Their lightsabers tore through the underbrush that got in their way, though there were a few times where she would stumble or get smacked by a wayward leaf. The flora of this world was just as hostile as the fauna, and on more than one occasion she felt carnivorous vines try and wrap around her, though the lightsaber kept them at bay with a few key slashes. She and Talak made quick work of the journey, and she focused in on the signature of the katarn prior to her break in focus. She moved to scramble up the root, but Talak gripped her arm and halted her.
Ana knew that she wouldn’t stand a chance without the preternatural help of the dark side. A few nods of her head were all that she responded with, understanding that she needed to tap into those painful emotions to let the gnawing hunger out to fight. Talak’s piercing gaze was serious and cold, emphasizing the gravity of the situation. Briefly, she wondered if she could just call upon those emotions without needing a catalyst, then realized that was what controlling the darkness was all about. Her own gaze betrayed her naivete and uncertainty, but she was determined to see this trial through to the end.
She jerked her arm free of his grip and turned to the root with furrowed brows. The invisible energies of the Force pooled around her feet and she took a few steps forward before leaping atop it and flourishing her lightsaber. The cave ahead was dark, and the only light she would have was the dim glow of her weapon. Her skin prickled with goosebumps and she took a step forward, raising her lightsaber as both a flashlight and a defensive tool. This was the hunter’s lair, and it knew the terrain far better than she did.
It lurked within the cave; she could feel it. She could also feel its food’s life fading away, left alone for now while the predator’s home was being invaded. Fear existed in abundance in this place, and the foul stench of death and decay assaulted her senses. Having survived the wyyyschokk, she felt emboldened and capable, but she knew better than to overestimate her abilities. They were a long way away from the lift and any serious injury would go untreated for quite some time. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath to stay quieter until she heard the beast’s hiss echo down the tunnels, but she reluctantly pressed on, keeping the lightsaber up as light.
Several meters in, they came to a fork in the tunnels. Her instincts, and the Force, told her that the creature lay in wait far ahead down the right tunnel. She hesitated for a moment, pointing the blade down the direction they needed to go. It’s down there, she projected into Talak’s mind, not wanting to speak and give away her location even more. She could feel the creature stalking the cave tunnels, as well as the now dead meat lying quite a way from it.
Her surface thoughts were an open book in the Force, and Talak would be able to sense her fear of continuing on, as well as a bubbling disdain for these trials. Is this my fight alone? she queried, wondering if the man had any intention to aid her in the upcoming duel. She was seeking reassurance that this wouldn’t be her demise, but she doubted he’d comply so easily.
Death surrounded them in the tunnels. It was as if it could sense the darkness inside of them and called out to that part of their souls. All the pain, anger, hate, lust, suffering, and every other primal emotions would well within both of them. It soaked into their beings and crawled its path along their skin, inviting them to embrace and submit. It seemed to promise power beyond their wildest imagination.
Or perhaps it was only Talak who felt that. It was the pull within him, and although he encouraged her to embrace it, he resisted it within himself. Does that make me a hypocrite? he wondered. He knew how to tap into it, but that didn't mean he wanted to. No, that's the difference. I'm teaching her to know how to even touch it, he told himself.
The deeper into the cave, the stronger the pull became. The glow of his lightsaber did nothing to dispel this type of darkness.
He followed after her as she picked a path. He could sense the creature within and he knew that it would want to kill them as surely as they were here to kill it. Or specifically "her" and "she".
She was becoming quite perceptive of the facts of her situation, and he noted it with a hint of pride. Even if he'd only been training her for a short time, the strides she was making were impressive.
They reached the mouth of a much wider opening in the tunnel. A large room was inside, and the Katarn was somewhere inside. Talak's lightsaber flashed out and he dropped to his knees.
Remember what I taught you. Embrace that fear I feel inside you. Channel it into hatred his voice would echo into her mind. He had gotten her here, but this was a battle she would have to face on her own.
Within the opening beyond were two layers with rocks and spires reaching up from the ground and down from above. The Katarn knew its lair well, and sniffed at the air. It could smell them. Two of them. It's next meal. What dared enter its layer? One of the apex predators of Kashyyyk. It would defend its territory and consume all who came against it.
