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Zo stood with snow falling in her face. Staring up at the tower.
"I don't understand," she said."How did we end up back here?"The Whiphid didn't answer. This time, though, any response would have been gratuitous. She knew why they were here. Somewhere inside the paddock they'd lost their sense of direction to a Sith illusion, crude but effective, and now they were back out where they'd begun.Then she saw the figures.They were poised like carved grotesques along the uppermost walls of the tower, life-sized statues illuminated by the irregular stammering red glow from the top. At first, she thought that was all they were. Statues. Gargoyles.Except they were moving.Crawling, swarming over the others' backs like some hideously overgrown version of the flesh-eating boski beetles she'd seen aboard Tulkh's s.h.i.+p. And when the light caught their faces, she could see that they were-or at least once had been-human. Their uniforms, whichZo realized must be the black robes and tunics of the Sith acolyte, were tattered and ragged, and they billowed behind them in the screeching wind. She watched as a cl.u.s.ter of them began to clutch and lever their way closer to the tower's viewports. One of them threw back its head and began to hammer one fist on the surface with awful ape-like determination."What are they doing?"Tulkh grunted."Looking for a way in.""Why?"A scream came shearing down from above, the single compressed blast that she remembered from inside the supposedly deserted barracks, and the bounty hunter stepped back, hissing some obscenity under his breath."They..."Before he could finish, one of the things fell from far above, whistling down in front of her.She looked back at Tulkh.He was gone.
Zo jerked back and looked up again. Overhead, another of the things on the tower had detached itself and was plummeting downward like a renegade slab of darkness itself, some broken chunk of the universe, falling fast, still screaming, through the flying snow.The screeching thing slammed into the ground on all fours, and even though its back was to her, Zo could see the hole where its uniform was ripped open to reveal the architecture of exposed ribs and scooped-out portions of vertebrae. Snowy air whistled through the hole, and she saw clumped loops of intestine, blackened with a crust of dried blood, flapping alongside the torn fabric. Part of its lungs seemed to have been jolted loose in the fall, leaving one of them dangling, inflating and deflating raggedly like some small panting animal.Tulkh. It drove him down into the snow when it landed on him. And now it's trying to get him out.The second thing stalked over toward the snowdrift, its head slightly inclined, seeking an angle of attack. Zo heard another scream from above, and the two corpses in the Sith uniforms shrieked back their answering cry.Tulkh's arm burst up and out of the snow, holding his spear, and thrust it forward. An instant later the Sith-thing on top of him reared back, staggering blindly, the tip of his spear embedded in its face. Its right cheek was a suppurating cave-in of demolished bone structure. The long shaft protruded from its head like a clumsy oversized horn.Tulkh sat up, spitting snow."Juddering yank-wit," he snarled."This should teach you to jump on me."He knocked the thing backward with one foot, held it down, and jerked his spear loose from its face. Then using both hands, he brought the spear tip down hard, directly into the thing's already-demolished torso, hard enough to pulverize the spine, cutting it completely in half. The upper and lower segments squirmed listlessly in the snow, then fell still."Hold on." Breathing hard, he glanced up at Zo."Where's the other one?""I don't...""Down." And without waiting for her to comply, he fired the spear directly at her. Zo dropped to her knees, feeling his spear whisk through her hair, just across the top of her scalp. From behind, something landed on top of her, a landslide of meat, flattening the air from her chest, blocking out sight and hearing, driving her into the snow. She felt cold, clutching hands and the sticky-oily drip of partially coagulated fluids seeping down over the skin of her neck, where her collar didn't quite cover her flesh. It, too, began to scream, and then the scream broke off with a choked flapping noise. It was followed by a series of sharp chops, and the flapping stopped."Get up." Tulkh's voice, m.u.f.fled, came from above her.Zo dragged herself upright. The bounty hunter was standing in front of her. The severed head of the thing he'd just decapitated hung from the top of the spear at an almost jaunty angle, the tip jetting upward through its broken jaw to protrude from one empty eye socket. The gray lips sagged, dangling thick strands of ropy pink drool, and its one remaining eye wobbled back and forth, somehow managing to look both sly and stupid beneath the swollen lid."A teenager," Zo said."Seventeen, eighteen at the most." She watched the yellow eye."It's still looking at me.""They're dead." Tulkh shrugged down at the other body he'd left in the snow and shook his head."Forget about it."There was another klaxon-like blast of noise from up above. Zo looked up as far as she could.It was like a rallying call.The snow-choked darkness that surrounded the tower was suddenly filled with falling bodies, more than she could count. They came tumbling in twos and threes from the top of the tower, eyes blazing, teeth s.h.i.+ning, slamming into the ground in every direction, some almost close enough to grab her from the point of impact. They brought their screams with them so that they seemed to land on a cus.h.i.+on of sound.In front of her, Tulkh fell into a fighting stance."Jedi trained you to fight, didn't they?"She nodded once."Then fight them!"The Sith-things were all around them now. Their screams were constant, ululating everywhere, the air itself seeming to stiffen with their shrieks. Zo realized that she couldn't see Tulkh anymore.There's no way we can take them all.And then something else spoke.Yes, you can.Zo paused, brought up short by the voice. It sounded true and strong and clarion-clear. At first, she thought it was the orchid. Then she realized that she was hearing the voice of her brother Rojo.But that's impossible, he's nowhere near here...And it wasn't really Rojo-the words were coming from her memory, from the storehouse of encouragement that he'd given her in the past, when she'd been training at the Jedi academy. There had been times when she'd felt exhausted and hopeless, and he had spoken to her, encouraged her to stand up, to be strong and be true.Listen, Hestizo. The Jedi taught you much more than simply how to fight. They taught yon how to live. How to live within the Force, and uphold the bond that you share with it.With these words, Hestizo Trace felt a deep and voluminous feeling of rightness booming through her. At the Jedi Temple she'd heard others in the discipline try to describe the experience, saying it was like this or like that. But for her it was simply the experience of being alive, of wild and ecstatic belief, but amplified. All the enc.u.mbrances of frustration and anxiety fell away, filling her very essence with an entire universe of pure, sustaining energy.She looked around again and saw the Sith-things cras.h.i.+ng to the ground on all sides of her, raising their heads and opening their mouths.And everything.Slowed.Down."Get..." Tulkh was saying, one arm sludging back to pluck a meter-long arrow from his quiver, moving so slowly that he seemed to be underwater. Zo sprang up into the air like a woman moving through a gallery of wax figures. She came down just behind one of the Sith- things, grabbed its greasy, partially decaycd skull in both hands from the back, and wrenched it hard to the left. The cervical spine popped and gave with a crunch, the entire cranium coming loose as she ripped it free from the shoulders."The head was still screaming as she threw it underhand into the next shambling thing, hitting it hard enough to knock it back into the side of the tower. A third she grabbed by the throat and crotch, hoisting it up and pile-driving it straight upward in the direction it had come.Behind her, she heard the tw.a.n.g as Tulkh's arrow finally left the bowstring. Without glancing back, Zo readied out and lifted the flying arrow out of the air. She did this effortlessly, without a thought, like someone taking a book from a shelf. Behind her, across the depths of motionless snow-flakes, Tulkh stood with his lip still curling to form the last part of his first word while the five remaining Sith-things perched like statues barely moving in various aspects of attack.Springing forward, snapping the arrow in two, Zo buried the halves of the shaft in two of their skulls hard enough to impale them permanently together, face-to-face like horrific lovers melded for all eternity. She grabbed the arm of the grinning, mossy-faced Sith acolyte who appeared to have gnawed through his own lips and the interior of his mouth up to his hard palate. Twist. Pop. The arm came free at the elbow and she swung it down like a club on the skull of the walking corpse in front of him.She sensed events moving faster now, her hold on the situation loosening again. The snowflakes were coming unstuck from the air, starting to confetti down in reckless profusion. The Sith-thing that she'd flung upward earlier was finally coming back down. As the last of the things shambled toward her, she heard a dull whacking thump, the kindling-sharp crack of a dozen fractured bones.".. down!" Tulkh finished, only then seeming to realize that the arrow was gone from his bow and that the Sith-things were all on the ground now, torn apart. He looked up at Zo. His nostrils twitched."Leave any for me?"She pointed at the two bodies writhing in the snow between them. Tulkh drew his spear, raised it up, and rammed it down through them both. His eyes were blazing, saturated with red, almost glutted with pleasure, and there was no misinterpreting the grin that twisted over his face. Zo thought that she'd never seen any living thing, human or otherwise, extract such shameless pleasure from the act of killing.Hestizo... ?This time the voice of the orchid was unmistakable.Hestizo, come...She stopped and listened, felt herself smiling, overcome by a sudden surge of hope. From somewhere in the tailing snow, Tulkh was staring at her."What is it?" lie wanted to know."The Murakami," she said."It's alive!""I thought you said...""I know! But I can hear it! It's calling me!"Tulkh scowled, unconvinced."Where?"She peered back through the blizzard, pointing."The library."
