One Breath
by Allison E. Lane

Deep in the heart of the Trayus Academy on the ruins of Malachor V, the door ahead of me slid open at my touch and I cautiously advanced through into the next room, a long wide gallery with pillars evenly spaced along the walls. Though the room appeared to be empty, I could sense that I was drawing closer to where Kreia--my onetime mentor and teacher--awaited my arrival. Just ahead of me--a door at the far end of the gallery emerged from the gloom. Kreia was somewhere on the other side. I held my lightsaber at the ready and started forward.

Then the cold weight that had pressed against the back of my mind since I had crawled from the wreckage of the Ebon Hawk blossomed into a suffocating awareness as a shadow detached itself from a pillar and moved to intercept me. I recognized the signature in the Force only too well--I had barely been able to escape him at the ruined Sith Academy on Korriban.

Darth Sion.

"You should not have come to Malachor," he said quietly.

I halted, breathing heavily. Even though my connection to the Force felt stronger than it had been in the days before my exile from the Jedi Order, fighting my way through the Sith in the halls of the Academy had taken its toll. I was sweating profusely beneath my robes. In contrast, Sion looked as calm and collected as someone seething with the rage of the dark side possibly could be. He stood perfectly still, arms hanging loosely at his sides, his one good eye boring into me with icy intensity, making no move to step forward and strike. Warily, I relaxed from my defensive stance and deactivated my lightsaber.

"She will break you," Sion continued in the same even tone. There was no need to ask of whom he spoke. "Your mind, your body--you will be lost. Return to the surface, let the planet claim you, as it claimed the other Jedi... there is no reason for you to suffer at her hands."

I blinked. Being warned away from Kreia was the last thing I had expected him to say. Carefully, I reached out with a tendril of the Force, only to be instantly rebuffed by a molten wall of mental steel. His defenses were excellent. I could discern nothing of his agenda, only that there was no duplicity in his words. No trap lay in wait, no betrayals were in store. There was only him, and his inexplicable will to prevent me from going any further into the Academy.

"Are you showing me mercy?" I asked, my voice hoarse and unnaturally loud in the silence of the room.

He did not move when he replied; there was a stillness about him that was unsettling in one whose being positively radiated agony. "It is not mercy. What awaits you will weaken you. She will break you, as she did me, and you will no longer know yourself."

I blinked again, squinting at him as if doing so would give me greater clarity of mind. No answers were forthcoming from his. "Why are you telling me this?"

Sion began to move towards me, each step measured and calculated, and though I was able to sense he meant me no harm, my thumb still instinctively went to the activation switch on my lightsaber. "You and her are alike," he replied with his odd metallic timbre, "yet different, in all the ways that matter." His voice grew hard, though the tone was still soft. "And I hate you as I hate her. I hate you because you crawl within my head as she does, but your presence holds no thoughts, no teachings. You are just... there, unspoken."

He stopped barely a foot away from me, and I found myself arrested by his eyes--those dead, cold eyes that burned--as his ungloved hand drifted up to caress the air by my cheek. I half-shuddered, half-flinched away from the cold I felt there. "I hate you because you are beautiful to me. And in that weakness lies death."

Sion let his hand fall back to his side, and like the disjointed pieces of a puzzle coming together, his purpose began to make sense.

There is no reason for you to suffer...

You are just there, unspoken...

He sought to turn me away because there was something in him that perhaps could still feel, after a fashion... and that part of him, for whatever reason, wanted to see me remain safe and untouched by Kreia's hands.

Shaken, I drew in a deep breath and tried to let Jedi calm flow through me as I let it out. My voice wasn't quite as steady as I'd hoped it would be. "Where is Kreia, Sion?"

Sion returned my gaze impassively, gesturing behind him with a casual flick of his hand. "She awaits on the Trayus Core--the heart of this planet. But you will never reach her."

He did not state it as a threat, but as fact. He did not intend to let me pass, but I had to--I had to face Kreia. I knew it, knew it more surely than anything I had ever known in my life. But how to make him understand without coming to blows?

"Sion," I said as firmly as I could, "Kreia is using you... using us. She hopes I'll kill you here as a test of my strength."

