Malak paused in his march to what appeared to be an ancient castle of some sort. It had all the fortifications and defenses of a fort, but did not appear to be built for the purpose of battlefield supremacy. It was most likely some sort of a stronghold – a castle of the ancients. Today, it was blanketed in a thick layer of snow, much like rest of the landscape.
Malak was covered head to toe in several layers of wrapping of Zabuyrek cloth. Originating from an obscure outer-rim planet, the Zabuyrek clothing was excellent at combating cold, especially in its most severe forms. Malak could feel the biting cold at some points, but he was thankful to the trader who sold the rare Zabuyrek clothes. He was on the planet of Nenoi IX, a relatively well-settled Republic-aligned planet in the inner side of the outer rim. The planet generally had pleasant weather, except for its infamous winters, which could be very punishing for the unprepared.
He got off his Vulkar Horse, a special breed of horse with Core Worlds origin, but surprising adaptability. With distinct horns and thick fur, it almost appeared like a cross between a bantha and a taun-taun, if one knew of both animals in one lifetime. Malak took his buzzing holo-communicator out and turned it on, receiving a mostly broken transmission from his new Master, Darth Revan. The message came in garbled at first, but Malak could extract most of the rest.
“… have convinced him to join our cause and (static) your position?”
Malak took that as a cue to reveal his position and answered, allowing his mouth some space by lowering the cloth that was tied so firmly over it. “Near our target’s castle, I’ll be inside in minutes.”
“A castle? That’s fancy.” Revan remarked.
“True – and there are no living organisms within sight. He must be one isolated hermit. Still, I’m getting concerned.”
“Concerned? What is there to be concerned about, Malak?”
“If he alerts my presence to the Order. I think we’re taking one risk too many.”
“Don’t worry, Malak – he cut his ties from the Order a long time ago. He believes in his own way of the Force and chooses apathy in Galactic Politics. He wouldn’t even know who you are – let alone care about that. Master Tachmanov even refuses the title of Master, believing that he is not a Jedi.”
“I didn’t see him in the Archives.”
“That is because they deleted all traces of him. That is the way the Jedi work. They might lie to you that Tachmanov never existed, that it is a hoax – but we know better than this now. They are hypocrites, ignorant pigs and are falsely leading the Republic into decay so vile, the effects shall echo for millennia.”
“True. Then perhaps we can turn Tachmanov to our cause.”
“Never. He will slay you before he does. Tachmanov… I don’t know how to describe it. He believes in an ancient Decht code, known as Vardun-Nich’are, or Self-Belief. He is so insanely egoistic – and yet so unnaturally selfless. Use caution around him.”
“Revan, I’m losing you! Anything important?”
“Oh yes, there is one thing – you must (static), I repeat, NEVER give (static)”
“Revan, I can’t hear you, it’s all static!” The line was dead. Revan?
Malak cursed his luck and waited for a good minute for the connection to restore. It didn’t. He gave up and proceeded to leave.
* * * * * * * * * *
Malak stood in the Main Courtyard of the castle, a large stone-floored square, today covered in a thick cover of snow. The overcast had left and dull, golden sunlight poured in, giving the snow a fantastical glow. Malak admired the beauty, and concentrated the Force to raise the snow. It was difficult at first, and many bits fell off - but the blanket eventually rose as one and formed a dome. The sunlight wasn't present anymore, except in the form of a trapped light in the newly formed roof. The rest was now bathed in an ethereal blue and grey of antiquity.
Two corridors, one at each side of the courtyard led to the next courtyard, which was possibly where the proud ruler of the castle would have assembled a small force of cavalry to terrorize the feudally bound surrounding towns. Malak found a dead Vulkar horse here, almost as if satirizing the jaded futility of the feudal cavalries that once reigned supreme. Its remains were being eaten by a larger creature hunched over it. Malak could not tell what animal it was, and observed it for a while, noting its rather selective eating habits.
The animal had two forward-pointing horns from a little behind his jaws, and a large frame, standing upto two meters in height. Massive hands with sharp claws suggested that it was a carnivore, and its two muscular legs suggested that it must be an arboreal creature. It was covered in dense, bluish fur and had blood red eyes. It ate the Vulkar Horse very specifically and stopped completely after a while. Malak realized that his presence had been noted by the creature. It turned around and its ghastly eyes pored into Malak's. It let out a slow growl, as if questioning Malak his identity.
