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Zutia Lavell

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About Zutia Lavell

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  1. The fire raged on. Not having much to do, Zutia sat with her arms curled around her legs and quietly analyzed her situation. It was better than pondering whether the wind would turn her direction and she would die to smoke inhalation. It was surely going to be nightfall soon. The smoke from the fire was going to play havoc with her navigation, but the running lights of the occasional freight traffic of Dromund Kaas would at least give her a general direction to walk towards. The carcasses of the two tuk’atas had ceased their reflexive twitching and had gone still, their limbs stiffening as rigor mortis set in. Even the blood had ceased pooling around her feet--more likely due to coagulation than to exsanguination, Lavell told herself. Even if her blade had pierced the heart, an adolescent tuk’ata had enough blood volume that exsanguination was unlikely. How long could she last without water? There was no potable water between here and the Sith academy, and even the few standing ponds were heavily contaminated with toxic minerals. The blaze would have sucked every droplet of moisture out of the air. two days, perhaps more if she traveled only at night, but dehydration would cripple her ability to think clearly within a day. She glanced at the stagnant pool of blood at her feet. No, she reminded herself, the blood of a tuk’ata was far too ferric to suffice as a source of water, and it had clotted by this point. It was soon quiet again. Wisps of smoke no longer drifted into the cavern, and the dull roar of the brushfire had finally faded. Zutia stepped clear of the grotto and into the scorched wilderness of Korriban’s plains. She glanced upwards; night had fallen, but the brushfire had generated so much smoke that the night sky was blotted out. It would be navigation by compass and hope. The hunter took a moment to cast down her pack, the canvas splashing ash around its impact. She rummaged through her gear and discarded anything that she would need for immediate survival, anything that would away her down: extra changes of clothes, her collapsed shelter, most of her ammunition, and any extra rations that would endure beyond three days. Nodding with satisfaction at the small pile of discarded equipment, Zutia turned towards the wind and began to walk. She proceeded at a steady, deliberate pace, her feet instinctively responding to every unseen rise and fall in the ashen plains. The smoke refused to clear the first night and the entirety of the next day. It wasn’t until the second night, when a fortuitous rain shower cast a few blessed droplets of water on her forehead, that the smog finally began to fade and she caught a glimpse of stars. Drinking from the scarce few raindrops she could gather in her hat, Zutia caught a glimpse of intense blue-white light streaking across the smoke-veiled sky. Sublight engines. A glance at her compass confirmed that the craft was landing at Dreshdae. She walked for two more days. On the night of the third day, a dehydrated, delirious Zutia Lavell staggered into a cantina on the outskirts of the Dreshdae starport, a fine cloud of ash trailing behind her passage. Bumping repeatedly into tables, she managed to will her body to the bar and leaned heavily upon it. Her mouth worked a few times, but a mixture of dust, ash, and dehydration seemed to have formed a seal of concrete in her mouth and throat. A nearby Devaronian decided that wherever he could be, it would be better than anywhere within a city block of this wild woman who smelled of smoke and whose trousers and boots were covered with dried blood. Zutia took no notice, her eyes instead boring into the back of the bartender who was making a determined effort of looking anywhere but in her direction. Her voice came out as an strangled croak. “may i have a glass of water, please” She wasn’t heard by the bartender, who had decided that he would much rather not deal with this problem. Zutia decided that she needed to make herself unignorable in this cynical city dominated by the Sith Order. The weapon seeming agonizingly heavy in her arms, Zutia managed to lug her rifle up to her shoulders and slammed it onto the bar, the plastoid reverberating deafeningly through the cantina. She leaned heavily on the weapon. This time, she shouted. “May I have a glass of water, please!”
  2. ((Word of warning: Animal lovers might not want to read the end of this post. I’ll have the section under spoiler tags.)) For all of its ancient connection to the Lords of the Sith species and the Masters of the Order, Korriban was a desolate, underpopulated. Rendered barren by centuries of warfare and decay by unnatural exploitation by unscrupulous Dark Lords, the planet had few natural resources besides a few mining complexes. Roaming as she pleased over the parched savannas beneath the plateau that housed the Valley of the Dark Lords and the Sith Temple, it had been weeks since Zutia Lavell had last seen a fellow human or any sapient, or an airspeeder or starship that wasn’t passing many kilometers. She was the only speck of sapient civilization in the endless grassland sea, this suited her just fine. Journeying back to the Sith Temple, Zutia arose at first light and travelled until the height of the day when the sun would scorch her shoulders, then rested until dusk to continue the trek until nightfall. Moving from pool of groundwater to the next, the wandering apprentice was able to maintain this pattern for many days. This pattern changed one morning with a shift of the winds. While collapsing her portable shelter, Zutia felt a subtle change in the direction of the blistering winds and the barest hint of humidity. She glanced away from her shrivelling tent and pushed her wide-brimmed hat away from her face, staring across the endless waves of grass and through the heat haze of the early morning. The dawn sky was so dark that Zutia could barely make out the shapes, but clouds had obscured the stars. Zutia dug her hand into the dusty soil and let it sift through her fingers--the wind was starting to pick up… and was carrying the clouds towards her. Then she saw a faint flicker in the inky sky--lightning. Zutia was in a floodplain. That storm would break against the walls of the Valley of the Dark Lords and drench this savanna in rain--and that was discounting the risk of a lightning strike igniting a brushfire and setting an entire region of tinder alight. She needed to make it to higher ground. Zutia glanced back across the horizon. She couldn’t yet make out the walls of the cliffs marked the plateau that housed the Sith Temple, but she decided that she might be able to make that distance before the storm was upon her. “Maybe six hours?” She pondered aloud to herself. The storm would be upon her before then, that was irrelevant. Her little tent wouldn’t protect her from a flood or a wildfire. It