It was a pleasure to burn.
The Neti saw it now-latched onto this simple tautology in a way that he had never grasped anything in his long life. Within moments after Scabrous had left him here with his mission, to call out to the Jedi, to summon her here, everything within his ageless wooden mind had begun to grow wonderfully, gloriously clear.And oh, it was a pleasure, a pleasure to burn.Clutching rows of holobooks with one long branch-hand, the librarian flung them into the rising flames. And the flames surged higher.After the Sith Lord had bitten him, Dail'Liss had endured a brief but agonizing spasm of physical weakness and distress, the pain compounded by the brooding fear that had been growing in his mind throughout the day. This was what he'd felt outside the walls of his sanctuary. The Sickness was in here now, it had violated the barriers of safety and security, and it was inside him-running through his roots, spreading through his branches and leaves.And the Sickness was laughing.At first that laughter had sounded so mocking, so bitter and cold, that the Neti had only cowered before it. Even the Sith themselves couldn't match the dark malevolence in its voice.Old fool, it had said, foolish old creature, your life has been wasted here among your books.The Neti had tried to respond, to tell it no, that these scrolls and texts were his life, but the Sickness hadn't shown the slightest bit of interest in that. It had more to say, and the Neti realized that he was a captive audience.It's not too late, the Sickness said. I have given you new life, and a new purpose, and yon will know it if you seek my face. Will you, old tree? Will you seek my face?What is it? the Neti asked. What is your face?Mine is the face of blood and fire.And with those words, everything changed. Looking around now at the contents of the library, the countless scrolls and ancient texts, the holdings and stacks that he had spent his lifetime acc.u.mulating here, organizing and cataloging for a thousand years or more, he saw them for what they were.Fuel.The flesh is our fuel, the Sickness counseled, and its voice was like thunder now, and the books an our fuel, and this planet is our fuel, all things an fuel, they exist only so that they can be consumed by us.Yes, yes...They are meat for the beast.Yes.And the beast is you.Yes.
From there, the Neti discovered that everything came to him with oily, gratifying case. Giving himself up utterly to the Sickness, he had started the fire without the slightest hesitation. There were years of fuel here, plenty here to burn. Within minutes, the central wing of the library was ablaze, and the seeping, maddened grin of the Neti shone with reflected orange firelight.Although there were no mirrors here, no means of seeing his reflection, Dail'Liss knew that the Sickness had changed him. Whole chunks of its once-proud bark had begun molting, dropping off in patches, its branches curling and blackening, dripping with thick, foul- smelling drainage that gathered around its roots. But the most profound transformation had happened within him. The Sickness had taught him. He had sought its face. And now the Neti laughed into the fire-its once-kind eyes were twisted now, tightened into knotty slits, its mouth coiled into a wide, salivating grin as it spoke out in the voice of the orchid.Come, Hestizo Trace. Hurry. Come to the library.More scrolls, more holobooks, tumbled into the lire. Sap boiled in the coals.I await your arrival eagerly, I wish to see you heir, I have urgent need of you...He stopped and turned, branches whispering.She was already on her way.
"Looked bigger on the holo," Maggs said, his voice m.u.f.fled by his hand.