Malak calmly looked back, keeping his hand on his lightsaber. The animal dropped to its hands, maintaining a four-limb stand. It looked like it was about to charge, or ready to, at least. It growled once more, and took a cautious step forward. Malak took special interest in the beast's jaws, which were almost lined by the impeccably horns. Almost eight inches in length, and sharp like a blade, the devices were best used in dissecting the prey, or countering an attack to the face or neck. On the contrary, the also made eating far more difficult, and that was possibly the cause the creature had to eat so intricately. Ironic, that they made the use of the jaw almost useless.
The animal made a slightly louder grunt and turned to resume its feast. However, it turned too late. Malak mistook the grunt for a declaration of war, and the turning for a preparation to charge. Instinct ignited his lightsaber and placed his body in a trained fighting pose. The animal was provoked - it howled and charged towards the intruder. Malak's mind cleared up. All of his curious wondering was replaced by techniques and strategies of war. He swung at the air, to mislead the beast and leaped with the Force propelling him. He landed behind the beast.
As he was about to stab it with laser energy, the beast struck Malak with its enormous paws. Malak dropped, but did not fly as his feet were entrenched within the snow. The beast's face was inches from his face, its teeth gritting and gnashing. Malak found himself gnashing teeth in return. He hopped back, to get distance and made an improvised, yet graceful stroke to cleanly behead the animal. The move was inarticulate, and resulted in a grotesque beheading. The animal's upper back, neck and lower jaw were intact with the body. The upper jaw and above lay on the snow, with an expression of shock.
Malak heaved and watched the frozen face, an expression that made sense only on its living body minutes ago. His eyes darted to a shadow in one of the corridors at the border. Malak got up and holstering his lightsaber, went to investigate. The shadow had been small, not more than that of an adolescent child. What was it?
He was in the same corridor he had come in. There was no one there. The corridor was just barely illuminated in grey by the sunlight from the courtyard. "Who's there?" he called out, to be met by no response. As he turned around, he almost jumped. A small figure was standing at his feet, about three and a half feet in height. It was a human child, but appeared to be in a state of unnatural malnutrition. It had large eyes, which pored into Malak's with all the curiosity in the galaxy. Rugged hair on top and wearing only rags, it bore an immense smile on its face. It almost didn't look human.
"Who are you?" Malak asked. The child did not reply. It was frozen. "Who are you, kid?" Malak asked again.
"Go not places not comprehend you." the child spoke, with one hand pointing towards the animal. "Grim fate you."
"Indeed." Malak agreed, kneeling on one knee to be level with the child. "Then why are you here?"
The child giggled, and did not stop for several seconds. Malak shared a chuckle, but could not see what the child found especially funny. "What?" he asked, when the child hadn't stopped. It did not stop - it laughed out loud, almost out of insanity. Malak was growing concerned. Who is this?
He ignited his lightsaber, to frighten the child. The child did stop laughing, but in a strictly mechanical manner. It was almost as if someone had hit the pause button on his laughter. It just stopped. "Then why are you here?" it repeated.
"To find a man named Tachmanov - have you ever heard of him?"
"Follow." the child instructed and turned around. It made two paces before repeating "Go not places not comprehend you."
"Yes, now do you know where Tachmanov is or not?"
The child giggled softly and sprinted into the darkness. Malak decided to follow him. He didn't have a choice. Discarding the child's garbled warning, he proceeded into the darkness. He kept walking into the dark corridor.
* * * * * * * * * * *
How long had it been since he had entered the dark corridor? Minutes? Hours? Malak kept walking, but he did could not see where he walked. The darkness obscured all, including his own body. He ignited his lightsaber, but he could not see a blade, or proof that it was working. He yelled out into the darkness, but there was no sound. Countless times had he looked back to see that blue-grey entrance where he had entered the corridor from, but it was nowhere in sight. Malak did not even know where he walked anymore. Am I even walking? Do I exist? Where am I?
The two walls that had defined his path had vanished. Malak could not feel anything, not even a floor beneath his legs. Am I falling?