was unnecessary--actually a hindrance at this point. The survivalist allowed the little habitat to continue collapsing and gathered the rest of her supplies. Carrying nothing more than her rifle and food and water sufficient for a few days, she abandoned her shelter and set off at a slow jog across the parched grassland. As Horuset rose over the cliffs and bathed the savanna in its scorching heat, so did the temperature. As the hours went on, waves of sun-scorched grass began to ripple with the growing wind. Zutia risked a break to catch her breath when the walls of the cliffs rose over the horizon. She pushed the brim of her hat over her head and wiped sweat from her brow as she gazed at the sky. The sky had become fully overcast with threatening clouds… and the barest trace of smoke wisping under the clouds. She glanced backwards to the stormfront and saw plumes of smoke rising under a set of lightning strikes that twisted to meet the parched plains. Zutia felt her heart begin to race. She was out in the open in a dry floodplain in drought conditions… and she was downwind of a wildfire that had just been ignited by lightning strikes. There were no nearby pools of water in which she could take refuge from the blaze; her only option was to press forward and hope that there was some shelter within the cliffs--a cave or grotto or tunnel from which she could hide from the fires. Zutia took a gulp from her dwindling canteen and continued onward. As the cliffs loomed closer and the stench of smoke grew stronger, the survivalist glanced quickly at her rifle--fully loaded. The waves of parched grass eventually receded into foothills and badlands, and Zutia passed the sun-bleached skeleton of a long-dead traulenta under the shoulders of the cliff walls. Its rib cage had been picked apart and individual bones had been broken off, and she eyed the markings of tuk’ata teeth--markings of different sizes, as though the dying animal had been set upon by beasts of different ages. As she expected, there was likely a nest somewhere within these cliffs, a safe place in which she could take refuge from the approaching wildfire. Judging from the age of the exposed bones, any markings would have long since been obliterated. The survivalist approached the skeleton and grasped at the white femur, her fingers picking at the markings of the predator’s teeth. The rest of the leg was missing, likely having been dragged off to serve as a chew toy by one of the beasts. She knelt by the corpse as set down her rifle, willing her breath to slow and her heart to stop racing within her chest. Embers had begun to flicker downwards from the clouds and glow on the slopes of the foothills--but panic was a raw, animal emotion that would only get her killed. What would save her, as the wildfire was swept up by the growing winds, was purpose. Zutia needed to find shelter within the cliffs… and if it was in use, she would need to kill anything that lived within. Lavell closed her eyes and traced the striations of the teeth markings with her fingers. Her fright was irrelevant, she admonished herself--all that was relevant was the fire, the shelter, and a loaded blaster rifle. Her breaths slowed to a standstill. Some time later, Zutia’s eyes shot open and she gasped her waking breath--and sucked in a lungful of smoke. She had no idea how long she had lingered by the skeleton, but the fires had approached perilously close and she could make out their glow through a murky haze of smoke. Coughing as she collected her rifle, Zutia rose to her feet and ran into the rocks. Not quite understanding how, the hunter felt a guiding presence that led her to sprint towards a rough piles of boulders within the cliffside. As she approached, she felt a peculiar tickle trace down her spine--someone or something was acutely aware of her presence and was warily watching her approach. Zutia snapped the receiver of her rifle up to her shoulder, just in time to focus the sights on a pair of tuk’ata that descended from an unseen grotto within the cliffside. The larger of the beasts leaped to the side, taking a perch on a boulder to the side of the grotto. Zutia’s eyes flickered between the hounds as both crouched on their haunches, displaying mouths full of fanged teeth and snarled threateningly--the larger of the beasts had a deep, dark coloration of consuming black, the only coloration the crimson of its eyes, and the smaller a dark gray with an earthen fringe around its facial horns. Her lips turned downward as the beasts snarled and growled at her--this was a mating pair, and she had just stumbled upon their nest. They would defend this hovel to the death. Zutia shifted her aim towards the male and waited for her heartbeat to slow. Through the lens of her rifle’s scope, she saw its slit pupil widen. Thunder rang out across the savanna as she pulled the trigger. Not sparing a moment to confirm the kill, she shifted her aim towards the female and quickly snapped away a pair of shots. Something monstrously heavy struck her and pinned her to the ground. Her ears ringing from the impact, she lifted her rifle in a feeble attempt to push away the beast--but she felt no struggle, no attempt to open her from neck to navel with one of those saberlike claws… just unfeeling gravity, and the wetness of blood trickling by the side of her face. She felt a heavy shiver above her body as the tuk’ata female groaned her last breath and sank into the dirt. Zutia forced the massive skull of the beast away and crawled out from under the enormous bulk and staggered up the rocks. Following the barrel of her rifle, Zutia squeezed into the grotto, her nose closing at the scent of kills and animal waste. As she twisted through the passage, she bobbed her head to avoid outcroppings of rock from the ceiling. Her heart sank when her rifle led her to an opened chamber within the tunnel. Within were two tuk’ata cubs, both of which shrank from her presence as though they could melt into the walls of the walls of the grotto. Not even a quarter the size of their sire, Zutia estimated that they were perhaps six months old, perhaps younger. Neither male had developed the facial horns that were characteristic of a tuk’ata nearing adolescence… but both massed nearly eighty kilograms. Judging from their lack of aggression, however, neither had learned that humans were perfectly viable prey for a beast of their size--and neither had learned to attack invaders. Caught between the walls of their habitat and a strange invader, the beasts couldn’t even indulge their instincts to take flight--both hounds were shivering feverishly and shrank from fear when an overhead lightning strike was answered by a crashing blow of thunder. Neither had, apparently, had learned that thunder and lightning were only natural forces. ((Animal lovers probably should not hit the spoiler tab.)) Although the wildfire never managed to approach so closely that it threatened her shelter, it was a long day, sitting in the scent of the smoke and the filth and the blood.
