Chapter Nine: Pushes
There was only silence as the eight apprentices stood opposite their master atop the all too familiar peak. Once more the students had gathered near the ancient dueling circle at Syrosk’s behest, standing beside their partners in a neatly ordered line, each ready for the inevitable task of the day. Though one stood less ready than his fellows.
Taking his usual place at the terminal edge of the lineup, Lorrik stood in a manner deviating from his usual pep and vigor. The Human’s garb was disheveled, wrinkles showing through the black fabric of his jacket and pants. His hair had abandoned the recent sleek styling for a more unkempt one. His face looked heavy, a drowsiness readily apparent within his vacant gaze.
“I warned you not to spend too much time with that holocron,” Jresh mentally conversed with his partner, his tone not suggesting a great deal of disapproval.
“I’m fine,” Lorrik playfully shot back, a sluggishness apparent even in his mental communications. “Even a Sith can be tired now and again, can’t he?”
“It is that thing’s ability to so easily tire a Sith that has me worried,” Jresh replied.
“This is just the result of a bad night’s sleep. It happens sometimes when I’m, you know, mentally stimulated.”
“Are you sure? You didn’t even seem this out of it after spending a night on the ground in the Korriban wastes.”
“Hey, if I can put just a few of the things I’ve learned into practice, it’ll more than make for any slight inconvenience experienced on my part,” Lorrik explained.
“Don’t become so focused on the future that you forget about the present,” Jresh advised. “Syrosk has not yet run out of tasks for us, and I doubt it would behoove us to be at anything below peak condition.”
“You never know. I mean, what’s left to test us on? Can you say with certain clarity that there will never be a trial that requires us to be exhausted beforehand?” Lorrik joked.
The Pureblood let out a soft, brief chuckle. “There isn’t an artifact in the galaxy capable of sapping your peculiar wit, is there?”
“What can I say, my mind couldn’t care less of my body’s conditions sometimes,” Lorrik warmly stated. As the pair attempted to retain their stoic facades, they found their internal conversations cut short by the external interruption of their master.
“Students…” Syrosk rasped. “You have each delved into the Valley of Forgotten Lords, and retrieved an item of power. Some of you have already begun to utilize them, some of you have tucked them away for safe keeping. But regardless of your material gains, you each walked away with something of much greater importance. You each are now aware of the special bond that connects you. The bond that permits you a greater understanding of yourselves and your partners. The bond that permits you to surpass what any single apprentice should be capable of. Over the course of these past few months, you each have shown remarkable progress, surpassing even my own expectations. Each and every one of you has faced certain death, and yet here you all are. You have been broken, battered, bruised, and yet you all stand before me seemingly unscathed. You have learned to draw upon your passions to sustain yourselves, to drive yourselves forward. And as a single apprentice, as a single pair has advanced, the others have followed. You have all refused defeat, refused to stall. Even now, none of you have achieved your apex. The nature of your progress can only be contained by the nature of your training. I have done almost all I can, training your bodies, minds, and spirits in ways they would never have been tested otherwise. I have provided you the skillset to become proper Sith, in a world that would deny you such a privilege. But there is a limit to what any single teacher can offer his students, which is why the tenet of succession is so deeply ingrained into the Sith Order. I’ve no more knowledge to share. I cannot train your minds further nor offer you a deeper connection to the Force. As far as your trials go, there is but one thing I can offer. One last test to administer.”
With his gauntleted hand, Syrosk began to remove the same heavy cloak that he always wore over his suit of black, battle-scarred armor. Slipping his arms out from the coat, the alien dropped the heavy black garb, which crumpled into a heap beside his boots. Slowly, Syrosk made his way into the center of the dueling circle and unclipped the lightsaber from his belt. With a flick of his wrist, the crimson blade extended from the black casing of his master’s hilt.
“Are you strong enough to challenge a Sith Lord?
The students could only look upon their master with wide eyes as they remained utterly speechless. They had sparred with the Sith Lord on occasion, but only in the controlled environments necessary to propagate proper lightsaber technique. There was always some trick, some restriction, some ploy. Never unbridled combat.