He and Ra'at and the others were all standing in front of the wall, covering their noses and months. The end of the tunnel was filled with a smell so rancid that it almost transcended the definition of the word. In the single breath that Ra'at had inadvertently sucked in without covering his lips, he'd actually been able to taste it on the back of his tongue and the roof of his mouth. It was the horribly organic ripe-rot- reek of once-living tissue whose life force had evacuated it, leaving only a ma.s.s of stinking weight."What's it made of?" Maggs muttered."Looks like scavenged metal, debris...""Metal doesn't stink like this.""It's not just metal.""So what is it?" Kindra asked."Well..." Ra'at pointed at a white blade-like shaft sticking out."I'm pretty sure that's a s.h.i.+nbone.""Human?"Ra'at nodded.Hartwig swallowed. It took him a few tries."Gah.""Looks...," Ra'at started to say, and stopped. He was going to say partially digested, and decided that that observation probably wouldn't bring anything helpful to the conversation. If the expressions of the others were any indication, they were holding just this side of gastric mutiny."The exit's on the other side," Kindra said, and activated her light saber."Hold on." Ra'at turned and looked back. He'd felt something- not much more than a ripple in the fabric of the Force, but he'd long ago learned to trust such quirks of perception as tar more meaningful than anything gleaned by eyes and ears. He shot a glance at Maggs."Lightsaber. Now."Instantly Maggs joined him and Kindra, and Ra'at pointed silently into a pool of shadow just beyond a bank of ma.s.sive metal cases that looked as though they'd been turned into storage for droid parts. Something was moving visibly on the other side of the storage bins, and an instant later it came staggering into view."What in the name...," Hartwig said. It was the first thing he'd said since the confrontation with Kindra over the lightsaber."What's wrong with him?""What's wrong?" Maggs made a sick noise."What's right?"Ra'at recognized the Sith acolyte making his way toward them, but only barely-he was the fifth-year known as Rucker. The left side of Rucker's face had been ripped cleanly away to reveal the gleaming infrastructure of cheekbone and jaw. His gelid eyes quivered in their sockets like a pair of infected red eggs. He was naked except for a pair of black breeches torn open at the front, and the ma.s.sive bulge of his swollen abdomen was so badly distended that he could hardly carry it forward.He-it-stared at them for a long beat. Then it threw back its head, jaws wrenching open, and screamed."Kill it!" Hartwig said."What are you waiting for?"Still screaming, the Rucker-thing whirled and staggered toward the wall. Ra'at saw its month open even wider, the mandible popping loose from its hinges completely now, and the scream became a gargled gush as it disgorged a flood of reddish gray directly onto the barrier, its belly shrinking visibly as it did so.Watching helplessly, Ra'at felt a nauseating roundelay of terror swerve through him, like the shadow of some far-distant flying object- a latecoming refusal, despite everything he'd seen so far, to fully accept this monstrosity at face value. Am I seeing this? he thought. Am I really ?Still dribbling, the thing flung its hands up to pack the mess together, working it tightly into the wall. Almost despite himself, Ra'at thought of the cosm-wasps he'd read about, and the way they built nests by filling their bellies and regurgitating the pulp.We're pulp, too, he thought, and the smell hit him in the most vulnerable part of his own stomach, making his gorge rise. The only thing that stopped him from losing total control of his gag reflex was the even more potent realization that the thing was swiveling back toward them, moving much faster now."Take him down," he heard Kindra murmur, almost to herself, and she, Maggs, and Ra'at himself advanced in a single coordinated strike. Kindra sliced its head off with one sweep, while Maggs took out its legs. Ra'at's blow slashed down the front of the body, cleaving it almost perfectly down the middle. Less than five seconds later the Rucker-thing's corpse lay on the floor, drawn and quartered, still twitching."What happened to the others?" Maggs breathed, gesturing at the empty s.p.a.ce."Good question," Ra'at said."It's a dead end here. Where'd they go?""Forget it." Kindra turned to the wall."Let's get to work on this."Ra'at nodded but didn't move. His gaze went back to the steel droid bins, near the shadowy area where the thing had originated. He was still thinking about that scream it had let out, high and shrill, like the blast of a living air horn. What if it had been a signal to the others, some kind of...One of the steel droid bins fell over with a clang.And Ra'at saw.The students of the Sith academy of Odacer-Faustin were gathered here after all, had been here the entire time. They'd just been waiting in silence, watching."How many?" Maggs murmured."Ten," Ra'at said,"maybe twelve..."The silence exploded in a scream, and the things came spilling forward in one coordinated wave, surging into the open runnel like a single organism."Precision killing box," Kindra snapped."Right and left." She flicked a hand at Hartwig and Maggs."Get us through that wall."Ra'at broke right, as directed, letting his lightsaber lead him like a natural extension of his will. He pivoted and swung it down into the head of the first Sith-thing that he came to, splitting its skull down to the tonsils. Hut its hands flung upward blindly toward him like a pair of carrion birds, and it kept fighting. Turning, he came up from below and took out its legs just above the knees, leaving the thing in a slimy mess of its own dissolution. Two more came at him, and he chopped them down with an absolute economy of motion.To the right. To the left. Behind. Move. Move. Move.Ra'at unplugged his mind and let his training take over. It was just like the drills in Master Hracken's pain pipe. He'd already begun to see the fight through the mirror-bright lens of a warrior, reducing the battle to a sequence of movements, like a series of doors he had to pa.s.s through to get to the other side.The things were screaming around him again, that pulsing, deliberate scream. Like the smell, it blanketed everything and made his skull feel as if it was going to pop. As he chopped another of the things in half, a white-hot shock of pain sprang up through his right shoulder. His hand went numb, just like that, the last three fingers dead around the handle of his lightsaber, and he spun around, s.n.a.t.c.hing it from the air with his left hand before it hit the floor. Everything was happening with crazy tricked-out speed, and he both saw and didn't see the thing that had attached itself to his biceps, grinning up as its incisors raked his flesh. Blood splashed around its lips like tawdry lipstick.Kindra flashed into his peripheral vision and thrust her blade crosswise through the thing's upper thorax, slas.h.i.