It was sometimes still surprising to learn that the ancient Sith had lived on a world not covered in red sands and lifeless deserts. Ziost was much like their homeworld: rocky, mountainous, and barren—but frozen instead of sweltering. Were it not for the secrets the planet hid, most Sith would completely ignore it. But Vex had a need for the secrets of this planet and its mountains. Specifically one. She stood before it now, gazing up at the massive stone doors that sealed the mountain's interior. To most it would look like the entrance to any other Sith tomb; but she knew the truth.
This was no ordinary Sith tomb. It was where those who were hopeful of gaining the acceptance of the long-dead Sith came to have themselves tested.
Those who came out would be capable of using the ichor that permeated the cores of worlds like Ziost and Korriban, twisting it into Sith magick. No one was sure what happened to those who failed because they never came out. When Vex decided to come and find this place, she knew she would need another with her. And who better to call to her side than the person who was best known for cracking prisons and delving into ancient mines. She stood outside the great doors, cape flapping in the freezing winds, as she watched Varyn arrive. Truthfully, she was happy to see the young Champion again.
She was eager to see how much he had improved since last they met. "Welcome to Ziost, Varyn," she greeted him through her mask. "I suppose congratulations are in order. I hear your promotion was accepted." @Phoenix
Varyn was becoming quite at home wearing his modified ISC armor, and its what he wore today. It served to conceal his face and provide things like temperature control. It really wasn't to be underestimated.
Varyn's arrival outside the temple left him looking up into the face of a massive door. He'd never actually been to Ziost before, but the planet had a dark presence as well. Not as strong as Korriban, but still...
He gave a light wave as he made his way over to Vex. Thank you. And I appreciate your endorsement. I'm sure it contributed to my success, he said. It was a small step in the Empire, but a huge change to his day-to-day life. He had more liberty to work independently, fewer classes, and less groveling. Really, it was the decrease in groveling that was the best part.
So... cultists and sorcerers, huh? he asked, looking up again. He hated it. It was all the things he'd been told to avoid in the Jedi, and he didn't even really want to be here. Except that it was a chance to report back, to learn something, and to gain some more trust. He'd be keeping his own mind at a safe distance, but even now there was a chill that crawled down his spine that had nothing to do with the planet's temperature.
Vex followed his line of sight back up to the large stone doors and with a short curt nod said, "Cultists and sorcerers. Sort of." She placed her hands together, as if she were in prayer, and then brought them apart, releasing a dense purple mist that solidified into a dark book. A grimoire, a copy of one of the books she had borrowed from the Mustafar library. "Witches would be more accurate," she continued. "According to this book, in ancient times, Sith witches made a pilgrimage here from Korriban to read the eldritch spells carved into the walls of the crypt and gain the permission of the Sith spirits to use their magic."
She threw a look back at Varyn over her shoulder. She didn't have to use the Force to tell that he was less than pleased at the idea of going inside. The boy's mask prevented her from seeing his facial expression, but years in a mask herself had taught her about reading and projecting body language. The newly-promoted Champion was tense. "I take it you're not very comfortable with the more arcane aspects of the Force?" she asked him, and as she shut the book in her hands, it returned to mist and vanished. "I won't lie. This place is probably going to be more dangerous than the prison we busted on Belsavis."
She walked a few paces closer to the door, swishing her hand through the air and conjuring a ritual dagger. These sorts of conjuration tricks—small books and objects—and a few measly illusions were her limits at the moment. But if she could survive this pilgrimage, a whole new aspect of the Force would open to her more fully. Though, if she was honest, she was less worried about becoming more powerful and more worried that continuing to use even the little magic she had mastered without completing the rituals inside would drive her mad.
She rather hated the idea of Varyn having to fight a crazed, possessed Sith witch.