  3. Not all of Korriban was desolate, dehydrated crags and valleys. The darkness-tainted planet was also home to dramatic, blasted badlands and foothills; its poles were covered in permafrosted tundras and wastelands; its equators were dominated by a band of deserts so scorched that they were scarcely survivable outside climate-controlled habitats. In a few temperate regions where the ravages of the Dark Side hadn’t whisked away every trace of surface water, there were even sun-scorched savannas where herds of reptilian traulentas would forage for vegetation during the days. At dawn and dusk, when the reptilian herbivores were at their most vulnerable, predators would thin their ranks. There was the occasional Shyrack or tuk’ata, and there was also Zutia Lavell. She had spent more than a month in these dusty plains, moving from place to place occasionally with nothing more than her rifle, a few handheld electronics, and a collapsible habitat. Once every week or so, she would evacuate a dwindling pool of standing water and move on to follow the herds; when compressed, her survival gear was no larger than an overstuffed backpack, and considerably less dense. These days, when Zutia was as exposed as the quadruped reptiles that she preyed upon, were the most dangerous by far--the tuk’atas hadn’t yet learned to fear humans--but the sunrises and sunsets were spectacular in the haze of the dusty savannas. After a successful hunt one morning, Zutia returned to her habitat, dragging the corpse of one of the scaley herbivores behind her by its tail. This single kill, with nearly a hundred pounds of edible meat, would replenish her stocks for weeks. She gladly dropped the corpse by the entrance to her habitat and brushed her frizzy hair out of her face. The Agamarian withdrew a canteen and splashed a handful of water into her eyes to wash away the stinging sweat, then took shelter in her habitat from the afternoon heat. The carcass could be butchered in a few minutes; the only predator in the immediate vicinity was her. A blast of cold air answered Zutia’s entrance into the climate-controlled tent. It was a sparse dwelling; only an air-filled mattress on one side of the habitat, and a change of clothing, her survival gear, and a few miniature electronics on the other side. Her only link to the galaxy for the last month had been a datapad, and the Agamarian sometimes didn’t activate it a week at a time. The hunter swung her long-barreled rifle from her shoulders and leaned it against one wall. Today, however, she would allow herself to drain its dwindling batteries and listen to a few minutes of news updates a few minutes of listening to news updates. Throwing off the rest of her gear, Zutia unscrewed the lid of a second canteen containing standing groundwater and dropped a sanitizing tablet within. Absentmindedly shaking the canister, she listened to a broadcast as the tablet rattled within her canteen. There was a breaking news bulletin from Coruscant--Lavell only listened with half her attention. There had been numerous acts of mayhem on that blighted world in the last few months, all of which concerned unimportant Senators and other individuals of overestimated influence. This time, however, a strained reporter rapidly spoke, his voice on the urge of breaking from stress. “It’s moving away now. The Jedi--by the Force--they’ve actually stopped it, they actually… they’re holding it just, just above the city--oh no, it’s crashing.” Zutia snapped to full attention and abandoned the canteen to seize the device seized the device in her hands, . The quality of the image was dreadful--she was in the wildlands of Korriban, after all--but it was clearly a view of Coruscant, with a great, hulking rock looming above the city. No, crashing into it. Hesperidium was falling. “It’s crashing terrible! Force, get out of the way, please! It’s falling on the city, and… this is one of the worst catastrophes in the galaxy. Oh, Coronet Plaza, and… the towers are crashing to the ground and the lower levels. Oh, the sapients and all the people screaming around here. Everything is… it’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage.” The reporter fell silent, unable to manage more than strained mumbles and stutters. Zutia forced herself to look away as the holocam zoomed in and focused on the gargantuan crater that the moon had left behind. She didn’t want to know what billions of dead looked like. The journalist eventually regained his composure and began his report anew. “I… I’m going to fly away where I cannot see it. Char’lin, it’s terrible. I--I can’t. I--listen folks--I… I’m going to stop for a moment because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.” Zutia dropped the datapad and sat down on her cot. Only seconds later, a violent spasm overtook her and an awful coldness spread from within her heart. Her head pounded with the rhythm of her heart and she jammed her thumbs into her eyes. It was all that the hunter could do to remind herself to keep breathing. A familiar tension grew within her belly and she hunched over, wretching miserably. Eventually, her morning meal vacated her stomach and she coughed it into the floor of her habitat. She knew that her hair had fallen into the vomitm but she didn't care--at least the throbbing in her eyes and temples was beginning to gradually withdraw. She eventually trusted herself to open her eyes and rise shakily to her feet, groping senselessly for her canteen. Her sun-darkened hands shook as she forced herself to down gulps of lukewarm water. In her brief training under Haphaestus, she had had a vision of Coruscant under siege. The Empire, or the Sith, or some other invading army was bombarding the planet and had ravaged the surface, even blasting apart the Senate and Jedi Temple over the course of a battle of mythical proportions. Hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of sapients had died over the course of that siege, but it had been conquest, the climax of a long campaign that ended with the collapse of the Galactic Alliance. This… was a waste. This massacre served no purpose beyond cruelty. Zutia dropped the datapad and forced more mouthfuls of water down her throat. When she had abandoned her training and fled Almas, she had told herself that the time was wrong for her to join the Sith. Over the weeks of surviving on Korriban on only preserved meat and nutritional supplements, the hunter had told herself that she was waiting for a sign that it was time to learn to properly exploit her gifts. If witnessing the deaths of billions of people, the purpose of their death no other than to satisfy some barbarian’s sadism, wasn’t a message… then Zutia was blind, deaf, and foolish. The Agamarian dug into her pack and withdrew the other of the handheld electronics that she had brought with her--a standard, civilian comlink. Her lips curled in frustration as she opened the device; this far from civilization, the comlink had no signal to Korriban’s communications network. Zutia went about collapsing her habitat. It was time to abandon this wilderness to venture into another.