The tone and cadence of his voice did not change. "Turn aside, then--deny her what she wants."

I sighed. Turning aside was the last thing I could do. I had come to Malachor to finish what Kreia had begun, and I intended to see my mission through. "I'm not turning back," I said resolutely. "Please... stand aside."

Sion looked down at me, and the sheer force of his desire to keep me from Kreia very nearly made me take a step back. "I cannot," he responded, the slow burn of his hatred leeching his words with an odd urgency. "If you pass, you shall not return as you are now. Return to Malachor--or go through me. There is no middle ground." For a moment I thought he would reach for me again, but he remained still. "Do not go to her... preserve yourself. You are strong--I cannot see as she does, but I know that in time you shall surpass her power. But not here... not in this place."

He was intractable. I could barely begin to guess whether it was his hate or some twisted kind of love that drove him. "Let us end this," I pleaded, returning his stare with equal intensity. I could sense that the time for bargaining was coming to a close, but I still did not want to fight him. "I bear no hatred for you... but I must pass."

Sion was silent for a long moment. Then he very deliberately drew his lightsaber and ignited it, the scarlet blade transforming his blind eye into a bottomless pool of blood.

"I am ready for you, exile," he declared grimly. "I have waited years to see the last of the Jedi fall before me, to join the rest that lie buried beneath this planet's core. The end of the Jedi is at hand."

As he swirled his lightsaber at me in a sudden dizzying attack, I was forced to reevaluate my conclusion that Sion meant me no harm. He would not view killing me as doing me harm--he would see it as a means of keeping me safe.

The twin violet blades of my lightsaber sprang to life as I brought it up to parry Sion's attack, and the fight was on.

Dueling my way through the Academy to this point had been draining, but taking on Darth Sion alone was nothing short of brutal. The force of his blows was enough to rattle the bones in my arms, yet they were not the products of an enraged and overheated mind. Each and every strike was calculated and precise. He attempted to drive me back to the gallery's exit, but I only just managed to hold my ground. He was clearly on the offensive, and though I truly did not want to harm him, remaining in a purely defensive mode wasn't going to suffice if I wanted to survive.

I aimed a disabling slash at his arm--and just as quickly found myself whirled around and pinned hard against a pillar, our crossed blades scant inches from my face. Sweat mingled with blood from an abrasion above my left eyebrow, threatening to blind me.

"Now you realize the true power of the dark side," Sion's low voice intoned from beyond the blazing cross of crimson and purple. "As long as the dark places of this world flow through the cracks of my flesh, I cannot be killed."

I ground my teeth together, digging my heel into the pillar at my back. "But you can be defeated," I shot back, and pressed against him with all my might, driving him back and freeing myself from the corner he had backed me into.

Sion retreated several steps to regard me with eyes that sparked with a cold fire. "You are strong," he observed, "as strong as I had believed. But my master knows you cannot defeat me. Surrender now, return to the surface of Malachor... do not force me to destroy you."

I lowered my lightsaber to my side, physically and mentally regrouping. I was beginning to realize that his purpose was twofold: in "saving" me, there would also be no one else but him to whom Kreia could turn for an apprentice, should she want one. But I knew this plan of his was in vain. Kreia would not have done all she had, manipulated galactic events to such a large degree, if she had not pinned the hopes of her own deviant plans on me and me alone. Sion was only a pawn to her now, and I found I could not let him believe otherwise.

"She has already chosen, Sion," I said quietly, letting the weight of the Force strengthen my words. "She's only using you now to test me."

Again, his face was inscrutable, and I was unable to tell whether I had affected him or not. "Should you die... then she will have no choice but to accept me at her side. My training shall be complete, as was intended."

Something inside me twisted painfully, a sudden sorrow so deep I had to gasp for air, as Sion confirmed my suspicions. I hadn't realized until then just how very conflicted, how very damaged, he was in what passed for his heart. He despised Kreia, yet yearned for her approval, for her to reclaim him as her apprentice. His hate for me was equally strong, yet he did not seek to destroy me as his competition, only to preserve me like an insect in crystal.