Talak’s marked silence gave her enough of an answer to her question and she simply remained silent for the rest of the hunt. This was her trial; Talak was here to watch and guide her, not hunt the creature for her. Throughout their entire trek, the striking pull of death and decay tugged at her, enticing the keen craving in her soul. It offered her power if she gave in to its call. It was a pained whisper at the back of her mind, begging for release, begging for her to let it take over and grant her the strength she desired, but at great cost.
Ana’s skin prickled with goosebumps, even though it wasn’t particularly cold in the cave. It was the taint permeating this place, and it only grew stronger the closer they got to the beast. It was almost unbearably overwhelming to her and tuning out the tantalizing offers it whispered in her mind was becoming much more difficult. She was afraid of this place, but she needed to channel that fear into hatred, into power. Talak was right; she needed to embrace the fear and use it as a weapon. Just like against the wyyyschokk. Just like against him.
She stared at the larger room for a moment, then cast Talak a sideways glance. He had since deactivated his lightsaber and dropped to his knees to meditate and watch her, just as he had during yesterday’s ordeal. A sharp inhale and slow exhale were her responses to his advice before she stepped forward into the open chamber, lightsaber held at the ready. Her senses reached out as she entered, and she could feel the hostility practically radiating from the katarn. Her presence was an affront to the sanctity of its lair, and it would not suffer it any longer.
Ana squeezed between two narrow rocks and entered the chamber proper, climbing atop a small rock ledge to get more in the open. The katarn watched from above, its great claws digging deep into the stalactite. It laid in wait, ready to ambush her when she fully appeared in the open. It was a fearsome stalker, and it knew this place well. This prey would not last long. It sniffed the air quietly, getting a read on the woman’s position. A few more steps.
Ana slowed her breathing, but could do little to stem the tide of fear pressing against her mind. The Force flowed freely on this lively world, and the painful wails of the dark side – for its voice had grown louder still – taunted and teased her endlessly. If she weaponized its wrath, this encounter with the katarn would see her emerge the victor. It was beyond dark in the chamber, so she relied on the supernatural senses granted to her by the Force, feeling – not seeing – the beast above. Silence overtook the chamber, and the tension was thick enough to cut with a dull knife, but she needed to be patient, just like Talak taught. She inhaled slowly, closing her eyes and shutting out the physical world, raising her lightsaber hilt to her face, pointing the blade skyward.
The katarn leapt down from its perch to ambush Ana, whose eyes snapped open almost simultaneously. She pivoted in place and reached out with both of her hands, gripping the falling katarn with the invisible energies of the Force. She grunted and pulled her hands to the side violently, using both gravity and her powers to throw the katarn into a small cluster of stalagmites.
As before, Talak could feel what was going on in the cave. He could feel her fear and he could feel the predator. He could almost see it all unfolding in his mind, and there was no guarantee who would come out of this fight. Ana had learned a great deal, and he would have wagered on her, but it wasn't likely to be without scars of her own.
The Katarn slammed into the stones, but it was a creature was toughened scales. All the deadliest features of creatures that were mammals and predators. It only took moments for the creature to get back on its feet after the slam, and it roared. It was a powerful roar enough to send chills down the spine.
It started to circle around her again, moving toward her slowly but surely. Its paws were each tipped with massive claws not to mention the teeth and horns. The scales were thick enough that it might even deflect a glancing saber blow.
It moved until it was close enough, roaring again and slashing at her with its massive claws, ready to tear her in two and rip the flesh from her bones in a single hit.
Ana grimaced as the beast slammed into the rocks, sending fragments of stone scattering about. It got up quickly and reacquired her. Its roar was almost deafening as it echoed throughout the chambers and the tunnel, and Ana’s eyes grew wide with abject fear at its terrible sound. She’d done little else but piss it off, and now it was moving towards her with murderous intent. Every step it took, its claws scraped against the stone, and its slow approach gave her a moment to observe just how obscenely built this thing was. Legs like thick trunks tipped by several lethal claws; armorlike scales, replete with spines and ridges; a dangerous, beaked head with rows of razor-sharp teeth.
It was like a thing of nightmares squaring off against a field mouse.
Whatever hunt-emboldened courage she had was long gone by now and was replaced by pure terror. Another roar, but this time it was accompanied by a vicious swipe of its claws. Ana jumped back, slashing her lightsaber horizontally at the beast defensively. The blade seared across its claw but failed to score any significant injury and was met with a sharp hiss. It charged at her, moving far more quickly than she expected given its immense size. She barely had time enough to react, and the most she could do was dive to the side.
