The Final Trial
Lana Beniko woke with heavy lids, her mind and body brittle against the cold stone of Tulak Hord’s tomb. How long had she slept? The strain in her limbs told her not long enough, but she feared it had been days. Hunger clawed at the lining of her stomach, but Lana shook it off. She needed to keep moving, keep searching. To stay here was to become just another lifeless relic of the tomb. Dark soil stained Lana’s fingernails as she pushed herself to stand. The air was drafty, chapping her already raw lips.
“You’re awake,” a hoarse voice stated. Lana had forgotten she wasn’t alone.
Bensyn knelt at the entrance of the alcove they had chosen as a resting spot, his red Sith Pureblood skin easily recognizable. Kagan was curled next to him still asleep, long dark hair hiding her face. They were all that remained of the initial group of acolytes.
“Yes.” Lana’s own voice sounded foreign to her ears. “How is she?”
“Stable.” Bensyn pushed the hair from Kagan’s forehead, revealing a deep gash across her otherwise charming features. “It will leave a scar.”
“No one survives the trials unmarked.” Lana stared off into the shadows, remembering how the k’lor’slugs had overwhelmed them. Lana had tried to cut a path for the other acolytes, but they lost Greck and almost Kagan. Her arm still ached from slicing through the worm's sinuous bodies.
If Harkun could see them now… Lana gritted her teeth imagining the overseer’s sardonic laugh. The man was a sadist. Lana had stood by as he weeded out the weak, telling herself this was just the way of things. She had remained silent as he insulted them, beat them, and forced them against each other. Why should she – daughter to one of Dromund Kaas’s most celebrated entrepreneurs – care about a group of slaves?
Because they were Sith and they had withstood everything Harkun had thrown at them. They had impressed her and Lana wanted to see Harkun’s face when he found out they had worked together to complete his final trial to find Tulak Hord’s helm. A task he deemed impossible.
Kagan stirred. Bensyn helped her to a sitting position. “Can you move?”
She smiled. “I don’t have a choice.”
Bensyn offered Kagan his shoulder and the three left the alcove. Durasteel vibrosword in hand, Lana led them down a dark passage to what she hoped was the chamber containing Hord’s armor. Once full of mystery, the ancient Sith’s tomb had been nearly picked bare by robbers and the Academy, but there were still a few areas left unexplored. Lana had deciphered from the symbols etched into the stone walls that their destination should be ahead.
Even the quietest footsteps disturbed the rocks loosened by the passage of time. Lana stifled a cough as dust invaded her nose and lungs, eyes narrowing to see the path.
“We need light,” Kagan whispered from behind.
Lana hesitated. As they were, they would not survive another attack.
Sensing Lana’s trepidation, Bensyn added, “The beasts will come with or without the light. Might as well see them approach.”
Lana relented and pulled an illuminating crystal from her pack. The corridor was covered in rubble from a fallen column, but was otherwise clear. Kagan, her skin pale and clammy, winced as Bensyn and Lana helped her over the debris. Lana tried to keep a steady pulse. If they were to succeed, she needed to focus on the task at hand and channel her fear into more productive energy.
When they reached the end of the hallway, Lana held the crystal high to see as much of the chamber as possible. She sighed. It was a ruin. Broken tablets lay scattered on the ground. Statues, damaged and forgotten, looked ready to crumble from the slightest touch. It would take hours to sift through, but if the helm was here then it would all be worth it.
“Kagan, rest awhile. Bensyn and I will clear the largest pieces.” Her fellow acolyte looked like she might protest, but Bensyn was already imploring her to sit.
Lana closed her eyes and used the Force to channel what little energy she possessed into moving one of the tablets off to the side.
“You’re certain it’s here?” Bensyn asked, his breath heavy from concentration.
“I’m not certain of anything,” Lana replied. “But it’s our only lead.”
They worked in silence, moving the rubble piece by piece until the room finally began to take shape. From what was left of the plaques, Lana deduced this chamber once housed some of Hord’s most valuable artifacts. The helm should be here, she just hoped it wasn’t crushed under the fallen stones. As she lifted a carved torso off of the ground, Lana felt Bensyn stiffen next to her and then scramble towards his vibrosword.
“Stay back!” Something shrieked behind her.
Lana turned to see a Zabrak, dirty and shaking, holding a dagger to Kagan’s neck. The blade was crudely made but more than capable of killing Kagan in an instant. Bensyn stood his ground, hands trembling. The Zabrak’s eyes, enormous and round, wavered between Lana and Bensyn. Dried blood was crusted around her mouth.
“We mean you no harm,” Lana said, holding up her hands.
The lids around the Zabrak’s dark eyes were thin, almost translucent. She stared at Lana, assessing the possible threat she posed. Kagan was panting, her fear palpable.
“What’s your name?” Lana’s voice was soft and soothing.