+ng it down in a meaty spray. Its jaws stayed locked onto Ra'at's arm, until Ra'at swung his own blade down on top of it, working left-handed, cutting the thing's head apart. Across the tunnel he glimpsed Maggs hacking his own hole through the group, his blade a fan-like blur, but the tide of bodies was too thick. If they kept coming like this, the things would have him cornered. Ra'at saw the black oval of Maggs's mouth shouting something, but he couldn't make out what it was.We're losing, Ra'at thought, and then: How can we be losing?A sudden crash of electricity exploded across the cave. Ra'at saw one of the Sith things go rag-dolling backward into the wall as if it had been jerked away on invisible wires. Now Ra'at could smell the ozone in the air, along with the unmistakable smoky odor of burned hair and skin.In front of him, Hartwig lunged into view, eyes bulging, his forehead a map of veins, but the look on his face was pure confusion.That's not possible, Ra'at thought, only Sith Masters can use Force lightning, how..."Stand back!" a voice shouted, and when Ra'at looked behind Hartwig he saw Master Hracken standing there. Hracken's arms were thrust out, with both hands extended."Down, now!"Maggs and Kindra had taken down three more of the things between them, and stepped over the bodies as the Combat Master flung his hands up and outward, hurling out streams of Force lightning. The tunnel shuddered, erupting with an electrical firestorm so intense that for an instant Ra'at couldn't see past it. He smelled his own scorched eyelashes. Even after he shut his eyes, the afterimage of the cave, the bodies, and the others lay imprinted on his corneas in bleeding plaid patterns of red and black.The Sith Master kept his hands in front of him, muscles straining, jaw clenched with fury. For a moment he disappeared yet again behind a vast crackling hood of electricity. It shattered the length of the tunnel with a ma.s.sive, ear-rending KRACK that rocked the entire structure to its foundation and sent loose particles of building materials skittering down the walls.Ra'at rubbed his eyes, waiting for what he saw to make sense. Part of the permasteel ceiling above his head was torn loose by electrical shock and dangled on a slew of cables. All around him, the floor was filled with smoking corpses, severed limbs and heads, still writhing as if trying to find a means of knitting themselves back together. Some of them were actively on fire. Others lay blind, their eyes cooked in their sockets. The heat from the Force lightning had literally melted off their skin, leaving webs and rivulets of liquefied tissue trickling from piles of blackened bones while the things s.h.i.+fted and squirmed, tried to stand and collapsed back into their own murk.In front of the foul-smelling wall, Hracken stood trembling. A tendon twitched and jigged in his jaw, and Ra'at saw that the Sith Master had bitten his lip hard enough to draw blood."Through this way," he said.Kindra pointed to the wound on Ra'at's arm."How bad is it?""Not bad.""Did one of those things do that to you?""I'm fine." Ra'at tore a sc.r.a.p of his pant leg loose and started hurriedly tying it around his upper arm as a makes.h.i.+ft tourniquet. But the blood was already soaking through the fabric, sluicing down his elbow- to his forearm with alarming eagerness. Kindra was looking at that, too, along with Maggs and Hartwig and Master Hracken, and Ra'at realized the power dynamic of the group had already s.h.i.+fted. As quickly as the battle had ended, he, Ra'at, had become a liability. Weight to be earned.Or cut loose.Out of the game, just like that."I can fight just as well with my left," Ra'at said weakly."You saw. You all did."Kindra just nodded, her face inscrutable, a map of unspoken strategy. Master Hracken said nothing, didn't even seem to be paying attention. None of the others spoke, either. Ra'at ignited his lightsaber again in his left hand and swung it down on top of the wall that the things had built here, slas.h.i.+ng deep into the pile of sc.r.a.p metal and congealed viscera, driving it home, carving out a ma.s.sive chunk of debris and kicking it loose. It dropped to the floor with a soggy clank."See?" he said.None of them commented. Next to him, on cither side, Kindra and Maggs also fell to work, cutting into the wall. Ra'at attacked his part of it as if he were still working alone. The smell of cooked meat was stronger than ever, and the pain in his right arm had become a dull, pounding drumbeat. He tried to put it all out of his head, to no avail. He thought of Nickter, how fast he had changed after Jura had bitten him. They would leave him behind, too, unless he showed them that he could still fight.Use the Force. Let the dark side strengthen you.Yet at the same time, something cautioned him about using the Force in his current state of mind. Something told him it was a bad idea. No, not just bad-a terrible idea. Who knew what he might be invoking if he summoned it now?What is your state of mind right now? a voice inside asked.Dying. I'm dying.No, that was crazy. It was a flesh wound. He'd lost some blood, yes, but he was young and strong. Trained. Conditioned. He'd suffered worse injuries in the pain chamber, for that matter, even today.What if those things were infected?Ra'at realized that he was too dizzy to stand. A clammy layer of sweat had already crept over his forehead, one or two drops venturing down the small of his back. His vision broke into a series of yellowing ocher bands and shadows, streaking through everything, staining it. He couldn't breathe. It felt as though someone had slammed a durasteel restraining band across his chest, the pain shooting down his left arm.Gasping, he fell to his knees. Shut his eyes. There was the desire to scream, but he couldn't muster a breath. Helpless, no longer having a choice, he invoked the power of Sith alchemy, the Force itself.Abide in me now. Fill me with the strength to stand and fight, to...It smashed into him at full volume, a vast black wave, torrential beyond all reckoning. Too late Ra'at realized what he'd invited into his brain.It might have learned to mimic the Force.It might have answered as the Force.But it was not the Force.Ra'at shuddered. The others were all staring at him now. It didn't matter. In a penultimate moment of clarity, he could actually see a skeletal black fist clamping over his heart, squeezing it until the muscle burst. He could feel his body shutting down, whole systems cras.h.i.+ng, blood pressure and respiration failing, as this contaminated version of the Force took over.Mine now, the Sickness said. Mine body and soul.Not killing him.Transforming him.Ra'at felt a dark, orchestral surge of relief rus.h.i.+ng through him. Released, he felt weightless, towering, G.o.d-like. A horrific smile gnarled over his face. He began to weep-big b.l.o.o.d.y tears of grat.i.tude running down his cheeks and dribbling off his chin.I can scream now, he thought. Oh thank you, I will scream and they will hear me, bless you, I can scream and they will know how it feels to hair an entire galaxy spread out like an open grave at my feet.The thing that had been Mnah Ra'at jerked its jaws wide. In that instant he saw, of all things, a pyramid, as black as the tide that had obliterated all conscious thought, a thing resting in a pair of pale hands.All at once he knew his place in the galaxy.He knew everything.And he screamed, and as he did, he saw Combat Master Hracken standing directly in front of him with his hands outstretched."Good-bye, Ra'at," Hracken said.Ra'at lunged forward. A white-hot explosion of Force lightning exploded through him, and he knew no more.
In the end, it took Tulkh less than a minute to realize how much trouble he was truly in.
The Whiphid had never believed in fate or any kind of mystic galactic justice: in his experience, whatever happened, happened. The innocent suffered while evil thrived, and to the victors went the spoils. Even so, when his own personal circ.u.mstances went from bad to worse, he couldn't help wondering if this were some kind of cosmic comeuppance for abandoning the Jedi at the library.She'd been so certain that the flower was summoning her from inside there. Maybe it had been, but Tulkh saw no advantage in going in after it, not when he could return to his s.h.i.+p and put this whole forsaken planet in the past. And so he'd let her go alone. After all, he owed the Jedi girl nothing. All right, she had saved him, but he'd saved her at least once as well and that made them even, didn't it?A new kind of darkness had risen up from the landscape now like some night within the night, so that the academy's snow-swept ruins glowed faintly in what little light emanated from within them. In the distance, Tulkh heard screams. They were not random, these screams- they rose up and swooped down, oscillating in the wind, rising from different directions.Yet it was the silence in between that made him the most uneasy.He thought about the things that had dropped from the tower, and how many more of them seemed to be out there now, screaming into the storm. Tulkh gripped his spear, checked his bow, counted his arrows, and listened to the screams grow louder-closer. With numbers like those, he couldn't help but wonder how many he would encounter on his way back to the Mirocaw.He didn't have to wait long.
