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Cog Hive Seven
The first punch came at Maul sideways, spinning his upper body around with the sheer force of the impact and driving him back a half step before he fully recovered his equilibrium. Somewhere under his feet, the alloy plates of the cell’s floor seemed to shiver and quake, threatening to give way.
He spat out a tooth and wiped away the blood.
The creature in front of him was a walking trophy case of previous kills. Two and a half meters high, its massive shoulders and upper torso encased in jagged plates of primitive armor that clearly had once served as the jawbone and carapace of a much larger predator, it seemed to occupy an entire corner of the prison cell.
Maul stared at the thing. The gray slope of its face was a surgeon’s nightmare of ritualistic scars, metal rings and studs, wire loops, and hooks, with bluish sacks pulsating beneath its eyes, all of it siphoning down and inward toward a gaping, razor-toothed mouth. Even its arms seemed to have been plucked from two different organisms. The right hand was a blunt-knuckled fist, the left an elongated spider-fingered claw. Together they formed a mallet and blade, one made for pounding, the other for slashing. It was the right that had come careening out of nowhere just seconds before, slamming Maul backward and knocking out one of his teeth.
The thing reached down and picked up Maul’s incisor from the floor of the cell. Straightening up, it shoved the tooth into an empty space in its own mouth, twisting it until it lodged in place. Then it grinned at Maul as if asking how he liked the sight of one of his teeth in its mouth—another trophy for its collection.
Maul gazed back at it.
And then the rage came.
And the rage was good.
The uniform they’d given him was a standard orange jumpsuit whose heavy fabric cut off movement in most directions. Maul heard its seams ripping as he sprang at his opponent, closing the half-meter gap between them in less than a second. The thing responded exactly as he’d hoped, lunging up eagerly to meet his advance. Its mismatched arms pinwheeled wildly before it, swinging and clawing through the stale gray air of the cell, its voice screeching at him in a guttural, choking language he’d never heard before.
Let those be your dying words, Maul thought. Right here. Today.
Close enough now that he could smell the corpse-stink pouring off it like rotten meat, he fell into a reflexive series of moves. Both hands shot out and grabbed the creature by its throat, hoisting it up over his head and squeezing until he felt the deep tendons of its neck beginning to give and weaken in his grip. There was a wet, muffled click from somewhere inside the thing’s chest and a sudden glut of warm, thick, sticky fluid began spurting up from its throat.
The sight of it gave Maul no satisfaction, only the vaguely annoying realization that it never should have taken him this long to turn the battle to his advantage. Still, ending his opponent’s life quickly would restore a certain necessary balance to the encounter—if not honor, at least vindication. He tightened his grip, and the screaming sound got louder, becoming a broken, birdlike squawk. More blood leapt up, inky black and viscous, and started pouring from its mouth and eye sockets.
Executing a perfectly balanced spin, Maul swung the creature around and slammed it to the floor with a sharp clang, connecting hard enough that he felt the steel plates reverberate under his feet. The thing’s head drooped on its broken neck, lolling sideways to expose the throbbing vessels beneath its gray flesh.
Only now did Maul allow himself to exhale. As anticipated, he hadn’t needed his lightsaber staff or the Force to dispatch this waste of flesh—not that either was really an option. Staring down into the thing’s face, he raised his foot and planted his heel in the exposed throat, ready to pulverize the trachea, or whatever the thing used for an airway, with one decisive stomp. For an instant he met its sagging, inarticulate eyes.
Now, he instructed the thing, which seemed to be realizing that it was destined to finish out the final pathetic seconds of its life here in nameless obscurity. Die.
All at once, with blinding speed, the creature yanked loose and burst upright, reaching behind its back to produce what appeared to be a long bow staff. As the staff blurred toward him, Maul realized that the weapon, which he’d first taken to be a piece of wood or some kind of biomechanical hybrid, was actually a living organism—a serpent whose head lashed out at lightning velocity, latching onto his face, slashing at his eyes.
Maul recoiled, but it was too late. With a jolt, his vision was gone, burying him in instant darkness. This was the second time in as many seconds that the thing had caught him off guard, and now he knew why: the creature was somehow cut off from the Force, utterly detached from the deep field of heightened sensitivity from which he was constantly drawing information about his surroundings. The intuitive sensory abilities that he took for granted in any normal battle were simply not there.
An acidic heaviness took hold of his optic nerves like a slow drip, seeping in, sinking deep, and he realized that he could already feel the poison taking control, spreading out in concentric layers of numbness through the muscle and tissue of his face.
Now the thing’s shrieking laughter was everywhere. Willful. Triumphant.
You must end this now.
Maul straightened. The voice in his head was his own, an austere evocation of his own training. But the cadence was unmistakably his Master’s—an echo of pitiless instruction, hours, days, years of unyielding pain and discipline. Sidious was never far from him. The evocation of the Sith Lord’s presence here snapped him back instantly into the moment with total clarity.
