The world was a gray haze.
The air was thick with an icy fog, suffocating the light provided by Ziost's sun. The wind carried flakes of snow that stung the flesh, until it would inevitably become numb. In the throes of a harsh winter, the planet punished any who strayed beyond the protection of its settlements. But there were those who would voluntarily brave the unforgiving wastes. For there was strength to be found there. To be earned there.
Two figures marched across the frozen wasteland, feet sinking beneath the top layer of snow, robes fluttering under the constant barrage of wind. Ziost was home to every manner of Imperial influence. Government offices were stacked upon each other, surrounded by their urban kin. Military bases dotted the landscape, testing the mettle of soldiers amidst the unforgiving climate. Tombs stretched high and low, carved from the frozen stone countless generations ago. The Academy stood atop its peak, casting its shadow over the surrounding grounds.
But the two figures had need for none of that. In whatever direction the Empire's roots on the planet spread, they moved toward the opposite. They had no interest in what the Empire could provide. They sought gains from the emptiness.
Nesk led the way through the haze, stomping across the gray flatlands with nothing to guide his path. He followed no maps. No beacons. Only the knowledge that rest firmly in his own mind. Trailing the Trandoshan, Nami struggled to keep up with her indomitable instructor. She had nothing but the robes upon her back, and the lightsaber clipped to her belt. She trudged, panning her gaze as she struggled to maintain the feeling in her extremities. In all directions, all she could see was fog. Turning back, she could only see a brief series of footprints before they were consumed by the gray haze. No mountains sprouted from the horizon. No hints of the city they had left behind. Returning her gaze forward, the girl saw only the faint silhouette of the large Sith ahead. With a shivered curse, the Jedi pushed herself forward, eager to catch up.
There hadn't been a word exchanged between the pair since their departure from Nesk's home. Since leaving Syrosk's side, Nami had thought to ask a question. Where were they going? How much further would they have to walk? What were they going to do once they got there? But she decided it was folly. No answer could possibly sate her curiosity. If anything, it would only prove disheartening.
As the girl mindlessly pressed forward, she constricted her frame, hands constantly rubbing her arms in an attempt to stay warm. She bundled into herself, forcing her sleeves past her fingers, keeping her head concealed beneath her hood before the wind would inevitably blow the brown cloth backward. Her only concern was staying warm. A concern that dominated her so much that she didn't even notice her instructor stop.
With an inaudible thud, the girl walked into the back of Nesk, colliding with the wrapped bundle of supplies he wore upon his back. Nami stumbled backwards, whilst the Trandoshan refused to budge in the slightest. The girl shook her head, trying to regain her composure.
"Are we… are we here?" Nami asked, lips quivering and numb.
"Yes," Nesk plainly stated. As the Trandoshan kept his eye glued to the forward horizon, the Jedi moved around his side. Just as she was about to take another step, she found a firm, clawed hand clutching at her shoulder. The girl paused as her eyes grew incredibly wide, only now seeing what lay ahead.
Beneath the fog, the flatlands that seemed to stretch into infinity had come to an abrupt stop. Only a few steps in front of the pair, there was a shear drop into a sharp, unforgiving abyss. The fissure stretched to the left and right, its extremities fading beneath the gray haze
As the Trandoshan released his grip on the girl's shoulder, Nami took a couple of careful steps back. Nesk, meanwhile, quickly slipped the long rucksack over his shoulder, letting it fall to his feet. The heavy bag sunk into the snow, rattling with a series of metallic clanks.
"Now, we train," Nesk declared.
"How?" Nami softly asked.
"We fight," Nesk plainly answered. "Does it have a lightsaber?"
The girl reached beneath her robes, returning with a simple gray hilt in her hand. The Trandoshan held out his palm, his motions rigid and unshaken by the surrounding cold. Nami complied, placing the metallic cylinder in her instructor's large hand. Nesk clenched his grip, turning the weapon over to examine its every facet and curve.
Without warning, the Trandoshan pulled his arm back before tossing the lightsaber with a powerful throw. In a matter of moments, the weapon disappeared into the rocky fissure, falling into the darkness below. All Nami could do was stare, mouth agape.
"Is Jedi thing. It doesn't need Jedi things," Nesk declared.
