Duel at the Dark Side Nexus
A kilometer of jungle burned, the dark smoke rising up from the broken trees to merge with the black and grey clouds of the energy storm raging overhead. At the end of the makeshift runway, a hatch opened in the side of the crashed ship. Eiven Task stepped free from the Memory of Alderaan. Of average height for a human, he seemed taller in the white armor modeled after the Royal Imperial Guard that had once served Emperor Palpatine. In one hand he held his lightsaber pike, a meter-and-half shaft of phrik alloy, in the small of his back wrested a small hold-out blaster, and at his side rested a satchel containing his few treasures: a Sith holocron, and the droid-head A1S1.
The low-light augmentations in his helmet kicked in and he surveyed the damage. The hull at least appeared to be intact, and there was no explosion so he judged the generator and fuel lines to be safe enough for the moment. Black scars showed here and there, though whether from passage through the storm or a laser blast Eiven could not tell. Then Task stared up at the sky, and caught a glimpse of something as the yellow lightning rolled between the clouds, a glimmer of reflected light. Behind the mask, he smiled. His intuition had been correct; someone had followed him here.
Leaving the fallen ship, Eiven headed for the cover of the trees. He reversed the ceremonial robe that came with the armor, turning the white cloth to the inside and draping himself in black, raising the dark hood over the white helmet. If the Force was with him, he could lose himself in the rain forest and still achieve his goal…and perhaps even turn the tables on his pursuer. Though he did not know precisely who his opponent was, he had an inkling notion.
At the tomb of a Prophet of the Dark Side, Eiven Task had encountered a Twi’lek that played at being a Sith; he had cut down her pathetic followers and crossed blades with her. The duel had been brief and he had been hard-pressed, but in the end he had escaped with a dark side artifact, leaving her entombed. Months later, while scavenging the ruins of an old Jedi temple, the pretender had laid an ambush. The twi’lek had recruited a dozen Force sensitives and given them rudimentary training; however in the interval Eiven had himself engaged in strenuous combat training, and had incorporated the dark side artifact into his prosthetic left arm as part of a new a lightsaber. With this new weapon, the two had dueled again, and this time only Eiven Task had survived.
Yet…he knew nothing of the twi’lek, not even her name. Someone had trained her. Someone had directed her to plunder the prophet’s tomb. Someone was playing at being a “master.” The same person, Eiven felt certain, who followed him. But his goal lay ahead of him, and so he continued on into the jungle.
Broad-leafed undergrowth impeded his way, and the forest swarmed with insects from microscopic to thirty-centimeter long horrors that crawled, battled, loved, and died among the surrounding trees—wooden giants that looked half-melted, the dull grey-brown trunks seeming to fan out and puddle at the base. In the heavy armor Task sweated and picked his way onwards, crawling over the fallen detritus of the forest and trying to avoid the noisome creatures that inhabited it. In his pouch, a dull red light gleamed from the edges and a familiar voice, muffled somewhat by the flap, came out.
“You are a terrible apprentice,” the hazy image of Darth Modas said, and Task smiled behind his mask as he imagined the old hologram’s familiar scowl. The original of the gatekeeper of the Sith holocron had lived over four thousand years ago, in the waning days of the Great Sith War, and held nothing but contempt for generations of would-be Sith. Still, after Task had slain the twi’lek, the gatekeeper had finally relented to teach Task more of his secrets.
“You have potential, and you have been trained.” The image had said many times on the long trip from the Duros-world of Kelliban to the jungle-world of Mimban. “But you allow your old injuries to limit you. Even with your prostheses, you should be stronger in the Force than you are! Only your own weakness limits you now.”
The left side of Task’s body, from collar to hip, ended in a solid line of sunken pinkish scar tissue. The missing organs and limbs had been replaced with cybernetic equivalents, so ribs of plastic and durasteel protected the green pouch of an artificial lung, and tiny electric engines whined to lift his skeletal metal arm, which rotated freely in the ball-and-socket joint that replaced his left shoulder. The terrible injury had precipitated Task’s current path; for drunken weeks he had though they had severed his connection to the Force forever.
“You must go to a place steeped in the power of the Dark Side,” the holocron-image rattled on. “There are many such nexi in the galaxy, but I know of one likely to remain undisturbed. In the Circarpous Major system, there is a world famed for its kaiburr crystals, that the despised Jedi prize above all others for their weapons…” The gatekeeper continued to give its instructions, but Eiven only half-listened. This close, he could feel the pull of the nexus, tugging him onward. It stoked the need within him, and it was a struggle not to give in and dash madly forward, but he forced himself to pick his way through game trails and around trees and great protruding blocks of stone that now emerged from the ground. He studied these with a professional eye; they seemed of considerable age, and of regular size and shape, like squarish teeth with depressions to one stone could fit with its neighbors.
Behind him, that nagging presence remained. Task forced himself not to focus on that either.
