As Zannah brought the Victory in to touch down in her designated hangar at the Ciutric IV starport, she felt a sudden sense of uneasiness.
"Something wrong?" Set asked from the passenger's seat, picking up on her discomfort.
I'm about to challenge my Master in a battle to the death, and I'm still not sure if I made a mistake picking you as my apprentice.
Set shrugged. He was sitting with his chair reclined, his legs stretched out, and his feet resting on the dash. If he was feeling any anxiety himself, it was well masked.
With the ship on the ground, Zannah cut the engines. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was very wrong, but she had come too far to turn back now.
Is this a premonition of my own death? Will Bane end my life tonight?
"What now?" Set asked, sitting up and swinging his legs down to the floor.
When he had first accepted Zannah's offer, she had sensed a clear reluctance in him. Over the course of the trip to Ciutric, however, he seemed to have warmed to the idea. Now he appeared almost eager:though Zannah was aware this could all be an act.
"When we arrive at the estate you need to wait outside," she said out loud. "My Master doesn't like uninvited guests."
"I'll hide in the bushes like a scared little Kath pup," he promised.
"This isn't a game," she warned him.
"Everything's a game," he replied. "This is just one you really can't afford to lose."
"If I lose, you might end up dead, too."
"Or I could end up as your Master's new apprentice," he countered with a sly grin.
"You wouldn't find him nearly as tolerant of your impertinence."
"Then I truly hope you win. Is that all, Master?"
When Zannah nodded, Set rose from his seat and executed a deep bow, his head dipping down so low his long hair tumbled forward to hang like a silver curtain covering his head and face. "Lead and I will follow," he offered, though there was something almost mocking in his tone.
She couldn't help but wonder what Bane would have done in response to Set's irreverent behavior. The consequences would no doubt have been harsh. Zannah, however, was content to let the Dark Jedi have his fun. She had wounded his ego, humiliating him by so easily overpowering him during their confrontation. It was important to let him regain his confidence. And if his jests made it easier for him to accept his role as apprentice, she was willing to put up with them:to a point.
Set understood all this, of course. She knew he was pushing her, testing the limits and boundaries of their relationship. At the same time, Zannah had been testing him. So far he had been smart enough to know where to draw the line.
Leaving their bags on the ship, Zannah and Set made their way from the hangar to the small customs building at the front of the starport. Chet, the young customs officer who had spoken to her the last time she'd left Ciutric, was on duty again.
"Good evening, Mistress Omek," he said with a tilt of his head. "I'll have someone bring your speeder around."
"Thank you, Chet."
"Want me to send someone for your bags?"
"I'll pick them up in the morning." If I'm still alive.
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" Set chimed in.
Zannah silenced him with a glare.
Chet obviously caught the exchange, but what he made of it Zannah wasn't sure. A few seconds of silence passed before the customs official said, "May I speak with you alone for a moment, Mistress Omek?"
Curious, Zannah nodded at Set, who turned and walked away in the other direction, looking mildly offended.
"Had an unregistered drop ship enter atmosphere a few hours ago," Chet whispered once Set was out of earshot. "Touched down in the jungle about a hundred kilometers east of the starport."
Odd, Zannah thought.
Ciutric IV was located at the nexus of several key trade routes, but the tariffs and taxes charged by the customs stations were minimal. No legitimate merchant would incur the risk of landing in the untamed jungle just to avoid some paperwork and save a handful of credits. And there weren't any smuggling operations active in the region; if there were, she and Bane would have known about them.
"Any idea who they were?"
Chet shrugged. "They landed outside our jurisdiction, and they didn't send off an emergency beacon, so nobody bothered to send a patrol to investigate."
She wasn't surprised at the lack of official urgency generated by the unregistered vessel. Ciutric was generally a law-abiding world; as a result planetary security was somewhat lax. It was one of the reasons Bane had chosen to take up residence here.
She was intrigued, however. Did the drop ship have anything to do with the unease she'd felt upon landing?
"You said they touched down to the east?" Our estate is on the eastern edge of the city.