I had always instinctively sought to protect others--it had been that very instinct which had driven me to defy the Jedi Council and leave to fight in the Mandalorian Wars so long ago. Standing there then, staring at Sion with his dead, shattered body and coldly burning eyes, with me battered and bloody from his own blows, the desire to help him--to save him--rose up so swiftly it nearly swallowed me whole. His body could not be redeemed... his physical self was long past any hope of salvation. But perhaps there was still time enough to save his mind, his soul...

"Don't let her deceive you," I replied, and there was no forcing the sadness in my voice. "And stop deceiving yourself."

Sion stared at me for a long time, and I almost began to believe that he was giving consideration to my words. Then his jaw hardened.

"You intend to make me doubt her, doubt myself," he growled, and for the first time anger began to tint his voice. He held his lightsaber loosely, but I could tell he was coiled, poised to strike at any moment. "This is not a battle of words, exile. It is one of blood."

My hopes for a peaceful resolution to our impasse were slipping away. Keep him talking, find some way to reach him...

"Surrender now, Sion," I implored him. "I don't want to kill you."

He shifted resolutely into an attack stance, and I steeled myself for what I knew was coming. "If you will not leave this place, then I cannot allow you to pass," he said stonily, bringing up his lightsaber. "If you go before Kreia, you will be broken. If killing you will spare you what lies ahead, then kill you I must."

Again he leapt at me, and I whipped up my own saber to deflect the blow aimed at my heart. Scarlet and violet flashed off the polished stone walls of the gallery as our blades performed their deadly dance. Sion was strong, incredibly so, but even with the dark side flowing through his ruined body I could feel that he was beginning to tire. Not even he could maintain such a merciless attack forever.

Pressing my advantage, I ducked under Sion as he flipped forward and launched a kick at his ribs. The blow caught him unawares and sent him tumbling. Swiftly I darted forward to point my blade at his throat. The reversal of power had taken only a second. Incredibly, he did not even pant for breath, though I knew he had to be winded; he merely looked up at me without expression.

"If I die here, then you will have sealed your fate," he said simply.

"Sion," I began, and swallowed heavily. The blood from the cut above my eye had dried, but the sweat was still burning there. "Sion, even should you beat me, Kreia has marked you for death. You know this."

Still his expression did not change, and I felt no mental change through the Force either. I stepped away carefully, and Sion climbed back to his feet, looking none the worse for wear. He held out his hand and his lost lightsaber flew easily back into it. "No. It is you that she has marked for death--for suffering."

He stood confidently, but I could feel the fatigue seeping from him. He had not expected me to put up such a strong fight, but was inordinately pleased that I had done so. It only made him more determined to stop me or kill me, whichever would achieve his purposes first.

"You're weakening," I said softly, projecting all my compassion and conviction and resolve through the Force. If I was a wound in the Force, as the dead Jedi Masters on Dantooine--dead at Kreia's hand--had said, and I drew my strength from others, perhaps that connection could work both ways and I could send something of myself back. "I can feel it. Even your control can't keep your body together."

Sion almost appeared to waver for a split second, and my heart leapt. Then, quick as a striking rawl, our lightsabers were once again crossed.

"I still have the power to stop you," he replied steadily. "The Force runs strong through the screaming canyons of Malachor. I can die a hundred times, exile, and I will still rise again, as strong as before."

But his words were only yet another self-deception. Perhaps my drawing on his strength truly could work both ways, and I was unconsciously transmitting my weariness to him. Whatever the reason, it was clear to me that he was slowing down, his control over his body slipping. Our duel was not as fast and furious as it had been; our attacks were becoming broader and a trifle sloppy. Though we were evenly matched, I was close to gaining the upper hand for good, and I sensed that we both knew it. Just the same, we both knew I had no intention of killing him, while he would accept nothing less than my death or his.

Finally, a kick to the head sent me staggering backwards; some obscure feat of the Force allowed my flailing foot to sweep Sion's weight-bearing leg out from under him as I fell, and his resulting loss of grip on his lightsaber nearly took my arm off. I hit the floor hard, stars exploding in my eyes, and Sion collapsed forward on his knees.

A tense quiet descended upon the gallery, punctuated only by our ragged breathing.

As I stared up at the vaulted ceiling, willing the Force to dispel the dizziness in my head, Sion's low voice echoed between us.