  4. “Then the only chance for creating a lasting Empire… relies on discarding some of the ritualistic baggage of the Sith Order.” Zutia sighed and lifted her eyebrows. That was a tall order, considering that the Sith Order was nearly as ancient as the Jedi Order and had been settling disputes of seniority for nearly as long. Perhaps it had been more stable when there were only two Sith Lords at any given moment—as there had been with Palpatine and Darth Vader—but that arrangement hardly allowed for development and possibly dangerous exploration of the more esoteric powers of the Force. After all, Palpatine was primarily a politician and deceiver, and Vader a powerful brute. The enormity of the task began to sink in. “I can imagine that… when contact is made with the greater Sith Order and the Jedi, both orders would be very curious to discover my origins and who I was trained by. Is there any technique that I can use to camouflage my presence in the Force, or at least conceal myself until I’m ready to make the first move?”
  5. Just as mysteriously as the Sith Lord had appeared, Darth Rivan dematerialized, leaving featureless space in the vacuum in which he had manifested. It wasn’t particularly cold in this chamber, but Zutia shivered in the stillness and goose bumps had risen all over the flesh of her arms. That was a phenomenon that the Agamarian was certain that astonishingly few were privileged to witness in their lives: communicating with a deceased Lord of the Sith. Even more so, from what she had heard about the ancient Dark Lords entombed on Korriban, the spiritual homeworld of the dark Order, their avatars tended to not be entirely sane. More accurately, they tended to by power-hungry, paranoid, and sadistic--far from offering guidance to their descendant acolytes. “That was Darth Rivan, wasn’t it?” The figure had quite the commanding presence in this room, but Zutia hadn’t been quite so awestruck that she hadn’t noticed the deference that her Master had shown him. “I’ve occasionally wondered if it’s possible to walk a line between power and the insanity that seems to affect some of the Sith. They sometimes make their own worst enemies, you know? But on the other hand, if it was possible wield that kind of power without turning into the kind of insane… beast that some of the Sith become—to be hard, yes, even cruel when necessary… but not the kind of senseless savagery that we saw in the war. To wield the power of the Dark Side without attracting the attention that would inevitably make them the kind of target that would be hunted down by the Jedi like a rabid dog. Until it’s too late, that is,” she added with a little smile. The Agamarian was rambling somewhat, not quite coherent in her thoughts. Still, it had come to her attention that since the end of the war, there were quite a few veterans out there, many with skills that were not quite suitable for a civilian life. She had met a few of them—some of them had come to Agamar, in fact. They were city-dwellers, most of them, some of them lost souls who found some kind of solace in the harsh wilderness of her home planet. Many of them were former Imperials who were understandably bitter at how their fortunes had turned out—and even a few Reps, on that note. If they could become organized and motivated, they could become quite a potent guerrilla force against the Galactic Alliance.
  6. The Agamarian’s head tilted ever so slightly at the apparition, trying to determine if there was a hint of condescension in the response from the ancient Sith Lord. Perhaps there wasn’t, but Zutia tended towards oversensitivity with regards to the way that the people of her world were stereotyped. “I was a victim. I might as well have been one of the people that were being burned down by the Star Destroyers.” Zutia took a minute to try to imagine the untold numbers of people who were surely being incinerated by the suborbital bombardment. If what she had seen was occurring all over Coruscant, then the number of people who were dying was… inestimable. It was carnage so horrific that the human mind could being to process the death—worse than anything since the civil war. And those forces were unleashed by… what, exactly? Such carnage hadn’t been visited upon the galaxy since perhaps what had been callously named the “Shield Incident,” when a Sith Lord had razed all of the Upper Levels in a clever act of sabotage. Maybe the historians’ minds had also been boggled by the scale of the devastation. The words of one of the more infamous leaders in galactic history blinked in Zutia’s mind. A single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. Whether or not the dictator had actually said those words was true, the Agamarian had to admit that the words held some element of truth. It was comparatively easy to justify killing when one was far removed from the actual act of murder. Killing many with your own hands made you a violent psychopath; sending someone else to perform the deed made you a leader. During the vision, not sincethe incident that sparked Zutia’s knowledge of her Force Sensitivity had she felt so adrift (though in that case, she had been alone in the middle of an ocean without so much as a paddle). However, through this ordeal she hadn’t been left stranded in the middle of predator-infested ocean; she was trapped in a burning apartment in the middle of one of the largest planetary bombardments in history. There wasn’t the loneliness of gently rolling waves; it was the heat and wind of turbolaser salvos that were threatening to spark a firestorm. It wasn’t the silence of total isolation, but the thunder of a mechanical giant that was shaking her entire world to pieces. Beyond the moral implications of the vision, it was one of the most terrifying experiences of her life. “Let’s say it gave me… perspective.” Feeling as though that didn’t adequately explain her experience, Zutia pressed on. “For the people that were in the way of those Star Destroyers, that was their entire world—their homes, their friends and family, their homes, their everything—and it was all being destroyed by some twit that decided to make a statement. When I saw that ship bearing down on me and destroying everything in its path like it was nothing, I didn’t know whether I wanted to hide in a corner and hope that it it would all end soon or whether I wanted to kill every last person on board.” “If what that vision intended to teach me was an understanding of their fear and helplessness and anger, then lesson learned. If that’s what it takes to end the Grek-Aurek, then I’ll have to find another way.” ((I may be horribly butchering Aurebesh. Also, Aurebesh acronyms do not work so well.))