"Yeah. Showed up on the sensors a couple of hours before your brother got back."
"Oh," Chet said, mildly surprised. "I just assumed you knew. He left the day after you did. Just got back tonight."
"Any idea where he went?"
The customs official shook his head. "Sorry."
Zannah's mind was spinning with a thousand possibilities as the valet arrived with her speeder. Bane almost never left Ciutric. If he had business, people came to him:or he sent Zannah. Something must have come up that was too important for him to wait for her to get back. Either that, or he had business he wanted to deal with personally. And if that was the case, was it possible he had sent her to Doan as a way to get rid of her temporarily?
She could think of only one reason Bane would have wanted to keep her from knowing about his journey: he was looking for someone to replace her!
"Trouble?" Set asked, wandering over to see what was going on.
"It's fine," Zannah replied, not wanting to reveal her apprehension to either of the men.
She climbed into the speeder and nodded at Set to do the same.
"Thanks for the update, Chet."
As the speeder roared to life and took to the air, she began to consider her options. If Bane was alone, she would challenge him as she planned. However, if Bane had found someone else to become his heir things would get more complicated.
If Bane had cast her aside, did the Rule of Two still apply to her? Or would Bane and his new apprentice combine their strength to defeat her as an enemy of the Sith? If that happened, she wouldn't be able to survive alone.
If things went bad, she didn't really know if the Dark Jedi sitting beside her would come to her aid, but she didn't have any real choice. She had decided to confront Bane tonight, and she wasn't about to turn back now. She'd waited too long for this moment, put it off too many times before.
"Be on your guard when we land," she warned Set.
"I'm always on guard," he assured her.
Zannah's apprehension continued to mount as she approached the estate, but as she drew nearer she realized she couldn't sense her Master's presence. Puzzled, she brought the speeder in to land and saw that the front door was wide open.
"Wait here," she instructed Set.
With one hand on the hilt of her lightsaber, she approached the open door cautiously and peeked inside. At first glance the damage was almost more than she could comprehend. The plaster on the walls was cracked and burned in at least a dozen places; the marble floors were scratched and scorched. Sticky strands of synthetic webbing and flakes of ash were everywhere.
Every piece of furniture she could see was either smashed or overturned. Carefully, she made her way upstairs, still wary despite not sensing anyone else in the building.
A quick inspection of the various rooms assured her that there was no immediate danger, and she sheathed her lightsaber. It seemed as if most of the damage had been confined to the foyer and the sitting room just off the mansion's entrance. If there were answers to be had, she'd most likely find them there.
When she returned to the front of the manse, she wasn't surprised to see that Set had disobeyed her orders. He was sitting on a chair that had survived relatively unscathed, his legs crossed and a glass of wine in his hand, casually waiting for her to arrive. A freshly opened bottle stood beside him on the floor.
"Your Master has excellent taste," he said, raising the glass and drinking a toast to the absent host.
It was clear from the evidence that someone had attacked Bane in the mansion, and it was only logical to assume they must have been on the drop ship. Who they were and why they had come, however, were still mysteries she couldn't solve.
"I told you to wait in the speeder," she said, descending the stairs and closing the mansion door.
"I was bored," he answered with a shrug, taking another sip of wine before changing topics. "Looks like that confrontation you were expecting isn't going to happen after all. I guess you're the new Sith Master by default."
"It doesn't work that way," Zannah muttered. "Besides, Darth Bane's still alive. If he was dead I would have felt it."
"Somehow I was afraid you'd say that," he said, bending forward to grab the wine bottle and refill his empty glass. "Any idea who might have done this?"
"None of our enemies even knows the Sith still exist," Zannah reminded him.
"I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me," Set noted. A second later he added, "Master."
"Bane just arrived back on Ciutric tonight." She saw no reason not to tell him what she had learned. "And Chet told me an unidentified drop ship touched down near the estate a short time before he arrived."
"You think the two are related?"
"I don't believe in coincidence," she replied. After a moment she decided to come clean with Set. "I think Bane might have sent me to Doan just to get me out of the way for a while. I think he was actually interested in something completely unrelated."
