Dragon's LibraryCompassion
by BeElleGee

Rated R violence, adult situations

Disclaimer: All things Star Wars belongs to GL and Lucasfilm Ltd. This is just a twisted hobby of mine. No money will exchange hands from it, I guarantee it.

***

The Force stirred. Lying naked on the cool stone floor of his room, Maul woke slowly. Slick with perspiration and shivering slightly, he realized his raging fever had broken sometime in the night, but his mind was still murky and struggled to interpret just what the Force was trying to tell him.

Feeling mysteriously vulnerable and full of adolescent apprehension, he defensively curled his aching body into a tighter ball. A familiar darkness soon settled over him and seeped into his consciousness. It was a call for action: one Maul preferred to ignore. However, there was no denying the presence he sensed. An entire season had passed, yet it remained unmistakable. With it, his period of solitude had come to an end.

Lord Darth Sidious had returned.

Cursing under his breath at his master's untimely arrival, Maul gathered the Force to him, used it to push aside the sharp pain in his head and summon the strength to rise and get dressed. His trembling muscles were stiff with disuse and protested even the slightest movement he made. Maul knew it didn't matter how ill he was, he needed to be there - at the landing platform - when his master arrived.

***

Stalking through the dim, twisted corridors, Maul's overheated mind tried to rationalize the undisciplined state he had indulged in the past few days. He had not trained. He had not studied. Or meditated. He had only slept fitfully and dreamed of dying - a welcome release from the grip of his wretched fever. Fortunately it had not come to that. He wasn't completely convinced yet that he was ready to die that way having just immerged from puberty. There were still too many things he wanted to accomplish first.

Maul turned down the narrow hall which led directly to the old castle's hangar. He deliberately slowed his pace to give himself a few more moments, but the young Sith still couldn't think of anything to say to his master to stave off the inevitable punishment. Maul knew his illness would not matter. Sidious would only see weakness and weakness was never tolerated. The punishment was deserved, Maul concluded gloomily.

Darth Sidious was already descending the boarding ramp when Maul arrived. Cloaked in shadows and a heavy blue cowl, the Dark Lord raised his hand slowly, hailing his apprentice.

The younger Sith hurried towards the ship and awkwardly crashed to his knees at the foot of the ramp, submissively bowing his head and lowering his eyes.

"Welcome back, Master Sidious," Maul's voice rasped. His usually deep, silky rumble was currently raw-sounding from lack of use as much as the fever.

Sidious paused momentarily and regarded his young apprentice distastefully. His keen senses dutifully informed him of everything he needed to know and more thoroughly than anything Maul could say.

"You've been ill," the Sith Lord stated flatly.

"Yes Master," Maul confirmed and cleared his throat. He heard Sidious sigh.

"You will need to train even harder these next few weeks to make up for your distinct lack of progress in my absence then," the Dark Lord said and apathetically shuffled off.

Maul dared to look up. "That was my intention, Master."

"Good," Sidious announced, effectively dismissing the matter. "You may rise and walk with me." He waited for Maul to stand before continuing. "I've brought you back something. It's in the ship," he added, almost as an afterthought, and gestured limply behind him.

The young Sith was startled by this revelation. It was not like his master to bestow him with gifts. He turned his head and glanced back at the ship curiously.

"Thank you, My Master," he managed to reply. "May I ask what it is?"

Sidious chuckled humorlessly. "Ah, the impatience of youth." He took several steps before continuing. "You'll see soon enough, Boy."

Maul quickly swallowed down his next question and nodded sharply. He followed his master out of the hangar and into the south passage.

"So tell me, before you were stricken," Sidious began, mockingly emphasizing 'stricken', "how far did you get with the empath droid?"

Maul raised his chin. "Level four, Master."

"And the passkeeper?"

"I destroyed that droid, Master."

The Dark Lord nodded thoughtfully. "How long do you think it will take you to recover that level of accuracy and speed?"

The Sith Apprentice frowned, flexing his back and rolling his shoulders to test his current level of pain and muscle tone. "An hour... perhaps two." Maul licked his dry, cracked lips. "I have not trained in a few days."

"Yes, I am aware." Now Sidious frowned. "Don't try to impress me by lying to me, Boy. Failure at this point would prove most unpleasant for you." He lengthened his stride and continued on into the main drawing room. "Deception would only compound it," he informed after lowering the hood of his cloak and locking his eyes on Maul.

Ire rose in the young Sith. "My Lord, I am not deceiving you," he replied, struggling to keep his tone respectful. "I only need an hour, at most, to regain my strength and speed. Admittedly, my stamina may require more attention, but you did not question that." He faced Sidious challengingly, feeling empowered by his sudden anger.

A slow smile crept across Darth Sidious' countenance. Maul's arrogance pleased him. He knew his apprentice would not disappoint him.

"But you will also need stamina... for what awaits you in my ship, Young One," Sidious went on cryptically. He took a seat with a heavy sigh and continued to peer up at Maul expectantly. "Go and see to them. They are quite valuable."

"Is it a new type of droid then, Master? For training?" Maul tried to sound pleased but his enthusiasm went flat at the idea of more droids. He sighed and closed his eyes briefly. He could only hope these would prove a little more challenging than the ones he had been facing lately.

The Force surrounding Darth Sidious became charged with his irritation and radiated towards Maul with a suffocating toxicity. "No, not another droid, My Presumptuous Apprentice," he proclaimed sourly, leaning forward slightly. He waited until he sensed the appropriate amount of humiliated submission in Maul, then he smiled cruelly, and settled back in his chair. "I have brought you a Jedi."

Maul's heart jumped and his breath caught in his throat. That was the last thing he expected his master to say. "A.. a Jedi?" A gift indeed.

Sidious' gaze was unwavering. "Yessss," he hissed. "A Jedi Knight and his healer padawan, in fact. They are in the ship's hold. They'll wake soon. You need to transfer them to the dungeons before they do."

Maul's mind was still struggling to grasp it all. His heart pounded and a carefully cultivated hatred now coursed through his veins with almost unbearable intensity. "I will be allowed to kill them, won't I?"

The Sith Lord snickered. "In time. In time. For now, you will use the knight to sharpen your skills in one on one combat. A living, thinking adversary will be beneficial at this point in your training. It will also give you a taste for the kill. You'll find humanoids are quite different from animals and machines. And their deaths are far more satisfying."

Maul inhaled sharply as he pondered his master's words. Death. Feeling someone die. Sensing their life ebb away until they are simply... no more. The death of a Jedi. And by his hand! He couldn't think of anything more empowering. What a sublime victory defeating a Jedi Knight would be.

"We will also use the padawan, only in a different way," Sidious continued. "Keep the child with you for now. I want the padawan subdued, but not harmed just yet. Once separated, the two Jedi's bond must remain open and strong if this plan is to work."

"Master, I thank you again!" the Sith Apprentice rang out with a distorted sense of joy. "You have truly honored me with this consideration."

Sidious nodded and blinked his eyes slowly. "I feel the bloodlust in you, Maul. It nearly consumes you. But I must warn you not to surrender to it until I allow you to." The Dark Lord fixed his pale eyes on his young apprentice. "These Jedi were hard to come by. I brought them to you to instruct you. Not for you to just exterminate."

This was even more startling to Maul. A rush of indignation washed over him. "What can they teach me? My skills are well beyond any Jedi's, Master. I will fight them, but I cannot guarantee I will be able to keep them alive for long."

"Don't try my patience, Young One," Sidious growled menacingly. "Are you saying your skills with a lightsaber leave no room for improvement?"

Maul immediately shook his head. "No, Master, I didn't--"

"Would you care to put these ultimate skills of yours to the test then?" Darth Sidious continued, cutting Maul's denial off. "Against an entire legion of Jedi? It can be arranged."

"Master Sidious, forgive my impertinence. I only meant--"

"Enough!" the Sith snapped. "Return to the ship. See that the Jedi are placed under heavy guard. Tend to their needs... and then you may resume your studies." Sidious paused and rose ceremoniously. "I am weary and wish to retire. You, on the other hand will continue training until I come to fetch you is that understood?"

"Yes Master." Maul nodded and lowered his eyes, a mixture of relief and dejection washing over him simultaneously. The punishment was lenient, but it also meant he would not fight the Jedi today. Perhaps Sidious could sense the remnants of Maul's fever-induced lethargy. Was it possible he was concerned for him then?

"Go Boy, what are you waiting for?" the Dark Lord grumbled.

Maul swallowed hard. "Master... I am anxious to use the Jedi to train. If I promise to show restraint, may I have your permission? It would offer me a unique incentive to speed my recovery."

Sidious stared up at Maul for a long time before erupting in laughter.

"Patience, My Apprentice! Patience!" he chastised, but regarded Maul's enthusiasm with cool approval. "You will have your chance soon enough. In the meantime, we need to let our Jedi friends adjust to their new surroundings. It will encourage them to quickly come to terms with what I will propose to them later." He sneered wickedly and placed his hand on Maul's arm. "They will comply, I promise you. Their compassion for each other will insure it."

"Yes Master," Maul conceded and bowed deeply as Sidious left the room.

***

Maul returned to the docked ship as instructed, and ordered four battle droids and four utility droids to the hangar to assist him with transporting the two unconscious Jedi to the lower levels.

Climbing the boarding ramp to the ship's interior, Maul gathered the Force to him to sharpen his senses. He drew his lightsaber instinctively as the presence of the two Jedi suddenly filled his awareness. He heard the droids clamoring up the ramp behind him and turned to motion them forward.

"There are two prisoners in the hold," he informed the droids quietly. "I will need your assistance in transporting them. They will not be able to walk on their own and will need to be carried. Nevertheless, stay on alert. They may waken at any time."

"Yes Sir," the highest ranking battle droid acknowledged. It turned to the utility droids. "Have two lift crafts standing by."

"Yes Sir."

Cautiously, Maul entered the hold first, lightsaber in hand, poised and ready for a confrontation, but the two Jedi remained in their drug-induced sleep, tethered together to a back wall of the ship's hold by means of electronic restraining devices.

The Jedi Knight was facing the wall. Long golden hair spilled down his back and over massive shoulders, veiling his down-turned face. He was a full head taller than Maul, with long, powerful limbs and a lithe, athletic body which he had angled in such a way as to protectively sheild his small padawan who was tucked tightly against his right side.

Maul nodded in approval. This Jedi Knight may prove to be a worthy adversary after all. His strength and size alone would undoubtedly put the young Sith's skills to the test.

Out of curiosity, Maul stepped forward and grabbed a handful of the Jedi's hair and jerked his head back to study him closer, but the Jedi's particular species was unknown to the Sith. His exotic face was fierce-looking, like a carnivorous animal's. Tan human-like skin was lightly covered in short tawny fur and he had a feline's flat, broad nose, and small slanted eyes rimmed in black. The young Sith inquisitively pushed up the Jedi's cleft upper lip which revealed a generous mouthful of pointed white teeth and long lethal-looking fangs. Suddenly a large clawed hand unexpectedly closed over Maul's wrist. The Sith went rigid with alarm and had to consciously fight his first impulse to lop the furry hand off with his lightsaber.

"Quickly!" Maul snapped to the droids. "Get this prisoner below before he wakes further!" Cursing, the young Sith backed away from the Jedi and forcibly pried the curved claws out of his punctured wrist. He then gestured impatiently at the utility droids standing by with a lift craft.

"You four, take the child up to my quarters," he instructed, recalling his master's command to keep the padawan close to him. The utility droids could handle the padawan while he and the battle droids dealt with the imposing Jedi Knight.

As the droids deactivated the connections holding the Jedi to the wall, he slumped heavily to the floor, still enough under the influence of whatever Sidious had drugged him with to be manageable. The droids pulled him up to load him on the lift craft, staggering under his considerable weight, and for the first time, exposing the padawan he had been sheltering. The younger Jedi stirred, emitting a small moan.

Immediately the Sith's attention turned to the padawan. It was then he discovered the so-called child was not a child at all, but an adolescent human, maybe just slightly younger than he was.

Maul's narrowed yellow eyes followed the curve of a hip to a tiny cinched waist and the delicate swell of womanly breasts. He swallowed down the thick dryness forming in his throat as he fixed his gaze on her, suddenly entranced. She was small, which might explain why Sidious had referred to her as a child, but to the younger Sith, her feminine physique was unmistakable.

Maul leaned a little closer to her. The girl was beautiful, he decided, uncomfortably aware that he had never declared that about other females he had encountered. Her features were finely chiseled and her complexion was smooth and transluscently white framed by dark plaited hair which just touched her shoulders. She looked warm and soft and Maul struggled with the urge to bend down and brush the hair from her eyes to allow him an unobstructed view of her face. A muddle of peculiar feelings stirred deep within him, suddenly snapping him out of the trance the unconcious girl had put him in.

The young Sith cursed under his breath, reprimanding himself. He didn't like how strange this particular girl made him feel, knowing he had never felt this way before and didn't understand why he was feeling this way now. Maybe his fever had affected his mind. Granted, in his somewhat cloistered existence, his reaction to her was understandable, but Maul was sure he wasn't reacting to her presence appropriately. It occurred to him this young girl may be just as dangerous to him as the fierce, carnivorous Jedi Knight - but in a very different way.

"Sir, we are ready to proceed," one of the droids carrying the Jedi Knight announced.

Maul tightened his grip on his lightsaber hilt and nodded. "Yes, go now. I'm right behind you," he breathed shakily. He paused just long enough to peer over his shoulder and glimpse the utility droids placing the girl onto the second lift craft. He exhaled forcibly and sharply turned away.

***

With the Jedi Knight securely restrained in the smallest, darkest, and most isolated cell he knew, Maul closed his eyes and took a moment to massage his throbbing temples. As he drew on the Force's healing power to rid himself once and for all of his illness, he heard one of the utility droids he had sent away with the Jedi padawan quickly approach him.

"Excuse me, Sir," it began. "There's been a complication regarding the prisoner we were escorting to your quarters."

Maul's eyes popped open. He faced the droid with a piercing glare. "What happened?" he demanded as all the tension he had managed to release previously came rushing back.

"The prisoner woke and overpowered us," the droid informed dispassionately. "We followed it, but lost it in the north tower."

Maul's hand shot out and sent the droid smashing into the farthest wall, shattering it into a myriad of sizzling components. He darted up the stairwell, simultaneously drawing his lightsaber.

He should have known better than to underestimate the abilities of any Jedi, even an unconscious one, and sent one of the battle droids with the utility droids. This was a mistake that needed immediate rectification. Sidious could not find out about this. The last time Maul had inadvertantly let a prisoner escape, it was his apprentice that Sidious had locked in one of the dungeon cells and starved for a week. Maul was a child at the time and the fact that he had managed to recapture the prisoner didn't change the severity of his sentence in the slightest.

Gathering the Force to him, Maul jogged to the castle's north tower, gaining confidence in his ability to sense the Jedi's presence and overcome her before she could react. She would still be somewhat dazed and more importantly, she was unarmed.

The air in the tower was thick with her Force signature, her anxiety, and her suspicion. She was also on the alert, but Maul sensed confusion from her as well. She did not know where she was at or where she was going and was moving fast, but moving deeper into the interior of the castle.

Maul knew exactly where she was going and could head her off before she got there. He found himself in his element now and well at ease in pursuit of her. The apprehension he had felt around her earlier quickly disappeared with the commencement of his hunt. She was simply his prey now.