She tucked her chin in and landed on her shoulder, rolling with the dive and coming up a meter or two away from the charging beast. It rammed its head into a stalagmite and turned, hissing at her. That ugly sensation began to wash over her as she started to listen to the whispers in the back of her head, cautiously starting to open her mind to the gnawing hunger of the dark side. Before it could do anything significant, she reached out and gripped one of the broken stalagmites. With the Force, she slammed the rock into the scaled head of the beast in an attempt to disorient it. The stone impacted painfully, and, for a time, it appeared that she had succeeded in her task.
Ana charged forward, scraping her lightsaber blade against the ground before bringing it up in a vertical slash. The katarn slashed at her as she did so, putting a set of its claws into the harmful path of her blade. It passed through the flesh right at the base of the claws, slicing three of them clean off the beast. It shrieked in pain and reared up, slashing downward at her quickly out of desperation with its other claws. The darkness made it difficult to gauge her defense accurately, and she twisted a fraction of a moment too late. The beast’s other claws tore through her cloak and into her supple flesh, slashing downward right across her shoulder blade. She registered the pain immediately and warm blood began flowing down her back like a slow water fountain.
She shrieked in pain as well, moving with the momentum of her twist and skating to the side of the katarn. Instinctively, she thrust her hands forward, pushing the creature with her might into another set of rocks just to get it away. She backed away from it, her face twisted into a pained expression, and hoped that the loss of a set of digits and the push would keep it from charging at her right away. The pain was intense, and she immediately opened her mind up to the dark side, letting its profane touch dull it for the time being. She grimaced and groaned, her breathing going ragged once more as anger washed over her like a warm wave, just as it had done in the duel against Talak.
Talak didn't move from his position as the duel unfolded. Like echoes of the battle returning to him from afar, he could see images of the fight. The creature was in full battle with his student now, and only one of them would emerge from the cave. He hoped that it would be Ana, but there were no guarantees. If she held back from the dark side she would almost certainly fall.
This was the part Talak hated. He wanted to grab his blade and charge into the tunnel to help her finish off the creature, but he knew this was her duel and hers alone. To violate that would be to have taught her nothing.
The pain of injury radiated through the Force with both predators having been injured. Pain could be a powerful tool, though, if channeled properly. However, it was a fleeting strength. Its cost to the body ensured loss if victory wasn't achieved quickly.
You're holding back. Give into your fear and anger and finish it! he was all but shouting in his mind. He knew that if the battle weren't finished quickly she would succumb to her wounds. But he could feel that same rage beginning to claw its way free from her mind. She was nearly there, and hopefully after this time, she wouldn't forget it again.
Ana panted hard as she gained distance between her and the katarn. The pain in her back was excruciating, but the rising tide of anger and adrenaline pumping through her helped keep her mind focused on her foe. The giant lizard hissed and thrashed as it scrambled to its feet, slightly disoriented from the sudden repulsion. Ana had but moments to prepare herself for its counterattack. She brought her lightsaber up defensively, ready to react to the beast’s offense, when Talak’s voice screamed in her mind. The sudden mental projection made her eye twitch and she withheld telling him to shut up with great difficulty.
She refused to let him see her die here, alone in this cavern. The more she thought about how good yesterday felt, how strong she was despite her injuries, the quicker her breathing became. Her head pounded and her body began to feel heavy as that same hatred and anger began forcing itself to the surface. It was an insidious infestation that spread quickly, overwhelming her anxieties and desires to retrain herself from going too far. It brute forced its way to the forefront of her emotions, but she was beyond the point of protesting. Her eyes swirled with a dull amber glow as those dark emotions powered through her defenses. Despite the irritation it caused, Talak’s mental shouting provided her with the final catalyst she needed to embrace the darkness again.
The katarn roared and she met its roar with a cry of her own, her stance becoming more savage than it previously had been. They charged at each other and she shut herself off from the world, letting the Force dictate her motions. The beast lunged at her, swiping its fat, clawed hand at her midsection in the hopes of ripping her in two. Ana deftly dashed horizontally to the beast’s wounded side, narrowly avoiding the slash, and brought her lightsaber across to slice its hurt arm off at the joint. Her lightsaber carved clean through the limb and the katarn, having rested its weight on the limb, stumbled and collapsed as it struggled to get its other leg planted.