He could not ascertain what direction he was looking in - was it up, or down?
Malak's mind began to spin. He had to control it. Control is the key. His mind went back to a lesson Master Kavar had lent him years ago. Concentrate on an idea, a symbol, a word and all else becomes irrelevant. Tachmanov. This is his doing
. Malak knew that there existed abilities in the Force where one can entrap the other in a world built of illusion. The idea was too cruel for the Jedi to master, and the Sith did not have enough patience to. Only a man like Tachmanov could do such a thing.
Malak made a mental note to learn this ability from Tachmanov at all costs. He still did not know why Revan had sent him here. Was it to learn? Or was it to kill Tachmanov? "You will know when you get there." was all he had said. Presently, Malak repeated the word Tachmanov over and over, as if in a trance. Once he was sure he had re-established his grip over his mind, he yelled "Tachmanov! Show yourself!"
There was no response. Malak felt a sensation as if something was clawing into the back of his brain. "Tachmnov, show yourself!" he repeated. No response.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Malak opened his eyes to be greeted by a white vista. I was asleep? Unconscious? Where is the darkness? What is going on?
He was in a pine forest, covered in snow. Most of the pines were dead, their empty branches hanging out like numb limbs. It wasn't snowing. Malak looked to the sky - it was pure white. He had never seen a purer white. He got to his feet.
Once he was up, he surveyed his surroundings. Where am I?
He noticed a figure in a black cloak, much like Revan's. The figure was walking through the pines, as if taking a casual walk. It disappeared behind a tree. "Who's there?" Malak called out. His attention diverted to the same figure, but in a completely different direction. This time, it was standing completely motionless in a distance. In a second, Malak realized that it was only inches away from him.
He staggered back and gasped. The figure exploded in a cloud of smoke. Malak was reminded of the illusion theory. Smoke. This is all a show. Tachmanov's show
. "Give it up, Tachmanov. I know all about you." he called out. He saw the figure again, in a distance. The figure was changing its location rapidly, but in an unusual manner. Malak's mind could not see the figure disappear from a location or move, it was as if the figure had always been at that point. This unnerved him, and yet he could help but feel admiration for Tachmanov.
At last his patience was tried. The figure was concentrated ten meters away from him. It did not move. It did not respond to Malak's words. It was just a mannequin in the middle of the forest. Malak ignited his lightsaber. As he looked down at it, he realized that he was in his black-yellow suit. His Zabuyrek clothing was gone. I should be feeling cold. He was not feeling cold. He ignored it. It is all just part of the illusion
He charged towards the cloaked figure and sliced it neatly with his lightsaber. The cloak fell to the ground, empty. Malak paused and examined the cloak. He touched it.
Malak was standing in the middle of the forest again. What happened to the cloak? What is going on here?
His lightsaber was on his belt, and his surroundings had been reset. He was back where he started. This is greatest illusion in the galaxy. I must learn it.
"I seek to learn under you!" Malak announced into the forest. For a moment's pause there was no response and Malak's mind cursed itself for the futility of the attempt. Then a voice came into Malak's head, "You seek to learn." He could not tell whose voice it was. It wasn't a tangible, repeatable voice. It was neither male nor female, not human or alien, high-pitched or low-pitched. It was just there, with a message clear as a crystal.
"Yes." Malak responded.
"But you are learned. What do you seek to learn?"
Malak pondered upon the question. Before he could construct an answer, the voice continued. "Or, more importantly, why do you seek to learn?"
"To be perfect." Malak replied, "To be impeccable, to be unconquerable."
"Perfection. The lack of weakness. You seek to destroy your weaknesses, not to learn. I can help you destroy your weaknesses."
"Who are you?"
"I am what you make me. Ironically, you are what I make you."
"How will you destroy my weaknesses?"
"You must first identify them. Have you? What is your greatest weakness?"
Malak wondered. He could not come up with an answer. What is my greatest weakness?
"Weakness is dependence. The lack of self-sufficiency. The lack of being able to exist independently. What skill, what element of you cannot exist independently? What can you not be
Malak spent a while and replied, "The Force. The Force is what has made me. It is what I am."
"Is it? Demonstrate."