Reaching up through blindness, Maul took hold of the serpent, grappling with its fully extended length. Somewhere in the void he could feel the rippling leathery sinew of the staff looping around his neck, felt the hundreds of small muscles twisting and constricting over his windpipe, pinching off his airway like a living noose. The next few seconds would be crucial.
He flexed, bent his head, and jerked it forward, but the thing would not release. It kept encircling him, looping round and round, defying every attempt to take hold of it.
Maul willed himself to be absolutely still, a study in perfect rigidity, allowing the serpent, in its moment of fatal overconfidence, to draw tighter still, stretching itself until he sensed its head coming back around in front of him once more. Still he waited. Above it all he could smell his opponent’s fetid stench, could feel the claws of his opponent raking his skin, twisting into his face, gouging for purchase. It shrieked at him, and this time the cry was pure victory, what might even have been laughter. Starved, insane. A warrior with nothing to lose.
You are no warrior, Maul thought. You know nothing of the dark side.
The moment had come. He grasped the head of the amphistaff, seizing its blunt nose and fanged mouth. His fingers took hold of its distended upper part, twisting, wrenching, until he tore the serpent’s head off its body with a moist and meaty pop.
The results were instantaneous. With a twitching galvanic shudder, the snake loosened and fell slack, the coils already beginning to slide from his neck, and Maul allowed himself a single, unobstructed breath before finishing his work here.
Somewhere in front of him, the attacker had already responded to the death of his weapon with a howl of cheated rage. Maul no longer heard it. Primal as it was, it was still only emotion, a cry of weakness no more instructive or relevant than the pain he’d willed away moments earlier. He had no more use for it now than he ever did.
He did, however, take advantage of his opponent’s scream just long enough to reach into its open mouth, feeling the moist warmth of its breath on his hand as he retrieved his tooth, plucking it from the thing’s gums. Holding the mouth agape, Maul crammed the serpent’s severed head inside, then clamped the gray lips tight to keep the snake’s head from falling out. He ripped three of the larger piercings from the thing’s right arm and jammed them upward through the lips, bending them back into barbed hooks and fastening the mouth shut with the serpent’s head still trapped inside. With his hands flattened against those lips, Maul could feel the head twitching around inside the mouth, sinking its fangs in reflexively, squirting out venom while his attacker jerked and spasmed and tried in vain to scream.
Still sightless, now holding his opponent at arm’s length, Maul inclined his own head down. He thrust forward, driving his horns into the thing’s sagging eyes, feeling them crushed to jelly against his scalp.
The spasms stopped, and Maul stepped back, releasing the body, allowing it to collapse at his feet.
He blinked and narrowed his own still-burning eyes, clutching his tooth in his hand. His vision was already starting to come back in murky shades of gunmetal gray and metallic blue. The process was infuriatingly slow, but it was happening. There was no reason not to assume that within a few hours, he would be fully recovered, and when—
The floor began to shake.
Maul whipped around, scanning the depths of his cell for the vibration’s source. From all around him, a ratcheting cacophony had taken hold of the cell, the sound of massive chains being dragged through the sprockets and pulleys of some vast piece of clockwork. It filled the entire chamber, rising to a deafening roar. Everything around him had begun to shift and tilt. Maul reached out, fingertips confirming what he’d already begun to suspect.
The walls were closing in.
This was no illusion, no side effect of crippled vision. The cell itself was literally changing shape—the individual steel plates that formed the walls and floors and ceiling all overlapping and sliding together like great mechanical scales, curving inward as the slant of its floor became steeper, transforming into a kind of bowl, opening in the middle to create a funnel.
Reaching backward, Maul grabbed the handhold bolted into the bench behind him, clutching it for balance and holding on tight. All around him, the grating howl and shriek of metal got louder as a hole opened in the middle of the floor.
He furrowed his brow, squinting down into it. His vision had become clear enough now that he could make out the lifeless corpse of his former attacker, the thing in its broken and now utterly useless organic armor sliding downward toward the center of the cell. It sagged forward on a streaking smear of its own black blood, a slave to simple physics, its passage into oblivion followed in short order by the limp, decapitated body of the snake-staff.
Maul watched as warrior and staff both slipped through the hole and out of sight into a bath of darkness almost as deep as the one from which he himself had just emerged. For an instant—was it real?—he thought he saw something pale and eyeless reaching up to suck the bodies down.
The hole closed again and the floor shifted itself, smoothing out and becoming flat once more. The clanking and shaking stopped. The cell around him had resumed its previous rectilinear shape.
Somewhere in front of him, a panel of red lights blinked and went green.
He waited as the cell began to carry him upward.