In some ways this is a continuation of Lake of Apparitions.
The walls of his meditation chamber were plain, covered solely by a few imperial banners that despite their strong symbolism, tended to fall into the background due to how frequently they were displayed. It was ironic in a way, for something meant to invoke a sense of patriotism to come across as mundane. Then again, Iradox was not here to take action that would benefit the Empire: In contrast to how he had lived most of his life, he was here to take an action that served solely to satisfy a need within himself. Although, he supposed he was also doing it for her sake?
The Dark Lord settled into a cross-legged position. Entering the Ethereal Realm was a calculated risk: There was no telling whether he would be capable of relocating the Lake of Apparition. Last time he had been blown there on an ethereal wind, after he and others had enforced a shift in the Force. Then there was the fact that time was warped in that realm, meaning that he had no way of telling how long he spent there. Still, if he could reach her it would be worth it: If she knew what to expect, the chances of success would increase exponentially.
He steadied his breathing and opened himself to the Force. At once the thousands of life forms onboard the Wrath became apparent to him. He felt impulses and fractions of thoughts flickering by. But absent a focused lens all of these impressions became like the background noise of a crowded area; like thousands of voices deflecting against walls to form a hollow acoustic. It mattered little, for they were not his focus today. Instead, the Sith master focused his mind and worked through the mantra that would temporarily disembody his presence from its vessel:
Life is but a mortal perception.
Time is but a mortal perception.
The Force shall set me free.
He allowed himself to believe the truth of each mantra, to inhale and become it. And as each resounded in his mind he felt a change: First the scope of his senses widened to unfathomable lengths, as if the entire universe opened itself to him. Secondly, time stopped moving in instances, instead transforming into a constant size that stretched out across the continuity of existence. At the third mantra, his Force presence separated from his body and rose up and into a purple radiance that filled all of his vision.
As Iradox successfully passed into the Ethereal Realm once again, he felt the sense of urgency fade from his mind: He would succeed or her would not. Both had already happened, or they never would… But of course he realized on an intellectual level, that this was simply the Ethereal Realm’s warped sense of time that affected him. No, he had come here with a singular purpose in mind, and similar to previous visits, he would remain for only as long as it took to complete that task.
Now the only issue was that he had no idea what to do next: Last time, the apparition of an ancestor had showed up to guide him, and Iradox found that he had half hoped, half expected to find the Sith monarch waiting for him. But this was not so…
He inhaled deeply, more so to calm his thoughts than of an actual need for air - he was hampered by no such biological necessities in this realm. That was part of the problem though; this place was not physical and yet it was in some paradoxical sense. If he started walking, desiring where he wished to go, would that simply be where his feet carried him?
It was a sensation that broke him from his musings; the registration of another presence located somewhere within the illuminescent landscape - her presence. Of course, he still shared a Force Bond with his onetime apprentice. As peculiar as it was, it had not been severed and transformed into a wound upon her death, like many others had. Instead, it had simply faded only to resurface once Iradox had first encountered her in this place.
He started forward, clutching at the bond like a man relying on a rope to guide him through a dark cavern. Time passed but how much was impossible to tell. Eventually a familiar landscape materialized before him: An endless lake covered by a thick fog, overlooked by a sky ablaze with emerald lightning.
The water remained perfectly undisturbed as he stepped into it. Below its surface, countless faces rested just deep enough for their visages to remain visible. They consisted of all possible species and their expression ranged between wide spectrums of emotions. Last time the Dark Lord had been caught off guard by this display: He had realized that these were the dead, and if he called to them, they would answer. This time however, he had known what to expect.
Taking great care where he stepped, Iradox made his way deeper into the lake, feeling how he drew closer to the source of the other presence. Then his infernal hues fell upon her. He halted and squatted down beside the flowing visage, speaking softly:
RP conducted with Inyri
Vayne's eyes snapped open, a flicker of surprise spread over her face before she rushed up to meet the surface of the lake. Her lips met with the surface, so close to emerging yet still trapped beneath the surface. She hesitated; once again she took Iradox in as if she didn't trust her senses.
"Thulan, if you're real then I hope you know what you're doing. I... What is it that brought you back?"
She cut herself off, sentiment giving way to purpose. Her words hurried.
Unlike last time, the wraith remained mostly composed as the dead woman surfaced and spoke. Even so, he allowed himself what he believed to be a short instant to appreciate her demeanor: Despite her circumstances and apparent desire, she managed to rapidly steel herself and cut to the heart of the matter. A part of him liked to think he had helped her develop such strength.
“I have returned to provide you with instructions and to teach you something.”
He leaned forward to hover closer above the water, extending a hand down towards her. However like previously, the lake’s surface turned out solid, causing his palm to flatten against it.
A pause. Vayne's expression betrayed confusion. Her golden eyes, muted by ethereal green currents, fixed on Iradox's burning golden orbs, her piercing gaze only interrupted by a slow blink.
"I don't understand. What could I learn that would be of any use to me here? Thulan, I am so very grateful to see you again. To speak with you. But don't risk yourself for me, the Empire needs its leaders." Vayne seemed to sigh, deeply. The motion played out airless and silent. "You cannot risk yourself for me."
The words repeated, heavily emphasised. Vayne's gaze wavered slightly, her fight to avoid being emotional would have passed unnoticed to many. To Iradox, the conflict in Tlaena would be clear, the flickers of emotion on her face familiar only to someone who had once been so close.