"Did you have to… throw it over a cliff?" Nami muttered.
"No ties to old life. Only new one. Besides, cannot enter Academy with lightsaber. Too dangerous," Nesk explained. "Cannot appear too strong. Be strong on inside. Not outside."
"So how are we… supposed to train?" Nami asked.
The Trandoshan lowered himself to the ground, knee digging into the snow. Opening the rucksack, the instructor revealed two metallic rods the length of an extended lightsaber. Unlike the training sabers the Jedi was familiar with, they were simplistic, unshaped and without energy arrays.
Wrapping his clawed digits around one of the rods, Nesk picked up the simple tool and tossed it toward the girl's feet. Nami jumped when the piece of metal slammed into the ground, leaving a perfect imprint in the snow as it collided with the stone beneath with a loud thud. Reaching down, the Jedi wrapped her cold fingers around of the rod's end, only to find herself incapable of lifting it with a single hand. Reinforcing her grip with her other hand, the girl released a soft groan as she picked one of the ends into the air, the other still sufficiently dug into the snow.
"What the heck is this thing made of? Durasteel?" Nami muttered as she managed to lift one end of the rod past her waist.
"No. Durasteel not heavy enough," Nesk plainly answered. The girl looked up to see the Trandoshan palming the second of the rods he had packed. In one, swift motion, he single-handedly lifted the rod into the air, before resting its length against his shoulder.
"Is this what Sith use as training sabers?" Nami asked, slowly raising the tip of her rounded bar off the ground.
"Not Sith. Just Nesk," the Trandosahn replied. "Training sabers do not put fear of the blade into you."
"I already know what happens… when you touch a lightsaber," Nami declared, almost offended. "Is this really necessary?"
"Was Jedi learning. Only Sith learning from now on," Nesk replied.
The girl released a grunt as she raised her rod upright, struggling to keep it balanced within her grip. "Getting hit with this… could still kill someone. Why not just use a lightsaber… if the end result is the same?"
"Is easy to swing lightsaber. Should take effort. It is still soft thing. If it can swing that, it will be ready to continue," Nesk explained.
Before Nami could finish her thought, the Trandoshan was upon her. With a primal snarl, Nesk raised his weapon high into the air, before bringing it down with a cascading swing. The Jedi barely stepped out of the way as the heavy rod imbedded its tip into where her feet previously stood. Nami stumbled in the snow, struggling to maintain her balance alongside the heavy object in her hands. As she secured her footing, her eyes went wide as she stared at her instructor. The tip of his weapon still embedded in the ground, the subtle sounds of still-crackling stone managed to overpower those of the passing winds. All the while, the Trandoshan stood completely still, beady eyes burning a hole through the girl's psyche. Only a single hand wrapped around the rod, Nesk pulled his weapon from the ground, holding it as he would a saber as he took another step toward the student.
Back in Kaas City, Syrosk led his three underlings through the constricting halls of the Citadel back toward his home and office.
"So, we already got another mission lined up?" Asher spoke up, trailing the uneven gait of his boss.
"Not a mission," Syrosk replied. The other three Sith offered a series of arched brows. "I need to test you before you're sent back into the field."
"Is this because of Nami?" Fay asked.
"No. This was always intended to be a part of your induction into the organization," Syrosk admitted.
"Mental conditioning, right?" said Graves, recalling their initial talks with the Executor.
"Correct," Syrosk replied. "You proved yourselves capable of action when you successfully completed your first mission. Now you need to prove that your thoughts can stand up to forceful intrusions."
The group came to a stop in front of the door leading to Syrosk's dwelling.
"We don't have to lay on your weird inquisitor's slab, do we?" Asher bluntly asked.
"No," Syrosk plainly answered. The door lifted into its recess, granting access to the dwelling. Just as the three younger Sith were about to step inside, the alien offered a halting hand. "I'll be dealing with you individually. The rest can wait outside. Now, who wants to go first?"
The three subordinates looked to one another, bouncing their gazes time and time again as silence overtook them. Only after a few long moments was the quiet broken by the burned Sith releasing a droning sigh.
"Fine," Asher spoke up. "I'll go first."