Vex removed her left glove and dragged the sharp edge of her conjured dagger across the flat side of her palm. Then, she let the blood drip freely onto the offering pattern etched into the floor. It responded by bursting into red flames. The mountain quivered as the giant doors opened. "Oh, and one more thing," she said, as if she had simply forgotten to add it earlier. "This is a sacred place. You won't be able to use anything other than the Force inside." She nodded towards his lightsaber. "Best lose that. Wouldn't want you to end up eaten by some horrid abomination. The Sith dead can be... unforgiving." @Phoenix
It was official, Varyn hated everything about this. And he wasn't the type to not vocalize that either. Oh yes, Vex was going to know how much he hated it.
No, I don't like the arcane and I don't trust it, he said. That wasn't to say that he didn't use his mind, but these things - curses long forgotten and the undead - should stay dead. It wasn't that he was afraid of dying, it was that this place represented everything he fought to destroy. It was a pit of pure evil, and if he could bring it all down around their heads, he would.
The news that he wasn't to use a lightsaber inside was even more souring. He very seriously considered just up and leaving then and there, but... he didn't. Not yet anyway.
There has got to be a better way of learning magick than this, he said, turning toward her. She would know that he had an extremely unamused look on his face.
She slit her hand and let the blood drop below and the building seemed to come alive.
Screw this, he muttered under his breath as he headed inside. It was dark and even through the filters in his helmet he could smell that it was musty and the scent of death hung in the air.
Carvings of monstrosities and ancient people were the "pillars" holding the interior up.
Lovely, he said, looking up at the creepy statues.
Vex took a long look at the interior antechamber of the temple before replying to Varyn. The ancient structure resembled the stone architecture of the Sith tombs on Korriban... but there was something different about it. She couldn't put her finger on what just yet. "No," she replied at last. "There isn't. You're a Champion now, so there's no point in hiding from the truth. The dark side exacts a heavy toll from all of us. That is the price of its use."
As she spoke, she scanned the room. It was dark, but the light filtering in from outside made it somewhat easier to see the walls. Immediately, she noticed that they were lined with rusted iron sconces that had long gone cold. She remembered the lessons she had been reading in the grimoire these last few weeks. Imagined the heat within them, let it fill her up until she no longer felt the biting winds penetrating her armor. And when she flicked her hand in the direction of the walls, she pictured a match lighting. The sconces burst to life, flames leaping to attention and lighting the chamber.
"Magic works similarly. Those who seek to bend the Force to their will on a more primal level as the Sith witches of old did had to prove themselves to the dark side. Prove they were ready for and worthy of its secrets. They built this place as a ritual ground for doing just that." She had no sooner than gotten the words out of her mouth than the massive stone doors they had just entered through slammed shut. Clearly, lighting the sconces was the trigger that indicated one was ready to begin the tomb's tests.
There was no turning back now.
But they didn't leave this chamber just yet. Firstly, they had to find their way into the next room. There had to be a clue around here somewhere. But even if the exit were more obvious, there was a more pressing matter at hand. Varyn's fear. "I don't need the Force or to see your face to sense your fear, Varyn," she observed. Under her helmet, a small smile pulled up the corners of her mouth. "Don't worry. I'm not going to sacrifice you on an altar or put you in a boiling pot. Sith's blood, haven't you ever been in an a decrepit tomb before? I thought that was basically an initiation test into our Order at this point." @Phoenix
Yeah, well the price for it was too high. The lamps burst to light, and as they did he could sense there was no going back. Protective runes prevented it.
I have. That doesn't mean it's something I enjoy, he said. There was nothing to do now but press forward, though.
And it didn't have a "no lightsaber" policy, he said, revealing one of the reasons that he was so disdainful toward this situation.
He headed onward before arriving at the first door. On either side, carved into the wall and stretching out in either direction were long lines carved into the stone. They led down opposite hallways with an inscription that after Varyn translated it using his datapad from ancient Sith read "Two there shall be as the prophecy foretells."
I think we're supposed to each follow one of the arrows, he said.
Vex whirled towards the statues of the three Sith women on the far side of the antechamber. The disembodied voice had been that of a woman's—an old woman's, coming from everywhere. And yet somehow Vex had known that it was coming from the statues. Like an intuition. She responded by immediately pulling the Force into her hands. She couldn't use magic yet. Not offensively, anyways; but she could still use all of the ordinary Force powers.