  7. Zutia shot a quick glance towards her mentor, not quite certain if she should trust her own eyes. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two figures and the Agamarian decided that she hadn’t hit her head too badly on the unpadded floor of this room. Hephaestus clearly could see the shadowy presence that had just entered the room, and he wasn’t quite astonished by its entrance. Rather, he seemed expectant, as though he had been anticipating a moment like this to come about and was quite eager to see what would happen. The huntress dowsed her lightsaber and clipped the weapon to her belt. She studied the shade as it “spoke”—the words didn’t quite seem to have the same presence as audible sound, but were somewhat clearer. Regardless of how that phenomenon was generated (doubtless through some technique of the Force that Zutia hadn’t yet learned), the fine hairs on Zutia’s body stood on end when she realized that she was standing in the presence of something truly extraordinary. The being before her was beyond primeval—perhaps even prehistoric—and yet had chosen to communicate with her in a momentary slip of the shackles of death. The Agamarian woman suddenly felt rather small, but somehow was not threatened by the sensation. She gave the figure a small curtsy, bending her knees and keeping her eyes fixed on the figure in a minor breach of etiquette. “I saw Coruscant burning. The Jedi Temple was being wiped out. The entire planet was getting blasted. But it all seemed so unnecessary. I mean, why waste all that effort, and innocent life for any purpose other than ego?” Zutia’s blue eyes unfocused. Coruscant, the traditional capital of the galaxy, had never seemed to serve a purpose beyond housing the bureaucracy that controlled the galaxy and existed seemingly on pure inertia, but she had been more than a little shocked by the brutality of the sacking. She spoke up again, her Agamarian drawl resurfacing in her emotion. “I don't mean to be taken as soft--I mean, I never doubted that if the Alliance is going to be overthrown that some unpleasant things would have to be done, but does it really have to be like that? I’m halfway convinced that I saw the end of the galaxy.”
  8. It seemed that the exercise wasn’t quite over, and the student found herself scrambling to defend herself. The first ten bolts Zutia blocked with ease, harmlessly deflecting them into the walls and floor of the room. In one happy accident, she sent one whipping past her teacher’s left ear in such a narrow miss that he might have felt the scorching heat of the plasma bolt. The stream of fire quickly became overwhelming, however, and the Agamarian’s defense grew desperate and physical. Faced with an unexpected flurry of bolts that targeted her from head to hip, the Agamarian’s cloaked form rushed to defend herself.The brilliant hue of her lightsaber swept about in a semicircle that blocked half a dozen shots that had targeted her collarbone, shoulders, and left side, sidestepping to evade a blast that was homing in on her navel. That maneuver wasn't quite as quick as it needed to be, unfortunately, and the beam of plasma that had been aimed at her midsection instead lanced into her right hip, spinning the Agamarian around and pitching her to the floor. At this point, however, Zutia was past pain—past exhaustion, and past emotional drain. After her experience with the Alcarazin artifact, the practice duel with her master, and several minutes of fending off a stream of near-constant blaster fire from her teacher, the woman’s darkened skin was dripping with sweat and her muscles, if she could be bothered to listen to them, were screaming in protest against the overexertion. She barely felt the impact, only conscious of the fact that she carefully tucked the hilt of her lightsaber against her left arm. As she rolled, it gouged a glowing line through the floor rather than lopping off one of her limbs. When Zutia’s body came to a stop and she finally stopped vandalizing the floor of this chamber, she looked up to see the barrel of her weapon squared directly at her face, a tremor in the Force warning of the pain to come. All throughout this exercise, the apprentice had found herself struggling with the idea of granted sovereignty over her body to a mystical energy field that she had only come to coherently perceive a few days ago. However, faced with the imminent prospect of great pain and injury, she decided to fully trust the Force to get her through this drill alive and unsullied by blaster fire. The Force told her that she only had to tilt her head a few degrees to the left to evade the bolt rushing towards her face. Zutia did so, and didn't even perceive the heat of the bolt as it flicked over her cheek, burning off a loose strand of hair. Her boots pursued by a wave of blaster fire, Zutia swept her feet back under her center of mass in a simple self-defense maneuver and sprang to her full height. Zutia danced. There really wasn’t any better way to describe how she fended off the torrent of blaster fire. Her motions were no longer limited to the rote sequences prescribed in the katas that Hephaestus had demonstrated earlier, with clean and mathematical lines from one stance to the next. Nor were they consumed in the unpredictable kaleidoscope of activity that some masters of Ataru were capable of, as though their physiology was no longer bound by human limitations. Instead, her movements were clean and economical. A flick of her wrists would swipe the tip of her blade across her shoulders to fend off a bolt rushing towards her shoulder—an adjustment with her elbow would cast away another wave of crimson that was streaming down her chest, and when her mentor commanded her to evade by sweeping her legs with blaster fire, she responded with a languid spin, her legs somehow finding the gaps through which they could harmlessly pass through the fire. Completely consumed by the Force, Zutia’s movements became less physical, taking upon an aspect of grace due to the seemingly perfect control she had over her movement. The Agamarian wore a tiny smile on her lips throughout the entire set as though she was rather enjoying the experience but was focusing on her steps too intensely to share her delight with her dance partner. However, it seemed that this number was reaching a close. Hephaestus had been firing at his student for quite some time, and even if he was using the low power settings that was normally reserved for calibrating the weapon and for hunting small game, he had to be running low on this power cell’s charge. The Force guided her blade and she gave her blade another adjustment, picking off a bolt that was roaring towards her tanned cheek and returning it to Hephaestus. Her aim was true—unless he evaded the bolt, it was going to slag the optical scope on the body of her blaster rifle and strike him in the eye.