The outlines of the building was buried under the roots of trees, solid bark hanging in waves and stalactites like frozen syrup. This deep in the jungle the rain was a constant dripping drizzle, but you couldn’t see the sky. The tree limbs had all grown together into an endless canopy, distributing the water almost evenly. Eiven’s robe was soaked, but the seals kept the water out of his armor. Six meters away, the entrance to the nexus was a dark hole in the undergrowth, an artificial cave whose outlines were half-hidden by dangling roots. Task hesitated. There was a clammy itch to his palms, like when he'd been a kid, standing half off a ledge and looking down. Whatever was in there felt like it meant to suck him in…but that wasn’t what made him wait.
He thumbed the activator. The silvery-white half-meter blade of his lightsaber-pike flared into life, steaming and sputtering where the rain hit the glowing plasma. As if in answer, six crimson blades sparked into life around him, and their owners crawled out of the undergrowth. The skeletal metal frames of humanoid droids, painted in jungle colors, rust showing through here and there. They moved almost silently through the undergrowth, surrounding him, each one raising their blade in a different stance. Soft red light pulsed in their chests, and Task’s helmet-vision zoomed in for a moment. Crystals. A familiar pull came to him as he opened his senses to the Force. Normally droids were dead spaces in the Force; these had presence, like living things…strong living things. Force sensitives or adepts at the least.
Wary of these unexpected guardians, Eiven bent his legs slightly and raised his lightsaber-pike overhead, blade pointed slightly down, waiting for them to draw nearer. He recognized their stances; each represented a different style of lightsaber combat, as the old Jedi had fought, as he had been trained in. Ataru. Makashi. Shien. Djem So. Schii-Cho. Soresu. The only ones missing were Niman and Juyo...
“Ataru” attacked first, with an acrobatic leap that took the droid spinning over Task’s head, its blade slashing down. Eiven responded by stepping forward and bringing arm and pike up; the droid impaled itself chest-first on the lightsaber pike, and there was a small explosion as the silver-white blade sheered through metal and crystal. The smoking droid fell to the ground and Task quickly recovered, spinning the staff around him to halt their advance as the others moved in, and the droids quickly backed off, taking positions around him.
“Makashi” stood in front of the entrance to the nexus in a duelist’s stance; its chest-crystal glowed brighter, though Eiven could only guess what that meant. To his left and right the droids held their blades high and low—“Shien” and “Djem so”—and a quick glimpse behind him showed “Shii-Cho” and “Soresu” blocked his escape back into the woods.
Task feinted a strike toward “Shien,” who back away a step as “Djem so” moved forwards; the human quickly reversed, stepping backwards towards “Djem so” while flicking the activator on the other end of his lightsaber-pike. The second silvery-white blade emerging from the other end of the staff caught the droid by surprise, slicing off its head. Undeterred, the droid moved forwards, slicing down blindly. Eiven cursed as he dodged and spun, the smoking red blades of “Shien” and “Djem so” barely missing him, and Task smelled burning cloth and plastic where they had scored against his robe and armor. Rising to his feet behind the beheaded droid, he braced his boot against its metal backside and shoved it forward; the two impaled themselves on each others’ lightsaber.
“Shii-Cho” and “Soresu” moved forward, attacking as a unit. Task flicked off the second lightsaber-pike blade before he hurt himself with it and shifted his grip to the back of the weapon. The added reach let him keep the two lightsaber-bearing droids at bay, though the wild, random attacks of “Shii-Cho” and the persistent, driving counterattacks of “Soresu” were driving him back a step at a time—right towards “Mikashi.”
Backing up two steps suddenly threw the droids into a lurch, and Eiven used the space to spin the lightsaber-pike around his body, using his torso as a fulcrum as he moved into a spinning, aggressive series of attacks in the Juyo style that caught them off guard—effective, but not something he could keep up for long. As he moved in with a behind-the-back slash towards their heads that the droids barely blocked, Task reached into the Force and thumbed the activator on the lightsaber installed in his prosthetic left arm. The bloodshine blade steamed and hissed as it hit the rain, the short blade emerging from a special socket over the back of his hand; a contrivance Eiven had modified into his armor to accommodate the lightsaber shoto. With a swing of his arm, the red blade sliced through the droids’ knees, and a second swipe through the torso served as the coup de grace.
Breathing hard, Eiven stood up and turned to face the final remaining droid. “Makashi” stood in its dueling stance, rain dripping off its servos. With slow deliberation, Task deactivated the bloodshine blade installed in his left arm, and removed the sopping, half-burnt remnants of his robe. A few spots of melted plastic and bare ceramic showed here and there where the droids’ lightsaber blades had kissed him, though none had broken through. With a blur of movement, Eiven’s cybernetic left hand went to the small of his back drew out the hold-out blaster there; a squeeze-trigger model modified to accommodate his gauntleted hands. “Makashi” managed to deflect the first shot into the undergrowth, where a giant tick-like insect exploded in a splash of boiling brown blood and innards. The second shot hit its optical sensors, eliciting a squawk. The third hit the glowing crystal in its chest. There was a brief explosion, and the metal form was briefly limned in coruscating arcs of white lightning as the droid collapsed.