He was detouring around a long, curved, hangar-like structure on the western outskirts of the academy's grounds when they came at him.Crus.h.i.+ng waves, one from either side, poured in on his right and left. Tulkh smelled them, heard their screams, the lurching stomp of their advance, seconds before they would have ripped him limb from limb.He'd already kicked open the hatchway behind him and dived inside, pivoting to get his first look at the high, brightly lit curved-rib structure that surrounded him. The students must have used this place, he thought-some wit had left a handmade sign painted over the entranceway. It read:WELCOME TO THE PAIN PIPE.Tulkh looked around. It appeared to be some kind of training simulation chamber, a wide, high s.p.a.ce full of elaborately machined devices that protruded from the floor and walls, even down from the ceiling-pillars, pinions, retracted coils, and battering rams. But that quick impression was all that Tulkh was able to absorb before the hatch burst open behind him, allowing the flood of bodies to come spewing into the s.p.a.ce with him.The Whiphid's evolutionary process had optimized his killing skills. Now he called upon the full extent of his genetic heritage. The hatchway forced the things to enter singly, and Tulkh brought the first and second ones down with arrows, firing point-blank into the s.p.a.ce between their eyes with enough force to embed their skulls directly into the walls. The arrows alone didn't stop them, but they held the things down long enough that he could charge forward and gouge their heads off with his spear. The headless corpses dropped to the floor with a gurgle while the heads hung in place from the walls, gnas.h.i.+ng and twitching and rolling their eyes like hideous masks from some dark gallery of death.That was when he'd looked around and realized how many more had come in.Dozens.Teenage Sith zombies, Tulkh thought-how in the moons of Bogden had it all started? Every so often, the universe must just get bored and decide to really cut loose. Like the corpses that had come after them from the tower, most of them had already started to rot. Others were missing whole pieces of their faces and outer musculature, turning them into walking pathology lessons without the common courtesy to lie down and die. All of them surged forward with the lurching, eager speed of things whose appet.i.te-for flesh, or for death-would never be fully slaked.Tucking his spear into the quiver on his back, Tulkh jumped for one of the overhead support struts and swung himself up onto it, s.h.i.+mmying toward the control booth that he'd noticed up above. Anything that could climb to the top of the Tower and crawl over the gla.s.s would have no problem scrambling up one of these girders. But he had noticed something else up here, and although it probably wasn't enough to tip the battle in his favor, it might give him the edge.And the edge was all he needed.Tulkh punched one claw through the booth's viewport, gouging out a hole large enough to drag himself through, and turned around to face the wide, curved instrumentation panel that he a.s.sumed controlled the entire training facility below.The dead things were swarming in even more thickly now, crawling all over one another in an attempt to move forward. Some of them had already started trying to grapple their way up into the booth after him. Tulkh readied for the simulator controls, found one labeled SWING- ARM 17-155, and hit the switch.The simulator responded instantly. Two ma.s.sive pillars swung down from either side of the ceiling, slamming straight into the swarm of bodies, smas.h.i.+ng them aside and sending them flying. Tulkh grunted, not entirely satisfied with the result. This wasn't his favorite way to hunt, but the numbers were against him and he needed every advantage he could marshal in his defense. He activated another sequence, choosing one at random. Slots opened up along the ceiling, spitting loops of razor wire from both sides of the room, stretching out as the things staggered and stumbled and caught themselves, screaming.Tulkh glanced back down at the controls. The monitor screen to his right was glowing bright green, outlining the entire suite of possibilities for him in a clean, ray-traced diagram, the cursor awaiting its next command. Tulkh chose one called PINJI STICK and tapped the EXECUTE key.The right half of the floor whipped open and a spring-loaded row of gleaming hydraulic rods burst up from below, where-by all rights- they should have rammed the Sith student things straight backward, or possibly impaled them through the feet.But something else happened instead.The things jumped back, en ma.s.se, just a split second before the rods had burst up. It was like watching a single prescient organism reacting to a perceived threat. They moved with unbelievable speed and agility, as if they'd known exactly what Tulkh was going to do, even before he'd known he was going to do it.Tulkh gaped down in disbelief.Are they using the Force? Or their version of it?The question didn't have time to percolate long in his mind. Now the things were swinging up the pendulum arms that Tulkh had released, dodging the obstacles from both directions-they knew he was up here, and were intent on finis.h.i.+ng him. Even the ones that he'd knocked aside had already recovered, and they seemed to have done so with unprecedented speed. Tulkh's frown deepened. For the first time in memory, he actually felt his confidence waver.He took a step back, evaluating his options, and felt something strike his shoulder from behind. Pivoting, already prepared to rip apart whatever had snuck up behind him, he saw the bright metallic eyes fixating on him from the chromium casing of their processors. It recoiled with an electronic burble of surprise, and Tulkh realized that he was looking at Scabrous's HK protocol droid."What are you doing up here?""Response: Excuse me, sir, I certainly didn't mean to disturb you, I merely...""Shut up.""Acknowledgment." The droid's yellow photoreceptors swiveled with recognition."Tulkh the Whiphid?" The droid's vocabulator expressed a mixture of surprise and confusion."It was my impression that Lord Scabrous already dismissed you quite some time ago. Did you have difficulty finding the exit?""You could say that, yeah.""Clarification: It's just across the..."The Whiphid let out a low growl, grabbed the droid's arms, and pulled it to the viewport overlooking the simulator below."Look," he said, pointing:"You see what's down there?"The droid's head pivoted toward the open s.p.a.ce below, seething now with hordes of undead Sith students. They were all attempting to scale the support struts, swinging their arms up. The closest ones were near enough now that Tulkh could smell them."Response: Indeed sir," the droid said dutifully,"but I hardly see what...""Your boss is the reason why all this went haywire in the first place.""Query: I tail to see why...""Here's why." Tulkh wasn't bothering to look at the HK's photoreceptors anymore. His attention was completely devoted to the components on its breastplate."You're an HK model.""Confirm: A Czerka Corp HK series, yes, sir, but...""You know what HAT stands for?""Response: It's an industry term, sir, but...""Hunter-killer."The droid made a scandalized chirp."Correction: Respectfully, you're mistaken, sir. I am a protocol droid. Proficient in millions of galactic languages and...""Czerka built you special to get around local laws banning a.s.sa.s.sin droids." Tulkh was gritting his teeth now."Those flip s.h.i.+elds over your eyes-that's a combat modification. When Scabrous brought you here, he put a restraining bolt on you, but if I do this..."He yanked the bolt off. There was a brief, hissing sizzle as the HK's processor muzzle shorted out. Tulkh felt his skin tighten, his fur standing on end. He cast a grim look at the droid."Remember now?"The HK didn't bother to answer. Weapons slots opened on its forearms to reveal an augmented laser array bristling from both limbs. A second later the control booth came alive with blasterfire. The Sith-things recoiled, spun backward, pitched, and pivoted off their feet by what appeared to be a nonstop fusillade of hot plasma. Somewhere to the left, Tulkh ducked as the HK completed a full circle, laying down a line of fire so fast and dense that it seemed to create a single ballistic wave. He jerked his head back as a laser bolt ricocheted off the wall, then bounced past him in the opposite direction."Stand aside," the droid said, having apparently abandoned its customary method of speech along with its former programming."What..."Its left leg rotated outward to reveal a wider-barreled object extruded from the port. A ma.s.sive jet of blue flame roared straight across the room, igniting several of the Sith-things, and they staggered, blazing, screaming as the flamethrower erupted a second time.Through the sea of burning corpses, Tulkh could see a clear corridor to the exit at the back of the simulator. One of the Sith-things was slas.h.i.+ng its way toward him, jaw sagging hideously, its face on fire. Tulkh yanked his spear from where it was still strapped against his back and rammed it as hard as he could into its wide-open mouth.Jerking the spear back, the Whiphid glanced in the opposite direction."Where arc you going?" the droid asked."Back to my s.h.i.+p." Tulkh was already halfway across the floor. He turned and looked back at the droid."You staying here?""Here? With them?" The HK didn't hesitate. It followed the Whiphid down through the simulation chamber, out of the pain pipe, and into the snow.
35/The Anatomy Lesson
"It's cold," Maggs said, s.h.i.+vering and looking around as if for verification from the others."Feels good though, doesn't it? After all that?"