  9. Zutia nodded after her teacher retrieved her hunting rifle and raised the length of the weapon to a firing position. Reciprocating, the Agamarian called her lightsaber to her hand with a gentle nudge of the Force and ignited the crimson blade. Staring past the humming blade of her weapon, Zutia looked into the barrel of her own firearm and took a second to ask herself if she had gone insane by allowing a relative stranger to take her own weapon and use it against her. It was a distinct possibility, she knew, but the twists that her life had taken in the last few days—venturing to the homeworld of the Sith Order, being abducted by unknown agents and trafficked to a dangerous backwater, and accepting the tutelage of a man that had nearly killed her several hours earlier—certainly seemed insane by any reasonable measurement. Perhaps she had gone mad, but she had unlocked potential in herself that seemed impossible only months ago. So Zutia gave her mentor a big grin, withdrew into the desire—her need—for complete sovereign over her own body, and spoke two words to Hephaestus: “I’m ready.” Zutia could feel the burst of energy rush past her before she even registered the report of the blaster rifle. However, Zutia’s response was limited to flinching at the whine of the firearm, rather than any deliberate attempt to defend herself from a blaster bolt that had harmlessly flown wide of her arm. Next she felt an impact just above her left armpit. Gently angling the tip of her lightsaber, the Agamarian caught the bolt midflight and deflected it into the floor between the two Sith. Two more bolts came in that would spear her through the right shoulder and left hip. Ducking to avoid the first shot, she picked off the second blast and sent it flying into the ceiling. More bolts came in different angles. Abandoning the robotic adjustments of the angle of her blade that she used to defend herself, Zutia’s movements became more fluid as she had to rush to deflect the incoming fire. One by one, she blocked each bolt and deflected them harmlessly away. As her success continued, a subversive thought began to lurk in a quiet depth of Zutia’s mind. Hephaestus had been teaching her to regard the Force as a tool at her command, as another implement that she could control to augment her abilities or affect her surroundings. Now he was advising the Agamarian to place her trust in the Force to guide her in her defense—as an advisor to be trusted implicitly. If what little of the Jedi teachings had allowed to leak over the HoloNet were true and the Force had a will of its own, would it be possible for it to betray its wielder in a moment of need? Or was that just propaganda put out by the eternal rival of the Sith? No doubt that had been a question asked by generations of Sith apprentices. Either way, it was a distracting and ultimately eroding thought. In the critical milliseconds just before a squeeze of her blaster rifle’s trigger and her reaction, Zutia’s reflexes were slowed. Through some impossible stroke of fortune, that bolt came rushing towards her abdomen, the very same place that Zutia had returned the hilt of her lightsaber to a defensive position. Instead of catching her directly beneath her navel or striking the metal of the weapon’s hilt, it rushed in at the steel protecting her clenched fingers. Heat flared around her fingers and her shoulders stiffened in response to the scorching burn. However, the pain wasn’t nearly as intense as expected. After the initial shock of having been shot, she used the sudden agony to harden her focus and promptly defied her baser instincts by swatting two more bolts out of the air with a snappy vertical slash of her blade. And then she looked past her blade, staring past its brilliance to look at her mentor without any expression on her face. Her susceptibility to distraction had again surfaced at an inopportune moment and posed a lesson in the form of pain. Until Zutia mastered that weakness in her self-control, her command over the Force would forever be flawed and she would remain vulnerable to even the most simple of tricks, and that was completely unacceptable.
  10. Despite Zutia’s sunburned complexion, a faint reddening of her cheeks be seen in response to her mentor’s praise. She actually had not expected to have been spared any reprisal in response to her reckless attack by throwing her lightsaber at Hephaestus and discarding her best form of defense. Punishment for her foolishness seemed more likely. Even wrath for trying to expose a possible weakness in her teacher’s anatomy seemed more likely than praise. Zutia relinquished her Force grip on her lightsaber’s hilt when her master—his anatomy still uncertain—offered back her deactivated weapon with an underhanded toss. She reached outward with a black-clad arm and her lightsaber landed in the gauntlet with a satisfying clack of metal upon metal. Clipping her lightsaber to her belt, the Agamarian retreated to the periphery of the room to retrieve her hunting rifle, a long-barreled blaster with a boxy optical scope. Slamming the stock of the firearm home on her soldier, Zutia’s lips pursed into a frown and she cast a glance away from the sights and along the length of the weapon. Something about the weapon felt… different since her teacher had restored it from that lizard’s mauling. There was a very slight change in the balance of weight, and probing the body of the weapon with her newer, unhoned senses, something about its presence in the Force felt subtly different. Presumably Hephaestus hadn’t modified it in a way so that it would blow up in her hands and leave half her body scarred from a cook-off of the ammunition. Glancing just over the optical scope—at this range, the device was actually a detriment to her aim—Zutia picked a spot right below her master’s sternum (if he even had one) and repeatedly squeezed the trigger with deliberate force, showering her mentor’s upper body with a barrage of carefully aimed semi-automatic fire. Hopefully his mastery of lightsaber defense wasn’t dependent on muscle memory, as the overlong barrel of her rifle accelerated its fire to a greater velocity than that of a standard blaster rifle. Keeping up a steady rhythm of fire, Zutia kept her senses carefully focused on the short space that separated the two Sith. She had a sneaking suspicion that one of those bolts was going to come shrieking her way any moment…
  11. Again, Zutia sensed a surge of energy from the vicinity of her teacher, followed by an unpleasantly familiar puckering of her skin beneath her collarbone. The Sith acolyte snapped the blade of her lightsaber up and thrust the hilt away from her body, just in time to block the stream of destructive energy from overtaking her body again. The lightning coursed over the length of the crimson lightsaber blade, lining the massless edge with a wreath of brilliant blue energy. The coursing waves of lightning seemed glued to the lightsaber blade, though occasionally a spark of lightning jumped off of it and threatened to deliver a jolt to her hand or face. She even felt a stray lock of hair stand on end when an errant ray of lightning jumped off the blade and flashed in front of her face. There was a kind of beauty in the coursing waves of energy as they writhed through the air to meet the edge of her blade. Though the lightning danced and flickered over the length of the blade and sometimes threatened the hilt, Zutia marveled at how the slender blade of her weapon completely shielded her frail body from the destructive potential of the lightning. Then she realized why Hephaestus’ Force Lightning seemed magnetically attracted to her defending blade—because it probably was. The Force Lightning was probably more than waves of Force energy. Just like natural lightning, the energy that sparked from her mentor’s fingertips was at least partially electric, and the blade of her lightsaber, composed of contained plasma, would magnetically attract the lightning. During all the time that she had known Hephaestus, there was something that didn’t seem quite right about her mentor. From his unusual name and insistence on not having his surname being known to his student, to his gargantuan strength, to how the man had just been dealt a nontrivial wound with a lightsaber and had shrugged it off, refusing to even examine the wound… he very clearly was not Human. His flesh, an odd tinge of azure, was clearly not Human—though, of course, there was a possibility of cybernetic enhancements… but her blade had sliced dangerously deep through his arm, threatening to cleave through the bone itself. She had even attempted to cut off his breath with her own Force-driven attack, to no effect whatsoever. Zutia had a sneaking suspicion as to what her teacher’s origin might be, but what trivia that she knew about the Force suggested that the very idea of a Force-sensitive droid was impossible. After all, if a droid had learned to use the Force, wouldn’t they have become one of the Masters of legend, like Darkfire or Faust? Still, it was a possibility that merited investigation. But how? The Agamarian gave her teacher a smile through the Force-driven pyrotechnics and threw her lightsaber at him with a deft flick of her wrist. Remembering the dead-man switch that had just saved her from getting filleted by her own blade, she applied a modicum of pressure to the hilt to prevent the weapon from shutting off. The blade spinning nearly out of control due to the unbalanced weight of the hilt, she watched attentively, gauging her teacher’s reaction to the attack. Zutia knew that she was going to pay for this offense, most likely through pain. She shifted her stance to lead with her armored right hand—as though that would be sufficient defense to what assault her mentor could answer with—and prepared herself for pain.