The Jedi sensed him in the same moment he spied her, and fled through the nearest open doorway. Maul sprinted after her, grinning, enjoying himself. He wished he could toy with her for awhile and let her run, but duty pressed in on him. There would be time enough to torture the little Jedi later.

But this was disappointingly too easy, Maul thought to himself as he entered the storage room the girl had run into. She should have known she'd trap herself in there. The only way out was the door he had just stepped through. He stood watching her for a moment as she desperately paced the length of the opposite wall, her shackled hands oddly skimming the stone's surface. To announce his presence, the young Sith raised his lightsaber and twirled it in his hand, its staccato humming cutting sharply through the ominous silence in the room.

The girl gasped and turned towards the sound. She looked in Maul's direction, then cocked her head, listening closely, and pressed herself tighter against the wall. The Sith noticed her large eyes were a metallic green color flecked with silver and her gaze was utterly piercing in its intensity.

"I am Joss Sek Las, padawan to Master Verteigo Nassy of the Honorable Order of Jedi Knights of the Galactic Republic," she suddenly blurted. "Who are you and why have you brought us to this place?"

Maul did not reply. There was something unusual about her. Besides her mesmerizing beauty. Something about the way she was looking at him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He quietly crept forward until he was standing in front of her, then lowered the tip of his lightsaber until it practically touched the bridge of her nose. She did not flinch or even appear aware of the blade's deadly proximity.

The Sith stepped back and looked deeply into her unfocused eyes. He was right. She was blind.

Without warning, the Jedi gestured sideways towards a nearby chair, using the Force to fling it haphazardly in the young Sith's direction. Startled, Maul ducked the airborne piece of furniture and neatly severed it in two as the Jedi darted around him with surprising speed and agility. Peeved by the fact she had managed to catch him off guard so easily, he sprang after her and caught her by grabbing her hair, then threw her forcibly into the wall.

The girl crumbled to the floor at his feet and simply sat there, opting for more passive resistance for the time being, and nursed her lower lip which had split upon impact with the wall. As Maul cautiously approached her, her small hand stretched towards him and brushed the toe of his boot. She let her hand rest there, her sightless eyes narrowing.

"Who are you?" she said again, her voice an expelled breath. "I sense..." She suddenly jerked her hand away from him as though it had been burned and a look of horror crossed her face.

"So now you know," Maul murmured nonchalantly. As he bent to drag the Jedi up, she braced herself against her chains and powerfully kicked him, sending them both tumbling towards the doorway. The Sith landed first, hitting the ground with a thud, his lightsaber drilling a hole in the flooring beside him. The girl rolled away from him and hopped to her feet, but Maul tripped her, and sent her crashing down on top of him once more. He flipped her over and hauled her up with him as he rose to his feet.

He was going to have to render her unconcious again if she was to remain in one piece as Sidious had ordered. Maul tried to hit her, but she deftly blocked his arm with a well aimed blow, turned around, elbowed him in the jaw, and pushed him aside. She was almost out the door when the Sith seized her this time.

The Jedi refused to give up however, still sensing a remote chance for freedom with the open doorway so close. She backflipped in Maul's grasp, twisting his arm so severely he had to release her, but immediately caught her again. Now Maul had a firm hold on her restraints and waved his lightsaber threateningly in front of her so she could hear it. Still, she threw all her weight backwards, pulling against the Sith's grasp, dragging her heels determinedly on the rough stone floor.

Maul was surprised and impressed by her tenacity. This had been an exhilarating warm-up for his upcoming training sessions, but enough was enough. Sidious probably already sensed something had gone wrong with the transfer. Maul should have had her securely locked up by now. Methodically, the young Sith reached over and tapped the tip of his lightsaber on the Jedi's upper arm, scorching her. She cried out and grabbed her arm in pain, her struggling abruptly coming to a halt.

Shaking his head, Maul quickly deactivated his saber and closed his hand around the girl's neck. He shoved her into the doorframe, crossed her arms over her abdomen, and pinned her with the weight of his body against the stones while he worked to attach her shackles to his utility belt.

With the thrill of the hunt subsiding, the young Sith became increasingly aware of the girl's extremely close proximity to him and the way her small, firm body was pressed enticingly against his.

He was also awed by the fact he could discern the pounding of her heart against his chest and feel the heat of her flushed skin through her tunic. Her slightly labored breath warmed and dampened the hollow at the base of his throat and her tousled hair tickled the underside of his chin. It was all inadvertently very sexual, but it made him imagine what it would feel like to be with her in that way.

Intrigued, the young Sith tried to sense if the girl was experiencing any of the same feelings he was, but she was shielding herself, and her emotions remained unreadable. Maybe, if he touched her just right, Maul pondered, she might respond and he might be able to sense something.

"Be still," the Sith instructed sharply. The girl only narrowed her eyes at him in reply.

Licking his lips, Maul slowly loosened his grip on the Jedi's neck and let his hand slide over her collar bone, and suggestively down the open neckline of her tunic. Her skin was softer and hotter than he imagined and the swell of her breast beneath his hand was firm and round. He searched her face for any hint of emotion.

Touching her this way pleased him more than he thought possible, but the girl spasmed with outrage and spit at him in protest, then struggled vehemently to get away.

Startled by the intensity of her repulsion, Maul flushed with indignation. Their intimate proximity obviously had not affected her amourously in the least. The Sith told himself he shouldn't have been surprised by her unfavorable reaction, but it still embarrassed him deeply, showing him she not only had stronger control of her feelings than he did, but far more experience regarding personal physical contact than he did. It made him feel emasculated and inferior and he didn't like feeling inferior to anyone concerning anything.

What made it worse was knowing the Jedi had sensed his disparaging feelings and was surely convinced he was nothing more than an ignorant, undisciplined juvenile delinquent. He could not let her get away with that kind of demoralization of him. She was his prisoner. His possession. She was the one who needed to feel inferior and humiliated.

As Maul focused his mind more on his anger and embarrassment, a cold darkness shadowed his heart and began swirling around him in a tempest of malice. He closed his eyes momentarily, absorbing the power it tempted him with.

Sensing the way the Force had moved and the sinister change overcoming her captor, the young girl started trembling. Her reactions now told the Sith she didn't feel so much like an intrepid Jedi anymore, but merely a small, vulnerable female in the depraved clutches of a much larger, stronger male, and her fear was the catalyst the young Sith sought.

The girl's eyes flashed with panic which spurred Maul into action. He banged her head against the wall to stun her and roughly wedged his thigh between her legs, lifting her slightly and forcing her to balance herself against him as his hands slithered over her body, announcing his intentions. Her face contorted with dread and she bit savagely into her lower lip, rupturing it again.

The young Sith's eyes were immediately drawn to the smear of crimson which made her parted lips look inflamed with desire. He moved to kiss her, then decided against it. Embracing her that way would surely make him lose his initiative and his ill-gotten dominance, but he desperately wanted to touch her mouth with his. Lowering his face to hers, he tilted her head back and passed his tongue slowly over her bleeding lower lip. Not surprisingly, her entire body shook with revulsion and in a frenzy, she tried to push him off her. A pathetic whimper escaped her throat when she could not.

Incited by her futile resistance, Maul pressed his hips against her harder, making her squirm even more. She screamed suddenly, quite gratifyingly to the young Sith's ears in a declaration of powerlessness, her intense fear clearly inhibiting her ability to call upon the Force.

Maul savored the helplessness he felt in her trembling body, his heart stirred by her in more familiar ways now.

Paralyzed with fear, her hands tethered together and smashed between the Sith's body and her own, and her legs barely touching the ground, the small Jedi finally appeared to succumb to her fate and Maul backed slightly away from her. Seizing the moment, the girl suddenly turned her head and sank her teeth into the Sith's wrist, then wrapped her legs around his and drove her heels into the backs of his knees. They both crashed to the floor together in a tangled heap.

Infuriated, Maul pushed the Jedi off of him and rolled her over on the floor. Kicking and screaming for all she was worth, the girl continued to pummel the young Sith until he dragged her to her feet and slammed her back against the doorframe.

"Fight me," the Sith growled as his hand delved brazenly beneath her clothes. "You have every right to be afraid, Jedi. I will hurt you as you have never been hurt before."

Suddenly and much to Maul's surprise, the girl simply froze and all traces of emotion fled her face.

"I am not afraid of you," she stated, although somewhat unconvincingly as tears filled her unseeing eyes. The tension in her body slowly eased however and the Force began moving over her with increasing strength, blanketing her in an aura of peace.

Her courage stayed the Sith's straying hand. Awestruck by this new and unexpected demonstration of her proficient command of the Force, Maul felt the inclination he had to harm her evaporate and his anger dissipated along with it. He had temporarily subdued her, but he realized such cruelty had ultimately gained him nothing. She had only proven herself to be strong again. Perhaps not as strong as he, though her power was admirable, enviable, but he no longer felt the desire to stifle it. Her brave defiance in the face of her unfathomable fear had inadvertently earned her his respect. Stepping back, Maul sighed, scowling down at her upturned face.

"Well, go on," the Jedi taunted and sniffed. "What are you waiting for?"

Maul grabbed the front of her tunic and jerked her towards him, making her gasp. He leaned his head over her shoulder and whispered in her ear.

"So you were enjoying it after all," he murmured seductively. "I can continue if you prefer, Joss, but I want you to know you will not dictate to me what becomes of you. You're mine now, and I will do with you what I please, when I please." Having made that clear, the Sith turned on his heel, hauling her after him, and headed back up the hall.

***

Darth Sidious entered the training room well before dawn. Maul was too absorbed in the task at hand to acknowledge him. The death droid was just off to his left and demanded his attention first.

It moved erratically, up and down, with an eerie silence. There was no detecting it except through use of the Force.

As it dived, Maul spun and somersaulted over it, whipping his lightsaber forward and neatly dispatching the lethal droid within a single heartbeat. He paused and took a deep breath before turning in his master's direction.

"Well done, My Young Apprentice," Sidious congratulated, stepping forward.

"Thank you, Master," Maul replied, slightly winded. He raised his hand and summoned the next droid, but Sidious intercepted it and sent it away.

"You've done enough for the time being. Tomorrow I want you by my side when I rendezvous with our Jedi guest. I will no doubt need your unique power of persuasion to show him the hopelessness of his situation."

Maul lowered his eyes and nodded his consent. "Then you are pleased with my progress."

Sidious eeked forth a small smile. "If all goes as planned, you will have the Jedi tomorrow to spar with instead of these sacrificial droids. Just remember what I told you. Study him and learn from him. He'll teach you if you let him."

Nodding more forcefully this time, Maul faced his master and bowed. "If I am finished with my training for the day, I will retire to my room to meditate."

"That would be wise of you, My Apprentice," the Dark Lord droned. "Distraction in the presence of an adversary would be regrettable... to say the least."

Maul looked up sharply. "You'll find my concentration is focused on what it should be, Master."

"Focused on what it should be, how curious," Sidious echoed mockingly. "From what I sensed your concentration focused on this morning, it is clear to me you are an undisciplined, weak-minded boy who's all too easily distracted by insignificant things. You are not to harm that girl yet, do you understand me? You'll ruin everything. Control yourself, Maul or you will be dealt with accordingly." He straightened slightly and sighed, regarding his apprentice with distain. "Perhaps I expect too much from you."

These words were like a blow to the young Sith. He knelt at Sidious' feet entreatingly. "Master, have I not met all your expectations?"

Darth Sidious walked stiffly away and grumbled under his breath, "Only time will tell."

***

Tearing off his cloak, Maul strode into his quarters and hotly paced the length of the floor. When this proved insufficient, he threw himself on his bed and curled his legs underneath him in a meditative pose. Still infuriated by his master's insults, the young Sith drew power off his intense emotions with practiced efficiency and channeled them deep down inside him. The Dark Side came to him readily and filled him with an empowering calm, cooling the heat of the blazes his anger had ignited but not extinquishing them.

After awhile, Maul opened his eyes in sudden awareness and stared into the far corner where the shadows were broken by the huddled figure chained to a metal fixture in the wall. He emitted a low growl of disgust. She was the reason his master was displeased with him now. She was the cause of the unsettling sensations which led to all those unwieldy cravings.

And the Jedi had the audacity to not acknowledge his presence, though Maul was certain she knew he was there. She was curled in a tight ball, her knees drawn up to her chest and encircled with her arms. Her head rested lightly on her wrists with her eyes open, staring back at him unseeingly. She didn't look nearly as wiley and strong as Maul knew she was, sitting there so unassumingly like that.

Unwittingly, Maul soon found himself contemplating her capture this morning, undeniably respecting the courage she'd shown him, her power, and her proficient command of the Force.

He also readily recalled the crisp, clean scent of her skin and the feminine athletic tone of her petite body which seemed to fit so perfect against his own. Maul sighed despondently. He must not think of such things anymore.

He rose from the bed and crept towards her, crouching down in front of her. Perhaps Sidious was right. Maul did find the girl inexplicably intriguing, but he was determined now not to give in to the urges she stirred up inside him. He was neither weak or undisciplined as Darth Sidious had declared.

"Evil, vile creature," the Jedi whispered in the dark, making Maul's heart skip a beat. "You exist only to destroy. Your lifeforce is empty. Your mind is the color of shadows, death, and foul decay. But I won't hate you. And I won't fear you, whatever you choose to do to me. I will only pity you."

The young Sith narrowed his yellow eyes. "What would be the point of doing anything to you then?" A slow smile crossed his face at her confused expression. Obviously she had not expected him to say that. Maul eased himself to the floor, mirroring her position. "I am not evil, Joss. I live to serve, just as you do, only mine is a different philosophy from yours. Real evil lies within a faction of despots who have ruthlessly hunted my kind to the brink of extinction for over a millennium. The way they turn their eyes from the truth, they may as well all be blind."

"You are evil. You're despicable and corrupted," Joss replied with a sneer. She straightened her shoulders and raised her head.

"Perhaps," Maul agreed. "But tell me you wouldn't kill me if given the chance just as surely as I would kill you." He shifted his weight and leaned closer to her. He noticed her hair was dusty from the floor, her neck was bruised with his fingerprints, and she had a superficial scratch just under her left eye. She seemed more like a real person this way; not quite as specteral and bewitching as before, and Maul was surprised at how comfortable he felt talking with her now despite her insults.

"What is your name?" she unexpectedly asked. "What are you called?"

The Sith gnawed his lower lip before replying. "My master calls me Maul."

"Your master? The other being here who is like you?" Joss continued, lowering her voice. "I can sense him - his darkness, his cruelty."

Maul licked his lips apprehensively. "Yes. That would be Lord Darth Sidious."

Joss turned her face away and tightened her grip on her legs. "A Sith...." she breathed and swallowed hard. "....The rumors were true." She passed her hand over her face and roughly pushed back her numerous braids. "Where am I? And Verteigo. My master. Where is he? Tell me, what is it you want from us?"

The young Sith saw no reason not to tell her. "You're in a hidden place. A secluded place, where my master keeps me and trains me. He brought you both here for me. I am to duel with your master for training purposes," he explained. "You are simply here for us to manipulate him to cooperate with us."

The Jedi closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.