Kindra didn't say anything. They had just stepped our of the tunnel, she and Maggs and Hartwig with Master Hracken silently bringing up the rear. Hartwig had taken Ra'at's lightsaber, scrubbing the handle with the first handful of snow he could scoop up, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get the stain to go away."Are we gonna talk about what happened back there?" Maggs asked."What," Kindra said."You have something you need to say?"They all turned around to look at Hartwig, standing several meters behind them, still inside the tunnel so that half his face remained in darkness."With Ra'at," Maggs said."He...""Ra'at got turned," Hartwig said, emerging into the vague gray glow of the twilight air, breath pluming from his lips. It was the first time he'd spoken since they'd chopped their way through the barrier, and his voice sounded different, thick and strange."He changed into one of them, and Master Hracken boxed him. And I got his lightsaber. End of story.""What about us?" Maggs asked."None of us was bitten, as far as I can tell." Hartwig looked around as if waiting to see if the others would contradict him."You okay?" Maggs nodded."Kindra? You have something you need to come clean about?"She didn't look around."Kindra?"Silence."Hey." Hartwig walked over, pus.h.i.+ng past Maggs, and grabbed her shoulder, swinging her hard toward him."I'm talking to y..."Kindra snapped around on him, her eyes brittle pellets."I'm clean.""You sure?" Hartwig hadn't lowered his hands."What's that on your neck?""Very funny.""You think I'm joking?" He waited while Kindra reached up and touched her throat, perhaps a centimeter lateral to the jugular. She winced at the open wound, drew back her hand, and looked at the scarlet stain on her index finger.Standing apart from them, a little distance away. Master Hracken watched without saying anything."Just a cut," she said."A piece of the electrical fixture...""You don't know that," Hartwig said."You don't think I'd remember being bitten?""I think"-he held her gaze-"that there was a lot of infected blood flying around. And if some of it splashed in there...""Then I'd already be screaming and ripping your guts out," Kindra snapped,"which I'm not... no matter how much I'd like to. So if you're done casting baseless aspersions...""You were ready to kill me back there over a lightsaber," Hartwig said."Seems to me that it's in the group's best interest if we took you out of the equation now." He glanced at the Sith Master."Right, Master Hracken?"Hracken didn't have a chance to reply before Kindra cut in again."Is this really what you want?" she asked Hartwig, blade ready."We've sparred enough times in the training arena. You know how it's going to go down."Hartwig didn't answer, just stared at her, shoulders rising and Killing with every breath, his face betraying no trace of emotion. The wind flung another thin gust of snow between them, and Kindra felt the cut beginning to ache on her throat."Make a move," she said."You first.""Wait," Maggs said."n.o.body knows what the incubation period for this thing is, right?"Hartwig didn't take his eyes off Kindra."Seemed pretty fast with Ra'at""Yeah, but Ra'at got tagged firsthand. Maybe accidental exposure takes longer." Kindra could hear Maggs's voice growing more confident as he spoke, warming to his own argument."Point is, we don't know. So before somebody does something stupid, how about we all take a step back, strip down, and make sure n.o.body's got any open cuts that could have gotten contaminated blood in them." He looked back at Combat Master Hracken, who still had not spoken."What do you think?"Hracken nodded."Yes," he said."Strip down?" Kindra's expression had already gone from bellicose to incredulous."You're asking me to take my clothes off?""It's the only way to be sure." He glanced at Hartwig."You agree to that?""Why not?" Hartwig shrugged."I've got nothing to hide." He yanked off his tunic and the uniform s.h.i.+rt beneath it, then shoved his pants down to his ankles. In front of him, Kindra had already slipped out of her coat, keeping; her bare arms crossed over her chest, gazing back defiantly at the others."That's as far as I'm going."Hartwig rolled his eyes and turned back to Maggs, who stood s.h.i.+vering in his shorts and boots, clutching a wad of balled-up clothes against him like a small child that had gone to sleep. Behind him, bare-chested, stood Master Hracken. The Combat Master had also stripped to the waist, without being asked, revealing a broad, well-muscled physique hardened by scar tissue, strange tattoos, and decades of intense physical conditioning. His head was bowed, as if he was inspecting something in the snow."Looks like we're all clean," Hartwig said."So I guess that means we..."Master Hracken raised his head. The crooked slash of his grin on his face seemed to cut almost diagonally across the entire width of his head. Blood had already started streaming down on either side of his mouth where he'd gnawed his own lips open.There was nothing human in his eyes.With a shapeless noise that was half shout, half gasp, Hartwig fumbled for his lightsaber and dropped it in the snow. He bent down, scrambling to pick it up, but succeeded only in pus.h.i.+ng it deeper.In less than a second Hracken was on him. He grabbed Hartwig's head and buried his teeth in the student's throat, ripping out a mouthful of tissue and cartilage. Kindra watched wild, looping parabolas of blood spurting high in the air around him like a miniature fountain that had been turned on directly beneath Hartwig's chin.Hartwig staggered backward, hands up, blinking at the Sith Master as he whipped around to face him. His nerves were gone. Hracken's hands flew up, preparing to fire off a burst of Force lightning, when its head toppled sideways off its shoulders and rolled, still spurting, into the dark snowdrifts.Hracken's decapitated body collapsed, seizing and twitching, andMaggs saw Kindra standing behind it. She gripped the lightsaber in both hands with absolute steadiness."Thanks," Maggs breathed."Forget it." She walked over to Hracken's still-snarling head and chopped it straight down the middle."That one's all yours."Maggs looked back around at Hartwig's corpse, its ripped-open throat spilled out sloppily across the snow like a losing hand of pazaak. The thing was already starting to come back. It was squirming in place, s.h.i.+fting its arms and legs, preparing to sit up again. Listless bubbling and gurgling sounds issued from the hole in its neck."You going to take care of that?" Kindra asked.Maggs rook a breath and swung his own lightsaber down on Hartwig's corpse, carving its torso open from throat to groin. Gazing down at him, Kindra realized she could see the black, still-pulsing gristle of the thing's dead heart laboring stupidly onward, grasping for one more beat. What she felt more than anything at that moment was revulsion at the human machine's mindless commitment to endure and endure and endure."Is it down?" she asked.Maggs didn't answer."Is it down?"Maggs went to work with the lightsaber again, and this time it took the Hartwig-thing's head off at the shoulders. The head dangled for a moment on one remaining ribbon of flesh, then dropped away. A few listless dribbles of boiled blood leaked like tears from the sheared-off arteries, black as used oil, before they cauterized completely."Now it's down," he said.Kindra nodded but kept her own lightsaber drawn."What now?" Maggs asked."I'm leaving," she said."You're staying here."Maggs blinked."What?"Kindra's lightsaber slashed out from the back, catching him across the hamstrings, shearing through tendons just above the ankle.Maggs shrieked and slipped, arms pinwheeling, all balance gone. He was screaming at her, asking her why she did it, what did she think she was doing, but by that time Kindra had already turned and started running-not walking, but running-as fast as she could in the opposite direction."Wait!" Maggs sat up and tried to stand, but his lower legs refused the job, the severed Achilles tendons dumping him forward again into the snow.When he lifted his head up, he heard the noises coming up from behind him.No, Maggs thought, no, this was all a mistake, just a big mistake...He looked back, and they fell on him.
