Doan's scarred and ugly terrain rolled beneath them as the Victory sped low across the planet's surface.
In the cockpit Zannah braced herself as the sensors picked up a fierce sandstorm several hundred kilometers in the distance. Beside her Set was seated in his customary position: chair leaning back, feet up on the dash.
Making a slight change in her approach vector brought her on a collision course with the storm. She didn't bother to give Set any warning as the Victory was engulfed by the whirling vortex.
The stabilizers kept the ship from suffering any real harm, but the cabin bucked violently as the vessel was buffeted by the howling winds. Set was sent tumbling from his chair, but he managed to roll with the momentum as he hit the ground and came up on his feet.
"You did that on purpose," he accused, using the back of his chair to steady himself in the turbulence.
"You need to be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times," she instructed him. "Always be on your guard."
"I thought the information I gave you might have earned me a break from any more lessons today," he grumbled as he sat back into his copilot's chair and buckled the restraints.
"You were wrong."
Despite her words, Set had proved himself to be quite valuable. In addition to telling her about Darth Andeddu and his Holocron, he had actually come up with the most likely place Bane was being held.
"They probably took your Master to the Stone Prison," he had declared shortly after they had begun their journey.
"The Stone Prison?"
"A dungeon built centuries ago by the nobility on Doan to house political prisoners," he'd explained. "I found all sorts of references to it in the historical archives."
"What kind of defenses do they have?" she'd asked.
"Pretty standard. Anti-aircraft cannons. Armed guards inside. And they can set off a series of explosion to bring the whole place down as a last resort."
Zannah had scowled. "We'll have to avoid detection when we go in."
"That might be easier than you think," Set had answered with a smile. "The Stone Prison hasn't been used for almost two generations."
It all made sense to Zannah. A small team of elite guards or mercenaries could keep a single prisoner secured in the abandoned facility without attracting unwanted attention. All the infrastructure they needed-holding cells, interrogation rooms-would still be there. If they stayed deep inside the heart of the complex, nobody would even know they were there. Secrecy, as she well understood, was often the best protection from your enemies. But when your secrets were exposed, it could leave you vulnerable.
"They won't be expecting anyone to assault the prison, so I doubt they'll even activate the external defenses," Set had continued, speaking aloud the very thoughts running through Zannah's mind. "A small team couldn't spare the bodies to operate the stations, and powering the systems up would be like sending off a flare to alert everyone they were there."
It was at that point that Zannah realized Set, for all his seeming overconfidence and carefree attitude, actually liked to be prepared. He wasn't afraid to improvise and adapt, but he had the sense to know what he was heading into:at least in the short term. The trick would be teaching him to apply the same kind of diligence to long-term plans, then have the patience to bear them out.
The Victory passed through the eye of the sandstorm and out the other side, continuing on toward the tall stone column looming far in the distance. Even though they were enjoying a smooth ride once more, Zannah was pleased to see that Set didn't lean back and put his feet up again.
He was learning, and he'd shown several flashes of real potential during their time together. Maybe there was hope for him yet:or maybe, Zannah had to admit, she was just so desperate to find an apprentice she was willing to overlook his flaws.
"There. That column up ahead. That's the one we want."
Dusk had fallen and Zannah could just make out the silhouette of the massive stone pillar in the distance. From here it looked like an enormous candle: tall and straight, the top aglow with hundreds of lights from the royal family's estate that had been built on the wide, flat plateau at its apex.
Zannah brought the shuttle in low, skimming less than twenty meters above the ground to stay below the radar of the royal estate perched nearly five kilometers above them.
The Victory was picking up hundreds of life-forms when she scanned the column, but they were all concentrated in the buildings of the plateau. There was no evidence of life inside the pillar, but that was to be expected. The scanners wouldn't be able to penetrate the mountain of stone.
Reaching out with the Force, however, presented Zannah with a very different picture. She could feel something dark and powerful pulsing at the heart of the column. She recognized the presence of her Master, though from this distance it was impossible to get anything more than a vague sense that he was hidden somewhere inside.
"There should be hidden landing ports for the prison about halfway up the column," Set assured her. "They'll probably look like small caves. Easy to miss."
The Victory was less than a hundred meters from the pillar when Zannah angled its nose sharply upward. The ship reacted instantly, arching into a steep ascent, the g-forces pinning the two passengers back in their seats. The shuttle steadied in a perfectly vertical climb less than ten meters from the rock wall, running parallel to its contours as Zannah looked for a place to land.