Maul rose stiffly and stepped back as a disturbing thought suddenly occurred to him. The girl was here for Sidious to use against the Jedi Knight. Maul knew how ruthless his master could be when it came to getting what he wanted, and suddenly the idea of him in control of Joss didn't sit well with the young Sith. Sidious didn't know about and probably wouldn't appreciate her strength and her steadfast courage or her unique beauty the way Maul did. If the Jedi Knight didn't agree to the Dark Lord's terms, he would imperil the girl. Maybe the Jedi Knight did not realize this.

"Your master is well... for the time being," Maul quickly added and turned on his heel and stalked back to the bed. Grabbing his cloak, the Sith continued out the door.

***

The air in the castle's dungeon was thick and musty. The darkness was impenetrable. The dim glow rods attached to the upper walls did little to light the way, but Maul knew the prison's layout and his superlative night vision made any lightsource unnecessary. The Jedi Knight's strong presence served as a beacon as well and Maul went directly to his cell and peered inside.

Verteigo was sitting on the floor, his back to the wall, curled up much the same way his padawan had been. He looked up as Maul approached, his bright blue feline eyes obviously well accustomed to the darkness. He rose ominously, his restraints crackling in protest, and moved as close to the door as he could get.

"Where is my padawan? What have you done to her?" he demanded in a breathy, gravelly voice, the whiteness of his impressive teeth flashing as his upper lip curled back with a menacing snarl.

Maul ignored the Jedi's question and continued to stare at him, fascinated by the intense concern and distress he sensed in him. How different from his own master who never showed the slightest degree of concern for his well-being.

The Jedi sighed and lowered his eyes briefly. "Keep me, but let her go. You'll gain nothing from holding her here."

"You're wrong," Maul rumbled. "Her life is to be payment for your cooperation."

"My cooperation... is unlikely," Vertego replied coolly.

Maul grinned. "You lie unconvincingly, Jedi. I feel your compassion for her. You will not let harm come to her if you can help it."

The Jedi Knight snarled again and turned away from the young Sith. "You have much to learn if you believe that about a Jedi, Young Rogue. Joss is an apprentice like you, but she is fully aware of the sacrifices a Jedi must make to thwart the progress of evil. She would not want me to comply with your twisted schemes just to spare her life. Kill her, kill me. We shall die honorably and you and your Dark Lord will have accomplished nothing."

Maul crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. "Ridding the galaxy of two more Jedi will be accomplishment enough."

Verteigo nonchalantly resumed his seat on the floor of his cell and folded his legs under him and closed his eyes as if to meditate. "Leave me. You have what you came for. Go inform your master."

Maul turned to leave, then paused. "Naturally, you'll want to seek her mind now and reassure yourself all is well." The young Sith leaned forward slightly, lowering his voice as he glared at the Jedi in the cell. "I will go now, but not to my master. I will go to her. Perhaps her screams will give your Jedi honor pause. Perhaps her pain can even make you reconsider your conviction."

The Jedi's eyes snapped open. "Loathsome, degenerate--"

Maul laughed lightly. "Are you so naive as to think I would grant her a swift, merciful death? You have much to learn if you believe that about a Sith...."

"Very well, you wretched spawn!" Verteigo growled through his teeth. "I will... hear your proposal."

The young Sith smiled slyly. "Then allow me to fetch my master." He straightened and turned away, then paused and faced the Jedi once more. "I want you to know if you agree to cooperate with us, I give you my solemn word I will protect your padawan to the best of my ability."

Verteigo shook his head. "Do you think such a vow holds any significance for me? Honor among the Sith? I don't believe it for a moment."

Maul frowned deeply. "I have given you my word. She is my charge, Sir. I take that responsibility seriously whether you believe it or not." He turned then, moving quickly through the black halls and up the stone stairs.

The young Sith paused at the top and looked back. The relief he felt went beyond the Jedi's acquiescence. To be truthful, a large part of it was knowing he had saved the girl and now he would be allowed to keep her.

***

As Maul waited another hour outside Darth Sidious' chambers, his muscles grew increasingly stiffer and his skin steadily radiated a deepening heat. The virus he had contracted earlier had regained the upper hand, threatening to further weaken the already tenuous conditioning he had achieved the day before. It made him wonder whether now would be a good time to approach Sidious regarding the Jedi Knight. He should just return to his room and try to get some sleep until he felt stronger.

He was just about to turn back when a protocol droid by the name of C-827S suddenly appeared within the vast, oppulent room and waved Maul inside his master's chambers.

"My Lord will see you now," it said in a tinny androdgynous voice.

Maul inhaled deeply and stepped around the despised droid to enter.

The Dark Lord was seated in a tall-backed silver chair that resembled a royal throne. He sipped passively at a sour-smelling tea in a cup, then handed it to the droid and cleared his throat.

"What brings you here so early in the morning?" the Sith Lord asked. "Didn't you meditate? You look dreadful."

"Yes, I meditated," Maul answered quickly, dismissing the Dark Lord's observation. His body felt like a cauldron however as his internal temperature continued to rise. He slipped out of his cloak and roughly pulled at the collar of his tunic. "I came to tell you I spoke with the Jedi Knight. You were right about the compassion he feels for his padawan. He resisted at first, but then I was able to persuade him to agree to hear your proposal." Maul noticed his hands were shaking slightly and quickly clasped them behind his back. "He wishes to speak with you, My Lord," he reiterated.

Sidious' expression hardened as he regarded his apprentice. "Maul," he growled, shaking his head. "Will you ever learn patience? Patience is the one attribute we Sith need to possess in abundance and too often I find yours lacking."

The young Sith opened his mouth to speak, then promptly closed it, feeling the Force move ominously around him.

"I understand it's hard for you. You are so young still," the Sith Lord continued condescendingly, his mouth twisting into a distorted smile. "You thought I would be pleased and on one hand, I am very pleased. You have spared me considerable time and trouble. You have succeeded beyond expectations. On the other hand," Sidious paused and abruptly frowned, "this does not excuse the fact you could have jeopardized everything I had so carefully planned. Destroy months of preparation because of your infernal adolescent impatience!" He rose from his throne and stalked over to where the younger Sith stood. "On your knees," he commanded.

Maul clenched his teeth in frustration. He knew what that command usually proceeded though he had not been subjected to it since he was a boy. "Impatience was not what motivated me to confront the Jedi on my own. The decision to do so was born from another reason." Maul closed his eyes and cursed himself. He was only digging himself in deeper and he needed to keep his mouth shut from now on.

Sidious moved behind the young Sith and motioned to C-827S, which knew what the Dark Lord wanted and scurried off to get it.

"Perhaps if you share with me your secret motive, your behavior might be justified and I may grant you clemency," the older Sith countered.

Maul bowed his head, respectfully declining his master's offer, and obediently dropped to his knees, humiliation piercing him to the core. He tensed, feeling the Sith Lord's cold hands on the back of his neck pushing him down farther.

"So be it," Sidious proclaimed, accepting the crude leather whip his droid presented to him. "You leave me no choice. I will have your submission before this is through. You will learn your place, Maul."

The younger Sith closed his eyes, steeling himself for the punishment to come. "Have you no faith in my abilities? Will you ever trust me enough to allow me to follow my own initiative from time to time?"

"Not when your initiative is determined purely by impulse," the Dark Lord replied and brought the whip down across Maul's back with a resounding crack.

The young Sith knew better than to cry out or even flinch, but the intense pain rocked him and he began to sway unsteadily. He reached forward and braced himself up with his hand. The thin gauzey material of his tunic did little to absorb the blows and his fevered skin was twice as sensitive to the stinging. He would have to use the Force to alleviate this kind of pain.

"And you've let yourself become ill again, I sense," Sidious added and beat his apprentice even harder, again and again with unabated sadistic zeal.

Darkness soon inhibited Maul's vision as another darkness consumed his heart. Hatred laced with resentment sped through his veins, feeding off of every stroke of the whip his master bestowed on him and gradually the pain became more distant and ineffectual as the power of the Force filled the young Sith.

"Yesss, good. Good!" the Dark Lord encouraged. "Draw the power to you. Feel it Use it to become stronger." He paused in his exercise and layed the whip aside, pleased by what he sensed. "I believe you have learned what you needed to. I know you will think twice before succumbing to your impatience in the future. Now, return to your room and wait for my call."

"Yes Master," Maul responded, warily opening his eyes. At first, the room was spinning wildly, then it slowed to an almost imperceptible rotation. The young Sith slowly sank back on his haunches and groped the floor for his cloak.

"Help him up," Sidious ordered C-827S. "And see him to his quarters."

The droid reached down and awkwardly pulled Maul to his feet. "Come along, Sir. Let me assist you."

Maul pried the droid's fingers from his arm and shoved the machine away from him.

"I don't want your assistance," he grumbled, pulling his cloak gingerly over his shoulders, then turned and staggered towards the door.

"By the way, Maul," Sidious interjected, resuming his seat on his throne-like chair. "I want you ready to train with the Jedi by tonight. Do what you have to to prepare yourself."

The Sith Apprentice felt a jolt of exhilaration shoot through him at this bit of information. "Then you'll go to him now?"

Sidious nodded slowly. "Yes, I'll go speak with him now."

Maul faced his master and inclined his head in thanks.

"I shall be ready, Master. I promise."

***

It was mid-morning when Maul finally shuffled into his room, but the shadows within remained long and heavy. He stood just inside the threshold, eyeing the smooth patch of stone on the floor where he had last slept, and pushed the cloak off his shoulders. It fell to the floor with a muffled whoosh--the only audible sound beside his short raspy breaths.

The Jedi must be sleeping, he thought, and carefully peeled the tunic from his bruised and torn back. The blood was scabbing already, fastening the material stubbornly to his skin, making him wince once or twice. He pulled off his boots, kicked them aside, then unbuckled his belt and began to unfasten the clasp on his trousers.

"I hope you aren't going to strip completely," came Joss' petulant voice through the shadows. "I don't care to know you are nude over there."

Maul rolled his eyes. "You must have a keen imagination if merely knowing I'm naked incites you," the Sith hissed in irritation, but left the remainder of his clothes on. He slowly lowered himself to the floor and stretched out with a heavy sigh.

"Do you usually sleep on the floor?" the Jedi inquired after a short while.

Maul frowned but did not reply.

There was a moment of silence before the Jedi continued. "What happened to you? I sense that you are suffering."

The Sith sighed. "How very Jedi of you to feign concern for me. I have a minor fever, now shutup and leave me alone." He sat up slightly and peered at the girl across the room.

She was sitting with her legs folded under her, a blanket from his bed wrapped around her shoulders. One of the droids attending her may have given it to her or she may have used the Force to call it to her hand if she was cold in the night. Maul felt a tinge of guilt. He should have offered her a blanket, but he wasn't used to being considerate of others' feelings.

"Your pain is severe, Maul. It's hard not to notice," Joss answered with a shrug.

Maul was chagrinned by the fact he was not controlling said pain as well as he should and she was able to sense it. Maybe his fever had something to do with it.

"Forgive me for allowing my discomfort to disturb you then," he muttered and turned away from her. He waited, but she did not reply this time. Gratefully, Maul slowly closed his eyes.

The sound of the static restraints clinking told the Sith Joss had moved. When she spoke this time, her voice was much closer.

"Let me help you. I may be able to take the edge off the hurt to make it more tolerable for you. I'm quite knowledgeable in the Jedi art of healing."

Maul inhaled deeply, peeved by her persistence, but admittedly moved by her offer. "I can tolerate it without your help," he muttered and opened his eyes to face her. "Pain is simply a message. It is just as easy to ignore as it is to accept. The punishment I received had more to do with humiliation than pain. This pain is nothing. Merely an irritation. I just need to rest for a few hours."

"Then discard it," the young Jedi suggested. "It will help you rest easier. You'll feel stronger when you wake."

Maul noticed the girl's expression softened as he felt her use the Force to palpate his thoughts. "Stop it!" he seethed.

Her shimmering green eyes suddenly sparked in shock, then clouded with sympathy. "Your master did this to you?"

Embarrassed and exasperated, the Sith pushed himself up again and rose to his feet. He stalked over to where Joss was, seized her arm and shoved her aside.

"Ow! What are you doing? I was only trying to help!" the girl protested loudly.

Maul worked to unfasten her chains from the fixture which tethered her to the wall. "Since you won't leave me alone, I'm taking you elsewhere," he informed her. He took hold of her right hand and held up her index finger. "And if you try anything along the way, I will break this in two, do you understand?" He dropped her hand and gathered up the restraints.

Joss stared up at him wide-eyed and nodded silently. Maul turned sharply to lead the girl away. Thrown off balance by the sudden movement, the Jedi stretched out her arm to right herself and inadvertantly struck the Sith's back. He gasped sharply and cursed at her, spinning around as she jumped back with a look of shock on her face.

"Do not touch me!" Maul seethed.

Joss shook her head. "Oh! I'm sorry... I didn't mean to..." her voice trailed off. Then: "You're bleeding." Her hand remained frozen in the air for a moment as the warm, sticky substance dried on her fingers. Then she tentatively lowered it until her palm rested gently on the Sith's chest over his pounding heart. "Let me help you," she breathed as an aura of compassion enveloped her. Her eyes narrowed as she concentrated, feeling her way back around him, her hand tracing delicate exploratory paths over his wounds.

Stunned by the boldness and intimacy of her touch, Maul found he could barely breathe, let alone stop her or move away. He had never been touched like this before and found it intensely sensual. Her tenderness was like a soothing balm which penetrated his mind and eased the stress from his body. The impressions of pain were subdued more by these breath-like caresses than her use of the Force. Each welt she traced burned with a different kind of heat. A pleasant, tingling heat.

The young Sith closed his eyes as Joss slipped in front of him, her small hands moving up his sinewy arms, across the span of his chest, and over his shoulders. She paused at his throat as if suddenly uncertain he would let her continue. Maul lowered his head in consent and soon felt her soft fingertips brush across his lips, the bridge of his nose and over his eyelids. Her breath caught slightly as her straying hands encountered the short, jagged horns covering his scalp, but then she continued to explore his features, running her fingers down the side of his face catching every last detail--even the tiny silver stud piercing his left ear.

When she finally took her hands off him, Maul opened his eyes and looked down at her with newfound esteem. He was somewhat taken aback by the fact his sworn enemy had shown him more empathy than the man who raised him and claimed to value him. He suddenly wanted to reciprocate her tenderness, but was not entirely sure how and contented himself with merely drinking in her exquisite beauty for the moment.

Then as the young Sith continued to stare deeply into her great green eyes, he apprehensively reached up and trailed his fingers softly across the bruises he'd inflicted upon her neck with remorse. The fact that she did not flinch from him this time was encouraging.

Joss blinked up at him vacantly, her brows knitted, and an unidentifiable expression on her face. Finally, she cleared her throat and gently pulled away from him.

"I promise to be quiet now," she stated, subtlety implying her desire to remain where she was. Her voice was barely audible and Maul noticed a slight blush coloring her pale cheeks.

"You can stay then," he replied with a grin, pleased she wanted to. He glanced back at the wall where she had been tethered and frowned. It didn't feel right to make her go back there now. She deserved better. He wrapped the end of her chain around his wrist several times and tested it to make sure it wouldn't slip. "Come with me," he said, carefully pulling her to him. She hesitated at first, then went to him and let him guide her to the bed. "Now lie down."

Her expression suddenly hardened and she backed away from him.

"No," she stated firmly.

The young Sith sighed. He hadn't meant that the way it must have sounded. "Just... lie down."

The Jedi shook her head. "I won't."