After twenty minutes of wandering through the library. Zo had to admit that she was utterly lost.
At first, the voice of the orchid had drawn her onward as she'd entered the high doorway and followed the main concourse through room after room, some with ceilings so high that she couldn't see them, others so cramped that she had to bend down just to pa.s.s through. Irregularity was the only design here, symmetry fractured by age and weather. With every step, the subterranean air had grown steadily colder, and Zo was acutely aware of traveling not just forward but downward, as though the library's depths sank without boundary into the very core of the planet. She could feel the air in her lungs, and taste the oxydized flavor of metal shavings. The only remaining light came from the torches and lamps mounted high overhead; the only sound was the crunch of her footsteps. Even at these depths, snow had found its way inevitably through the cracks and broken places, stirring wraith- like and restless in the low whine of the wind. When she looked back, site saw her footprints leading down the hallway, one lonely set of tracks gleaming in the torchlight.Who lit these torches, she wondered, and who kept them burning?Tulkh had refused to follow her here, leaving her to go alone. When she'd confronted him about it and said, Let me get this straight, you'll walk into a Sith Lord's tower, but you won't go into a library, he'd merely nodded and planted his feet, telling her that he knew a trap when he saw one. Zo had protested-she knew the sound of the orchid's voice calling to her-but now she was beginning to wonder if he was right to stay away.The orchid would never deliberately put you in danger. You know that.Yes, she did. And yet...Up ahead, a vast cathedral-ceilinged room spread open, flickering in the light of a few spa.r.s.ely placed torches. Faintly, she thought she smelled smoke, and burning flimsiplast. She looked right and left, allowing her attention to be drawn upward and upward farther, straining to encompa.s.s the shelves and their apparently endless holdings. Another gust of wind whipped through the open s.p.a.ce, stirring the old, dry snow that lay here and there in random acc.u.mulations along the tiled floor.Zo paused. She hadn't heard the voice of the orchid in several minutes. Not for the first time, she wondered if she could find her way back if she had to. She supposed that she might be able to follow her own tracks back out, if the draft from the cracks in the walls hadn't already smoothed them away. There were plenty of hiding places here if she ran into trouble-but what if the trouble was waiting for her in one of them?Something touched her face, cold and knowing.Zo froze and held her breath, staring into the empty s.p.a.ce immediately in front of her nose. There was nothing visible there... yet she felt its presence, an unseen leather-gloved hand stroking her check, running over the length of her jaw and down to her throat, searching out her soft areas with the intimacy of a lover. Her chest squeezed and clamped shut over the skittish tremolo of her pulse.A noise behind her sc.r.a.ped through the silence, very close.Zo whipped around and looked back up the way she'd come. Her tracks were still there, leading away into the distant edge of vision...And now she saw them.A second set of tracks, running parallel to hers.The prints stopped, perhaps ten meters away, and cut sideways, disappearing behind a sagging half wall, its dimensions buried in shadow. Within its depths, something was standing, watching her. Zo felt the weight of its presence settling over her, anchoring her to the spot.Tensing to run, she saw Scabrous step out from behind the wall and into the half-light, so that almost exactly half his face was illuminated. Zo glimpsed the gem-edged hardness in his eye. His face was a mottled quilt of gray flesh and exposed muscle, and the clenched grin on his face was somewhere between madness and rigor mortis. He'd been infected, she realized-yet somehow he'd managed to stave off full transformation, at least temporarily. Her gaze fell to the pack of medical equipment, monitors, tubing, and depleted reservoirs of blood that dangled from the angular arch of his shoulders. This new version of him looked gaunter but somehow more imposing, as if the bones inside his body had swollen and remade him from the inside out."Hestizo Trace," he said, extending one hand."It's good to see you again. I hope you won't bother trying to run."She opened her mouth to speak and realized she couldn't breathe. Scabrous gestured with one hand, and she felt herself yanked forward, down the corridor, and into his grasp. Within seconds she was so close to him that she had to look up to see his face."This library," he said,"is the oldest part of the academy, older even than the tower itself. It was constructed over a thousand years ago by a Sith Lord named Darth Drear. He founded the academy, back when the planer itself was young. The ancient writings tell about how he used his first students as laborers. For hundreds of years, the Masters at the academy believed that a good many of those students died down in these very chambers, using the Force to move hundreds of tons of snow and ice and dig out these corridors and chambers to houseDrear's vast collection of... specimens. It was thought that Drear worked the students until they died from exhaustion." He smiled without the slightest gleam of humor."The true genius of the structure lies beneath it. Under these floors. Drear built himself a secret temple, where he practiced the rituals and rites of the ancients, encoded in the Sith Holocron."Zo's lungs began to unlock enough for her to sip in a small breath. Grow, she called out to the orchid, oh please, if you're there, if you're there at all, grow, grow in him, grow now...But there was nothing."When I first discovered the Holocron," Scabrous said,"I did not fully understand its protocols." He gestured to his face, at the horror of its ongoing decay."But I understand them now.""What do you want from me?" Zo asked."All." Scabrous's cheeks sucked in, and he licked his lips so that she could see the dead gray surface of his tongue like a lizard coiled against the yellow stones of his teeth."Darth Drear wrote that he had found an elixir for staving off death itself, the ingredients of which he recorded in the Holocron-including, of course, your beloved orchid. The mixture was complete in and of itself, with a single flaw..." He gestured at his own face."The inevitable dissolution of the tissue. It struck immediately upon exposure, spreading first through the brain, where it drove the victim into a state of homicidal madness, and then through the rest of the body, shutting it down. The flesh would remain animate, but insensate-living only to hunger, to feed and kill.""If you knew all that," Zo asked,"why would you ever try to recreate the experiment yourself?"Scabrous's grin seemed to dangle from the sides of his face, a prehensile thing all its own."Before he died, Darth Drear wrote of the final stage of the process-the step that he himself was never able to achieve. He dispatched his sentries to a nearby planet to abduct a Jedi and bring him to the secret temple underneath the library. After ingesting the elixir, in the final hours before his body gave in completely, under exactly the right circ.u.mstances and conditions, Drear planned to use a ceremonial Sith sword to cut open the Jedi's chest while he was still alive, and cat his heart. Only then, with that final infusion of midi-cholorians still warm from the Jedi's blood, would the decay process be held back-granting the Sith Lord his ultimate immortality."Zo stared at him. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe."Unfortunately," Scabrous said,"the sentries foiled to bring back a Jedi with a suitable quant.i.ty of midi-cholorians in his bloodstream before Drear's disease overtook him. But tonight, with your a.s.sistance, I am in the unique position of being able to fulfill that destiny personally."Zo felt something curl around her arms, snapping them back with a sharp jerk and forcing her shoulder blades back. Thick green vines had looped over her elbows and squirmed up her sides. She craned her neck to the right, and when she looked around, she saw them.The dead ones: the corpses that she had faced on the rocky overhang, outside the tower. Their heads were still gone, blown off their shoulders. Instead, the riot of catastrophic vegetation that she had coaxed from inside their skulls had grown more profuse since she'd seen them last, grown with utter abandon. These were the runners and vines that had ensnared her now, stretching from the stumps of their necks, dozens of slick green ropes gripping her arms and holding her fast.As Zo stared at them, she saw, to her immeasurable horror, that the stems were topped with dozens of tiny black orchids, budding everywhere. In her mind, she could hear the flowers hissing and shrieking, crackling hysterically, hungrily, insanely. They p.r.i.c.ked her arms like thirsty syringes, questing after her blood.No, she thought. No, no, please..."You grew them," Scabrous said."How lovely that they recognize you."The headless, vine-stricken corpses pushed in closer, groping and shoving, until Zo realized that she could smell them. They stank like a freshly disinterred grave, full of black dirt and mold and rotten meat. She felt their cold skin pus.h.i.+ng against her even as the vines constricted tighter around her arms, squeezing, twisting, pinching her skin.Scabrous stepped forward, shoulders rising up until he towered over the things.His mouth opened wide and he screamed.His breath was fetid, the breath of a thing that had already died and was decaying from the inside out. Zo felt the things responding immediately to the scream, recoiling, pulling her back with them. And when they screamed their response, it was a terrible, throatless noise that came throbbing up from their severed necks, vibrating up and out of the stalks, one solid blast of high-pitched sound that rose, s.h.i.+fted frequency, and dropped again, a message composed entirely of high- pitched, almost ultrasonic oscillation.They swung her around.In an act of pure desperation-some part of her must have already known she would fail-Zo tried to use the Force on them, tried to reach out and connect with the plant-presence inside them. At the instant she made contact, a sharp jolt of toxic energy crackled through her, slamming through her brain like an ice ax and making her cry out loud. The inner landscape of her eyelids swirled with sere colors, shades of burnt bronze and anemic yellow.The vines were dragging her down the corridor of the library, across the cold floor. Zo's eyes widened. Up ahead, a great rectilinear hole gaped open in the floor to reveal a shadowy pit whose depths seemed bottomless, even from here.Yet there were strange lights below, s.h.i.+mmering from deep within.And she knew where she was going.Under these floors. Drear built himself a secret temple, when he practiced the rituals and rites of the ancients...Scabrous gestured, and they pulled her down.
37/Some Kind of Nature
Trace crossed a long desolate stretch of nothingness between two high featureless walls, the night's storm barreling down over him like a demon with a debt to collect. Up ahead-still perhaps a hundred meters in the distance-stood the tower. He was almost there.
Despite his urgency, he knew he had to move more carefully now. Since the death of the Sith Blademaster, he'd seen no more of the things like the one inside the wall, but he'd known they were there. Extrasensory perception, telemetric ability, was no longer necessary. He could bear them screaming. And the screaming got louder the closer he came to the tower-more intense, somehow. And hungrier.He had never seen anything like the abomination that had ripped the Blademaster apart: a living corpse, a dead thing whose flesh and muscle still moved, even as it decayed before his eyes. He sensed their presence around him, below and behind the unseen temples and stone outbuildings. Could a lightsaber dispatch a creature like that, or would it merely tear it into individual pieces that would, in turn, continue to pursue their prey?And what about Hestizo? Had the things found her as well?He stopped again, stretching out with his feelings, the Force casting a wide psychic net in search of any sign of his sister, but it retrieved nothing. He still believed that she was here-perhaps in the tower, perhaps not-but the silence within him was far more disturbing than the screaming in the distance.Keep going. You will find her. You will.For another ten minutes, he scrambled forward. He took another step and faltered again, raising his head slightly, sniffing the air.He smelled smoke.Clamoring to the top of a broken pillar, he looked in every direction until a glint of firelight in the distance caught his eye, a flickering orange glow inside a vast half-sunken stone structure, perhaps a quarter kilometer away. Trace watched it for a moment. He wanted to be sure. By itself, a fire would have meant nothing, especially on a planet of ruins where the Sith ruled and the dead had been restored to life.But he also suddenly felt his sister's presence inside.She's in there. She is.Leaping down off the broken pillar, Rojo Trace began to run.
Twenty seconds: the time it took him to reach the entryway, shoving his way through, unmindful of the darkness, the snow and clutter, and the thickening stink of smoke. Loose objects lay strewn randomly around the floor-books, scrolls, unidentifiable debris. Rows of low- stone tables like marble slabs. It was some type of vast library. He kept going.Hestizo, it's me, are you there? It's Rojo. I'm coming, I'm...An arm hooked him from behind, lurching him upward."Have a care, Jedi."An ancient voice, it croaked in front of him. Each word came out deliberately, as a glottal, sawdusty reverberation that seemed to move the air molecules themselves."You seem to have forced your way into my sanctum sanctorum. Perhaps a modic.u.m of restraint is in order."Trace felt himself being swung up into the air, and realized that lie was hanging from the limbs of an immense tree. Looking down, far down, he saw the warty knuckles of its roots plunged deep into the floor itself, causing its variegated tiles to buckle and bulge. The thing's trunk rose upward to spread dozens of sinuous gray limbs throughout the cavernous and gloomy room around it. Its upper branches clutched his wrist tighter than ever, swinging him around, and Trace observed that the walls around him were lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves of holobooks, scrolls and grimoires, and various cluttered arcana crammed back in every available notch and crevice."This is my dwelling place, yes?" the tree creature's voice burbled up from somewhere inside its trunk."And you have intruded here."Trace's hand eased back for his lightsaber. There was a sharp whip- crack and a sting as one of the branches slapped it aside, and Trace saw the lightsaber go pinwheeling away. It landed below the shelves, in the corner, by the outer edge of a glimmering hearth, where the orange coals of a fire seethed and flickered."No need for your weapon here," the voice said."Not in this place of learning. We arc both learned beings, are we not? Enlightened and informed by the written word. No need for the enc.u.mbrances of physical violence." It uttered another bulky, dusty chuckle."Look upon me, if you like. Seek my face."Trace smelled a tangy, musty odor pa.s.s beneath his nose, and turned to see the librarian's enormous wooden head craning toward him between its barren branches. It was a Neti, he realized, and it was sick. Whatever contagion had infected this planet had spread to it as well. Along its back side, the plant creature's once-majestic form had taken on an altogether different cast. The formidable brandies hung like dumps of atrophied muscle. Cl.u.s.ters of open sores had devoured the bark, and the exposed heartwood oozed a steady trickle of dark leakage that had collected on the floor around its roots. Whole shoals of holobooks and Sith texts floated like skiffs in the sprawling puddle of fluid. Whatever had befallen the Sith students here, it had jumped across species without losing any of its virulence."I'm looking for a Jedi named Hestizo Trace."The Neti didn't respond right away, except to s.h.i.+ft hi