Malak tried to tap into the Force. He couldn't. He realized that he had been blinded to the Force. "Wait, what is this? I can't feel the Force!" Malak complained.
"You can be
without the Force, this much can be seen. It is not your greatest weakness."
Malak thought more and came up with another answer. "My body. I cannot be without my body."
"Is that so? You are not in your body right now as you weren't in the darkness. Your body is elsewhere. But you are
Malak instinctively responded "My perceptions. My sight, smell, hearing - that has to be it."
"You were blinded and deafened, but you were
Malak remembered the fearsome darkness. He saw that the voice meant. "Then it must be my beliefs. I am because of my beliefs."
"But you have cast them down numerous times. The Jedi Order, the Republic, and in the future, many more. You betray your beliefs regularly, but you still are."
"Is it my mind, then?"
"You discard that as well, such as when you slew the beast. Ironic, that beasts cannot think, sentients can. And still, you acted on impulse, without thinking, while the beast thought better to avoid the confrontation. And again, you demonstrated your hate of control by attacking the black cloak."
"What is it, then? What is it that I cannot live without, that is so important to me?"
"Why did the beast die?"
Malak was speechless. What does that mean? He just died.
"Why did it not survive?"
I don't know.
Shock overcame Malak. The words never came out. He could not speak. His jaws were clenched tight. "It is because the beast could not speak." the figure continued.
Stop this. Let me speak!
There was no voice.
"The beast could not tell you that it wanted to live. That it did not want the fight. The beast could not communicate."
"That is what makes you, Malak. Communication. It makes you who you are. It separates you from the beast."
No! You will stop this.
"And as I promised, I will destroy your weakness. I will destroy your speech, which you are so dependent on."
Malak's hands grasped the lightsaber and ignited it. Don't do this!
The brilliant white blade had lost its sparkling beauty in the white ocean that he was drowning in. Malak's body assumed a trained combat stance.
"Perfect. Impeccable. Unconquerable."
Malak's hands twisted around their wrists in a grotesque and unnatural manner, so that the lightsaber was pointing to Malak's face. To Malak's jaw. Malak could feel his heart sink, it felt as if it was being buried in the deepest hole possible in the galaxy. This is an illusion. This is a test. Nothing is going to happen
. The deformed hands elegantly lifted themselves so that the end of the lightsaber almost met Malak's upper jaw to the right. My heart. Is this by body? Is Tachmanov lying?
The lightsaber teetered closer. No
The pain was the most intense Malak had ever felt. It was as if all the suns in the galaxy had been concentrated on his jaw. Malak wanted to scream so loud, that his lungs would explode. His jaw was shut. The lightsaber dug deeper. Through Malak's bulging red eyes, a river of tears flowed in the pain. He wanted to clench his fists so hard that the nails would pass through their palms. But they were already clenched on his lightsaber.
It lasted an eternity. The lightsaber passed and as soon as the last shred of his jaw had been severed, it fell. Malak's body fell limb and his collapsed to the ground, his hands numb and his brain exploding from the pain. He fell to the snow and got back up.
He couldn't speak. The black figure was gone. With a shuddering hand, Malak passed his right palm through the region of air where once his jaw was firmly held in place. He could feel the soft roof of his mouth. His body spasmed in shock. His eyes continued to flow. Malak dropped to his knees. What have you done to me?
"This is what you wished for." A darkness settled on Malak. He passed out, but before he did, the three words echoed in his mind: Perfect. Impeccable. Unconquerable.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Malak came to as he was sitting on his Vulkar Horse. He was on the same mountainous path to the castle. His horse was standing obediently. Malak was wrapped in Zabuyrek clothing. As his eyes came to focus, he could see the castle. It was the exact location he had contacted Revan.
Malak recounted the events that had occurred. They concluded with the horrific dismemberment of Malak's mandible. Malak shuddered in shock and his eyes opened wide. He could not feel the warm pocket of air every time he breathed. He stretched the palm of his shivering right palm. He felt no cold, except the ominous one residing below his upper jaw. He touched the wrapping just below the upper jaw and the wrapping gave way. There was nothing underneath.
Malak's jaw had been severed. Perfect. Impeccable. Unconquerable