Without skipping a beat, she charged forward and slashed her blade in a backhanded upwards motion across her body at its rear leg, carving through the soft, unprotected flesh on the underside of its body with ease. The beast roared and fell to its side now that both limbs had been sawed off. Before she struck the killing blow, she took a step back, watching the creature writhe on the cavern floor. It had made her suffer, so she would allow it to live in agony for a moment or two. When at last she had finished watching it try to scramble away on just two legs, doing little else but drag its fat belly across the ground in a small semicircle, she stepped forward.
It hissed and gnashed at her ineffectually as she approached. With her free hand, she wrapped a vice around its head and held it in place with the Force. With her other hand, she thrust her lightsaber directly into its skull, searing beyond its brain and through the thing’s neck. Its body thrashed and twitched in its final moments before she let go of the head and pulled her lightsaber out. She scowled and stared at the beast, noticing but not paying attention to the blood seeping down her back, arm, and legs. The cavern grew quiet, and the only sounds she could hear was those of her breathing, the gentle hum of her lightsaber, and the pounding in her head.
Talak had pissed her off, so whether it was fair or not, he was going to take part of the credit for her victory. Anger leads to victory, so yes, he had done his job. That was his story and he was going to stick with it.
He could feel her rage unleashed. He could feel the dark side flowing through her and finally bending to her will. It was time for the fight to end. He could see her in his mind. She was filled with anger and paid no heed to the blood flowing freely from her body. He could feel the primal survival instincts of the katarn, but it wasn't enough to keep it alive.
Talak felt a moment of pity for the creature. He knew what helplessness felt like, and this particular being hadn't done anything to harm the dark siders.
Such is the natural order, he thought. The predators hunted and its death would feed a growing power within Ana. Such was the power of the Force. It couldn't be stopped and it couldn't be turned back. It was the Force.
He still didn't move. He knew she would be out shortly, and he had a feeling she had learned precisely what they had come here to learn. She had learned to bend the dark side to her will for the first time, and now it was only a matter of practice. She had learned what it meant to be both hunter and prey. Such was the reality of their shadow world.
Ana stared at the dead katarn for a moment or two longer before deactivating her lightsaber and turning to leave. The rage she felt subsided and was replaced by relief intertwined with anxiety as she remembered her wound. She stepped lightly across the broken stones and squeezed through the same narrow passage she entered through. A piece of bloody clothing caught on one jagged edge and tore off, and she left behind a smear of blood on the rocks she had to pass by on the way out. Once again, just like last night, she would leave behind a part of her as a result of this trial, but the question was whether it was something more than physical that she abandoned.
The return to Talak was swift, and he would hear her footsteps as she hurried back, the pain in her shoulder returning with vigor. When she caught sight of him still kneeling, she nearly stumbled over a stone in her path. Her hands scraped along the cave wall and she steading herself, but the exhaustion from the fight and her blood loss was beginning to catch up to her. She stopped a few meters from him before collapsing to a knee and hanging her head low.
”It’s dead,” she hissed at him between breaths, ”I bent it to my will and survived.” The last part of that claim remained to be seen, but she had emerged the victor tonight, regardless of her injuries and exhaustion. It felt empowering to have the dark side submit to her control for a time, and the result of her fight was proof of that. The beast stood little chance against her Force-imbued might, even if she was diminutive in comparison. Now she knelt on the ground, pale and bloodied, but alive.
She pressed against her knee to try and stand, grunting through clenched teeth as she did so. Her legs wobbled momentarily, but she steading herself by resting a bloodied hand on the wall, staring at Talak with her now-green eyes. Her other hand still clutched her lightsaber, albeit loosely. ”I want to go back to the top,” she sighed exasperatedly, her brows furrowing in the darkness. A nice bacta spray would be awesome right about now.
Talak didn't move as she drew closer. He could feel that the creature was dead and he could tell that part of her had changed with the endeavor. She had passed the test and was ready to join the wider ranks of the Sith Eternal.
His eyes opened as she came to a stop in front of him. It was dark in here, and he could barely see her in the shadows. She knelt down and he watched her as well as he could, listening as she spoke.
Good, he said. Despite her injury, her will seemed strong. He didn't sense the thin strings in the Force that typically accompanied someone who was hanging on by a thread of life. She was wounded, but she would endure. Even if a part of her was going to die here.
Then let's go, he said, pushing to his feet. She would be able to retrieve bacta above and she would have much to meditate on. She would need to cultivate that darkness within her in the coming days.
Welcome to the real Sith Eternal, he said, giving her a nod.