Maul leaned forward and grabbed her hand and hauled her back, and shoved her onto the bed.

"Don't jump to conclusions," he grumbled. "I'm tired and battered and dizzy with fever. I'm hardly fit to ravish you at this point in time."

"At this point in time," the girl echoed, unconvinced, and nervously edged herself over to the far side of the bed.

Maul gestured at the blanket she had been using on the floor across the room and used the Force to bring it to his hand. He threw it at her in a token of reassurance, noting the small smile she fought with as the familiar material suddenly struck her. Then the young Sith turned and eased himself down to the smooth patch of stone on the floor. He closed his eyes and took a deep cleansing breath.

***

The summons from his master came far too soon. Maul opened his eyes and groaned, not yet ready to vacate his crude, cold bed of stone. However, his hand was severely numb from Joss' chain inhibiting his blood's circulation, and the floor beneath him was once again slick with perspiration from the fever he had shed.

Stiffly climbing to his feet, Maul unwrapped the chain cutting into his wrist and secured it to the heavy frame of his real bed where the Jedi Padawan slept on. He paused momentarily, studying the anxiety and exhaustion reflected in her contorted expression.

The young Sith reached down and with a feather-soft touch, stroked her furrowed brow with his knuckle. If only he could soothe her worries as effectively as she had soothed him earlier.

But Maul knew she had a right to be worried. Her master's fate was sealed, but hers remained uncertain. Maul knew he would not be able to keep her from Darth Sidious for long. The Dark Lord only saw her as a means to an end. When he was finished using her, he would more than likely order Maul to kill her. Then, even if Sidious decided to spare her life, he would no doubt enslave her: torture her until her spirit broke and her mind totally disintegrated. The idea of doing such a thing to someone so powerful and intelligent and genuinely kind, made Maul sick.

He frowned and licked his lips apprehensively, realizing his master would view such concerns coming from him as nothing less than treasonous. Sidious would never understand the strange feelings the girl provoked in his apprentice. Maul wasn't even sure he understood them himself, but that didn't stop him from wanting to gather them in and experience them to their fullest extent.

Darth Sidious' call came more insistently this time and Maul immediately cleared his mind to respond. The moment he had been waiting for all his life would soon be at hand. His heart began to pound in his chest and he cast one last look at the young Jedi on his bed.

"Forgive me," he whispered and turned away.

***

Maul was meditating in the training room when Darth Sidious entered followed by two droidekas, four battle droids, and the Jedi Knight, Verteigo Nassy, in shock restraints.

"I understand you have already met my apprentice," the Dark Lord was saying as he drew up in front of Maul.

The younger Sith opened his eyes and looked up.

"Yes. I've had the... pleasure," Verteigo sneered in that peculiar raspy but breathy voice of his, regarding Maul with disdain. He then turned to Sidious and shook his head. "You're certain you want me to do this? He's just a boy. He's not much older than my own padawan. If you turn me loose on him with a lightsaber in my hand, not only will you be minus one apprentice, your sallow-skinned head will roll shortly afterwards."

Sidious emitted a low laugh. "I wouldn't be too sure," he murmured. "Maul is quite skilled for one his age. You may even find him a bit of a challenge."

Verteigo frowned. "If he's so good, what could I possibly teach him?"

"Experience," the Sith Lord hissed. "I have guided him in all the finer Jedi Arts. He's learned much from me, but the one thing I cannot give him that you can is experience."

The Jedi Knight straightened to his full imposing height and snarled. "Jedi Arts? From what I understand, he's trained to be nothing more than an assassin!"

Maul had heard enough. He rose to his feet and drew his lightsaber. "Master, may we begin?" He spun the saber hilt in his hand restlessly.

"Yes. Unchain him," the older Sith ordered the droids. "And let him choose a weapon." He turned to his apprentice and stood looking at him with a cold calm expression. "Remember what I told you, Maul. Even if you feel mortally threatened, do not act on it." He paused and raised his voice just enough for the Jedi to hear. "He would not dare try to kill you. And if he so much as steps out of line, we have our little padawan insurance policy tucked away all safe and sound for the moment. If we need to fetch her here to convince him to conduct himself accordingly, we shall."

Verteigo snarled again, menacingly exposing his fangs. "We have an agreement," he rumbled, snapping off his cloak as soon as his hands were freed. "You harm her in any way and the deal's off." He dragged his clawed hand through his shaggy blonde hair, pushing it back from his eyes. "Besides, I wouldn't think of giving you two vermin the pleasure you'd derive from killing an innocent child." He picked out a lightsaber from a case an astromech droid offered him and weighed its hilt in his hand. Satisfied, he strode onto the mat and activated it. "Shall I power it down?"

Maul walked slowly towards the Jedi and shook his head. "Full power. Always." He activated his lightsaber and assumed a classic combative stance.

"Then how is a match to be determined?" Verteigo growled, locking his eyes on the young Sith standing in front of him.

Sidious laughed lightly, taking a seat at the side of the room. "How about first dismemberment?"

The Jedi Knight glanced in the Dark Lord's direction with undisclosed disgust.

Maul's heart skipped a beat, but he kept his eyes on the Jedi.

"My Lord, if I dismember him, he'll need considerable time to recover before he'll be able to face me again. Wouldn't that be contradictory to our intent? You said yourself he is of value to us." Maul held his breath, half-expecting to be struck down where he stood for such insubordination.

But Sidious merely frowned. "Yes. I suppose you are right. First strike then. Painful, but easily overcome with the Force." He waved his hand through the air, dismissing any further disputes. "Enough. Begin."

Maul gathered the Force to him and attacked immediately, catching the Jedi momentarily off guard. He drove him back across the length of the mat before Verteigo managed to fend him off enough to stop retreating. Maul could sense the Jedi's surprise. He truly hadn't expected the young Sith to be much of an opponent, but after recovering from his initial unpreparedness, Verteigo collected himself and soon fell into an easy rhythm of attacks and parries.

The young Sith was forced to overreach many times to compensate for his lack of size compared to the Jedi's, something he never had to do with droids. Verteigo seemed to sense his doubled effort and purposefully dodged strikes he could have easily thwarted just to make Maul work harder. When Maul realized this, he backed off, forcing the Jedi to chase him, utilizing his speed and agility, and jumped, twisted, and flew over many of Verteigo's near misses making the Jedi work just as hard to land a blow. As soon as the Jedi recognized that pattern, Verteigo swiftly changed strategies and called upon his natural strengths, strengths he knew the young Sith did not have, to gain the upper hand.

Now Maul could clearly see the Jedi's style was slower, but much more powerful. Verteigo used it to his advantage, locking his lightsaber with Maul's with one hand, only to punch, slash, or backhand the Sith away with the other. Maul's face and upper body was soon bloodied and bruised.

Angered by the Jedi's repeated assaults, Maul bent his head the next time Verteigo tried to hit him and leaned into the Jedi's fist, goring it with one of his horns. The Jedi's feline eyes flashed in pain and he leapt back, shaking his hand furiously, and Force-pushed Maul away from him. The Sith back-flipped to keep from losing his balance and the Jedi sprang after him and used his strength now to double the power he put behind his attack with his lightsaber.

After attempting to absorb the incredible force behind one of Verteigo's connected blows, Maul was thrown to the mat. Verteigo immediately slashed down again before the Sith Apprentice could parry, and Maul had to roll out of the way to avoid the Jedi's next consecutive lightsaber strike. The Sith sprung to his feet, wondering if the Jedi had forgotten his vow not to kill him.

Irritated with himself as much as the Jedi, Maul tapped into the Force and went after Verteigo with a series of gravity-defying maneuvers: leaping towards him while spinning midair and kicking out as he descended and then furiously striking at the Jedi on the left with his lightsaber to distract him, only to somersault over him and attack his unprotected right. Maul dodged, flipped, and danced fluidly around the Jedi and forced Verteigo to waste his energy and fight in a tight circle, limiting his ability to manipulate his lightsaber.

After awhile, Maul noticed the Jedi Knight was beginning to sweat. His long hair clung to the sides of his face and his fur had developed a slick sheen to it. Perhaps he was merely warm. The Sith didn't detect the slightest anxiety in the Jedi. In fact, Verteigo was the portrait of calm concentration no matter what Maul did. The Force flowed around the Jedi with remarkable strength and he utilized it to its fullest extent.

"I'll give you this much, Young Sith," Verteigo muttered, slightly winded. "You are talented and you can take a lot of punishment."

The Sith didn't like the implication behind the Jedi's words and wondered if Verteigo was resorting to taunts now. Maul sneered at the Jedi and brought his lightsaber down in a sweeping arc to the left, then flipped the hilt in his hand and came back in the opposite direction, forcing Verteigo to jump straight up to avoid being struck across the knees.

Verteigo leaned back, drawing the Sith closer to him, then stabbed at Maul to get him to back up. With more room to maneuver now, the Jedi slipped to the Sith's left, purposefully turning him around, then tossed the lightsaber from his left hand into his right hand, changing the direction of his assault in the blink of an eye and managed to slice through the flowing tails of Maul's robe before the Sith could entirely escape him.

"You see, I know a few tricks as well," the Jedi Knight snarled. "I guess this is where the learning begins."

Anger rose in the young Sith and allowed the Dark Side of the Force to flow through him more freely until it throbbed in his veins. He charged towards the Jedi then retreated making Verteigo instinctively chase him. Then, copying the Jedi's complicated move to perfection, Maul actually made connection with Verteigo's thigh.

The Jedi gasped in pain and surprise. Maul quickly took advantage of the Jedi's lowered defenses and gestured at the lightsaber in his hand, using the Force to disarm him. He held up both sabers for Verteigo's inspection, then simultaneously deactivated them and stepped back.

"You taught me well today," Maul retorted snidely, as the droidekas quickly surrounded Verteigo and the battle droids hurried forward to restrain him.

Darth Sidious rose and applauded limply. "Well done, My Apprentice. Well done." He made his way over to Maul and relieved him of the second lightsaber and passed it on to the waiting droid. "However, I sense your fever has made you sluggish. I think you should carry on with the death droids until there's a noticeable improvement in your timing. Tomorrow's duel will not be so elemental as this one was. The Jedi knows what to expect from you now. Trust me when I say he will pull out all the stops the second time around."

"Yes Master," Maul agreed and bowed his head as Sidious summoned an attack droid to him.

"Good. I shall check on you tomorrow," the Sith Lord stated and ambled slowly away to escort the Jedi Knight back to his cell.

After the Dark Lord had gone, Maul obediently turned and faced the waiting droid with a growl of contempt. He raised his lightsaber and thumbed its activation switch.

***

The droids soon proved to be no challenge. After systematically destroying three within record time, Maul resorted to using two simultaneously. That worked to stimulate him for awhile, but when only one droid remained and there were no others left to pair with it, the young Sith stopped to reprogram it, hoping to tap into a higher level of its performance that had yet to be discovered.

Finally, frustrated, Maul sent the droid away and put in an order for thirteen more to be ready in the morning. He was confident his master would be pleased with his progress tonight: there was no need to continue. Even he noticed his timing had become sharper and more accurate. He felt invigorated by the exercise and in perfect tune with the Force having manipulated it throughout the day's activities. He finished off his training with a well-deserved hour of meditation before indulging in a scorchingly hot shower.

The idea of returning to his room and the company of Joss quickened his pace through the castle's corridors. But as he drew closer, the oppressing sensation that all was not well weighed down the atmosphere around him. The battle droids mulling about the entrance to his chambers confirmed his suspicions.

"Where's the Jedi Padawan?" Maul demanded of the first droid he encountered.

"She has escaped, Sir. My troops are searching the interior for her now. We'll find her," the droid duly informed the Sith.

Maul pushed the droid aside to gain access to his room. The protocol droid C-827S was puttering about the bed, looking as distraught as a droid could look and visibly jumped at the sight of the young Sith.

"Please forgive me, Sir! She tricked me! I was only doing her a kindness!" the droid exclaimed.

"You released her?" Maul snarled, gesturing at the empty restraints in the droid's shaking hands. "Does the master know about this?"

C-827S bowed its head. "No Sir. I could not bring myself to inform him of my misconduct just yet."

Maul breathed an internal sigh of relief, but turned and snatched the rifle from the nearest battle droid and fired, blasting the hapless protocol droid to pieces. He had always hated that droid anyway. Handing the weapon back to its owner, he made a sweeping gesture of the room.

"Clean these scraps away. Have it done by the time I return."

"Yes Sir!" the battle droid acknowledged.

Closing his eyes, Maul stood concentrating for a brief moment, letting the Force speak to him. Joss was still within the walls of the castle and she was heading down to the lower levels. To the dungeons. To Verteigo. The young Sith swiftly turned and sprinted out of the room.

***

Fortunately for the young Sith, Joss had managed to trigger one of the numerous sensory-activated snares installed on the dungeon level. Maul found her tangled in the lacings of the trap just north of the first prison access. He smirked down at her and placed his hands on his hips.

"I would have thought a Jedi, even a padawan, would have been able to detect these devices," Maul taunted.

Joss sighed heavily. "I know my mistake. I was moving too fast and I didn't anticipate encountering a static snare. Their use is rather... archaic, if you don't mind me saying." She shifted her weight slightly and was immediately shocked with a small bolt of energy. "Ouch! Blast it! Can you get me out of this thing before I get electrocuted?"

Maul knelt down in front of her but did not move to deactivate the snare's charge. "Archaic... maybe. But nevertheless effective. I should just leave you here. At least I know where you are and know you won't be escaping again anytime soon."

"I'm not going anywhere without Verteigo. I sense he's been injured so I was only trying to find him. I wanted to make sure he was all right." Joss' eyes suddenly flashed with irritation. "You make it sound as if I should be grateful to you for chaining me to a bed and leaving me alone all day. I really did have to use the fresher when the droid finally showed up."

The Sith fought a smile. "I suppose I would have been disappointed in you if you had not taken advantage of that kind of opportunity." He paused momentarily and took a deep breath. "Attempting escape is only an exercise in futility, Joss. I will always find you... though I may not always get to you first. There's an entire platoon of destroyers and battle droids who patrol these corridors day and night. If one of them had seen you, they would have shot you. And if my master had come across you, he'd make sure you'd be experiencing more than a little discomfort for your efforts. You clearly don't comprehend the danger you place yourself in by such ill-conceived forays through these halls."

The Jedi raised her brow. "Do I detect a note of concern for me in your tone, Maul?" Joss teased. When the Sith did not reply, the Jedi sighed, lowering her head, and blinked several times, her mood sobering. "I do comprehend the danger I'm in. I know what holds me captive here." She paused, her sightless eyes darkening. "Verteigo is in even greater danger, isn't he? When I felt his pain today, I knew you were the cause of it."

Maul rose and stepped back slightly. "I spared him considerably more pain today because of you."

At that, the young Jedi looked up. "Because of me? Why would I influence you to do such a thing?" She cast her eyes down again and frowned deeply. "I wouldn't have thought a Sith knew how to show kindness to anyone for anything."

Slightly peeved by her insulting accusations, the Sith replied, "Kindness must be experienced first if it is ever to become known."

Joss merely shook her head. "You obviously have no understanding of what kindness is. It comes from compassion. Kindness isn't just a reaction," she retorted assertively.

She had misunderstood what he had said, but the young Sith didn't try to correct her. Feeling uncomfortable talking this way, Maul licked his lips and quickly turned away from her, choosing to simply ignore her last comment, preferring to focus his attention on his growing sense of urgency.