"I will not fall. I cannot die."

The empty conviction in his voice lanced through me like a vibroblade. Slowly I rolled onto my side and got to my knees. Sion was close enough to touch, his shoulders hunched over in admittance of his defeat, staring sightlessly at the floor between his hands. His entire posture radiated failure, and the fact that he did not move when I got up to face him indicated submittal to my will. He was mine to do with as I wished.

His deactivated lightsaber lay a few feet away, as did mine. I ignored them.

"You have fallen," I whispered, "and you are dead. You only must admit it."

Torturously, he lifted his head to meet my eyes; the pain rolling off him was so intense, it left a metallic, blood-like taste on my tongue. His blind eye was no longer a pool of blood, but one of emptiness, and his good eye searched my face almost beseechingly. "Why?" he rasped. "Why did she choose you? What makes you able to defeat me, defeat me here?"

I tentatively reached out to place a hand on his shoulder. The flow of the Force in his skin was so intensely cold it seared my hand like immersion in a blue flame. Though I couldn't quite suppress a flinch at the initial pain, I didn't move away, and held Sion's gaze evenly. "Because I was able to turn away from the Force," I said quietly. "And you could not."

Sion shook his head slowly. "It is not possible to walk away from such things unscarred. To keep living when the universe dies around you."

I smiled at him then, a tiny, wan, melancholy quirk of the lips, and shifted my full weight to my knees so I could put both my hands on his shoulders. Again burning pain shot through my fingers, but I held firm. "To face death and keep standing--it leaves scars, yes. But it also leaves room to heal."

He bowed his head again, as though he was unable to meet my gaze any longer. I could sense his reluctance to believe in me, and I wondered just how long he had existed in his suspended state between life and death--and what had driven him to believe he had no other option but to continue on in such agony. "The Force is who I am," he responded hollowly, almost desperately. "The dark side fills me. It is who I am."

I gripped his shoulders tightly. The skin beneath my hands was gray, rough, fractured. He had probably been handsome, once. Now there was very little left of him that could even be considered human. I knew he would not want my pity for that, and anyway I had no pity to give him. All I felt was an all-consuming compassion and even a kind of love. In his own way, Sion had loved me enough to try and save me; I would honor him with the same consideration and respect.

"The Force fills an empty, shattered shell," I said gently, and he tensed under my hands. "There is little left of the man you once were--you know this. It is the truth, Sion... you feel it."

He was still for a long moment, and then he slowly drew in a deep breath, as if savoring one of the last vestiges of humanity left to him.

"Let go," I whispered. "It is not such a terrible thing."

Don't be afraid.

Ever so slightly, I felt the tension begin to leave Sion's body. Finally, he drew himself up into a sitting position, and I let my hands slip down into my lap. Looking up at his face, I could see that it was no longer so tortured and twisted. A calm seemed to be filling him, and even his ever-present pain was beginning to recede. After a moment's reflection, I reached out again to take one of his hands in mine and he didn't pull away.

"What kind of life have you lived with the Force flowing through you?" I asked softly. "Was it worth living?"

Sion stared at our joined hands for what felt like an eternity. Then he shook his head.

"It... it was not. No matter how many I killed, there was no end to the pain... the blades the Force tore through my flesh." He looked to me as if searching for judgement. I met his eyes unflinchingly, pouring my love and understanding into the thread of life I drew from him, and said silently, I forgive you.

No one is past redemption. Not even you.

A beat, then he inclined his head, and I knew he had heard me.

The pain Sion radiated was nearly gone, and the icy fire of his skin had melted into a subtle warmth. His eyes were at peace. I could see myself reflected in them, the living doll he had wished to retain forever as a vision of perfect strength.

"Kreia," he said suddenly. "She will try to break you, to teach you how far someone can fall. Her weakness... is you. As you were mine."

I nodded, and squeezed his hand, aware of a tightness in my throat that had nothing to do with dark Force control.

I understand. Thank you.

He smiled then, just a little, and bowed his head for the last time. "I am glad to leave this place... at last."

He exhaled slowly, letting go the breath he had held, and then faded away just as surely as if he had never been there in the first place.


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