“Curious, usually one of you is so eager to volunteer whenever I have issued a trial,” Syrosk rasped. “I suppose I should offer more details. We’ll engage in a series of duels, as much as two against one could be referred to as such. Full combat, utilizing the entire repertoire of skills I have imparted unto you all, ending only when one side yields. I reserve the right to end the duel at my discretion, and the duel will immediately end if either member of the pair yields. If you do not succeed, you will have another chance, for this will be tomorrows trial. And the day after’s. And the one after that. Until each and every one of you has attained victory over me. How you spend your time between these bouts is up to you. Now, who will be the first to try and best their master?”
Each apprentice was hesitant. As much as they had progressed, none were truly confident in their superiority over their master. At least, not in this time of indetermination. Whoever stepped forward would be the first to experience the unshackled might of the Sith Lord. Despite his age, despite his reserved presence, there was an undeniable power lurking within the armor-clad alien.
But for some, straddling the line between knowledge and uncertainty fell far short of their inherent pride. Nesk and Vurt were the first to step forward, without a word, merely offering a dutiful nod to their master as they approached the dueling circle. Neither the Trandoshan nor the Nikto wielded one of the ancient dueling swords they had procured from the tomb the day before. Instead, it appeared to be business as usual, Nesk garbed in his armorweave bodysuit, Nesk in his perfectly black, formfitting robes.
Within the confines of the dueling circle, they drew their lightsabers as Syrosk situated himself at the opposite side of the confined arena. The warrior gripped the grey hilt within his clawed digits, the lightsaber’s pommel capped with the claw of some fallen foe. The inquisitor’s saber was something of an abnormality for his designation, the silver hilt possessing a slight curvature indicative of a duelist’s weapon. From both sprung red blades of superheated plasma.
The three figures readied themselves, each adopting their preferred stances. Nesk kept his guard high and open, while his partner went low and closed. Syrosk kept his movements to a minimum, allowing himself to change and shift and he saw fit. The subtle whistle of the passing winds quieted and stalled, as if actively trying to avoid interfering with the powerful figures that prepared to do battle.
“Begin,” Syrosk declared.
The apprentices where the first to move, starting the duel on their own terms. Nesk stormed toward the Sith Lord, Vurt following closely behind. As large and physically dominating as the Trandoshan was, Syrosk would not be overcome easily. The advantage of height he possessed against the other students was absent, the armored Lord almost matching him in stature.
The gap was closed almost instantaneously, the warrior lashing out with a heavy overhead strike. With a speed and grace unbefitting the aged and armored master, Syrosk deflected the strike. Rather than follow up, Nesk traveled with the deflection, Vurt soon taking his old place. The Nikto offered an efficient thrust of his saber’s tip toward the Lord’s midsection, only for Syrosk to sidestep it completely. With the swing of his free hand, the Lord swatted the air itself, releasing a swift but powerful Force wave that shoved the inquisitor away.
Whilst Vurt recovered, his master did battle with the Trandoshan, matching the lizard's strength blow for blow. The students on the sidelines could only watch with utter fascination. What unfolded before them put any of the previous bouts they may have observed in their previous months to shame. Their master displayed an uncanny martial ability they had not thought him capable of, not ceding an inch of ground to even the most powerful of strikes, and possessing the speed and dexterity to intercept blows from any direction.
But besides their wonder toward their master’s lightsaber skills, was the intrigue in watching their fellow apprentices do combat. They had expected a fair display of technique and prowess, but never truly expected anything approaching the level of martial discipline they were currently displaying. There was focus behind the Trandoshan’s wild, ferocious strikes. There was a dedication behind the Nikto’s carefully calculated maneuvers. While the two appeared to utilize opposite styles, there was a synchronicity between them. They played off of one another. To the layman, it may have appeared to be the muddling of two vastly different combat styles. To the other students, however, it was a remarkable show of cooperation. What should have been a dissonant pairing had achieved a mutual cadence.