"Stay still while I turn off the charge," he instructed. He walked a few steps down the dark hall and opened a plated panel recessed within the wall. After a full turn of the connector, the snare's webbing abruptly disappeared with a loud snapping sound.

Joss stiffly rose to her feet and brushed herself off. "But what did you mean by that? Because of me?" she asked again, her curiosity too piqued to let his statement go unexplained. She turned around a few times as if trying to get her bearings.

Half expecting her to run again, Maul practically pounced on her and seized her upper arm. She made no move to flee, but twisted her arm out of his grasp in silent protest of his vice-like grip. It was then the young Sith realized he had neglected to retrieve the restraints from C-827S in his haste to find her and rolled his eyes with irritation.

"Why don't you answer me?" Joss pressed. She faced him fully and fixed her eyes on him as if trying to gain insight into his complex psyche. Giving up, she looked beyond him and sighed. "You're impossible. I don't understand you," she finally announced.

"Good. Leave it at that," Maul snapped in reply, glancing around. He took hold of her elbow this time and started to pull her after him, but she promptly lost her balance, tripped, and fell. Sighing with exasperation, the Sith hauled her to her feet again and bent down and brusquely threw her over his shoulder.

Joss gasped in surprise and wriggled wildly. "Just what do you think you're doing? Put me down! You know, I can walk, even run, just fine on my own if you let me!" When the Sith ignored her, Joss stretched out her hands searchingly and latched onto the first solid fixture she brushed against.

Maul suddenly felt himself jerked backwards and cursed again. He yanked her from the fixture and swatted her soundly on the butt. Joss yelped and froze.

"If you try something like that again, I swear I'll throw you back in that webbing and leave you there to rot!" Maul seethed. He was simply too tired to put up with any childish behavior on her part tonight and before she could protest further, he started jogging with his burden up the stone stairway which wound around the castle's outer walls towards his quarters.

"You... you are nothing but a barbaric, sadistic... chauvinistic miscreant!" the Jedi spouted indignantly, recovering from her initial shock. "Must you always resort to violence when you don't get your way? I understand you completely now! You don't want to know compassion because you prefer cruelty. It's easier for you, isn't it?"

Maul stopped in his tracks at the top of the stairs. There was enough truth in her accusations to give the young Sith pause. She was right about some things, but wrong about others and he realized he did not want her thinking of him that way.

"I know what compassion is," Maul replied, his throat tightening uncomfortably, his pulse racing in his ears. He lowered Joss to the floor and stood her before him. "You offered me compassion. I did not deserve it considering how I first treated you and your willingness and capacity to show me such compassion regardless meant something to me... which is why I spared your master today. I felt obligated to reciprocate your kindness."

The Jedi's mouth fell open and her expression reflected the awe she was feeling, caught completely by surprise at the young Sith's words. Tears misted her eyes. She stretched her hand towards him and placed it gently on his cheek.

"I must thank you then," she finally exhaled all at once. "I didn't realize. What I did for you I would have done for anyone. You were so ill and in so much pain. It made me want to help you. Nothing else mattered. You are a living, thinking, feeling person to me, Maul. Not just a Sith."

A Sith... who's pathetically infatuated... with a Jedi, Maul miserably concluded. He stood staring at her as a whirlwind of emotions swirled inside him, opening him up to a vulnerability which didn't make him feel inferior or weak, but enriched. He had never felt that way with anyone before and found it refreshingly liberating.

The sound of metallic feet tramping on stone echoed faintly through the halls and Maul turned his head in the direction it was coming from. Droids. And worse yet, the cold, sinister sensation of the presence of his master. Darth Sidious was with them.

Maul faced Joss and took her hand in his. "Come with me," he urged and was actually surprised when the girl readily complied this time. Perhaps she sensed his unease.

They moved quickly and silently through the dark corridors, easily evading the detection of the searching droids. The Dark Lord was a different story. Maul was certain his master had sensed them. Now he would have to go to him and explain what had happened and try to assure him everything was back under control before he decided to do anything rash.

Maul hurried Joss into his room and over to the bed, gesturing at the restraints on the floor by the wall where the former protocol droid had dropped them. The devices flew towards him and he adeptly picked them out of the air.

"I must go, but I'll return within the hour," Maul told the Jedi as he secured her once more to the bedframe. "I'll have some food sent up... in the meantime, you'll be safe here." He noticed the Jedi cocked an arched eyebrow questioningly at him and the young Sith paused and lowered his eyes. "Don't look so surprised, Joss. I may not be very adept at it, but I want to show you consideration and I admit, I am somewhat concerned for you. It's just that, the way I perceive you now... sometimes, between us, I think I sense...." Maul let his voice trail off, deciding he wasn't ready to continue that train of thought just yet. "Perhaps we're not the enemies we once were," he concluded in an attempt to sum up what he had stammered through previously.

Without waiting for a reply, Maul turned from her and took a deep, steadying breath, purposefully cleansing his mind of the bizarre tangle of thoughts and emotions presently plaguing him. He knew his master's keen sensitivity would readily detect anything amiss and he wasn't prepared to try to explain away feelings he himself did not yet understand.

***

Darth Sidious was seated, his hands folded calmly in his lap, his head raised expectantly. He fixed his eyes on his apprentice as the young Sith approached and offered Maul a feeble smile.

"Why, Maul. How good of you to finally report to me. I've been expecting you ever since the droids informed me of your prisoner's escape. When you didn't come to me, I searched for you, but it seemed you only evaded me, then once again, you mysteriously failed to appear before me until now. Would you care to explain any of this?"

The young Sith narrowed his eyes. "Forgive me, Master. I was occupied with the task at hand. I had every intention of reporting the situation to you as my presence here now undeniably shows."

Sidious frowned, unconvinced, but let the matter pass. "Where is the girl now?"

Maul swallowed slowly. "She is back in my custody and securely restrained. I've ordered a sentry posted at my door as well. She will not escape again."

The Dark Lord rose to his feet and slowly stepped over to where his pupil stood. "I suppose as securely restrained as before? When she escaped?"

The Sith Apprentice faced his master with a stern expression, determined not to allow him to intimidate him. "It was your droid, Master, who freed her."

At that, Sidious backed down. "So it was." He turned from Maul and stalked about the room petulantly. "Foolish machine. I can assume you dealt with the droid accordingly?"

Maul fought a smile. "Yes Master."

The older Sith took a deep breath. "I'm pleased to hear you have everything back under control, but what about the padawan? She's your responsibility, Maul. You need to see she is effectively deterred from ever wanting to escape again. I want you to see she is suitably punished."

Maul's heart sank. He opened his mouth to speak, but Sidious anticipated his words and dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

"I leave it to your discretion."

Maul told himself to breathe. "What about your agreement with the Jedi Knight? If I harm his padawan, he will surely sense it."

Sidious shrugged slightly. "At this point, I don't care what the Jedi senses. I mean business, Maul and it is time they realize this. Let the Jedi fret a bit. If I choose to alter our deal he still must comply. He has little choice in the matter, either way." The Dark Lord stopped pacing and faced the young Sith. "I'm sure whatever you decide to do to his precious padawan will only give him more motive to fight you. He'll want to avenge her you see." The Sith Lord paused and raised his brow, a wicked smile distorting his features. "You have my permission. Now go, Boy. It's getting late."

Feeling his face flush with heat, Maul bowed and reluctantly turned to leave. He would not, could not, do such a thing to her now. He'd have to think of an alternative and fast.

***

Joss started as Maul entered the room. She sat up and turned her head in his direction and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when she sensed who it was.

"What kept you away so long?" she said in a low voice, then frowned when the Sith did not answer. She took a deep breath and bowed her head. "I've been thinking about what you said and strangely enough, I do sense I am safe with you. Even with that irascible temper of yours. I no longer sense the malice you first harbored towards me. You've come to know me as a person and not just an enemy. It has changed you, hasn't it?" Joss looked up and offered Maul a weak smile, then narrowed her eyes in confusion, sensing the young Sith's apprehension. "What's wrong? You seem upset?"

For a long time, the only sound in the room was the Sith's agitated breathing and an odd mechanical humming. Then he sat carefully on the bed and unfastened Joss' chains.

The Jedi Padawan peered at him with a confused expression. "What are you doing?" she asked as she felt him pull her to her feet and place something in her hands which crackled with energy.

"Take this," Maul whispered.

Joss frowned. "What is it?" Her hands began skimming the surface metal of the U-shaped device, but the Sith quickly covered her hand with his to stop her.

"Do not touch the tips," he warned. "They cause tremendous pain."

The Jedi tried to hand the device back to him. "I don't want this! Why are you giving it to me?"

Backing away from her, Maul lowered his head and took a deep breath. "I've been commanded to punish you."

Joss' lower lip trembled slightly and her hands tightened on the instrument of torture she held. "...You're going to use this on me to hurt me?"

Sighing heavily, the young Sith straightened and removed his cloak. "No. You are going to use it on me."

"I WILL NOT!" the Jedi strongly objected, throwing the device aside and fleeing to the far side of the room. "It is against everything I subscribe to as a healer and a Jedi."

Maul continued undressing. "Listen to me, Joss. It won't matter who's pain it is. My master need only feel it. If he doesn't, he'll know I've... disobeyed him." He paused and tossed his tunic on the bed, then called the device to his hand. "I chose this particular piece because it does not cause permanent injury. Only pain."

Joss shook her head furiously, refusing to be placated by the Sith's blasť tone of voice. "I can't... and I won't. Use it on me if it's so harmless."

Studying the device in his hand, Maul stepped towards the agitated girl. "You would not be able to tolerate this level of pain, but I can. It may stop your heart," the Sith explained.

The young Jedi looked panicked. "What if it stops your heart?"

Maul shrugged, unphased. "Then I'll have to rely on you to start it again." He paused but could tell she remained unswayed by his poor attempt at levity. The Sith massaged his eyes with impatience. "I've fully recovered from my fever and am quite capable of withstanding this sort of punishment."

Joss raised her chin defiantly. "And I am a Jedi, Maul, and not nearly as feeble as you like to think. So go on. Do as you were told."

Maul suddenly reached out and snatched the Jedi's hand from her side and firmly placed the device into it. She shook her head again and started trembling, but the young Sith lowered his voice soothingly. "Just press the ends into my skin. Here and here. Go slowly, left to right. It will be quick, and clean, and the injections themselves will be relatively painless." He lifted her free hand and traced it across his chest, demonstrating the way to use the device. "Keep it moving. Like this."

Joss immediately calmed and fixed her sightless eyes searchingly on the Sith's face. "You don't have to do this for me, Maul," she whispered. She closed her eyes and shifted her weight towards him, leaning her body against his. Her small hand slowly skimmed the surface of his skin and up the hard, corded muscles of his neck. Tentatively laying her head on his chest, Joss dragged her fingertips over the side of his face and stroked down his jawline pacifyingly. "Thank you," she murmured, her warm lips brushing against his skin as she spoke. She sighed raggedly, as if breathing suddenly became difficult for her and a wisp of her heated breath caressed the Sith's senses, lacing the air around him with a noticeable innuendo.

Could it be possible? Maul felt as though he were suddenly melting from the intimacy of her touch; his body and mind dissolving and pooling together in a puddle on the floor at her feet. All cognizant thought left him and there was only the sensation of her soft, cool hand upon his face. Despite his determination to maintain his discipline where she was concerned, the urge to touch her became overwhelming. Cautiously he placed one hand on the small of her back and pressed her tighter to him as his other hand cradled the back of her head. All the air left his lungs in a long, languid sigh.

"It'll be all right," he whispered encouragingly in her ear. He thought he felt her head nod beneath his hand and heard her take a deep breath.

Then the Sith heard the familiar loud snapping sound like the successive cracking of several leather whips--and braced himself in anticipation of the pain to come. But it was the Jedi's pain he felt, not his own. Too late he realized what she had done.

Her scream tore through the euphoric atmosphere she had created around him. Maul felt her petite form slump against him suddenly and tightened his arms around her to keep her from falling. The torture device clanged to the floor as she dropped it and several telltale circles of blood appeared on the right side of her tunic.

The Sith hissed a stream of profanity and swept her up in his arms. He carried her over to the bed and placed her on the rumpled blankets.

"Joss? You wretched, deceitful girl. You distracted me into near delirium so I wouldn't realize what you were planning to do, didn't you? And like a fool, I succumbed to it. Joss! Wake up!"

The Jedi whimper slightly.

"Joss?" Maul repeated a little more tenderly this time. Leaning over her, he touched her brow and pushed the hair from her dampening forehead. She suddenly screamed again and fainted again causing the Sith's anger to turn into alarm. He placed his hand on her neck to feel her pulse and was reassured by the strong steady throbbing he felt in her veins.

Then her eyes fluttered and she blinked several times before moaning miserably. Maul sat back relieved, exhaling the breath he was holding through his teeth.

"Oh," the Jedi squeaked. Sweat began running down her face. "I feel... like my internal... organs are... on fire."

The Sith used his discarded tunic to mop the perspiration from her brow. "They've been injected with a chemical which simulates the sensation of being stung," he explained. "Your heart is pumping the venom throughout your system now. Gradually the pain will subside. Try not to move around. You'll only circulate it." He reached down and took her hand in his. "Use the Force to control the pain. Center your mind on the source and summon the power of the Force there."

Joss obeyed, closing her eyes and pressing her lips tightly together.

Maul could feel the power of the Light Side of the Force moving around him, intensifying the Jedi's strength as she called it to her. The unfamiliar sensation of the Light Side's characteristic virtues felt strangely inimical to the Sith and made him recoil from it. Joss embraced it as it embraced her and soon her expression softened as the pain diminished. She squeezed the Sith's hand and slowly opened her eyes.

"It is getting better," she informed him quietly and tried to sit up. Remnants of the pain rocketed through her and she gasped and promptly collapsed back on the bed. She placed her hand on her forehead and massaged her brow. "I can't believe you offered to subject yourself to this... for me. You are either the noblest person I have ever met or the most masochistic."

Maul glanced down at his tattooed torso and smiled slightly. "Neither. I've been disciplined to endure extreme levels of pain before becoming debilitated. If you could see me, you would understand."

Joss frowned and shook her head. "Why do it for me, though? Think about it. You were being noble."

The Sith sighed and gazed at his hand and the intimate way his fingers were laced through hers. He pulled free from her grasp and leaned away from her. "Two days ago, I would not have hesitated to inflict pain on you, yet it holds no appeal to me now. I can't begin to explain it. Then as you said, the animosity between us has passed."

The Jedi Padawan struggled to sit up once more. She reached forward and brushed her fingertips over Maul's lips. "That is profound, but I still wonder why. What happened to change it all? I believe there's something more to it than just that." Her fair brow furrowed before realization dawned in her eyes as she noted the way the Sith reacted to her touch. "Affected you profoundly...." She lowered her hand to his shoulder and brushed her palm lightly over his skin. His muscles quivered beneath her hand. "It's this, isn't it? No one has ever touched you tenderly like this before, have they?" She trailed the back of her hand down his chest and over his abdomen. "No one has ever shown you kindness before. Apathy and brutality is all you've ever known. All your life. Until me."

