it leads to trouble, there are no mistakes. We will go simply where we are meant to.”
He knew his words likely made little sense to her, but he didn’t care to elaborate beyond that.
Zoya was beginning to develop a rudimentary impression of the type of Sith Lord Darth Raze was. He answered questions sparingly and only with the information asked of him—nothing more. He was also not the sort of teacher that was going to guide her through the steps of her training with her hand clasped in his. He expected her to carve her own path, rather than to forge one for her. These small tidbits of information were a useful lesson on their own. A Sith did not rely on others for direction or purpose. She chose her own direction and molded it into her own path.
She shut her eyes in an attempt to do as her master bade. At first, there was nothing. Just a static silence. Her nostrils flared with frustration. This always happened when she left Korriban. Her powers felt distant, unreachable, her senses dull and unreliable. But that had not been the case just a few minutes before when she had first met Darth Raze. His presence had felt like a cold blanket around her face, restricting her breathing.
So, she listened for him. Not his voice. Not his heartbeat. Not even his breathing. The impression of him in the Force.
A moment passed. Two. Then, like a pale flame flickering in a dark corridor, Raze roared to life in her mind's eye. HIs presence acted like a sonar beacon, illuminating the Force all around her. It flowed like a river through this cave, sinking into a deep dark pit at the end of the left-most archway.
"There," she said.
She did not wait for him to offer permission or affirmation. She simply stalked off in the direction she had felt. The tunnel grew deeper beyond the arch. Here, the plain cave walls were transformed into murals painted by the ancient Sith and inscribed with the runes she'd sought to uncover. To her surprise, the same adage from before was enscrawled there.
Here thins the Veil,
Here bleeds the Void.
Here the Dead watch forevermore.
But these inscriptions carried more than this Sith proverb. The drawings on either side of it were a warning. "Something doesn't want us here," she said to Raze.
As if beckoned by her warning, snarls echoed through the passage. If her interpretations of the cave paintings were correct, they were coming from tuk'ata. Great. @Sreeya
Emryc followed her as she led the way, though he remained silent on his opinions on the chosen path. He had to duck a few times to make it through the low ceilings, but he didn’t miss the engravings that repeated a few times on the walls. The half Sephi’s ears were exceptionally sharp and he could hear some things before she could. Even then, he kept his opinions to himself, following wherever she went.
He said nothing even as she spoke, though a faint grin graced his features behind the helmet. He knew she felt that unease that traveled up her spine. The sense of dread was icy fingers playing across every vertebrae like piano keys. It would travel all the way up the back of her neck, sending that chill down to every extremity. She did a good job of suppressing the fear, but fear was a tool of survival.
The half Sephi slowed his pace as the growls of the tuk’ata began to resound in the distance. The lighting was exceptionally low and Zoya had been looking at some of the wall engravings. Within moments, she would miss her footing and drop down into a chamber below. Before she fell to break her limbs, she would feel the Force abruptly coil around her to land her gently on the ground. Only to land her, not to pull her out.
The Sith Lord’s helmeted face peered over the edge above her to look down. He hadn’t anticipated this, but it happened nonetheless. He silently looked down at his apprentice.
“Hmmm,” His mechanized voice rang out, “Did I say no mistakes?” There was the subtlest hint of amusement to his tone. He said nothing more as he disappeared from the edge, leaving her where she landed. She had a path before her, but it was pitch black. She would hear the growls of the tuk’ata much more pronounced here.
If she remained where she was, after a few seconds, she would be able to smell the faint scent of cigarra. Clearly her master was casually having a smoke on the level he was in. After a moment, shuffling could be heard as Emryc strode off and his footsteps grew quieter.
Zoya had wondered in the back of her mind when the true test would begin. Up until now, Darth Raze had been content to ask questions and observe her, but she had known it wouldn't remain that way forever. Her answer came in the form of a steep drop. Her stomach lurched into her throat as she fell, and she desperately called upon her magicks to save her. But she was still struggling to connect with Korriban and, in the end, it was up to Raze to save her from being pancaked on the lower floor of the cave.
The humiliation as she picked herself up out of the dust coating the cave floor caused heat to rise in her cheeks. Fortunately, Raze wasn't around to see it. She could faintly smell smoke in the distance. Clearly, he had found taking a drag more important than watching his apprentice boil in her own shame. But she didn't have long to lament her predicament. The snarls were louder down here. Yellow eyes gleamed out at her like diamonds set into statues. Zoya had only seen tuk'ata once in a biology holovid, but to see them up close was a different experience.
There were three of the beasts. Slender, with long serrated claws and a whiplike tail. The vibrant blue streaks in their fur stood out even in the crushing dark. Zoya might have found them beautiful if they weren't staring at her hungrily. They certainly were enjoying the sight of her. Their saliva had a stench to it that stank like rotting eggs. They were hungry, and she was on tonight's menu. Unless she learned what she needed to survive.
She squared her shoulders and reached for the cold fingers of magic reaching out to her from Korriban below. The magic was difficult to pull upon, like a thread of fabric snagged on a branch, but she was able to pull a thin coating of energy into her palms. When the first tuk'ata leapt at her, she threw it back with a well-placed hex bolt. It hit the back cave wall with a yelp that made it sound more like a puppy than Sithspawn. But this turned out to be a distraction. The other two used the opening to make their move.
They came at her from either side. One tore at her sleeve, its fangs carving a serious gouge into her forearm. She flung it away with a reactionary hex bolt, but then the other was jumping down on her. Zoya collapsed under its weight, but before it could sink its fangs into her neck, she conjured a thin red shield between its mouth and her fragile skin.