But as much as they had advanced, as in synch as they were, the skills possessed by their master proved indomitable. There was no separation between the Sith Lord’s body, mind, or spirit. There was never a moment in which he was unaware of his opponents’ positioning, their movements. He simultaneously wielded his lightsaber and the Force in a manner that still managed to astound the watching apprentices. He would hold the attention of a single duelist before effortlessly turning his attention to the other, switching back and forth without error.
They students on the sidelines could have watched the magnificent display all day, but as the seconds passed, it became readily apparent that the Sith Lord was gaining the advantage. In the midst of their battle, one of the apprentices would slip up and be violently tossed to the ground. Whilst Syrosk perpetually endured, Nesk and Vurt grew more and more tired. While it wasn’t readily apparent in the warrior’s action, it was in his technique. The Trandoshan still lashed out with the ferocity typical of his combative form, but he became more and more untamed, driven by pure emotion rather than skill. Slowly, the pair began to slip out of synch, and Syrosk was able to bring the duel to a close.
Nesk released one last swing of his saber before the Sith Lord intercepted him, gripping the bare wrist of his saber hand. With a clench of his gauntleted fist, Syrosk forced a harsh snarl from the lizard as he was forced to let go of his weapon, it’s crimson blade deactivating as the hilt struck the ground. Vurt meanwhile approached his master’s unguarded back, only to find himself interrupted by Syrosk directing the tip of his lightsaber toward the Nikto’s neck.
The Sith Lord had both students at his mercy. Though nothing stopped the Nikto from acting, Vurt offered a cold nod to his master, deactivating his saber and returning it to his belt. Syrosk offered a nod of his own, releasing his grip on the Trandoshan’s wrist and disengaging. Nesk stretched his clawed digits as he regained control of his hand, before retrieving his weapon from the ground. Together, the two apprentices made their way back to the sidelines in silence.
The others accepted them back into their fold without a word or errant glance. Their attention was too focused on their master, who stood none the worse for wear. The first challengers hadn’t managed to land a single complete blow against the Sith Lord, and he had yet to display a single sign of exhaustion.
“Who’s next?” Syrosk rasped. The same hesitance as before managed to persist, but eventually Isorr and Arlia stepped forward to challenge their master. As the next pair made their way toward the dueling circle, the previously dulled expression that dominated Lorrik’s face had been all but expunged. In its place, however, was one of creeping worry.
“Lorrik,” Jresh mentally called out to his companion. He received no reply. He tried again, to no avail, choosing eventually to whisper to his partner. “Lorrik, are you okay?”
The Human shook his head as he tried to regain his senses, rubbing his eyes and furrowing his brow. “I daresay we may be in trouble,” Lorrik mentally conversed.
“This will merely be our first of many inevitable attempts,” Jresh explained. “We needn’t prove anything today. We’ll play things carefully for now. Let me take the lead, don’t take any big risks, we’ll get through the day and prepare for the next.”
“Alright,” Lorrik hesitantly agreed, letting out a depressed sigh. He hated himself for what he had done. He had focused too much of his attention on the holocron, blinding himself to everything else. He wanted to believe it was all for the good of the partnership, but realized it was selfishness that pushed him deeper. Where there was knowledge, he felt the need to consume it.
And now, his mind and body taxed, he had denied himself and Jresh something pivotal. The chance to once and for all prove themselves to their master. To prove their superiority. But in his exhausted state, Lorrik knew he could only work to his companion’s detriment in combat. As he watched Isorr and Arlia ready themselves, he focused every fiber of his being into recovering from the stupor wrought by his overextended studies.
Isorr and Arlia took their places opposite Syrosk. The warrior removed his out cloak and tossed to the sidelines, revealing the heavy-duty armorweave that protected his entire body below the neck. The inquisitor meanwhile was content with her mix of form-fitting and gracefully flowing robes. Whilst her partner possessed a typical Sith’s lightsaber, she had made recent modifications to hers. Replacing its crystal with one procured the previous day’s venture, the hilt produce a radiant beam of purple energy. Meanwhile, there was an audible expression of envy from one of the students watching from the sidelines.
“Begin,” Syrosk declared.