Chagrinned, Maul abruptly slipped away from her and stood up. He watched Joss' open hand search the sudden emptiness in front of her for him. Her awed expression softened in sympathy. It radiated from her in a cloud of goodness and mercy, pelting the Sith with its purity and light. He withdrew from her further, repelled by the feelings he felt directed towards him which reminded him she was indeed a Jedi first and foremost with a Jedi's unconditional compassion. But he didn't want her sympathy. He wanted her devotion.

A simmering anger seeped into his senses. "I don't need your pity, Jedi," he growled and stalked irritably about the room, welcoming the familiar feeling of the Dark Side of the Force to push away the suffocating Light. He breathed it in allowing it to fill him.

Joss stared back at him confused. "Why are getting so defensive? I was only offering you the compassion you so obviously crave."

"Don't lie to me! I sensed it! You find me pathetic. I will not tolerate that from you or anyone!"

The Jedi looked away. "Don't lie to yourself, Maul. I've figured you out and that doesn't sit well with you. I know now you are frightened. Offering and receiving compassion gives you a sense of humanity you can scarcely afford." She paused and licked her lips apprehensively. "You must understand. Touch is everything to me. I use it to heal, to connect with my surroundings, and obviously, to see. Of course I feel sorry for you. I cannot bring myself to imagine what it is like for you to have been so mistreated."

Maul stopped pacing and turned to face Joss. "Mistreatment has made me strong," he stated, his voice cold and breathy. "Unlike you pampered Jedi Padawans, I loathe the coddling you thrive on."

Joss nodded decisively. "Very well. I won't touch you again." With that, she shifted her weight on the bed and angled herself away from the irate Sith.

Her declaration caught Maul off guard. He growled in frustration and strode over to her.

"That wasn't what I meant and you know it," he grumbled and tried to piece together the right words to make himself better understood. "The... intimacies we have participated in have allowed us rare insight of each other as individuals. There's merit in that even I can see." He waited but when she did not respond, he leaned over her and softened his tone. "Your touch... pleases me."

The Jedi only shrugged. "But you don't want my compassion."

Maul snarled. "It's not the same thing!" To add to his vexation, the girl smiled slyly.

"Oh, but you can't have one without the other," she stated and turned her face farther away from him. "Compassion is what motivated me to touch you the first time."

The Sith's heart skipped a beat. "What about the other times? You touched me because you wanted to, because it pleased you, didn't it?" Maul questioned, holding his breath in anticipation of her response. But she said nothing and stubbornly refused to face him. He cursed at her and sat heavily on the opposite side of the bed to sulk.

His temper soon waned in the ensuing silence and a prevailing calm settled over him. He leaned down and picked up the restraints from the floor and turned them over in his hands several times before finally tossing them aside. He felt defeated. He could not even bring himself to chain her up anymore.

Joss must have heard the restraints fall and peered over her shoulder at the Sith curiously. "You're not going to restrain me?" she asked hopefully.

"No," Maul told her wearily. "Not with these. I know they hurt you. Your wrists are bruised and chafed. I'll think of another, more agreeable way to make you stay here. Besides, you will not run away again because you know you are safe here."

The young Jedi swallowed uneasily. "So compassion isn't as foreign to you as I first thought," she noted quietly. She sighed heavily and eased herself down on her left side, her right side obviously still smarting from the injections. With her back to the Sith, she curled herself up, crossing her ankles and arms as if symbolically closing herself up. Maul sensed her emotional shields were back up as well.

The Sith studied her stressed and defensive posture with a trace of longing sparking in his mind. His skin still tingled warmly where she had touched him and recalling the way he had held her to him before she fainted made his gut twist. He truly hoped he hadn't hardened her heart against him with his indignation. He wanted to let her know it was all right for her to feel something beyond compassion for him. That he felt something too and wouldn't shun her. But he also wanted her to know he wasn't afraid of compassion. He could offer it as well as receive it. Then an idea occurred to him.

Swallowing down the lump forming in his throat, Maul carefully lay back on the bed and rolled over on his side to face the Jedi. He slowly shifted close to her, spooning his body around hers, and tentatively encircled her tiny waist with his arm. She tensed expectedly and her breathing momentarily stopped, but the Sith did not move again until she began to relax. Then he pulled her against him, holding her securely, and layed his cheek on her shoulder.

"This is how you intend to restrain me?" she asked softly.

The Sith nuzzled the back of her neck. "Is this not more agreeable than chains?"

The Jedi did not answer.

Maul grinned. "You will not run away again," he repeated.

"I will not run away again," Joss whispered and covered his hand with hers.

The young Sith felt the Jedi lean against him. He closed his eyes in quiet contentment, surrendering himself to his dreams.

***

Aware Joss was no longer with him, Maul drowsily passed his hand over the still warm and wrinkled blankets where she had slept. He slowly opened his eyes and looked around.

The Jedi was seated across the room on the floor, her legs crossed and her arms draped loosely at her sides. Her eyes were open but she appeared to be in a deep meditative trance. Her expression waivered back and forth from a mask-like vacancy to knotted anxiety.

The Sith rolled out of bed and stalked over to her, kneeling before her quietly. She immediately sensed him and lifted her hand to touch his face.

"What troubles you?" Maul asked her gently.

Joss swallowed hard and pressed her palm against the young Sith's cheek.

"It's Verteigo," she said sadly. "He's distraught. Beside himself over something that has happened... but I can't tell what."

Maul was already on his feet and pulling on his tunic. If the Jedi Knight was agitated it involved Joss and most likely Sidious had something to do with it.

"I'll go to him," he informed the padawan as she unfolded her legs and shakily climbed to her feet.

"Take me with you. I need to know he's all right."

The Sith automatically shook his head and moved to open the door with a wave of his hand. "No," he replied sharply. "I can deal with this quicker and easier without you along." He didn't want to alarm her further by sharing his suspicions.

The Jedi frowned deeply and lowered her head, but said nothing.

Maul struggled to say something to help ease her concern. "I'll return as soon as I'm able," he finally told her, giving up, and turned to leave. He waited until the door closed before addressing the sentry droid posted there. "Stay here and do not open that door for anyone until I get back, do you understand?"

"As you wish, Sir."

***

Stopping only long enough to pick up his lightsaber from the training room, Maul then sprinted across the castle's interior to the crumbling stone stairway which led to the cell block where the Jedi Knight was currently housed.

It was then, the young Sith sensed the approach of Darth Sidious. Escorted by three battle droids and looking more than a little vexed, the Dark Lord was making his way up from the cell block just as Maul was making his way down. Sidious hailed Maul and met him at the bottom of the stairs.

"I'm please you're here," he began, sounding anything but pleased to his apprentice's ears. "I wanted to speak with you anyway."

Maul bowed respectfully before his master. "What is it you wish, My Lord?" He tried unsuccessfully to peer around the older Sith down the hall. "I sense there's trouble with the Jedi."

"Your insight serves you well," Sidious grumbled, following the direction of his apprentice's wayward gaze. "The Jedi summoned me here earlier this morning. He wanted to inform me he no longer agrees to cooperate with us. He claims we departed from our original agreement by harming his padawan last night." The Sith Lord sniffed indignantly and folded his arms across his chest, slipping his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his cloak. "You were right, Maul," he continued. "Instead of making him vindictive, we've only made him force our hand."

Maul faced his master fully. "What do you mean by that, My Lord?"

"I told him he had an hour to change his mind or we would bring the child Jedi before him to watch her suffer and die."

The young Sith was careful not to show any outward signs of dismay at Sidious' words. Instead, he squared his shoulders and cleared his throat.

"Master, if I may," he began, sounding more confident than he felt. "Allow me a moment to speak with the Jedi Knight."

Sidious frowned. "Why? What good would that do? If this doesn't convince him nothing will."

Maul inhaled slowly. "If we execute the girl, the Jedi Knight will lose all incentive to comply with us. We might as well just execute him too and that would be a terrible waste of valuable resources. I believe, with your permission, I can incite his imagination to motivate him in new ways without sacrifice."

The Sith Lord stood regarding his apprentice warily before nodding his consent. "Very well. But do not promise him anything else. I grow tired of trying to appease the monster and would just rather be finished with them both than be inconvenienced further." He glanced back in the direction of the Jedi's cell then turned and brushed past Maul to continue up the stairs, the three droids clanging behind him.

***

Maul approached Verteigo's cell door and motioned the droid guarding it to release the lock.

"Deactivate the restraints holding the Jedi, then bring his personal lightsaber to me here. Go quickly," the Sith ordered the droid in a low voice.

The droid nodded and hurried off as Maul sauntered through the open door of the Jedi's cell. He crossed his arms over his chest, then leaned serenely against the stone entryway.

The Jedi Knight looked up at the young Sith and snarled at him ferociously, but remained seated where he was in the far corner of the cell, shrouded in shadows. The dim light from the hall reflected his feline eyes eerily like a predator's in the night.

"Your pious indignation has condemned your padawan to a slow, miserable death," Maul stated bluntly.

The Jedi shook his head. "Her blood is on your hands, Boy, not mine."

"Fool," the Sith sneered contemptuously. "How utterly hypocritical you Jedi are. Martyring yourself, and her, in retaliation for something so minor. If you would put away your pompous righteousness for the moment, you would sense the girl is fairing quite well this morning... for another hour at least."

Gracefully rising to his feet, Verteigo growled menacingly and started walking towards the Sith. "You promised me you would protect her. You lied. But then, you are a Sith, aren't you? Get out of my sight before I rend you limb from limb."

Maul wasted no time drawing his lightsaber. He angled the glowing hissing point just below the advancing Jedi's blue slanted eyes, turning them an unnatural purplish hue.

"If it is revenge you seek, I'm here to offer it," Maul told him calmly. "I sent a droid to fetch your lightsaber. Take it up and challenge me. Right here, just the two of us. No armed droids, no restrictions, nothing to hold us back. A perfect opportunity for you to strike me down." He paused but the Jedi did not respond. "You obviously don't understand. You have to continue to fight with me if you want to save the girl."

As if on cue, the droid returned and presented Maul with the Jedi's lightsaber. The Sith shooed the droid away, then tossed the short, thick hilt at the Jedi's feet.

"Pick it up," the Sith ordered.

Verteigo only snarled again and raised his taloned hand as if to slash at the Sith, then much to Maul's dismay, composed himself and suddenly backed down.

"To what point?" he whispered in his deep, breathy voice. He inhaled slowly, looking suddenly pained, and shook his head so forcefully, his long golden mane swished around his shoulders. "Joss and I are already dead. Nothing I agree to will save our lives in the end."

Frustrated, Maul narrowed his eyes at the Jedi Knight and deactivated his lightsaber, returning it to his belt. He was running out of time and Verteigo's stubborness was wearing his patience thin. He would obviously need to do something a little more provocative if he was to see any results.

Taking a cautious step forward, Maul opened the neckline of his tunic exposing his throat and raised his chin tauntingly. "I've always heard Jedi frequently rely on the charitable acts of others. Therefore, as a Jedi, you should welcome the charity I'm offering you now. A clean, first strike at my unprotected neck."

Verteigo only licked his lips and lowered his eyes.

Maul growled and dropped to his knees in front of him. "Is this better?"

The Jedi turned his face away. "As much as the idea of cleaving you in two appeals to me, I will not take up my weapon against you."

Maul had to smile. "Do you doubt your abilities that much? I am unarmed, kneeling like a slave on the floor before you, and you still think if you attack me you won't be able to kill me? Master Nassy, I'm quite flattered."

Verteigo shook his head and walked away from the Sith in disgust. "I am a Jedi. I will not succumb to your daemonic temptations."

Maul climbed to his feet, his mind scrambling for a new strategy. Then the light of realization dawned in his bloodshot eyes and gave the Sith a spark of hope. He cleared his throat and as a precaution took a small step back.

"After what I did to your Jedi padawan last night, do you think she would have refused such an offer?" the young Sith taunted, then shook his head. "I've come to know the girl quite well and I can assure you she would not have."

Verteigo turned suddenly, curling his upper lip and exposing his long white fangs. "You do deserve to die after the heinous crime you subjected her to, but it is not my place to avenge her humiliation and pain." He took a step forward. "I do not kill for killing's sake. You, on the other hand, are an evil, conscienceless entity who preys on the essence of goodness and beauty to destroy and devour its virtue."

Maul's brow furrowed in confusion. He had obviously struck a nerve with the Jedi, but he didn't understand what he was ranting about. Surely if this was just about Joss' brief pain last night after she injected herself with the torture device, it wouldn't move the Jedi Knight to speak of heinous crimes and humiliation.

"Come now," the young Sith argued. "The girl didn't enjoy it, but she endured it rather well."

The Jedi inhaled sharply and fixed his glassy, tear-filled eyes on Maul, folding his hands over his chest.

"My heart breaks for her," he whispered. "For what she... endured last night." He lowered his head briefly to collect himself before continuing. "You can dismiss it from your mind, but that cruel carnal act will haunt her always. It plagued her dreams. That's how I know what you did to her. The images of you, as she perceives you... with her, were so strong, flashes of them invaded my meditations."

Maul suddenly realized he was staring at the Jedi dumbly with his mouth open and promptly shut it. He had to resist the urge to correct Verteigo's assumptions and explain that whatever Joss had dreamed of last night was just that - a dream. Nothing had happened between them beyond a restful night's sleep in the security of each other's arms.

Then it occurred to the young Sith that maybe Joss was attracted to him after all - especially if she was dreaming of the two of them having sexual relations. The idea made Maul's pulse race with renewed desires. Desires he promised he would no longer act on, but consequently could no longer deny. He needed to tell her how he felt. Perhaps it would encourage her to do the same.

However, considering how upset the Jedi Knight was regarding the flashes of images he had received, Maul had to wonder if Joss' dreams were violent in nature, stemming from the first time he had attacked her. The Sith licked his lips and took a deep breath.

"Tell me," he began. "In the images you saw. Was she... resisting me?"

The Jedi placed his hands on his hips and looked at Maul as if he were a piece of rotten meat. The Force was stirring, prickling the young Sith's awareness with glints of foreboding. The Jedi's resolve was crumbling and despite his outer passivity, Maul sensed Verteigo was nearly bursting with animosity towards him. If he handled this correctly, he could incite the Jedi to finally attack.

The Sith inhaled deeply and began stalking about the cell, knowing he could react faster if he was already moving. Slowly, imperceptibly, he moved his hand to his lightsaber's hilt.

"It wasn't as bad as all that, Master Jedi," Maul began in a silky voice. "Once I had overpowered her, I found her very agreeable and to my liking. She put up just enough of a fight to keep things interesting without detracting too much from my pleasure." He noted the Jedi eyeing his neglected lightsaber now. Carefully, the Sith continued. "Her skin was heated through and slick with sweat that tasted delectable and smelled exquisitely musky and womanly. Not at all like the child you believe her to be."

It was difficult for him to fabricate such a lie, but Maul knew the Jedi was just about to break when Verteigo growled so low and long the Sith could feel it in his gut. A few more choice words should provoke him.

"If you still refuse to vindicate her then I believe I will just go. My recollections have whet my appetite and since your padawan has less than an hour to live, I think I shall hurry to partake of her one last time. 'Devour' her before I 'destroy' her." Maul waited momentarily, then turned slightly as if to leave.

The Jedi's lightsaber was in his hand and slashing through the air with such power it whistled in the young Sith's ears.