It was too dark for a visual, but the ship's sensors provided her with a digital topography of the pillar's surface racing beneath the hull. What from a distance had looked smooth and sheer was, in fact, rough and irregular. Wind and erosion had sculpted grooves and channels in the rock, and the face was pockmarked with thousands of small, irregularly shaped openings. Most were nooks or fissures that went less than ten meters deep. Others were actual tunnels that extended deeper into the rock. Only a handful were large enough to accommodate a shuttle, however.
"Hold on," Zannah warned an instant before pulling hard back on the stick.
The Victory peeled away from the column into a backward loop. At the same time Zannah sent them into a half-barrel roll so that they finished right-side up, with the nose of the vessel pointed toward the opening she'd chosen. The landing thrusters fired at full force as the shuttle's momentum sent them rocketing into the mouth of the cavern, braking hard before settling into a perfect three-point landing.
Set didn't say anything, but Zannah saw him raise a brow in appreciation. She could have chosen a less dramatic maneuver to reach her destination, but she knew her would-be apprentice preferred doing things with a certain stylistic flair. Impressing him with her piloting skills was just one more small way to secure his respect and loyalty.
Through the cockpit window Zannah could see only darkness. She flicked on the Victory's external lights, illuminating the cavern. The rock walls surrounding them were sharp and jagged, but the floor was smooth and even. A single passage led off to one side, the tunnel too perfectly straight to have been shaped by nature.
"There are probably about a dozen other landing bays like this one," Set informed her as they exited the shuttle. "Each one with a passage leading into the lower levels of the complex."
"It's too bad you weren't able to find any holomaps of the layout," she commented, not wanting him to get too cocky.
"Maybe we should split up," Set suggested. "With two of us searching we'll have a better chance of finding him."
"I'm going in alone," Zannah informed him. "You're going to stay here and guard the ship."
"Guard the ship? From whom?"
"Whoever took Bane might have someone patrolling the entrances. If they find our ship undefended they can disable it, cutting off our only method of escape."
"Fine," Set replied curtly after a moment's consideration. "I'll sit here and watch the shuttle like your personal Cyborrean battle dog."
"I assume you'll be able to handle anyone who stumbles across this landing bay without too much trouble."
"Everyone except your Master," he assured her.
Even I'm not sure I can handle him.
Satisfied with Set's answer, Zannah cracked a glow stick. Guided by its pale illumination, she made her way down the tunnel and into the Stone Prison.
* * *
Set watched his new Master's back, following her progress until she turned around a corner and disappeared, leaving him alone in the small landing bay.
He leaned casually against the Victory's hull, thinking back on their arrival. He considered himself a pretty good pilot, but he would never have attempted a move like the backward barrel roll Zannah had used to bring them in to land. He knew she was just showing off for his benefit. Still, it had been impressive.
After a few minutes he began to pace restlessly back and forth, kicking at small stones in the dirt. Set didn't like taking orders, and he didn't like sitting around doing nothing.
Don't do anything stupid now. She was talking earlier about how important patience is. This is probably another test.
Obba, his Master before he had left the Jedi, had often encouraged his students to meditate when they had no other tasks or duties. He claimed it centered the mind and spirit. But Set had never been a fan of meditation. He preferred to be doing something-anything-to sitting around in a trance lost inside his own thoughts.
He squatted down and rummaged around on the ground until he had collected five fist-sized stones. He brushed the dust off as best he could, inspecting them for sharp edges that might cut his palms or fingers. Then, satisfied with his finds, he began to juggle, hoping it would help pass the time.
He started with simple tosses, getting a feel for the weight and balance of each stone. Then he shifted into a cascade, the rocks dancing in a circular, looping pattern as they leapt from hand to hand. Next he added in catches behind his back, alternating every other toss front-to-back without ever breaking his rhythm.
Peering around the cavern, he spotted another suitably sized rock on the floor a few meters away. Still juggling, he moved toward it with shuffling steps until he was close enough to slip the toe of his boot under the stone's edge. A quick flick of the foot sent it high into the air, where it joined the others in his pattern.
He repeated this trick several more times, moving around the cavern in search of more rocks, adding both numbers and complexity to the trick until, upon reaching ten objects being juggled simultaneously, he let them all drop to the ground in disgust.
You didn't come here to play games.
Zannah had been gone less than ten minutes, and already he was unbearably bored.