Despite traitorous emotions flaring in chest, the Dark Lord managed to retain the cold and imperious timbre he often utilized when commanding his followers:
“Your concerns and objections have been noted. Now stop talking about yourself as if you are expendable and listen: In what amounts to a week in the mundane realm, I and several skilled sorcerers will conducting a ritual. That ritual will pull you out of this cursed lake and back to the physical realm. Here, I will plant your essence in a prepared body.”
A brief pause ensued for emphasis.
“Do not waste precious time objecting for in this you cannot sway me. Instead, focus your senses on me if you can; see if you are capable of making out the bond between us.”
As he provided the instructions, Iradox both reached out towards her and magnified his presence to its fullest extent.
Vayne's eyes closed shut, then creased as she concentrated. Once again she seemed to take a breath, airless as it was, the motion borne of habit as she focused herself to a task.
"For so long I sought to suppress that link, but of course it never left me. I feel it now, strongly. You're so close, how could I not? I have it, but be aware, I cannot devote my attention to it in full or I may lose myself."
Her eyes cracked open, slowly widening to focus on Iradox once again. Determination shaped her expression. Though she said nothing more, Iradox would feel her gratitude through the bond, now strengthened anew.
The first sight that greeted her was his infernal hues boring into her eyes. He nodded as he felt them connect.
“During the ritual, you feel this bond tugging at you, turning into a wide path. Through that opening, we will drag you out while simultaneously channeling power to you. Use it to free yourself and make your way towards me.”
Though her head barely moved, her intent to indicate understanding was clear. Her features took on a defiant look, once again she seemed to become the Darth most who knew her would have recognised, had they known her true face.
"I will be ready. I sense there's risk involved, I accept it. Completely. A chance at rebirth. To rejoin the living, continue to further the Sith without the ailments that once held me back. I will be ready."
"We will be utilizing some of your old belongings to make the path clearer: Your saberstaff, your helmet and the armor I gave you. In addition to that, what ritual site do you believe would be most recognizable to you? The Estate where I trained you is gone and the site of your death obviously will not do."
Her brow creased at the question. Golden eyes darting to one side, then back to Iradox as she thought about her reply.
"Korriban, where I was molded into a Sith, perhaps. I would imagine the assets the cult once owned are gone. Maybe... where I was raised, on Dromund Kaas. No doubt claimed by someone else by now, several times over."
"Show me." His voice echoes telepathically through the bond.
Images, some more hazy than others, were projected through the bond. Some of Tlaena's earliest memories, many of the details lost to time, played out for Iradox. An expansive, though still relatively modest by Sith standards, estate on Dromund Kaas. A view over Kaas city, several landmarks visible. Others in construction or yet to be built, though the layout was recognisable to someone familiar with the place. Clearer, later memories started to surface. Korriban's red sands, and her fights with Twi'lek sisters. Then later, places familiar to Iradox. The bridge of the Jiass'jen, and a site on Dromund Kaas. A later version of the bridge, one Iradox had seen in ruins. Then finally, memories of the gate that claimed Vayne's life. The ritual performed to open it recalled in detail. As Vayne stepped into the dark vortex, the memory ended.
Regret followed through the bond. Out of all the emotions that had played out, that was the strongest. Though Vayne had tried not to allow the emotional connection to follow, it was inevitable that some would be shared.
"I can make it all worth something more." Vayne's voice came softly, as if in answer to an unspoken question.
He remained fixed in place like a statue for a minute. Of course, he realized that he needed to hurry; that each instant spent here might as well span eternity in the mundane realm. Yet despite his logical mind screaming at him to hurry, Iradox somehow found that he could spare time for this:
“It is a mistake to always hold duty first and yourself second. If you do, both will suffer in the end. Instead, you must strive to strike a balance between the two. This I have come to realize through much hardship.”
"And so here you are. Bringing me back."
Her voice was still soft. She was truly speaking as Tlaena, unmasked.
"Thank you, Thulan. I will prepare myself for what is to come. Now go. All this is for nothing if you lose yourself here."
Her response prompted a slow nod from him.
“One last thing.”
And without preamble, he telepathically projected a memory and sensation through the bond: Not a memory of his own, but one he had ripped from the mind of the late Lord Zenroth, after having successfully indentified the unstable alchemist in his new body. He did not attempt to convey all the theoretical aspects of Essence Transfer, which he has since then uncovered, focusing instead on the sensation of flowing without a body and transferring into a new one. Once it was done, he waited for her to regain her bearings before speaking once again:
“I realize you will have no sense of time passing in this realm, and that the ritual might be an eternity of torment away. But it will come to transpire. Spend as much focus on familiarizing yourself with that as you can spare.”
Vayne took only a moment to process what she was shown.
"I will. That I promise. I don't fully understand, though I will, with time. This is a second chance, in many ways. More than most get. I will not throw it away. By the time you are ready, I will be prepared as best I can be."
“I have no doubts.”
He rose from his squatted position.
“I will see you again before long.”
Wordlessly, with only a look that still managed to convey her determination and gratitude, Vayne sank once more into the lake. The bond remained, at least in this place. Even as Iradox left he could feel Vayne's efforts to prepare begin.
The Dark Lord's gaze remained fixed on her as she descended into the lake, even as a wind steered up the fog and gradually blew his presence back to the mundane realm.