Unwashed skin knitted together as the Zabrak thought about her question. When she spoke, her tone was frustrated and scared. “Searching, searching. Like little womp rats with twitchy noses, you touch and scrape what doesn’t belong to you. What can never be yours. There’s a price. A price to hold these things. These treasures. One you have not paid. I was like you once.”
“You were an acolyte?” Bensyn asked.
The Zabrak stared ahead, lost to a memory. “But then I paid the price. I…” The blade lowered slightly from Kagan’s neck.
Kagan seized the moment and slammed her elbow into the Zabrak’s nose. Black blood splattered across her face. Bensyn and Lana covered their ears as a high pitched scream filled the chamber. Rocks and fragments of old statues flew into the air as dust rained down upon them.
“Kagan!” Bensyn held out his hand, grabbing hold of the girl as she crawled away from the Zabrak writhing in pain.
Lana lunged for her vibrosword. Gripping the hilt, she moved to stand over the crumpled wailing figure. Grey hands with jagged fingernails flailed, trying to stop the pain and bleeding. Lana swallowed; the Zabrak smelled like rancid meat. As she raised her sword to strike, Lana felt the unfamiliar sting of pity. She deduced from the rags and what remained of old training boots that the Zabrak had once been like them. A fellow acolyte thrust into the tombs.
Lana lowered her weapon and whispered, “Peace is a lie, there is only passion.”
The Zabrak’s eyes widened. The pain forgotten. “Through passion… I gain strength.”
“Through strength, I gain power,” Bensyn’s deep voice echoed in the chamber.
Kagan looked up at him and then back towards Lana and the Zabrak. “Through power, I gain victory.”
Together, all four acolytes finished the Code. “Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall set me free.”
The silence was as tense and fragile as the decaying walls around them. Lana stepped back and turned from the Zabrak. “Go.”
She clambered away, clutching the dagger to her chest. Bensyn walked to Lana’s side, watching the Zabrak scurry into the darkness. “Was that wise?”
“Probably not,” Lana admitted. “But she’s one of us.”
Bensyn’s jaw muscles tightened. “I’ll keep watch. Find the helm.”
Lana returned to work, clearing the debris from the chamber. When her mind became too tired to focus, she rolled the rocks away until her palms were numb and her joints throbbed. Time had no place in the Valley of the Dark Lords. It was consumed just like her energy and ambition without regard. Lana was just about to collapse when she saw it sitting in the corner: Tulak Hord’s helm. Her feet carried her to it, a sigh leaving her parched lips. “I… I found it.”
Bensyn lifted his head, but Kagan remained still. “What?”
Lana closed her eyes, relief flooding her senses, as she touched the smooth metal surface of the helm. With quivering fingers, she lifted it off the floor and brought it over to the other acolytes. “It’s here.”
Bensyn cautiously traced the grooves and crevices of the helm, an uncharacteristic smile formed on his face. “Look, Kagan…”
She struggled to open her eyes, but Bensyn lifted her arm so that she could feel their triumph. “We can go home?”
“We can go home,” Lana stated.
Eager to reach the surface, they agreed to begin the journey without delay. Bensyn shouldered Kagan’s weight, while Lana led the group, one arm protectively holding their prize. She tried not to think about the k’lor’slugs or the dangerously pale color of Kagan’s skin. They would make it. She had to believe that.
They passed the alcove and took another tunnel in an attempt to avoid the nests. Hearing their ragged breath, Lana peered at Bensyn and Kagan from over her shoulder. He was fully carrying her now. The wound on Kagan’s forehead was slick and sweet smelling. “Should we st-”
“Keep going,” Bensyn barked. There was nothing they could do for her here.
The second Lana turned, a skeletal body charged from the shadows. She fell back, a sharp pain in her forearm. Boney legs stumbled across her. Lana’s eyes widened as she watched a familiar dagger bury into Kagan’s chest. Her friend’s pale lips opened to gasp one last breath before falling limp in Bensyn’s arms.
The Sith stared down at the growing pool of blood.
The Zabrak wrenched the dagger free and sliced back towards Lana. “The price!” she howled, reaching towards Hord’s helm. Without hesitation, Lana rolled away and brought her vibrosword down against the Zabrak’s neck. It connected with a sickening crunch. The emaciated body dropped to the floor, unmoving.
Bensyn fell to his knees. Kagan’s blood stained his armor. Her eyes, half opened, looked past him. Lana could feel the rage pierce through his shock. He clenched Kagan’s shoulders and shut his eyes.
She prepared for his attack. But it never came. Lana sensed his anger dissipate as quickly as it had spiked. Bensyn held Kagan’s body close to his chest, pushing himself to stand. “Let’s go.”
“When we entered the tomb, you said we could only succeed if we worked together... You were right. We found the helm.” Two red fingers closed Kagan’s eyes. “We’re leaving this place together.”
Lana nodded. She spared one last glance for the Zabrak at her feet. And then continued towards the surface.