Maul's lightsaber was activated a split second later and crashed against Verteigo's with little effect. The strength behind the Jedi's strike forced the Sith to lean perilously to his left, exposing his right side to a swiftly calculated counterstrike. As Verteigo arced his saber over his head and down, the Sith quickly activated the second blade at the bottom of his lightsaber hilt and was able to catch the Jedi's saber just in time before it sliced right through him.

The sight of the double-bladed lightsaber startled the Jedi and made him hesitate to carry out his next planned strike. Maul moved immediately forward, cutting upwards with the second blade and countering with a downward stroke of the first.

Verteigo dodged backwards and parried the second strike high above his head but was unable to put any power behind it this time. Maul advanced again, rotating the hilt in his hands, the two blades allowing him ample room to maneuver away from the Jedi without having to fully retreat.

Battling the Sith's unconventional weapon was forcing the Jedi to work twice as hard and twice as fast. His exasperated expression told the young Sith he had no offensive strategy as of yet against him and was doing all he could just to defend himself.

What the Jedi didn't know was that Maul wasn't completely confident yet in his ability to utilize the two blades at once. Up until now, the Sith had only sparingly used them against remotes to try to get a feeling for their weight and design. He had never dueled with them and he was struggling with them now. He had three times the reach he normally would with just a single blade, but he had to be extremely aware of where each blade was at any given time. Parrying a strike might also sever off a leg if he wasn't careful. Maul closed his eyes and concentrated. He needed to call upon the Force and surrender himself to it to help him execute the proper maneuvers effectively.

Maul sensed Verteigo was using the Force as well, striking faster and harder than he had before. It seemed the longer he fought the Sith, the more relaxed and stronger he became. He had discovered there were only certain ways in which Maul could wield the long lightsaber and began to predict two out of three strikes the Sith used against him.

For Maul, this was a no-win situation. With dauntless persistence, the Jedi drove the Sith back, out of the confines of the tiny cell and out into the open hall. Maul tried to block the Jedi, but Verteigo kicked him aside with enough force to send him crashing into the opposite wall, then immediately headed for the stairs at the end of the hall.

Hoping to at least keep the Jedi in the perimeter of the cell block, Maul closely pursued him, whipping at Verteigo's heels with the tip of his blade.

When the Jedi reached the stairs, he turned sharply and grimaced at the tenacious Sith, then leapt to the fourth step and front flipped to avoid an overextended stab from Maul's blade, landing back on the floor behind the young Sith.

Turning and simultaneously rotating the lightsaber around in his hands, Maul was already bringing the first blade in from the left followed tightly by the second blade as soon as the Jedi's feet hit the floor. Verteigo countered with a backhand swing and bent forward trying to put his weight behind it. Using the tangled blades as leverage, the Sith torqued a half turn and somersaulted over the crouched Jedi.

Verteigo ducked down further to avoid Maul's aerial assault and lashed out simultaneously with his blade in a right to left vertical strike as the Sith descended. The point of the Jedi's lightsaber grazed across Maul's upper thighs, causing him to stagger in pain as he landed. Hissing profanity, he retreated, momentarily succumbing to the fire which shot through his entire body.

The Jedi swiftly advanced on the young Sith from above this time, having risen to his feet and his full two-meter height. Maul was pushed onto his back and rolled sideways to escape the Jedi's killing blow.

Angered and frustrated with himself, the Sith hopped to his feet again, knowing he needed a new form of attack and adjusted his grip on his lightsaber, leveling it horizontally. By spinning his body, the lightsaber blades acted like a rotary propeller, forcing the Jedi to back away now. Maul realized the way in which the blades were positioned gave Verteigo little opportunity to hit them with much power. Anytime he did, Maul angled his counterstrike, making the Jedi have to twist awkwardly to deflect the Sith's blade away from him.

With the Jedi steadily retreating, Maul found he had more room and freedom to fully extend the reach of the two blades. He raised the saber above his head and twirled it several times to maintain flexibility in his aching hands and keep his grip from locking up. His confidence bolstered, Maul soon found an efficient, fluid rhythm of slashing and parrying that using a single blade did not allow.

This duel alone had given him a wealth of experience, Maul thought to himself, far beyond anything droids or remotes could. His master had shown great wisdom in bringing the Jedi here for him and Verteigo had been a great asset to his training. It was then Maul realized with a hint of regret that this was without doubt, a duel to the death. One of them would die today and Maul wholly believed it would be the Jedi Knight.

But Verteigo had proven himself a worthy adversary. He deserved to die in the heat of battle, defending his principles and deep-rooted beliefs, with honor and dignity, not in some torture chamber or gunned down by unthinking droids. Maul wanted to grant him this. If all Jedi fought as well as Verteigo, the young Sith decided from now on he would go out of his way to engage them.

Fatigue was setting in, slowing the pace of the battle. Their sabers locked momentarily and the young Sith gazed respectfully at the Jedi through the glare of the crossed blades, perspiration stinging his eyes and hazing his vision. Verteigo stared back with a quiet, serene expression, laced with strain. There seemed to be little animosity left between them at this point and the Jedi took the rare opportunity to speak, his rich voice echoing off the damp stone walls.

"You have demonstrated to me that my fellow Jedi have much to be concerned about. Despite your youth, you are indeed formidable."

Maul inclined his head graciously then stepped to the left and brought the lower half of the lightsaber up in a full rotation. Verteigo blocked both strikes, then retreated to the Sith's right.

"Formidable, yes, but not invincible," Verteigo continued. "I will kill you, Young Sith. I must kill you. It is my duty." With newfound resolve, the Jedi advanced with an onslaught of powerful strokes, pushing Maul back and swiftly into a corner, catching the Sith completely by surprise.

Maul had let himself become distracted by his thoughts and hadn't realized he was so close to the walls. Darth Sidious' warning about distraction in the presence of an adversary rang in his ears and Maul knew he was in trouble. He had ignored a primary rule of fencing: feel, do not think. Act upon instinct only. Now cornered, Maul's maneuverability was severely inhibited. The Jedi smiled at the panicked look in the young Sith's eyes.

"My only regret," Verteigo continued, drawing back his lightsaber for what he was certain was the final blow, "Is that the Jedi Knights did not find you as an infant before the Sith did." He brought the blade down directly over Maul's head. There was no way for him to block it from that angle without snagging his lightsaber's blades in the stone surrounding him.

Maul realized he could not even dodge this blow. The Jedi had him perfectly trapped and he knew it. Furious at himself, the Sith called upon the Force, tapping into his seething anger and concentrated. If he could not move, then the Jedi would have to. With a snarl, the Sith swung the hilt of his lightsaber like a club and aimed it at the Jedi's head. It impacted with enough force to split open his temple and sway him, throwing off the trajectory of his descending blade.

As Verteigo folded to one side, Maul seized the opportunity given him and slipped around the Jedi, free of his confinement. He whipped his lightsaber completely around his body and sliced the top blade through the Jedi's torso just under his arms.

With a garbled gasp of surprise, Verteigo's body collapsed on itself, the upper part landing heavily on the lower, splattering the Sith with blood. The hot, pelting sensation abruptly announced the end of the duel and transfixed Maul where he stood.

He had just made his first kill.

He had fought a Jedi Knight and won. Barely, but he had won. The thrill he had always anticipated was surprisingly hollow. Instead of exhilaration, he felt a cool sense of accomplishment, as if he had merely done what was expected of him, nothing more.

After what seemed like a long while, the young Sith deactivated his lightsaber and turned away from the Jedi's divided corpse. It was then he noticed Darth Sidious emerging from the shadows concealing him.

"You did well, My Young Apprentice," he greeted. "I'm most pleased."

Maul genuflected quickly and uncomfortably swallowed down the bile suddenly rising in his throat. He had not sensed his master's presence at all and now a cloud of dread threatened to suffocate him.

"My Lord, I beg your forgiveness," he hurriedly apologized, squeezing his eyes tightly shut.

Sidious shook his head slowly. "There's nothing to forgive. The Jedi's death was inevitable."

Maul took several deep breaths and dared to look up. "Then you are not angry with me for having to kill him?" He dragged his wrist across his burning eyes to wipe the sweat and blood away.

The Dark Lord placed a cold hand on his apprentice's shoulder and bid him rise. "I sense you learned a great deal. That is what matters. And even more importantly, another Jedi has fallen at the hands of a Sith." He turned Maul towards the stairs. "I want you to meditate now and reflect upon the significance of this occasion. Not just for you, Young One, but for the whole Sith Legacy."

Maul nodded. "Yes, I shall, Master." He started slowly up the stairs, but the older Sith called out to him to stop. Maul turned around expectantly to face his master.

"Here, Maul, take this," Sidious whispered reverently. He stalked over to the dead Jedi and pried the lightsaber hilt from his hands. Then the Dark Lord walked back over to his stunned apprentice and handed it to him. "It is a relic. Keep it. You earned it."

The young Sith could barely breathe as he accepted the token from his master with a bow of his head.

***

Maul paced outside the door to his room. Occasionally, he glanced up at it longingly, knowing he could not delay this confrontation much longer. It was not as though he had to actually break the news to Joss of her master's death. She surely would have felt the very moment he died. And it wasn't as if Verteigo's death should have surprised her. Deep down inside, she must have known that was to eventually be his fate. The young Sith had also given her the majority of the day alone to come to terms with everything that had happened. Despite all these reassurances, there was still the fact that he was the one who had actually killed her master.

Finally, the Sith stopped pacing and stepped up to the door and opened it. He gnawed his lower lip savagely as he scanned the darkened room for her. He spied her facing the wall, standing beneath the room's only window, a ventilation opening actually, cut into the wall just below the ceiling. Her head was tilted back as if gazing up at it, but her eyes were closed. Sensing him in the room, she turned around slowly and took a long shaky breath.

"Is it my turn now?" she whispered thickly. "I sense the games you've played with us are at an end."

Maul licked his dry lips. "How could you think such a thing? I have not come to kill you."

Joss grimaced. "But your objective is clear. Kill or be killed, isn't that how you justify it?" She lowered her head and rubbed her swollen, red-rimmed eyes. She looked weary and her expression was drawn and dark. A general aura of hopelessness surrounded her now and her grief poured from every fiber of her being. "Have you no regard for the sanctity of life? Its value, its uniqueness...and the sentiment a particular life holds in the heart of another?"

Knowing her questions were rhetorical, the Sith did not reply. Instead he pulled off his cloak and draped it over the bed.

The Jedi Padawan stepped towards him, her face contorting with emotion. "Surely you must see there is no victory in a game such as yours. Death is not a victory. Death is destruction."

"My victory is my survival, Joss, not the death of your master," Maul told her solemnly. He longed to touch her, to take her in his arms and offer her a sense of his regret, but steadfastly resisted the urge, knowing she would only reject him. Instead he cleared his throat. "I had no intentions of killing Verteigo today. My real intention was to save you and I did manage that...."

The young Jedi looked astonished. She backed as far away from him as she could before colliding with the wall.

"Save me? Don't you mean prolong my death?" she seethed. "You do me no favors by keeping me captive in this damnation, Sith!" She bowed her head as tears spilled from her eyes. "What can you possibly hope to accomplish by saving my life? Next time, just let me die. Let me die."

Maul turned away from her and massaged his eyes. He noticed his hand was shaking and quickly dropped it to his side and took a deep steadying breath.

"I know...what I hoped to accomplish. What I hoped to gain," he stammered in reply. "I care for you more than anyone I have ever known before." He dared to turn around to see her reaction. Her head was still lowered and her expression unreadable. Maul sighed and walked over to her, then raised her chin with his hand. "Don't hide from me. I know that you feel the same--"

Joss' head jerked free of his grasp and she pointed her finger at the Sith accusingly. "You are deluded with self-serving fantasies!" she snapped, cutting him off. "And woefully pathetic if you ever believed I could feel anything for you beyond the ingrained sense of compassion we Jedi feel for all living things. Even the lowest, most depraved, disgusting living things!"

"Stop it!" Maul commanded, slamming his fist against the stone wall with such force a piece of it broke loose and fell to the floor. The Jedi immediately froze at the intensity of his outburst, then began to tremble. Seeing this, the young Sith closed his eyes and struggled to get his emotions back under control. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear. "You lie. I always believed I felt more in your touch than just compassion, but I could not bring myself to actually acknowledge it until now. I know what I felt was your desire for me." He paused and traced the line of her jaw with his finger. "All this time, you've been warring with yourself over the same feelings that I have been--shamed by them and refusing to acknowledge them because the possibility of their existence was utterly unthinkable."

Shaking her head in vehement denial, Joss pulled away from him and suddenly dissolved in tears.

Tentatively, the Sith approached her and placed his hands on her shoulders, unsure what to do next or how to comfort her. Then unexpectedly Joss threw her arms around Maul's neck and buried her face against his chest.

Startled and bewildered, the young Sith took a deep breath and placated himself with the knowledge that she had not totally rejected him. He stroked the girl's back soothingly, letting her cry herself out.

***

When Joss finally grew still, Maul pried her from him and tilted her head back to look at her face. He wiped the streaks of drying tears from her cheeks with his thumb.

"I know I have caused you great pain today," the young Sith breathed. "Tell me what I can do to appease it. I'll do anything. Anything you ask."

The Jedi leaned away from him but placed her hand on Maul's face and traced his furrowed brow with her fingertips. "Let me go," she answered, her voice barely audible. "If you truly care for me, then set me free. It is the only sure way to save me."

Struck by her request, the Sith spun away from her. "I cannot release you!" he snarled. "It is the one thing I cannot do for you and you know that!" He began pacing the room, clenching his fists in frustration at his sides.

Joss narrowed her eyes. "You said 'anything'." When Maul failed to reply, she bowed her head. "Then I want you to kill me. I can't live like this."

The Sith stopped pacing, fixing his eyes on the floor to organize his rampant thoughts into decipherable words, then shook his head. "What if...I promise to protect you always? You'll be mine and I'll keep you with me wherever I go. I will promise to always treat you with respect and dignity and offer you what kindnesses I can. I will pledge my body to you alone and promise to fulfill your every desire unceasingly. I will never leave you. I will always want you." He paused and licked his lips apprehensively. "I will do all this for you if you would only allow me to."

The Jedi sadly turned her face away and wrapped her arms around herself. "That's just it. I can't allow you to do such things for me. Listen to me, Maul," she began quietly. "I believe you're sincere, but you must realize those vows, however passionate, are not what I want, but what you want. I am not a possession. I am a person. I am a Jedi."

Time seemed to ripple just then and Maul suddenly felt like he was in the center of a waking dream. Reality faded away with his surroundings and nothing truly existed beyond himself and the beautiful, but broken young woman he had just unavailingly consecrated his life to.

"I understand, Joss," the Sith announced softly. "I had only hoped...." Maul sighed, letting these thoughts go unvoiced. His mind made up, he walked over to where the Jedi stood and took her hand. "Come. We must act quickly."

***

Maul felt Joss absently rub her thumb over his wrist as she waited with him in a shadow-shrouded hallway just outside the hangar bay. She took several long deep breaths and pressed herself closer to the Sith's body in apprehension.

Everything had gone smoothly up to this point and the means to the Jedi's release stood just a few meters away. An increasingly disturbing sense of misgiving made the Sith pause, but he couldn't find anything amiss or out of the ordinary and saw no reason for the alarm he was feeling.

Joss squeezed his hand encouragingly. Deciding to finally proceed, Maul squeezed it back and started forward, pulling her out of the hall where they had been hiding and into the hangar and headed straight for one of the smaller, computer-controlled crafts. The young Sith didn't bother with stealth here. He was certain the few droids mulling about would pay him no mind. They were used to his presence on the dock.

