The cave tasted like rotten leaf litter. Brant couldn’t remember when or why he had ever tasted leaf litter — perhaps he’d fallen face-first into it while he had been an Acolyte — but when the solid wall of pungent putrefaction hit his nose, that was first impression that came to him.
He eased himself down into the tunnel, Dantooine’s warm sunlight snatched from his back and replaced with a stifling darkness. He blinked a few times to adjust his eyes to the light, then eventually lost patience and channeled the Force into his eyes until the features of the cave were limned in the gray of enhanced nightvision. There was no bare rock to speak of — that would explain the putrid smell — only grass roots sticking out from overhead like a carpet of fibrous hairs and moist earth under his boots. Brant tried not to think on whether the liquid squeezing out from under each footstep was mere moisture… or instead some bodily secretion of them.
When Brant had researched Dantari crystals before coming out here, he was surprised to find that they often cropped up in the eggs of kinrath. Spider-like creatures, dwelling underground, kinrath lived in colonies with one breeding queen. Their tunnels stretched for miles under the surface of Dantooine and Kashyyyk, but as Dantooine was much easier to reach the surface of, here he was now.
The tunnel he stood in ran straight enough, dug by a creature rather than formed by the meanderings of ground water. No sudden protusions littered the tunnel, cleared away by the single-mindedness of an insectoid hunter. Brant let his nightvision die back to normal, replacing it with better hearing. He could have maintained both, but until he could locate the animals, he preferred to conserve his energy, and he had seen nothing of interest in his first look around.
He instead placed one hand on the earthy wall to keep his bearings and begun to walk. The squelches of his feet in the mud went off like popguns in his enhanced ears, but he kept straining beyond that, listening for clawed footsteps or the chittering of a hive.
The smell got worse as he went along, and Brant began to breathe deeper and hold it longer, willing the Force to cycle out the pungent, if not poisonous, odor. The lack of oxygen from this method forced him to move more slowly, and he felt sleepy, like walking through a dream. Several minutes passed with no memory, where he couldn’t remember how he had gotten here from there, but he could tell by the distance of there to here that it was much longer than the short blink of an eye he had perceived it to be.
In this semi-conscious state, the Force was more visble to him though. He felt it at first like many sets of red eyes, watching him through the walls: if he looked directly at them, they vanished, and they could have been mere spots of light if not for the presence he felt emanating from them. Of course it was not real light or real eyes; in the deep tunnel, his real vision saw only blackness.
His hand abruptly fell from the wall when he met an intersection. Brant cast out with his senses for just a few feet in front of him and to either side. There were three other tunnels, not meeting in a neat cross like a human city’s might, but two were flung off to one side like broken fingers, nearly parallel but for one taking a sudden dive down and around. The last tunnel came in at him from above, a steady ramp that eventually led back up to the surface, or so it seemed to him. That was the wrong way then, so he considered the other two, feeling along them with the Force just as well as with logic.
The straightaway tunnel was carved with travel in mind: perhaps it connected to another hive, or another hunting ground on the surface. It was useless to Brant. The other curved back around in on itself, a little like the arc of a spiral staircase, and it was down here Brant could still sense the eyes.
He carefully moved along this tunnel. Sensing he was getting close to the kinraths’ dwellings, Brant knit the Force around his squelching footsteps to silence them. Also bending the light was unnecessary, because there was no light here, so he continued his descent, focusing on those eyes to guide him. They didn’t move, and Brant eventually had to concede they were not from a living creature, even though they had a presence like–
He lost track of the wall again when the tunnel opened up onto a chamber. The smell was worst here, and when Brant cast around him, he could sense the rounded shapes of hundreds and hundreds of eggs. Many of them had crystals embedded inside of them: those eyes he had felt. In the way of Dantari crystals, they had taken on the nature of the tiny creatures developing inside them: malevolent and hungry.
Could he bind such a tainted crystal to him? Brant wondered. He figured there was only one way to find out, and he kicked in the side of a particularly large egg next to his foot.
The tiny creature inside had no mouth to scream, but Brant felt it in the Force like a little death cry. It startled him, but it was not too much different from the suffering he fed on while on the hunt for the Covenant. He cupped it, wove it around him, sent it out again as he gripped tighter on the Force: the better to see.
When he did, he felt the cry rattle its way up a long psychic string, like a strand of a web, and at the end of the web, was a stir and a sense from something he could only describe as Mother.
Brant managed to fling himself to the side in time as the many-legged thing struck out at him. He ignited his lightsaber, the red reflecting off of many eyes — real eyes — and a shiny carapace. The kinrath was enormous, each of its legs as thick as his but twice as long. It struck at him again, and when he parried the blow, his lightsaber didn’t strike neatly through it, but instead pushed off of it like some kind of durasteel.
Well, Brant was no stranger to battle. He began cracking more eggs, gathering the growing misery from the dying creatures — and the fury of their mother — and turning it into his own weapon. Misery-fed lightning danced off the kinrath, followed by his howling blade, his foot, then more lightsaber, and more lightning. He barely registered pain, full of the mix of hunting fury and ecstasy of the Dark Side. He carved great chunks of the arachnid away, stuck his hand into the exposed flesh beneath and burned it with Force Lightning, whirled in time with the creature’s thrashing so that he was always just one step ahead of its attacks.
Or almost always. He had a sharp sensation of pain piercing his bicep, before the ache was swept up into the Dark Side’s dance of death. By the time the spreading ache of poison overwhelmed his bloodlust, the mother was a twitching heap on the floor, and most of the eggs were rubble and putty under his feet.
He forced the poison from him with a groan, and blood wet his sleeve down to the cuffs. He could hear now, too, the alerted screeches of other kinrath in the cave system. He had just enough time to scoop up some of the crystals that had been exposed by the egg-cracking and flee back up the tunnel from whence he came.
It was some hours later, after he had found a fast-running stream he (and his clothes) could get a wash in, when he finally had the time to study the crystals. He laid out several lengths of them on a rock, pulled out from his robes, then set the robes themselves swirling in the water while he crouched, half-naked and wet in the bright sun, to pick through his prize. Two of the crystals had cracked lengthwise and were no good; a third was misshapen, perhaps from sitting too long in the unknown juices of the egg. The last two were whole, and one was longer than the other.
Though Brant assumed the larger one held more power, the more he handled them, the more he felt a draw to the other. It was small, almost entirely concealable in the palm of his hand if he closed his fingers about it, and he reckoned it would not need much cutting down to fit in the hilt of his lightsaber. Moreover, it just… felt right.
Crystal chosen, the only thing that remained was to make it his own. As he dressed, Brant slipped the crystal just under his collar, right up against the skin of his throat. Its time spent on the rock had warmed it, but like a set of socks taken fresh from an air dryer, the warmth soon melded into his own, indistinguishable.
Brant returned then to his rented shuttle, choosing to spend a night outside than return straight away to Dromund Kaas. He remembered no dreams, but he had the feeling the Dantari crystal had absorbed some of them while he slept. When he pulled it out in the morning, it had turned a violet hue, slightly more blue than red. The danger of the Dantari crystals was how strongly they reacted to a Sith’s Force signature, and it would be nearly impossible to conceal his true nature while wielding the blade containing it. He had decided the risk worth it however, as he considered his apprentices: the unstable Simiaar and the exiled Jin Ardira. He did not want either of them, nor any future servant, getting the bright idea of stealing his weapons and turning them on him, and the peculiar bond the Dantari crystal formed with him would ensure that.
So long as the crystal never turned fully blue, but — Brant considered while chipping dried-on kinrath embryo from his boots — he didn’t think he’d have to worry about that at all.