"Wonderful," Syrosk rasped, completely deadpan. With that, the Sith Lord escorted Asher into his home and office, leaving Graves and Fay alone in the empty hallway. The tall woman and scarred man looked to one another, unsure of what to do, until they simultaneously decided to lean against the nearby walls. All they could do now was wait.
Inside, Syrosk waved his hand toward the chair that once held an unconscious Nami. "Take a seat."
Asher complied, setting himself down in the chair, arms resting to his side. As he did, Syrosk circled around to the seat's rear, disappearing from the burned Sith's view.
"Now, close your eyes," Syrosk directed.
Once more, the Sith complied, without a fuss.
"Now, open your eyes."
Asher did so, only to find himself no longer within the Executor's domicile. No longer within the Citadel. Instead, he stood in the middle of an infinite white void. The burned Sith spun on his heels, only to see Syrosk standing behind him, the only other object occupying the vast emptiness that surrounded them. Together, they stood on some immaculate, perfect surface. Unfathomably smooth. Unfathomably clean. A thing of dreams rather than reality.
"Neat trick," Asher dismissively offered alongside a shrug of his shoulders.
The Sith Lord stood across from him, only the smallest of gaps separating them. As alien looked up and down his subordinate, he offered a single arch of his brow.
"Curious," Syrosk rasped.
"What?" Asher shot back.
"I thought you might have looked different," Syrosk admitted.
Asher looked down to see his torso went unclothed, but not unwrapped. The various robes and coats, the various pockets and bandoliers, they were all missing. The only thing the Human wore was a simple pair of black trousers, the only thing covering his upper half being the all-encompassing bandages that hid his burnt flesh. Asher raised his hands, turning them over as he examined his form.
"This is the mental representation you've created for yourself," Syrosk explained. "I didn't know whether it'd be burned or not."
"Let me guess, that means something, doesn't it?" Asher asked, already knowing the answer.
"It means this is who you are. Who you want to be. This is your most satisfactory form," Syrosk explained.
"So, we're in my mind, huh?" Asher calmly said, looking around the blank void. "I thought it'd look different."
"This is but a piece of your mind. A piece I have partitioned. A piece I control," Syrosk rasped.
"Yeah, yeah, telepath. I get it," Asher dismissed. As he once more held his hands before his face, the Human's eyes went wide as he watched a budding flame blossom from his palms. The fire grew and spread, eventually traveling up his arms and dancing upon his shoulders. "Pretty cool."
"This is not a time for playing," Syrosk declared.
The other Sith offered a slight pout as he mentally extinguished the flames crawling up his body. "Alright, what are we doing, then? Am I supposed to be trying to force you out right now?"
"If you were able, it would mean putting a stop to this," Syrosk revealed. "You could get up, walk out, have the rest of the day to yourself."
"Fine," Asher muttered. Without another word, the burned Sith closed his eyes and concentrated. He was a part of himself within a part of himself. He didn't know exactly how to proceed, but his trials had conditioned more than his body. The Sith looked inward, and outward, and inward again, trying to pinpoint what exactly was occurring within his mind. There was an intrusion. A foreign body. A foreign mind. There had to be a way to excise it. Devoting his energy to pushing Syrosk out of his mind, Asher gritted his teeth before exhaling the breath he had inadvertently been holding, despite the fact that he no longer needed air to function on the peculiar mindscape.
Opening his eyes, Asher could only stare as he saw himself no longer within the white void. Only, he wasn't in the Citadel either.
A cold, metallic platform stretched beneath the Sith's feet, its edges hanging over a rocky cliff. Beyond, the orange crags and skies of Korriban. As a shuttle lifted off in the distance, Asher quickly realized Syrosk no longer stood in front of him. But neither was he alone. Ahead, a figure stood out in the Sith's mind amongst the group of acolytes that surrounded him.
A teenager. Human male. Slightly diminutive height. Dark, unkempt hair. Soft, fair skin. A hooked smile upon his face. A set of gray robes wrapping his body. Murel Azer.
"I wasn't sure if you're form would more resemble that," said the voice of Syrosk. Immediately turning his head, Asher saw his superior standing at his side, casting his cold gaze forward. "So these are your most cherished memories. Ones not of family or childhood, but of the Academy."
"I don't know if I'd call them cherished," Asher muttered.