Careful, girl, said another disembodied elderly voice, this one slightly different form the first. We may have no bodies, but you'll find us quite capable of handling any tricks you hurdle our way.
Vex lowered her hands, understanding dawning on her like shard of sunlight bursting over the horizon. "You're the Ladies," she said. "The three sisters rumored to watch over this place."
And you're another witch after our magic, Missy, one of the voices said. Is that boy using a datapad to translate our tongue? What has befallen the Sith?
Vex glanced back at Varyn. She too had noticed him referencing the device to translate the runes; but hadn't thought much of it. Most Acolytes were at least taught the Sith tongue because it was a language that most either refused to speak or simply did not know. The Galactic Republic of old had seen to that. But she supposed not everyone would know it. It was a rather annoying language to learn, and not every Acolyte had a use for it.
"Was he right?" Vex asked. "His translation?"
Yes. Two are needed for the tests below.
"And he'll be filled, same as I, in the final chamber?"
Perhaps. Perhaps not. If he completes our tests and opens his mind to the baptism that follows.
She didn't ask what happened if he didn't do either of those things. Vex simply had to hope that their answers put Varyn marginally at ease. He would not have to be baptized if he didn't want to. And if there were consequences for saying 'no,' the two of them could deal with those when they came.
She turned and followed the arrow Varyn had indicated to, choosing to take the right-most route, assuming he would take the left. The path wound down to a great ovular door. Before the door was a great stone saucer. A rusted, ritualistic dagger rested in the bowl. Vex picked up and examined the dagger and the door to which it no doubt unlocked. Runes had been etched into the pommel. Runes that read, simply, 'Pain can be a doorway to many opportunities.'
The rune for 'pain' was the same one carved into the door. Vex grimaced, knowing what she had to do. She took up the dagger and, gritting her teeth through the whole process, carved the rune into the palm of her hand. Pain blossomed, sharp and hot, and her blood spilled into the bowl. It burst immediately into blue flame and the door shuttered as it began to open. "These tests are designed to weaken us," she called out, hoping Varyn could hear her in his corridor. "To make us empty for the baptism to come."
I have a feeling, her mind supplied, we're going to learn a lot about ourselves in this place.@Phoenix
Varyn spun to the sound of the voices, eyes flicking around the room, but there was no one there. Unlike Vex, he didn't summon any power of his own. These voices - these beings - had all the power here. If they wanted the pair of Sith dead, he had a feeling there wasn't anything that either of them could have done about it.
I'll do what it takes to accomplish what I set out to do, he said. He doubted they cared about his justification for using the datapad, but it spoke to who he was as a person nonetheless. He'd heard that speaking ancient Sith was all but a requirement to learn magick. He didn't speak it, but he assumed Vex would have to.
Vex went one direction and that left Varyn to take the other.
He found a rune at the end, and though he didn't know what it said, he knew somewhere inside that he was supposed to touch it. So he did, and as soon as his fingers touched their curvature, he felt as though he was being crushed.
Whatever was above him was driving him into the floor and he pushed back, first with his physical strength and then with the Force itself. He knew that if he gave way he would be crushed to death under this invisible weight, but he held up for all he was worth.
And then it was gone. As quickly as it had appeared, it disappeared and he almost fell over from the sudden release of the weight he had been struggling against.
More than the physical, though, he could feel what seemed like weights on his mind. Scratching deep at the back of his mind in a place he couldn't quite itch.
It's lingering. Do you feel it? he asked as he made it back to the door again, which was now grinding slowly open like the sound of stone on stone.
"I feel it," Vex called out. The wound she had carved into her palm was searing. The pain disorienting.
She staggered into the next room and searched the stone walls for clues to the next test. Instead, they both would be greeted by a rolling mist that washed over them. When Vex seemingly emerged from the other side, she found herself in an even darker corridor. The sconces were still lit along the walls, but their light appeared to be swallowed by an oppressive darkness that crowded around the Sith Champion like a wet blanket.