To his surprise, not only did the droids note his approach, they drew their weapons on him, and encircled the small ship as if given a silent command. The Sith stopped abruptly, causing Joss to inadvertantly run into him.

"What's the matter?" she whispered.

Maul's eyes swept around the hangar bay and settled on a dark figure emerging from behind a tank of fuel. The young Sith swallowed uncomfortably.

"My master," he informed the Jedi, his mouth going completely dry. "Is here."

Joss froze and concentrated. "I don't sense him."

"I don't either, but he's walking this way." Maul repositioned himself between the approaching Dark Lord and the Jedi. "No one can sense him if he doesn't want them to."

Darth Sidious drew closer until he was standing directly in front of his apprentice. He took a deep breath and folded his arms across his chest.

"I've been waiting for you, My Young Friend," he began with mock congeniality. "You don't need to look so surprised. I have foreseen this very moment time and time again." His gaze drifted around Maul to the Jedi Padawan he shielded. "But I wouldn't have believed this if I hadn't seen it for myself." He paused and fixed his eyes directly on the young Sith's and all humor vanished. "Hand over the girl, and all will be forgotten."

Maul raised his chin defiantly. "Is her life worth such clemency from you, My Master?"

Sidious shook his head. "A Jedi's life means nothing to me. But this one's life apparently means a great deal to you, and that is where my challenge lies. Your decision will determine everything."

The younger Sith struggled to breathe slowly and deeply, ignoring the pulse pounding in his ears. He gathered the Force to him and fed off its empowering presence for the courage to overtly defy his lord and master for the first time in his life. He reached behind him and sought Joss' hand, enclosing it in his reassuringly.

"Come, Maul," the Sith Lord pressed. "What do you wish to do?"

Maul wasn't in the habit of asking his master for favors, but considering his normally unflagging service and obedience to him, Sidious may see fit to grant him this one request. He licked his lips and cleared his throat. "I wish to grant this Jedi mercy, My Lord."

"Did I hear you correctly? Mercy?" Darth Sidious' expression hardened momentarily. "I don't ever want to hear that word pass your lips again, Maul." Then the Dark Lord shook his head. "There will be no mercy granted. Especially for a Jedi from a Sith."

The Sith Apprentice glanced over his shoulder at the small figure huddled behind him. "This Jedi is different, Master. She showed unconditional mercy to me." Maul braced himself for his master's derision, but much to the young Sith's surprise, Darth Sidious' expression only softened and he frowned at his apprentice sadly.

"Maul, she's still a Jedi and no different from all the rest," the Sith Lord murmured. "Trust me, if she showed you any mercy, it was only to bring her to this very point in time. Aided in escaping, with an omnipotent bodyguard at her side."

"No," Maul argued. "She is compassionate. Not narcissistic."

"Compassion is something a Jedi dispenses as vacuously as a politician dispenses promises. And the motive is exactly the same." The Dark Lord straightened slightly and took a deep breath. "Jedi are Jedi. Trust me, if given the chance to dispatch you, she would. With little scruples and less remorse." He shook his head again and clucked his tongue sympathetically. "It is her sworn duty to do so."

Verteigo's last words suddenly rang in the young Sith's ears. He had told Maul it was his duty to kill him.

Somewhat dazed, Maul shook his head. "Even if given the chance, she would not kill me, Master. She cares for me. Something I don't expect you to understand."

The older Sith narrowed his eyes. "Are you so certain about her?" He studied his apprentice then sighed. "I sense you are not."

Joss suddenly slipped out from behind Maul to confront the Dark Lord.

"I know what you are trying to do and it won't work," she spat. "Goading him into surrendering me is useless. He has promised to protect me from the likes of you."

Sidious raised an eyebrow in inquiry. "Oh? And what did you promise him in return? More of your special compassion?"

Joss' eyes narrowed in disgust. "I promised him nothing."

The Dark Lord's eyes shifted from the Jedi to his apprentice, then back again. "Yes, I do sense he harbors feelings for you which I cannot begin to explain. Feelings that compel him to honor his promise. Yet you say you feel nothing in return." He looked up at the younger Sith. "Do you hear that, Maul? She says it herself. She feels nothing for you."

Taking several deep breaths, the Sith Apprentice closed his eyes briefly. What his master was saying couldn't be true. He was sure he had sensed something. It couldn't have just been his imagination. When he opened his eyes, he faced his master with newfound calm. "I don't believe you, My Master. Because I don't trust you."

The Dark Lord's face flashed momentarily with anger, then smoothed to an emotionless mask of passivity. "I'm the only one you can trust, My Apprentice. Never forget that." He gestured dismissively at the Jedi Padawan. "I can see how thoroughly she has corrupted you. Then, I knew she would cause you to doubt me. It was all part of my plan, you see, and she's played her part in it as expected." He paused and studied Maul's perplexed expression. "Why do you think I insisted you keep her with you instead of locking her in the prison with her master? I actually wanted her to get under your skin and she quite obviously has."

Maul felt as if he were suddenly spinning out of control. He glared at the older Sith and gritted his teeth with rising irritation. "You planned this? This is one of your infernal ploys?"

Sidious nodded unabashedly. "Not so much a ploy as a lesson and a test, Young One. Now you will discover for yourself what I have been telling you all along." He unfolded his arms and stepped forward. "I brought these Jedi here to teach you, and now, teach you she shall." He reached over and stroked Joss' cheek with his knuckle which made her jerk her face away.

"Keep your slimy hands off of me!" Joss growled.

The Sith Lord chuckled humorlessly. "Haughty little piece, aren't you?" Sidious sneered and turned his attention back to his apprentice. "The Jedi Knight taught you stealth, maneuvers, and strategy. But this little one will teach you the true nature of the Jedi."

Maul suddenly moved to stand between Darth Sidious and Joss. "Master, I do not understand the reason behind this scheme of yours."

Sidious raised his hand to stave off any further protests. "Not my scheme, but hers," he explained in a low voice. "In this lesson, you will learn that Jedi will manipulate lives as guiltlessly as they manipulate defenseless minds. She has done this very thing to you, Boy, placating you all this time with small tokens of her so-called compassion." He paused and made a general sound of distaste in his throat. "Her beauty has rendered you as blind as she is."

The Jedi suddenly pushed Maul aside to get to Darth Sidious. "I've done no such thing!" she argued hotly. "These embellished fabrications liken me to your kind! I gave him my compassion freely. I expected nothing in return." She turned around to face Maul. "He's twisting my words to change their meaning. Don't believe him. You sensed how I feel. You forced me to acknowledge it. You were right. I wanted to deny my feelings for you, but I can't. I can't."

The young Sith's heart twisted inside him. He desperately wanted to believed her but couldn't ignore the possibility of this declaration of devotion being another attempt to manipulate him. The seeds of doubt had been planted and were beginning to take root. Maul narrowed his eyes and peered suspiciously down at the panicking Jedi.

"You are acting like a cornered animal," he told her quietly. "I have to wonder why you have chosen now to finally admit your feelings for me. It makes your sincerity seem like desperation."

Joss appeared to wither before him. She blinked up at him in disbelief. "Maul," she breathed. "Don't do this. Stay with me. I need you."

Shoving the Jedi out of his way, the Dark Lord suddenly gestured and snatched the shorter lightsaber from Maul's belt. With Force-enhanced reflexes, Maul instinctively drew his own weapon, had it activated and leveled between the older Sith's eyes in the span of a single breath.

"Trust me, My Apprentice," Sidious began calmly, backing away from the younger Sith's blade. "She doesn't care one whit about you. Take a look at yourself. At who and what you are. She can't love you. You're a monster. A ruthless, conscience-free killing machine. A Sith and her hated enemy. She is a Jedi, first and foremost." He turned and roughly placed Verteigo's lightsaber in Joss' hands. "I'll show you," he declared, then leaned over to whisper in her ear. "Kill him and I give you my solemn word I shall set you free to return to the Jedi Temple. It's your only chance now."

Joss looked towards the Sith Lord with an incredulous expression. "I cannot kill him," she proclaimed nervously. Her hands were shaking as she tightened her grip around the thick cylindrical hilt. Her breathing deepened as her fingers explored the various knobs, recognition suddenly dawning in her eyes.

Lowering his lightsaber, Maul turned his attention away from his master and onto the Jedi. Everything was wrong. Nothing felt right or familiar anymore. His head was reeling and his heart slowly sinking into a murky puddle of despair. He didn't recognize Joss as the beautiful, powerful, compassionate Jedi he knew. That Joss was no where to be seen. The girl standing before him seemed feeble and small. Easy prey, Maul thought. Sickened, the young Sith turned his face away from her. The Force began to stir around him.

"You say you cannot kill me with fear, not devotion," the Sith Apprentice pointed out.

The girl lowered her head and licked her lips. "I say it with both fear and devotion. You just won't hear it." Her hands continued to caress the lightsaber she held, her eyes growing glossy with excess moisture. "Suddenly my words and feelings are meaningless to you. An hour ago you would have pledged your life to me if I had wanted you to. All I needed to do was admit to you what I am admitting now. I have accepted it, but you are the one who still can't acknowledge the truth. You're the one who won't accept the possibility someone could feel something for you. There's nothing left for me to do. So I sense I have already lost."

Maul looked down at her, startled and thrilled by what he sensed emanating from the Jedi. But then he realized her feelings were not meant for him and his heart suddenly felt hollow. He followed the path her fingers traced over her master's lightsaber and noted the loving emotion behind each delicate touch. Sidious was right. How easy it was for a Jedi to show tenderness. For a memory attributed to a cold, metal weapon of death. The idea curdled his blood.

"Don't waste your grief on him anymore, Joss," the young Sith said under his breath. "Turn your tears inward. There's no hope for you now."

The Jedi looked up sharply and took an involuntary step backwards, colliding with Darth Sidious. She pushed herself away from him and stood staring out vacantly. Maul felt the Force moving around her, enveloping her in an aura of renewed strength. Her expression changed as her despondence soon evolved into serene assertion. She took up the lightsaber in her hands and adjusted her grip, then thumbed the activation switch. The rich green blade hissed to life.

"There is always hope," she said softly. "However miniscule, however unlikely, there is always...hope." She waved the lightsaber challengingly. "I'm sorry, Maul. You leave me no other choice."

The Jedi suddenly sprang forward and struck first using a straightforward overhand blow. Shocked that she would actually attack him, Maul snarled at her and blocked the strike with little effort. Joss ripped the blade of her lightsaber off of his and struck again with more strength and precision than the first time. Furiously, the Sith swatted it away and moved closer offensively.

"You conniving little whore," he hissed through his teeth, thoroughly saturated with anger. "Everything he said is true, isn't it?" He assaulted the Jedi with a flurry of rapid moves, but she managed to deflect them off easily enough.

To Maul, this proved everything his master had been trying to warn him about. Joss was a Jedi and his enemy, but she would have done anything to keep herself and her precious master safe. Even befriend him. She had manipulated and used him, making him weak and vulnerable. He despised weakness. He despised her.

Joss ducked away from the Sith, using her small stature to her advantage. She blocked his next strike and dodged under his blade, coming back up to swipe her lightsaber perilously close to Maul's neck. The Sith was forced to swerve back on his heels to avoid being beheaded. The Jedi seized the opportunity and somersaulted over him, and slashed at his back before he could turn to face her, ripping his robe open and grazing his skin.

Spinning around, Maul Force-pushed the girl away from him and hauled his lightsaber around his body to get it in front of him, but Joss flew back at him, keeping their proximity so close, the Sith could not put any strength behind his strikes and the lightsabers typically tangled at their bases.

The girl was proving to be more of a challenge than Maul ever thought possible, but she was not a warrior, she was a healer, and the strain of their duel quickly began to take its toll on her. Maul scored more and more hits upon her, staining her tunic with spots of blood, forcing her to retreat from him more frequently. She slipped once and tripped another, but managed to recover both times before the Sith could take any advantage.

It gave Maul the idea to back her over things--equipment and small machines scattered around the floor of the docking bay. He hoped to catch her off guard. She was extremely athletic and nimble and managed to avoid falling by using the Force, but she was tiring. One distraction was all the Sith would need and Maul knew it was only a matter of time.

Keeping up a steady barrage of strikes to keep her occupied, Maul scanned the floor for new obstacles and spied a filter hose off to his right. Using the Force, he gestured at the hose and whipped it around the Jedi's ankles. She slashed down at it with her lightsaber and freed herself, but not before tripping over the curling ends. Crashing heavily to the floor, she lost her grip on her saber trying to break her fall.

Maul wasted no time and descended on her in a heartbeat. He drove the point of his lightsaber into her chest with such force he shoved the end of the hilt down into her. She looked up at him in that moment and actually appeared to see him. Her hand slowly reached out to touch his face, then fell limply at her side. She exhaled and died.

It wasn't until Maul withdrew his weapon and saw her body slump back against the stone floor that he realized what he had just done. The lightsaber dropped from his hands and a scream of agony and outrage tore from his throat. He crashed to his knees beside the still, small figure and tightly clutched her hand in his.

"No, no, no," he murmured against her warm palm, as wave after wave of pain gripped his heart. "How dare you? After everything I did for you...felt for you. This is by far the cruelest thing anyone has ever done to me. I hate you, do you hear me? I hate you." Tears welled in his eyes and he wiped them away angrily. "I HATE YOU!"

The young Sith released the Jedi's hand and let it drop. It hurt him to think she may have been telling him the truth when she proclaimed having feelings for him. He hadn't sensed the truth, but then, he didn't know what truth was anymore. Joss was dead and compassion would no longer have a place in his life. What he had sensed stirring in her heart whenever she had touched him was only a faint memory now. A figment of his imagination, perhaps? A self-serving fantasy? Yes. It was better to play it down and just let it all go.

An unexpected hand upon his shoulder gave Maul a start. He quickly looked up to see his master standing over him, a tired and drawn expression on his face.

"Come away, Maul. It's over," the Dark Lord said quietly.

The young Sith rose and faced his master.

Sidious' eyes were full of...compassion.

"I know," he continued gently. "It's a hard lesson to have to learn, but a valuable one."

Maul gnawed his lower lip to keep it from trembling. "She used me...."

"Yes," Sidious readily agreed. "It is right to hate her, Maul. She used and humiliated you. Hate her and the pain you're feeling will subside. It's always better to hate than to love. Remember that."

"She would have killed me," Maul added numbly.

"Oh yes. She did try. She was a Jedi after all. It was her duty to kill you. Kill us both." The Dark Lord threw his arm amiably over his apprentice's shoulders. "We Sith are where the Jedi's compassion stops short. They see no room in their vision for our philosophies. We are to be exterminated like so many insects. We don't even deserve the right to exist in their minds."

Maul took a deep breath, absorbing his master's words and the balming, long-ingrained hatred coursing through his veins.

"They are the ones who deserve to die," the Sith Apprentice whispered.

Sidious started walking with Maul across the hangar away from the carnage of the duel.

"And they will die eventually. Every last one of them, I promise you that. If not by your hand, than another's. The time is fast approaching. From the rivers of their blood, we Sith will rise victorious...and prosper forevermore."

Fighting the urge to look back over his shoulder one last time, the young Sith merely nodded and sighed as the pain in his heart did subside. Just like his master had said.

THE END

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