Isorr and Arlia charged into battle with a strategic caution, attempting to calculate and measure each and every movement they made. The two students utilized almost identical styles, despite the vast differences in their physique, demeanor, and craft. The two challengers exhibited almost perfect balance in their combat methodology, keeping up with their master in matters of both offense and defense. Alongside powerful and elegant saberwork, each combatant would lash out with the Force, waves of telekinetic energy kicking up dust and shaking the ground itself.
But the battle would progress in a similar manner to the first, the two apprentices putting on an astounding display of skill that would ultimately prove insufficient in overcoming their master’s overall prowess. The battle went on longer than the previous one, but only by nature of the apprentices’ caution. They realized the threat their master posed, and for the first time, fought with the intention of prolonging their bout. But such intentions couldn’t hold up against the Sith Lord’s willingness to bring about a swift end should he so choose. All it took was for him to dominate a single combatant, and force the other into submission.
Eventually, the pair stayed down after being knocked to the ground, having reached their limits. Syrosk showed no signs of approval or disapproval, only a willingness to continue. Isorr and Arlia took their place on the sidelines, Kar’ai volunteering herself and her partner for the next bout.
As Lorrik watched the pair proceed into the dueling circle, he knew that there would be no more delays. He and Jresh would face their master next. Still he had not yet overcome the peculiar exhaustion that plagued his body and mind. While he was capable of fighting in such a condition, the Human was wary of the potential outcomes. One slip up, one mistake, even in training, could lead to serious injury. Syrosk expected a certain level of skill from him, and would fight according to that expectation.
Kar’ai and Ryloh took their spot within the dueling circle, the warrior standing tall and at the ready, the inquisitor lurking at her flank. The pair had left their artifact behind, showing up in their usual garb, wielding their usual lightsabers. The blades of crimson extended, and the match was ready to proceed.
“Begin,” Syrosk rasped.
Kar’ai immediately charged into battle while her companion stayed behind. Her torso only lightly covered, the Rattataki relied solely on her dexterity and skills with a saber to aid in her defense. The warrior was capable of outmatching the Sith Lord in speed, but Syrosk proved an indomitable opponent. Her masterful application of acrobatics and movement prove insufficient in breaching her master’s defenses.
And while the duel would not prove to last as long as the previous one, it would hold the honor of testing the Sith Lord. To the surprise of those watching from the sidelines, during the middle of the bout, Ryloh relinquished control of his saber, tossing it across the arena. But its release was not intended to strike the Sith Lord. Instead, Kar’ai intercepted the flying hilt, taking hold of it in her offhand. Saber in both hands, the warrior lashed out with a flurry of blows that surprised even Syrosk. Ryloh, meanwhile, kept to the outer fringes of the dueling circle, releasing a series of Force attacks, telekinetic waves intended to upset the Sith Lord’s balance, and even the occasional quick bolt of lightning arcing from the inquisitor’s fingertips.
Ryloh had proven himself capable of a multitude of techniques, while his companion utilized her weapons mastery. It was an astounding display, one that sufficiently entertained those who watched close by. But despite how intriguing a show it was, eventually Syrosk would prove his superiority. Kar’ai would tire and slow. Ryloh would find himself dragged into the fold. The warrior’s blades would be deflected. The inquisitor’s lightning would be absorbed. And eventually, the pair would concede.
The opposing parties parted without a word, Kar’ai and Ryloh taking their place on the sidelines. Time was up. All eyes fell upon the remaining pair. Lorrik and Jresh shared a look. As they looked into each other's eyes, the Human had a curious feeling. He had expected some measure of disapproval from his companion, some part of him that would be disappointed in his actions. But he found none. Only the same enduring stoicism was present in the Pureblood’s visage.
Jresh was willing to fight alongside his partner no matter the circumstances. And it was this revelation that wiped away the doubt within Lorrik. He was still exhausted, but he knew that he was capable of moving forward, so long as Jresh was by his side. They believed in one another, and trusted in those beliefs.
With mutual nods, the two apprentices stepped forward, ready to challenge their master.