Before his eyes, the scene shifted, wiping away only to be replaced by another. Gone was the landing platform, in its place one of the dueling circles that populated the Academy grounds. Teenagers clashed training sabers under the stern gaze of an instructor. Two figures were locked in combat, the larger utilizing wide, brutish swings, the smaller deftly ducking out of the way.
"Why wouldn't they be?" asked Syrosk. "The Academy gave you everything you could have possibly wanted. Before Korriban, you had nothing. You received nothing in the way of admiration or love from your parents, even when they was discovered you were Force-sensitive. It was expected of you. Being a Sith was literally the least you could do in their eyes. But what you never received from them, you finally found from your fellow acolytes."
Asher released a scoff and a roll of his eyes as the scene faded once again, now taking the form of the Academy's interior halls. "Oh yeah, I receives tons of admiration from the other students."
"Not admiration. Attention," Syrosk clarified. In front of the pair, a lone Sith sat at his desk, a series of tools spread out in front of him. Under the light of a small lamp, the acolyte labored away, tinkering with his training saber, its casing opened and its innards on display. Circuits were rewired. Energy arrays were bolstered. Components were pushed to their limits.
The environment wiped away again, returning to the dueling circles outside the Academy. Two acolytes found themselves at each other's blade under the glare of an instructor once more. The larger combatant was unable to land a hit on the smaller foe, but neither could the shorter fighter land a direct strike. But he didn't need one. One light slash with the enhance training saber, and its target began howling in pain. A wide gash presented itself in the larger acolyte's robes, and underneath lay charred and blackened flesh.
"You knew there was little room for friendship amongst your fellow Sith," Syrosk continued. "But you weren't content with simple progression. Simple superiority. You wanted to prove yourself. You wanted to be noticed. You did everything in your power to not be forgotten."
"So what?" Asher muttered. "Obscurity doesn't get you out of the Academy. You have to get people to notice you if you want to become an apprentice."
"It wasn't those above you that you were interested in impressing though, was it?" Syrosk rasped. "This was about more than proving how skilled you were. You wanted everyone to know how smart you were. How creative you were. How unique you were. How special you were. Things a child expects to hear from their parents."
"Is the psychology lesson over yet?" Asher dismissed, crossing his arms.
Syrosk released a low chortle. "But you finally found something, didn't you? Or rather, someone."
The scene shifted, but the environment endured. Only its occupants changed. As years passed, the rock and stone of the Academy grounds remained a rigid and unforgiving constant. Its denizens, however, displayed palpable change. The Human acolyte from before had exchanged his gray robes for a darker set. Exchanged his classmates for a new batch. Exchanged his instructor for an Overseer.
Standing out from the rest, a sturdy figure. Human male. Tanned skin. Hair kept short. Face populated by an array of scratches and scars.
"You found a rival," Syrosk continued. "Someone to finally give you the attention you so desired. Someone to hate. Someone to hate you back. Someone to give more than the cold ambivalence offered by your fellow students, by your instructors, by your parents. The man you knew only as Graves."
In front of the Sith, the acolytes began to fade, one by one, until only two remained, staring one another down under the brutal Korriban sun.
"You were competing for the apprenticeship of Lord Traer. But the Sith Lord was the last thing on your mind," Syrosk rasped. "You had found someone able to keep up with you. Someone able to match you. Someone able to combat your intuitiveness with raw determination. As each of the other acolytes were eliminated, you prayed he would be the last to go. You had seen how calm he was. But as you prodded him, he gave you precisely the response you desired. He was a mirror, dishing out as much as you could put in. When the day came for Traer to choose his apprentice, there was an emptiness inside you. You knew what awaited as an apprentice. You could not test a Lord as you would a fellow acolyte. You knew how worthless you were to a superior. Traer could never give you what the Academy offered, but neither could you stay. So, you fought, ready to kill the one person with whom you shared a bond with."
Before the observing Sith, the younger versions of Asher and Graves stood opposite each other, under the watchful eyes of a cloaked Sith Lord. The dark figure stood shadowed even under the enduring light of the Korriban sun, visage concealed beneath a black hood. All that shone through was a crooked smile.