Task checked to make sure all of the droids were really dead, or deactivated, or whatever, thrusting the lightsaber-pike into a couple for safety. He didn’t want any following him into the dark.
Beyond the threshold, the air grew cooler, less humid. Eiven waited as his eyes adjusted, the helmet’s low-light vision making as much use of the little available light as possible, causing the dark to be tinged with green as shapes became apparent. The chamber he stood in was a low-ceilinged half-dome, the opposite wall dominated by the engraving of a skull-faced creature with wings and tentacles, somewhere between a human and a krayt dragon in outlines. Beneath this stone monster was a hole, barely three feet high.
The Force permeated this place. Task struggled to define the sensation. Every sense felt sharper, every movement easier, the ache from his hike through the rainforest and the battle seemed to recede, replaced by a sensation of barely-constrained power. His self seemed to extend outwards until he could feel the insects crawling behind the walls of this chamber, the roots that had burrowed down through the soil to touch the stones overhead. The presence—no the presences, for there were two of them he knew now, that followed behind him, still some ways off. He could feel their hatred and fear. Even more, he could feel that he was only at the threshold of the nexus, and its true heart lay deeper within. Instinctively, he got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the tunnel.
Stonework gave way to natural rock, and after three meters in the tunnel even with the helmet’s vision augmentations Task couldn’t find sufficient light to see by. He crawled alone through darkness, every centimeter bringing him closer to the center. Some time later, he touched something cold and metal.
The thought echoed in Task’s skull, slipping into his mind. Instinctively, he flicked on the lightsaber-pike, and was blinded as the silvery-white glare was reflected a thousand times. When he could see, Eiven found himself on his knees in a crystal grotto. On the floor before him was another crystal-chested droid. Its arms and legs had been cut off, ending in useless stumps.
“Who…what are you?”
I am Kaiburr of the Shard. Ours is a sentient silicon-based race. Once, long ago, a Jedi came among us and trained us. We took on metal bodies and fought beside the great Order. We were the Iron Knights! Yet though we fought beside them, they rejected us. Rejected me. So I left…and fell to darkness.
My children. I dreamed of raising an army, yet they turned against me. Crippled, they left me here to dream in the dark. Even crippled, they feared me. Such is the power of the Dark Side.
A noise echoed through the tunnel from the entrance chamber.
Your enemies come for you, and you cannot defeat them.
“I am stronger here than I have ever been!”
And it will feed them, too—and if they are greater than you outside this place, they shall still outstrip you within it. Yet it is a power that you can deny them.
Task frowned. “Tell me.”
In the entrance chamber, the two visitors staggered as the nexus collapsed, a flash of light briefly lit the mouth of the tunnel. They waited several minutes as Eiven Task made his way out of the tunnel, leaving behind him naught but broken stones. Task had given the fallen knight his wished-for release, and in his death-frenzy Kaiburr had unleashed his full power. Eiven had knelt in the center of the storm, as the precious crystals splintered and shattered around him. He could feel the Force seethe beneath his skin, burning with his every breath; it saturated him, in a way he had never known or felt before. It would not last, Kaiburr warned. But for now, it was all the edge he needed.
Smiling behind his mask, Task confronted his pursuers. One was a human he recognized as Marak, one of the twi’lek’s followers, whom Eiven had crippled and left for dead at the old Jedi temple. Now his right arm ended in a metal stump, a lightsaber hung off his belt, and fresh black Sith tattoos scrawled on his arms and face. His hatred and fear burned within him. The other was a tall, gangly muun he did not recognize, an older male with a wisp of beard. His clothing was more practical, and reminded Task of an Antarian ranger—complete with cap, jacket, and boots. A slim lightsaber hung at his belt as well. A deep well of pain and anger seethed just below the surface, yet none of it reached his eyes or his face.
With his left hand, Marak drew and ignited his lightsaber. The red blade lit up the darkness. From the metal stump of his right hand, a smaller red lightsaber blade emerged.
“Boy,” the muun said to Marak. “Don’t.”
The human ignored him, and charged forwards. Task said nothing, but did not ignite either of his weapons. Holding the phrik staff in both hands, he waited as the Marak came on. Eiven dodged aside Marak’s first wild swing, blocked the second strike from the stump-blade with the staff, and then whipped the end of the staff around. At the last moment Task flicked the silvery-white blade into life. Marak’s head went flying past, bouncing into the dark tunnel.
“Nicely done.” The old muun said. “He had the gift, but no patience…and really, there’s only so much one can teach in a short period of time.”
“You trained the twi’lek. You have been following me. Why?” Task said.
“There is a contest being held. Some of the best Force-empowered fighters in the galaxy. A game played for the highest stakes, with a prize of power and knowledge to whomever survives. We have representatives from the Jedi, the Sith, the Imperial Knights, the Jensaarai, and the Matukai, as well as a few independents. I’d hoped one of my apprentices would enter…but given that you’ve killed them both I’d say that you more than qualify to take their place.”
Task considered. “Where?”
“Mos Eisley. Tattoine.”