She could be gone for hours. You're not going to make it.
Closing his eyes to help him focus, Set reached out with the Force, probing the area around him. At first he didn't feel anything; Zannah had disappeared deep into the complex.
Concentrating intently, he pushed his awareness out even farther. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow, but after nearly a minute he began to detect faint signs of life. All living beings were attuned to the Force on some level, and the Jedi had trained him to sense their presence through it. Ordinary people were barely noticeable, as easy to miss as a dim light on a sunny afternoon. Those with power-men and women like Zannah or other Jedi-burned with a much greater intensity.
To his surprise, Set felt several strong, distinct flares as he extended his awareness out. He had expected to sense Zannah and her Master, but they were not alone. It was difficult to say exactly how many others there were, or their precise location; sensing others through the Force was a rather inexact science. But they were definitely there.
And they're not Jedi.
Those who served the light side had a certain unmistakable aura about them:as did those who called upon the dark side.
Maybe Bane's already found himself another apprentice. Zannah could be in for a little surprise.
In normal circumstances Zannah would have certainly felt the other presences just as he had, but Set knew she was focused on one thing-finding Bane. With her mind concentrating so intently on pinpointing the exact location of her Master, it was possible she might not notice anyone else. Not until she was virtually right on top of them.
Set hesitated, uncertain what he should do. Did Zannah need his help? If she did, would he bother?
If you want to bail, this is your best chance. Just jump into that shuttle and fly on out of here.
If he left and Zannah died, it was unlikely anyone else would ever know he had been here. He wouldn't have to worry about her Master coming after him; he could pretend none of this had ever happened. If Zannah survived, however, he had no doubt that she'd come looking for revenge. And since he wouldn't be around to see the final outcome of her confrontation with Bane, he'd have to spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulder just in case.
Not much different from what you do now. You've managed to stay one step ahead of the Jedi all these years; how much harder can it be to stay one step ahead of the Sith at the same time?
But there were other considerations. If he left, he was throwing away the chance to learn from Zannah. She was stronger than he was, much stronger. She could teach him things he'd never learn from anyone else. It wasn't easy to turn his back on that kind of power.
Torn between the two options, Set tried to extend his awareness out even farther in the hope of learning more. He was already approaching the limits of his abilities, but he knew this was the most important decision of his life. He couldn't afford to get it wrong.
A sharp pain was building in his forehead; it felt like someone was sticking a long needle into his skull right between his eyes. He wasn't used to this kind of prolonged effort; when he called on the Force it was for quick bursts of action. But he ignored the pain, gritted his teeth, and made one final push.
And then he felt it. Living creatures were not the only things with an affinity for the Force. Most of Set's adult life had been spent seeking out objects imbued with its power: initially on behalf of the Council of First Knowledge, then later on his own. He had become highly adept at recognizing the unique energy signatures projected by the talismans of the dark side; they called out to him more strongly than they did to most others.
That was why, despite the fact it was on the very fringes of his awareness, he was able to sense it. It was like nothing he had ever felt before; something so strong and powerful it caused him to gasp with yearning.
Andeddu's Holocron. It has to be.
Zannah had said her Master had gone to Prakith to find it. Whoever had captured Bane must have taken the Holocron for themselves.
Set opened his eyes and shook his head, collapsing his awareness back to his immediate surroundings. His looming headache was gone, replaced by an aching desire to claim the Holocron for himself
He had only a vague idea of where to find it. Once he was inside the Stone Prison, though, he was confident he'd be able to zero in on it quickly. For him, tracking a Holocron was much easier than locating a person.
Zannah had commanded him to guard the ship, but he wasn't worried about anyone accidentally discovering it. He hadn't sensed anyone even remotely close to the landing bay.
The question is, can you get the Holocron and get back here before Zannah finishes with Bane?
It was risky. If she returned to discover he was gone, she might decide to end his apprenticeship:and his life. Even if she didn't, she might just take the Holocron for herself, and Set knew he wouldn't be strong enough to stop her.
But if you find the Holocron, who says you have to bring it back here?
Whoever had brought Bane to the Stone Prison had to be using one of the other landing bays for their own vessels. How hard could it be to steal one of those instead?
The secret of eternal life versus the undying hatred of a Sith Lord. Is it worth it?
That was one question Set had no trouble answering. Taking a glow lamp, he entered the Stone Prison through the same passage Zannah had gone down less than fifteen minutes earlier.