  12. Hephaestus’ towering figure refused to yield one centimeter to her grip, and his expression appeared thoroughly unimpressed by her attack. A growing sense of outrage blossomed within her, and turning the indignity of her failure against her master, Zutia’s stranglehold tightened further and the crushing weight around his neck grew heavier. Hephaestus’ discipline seemed indomitable. Not only did he refused to yield to the pressure, but as their battle of wills continued, she realized that he wasn’t even attempting to resist the grip around his neck. Either he was able to remain extraordinarily calm despite the burning need for air that he had to have been feeling… or… …or he simply didn’t breathe. Zutia’s stomach seemed to drop about a half a meter below her navel as she realized just how ineffectual her stranglehold had been. That sinking doubt eroded at her grip around her mentor’s neck at the very moment of his counterattack. In the tunnel vision induced by her deep immersion in the Dark Side, she only barely perceived a forked burst bluish light rushing towards her body at the same time that her more esoteric senses detected a wave of staggering powerful energy, too slowly for her to react. The wave of energy caught her just below her neck, and Zutia was blasted off her feet at the same moment that a wave of agony, unlike anything that she had ever felt before, set every nerve ending in her body alight with pain. Her previous self-control forgotten, she gave out a cry of pain just before her form slammed to the ground with a painful crack of her skull against the floor and her lightsaber fell from her weakened grip. Fortunately, it seemed that her master had deemed it wise to fit the weapon with a pressure-sensitive dead man’s grip, so the blade deactivated before the hilt could spin around and inflict irreparable damage to either Zutia’s crumpled body or her surroundings. Skidding to a halt, Zutia painfully looked back at Hephaestus. Every muscle in her body was aching as though she was in the grips of a skeeter-borne malarial fever, and her vision swam as she looked back at her teacher—clearly, the impact of her head against the floor was as painful as it had sounded. Her nostrils caught the scent of smoke rising from her robes. Despite the fact that her every limb protested at the movement, the Agamarian drew her legs under her body and smoothly rose to her feet. That childish outburst aside, she would not betray the weakness that pervaded her body. She would not reveal to her master how much he had just hurt her. The pain brought a wonderful sense of clarity to her mind. Although her body felt as though the top millimeter of flesh had been flayed from her skin, Zutia was a daughter of Agamar, a planet where independent spirits became hardy souls or became hearty meals. She would not beg her teacher for mercy, nor would she chastise him for what seemed an unsporting tactic. She would not thoughtlessly lash out at her opponent like a cornered beast. She would not disgrace herself by succumbing to the pain. She would endure this pain like any other she had faced in her life, overcome it, and learn from the experience. Zutia’s vision continued to fade in and out, but that was irrelevant. She had the Force; she had her heritage, and that was enough—more than enough. Harnessing the Dark Side, the Alcarazin acolyte gripped the hilt of her fallen lightsaber and yanked it towards her body, catching it effortlessly in the palm of her outstretched hand. “I’m not some mindless tool of destruction, Hephaestus.” Bringing the hilt of the lightsaber close to her waist, she ignited its crimson blade and sank down on her knees to the defensible posture that he had recently taught her. Her thigh muscles, already exerted by the duel and now punished by the Force Lightning, screamed at the unwelcome exertion and threatened to shake, but Zutia sank deeper in the Force to revitalize the protesting limbs. “Can that be defended against?”