"Don't be so sure," Set replied, holding up what appeared to be a small blue button.
"Where did you find that?"
"Wedged into the wreckage of what used to be a couch over there in the corner," he replied, tossing it to her.
She reached out with one hand, easily snatching it from the air. A splash of dried blood was smeared across the surface, partially obscuring the gold insignia.
"That's the symbol of the Doan Royal House," Set told her as she studied the button.
"Doan?" Zannah was more confused than ever. "Why would someone from Doan come here? How would they even find us?"
Set shrugged. "You're the Master. You tell me."
Zannah didn't answer right away. Chewing on her lower lip, she analyzed the situation carefully, examining it from every angle. There were still too many unknowns for her to come up with a perfect plan, but she knew what had to be done.
"We need to go to Doan."
"Hold on a second," Set protested, holding up his hands. "Are you sure you want to do that? I mean, even if your Master's still alive it looks to me like he's probably a prisoner."
"Yes:a prisoner on Doan."
"So, what? We're going to rescue him just so you can try and kill him yourself?"
That would be in accordance with the Rule of Two, Zannah thought. But there were other, more practical, reasons to go.
"My Master is smart, powerful, and cunning. He's too dangerous to ignore. If they're holding him prisoner, he might find a way to escape. If he does, he will come after me:but it will be at a time and place of his choosing, not mine.
"Even if he never escapes, it's likely whoever took him will interrogate him for information. He may reveal something that exposes my existence to the Jedi:or some other enemy. I'm not willing to take that chance.
"Plus, I want to know who attacked him, and why. And if they did capture him, I want to know how they did it. What tactics did they use to bring down such a formidable opponent, and how can I make sure it never happens to me?"
"So this is all about you tying up loose ends?"
She heard reluctance in his voice-the same reluctance she'd sensed when she'd first offered to take him on as her apprentice. Set had spent much of his life running from problems rather than solving them. She knew he'd rather avoid his enemies than seek a way to destroy them. In time, she would cure him of this. As his Master, she would teach him the ways of the Sith.
For now, however, she simply needed his help.
"I have to go meet with someone," she said, remembering that Chet had told her Bane had met with Argel Tenn only a few days before all this had begun. It was possible the collector had found some interesting Sith manuscript that had prompted Bane to leave Ciutric.
"Am I coming with you?"
Zannah shook her head. "You need to find out everything you can about Doan. If the royal family was involved, where would they take my Master? And how can we find him?"
Set gave a dissatisfied snort. "So now I'm a glorified librarian?"
"Meet me back here in two days," Zannah said, ignoring his complaint. "By then I'll have figured out what to do next."
* * *
When Zannah returned to the mansion after meeting with Argel Tenn, she was mildly surprised to find Set there waiting for her. She had half expected him not to show up. The mission she had sent him on had been important, but it had also been a test of his commitment. If he was having second thoughts about becoming her apprentice, sending him away would have given him the perfect opportunity to try to disappear. The fact that he had come back was a sign that maybe he was a suitable choice after all.
She was relieved to see that things seemed to be improving with Set, because her meeting with Argel Tenn had not gone well. At first he had refused to discuss his business with Bane, claiming discretion was the cornerstone of his business. Zannah had done her best to persuade him to make an exception through nonviolent means; she knew Argel had access to rare Sith manuscripts, and she didn't want to throwaway a potentially valuable resource.
However, much to her dismay, he had shown a surprising integrity when it came to protecting his clients' confidentiality. In the end she'd had to turn to less pleasant methods to make him talk. Of course, by resorting to brutal interrogation she had revealed herself as something more than just an interested collector, and after that she couldn't leave him alive.
The risk of Argel telling someone about her was too great; the information might make it back to the Jedi and cause them to investigate. Above all else it was critical that the Sith remained hidden, so Zannah was left with no choice but to eliminate Argel.
The real tragedy was that she never did manage to get anything more than a single name out of him: Darth Andeddu. Argel hadn't known why Bane was interested in this particular Sith Lord, and without more to go on Zannah was stuck.