By then, the other two tuk'ata had recovered. They circled her, and the pack leader had what resembled a sinister grin curling across his long snout. She reached for the Force, but it was still too distant. It still resisted her pull.
The power was there, but it was not enough. Not enough. Not enough... @Sreeya
The Tuk’ata had been here for a purpose - to guard this place at all costs. They were meticulous and relentless in their approach and would die before letting anyone cross deeper into the temple. There was no sign of Emryc as Zoya fell to the ground while feebly holding back the single beast. The other two circled around her, their maws curled back into snarls to reveal rows of jagged teeth and thick drool dripping below.
The Force was just out of Zoya’s grip, just a hair’s breadth away from how she wanted to use it. She was willing it to obey and it resisted. The tuk’ata above her leaned in close, jaws spread as if giving her a twisted grin.
It was then that a voice would erupt within the confines of her psyche. It was not a voice muffled or distorted by a modulator. It was a deep, rich baritone that had a faint echo as it rang out within her thoughts.
“You must look to the Force as your ally before you can ever hope to manipulate it fully,” The voice echoed, “These beasts have been tasked with this endeavor since before you and I ever existed. Show them that you respect the Force and they will respect you.”
It was clear that her master hadn’t abandoned her entirely, but he wasn’t visible either. Emryc knew if he appeared then the Tuk’ata would turn on him. This needed to be Zoya’s trial and she needed to find a calm mental state to quickly shift gears and apply the Force in a certain way. When it came to combat, there were no do overs or the luxury of long, drawn out analysis. Everything was split second and this was her moment to adapt. His suggestions were far different than those of most Sith who only sought to destroy and kill any obstacles. Emryc’s methods were to manipulate and gain assets where there weren’t any before.
Everything Zoya had learned about being Sith rejected these words resounding in her head. The Sith were masters of the Force, not its friend. That role belonged to the Jedi. But that was the old Sith. The old Sith had fallen. They were not even ghosts on the winds of Moraband. Their hubris and hunger for power were their ultimate downfall. Why was that, when the dark side should be superior to the Light? Could it be that the Force was spiting them for using it like a tool instead of a power to be trusted in?
Zoya had no answer of her own for these questions, and Darth Raze was unlikely to answer them even if he did. So, for now, she simply trusted in the words of her teacher. They were likely the only thing that would keep her from being eaten, anyways.
Trust the Force. Trust the Force.
How did one trust in something they could not see? She didn't know. But she didn't have a choice, either. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and focused on the spell that was holding the tuk'ata back. This spell born of the power that came from her homeworld. The power that had been with her since birth. That had chosen her over her sister. Pain lanced through her at the reminder of her twin's death, but the fact that Korriban had chosen her over her older sibling meant it saw something in her. And now she needed to rely on whatever it was it saw to survive.
That simple admission opened the floodgates. Red light erupted behind her eyes as a fountain of power from somewhere distant rose and came crashing out of her like a geyser. Crimson mist enveloped her body and the tuk'ata reacted to it, their golden eyes widening. The spell protecting her surged, knocking all three of them back. None were significantly injured, but all looked upon her warily.
Zoya staggered to her feet. Already, the power was receding, leaving only a tingle beneath her skin as a reminder it was ever there at all. But the tuk'ata had not forgotten. They regarded her with a low growl, but did not advance.
There were dozens of things she wanted to say. Questions she wanted to ask. In the end, she settled on, "Why? The Sith look inward for power, trusting no one but themselves. That is what I've always been told. But you—"
You're different, she wanted to say. In more ways than one. But she couldn't find the right way to say it. @Sreeya
“-trust that knowledge at its core knows no bias,” Emryc finished her sentence for her as he stepped into her line of sight. He had been just barely out of reach of her, having found an alternative path down to the level she was on. The tuk’ata regarded him with fear and kept their distance, however they still focused on Zoya.
“Your unique abilities position you to be a powerful wielder of the Force without ever needing to pick up a lightsaber,” He stated flatly with his modulated voice, “You, more than others, will need to develop a symbiotic relationship with the Force. You will need to surrender yourself to it at times to fully tap into it. With time, the Force will return that trust and come to you easily,” Emryc studied the Sith of old enough to know what not to do. He had knowledge of empires rising and falling, of the same patterns repeated over and over again. There was merit to the Jedi’s continued survival, and there were elements that could be adapted even for a Sith.
He spun on his heel and began to slowly walk, gesturing for Zoya to walk with him. The tuk’ata shifted and growled softly, hairs standing on end. The three of them stalked the acolyte, just barely out of reach of nipping at her.
This level opened up to a hallway that led down towards a stone doorway that blocked the path. There was an ancient drawing on the doorway that depicted one tuk’ata sitting and the other two lying down. This either meant that one was alive, the other two were dead or perhaps one declared the alpha while the others obeyed it. Or perhaps it meant they all needed to be pitted against one another till there was just one left. There was a section carved out on the ground to reflect the drawing with an indent for the single tuk’ata and two others before it.
“Choose, acolyte,” Emryc said simply, giving her the choice to decipher the message and act on it. She only had one shot and it would either open the door or end their journey here or force them to face worse. Her choices included what the picture implied or she could attempt to delve into the minds of the tuk’ata to be told the stories from the origins of the ruins.
The Sith Lord stood patiently beside his student, letting her make her choices and face whatever consequences followed.