  13. There was no resistance at all when the blade of Zutia’s lightsaber sliced into her teacher’s flesh, no sudden resistance or vibration, or seizure of movement when it hit bone, or any feedback in the hilt whatsoever. The only signature of the wound was the bitter scent of burning cloth and the unique reek of sizzling tissue that filled her senses as the crimson blade raked across her opponent’s skin. She almost dropped the weapon out of shock and an apology was on her lips. She briefly pondered how such a wound could be treated… or if it was even possible for her to treat it with her meager skills. If it was true that lightsabers instantly cauterized the wounds they inflicted after the passage of the blade… But that proved to be irrelevant, as her teacher straightened and turned to face her, concealing the bluish flesh that had been revealed by the slash of her lightsaber. She couldn’t help but stare at the exposed cords as the wound shifted out of view. Even hailing from a world as removed from the cosmopolitan core of the galaxy as Agamar, Zutia had met and worked with a number of alien species, but the sunburned woman had never conceived that her mentor, even taking into account the unnatural hue of his eyes, was anything but… human. But her opportunity to wonder exactly what species Hephaestus belonged to was dashed when the man returned his weapon to its guard and summoned his formidable strength to bash away her defenses with a series of crushing blows, continuing his lesson as though the agony of the wound meant nothing to him. Zutia felt the sleeve of her ebony cloak ripple as she felt… something rush past her and crash into the reinforced wall behind her. She glanced backwards, keeping the gleam of her mentor’s weapon in her peripheral vision, and saw that his telekinetic attack had partially caved in the wall. Zugtia returned her gaze to her master, only offering the man of unknown origins a sly smile. “Behold the power of the Force, then?” She inquired with a playful twitch of her eyebrows. Her teasing expression took on a sinister edge as she summoned the Force to her will, losing herself in the exhilarating rush of power that it offered. She had drawn taken plenty of lives in her existence—mostly non-sentient, but she had set foot on a few worlds where it was wiser to greet a stranger at the business end of a blaster—but never with much pleasure. It was watching a mindless herd bend itself to her will, that momentary flash of horror as a being that wished her harm realized that he was at her mercy that she relished. It was having complete control over the fate of a feeling creature that Zutia took pleasure in, whether it was a base animal, a sentient being, or, perhaps, even her own teacher. She formed a telekinetic fist around her mentor’s neck and squeezed with as firm a grip as possible, seeking to drive the very breath from his lungs. Pulling downward at his neck, Zutia sought to drag his body to the floor, where she could watch for a few seconds Hephaestus appreciated how well he had taught his pupil. The Agamarian didn’t want to kill the man, or even to permanently maim him, but the irony when their roles reversed would be delicious.
  14. As Zutia took an inward breath and focused on her unbending will to control and dominate her surroundings, her focused away from the flashes of light as her blade clashed with her teacher’s, instead staring blankly at an imaginary point a few inches before her face. Her features settled into an expression of mild concern, her brow furrowing in concentration as she pursed her dust-cracked lips. The second in which it took the Agamarian to harness the Force was nearly too long, for no sooner than she summoned her latent talents, Hephaestus’ blade came at her neck with an angry hum. Though the light of the massless blade was only barely visible in her peripheral vision, the Alcarazin pupil could already sense where the blade would intersect with her flesh before it landed. She could even feel her skin pucker into goosebumps. Holding the blade close to her body, her wrists instantly snapped the crimson edge of her lightsaber to protect herself and prepared for the heavy impact with a broad stance. The clash came with a heavy impact and Zutia forced his blade back with a powerful thrust from her arms. Her master immediately renewed the assault, but the Agamarian hunter gently angled away each attack before it became dangerous. Finally another slash came that threatened to bisect Zutia at the level of her neck. Taking a cautionary step back, Zutia swept the length of her blade along the tip of Hephaestus’ weapon, guiding it so that it passed harmlessly over her forehead. The Sith acolyte tightened her control of the Force and helped the momentum of her teacher’s weapon along with a gentle telekinetic nudge, then seized the advantage by hacking downward at her opponent’s shoulder. She had misjudged the range and neglected to take an advancing step to close the distance, so only the tip of her crimson blade would rake along the bone, but it would nevertheless be a crippling blow if it wasn’t evaded.
  15. Zutia watched her teacher’s motions intently, mimicking his stance as he sank down slightly so that the blade of his lightsaber protected more of the length of his body without requiring a split-second reaction. The posture was somewhat less solid than the stances that she had learned for steadying a blaster, but it made sense. Nimbleness and flight of foot mattered more in a duel with blades, especially with a lightsaber’s massless blade, where a sudden flick of a wrist could open a contender from navel to neck. Once she had learned to maintain her balance and gently redirect Hephaestus’ attacks with the tip of her blade rather than taking the brunt of the assault on its edge, Zutia began to almost enjoy herself until she was suddenly overwhelmed by a fierce offensive from her teacher. With a brutal crash of his lightsaber’s blade against her own, Hephaestus dashed away Zutia’s defenses with a stroke that betrayed a strength even greater than the Agamarian had earlier guessed. Pressing his advantage, he followed through with another strike on the backstroke. Zutia instantly realized that there was no way that she would be able to return her blade in time to defend against the slash that would turn her neck and head into a misshapen football. She darted backwards by instinct, almost jumping backwards and angling her head back to escape his blade. The blaze of his lightsaber’s blade swept under her chin, humming angrily as it harmlessly passed her by. A flick of her wrist returned the massless edge of her weapon to a guard position, Zutia frowned past the glare at her teacher. Again and again, the man had had the opportunity to kill her, and their first meeting showed that he certainly had the power to snuff out her life without much of a struggle. And yet, he had offered her training, artifacts that were nearly unique in the galaxy, and weapons with which his pupil could possibly kill him even by accident. It was possible that the man was a sadist that was taking some private delight in toying with his prey for hours before he moved in for the kill, but Hephaestus didn’t quite strike her as a sadist. He clearly enjoyed some delight in her admiration of the artifacts that he had just given her. Hephaestus had saved her from so many of her own mistakes that there was no possibility that he had malign intentions towards her. And with that in mind, Zutia decided that she did trust him. The Agamarian returned the onslaught with greater enthusiasm, relying on the discipline of her wrists, already honed by her practice with blasters, rather the brute force of her somewhat slender arms. Zutia was not flimsy in any stretch of the imagination even as the muscles of her arms burned pleasantly within the confines of her black cloak, but it was obvious that her strength was nothing compared to her master’s. Instead of trying to attempt the same clash of blades that had thrown aside her own barrier, she focused on trying to bypass her master’s defenses with the tip of her lightsaber and unexpected adjustments of the angle of her attack. After several exchanges, Zutia lunged forward and stabbed towards her teacher’s abdomen. Already expecting the parry that harmlessly deflected her assault off to the side, the huntress used the energy of that redirection to loop around her blade with a flick of her wrist in an attack that would neatly amputate his leg at the knee.
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