"Welcome back, Master," Set said by way of greeting. "You'll be happy to hear that I've learned everything one could possibly ever want to know about a miserable little pit of a world like Doan."
"Too bad I didn't send you to find out about Darth Andeddu," she muttered, letting her frustrations boil up to the surface.
"Did you say Andeddu?" Set asked, obviously startled. "The immortal God-King of Prakith?"
Zannah's jaw nearly hit the floor. "You've heard of him?"
"Ah, so now I have something to teach you," Set said with a grin, recovering from his initial surprise. "Does that make me the Master?"
Zannah was in no mood for his jokes. "Tell me what you know about Andeddu." To his credit, Set picked up on her tone and took on a more serious demeanor.
"My last few years with the Jedi were spent serving under an Ithorian Master named Obba," he explained.
"I've heard of him. He's on the Council of First Knowledge."
Ever since their battle against the Jedi on Tython, Bane had insisted they both know the name and reputation of every Master in the Order.
Set raised one eyebrow. "Impressive."
"Consider that your first lesson. Know your enemy as well as you know yourself."
"Noted. May I continue?" Zannah nodded.
"While under Master Obba's insufferable tutelage, much of my time was spent researching the histories of the ancient Sith. The hammerheaded old fool had this grand idea he could best serve the light by making a catalog of every known Sith Holocron, then sending out his agents to round them up and bring them back to the Jedi Temple for safekeeping.
"In my research, I happened on several references to a man named Darth Andeddu. The Jedi had worked hard to remove all mention of him from the galactic record, but as a member of the Order I had access to the original confiscated materials."
"Get to the point," Zannah warned him.
"Of course. Andeddu ruled over the world of Prakith as a god. At least, he did until the hyperlanes into the Deep Core collapsed, effectively cutting the planet off from the rest of the galaxy.
"There was, however, some evidence to support the theory that Andeddu created a Holocron during his reign. Master Obba believed it was still on Prakith, though he felt a journey into the Deep Core to retrieve it was too dangerous. To be honest, I kind of agreed with him."
"What's so special about Andeddu's Holocron?" Zannah demanded. "You nearly swallowed your tongue when I mentioned his name."
"If the legends are to be believed, Andeddu's Holocron contains the secret of eternal life."
Zannah cursed under her breath as all the pieces tumbled into place. Somehow Bane must have learned of Andeddu's Holocron and gone to Prakith to claim it. He was trying to become immortal!
That's why he had sent her off to Doan: so she wouldn't find out what he was up to. Despite everything he had taught her about the Rule of Two, he wasn't willing to accept the idea that his apprentice would one day surpass him. He actually thought that if he could find a way to stop the ravages of time and age, he could rule the Sith forever.
This is a betrayal of everything you taught me. You said you were teaching me all your secrets; you said the legacy of the Sith would one day be mine to carry on. You lied to me!
"Do you think it's possible your Master actually went to Prakith and found Andeddu's Holocron?" Set asked, making no effort to conceal the naked hunger in his voice.
"Bane's journeyed into the Deep Core before," she admitted, remembering his trip to Tython.
"So you finally decided to tell me your Master's name."
Zannah uttered another silent swear. She had meant to keep that information to herself as long as Bane was alive. But the realization of what he had done, of how he had betrayed the Rule of Two, had her rattled.
"I still don't understand how this ties in with Doan," Set wondered aloud.
That was one piece of the puzzle Zannah hadn't figured out yet, either, though she had a feeling it was all connected somehow.
"Whoever attacked him must have come for the Holocron," she guessed. "Whoever took Bane would have taken the artifact as well."
"So you think it's on Doan?"
It was obvious Set was more interested in claiming the Holocron than in finding and dealing with Bane. But Zannah had no idea who or what she would face when she went back to the mining world, and she suspected she'd need all the help she could get.
"You may not have been willing to risk a trip into the Deep Core to claim Andeddu's Holocron, but are you willing to travel back to Doan one more time?"
Set graced her with another of his extravagant bows.
"Lead the way, Master."