She came out into a large cavern that looked like it had been carved into the roots of a mountain. A boiling cauldron sat at its center, and three young Sith Pureblood women were gathered around it. Closer, dearie, the eldest of the trio said. We're boiling a stew.
"You three cannot be here," Vex said. "You're dead. I'm... I'm seeing things."
The three sisters cackled in unison. Dead, yes, dearie—very dead indeed. But real, nonetheless.
And pass our test, you'll have to, said another, if you ever want to escape this place.
"I'm not trying to escape."
You'll not have our magic, either.
Annoyed, Vex thrust out her hand, intending to fry one of the witches with her Sith lightning. But the Force did not answer. She was powerless here. She tried again and again, but didn't even manage the barest crackle of power.
Your powers won't save you this time, dearie, the youngest and widest of the trio said. That's the problem with you. You are so ravenous for power that you always seek the shortcuts. The holocron on Belsavis. Begging the Empress for training. The witch cackled madly. You'll have about as much success with those methods here.
The middle of the three witches broke away from her sisters and began to circle the Sith Champion. Yes—no other ways out here, dearie. No way out except through.
A riddle of some sort? Surely, these trials were not a personality test. Except they were, weren't they? Vex had read the texts about this place. It tested the minds and the bodies of all who entered the temple. And as she had told Varyn before, the tests were designed to empty them out. To drain them. The searing pain still in her hand was proof of that. Which meant there was one way out of this illusion.
She eyed the witch's cauldron, took a single, meaningful step towards it, and plunged her still injured hand inside... @Phoenix
Dice Roll: Rolled for illusions. I'm thinking these are stronger than most illusions, not easily shattered, and should challenge either the character's morals or poke at one of their weaknesses.
I'm trying to escape, Varyn thought to himself, feeling this entire quest had turned into something he was extremely foolish to be taking part in.
Death is only a concept we have, isn't it? he said. There was no death, there was the Force. He honestly hadn't even realized that was what he was basically saying when he'd said it, but it was true. All one had to do was look down through history at the Sith and Jedi ghosts alike that still existed.
Varyn watched Vex try to blast the ghosts away, but with no success. As he reached out to the Force, he could sense it, but it was almost like it failed to heed his call. There was... there was no Light here. It was a place of pure darkness, and that darkness submitted exclusively to the trio.
There was no word that could express the unsettlement that Varyn felt at that thought, but he knew that becoming paralyzed would do him no good.
He watched Vex plunge her hand into the cauldron, but in a moment's flash it was just him alone. The cauldron sat in the room and only one of the trio remained.
Look into the mirror, she said, motioning to the cauldron.
He did as he was bidden, looking down into the writhing, boiling water before it became clear. He looked down into it and he saw himself standing atop the bridge of a ship. He was suddenly there with all the power of the galaxy at his finger tips. He brought justice to the galaxy. He maintained security for everyone. Righting wrongs and putting things the way they should be with a fleet of soldiers and ships at his back.
He was no longer in control of his body and he reached out and touched the waters, but the moment he did, everything faded. He felt a searing pain in his hand and a mark appeared that was entirely unnatural. Like a supernatural brand, it etched into his skin, still glowing without end like embers.
And just like that, he was flashed back into the moment. The here and now, feeling far more drained than he had before. And still the weight.
The pain was worst than any Vex had ever experienced.
Deep down, she knew she was in a powerful illusion; but her body didn't know that. She was up to her elbow in boiling water, her immediate instinct to jerk back to prevent burning herself any worse. Three sets of hands prevented her. You dare not remove your arm, one of the witches said. Not if you want to live.
Vex obeyed, though the pain was wild enough to have her on the verge of pulling her arm out anyways. She wondered why she had not passed out already. There was only so much one mind could take before it broke. Maybe that's their purpose, she thought. To break you.