Asher and Graves drew their blades, actual lightsabers gifted to them for their final duel. The blades shined with a harsh crimson, their tips directed toward their opponent. With the drop of the Sith Lord's hand, the two charged one another, meeting with a resounding clash. Graves was the slower of the two, lashing out with sluggish, but powerful blows. Asher kept his head low, ducking and weaving around the swinging blade, darting around the dueling circle. The lighter Sith offered only cursory jabs of his blade, piercing the outer edges of his opponent's frame.
The blade's tip would pass through the other acolyte's robes, singeing the flesh beneath. But the scarred combatant continued undeterred. The two continued, dancing around one another with varying degrees of martial grace. As duel progressed under the invested eyes of Lord Traer, he studied his potential apprentices, reveling in the display.
Despite Asher's countless jabs, he was unable to fully pierce his opponent's guard. The unarmored Graves possessed dots lining his robes, holes where his foe's saber had shallowly imbedded its tip. But the warrior was unaffected by pain. Asher thought the tiny injuries would eventually bring his opponent down, but there he stood, unwavering. Reaching toward his waist, the smaller Sith revealed a flask clipped to his belt, hidden under a flap of his robes.
In one swift motion, the Sith removed the lid with the flick of his thumb. Thrusting his free hand forward, a globule of liquid vacated the flask, flung telekinetically toward Graves. The warrior raised his guard just as his opponent offered a snap of his fingers. The liquid dispersed and ignited, surrounding Graves in an explosive fireball.
The fiery plume encased the warrior's upper body, but was kept at bay by the acolyte's defenses. An invisible sphere surrounded Graves, one that kept the flames at bay. The Force barrier had blocked the attack, but as the flames dissipated, the warrior found his opponent rushing toward him. His free hand extended, Graves could do nothing to prevent Asher from lopping off his left arm just below the shoulder.
As the limb fell to the hard ground, Graves stumbled backward. His other hand still wrapped around his weapon, the warrior saw no need to clutch at the cauterized wound. Instead, he remained standing, burning a hole through his opponent with his eyes. He was not beaten. Not yet.
But Asher would not allow his foe to remain standing. He reached toward the flask at his waist, emptying the remaining contents into the air. As the fuel moved between the two Sith, Asher's eyes went wide as he saw the one-armed man on the offense. He had no time to react as Graves closed the gap, swinging his crimson blade between them. The plasma ignited the fuel, engulfing the pair in a fireball. The barrier that surrounded Graves protected him. Asher was not so lucky.
The burned Sith stumbled back, his torso aflame. The surrounding air fueled the fire. The black robes provided the means to spread. Falling upon his back, he possessed not his opponent's tolerance for pain. Attempting to release a harsh yelp, the acolyte found himself choking on the fire and smoke that engulfed his upper body. Rolling upon the hard stone beneath him, Asher attempted to snuff the fire as his opponent simply stood over him, watching.
Graves was frozen. Despite his nerves offering him no feedback, his body did have its limits. He was exhausted, even if unburdened by pain. As his grip loosened, the weapon fell from his hand, deactivating at it struck the ground. The warrior fell back, colliding with hard stone with a loud thud.
Asher continued to writhe on the ground. The flames were gone, but the lingering effects were not. Blackened cloth stuck to blackened flesh. Only now could the Sith breath. He should have collapsed. Should have expired. But something kept him going. Gone was the fair skin. Gone was the hair atop his head. All that remained was the scorched form of an enduring acolyte. Clawing at the stone beneath him, Asher clenched his fists as he attempted to rise. His arms supporting his weight, they bounced between numbness and excruciating pain. But still he rose. As screams slipped through gritted teeth, the Sith pushed himself up.
The sounds echoed throughout Asher's mind. The howls, the screams, the yells, all his, overlapping and intensifying with each passing moment, drowning out all else. Watching his scorched form lift himself up, Asher clenched his hands and teeth, shutting his eyes with all might.
Until finally, they opened.
Gone was the void. Gone was Korriban. All that stood before Asher was the quaint office of Syrosk, and the Sith Lord himself positioned in front of him. The subordinate's hand were clenched around the chair's armrests as his eyes darted across the room, his breathing quick and heavy.
Meanwhile, Syrosk appeared almost nonchalant.
"You can tell the next one to come in now."