Finally, the sisters pulled her back and away from the cauldron. Her armor there had been burned away, exposing her dark skin. But in place of burn marks, she saw more runes had formed as whelps on her flesh, spreading outward from the one she had carved into her palm. "What is this?" she hissed. Surely, it was not real. Once she broke the illusion, the armor on her arm would return.
It is very real, dearie, the eldest witch said. And there will be more to come. But rest assured—the pain is not for nothing. It will open doors for you, should you will it.
And then, just like that, they were gone, and their cave with them. Vex was back in the temple corridor. As the sisters had promised, the wounds on her arm were very much real. And, just as it had been with the last test, the pain did not fully go away. Vex felt as though she had a hive of deadly bees thrumming under her flesh. Such was the irritation that she nearly failed to resist the urge to scratch her skin off. But another pressing matter snapped her back to the present.
"Varyn?" she called out, suddenly feeling a rush of concern for him. She hadn't heard or seen him. She wasn't even sure how much time had passed in the illusion. "Varyn, are you okay?"
She contemplated the whelps on her arm as she proceeded slowly forward, searching for the newly-promoted Champion, dwelling upon the sister's puzzling words. The first rune she'd carved onto herself had opened a door. These had broken the illusion. She was starting to guess what the witches meant with their cryptic words.
Varyn looked down at his hand. The marking there had a profoundly strong effect on his mind. It was like everything was clouded and he couldn't think clearly. The dark side was stronger now than he had ever felt before and for no reason at all, he found himself absolutely irate. He wanted to lash out, to hit something or someone despite knowing there was no logic to it.
His eyes didn't tear away from his hand as he heard her calling out to him. He wanted to hit her. He knew it was irrational, but he wanted to run his saber through her. Cut her down for bringing him here for putting him through this.
You came here. No one can force you to do anything, his rational mind said, but it wasn't much use. He felt so angry his fist was trembling.
I'm fine, he said, but there was strain in his voice. No, what he really wanted to do was kill these crones. To cut them down for the torture they subjected people to just for their amusement.
He looked up again and then he looked back to the door. But... but the door wasn't there. For the first time since they had entered here, Varyn realized something, and with that realization came a certain liberty. For the briefest glint of a moment he felt the Light pierce this place if only to him, and he found that piece the Jedi always spoke of.
None of this is real, he said, looking up at her. A dream or a vision. They'll never admit it, but I know, he said. For all he knew, she wouldn't even be able to see it. Perhaps she - who plunged so willingly into the dark side - would be blinded or perhaps she would be able to see.
One moment he wasn't there, and then he was. Vex blinked beneath her mask, stunned to see him appear so suddenly despite the fact that she had just been looking at an empty corridor. It dawned on her then that she was foolish to believe the illusion was broken. This whole place was an illusion, the boundaries between reality and fiction laughably thin.
But thing that had been real was the sudden, nauseous wave of rage she had felt just before he appeared. It had not come from her. It had to have come from him. She studied him quietly for a second, wondering at the effect the tomb was having on Varyn. He had made it clear he wanted no part in the test. But it seemed he was being tested all the same.
"We shouldn't split up anymore," Vex said, as if they had a choice. The spirits in these walls clearly controlled their little sphere. They would not cede such decisions to her no matter how confident she was. "This place is designed to break your mind, and that's easier to do isolated."
She nudged him forward and they continued up the path several yards. The pain in her arm was quickly becoming maddening. Try as she might to dial it out, her skin felt bitten by the fangs of a thousand spiders, and it was everything she could do not to scratch her skin off. Her face beneath her helmet was screwed up into a ball of tight muscles representing every last fiber of control she was exercising over herself.
Her instincts were telling her one thing: the only salve that would relieve her pain now was the ichor of Korriban. And she could only get that at the very bottom of this tomb.
Up ahead, an enormous cinderblock door impeded their path. Vex had heard about these. There was one similar to the one in front of them on Malachor. It was designed so that they would each have to take turns lifting a stone while the other slipped beneath and raised the one after it.
Yet another test designed to exhaust them, and, for Varyn, to secure his complicity. "We have to trust each other," she blurted out upon examining the next test. "I know you hate me for bringing you here. You wear your emotions rather radiantly through the Force." She paused, realizing how much she was beginning to sound like Altair. "But neither one of us are going to survive this place if we give the witches what they want and kill each other."
She took a step forward, gesturing towards the first door with her injured hand. The weight of it was unbelievable and it took every ounce of her mental willpower to lift it high enough for him to squeeze under. "Go," she wheezed, her voice strained. "I promise, I won't let this place get you." @Phoenix
Agreed, he said when she mentioned not splitting up again. She was also right that this place wanted to break their minds, but the anger in the Jedi was beginning to subside if ever so slightly. Enough that his mind was no longer in turmoil.
No, was all he said to her comment about hating her. He didn't have the energy or willpower to argue with her right now. The explanations could come later if they actually made it out of here. He felt... exhausted. Already nearly spent.
We'll make it through, he said, though it wasn't clear if he was saying it more to her or to himself.
She lifted the stone and he didn't hesitate. Not because he implicitly trusted her not to betray him but because they needed each other. He slipped under the stone, having to crouch to get under and he lifted the next stone. He wanted to collapse down.
But that wasn't an option. He held it there while she slipped under and dropped the prior stone. And he would grab the next as they moved under.
Vex squeezed under the space Varyn provided for her while reaching for the next stone. Her mind felt stretched. The pain in her arm was reaching fever pitch. And the weight of the next cinderblock was almost too much for her. She ground her teeth together so hard her jaw hurt. She couldn't let it fall on Varyn.
Let go, child, a voice wormed its way into her head. The pain is too much. You are not cut out to be one of our sisters. But that does not mean you need to suffer.
"No!" Vex said outloud, uncertain if Varyn could hear the voices or it was just her. "I'm devoted to this. I won't give up."
Why do you toil, dearie? asked the voice of a second witch. Is the boy? Do you suffer for his sake?
Vex should have been chilled by how easily the answer came to her mind; but it was the true answer. She had come here for herself. She wanted this power for herself. She would protect Varyn if she could, though she knew he didn't need saving. She had seen what he could do. But none of this was for him.
"No!" she blurted out, unaware that she had finally succeeded in fully lifting the cinderblock, providing Varyn the space he needed. Only one more block door separated them from the next chamber. Then, finally, they could catch their breath. "There," she continued. "I answered your question. Now, let us pass. You've emptied us out enough."
Three disembodied voices laughed as one. Not yet, dearie. Not nearly enough yet.
Then, the voices were gone, and Vex was left to wonder what the hell else the spirits had planned for them as they descended even deeper into hell. @Phoenix
Varyn could feel the strain and couldn't hear what the spirits said to her, but he pressed on. There was nothing else to do. And as he raised the final block, certain that his strength would give out, he saw the other side.
He heard her scream "no" and as they both burst out the other side, stone slammed to the ground behind them. He was left panting and exhausted. A stairwell ran down and at its center was a red liquid that almost looked as thought it boiled.
Varyn stopped, looking down at it below them. He knew what it represented, and he knew he wanted no part in it. Even as he looked at it, though, he heard whispers in his mind.
Imagine the Sith you could destroy with that power. You could end injustice. Avenge your friends. Save your loved ones. Bring down the Empress and Dark Lord. It is real power.
The whispers in his mind became louder, and he almost wanted to claw at his own head, but he knew it wouldn't help. He'd made a mistake in coming here to the pits of darkness, and now they would extract their price.
He pressed the voices back, eyes flicking over to Vex from behind his helmet.
He'd never once considered trying to pull her from the path she walked. Trying to keep her from submitting herself further to the Dark Side, but maybe there was still a chance to save her. If only a small one.
Vex, if you do this, you'll be theirs, he said. I'd rather find my own way than be the puppet of some ancient spirit. They'll extract a price from you. One you'll have no choice in paying, whether you want to or not, he said. He didn't expect the warning to fall on listening ears, but still he had to try. Perhaps the Light would pierce even this great darkness.